Hasn’t architecture always been political?

The committee that selected the most recent Pritzker Prize winners makes note of the political statement made by the architects:

Historically, the Pritzker Prize, founded in 1979 and sponsored by the Hyatt Foundation, veers away from tough issues and towards celebrity. Often referred to as the Nobel Prize for architecture, the award honors a body of work over any singular building. That means it typically goes to high-profile designers, like Shigeru Ban, Jean Nouvel, and Zaha Hadid. Last year’s award was almost an exception. Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, known for clever work on low-income housing, won. But fame preceded the award: he had already done the TED talk circuit and hosted the Venice Biennale.

It’s not the job of the Pritzker Prize jury to make identity politics out of the award. But right now, it’s hard not to. Here’s part of the jury’s citation, explaining the choice to award RCR Arquitectes:

“In this day and age, there is an important question that people all over the world are asking, and it is not just about architecture; it is about law, politics, and government as well. We live in a globalized world where we must rely on international influences, trade, discussion, transactions, etc. But more and more people fear that, because of this international influence, we will lose our local values, our local art, and our local customs. They are concerned and sometimes frightened. Rafael Aranda, Carme Pigem and Ramon Vilalta tell us that it may be possible to have both. They help us to see, in a most beautiful and poetic way, that the answer to the question is not ‘either/or’ and that we can, at least in architecture, aspire to have both; our roots firmly in place and our arms outstretched to the rest of the world. And that is such a wonderfully reassuring answer, particularly if it applies in other areas of modern human life as well.”

With this, the jury has landed on a remarkably safe political statement, one that straddles the schism between protectionist and inclusive ideologies. Consider RCR Arquitectes’ choice to run its shop in a town of 30,000 people, instead of the nearby metropolis Barcelona. It’s quaint in that way—practically mom-and-pop. Yet, the firm’s three architects work collaboratively, building open structures that anyone can enjoy, the jury says. It’s a much lighter declaration than choosing, say, a woman like Jeanne Gang or an Iranian practice like Admun Studio.

Maybe it is noteworthy that this particular prize made a note of politics but architecture has arguably always been political. Those colossal buildings of ancient times, the Great Pyramids or the Colosseum, were intended to project power. (Some authoritarian leaders of recent centuries have pursued similar projects. See the altering of Paris in the 1800s as just one example.) Or, Jeanne Halgren Kilde explains how religious buildings demonstrate and reflect power. Even the imitation of more traditional architecture in McMansions is intended to project something about the owners.

This does not mean that the average resident recognizes all of this. Indeed, some architecture might be intended to avoid connection to politics. But, we shouldn’t be surprised that the construction of edifices – critical to social life – both reflect and enact political dynamics.

(To read more of how this might play out with religious, read my co-authored piece titled “When Bricks Matter.”

Measuring audience reaction: from the applause of crowds to Facebook likes

Megan Garber provides an overview of applause, “the big data of the ancient world.

Scholars aren’t quite sure about the origins of applause. What they do know is that clapping is very old, and very common, and very tenacious — “a remarkably stable facet of human culture.” Babies do it, seemingly instinctually. The Bible makes many mentions of applause – as acclamation, and as celebration. (“And they proclaimed him king and anointed him, and they clapped their hands and said, ‘Long live the king!'”)

But clapping was formalized — in Western culture, at least — in the theater. “Plaudits” (the word comes from the Latin “to strike,” and also “to explode”) were the common way of ending a play. At the close of the performance, the chief actor would yell, “Valete et plaudite!” (“Goodbye and applause!”) — thus signaling to the audience, in the subtle manner preferred by centuries of thespians, that it was time to give praise. And thus turning himself into, ostensibly, one of the world’s first human applause signs…

As theater and politics merged — particularly as the Roman Republic gave way to the Roman Empire — applause became a way for leaders to interact directly (and also, of course, completely indirectly) with their citizens. One of the chief methods politicians used to evaluate their standing with the people was by gauging the greetings they got when they entered the arena. (Cicero’s letters seem to take for granted the fact that “the feelings of the Roman people are best shown in the theater.”) Leaders became astute human applause-o-meters, reading the volume — and the speed, and the rhythm, and the length — of the crowd’s claps for clues about their political fortunes.

