Buildings and Power: Freedom and Control in the Origin of Modern Building Types



Neoreactionary and related analysis of politics and meta-politics

Buildings and Power is an architecture textbook written by Thomas A. Markus. The author writes that the literature on architecture mostly fails to account for the critical role of buildings in social history. Buildings are treated as art, technical or investment objects, and utilitarian structures. All of these shallow views that do not describe the primary role of a building, which is as a social object.

Buildings are like language. Words do not have meaning; they convey meaning, and they only do so if the receiver is capable of comprehending it through comparable particulars of experience. Buildings likewise are only understood as concrete experiences that relate to other social experiences.

Buildings acquire meaning when the subject experiences the building or a text about the building. Buildings have a visible and overt structure, and an invisible and silent world where the boundary between the object and subject dissolves. The three domains of this discourse are the building, the text, and the experiencing subject. The meaning of a building is neither entirely objective or subjective, but a meaning created through a society-in-history.

Society-in-history has three domains: subjects, social practices, and social relations. Social practices are texts about buildings, language, and designing and producing buildings. Social relations clarify the meaning of the social practices to the subjects.

Buildings change over time due to their nature and occupants, and also external events. The same building can perform different functions, and different buildings can fulfill the same functional requirements. There is no immutable relation between form, function, and space.

The building has three elements—geometry, the material it is made of, and how it uses light. The same building can have many internal layouts that change how it classifies its inhabitants. All buildings classify something. Many buildings have a shallow visitor space, like a bank, which only offers a glimpse of the deeper areas behind the counter. Depth indicates power. In other buildings, depth indicates decreasing power, and a ring of controllers surrounds the depths. A hospital may be laid out this way, or a prison. This sort of layout is associated with surveillance and control. The least powerful people in the building can not easily connect to one another, or the outside, while the controllers in the shallow part of the building can exit or move to any room with few connections.

The long standing, well understood forms of architecture were upheaved by Enlightenment reason, the American and French revolutions, and the Industrial Revolution. The subjects of buildings were no longer of a homogenous social class, and neither were the architects. In the mid-18th century, the form-function link in architecture began to come apart.

In the Age of Reason, new functions disturbed the old forms. The author cite a quote from an essay “This Enlightened Age” by Coleridge praising the new monitorial school, which coupled education and production. Children labored in these schools spinning threads and doing other crafts while being monitored by mistress on a pulpit, and punitive women who disciplined children in another room. The “workhouse” schools of the industrial revolution had these characteristics:

  1. The inverted theatre – perfect visibility for surveillance, the stage now being the domain of the observer, the auditorium of the observed.

  2. Discipline – its source and its place of execution being hidden.

  3. Silence

  4. Productive work

  5. Hierarchy – mistress, punitive woman, children

  6. Religion symbolism – the pulpit

These industrial schools ceased being profitable or self-sustaining with the industrial revolution, and they were increased in size until being turned into reformatory schools for young offenders. In other workhouses, in the German state, families joined with their children to create small industrial groups in these buildings. Another type of “workhouse” was the pastoral school, a rural colony separated from the “evils” of urban life. These isolated the poor or criminals from the rest of society. The function of all of these buildings, in many forms, was to deal with the problem of the growing mass of partially educated poor.

The “Sunday school” was another typical manifestation of this problem. Patrick Colquhoun, a Scottish merchant, statistician, magistrate, and founder of the first regular preventive police force in England, wrote his own views of the problem that typify the aristocratic view of the changing society. The solution to education should be minimalist and designed to maintain the pre-industrial social relations, and avoid elevating:

“their minds above the rank they are destined to fill in society, or . . . an expense . . . beyond the lowest rate ever paid for instruction. Utopian schemes for an extensive diffusion of knowledge would be injurious and absurd. A right bias to their minds, and a sufficient education to enable them to preserve, and to estimate properly, the religious and moral instruction they receive, is all that is, or ought ever to be, in contemplation. To go beyond this point would be to confound the ranks of society upon which the general happiness of the lower orders, no less than those that are more elevated, depends; since by indiscriminate education those destined for laborious occupations would become discontented and unhappy in an inferior situation of life, which, however, when fortified by virtue, and stimulated by industry, is not less happy that what is experienced by those who move in a higher sphere, of whose cares they are ignorant, and with many of whose anxieties and distresses they are never assailed.” —Patrick Colquhoun, 1806

To translate that, somewhat ironically due to the point I am about to make, to more mundane language, what is being said is that over-educating the lower classes will make them less happy, because they will contemplate things that are deleterious to their happiness, and their happiness is dependent on having the proper social order in place.

This is correct although most people will not be willing to admit it. The modern commoner is swamped with a system of self-managed slavery. Health insurance, bills, subscriptions, appointments, meetings, managers, political correctness, and dozens of other constant pressures weigh on the modern mind. The “anxieties and distresses” have multiplied to a point where the anxious and distress invent new anxieties and distresses to being their fellow man to a new low.

On “Sunday schools,” the author introduces the concept of “architectural camouflage,” wherein the internal layout of a building is not what its external facade suggests:

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