architecting agency after post-politics: a European Parliament for the emancipated citizen

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In everyday language, politics is often prematurely dismissed as theatre; overlooking that, politics is nothing else than theatre.


excerpt of thesis program


preface
Like any theatre, politics is a performance that takes place primarily for its audience. The problem in both cases, theatre and politics, is that this understanding has gone missing, along with the postmodern weariness with symbolism, this very symbolic power loses its value resulting in social role-playing that is only reproduced for commercial purposes in itself. While in our society of the spectacle, contemporary theatre in the golden age of television is trying to assert itself against a flood of dramas, in which current theatre productions - largely summarised as post-dramatic theatre - claim that a play is always a co-production between the audience and the performers, involving the audience in a wide variety of ways. Post-dramatic theatre productions risk quickly being criticised for activist, almost militant traits, yet it is difficult to ascribe any relevance to the actual political everyday business. The political sphere of so-called Western democracy seems to have moved away from the people and now seems to revolve around itself rather than its dëmos. The same applies to the politics of the European Union.




Although a majority can still identify, if not enthusiastically, at least in principle with European values and ideals - whatever they may be, does not need to be explained in more detail here - on the other hand, there is a widespread lack of knowledge and interest in how Jean Monnet - driven by the vision that after two world wars broke out on the European continent within a few years, a peaceful, solidary and prosperous coexistence of the states is and must be possible -only managed to finally embed these ideals and within a Trojan horse: in the creation of a free European market. One rightly asks oneself about the well-being of the Greek warriors in the belly of this absurd machinery, whether the horse might not have run away, to come back as a neoliberal mutant monster, which gallops wildly across the EU, trampling the former welfare state down to the state it was in before the First World War and whether this left-wing metaphor has anything to do with you. Welcome to post-politics.




problem
Looking at the spatially designed representation of the EU through these post-political glasses. Starting with the constantly recurring question about the EU capital city, through official EU buildings to an EU virtual space, we find that the EU has an image problem: a crisis of representation. On the one hand, heartless, modernistic, functional office complexes have replaced functioning inner-city quarters. On the other hand, former representative institutions such as the round plenary hall, the archetype of democracy, derived from ancient theatre buildings - which once again emphasises the relationship between politics and theatre through architecture - have degenerated into a photographic background behind stereotypical glass façades, like those of any headquarters in the corporate world, compulsively trying to stick together with the means of PR, and corporate identity?



It would be cautious not to blame the architecture. Architecture has always been at the service of power, making it its task to represent and literally manifest it, this applies to both sacred and profane buildings. However, anyone who believes that architecture itself has no political agency, but merely prostitutes itself as a means to an end, is mistaken. The built space has a direct impact on the body; it determines and mediates the civilised environment. The deeper misconception lies in believing that transparent panes mean transparency, that architecture is limited to producing built space. Hasn't architecture betrayed itself just like politics and, lured by false promises, allowed itself to be harnessed to the chariot of capitalism before it was hollowed out by them? Isn't architecture in fact guilty of shifting from classic modernism with a sincere focus on social housing to the international style of a globalised world and capital, elevating a few to star architects who let themselves be hired by morally bankrupt politicians and overlook the inhumane conditions of workers? Aren't those, aren't we then, the wrong-way drivers on the fast lane of eternal growth that leads nowhere, but always continues?



methodology
mimesis; mimicking someone else, recognizing beauty and truth in and through something else is fundamental to finding and creating an identity. Mimesis happens playfully and quite naturally, like the smacking imitation of babies sucking on the breast, ultimately forming the word mama. Or events for the masses that take place at regular intervals, such as football championships or elections. This gimmick is extremely complex and must therefore be taken seriously, regardless of whether in theatre or politics, it is about recognising yourself, and realising that this performance is being performed for me. Without a doubt, this is easier when visiting the theatre than in the polling station or wherever one encounters representative democracy out there. Because different from serious playfulness, the political clown acts with exactly the opposite means of playful seriousness, which divides the audience, splits and withdraws the actual game on the political stage from the field of view, making it impossible to have an eye for the essentials, to tell apart what matters and what not; foreground and background.




