Critical Grounds

Habitable walls: Fortress Architecture

Dunnottar (“fort on the shelving slope”) Medieval Castle, Kincardineshire, Scotland

No Room for the Weak: Form, Process and the Existential Territory of Landscape Urbanism

I was asked last year by landscape to write an essay for them. After an initially enthusiastic response they are no longer communicating with me. So I’m posting the essay here. Comments, as ever, would be much appreciated.

No Room for the Weak: Form, Process and the Existential Territory of Landscape Urbanism


In his essay ‘Weak Work: Andrea Branzi’s “Weak Metropolis” and the Projective Potential of an “Ecological Urbanism”,’ Charles Waldheim laments the fact that ‘design culture has been depoliticized, distanced from the empirical and objective conditions of urban life.’[1] Of the ‘Ecological Urbanism’ proposed by Mohsen Mostafavi, and pursued through the conference and book of this title (to which Waldheim’s essay is a contribution), he hopes that it may ‘reanimate discussions of sustainability with the political, social, cultural, and critical potentials that have been drained from them,’ and that it might challenge the ‘historical opposition’ that ‘has produced a contemporary condition in which ecological function, social justice, and cultural literacy are perceived by many as mutually exclusive.’[2] In his attempt to elaborate how ‘Ecological Urbanism’ might achieve this critically integrative function Waldheim turns to the example of Andrea Branzi’s ‘Weak Metropolis’, the ‘non-figurative’ urbanism of Archizoom’s ‘No-Stop City’ and the interest in ‘field conditions’ and logistics that this project apparently inspired in figures such as Stan Allen, James Corner and Alejandro Zaera-Polo.[3] All of these figures are, of course, central to development of landscape urbanism. Rather than answering to Waldheim’s concerns, to which I am highly sympathetic, however, their models of practice are themselves, I will argue here, a significant obstacle to the development of a practice critically engaged with the integration of both ecology and social justice within its agenda. Beginning, in the first part of this essay, with a critique of Branzi’s ‘weak’ urbanism and the ‘field’ model promulgated by Allen and others within landscape urbanism, I then turn, in its second part, to argue for the architectural treatment of the ground as a means both to challenge the imperatives of neoliberal modes of urbanization, and, following the thought of Paulo Virno, of giving concrete and sensuous form to the abstract processes that traverse its terrain.

No-Stopping the city

Archizoom Associati’s ‘No-Stop City’ (1968-71) project is represented as a series of continuous urban fields programmed for efficiency, voided of ‘figurative’ architecture, and articulated in the dry code of typewritten keystrokes registered within an orthogonal grid (figure 1.) As a project, its purpose is somewhat enigmatic. On the one hand it does, as Waldheim observes, ‘illustrate an urbanism of continuous mobility, fluidity, and flux.’[4] It is not so clear, however, that the project straightforwardly ‘prefigured’, as he adds, ‘current attention to describing the relentlessly horizontal field conditions of the modern metropolis as a surface shaped by the strong forces of economic and ecological flows.’ Further, and taking cognizance of the fact the project was not under the sole authorship of Branzi, but also of other members of Archizoom who were directly connected with the autonomist Marxism of Operaism — the architects Gilberto Corretti and Massimo Morozzi[5] — it seems unlikely that it can be read as a simple affirmation of ‘horizontal field conditions’. Much of the political thought of Operaism, and later Post-Operaism, was, after all, concerned with a direct critique of the conditions of post-fordism emerging in Italy and elsewhere from the late ‘60s onwards, with the fashion, that is, in which the entire urban terrain had been instrumentalized according to the logic of a new mode of production in which, flexibility, connectivity, mobility and communication assumed ever greater importance: the so-called ‘social factory’.[6] In this respect ‘No-Stop City’ appears, rather than a simple affirmation, illustration or description of such processes as are essential to the logic of post-fordism, as a critique of this logic; one achieved by driving it to such an extreme that the absurdity of its premises are clearly revealed. ‘No-Stop City’ may thus be read as consistent with the broader tactics of Operaism and their attempts, working from within capitalism, to ‘make the brain of the system mad.’  Pier Vittorio Aureli and Martino Tattara, for example, read the project in precisely this way:

No-stop City was not an avant-garde project, nor it was an anti-modernist project, but a hypothesis that attempted to bring to radical terms the very premises of modernity: the project for a generic city in which living is reduced to biopolitical mechanisms of production and reproduction.

 For this reason No-Stop City should be read as the continuation (and critical exaggeration) of the urban research tradition undertaken by planners such as Ildefonso Cerdà in the 19th century and Ludwig Hilberseimer in the first half of the 20th century.[7]


Understood from this perspective ‘No-Stop City’ indicates a critique of the urban as a horizontal articulation of economic and managerial stratagems, as opposed to the pseudo-naturalistic discourse in which this articulation has, more recently, been affirmatively glossed as a ‘field’ of ecological processes. Aureli and Tattara’s comments, in linking ‘No-Stop City’ with the projects of Hilberseimer and Cerda, also suggest that this ‘field condition’, in which process is everything and form, particularly architectural form, is nothing, is not a discovery attributable to landscape urbanism, nor a phenomenon which appears for the first time in the late-twentieth century.

