Counterrealisation: Architectural Ideology from Plan to Project

Orr, William Hutchins (2019). Counterrealisation: Architectural Ideology from Plan to Project. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis constructs a genealogy of contemporary notions of architectural politics, through theoretical and disciplinary premises which have been inherited, consciously and unconsciously, from the 1960s and 1970s. In particular it focuses on currents within Italian political theory and historiography, which have been central to the development of self-reflexive discourses on the political possibilities and cultural agency of architecture over the past fifty years. Despite their prominence, these currents have a highly ambiguous relationship with the discipline to which they became linked. This can be seen clearly in the case of historian and theorist Manfredo Tafuri, whose work established the point of entry by which Western Marxist and Critical Theory perspectives confronted problems unique to the history of architecture. Over time, however, and through complex mediations, Tafuri’s work became internalised, its critical challenge integrated into a new institutional formation.

The significance of this reversal can be difficult to assess, both from within architectural discourse proper and from the above extra-disciplinary perspectives, for it falls within a shadow cast by the unique position “architecture” occupies within the larger field of cultural production and its critique. As the disciplinary agency of the architectural institution changed following the shifting conditions of modern development, the valence of architectural politics has changed as well, moving toward an increasingly negative or “critical” relation to the economic register from the late 1960s onward. The thesis constructs a definition of the resulting ideological notion—the “Project”—by which the architectural institution maintains its disciplinary autonomy, while laying claim to continued, or even increased, political agency. Such shifts of architectural ideology highlight the problematic position of critical and cultural practices within the political history of the twentieth and twenty-first century, demonstrating their ambivalence concerning the transition of Western capital into and then out of social democratic “planning.”

As a contribution to the history and theory of architecture, the thesis hones the critical and theoretical tools by which the ideological character of contemporary architecture can be understood. It constructs a periodisation that places this material within the larger historical trajectory of the architectural discipline, from the historical avant-gardes, through the Modern Movement, the neo-avant-garde, and the “post-critical,” to the present period of re-politicisation. However, it also illustrates the significance of architecture’s modern history to the larger debate concerning the political role of cultural production. A crucial figure in architectural discourse, Manfredo Tafuri’s larger significance to cultural criticism is expounded in the thesis. Conceptual and methodological results demonstrate the limitations of prevailing notions of “immanent critique,” when faced with contradictions revealed by the architectural case. Such contradictions return today with ever greater force when cultural agents, within architecture and without, seek to renew the bases of their agency in the face of political and economic crises without addressing this complex inheritance.

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