Mellon Architecture, Urbanism and the Humanities Master’s Student Work


Abdulwaagied Charles participated in Babel Re-Play, a workshop initiated as part of a collation of projects consisting of research teams from Zurich, Neuchâtel, Johannesburg, and Pretoria, established to think anew about the work of the great Swiss playwright, Friedrich Dürrenmatt.

8 – 9 April 2016 / Centre Dürrenmatt, Neuchâtel, Switzerland

Words: Abdulwaagied Charles

Image: Jurgen Meekel. A still from the short film Babel Re-Play Johannesburg (Jurgen Meekel 2016), showing Khutjo Green (left) and Tshego Khutsoane (right) in front of the Tower of Light on what is now the West Campus of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

A concept is a brick. It can be used to build the courthouse of reason. Or it can be thrown through the window. (G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Translated by Brian Massumi (London and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), xii-xiii.)

In April 2016, I participated in the workshop Babel Re-Play at the Centre Dürrenmatt in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. The initiators of the workshop, professors Georges Pfruender, Margarete Jahrmann, and Cynthia Kros, are part of a collation of research projects assembled under the thematic Babel Re-Play, inspired by, and established to try to think anew about the work of the great Swiss playwright, Friedrich Dürrenmatt. It was thus fitting that the workshop was held at the Centre, a museum encompassing the house where Dürrenmatt had lived. The realisation of a design by Swiss architect Mario Botta, the centre opened in 2000 to ‘preserve and make known Dürrenmatt’s pictorial and literary work’ (as described in the pamphlet ‘Friedrich Dürrenmatt: Writer and Painter’, published by the Centre Dürrenmatt). The building features Dürrenmatt’s working studio where he painted, his library, and a collection of his paintings, which are exhibited on the lower level of the building.

But, coming back to the purpose of the workshop, a striking feature of the centre is its tower-like interior, defined by a spiral staircase that visitors have to use to navigate between the main floors (sections) of the museum. Of central interest to the Babel Re-Play research collective (consisting of teams from Zurich, Neuchâtel, Johannesburg, and Pretoria) are the myths about the Tower of Babel and the city of Babylon, themes Dürrenmatt repeatedly revisited in his reflections and drawings of Babel. One of the works derived out of this is Dürrenmatt’s play An Angel Comes to Babylon, a parody of the modern state, portraying the devastating defeat of a version of the dream of modernism (description taken from the programme notes of the workshop). The initiators asked what ‘the building of the Tower and its immanent technological basis of brick means in this context, and what to make of the fact that its downfall is foretold before building even commences?’ (programme notes).

The workshop panellists came from a range of disciplines including filmmakers, performing artists, theatre directors, educationists, architects, historians, curators, archivists, and game designers to name a few. Many also trained and working across disciplines, to create innovative practices as was evident in the diverse formats of each presentation. This assortment of presentations itself allowed for an interesting engagement with contemporary questions of ‘transmediality’, something that also emerged from Dürrenmatt’s own ‘use of image and text as two modes of exploring a topic concurrently and in interplay’. Such diversity meant that, as the audience, we had to engage with presentations that were unconventional in format, certainly to me, as someone coming from a background as an urban historian where the presentation of written papers predominates. Here, and I’m sure I was not alone in this, one had to make sense of, and think in different, even unconventional, ways.

Our panel, co-led by Kros and Pfruender, offered work concerned with cities geographically located in the global south (including South America), and was composed of a performer, an artist, a theatre director, and an urbanist. Its theme was Urban utopias and dystopias. Presentations included a short film made in Johannesburg, a photographic/music essay on urban art interventions across many cities, and a discussion of Dürrenmatt’s play An Angel comes to Babylon. My presentation explored the idea (from my Master’s work) of the ‘soft city’ (after J. Raban, Soft City (London: Picador, 1998)) as a useful concept for critical urban practices.

While it would be difficult to adequately discuss the work presented by my co-panellists, I do think that there appeared some promising ‘lines of flight’. To me, arguments around the big question of urban utopias and dystopias provided a productive tension that seems to imply an uneasy link or a kind of ‘disjunctive synthesis’ between the concepts of utopia and dystopia. To some extent it reminded me of the point made in the introduction to the edited collection Utopia/Dystopia, which suggests a possibility of seeing the concepts of ‘utopia’ and ‘dystopia’ not as mere opposites (or antonyms). ‘A true opposite of utopia would be a society that is either completely unplanned or is planned to be deliberately terrifying and awful. Dystopia, typically invoked, is neither of these things; rather, it is a utopia that has gone wrong, or a utopia that functions only for a particular segment of society.’ Relatedly, to me, utopia still carries a strange kind of faithfulness (or piety) akin to the development paradigm and the dream of organisation that comes along with it, which tends to evaluate cities on the basis of specific ideas of modernity, rather than being open to the possibility for ‘multiple modernities’. In cities, this really comes to the fore when we consider the debates on informality, and also piracy. I would, however, add, that for such a conceptualisation of the city to exist, the question of imagination is crucial, and in these examples, we may find that ‘the city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the city one can locate in maps and statistics, in monographs of urban sociology and demography and architecture’ (Raban 1998).

The question that arose for me from the workshop, and in thinking about the soft city, the (in)stability of utopia and dystopia, and the categories of global north and south, is asking us to think precisely about the zones of indetermination that do not easily fit with the available categories in conventional urban studies. How do we approach those forces whose very existence depends on avoiding/escaping our projects of containment? I was amazed by the diversity of presentations at the Babel Re-Play workshop, and what I think the organisers were able to create was a space from which new connections could be made, because rather than resembling the Kantian figure of the judge at the tribunal of reason, it placed experimentation first.

To conclude, and coming back to the metaphor of the brick and taking up the opening provocation, there remain many questions (Deleuze and Guattari 2005, xii-xiii):

What is the subject of the brick? The arm that throws it? The body connected to the arm? The brain encased in the body? The situation that brought brain and body to such a juncture? All and none of the above. What is its object? The window? The edifice? The laws the edifice shelters? The class and other power relations encrusted in the laws? All and none of the above. ‘What interests us are the circumstances.’

Or perhaps a useful starting point would be to ask about the circumstances of this workshop and the kind of thinking that made it possible.