Tatiana Schneider talks to XXI about background of Spatial Agency and shares standpoints for focusing alternative ways rather than the mainstream

Spatial Agency, founded by Tatjana Schneider and Jeremy Till, is an open source platform covering alternative ways of doing architecture. Not specifically focusing on a certain period or space, it serves as an important resource for space production methods and different perspectives. Tatiana Schneider talks to XXI about background of project and shares standpoints for focusing alternative ways rather than the mainstream.

Dirim Dincer: What does Spatial Agency mean, and what is the story behind it? How can you relate the concepts of “agency” and “space”?
Tatjana Schneider: When Jeremy Till and I started the project, it was called ‘Alternative Architectural Praxis’. We wanted to investigate models of architectural praxis that addressed the changing social, economic and environmental contexts that the contemporary architectural practice is facing today. In particular, we were interested in practices that engaged with the conditions of their production in a critical way, [which is] reflected on their organizational principles; and practices where the processes are more important than the product. It became apparent very quickly, however, that the title of the project was limiting, and it became a hindrance to the underlying critical inquiry of the project. Over time, spatial agency emerged as a term that allowed us to focus on the empowering aspects of these kinds of practices. It allowed us to engage in discussions that moved beyond the object-based space of architecture, and into the wider possibilities of systems, processes, protocols and other forms of non-deterministic, open, and creative [ways of] production that [focus] on use rather than exchange value. Linking this particular notion of agency—a notion that brings with it a transformative intent—with space, opens up the possibility for a different kind and scope of architectural activity that is free from professional straight-jackets, but [one which still] acts within an ethical framework that is always defined by its responsibility to the ‘other’.

Giancarlo de Carlo, Dirim Dinçer, spatial agency, Tatjana Schneider

DD: Do you have a framework for the process of selection and representation such as time and space range? (For example, do you have any aim to find a relation between architects and groups under themes? Do you foresee any form of binding relations, or do you curate them as if [these exist]?)
TS: We did not aim to cover a specific period, a geographical area, or a particular theme. What the project set out to do was to chart aspects of architectural and wider spatial production that were less visible in architectural history books. We started investigating things; [we] looked at projects, and talked to people we knew [about these things], and asked [them] to give us further clues – which we then followed up. We make no claim at all to be comprehensive. But of course, when we looked at the field of practices that we had accumulated over time, certain themes, or ways of doing [things], have emerged. We had hunches about what the categories might be, and we followed them. But these weren’t cast in stone; we frequently came up with new categories, and discarded redundant ones. Our final way of organization – which looks at the ‘why’, ‘where’, and ‘what’ of these practices—also acknowledges that practices operate on many different levels; and that they are not easily categorized. For example, while we ‘sorted’ out practices according to their key interests – whether this was of organizational, or, for example, of political nature – we also looked at the area these practices most wanted to engage with, or where it was that they most wanted to change a certain status quo. And, finally we looked at their tools or mechanisms in implementing change. This also has consequences for how the practices relate to each other. Let’s say, [even if] you were only interested in how certain practices have approached the management of their office structures, you would [still] be able to find a set of practices that are not necessarily concurrent with what would have come up had you searched for a particular ‘tool’.

DD: What do you think about exclusiveness of the discourse of the discipline, and architects’ possessiveness about their projects?
TS:My interest lies in the use value of space – including that of architecture, or more specifically, buildings – and I therefore don’t care much about the things that are designed as fixed, non-changeable, single-use objects. If a housing project is beautiful but is difficult to live in because it prescribes certain ways of behaving – it doesn’t have much value to its residents. And, equally, if something is designed to maximize exchange value, [then] architecture is missing the point.

DD: Can we say that you stick up for democratic participation processes in design? If so, how does that affect the lone-wolf- genius-architect image? (What is the role of the architect as you imagine it? What can architects do other than being “instrumentalized expeditors” or “deliverers of buildings on the back of so-called expert knowledge”; or [follow] the way of seeing architecture as a mere service?)
TS: For me, spatial agency questions how architecture is produced, but also for whom. It does not necessarily say how architecture or the wider production of space should be done; rather, it points towards many, and very diverse, possibilities of practice – some of which are participatory, while others are not. What the notion of spatial agency does, in my opinion, is to point towards a set of values or aims for a project or practice. In contrast to the notion of participation, which I’d describe as an aspect—maybe even a method, or only methodology—these values begin to express more fundamental principles for the organization of space; principles such as inclusion, justice or long-term affordability. I see the role of the architect in this context; as someone who might be able to open up [new] spatial imaginaries that help, in a non-deterministic manner, to materialize these principles.

