# FOUCAULT /// Episode 1: Michel Foucault's Architectural Underestimation

Today, I would like to start a series that will attempt to do for Michel Foucault what I managed to do with Gilles Deleuze in June 2011: an entire week dedicated to the philosopher with one article a day. For this occasion, I would like to open a new category in the blog’s archives, listing the articles dedicated to Foucault. In fact, this kind of series is as much an opportunity to think about such a rich work like Foucault’s, as to construct an archive of a thinker who strongly influences the way the problems questioned on this blog are being interrogated and though about.

In order to remain awake and critical of a work, which itself was advocating for a continuous criticality towards mechanisms of power whichever they were, I would like to start this week with a piece of text in which I believe that Foucault underestimated the (oppressive) power of architecture.
This text (see below) is extracted from an interview he did with Paul Rabinow in 1982 and that is often used by architects as an alternative to the recurrent and often misunderstood interpretation of the panopticon (that we will probably not discuss about this week). Architecture is specifically named and addressed in it and therefore constitutes an easy entrance door to Foucault’s work for architects. In this regard, in addition of being published in The Foucault Reader edited by Paul Rabinow himself (Penguin, 1991), one can also find it in the very useful Architecture Theory since 1968 edited by K. Michael Hays and published by the MIT Press (2000).

In this interview, Paul Rabinow asks Michel Foucault about his knowledge of an architecture that would have successfully liberate its users from the cogs of application of a dominant power. Not surprisingly Foucault answers that liberty is not an object and does not exist absolutely. “Liberty is a practice”, and because of that, it is impossible to think by definition of technology -Foucault says, a machine- like architecture that would fundamentally liberates a given subject. When he gives this interview in the beginning of the 1980’s, it is indeed easy to look back at the modernist failure -they evoke Le Corbusier- in its attempt to heal individuals and society thanks to architecture.

However, Foucault considers the same axiom -“Liberty is a practice”- to conclude that architecture cannot be fundamentally oppressive either. It is interesting to wonder if one can simultaneously affirms that liberty is a practice and that its contrary (restraint,alienation…) is not a practice. I don’t have any definite answer to this question but I cannot help to notice how much Foucault, who has been so amazingly fastidious to analyze and describe the institutional mechanisms of power, seem to have found no interest in the spatialization of these same mechanisms. The Panopticon, which has been referenced so many times, is not considered by him so much as an architecture of domination but rather as a two dimensional scheme that can serve as a paradigm to the disciplinary society. The hospital, the prison, the school which have recurrently appear in his work in order to historicize society’s structure of control are not considered as Foucault as architectures either, but rather as institutions. At the end of the excerpt, he affirms:

After all, the architect has no power over me. If I want to tear down or change a house he built for me, put up new partitions, add a chimney, the architect has no control.

It is rare to read Foucault being so  “off guard” when he articulates a piece of discourse. Many things are not considered in these two sentences. First of all, he talks about the house that the architect “builds” for him. Once again it is surprising to see Foucault betraying a bourgeois slip-up, forgetting that the very vast majority of people do not get to have an architect building a house for them or being empowered to, indeed, change the house according to their desire. He also forgets that an important part of the architecture that we are confronted to are not our home and we are often powerless to act upon it. More importantly, it omits the fact that the act of tearing down a wall requires, in addition of the power to do so,  an access to technology which is not always granted to the person subjected to architecture. That is the very principle of prison: a prisoner is somebody who is absolutely subjected by the architecture which surrounds his (her) body and who does not have an access to enough energy (from his body or tools) in order to transform the walls’ structure from an impenetrable formation to a porous formation (a hole in the wall for example).

We might agree that “the architect has no control,”  because his role would not actually change if this same prisoner manages, somehow, to have an access to a shovel and starts to dig his way out of the prison. It would be however inaccurate to affirm that design or space are irrelevant when it comes to control. To reconcile these two last propositions, we might want to say that architecture -and not architects- triggers proportionally more control as the amount of energy that is required to change its formation is greater. A simple example makes us look to an architectural element like the door as a device whose function is precisely to allow a small amount of energy to transform architecture’s formation from the impenetrable state (door closed) to the porous state (door open).

