afterFORM - Parity Group

afterFORM - Parity Group

January 2024

From June to September 2023, the Architecture on Stage programme curated by the Architecture Foundation in partnership with Barbican Centre welcomed five emerging Swiss practices, whose lectures were presented as a series called afterFORM. Each of the practices, 8000 agency, Bessire Winter, Schneider Türtscher, Truwant+Rodet+ and Parity Group is representative of a growing tendency in Swiss architecture to embrace topics including the reuse of existing fabric, urban policy and civil action.

Hi Angelika, Torsten and Shen. Parity Group ETH Zurich has a fluid form of membership, so how should I refer to you?

Torsten: In the past, we have referred to our activities as institutional activism. In a mix of seriousness and irony, some of us even used the term comrade.

Angelika: Torsten mentioned in the afterFORM series “Parity is whoever shows up”. Being part of the Parity Group has a lot to do with being active, but the way you act is very much up to the individual. The beauty of the group is its fluidity. Although the absence of self-definition is a difficulty when you communicate with the outside, you can’t really put its members in or outside of a box and we see that as a strength. There is no word for it, just show up and become part of the group through engaging!

This project started out of frustration and anger against an architectural education and practice dominated by white males with a western focus. After the resonance you found on the campus of ETH Zurich and elsewhere, would you say you are still angry today?

Shen: There is still a lot we can and should do. The Parity Group is always evolving, it was initiated to push against the white supremacist patriarchal power structures within the institution. But as it develops together with the whole community it has also evolved into a network of solidarity. It acts as a counter-space where bottom-up initiatives, ideas, critiques or even subversive practices and teaching methods can find their place. We continue what we initiated, but with the whole community we are now identifying many other urgent issues we need to address. The students’ group Sekundos was formed oin the occasion of Parity Talks to address diasporic belongings with music and sound; tThe group Querformat deals with queer spatial matters. Currently, I am also part of the Fluid Archive, an project intended to dismantle the violence of archive and preserve the knowledge within the Parity Group.  

Quoted from the book Prix Meret Oppenheim 2023, Sarah Ahmed says: “With every complaint, new complaints arise about the way the initial complaint is mishandled”. Do you think there is a cap on equality where things could eventually balance out? How many generations will Parity Group need to resolve the equation?

Shen: I believe not only the Parity Group, but we all should work on achieving equality. Therefore, this question is rather for everyone who hasve got our wake-up call. Meanwhile, I also appreciate the optimism of a world without inequality, which brings us hope. There is something very promising about what the Parity Group has done already. It is very much a matter of who gets involved.

Torsten: You don’t necessarily have to be optimistic, but hopeful. You must be hoping for potential improvement. I don’t think there is an end goal or a target, but over the past nine years you can already tell that the conversation has shifted somewhat. In the beginning the focus was very much around gender equality, other questions were implied but maybe not explicitly articulated. Over the years, the group has gradually arrived at the current intersectional questions around race, class, cultural background, social background, abilities, status, etc.

Still, there remains much to complain about in our institutions. But it is important not to identity the complainant before the complaint. This is also something Ahmed mentions, you can become the figure behind a complaint and become an uncomfortable figure whereas the problem may be structural. It could be a way of taking the problem away from where it originates and blaming the person who articulates the problem. This said, complaining is important but fighting for Parity doesn’t automatically put you on the right side. To resolve that issue the Parity Group had to endure self-criticism and reflection in order to rethink its goals and ambitions.

How did you manage to navigate the idea of being part of an institution - student or teacher- and ally against certain of its structural issues?

Angelika: The idea of ETH being a solid infrastructure is very much a projection and the concept of singularity doesn’t apply here – many people form the institution on a daily basis. I did not study at the ETH therefore I am still trying to understand the whole system, which is challenging. It is extremely important to acknowledge, that the institution is a mass of people in an ever-changing environment. Looking at the Parity Group, this means, that working together on that matter has made us part of the institution. The group is in a very delicate position: We benefit from institutional resources and parts of what the Parity Group does is paid through the ETH, while at the same time we challenge the school. So there is this fine balance between being critical within the institution and seeing its potentials to change for the better.

Do you think gender equality advocacy should be mandatory for large institutions and corporate entities?

Shen: Yes. Gender equality is something we should advocate for and it should be part of procedures. However, it is also important to mention the limits of quotas and the risk of tokenization. It is a simplified assumption to say that if HR has conducted procedures and quotas have been considered, the gender issue is resolved. In fact, it is about looking at power structures which are often invisible and addressing those power structures internally.

Torsten: The Parity Group swings between affirmative action considering concrete goals and a more critical position sceptical of quotas and policies. It  has probably has a lot to do with the fact that it is part of the institution but it is also a space for gathering that tries to place itself outside of the institutional framework.

Angelika: I think action on these topics is often used as a diversity washing in corporate contexts. However, what we see in architecture education, is different insofar as the Parity Group is not only arguing for quotas as in “a better end result on the paper” but rather aiming to understanding and dismantleing power structures. The Parity Group is an active inspiration for other grassroots groups to connect and exchange killjoy moments and help other universities to build up these infrastructures.

What would you say to a freshly graduated student at the start of their career?

Torsten: It’s a question that often makes you sound paternalist. But I would say be kind to yourself and generous. Go ahead with care.

Shen: We are actively bringing up the issue of care as an architectural concern, and really try to understand how care infrastructure is organized around architecture settings. To share some bits of my own experience I think it is crucial to build up community that can foster peer-based chords, specifically important when certain voices need to be heard. These important voices are usually very quiet, and it takes effort to reach out to them and empower them to speak up.

Angelika: I would add joyfulness. Students on their way to becominge architects face great challenges such as the climate crisis in which the entire building industry needs to rethink itself. In this context students and young professionals are confronted with a lot of pressure and uncertainty. If you want to challenge all these structures that we pointed out during our conversation, it is important to make sure you take care of yourself and everyone with you. I can only recommend, what works very wellgreat for the Pparity Ggroup: cCare-taking through creating collective moments of joy.