DD: How can architecture constitute its relationship with politics? And why when one constitutes this relation in a way that we expect, we get a sort of satisfaction from criticizing [them]; like [it is the case with] Schumacher when he does it?
TS: As we write in the book, architecture is immanently political because it is part of the spatial production, and this is political in the way that it clearly influences social relations. In my view, this relationship does not have to be constituted – it is simply there. Schumacher understands architects as innovative translators of political intentions and argues that architects have no right to question briefs that have been ratified in and through political processes. But there is another [kind of] politics that often goes unmentioned. It is the politics of not-doing; the politics of refusing certain jobs and commissions. I talked about use value before and my interest in architecture as a tool to implement inclusion. Rather than assisting in the production of exclusionary forms of architecture and urbanization (by, for example, designing for exchange value only), a progressive politics of architecture manifests itself in the type of the project one decides to work on. Architects might be a form of translators, but they have a choice about whose values they wish to translate.

DD: (As far as I understand you divide practice into two: the major narrative and the minor narratives. It is interesting, because you mentioned the major narrative as linear, while minors cross time and space and they are also plural.) What is wrong with the mainstream architectural practice, with the major narrative indeed? In terms of alternative ways of production, why do we need minor narratives, and how can we deal with the mainstream narrative?
TS: You are right; we tend to distinguish between ‘mainstream’ architecture, and the ‘other’ [architecture]. The best way to understand these two notional categories is to look at their focus of production. In this way, the mainstream in architecture is constituted by practices that see the design of buildings as their dominant output, whereas the ‘other’ has a focus on the processes that lead to a particular output, which may or may not be a building. The problem with a focus on the, or a, building brings up a lot of issues; one of the key ones being that the wider networks within which buildings are produced – the cultural, social, virtual and political arenas – are being neglected. We exemplify this issue in our book through a number of examples – one being the sustainability discourse, which often centers on the optimization of systems to reduce energy or material use within a specific object. By arguing that environmental considerations can be dealt with through a series of technical fixes, however, it fails to acknowledge that there is a fundamental link between the social and the environmental realm, and that they in fact feed on and co-determine each other. In contrast to this ‘mainstream’ approach, spatial agency is, then, concerned with these wider networks rather than the isolated or reductive problem-solving approach.

DD: How do you see the sustainability of their professional-economic based practice?
TS: I would find it worrying if you suggested that architects could only sustain themselves economically when they work for specific clients! In fact, the examples in our book show that one can economically sustain oneself by working within the realms of inclusive urbanisms and architectures. Saying that, however, it also needs to be pointed out that office or practice structures tend to be different: [when] the size of the groups and practices identified are small, they tend to be organized in more fluid groupings, or networks, that come together for specific projects and they tend to work in a number of areas—from education, to writing; from arts-based and funded interventions, to conventional commissions. Projects are then not only buildings, but also feasibility studies, books or for example, design studios in educational settings.

DD: Considering the works in your platform, can such systems, which are purified from exclusiveness, egos and individualism, work? Do these minor narratives continue as minor? Can we one day see them as the major narratives?
TS: Yes, absolutely – they can work. They are all around us – so in a way, they are already major [narratives]. What tends to skew this is that in the discipline of architecture, certain narratives are stronger than others. For many [people], the narrative of architecture as a creative and innovative discipline is a much more alluring one than the narratives of negotiation, participation or community planning – or disputable aesthetics. So, there is work to be done in talking about these examples, highlighting them, and shifting the discourse towards the wider production of the built environment. In other words, what you call ‘major’ is only major because it receives the attention of a particular media – but, in fact, architects are a very minor player in the production of space, with only 5% of all buildings attributed to them! At the same time, I am not suggesting that most parts of our built environment are produced according to these values of inclusion that I outlined earlier. So, here, too, research is necessary to discuss, and eventually to multiply projects that produce just environments, rather than playing into the hands of exclusionary processes of urbanization.

DD: What do you think about the role of the academics?
TS: Academics have an important role to play in outlining the histories of the profession, and the discipline of architecture. There is a responsibility on our part to make visible these wider networks that one intervenes in, [and] the consequences of production, [as well as] the possibilities. The development of critical capacities and capabilities – as part of the curriculum – is crucial here. In particular, subjects such as architectural humanities, history & theory of architecture are important in providing a space for reflection on the actions of making and designing that are often missing in curricula that are focused strongly on design projects.

DD: What do you think about the academic background of architects in the Spatial Agency’s archive? Does getting involve in these kinds of studies and relations have any affects on their narratives?
TS: A lot of the groups and practices that we discuss as part of the project have either temporary or permanent teaching positions in academies or universities. This is partly due to the fact that working at a university can offer an additional and relatively steady income to otherwise more precarious project-based funding. Partly, however, there is a sense that educational institutions offer a fertile ground for experimenting with, as well as conceptualizing about, the practice.

DD: Is the platform open for further development? What can be learned from these platforms, and how can we relate ourselves to these alternative ways of working?
TS: The spatial agency website is currently not expanding – we haven’t added groups in a while. I know from conversations, however, that for many students, academics and diverse group of practitioners, the website has become a starting point for further, and sometimes deeper, exploration of a particular aspect of the practice, theme or group of people. When spatial agency went live almost 10 years ago, I certainly worked on it with the aim to trigger a wider global discussion on the expanded field of architectural production – which [is what] the website certainly did, and continues to do so.