# 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 .