Is all architecture truly political?

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.

Model, Tribune for a Leninist (the podium-balcony is empty, the placard reads "Glasnost")

Model, Tribune for a Leninist (the podium
sits empty, the placard reads “Glasnost”)

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.

Observation tower from OMA's Boompjes Project (1980), which Martin Gittins argues is clearly modeled on Lissitzky's design

Observation tower, OMA’s Boompjes Project (1980)
Martin Gittins argues is modeled on Lenin Tribune

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.

El Lissitzky, Lenin Tribune proposal (1920-1924)

El Lissitzky, Lenin Tribune proposal (1920-1924)

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.

9 thoughts on “Is all architecture truly political?

  1. I appreciate this exchange and sense in it a valuable follow up on a discussion, like many before it, that unfolded under conditions permitting only a curtailed version of what is needed. Anticipating a response from Riano and hoping to keep this going in this productive direction, I question the use here of a distinction between “politics” and “micropolitics” implying a threshold of impact and significance. Perhaps we can instead consider discussions of power in all its forms, inclusive of “that which goes without saying” (Bourdieu). Just as claims to an apolitical status are fundamentally ideological, potent forms of coercion sometimes operate, like architecture, at a pre-cognative level. Deleuze referred to these as the “microphysics of power” without dismissing them.

    • I might, as you say, be a bit too dismissive of micropolitics or everyday struggles. Here I’m probably reacting to their overvaluation by various theorists, including Deleuze and Foucault. Both Deleuze and Foucault, pivotally shaped by the experiences of 1968, came to reject the notion of a sociopolitical “revolution” in the sense given to it by the Jacobins and inherited by the French revolutionary tradition in the 19th century and international Marxism. They preferred a more generalized physics of “resistance.” Foucault’s articles on Iran in 1979 are explicit about this and Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the rhizome conceptualizes it. Jameson was right: schizoid politics lends itself to neo-anarchism.

      What’s strange is that the “politics of everyday life” originally stemmed from Soviet Marxist and avant-garde discourse during the 1920s. Leon Trotsky wrote a book on it, and Henri Lefebvre (along with his colleague Anatole Kopp) picked up on this theme. Their emphasis on everyday life, however, was intended as part of the cultural transformation that would take place after a social and political revolution had occurred. Once taken up by the Situationists, erstwhile pupils of Lefebvre, this relationship was inverted. Raoul Vaneigem’s “revolution of everyday life” was to precede any revolutionary takeover of power. In fact, it’s unclear whether any revolutionary takeover of power would ever occur.

      Another objection I have to the tendency to see politics everywhere is that it misrecognizes the actual significance of everyday occurrences. For example, there’s this paper I read years ago that argued for a broader definition of the resistance to fascism in occupied France during the Second World War, contending that otherwise obedient, ordinary French citizens resisted the Vichy regime by illegally buying consumer goods on the black market. Black markets are by definition banned, and so through this consumer politics, by choosing when and where they shopped, these citizens supposedly avoided collaboration with the powers that were. The problem with this view is that it mistakes expedience for meaningful political action: the reason people bought butter on the black market was because they couldn’t get it through legal channels, not as a “fuck you!” to the Nazis or their collaborators. What’s more, even Nazi officers shopped on the black market, to obtain these very same goods.

      • Thank you for your thoughtful response. I find everything you say to be clear and easy to agree with. The challenge, I believe, is to identify and rank the relative harm of the different problems. Of the many “truths” we might choose to highlight in this discussion and our work generally, which deserves to take higher priority, the problem of over-valuing the political content of our actions or denying it? Without diminishing how tedious life gets inflating the political impact of every choice, I would prefer to face this problem daily than the struggle to overcome the tacit assumption and occasional assertions that current power arrangements are somehow “natural.” In contrast to the time when it was Reagan and Khrushchev pushing or not pushing the button, we now invest global significance in the choice between paper or plastic at the check out stand. Which is preferable?
        You had me at: “The oldest ideology on the books… is that which most adamantly insists on its apolitical or non-ideological character.”

  2. Pingback: Is all architecture political? | Building a Better World

  3. Pingback: A cyber-conversation on architecture and political agency | Critical Design

  4. Pingback: Zaha in Qatar: The “duty” of the architect | The Charnel-House

  5. Just stumbled across The Charnel House. Your essay and the following dialogue with Ross had me dusting off cells in the cerebellum I’d not used in awhile.
    But something that has occurred to me now and then prompts me to ask because you may know or have some inkling: Years ago Eisenman began theorizing with the linguistics of Noam Chomsky, ‘deep structure’ and all that. That’s when I first encountered Chomsky. And for decades I thought he was a linguist. Later I stumbled across his ‘Hegemony or Survival.’ My reaction? Are there two Noam Chomsky’s?
    It does provoke my curiosity, to wonder, just what are Eisenman, the man’s, politics.

      • Wonder what his stance on Israel/Palestine is?
        By the way. Ross, I followed your profile to a link for the article by Adolph Reed: “What are the drums saying, Booker” Hilarious. I had to adjust some views of mine because of it, but still have a lot of affection for Cornel. …Anyway, thanks for the link.

Leave a Reply