Structural Instability - Daniel A. Barber, Eduardo Rega, and e-flux Architecture - Editorial
Instability
July 23, 2018
Structural Instability

Editorial

Video still of a building surveyor’s markings over a crack in one of the walls of the Rana Plaza factory in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 23, 2013. The factory collapsed the next day, and despite municipal building inspectors ordering its closure, over one thousand garment workers who were forced back to work lost their lives. Source: BBC News.

Structural Instability is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and PennDesign, featuring contributions by Ginger Nolan, Whitney Moon, Peg Rawes, Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi, Susanne Schindler, and Mark Wasiuta and Farzin Lotfi-Jam.

Out of the three Vitruvian principles of architecture, firmitas, utilitas, and venustas, it is perhaps the first—stability—that is most essential to the act of building, both physical structures and edifices of thought. Construction is a inherently risky affair, and the architect is a legally certified professional if for no other reason than its responsibility to distance hazard from use. Architecture is designed to withstand the uncertainties a structural system might face, yet recent innovations suggest that a building is most resilient in the face of extreme instability, such as earthquakes or tsunamis, when its structure absorbs and manages, rather than resists and rejects.

Architecture does not simply resolve the structural uncertainties of its own material construction though. Its scope of design extends to the project itself, including questions of land, rights, representation, agency, audience, and access. Architecture thus inflects and registers the ways in which risk becomes mediated throughout the spatial realm and society at large. The infrastructural breakdown that flammable cladding, rusting steel, and deteriorating concrete all point to—collapsed bridges, charred towers, and crumbling roads—is not only evidence of material degradation, but systemic abandon whose effects ripple far beyond any one site. Structural instability is not just a determinant feature of the built environment, but of contemporary life at large.

With neoliberal politics resigned to upholding the appearance of a functional stability, power increasingly lies in systems of management, organization, and design, often under the apolitical auspices of global finance, corporations, or non-governmental organizations. As a result, we are faced with an intensification in structural conditions of economic precarity, racial segregation, and resource scarcity, alongside the systemic effects of climatic instability, ever-growing waves of refugees and their criminalization by nation states, and the militarization of everyday life. Colonial expansions, states of exception, emergency management, and corporate exceptionalism all inform our understanding of these instabilities and their relationship to historical change, and also our capacities for collective resistance.

Architecture’s historical entanglements with forces of nature and systems of power can provide spatial, organizational, material, and symbolic evidence to analyze and resist contemporary forms of structural instability. As an expertise that critically draws, questions, and intervenes in a built environment that is socially produced, architecture mediates financial processes, material metabolisms, urban organization, social practices, and planetary systems. By framing questions of structural instability through architecture, we can emphasize the intensity and indeterminacy of how economies and ecologies interconnect. For understanding these confrontations as sites of design holds the potential for other, possible futures.

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Structural Instability is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and PennDesign.

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