Note: Finally I’ve decided to officially publish online my work. It has been 6 months since I completed the writing and submitted the final draft, and 3 months since I submitted the final version. After almost 2 years living in Liverpool I’m back in Chile preparing the bibliography for the next stage of research (this time without an academic sponsorship). Although the result is fairly satisfactory, I think some shortcomings should be pointed out: A further and explicit integration between Part I and II or between the key concepts of architectural object and abstract space is needed in order to successfully relate the spheres of architectural theory and social-economic theory. A deepening of the analysis of monopoly rent and its relation to architecture (which was only mentioned, some of its historical preconditions outlined though). The question of the political needs to be put in its historical context, that is, situate it within historical cases (Foucault’s studies on prisons would be an example). The empirical aspects of architectural practice must be concretely analysed (real estate, construction industries, architectural firms, state urban planning, and so on). And together with this, the new problems posed by postmodernism and global capitalism need to be tackled from the perspective of historical materialism.
Architecture has always been tied to social change, but also to social reproduction. Architects have sought to challenge social structures before, but this tendency seems to be in utter decline, is an emancipatory practice of architecture still possible? What prevents architecture from engaging in radical social and spatial transformation? To find out if it can still have a progressive function within society, its material relation to capital must be unravelled. The active human body, abstract labour, abstract space, fixed capital, landed property, and rent are crucial concepts to understand the spatial logic of capitalism. This research examines these theoretical issues through the historical case of UNCTAD III building in Chile, one of the last attempts to challenge the capitalist production of space. Through this case the difficult questions concerning the role of architecture within capitalist society and what are the possibilities for an alternative practice in our current conditions can be addressed. A radical alternative through architecture must acknowledge both its autonomy and dependence from the cities produced by capitalism if it wishes to address concrete change.
Keywords: Capitalism, Production of Architecture, Abstract Space, Practice, Utopia, Revolution, Emancipation
Part I: The Material Basis of Architecture
1 The Relations to Nature
2 The Artificial Order
3 The Architecture of Acts and the Abstraction of Labour
Part II: The Production of Architecture under Capitalism
4 The Social Production of Architecture
5 Real Abstraction: Architecture as Capital
6 The Formal: Architecture as Political Mediation
Part III: UNCTAD III and the Dialectics of Defeat
7 1971, Utopia: Industry, Modernism, and Class Struggle in the Chilean Road to Socialism
8 1973, Tragedy: The Neoliberal Utopia and the Road to Postmodernism
9 2010, Farce: GAM and the Flattening of History as Spectacle
Conclusions: A Revolutionary Architecture?
Sooner or later in his formation or practice, every architect is compelled to confront a peculiar dilemma: to project the possible he has to think the impossible. In other words – and perhaps without knowing it –, he has to imagine something that appears impossible in order to make way for new possibilities. If he avoids this, his visions and designs will be thwarted by the present: they will either endlessly repeat the already existing, or they will trivially modify it, making it appear as truly new, or else, they will nostalgically regress to a longed past. They will not be projections in the strict sense; they will fail to envision an alternative. In challenging what appears to be possible, the architect realises the fact that his ideas are not really his, that he lives within a social reality in which he plays a role just like anybody else. His perceptions and thoughts about that reality are conditioned by his place in it, and that is the actual source of his views on architecture, on the issues it should address more urgently, the objectives it should aim to, and the most suitable methods to pursue those objectives.
This internal conflict between what appears to be possible or impossible within the spatial and temporal horizon of a given society reveals a permanent tension within architecture: on one hand, it cannot avoid the projection of a possible state of things, hence envisioning a transformation of a given reality; on the other, it is the expression of everything that is fixed in that society: its social structure, property relations, the state, and so on. This research examines this dialectic with the aim of assessing the possibilities architecture has to radically transform an established reality rather than passively reproduce it. This central inquiry forms the first stage of a broader research project which will look to set the basis of a joint architectural and political theory and practice. It will argue that one of the most decisive things in a work of architecture is the way in which the architect positions himself in relation to the world he inhabits. The architect needs to be primarily a situated human being, fully orientated and aware of its role in history (time), space, and society. In order to do this, three main questions are raised: Where do we stand today? What is to be done? How should it be done? Each of these questions points towards different research stages, of which the present research corresponds to the first one: to know in what kind of reality we live in and what is our position and role in it, we have to critically analyse it. To assess the possibility of an architectural practice which aims to be not only critical towards our current social system (global capitalism) but to have an active role in striving towards its radical transformation, an analysis of its function within that system is required. Therefore, the main task is the analysis of the role of architecture within capitalism with the aim to demonstrate their structural relationship and assess the case of the building for the Third United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD III) in Chile as a concrete attempt to challenge that relationship.
