Camillo Boano, The Ethics of a Potential Urbanism: Critical Encounters Between Giorgio Agamben and Architecture, 2017, 188pp., New York: Routledge. hardback $155 ISBN 9781138687707 

 


See Haim Yacobi’s most recent contribution to Society & Space, here: The NGOization of Space: Dilemmas of Social Change, Planning Policy, and the Israeli Public Sphere


See Camillo Boano’s Society & Space Open Site interview with Paola Pellegrini here: On Distance and Bernardo Secchi

As I was preparing myself to write this book review, a new report was published, stating that the Jerusalem Municipality deposited for public review a special plan for the confiscation of land in the Jewish cemetery in the Mount of Olives, attached to the Ras El-Amud mosque. The plan’s main objective is to allow land confiscation, in order to erect a visitors’ center which will be directed by a right-wing Jewish-Settler organization. This site is very sensitive; it is not just next to the mosque of Ras El-Amud, a Palestinian neighborhood located at the heart of the historical basin of Jerusalem, but it is also close to the Old City and the Haram Al Sharif. 

This case is not an anecdote, but rather it is part of a more general effort to colonize East Jerusalem, using urban design and architecture to normalize its occupation and to transfer the Palestinian neighborhoods into a Camp—a territory that is not integrated into the realm of influence of a state’s legal apparatus, thus enabling an exercise of violence, transferring the inhabitants of the frontier into Homo Sacer. Indeed, Agamben’s political vocabulary, especially in relation to the Camp as a spatio-political concept which is situated outside the normal juridical order, although it is not merely an external sphere, has inspired several scholars and practitioners dealing with critical urban studies, architecture, and geography. 

Yet, as elaborated by Camillo Boano in this important book The Ethics of a Potential Urbanism: Critical Encounters between Giorgio Agamben and Architecture, Agamben’s contribution to understanding urban conditions nowadays goes far beyond the notion of the Camp. His conceptual framework allows us to understand urban processes and the oppressive role of architecture and urban design as key factors in producing power relations, rather than as mere illustrations of it. As manifested throughout this book (see Chapter 1), the relevance of Agamben’s thinking to recent urban processes is highly valuable as it “goes beyond the conventional concept of appropriation and the functionalist/utilitarian understanding of use” (23). Hence, Boano opens the possibility for a new “free use” by making it inoperative, “that is, without finality” (23). In other words, Boano’s main contribution towards understanding the relevance of Agamben’s political thinking for current urban conditions in conflict zones, such as in the Jerusalem case, focuses on the notion of inoperativity, “a key feature of Agamben’s affirmative politics centred on deactivating those dispositives of power in the interest of a ‘coming community’ that is present but yet unrealized, and useful to rescue a political emancipatory project of architecture” (23). 

This book is condensed and challenging, and it is a must-read for scholars, professionals, and urban activists, as it explores not just the well-known work of Agamben that was translated to English, but also some less familiar texts translated and discussed by Boano (see Chapter 2). Throughout the book Boano carefully outlines Agamben’s politics and highlights “the substantial possibilities that Agamben’s work holds for a renewed—radical and emancipatory—architectural and design practice in a time of neo-liberal consensus and uncritical acceptance of the nature of life and society” (21). 

Boano’s book is both critical and utopian. He presents Agamben’s metaphor of the “political house in flames,” using it as a critical tool of architecture and urban design. He states that it is “within today’s planetary state of exception […] in which its original structure can be glimpsed—and it is in this burning house that the perennial problems of politics appear to him most clearly.” Boano’s book therefore “looks at the burning house of architecture and urban design” (31). The burning house is, indeed, at the very core of an extensive discussion has taken place in the last decade or so, questioning whether critical architecture exists, what critical architecture is, and what kind of political agency professionals embody. 

Boano’s book is utopian in the sense that it provides a unique intellectual and political opportunity to engage with these questions, while suggesting that urban and spatial practices are “not simply instrumental but political and ethical, identifying counter-practices and being able to see architecture and urbanism again in a renewed orientation and perspective” (31). Following Agamben, Boano’s attempt to highlight the materiality of the ethics of spatial practices is an important move. As already noted by some scholars, ethical considerations are often deemed abstract and speculative, impractical and incomprehensible, of interest to scholars only and bearing little relevance to reality (Proctor, 1998: 8). Yet, Boano’s book clearly suggests that involvement in ethics is unavoidable. 

