Title: From Impose to Expose

‘Buildings are a visible manifestation of pride, the victory over gravity, the will to power; architecture is a way for power to achieve eloquence through form, sometimes persuading, even coaxing, at other times just commanding.’

Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche (1889)


The following writing concerns architecture in its use as a tool for both norm-making and norm-breaking. If architecture reflects the ideals of a society in which it is produced, this is often an ideal of order. In this sense a building can be a tool for keeping things tidy; for re-establishing norms and covering up unsightly behaviours. However if architecture can be used to repress, I aim to uncover counterexamples in which architecture plays a liberative role.

00: Housekeeping Matters

Architecture is a mechanism of control. This is necessarily so; it is a manner of ordering society, or of depicting society as orderly. Buildings provide us safety and security and to do so they must exert some measure of control. But how might one build in a manner that shirks this responsibility to control? To what degree can architecture escape its impositional nature? These are the questions I intend to  investigate throughout this text.

I believe a good place to begin engaging with these questions is in the writings of Georges Bataille.  Bataille saw architecture as a manifestation of societal values, and considered the values of Aztec and Incan civilizations through the consideration of their respective architectures. Bataille claims that the way in which control was manifest in the buildings of these two societies is intimately linked to their respective sacrificial practices.  While the Incas would strangle their victims deep within temples, the Aztecs would sacrifice people atop huge pyramids; for the Aztecs sacrifice was a  bloody spectacle. Bataille doesn’t condemn the bloodiness of this spectacle but praises it; he finds the covering up of sacrifice in his own society of 1920s France lamentable ( ‘the slaughterhouse is cursed and quarantined like a plague-ridden ship’). For Bataille the Aztecs were the model of a society that does not repress the sacrifice that forms it[1].  In the pyramids of the Aztecs I find my first hint at what a less controlling architecture might be; it is an architecture that speaks openly about the present condition, about the sacrifices our societies make.

Architecture and the control it exerts protects us but it also helps to maintain the norm ( ‘society entrusts its desire to endure to architecture’[2]). This text will not focus on the ways in which architecture controls but on how to move beyond this fact. Many undesirable aspects of our present condition appear as inevitabilities, but an architecture that confronts us with the realities of our condition, an architecture that exposes the sacrifices our society makes, could help us to redefine what is inevitable and what can be altered.

The difficulty comes in translating this notion into the context of today. Our sacrificial practices are no longer unimodal as in the days of the Aztecs. Similarly, the actors that exert control upon us are not the same as during the time of Bataille. While the state still has great influence upon us the power of the church pales in comparison to that of various corporations. In order to assist in traversing these intricacies I will consider specific architectural case studies that expose our contemporary ‘sacrifices’ (a word used here  in the broadest sense). The aim of this piece of writing then is to argue how exactly the open expression of sacrifice may be a counter to control. Buildings, like the pyramids of the Aztecs, that put the destructive realities of society on display, may counterintuitively be the least oppressive buildings that we can build.

01: Tidying the basement

1a. Less is More

‘Buildings are a visible manifestation of pride, the victory over gravity, the will to power; architecture is a way for power to achieve eloquence through form, sometimes persuading, even coaxing, at other times just commanding.’

Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche (1889)

Architecture is power expressed through form said Nietzsche. “Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space”said Mies van der Rohe. Combining these sentiments it becomes clear that as the seat of power changes so to do the forms through which that power is expressed. An example of this is the development of Gothic architecture in 12th century France. During this time the Catholic Church was becoming a very powerful political entity, and the construction of Gothic style cathedrals helped to formalize this power. All the elements of the architecture were elongated to produce a height that directed toward the heavens and thus spoke of the sacred. Here was architecture being utilized by the powerful to exert a certain power over the masses. Fast forward to the 20th century and architecture was still being used in exactly the  same way. The difference was that power no longer belonged in the hands of the Church and accordingly was no longer expressed in the Gothic style. Power was instead formalized in the Modernist style, and the power it formalized was often that of industry; the power and promise of technology. Once the process of industrial manufacturing was applied to the construction of buildings, architects were tasked with developing a style that elevated the homogeneous and austere aesthetic of industry into something representing purity. ‘Less is More’ said Mies, and suddenly a good building became a stark one.

