Note: This was my first seminar presentation at the University of Liverpool, Postgraduate Research Department, February 15th 2012.
Emancipatory Horizons: Architecture, Capitalism, and Radical Politics
By Patricio De Stefani
Structure: 31 slides, 15 minutes presentation, 5 minutes questions, 200 words abstract.
Architecture has always been immanently tied to social change, but also to social reproduction. Is an emancipatory practice of architecture still possible? This question cannot be answered without examine the relations between architecture and capitalism throughout the twentieth century. What prevents architecture from engaging in radical social and spatial transformation? To find out if architecture can still have a progressive function in our current conditions we have to unravel the elemental relation between architecture and capital. The aim is to determine the role of architecture in the reproduction of this social system. Concepts like value, commodity fetishism, landed property, and ground rent are crucial to understand the spatial logic of capitalist accumulation. This research will explore these theoretical issues through concrete historical examples that changed the course of architecture from a revolutionary perspective. First, it will look at the architecture of the great liberal-bourgeois revolution of the eighteenth century; Secondly, soviet architecture and its role in the Russian revolution; and thirdly, the radical techno-utopias of the sixties and their aftermath. Architecture needs to acknowledge its autonomy from the cities that capitalism has produced, but also its dependence on social relations of production, if it wishes to address radical change.
Keywords: Emancipation, Late Capitalism, Production of Architecture, Radical Politics, Revolution, Utopia
Introduction: The Possibility of an Emancipatory Architectural Practice
- Is an emancipatory practice of architecture still possible?
- Post-ideological architecture, pragmatism
- Relevance of the search for alternatives
- Temporal demands of capital circulation
- Spatial demands of capital circulation
The Architecture of Capital
- The elemental relation between architecture and capital (role of time-activity, role of space)
- The political dimension of a work of architecture (external interpretations, internal properties)
- The social production of architecture (forces of production, relations of production, contradictions between the two)
The Production of Architecture under Late Capitalism
- Bourgeois revolutionary architecture (relation to merchant capitalism, enlightenment, liberalism, neoclassicism)
- Radical soviet architecture and revolution (relation to monopoly capitalism, socialism and modernism)
- Negative utopias and the decline of architecture’s horizons (rise of neoliberalism, postmodernism)
- ‘Radical’ architecture and the reversal of utopia
- The reaffirmation of the human body and the materialist critique of architecture (phenomenological critique, materialist critique)
Conclusions: An Emancipatory Architecture?
- Reproduction (the limits of architecture under the laws of capital)
- Transformation (architecture and revolutionary social change)
- Emancipated architectural practice (autonomy)
Introduction: The Possibility of an Emancipatory Architectural Practice
1. The topic of this research arises from a long time concern with the concrete connections between architecture and social relations. In particular, the ways in which architecture reacts and internalises changes in society, but also the different functions that has assumed in the reproduction of a social system or else in its radical reshaping.
2. In the face of the rise of global capitalism and its increasing contradictions leading to ever greater crises on the one hand, and the demise of any feasible alternative by its neoliberal apologists, what should be the role of architecture in the cities produced by capital? After the decline of modern architecture along with the political ideals underpinning it, is an emancipatory practice of architecture still possible?
3. What prevents architecture from engaging in radical social and spatial transformation? I will argue that the post-cold war ideological climate and the so called postmodern cultural turn are just forms of manifestation of underlying contradictions at the core of the capitalist mode of production.
4. A real emancipation presupposes certain degree of autonomy and self-determination over the material conditions of life. It is the opposite of coercion and domination. To project is to throw ahead, to imagine the not-yet-real. Architecture is inherently driven by the desire to imagine possible worlds. Architecture is inherently utopian, but not necessarily emancipatory.
5. We can briefly define capitalism as a system in which production is organised through exchange in order to profit. Its basic law is the uninterrupted circulation, accumulation, and expansion of capital. SLIDE 8 There is a drive to constantly speed-up this circuit, overcoming spatial and human barriers, SLIDE 9 thus reducing the time between the initial investment and the realisation of profit. SLIDE 10
6. According to Marx, the secondary circuit of capital entails investment in the built environment. Under this circuit, landed property and architecture are part of the means of production, i.e. aids to the production of value in society –they are also known as fixed capital, due to their immobility in space. Also these are used to generate profit from rent, a system inherited from pre-capitalist forms of production commanded by the landowning classes.
