The (Dis)enchanted Subject of Architecture: Between Neoliberalism and Neobaroque

A Symposium at Architectural Association in London with Libero Andreotti, David Cunningham, Nadir Lahiji, Marina Lathouri, Joan Ockman, Will Orr, Nina Power, Douglas Spencer

Main Lecture Hall, 36 Bedford Square, 10.00 -17.30, November 25, 2016, 

Contemporary architecture stages the re-enchantment of the subject. Its recent turns toward the charms of the market, self-organization, complexity, and affect seek to discredit and devalue the radical act of disenchantment achieved by critical thought. In place of reason we are supposed to be dazzled by the new phantasmagoria, to ditch our critical faculties so as to enjoy the sensory pleasures of formal innovation and environmental immersion. Two recent publications, Nadir Lahiji’s Adventures with the Theory of the Baroque and French Philosophy and Douglas Spencer’s The Architecture of Neoliberalism, each analyse and challenge this scenario. Addressing the conception and experience of architecture from the perspective of subjectivity, Lahiji and Spencer revive the supposedly outmoded concepts of power and ideology in order to critique Neobaroque and neoliberal practices in architecture. Addressing, in particular, the instrumentalization of philosophy to valorize these practices, they also seek out ways in which critical theory and philosophy might instead be recovered in order to contest them.

To mark the publication of these titles, Lahiji and Spencer invite others, from within and outside of the discipline of architecture, to join them in this symposium to further explore and develop their concerns and arguments. Addressing radical philosophies of the subject, architecture’s fetishization of circulation, critiques of autonomy, the politics of affect, the thought of Badiou, Tafuri, Lacan, Kracauer, Benjamin and Adorno, and other themes, this event seeks out ways to conceive of and critique the politics of a turn in architecture that supposes itself to have transcended such concerns.

Speakers: Libero Andreotti, David Cunningham, Nadir Lahiji, Marina Lathouri, Joan Ockman, Will Orr, Nina Power, Douglas Spencer.


Friday November 25, 2016

10.00 Introduction

10.10 First reflections: Marina Lathouri

10.30 Nina Power: The Collective Political Subject: Some Contemporary Ideas

11.15 -11.30 Break

11.30 David Cunningham: “Islands of rationality”: Architecture, Autonomy and Neoliberalism

12.15 Ivonne Santoyo-Orozco: L’Impresario: The Enchantment of Disenchantment

1.00 – 2.00 Lunch

2.00 Will Orr: Actuality of the Condition: Politics and Building

2.40 Douglas Spencer: Requiem for a Dreamworld

3.20 Nadir Lahiji: Neobaroque and the Crisis of Reason

4.00-4.15: Break

4.15 Joan Ockman: Culture of Circulation

5.00 Second reflections: Marina Lathouri (chair), Nina Power, David Cunningham, Libero Andreotti, Will Orr, Douglas Spencer, Nadir Lahiji, Joan Ockman

5.30 Close

6:30 Book Launch event will follow in the , 32 Bedford Square, London.



David Cunningham:

“Islands of rationality”: Architecture, Autonomy and Neoliberalism

Central to all debates surrounding the nature of “neoliberalism” is the relation between the “political” and “economic” at stake within its historical formation. This paper considers some of the implications of such debates for the practices and discourses of architecture by tracing, critically, their connection to a series of disputes around the city, rationalism and the idea of “autonomy” that begins with the likes of Mario Tronti, Also Rossi, Manfredo Tafuri and Massimo Cacciari in the late 1960s and stretches through to the work of Pier Vittorio Aureli and others today.

Bio: David Cunningham is Deputy Director of the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture at the University of Westminster, and a longstanding member of the Radical Philosophy editorial collective. He has published widely on architectural and urban theory, including, most recently, two contributions to the collection Can Architecture Be An Emancipatory Project? Dialogues on Architecture and the Left (Zero Books 2016), edited by Nadir Lahiji.


Nadir Lahiji:

Neobaroque and the Critique of Aesthetic Reason 

The matrix of the universality of the Enlightenment Reason is its internal division. Kant, who as the thinker of the Enlightenment turned its project upside down at its very inception, showed that reason is not a master even in its own house. This is our legacy. But, from the Kantian position it is not appropriate to criticize the universal claims of the Enlightenment project; we rather have to accept its split. Hence the persistence of the ‘crisis of reason’ after the Kantian turn. Aesthetics plays a major role in this crisis in our time. Kant spoke of the Universal Judgment of Taste that should be tied to ethical standards of the Categorical Imperative. Its maxim goes as follows: ‘I should never act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law’. The contemporary Neobaroque is a signifier of regression from this Kantian moral Law and its aesthetic reason. Contemporary Neobaroque culture represents the obverse-obscene underside of the Historical Baroque, the regression of its Sublimation to ‘repressive desublimation’, to use Herbert Marcuse’s term. Architecture has allowed itself to descend to this regressive state, ironically accompanied by a euphoric hubris. This paper critiques the totality of contemporary architectural culture under the term Neobaroque.

Bio: Nadir lahiji is an architect, educator and critical theorist. He is the author of Adventures with the Theory of the Baroque and French Philosophy (Bloomsbury 2016) and has edited the The Missed Encounter of Radical Philosophy with Architecture (Bloomsbury 2014, 2015) and the most recent, Can Architecture Be An Emancipatory Project (Zero Books, 2016).


