Totality and Total Architecture

Lebbeus Woods' Imaginary Architecture Abstract

By “totality” is understood a unified, homogeneous whole — one which is more or less global in concept.  A totality is unified because it is a single whole to which all of its constituent parts belong.  Phrased differently, it is the universal together with all of its particular instantiations.  Not every whole is a totality.  For example, one can imagine a whole which encompasses fundamentally disparate, heterogeneous elements.  A totality, by contrast, is internally homogeneous, in the sense that all of the parts that belong to its whole are unified according to either a common principle or common set of principles which then governs them absolutely.  As such, these parts would all share a substantial similarity.  Finally, a totality is global or international in its concept in the sense that, even if it is limited empirically at a given historical moment, it nevertheless strives to expand itself outward, to draw that which is not itself into its fold.  It is, at least logically, not localizable.

Miziakin's poster predicting the global annihilation of the contradiction between town and countryside (1923)

Despite all its metaphysical trappings, the concept of “totality” (and its enshrinement as a category of thought by figures like Kant and Fichte) is historically linked to the rise of capitalist society and the widespread rationalization that came with it.  This new form of society, unlike those that came before it, presented itself as “a general whole that is substantially homogeneous — a totality.”[1]  In Kant’s table of categories, this concept of totality belonged to the sphere of quantitative judgments.  “[A]llness (totality) is nothing other than plurality considered as a unity,” explained Kant.[2]  Fichte, who initially saw his own work as merely an extension of Kant’s, characterized totality in much the same way.  He simply substituted the notion of plurality with “the relative” and unity with “the absolute.”[3]  For both thinkers, however, the category was a cautionary one.  In general, it indicated the transgressive application of a pure concept of the understanding beyond the limitations of actual experience, the attempt to dialectically extend its use into the “absolute totality” of all possible experience (which is never given).[4]  Against both of these previous thinkers, however, Hegel upheld the legitimacy of the concept of totality and its rational application with reference to reality:

The particular has one and the same universality as the other particulars to which it is related.  The diversity of these particulars, because of their identity with the universal, is as such at the same time universal; it is totality. — The particular, therefore, does not only contain the universal but exhibits it also through its determinateness; accordingly the universal constitutes a sphere that the particular must exhaust.  This totality, inasmuch as the determinateness of the particular is taken as mere diversity, appears as completeness.[5]

Chartist meeting, Kensington commons

According to Lukács, Marx took up this thread of Hegel’s thought in a polemical fashion, again “turning it on its head,” so to speak.  In so doing, Lukács argued, Marx discovered the rational core that could be salvaged from the Hegelian system of idealism.[6]  Marx understood this novel concept of “totality” as originating not from an ingenious invention that spontaneously took place in the heaven of ideas, but as an ideological reflection of the new material processes that constituted social reality.  That is to say, the category of totality described by philosophers like Kant, Fichte, and Hegel comprehended in thought the new social formation that was emerging all around them.[7]  For this was precisely how Marx conceptualized bourgeois society toward the end of Capital, Volume 3:

[T]he capitalist process of production is a historically specific form of the social production process in general.  This…is both a production process of the material conditions of existence for human life, and a process, proceeding in specific economic and historical relations of production, that produces and reproduces these relations of production themselves, and with them the bearers of this process, their material conditions of existence, and their mutual relationships, i.e. the specific economic form of their society.  For the totality of these relationships which the bearers of this production have towards nature and one another, the relationships in which they produce, is precisely society, viewed according to its economic structure.[8]

The Integral Magnitude of the Capitalist Totality

Marx reproached the vulgar economists specifically for their failure to conceive society as such a historic and material totality.[9]  The exact implications of this totalizing aspect of capitalism have been the subject of much interpretation within the history of Western Marxism.[10]  In Lukács’ account, “[t]he category of totality [indicates] the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts.”[11]  Unlike the way it was later conceptualized by Adorno,[12] the constituent parts that make up the whole of the social totality were not all identical to one another.[13]  Importantly, for Lukács totality was the ultimate category of analysis for describing capitalist society.  To use his terms, “totality permeates the spatio-temporal character of phenomena.”[14]  With reference to the spatiotemporal dialectic of capitalism established earlier, totality might be seen as its overarching principle.

