This is the abstract for a paper I’m presenting at the AHRA conference This Thing Called Theory in Leeds, 19-21st November 2015 http://www.thisthingcalledtheory.org

Architecture’s Franciscan turn:  ‘forms of life’ and pre-critical theory

Those interested in the current state of architectural theory will be aware of the renewal of a ‘project of autonomy’ and its growing appeal. This project proposes that architecture and the human subject might both, together, secede from the managerial imperatives of neoliberalism through the recovery of their essentially autonomous condition. This project, I argue, is thought through what Adorno described, critically, as ‘identity thinking’.

Architecture is to be identical to its essence, ‘resolutely itself’, as Pier Vittorio Aureli writes in The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture, in the autonomous formal processes through which it separates itself from its context. Thus it becomes fundamentally political. In Less is More Aureli adds to his account of what is proper to architecture one of what is proper to ‘human nature’. Human existence is identified with ‘its most generic substratum’, that of ‘life itself’ (bios) and subjects are most themselves when allowed to ‘focus on their self as the core of their activity’. The lives of the ancient philosophers exemplify this principle since for them there was ‘no difference between theory and practice, between logos and bios.’ Following Agamben’s The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, however, Aureli locates the paradigmatic practice of his vision of the life of the self in the Franciscan monasteries of the 11th and 12th centuries.

In the Franciscan monastery subjects were liberated from ‘established forms of power.’ Monasticism represented a ‘radical critique of power, not by fighting against it, but by leaving it’. The Franciscan monastery allowed for ‘forms of life’ in which one’s life and the habits through which it was lived were in perfect agreement, the one becoming indistinguishable from the other. The architecture of the monastery conditions this form of life, it is ‘simply an extrusion of the ritual activities that take place within.’

The first argument of this paper is that it is, as Tafuri said, simply ‘bad history’ to impute one’s own mentality and concerns on to those of other ages. As a corrective, this paper will show, drawing on existing historical scholarship, that as soon as any universalising perspective on ‘life’ is replaced with one attending, for instance, to matters of gender, then the monastery is revealed as a place and practice of power – over women’s bodies – every bit as instrumental as the managerialism practiced in the spaces of neoliberalism. Likewise the concept of formal autonomy, as Bourdieu has examined, has its own history and cannot unproblematically be projected back upon medieval architecture.

This paper’s main critique, however, centres on the argument that Aureli’s Franciscanism represents what might be termed an effectively pre-critical turn in its insistence on fundamental essence and normative identity. No less so than the now hegemonic and post-critical architectural discourse of self-organising systems and complex orders, it identifies life with form and the essence of architecture with the accommodation of their happy consonance. Against the normative ideal of the ‘form of life’ I argue for the production of subjectivity as the still most incisive means of theorising the relations between architecture, power and the subject. However unfashionably post-structuralist, the model of the production of subjectivity maintains the possibility of critically conceiving of the radical non-identities of form and life, of theory and practice, of architecture and subjectivity, and their implications for architectural thought and practice.


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