Foucault refuses to compare the architect to the doctor, the priest, the psychiatrist, or the prison warden  as professions through which power is applied because this power can only be applied via practices regardless of its physical environment. It would be just as much egocentric for architects to see themselves as the savior of society (like in the modern movement to some extents) than to think that they are the powerful manipulators of this same society. Architects are often involved in a very limited aspect of architecture, and that is architecture itself that triggers control of society. As architects, we must therefore try to use our limited power to restraint as much as possible its oppressive characteristics. From what I wrote above (architecture triggers proportionally more control as the amount of energy that is required to change its formation is greater), we might want to argue for a more fragile or weak architecture, one that precisely does not requires much energy to be acted upon.

Space, Power, and Knowledge (excerpt)
by Michel Foucault. An interview with Paul Rabinow, Skyline, March 1982, trans. Christian Hubert

Paul Rabinow: Do you see any particular architectural projects, either in the past or the present, as forces of liberation or resistance?

Michel Foucault:  I do not think that it is possible to say that one thing is of · the order of “liberation” and another is of the order of oppression. There are a certain number of things that one can say with some certainty about a concentration camp to the effect that it is not an instrument of liberation, but one should still take into account-and this is not generally acknowledged that, aside from torture and execution, which preclude any resistance, no matter how terrifying a given system may be, there always remain the possibilities of resistance, disobedience, and oppositional groupings. On the other hand, I do not think that there is anything that is functionally-by its very nature-absolutely liberating.

Liberty is a practice. So there may, in fact, always be a certain number of projects whose aim is to modify some constraints, to loosen, or even to break them, but none of these projects can, simply by its nature, assure that people will have liberty automatically, that it will be established by the project itself. The liberty of men is never assured by the institutions and laws that are intended to guarantee them. This is why almost all of these laws and institutions are quite capable of being turned around. Not because they are ambiguous, but simply because “liberty” is what must be exercised.

Paul Rabinow: Are there urban examples of this? Or examples where architects succeeded?

Michel Foucault:  Well, up to a point there is Le Corbusier, who is described today-with a sort of cruelty that I find perfectly useless-as a sort of crypto-Stalinist. He was, I am sure, someone full of good intentions – and what he did was in fact dedicated to liberating effects. Perhaps the means that he proposed were in the end less liberating than he thought, but, once again, I think that it can never be inherent in the structure of things to guarantee the exercise of freedom. The guarantee of freedom is freedom.

Paul Rabinow: So you do not think of Le Corbusier as an example of success . You are simply saying that his intention was liberating. Can you give us a successful example?

 Michel Foucault:  No. It cannot succeed. If one were to find a place, and perhaps there are some, where liberty is effectively exercised, one would find that this is not owing to the order of objects, but, once again, owing to the practice of liberty. Which is not to say that, after all, one may as well leave people in slums, thinking that they can simply exercise their rights there.

Paul Rabinow: Meaning that architecture in itself cannot resolve social problems?

 Michel Foucault:  I think that it can and does produce positive effects when the liberating intentions of the architect coincide with the real practice of people in the exercise of their freedom.

Paul Rabinow: But the same architecture can serve other ends?

Michel Foucault:  Absolutely. Let me bring up another example: the Familistere of Jean-Baptiste Godin at Guise [1859]. The architecture of Godin was clearly intended for the freedom of people. Here was something that manifested the power of ordinary workers to participate in the exercise of their trade. It was a rather important sign and instrument of autonomy for a group of workers. Yet no one could enter or leave the place without being seen by everyone-an aspect of the architecture that could be totally oppressive. But it could only be oppressive if people were prepared to use their own presence in order to watch over others. Let’s imagine a community of unlimited sexual practices that might be established there. It would once again become a place of freedom. I think it is somewhat arbitrary to try to dissociate the effective practice of freedom by people, the practice of social relations, and the spatial distributions in which they find themselves. If they are separated, they become impossible to understand. Each can only be understood through the other.

 Paul Rabinow: Yet people have often attempted to find utopian schemes to liberate people, or to oppress them.

 Michel Foucault:  Men have dreamed of liberating machines . But there are no machines of freedom, by definition. This is not to say that the exercise of freedom is completely indifferent to spatial distribution, but it can only function when there is a certain convergence; in the case of divergence or distortion, it immediately becomes the opposite of that which had been intended. The panoptic qualities of Guise could perfectly well have allowed it to be used as a prison. Nothing could be simpler. It is clear that, in fact, the Familistere may well have served as an instrument for discipline and a rather unbearable group pressure .

 Paul Rabinow: So, once again, the intention of the architect is not the fundamental determining factor.

 Michel Foucault:  Nothing is fundamental. That is what is interesting in the analysis of Society. That is why nothing irritates me as much as these inquiries-which are by definition metaphysical-on the foundations of power in a society or the self-institution of a society, etc. These are not fundamental phenomena . There are only reciprocal relations, and the perpetual gaps between intentions in relation to one another.