To find out if architecture still can have a progressive function within capitalist society it is necessary to unravel its concrete relation to capital. The most suitable way to do this is by: first, to look for the abstract or purest form of this relationship, rather than through historical inquiry; second, to put the current state of architectural practice in perspective by analysing a crucial turning point in its history. The first premise presumes a reasonable knowledge about architecture’s relationship to any type of society – i.e. its universal relation to human practice. Clearly, a historical approach to this problem would be far beyond the reach of this work, for it would probably require a comparative study of the evolution of architecture since the emergence of capitalism. It follows then, that the second premise must subordinate to the first, namely, I will proceed progressively from the abstract to the concrete.
The changing relations between our human environment and the practices that ceaselessly produce it seem to be at the core of relatively recent inquiries about space, economics, and politics. In general, these works focus on the fact that architecture stands between us and society-nature, that is, our relations as social and individual beings are always mediated by the artificial world we ourselves have created. Despite the fact that in the last forty years capitalism has prodigiously expanded to an unforeseen scale and has permeated nearly all aspects of human life, architects in general seem more comfortable than critical towards it – witness recent developments in multinational architectural firms and the academic establishment. The technological possibilities opened up by this process are welcomed in rather positivist fashion, without taking fully into account its social and economic underpinnings and its impact. The lack of architectural studies which systematically address these issues could be seen as a symptom of the very form of the relationship under scrutiny.
From the standpoint of phenomenology, the works of Van der Laan (1983; 1960; 2005), Uexküll (n. d.; 1957; 1926; 2010), and Borchers (1968; 1975) attempt to construct an ontology of architecture – i.e. a theory of its fundamental foundations, beyond historical or contingent considerations. This phenomenological and biological approach focuses on human perception, action and the role of the body in shaping our world. Lefebvre (1991; 2004) has also attempted to restore the human body as the producer of space and architecture through its activity. Relatively recent works on this matter, particularly contrasting it with the impacts of consumer and image culture, have been treated by Pallasmaa (2005; 2007; 2009) who discusses and critiques the visual and self-referential bias of contemporary architecture. Insights by Marx (2011) and Heidegger (2011) also have relevance from the standpoint of how the labouring human body grasps the world around it in order to continuously reshape it to fit his needs.
During mid-twentieth century a number of theories related to the role of space, cities, and architecture within capitalist society have critically questioned the different attitudes architects have adopted in relation to the overall reality of capitalism. These issues have been broadly investigated in the social sciences. In Marx’s (1968; 1859; 2011) theory, historical materialism provides a framework for scientific analyses of society through a dialectical method. Drawing on Marxian political economy, the work of Lefebvre and Harvey have reclaimed the relevance of space in the reproduction of this social system against earlier and more orthodox theories which tend to neglect its significance. The work of Lefebvre (1991; 1976; 1976; 1983; 2003) has been a major source for geographers, planners and architects, as well as social movements. He poses critical questions about the nature of the built environment and introduces a history of abstract space, or the space produced by capitalism. Of particular interest is his attempt to develop Marx’s ideas into a theory of the political economy of space. Also following Marx’s insights, Harvey (1985; 2005) develops a theory of capitalism’s uneven geographical development, in which he examines the role of urbanisation processes in sparking or deferring economic crises.
The wide field of Critical Theory, beginning with Marx, Weber and Freud, followed by Western Marxism and the Frankfurt School, to Cultural Theory and Cultural Studies, put at the front issues concerning the relationship between ideology and social practice. More recent theories focus on the problem of space as it has often been neglected by more classical approaches. Jameson, for example, analyses postmodernism as the cultural form of capitalism, and also the role of utopia and temporality in politics, mass culture and architecture (1991; 1997; 1998; 2005). Harvey (1989) also analyses these issues focusing in the dialectic between base and superstructure, particularly in the passage from modernity to postmodernity. Lefebvre (1995) critically analyses modernity in all its ambiguity, both politically and aesthetically. Eagleton (1991) and Žižek (1994) reinstate the theory of ideology, particularly in its ‘everyday’ level or the fetishism of market relations.
The radical critique of various architectural ideologies and their role in the reproduction and legitimising of capitalism has been put forward by Tafuri and Aureli. From the historical perspective, Tafuri (1998; 1976; 1980) has been known for posing a radical critique of modern as well as postmodern architectural ideologies. More recently, Aureli (2008; 2011) has made relevant contributions to the relations between politics and architecture, first by relating the Italian autonomist Marxist movement from the late 1960s to the architectural theories of Aldo Rossi and Archizoom; and second, by establishing the role of the formal and the project in relation to the political dimension of architecture. Leach (1999) and Le Corbusier (1986) have addressed directly the relationship between architecture and revolution. The former from the standpoints of Western Marxism and Foucault’s theory of the relation between space, power and knowledge; and the latter from a reformist yet ambiguous approach to the role of architecture in a social revolution.
There are several issues which are not clearly stated or addressed in the above mentioned authors. With its focus on language, discourse and the relationship between power, knowledge and space, the radical critique of architectural ideologies fails to grasp the level of the concrete bodily experience of architecture and its critique, and it often remains within an idealist approach to architecture’s dilemmas. On the other hand, phenomenological approaches, in their attempt to restore the human body into a non-alienated or non-reductive architectural experience, frequently bypass questions pertaining social practice and history, falling into the utopian claim that the body can be restored solely by the lessons of the humanist, tactile and multisensory architecture from past ages (see Jameson 1997, 252-54; 1998, 442). Critical and cultural theories do address the social problematic, but they often neglect the relevance of economics and material relations in the production of space/architecture. This problem is tackled by unorthodox Marxist political economy, yet often missing the phenomenological question or underrating the ideological level. What is often missing from all of these fields is the level of the concrete work of architecture addressed from a social and material standpoint. Phenomenology misses the social aspect, whereas critical theory and economics miss the perceptual side of the analysis. Consequently, several questions come to the fore, for example: How does a work of architecture affects our perception and social relations? Where lies the social and political dimension in a work of architecture? Is the concrete relation between architecture and capital limited to ‘external constraints’ over an otherwise ‘free’ architectural practice? or is it embedded in its internal production process?
It would seem that the question which logically articulates these enquiries is ‘can there be a revolutionary architecture?’ – i.e. in the same way as one might think of a revolutionary politics, movement, or even press. However, formulated in this way it conceals an underlying problematic: Can architecture be political in itself? Can architects take political action through their architecture? Would this require reducing it to a political instrument? Is it not already one? Furthermore, revolution is a complex social process incorporating many relations at different levels; hence it cannot be said to be simply contained in the internal properties of an object. A refined formulation of the question would be can there be a revolutionary architectural practice? In this way the focus is displaced from an object towards the social practice responsible for its production.
These questions can be reformulated and organised along the lines of architecture’s internal contradiction between change and replication identified above. If architecture is inherently tied to envisioning a future, then it always entails a transformation or else a reproduction of an existing reality. To be sure, this is a highly abstract formulation – for both poles denote ‘pure extremes’ which are nowhere to be found in concrete reality – that nonetheless allows us to circumscribe an object of study. Before questions of revolution and reproduction can be formulated, a key question about possibilities and limits must guide and structure this inquiry: facing global capitalism and the allegedly demise of any feasible alternative to it, what should be the role of architecture in the cities produced by capital? After the decline of modern architecture along with the social and political ideals which sustained it, Is an emancipatory practice of architecture still possible? From this, two logical options open before us: if the hypothetical answer is No, a second question can be conceived: What prevents architecture from engaging in radical social and spatial transformation? And if the speculative answer is Yes, a third question can be logically formulated: Can architecture play a role in social transformation, how?
The criteria for selecting the case study are a combination of several factors. The first premise was to concentrate on a particular practice or work of architecture, since the main question points towards the sphere of design rather than broader urban issues – though in no way bypassing the interaction between them. The initial problem was to find a piece of architecture which either embodies capital accumulation (industries, malls, corporate offices, suburban villas, etc.) or challenges it (workers unions, constructivist buildings, etc.). However, this typological approach narrows down the problematic to a point in which it assumes that such thing as a capitalist or non-capitalist architecture can coexist within the same mode of production, which it’s a claim far from accurate, if not ideological. Nonetheless, this approach cleared the way for the problem of whether to focus on architectures which aim to reproduce capitalist space, or the ones which aim to transform it. The first option would give us an accurate understanding of the role of space/architecture in the accumulation of capital; whereas the second would directly address the issue of spatial emancipation or revolution. I followed this latter option for its evident proximity to the main question. The next step aimed at locating a particular historical and geographical setting. Three key historical periods were selected: 1) the mid-eighteenth century neoclassical and utopian architecture of the bourgeois revolutions; 2) 1920s soviet constructivist architecture; and 3) late 1960s radical utopias. The third period was favoured on account of being relatively recent and, for that reason, less studied than the previous ones. However, there is a more relevant reason for having selected this particular period: it represents a conjunctural moment in the development of twentieth century capitalism, and this fact was widely reflected in the cultural (the transition from modernism to postmodernism) and political realms (1968 revolts). In the architectural sphere, key programmes were set up (postmodernism, techno-utopianism, phenomenology, deconstructivism, regionalism, etc.) which laid the basis for current developments (biomorphism, parametricism, sustainability, etc.).
The UNCTAD III building was finally chosen due to two main reasons: first, it was a concrete attempt to confront the capitalist production of space during a pre-revolutionary process in Chilean society; second, my own proximity with the building and its history since I was born and raised in Santiago, and I’ve witnessed its various metamorphoses through time. UNCTAD III was built between 1971 and 1972 in Santiago de Chile, during the government of Salvador Allende. It symbolized a great collective effort, built in just 275 days on the occasion of the third session of an important UN International Conference during which world leaders had the opportunity to see what was then termed the ‘Chilean road to socialism’. Its design was directly influenced by the premises of the Bauhaus and Constructivism. After the 1973 military coup, the building was turned into the headquarters of the Junta, then part of the Ministry of Defence, acquiring all kinds of repressive and authoritarian overtones. Finally, in 2006 was partially destroyed by a fire, only to be rebuilt in 2010 as the visual and flattened out spectacle of the liberal-democratic coalition in power at that time.
