Architecture’s Environmental Complex: A Review of Felicity Scott’s Outlaw Territories

03-halpern-pages-from-software_information_technology_its_new_meaning_for_art_catalogue1_page_1Image from the Architecture Machine Group’s Seek, 1970

Pre-Publication draft; forthcoming in The Journal of Architecture, Vol 22, No. 2 (March 2017)

Felicity Scott, Outlaw Territories: Environments of Insecurity/Architectures of Counterinsurgency, 560 pages, 104 illustrations, Zone Books, 2016, New York City, ISBN: 1935408739, $39.95 (hardcover).


Reflecting on music culture, the late Mark Fisher spoke of what he called a ‘temporal malaise’ that had beset contemporary society, a term that describes a growing sense that the future, as a category, has disappeared. Late neoliberal, communicative capitalism, he argues, has colonised life in its phenomenological dimensions, an effect of which is to slowly cancel the possibility of perceiving a future. We’re trapped, he claims, in the 20th century; our 21st century cultural experience looks a lot like ‘20th century culture on higher definition screens’.[i]

Reading Felicity Scott’s Outlaw Territories: Environments of Insecurity/Architectures of Counterinsurgency may reaffirm such a claim. Indeed, what is striking about the histories Scott recounts are the resemblances between architectural discourse today with its postwar past. Outlaw Territories traces the codification of a discourse amidst the environmental debates of the 1960’s and 1970’s, whose disciplinary ties forged alliances with emergent structures of global governance and whose professional means and ends aligned with neoliberal capitalism. Outlaw Territories assembles this history with a profoundly vast and heterogeneous set of objects, statements, policies, events, figures and technologies, the whole of which constitutes less an ‘alternative’ history of architecture than an exacting history of our discursive and professional present. Nor is Outlaw Territories a treatise of ‘learning from’, as one may assume from the scope of material Scott draws upon. Rather, Outlaw Territories is an archaeological account[ii] of architecture’s encounter with ‘environment’ across the second half of the twentieth century. It insists that to truly grasp what architecture has become today, we need to read it through a history of its discursive outlines, disciplinary territories, epistemological contours and technical practices that constitute it as an entangled ‘political technology’.[iii] Thus, far from peripheral objects yet to be consumed by architectural history’s centripetal appetite for the obscure, Scott’s notional ‘outlaw territories’ identify more of a methodological scope through which to examine how mainstream architecture discovered a political instrumentality in its entanglements with the obscure, the peripheral and the legally exogenous.

Reading Outlaw Territories today, it is hard not to have an intimate understanding of just what Scott has in mind with this term. Examples like the mobile encampments of resistance to state-sponsored ecological violence in the Dakotas, airports as sites of mass political activism, sanctuary cities defying federal mandates,[iv] but also ‘hospitality centres’ whose illegal detention practices generate collective forms of resistance[v] or the stranded migrant vessels in the Mediterranean selectively ignored by NATO patrol craft:[vi] all such ‘outlaw territories’ are sites produced through a partial suspension of the law, either as a means of taking direct action in space or as a result of the intentional, localized withdrawal of the law as a form of subjugation – or sometimes both. Yet we may also find outlaw territories lurking behind the colourfully rendered architectural projections of a future world: Take for example Peter Thiel’s Seasteading Institute, a stateless, floating city project of neoliberal entrepreneurialism and techno-futurist climate survival.[vii] Even more extreme is Foster and Partners’ exploration into 3D-printed lunar colonies. Or take their ‘humanitarian’ efforts to design ‘droneports’ for Africa (yes, the continent), installing a system to deliver medical supplies where ‘traditional’ infrastructures cannot, all the while opening way for commercial services to follow.[viii] Even the ongoing project, Rebuild by Design, an initiative to make greater New York City ‘resilient’ to climate change in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, has at its core a kind of outlaw territory; its proposal to implement vast eco-cybernetic infrastructures and technologies of population management opens a process whose design schemes operatively pre-empt the redesign of law itself.[ix] The high seas, Africa, the moon and New York City: each is a space made visible by a perceived socio-environmental crisis, thus giving it the status of an outlaw territory that can, in turn, be leveraged as a site of direct neo-colonial intervention. Where architecture intervenes, we see how such spaces can serve as testing grounds for the broader infrastructural and technological management of human life in a neoliberal world. In each case, it is the environment that acts as a localised site of the law’s suspension and a primary medium through which to manage a given population. This complex set of interrelations between architecture, environment and global power structures is the object on which Scott’s remarkable book sheds scrupulous historical light.

