- October 10, 2021
When I teach my students about the history of the architectural profession, I always cite the Renaissance as the turning point for the field – a paradigmatic shift that still shapes architectural practice today. Opposed to the medieval guilds, early Renaissance architects like Brunelleschi and Alberti, while still involved in construction, were considered men of ideas and ideology – a step above the manual laborer. I frequently retell the humorous but likely apocryphal story where Brunelleschi works through designs by carving them into radishes and then eats them, forgoing architecture as a collective effort of materialization for the individual work of ideation.1 Unfortunately this is a rather pessimistic view of the field, as framing architecture primarily as class antagonism limits the contemporary western practice of architecture to the negative worldbuilding of the modern bourgeois. That is, it frames a history of modern architecture that limits practice to the production and extension of the “West” at the expense of nonwestern lifeways and the nonhuman biosphere. 2
It is no coincidence that the birth of the contemporary architectural division of labor was formed by the work of Brunelleschi and Alberti, architects contemporaneous with the rise of global colonialism and capitalism. The German economic historian Werner Sombart—progenitor of the term “late capitalism” – points directly to Alberti as a great observer and promoter of these new values. He writes, “L.B. Alberti was the most perfect type of the “bourgeois” of those days, and his works provide a mine of information,” 3 and offers short axioms from the architect such as: “‘All think of gain and riches’; ‘my every thought is occupied with business’; (and) ‘unto riches everyone aspires.” 4 Here we can see the deep integration of proto-capitalist “spirit” into Alberti’s economic and “family” writing; an attitude transferred to his architectural writings in his theories of the frugality of beauty.
At this point, we discuss ways of shifting this paradigm, looking to other historical and contemporary methods outside of our Western context. These conversations are useful and “productive” but they seem suffocated by predominance of the very history we seek to surpass. Inscribed as we are within the language of capital, we speak constantly of “production,” the same industrious spirit that Alberti embodied in tying architecture to capital at its genesis. Thus, architecture in Western pedagogical and professional models is necessarily productivist. It must make, there is no other way. But this is not necessarily true, and it need not even be true within the context of Western architectural history.
Alberti’s canonical de re aedificatoria borrows its structure and much of its content from Vitruvius’s de architectura, with one crucial change: the final book. In Alberti’s figuring, the final word on architecture is for its restoration and preservation, thus locking architects into a replication and continuation of the status quo. On the other hand, Vitruvius ends with a rather strange epilogue most often left behind as an anachronism: a chapter on the design and production of war machines. Where Alberti can only see the architect as a worldbuilder, Vitrivius opens the possibility of the architect as worldeater.
In Vitruvius’s context – placed at the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Empire – it is clear to see these war machines were placed at the direct disposal of the imperial state. In order to untangle architects from this unwanted relation, we can turn to three recent theorists of war machines: Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, and their “dark” translator Andrew Culp. Deleuzian war machines are constructions made in any “operation against the state” 5 or, to clarify with a familiar phrase, any operation against the state of things. For us, this means against the prevailing notion of architecture as a necessarily productivist movement. But, following Deleuze and Guattari, we must realize the risk of war machines, particularly those that purport to strike from within the heart of Empire. The pair write in detail about the methods through which the state of things appropriates the nomad war machine 6 , a thorough list that we must heed. The autophagic war machine built within the terms of the state of things is far too easily appropriated. As an example, the political work of left architectural modernism became the formal language through which the post-war Keynesian state reforged itself in preservation of capital. Inscribed as it is within the language of capital, the autophagic machine must produce a new language of measure best enacted through recognized multiplicity. In other words, the autophagic (self-consuming) must recognize and ally with the allophagic (other-consuming) to resist becoming “Schumpeter’s gale,” that creative destruction so fruitful for the reorganization of capital.
The autophagic project must be realized on the material and conceptual level. We should, as Deleuze suggests, “make thought a war machine,” 7 but we must also materialize this machine as anti-“professional” architects. The proliferation of “progressive” architecture that does not challenge the structures that inscribe practice and their worldmaking project can only be seen as the “hesitation of the nomad” 8 that eventually leads to its reappropriation. For example: the suburbs are a subjectivity machine that reproduce their own desire. By leaving them unchanged, they will continue to produce that desire. The autophagic war machine suggests we should destroy these subjectivity machines and reforge their material for a new purpose, a project my current students and I are engaging in this semester’s studio. And here is the radical restructuring of an architecture of autophagy: architects should disavow the positive project of architecture to become a diagnostic tool of the built environment. What can we see of what exists within the present state of things where its destruction will cost much less than its continued existence? We must make the ugly decision because, as Culp writes, “The point is not to get out of this place but to cannibalize it—we may be of this world, but we are certainly not for it.” 9