Digital Summer School, PLATFORM: “Take a stand: architecture matters”

Editor’s note: It’s the penultimate installment of Digital Summer School 2019! The editorial staff of the newly-launched site PLATFORM discuss why they chose the blog format and what challenges arise when you try to bridge the divide between architecture and politics. For all other DSS 2019 courses scroll down to the bottom for links.

Knowing the proliferation of blogs that’s occurred over the past decade, what led you to form PLATFORM?  How do you hope to distinguish it from other online publications?

PLATFORM is about the built environment (including teaching it and researching it), and about taking a stand. It’s different than the blogs that we follow and admire. The ones that focus on design tend to go light on politics. The ones that are political, that stand for something, tend to overlook material aspects of the built environment. They also tend to focus on cities (rather than suburbs and beyond), and on the Global North. PLATFORM fills these gaps. PLATFORM also opens a new space for conversation and debate.

Meanwhile, PLATFORM isn’t quite a blog, but somewhere between a blog and a web journal and a ‘zine. It is intended to be something new. Our essays aren’t peer reviewed but they’re well written; each goes through a developmental edit with an editor before being copy edited by another. Our essays run short (most are under a thousand words), but they’re rich. Much of the writing is informed by scholarship—it’s just not right for a scholarly journal. Maybe the post can’t wait, because it responds to a political event or natural disaster. Maybe it’s about research in progress. Maybe an author, say a socially-minded urban historian, is taking a risk and crossing disciplinary boundaries to write about the built environment. Or art and politics. We encourage this kind of experimentation and risk-taking.

PLATFORM also opens up new ways of linking academics and non-academics. We want to decompartmentalize silos of discussion on architecture and space, broadly speaking, and foreground how and why thinking about space matters now.

The Ka‘ba with Abraj al Bait Towers in the background. Photograph by Kishwar Rizvi May 5, 2012

Judging from a few pieces the site has published in its first three few weeks of existence–most notably essays by Nancy Kwak on the transnational problem of homeownership as a metric for wealth and financial security, Kishwar Rizvi on the complexities of teaching Islamic art and architecture in an undergraduate survey course, and Joseph Heathcott on the “slow motion” decline of the nation’s cities–it would seem the editors have embraced a style clearly geared toward a popular audience. Is this a correct interpretation? If so, what makes for an essay that exhibits intellectual heft but also broad accessibility? 

We absolutely embrace the idea of a general audience. It’s part of why we started. But we want to reach out to both academics and non-academics, scholars in our fields and outside our fields, with no training in architecture or planning or history, and we hope that they would find PLATFORM compelling to read. And you don’t have to compromise on rigor to speak to different audiences. Our goal is for authors to explore writing in a new, refreshed mode.

We believe that clear-headed, provocative writing about architecture and urbanism is essential to the future of our world.

Mural, Balmy Alley, San Francisco, California, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, April 29, 2009, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

What aspects of urban history do the editors of PLATFORM hope to convey through the site? In other words, I’m guessing that there are characteristics or particularities regarding architecture and the built environment that are not currently being addressed by other online publications. What are these blind spots and how do you want PLATFORM to address them?

A big part of what we want to do is interweave the urban and the architectural, so often disconnected from each other. Unlike other urban history blogs and journals (web-native and legacy), we want to foreground design: visual and spatial content and analysis. Unlike other design-focused blogs and journals, we want to focus on the everyday, the ordinary, the marginal, the construction of space in all of its dimensions—not  only the innovative, shiny, and powerful.

We want to publish work that forces all of us—scholars, designers, citizens—to comprehend complexities beyond our comfort zones. Work that offers alternatives to simplistic interpretations of power, culture, and politics that are universalizing and not informed by place, culture experience, or history. Intellectual discomfort is necessary.

Another hope is to make PLATFORM global. Many of the sites about cities and the built environment focus on the Global North, especially the United States. Our aim (still a work in progress) is to bring more voices and perspectives to bear.

Men working at a cantera quarry on break, Jalisco, Mexico. Photograph by Sarah Lopez, August, 2012.

Since we are about to close out the second decade of the twenty-first century, what do the editors of PLATFORM see, at least in regard to architecture and the built environment, as the biggest challenge to face cities over the past twenty years? What will it be from now until the mid-century? Why?

The Metropole‘s readers know that in this age of intensive global urbanization, too many cities feel like they’ve become unlivable, and the built environment seems complicit. It’s increasingly difficult to build much at the periphery in many places, whether as a result of state policy or local opposition, often under the pretense of concern for the natural environment. Where we can build, ever larger and taller buildings proliferate–but at higher and higher costs, and for whom? Everyone else pays more for less.

Given our global perspective, at PLATFORM we are interested in what is happening in all areas of the world including in the Global South, where dynamics are shaped by different sets of political and economic regimes than in North America and Europe. Still, much the same is true, with the added complication that efforts to provide services and infrastructure consistently fall short in the face of endless urban proliferation. So-called slums mostly remain isolated and underserved, while the rich retreat to ever larger and more elaborate gated enclaves, state-sanctioned economic development districts, and, now, proprietary cities. All are fueled by easily (and at times illicitly) circulating capital that finds its expression in real estate speculation, sometimes masking massive corruption.

Everywhere, cities feel fraught with inequality and precarity. Meanwhile, serious preparation for climate change is absent. It affects every place, but the consequences will be experienced differentially depending not just on location, but also on economic means. And too few cities are coping well with the global refugee crisis (which is, of course, also exacerbated by climate change).

At PLATFORM we see limitations in the ways we talk about these issues, and think that an epistemological shift is indispensable to addressing these problems over the decades to come.

Large, bizarre puppet masks from the Bread and Puppet Theater, a politically radical theater and sourdough-bread bakery in tiny Glover, Vermont, are displayed while members of the troupe cavort at a street festival in the state capital, Montpelier, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, September 30, 2017, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

If you had to identify three simple but attainable goals for PLATFORM’s first year, what would they be and why? 

First would be to expand and fine-tune our outreach to make the site truly global: to reach audiences in more parts of the world, and publish more content by writers not just from outside Western Europe and North America, but who live and work there.

Second, and related, is to recruit contributing editors (and raise funds for translation) that would allow us to publish essays in Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic, alongside English-language translations.

Third, we would like to publish more content. We’ve been publishing two essays a week but we’d like PLATFORM to became even livelier. We might add a Newsflash section of short posts, 50 words or less, calling attention to newsworthy items, matters of immediate consequence to our readers. Or we might collaborate with more likeminded blogs to share posts of mutual interest. We’d also like to publish more original essays each week.

Republican National Convention, September 1-4, 2008. Protesters dressed as pigs want more taxes on meat, near the Xcel Center, St. Paul, Minnesota, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, September 3, 2008, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Does PLATFORM have a rallying cry or motto? 

Take a stand: architecture matters.

Featured image (at top): The House the Senate Built, U.S. National Archives, General Records of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2001.

Previous DSS 2019 sessions

Class #1: Gathering Places, Religion and Community in Milwaukee.

Class #2: On the Line: How Schooling, Housing, and Civil Rights Shaped Hartford and its Suburbs.

Class #3: Curating Southern California history @LAhistory

Class #4: Los Angeles and murals in the Robin Dunitz collection 

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