Flat Out to the Neoliberal City

That the urban has only in recent years been transformed, from a form composed of static architectural objects, into a ‘field’ of processes, networks, mobility and infrastructural connectivity, constitutes something like a founding myth for landscape urbanism. In his essay ‘Field Conditions’,[8] Stan Allen — a figure significant not only to the development of landscape urbanism but notable for his contributions to the ‘post-critical‘ discourse in architecture — locates the emergence of what he identifies as a generalized shift from ‘object to field’ amidst the science, technology and culture of the postwar period of the twentieth century. Citing as examples of this shift scientific theories of complexity, the turn from analog to digital technologies and post-minimalist sculpture, Allen defines this ‘field condition’ as one of ‘loosely bound aggregates characterized by porosity and local interconnectivity…bottom-up phenomena, defined not by overarching geometrical schemas but by intricate local connections.’[9] The use of these concepts in design, which Allen then recommends, places it, he argues, ‘in contact with the real’.[10]

Alex Wall, in an essay equally significant to the theoretical development of landscape urbanism, ‘Programming the Urban Surface’, writes that with contemporary urbanization, ‘infrastructures and flows of material have become more significant than static political and spatial boundaries…The emphasis shifts here from forms of urban space to processes of urbanization’.[11] Consequently, he continues, we are now experiencing ‘a fundamental paradigm shift from viewing cities in formal terms to looking at them in dynamic ways. Hence, familiar urban typologies of square, park, district, and so on are of less use or significance than are the infrastructures, network flows, ambiguous spaces, and other polymorphous conditions that constitute the contemporary metropolis.[12]

The paradigms of fluidity, interconnectivity and process promoted by figures such as Allen and Wall echo the conception of ‘weak urbanism’ formulated by Andrea Branzi who introduces the concept in his essay ‘A Strong Century’ as follows:

Gianni Vattimo was the first to talk about a weak thought, that is, a type of hermeneutics that develops without looking to the great syntheses of the twentieth century, or to the unifying systems of politics and projects that were typical of classic modernism. Instead this hermeneutics proceeds following more incomplete, imperfect, disarticulated types of cognizance and transformation, which are more ductile and therefore able to absorb the new and confront the surprises and complexities that this produces.[13]


Further describing his model of ‘weakness’, he writes that ‘it does not imply…any negative value of inefficiency or inability; this indicates rather a particular process of modification and cognition that follows natural logic, not geometrical logic — diffuse, diluted processes, reversible and self-stabilizing strategies.’[14] The ductile, reversible and fluid qualities of Branzi’s model of urbanism are further elaborated through his adoption of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of a ‘Liquid Modernity’ of which writes:

For Bauman, the term “liquid” positively indicates the idea of a state of material that does not possess its own form (rather, that of its container) and tends to follow a temporal flow of transformations, These conditions converge to describe “the nature of the current, and in many respects new phase of the history of modernism.”[15]

Whereas ‘No-Stop City’, the collective work of Archizoom, can be read as critique, through hyperbolic exaggeration, of urbanism as a (re)programmable surface subject to continuous transformation in the interests of changing modes of production and reproduction, the later work and thought of Branzi, independent of the Associati, appears, then, to affirm their operation as the paradigm to which urban design must accommodate itself.


Rather than novel, concerns over networked connectivity, mobility and infrastructural relations over those of urban form are, in fact, constitutive of modern urbanism at its inception in the mid-nineteenth century. ‘For urbanization, form is nothing’ wrote Ildefons Cerdà, in his General Theory of Urbanization of 1869, ‘adequate and perfect satisfaction of human needs is everything.’[16] The purpose of urbanization, he asserted, was to ‘fulfill the aim of establishing relations and communications among the shelters.’[17]  The movement and coordination of pedestrians and traffic flows was one of the chief concerns for Cerdà in his planning of the expansion of Barcelona as an urban circulatory system, and his then controversial refusal to accommodate within his grid such conventional city forms such as large public plazas — which he viewed as outdated relics of older, pre-democratic, modes of city governance — already transcended the ‘familiar urban typologies of square, park, district’ which Allen argues need now to be left behind.

The tendency to misrepresent contemporary processes of urbanization as entirely novel and uniquely concerned with connectivity, mobility and process follows from landscape urbanism’s general failure adequately to engage with questions of urban political economy, governance and the historical resonance of these matters. The privileging of circulation over form, as epitomized in the work of Cerdà, emerged in response to historically specific economic and governmental imperatives, which demanded the rapid and large-scale transformation of territories from the largely self-contained cities of the older monarchical, and autocratic regimes to the connective urban systems of bourgeois capitalism. What we are witnessing now is the re-emergence of imperatives towards circulation, mobility and connectivity, under determinate historical circumstances through which they are intensified in scope and extent, rather than their first appearance as an absolutely ‘new condition’ or ‘paradigm shift’.

Rather than focusing upon the ‘newness’ of the paradigm of process over form, of mobility over stasis, with which landscape urbanism has been concerned, or with the concomitant argument that design accommodate itself to this revelation, what is surely vital, as a basis for achieving any critical agency, is to question why, how, and in what interests this paradigm has re-emerged. In this respect the Operaist and Post-Operaist currents of radical Italian thought, with which Branzi’s colleagues were at one time associated, offer a sustained analysis of the conditions of post-fordism through which these questions can be approached. .