 Paul Rabinow: You have singled out doctors, prison wardens, priests, judges, and psychiatrists as key figures in the political configurations that involve domination. Would you put architects on this list?

 Michel Foucault:  You know, I was not really attempting to describe figures of domination when I referred to doctors and people like that, but rather to describe people through whom power passed or who are important in the fields of power relations . A patient in a mental institution is placed within a field of fairly complicated power relations, which Erving Goffman analyzed very well. The pastor in a Christian or Catholic church (in Protestant churches it is somewhat different) is an important link in a set of power relations. The architect is not an individual of that sort.

After all, the architect has no power over me. If I want to tear down or change a house he built for me, put up new partitions, add a chimney, the architect has no control. So the architect should be placed in another category-which is not to say that he is not totally foreign to the organization, the implementation, and all the techniques of power that are exercised in a society . I would say that one must take him-his mentality, his attitude-into account as well as his projects, in order to understand a certain number of the techniques of power that are invested in architecture, but he is not comparable to a doctor, a priest, a psychiatrist, or a prison warden .

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Disaffected Youth

I have recently picked up the Archaeology of knowledge and am looking forward to using Foucault’s theories for my undergraduate honors thesis, I will be keeping an eye on your discussions


while this may be an oversimplification of your argument, i am compelled to comment on your statement that “As architects, we must therefore try to use our limited power to restraint as much as possible its oppressive characteristics.” while i do not disagree with this statement per se, i am hesitant of its totalizing tone, resulting in the belief that ‘all we can do is resist the process that directs our labor’
“liberty is a practice” – yes, and so is architecture (its formation/edification).
is it not possible to direct our own labor? to direct the forces that direct us? instead of architecture acting as a tool of institutionalization, architecture can also act as a tool of communization. those two things are only separated by a very fine line, but i believe what determines on which side the architecture lays is not just limited to the concept of “the client”, but WHO the architecture is for. much like the construction of brasilia by workers who could not afford (and were not allowed) to live there. while most of the time, as the discipline is founded upon this, architecture is a hierarchical tool of reifying power and alienation, it can also be an immanent tool for the liberation of the commons, the unleashing of a latent disruptive presence.

The Global Perambulator

Interesting that you mention Brasilia. The architect was Oscar Niemeyer. He is disgusted at what happened to Brasilia because it did not result in the inclusive practices of utilizing space for the workers and the poor that he had envisioned when he was designing it. This speaks volumes to Foucault’s ‘liberty as practice’. The spatial liberty in Brasilia was high-jacked by the elites, which is what he feared most. I also think that Niemeyer is a much more interesting architect to be judged on the value of his intentions and the resulting practices that this architecture facilitated. Much more interesting than Corbusier. I think that this emphasis on Corbusier is highly Eurocentric. Visit Niemeyer’s Latin American Memorial in Sao Paulo and I think you will see that he was far more successful than Corbusier. It is an excellent example of architecture and design that liberates the commons.

nick axel

while this may be ignorance (though i feel it has sufficient reasoning behind it), i refuse to ‘forgive’ niemeyer. i don’t care what he feels about the project afterwards. i am not talking about him as a builder or designer of buildings, but as a constructor of (social) form. i again, refuse to “judge on the value of his intentions”. he was entirely complicit (and as an architect integral) to the authoritarian dictatorship that made brasilia. i almost think niermeyer made up his intentions in order so he could ignore what was really going on and keep doing his job.

i won’t speak much of form, but don’t the monumental forms of brasilia he designed speak to the sublimity of utopia, that impossible thing only possible with the hand of an architect and the rule of the law?

The Global Perambulator

Nick, I will not resort to implying ignorance, but I have studied his life and work and visited many of his sites. I do not doubt his intentions nor his integrity. He is the real thing. No more utopian than Corbusier. He has continued to speak truth to power in Brazil. He doesn’t need your forgiveness. I think you need to learn more about Brazil’s history and Niemeyer’s place in it. He paid a serious price for his integrity and was forced into exile by the US-sponsored military dictatorship for his leftist views and activities. Personally, Brasilia is not at the top of my list as his best work. My two favorite sites of his are in Sao Paulo and Curitiba. He is every bit legit as Eduardo Galeano for speaking truth to power in Latin America.


