I am writing this in the back of a classroom at EPFL on day four of a conference on complexity. Today’s speaker is Italian and he apologizes for his basic French. His slides are in English. The professor organizing the event is squirming visibly and then, perhaps realizing (but probably not) that we can all see him, his positions his hand in front of his face and watches the rest of the lecture stone-faced, tensing a bit when the lecturer drops English phrases into his talk.
Like almost all of my classes at EPFL this began as an interesting promise and ended in disappointment: I came prepared to discuss ideas of complexity and architecture (in particular social complexity and the way contemporary mobile/social technologies have allowed us different modes of interaction with architecture) and found myself attempting to get work done in between arguing halfheartedly that English is not (entirely) a blasted wasteland of nonsense.
There are about ten students, seven of whom have worked together before. On the first day the three students who were not already part of the group were asked to present their work. We were given two minutes each of the nearly 60 hours this course is requiring. After my presentation the professor in charge shrugged dramatically as if to say “Well, that’s a thing…” and asked the class if there were any questions. There weren’t. Another student in the class (from France, incidentally) argued (in French) that it might be useful to conduct the class in English. What followed was a fairly lengthy debate (in French) about the presence of these foreigners in their class and the definition of the term “English Friendly” which self-evidently requires that everyone be fully capable of speaking French but which “permits some English.” The other American in my class stuck it out a few more hours and then quit, but I’m still here because I’m a stubborn bastard. Also I need the credits. My friend B, a woman fluent in French but whose family is Ethiopian and German and who just returned from a long tour of Africa and China, tells me I’m taking this all too personally but eventually admits “it’s just the way it is, you can’t change these folks.”
The task we have for the week is to compose a lexicon of words that describe and relate to complex projects. This has proved enormously difficult, and in the four days we’ve managed to:1. Acquire a dictionary from the library. 2. Check our email.
I’ve been passing the time updating my work log and reading Samuel Delany’s Times Square Red / Times Square Blue. As it turns out, detailed descriptions of gay sex in public are a fairly decent distraction from pretty much everything. Also his analysis of inter-class interactions turn out to be incredibly useful: it’s what I’m missing from this discussion of complexity and what I’m missing (desperately and with a vengeance) from my entire EPFL experience: what Delany would call contact (and what I have called frequently and simply intellectual curiosity).
Early on in this course, after a coffee break discussion on family with my friend A (A is from the US and his partner is from Canada. They are multilingual and legally married and now live in Europe, but European law prevents them from adopting children. The US would probably support it, but at the time of this writing their US status is ambiguous. Canada would be fine, but life is here for now). A points out that there seems to be an obsession in class with large scale projects in Asia, particularly in China. But, A also points out, they might not be all that complex: with tight central control you can simply decide not to include the people you are affecting in your calculations.
This supplies a definition of complexity that occupies my mind for the week: a measure of the number of actors (and their interactions) involved in a project. Another discussion emerges around the word actor and I offer the following Latour-inspired definition: “anything capable of acting: people but also materials, laws, political or special interest groups, insects, rats, materials, supply chains, weather.”
This gets a couple of halfhearted laughs from the class, who are quick to assure me that the definition of an actor always and only involves a human intelligence. Reluctantly, the lawyer in class eventually allows for “moral persons” or corporations as actors, but only because they are composed of humans. One student offered in passing “well we can’t really even talk about [squatters, protestors, opposition] because they don’t really have a stake in the building process.”
I, for one, welcome both the mobility and our robot overlords, but I feel these architects-in-training are in for a rude awakening in the years to come.
What is going on here?
Partway through the class I’m talking to one of the students who actually makes an effort to engage me in conversation. She is kind and charming and opens with “I have a friend who is really weird like you, I should introduce you.” Halfway through a story about asking to take your leftover food home with you at a restaurant (this is “allowed in the law” but considered rude in most of western Europe: it’s better to let it go to waste) pauses to translate a word: “I always ask, but I am… how do you say… avare… you know, like Jews.”
If I sound sarcastic when I say she’s kind and charming, I’m not trying to be. Backhanded compliments and casual anti semitism both are delivered with a complete lack of malice. This is not nearly the first time I’ve had a conversation like this, and so I’m trying to figure out if such things indicate a latent racism or anti-semitism (they are certainly these things) or instead what I’ve begun to decide is a European survival strategy.
