The Agonistic Assembly
Politics may be defined as the struggle between opposing forces to which there is no rational consensus. How can a productive conflict between the public and the political challenge the toxic polarisation that is symptomatic of contemporary populist politics?
The Brexit referendum and the election of President Trump have shown the divisive power of populist rhetoric and how quickly it can divide a nation. This good/evil Manichean theory presents the notion that society is divided into two antagonistic camps, ‘the pure people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’. The populist leader claims to represent the voice of the ‘silent majority’, as though they are a homogenous entity with singular common interest. Such divisive rhetorics personalise and moralise the political debate, eliminating any productive disagreement between citizens and contemporaries who do not conform to the idea of the ‘real people’. Populism is inherently anti-pluralist, and as such it opposes liberal democracy. It acts as a force that denies diversity, rejects citizens as free and equal, and it eliminates the conflict that is constitutive of the political. The theorist Chantal Mouffe, states that “the task of modern democracy is to turn antagonism into agonism” – a conflictual relationship of adversaries not enemies.”
The Agonistic Assembly is an exploration into how architecture can influence the present and future political discourse. Through the confluence of opposing programmes, objects, and materials, an agonistic architectural language is developed that rejects the proliferation of the populist political rhetoric, in pursuit of new forms of productive conflictual encounter.
FLEMISH NATIONAL ASSEMBLY
The thesis is set in 2029 Antwerp, whereby following the results of the general election, the New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) break the imposed cordon sanitaire and form an alliance with the far-right Vlaams Belang party. Together they initiate their common mandate for the establishment of a newly independent nation of Flanders. The thesis proposal is for the Flemish National Assembly, a public institution that integrates governmental ministers, NGOs, activists, and the wider public within one building. Several conflictual relationships will be enabled between diverse demographics through the intersection of high/low culture political and public programmes. The proposal seeks to establish an agonistic architectural language through the creation of a contemporary 'Polis', defined by professor Eric Swyngedouw as "the site for public encounter, democratic negotiation and radical dissent".
I propose a reading of Belgium as an Archipelago of politically and geographically distinct islands. The federal government is formed from a complex arrangement of language based communities, cultural regions, and local provinces, that are fundamentally divided between the Capitalist and Socialist camps of Flanders and Wallonia. Geographically, Belgium is a low-lying country divided into 3 distinct regions: the coastal plains in the North-West, the low-lying polders in the centre and the Ardennes Plateau in the South.
Similarly, Antwerp can be seen as a pluralist composition of district islands, held in a dialogue through the urbanisation that connects them. This form derives itself from the phased growth of Antwerp and the mass-demolition of city enclosures, from a mono-centric to a poly-centric city. The scars left behind allowed the advancement of large infrastructural projects and vehicular arteries that characterise Antwerp’s peripheries and suburbs. The motorways, railways and ring roads now divide the city, and create distinct urban morphologies in each district.
Districts as Urban Islands
Site Panorama - The prominent location on the River Scheldt is currently underdeveloped, containing a vacant warehouse, a delipidated office building and a disused petrol station.
The proposition is situated around Antwerp’s Bonaparte dock in Eilandje, at the threshold of the old medieval city. The unique urban room created by the old docks contains the features of the wider Belgian morphology, as represented by the six historic artworks. The thesis accentuates each feature through a landscape proposal that recreates the three distinct geographical regions of Belgium. The assembly creates an agonistic relationship with each of these constituent parts through a rotated grid that unapologetically interrupts the city whilst simultaneously allowing it to flow through the heart of the scheme.
The built proposal seeks to express the conflict inherent in pluralism through the intersection of a stereotomic masonry objects and an ephemeral field. The objects house the formal political programme, containing the debate chamber, library, committee rooms, galleries and broadcasting suite. These structures are orthogonally aligned to the city grid, and between them they create an enclosed space for the parliamentary lobby - the site of encounter between the politicians and the public. Within each masonry object is the MPs offices, in the form of timber cassettes, and the formal political meeting spaces, which are formed from semi-transparent screens that compress the activity of the politicans and the public into formalised spaces. In opposition to the formal political programme, is the field, an open space for Swyngedouw 's negotiation, encounter and dissent. This space is loose and temporal, with no fixed furniture or partitions, and only a 9x9m concrete frame to provide order. Above it is the roof, a lightweight steel space frame. This structure provides protection from wind and rain, whilst also acting as a servicing mechanism to hang screens, speakers, curtains and banners.
Floor Plans - The ground plane of the assembly maintains an open and connected relationship to the city, the first floor hosts informal public activity within the field, and the basement contains the ventilation hypocaust that appears as a against amongst the landscape.
Sections & Elevation - The political crusts maintain the orthogonal grid of the city, whilst the field collides with it’s surroundings.
Tectonically the proposal is a juxtaposition between heavy and light structures. Each object is formed from a load-bearing masonry crust, with one-way spanning concrete slabs. Nested within the frame are timber cassettes, which create insulated offices for the MPs. Perpendicular to the offices are the Political Nests, which are formed from translucent and transparent glass screens. The entire assembly is constructed using hollow brick piers, which draw up air from the river Scheldt and through the basement hypocaust, to be distributed through trench heaters via an underfloor plenum. The hollow masonry forms provide structure and servicing for the programme, whilst also acting a ruinous frame that can accommodate to the ever changing political status quo.
The Crust, The Nest, and The Field - Masonry hollow structures create crusts, inside of which the programme of the assembly is nested. The field, represented in blue, is the ephemeral public space that surrounds the political activity.
MPs Office Detail
Debate Chamber Detail
The Field Isometric
Due to the dispruptions from the pandemic and the closure of universities, it was unfortuntaely not possible to develop the scheme using models as much as was intended. The images below highlight where the scheme was at before the change in circumstances.