Struggles for space: Architecture and anarchy, a mismatched couple (2)


This is the second post 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.  In the instance, we share an essay by Jean-Pierre Garnier, of 2004, published by Ravage Éditions, which appears here in translation (for the original french version, click here) .  The first essay of the series may be found here.


At a time when some reaffirm, like the Maoists in their time, wanting to “retake the city”, to “re-appropriate” it or “self-manage” it, it would appear necessary to reproduce texts like the following.  Reminding us, through the question of architecture, that there is nothing to re-appropriate in this world, and taking us back to their true source – civism [citoyennisme] – all of the illusions of participation of all manner of democrats.  After all, what is the re doing in “let us re-appropriate the city”, “let us retake the city” or “reclaim the street”.  When did cities belong to us?  When humanity was hunted out of the countryside to inhabit cities constructed like camps to fix and concentrate well guarded labour?  We constructed them, yes, in times immemorial or recently, but we did not design them, we did not think them, and they were not built to serve us, but to serve the powerful and preserve their order, thus to enslave us.

Some would reply that on the occasion of insurrectional moments, the city belongs to the insurgent.  But we rather believe that an insurrection, if it truly wishes to be revolutionary, that it must set as one of its qualitative goals the destruction of cities, along with all other concentrations of power.  For practical reasons first, for how could we nourish ourselves (durably) in the city if we refuse to keep operating the death factories of agricultural industry?  But also because we cannot dream of another world without engendering ruins.  To re-appropriate the city, or self-manage it, would be equivalent to enclosing oneself in the infernal cycle of management, and thus in the reproduction of this world, a final counter-revolution.  It was Durruti who affirmed, “we are not afraid of ruins.  We are going to receive the world as an inheritance.  The bourgeoisie may very well explode and demolish its world before leaving the stage of history.  We carry a new world in our hearts.”

Modern architecture must answer to criteria that are also modern, and which will never be ours.  Crime prevention is the best example.  Behind this barbarous and exclusively prefectural expression, hides the formalisation of methods geared towards the concern with security in the planning of public and private spaces, in sum, policing.  Its application was supposed to reduce the feeling of insecurity.  It thus reduces more than ever architects and urban planners to the role of simple auxiliaries of the police.  But is it still necessary to prove this?

For this old world to die, it will be necessary to destroy all prisons, cities included.

One day, I came across an engraving representing an architect of ancient India: a man sitting in the middle of the house, armed with a long stick, with which he pointed to let the workers know where to lay their stone.  To be seated and to command the masons, I had found my vocation.

Renzo Piano, architect (1)

What relation can there be between architecture and anarchy except one that is a priori antithetical?  In effect, the least that can be said is that architecture, from its beginnings, put itself in the service of order, as can be witnessed in the edification of temples to honour the gods, palaces to protect the powerful or monuments to glorify tyrants.  Architecture is assuredly a symbol of authority.  But not only: it is firstly one of its instruments, and not the least of them, for it constitutes one of the indispensable modes of its exercise.

“More than the ostentatious representation of power, architecture is the principle of an art of commanding.  All power is exercised architecturally.” (2)

The Greek etymology of the word states as much: the prefix arkhi expresses preeminence, designating what comes first chronologically as well as hierarchically.  In the other words, the beginning goes together with command (arkhê).

This is evident in the very practice of architecture, more than ever marked by elitism and authoritarianism.  To dream of democratising it, as some “rebellious” students of the discipline did, some thirty years ago, is in this regard nonsense.  Desirous above all of shaking the tutelage of their “great masters”, some went so far as to lay claim to Maoism – or at least what was perceived to be such in school seminars –  to incite the architect to “come down from her/his pedestal”, to practice a “return to the base, or grassroots” so as to gave ear to the masses.  But once integrated into the profession, these revolutionaries of the drawing board hastened to renew ties with authoritarian, bureaucratic tradition.  So much so, that they have never broken with it.  In any case, once defrocked of their youthful leftism, Jean Novel, Christian de Portzamparc, Roland Castro and other “starchitects”, more than ever install themselves on the steps of palaces.