Proposed Sketch for Industrialized Magnitogorsk (1932)

Postone, while accepting Adorno’s assertion that the totality of social relations remains alienated under capitalism, likewise rejected the idea that this totality could ever successfully purged of its contradictory or nonidentical elements.[15]  However it is formulated, however, the totalizing character of capitalist society — its Weberian tendency to integrate and rationalize everything it encompasses — reappeared in the architectural ideology of the modernists.  As Tafuri noted, this mirrored attempts in modern sociology to consciously administrate and reorder social behavior.[16]  The avant-garde thus unconsciously affirmed the social totality:

Salvation lies no longer in “revolt” but in surrender without discretion.  Only a humanity that has absorbed and made its own the ideology of work, that does not persist in considering production and organization something other than itself or simply instruments, that recognizes itself to be part of a comprehensive plan and as such fully accepts that it must function as the cogwheels of a global machine: only this humanity can atone for its “original sin.”  And this sin is not in having created a system of means without knowing how to control the “revolt of the objects” against their inventor, as Löwith and the young Lukács understood Marxist alienation.  This sin consists instead in man’s “diabolical” insistence on remaining man, in taking his place as an “imperfect machine” in a social universe in which the only consistent behavior is that of pure silence.[17]

Georgii Krutikov's proposal for "The Flying City" (1928)

This sentiment, which Tafuri attributes to modernist architecture, clearly carries Taylorist overtones.  It almost seems to have been presaged by the sociologist Georg Simmel in a passage from The Philosophy of Money.  This is perhaps not a coincidence.  Simmel was, after all, a major influence on the young Lukács.  The congruence of Tafuri’s description of the modernists’ position with the following lines from Simmel is uncanny, however:

The organization of the factory and the construction of machinery demonstrates daily to the industrial worker that efficient movements and effects can be accomplished with absolute accuracy and that personal and other internal disturbances must be avoided at all costs.  This attainment of ends by a transparent and controllable mechanism paves the way for a social ideal that seeks to organize the social totality with the supreme rationalism of the machine and the exclusion of all private impulses.[18]

William Craig - City Dialectics of Totality and Infinity (urbanistic project at Columbia University)

We shall accept — at least provisionally — Tafuri’s claim, and proceed to delineate the concept of a “total architecture.”  A “total architecture” here means a system of spatial organization arranged so as to constitute a totality.[19]  Space within it is organized both formally (into different shapes) and materially (through the use of various constructive materials).  It is thus uniformly constructed out of certain standardized parts and materials.  A total architecture is by necessity an artificial system; such arrangements do not arise in nature.  “Nature presents itself to us as a chaos,” recorded Le Corbusier.  “The vault of the heavens, the shapes of lakes and seas, the outlines of hills.  The actual scene which lies before our eyes, with its kaleidoscopic fragments and its vague distances, is a confusion.”[20]

The Socialist City of Moscow (1931)

Construction within the totality is determined by its overarching principles.  So while a totalizing architectural scheme would prefer to build in purely abstract space, a sort of Newtonian grid, it can remain systematic even when it is forced to deal with the messiness of empirical reality.  For example, a totally functional, utilitarian architecture may call for an inland building to be rooted at every point in an earthen foundation to ensure stability, while it might demand for a coastal structure that it be built on stilts to anticipate the rising tide.  Though two physically discrete structures would be produced, they would all the same proceed from a single organizing principle — that of utility.

Le Corbusier's aptly-titled "Cartesian towers" from his Ville Radieuse proposal (1931)

Here the totalizing impulse in modernist architecture is realigned with “the ideology of the plan,” mentioned earlier in connection with the spatial homogeneity of modernist architecture imparted to it by capitalism’s spatiotemporal dialectic.[21]  “A plan demands the most active imagination.  It also demands the most severe discipline,” wrote Le Corbusier.  “The plan is what determines everything; it is the decisive moment.”  In this formulation, the plan assumes the position of the organizing principle (or set of principles) that “determines everything,” from the smallest pieces to the greater whole.  Or as Le Corbusier continued to explain: “The plan carries within it a determined primary rhythm…with consequences extending from the simplest to the most complex on the same law.  Unity of law is the law of a good plan: a simple law that is infinitely modulable.”[22]  Thus, with the modulability of the law, it can be applied to diverse situations while maintaining a unified logic.  Again, this serves to confirm the example of the functional principle mentioned above.

Lebbeus Woods's urbanistic model

Just as a total architecture retains its integral character in spite of modifications that respond to geographical and climatic circumstances, so also does it endure modification over time.  The crucial question here becomes the way that change occurs.  For a total architectural system can possess either a rigid or fluid nature, depending on its principles.  In order to maintain its integrity, however, a fluid architectural totality must include laws that guide its development and dictate the manner in which it incorporates new elements.  Innovation would take place within the totality, but only along preordained lines.  Change within such a system thus resembles a sort of controlled plasticity, instead of a haphazard accumulation of structures from different historical epochs.  The last thing the modernists wanted was another Moscow — “the Moscow blob,” as the architect Vladimir Semenov called it in 1930, “a historically generated conglomeration of factories, buildings, streets, and green spaces.”[23]

Lebbeus Woods' "Fractures"

Viewed from above, a realized total architecture at any stage of its expansion would hence almost appear as some kind of gigantic fractal — that is, a geometric shape whose integral parts reflect the pattern of the whole.  Upon magnification, one would discover this pattern repeated at an ever smaller scale, down to its tiniest details.  Each part would thereby constitute a microcosm, in the strict sense, of the total architectural system.

