Inhabitable Wrecking Balls
An essay on Couchsurfing, Tumblerinas and the necessity of an Architecture that initiates others Architecture.
suitable to live in; habitable: soon we will run out of inhabitable space on the planet.
a heavy metal ball swung from a crane into a building to demolish it.
What is a wall?
A wrecking ball is a machine to demolish – or rather; dismantle a wall. A wall is in its most basic definition a system of filtering desirables from undesirables, which we apply to facilitate our ascendance on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; i.e. we apply walls as a barrier between us and what is/might be an obstacle on our path to what we believe be a better life. We inhabit the space between these barriers, e.g. we put up walls to make a space inhabitable - this space constitutes in its abstract definition a social context.
In the physical/corporeal reality - nature - a wall constitutes a material barrier that filters certain aspects of nature from others - e.g. wind and/or cold - and envelopes a socio-spatial context. A complex society divides into separate contexts specialized in adhering to different aspects of the hierarchy-of-needs, where the architect’s specialization is the design of the wall-as-material-barrier. This specialization in combination with the implied hierarchy of needs and the inherent permanence of the wall-as-material-barrier inadvertently stratifies society into a multitude of separate and stagnated socio-spatial contexts.
Hugo Ball’s Karawane is a wrecking ball-poem in the sense that its words are devoid of meaning, instead they create a new non-meaning unique to each reader. “I don’t want words that other people have created” Ball proclaimed in his Dadaist manifesto from the same year. As a wrecking ball it is not inhabitable except in the sense of Ball’s own self-actualization, it is not useful as communication since every reader interpret it differently. An example of a linguistic inhabitable wrecking ball could be the French slang Verlan which swaps places of the end and the beginning of a word to create a new nonsensical word that still carries information.
Language is a wall!
In the conceptual reality – perception of nature - a wall takes the form of language. Every intelligence is based on the ability to through abstraction map/perceive its surroundings and divide the contents into different categories, e.g. friend or foe, food or not food. This abstraction is a wall that filters what is relevant - desired knowledge for us from what is irrelevant - undesired knowledge, an abstract barrier enveloping a context of relevance. In this sense language is a wall-as-intelligible-barrier, the difference from a physical wall being that we seldom can perceive what is behind it - try finding a word without relevant meaning but that isn’t nonsense*. We perceive this wall as a limit in difference from an obstacle (which can be overcome).
*This is a paradox of course - which is exactly why this wall is difficult to penetrate. As an example; this is why dreams and hallucinations are so difficult to explain in words, since they are “imagined” they are irrelevant to our mapping of our surroundings - and we have no words to explain this irrelevance.
Facebook is a wall ;)
In the nascent digital reality – internet - a wall takes the shape of algorithms that defines what content you perceive, whether it be what news outlets you have liked on Facebook or Google’s algorithms trying to find what advertising you might be interested in. These walls-as-content-filters filters desirable content/information from undesirable content/information, and are crudely quantifiable examples of the intangible walls enveloping your – multi-layered, volatile, fluid and ever-negotiated – social contexts (vibe/flavour/taste), the extent - and limit of your perception of the world*. A partial quantification of the 4th skin/wall of Hundertwasser’s diagram “the five skins of man” - identity.
*Excuse me for stating the obvious but the wall-as-envelope-of-your-social-context/identity is different from the wall-as-material-barrier and wall-as-intelligible-barrier since it is per definition impossible to penetrate without expanding your social context and hence moving the wall further. A socio-contextual wrecking ball expands, not demolish.
My body is not a wall
In her 1994 essay ‘Volatile Bodies’, Elisabeth Grosz explains the concept of our body as a Möbius strip in constant negation between the mind (interior/perception) and the reality (exterior/the perceived), “as the threshold or borderline concept that hovers perilously and undecidably at the pivotal point of binary pairs” opposed to the traditional western mind/body dualism. The tangible (skin color/gender/ability) and intangible (class/social/language) corporeal aspects of the body I inhabit ultimately determines what social contexts I am invited to participate in, hence my perception of reality – which form the “me” (”I”) is derived from the walls which envelopes the space I inhabit, and vice versa. This redefines the body from epidermic-wall/container-for-the-mind as a tool for the mind in understanding reality - perception. This implies that any attempt to destratify ourself from our social strata and further understand reality we need to travel outside/expand our social context - being social nomads - inhabiting socio-contextual wrecking balls. How can architecture initiate and facilitate this nomadization?
