Architecture as counter hegemonic practice: Political Theory and Architecture in Conversation

By Aya Nassar

Academics and theoreticians in both fields of architecture as well as politics might have been in a continuous struggle with whether or not architecture and politics are related, and if so what would this entail (though it has to be said some do this more and/or better than others). What does a political architecture mean? What kind of architecture for what kind of politics? Is politicization a perversion of the architectural profession? These and more questions were posed in the December Architectural Exchange held by the AA school of Architecture. The Architecture Exchange is one of the platforms where intellectual conversation can happen between architecture and other fields. This time the exchange brought four architectural figures to answer the question “How is architecture political. The discussion was in engagement with political theorist Chantal Mouffe and her work. As the organizers noted: political theory has always thought in spatial terms, and architecture has always thought in political terms, which indicates that the two fields have always been thinking of each other.

While consensus is necessary, it must be accompanied by dissent”  
Chantal Mouffe’s work is among the most influential in contemporary political theory. She is best known for her work with Ernesto Laclau on Hegemony:  the practice of establishing order, which is temporary, precarious articulation and always contingent and most importantly should not be understood as outside power relations. She also has her position in some of the most fundamental discussions in political theory, nothing less than the meaning of the political itself, and the nature of the public sphere.

Her position stems from an argument for the necessity of antagonism in democratic politics as an alternative for much of political theory’s emphasis on consensus. For her, in democratic societies conflict cannot and will not be eradicated, and the aim of democratic institutions should not be to eradicate or solve antagonism, but to transform these antagonisms (struggles between enemies) into “agonism” (struggle between adversaries). Thus, her work on public sphere distances itself from the more common associational version of understanding politics, which emphasizes harmony and believes in the possibility of political consensus. This emphasis on generating consensus at the center generates a post-political condition, that is, creates a condition where contesting the hegemonic order becomes increasingly difficult. Therefore, she places herself in the dissociative approach, one that sees that antagonism and conflict as irreducible, but that in the same time doesn’t negate the possibility of plural, democratic politics.

The four presentations were primarily an architectural engagement with Mouffe’s understanding of “the political”; nevertheless other imaginations of the political were also present. “The political” is the ontological category, which defines and is constantly redefined by political theory, and therefore any serious conversation with the discipline is bound to find itself in processes of politicizing what is generally undertsood as apolitical, and/or depoliticize what is political.

For example, Reinhold Martin’s presentation, aimed to achieve two steps, the first is to identify the contemporary hegemonic order, and the second to present a trajectory of the meaning of public space. The first task is in alignment with Mouffe’s terms, but the second depended on Arendt’s definition of the political. Arendt makes a necessary opposition between the Polis/the political and the Oikus (housekeeping)/the social. Her definition is the paradigmatic ideal of political space, as the Agora, as a space of appearance of plurality. Politics is threatened when the polis is managed as an Oikus/household, which has classically been the space for production and governed despotically.

Martin’s aim is to understand the hegemonic aspects of the modern polis, where politics is located in the spaces of production (Marx), and where the public space disperses as the city becomes a “factory without walls” with the abolishment of divisions between work, leisure and home (Negri).  It is nevertheless exactly locating the polis in housekeeping that Martin invites us to interrogate further. Housing is the privileged site where architects go to feel politically responsible, and it is also where the state mitigates and brings together different agents in the interest of capital. But more than that, he points out to the inherently political character of the house itself, the space in which agon repeats daily, and where the struggle for the polis is waged.

Ines Weizman chose to narrow the political into acts of dissidence in the former Soviet Union. Specifically acts of antagonism on part of the architects who without a shared ideology or party try to contest the way subjects are governed without seeking to capture power or assume a final moment of liberation. This raised the question of which political theory for which politics, since Chantal Mouffe saw her work only applicable to plural democratic politics that risk the death of politics through too much consensus on the center, while for her, struggles in the former USSR, or in Egypt (2011) were a totally different kind of politics.

Weizman’s lecture was also about imagination of autonomous space. She brought examples of architectural competition entries in formal exhibition, architectural proposals, for example Mikhail Flippov’s watercolor renderings in proposal to reconstruct the church of Christ the Savior in Moscow, (which can be found here along with some other of his paintings), and underground installations that had no formal records. These served to show how dissidents imagined space in reaction to the spatial and temporal disruption of Moscow as a historical city.