Mies’ own Barcelona Pavilion embodies the qualities of purity and timelessness with such lucidity that it is considered a pinnacle of Modern architecture. Mies was not always a modernist however; in fact his very earliest buildings were houses completed in Neoclassical style. These houses were built using modern construction techniques and were then covered with traditional facades and roofs. Yet Mies soon came to reject the use of traditional ornamentation and went on to develop his own architectural language. This new language, as exemplified by the Barcelona Pavilion, was a more honest reflection of the modern technologies and materials that were available at the time. The pavilion features a low, flat roof sat atop 8 cruciform chrome columns, between which free-standing walls of precious stone demarcate an open-plan interior space. By supporting the roof on columns the walls could be placed freely, giving the building a spatial fluidity. This also meant that whole walls could be made of glass; the material was no longer confined to small windows as it had been previously. Indeed the roof itself didn’t need to be pitched or covered in roof tiles either; instead the pavilion features a roof that appears to float, one made impossibly thin thanks to the combined strength of concrete and steel. Thus by embracing modern techniques and removing historicist ornamentation Mies helped to define a Modern style that exuded a certain truthfulness; this was a style that was completely of its time.

Yet what quickly became apparent was that modernism shared the same tendency for deceit as the historicism that preceded it. The falsehood of historicism was its basis in the realities of the past, while the falsehood of modernism was its apparent baselessness. Modern architecture in actual fact appeared to exist outside of time, and everywhere it was built it effectively retained the same aesthetic. In the Barcelona Pavilion the notion of timeless is further pronounced by the fact that the building standing today is in fact a 1980s recreation of the original 1929 temporary pavilion. The architects who recreated Mies’ design worked from drawings and photographs of the building and sought to create a perfect recreation of the pavilion as it stood in 1929. Therefore more than ever the building has no place for mess; anything that might spoil the appearance of being frozen in time is hidden away. This is an ambition shared by Modern architecture in general; its proponents rejected ornamentation in the name of truth but got carried away and tried to purge their buildings of any marks of inhabitation. In this light Modern architecture can be seen as an architecture of concealment. If Gothic architecture was a direct expression of the supreme power of the Church, then Modern architecture was a far more indirect expression of a far more scattered power.

1b. Iceberg Homes

The iceberg homes that dot London’s wealthiest suburbs are quintessential examples of power expressed in a concealed manner. In order to live lavishly in the space-poor global hub that is London city, London’s richest dig underground. These private residences are called iceberg homes because they feature expansive multi-level basements, meaning most of the space in these homes is hidden underground. These basements are typically dug beneath ornate old Victorian homes and come replete with sleek modern furnishings. The clean Modernist aesthetic perfectly suited to this intention of effacement. The difficulty of digging a massive hole beneath an existing building is evidenced by the fact that once excavation works are completed, many diggers are simply left behind and buried underground. This is done because it is cheaper than lifting the machines back out, but it is now estimated that over £5 million worth of machinery is buried under London. If the nobility of countless ancient cultures were buried with trinkets that would ensure eternal prosperity, can’t one imagine these basement antics as a sort of new-age hallmark of wealth; the rusty teeth of an excavator’s bucket poking through a rosebush symbolising the bottomless fortune of the property owner. Yet with or without the digger included, these iceberg homes show architecture as a means for expressing wealth, and thus power, in a hidden way. They are the architectural equivalent of opening an offshore account in the Cayman Islands.

This notion of hidden wealth is expounded by George Bataille who developed a general economic theory based not on wealth accumulation but expenditure. In The Notion of Expenditure, Bataille discusses a modern bourgeoisie that has distinguished itself from the aristocracy by consenting ‘only to spend for itself, and within itself - in other words, by hiding its expenditures as much as possible from the other classes’. No doubt this is an apt description of the exuberantly rich who construct iceberg homes. And with such wealth, the rich are able to choose what they conceal and what they put on display. These homes show an often quant or at least undifferentiated top, while underneath lie swimming pools and the state-of-the-art garages.