Outlaw Territories traces a kaleidoscopic history of architecture’s response to the postwar rise of socio-political insecurities experienced in states, cities and regions across the globe and the subsequent rise of new forms global governance and its technologies of power meant to counter these. By excavating the events and struggles that shaped the difficult decades surrounding the US war in Indochina, the deepening Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the struggles of decolonisation around the world and the growing asymmetries between the First and Third Worlds that resulted, Scott reveals the central role that architecture took on as both practice embedded in and discursive cypher for the unfolding of new geopolitical power structures. In other words, Outlaw Territories exposes architecture as both a marker of the broader forces and movements at play in this transitional period and an increasingly central political technology deployed to alter this field. Scott’s history is articulated by a rich array of architectures, figures, events, technologies and debates: from hippie communes of American counterculture to prefabricated Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories; from Fuller’s World Game to emergent global power struggles made visible in an expanding, postwar UN; from Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog to JW Forrester’s World Systems models; from the ‘self-help’ architectural competitions for Manila’s squatter settlements to the military underbelly of advanced cybernetic environments of ‘self-improvement’ in Nicholas Negroponte’s work at MIT. Outlaw Territories is a hugely ambitious project.

Yet it is equally consistent. Working, so to speak, from the centre outward of the emerging postwar global power structure, Outlaw Territories takes its reader from the ‘environmental’ techniques and bulletproof transparency schemes adopted by the architecture of the Ford Foundation and One United Nations Plaza in New York City – buildings which share much more than their architect – to its architectural opposite in the Open Land movement that captivated North American counterculture in the same period. By juxtaposing both at the start of the book, Scott deftly shows how the new public visibility of the term ‘environment’ discovered, on the one hand, a new set of technologies for controlling human conduct and, on the other, a site of liberation for new, radical counterconducts. Architecture in each case, despite the title of the first chapter (‘Instruments of Environmental Control’), works less as an ‘instrument’ in this emergent field, than it does a semantic medium that speaks of the politics at stake and marks out new territories of struggle. Here, Scott frames the key concepts that structure the book: the emergence and proximity of global governance to neoliberal corporate power as a force of global security; the rise of a countercultural movement in response; and the increasingly central figure to both, namely ‘environment’.

If the first two chapters position architecture as a medium for making visible a new, environmentally-aware political field, chapters 3 and 4 map out the claims, counterclaims and unexpected alignments that gave shape to this field as it grew more globally visible in the 1972 UN conference in Stockholm. Scott focuses on the centrality that media occupied in this event, both from the point of view of the conference itself and the ‘counter conference’ that was staged in parallel on the outskirts of Stockholm. Here, Stewart Brand comes to the fore in his ability to craft a message about environmental insecurity by staging a particularly North American variety of countercultural lifestyle. Curiously, it is in Brand’s rejection of politics and his embrace of ‘togetherness’ that an apparently ‘counter-conference’ message would find common ground with the technocratic managerialism of the UN’s address of environment being fleshed out only a few miles away. It is precisely here where we find the beginnings of a now common language built around an apparently apolitical agenda of humanitarian aid managed by the coordinated networks of the UN, World Bank, IMF and funded by the deterritorialised capital of international corporate development. In other words, Scott shows how governmental, cultural and epistemological formations of environmental consciousness all orbited around a fledgling neoliberal discourse that, in the name of ‘global togetherness’, would seek to undermine national sovereignty.