Whereas the appearance of the term ‘post-fordism’ most likely implies, to those familiar with the discourse of landscape urbanism, the post-industrial conditions of the North America industrial city, as documented in Stalking Detroit,[18] to thinkers such as Maurizio Lazzarato, Paulo Virno, Franco Beradi, and Antonio Negri, it suggests neither the end of labor nor a depopulation of the city that would render it ripe for a non-figurative ‘landscaping’. Rather, post-fordism implies, within this current of thought, new modes of labor, and the reorganization of the movements of the urban population. In these conditions communication assumes ever-greater significance as a source of value to capital, as the means to research, organize, develop and deliver the products of the service, leisure and creative industries, as well as the means to integrate the intellectual and affective competences of the worker within the new managerial practices of more traditional industries.[19] What this development has suggested to the thinkers of Post-Operaism (as well, of course, as to figures such as Gilles Deleuze in his conceptualization of a ‘control society’,[20] and to Michel Foucault in his work on neo-liberal modes of governmentality[21]), is that rather than seeking to discipline and confine subjects within specific roles and places, capital, as a power of social and spatial organization, now seeks to mobilize and connect them. Within this new organizational paradigm — the ‘social factory’ described above — the subject must acquire competences in communicational and affective performance, networking abilities, and a disposition toward flexibility and adaptability.  These traits constitute the requisite survival skills with which the subject of contemporary urban life must be equipped, and are to be exercised at any and every opportunity throughout the social ‘field’. Hence, it is under these specific conditions that imperatives towards circulation, mobility and interconnectivity, which are in any case inherent to urbanism as a system of management, re-emerge, though now with intensified in scope and significance. Whereas the urbanism of Cerdà was focused upon the organization of a territory as a connective system in which all of its social, technological, infrastructural and economic processes communicated in an integrated fashion, contemporary urbanism proposes as well the more direct management of the subject, whose mobilization, both inside and outside of the factory or the office, is a source of value to capital. The production of subjectivity constitutes a further process to be incorporated within its systemic organization. Moreover this power to produce subjects with the requisite skills and dispositions to function for the conditions established within post-fordism appears not to originate from any hierarchical power, but rather to emerge from the environment itself, as a series of locally embedded operations, often taking the form of smoothly managed and porous transitions between the different spaces, structures and programs of the urban. The privileging of horizontal connectivity, in other words, establishes the ‘field conditions’ through which the mobility, networking and flexibility prescribed within post-fordist and neoliberal modes of governmentality might function.

Additionally, urbanized territories are now themselves also subjected to the imperatives of flexibility, in which their systems may be dismantled, reassembled or ‘made over’, so as to serve the interests of what David Harvey has defined as ‘urban entrepreneurialism’. Following a period of relative stability around the mid-twentieth century, when the purely economic valorization of the city was to some extent held in check by Keynesian and social democratic modes of governance, neoliberal imperatives have sought to transform the urban into a pure space of capital accumulation and corporate managerialism. As urban theorists Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore have argued:

In a geoeconomic context defined by massive upheavals of entrenched scalar relations, local (and regional) spaces are now being viewed as key institutional arenas for a wide range of policy experiments and political strategies. These include new entrepreneurial approaches to local economic development as well as diverse programs of institutional restructuring intended to enhance labor market flexibility, territorial competitiveness, and place-specific locational assets.[22]

The mechanisms of neoliberal urban entrepreneurialism demand for their purposes the erasure not only of the built environment produced to sustain earlier modes of production, but also the older regulatory mechanisms of the management of the city invested in civic authorities. Through such processes of ‘creative destruction’ urban space can be made fully accessible to speculative development with its ‘creation of privatized, customized, and networked urban infrastructures intended to (re)position cities within supranational capital flows’, and its projects of ‘place-making’, urban regeneration, mega-events, etc. through which urban space is rendered ‘competitive’ and ‘marketable’.[23]

Natural’s Not in it[24]

This, then, is the ‘real’ which the adoption of processual, mobile and locally interconnected paradigms recommended by Allen, Branzi and others puts us ‘in contact’ with. Rather than bluntly stated, or even recognized, as an accommodation to prevailing modes of production, governmentality and managerialism, though, the discourse of landscape urbanism, alongside that of its cognate practices, has more typically sought to present its ‘new paradigms’ as a progression towards an ecologically framed model of ‘complexity’ and ‘emergence’. This is evident, for example, within Allen’s ‘Field Conditions’ essay where he proposes to understand ‘flocks, schools, swarms and crowds’ as ‘field phenomena’ whose behavior may be collectively accounted for within the science of ‘chaos theory’.[25] Branzi, in an essay titled ‘Fuzzy Thinking’, has argued that the complexity of nature revealed by recent developments in mathematics, ‘pushed by the influence of Eastern Cultures’, presents an ‘evolved model to imitate in the process of building the new’, one which constitutes a ‘new naturalism’.[26]

