The Somnambulant Practice of Postmodern Architecture
"Each time you ask yourself," confessed architect Rem Koolhaas in a June 8 2008 New York Times Magazine article concerning the overnight emergence of cities like Dubai and Shenzhen and the potentially new forms of civic organization they represent, "Do you have the right to work on this scale if you don't have an opinion about what the world should be like? We really feel that. But is there time for a manifesto? I don't know."
Koolhaas' modernist forerunners felt none of his unease. For them architecture was an intrinsically political undertaking, both in form and in practice. The choice, posed by Antoine Le Corbusier in Towards A New Architecture, was between "Architecture or Revolution." Like many of his generation, Le Corbusier believed that new technologies and materials, especially the application of mass production techniques to construction, would yield better living through design. Modern architecture promised a clear vision of the good life that only a perfected politics could possibly rival. The vision offered was persuasive. The precepts of the so-called "International Style" informed designs of a great many low-income public housing projects, intended to promote equality and health, and office buildings, from which great wealth would be generated and managed, around the world.
But if the vision had been persuasive, the reality was less so. The response of many "postmodern" architects, critics, and theorists to the failures of modernism was to emphasize architecture as an autonomous activity. Critics on the right and the left theorized the practice of architecture as an activity without social or political purpose. Although they differed in their reasons, conservatives like Charles Jencks, libertarians like Colin Rowe, and Marxists like Manfredo Tafuri shared an understanding of architecture emptied of its utopian aspirations. The unanimity of this historical narrative allows architects like Koolhaas, in his Delirious New York, to judge architects like himself who refuse political responsibility and instead concentrate on formal innovations, "radicals."
Felicity D. Scott's Architecture or Techno-Utopia: Politics after Modernism is frustrated with this depressive turn and seeks to return to the question of politics now ignored by architects. Inspired by the Italian New Left, Scott highlights experiments ranging from symposia and exhibitions at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to the hippie and artistic communes of the American West that attempted to interrogate and, in some cases, playfully subverted the logics of capital and technology to which architecture is necessarily related. For Scott, it is not a matter of architecture or politics, technology or utopia, but how to integrate both pairs within contemporary architectural practice. Scott challenges the closures enforced by the discipline's gatekeepers by profiling those working at its margins, those excluded from its dominant histories, who imagined the relationships between architecture, technology, capital, and utopia differently.
But if this book is meant to appeal to a wider audience, it has been miscast. The reader quickly discovers that the "politics" referred to in the title concerns discourse (or the lack thereof) within the discipline. This focus will frustrate those outside the discipline. Questions of how architecture effects political practices and the distribution of power in society are distant to Scott's concerns. Even if we agree that Scott's attack on the boundaries which protect the profession's quietude is a necessary disciplinary intervention, Scott's restricted definition of politics as debate within the profession will be unsatisfying to those outside of it. Her approach leaves untouched the politics of architecture itself: architecture's central preoccupation with order and its compatibility with democratic politics goes unexamined. That is, the profession, its self-understanding, and many of its presuppositions, all emerge intact at the end of Scott's inquiry.
Consider the way Scott adopts the aestheticized concepts of political activity and resistance that circulate among her various interlocutors. For her these groups and their projects are notable for the way they challenged the postmodern emphasis on formal order and raise the question of ethical responsibility through semiotically indeterminate designs. (265) But a focus on different designs and practices of architecture does not interrogate the politics of designing itself. Noticeably absent are discussions of the role architectural practice played in deepening inequalities of power and knowledge, for example through residential segregation and suburbanization, from the period Scott wishes to recuperate. Scott wants to return to a politically engaged form of architectural practice, but she does not tell us what kinds of politics that engagement should be directed towards. To those outside the discipline and its debates this highly aestheticized concept of political activity appears, as I will suggest below, excessively introspective and even at times solipsistic. Very often innovative aesthetic theory and practice are conflated with political activity itself.
