"Change the potentials!" - Interview with Keller Easterling

You were awarded the prestigious Schelling prize for theory in 2018, but describe yourself as an architect, and have designed buildings for Ai WeiWei/Herzog de Meuron’s “village” in Mongolia and have also staged theatre plays. Is theory and practice basically the same field of work for you?

For me, it’s the same. The theory I have been working on is changing habits of mind about design to confront intractable contemporary political and environmental problems. So everything is related to design. That is not always the case in architectural theory. Theorists are often keepers of knowledge, keepers of networks of thoughts. And I’m responsible for that, too. But for me it’s crucial that speculation impacts design.

Is there also a historical dimension to your research, or are you focusing on diagnostics of the present?

I have investigated historical parallels, and history is crucial. But I also decided to develop a methodology for looking at contemporary architectural evidence of architecture. There is no comfortable archive to visit. You are often grazing over global news wires, or eavesdropping on the promotional materials that global powers present. The world makes space by the 1,000s of acres a day—in a firehose blast. I wanted to ask the question: If it is space, and if it is making some of the most radical changes to the globalizing world, there is a chance we designers know something about it—maybe even more about this than McKinsey consultant or Deloitte consultant who is given authority to make global decisions. So I have been asking how we can put between our hands the space that is considered to be out of our hands.

Speaking of this evidence: Some of the thoughts you elaborate come from watching promotional videos about urban developments in Arabia and East Asia – so called special economic zones. You describe them as Free Zones. Could you elaborate on that? What information did you gather from these films?

Every country is trying to attract foreign investment, and these promotional videos are all the same. There is always a drop down through clouds from the atmosphere to identify what is supposed to be the new centre of the Earth. Cartoon skylines, sun flares, identical villas and golf courses, thundering music in the background. That is part of what has become a cultural habit for building and promoting this urban epidemic of free zones.

So these zones are by definition extra-territorial gated communities? Or do they begin to infiltrate the city itself?

The countries enter this bargain because of jobs. It is hard to deny this possibility for a city or country that has 30-40% unemployment. So their hands are tied: either they provide an environment these corporations are accustomed to in every other country, or they lose out. Often the premium infrastructure is crumbling, and they build a shiny new one in the zones, while urban designers would suggest investing in the existing infrastructure. They offer no taxes, streamlined customs, cheap labor and deregulated labor and environmental laws.

Did you look into any places in particular?

There are different species of the zone, although they share the same hyperbolic aspiration to have a shiny skyline. The Hongkong, Singapore and Dubai versions of them have become contagious around the world. But China also delivers a similar package of incentives and infrastructures all around the world.

Now some people might say: New jobs, shiny buildings, what’s so bad about that?

The idea that all the money goes to these newly minted expensive enclaves doesn’t make much sense. The next poorest country can only bargain with foreign investment by providing incentives that do not benefit their own economy. These countries might make a better bargain with their assets to attract investment to existing cities rather than newly minted suburbs. In Dubai for instance, access to oil and gas was contingent on an offset investment in fish farms, desalination or other industries they needed. Consider a country like Kenya. It could make a better bargain with its valuable access to cellphone users. And it might leverage investment in any number of needs like, for instance, transit that would serve the city as well as its new businesses.

But the primary reason for opposing this exploitative form is that it robs workers of rights and also fails to protect the environment. All rules are off. Workers are on the losing end of the entire free zone deal in ways that are monstrous. People can be exported like machinery. They are in a set of overlapping jurisdictions that makes it impossible to even trace the abuse.  labour the protections of law while also providing infrastructure?

How can we fight these developments? Can the “good old bureaucracy” of the welfare state, the much maligned “deep state”, be a force for good to bring back workers’ rights? For example in the USA where cities are resisting the Trump administration.

