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.

Building Brasilia, 1950s. Photo by Marcel Gautherot

Building Brasilia, 1950s. Photo by Marcel Gautherot

Whatever the case may be, the spatial practices de Certeau prescribed were meant to restore a lost sense of “habitability,” a closeness to one’s origins that was violently uprooted by the rapidly accelerating rate of urbanization that followed the Industrial Revolution. De Certeau’s response to the problems posed by the modern metropolis has an unmistakably Heideggerian ring about it, with its poetic call for the invention of new legends, stories, and superstitions in order to render the world livable again.[7] Romantic though it may be, there can be no denying the reality of the antagonisms hinted at in his analysis.[8] The ills plaguing the industrial city were myriad, diagnosed by a whole host of eminent social commentators: alienation (Marx), decadence (Nordau), criminality (Tarde), anomie (Durkheim), the blasé attitude (Simmel), the “lonely crowd” (Riesman). One could go on.

In order to counteract these pernicious effects, de Certeau recommended oppositional practices, quotidian gestures of resistance and dissent. He held fast to a belief in “authentic” popular undercurrents, floating somewhere “beneath the peasant ‘values’ proposed for the edification or curiosity of city-dwellers,” which had somehow survived commodification and might yet be reactivated against the forces that presently subdue them. As de Certeau put it in one particularly symptomatic passage:

[T]he…effective order of things…is subverted by just such “popular” tactics for their own ends, without any illusions as to their ultimate practical effects. Where dominating powers exploit the order of things, where ideological discourse represses or ignores it, tactics fool this order…Thereby the institution one is called to serve finds itself infiltrated by a style of social exchange, a style of technical invention, and a style of moral resistance — that is, an economy of the “gift” (generosities…), an aesthetic of “moves” or “strikes,” and an ethic of tenacity (ways to deny the established order any legitimacy).[9]

De Certeau’s characterization of these infiltrative “tactics” as mute forms of nonconformist ethics, aesthetics, and economics already indicates how unwilling he was to engage with the modern city at the level of politics, however. This is not to even mention their explicit designation as “styles,” which is enough cause for alarm as it is when it comes to architecture. Nor is this all. Still more puzzling is the idea that de Certeau would advise practitioners to pay no heed to the “ultimate practical effects” of their actions. As politics, this cannot be taken seriously. It would imply a kind of madcap indifference to the futility of one’s efforts, a rationalization of impotence as if this were a natural, and indeed desirable, state of affairs.

Symbols of modernity: Height and flight. The Hindenburg floats past the Empire State Building, 1932, over what Corbusier dubbed "the city of panic."

Symbols of modernity: height and flight. The Hindenburg floats past the Empire State Building (1932), over Corbu’s “city of panic,” New York


[1] Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice. (Cambridge University Press. New York, NY: ). Pg. 72.
[2] Ibid., pg. 81.
[3] Acts which are even “practicable” by social scientists, not just activists: “We can block this forced feeding [of the public by the media] by criticizing the words [they use], by helping non-professionals to equip themselves with specific weapons of resistance, so as to combat the effects of authority and the grip of television, which plays an absolutely crucial role.” Bordieu, Pierre. “Social scientists and the social movement.” Translated by Richard Nice. Acts of Resistance: Against the New Myths of Our Time. (Polity Press. Cambridge, England: 1998). Pg. 57.
[4] de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven F. Randall. (University of California Press. Los Angeles, CA: 1988). Pg. 96.
[5] Ibid., pg. 106.
[6] Bataille, Georges. “Architecture.” Translated by Michael Richardson. Essential Writings. (SAGE Publications, Inc. Thousand Oaks, CA: 1998). Pg. 38.
[7] de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life. Pgs. 107-110.
[8] “Even though this ‘poetic’ critique of ‘habitat’ and industrial space may appear to be a right-wing critique, nostalgic and atavistic.” Lefebvre, Henri. The Urban Revolution. Pg. 82.
[9] de Certeau, Michel. “On the oppositional practices of everyday life.” Translated by Carl Lovitt and Fredric Jameson. Social Text. (№ 3: Autumn, 1980). Pg. 4.

4 thoughts on “Instrumentality, “habitability,” and the city

  1. Pingback: Instrumentality, “habitability,” and the city | Research Material

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