# FOUCAULT /// Foucault and Architecture: The encounter that never was

The Power of Architecture – photomontage by the author (2012)

Recently, I was lucky enough to be asked to write an article for the seventh issue of the Chilean journal SPAM and I decided to use this opportunity to articulate the clumsy addition of ideas that I started to touch on during June’s “Foucault’s week.” I hope that the following text, Foucault and Architecture: The encounter that never was, is therefore a good synthesis of the argument I was trying to explore: Despite what architects might usually think, Michel Foucault never truly engaged the problem of the political power of architecture but rather kept investigating the notion of diagram. When confronted to this observation, we might find interesting to keep a Foucauldian method to address architecture.

Foucault and Architecture: The encounter that never was
by Léopold Lambert
curated by SPAM

A certain amount of architects often refers to Michel Foucault’s work as an inspiration to their design or their theoretical interpretation of our societies. The concepts invoked are almost always the same, and it is not rare to find in an architecture text, the notions of panopticon, heterotopia and/or utopian body. The thesis that I would like to defend in this text does not consist so much in the demonstration of architects’ misunderstanding of Foucault’s concepts, but rather that those spatial notions constituted only the frail premises of what could have been the Foucauldian interpretation of space. The research work that he produced through the fastidious descriptions of mechanisms of power involved within the institutions helps us to determine the precision that such an interpretation requires. To be a Foucauldian architect does not therefore consists in the repetition of his theses, but rather in their extension to which should be applied the same cogency. As a matter of fact, the first thing that a Foucauldian architect needs to understand consists in the paradoxical fact that Foucault underestimated the power contained by architecture as such.

Breaking the Walls ///

It is rather rare to read a text written by Foucault, in which he addresses directly architecture. One might be surprised of such assumption as he evokes often terms like prison, hospital, asylum, school or factory; nevertheless, those words are used to describe an institution much more than a building. There is a text however, in which Foucault addresses architecture. In an interview in 1982, Paul Rabinow invites him to talk about architecture as an instrument of power. Foucault insists on the fact that there is no liberating design since “liberty is a practice[1]” and therefore cannot be planned or guaranteed by architecture.  In this model, liberty consists in an act but what about its opposite? Does restraint also consists in an act or rather in the prevention of the act to accomplish itself? In this latter hypothesis, architecture, through its impermeable physicality, can be said to constitute an effective agent of restraint. In this conversation with Rabinow however, Foucault does not see things this way:

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.[2]

It is surprising to read such a sentence from Foucault, who is usually so thorough to analyze the cogs of the mechanisms of power with a sharp sense of details. Let’s consider it literally nevertheless. We can try to ignore his strange bourgeois slip-up, which forgets that the very vast majority of people do not get to have an architect building a house for them and are not empowered to change their house according to their desire. What we can however note is that tearing down the house, as he evokes, requires normally more energy than the one a human body is able to provide by itself. Such an operation on architecture requires therefore the help of technology. This technology does not necessities to be sophisticated –a hammer or a pickaxe is often enough- but its absence guarantees the building’s structural integrity when a human body attempts to destroy it. The prison typology is highly illustrative of this statement. If a body is surrounded by walls and deprived of any form of technology that would allow her or him to modify the spatial configuration, she or he will be unable to escape from the space contained by the walls. According to this model, any house or building could be more or less compared to a prison. Despite the fact that we refuse to completely take apart this observation, we can notice that architecture invented a series of apparatuses –doors and windows- in order for the human body to be able to act upon the spatial configuration with a minimal amount of energy. The locking device was then another invention that would allow a door or a window to re-become a wall at the discretion of the owner.

The modern hospital example ///

In a lecture he gave in 1974 at The Institute of Social Medicine in Rio de Janeiro, Foucault gets closer to a precise description of architecture’s physicality as part of a global strategy of power. Entitled The Incorporation of the Hospital into Modern Technology[3], this text attributes to the end of the 18th century, the shift of paradigm that occurred in the subjectivitization of individuals in the society, and more particularly in the hospital. Earlier, the latter used to be a place to die, a “clumsy architecture that multiplies the disease in the inside without preventing its diffusion in the outside[4]”; it will now become a place to cure, supervised, organized and operated by medicine. This new type of society that Foucault calls disciplinary is therefore attached to a regulation of the biological and anatomical characteristics of the human body (alive) as they are recognized as the motor of an economy entangled with its political strategy. Hospitals, along with schools, factories and prisons, become therefore the spatial apparatuses par excellence in which disciplinary processes are operating. As often with Foucault, those processes are not necessarily driven by a sadistic class over another, but rather they are functioning within a system in which power is exercised with no particular moral intent. The hospital is exemplary in this regard as their discipline is applied for its subjects’ own good, namely, their health. Their design is driven by this new societal vision of human life and its attempted perpetuation within a politico-economical system; or as Foucault says: “the hospital constitutes a means of intervention on the patient. The architecture of the hospital must be the agent and instrument of cure.[5]

Nevertheless, Foucault is never far from transforming architecture into a diagram when he evokes the circulation of air, the transportation and cleansing of sheets, the filing of the patient’s health evolution. Although those operations involve architecture to a certain extent, they address the hospital more to a technological and diagrammatic level than a truly architectural one. He does not talk about the plan of the “typical” hospital for example, organized around a spinal corridor which seems to spatially optimize the expeditious daily visit of the doctor and his “court” to the patients. In providing such a spatial organization, architecture is complicit of the power exercised by the doctor on his patients. It accommodates it and, by doing so, influences it back in a loop whose origin – egg or chicken – is irrelevant.

