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Design and the Challenge of Change

The Editorial Board of “Ardeth”
Francesca Frassoldati, Alessandro Armando, Daniele Campobenedetto, Valeria Federighi, Caterina Barioglio and Federico Cesareo
p. 4-11
La sfida del progetto [it]

Editor's notes

DOI: 10.17454/ARDETH06.01

Full text

Design and the Challenge of Change Map

Design and the Challenge of Change Map

1In the common acceptation of the term, contingency is the opposite of necessity and foreseeable regularity: it applies to a condition whereby someone (or something) find themselves acting in a singular situation, unique and unrepeatable in time and space. Contingency is where fortune happens to “contact/touch” (cum-tangere) the subject, in a manner that cannot in any way be subsumed under general laws. In Machiavelli, fortune/contingency is what lies outside the realm of politics and yet constitutes its core. Then, during the course of the 20th century, within the framework of the so-called political theology, contingency took on the role of key notion in a discourse centred on the discussion and deconstruction of the concept of sovereignty. In Carl Schmitt’s essay Political Theology (1922), though it does not appear very often, the term “contingency” is used to define the original, indeterminate, chaotic conditions political decisions issue from. “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”. As we are reminded by Carlo Galli: “The Schmittian decision is the ‘performative act’ that stops the flow of subjective discourse and in a (from a) contingency – from the concrete poignancy of a kairòs – creates form” (Galli, 1996: 217). Yet, according to Schmitt, it is not so much contingency per se as it is the exception that – through a decision made in an emergency – makes the law into an absolute act: “The exception is that which cannot be subsumed; it defies general codification, but it simultaneously reveals a specifically juristic element – the decision in absolute purity. […] The decision frees itself from all normative ties and becomes in the true sense absolute” (Schmitt, 1985: 12-13). Thus, according to Schmitt, it would seem possible to call on contingency to affirm the ineludible necessity of a decision, conceived as a sovereign act that addresses a state of exception. From this perspective, the legitimacy of the decision maker is absolute, it is not conditioned by external or higher criteria: one might say that a sovereign is legitimate in as much as they decide (not by virtue of how they decide) in the contingency of a “state of exception”.

2Conversely, in Walter Benjamin we find a definition of contingency that is diametrically opposed to that of Schmitt, whereby each instant can be an exceptional one, where the revolution may find fertile ground: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ (state of exception) in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history that corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency, and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve” (Benjamin, 2005). If this is so, the wait for a “true exception” announces the end, not the onset, of an established order. From Benjamin’s viewpoint, the contingency becomes a trigger for the dismantling, the repudiation that preludes the coming of an ulterior state (the revolution accomplished?) and goes well beyond the mere arrogance of a dictator or any would-be sovereign power. Since his early writings of the 1920s, such as Critique of Violence, Benjamin has asserted that “the use of violence as a means towards legal ends” (Benjamin, 2004: 241) would only be an imperfect, “mythic” form of violence, as opposed to the “divine” form, i.e., the only violence truly capable of dismissing the established order. Nowadays, Giorgio Agamben’s theses (2014) on “inoperosity” and the “destituent power” clearly reflect that theoretical background.

3However, there is one aspect that seems to bridge the views of Schmitt and Benjamin: it is the fragmentary way they conceive time as a succession of states of exception or “splinters of messianic time”. As pointed out by Carlo Galli (1996: 401): “It is this sensitivity to the extreme and the contingency that gives rise to a remarkable – albeit more apparent than real – analogy between Benjamin’s now-time and Schmitt’s ‘exception’, an analogy between two ways of conceiving history that converge if nothing else in rejecting its progressiveness”. In this concept of time there seems to be no room for the process, its construction and incremental planning: everything is subsumed under the instant.

4From these theological-political underpinnings – i.e., the relationship between contingency, decision and form, and a fragmentary concept of time – it is easy to draw a parallel with architectural design. If often happens that design work is regarded as an activity essentially founded on a series of autonomous and sovereign decisions, which are able to deal with “contingencies” and uncertainties. If you look closely, though, the misunderstanding and the problem with this “autonomistic” approach arises from a confusion between contingency and exception, or, more precisely, from the notion that every contingency constitutes an exceptional situation requiring a decisive action. But where does viewing design acts as potential cases of exception, in an open analogy to political theology, lead us to? First of all, it engenders a rift between what is exceptional and what is not. As a result, the designer’s practice is polarised between sovereign decision-making moments and run-of-the-mill routine activities: the former would be a prerogative of star architects and the latter would be tasks best relegated to the rank of technical work, associated with a purely administrative “management paradigm”. In recent years, the main advocate of this position has been Pier Vittorio Aureli. In The possibility of an absolute architecture, Aureli (2011: 176) explicitly refers to Schmitt and his “theory of the state of exception” to justify the need for an “absolute architecture”: “According to Schmitt, it is not the norm that eventually produces the exception; it is the exception that produces the order necessary to be able to conceive and apply norms. […] the theory of the state of exception addresses the priority of decisions and their exceptional and conjunctural form in establishing a framework in which norms are thus applicable”.