“You can almost think of this as an ancient poll,” says Greg Aldrete, a professor of history and humanistic studies at the University of Wisconsin, and the author of Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome. “This is how you gauge the people. This is how you poll their feelings.” Before telephones allowed for Gallup-style surveys, before SMS allowed for real-time voting, before the Web allowed for “buy” buttons and cookies, Roman leaders were gathering data about people by listening to their applause. And they were, being humans and politicians at the same time, comparing their results to other people’s polls — to the applause inspired by their fellow performers. After an actor received more favorable plaudits than he did, the emperor Caligula (while clutching, it’s nice to imagine, his sword) remarked, “I wish that the Roman people had one neck.”…

So the subtleties of the Roman arena — the claps and the snaps and the shades of meaning — gave way, in later centuries, to applause that was standardized and institutionalized and, as a result, a little bit promiscuous. Laugh tracks guffawed with mechanized abandon. Applause became an expectation rather than a reward. And artists saw it for what it was becoming: ritual, rote. As Barbra Streisand, no stranger to public adoration, once complained: “What does it mean when people applaud? Should I give ’em money? Say thank you? Lift my dress?” The lack of applause, on the other hand — the unexpected thing, the relatively communicative thing — “that I can respond to.”…

Mostly, though, we’ve used the affordances of the digital world to remake public praise. We link and like and share, our thumbs-ups and props washing like waves through our networks. Within the great arena of the Internet, we become part of the performance simply by participating in it, demonstrating our appreciation — and our approval — by amplifying, and extending, the show. And we are aware of ourselves, of the new role a new world gives us. We’re audience and actors at once. Our applause is, in a very real sense, part of the spectacle. We are all, in our way, claqueurs.

Fascinating, from the human tendency across cultures to clap, planting people in the audience to clap and cheer, to the rules that developed around clapping.

A couple of thoughts:

1. Are there notable moments in history when politicians and others thought the crowd was going one way because of applause but quickly found out that wasn’t the case? Simply going by the loudest noise seems rather limited, particularly with large crowds and outdoors.

2. The translation of clapping into Facebook likes loses the embodied nature of clapping and crowds. Yes, likes allow you to mentally see that you are joining with others. But, there is something about the social energy of a crowd that is completely lost. Durkheim would describe this as collective effervesence and Randall Collins describes the physical nature of “emotional energy” that can be generated when humans are in close physical proximity to each other. Clapping is primarily a group behavior and is difficult to transfer to a more individualistic setting.

3. I have noticed in my lifetime the seemingly increasing prevalence of standing ovations. Pretty much every theater show I have been to in recent years is followed by a standing ovation. My understanding is that at one point such ovations were reserved for truly spectacular performances but now it is simply normal. Thus, the standing ovation now has a very different meaning.

How Americans use “tax talk” to assert their own status

In a timely follow-up to an earlier post, a sociologist further explains a study about “tax talk” in America:

Our findings highlight how people can use tax talk as a way of asserting what sociologist Herbert Blumer called “a sense of group position.” That is, tax talk can be a symbolic way for people to proclaim their righteousness in contrast to those they believe are less deserving. Thus, our interviews were filled with abstract descriptions of people our respondents felt unjustly benefited from federal tax policies…

The importance of our findings is in how people brought these economic issues to life in everyday discourse. In ordinary talk these matters are not really about balancing budgets and encouraging growth. They are about a moral sense of right and wrong. They are about asserting one’s belief about who should and should not be rewarded by the policies of the federal government, and it’s worth noting here that even though we attempted to engage people in talk about all forms of taxation, people generally only wanted to talk about federal income tax.

Ultimately, our respondents’ discursive use of the income tax – as a symbol of a morally illegitimate, exploitive relationship between hard-working middle-class people, and the rich and poor who exploit them – helps to illuminate why tax talk occupies such a central place in American political discourse. Among other things, it helps to illuminate what American conservatives talk about when they talk about taxes.

Fiscal debates are about more than money; they are also about the meanings people attribute to how that money is collected in the first place. The Tea Party is a vivid example. Although the rhetoric of the Tea Party concerns taxes, this is not the main policy concern of the movement. Instead, Tea Party activists use anti-tax rhetoric to position themselves symbolically as a righteous group burdened by policies they believe only benefit the rich and the poor.

