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Editorial [1/2]

Dana Cuff
p. 19-21
Editorial [1/2] [it]

Editor's notes

DOI: 10.17454/ARDETH06.02

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“The future is already here. It is just not very evenly distributed.” William Gibson

  • 1 (Previous page)J. Barry, The Great Influenza. New York, Viking Press, 2004.

1This issue of Ardeth began in the time of travel, public gathering, and a worsening housing crisis when we asked the authors to think about their topics through the lens of contingency. This issue is completed from within contingent times, when nothing seems certain and contingency is less a lens than the air we breathe. It spans the current coronavirus epidemic, the before and the present of Covid-19, which is hoped will produce an after. For now, many histories of the immediate present are being written, particularly in relation to the 1918-19 Influenza which may have killed as many as 100 million people worldwide.1 But for everyone now who is literally and metaphorically breathing the air of the pandemic, there is a destabilizing acuity about many matters: how readily some environmental damage might be undone; the fraudulent nature of a consumer economy; the deep inequities in contemporary societies by age, race, job description, postal code, and income; and the significance of the commons, to name just a few. In the time of before, such realizations were collectively dulled by unquestioned commonplaces like congestion in cities and unequal access to decent housing. The authors of this Ardeth were already in the current present, reading contingency in the history and theory of architecture, material culture, and space itself.

Contingency is a relative term

  • 2 William Gibson often repeats versions of “The future is already here. It is just not very evenly d (...)
  • 3 Fujita, M., Krugman, P., Venables, A. J. (1999), The Spatial Economy: Cities, Regions, and Interna (...)

2The first months of 2020 made everyone aware that we live in a highly contingent world. As I write, we are asked to stay “safer at home” and to maintain “social distance” from others. Without a cure, vaccine, medical supplies, or accurate testing, we lack both solutions and information, so all we have is space. And it is not evenly distributed, to paraphrase the science fiction writer, William Gibson.2 Overcrowding in apartments, communities, prisons, and shelters has left some people far more exposed to the coronavirus than others, while those at the far end of the other extreme decamp to remote second homes. In the spatial economy, the inequities of segregation expand to include not only race and income, but age --with nursing homes at ground zero.3

The spatial economy is a life and death matter

3To stay alive we must “keep our distance,” a phrase that originally meant “know your place” and now, as social norms and physical distance conflate, we are required by the World Health Organization to stay one meter apart in all public spaces including the workplace. In the United States, the rule is two meters apart. But here again, space is not evenly distributed. For office workers who now telecommute from home, one or two meters distance are not as difficult to maintain as for the “essential” workers who are keeping us healthy (nurses, doctors, caregivers, medical technicians), supplied (delivery, warehouse, factory workers), fed (farmers, grocery clerks), safe (sanitation and fire crews), and informed (news crews, public health representatives). The state, in the form of police and politicians, is expected to maintain social distancing laws even though in many countries a distrust of the state undermines compliance.

Trauma needs its imperfect scholarship

4Scholarly writing from the middle of a crisis is intrinsically misguided, for what guides can we use? There is no possibility of historical perspective, for example, though we need history now more than ever just in case the 1918 Influenza or Black Death in the 14th century hold any lessons. Nor is there reliable data to pore over, nor transnational comparisons, nor critical interpretations that produce coherent narratives. What we do have are humanistic “facts,” on-the-ground personal stories from all over the world. They come to us in words and images via social media like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, as well as conventional news outlets. We scholars always and only write with what we have available to us; our perspective is never neutral but contingent upon -- that is shaped by, the ideological flow of time in which we swim.

5For the historian Hayden White, this will soon become the stuff of the “practical past” in contrast to the “professional past” of academic historians. Documentation of the everyday life world is spotty at best, since master narratives of power, privilege, and convention create blind spots to conceal histories of injustice, disenfranchisement, and discrimination – exactly the counternarratives necessary to a robust understanding. Thus, while it might be impossible to know how everyday social distance compliance played out in Medieval Crimean villages wrought by plague, we are living the everyday of another crisis in real time. That suggests we might be able to create urban and architectural public scholarship now, that would offer archival materials for our future counterparts who will study historical perspectives on contingency in 2020.

Architectural design theory is public

6With this volume, we seek the enrichment of architectural history, and to some extent, its productive destabilization, through its cultural, socio-political foundations. Histories within the discipline narrate change in relation to complex forces of economy, technology, power, geography, or biography, which could be called the disciplining of contingencies. To begin to illuminate an architectural object, a scholar identifies an apparatus through which to view it. For this issue we, as guest editors, suggested three lenses that might open different disciplinary discourses: contingency planning, resilience reconsidered, and the historically contingent. These prompts merely launched the imagination of our contributors, whose works range across rather than within those categories.

7The most powerful implication of a contingency plan or of resilience thinking is that there will be a future after the presenting trauma. The forward-facing nature of contingency scholarship, if we give it a name, can embed possible worlds that are more just, more compassionate, and more aware of the inequities that accompany the unequal distribution of that most fundamental resource: space. Crises are often used by power to manipulate the future in its own interest, but they can also bring new alliances into being. The works included in this issue represent the wide global reach of academic communities ready to build those alliances. Contingency scholarship is herewith dedicated to that cause.

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1 (Previous page)J. Barry, The Great Influenza. New York, Viking Press, 2004.

2 William Gibson often repeats versions of “The future is already here. It is just not very evenly distributed.” This particular wording can be traced to a 1999 NPR interview (Talk of the Nation, NPR, 30 November 1999), but as early as 1990 he spoke of the future having already happened.

3 Fujita, M., Krugman, P., Venables, A. J. (1999), The Spatial Economy: Cities, Regions, and International Trade, “The Washington Post” [Online]. Available at: [Accessed 16 June 2020].

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Bibliographical reference

Dana Cuff, “Editorial [1/2]”Ardeth, 6 | 2020, 19-21.

Electronic reference

Dana Cuff, “Editorial [1/2]”Ardeth [Online], 6 | 2020, Online since 01 October 2020, connection on 01 October 2023. URL:

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About the author

Dana Cuff

University of California Los Angeles – Dcuff [at] aud [dot] ucla [dot] edu

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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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