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Spaces of rebellion: on architectures of control and perverse spectacle

Throughout history, spaces have been appropriated and undone in the service of rebellion

There are no de facto spaces of rebellion. Rebellion involves a good deal of furtive scurrying about and the co-option (baths, bars and back stairs come to mind) of spaces designed for other purposes. Even meeting halls are intended for participation rather than insurrection.

That is not to say there isn’t some element of planning required; Lenin gave purposely un-motivational speeches to avoid a false start to revolution, holding it back until he was certain they had a chance. But architecturally all he needed was a megaphone, a balcony and pamphlets. Initially, rebellion means reprogramming rather than building.

‘Initially, rebellion means reprogramming rather than building’

As somewhat the romantic idealist and man of all-encompassing vision, Le Corbusier tried to build it in. In laying out what in prospect looked an extraordinary sequence of public spaces across the Capitol at Chandigarh, he included a series of intriguing structures including a ‘Trench of Consideration’, ‘Tower of the Winds’ along with the symbolic ‘Open Hand’, to set off his masterful hulks of administrative power (themselves not without their jokes; the assembly chamber looks like a cooling tower, and what do politicians create? Hot air). Until you find yourself ‘down in a hole’ or ‘digging the trenches’, these vernacular evocations might seem strange, but there’s practicality at work too: being in the shade, invisible, up a tree and so on. But even the great master of order was thwarted in his attempt to marshal the forces of change, just as he was unable to manifest his pinnacle to top it all off – the President’s Palace, which was deemed politically inappropriate.

Given the volatility of the Punjab, all this comes as no surprise. The architect’s heroic total composition would be thoroughly compromised, to the point when last time I was there, I peered across those vast swathes through barbed wire as tumbleweed drifted and a lone cyclist circled in the distance. Pathos indeed.

By contrast, what architecture can do, within limits, is control. From our cathedrals and churches, to perfected fortifications for the dukes of the Renaissance, to our fascination with the Panopticon, or a stroll down a Haussmann boulevard, we recognise our traditional relationship to power. That ability to control has brought out our best (and today, our worst – think retail). Until modernity that is, and the chance to join the other side, and work out how we might do things differently if we could.

First we avowed Functionalism verging on utility, just as we might today in our garages, kitchens, operating theatres and even living rooms. Over time, the space of rebellion (outside architecture’s capabilities) seemed best addressed by ‘undoing it’, or messing this up, as Jane Rendell memorably reflects upon in her essay ‘Rhetorics of Architectural Abuse’ (1999). Meanwhile, autonomous projects evoking freedom, but not predicated on change in the means of production (Fun Palace anyone?), began to look a bit thin.

Existing academies, being essentially conservative, could never house the modern architectural revolution. Corb railed at them and, in starting again, academic resumés were consigned to the distant past; your qualifications were who you’d worked for and what you’d done. Here it’s easy to recognise consistency: even when new radical schools appeared, from Bauhaus to Black Mountain, no matter how influential they became, they were characterised by rather short lives.

Yet in the mind’s eye, since the 1960s, it’s universities that foster agitation – yet only in certain departments at certain times under influence of some highly creative people. Such moments burn bright in the history books; they tend to be the catalysts for change, but only against a grey background. 

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Image courtesy of Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy

But today even these institutions, forced to turn themselves into businesses, and selling the short-term ticket over long-term knowledge, caught up in the marketisation of late capitalism, are either up in arms, or have simply capitalised on the opportunity. Dedicating yourself to professionalism, career, entrepreneurship, innovation while being force-fed late capitalism’s palliatives – ‘emotional intelligence’, ‘wellbeing’ and so on may not sit well with scholars of classics, but it is the very stuff of branding.

Who knows what will happen, but as a wise (and unusually radical) professor of mine told me the other day, ‘However or wherever it happens, this system won’t hold; history shows you cannot suppress human creativity for ever’. And these days, ‘creativity’ is done, sadly, by the book, like playtime.

Once over the initial stage of revolution, our instinct is to monumentalise the heroes. Adolf Loos understood the only venue for art in architecture (emotion) was the tomb and the monument. Hence, there might be no ‘space’ of rebellion until (long) after the fact. That should take the smile off our faces, reminding us of the fate of the hero, death and subsequent commemoration. 

‘Over time, the space of rebellion (outside architecture’s capabilities) seemed best addressed by “undoing it”, or messing this up’

But both media and monuments are now treated as cheap. Living in echo chambers of misinformation and advertising, drowning in a digital soup, it’s likely that our space of rebellion will belong to those who survive digital enterprise. What is the monument now? The monument to the Paris uprising of 1968 was an arts centre, the Pompidou; the active monument, the un-monument. ‘You’ve had your revolution, now get on with some art’, seemed to be the message; except you couldn’t, because what was actually facilitated was the march of international capital within the art market towards Tate Modern or Guggenheim global; perverse spectacle. Rothko tea towels anyone? Exit via the gift shop, or paint balling, or an awayday.  

Being genuinely angry is not a bad thing. My father was once ousted from his office by Trotskyites. They were very polite. ‘I’m sorry Brian … but we are taking over the factory’, (Gardner Engines, 1980). I understand this well, since my father became rather difficult, yelling he would ‘die for capitalism’ as he chased me around the house. I don’t blame him now – and both of us have come, almost, to revere those ‘Trots’ – since he’s now 95, blames it all on the fat cats, almost admits to socialist tendencies, and admits to the fact they may well have been right.

This piece is featured in the AR’s June 2018 issue on Power and Justice – click here to purchase a copy.