For example, Scott cites the "radical intent" of the Sacco and Up-1 beanbag chairs, exhibited during MoMA's 1970 "Recent Acquisitions" show, as objects which, in the words of then-MoMA Director Arthur Drexler, "may bring forth ideas that make history" (83). The chairs, which had "soft, adaptable volumes which only acquire their form with the participation of the user," were conceived as sites of micro-politics. (85) "[T]he dwelling space" writes Scott, "was to become a sort of training ground for more engaged and flexible modes of interaction." Or as Drexler's MoMA colleague put it: "Imagine trying to be stuffy while slouching in a bean bag chair" (126). Well, maybe. Try to imagine not feeling stuffy visiting a MoMA gallery to view beanbag chairs. The unexplored larger context of the micro-politics imagined does seem to matter. In this case, MoMA's prestige and power might cause us to suspect the plausibility of its radical politics.
But among those at the center of the discipline that Scott reviews, it appears there were no such doubts. MoMA's 1972 Symposium "Institutions for a Post-Technological Society: The Universitas Project" is illustrative. Universitas was convened to address environmental design problems and think through the mission of an experimental university and city that organizers hoped to build in New York State dedicated to the study of those problems. Scott finds it admirable that the conference's interdisciplinary participants were provoked by the student protests of May 1968 to debate whether architecture could inaugurate revolutionary change. Indeed, some participants advocated that the purpose of the Universitas should be to train "agents of social change" rather than offer the conventional training in architecture and design. (100) In an essay submitted after the event, entitled "Whose Utopia?," political theorist and attendee Sheldon Wolin observed that at issue was more than the practical problem of mobilizing support from the financial and political establishment for an institution dedicated to radical change. Rather, he stressed that Universitas was in no way radical. It is instead "a form of utopia which is basically a redemption of the present" (105). Drawing upon emerging systems theory to imagine the training of a new class of technocrats, Wolin believed that Universitas affirmed the legitimacy and authority of the ruling elite. Moreover, the ahistorical nature of systems theory allowed the Symposium organizers to discuss science, technology, the university, and radical politics without referring to the complicating legacies of racism, the Vietnam War, or the build-up of nuclear arms. (106)
As Wolin's criticisms suggest, too often Scott wants to recover a "politics" that appears to be conceived and performed too narrowly. Despite an ironic sensibility that proliferates in the best of these works, it is a rarified "politics" performed in many of Scott's locations and events. Discerning this politics, it seems, is limited to the architectural elite that travel from one corporate-sponsored biennale to another and address one another in a small number of specialized journals. For instance, Scott's appraisal that Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis' 1972 rendering, Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture, represents a "politically informed" experimental work appears to be based more on the theoretical response it stimulated than the political stakes manifest in that exchange. The excerpted dialogue she cites seems abstract, short on detail, and aloof from recognizable daily experiences. The critic's "brilliant and productive" response, which insists upon freedom and heterogeneity in the potentially totalizing urban spaces of late modern capital, Scott says, has "political potentials." The critic's interpretation identifies, in his own words, "a site of latent but potentially volatile disequilibrium" in "the fundamental incapacity of capitalism ever to rationalize the circuit between body and computer keyboard" (262). But while Exodus may present, in the words of the same critic, a "strategy of occupying the anachronistic interstices concurrently emerging amid incompatible technological systems," the strategies that might develop an ethos resistant to capitalism's technological dominance are gestured to at best. (262) My criticism, however, is not limited to architectural theory. It is an indictment of any academic discipline that sees the production of its own theory as having radical political stakes.