Diagram vs. architecture ///

At that point of the text, one might object that the panopticon constitutes precisely an architecture considered by Foucault for its physicality; I would like however to argue for the contrary, Conceived by Jeremy Bentham in 1793 as an ideal prison for its effectiveness, this architecture is composed by a circular periphery of cells monitored by a central tower. Its principle is based on the hyper visibility of the prisoners in contrast to the invisibility of their warden. In his book Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault uses the panopticon as a paradigmatic scheme to describe the disciplinary society. The sovereignty society had its dungeon in which prisoners were kept in the dark, the disciplinary society, at the opposite, invades its prisoners with light and leave them no possible retreat from visibility. Although many architects have been repeatedly using the panopticon as a unique mean to describe the relations of power that space triggers, Foucault himself explains that its architecture is not principally what he is interested in. He rather sees it as “a diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form.[6]” In other words, Foucault reads this architecture through a two-dimensional form of representation, which expresses the various forces created by its lines. Gilles Deleuze was particularly attached to this excerpt of Discipline and Punish as, according to him, that is the first and only time that Foucault uses the notion of diagram that is fundamental to understand the mechanisms of power he meticulously describes. In his book dedicated to the work of Foucault[7], he attributes to him the function of cartographer that Foucault, himself, was keen to use. Cartography is precisely the activity that considers a given situation within reality and elaborates a diagrammatic representation of it:

The diagram is no longer an auditory or visual archive but a map, a cartography that is coextensive with the whole social field. It is an abstract machine. It is defined by its informal functions and matter and in terms of form makes no distinction between content and expression, a discursive formation and a non-discursive formation. It is a machine that is almost blind and mute, even though it makes others see and speak.[8]

It is now clear that Foucault is not interested in the panopticon as a building but rather as a combination of lines of visibility that forms relations of power between the individuals affected by those lines. We might say that the application he finds for this scheme is more expressive as it can be used not only “to reform prisoners, but also to treat patients, to instruct schoolchildren, to confine the insane, to supervise workers, to put beggars and idlers to work.[9]” The panopticon. as an architecture. is indeed ‘only a prison’; however, no diagram will ever prevent a body from its freedom of movement whereas pretty much any architecture will. The diagram has no mean of constituting a mechanism of power without its architectural embodiment. The notion of dispositif[10] as used by Foucault should therefore be considered for its two components; the cartographic and the architectural.[11]

Conclusion ///

Although this short text was intended to make a point about Foucault’s underestimation for architecture’s role in the implementation of the mechanisms of power, we should end it by observing the opportunity that architecture can potentially provide in the escape of those same mechanisms. While diagrams are “abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction,[12]” architecture is concretely subjected to them. Every architect knows by experience that the perfectly elaborated set of lines that he created will not materialize with the same level of perfection than the one imagined. In other words, the material realm presents a complexity that human systems cannot fully fathom and therefore constitutes a barrier to the literalness of the translation from a diagram to an architecture. What that means in practice, is that no system of power, through its materialization, is ‘invincible’ and forms of resistance to it can be created thanks to the friction that this translation provided. Using a ‘Deleuzian’ terminology, we can insist that resistance has to be produced hidden in the folds of the map in spaces that the two-dimensionality failed to describe. We need to use architecture against architecture.


[1] Foucault Michel, Space, Power, and Knowledge. An interview with Paul Rabinow, Skyline, March 1982, trans: Christian Hubert

[2] Ibid 1

[3] Foucault Michel, The Incorporation of the Hospital into Modern Technology trans: Edgard Knowlton Jr., William J. King, and Stuart Elden, in Jeremy W. Crampton & Stuart Elden, Space, Knowledge and Power: Foucault and Geography, London: Ashgate, 2007.

[4] Foucault Michel, La politique de la santé au XVIIIe siècle, in Les Machines à guérir, Aux origines de l’hôpital moderne ; dossiers et documents, Paris, Institut de l’environnement, 1976.

[5] Ibid 3

[6] Foucault Michel, Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison, trans: Alan Sherida, New York : Vintage Books, 1995.

[7] Deleuze Gilles, Foucault, trans: Sean Hand, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

[8] Ibid 7

[9] Ibid 6

[10] This term of dispositif is usually translated by the one of apparatus even though its full meaning can be said to have lost something in the process

[11] “architectural” here needs to be understood in a broad sense as the ensemble of human physical modification of its environment

[12] Ibid 6

8 Comments on “# FOUCAULT /// Foucault and Architecture: The encounter that never was

  1. Leopold, glad to read your conclusion viz. the diagram. The panopticon was primarily a ‘diagrammatic’ example for Foucault, for the ways that a micropolitical structure could find one of many ‘physical’ forms. To paraphrase Heraclitus, ‘Latent form is the master of obvious form’, and the diagram is a kind of very real, but latent, form- I’d argue that when we design, all we are doing is reorganizing diagrams. But very few people know how to look for them or see them. The transition from an obsession with diagrams in the 90s-midoughties, to parametric/scripted design, lost quite a bit as many practitioners/students simply never unpacked the value of ‘diagrammatic’ thinking well- or at all. So any purported failure of the diagram was a failure to think it thru, or think through it, or instrumentalize it.

  2. Pingback: # WEAPONIZED ARCHITECTURE /// The Eastern State Penitentiary Panopticon: The Materialization of the Diagram and its Fallibility | The Funambulist

  3. Pingback: # WEAPONIZED ARCHITECTURE /// The Eastern State Penitentiary Panopticon: The Materialization of the Diagram and its Fallibility | The Funambulist

  4. Pingback: # HISTORY /// The Desired Colonized Body: Foucault and Race by Ann Laura Stoler | The Funambulist

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