Re-reading “Tools For Conviviality”

From time to time I feel the need to take up from my shelf a book by Ivan Illich. However, I tend to forget that, before starting to read, I need to prepare myself psychologically, take a walk, spend a day in the countryside, meditate, whatever. It can be weird -and I always find it so- to read such a clear expanation about how sick our society is, and why so. Even more bewildering considering that Tools For Conviviality was written in 1972, before the Internet, cellular phones, or 9/11. But let’s start from skratch: anyone familiar with this extraordinary thinker will ask: what has he got to do with Architecture? Actually I don’t know. I mean to think about it while writing this paper.

The book is a maverick right from the first sentence: “During the next several years I intend to work on an epilogue of the industrial age.” What a vision! Not “about the epilogue”, but the epilogue itself. More than forty years later, did history prove him wrong or was he ahead well over half a century? My mind immediately goes to building industrialization, complex technology and regulations for components and systems in the construction industry, and the resulting constraints for the increasingly superspecialized designer. Is this right? Is it necessary? Let us read.

There is a paragraph about the building trades, where we read that “Quite recently – we are in 1972, remember – Mexico launched a major program with the aim of providing all workers with proper housing. As a first step, new standards were set for the construction of dwelling units. These standards were intended to protect the little man who purchases a house from exploitation by the industry producing it. Paradoxically, these same standards deprived many more people of the traditional opportunity to house themselves. The code specifies minimum requirements that a man who builds his own house in his spare time cannot meet”. And a few lines further: “The pretense of a society to provide ever better housing is the same kind of abberation we have met in the pretense of doctors to provide better health and of engineers to provide higher speeds. The setting of abstract impossible goals turns the means by which these are to be achieved into ends”.

At this point I’m aware that one cannot understand the passage just quoted, out of context: why would anyone want to build his own house? It is obvious that today, in Italy, we have different problems from those of the Mexican citizens back in ’72. But that’s not the point. We are used to living by means of industrialized products – food, medicine, education, transportation – to such a point that we have completely lost sight of the idea that we could simply get out of this logic, and start to decide our destiny in true freedom, building – literally – by ourselves our daily world. Illich calls this structure “radical monopoly”. The trade monopoly is what happens when a certain product – for example, the automobile – is provided by a single company: FIAT, for instance. It can easily be recognized and it is universally agreed that this is not a good thing. In fact, that is why we have trade competition. The radical monopoly is when the use of a tool – the car – is so essential that it becomes mandatory: cities designed for mechanical transports (Los Angeles, Brasilia) can no longer be covered on foot or by bicycle. Luckily for us, we live in a country whose cities are older than cars, nevertheless the ever-increasing distances between home and work and the increasingly low quality of public transports lead us to choose the private (mechanical) vehicles to a point where we don’t even take into account that another choice may be possible.

Other radical monopolies are even more subtle, hidden and pervasive: the monopoly of learning held by the education system and the monopoly of health held by the health system are the favorite themes of Illich. But more than anything else, money is the radical monopoly of exchange, making the economy of barter and gift no longer existing.

Why is this bad? After all, money was invented to avoid having to go around with your sheep on your shoulders to buy spices and fabrics. Similarly, many of us have become accustomed to spending hours and hours in our cars, and no one can say that modern models are as polluting as those in circulation forty years ago. Illich explains this with the theory of the two thresholds: the first threshold of pervasiveness of a tool is reached when it surpasses any other alternative in providing the service for which it was designed, thus starting to become a radical monopoly. This happened regarding the educational system in the second half of the nineteenth century, regarding medicine in the second decade of the twentieth and the automobile in the 1950s. The second threshold is passed when it is impossible to increase the service for which the instrument was designed. From that moment on, the damage caused by the instrument (pollution by vehicles, side effects of medicines, etc.) exceeds its usefulness and it “turns from being a virtue into a professionally organized ritual at the altar of a science”.

