Real Abstraction: Architecture as Capital

*Published in Think Space MONEY. Zagreb: DAZ, Think Space Programme, 2014.

By Patricio De Stefani                                                                                          DOWNLOAD PDF

Architecture of Density #39 (c) Michael Wolf,

Architecture of Density #39, Michael Wolf.


Does money really ‘rule’ the world? If money is just the form of appearance of exchange-value, does not a more substantial reality lie behind it? What if money is just a means to realise something far more complex, namely, capital? If this is the case, what sort of architecture has the capitalist mode of production engendered and how? If the production of value is what characterises simple commodity production in pre-capitalist societies, the production of surplus-value defines the capitalist mode of production. How is this surplus produced? Where does profit come from? Only by understanding till what extent capital is embedded in the production of architecture a way to challenge that relationship can be thought about. This process could not have taken place without the integration of architecture, and space in its entirety, into the circuits of capital. Therefore, if capital is a process in which the value contained in commodities continuously changes its form in order to expand itself, then, as soon as architecture steps into this circuit as means of production (a factory or office building, for instance) it turns itself into capital – as constant capital, or more specifically, fixed capital.

Abstract space was born out of the violence and ‘creative destruction’ of primitive accumulation and the establishment of the modern state. Essential to this was also the increasing role of urbanisation in the expansion of markets, eventually reaching the whole globe. Built upon the historical process of abstraction of labour and space, psychologists, art historians and architectural theorists developed the modern concept of space towards the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This concept presented ‘space’ as a neutral and autonomous void/volume divorced from the social and political practices which produce it. Indeed, the reduction of space to this apolitical, visual-aesthetic, or purely empirical state is no mere ideology, but fulfils a precise practical function: to ensure the reproduction of social relations of production. This is not achieved without major problems though. Contradictions internal to the development of capitalism (notably between capital and labour) are increased at the spatial level as a simultaneous tendency towards an absolute homogenisation and fragmentation of space. Space and architecture become real abstractions (like money or capital), apparently autonomous and rational objects which aspire to homogenise whatever stands on the way of the forces of accumulation (the state and the world market), paradoxically, by means of fragmenting and subdividing space according to their requirements. If space/architecture can serve political and economic purposes by reinforcing the reproduction of production/property relations, could it serve as a device to confront these relations?

Keywords: Value, Capital, Abstract Space, Abstract Architecture


We often hear ‘radical’ common wisdom complain about money as the ‘root of all evil’, or the conservative one as the ‘necessary evil’, but evil anyway. What those well-intentioned moral critiques usually forget is that money is just another commodity, but a very special commodity indeed. Just to name a few of its ‘special properties’: it measures the value of all other commodities at the same time it allows their trade or circulation. Does money really ‘rule’ the world? If we spend half of our live making it and the other half spending it, who could think it does not determine a huge part of it? But what is behind the mystery of money? Is money always capital? What is their relation to social space and architecture?

In what follows I intend a historical approach to the process of abstraction of space by which architecture was transformed to fit the requirements of capital accumulation in the emergence of bourgeois society. It will be argued that only by understanding till what extent capital is embedded in the production of architecture a way to challenge that relationship can be thought about.

The Emergence of Abstract Space

What is money? Marx pointed out that it was the first historical form in which capital appeared but it did not coincide with it. Money can only become capital by circulating in such a way that increases itself during the process.[1] Along to the emergence and development of commodity production, one commodity was inevitably bound to assume the function of universal equivalent to all others. But money is only the form of appearance of exchange-value. As Harvey points out, Marx defined capital not as a stock or asset (as Smith or Ricardo did), but as ‘value in motion’.[2] If the production of value is what characterises simple commodity production in pre-capitalist societies, the production of surplus-value is what defines the capitalist mode of production. How is this surplus produced? Where does profit come from? Marx came to the conclusion that only a commodity called labour-power had the capacity to produce more value than it costs. The precondition for transforming human labour into a commodity was the dispossession of direct producers from access to and control of means of production and subsistence by a rising new social class, the bourgeoisie. The process by which the new owner of these means buys labour-power to produce fresh commodities which he then sells for the original money advanced plus a profit, defines the concept of capital. What kind of social space and architecture has this process engendered? What factors have shaped it and how?

In his historical inquiry on space and its production Lefebvre defines, in general terms, abstract space as the space produced by capitalism under the command of the bourgeoisie. That is, as that function of space which has gradually coming to dominate all previous spatial formations along with the ascendancy of the economic sphere.[3] The emergence of abstract space was correlative with the process of abstraction of human labour or that period called since Smith and Marx, previous or primitive accumulation.[4] In Lefebvre’s account, establishing the space of accumulation required a great deal of violence which was institutionalized in the form of the state.[5] The modern nation-state is viewed here as a framework which ensures the interests of the ruling class (bourgeoisie) prevail in society. In what precise sense then can we speak of abstract space or the abstraction of space? What are its characteristic features?

The sense given here to abstraction should be carefully scrutinised. The meaning that Lefebvre had in mind is analogous to that of abstract labour – i.e. an abstraction which exists as a social relation. A real or concrete abstraction is something very different then from ‘conceptual’ abstraction; hence Marx aimed at demonstrating that concrete abstractions were the real base upon which mental abstractions (or ideologies) were constructed. As Sohn-Rethel asserts, speaking of an abstraction which is concrete would seem a logical contradiction,[6] and so the only way to grasp it is through both dialectics and logic. As Stanek observes, for Lefebvre space is at once concrete and abstract, heterogeneous and homogenous;[7] it is only within capitalism that the latter aspect gains primacy over the former. Therefore, if the abstraction of labour is characterised by the reduction of concrete types of labour to the undifferentiated realm of labour in general, the abstraction of space is identified by the reduction of concrete places and locations to the homogenous realm of ‘universal space’.[8]

Abstract space is a false-yet-real space, a fetishised space which sees itself as a formal and autonomous thing independent of any social contents – as an empty, purely visual and empirical object, transparent and legible, coherent and unified.[9] Since space is at once a product of social relations and the producer of them, a double set of features can be distinguished: as product it is quantitative and qualitative, abstract and concrete, homogenous and fragmented. As producer (or instrument) abstract space has two main functions: it is an exchange medium (for the market) and a political instrument (for the state). Accordingly, the process of abstraction of space – its transformation to serve the purpose, first of the primitive accumulation of capital, then of its expansion towards a world market through ever-increasing urbanisation – sets the conditions for the gradual process of abstraction of architecture, first in the building industry in relation to changes in production, and later in the theories of modern avant-garde artists and architects which reflected this reality and whose rational methods greatly influenced the production of space as a whole.

The Abstraction of Architecture

The central contradiction of abstract space is that it is (or it aspires to be) simultaneously homogeneous and fragmented – universal, yet ruthlessly subdivided. It should be borne in mind that these are not formal properties intrinsic to space, but rather the outcome of a spatial practice – a practice which produces space by literally homogenising and fragmenting it.[10] Lefebvre drew some of these conclusions from his early analyses of the French urbanism of the grands ensembles (housing states) and the villes nouvelles (new towns) – such as Mourenx in the south of France – during the 1950s and 1960s.[11] Such analyses critiqued the abstraction of state-led urban planning, and posed the problem of ‘the contradiction between the abstract rationality of urbanism and the concrete rationality of the practices of dwelling’,[12] or between the abstract and quantitative logic of capitalist space versus the everyday space of people.

The parallel which Lefebvre established between abstract labour and abstract space led him to search the historical moment in which the modern concept of space begun to be formulated after having emerged out of  the new relations of production imposed by capitalism.[13] The moment in question was the rise of the Bauhaus in the aftermath of the German Revolution and the establishment of the Weimar Republic in the early 1920s. The avant-garde artists and architects from the Bauhaus formulated a universal concept of space and established a direct relation between industry and architectural and urban development.[14] Despite space has been the object of philosophy and science since ancient times, its awareness as an aesthetic and practical problem dates only from the second half of the nineteenth century. As Morales asserts, it was Hegel who first addressed architecture as the art of enclosing space.[15] The influence experimental psychology – Stumpf and the gestaltpsychologie, for example – had on art historians such as Semper, Schmarsow, Riegl, Fiedler, and Wölfflin[16] was reflected in their respective theories which emphasised a formalist and visualist approach to art and architecture, mainly influenced by Kantianism.[17] According to Stanek, Lefebvre’s critique of the newly introduced concept of ‘architectonic space’ as the ‘essence’ of architecture or its specific feature,[18] was aimed at showing that the concept of space adopted by psychologists, art historians, and later painters and architects, was fetishistic (ideological) from the outset. Indeed, it was only the distorted manifestation in theory of real contradictions in the (social) production of space and the city.[19] Hence, by defining space as a neutral pre-existing void waiting to be filled by social practices, architects contributed to keep obscured the actual process of production of architecture under capitalism.

Once abstract space made its way into architectural theory and was raised as its main battle cry, modern architects developed new ways of working and representing their work – e.g. axonometric views, functional and solar diagrams, and so on. Yet, this new ‘code’ derived from a space conceived of as a mental category – i.e. as seen by philosophy, logic, and the empirical sciences. Hence, architectural practice confronted social contradictions by reducing and concealing them under the banner of positivism.[20] The notion of a supposedly specific ‘architectonic space’ served to further abstract it from the actual social relations which produced it; consequently, ‘the architect’ appeared as the primary ‘producer of space’. Thus, Lefebvre argues that

(…) within the spatial practice of modern society, the architect ensconces himself in his own space. He has a representation of this space, one which is bound to graphic  elements (…) This conceived space is thought by those who make use of it to be true, despite the fact – or perhaps because of the fact – that it is geometrical (…)’.[21]

Hence, the abstraction implied in architectural plans and projections is not acknowledged as such; instead it is taken to be in strict correspondence with empirical reality – paradoxically negating its own abstract character as a representation of space. As Lefebvre states:

The architect cannot, as he easily tends to believe, localise his thought and his perceptions on the drawing board, visualise things (needs, functions, objects) by projecting them. He confuses projection and project in a confused ideality which he believes to be ‘real’ (…) The sheet at hand, before the eyes of the draughtsman, is as blank as it is flat: He believes it to be neutral. He believes that this neutral space which passively receives the marks of his pencil corresponds to the neutral space outside, which receives things, point by point, place by place. As for the ‘plan’, it does not remain innocently on paper. On the ground, the bulldozer realises ‘plans’.[22]

The actual space which results from this process implies reductions at many levels. The reduction of form to figure (and from volume to surface) for instance, is a clear sign of the violence such procedures impose onto social space – which is full of local differences and particularities, and often indistinguishable from the practices which take place on it. This is a mental space which may seem geometrically consistent but which never managed to reach the (perceptual and social) reality of bodies, hence an ‘incomplete’ and idealised space. Highly abstract in that it is thought more in accordance with an ‘idea’ or ‘representation’ than reality itself, this is a space ‘literally flattened out, confined to a surface, to a single plane’.[23] The rhetorical terms in which this was presented as the ‘overcoming of the division between inside and outside’, was used to obscure the reductive procedures at work. Paradoxically, this ‘new transparency’ concealed its real purpose: to cover up the contradictions in the production of space and make them appear clear and legible; hence, this new tectonic was transparent only in appearance.  A self-referential formalism began to emerge along these lines in the years of the avant-gardes – for example in Dutch neoplasticism and certain strands of soviet constructivism – which further fetishised the notion of space as primarily the result of abstract formal experimentation.

In accordance with his theory of the production of space as representing a new (global) stage in the development of capitalism, Lefebvre thought investment in space (real estate sector) has been increasingly gaining the upper hand to investment in production. This he called the secondary circuit of capital.[24] This shift takes place, among other things, to displace stagnation in the primary circuit:

‘Real property’ (along with ‘construction’) is no longer a secondary form of circulation, no longer the auxiliary and backward branch of industrial and financial capitalism that it once was (…) Capitalism has taken possession of the land, and mobilized it to the point where this sector is fast becoming central. Why? Because it is a new sector – and hence less beset by the obstacles, surfeits, and miscellaneous problems that slow down old industries. Capital has thus rushed into the production of space in preference to the classical forms of production – in preference to the production of the means of production (machinery) and that of consumer goods. This process accelerates whenever ‘classical’ sectors show the slightest sign of flagging.[25]

Following these and Marx’s insights, Harvey introduced the idea of a built environment for production and one for consumption.[26] The former is composed by fixed capital which is either a direct instrument in the production process (e.g. producer durables, machinery) or the physical infrastructure for this to take place – which Harvey calls ‘fixed capital of an independent kind’ (e.g. factories, offices).[27] The built environment for consumption consists in a consumption fund, which is composed by commodities which are an aid to direct consumption; they can be either consumer durables (e.g. appliances, furniture, cars) or the physical framework required for consumption (e.g. houses, buildings, streets, etc.). It would seem unequivocal then, that architecture is either a form of fixed capital or of the consumption fund, unfortunately the definition of the former requires further elucidation which I do not have the space to develop here.

If architecture can be part of the circuits of capital, either directly (fixed capital) or indirectly (consumption fund), does its abstraction process occur in the same manner? On first inspection, no. Only architecture which is fixed capital is restrained by the spatio-temporal requirements of production; yet, architecture often can be simultaneously means of production and consumption:

It is not necessarily the case that fixed capital is capital which in all its aspects serves not for individual consumption, but only for production. A house can serve for production as well as for consumption; likewise all vehicles, a ship and a wagon, for pleasure outings as well as a means of transport; a street as a means of communication for production proper, as well as for taking walks etc.[28]

This dual aspect was dramatically emphasised by modernist architecture. A concrete example could be the connection between scientific management techniques (Taylorism) and architecture made by Christine Frederick.[29] A functionalism avant la lettre, she proposed an ‘efficient grouping’ for a kitchen plan in which all equipments were organised according to a sequential order of the cooking process to save time, echoing the model of the assembly line popularised by Henry Ford. Under the supervision of Ernst May, Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky applied this model to various social housing projects in Frankfurt. Rather unsurprisingly, this type of studies became common at the Bauhaus. Scientific management implied the rationalisation and disciplining of labour. Along with the breaking down of this process into simple and repetitive tasks, architecture was accordingly fragmented into its different component functions which mirrored the division of labour. The subordination of the entirety of space/architecture to the requirements of capitalism demanded also the exchangeability of all its component parts; hence, architecture began to be progressively standardised.

As the abstract logic of capital leaves the sphere of production and starts to determine all the aspects of everyday spaces in the city (with the aid of modern architecture), a constant struggle develops ‘between interests organised around social space, as the site of social use values and the deployment of communal relations in space, and around abstract space as the space of real estate development and government administration – the combined articulation between economic and political modes of domination’.[30] This struggle is more complex than the simplified Marxist model of class struggle as derived from the contradiction between capital (bourgeoisie), labour (proletariat), and land (landowners). Accordingly, the question of the role of architects in it is crucial to understand the political dimension of architecture.



[1] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume I), trans. by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc., 2011), 164.

[2] David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital (London: Verso, 2010), 90.

[3] Ibid, 275.

[4] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Petersfield: Harriman House Ltd, 2007), 175.

Marx, Capital, 786.

[5] Ibid, 280.

[6] Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology (London: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1978), 19.

[7] Łukasz Stanek, Henri Lefebvre on Space: Architecture, Urban Research, and the Production of Theory (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), 145.

[8] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1991), 296-97.

[9] Ibid, 355.

[10] Henri Lefebvre, Espacio y Política: El Derecho a la Ciudad II  (Barcelona: Peninsula, 1972), 42.

[11] Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity: Twelve Preludes September 1959–May 1961 (London: Verso, 2011), 119-20-21.

[12] Stanek, Henri Lefebvre, 145.

[13] Stanek, Henri Lefebvre, 146.

[14] Lefebvre, The Production, 124.

[15] José Ricardo Morales, Arquitectónica: Sobre la idea y el sentido de la arquitectura (Santiago: Universidad de Chile, 1969), 140. See also: G. W. F. Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art (Volume II), trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), 633.

[16] Robert Vischer et al., Empathy, Form, and Space: Problems in German Aesthetics, 1873-1893,  Robert Vischer et al. (Santa Monica, CA: J. Paul Getty Trust Publications, 1994).

[17] Josep Maria Montaner, Arquitectura y Crítica (Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 2002) 24-30. See also: Stanek, Henri Lefebvre, 147. I have also reviewed these early theories of space and their influence in modern architectural theory, see: Patricio De Stefani, “Reflexiones sobre los Conceptos de Espacio y Lugar en la Arquitectura del Siglo XX”, DU&P 16 (2009).

[18] Bruno Zevi, Saber Ver la Arquitectura: Ensayo sobre la Interpretación Espacial de la Arquitectura (Barcelona: Poseidon, 1981). See also: Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980).

[19] Lefebvre, The Production, 104, 360.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid, 361.

[22] Henri Lefebvre, Writings on Cities, eds. Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), 191.

[23] Lefebvre, The Production, 313.

[24] This circuit should not be confused with those examined by Marx in Part I of Volume II of Capital (money capital, commodity-capital, and productive capital circuits).

[25] Lefebvre, The Production, 335.

[26] David Harvey, The Urbanization of Capital (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1985), 6; The Limits to Capital (London: Verso, 2006), 232-35.

[27] Harvey, The Limits, 226.

[28] Marx, Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie, trans. by Martin Nicolaus (Penguin: 1973), 368, Marxists Internet Archive, accessed June 14, 2012,

[29] Christine Frederick, Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home (Chicago: American School of Home Economics, 1923).

[30] Gottdiener, The Social Production of Urban Space (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1985), 163.

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UNCTAD III: Contradictory Architecture (Draft)

Note: Draft for the second section of Chapter 5.

By Patricio De Stefani

This building reflects the spirit of
work, creativity and
effort of the people of Chile,
represented by:
their workers
their technicians
their artists
their professionals
It was built in 275 days and finished
on April 3, 1972 during the popular
government of comrade
President, Salvador Allende G.


1971, Utopia:

Industry, Modernism, and Class Struggle in the Chilean Road to Socialism

The building for the third international session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD III)[2] was built in Santiago de Chile, between June 1971 and April 1972, during the government of socialist president Salvador Allende.[3] Its history is marked by a series of ‘traumatic’ social and political events, to say the least. In this section I will focus on a ‘political economy’ of the building in relation to particular aspects of the Chilean economic system during the late 1960s and early 1970s. To do so I will use the main hypotheses and concepts developed in the first part of this research, the wider economic, social, and political background of the epoch, and the case and role of CORMU[4] in the design of a new way of conceiving urban space and architecture influenced mainly by the Bauhaus and CIAM ideologies, but also by the social and political visions embedded in Chile’s emerging modern culture.

We will need to compare the general premises which the project intended regarding the relationship between modern architecture and the existing city, with the actual relationship the building established with the city of Santiago. How did UNCTAD III related to the existing city? What was the general and specific mode of this relationship? Answering these questions requires that we distinguish between the building as sensory thing and the building as social object.

