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The Journal of Architecture

ISSN: 1360-2365 (Print) 1466-4410 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rjar20

The Architecture of Neoliberalism: How


Contemporary Architecture Became an Instrument
of Control and Compliance

Ivonne Santoyo Orozco

To cite this article: Ivonne Santoyo Orozco (2017): The Architecture of Neoliberalism: How
Contemporary Architecture Became an Instrument of Control and Compliance, The Journal of
Architecture, DOI: 10.1080/13602365.2017.1396728

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13602365.2017.1396728

Published online: 08 Nov 2017.

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The Journal
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Downloaded by [University of Florida] at 22:00 14 November 2017

The Architecture of Neoliberalism: How Contempor- ising principal of society. Spencer takes issue with
ary Architecture Became an Instrument of Control this division, though clearly is more influenced by
and Compliance the latter in understanding the subtle intersection
By Douglas Spencer of architecture and space with issues of conduct.
London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016 As he writes, ‘adaptability and flexibility appear
Hb ISBN: 978-1472581525 […] as the qualities of conduct, the ethos that the
Pb ISBN: 978-1472581518 subject must cultivate in order to thrive in the com-
Pb, pp. 232, 30 ills petitive environment of the market’.1 At the core
of the book is an effort to understand the morpho-
Liberating architecture, enabling neoliberal logical explorations of these architectural practices
environments in their attempt to ‘liberate architecture’ from the
In The Architecture of Neoliberalism, Douglas ‘impoverished tool boxes of modernism and post-
Spencer questions a dominant tendency in recent modernism’2 as indistinguishable from the consti-
architectural production that insists on seducing its tution of a new form of ‘environmental
users with a host of flexible, complex and adaptive govermentality’ typical of neoliberalism.
spaces, and architectural strategies of self-organis- To unfold this argument, Spencer astutely ana-
ation. Training his focus on the work of practices lyses the spaces and ideas of architects such as
ranging from Reiser+Umemoto to Zaha Hadid, he Patrik Schumacher, Greg Lynn, Mecanoo, NOX,
locates this tendency as one which concretised in OMA, Zaera Polo, Farshid Moussavi, amongst
architectural forms and ideas in the early 2000s others. To follow this architecture is not only to
but, as Spencer argues, it is also a manifestation of enter spaces that blend, flow, deform, immerse or
a set of political-economic ideas that drove the self-organise users in dynamic forms of spatial inha-
thinking of a school of economic thought that we bitation; it is also to reveal an intoxicated historical
know today as neoliberalism. Whilst neoliberalism moment of unchecked market optimism. Like this
may be a nebulous term, impossible to reduce to a neoliberal society, according to Spencer, its architec-
single narrative, it has been dominated by two dis- ture ‘renounces critical opposition, and any possi-
cursive lines of thought: that of the Marxist geogra- bility of occupying a position of resistance’.3
pher David Harvey on the one hand, who depicts it Through their architectures, tropes and spatial con-
as a restoration of class power in a global tortions, the boundary between the individual and
economy, and Michel Foucault’s genealogical environment can finally be dissolved, and the indi-
account of ‘governmentality’ which, in the second vidual occupant is, in the mind of these architects,
half of the twentieth century, formed itself around finally set free. But, freedom is, of course, a
an objective to eliminate direct state coercion by double-edged sword. From Friedrich Von Hayek to
turning to the market as a fundamentally self-organ- Milton Friedman, the guarantee of individual and

