Can architectural communities become better at working with those who do the daily work of sustaining the places in which we live? What model can planners and architects follow to care about users’ needs and complaints that are not typically part of their written and drawn work? My research in architectural design looks at the messy, uncategorized intersection of paperwork with humanity.
From fixed solutions to open-ended processes
Climate science tells us that we are living in a damaged, broken world and that it is time to phase out fossil fuels and change our behaviour. As governments pursue “green solutions” to address these complex challenges, we need to re-think the democratic processes that guide us. From an architectural perspective, I challenge the idea of “solutions” that assume a certain fix to end a problem. The task of designers has historically been systematized autonomously for the production of such “things” as buildings, landscapes or infrastructure. But while the work of architecture and planning uses documents—drawings, time schedules, contracts—for the construction of new and better things, it also involves long-term negotiations with many stakeholders. An architect’s knowledge and services can expand far beyond information about building. This porosity is promising, when architectural work is seen to support and repair breakage along unpredictable paths of democratic engagement. We need open-ended work that disrupts normative routes of progress. We need design processes that can involve care.
Issues of care, often linked to ideas of “time poverty,” “family-work balance” and “social depletion,” comprise social capacities needed not only for maintaining households and communities, but also to sustain connections more generally. Both natural and social resource exploitation now affect everyone. Dealing with our damaged, broken world requires far-reaching changes to knowledge production, global capitalism and democracy. Scholars examine caring practices, often with feminist perspectives from various disciplines, to re-think democracy and to question prestige and power. Moral systems, they show, have historically upheld a divide between public functions, such as politics and law, and devalued caring functions such as domestic work. Instead, care ethics makes the often invisible labour of cleaners, care-takers, technicians and so on visible and central to politics and different perspectives of power. Democracy in all its practices could thus become more caring, and caring could entail everything becoming more democratic.
From the perspective of care ethics, we are all interdependent. Care is not a concern for victims. There is no ‘we’ and ‘them’. Care is everywhere in the ordinary everyday. In this sense, we have to take Joan Tronto and Berenice Fisher’s definition of care seriously, when they ask that “caring be viewed as a species of activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, ourselves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web.”
Tronto brings this definition into the context of architecture and planning and proposes care as a critical concept that will “require a fundamental reorientation of the disciplines.” They are caring about things, and often about the wrong things.” She explains that care does not emphasize the completed building as its objective, but instead deals with who this “thing” engages over time and how. Because the legal and ethical responsibilities of capitalised economies organises architectural production towards things—towards fixed ends as opposed to relationships and processes—we need to look for caring practices in efforts that capitalised systems overlook. If caring practices are a species of activity, these activities do not happen at “the most general level.” Instead, as Tronto suggests, specific practices are nested within other care practices. If care is not just a naturally motivated disposition or affective connection, but is rather a technical term for the complex, skilled practices for addressing the needs of others, then what are the skilled activities that architects can bring to the caring purposes of repair work? How do we even gain sight of care in architects’ work smoothed by a capitalised ethos?
In the ruins of welfare-state planning
In Northern Europe, the consolidated social and capital programmes of the welfare state’s housing and other welfare institutions was underpinned by decency and a collectivist ethos. Large-scale post-WWII housing, for example, has helped align architecture and planning expertise with the rationale of welfare for all. But these environments are also managed foremost on an evidence-driven and causal logic that tends to by-pass the messy complexities of caring and everyday doings. When architects and planners set up urban environments to fit determinable behaviours and effects, the critical and creative agency that citizens bring to places over time is often rendered invisible. Communities who maintain relationships again and again deal with measures of austerity, assimilation strategies and financialization continuously—not in professionalised time frames. These practices on the ground are essential to maintaining households and broader ecologies, because, as Tronto points out, people feel safer and are more attentive to their environment when they perceive that caring is part of everyday life. But how might design processes engineered for environments with fixed purposes and time scales come to include the life-sustaining web of care?
