Instrumentality, “habitability,” and the city

A critique of Pierre Bourdieu
and Michel de Certeau

Image: Detail from Seher Shah’s
Object Relic: Unité d’Habitation(2012)


Architecture is a tool for oppression and control.
Architecture is a tool for revolution and liberty.

— Nick Axel, “Manifesto for an architectural future”

Metaphors that liken architecture to a kind of “tool” for the transformation or perpetuation of society fall well short of their respective objects. The relationship is too crudely put. So when Axel instrumentalizes architecture by calling it a tool for “oppression and control” or “revolution and liberty,” he tacitly sets up a one-to-one correspondence (or some other ratio) between politics and the built world. Consciousness cannot be fabricated in such a ham-fisted manner, however. Though specific configurations of space may prove conducive to the development of definite patterns of behavior, sensibilities, and inclinations, prompting individuals to modify their practices to match a certain set of circumstances and conditions, this seldom amounts to more than banal habituation.

Rendering of Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation. Text: "Can architecture inhabit us as much as we see ourselves inhabiting it?" I am not so sure.

Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation. Text: Can architecture inhabit us as much as we see ourselves inhabiting it? I am not so sure.

Such habits and routines, insofar as they are thought to constitute a politics, supposedly crystallize within a habitus — a “type of environment” that engenders “systems of durable, transposable dispositions” amongst its inhabitants.[1] Intended as a way around the customary divisions within modern philosophy (between subject and object, structure and agency), the habitus is conceptualized as a kind of “immanent law, lex insita, laid down in each agent by his earliest upbringing, which is the precondition not only for the coordination of practices but also for practices of coordination.”[2] But what this thought-figure actually ends up doing is sidestep the most crucial issue: the instigation of political consciousness. Praxis is fractured into so many “practices,” politics reduced to micropolitical “acts of resistance,”[3] subjectivity deflated into a flaccid feeling of “agency.” All these accumulate until a sort of critical mass is reached, or so it is alleged, triggering a reflexive awareness of class interest. Still, the threshold marking the segue to this “awakening of consciousness” is never made clear.

The locus classicus for this line of thought, at least as it pertains to architecture and city life, remains the French Jesuit scholar Michel de Certeau’s treatment of “spatial practices” in The Practice of Everyday Life. In the famous chapter on walking in the city, de Certeau asked: “[W]hat spatial practices correspond …to…apparatuses that produce a disciplinary space?” Drawing on a couple motifs from Bourdieu and Foucault, he proposed to “follow out these multiform [spatial practices], resistance, tricky and stubborn procedures that elude discipline without being outside the field in which it is exercised, and…lead…to a theory of everyday practices, of lived space, of the disquieting familiarity of the city.”[4] Of course, the majority of the liberatory spatial practices elaborated by de Certeau occur in spite of architecture, or “functionalist totalitarianism,”[5] rather than because of it. Whether architecture or urbanism could ever function as a positive factor encouraging such habits is open to speculation; for de Certeau, they only provide a negative impetus. Architecture is for the most part viewed as a repressive device — “mathematical order imposed upon stone,” in Bataille’s hyperbolic phrase, “monumental productions grouping servile multitudes under their shadow, inspiring admiration and amazement, stasis and constraint” — with no emancipatory power to tell.[6] People seem to be liberated from architecture, not by architecture. Continue reading