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Architecture Without Architects—Another Anarchist Approach


The title of this text is a hybrid of two existing titles. “Architecture without Architects” was the name of an influential exhibition by the architect Bernard Rudofsky at the MoMA in 1964; “Housing: An Anarchist Approach” was the name of a famous book by the English architect and anarchist Colin Ward in which the author proclaims the rights and productivity of self-built housing and squatting in postwar Europe. Whereas the latter’s collection of essays discussed specific cases of European and Latin American squatter movements from the 1940s to the 1970s, Rudofsky’s exhibition presented photographs of local vernacular architecture from all over the world, with the claim that architects should learn from premodern architectural forms. Both of these perspectives identify a condition that emerged during decolonization, in which a massive crack appeared in the modernist movement and its vision of top-down planning. But they were also two very different interpretations of the simple fact that, throughout the ages and around the world, architecture has been produced without the intervention of planners or architects. Whereas Rudofsky’s approach suggested an aesthetical and methodological shift, Colin Ward’s was a political reading of spatial self-expressions that might offer new methodologies and an alternative understanding of society. In my article, after more than thirty years of debates about High Modernism, I will try to bring into play a third way of thinking that attempts to connect the question of design with that of the political, from the perspective of a globalized world. These ideas have been informed by many conversations, much research, and invitations to Egypt, Morocco, and Israel. I would like to thank everyone who was involved in these discussions: Nezar AlSayyad, Kader Attia, Tom Avermaete, Dana Diminescu, Noam Dvir, Zvi Efrat, Sherif El-Azma, Monique Eleb, Jesko Fezer, Tom Holert, Shahira Issa, Serhat Karakayali, Abderrahim Kassou, Brian Kuan Wood, Andreas Müller, Omar Nagati, Françoise Navez Bouchanine, Horia Serhane, Katja Reichard, Peter Spillmann, and Daniel Weiss.

“Travelling between any two cities in the world, passing through airports along ring roads and into business districts or tourist hotels, seems, at least in part, always to be a return home. In the main this is because modern architecture is a global phenomenon and what contains and helps to define or frame our experiences are usually buildings of familiar appearance,” says the English art historian Mark Crinson in the introduction to his book Modern Architecture and the End of Empire. He argues here that this global similarity and formal analogy concerns more than just modern architecture: “More specifically it is modernist architecture: that embrace of technology, that imagined escape from history, that desire for transparency and health, that litany of abstract forms . . .” For Crinson, this universal formal language, with its norms and forms, has created the global language and appearance sufficient to suggest a common trajectory shared by globalized cities today.

At first glance, modernist architecture and urban planning appear to have little in common with New Urbanism’s gated communities and upper-class boulevards, built far away from the Global City center and the informal settlements growing up on its outskirts. The differences become even more obvious as we learn that modernist discourse on urban planning was not meant to serve only the new urban elites; on the contrary, modernist architecture and urban utopias were designed to be the ultimate urban fabric, creating and realizing entirely new societies and modern citizens. The function of modernist architecture as both symbol and organizational model for the “new modern man” in Europe and America, as well as in the colonies, must be highlighted here. Housing and urban planning projects symbolized a new society, representing a modern, industrialized way of living, working, and consuming. Moreover, urban planning as such was an invention of Euro-American modernity, having emerged towards the end of the eighteenth century, in times of aggressive colonial expansion and the advancement of a new world order. The spirit of social reform, based on new forms of industrial manufacturing and consumption, was translated into the first master plans for housing developments, and these concepts for urban planning became schema that were used strategically for very different social groups, having in common only their use as a tool for governing life and the living being. As spatial organization and urban planning served to strategically control and mobilize a population, and appropriate its territory, so did it also claim to shelter this same population.

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