Ultimately the point is as follows; hidden power (or wealth) is much more difficult to challenge. And while the flaunting of wealth may be unsightly, at least such wealth can then be addressed.


In the exhibition entitled PHANTOM: Mies as Rendered Society, architect Andres Jaque uncovers the hidden inner workings that allow Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion to appear timeless and pure. The phantom that the exhibition title refers to is the basement hidden beneath the pavilion. For the intervention Jaque placed the assorted contents of this basement on display. When formerly useful pieces of glass became cracked or broken, they were taken down into the basement and replaced. These elements that were once a part of the upper floor are now once again re-positioned above ground. Pieces of broken glass and chipped travertine, sun-faded curtains and worn-out seats are all placed on display. These elements are material witnesses to the passage of time. By putting them on display Jaque makes visible the temporality of the building; seeing a vacuum cleaner reminds us of the daily acts of maintenance and care. The pavilion is still cleaned after visitors go home, but the cleaning items are no longer retrieved from the basement below.

The building is a permanent reconstruction of a temporary pavilion, and the basement is a new addition introduced to facilitate certain functional aspects that were not originally necessary. Importantly, the history of the reconstructed pavilion has involved a process of trial and error.  As interesting as this process is, evidences of it are hidden so as not to spoil the appearance of being a perfected object frozen in time. The pool in Mies’ 1929 pavilion housed water lilies in it, but the new pool was filled with chlorine. When it came to light that the original pool had water lilies growing in it, one gardener filled these glass boxes with fresh water in an attempt to reintroduce the lilies into the pool. While the lilies grew, they would die as soon as the petals touched the chlorine water beyond the box. These glass boxes piled up in the basement chart this failed experiment; they contribute to the ongoing process of making the Barcelona Pavilion.

The building reflects an ethos of purity and timelessness, but this appearance is something produced anew each day. Jaque’s act of display reveals the way in which this convoluted basement allows for the ongoing functioning of the pavilion above. This relationship between the pavilion and its phantom is much the same as that between Dorian Gray and his portrait. In the story of Dorian Gray a handsome young man retains his youth and beauty by having all his aging and misbehaving recorded in his portrait rather than in his own face. Similarly in the Barcelona Pavilion it is the imperfections of the basement that allow the upper floor to retain its appearance of purity. By revealing the contents of this basement, Jaque reorganizes the power dynamic between the two levels. PHANTOM shows the pavilion in all its intricacies, and what the pavilion loses in apparent perfection it more than compensates for in its complexity and intrigue.The way we understand the building changes dramatically thanks to the exhibition. But if this exhibition exposes a building and its inner workings in order for us to question that building, then could there be something that exposes our own behaviours in order for us to question them?

02: Cleaning the pipes

‘For some time we may have thought that the U-bend in the toilet was a convenient curvature of ontological space that took whatever we flush down it into a totally different dimension called Away, leaving things clean over here. Now we know better: instead of the mythical land Away, we know the waste goes to the Pacific Ocean or the wastewater treatment facility… There is no Away on this surface, no here and no there.’

Hyperobjects, Timothy Morton (2013)

2a. Corb’s Bidet

Every society has its own codes of conduct that govern how people behave. I’m not referring to mandated law but to the imperfect, shifting understandings that are norms. Social norms are defined through language but also through architecture, and behaviours that lie outside of these norms are considered taboos. These taboos stem from our baser realities, realities which are less refined than we might like to admit. Oftentimes architecture plays a role in concealing these realities, and a gleaming example of how it does this is through plumbing. Indeed how an architect deals with plumbing fixtures, and specifically with toilets, speaks multitudes about their approach to human behaviour. Take Le Corbusier, an architect for whom the toilet and particularly the bidet were things to be exposed and even lauded. At a time when excrement was a direct representation of immorality, Corb was designing domestic spaces with bidets in their centre. His wife would reportedly cover the bidet in the centre of their own bedroom when guests came over, which just shows how heterodox Corb’s approach was [3]. Similarly upon entering the Villa Savoye the first thing one sees is a plumbing fixture. At the time Corbusier’s contemporaries viewed this approach to be quite a transgressive one. Certainly the utility of plumbing was appreciated but for the sake of good taste it was relegated to a space behind a cupboard or door - anywhere out of immediate view. But in any building, any constructed space, the eccentricities of human behaviour always come flooding back in.

