An Emancipatory Practice of Architecture? (draft)

Note: This is the first draft of an instrumental essay I have been working on since the last month. The conclusion is the pending part for the moment. I have not sorted out clearly the images yet, but I’m working on it. Soon I will post some methodological notes that might help to clarify some of the points I’m arguing.

By Patricio De Stefani

Peter Guenzel, If you want to change society don’t build anything, London 2005, Volvo Magazine

‘Can there be a ‘revolutionary’ architecture?’[1] is one the opening questions posed by Neil Leach concerning the relation between architecture and social change. We should approach it with careful, he recommends, but what if the question itself turns into part of the problem? In what follows I will try to pose the difficult questions surrounding the issue of the role of architecture, and more generally space, in a revolutionary process. I hope to show that no easy answers can be given concerning the relation between politics and architecture, not least between architecture and social relations.

Since the last world war architecture seems to have lost its way. All those dreams about art and architecture leading radical social transformation for the benefit of all mankind seem to have vanished along with the political ideals behind them. Whether one agrees or not, the guiding principles of modern architecture now appear more than outdated, and probably we could say the same about the whole idea of the enlightenment project. Yet, the implied question lingers: what is left if the notion of socially aware and politically committed architecture is lost altogether?

The last sixty years have been characterised by such a variety of architectural attempts to answer –in one way or another– this question that the endeavour to ‘map out’ this diversity seems almost unavoidable if we expect to understand anything about the relation between architecture and emancipation. But first we have to clarify what we mean by emancipatory. You may ask ‘emancipation from what?’ and this question implies the fact that the concept of emancipation, liberation, independence, autonomy and the like, is not only historically contingent but also, as we shall see, very problematic concerning the built environment at large, and architecture in particular.

The question of the emancipatory points directly to the realm of praxis, and in particular to a political praxis. Political in the sense that any emancipatory endeavour seeks to cut its links from some form of ‘domination’ –a nation, a system, a social class or group, and the like– and during this process reassert its autonomy and self-determination –i.e. its political, and sometimes spatial, stance. The concept of emancipation is linked to the whole question about forms of development and historical changes in society –and more relevantly to the concept of revolution. If we take from its etymology the Latin emancipare, it means ex (out)–mancipum (property), something like ‘free of its property’. For now we can use this understanding of emancipation, while acknowledging its historical contingency. In this sense, the relation between modernism and a practice of emancipation is very tied, though this does not excludes the ambivalence of it. Certainly, modern architects sought –at first in a more narrowly aesthetic fashion­­– to ‘free’ themselves from the constraints of the past, styles, ancient codes, historical types, and so on, but some of them also wanted to use architecture as a vehicle for ‘radical’ social change, in particular a change concerning working class housing. Whether these meant challenging the existing system of production or reaffirm it and use it for ‘revolutionary’ purposes remains a matter of discussion. We will have to pose a more general question though to understand the ambiguity of modernism regarding emancipation: where lies ‘the political’ in a work of architecture? And what was the relation between the architecture of the modern movement and the political?

Yakov Chernikhov, Architectural Fantasies, 1925-1933

In facing the geopolitical restructurings during the cold-war period, the rise of global capitalism and neoliberalism as its main ideology, the claims to capitalist realism and the ‘end of ideologies’ –the end ‘history’, of art, and of all sort of things for that matter–, the depoliticisation of politics proper, and the more recent crisis of legitimacy following the global economic crisis of 2008, architects have adopted implicitly or explicitly a diversity of positions that have –whether they want it or not– some interesting political presuppositions. To name a few, the return to the ‘values’ neglected by modernism, such as history and place, and a renovated enthusiasm about mass popular culture which was no longer seen as superfluous, anachronistic or impure. The former could be seen as reactionary while the latter as populist. We will return to these and other positions ahead in the following discussion.

Also, modernism became to be seen by these architects not as committed with structural change, but for its sheer optimism about technocracy and strong (totalitarian) states.[2] As the Bauhaus saw mass production as the solution to social injustices –most famously coining Frederick W. Taylor’s ‘management and efficiency at the workplace’ methods directly into the spatial organization of the household–, its emancipatory ethos was quickly reverted into the ruthless implementation of glorified ‘efficiency techniques’ placed at the very heart of architecture in what became to be known as ‘functionalism’.

In the following, I will try to answer questions about the historical and conceptual relationship between architecture and human emancipation. I will do it from four different approaches, each deriving from particular questions that I will outline as the argument unfolds: 1) the decline of social architecture; 2) the political in architecture; 3) the relation between architecture and human behaviour; and 4) architecture and social transformation.

Whatever happened to ‘social’ architecture?

By the loose term ‘social architecture’ I refer to the idea that architecture stood in alliance with the great mission of changing the world for the better through human rationality and progress, a fundamentally modern and humanist task.[3] For most modernist architects, emancipation meant liberation from the constraints of the ‘old’ culture with its outdated, messy, and inefficient behavioural patterns and, most importantly for architecture, its inadequate construction methods. But in real practice the ‘taylorisation’ of housing and the city was part of the wider circuits of the accumulation of capital. Architects thought that there were leading a ‘revolution’ in built environment that would bring to an end the inequalities of housing, but instead they were actually contributing to the ‘functionalisation’ of the working class for purposes of programmed consumption and further accumulation at expense of their living time and effort –we shall see ahead in more detail how this was the case. However, we have to acknowledge at least the ‘good intentions’ of these architects and accept that they were genuinely preoccupied in giving an answer to the ‘needs’ of modern man and the working classes. Perhaps their fatal error was in conceiving their own task in functional terms –in thinking that the primary purpose of architecture is merely to fulfil a social need or demand.

