Politics of Architecture. Part 2, we build this city (on rock & roll)

Last time, I wrote about how the group or individual Architect is able to shape spaces and matter into incredible and monumental structures that are impose and commanding to see and experience. Is amazing how an artist or a collaboration between them can erect buildings that go beyond what it is believed possible Is not only about its architecture nor engineering, but a whole set of emotions and perceptions embedded inside walls. Why aren’t architects creating cities and landscapes at will? Is there an obstacle to them? Indeed, the answer is positive. We architects are not politicians.

Famous former mayor of Medellin (Colombia), Sergio Fajardo; once during an interview in CNN Spain, mentioned he kept asking to himself “why durglords even dare to bribe politicians?”. Upon epiphany, he explained, the answer was rather simple; the politicians are the ones with the power to make decisions in a society, whether we like it or not.*(1) So then I ask, why are there no architects being the mayors of cities like London, Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro, or New York? How hard can it be?

Ph.D. Sergio Fajardo, former Medellin mayor

I quote Professor Fajardo because it is the best example I have of an Architect ruling a city in my native region of Latin America. The Medellin case is very well known all around the world. The use of large quantities of knowledge in the realms of Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Urbanism; helped a city in decay to survive and set the benchmark for cities all round the world. From being the most violent city on Earth, to an example of a political, social, and architectural model. If Fajardo, not being an architect, understood the healing power of architecture over urban areas, we can infer that an architect will do much better.

In Monterrey, my hometown, there are several groups of Architects with different political interests. Some of them focus on elements such as urban mobility, bike lanes, trees, and even sidewalks. These groups are mostly made by young architects, hoping to pressure the government to stop what they’re doing and pay attention on key issues we as architects (I do belong to one of them) believe are essential for peaceful, ordered, and enjoyable urban development. As civil organizations they are concerned about the way politicians rule the city. As architects, aware of specific needs in different districts and communities around the city. Sometimes they are taken into account in the decision making process, other times they won’t be so lucky. But I am not sure if they are asking the same questions I make to myself, why aren’t we aiming to popular elected positions?

Yes, in a way they are involved in the decision making process. Placing these groups as local watchdogs, certainly has improved conditions all over the city, but victories are scarce. If these people were to appoint executive orders, perhaps things would be different. I can think of many problems my city has, like pollution, car traffic, poor quality social housing, lack of public spaces and parks, and poor public transport. If there was an architect with the mission of fixing all of the above, my city would improve all those statistics that politicians and people always seem to listen to; education, health, crime rates, commute time, and financial sustainability.

Aerial view of Champs Élysées, looking east.

Let us remember cases like the Paris of Baron Haussmann. A city almost demolished to its ground in order to create a neo-classical urban marvel that change the life of its citizens, and made this city the artistic capital of Europe at the end of the 19th Century. A man appointed by then Emperor Napoleon III to thrust Paris from its medieval darkness, that did not hesitate to destroy the old to embrace the new. He did all this not because he felt like it, indeed the city was crumbling apart on its own. Without his clever intervention, Paris might have become a massive slum, buried in its own filth. Instead it became the symbol of what a modern city should not only look like, but how it should be.

We have amazing examples in the 20th Century of Architects working alongside politicians (yet not actually in office themselves). Walter Burley Griffin partnered with Marion Mahony Griffin in Canberra, Niemeyer in Brasilia, Le Corbusier in Chandigarh, and several others like Islamabad or Astana. But still no architect to be recognised as politician. Is it that architects prefer to work for private clients? Is it to much responsibility to control the lives of hundreds of thousands that architects may feel overwhelmed? Are they just not commited to the city? I can think of thousands of reasons why an architect may not like to become a politician, but are the reasons I do not think of that keep me awake at night.

*1. M. (2015, March 17). Retrieved February 15, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLcpoDkJpd8