Struggles for space: Anarchism, architecture and anarchitecture (1)

If there is no art without architecture (for are not most of what we call the “fine arts” housed?) and if architecture is the arkhi-chief-master tekhne-art and the architect the master tekton-artist-artisan-builder, then the anarchist should find little affinity with such apparently masterly and mastered creativity.  Indeed, the struggle against authority could be seen to include a struggle against art and architecture.  But if etymology may serve as an initial guide, it is far too inadequate a source to be able to understand art, architecture and the complex relations that anarchists have assumed with regard to them.

Is there a uniquely anarchist art or architecture, understood in terms of content and/or form?  Is there an anarchist way or method in the arts?  Or are the arts, for the anarchist, to be taken back from the masters and re-appropriated by the pleb, thereby rendered “anarchitecture”, free, unmastered and unrestrained creativity?  But is art possible without mastery?  And if not, is there a specifically anarchist creative mastery?  The questions multiply, as well as the different answers that have been given, both within anarchist thought and practice, as well as beyond it.

In a less than common reflection on the Anarchist House, Colin Ward addresses the question of whether or not there is an anarchist aesthetic, as opposed to a bourgeois aesthetic, to which he promptly answers no.  A quotation from painter and anarchist Camille Pissaro brings the matter to a close.

Y a-t-il un art anarchiste? quoi décidément ils ne comprennent pas.  Tous les arts sont anarchistes quand c’est beau et bien ! 

All the arts are anarchist which are beautiful and good, and we could add, the result of a free creativity.  Ward’s anarchist house has much to do with all three of these virtues.  In other words, the anarchist in art (and elsewhere, including politics) is not to be found in its content or form, but in a certain ethics of freedom which gives rise to beauty and goodness. (Colin Ward, Autonomy, Solidarity, Possibility: The Colin Ward Reader, AK Press, 2011.)

If we follow Colin Ward, and focus exclusively on architecture as a kind of self-conscious foundational art, we might contend that modern architecture’s aspiration to a purely functional form, reflective of assumed universal human needs, is dead, leaving behind it only elitist, mechanistic and “market” driven building.  But there have always been alternatives.  For Ward, there is first and foremost vernacular “architecture”, the many, many buildings throughout history that “were not the result of the work of professional architects”.  Unrecorded by triumphant history, the ordinary building of peoples, with their own local know how, materials,and so on, exists only in the shadows of spectacular, ceremonial structures of power.  “Vernacular architecture has never been homogenised, it can never be an international language, for it is rooted in places and their indigenous materials and patterns of life.”  But as Ward already observed in the 1970s, the vernacular in the developed countries was dead; and today we may say that it is dying everywhere.  Where it persists, it does so very often only in forms of commodified, nostalgic fantasy.

Ecological concerns also suggest other alternatives, both in construction and urban design, examples of which can again also be found in the past of vernacular architecture.

Adaptive, reusable structures point to a third alternative.  “Vernacular buildings waste nothing: they hate to destroy a structure, and will adapt the most unlikely buildings for new purposes.  It is only a few years since the orthodoxies of architecture encouraged the idea of throw-away buildings because most existing buildings had outlived their original uses.  But this idea is by now more obsolete than the buildings to which it referred.”

To speak of adaptable or malleable environments also points to the place and agency of the occupier/user/inhabitant of a building.  A finished structure, the designed building as a “fully-finished objet d’art“, “relegates the occupier of the building to the role of caretaker”; a passive, and thereby ultimately superfluous, consumer of enclosed spaces of consumption.  A malleable architecture, whose plasticity is tested in the ways that it is lived, may appropriate partially the power of spatial order from the economy and the State, and their artist servants.  It now falls to the “people”.

Modern architecture’s aesthetic pretensions however were rarely ever divorced from a vision of the architect as servant of nature, of human nature.  The art of architecture sought to create spaces that corresponded to the greatest degree possible to natural predispositions and potentials.  The aesthetic excesses of pre-modern forms only served to corrupt man and perpetuate feudal and elitist social relations.  Modern architecture was to be without borders, expressive of the essence of the species.  This “essence” of course was never more than an ideologically and socially constructed individual, built piecemeal with bits of class, gender, sex, age, race, ethnic identities mixed through hierarchical and oppressive regimes of power.  Ward can accordingly speak of a counter-cultural architectural alternative: one that contests the hegemony of fixed spatial functions and divisions of labour.  “The counter-culture postulates quite different building types: the multi-family house or commune; the reintegration of agriculture and industry and of brain work and manual work …; or the free school or college, which might be totally de-institutionalised, using the whole environment as an educational resource.  Not only would the alternative culture prescribe quite different building forms, it would also combine them in quite different ways: the school which is also a workshop, the market-garden which is also an academy of music …”

A fifth approach to alternatives embraces fully the idea of a plastic environment, one “that can be shaped and re-shaped by its users.”

All of these lead Ward to a final and central consideration, a last alternative, expressed in the question, “Who is in control of the building, use and re-use of structures?”  To pose this question is not just to challenge architecture as an art of master builders, but to also contest the political-economic regimes that render such art possible.

“At one time the architect’s skill was considered to rest on his ability to manipulate the ‘orders’ of classical architecture, or the vocabulary of styles in general, or in the massing of volumes and spaces.  These skills are irrelevant to all but a minute proportion of the designers of contemporary buildings.  At one time, too, the architect was considered to be a ‘master builder’, but today is content to devote constructional and technical wisdom to specialists and technicians.  If architects have a professional future at all, it is, in the phrase of Geoffrey Vickers, as “skilled understanders enabling people to work out their problems”.  This is not a matter for regret.  I know several happy and fulfilled people who work in just this way, at the service of local community groups.  Their reward is the friendship of everyone in the locality.”  (Colin Ward, “Lecture at Sheffield University Architectural Society, 11th February 1976”, in Talking to Architects: Ten Lectures by Colin Ward, Freedom Press, 1996.)

What emerges from Colin Ward’s reflections on architecture is not an architecture of a specific form, an anarchist architecture, but an apology for the appropriation of architectural practice as a playful making and using of space, an architecture freed of mastery, an autonomous architecture of freedom.

We both make space and are made by it.  If architecture orders space, it may do so in a manner that disciplines and controls, thus contributing, in however modest a way, to the re-production of State-capitalist social relations, or it may be taken, “occupied” and made an instrument, among others, of emancipatory practices, an anarchitecture.

This brief reflection, inspired by the work of Colin Ward, will be the first of a series of essays that we share exploring the troubled relations of anarchism and architecture, or, stated differently, the possibilities of an anarchic dismantling of the masters’ command of space.

To finish, parallel reflections by Pier Paolo Pasolini …

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