What Exists Is Good: On “The Architecture of Neoliberalism”

By Joseph Henry StatenMarch 25, 2017

What Exists Is Good: On “The Architecture of Neoliberalism”

The Architecture of Neoliberalism by Douglas Spencer

BY THE TIME Zaha Hadid died at 65 last year, she had attained rarified status as one of the 21st century’s most influential architects. Her “soaring structures,” read the New York Times’s obituary, “left a mark on skylines and imaginations around the world and in the process reshaped architecture for the modern age.” The undulating forms, simultaneously futuristic and organic, of such buildings as her Guangzhou Opera House, MAXXI museum in Rome, and London Aquatics Center, had established her reputation as a radical aesthetic and structural innovator, tearing with equal fearlessness through the constraints of technology, convention, and cost.

Yet the brilliance of Hadid’s architectural career was, particularly toward its end, partly overshadowed by small scandals. Cost overruns seemed to plague her every project, but the more serious controversies centered on human rights. In 2012, for instance, construction for her cultural center in Azerbaijan — a building that would go on to win Design of the Year from London’s Design Museum — resulted in the forcible, uncompensated eviction of dozens of families. In 2014, her plan for the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo incited a petition by Japanese architects who said it would displace residents of nearby public housing and sap funds from Fukushima disaster relief efforts. (That project was eventually killed.) But by far the most notorious incident involved comments she made that same year regarding the imminent construction of her stadium in Qatar, a country where migrant laborers suffer abysmal working conditions, hundreds having died on similar projects. “I have nothing to do with the workers,” Hadid said when asked about the situation. “I think that’s an issue the government — if there’s a problem — should pick up.” Events like these understandably projected an image of a virtuoso artist callously indifferent to the sociopolitical issues surrounding her work. Fans of Hadid have struggled to reconcile these two sides of her oeuvre: its path-breaking designs on the one hand, and its human cost on the other.

Douglas Spencer, however, sees no contradiction. In fact, the two sides of Hadid — a duality Spencer claims she shares with many of her peers in the most advanced areas of architecture today — were not only compatible, but also mutually reinforcing. The thread that binds them, Spencer argues in his recent book The Architecture of Neoliberalism: How Contemporary Architecture Became an Instrument of Control and Compliance, is a latent commitment to the political and ideological imperatives of that eponymous, obscure-yet-ubiquitous economic philosophy, built into the very material of Hadid’s structures and reflected in the human practices that build and later inhabit them.

The book’s provocative title immediately demands that both key terms be defined, and Spencer is keen to oblige. He identifies as his field of inquiry what has been variously termed “New,” “Deleuzian,” or “post-critical” architecture, exemplified by such luminaries as Hadid, her longtime partner (and now director at Zaha Hadid Architects) Patrik Schumacher, Alejandro Zaera-Polo and Farshid Moussavi, Greg Lynn, and “latterly” Rem Koolhaas, among others. The work of this body of practitioners is, Spencer argues, aesthetically unified by a sense of movement, fluid forms inspired by nature, and the opening up and integration of interior spaces. It is conceptually unified by a dedication to a cluster of ideas (also inspired by nature) such as “spontaneous order,” “complexity,” and “emergence.”

As Spencer shows, it is these seemingly anodyne conceptual commitments, combined with their structural expression, that bind contemporary architecture to the imperatives of neoliberalism, a term for which Spencer develops a coherent and persuasive account. Pushing against the conception, developed by theorists such as David Harvey, of neoliberalism as simply the latest step in the developmental “logic of capital,” Spencer sees it as something much more intentionally and insidiously cultivated: it is “a school of economic thought,” he writes, “that has consciously directed itself, through key individual thinkers, as a project to remake the mentality and behaviour of the subject in its own image.” Following Foucault, Spencer argues that neoliberalism — characterized primarily by its valorization of the free market — is a form of “governmentality” involved not just in the shaping of economies but in the “production of subjectivity.” Neoliberalism does not impose itself on us coercively, via punitive measures or structures of discipline, but gently shapes our common-sense understandings of the world and ourselves through the medium of our everyday experiences, turning us into competitors, entrepreneurs, and round-the-clock workers. We are not exactly subjugated by neoliberalism, as one is subjugated by totalitarianism; instead, we are “subjectified” by it. Rather than its victims, we learn to become its willing participants; and architecture, argues Spencer, becomes one of our key instructors.

