The Politics of Architecture

06 October 2023

Do buildings express political viewpoints? Some buildings do, of course: think about monuments to fallen soldiers, city hall buildings, or public housing. But is architecture always political? When it comes to pretty buildings, isn’t a flying buttress sometimes just a flying buttress?

Clearly, there’s plenty of architecture that makes political statements (as monuments do) or implies political positions (as city halls do). Think of all that neoclassical architecture imperialists love so much: impressive columns, high ceilings, huge steps where the Dear Leader can look down on the hoi polloi… Very different from a congressional debate chamber, where everyone is literally on the same level. As Winston Churchill once said, the horizontal design of the House of Commons sings out democracy, loud and clear.

But then again, what about those lovely Ionic columns at the National Gallery in Washington, DC? They’re supposed to remind us of ancient Athens, cradle of democracy. So one and the same style—ancient-style architecture, bunches of columns—can be associated with antithetical political attitudes.

What’s more, some architecture expresses attitudes that aren’t political at all. Think about a Frank Lloyd Wright house, and its grounding in a deep love for the beauty of nature. Surely there’s nothing specifically political about that.

Our resident cynics aren’t going to be beaten that easily, however. They’re going to remind us that whoever gets to own a Frank Lloyd Wright house clearly has a few bucks to throw around. And heck, maybe that owner want the passers-by to admire them for living in their designer castle. So even just owning a Frank Lloyd Wright is a political statement. Indeed, the very existence of Frank Lloyd Wrights tells us something about our society: if there weren’t any super-wealthy people to throw money around, maybe there would be no such thing as living in an artwork!

Maybe. But surely it’s at least possible to imagine a world where everyone gets a nice house: nature lovers would get garden houses, tech-lovers would get all mod cons, people with a fear of heights would get bungalows... In that world, there would be nothing political about living in an architectural masterpiece.

And even in our current world, can’t you just build yourself a nice little cottage at the end of a cul de sac—some cute, quiet place to retire to and write the great American novel, leaving everyone else alone? Can’t you build it responsibly, and use sustainable materials, and make it energy-efficient? At that point, can’t it just be a great place to live? We'll see what our guest thinks—it’s Vladimir Kulić, Professor of Architecture in the College of Design at Iowa State University.

Comments (6)

db's picture


Sunday, October 22, 2023 -- 4:27 AM

I find it amazing that

I find it amazing that throughout my education virtually nothing was taught regarding architecture- neither how buildings come into being, nor why they were constructed, nor how to look at them.

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Daniel's picture


Sunday, October 22, 2023 -- 4:03 PM

Then your education is not

Then your education is not over. For how could one graduate from a building without knowing anything about it? In reverse order from the above, three pedagogic lacunas are referenced: proper appreciation of architectural products, grounds for their optional production, and the mechanism by which they are generated. These can be called the aesthetic lacuna, the practical, and the technical or theoretical, respectively. The third belongs to engineering and is unfairly blamed for non-inclusion in other curricular schedules. The first can be found in both the art and philosophy departments but indirectly and rarely constitutes a degree requirement. The second however appears indispensable for post graduate success, the institutional absence of which is justifiably condemned.

By the claim that optional grounds of architectural production constitute an essential domain of student work, the building in the context of which that work is performed, e.g. a study hall on a college campus, itself contributes to that domain and becomes one of its objects. University buildings have in common with private homes the division between an inside and an outside, functioning as shelter and storage. To borrow an example from Kant, -a privately owned house, if it's a rental, is occupied by a tenant and causes the rent to be paid, so that the house is the cause of the rent. But the idea of rent in the mind of the owner causes the house to be built, so that the empirical concept of the rent, its idea, is the cause of the house. A reciprocal causality between a thing and its idea is described by the product's market function but does not properly occur in the context of public buildings in collegiate contexts. Tuition as analogous to rent, for example, can not be said to be the cause of a university building's construction, nor is temporary use of the building the cause of tuition. Could this be a reason why your education left out the practical reasoning involved in the manufacture of the building in which it occurred? Is student tuition masked as use of the building?

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lindango's picture


Tuesday, November 7, 2023 -- 5:51 PM

Architecture incredibox can

Architecture incredibox can express political viewpoints, but the extent to which it does so depends on various factors, including the intent of the architect, the purpose of the building, the cultural and historical context, and how people perceive and interpret the architecture.

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uymeb's picture


Sunday, November 19, 2023 -- 2:19 AM

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grovelayer's picture


Sunday, November 19, 2023 -- 11:26 PM

If politics pertains to the

If politics pertains to the guidance and advancement of resources and forces in society, political architecture builds on an awareness of architecture complicit with politics – that is, its more or dino game less directly designated role in political regulations of society and social life

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evawillms's picture


Wednesday, November 29, 2023 -- 5:53 PM

In Run 3 game, players take

In Run 3 game, players take on the role of a cute little alien creature who is navigating through a series of futuristic tunnels.

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