I met Arturo Ortiz Struck at his studio in Polanco, around the corner from the Libyan Embassy. I was surprised—I don’t know why, it’s been more than two years since the Arab Spring bled out into autocracy, terror, and disarray, metastasizing into brutal land grabs and ISIS/ISIL—to see that the Embassy uses the current colors of the Libyan flag: black, red, and green. I wondered what happens in the embassy of a failed state and asked the guard what street I was on. Thankfully, I was close to Arturo’s studio. Arturo Ortiz Struck is an artist, architect, urbanist, and theorist, who I encountered at a screening of a Jan-Peter Hammer film at Labor a few weeks previously. When I arrived, there were books on design all over his desk. I asked him about the history of design in Mexico.
AOS: It’s a strange history. We used to have very powerful policies that were oriented to create not just furniture and industrial design, but also a graphic identity for Mexico. I really love this book. It’s about the Olympics in Mexico in 1968. This was state-funded design. There wasn’t any kind of market. When the state invested in design, we had incredible design; when they stopped investing, we stopped having design.
JW: Why was the state investing in design? Only for the Olympics?
AOS: Yes, only for the Olympics. There was funding in the 70s to design the postal service as well. In the 80s, we didn’t have anything. This table and these chairs are from the 40s. They are really beautiful. After the 40s and 50s, we had the Olympics, with this strong national investment in design; after that there was a desert. It’s interesting. But let’s talk about architecture.
JW: My interest in this is in the power of architecture, or the ambient environment in general, to affect the way that people act, the way that they behave.
AOS: From my point of view, there are a lot of processes in which you can create an identity with particular issues that will legitimate some actions. Most of the time, there is propaganda, in the long sense of the term: how can I make that group of people think as I want them to think? This propaganda no longer issues from the state. Who is exercising this power? I always think of Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs is this really cool guy, who is completely apolitical—he doesn’t appear to have any political agency. He is the model of the entrepreneur everybody wants to be: the entrepreneur who is really cool and easygoing, who used to be a kind of hacker working in a garage, who reshaped the idea of computers, and so on. He will not talk about politics or the economy or anything, but he does talk about “thinking different,” through an advertisement. Think different, count on yourself. This is the idea of Milton Friedman, the idea of bringing people to believe that they are able to be individuals and as such are able to live without any kind of society. In a way it’s this kind of Nietszchean figure who exists completely outside of his subjectivity. This guy is a cool guy, completely apolitical, who doesn’t care about any problem that is not his problem. It’s a solipsist kind of behavior in which you are inside yourself, inside yourself, inside yourself, and the way you have to relate with others is completely determined by some ideological rules, some fantasies. So: you should be cool. In those terms, the new apparatus of control is not Steve Jobs. Instead, it’s the idea of being Steve Jobs. It’s much more diffused. That’s what is controlling space and controlling behavior today.
JW: It’s internal rather than external.
AOS: It works. The people behave. In that sense, I think about Foucault. Everything is really controlled in a kind-of-mysterious way, but it’s not so mysterious. These power systems are operating through the things you buy, the ways you represent yourself, the behaviors that are accepted as cool or rejected as not cool. The body is the object of all of these systems. It’s not difficult to understand and it’s not difficult to see. I work with that. I want to show it.
JW: Lyotard talks about the difference between legitimating via a narrative, which has an arc—a beginning and an end, which may not be definite—but it’s a story, it’s like “I was born poor and I will die rich, and I’m going to evaluate every situation I encounter based on this narrative that I have”—or on the other hand there’s a legitimation via paralogy, wherein you evaluate your situation based on how available all the options in a given situation are. So a narrativist, if such a thing were to exist, would encounter a roadblock in a very different way than a paralogist. The narrativist would go over the bump, you know, always onward or whatever, and the paralogist would look around. It feels like that’s what you’re doing in your work—that you’re trying to make visible all the available options, without necessarily presenting a better way.
AOS: I started to study housing, many years ago, these new kinds of housing projects from the state, I don’t know if you’ve seen them…
JW: I have, yeah, I went out to Nicolas Romero a couple of weeks ago and saw them. They’re ridiculous…
AOS: What I was thinking about these projects is that what they are producing is credits. For the financial system and the state to survive, there needs to be a stable economy. In order for the economy to remain stable, there needs to be a lot of people with debts and credits, and they have to pay their credit, or not. There just needs to be a huge amount of people who are going to circulate capital. They need to want to buy things they can’t afford so that there can be more credit and more debt. It is by this logic that housing is produced. Housing is produced from the need to continue the financial system. It is an abstraction. When I started to talk about this, it was 2005. Everybody told me I was completely crazy and that I didn’t understand anything about urbanism or the new middle class. I decided to create a test model. What is happening and how can we look at it?
