Architecture and Anarchy

Unfortunately it has been a while since I posted on Archi-Ninja. Many exciting things have been happening in last couple of months. I have graduated from my Masters of Architecture degree at UTS. I have travelled Europe and America and spent time visiting amazing offices around the world from BIG (Copenhagen) to Frank Gehry (Los Angeles).

I continue to work full time at Architectus on 1 Bligh Street, Sydney. Also keeping me busy is my new little Dalmatian puppy, Louie. Named after Lou Dog – the unofficial mascot for the American ska-band Sublime. (If you have some time, check out STP – one of my fav Sublime tracks!)

Luckily, I have lots of content ready for Archi-Ninja and will kick off my first post with a mega essay about the relationship between architecture and anarchy. A topic which continued to surface throughout my last couple of years at uni.

My interest in anarchy began when I first listened to a 1982 punk-rock album titled How Could Hell Be Any Worse? by Bad Religion. I was fifteen years of age and from that moment the ethics of early punk rock began to influence a set of principles which to this day lie at the forefront of my professional ambitions. In 2004 I began my studies in architecture, and by then my still-developing anarchist outlook on social politics had rejected almost every ideology tradition of past generation.

I understand the practice of architecture as a culture of hierarchy that appears entirely at odds with the ideals of anarchy: architecture is dependant upon commissions and regulations; the architect must work within a time frame, budget and brief, and is restricted according to safety, money and law. Anarchy, on the other hand (though the definition of anarchy differs between groups of anarchists) is the generic social and political suggestion that expresses negation of all power, autonomy, domination and division. Architecture happens to naturally prosper under the structures and regulations that anarchy aims to eliminate. But it is precisely the differences and contradictions between the ideologies of architecture and anarchy that motivate my aspiration to study and practice in the field.

Anarchism maintains that corporations (of whatever sort, political or commercial) do not value basic human needs, and tend to diminish cultural and social freedom. Architecture plays an increasingly important role in the production of the corporate city – it is the handmaiden of corporatism – and yet I remain intrigued by the possibility that somehow, through the application of the theory and principles of anarchism, designers might be able to challenge the purpose of architecture and to ultimately redefine spatial and cultural implications.

Cities are a product of capitalism. At the turn of the 20th century architecture responded to the influx of rural migration with the systematic separation of social class and mass production. In 1923 Le Corbusier proposed the traditional city be swept away in favour of rational and productive strategies of regulation and suppression. He proposed the eradication of “social chance” and “architectural wilfulness” through mechanical efficiency and regulation of city structures. He also posited architecture as an explicit alternative of, and antithesis to, radical social change: “Architecture ou Revolution?” is the title of one chapter in his magnum opus, Vers une architecture.

The architecture of the early “masters” of modernism (such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Mies Van Der Rohe) is often credited with the destruction of the traditional city as a coherent cultural entity. Despite their lofty promises of utopia, their work to this day is reproduced by the mainstream architectural profession for an incompatible corporate structure; the city is stripped of its moral base to function efficiently as a component of a state-supported global capitalism.

City planners to this day adopt Le Corbusier’s model, in which congested streets are replaced with a combination of towers and freeways. Architectural firms function with a leader of extreme charisma, predictive elitism and authoritarianism, also characteristics of Wright, Le Corbusier and Van Der Rohe. The education system is also misguided; universities often encourage their students to reproduce architectural proposals of past typologies and techniques. The academy’s focus on the past can be seen as non-progressive towards exploring new ways of developing architecture.

Henry Rollins of 1970’s anarchist punk band Black Flag recognises the effect of modern design on urban life, describing the modern city a product of “manipulation, control and agenda.” (Rollins 2010, pers. comm., 3 June) “A society has to at least in part, conform to the structure of the city”, (Rollins 2010, pers. comm., 3 June) and by doing so cities are controlled by the objectives of the people who make them. The success of the city is highly dependant upon a competitive corporate market. Global capitalism has created the need for specific methods of research and monitoring. Information and details about our behaviour are stored in order to aid businesses and government in predicting our reactions and to therefore plan and control our cities accordingly. Research shows that you’re most likely to turn right after entering a shop, that you’re most likely to buy something on an overcast day and that you walk slower when streets are planted with trees. Every space that you pass through in the city is designed with human traffic flow and productivity in mind. The city structure is a functional and efficient system which controls the way its inhabitants move through space. Individual and social components of the city are defined by corporate considerations. The emphasis on the absolute recognises the city with machine-like efficiencies; it is not dissimilar to the 1923 vision of Le Corbusier.