Ludwig Hilberseimer's terrifying Hochhausstadt proposal (1925)

Total architecture is, finally, global in concept.  From the first it aspires to be world architecture, regardless of whether its practitioners are fully cognizant of this fact.  It is not an architecture for only this or that culture specifically; total architecture excludes no traditional configuration from its laws.  On the contrary, these laws require complete generalization.  “[T]he world of constructive forms knows no native country,” wrote Hannes Meyer in 1928, shortly after succeeding Gropius as the director of Bauhaus.  “It is the expression of an international attitude in architecture.  Internationality is the privilege of the period.”[24]  Within any individual country, a totalizing architecture can therefore never be content with its embodiment in a single building, or any number of buildings in isolation from one another.  Nor can it accept even a whole neighborhood built according to its principles.  It seeks realization at the level of the city, the region, the nation — and will not rest until it wraps the globe.


[1] Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination.  Pg. 72.

Postone further indicates: “[A] peculiar characteristic of capitalism is that it exists as a homogeneous totality that can be unfolded from a single structuring principle [capital].”  Pg. 140.

[2] Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason.  Pg. 215.

[3] Though the terms used are different, we can easily see how the meaning is the same.  The plurality of parts would only be relative components of the whole, while the unity of the whole would be absolute compared with its parts: “[T]he absolute and relative grounds for determination of the totality must be one and the same; the relation must be absolute, and the absolute must be nothing more than a relation.”  Fichte, Johann Gottlieb.  The Science of Knowledge.  Translated by Peter Heath and John Lachs.  (Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY: 1982).  Pg. 181.

[4] Thus is the substance of Kant’s critique of pure reason: “We easily see that pure reason has no other aim than the absolute totality of synthesis on the side of conditions (whether they are conditions of inherence, dependence, or concurrence), and that reason has nothing to do with absolute completeness from the side of the conditioned.”  Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason.  Pg. 407.

[5] Hegel, The Science of Logic.  Pg. 534.

[6] “[Marx] measured Hegel’s philosophy by the yardstick he had himself discovered and systematically elaborated, and he found it wanting…Marx’s critique of Hegel is the direct continuation and extension of the criticism that Hegel himself leveled at Kant and Fichte.  So it came about that Marx’s dialectical method continued what Hegel had striven for but had failed to achieve in a concrete form.”  Lukács, “What is Orthodox Marxism?” Pg. 17.

[7] In this way, Hegel was perhaps not wrong in writing that “philosophy…is its own time comprehended in thought.”  Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right.  Pg. 21.

[8] Marx, Karl.  Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 3.  Translated by David Fernbach.  (Penguin Books.  New York, NY: 1991).  Pg. 957.  My emphasis.

[9] “In speaking of the social point of view, i.e. in considering the total social product, which includes both the reproduction of the social capital and individual consumption, it is necessary to avoid falling into the habits of bourgeois economics, as imitated by Proudhon, i.e. to avoid looking at things as if a society based on the capitalist mode of production lost its specific historical and economic character when considered en bloc, as a totality.”  Marx, Capital, Volume 2.  Pg. 509.

[10] Jay, Martin.  Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to Habermas.  (University of California Press.  Los Angeles, CA: 1984).

[11] Lukács, Georg.  “The Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg.”  History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics.  Translated by Rodney Livingstone.  (The MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1972).  Pg. 27.

[12] “Society’s own concept says that men want their relations to be freely established; but no freedom has been realized in their relations to this day, and society remains as rigid as it is defective.  All qualitative moments whose totality might be something like a structure are flattened in the universal barter relationship.”  Adorno, Theodor.  Negative Dialectics.  Translated by E.B. Ashton.  (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd.  New York, NY: 1973).  Pg. 88.

To be fair, Adorno did not believe that bourgeois society eliminated all its internal contradictions by reducing them to abstractly identical parts.  He understood that the social totality appeared to humanity in an alienated and alienating form under capitalism.

[13] “[T]he category of totality does not reduce its various elements to an undifferentiated uniformity, to identity.  The apparent independence and autonomy which they possess in the capitalist system of production is an illusion only in so far as they are involved in a dynamic dialectical relationship with one another and can be thought of as the dynamic dialectical aspects of an equally dynamic and dialectical whole.”  Lukács, “What is Orthodox Marxism?” Pgs. 12-13.