Scott, looking to the edges of the discipline to locate its true radicals, finds them in the Ant Farm commune and what she calls its form of "engaged withdrawal." Founded in 1968 by self-claimed "outlaw architects," the Ant Farm commune took shape well outside the academy among the counterculture milieu of San Francisco. Its agitprop provocations, which transitioned from alternative architectural visions to experiments with video art and new media, were performed at locations across the American West and overseas, including Australia and Japan. By practicing architecture differently, Ant Farm creatively imagined what it might be rather than what it could not. Ant Farm serves as an exemplar of the political alternatives that Scott wishes to hold open for the discipline. First, Ant Farm's early work with inflatable structures challenged conventional understandings of architecture. These inflatables had no plan, no fixed form, and their near-immateriality defied the discipline's central tenets. Second, they were deployed as part of Ant Farm's teach-ins at campuses, conferences, and festivals across the Western United States, contesting architecture's claim to expert knowledge. Their repertoire during this period included Do-it-Yourself manuals, modeled on the Whole Earth Catalog, outlining the construction of inflatables. Moreover, these manuals and the events of which they were a part self-consciously reproduced the period's military-industrial rhetoric. Self-proclaimed "space cowboys," Ant Farm members playfully redeployed the technologies and frontier myths of the American state while calling them into question. They traveled around the country by automobile, staging events that explicitly questioned the relationship between mass industry and environmental degradation. Third, their itinerant work exemplified Ant Farm's attempt to practice architecture as "nomadology," a philosophy intended to critique the necessity of architecture's relationship to structure.
Despite their radical architectural practice, their desire to unmoor architecture completely from its materialist foundations led Ant Farm to refashion itself as media-activists, or, in their words, "architects of the image," by the mid-1970s. Scott views the resulting body of work, which included alternative coverage of the 1972 Democratic and Republican party conventions and the 1975 event Media Burn, in which a modified Cadillac El Dorrado Biarritz was driven through a flaming pyramid of television sets by Ant Farm members dressed as astronauts, as countercultural experiments which instructively re-imagined the relationships between capital, communications, and technology. They are among the recovered pearls which might shine strangely and beautifully for contemporary architects who wish to think politically about the relationship of their own works and practice to capital and technology.
But the character of Ant Farm's politics changed in the transition from agitprop to media games. While both had elements of the spectacular, the early agitprop events were frequently staged with teach-ins and workshops that lent those spectacles greater depth by provoking dialogue around them. Ant Farm's transition to video art, even though intended to counter the influence of dominant media and capital, inherited its own limits: those of the television medium. The responses they elicited became less participatory, and more singular and spectatorial. Without the opportunity for sustained engagement, Ant Farm's irony and critique were less recognizable as such. Media Burn risked being seen in nothing more than the same terms of novelty and kitsch that defined the stunts performed by Evel Knieval, which Ant Farm at once parodied and celebrated.
Especially when translated into architectural theory and practice, a politics that aspires to semantic playfulness hazards irrelevance for those who are not already initiated into its aestheticized notion of politics, especially given the fetishization of novelty that has characterized high-profile architecture since the success of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Cities as diverse as Milwaukee, Seattle, Dubai, and Beijing have paid for the construction of spectacular buildings, many of which demonstrate semantic and formal playfulness, to garner the same recognition. In these cases, the context of their novelty may subsume any individual statements about the relationship between their form and capitalist logics that these individual buildings may be capable of articulating.
But I am less confident in seeing the utility of Ant Farm's media games for contemporary architectural practice than I am the earlier work with inflatables and the attempt to move the discipline away from its reliance on expert forms of knowledge, for a second reason. While at once humorously campy and politically-minded, Ant Farm's media games forfeit architecture's inherent concern with materiality. They represent too simplistic an "out" from the problems posed by order and structure that the earlier exercises with inflatables addressed immediately. It is not enough to refuse these constraints entirely; they have to be rethought materially and spatially. The question is whether there are architectural orders that subvert the logics of order and planning at the center of architecture itself. Is there a way architecture might be less architectonic, less authoritarian and more democratic in both its process and form?
Scott's book admirably seeks to reinvigorate a conversation about politics and responsibility that architects have studiously avoided for almost a generation. Perhaps for this reason, we should accept her concept of politics as theoretical agitation- for now. But later on that conversation must expand and directly engage the question of what sort of politics, related to issues of power, equality, and democracy, architects must address in their practice. Scott has raised the ghosts of modernism. Let's hope they will be heard.
Ali Aslam is a PhD candidate at Duke University. His dissertation, Architecture and Politics: Building the Good Life, examines how architecture has shaped durable political and ethical identities and practices over time by engaging the works of architects Antoine Le Corbusier, Aldo Rossi, and Aldo van Eyck, and a selection of political thinkers including Aristotle, Hannah Arendt, and Michel Foucault. He can be reached at email@example.com.