The theatre has always, if not directly, but secretly suspected that it is holding up a mirror to society's mandate or at least its expectation. The same is desired from politicians. In theatre buildings, the architecture has been thoroughly dedicated to captivating the audience and enabling immersion in the play, be it the spectacle in the Colosseum or on the stage of a pop concert. Among many others, architects, such as Walter Gropius and Hans Poelzig, have distinguished themselves with their designs for theatres, to ensure ideal conditions for performances. At the same time theatrical practice has also independently detached itself from this built frame of the stage, and theatrical performances in public spaces where something like that is expected or where something like that is completely unexpected, for example in performance art, flash mobs and also on the political stage. The most striking example of this in the context of the European Union are the two EU parliamentary mandates of the party DIE PARTEI, which with their playful actions and performances, presented with a serious expression, create precisely the necessary disruption in perception, which makes it possible to see foreground and background, and leads to the realisation that all these roles in this supposedly complicated political process play a role in a play that is being performed for you.




proposal
Contemporary theatre practice seems to have more direct political agency than its counterpart in architecture. Architecture is in danger of losing its (political) relevance. A fascination for post-dramatic theatre and in particular the productions of Rimini Protokol have seduced me to deal with the triad of topics of architecture, politics and theatre and spurred me to apply the lessons from this to design. The design relates, broadly, to an architectural competition brief announced in 2020 for a new building to replace the existing Paul-Henri Spaak building in Brussels, which houses the main assembly rooms of the EU Parliament. If you are surprised that you have not heard of it, I would like to refer you to the beginning of this text. The task is nonetheless hypothetical, as the brief is embarrassingly specific as to what are the purported requirements such a building must fulfil. At least from the point of view of the organisers, i.e. the European Parliament, who were also careful not to hold this competition too publicly, the brief comes down to any big institutional building with greater gathering spaces. Entrance, lobby, atrium, auditorium, offices, and catering facility. That would be all, thank you.

The design is seriously committed to the playful disruption of perception, with enchanted similarities and probabilities of the designed space. Starting with the extremely serious matter of a thesis project at a Royal Academy, a simulacrum customary in the industry, in which the aim is to convince a jury with a presentation made up of images and text; usually, the assumption is that the project should correspond to current standards or be realistic in some other way. A common practice is to talk about a room by attributions of functions and processes or descriptions of the atmosphere of a room. In this case, claims are expected to be made about how this or that space leads to a better European democracy, while in comparison, the EU's expectation is reduced to the building projecting its values and ideals; two sides of the same medal.




The draft proposes to disrupt the linear expected horizon by adding something to it, taking something away and replacing another bit. As a result, the expected perception does not materialise, at least not entirely, and the focus has to be readjusted, distinguishing between the foreground and background to reveal the essentials. The starting point is the emancipated citizen, a fellow human being who is capable of democracy, like you and me, whom we can meet as equals; the essence of democracy. Particular attention was paid to the 15 elements of architecture, which Rem Koolhaas proclaimed at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2014.




addition: a temporary parliament
The proposal of a travelling parliament, using the existing railway infrastructure, pragmatically bridges the gap during the construction work at the European Parliament in Brussels, while simultaneously triggering a discourse on rethinking the representation of political power, questioning the role of the Belgian Capital in the EU.




Acknowledging the aspect of theatricality in politics, the temporary parliament instantly re-negotiates the performative relation between citizen and elected representative and radiates power like when the circus comes into town.

The design focuses on the lightweight and logistical characteristics of tent structures. An inflatable structure forms a plinth. A balloon, filled with helium, floats above it and pulls a textile - The canopy. Everything is secured to the ground.




The lightweight skin structure is combined with the use of local scaffolding to construct the assembly, which can take different shapes accordingly. The propositioned assembly, inspired by the ancient theatre of Metapontum, stages the moment of entering the debate space while flattening political hierarchies by giving all participants equal visibility.




The structure pulls out all the stops to achieve instant monumentality; relies on the symbolic use of transparency and adequate geometric shapes, height and overall bigness, the last bastion of architecture.  Though, it is mostly hot air and plastic.

subtraction: opening up the built complex
The public entrance questions the existing spatial representation of the EU, namely the massive Altiero-Spinelli complex in Brussels, by opening it up. Literally.

Although uninviting looking for those without authorization, the main entrance to the parliament complex is prominently placed in the centre.

This intervention questions how and who is destined to enter such a building, opening it up for everyone and highlighting its potential as an entrance also to Parque Léopold.




This subtraction, the deliberate ruination, adds a layer of meaning that consequently offers a new scope of interpretation. Staging the building's fragility anew reframes its monumental character and role in the city. Nowadays, the space is predominantly used to enter the complex - granted by an apparatus with a designated keycard at the front door - and then walk through it. Through partial subtraction, the threshold between inside and outside starts to blur. The thus emerging liminal space requires an instant re-negotiation of its programmatic interpretation, more or less urgent, depending on the narrowness of the left pathways. The performative character, already spatially staged with escalators and stairs, is increased by adding a potential spectator - or performer - on several layers, reframing the spatial relation between political representatives and people passing by.





