Between reform and instrumentalization: architectural krisis

‘If crisis is not there, it must be created’
Matei Călinescu

The idea of critique was central to the project of the Enlightenment as a way to justify the use of reason itself in terms of the distinction of its public and private uses. While the Enlightenment is broadly understood as the process by which reason consolidates along the eighteenth century as the primary source of authorization, Kant’s version of the Enlightenment questions the legitimacy of the use of reason by differentiating its privacy and publicity, corresponding, in blunt terms, to the poles of domination and autonomy. Critique is central to such differentiation, being indeed what legitimates reason at the leads of a conscious subject; criticism thus turning into the essential function of reason. Criticism in turn is ‘the activity that marks reason as a factor of judgment’, and, following Kosseleck, it is ‘the art of arriving at proper insights and conclusions via rational thought’. Modernity, in these terms, is a project of critique; an ‘incomplete project’ of emancipation led by reason.

Architecture’s engagement with the Enlightenment’s aims is clearly illustrated by the nineteenth century’s search for a scientific method of design to be applicable to any building. The teaching of architecture in the context of the École des Beaux Arts embodies such a search for a rational and systematized approach to the discipline, a hunt for a series of operations intrinsic to architecture – reified in JNL Durand’s mécanisme de la composition. The search for a disciplinary autonomy will later form the bases of modern planning and, at the same time, will constitute the fundament of its own ‘critique’.

The word critique shares the same etymological root than ‘crisis’, coming from the Greek krino (to separate, to choose, to judge, to decide, and also to quarrel, to fight). Krisis meant a decision, a judgement, and above all a turning point: a crucial moment between blatant alternatives – ‘right or wrong, life or death’. Crisis becomes a supreme signature of modernity, discusses Kosseleck, and critique refers in this context to an action of separation whose aim is not only to reform the status quo, but to trigger stark change. Crisis encompasses the modern experience, becoming ‘a permanent concept of history’, that is, the fundamental mode of interpreting historical time as a single crisis that is constantly and permanently taking place. I argue that this is the latent potential of criticism which architecture has managed to elude, either since reform has been prioritized against revolution, or because criticism has become instrumental rationality.

The aims for progress and reform, delivered mainly trough planning, is exemplified here by Le Corbusier’s fanaticism on the Plan and his famous aphorism ‘Architecture or Revolution’. By ‘instrumental rationality’ I refer to Adorno’s extension of Kant’s distinctions of public and private use of reason, by challenging his subject formation as ‘essentially deformation’, describing a process by which the subject gives a desired shape to the object of his concern. In architectural theory, this has been discussed by Manfredo Tafuri as ‘operative criticism’: a planning of history in which the past is not any longer a tool to assess the present, but rather a prognosis device to operate the future. Criticism is transformed into a programmatic analysis of history (an actualization of history in Tafuri’s words), a distortion of the past, a prescription for the planning of a project:

“…operative criticism is an analysis of architecture (or of the arts in general) that, instead of an abstract survey, has as its objective the planning of a precise poetical tendency, anticipated in its structures and derived from historical analyses programmatically distorted and finalized.”

It is intentionally biased and manipulated history used to support specific ideologies and trends in design – a paradoxical mode of critique in which reason is subjected to particular operative ends. Is the crisis set forth by revolution possible in the hands of the reformer or the operative critic?



A rhetoric of reform dominated early narratives of modern architecture, a period for social utopia but not for criticism. Modernity called for a new architecture referring to the possibility of a new society: a project of a space of social order delivered mainly through architectural plans. Within this desire, the organization of the plan and the division of built space becomes primary; space is used as a tool of social control and reform. New institutions, new architectural genres, and new modes of communitarian dwelling, are central part of the histories of modernism, which are introduced as problems of spatial distribution. Architecture, through the plan, was to reify utopic objectives of social reform operating as instrument to manage, regulate and potentially reform society. This deterministic and optimistic utopian desire of social progress is not only present in almost every history of modern architecture, from Pevsner to Kaufmann, or Vidler to Evans, but also intimately linked to the idea of an autonomous discipline.

In the famous Le Corbusier’s aphorism ‘Architecture or Revolution’ the only possible mechanism for architecture is reformation. In these terms the only possible path for the modern critic is consensus and to locate progress, or putting it in Kosseleck’s terms, as the modus vivendi of criticism. Le Corbusier was indeed a reformist, although his social and political position was always very elusive: while in agreement with the modern project (he believed architecture was a tool for social redemption), in practical terms politics was irrelevant. As he declares about himself, he was above all a professional, or even more, a technocrat. In the conclusion of Urbanisme, he states ‘I am an architect; no one is going to make a politician of me.’ He later adds, regarding the Ville Contemporaine: ‘It is a technical work…. Things are not revolutionized by making revolutions. The real revolution lies in the solution of existing problems.’

