Projecting Horizons: Architecture, Capitalism and Radical Politics
Researcher: Patricio De Stefani
This research will examine the relations between architecture and capitalism throughout the twenty century. The aim is to determine the role of architecture in the reproduction of this social system. Also it looks to find out the effects of this relation on the field of architecture and the built environment. In addition it will explore possible alternatives to the current production of architecture and its relation with late capitalist society.
Keywords: mode of relation, production of architecture, social space, capitalism, politics, program, project, architectural education, architectural practice
(written in June 2011 and submitted to the University of Edinburgh)
Outline: Architecture and Capitalism, a key relation
Architecture’s relation to nature and society has always been a tricky one. However, is not precisely in the mode of this elemental relationship that all architecture is grounded? The world we have built so far has established different types of this relation. Our relations as social and individual beings are mediated by the artificial world we have created. Architecture stands between us and society.
In the last century, this fundamental relation has been radically transformed due to the major restructurings of our economic and political systems. The different modalities that architecture has adopted in relation to the overall reality of capitalism have had a profound impact on the formation and practice of architects.
The study of this relationship has not been a major preoccupation for architectural theorists, let alone practitioners. However, recent works on this matter, specifically on consumer culture, have been treated by Juhani Pallasmaa from the perspective of phenomenology. Manfredo Tafuri has made relevant contributions from the historical and critical perspectives. From the Marxist standpoint, Henri Lefebvre, Fredric Jameson and David Harvey have analyzed the spatial logic of capitalist accumulation and its social consequences on the built environment. More recently Pier Vittorio Aureli has investigated the relations between worker movements and architecture in the sixties. Despite these authors have been very influential in architecture and the social sciences, there are some questions that I think remain unanswered. For instance, what is the role of architecture in the reproduction of the existing social system? What should be the role of architecture in facing major instabilities and injustices in the cities produced by capital?
What have been the different modes of relation between architecture and capitalism throughout the twenty century? If the architectural project is an instrument inherently tied to the envisioning of a future not yet been achieved, then it is always a matter of understanding this future as a transformation or else a reproduction of an existing state of things. Architects are compelled to make a decision, and to define a position in the broad spectre between these two poles. How to develop possible alternatives to the current relation between architecture and late capitalist societies?
This research aims to determine the laws that lie behind this fundamental relationship and its effects on the formation and practice of architects. Furthermore it looks to explore possible alternatives to the current production of architecture and its relation with late capitalist society. The methodology will consist in the study of different theoretical approaches as well as practical, through the use of scientific and dialectical methodologies. The study would develop an area of theoretical issues that is unusual on architectural knowledge and it would contribute to the formation of a critical practice within architectural education and practice.
Intellectual Context: Architectural Theory and Capitalism
Despite the fact that in the last thirty years capitalism has prodigiously expanded on an unforeseen scale and has permeated nearly all aspects of human life, architects in general seem more comfortable than critical with it. Architects are dazzled with the new possibilities and technologies arising within late capitalist societies, but there’s little concern about the effects of such novelties on architecture and the built environment.
Architectural theorists seem to avoid the subject for lack of appropriate approaches. There has been no more than brief mentions and references, but no extended takes on this issue. Yet relatively recent works on this matter, particularly on consumer and image culture, have been treated by Juhani Pallasmaa from the perspective of phenomenology. Pallasma discuss and critiques the visual and autonomous bias of contemporary architecture. From the historical perspective, Manfredo Tafuri has been known for posing a radical critique of modern as well as postmodern architectural ideologies. Recently, Pier Vittorio Aureli has made relevant contributions to the relations between politics and architecture in the second half of the twenty century from the standpoint of the autonomia movement of the sixties.
All of these and other issues have been broadly investigated in the social sciences. The work of Henri Lefebvre has been a major source for geographers, planners and architects, as well as social movements. His books The Urban Revolution and The Production of Space pose critical questions about the nature of the built environment and he provides an outline for a history of the origins of abstract space which he identifies with the kind of space produced by capitalism. Following Marx’s insights, David Harvey develops a theory of capitalism’s uneven geographical development throughout many of his books such as Spaces of Capital, The Condition of Postmodernity and The Urbanization of Capital. Another key author is Fredric Jameson and his historical take on Postmodernism as the cultural superstructure of capitalism. He also analyses the spatiality created by capitalism in particular cities and buildings.
All of these authors have been very significant for architecture and the social sciences. However I think there are still some questions that remain unanswered. For instance, what is the role of architecture and the built environment in the reproduction of the existing social system? What should be the role of architecture in facing major instabilities and injustices in the cities produced by capital? What are the disciplinary and concrete effects of the dynamics of capital in the field of architecture and its practice?