The necessity of the wrecking ball
We put up walls to create inhabitable spaces that facilitate our ascendance on the hierarchy-of-needs – we build walls to help us achieve self-actualization. Many of these walls are inadvertently and often intentionally exclusive of others self-actualization, e.g. because of resource scarcity. These walls – and their inherent exclusiveness - are/were more or less vital for a functional utilitarian human society, just as specialization is inherently stratifying. Today, however, we are standing on the supposed edge of the automation-of-everything and the abolition of resource scarcity, in this context the fluidization, i.e. the dismantling of the rigidity, permanence and exclusiveness of the walls we inhabit is imperative in transcending into a socially sustainable society:
If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.
Walls are of course essential to human existence and evolution (we do need shelter from the wind and to communicate information, and I want to read relevant articles on Facebook), and they will always be somewhat exclusive (since of their inherent function as a separating/protective barrier); hence they need to be fluid, in constant negotiation, remixed* and reused. If our walls are as volatile and fast as our perception of reality the detrimental factors of their exclusiveness is eliminated due to the speed of which they transform. The walls of the physical city are yet irremixable because of their physicality, but the digital city (internet) doesn’t require permanent/stagnant walls, there is no wind, no rain, no scarcity of code. Outside-our-social-context experiences in a fluidized digital city will bring about changes of our perception of the physical city in the same way as the diehierarchized networks of social media was a prerequisite for the ‘hipster’ or start-up economy. The reclamation of one map will spawn the reclamation of others (there is a whole lot written about the sociology behind chatroulette but what I’m aiming at is more deeper, permanent experiences…).
*I use the term ”remix” to refer to the changes that have happened to our generation’s view on intellectual property in the digital reality; sampling, remixing and so on. Could the same pirate revolution happen to our view on walls?
The flaneur became the tumblerina
The practice of rewriting/remixing/reinterpreting/reclaiming the map of the city/sociality/language/perception is fundamental in every approach to dehierarchize the status quo – which is the essence of the situationists strategy. Their practice of psychogeography approached the fabric of the city with a perspective free from preconceptions, meandering aimlessly, lead by whatever catches your interest, freeing your psyche in creating its own geography of the urban landscape. This practice practicalizes Walter Benjamin’s concept of the flaneur from the 30s, who causally wandered the streets of the modern Paris, at once overwhelmed and amused by the lush multitude of impressions. Benjamin interpreted flaneurie as an essentially subversive practice, the resistance of the daydreamer:
Boredom in the production process originates with its speed-up (through machines). The flaneur with his ostentatious composure protests against the production process.
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
Today the flaneur is more ubiquitous than ever, practicing the art from a couch or a bed or a train seat, scrolling supposedly aimlessly through their personalized news-feeds, meandering supposedly desultory through the vast spectacle that comprise the internet, simultaneously amused and bored, never a laugh more than a smile, eyes fixed mercilessly to the screen, the new window of the coffee shop through which we peer onto the new street of reality. The multitude of the unfiltered impressions in Baudelaire’s, Benjamin’s or Poe’s writings are long gone, replaced by an algorithmically filtered influx of content to suit my consumer profile. But this nostalgic vision of objectivity was of course always filtered through the filters of your social context (through your eyes), however with the constant possibility for being thrown out of your comfort zone since you were physically involved in the spectacle – the streets of 19th century London had no NSFW tags, a statement anyone who have been to any big Indian city can endorse. In this new mode of self-actualization as the digital flaneur – the tumblerina or the redditor, every physical obstacle is surpassed. What remains is only the cognitive experience of the spectacle; the dreamers of the Matrix but with the terms&conditions approved.
The homeless is the involuntarily flaneur
Both are itinerant metaphors that register the city as a text to be inscribed, read, rewritten and reread. The flâneur walks idly through the city, listening to its narrative. The rag-picker too moves across the urban landscape, but as a scavenger, collecting, rereading and rewriting its history.