To examine the function of architecture within the capitalist mode of production in its general or abstracted form, and assess the possibility of an architectural practice which actively confronts such function, constitutes the main objective of this research. A secondary aim is to analyse a concrete historical example of an antagonist relation between architecture and capital, in order to test the feasibility of the theoretical hypotheses. The study of this relationship –from the standpoint of practice – has not been a major preoccupation for architectural theorists, let alone practitioners, and this is in sharp contrast to the insights provided by social sciences such as geography or sociology. Accordingly, the study of these theoretical and historical issues will serve to develop an unusual area of architectural knowledge and it will contribute to the formation of an alternative and critical practice of architecture which will hopefully aim to concretely transform our current material conditions instead of merely replicate or reinforce them.
The general structure of the thesis is composed by three main parts. Both the totality and the component parts are organised in accordance to the method of inquiry, starting from elemental theoretical concepts down to more complex historical issues – i.e. from the abstract to the concrete. Each part has a distinct function within the thesis, the first deploys mainly a theoretical argument, the second is predominantly historical, and the third is based on a practical and concrete approach.
In Part I, I deal with both the fundamentals of architecture and of capitalism, seeking to unravel their structural relation starting from its basic defining concepts. In order to do so, I seek to relate the phenomenology of architecture to a materialist approach to the question of human praxis. In phenomenology, architecture is acknowledged as a mediator between man and nature (Van der Laan 1960, 7; 1983, 11; Borchers 1968, 33; 1975, 182); whereas in historical materialism the primary mediator is human practice itself, since it is human labour the fundamental activity by which man transforms nature, producing a human world out of it, and which he then constantly modifies according to the development of his productive forces (Marx 2011, 197-98). A further integration of these approaches requires a deepening of phenomenology into the insights of theoretical biology (Uexküll 1926), and a progressive incorporation of the role of social relations in the perception and production of architecture (see Chapter 2). By relating a specific definition of the architectural object – in terms of a scheme of action rather than a sensory thing – and Marx’s theory of value – as ‘crystallisation’ of abstract human labour – I seek to understand their connection and mutual influence as the foundations upon which the capitalist production of architecture rests (see Chapter 3). A restoration of the human body and use-value over the primacy of the fetishism of commodities and exchange-value requires a materialist approach to architecture in which social practice constitutes the actual source of architectural ideas rather than the other way around.
This approach compels us to understand, in Part II, both space and architecture as social products subject to the same laws of motion which operate throughout the capitalist mode of production. They have precise social functions as means of production and subsistence, and also as what I have called an objective ideology (see Chapter 4). How can the kind of architecture that capitalism produces be characterised? Built upon the historical process of abstraction of labour and space – i.e. the primitive accumulation required by the establishment of bourgeois society and its property relations – 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. Hence, this was an ideological (misleading) conception of space from the outset. Further attempts by the Bauhaus and part of the Constructivist movement to incorporate the social dimension through functionalist (and allegedly Marxist) theories failed to address the role formalism (and its degraded form, aestheticism) plays in the fetish character of capitalist space (Tafuri and Dal Co 1980, 173). 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 (Lefebvre 1991, 317; 1976, 11). 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. Architecture becomes a real abstraction (like money or capital), an apparently autonomous and rational object which aspires 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 (see Chapter 5).
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? Does not this depend on the total transformation of the social practices that produce it in the first place? These questions require distinguishing between the politics of architecture and its proper political dimension. My aim is to demonstrate that architecture is intrinsically political, not in the narrow sense of its political use or interpretation, but rather due to its role as mediator between human beings, nature and the human world. The political is a universal or formal condition, whereas politics is particular and contingent (Jameson 1997, 243; Lefebvre 2003, 61). This distinction is expressed, in architectural terms, through the dialectic between project and design (Aureli 2011, xiii, 30ff), which further corresponds to that between object and thing mentioned above. The political dimension can only be grasped at the abstract/internal level of objects, namely, in the way a project fixes the mode of relation between architecture and the social space which produces it (e.g. the city). A further distinction between the concept of the political and that of ideology must be made in order to clarify their relation to architecture. Ideology, for example, is defined here not so much as a mental construction, but as something which operates throughout social practice, hence in architectural practice. Ultimately, my aim is to show that architecture can be neither political in itself (as the direct embodiment of a particular political ideology), nor can it be political on account of its shifting political uses. However, this does not prevent the notion that it can be consciously (politically) determined at the substantial level of the architectural project (see Chapter 6).
