Nuclear option?

Drink up – Turncoats’ finger is hovering over the self-destruct button in a debate on debates

Turncoats, a current debate series in London, held under cover of a social media blackout, explores a novel, highly theatrical format for unpicking architecture’s most thorny topics. Masterminded by Phin Harper and RIBAJ columnist Maria Smith and mentored by Robert Mull, recently dean of the Cass school, it is all very metropolitan, and more than a little ritualistic to the (deliberate) point of sharing characteristics with secret societies. Speakers may believe exactly what they say, but not necessarily. They may exaggerate wildly for effect, or even espouse a view opposite to their own. The idea is that participants – fuelled by ultra-provocative debating motions, alcohol and comedy – are released from the dull norms of architectural discourse into a new land of unfettered and joyous bad behaviour which may reveal truths normally hidden. It is proving to be a remarkably popular phenomenon. By way of review, Phil Pawlett Jackson extends the formula to its logical conclusion by turning the format on the format itself. Crikey!


Motion: ‘Turncoats is the salvation of architectural panel debates’

CHAIR:  ‘Ladies and Gentleladies, a very good evening and welcome to a rare, riddling and eminently self-aware review conceived to engage the recent series of contrarian architectural debates on its own terms.

For those new to the format, shame on you, welcome, recharge your glasses and strap in. In our darkened Hoxton debating chamber this evening all phones have been confiscated, nothing is recorded, no one is tweeting a word you say. We will hear from our two esteemed panelists who earnestly may, or may not, believe a word they are saying. And then we will open to the floor for our audacious audience to venture into devil’s advocacy, take a taboo for a walk, confess everything and never be found out.

So far in the series of conversations, we’ve acquitted the profession’s quitters (‘Quit Architecture Now’), we’ve condemned community consultation (‘Consultation Con’), we have damned the vanity of publishing (‘Vanity Publishing’), and we have decriminalised ornament once and for all (‘Ornament is Crime is Crime’). But in an act of rhetorical Russian roulette, tonight we turn our guns on ourselves, asking, is Turncoats the salvation of architectural panel debates?

Winning the toss, first up and on my right, biting the hand that feeds it, sawing off the branch they are sitting on, the Au Contrarians dare to contest the motion.’


The au contrarians:

Members of the house, this evening, I make no exaggeration when I say, Turncoats is an assault on our noble culture far graver than any mere blemish on the face of a much loved and elegant friend, no sir, it is a death cult, it is a virus of the mind.

Having been subjected now to four performances by this zombie hipster debating society I wish to indict Turncoats on the following three counts: that it is shamelessly self-related, unambitiously a mere palliative and utterly without authority or authenticity in its co-opted discourse.

The self-relation is total. Like the ancient Norse serpent, the ouroboros, architecture has finally eaten its own tail and is now hosting events to comment on itself commenting on itself.

Claiming to disavow the cliquiness of architectural panels, Turncoats revisits snooty elitism with a vengeance, with irony and with added self-righteousness. Conveners, Phin Harper and Maria Smith, priests-in-charge of this chapel of discontent, established Turncoats last year apparently as a Bloomsbury group for former editors of moribund architectural titles and refugee deans from embattled academies. Living in squares and loving in triangles, this privileged so-called debating society is a thin veil over a fully serviced shagpad for sordid incestuous posturing.

The navel-gazing pervades to topics debated, from the self-pitying, self-loathing motion ‘Quit Architecture Now’ to the simultaneously self-aggrandising and self-destructively nostalgic wallow that was ‘Vanity Publishing’. Turncoats is architecture’s suicide pact, triumphantly disenfranchised and pessimistic to the core. Here is a critical discipline baying for its own blood, bleakly reconciled to engineering its own irrelevance.

Now, heavy petting by hoary hacks would harmless enough, if the need for effective criticism were not so unprecedentedly urgent. Fiddling with each other while Rome burns, their naivete would be forgivable if they were not quite so content to constantly congratulate themselves at having organised a piss up in a brewery.

Claiming to lubricate the inhibited into lively participation, the emphasis on alcohol in fact does little more than legitimise insobriety as a form of supposed philosophical engagement for the lazy. This escapist and merely palliative mode of medicine corrupts utterly any earnest offerings made from the floor of this carnival of trivial titillation.