Deborah Parsons, ‘Streetwalking the Metropolis: Women, the City and Modernity’
Walter Benjamin divided the concept of the flaneur into two categories, the flaneur and the rag-picker. The rag-picker is supposedly involuntarily inhabiting the position as the flaneur, driven to the streets by unknown circumstances, forced to live off the crumbles left by the city. Out of necessity and urgency the rag-picker have to reinterpret the map of the city after their own needs, they have to practice psychogeography. This is not an inhabitable wrecking ball since this situation is not inhabitable - it is not alleviating the subjects path to self-actualization – not because of the spatial situation as such, but because of the walls which the subjects finds themselves outside. The rag-picker is fervently trying to subsist through the creation of their own walls to inhabit, but because of scarcity of resources and space these walls are dysfunctional, all have already been claimed - instead the rag-picker redefine their second skin as their third as well. They are left to what is deemed irrelevant to the rest of the city, they live in Irrelevantopolis. You can explore Irrelevantopolis today by using a public computer to search for random keywords and hashtags, aimlessly meandering through the vast sea of dog pics, amateur make up tutorials, clickbait news, uninformed rants and dank memes – but who would voluntarily give up the comfort of their algorithmically defined social context to become this type of alien social nomad?
The flaneur self-actualizes through the practice of being audience in the spectacle, even if this audienceship is supposedly individualized and subversive in the psychogeographic adaption. Psychogeography is in the situationist interpretation in itself uninhabitable, it is a subversive practice with the intent of the subject self-actualizing through their own mapping of the city/status quo, but the subject is still depending on the city/status quo for the fulfillment of the other steps on the hierarchy-of-needs. Traditional psychogeography fail to realize the paradox of critiquing an inhabitable practice through an uninhabitable practice, it is a great tool to re:percieve the city, but it cannot reclaim it. The same failure is applicable to the great situationist architectural masterpiece; Constant’s New Babylon:
New Babylon is the old Babylon
New Babylon is Constant Nieuwenhuys’ visualisation of a world encompassing utopian post-capitalist city, where man have transcended from Homo Faber – the working man – to Homo Ludens – the playing man. He anticipated a future of full automation of every prerequisite for human self-actualization, and to facilitate this he envisioned a set of massive mega-structures; sectors, that hovered above the ground on thick steel supports, being completely sealed of from nature to grant Homo Ludens full control over his environment, providing full creative ludic freedom. Like being locked in a room with Lego for the rest of your life. Alan Watts famous quote comes to mind:
“So then, let’s suppose that you were able every night to dream any dream you wanted to dream, and that you could for example have the power within one night to dream 75 years of time, or any length of time you wanted to have.
And you would, naturally, as you began on this adventure of dreams, you would fulfill all your wishes. You would have every kind of pleasure during your sleep. And after several nights of 75 years of total pleasure each you would say “Well that was pretty great”. But now let’s have a surprise, let’s have a dream which isn’t under control, where something is gonna happen to me that I don’t know what it’s gonna be.
And you would dig that and would come out of that and you would say “Wow that was a close shave, wasn’t it?”. Then you would get more and more adventurous and you would make further- and further-out gambles what you would dream. And finally, you would dream where you are now. You would dream the dream of living the life that you are actually living today.”
The act of self-actualization is not a final, epitomic essence of human existence that only can be achieved after fulfilling the earlier steps on the hierarchy-of-needs, instead self-actualization is the act in itself of fulfilling those needs, i.e. no step on the hierarchy of needs is instrumental, they are equally important. Homo Ludens does not play inside walls, Homo Ludens plays through creating walls - we just need to keep these walls in motion so that everyone is invited to play (which is facilitated by the prospect of automations abolition of resource scarcity). We are a ludic society, we just need to recognize it – not through creating the perfect environment for ludism, but through seeing ludism in every act of creation. Determinism – even if its only on the infrastructural level – is what fails New Babylon, a ludic society is intrinsically indeterministic since the ludic aspect need to saturate every step on the hierarchy-of-needs. I am not arguing against automation, some aspects of human life is per definition undesired – not ludic, and technological advancements will hopefully sort out the majority of these. What I’m trying to aim at is that there is no difference between New Babylon and our current status quo, since they both are instrumental as facilitators of either the self-actualization of Homo Faber or of Homo Ludens, instead of being products of these self-actualizations in itself.
