- banner1
+ | -

The Contested Landscape Of Jerusalem

The Review

John Matthew Barlow discusses University of Tel Aviv archeologist Raphael Greenberg's new research on the dig at Wadi Hilweh, and its political and cultural ramifications for Israelis and Palestinians.


  • Contested Jerusalem


    John Matthew Barlow discusses University of Tel Aviv archeologist Raphael Greenberg's new research on the dig at Wadi Hilweh, and its political and cultural ramifications for Israelis and Palestinians.


  • The Occidental Guerrilla

    Book Review

    Michael A. Innes reviews David Kilcullen's new book The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. A timely and astute synthesis of experience, research and analysis, the author pinpoints the political shear between minority existential threats to US interests and the majority of the world's locally invested guerrillas who just want to be left alone.


  • Architecture & Biopolitics


    Berlin-based writer Daniel Miller's October 2008 interview with Swedish philosopher and SITE Magazine Editor-In-Chief Sven-Olov Wallenstein, on his new book Biopolitics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009).


  • Wired For War


    The second symposium in CTlab's 2009 series, focused on Peter Singer's new book, Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (Penguin Press: 2009), ran from 30 March to 2 April. Singer and half a dozen scholars from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Austria debated the use and ethics of robots in war.


  • The Limits Of "Security"

    Current Intelligence

    Kenneth Anderson explores the link between international financial instability and global security in response to Judy Shelton's recent Wall Street Journal op-ed.



Architecture & Biopolitics: An Interview With Sven-Olov Wallenstein

[Ed's Note: Berlin-based writer Daniel Miller sent us a note last week about an unpublished interview he conducted on 23 October 2008 with Swedish philosopher Sven-Olov Wallenstein, about his new book Biopolitics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009). The transcript of the interview appears below.]

DANIEL MILLER: The title of your book is Biopolitics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture - how do you understand these two terms, and what is the relation between them?

SVEN-OLOV WALLENSTEIN: Biopolitics, obviously, comes from Foucault. I work on Foucault, and have been reading him for many years, and I discovered how useful these ideas about biopolitics that he developed in the mid-seventies were.

I discovered how useful they were for the understanding... first of all, of the historical shift that occurs in the 18th Century, but also how... they could be applied also to many contemporary developments. It struck me that so much of theorizing on architecture that has used Foucault always sticks to this idea about discipline, and the Panopticon, and the kind of harsh regimentation of society that you find in a book like Discipline and Punish, but Foucault also has many other things to say about architecture, and so I always found that his concepts were applied in somehow a very selective way.

So I wanted to expand that a little bit. I also found when I was in Paris – we actually did an issue of Site a couple years ago where we tried unearth things... collaborative works done by Foucault and his students on architecture which were truly amazing. And most of this stuff is still unpublished, or barely published – as in, you might find two copies of the text in a basement in Paris. And they've not been translated, and not even edited in any way. So there's a whole of body of work there. And so that was the origin of the project. How skewed the picture of Foucault was that many architects hand.

MILLER: So this project comes out of a scholarly interest in Foucault?

WALLENSTEIN: Yeah, but also architecture – Foucault and architecture – it struck me that it was very useful to somehow combine those two perspectives... Because Foucault doesn't say so much himself about architecture. I mean, in this collaborative work it is mostly his students that engage in architecture and the questions of urbanism. Whereas Foucault doesn't say much about architecture, and occasionally what he says about architecture is... not very satisfying.

Occasionally he seems to have... I don't know... a Beaux-Arts idea of architecture; he says in his late interview with Paul Rabinow, that all the domains, all the variables, that became important in modern society – speed, territoriality – all of these domains escape the profession of the architect. Which seems to me a rather stupid thing to say. Because precisely what modern architecture is about is speed, territoriality and this more general regimentation of space, issues that were not really the concern of the classical architect. I mean, you find this all over the place in early Modernist architecture.

So it seemed a very stupid thing, that the architect was somehow out of the process, because Foucault had a fairly simplistic and ultimately traditional of what architecture is about. He tells Paul Rabinow: “The architect doesn't have any power over me. If I choose to tear down my house, whose to house.” Well, planning laws, for instance? It is a very simplistic view of architecture.

So I think a lot of the work also means that one has to somehow detach oneself from many of Foucault's own statements, and rather use his work, then simply somehow quote what he's saying, because much of the stuff which he actually said, I think, is moot.