With the advent of postmodern architecture in the cold-war period, we have lost even those good intentions, and the focus has shifted from radical social and spatial change to the more ‘modest’ task of celebrating the popular taste of the masses and ‘humanize’ architecture. Some postmodernist architects, like Venturi, saw modernism as an elitist and arrogant enterprise that had nothing to do with the ‘real’ needs of the people.  The arrogance was in pretending to change society through architecture, and the elitism in the very failure of this aim –namely, the adoption of modern architecture as the ‘official’ institutional architecture by the State apparatus. This lead to a general depoliticisation of architects, ranging from populist stances to formal autonomy: architects didn’t want anything to do with politics –though there were several exceptions.[4] The work of the architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri represented at that time one of the most demolishing critiques of both modern and postmodern architecture. In his Theories and History of Architecture[5] he deployed his thoughts about the relationship between architecture and emancipation in a very ‘negative’ way that Fredric Jameson summarized as follows:

The practicing architect, in this society and within the closure of capitalism as a system, cannot hope to devise a radically different, a revolutionary, or a “Utopian” architecture or space either (…) architectural or aesthetic production can never be immediately political; it takes place somewhere else. Architects can therefore be political, like other individuals, but their architecture today cannot be political (…) An architecture of the future will be concretely and practically possible only when the future has arrived, that is to say, after a total social revolution, a systemic transformation of this mode of production into something else.[6]

Jameson argues that Tafuri’s stance is not to be understood merely as pessimism about the possibility of a radically different kind of architecture. Instead, he links this attitude to the historian’s proximity with ‘anti-humanist’ Marxism of the Althusserian variety, with its repudiation of the utopian and any positive program for the future, and its ‘purely critical’ and analytical character. Jameson concludes that the radical negativity of Tafuri’s analysis rested on a ‘structural’ necessity for his project of a dialectical history of architecture.[7]

Aldo Rossi, Architettura Assassinata, 1974

According to Tafuri, the possibility of a different kind of space can only arrive when a systemic revolution has taken place. But this poses some problems, for instance, this means that architecture cannot have any role to play in major social changes? And that a social revolution would be only a political or institutional one, with no regard on changes in daily life practices, urban space, culture, and the like? It is true that architecture –and specially urbanism– is remarkably tied to both the social production of space –in Lefebvre’s words– and the institutional and legal framework that makes it possible. This implies that changes in the very space that we inhabit are very slow in time while –Tafuri would argue– changes in social and political relations can occur more rapidly, and therefore have priority in any revolutionary momentum. However, if we replace architecture with something like the economic structure of society, we have the problem of finding us saying something like ‘there can be no concrete changes in the economy till a total revolution has taken place’ which apart from sounding like nonsense –how one could expect a major social change without changing the economy?– it echoes Lenin’s take on the ‘right time for revolution’, which Slavoj Žižek mentions apropos of Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Kaustky: ‘those who wait for the objective conditions of the revolution to arrive will wait forever –such a position of the objective observer (…) is itself the main obstacle to the revolution’.[8] In a similar fashion, and refuting Tafuri, we could argue that ‘those who wait for a total social revolution for changing architecture will wait forever’.

Maybe is not at all a matter of what comes first –social change or spatial change– but a dialectical relation between different social levels. This would mean that social change is reliant on spatial change to achieve its real potential and concreteness, and conversely, that spatial change is dependent on social change to materialise effectively. The same could be said about the economy, the State, the legal system and the like. In any case, the reach of this dialectics would have to be clarified in full before we can accept this thesis. Henri Lefebvre was surely a partisan of this idea, but he was also aware of its limits:

A revolution that does not produce a new space has not realized its full potential; indeed it has failed in that it has no changed life itself, but has merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions or political apparatuses. A social transformation, to be truly revolutionary in character, must manifest a creative capacity in its effects on daily life, on language and on space –though its impact need not occur at the same rate, or with equal force, in each of these areas.[9]

Indeed, according to Lefebvre’s theory of the production of space we could not have an ideology without its corresponding spatial arrangement –though he recognizes the fact that space and architecture’s relation to mental conceptions are not transparent but rather conflictive and mystifying, but at the same time dependent on each other: ‘Any ‘social existence’ aspiring or claiming to be ‘real’, but failing to produce its own space, would be a strange entity, a very peculiar kind of abstraction unable to escape from the ideological or even the ‘cultural’ realm’.[10] Lefebvre’s insights on the role of space in a revolutionary process are far more positive than Tafuri’s, though he shares with him the acknowledgment of the slowness of architectural changes as a whole, in that ‘it may be that the revolutionary period, the period of intense change, merely establishes the preconditions for a new space, and that the realization of that space calls for a rather longer period –for a period of calm’.[11] But he also asserts the opposite argument recalling how the creative effervescence in Soviet Russia, following the October revolution, was more prominently displayed in the realms of architecture and urbanism. In this view, architecture could have a role in a wide emancipatory project, and perhaps an important one in the light of its effects on human behaviour, social relations and perception. We could discuss if the prospects of such architecture are gone for good or if they have reappeared on the horizon of architectural imagination, or if other directions are currently being explored. But first I think we have to clarify our initial general question about the political in architecture.

The formal and the contingent

Can a work of architecture be political? And if so, in what sense? Is this political dimension internal to the conception of the design or depending on external situations? This question seems to return again and again, especially after the end of the cold-war period, where the political realm has been almost entirely reduced to consensual-rational agreement by the pressures of liberal pluralism and the ‘end of ideologies’ post-political motto. Is political meaning simply projected into an otherwise neutral architectural work? Or the political dimension springs directly from the conception of a design? Can a work of architecture be internally critical of the status quo? Or it is doomed to be the passive bearer of shifting (external) political meanings through its history?