2b. London’s Sewers

In sheltering us architecture tends to also inform and reflect our habits. The efficiency with which we can make all our excrement practically disappear means such things become increasingly taboo. All gone in one flush. But in any building, any constructed space, the eccentricities of human behaviour always come flooding back in. London’s own modern sewer system was introduced in the 1850s as a response to the ‘Great Stink’ of 1858. During this time the River Thames was used as an open sewer, and one particularly hot July exacerbated the river’s stench to such a degree that Joseph Bazalgette was tasked with constructing a system of brick pipes. Thanks to Bazalgette’s foresight regarding the large diameter of the pipes, the system still functions until this day. Thanks to the pipes all our mess can be done away with. Indeed by covering up the city’s contaminated water, this sewer system brought an end to London’s cholera outbreaks. This feat of engineering marked the triumph of modern man over dirt and disease. These pipes were crowned by extravagant buildings including the Crossness Pumping station. A brightly coloured ode to an engineering marvel, this building was adorned with highly ornamental metalwork. Shining and clean, it looks more like an exhibit in the Crystal Palace than something built to process shit. Even in drawings of the sewers themselves, everything is pristine - the spaces resemble those of a Gothic church. As an addendum to the Enlightenment era, in which science and secularism were seen as ‘cleansing’; the sewers are shown as some kind of secular church; a near-sacred space designed by humans to obscure from view our own defilement. But sewers don’t stay so clean for long; pipes get clogged and human realities come to the surface. Just look at the fatbergs clogging up London’s pipes nowadays. In 2017 a 250-meter long, 130 tonnes conglomeration of fat ‘wet wipes, nappies, oil and condoms’ that was blocking the sewers beneath Whitechapel was removed. These little objects, themselves designed to hide or expel waste, accumulated to such a degree that Bazalgette’s pipes could no longer successfully keep up with our production of waste.  Eventually this waste required revisiting and removal by a team of 8. In discussing the removal of the fatberg I am by no means condemning the work of Thames Water but instead questioning the role of the built environment in covering up the unsightly residues of human inhabitation. If our designs will always ultimately reflect the taboos of human behaviour, perhaps there is some merit in producing designs that reflect such taboos. Doing so is a means for consideration; placing our behaviours on display allows us to differentiate between what is inevitable, what is socially informed, and what may be desirable. Let us design and build in order to place our habits on display.

2c. COSMO 

Another project by Andres Jaque entitled COSMO is an attempt to design an infrastructure that exposes our relationship to water. COSMO is an intricate network of pipes and algae containers designed to turn 3000 gallons of reused water into clean, drinkable water. It is moveable piece of plumbing that was placed on the rooftop of MoMA PS1 in New York back in 2015. In New York as in London, water and waste navigate through the city beneath the ground, through an old, expansive network of tunnels. According to Jaque the hidden nature of these pipes convolutes the relationship between the citizens of New York and the water they use. COSMO developed as a response to these hidden pipes; it is a performative machine intended to put New Yorkers in direct contact with water. It is designed to make the interaction between New Yorkers and the water they use more explicit. It is designed to encourage a greater understanding of how water is used, but above all it is intended to make water fun. What’s more, while COSMO is filtering water it also makes the rooftop space cooler through the combined provision of shading, evaporation and air depression[4].

The focus of COSMO is ultimately the process of purification; just like water the machine flows and changes. Once the water is cleaned and the process of purification is complete, bioluminescent strains of algae that require clean water to thrive begin to glow. However while COSMO is fun and performative it also addresses the severe reality of water scarcity. Indeed the need to make water and its usage more visible and explicit in more pressing than ever. Take Cape Town as an example: in a city that has not seen significant rainfall in over three years, a squadron of 60 police officers have recently been appointed the world’s first water cops.  Yet the approach that Jaque applies in COSMO can be applied to our relationship with anything, not just water.

