Keller Easterling

Keller Easterling is an urbanist and professor at the Yale School of Architecture and the author of numerous books, including Organisation Space and Enduring Innocence. She has lectured widely and her writing and designwas included in the 2014 Vennice Biennale. Tank sat down with her to unpick her latest work, Extrastatecraft.
Interview: Thomas Roueché

Thomas Roueché How does Extrastatecraft develop your previous book, Subtraction?
Keller Easterling Subtraction cast all the way back to some things I’ve been working on since as early as 1995. Extrastatecraft was really trying to make vivid a new territory in which to work, and one of the most vivid ways of expressing the kind of active forms that I was talking about was through subtraction. Architects are basically piling up objects that are assessed for geometry, shape, outline. But if one is thinking of a network of practices and active forms, then subtraction is a really vivid way of seeing the world as a set of exchanges. We can put the development machine into forward; we can also put it into reverse. So you can’t help but see the kind of interplay between components, an interplay between things, which is different from making and piling up objects.

TR At the end of the book, you talk about political implications but also opportunities for resistance. Did you feel like that was a very important element in terms of writing Extrastatecraft?
KE It was really important to me because the other book that I had done, Enduring Innocence, which was also about global issues, was more reportage, with only implications about “what was to be done”.Extrastatecraft very deliberately intertwined evidentiary and contemplative segments, so while publishers might not really like it, I saw each segment as a different species of text. My fantasy was that the reader would enjoy going back and forth between different ways of thinking – a kind of ratchet effect. For me the chapter on “disposition” was key to being able to see a different mode or a different object of design. Rather than just reporting about the freak show of globalisation, the challenge of the book was to see how we can engage. It was making the argument that for architects in this matrix space of repeating formulas, it may be hard to make a meaningful object form. Yet, because of all the repetitions and routines and cycles in this matrix, it might be easier to make what I have called “active form”. What Rem Koolhaas calls “junk space” has a kind of hidden, underexploited opportunity in all of its multipliers. The very things we hate about it are the means to exploit it.

TR How do you think architects in particular can engage with these issues? I’m interested in how your working ideas fit into architectural practice, the building of buildings?
KE It’s tricky using the word infrastructure because I am not really talking about public utilities. I was expanding the word infrastructure to include not just things that you can’t see, but the very things that are pressing into view, all of the repeatable formulas for buildings. So while for architects, some of it looks like the death of architecture, I was arguing that urban space is becoming the medium of a kind of de facto form of global polity. You can turn away from that or you can say that it happens to be very powerful.

A lot of authority is given to econometrics and Washington consensus ideas about developments. But I am trying to say that it’s the knowledge that architects have about space, urbanity and landscape – a very finely grained creative intelligence – that should have a new authority in the decisions of global governance. Our core skills are the ones that could be really effective. I am hoping to bolster that argument by looking at some of the most interesting thinkers in the political and social sciences who want to look past the authority of their supposed master narratives and look at a more complex context. I am asking, “What about the intelligence that’s actually embedded in space?” So even at a time of ubiquitous computing we might understand that the physical, bulky stuff of cities is an information system.

TR I guess there’s this Silicon Valley-type idea that the digital has made space less important – Amazon magics your book out of thin air – when of course there’s this massive warehouse and that kind of psychological elision that people make in their mind whereby those spaces cease to matter.
KE Often the expectation is that information will be dematerialised into the digital or into the smart-city. In an internet of things, the city will be embedded with digital devices and then finally it will become an information system. But I’m saying that, whether or not it’s enhanced with digital devices, it is a network of correspondences. And I keep quoting Gregory Bateson who always said that a man, a tree and an axe is an information system.

TR How do informal spaces, like favelas, fit into your ideas around Extrastatecraft?
KE In the same way that architects are most comfortable making object forms, spatio-political activists are often most comfortable with sincere, direct remedies – going to the favela to fix it up. Extrastatecraft was trying to say, and Subtraction too, that in infrastructure space the toggles and dials of change are different. The activist doesn’t necessarily go directly to the thing, both for practical design reasons and for reasons of political strategy. First of all there are so many interconnections in infrastructure space that you are often pushing A to influence B to influence C. Practically there’s a lot of power in that as a designer, but as a political strategy it’s also sly because it means that you’re working indirectly. You’re not necessarily identified, and you potentially have more power to feint and parry.

TR How do you see the role of the movement of people within globalisation?
KE The movement of people, often the movement of labour, is itself now a very palpable infrastructure. And our national sovereignties address these issues with blunt instruments – like the offer or withdrawal of citizenship – that have no real ability to help or protect the worker. The worker doesn’t necessarily want citizenship. They want to be able to thrive and move safely between countries. The infrastructural space of Extrastatecraft is designed to make labour the absolute loser in the game. Ultimately within the spaces I describe, people are exploited in increasing numbers, and larger and larger populations of people moving around the world are living in a nightmare flipside of privileged free-trade capitalism.

TR I think you’ve said somewhere that you feel like you learned as much as an actor as you did as an architecture academic. Does that still underpin the way in which you approach architecture and design?
KEThat’s all I really had to offer – the proclivity to see opportunities in form as action rather than form as object. Form as action is routine for a person in theatre. You probably see in the book that there are a few characters whom I’ve befriended in the chapter on disposition. Bruno Latour and Bateson, Gilbert Ryle and Erving Goffman. I willfully emphasised their discussions of performance and aligned them with my own offering to architecture – namely, seeing action as a carrier of information. §

Extrastatecraft, published by Verso, is out now. 

  • Keller Esterling