Thought Pieces on the Limits of Design: #7

I will consider three aspects of architectural design which look into the limits of spatial practices in addressing the political.[1]

Architecture is a dependent profession

“…architecture at every stage of its existence -from design through construction to occupation- is buffeted by external forces. Other people, circumstances, and events intervene to upset the architect’s best laid plans. These forces are, to a greater or lesser extent, beyond the control of the architect.”[2]

By and of itself, architectural design performs within a limited field of action when addressing the political. Opening the architectural field to the delivery of sustained inclusive practice implies embracing wider networks including ‘non-experts’.  This could not only expand the political scope of spatial design, but potentially engage design in devising longer term spatial and cultural maintenance structures.

Architectural design is still driven by formal codes

‘…the basic dynamics of the architectural field are driven by symbolic concerns and the quest to achieve reputation through the production of great architecture, which is, of course, that which the field defines as great.’[3]

When the RIBA was stablished in 1835, architects were described as and expected to be men of taste. From then onwards, these men[4] were officially established as the custodians of a precedent tradition, with its subsequent extension into the future as a project on taste. The institutionalisation of the architect mainly as a form and taste provider has traditionally limited the agency of architecture in the design of more open politics and/or the politics of design. It has also limited the impact of architectural design as a long-term, inclusive political project.

Architecture can be complicit in the exercise of authority

“Too often architecture is designed (and consequently comprehended) as a purely aesthetic or intellectual activity, ignoring social relations and rendering people passive. Architecture may thus, as monuments, express significance in the city, but it will simultaneously mask the structures of power that underlie it.”[5]

Spatial design, intentionally or not, constructs and supports power structures. This contributes to emphasize the power of some social groups over others.[6] The politics of specific sites could therefore be unveiled, and perhaps transformed, by spatial strategies interested in exploring the complicit connections between design and power. Privately-owned public spaces (POPS) are one example. Power structures ruling this kind of site question the extent to which spatial design can perform -working alongside, contributing to, or resisting- backstage-managed functional and formal scripts.

Architectural icons are often effective in the support of authority. But what lies behind form? Could the design of maintenance structures be included within design projects, in order to support the politics of participation in the longer term?


[1] My on-going research investigates the connections between understandings of taste and the exercise of authority, in specific public spaces.

[2] J. Till, Architecture Depends (MIT Press, 2009) p. 1

[3] G. Stevens, The Favored Circle: The social Foundations of Architectural Distinction (MIT Press, 1998) p. 95

[4] As opposed to women, who were not given full RIBA membership until 1938

[5] I. Borden, Kerr, J., Pivaro, A., Rendell, J., Eds., Unknown City: Contesting Architecture and Social Space (MIT Press, 2011) p. 4

[6] See LK Weisman, Discrimination by design: A feminist critique of the man-made environment (University of Illinois Press, 1994)