In Weizman’s lecture, the question moved further to become about the agency of the architect to act politically rather than about architecture per se. Architects seem to be condemned into working with people with power, land and money in a way that suggests that architecture is least likely to produce dissidence (a point made by Aureli and Whiting later), yet there is an ambivalent role between conformity and resistance. The architect’s dissidence can get camouflaged in architectural technical language to produce gestures of refusal and thus architecture becomes one of the precarious practices and messages in field of antagonism.  

Pier Vittorio Aureli somehow got closer to pinpointing this paradox. Architecture is always political yet it cannot be political. Architecture is an ideology that represent consensus, and is implicated in neutralizing and depoliticizing the city. This is when it is understood as a profession, with its division of labor, and with its own presentation in the public sphere, and foremost in some of its classic texts.
At the heart of the paradox he presented is how the profession chooses to deal with conflict. Aureli, brought the two examples of Vitruvius’ classic Ten books on Architecture; the oldest theory on how cities should be organized as a coherent body, and le Corbusier’s “Architecture où revolution”, and his “La guerre? Mieux vaut construire” (War? Better to build) in PLANS 6(1931) as examples where design and building replaces politics, and where the objective is to pacify, stabilize and avoid conflict.

On the other hand architecture is always political since any architectural form always implies a subject, a mode of life, and of being in space and therefore it implies an idea of the political and informs a spatial condition by always framing space. Architecture could be a practice that aims to construct political antagonism in the city, rather than mask it, and to represent agnostic claims to the city rather than presenting architecture as the solution to a problem. (Ex: the Red Vienna social housing project)

Thus there is no death of politics; architecture is always political especially when it pretends to be non-political, and it can be political through the architect as a producer who is also able to modify the precarious conditions in which architecture is produced.  Sarah Whiting picked up from where Aureli to ponder more on the architectural practice, as one demanding extreme expertise and extreme genaralism, as a temporality that demands patience.  Such a status is a given that makes architecture political but also where it becomes difficult for the architect to act politically. As patrons stop endorsing, and architects move to artistic installations, to writing or to transform their technical expertise to capital, and the practice understood as building becomes increasingly disadvantaged.
Mouffe, in her responses to her interlocutors, brought back the conversation from the architect to understanding and locating the political. It didn't make sense to her to say political architecture, since architecture is always a part of hegemonic construction, hence always political. The world is constituted through a multiplicity of discourses that establish a common sense, which in turn becomes neutralized and establish the realm of what is possible and what we can expect. Architectural practice, like any other practice can be implicated in the construction, maintenance, and the transformation of hegemony. Therefore, for her ‘critical architecture’ is what the presenters had been calling ‘political’ through their presentations. And the question thus becomes how to envisage a critical architecture?

A critical practice would depend on how it contributes to the counter hegemonic practices, specifically how we envisage challenging the neoliberal order. Critique is never purely a movement of negation; there are always moments of dis-articulation and re-articulation, and there will always be the day after the revolution question. For the architectural practice thus to be critical, it would have to engage in a strategic war of positions and create a multiplicity of agnostic spaces in which hegemony can be contested.

Despite Mouffe’s uneasiness about using her mode of analysis for politics that is not democratic, one can not help but pose question about the elsewhere. I am here neither making the argument for politicizing architecture or de-politicizing a practice that have become political in many sorts of ways. I do find the two positions potentially reductive if the particular question of: which understanding of “the political” for which kind of politics and architecture is not posed. A lot of cross disciplinary conversations have been happening in and about Cairo over the past four or five years, perhaps this blog is one sign of that. Yet, amidst the sweeping and paradoxical tendencies of politicization and depoliticization of public sphere we have been part of, political theorists have not posed that basic question sufficiently enough to engage in that particular conversation.

Aya Nassar is an Mphil/Phd student at the Politics and International Studies Department at Warwick, and a Teaching assistant in Cairo University. Her research looks into Space and Politics in Cairo. Other research interests include urban studies, public space, memory and nostalgia, politics and literature, political theory (Arendt, Lefebvre, Foucault).


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The people from the barrio built the city twice: during the day we built the houses of the well-off. At night and at weekends, with solidarity, we built our own homes, our barrio.

  —Andrés Antillano, resident of Caracas, April 15, 2004