Towards an Agonistic Architecture

With a vibrant and concerned manifesto, British critic and historian Kenneth Frampton presents an ethical wake-up call, not just for architects.

It is indeed unfortunate that human society should encounter such burning problems just when it has become materially impossible to make heard the least objection to the language of the commodity; just when power – quite rightly because it is shielded by the spectacle from any response to its piecemeal and delirious decisions and justifications – believes that it no longer needs to think; and indeed can no longer think.

Would not even the staunchest democrat prefer to have been given more intelligent masters? It is sometimes said that science today is subservient to the imperatives of profit, but that is nothing new. What is new is the way the economy has now come to declare open war on humanity, attacking not only our possibilities for living, but also our chances of survival. It is here that science – renouncing the opposition to slavery that formed a significant part of its own history – has chosen to put itself at the service of spectacular domination.

Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988) [1]


This article was published on Domus 972, September 2013.

1. The State of Things

Das Spiel ist aus (“The game is over”) [2] is the title of a poem by the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann, by which I believe she meant the project of the European Enlightenment, the vision of Schiller, Goethe, Hegel, Schinkel, Marx and Freud, in a word, Jürgen Habermas’s unfinished modern project, which, it now seems, will never be realised, not even partially; not because we lack the resources and the technique to do so, but because we are unable to muster the necessary political will to effect a decisive change, for we are totally deluded by the Society of Spectacle and thereby rendered impotent as a body politic, and by the repression of alternative modes of being, by which we  might still be able to save ourselves.

Le Corbusier’s elegiac vision of une ville radieuse of 1934, his erotic project of Baudelaire’s Luxe, calme et volupté, will never materialize, not because we lack the essential wherewithal, as the oil-rich, instant city of Dubai makes abundantly clear, but because the “species-being” has been unable (so far) to make the ethical and political leap necessary to engender a society capable of living within an ecological domain of homeostasis. Instead, we seem to be transfixed by the auto-destructive task of laying the world to waste and ourselves with it, as rapidly as possible. The hegemonic power of the “universal” West is such that there seems to be no other model than the profligate project of Americanising the entire world, the limitless consumerist dream by which all are equally mesmerised – the symbol and instrument of which is the automobile. It is this device surely that has proven to be the primary apocalyptical invention of the 20th century, with result that the world now consumes in a few weeks the amount of petroleum it used to burn in the course of a year in the middle of the last century.

This is the heart of the Pandora’s box from which much else, equally deleterious, patently stems, even if we hesitate to acknowledge the cumulative evidence. Thus one may readily claim that the mass ownership of the automobile is the one agency from which much else follows: the advent of global warming; the melting of the ice cap; the phenomenon of extreme weather; the elevation of the sea (now projected as becoming as much as one metre by the end of the century); the pollution of the oceans and the destruction of the rainforests in our reckless pursuit of oil reserves; the suburbanisation of the planet, surely to be followed by its eventual abandonment and desertification; the insupportable air pollution of our megalopolitan centres; the subtle corruption of democratic processes in terms of both governance and the prosecution of justice – these aporias occurring equally at both an international and national level. Much of this is surely due to the overwhelming power of global mega-corporations, accompanying worldwide electronic surveillance and concomitant restraint on the exercise of investigative journalism. Needless to say, I have in mind the global oil, chemical and pharmaceutical corporations, the industrialisation of agriculture [3], the genetic modification of food [4] and the maximisation of the supermarket system – the latter effectively inducing the demise of main street and with it the provincial city as a still remaining potential for local culture and direct democracy. In short, the globalised maximisation of profit as an end in itself, at no matter what cost to biodiversity [5], or even to the survival of Homo sapiens, the extinction of which is now, for the first time, distinctly foreseeable. Perhaps no one has written more succinctly about our current paradoxical state of hyperactive paralysis than Jean Baudrillard, who, at a symposium entitled “Looking Back on the End of the World,” staged at Columbia University, New York in 1986, remarked:


 We are no longer in a state of growth; we are in a state of excess. We are living in a society of excrescence, meaning that which incessantly develops without being measurable against its own objectives. The boil is growing out of control, recklessly at cross purposes with itself, its impacts multiplying as the causes disintegrate. [] This satiation has nothing to do with the excess of which Bataille spoke, which all societies have managed to produce and destroy in useless and wasteful exhaustion. [] We no longer know how we can possibly use up all these accumulated things; we no longer even know what they are for. Every factor of acceleration and concentration brings us closer to the point of inertia. [6]


 Two current news items merit our attention in this regard. The first of these is the decision taken by the Chinese technocratic elite to forcibly move, over the next decade, 250 million rural people from the agrarian hinterland into dense, high-rise urban fabric. This ironic reversal of the precepts of the Communist Manifesto of 1848 has the ostensible purpose of creating a consumerist base upon which to expand an internal Chinese economy comparable to the current production/consumption cycle obtained in the US. The second item concerns the equally draconian decision by the Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa, to abandon, for lack of international commitment, his attempt, via a UN-backed trust fund, to raise 3.6 billion dollars, in order to preserve 4000 square miles of virgin rain forest from the ravages of oil drilling. These seemingly unrelated incidents are symbiotically linked by a recent commitment on the part of the Chinese Republic to consume some 40,000 barrels a day of Ecuadorian oil. [7]


2. What are Architects for in a Destitute Time?

This paraphrase of Hölderlin’s question can be applied to contemporary architecture, since the bulk of contemporary practice is global rather than local, with star architects travelling incessantly all over the world in pursuit of the equally dynamic flow of capital. Herein we are witness the vox populi’s susceptibility to the mediagenic impact of spectacular form which is as much due to the capacity of “superstar architects” to come up with sensational, novel images as to their organisational competence and technical ability. Hence, the advent of the so-called Bilbao effect, where cities and institutions compete with each other in order to sponsor a building designed by a recognisable brand name. In recent years this has been nowhere more evident than in Beijing, where diverse architecture stars rival each other to design one spectacular building after another. Hence Herzog & de Meuron's sensational National Olympic Stadium of 2008, which was followed by Rem Koolhaas’s equally sensational 230-metre-high CCTV tower of virtually the same date. We are informed that the latter is destined to programme some 250 “spectacular” TV channels a day to an audience of one billion people. Given the sensational aestheticism sought in both these works, it is surely no accident that they would each make a totally irrational and structurally uneconomic use of steel.

Koolhaas’s “catatonic” atypical skyscraper is symptomatic of a world in which cities rival each other for the dubious honour of sponsoring the highest building in the world, the title being held, as of now, by Dubai which, while barely a city at all, has nonetheless to its renown the 160-storey Burj Tower. In this vein the Manhattanisation of the world proceeds without redress, in which each successive high-rise (no matter where) is little more than another free-standing, abstract cipher testifying to the presence of global speculation. As Tadao Ando put it some time ago: “I think over a certain height, architecture is no longer possible.”

In the meantime, any kind of ecologically coherent, rational pattern of land settlement continues to elude us, despite all the efforts made in the 1960s and ’70s [8]  to arrive at low-to-medium-rise densities as alternatives with which to resist the unending expansion of commodified urban sprawl, which is still being sustained by subsidised motorways serving such low densities as to make any kind of public transit economically unfeasible.

Here and there, there are exceptions to this pattern: the designated bus lanes of Curitiba, Brazil; the high-speed trains of Japan and the European continent; and the technological lyricism of the Zurich tram system. But in the main, the automobile prevails. Moreover, after the spectacular travesties of Milton Keynes and Marne-la-Vallée – the non-place urban realm par excellence – in both instance, we have virtually abandoned the idea of projecting new cities. As Mies van der Rohe put it in the early 1950s: “There are no cities, in fact, anymore. It goes on like a forest. That is the reason why we cannot have old cities anymore; that is gone forever, planned city and so on. We should think about the means we have for living in the jungle and maybe do well by that.” Such resignation would not be shared by the distinguished Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza, who remarked to me some 20 years ago: “Yes, I have many projects, but I am not happy. How can one be happy when Europe has no project?”