As a concrete urban intervention, it was originally meant to complete a larger modernist housing complex: San Borja Urban Renewal. This development was part of the urban policies carried out by CORMU (since 1966) and the housing policies of CORVI[5] –both dependent of the Ministry of Housing and Urbanism (MINVU).[6] The role and vision of these State institutions was largely progressive and focused on solving housing and urban problems of the working class. The building is located at the centre of Santiago on a triangular block. Its main entrance faces south to the city’s main street, ‘Alameda’ (Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins), and to San Borja; to the west is Santa Lucia Hill (the city’s foundational place); to the north Lastarria neighbourhood, Forestal Park, and San Cristobal Hill; and to the east, one of the main squares of the city, Plaza Baquedano. It is an isolated building composed of two main volumes, a slab-shaped horizontal volume containing all main conference halls and other facilities; and a tower comprising secretariat functions (Fig. 1). The horizontal block’s general magnitude could be summed up as follows: 180 m length, 50 m width, and 20 m height; whereas the tower’s is 24 m length, 20 m width, and 80 m height. The main building comprises three smaller buildings (of steel structure and corrugated sheet cladding), and upon them a flat steel spaceframe roof rests on sixteen concrete pillars. The building connects, through its main entrance, Alameda Avenue and Lastarria neighbourhood (Fig. 2).

Fig.1. UNCTAD III building, slab-shaped building and tower, 1972

Fig.2. Urban context (Central Santiago), from San Cristobal Hill facing south, 1973

As an urban object, the building materialises a more general scheme of intervention within the existing city. CORMU saw this as an obsolete and inefficient bourgeois structure which was the direct outcome of the ‘anarchy’ and inequalities of capitalism (Honold and Poblete, quoted by Gámez 2006, 11). The main task of Chilean modernist planners and architects was to impose order on the existing city, an order which was at once necessary, rational, universal, and humane. However, we shall see that Chilean modernism differed in important aspects from more general developments within international modern architecture, and part of this was due to the influence of Latin American economic policies. As an architectural object, UNCTAD III was organised around a variation on the modern idea of the homogenous plan libre. The multiple activities related to the conference were organised into a single, compact, rectangular plan in which activities are ‘freely’ distributed around functional nuclei –including conference halls as such (Fig. 3).

Fig.3. Site plan and first floor plan

As soon as we analyse this conditions and ideas more closely, contradictions emerge. The ideology of CORMU largely reflected contradictory aims, such as the integration through urbanisation of the poor population –as means to prevent social uprisings– while at the same time arguing for a ‘socialist’ and modern transformation of the bourgeois city. Yet, as this discourse came from the ‘modernising’ State’s dominant ideology of ‘productivism’[7], we need a deeper understanding of the economic conditions of those decades.

From the early 1940s to the late 1960s the Chilean socio-economic formation[8] was characterised by a partial import-substituting industrialisation model (ISI)[9], following developmentalist economic theories.[10] These were adopted by various Latin-American governments in order to promote industrialisation as a way to overcome underdevelopment and crisis of their export markets –worsened by the Great Depression (Hettne 2001, 137). Chile’s international economic relations were marked by the way in which underdeveloped countries tried to cope with modernisation without keeping its former dependency on first world nations, which they accused of imperialism and exploitation through unequal exchange.[11] Under this impulse, a number of international institutions were created along the lines of the concepts of ‘development’ and ‘modernisation’[12] –e.g. CEPAL, UNCTAD.[13] In Chile, new State institutions such as CORFO[14] were created to these effects. However, the model was ‘exhausted’ soon due to the impact of World War II and internal issues such as lack of demand in consumer goods.[15] In 1958, the emerging bourgeoisie managed to elect Jorge Alessandri –a wealthiest industrial man– as the new president, who promoted openness to foreign investments as a way of funding the ISI model in new sectors of the economy –e.g. capital goods and consumer durables (Vitale 1998, 207-208). During the 1950s and 1960s there were massive migratory movements of the peasantry to the urban centres. This resulted in a shortage of housing and other services which the State had to fulfil, but at the same time a rise in demand which allowed the ISI model to recover. From 1964 to 1970, President Eduardo Frei Montalva, a Christian democrat who followed the developmentalist lines recommended by CEPAL, relied heavily on loans from the US –which substantially increased the external debt as part of the ‘Alliance for Progress’ plan set-up by Kennedy in 1961[16]– to finance his proposals. Two of his most popular measures were the ‘Chileanisation of copper’[17] and the ‘Agrarian Reform’[18] –both of which were only partially achieved.

As the 1929 financial crash resulted in a decrease of currency incomes –which were formerly used to import manufactured products– CEPAL suggested that Latin American governments should adopt the ISI model. Nonetheless, this process of national industrialisation was limited by its dependence on foreign monopoly capital, which exported the necessary machinery and inputs for the new surrogate industries (Vitale 1998, 11). For this reason the Chilean government under Alessandri and Frei endorsed duty-free to foreign imports. This allowed the industrial bourgeoisie to save from large investment in machinery, increasing the organic composition of capital, while relying on cheap labour power (variable capital) –mostly peasants coming to the urban centres– to substantially increase their profits and expand their industries from consumer goods to consumer and producer durables (Vitale 1998, 6, 207-208). Increasing inflation and social unrest due to poor living and working conditions, pressured the State to promote large investments in urbanisation (services, mass housing and transport) as a strategy to both integrate workers and peasants and provide the necessary infrastructure required by industrialisation (Vitale 1998, 146). Meanwhile the agrarian and commercial bourgeoisie started to shift their investments to the industrial sector, which soon began to be controlled by foreign companies through massive capital investment. Towards the late 1960s the Chilean accumulation model was characterised as being highly concentrated, mono-exporter, heterogeneous, with low savings, growth, and technical progress, and unable to overcome chronic inflation (Cornejo 2011, 174).

The general ideological climate which emerged from and influenced these economic conditions was dominated by two main trends. The first was the direct involvement of the dominant class with foreign capital in the context of the Cold War. This resulted in a fierce defence of private property and control over the means of production, masked as a defence of individual ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, usually supplemented by contradictory aims, such as ‘reformism’ and ‘nationalist integration’, represented by the Christian Democratic Party (DC) and the National Party (NP), respectively. The second was the rising peasant and working class movements demanding land and housing, which soon translated into ‘land occupations’. Boosted by the Agrarian Reform, the Cuban Revolution and the French May 68’ experiences, this period was characterised by escalating strikes and a rapid process of unionisation, which was violently repressed by Frei’s government, resulting in several massacres (Vitale 2000, 26). However, it was precisely his administration that unleashed these social movements that demanded the realisation of his promises of a ‘revolution in freedom’ (Vitale 2000, 23). This situation, coupled with internal splits within DC, and the loss of hegemony of the industrial and financial bourgeoisie led in 1970 to the triumph of the Popular Unity coalition (UP)[19] represented by Salvador Allende (Saavedra 2007, 178).

The economic strategy pursued by Allende’s government was summed up by him as follows: ‘By unleashing into the economic system dynamic forces thwarted before, we intend to overcome the traditional growth model that was based almost exclusively on increasing exports and import substitution. Our strategy involves giving priority to popular consumption and to rely on the abilities of the domestic market’ (Allende 1989, 317). Although Allende was openly Marxist and socialist, he made it clear that his government wouldn’t achieve ‘socialism’ but rather open a ‘path’ towards it, according to Chile’s own self-determination and situation. His government was transitional, he stated, but nonetheless ‘popular, national, anti-imperialist, and revolutionary’ (Allende 1983, 50). Thus, the so called ‘Chilean road to socialism’ emerges out of ‘facing the need to initiate a new way of building the socialist society: our revolutionary road, the pluralistic path, anticipated by the classics of Marxism, but never before put into practice’ (Allende 2009, 71).

The contradictions of the Chilean ‘dependent’ form of capitalism –which started to burst under Frei’s government–, were deepened during the UP period. As Allende nationalised copper and all major industries –which were now part of the ‘social property area’[20]– and radicalised the Agrarian Reform, conflicts between these social processes and the legal and institutional apparatus led by and for the bourgeoisie, dramatically increased. Several attempts to prevent Allende to assume power were made by the far-right, including a failed coup attempt backed by the CIA.[21] At the ideological level, the political centre threw media campaigns posing the coming ‘communist tyranny’ against ‘freedom and democracy’.[22] Class struggle –as an objective social process– starts to become part of everyday Chilean reality.

As any State institution during this period, CORMU also took active part in the process of transformation of Chilean society. This was manifested in the radicalisation of its direction and aims. Despite having inherited the ‘reformist’ approach of Frei’s administration, CORMU was called ‘to replace the escalating classist dehumanisation that evidenced the chaotic growth of the city, by a policy of recovery of our landscape, our popular traditions and habits of recreation, guiding them now to the impoverished sectors of the population’ (CORMU, quoted by Gámez 2006, 17). We can see already here an attempt to conciliate a socialist, a modern, a ‘regionalist’, and a welfare approach to the problem of the city, therefore, distancing from the influence of the European and (north) American schemes. All of these new institutions were created during Frei’s government, and they intended to give the State a leading role in the production of urban space as a way to boost the economy as well as integrate the marginalised population into the process of modernisation (Raposo and Valencia 2005, 95). Yet, in real practice, this process was aimed mostly to the middle classes, suggesting that increasing social polarisation brought about by capitalism’s contradictions could be mitigated by repositioning the middle classes into the city’s centre (Raposo and Valencia 2005, 139). San Borja Urban Renewal represented precisely this kind of attempt. Thus, the government expected that ‘from these places of renewal would begin the process of gradual shortening of inherited social distances’ (Raposo, Raposo and Valencia 2005, 247-248).

Once in power, UP was critical of the attempts made by DC. Relegation of popular masses towards the cities’ periphery, lack of social content in housing policies, and dominance of market criteria, were denounced and confronted. Yet, despite its radical claims against the bourgeois city, in its real practice CORMU always acknowledged its dependence on private investments to carry on its programme (Raposo, Valencia and Raposo 2005, 95, 98, 135). The strategic switch into the second circuit of capital –planned by the State– could then be reoriented to correct social fragmentation in the space of the city itself. This was materialised by building popular neighbourhoods in middle and upper class areas (Raposo and Valencia 2005, 109). CORMU’S legal attributions to put these ideas into practice were broad. It could buy, sell, and expropriate immediately a large number of sites in order to build ‘harmonic ensembles’ (Raposo and Valencia 2005, 98) justified by the fact that the city required ‘a speedy instrument regarding expropriations since the social interest is above any individual consideration’ (Schapira, quoted by Gámez 2006, 10).

With this background in mind, we can now address UNCTAD III more clearly. To our initial ‘pragmatic’ distinction between the building as thing and object, we will have to add a new dialectical pair. For we encounter in this building a confluence of many factors of political, architectural, and economic relevance. The question is: which of them are to be considered as inherent to its architecture and which part of the contingency of the historical situation? As we briefly outlined in the previous chapter, this will compel us to distinguish between the building as the result and condition of a concrete social practice, and as an ideological representation –with all its associated meanings and symbolism, which are particularly strong in this case.

After one year and a half of government, the national balance was optimistic due to a successful policy of redistribution and economic reactivation, which in turn increased popular support –even at the international level, the democratic election of the first Marxist president did not go unnoticed, since most of the European left at that time, facing Stalinism, was looking for a democratic road to socialism (Harnecker 1998, 34). This was reflected in the designation of Santiago de Chile, by the UNCTAD commission, to organise the third version of the conference on condition that the required facilities could be provided. Furthermore, UNCTAD was strongly influenced by dependencia Marxist theorists[23] from CEPAL, who argued that the situation of underdeveloped countries was not due to their lack of inclusion into the world market, but by the very way in which they were integrated into it (Hettne 2001, 137). Allende himself was influenced by this view, stating that ‘the task assigned to UNCTAD III is figuring out new economic and trade structures precisely because those established after the war, severely harming developing countries, are falling apart and will disappear’ (Allende 1989, 319). From the beginning he saw the conference as an opportunity to show to the world the benefits of the structural changes he was carrying out.

The most notable thing about the building was the extraordinary effort demanded to the people involved: just ten months to build almost 40.000 m2 –a task that normally took between three and four years in that epoch. The team of five architects in charge (José Covacevic, Juan Echeñique, Hugo Gaggero, Sergio González, and José Medina) belonged to CORMU and shared a strong ideological cohesion and commitment (Raposo and Valencia 2005, 110). The site was chosen due to its central location and –since it was originally meant to be part of San Borja Housing complex– one of the apartment towers was already being built, which was harnessed to save time. A strategy was needed to advance as fast as possible. According to its colleagues, González came up with the original idea for the building: a ‘large tent’ with all the facilities arranged under it (Fig. 4, Wong 2011, 66). In this way such tasks as building the roof and the conference halls could be performed simultaneously. To this initial strategy several ideas were added up: the continuity (‘tunnel’) with San Borja all the way through the building towards Lastarria neighbourhood (Fig. 5); the idea of a ‘plaza-building’; and that it should also function as a ‘station’ with underground and aboveground connections to the city (Fig. 6). Also, Allende proposed that after the conference the building should turn into a cultural centre for popular culture, a ‘building of the workers’.[24]

Fig.4. Early and last stage models, 1971

Fig.5. Constructive and structural concept ‘parallel works’; tunnel from housing to park

Fig.6. Plaza-building; Station-building

However, focusing merely on these ‘architectural ideas’ would be hardly satisfactory for our analysis. We must refer them back to their ideological framework and even further, to the social practice from which they emerged. The already discussed notion of abstract space –the space of accumulation– will have to be considered in relation to the particular ‘modernism’ which this building intended to realise. Thus, an inevitable question looms: how a space brought about by modernity (capitalism) could be used to embody a socialist ‘revolution’? Did UNCTAD III managed to bridge the gap between the critical negation of the existing (bourgeois) city and the positive foreshadowing of a future ‘socialist’ space? These questions, which pertain to the ideological realm, will lead us to confront the contradiction between a negative conception of ideology (fetishism) and a positive one (class consciousness). What about the building as a social practice –as organisation of activities, both for its production and its use? Functional (mental) abstractions will have to be confronted with the (social) abstraction of objects which structures activities, first of workers and then of ‘users’. Was UNCTAD III the last ‘hope’ of the Chilean road to socialism, its last utopia? As we will see, the tension between modern and socialist utopias embodied in this building –between reproduction and transformation, the State and workers– will have an unexpected turn, which will emphasise the (architectural) brutality needed to maintain the social order.

1973, Tragedy:

The Neoliberal Utopia, Terror and the Dismantling of Chilean Architecture

Following the building’s opening and the development of the conference during April and May of 1972, something changed.[25] The government had to confront major economic problems, such as the decline in private investment, hyperinflation, supply shortage, high levels of speculation and flight of capital, and several strikes. Some economists have attempted to explain these issues solely as failures of the State’s ‘irresponsibility’, on its ‘populist’ spending and redistribution through salary increase (Cornejo 2011, 182; Meller 1996, 117-133; Ffrench-Davis 2003, 28-29). But their conclusions rest on ignoring the economic impact of class struggle, the reactionary sabotage of the bourgeoisie, and American interventionism (Cornejo 2011, 181-182). Allende and the working class joined forces to face the real causes of the economic predicament: black propaganda, bank run, black market, hoarding, terrorist attacks on industrial assets, US invisible blockade (veto to international loans and credits), ceasing of spare parts imports, and financing and training of paramilitary fascists groups to create a ‘coup climate’ (Harnecker 1998, 36). To counteract some of these actions without transferring their impacts on workers, the government had to expand the money supply –with subsequent inflationary pressures (Harnecker 1998, 34)– and create DINAC, JAP, and ‘popular markets’[26] to control supply, distribution, and prices. Complementing these measures, workers began to take control of expropriated factories, forming ‘industrial belts’[27], and organising ‘communal commands’ on popular neighbourhoods to voluntarily help government agencies. This spirit of cooperation among workers, and between them and the government, will characterise what begun to be known as ‘popular power’, the spontaneous organisation and collective class consciousness of workers in the struggle for their economic emancipation.

The people involved in the construction of UNCTAD III soon realised that not only it was going to be an enormous challenge, but that in order to achieve their goal, the labour process itself should undergo a radical transformation. The architects and engineers recall the fact that workers were very committed to the task, they wanted to show they ‘were able to build a more just society’ (Troncoso 2011, 60). Furthermore, according to Hellmuth Stuven, one of the engineers, workers participated in the planning meetings proposing improvements to save time. Even more, he added that ‘without inverting the pyramid we couldn’t move forward, we were simply going to fail’ (Stuven 2007). This has to be understood as part of the overall social situation in which it was set up a real ‘battle of production’[28] –to counteract the opposition’s boycott. DC still had influence on some sectors of the working class and paid them to strike against the government on ‘single issue’ demands (Harnecker 1998, 36). To divide and turn workers against themselves –against their interests as class– was a hard blow to the government. Yet, workers who were conscious of this understood that they had to work twice as faster to keep production going. To achieve this they started to organise the labour process by themselves, denouncing their managers’ boycotts to government agencies. UNCTAD clearly reflected this climate, particularly when there was scarcity of spare parts to run some machines, or when the engineers’ trade union went on strike, and workers replaced them (Maulén 2006, 90). From these experiences it follows that the underlying social structure of activities (human acts) which controlled the organisation of work must have been altered in some way. Did this mean that it had an effect on the configuration of architectural objects? Certainly, decisions on how to organise time and space directly influenced the plan and design of the building, but changes in the organisation of workers were parallel –not previous– to the construction process.

Did the spatial and temporal organisation (objects) of UNCTAD’s plan fundamentally challenge the capitalist production of space in Santiago? No. First, the problem we have to face here is that of a mismatch between the architects’ political and moral discourse and the underlying structure of their design. This contradiction is not specific to UNCTAD but runs throughout the history of modern architecture: modernism as aesthetic formalism and modernism as pure materialist functionalism. Tafuri has indentified this internal conflict in Hannes Meyer’s attempt to conflate modern architecture and Marxism (Tafuri and Dal Co 1980, 173). Secondly, we have shown how Lefebvre’s notion of abstract space was the material basis that enabled the emergence of Bauhaus theories and of modernist architecture, and not the other way around (Lefebvre 1991, 304). That is, architects did not ‘invent’ abstract (modern) space; their theories reproduced something that was already there, a real abstraction functioning and organising production and society. It follows that even if CORMU attempted an ‘aestheticisation of politics’ (Raposo, Raposo and Valencia 2005, 168) –to announce social change on the built environment itself–, it failed to foreshadow an architecture that structurally confronted the capitalist production of space. Nevertheless, this must be viewed as part of UP’s ambiguous relation to modernity as a limited but potentially revolutionary force (Pinedo 2000, 139). This was, in a sense, ‘mirrored’ in the relationship between CORMU and modern architecture, in which orthodox rationalism and functionalism gave way to more experimentalist approaches (Raposo, Valencia and Raposo 2005, 144, 158). Despite its ‘severe’ and monumental appearance, UNCTAD III was an example of such Latin American variant of modern architecture. This is shown in two important aspects: the ‘integration’ of the building within the urban fabric and the concept of ‘integrated art’ developed by modern artists who intervened the building during the construction process as part of its function as a future cultural centre (Fig. 7). According to UNCTAD’s artistic advisor Eduardo Martinez Bonatti, modern art should not be confined into a museum, turned into commodity-art –a privilege for the upper classes. An ‘anti-museum art’ should be ‘a museum across the city, all over the environment’; an art ‘incorporated as one more element of reality’, for ‘it is not the property of any particular being, it is property of a collective social milieu’ (Martínez Bonatti 1972, 4). While artists were proclaiming the anti-bourgeois and revolutionary convergence between art and life, architects were certainly more moderated –along the reformist lines of the State–, occasionally raising the flag of ‘revolution’, but finally conforming to the dictates of the (abstract) space of capitalism. The parallel with the European avant-gardes (Lefebvre 1991, 304) wasn’t mere coincidence though, nor was it just a matter of ‘cultural influence’. After working at the Bauhaus and the USSR with Meyer, the Hungarian architect Tibor Weiner, travelled to Chile and taught at the Universidad de Chile with Sergio González as his assistant, who later replaced him (Maulén 2006, 84).

