Some Thoughts on a Manifesto

by Christian Schweitzer

To put out a manifesto you must want: ABC to fulminate against 1, 2, 3, to fly into a rage and sharpen your wings, to conquer and disseminate little abcs and big ABCs, to sign, shout, swear, to organize prose into a form of absolute and irrefutable evidence, to prove your non plus ultra and maintain that novelty resembles life. (…)

I write a manifesto and I want nothing, yet I say certain things, and in principle I am against manifestoes, as I am also against principles. (…) I write this manifesto to show that people can perform contrary actions together while taking one fresh gulp of air; I am against action; for continuous contradiction, for affirmation too, I am neither for nor against and I do not explain because I hate common sense.

Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto, 1918

Manifestos always fascinated me. Maybe because of my Austrian cultural background with the radical manifestos from Hollein to Hundertwasser to Coophimmelb(l)au, which I all can immediately understand on an emotional level; Austrians have something direct, brutal and absolute in their mentality. One of the first books I bought as an architecture student was Ulrich Conrads’ ‘Programme und Manifeste zur Architektur des 20. Jahrhunderts’ and I kept it close ever since.

In the 1990s and early 2000s Manifestos seemed dead, maybe because of the late-modernist, neo-liberal society that had emerged with the retreat of governments from their guiding functions and the emergence of the globalized world where the individual’s instinct of self-preservation outweighed any form of community of shared destiny. Or maybe manifestos were always dead on arrival and only gained importance through a historic distance, by looking back at them through the filter of time.

In recent years the spirit of manifestos is blazing up again triggered by the decline of democracies and forms of co-determination, the impact of man-made environmental change, the widening social and economic disparities. Although I didn’t come across anything that felt of real relevance as such in architecture, the time felt right again for the need of a strong statement on how things should be in contrast to how they are. I read the question “Are we Human?”, raised by Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley at the Istanbul Design Biennial in 2016, as an attempt to steer the discussion back to fundamentals that would qualify again as manifestos. Nevertheless it felt to me that their self-consciousness about the mechanisms and shortcomings of manifestos turned it into an almost cynical operation. Manifestos might need a large quantum of naiveté maybe even of ignorance to rise to a lasting impact. Hashim Sarkin’s question “How Will We Live Together?” has a similar potential and at the same time sets a similar trap.

And then covid-19 happened. We can only start to understand the impact of such a global disruption of the life we though to know. We architects, historically located in the liberal educated middleclass, are able to retreat to our home-offices, sitting out the situation. Can the decrease of the speed of life or the temporary reduction of greenhouse emissions really be seen as a positive? Can we demand from our position a radical change while we will be the last affected by the consequences of action and of non-action?

The first major joint statement, declaration, contract, maybe even manifesto, that I am aware of in the context of the covid-19 pandemic, related to the discussion on essential workers, is, launched in May 2020, signed by more than 3000 scholars from more than 600 universities around the globe. “Humans are not resources.”, “It is time to democratize firms, decommodify work, and remediate the environment.” I don’t know how much of an impact such a contract can have on our global system of economic and environmental dependencies but reading it gives me hope their demands in medium-term may trickle down through their teaching to students and decision-makers, and trigger a shift of awareness and maybe even a shift of the discussion.

We are presented with a unique opportunity with the delay of the Venice Architecture Biennale to 2021 (this sentence itself could be already understood as profiteering from a disaster). As mentioned by several participants, usually we prepare the exhibitions within 4 to 6 months independently, in competition, and with almost no knowledge of each other. But now we got 1 year to prepare, collaborate, exchange, share, and build up on our individual knowledge and experiences to create something bigger, not in quantity but in impact (but who are we? Does coincidence of history, being at the right place at the right time, qualify us to make this impact?). A manifesto/joint statement/declaration/social contract immediately raises endless question about form, aim, tone, addressee, need, purpose. Is it necessary to formulate ABCs and 123s, thesis antithesis and conclusion, critique that determines the status-quo, defining the problem, formulating a solution, setting demands for the future?

“I write a manifesto and I want nothing, yet I say certain things, and in principle I am against manifestoes, as I am also against principles. (…) I write this manifesto to show that people can perform contrary actions together while taking one fresh gulp of air.”

Can a manifesto be a collection of questions? Can it be a collection of observations? Can it be a collage of thoughts and contradicting them at the same moment? Can a manifesto be multiple voices speaking at the same time so I cannot hear the content but I instinctively understand the action? Can I draw a manifesto? Can I let others draw a manifesto, because a collective action is already the strongest of all statements? “I write a manifesto and I want nothing” but to feel to not being alone, to not being trapped in my own head space.

Architecture is a fundamentally social act. We can write a manifesto by doing it together as a social act, and thereby not create a manifesto but create architecture itself. A conversation is already a manifesto is already architecture. And I challenge you to engage in this conversation with even the simplest of thoughts. It is not about what we say, but that we say it, and the meaning and relevance will emerge inevitably through the confrontation of these thoughts with each other.

Seoul July 7, 2020

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