Yet the epistemological formation of ‘the environment’ in this context also gave new visibility to the global networks and relations in which localised struggles for power, domination and oppression around the world would unfold. In Chapter 5’s account of the UN Habitat Forum of 1976, we see how environmental knowledge began to organise the world’s political, social, economic and technological discourses according to a new logic, whose effects were not only to rescale political agendas to operate at a global scale, but to reorient regimes of capitalist power in neo-colonial trajectories of ‘humanitarian’ development. In opposition to this discourse, voices of ‘unsettlement’ emerge – in particular, those speaking on behalf of displaced Palestinian refugees (the PLO and the Group of 77) – whose claims rested on the undeniably political nature of settlements as technologies of deterritorialisation and reterritorialization. Thus, a dispute over how to articulate the political nature of environmental governance erupted within the forum that sought to construct a single, apolitical narrative of environmental insecurity. Enter Buckminster Fuller. Scott shows how Fuller’s famed World Game offered a persuasive model through which such political claims could be reframed by a technology of ‘planetary housekeeping’ – adding to a set of managerial techniques that, at a local level, could frame questions of unsettlement through architectural strategies of ‘self-help’, thus opening them to the forces of free-market capitalism. A new tradition of ‘informal urbanisms came to stand as precedents for a bootstrapping solution that could be formalized in development paradigms’.[x]

Chapter 6 re-centres this network of forces on the field of architecture. Tracing the squatter communities that inhabited the Tondo distrinct in Manila and the violent struggles they endured against the Marcos regime, this chapter exposes precisely how the cocktail of environmental discourse dominated by global governance (in particular, the UN and World Bank) articulated itself in an architectural response of urgent humanitarianism. Here, Scott reveals the stark instrumentalisation of an urban design competition sponsored by the International Architecture Foundation to operate as a technology of human displacement, wedding the violently anti-democratic practices of the Marcos regime with the humanitarian righteousness of western globalisation.

Finally, Scott brings the reader closer to architecture’s discursive affinities with the technocratic management of insecurity, exploring a pedagogical space in which positivist social sciences, architecture and technology united in new alignments with geopolitical machines global governance. Focusing on Nicholas Negroponte’s Architectural Machine Group at MIT, Scott reveals the various financial, technological and discursive connections between governmental and military initiatives of counterinsurgency and the new academic agendas that would translate these techniques into narratives ‘solving problems’ and empowering ‘self-help’ in urban environments. It is not only the sordid institutional histories that problematize Negroponte’s work, for Scott. Indeed, she exposes an important historical foundation of cybernetic knowledge that Negroponte brought into architectural discourse. But perhaps more importantly, they reveal how the encounters of architecture with the outlaw territories that Scott traces would reverberate in the development and normalisation of generic techniques of population control to be deployed anywhere, in particular in impoverished urban sites of America.

All of these outlaw territories – whether unsanctioned lifestyle experiments in North America or the violently repressed squatter settlements of Manila – together offer an incredible device through which to examine contemporary power in the context of a nascent environmental discourse. More than spaces of exception, outlaw territories are site-processes that emerge as violent withdrawals from the normative spaces, policies and protections of the law, yet whose disruptive presence, in turn, opens up paradigms in which relations between space and law can be rethought and – often violently – normalised. While this concept may remind us of the resonance between Carl Schmitt’s figure of the sovereign and Michel Foucault’s plebs,[xi] the histories that Scott traces identify less the status of either one of these figures than it reveals how they coalesce in momentary states in the unfolding of neoliberal, global power structures. Eschewing simplistic portraitures of opposition between power and its forms of resistance, Scott’s concept of outlaw territories designates the complexity of contemporary assemblages of populations, space and law that reveal precisely how power itself is a deeply heterogeneous composite of multiple, and often oppositional forces, conducts and counterconducts. Less a ‘space’, the ‘territories’ Scott identifies draw more on Deleuze and Guattari’s processual coupling of deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation, which is why an outlaw territory identifies more a machine that, in its exteriority to the law, drives processes central to the establishment of new laws.