Can there then be with regards to architectural creation an anarchist point of view that is not purely negative, not to say iconoclastic?  Would not architecture be condemned, for all eternity, to serve but the prince; this last would claim to be of and for the people, as was the case in the countries of unreal socialism or, in our time, in those where “democracy” is supposed to reign, so to say?  However magnificent it can be, however strong the aesthetic experience it provides, the impression that humans live upon the earth by means of the art of building, would it not be in the end but that of domination and submission?  The exception that breaks the rule, should this art, due to its intrinsically authoritarian nature, escape the total or integral revolution that constitutes the horizon of struggle for emancipation?  In other words, how to break the age-old link that associates the power of places with the places of power?  And thus arrive at re-inscribing the first in what the majority of humans were dispossessed of by the second: their capacity to individually or collectively self-constitute their relation to inhabiting, dwelling.

The false windows of self-building

There are many different ways to envisage this relation, where the inhabitants could freely express, with regard to their habitat, their inventive and creative faculties.  The first that comes to mind is evidently self-building.  Numerous are the writings dedicated to the subject, however this type of response and the experiences that it inspires do not exactly respond to the problematic laid out above.

Placed under the signs of urgency and scarcity, self-building constitutes firstly, in our time, a solution of daily survival in countries where the greater part of the population, victim of the oppressive regimes in place, vegetate in poverty and dereliction.  Certainly the habitat of fortune that serves as shelter, if not residence, is the fruit of “resourcefulness”, that is of an inventiveness dictated by necessity.  However, unless we fall into an exotic populism with which certain anthropologists taken by the “culture of poverty” content themselves, one cannot, without cynicism or demagogy, detect in shantytowns the outline of an alternative model of architectural creation.  In the best of cases, at most, as do experts in development, “sustainable” or not, a few ideas can be inferred (choice of inexpensive material, use of local know-how, correspondence of the arrangement of spaces with ways of life, etc.) susceptible of improving the ordinary.

In the countries of advanced capitalism, self-building was also considered as the nec plus ultra of a “self-managed habitat”.  It nevertheless does not follow that the architectural creativity so inspired corresponds with expectations.  Despite the assiduous efforts of a few sociologists to reveal the “richness of meaning” of houses built by their owners or under their strict control, it is mediocrity and aesthetic banality that predominate.  The constructive know-how which “Sunday builders” may display should not in effect be confused with some kind of aesthetic inventiveness.  Thus the individual homes erected by Portuguese, Spanish or Greek immigrant workers for their families, for example, with the goal of returning to the homeland, spoil as much, and often more, the countryside of their respective regions of origin, as do suburban subdivisions and other “new villages” that proliferate at the periphery of the cities of their host countries.  And this because the practical and language “competence” of the “suburbanite” elevated by certain sociologists to the status of “active occupant” of her/his home does not make of her/him a creator.  Similarly, the ingenuity that s/he may display to “tinker” with the interior of her/his house or arrange the adjoining garden, remains for the most part prisoner of stereotypes drawn from the “model-types” of prefabricated, off-the-shelf houses sold by catalog, blocking any deviation from well traveled paths.  Not everyone is Postman Cheval!

In contrast to this self-built habitat where diversity walks hand in hand with repetition, there exist prototypes of “innovative” housing, in one way or another, as individual houses or as small collective buildings, conceived and realised by their proprietors, often with the contribution of architect, urban planner, engineer or designer friend.  Such experiences are no doubt enriching, but they are available only to a minority of wealthy people anxious to prove that it is possible to “live otherwise” in a world largely unchanged.  It is the same for  “sheds” recuperated by their buyers, to be converted into secondary residences in rural areas threatened with desertification.  And what can be said of “lofts”, converted at great cost by their rich occupants in abandoned workshops or warehouses, passed on by deindustrialisation?

One will object perhaps that before being invested in/by well to do hipsters [bobos], “urban wastelands” initially served as places of welcome for more or less penniless “marginals”, averse to the right of private property and to the generalised commodification of urban space.  Spaces of social experimentation while being at the same time a way of survival, it happens that squats, notably when they are transformed into “cultural spaces” by artists, become the occasion for non-professionals to deploy their talents as architects, talents that would remain virtual in other residential situations.  Most often however the changes made are essentially summary.  Carried out, in addition, with limited means, they oblige the squatters to live in precarious conditions of comfort and hygiene, where architectural invention and creativity can hardly find a place.

Supposed “to break with capitalist urbanisation”, the inventive recuperation of the interstices of degraded urban fabric does not take long in inspiring city councilors and real estate developers who are also in search of an alternative to an [urban] “renewal” become unpopular and above all unsaleable, in the long run, due to the aesthetic and ecological devastation that it brought in its wake.

