Many commentators over the past two decades have enthusiastically announced the advent of a “post-critical” ERA in art and architecture. Gone is the need to question the current state of affairs, especially in the latter area, where it is rejected as hostile to the practice of construction. review is considered gloomy and elitist, even superfluous. Influenced by theorists such as Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett and Jacques Rancière, and their epigones in the academic world of architecture, practitioners have learned to embrace the world as it is.
Douglas Spencer’s critique of architecture confronts this trend head-on. In contrast to the dominant post-critical mood, the essays attempt to determine the role of architecture in the capitalist mode of production as it is currently configured. In this sense, the book shares elements with its predecessor, the Architecture of Neoliberalism (2016). With the two projects, Spencer hopes to restore a critical orientation to the discipline; this orientation, moreover, has an explicitly Marxist bias. “After a period of decades-long assault on critical theory, “he writes,” discussions of class, work, and capital are uncomfortable in what is currently going on for theoretical discourse.”
The critique of Architecture opens with a brilliant polemic, first published in 2012, against what Spencer calls “architectural deleuzism.”For him, it is a question of the widespread appropriation by architects of concepts from the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze (with his collaborator, Félix Guattari) from the end of the 90s. buzzwords such as “the fold” and “the smooth space” appeared in architecture magazines, straight from the pages of Mille Plateaux and Leibniz and the Baroque.
In contrast to the old semiotic paradigm he moved, from postmodern playfulness to Derrida-inspired deconstructivism, Deleuze’s various ideas were considered eminently translatable into design. Moreover, by philosophical drift, any building that evokes these concepts (cf. the works of Patrik Schumacher and Alejandro Zaera-Polo) are considered to possess a halo of radicalism. For Spencer, the deleuzist dispensation in architecture denied a very real complicity with the prerogatives of neoliberal capitalism.
Spencer’s second essay, “Habitat for homo economicus,” extends the confluence between neoliberalism and design to several more decades. In the 60s and 70s, systematicians such as the polymath Buckminster Fuller and his protégé John McHale proposed “environmental” solutions to the problem of human habitation, as did the landscape architect Ian McHarg. Nature and culture were connected by a fundamental harmony, they argued, beyond the reach of the outdated worldviews of the nineteenth century—that is, capitalist or socialist. Humanity, or” human”, just needed to be properly calibrated to maximize its performance. Spencer points out, however, that this conception of nature itself was very ideological: “the transition to computation, the technological solution, is not against nature because nature is designed… as a preprogrammed system, essentially cybernetic and Universal.”According to Spencer, the ecological perspective served to naturalize market processes, and the Californian Ideology, as proclaimed by Reyner Banham, helped to grease the wheels.
In the seventh chapter, Spencer outlines discrete aspects of this shift in architectural thinking to the entrepreneurial drive of the West Coast counterculture. It was Banham’s trendy “nomadic cowboy” lifestyle and his counter-cultural credibility that allowed him to give voice to the new sense of freedom that was emerging at that time. Overall, Spencer is excellent at explaining how leftist gestures of rebellion are seamlessly integrated into the fold of capitalism. He recognizes the “directory of May 1968” in the opposite of architects against the administrative state. Participatory behavior, ad hoc improvisation, spontaneity, openness — all these values are presented as inherently radical. While Spencer is generous to the initially disruptive intent of thinkers like Deleuze and Guattari, whose ideas he believes have been misunderstood by architects, their affirmationism has lent itself to neoliberal co-optation. In the same way, the notion of “everyday life” promoted by Henri Lefebvre and The Situationist International condoned by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers in their megastructural Center Pompidou.
In the sixth chapter, Spencer addresses an important commandment of the rhetorical strategy of post-review: “Don’t think, feel.”The philosophies of affect tend to denigrate rationality, preferring the immediacy of sensual experience to critical reflection. Sylvia Lavin, Jeffrey Kipnis and other architectural theorists who emphasize the emotional dimension also find that thinking too much about buildings misses the point, which is to let the structure overwhelm you. (The architecture of Lavin’s pillow is exemplary in this regard.”Cognitive disinvestment,” as Spencer calls it, occurs when self-reflective subjectivity is removed from the equation and the use of architecture becomes thoughtless and automatic. Feeling is valued at the expense of thinking. Again, review of architecture argues that this is in line with the overall logic of after capitalism.
Chapter 8 deals with the theory of actor networks and its architectural resonances. Latour, one of the post-critical thinkers mentioned at the beginning, described some of the implications of the theory for a design philosophy in a keynote lecture. By spreading the agency more widely and even attributing it to inanimate objects, he believes, the Promethean impulse of high modernism can be curbed. Modesty and humility cope with modern arrogance. Things are capable of acting on their own; they are not realized in a unidirectional way. Flat ontologies like Latour’s do not distinguish between human and non-human actors, recognizing instead a “parliament of things”.””However, as Spencer reminds his readers, Marx has already taken this anthropomorphism into account in his famous analysis of commodity fetishism. Spencer adds that the theory of actor-networks in architecture “ignores the greatest actor of all: the “automatic subject” that is capital.”