Nature, in form of over-dimensioned office plants and greens, is invited into the complex to co-exist with the corporate architecture turned into a modern-day ruin.

The use of spaces in the multi-coded building is not architecturally prescribed, it can be assumed that the playful approach of the expected and the actual provides a stage to renegotiate apparent programmatic pre-determinations. These spaces allow multiple situations to happen, embracing potential confrontation and disruption, the flesh and blood of the functioning of agonistic politics in a democratic society.




substitution; a new European Parliament
Approaching the building, it appears unpredictable but intriguing with its reflections on the perforated façade panels. It is not too high and due to the irregular floor plan, the sheer size does not reveal itself from any point of view. On the ground, from any position, one never gets the full scope of the parliament. However, when near, the façade shows openings, and possibilities to go behind the curtain and reveals a circular pathway behind the first vertical layer in the façade on all the other stories. These terraces function as a shared space that allows curious eyes to look into the building, as well as a balcony, furthermore, it is a secure and safe exit in case of emergency.




An open systematic framework, open for interpretation, a lesson derived from modernism, as taught in architecture school, which continues inside the building. The new European Parliament building is accessible through four different main entries. Via the remains of the connecting bridge from the entry and newly opened up, open-air lobby in the core of the Altiero-Spinelli building (see subtraction above), a service entrance underneath and a wide open and inviting public staircase from Park Léopold which leads directly into a courtyard, the heart of the building.




From the courtyard, which ought to resemble a marketplace or medieval gathering space, today encircled with gastronomic possibilities, intentionally stressed out with the planting of a massive lime tree in the centre, one takes the wide stairs that lead up here to the stands of a public stage; which might actually be the case on both sides, inside and outside the building. Through narrow alleys one reaches the balconies and eventually, the top of the building, one can cross the building without entering it.

From the courtyard, which ought to resemble a marketplace or medieval gathering space, today encircled with gastronomic possibilities, intentionally stressed out with the planting of a massive lime tree in the centre, one takes the wide stairs that lead up here to the stands of a public stage; which might actually be the case on both sides, inside and outside the building. Through narrow alleys one reaches the balconies and eventually, the top of the building, one can cross the building without entering it.






Inside, each story appears to be a vast open space, without ascribed programmatic use, this space has to be appropriated. The Space is vaguely structured by a grid of columns as well as abstract-shaped volumes that pierce through all stories: elevators, ramps around some sort of massive bookshelf - a library? - also a spiral ramp, around an optical focal point, like a Teatro anatómico on the opposite end of the building. Generally, the floor-plan takes up and playfully applies abstract geometric forms, the square and the round which produce a speculative symbolic weight to the architecture, without enforcing a specific way to read it. The building makes sure everything is there for the functioning of a parliamentary building, and democracy, respectively: Space for people to come together as such.







A space of performance, a co-production between representatives and an audience. In theory, the wide open space would lead open for constant re-negotiation about what and who is to perform. The essential power of architecture, the power over bodies in space, is not directly executed. Because, despite grand architectural gestures in so many examples, the powerful always find ways to alter the design and curate the political stage in the representation of their interests: with fences, cameras, membership cards etcetera; the demos cannot be trusted. This space, however, presupposes an emancipated citizen - taken from Jacques Rancière's notion of the emancipated spectator - and therefore only gives the infrastructural toolbox for the functioning of performative space, or if you will, a democracy.
 




The audience is by design, always part of the performance of the political. A big glass front cuts through the main assembly, hitting the same notch, this glass allows - at least technically, to always look and observe the representative process inside the building and vice versa.




Addressing the very origin of human existence, the development of a gastrointestinal tract - life on earth is mainly an evolutionary journey employing and processing water, matter and energy - we humans need to eat, drink and breathe otherwise we die; whilst other life forms perfection neuronal activity. Also, it is the perfect framework for gregarious social interactions; breaking br




This design for a new European Parliament is not pretending to be anything else then a big important institutional building, accessible for everyone, located in a big green park and on top, a wonderful wide terrace with a view. Like shared values and mutual acknowledgement lay out the framework for democracy, it sets ups the framework for a democratic process: people coming together and acting as such. Democracy is at stake; this is an invitation to play.