To Fill the Earth: Architecture in a spaceless universe

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First appearing in Architecture Against the Post-Political, edited by Nadir Lahiji.

Reviewed in Radical Philosophy 188

The past two decades of architectural production have witnessed the rise and fall of the ‘signature architect’. Born in the thick of a neo-liberal world market and lubricated by a growing ennui for ‘criticality’, architects cultivated a new spirit of practice. As a practice, it built itself around a cult of personality as much as on the technical pragmatics of a self-satisfied generation relishing the spotlight of a globally mediatised world. It was a period whose intellectual wager was placed firmly in the category of ‘reality’, which, if addressed with open candour, promised to reveal the creative genius of the beholder. While able to reach new heights of renown in this climate, architects found their success depended not only on the production of architecture itself, but equally as much on a concerted fabrication of propaganda for their work—claims to particular regions of ‘reality’ which helped to illuminate the uniqueness of the work. Whether cynical reinterpretations of clients’ briefs, statistics of ‘user’ behaviours or advanced digital models of site conditions, we triumphantly named this opening up to reality ‘research’, and undoubtedly it helped each architect hone in on his or her unique signature style—an idiosyncratic approach to design which could be identified in a single glance.

Yet just as quickly as this generation took shape, things began to change. As this cadre of superstar architects had come to firmly occupy the centre of a high-profile global construction apparatus, signatures became less and less pronounced and began to intermingle. Anyone paying even moderate attention to the production of architecture over the past few years will have noticed that it has now become quite difficult to distinguish the work of any one of its stars from another. For a generation of architects whose work was refined in a climate of utter individuality, such an observation is particularly shocking. The radical convergence toward what appears to be a singular architectural language clearly reveals the work of a profound, underlying force at play in multiple, simultaneous fronts. For it is not only the architecture that has blurred itself into a single process with a single product, but it is also the intellectual, representational and rhetorical devices that bolster this work that have merged as well into a uniform set of tropes and cues which nearly all architects seem prompted to echo. Indeed, not only has this group of ‘star architects’ found itself aping one another; it has also become increasingly difficult to differentiate between the work of a global superstar and that of one of the countless, anonymous, corporate firms that now operate on a global scale. It is as if the frontier between the realms of high profile architecture and banal commercial design has folded in on itself in under the weight of some blinding consensual compulsion to which both realms now answer in equal terms. ‘Reality’, in the end, seems to speak with one deafening voice.

Of course the effects of this period were not isolated to the profession. And clearly it could be argued that such a recent history of architectural discourse, prostrating to an evermore acrobatic, corporatised practice, reflects the very same value-free tendencies of a ‘post-political’ culture, committed to the coordinates of a world organised around the theatrical movements of neo-liberal capital. That the banality of iconic architecture, the pervasive insignificance of architectural clichés and the overall absence of a critical, politicised discourse have all become the norm over a time when political discourse itself had been reduced to a social taboo is hardly surprising. Yet even as far back as the 1960’s one can see the growth of an increasingly positivist, reality-absorbed body of research committed to colonising the oblique spaces just adjacent to traditional discourse by ‘learning from’ them. Whether in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Lagos, or the more general fascination cultivated over the past decade for Asian cities and Gulf states, architectural discourse has seemed to grow far too content cataloguing the bizarre versions of the normal to notice its own deeply political complicity in the construction of our world.

Undoubtedly, however, things have changed in recent years, and not only within architectural discussions, but throughout the world in general. In the short span of five years, it has become clear that the world has begun to awaken to its highly politicised consistency and, if anything, the architectural discourse is at least starting to reflect this. The rise of all kinds of practices, from ‘participatory design’, to a design fostering community activism, to the turn toward ‘urban agriculture’, to even much more rigorous engagements with the politics of labour or critical examinations of globalisation have all began to colour architectural discourse with a newly politicised disposition. Today the problem is not a lack of ‘politics’ per se within the discourse: to speak of ‘politics’ in this context has in fact become something of a cliché. And this is not a marginal tendency either. For a discourse that trades so heavily on the currents of fashion, it may be no surprise to find that the very figures who, just a decade ago, had advocated the ‘post-critical’—a brief period of easy affect and populist appeal—, are now selling the virtues of a politically ‘engaged’ architecture to the same discursive milieu.[i] The political has once again become relevant to architecture.

Just as we can no longer say that architectural discourse remains politically disengaged, we can neither claim to still collectively drift about in a ‘post-political’ slumber. Indeed, the recent slew of literature by the likes of Badiou, Žižek[ii] and others—the very same philosophers who identified the ‘post-political’ in the first place—testifies to this. And we don’t need interpretations from political philosophy to figure this out: every day, the violent irruptions of overtly revolutionary and counter revolutionary forces, the disclosures of totalitarian practices perpetrated by governments of the free world, the increasing awareness of politicised protocols adhered to by global finance, a growing recognition that ecology is, first and foremost, a political category, among many other revelations, all appear daily in the media throughout the world. If the secret currency of a world entrenched in a ‘post-political’ horizon has been that, by depoliticising everything, everything becomes politicised,[iii] this secret has been officially declassified today.

[i] Somol, R., ‘Plastic Politics, or Four and a Third Earths Are Not Enough’, lecture at the Canadian Centre of Architecture, Montreal, 28 July 2011.

[ii] Badiou, A., The Rebirth of History: Themes of Riots and Uprisings. reprint ed. London: Verso Books, 2012; Žižek, S., The Year of Dreaming Dangerously. illustrated ed. London: Verso Books, 2012.

[iii] See Deuber-Mankowsky, A. Nothing Is Political, Everything Can Be Politicized: On the Concept of the Political in Michel Foucault and Carl Schmitt. Telos 2008, no. 142 (2008): pp. 135-161.

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