Fig.7. Integrated Art at UNCTAD III (above to below): Felix Maruenda (kitchen chimneys), Ricardo Meza (door handles), Alfredo Manzano (hanging whales), Juan Bernal (skylights).

The dialectical relationship between a ‘constructivist’ functionalism –identified with Marxism and ‘scientific-mechanical’ materialism– and a ‘popular’ modernism –incorporating art, the urban fabric, and popular symbolism– was the dilemma for UNCTAD’s architects. The first case was reflected in the struggle with organisation, time, production, efficiency, and all those factors which are directly ‘determined by life’ (Meyer 1970, 117). The second, in the active incorporation of art, popular references such as the idea of an ‘eaves-building’ reminiscent of colonial porches (Maulén 2006, 86), its economic-driven ‘brutalist’ aesthetics, and its ‘piazzettas’ and terraced gardens on the secondary entrance from Lastarria neighbourhood (Fig. 8; Winograd, quoted by Raposo, Raposo and Valencia 2005, 287-288). However, from the standpoint of abstract space, not only these tendencies are not mutually exclusive, but complementary, as Lefebvre notices in his analysis (Lefebvre 1991, 354), in which the effectiveness of a positivist rationalisation and objectification of architecture relies precisely on its visualisation, aesthetisation, quality, symbolism, use. The building is simultaneously a product of the material forces of society, and of an institutionalised ideology and political discourse. In fact, utopia and ideology are inextricably intertwined in it. On the one hand, the semi-suspended and autonomous appearance of the conference halls signals a ‘leap forward’ into a better future that has yet to come (Fig. 9). On the other, it materialises the very same State ‘reformist’ ideology that it seeks to overcome. Its ‘instrumentality’ does not lie in being a direct tool for the production of a ‘new socialist space’ –like ‘factories run by workers’–, but in giving the ‘appearance’ of it. The gigantic and homogenous spaceframe roof gives the necessary ‘unity’ to the whole, thus a sense of totality becomes embodied, which otherwise will be perceived as three separate buildings. Yet, beyond any possible meanings, we must not forget the ideological nature of these allegoric procedures –i.e. their ‘concealing’ nature, or the fact that interpretations of this kind are often used by architects themselves to ‘cover’ what their buildings actually do, which includes how they are produced.

Fig.8. North side access and tower; west side access through an alleyway

Fig.9. North side façade

All of these contradictions, whether ideological, aesthetic, or practical, coalesce around a central tension between the aforementioned axis of reproduction and transformation (see Chapter 4). What is important to notice here is how the above opposing categories revolve around this spatio-temporal axis with no fixed position: functionalist-materialism, for example, can have a progressive function by aiming at transforming the material basis of society, but it can also be used to shatter differences into a complete objectification of architecture. A difficult problem opens up with this, the problem of architecture as mean –of consumption, production, accumulation, power. Can the instrumental use of architecture change it to the point of turning it against the purpose for which it was conceived? Does this mean that buildings are neutral devices waiting to be ‘signified’ and ‘politicised’ by ‘users’? Formulated in this way, these questions will not get us very far. Let us exemplify this problem by recounting the historical shift that drove away UNCTAD III from its former ‘destiny’.


[1] Stone plate inscription by sculptor Samuel Román, written by architect Sergio González.

[2] The third conference was held in Santiago de Chile, from April 13th to May 21th, 1972. It pursued, among other things, ‘the promotion of economic progress in the developing countries by means of an extensive development of world trade that would be equitable and advantageous to all countries’ (UNCTAD 1973, 1).

[3] Salvador Allende was president of Chile from September 4, 1970 until his overthrown by a coup d’état on September 11, 1973.

[4] CORMU or Urban Improvement Corporation was an organism created in 1966 to plan and execute projects of urban renovation along modernist ideas.

[5] Housing Corporation created in 1952 by President Carlos Ibáñez del Campo.

[6] Ministry of the Chilean State created in 1965 by President Eduardo Frei Montalva for the planning and development of housing and urbanization projects.

[7] We refer to deterministic and mechanical approaches to historical materialism and the identification of the primacy of productive forces with economicism, for example in Kautsky, Plekhanov. See (Harman 1998, 9-11) and (Lefebvre 1991, 72, 322, 410).

[8] I use this term instead of ‘society’ to distinguish an historical from a theoretical approach to political economy. See (Harnecker 1971, 19-24).

[9] This model advocates replacing foreign imports for national products as a way to encourage industrial development in third world countries.

[10] Developmentalism was a loosely defined set of theories which emerged after the Second World War from modernization theory and structuralist economics, and which attempted to theorise economic and political strategies for developing countries to achieve development through their national industries. See (Rist 2008, 109-122).

[11] Dependency theories (developed in Latin American) had several points in common with Marxist theories of imperialism and uneven and combined development (Lenin, Luxemburg, Trotsky). See (Hettne 2001).

[12] For an extended and critical take on these concepts, see (Rist 2008).

[13] The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL or ECLAC in English) was established in 1948 with headquarters in Santiago de Chile; and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) was established in 1964 in Geneva, Switzerland.

[14] Production Development Corporation, founded in 1939 by President Pedro Aguirre Cerda.

[15] Mainly consequence of the high percentage of poor and low income population (Vitale 1998, 207).

[16] According to Vitale, this ‘aid plan’ was aimed at counteracting the ideological impact of the recent Cuban Revolution in Latin American countries. See (Vitale 2000, 13).

[17] This term was used to differentiate it from a complete nationalisation of copper mines.

[18] Land reform designed to expropriate the landed property of latinfundistas (landowners) and redistribute it among the peasantry, putting an end to ‘colonial-feudal’ property relations.

[19] The Popular Unity followed FRAP (Front of Popular Action) a coalition of left-wing parties which existed from 1956 to 1969. Popular Unity was comprised by the Socialist Party, Communist Party, Radical Party, Radical Left Party, MAPU (Popular Unitary Action Movement), and Christian Left Party. The coalition was formed in December 1969, and through internal elections designated Salvador Allende as its presidential candidate for the 1970 elections.

[20] The Social Property Area of the economy was one of the most important measures of the Programme of Popular Unity. It consisted in the socialisation of key industries hitherto controlled by national and transnational monopolies. These industries would be under the democratic control of workers and government representatives. The area was seen as a key for building a planned socialist economy in contrast to State capitalism bureaucracy. See (Allende 2008).

[21] General Roberto Viaux planned the failed abduction and resulting assassination of General René Schneider (who was considered loyal to the constitution) on October 25, 1970, to provoke the mobilisation of the armed forces and so to prevent Allende took office. The operation was financed and promoted by the CIA in coordination with the US National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, in what became to be known as operation ‘Track II’ or ‘Project FUBELT’: ‘The option of a military coup was played from day one Allende triumphed’ (Vitale 2000, 45-48). See also (Uribe 1974).

[22] Just one week after Allende won the elections, Frei’s Minister of Finance, Andrés Zaldívar, announced that the economy was being destroyed due to massive bank run as a reaction to the elections results. The major right-wing newspaper, El Mercurio, published a photomontage of Russian tanks entering La Moneda presidential palace, saying that Chile would follow the path of Czechoslovakia, and even that Chilean children would be taken to Russia. See (Vitale 2000, 41, 42).

[23] Dependencia or dependency theory was developed during the 1960s and 1970s as a synthesis of American Marxism (Baran, Frank, Sweezy), Latin American Marxism (Marini, Dos Santos), and Latin American economic structuralism (Prebisch –UNCTAD secretary-general–, Furtado, Pinto, Cardoso, Faletto).See (Hettne 2001; Kay 2001).

[24] Allende manifested the need to retrieve workers for the incredible work done in finishing the building on time, so he proposed to give the building back to the workers. See (Ulibarri 1972).

[25] ‘We lost too much in those last months of the Popular Unity, because we couldn’t sleep waiting for the coup, and if you cannot sleep you cannot dream, and I mean that literally, you cannot dream in the future of a country, in the future of a city’ (Stuven 2007).

[26] DINAC (National Bureau of Supply and Marketing) and JAP (Committees of Supplies and Prices).

[27] Industrial belts or Cordones Industriales were a form of workers organisation, democracy, and popular power under which several factories or companies were grouped along a common street or area of the city. Their initial intention was the democratisation of the workplace, but soon it became a front to combat strikes organised by the company owners to boycott against the government. They were independent from Trade Unions and the State. See (Silva 1998; Gaudichaud 2004).

[28] ‘The future of the Chilean Revolution is, more than ever, in the hands of those who work. Is up to you that we win the great battle of production’ (Allende 2008, 248).

List of References

Allende, Salvador. 2008. “Area social de la economía.” In Salvador Allende: Pensamiento y Acción. Edited by  Frida Modak. Buenos Aires: Lumen/FLACSO-Brasil/CLACSO. 

—. 1989. “El Desarrollo del tercer mundo y las relaciones internacionales.” In Salvador Allende: Obras Escogidas (1970-1973), by Salvador Allende, edited by Patricio Quiroga. Santiago: Editorial Crítica S.A.

—. 2009. La Vía Chilena al Socialismo. Caracas: Ministro del Poder Popular para la Comunicación y la Información.

—. 1983. “Revolución y Producción.” In Las grandes alamedas. Documentos del Presidente Salvador Allende, by Salvador Allende, 45-59. Bogotá: Fundación de Amigos del Centro Gaytán. Accessed April 2, 2012.

Cornejo, Marcelo. 2011. Acumulación de Capital en Chile: Crisis y Desarrollo, Ultimos 40 años. Santiago: Ediciones Octubre. Accessed April 2, 2012.

Ffrench-Davis, Ricardo. 2003. Entre el neoliberalismo y el crecimiento con equidad: Tres décadas de política económica en Chile. Santiago: J. C. Sáez.

Gaudichaud, Franck. Poder Popular y Cordones Industriales. Santiago: LOM, 2004.

Harman, Chris. 1998. Marxism and history: Two essays. London: Bookmarks Publications Ltd.

Harnecker, Marta. El Capital: conceptos fundamentales. Santiago: Editorial Universitaria, 1971.

—. “Los tres Años del Gobierno Popular de Salvador Allende”. Encuentro XXI, no. 13 (1998): 34-41. Accessed June 14, 2012.

Hettne, Björn. 2001. “Dependency Theory.” In Dictionary of Marxist Thought, edited by Tom Bottomore, 137-139. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Martínez Bonatti, Eduardo. “Arte de Antimuseo”.” La Quinta Rueda, no. 3 (1972): 4. Translated by Patricio De Stefani for academic purposes. Accessed April 2, 2012.

Maulén, David. “Proyecto Edificio UNCTAD III: Santiago de Chile (junio 1971 – abril 1972).” De Arquitectura, no. 13 (2006): 79-92.

Meller, Patricio. 1996. Un Siglo de Economía Política Chilena (1890-1990). Santiago: Andrés Bello.

Meyer, Hannes. 1970. “Building.” In Programmes and Manifestoes on 20th-century Architecture, edited by Ulrich Conrads, 117-120. London: Lund Humphries Publishers.

Pinedo, Javier. “La vía chilena al socialismo de Salvador Allende y su relación con la modernidad.” CUYO, no. 17 (2000): 133-145. Accessed June 14, 2012.

Raposo, Alfonso, and Marco Valencia. 2005. “Modernidad, diseño y utopía. Notas sobre el fundamento político de las acciones de remodelación urbana en Santiago. El caso de la CORMU 1966-1976.” In Interpretación de la obra arquitectónica y proyecciones de la política en el espacio habitacional urbano. Memorias e historia de las realizaciones de la Corporación de Mejoramiento Urbano. Santiago 1966–1976, by Alfonso Raposo, Marco Valencia and Gabriela Raposo, 122-155. Santiago: LOM.

—. 2005. “Práctica política del diseño urbano. Notas sobre la vida institucional y labor de la Corporación de Mejoramiento Urbano, CORMU 1966-1976.” In Interpretación de la obra arquitectónica y proyecciones de la política en el espacio habitacional urbano. Memorias e historia de las realizaciones de la Corporación de Mejoramiento Urbano. Santiago 1966-1976, by Alfonso Raposo, Marco Valencia and Gabriela Raposo, 92-121. Santiago: LOM.

Raposo, Alfonso, Gabriela Raposo, and Marco Valencia. 2005. “Remodelación urbana e ideología. Un ensayo de interpretación crítica de la obra arquitectónica y urbanística de CORMU en Santiago 1966-1976.” In Interpretación de la obra arquitectónica y proyecciones de la política en el espacio habitacional urbano. Memorias e historia de las realizaciones de la Corporación de Mejoramiento Urbano. Santiago 1966-1976, 224-313. Santiago: LOM.

Raposo, Alfonso, Marco Valencia, and Gabriela Raposo. 2005. Interpretación de la obra arquitectónica y proyecciones de la política en el espacio habitacional urbano. Memorias e historia de las realizaciones de la Corporación de Mejoramiento Urbano. Santiago 1966–1976. Santiago: LOM.

Rist, Gilbert. 2008. The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith. London: Zero Books.

Saavedra, Alejandro. 2007. Un marco conceptual para el estudio de las clases sociales en el Chile actual. Valdivia: Universidad Austral de Chile.

Silva, Miguel. 1998. Los Cordones Industriales y el Socialismo desde Abajo. Santiago: Lizor.

Stuven, Hellmuth, interview by David Maulén, Juan Guzmán and J. Díaz de Valdés. Entrevista a Hellmuth Stuven Lira (21 August 2007): Accessed June 14, 2012.

Tafuri, Manfredo, and Francesco Dal Co. 1980. Modern Architecture. Translated by Robert Erich Wolf. London: Academy Editions.

Troncoso, Sergio. 2011. «Encuentro sobre UNCTAD III. Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos. Santiago, 23 de junio de 2010.» In 275 días: Sitio, Tiempo, Contexto y Afecciones Específicas, edited por Paulina Varas y José Llano. Santiago: 275 días.

Ulibarri, Luisa. “Vivir estilo UNCTAD.” La Quinta Rueda 3 (1972): 5. Accessed April 2, 2012.

UNCTAD. 1973. “Proceedings of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development third session”, Volume I: Report and Annexes. New York: United Nations publication. Accessed April 2, 2012.

Uribe, Armando. 1974. El libro Negro de la Intervención Norteamericana en Chile. Mexico: Siglo XXI.

Varas, Paulina, and José Llano, eds. 2011. 275 días: Sitio, Tiempo, Contexto y Afecciones Específicas. Santiago: 275 días.

Vitale, Luis. 1998. Interpretación Marxista de la Historia de Chile (Volume VI). Santiago: LOM. Accessed April 2, 2012.

—. 2000. Interpretación Marxista de la Historia de Chile (Volume VII). Santiago: LOM. Accessed April 2, 2012.

Wong, Jorge. 2011. “Edificio UNCTAD III.” In 275 días: Sitio, Tiempo, Contexto y Afecciones Específicas, edited by Paulina Varas and José Llano. Santiago: 275 días .

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The Social Production of Architecture (Draft)

Note: This is the draft for Chapter 4. I had to put the conclusion on hold since I need to get into Chapter 5 right away.

By Patricio De Stefani

Conceptual Scheme for Chapter 4

Architecture as Mean of Production 

To establish the role of architecture within capitalism as a system is the difficult task we have ahead in this section. If the hypotheses outlined in the first one are valid, then this problem could not have been addressed directly from the beginning. For our concern is not just determining various kinds of relationships between architecture and capital, but to prove their internal and structural interdependency in such a manner, that a possibility for breaking with it could be effective –and not mere rhetoric. Hence, only by starting our analysis from the most elementary categories concerning the substance of architecture (objects) and capital (value) we can now begin to build into the complexity of the historical analysis of concrete case studies. In this chapter we will clarify and extend the basic concepts that will be put forward into such analysis, considering them first in their general form –i.e. independent from the capitalist mode of production. These stem out of the chain of categories developed in the previous part, in which the centrality of human activity was established as a fundamental mediation between our objective human world (second nature) and the social life which takes place in it and produces it. Thus, contradictions between nature and man, natural and artificial, things and objects, use and exchange, objects and values, concrete and abstract, subject and object, can scarcely be understood without the mediation of human’s social actions.

Concerning the distinction between human act and human action, for example, both Lefebvre and de Certeau acknowledge –at least implicitly– such difference. The former from his ‘rhythm-analysis’, and the latter from his concept of ‘everyday practice’. Lefebvre uses, for example, the term gestural system to refer to rhythmed actions as ‘the basis of ritualized (and hence coded) rules’ (1991, 214). For his part, de Certeau talks about everyday practices as ‘ensembles of procedures’ and ‘schemas of operations and of technical manipulations’ (1984, 43); also his distinction between strategies (abstract codified practices) and tactics (ways of creative appropriation of those codes) roughly matches that between acts and actions (de Certeau 1984, 35-39).

Lefebvre’s concept of rhythm is especially relevant here, since it not only relates to the ‘pace’ of the human body and its biological or cyclical rhythms, but more importantly to the ‘colonisation’ of them by the artificial and linear repetitions of labour, namely: social rhythms (Lefebvre 2004, 8). According to him, the idea of a rhythmanalysis and the ‘production of social time’ was meant to put the key ‘finishing touches’ to his theory of the ‘production of space’ (1991, 405). Rhythms are ‘sequential relationships in space (…) a relationship between space and time’ (Lefebvre 1991, 206), or more precisely an ‘interaction between a place, a time and an expenditure of energy’ (Lefebvre 2004, 15). Lefebvre is very emphatic in pointing out that there is no rhythm without repetition and difference, and more importantly without measure; and not only this: since they depict a spatio-temporal relationship, they are a ‘measuring-measure’ –like ‘tree-ring dating’ or a factory assembly line (2004, viii, 8; 1991, 175). He also sought to demonstrate how this notion of rhythm could bring Marx’s quest for social relations concealed within commodities to its limit expression.

