Architecture and politics

“Architecture as politics is by now such an exhausted myth that it is pointless to waste anymore words on it,” sighed Manfredo Tafuri at the outset of his magnum opus, The Sphere and the Labyrinth (1980). Despite Tafuri’s dismissive gesture, many today still insist that architecture possesses considerable political agency. Personally, I’m more inclined to agree with Tafuri. While it would be mistaken to regard architecture and politics as totally unrelated, the precise nature of their interconnection is not at all what most advocates of architecture’s political role seem to think.

And so, without reopening this discussion wholesale, I think there are some basic clarifications that must be made before issuing any judgment about their relationship to architecture.

Namely, what is “politics”? Before one determines what architecture is or isn’t, the predicates attached to it must themselves be clarified. It’s bad enough that architecture is subsumable into practically any ontology (though I’m generally wary of ontological inquiries, but use it here in a loose sense). One may of course declare: “Architecture is X,” or “Architecture is Y.” If they’re feeling apophatic, the procedure is more or less the same, except this time following the via negativa: “Architecture is ~X,” or “Architecture is ~Y.”

For if any old thing qualifies as “politics,” then of course architecture would be “political.” As long as it were anything at all, it’d be political.

13 thoughts on “Architecture and politics

  1. Lebbeus Woods had pretty clear ideas about this (is that him I see in the background of your blog, or an antecedent?). Of course politics is any old thing and any old thing is political, so it becomes about how you decide to engage, architecturally. For Woods architecture was a constructive, anarchist’s tool for opening up the processes of engagement with the built environment. But of course he only drew it. The decision not to build was a clear political statement, in arguing that building was always a political act and if you don’t agree with the processes of building, you shouldn’t build. Any old thing becomes every old thing, which is the problem. Its not what you do, its the way that you do it….

  2. Hi Ross Love your blog. I am the President of the Art Deco & Modernism Society, based in Melbourne Australia with members all around the world. We publish a quarterly journal and I recently wrote an article on the Russians and Germans facing off in Paris 1937. If you would like me to send you a copy, send your postal address to and I will put one in the post. regards Robin

    • I find the connection you posit between Lebbeus Woods’ blasted cityscapes and the squats, Temporary Autonomous Zones, and assorted encampments of the late 1990s and 2011 tenuous at best. Perhaps it’s just me, but I prefer Woods’ resolute pessimism in the face of historical and societal regression to a neo-anarchist optimism that finds some positive potential in these fleeting, ad hoc architectural assemblages. For example, the following passage from Woods is almost Adornian, even Luxemburgesque, in its appraisal of the barbarism of our times:

      The current regression of society is worrisome, if not alarming. Recent history warns us how quickly a civilized human community can revert to barbarism, committing terrible atrocities, such as genocide and mass destruction — through war or escalating acts of terrorism — in the name of political, moral and religious righteousness.

      Woods did ultimately succumb to a kind of hopelessness, resignation in the truest sense of the word, when he advocated individual, isolated efforts to reverse the reactionary onslaught of “recent history.”[A]ll we can do,” he wrote, “is work within our own domains — however small or large they may be, in whatever ways we are most adept — to reverse the slide backwards toward barbarism. In the end, this may not be enough, but the earnest work of many, in the spheres where they exercise some influence — is the only hope to counter the reckless indifference of the powerful few.” Still, his decision not to build in a conservative epoch was a laudable one. As I’ve said before, architecture in an apolitical age is a dead thing.

      • You are quite right in that grand politics and for that matter grand architecture has utterly failed us, certainly in the UK price per sq metre is king of all, but I do feel in spite of this evident hopelessness, the rebirth of a kind of naive vernacular, be that twee micro houses or off grid living is a sign of hope for architecture of the everyday, an architecture not grounded in tangled words or urban planning, but one borne of designing for living no matter what the positive or negative circumstance. Architecture is social, without people buildings are merely objects, humans are involved, thus whether people like it or not we are political beings and architecture is political even if it chooses to reject that notion (a cheap argument I know!) and people don’t like that indication.

        Oh, because an ‘assemblage’ is simple does not indicate it is barbaric. I don’t think Woods ascribed to that Modernist notion of ordered triumph over reality, his greatest projects instead acted as devices for purely thinking about building. you are also right in not building I think he succeeded where many architects of the generation I incidentally studied have become corrupted by money/ reality. his teaching instead sowed diversive seeds. Perhaps the role should commit professional suicide and accept its ego is its weakness?

        As an other aside your forthcoming book sounds very intriguing, it’s a fascinating period of turmoil, destruction and creation.

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