In a series of brilliant essays, Critique of Architecture bursts the post-critical bubble

Beyond Base and Superstructure

In a series of brilliant essays, Critique of Architecture bursts the post-critical bubble

New York City’s Fulton Street subway station (Douglas Spencer)

Critique of Architecture: Essays on Theory, Autonomy, and Political Economy

By Douglas Spencer | Birkhäuser | $27

Many commentators over the past couple decades have enthusiastically heralded the arrival of a “postcritical” age in art and architecture. Gone is the imperative to question the existing state of affairs, particularly in the latter field, where it is dismissed as inimical to the practice of building. Criticism is considered gloomy and elitist, even superfluous. Under the influence of theorists like Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, and Jacques Rancière, and their epigones in the architectural academe, practitioners have learned to embrace the world as it is.

Douglas Spencer’s Critique of Architecture confronts this trend head on. Opposed to the prevailing postcritical mood, the essays seek to ascertain architecture’s role in the capitalist mode of production as presently configured. In that sense, the book shares elements with its predecessor, The Architecture of Neoliberalism (2016). With both projects, Spencer hopes to rehabilitate a critical orientation toward the discipline; this orientation, moreover, has an explicitly Marxist bent. “After a now decades-long period of assault on critical theory,” he writes, “discussions of class, labor, and capital sit uneasily within what currently passes for theoretical discourse.”

Critique of Architecture opens with a blistering polemic, first published in 2012, against what Spencer calls “architectural Deleuzism.” For him, it refers to architects’ widespread appropriation of concepts from the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze (along with his collaborator, Félix Guattari) starting in the late ’90s. Buzzwords such as “the fold” and “smooth space” began to appear in architecture journals, lifted straight from the pages of A Thousand Plateaus and Leibniz and the Baroque. Unlike the old semiotic paradigm it displaced, from postmodern playfulness to Derrida-inspired deconstructivism, Deleuze’s various figures of thought were felt to be eminently translatable to design. Even further, by mere dint of its philosophical derivation, any building that invoked these concepts (cf. the works of Patrik Schumacher and Alejandro Zaera-Polo) was seen to possess a halo of radicalism. To Spencer, however, the Deleuzist dispensation in architecture belied a very real complicity with the prerogatives of neoliberal capitalism.

Spencer’s second essay, “Habitats for homo economicus,” extends the confluence between neoliberalism and design back a few more decades. During the ’60s and ’70s, systematists such as the polymath Buckminster Fuller and his protégé John McHale proposed “environmental” solutions to the problem of human habitation, as did the landscape architect Ian McHarg. Nature and culture were bound together by a fundamental harmony, they argued, beyond the reach of obsolete 19th-century—i.e., capitalist or socialist—worldviews. Humanity, or “Man,” had only to be properly calibrated in order to maximize its performance. Yet as Spencer makes clear, this conception of nature was itself highly ideological: “The turn to computation, the technological fix, is not against nature because nature is conceived … as a preprogrammed, essentially cybernetic and universal, system.” According to Spencer, the ecological perspective served to naturalize market processes, and the Californian ideology, as promulgated by Reyner Banham, helped to grease the wheels.

In the seventh chapter, Spencer traces discrete aspects of this shift in architectural thinking to the entrepreneurial élan of West Coast counterculture. Indeed, it was Banham’s hip “cowboy nomad” lifestyle and countercultural credibility that allowed him to give voice to the newfound sense of freedom that emerged around this time. Generally speaking, Spencer is excellent at teasing out the ways left-wing gestures of rebellion were seamlessly incorporated into capitalism’s fold. He recognizes the “repertoire of May 1968” in architects’ protests against the administrative state. Participatory conduct, ad hoc improvisation, spontaneity, openness—all these values were held up as innately radical. While Spencer is generous to the originally disruptive intent of thinkers like Deleuze and Guattari, whose ideas he feels were misunderstood by architects, their affirmationism lent itself to neoliberal cooptation. Likewise, the notion of “everyday life” promoted by Henri Lefebvre and the Situationist International was laundered by the likes of Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers at their megastructural Centre Pompidou.