The first half of the book is an extensive working-out of the theoretical basis of Spencer’s argument. Detailing how notions of complexity, emergence, and spontaneous order were foundational to Friedrich Hayek’s theorization of the free market, Spencer draws a direct intellectual lineage from neoliberalism’s original thinkers through the unlikely corridors of late-20th-century countercultural and avant-garde thought, all the way into the glistening hallways of today’s most acclaimed contemporary architectural firms.

The theme across all three arenas concerns a shared understanding of the nature of subjects’ relation to their lived world, and a shared desire for how that relation should be. This emergent and spontaneous world, on the neoliberal account, is also extraordinarily complex, so much so that it eludes human comprehension. “The proposition that human individuals can have little knowledge of the world in which they live is fundamental to neoliberalism,” Spencer writes. “The world is too complex and the perspective of the individual too limited to grasp its workings, let alone to presume to direct these.” For Hayek, this unassimilable complexity — of which the market is the ultimate, ideal example — necessitates that human subjects submit themselves to its higher rationality rather than try to control it with their own. Further, according to Hayek, subjects’ critical reflection upon this higher order is unnecessary — they need only participate, and the market will do the rest. “The only possibility of transcending the capacity of individual minds,” Spencer quotes Hayek as saying, “is to rely on those super-personal ‘self-organizing’ forces which create spontaneous order.” If society is to progress — guided, of course, by the “self-organizing forces” of the market — such a transcendence of the individual mind is imperative.

This idea reappears in the avant-garde scene of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, but transformed from an economic principle into an aesthetic one. According to artists like Richard Hamilton and his Independent Group (who were themselves directly influenced by some of Hayek’s primary sources, such as polymath John von Neumann and mathematician Claude Shannon), art should strive for the immersion of the viewer, bringing them into a condition of direct experience unmediated by “critical interpretation.” Integration into these art “environments,” analogous to the assimilating force of the market for Hayek, held equally freeing possibilities. They “figured as new realms of personal liberation,” Spencer writes. “They suggested escape routes from bureaucracy and promised liberation within a cosmic order of infinite connectivity, the realization of a Zen-like state of oneness.” For artist Allan Kaprow, the paintings of Jackson Pollock had such an effect, giving viewers “equally strong pleasure in participating in a delirium, a deadening of the reasoning faculties, a loss of ‘self’ in the Western sense of the term.”

On Spencer’s account, these philosophical commitments, neoliberal at their core, then reached their zenith in architectural practice in the 1990s, specifically in its discourse of “affect” — or emotional and sensorial, as opposed to cognitive, experience. Quoting influential texts from Zaera-Polo, Moussavi, and Sylvia Lavin, Spencer sketches the basic tenets of this so-called “affective turn,” which came as a reaction — fueled by arguably sketchy readings of Deleuze and Guattari — against the “semiotic model” of architectural theory which up until then had ruled the day. Spencer claims that, for Zaera-Polo, “a post-linguistic orientation within global capitalism” compelled us to rethink our ability to convey discrete, language-based messages, particularly political ones. Architecture, therefore, should not try to “say” anything; rather, to use Zaera-Polo’s term, it should be “expressive” in its forms, triggering affective rather than critical responses. Lavin meanwhile champions the model of “kissing architecture”: “No one can speak when kissing […] kissing interrupts how faces and facades communicate, substituting affect and force for representation and meaning.” This standpoint, buttressed by the discourse of complexity and emergence, leads, on Spencer’s account, to the disarmament of the critical faculty, replacing it with mere sensation. “The neoliberal eye,” he writes, surrounded by the dazzling environs of post-critical architecture, “does not apprehend, calculate or gauge; it is enjoined to project itself into the play of movement presented to it, to surf the field of vision, revelling in the sensuous freedoms offered up to it.” This suspension of critical reflection, a project both aesthetic and political, then enables buildings to involve themselves in the work of neoliberal subject formation.

