Six Frictions
Phineas Harper
5 Apr 2024

50.748968° N, 2.292084° W

“What causes a moving car to slow down? And don’t tell me it’s friction.” There’s a certain breed of teacher who seems to resent the ignorance of their pupils like a doctor sick of ill people. A home-ed kid, I was mostly spared the barked questions of secondary school, but on finally enrolling at sixteen, I had nowhere to hide. “Air resistance?” I guessed, which seemed to appease my physics teacher. “Close enough,” he conceded, almost as relieved as I was. “Friction, of course,” he told us, “is what causes a car to move.”

Friction is indeed what causes cars to move. The drilling of oil and its refinement to petrol, the mining and smelting of ore to make the steel in combustion engines, the robotic arms flanking production lines—the entire automobile industry depends on mastering the all-important coefficient of friction between rubber tires on asphalt. No friction, no movement.

On Friday June 12, 1799, William Pitt (Britain’s youngest-ever prime minister) passed the Combination Act, banning workers from collectivizing. Three decades later in Tolpuddle, Methodist preacher and farmhand George Loveless was arrested and deported along with five others for the crime of swearing an oath to work for no less than ten shillings a week. News of the sentence triggered public outcry and, in an age long before even radio communication, a protest petition of 800,000 signatures was delivered to parliament. The ‘Tolpulddle Martyrs’ became folk heroes—symbols of the tension between ordinary people and their ruling oppressors.

But the story has a happy ending. As an old man, Loveless lived to see the 1871 Trade Union Act finally sweep away Pitt’s legacy and enfranchise the role of unionism in British society, solidifying the kernel of contemporary labor law. Loveless and the Tolpuddle Martyrs are a blunt reminder that every decent facet of Britain’s liberal-ish democratic-ish economy has been won through struggle, sometimes encompassing centuries of class friction. Minimum wages, statutory leave, sick pay, and even weekends had to be prised into existence against powerful resistance. Nothing gets better without a fight.

A typical block of limestone has a compressive strength of around 100 N/mm2. Crushed, heated beyond one thousand degrees, sintered to clinker, ground to cement, mixed with aggregates and water, and cast in formwork as concrete, the new block will now have a compressive strength closer to 40 N/mm2. All those processes, all that energy (cement production alone accounts for seven percent of global greenhouse gas emissions), all that effort to make a material less than half as strong as the original limestone—why?

The following text was generated by an AI fed the prompt: “write about friction in the style of political and architectural critic, Phineas Harper.”
”In architecture, friction has a long and complex history. From the earliest structures made of mud and wood, to the most advanced engineering feats of the modern age, friction has been used to control movement and shape the built environment. At the most basic level, friction is used to keep parts of a structure together, by providing an opposing force to the forces of gravity and other external forces. In urban planning, friction is also an important concept. Friction is used to slow down or prevent unwanted movements, such as the flow of traffic in a city. By introducing obstacles that make it difficult to move from one point to another, planners can control the overall movement of people and vehicles. Friction is thus a powerful tool in the hands of architects and urban planners. By harnessing friction, we can shape our environments and create vibrant urban spaces.“

In 2023 AI writing bots jumped from generating amusing but rarely convincing copy to outputs that are almost indistinguishable from those authored by humans. Soon, droves of copywriters will be losing their jobs to machine learning software as free tools make it possible to automate ever more writing assignments. Will the coming industrial revolution in automation emancipate thousands, allowing radical improvements in employment conditions, or push more workers into precarity while shareholders soak up the profits of cost-cutting? How can even a well-organized union of writers take collective action against The Cloud? The friction between human and machine is mounting towards a bitter conflict.

The clay surrounding the Central Line is now more than 26°C, and air temperatures in the tunnels reach over 35°C every summer (the legal limit for transporting cows, sheep, and pigs in the EU is 30°C). Six-figure cash prizes have been offered to anyone who can devise a solution to cool the tunnels, but until they do, the temperature will keep rising.

Recently, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan called an emergency summit to tackle the rent crisis sweeping the capital. In 2023, London rents were on track to rise 15.8% this year alone as landlords take advantage of the UK’s incredibly weak regulations that offer renters no meaningful protection from exploitation. The crisis underscores how generational housing inequality has become central to the politics of the UK which is now more profoundly polarized by age than any other demographic.

This year an inquest ruled that four-year-old Awaab Ishak died from exposure to mold in his rented house. The complaints of his heartbroken young parents were repeatedly ignored by their disinterested housing association landlord. For societies elsewhere, the lesson is clear: housing is an essential commodity that should never be allowed to slip into deregulated profiteering as it has in the UK. The British rent crisis is nothing short of a catastrophe, pushing a generation into economic servitude, killing children, and breaking any sense of a social contract.

Friction brings conflict and the heat of escalation, but the only hope of ending our housing crisis is that the tension between generations will continue to mount until it snaps, forcing the political change needed to restore dignity to Britain’s young. Nothing gets better without a fight.

This text has been excerpted from forA issue #1: Frictions. To read the full essay, purchase the journal here:

Phineas Harper is a kinetic sculptor, architecture critic, and chief executive of Open City. They curated the 2019 Oslo Architecture Triennale on the architecture of degrowth and are a regular host of the Londown podcast. They co-founded the New Architecture Writers program, which supports young people from underrepresented communities to pursue careers as design critics, and Turncoats, a debating series mixing architecture and stand-up comedy. Their writing has been published in the Guardian, the Independent, Domus, Harvard Design Magazine, and the Literary Review. They live on a council estate in southeast London and have two cats, Kaspar and Alvar.