Konstantin Melnikov, Soviet Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition of Decorative Arts, 1925

To give a possible answer we have first to distinguish the political from politics –and see in what ways they relate to architecture. The former is a more general term designating the political nature of the ‘human animal’ –as described by Aristotle in his Politics. This conception derives from the understanding of humans as essentially social beings living in the polis. However, I want to contrast a more abstract and ontological definition of the political as a radical separation from ‘an other’, with an understanding of it as the manifestation of internal contradictions in the mode of production of a given society, in particular, capitalist society. Whereas politics refers to the particular practices and institutions aiming at managing the conflictual character of public affairs –i.e. of the political as such.

The political is a formal –in the sense of structural or universal– concept, while politics is a contingent or particular notion. The political is an existential condition, while politics is a concrete set of practices and institutional arrangements. Post-Marxist political theorist Chantal Mouffe, following Carl Schmitt’s critique of liberalism, defines the political as a fundamental antagonism that is constitutive of society itself.[12] Schmitt himself in his seminal  essay The Concept of the Political (1932) proposed that ‘the specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy’.[13] Schmitt argues that this distinction is not to be taken as metaphorical but as concrete and existential, analogous to elemental categories such as good and evil in ethics, beautiful and ugly in aesthetics, or profitable and unprofitable in economics. For him ‘the distinction of friend and enemy denotes the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, of an association or dissociation’[14], so any of the above mentioned categories can, at least potentially, develop the ‘friend-enemy’ antagonistic character of the political –when the ‘other’ is perceived as threatening our own stability or existence. Thus, the realm of the political means that only by way of defining our own opposite or counterpart (potential enemy), we can assert our autonomy and position in relation to the rest of society –in short, by defining what we are not, we define what we are. However, Mouffe proposes a different reading of Schmitt’s clear-cut distinction between the categories friend/enemy. She argues that there’s a more fundamental relation, constitutive of any social identity, that between we and they.[15]  Thus, for her the friend/enemy relation is just a particular moment within the we/they identity relation. The friend/enemy relation is viewed as antagonistic, whereas the we/they relation is agonistic.[16] Antagonism is built on direct confrontation and struggle, while agonism corresponds to an adversarial model in which confrontation is transformed into dissent through the mediation of democratic institutions.

Although various post-marxists approaches like this one are committed with a critique of post-political liberal democracy, they also emerged from an historical context of critique and revisionism of Marxist theory as a whole –which arose from the late 1960s to mid 1980s out of post-structuralist critiques of orthodox Marxism, the rise of Maoism, and the New Left. According to Jameson, these various post-marxist theories emerged as a consequence of structural transformations in capitalism –particularly, the transition from monopolistic imperialism to its multinational stage. Perhaps Mouffe’s understanding of the political has the weakness of being far too abstract, relying only on the problem of political identity formation, and leaving aside the role of production and space.

We can read a very different approach to the political in Marx’s historical materialism, where the political is not defined in any explicit ontological sense. The political is a realm that constitutes part of the superstructure of society –e.g. the state, the legal system, ideology– and that is determined by the economic (material) base of society. However, it is important to understand that Marx viewed this determination as a dialectical –and not causal– relationship.[17] For him, fundamental contradictions within economic relations between men and between men and nature, eventually reach the ‘empirical surface’ of society in the form of social antagonisms that act back upon the economic base, thus the political is not a totally autonomous realm in which antagonisms among social groups arise solely from their identity conflicts, but instead emerge out of the interaction between the productive forces and the relations of production. The form that these fundamental antagonisms take are social conflicts between classes defined according to their role in the relations of production and organization of labour –whether they own the means of production or they have to work for acquire their means of subsistence. Marx also had a previous conception of the political in his early writings around mid nineteenth century.  According to Humberto Schettino, Marx’s conception of the political was twofold, a negative one that saw politics as the domination of one class over another, and a positive or utopian one that saw it as community self-rule without any mediating institutions such as the state.[18] Schettino bases his critique of Marx on the argument that because these two conceptions are deeply utopian and contradictory, they disregard the actual practice of politics and limit individual freedom –arguing on the ‘inevitability of domination’ and antagonism as part of the ‘human condition’ rather than the expression of contradictions in the economic base of society, and consequently, in its institutional structures.[19] Nevertheless, we have to keep in mind that Marx’s later writings on political economy advocate not for an utopian conception of some future politics, but provide a kind of negative image about how the present –capitalist society– is destined to failed on account of its internal contradictions.

Hannes Meyer, Construction, 1927, collage on the back of an architectural plan, 60 x 60 cm

The notion of antagonism seems to be at the core of the definition of the political in both Marxist and Post-Marxist theory. This is in sharp contrast with liberal-bourgeois theories in which the political, as well as society, is seen as a neutral harmonious whole in which individuals can deliberate rationally to reach consensual solutions to conflicts. According to Mouffe, what is fundamentally wrong with this view is ‘its negation of the ineradicable character of antagonism’. Consequently, she advocates the acknowledgement of antagonism and exclusion as constitutive forces in the formation of collective identity. While for Marx, the liberal view was deeply flawed because of its conception of the individual as creator of the whole of society rather than the other way around. The universal ‘free’ individual preached by the thinkers of the French Revolution was at the root of bourgeois liberal and idealist theory that Marx sought to critique and undo.

Therefore, we can conclude that the fundamental difference between the Marx/Marxist and Post-Marxist definitions of the political lies in the concept of antagonism. For Post-Marxists the antagonistic character of the political lies at the core of the constitution of collective identities –in the fact that identity implies exclusion. For Marx and most Marxists, social antagonisms don’t arise primarily from political identity struggles, but are the phenomenal expression of deep contradictions within the realm of production –particularly, in the conflict of property relations concerning the ownership of the means of production and the social product (commodities), and the role of the political superstructure in slowing down the development of the forces of production.[20] Thus, the former proposes an identity based notion of antagonism, while the latter an economic one. The first relies on the concept of agonism, while the second on the notion of contradiction –and both share the ‘potential’ for developing into (sometimes violent) social antagonisms.

