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cr/theory, culture, marxism, praxis, resistance, utopia

The Denatured Architecture at the Verge of Capitalist Crisis: Bringing the Resistance in [Or, Between Utopia and Heterotopia][1]


Here, then, one might distinguish between a “political art” which, locked in a rhetorical code, reproduces ideological representations, and an “art with a politic” which, concerned with the structural positioning of thought and the material affectivity of practice within the social totality, seeks to produce a concept of the political relevant to our present.

Hal Foster [1993]

Every social space is the outcome of a process with many aspects and many contributing currents, signifying and non-signifying, perceived and directly experienced, practical and theoretical. In short, every social space has a history, one invariably grounded in nature, in natural conditions that are at once primordial and unique in the sense that they are always and everywhere endowed with specific characteristics (site, climate, etc.).

Henry Lefebvre [1991]

For some, the current mode of architecture is now concerned not with the formal structure of orthodoxies but with the interconnections of power and knowledge in discursive as well as non-discursive practices. In that sense, the current paradigm becomes both stylistically and politically distinct; emphasizing the relation between of power and a specific set of knowledge, in response, theoretical focus has shifted from the architectural artifact as a subject of history to the social construction of such practices under global conditions. Requiring a new political program, however, architecture has then emphasized two major issues; first, it intentionally breaks into the continuum of universality and its political representation. The issue of absolute representation now ceases to exist as a universal meta-language, a meta-language that took the form of a narrative in order to explain the nature of social change as explicitly required in the modern era – the end of such totality, for instance, has been symbolized by the collapse of meta-languages or metanarratives.[2] This is to say that today meta-narrative is no longer the foremost unifying and legitimizing power; on the contrary, the recent cultural paradigm can best be represented as a game of power that increasingly takes place among an infinite number of narratives. The game of power thus represents a game of language, or, in Foucault’s own terms, a game of discursive formations through which the cultural representation of architecture now becomes rather historical, conjectural, and local. Second, architectural practice is now considered not as a timeless product but as a historically coded practice that is dispersed into its own representation. The architect’s work, in other words, is for the political struggle. In this new program, the task of architect is also different; its role skews from those of revolutionaries: they are no longer individual heroic figures and their projects are not the instruments of revolutionary change but the politics of representation with a strictly contextual domain. The current displacement of perception of architecture is partially due to the changing attitudes in the polar model of the economic system. The orthodox model – the nature of modern culture as a direct expression of capitalist reification – has witnessed significant revisions; rather, today it is believed that the relation between the economic and cultural is not causal, direct or expressive but rather representative, i.e., the cultural and the economics are semi-autonomous realms related by the hegemony of representations.

However, today there are two mainstream views in cultural politics: the first view as symbolized by, for instance, Tafuri who argues that in the face of capitalist relations resistance is futile. The economic is now the main site of symbolic production as “capital has penetrated even the sign, with the result that resistance to the code via the code is almost structurally impossible. Worse, the resistance may be collusive with the very action of capital”.[3] Of many prominent figures it was in fact Theodor W. Adorno who paved Tafuri’s reading of Modern architecture, as he argued that the artwork almost lost its primary essence of authenticity as modern art came to exist within the bare constraints of the capitalist ideology. Moreover, the cultural artifact, for him, is always produced as a commercial good – mere reflection of the capitalist mode of production. Thus both the content and the form of the artwork are now constituted by the norms, rules of capitalism. Here, he introduces his principal concept of standardization, or non-standardization, in order to understand the nature and the role of popular culture in advanced capitalist societies. For him, the elements of popular culture are nothing but mere ideological instruments of the bourgeois ideal that help perpetuate the capitalist system. To Adorno, culture never functions as itself because it is always built upon stereotyped patterns; thus it provides the elements of a social milieu within which the social agent performs. In other words, the standardized patterns implicitly instruct the agents how to behave, perform, and even think. Standardization reveals two important aspects of controlling and entertaining, and they both work as social cement that easily unifies the masses and controls their behaviors to avoid unexpected social movements. Standardization also creates a false collective consciousness and a false sense of security; that is, solidarity toward a common language. On the contrary, the form of collectivity is actually defined and pre-given to the social agent. Entertainment, on the other hand, is an important instrument of the dominant ideology to mask the real social problems and routines of everyday life. Both aspects, controlling and entertaining, are therefore crucial to reproduce the dominant social relations through the reproduction of the current mode of production: “the entertainment manufacturers know that their products will be consumed with alertness even when the customer is distraught, for each of them is a model of the huge economic machinery which has always sustained the masses, whether at work or at leisure, which is akin to work.”[4] In this context, the original work of an Italian Marxist/architectural historian, Manfredo Tafuri, his pioneering work, Architecture and Utopia, Design and Capitalist Development, argues that the architectural utopia in the name of social change have actually served the sole interests of capitalist development. Rather than transforming the social fabric the architectural practice, in particular modernism and/or modernist utopia, has deduced the modernist avant garde as a failure as well as the possibility of revolutionary architecture. Inspired by Mannheim’s dual analysis of ideology and utopia, based on capitalist class conflict in bourgeois-democratic societies, he believed that the ideology of space, as early as the mid-nineteenth century, has always been transformed into capitalistic-industrial utopia: “indeed the present efforts to make equilibriums work, to connect crisis and development, technological revolution and radical changes of the organic composition of capital, are simply impossible”.[5] To propose purely architectural alternatives is, therefore, undoubtedly useless because any practical attempt for an alternative within the existing social structure that itself conditions the very nature of design practice is an obvious contradiction of terms.

The second view, on the other hand, argues that the cultural representation is not strictly a byproduct of economic determination or of ideological reflection via the values of one class. Rather it is a “site of contestation, in and for cultural institutions, in which all social groups have a stake. Now this hegemony of representations and disciplines cannot be effectively contested by the orthodoxies of class struggle alone, for hegemony operates as much through cultural subjection as it does through economic exploitation” (Foster 1993:146). For this view, as symbolized in the works of Benjamin, Foster, Fiske, the cultural milleue is thus seen as a site of political struggle, in which the Gramscian notion of resistance or interference for hegemonic code of cultural representations and social regiments takes place. In other words, art and then architecture as instruments of revolutionary change should be put aside in favor of the latter position: counter-hegemony and cultural resistance in the ways of architectural practice can be possible for social change. An important but often neglected contribution to the development of Marxist cultural analysis of resistance can be found in the work of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). In fact, he was the first intellectual figure who saw the role of culture as a political means for social change. In part, Benjamin’s seminal work Illuminations explains the contemporary conditions because it contains some well-elaborated analyses of culture in Europe: the social context is the foremost factor in determining the cultural product, i.e., different styles can capture the same problem theme in different social perspectives. Focusing upon the contrasting features of iron-work examples in various periods – German Bauhaus and French Art Nouveau – for instance, he saw that each école has developed the problem theme on the basis of their theoretical frameworks; it was in part due to the social, cultural and ideological differences in each period. In light of these considerations, Benjamin believed that the contemporary society today involves a different set of patterns independent from the traditional explanations; thus mass-culture in advanced capitalist societies, for instance, can be explained as a by-product of a paradigm shift with which the architectural practice was the most paradigmatic art, because “its greater usefulness and practicalness links it more closely with social mission and effect of collective art than all other arts”.[6] Perhaps there are two essential yet quite peculiar dimensions of architectural practice, user participation and its practicality. Due to its practicality, architecture must rather be examined as a form of social endeavor to bridge the gap between theory and practice into a political praxis.

For bridging the theory and everyday life and mobilizing the forces of mass-culture for social change, Benjamin’s theory of culture industry attempts to unify the cultural product with the forces of social relations. For him, the artwork can be used as a cultural representation of the public as well as the political interests because “art was both a product and a reflection of the social totality of which it was a part.” Thus the politicization of artwork is the necessary step to raise a potential for social change: through the art, the subordinate can accept the real, and reject the illusory as they can reproduce the world in their own image by which they themselves produce. The principal aim must be to use artwork to communicate with the masses; the traditional art always kept the audience away either from the substance of the artwork or the process; yet, today “the work of art becomes a creation with entirely new functions”.[7] Thus to illuminate and to mobilize the audience the new art should break off the barriers between the artwork and the public. In this context, the role of mass-culture to produce a progressive cultural milieu is of paramount importance: by the ways of culture industry the cultural product today can create a social sphere that would express both the artistic creativity and the political maneuvers as the mass-culture now becomes “a meeting ground for art and ideology”. In fact, Benjamin’s theory of mass-culture in the age of mechanical reproduction has been one of the most significant milestones in the works of cultural politics. Contemporary scholars soon realized that his systematic analysis suggests a subversive political cultural practice as it reveals an extensive public sphere for the growth of opposition and resistance. Resistance suggests immanent struggle within or behind the existing system, therefore unlike avant-garde it does not connote revolutionary transgression. On the other, it implies no liberated position yet as an expression of deconstructive strategy, critically inclines to decode cultural signification and representations. The architecture of resistance is therefore different from the political architecture of avant-garde: the former that can only be constituted textually is to contest the given systems of production and circulation, whereas the latter one as an expression of specific social groups seeks to transform the system. “Here, then, one might distinguish,” says Foster, “between a ‘political art’ which locked in a rhetorical code, reproduces ideological representations, and an ‘art with a politic’ which concerned with the structural positioning of thought and the material affectivity of practice within the social totality, seeks to produce a concept of the political relevant to our present”.[8]