MILLER: Do you see a relation between architecture and Foucault's concept of the dispositif?

WALLENSTEIN: Well, yes... It can be constructed, it has been constructed, over and over again, specifically because it is close to what Deleuze and Guattari call an assemblage, agencement.

This concept of course has been use widely and in a great variety of ways – the notion of the diagram, and all these things, that became immensely trendy in the late nineties, especially in American circles. So I think this, this connection already exists, especially with regards to Deleuze.

But this is also one of my points. Because as much as I admire a lot of the work by these people – they are great theorists and scholars – it seems to be that this kind of reading is also one way of depoliticizing the concept. They read it as a theory of forms, a kind of formalistic... I mean, for them Foucault and Deleuze is one way to continue the kind of formalistic project of late modernism. I am referring in particular to Eisenman.

Whereas for me, it was obvious that those concepts are geared, not at all, towards becoming a kind of morphogenetic theory, but instead of how to describe architectural forms in a social space, and understand them as ways to regiment and order social space. Which seemed to get lost in the American reading.

MILLER: In Eisenman's Reading?

WALLENSTEIN: In Eisenman's reading, but also those of his disciples, and his opponents, and their opponents, which all at one point or another became visible in a magazine like ANY. Which I admire a lot, but I've been to some of these conferences, and I heard the way they apply concepts like assemblage, and diagram, and virtual, and so on... which they've picked up from Deleuze, but which also comes from Foucault. And most of them just seem predominantly interested in the question, “How should we make interesting architecture, how should do we do seductive buildings, how should we apply the concepts through the use of computer technology.” But all of the political implications that were strongly there from the beginning disappeared. Its not the first time that you have an American formalist reading of European political concepts. From the International Style onwards, you have that kind of flattening reception of European theory.

MILLER: Is Architecture for you first a number of buildings, or  a collection of events?

WALLENSTEIN: I would say its a collection of events. And I think contemporary architectural theory has acknowledged this... the focus on the individual building or the object as such has more to do with, lets say, commercial interests and image making and branding, and creating signature buildings, and opera houses, etc, etc.

This is of course very useful if one wants to brand a city or region, or a place like that, but from a theoretical point of view I think that everyone knows that building as such, is an event, taking place in a nest of infrastructures, networks and flows... So in that sense, theoretically I think the object is not the focus at all. But then of course practically the object which is the thing which engenders the images you can sell.

What you see with the development of the art object in the sixties. The object remains, but of course, theoretically everyone knows that the object is part of a much larger framework, but the object is what you sell.

I think that one has to understand that any type of architecture will always have a certain capacity to organize social space, in the sense that it organizes flows, movements, subjectivity, it tells you who you are, it tells you how you should move.

I think the important thing is not so much what architecture signifies, in the sense that it represents something, a certain state, or a certain government, or a certain governmentality, or a certain ideology. But more in the way in which it works, the way in which it in fact organizes space and forces you to move in a certain way, and forces you to act in a certain way, and it imposes a division, and etc, etc, etc....

I think all architecture is of course concerned with that. But discourses about identification and representation seem much more concerned with the image of the architecture, as opposed to the way that architecture actually works, which is through space.

MILLER: It seems clear from your book that architecture is not just what people call architecture in a traditional sense, but is equally infrastructure, information networks, and so on and so forth. You say: “The trajectory of architectural modernity is one of subject formation.” To put things polemically with a line from Siegfried Gideon, is architecture in command?

WALLENSTEIN: No, I don't think architecture is in command, no. Because I don't think architecture is a subject in that sense. Architecture is an assemblage or a dispositif – it contains subject positions, in a very Foucauldian sense, Foucault's version of archaeology, for instance.

Architecture is a dispositif or assemblage which contains many subject positions, for instance, people who are called architects, people who are called critics, people who are called the clients, and the inhabitants – architecture contains all of these possible subject positions.

I wouldn't necessarily say that architecture is in command – this would be to ascribe a certain unity to architecture, such that it could either be in command, or not be in command.

I think this is what someone like Gideon realized, for instance, in his early works, in his book Building in France, when he said that “Perhaps the very word architecture must be discarded.” He has the example of approaching a railway station. You see trains coming and leavings, the street, certain elements, but where is architecture? Nowhere. There is no such thing as architecture. What we have is a way to channel streams of movement – Bewegungsstrom – so architecture would be a way of organizing and bringing together various flows of motion.