[14] Lukács, “What is Orthodox Marxism?” Pg. 23.

[15] “[T]he alienated social totality is not, as Adorno for example would have it, the identity that incorporates the socially nonidentical in itself so as to make the whole a noncontradictory unity, leading to the universalization of domination.  To establish that the totality is intrinsically contradictory is to show that it remains an essentially contradictory identity of identity and nonidentity, and has not become a unitary identity that has totally assimilated the nonidentical.”  Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination.  Pg. 185.

[16] “What the theories of Weber, Max Scheler, or Mannheim sanctioned as a ‘necessary’ shift of method in the structure of intellectual work, what Keynes and later Schumpeter lead back to the terms of an economic plan which presupposes a highly articulated functioning of capital in its totality, and what the ideologies of the avant-garde introduced as a proposal for social behavior, was the transformation of traditional ideology into utopia, as a prefiguration of an abstract final moment of development coincident with a global rationalization, with a positive realization of the dialectic.”  Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia.  Pg. 62.

[17] Ibid., pg. 74.

[18] Simmel, Georg.  The Philosophy of Money.  Translated by Tom Bottomore, David Frisby, and Kaethe Mengelberg.  (Routledge.  New York, NY: 2004).  Pg. 354.  Originally published in 1907.

[19] Our concept of “total architecture” is loosely related to Walter Gropius’ identical phrase: “[A]n architect or planner worth the name must have a very broad and comprehensive vision indeed to achieve a true synthesis of a future community.  This we might call ‘total architecture.’”  Gropius, Walter.  “The Scope of Total Architecture.”  The Scope of Total Architecture.  (Harper & Row.  New York, NY: 1955).  Pg. 184.

[20] Le Corbusier, The City of Tomorrow and Its Planning.  Pgs. 18-19.

[21] See pages 73-76.

[22] Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture.  Pg. 118.

[23] Vladimir Semenov, quoted in Khan-Magomedov, Pioneers of Soviet Architecture.  Pg. 340.

[24] Hannes Meyer.  “Building.” Translated by Michael Bullock.  From Programs and Manifestoes on 20th-Century Architecture.  Edited by Ulrich Conrads.  (MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1970).  Pg. 119.  Originally written in 1928, in bauhaus, Year 2, № 4.

4 thoughts on “Totality and Total Architecture

  1. I’m currently reading Pier Vittorio Aureli’s “The possibility of an absolute architecture” and your essay reminded me Archizoom’s Non-Stop City. Aureli argues that this was not a project, but a critical utopia of absolute urbanization, a bringing of the spatial logic of capitalist accumulation to its logical extreme. I cannot help but wonder what is the political status of a total architecture. It seems to me that the concept can be applied in radically ambiguous ways.

    Furthermore, I think the universal character of a total architecture could refer critically to the universal character of the architectural project itself as opposed to design (I’m thinking in Kahn’s distinction between (universal) form and (particular) design. A kind of zero degree or ‘purely’ conceptual architecture stripped from functional, contextual, economic, and all contingent constraints, leaving just the essential aspect of an architectural proposition.

    • Patricio,

      I’ll have to check out that work by Aureli. In terms of the political character of a total architecture, you are correct to suspect that it is ambiguous.

      However, I should say that even though the totalizing impulse in modernist architecture reflects the totalizing dimension of capitalist accumulation, it tends to gravitate toward anti-capitalist regimes. Modernism in architecture cannot tolerate the anarchy of capitalist production, its combined and uneven development, and its resultant irregularities. Hence the initial affinity of most avant-garde architects with the ideas of socialism and communism.

      Despite my reservations about associating this “totalizing” quality inherent in capitalist society and architectural modernism with “totalitarian” ideology, I think that there is something to this. Though both the Nazi regime and Stalinist regime rejected modernist architecture, the totalizing tendency of modernism reappears in their monumentalist neoclassicism (which was quite different from the traditional architecture that came before).

      The problem, as I see it, is that we stand alienated from the social totality that we have produced (and continuously reproduce). It appears to us as something independent of our will. It rules us, rather than us ruling it.

      I’m not sure how the “zero degree” or “purely” conceptual architecture would play itself out. At least from the way that you describe it, as something wholly autonomous and unto itself, it would appear to be l’architecture pour l’architecture. It would not be bound to anything external to itself, such as utility, tradition, propaganda, etc.

      Some of the members of the Formalist school represented by the ASNOVA group in Russia seemed to approach this, though they did seek to relate these pure architectural forms to the psychological responses they provoked. Also, the Neoplasticist architecture advocated by Mondrian and the early Theo van Doesburg was not too far off from this. Likewise, the architectonen [архитектоны] of Malevich and Suetin were somewhat along the same lines.

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