Our behaviours leave physical traces upon the built environment, and when those traces are put on display it can cause us to question these behaviours. Architecture is involved in perpetuating norms of behaviour, but in some cases architects can intervene in a way that challenges these norms and allows space for reconsideration.

03: Stoking the fire

3a. Potlatch

If there is one cardinal maxim that haunts the building industry it is the following; a building is only worth building if it guarantees the generation of wealth. In order to respond to this maxim architects must calibrate their design decisions above all else according to the notion of efficiency. Yet beyond designing efficiently here the true contribution of the architect is the production of a narrative that acts as this guarantee. This narrative will be told using a combination of shiny renders and buzzwords, and with increasing frequency the story may rely on the use of 3D flythrough animations or immersive virtual reality softwares. Of course for a client or investor to be convinced by the story, the architect in question must demonstrate a body of work that reflects the actualization of other convincing stories. But regardless of the medium or technique used, the intention of the story is always largely the same; to firmly associate the objective qualities of the design (the materials used, the 55m2 floor plan, the bedroom featuring en-suite bathroom and walk-in wardrobe) with intangible qualities such as luxury, cultural value or chicness. Undoubtedly there is more to architecture than economics and story-telling but to remind ourselves that a building is more than a financial asset it may help to return to the economic theory of George Bataille.

In The Accursed Share Bataille develops a theory of economics that centres not on the accumulation of wealth but on its expenditure. The accursed share of the books title refers to the excess part of any economy that cannot be spent productively but is instead spent as a spectacle or a sacrifice. This theory draws heavily on the potlatch;  a gift-giving feast performed by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Hosting a potlatch involved giving lots of food and valuable gifts to those in attendance, and could therefore only be done by the rich. The potlatch host would effectively challenge a guest chieftain to outdo his display of wealth and power, and this social obligation ensured that the gift-giving was always reciprocated. Many potlatches involved not only the provision of gifts but also the destruction of valuable copper shields. Indeed the potlatch was the primary economic system for the tribes of the Northwest Coast. For these tribes this sacrificial ceremony was the answer to the question what should we do with our excess. As Bataille notes, in these societies wealth flowed to those at the top not only because of the leadership and protection they provided but also because of the ‘spectacular collective expenditures’ for which they had to pay. In their receiving of this wealth, the leaders were obliged to share it amongst their equals as well as all those beneath them. Bataille laments the loss of this generous, excessive nature to the expenditure of wealth. Now so more than ever wealth is exchanged only amongst the wealthy, and despite the respectable efforts of philanthropists, each year less and less wealth trickles down to the poor. The potlatch however was a sacrifice that benefited the entire community. And as we face this ever increasing economic inequality, the economic system of the potlatch appears increasingly desirable.

02. Las Fallas

Another sacrificial ceremony is the Falles of Valencia; a celebration I had the privilege of witnessing back in 2017. During Las Falles, which takes place annually over the course of a week in March, the Spanish city of Valencia is filled with huge artistic monuments called fallas. Along with admiring the spectacle of the fallas the celebration involves the near-continuous barrage of fireworks as well as musical parades, traditional costumes and lots of the Valencian dish paella. The fallas themselves are made from wooden structures that are covered with cardboard or other combustible materials. Each one is elaborately crafted and depicts a a number of figures either from the imaginations of the artists or from popular culture. Indeed this reference to popular culture is important as since the inception of the event the fallas have been used to satirize or criticize contemporary politics, often being anti-clerical or anti-government. In Valencia each neighbourhood has a group of people dedicated to the organization and construction of a single falla, some of which stand more than 30 metres high. At the pinnacle of the week’s celebrations the fallas are filled with fireworks and set alight. These sculptures burn brightly emitting light and sound but also giving off immense amounts of heat. In the narrower streets firemen douse the buildings and street signs to keep them from catching on fire.

