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Architecture Exchange: How is Architecture Political?

Featuring leading theorists in the field, the symposium demonstrated the vital importance of architecture’s political dimension

How is architecture political? That was the question being asked at the Architecture Exchange’s second annual symposium, this year held at the Architectural Association. The respondents, each of whom made a half-hour presentation on the subject, included Reinhold Martin (Director of the Buell Center in New York), Pier Vittorio Aureli (cofounder of Dogma and teacher at the AA), Ines Weizman (specialist in Soviet-era dissident architecture) and Sarah Whiting (Dean of Rice Architecture School, Houston). However, the star of the event was undoubtedly Chantal Mouffe, one of the world’s leading political theorists (as demonstrated by book titles like Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically, On the Political and The Return of the Political).

The subject of politics in architecture has gained a new urgency in the last half-decade or so, and the rising tide of international political instability inevitably drew with it the built environment (from the implications of the global financial crisis to Occupy, or from the Arab Spring to the August Riots). The political strategies of architects have been diverse, although how the architecture that results is political is a separate question. Those who entered the workplace after 2008 have found themselves in an era of austerity, and without very much opportunity for agency. So we can explain the popularity of ‘grass roots’, or ‘community’ architecture, which takes as its subject the politics of the small group. At the other end of the spectrum, there is a completely different dynamic to the so-called ‘Boris Island’ Thames airport hub project by Norman Foster, which we could call an engagement with the political.

‘Jacques Derrida maintained until his death that Peter Eisenman never understood him at all’

This distinction, between politics (non-institutional engagement) and the political (the democratic attempt at consensus), is central to Chantal Mouffe’s work and several speakers referred to it. However, the most direct address came from Pier Vittorio Aureli. He asserted that architecture is never political, in the sense that from the time of Vitruvius it has been used to pacify populations and avoid conflict (the architect, by negotiating between various interests like governance, finance, residents or users, is always aiming to turn disagreement into consensus, manifest in built form). Or, in the words of Corbusier, the choice is ‘architecture or revolution’. At the same time, Aureli added, architecture is always political, agreeing with Mouffe that architecture is an expression of hegemonic orders (that is, authority structures), and so cannot avoid being political in some manner. Aureli summarised this dichotomy as ‘the ideology of consensus versus the reality of conflict’.

The history of architects attempting to apply the work of leading intellectuals to their own field has an extremely bad track record. Jacques Derrida maintained until his death that Peter Eisenman never understood him at all, while in a famous interview with Jean Nouvel, Jean Baudrillard eventually admits they are having parallel conversations and there is no overlap between them. These are by no means the only such events of this sort, although why architecture seems so resistant to philosophy is hard to define. Certainly though, the subject of architecture’s political dimension is vitally important, especially in the world Mouffe’s theories describe. The stakes, let’s say, were high.

For this reason, it was a great surprise and delight to see that the exchange was not only productive but also reciprocal. This was particularly evident in the engagement between Aureli and Mouffe, although perhaps not surprising as of all the speakers their work shares the most in spirit and ambition.

Given the difficulty of the task, it was an extremely difficult symposium to pull off. To their credit, London’s Architecture Exchange did excellently and has cemented its role at the forefront of interdisciplinary architectural theory.

Unlike last year’s symposium, held at the Swedenborg Society, the AA lecture hall records all its events. Consequently, I highly recommend the entire symposium, which can be viewed on the school’s website.

Architecture Exchange: How is Architecture Political?

Available for online streaming here:

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