In architecture, the construction of a “megaproject” is frequently about building a mythology to ensure compliance: If you cannot outright eliminate opposition (by building in a dictatorship, for example) then you can smooth over your opposition by offering money, or by appealing with a story of social good. In order to accomplish this you must establish a shared understanding of the “social” for which there can be a “goodness.” This dictates that you must therefore define a set of shared values. Broadly, it seems there are two versions of social good to which you can appeal: goodness for your own tribe and a kind of nobless oblige for your (intellectual, financial or culturally inferior) neighbors. Both of these appeals come hard and fast, and in Switzerland most especially the latter.
I don’t wish to imply the US is all rainbow or unicorns (see: “we’d rather shut down the government than offer women proper healthcare”) but there seems to be a particular strategy around the othering going on here. It would be easy to dismiss as old-world racism, but I think it’s more complex. I think the casual racism and not-so-casual classism serves a kind of weird problem-solving purpose.
At the moment the economic future of the European Union is the subject of protracted hand-wringing and legitimate concern. The effects are palpable – cross the border from a rich county like Switzerland (which is, of course, not a part of the European Union although it did deliberately devalue it’s own currency) into even a fairly well-off country like France and you will see a marked difference in upkeep of social and shared spaces. Go further afield to Greece or Spain and based only on the infrastructure you begin to wonder if it will be possible to travel at all in a few years. In the face of this is the fact that (to my US mind) the decision to create the European Union is truly astounding. I confess I cannot conceive of a political movement supporting a conglomerate of Canada, the United States and Mexico (with a unified currency.) It seems an impossible act of will.
As I write this, Switzerland is considering a bill which would provide every citizen with a “basic income.” This is an amazing suggestion and I’m a strong supporter, although to be sure this is limited to Swiss citizens (you can become a Swiss citizen by: 1. Living here for 20 years, which requires an annual update of your visa contingent on support from an employer or 2. Having great personal wealth.) This is the kind of populist movement I think is really wonderful, and perhaps only possible with a small contained population and direct democracy. At the same time a Swiss friend once confided (after a few drinks) that he was mildly concerned about his country because “I like direct democracy, but if there is any place in Europe where we might develop a kind of grassroots fascism, it would be here.”
Complexity on complexity: I have had French folks tell me they are “just little frogs” and Spanish tell me their country is “lazy.” I have yet to have a discussion with anyone that didn’t eventually land at “Where i are you from… no, where is your family from?” I’ve had Germans profess total confusion about the time they visited the US and met a friendly local who proudly declared they were German too. (The German response: how could they think they’re German? They didn’t even speak the language).
I’ve also enjoyed a high quality of life here and excellent medical care (although pretty much every time I am asked about my (nonexistent) recreational drug use – in one case I was stripped and checked for track marks, apparently because I have piercings and dye my hair).
One strategy for dealing with a complicated situation, apparently favored by the middle-left around me, is emphasis on rule-of-law and hyper professionalism. In Germany they “eliminate” fascism by banning the symbolism of the Nazis. In Switzerland the formalism of interaction is so structured that professors routinely show up in class to deliver a lecture and then leave immediately afterwards, barely recognizing the audience. Coming as I do from the rough and tumble academic communities of Cambridge MA, I am routinely shocked by this but it reflects a kind of social logic: the students are larval, ideas unformed, and therefore not worth engaging. In a Delany sense, this is a country of pure networking over contact.
The horror vacui of removing the actual borders between countries has given rise to the reenforcement of conceptual and social barriers in order to provide for a sense of safety and comfort. But I continue to believe we have collectively arrived at a unique juncture of history where it is not at all obvious that the old structures and walls make sense. We have the opportunity to codify for, rather than against contact. We have a chance to do this because we can also support the possibility that individuals may live surrounded by monocultures of their own making.
Given this, it seems urgent to determine the role artists and architects who are constructing the program we will now occupy for the next generation or so. The question for me is only if this generation can realize and accept their new role (and the occupation of liminal hybridity a state of being) or if they will write themselves out of relevance by insisting hybrids are, as one of my classmates (a Swiss Lawyer), insists: “something awkward and ugly which has no relation whatsoever to any archetype.”
I think we can do better.
But when I leave I will miss the trains: they do run on time.
A LEXICON OF COMPLEX WORDS
Mixité (Diversity / Heterogenaity)
Complexité – (Complexity)
Réseau / mobilité (Network/Mobility)
Echelle / Taille (Size/Scale)
Temporalité / Processus / Planification (Temporality / Process / Planification)
Programme (Logement, Equipement, Infrastructure)
Icône/Monument (Icon / Monument)