Like the potlatch the central theme of Las Fallas is that of celebratory sacrifice. Countless artisans dedicate months of each year to constructing these elaborate sculptures, all in order to see them burn to charcoal in mere minutes. And while sacrificing something doesn’t necessarily mean destroying it completely, once something is sacrificed it no longer retains any utilitarian relation to man. Yet once the sacrificed thing becomes useless; once the food is eaten or the sculpture burnt, what remains are the cultural narratives as defined by these collective acts of sacrifice. By revelling in the sights and sounds of Las Falles the Valencian people are involved in re-establishing the definition of being Valencian. With the creation and destruction of each new political effigy, there is an opportunity to re-examine local and global conditions and to take up a stance in relation to these conditions. But importantly this is not a task reserved for the artistic, but something that each neighbourhood is simultaneously engaged in. For one week in March the people of Valencia take this opportunity to speak their minds. But if this happens through the sacrifice of sculptures, could architecture itself also be sacrificed to provoke the reconsideration of collective values?

03. Sacrifice

The difficulty in translating the concept of sacrifice into built form stems from the momentary nature of sacrifice. Not only are buildings less than momentary, but it is their relative longevity and stability that makes them one of the most popular assets to invest in. In contrast a sacrificial architecture would therefore be unstable and would stand outside the production cycle; it would defy the generation of profit through radical uselessness. Indeed the work of artist, architect and film-maker Alfredo Jaar goes a long way toward achieving this feat.

In Skoghall Konsthall, Alfredo Jaar used the construction and destruction of architecture as a vehicle to provoke a desire for change. In 2000 Jaar was invited to the Swedish town of Skoghall to produce an artwork, but when he arrived he found the town lacked any visible cultural or artistic spaces. In response to this lack he built an art gallery (konsthall), organized an exhibit to be shown in it, and then 24 hours later he had it burnt down. The gallery was made of paper from the town’s paper mill which remains the largest employer in the area. Clearly Jaar had recognized a real cultural absence in Skoghall because as soon as he created the gallery, a group of citizens asked him to save it. Yet as planned the gallery was burnt down, with Jaar noting that he didn’t want to impose on Skoghall an institution they had never fought for. Thanks to Jaar, Skoghall witnessed a small glimpse of what art can be and what it can do to unify a community. In then burning the gallery Jaar made Skoghall’s lack explicit - he produced a void. Long after the embers cooled and the ashes were swept away, this absence was still felt. So much so that eventually a group of Skoghall’s citizens got together and invited Jaar back to create the town’s first permanent konsthall. The beauty of this work is that thanks to this sacrificial nature it is not impositional. The konsthall does not enforce a particular ideology, nor does it involve sermonizing or officiousness. In a strict sense it is useless as it cannot be bought or sold. Yet through the sacrificial spectacle of this work Jaar encouraged the people of Skoghall to imagine how things could be otherwise.

04. Fireworks

“Good architecture must be conceived, erected, and burned in vain. The greatest architecture of all is the fireworks: it perfectly shows the gratuitous consumption of pleasure.”

Bernard Tschumi

Architecture helps to facilitate the performance of daily routines, and if architecture was not there to provide such a service then ultimately civilization as we know it would cease to function. However while we do need buildings to facilitate routines and perpetuate existing conditions, I believe that architecture can play another far more intriguing role in our lives; it can encourage hesitation.  Architecture is not autonomous from reality, it is invaded by people and it can therefore provoke people to question the status quo and to think critically about how they share space. If the first type of architecture can be considered useful, then the second type could be distinguished with the name useless. What this useless architecture has in common with the act of sacrifice, with fireworks, is its gratuitousness. Architect Bernard Tschumi, who draws heavily on the writings of Bataille, has dedicated his career to theorizing upon and designing a useless architecture. In fact Tschumi claims that it is this very usefulness that distinguishes architecture from building; its uselessness is what makes architecture necessary.