exterior photograph of a contemporary building set up diagonal piers
Zaha Hadid Architects’ BMW Central Building in Leipzig, Germany. (Douglas Spencer)

In the sixth chapter, Spencer tackles a key injunction from the rhetorical strategy of postcritique: “don’t think, feel.” Philosophies of affect tend to denigrate rationality, preferring the immediacy of sensuous experience to critical reflection. Sylvia Lavin, Jeffrey Kipnis, and other architectural theorists who stress the affective dimension similarly hold that thinking too much about buildings misses the point, which is to let the structure wash over you. (Lavin’s Kissing Architecture is exemplary in this regard.) “Cognitive disinvestment,” as Spencer dubs it, occurs whenever self-reflective subjectivity is removed from the equation and the use of architecture becomes unthinking and automatic. Feeling is valorized at the expense of thought. Once again, Critique of Architecture contends, this is in lockstep with the overarching logic of late capitalism.

Chapter 8 deals with actor-network theory and its architectural resonances. Latour, one of the postcritical thinkers mentioned at the outset, outlined some of the theory’s implications for a philosophy of design in a keynote lecture. By distributing agency more broadly, and even attributing it to inanimate objects, he believes, the Promethean impulse of high modernism can be curbed. Modesty and humility are counterposed to modern arrogance. Things are able to act in themselves; they are not unidirectionally acted upon. Flat ontologies like Latour’s do not distinguish between human and nonhuman actors, instead acknowledging a “parliament of things.” However, as Spencer reminds his readers, Marx already accounted for this anthropomorphosis in his famous analysis of commodity fetishism. Plus, Spencer adds, actor-network theory in architecture ignores “the biggest actor of them all: the ‘automatic subject’ that is capital.”

Time and again, Critique of Architecture takes aim at a cluster of fashionable philosophies that has dominated academia of late. It can be a bit repetitive in its discussion of certain themes, but this is to be expected in a collection of essays written over the course of several years. Spencer is skeptical toward claims from different quarters that criticism has been superseded or is obsolete, caustically remarking:

Our theories of actor-networks [Latour] now welcome all agents on stage as equal partners in the making of worlds. Our object-oriented ontologies (OOO) [Harman] displace human beings from the center of things, unsettling the hubris of the anthropocentric perspective. A “new materialism” [Bennett], celebratory and affirmative of the “vibrancy” of things in themselves, has put paid to an older, darker, altogether more negative variety of historical materialism. Our postpolitical and postcritical positions seem to have relieved us of the burdens of critique.

In the second half of the book, Spencer confronts some shortcomings of other oppositional orientations toward neoliberalism in architecture. Here he pursues more of a rettende Kritik, looking to salvage the original intent behind these views. Spencer’s pair of essays devoted to the writings of the Italian autonomist architect Pier Vittorio Aureli are superb. Although he confesses in an interview included at the book’s end that he prefers Aureli to the odious ex-Marxist Schumacher, Spencer identifies severe limitations to his project of autonomy. In Aureli’s view, the only hope for an autonomous architecture is to cut it off from the connectivity of the capitalist city. Drawing inspiration from mendicant societies, he puts forward an atavistic neo-Franciscanism as an alternative. Spencer convincingly discredits this proposal, citing Giacomo Todeschini’s and Jacques Le Goff’s research on the Franciscan order to show how its monasteries were historically integrated into the medieval urban money economy. Next, Spencer exposes the way Aureli relies on the Schmittian geopolitical binary of the island (the project) versus the sea (the market). Upholding the former against the latter, he reverts to an abstract negation.

interior photograph of a public library with the shade partly drawn and an interlocking facade screen
Mecanoo’s Library of Birmingham. (Douglas Spencer)

