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25 June 2012

The Divide

“A wide divergence between two groups, typically producing tension or hostility.” 

















On the matter of ‘divide’ (noun), the Oxford Dictionary is succinct. The divide also happens to be the fledgling premise put forward by arch-peace founder Dr Beatriz Maturana, of a planned conference that is currently germinating in our midst...possibly to be a trans-continental affair, spanning Melbourne, Australia and Santiago, Chile, where Beatriz is now based.

More about that later - but back to that definition. While I don’t believe it’s the only possible offering, its inherent negativity is an interesting starting point. Tension. Hostility. These words don’t exactly conjure flights of imagination through blue skies of promise. Also implicit in this definition of divide is its framing in dichotomy: black/white, right/wrong, good/bad, rich/poor. Dichotomies make me nervous for a couple of reasons: one being that the issues they pertain to are almost certainly more complex than can be accommodated in a simple relationship of direct oppositions. A black/white argument is usually a lazy one – effectively riding roughshod over the shades of grey that invariably exist in between. If we’re talking about groups (i.e. of people), then its possibly not only a lazy but a dangerous argument, potentially leading to conflict and confrontation – violence even – where differences are perceived in such stark contrast as to be irreconcilable. As posited by philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah in his book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, the wonders of plane travel and online communication have brought us a truly global society, where the most remote corners of the world are connected and increasingly people with vastly different cultural backgrounds, lived experiences and values are living shoulder-to-shoulder. Appiah argues that such a world warrants a sense of responsibility for the impact of our actions on both our immediate and far-flung neighbours, regardless of differences, and that it's more important than ever that common ground be sought. In arguing for mutual understanding (crossing the apparent divide, you might say) Appiah suggests that 'all cultures have enough overlap in their vocabulary of values to begin a conversation', though not necessarily to agree. Though perhaps an overly optimistic viewpoint when it comes to deeply-rooted religious differences that are responsible for some of the major current conflicts, the sentiment - that between divided groups, there are inevitably shared basic human values obscured by large-looming differences – is sound. Between black and white, there are shades of grey. Perhaps the divide can be understood, not as a yawning void, but a grey, unchartered terrain: complex, yes, but far from empty.

What might happen in this space between? At face value, division is something to be bridged and overcome, though some such efforts will inevitably meet with failure. Could the divide also be a positive force? For a start, albeit a trivial one, I know that personally, I feel a disconnect between the day job that pays the bills and the work – undertaken wholly by choice, but nonetheless work – that I'm involved with through Architects for Peace. I'm sure it doesn't have to be that way, and it's a shame it is perhaps. No doubt some of us have secured jobs that directly reflect personal and professional aspirations and are ultimately satisfying on all fronts. On the other hand, being conscious of a divide between my paid working life and this other world is something of a motivating force. I'm quite sure it serves to highlight the differences between the two and allows me to appreciate the challenges and rewards that each presents in a way that wouldn't be possible if all my energies were invested in just one. This makes me wonder whether maybe there's potential yet to find something of value in the divide – rather than seeing it automatically as a negative force to be overcome.

Division manifests itself in countless shapes and forms in the built environment. Two notable examples of physical barriers currently effecting great divides of devastating consequences are the Israeli annexing of Palestinian territory and the border between Mexico and the United States. Of course, the eminent porosity of the latter is unofficially sanctioned as a source of inexpensive labour for the US, but a high price is nonetheless paid by those braving the journey northwards. I don’t deny that these cases may bear wildly disparate levels of associated distress for the people on the 'wrong' side of the wall, but in both a physical barrier is tied to a less tangible but no less catastrophic socio-political divide: between the affluent United States and its poorer (economically at least) neighbour Mexico; at an extreme level, between the Israeli government and Hamas leaders within the Gaza Strip. Unfortunately I fear that this is to put the case in such simple terms as to make a mockery of my earlier attempt to reject of dichotomies.