5In a discussion about architectural projects, though, we may address the issue from a different perspective and clearly distinguish between contingency and exception: even if it were true that Schmitt was right in regarding a case of exception as a pure contingency, this does not mean that all contingencies are exceptional. Conversely, it could be argued that the opposite is true, i.e., most contingent situations are perfectly ordinary and provide the stage where design actions unfold. In this light, the architectural project may be conceived as a practice involving an incessant overcoming of contingencies, of situations, that is, where the prevailing activity does not consist of decisions being made by subjects ideally conceived as sovereign, but consists instead of a mesh of automatic procedures, negotiations, promises, deviations. Thus, rather than as a sequence of sovereign gestures, a designer’s activity may be described as a slow and painstaking sequence of knots that are unravelled and knotted again and again, many times, one inside the other and one after the other.

6Between a state of exception and another, there is room for creating design projects that are neither exceptional nor ordinary. Architects mostly work in the shadow of these institutional constructions, which continue to exist, their contradictions and approximations notwithstanding, and rely on conditions, rules and routines to oppose the independence of form and narrative.

7Needless to say, the discussion is open: what relationship do we want the relationship between decision and contingency in architectural design projects to be like? Do we want to consider architects sovereign and responsible subjects who come to grips with contingencies on the basis of their intentionality and determination, or should we rather view contingency as a situation to go along with, from which unforeseeable opportunity may arise? (a more intuitive version of this dilemma was cited in recent years by François Jullien, who reproposed André G. Haudricourt’s contraposition between “shepherds” and “gardeners”). But the discussion should include yet another question: what does it mean to have a method in the face of contingency? Is it possible to establish recurring conditions for design work, or should we always pay undivided attention to the singularity of the situations?

8The question formulated in this issue of “Ardeth” by Dana Cuff and Will Davis has received a number of highly diversified replies. To try and organise the differences between the positions expressed, we considered the two aforementioned dimensions: a markedly political and a methodological one. Thus, on the horizontal axis we have arranged the contrast between ordinary contingency and exceptional contingency, between the approach that finds in contingency designs opportunities – in terms of “ex-aptation”, to cite S. J. Gould, as well as ordinary practice and negotiation opportunities – and, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the resolute will to single out the contingency, construed as a suspension and an exception onto which a form may be imposed – in terms of policy, of an exemplary vision for the future, or in terms of projects-programmatic measures.

9Along the vertical axis, instead, we have placed the issues to do with a methodical and a contingent modus operandi. At the upper end, we have the “method”, conceived as a limit approach whereby from a general definition (a theory?) it is possible to derive the appropriate way to act in a contingency. At the bottom end, instead, we have the “operation”, i.e., an approach whereby the contingent action escapes any generalisation. In this manner we obtained four quadrants in which to distribute the author’s contributions.

10The first quadrant identifies the manifestos, that is to say, the ideas drawing inspiration from methodical deduction and decisive political agentivity. In the essay by Rebecca Choi, the charismatic figure of Whitney M. Young Jr. identifies the ethnic contingency (the “racial contingency”) apparent in public residential buildings in US cities as the outcome of centuries of segregationist policies and social structures, at different levels of explicitation. Taking as its starting point a public speech delivered at the conference of the American Institute of Architects two weeks after the death of Martin Luther King Jr., the essay underscores the (retroactive) urgency to acknowledge the awareness of the social impact of a design project. Kelema Lee Moses believes that the contingency of contemporaneity should be mediated by local voices, so as to produce an interpretative stratification that can decentralise western epistemologies and architectural practices, and can also capture that complex systems of interaction between physical space and social space. According to Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman, an architectural project gives expression to participation models and pedagogical theories, and contingency is taken into due account for purposes of inclusivity and transformation. Starting from similar premises, Cristina Catalanotti argues that in the contingency the project determines the field of action of the professionals who attempt to define “alternative” practice models in contrast with a perceived mainstream of the profession. The author analyses the position of a number of emerging design studios that work outside the socio-economic models reflecting the ideology of neoliberalism and do so through collective actions that are part of real processes and that, instead of addressing singular problems, raise questions and achieve enhanced political significance. Ananya Roy focuses on the importance of understanding urban transformation through minority settlement and mobilisation stories. The ruling out of particular contingency regimes translates into an act of discrimination against the weaker sections of society and calls into question their right to the city. In this understanding, the contingency becomes the necessary condition for any ethical action. Finally, Carlo Deregibus points out how the relationship between design practice and contingency tends to go unnoticed in the narratives of successful design processes, but emerges with clarity in the case of unsuccessful ones. Reversing the paradigm, the author underscores the potential of contingency and proposes contingency mapping as a means to bring out the specificity of a project and at the same time strike the best balance between the resources available and the objectives to be met.

