In the September 2020 issue of Architectural Review the Dutch architect Herman Hertzberger writes a letter to his younger colleges asking them to move away from a practice of ”architectural organisations [that] systematically neglect […] social cohesion and conditions for belonging in favor of serving and even stimulating individualism”. The letter echoes an increased concern within architectural discourse addressing multiplicity, collectivity, and matters of care. Hertzberger continues:
Instead of designing with exclusively specific purposes in mind we should also include space for alternative interpretations, which are generated by spontaneous situations. Every horizontal plane may become a table under certain circumstances but whether we call it a table is dependent on its context.
Besides calling for an inclusive mindset in the practice of architecture, the quote also expresses a faith in the power of architecture as an object to create social cohesion and reinforce togetherness. Architectural intentions do matter, says Hertzberger, but they should inform architecture in such a way that it opens for alternative interpretations generated by spontaneous situations.
The understanding of architecture as an agent for social change is widespread and versions of it can be traced in almost any architectural project description, practice manifesto as well as architectural discourse in general. However, the letter in Architectural Review is intriguing in the way it explicitly situates this notion in relation to concrete architectural form, a position I would like to stay with for a while. What does it mean to take seriously that every architectural configuration – such as a horizontal plane – can be used in multiple ways given the circumstances, and why is it important to distinguish between this kind of relationality and the relations that decide whether something is labeled ’a table’ or not? If the first question deals with the ambiguous character of architecture as concrete form in use, then the second is more concerned with the conceptualization of architectural configurations. This text will foremost engage with the inevitable complexity embedded in first question, but also touch upon the latter since it informs matters attached to inclusive architecture and consequently the act of designing for inclusion.
Architecture is in one way or another always discriminatory. This is perhaps obvious, but nevertheless crucial to have in mind. Built culture sets limits and creates conditions enabling some usages while making others hard or even impossible. Similar hierarchies are also established through the inhabitation of the built, making it simultaneously inclusive and exclusive. This might sound disturbing, but it is not necessarily an act of oppression or violence. Processes of inclusion and exclusion are present even in mundane activities as when my sitting at the table in a certain way prevents someone else sitting there.1