Main Research Questions: What have been the different modes of relation between architecture and capitalism throughout the twenty century?
The main research objectives are: Analyze and evaluate the different modes of relation between architecture and the overall reality of capitalism in the second half of the twenty century. Evaluate the effects of global capitalism on the education and the practice of architecture. Study the social consequences of this relation on the built environment using concrete examples. Further develop the various theories of the spatial logic of capitalist accumulation into the particular field of architecture. Contribute to the formation of a program for contemporary architecture that challenges the dominant practices of architecture under capitalism.
These objectives pose challenging research questions, such as: What have been the different modes of relation between architecture and capitalism throughout the twenty century? What are the different programs with which architecture has responded to the major changes in capitalist development? What are the possibilities for developing a vision of architecture that resists and challenges the built environment that capitalism has produced? What prevents architecture and architects from taking an active and conscious participation in social and spatial transformation?
This research would serve to develop a more socially aware and committed architectural practice as well as critical of the dominant practices within capitalist societies. Its theoretical value would be filling some of the gaps in the history and theory of architecture with respect to its relation to the wider phenomena of capitalist accumulation and to follow and develop the theories that other disciplines have established in this matter.
Methodology: Theory and Drawing as means for research
The methodology will consist in the critical study and appraisal of different theoretical and practical approaches on this matter. The main methodology will be the scientific method (qualitative-experimental), though other research methodologies will converge with it, such as the following: the dialectical method in the versions of Marx, Lefebvre, Harvey and Jameson; research through conceptual drawing and theoretical projects as seen in the works of Lebbeus Woods, Bernard Tschumi, Daniel Libeskind, Peter Eisenman, John Hejduk, Raimund Abraham, Alexander Brodsky, Franco Purini.
The scientific method will be used as a backdrop that will guarantee the consistency of the thesis. Nevertheless, the research will develop this method through an architectural perspective, which is conducive to a more projective bias. The dialectical method is very wide and prone to misunderstandings due to its free application on different fields of knowledge. Even so, I think this approach is essential to study the built environment in all its complexity, including many interrelated processes that take shape on the city and their way of converging in different spatial practices. Drawing methodologies will be explored as a way to research by non-textual means. I think drawing is of vital importance for any architect, and that it’s a valid method of research within the discipline. The techniques proposed will be based on the nature and development of the research, yet it will consist mainly on free-hand theoretical drawings exploring through its inner logic the main research questions and hypotheses.
The ethical scope of the research has to do mainly with the development of an ethical perspective within the wide spectre of architecture and politics. This positioning is also political in the ontological sense, because it defines an ‘ought to be’ for architecture, which takes the form of a program as a set of (ethical-political) rules. But this ethics is not a purely abstract matter, it takes form in the fundamental relationship discussed early on this research proposal: architecture as mediation between human beings and the world. So, all ethical issues arising from the inner contradictions of capitalism and its consequences on architecture and the built environment will have to be measured against the background of this ethical perspective as it will be developed through the thesis.
Index (provisional structure) = 1 week
Introduction (provisional) = 1 week
Problematization = 2 weeks
Hypotheses = 2 week
Conceptual framework = 6 weeks
Methodology = 2 weeks
Analysis / Development (writing) = 8 weeks
Analysis / Development (drawing) = 4 weeks (simultaneous with writing’s last 4 weeks)
Conclusions (summary) = 1 week
Index (definitive) = 1 week
Introduction (definitive) = 1 week
Total = 29 weeks
Audience and/or User Community
This research would benefit the academic and professional realms of architecture by further developing a method of analysis of architecture and society. Furthermore it would contribute to solve some of the issues in the day to day practice of architecture by first submitting this realm to a radical critique and then proposing alternative developments. The methodological utility would be to develop an effective and relational instrument of analysis of the built environment in general and architecture in particular, with an emphasis on the processes of production of architecture.
Summary and Conclusions
As has been shown, the proposed research project aims to fill a gap in architectural knowledge through scientific and dialectical procedures. But I would argue that this task cannot be accomplished solely through a multidisciplinary approach. First of all, we have to be aware of architecture own procedures and methodologies, only then we can submit them to a critical appraisal coming perhaps from other fields of knowledge. Architecture has never been immune to the dynamics of capitalist accumulation and avoiding this issue through sophisticated symbolic or rhetorical procedures will not make it vanish, nor its constant effects on education and practice. Perhaps architecture should tackle first the full meaning of the notion of project before any attempt to continue its endless race to innovation. Maybe is time to consciously project our future instead of unconsciously reproducing a world in which the possible is deemed utopian and searching for an alternative to capitalist realism is viewed as impossible.
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