Abstract Thinking

In his latest treatise, Pier Vittorio Aureli frames architectural production as a stand-in for the much larger and more complex system of economic production as a whole. The problems start there.

In architecture discourse as in pretty much all Western academia, you never want to go “full Marxist”—not if you don’t want to be shunned from polite company. A full Marxist simply can’t be trusted to follow the disciplinary kayfabe. Under their withering materialist gaze, the disinterestedness and ethical autonomy that academic professions avow reveal very much interested ulterior motives. The full Marxist doesn’t respect the rules of the game and so must be treated as a potentially serious liability.

At the same time, if you’re not at least a little bit of a Marxist, it’s hard to position yourself as someone who takes the social stakes of architecture seriously. Without some Marx, how do you go about establishing your political bona fides? Sure, there are other angles, but everyone knows it’s about capitalism at the end of the day, and Marx remains by far the most effective critic. Therefore, the trick is to find ways to position yourself both inside and outside the game while signaling your loyalty to it. Under these conditions, references to Marx in architecture history and theory writing tend to function as some kind of “limited hangout” double-coded to manage social expectations and interests that cross disciplinary and class lines.

For many years, Pier Vittorio Aureli has been one of the most interesting and deft practitioners of this balancing act. He often draws on writers from the Marxist milieu but is nevertheless careful to frame his anticapitalist stance so that his ultimate commitment remains unmistakably a disciplinary one: to an authentic Architecture, rather than to a broader movement for emancipation (what many Marxists still insist on calling “socialism”). So, I was curious about the line he would take in his latest book, which historicizes the methods of quantification, modernization, industrialization, and overall capitalist rationalization that characterize contemporary architecture. According to the publisher’s promotional copy for Architecture and Abstraction, the problem of abstraction in architecture first arises from “modern divisions of labor and consequent social asymmetries.” But how far would Aureli, who, in addition to writing and teaching, runs a design practice called Dogma, be willing to take this? I wondered. What all does “abstraction” entail, and what exactly are its underlying forces? Would architecture really be reduced to an epiphenomenon of political economy and class struggle, and if so, what would become of Aureli’s earlier “project of autonomy” and the creative ways he has found to have his political cake and eat it, too?

Capitalist abstraction is not only about quantifying everything; it’s also about increasing the quantity of everything. This impetus to grow produces the contradictions that are at the core of capitalism’s recurrent economic crises.

As it turns out, the book contains a number of powerful Marxian insights. Aureli demonstrates, for example, the way open layouts of factories—introduced by Jeremy Bentham’s lesser-known brother Samuel—express the generic character of commodified labor power. This is not a simple retreading of familiar historiographies about the Industrial Revolution. Rather, Aureli, taking a cue from Frankfurt School–adjacent theorist Alfred Sohn-Rethel, proposes a genealogy that reaches back into precapitalist societies for early seeds of “concrete abstraction.” Structured as a series of historical vignettes, the book jumps from ancient Egyptian labor camps to medieval cathedral building sites, early modern fortresses to the bastides, medieval French new towns that served as a “prototype of colonial planning in modern Europe.” A consideration of the rural monastic communities that have long featured in Aureli’s writing leads to observations on urban expressions of ecclesiastical architecture in Florence, whose construction “anticipated Fordist factories where the division of labor, standardization of materials and tasks, and heightened worker dependence on a wage became major issues of both design and building.” Le Corbusier and Albert Kahn soon enter the picture, and it’s implied that their handiwork foreshadows the sinister, lethal efficiency of today’s data centers. In a seeming digression on abstraction within socialism, Aureli recasts the history of architecture in the Soviet Union, culminating in the contest between so-called Stalinist architecture and the avant-garde. (I was delighted to find a footnote to comrade Ricardo Ruivo in there.) Given the present political climate in a West hellbent on replaying the Cold War, the chapter (number five) is a fairly courageous inclusion.

The theoretical insight Aureli brings to moments in this genealogical tangle is at times impressive. Yet, the case studies can and perhaps should be considered independently from the larger polemical arc in which he slots them. In the introduction, he repudiates hegemonic conceptions of “abstraction” as a purely formal or visual quality before proceeding to make use of precisely this means of sorting; such foils, propelled by a flair for polemics, will be familiar to readers of The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture and Less Is Enough. But the foils in Architecture and Abstraction never follow through to a courting, and contestation, of ideas from other writers, historians, or theorists—not even those who tend to agree with Aureli on the material (“concrete”) character of abstraction. In effect, the rhetorical framing sets the book up in a kind of discursive bubble, keeping out opposed as well as sympathetic-but-contrasting perspectives. Indeed, the approach is a “dogmatic” one, likely to frustrate and deter those interested in a deeper engagement with the material. Worse, less experienced student readers who are undoubtedly the book’s target audience probably won’t notice.