# 2017 Ivonne Santoyo Orozco 1360-2365 https://doi.org/10.1080/13602365.2017.1396728


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market freedoms remain the core objectives of the Leipzig, architecture appears to operate not only
neoliberal project. However, just like the markets, through affective responses, but also through the
freedom too has to be created. constitution of new modes of labour. In this way,
Not only that, as Spencer’s account suggests, the we begin to see that architecture is not only a
pursuit of freedom also needs a physical armature: product of neoliberal modes of managerialism: it is
spaces and environments in which it can be actively also one of its primary vehicles. Whilst in his
experienced. And it is precisely here where the account much is said about contemporary architec-
folding, contorting, immersive spaces come into tural phantasmagoria—Benjamin’s descriptive term
view. Following Michel Foucault’s analysis of neoli- for the commodity fetishism of nineteenth-century
beralism, Spencer argues that these spaces have Parisian arcades—it is clear that, if there is indeed
become a crucial site in which a new homo œcono- an ‘architecture of neoliberalism’, it is only insofar
micus was made both legible and, importantly, as architecture both communicates and enables
‘manageable’ as an economic subject of control new modes of subject formation. The latter is
insofar as he or she ‘responds systematically to modi- clearer as Spencer unfolds a complementary
fications in the variables of the environment’.4 reading of architectural case studies. Through a
Through Spencer’s reading, the architecture of the close reading of projects such as Richard Roger’s
last four decades appears as a crucial medium in Pompidou Centre in Paris, FOA’s Meydan Complex
grounding a new modus operandi of neoliberal in Istanbul and Morphosis’ New Academic Building
power which, paraphrasing Foucault, governs less in Cooper Union in New York City, he illustrates
by extending its realm of intervention through the the formation of new ‘subject positions’ from the
spaces in which subjects of power dwell—namely, ‘cultural or citizen consumer’ to that of the
the urban environment.5 It is as such that, according ‘student entrepreneur’ respectively. To borrow
to Spencer, subjects become one with the neoliberal Maurizzio Lazzarato’s argument, this strange breed
world, or as he states, ‘the market comes to appear of architecture operates both as a sign and a
as the way of the world, and vice versa’.6 machine.7 It is both constitutive of subjectivities
What makes Spencer’s reading particularly novel not only through its seamless encounters of bodies
is that, rather than simply explicating Foucault’s in space, but also through the participation of the
argument in space and organisational logic, he subject with the space itself.
shows how contemporary architecture seamlessly And yet this argument is predicated on debunking
hosts new conditions of labour, mobilising a new a form of architectural practice that, for years, capti-
culture of managerialism where work and life vated the discourse, practice and the media that sur-
seem to collapse into one another. For example, rounded it, inserting itself deeply in the imaginary of
through his analysis of the break-out spaces of the general public. It was an architecture that trans-
OMA’s CCTV tower in Beijing or the reorganisation formed cities into what David Harvey refers to as
of the production line of Hadid’s BMW factory in ‘spectacular islands of wealth and privilege’.8 This
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was, and perhaps still is, an extraordinary architec- beyond a single socio-economic system, neoliberal-
ture, however one that, for the very same reason, ism has become a generalised condition of life for
is removed from the lives of many. Perhaps if one much of the world’s society: a condition of extraordi-
thing is left unexplored in Spencer’s account, it is nary heterogeneity yet which has become singularly
how neoliberalism might inhabit other spaces hegemonic. In attempting to draw out this argument
beyond those of such high-profile architecture. into other realms of human existence, one is left
One wonders, how are neoliberal agendas to wondering how Spencer’s argument might apply
operate behind the phantasmagoria, the shiny to a kind of ‘everyday neoliberalism’11—one
iconic envelopes, the corporate façades, the pat- excluded from the palette of examples he analyses.
terned envelopes and contorted forms that If neoliberalism is as ubiquitous, amorphous,
Spencer so forcefully denounces. If this form of elusive, and whose limits are ill-defined, then to
architectural practice is indeed to serve as an understand it better, we might have to look else-
example of an ‘architecture of neoliberalism’, one where. As Foucault, interpreting Hayek, warns us,
wonders what are the many other architectures neoliberalism ‘is a general style of thought, analysis,
that equally animate neoliberalism—those that and imagination … it is a living thought’.12
perhaps lie behind the palaces of wealth and in But of course, there is never enough space in a
the infrastructural spaces that sustain urban life, in book, and this one is certainly setting a foundational
the domestic environments or in the mundane stone in the enormous edifice of a project captured
habits of city life. Perhaps, Spencer’s account is in the breadth of Spencer’s title. The argument is
simply an opening into the multiple spaces of neoli- timely, the writing generous and yet provocative. It
beralism. unfolds the many accounts of the neoliberal
And yet, we must not forget that the strength of debate into a coherent and accessible argument,
neoliberalism lies precisely in encrypting its work- extracting and recombining the disparate accounts
ings, in changing its face, in intermingling its individ- from that of Harvey to that of Foucault, as well as
uated calculations with everyday life. This is perhaps other voices such as Dardot, Laval and Philip Mir-
why Hayek avoided at all costs issuing any public owski. The book is not only a sharp critique of an
manifesto9 that would define the aims of the Mont architecture that has subverted the eye, that has
Pelerin Society, the same group that was instrumen- intoxicated our sensory through its indiscernible van-
tal for the formation of neoliberal ideas in the late ishing points and complex surfaces; it is also a remin-
1930s. As Spencer argues, following Pierre Dardot der that architectural critique is today more urgent
and Christian Laval, neoliberalism might be defined than ever if architecture is to mobilise new publics.
as ‘nothing more, nor less, than the form of our Indeed, the task is large.
existence—the way in which we are led to conduct However, The Architecture of Neoliberalism is a
ourselves, to relate to others and to ourselves’.10 In reminder of the relevance of architectural critique
other words, unlike another form of power, and not only within the discipline, but indeed for
4