The methodological core to the book is laid out in the penultimate chapter, “Architecture’s Abode of Production,” an extraordinarily dense but rewarding essay. For Spencer, it is high time to reevaluate the conceptual tools available to architectural criticism. Quoting the late theorist Moishe Postone, he states that materialist critics must move beyond the metaphor of base and superstructure. Each side—subject and object, economics and politics—is intrinsically related to the other. Moreover, he maintains that architecture plays an integral part in mediating between these poles: it does not just passively represent, but actively embodies, the contradictions of capitalism. On this basis, he criticizes the treatment of architecture in texts by Marxists as different as Fredric Jameson and Guy Debord. Jameson famously read the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles through a quasi-structuralist lens, as merely symptomatic of underlying transformations, while for Debord everything is reduced to representation, becoming its own spectacular hypostasis. Spencer leans on E. P. Thompson’s critique of Louis Althusser in criticizing Jameson and Gilles Dauvé’s critique of the Situationists in criticizing Debord, advancing instead a sophisticated dialectical interpretation.

In this sense Critique of Architecture marks a departure from The Architecture of Neoliberalism, which featured a somewhat appreciative appraisal of Jameson’s canonical reading. Similarly, Spencer regards it as no longer sufficient to denounce buildings just for displaying properties associated with Debord’s theory of spectacle (and this sets him apart from writers like Hal Foster and Gevork Hartoonian, with whom he otherwise has much in common). Better precedents can be found, Spencer alleges, in works by Theodor Adorno and Manfredo Tafuri. However, though he abhors the postcritical turn in contemporary architecture, and regards the flight to precritical romanticism à la Aureli as regressive, he does not want to retreat to a naively “pre-postcritical” standpoint. Put differently, he thinks it is not enough to simply fly the old battle standards of criticism. An idea of what Spencer is hoping to achieve may be seen in chapter 3, where he patterns his investigation into the forms of subjectivity cultivated by platform architecture after studies of 19th-century realist and pastoral painting by T.J. Clark and John Barrell. Critique of Architecture is concerned to demonstrate how built structures shape the very agents who inhabit them.

Yet, despite its obvious brilliance, a few questions might still be posed. The critic Lukas Meisner notes in his review that Critique of Architecture uncomfortably straddles “a Marxian and a Foucauldian approach.” Certainly, there has been no shortage of efforts to synthesize the theories of Foucault and Marx, or depict the former’s ideas as somehow continuous with those of Frankfurt School luminaries like Adorno. Even within Marxism, though, there is a great deal of incompatibility between the kind of dependentista outlook that informs Walter D. Mignolo’s decolonial theory and Ellen Meiksins Wood’s strictly Brennerite account of the origins of capitalism. Spencer draws heavily on Mignolo in attacking the anthropological assumptions behind Homo economicus, while he invokes Wood to claim that the tools of criticism must be constantly renewed, so it could just be that their disagreement about the dynamics of capitalist development is irrelevant. But the book is elsewhere quite sensitive to such subtleties, not least in the critique of Jameson and Debord alluded to above. One wonders, too, if Spencer does not succumb to the periodizing temptation he accuses Jameson of, given his emphasis on neoliberalism and post-Fordism.

For the most part, Spencer’s critical instincts are good. He skillfully oscillates between analyzing programmatic statements by architects, architectural criticism, and the buildings themselves. (These vary widely, from the MAAT Museum in Lisbon and Ford’s campus in Dearborn, Michigan, to a litany of subway stations, including London’s Westminster Underground and the Fulton Transit Center in Lower Manhattan.) He is right to peel back the radical veneer with which architects have, since at least the ’70s, wrapped their projects. But if architecture today is worse, this is due in no small measure to the fact that the world itself is worse, or at the very least has fewer prospects. A world where wealth takes the form of value, where labor is recompensed by wages, and where the products of labor appear as commodities impoverishes itself. Genuine Tafurian Ideologiekritik, of the sort Spencer has returned to lately, is necessary now as ever.

Ross Wolfe is a critic, historian, and educator living in New York City.