In Conversation with Léopold Lambert

“So designing for the people for me comes with a question which is: which people?”

For this year’s Future of Design Symposium, we’re holding a series of conversations with individuals in anticipation of this year’s symposium and specifically in response to this year’s theme: Design for the People.

Our first guest we conversed with is trained architect, writer, and founding editor of The Funambulist magazine, Léopold Lambert.

Portrait high-res

To find out more about Léopold and his work regarding the political dimension of the built environment and its role in perpetrating and/or disrupting the status quo, be sure to check out the following links:

Kat Chan, facade engineer and Future of Design Symposium committee member: Léopold, thank you for joining us today for a couple of questions about the Future of Design [Symposium theme]. Could you introduce yourself in a couple of sentences?

Léopold Lambert: Sure. So, my name is Léopold Lambert. I’m a trained architect. I’m an independent writer, mostly about the political dimension of the built environment in particular regarding colonialism, and [I’m the] founding editor of a magazine called The Funambulist that comes out every other month and that deals with the politics of space and bodies.

Kat: Great. It’s really exciting to have you here today because we as engineers would love to hear about your perspective and your reaction to this year’s Future of Design Symposium theme, which is: Design for the People. So what does the theme, when you first heard that phrase Design for the People mean, to you?

Léopold: Well the difficulty I have for it to evoke something precise for me comes from the fact that I try to register this within a political framework. This means that even before we can even start thinking about designing for the people, [which] in some sort of illusion of universality that all people are equal, we need to look at the political forces that are at work within societies or smaller groups of people and to see how power relations are activated among them. And, how design almost always reinforces those power dynamics.

So, I think I’m interested both in looking at how indeed design – and when I mean design, I mean it at every, every scale from objects and clothing, to architecture and cities and even territories – how design reinforce[s] those power dynamics. But also how sometimes we can practice design, against those power dynamics.

And that’s where something very interesting happens in my opinion. So designing for the people for me comes with a question which is: which people?

Kat: Léopold, that’s great to hear because you really [hit] the nail on the head by saying that; it’s true. Especially in New York and for the Future of Design symposium itself, we’ve always tried to have that duality of looking at New York specifically, but also around. And, so the people who live in cities, the different groups of people who live in cities, they all have different needs or requirements, abilities. And, the space that they use (even if it could be the same use, say a school in one location in one place) could be drastically different and has to be designed differently in order to address those groups of people.

In your research and in recent times, have you come across a group of folks or a project specifically that you think addresses a under-served population within a larger city or a larger group of people?

Léopold: Yes, and actually that will be the topic comes to the next issue of Funambulist magazine (May-June 2019). Specifically about architecture in that case, but I guess that is one dimension of design obviously. And, the idea behind what we are interested in is to look at projects that do not really think of themselves so much as benevolent projects in which like a group would be identified as being underserved to use a word you use, coming from somewhere else, trying to provide something of quality, for this certain group of people.

Instead, we’re trying to look at a project that comes from that group of people [that] they’re trying to serve politically to look specifically at architecture that does not shy away from their political dimension, that knows that somehow they represent a disruption in those power relations that are activated within society. And that will very much go against the sort of status quo for that matter.

I mean, it is very much in the continuation of what we’ve been doing: looking at how political activists are using space or using any design as a form of weapon for their political struggle.

Kat: So in terms of that power dynamic, that disruption of it, at least here in New York, unfortunately or fortunately, depending how you want to look at it: power and money have been directly linked for many decades — centuries — specifically in the lower triangle that is New York City in Manhattan. The spot where the financial institutions really took a stronghold, it’s the whole district called the Financial District…there’s been this interplay with technology, that the square footage required for offices and for operations for these financial institutions can now be much smaller. So, a lot of different industries have now moved into what was historically always a financial center.

Is this something that is at all related to what you’re talking about, about power relations and if not, could you talk a bit more about an example that does?

Léopold: Yeah, I think it definitely connects to this. I think the way, many people have been analyzing capitalism and in particular of financial speculation have had drastic consequences on the way people live on it on a daily life.

But, since you were talking about the Financial District in Manhattan, I think I would be remiss if I would not speak about also how this is the very spot that settler colonialism started in Manhattan. Wall Street used to be literally a wall, that was protecting the Dutch settlers. I think whenever we deal with parts of the worlds where Europeans have been settling in the most violent way, we always need to go back to this primal act of violence that sort of found the societies there and that are still perpetrating today, in various dimensions. And I think capitalism is very much the continuation of those logics indeed.

