Monstrous architecture

— Guest post from architects Signe Pērkone and Ramón Córdova –

In July of 2019, the Monster Network was invited to give a keynote at the symposium Monstrous Ontologies: Politics, Ethics, Materiality at the University of Roehampton in London (you can listen to our keynote here). One of the presentations at the symposium was delivered by the architects Signe Pērkone and Ramón Córdova, who talked about how they work with the monster in their own architectural practice. We were intrigued and interested by what we heard, and saw a lot of connections to how we think, work, and write with the monster in the Monster Network. So we asked them if they wanted to write a blog post for us!

In what follows, Signe and Ramón write about their experience working with, amongst other things, a territory occupied by a vast landfill close to the southern border of Mexico. During their talk they showed a video from the landfill, which can be viewed here (password: Ecologies).

Before giving you a chance to explore architecture and the monster, we let Signe and Ramón introduce themselves:

Signe and Ramón are architects and researchers based in Riga, Latvia. They strive to practice architecture as an integral part of the affective and relational lived experience. They have studied, worked and done research in Europe and Mexico, and their work has been presented in various conferences, art exhibitions and publications. They are interested in expanding their practice by intersecting it with other disciplines, and fostering discussion of its becomings and emergence from territories and assemblages of human and non-human components.

Image description: part of a large, colorful landfill against blue sky. Several large birds, perhaps vultures, are perching atop the hill with their wings outstretched. Image from Signe Pērkone and Ramón Córdova’s video ‘Landfill clips’ (password: Ecologies)

Meeting the Monster Half Way

Monster as a Tool for Enriching Spatial Practices

 There are territories, places and spaces that after establishing relations with certain agents or in particular conditions become monstrous assemblages in the collective imagination, from slums to squatted buildings, and from crime infested city communities to remote landfills inhabited by migrants. But what does this monstering mean for the places themselves? What does it mean for us, who need to interact with them? Even more, those who deal with spatial disciplines, such as architecture, are often called upon to intervene in these territories, to make sense of them, to “improve” them. However, there is a danger in acting before understanding because, in one way or another, this leads to forced conclusions, filling in the gaps in knowledge with assumptions, and normative faux-solutions.

There are two aspects to monstrosity, what might be called ‘seeing’ and ‘being’, which need to be juxtaposed if we are to look for useful ways of using monstrosity as a tool for thinking. On the one hand, in terms of ‘seeing’ monstrosity, it is closely linked to the Other. It is the extreme end of othering that emphatically emphasises the fact that the Other can never be accepted and dissolved into the mainstream, that it is hideous, disgusting, grotesque. Perception and visceral, embodied reactions play a significant role when ‘seeing’ a monster like a place inhabited by socially excluded people, vermin, polluted soil, harmful bacteria. Even more so, the figures of the socially excluded are looked upon with disdain because of the underlying, even subconscious fear of becoming such oneself one day. Monstering becomes a way of pushing this assemblage further away, for receding it as much as possible from mainstream society.

On the other hand, in terms of the ‘being’ of the territory, there is nothing monstrous about it at all, it just is. However, the fact that monstrosity is not perceived from within this assemblage does not necessarily mean that it exists solely in the perception of outsiders, thus being in some way less real than the lived reality of the actors of the assemblage. Rather, we only need to look at the boundary, where the assemblage establishes and maintains itself to see real and physical effects of its perceived monstrosity taking place. The fractal relationship between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ is constantly negotiated, which instead of being a mere repetition of the same, makes both sides evolve and change in order to compensate for the impacts performed on it by the other. This porous push and pull is a kind of translation, which demands common ground, and in the absence of it swallows signals from both sides, while producing other things from within the hybrid transition zone. This creative mistranslation is where the monster truly lies. By no means is this to say that all boundaries are monstrous or produce monsters; it does not happen necessarily but rather as a short circuit, an abnormality of connection between two assemblages.

Most of the time however, it is not enough simply to conceptualise the monster from afar, more often than not we are called upon to act and to intervene, one way or another. The lack of a ‘common ground’ that precedes monstering is problematic when it is met by a normalising approach, as this denies the unique agency of each particular assemblage. The beauty and power of this agency is that whatever input is provided in a form of an intervention, it will be in some way productive. However, the more generalised approaches are applied, the more what is produced might disrupt the assemblage and/or diverge from the intentions of the intervention. The problem with spatial practices is mostly that a cursory analysis of a situation is followed up with an identification of a ‘problem’, for which then promptly a solution is conceived in some far-away place, in sterile conditions far removed from the actual situation, and it is expected to be carried out in a linear fashion and lead to a satisfactory conclusion.  In reality this hardly ever produces the desired effect.

The approach, far from aiming to homogenise and normalise, needs to recognise and respect the meaningful difference, working with it, as opposed to at it. When approaching a situation, it is necessary to allow for the genuine encounter with the unfamiliar, as opposed to instantly looking for aspects to recognise, which would be like a doctor trying to diagnose a patient with a variety of unfamiliar symptoms but proceeding to treat the one symptom she or he recognises. It is meant to force one to think instead of recognise. Only thus there can be a chance of producing novelty, not in the sense of formal originality, but in the sense of production that is immanent to the specific assemblage.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that when intending to intervene in an unfamiliar assemblage, one is called upon to forget all one’s previous knowledge and experience, and so to say invent the wheel anew each time. Along with acknowledging the agency of the assemblage, one needs to acknowledge one’s own agency as a new component in relation to it. This means coming with one’s situated and embodied knowledge but leaving a sort of gap, a space where gradual and tentative connection between the particularities of the unfamiliar and those of the already grasped and experienced can connect in productive ways, enriching the praxis of intervention.

Architectural structures should therefore be thought and applied not as finished autonomous objects or concrete solutions to perceived problems but as parameters that enter into relation with other agents of the assemblage and affect and are affected by these relations over time. Perhaps interventions do not even need a function; a parameter lets itself be infected and polluted by the information it receives, and keeps mutating and becoming. As architects we can then take the opportunity to enrich our praxis by receiving and analysing the information afforded by the intervention taking on its own life in on site, and then adapting our next actions. Ideally there would be an opportunity to perform this intervene-observe-adapt-repeat process within the same assemblage, thus building possible programmatic complexity. This approach values contingency and recognises the ambivalent nature of intervening in monstrous territories.

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