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Architect[e], writer, editor & podcaster


Foucault and Architecture - Leopold Lambert

“Foucault and Architecture: The Encounter that Never Was,” in SPAM_arq 7, Santiago de Chile (2012)

A certain number of architects often refers to Michel Foucault’s work as an inspiration for their design or their theoretical interpretation of our society. The concepts invoked by them are almost always the same, and it is not rare to find, in an architecture text, the notions of panopticon, heterotopia and/or utopian body. The thesis that I would like to defend in this text does not consist so much in the demonstration of architects’ misunderstanding of Foucault’s concepts, but rather that those spatial notions constituted only the premises of what could have been the Foucauldian interpretation of space. The research he produced through fastidious descriptions of mechanisms of power within institutions helps us determine precisely what such an interpretation requires. To be a Foucauldian architect does not therefore consist in the repetition of his theses, but rather in their extension, which calls for the same cogency. As a matter of fact, the first thing that a Foucauldian architect needs to understand consists in the paradoxical fact that Foucault seems to have underestimated the power contained by architecture as such.

Breaking the Walls ///

It is rather rare to read a text by Foucault, where he addresses architecture directly. One might be surprised at this assumption, since he often evokes terms like prison, hospital, asylum, school or factory; nevertheless, those words are used to describe an institution much more than a building. There is a text, however, where Foucault does address architecture. In an interview in 1982, Paul Rabinow invites him to talk about architecture as an instrument of power. Foucault insists on the fact that there is no liberating design since “liberty is a practice” and therefore cannot be planned or guaranteed by architecture. In this model, liberty consists in an act but what about its opposite? Does restraint also consist in an act, or rather in the prevention of the act? In this latter hypothesis, architecture, through its impermeable physicality, can be said to constitute an effective agent of restraint. In this conversation with Rabinow, however, Foucault does not seem to see things this way:

After all, the architect has no power over me. If I want to tear down or change a house he built for me, put up new partitions, add a chimney, the architect has no control.

It is surprising to read such a statement from Foucault, who is usually so thorough in analyzing the cogs of mechanisms of power with a sharp sense for details. Let’s consider it literally, nevertheless. We can try to ignore his strange bourgeois slip-up, which forgets that a vast majority of people do not have an architect build a house for them and are not empowered to change their house according to their desire. What we can note, however, is that tearing down the house, as he evokes it, requires normally more energy than the one a human body is able to provide by itself. Such an operation on architecture requires therefore the help of technology. This technology doesn’t necessarily need to be sophisticated — a hammer or a pickaxe is often enough — but its absence guarantees the building’s structural integrity when a human body attempts to destroy it. The prison typology is highly illustrative of this statement: if a body is surrounded by walls and deprived of any form of technology that would allow it to modify the spatial configuration, it will be unable to escape from the space contained by the walls. According to this model, any house or building could be more or less compared to a prison. Despite the fact that we refuse to completely take apart this observation, we can notice that architecture invented a series of apparatuses — doors and windows — in order for the human body to be able to act upon the spatial configuration with a minimal amount of energy. The locking device was then another invention that allows a door or a window to re-become a wall at the discretion of the owner.

The Modern Hospital Example ///

In a lecture he gave in 1974 at The Institute of Social Medicine in Rio de Janeiro, Foucault gets closer to a precise description of architecture’s physicality as part of a global strategy of power. Entitled “The Incorporation of the Hospital into Modern Technology,” this text designates the end of the 18th century as the paradigm shift in the subjectivitization of individuals in the society, and more particularly in the hospital. Earlier, the hospital used to be a place to die, a “clumsy architecture that multiplies the disease in the inside without preventing its diffusion in the outside;” it will now become a place to cure, a place supervised, organized and operated by medicine. This new type of society, that Foucault calls disciplinary depends on regulation of biological and anatomical characteristics of the living human body. Such characteristicsare recognized as the motor of an economy entangled with political strategy. Hospitals, along with schools, factories and prisons, become the spatial apparatuses par excellence, in which disciplinary processes are operating. As usual, Foucault does not think that these processes are necessarily driven by a sadistic class seeing dominion over another, but rather, they are functioning within a system in which power is exercised without a moral intent. The hospital is exemplary in this regard, as discipline is applied for its subjects’ own good, namely, their health. Hospital design is driven by this new societal vision of human life and its attempted perpetuation within a politico-economical system. As Foucault says: “the hospital constitutes a means of intervention on the patient. The architecture of the hospital must be the agent and instrument of cure.“