Ivan Leonidov, Lenin Institute and Librarianship, Moscow, 1927

From the standpoint of architecture, Pier Vittorio Aureli suggests –drawing on a conflation between Schmitt and Arendt views–, that ‘the sphere of the political is the sphere in which a part, a group of individuals, acquires a knowledge of itself in the form of knowing what it is, what it ought to be, what it wants, and what it does not want’.[21] From this, he proposes an equation between the concepts of the formal and the political in architecture:

If politics is agonism through separation and confrontation, it is precisely in the process of separation inherent in the making of architectural form that the political in architecture lies, and thus the possibility of understanding the agonistic relationship between architecture and its context.[22]

According to Aureli, the political in a work of architecture lies not in its contingent content –i.e. its meaning or use– but on its intrinsic formal properties as these always establish a relationship between architecture and the context on which it is set. Along these lines, but from a philosophical perspective, Slavoj Žižek argues that the political characterizes the process of ‘becoming human’ that begins with the traumatic encounter between human beings and the world (nature, the unknown). During this, humans become radically separated from it, thus asserting their own identity by constructing a ‘human world’ distinct from the natural one and which ultimately symbolizes the very way in which humans relate to the given natural world.[23] Thus, for Žižek the political nature of man is not in fact ‘natural’ but on the contrary, is what constitutes the artificial and symbolic network we construct in order to deal with what we cannot really comprehend –the alien or external natural world. He argues that ‘if (what we experience as) ‘reality’ is to emerge, something has to be foreclosed from it –that is to say, ‘reality’, like truth, is, by definition, never ‘whole’’.[24] It would be precisely this incompleteness of reality, this failure of (complete) symbolization of the world, what gives the political its antagonistic and open-ended character –forever trying to achieve the right balance between man and nature, and between men themselves, society. The antagonism springs directly from the incomplete (failed) representation of the world or society, which creates an internal division between a part and the totality. This internal contradiction forever prevents society from forming a harmonious, neutral, enclosed whole. To exemplify this, Žižek puts forwards –following Rancière– the way in which the ancient Greek people, the demos, went from demanding their voice to be heard to present themselves as the representatives for the whole of society, establishing a distance from those in power and at the same time affirming their identity as universal.[25] Thus, according to this argument, the antagonism of a ‘political conflict designates the tension between the structured social body in which each part has its place, and ‘the part of no part’ which unsettles this order on account of the empty principle of universality’.[26] The political always aspires to a stand-in for the universal: ‘without the claim to universality, there simply is no politics’.[27]

While Post-Marxist theories tend to concentrate on the relationship between men as the locus of the political, Marxism, Aureli and Žižek focus on the relationship between men and the environment (natural or artificial) as the founding moment of the political and society –the so called relations to nature. However, I believe that underlying these different approaches to the question of the political there is a common ground resting on two features: 1) the political is founded in the separation of a part from a whole in such a way that the part intends to represent the whole and the former whole becomes its particular counter-part; 2) the political dimension lies in the relationship established between the part standing for the universal whole and its counterpart now standing for the particular, thus redefining its former positions and identities. In more concrete terms, we can say for instance, that when a given community decides to cut its links from another (larger) community, it does so primarily on account of its differences and conflicts. However, in the process of asserting its own identity and autonomy, this community does not limit itself to critique its former ‘mother’ but becomes to see itself as the larger entity, as the majority against a minority, the universal against the particular –regardless of the actual number of individuals involved. If the political is as much separation as it is relation, it is fundamentally mediation: it stands between humans, and between humans and the surrounding world, structuring the very way in which we relate with each other in society and with the natural and human environment.

If we translate this into architectural terms, what it means is that we have to acknowledge that architecture, understood as the product of the way we cope and relate with nature and with society, is founded primarily on separation, division, which at the same time establishes a particular relation between humans, and between humans and the environment: this particular relation implies a decision about how to better organize this mediation, a decision which can never be complete once and for all –which means that we are forever approximating to an ideal equilibrium we can never achieve. This mediation takes the form of a primary architectural element, the wall. But the wall fundamentally enables a distinction, that between an interior and an exterior medium. The part stands for the interior medium that architecture produces, while the whole represents the exterior natural or artificial world. Thus, the work of architecture stands or mediates the relation between human beings and the natural and artificial world, and also stands, more abstractly, between human beings themselves, as it mediates our social relations through various spatial arrangements.

Yet, according to this definition, can we still affirm that man is intrinsically or naturally a ‘political animal’ as Aristotle presupposed? Aureli follows Arendt’s claim about the non-existence of a political substance in itself. For Arendt, there is nothing political in a human being taken in isolation, but instead lies in the relationships established between men. The political arises precisely in the conflict about how to better articulate the relationships among human beings. But if we also understand the political to be that dimension in which a human being or a group defines its position and thus its identity in relation to an other –both through its association and its separation from other humans–, then we have to acknowledge that the political is defined as much by a process of identity formation through separation than by a relationship between different identities. Thus, separation, relation, and position would remain as the essential categories that can explain the political dimension of human beings. The antagonistic and contradictory character of the political lies ultimately around the issue of what is the best way to organize human beings for producing its own human environment –and assure its own subsistence.

