“Fruitful Perversity” and Urban Environmental Design, Part I

Habermas Book CoverI was recently reading Jürgen Habermas’s The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere,  a book that outlines the emergence and development of a Western bourgeois public sphere from the late 17th to the mid 20th-century. It offers a provocative argument about the possibilities and limitations of civic activism based on “rational-critical” public debate. In it, Habermas suggests that when cultural products, such as art, literature, philosophy, and music, were commodified, they became more widely available and were influential for generating a public self-consciousness among a growing eighteenth-century urban middle-class, the bourgeoisie. The bourgeois class gathered in coffee houses, salons, and Tischgesellschaften to discuss and debate ideas presented in these artistic works and to share market news. Economically diverse, the bourgeoisie comprised small and larger property owners, but, in the public sphere, where they analyzed, debated, and shared information, they understood themselves to be equals. Embracing the idea of a “common humanity,” they, theoretically, ignored social status and prized intellectual debate and self-cultivation.

For Habermas, the emergence of the bourgeois public sphere helped to transform European feudal societies to modern-day democratic republics. The salon culture of information sharing and public debate, he argues, created the basis for this socio-structural shift.

Image courtesy of Alphaville Herald.
Image courtesy of Alphaville Herald.

(For the ways in which salon culture may apply to the present moment of mass media, cyber culture, and drive for innovation, see this 2007 essay by Urizenis Sklar [or, philosopher Peter Ludlow] in Alphaville Herald, “The Return of the Salon and the End of Mass Media”  and this 2010 TED talk excerpt by Steven Johnson, “Where do good ideas come from?”.)

Public Plaza

The “Fruitful Perversity” of Publics

Habermas’s overview of the bourgeois public sphere is fascinating, not simply for the genealogy he traces, but also for the characteristics he identifies as essential to the modern public sphere. One such principle is the shared belief in a “common humanity.” In the bourgeois public sphere model, common humanity found expression in the study of the arts and sciences and the critical debate that these works generated.

Another principle he identifies in the bourgeois public sphere is that “whereever the public established itself as a stable group of discussants, it did not equate itself with the public,” instead the bourgeois public was open to new members and new ideas: “The issues discussed became ‘general’ not merely in their significance, but also in their accessibility: everyone had to be able to participate” (37). It is this dialectic of “closure” and openness in modern publics that fascinates me. For a public to sustain both a strong sense of identity (its “closure”) and the flexibility for redefinition (its “openness”) seems impossible. But this closure/openness  defines the nature of modern publics, making them both resilient and socially powerful.

Michael Warner describes this working contradiction in modern publics as the “fruitful perversity” of the public sphere and public address. I will describe this in more detail in my next post, but the idea in simple terms is this: the social values that first draw participants into a public may be redefined by virtue of a public’s openness to stranger participation. That is, for a public to operate as a public it must be open to unknown participants, strangers, who when addressed by a text, speech, performance, or space, feel themselves interpellated in a powerful way.

It is worth noting here that though Habermas identifies the bourgeois public sphere as the model version, there is no one public sphere. Part of the reason for this is because no one public could possibly accommodate the many different needs and identifications people choose or (fitfully) inhabit. Another reason for the existence of multiple, simultaneous publics is that they do not operate with the absolute radical openness described above. The levels of accommodation to difference vary, and publics form in response to barriers in accessibility or as the result of  alternative ideals. And, yet, even if publics do not operate as radically in lived experience as in principle, a “fruitful perversity” still operates. When a speech, text, performance, or other work understands itself to be addressing a general group of individuals, the addressees include strangers in addition to the idealized audience. And these “strangers” are what can and many times do destabilize the principles founding the idea(s) of a public sphere.

An audience watching a play at Drury Lane Theatre, Thomas Rowlandson
“An Audience Watching a Play at Drury Lane Theatre” by Thomas Rowlandson

Indeed, the “stranger-ness” within publics may not simply come from new participants, but also from existing participants whose needs  shift over time or who express interests that have gone unaddressed but are shared by others (as is suggested in the distracted audience members of Rowlandson’s Drury Lane Theatre). All these differences can lead to changes in the self-understanding of a public and its identity. Because public spheres are open in their publicity, they operate with a “fruitful perversity.” Adopting, assimilating, coopting, misreading, or in some way addressing the changes that filter forward from general individuals is the “fruitfulness” of publics. Put another way, adapting to change sustains the life of a public–even if that adaptation challenges its original ideals.

“Fruitful Perversity” and Urban Environmental Design

This idea of a “fruitful perversity” in which a public is formed by a strong sense of identity, but also yields to revision, improvisation, and redefinition could offer a powerful bridge for thinking about humanistic approaches to contemporary urban environmental design. How might space be planned and designed with both vision and flexibility: vision for inspiring people to consider the three-dimensional space they occupy and flexibility for encouraging use in both intended and unintended ways.