The rhythms of the human body are directly related with its physiological capacities, hence with its labour-power. As we saw earlier, the capacity to perform productive activity is one of the three basic factors of the labour-process –work, instruments, and raw materials. These point towards different dimensions: the activity of the worker, along with its rhythm, is the motor force of production; instruments and technology are an extension of this force; and raw materials are the subject worked upon and transformed into products. These two latter form the means of production –i.e. necessary conditions for the setting in motion of the process (Marx 2011, 200-201). Instruments such as hand tools, machines, computers, and the like, serve directly in the production process, whereas other sort of instruments –not often thought as such– are used indirectly as the setting within which the whole process takes place, and whose pre-condition is the existence of nature as such:

Once more we find the earth to be a universal instrument of this sort, for it furnishes a locus standi to the labourer and a field of employment for his activity. Among instruments that are the result of previous labour and also belong to this class, we find workshops, canals, roads, and so forth. (Marx 2011, 201)

 Architecture falls, then, within this general category. Is it limited simply to factories and warehouses? No. Obviously, productive labour –labour which produces use-values– does not happen only at factories; offices and facilities of all sorts must be included. But the role architecture plays as mean of production is far wider. Architecture is simultaneously a means of subsistence and of production, even if it does not serve this latter purpose directly, for example, as the means of reproduction of the labour force in housing settlements –hence, of labour-power. In this respect, Lefebvre expanded Marx’s concept of production to include not only things in space, but space itself as the most general of human products (Lefebvre 1991, 219); and since products can be also means or instruments, space is also the ‘most general of tools’ (1991, 289).

Before we can continue, we need to clarify two closely tied concepts that have been flowing through this exposition: space and production. This is not the place to give a complete account of these complex notions, but to point out some of their basic features developed by critical theories on the matter (see Lefebvre 1991; Morales 1969; Suárez 1986) and so to avoid possible misunderstandings. We will refine these as we advance through the discussion. The first thing that calls attention to Lefebvre’s concept of space is its inseparability with production: space is always a social product, hence, paradoxically, ‘the concept of space is not in space’ (Lefebvre 1991, 299). Space as an empty and homogeneous abstraction, as neutral void or volume, is thus replaced by the notion of social space. This social character gives it an instrumental role within society: it is not only socially produced, but a basic condition for that production, ‘at once result and cause, product and producer’ (Lefebvre 1991, 142); thus it ‘cannot be reduced to the rank of a simple object’ (Lefebvre 1991, 73). If production is what gives the notion of space its social meaning, then productive activity itself, namely the social practice of labour, is at the core of the understanding of social space. Once again we find that human praxis constitutes the locus and root of our objective human environment. For Lefebvre it is clear that this practice goes far beyond labour, to include any expenditure of energy that effects a change in the world (1991, 179). Consequently, production enjoys at the same time a broad and a narrow meaning. Following the concept from Hegel to Marx and Engels, Lefebvre notes how it posses an even greater abstract universality than labour –as it was considered by classical political economists. Yet, at the same time, it is a concrete concept, for it only has sense so far as we ask ‘who produces’ and ‘how it produces’: it is a concrete abstraction (1991, 69). To avoid reducing it to its pure ‘economistic’ sense or to dilute it into general production –of ideas, symbols, discourses, or anything for that matter– Lefebvre goes back to praxis and its ‘immanent rationality’ (1991, 71). Production goes beyond material manufacturing, but not to fall into the indeterminate realm of knowledge, but rather to include the production and reproduction of social relations (Fine 2001, 448). Thus, both space and production attain their full meaning only in relation to a social practice.

Practice inevitably entails social relations between individuals and nature (things), individuals and instruments (objects), between individuals themselves, and between groups of individuals. We have seen that of these relations there is one kind that has primacy over all others (Harman 1998, 15): these are the relations to nature (via social labour), since it is only by producing a human world out of nature that we are able to survive within it. Thus, the relations to nature –which we specified in the first chapter from a biological standpoint–, are in fact social relations of production (Lefebvre 1971, 62-63). Relations of production are the relationships in which men necessarily become involved in the course of production (Marx 1859, 4; Walker and Gray 2007, 256). These can be understood either as technical relations (individuals to things-objects, to other individuals, or to a group) or as economic relations (between groups of individuals), and their primary function is to put together labourers and their means of production (productive forces) under a certain organisation in order to produce their livelihood (Shaw 2001, 235). For Marx, these relations arise in accordance with the development of the productive forces society has at its disposal at a given point in history –i.e. improvements in techniques and organisation of the labour-process, as well as the production of new instruments and technologies. Hunter-gatherer relations of production, for instance, were limited by their own organisation and means of labour –i.e. nomad bands and rudimentary tools. If their productive forces would have been more advanced, this immediately would have changed their social relations in the broad sense (Harman 1998, 17). This is what is known in Marxist theory as the ‘materialist’ conception of history, which we have already introduced as a relevant method for architecture (see Literature Review). Contrary to their critics (non Marxists as well as Marxists), it is not a crude determinist theory which reduces everything to material reality, but one that puts social practice at its core: ‘Not the abstract of matter but the concrete of social praxis is the truth of materialist theory’ (Schmidt 1977, 36). According to Marx then, the priority of the forces and relations of production with respect to other social relations, make them the ‘real foundation’ upon which all other social relations rest (1859, 3). Therefore, architecture and, more generally social space, enjoy a privileged place within what has been called ever since the economic base of society –in particular as one of the forces of production (Lefebvre 1991, 349; Cohen 2000, 51). As stated in the Introduction, UNCTAD III building will be analysed primarily from this materialist approach, putting the emphasis on its underlying economic structure in the particular setting of 1970s Chilean society (see Chapter 5).

Architecture as Objective Ideology

If the economic structure of any society is composed by the forces that produce material life and the social relations such process entails, what are then, the other social relations which derive from it? All those activities which are not directly involved in the production process are nonetheless related to it –they are, as it were, ‘built’ upon it. These include political, legal, religious, cultural, and ideological relations in general. Marx famously summarised the underlying premises of this argument stating that ‘the mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness’ (1859, 4). This passage paves the way for the claim to a fundamental and inevitable conflict between the economic base and the ‘ideological’ superstructure[1] which rises upon it, leading ultimately to a process of social revolution. What is the status of architecture in this scheme? To answer this question we need to address the full complexity of Marx’s argument. For what is at stake is not merely a theory of the general structure of society, but a theory of the dynamics of social change. As Marx puts it:

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or –this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms– with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. (1859, 4)

According to Harman, what is implied here is more than a single distinction between base and superstructure. The asymmetry is double: between the productive forces and the existing relations of production, and between the latter and ‘outdated’ relations of production established and controlled by superstructural or non-economic social relations (Harman 1998, 26, 28). We have defined economic relations of production as a relationship between groups of people. At first, these groups are defined by their relation to the surplus product, and they arise at a certain point in the development of the productive forces, as the social division of labour grows in complexity. Following Marx, Harman (1998, 19; 1998, 13) argues that at an early stage in any social formation, the exploitation of one group over another is a basic condition for the advancing of the productive forces. This means that given a low surplus production above of what is needed for survival, the only way to further develop productive forces is if one social group appropriates this surplus and uses it for its own interests instead of distributing it among the rest of the population –in which case there would be not enough surplus input for developing production. Following the passage from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies, these exploiting groups originated first among those sections of the population which forged new relations of production –such as agriculture and trade– or withdrew from material labour. But this could only have happened if improvements in the productive forces were already underway. Harman notices that Marx is emphatic in stating that ‘relations of production ‘correspond’ to forces of production, not the other way round’ (Harman 1998, 26) –and this means that productive forces are always more ‘dynamic’ than the relations they entail (1998, 26). Why? Because the essential aim of individuals working together is to increase their means of subsistence by finding new ways to produce them more effectively. In order to achieve this, they inevitably have to engage in new relations of production which progressively replace the old ones. Hence, it is the fundamental objective of finding new ways of controlling nature –along with the human world which derives from it– that determines what sort of production relations best suit this purpose (1998, 26). The internal division of these relations matches their temporal division: economic relations tend to detach from direct production as they presuppose the economic control of the productive forces and their surplus product by one group of individuals –which uses this power to exploit the rest of the population forcing them to work for them. No sooner this group seizes command over these forces that they start to ‘fix’ relations of production and exploitation by way of institutional arrangements –which can take juridical, political, religious, or ideological forms. By contrast, technical relations of production are always evolving given their direct implication with labour-power (see Marx and Engels 1968, 12); and secondly, improvements in productivity requires new techniques and technologies, which in turn changes relations between individuals in the course of production, and ultimately challenges established economic relations. Technical relations are always dynamic whereas economic relations ‘crystallise’ into non-economic structures which serve the function of securing the ruling group’s monopoly over the productive forces. Therefore, the basic thesis of this historical approach is that ‘the different socio-economic organizations of production which have characterized human history arise or fall as they enable or impede the expansion of society’s productive capacity’ (Shaw 2001, 235).

To advance an outline of the relationship between architecture and the ideological superstructure of society we will have to transcend our ‘usual’ understanding of it –i.e. as buildings ‘in general’. We have already advanced some steps in this direction on the previous chapters, by outlining its ontological, material, and biological base. From this, at least three different meanings can be asserted: 1) what we could call Architectonics, which refers to the architecture inherent in our body’s biological structure. 2) Everyday architecture as arising out of immediate needs for shelter, trade, and so on, and which does not depend on a discipline of knowledge to exist and develop itself. 3) Architecture as a major art form, subject to discipline and notation (Borchers 1968, 27). Whether we can or not call ‘architecture’ the vast majority of the built environment depends entirely on the position we adopt regarding these three definitions. Architecture as the product of a discipline presupposes the existence of a cultural realm, understood as the development of artistic and intellectual practices. Here, architecture is set by its own institution which is not independent of the development of the economic base, but rather falls within the general aim of any superstructure of fixing and legitimating the ruling group’s control over production. Early on in history, legitimisation of exploiting relations started to take legal forms, most notably in Roman civil law with landed property rights –whose architectural ‘expression’ was the Roman villa–, and which eventually gave rise to a class of landlords between late imperial and early medieval epoch (Lefebvre 1991, 243, 252-253).

But the superstructure is not just a set of institutions which regulate and fix economic relations. Different ‘forms of consciousness’ or ‘mental conceptions’ of the world emerge alongside it, which Marx called ideological forms (1859, 4). Now, the sense given to ideologies here is neither general nor positive (Larraín 2001, 248). Since the superstructure, in its inception, is nothing but the legal and political expression of material social relations of production, ideologies would be the way in which these expressions coalesce into more or less formed system of thought –whether philosophical, political, scientific, artistic, and so on. Marx and Engels pointed out that ‘in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside-down as in a camera obscura’ (1968, 11), so they see ideologies as a somewhat ‘deficient’ or ‘distorted’ forms of consciousness. However, the point that later developments and criticisms have often missed by misinterpretations of Lukács’ notion of ‘false consciousness’ (see Larraín 2001, 251; Lukács 1971, 50-72) is that in the original Marxian sense, ideology is not simply a ‘false’ or ‘wrong’ conception about a true objective reality, not merely an illusion, but rather it is social and material reality itself which is contradictory and ‘inverted’ (Larraín 2001, 248). Thus, ideology is a kind of imaginary or mental ‘resolution’ of real contradictions in the mode of production of a given society. Furthermore, distortion or misapprehension also implies concealment of those contradictions. We have already mentioned the realm of exchange as the distorted thing-like appearance that relations of production take when embodied into the value of commodities under capitalism (see Chapter 3, xx):

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. (Marx 2011, 83)

From this stems that the contradictions implied in commodity fetishism are the root of all ideology. The realm of market exchange gives way to a ‘world of appearances’ which, nonetheless is absolutely real and has real effects on production and elsewhere. This world of free individuals buying and selling the private products of their labour is real, but it conceals the deeper level of production relations –most notably, exploitation as the source of surplus-value (profit). Thus, Marx sees commodity fetishism and the market as a ‘real’ distortion and concealment of social relations of production, the material base of society. This mechanism could only have flourished under bourgeois society, and he contrasts it with feudalism, in which social relations of production were ‘not disguised under the shape of social relations between the products of labour’ (Marx 2011, 89). But fetishism is not to be confused with ideology, which arises only as a reflection in consciousness of the surface appearance of commodity exchange.

The strange nature of a social reality which is in itself deceiving has led some to claim we are ‘living a lie’ or that the social world is itself ‘ideological’ (see Hawkes 2003, 171; Žižek 1994, 305). However, this presents the problem of broadening the concept of ideology to the point it becomes ‘politically toothless’ (Eagleton 1991, 7). Architecture is especially prone to fit this argument, since it is both a product of material and ideological forces. But it would be far too simplistic to end the discussion by posing architecture itself as the product of architects’ ideology. On the contrary, what the problem seems to raises is a double concealment, one which is practically and materially real (market exchange), and another which reflects this reality in thought, retroactively reinforcing, instituting, and naturalising the former. This dual concealment of relations of exploitation (class relations of production) effectively assures the continuous reproduction of its material conditions, hence securing the position gained by the ruling class and its hold on the means and products of labour.

Architecture stands in an odd place regarding this general scheme. On the one hand, it is the product and condition for sustaining everyday life and labour –and as such, subject to fetishism within bourgeois society, under which appears as a passive, neutral and purely visual-spatial object. On the other, it is produced according to this very ‘delusive reality’ that institutions and construction industries internalise into their ideologies, thus impacting back on production. A building conceals the fact that it is the ‘objectification’ of social relations, and its own ‘design’ reproduces and obscures this fact. Later on we will see how, in the case of No-Stop City, the overcoming of ideology and the bourgeois city coincides with the abolition of architecture itself (see Chapter 6). Hence, the dilemma is far from being one of either truth or falsity. Ideology does not originate in men’s minds, but on their actual social relations. Consequently, it is not something simply ‘imposed’ by superstructural institutions such as the State, media, or schools, but rather stems out of the basic way in which production and exchange are organised within the capitalist mode of production. This is the crucial ground in which it should be confronted, not merely at the level of ‘ideas’.


[1] A distinction should be made between superstructure and ideology. The term ‘ideological superstructure’ emerged from Engels and the first generation of Marxists following Marx’s death, and refers to totality of forms of social consciousness (see Larraín 2001, 249-250). On the contrary, the concept of ideology has a more restrctive and negative meaning. We will focus first on the specific meaning given to ‘ideology’ by Marx, mostly in its connection with the superstructure. Several critiques have followed later interpretations of the original Marxian usage. We will give full account of these and its relation to architecture on the subsequent chapter.

List of References

Borchers, Juan. 1968. Institución Arquitectónica. Translated by Patricio De Stefani for academic purposes. Santiago: Andrés Bello.

Cohen, G. A. 2000. Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Eagleton, Terry. 1991. Ideology: An Introduction. London: Verso.

Fine, Ben. 2001. “Production.” In Dictionary of Marxist Thought, edited by Tom Bottomore, 447-448. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Harman, Chris. 1998. “History, myth and Marxism.” In Essays on Historical Materialism, edited by John Rees. London: Bookmarks Publications Ltd.

—. 1998. Marxism and history: Two essays. London: Bookmarks Publications Ltd.

Hawkes, David. 2003. Ideology. London: Routledge,.

Larraín, Jorge. 2001. “Ideology.” In Dictionary of Marxist Thought, edited by Tom Bottomore, 247-252. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Lefebvre, Henri. 1971. El Marxismo. Translated by Patricio De Stefani for academic purposes. Buenos Aires: Eudeba.

—. 2004. Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. Translated by Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore. London: Continuum.

—. 1991. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Lukács, Georg. 1971. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Translated by Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Marx, Karl. 2011. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Translated by S. W. Ryazanskaya. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1859. Marxists Internet Archive, accessed December 10.

—. 2011. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume I). Translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1968. The German Ideology. Moscow: Progress Publishers. Marxists Internet Archive, accessed December 10, 2011.

Morales, José Ricardo. 1969. “La concepción espacial de la arquitectura.” In Arquitectónica: Sobre la idea y el sentido de la arquitectura, by José Ricardo Morales. Santiago: Universidad de Chile.

Schmidt, Alfred. 1977. El concepto de naturaleza en Marx. Translated by Patricio De Stefani for academic purposes. Madrid: Siglo XXI de España,.

Shaw, William H. 2001. “Historical Materialism.” In Dictionary of Marxist Thought, edited by Tom Bottomore, 234-239. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Suárez, Isidro. 1986. La refutación del espacio como sustancia de la arquitectura. Santiago: Escuela de Arquitectura de la Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.

Tafuri, Manfredo. 1980. Theories and History of Architecture. Translated by Giorgio Verrecchia. London: Granada Publishing Ltd.

Walker, David, and Daniel Gray. 2007. Historical Dictionary of Marxism. Plymouth: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Žižek, Slavoj. 1994. “How Did Marx Invent the Symptom?” In Mapping Ideology, edited by Slavoj Žižek, 296-331. London: Verso.

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The Architecture of Acts [1] and the Abstraction of Labour

Note: This is the third and last chapter of Part 1 (The Architecture of Capital), after this I will move into the political economy of architecture and the analysis of the case studies.

By Patricio De Stefani

Labour and Object

We have already introduced the general character of human labour in Chapter 1, now we need to develop more in detail its relation to the concept of object as it has been specifically defined in the previous chapter. However, first we need to examine objects –and the labour which uses and produces them– from the standpoint of biological processes in both the world of perceptions and the world of actions as defined by Uexküll.

The sensations we perceive from stimuli coming from things existing in the outside world are not really properties of them, hence, sensations belong to the subject and lack spatial extension. This is what Uexküll concludes from his biological understanding of what makes an experience of the world, which is heavily grounded on Kant’s conception of the subject-object relationship (Uexküll 1957, 13). For example, says Uexküll, if we hear the sound of a bell far away, this is nothing more than a sequence of processes: a physical process in which the air waves penetrate our ears, a physiological process in which these are transformed by the eardrum into nervous excitation and transmitted to the brain, and finally a psychic process when the receptor cells project a perceptual cue into the Umwelt –in this case a sound sensation– making it appear as a property of the bell itself (1957, 63). As already stated, this process is called sensory circle since it describes a path from the external to the internal world of the animal and back to the external, forming the subject’s perceptual world (Merkwelt). Each sensory circle corresponds to one sense organ, but in combination they are responsible for the concrete image of our world. Uexküll brought this study to its limit asking which part of the experience belongs to the subject and which to the object (n. d., 13), concluding that an animal cannot perceive anything outside the reach of its own Umwelt –which brings him closer to Kant’s notion of the thing-in-itself (Uexküll n. d., 70; 1957, 13). Some authors have seen the Umwelt concept as hardly distinguishable from solipsism (Weber 2004, 300), whereas others have emphasised the distinction between them, arguing that Uexküll never denies the existence of the external world, but he criticises mechanistic scientific objectivism as having forgot the crucial role the subject plays in any experience of the world (Rüting 2004, 49).