A new model of “urban reconquest” thus followed suit: the “rehabilitation” of old lower class neighbourhoods and their “gentrification”, that is, their progressive, if not progressive, occupation, by monied and trendy individuals enamoured of branded non-conformism.  Self-building in this case is no longer relevant.  It is now to expert architects that appeal is made to “reinvent” the city.

The impasses of “participation”

In the wake of the liberating momentum of May 68, a vast literature quickly accumulated around the theme of the “right to the city”, theorised by the sociologist Henri Lefebvre and popularised by a radicalised intellectual petite-bourgeoisie who saw then in the “urban field” the opening of a “new front” against bourgeois domination.  The “urban struggles” led at this time against technocratic planning or the real-estate operations of the “merchants of the city” seemed to justify the soundness of this idea.  Organised in committees of users, residents’ councils and other associations of residents, supported by activists who presaged an extension or a displacement of “contestation” from the field of labour towards urban space, a number of city dwellers expressed their desire to intervene directly in the domain hitherto exclusive to urbanism and architecture.

Borrowed by the situationists from the futurist architects of pre-Stalinist USSR, before being converted into an electoral jingle by the “communications” people of the socialist party, the slogan “change the city to change life” [“changer la ville pour changer la vie”] will open the way to a flood of propositions to have the inhabitants “participate” in the “improvement of their living environment”.  Some will even come to advocate the “self-management” of the latter, in the name of a deepening of “local democracy” judged to be indispensable.  Captured in this ideological flux, architects spoke of “associating the users” with the definition and the execution of urban projects, the most radical not hesitating to make theirs the watchword launched by their Egyptian colleague Hassan Fahti in a completely different context: “To build with the people”.

These proclamations remained of course, if not dead, at least without noticeable consequences for the sharing of roles between, on the one hand, the producers of urban space, that is the decision makers and the planners, exclusively entitled to determine, among other things, the forms the city should take in the future and, on the other hand, the consumers, that is the majority of its common inhabitants, invited by a servile architectural “critique” not only to accept, but to approve, even applaud the “great works” carried out with their backing.

There was a preoccupation from on high, certainly, with knowing a little better the tastes and distastes of the people, in the meantime transformed into the “public”, in matters of urbanism and architecture.  A pack of researchers is regularly sent “into the field” to capture their “needs”, to study their “practices”, to consider their “representations”.  Furthermore, the rise of “new technologies of communication”, used mainly, in this instance, as computerised audiovisual techniques of manipulation, allowed local elected officials to perfect ever more sophisticated procedures of “consultation” to make of the citizen a “full actor in the city”.  However, when her/his opinion is asked for, it will rarely be with regards to urban projects even modestly important susceptible of significantly changing their environment, but rather on such essential questions as the location of a bowling pitch [un terrain de boules], the height of curbs or the signage for a pedestrian crossing.

In any event, if s/he has a voice in the matter, it will be exclusively “consultative”!

Despite the efforts deployed by the authorities and their media channels to have one believe the opposite, the “right of review/scrutiny” given to the citizen over the quality of the urban landscape only confirmed and confined her/him in the status that has always been her/his: that of spectator.  Today, like yesterday, the art of building remains the privilege of princes, whether they be “global” managers, national rulers or local potentates, seconded by renowned architects whom they have acquired the services of.

The pure product of the separation and the fragmentation of human praxis under the effect of the capitalist division of labour, architectural creation is rightly taken as a highly specialised activity reserved for a minority, if not to say an elite.  Only individuals equipped with the training, the knowledge and the adequate aptitudes, can today pretend to shape the constructed environment where their pairs are called upon to live.  Should we therefore resolve to admit that the initial hypothesis, formulated by André Bernard and Philippe Garnier, according to which “the power to innovate, to invent is at the heart of man, each man, as a potentiality”, cannot be extended to architectural production and, more broadly, to that of inhabited space, leaving aside the amenities of domestic space referred to above?  Admit, finally, that the complexity which building activity has reached today renders illusory any hope of a popular re-appropriation in this domain?  Or is this not rather, as on each occasion that “complexity” is emphasised, an alibi for making the very idea of such a re-appropriation unthinkable?

“Mother of all the arts” or the ungrateful child of artisanship?

