Third Post: On Architecture, Technology, and Liberty

Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, according to Michel Foucault

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, according to Michel Foucault

In this final post in a three-part series On Architecture, Technology and Liberty, I aim to finish laying the groundwork for my own theory of how a libertarian ideology relates to architecture. However, you will notice that I spend the majority of this essay describing how architecture has been used to limit, rather than promote liberty. This is partially due to the relative scarcity of historical examples, since very few architects have willingly relinquished control over their designs. It also reflects that my theory is by no means complete, as I hope to continue developing my ideas over life of this blog. In the meantime, let this post serve as a point of departure.

Architecture and Liberty:

With greater effectiveness than any European protagonist of politically committed art, Jefferson carried out his role as organizer of culture, having the opportunity to do so in “official” works. This is the role he repeatedly played as consultant in the planning of Washington, in the designing of the White House and the Capitol, … and in his architectural activity in general. [1]

-Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development

Architecture is inherently political. Historically, as designers of space and the human experience, architects have taken it upon themselves to imbue their designs with a variety of political and moral ideologies. Buildings have always responded to the social and economic climate in which they were conceived, either by passively reflecting the problems of contemporary society or by actively trying to solve them. In the case of Thomas Jefferson, the significance of the politician’s involvement in the planning of the nation’s capital is abundantly clear. Jefferson’s admiration of classical architects such as Palladio and l’Enfant’s superposition of various European models onto a typical colonial grid plan made for a grand capital full of symbolic statements about the new American ideology. Yet in his own architectural projects, such as the main quadrangle and Rotunda at the University of Virginia and his plantation home at Monticello, are more sophisticated in their use of architecture to distribute power and organize society. Similarly, Jefferson’s British contemporary, Jeremy Bentham, designed the Panopticon to establish an ideal power structure for institutions such as prisons, schools, hospitals and insane asylums. In the Panopticon, a cylindrical building with cells located around the perimeter and a lone central tower to allow a small number of authority figures to watch over a larger population of inmates, the relationship between the building and power is Bentham’s key contribution to architectural and political theory.

So what does this have to do with politics today? Well, I would argue that architects’ design methodologies are closely related to the distribution of power in society. Because buildings are largely permanent, a heavy-handed attempt to reorganize society can often lead to long-term unintended consequences. One clear example of this is Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse plan for Paris and its translation by Robert Moses in New York City’s public housing projects. The main ideas contained in Le Corbusier’s urban masterplans of the 20s and 30s can be summarized as follows: 1) extreme order and standardization through zoning, and 2) extreme density in order to maximize green space, i.e., the “tower in the park” model. His designs aimed not only to improve the daily lives of the city’s inhabitants but also to improve society as a whole by eliminating the decaying urban fabric and replacing it with rigid geometric order. While Le Corbusier’s designs were never truly realized, their influence on New York’s “master builder” Robert Moses is clearly depicted in the city’s public housing projects. These high-rise apartment buildings were constructed in massive “superblocks”, sites that had once been low income neighborhoods which were demolished to make way for so many towers in the park. These apartments, originally intended for the working class, eventually became breeding grounds for poverty, violence and drug abuse, demonstrating the dangerous unintended consequences of such heavy-handed “urban renewal” projects.

Recently, the conversation has shifted to subjects such as sustainability, energy efficiency and material reuse, an agenda with clear political implications, best exemplified in the US by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. But the checklist that LEED uses to determine the environmental friendliness of a building is well-intentioned but reductive at best. At its worst, LEED certification is a misleading bureaucratic stamp of approval, often with little to no significance related to the building’s performance. The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) has a monopoly on sustainable building certification, propped up by federal subsidies and regulations that require new public to meet the council’s LEED standards. As USA Today explained in a July 2013 analysis of the LEED certification process, “designers emphasize LEED points that can be won through simple purchasing decisions and shun labor-intensive options and cutting-edge technology” [2]. The most popular options, such as having a LEED-certified designer on the team, building with recycled materials like steel and concrete, and using low-emitting paints and adhesives, accomplish little more than the accrual of easy points. Meanwhile, researchers have shown that LEED accreditation does not necessarily imply better energy performance. According to the USA Today report, “LEED certification is awarded before occupancy. Points for minimizing energy and water use are based on projections, not on actual energy and water use.” [3]

Jefferson’s ideologocal designs for new American architecture and Bentham’s Panopticon design as “A way of obtaining power, power of mind over mind” [4] serve as early examples of how architects have addressed the distribution of power in architecture. Robert Moses’ postwar slum-clearing projects and the publicly funded, Corbusian “towers in the park” that replaced them display the effects of Modernist architecture and politics on the development of the American city, while the current environmental certification bureaucracy and the tax-based incentives that support it are indicative of the contemporary situation. Architecture has developed simultaneously with political ideas related to city planning, public/private space, the distribution of wealth and power, and much more. Yet almost every example of politically engaged architecture thus far has favored authority over individual liberty. Why are there no good examples of a libertarian architecture? Perhaps it is because of the architect’s longstanding belief in the ability of a small group of designers to effectively control the masses, whether they are designing buildings or public policies.

Yet I believe there is good reason for libertarians and architects alike to be optimistic about the future. The decentralization of the design process due to the development of digital design and collaboration methodologies has already begun to challenge the traditional hierarchy of the building industry. Advances in architectural modelling and simulation software have enabled designers to generate and analyze iterations of possible buildings according to a wide variety of parameters, a technique that substantially improves efficiency by relinquishing control over certain design decisions. Environmental feedback systems promote energy and water efficiency once a building is occupied, while interactivity and cloud computing place a greater emphasis on the individual user’s relation to the system as a whole. Largely thanks to the increasing influence of digital technology in architectural design, but also due to our ever evolving cultural values, architects are gradually beginning to see themselves as designers of dynamic systems. This systematic methodology places an emphasis on the individual user and the many forces (e.g. environmental, structural, and economic decisions) that affect one’s experience of the built world. From the point of view of someone concerned with individual liberty and rational thought, the future of architecture sounds promising indeed.

Photo: Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison design and quote by Michel Foucault,

  1. Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, trans. Barbara Luigia La Penta (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1976), 25.
  3. ibid.
  4. Robin Evans, Bentham’s Panopticon: An Incident in the Social History of Architecture, 22

One comment

  1. Pingback: Are Skyscrapers the Ideal Libertarian Architecture? | Libertecture

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