Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s masterstroke in her Green New Deal was in transforming it from an economists’ daydream into a vision for a sustainable socialist alternative to America’s existential crisis. Some measure of the appeal of its ideas can be seen in the support for it springing up in one of the most socially elitist, capital intensive and environmentally destructive industries on earth – architecture – and it becoming the focus of an international cultural festival bankrolled by the government of one of the largest oil-exporting countries – Norway.
The defiant proclamation ‘Enough’ was the theme of this year’s Oslo Architecture Triennale – focussing on the social, cultural, economic and political tools needed to recast our built environment around the principles of ‘degrowth’ and to reject GDP as a prime measure of human progress. While clearly contradicting the GND’s growth-based route out of our current predicament, the end goal of socio-economic and environmental justice is practically and politically identical. Could some degrowth ideas be useful for AOC in avoiding the potential pitfalls of her deal’s Twentieth-Century antecedent?
In a direct challenge to the developer-friendly high-concept nonsense typical of biennales and triennales, the eight-week festival hinged on the uncompromising argument that ‘every industry, art form, and endeavour’ must rethink its activity in our present era of climate emergency, biodiversity collapse, and social inequality. Rather than a series of dry, well-meaning lectures creating a divisive image of enlightened worthies chastising the money-grubbers and the poor, there was a broad selection of games, performances, activities and free-to-borrow artefacts – such as a guidebook for professionalising acts of social kindness – intended to help everyone rethink our priorities and perceptions of reality. Such a practical proposition couldn’t be further from the self-referential and ego-stroking content typically offered to the elite customers of architectural services in attendance at the growing number of international trade shows dressed up as cultural summits. And it struck a chord with younger designers already priced out of the old order.
It centred around four venues dubbed The Library, The Theatre, The Playground and The Academy. In The Library, hosted inside the National Museum of Architecture, you could find free-to-borrow literature such as Giorgos Kallis’ In Defense of Degrowth and This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook alongside a ‘Bartertown’ board game where players mediate social care in a world without money, a jumpsuit for drinking wine, and a selection of whimsical Solar Instruments which simply encourage users to play with light rather than unthinkingly treating time like money. The Playground featured a pre-recorded Place Listening audio tour in which you could participate in a polyphonic ‘Gentrifiers Anonymous’ investigation into the failure of our contemporary built environment. The Theatre was meanwhile home to Society Under Construction –a promenade play by radical Berlin theatre makers Rimini Protokoll with an amateur cast of real-life property investors, transparency advocates, migrant workers and construction lawyers battling it out on stage.
The Oslo Architecture Triennale’s ideas came from the team of Maria Smith – who pioneered a new wave of small-scale, low-budget architecture through the dark decade of UK austerity; Matthew Dalziel of Smith’s design firm Interrobang; and the critic Phineas Harper, the organiser of the ‘Turncoats’ debates where phones and recording devices are banned, panelists from the polite world of architecture are encouraged to be contentious, and proceedings are punctuated by a series of musical interludes and ritualistic vodka ‘shots in the dark’.
At times the Triennale felt like a therapy programme. Inspired by feminist thinker Donna Haraway, the Triennale was envisaged by its co-curator, Norwegian performance artist Cecile Sachs-Olsen as a space for ‘imagining, for creating and telling stories and for constructing new worlds.’ Sachs-Olsen argued that ‘today we are bombarded with images in movies, in advertisements and in CGI renderings that tells us what the future will look like.’ Yet ‘at the same time the idea that endless economic growth is the only way forward, has come to dominate to such an extent that it has become almost impossible for us to imagine alternatives or to tell other stories. So it is like there is only one inevitable and fixed future looming in front of us. But we need to insist that there is no such thing as one determined future, but various possible futures that can be realized at any given time.’
On its first day of public opening The Library was full of people talking, negotiating, learning and plotting. They were mostly architects – but architects do have a special role if our society is to recast itself along more socially and environmentally equitable lines, as our built environments will be at the centre of change. The artefacts made or proposed in the triennale have yet to hit our streets but some of the ideas already have. For instance, images of London’s recent Extinction Rebellion protest were dominated by a towering plywood structure devised by the architecture outfit Studio Bark. Appearing like a medieval torture device, the modular U-Build system allows the activist to ‘lock-on’, resist police intervention, and hold their position for longer. As a deployable barricade, this tool is available to everyone, anywhere.
When our means and methods stand side by side like this, and social and environmental justice campaigns align, we can dissolve social divisions, restore trust and allow everyone resisting the exigencies of late capitalism to change the conversation. Architects have an instrumental role in stewarding this great imaginative leap and capturing our reawakening optimism with new aesthetic concepts which delight and inspire.