However, the new cultural perception, for Fiske, is a result of a series of political turmoil in the 1980s.[9] To critically understand the diversity within relations of social struggle we soon realized that contemporary society is built on conflicting social interests. Thus Gramsci’s theory of hegemony is well suited particularly for analyzing the complex relations between the discursive poles of culture such as urban and rural, city and countryside, peasantry and urban proletariat. Gramsci’s notion of resistance, according to Fiske, is, however, significantly different from the idea of consensus of liberal pluralism. The mutual agreement between the parties of the dominant and the subordinate can be defined as consensus. However, what we experience today can rather be defined as consent as the mode of operation of resistance is built on social and historical differences:

Hegemony depends on the ability of the power-bloc to win the consent of the various formations of the subordinate to the system that subordinates them. Because the material and political conditions of subordination constantly and inescapably remind the subordinate of the inequalities between them and the power-bloc, such consent is always fragile and precarious, is always subject to contestation and consequently has to be constantly won and re-won. Consent has to be achieved on multiple issues between multiple social formations, and thus, as a theoretical concept, is better suited to cope with social diversity that is the more homogenized and homogenizing concept of consensus.[10]

Working through a combination of consent and domination, the hegemonic power-bloc today tries to achieve the best of its interests while, at the same time, it is exposed to the interests of the subordinate. In other words, the social order produced by the top-down power groups has to cope with a bottom-up, resistance launched by the subordinate because they now have the ability to promote their interests in struggles against the dominant view. The consent thus can only be achieved, for Fiske, “if the power-bloc learns to tolerate, respect and even encourage social differences that are produced and controlled from below”.[11] Yet, there is always a degree of conflict between the two parties since the system of domination always works to secure the interests of the power-bloc. To achieve this, the subordinate has to develop a sense of identity and history of its own. However, the question still remains: is social change possible via the consent of hegemony? The distribution of power can only change not by ways of the defeat of the dominant group by another, yet by ways of a change in the regime of power. The defeat of one power group is a structural change and has always been symbolized as revolution, whereas, a change in the regime of power is not and based on the changing relations between different social formations – the margins and the center: as Fiske has well explained, “a change in regime typically entails movement from the margins to the center, so that a form of power that was marginalized in the old regime becomes central in the new, and vice versa”.[12]

Architectural Practice as a Political Means of Counter-hegemony

Perhaps we are now in a period of historical change; yet it is not a revolutionary change in classical terms in which one economic and political paradigm succeeds another. It is rather a form of social change which, as a democratization process of the capitalist system, attempts to redefine the distribution of power relations in society, by simply “decentering and re-centering, or reconfiguring” the relations between the dominant and the subordinate. It is true that the architectural practice presents a similar trend, as it becomes a reciprocal product of the process of social change. Focusing on urban development issues in Turin – the housing problem, and the evolving alliances between the urban and rural proletariat – Gramsci himself, for instance, emphasized the economic but the political, cultural, and ideological dimensions of capitalism as well. His main emphasis, as Soja has also observed, was upon the role of the modern capitalist state and its imposed territorial division of labor – a revolutionary strategy in capitalism is situated in relation to the spatiality of social life.[13]