Nevertheless, Foucault is never far from transforming architecture into a diagram when he evokes the circulation of air, the transportation and cleansing of sheets, the filing of the evolution of the patient’s health. Although those operations involve architecture to a certain extent, they address the hospital more at a technological and diagrammatic level than at a truly architectural one. Foucault does not talk about the plan of the “typical” hospital for example, organized around a spinal corridor which seems to spatially optimize the expeditious daily visit of the doctor and his “court” to the patients. In providing such a spatial organization, architecture is complicit the power exercised by the doctor on his patients. It accommodates it and, by doing so, influences it back in a loop whose origin — chicken or egg — is irrelevant.

Diagram vs. Architecture ///

At this point, one might object that the panopticon constitutes precisely an architecture that was considered by Foucault for its physicality; however, I would like to argue the contrary. Conceived by Jeremy Bentham in 1793 as an ideal prison for its effectiveness in terms of surveillance, this architecture is composed by a circular periphery of cells monitored by a central tower. Its principle is based on the hyper visibility of the prisoners in contrast to the invisibility of their warden. In his book Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault uses the panopticon as a paradigmatic scheme to describe the disciplinary society. The sovereignty society had its dungeon in which prisoners were kept in the dark. The disciplinary society, in turn, irradiates its prisoners with light and thus leaves them no possible retreat from visibility. Although many architects have been repeatedly using the panopticon as a unique means to describe the relations of power that space triggers, Foucault himself explains that architecture is not principally what he is interested in. Rather, he sees it as “a diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form.” In other words, Foucault reads this architecture through a two-dimensional form of representation, which expresses the various forces created by its lines. Gilles Deleuze is particularly attached to this passage of Discipline and Punish because, according to him, this is the first and only time that Foucault uses the notion of diagram that is fundamental to understand the mechanisms of power he meticulously describes. In his book dedicated to the work of Foucault, Deleuze attributes to him the label of cartographer that Foucault, himself, was keen to use. Cartography is the activity that considers a given situation within reality and elaborates a diagrammatic representation of it:

The diagram is no longer an auditory or visual archive but a map, a cartography that is coextensive with the whole social field. It is an abstract machine. It is defined by its informal functions and matter and in terms of form makes no distinction between content and expression, a discursive formation and a non-discursive formation. It is a machine that is almost blind and mute, even though it makes others see and speak.

It is clear that Foucault is not interested in the panopticon as a building, but rather as a combination of lines of visibility that form relations of power between the individuals affected by these lines. We might say that the application he finds for this scheme is more expressive as it can be used not only “to reform prisoners, but also to treat patients, to instruct schoolchildren, to confine the insane, to supervise workers, to put beggars and idlers to work.” The panopticon, as an architecture, is indeed ‘only a prison;’ however, no diagram will ever prevent a body from its freedom of movement, whereas any architecture, in its physicality, will. The diagram has no means of constituting a mechanism of power without its architectural embodiment. The notion of dispositif, as used by Foucault, should therefore be considered for its two components, the cartographic and the architectural.

Conclusion ///

Although Foucault underestimated the role of architecture in the implementation of mechanisms of power, we should end by observing that architecture can potentially provide opportunities for the escape from these mechanisms. While diagrams are “abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction,” architecture is concretely subjected to them. Every architect knows by experience that the perfectly elaborated set of lines that (s)he created will not materialize at the same level of perfection than the one imagined. In other words, the material realm presents a complexity that human systems cannot fully fathom and therefore, it constitutes a barrier to the literalness of the translation from a diagram to an architecture. What this means in practice is that no system of power, through its materialization, and forms of resistance to this system can be created thanks to the friction warranted by the translation from abstract to material. Using a Deleuzian terminology, we can insist that resistance has to be produced, hidden in the folds of the map, in spaces that the two-dimensionality failed to describe. We need to use architecture against architecture.