The power of Architecture

April 28, 2011

There are a number of points that are covered in a flowing discussion with Michel Foucault in Space, Knowledge and Power and one in particular that I would like to focus on in regards to the abilities that architects have to change the qualities of a space to manipulate behaviour and allow ‘liberty and freedom’.

Acccording to Foucault, architecture doesn’t have the power to provide liberty, freedom or oppression, this is committed and done to and by people. For example, the provision of a public square won’t guarantee that people will use it to exercise their rights of gathering a public place, protest or benignly enjoying the weather.

Foucault cites two strong examples; the first is Jean Baptiste Godin’s Familistere (social palace). Godin was a believer in the power of architecture for social change and the buildings were essentially four storey courtyard blocks around a public or work space. Foucault argued the Familistere was panoptic in quality. The people using the courtyard knew everything they did was being watched or monitored, or at least had the potential to be. This in turn affected their behaviour. Foucault proposes that if the Familistere was devoted to uninhibited, guiltless, free love, then it’s power to be panoptic is shattered by the actions of those using it. The decision though, has to be made by people, the building does not have this power.

The other example cited is Le Corbusier’s Unite de Habitation. Corb was also an ardent believer in the power of architecture for social change. As is well known, the Unite was a failure but from the outset, Le Corbusier’s intentions were that it would essentially do good and improve the quality of its users lives. His fatal mistake was the assumption that people would behave as he designed them to.

And so for me, Foucault has shattered one of the inflationary myths perpetuated in architecture school and I think follows into practice – that Architecture can change the world. Whilst the opposite isn’t true either, the answer is that it takes people to do this.

Architecture, or its built result, is only a tool. Architects can have intentions but the people, or society, will have the say in its ultimate success or failure. Like DeLeuze’s philosophical toolbox, architects have at their disposal a number of instruments that they use to manipulate space, most fundamentally the planes that divide it; walls, doors, windows, floors, roofs etc. Is it fair to say that the design process is a guessing game, albeit a fairly well researched and studied one? Probably not, but from the outset, there have to be assumptions, beliefs and intentions to give architecture a purpose. Without purpose, it is reduced to folly, though only of course if people choose to use it that way.



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