This sounds like boundary making, to put it into terms used in the sociology of culture. One way groups can differentiate between themselves is to draw strong symbolic and moral boundaries. In this case, paying taxes is seen as this moral boundary. Hard-working Americans pay their “fair share” while those above and below them find ways to shirk their civic duty. This is a clear value judgment that is then used to back or undergird political action.

Given the current political situation, we need a follow-up study that then looks at how taxes are talked about in social groups beyond this limited sample. As I noted in the earlier post, this ethnographic study had a targeted sample: “24 semi-structured, open-ended interviews with white Southerners who owned or managed small businesses—a demographic group that is typically anti-taxation.” How do other Americans wield taxes as a symbolic and moral boundary in their own actions and politics? President Obama has clearly used another moral boundary, suggesting those with more income and wealth should be paying more in taxes. This is a different kind of “fair share” but it might also give these higher-income Americans their own moral boost.

Biden and Ryan redefine working class for their own purposes

Both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions featured efforts to portray their leaders as having blue-collar roots. However, as this analysis points out, these testimonies were working with altered definitions of what it means to be blue-collar.

Merriam Webster’s defines blue-collar labor as “of, relating to, or constituting the class of wage earners whose duties call for the wearing of work clothes or protective clothing.” But the Washington definition of blue-collar is different. From an analysis of punditry, the qualities that define blue collar are being white, being male, being religious — especially Catholic — being from the interior, and having mainstream cultural interests totally unrelated to social class, such as “liking hockey” or “liking 1970s rock music.”…

Actual Blue-Collar Credentials: “My dad never wore a blue collar,” Biden said in June. “Barack makes me sound like I just climbed out of a mine in Scranton, Pennsylvania carrying a lunch bucket. No one in my family worked in a factory.”…

Blue-Collaryness Rating: Worn Chambray. “This campaign, Biden — with his blue collar background — is focusing on helping Obama where the president tends to be weak: in appealing to blue collar and swing state voters,” the Associated Press reported Friday. “One of the weapons used by Obama to court white men is Vice President Joe Biden, who has a kinship with blue-collar voters, particularly in critical battleground states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan,” The Dallas Morning News said Thursday…

Washington Blue-Collar Credentials: Ryan is Catholic, and from a state where there are farms. Ryan likes Led Zeppelin, which is somehow blue collar despite inspiring countless blacklight posters in dorms nationwide. He has other hobbies that require equipment you buy in malls. “I was raised on the Packers, Badgers, Bucks and Brewers. I like to hunt here, I like to fish here, I like to snowmobile here. I even think ice fishing is interesting,” Ryan said on August 12. “I got a new chainsaw… It was nice. It’s a Stihl.” Homeowner Stihl chainsaws run between $179.95 and $359.95 at the local Janesville Stihl dealer. “He is very grounded in roots that weren’t so glamorous coming up in life,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor told PBS before the Republican National Convention.  “And the American people will hear his story tonight, hear how he lost his father and had to work hard and assume hourly wage jobs when he was young.” Yes, friends, Ryan’s Dickinsian youth involved a part-time job at McDonalds. (In fairness, it does not appear that anyone in Washington has ever claimed Eric Cantor has “blue collar appeal.”)

This helps illustrate several points about social class in the United States:

1. Categories of social class can often be quite fuzzy. Often, income is used to mark off different classes but social scientists and the public themselves have difficulty deciding where exactly these boundaries should be drawn. For example, we could also look at how Romney and Obama talk about and promote middle-class values yet neither are currently living middle-class lives according to their income.

2. Social class is not just about having a certain level of income; there is also a cultural dimension, certain behaviors and tastes associated with different classes (a la Bourdieu). For both Biden and Ryan, it sounds like they want to claim some of these cultural markers which plenty of Americans might also share.

3. I wonder how much the media and American voters want to discuss such claims from politicians about social class. Compared to some other countries, Americans are more reluctant to talk about class and sometimes talk and act like it doesn’t even exist. For example, Rick Santorum said on the campaign trail that he didn’t even want to use the term middle-class because it is divisive.

Could Condoleezza Rice run for president…as a single women?

