An architect/friend happens to be in New York on business, and sent me pictures from an exhibition he attended on one of his days there. The exhibition, 5×5 Participatory Provocations, got me thinking about our need for more polemic architecture in Kenya.
That controversial projects exist is in no question. Beside the new malls and apartment projects that seem to be overtaking the city, there exist projects that might inadvertently provoke, depending on the weather, angle of approach, or just overall design, ire or awe. (I hesitate to name names – each is a piece of infrastructure that no doubt involved huge investments, monetary and otherwise. Whether we like them or not, they are here to stay). What is in question, however, is our use of architecture to purposely provoke dialogues with the masses who walk by buildings everyday and do not stop to consider their reasons for existence or their implications on our built environment. With so much going on, especially in the political arena, perhaps it is time for architects to lend their voices to discussions of merit by producing works that not only intentionally provoke visceral reactions, but elicit responses that might provide solutions to the issues we face. And these provocative projects need not be actual buildings. We can return to the [almost] lost art of model-making, of photography, of drawings. I’m reminded of Lebbeus Woods, and his fantastic, almost dystopian drawings.
Like an inescapable billboard, polemic architecture forces the public to engage. Whether it be an image, model or actual inhabitable construct, it moves a problem beyond mere discussion and presents a physical manifestation that must be reckoned with. It can gain the attention of the relevant authorities and aid in providing long term solutions to existing problems. Architects are, in my view, supposed to be solution providers. Sometimes that happens by meeting the needs of our clients. Sometimes it happens in other ways. We might have to rethink our role to include political provocation through our work.