(Architecture’s) power and the (Arnhem) panopticon, by André Patrão

There is an abundance of cases – architectural and philosophical, and especially post-modern; by academics, practitioners, and critics – in which a relation between architecture and philosophy is at work, with one engaging the other directly, or simply in a marginal or implicit manner. Philosophy has avidly been sought by architecture to discover, question, understand, and express the deeper dimensions of its works, the world upon which they intervene, and the discipline itself. Architecture, in turn, has grown from a footnote, example, or metaphor in some greater discussion, into a topic in its own right within philosophy.


Despite the mutually influential relation between the two, one scarcely finds reflections about the relation itself and its implications. Why does architecture resort to philosophy? Why does philosophy refer to architecture? How? What comes about? What does this say about architecture? What can it say about philosophy? What are the recurring problems, what are the appealing promises, what are the unexplored potentials?


The following presentation poses these questions to a case-study of the relation, one in which an architect efficiently resorts to a philosopher’s work in order to produce an architectural design.


The philosopher is Michel Foucault, popularly invoked in a variety of discussions within architectural theory and practice – though he himself never dedicated a single piece of literature exclusively nor even primarily to architecture. Foucault’s conception of architecture and his contribution to it appear playfully suggested in Of Other Spaces (1967) and explicitly discussed in Space, Knowledge, and Power (1982), but best exemplified by Discipline and Punish (1975). In the chapter Panopticism, he speaks of architecture as a potential institutional mechanism of power, used and defined not by the architect but by others. As principal metaphor and study object of this notion, he chose the panopticon.

The architect is Rem Koolhaas, not only amongst the most illustrious practitioners of today – know to the general public for projects such as the Kunstal (Rotterdam, 1993), the Seattle Central Library (Seattle, 2004), the CCTV Headquarters (Beijing, 2012), and the Museo di Fondazione Prada (Milan, 2015) – but also renowned for his writings about architecture and contemporary culture, which in fact first brought him fame – particularly Delirious New York (1978) and S,M,L,XL (1995). Early in Koolhaas’ career, in 1979, his architectural office OMA was commissioned to assess the possibility of transforming and thus extending the lifetime of the Koepelgevangenis, a panoptical prison in Arnhem. The proposal and its explicative text especially – Revision (1981), later published in S,M,L,XL – subtly reveal that the interpretation of the panopticon upon which OMA worked and reacted to in their design was that described in Discipline and Punish by Foucault – the philosopher whom Koolhaas had curiously met just a few years before.


The result was a theoretical critique that conversed with the philosophical issues underlying Foucault’s description of the panopticon and, indirectly, with his views on architecture, through the necessarily prescriptive act of architectural design. The critique’s value lies not only in its textual expression, but in the design too. The panoptical architectural typology meant to embody and enforce the political, social, and legal ideals of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who devised it. Therefore, the formal act upon the panopticon qua formalization of philosophical positions also generates a philosophically relevant discussion with these positions.


Most importantly, though, the actors involved ensured that the critique did not occur at the expense of architecture. On the one hand, rather than a philosopher imposing excessively strict yet unsuitable norms upon architecture, Foucault’s thinking intentionally offers itself to multidisciplinary appropriation, adaptation, and use – very much what architects generally seek. On the other hand, rather than an architect obsessively translating philosophical concepts into architectural form, Koolhaas appropriates, adapts, and uses a sufficiently accurate understanding of Foucault just at the right moments of the design process and in just the right measure – with an instrumental approach very much like Foucault’s application of architecture in his own work. OMA developed first and foremost an architectural project, but with the belief that architecture should also perform a philosophical role. Hence how the Arnhem proposal, though ultimately not built, nevertheless constitutes a remarkably successful contemporary outcome of an interaction between architecture and philosophy.

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