One illustration of how spatial design and planning might incorporate a “fruitful perversity” is a housing and work center proposal for the Mumbai slum, Dharavi, designed by architect Hugon Kowalski. A Hunter Douglas award winner in the 2013 Archiprix, he proposed creating a domestic building that incorporates a critical livelihood in Dharavi, trash recycling. Unlike the modernist-inspired housing blocks created for the socially marginalized fifty years ago in the US, this building design avoids the impersonal, concrete cluster of dense, high-rises and integrates, instead, mixed-uses and open-floor plans. There is capacity for biogas production in the basement and a trash recycling industry on the lower levels and to one side of the building. Located in the upper levels and separated from the trash recycling are the living quarters, and Dharavi dwellers are given open-floor plans for organizing these interior spaces to their needs. Social centers and a human-scale, or street-level environment, also remain intact. For more, read Kowalski’s explanation of the building here.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Despite being questioned by one of his teachers as to whether the proposal could be considered “architecture,” Kowalski’s design won the admiration of the Archiprix jury for its contemporary and forward-looking vision. The clean lines and exposed interior functions contrast with the radical openness that defines it. Suggestive of a fruitful perversity translated into space, this plan for a housing and work center underscores a strongly contemporary vision and user-centered flexibility.

Were this built, Dharavi dwellers would live in a building inspired by a modernist style of architecture, one that seeks to represent order and clarity out of perceived social disorder and congestion. At the same time, in a radically contemporary interpretation, the open interior spaces, mixed-uses, and green technology of the building provide residents with proper sewage facilities, potential bioenergy, and the ability to shape and reshape the living space to their needs. In this way, Dharavi dwellers would continue to be lead “designers” of their home, but live in a building defined by the current cultural moment: integrated green technology and a spatial design that allows for collaboration and innovation.

For another illustration of how we might envision fruitful perversity at work in urban environmental design and planning, see Almudena Cano Pineiro and her proposal “Urban Strategies to Regenerate Indian Public Space: A Case Study of Pols Ahmedabad.” This proposal also won a 2013 Hunter Douglas award.

Of course, the success of an urban environmental design and planning project in integrating vision and user flexibility lies in the actual experience of the space and its architecture. To understand the challenges that may arise in designing and planning a space with a fruitful perversity in mind, I will consider, in a future post, the history of Boston City Hall plaza.

Boston City Hall architects Kallmann and McKinnell, created a government building that might be considered as radically people-oriented as Kowalski’s Dharavi housing plan. But the simultaneous desire to create a monumental and thought-provoking design may have undermined that vision of accessibility. Before I discuss Boston City Hall, however, I will delve a bit more into the idea of fruitful perversity and why integrating this as a principle in urban environmental design and planning could lead to powerful social formations and small revolutions. That will be my second post in this ambitious three-part series (it originally began as one very, very long post). In my third post, I turn to Boston City Hall plaza and the current interest in redesigning this space.

For now, here’s a bit more about the Archiprix: the Archiprix is a biannual design competition and workshop series that invites schools around the globe in Architecture, Urban Design, and Landscape Architecture to submit the best student  graduation design for the Archiprix Hunter Douglas awards and for participation in its multi-day design workshops. You can find more fascinating Archiprix projects here.

The upcoming 2015 Archiprix in Madrid is organized around the theme “Towards a Middle-Out Urbanism.” I recommend watching the video below. It includes beautiful shots of Madrid architecture and some suggestions as to what a “middle-out urbanism” may look like for the city of Madrid and for urbanism in general.

Highlights from video:

“Los Bandidos,” organizers of the 2015 Archiprix workshops: on the workshops, “Our work is no longer to deliver a final product, but to be a part of a longer process and to affect different scales.”

Belinda Tato of Ecosistema Urbano and 2015 Archiprix workshop interpreter: “Many of the projects we develop here at Ecosistema are focused not only on the physical part, but also . . . the power of people transforming reality.”

Jose Luis Vallejo of Ecosistema Urbano and 2015 Archiprix workshop interpreter: Urban design is not simply about “architecture as a way of creating new objects in the city, but [also] about looking into the city itself . . . this idea of something alive and super complex which is the contemporary city and contemporary society.”

The City, Stories, and Mapping

It’s that time of year! Tufts departments and programs are preparing their Fall 2015 course catalog, and I’m excited to say that I’ll be offering an interdisciplinary course about 20th-century urban space and representation, Mapping Stories of the City. It’s a new, special topics class and will be offered in the Tufts Environmental Studies Program next fall (Course ENV 195-1, Mon/Wed 3-4:15). The course was developed with support from my TIE Fellowship and with the invaluable advice and help of Barbara Parmenter and Antje Danielson. Without their generous support, I don’t think this course would have been as interesting or even possible. So, a big thank you to Barbara and Antje!!

I have a draft schedule of the readings and viewings for “Mapping,” and I invite you to go check it out. Comments welcome! I taught a version of this course in the fall in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute as a “study group leader,” and it was a blast. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to teach it with Osher, class participants were so engaged and there was such a deep investment in the learning and discussion process that our two-hour classes breezed by.

I hope Tufts students will enjoy this class as much as Osher members did, albeit an elaborated version.