Today the capitalist state possesses dual and contradictory functions of repression, legitimation, material, and ideological reproduction at the same time; and thus, understanding of its socio-spatial dialectic requires a critical study on hegemonic relations between the role of state and the power of culture: state control over everyday life, the importance of local resistance groups, and the relation between occupational and territorial structures are some to study. The local struggle over reproduction of capitalist social relations, collective production and consumption, and the mobilization of urban, rural, and regional social movements can help provide an alliance, a historical bloc, “popular movement fighting for similar goals and linked conjecturally to the specific conditions of capitalist crisis. These conditions were not only hegemonic, but political, cultural, and ideological as well; they combined both production and reproduction, the workplace and the residential community”.[14] As well explained in Prison Notebooks, for instance, according to Gramsci, the contemporary social relations hold two important assets: first, rather than relying on direct force and oppression the power-bloc today seems increasingly mobilize its legitimizing hegemony; second, resistance to the growing complexity of modern capitalist society therefore requires a new form of political, cultural, and ideological struggles based on the forces of culture.[15] A collective consciousness of subordinate groups for social change thus comes to be located in the phenomenology of everyday life: i.e., the power of popular front needs the spatialization of everyday life in the modern world.

In particular, Lefebvre explains, in his seminal work, The Production of Space, that under the advanced capitalist system the reproduction of the dominant order of social relations are pre-dominantly related to the organization of space. By moving away from the mere definitions of ideological space he locates the meaning of space into the experiences of everyday life. “That helps us understand,” he says, “the transition from representational spaces to representations of space, showing up correspondences, analogies, and a certain unity in spatial practice and in the theory of space”.[16] In other words, this transition to the representation of space bridges the gap between the two realms of theory and practice as well as the abstract and the real; there the notion of real represents the reproduction of the social relations of production in the constant practice of daily life. The reproduction of the dominant social relations by ways of spatial arrangements, for him, is primarily important for the survival of capitalism. The socially produced space is “where the dominant relations of production are reproduced”.[17] The penetration of the ideology of power-bloc into everyday life, on the other hand, simultaneously requires the reproduction of the dominant ideology of space, because design, construction, and occupation have always been the most powerful public domains where the distinctive production of social relations can extensively take place. The legitimation crisis, however, can only occur when the relations of production can no longer be reproduced through the forces of spatial production in everyday life. In other words, when the resistance begins to produce its own space of social relations the social change will gradually take place. The social change cannot be successful unless at the same time a consciously spatial change takes place, a change that will focus upon spatial liberation and reconstruction while taking control over the forces of production of space. The spatial practice of everyday life generates a sphere of autonomous action within the constraints of the existing system.[18] Today the city, for instance, is an almost mythical landmark for socioeconomic and political strategies: “the language of power is in itself ‘urbanizing,'” de Certau claims, and “the city becomes the dominant theme in political legends, but it is no longer a field of programmed and regulated operations”.[19] The resistance against the programmed operations of authority comes in fact from the ordinary people because for every efforts generated by the collective mode of administration, an individual mode of re-appropriation of space takes place as it redefines the spatial structure on the level of symbolic relations. Such relations, however, require a process of constructing a new symbolic order, a system of order that would liberate the dominant ideology of space, by virtually devising a set of oppositional tactics as manifested in the discursive practice of the subordinate.

The final phase of architectural practice since the 1990s, in this sense, draws our attention to the role of ideas and social relations in a rebellious political culture; contemporary architecture now becomes what Gramsci referred to as a “war of position;” a position that slowly generates a counterhegemonic process. Its struggle to ideological hegemony embodies not only an intellectual attack on the dominant ideas, values, and beliefs but also a change of real social relations in everyday life. Today’s architectural practice as an expression resistance thus represents a form of gradual transition toward a new egalitarian political culture. As Boggs has argued, “implicit in the notion of hegemony is the vision of a democratized state shaped by new modes of consciousness and political culture. To say that the new movements have a counterhegemonic potential is also to suggest that they have emerged in opposition (at least partially) to those ideologies that legitimate the power structure: technological rationality, nationalism, competitive individualism, traditionalism, and of course, racism and sexism”.[20] We must argue that architecture today experience new social tasks that reveal a form of practice not for, what Tafuri would call, a sudden revolutionary change; but rather, for the growth of partial and fragmented resistance, revolt and opposition. Nevertheless, over the past two decades the resistance in architecture has provided ample room for struggle within a civil society. Viewed by the concept of hegemony, recent architectural practice today directs our attention toward the forces of change as a new form of collective awareness that has already reshaped the contours of social and political life – through the emergence of a widespread consciousness built on a holistic view, the architecture of resistance demands a more critical discourse as it defines a qualitatively different practice to the relationship between forces of capitalist economy and culture. It is a new relationship that is based on interdependency and diversity, on self-sustainability and self-management, and on a middle way to balance the power of culture and the art of universal beauty. This designerly framework is counterhegemonic because it requires a long series of ideological and cultural transformations based on a participatory ethos between the warring parties. Thus it simultaneously needs a set of political maneuvers at the level of power as well as a changing ensemble of social relations in a civic society. No single universal laws, not a unique principle of avant guardism, or a unitary meta-language today define the architectural practice of postindustrial world; rather it calls for multiple forms of power relations with a deep counterhegemonic penetration of architecture into the complex domain of capitalist social relations.