This ‘naturalism’ is, in fact, an act of naturalization through which the interests and agency of various entrepreneurial, corporate, political, governmental, and managerial actors are rendered obscure by the ambience of ‘self-organization’ and ‘complexity’ in which they are diffused. In this sense the ‘new naturalism’ is not ‘natural’ at all but itself a form of political agency. Pursuing this point, Timothy Morton, in his Ecology Without Nature, provides a brilliantly astute reading of how the discourse of ‘emergence’, in which paradigm the behaviors of weather systems, ant colonies, stock markets and public crowds, for example, can be conveniently collapsed, constitutes the ‘ultimate aestheticization of politics’ where ‘we can sit back, relax, and let the automated process of self-organizing labor do it for us.’[27] ‘Far from appearing in their uniqueness, difference and strangeness’ he continues, ‘animals and the weather stand in for an all-too-human politics.’[28] Developing his argument further, Morton goes on to suggest that the laissez faire disposition resulting from the rhetoric of ‘self-organization’ places the environmental artist in the position of a ‘facilitator’ of his or her project who relinquishes the determination of a fixed outcome to the ‘genius’ of ‘emergence’.[29] It might well be argued that this problematic extends as well to the practice of design, where the apparent humility of leaving the future development of a project to unforeseen, spontaneous and emergent conditions may, in actuality, merely gesture to the surrender of any control over its future to urban entrepreneurial investment strategies. Not only is the critical agency of the designer surrendered in this scenario, but the subject as an urban actant, as a political animal, disappears into a barely conscious ‘swarm’. The urban subject is, as described by Branzi, so much ‘plankton’.[30]

Any critical potential that might be sought within landscape urbanism, or its allied disciplines and practices, would need then to recognize, in the first instance, that much of the discourse with which it has thus far been invested presents an obstacle to this objective.  The re-politicization of design would require that designers adopt an approach whereby their projects are oriented not toward the pursuit of ‘new paradigms’, such as those that stress process over form, or mobility over stasis, to which they should accommodate themselves, but instead to the analysis of the conditions in to which they are to intervene, and through the critical self-questioning of their own agendas, agencies and capacities in regard to these. This would further require, in respect of the very pertinent issue of the relation between ecological thought and the ‘objective conditions of urban life’ raised by Waldheim, that their current configuration is radically rethought. Whereas, as Morton argues, the radical difference of ‘nature’ is at present reductively pressed into service as a mirror through which capital’s own mechanisms are reflected as aesthetic phenomena, any critical understanding of the relationship between ecology and the ‘objective conditions of urban life’ would need to denaturalize both in order to understand their relations as dialectically produced and as always involving the investments of interested parties.

New ways of thinking about practice, however critically motivated or conceptually informed, are, of course, insufficient by themselves to realize the potential for a critical engagement with the issues addressed here in the practice of design. In respect of this, the second part of this essay will explore the question of how landscape urbanism might realize, or at least fruitfully explore, this potential through its engagement with a concern which has been generally neglected within its own discipline, namely that of form.

[1] Charles Waldheim, ‘Weak Work: Andrea Branzi’s “Weak Metropolis” and the Projective Potential of an “Ecological Urbanism”’, in Ecological Urbanism, Mohsen Mostafavi with Gareth Doherty, eds. Baden: Lars Muller, 2010, p. 115

[2] Ibid., p. 115

[3] Ibid., p. 117

[4] Ibid., p. 117

[5] Pier Vittorio Aureli, The Project of Autonomy: Politics and Architecture within and against Capitalism, New York: Buell Center/FORuM Project and Princeton Architectural Press, 2008, p. 85

[6] See, in addition to Aureli’s The Project of Autonomy, Steve Wright, Storming Heaven: Class Composition and struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism, London, Sterling, Virginia: Pluto Press, 2002, and Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi, eds. Autonomia: Post-Political Politics, Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e),  2007

[7] Pier Vittorio Aureli and Martino Tattara, ‘Stop City’, accessedat <> September 13, 2011

[8] Stan Allen, ‘Field Conditions’ in Points + Lines, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999.

[9] Ibid., 92.

[10] Ibid., 92.

[11] Alex Wall, ‘Programming the Urban Surface’ in James Corner, editor, Recovering Landscape: Essays in Contemporary Landscape Architecture, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1999,

[12] Ibid., p. 234

[13] Andrea Branzi, ‘A Strong Century’ in Weak and Diffuse Modernity: The World of Projects at the Beginning of the 21st Century, trans. Alta Price, Milan: Skira, 2006, pp. 14-15

[14] Ibid., p. 14

[15] Ibid., p. 20

[16] Ildefonso Cerdà, The Five Bases of the General Theory of Urbanization, ed. Arturo Soria y

Puig, trans. Bernard Miller and Mary Fons i Fleming, Madrid: Electa España, 1999, 50.

[17] Ibid., p. 44

[18] Georgia Daskalakis, Charles Waldheim, and Jason Young, editors Stalking Detroit, Barcelona: Actar, 2001

[19] See, for a more detailed analysis of the relations between new managerial practices and the spatial production of a ‘community’ of workers, Spencer, Douglas Spencer, ‘Replicant urbanism: the architecture of Hadid’s Central Building at BMW, Leipzig’, The Journal of Architecture, 15: 2, 2010, pp. 181 — 207

[20] Gilles Deleuze, ‘Postscript on Control Societies’, in Negotiations, 1972-1990, New York ; Chichester: Columbia University Press, 1995

[21] Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College De France,1978-79, edited by Michel Senellart, translated by Graham Burchell,  Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008.

[22] Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore, ‘Preface: From the “New Localism” to the Spaces of Neoliberalism’ in Brenner and Theodore, editors, Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in North America and Western Europe, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002, v.

[23] Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore ‘Cities and the Geographies of “Actually Existing Neoliberalism”, in Brenner and Theodore, Ibid., 23.

[24] The title of a song by the British punk/funk band ‘Gang of Four’ from their album Entertainment! of 1979. It features the lyrics:

Natural is not in it

Your relations are of power

We all have good intentions

But all with strings attached

[25] Allen, ‘Field Conditions’ in Points + Lines, op. cit., p. 99. On the evidence of a lecture widely toured by Allen titled ‘Before and After Landscape Urbanism’ during 2009 and 2010, he appears more uncertain as to the validity of this concepts, though without offering any explicit or critical challenge to them.