Finally, in Part III my aim is to assess the theoretical framework through a materialist analysis of UNCTAD III. This part is divided into three chapters which as episodes in a story, attempt to reconstruct the process of its conception, building, and functioning. This process is presented as a dialectical interplay among three historical turning points: Utopia (1971), Tragedy (1973), and Farce (2010). In Utopia (see Chapter 7), I analyse the economic and political background of the epoch and its influence on the conception and realisation of the building. Two levels of analysis are introduced: the building as result and condition of a concrete practice, and as an ideological representation. In Tragedy (see Chapter 8), I examine the social pre-conditions of the military coup which ended the Chilean revolutionary process and turned UNCTAD III into the Junta’s main headquarters – a sort of strategic surveillance centre similar to a war bunker. In Farce (see Chapter 9), I recount the building’s sad fate after the end of 17 years of dictatorship: in 2006 it was partially destroyed by a fire due to lack of maintenance, and later rebuilt according to the new dictates of an abstract and highly aestheticised architecture. Several questions arise from this historical analysis which I seek to answer according to my theoretical premises. For example, what was the relationship UNCTAD III established with the city and the wider social background of the period? What is its intrinsic political dimension? What was its role in the revolutionary process started by Allende’s government? If after the coup the building was easily turned into a repressive device, where did its emancipatory potential lie?
After examining this unique case, which shows the history and defeat of an openly political architectural practice – precisely at a turning point in the general history of architecture – I can assess the possibility that a politically committed practice of architecture might still be feasible within the coercive laws of capitalist accumulation. As every other form of social practice, architecture might have a significant role to play in a process of social revolution which points towards the emancipation of the working class from the abstract domination of capital and its political form, the state. Although hasty accusations of utopianism might be raised, it must be remembered that sometimes what is truly utopian is not the impossible, but the endless reproduction of the possible. It might certainly be that a future non-capitalist or ‘socialist architecture’ cannot be thought in advance, and that it is a hopeless endeavour. In that case one may ask if this is not a rather false problem. It might be that the real issue at stake turns out to be much more modest: not the imagining of impossible and utopian architectures on the desk, but the long struggle – on the ground – for the conscious organisation and revolution of its practice.
Conclusions: A Revolutionary Architecture?
There is no doubt that, in all its variations, modernism – as the cultural and political form of capitalism – opened up a potential role for art and architecture in the revolutionary transformation of bourgeois society – a role hardly conceivable until the late nineteenth century. Yet, this was no more than a possibility waiting to be realised. The political ambiguity towards capitalism and its new technological developments, especially within architecture, largely compromised such potentiality. This was far beyond a matter of architects’ choice, for the force and reality of abstract space – engendered by the movement of capital and the centralised state – influenced architectural theory in unexpected ways. The most committed Marxist architects from the Constructivist to the Neues Bauen movements, for example, saw functionalism as the practical outcome of historical materialism: architecture would be determined solely by real life processes and no longer by the ruling class ideology. However, after the initial impetus the result was clear: far from challenging them, modernist architecture efficiently embodied the requirements of capitalism and its state apparatus. With the advent of global capitalism and its cultural counterpart, postmodernism, the revolutionary ‘baby’ was thrown out, as it were, with the totalitarian state ‘bath water’. The potential of a revolutionary architectural practice was never resumed – with the exception of a few minor attempts. Notwithstanding the postmodern critique of modernism (within and outside architecture), what has remained intact during the postmodern era is, of course, the indulgent attitude towards capitalism. In the absence of any global political project that seriously challenges capitalist hegemony and its political forms (liberal democracy), architecture’s once active challenge to the established social order has, at best, retreated into a reactionary phenomenologism, or diverted into the impotence of new forms of morality which resemble business ‘ethics’ (‘eco-friendly’ or ‘responsible’ building); and at its worst, it has willingly endorsed the new requirements of a multinational culture industry (under self-referential or theoretical pretexts), or fully surrendered to the dictates of real estate speculation.
Whichever the attempts at diagnosing the present situation might be, it should be clear by now that I have chosen to follow a rather different path in this analysis. Instead of directly addressing the current state of affairs, a critical distance has been created, which has allowed seeing the problem under consideration in new ways. This distance has been created both on the plane of theory and that of history. First, I have abstracted from the concrete and contingent relationship between architecture and capitalism to examine it in relative isolation – putting in brackets certain historical and geographical specificities. In a second movement, I have tested the theoretical conclusions by incorporating them into the complexities of a concrete historical reality (UNCTAD III). By going back to that conjunctural moment of capitalist crisis, restructuration, and corresponding social, political and cultural turmoil between the late 1960s and early 1970s, my aim was to locate, by examining modernism’s last breath, the actual foundations of current architecture’s relation to capitalism. The task in these concluding thoughts, then, is to reassemble this totality (theory and history, abstract and concrete) in its movement, namely, to link back together the processes examined from the standpoint of practice – i.e. the concrete restrictions and possibilities of an antagonist architectural practice.
