Instrument/ality: Instru/mentality

Peggy Deamer

It seems clear to me, and I believe to the editors of this Paprika, that the “Advantages'” or “Disadvantages” of instrumentality in architecture depend, first and foremost, on whether you are indeed speaking about instruments aiding architectural production (parallel rule, software, conventions of representation, contracts, etc.) or architecture as an instrument of capitalism (instrumentality). The first set is something we inherit and possibly take advantage of; the second aims to take advantage of us.  One can say, categorially, that the first is not a “disadvantage”––it’s just a fact––and the other is––its effects are repressive. I want to defend this blunt assessment but only after recognizing that these distinctions and qualifiers (instrument = not a disadvantage; instrumentality = disadvantage) are not so simple and not god-given.

BIM, for example, a supposed (mere) instrument, can be understood as a product serving not our work or creativity but the huge software corporations which demand our participation. Architects also pay for the software that, organizing more proficient procurement, financially only benefits the owner. BIM’s library can confine architecture to an institutional status quo.  

Likewise, the “sharing” technologies are often instruments that, under the guise of self-empowerment, allow IT start-ups to cash in on our production of their information. They seduce us, often, into the supposed ideals of the gig economy and the precarity to which it condemns us. Intellectual property laws that are implicated in the sharing economy serve, in the end, lawyers and financers.

While these links between instruments and instrumentality show a shared complicity and seemingly equal lack of innocence, they also point to the difference that matters: the first are not bad or good until they are wrongly deployed: the instruments are socially neutral; their deployment in capitalism is not.

Yes, the tools of architecture always confine the discipline. Perspectives condemn us to a hegemonic, anthropocentric, subjective points of view; axonometrics condemn us to a false, Euclidean and Platonic objectification; software demands that designs conform to certain scripted parameters.  But these known constraints are neither harmful and nor avoidable, and if we eventually rebel against a hegemonic tool, it does not make it bad. All forms of knowledge, like language itself, are nothing other than the structure (regimented by tools) making visible conditions otherwise unimpressionable. Assuming an instrument-free world depends on a belief in an ideal world that is not defined by them and there IS no such ideal world.

Capitalism, guiding architectural instrumentality, also yearns to sweep everything into its machinery, and like tools, appears to be inevitable. But this “inevitability” depends on our naiveté and the “disadvantage” rests on our willful ignorance of our instrumental role. Despite Tafuri’s incisive portrayal of how we architects dupe ourselves into believing we have a positive effect on society, we need not believe his teleology. If one gives up on the idea of the revolution––the other side of which was Tafuri’s sine qua non––then one thinks differently about our architectural agency. If making capitalism uncomfortable, or, as Keller Easterling suggests, complicit in its own illogic, we thwart instrumentality wherever it appears. The disadvantage is only the effort it takes to look beyond status quo of architectural acts.


Architects DO have choices: the projects we agree to work on, the firms we are willing to work for, the programs we might question, the institutions we participate in, the colleagues we surround ourselves with, the expertise we seek out, the structures our work supports, the labor practices we participate in.  Architecture is not a transcendent entity; it is made up of architects who can combat the disadvantages of our biopolitics.

Because we are now on the other side of the election and we have a deeply pro-development, anti-labor, and anti-intellectual president, architects need to, more than ever, analyze how our choices support an economy that we do not admire or a profession, in the form of the AIA, willing to side, along with our president-elect, against democratic citizenship or basic human rights.