Systems and the South

Essays by:

Anthony Acciavatti, Daniel Barber, Ana María León Crespo, Arindam Dutta, Ateya Khorakiwala, Ayala Levin, Fabiola López-Durán, Nikki Moore, M. Ijlal Muzaffar, Ginger Nolan, Lukasz Stanek, Meredith TenHoor

The ‘center-periphery’ formula continues to define architectural history pertaining to the developing world (including the countries of the former Soviet Union.) Driven by a good deal of tendentiousness regarding the researcher’s area of specialization, this formula is often served up in recognizable flavors of “cultural specificity,” with just enough sprinkling of “radical theory” to appear contemporary. What avails, however, is a dreary descriptivism, often far worse than the Cold War rubric of ‘Area Studies,’ which was nevertheless shaped by severe theoretical demands that the Cold War placed upon (regional) expertise.

Systems and the South attempts to get beyond narratives of ‘cultural specificity,’ of provincials and metropolitans, to look at the more ecumenical ways in which knowledge and infrastructure systems define relations within the South, and between North and South. By ‘systems,’ we mean here the attempt to create bounded frames of knowledge whose efficacy is measured in terms of their actionability in different situations; whether these be geographical, technological, anthropological, biological, climatological, epistemological, or institutional. How have architectural practitioners and consultants—within or in confronting the South— addressed themselves to problems that go beyond their formal or representational remit: to questions of biopolitics, the economy, politics, technological transfer, and so on? What kind of manipulations or transformations of the conventional protocols of design have been occasioned in these encounters with external disciplines? Conversely, what kinds of new assertions have been made about the practice of architecture, even of aesthetics in general?

Theories of system define their success by their negotiation of difference, and their ability to translate between disparate genres of thought and things. The problem of providing electric power to a large population, for instance, concerns multiple systems at multiple scales and modalities: the physics and transmission of electrons, and the political issues of satisfying municipal and regional governments, the more configurational conundrums of time-bound supply and demand, and the social question of price-setting. A light bulb burning over our heads as we read, therefore, already speaks several languages. In other words, a system is a conglomeration of systems. To talk of systems means to eschew ontology in favor of modes of relation. Systematicity thus involves both the deployment of heterogeneity as well as bringing certain compositions of heterogeneity to order.

The stability of nation-states involves not just questions of sovereignty but also the proper deployment and assemblages of systems. Systems become the rubrics through which contexts are read, created, and transformed. Modernization, therefore, is only the name for a sum process; a process of bringing regions, states, and populations, within the logic of system. In presuming to eradicate poverty, for instance, systems must be devised that translate between calorific intake, the ethical rubrics of family, the level of trust in lending operations, educational levels, mathematical equations, questions of sovereignty, sexual habits, the weather—in truth a mise en abyme of proliferating rubrics that the “experts” must cordon off or admit based on the challenges placed upon their authority.

In seeking to tell stories about architecture in the South as also stories of expertise, and of system management, the essays in this volume refrain from the conventional form of architectural narrative: first, the name of the architect; second, the building; third, the delineation of context (or ‘cultural specificity’); followed by a theory of the relationship between architect, building, and context. What these papers suggest about architectural history is that you can begin anywhere. Why not begin with insects, the supply of food, the size of agricultural holdings, language, solar behavior, even those systems that are cognized as held together by magic or dreamwork? In the examples on offer, architectural interventions or devices acquire significance only to the extent that they are part of, or are linked to, other systems. Architectural form, these scholars argue, becomes critical when it coincides with other systemic parameters: templates of hierarchy, control points, containers both physical and semiotic, archaic images of enclosure, and allegories for the boundedness of systems. Architectural form becomes critical in establishing relationships between the system’s inside and outside.

All the work in this project reflects an interest in some kind of ‘transcendental substitution’ or discursive switch between discourses, where one kind of system comes in to offer the alibi for another. For instance, Anthony Acciavatti looks at the peculiar figuration of agriculture in India as a late-blooming convergence of sachlichkeit and Fordism; Ateya Khorakiwala looks at how the fixation on managing prices led to a failed biopolotical revolution of augmenting food production and the structures of its storage; Ginger Nolan looks at the manner in which the perception of indivisibility between signifiers and signified attributed to African speech was recouped by media theorists like Marshall McLuhan as presenting an archaic instance of the immediacy of messages in media; Ana Maria Leon Crespo looks at the fantasmatic traffic between frameworks of reason (and irrationality), the cultural politics of the book, and the architecture under the multiple Peronist regimes in Argentina; Ijlal Muzaffar looks at how ideas of tropical architecture and landscape in West Africa stand in as analogues of bodily interiority, turning the body and the landscape into coeval, performative systems for management in relationship to climate; Fabiola López-Durán’s work on architecture’s complicities with eugenics in the Latin world and Nikki Moore’s investigation of agricultural systems in South America come together in a collaborative essay defining the urban and the rural through the institutionalization of hygiene and social hygiene in convergence with systems of meat production in early twentieth-century Argentina. Behind each system, something like the natural is always in play: each system above refers to a different concept of Nature as undergirding, rendering safe, or as a fraught exchange between disparate cultural, geographical, epistemic, infrastructural, political and economic domains.

It is necessary, today, to sidestep the prevalent model of problem-setting within studies of architecture and planning in the South. It is no longer interesting to merely extend or add to the long laundry lists of supposed cultural dominance, of the North over the global South, of West over East, and so on and so forth. In shifting our analytical priority from the usual exegeses of form through context to a dynamic model encompassing networks, governments, institutions, interactions, and interventions, it becomes easier to understand that these phantasmatic geographies are themselves components of the system. The “South”—or any other such epithet—is only produced or named as such when a certain set of tacit power relations actually fail to fully articulate their interests, which is to say that these failures mark moments of indecision within a decision-making process rather than its culmination or completion.

To work in this fashion would mean that research questions do not begin in the usual way: “what did the actions of x and y in such and such a condition reveal about his/her set of assumptions or priorities, and how do they reflect power relations given the context to which they are directed?” This represents today our analytical mode du jour; where everything continues to be invested in the intentions of particular actors, their relative efficacy, and the resulting historical “shift.” By contrast, the essays in this volume pose a different question of the archive. Their mode of inquiry asks: in such and such epistemic framework, what and how are distinctions made between what is global and what is regional so that the actions of the architect can be cognized as expertise of one kind or another? How is architectural competence claimed in a given situation? How is it authorized, and in what place and to what end is this authority accorded? What stands in as “nature,” the passive substrate, the architect can claim to transform or act on in order to validate his practice, his modernism?