The initial approach was characterised by an attempt to relate a phenomenological and biological theory of architecture to a materialist conception of the world. The aim was to establish the role of human activity (praxis) in the production of the human world (second nature) and, in particular, architecture. Although many efforts have been made to link Marxism and phenomenology in the past – especially with Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty –this analysis focused on the ‘architecture’ inherent in the human body rather than wider transcendental or existential questions. The key issue was the human body’s relation to nature in the abstract – i.e. as hypothetically isolated from social relations. Examined closely, nature revealed itself not as an absolute, not as autonomous, but rather as something being always already transformed by man. There is no original nature, only nature previously modified – to greater or lesser extent – by the human hand and seen through the human mind. Thus, the notion of second nature – the human world as our own ‘natural’ habitat – grasps the dialectical interplay between external and internal (human) nature, going ‘beyond the idealist and materialist ontological interpretation of nature’ (Lefebvre 2011, 142). What this brief analysis revealed is the illusory character of clear-cut distinctions between nature and society: there is only second (humanised) nature which is made out of first nature’s matter. Misleading, idealist understandings of nature can easily lead to see architecture merely as the ‘receptacle’ of human life, just as nature supposedly is. Yet, our human world cannot be simply a ‘medium’, since it is not only a mediator between us and nature but between us and itself. In other words, it is both result and condition of the human activity which continuously transforms it in order to reproduce itself, and it cannot do otherwise. Therefore, the actual mediator and source of architecture is productive activity as such.
Seen from this perspective, the general problem and U3 appeared under a new light. The idealised, ontological view under which architecture stands between human beings and natural space (Van der Laan, Borchers) is expanded by one in which architecture mediates between human beings and second (or social) nature as well, and at the same time, between what is already there (past architecture) and what it could be (possible architecture). Furthermore, since architecture is a product of social relations, this spatio-temporal relationship is one in which organised social relations are the actual intermediary between human beings and their objective world. Also, it is this collective action which intervenes between the already existent material and social conditions and possible or new conditions which this same action foreshadows. U3 was the product of an attempt to forge new social relations between Santiago and its inhabitants, a relationship in which working people could perceive the objective world of the city and its buildings as the shared product of their own labour, as a great collective work which no longer belonged to a class of private citizens or the state, but to the people who produced it.
It is precisely this awareness of architecture as a conscious creative activity, subject to discipline, what distinguishes it from the activity of building in general, and from natural forms. In order to understand architecture from the standpoint of the relations to second nature, a further distinction between natural and artificial was necessary. Within the realm of architecture this difference is far from self-evident, and it relies more in their constitutive character than the source from which they supposedly emanate. Marx also used the term second nature to refer to the human world as ‘naturalised’, treated as an external absolute over which men have no control. Broadening Van der Laan’s distinction between the natural and artificial orders, Borchers included so called ‘everyday’, vernacular, or ‘popular’ architecture, which develops spontaneously, within the natural order, and he distinguished it from architecture as the result of systematised theoretical thought which belongs to an artificial order. Architecture conceived as a major art breaks from the outset from the determinism of natural laws (human or otherwise). It follows then, that transforming the world (as second nature), in the sense of breaking with its ‘natural’ or ‘blind’ development rather than instinctively reproducing it, would be an intrinsic feature of architecture thus conceived. Again, U3 can be seen as an example of this. The people involved in its planning and construction were fully aware of the role of the building and the conference in the radical break from the established (bourgeois) planning of the city.
At this point, and having drawn initial conclusions on an abstract basis, I was compelled to integrate the universal or purely theoretical understanding of the relation between man and nature into a social – and progressively historical – understanding of human activity. In order to do this I developed the distinction between the natural and artificial orders into that between things (external sensory qualities) and objects (internal schemes of action) which together form what Uexküll called the functional circle of the human body. Alongside these, I introduced Marx’s dialectics of use and exchange. The first distinction appeals to the dual character of the human body as being simultaneously a passive and active transmitter of energy (Lefebvre 1991, 178). The second, to the concrete and abstract character of commodities. A further distinction made by Marx was that between exchange-value (exchange ratio between commodities) and value (abstract labour). Following Uexküll and Van der Laan, Borchers postulated objects as the substance of architecture. For his part, Marx posed value as the substance of commodities. The aim was to establish the intrinsic relation between (architectural) objects and (social) values. The common concept that links them is labour-time, and its architectural counterpart, human acts. As defined by Borchers, acts are ‘crystallised’ actions (e.g. doorway, corridor, etc); whereas in relation to value, acts are the social structure which regulates actions (e.g. ritualised actions, labour, sports, dance, etc). Under this framework, U3 was analysed as thing and object, as a use-value and exchange-value. The question at this point was: which features of the building are intrinsic to its architecture and which aren’t? To answer this I sought to analyse it as the outcome of a concrete social practice and, at the same time, as an ideological representation.