Sensory circle and exteriorisation of the sound sensation

The sensory circle provides the content of our experiences: these are content sensations and are distinguished by their quality and intensity (Uexküll n. d., 29-30). This circle, however, only consists in ‘half’ of the biological process described by Uexküll. For if the result of this is a passive sensory perception –a ‘natural’ thing– there must be another process by which the subject engages actively with his world. A simple example would be if we suddenly look directly at the sun or if an object is fast approaching our eyes, in both cases we might blink repeatedly or even cover our eyes with our hand or forearm. This is called a reflex act, and the process by which the sense organs relate to the organs of action so as to provoke a bodily response is called reflex arc (Uexküll n. d., 12-13). But only a small part of our actions can be considered involuntary reflexes, whereas the rest result from more complex processes.

Another circle has to be considered, through which our effector organs (effector cells, muscles, glandules) react to a different kind of stimuli that our brain convert into impulses. If the sensory circle allows us to form a perpetual world that we furnish with things –along with their qualities and intensities–, the impulses circle enables us to form an effector world (Wirkwelt) which we endow with objects representing potential actions. Merkwelt and Wirkwelt form a closed subject-object unit or, as mentioned earlier, the Umwelt (Uexküll n. d., 68).

Now, we have said that objects differ from things in that they elicit our actions. All things can be turned into an object if they articulate with us in such a way that they provoke a unitary action from our part –i.e. a regulated action (Uexküll n. d., 64). If things are recognised by the content sensations we project onto them, objects are distinguished by order sensations. Unlike the former, these are discerned solely by their quality and not by intensity, namely: location, direction, and moment (Uexküll n. d., 30). They ‘serve only for ordering the sensations that arise in experience’ (Uexküll n. d., 30) and never present themselves in isolation but in permanent connection with content sensations which ‘wrap’ them with sensory properties. We also held that the object is at once concrete and abstract –i.e. a tangible and useful man-made thing and a mental scheme enacted by internal effector organs. Our sense of location, for example, is responsible for giving objects their concrete figure. This must not be confused with its sensory appearance as coming from content sensations, but rather it is a spatial structure constituted by a ‘given relationship of places in space’ (Uexküll n. d., 55). On the other hand, our sense of direction forms the abstract properties of objects, for every figure must be grounded on an elemental scheme composed of direction signs, such as upward/downward, forward/backward. These elementary directions have no shape and form the basic units with which we configure rules of movement that are kept in our memory, ready to their use. Uexküll is emphatic in stressing the importance of these abstract schemes of movement: ‘Without scheme there is no object, as there is no melody without rhythm’ (n. d., 56).

Impulses circle and exteriorisation of actions

Time sensations are considerably simpler than the previuos ones. Just like space, our sense of time provides the ‘stage’ for our experiences, therefore ‘any content sensation, wherever present, is always linked to a moment sensation which indicates the point where it has to be placed in the series of time’ (Uexküll n. d., 31). Following the experiments of Estonian Biologist Karl Ernst von Baer, Uexküll regarded the moment as the ‘smallest indivisible time vessel’ (Uexküll 1957, 29) which repeats ceaselessly in the successive chain of time. Von Baer fixed the human moment in about 1/18 of a second, and this establishes the measure under which we are able to perceive movements and distinguish if something ‘was’ (before), ‘is’ (now), or ‘will be’ (after). Any slower or faster movement will not be perceived as such, for example, when we look at clock hands or when we look at the spokes of a bicycle in motion (Borchers 1975, 212).

As both Uexküll and Van der Laan –and certainly Marx– acknowledged, labour is an activity that arises out of the necessity to ‘complete’ nature in order to dwell in it (Uexküll n. d., 112; Van der Laan 1983, 1). After immediate needs are satisfied, man has to move beyond the production of means of subsistence to producing his own means of production. Hence, tools are the first product of labour which is also used as an instrument for it –a conductor of man’s activity (Marx 2011, 199). In the previous chapter we discussed this twofold character of objects: for one part they are the result of labour, for another they are conditions for it. It is this latter property that interests us since it has an ‘operational’ relevance. We can even regard all objects as being instruments of some sort, on account of their ‘equimentality’ (Heidegger 2001, 97). Labour can be understood, then, as an activity whereby (natural) things are transformed into (artificial) objects, and in which these latter, as being also conditions or tools for further labour, embody the ‘operations’ necessary for their productive use. Understood in this way, objects must pre-exist in our cerebral and bodily memory in order to be properly effected during the labour-process. Yet, this must not be regarded as a concrete image, but as a set of rules or directions, which activate as soon as we ‘see’ a potential action in things.

The fact that objects cannot be perceived directly through our sensory apparatus led Uexküll to examine by which process our internal organs get stimulated, so he put forward the notion of a threefold human space: tactile, visual, and operational. In tactile space we project local signs into the external world, forming a sort of place-mosaic. In visual space, these local signs coincide with the visual elements of the retina, forming a mesh which wraps all things, and on which depends the sharpness and detail of our visual image (Uexküll 1957, 19-20). Accordingly with the peculiar distribution of our tactile organ (skin), when we project sensory units outside, these form an ‘extension’ which surrounds us entirely, like a soap bubble full of local signs (Uexküll n. d., 43-44). Thus, our internal sense of location gets activated through two external senses, touch and sight, and in that way it is associated with the concrete side of objects –i.e. their ‘figure’ composed by numerous localities. The links between each local sign on the tactile and visual place-mosaic are made through operational space. In it, we perform our daily movements which follow directional steps according to the six basic directions mentioned in Chapter 1, and that we can recognise through propioception or kinaesthesia which acts as direction signs (Uexküll 1957, 14). The sense of direction organises these into three planes intersected perpendicularly to each other, forming a coordinate system centred in the head (Uexküll 1957, 15). Directional steps are responsible for linking together all local signs in our ‘extension’ and also for guiding our motions. The stimuli affecting the impulses circle comes not from natural things, but from objects of our own creation which bear the mark of direction signs we imprint onto them. This correlation may lead us to understand the architectural work as the result of a large scale ‘motor reaction’.

The functional circle as the joining together of sensory and impulses circles

When we receive external stimuli coming from things, we instantly mark them with receptor cues (perceptual meaning), closing the sensory circle. Conversely, when we receive internal stimuli coming from our own body –as it relates with sensations from the ‘first circle’– we mark things with effector cues (operational meaning), closing the impulses circle by transforming them into objects. The joining together of the two is called functional circle (Uexküll 1957, 9-10; n. d., 68) and describes the actions we perform as consequence of having a perceptual experience of the world. This is the continuous activity of production which humans inevitably have to carry out in order to make a livelihood.

We can consider human labour then as a particular form of the functional circle. Let us remember how Marx described it as a ‘metabolic’ relation with nature. What is at stake then, in the functional circle, if not a relation of this kind? We can easily see that labour takes place primarily within operational space as a set of instructions guided by directional steps. Therefore, the twofold nature of the functional circle –its perceptual and motor aspects– must be regarded as the biological basis of all productive activity, and it is in that sense that the production of the architectural work can be understood as a ‘chemical reaction of grandiose proportions’ (Borchers 1975, 10). Looked at from this standpoint, objects will appear not just as the material result of productive activity, but also as a projection of the socially coordinated actions of labour.

Labour and Value

So far, we have considered –from the biological standpoint– the subject-object relationship in great detail. At this point it is necessary for us to move onto the analysis of social relations implied in it. This will be done to counterbalance the lack of such realm in Uexküll’s evident phenomenological approach. For if some have labelled his subjective turn in biology as largely Neo-Kantian in character, others have noticed the ‘contextual’ influence of his contemporaries Husserl and Frege (Chang 2004, 116, 119).

Regarding objects as concrete embodiments of many useful qualities, they are the product of a seemingly never-ending variety of types of labour. For Marx, use-values must be, accordingly, the products of useful labour –i.e. of ‘productive activity of a definite kind and exercised with a definite aim’ (Marx 2011, 49). The heterogeneity of concrete and useful labour corresponds to that of objects, so carpentry, tailoring, weaving, building, and so on, produce chairs, coats, linen, buildings: ‘what appears objectively as diversity of the use-values, appears, when looked at dynamically, as diversity of the activities which produce those use-values’ (Marx 1859, 7). But one and the same activity can produce many different kinds of objects. A carpenter can produce chairs, beds, or tables; a builder can build houses, factories, schools, and so forth. This is what Marx refers to as the ‘social division of labour’ –which we will discuss in the next chapter– as the heterogeneous totality of different forms of useful labour performed separately, and that constitutes the basic condition for commodity production (Marx 2011, 49; Mohun 2001, 153-154). According to Jameson, it is concrete labour and its particular branches and products that Marx regards as the realm of quality which is linked directly to the body in its phenomenological dimension: ‘Use value is therefore quality; it is the life of the body, of existential or phenomenological experience, of the consumption of physical products, but also the very texture of physical work and physical time’ (Jameson 2011, 19). As mentioned before, use and values-in-use (concrete objects) are by nature contingent, particular, and qualitative. We have seen as well, how objects cannot be reduced to a bundle of its sensuous qualities or ‘accidents’ as Harman (2011, 24) rightly reflects upon Husserl’s concept of Abschattungen. Yet, although objects are less than these sensory properties, they cannot exist without them. We will return to this phenomenological question on the object, but first we need to deepen our understanding of the process of abstraction of concrete labour via the abstract side of objects.

Abstract labour as ‘real abstraction’

If labour always presupposes collaboration among individuals in order to produce objects in the first place, why consider it merely as a biological relation between a subject and its object? If, thus, labour is intrinsically a social endeavour, why consider it hypothetically as an isolated relation between a human being, his tools, and nature? This brings us to the question of abstraction as both method and reality. For even Marx himself deemed necessary to exclude the social dimension of labour first in order to analyse the labour-process in general, as a common category to all human societies throughout history.[2] This was not mere accident, and apart for it being carried out for ‘analysis sake’ suggests, as Ollman (1993, 26) explains, that abstraction has at least three different meanings for Marx –not exclusively for him though: 1) a mental activity which subdivides the world into conceptual categories; 2) the result of this activity, or a conceptual totality and its parts; and 3) reduccionist and isolated mental categories which become the basis of dominant ideologies and practices. We will have to add to this list a fourth meaning which has greater relevance for our discussion: that of real or concrete asbtraction. Marx never used this term, but it is implied thorughout his late writings. Other thinkers have developed  this concept from the standpoint of commodity exchange (Sohn-Rethel 1978, 17) and space as commodity (Lefebvre 1991, 27; Stanek 2008). For Marx then, to consider labour as a general activity regardless its particular location, individuals involved, and historical epoch, has the purpose of showing how this abstract defintion of simple and average labour could only emerge within the framework of bourgeois society:

(…) this abstraction of labour as such is not merely the mental product of a concrete totality of labours. Indifference towards specific labours corresponds to a form of society in which individuals can with ease transfer from one labour to another, and where the specific kind is a matter of chance for them, hence of indifference. Not only the category, labour, but labour in reality has here become the means of creating wealth in general, and has ceased to be organically linked with particular individuals in any specific form. Such a state of affairs is at its most developed in the most modern form of existence of bourgeois society –in the United States. Here, then, for the first time, the point of departure of modern economics, namely the abstraction of the category ‘labour’, ‘labour as such’, labour pure and simple, becomes true in practice. (Marx 1973, 32-33)

Labour as ‘real abstraction’ comes about only when commodity production is generalised, in other words, when labour itself becomes a commodity with a value, a use-value and an exchange-value. This only could happened when value slowly emerged as the law which regulates the economic structure of society. Under these conditions, labour is no longer particular but universal, no longer concrete but abstract –i.e. productive expenditure of human energy in general. The similarities with this definition of labour and the functional circle are plain to see, with one exception: only with Marx abstract labour becomes the force that retroactively acts upon society, because it is defined on account of its social role –specifically, the determination of values and exchange-values–, whereas Uexküll remains within the phenomenological realm. Notwithstanding, the functional circle describes an actual biological process common not only to human beings but most animal species as well. For Uexküll, objects are the result of an exteriorisation of our subjective biological structure, whereas for Marx, objects are the product of an objectification of our particular activities and purposes, which in turn reflect our living material conditions. Hence, the circular movement is asserted by both: from the external world to our brain and then back to the world, changing it continuously and changing ourselves in the process. Marx describes it as follows:

In the labour-process, therefore, man’s activity, with the help of the instruments of labour, effects an alteration, designed from the commencement, in the material worked upon. The process disappears in the product, the latter is a use-value, Nature’s material adapted by a change of form to the wants of man. Labour has incorporated itself with its subject: the former is materialised, the latter transformed. That which in the labourer appeared as movement, now appears in the product as a fixed quality without motion. The blacksmith forges and the product is a forging. (2011, 201)

Coordinated actions with a definite aim become ‘embodied’ in the object produced, but as we saw earlier both actions and result must pre-exist in the mind of the worker. However, the resulting object is far from ‘static’, for it must serve subsequent actions that will consume it; furthermore, it can also serve this purpose by re-entering the production process as means or tool. The structure of these actions must be signalled on the object. Both of these purposes make objects values-in-use, and in that respect they are defined by the particular conditions and aims with which they are produced –they are concrete useful objects resulting from concrete useful labour. But if objects are produced for being exchanged with other objects, the only thing that matters is the quantity of average labour-power needed for their production, so they can be compared with each other. Paradoxically, the labour-time –and the actions carried on within that time– that measures that quantity is regulated by the products of that very same labour –namely, by their value relation (Marx 2011, 86). They are, therefore, abstract social objects resulting from equally abstract social labour.

Average social labour-time and the disciplining of labour

The uncanny nature of Marx’s definition of value resides in its ‘immaterial-yet-socially-objective’ character: for commodities to have value means that they count only as ‘homogeneous congelations of undifferentiated labour’ (Marx 2011, 52). Marx used terms like ‘congelation’, ‘crystallisation’, and ‘objectification’ alternately to illustrate how concrete labour and its product become abstracted as values in commodity exchange, and how this is ‘not some purely subjective illusion or individual whim but rather a social fact, a social reality we neglect at our peril’ (Jameson 2011, 26). The labour-value embodied in commodities, then, has a purely social existence, stripped away from any particular quality. Here, the object counts only as the underlying time-structure of the activity of labour and not as a material useful thing. Thus, the object is no longer a concrete chair, but a set of instructions distended in time, and indispensable to build any chair in a definite amount of time, this latter ultimately determined by what society requires as ‘socially necessary’. Moreover, as abstract object, the chair also represents a set of instructions to use it –whether productively (means of production) or unproductively (means of subsistence). What sorts of actions then, determine the nature of these objects?

The Twofold Dimension of Human Acts

The problem we face now is how to specify the kinds of actions carried out during the labour-process, and what is their relation to architectural objects. For our comparative analysis of the theories of Uexküll and Marx raises the question, once again, of the universal and the particular. The biological and phenomenal approach of the functional circle is clearly a universal process, common to all human beings. But it is also a concrete phenomenal engagement between a subject and its object. Similarly, the social premise of value implies both, a concrete production process, and an abstract homogenisation of all qualitative differences among labour activities. Hence, not only objects are imprisoned between these two poles, but also the actions they entail. In the following, I will suggest that it might be that objects, on account of their abstractness, are the crucial terrain where commodification has taken place on a spatial level with the advent of capitalism.

Labour-time is a quantative magnitude, and as such, completely non-spatial, just as the sensations we form in our brain and project onto external objects. When performing labour, human actions are as varied as the social division of labour. During this process, actions must be planned in advance and performed in a coordinated way which assures the realisation of the purpose intended from the beginning, for man ‘not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will’ (Marx 2011, 198). Hence, actions are regulated by our will. Free and spontaneous movements are subjected then, to a temporal-directional structure of rules and instructions laid beforehand. We can even suggest that this is the case not only in the labour-process, but in society as a whole. Just like the rules in sports and games, for example, human activities are regulated by social objects, which are embodied in all things that have value-in-use for us. This social structure of activity underlies, therefore, all human motions, labour being the most evident and relevant case.

There is one concept within architectural theory that could explain how things turn into objects, and how these in turn regulate our actions: the concept of human act. Unfortunately so far, it has been scarcely formulated, but we can hopefully trace it back and reconstruct some relevant contributions. Put in simple terms, a human act is ‘the abstract structure of action’ (De la Cruz 2000, 139). In contrast to notions like use, action, activity, and function, I will suggest that human acts have an abstract and substantial character in architecture. Thus, we need first to sharply distinguish this concept from these apparently similar notions. As we know these were developed within the Modern Movement, and represented an attempt to find the objective basis of architecture. Nevertheless, according to Lefebvre (1991, 144, 273, 369) and Adorno (1997), for instance, function was merely an abstraction from real use, and ultimately served as the basis for the ‘taylorisation’ of architecture. Furthermore, bodily movements and simple actions we perform to use something cannot be regarded as substantial, for they vary according to the concrete situation in which they take place. We can swim in various ways and with diverse techniques, but the act of swimming, along with its basic rules, underlies all those possible variations. The similarities with the concept of object are evident. However, problems arise as soon as we leave behind examples based on institutionalised practices –such as sports– and move towards everyday practices, such as working and dwelling.

The human act as the abstract structure of actions

Two of the pioneers in raising the concept of human act were Juan Borchers and Alberto Cruz, both renowned Chilean theorists and architects from the 1950s and 1960s. This latter had his own vision of it which he called ‘architectural act’, and which was closer to a notion of ‘creative acts’ in a joint experimental endeavour between architecture and poetry (Cruz 2005; Pérez Oyarzun 1997, 12-14; 2010, 3-4). This definition drives him away from the meaning we are currently pursuing. On the other hand, we already noticed the major influence Uexküll and Van der Laan played in Borchers’ theory, and these surely were his main sources for proposing the human act as the substantial and specific element of architecture. Other attempts to specify this elusive realm have been made, for instance, by Bernard Tschumi with his concept of ‘events’ (1996, 139-149; 1994, 10, XXI). His approach, though highly experimental, lacks empirical rigour and ends up retreating into an analogy between literary narrative and architecture. On the contrary, for Borchers, acts are not a matter of analogies, but an actual and measurable relationship between the human body and the architectural work:

The act is the simplest unit in architecture; it is the element, such as colour in painting and sound in music.

An act contains a number of concatenated impulses that are crystallised actions into things, which are the perceptible bearer of objects.

A wall is an obstacle to the way. A staircase facilitates ascent and descent (…) They are immobilised actions. (Borchers, quoted by De la Cruz 2000, 136)

The context of these ideas has to do with Borchers’ attempt to define the specificity of the discipline of architecture, detaching it from others, and leading it towards its autonomy (Borchers 1968, 41, 118-122, 145; Pérez Oyarzun 1997, 11). Through a radical critique of the visual and sensory bias of the Modern Movement, he deemed necessary to identify the specific sense around which architecture should be centred, just like painting is on sight, sculpture on touch, or music on hearing (1968, 101, 118). He was also extremely critical of both the professional practice of architecture and the academia during the 1950s. Consequently, he proposed to base architecture in a new sense: the totality of the human body taken as one great organ (1968, 118, 169), in such a way that architecture could transcend a mere aesthetic organization of sensations (1968, 116). At first, this may seem as an obvious fact, but his proposition grows in complexity: for the entire body to be the foundation of architecture means that the latter has no privileged or specific sense to which appeal. The fact that until that moment nobody had identified this specific sense was one of the reasons why, according to him, architecture was in a confused and undetermined state, paradoxically looking for its own specificity in other fields of knowledge (1968, 101). Although the reach and depth of Borchers’ theory exceeds the current exposition, it is important to contextualise –however briefly– his concept of the act, which is grounded on the search for the specific brain organs that are responsible for our perception and bodily responses to the outside world.

