Ever high-street in England could be a duplicate of the next. Or at least, in some of my more angst filled moments, it seems that way. Franchised coffee houses, bars and pubs have appropriated whatever architectural spaces they can find to install the same mass made signs and shop fronts. In Brighton there are areas designated called ‘The Lanes’ kept for quirky and semi-exclusive shops and boutiques which have unique and extravagant building decoration. These shops are classic bo-ho fashion and retro cool intermixed with other petite-bourgeois delights such as the now mainstream tattoo parlour and high quality organic food shops. But many places are not quite as ‘lucky’ as Brighton to have such shops. And what’s more, these shops are the domain of the tourist budget and generally serve more of an aesthetic appeal for many Brighton residents. It seems that there is a distinct lack of spaces to gather and places such as pubs, bars and cafes are tempered with the banal mood music of the easy-listening safe list, and those which don’t play up to the mass market appeal of a popular brand are reserved for quirky and idiosyncratic establishments that pack a premium for the exclusivity. The only areas where there is a non-monetarily driven opening are churches and spiritual ‘friends’ meeting houses, which always feel like they have other, let’s say, meta-physical transactions in mind. What is most striking for me is the absolute lack of places to gather that are not over-determined in function or don’t have a profit incentive for their existence. Jameson was right to note that the ‘end of history’ actually mean the end to non-capitalist space.
Take any art or media complex and you will see that although many galleries and exhibitions are free and thus ‘public’ spaces, it is the surrounding zones which promote a form of elitism (and therefore class division – in terms of which members of the public can use the area for social assembly). It is not the arts themselves which are elitist but their associative environments. For example, “Mozart belonged to the poor in the upper stalls who spent their last dollars to see the opera. Far from making the exclusive temple of high art more accessible, it is the very surrounding of expensive cafeterias etc. which is effectively exclusive and “elitist.”, as Zizek notes in Architectural Parallax. Jameson and Zizek agree, it is the trick of the postmodern to play up to the ‘end of ideology’ motif at the ‘end of history’, and it is thus these places of supposed openness and equality that replicate ideology at its purest.
Even libraries are designed not as a place for groups to gather but studious individuals and book lovers to go and keep quiet. The library is the sacred space of Gutenberg Man, the reader of the printed page, which as McLuhan noted, produced the alienated individual enframed by the linearity and repeatability of the movable typed phonetic alphabet. This abstract uniformity of visual space on the printed page works in distinction to the variables of speech and the acoustic space it necessitates. Libraries can be entered by anyone, but their logic as spaces of social production is definitively individualistic: one pursues ones interests and tastes in literature, history and so on within the muted environment of a speechless vacuum. This is perhaps why some of the more interesting architectural projects in inner-city areas are focused around the rejuvenation of libraries (as an investment in libraries is an investment into the social reproduction of the liberal subject, although now libraries are sites of internet terminals and newspaper archives, so maybe they are polyvalent media zones that replicate the pastiche of late-modern thinking). This is not a call for a stop to libraries as a way out of capitalism, it is only a reflection on the ideas of McLuhan’s media theory that gives a second more questing look towards the library book maelstrom, to which I’m sure the ubiquitously applauded library can handle. It is curious that libraries are meant to be dying and illiteracy in school children rising when these are supposed to be the hallmarks of the literate, rational, liberal subject. Libraries take on an especially disconcerting character, as some of the last vestiges of covered and open public space for quiet literary consumption, as what ever was left of a sense of community for many towns and cities has been decimated under the excessive presence of super-shopping centres and supermarkets.
The phenomenon of out-of-town shopping centres, and supermarkets (which, ironically, are both in and out of town) shows a logic of the architectural envelope that requires mechanisms of spatial displacement that promote huge crowd volumes and threshold populations. To enclose public spaces but allow for a smooth flux and flow of people in and out of artificially controlled environmental micro-climates (through air conditioning and electric lighting) produces, as Alejandro Zaera Polo claims, a politically charged zone in conflictual relationship with the locality (due to their brutal prefabricated construction). These types of structure usually have flat and horizontal envelopes and are privatized and strictly controlled. The atmosphere is sterile and homogeneous, where the flat and effortlessly smooth ground allows for complete focus upon the shop front rather than concern for ones feet. The experience is one of intensive commodity ‘wonder’ with a reification of spacial reality through shining white and mirrored surfaces. Hygienic sterility is an imperative to maintain at all times, to keep a high quality gloss to the surroundings, making shopping as ‘pleasurable’ as possible: this hygiene includes human and non-human pollutants, as private security teams militantly patrol the entrances to check for ‘hoodies’, baseball capped youths, and other ‘unsightly’ reprobates. The spaces are not public or private but a privatized public, with the shopping centre as the centre of consumer life, where the ‘Mall’, as it is known across the pond, is naturalized and mocked by films such as Kevin Smith’s Mallrats and even built into utopian fantasies of super abundant societies, such as The Venus Project.