[26] Andrea Branzi, ‘Fuzzy Thinking’ in Weak and Diffuse Modernity, op. cit.,  p. 29

[27] Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007, p 189

[28] Ibid., p. 189

[29] Ibid., p. 190

[30] Andrea Branzi, ‘The Man Without Quantities’ in Weak and Diffuse Modernity, op. cit.,  p. 29

Remaking the Public: CCTV, the Hyperbuilding and the Image of Labour

                                                             CCTV under construction in 2008, photograph by Ana Abram
At the kind invitation of Pier Vittorio Aureli, I am speaking at the Berlage, Rotterdam, to the City as a Project PhD programme. I’m presenting material related to the third chapter of my PhD where I produce a critique of OMA’s turn from Bigness to the Hyperbuilding, and relate this to the context of an emergent model of neoliberal governmentality in China today. This should be timely as OMA are doing a workshop at the Berlage the week before. Details below. Photos of CCTV kindly supplied by students of the AA’s Landscape Urbanism programme: Ana Abram, Daniel Portilla and Jaime Traspaderne.

The Project: the Rise and Fall of a Political and Artistic Paradigm
Friday April 27th from 16.00 to 19.00 – J.J.P. Oud room
Fifth Seminar with Douglas Spencer

Remaking the Public: CCTV, the Hyperbuilding and the Image of Labour

OMA’s CCTV headquarters in Beijing is considered here as emblematic of a reversal of the tenets of Bigness towards a new (proto)typology of the ‘hyperbuilding’. In this reversal the objective of a ‘metropolitan architecture’ is replaced with that of an infrastructural urbanism. This turn, I argue, has significant implications in regard to the production of new urban subjectivities, whilst also bringing Koolhaas remarkably close to what I have termed, elsewhere, ‘architectural Deleuzism’ in both his architectural and his discursive strategies. In order to challenge Koolhaas’s claims to be revisiting in the CCTV project his early interests in communism and communist architecture, I turn to elucidate a number of accounts of the relationship between post-reform China, neoliberalism, and neoliberal governmentality. From this analysis emerges the significance of imperatives within the People’s Republic of China for social ‘stabilisation’, the ‘reengineering’ of the worker, and the ‘remaking’ of the public, as well as the place of the media, and CCTV specifically, within these processes. These imperatives are then used as the optics through which to understand the organisational and semantic operation of the CCTV headquarters, focusing particularly upon its zoned departmental organisation, its use of stacked ‘generic’ floor plates, and the function of the ‘Visitors Loop’ as an instrument of social induction.

                                                                                         CCTV, photograph by Daniel Portilla, 2011
                                                                                  CCTV, photograph by Jaime Traspaderne, 2011

Ross Adams: Circulation and Sovereignty presentation at RIBA

If you’re in London next week I recommend a presentation by Ross Adams at RIBA on Tuesday, 17th April at 6pm. Ross always comes up with insightful  and critical perspectives on architecture, urbanism, biopolitics and their interwoven genealogies, some I’m looking forward to hearing his latest research. From the RIBA website:

“Ross Exo Adams will be presenting his research:Circulation and Sovereignty: a brief history on the politics of movement. His research offers a brief counter-history to the predominantly socio-economic understanding of urbanisation by analyzing the concept of circulation. He will trace this concept throughout Western history to ultimately show how ideas of circulation provided a crucial metaphor for the Absolute State, and played an intimate role in its structure of power, which in turn bequeathed to the nineteenth century the template for the birth of urbanisation itself.

Ross Exo Adams is a PhD candidate at the London Consortium and is examining circulation as a paradigm of urbanism and its relationship to the construction of liberal politics. In 2011 he was awarded the RIBA LKE Ozolins Studentship for this work. He currently teaches at the Architectural Association”

Also speaking is Nicholas Jewell, with what looks to be an interesting presentation on the subject of  ‘Bringing it back home: the Urbanisation of the British Shopping Mall as the West goes East’

Full details, including reservations, at:

See you there.

Are Cities Important To Philosophy? Big Ideas talk by David Cunningham

David Cunningham is speaking, on Tuesday 27th March, 8pm at  The Wheatsheaf, London, on the relationship between philosophy and the city:

“Socrates in Athens; Kant in Konigsberg; Hegel in Jena; Russell in Oxford; Carnap in Vienna; Sartre in Paris. Cities, of course, attract cultural production of all kinds to themselves, and the great cities act as magnets for philosophers just as they do for artists, entrepreneurs and chancers. But is there something more to the relationship between philosophy and the city? Has the course of Western philosophy been influenced by its overwhelmingly urban setting?

Dr David Cunningham is Deputy Director of the Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture at Westminster University and has published scholarly work on diverse topics in cultural theory including philosophy, architecture, literature and music. He joins us for an unusual look at the history of philosophy or, in a town whose residents perhaps often self-identify as “Londoners” more strongly than as “English”, “British” or “European”, a different perspective on urbanism.”



See you there!

