Between Design, Nature and Politics
Columbia University GSAPP
Instructor: Tei Carpenter
[Parallel course taught by Jesse LeCavalier at the New Jersey Institute of Technology]
Infrastructural systems are not merely technical but also capable of generating desire and fantasy. This seminar explores the way in which infrastructure might occupy these multiple (and at times competing) roles in order to better understand how it has been thought of historically, how it is thought of now, and how it might be thought of otherwise going forward. Within the context of the the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture’s ongoing research initiative, Power: Infrastructure in America, this seminar reflects on the current state of infrastructure in the United States through an examination of its recent history and offers a set of thematic tools to understand infrastructure as it relates to nature and politics.
The course looks at a series of built and speculative case studies by architects, landscape architects, civil engineers, policy makers, and urban designers, to better understand how design operates within infrastructural systems. These case studies focus on the ways infrastructure shapes the built environment through, for example, the mediation of resources, including water, waste, and energy. The course is particularly interested in investigating—and potentially developing—a heuristics of infrastructure, i.e. ways we might engage it as designers through, for example its aesthetic dimensions and systematic qualities.
Most of us have never been this saturated with signs of nationalism or this aware of its infrastructures, architectures, and spaces. Through the current government shutdown, border wall hysteria, images of rallies in Europe and America, and the rising trend that political theorist Wendy Brown calls “apocalyptic populism,” nationalism has entered the daily news cycle, political discourse, and both the American and global social imaginary with alarming ferocity in the last years.
Yet, despite these spatial demarcations and moments of eruption that appear directly or indirectly linked to nationalism, and despite its seeming ubiquity and currency, nationalism is disarmingly elusive. Almost every theorist or writer of nationalism contends with its multiple and contradictory personalities. Although it is identified with repressive, racist, xenophobic, and even fascistic states and movements—both historical and contemporary—nationalism was once also identified with post-colonial state formations and liberation struggles.
Moreover, in its most recent iterations, nationalism acquires multiplicity through its globalism. Nationalism is global because almost every country—from Greece and China to the UK and the USA—has been impacted by its own particular form. It is also global in that its current resurgence as a populist movement is the byproduct of globalized economies and global neoliberalism. David Harvey describes our current nationalism as a political tool that offers compensation for the erosion of whatever privilege or benefits, real or illusory, was attached to nationhood. The elusiveness of nationalism results from its internal contradictions, complex history, and divergent associations. Yet nationalism is primarily elusive because the nation, faced with erosions, is itself ever harder to delineate, describe, or define with concrete certainty.
Against the backdrop of the simultaneous resurgence of nationalism and the erosion Wendy Brown names “waning sovereignty,” the seminar will track both historical theorizations and contemporary speculations of architectural nationalism. For Brown, waning sovereignty is most clearly discerned in border walls and other forms of national fortification. These structures have both expressive and functional dimensions. They guard against incursion and entry, while also announcing the enclosure, protection, and insularity of the state. Further, as Brown recognizes, the walls’ expressive dimension reveals a primary anxiety, a “tremulousness” of state security, that underlies these defense systems. The walls are not only spatial inscriptions of nation and statehood, but also talismanic objects—they call up the force of the state and the coherence of the nation at the moment of its greatest vulnerability.
Similarly, this seminar will focus on the architecture of nationalism to glimpse the complexes of global finance, climate, refugee populations, communications, law, and the myriad other systems and relationships against which the nation and nationalism are positioned. In the seminar we will read texts that help us identify, locate, and examine the forms of architecture, infrastructure, and media, that—like the walls President Trump wants to build and that Wendy Brown has catalogued around the planet reveal the conditions and frictions between the nation and the forms of internationalism that erase, efface, and dissolve it.
Active, Banal, Spectacular
Nationalism is often portrayed as an action—the formation, consolidation, or demarcation, of state or ethnic territory—and a set of credos and sentiments. It is political philosophy, territorial instrument, and an atmosphere of beliefs and ideologies. This soft atmosphere of nationalism is distinct from the hardness of its monuments. We can use the term spectacular nationalism to describe these monuments as well as border walls, national museums, and military operations. In contrast, banal nationalism describes those objects at the edge of perception and perceptibility: bureaucracies, anonymous federal buildings, postal uniforms, and license plates. In both spectacular and banal cases, nationalism is conjured by beliefs, concrete signifiers of national identity and history, and their systems of transmission and reproduction. Nationalism is architecture, media, and territory folded together to form an aesthetic political technology.
Accordingly, we will consider nationalism as an active modifier that not only inflects thought and perception, forms political subjects, but that also alters architecture and spaces. With readings from within architecture and architectural history—as well as readings across a range of other disciplines—this seminar, then, probes the matter of nationalism by asking what nationalist discourses activate spatially, materially, and infrastructurally. As such, building proper will be one historically privileged site of nationalist attachment and representation. Yet, as sovereignty dissipates (and multiplies) so do its objects and its territories. The multi-nationalisms of the title reference this dissipation and multiplication as well as the financial girding of both nationalist and globalist discourses.
We will use the sessions to trace how nationalism has been thought, perceived, and mobilized in and through architecture. At the same time, will use the readings, topics, and discussion to reconceive nationalism and architecture through issues such as the documentary state, biometric identification, sovereign chemicals and pollutants, and the national construction of vision and perception. Rather than assume that architecture and nationalism form a clearly identifiable object or field, we will study how these two terms put each other in suspension and into new alignments in order to also ask what nationalism allows us to see of architecture—its agency, utility, and relation to power in various forms anew.