Uexküll also sought to identify, within the brain, these central organs. He found a central receptor or perception organ (Merkrorgan) capable of unifying the content sensations of the sensory circles to form our Merkwelt. He called it apperception or plastic organ –taking the former from Kant (Uexküll n. d., 57-58). But he never specified that motor part of the brain responsible for giving nexus to order sensations coming from the impulses circles, to form our Wirkwelt. This central effector or action organ (Wirkorgan) he called it will organ, but apart from linking it to a ‘memory organ’ that stores the ‘rules of movement’, he admittedly left it undetermined (n. d., 140). Yet, he did develop a complete biological theory (Uexküll 2010) which served as the basis for later developments in biosemiotics, and in which he acknowledges the central importance of the active responses of man and animal towards the world: ‘Living organisms, especially animals, can perform actions that are not simple effects of particular properties, but that thanks to a uniform constructive plan, are true acts’ (n. d., 65). Borchers took and developed these notions as he saw them as the only way to decant architecture ‘towards its radical base’ (1968, 119). We have mentioned that, for him, abstract objects are the substance of architecture, and we also linked this assertion to the phenomenological approach of Husserl. Following Uexküll then, he defined our will organ as ‘the centre of permanent and spontaneous activity that sets in motion the imperative organs of actions and whose rules are stored in an organ of memory which preserves the rules of movement’ (1968, 120), and impulses as ‘certain suggestions of the will that serve for the execution of definite coordinated movements of the muscles’ (1968, 147).

The whole process of the functional circle, which begins with a perception –brought about by the plastic organ– and ends with an action –launched by the will organ– is conceptualised by Borchers as the basis of human acts. But he focuses on the impulses circle and the will organ as he sees a ‘need for grounding architecture as a phenomenon of the will and not as a phenomenon of the senses’ (1968, 118). The particularity of this argument is that by focusing on the will it goes beyond the notion that the architectural work affects us exclusively on a sensual-emotional –and ultimately purely subjective or psychological– level. On the contrary, what implies is that architecture itself is the product of our ‘objectified will’ –our ‘crystallised actions’.[3] Therefore, if human acts constitute the fundamental element with which the architect (as general figure) can constitute its objects –i.e. the architectural work understood as a concatenation of multiple objects– then, they are nothing more than his subjective will put outside of him in the form of ‘congealed actions’. Put it bluntly, acts are ‘crystallisations of the will’ (Borchers 1968, 171); they are the ‘petrified’ structure of the actions that constitutes objects. It is difficult to clearly see the difference between both acts and objects, as Borchers himself use them alternately, but for now I think the point is fairly clear.

Human acts as the abstract structure of activity (social relations)

As we can see, the similarities with Marx’s terminology are at least astonishing. Let me suggest that, in pointing out this parallelism, two distinct definitions of human act emerge: 1) the abstract structure of activity, which underlies and regulates our otherwise ‘spontaneous’ actions –e.g. matrimony / get married; dinner / to eat; labour / to work, and so on. 2) crystallised or immobilised unitary actions, which remain in a ‘latent’ state within concrete objects –e.g. entrance / to enter; corridor / to walk; staircase / go up or downstairs, and so forth. The first definition has basically a social and immaterial character, whereas the second is essentially architectural –though these latter examples must not be understood as material objects, but as elementary temporal and directional signs. In both these cases we can clearly distinguish act from action: the former is always a noun, whereas the latter, a verb.

Human acts as crystallised actions (architecture)

We can now clarify the implications of the theory of the act for the theory of value and vice versa, with the aim of determining the grounds for the relationship between the work of architecture and the development of capital. This latter category has yet to be introduced, since its complexity and historical implications need further elaboration in the next chapters. What are, then, the common aspects of these concepts, one belonging to architecture and the other to social theory and economics? The process of ‘objectification’ seems to be the first shared category. On the one hand, actual labour becomes embodied in commodities thanks to its abstraction into average time units: our concrete practice of making a chair turns into a quantitative measure, its value, so we can sell (exchange) it on the market. On the other hand, real actions become materialised in things which ‘contain’ them as generic objects: our mental scheme of what makes a chair turns into bodily actions that actually build a concrete chair which ‘contains’ that very same general scheme which is common to all particular chairs.  As we can see, we have to be careful, for ‘objectification’ plays a different role in each of these examples. On the first, it means that a concrete activity turns into an abstract measure (time) which is social, since it designates a value-for-exchange with other commodities. On the second, it means that a concrete activity turns into an abstract scheme which is also social, but remains in the realm of values-in-use and, therefore, it is ‘activated’ whenever we engage with an object. Consequently, the abstractness of value has no spatial implications in itself: an exchange can occur in any place at any time, nowadays without even requiring physical presence. Conversely, although acts are non-spatial schemes, they always relate to a spatial component: for going downstairs, or walking through a corridor, we only need to know our departure, stop, and arrival points, that is, the connective relations we need for moving about; the spatial figure of the staircase or the corridor are secondary, just like a transit map on which the only thing that counts are the connecting lines regardless the actual form, scale, or distance. Borchers understood this, and for that reason he thought of acts as figures of time and connection rather than space (1968, 173). He relied on graph theory and topology in order to ‘measure’ them, and lead him to conclude that ‘in an act, there is a potential kinetic energy’ (quoted by De la Cruz 2000, 137), hence his definition of architecture as ‘physics made flesh’ (1968, 173).

How is it possible that the immaterial realm of value-relations comes to dominate the material sphere of use-values? Clearly, on the grounds of its social objectivity –i.e. on its embodiment in those very same use-values. Therefore, Marx regards commodities as ‘social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses’, and then he adds that ‘in the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself’ (2011, 83). This is a quite interesting comparison, for Uexküll asked himself something similar when trying to unravel how we are able to recognise objects:

How do we manage to see sitting in a chair, drinking in a cup, climbing in a ladder, none of which are given perceptually? In all the objects that we have learned to use, we see the function which we perform with them as surely as we see their shape or color. (1957, 48)

We have, therefore, that both commodities (as values) and objects are imperceptible to our external senses, yet ‘perceptible’, in the case of objects, to our internal senses which perceive the ‘operational meaning’ Uexküll describes in his example. This is nothing more than the activation of our bodily memory, which immediately unfolds the required coordinated rules of movement, and even creating new rules if necessary, as when we learned to ride a bicycle with training wheels, and then to do it without them. With commodities qua values it is not that simple: for we only become aware of their retroactive power to regulate our social relations, when we exchange them in the market. Hence Marx’s notion of the fetishism of commodities which refers to the mystifying nature of the realm of exchange (the market) in which, as it were, the concrete social relations between producers become eclipsed and appear as properties of products themselves (Marx 2011, 83; Fine 2001). This raises the possibility that objects and acts, fundamental elements for architecture, have become commodified through time in such a way, that it is almost impossible to distinguish a non-commodified substratum within them. The regulated and coordinated movements we learn through our life are, of course, socially instituted and biologically grounded; hence, just like there is a socially necessary labour-time, which is concealed from us through exchange, there is a socially instituted conduct, which is represented by human acts hidden within all objects, including architectural objects. As soon as this twofold dimensions becomes intertwined, we have that architecture becomes just another ‘instrument’ for disciplining our motions to fit the pace of the law of value, which seeks to diminish labour-time as much as possible and so shorten the cycle of production and expansion of itself. As we mentioned, this is not exclusively to labour activities, but we will see how a wider definition of the notion of production allows us to see how all human activities are implicated directly or indirectly in the social production of value.

Closing Remarks

The path we have followed in these three chapters has taken us through a progressive unfolding of many concepts. We begun with the contradiction and organic unity between nature and man, in which we defined the passive body as organically linked to the former, and the labour of the active body as the possibility for overcoming this contradiction through the human world created by architecture. Then we move into defining the specific order on which architecture is grounded, distinguishing things from objects within a biological and phenomenological approach. Finally, we focused on the realm of productive human activity to understand the basis of the relationship between human acts and value. In the following chapters we will expand on these issues from a historical point of view which will seek to explain the nature and fate of architecture under capitalist societies, and the possibilities for radical transformations.


[1] This title is taken from Section 3, Chapter 3 of Jorge de la Cruz’s Master dissertation (De la Cruz 2000, 148).

[2] ‘[In] The labour-process, resolved as above into its simple elementary factors (…) was, therefore, not necessary to represent our labourer in connexion with other labourers; man and his labour on one side, Nature and its materials on the other, sufficed.’ (Marx 2011, 205)

[3] We must bear in mind that Borchers uses a specific definition of will taken mostly from Schopenhauer and his critique of the causality between will and action, which he claim were one and the same thing. See: (Cartwright 2005, 181-182; 15-17), and (Schopenhauer 1969, 100).

List of References

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—. 1975. Meta-Arquitectura. Translated by Patricio De Stefani for academic purposes. Santiago: Mathesis.

Cartwright, David. 2005. Historical Dictionary of Schopenhauer’s Philosophy. Oxford: Scarecrow Press, Inc.

Chang, Han-liang. 2004. “Semiotician or hermeneutician? Jakob von Uexküll revisited.” Sign Systems Studies 32.1/2: 115-138. Accessed May 24, 2012.

Cruz, Alberto. 2005. El Acto Arquitectónico. Valparaíso: Ediciones Universitarias de Valparaíso / Ediciones e[ad].

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—. 2011. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume I). Translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc.

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Pérez Oyarzun, Fernando. 1997. “Ortodossia-eterodossia: Architettura moderna in Cile.” Casabella 650: 8-15.

—. 2010. “Theory and Practice of Domestic Space between 1950 and 2000.” In Chilean Modern Architecture since 1950, edited by Malcolm Quantrill, 1-43. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press.

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—. n. d. Cartas Biológicas a una Dama. Originally published as “Biologische Briefe an eine Dame” (Belin: Verlag von Gebrüder Paetel, 1920). Translated by Patricio De Stefani for academic purposes. Santiago: Zig-Zag.

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The Artificial Order

By Patricio De Stefani

Things and Objects

We have asserted that there is no clear-cut distinction between man and nature, and yet there is no harmonious unity either, for what always remains is an inherent contradiction derived from their structural discordance, which is only partially overcome through labour and its product. This contradiction is dialectical, not logical, which means that nature and man are two complementing opposites in an everlasting reciprocal and material exchange. If there were no opposition, there would be no need for man to labour in a particular way in order to survive.

Flying Machine, Leonardo da Vinci, 1490

Nature creates, while man produces. The product of our labour is not the outcome of a natural process, it is not done by instinct, and it produces artefacts: it is artificial. However, and if we stick to our initial conclusion about man and nature, the natural-artificial distinction is far from being self-evident. Let’s go back to the difference between nature and the natural, the former being the total environment (biosphere) and the latter a feature of things and processes created by nature –including human beings. We could assert for instance, that the split between external and internal nature gets reproduced within the concept of the natural. This would mean that some of the features of natural processes would somehow be present in human-made artefacts –a kind of internalisation of the natural. This distinction compels us to go beyond the mere appearance of things and address the internal order which structures them. The natural order would be that which is based on natural laws.[1] This means that human-made artefacts which are based on the laws of nature, such as airplanes, locomotives, bridges, and engineering works in general, belong to the natural order, even though they are obviously artificial –in the sense of man-made.[2] They would not be possible without the abstraction of natural laws in the physical laws of science. An airplane would be unthinkable without the principles of aerodynamics, in turn developed by studying the flight behaviour of birds, fluid mechanics, and so on. This means that all natural things are the de facto expression of the natural order, but not all artificial things belong to the artificial order. What is this order? What are its properties? Van der Laan sees it in fundamental discordance with the natural order, starting from the first architectonic construction:

The house will not have, therefore, a form determined by nature, as in the case of a bird’s nest. Wherever intelligence intervenes as a principle of form, it appears the break with the homogeneous world of natural forms (…) these new forms maybe the subject of a new order, an artificial order, which has its place in nature.[3]

How can we effectively distinguish between these two orders? Human intelligence seems to be one of the key elements. But what about airplanes or locomotives, are they not the product of the human intellect? To find a way out of this impasse we have to turn into a crucial distinction derived from the dual constitution of the human body: the difference between thing and object. I will first draw on the specific definitions given by Borchers and Uexküll, for then contrast them with some insights by Heidegger.

Natural forms and human forms

For Borchers, a thing is the sensory data we perceive using our external senses –the passive functions of the body, such as our sight, touch, smell, and the like. The passive body captures the various stimuli arising from the thing; the appropriate organ transforms the corresponding stimulus into a nervous excitation that goes into the brain which transforms it into a sensation. Take a jug for example, as a thing is for us something hard, brown, of a certain size, weight, smell, temperature, and so on. The passive body, constituted by our external organs, unifies all the separate sensations emitted by the brain into a unitary and coherent form which we then transfer out to our surrounding world, filling it with things of all sizes, colours, and shapes, and creating a perception out of them.

We stated in the previous chapter that there is an immanent relationship between our sensory apparatus and nature. Now we are able to explain the implications of this assertion. The given definition of thing implies something which is already there, outside of us, and that we ‘internalise’ through our senses to form a unitary perception of the world. However, the sensations that we perceive from things are not out there –properties of the thing itself– but rather created in our brain in a process which always starts from the thing, passes through the body-brain, and finishes again in the thing. Uexküll called this process sensory cycle.[4] This means that sensations, say like hearing sounds, do not exist in the world independent from us, but only the air vibration as a stimulus to our ear: the cycle closes when we transfer the sound sensation back to thing and make it appear as coming from it and not ourselves. When the cycle closes we are no longer able to ‘distinguishing between something initial and something final anymore, or otherwise, between an organism and an exterior world’.[5] Therefore, the distinction between external and phenomenal world is decisive and mirrors that between external and internal nature: the first is independent from our perception; the second comes about only when the cycles of perception are completed. Our phenomenal world, self-world, or Umwelt comes from our own constitution as subject and organism, from our experience-space as its encounters with the external world.

Something entirely different –although closely connected– happens when we react to the external world. This happens when the result of a stimulus goes beyond a mere sensation or perception, when our body reacts to certain stimuli coming from the thing and performs an action. If ‘our sense organs serve our perceptions’, then ‘our motor organs our actions’, affirms Uexküll.[6] Our Umwelt divides into two parts: a perceptual world of sensations, which comprises all things perceived; and an effector world of actions, which comprises objects produced and used by man. For Uexküll, our essential biological activity consists in perceiving and acting.[7]

I call briefly “objects” to all things which executes actions appropriate to the service of man (…) an object is thus a thing signalled by its ability for execution (…) The distinction between thing and object is not familiar to the naive observer. He considers all things as objects, because he only contemplates them in their relations with men.[8]

A tree can serve to give us shade but it is not an object, since it does not correspond to the structure of our actions which we carry in our memory.[9] On the contrary, if we pick and fill a jug with wine, and then we pour the wine into a glass, then the jug turns from thing into an object of use, it articulates with our actions. Now we can see more clearly that thing and object designate one and the same body in space, and that a jug as thing can be something relative as object if, for instance, we use it as a vase. Heidegger used this example in his seminal 1950 essay The Thing, in which he wanders about the essence of a thing, and why we have lost access to it in the modern world. However, for him a thing is what is essential to an object, whereas the latter is only the external appearance or ideal representation of the thing.[10] Heidegger claims that what makes the jug a thing, is it being a vessel, and what makes it a vessel, is the property of being a holding void, he argues that ‘the jug is not a vessel because it was made; rather, the jug had to be made because it is this holding vessel’.[11] According to our previous definition, for Heidegger the thing is the object, namely, things which ‘effect our purposes’.[12] Yet, objects are not simply useful things, but rather pre-existing schemes of action contained in our memory and the thing: objects are not actually material and visible. The object in a jug –or a bottle for that matter– is always the same, no matter the particular material in which it was made, nor its various shapes or designs: the object consist in the action of holding (taking and keeping) and then pouring out, as Heidegger rightly asserts. This sequence of actions can be performed in different ways, but the coordinated rules remain the same, thus an object is not even merely a series of actions, but rather the invariable scheme or set of rules which structures them. If we don’t know previously these rules for using the jug, this will remain only a thing sending various stimuli which our external perceptual organs will capture and turn into a perception, but it will not send any stimulus to our internal effector organs, and consequently, our body will not react with a corresponding unitary action.

Jug designs, Frank Brangwyn, c1930

Things carry an external and independent existence from man; accordingly we perceive them with our sensory organs, forming a unique human perception out of them. Whereas objects are dependant and internal to our organic constitution, hence we only grasp them with our internal organs –including memory– and then we react performing a unitary bodily action on the thing. We see now that things belong to the natural order when they don’t resonate with our willed actions; while objects pertain to the artificial order, not only because they are man-made but, more importantly, given that they emanate from our mental laws which effect our intentions and purposes into the outside world, changing it continuously.

Use and Exchange

The artificial order is produced in thought; its laws fundamentally contradict the laws of nature rather than mimic or make abstraction of them. The jug is a product of human labour, the reshaping of earth materials by the human hand. But as Heidegger asserts, the jug had to be realised because it existed previously in the human mind, not as the image of a specific jug design, but more fundamentally as the purpose of fulfilling a need: that of holding and pouring liquids. The coming into being of the jug depends on human action performed on nature, but this is not what makes it artificial. The jug is an artificial object since 1) it had to be previously conceived with a clear intention; 2) it had to be designed or constructed according to geometrical laws which do not exist in nature; and 3) once completed it had to be ‘activated’ by the human body, and thus ripped off from the realm of passive things, and turned into an active object.