The discussion of ethics and architecture is not new, but has somehow been widely overlooked. Spector (2001), for example, examines the architect’s ethics in the process of design and construction, highlighting the implications of leading architectural theories and subjecting them to analytical techniques of moral philosophy. Spector also aims to provide guidelines for architects in order to make “the right decisions” vis-à-vis developers, politicians, and other actors. His approach is clearly located in the sphere of applied ethics. Yet such mechanisms of professional-ethical codes, despite their importance, create an illusion that the paradoxes of moral judgment can be settled if we follow a given ethical code (Ophir, 2005). Indeed, space is not just a product of social relations but rather it shapes and constructs subjectivity, social norms, and behavior. Hence the relationships between the objectives of a given territorial project and the means to realize them cannot be discussed in a neutral manner. As clearly suggested by Boano throughout this book, both objectives and means operate in a wider context and both have (often unexpected) results that affect communities and individuals in a given setting. 

In other words, spatial practices are too often considered as given, neutral entities, liberated from any ethical dilemma. Yet Boano’s book is based on the understanding that urban space, for example, is not merely a background for our activities, but rather a social construct that is based among other parameters on moral values. Despite several decades of critical discussion of the production of space and geographies of power, it seems that the debate concerning the actual shaping of cities, regions and other territories (by architects, planners, administrators, engineers, military officers, surveyors—to mention but few), has overlooked the ethical dimensions of the nexus between society and space. 

Boano’s book should be contextualized within the frustration from modern urban planning and architecture as both ideology and practice (26-27). He suggests that within urban design, an emerging discipline that takes everyday life into account, people’s mobility as well as environmental, economic, and social reality should be understood as part of the current debate over the necessity to “reclaim a political, emancipatory project of architecture against a technocratic and biopolitical one” (19). Certainly, rather than seeing aesthetics and politics as separated units, Boano proposes that the point of encounter between architecture and Agamben’s inoperative politics is that ethics and aesthetics are one and the same (425). 

This argument is extremely important in the face of contemporary urban design guidelines and strategies for the “good city,” the “smart city,” or the “safe city,” which portray an image of openness, accessibility, and care (Sennet, 2015). However, this subtle way of subjugating social space (for example in the case mentioned at the opening), is much more dangerous than previous more acute models; the apparent openness and accessibility to public space masks the privatization of space, its segregation based on ethnic, racial, and class affiliation, and the appropriation of space by those in power in the neoliberal city. 

What is the meaning of being radical in relation to contemporary urban reality, which is orchestrated by the intersection of different vectors of power such as (post)colonialism and neo-liberalism, as well as by the NGOization of space (Yacobi, 2011) which is too often considered as counter-hegemonic? Boano explores this question in view of the clichés about the division between practice/theory and activism/criticism, by suggesting a new ethics of potential urbanism which is “… not a pervasive call for activism with more reality and relevance and less theory; rather, it is an ethical shift—a radical alteration of the project of design” (428). 

Boano’s reading of Agamben offers a new way of imagining a critical praxis that “needs to be vigilant, contrasting the neutralization of political messages around justice, space, and urbanism. An inoperative architecture is not a contra-hegemonic project, another historical project, or a renewed humanistic discourse; rather, it stands as a new manifesto for action” (428). This proposal for action emanates from Boano’s study of Agamben’s political thinking; as he states, these ideas “are not about mobilization, organization, civil society and aggregation; instead [they] are interested in a contra-hegemonic discussion that is neither insurgent nor populist, but a call for a renewed autonomy” (22). Boano’s focus on inoperativity as affirmative politics invites the reader to view Agamben in an operative manner, and to open up reflections around crucial political operations. 

 

References

Ophir A (2005) The Order of Evils: Toward an Ontology of Morals. Zone Books.

Proctor J (1998) Ethics in geography: giving moral form to the geographical imagination. Area 30(1): 1-8.

Sennet R (2015) Principles of Urban Design.

Spector T (2001) The Ethical Architect: The Dilemma of Contemporary Practice. Princeton Architectural Press. 

Yacobi H (2007) The NGOization of Space: Dilemmas of Social Change, Planning Policy and the Israeli Public Sphere. Environment and Planning D: 745- 758.

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Haim Yacobi (Department of Politics and Government, Ben Gurion University) is an architect who specialized in urban studies and politics. His academic work focuses on colonial geography, architecture and planning in Israel/Palestine. In 1999 he formulated the idea of establishing Bimkom–Planners for Planning Rights an NGO that deals with human rights and planning in Israel and was its co-founder.