This implies a redefinition of self-actualization as a result of the fulfillment of the necessary requirements of achieving self-actualization to self-actualization as the act of the fulfillment of these requirements in themselves. Which in turn implies:
a re:erotication of everyday life;
a reunderstanding of design as solving problems to problematizing solutions;
Couchsurfing is an online platform where traveling users are invited to stay at hosting users couch when they happen to pass by their city, free of charge with the sole purpose of creating new relations bridging generation, income and cultural gaps. “You pay for the accommodation with expanding your mind”, “the hosts don’t only provide you with a place to stay, they also invite you into their life”. This is an inhabitable socio-contextual wrecking ball, and is a perfect interpretation of Deleuze’s and Guattari’s nomadic subjectivity. This tool of remixing/remapping differ from psychogeography because of its inhabitability. The couchsurfer is in the same (albeit normally much more safe) situation as Benjamin’s rag-picker, dealing with an uncharted terrain – a multitude of social impressions where they need to redefine the map of their own social context (themselves) to function. This is digitally induced outside-our-social-context-experiences changing our perception of the physical city, without the tool the internet this would not be possible.
When taking couchsurfers out for drinks I quite often feel more free than I do with friends, they have no expectations on me, I can be who ever I want but still have a great time, the community functions in that way that the people you wouldn’t want to stay at your couch quickly are filtered out.
A friend and couchsurfer host in Istanbul
The flâneur has no specific relationship with any individual, yet he establishes a temporary, yet deeply empathetic and intimate relationship with all that he sees–an intimacy bordering on the conjugal–writing a bit of himself into the margins of the text in which he is immersed, a text devised by selective disjunction.
Both the surfer and the host venture out into irrelevantopolis, with the only reassurance that in difference from the flaneur they are not alone, they will meet other social nomads. They redefine the limit of their social contexts as an obstacle which they vault over, and at the same time fluidize every wall that they inhabit by opening it up for the other to inhabit. By self-actualizing through the act of fulfilling others needs they de:determine their own self-actualization, recasting it as the art of helping - and in this process they initiate the others self-actualization as the same, and so on. The art of initiating others art- initiateism? This is similar to the way an organization like e.g. Burners without Borders are unleashing and initiating communities own creativity in solving their own problems - redefining the limits of the status quo as an obstacle and overcome it. Giving man back the right to create/define his third skin/wall - as Hundertwasser nakedly proclaimed - is essentially an accelerationist approach since it unleashes the power of the techno-socio-contextual body/corporeality.
Make bricks not walls
How do we as specialized architects actualize the approach to design as initiating others design? By redefining self-actualization through a given specialization into the actual meaning of the word - to actualize one-self, i.e. build ones own walls through the consequential prerequisite of demolishing the existing walls - i.e. inhabitable wrecking balls. Don’t get me wrong, of course we need specialization because of the limits of the human brain (just as we need walls to keep us warm), but the defining factor for your self-actualization-through-specialization should be defined by just that - the limits of your brain, and not the limits that contains it*. If our aim is subversive our designs ought to be initiating – tools - instead of deterministic. Isnt this parametricism? - not on the level of the built or the political, but on the level of identity;
Build a man a house and he will have a home
Teach a man to build a house and he will have a life
This remixed proverb captures my definition of an inhabitable wrecking ball; it wrecks the reductive concept of self-actualization as specialization and the inevitably rigid and stratifying structures that grows from such specialization. Architecture still seem to scramble for an architectural vision of post-capitalism and “a convergence of the shambolic brainstorming of post-modernism”. If an accelerationist architecture is actualized in the concept of an inhabitable wrecking ball, then maybe we should be more focused on designing bricks instead of walls.
*At least in Architecture automation leads to a de-specialization of the profession, computers deal with the tedious shit while we can play with the fun stuff, hence everyone can be their own architect and so on.