7. When the drive to reduce spatial and temporal barriers comes into conflict with the drive to produce them, there is a potential blockage to circulation, thus producing a crisis and the subsequent devaluation of capital, including architecture. The only way to provisionally overcome this contradiction is by the geographical expansion of the system, but this entails expanding also the reach of crises to a global scale.
The Architecture of Capital
8. To find out if architecture can still have an active progressive function in our current conditions we have to unravel the elemental relation between architecture and capital. The aim would be to determine the role of architecture in the reproduction of this social system.
9. The study of the relations between architecture and capitalism has not been a major preoccupation for architectural theorists. Therefore, this research’s main sources arise first from the fields of knowledge that in my view, best explain the nature of both, capital and architecture.
10. These are: 1) the phenomenology of architecture as a field that attempts to construct an understanding of its fundamentals beyond historical considerations; 2) Marxist political economy, or historical materialism provides a frame for a scientific analysis of society through a dialectical method, focusing on processes of change, inner connections, and contradictions among social phenomena; 3) critical social theory as the key field in which relations between space and capital are found in such authors like Henri Lefebvre or David Harvey; 4) contemporary architectural theory, grouping the theoretical developments of architects, architectural critics, and architectural historians, mainly from the twentieth century.
The Elemental Relation between Architecture and Capital
11. Human labour is the activity that mediates our relation to nature as well to our human produced environment. The human body produces space through the mobilisation of raw materials and human energy. The temporal and spatial dimension of this activity is linked to the production of value in society through the transformation of raw materials into useful objects.
12. Human space does not directly produce value but it is rather a necessary condition for the production, exchange, and consumption of commodities. It plays a role among the productive forces of society. Its private appropriation for purposes of production-for-exchange arises only within capitalist society.
13. Because human space is both a product of labour and of institutional arrangements (i.e. an ideological superstructure), it is at the same time a force of production and a potential obstruction to the circulation and further accumulation of capital. Architecture itself becomes capital, and also becomes a barrier to the circulation of it, due to its fixity in space.
The Political Dimension of a Work of Architecture
14. I think that this dimension is internal or structural and only secondarily external or contingent. Political meaning or interpretation is a secondary and contingent phenomenon pertaining the ‘reading’ of a work. The political purpose or use of architecture is also contingent and conditioned by its historical context.
15. The political decision of architecture is rooted in the way it relates to existing reality, namely the city, and the way it relates to human action and practice. It is possible to take political action through architecture, but not as discourse, not as representation, but by internal changes in the process of its conception and realisation.
16. If the architectural project is an instrument inherently tied to the envisioning of a future, then it is always a matter of understanding this future as a transformation or else a reproduction of an existing reality. Architects are compelled to make a decision, and to define a position in the broad spectre between these two poles.
The Social Production of Architecture
17. The forces of production are a combination of human labour power and means of production (technology, broadly speaking), in order to produce commodities. Architecture is both part of the forces of production (as means) and a product of them (as commodity).
18. On the other hand, the relations of production are the social relations between individuals and classes in the course of production. Development of the forces of production depends on the continuous evolving of these relations, which are essentially political, in the sense that they attempt to manage the conflict about how to better articulate the relationships among human beings.
19. However, the classes who own the means of production and the products of labour seek to ‘solidify’ its status by the creation of institutional and property arrangements. Continuous evolving of the relations of production is threatened by the stability of these institutions, thus preventing further development of production and causing a crisis.
20. Being part of the forces as well as the relations of production, human space and architecture are the locus of the contradictions between them. In space these contradictions seem to increase.
The Production of Architecture under Late Capitalism
21. What are the different programmes with which architecture has responded to the major changes in capitalist development? I will look at three historical moments in which architects attempted to play a revolutionary role through their work.
Bourgeois Revolutionary Architecture
22. To what extent we could say that eighteenth century European architecture played a specific role in the rise of the revolution?
Radical Soviet Architecture and the Russian Revolution
23. What was the role played by architecture in the development of the revolution and its aftermath? How were the contradictions developed between the material reality of architecture at that time and the revolutionary process?