So in that sense, architecture with a capital A is... not really the issue here. Architecture is not in command. But is one of the essential and complex tools with which society organizes itself. But we shouldn't say architecture is command....

Foucault never really connected his theory of subjectivation and his work on architecture and urban planning, but I think they could be connected. Of course the kind of spaces that architecture engenders also makes possible one way to become a subject, but it makes possible and perhaps even necessitates response and resistance to architectural space... it produces, and makes possible, subjectivation.

If one looks at the... the treatises and discourses of early modernism – not so much Mies, but Le Corbusier, Gideon – one can see that the tools of architecture are deployed there to try and forge this kind of modern subject, a certain body, a certain experience, a certain sense of him or herself, a certain gender division.

All of these things are running I would say through Le Corbusier's texts, the formation of a modern subject which would be the appropriate subject to have certain experiences. This is even more important than the definition of architectural tools... architecture as a tool for the creation of a new society. So this is not really a discovery, but if you read his texts, just what they propose.

MILLER: On the other hand, one could see discourses working through Le Corbusier. And then the question would be – what is the status of these discourses.? And what is there origin? And where do they themselves come from? And I think you are led back to the conditions of space from which they emerge. And so in this sense, you wonder – well, I do – whether it is not the case that architecture is begetting architecture is begetting architecture...

WALLENSTEIN: This would probably be what Le Corbusier himself would say – that architecture begets architecture begets architecture. But he had a certain idea of the architect – even though that idea was in crises during his lifetime, and the engineers were taking over. He had the idea that architect must assume responsibility, the architect with a capital A. Le Corbusier's dream was to become this architect, this architect with a capital A. But he will not succeed, of course.

I wouldn't say that its architecture which begets architecture, but architecture.... introjects developments in technology, and politics, and philosophy and social theory, and then is transformed by the introjection of these things... But, I would say, architecture precisely does not beget itself. This idea that architecture somehow auto-reproduces by commanding its own tradition, this is precisely what stops when the age... let's say, the Vitruvian Epoch... disappears sometime around the French Revolution, where the hegemony of the Academy disappears due to the emergence of the engineering tradition from the Ecole des Pont et des Chaussées, and then the Ecole Polytechnique and all that would follow in its wake.

Post-revolutionary France develops a new way to think about architecture, as a tool for the management of population, the ordering of space. This contested the authority of the classical language. Because the classical language was precisely that the architecture somehow begets itself, by commenting upon its own codes and orders. Though that said, I think that if one looks more carefully at that tradition, which is something I do in the book that I am still trying to piece together, you can also see how that tradition is also not an autonomous discourse, but introjects other things as well...

Nonetheless, this changed attitude was tremendously strong. To the extent that it compelled someone like Tafuri to say that the whole language is gone, the vocabulary is dead. In a certain way there is a certain crises of architectural discourse around the French revolution. But it re-emerges by somehow finding support outside of architecture with a capital A.

I think architecture was probably always established in that way, but it becomes very obvious, it needs to find verification in other types of discourses – the life sciences, statistics, and the emerging proto-social sciences, etc. It becomes important because it assumes this capacity, no longer to merely represent order, but now as itself a means of ordering.

Thus it must somehow appeal to those other sources of authority – because, as Tafuri says, architecture begins a kind of fateful autopsy, constantly seeking its verification outside of its self. So in that sense, architecture stopped being in charge. But it became perhaps even more powerful. By somehow being able to connect to these discourse, form these kinds of discourses.

Many of the master modernists – Le Corbusier, Mies, those kinds of people – still entertained the idea of the classical architect. The idea of the master architect. But it was already lost. In that sense they were doing something in their theoretical work which perhaps in some opposition to the image they cultivated. And Tafuri, I think, sees that clearly. This is why he said that architecture, modern architecture, was dead already in 1950. Because by then it was obvious that the architect was not the subject of architecture...

MILLER: I'd like to close by asking some questions about the relationship of contemporary architecture to biopolitics. It is a clear there are a number of changes underway, especially due to the internet, computers...