Highland Park

Gowri and I were in Los Angeles in December and, while there, we visited a neighborhood undergoing some radical changes in its class and racial demographic, Highland Park. The pics above are taken from our visit.

In 2013, the real estate listing firm, Redfin, identified Highland Park as the nation’s “hottest ‘hood,”  for homebuyers and in Nov/Dec 2014 the public radio show Marketplace aired a special investigative series on the processes of gentrification, with a spotlight on Highland Park. Taking its name from Highland Park’s two main commercial streets, York Boulevard and Figueroa Street, the Marketplace series is called York & Fig and offers one of the most compelling discussions of gentrification that I have come across. Part of what makes the series so interesting is that it begins by asking what gentrification is and who might be identified as a gentrifier. The report avoids presenting simplified representations of “good” and “bad” actors in gentrification. Instead, it reveals how and why gentrification must be understood as an intentional process with multiple actors who have differing levels of political and financial power. Some of the key questions the reporting raised for me was:

  • Is gentrification a negative or positive phenomenon? For whom is it a positive experience and why?
  • Is gentrification part of a “natural” process of change? Is it the outcome of inevitable market forces?
  • Gentrification usually brings about displacement of smaller, older businesses as well as socially vulnerable residents. Is this displacement an inevitable consequence?
  • What are the visual indications of gentrification? Can one see it in the store fronts or among the residences? What are the signs?

The reporters do an amazing job of placing “a human face” on the processes of gentrification through their many interviews. In one conversation, a person actively involved in the redevelopment of Highland Park observes, there are “no air brakes” in this kind of urban revitalization process. As a result those who were a part of a previous wave of gentrification, i.e. residents who benefited from the relative affordability of the neighborhood, may find themselves priced out as property value, taxes, and overall quality-of-life expenses continue to rise.

This gentrification series resonated strongly for me because the Greater Boston area is undergoing a similar process of change. Boston has even been recognized as the nation’s most rapidly gentrifying city. Here are recent reports about gentrification in two working-class communities of color, Dorchester and Chinatown Boston. The city of Somerville, just north of Boston and where I live, is also experiencing rapid changes as 6 new mass transit stations open. Looking for some recent information on the ongoing effects of gentrification in Somerville, I found this short and lucid study created by students from the Tufts Urban Environmental Policy and Planning program (UEP).

It’s an incisive look at how transit-oriented development (TOD) can be a driver of small business displacement. It argues that if specific steps toward sustained community engagement are not undertaken by the city, then small businesses will likely be forced out. And, if this happens, a crucial part of the cultural and class fabric that has made the neighborhood so inviting for new, well-to-do residents and upscale businesses will be lost. The study also makes clear that this kind of change, the potential displacement of small businesses, is not necessarily a “natural” outcome of market forces or economic efficiency, but is part of a strategic plan with specific, and not necessarily malign, goals. Thus, if a city and developer can plan for projects with greater capital return, it can and should also plan more thoughtfully for retaining the  community businesses that have helped make the neighborhood an attractive place for development. The York&Fig series also makes this important point with relation to residential displacement.

You can find the Tufts study here.

A final note to this longish post – you may have noticed that I included an image of a grocery receipt. Gowri and I stopped in at the local market in Highland Park (I really enjoy shopping at local markets, and markets in general really) to pick up snacks and were reminded of the new law – 10 cents for a paper bag. It got me thinking that carrying a light reuseable bag whenever I’m out, since I usually have a purse or bag with me, is a good habit to develop — not just for planned store trips. Also, as a resident on the opposite side of the coast who lives with few if any orange farms nearby, I couldn’t believe the price of the oranges – 3 pounds for a dollar!! I first read it as 3 for a dollar and thought that was a great buy. The sweet bread rolls were also amazingly priced — I think this market fits the bill of a neighborhood grocery store with neighborhood prices.

About Me

Huge, immense, and extra-big thanks to my wonderful partner, Gowri, for helping me launch this website! This blog will be an outlet for my latest readings and thoughts about urban space, environmental sustainability, and culture. There is so much happening in both academic and mainstream circles related to environmental humanities that I am inspired to use this space as a site for threading together some of those conversations, and also for my own explorations of the complex and rich intersection of environmental studies and art.

A bit about me: I’m a graduate student in Somerville, Mass. working on a dissertation about 20th and 21st-century American literature and urban space discourse. For more about my graduate work, click here. A significant part of my interest in urban space comes from my experience as a community organizer in Chinatown Boston. I was not a community organizer for very long, two years. Nonetheless it was an immensely powerful learning experience because Chinatown was just beginning to face the current wave of urban revitalization and gentrification that has been changing its borders and skyline since the early millennium. My experience there taught me a lot about the challenges in urban development and ideas of progress. Still, my organizing work left me with many more questions than answers so I decided to continue my interest in urban processes in my graduate work.

In my free time, I volunteer in a local Chinese American women’s oral history group and enjoy traveling. So, some of my posts may be reflections from my wanderings. Thank you for visiting the website!