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Resumé af Frederik Braüner Nygaards speciale

Specialetitel: AN INTERSECTIONAL ARCHITECTURE.

Frederik Braüner Nygaard - billede 1
Block 15 and 16, Nuuk. Digital collage investigating the urban and architectural potentials of a tranformation of the housing blocks built under the authority of the GTO. Proposal, 2021.

Architecture is not only the most prominent physical manifestation of human presence, but from its conception and construction to its existence and destruction, architecture is a manifestation of political action and thought. This realization has been the guiding principle in my thesis ‘An Intersectional Architecture’ made at the master’s program Political Architecture: Critical Sustainability at The Royal Danish Academy in Copenhagen. The project is a methodological and architectural exploration into the possibilities of using the theory Intersectionality as a productive tool when engaging with our built environment, exemplified as an architectural transformation project in Qapiarfiusaaq, (Dan. Radiofjeldet) in Nuuk, Kalaallit Nunaat. It proposes a new methodological approach of how to develop our cities all the way from the dispersion of infrastructure and landownership, to how a socially and culturally conscious housing typology could be imagined. In short, the project explores how to implement contemporary social theory into the architectural history, theory, and practice of The Danish Realm.

Intersectionality in Architecture

The project arose from a two-week fieldwork journey to Nuuk in October 2020. The city is rapidly evolving with the recent addition of Qinngorput, the ongoing urban redevelopment of the city center, and the coming expansion in the southern area Siorarsiorfik. To understand the city’s current housing situation, I decided to conduct a series of 18 immersive, qualitative interviews with a variety of inhabitants and professionals, trying to clarify three important elements of the contemporary city. Firstly, the extensive historical urban developments of the post-war years in the era of so-called Welfare Colonialism, led by the Danish founded organization Grønlands Tekniske Organisation (GTO) and the repercussions these waves of modernization had for the relationship between Greenland and Denmark. Secondly, the current political structures around the construction of public and affordable housing, and the policies in place today regarding urban development. And finally, the contemporary social fabric of both Nuuk specifically and Greenland overall and the plurality of ethnicities, genders, sexualities, cultural belongings, etc. that can be found today. In an effort to truly understand the data I had collected, I decided to apply an intersectional analytical framework, giving me the possibility to examine the plurality of identities and social categories embedded within the data. Thus, the interviews became the foundation for an intersectional analysis, where I examined physical manifestations of social inequalities in Nuuk. The analysis revealed how the political de-prioritization of specific areas in Nuuk’s development plans exposed social hierarchies with traces of colonial power structures. This was especially prominent in the neglect of the housing areas built under the authority of the GTO, one which is Qapiarfiusaaq in the southwest end of central Nuuk. The housing blocks there were built as the last large development scheme by the GTO from 1971-1977 and is currently in dire need of restoration. Neither the municipality nor the self-rule government has any plans to thoroughly renovate the area, and the socially diverse group of people living there are all housed in the worn down, uniform housing blocks. From these early investigations, I created the following problem statement, which I strived to solve with my architectural proposal:

How could an architectural intervention based on the normative ideals of Intersectionality as a concept and analytical tool manifest itself physically in the district of Qapiarfiusaaq in Nuuk? And how could such an intervention be used to strengthen the existing built environment’s relation to its cultural and material context, thereby actualizing the district’s social composition as an urban potential founded on widened social inclusion?

Thus, the project became a twofold investigation: A methodological exploration of how intersectionality could evolve from being an analytical perspective into a productive tool, and an architectural investigation of how to use this tool to transform the existing housing in Qapiarfiusaaq on multiple scales towards a more inclusive and spatially diverse neighborhood.

 

Intersectionality in Architecture

Intersectionality. Diagram of theory. 2021.
Intersectionality. Diagram of theory. 2021.
The theory of intersectionality therefore became paramount to both my analysis and propositional work. Distinctive for several poststructuralist approaches, including feminism, queer-theory, and postcolonial theory, is the focus on a singular aspect of social struggle, looking at e.g., gender, sexuality, or ethnicity. However, with Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s term ‘intersectionality’, poststructuralist theory gained the methodological possibility to investigate these perspectives in an overlapping, multidimensional analysis of social struggle. Her theory states that each individual is made from a series of overlapping identity categories that make a unique set of constantly changing (dis-)advantages. These identities influence how we engage with the world and how others both see and treat us, in a constantly evolving landscape of unique identity structures. The methodological approach therefore takes its starting point in an analysis of the individual’s lived experience, trying to decipher how social privileges and disadvantages are shaped by their intersecting identities. This knowledge of concrete issues related to identity can then be used to diagnose structural power dynamics that would otherwise be non-transparent.