At this point it might help if we ask an inverse question: what does not constitute the political dimension in a work of architecture? The difference that we have laid out between the formal (political) and the contingent (politics) compel us to answer: the ‘political use’ of a work of architecture or its ‘political meaning’ cannot constitute its intrinsic political dimension because both belong to the realm of the contingent. If these were the locus of the political in a work of architecture we would have no remedy but to accept the neutrality of it. Jameson clearly understands this when he talks about the difference between politics and the political, or the particular and the universal:

(…) at least two different meanings are deployed when we use the word politics. One is politics as the specialized, local thing, the empirical activity; as, for example, when speaking of a political novel, we mean a novel about government and general elections, about Quebec City or Washington, about people in power and their techniques and specific tasks. The other is politics in the global sense, of the founding and transformation, the conservation and revolutionizing, of society as a whole, of the collective, of what organizes human relationships generally and enables or sponsors, or limits and maims, human possibilities.[28]

According to this example, a work of architecture that presents itself as explicitly ‘political’ is no less political, in the structural-formal sense, than other that does not. In other words, a work of architecture does not become political on account of being a government building, a prison, or a place where ‘politics’, in the narrow sense, happens. Let’s look at this argument more closely in the case of Neil Leach.

Covacevic, Echeñique, Gaggero, González, Medina, UNCTAD III Building, 1971-72, Santiago de Chile

In an attempt to define the political in architecture and art, Neil Leach confronts Marcuse and Adorno’s views on political art with the Jameson and Foucault’s ideas on the matter. According to Leach, both Marcuse and Adorno ascribed to the autonomy of the aesthetic form as an internal critique of existing social relations, thus for them a revolutionary art is possible and necessary.[29] However, I suspect that Leach’s account on the position of Jameson on this matter is somewhat one-sided. He emphasizes Jameson’s tentative answer to the possibility of a political architecture in the following passage:

If an architecture wished to dissent from the status quo, how would it go about doing this? I have come to think that no work of art or culture can set out to be political once and for all, no matter how ostentatiously it labels itself as such, for there can never be any guarantee it will be used the way it demands (…) The political rewriting or appropriation then, the political use, must also be allegorical; you have to know that this is what it is supposed to be or mean –in itself it is inert.[30]

Chilean people having a communitarian lunch on the UNCTAD III construction site, 1971

Here, it seems that Jameson claims the neutral (inert) nature of architectural form, and that its political meaning derives only from its contingent contents through time. It makes no difference if an architectural work was conceived as to fulfil some political end, because there is neither assurance nor fixity in its social or historical meaning. One exemplary case of this thesis could be the UNCTAD III building in Chile. It was built in 1971, during the socialist government of Salvador Allende, and it symbolized a great (worker’s) collective effort, since it was built in just 275 days on the occasion of the UN International Conference[31] in which world leaders would have the unique opportunity to see ‘by themselves’ the actual progress of the so called ‘Chilean road to socialism’ –the architecture of it being directly influenced by the premises of the Bauhaus. 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 negative and repressive associations. Finally, in 2006 was partially destroyed by a fire, only to be revived as a cruel pastiche-like celebration of the liberal-democratic coalition in power at that time.[32] We can clearly see from this example the point made by Jameson, however, one cannot help but to ask the difficult question: how can a work of architecture be neutral, apolitical, purely material fact, if the ones who conceived it in the first place were political subjects acting on their will in a political situation –in the broadest of senses?

UNCTAD III Building, partially destroyed by a fire in 2006

Surely Leach is right in pointing out that, in interpreting a work of architecture –or art–, we should always make a clear distinction between an aesthetic reading of form and a political reading of content –relegating the political only to (contingent) content. Yet, he is wrong in presupposing architecture as a mere passive container of ever changing social and political uses. In discussing Foucault, he insists on this thesis, a bit recognizing the possibility that a work of architecture might ‘influence’ social behaviour. Notwithstanding, he concludes that, in the case of Bentham’s panopticon, ‘it is not the form of the panopticon which controls the behaviour of the inmates. Rather, it is the politics of use (…) which is ultimately determinant of behaviour, and the architecture is merely supporting that politics of use through its efficient layout’.[33]

Bentham’s Panopticon Design, 1787 © UCL, London

If we read Jameson statement closely, he says ‘I have come to think that no work of art or culture can set out to be political once and for all’, thus implying that he believed that to be the case, but no longer does. As a matter of fact, if we read his entire argument we get that, despite its reservations to assert an internally political architectural work, he raises an important question about the possibility for architecture to establish a ‘critical (political) distance’ from the context in which it takes place: ‘How then could a building establish itself as critical and put its context in negative or critical perspective? The perplexity of our political reflections on architecture finds itself concentrated in this question: since architecture becomes being itself, how can the negative find any place in it?’[34] We will return to this important question concerning the very nature of architecture.

UNCTAD III Building, renamed as GAM as it was reconstructed in 2010

Perhaps, Jameson’s reservation was due to his critical take on Tafuri’s belief that architects shouldn’t write about architecture and that as architectural critics, they can only intervene in the discourses about architecture but not in the building of it.[35] As we mention earlier, for Tafuri the absurdity was in architects proposing ‘purely architectural’ alternatives to the status quo. For him ‘the search for an alternative within the structures that condition the very character of architectural design is indeed an obvious contradiction in terms’.[36] Perhaps, Jameson argues, ‘his [Tafuri] particular paradox can be turned inside out. ‘A mode of speech’, Wittgenstein said, ‘is a mode of life.’ Perhaps we can see whether any of the new forms we have imagined might secretly correspond to new modes of life emerging even partially’.[37] Here, Jameson’s arguments about the political nature of space seem both critical and positive, perhaps on account of the influence of Lefebvre. Contrasting the ambiguity of Leach’s position, Henri Lefebvre directly addresses the political nature of space, and thus, of architecture:

Space is not a scientific object misled by ideology or politics, it has always been political and strategic (…) Space has been shaped, modeled, based on historical or natural elements, but always politically. Space is political and ideological. It is a representation literally full of ideology. There is an ideology of space, why? Because this space that seems homogeneous (…) is a social product.[38]

Here we have a clear statement attacking a purely geometrical conception of space on account of its historical and social origin, which ultimately means its political basis. Yet, we have also to take into account an important distinction already implied in the arguments discussed above: that the levels at which the political takes place in architecture are not identical, namely on discourse, project, design, and work. We have been concerned primarily with the built work of architecture and its political dimension, which means that the crucial issue lies in the material structure of architecture and its action over human behaviour and perception –in short, over social relations.

