An Uncommon City
Bodily Diversity and the Activation of Possible Urbanisms
Book project, in preparation: version July 2023
Estimated completion: 2024
The book is an anthropological exploration of bodily diversity and its impact in the material and knowledge politics of city-making. Drawing on field and archival work with independent-living and disability rights movements, paying attention in particular to their urban struggles as well as their pedagogic interventions in the training of architects, city planners, and designers (with materials mostly from Barcelona, but also from how I went back to those learnings whilst teaching to architects in Munich and Berlin), I trace a wealth of activist initiatives caring for an epistemic, material and political activation of urban design. These initiatives have or had at their core the production of singular situations—made out of policy documents and building codes, infrastructures and standards, collaborative design processes and prototypes, and manifold sensitising devices and documentation interfaces—through which designing technologies, urban landscapes or institutions and political spaces is to be attempted from the appreciation and articulation of bodily diversity: from the demographic identification of bodily patterns to the invention of inclusive and universal design, also connecting with the contested history of other urban struggles, or the perpetual emergence of many issues in contemporary forms of city-making where bodily diversity appears as the main concern to address by different actors.
In particular, the book wishes to unfold three ways in which a concern with bodily diversity mobilises the uncommon prospects of the city, opening up other possible urbanisms. Uncommon because of infrequent (due to ableist erasure), and uncommon because of unexpected (since bodies won’t ever cease to amaze us). Hence eliciting a ‘politics of wonder’, a fascination for the possible cities and the forms of urban planning or ways of becoming urban brought about by actors neglected or yet to come. I address these three ways as follows: (i) activating prototypes – the story of an open design collective emerging in Barcelona at the time of the indignados pro-tests experimenting with technical aids to foster alliances between people with disabilities and others –; (ii) activating infrastructures – an account of the struggles and the political inventiveness deployed by the disabled representatives and the ‘sensitized’ professionals of the Municipal Institute of People with Disabilities of the City Hall of Barcelona to make city-making more hospitable to bodily diversity, whilst operating within a technocratic milieu –, and (iii) activating pedagogies – a reflection on the impact that the previous work had when having to teach architects as an anthropologist in Munich and Berlin, mobilizing these ethnographic resources creating pedagogic approaches whereby to un-learn and re-learn how to design being affected by a concern for bodily diversity. Hence, paving the way to approaches to city-making where the body doesn’t act as a spatial machine for unifying or creating ready-made common grounds (such as in Le Corbusier’s Modulor), but as a site of explorations of divergent approaches – changing across space and time – to what it might mean to live together in cities.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. Introduction: An Uncommon City
An account of 4 years operating as ethnographer-cum-documenter in the En torno a la silla collective, here narrated as a radical approach to care: undertaking DIY endeavours, searching to prototype and experiment with modes of of togetherness
2. Joint problem-making
- Diverse non-normative alliances: Fragile atmospheres of collective self-experimentation beyond the ontological occupation of ableism
- The indignados functional diversity commissions: Materialising alternative arrangements in the crisis of Welfare
- Going beyond ‘the catalogue’? Inappropriate/d people prototyping, rethinking and troubling market-driven solutions
- Radicalising care: Tinkering (cacharrear) with relations, materials, and environments
3. Technologies of friendship
- Functional diversity: A politics of design?
- Technologies of friendship: The ‘how to’ of relations beyond ableism
- Fragile ecologies of DIY: Attempting to become ‘self-managed guinea pigs’, and documenting the experience
- Wild research: Re-learning urban anthropology with others
- Fieldwork devices: Engendering ecologies of open documentation
- The pharmakon of collaboration: Thresholds and limits of experimentation
A genealogically-enriched study of Barcelona’s Municipal Institute of People with Disabilities: a unit of the City Hall that came to articulate the participation of people with disabilities since the 1980s in the development of versions of urban accessibility laws, regulations and infrastructures; also showing observation materials accompanying its workers in their attempts at sensitising citizens and professionals alike
- Decentering Barcelona’s urban modernism: A ‘Barcelona model’ of accessibility after Franco?
