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Architecture, Buildings, and Political Ends, by Saul Fisher

Updated: May 14, 2018

Does architecture, by its nature as practice or artifact, serve political ends? Taking ends of something X to be political iff X serves the projection of power by state or government, or advances policy-making, ideologies, or the body politic, it may be thought that

(a) Architecture is determinative of political ends.

on the grounds that it is easy to find cases where

(b) Buildings are determinative of political ends, and

(c) Buildings are the product of architecture.

Yet it is not the case that all and only buildings are the product of architectural practice. We may leave aside the many individual cases or kinds of buildings which, by dint of largely functional design, are not determinative of political ends: gas stations, mini-storage, and the like. Of greater concern are some of the underlaps among buildings and architecture that highlight the true breadth of the domain of architectural objects—including data objects, design studies, paper architecture, and fantasy architecture. These sorts of objects, as architectural but not built structures, suggest why we shouldn’t expect architecture to generally serve political ends. What joins all architectural objects—whether or not built structures, motivated by design or artistic considerations or intentions of any kind—are distinctive formal features. Such include simple dimensions of shape, size, or density—as well as more complex features including compositional unity, symmetry, or proportion. Other sorts of dimensions, as are characteristic of built structures—stylistic or historical context, or social or psychological fit—fall out as common features shared by all architectural objects.

Against this background, it is contingently possible that some architectural objects serve political ends—where political intentions and preferences are superadded to those central formal features common to all such objects. We know the familiar instances featuring such intentions—such as the work of Tatlin or Speer—and there are doubtless many more implicit or, at least, more subtle instances. Further, those political features bear real benefits or harms and thus inform the identity of those works as built. However, even for built structures, the formal core of architecture doesn’t require political ends. Indeed, the propriety of architectural objects serving political ends should be suspect on a formalist stance. That formal core allows for operations such as replicability, component transformability, medium-to-long-term adaptability—and so relies in part on avoiding political ends in order to attain design success and maximize utility.

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