Again and again, review of architecture focuses on a set of fashionable philosophies that have dominated academia in recent times. This can be a bit repetitive in the discussion of certain themes, but this is to be expected in a collection of essays written over the course of several years. Spencer is skeptical of claims from various sides that review has been replaced or outdated, caustically noting:
In the second half of the book, Spencer confronts some shortcomings of other orientations of opposition to neoliberalism in architecture. Here he follows more of a rescue path, seeking to save the original intention behind these views. Spencer’s few essays devoted to the writings of the Italian autonomous architect Pier Vittorio Aureli are magnificent. Although he admits in an interview at the end of the book that he prefers Aureli to the odious Ex-Marxist Schumacher, Spencer identifies serious limits to his project of autonomy. According to Aureli, the only hope for autonomous architecture is to cut off the connectivity of the capitalist city. Inspired by mendicant societies, he proposes as an alternative an atavistic neo-Franciscanism. Spencer convincingly discredits this proposal by citing Giacomo Todeschini and Jacques Le Goff’s research on the Franciscan order to show how monasteries were historically integrated into the medieval urban monetary economy. Then, Spencer exposes the way Aureli relies on the Schmittian geopolitical binary of the island (the project) in relation to the sea (the market). Setting the former against the latter, he returns to an abstract negation.
The methodological core of the book is exposed in the penultimate chapter, “The abode of the production of architecture”, an extremely dense but enriching essay. For Spencer, it is high time to reassess the conceptual tools available for architectural review. Quoting the after theorist Moishe Postone, he argues that materialist critics should go beyond the metaphor of the base and the superstructure. Each side-subject and object, economy and politics – is intrinsically linked to the other. Moreover, he argues that architecture plays an integral role in mediating between these poles: it not only passively represents, but actively embodies the contradictions of capitalism. On this basis, he maul the treatment of architecture in texts by Marxists as different as Fredric Jameson and Guy Debord. Jameson has read the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles through a quasi-structuralist lens, as simply symptomatic of the underlying transformations, while for Debord everything is reduced to representation, which makes it its own spectacular hypostasis. Spencer relies on the review of Louis Althusser by E. P. Thompson to maul Jameson and the review of situationists by Gilles Dauvé to maul Debord, instead promoting a refined dialectical interpretation.
In this sense, the review of architecture deviates from the architecture of neoliberalism, which contained a somewhat appreciative assessment of Jameson’s canonical reading. In the same way, Spencer no longer considers it sufficient to denounce buildings only to show traits associated with Debord’s theory of the spectacle (and this distinguishes him from writers such as Hal Foster and Gevork Hartoonian, with whom he also has a lot in common). Better precedents can be found, Spencer argues, in the works of Theodor Adorno and Manfredo Tafuri. Although he abhors the post-critical turn of contemporary architecture and finds the flight to pre-critical romanticism in the Aureli style regressive, he does not want to fall back on a naive “pre-post-critical” point of view. In other words, he believes that it is not enough to follow the old action standards of review. An idea of what Spencer hopes to achieve can be seen in Chapter 3, where he directs his research on the forms of subjectivity cultivated by platform architecture after studies of nineteenth-century realistic and pastoral painting by T. J. Clark and John Barrell. Critique of architecture wants to show how the built structures form the agents they inhabit.
Yet, despite its obvious brilliance, a few questions can still be asked. Critic Lukas Meisner notes in his review that review of architecture uncomfortably overlaps with “a Marxist and Foucaldian approach.”Certainly, there is no shortage of attempts to synthesize the theories of Foucault and Marx, or to portray the ideas of the former as being somehow continuous with those of the Frankfurt school scouts like Adorno.
Even within Marxism, however, there is a lot of incompatibility between the kind of dependent vision that Walter D. informs. Mignolo’s decolonial theory and Ellen Meiksin’s strictly Brennerite account of Wood on the origins of capitalism. Spencer relies heavily on Mignolo to strike the anthropological hypotheses behind Homo economicus, while invoking Wood to assert that the instruments of review must be constantly renewed, so it could simply be that their disagreement on the dynamics of capitalist development is irrelevant. But the book is quite sensitive to such subtleties elsewhere, especially in the review of Jameson and Debord mentioned above. We also wonder if Spencer is not succumbing to the periodizing temptation of which he condemned Jameson, given his emphasis on neoliberalism and post-fordism.
For the most part, Spencer’s critical instinct is good. He skilfully oscillates between the analysis of the programmatic statements of architects, architectural review and the buildings themselves. (These vary widely, from the MAAT Museum in Lisbon and Ford’s campus in Dearborn, Michigan, to a litany of subway stations, including the Westminster Subway in London and the Fulton Transit Center in Lower Manhattan.) He is right to remove the radical varnish with which architects, at least since the 70s, have completed their projects. But if today’s architecture is worse, it is mainly because the world itself is worse, or at least has fewer prospects. A world where wealth takes the form of value, where Work is rewarded with wages and where the products of Labor appear as commodities is becoming poorer. A real Tafurian critique of ideology, to which Spencer returned recently, is needed now, as always.