Therefore, we can at least provisionally conclude that the properly political dimension in a work of architecture is embedded from the beginning in its conception, be this a (conceptual) project or a (particular) design –an important distinction that we will let pass for the moment. It is this unavoidable social and political conception that is transferred to the built work which affects the real world of practical social relations. The inevitability of this idea rests on the rather obvious fact that every architectural design is always in the first place conceived by political subjects that are part of a concrete historical situation. The second point is not so simple though, because we have to deal with the uncomfortable truth that there is something utterly mysterious about the transition from drawing to building.[39] This in no way excludes our responsibility to unravel the workings of this process. But it should be said that this unravelling has to be done from the concrete practices of architecture and not from some idealized discourse on it.

The concrete political dimension in a built work of architecture, forming active part of its context and the human activity that takes place in it and relates to it, is a question that cannot be solved without first asking: Does architecture determine in some way human behaviour, thought, or action? What is exactly the nature of this determination? How a work of architecture affects our perception and social relations?

Functionalism, commodity fetishism, and the silent language of architecture

It is commonly known and often unchallenged, that architecture should reflect or at least be based upon use, functions, human activities, or social relations –leaving aside the obvious differences between these terms. Since the Bauhaus and the idea of functionalism, architects sought to produce an adequacy between architectural form and human needs –i.e. basic bodily human needs. This was attempted in various ways, being the (in)famous motto ‘form follows function’ –coined by Louis Sullivan– the common point of departure. The modern movement saw industry and mass production as an exemplary model for the development of society, and even further, of social justice. Lefebvre discuss the political ambiguity and ideological use of this kind of discourse:

As for the architecture of the period, it turns out to be in the service of the state, and hence a conformist and reformist force on a world scale. This despite the fact that its advent was hailed as a revolution –even as the anti-bourgeois revolution in architecture! The Bauhaus, just like Le Corbusier, expressed (formulated and met) the architectural requirements of state capitalism; these differed little, in point of fact, from the requirements of state socialism, as identified during the same period by the Russian constructivists.[40]

For Lefebvre functionalism was an idealist discourse masquerading its links with the taylorist requirements of the capitalist state, rather than an objectivist approach in its own right. Furthermore, ‘function’ and ‘needs’ are regarded as abstractions of the worst kind. For him, both of them are socially produced and not causes or demands as modern architects thought. The underlying premise of modern architecture was that one could arrive at a more truthful architectural work through the use of rational procedures in both intellectual and construction methods. The extreme version of this idea was that architecture should eventually disappear leaving only rational organization and construction as the main task of architects –exemplified, among others, by the ideas of the Marxist architect, Hannes Meyer. Lefebvre also links the idea that architectural form should ‘express’ functions and its own efficiency procedures with what he calls the logic of transparency, by which he meant the visible-readable realm of the text:

The architect is supposed to construct a signifying space wherein form is to function as signifier is to signified; the form, in other words, is supposed to enunciate or proclaim the function. According to this principle, which is espoused by most ‘designers’, the environment can be furnished with or animated by signs in such a way as to appropriate space, in such a way that space becomes readable to society as a whole.[41]

Lefebvre associates this trend with a more global tendency towards abstraction, signs and the dominant role of linguistics in both theory and everyday practice. Ultimately, the functional principle seen as the implementation of the logic of transparency, visibility and legibility –in short, the dominance of the text–, pursues the collapse between inside and outside in architecture, leading to a general depreciation for massiveness and the façade. Architects saw themselves as the greatest liberators of the old constraints of the wall, emphasizing visual space and weightlessness, ‘following the tendency of philosophy, of art and literature, and of society as a whole, towards abstraction, visualization and formal-spatial relations, architecture strove for immateriality’.[42]

Even as functionalism, viewed as the raison d’être of architecture, has been systematically rejected among neo-avant-garde architects, it remains as the most powerful regulating principle within architectural practice –a kind of common sense criteria, self-justified and ‘natural’ in its own right. Although architecture is both the product of (useful) human labour and an object of utility, this apparent self-evidence and transparency between form and function is not so clear the moment we start to take into account the contingent character of use itself. For example, Theodor Adorno pointed out the impossibility of a ‘purely utilitarian architecture’ as an antidote to various ‘styles’, the contradiction being that ‘the absolute rejection of style becomes style’.[43] The great paradox for Adorno was that architecture is at the same time useful and useless if it is to remain as a major art: ‘Because architecture is in fact both autonomous and purpose-oriented, it cannot simply negate men as they are. And yet it must do precisely that if it is to remain autonomous’.[44] Architecture cannot rely solely on its purpose, because ‘there will be always a motive that will trigger the start of a work, but not its reason for being a work of architecture as such’.[45] For Adorno, architectural autonomy meant that the real core of architecture was not to be found in its utility (content), but on its own abstract (formal) procedures –this was sharply differenced from a purely (empty) formal architecture, rather formal abstractions were a reaction to established social relations, attempting a kind of critical distance from mass commodity production.

