A response to Quilian Riano
Quilian Riano has written up a brief piece, “Design as a Political Act,” over at Quaderns in which he responds in passing to some critical remarks I made about his comments in a recent event review and further contextualizes what he meant by his contention that “all architecture is political.”
Riano explains that this remark is not only intended as a statement of fact (though he goes on to maintain its factuality, with a few minor qualifications) but also as a corrective to the formalistic (mis)education most architects receive in the course of their training. He lays much of the blame for this at the feet of the architect Peter Eisenman, whose post-functionalist perspective disavows any possible political role for design. In this, Riano is doubtless on the right track in his skepticism toward Eisenman’s views. The oldest ideology on the books, after all, is that which most adamantly insists on its apolitical or non-ideological character.
Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel that Riano overcompensates in issuing this corrective. To claim that all design is political is no more accurate than to claim that design isn’t political at all. In either case, the counterclaim expresses an abstract, contentless universality — almost in the same manner that, for Hegel in his Science of Logic, an ontological plenum (where everything’s filled in) and an ontological void (where nothing’s filled in) are conceptually identical. Žižek, whose interview with Vice magazine Riano cites, would probably appreciate this analogy. Seemingly opposite claims, by remaining at this level of abstraction, are equidistant from reality. Clearly, Riano has “bent the stick too far in the other direction,” as the saying goes.
It’s an odd position to be in, coming to the defense of a figure one generally finds unsympathetic, but whose work is being criticized unjustly. So it is with someone like Eisenman. Here I’m reminded of something Douglas Murphy said to me a couple months back. Murphy, who was unsparingly critical of Eisenman in his debut, The Architecture of Failure, told me he’d recently “found [him]self…defending Peter Eisenman, reactionary old windbag though he is, against charges that he (and he alone!) ruined architectural education in the last 30 years.” Eisenman is not so much the cause as the effect of the depoliticization of architecture.
Acknowledging one’s implication within the dominant, by now global, capitalist mode of production is certainly a first step. This does not invalidate the point, argued for by Deamer (though dismissed by the other panelists) that urbanism appears closer to the proverbial “base” of social production and architecture closer to the proverbial “superstructure.” In general, I think Riano and the others, even Sorkin, garble the whole base-superstructure distinction, even if it can be little crude, linear, and mechanistic in the hands of some. Sorkin prefers the phrase “false consciousness,” which Engels suggested in a letter to Mehring in 1893, probably on account of the frequent misuse to which the language of “base” and “superstructure” is often put. Even so, I think the original formulation from Marx’s Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (1859) is defensible, but this will have to wait for another post.
For now, it is enough to commend Riano on the valid insight contained in the following excerpt:
Presently architects who ask questions of the role of capital are labeled as political or activist architects. These monikers obscure the fact that we are all involved in the complex capitalist processes that produce a building, a space, a city. No one producing form can claim innocence.
Illusions of “innocence” are often sustained by one’s lofty political ideals or supposed social commitments. Riano is fully justified to point out the unavoidable “complicity” of the architect or designer with the economic processes that enable his practice. None should be so naïve as to think that it’s possible to operate wholly outside networks of exchange. Nevertheless, there’s a way this argument can be made that’s actually quite superficial and misleading, and must thus be guarded against.
To illustrate, such an admission might appear, prima facie, to lend weight to Riano’s prior contention that all architecture is political. By upholding the political culpability of the architect in every instance of collateral exploitation, expropriation, and eviction (even if merely incidental to the construction of a given building), one could insinuate the converse is also true: whatever benefits accrue from its construction — i.e., the gainful employment of those workers recruited for its assembly, the increased property value of the surrounding neighborhood or city, the improved quality of life of its inhabitants — can be considered the payoff, the positive political achievement of the architect. One hand washes the other. Perhaps Riano is willing to assign responsibility to architects for the bad so long as they can also claim credit for the good.
Again, to argue that the results of such design choices, whether beneficial or detrimental, can ever add up to a politics ends up inflating the significance of the architect in society. Except in truly iconic productions, or maybe planning projects on the scale of a major city (think of Haussmann’s Paris, explicitly intended to quell potential uprisings), the minor “goods” and “evils” with which architecture and urbanism are bound up are seldom of political consequence. More often than not, the only politics either can claim is thus its participation in the reproduction of existing social relations, with perhaps some limited benefits or detriments for whoever lives there, or lives around it, or is involved in building the thing. Unless it is part of a broader program, even a blandly reformist agenda like in Red Vienna or Weimar Germany during the interwar period, architecture and urbanism can be politically important only insofar as they are emblematic or experimentally reproducible. Only then could it really claim to be involved in the transformation of existing social relations.
The assertion that all architecture or design is political (or unpolitical, for that matter) begs the question of what is meant by “politics.” Rather than simply ask whether or not architecture is political, we might ask how it is political. More radically still, we might question what counts as political in the first place. All too often, though perhaps as an understandable counterweight to la grande politique of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, everyday acts of “collusion” or “resistance” are held up as the primary site of political activity. Such so-called “micropolitics,” it is assumed, will cumulatively bring about the overthrow or restoration of the existing state of affairs. Micropolitics have been exalted, not accidentally, in exact proportion to the dwindling of revolutionary prospects in the most advanced capitalist nations of the world.
When it comes to the choices individual architects make in employing/exploiting (for Marxists this amounts to the same thing) certain kinds of labor in the construction of their buildings — i.e., fairly compensated, unionized workers or hyper-exploited immigrants — or selecting materials gathered by certain means — i.e., fairly compensated, unionized workers or hyper-exploited immigrants — these choices are less properly political than they are ethical. The same might be said of “sweetheart deals,” instances of corruption where, for example, municipal funds are allocated to pay a construction company owned by the mayor’s cousin. Dropping architecture’s pretension to independent political agency does not mean that architecture cannot be positively or negatively evaluated. It means that evaluations of “good” or “bad” are made instead with reference to ethics or architectural form. Knowingly employing only the cheapest possible labor for private economic gain may be ethically questionable, but it says nothing of one’s political worldview. Likewise, designing a bathroom in an apartment poorly might make one a bad architect, but it hardly makes him a reactionary.