Negative Utopias and the Decline of Architecture’s Horizons
24. What was the role of architecture in the rise of late capitalism, and neoliberalism in particular?
25. If we understand postmodernism as the cultural form taken by late capitalism, SLIDE 26 how architecture was affected by these dominant ideology and culture?
‘Radical’ Architecture and the Reversal of Utopia
26. Since the 1970s, architectural discourses have been centred on how to overcome the failures of the modern movement, often through radical aesthetic experiments. SLIDE 28 This lead to a general depoliticisation of architects, ranging from populist stances to formal autonomy: architects didn’t want anything to do with politics. After the great utopias, we are left only with empty architecture reinforcing the status quo.
27. Moral efforts focusing on sustainability and the like only seem to further avoid this history of defeat. Following the mainstream postpolitical motto that dominated during the 1990s, architecture turned into an ideological and rhetorical device incapable of delivering a critical and politically committed practice when confronting reality.
The Reaffirmation of the Human Body and the Materialist Critique of Architecture
Facing these current conditions, I propose a double critical analysis:
28. The human body in action is not merely a datum to take into account, not merely reducible to ergonomics or functions. The organic constitution of the body, with its reach, performance, and capacities, is at the core of architecture. First, because it is the direct producer of it, and second, given that we can understand architecture as the inscription of social relations in space and time, thus as an extension of the body.
29. Mainstream idealist analyses of architecture, in which various ‘ideas’ embedded in buildings are seen as the key determining factor, must be turned upon their heads. A critique of this argument through a materialist analysis is necessary if we wish to address the social production of architecture and its possibilities to be a material force of radical social and spatial change.
30. Through the combined critique of phenomenology, historical materialism, and also critical theory, architecture can be pulled out of its long time idealist dreams of radicalism which inevitably fell short when confronting the powerful and coercive laws of capitalism, thus prescribing any attempt to address critical resistance or social transformation.
Conclusions: An Emancipatory Architecture?
31. Architecture has always been immanently tied to social change, but also to social reproduction. The possibility for challenging the reproduction of the capitalist production of architecture lies not outside but within the discipline and its particular methods.
32. Human activity can always change the purpose of architecture towards different social and political ends, but it cannot change its inherent structure, hence an emancipatory architectural practice would centre on these formal properties rather than endorse architecture with an explicit political meaning.
33. Architecture has to both accept and negate the reality of the city in order to engage in radical social and spatial transformation. Can architecture play a role in social change? What would be this role and how it would be played out?
List of Images on Slides
01-02 Alexander Brodsky, Vanishing Points 3, 1999
03 Jan Vredeman de Vries, Perspective, Leiden, 1604-5
04 Tuca Vieira, Paraisópolis and Morumbi, Sao Paulo #1 series, Brazil, 2005
05 Peter Guenzel, If you want to change society don’t build anything, London, 2005
06 Ludwig Hilberseimer, Hochhausstadt (Highrise City), North-South Street, 1924
07 David Harvey, The Paths of Capital Flows, The Limits To Capital, p. 408, 1982
08 Edward Burtynsky, Highway #1, Los Angeles, California, USA, 2003
09 Edward Burtynsky, Manufacturing #17, Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, 2005
10 Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent II Diptychon, 2001
11 Edward Burtynsky, Suburbs #2, North Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, 2007
13 Robert and Shana Parkeharrison, Turning the Spring, Architect’s Brother Series, 2000
12 Edward Burtynsky, Fisher Body Plant #1, Detroit, Michigan, USA, 2008
14 Edward Burtynsky, Manufacturing # 10 a & b, Cankun Factory, Xiamen City, China, 2005
15 Superstudio, Continuous movement, Motorway, 1969
16 Boris Iofan, The Palace of the Soviets, Competition Entry, 1933
17 Jeremy Bentham, Panopticon Design, c. 1787 © UCL
18a Eadweard Muybridge, Motion study, 1870
18b Francis Picabia, Daughter Born without Mother, 1916-17
18c Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup, Detail Campbell’s Soup Tomato, 1968
19 Edward Burtynsky, Suburbs #3, with quarry, North Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, 2007
20 WAI, Battle of the megastructures: New Babylon as the Southdale Center, 2011
