THE (DIS)ENCHANTED SUBJECT OF ARCHITECTURE: BETWEEN NEOLIBERALISM AND NEOBAROQUE Review

by Lennart Wolff, MA History & Critical Thinking student

13 March 2017
Architectural Association, London

 

By bringing together a diverse group of theorists, this one-day event called for an inquiry into the possibility of a critical architecture, and further, for a recasting of the very terms of critique. It was organised on the occasion of the launch of two recent publications: Nadir Lahiji’s ‘Adventures with the Theory of the Baroque and French Philosophy’ (2016), and Douglas Spencer’s ‘The Architecture of Neoliberalism’ (2016). Both served as points of departure to problematise the ways in which contemporary architecture affects the subject and indeed contributes to its formation.

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Douglas Spencer introducing the symposium. Photo by Valerie Bennett.

Sociologist Max Weber described modernity as intrinsically tied up with the “progressive disenchantment of the world”, a historical process of overcoming myth and religious beliefs, and turning towards cultural rationality instead. Lahiji and Spencer, from different perspectives, argue that our neoliberal reality is characterised by an ongoing rationalisation that operates alongside a process of re-enchantment of the subject, thus leading to a “neobaroque“ condition, which current architectural production contributes to. The prevailing belief in self-organisation, the free market, and consumer choices, has reached an almost sacred status, which often translates into project briefs and design proposals, rich with sensory pleasures and innovative forms.

 

The last presentation by Joan Ockman traced this by looking at the ‘fetishisation’ of circulation in recent architectural projects, in particular, the scenographic mechanism at work in Frank Gehry’s Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris.

By dissecting the project and walking the audience through it, Ockman sought to uncover the ways in which the built environment stimulates emotions in visitors, a phenomenon which, according to her, emerged by the mid-twentieth century, when buildings tended to become spectacle-buildings.

Reflecting on the aspect of spectacle from a different angle, Douglas Spencer compared the ideologically driven “dreamworlds“ of the cold-war era, ranging from Stalin’s monumental subway stations in Moscow to recent transit spaces. Spencer concluded that the contemporary turn towards austere and optimised designs does not mark the disappearance of dream-forms. It is in fact a continuation of the production of persuasive atmospheres with different means. Smooth and seamless surfaces enable a re-enchantment of the neoliberal maxim of production, which is based on flexibility, mobility, and self-optimisation. In relation to the above, Nina Power noted that putative public spaces constitute the realm in which governments define and police mass or group subjects, hereby suggesting that we are not just living in a reality of increasing individualisation but one that is still deeply structured by (post-)Foucaultian mechanisms of surveillance and control.

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Symposium poster: The (Dis)Enchanted Subject of Architecture: Between Neoliberalism and Neobaroque.

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New York Movie, 1939, by Edward Hopper.

Apart from Power’s vivid presentation, the urgency of the issues raised in the discussions might have been enforced if speakers had also engaged with recent political developments. Since Brexit and Donald Trump’s rise to power we are witnessing a strong turn towards emotionally driven, post-truth politics that make the neoliberal project rapidly mutate, if not collapse, bringing with it a fear of the dismantling of democratic institutions. As those changes are brought about by public vote, can they be partly seen as a manifestation of the masses longing for re-enchantment? And if so, could architecture, instead of just catering to those desires, channel them in a way that counters their susceptibility to agitational tendencies? Even with the assumption that the production of the built environment is always an outcome of multiple negotiations and the economics, and therefore to an extent unable to actualise radical critique, unbuilt design proposals– thanks to the possible “virality“ of their imaginary– might still be an effective tool for subversion. For instance, Estudio 3.14’s proposal for a Barragán-inspired version of Trump’s Mexico border wall found a visual form for the absurdity of a project which instigates, apart from a reign of terror, the illusion to reverse globalisation and return to a state of great national security and social prosperity.

 

For more information:

The (Dis)enchanted Subject of Architecture: Between Neoliberalism and Neobaroque Lecture Video
History and Critical Thinking MA
HCT Microsite