In my analysis, I therefore took my starting point in the interviews I had conducted during my fieldwork. From these I condensed the experienced social inequalities that were manifested in the built environment in Nuuk. The interviews were conducted without microphone nor camera on a site chosen by the respondents to create a situation as relaxed as possible. The interviews were not intended to serve as concrete evidence of a specific individuals’ convictions, but rather as snapshots of their everyday life and their thoughts on their current living conditions, their hometown, and its future development. The respondents generously shared stories from their lives, observations of Nuuk, political convictions, and hopes for the future. What became apparent was the prevailing spatial way in which many of the respondents thought about issues of social inequality and cultural sensibility. Certain areas felt unsafe to women and queer people due to the lack of visual connections to the surrounding city, certain areas were dominated by ethnic Danes primarily due to expensive rents and subsidies from the municipality to attract Danish labour, and certain areas were difficult to access as an elderly person or for people with disabilities due to the steep cliff in many areas and the lack of public infrastructure. From the lived experiences of these individuals, structural issues of social rigidity, historical colonial dominance, and contemporary political neglect revealed themselves to be present in several of the housing areas built by the GTO, in particular Qapiarfiusaaq. Intersectionality had allowed me to clarify these dynamics, and the twofold investigation of how to transform intersectionality into a productive tool for an architectural development in this specific area could commence.

 

Block 17 and 10. Photos from fieldwork. October 2021.
Block 17 and 10. Photos from fieldwork. October 2021.

Analysis and Proposal

To better understand how to engage with Qapiarfiusaaq, I based my architectural propositional work directly on the issues found in my spatial and intersectional analysis of the area. I found that a productive way to create a socially and culturally aware development would be to suggest strategies for physical changes on three different scales: the level of the district, the typology, and the individual living unit.

Simultaneously with this architectural work, primarily done through drawings and models, I wrote texts of a more theoretical nature in a so-called co-evolutionary approach between writing and drawing, allowing the two to continuously influence one another. The essays consisted of reflections on my own process as an architect, the possibilities of a formal language of an intersectional architecture, and ideas of how to implement an expanded notion of the theory in future developments.

Architectural Work

During my fieldwork and the following intersectional analysis of Qapiarfiusaaq, I realized how the area, at the level of the wider district, is currently functionally zoned with poor connections for especially more vulnerable groups in society, both to the surrounding city and the striking landscape. I started looking into what type of needs and considerations were not met by the area today, with a particular awareness to the most disadvantaged, in the words of Crenshaw, focusing on accessibility, visibility, and pedestrian infrastructure. With my proposal I suggested to break the homogeneity of the district by merging the currently divided zones of housing and commerce, which would create new clusters of housing dispersed throughout the district. This should be done while greatly expanding the current pedestrian infrastructure and creating public squares from which one can access the landscape. Furthermore, creating a new road in the northern part of the district would allow for Nuup Bussii, the local bus company, to expand their line 3 to loop through the area.

 

Triptych siteplan. Mappings of the housing blocks in Qapiarfiusaaq built during the welfare colonization of Nuuk. The individual sections indicate potential areas of improvement on three scales an urban, a typological and a human perspective. Map, 2021.
Triptych siteplan. Mappings of the housing blocks in Qapiarfiusaaq built during the welfare colonization of Nuuk. The individual sections indicate potential areas of improvement on three scales an urban, a typological and a human perspective. Map, 2021.

 

At the level of the typology, I looked deeper into the vast housing blocks in the area, built by the GTO during the decades of welfare colonialism. The worn down yet striking and quite intimidating housing blocks in Qapiarfiusaaq stand as a sombre testimony to this period, with a spatial structure lifted off the ground on concrete stilts that celebrates unity and homogeneity, rather than plurality and difference. These housing blocks became the prime target of my intersectional critique. They were built with a specific way of life, family structure and gender-roles in mind, not adapted to the cultural or material context in which they landed. Their lack of connection to the landscape both physically and visually presents a myriad of cultural misunderstandings. I therefore investigated possibilities of how to partially deconstruct the housing blocks and to use the demolished material as new building blocks in future housing. I did so through the model of demolition and reuse of cut-out concrete blocks currently being developed under the MUDP project lead by Lendager Group, IPU, and Tscherning. The result of my investigation became a plan for a partial deconstruction of the large housing blocks, allowing for the expansion of infrastructure throughout the area, and around small platforms within the pathway system, clusters of new housing could be built. Through an expansion of a low rent loan system, currently used in the Greenlandic settlements, more individuals would be able to move out of their apartment if they found it unfit to fulfil their needs, and build a new house reusing the concrete building blocks from the partially demolished housing blocks. By cutting out the existing building materials from the existing structures, storing it on site, and reusing it for additional weight in the foundation and loadbearing walls of the new structures, CO2 emissions would be minimized. This would radically change the culturally misplaced wall-like presence of the housing blocks, while allowing for small adaptions and new exterior spaces.