Gramscian theory was one of the most intricate theories of social and historical change, which attempted to define the overall progressive pattern of human history based on the operation of society as the complex, accumulated result of human action. Following the legacy of Gramscian theory of hegemony and resistance, the new resolution in architecture today pursues a philosophy of a new social order based on freedom and liberty, unrestricted by the oppressive social orders. By reconfiguring the power relations in society, it attempts to change the distribution of power and social inequality between the dominant power-block and the subordinate. The distribution of power, and in particular power struggle, for this view, is hegemonic; yet the contemporary perspectives inherently capture a potential for resistance against the authority and the dominant social order. The resistance, therefore, would slowly find solid ways to disperse the dominant authority into different terrain and reorganize the social order on the basis of a more diverse society – the architecture of resistance would provide the social conditions to develop local powers for social change. As Gramsci has written somewhere, “history is the will of men who act on nature in order to change their world, to effect their goals, to satisfy their needs”.[21]


[1] This brief article is a part and parcel of an original doctoral work of the author completed at the University of Wisconsin at Madison: “Myth and Ideology in Middle Landscape: Politics in the Perception of Nature in American Environmental Design Discourse.” It has been revised partially for the edited book that of “The Testimonials for Jale Erzen” compiled by Sevin Osmay and Ayşen Savaş in January 2017 and expected to be published in the same year at METU Faculty of Architecture Press.

[2] Lyotard, Jean-François. 1989. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

[3] Foster Hal. 1993. Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics. Bay Press, Seattle and Washington, p.147.

[4] Horkheimer, Max and Adorno, Theodor W. 1991. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Continuum, New York, p.127.

[5] Tafuri, Manfredo. 1988. Architecture and Utopia, Design and Capitalist Development. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 173.

[6] Benjamin, Walter 1988. Illuminations, Essays and Reflections. edt. Arendt, Hannah. Schocken Books, New York, p.142.

[7] Benjamin, Walter 1988. Illuminations, Essays and Reflections. edt. Arendt, Hannah. Schocken Books, New York, p. 225.

[8] Foster Hal. 1993. Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics. Bay Press, Seattle and Washington, p.155.

[9] Fiske, John. 1993. Power Plays Power Works. Verso, London and New York.

[10] Fiske, John. 1993. ibid, p. 41.

[11] Fiske, John. 1993. ibid, p. 44.

[12] Fiske, John. 1993. ibid, 48.

[13] Soja, Edward W. 1990. Postmodern Geographies, The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. Verso, London and New York.

[14] Soja, Edward W. ibid, p. 90.

[15] Gramsci, Antonio. 1983. The Modern Prince and Other Writings. International Publishers, New York; Gramsci, Antonio. 1977. Selections From Political Writings: 1910-1920. edt. Hoare, Quintin. University of Minnesota Press., Minneapolis.

[16] Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. Blackwell, Oxford, Cambridge, p. 163.

[17] Soja, Edward W. 1990. Postmodern Geographies, The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. Verso, London and New York, p. 92.

[18] Lefebvre, Henri, 2014. Critique of Everyday Life, Verso, London and New York.

[19] de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, p. 95.

[20] Boggs, Carl. 1986. Social Movements and Political Power, Emerging Forms of Radicalism in the West. Temple University Press, Philadelphia, p. 243.

[21] Sztompka, Piotr. 1993. The Sociology of Social Change. Blackwell, Oxford and Cambridge, p. 174.


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