Architecture and Labour: Part 1

Architecture and Labour
Space and the Production of Subjectivity

Video of the Symposium organised by the ‘City/Architecture’ PhD programme, Friday 13 November 2015.

Part 1 of 3: Pier Vittorio Aureli, Francesco Marullo, Maria Sheherazade Giudici

Scroll down for abstracts and timing of the presentations

We must start speaking about workers again, with programmes and projects that concern them directly, existentially.

Mario Tronti, ‘Politics at Work’, 2008

In her book The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt distinguishes labour from work. While work is the production of things that may be more enduring than the life of its producer (like a pot or a poem), labour is the sheer unending business of life reproduction: cooking, cleaning, giving birth, raising kids, taking care of the household. According to Arendt, labour is merely a performative activity confined within the space of the house that does not leave anything material behind. With the rise of industrialisation and the increasing division of labour, the distinction between labour and work does not exist anymore and the subjectivity of animal laborans becomes the fundamental datum of modern society. Within modernity labour no longer addresses a specific sphere of the human condition but the totality of life, since under capitalism it is life as bios that is put to work and made productive. As Karl Marx wrote in a crucial passage of Das Kapital ‘labour power is the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality, of a human being’. This means that what is at stake in the concept of labour is not the production of things, but the production of the most crucial commodity within a capitalistic economy: subjectivity. Production of subjectivity becomes the fundamental goal of a capitalistic economy.

In this sense it is impossible to define the modern city and its architecture without understanding it through the lens of labour. And yet until today, with very few notable exceptions, very little has been written on the relationship between labour and architecture. While issues such as public space, politics, capitalism, neoliberalism and the commodification of the built environment are widely discussed, labour has rarely been confronted by the culture of architecture. The reason for this lack of discussion may be the ubiquity of labour itself as both spatial and social condition of our life. The symposium gathers for the first time a group of researchers who will attempt to read the relationship between labour and architecture in different contexts, from the intimacy of domestic space to the abstraction of post-industrial forms of production, to the role of the architect as producer. Rather than offering a comprehensive historical mapping, the symposium will offer critical insights towards a new understanding of architecture through the concept of labour.

Pier Vittorio Aureli


00:00 – 47:30
Pier Vittorio Aureli (Architectural Association, Dogma)

Labour and Architecture: Notes in the Form of an Introduction

This paper will tentatively define a relationship between labour and architecture in which labour is not simply the ‘content’ of architecture, but the condition within which both architectural form and architecture as profession have been historically structured. With the rise of labour as both the driving economic force and the source of political conflicts within the city, architecture becomes an assemblage of elements whose goal is no longer to represent power, but to effect power by framing, enabling, eliciting, making accessible or excluding. Moreover it is precisely by confronting the conflictual ethos of the labour force that architecture as specialised profession was born as a way to politically sabotage the guilds’ influence on the city government. Departing from Marx and Hannah Arendt’s definition of the category of labour, I will discuss exemplary case studies in which architecture both as labouring process and as built or designed form reflects both the organisation of productive and reproductive labour and the conflicts this organisation has triggered within the history of capitalism. As coda to my intervention I will introduce the contributions to the symposium as attempts to ponder the condition of labour from the factory to the home, from the construction industry to the organisation of one’s own life.

47:30 – 1:28:00
Francesco Marullo (Rotterdam Academy of Architecture, Behemoth Press)

The Measure of Emptiness: Notes on the Architecture of the Factory and the Logistic Order

The factory could be defined as the very first architecture of the ‘whole’. More than a building, it embodies a complex system of spatial and labour relations extending far beyond the limits of its enclosure. The factory is able to convey the wide reality of production in all its distinct phases into a present and tangible form, from the extraction of materials kilometres away to the assembling of products and their final distribution across foreign lands.
Its architecture is entirely derived from the necessities of production rather than from formal composition: the very notion of plan in the factory is replaced by a purely technical scheme – or layout – organising the logistic chain of operations and combining spaces with movements for an efficient management of workers and machinery. Yet, the logistic order of the factory did not only pertain to manufacture, but gradually penetrated every field of production – from heavy industry to domestic architecture, from office buildings to universities – transforming assembly lines into ‘think-belts’, smoothing functional and sequential arrangements into open spaces and flexible plans, disguising coercion as neutral free competition or cooperation.
This short presentation will go through a series of plans, investigating old and present day ‘factories’, their forms of exploitation and subjection of labour-power vis-à-vis the unavoidable genericness of the architecture of production.

01:30:00 – 02:14:00
Maria S Giudici (Architectural Association, Black Square)

Familles, je vous hais! On Architecture and Reproductive Labour

Far from being a haven of tranquillity, the house is not only the battlefield of social and personal conflicts of class, gender and ethnicity, but is also arguably the most important workplace. However, while in the pre-modern era the productive vocation of the home was not qualified, the refined division of labour that is a hallmark of early capitalism expelled the production of goods from the home, leaving behind the unwaged and unseen toil of women. The institutionalisation of reproductive labour, that is to say the sum of the efforts needed to generate, maintain, educate and care for the workforce, is perhaps the single most effective act of primitive accumulation we can imagine; in this process, half of the population is dispossessed of any control of their work which becomes a simple, natural destiny sweetened by the trappings of domesticity and familial love. The home of the middle and working classes, which had hardly been a concern for European architects until the late Renaissance, is invented precisely as a tool to optimise this process.
The presentation will use projects and writings developed in France from Sebastiano Serlio to Charles Briseux, the Grands Ensembles, and Lacaton and Vassal to retrace the way domestic space has been choreographed first as a mechanism to separate production and reproduction, and later as a disciplinary microcosm of which the housewife is both victim and villain. Such a critique is all the more urgent today as the last decades have seen the ambiguous blurring of reproductive labour into the ungendered, micro-entrepreneurial field of ‘affective labour’. It is perhaps in such a conjuncture that architecture should claim the responsibility it refused to assume before, and rethink housing within and against the realm of labour.

Discussion 02:14:00 to end of video.