By contrast, the tenets of anarchism to which I adhere are not merely anti-statist but relate more broadly to ideals of freedom. I believe human beings are capable of managing their own lives based on respect, creativity and cooperation. I don’t expect the elite of architecture to embrace anarchy. The modern architect makes their living from the corporate market; when they accept commissions from corporations that affect public life they are in fact committed to supporting political systems.

Architecture contributes to these political systems, firstly, by creating physical devices. The architect for example designs the supermarket like a passage of narrative text, forcing the user to pass from the beginning to the end. The architect designs the isles rounded so that you never be averted from the stock. Supermarket architect Ronald Smith describes this as a technique which ‘endures the maximisation of time spent in store and also as a way to capitalise on impulse buying.’

Secondly, Architecture contributes to the capitalist/corporatist project by creating emotion; buildings are designed to affect human behaviour. The tiles on the Woolworths supermarket aisles in Bondi Junction, Sydney, for example, reduce in size as you approach the more expensive items, causing the wheels on your trolley to click faster and therefore increasing your desire to spend.

Lastly, and less obvious than the contributions above, is the ‘creative authority’ of the architect, which further diminishes the possibility for social encounter and individual freedom. Architects design buildings from a spatial vision, and in order for that space to function the users must be controlled though various architectural strategies including program and circulation. Their renders, plans and photography show architectural space without people or disruptions – their vision is withdrawn from social and political responsibility; they have neglected to recognise the additional social and political implications of their work. Architects understand their role as the creator, but in actuality they produce nothing more or less than a physical and social order designed by the corporations who hold political authority and power.

The consequences of this complacance, from the anarchist perspective, are ominous. One of the key figures in the development of my anarchist thinking is sociologist Richard Sennett. Sennett proposes that the acceptance of order in the modern city has led to the underdevelopment of both individual and community. In The Uses of Disorder, (1970) he describes the present individual as one who seeks a similar machine-like order along the lines of Le Corbusier’s early modernist program. Sennett describes the modern city as a bureaucratic, social and economic support structure for isolation, separation and suppression of individual and communal experience.

Sennett typifies the modern personality as one seeking comfortable, functional, unambiguous and unchallenging perceptions of self and society. “The modern individual is in a state of voluntary extraction from social encounter,” (Sennett 1970, p. 108) he writes. Sennett describes that only in a “dense, disorderly and overwhelming city” can an individual recognise the true complexity of life and human relations: “The jungle of the city, its vastness and loneliness, has a positive human value.” (Sennett 1970, p. 134) The city, in Sennett’s view, is the ultimate locality for exploring ethics and social diversity. “A city isn’t just a place to live, to shop, to go out and have kids play. It’s a place that implicates how one derives one’s ethics, how one develops a sense of justice, how one learns to talk with and learn from people who are unlike oneself, which is how a human being becomes human.” (Sennett 1970, p. 65)

While Sennett’s work is that of a philosopher and not an architect, it is possible to understand his ideas of the city as practical advice for designers and urban planners. In order for humanity to rediscover social freedom and culture, Sennett proposes anarchy in typical 1970’s advocate: he recommends a radical destabilization of power and perception. One architect who seems to reflect the architectural implications of this suggestion is Lebbius Woods. Another of my personal standard-bearers in seeding an anarchist architecture, Woods in a similar manner to Sennett, explores the creation of culture and social encounter.