In order to find a substitute for the thresholds, Illich proposes the adoption of limits. There exist natural limits, depending on the need of each living species – including the human race – to live together with other individuals and other species in the same ecosphere. Through these limits any organized system – either ecological or social – remains contained within its own scale, the one that allows the system’s unique features the maximum capacity of expression: the biodiversity of the Amazon forest, but also the richness and diversity of traditional human cultures. A self-imposed limit to the pervasiveness of an instrument that has passed the second threshold will allow – providing the community is aware – to restore its capacity to serve as a tool and not as a goal, being convivially usable by individuals who know well what their aim is and are capable of choosing the most appropriate means to achieve it.

What is the weapon used by the institutional apparatus – for which the instrument is the goal and not the means – to defend itself from the attack of people, communities and cultures who disavow industry as the sole dispenser of happiness and good? It is the invention of scarcity and competition as the only way to grab a share of goods consistent with one’s social position in the institutional system. What is outrageous about this? Not competition in itself, which exists in nature and as part of our anthropological DNA, but the underlying principle that anything that can make us happy is measurable, exchangeable, buyable, and therefore that happiness itself is reachable by acquiring the greatest possible quantity of all marketable products: health, education, mobility, exclusive availability of space and goods.

With such a new analytical tool the role of the construction industry in nurturing the unlimited growth of self-referential mechanisms appears obvious: the implementation of new legislation regarding health, security, accessibility and efficiency did not make our homes healthier, safer, more accessible and efficient. On the contrary, it helped create new markets – far beyond the real need for new buildings or renovations – of super-specialized technicians and consequent training institutions and of increasingly sophisticated and interdependent industrial products and components. This becomes all the more evident whenever we have enough courage to observe the world around us with true eyes and to judge it as the result of the economic interests it is governed by rather than as an inexorable fact.

What I am interested in here is to investigate what Architecture can do to reverse this course, to contribute to the realization of what Illich called a convival society. According to him, the collapse of the system and the end of the industrial age were bound to happen all at once, following a catastrophic event such as the Black Friday of Wall Street, after which mankind would understand that the only chance for survival would be to seek voluntary austerity. I believe instead that disasters activate fear and aggravate conflicts. I believe that a convival and equitable society, based on cooperation rather than competition, seeking the qualitiy of being rather than of having, can arise only from individuals and communities who choose austerity having abundance and who prefer the freedom of having less to the slavery of having much. Paolo Soleri called it elegant sobriety: the pursuit of pleasures related to the respect of the cycles of nature and founded on the awareness of belonging to them. I see signs of this new society everywhere: in flea markets, in home-made bread, in the garden terrace, in zero-kilometers food supplies, in bottom-up policies, in going to work by bike. These are small things, and naive is the one who will entrust them for the salvation of the world. But it is all we have, small daily choices against the GDP logic, and we need to nurture them and allow them to grow.

I see building initiatives spreading all around in the environment that are going in the same direction: self-construction, eco-villages, urban gardens, participatory planning, interventions that return degraded areas of the city to public use, initiatives that bring back mixed uses in specialized urban areas. It is all about giving space and attention to these realities, to observe them, learn from them and repeat them, hoping that they will become such a big wave as to overwhelm the indifference of a mass that is addicted to the tyrant instrument and to its honeyed anesthesia.

downloadIvan Illich, Tools For Conviviality, New York; Harper & Row, 1973 / London: Marion Boyars, 2001

About paolo ivaldi

Architetto, lavora presso il Ministero degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale. Ha insegnato progettazione e storia dell’Architettura presso Sapienza Università di Roma. Impegnato in una personale ricerca sul rapporto tra arte e scienza in architettura.

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One Response to Re-reading “Tools For Conviviality”

  1. Biz says:

    Illic è un autore troppo poco considerato oggi. Certo non è facile, oltre ad essere “scomodissimo” per la corrente principale di pensiero che viene promossa dai principali mezzi di comunicazione.

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