The left should turn the tables on a right wing like that led by Trump. With their increased spending and debt, they have become the proponents of “big government.” The right has failed to be the party of law and order because do no enforce even existing gun laws. The free zone also demonstrates that they are proponents of manipulated trade instead of free trade. They have spent decades developing a global wage system that dooms their nativist ambitions to bring jobs back home.

Norms and standards have become a much-discussed subject among architects. In Extrastatecraft you investigate ISO Standards and Quality Management. What sparked your interest about this seemingly dry subject matter?

I’ve been fascinated by ISO because it is such an unusual organization. It is private but also para-state. I was also interested in their two modes of standards. Some technical, some related to management. It is the management standards I wanted to expose. Because they come from a history of management practices that veers into pop-culture managementese. You have an organization like ISO which is all about criteria for absolute precision, from ball bearings to plastics, and at the same time they preside over a kind of gibberish of management practices, that relies on less and less content and more generalization. On some level it becomes absurd—all the best practices, the bullet-pointed lists, the mandalas and pyramids, the motivational aphorisms.

What can architects do about this?

ISO presides over a self-certifying process. Often the best practice standards inoculate an organization from what they should do and give them a seal of approval for what they are already doing. You may be ISO certified to maintain the status quo or to gain entry into a country where your practices may be abusive to labor or environment. I am looking at alternative organs of design that establish a bargaining interplay between parties and between situated spatial values.

Another focus of your research are Repeatable Spatial Products or Formulas. What kind of repeatable formulas are you especially interested in? Hasn’t architecture always been a set of typologies?

Yes, there have always been repeatable templates, even for cities. I have been studying what might be called spatial products—commercial formulas for things like golf courses, resorts, franchises, malls or airports. In these formulas, the actual building, is a byproduct of a logistical apparatus—other relationship between, for instance, stock keeping units, parking spaces, tee times, time shares, tonnage, layovers, just-in-time logistics. That is a bit different from a typology. I’m looking further upstream in the composition of spatial products to see how designers might  manipulate the design of the whole assembly to have more impact.

So these products are on a different scale than a single building?

They may even be entire landscapes of space that are formatted and reproduced identically. If you imagine something like a repeatable suburb or mall formula, changing one component of that recipe changes millions and millions of spaces that are multipliers of that component. Designer usually design individual buildings like skyscrapers and houses, but it might be more empowering for us to design another multiplier. In the mid-century fields of suburban houses in the US, they would pour 17,000 slabs, frame 17,000 houses, cover 17,000 roofs and shove in 17,000 TV sets. Like an assembly line. How would you design something like a germ that would change and re-condition that landscape as a multiplier? If you change the terms of transportation (as we are doing now), what happens to these 17,000 garages?

Non-Binary models seem to me a core aspect of your thinking – neither Utopian nor dystopian. In Medium Design you write: It is not what you think. It is not new. It is not right. It is not magic. It is not free. It does not happen. It does not always work. That would make many architects very nervous, because they are inherently convinced their planning makes everything better. Could you explain the idea behind it?

It is a perfectly reasonable artistic choice to make objects. But I’m trying to expand out design repertoires. What if we design not only objects but also the rules and regulations in which these objects are suspended? What if we work on the medium as well as the object? An oncologist studies not only the tumor but also the chemical fluctuations of the surrounding tissue. Is there a chance that this could be more empowering? Designers might be a different kind of cultural practitioner or cultural advocate?

Culture often adhere to hackneyed scripts about being right. We follow narrative arc that  celebrate newness and bend towards transcendent ultimates. But being right doesn’t work against totalitarian bullies. It is too weak. Bullies are really good at lying. We’re lucky we have a prime example now in power to train ourselves on. They know that telling one lie is a bad idea, but telling a lot of lies works. It starts to create a Teflon on which reasonable people slip and slide. Reasonable politics is easily undone by unreasonable politics. So we have to have more than reasonable ideas. We have to have protocols with enough temporal dimension to respond to changing conditions or to those moments when they are politically outmaneuvered. It’s like playing pool. You don’t play pool having one right answer. You play pool being able to respond to changing conditions.