Architectural Deleuzism II: The Possibility of Critique

In his essay ‘Desire and Ethics’, Ian Buchanan has commented on my use of the term ‘Deleuzism’, in ‘Architectural Deleuzism’ (published in Radical Philosophy, 168, 2011), in order to clarify and differentiate what he originally intended by this, in his Deleuzism: A Metacommentary, from my own employment of it. Here I offer a response through which I might clarify why, exactly, I have chosen to misuse his term.

The term ‘architectural Deleuzism’ was not invented, nor has it been used by, the architects that feature in the essay of that title, but is my own reworking of Ian Buchanan’s ‘Deleuzism’, itself coined in reference to Deleuze’s ‘Bergsonism’, to affirm the creative appropriation of a body of thought for purposes unimagined by its original author.[1] Buchanan, in a recent essay, writes that Deleuze:

…spoke of Bergsonism, for example, because his reading of Bergson was intended to create an application of Bergson’s thought, or better an apparatus that could be deployed to give thought to problems and circumstances Bergson himself did not and perhaps could not have considered himself. Bergsonism is in this sense simultaneously faithful to Bergson and a departure from him, without being a negation.[2]

Buchanan is at pains here to clarify what is, and what is not to be understood by ‘Deleuzism’ since he finds my own (mis)appropriation of the term inappropriately negative in its implications:

…I titled my first book on Deleuze Deleuzism – it was intended as an exploration of the problematic of how to ‘follow’ an author who instructs his own readers to go their own way and create their own questions. I make this point because in a recent article Douglas Spencer (2011) has used the term ‘Deleuzism’ as a kind of catch-all pejorative for what he sees as banal uses of Deleuze’s work.’[3]

‘Architectural Deleuzism’ is, I admit, a corruption of the original sense of Buchanan’s term, but one whose pejorative connotations are consciously calculated to challenge the affirmation of the ‘creative application’ of Deleuze, in and of itself, and outside of any specific historical conditions.

Buchanan, characterising Deleuze’s project as one ‘of (liberating) creativity’, wishes to ‘extract from Deleuze’s project an apparatus of social critique built on a utopian impulse.’[4] Accordingly, he defines Deleuzism as an approach that is both ‘critical and creative’.[5] In the case of Deleuzism in architecture, however, it is not possible to sustain an account of this as equally weighted toward the critical and the creative since the affirmation of creativity—particularly in terms of the production of ‘the new’ and an accommodation to the ‘progressive realities’ of capitalism—has been one of the central means through which this architectural tendency has opposed itself to criticality.

Though the disavowal of critique has, through its intersection with the ‘post-critical’, a specifically architectural inflection, it ought also to be understood within the wider historical conditions and broader ideological shifts of contemporary capitalism.  The very possibility of critique has, as a number of thinkers have remarked, been placed in question in the context of a capitalist system able to present itself as something like the final and indisputable form of the social to which there is, apparently, following the collapse of state socialism, and faced only with alternatives defined as archaic, fundamentalist, and undemocratic, no realistic alternative. To question through critique the existing order of things is thus typically characterised as ‘unrealistic’. Kant posited the Aufklarung as the ‘age of criticism, to which everything must be subjected’, including religion, government and ‘reason itself’, implicitly identifying critique with the progressive project of the Enlightenment.[6] Today, any contestation or critique of capital can, through the mobilisation of a well-established and predetermined series of rhetorical tropes, be made to appear as retrogressive, anti-social, criminal or infantile (we might well recall, as exemplary of such mobilisations, the media representations of the various occupations, student protests, and riots that have taken place in the UK since 2010).

Mark Fisher has termed this state of affairs, where the current regime of power is able to present itself as that to which there is no alternative, ‘capitalist realism’. [7] In doing so he has drawn upon earlier remarks by Fredric Jameson and especially Slavoj Žižek, such as the latter’s observation the The Spectre of Ideology that:

…nobody seriously considers possible alternatives to capitalism any longer,…it seems easier to imagine the ‘end of the world’ than a far more modest change in the mode of production, as if liberal capitalism is the ‘real’ that will somehow survive even under conditions of a global ecological catastrophe…[8]

In First as Tragedy, Then as Farce too Žižek addresses the hegemony of a ‘realistic pragmatism’, and its demands that ‘one should heroically resist dreams of perfection and happiness and accept bitter capitalist reality as the best  (or the least bad) of all possible worlds.’[9]

Patrik Schumacher, in his essay ‘Research Agenda: Spatialising the Complexities of Contemporary Business’ exemplifies the presence of capitalist realism in his argument that all forms of outright opposition to capital are now redundant and ineffective: ‘The recent anti-globalisation movement is a protest movement, i.e. defensive in orientation and without a coherent constructive outlook that could fill the ideological vacuum left behind since the disappearance of the project of international socialism.’[10] The only option now, he continues, is to be ‘constructive’, and ‘progressive’ by strategically aligning one’s practice with a corporate agenda.