Housing was the main target for such claims of social reform through problem-resolution and the focus of the last chapter of ‘Towards an Architecture‘, a title already containing an attempt of prognosis of the future. The lack of appropriate dwellings in the modern city is associated with health and hygienic issues, but also and most important, with its moral consequences, only to be reverted and reorganized through planning. ‘Tuberculosis’, ‘mental demoralization’, and furthermore ‘the destruction of the family’ are identified as the terrible effects of poor housing conditions. The book concludes with an extreme rhetorical plea for reform:

“Society is filled with a violent desire for something which it may obtain or not. Everything lies in that: everything depends on the effort made and the attention paid to these alarming symptoms.” Architecture or RevolutionRevolution can be avoided.

Le Corbusier dismisses ‘critique’ and calls for reform to ‘avoid revolution’. This example represents the general modus operandi of modern architecture: to plan and tailor solutions within the existing political and economic structures, as opposed to judging or challenging them, leaving in these terms scarce room for critique. He further identifies the plan, and particularly the plan of the house as the tool to put forward his project of reform. The house, the private realm par excellence, historically at the margins of the affairs of the polis, becomes precisely the tool to assemble and manage the modern city:

“The law of Economy necessarily governs our actions; only through it are our conceptions viable. The problem of the house is the problem of the era. Social equilibrium depends on it today. The first obligation of architecture, in an era of renewal, is to bring about a revision of values, a revision of the constitutive elements of the house.”

“The plan is the generator.” “Without a plan, there is disorder, arbitrariness…” “The great problems of tomorrow, dictated by collective needs, pose the question of the plan anew.” “Modern life demands, waits a new plan for the house and for the city.”

Later on his career Le Corbusier attempts to radicalize his own views. As Mary Mc Leod has pointed out, his aphorism naively drifts into ‘Architecture and Revolution’:

The present social system preserves the status quo, opposes any action, eliminates or rejects proposals both pressing and necessary in the public interest…. Let’s change the system. Such an act would be called revolutionary. There are those who would make the word ‘revolutionary’ mean ‘destructive.’ Untrue; it is a completely constructive point of view. Despite this rather naïve expression of discontent, his technocratic approach to the discipline not only distanced him (and consequently the whole agenda of modern architecture) from revolution, but worse than that, conceals his failure to achieve any real reform. Within the framework of modern planning, there is nothing left for the critic but to see progress as an achievable aim. Tafuri argues regarding Le Corbusier’s famed aphorism:

“Architecture between 1920 and 1930 was not ready to accept such consequences. What it was clear was its ‘political’ role. Architecture (read: programming and planned reorganization of building production and of the city as productive organism) rather than revolution. Le Corbusier clearly enunciated this alternative.”



The ultimate consequence of such an ambiguity is the discipline’s instrumentalization by the dominant forces of power. Kosseleck sustains that, with the emergence of the Liberal State, there arose a duality between morality (the stage) and politics (the State) at the core of the enlightenment idea of critique. This separation reflects the paradox embedded in criticism: the critic, coinciding with the author, attempts to individually project the future as public norm, blurring the boundary between the critical and the operational, between the theory and the practice of architecture (or the arts), between judging and productive roles. An inner thought that can be interesting and relevant to the public becomes intertwined with law and morality. How to negotiate between the subjectivity of inner thought and the public good becomes related to moral values:

“Political criticism is based on this division and is at the same time responsible for it. This constitutes a genuinely historical-dialectical fact and forms the basis of the political significance of the criticism that gave its name to the eighteenth century. In its historicity the dualistic division of the world into a sphere of morality and a sphere of politics is the precondition and consequence of political criticism.”

Kosseleck then notes that it is precisely this dual role of defender and prosecutor that turns the critic into a non-partisan authority. Instead of making critique, ideology is set forth, which not only betrays the task of critique, but also hides the real possibilities of transforming reality.

As I have already discussed here, the architectural plan becomes the central instrument in modernity to deliver progress and reform. Tafuri’s critique of operative criticism points out precisely to the ‘planning of a project’: the ideological instrumentalisation of past history into a prescriptive code ‘towards’ the future. The past is read selectively placing an apparent objective historical narrative above an underlying architectural manifesto, a normative projection. Architecture becomes an instrument of the existing power structure and is therefore deprived of any revolutionary potential.

For Tafuri, the critic’s task is first to destroy the myths of social redemption through architecture on the one hand, and find a course for revolutionary praxis in the margins of the field on the other. That means that architecture is not able to trigger any important change on its own, but only as part of a global revolution, an overall transformation of the social order, an exhaustion of capitalism itself. The attempts for autonomy that we can trace in the work of Durand in the nineteenth century (briefly described here in the first paragraph), are precisely architecture’s main contradiction: the reduction of architecture into a set of formal autonomous operations which will conceal its own political inefficacy. The core problem of architectural modernity is that it was incapable either of influencing the course of economy or of accepting that a form of ‘planning’ from outside architecture was required in order to have any concrete effect: a ‘planned coordination of production’. For architecture, to admit this was actually to accept its own demise; according to Tafuri, architecture becomes no longer the Subject of the Plan but ironically its Object. The failure of modern architecture is that, instead of defining its scope as part of a broader plan of reform, it projects itself as the author of that plan.