Woods recognises that architecture constructs a subjective position though the spatialisation of power. “The architect speaks of designing spaces that satisfies human needs, but it is actually human needs that are being shaped in order to satisfy space.” (Tuscello 2003) Woods attempts to create a “freespace” within the controlled city network, freespace being an area with no prescriptive function and no imposed behaviours. Woods recognises human behaviour as dynamic but highly influenced by the inactive state of architecture which contributes to our perception of values. “People come and go, ways of living change, but architecture endures, an idealization of living.” (Tuscello 2003)

Woods introduced the concept of freespace in his Berlin Free Zone project. He describes the project as “A hidden city within the city.” (Woods 2010) The Berlin Free Zone project through conflict of materiality provided unpredictable possibilities for culture, social and individual transformation. The project created machine-like ‘buildings’ within an area where the Berlin Wall once stood. It is difficult for the general public to conceptually understand the work; there is no spatial order or system, as intended the use of his buildings for those willing to invent ways of spatial habitation. Through the breakdown of architectural order and structure, Wood’s architecture allows the participant to redefine their definition of space.

Woods focuses on social and political conflict without violence; his project for the Korean De-militarized Zone depicts a hangar-like structure without walls. The structure is supported by a heteromorphous meshwork of support beams emerging from sinuous columns. Sunshine streams through ragged holes in the roof though the sky is rarely visible though the meshwork above. Internal tension between ideals and the need to survive emerges in a space of suspended conflict. The concept of ‘freespace’ provides a moment of dynamic and patternless structure. The geometry of Woods’ work is seemingly modelled upon the notion of chaos theory – a pattern of order so complex and subtle that it cannot be comprehended as such. His work offers a compelling critique on to the basic human condition of community.

Conflict is a common theme throughout Woods’ architecture: he proposes not a utopia but a heterotopia – a spatial environment where individual differences and conflicts come together. The creation of buildings without walls is in direct opposition to the neoliberal dream of privatized spaces, and the exploration of such spatial interventions are explored in the work of other anarchism-influenced artists and architects – Gordon Matta-Clarke being a prime example.

Matta-Clarke was also trained as an architect, but is predominantly known for his artworks. While Woods explored conflict though lighting and materiality, Matta-Clarke explored the same theme through juxtapositions of past and present. Matta-Clarke’s work often shows hostility towards his initial architectural education which he often described as a ‘trap’.

Matta-Clark’s work can be understood as the attempt to redefine what is by convention considered architecture. Matta-Clarke stated he was “more concerned in voids, gaps, spaces, abandoned and underdeveloped places, for example, places where you stop to tie your laces and places that have a disruption of your daily movements.” (Mannino 2006) Splitting is the first of several works which investigates subversive acts of architectural negation. The project literally cuts a suburban New Jersey home in half. He described the project as offering “A complexity that comes from taking an otherwise completely normal, conventional, albeit anonymous situation and redefining it, translating it into overlapping and multiple readings of past and present.” (Phillips 2006) Matta-Clarke took the utterly banal and through a process of subtraction he reinterpreted different spatial experiences and new modes of urban inquiry. One viewer of his work was quoted as saying, “The first thing you saw was this enormous split in a building. People noticed it and began talking about it on the street.” (Phillips 2006) His work spurred, street conversations, public debate, and an open discourse though which collective dialogue could act as a facilitator for new ideas of socio-spatial relations?

Like Sennett and Woods, Matta-Clarke was very critical of his modernist predecessors, once telling an interviewer that “far from addressing humanities problems, most architects were not solving anything except how to make a living.” (Attlee 2007) He stated that “design morality is valid. The functional issue (of modernism) was chosen because it seemed the most critical break from the beaux-arts, historic garbage. It was valid for its time. But how long has it been? Seventy years since and no kind of radical reappraisal has gone on?” (Attlee 2007) Matta-Clarke often wrote of ideals in juxtaposition to the slogans of his predecessors. Le Corbusier pronounced the plan as the generator, while Matta-Clarke wrote, “There are forms without plans – dynamic orders and disorders.” (Attlee 2007)

Matta-Clarke’s work seeks to celebrate the inner city is all its disorder, social variety and crazy juxtaposition of architectural styles and eras. Le Corbusier wanted to abolish the hidden infrastructure that lay beneath the streets; Matta-Clarke saw the underground as the last repository of history. His work induces a sensation of anarchistic freedom by finding new ways of inhabiting the city. Above all, Matta-Clarke was a politically motivated artist/architect. His work represents a dynamic manifestation of criticality, and his aggressive but subtle deformation of liminal space provides an opportunity for the public to develop their own social critiques of city space.