please, let us not make this an argument of “i know him better because i’ve BEEN to more of his buildings.” also, please don’t doubt that i’ve studied him – i would not be engaging this disussion as a bambling idiot. that said, neither do i question his integrity or intentions of his architecture. this is exactly why i will not accept any ‘making up’ for what he did in brasilia. “he speaks truth to power” what does that mean? you mean he speaks out against power? or he tells power what “the truth” is? i’m not saying he does not have a completely valid perspective of brazil, but his perspective is, i do not feel, acceptable. just because it’s “valid” doesn’t mean it’s ‘right’

lets just sum up your argument though, or let me try and see if it is accurate or not: brasilia and oscar niermeyer is not a good example for this because the architect had such great ambitions that got “hijacked” by the political system, i.e. his clients. furthermore, i am not qualified to properly argue for one stance or another on brasilia and niermeyer. lastly, you really like two of his buildings.

do you pardon rafael vinoly for participating in the argentinian dictatorship’s agenda? his reason for excuse was “i was just focusing on the architecture”

you say he is less utopian than le corbusier, which i don’t feel says much, and i feel the comparison between the two architects is much more complex. this also does not have much to do with “leftism”, but more how his actions followed a political agenda.

if you would like to see a contrast (diametric opposite) architect, working at the same time, but with the ‘wrong “leftist” regime’, check out vilanova artigas.

The Global Perambulator

ok. you oversimplify and distort and put words in my mouth so i won’t waste my time going any further. ithought a foucaultr site would be a step above this…..my bad………..

José Vela Castillo

And nevertheless, Foucault was right… but not, as you correctly states, in coming to terms with the bourgeois definition of architecture as commodity. The Panopticon is not (not only) a “type” of building that imposes upon its “dweller” an specific behaviour and represses its ego-and-body, that it is, but a model or paradigm that represents another thing not directly visible. Bentham, of course, was no architect. What is important here is the idea of the “traslucency” of the mind: power wants to know everything, and in so doing, needs to open architecture. The paradox, then, is that modern glass architecture instead of freeing people, makes them more vulnerable to power. Which is, of course, the ruling principle of todays advance societies of control…
Greta idea the Foucault week!!!!

Charles Beach

“I think it is somewhat arbitrary to try to dissociate the effective practice of freedom by people, the practice of social relations, and the spatial distributions in which they find themselves. If they are separated, they become impossible to understand. Each can only be understood through the other.”

Now this is the most important thing said here. There is not a social subject and a spatial object acting upon it, but two inseparable realms. Spatial organisation is social. Social organisation is spatial.

Livia Filotico

Very interesting. I actually had the same sort of problem with Foucault when writing my dissertation. I was writing about Freud and the relations of power which can be found by looking at the spatial organisation of his practice. My first idea was of course to use Foucault as a primary source but couldn’t really find anything pertinent. I therefore ended up doing a foucaldian analysis without actually ever mentioning him!

The Global Perambulator

I think Foucault would be very pleased that you did not need to mention him. He said that his work provided tools for people to pick up and use for their own areas of inquiry, which sounds like what you did….

Karl Mann

People who live in informal settlements would have no problems altering the artifacts of previous ‘architects’. In a few decades a majority of the world’s population will live in informal settlements, so maybe Foucault was a futurist.


great article and great subject, but I want to take qualms with one thing you say at the end:

“we might want to argue for a more fragile or weak architecture, one that precisely does not requires much energy to be acted upon.”

what about when a wall (or a barricade) is setup to provide protection for freedom? not all control is oppression. here we run into the problem of if the architecture is weak then it can be acted upon, not just by us, but by those who would want to control us.

Léopold Lambert

Matei, thanks for your comment.
A barricade is the perfect example of what I would call a weak architecture as the human body with its own energy is able to build it and modify it. Its solidity and therefore defensiveness comes from the aggregation of all those pieces just like an insurrectional movement with its people. I don’t like doing too much self-promotion but I have an article in the new LOG (25) about this topic, you might want to have a look at it (I did not receive it yet but it seems like there will be a lot of very interesting essays).


Maybe the barricade is an peripheral example, but i think you understand what my point was. I will read your article with pleasure and reserve the right comment again after that.
The new Log was next on my summer reading list actually anyway, once I finish Lefevbre’s Production of Space (which if I may indulge myself to ask you for your opinion, a quick search of your blog comes up empty. just curious).



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M's blackboard

i second Foucault’s line “the architect has no power over me”. he can’t build his designs or bring them to the world without a permission from the owner of the land. however, architecture is actually like hospitals and prisons, it can be institutionalized by a greater power, which is the state in this case.

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