In 1983, following Alex Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre’s essay The Grid and the Pathway (1981), which was inspired by Paul Ricœur’s post-colonial thesis distinguishing between Universal Civilization and National Cultures [9],  I elaborated the Tzonis/Lefaivre concept of Critical Regionalism in my Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance. This text appeared in Hal Foster’s anthology of essays on postmodern culture, published under the title The Anti-Aesthetic [10]. Eight years later Fredric Jameson, in a brilliantly critical overview of various postmodern architectural stratagems entitled The Seeds of Time, put paid to any illusions that we might still entertain as to the geopolitical possibility of a regionally resistant culture, despite the fact that it was precisely this mythical promise that exercised an influence on many peripheral architects. In his comprehensive critique of my naïve proposition of 30 years ago, he wrote:


Frampton’s conceptual proposal, however, is not an internal but rather a geopolitical one: it seeks to mobilize a pluralism of ‘regional’ styles (a term selected, no doubt, in order to forestall the unwanted connotations of the terms national and international alike) with a view towards resisting the standardizations of a henceforth global late capitalism and corporatism, whose ‘vernacular’ is as omnipresent as its power over local decisions (and indeed after the end of the Cold War, over local governments and individual nation states as well).

It is thus politically important, returning to the problem of parts or components, to emphasize the degree to which the concept of Critical Regionalism is necessarily allegorical. The individual building here belongs no longer to a unique vision of city planning (such as the Baroque) nor a specific city fabric (like Las Vegas) but rather to a distinctive regional culture as a whole, for which the distinctive individual building becomes a metonym. [11]


Despite Jameson’s sensitive appraisal of my interpretation of the Critical Regionalist thesis, he nonetheless arrives at the precipitous Marxist conclusion that any vestige of regional otherness and identity has preciously little capacity to resist the subtle spectacular domination of corporate power. However, the fact remains that regional differences continue to be cultivated, above all, at the level of regional cuisine and viticulture, even though such cultural differences have always remained open to subtle forms of hybridisation throughout history. Even if we have no choice but to forego any naïve assumptions as to local sovereignty, regionally counter-hegemonic tectonic form surely still retains at the grass roots level the capacity to resist the variously reductive forms of stylistic postmodernism with which the hegemonic power of the centre prefers to surround itself. [12]

Thus, for me, a liberative promise for the future resides in an agonistic architecture of the periphery as opposed to the subtle nonjudgmental conformism of ruling taste emanating from the centre. I attempted to suggest exactly this in my marginal participation in last year’s Venice Biennale. My anthology Five North American Architects, displayed in the Arsenale, asserted the presence in North America of a counter-hegemonic “otherness” cultivated mainly on the periphery of a vast continent, as opposed to the pluralistic, aesthetically reductive false differences patronised in subtle ways by hegemonic power. [13]

One of the most surprising and gratifying aspects of contemporary practice over the past two decades has been the way in which accomplished architects from the so-called “first world” have found themselves building from time to time in the equally eponymous “third world”. This, in itself, may not be that unusual, but what has been unique of recent times is the exceptionally refined sensibility and rigour that has invariably been applied to the regional and, at times, aboriginal situation, so that one has the uncanny sense that the outcome could not have been more practically and poetically achieved if it had been handled by locally rooted architects rather than outsiders. One of the first instances of a work of this order is John and Patricia Patkau’s Seabird Island School, built for a Northwest-Pacific Indian band in Agassiz, British Columbia over the years 1988-91.

A number of things are notable about this work. First, it was commissioned by an exceptionally enlightened civil servant from the Canadian Ministry of Education; second, the architects realised that for the band to be able to construct this school by themselves, a model would have to be prepared since it was evident that they were not able to read drawings, particularly for a work of such extreme geometrical complexity. Finally, there are striking topographic and cultural aspects to this work: above all, the humpback form of its shingled roof, which echoes the profile of a nearby mountain, and the canted outriggered timber spans of its portico, which overhang the southern front of the school. The latter makes a subtle reference to the fish-drying racks that used to feature prominently in front of the Indian houses in wood that line the coastline.