This is what makes architectural discourse so well situated to interrogate late modern and contemporary power, rather than the other way around. Scott’s extraordinarily rigorous and consistent history, in itself, provides a refreshing way to approach architecture as simultaneously object, discourse, discipline and practice, insisting that it can never be reduced to any single category. By delicately interweaving each facet together, an image of architecture appears in its complex, historically-situated network of production. At once the marker of the multiple forces at play and an instrument that reorients the field of power, architecture, to borrow from Maurizio Lazzarato, is both sign and machine.[xii] But, Scott’s portrait of architecture relies less on theoretical conjecture than on the force of its extraordinarily well-composed body of archival research. Such a detailed account, however, does not diminish its importance as a theoretically informed project. Rather, one could argue that it is in her precision-guided consistency that Scott so brilliantly allows the discourses, institutions, technologies, events and counterevents, struggles for and structures of power to effortlessly speak for the book’s theoretical conclusions themselves.

While we might read this extraordinary book as an historical account of our recent past, Outlaw Territories resonates more as a diagram for discerning the way architecture – as discourse, practice, discipline and profession – continues to be entangled in the crises and violence that erupt in and shape our immediate present. Indeed, what converge in Outlaw Territories are not only the forces of neoliberal capitalism with the excesses of its violence; not only the structures of global governance with the sites that resist being governed; not only the discovery of environment with its instrumentalisation as a technique of governmentality: Outlaw Territories foregrounds the striking intersection of an ever more humanitarian-tinged architectural discourse today with the practices, policies and technologies of global governance, made fluid by the networks of neoliberal capitalism. Indeed, this book is a history of our immediate present. Carefully stopping short of suggesting ways in which architectural practice can renew its agendas, it is nevertheless clear to Scott where its potentials lie: ‘architecture is one of the most effective sites through which to enact political claims’.[xiii] Scott’s Outlaw Territories sets a new standard in critical architectural scholarship.

 

[i] Mark Fisher, ‘The Slow Cancelation of the Future,’ Lecture, MaMa Multiedijalni Institut Zagreb, 21 May 2014.

[ii] By ‘archaeology’ I am referring to Michel Foucault’s methodological approach to construct histories of power through the networks of discourses and forms of knowledge that constitute and legitimate them. See Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge (London: Routeledge, 2002).

[iii] Felicity Scott, Outlaw Territories: Environments of Insecurity/Architectures of Counterinsurgency (New York: Zone Books, 2016), 18.

[iv] See for example Edwin Rios, ‘The First Big Fight Over Sanctuary Cities Pits a Latina Sheriff Against Texas’ Governor,’ Mother Jones, last modified 27 January 2017, http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2017/01/texas-greg-abbott-austin-sanctuary-city-immigration.

[v] See for example Siobhan Fenton, ‘Yarl’s Wood: Banner alleging sexual impropriety by guards hung from inside centre,’ The Independent, last modified 13 March 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/yarls-wood-banner-alleging-sexual-impropriety-by-guards-hung-from-inside-centre-a6929071.html.

[vi] Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani, ‘The Left-to-Die Boat,’ Forensic Architecture, accessed 10 February 2017, http://www.forensic-architecture.org/case/left-die-boat/.

[vii] See for example Phillip E. Steinberg et al. ‘Atlas Swam: Freedom, Capital, and Floating Sovereignties in Seasteading Vision,’ Antipode. 44 (4): 1532-1550.

[viii] See for example the project description for Foster and Partners’ Droneport project: ‘It would require unprecedented levels of investment in roads and railways to catch up with the exponential growth in Africa’s population, which is set to double to 2.2 billion by 2050. An ‘infrastructural leap’ is essential using drone technology and clean energy systems to surmount the challenges of the future,’ Foster and Partners, accessed 10 February 2017, http://www.fosterandpartners.com/news/archive/2015/09/proposals-for-droneport-project-launched-to-save-lives-and-build-economies/.

[ix] Ross E. Adams, 2016, ‘An Ecology of Bodies.’ in Climates: Architecture and the Planetary Imaginary, ed. James D. Graham, (Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers), 181-190..

[x] Felicity Scott, Outlaw Territories, p. 242.

[xi] See for example Mika Ojakangas, ‘Sovereign and Plebs: Michel Foucault Meets Carl Schmitt,’ Telos, 119 (2001): 32-40.

[xii] Maurizio Lazzarato, Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014.

[xiii] Felicity Scott, Outlaw Territories, p. 442.

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