 

The housing block. 1:500 model showing the partial deconstruction of block 17 and the new dispersed housing. Model photo, 2021
The housing block. 1:500 model showing the partial deconstruction of block 17 and the new dispersed housing. Model photo, 2021

 

At the smallest scale, that of the individual living unit, I found that the apartments in the housing blocks from the era of welfare colonialism were often unfit for people’s contemporary living needs. This was clearly seen in my intersectional analysis, where I found that the existing apartments in Qapiarfiusaaq are spatially extremely rigid due to the transverse loadbearing walls that run parallel through the housing block, and because of the placement of functions such as kitchen and bathroom making extensions or alterations to the apartments practically impossible. Furthermore, the sheer distance from apartment to ground and the placement and size of windows fail to take contemporary cultural preferences into account. Especially with the popularization of hunting and fishing by primarily local young people. The empty space underneath the blocks, which is ideal for drying meats, common practice in single family housing, is impossible due to the sheer size and openness of these void spaces. Taking the methodology of intersectionality seriously, it seemed productive to start from the level of the singular individual to produce something, that could have structural impact. So, I went back to the interviews I had done, trying to condense particular social and cultural needs. From this analysis I designed three living units for three drastically different individuals, representing different genders, sexualities, ages, family constellations, cultural belongings etc. The result were three hyper-particular houses, from which I condensed a multi- scaled kit-of-parts, that would enable people to use similar elements that I had used, to compose a house that would fit their needs. The kit-of-parts consisted of structural elements, building fragments and larger spatial modules all made from local materials, light-weight imported materials, or the reused concrete blocks from the housing blocks. The enormous scale of the housing blocks that used to lie as sombre monuments to the era of welfare colonialism would be broken down and reused to create a socially and culturally more sensitive housing typology in a new Qapiarfiusaaq.

 

Housing. Plan, elevation and section of two new housing typologies for Qapiarfiusaaq. Drawing, 2021.
Housing. Plan, elevation and section of two new housing typologies for Qapiarfiusaaq. Drawing, 2021.

 

Theoretical Work

Parallel with my architectural work, I wrote essays, that served as reflective pieces from specific parts of my process, discussing the relation between my propositional work and the theory of intersectionality.

The first essay ‘Communicator or Enabler’ explored the role of the architect through the writings of Christine and Leonard Bachmann and Lebbeus Woods, trying to frame the responsibility of the architect as being primarily a social enabler in an intersectional architectural practice. The second essay ‘Overlap and Simultaneity’ strived to establish a set of formal principles that could be the main components of an intersectional architecture through a comparative analysis of intersectionality and queer theory. From the writings of Katarina Bonnevier, and her reflections on queer architecture, I found that an intersectional formal language had to be multi-purposed and multi-layered in spaces of overlap and simultaneity. The third and final essay ‘A Humancentric Architecture’, revolved around the scope of an intersectional approach in relation to the theories of entanglement, making kin, and especially intra-action by Donna Haraway and Karen Barad respectively. Here, I proposed to expand the concept of intersectionality, to what one could call an Intra-sectional approach, thereby including non-human actors in the way we think about and develop our built environment. When working with the material world, human actors are not the only ones affected, and we must keep our other-than-human kin in mind.

Contemporary Repercussions of Welfare Colonialism

The relation between the theory of intersectionality and how we engage with the built environment proved very fruitful to the way I approached Qapiarfiusaaq. Through the propositional work, the theory was translated into concrete form in a specific context, creating architectural spaces and urban elements of overlap and simultaneity in a district currently shaped by separations and compartmentalization.

The theory helped transform Qapiarfiusaaq, and Qapiarfiusaaq gave me an opportunity to experiment with how to manifest an intersectionally aware architecture in the physical and historical reality of The Danish Realm. Infrastructure should be planned with the least advantaged in mind including our other-than-human kin, the deconstruction of rigid monuments trying to homogenize our way of life can provide materials to create socially and culturally aware housing, and by finding an overlap between the standardized and hyper-specific, a new housing type can be developed.

And what is the future of an intersectional architecture within The Danish Realm? My investigation was one of geographical specificity in a particular housing area in Nuuk. However, my thesis and the grander theory of intersectionality can help us redefine how we engage with each other in a contemporary transnational, diverse community. Through my project, I saw how remnants from the era of welfare colonialism still shape both the physical, social, and political structures in Nuuk. By becoming increasingly aware of such power dynamics within The Danish Realm, we can deconstruct cultural hierarchies, and thereby create a more equal space in which we cooperate – a necessity for the future of our community. Recognizing the failures of the past and trying to heal them is essential to better understand and empathise with one another. A task we might achieve through both physical and social changes of our built environment based on contemporary social theory implemented in practice. This is why I am thrilled that I will geographically expand the work I have started in my thesis with my coming PhD-studies at UC Berkeley, College of Environmental Design. There, I will be investigating the architectural manifestations of welfare colonialism and it’s contemporary repercussions in the wider arctic area, focusing on Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and the Sami-region in the northern part of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Ultimately, architecture is a manifestation of political action and thought, and investigating its colonial heritage will enable us to demand concrete changes in our contemporary built environment, creating better cities and environments for us all.

Arctic Map
The Arctic. Investigations of Welfare Colonialism. Map, 2021.
Senest opdateret 29. november 2021