Sennett, Woods and Matta-Clarke each expressed their hostility towards the social and political outcomes of Le Corbusier’s work and towards the project of early modernism as a whole. Their varied studies in philosophy, architecture and art can be understood as explorations in the rediscovery of social culture and individual freedom. They propose various forms of intervention which in different scales develop a state of anarchy. But anarchy as a means of architectural regeneration – in the way that I wish to explore in my future work – implies certain added conditions.

Under the state of anarchy proposed by Sennett, every community would design their own space according to their individual demand and uniqueness. Politically, Sennett proposes an extreme form of participatory democracy, whereby liberty and choice are in order not by laws of government but by the dialogue and critique within a community of individuals. In order for architecture to exist in such a state, it is dependant upon the breakdown of the entire political system which surrounds it. Henry Rollins describes anarchy of this type as an anti-structure which is not commonly tolerated: “if thousands of people started camping out in Central Park, NYC, I don’t see that working out very well those people.” (Rollins 2010, pers. comm, 3 June)

Likewise, I question the progressiveness of complete disorder; I don’t see it possible in our current commercial position to produce such a state of anarchy. Sennett describes the social possibilities after the break-down of structure but was likewise unable to provide any indications as to how we could radically provide such a global state of anarchism. It is very difficult to imagine a society functioning without government. By Contrast Wood’s and Matta-Clarke propose moments of anarchy within a functioning system of government. My professional ambitions also lie within a similar realm of thinking.

Woods and Matta-Clarke recognised the impossibility of ignoring the actual condition of the modern city; they accepted and understood the rules of the city – and society – as it actually was in order to work from within. Both Woods and Matta-Clarke embark on the transfer of human knowledge and communication in an attempt to alter the role of architecture. Woods produced architecture as an architect, while Matta-Clarke manipulated existing products of architecture as an artist. Woods created an intervention within the city while Matta-Clarke was interested in making space without building. Both, however, sought to create an active public dialogue, rather than attempt the kind of direct revolutionary activity proposed by Sennett.

Likewise, differences pertain between Woods and Matta-Clarke also bear examination. The two differed in the ways that they engaged with the public. Woods created spaces of conflict, a parallel state which removed the users from the customary constraints of reality. Matta-Clarke’s work, by contrast, exacerbated past and present spatial conflicts and made the user acutely aware of their own physical being, their own reality. It was Matta-Clarke who created, to my mind, perhaps the more realistic and confrontational work, questioning the environment in which we live and creating a sense of vulnerability and weakness that exposed the failures of the modern city. More than the idealism of Sennett, or the purely speculative work of Woods, Matta-Clark’s contribution is my ideal prototype for modern action.

Of course, all three anarchy-inflected thinkers – Sennett, Woods and Matta-Clarke – reached the height of their influence in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when concepts of anarchy and revolt against capitalism were more a part of the intellectual discourse than they are today. When I think of the revolt of the young intellectual against capitalism I cast my imagination back to Paris, the summer of 1968. Thousands of working class individuals and students took to the streets in revolutionary protest. Work was forgone, normality disregarded and in that moment, the world was theirs. Although short lived, the riots of 1968 are regarded as a widespread reaction against the oppressive atmosphere of the capitalist city. But today, soixantehuitard-style revolution seems exceedingly distant from mainstream architectural ideologies and concern.