By restoring the central role of the human body – its perception, movement and its social practice – I have asserted a materialist (social) conception of architecture which allowed effectively criticising and dispelling dominant idealist approaches. If architecture is understood not as primarily the product of so-called ‘architectural concepts’, ideologies or even the ‘prevalent’ zeitgeist, but rather as the outcome and means of a social practice, the problem of its role within capitalism and against it appears in a different way. Thus, instead of concentrating the efforts on ideological analyses – certainly necessary but which abound among architectural theorists – I decided to focus on the material practices upon which these debates are constructed in the first place. Consequently, the first step in the inquiry was the analysis of space and architecture understood as social products, not passive mediums or mere ‘reflections’ of society. I established their roles as means of production and subsistence, and as ‘objective’ ideology, namely, the fetish character they assume under capitalism, and which is precisely what assures its instrumental use by political power.
A complex question emerged out of these reflections: what sort of architecture has the capitalist mode of production engendered and how? The first part of the problem needed to be addressed in an abstract way in order to introduce the key concept of capital. If the production of value (including architecture) 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 – i.e. variable capital. The precondition for transforming human labour into a commodity was the dispossession of direct producers from access to means of production (constant capital) and subsistence by a raising new social class, the bourgeoisie – a process known as primitive accumulation. A radical shift in property relations was initiated, one in which the so-called ‘right to private property’ secured and legitimised the claim of the ‘new owners’ to exploit a labour force in order to accumulate surplus-value as an end in itself. The process by which the owner of these means buys labour-power and puts it to work to produce fresh commodities which he then sells for the original money plus a profit defines the concept of capital. Therefore, if capital is a process in which the value contained in commodities continuously changes its form in order to expand itself – from money to commodities and back to more money –, 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.
The outcome of this historical process was the progressive abstraction of concrete labour activities into that undifferentiated wealth-creating activity called abstract labour. Once measured as the average labour-time to produce a given commodity, abstract labour forms the substance of the value of that commodity, which is finally expressed in its exchange-value and price. According to Lefebvre, this process could not have taken place without the integration of architecture, and space in its entirety, into the circuit of capital. As a result, they have been turned into real abstractions: apparently autonomous fetishes (like money and capital) that inflict a simultaneously homogenising and fragmenting tendency which is socially real. 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.
During the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, art and architectural theorists began to formulate the concept of modern space, which was nothing more than a reflection in theory of an already developing social reality. This move corresponded to the instrumentalisation of analytical knowledge by bourgeois thought in order to facilitate the practical and strategic implementation of abstract space – either by the state or private enterprises. Architecture was progressively turned into a problem of ‘economy and convenience’ (Durand) and eventually fully adopted the jargon and methods of large scale industry (scientific management, functionalism, and so on). Paradoxically, the Bauhaus, Constructivists and related architects saw themselves as leading an anti-bourgeois revolution in art, design and architecture. It is true that they radically changed the way in which art and architecture related to society, and thus they inevitably opened the way for a revolutionary practice within the cultural realm. Yet, their calls to architects ‘to open their eyes’ to industrial society and its new technical developments (Le Corbusier) contained an ambiguous message which summed their positivist stance. More radical or openly Marxists architects embraced a deterministic and equally positivist attitude in their merging of materialism and functionalism. Others variants of modernism such as futurism, expressionism, and neoplasticism remained within a formalist-aestheticist approach devoid of, or indifferent to, social issues.
U3’s architects were heavily influenced (even directly) by these theories, and incorporated them into their design through two main features: total or integral design, and the search for the new – both of which were closely associated with the idea of the production of space. The abstract conception of space was tempered by a local approach resulting from the pre-revolutionary unfolding of new social relations in the realm of production and culture. As an architectural object (and set of objects) and as the outcome and condition for a new social practice, U3 intrinsic features – such as its free plan, independent structure, or its openness towards the city – did not manage to break with the capitalist production of space in any substantial way. Yet, its process of production and design undoubtedly challenged prevailing methods at the time, both in architecture and the organisation of the labour process.
After having analysed the relations between the development of abstract space and the emergence of modernist architecture, the political nature of the work of architecture had to be specified. Is architecture political? The answer is yes but subject to very specific definitions. The distinction between the political and politics was developed in connection with that between project and design, which also corresponds to the previous categorisation of objects (internal properties) and things (external properties). A path was identified in which the structural or formal nature of the political within architecture was acknowledged. As the result of a political practice in the broadest of senses, architecture is then intrinsically political, which is not the same as saying that it is political ‘in itself’. The political dimension of architecture lies in the structuring of the mode of relation it establishes between human beings and between them and their environment. It follows, that the political use or interpretation of architecture are merely external or contingent features which cannot constitute its intrinsic political dimension. As I confronted the views of Jameson and Tafuri it became clear that the initial question had to be reformulated from the standpoint of architectural practice rather than its outcome. This new approach allowed confronting the difficult question of the architect’s political action. While confronting Tafuri’s extreme immobilising position I asserted the notion that political action within architecture must first occur at the level of its production methods and must transcend the limits of the discipline itself. U3 was examined from the standpoint of these hypotheses, and I concluded that despite the building’s explicit and changing political meaning throughout its lifespan, its intrinsic political dimension as an architectural object remained virtually unmodified until it was destroyed by the 2006 fire. As an exercise in historical and political amnesia, its reconstruction assured that its intrinsic dimension as an object – and set of objects – was shattered or modified to the point of being unrecognisable.