Kosseleck highlights the risk to fall into an ‘hypocritical (and ironical) criticism’, which would lead to progress and consensus, as opposed to real change: ‘Criticism, as we shall see, became the victim of its ostensible neutrality; it turned into hypocrisy.’ Architecture’s plan becomes the ideological agent of capitalism: form without utopia. A search for disciplinary autonomy, which has been interpreted as the fall of architecture towards silence, towards the negation of itself. In Architecture and Utopia (1979), Tafuri describes a process of social transformation related to an epochal change within capitalism, that is, the restructuring of capital and the realisation of the modern economic forms by describing a shift from ‘Utopia’ to ‘Plan’ (or ‘Project’). The idea of utopia becomes transformed from an ideology of anticipated ideal into a real working concept.


architectural krisis

‘Between reform and instrumentalization’ architecture reveals a conflict between its aims of social utility on the one hand, and its own attempt to turn the architectural project into a self-referential entity. This is a challenge to the very notion of architectural criticism, that is, how to be instrumental to promote change, and, along Foucault, ‘how not to be governed’. The legacies of the Enlightenment point out a tension within the notion of critique and its political agency, architectural criticism being indeed a victim of its own neutrality. Criticism, in the terms here discussed, never ceases from holding certain revolutionary political potential; however, in modernity, it has been adapted not as a tool for revolution, but as an ideological device for constant and continuous reform – or as an ideological devise to plan the future. Emancipatory promises of freedom from diverse ideologies have proved to fail, yet, crisis is there, ‘it lies hidden in criticism’ and it is a ‘permanent possibility in history’.

However, even behind the apolitical stand of Le Corbusier, and the so-called pessimistic approach of Tafuri, there is a potential for the most revolutionary act of all: to modify space and within it to transform everyday life itself. Writing can be seen as a truly architectural project, with the ability to transform reality at the same time. That is precisely what Tafuri calls for under his ‘typological criticism’, a dimension of architectural activity which should focus on daily contingencies rather than in general and finalized expressions, adjusting the scale from the analysis of the architectural object to the criticism of the modes of production, of the social, economic, legal contexts that condition its configuration. It is called ‘typological’ because it insists on formally invariant phenomena to construct a new critical reading of the Modern Movement where history, criticism and planning meet with mutual advantage.

The problem is how to conceal the search of a conscious, knowing and autonomous subject, who plays a central role over its object of knowledge, with the risk of instrumentalising that very role. There is a difficulty and resistance in defining the notions of objectivity and subjectivity, about the contradictions of their very separation and how they are ‘mutually mediated’: object by subject, but mostly subject by object. Adorno warns us that, when separated, this fake claim of independence over the object becomes an instrument for dominance and ideology. The subject ‘swallows’ the object in these terms, whereas the process of subjectification, that is, the constitution of the individual subject, is inevitably linked to the formation of its object – an object that is also a subject. The object of criticism then demands its primacy, calling for a subject, which is ‘object’s agent, not its constituent’. The subject, after all, is an object as well, and is in its role as mediator that critique can be delivered. Mediation, subsequently, becomes a central category within critique: a state of differentiation without domination, a new state of consciousness of the subject.

The practice of architecture, currently led first and foremost by the laws of economy, has given way to a generalized skepticism regarding the possibility of radical thought and action. On the other hand, the present moment witnesses a questioning of neoliberal forms of governance and a proliferation of manifestations of resistance and revolts across the world, from Chile to Egypt, from OWS to London’s riots. All these locate a decisive moment to examine the limits and scope of critique and its relationship to architectural practice. The question now is how to rearticulate political resistance, political critique, under these conditions, and from within architecture, when traditional lines of revolutionary struggle no longer hold. Revolution comes no longer from above (from planning), or from below (from the ‘unplanned’), but instead, ‘from the middle.’ It is worldwide communication systems that create the illusion of Adorno’s ‘difference’.

Is the time of continuous ‘progress and reform’ to come to an end? Is it the time for ‘typological criticism’, for the ‘planning of projects’ in which subject and object might converge?

What is left of critique, in terms of architectural writing and practice, when ‘the illusion of difference’ is now embedded in the modes of knowledge and regimes of practice of architecture?

Foucault’s interrogation can be challenging: How are we constituted as subjects of our knowledge, as subjects who exercise or submit to power relations, as moral subjects of our actions? It is Critique indeed -of reason, of knowledge, of judgment, of society- what allows us to constitute as free driven subjects, but subjects in which the world, as object, is constituted. Criticism is a responsibility of ‘the planner’ who has to break the link between architecture and its ideologies.

Alejandra Celedon
Alejandra Celedon

(Santiago de Chile) is an architect from Universidad de Chile and holds a Masters from The Bartlett, University College London, where she worked as Research Assistant at UCL Space Group. She has worked in architectural design for Sabbagh Architects (Santiago) and as urban designer at Farrells & Partners (London). She has taught at Universidad de Chile, and the Architectural Association in London where currently she is pursuing her PhD on the rhetorical strategies that connect architecture and the city. She has exhibited her work and has contributed to several magazines and conferences in Chile and the UK.