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. Continue reading

Some Wisdom from Žižek

A few lines of wisdom from Slavoj Žižek’s Living in the End Times:

[I]t is not enough to say that the idea of Communism should not be applied as an abstract dogma, that, in each case, concrete circumstances should be taken into consideration.  It is also not enough to say, apropos the fiasco of the twentieth-century Communist countries, that this mis-application in no way disqualifies the idea of Communism.  The idea’s imperfect [or, rather, catastrophic] actualizations bear witness to an “inner contradiction” at the very heart of the idea.)  (pg. 20)

As Žižek notes earlier, one must also dispel the notion that Stalin was merely a clever, cynical manipulator:

This brings us to the limit of liberal interpretations of Stalinism, which becomes palpable when liberal critics tackle the motivations of the Stalinist: they dismiss Stalinist ideology as a mere cynical and deceptive mask, and locate beneath it a brutal, egotistic individual who cares only about power and pleasure. In this way the “pre-ideological” utilitarian individual is posited as the true figure beneath the ideological mask.  The presupposition is here that the Stalinist subject related in a purely external-instrumental way towards his language, disposing of another code (the pre-ideological utilitarian one) which enabled him to be fully aware of his true motivations.  But, what if — cynical though the Stalinists’ use of official jargon was — they did not dispose of any such alternative language to articulate their truth?  Is it not this properly Stalinist madness which is obliterated by the liberal critics, ensuring that we remain safely moored in the commonsense image of a human being?  (pg. 7)