There is of course a longer standing genealogy of such ‘realism’ and ‘pragmatism’ in architecture. First published in 1972, Learning from Las Vegas, a publication fundamental to the establishment of paradigms of realism and pragmatism in architecture, for instance, opens with the line ‘Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect.’[11]  Manfredo Tafuri’s Architecture and Utopia of 1976, though in disenchanted rather than progressive terms, similarly argues against the possibility of an architecture that could be revolutionary simply by tearing up the ground of existing social relations and building, in the most literal terms, a new world: ‘…it is useless’ he writes, ‘to propose purely architectural alternatives. The search for an alternative within the structures that condition the very character of architectural design is indeed an obvious contradiction of terms.’ [12] As Fredric Jameson was to suggest, addressing the perspectives produced by both Venturi and and Tafuri in his essay ‘Architecture and the Critique of Ideology’, they are each in some way marked by the same response to the real and near totalising conditions of late capitalism:

Is it possible that these two positions are in fact the same and that as different as they may at first seem, both rest on the conviction that nothing new can be done, no fundamental changes can be made, within the massive being of late capitalism?[13]

It is the ‘massive being’ and totalising condition of capitalism, then, that is understood as overdetermining the realism and pragmatism of architecture from the period of the late-twentieth century that emerges as the postmodern, understood both as a movement within architecture, and, as Jameson was to describe it, a more broadly encompassing ‘cultural logic’. It is also within this period, and for the same reasons, that the very possibility of critique becomes questionable. As Guy Debord, remarked of this situation, in an especially bleak passage from his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, in 1988:

Wherever the spectacle rules, the only organized forces are those that want the spectacle. No one can any longer be the enemy of what exists, nor transgress the omerta that concerns everything. We have finished with that disturbing conception, which was dominant for over two hundred years, according to which society was criticizable or transformable, reformed or revolutionized. And this has not been obtained by the appearance of new arguments, but quite simply because all argument has become useless. From this result we can measure not universal happiness, but the redoubtable strength of the networks of tyranny.[14]

Under these conditions it is critique itself that finds itself criticised, judged, as unreasonable. As Ian MacKenzie observes in The Idea of Pure Critique, whereas in the Enlightenment reason is a tool in the hands of critique against all indifference, against all unquestioning acceptance of the given, reasonableness works to reinscribe the boundaries of and prohibitions against such questioning:

With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that the reign of indifference has entered a new golden age precisely because it finds its strongest support yet in the current milieu of ‘reasonableness’: a milieu that furthers compromise rather than critique.[15]

This judgement of critique emerges too within architectural post-criticality. Jameson describes Tafuri’s response to the ‘massive being of late capitalism’ as one of ‘self-conscious stoicism’, and that of Venturi of being ‘relaxed’ with it.[16] More recent architectural discourse, however, rather than simply resigned to the apparent inefficacy of critique, has been vehemently opposed to its very existence. To cite an example, Zaera-Polo in an essay titled ‘A Scientific Autobiography’ published in the Harvard Design Magazine, describes his experience of the presence of critique and theory once prevalent in architectural education as ‘nagging’, fundamentalist’ and ‘politically correct’, and as an impediment to being ‘productive’ as an architect.[17] Beyond the pragmatic recognition that the powers of architecture might be limited by those of capital that was characteristic of postmodernism, the argument developed within post-criticality and architectural Deleuzism becomes one in which the power of architecture is understood to depend, in some way, on the elimination of critique.

It is in respect of the way that the thought of Deleuze and Guattari has been drafted in to underwrite the legitimacy of this position within contemporary architecture, and of the broader logic of capitalist realism, that I intend architectural Deleuzism as a critical concept and a means of determinate negation. Rather than affirm the creative application of Deleuze in architecture I want, against the grain of Buchanan’s coinage of ‘Deleuzism’, to offer a critique of this architecture. The principle object of this critique is not, to be clear, a judgement of the interpretation of Deleuze and Guattari, according to its accuracy or inaccuracy, produced by the architects addressed in my essay.  Rather my concern is to analyse their part in contributing, through their architecture, to the production of the tractable, precarious and opportunistic subjects of a society of control, and through their discourse, of affirming this as a progressive development.

[1]             Ian Buchanan, Deleuzism: A Metacommentary, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000

[2]             Ian Buchanan, ‘Desire and Ethics’, in Deleuze Studies, Dec 2011, Vol. 5, No. supplement, pp. 7-20

[3]             Ibid., p. 18

[4]             Buchanan, op. cit., (2000), p. 8

[5]             Buchanan, op. cit., (2011), p. 18

[6]            Kant, op. cit. (2004), p.ix

[7]             Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, Winchester, UK and Washington, US: Zero Books, 2009

[8]            Slavoj Žižek, ‘Introduction: The Spectre of Ideology’, in Mapping Ideology, edited by Slavoj Žižek, London: Verso, 1995, p.1

[9]            Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, London and New York: Verso, 2009, p.26

[10]            Patrik Schumacher, ‘Research Agenda: Spatialising the Complexities of Contemporary Business’, 2005(b), accessed 8 July, 2009, at <;

[11]             Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1972, p. 3

[12]             Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, translated by Barbara Luigi La Penta. Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 1976, p. 181

[13]             Fredric Jameson, ‘Architecture and the Critique of Ideology,’ in Architecture, Criticism, Ideology, ed. Joan Ockman et al. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1985 p. 87

[14]             Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, xiii, accessed 22 March, 2012, at <>

[15]            Iain MacKenzie, The Idea of Pure Critique, New York and London: Continuum, 2004, p. 17