It was this realm of objects at the service of man that Marx looked at in his enquiry on the nature of commodities. For him, commodities are first of all useful things that could be analysed either from its qualitative or quantative aspects.[13] The former refers to its utility or suitability to human needs, the latter to the quantity of it that can be traded for another thing. Yet, we have said that objects are not really material things, but a performance plan deposited into the thing by our will: a result of our previous actions that serves our subsequent actions. Did Marx foresee this immaterial dimension of the object? Well, he certainly recognised the fleeting nature of use, stating that a useful thing ‘is an assemblage of many properties, and may therefore be of use in various ways’.[14] Nonetheless, he also understood the dependency of the object on the actual concrete thing:

The utility of a thing makes it a use-value. But this utility is not a thing of air. Being limited by the physical properties of the commodity, it has no existence apart from that commodity (…) Use-values become a reality only by use or consumption: they also constitute the substance of all wealth, whatever may be the social form of that wealth.[15]

The concept of use-value comes close to that of the object. Its concreteness is defined in terms of its actual performance, its activation by the human body –when this is not the case, it returns to its state of natural thing, of passive perception. An object is at the same time abstract (the product of mental laws and purposes), and concrete (the product of material labour and performance). However, it is from the point of view of quantity that a commodity comes into being as such. We can trade a certain quantity of a given commodity for a certain quantity of another –for instance, we could trade two jugs for one book. But what enables this equivalence? How can we establish the right proportion at which each commodity is exchanged? Marx affirms that

Exchange-value, at first sight, presents itself as a quantitative relation, as the proportion in which values in use of one sort are exchanged for those of another sort, a relation constantly changing with time and place. Hence exchange-value appears to be something accidental and purely relative, and consequently an intrinsic value, i.e., an exchange-value that is inseparably connected with, inherent in commodities, seems a contradiction in terms.[16]

Exchange-value: the ratio at which commodities can be trade-off

Unlike exchange, the realm of use-values is completely heterogeneous: they are as diverse as human needs. This poses a problem, for if we want to exchange a use-value for another, we have to equate two entirely different uses –say holding liquids (jug), and reading (book). Can we actually say that a book is worth two jugs since it is more ‘valuable’ in use? No, we cannot equate two different values in use because the utility of a thing –its ability to satisfy our needs– rests on a subjective-qualitative realm. Marx pointed out that we fall in a similar delusion when we try to explain exchange-value solely on its quantitative determinants –the fact that two jugs equal one book– since these 2:1 ratio is just the expression of something internal to all commodities: ‘first: the valid exchange-values of a given commodity express something equal; secondly, exchange-value, generally, is only the mode of expression, the phenomenal form, of something contained in it’.[17] This mysterious element cannot be some material property of commodities either.

This common “something” cannot be either a geometrical, a chemical, or any other natural property of commodities. Such properties claim our attention only in so far as they affect the utility of those commodities (…) If then we leave out of consideration the use-value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labour.[18]

In the previous chapter we followed Marx in that human labour is an ever-lasting necessity in which we engage in a continuous metabolic relation with nature. As a result of this, it is also the means by which things turn into objects of use. And lastly, labour is also the common substratum that allows commodities to be compared with one another. If each commodity requires a definite kind of labour to be produced, how do we measure this qualitative diversity? That was for Marx the first problem after he identified labour as the substance of the value of commodities. However, this new concept of (intrinsic) value as something embodied in commodities and yet different from their use and exchange values, must be clarified. The first thing to bear in mind is that value comes into being only as commodities are exchanged for one another. Taken in isolation, a commodity has value (in use) only for the person who produced it, thus no social validity. We saw also that commodities cannot be compared by their uses, since they differ qualitatively. On the contrary, ‘as exchange-values they are merely different quantities, and consequently do not contain an atom of use-value’.[19] More importantly, the different kinds of labour required for producing qualitatively different commodities, have no relevance in exchange either. What remains then is human labour as a general activity, since what happens in exchange is that

Along with the useful qualities of the products themselves, we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labour embodied in them, and the concrete forms of that labour; there is nothing left but what is common to them all; all are reduced to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract.[20]

Abstract labour: labour time expended in general

The concept of abstract human labour is crucial to understand Marx’s concept of value. The value of a commodity is the quantity of labour required for its production. Following Ricardo, Marx sets up the labour-time (hours, days, weeks, etc.) spent in the production of a commodity as the determinant of its value, but there is a central distinction that soon drove him away from this explanation. For if I decide to take a long time making a commodity doesn’t mean my commodity has more value: labour-time has to be viewed against the background of social relations and within society as a whole.[21] And if abstract labour refers to the expenditure of human labour-power in general –stripped from any concrete distinction– then, says Marx, there must be a social average of labour-power, of the ability to do useful work under a certain amount of time, conditions, and intensity. So far as human labour ‘requires for producing a commodity, no more time than is needed on an average, no more than is socially necessary’[22], then the value of commodities will remain constant. Therefore, socially necessary labour-time is the time ‘required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time’.[23] This socially determined average time for the production of a commodity is what fixes its social value. A building takes for society, on an average, a long time and effort to produce, while a bed considerably less: the difference in their values is socially grounded. We are able to know these values only when we compare and trade commodities in the market, and not by themselves. Thus, we are able to determine how many jugs equal a book, how many books equal a bed, or how many beds equal a building.

There are also a number of similarities between Marx’s concept of value and that of the object. For example, both refer to something which is only accessible through some form of mediating action: I perceive the object of a chair only when I sit in it (whether actually or potentially), I know the value of a chair only when I exchange it for some other object. However, the critical connection lies in their internal relation to human labour, so let us look at it more closely.

The Architectural Object

Before we can move onto the relation between object and value, we have to utterly clarify the concept of object, and this means to draw attention to its difference with use. We have seen that many objects can exist within one and the same thing, so we can use a chair as bedside table or a bedroom as office, without any change in the material properties of the thing. But is this not a simple change in its use? So far, we have not drawn any explicit distinction between object and use, we have merely pointed out their similarities.

Although Heidegger defined things and objects in the exact inverse sense than Uexküll and Borchers did, it will be useful if we examine some of his earlier insights. For him, objects designate the way in which western metaphysics detached the abstract and ideal realm of pure forms from the mundane realm of concrete things, putting the latter as a mere imperfect reproduction of the former.[24] Following a phenomenological approach, Heidegger saw things as belonging to the world of everyday uses and experiences, but the distinction, within this realm, between the active and passive properties of things was not clarified. He addressed this issue back in 1927 with the concepts of present-at-hand and ready-to-hand.

No matter how sharply we just look at the ‘outward appearance’ of Things in whatever form this takes, we cannot discover anything ready-to-hand. If we look at Things just ‘theoretically’, we can get along without understanding readiness-to-hand. But when we deal with them by using them and manipulating them, this activity is not a blind one; it has its own kind of sight, by which our manipulation is guided and from which it acquires its specific Thingly character.[25]

A thing is present-at-hand when it is being perceived by the passive and detached attitude of the theorist or philosopher –merely contemplated and looked at as a material fact, at best as the ‘crystallisation’ of the pure idea. On the contrary, a thing is ready-to-hand when we actually engage with it and directly use it without ‘thinking’. From this we can presume that Heidegger was concerned with counteracting the primacy of the ideal and visible object (present-at-hand) over the thing (ready-to-hand) –accessible phenomenologically through daily use. We can assert, therefore, that Heidegger’s distinction roughly matches our earlier understanding of thing and object. Heidegger’s thing is pretty much our object, while his object is not quite our thing. To avoid misunderstandings, let us stick to our previous definition, while maintaining Heidegger’s critique of an abstract-idealist approach to the matter.

The object as an ordering scheme

If the object exists both as a mental scheme of action, and as a concrete phenomenal and useful thing, this leaves its status in a confused state, is it a purely abstract matter or a practical one? How can it be both at once? A bicycle is both an immaterial mental scheme which bears the rules for riding it and a concrete artefact made according to those rules. When we use something, we never do it in the same exact way; we cannot replicate the exact same movements and positions, why? Because use consists merely in the concrete actions required to consume something. These actions are performed according to rules of movement stored in our memory but they are not those rules, they are just their concrete and contingent manifestation. Neither are these rules purely ideal forms, but they are grounded in our bodily experiences. Yet, objects do have certain fixity derived from the body’s performance and capacities, but they are neither immutable nor transcendental. Therefore, the reality of objects is substantial or formal rather than contingent. Borchers argued that this property made objects the real substance of architecture:

A drop of water has the shape of a sphere; a knife of steel has an elongated shape and an edge: knife and drop are bodies, but water and steel are the substance of drop and knife. Objects form the substance of architecture (…) a table can be of wood, marble or other material; the material there does not constitute the object, it is as it where the incidental, neither this or that form: the object is the permanent, the enduring with independence of its configuration, which is changeable and shifting.[26]

Instead of an architecture merely grounded on its sensory appearance as thing, Borchers sought one based on what ultimately remains of it after all the rest has disappeared or changed: architectural objects. Similarly, for Marx values form the substance of commodities. Through time, they can change their use and exchange ratios, but what remains is their value – though in any absolute fashion.

Heretofore, it may seem that objects form part of an obscure and purely abstract realm, or else a subjective definition that has little empirical validity. However, Uexküll based his research on scientific experiments, and defined objects as a biological fact without which we would not be able to give shape and movement to the world around us.[27] If human use is what turns things into objects, then it is this activity what allows to overcome the initial contradiction between them, which is one the forms that the contradiction between natural and artificial takes. On the other hand, if objects are substantial, they form the underlying structure of both things and uses, which are always contingent and subject to specific conditions. As thing, a jug can be made of many different materials and it can have countless and diverse designs, this will depend on its time, location, and productive conditions. Also it can be used in many different ways as long as its material properties allow it. But it cannot change its size up to a certain point; it cannot change its basic constituents, such as being a vessel (holding), having at least one handle, and perhaps a neck or lip (pouring). These properties do not need to have a definite shape, but simply be able to be handled by the human hand in a suitable way. Yet, these formal qualities are just one side of the object –which we may call its ‘figure’ (or spatial skeleton)[28]– the other consisting in order sensations, such as our sense of location, direction, and moment, which are internal to our body and completely non-spatial. We shall review them in more detail in the next chapter. Suffice for now will be to signal their relation to our ‘bodily’ memory:

Our memory –which we constantly use to recognize objects– usually does not consist in images that we compare with objects to see if they match them (…) The object remains in our memory not as a complete image, but as a series of directive signs which like a melody, dwell in us.[29]

Giant dinner table

Let us return now to the concept of value. One thing to bear in mind is that for Marx, value is specific to the emergence of capitalism. But how can this be? Do not all human creations have value for them as long as they meet their needs? This is where we have to be careful not to confuse Marx’s specific definition of value with other meanings regarding ethics, culture, or even economics itself –i.e. subjective value theory.[30] Marx’s value has an entirely different meaning we should clarify to avoid misinterpretation. For him, the value of commodities is not a matter of subjective judgment, consumer preference, ethical principles, or any other kind of appreciation. On the contrary, the development of values signals the advent of a particular mode of production, one in which we don’t produce for our own human needs, but for exchange our products through the market: ‘to become a commodity a product must be transferred to another, whom it will serve as a use-value, by means of an exchange’.[31] Values arise when we compare the amount of average and socially necessary labour-time that went into the production of each commodity, and this can only be made through exchange. Consider how Marx reflects on value as what remains in commodities after they are abstracted from their qualitative and concrete aspects:

(…) it consists of the same unsubstantial reality [phantom-like objectivity][32] in each [commodity], a mere congelation of homogeneous human labour, of labour-power expended without regard to the mode of its expenditure. All that these things now tell us is, that human labour-power has been expended in their production, that human labour is embodied in them. When looked at as crystals of this social substance, common to them all, they are –Values.[33]

The threefold structure of the commodity-form is thus revealed: it has at once a use-value, an exchange-value, and a value. Likewise, an architectonic construction can be understood as a purely sensory thing, as something that is used, and finally as an object or ordering scheme. The only term that properly matches with the structure of the commodity is use. For things are neither abstract nor quantitative, but rather phenomenal and qualitative. And objects are not specific to capitalism, but inherent in our organism. But we are not interested here in philosophical comparisons, but with their actual relationship.

Representation of hammer, real hammer, definition of hammer

We cannot see or sensually perceive the object in a hammer, it is immaterial and non-spatial: it arises only when our internal senses react to the stimuli coming from it, and consequently our body executes a unitary action on it, hence ‘using/consuming’ it in one way or another –hammering, pull out a nail. Both Marx and Heidegger theorised about one particular kind of use: productive consumption. Heidegger argued that all things ‘ready-to-hand’ are essentially equipment which we use ‘in order to’ make or aiding to make other things in a continuous process.

(…) the work to be produced is not merely usable for something. The production itself is a using of something for something. In the work there is also a reference or assignment to ‘materiaIs’: the work is dependent on leather, thread, needles, and the like. Leather, moreover is produced from hides. These are taken from animals, which someone else has raised.[34]

Similarly, Marx points out, in his analysis of the labour-process, this double character of the products of labour, as they are not only results but also conditions for further production.

Though a use-value, in the form of a product, issues from the labour-process, yet other use-values, products of previous labour, enter into it as means of production. The same-use-value is both the product of a previous process, and a means of production in a later process. Products are therefore not only results, but also essential conditions of labour (…) labour consumes products in order to create products, or in other words, consumes one set of products by turning them into means of production for another set.[35]

We see then that in general, objects form part of a ceaseless process of creation of use-values out of other preceding use-values –including nature. All human activities form part of this process whether directly or indirectly. In this, objects coordinate and discipline human actions according to rules of movement which are both biologically and socially grounded –to the extent that both become indistinguishable from each other. Thus, objects are immaterial because they form the substratum of a permanent social practice: labour. And in particular, objects are also essential for the creation of values under capitalism. If, as we earlier stated, they are ‘a performance plan deposited into the thing by our will: a result of our previous actions that serves our subsequent actions’, then the temporal factor is decisive. The degree to which objects structure our actions and movements during labour depends heavily on the key factor which manages and controls the time of the production and exchange of commodities: the social average of labour-time. Who determines this average? Who sets what is ‘socially necessary’? In short, who or whom determines values in a capitalist society?[36] Value dictates not only the pace of production, but also its general organisation –including the movements of workers during production. The rules of movement for using/producing an object get transfigured into a new set of rules which will be embodied in the object produced. The rules for hammering nails into wood planks metamorphose into the rules for sitting in a wooden chair. Therefore, the key element which relates (architectural) objects to values is the time of labour, which broadly speaking, is the time of life itself.

[1] We refer here to the laws of nature as the ‘objective orders or regularities in the natural world, which are independent of human minds and discovered by scientific investigation’, not to be confused with the concept of natural law in ethics, nor with physical or scientific laws, see: Nicholas Bunnin and Jiyuan Yu, The Blackwell Dictionary of Western Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 380.

[2] Juan Borchers, Institución Arquitectónica (Santiago: Andres Bello, 1968), 33. Translated from Spanish to English for academic purposes by Patricio De Stefani, 2012.

[3] Hans Van der Laan, Le Nombre Plastique (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960), 5-6.

[4] Jakob von Uexküll, Cartas Biológicas a una Dama (Santiago: Zig-Zag, n. d.), published originally as “Biologische Briefe an eine Dame” (Belin: Verlag von Gebrüder Paetel, 1920), 29. Translated from Spanish to English for academic purposes by Patricio De Stefani, 2012.

[5] Juan Borchers, Institución Arquitectónica, 144.

[6] Jakob von Uexküll, “A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds”, in Instinctive Behaviour: The Development of a Modern Concept, ed. Claire H. Schiller (New York: International Universities Press, 1957), 6.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Uexküll, Cartas Biológicas a una Dama, 63-64.

[9] Ibid, 64

[10] Martin Heidegger, “The Thing”, in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Alfred Hofstadter (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 164-165.

[11] Ibid, 166.

[12] Uexküll, “A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men”, 6.

[13] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume I), trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc., 2011), 42.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, 42-43.

[16] Ibid, 43.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, 44.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid, 45.

[21] David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital (London: Verso, 2010) 18, 20.

[22] Karl Marx, Capital, 46.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Adam Sharr, Heidegger for Architects (Abingdon: Routledge, 2007), 29.

[25] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2001), 98.

[26] Juan Borchers, Institución Arquitectónica, 31.

[27] Uexküll, “A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men”, 14, 16, 30, 37, 43.

[28] Uexküll, Cartas Biológicas a una Dama, 55.

[29] Ibid, 55-56.

[30] On the economic field, one of the key exponents of the subjective theory of value was the Austrian School of economics, in particular see: Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, The Positive Theory of Capital (New York: G. E. Stechert & Co), accessed December 13, 2011,

[31] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume I) (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1887), 29, accessed December 10, 2011,

[32] In other editions of Capital the German term ‘gespenstige gegenständlichkeit’ is translated as ‘phantom-like objectivity’ which perhaps describes more accurately the nature of the notion of value, see: Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume I), trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Classics, 1990), 128.

[33] Karl Marx, Capital, 45.

[34] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, 99-100.

[35] Karl Marx, Capital, 201, 204.

[36] David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital, 20.

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The Relations to Nature

Note: this is the finished first chapter of the thesis. Soon I will be posting about some minor changes in the research structure.

By Patricio De Stefani

The Natural Order and the Passive Body

We often think of nature as the so called ‘natural environment’, that vast landscape which is out there surrounding our cities, untouched by the intervention of the human hand. For a proper understanding of the relation between architecture and nature, I want to propose we remove this ‘common sense’ image right away. For what is at stake in this relationship is the very nature –in that other ‘intrinsic’ sense– of architecture.

Nature has an order. Its various cycles develop according to more or less invariable laws which are the object of the natural sciences. Viewed in itself, as a pre-human order, it is external to and independent of human knowledge and praxis, a world which is the product of no conscious thinking or action, a ‘blind and non-conceptual occurrence’.[1] However, human beings have had to dwell within natural space from the beginning –just like any other species on earth– thus nature is the primary source of all human dwelling, ‘the place from which man is absent is also the place where man begins, taking shape and moving ahead of himself’.[2]

The natural world and its forms

Understanding nature in itself, as an absolute, gives us no clues as to its relation to human beings, ‘what else can I say about it, other than that it exists?’[3] Instead, we should identify a conflict –or ambiguity if you like– within the concept of nature itself, for ‘it happens that we use the same word to designate nature in man (human nature: instinct, need, desire) and nature without man, before man, outside man’.[4] Attempts to draw a clear-cut distinction between man and nature have developed mostly from classical metaphysics and later, eighteenth century bourgeois thought. These start to fall apart as soon as we grasp the relation dialectically, which means to see nature in man and vice versa, without confusing them. This is the approach taken by Marx –in a bit fragmented way– and recognised by Lefebvre. For the latter nature can be understood either as external (pre-human) or as internal (within-human). Man is dependant from nature, but nature is independent from man.[5] The contradiction between these two definitions arises as soon as we look from one into the other. As external, nature appears deceptively as something ‘pure’ and empty, thus inaccessible. As internal, corresponds to our natural limits and capacities as biological and sensorial beings. However, nature within man (human nature) is always something which is emerging as half-nature and half-antinature, for it is only by means of abstraction that men have become men at all, only by transforming nature into something which goes beyond it without being completely separated from it. We don’t have right now the space here for going in depth into this debate, but we should to keep in mind that this ‘physis-antiphysis dichotomy is superseded as soon as we realize that it is by antiphysis, or antinature, that man controls and returns to nature’.[6]

Toad living against the earth’s surface

If we imagine nature as the external world, in an ideally –and it could be only in that way– pure, pre-human state, and suspend any human (social) mediated conception about it, we can begin to understand why is it that human beings cannot inhabit the earth in the same way than the rest of species –leaving aside the obvious fact of reason and intellect for the time being. According to the Dutch architect Hans van der Laan, natural space is earth-centred, unlimited, and homogeneous.