Anton Räderscheidt, Begegnung, 1921

A more fundamental, structural linkage remains to be explored, that between the ideas of functionalism and the principle of utility as developed from early Utilitarianism to bourgeois economic theories such as marginalism and the so called ‘subjective theory of value’. For modernist architects vitruvian utilitas was the starting point, the real basis of all architecture, which was thought to be the material support, and thus the ‘answer’ to social needs. However, this apparent ‘honesty’ and direct fit between social needs and the formal response of architecture was for Lefebvre a ‘positivist-empirical’ illusion since ‘nothing could be more obscure. Whose needs? By whom are such needs formulated? And by what are they satisfied or saturated?’[46] Effectively, there is hardly anything more pervaded by ideology than an appeal to the ‘real needs of the people’ in the first place. Yet, this was not the main problem, but rather the attempt to: 1) justify and assess architecture in relation to its usefulness as the ultimate valid criterion; and 2) to presuppose the ‘utility maximizing individual’ as the distinctive subjectivity of modern man.

Early philosophical Utilitarianism, as seen in the work of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, argued that the pursuit of the greatest happiness for the greatest number of individuals was the utmost ethical principle –happiness being the pleasure attained through maximization of utility for the individual. Relying on the enlightenment idea of the autonomous and free-will individual, utilitarians set the basis for the development of Classical Liberalism, which had at its core the universal free individual as the generator of the whole of society –a basically idealist view. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century economists like Menger, Jevons, Walras, and the Austrian School of economics, developed some of these ideas into the concept of ‘marginal utility’, according to which the economic value of a commodity is determined through its usefulness or utility in relation to its scarcity or limit in supply. Marginalism is considered a ‘subjective’ theory of value, meaning that the value of a commodity is fixed by the individual’s valuation of that commodity in terms of utility and scarcity: ‘Value is altogether based on utility, and the amount of value is determined, not by average, but by final or marginal utility. The subjective value of a good, as distinguished from its utility, lies in its being the indispensable condition of some satisfaction of want’.[47] In bourgeois economics this trend led it to focus almost exclusively on exchange and consumer choice as the source of all value and price, leaving production and labour aside. Marx held the opposite, while he also asserted that in order to have a value, and object has to be useful for humans, he claimed not to be concerned by the (psychological) nature of human wants or needs fulfilled by some useful object, but rather with the process of production required for that object to exist in the first place as the real source of value. Under capitalism, production is production for exchange, not for use, which poses functionalism in a kind of outdated absurdity, even for its own time: ‘Society deceives us when it says that it allows things to appear as if they are there by mankind’s will. In fact, they are produced for profit’s sake; they satisfy human needs only incidentally’.[48]

Bentham’s Panopticon viewed from inside of one of the cell units

The central role played by usefulness or utility in these bourgeois theories echo that of functionalism. Although they derive from completely different fields, they share the belief that the utility of an object can be quantitatively measured in terms of the fulfilment of a human need. This led modern architects to believe that architecture could be measured according to its usefulness mirroring the ‘maximization of utility’ problem of bourgeois economists. By talking about utility as being the capacity of an object to fulfil a human need or want, we are basically describing the subjective experience between a particular individual and the object, this experience is personal, non transferable, and ultimately qualitative. Architects thought that they could somehow ground architecture as the rational solution to social needs, yet these needs are not natural but socially produced and taught through various ‘ideological apparatuses’.[49] Perhaps unconsciously following this liberal principle of individual utility maximization, modern architecture relied on a psychological view of architecture and so they fell under the same mistakes of bourgeois economist, namely how the ever changing use-value of an object can justify its own existence and value once and for all? In architectural terms, how can functions, use, or the purpose of a particular building be its substance if they are contingent? If we design a factory and then is turned into a housing complex, this means that the ‘architectural quality’ is lost altogether? If use is forever changing –even within the same program–, how could it be the substantial in an architectural work? And last but not least, if use and function cannot be the fundament of an architectural work, what is left? Universal formal principles like the Renaissance? What is that which remains in an architectural work when its initial use is changed, or even when it ceases to be used? We cannot answer this right away, but we should keep in mind that it brings us back to the problem between the formal and the contingent.

In any case, the problem of functionalism hides a more fundamental one, namely what is the nature of the relationship between human activity (social relations) and architectural form? If this relation is neither causal nor transparent, as Lefebvre argued, what is its fundamental dynamic? Contemporary architectural theory is completely crippled to give a satisfactory answer to this essential question. Either because is too preoccupied with promoting some new empty avant-garde, trying to pose technological determinism as the ultimate authority of radical autonomous formal experiments, or retreating into the comfortable realm of never-ending philosophical-artistic over-conceptualized discussions. We could keep enumerating the delusions and complete dissociation from reality of architectural theory, but it seems more interesting to explore what other alternatives we have outside this predicament.

[1] Leach, Neil (Ed.). Architecture and revolution: contemporary perspectives on Central and Eastern Europe. London, Routledge, 1999. p. 113

[2] Morgan, Diane. Postmodernism and Architecture. In: Sim, Stuart (Ed.). The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. Routledge, London. 2001. p. 80

[3] Latour, Bruno, we have never been modern.

[4] Most notably the Situationists, Aldo Rossi, and Archizoom. See: Aureli, Pier Vittorio. The Project of Autonomy: Politics and Architecture Within and Against Capitalism. New York, Buell Center/Forum Project, Princeton Architectural Press, 2008.

[5] Tafuri, Manfredo. Theories and History of Architecture. New York, Harper & Row Publishers, 1980.