Problems of theory emerge from the book’s conceptual core. Drawing on Marx, Aureli links architectural abstraction back to the commodity form, or the general abstraction of things from their useful and unique qualities and their reduction to quantitative equivalences for the purposes of market exchange. This is the economic piece. The influence of Sohn-Rethel, whose philosophical Marxism might best be described as eccentric, is apparent in the political shading. Aureli defines specific instances of abstraction in architectural production (e.g., beginning with Brunelleschi, the prioritization of geometry and notation over practical forms of knowledge) as attempts to control labor by separating out intellectual functions from manual ones. From this two-pronged analysis, Aureli develops a political economy of abstraction concerned with the twin phenomena of commodification and control.

As the argument takes shape, flaws begin to appear in its scaffolding. The association of abstraction with exchange value is very clear when Aureli discusses the use of grids in the commodification of land, less so when he considers the increasingly optimized construction of warehouses, factories, and other settings where production happens. That’s because of a tendency to frame architectural production—the production of buildings—as a stand-in for the much larger and more complex system of economic production as a whole. Along the way, Aureli sometimes loses sight of the specific roles buildings can play in that system. Take the nineteenth-century warehouse discussed in chapter four, “Without Architecture.” To the eyes of neoclassicist Karl Friedrich Schinkel, the bare unadorned brick elevations of industrial Manchester were disturbingly “abstracted” from traditional architectural values and techniques. Aureli interprets Schinkel’s reaction as an apprehension of the abstract world of commodities of which the buildings are a part. However, as components of the industrial production process, Schinkel’s ugly warehouses were also part of the explosive development of productive forces, a huge growth in the production of use values. The simple opposition between use and exchange value that Aureli employs, where exchange represents an “abstraction” from use, is an effective entry point into Marx’s discussion of the capitalist system, but it doesn’t capture what’s actually going on in capitalist production, where, for instance, intercapitalist competition forces technical development and productivity growth, leading, inter alia, to a ruthlessly utilitarian approach to industrial architecture. (Given how intuitively clear this is, and the obviously commodified character of architectural ornament in capitalism, it’s striking that Aureli reads the absence of ornament as a privileging of exchange value.) Put crudely, capitalist abstraction is not only about quantifying everything; it’s also about increasing the quantity of everything. This impetus to grow produces the contradictions that are at the core of capitalism’s recurrent economic crises. This blind spot is symptomatic of many Western Marxist writers—particularly the Italian autonomists on whose writing Aureli regularly draws—who, in the name of combating economic determinism, lean all the way out of political economy and into political philosophy.

Project has ceased to be a byword for the insulation of architectural intent from exogenous pressures—valid precisely as an end in itself—and instead describes a sort of twist on planning, augmented with management.

The emphasis on control ramifies the problem. Insofar as Aureli deals with abstraction in the production process, he does so by stressing its capacity to direct and discipline labor. Emblematic of this, he writes, is the historical antagonism between an emerging architecture profession and medieval craft guilds. But if the introduction of rationalization and technology is chiefly about controlling labor and not also about saving labor (in the sense of making labor more productive while keeping wages down), then a huge part of the picture becomes obscured. Marx himself underscored the positive aspects of increased productivity because he thought they could be turned to the advantage of workers under socialism, and in general Marx believed that capitalism was a progressive and necessary departure from feudalism. In this way, Aureli misses a key component of the historical materialist approach. To get technical, Aureli excludes forces of production from consideration and reduces political economy solely to relations of production, which are themselves reduced to apparatuses of control. From this perspective, “science” and “reason” are essentially ideologies of power and domination, rather than the products of a complex and dynamic unfolding of social contradictions and interests. All of this is much more Foucauldian than Marxist, but Aureli doesn’t appear to notice, for instance when, channeling Foucault and Deleuze, he insists on the “machinic” character of Bentham’s (Jeremy this time) famous panopticon diagram or when he positions Roman and American legal systems as the fundamental driving forces of their colonial projects rather than their superstructural supports.

A related blind spot in his argument concerns the diversity of intellectual labor itself. By reducing “rationalization” to mere “control,” he neglects the positive effect intellectual labor can have in social and technical progress. Such an emphasis also misses those forms of intellectual labor that are nonrationalizing and nontechnical yet still pursue a goal of political control. The production of ideology, for instance, makes up a huge part of intellectual labor in the cultural sector—a notable example being antiplanning neoliberal ideology in postmodern architectural discourse. In fact, it’s often hard not to interpret Aureli’s critique of intellectual labor and capitalist abstraction as a kind of partisan critique of scientific and technical workers by cultural ideological workers. Reading Architecture and Abstraction, one senses the lingering confluence of many radical left critiques of modernism/capitalism with neoliberal critiques of modernism/socialism.