After her speech at the Republican National Convention on Wednesday night, some suggested Condoleezza Rice could make good presidential material. Some factors might not be in her favor: she is a woman (we have elected a black president but not a woman) and she has an interesting background that includes being a professor, provost, National Security Advisor, and Secretary of State (not exactly a traditional path to the White House). However, I wondered about another factor: could a single person become President?

While more Americans are living alone and marriage might be pursued by some people more than others, Americans seem to prefer national leaders who are married and have families. Many might ask: how could a single president understand the plight of families? If the single candidate didn’t have children, what would they know about raising children?

Since at least the late 1930s, Gallup has asked about what kind of president Americans would be willing to vote for. A few of the results:

The results are based on a June 7-10 Gallup poll, updating a question Gallup first asked in 1937 in reference to a female, Jewish, or Catholic candidate and has asked periodically since then, with additional candidate characteristics added to the list. The question has taken on added relevance in recent years as a more diverse group of candidates has run for president. This year, Mitt Romney is poised to become the first Mormon to win a major-party presidential nomination. However, Americans’ willingness to vote for a Mormon has changed little in 45 years.

Notwithstanding the Mormon trend, Gallup’s history on this question shows growing acceptance for all other types of candidates over time. That includes atheists, whose acceptability as candidates surpassed 50% for the first time last summer but have typically ranked at the bottom of the list whenever the question has been asked.

In 1937, less than half of Americans said they would vote for a Jewish or female presidential candidate; now 90% or more would. The same applies to voting for a black candidate compared with 1958. Over time, Americans’ acceptance of blacks and women as candidates has increased the most…

Americans of all political party affiliations are nearly unanimous in saying they would vote for a black, female, Catholic, Hispanic, or Jewish president. Democrats are significantly more likely than Republicans to say they would vote for a presidential candidate who is gay, Muslim, or an atheist. Republicans, in turn, are more likely to say they would vote for a Mormon.

As far as this page suggests, Gallup has not asked about whether candidates should be married or have a family.

It would be interesting to see this play out…

Argument: Democrats opposed to suburbs

A new book from a conservative writer suggests Democrats and President Obama are opposed to suburban life. Here are a short excerpt from the introduction:

While public attention has been riveted on high-profile congressional battles over the stimulus, health care, and the debt ceiling, Obama has been quietly laying the regulatory groundwork for a profound transformation of American society. The founders would not approve. From the Pilgrim fathers to the frontier settlers to the post-World War II exodus to the suburbs, Americans have enjoyed the freedom to move and to govern themselves as they have seen fit in their new homes. Yet the spirit of enterprise and self-government that made our country great looks very different to Obama.

In the eyes of Obama’s community organizing colleagues – close followers of Saul Alinsky, the leftist radical who founded the profession – America’s suburbs are instruments of bigotry and greed. Moving to a suburb in pursuit of the American dream of an affordable family home and quality, locally controlled schools looks to Obama and his organizing mentors like selfishly refusing to share tax money with the urban poor.

Obama means to fix that with regulations designed to force Americans out of their cars and into high-density urban centers, squeezing the population into a collection of new Manhattans. Obama also aims to force suburbanites to redistribute tax money to nearby cities while effectively merging urban and suburban school districts so as to equalize their funding. If you can afford to move to a suburban all, there will no longer be a point. In effect America’s cities will have swallowed up their suburbs. The result: your freedom of movement, America’s tradition of local self-rule, the incentive to better your circumstances, and therefore national prosperity all will have been eroded.

Rush Limbaugh gets in on the conversation here.

So the Republican dreamland is the suburbs? It would be interesting to look at the history of this politically. Couldn’t more rural areas appeal more to conservatives where people truly have more space to spread out and live a more frontier life?

I don’t think there is much question that the Obama administration would like to promote some pro-urban policies such as improved gas mileage, better mass transit, and more integrated schools and neighborhoods. One could argue that the US government has spent the last 80 years primarily promoting suburban growth through the overhaul of mortgage system from the 1930s onward, federal funding for the interstate system, and more. And the move to the suburbs certainly has hurt cities even if the suburbanites themselves are happy about the moves – to argue that there are no negative consequences of suburbanization is simply silly.

But this is a larger issue for conservatives who also think that the UN is after the suburbs through Agenda 21.

h/t Instapundit