And this is where the political – and architectural – potential of the punk ethos I imbibed as a teenager seems relevant. Punk emerged in much the same period as the work of Sennet, Woods, and Matta-Clarke, the late ‘60s (if one admits The Stooges as the pioneer punk-rock group). But punk was also a lived culture: not merely the image of revolt, but an actual live enactment of the concepts of freedom and anti-establishmentarianism. Punk’s heroes, musicians like Henry Rollins and Iggy Pop, broke instruments, exposed themselves in public, and generally carried on as though anarchy was already an established fact, rather than an abstract ideology. Most of all, punk’s DIY (Do It Yourself) ethic placed the means of creating the anarchic life in the hands of anyone who would take it up.

In my own career I hope to expand upon the thinking of Sennett, Woods and Matta-Clarke, infused with an architectural punk sensibility, in order re-conceptualise the principles of anarchy and their purpose in architecture. As applied to architecture, the implications of the punk-DIY attitude would include challenging the established professional position of the architect, problematising the official role of the urban planner, purposefully confusing the consumer, manipulating architectural government or directly attacking advanced capitalism.

I hope to explore human behaviour and spatial meaning though social performances and unintended spatial uses. I believe it is possible to reduce the control over a particular space by creating uses for that space which was never intended. It works by changing what that space means and represents for the community which uses it. If I were, for example, to create a situation or place a foreign object within a space, then I am able to give that particular space a different history, reading, purpose or adaption. I hope to investigate this in my own career as a productive revolt against capitalism and as a means of interrogating the role of architecture in society.

I am currently planning a tactical, guerrilla-style spatial invasion for Sydney’s Martin Place. Martin Place currently functions as a transitory and retail space. High-end clothing, retail and commercial corporations enclose the area – their lavish and expensive goods are protected by an image of exclusivity and by the security guards who keep skateboarders and the homeless from public view. In September, 2010 I’ll be pulling up to Martin Place with multiple vans at every crossroad to unload various objects appropriate for skateboarders. In Martin Place the skateboarder is considered Public Enemy Number One; they cheapen and disrupt the image of the institutions who line the area. A skateboarder is representative of an individual who stands in the face of capitalism and refuses to obey the rules; they have turned the city not into something which controls them but into a playground for their own interpretation and discovery. Conducting tricks and grinding down railings, the skateboarders undermine the ordered atmosphere of the site. As the passers-by of Martin Place watch the skaters at play their eyes are distracted from the oppressive corporate environment. Next time they visit Martin Place, they might begin to think and talk about the skateboarder.

This is an example of architectural anarchism in action. Without taking down government, it is possible to reduce the control it has upon city users. The skateboarder may for example disrupt the predetermined path of an unsuspecting individual, forcing them to turn left (instead of right) into a retail shop. The erratic skateboarder thereby incites a human behaviour that was not regulated or controlled by the city as it was planned; the movement of the individual becomes dynamic and unpredictable.

Now, let’s imagine I set up a nation-wide competition at ANZ (an Australian bank) whereby individuals are timed on their ability to race from one booth to the next in a lap around the store. I could organise the competition via the internet or even by word of mouth. People could compete in any shop and record their time on the website. Individuals might establish teams to take on other teams, while the staff at ANZ would have no way of telling which of their customers were genuine and which of their customers were there only to compete. People might begin to create obstacles at other stores, perhaps raising bomb threats or by modifying the internal store layout. Certain stores might become legendary for their fast times, while others might be more frequently targeted by individuals creating obstacles. A national final might be even announced in an unsuspecting store. The competition would wreak havoc on the image and productiveness of ANZ. Their customers would be distracted from the traditional control mechanisms of the corporation. The competition would encourage a productive and collective public culture; some people may work together while other unsuspecting customers may engage in a conversation about what the hell is happening around them; the image of authority previously recognised by ANZ becomes nothing more or less than a nationwide playground. Similar to the work of Woods it seeks to establish a new system of spontaneous social relations through the .creation of unfamiliar spatial relations. But my proposal also attempts to address anarchy not in one, predetermined location but in multiple and unpredictable localities – similar to the work of Matta-Clarke it modifies the context and meaning of the city without building. And in keeping with the strategies of punk, it’s cheap, replicable by anyone anywhere, and creates an instant anarchy accessible to all.

