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Wouter Vanstiphout: riots at the Architectural Association

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[THIS WEEK] Wouter Vanstiphout’s lecture on riots questioned architecture’s omnipotence, writes James Pallister

‘If I do everything well, you’ll all leave the room thoroughly depressed’. Not the most promising start to Wouter Vanstiphout’s lecture, but maybe one suited to its billing: ‘Blame the Architect’, subtitled, ‘On the relationship between urban planning, architecture, culture and urban violence’.

Vanstiphout’s story took in four studies: Broadwater Farm in 1985; the Los Angeles riots in 1992 and the ‘Banlieues’ riots in Paris of 2005. As well as showing spatial analyses of where the violence flared up, Vanstiphout explained how politicians, commentators and architects apportioned blame. A failed Corbusian housing experiment? Or was it deteriorating race relations? Urban poverty? Gangsta rap?

With slides galore and witty delivery the lecture lived up to the bombast of Vanstiphout’s introduction, though questions he framed his lecture with, ‘Does architectural form have the power to change people’s behaviour in violent ways? Who is to blame? The system, the rioter or the architect?’ remained unanswered.

In the ensuing Q&A, Damon Rich picked up on Vanstiphout’s cute observations on how people appropriate symbols for their struggle – the banlieue rioters invoking 1789 with the use of French revolutionary emblem Marianne to communicate their place as repressed insurrectionists, or the post-riot healing mural which placed a calming waterfall on the side of one of Broadwater Farm’s offending tower blocks – to point out that one of architecture’s functions, intended or otherwise, was as something for people to project their desires on to. This process of retroactively projecting meanings on to forms is one that architects can never wholly control.

Vanstiphout acknowledged his own lack of conclusions, but did he have any advice to take the edge off the depression? Avoid the ’tone-deafness’ many well-meaning architects show to a place. And try to distinguish between achievable architecture and wishful thinking.

Wouter Vanstiphout’s blog is at: designaspolitics.wordpress.com

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