The Social Production of Architecture (Draft)

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

By Patricio De Stefani

Conceptual Scheme for Chapter 4

Architecture as Mean of Production 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Architecture as Objective Ideology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

List of References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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