The claim that architecture can be a tool for liberating behaviour can be traced back to the notion of defamilization or estrangement as developed by Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky. According to Shklovsky the true purpose of art is the restoration of conscious experience; true art breaks through ‘deadening and mechanical habits of conduct’[5]. In order to do this a work of art must make strange, it must present common things as unfamiliar and thereby allow people a new understanding of the thing in question. Shklovsky exemplifies this concept by referring to a passage from Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace that describes ‘painted cardboard and oddly dressed men and women who moved, spoke and sang strangely in a patch of blazing light’[6]. Here Tolstoy is referring to an opera, but doing so in a way that removes any coherence or meaning from the actions described. These actions and the opera they constitute are thus presented afresh; they are defamiliarized.

Tschumi argues that the role of architecture is also to defamiliarize, and that the object of architecture’s defamiliarization is the social structure in which it is embedded. Of the architectural techniques Tschumi developed in order to achieve this aim, perhaps the most convincing is the process of cross-programming. This technique is well-evidenced in Tschumi’s 1989 competition entry for the National Library of France. The proposed scheme featured a running track on the roof of the building, which intersected with the upper floors of the library. This juxtaposition meant that the athletic and intellectual programs of the building would directly impact one another. The focus of the design was not on the formal or symbolic qualities of the architecture but on the events that occur within it[7]. Tschumi’s belief is that the collision of programs can be used to shock people into questioning their habitual behaviours.

Another of Tschumi’s projects that directly explores the concept of defamiliarization is the 1997 Le Fresnoy Art Centre in Tourcoing, France. The Le Fresnoy project is defined by a huge, unifying roof suspended above a series of existing 1920s buildings. This roof features large glass openings as well as ductwork and other technical devices that enhance the performance of the buildings below. Yet the most intriguing aspect of the complex is not so much the roof itself as the interstitial spaces that this roof generates. A series of walkways that navigate through the spaces below the new roof and above the existing ones allow visitors to view the old buildings from above. In this area the collision of old and new is most apparent. Just try to imagine the following:

As you’re strolling along a walkway amidst installations and film projections either side of you, you feel a breeze which verifies you’re not quite inside. Looking up you see you’re clearly sheltered by a hulking steel roof and yet light is streaming in from an opening, making discerning in from out even more troublesome. Turning your gaze from the mass of technology and steel above you, you look down to see the mottled orange roof-tiles of an old building below you. Continuing along you notice that your little ramp is hanging from above, and that you’re ultimately suspended in mid-air. All there is to position you in relation to your surroundings is the steel grill beneath your feet and the handrail to your side. Hardly enough to keep you from feeling utterly disoriented. Just keep on walking...

This architecture is indeed intended to induce an experience of disjunction, yet it is not shock for shock’s sake. For Tschumi this feeling of disjunction is a means for personal emancipation[7]. His belief is that such a rupture between a person and their surroundings (physical and social) may allow that person to reinvent themselves and their habits. Tschumi is not interested in shocking new forms but in configuring spaces in such a way that encourages the performance of new events. In this way Tschumi uses architecture as a device to reorganize social structures.

05: Finishing Up 

Architecture is an expression of society’s power; through its architecture a society can impose order and control on its people. Yet to accept this as fact is by no means to disparage the fundamental necessity of architecture and its capacity to order our lives. The benefit of architecture is practically indisputable and therefore does not require reassertion. On the other hand, while many have contended that architecture is indeed controlling, such a contention is hardly a platitude. So to reiterate: I claim, as many others have, that architecture does indeed exert control upon us.  But if we accept that architecture controls us, then we must ask how exactly architecture does so. As I have argued it controls us by selectively concealing or revealing elements that either challenge or support the appearance of power. In the 19th century this meant using architecture to suppress anything that was considered dirty or subordinate; be it human excrement or human servants. Then in the 20th century this sentiment of suppression was extended, and with Modern architecture the parameters for what constituted unwanted mess came to include anything that evidenced temporality or imperfection. Indeed when architecture covers up mess, the power behind that architecture appears invulnerable; and similarly when architecture covers up power, that power appears indisputable.