- From the City of Wonders to a plurality of extraordinary embodiments
- Participatory governance in the Municipal Institute of People with Disabilities
- Urban elements: The contested urban infrastructuration of disability rights
- Normalising inclusion: The transformation of accessibility regulations into a market-driven extrastatecraft
5. Sensitised technicians
- Cultural access: Sensitising citizens and professionals, or how small actors try to affect a big and distributed city hall and beyond
- The problems of technical solutions: Bodily diverse revolts and the limits of a sensitised bureaucracy
- The perils of ‘social technocracy:’ From an issue of political representation to one of knowledge politics
A series of ethnographic reflections on the modes of undertaking anthropological pedagogical work beyond the ‘predicative mode’: mobilising ethnographic material in variegated ways when having to teach architects in training in Germany, experimenting with the space of the design studio project; creating exploratory ‘briefs’ and realistic simulations, becoming fascinated by the power of participatory and speculative toolkits or the design of situations and pedagogic atmospheres whereby to un-learn and re-learn how to design, being affected by a concern for bodily diversity
6. Architectural intraventions
- Architecture in crisis
- A DIY anthropologist in a department of Architecture: Teaching in a ‘predicative’ mode
- The Partizipatorium: A cycle to debate on the need to sensitise technicians
- Experimenting with ‘technical democracy’ in design studio projects
- Fascinating toolkits: Making speculative devices to experiment with architectural practice otherwise
- Learning not to see: Prototyping a ManualCad
- Approaching neurodiverse spatial practices: In search for an alternative to the Bauentwurfslehre
- Pedagogic atmospheres: Un-learning to design, re-learning to be affected by bodily diversity
- Taking a walk with an ethnographer and an architect in dialogue
- An ode to guidelines: The infimum design of converging singularities?
7. A school for the urban pluriverse
As I see it, in these particularly fraught times of ours—with new totalitarian divides and unprecedented more-than-human challenges for urban life—perhaps it is more important than ever to continue attempting to materialise uncommon cities everywhere: generating ecologies of support, offering the possibility not only to thrive in cities whose rampant violence cannot be denied any more – precisely at a time when Welfare ideals mostly appear in the guise of a ‘social technocracy’ –, but also to envision urban forms where we could attempt to relate with one another, even at the hinges of unrelatability.
This unprecedented demand requires new approaches to learning and education, both for experts as well as for regular urbanites. Although with a caveat: any pedagogic initiative we might imagine can no longer keep existing in the ‘enlightened’ modality of being certain of where we stand, wielding our knowledge as a weapon to convert others, or to tell them they are wrong. Rather, departing from our stupor and uncertainty of many things, also of what a city ‘could be’, we need to find other ways to re-equip ourselves, activating other ways of city-making.
Such an experimental pedagogical impulse would demand searching for inspiration in the manifold forms of living crushed by modern ways of infrastructural inhabitation. Indeed, perhaps there are no better guides, no better way to proceed than to inquire on what it might mean to inhabit together with unknown diverse bodies—‘inhuman’ beings, be they materials, people, non-human animals, plants, ghosts or deities—left behind by the modern urban project. Learning, thinking, and doing in their vicinity might not only mean to draw from their received wisdom, but to open to the unknown with them, in the hope to render a time without guarantees actionable.
Resonating with these concerns, I wish to suggest a possible way: inviting us to imagine a pedagogic program, a school to re-learn what it might mean to live in a city today in the company of those bodies, neglected or yet to come. By this I don’t mean secluded spaces where to learn what there is to be known, but porous sites devoted to making the plural conditions of urban habitability thinkable and liveable as a problem not yet fully known. That is, as a ‘pluriverse.’ Hence this manifesto of A School for the Urban Pluriverse: a space where different urbanites, including urban experts and their technical knowledges, might get acquainted, when not utterly ‘sensitise’ themselves to bodily diversity, learning to work with manifold urban actors and practitioners, to think collectively what to do with the existing modern urban infrastructure, from hacking to repairing and repurposing it.
8. Uncommoning urbanism: Recapitulation
The book shows ethnographic examples on three ways in which an uncommon city emerges in approaches whereby bodily diversity is mobilised–prototypes, public infrastructures, and design studio projects–activating a possible approach to urbanism: Each of these activations entails a mode of city-making (urbanising) articulating distinct social forms with their political and moral capacities (urbanities) as well as actors (urbanites). In closing, the three modes will be compared, paying attention to:
– their (i) temporal and (ii) spatial scales;
– the peculiar articulations of (iii) knowledges, (iv) social forms or modes of ordering, and (v) specific meanings / materialisations of space (from access to other relational vocabularies);
– distinct (vi) definitions and positioning of the designers’ roles;
– their different (vii) conditions of possibility, (viii) success, and (ix) failure;
– the specific (x) modalities of anthropological work between representation and intervention that they make possible.
But why three and not four or twenty-seven modes in which an uncommon city happens? This is indeed a simplification, and three is not a random figure: rather, it is part of the book’s rhetorical device, and as such it resonates with an attempt at making the argument easy to remember, as well as summarising the most important aspects in a conventional Euro-American logic. In that sense, three is where I have decided to stop, but it’s not the end of things, perhaps a different beginning?
Broken cracks, floor tiles (2018) by BURO 341 (description: a detail picture of a grey smashed floor tile)