Still, the book offers glimpses of what might be some movement on this issue. Aureli appears to have abandoned the term project with which his writing, teaching, and design practice is closely associated. In The Project of Autonomy, Aureli defines his political approach to capital-A Architecture—influenced by the examples of Aldo Rossi and Archizoom and the critical thought of the late autonomist thinker Mario Tronti—against modernism’s apparently “economistic” emphasis on planning. Architecture and Abstraction does show Aureli starting to shift from this simplistic opposition between politics and economics. Project has ceased to be a byword for the insulation of architectural intent from exogenous pressures—valid precisely as an end in itself—and instead describes a sort of twist on planning, augmented with management. Enriched in this way, the term designates the manner in which the construction of large buildings or complexes was approached and undertaken. A “project” for a fortress in the sixteenth century required, for instance, in addition to the designer’s technical skill in the geometric configuration of the battlements, significant financial and logistical management of labor and building materials. One could quibble with the limited value of such semantic labels, and Aureli does himself no favors when he sometimes blurs the disciplinary boundaries between “projects” in general and the “projects” of architects. Even so, it marks a positive development for someone hailed by many as the foremost anticapitalist theorist in architectural academia today.

A much more striking turn comes at the end of the aforementioned chapter on Soviet architecture, “Formalism, Rationalism, Constructivism.” Here, Aureli contextualizes the about-face in Soviet design policy from militant abstraction to socialist realism; this sequence (often depicted by Western historians as regressive) demonstrates that in a revolutionary context it was the organized working class and its revolutionary state, not a handful of artist-intellectuals, that assumed the role of “architects” of socialism. This explication of the “crisis of ‘avant-garde’ movements in the age of Stalinist centralized planning” suggests that the socialist cause was—and perhaps still is—a way out of the “abstraction” impasse. The tension between intellectual and manual labor, which Aureli explores through the theme of abstraction, would dissolve into the classless socialist society just as capitalist abstraction sublimates into socialist abstraction. Accepting this solution, however, means abandoning any claim to the intellectual’s special agency, and it’s a rare intellectual who would be willing to burn the boats so long as the current system affords them a modicum of relative autonomy. Coming at this point in the book, it’s an exciting and unexpected move by Aureli and seemingly a hard one to walk back from.

Despite some minor speculations on the supposedly revolutionary character of medieval guilds, Aureli has mostly abandoned the search for premodern solutions to present capitalist crises.

A sixth and final chapter, which doubles as an epilogue, does shift the focus, however, establishing Hannes Meyer as the heroic example for architects to follow in the present. Meyer’s “crude architecture,” which represented a “demand for a general intelligibility” of the built environment, turns out to be Aureli’s preferred solution. Abstraction is thus redeemed because it holds out the “possibility of an architecture whose form is not the outcome of exchange value driven by profit, but of the use value of social relationships.” One assumes Aureli has the more spiritual use-value “community” in mind here, rather than the material benefits of increased productivity (more consumption and less work). It’s an interesting formulation apparently claiming to calm the alienating effects of capitalist exploitation by embracing capitalism’s socialization of labor.

This kind of dialectical reversal is common among Western Marxist humanists, and it’s encouraging that Aureli’s approach to technology, development, and accompanying processes of desacralization is more Brechtian estrangement and less Heidegger’s hut. Despite some minor speculations on the supposedly revolutionary character of medieval guilds, Aureli has mostly abandoned the search for premodern solutions to present capitalist crises. Perhaps signaled by the choice of abstraction as guiding theme in the first place, however, the book still presents capitalism as an existentialist, and not existential, issue. In the focus on control rather than exploitation, Architecture and Abstraction is preoccupied with preserving the autonomy of skilled, in this case likely “creative,” labor. All the denunciations of Brunelleschi and Alberti using their professional standing as architects to subordinate other workers don’t really disguise the fact that this book is meant to critically buttress the architect’s initiative rather than undermine it. But the ambiguity of Aureli’s conclusion is no longer of the confident tactical variety. Now, it represents a struggle with contradictions that can’t be safely internalized and an acceptance that the only way out of capitalist modernity is through. And if you want to go all the way full Marxist, you can always stop reading after chapter five.

Will Orr is a (can you tell?) Marxist researcher, writer, and teacher patrolling the architecture beat in London academia. He is cohost, with Ricardo Ruivo, of the Streetsweeper podcast.