Architect as host

In this keynote lecture from the Experimental Cities conference in 2017, Torange Khonsari explores the role of an architect or city maker as host, and how that lead to methods, for a self governed neighbourhood, using a case study ‘Roman Road public living room”. It takes on Derrida’s theories of conditional and absolute hospitality to describe settings in the city where guest – host relations play out.

Torange Khonsari co founded and is the director of the art and architecture practice Public Works (2004), an inter- disciplinary practice working in the threshold of participatory and performative art, architecture, anthropology and politics always engaged with notions of civic in the city. Her projects are socially motivated and directly impacts public space, working with local organisations, communities, government bodies and stakeholders.

It is research based as a practice which tests and implements the academic research undertaken within her university teaching and research. The direct two -way communication between academia and practice has enabled and enriched an exploratory environment within the research field of participatory urbanism and architecture where she is now specialised in.

Khonsari is a Consultant on Specialist Assistant Team (SAT) Greater London Authority: Mayor of London on community development and Cultural curation in regeneration. She is senior lecturer at London metropolitan university where she runs MA: Design for cultural commons and ran an MA program at UMA school of architecture in Sweden. She has also been consultant to UN Habitat on sustainable urban development.

Torange has written the following introduction to her lecture:

As the power and role of real estate corporations in development of cities increases and as the state starts to rely more and more on these companies to fund the city’s growth, the duty of care to the citizens wavers in the quest for economic growth and development. This together with the neoliberal context where markets are understood as the best and most efficient way to allocate and resolve social resources posits a top down power structure that makes it harder and harder for grassroots to make an impact and for communities to gain agency. In a context where such processes are now normalised in the minds of citizens, what tactics can we use as spatial practitioners to enable agency and provide an arena where counter narratives can emerge?

Although in other talks I specifically talk about variety of tactics from temporary architecture, evidence building, impact analysis, land ownership and critique in value of design, here I talk about ‘hosting’ as a methodology of social engagement. This method is being developed to build long term commitment and find commonality of values within what Lave and Wenger call ‘communities of practice’ (communities that have embedded situated knowledge and have the power to make positive change). One of the key components in creating citizen-led development despite the above power impositions is to get commitment from local citizens. Here I am not talking about participating to passively get people’s views but rather to get them to commit to a long term engagement that can lead to self governance and ability to make key decisions in ones neighbourhood. In this context what the methodology of ‘hosting’ offers is that the host is situated in a place as a temporary/permenant resident who informally hosts its neighbours, thus building relations, engaging in local conflicts, enjoying its delights and revealing its values.

The act of hosting enables the unfamiliar to become familiar. 

This is the first act in building long term relationships within neighbourhoods. Once you are situated and familiar, you can build trust with local communities. This trust is precious, imbued with ethical questions and the practitioner needs to ultimately think of the other and not him/herself. Their duty of care as a host is with the neighbourhood and its inhabitants. The design of the hosting sessions and their thematics are key in the change that is desired or needed locally. The hosted as a collective can demand their active engagement in developments locally. They can become the agency who questions land distribution and ownership, terms of development and its benefits for local communities and positive and negative impacts on peoples lives.

They become urban advocates. 

Such knowledge married with interest on the community as a whole rather than individual interest can initiate positive collaborations between citizen and the city institutions. These citizen empowered positions are not about activist confrontation but informed negotiation and marrying up of interests between city institutions and the citizens.

The forms and design of hosting sessions and their physical environment is dependent on the spatial practitioner. Its form is part of the experimentation process within the city. The location of where one hosts the unfamiliar/stranger is also context related. If the topic is related to public realm then the space to host needs to be situated within that context, if its on models of housing development then they need to be situated within specific housing contexts. The city as a complex organism has multiple opportunities for hospitable acts to take place and many potential spaces. This however is very hard when those opportunities are reduced by the type of spaces on offer due to cost, availability and commercial productivity required of every space in a global city. If you have the pressure of being productive, your mandates change from generosity and openness to protective and productive.

The series of projects that I talk about in this keynote are a set of projects called ‘public homes’. They tested the different settings where one can host. They ranged from a flat in social housing estate, a private home opening up to the public space of the city, an installation in a festival and a temporary room in a high street. Their impact, successes and failures were documented to better understand this methodology of long term engagement. They revealed social and spatial complexities that if not situated would not have emerged. This gave us a better understanding of how urban spaces work and operate. In situations where I operated as host with interest being to give agency to others, hosting as a method was more successful than those where landowners hosted.

The hope for this talk would be to find other practitioners involved in hosting as a methodology of engagement to further refine and develop this as an engagement discourse that leads to long tern commitment.

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