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Intangible and Concrete: Notes on Architecture and Abstraction

How to reproduce reality within thinking? How to build a set of categories that allow one to comprehend and represent complex social conditions? These were the questions that Marx asked himself when facing the task of describing the reality of capitalistic modes of production. He noted that when abstract things such as money rule the world and define all social relationships, it is hard to separate the abstract from the real, the tangible from the intangible, the concrete from the conceptual. In a different manner, this is also true for architecture and the urban world. The most obvious manifestation of the architecture of the city is solid things, but their coming into being and their functioning is largely dependent on a multitude of abstractions such as design methods, representational conventions (plans and sections, for example), proportions, functions, building codes, measurements, and financial parameters. In confronting this reality, it makes almost no sense to try to discern and separate the “concrete” from the “abstract,” since within capitalism the two are so profoundly intertwined that we can speak of a unique condition in which abstraction is concrete and the concrete—even the most physically tangible object—is always an instance of the abstract. Take for example one of the most famous images of modern architecture: Le Corbusier’s drawing of the structural skeleton of Maison Dom-ino, a prototype for mass housing where structure was reduced to horizontal slabs and thin columns. In this depiction of a house structure we see two apparently opposing conditions for architecture that, in Adolf Max Vogt’s words, are the perfectly pure and the raw real. While the perfectly pure is the structure’s bareness, the raw real is its construction system, where Le Corbusier adapts the technology of industrial architecture to the architecture of the house. Within this example we see how abstraction in architecture is inextricably linked to industrial production processes. Here abstraction manifests itself both as a process and as a form that makes explicit the conditions of its (industrial) production. “To abstract” comes from the Latin verb trahere, which means to pull something essential out from the totality of which it is a part. Abstraction is a process through which man seeks to reach generic frameworks rather than specific solutions. It is precisely for this reason that abstraction is both artificial and deeply human, since the capacity to abstract, i.e., to produce ideas and concepts out of a multitude of empirical facts, is what distinguishes the human from other animal species.

In what follows I would like to define the relationship between abstraction and architecture, avoiding the trap of identifying abstraction as a style. In order to do so, I’ll first define abstraction as a concept and condition that is at the core of capitalist society. Then I will show how fundamental paradigms of architectural culture—such as the rise of design as a practice distinct from building, the invention of perspective, and the discourse on urbanization—can be seen as the embodiment of the impact of abstraction on the world. Only by understanding the historical premises of the rise of abstraction as the prevalent form of experience in capitalist civilization and its impact on architectural and urban form will it be possible to construct an idea of architecture that is both adequate to and critical of abstraction as the historical condition in which we dwell.

Coming to terms with abstraction was one of the most methodologically pressing issues for Marx. Following Hegel, he was convinced that the correct methodology for grasping concrete reality was to go from the abstract to the concrete. For Marx, reality could only be recomposed within thought by taking seriously the most general and simple abstractions as the real embodiments of the concrete. Abstractions are thus for Marx not an a priori category but the end result of analyzing the concrete, even though they are the starting point for any attempt to give a precise representation of the world. As such, abstractions dissolve the traditional antinomy between the concrete and the abstract, the tangible and the intangible, since abstractions are concrete. For Marx, an example of concrete abstraction is the notion of labor not as a specific activity, but as labor in general. Marx noted that Adam Smith was able to discover labor as a general abstract category as wealth-creating activity because with the advent of industrialization, labor was reduced to its bare features, stripped of the individuality of the worker. Unlike the physiocratic economists who identified labor with agricultural labor, for Smith labor as such was not reducible to any activity such as manufacture, agriculture, or commerce. However, while Smith hypostatized the category of labor as such, i.e., as a timeless category that would have been applicable throughout the entire course of history, Marx understood that labor as a general category could only exist as the result of the historical development of capitalism. As Marx wrote: “As a rule, the most general abstractions arise only in the midst of the richest possible concrete development, where one thing appears as common to many, to all.” In an advanced capitalist society, reasoning—that is, the recomposition of a multiplicity of things and events within a coherent “scientific” system of thought—is not a simple depiction of reality, but what makes reality work. What is interesting to note is that Marx saw abstraction not only as a methodological category but also as form of life under capitalism. Marx arrived at the conclusion that in the most advanced industrial societies—such as the United States in Marx’s time—abstraction had become an ethos. As he wrote in a crucial passage of the introduction to the Grundrisse:

On the other side, this abstraction of labour as such is not merely the mental product of a concrete totality of labours. Indifference towards specific labours corresponds to a form of society in which individuals can with ease transfer from one labour to another, and where the specific kind is a matter of chance for them, hence of indifference. Not only the category, labour, but labour in reality has here become the means of creating wealth in general, and has ceased to be organically linked with particular individuals in any specific form. Such a state of affairs is at its most developed in the most modern form of existence of bourgeois society—in the United States. Here, then, for the first time, the point of departure of modern economics, namely the abstraction of the category “labour,” “labour as such,” labour pure and simple, becomes true in practice.

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