Joan Ockman:

Culture of Circulation

Once upon a time, in the days when modern architecture was young, circulation through abuilding was primarily a functional problem. By the mid-twentieth century, when the monument building morphed into the spectacle-building, the circulation system began to take on aesthetic implications of its own and to become a central feature of a building’s architectural identity. Think of Wright’s Guggenheim Museum or Saarinen’s TWA Terminal. Of course, Baroque architects already appreciated the expressive potential of dynamic scenography four centuries ago. But today the mania for circulation spaces manifest in cutting-edge architecture goes well beyond formal virtuosity. Escalators, ramps, elevators, stairs, bridges, catwalks—these privileged elements of contemporary buildings not only belong to a form-making culture that at all costs (figuratively and literally) wishes to avoid the appearance of fixity, but emanate from the very structure of the neocapitalist imaginary. In this talk we attempt an allegorical reading of architecture’s “culture of circulation.” What are the implications of an architecture that is about circulation?

Bio: Joan Ockman is Distinguished Senior Lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design and Visiting Professor at Cooper Union School of Architecture. She is currently completing a collection of essays titled Architecture Among Other Things, to be published next year by Actar.


Will Orr:

Actuality of the Condition: Politics and Building

The relation between politics and architecture is frequently mediated through the categories of philosophy, but rarely have the latter been brought to bear directly upon this relation with decisive force. This paper will use Alain Badiou’s separation of the “condition” from its “meta” discourse, as developed primarily in Metapolitics, to call the position of architectural thought and practice into question. It will be argued that the actuality at stake in the Badiouian condition is incompatible with architecture and more specifically with the “project” as its mode of pursuit. This disenchantment of the category “architecture” perhaps throws us back onto the alternative and historically rich category “building,” which might be defined in specific relation to political conditions.

Bio: Will Orr studied architecture at the University of Toronto, and is currently pursuing a PhD at the Architectural Association. His research centres on political subjectivity, temporality, and modernism in philosophy and the historiography of architecture.


Nina Power:

The Collective Political Subject: Some Contemporary Ideas

This talk will look at various recent attempts to conceptualise mass or group subjects in the wake of the supposed disappearance of the working class. It will look at the ideas of Hardt & Negri, Badiou and others, and the concept of work in particular as the site for thinking about what collectives might emerge today. It will also examine concepts of collectivity in the work of Federici as a constructed retort to the theorists discussed in the first part.

Bio: Nina Power teaches Philosophy at the University of Roehampton and Critical Writing in Art & Design at the Royal College of Art.


Ivonne Santoyo-Orozco:

L’Impresario: The Enchantment of Disenchantment

This paper attempts to understand the relationship between architectural affects and power historically, by approaching the question of enchantment and disenchantment in a way that challenges the apparent opposition of these terms. I turn to Baroque Rome to examine the notion of ‘wonder’ as it was portrayed in Bernini’s only surviving play, L’Impresario. In the play the audience is confronted not only with the theatrical mechanics of persuasion but also with the very mechanisms that reorient them as papal subjects. The theatre served as a testing ground to experiment with the capacity of the audience to be seduced and enchanted in a new relation of affective power. By understanding wonder historically, I will suggest that the act of enchantment always-already presupposes the disenchanted subject as its very object and condition of possibility. The condition of disenchantment is, in other words, incorporated in the very mechanism of modern enchantment.

Bio: As an architect, Santoyo-Orozco has worked in Mexico City for Fernando Romero, in Maastricht for Wiel Arets and in London first for Foster and Partners and then for Arup Integrated Urbanism. As an educator, she has held teaching posts at Iowa State University, Central Saint Martins, University of Creative Arts and the Architectural Association.

Her work has been exhibited internationally from the Venice Biennale to Storefront for Art and Architecture, published in several journals and discussed in international conferences. She is completing her doctoral dissertation at the Architectural Association in London where she investigates the historical role architecture has played in the cultivation of an affective dimension of power.


Douglas Spencer:

Requiem for a Dreamworld

Susan Buck-Morss, in her Dreamworld and Catastrophe, observed that the end of the Cold War was marked by the passing of the dream-forms of modernity – capitalist, socialist and fascist – as sustained through the experience of the built environment. If, following Walter Benjamin, we understand awakening from the dreamworld to be premised on the conscious realisation of its utopian fantasises, then what hope remained now, she asked, in the absence of any dreamworld? This paper takes up this question, more than two decades since it was first posed, through an analysis of the seemingly matter of fact spaces and surfaces of contemporary transit systems, comparing their techno-aesthetic environments with those of Stalin’s Moscow Metro as discussed by Buck-Morss. The turn to the unadorned, it will be argued, does not so much mark the end of the dream-form but its continuation by other means.

Bio: Douglas Spencer is the author of The Architecture of Neoliberalism (Bloomsbury, 2016). He has contributed essays for a number of edited collections on architecture, philosophy and critical theory, and for Radical Philosophy, Journal of Architecture, AA Files, New Geographies and Volume. He teaches at the Architectural Association and the University of Westminster.

This event is part of the public programme of the Architectural Association, is free, and is open to everyone.


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