There cannot be a revolutionary architectural practice without the support of a revolutionary social process underpinning it. If architecture is understood as the outcome of the social production of space, then it is precisely this productive practice what will have to radically change in order to change architecture. Conversely, these revolutionary practices do not happen in a void: they are subject to an already existing set of conditions, an already existing social space and architecture. Should architectural practice wait for a total revolution, a total transformation of the production of material life in order to change itself? or Can architectural practice transform these inherited material conditions solely by changing its own internal methods? No and yes. No, insofar as these methods can only alter the way architecture is conceptualised and designed but not its actual social production, which depends on a vast set of economic and political forces: architecture cannot ever change solely at the level of ‘ideas’. Yes, if a particular architectural practice or set of practices could successfully establish organic links between its methods and the aims of revolutionary social movements and organisations, especially those linked to spatial practices – e.g. citizen movements, urban ‘right to the city’ movements, homeless movements, heritage and environmental preservation organisations, etc. What prevents this from happening? Several issues were examined in our analysis: the internalisation of abstract space within architectural practice; the ideological delusion of architects concerning their own role within capitalism, their heavy dependence from an institutional (political) and economic framework which legitimises and perpetuates the existing mode of production; the ‘commodification’ of architectural objects and architecture in general. How can architects confront these limits? Are there conditions for a politically conscious architectural practice under capitalism? To be truly radical, architecture must go to the root of the problem and confront it with its own methods, yet never in isolation from other radical practices, and certainly not as a purely theoretical or academic issue. The root of the problem is clear: architecture must challenge the abstract space of capitalism (based on private property relations) by restoring the total human body in its entire perceptual and social dimensions at the level of architectural objects, namely, within the architectural plan itself. Human activity can always change the purpose of architecture, but it cannot change its internal structure, its measurement system, and the way it affects our perception and actions. Architecture is a collective and artificial product of our own creation, it is the human world that shapes us as we shape it, its transformation will not be solely the invention of architects, but of society as a whole.
In summation, this research has theoretically examined the relations between architecture and capitalism in order to realistically confront the question of its political role in the struggle for the transformation of this mode of production. Clearly, this task cannot be entrusted to architecture itself as modernists thought, but must be understood only as a small (collaborative) contribution to a larger collective project for the emancipation of the working class from the blind and abstract domination of capital, as well as the radical transformation of its institutions – most notably private property and the state. Surely, the ultimate aim, as Lefebvre believed, is the transformation of everyday life in all its aspects. Yet, easy ways out to this dilemma usually fall into undialectical or crude forms of utopianism. These manifest either as self-referential formal experimentation without any political content (or a forced and a posteriori one), or as reactionary calls to return to a more ‘humane’ and phenomenological architecture that would by itself achieve change without contaminating or associating with external social practices. The illusory and self-enclosed nature of these and other variations calls not only for a critical analysis of architecture’s place and role within the capitalist production of space, but more importantly for the rethinking of its practice and methods. In short, what remains to be done is working towards a programme of architecture which could address, in a unitary manner (as a set of fundamental theoretical propositions) its main contents, aims, and methods. Due to strategic reasons explained elsewhere, this research consisted only in a small part of the critical analysis needed, which focused mainly in the problems faced by modernist architecture. Further analysis requires confronting the new problems which postmodernism – as the cultural superstructure of global capitalism – poses to architectural practice. Hopefully the example of UNCTAD III and the experience of the workers, artists, architects and engineers that made it possible can be a valuable proof of the revolutionary potential of architectural practice to modestly contribute to the transformation and re-appropriation of social space and time.
 I have additionally participated in the translation from Spanish to English of ‘275 días: Sitio, Tiempo, Contexto y Afecciones Específicas’ (275 days: Site, Time, Context, and Specific Affections), a curatorial project which recovers most of UNCTAD III’s integrated artwork lost during the dictatorship; see (Varas and Llano 2011, 5).
 Third United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD III) held in Santiago de Chile, from 13th April to 21st May 1972.
 The title of these chapters is a reference to Marx’s comments on Hegel’s conception of history. Marx suggested not that historical events repeat themselves (‘first as tragedy, then as farce’) but that the new is constantly haunted by the old, built upon its established material conditions, which are inevitably re-enacted and parodied in any emergent circumstances: ‘men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please (…) The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’ (see Marx, 1937, 5).