[16]             Jameson, op. cit., (1985), p. 87

[17]            Alejandro Zaera-Polo, ‘A Scientific Autobiography: 1982-2004: Madrid, Harvard, OMA, the AA, Yokohama, the globe’ in Harvard Design Magazine, Fall 2004/Winter 2005, pp. 5-15


return to summarise these historical conditions

ZATO/Closed City #44: Novouralsk

Katya Larina presented a fascinating lecture for my AA Landscape Urbanism students, earlier this week, on the phenomena of the ZATO (zakrytye administrativno-territorial’nye obrazovaniya – closed administrative-territorial units) or ‘Closed Cities’ of the Soviet Union. A graduate of the Architectural Association’s Landscape Urbanism programme, and founder of UrbanLab.Spb, Katya outlined the history of this peculiar urban formation that still holds a population of 1.5 million people in dozens of once secret cities, known only by coded reference numbers and unmarked on any official map. Since the research and production facilities of these now stagnating or declining cities are still seen as significant to the economy and development of the Russian Federation, the means of their revitalisation are being explored. In this context Katya’s practice was invited, alongside teams of economists and futurologists to explore methods and proposals for re-catalysing the social life of the closed city of Novouralsk. Central to this project was the question of closed and open systems, and the future place, if any, of the wall that circumscribes the ZATO – as a both a physical and governmental/legislative threshold – through which these systems are articulated.

I hope to be working with Katya on the publication of this material, and the design projects resulting from her workshops, in the near future. For now, however, here are some images of Novouralsk from her presentation. Also, see her website for future updates:


The High Line

Some photos I took of, and from, the High Line in Manhattan January 21, 2012.

Landscape and Critical Agency Symposium

I am co-organising, with Murray Fraser, Tim Waterman and Ed Wall, and speaking at, a one-day symposium on ‘Landscape and Critical Agency’ at UCL on 17th February. Details of registration (attendance is free) and the blog for the symposium below.

REGISTRATION:  Attendance is free but spaces must be reserved in

advance at  (INCLUDES



My contribution is titled ‘Landscape, Agency, and Artifice’. Here’s the abstract for it:

The potential for critical agency within the design and transformation of large-scale territories is compromised by the very models it tends currently to employ within its own discourse and practice. From Ian McHarg’s ‘Ecological Determinism’, through Stan Allen’s ‘Field Conditions’ to Andrea Branzi’s ‘Weak Urbanism’, design theory has been extensively concerned with identifying models of natural, complex or ecological process to which design must accommodate itself. Concepts of emergence and self-organisation, ‘flat’ ontologies (Manuel DeLanda), and actor-network theories (Bruno Latour), for example, figure prominently in design as models to be affirmed and imitated.

Whilst the employment of these models has, at least apparently, been driven by the desire to render design adequate to the complexity and urgency of the contemporary conditions it faces, the effect, at times deliberate, has been to obscure questions of power, control and capital, and, as well, the conscious agency and responsibility of the designer. Through the discursive and aesthetic gloss of self-organisation and emergence, for example, ‘nature’, is pressed into service to naturalise new modes of governmentality, control, and management that are based on the interactions of swarm-modelled subjects. DeLanda and Latour, furthermore, have both situated their theories in explicit opposition to the need for, or even the possibility of, critique.

Rather than affirmation, in this case of a nature or ‘reality’ posited as already given and ideal, critical agency demands reflective thought and its capacity for refusal. As Adorno wrote in his Negative Dialectics, ‘Thought as such, before all particular contents, is an act of negation, of resistance to that which is forced upon it…’ One of the immediate concerns of a critically agentic approach to landscape would, then, be the critique of the models of nature, ecology and ontology that currently circumscribe its potentials. This is the concern with which this paper is principally engaged.

In the process of its elaboration, this critique will be inflected through a reading, against the grain, of McHarg’s essay ‘Ecological Determinism’ (1966), and its arguments that ‘ecology become the basis for modern interventions’ within environmental transformations, and that figures such as Capability Brown represented the first move in such a direction. Where, for McHarg, the ‘artifice’ practiced by Brown, and other eighteenth century English landscape architects, is only the meansthrough which an ideal of nature and ecology is, ‘realized’, artifice will be reread here as the very essence of landscape through which its mediation of the social, the natural and the ‘real’ can be critically conceived and, within contemporary conditions, practiced.

Designing and Planning in the End Times

This looks to be a lecture worth attending – Jon always has something interesting to say on the relations between design, ecology, cybernetics, etc.

Jon Goodbun – Designing and Planning in the End Times

Thu 13th October 2011, 6:30pm
University of Westminster, NW1 5LS, Map
Series: Technical Studies
Organised by: University of Westminster (SABE)
Further information.

Launching this years Technical Studies ‘Open’ lecture series, writer, architectural/urban/design practitioner and academic Dr Jon Goodbun will discuss ‘Designing and Planning in the End Times’ and the role of the designer during economic and environmental tumult.

Dr Goodbun’s research interests range across the multifarious intersections of process philosophy, radical cybernetics, urban political ecology, the natural and cognitive sciences, and ‘architecture’.

This Urban Tektologist is based in the School of Architecture and the Built Environment at the University of Westminster – where he teaches design, theory and ‘research’. He is also a diploma tutor at the Royal College of Art, and a regular visiting tutor/critic at other schools, including the AA, Greenwich, UCA Canterbury, Brighton and the Bartlett. He is engaged in all kinds of small practice and research-based projects, and is a partner of architecture and design practice WAG.

Dr Goodbun writes for various journals, magazines and blogs. He has recently completed his PhD and is working on a book ‘Critical and Maverick Systems Thinkers’, based upon a series of interviews with key thinkers such as F. David Peat, Robert Pepperell, Stuart Hameroff, Tony Brown, and Paulo Soleri.

For Lecture details
Will McLean / Pete Silver

Ticket Information:

Wheelchair access is available