I’m not sure if many people have heard of The Venus Project but it is basically a utopian pseudo fantasy masquerading as politically revolutionary thought. The first thing that sprang to mind while gazing at the glossy architecture porn that makes up the bulk of the site’s content was Fredrick Jameson’s notion that capitalism colonizes the future through finance capital and land speculation, and as such, architecture is the closest of all the arts to replicating economic models rather than breaking them. Jameson quotes Manfredo Tafuri’s assertion that “one cannot ‘anticipate’ a class architecture (an architecture for a liberated society)”. To which Jameson follows with:
The conclusion of which is a condemnation of architectural fantasies such as The Venus Project. It takes the logic of, as Zizek would say, ‘ecology as the opium for the masses’, where the delicate balance of nature is appeased and man has learned to act as one with natural forces to create a harmonious society of leisure and spiritually driven subjects. The ‘pleasure’ of such a rationality controlled collective of control runs contra to the aesthetic sublime and jouissance of modernist architecture that aimed to change the mode of social production, not glorify the bourgeois fantasy of infinite leisure time. The Venus project has very little in the way of sociological critique, and seems to think that one can transplant society, as it is, into a new society of perfectly sustainable super-abundance without need to reconsider public (work) and private (family) formations that wouldn’t be solved by the replacement of the workforce by robotic automation. My gripes about the possibilities of space and the architecture that generates such spaces are not to be solved through such naive utopian fantasy (although I am not against utopianism or fantasy, but only when it is done with a sense of a genuine break, rather than apologetics for the status quo). Jameson argues that architecture reveals the historical materialism of the economic (capitalism), while architecture’s exterior is the economic conditions that influence the design as a judgement of history itself. The problem with The Venus Project is that it conflates the aesthetic for the political and the desires of today for the desires of the future. As Jameson states…
The desire for radical change to both our private and our public places comes, for me, through the sight of the city malls and high streets succumb to a non-place logic of consumption that undermines non-normative social practises and opportunities of assembly. But, in thinking and theorizing about architecture it is important to take not only an ideological view (for which Jameson criticizes Tafuri), but also a phenomenological view. It is through experience that architecture (as a singular building or considered as a total city) creates affective changes. I see architecture not as an epiphenomena of social ideologies but a sight that retroactively transforms the subject through its phenomenological engagement with it. In Understanding Media (which I’m sure is not the first thing many architectural theorists reach for) McLuhan views architecture as something that, through its forms, changes our perceptions of visual and tactile space and displaces ‘equilibriums’ between our senses and changes our ‘attitudes and preferences’. This phenomenological dimension needs to be considered not only from the inside of the building/city/zone itself, but also from the perspective of planning itself.
Architectural art, such as that seen on The Venus Project website, should be viewed through both ideological and phenomenological lenses: as a Marlau-Ponty style ‘reading’ of art would see, art is not just a visual field of experience but a tactile one, where the viewer is transported into the projected world of the image and gathers a sensual impression from its figures and forms. The feeling I get from the pictures on The Venus Project is of a kind of bourgeois leisure paradise, an anaesthetized dream image of rationally dominated landscapes eliminated of risk, surprise and contingency. There’s no intensive exertion or activity, just the feeling of a polymorphically perverse amniotic zone of total control and tamed nature. As Tafuri explicitly states, such ideological fantasies are a drive for “constant victory over the uncertainty of the future”, this envisioned utopia becomes capitalist real abstraction, its ‘judgement of history’.
So, as Jameson testifies, a revolutionary architecture is not possible to create from within the framework of capitalist social relations and the desires thus associated, but through the contingency of a break/reclamation of the reified space that enables an architecture that confirms the disequilibrium of such a space. Zizek suggests that we reclaim spaces known as ‘spandrels’, which is an architectural term for the forms and spaces left as a by-product of the design process. These are “interstitial spaces” are the site of appropriation, as they are the contingent opening for possible non-normative function. This reclamation of excess is what Zizek calls exaptation, where something is used for a purpose other than which it was specified, where the design feature can be used as an accident of the design or adaptive process. Either way, my guess is that this exaptation works in the same sense as Marx understood the factory as a site of class struggle for the workers, as the inventiveness of a child who transforms any environment into a playground, and as the students who ‘occupy everything’. Just as Zizek argues we should not aim to destroy the state but to make the state do something it is not meant to do, I feel the same way for the architectural playgrounds that are our cities.
I want to work at lot more on issues around architecture in the future (namely the distinction between the inside/outside, and architecture taken in the context of the personal and the social – what Jameson calls ‘cognitive mapping’, and re-reading Heidegger’s Building Dwelling Thinking) which has been largely inspired by Owen Hatherly’s book Militant Modernism, which I suggest you check out (or just look at his blog, if you get the chance HERE).