​Nick Axel: “Critical thinking allows architects to understand who we build for and why we’re building in the first place”

Volume Magazine's managing editor on the use of philosophy in architecture

Photo: Nick Axel's personal archive

Architect Nick Axel has just developed a course on critical thinking designed for urban planners. He plans to lead this course for students of the Advanced Urban Design master’s programme — joint programme of the Graduate School of Urbanism at the National Research University Higher School of Economics and Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design. Another master's programme tutor and philosopher Kirill Martynov asked Axel what philosophical theories can teach contemporary architects and urban planners, how this course works and what topics we need to learn now to understand the future of cities.

You are an architect and also a philosopher. Most people would say it’s kind of an unusual combination. How do both of your subjects connect to each other and to you?

It’s a personal story. I started reading philosophy and also thinking about а career as an architect. I never felt like I could have one without the other. When I get too much architecture I get overwhelmed and feel like I need go back to philosophy, and vice versa. If we talk about the relations between these two areas of knowledge, there is quite a long history of architects with philosophical backgrounds. But philosophy has had a much bigger influence on the field of architecture than any specific personal connection. Just think about the way Gilles Deleuze influenced contemporary architecture with the concept of ‘the fold’ and ‘smooth and striated space’ in the 1990s. But to take this one step further, architecture can be seen as philosophy, applied philosophy. Each project has its own. And the question then, as a critic at least, is if we understand this philosophy.

One connection that I can see is the concept of Modernity and the idea that we can use our reason to make our lives better, to plan our cities.

Modernity is the modus operandi of architecture, particularly in last hundred years. Not even necessarily from the architect’s point of view, but actually from the way that architecture is perceived by those outside of it, by those who can potentially commission and employ it. Architecture is used very fundamentally as an instrument of governance - not necessarily by architects themselves - but by the forces upon which architecture depends.

Urban studies have been quite popular in Russia these last years. Everyone is an urban scientist but nobody knows how to develop projects or work with an actual building’s infrastructure. So what people call urban studies has become merely a ‘popular philosophy’.

I would have to agree. There is a lot of common sense in contemporary urban studies that needs to be moved beyond. But I think this is happening because people have realized that the urban is common. This is a very fundamental point, as we have many new ways in which urbanism is studied now, even if it happens in a relatively uninformed and uncritical way. The common concern with urbanism, with the place where we live, is something that can be reaped by professional urbanists.

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What does one need to read to understand contemporary ‘philosophies of architecture’?

One such book I have on my desk right now, actually: Organization Space by Keller Easterling, published by MIT Press in 2001. It’s fundamental if we talk about design. On the other end of the spectrum is the book called Blue Monday, by AUDC. It’s a collection of stories on left-field urbanism. These two books, one highly critical and the second, which considers completely foreign modes of engaging with the urban environment, make a nice couple. The central example in Organization Space is about Benton MacKaye, who created the Appalachian Trail, which is about one thousand miles long. He did not so much create a plan as he invented a way of seeing landscape, this concept of “visualizing”. He put forth a story about the way we can understand human civilization’s engagement with nature, and that completely reorganized the planning logic of the east coast.

Let’s talk about your course on critical thinking for architects. Why should urban planners take this course?

We depend on clients, we depend on other people and yet our profession is based on creativity. Projects traditionally come with loads of constraints, and a designer or planner has a certain space for maneuver in which to be creative. But some points within these constraints can be unacceptable for political or cultural reasons. We have to practice critical thinking to navigate within a field of constraints, to negotiate our way beyond them. Critical thinking allows architects to understand who we building for and why we’re building in the first place. It allows us to advance our own agenda, a political and ideological one.

As designers we’re constantly required to learn and understand more and more. There’s a hidden layer to each project; the site, the context, the client, the local culture, the local population, which is essential to discover – because it’s not something that’s readily out there. Working with this knowledge, scratching beneath the surface, gives the designer a deeper understanding of the society they are intervening into, and better equipped to make a positive contribution to it. One example of this is the founding of AMO, the research branch of OMA, with their Universal Studios project. They were asked to design a campus for a large entertainment company. And what they did after they studied the project was they said: “you don’t need a campus or a series of building, you need reorganize your business, the people work for you.”

Do we need to know history to practice critical thinking?

I would say absolutely. We need to know the local history, we need to know where we are working, our context, the field. History is the only mechanism which can explain the site to us. Otherwise we’re literally looking at a piece of paper.

What is the idea of the debate section?

The entire course is dedicated to a fundamental component of debate: arguing for a position you don’t agreed with. This is a sort of exercise that almost forcibly expands your mind, particularly when you not only try to understand other ways of thinking and other sets of beliefs, but actively try to argue for them. This understanding of a debate as a series of positions that can be maneuvered around is essential for negotiation.

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Is it important to win in a debate?

There is no winning. Debate is a machine for producing truth. The pre-Socratic Sophists understood the concept of truth in a very particular way. For them, truth is in no way equatable with the “right”. Truth in the Sophists’ understanding emerges from debate, from what is called elechnus, or, negation; not being proven wrong, but understanding why what one is arguing for is not right. So the value of debates is learning to see things in a new way.

Can we name, let’s say, three heroes of your course?

The first hero who actually inspired the structure of course is Irit Rogoff, who is one of the founders of the discipline of visual cultures. She establishes a historical trajectory of critical thinking, which we will mimic in the course: “From Criticism to Critique to Criticality.” The second key reference to this course is Hannah Arendt, who worked a lot on humanitarian thinking in the wake of World War II. She provides incredible insight on what thinking itself is, what it means to be good. We will read her essay called “Thinking and Moral Consideration.” And the third reference is represented in the film program of the course: we’ll watch Renzo Marten’s “Enjoy Poverty”, which is one of the most critical pieces of art that really forces one to see the morality of cultural intervention in new ways.

What projects do you have besides this Moscow course now?

Recently with Volume Magazine we’ve been working with the concept of “learning” and its transformation in the contemporary world. The topic we’re working on right now is about automation, which starts from the technology of machine learning and how artificial intelligence is radically changing the way we interact with computers and our surroundings. We reflect this back through two centuries of political debate surrounding technical automation - it’s a long question of machines. This year is actually the two hundredth year anniversary of the end of the Luddites! Of course we are not necessarily advocating the Luddites’ position, but see this question of machines as sitting at the cutting edge of the contemporary, and also casting back into history.

Is this topic somehow connected to architecture?

This is a really big question. Volume has dedicated a few issues to themes around this topic, like the internet of things (Volume #28), smart cities (Volume #34), but this problem is broader. Artificial intelligence and machine learning fundamentally changed life itself, in a biological sense, and will therefore change the city. We don’t know exactly how yet, but we have some clues from our past. Cities are slow and dumb, no matter smart and dynamic they’re claimed to be. And so it takes time for cities to evolve and urban thinking to advance. So we’re really taking this opportunity to question the way that life will be changed, and only then asking the question about how architecture and urbanism will respond to these changes, what new opportunities there might be for thought and action.