My friends, the effect on language is ruinous and I can only hope this contagion might be contained. Aping a stand-up routine, the emphasis on entertainment flattens all discourse, and on these weighty architectural topics, such as ornament, there is no clarity, no external anchor, nothing is held to account and there is no definition to the terms debated. Ornament is everything and nothing, thesis and antithesis synthesise in a blur of bravado, ad hominem fallacies, puns and Hitler comparisons. The underemployed rebels without a cause who enjoy the sound of their own voice and flock to Turncoats’ contrarian pissing contest are muddying the waters of our precious art.

Finally, Ladies and Gentlemen, when I tell you that this abomination is bankrolled by the peddlers of gentrification, U+I, the new millennial-facing brand of Development Securities PLC, you will understand, incontrovertably, that Turncoats is in fact but a facile high concept marketing gig, the last gasp of an utterly co-opted counter culture, where neo-liberal capital interests have conscripted even the critics of the critics. I implore you therefore, to vote against this motion, vote against and then run for the hills.

CHAIR: Incorrigible fear-mongering, thank you Contrarians. Now, on my left, I welcome the obsequious, the unctuous, the utterly self-serving, please welcome to your ample Turncoats bosom, the Sycophantic Sympathisers supporting this evening’s motion.


The sycophantic sympathisers:

Madame chair, it is tempting indeed to psychoanalyse the joyless miserablism of my honourable Contrarian colleague who pines for that dour and stultified world of yesteryear’s panel clickbait debates, where serious-minded turtle-necks wryly regurgitated cliches, and critics in kid gloves pontificated for social media applause.

Turncoats is the harbinger and the embodiment of a new way. Right now it is the only forum asking these questions with a persuasive passion from plausible platform. Allow me to expand now precisely why Turncoats is the salvation of architecture panel debates.

For those unaware, architecture is in a sorry state. Architecture as a politically relevant advocate of civic humanity, as a thoughtfully executed craft, even as a meaningful mode of subsistence for its practitioners, is imperilled on every side by blandening market forces, the uncritical automation of production, and, above all by the self-defeating institutional cronyistic complicity of architects in their own irrelevance.

Turncoats is structuring an architectural counter-culture, directly and obliquely, by its message and its medium. It boldest move is the social media blackout [which equally renders it hard to review].

Against crises and injustices, Twitter promises to multiply the reach of agitators. The wise have learnt, however, that social media’s effect is to render everyone absent from the moment, busying themselves in petitions for change in higher and higher pitched frenetic twiviality.

Admitting social media compromises all dialogue as the internet’s omniprescence quashes precisely those most needed vulnerable bids at fresh, half-formed, critical, ambiguous thought experiments, under the glaring light of a panopticon medium that would broadcast every flawed foray instantly, globally, permanently and searchably to a trolling rumour-mongering uninterested world.

Turncoats has crafted a forum which understands that the real agents of architectural change are human beings, fully present, and the crying need of our time is for graciously containing environments where architects can wrestle with yet unknown answers.

With phones off, the human architects gather face-to-face for this small-batch artisanal fight club where devil’s advocacy, the absurd and the urgent emerging alternative universes of thought can be brought into the ring with wild anonymity to see if they stand up to a bare knuckle no-holds-barred joust, in a shoot-first-ask-questions-later format. And the drinking is not incidental, in this cathedral of ideas, the vodka communion is a light touch ritual that expresses a unity of collective intentionality and offers second affirmation of our very embodied presence at the table.

If Phin Harper and Maria Smith stand accused curating a clique or mere recovery group, they are accused by the prejudicially grumpy. The door is open and within they have choreographed pure theatre, a hedonistic open source adventure, live and unplugged – this is architecture’s own living room gig. Turncoats is the witty fool to the Contrarian’s foolish wit, and collectively we are a Holy Fool, the medium of the format is its message, an eccentric outsider performance art that will not leave architecture unchanged.

Ladies and Gentleman, vote with me for the motion and let us see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

CHAIR: And so, honourable members, readers, judges and jury, imposters and apostates, vote now, render your opinions and provations, on the back of a postcard to RIBAJ or join the merry riot of Turncoats in deconstructing the Gender Agenda on the 11th of February at U+I, SW1P 1DZ. Come armed.

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