[6] Jameson, Frederic. Architecture and the Critique of Ideology. In : Hays, K. Michael (Ed). Architecture Theory since 1968. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1998. p. 444

[7] Ibid., p. 450

[8] Lenin, V.I.; Žižek, Slavoj (Ed.). Revolution at the Gates. A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917. London, Verso, 2002. p. 9

[9] Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1991. p. 54

[10] Ibid., p. 53

[11] Ibid., p. 54

[12] Mouffe contrast this definition with that of liberal theorists who see the political as an individualist-rational realm of free discussion and deliberation, devoid from any constituent exclusion, or antagonistic relationship. See: Mouffe, Chantal. On the Political. Abingdon, Routledge, 2005. p. 9

[13] Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political. London, University of Chicago Press, 2001. p. 26

[14] Ibid. p. 26

[15] Mouffe highlights the potential of Schmitt’s theory for a derridean relational identity theory. For the origins of this Post-Marxist view on the formation of collective identities, see: Hegemony and Socialist Strategy – Laclau, Mouffe; and: The Making of Political Identities – Ernesto Laclau (ed).

[16] ‘While antagonism is a we/they relation in which the two sides are enemies who do not share any common ground, agonism is a we/they relation where the conflicting parties, although acknowledging that there is no rational solution to their conflict, nevertheless recognize the legitimacy of their opponents’. See: Mouffe, Chantal. On the Political. Abingdon, Routledge, 2005. p. 20; for a definition of the concept of agonism see: the democratic paradox.

[17] Orthodox Marxism represented by the reading of Marx in mechanistic or deterministic ways by Plekhanov or Kautsky, have been widely criticized by Western Marxism and, among others, by Martha Harnecker, Chris Harman, and David Harvey.

[18] Schettino, Humberto. The notion of politics in marx’s early writings. CRÍTICA, Revista Hispanoamericana de Filosofía. Vol. 36, No. 107 (agosto 2004): 3–38

[19] Schettino draws on Hobbes’s Leviathan to pull the argument on how antagonism in embedded in human nature because humans always struggle for survival in a context of permanent scarcity. This is clearly one the arguments developed by the classical liberalism and individualism of John Locke, Adam Smith, and others. See: Ibid., p. 30

[20] We will return in more detail to the dynamics between the relations and the forces of production. See for example: Harman, Chris. Marxism and history: two essays. London, Bookmark Publications Ltd, 1998. And also: Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich. The German Ideology. Progress Publishers, 1968. Accessed December 10, 2011.; Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1859. Accessed December 10, 2011.

[21] Aureli, Pier Vittorio. The possibility of an absolute architecture. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2011. p. 29

[22] Ibid., p. ix

[23] For an example of this ‘traumatic encounter’, see: Žižek, Slavoj. On Belief. London, Routledge, 2001. p. 47

[24] Žižek, Slavoj (Ed.). Mapping Ideology. London, Verso, 1994. p. 21

[25] Žižek, Slavoj. The ticklish subject. The absent centre of political ontology. London, Verso, 2000. p. 187-88

[26] Žižek continues as follows: ‘This identification of the non-part with the Whole, of the part of society with no properly defined place within it (or resisting the allocated subordinated place within it) with the Universal, is the elementary gesture of politicization, discernible in all great democratic events from the French Revolution (in which le troisième état proclaimed itself identical to the Nation as such, against the aristocracy and the clergy) to the demise of ex-European Socialism (in which dissident ‘forums’ proclaimed themselves representative of the entire society against the Party nomenklatura)’. Ibid., p. 188

[27] Dean, Jodi. Zizek’s politics. Routledge, New York, 2006. p. 120

[28] Jameson, Fredric. Is space political? In: Leach, Neil (Ed.). Architecture and revolution: contemporary perspectives on Central and Eastern Europe. London, Routledge, 1999. p. 243

[29] Leach, Neil (Ed.). Architecture and revolution: contemporary perspectives on Central and Eastern Europe. London, Routledge, 1999. p. 113-14

[30] Is space political? Quoted by Neil Leach, op. cit., p. 245

[31] Third United Nations Conference on Trade and Development held in Santiago de Chile, 13 April to 21 May 1972.

[32] Varas, Paulina; Llano, José (Ed.). 275 días. Sitio, tiempo, contexto y afecciones específicas. Catalog for Curatorial project for the building Gabriela Mistral Cultural Center 2009-2011. Santiago, Ograma/La máquina del arte, 2011.

[33] Architecture and revolution, op. cit. p. 121

[34] Is space political? op. cit. p. 246

[35] See: There is no criticism, only history, an interview with Manfredo Tafuri. Conducted in Italian by Richard Ingersoll and translated by him into English, appeared in Design Book Review, no. 9, spring 1986, pages 8–11.

[36] Tafuri, Manfredo. Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development. London, MIT Press, 1999. p. 181

[37] Is space political? op. cit. p. 247

[38] Lefebvre, Henri. Espacio y política. Barcelona, Península, 1976. p. 46

[39] See for example the work of Robin Evans on this issue: Evans, Robin. Traducciones. Barcelona, Pre-Textos, 2005.

[40] The Production of Space, op. cit., p. 304

[41] Ibid., p. 144

[42] Ibid., p. 303

[43] Adorno, Theodor. Functionalism Today. In: Leach, Neil (Ed.). Rethinking Architecture: A reader in cultural theory. London, Routledge, 1997. p. 8

[44] Ibid., p. 14

[45] Bochers, Juan. Institución Arquitectónica. Santiago, Andres Bello, 1968. p. 151

[46] The Production of Space, op. cit., p. 273

[47] Böhm-Bawerk, Eugen von. The Positive Theory of Capital. New York, G. E. Stechert & Co. Accessed December 13, 2011. p. xviii

[48] Functionalism Today, op.cit., p. 15

[49] See: Althusser, Louis. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation). In: Lenin and philosophy and other essays. London, Monthly Review Press, 1971. p. 127-193


About patriciodestefani

My main focus is on the role of architecture within capitalist society and the search for a radical alternative practice.
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