11The second quadrant is reserved for exemplary cases, i.e., for essays that focus on practice, putting their trust in the decisive efficacy of political agentivity. This is the field of induction - from operations (or from experiences) to a method -, bringing together the decisionist tendency of political agentivity (faith in the power of good decisions) and the contingent, non programmable actions required by ever different cases. In this quadrant, the essay by Sara Stevens investigates the relationship between the design process and the forces of capitalism. In her study of the troubled process of urban renewal of Canary Wharf, the effects of financialisation and political changes exemplify a design approach that would eventually become the rule for architects, in terms of the way they organise their design practice and how they pursue the production of visually stunning objects. In this connection, the organisation of the architects’ mode of operation is not adaptive, it is politically instrumental to the new-fangled (high risk) financial practices. In his considerations, Per-Johan Dahl also adopts the horizon of events developing over time. The case of the participated construction of the sauna facilities in Frihamnen – which, once built (as a provisional structure) and functioning, were defended as a monument to be preserved – shows how tactic resort to community participation may become the prototype of a potentially overwhelming form of public decision-making, where the contingency is a condition to be dealt with on a daily basis.

12The third quadrant is for clinical cases. Here the pieces move between the field of induction and the field of emergency agentivity, conceived as the operation of an agent who addresses the contingency as an accident along a predetermined path, and takes action and adapts to the occurrence of an emergency. Catherine Ingraham, whose essay opens the issue by reacting directly to the inputs of the curators, reflects on the dimension of “contingent excess” in architecture. By calling into question the notion of excess as a mere product of capitalistic consumption patterns (surplus) and proposing a view of this excess as the dimension of the project acting within the boundaries of the legal systems and property regimes, Ingraham identifies the field through it is possible to address the effects of the architectural project even beyond its physical realisation. In her essay, Melissa Rovner explores the case of Dolgeville and the changes that took place in this district of Los Angeles during the course of the first half of the 20th century, pointing out the connections between the design of physical space and its role in the contingency of the changing economic and social context that contributed to its definition Jiat-Hwee Chang focuses on the scale of buildings and explores the contingency of the use of HVAC systems in Asia. The construct of the concept of thermal comfort is put in correlation with social and cultural variables, and architecture is conceived as a mechanism called upon to achieve increasingly standardised temperature control requirements. Finally, Valerio Della Scala proposes an analysis of The Yellow Pavilion, an installation erected in the city of Pristina: taking his cue from this case, the author proposes identifying the forms of action that can affect not only physical space, but also the normative conditions that generate it and their reference framework.

13The last quadrant delimits an area that might be referred to as the realm of strategies, i.e., of the approaches that attempt to define a general mode (a method?) to address the contingent dimensions of the project, without however proposing any affirmative solution. In these essays, as a matter of fact, the project systematically strives to achieve the necessary plasticity to adhere to the contingencies of the ordinary.

14The first two essays are linked by an event, the workshop “Inside-Out/Outside-In: Shifting Architectures of Refugee Inhabitation” held in January 2019 at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious & Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen. The organisers of the event, Somayeh Chitchian, Maja Momic and Shahd Seethaler-Wari, propose a summary focusing on the notion of contingency referred both to the “subjects” and to the “spaces”. The “inhabitation of an otherwise” is an ordinary, invariably contingent, process. It is claimed that at the heart of this process are the inhabitants and their contingent competencies, which cannot be replaced by expert, external know-how: “Inhabitation, in essence, is a contingent process of spatial authorship and (re)production, a yet-to-come design of the unlabelled architect, a yet-to-be-written spatial story of its invisibilised author”.

15Along similar lines, but through stories (and their contingencies), runs the essay submitted by Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi – keynote speaker at the same workshop. The author dwells on the parallel between research objects that all too often are considered separately, or even in contraposition, such as refugee camps and university campuses: “What if the inhabitation of the camp generated theory, practices, and ritual knowledge of its own?” In this case too, it is the parallel between the subjects-inhabitants (and their impermanence) and that of the space inhabited (its lack of foundations and provisional nature) that produces a deviation through which theoretical research on the design project may find a locus for development.

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List of illustrations

Title Design and the Challenge of Change Map
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Bibliographical reference

Francesca Frassoldati, Alessandro Armando, Daniele Campobenedetto, Valeria Federighi, Caterina Barioglio and Federico Cesareo, “Design and the Challenge of Change”Ardeth, 6 | 2020, 4-11.

Electronic reference

Francesca Frassoldati, Alessandro Armando, Daniele Campobenedetto, Valeria Federighi, Caterina Barioglio and Federico Cesareo, “Design and the Challenge of Change”Ardeth [Online], 6 | 2020, Online since 01 November 2020, connection on 03 March 2024. URL:

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About the authors

Francesca Frassoldati

Editor in chief

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Alessandro Armando

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Daniele Campobenedetto

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Valeria Federighi

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Caterina Barioglio

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Federico Cesareo

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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