Complexity and emergence don’t always factor explicitly into the formal structures of the buildings Spencer analyzes, but the neoliberal understanding of subjectivity — that it is to be molded and directed, without critical intervention by subjects themselves — remains a consistent thread. Another uniting feature is the ostensibly progressive language used by the architects and clients to describe their plans, matched by the deep-seated neoliberal bent actually expressed in their structures. Spencer looks at several key examples, drawing from theorists such as Jean Baudrillard, Jean-François Lyotard, and Cihan Tuğal to pair specific projects of the last few decades with the “paradigmatically neoliberal subject positions” they help produce. Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s Centre Pompidou, for instance, develops the subject position of the “cultural consumer” by transforming the museum space from an elite enclave to a democratized zone for consumption, modeled on a supermarket. Zaera-Polo and Moussavi’s Ravensbourne College in London, meanwhile, encourages its occupants to become “student-entrepreneurs,” using its fluid interior space and blurring of public and private zones to help foster “the negotiated creativity of the marketplace” (as an internal report by the college ominously puts it). Thousands of miles away, the Meydan Retail Complex in Istanbul, also designed by FOA, cultivates what Tuğal calls an “urban citizen-consumer” position, blending the imperatives of buying products with a high-minded conception of a civic life that incorporates all comers — including, supposedly, the poor that live in the area surrounding the complex — into its public-private space. What the poor are supposed to actually do at a shopping mall, however, remains unanswered.

The most salient example of all is Zaha Hadid Architects’s BMW factory Central Building in Leipzig, completed in 2005. It is here that the contradictions between the liberatory language of contemporary architects and the deeply neoliberal worldview built into their actual projects come into clearest contrast. The building, intended to ameliorate hierarchical problems within the company that made workers not “feel they could speak up” (according to BMW’s lead planner on the project), ZHA was entrusted with creating an open, fluid workplace that would cultivate communication between workers and their bosses. “There are no hierarchies or managers’ offices in this open space,” reads a report on the project written during its construction. “Here everyone is immediately accessible to everyone else. ‘Structure creates behaviour’ is the motto, and the open structure of the central building creates greater motivation, more intensive communication and thus higher productivity.”

Yet what this slick building and the laudable language surrounding it obscured were the actual conditions of labor at the factory. Because it was to be built in former East Germany, BMW secured nearly half a billion dollars in subsidies from the EU; and because unemployment in that area stood at over 20 percent, BMW was permitted by local unions and works councils to set wages well below those paid at its other German plants. Capitalist mainstays like “productivity bonuses” and “variable shift patterns” rounded out this neoliberalization of the workforce. The Central Building, then, as Spencer writes, is “an architecture able to establish a spatial framework for maximizing the productivity of precarious labour while, at the same time, providing an image of socially oriented collectivity.” It is, in other words, the architecture of neoliberalism in a nutshell.

Few of the architects under consideration likely think of themselves as propagators of neoliberalism — aside, of course, from the ever-outrageous Patrik Schumacher, the “Trump of architecture,” who has called for abolishing public housing and paving over London’s Hyde Park. However, Spencer’s provocation that much of the most celebrated contemporary architecture has fully given itself over to what he calls “managerial practice” — one interested in maintaining the current order rather than challenging it — seems beyond dispute.

What is less clear, however, is how effective these buildings are in their projects — in building the subject positions Spencer claims for them. Take “open offices,” for instance, a hallmark of what Spencer calls neoliberalism’s “ubiquitous workspace.” The dissolution of cubicle walls, fostering the free flow of communication between departments and organizational levels, is, following Spencer’s schema, a totally typical neoliberal technique. The problem, however, is that people hate open offices. And studies have shown that they decrease productivity rather than increase it, meaning they fail in the one metric crucial to the neoliberal business ethos. It is not hard to imagine that many of the structures designed, intentionally or not, to produce neoliberal subjectivity fail to actually do so.

However, efficacy may ultimately be beside the point. In a world in which the logic of neoliberalism has virtually every aspect of our social world in its grip, whether you choose to participate or resist may matter more in principle than in effect. But there is still a choice to be made: to state in your work that the current order is acceptable, or to declare without equivocation that it is not. And contemporary, post-critical architecture has made its choice. For now, Spencer says, the politics of our built environment “affirms and reproduces this truth: what exists is good.”


Joseph Henry Staten is a freelance writer based in New York.

LARB Contributor

Joseph Henry Staten is a freelance writer based in New York. His work focuses on the intersection of aesthetics and politics in the realms of modern art, popular culture, and music. He recently received his MA in Liberal Studies from the New School for Social Research.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!