Another example of my projected practice: The Space Hijackers are a group who operate from London and focus on manipulating corporate space. Time Out magazine has described the group as “an inventive and subversive group of London ‘Anarchitects’ who specialise in reclaiming public spaces – usually without permission.” (Richard 2006) They believe if architecture can act as an icon for organisation or government, then we are able to adapt what that architecture signifies. “For example, if we protest outside a particular building often enough the building will begin to become known for the protesters outside it. The community that spiral around the space will equate the building with the protestors even when they are not there. The protestors become a part of the building fabric; they merge with it to become one. The building can become an icon for the protest as much as the organisation that owns it.” (Priestly 2001)

The Space Hijackers, similar to my thinking, recognise the city as a product of capitalism, and their work amounts to a simple statement: “we could mess it up.” The very essence of their argument is rooted in principles of individual freedom and culture which is suppressed under the control of government and corporation. Such thinking redefines the purpose of architecture; it is not a product of capitalism and does not necessarily produce a building which conforms to the traditional constraints of the profession. It’s technique and possibilities are entirely different to existing professional normalities. Through their work, and my proposals the architect functions under a new code of ethics which will expand alongside the development of freedom and social culture.

In all disciplines there exists a radical minority that dares to tread beyond the mainstream discourse. Architecture needs to develop new ways of approaching freedom and culture so the complexities of our needs are not reduced to an environment of regulations and standards. Indeed, architecture is a practice bound by law; it is both technical and economic – but surely it is also capable of providing for fluid and dynamic situations of irregular behavioural and novel social patterns. Architecture should respond to these considerations and not simply be a product devised from the extrapolation of old ideals.

Social theorist Mikhail Bakunin described “the passion of destruction as the passion of creativity.” Perhaps my interest in anarchy can be drawn back to my own desire for individual and creative expression. The creative destruction of punk was my first brush with anarchy; thinkers like Sennett, Woods, and Matta-Clarke have added nuance and shading to my understanding of anarchy. My future proposals do not seek the entire obliteration of regulation and order; rather they hope to find new, more humane and more radical alternatives through architectural intervention. These new activities hold promise for confusing the existing system by creating a pattern of human behaviour which can no longer be predicable. Over time, this would in turn change the way government and corporation must function in order to maximise the productivity of city users. My intention as an architect is to engage in an exploration not of social and political revolution; but of anarchist evolution.

Reference List:

Truscello, M. 2003, ‘The Architecture of Information: Open Source Software and Tactical Poststructuralist Anarchism’, Postmodern Culture, Issue 503, viewed 3 June 2010, http://pmc.iath.virginia.edu/issue.503/13.3truscello.html

Attlee, J. 2007, Towards Anarchitecture: Gordon Matta-Clark And Le Corbusier , Tate Papers, viewed 3 June 2009, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/tateresearch/tatepapers/07spring/attlee.htm.

Mannino, S. 2006, Matta-Clark and Anarchitecture. Infinite letture per infiniti spettatori , DADA architetti associati, viewed 3 June 2009, http://architettura.supereva.com/artland/20060416/index.htm.

Phillips, D. 2006, Gordon Matta Clark: Anarchitecture and Detournement, ISSUU, viewed 3 June 2010, http://issuu.com/dnl.phillips/docs/anarchitecture_and_detournement-daniel_phillips.

Sennett, R. 1970, The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life, Norton & Company, New York, N.Y.

Priestly, R. 2001, Advanced Capitalist Architecture (and how to mess it all up), Space Hijackers, viewed 3 June 2009, http://www.spacehijackers.co.uk/html/ideas/writing/Adcaparchi.html

Woods, L. 2010, The Dreaming Satellite, Lebbeus Woods, viewed 3 June 2010, http://septimus7.tripod.com/ibea/gall10.html

Richard, K. 2006, “London’s secret scenes”. Features. Time Out. pp. 12. > Viewed 6 June 2010. http://www.timeout.com/london/features/1975/12.html

Henry Rollins 2010, pers. comm. (email), 3 June


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