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anyone that finds him or herself lost in the myriad 3. Ibid., p. 56.
dreamlike architectural worlds that now occupy 4. Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics. Lectures at the
many cities. For all these reasons, it is both remark- College De France, 1978–1979 (New York, Palgrave
able and yet not surprising that this book immedi- Macmillan, 2011), p. 252.
5. Ibid.
ately and very positively was reviewed in major
6. D. Spencer. The Architecture of Neoliberalism, op. cit.,
newspapers and widely circulated literary publi-
p. 72.
cations.13 What Spencer has achieved in this short
7. Maurizio Lazzarato, Signs and Machines. Capitalism
volume of architectural theory is to break out of and the Production of Subjectivity (Los Angeles, CA,
the disciplinary boundaries and expand architectural Semiotext(e), 2014).
discourse into a subject of public debate. In mobilis- 8. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford,
ing architectural critique, Spencer manages to call New York, Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 157.
for a broader awakening of a general collective con- 9. Ronald M. Hartwell, A History of the Mont Pelerin
sciousness to our neoliberal condition. Standing in Society (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995), p. 32.
resistance to Thatcher’s lingering mantra of ‘no 10. Pierre Dardot, Christian Laval, Gregory Elliot, The New
alternative’, critique, for Spencer, is always an Way of the World: On Neo-liberal Society (London,
Verso Books, 2017), p. 3.
alternative opening towards political imaginaries
11. Philip Mirowski, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste.
for an architecture to come.
How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown
(London, Verso Books, 2014), p. 92.
Ivonne Santoyo Orozco 12. M. Foucault. The Birth of Biopolitics, op. cit., p. 218.
Iowa State University 13. Owen Hatherley, ‘The Architecture of Neoliberalism’ by
Ames, Iowa, USA Douglas Spencer: review, ‘Privatising the world’, 12th
(Author’s email address: ivonnesantoyo@gmail.com) January, 2017; accessed online: https://www.
theguardian.com/books/2017/jan/12/the-architecture-
Notes and references of-neoliberalism-douglas-spencer-review; Joseph
1. Douglas Spencer, The Architecture of Neoliberalism. Henry Staten, ‘What Exists is Good: On “The Architec-
How Contemporary Architecture Became an Instru- ture of Neoliberalism”’, 25th March, 2017; accessed
ment of Control and Compliance (London: Blooms- online: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/what-exists-
bury, 2017), p. 23. is-good-on-the-architecture-of-neoliberalism/#!
2. Ibid., p. 54.

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