The divide is playing out elsewhere on a humbler scale. The locations of affordable housing in a city like Melbourne (in supposedly classless, egalitarian Australia) establish social divisions based on the limits of access to services and infrastructure like public transport. Vacant lots and derelict buildings strewn throughout the city create gaps in the urban fabric – offering opportunities for creative re-use that are often stymied by planning policy and the blinkered vision of developers. Universal access to services and buildings for people of all abilities, while of dramatically varying standards throughout the world, continues pretty much universally to be an ideal rather than a reality. The pronounced and deplorable divide between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians manifests itself on many levels: geographically (in regard to remote communities at least, enabling an uncomfortable out-of-sight, out-of-mind avoidance of the issue for us city-dwellers), in terms of quality of life (and life expectancy) and in terms of mutual understanding. In architecture, the academic world and the practicing one remain out of touch with one another, as many institutions continue to fatten their students on a diet of formative overseas adventures in the great western European cities rather than encouraging design learning from poorer communities’ intelligent use of scarce resources, as Orhan Ayuce highlighted in last month’s editorial. Divides exist between disciplines too: genuine cross-disciplinary engagement seems to have become old-hat before it ever really took off and specialisation drives further useless splintering of the built environment professions, when surely the global crises demand nothing if not integrated solutions where skills are pooled. Meanwhile, the burgeoning digital realm of the world wide web and its social media bedfellows, while on face value creating an unprecedented level of immediacy in connections between people of all corners of the globe, are throwing up still less tangible forms of division. The so-called digital divide was the initial concern, separating the haves from the have-nots when it comes to internet access, but it has arguably given way to a more pervasive and dangerous phenomenon that some commentators are dubbing the ‘interpersonal’ divide. In this scenario, daily life becomes so mediated by digital interaction that individuals are ever more alienated from reality, a wider community and others; a notion that Sidh Sintusingha touched on a year ago in his editorial 'Virtually Real'. Once you start to look, the divide is everywhere, manifested in far more ways than the dictionary definition would have us believe.

There are plenty of practitioners treating division as a motivating force for action rather than something to be feared – I will only note a few here. In Australia, the practice of Health Habitat is worth a mention for both its multi-disciplinary approach (the team is headed by architect Paul Pholeros, physician Dr. Paul Torzillo and Public and Environmental Health Officer Stephan Rainow) and work improving the housing of indigenous Australians living in marginalised remote communities, where existing houses often suffer from lack of funds for maintenance, overcrowding and poor fitness for purpose. Australian-based Healthabitat has a hands-on approach that involves surveying existing housing stock, consulting and negotiating with local people before a project is implemented and training locals to undertake the renovations and repairs, which are then subjected to rigorous quality control checks. On the other side of the globe, Estudio Teddy Cruz endeavours to straddle the US-Mexican border mentioned earlier, promoting cross-cultural exchange between San Diego and its Mexican sister town Tijuana. Last year, Cruz was juror of one of a series of competitions addressing borders of various kinds, run by Think Space, an initiative of the Zagreb Society of Architects that calls itself ‘a platform for spatial experimentation and conceptual exchange of ideas’. Cruz’s piece of the pie was ‘Geopolitical Borders’ and entrants were called on to submit a ‘Before and After’ diagram for a region from within ‘The Political Equator’: a concept developed by Cruz, taking the US–Mexico border and from there extending an imaginary line directly across an atlas, along which happen to lie many highly contested zones. The results of the competition (some of which tackled that other volatile border zone: Israeli and Palestinian relations) can be viewed online and are worth a look for a cursory exploration of divide-bridging, although the parameters of the competition and diagrammatic natures of the entries keep it largely in the abstract.

I have to own up to both a vested interest and a crippling limitation in the content of this piece. I’m conscious of writing it on the edge of the divide looking in – essentially trying to get the conversation started, which I hope will be taken up and continued by more coherent and informed voices than mine. As we workshop the possibilities of a joint Chilean/Australian dialogue over the coming months, itself seeking to bridge a divide of sorts, we welcome your input. Please drop us a line at team@architectsforpeace.org if you would like to be involved.

Eleanor Chapman
Architects For Peace, June 2012



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