The space that nature offers us rises above the ground and is oriented entirely towards the earth’s surface. The contrast between the mass of the earth below and the space of the air above, which meet at the surface of the earth, is the primary datum of this space. On account of their weight all material beings are drawn into this spatial order, and live as it were against the earth.[7]

This means that natural space is fundamentally vertical-oriented along the axis earth/below-air/above. Natural space is the primary phenomenal world we confront with our sensory apparatus –i.e. our passive body– yet there is something in us which prevents that we inhabit this vertical order as such. First, it is an unlimited space which extends towards all directions, and in which limits to perception arise only as folds in the surface of the earth –threes, hills, mountains, and so on.[8] Second, it is a homogeneous space as it extends continuously along the mass of the earth, without any breaks, only folds and cuts in its own surface. Man cannot live solely on natural space because our ‘great manifestation of life lies just in our ability to stand upright and move, and in so doing to counteract the downward movement caused by gravity’.[9] Van der Laan also emphasizes what he calls our experience-space –i.e. the space-image we construct in our mind and according to our own bodily structure.[10] In contrast to natural space, the space we construct from our experience is body-centred, limited, and heterogeneous; and for this reason it is ‘necessarily in conflict with the space of nature’[11], affirms Van der Laan. Following this, the Chilean architect Juan Borchers asserts:

In nature things extend continuously in all directions. They can have all possible measures (…) The human mind has to make a distribution of them all and group them into a few simple and meaningful directions, directly related to the subjective constitution of the human body: height, width, length. These same, grouped in opposing pairs and separated by a cut: right and left, back and forth, up and down.

These sensations do not exist in the outside world from which the stimuli that affect our sense organs come from, but in our subjective structure that we transfer to the outside world.[12]

Because experience-space –subject-space if you like– is body-centred, it is essentially horizontal, which means, as Van der Laan notices, that potentially contradicts the gravity-based vertical axis of natural space. Humans are also the only evolved bipeds, and in virtue of this upright position they cannot live simply upon or against the earth. However, this mismatch between man and nature is not as self-evident as it may appear. Man is also part of nature, which means that nature has created a species which is, by nature, in contradiction with the world –with nature itself. Van der Laan is plainly aware of this problem: nature has produced such a species because it lacks something, it is incomplete. What does it mean when we say that ‘we are in nature, we form part of it like everything else, and yet we are also outside of it’[13]? If external nature is incomplete, so it is internal nature, ‘nature is also what man lacks’.[14] It is the force of abstraction what allows humans to detach themselves from nature by changing its form, but does not abstraction comes from nature in the first place? If this holds true, the argument according to which human abstraction (consciousness) is based ultimately in its material, phenomenological experience of the world, must be deepened.

The coordinate system of man

The natural order is the concept which allows us to grasp the contradiction between external and internal nature. We have said that nature has and order, which manifest itself in the unlimited, homogeneous, and vertical orientation of its space. It also manifests itself in all its organic creations, which grow by intussusception[15] –i.e. from within themselves. Yet, this order remains somehow in human-made objects, but how is this possible? According to Marx, there always exists an inevitably organic relation between man and nature, without which human life would not be possible:

Nature is man’s inorganic body –nature, that is, insofar as it is not itself human body. Man lives on nature –means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.[16]

From this, we can draw an initial conclusion: if the natural order, with its laws and dispositions, is the law of nature, then it is part of human nature too. Man’s immediate biological and physiological needs –e.g. eating, shelter, sleeping, sex, and so on– do not necessarily require previous elaboration of abstraction tout court. Thus, for satisfying these primordial natural needs, man has to work as nature itself would –he has, like other species, hunt or gather its food, find or construct its shelter, and the like. But this does not only apply to ‘primordial needs’. What does mean when we say that something is or develops in a natural way? Here we should carefully differentiate nature from the natural. The latter means something which develops spontaneously, without the intervention of rational and systematized thought, according to natural laws –i.e. vital and organic laws. The distinction between man and nature gets even more blurry when we take into account the development of human history in relation to nature. Marx suggests that nature in-itself is an illusion created by bourgeois thought to make us believe that there is a clear-cut distinction between man and nature.[17] As Schmidt suggests, ‘nature is for Marx a moment of human praxis and at the same time the totality of what exists.[18] For Marx, the phenomenal world is both natural and social:

The sensible world is certainly not for Marx ‘a thing immediately given since eternity, always identical to itself, but rather the product of industry and the condition of society’, but this world socially mediated is yet at the same time natural and historically precedes the whole of human society.[19]

Marx goes even further as to claim that ‘the nature which develops in human history –the genesis of human society– is man’s real nature; hence nature as it develops through industry, even though in an estranged form, is true anthropological nature’.[20] Here, he asserts that the only nature accessible to human beings is the nature transformed by their activity. Man must labour, because it is in his nature, it is what makes him human, and simultaneously, what makes him to struggle against nature. In man, nature struggles against itself.

The Active Body

Although it was implied all along, we should clarify the concept of the passive body and its conflicting yet dependant relation to the natural order, as a precondition to understand the relevance for architecture of what Lefebvre deemed as the active body.[21] What is implied in this dual structure of the human body is a theory of its ‘metabolic’ interaction with the environment. According to Lefebvre, the human body and living organisms in general can be understood as energy-catcher devices:

(…) the living organism may be defined as an apparatus which, by a variety of means, captures energies active in its vicinity. It absorbs heat, performs respiration, nourishes itself, and so on. It also, as a ‘normal’ thing, retains and stocks a surplus of available energy over and above what it needs for dealing with immediate demands and attacks. This allows the organism a measure of leeway for taking initiatives (these being neither determined nor arbitrary).[22]

The passive body and the sensory apparatus

The passive body corresponds to the functions performed by our sensory apparatus or external senses –e.g. sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, temperature, kinaesthetic, and so on. Under this modality the body effects minor transmissions of energy with the environment (sensory data). Because the passive functions of the human body are linked directly to external nature, they are responsible for the infinite variety of forms, images, smells, sounds, that give shape to our phenomenal world, or Umwelt –i.e. surrounding world.[23] Therefore, if something natural remains in the social development of our biological being, it is above all our sensory perception. Without natural laws operating through the passive body, it would be impossible for the empirical world to have a coherent shape for us.

Our experience-space is the result of the interaction between the passive body and natural space. As we have seen, the contradiction between these spaces stems out of the conflict between external and internal (human) nature. The first takes the shape of a natural pre-human space which does not fit our natural bodily constitution. As humans, we need to do something in order to complete natural space so as to make it liveable for us. Van der Laan illustrates this with a simple but telling example:

The ground being too hard for our bare feet we make ourselves sandals of softer material than the ground, but tougher than our feet. Were they as hard as the ground or soft as our feet they would give us no advantage, but being just hard enough to stand up and wear and yet just soft enough to be comfortable, they bring about a harmony between our tender feet and the rough ground.[24]

This example implies the fact that external nature is ‘too rough’ for us to live in or to adapt like other creatures, hence it appears as an incomplete order –which by no means posits it as inferior. As Heidegger puts it, man is thrown into the world,[25] but also in an ‘incomplete’ form, so he has to develop himself and its surroundings in order to survive. The only possible way for man to overcome this mismatch –in which, as it were, man is ‘too weak’ and nature ‘too strong’– is to act and directly modify nature as to make it fit for its own needs: ‘Against the unity of man with nature it is stated its irreconcilable character, that is, ultimately, the need of labour.’[26]

Motion study

The active body is set in motion by those functions that imply massive energy transmission between our body and its surrounding space. These correspond to our sense of orientation (space), locality (place), and time, provided by our vestibular and locomotor systems, among others. The movement of the human body is what makes possible the potential overcome of the contradiction between natural space and experience-space. Nonetheless, it is not any movement or any kind of activity, there is one primordial activity without which any other would be impossible to sustain: human labour. Why? Because it is only by changing the form of nature that man is able to survive within nature. He has no choice but to use its natural bodily forces to ‘set aside’ a portion of the earth and shape it as to fit his needs. For Marx, labour is not only a requirement for survival, but a ‘nature-imposed’ necessity:

The labour-process (…) is human action with a view to the production of use-values, appropriation of natural substances to human requirements; it is the necessary condition for effecting exchange of matter between man and Nature; it is the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and therefore is independent of every social phase of that existence, or rather, is common to every such phase.[27]

This activity has, therefore, a universal character. But before we turn into the social aspect of the labour process, let us examine the biological and physiological implications of it in more detail. Both Marx and Lefebvre saw human labour primarily as a general physiological action and not as a definite type of activity. For Lefebvre the active body implies the work done by limbs, muscles, and the like, in order to move and perform any activity. In turn, Marx suggested that ‘however varied the useful kinds of labour, or productive activities, may be, it is a physiological fact, that they are functions of the human organism (…) essentially the expenditure of human brain, nerves, muscles, &c’.[28] Thus, this general understanding of human labour approaches to the definition of (mechanical) work in physics –energy required by a force to displace an object. There is much discussion as to the nominal difference between labour and work as we can see, for example, in Arendt’s critique of Marx.[29] Yet, we are concerned here with human activity in its most concrete and general fashion, as the human body in motion through space with the aim to modify it.

The labour process

What is external nature for the active body? If man cannot avoid modifying nature, then the latter has a use value for him. Man opposes the forces of his body to that of nature by way of physical work, an expenditure of energy that extracts the materials provided by it. Both Marx and Van der Laan coincide in the fact that there seems to be a necessary conflict (and unity) between man and nature –arising from the fact that he must withdraw a space from nature and make it work for his own purposes– but also in their focus on human movement and activity as the real source of all human creations. In this everlasting activity, nature acts as the subject of labour, while the body acts as the primary instrument of labour.[30]

The soil (…) in the virgin state in which it supplies man with necessaries or the means of subsistence ready to hand, exists independently of him, and is the universal subject of human labour. All those things which labour merely separates from immediate connexion with their environment, are subjects of labour spontaneously provided by Nature.[31]

Apart from food and others, the earth’s surface itself provides materials which can be assembled as to form barriers and limits that did not exist before. In order to do this, man needs to employ his bodily forces in a certain manner consistent both with the laws of those materials (of nature) and the laws of his own purposes (mental laws). This is what Marx had in mind when he talked about an interchange of matter (stoffwechsel or metabolism) between man and nature. What is the relation between labour and the body’s movement? Consider first the different roles of arms and legs:

The body composed of trunk and limbs, and crowned by the head with its sense organs. In movement the trunk acts as the static and the limbs as the dynamic component; the arms and legs move relative to the trunk which stays still.

In contrast to four footed animals, which use their fore-legs and hind-legs in a fairly similar way, man uses his arms and legs quite differently: with the first he works, with the second he walks (…) Work movements go completely against the downward tendency caused by weight, whereas walking is a coordination of the downward movement due to gravity and the free, upward movement of life.[32]

Furthermore, for Van der Laan, the relation between limbs and trunk mimics that between the whole body and its immediate environment, as he sees a static-dynamic dialectic at work in human activity. The upright body, and its semi-detachment from the ground via its movement, allows it ‘to extricate itself from the stability of the environment thanks to that very stability. We need the stability of the trunk to move the limbs; we need the stability of our surroundings to move our body from place to place’.[33] The physiological constitution of body also demands certain type of actions to be coordinated in order to achieve the transformation of the materials provided by nature. Lefebvre locates these on the different bodily gestures we perform according to distinct activities, such as work: ‘The space of work is thus the result, in the first place, of the (repetitive) gestures and (serial) actions of productive labour (…)’.[34] In order to give form to the materials of nature, man has to dominate a technique of work. For this, he also is able, unlike other species, to divide the work process into stages: conception and execution –i.e. the ability to plan process and product in advance to its actual material realisation.

The Housing-Labour Process

We have reached the point where it becomes almost impossible to keep going without discussing the only product of labour in which man can live in: the house. As the first architectonic construction, we are concerned not with the concrete house, but rather with what Van der Laan designates as the general housing process.[35] Continuing his example of the sandal, he addresses this process as arising from the initial contradiction between man and nature:

Just as the material and form of the sandal are so chosen as to be in harmony with both rough ground and tender feet, the artificially separated space must also be created in accordance with the demands of the natural environment and of our own constitution.

For the foot the surface of the sandal represents a little piece of soft ground, whereas the underside acts as a toughened foot in relation to the ground. In the same way the inside of the house is for man a piece of habitable environment, while on the outside, where it confronts nature, it stands for a fortified human existence (…) With the house it is a matter not just of the contact between our feet and the ground, but of the meeting of our whole being with the total natural environment.[36]

The housing process comprehends the necessary course of action for man to complete natural space by means of labour, and so be able to inhabit his own separated human space. This process in composed by four terms: nature at one extreme, the material extracted and the house built at the middle, and man at the other extreme. Van der Laan distinguishes three phases or functions by which these four terms are linked: 1) the extraction and preparation of the materials provided by nature; 2) the assembling of these through an adequate building technique; 3) the dwelling of the finished house.[37] For Van der Laan this regulation of the ‘metabolism’ between of man and nature is what allows an understanding of the human activity of building as something that can bring about a potential harmony between them, as he sees architecture as the complement of both nature and man.

Hominid using his natural force against that of nature

The role of the active body in this process is first and foremost to oppose his force to that of nature, as he has to use his arms, hands, and special instruments to remove from the earth the materials necessary for building. Hence, the contradiction between man and nature is played out even at the most concrete level of material labour. Marx notices this in his conceptualization of the labour process:

Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature.[38]

From block to pier by diminishing the upper surface and increasing the height

The dialectical interdependence of this process is clear: by transforming nature, man transforms his own nature; by building his own house, he builds himself. Notice how both, Marx and Van der Laan, talk about process rather than things: Marx centres on the labour process –instead of product– as the primary human activity that assures survival, and Van der Laan talks about the housing process –instead of house– to refer to building as the primary activity which allows man to survive in nature. Therefore, there must be something within this material process which is crucial for understanding the nature of all architectonic constructions. This understanding will give us a hint of the importance of human motion in the production of space, and hence, of architecture. Following this path we need first to leave behind the obvious fact that architecture emerged out of the necessity of shelter. Only after doing this, we can begin to reach a deeper understanding of the emergence of architecture as an extension of our own bodily structure and movement. In this, Van der Laan is critical of the attempts to justify architecture on functional requirements, material suitability, or construction methods. He sees these as necessary but ultimately contingent and specific requirements, which do not reach ‘the first fundamentals of the house form’.[39] It is clear that if architecture is narrowly explained in terms of ‘shelter’ we don’t get too far in gaining insight on why man builds, and why he builds in a determinate way and not another.  Consequently, for Van der Laan the contradiction between vertical (natural) and horizontal (experience) space is what gives rise to architecture as a primordial fact:

Architecture is born of this original discrepancy between the two spaces –the horizontally oriented space of our experience and the vertically oriented space of nature; it begins when we add vertical walls to the horizontal surface of the earth.[40]

The wall as the second architectonic datum

In order to change nature into useful form, man has to join two components: matter and labour.[41] Matter as such has no definite form; it is formless, because it is a universal abstraction.[42] Whereas existing and concrete natural matter has no true form for human beings, because it is only a variation on the earth’s surface. For form to exist materials have to be assembled in a definite shape. Van der Laan identifies three primary architectonic datums: the pier, the wall, and the architectonic space.[43] The first comes about when we realize that a block of stone extracted from the earth is not enough to build a separated space. We must pile several blocks in such a way as to reduce its upper surface in relation to its height, thus forming an upright bar-form or ‘bar-shaped pier’. But this pier is still not enough though, hence ‘in order to subdivide space into two parts the bar-form must be broadened into a slab’.[44] This upright slab constitutes the wall, which yet cannot create by itself a limited separate space, for it only can bisect natural space into two major spaces, ‘but to cut off a piece of space from the major space a second wall is needed that relates to the first in such a way that a new space is generated between the two’[45], architectonic space.

[1] In reference to Hegel’s concept of nature, see: Alfred Schmidt, El concepto de naturaleza en Marx (Madrid: Siglo XXI de España, 1977), 38. Translated from Spanish to English for academic purposes by Patricio De Stefani, 2012.

[2] Henri Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity: Twelve Preludes September 1959–May 1961 (London: Verso, 2011), 138.

[3] Ibid, 136.

[4] Ibid, 134.

[5] We are not speaking here in historical terms, but just highlighting the fact that external nature (the earth) in no way needs the human species to evolve itself, though this could be rightly put into doubt if we confront it with current climate change issues –i.e. historically.

[6] Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity, 143.

[7] Hans van der Laan, Architectonic Space: Fithteen Lessons on the Disposition of the Human Habitat (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1983), 5.

[8] Ibid, 6.

[9] Ibid, 21.

[10] Ibid, 5.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Juan Borchers, Meta-Arquitectura (Santiago: Mathesis, 1975), 28. Translated from Spanish to English for academic purposes by Patricio De Stefani, 2012.

[13] Jorge de la Cruz, “Alquimia: El Acto y el Número” (Master diss., Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, 2000), 87. Translated from Spanish to English for academic purposes by Patricio De Stefani, 2012.

[14] Lefebvre, Introduction to Modernity, 138.

[15] ‘Organic beings grow by intussusception, the inorganic ones by juxtaposition’. Juan Borchers, Meta-Arquitectura, 29.

[16] Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, trans. Martin Mulligan (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1959), 31, accessed December 10, 2011,

[17] See Marx’s critique of Bruno Bauer: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (Progress Publishers, 1968), 75, accessed December 10, 2011,

[18] Schmidt, El concepto de naturaleza en Marx,  23.

[19] Ibid, 29.

[20] Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 47.

[21] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1991), 405.

[22] Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 176.

[23] ‘(…) all that a subject perceives becomes his perceptual world and all that he does his effector world. Perceptual and effector worlds together form a close unit, the Umwelt.’ Jakob von Uexküll, “A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds”, in Instinctive Behavior: The Development of a Modern Concept, ed. Claire H. Schiller (New York: International Universities Press, Inc., 1957), 6.

[24] Van der Laan, Architectonic Space, 1.

[25] See the concepts of throwness and Being-in-the-world. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2001), 174.

[26] Schmidt, El concepto de naturaleza en Marx, 26.

[27] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume I), trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications Inc., 2011), 50, 205.

[28] Ibid, 82.

[29] See: Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (London: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 79-167.

[30] ‘The elementary factors of the labour-process are 1, the personal activity of man, i.e., work itself, 2, the subject of that work, and 3, its instruments.’ Karl Marx, Capital, 198.

[31] Ibid, 198-199.

[32] Van der Laan, Architectonic Space, 21.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 191.

[35] Van der Laan, Architectonic Space, 2.

[36] Ibid, 1-2.

[37] Van der Laan, Architectonic Space, 2-3.

[38] Karl Marx, Capital, 197-198.

[39] Van der Laan, Architectonic Space, 4.

[40] Van der Laan, Architectonic Space, 5.

[41] Karl Marx, Capital, 50.

[42] ‘Matter as such is a pure creation of thought and an abstraction. We dispense with the qualitative differences of things when we gather them under the concept of matter as corporeally existent.’ Quoted by Schmidt, El concepto de naturaleza en Marx, op cit, 30. Translated from Spanish to English for academic purposes by Patricio De Stefani, 2012.

[43] Van der Laan, Architectonic Space, 9-10.

[44] Ibid, 9.

[45] Ibid, 10.

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