Activism, a form of empathy with the real

gepubliceerd op 19.06.2018 | tekst Nadia Casabella Opinie
Brussels 2040: The Western Garden, agriculture and school cluster

Brussels 2040: The Western Garden, agriculture and school cluster

A lecture given by Paola Viganò on 09/11/2017 in the Victor Bourgeois Auditorium at the ULB Faculty of Architecture awakes a reflection about activism as a form of empathy with the real, in a context of high politicization and too little foresight of urban politics.


Working in the city is a tricky business. The sophistication and complexity of the actors’ interplay in the North-European context can be at times overwhelming. And there is no way to shortcut it if we want to draft planning and urban design documents that are carried on collectively and that withstand the erosion of time. It has a positive side too: the multiplicity of viewpoints and of interests contributes to thicken the conversation, ultimately leading to a better decision-making process.

Still, no matter how standardized this process might look like, sometimes the projects we work on fail and end up in a drawer. This happens independently of their presumed quality, and has rather to do with the fact that some of the ideas therein contained might be difficult to embrace by the current government, or that some of the proposals unveil irreconcilable discrepancies among the representatives in charge. Paola Viganò touched a word on this dynamics during her lecture some half a year ago. She did it by recalling to which extent Secchi always tried to take distance from failed projects, but also from successful ones. He wanted to claim our function as intellectuals. According to him, urban designers generate a kind of knowledge that maybe is of no application right away, but will stay there till someone else, some time later, will find it meaningful and will breathe a new life into it.

Ivory Tower

This posture can indeed be recognized as particular of a specific time, in which contemplation and distance from the reality we pretend to transform was deemed necessary. In order to think the world (the world seen as an object to be apprehended) we need to leave it. So was the mantra. But how relevant is this posture today? Urban designers are citizens as well: we are part of the mess before becoming the intellectual that takes distance as the condition of criticism and intervention in the real world. We are the subject and the object of our work. Should we still struggle to take distance and place urban designers as producers of a knowledge that would transcend the immediacy of the real, and stay so to speak in the ivory tower as Secchi suggested? Or on the opposite, do we not, as citizens, share in the responsibility to formulate the questions that might or not articulate the urban debate and public policy agenda afterward? Should urban designers and architects engage instead in a form of design activism busy generating alternative narratives for an improved world?

When in the round of questions that followed Paola Viganò’s lecture at the ULB, I inquired her about a possible shift from this role as intellectuals to a role as activists, her answer went in the direction of demanding for our profession the right conditions within which to do our work. In my notes I registered it as something like: “I still defend this position [as intellectuals], but what has happened now is that sometimes the right conditions to develop such a deep, engaged, comprehensive work do not exist, and often not any longer (like it’s the case in Italy). And in order to create the right conditions for your work yes, indeed, you need to define your stakes, claim a political position for yourself, become somehow an activist.”

Paola Vigano still believes on that distance, deemed a necessary condition in her work. If we are forced into this ‘activism’ role is because the past task division between politicians and technicians that substantiated the practice of planning in the public domain is not any longer working. The technicians were in charge of providing the rational arguments for the politicians to take decisions over. The breakeven point has somehow moved in the direction of politicians and the past lineament is replaced by an explosive cocktail of dogmas and neutral expert views to counterweight important social and political combats of our time.

The Senne valley and the inhabited canal

The Senne valley and the inhabited canal

Becoming empathetic

My belief is that the world we inhabit has made the ivory tower and the metaphor of the ‘distance’ redundant. Somehow it becomes impossible to detach ourselves from the world, to take distance from it. We are involved with and in it. This new reality is the context and shared project for everyone of us. Marina Garces, a Spanish philosopher recognized by her sustained defense of a critical and experimental thinking, explains the very possibility of this ‘distance’ as an epistemological shift: we have moved from the world out there to us in a continuum with the world. Ecology? Our lives are in it! Inequality? Once and again, we are all pariahs! Violence? We won’t be spared!

Therefore, I see activism as a way to relate, to be concerned, by the situations surrounding us. This being concerned means entering the scene, take position and stop delegating fully to others the decision making (the political). Instead, we need acquiring responsibility for what happens and to decide how we wish to live together. The problem is that we train in knowledge and professions that are so fragmented that they do not help us to better understand the world in which we live. We need to leave this space of protectionism (of expert knowledge) and of universalism (the project of modernity) and to knit alliances with other spaces and ways of doing things.

The knowledge that Secchi trusted us with relied on absolute truths that some smart guy could rejuvenate later -what an arrogance! The knowledge we generate should be first of all empathetic of places and people, fully aware the forces shaping any territory. We need to fight our battles now, even if knowing that similar battles will relapse later. We cannot afford waiting for the smart guy to see the light. We all need being smart. Our lives are in it!

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