WALLENSTEIN: It's actually one of those things that I've been thinking about a lot recently. If one looks at the work of younger architects and colleagues of mine, one finds a concept of architecture understood not so much as a physical structure, but instead as a flow of information. They use concepts from information theory, computer science, from biology a lot. I think what they are attempting to do is produce a new architectural language. And then we will see how that becomes applied to physical buildings. I mean, on the one hand it is a way of producing illustration...

But the idea of the organic. I would not like to say that we are moving away from the idea of the organic, but that the idea of the organic which is itself changing, because of information theory. And what we understand the organism to be, and what we understand life to be, basic concepts that were formed in the nineteenth century are today being displaced a lot in the life sciences. And this is now beginning to effect those aesthetic or artistic or architectural practices that for a long time had been using those old metaphors. That language is itself being displaced by a new language in the life sciences. And of course this will effect the discourse of architecture and visual arts, and this whole idea about the organic work of art, for instance.

What does an organic work mean? Well, you could say that this is an old idea – and a lot of people say that. But you could also say that the idea is still there, but we need to rethink the organic, with respect to genetics and the new theory of the environment that we have today, which is something very different to the one they had in the nineteenth century. So in that sense, its a question of rethinking a kind of foundational vocabulary.

But the application of this to what architects are doing... computer generated models for rather impossible spaces, flow-systems charts which is still very sketchy, experimental work. But I mean, of course, this will be applied, but I really don't know how.

MILLER: Who do you have in mind?

WALLENSTEIN: I think there’s much work being done by students and young architects today which is moving in this direction. Taken separately, each one on its own, they may seem naive, but taken together you can see them as part of a larger architectural movement, as part of a rethinking, not only of the architectural object, but of the whole vocabulary of modern architecture, of streets, works, buildings...

The vocabulary of modern architecture grew out of the decomposition of the old vocabulary, of the Vitruvian academic discourse, which after the French revolution fell apart and gave rise to a new vocabulary, which was much more abstract, or at least, it was abstract in a different sense. Ideas like organism, function and space gradually emerged through long processes of concepts coalescing and coming apart, and coming together...

Very famously the word space was first used as such in 1893, in respect to architecture. August Schmarsow said “Architecture is the creatress of space, eine Raumgestalterin.” Architecture, in other words, does not deal with things in space, but with space, “der Raum” as such. This would have been unthinkable in the classical age. But at a certain point, all these researches in psychology and philosophy and mathematics that had been independent reached a kind of threshold of saturation, and architecture emerged with this concept with the space. And then all of a sudden ten years later, or twenty years, everyone was talking about space. It was obvious for Gideon, in his early works, architecture is about espace, Raum, space. The concept was suddenly all over the place.

Perhaps we are experiencing something similar. We have a lot of researches at the moment which seem, all of them, very far from architectural practice, and which seem to go off in different directions. But maybe what we're seeing, is another of period of transition, and the beginning of a new kind of architecture, which will no longer be the one that was forged in the first part of the nineteenth century. And this perhaps will finally be postmodernity, in a certain sense.

The inconclusive quality of these kinds of architectural projects should not necessarily be understood as a flaw. It is their very inconclusiveness which made it possible for them to join, and reach this kind of threshold, and then pass beyond that.

MILLER: Do you see a new architectural language in the process of being formed?

I think so, yes. Because its obvious that so much of the old modernist vocabulary is no longer useful, is over somehow, and we're still using it. It is interesting, you notice that postmodernists, modernists – they use the same vocabulary. They fight – this is good, no this is good – but it is a matter of taste. And that struggle over taste can only exist inside a closed epistemic structure. But when you begin to question the very foundations of your language, then you have a rupture, as Foucault would say. So in that sense I think the modernist vocabulary is still with architecture, and it is the only existing vocabulary. The building, the city, the block – these were all concepts forged in the early nineteenth century. If we need to go beyond that, where we would go? I don't know, but it is obvious that architectural theorists feel a growing dissatisfaction with their vocabulary, because it is unable to capture what is actually going on at the moment.

MILLER: Where do you see the place of the network?

WALLENSTEIN: The network thing... I mean, one easily gets very very tired of that idea of the network, because it is of course all over the place. And I think it is often used to hide the fact that you don't know what you think. But yeah, of course, it is very important. But I think the concept points to is a kind of meeting place for all the different theories – information theory, biology, mathematics, philosophy. So in that sense, the network points to the direction of this new coalescence, though maybe the word network will not be the one used.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>