There was a time when, next to “learned” architecture reserved for religious, princely or civic buildings, that is, for the constructed symbols of domination, an ordinary architecture deployed itself, one that can almost be qualified as popular to the extent that it was the work of artisans who were part of the daily life of  “little people” to which they belonged, working furthermore in permanent collaboration with them.  The resultant habitat (houses, shops, streets, squares, arches, chapels, fountains, walls, terraces, etc.) was so consistent with the needs, desires, pleasures or beliefs of each that it would not be an exaggeration to consider the people as the true creators of their “living environment” [cadre de vie], with the artisan playing thus the role of simple technical mediator.  To fully mark the rooting of this “architecture without architects” in the local social-historical terrain, anthropologists will qualify it as “vernacular” – from the Latin word vernaculus, meaning “born in the house”, for the slave, and not something coming from elsewhere -, so as not to say “indigenous”, a more appropriate term, but carrying annoying connotations since decolonisation.

If above we put the expression “living environment” within quotation marks, it is because it is mystifying.  Under the cover of giving value to the environment by emphasising what is vital in it for our contemporaries, it incites endorsing and enshrining, by naturalising it, the framing of their life by the built environment.  But what is proper to so called vernacular architecture is that it is elaborated in direct “contact” “with” the ways of life of its inhabitants, contrary to the industrialised building that will succeed it and and which will make weigh its “hold on” them.  The first materialised and symbolised together the preserved autonomy of the collectivity that they constituted, even if this latter was accountable to the more or less distant powerful who reigned over it.  The second, on the other hand, will be put into effect conjointly with technocratic urban planning that develops in parallel, so that the inhabitants learn to live – a formulation to be taken literally and figuratively -, according to the individualistic canons of modernity.  To make of course docile consumers.  But, first, as we are reminded by an author who does not forget the political dimension of the programmed destruction of the old urban fabric, to “break the old capacity of resistance of the popular classes by assuring the material conditions of their atomisation.” (3)

Pre-capitalist, vernacular architecture will maintain itself despite everything as best it can until “modernisation”, in the form of industrialisation, finally pervades what will be henceforth called the “building sector”, liquidating the art of building of the artisans, whose know-how will be thrown into the wastebasket of “archaism”, along with the art of life that was tied to it.  It is intentional here that the word “art” is used to refer at the same time to a mode of life and the way of conceiving the environment that corresponds with it, even if this last term is also far from being satisfactory.  In presupposes, in effect, an exteriority of the habitat in relation to the inhabitant, typical of a society where the meaning of to inhabit is lost little by little.

To inhabit a space, in effect, in the anthropological sense, that is in its transitive form, is to be able to invest in it with our desires, our dreams or our memories so as to make an identifiable “place” with which we will ourselves identify with, whether it be for a whole life or only for a brief moment, as ephemeral guest of a place or even simple passing visitor.  But more often than not, what happens is that we must repress sentiments and aspirations, constrained as we are to inhabit a space that will not only be lived as exterior, but which can appear foreign, even hostile.  Indissociable, to “know how to make” [savoir-faire] and to “know how to live” [savoir-vivre] the city – or the village – combined together to spontaneously make of this – or of that -, a “work” [œuvre]. Today, as has so often been said, capitalism has, like with everything else, knowingly converted them into products.

Before being inducted, rightly or wrongly, “mother of all the arts”, architecture thus remained for a long time the fruit of artisanal activity.  And it is impossible to understand, if one abstracts from the “imperatives” of the capitalist mode of production, why it cannot again be so, at least in part, provided that artisanship be itself renewed.  It is the path defended, among others, by the belgian architect Léon Krier, more libertarian than anarchist, whose already constructed projects, sometimes on the scale of an ensemble of housing, equipment and public spaces, were able to be so, without having to turn to supposedly efficient industrial methods that have led to the technical, cultural, ecological and political failures that we all know of.  Once liberated, as all other productive activity, from with the obsession with benefit and profit, the quarantine of the corps of trades that make up building artisanship could offer an infinity of possibilities of artistic expression and personal invention to a multitude of individuals, thereby reducing, without bringing it to an end, the creative monopoly that architects arrogate to themselves.

To live by the art of others

“A village, solitary but set amidst a few cultivated terraces on a hillside, humanises the landscape as far as the horizon; the poverty and the solitude that its stones harbour project onto the surrounding world the presence of a hidden meaning and a desirable order.” 

In a single phrase and with this one example, the sociologist Michel Freitag summarises and illustrates what can be so problematic in architecture today. (4)

And the loss that results for all of those – the majority – who, without being able themselves to fashion and mould the places where they live, even as amateurs, would like nevertheless to be moved, enjoy, amuse and remember themselves, to imagine, following their own relations with spaces conceived of and constructed by others.