The way in which architecture conceals or reveals expressions of power relies above all on spatial organization. While other aspects such as form and materiality may play a role, it is the programming and organization of space that truly defines architecture’s capacity to control.  I claim that this must also be true in the reverse; if it is possible to create a liberative architecture, then such an architecture must also rely on the organization of space. Spaces should then be designed to conceal the things that are most commonly visible and expose the things most commonly hidden. The intention of this heterodox approach is one of defamiliarization; it builds on the notion that when we design something that reflects our behaviour back to us, we inevitably change the way in which our actions are performed. An architecture that allows for the unquestioned reproduction of extant norms is one that is complicit in controlling its users. Whereas when architecture demands conscious engagement and encourages us to revalue our habits and cultural narratives; this is when architecture becomes a tool for emancipation.

[1] George Bataille, ‘Architecture’, Documents, 1:1 (1929)

[2] Dennis Hollier , Against Architecture: The Writings of Georges Bataille

[3] Beatriz Colomina and Marc Wigley, Toilet Architecture

[4] StorefrontTV, From Underground Mies to Underground Storefront, YouTube, 28 October 2014

[5] Fredric Jameson, The Prison-House of Language (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972).

[6] Leo Tolstoy, as cited by Viktor Shklovsky, Art as Technique

[7] A la Situationists International

[8] Tschumi’s concept of freedom-inducing architecture draws on Gilles Deleuze’s writing on freedom as defined by a revaluation of the self

Image Credits:

Figure 1. https://sites.google.com/site/hblcrimeandpunishment/Home/the-panopticon-1

Figure 2. http://miesbcn.com/the-pavilion/

Figure 3. Author’s own

Figure 4. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/shortcuts/2013/mar/25/

Figure 5. https://www.dezeen.com/2013/01/04phantom-mies-as-rendered-society-by-%EF%BF%BCandres-jaque/

Figure 6. https://divisare.com/projects/306868-andres-jaque-office-for-political-innovation-phantom-mies-as-rendered-society

Figure 7. https://tiresomemoi.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/villa-savoye/

Figure 8. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4917544/Fatberg-sewer-London-s-Chinatown.html

Figure 9. https://www.archdaily.com/645883/cosmo-andres-jaque-office-for-political-innovation

Figure 10. http://searcharchives.vancouver.ca/potlatch-at-quamichan-death-dance-swy-wheefour-children-standing-represent-members-of-family-who-have-died-and-picture-is-photo-of-another

Figure 11. Author’s own

Figure 12. Author’s own

Figure 13. https://mjthill.wordpress.com/2015/10/19/response-to-alfredo-jaar-the-skoghall-konsthall/

Figure 14. https://aphelis.net/blanchot-appelle-desastre/

Figure 15. https://worldarchitecture.org/architecture-news/pmggh/exhibition-bernard-tschumi-centre-pompidou.html

Figure 16. https://www.lefresnoy.net/sites/prod/files/images/pages/Pr%C3%A9sentation/lentre-deux-toitsvuesurlagrandenef2.jpg

Figure 1. Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon is the fundamental example of a controlling architecture.

Figure 2. The Barcelona Pavilion - An architecture of sleekness and purity.

Figure 3. The Barcelona Pavilion: Lavish yet sparse interior space.

Figure 4. An iceberg home - most of the house is submerged beneath the ground.

Figure 5. PHANTOM: Cleaning elements from the basement are brought up and put on display.

Figure 6. PHANTOM: Sunfaded old curtains are stored in the basement below.

Figure 7. Le Corbusier’s own bedroom: Bidet out on display and bathroom without door.

Figure 8. A sewer built in 1852 filled with fat and other solid waste.

Figure 9. COSMO: A performative piece of plumbing designed to reconnect people with water.

Figure 10. Potlatch ceremony in which sacrifice is celebrated as a community.

Figure 11 & 12. Las Falles: In Valencia sculptures are burnt in front of joyous crowds.

Figure 13 & 14. Skoghall Art Gallery before, and then engulfed in flames.

Figure 15. Le Fresnoy Art Centre - Old and new collide in order to challenge the visitor.

Figure 16. Le Fresnoy Art Centre - A walkway suspended from above.