A comparable, reciprocal work for a prominent member of an aboriginal Australian tribe was built in Yirrkala in Northern Territory of Australia in 1994 to the designs of Glenn Murcutt. I have in mind the Marika-Alderton House, built for Banduk Marika who was then a tribal representative in the Australian parliament in Canberra. This two-storey, virtually all-timber house stands elevated one metre off the ground in order to avoid flooding and provide a clear view of the horizon – a traditional defensive feature of importance in the native culture. Situated 12 ½ degrees south of the equator, where humidity reaches 80 per cent, the house had to be capable of being completely opened up so as to facilitate cross ventilation. This is the primary reason behind the storey-height, hinged timber shutters which, when raised, also provide sun shields for the veranda of the house. Since the house is located on sand dunes close to the ocean, it is provided with a slatted timber floor to allow sand to fall through.

The main volume of the house was made equally permeable by virtue of pivoting metal roof vents, oriented by weather vanes, so as to align their vents with the prevailing airflow. These devices were installed so as to equalise the pressure within and without whenever the house is subject to winds of cyclone force, which raises the risk that internal pressure will blow the house apart. As in the case of Seabird Island School, this house makes an allusion to the native domestic tradition without the slightest attempt to replicate it. With its metal standing-seam roof, metal roof vents and metal structural frame and tubular uprights to stiffen the timber frame and its cladding, it is an unequivocal translation of the traditional hut into modern form.

In this regard, one should note that the building was prefabricated in Sydney, and trucked overland to its site in the north. In effect this building established a totally new standard for Australian aboriginal housing in the region. Prior to this, the native populations of the area had been settled by the government bureaucracy in inadequately ventilated concrete blockhouses. Another remarkable contribution to aboriginal culture in the post-colonial era was made in the mid-’80s by the remarkable Finnish figure of Eila Kivekäs who became involved with the Finnish reception of the Guinea intellectual Alpha Diallo, who rather remarkably had elected to translate the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala, into Fula, his native language.

After Diallo unexpectedly died in Finland, Kivekäs arranged for the return of his remains to Guinea and soon after went to Guinea herself to establish a local craft centre which had the aim of improving the status of women in the country, along with the overall health of the society. To this end, Kivekäs founded the Development Association Indigo in Mali, a small town of 1000 people in Guinea, the name of the institution being derived from the traditional indigo-blue cloth produced by women in the region. Eventually Kivekäs would commission the Finnish architects Heikkinen-Komonen to build three works for her in Guinea; her own house in Mali (1989), the Poultry Farming School in Kindia (1990) and a local health centre nearby. One should note that the school came into being largely because of Diallo’s conviction that the most important priority for the future well-being of Guinea society was to increase the amount of protein in the daily diet. In all three buildings Heikkinen-Komonen used inexpensive materials, which were readily available, such as bamboo screens, concrete blocks, large bricks made of stabilised earth and roof tiles made of cement, reinforced by glass fibre.

From the point of view of the poetics of light and the regional aura, the single-storey Villa Eila in Mali is perhaps the most “aboriginal” building of the three. Here a continuous monopitch tiled roof and a long woven bamboo screen wall covering the southern face serve to enclose four volumes under a single roof. By contrast, the Poultry Farming School is almost classical in its minimalist composition, assembled about a square courtyard. This square is enclosed by two single-storey volumes situated to the south and the northwest corner of the court.

The buildings are made out of blocks. The first is the permanent dwelling for the instructor/caretaker, while the second consists of three separate, four-person dormitories  for students. The dominant element situated on axis to the east of the square is the double-height lecture hall with its monumental timber portico. The latter is a tectonic tour de force in lightweight timber construction built out of transverse beams, elegantly and economically stiffened by wire cables. Finland was also involved in the realisation of a women’s centre in Senegal in 1995, located just outside the city of Rufisque. This single-storey building, made out of concrete blocks dyed bright red, consists of a simple U-shaped enclosure. It is fitting that this women’s centre was designed by three young Finnish women, trained as architects in Helsinki, namely Saija Hollmén, Jenni Reuter and Helena Sandman. Here the powerfully expressive image stems from the theatrical form of the protective enclosure, from the red colour and the subtle perforations here and there in the perimeter’s block work.