21a Claude-Nicolas Ledoux, Ideal House, 1770
21b Étienne-Louis Boullée, Cénotaphe de Turenne, 1782
21c Étienne-Louis Boullée, Temple of Death, Interior, 1795
22a Moisei Ginzburg and Ignaty Milinis, Narkmomfin Building, 1928-1932
22b Iakov Chernikhov, Architectural Fantasies, 1925-33
22c Nikolai Ladovsky, Architectural appearance of communal house, 1920
23a Superstudio, The Continuous Monument Project, New York, 1969
23b Superstudio, The Continuous Monument, 1969
24a Constant, New Babylon, Hagende sector (hanging sector), 1960
24b Conseil pour le maintien des occupations, Abolition de la Societe de Classe, Paris, 1968
25 Archizoom Associati, No-stop city, cover, 1969
26 Archizoom Associati, No-stop city, 1969
27 Aldo Rossi, Architettura Assassinata, 1974
28a Site Architecture, Best Store, Notch Shworoom, Sacramento, CA, 1977
28b Kengo Kuma, M2 Building, Kinuta, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo, Japan, 1991
28c Daniel Libeskind, Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, Royal Ontario Museum Extension, 2002-7
28d Zaha Hadid Architects, Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Centre, Exterior Perspective, 2007
29 Juan Borchers, Extension Arquitectonica (Architectural Extension), 1975
30 Raimund Abraham, The Ledoux Exercise, Education of an Architect, p. 16-17, 1988
31 Peter Guenzel, If you want to change society don’t build anything, London, 2005
Aureli, Pier Vittorio. The Project of Autonomy: Politics and Architecture Within and Against Capitalism. New York, Buell Center/Forum Project, Princeton Architectural Press, 2008.
Borchers, Juan. Institución Arquitectónica. Santiago, Andres Bello, 1968.
Harvey, David. The Urbanization of Capital. Oxford, Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1985.
Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1991.
Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume I). Mineola, NY, Dover Publications Inc., 2011.
Stites, Richard. Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution. Oxford University Press, New York, 1989.
Tafuri, Manfredo. Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development. London, MIT Press, 1999.
Van der Laan, Hans. Architectonic Space: Fithteen Lessons on the Disposition of the Human Habitat. Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1983.
Van Schaik, Martin; Mácel, Otaker (Eds.). Exit Utopia: architectural provocations, 1956-1976. London, Prestel, 2005.
 See: Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism or The cultural logic of late capitalism. London, Verso, 1992.
 See: Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich. Manifesto of the Communist Party. In: Marx/Engels Selected Works, Vol. One, Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1969. Accessed December 10, 2011. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf
 Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume I). Mineola, NY, Dover Publications Inc., 2011.
 See: Harvey, David. The Urbanization of Capital. Oxford, Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1985.
 See: Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (Volume II). Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1956. Accessed December 10, 2011. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Capital-Volume-II.pdf
 See: Harvey, David. The Urbanization of Capital
 See: Marx, Karl. Capital. Chapter 7: The Labour Process and the Process of producing Surplus-Value
 Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Oxford, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1991. Chapter 5: Contradictory Space. p. 321-349.
 See: Harvey, David. The Urbanization of Capital. Chapter 2: The Geography of Capitalist Accumulation.
 See: Aureli, Pier Vittorio. The possibility of an absolute architecture. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2011.
 Ibid. Chapter 1: Toward the Archipelago: Defining the Political and the Formal in Architecture.
 See: Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1859. Accessed December 10, 2011. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/Marx_Contribution_to_the_Critique_of_Political_Economy.pdf
 Ibid. See also: Harman, Chris. History, myth and Marxism. In: Rees, John (Ed.). Essays on Historical Materialism. London, Bookmark Publications Ltd, 1998.
 See: Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Chapter 5: Contradictory Space.
 See: Borchers, Juan. Institución Arquitectónica. Santiago, Andres Bello, 1968. Also: Van der Laan, Hans. Architectonic Space: Fithteen Lessons on the Disposition of the Human Habitat. Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1983.
 See: Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich. The German Ideology. Progress Publishers, 1968. Accessed December 10, 2011. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/Marx_The_German_Ideology.pdf