ARCHITECTURE OR REVOLUTION

03Apr14

Warned Le Corbusier in 1923. Some fifty years later, critics including Manfredo Tafuri and Bernard Huet returned to this dichotomy—only to read it militantly against the grain. For these thinkers, writing in Italy and France around 1968, architecture was not an instrument of progress but a means by which to perpetuate capitalism’s depredations: Far from making revolution unnecessary, the discipline actively blocked radical change. This critique produced such influential works as Tafuri’s 1973 Architecture and Utopia, which proposed that contemporary architecture, beneath its reassuring progressivism, was in a state of perpetual crisis and trauma resulting from its inability to alter the staus quo, and was increasingly consigned to a condition of “sublime uselessness.” If this challenge to received notions of modernism was urgently needed, it also contributed to the foreclosure of Marxist architectural history and theory, which was proving less and less able to conceptualize architecture’s political and social relevance in the here and now.

Considered against this backdrop, Henri Lefebvre’s Vers une architecture de la jouissance (Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment) takes on a haunting resonance. Written in 1973 but virtually forgotten for forty years, Lefebvre’s text argues for the possibility of a “concrete utopia” that is as far removed from productivist fantasy of modernism as from Tafuri’s landscape of sublime uselessness. Concrete utopia, says Lefebvre, “takes as a strategic hypothesis the negation of the everyday, of work, of the exchange economy. It also denies the State and the primacy of the political. It begins with enjoyment and seeks to conceive of a new space, which can only be based on an architectural project.”

Surprisingly, this liberatory vision was rooted in what many consider a rather dystopian locale: Benidorm, a teeming agglomeration of beachfront high-rises on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment was commissioned in 1972 by Spanish sociologist Mario Gaviria, a friend and former student of Lefebvre’s, as part of a wide-ranging study of mass tourism and urbanization in the Costa Blanca’s booming resort towns. However, in the book-length manuscript that Lefebvre eventually delivered, Benidorm was less a subject than a point of departure, and so the text was included neither in Gaviria’s study nor among the related publications that followed. In fact, it was never published at all. After decades of obscurity, Lefebvre’s text now suggests a road not traveled—the starting point for an alternate history of architectural theory in the wake of the failures of 1968.

Toward an Architecture of Enjoyment should be seen as part of Lefebvre’s theorization of space as produced by manifold, heterogeneous, and antagonistic social practices. Formulated in order to advance Marxism by accounting forthe development of capitalism after World War II, Lefebvre’s theory wasarticulated in multiple books, beginning with the 1968 publication of The Right to the City and culminating in 1974 with The Production of Space. During this period, a young generation of French architects, activists, and artists challenged postwar architectural production, seeking ways to catalyze intense urban experience and collective appropriation of space, as exemplified by the imaginary “revision and correction” of a Paris housing project depicted in 1971 in the countercultural journal Actuel. Lefebvre was both a part of this vibrant enterprise and a precursor of it; his sociological studies and his sustained critical attention to times and places beyond work fed into the broader rethinking of an alternative everyday. In the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life (1947), Lefebvre had shown how leisure spaces had become indispensable for the reproduction of capitalism. But by the time he published The Production of Space, he was convinced that a “pedagogy of space and time” was beginning to take shape “in and through the space of leisure.” This “pedagogy,” he proposed, is fleetingly comprehended via evanescent glimpses, premonitions of a different way of life. Lefebvre argues that at the beach, say, or during an urban festival, one may find oneself “breaking out of the temporal and spatial shell developed in response to labor”—however commodified, “colonized,” fetishistic, or irrelevant such situations might appear.

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