Archis 2003 #1

If the people want change. A brief taxonomy of populism

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Society, one is told, must be given back to ‘the people’. But that’s not all. The gulf between people and experts must also be bridged. And there’s an even deeper gulf between the people and the so-called elite: the faceless power brokers with their backroom politicking, the professionals with their impenetrable jargon, the academics with their smug self-satisfaction, the connoisseurs with their tyranny of good taste and so on. Dissatisfaction with that gulf, whatever form it takes, is growing. Only wealth can still count on a modicum of respect, but for how much longer, one wonders?

Is this a genuine shift in criterion from quality of supply to quality of demand and take-up, or is it no more than a shift in rhetoric, a mere pandering to the Zeitgeist on the part of the opinion- and taste-makers who are under pressure to deliver the goods in circulation numbers, sales figures, viewing statistics and political opinion polls. A bit of both, probably. And so, yet again, The People is reborn – as voice, as touchstone and, not least, as target. S.P.Q.R. (the Senate and people of Rome) was the motto of the Eternal City. Wisdom and the people are one. And it seems that this unity is destined to turn up at regular intervals throughout history rather than being an integral insight.

But who exactly is The People? As with so many generic concepts, the sky’s the limit. The (wo)man in the street, Joe Average, the articulate citizen, the calculating burgher, the floating voter, the members of people’s parties – they are all versions of The People and they have very little in common. As soon as one is asked to be specific, all that remains of the whole people idea is a mixed bag of individualists, which is why populist rhetoric prefers to eschew specifics. We see the same thing in Architecture. Property developers delight in appealing to the will of the people, which in this case is usually equated with the will of the consumer. Neo-traditionalist urban designers hark back to familiar stylistic elements and urban ensembles in the belief that they are thereby catering to the collective sense of cosiness and security. Even the few remaining public housing advocates, who once prided themselves on putting objective needs above subjective wishes, are nowadays wont to produce arguments derived from their social engagement.

Let us be specific for once and see just how diverse this engagement is. On the following pages you will find a number of very different versions of architectural and urbanist engagement with ‘what people want’. As in every form of populism, three fundamentally different stances can be discerned: architecture of the people, with the people and for the people. The first is essentially anarchistic, going its own blithe way and to hell with the rest. The second is paternalistic. It bases itself on popular support and develops concepts together with future users and residents, but in the end it knows best. The third is despotic: everything for the people, nothing by the people. Presented with great fanfare as an expression of popular will, it is in fact a put-up job. Anarchism, paternalism and despotism: three forms of populism and all three destined to fail. But such failure can be very instructive…