It can be said, without the risk of being contradicted, that the greater part of what has been constructed over the course of the last decades comes up short, with very few exceptions, of any pleasure or desire to discern or project any meaning other than that of utility.  “Beyond the immediate functionality of the organisation of places and things, what world has there been left to see or desire?” (5)

What “presence” can one encounter in the urbanised environment that is proposed to – imposed on – us today?  And yet, it is not architects, urbanists, landscapers and artists who are lacking to try to establish dialogue between inhabitants and “their” habitat.  However, that we have a need for all of these “professionals”, “experts”, “specialists” and other “players”, as they are called, shows very well, precisely, that the capacity to invent, which should be at the heart of each individual as an inhabitant, as in other spheres of her/his existence, no longer belongs to her/him.

Beyond its utility, an architecture, whatever it is, should it not in these conditions, find a new legitimacy in a certain power over the imaginary of its inhabitants?  No longer the power of intimidation and of imposition that we spoke of earlier, but of persuasion, even if “clandestine”, as with the temples of consumption – including cultural consumption, whether of museums, theatres or opera houses -, consistent with a society that prospers on the passivity of the majority.  In this instance, it is, on the contrary, the power to incite self-expression.

Philippe Garnier reminds us of Picasso’s criterion for a successful work of art: “The fact that it gives to the other the desire to invent – not in painting, but in her/his own domain.” (6)

Evidently, this holds also for architecture.  Even more so, one could also add: as “the mother of all of the arts”, it could, given the multiplicity of aesthetic registers that it must play upon, give birth to creative “vocations” by means of and in the most diverse domains, among people whose profession is not architecture.  Consider, for example, all of those who became writers, painters, photographers or film makers – known or unknown, talented or untalented, it matters little – who in the beginning took up the quill or a camera with the only goal of sharing the feelings and the emotions experienced while moving through a city, a neighbourhood, a street, a house …

One therefore cannot but deplore that all that is built under our eyes is part of this mute and unreadable architecture that is impervious to interpretation, as sterilising for the spirit as the monumental jabber that serves as a vehicle for the propagandistic or promotional discourses of the powerful.  And, because one must bring this reflection to a close, we will finish with the evocation of one of these places that speaks to us, as one says, because others have with success established an active dialogue with it.  Let us then choose to have ourselves carried towards one of the islands of the Cyclades which the genius of men/women has for ages known to be blessed by the gods.

How can one’s flesh not tremble before these villages perched on the edge of cliffs that give the impression that it has snowed in the midst of summer, unless their harmonious petrified cubes were by poetic chance to flow in a wave towards the welcoming port snuggled at their feet?  Irrefutable proof, if it is necessary, of this possibility of an “immediate art of space” of which the writer Jacques Lacarrière spoke with such passion, soon before the surge in mass tourism would begin to make its negative effects felt.  Let us nevertheless dream of a world, and do what is required for it to become reality, where all human beings, become artists in one way of the other, can begin again to create, instead of contenting themselves with work and consumption, as long as contentment can be associated with such activities.  A world where each will be able to make her/himself, with the means at hand, from the most rudimentary to the most elaborate, but above all with her/his own imaginary, a place in the image of that evoked by the great Cretan poet, Nicos Kazantzakis, when at the end of his life, he wrote: “At the dreadful moment of death, close your eyes and, if you see Santorini, Naxos, Paros and Mykonos, you will enter, without even touching earth, into paradise.  What do the immaterial specters of christian paradise or the breast of Abraham weigh before this Greek eternity, made of water, rock and cool wind?”

1. Awarded the Pritzker prize in 1998 (the Nobel of architecture), Renzo Piano is the co-author of the Georges-Pompidou Centre.  Built in the four corners of the globe, his projects count among the uncontested – incontestable – chefs-d’œuvre of contemporary architecture: the Jean-Marie-Djibaou Centre in New-Caledonia, the Kansaï airport terminal in Okinawa, the head office of Hermès in Tokyo and that of the New York Times in New York, the City of Music in Rome, etc.

2. Benoît Goetz, « La dislocation : critique du lieu », in Ch. Younès, M. Mangematin, Lieux contemporains, Descartes et Cie, 1997.

3. « De la destruction des villes en temps de paix », Revue du Mauss, n° 14, second semestre 1999.

4. Michel Freitag, Architecture et société, Éditions Saint-Martin, 1992.

5. Ibid.

6. Réfractions, n° 7, « L’art et l’inventivité », 2001.

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