Kat: I’m so glad you brought that up because the original wall to this day is actually available to be seen when you walk on Wall Street itself with the cobblestones. And a lot of historic preservationists have also talked about, well, how do we educate the visitors who come see Wall Street and people who actually operate on Wall Street the history and acknowledgement of the footprint that basically our city has been built upon. And in your opinion, what is the — you know, is it a combination of all these things? Is that one thing or the other about addressing it in terms of design with regards to like creating a space, like having a plaque or is it more like conversations that are [to be conducted] between people and initiatives or tours that address this difficult topic?

Léopold: Yeah, I think it could, it can be many things. I mean acknowledgment and the education of what I like to call the political geology of place, which is like the various layers of the various political layers that compose any square meter of our cities because there’s been so [many] things happening on that very spot.

So, I think any sort of initiatives that would sort of acknowledge what has happened in the past is a tremendously important. That’s something I’m looking at in particular here in Paris with regards to the Algerian Revolution in the fifties and sixties. But as I said, everywhere has its own history of violence that we need to unearth to educate. But I think this education only makes sense within a more global movement of getting rid of those — of what’s still composed as structures of violence, that the sort of original thing are the ways it’s been perpetrated. So, of course there’s no too small action when it comes to this, but we also need to have a sort of very ambitious agenda to get rid of all these structures of violence.

Kat: When you say structures of violence, do you mean reminisces of say the original wall, or more like disrupting the way that the cities are built or buildings are designed now?

Léopold: Well, since we were talking about settler colonialism, we can see how today in a country like the United States, this is something that both founded the country, but also something that still very much characterizes the ways the country operates still today. And, uh, we can see in the various ends of struggles in which the various indigenous struggles throughout the countries. Yeah. So those logics are still very much at work.

Kat: Yep. So, tying together the past to the current political atmosphere and the fraught and challenging conversations we have to date: [what] do you think is the best way to connect (it’s just definitely just an exploratory question) about how to address those old structures, both physically and – the ones that cannot be seen – the societal and political?

Léopold: Yeah…. Well, for sure the first — very first step would be to recognize those structures and to be able to unearth them. And then obviously some people are much more versed in that matters and others because some people are very much targeted by those structures whereas others are not.

Kat: Yeah.

Léopold: And so as the very first step [is] consistent [upon] wherever you situate yourself within those structures, you need to unearth them. And then, it’s by understanding them that we are able to potentially act towards the dismantlement of the structure. So, it is this is double step, so to speak, that I think makes sense in that, in that regard.

Kat: Gotcha. Great. I realized I had asked a really heavy question. So your response is actually very eloquent, so thank you for that.

Léopold: Haha.

Kat: Oh, I realize that our time is coming to an end. I don’t wanna take up too much of yours, but I wanted to ask one last parting question, that is: from your experience of talking to those who are aware of the weaponization of architecture about the effect of design, whether that be in cities or buildings or even [those that are] societal triggered such as programming or, or welfare of difference of different element, you know, different elevations or different sorts. Um, what is the best way do you think about engaging those who would otherwise not care or those who otherwise wouldn’t be involved? But we really do need to engage as many people as possible to really make a difference.

Léopold: You mean independently from design or within design?

Kat: Within design or… I know that from your background you also look at design as well as just politics [independently]. Um, and how, our history has formed how we move through the world, both in design physically as well as politically and socially.

Léopold: Within design, I think we need to make sure that whoever is in charge of designing something that will end up out there in society, be it a building or an object, there is a responsabilization for the political forces this design contributes to materialize. And, it’s not like you don’t get to decide if there is or if there is not. There is, yeah.

Kat: Yeah.

Léopold: Then you can decide not to think about it. But then if you don’t think about it, there’s 99% chance that you will sort of reinforce the status quo; and perhaps you’re fine with the status quo. But, if you’re not fine with this status quo and then there needs to be a significant effort in challenging its logics. And so, you know, I think whoever claims to be against the status quo needs to understand that as a designer, they have this materializing power. So they should be able to think about it, to understand it and then think about how to challenge. Truly to….walking the walk after talking the talk.

Kat: I suppose putting your money where your mouth is? Or, taking responsibility for your principles?

Léopold: That’s the phrase I was looking for — haha. Thank you.

Kat: Great. I just wanted to say thanks for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Léopold: Great talking. Thanks.

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