[Arturo walks to his computer and begins to play a video.]
AOS: That’s what we are doing. We are doing great at this abstraction. I don’t care if they’re sustainable or whatever, it’s exactly the same. The abstraction becomes really aggressive and really violent to societies that are unable to see what is happening to them. It’s like the movie Modern Times, when Charlie Chaplin is winding the clock: everyday life is people winding the system. They think it’s because they are going to own a house or a car or a lifestyle, but at the end of the day what the system is selling is money, and people cannot see that. It is an abstract commodity. So we start to see a lot of things about fetishism and lifestyles and how other things start to work around it. And this is really violent.
JW: Is there something that you would consider non-violent architecture?
AOS: I don’t know. For ten years I worked as an architect in the far east of Mexico City, in Chimalhuacan and Chicolopan. I have been developing different housing projects there, doing different workshops. Where I am in terms of urbanism is completely linked to everything else. What I am saying is that informal settlements are much less of a problem than we used to think. They are a problem, of course, because of issues of power and the production of poverty; but it is sometimes better to do business for yourself, away from the financial system. In any case, it is almost impossible to change these conditions. Sixty percent of urban grown in Mexico City is informal growth —it’s huge! You cannot wave your hands and change it. Instead, we’ve been developing workshops with people in Chimalhuacan, Chicolopan, Texcoco, for the last three years.
JW: You worked with the people that already live there?
AOS: No, we worked with new settlers. We went with them, we asked them what they wanted, and they told us what they wanted, in a very strange way…
JW: What did they want?
AOS: We made a kind of study. Instead of telling them how their houses should be, we told them, look, you should look at the sun. You should look at the sun and the air. You should understand how the sun moves so you can have better lighting; you should study the air so you can have natural ventilation. That was the first workshop. We found that all these people already know a lot of things about the sun, the wind, everything. They aren’t able to link this knowledge with construction, but they have it. They know it really well. They learn it from the basic curriculum in Mexico. Everybody learns it. All the books in Mexico for basic education are the same for everybody. The government publishes them. They teach about the sun and the air, but they do not teach the link between these things and construction. Our current project, which we are submitting to the Ministry of Education, is to add some diagrams to these chapters about how to link this knowledge with construction, with the setup of your classroom or your house. We have not been very successful.
JW: That’s great, to insert this kind of radical architecture into basic education…
AOS: It’s not radical architecture! It’s about making the house you want to make, but keeping in mind where the sun is. That is not radical. If you go to Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, you will see that most of the terrain is completely built over. There are no trees. The houses are really obscured and without good ventilation, so they are always going to feel bad. How can you feel better? We have this house that costs $30,000MXN and can be built in one month. It became very popular in architecture circles. We built one at the United Nations in New York, we took one to the Venice Architecture Biennale, and it was part of an exhibition at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in St Louis, MO. I will show it to you. In a way, we are trying to understand architecture that can be created without the financial system.
[We walk back to Arturo’s computer to watch the video.]
AOS: This piece translates from a very practical kind of thing to a much more symbolic thing.
JW: Something that’s actually practical seems suddenly so unreal.
AOS: With the natural disasters last year in Mexico, because of the rains in Guerrero, I sent this model to the guy in charge of the disaster relief, because it’s really fast, it’s really easy, and it’s an external foundation system so it’s hard to wash away. It’s simple physics. We’ve just brought this technology from the river to the house. It’s amazing.
JW: Do you think this kind of architecture will have a positive effect on the way people act inside of it?
AOS: I don’t know. It’s up to the people living in it to act. It’s up to people living in architecture to reshape it. It’s an issue of control and propaganda. When you walk into these incredibly cool places, with Barcelona chairs and Tom Dixon lamps and whatever, everything starts to become a kind of set. When I walk into Crate & Barrel, I feel the set. They are telling me, you should live like this. This is the lifestyle you deserve. If you have that furniture you probably have this kind of computer, you probably have these kinds of clothes, you probably have these kinds of behaviors. It is a little bit like the Truman Show. Everything’s set—you don’t have to think beyond just being in the set. It is completely impossible that this set aids your subjective growth in any way. All of this has to do with the body, with limiting or obscuring what you can do with your body. In a way, I agree with Lyotard, when he writes in the Postmodern Condition that we are losing against the system. And that was in 1979! That’s why I love working with the idea of the body. It’s through your body that you can be out of the set. It’s not so radical: we are losing against the system and the only way to have political agency is through your body.
Arturo Ortiz Struck is head of the architectonic and urban research workshop Taller Territorial de México and a member of the National System for Art Creators, FONCA.