In Defense of Nothing (part 1)


Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative, the symposium held at the University of Toronto Daniels Faculty of Architecture, was the scene of the ideological battle field for architecture’s dialectical deadlock of current contemporary times. During the Systems presentation by Ijlal Muzaffar and Daniel B. Monk’s response to the subject matter sparked a heated discussion that lead to an inconclusive ending of architecture’s role as an active component to social change. It is at this very deadlock, this inconclusive ending, where the beginning of meaning can be found. The inconclusive silence to the ending, the discomfort at the inability to defend the very topic which sustains the debate, is the very answer to the question: architecture does not have any agency towards social change.


To explain we have to begin with the desire, the desire for meaning, the desire to solve the contemporary deadlock to the post-colonial times of India; the desire to build a future beyond the limitations and frameworks of the past with a systems approach. This desire can be found in a lecture which Slavoj Zizek gave in India. As recounted by Zizek, like his typical lectures it was framed around the concepts of emancipation and solidarity. At the end of the lecture a question and answer period opened in which a student addresses Zizek by challenging his lecture with the notion of language. It is fine for someone like Zizek to talk about dreaming of emancipation and solidarity, but for one that cannot even dream in their native language anymore, how is this discussion relevant to them? At this remark, Zizek responds (regrettably so as he explains) with the racist statement. Just because he is a middle aged white man does not mean his mother tongue was English, was it any easier for him to learn this language? What is important here as Zizek explains is that colonization brings with it more than just the basic properties of primitive accumulation (exploitation of the people, resources, etc) but the very fantasy of colonization itself. It is this fantasy that not only assigns the coordinates of desire, but it constructs the very framework of how to desire. When one talks about post-colonial Indian with the rapid modernization, silicon valley, prospering middle class, new hope and eagerness for a bright and prosperous future is at the same time the same post-colonial Indian that produces and stock piles nuclear weapons. It is precisely at this disparity of irreducible differences that architecture’s agency of non-agency is architecture’s saving grace that has allowed it to still be culturally crucial and an important topic of discussion throughout history.

The level of agency Daniel was implying which architecture lacked is the very inhibition to the desire for a meaning to architecture. There is no historical precedence that could possibly produce the level of agency that Daniel is looking for and at his implication that architecture has no agency is fully satisfied and justified, but this fact, instead of making architecture an irrelevant topic, acts as the precise reason that architecture is relevant. What is essentially being asked is the same as asking does a good musical score have social agency? Does a masterful work of art, film, poetry or does philosophy have social agency? The answer to all those questions is a resounding NO, and it is precisely this fact that allows those things to transcend diachronic and dialectical deadlocks of history to become truly revolutionary coordinates that are culturally important and relevant. This point is clearly indicated through the difference between modernistic drives and post-modernistic drives, a clash which reveals the idiosyncrasies of contemporary culture. Consider the famous quote by Theodore Adorno, “There is no poetry after Auschwitz”, and Zizek’s response “There is no ethnic cleansing without poetry” marks this very shift and it is precisely this reason that architecture still survives considering the atrocious history of humanity where even now modern day cities (Qatar, Dubai) are still built by slaves. It is because there is no poetry in architecture, a pure architecture, which allows it to become an unbiased neutral object of pure limitless potential. If architecture did have agency, humanity would be in dire straits when considering the endless utopian dimensions that have guided its movement throughout history carried to their true logical conceptual endings. Where the exaggerations are pushed to the very limits; where the truth of the dystopia always inevitably emerges. At this point it is important to note Zizek’s comment on desire; it is the desire that creates its own inhibitions towards its very attainment. If there is no desire, there is no inhibition and vice versa. Without acknowledging that architect does not have agency towards social change, then nothing can be done, there is no change and there never will be. There must be a rupture to this ideological facade, one must realize there is no structure.

“So architecture seems to survive only when its nature by negating the form that society expects of it. I would therefore suggest that there has never been any reason to doubt the necessity of architecture, for the necessity of architecture is its non-necessity. It is useless but radically so.” – Bernard Tschumi