Book Review: “Bio-Politics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture” by Sven-Olov Wallenstein

My review appeared on 5 August 2009 in Building Design

Biopolitics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture, by Sven-Olov Wallenstein

The relationship between philosophy and architecture is tenuous. Both architecture and philosophy are expressions of thought, either explicit or subliminal. Architecture in particular, being a collective rather than an individual endeavour, can be seen as a carrier of values and aspirations more widely held within society. In addition, the building of an argument within philosophy has often been compared to the erection of an edifice.

For me, as an architect and not a philosopher, the relationship between the two gets strained when architects try to express the latest developments within philosophy in their buildings, or when philosophers draw evidence for their theories from buildings. This book tries to do just that. It takes Foucault’s concept of biopolitics and attempts to show how it finds expression in architecture, or how this concept is “materialised and spatialised in urban and architectonic forms”.

The essay starts, as is to be expected, with an explanation of the terms used, the key terms being subjectification and power, and the relationship between the two. In my understanding biopolitics covers the processes of subjugation and subjectification, or the totality of ways in which modern individuals are formed. This is to say that there is both an external force as well as an internal force shaping the identity of the self. Modern society, and with it the dissolution of absolutist power in favour of more subtle ways of exerting control over its “subjects”, is therefore both limiting and liberating at the same time.

The body of the essay, and for me the most interesting part, is devoted to tracing how, since the French Revolution, these liberating processes of individualisation have not only eroded the relationship with the sovereign power, and led to secularisation and the development of the sciences, but have also meant a complete shake down of the classical architectural paradigm.

Not surprisingly, in the context of Foucault, the development of hospitals over the same period is then investigated as a model for how the process of subjectification is played out in the urban space at large.

As a hospital is a highly controlled environment it does seem to be an excellent Petri dish to study these processes, but caution should be applied here. Firstly, the hospital example is an isolated case, and an atypical one at that. Secondly, the reading of actual urban environments is a much more complicated case. After all, urban sediment is accrued over time, thus often dodging control and planning.

To see the hospital as a diagram of power relations is one thing, but how is this useful? How, in other words, do these conclusions translate to the design of the environments in which we actually live most of our lives? It is telling, in this sense, that “Foucault never addressed himself to contemporary developments in any detail”. Wallenstein’s argument deserves to be expanded to prove its real validity.


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About thomaswensing

Architect and Activist. Over the years I have become increasingly aware that I need to actively engage with the issues I care about. My passions and irritations are many and change often, but a red thread is always a deep concern over the fact that capitalism does not work as it is claimed it does, democracies only serve the needs of the few and environmental resource depletion and pressures continue to mount. I think it is time for citizen's activism to create pressure, to bang on the doors of established powers and interests until we get it right. As you will notice, if you continue to follow my blog over time, there are certain fetishes I have; modernism, social housing, the avant-garde. I propose to recuperate the Modern Project from the dustbin of history and re-establish the link between social engagement and architecture. Watch it all come down needs to be followed by let the good stuff blossom!

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