I would like to include in this essay on the potential scope of agonistic architecture a comment on the extraordinary work of Studio Mumbai in Bombay, founded in 1995, under the direction of the architect Bijoy Jain. Studio Mumbai seems to be on a Kropotkinian approach to building culture, harking back to the workshops of William Morris and even further back in time to the carpenter as the first architect. In many respects, Jain, although trained as an architect, has become a kind of latter-day master-builder whereby he serves as a coordinator of carpenters. Through a kind of transgressive creativity, Studio Mumbai has demonstrated its mastery not only over carpentry and joinery but also over ceramics, coloured plasterwork, masonry and milled stonework.

All the same, one has to acknowledge that the beautiful houses that Studio Mumbai has built in the state of Maharashtra are, in the last analysis, rather expensive, bourgeois residences that could hardly be more removed from the more modest works I have touched on here. Nevertheless this is still a kind of reciprocal, “other” architecture, wherein, by definition, Jain has chosen to distance himself from the brand architecture of our society in all its aesthetic guises.

By the term “agonistic” I wish to evoke the idea of an architecture which continues to place emphasis on the particular brief and on the specific nature of the topography and climate in which it is situated, while still giving high priority to the expressivity and the physical attributes of the material out of which the work is made. I have taken the term itself from the political theory of Chantal Mouffe, recently published under the title Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically (2013). While architecture, obviously, cannot act politically, by appropriating the term I wish to evoke a pluralist architecture that is categorically opposed to the stylistic, hegemonic spectacularity of the neo-liberal worldview, that is to say the falsely sensational and superficial aestheticism of our time. In my view, it is precisely this ever-changing fashionable emphasis on the decorative or minimalist envelope that has effectively robbed architecture of one of its most fundamental attributes, namely, the time-honoured mandate to organise and orchestrate the space of public appearance in a culturally significant manner. Mouffe’s agonistic political theory also mentions a reappraisal of the region as a counter-hegemonic entity capable of countering to an equal degree both the faltering nation state and the overarching force of an indifferent globalised economy. [14]



Guy Debord, Comments on the Society of the Spectacle, Verso, New York 1998, p. 39.
Cited by Anselm Kiefer in his speech on the occasion of receiving German Book Trade Peace Prize in Frankfurt, 2008.
See Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, Aron, New York 1978, pp. 39-95.
The corporate tyranny of genetically modified seed as evident in the ongoing struggle between the Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva and Monsanto chemical to preserve the rights of Indian farmers to keep their seed for re-sowing.
It is estimated that some 30,000 animals and plants are becoming extinct every year. Among the threatened species are pollinating honey bees. It is obvious that their extinction would have disastrous consequences.
See Looking Back on the End of the World, edited by Dietmar Kamper and Christoph Wolf, Semiotext(e), Columbia University, New York 1989, p. 29.
Clifford Krauss, Plan to Ban Oil Drilling in the Amazon is Dropped, in The New York Times, August 17, 2013, pp. B1 and B3.
See Roland Rainer, Livable Environments, Verlag für Architektur Artemis, Zurich 1972; also Serge Chermayeff and Christopher Alexander, Community and Privacy: Toward a New Architecture of Humanism, Anchor Books, New York 1965.
See Paul Ricœur, Universal Civilization and National Cultures, in History and Truth, Northwestern University Press, Evanston1965.
See Kenneth Frampton, Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance, in The Anti-Aesthetic, edited by Hal Foster, Bay Press, Seattle 1983. 
See Fredric Jameson, The Seed of Time, Columbia University Press, New York 1994, pp. 202-203.
See Kenneth Frampton, Rappel à L’Ordre, the Case for the Tectonic, in Architectural Design, 50, no. 3/4, 1991.
See Kenneth Frampton, Five North American Architects, Lars Müller Publishers and Columbia University, New York and Zurich 2012.
See Chantal Mouffe. Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically, Verso, London 2013, p. 57. As she put it after Massimo Cacciari, “The modern state is torn from the inside under the pressure of regionalist movements, and from the outside as a consequence of the growth of supranational powers and institutions and of the increasing power of world finance and transnational corporations.

Kenneth Frampton (Woking, UK, 1930) is a critic, historian  and theorician of architecture. He is Ware Professor of Architecture at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, New York.

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