Sara Ahmed embraces a queer perspective, which she explains as the strange and wonky, to examine knowledge production and how knowledge labour can unlearn old norms to produce a more inclusive society. In her proposal for “sweaty concepts”, she explains that inclusive ways of knowing “come out of a bodily experience that is trying,” and she asks us to “stay with the difficulty.” Not eliminating the effort or labour becomes an aim for knowledge production in itself. In the case of writing, she says, “we have been taught to tidy up our texts, not to reveal the struggle we have in getting somewhere.” On paper, the struggle of tangled, democratic processes is often tidied up to ease the processing of information. Could sweaty and caring practices be nested in paperwork? In the context of architecture and planning, care labour does not lead to a certain style or typology; so, to find examples containing clues for care in paperwork, I turn to the often-hidden aspects of architects’ work.
Through an ethnographic construction of research, I examine how documents were used during design to mediate and enact social processes, specifically documents from the original design processes of large-scale housing of the 1960s and ’70s. One example from Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK, is the heritage listed Byker Redevelopment first designed by Ralph Erskine Architects AB between 1969-82. The architects famously established a site-office from where their practice came to mark a paradigmatic shift towards participation in planning. I focus on the scarce evidence of residents’ voices in the documents from the archive of this site-office. Now in the RIBA Collection in London, the architects’ vast paperwork reveals that records acted in communicative processes between designers, residents, contractors and public administrators. While the records functioned as conventional instructions for buildings and landscapes, the execution of those instructions involved concerns outside the office, such as the requirements and complaints of residents. I exemplify here, how residents’ voices and particular concerns and doings can be embedded in architectural design processes, and thus how information moves across a broad range of both contractual and non-contractual genres. In the archive, new genres, from questionnaires to lists, letters of complaint, and poetry, show that the architects approached these documents with care and some difficulty, and transferred the non-expert voices into design processes.
The work of care happens in all that we do, at all levels of the design process, from decision-making to mundane drawn and written work. Working with lists, the architects cared about resident complaints, such as those about creaking floorboards in overcrowded flats, which were transferred into building information and then as instructions for repair in Clerk of Works lists; floor details were eventually re-designed in later stages of the development. In another instance, residents said that overcrowding led children to congregate noisily in shared spaces between buildings. This concern, raised in lists and letters of complaint and even in poems in a local journal, was transferred to records evaluating design of front gardens. When information is efficiently transferred between documents, the material and social information, normally not alike, combine through the processes they amass.
The difficulty of making the administrative apparatus actually “give a damn”—as Ben Kafka says—about the paperwork it processes is the “demon of writing.” In the archive, this odd, informal, sweaty demon can be traced in the work of communicating with residents. Pointing to noise and overcrowding, residents reveal not only faults in construction but also the broader problems they experienced with authoritative planning. The architects put residents’ complaints into the paper record alongside documents submitted by technicians and public administrators. They laboured with care to make the most personal kind of concern act on more general terms. By circulating information between unlike document genres, the architects responded to concerns and that response had far-reaching consequences for planning policy and participatory design methods.
Caring techniques are not solutions to fix our broken world but rather activities within open-ended processes. Historical and ethnographic analyses of documents used in design processes can provide crucial clues for how to deal with the hidden matters of care. Design documents pertain to construction but can be made to inscribe both systemic and particular social relationships. Architecture and design are more than processes that lead to objects; they are dynamic processes in which experts care about others and work with sweat in the difficult place between totalising views and site-based ways of knowing and doing, attending to the unpredictable. To paraphrase Tronto, when we can think about caring as part of a democratic system, then that system will become both more caring—and better at it.
Thank you to Copenhagen Architecture Festival; residents in public/social housing who often already know what takes me years to examine; the architectural community, both scholars and practitioners, that I think and practice with; and to Lenore Hietkamp for editing this text. The research for this text is funded by Independent Research Fund Denmark.
Heidi Svenningsen Kajita (PhD) is assistant professor at the Department for Landscape Architecture and Planning, University of Copenhagen. Her research deals with how architecture and planning can (re)produce social processes focusing on the history and transformation of welfare state large-scale housing. She draws on ethnographic-architectural methodology to combine knowledge of users' everyday practices, normative frameworks for the built environment and architects' drawn and written work. For more info see personal website: www.bureaus.dk