But even if you work with protocols, you have to convince people to come along with you. How do you generate enthusiasm for an open-ended idea?

But if you go back to the pool player, it is about knowing what to do next, and it’s extremely precise and explicit. It’s just not solutionist, and it might be incremental. It might also be a little cagier, sneakier and more politically agile. At the same time, there is little hope of making a change without being able to craft a political narrative that attends a spatial change and makes it contagious. How do you design the spatial ideas as well as the advent of that idea in culture?

You talk about Matrix almost as in the movie of the same name – the different perception of the seen and unseen (you called it split screen perception). What is this unseen, and where is it? How can we train ourselves to see it?

I wasn’t thinking about the movie, but trying to find a way to focus on the medium in which are suspended. Not only associated with communication networks, “medium” in this context returns to its root, medius,  to mean middle, the milieu, or thing in between. It is a profoundly under-rehearsed faculty to see the medium instead of the object. Culture is really good at pointing at objects and naming them, but not so good at seeing the disposition of things. My book Medium Design is all about that. It’s not unknowable but rather very precise and practical. It is how we know most of what we know. We are constantly manipulating potentials even if this intelligence often goes unnamed or undeclared. If you have two squabbling children, you don’t litigate an argument. You open the window or you give them a pet. You changing the medium to reduce potentials for conflict. Medium design is a matter of manipulating the chemistry of potentials in arrangement.

What kind of visual language could we use to describe these potentials if it can’t be the language of the masterplan or rendering of the object?

It helps if there is also a temporal dimension to the drawings, like a time-lapse. Leapfrogging over the normal bureaucracies of urban planning, these documents might be far from dry. They might be lively, animated and infectious artifacts of popular culture.

Like Archigram or Cedric Price?

Yes, learning from them and from others. But I think this conversation is also bored with the rhetorical or with the production of material for consumption in galleries and cultural institutions. Design suggests manipulation of the physical world—a now wetter, hotter physical world.  I am studying pilot projects from Asia Initiatives that use Social Capital Credits to turn community needs into a currency. I am studying UN Habitat projects in the exploding urban periphery that use land readjustment to create value through self-financing, self-organizing rearrangements.  And I am working on protocols for retreat from flood plains, sensitive landscape and distended suburbs—protocols that put the development machine into reverse. 

Landscape and geography and their tools have moved into architecture in recent years.

Yes. These and other technical skills of architects should have much more authority in culture.

I found your MANY project at the Venice Biennale quite intriguing: MANY is a heavy information system that exists to build spatial networks and cosmopolitan mobility. Cities can bargain with their underexploited space to attract a changing influx of talent and resources—matching their needs to the needs of mobile people to generate mutual benefits. So something like Tinder for cities and citizens?

It is with some trepidation that I am entering this controversial field, and the project might leave room for misinterpretation. I am not proposing a sunny one-world sharing app. The infrastructure space I study moves billions of products and millions of cheap laborers and tourists, but can’t manage to move x million people away from atrocities like those in Syria, or environmental crises that are on the rise. The nation state has a dumb on/off button for granting you citizenship, and the NGO-cracy’s best idea is long-term detention in refugee camps. When there over 70 million displaced in the world, there cannot be one solution, there can only be 70 million responses. MANY is working upstream from the sharp end of a refugee movement, but it hopes to reduce violence in that larger network. It speaks for those who might say: We don’t want you victimhood, your bad jobs, or your structured racism., We don’t even want your citizenship. We don’t want to stay in your country. Instead we want to keep moving and stringing together short-term journeys and exchanges in return for global credentials. The platform allows cities to bargain with their underexploited and sometimes financially failed assets in exchange for an influx of talent for a period of time. It is a heavy information system that trades opportunities for training and situated spatial values that might not be recognized on a financial ledger. And it is a form of activism that, by appearing to submit, actually defangs xenophobic sentiment and leaves the right wing to throw itself against an open door.