God is in the Detail: Labour, Architecture and the Politics of Construction

Join us on zoom for a day-long symposium organized by the PhD Programme of the Architectural Association, on Friday, November 20 – access link can be obtained by registering here:

The construction of architecture is often addressed as a matter of technical expertise or poetic craftsmanship; seldom is it addressed as a matter of politics. Yet building techniques have evolved not only because of technological progress or availability of new materials, but also – and especially – as a response to the organisation of the labour force necessary to build architecture. To this day, building architecture remains one of the most labour-intensive activities in which a multitude of workers, from designers to builders, are exploited to make building itself a profitable activity. Far from being determined by its use value, architecture as a material artefact is today driven by its exchange value as a commodity. This means that any passage of the building process – from conception to realisation – is a site of extraction of surplus value by those who finance architecture. While often the critiques of architecture’s complicity with capital focus on the architect’s design, the very technical aspects of how such designs are actualised in the building process remain unnoticed. And yet, the more architecture manifests itself as the effortless gesture of formal invention, the more it hides the exploitation of those who build it.
Since the Renaissance, architecture has become a discipline whose liberal status is based on its emancipation from the mere act of building. Seemingly disciplinary and intellectual issues such as the knowledge of geometry and drawing have become means to strengthen the architect’s authority at the expense of the builder’s agency. Architecture’s fundamental issues such as proportions, materiality, ornament, and standardisation cannot be fully understood if disconnected from the way the material process of building was devised in order to tame, control and eventually exploit those that build architecture. Progressive innovations in manufacturing such as 3D printing, laser cutting, CNC, and robotic fabrication promise to democratise the means of production and reduce construction costs, but they are often used by the industry as a way to reduce and deskill both designers and builders. Technology, economy, and aesthetics are not enough to understand how building works: we need to understand construction politically.
The politics of construction thus lies in the way architecture is produced both in terms of its design and its construction. The symposium aims to politicise the construction of architecture by addressing the technical as political. In doing so the symposium aims to respond to fundamental blind spots of architectural theory: the ‘nitty gritty’ of the building industry and its impact on labour conditions both in terms of design and construction. With this symposium we want to not only question the way architecture gets built, but also to emphasise the fact that the process of building offers the most important insights into the political significance of architecture itself. Speakers will address ancient, modern, and contemporary case studies, such as building techniques in Roman architecture, the politics of standardisation in relationship with the deskilling of construction work, and the role of design in enabling or oppressing the work of builders.

Pier Vittorio Aureli

Hoc Opus, Hic Labor:
Technologies of the Visible and of the Invisible in Ancient Roman Architecture.
Maria Sheherazade Giudici

The use of concrete to vault large spans has remained perhaps the most enduring technological legacy of ancient Roman architecture; and yet, the survival of the grand engineering projects and collective spaces of the mature empire often obfuscates the nature of the actual challenges involved in building vaulting systems on a vast scale. In fact, the building of such structures presented a fundamental problem which is easy to overlook: the organization of moulding and scaffolding, that is to say, of all the support structures that would disappear once the construction phase would be completed. The invisible component of architecture – the bodies and machines needed to produce it – were often, in fact, the main rationale behind the very form of Roman monuments and infrastructures. In this analysis of Roman construction techniques, I will reread a number of case-studies – from the Pantheon to the Nymphaeum of Minerva Medica – as the index of production processes rather than the static realization of a design. These case-studies show how the colonial expansion of the empire determined majour shifts in labour management as well as in the procurement chain, impacting architectural form far more than it is usually assumed. A cross-section of the first three centuries CE will ultimately allow us to discuss the way in which ecological pressures and class conflict pushed the Romans to devise methods that increasingly minimized scaffolding and deskilled the labour force; concrete, brick, timber, and stone, were all used in a variety of imaginative hybridizations to facilitate the production of complex forms through radically pared-back processes. In this discussion, I hope to bring to light the way in which the design of the ‘negative space’ – and its functioning – were actually the primary concerns of builders faced with social unrest and environmental collapse.

Maria Sheherazade Giudici is the editor of AA Files and the founder of research platform Black Square. She teaches design in the Diploma Programme of the Architectural Association and History and Theory at the Architecture School of the Royal College of Art.

Architecture as praxis:
On the legacy of Arquitetura Nova

Davide Sacconi

The separation of desenho and canteiro, identified by Arquitetura Nova as the cleavage of the conflict between capital and labour, operates today in an augmented reality: the role of the architect is one of an illusionist that reduces the complexity of architectural labour to uniqueness, a process through which capital is reified and endlessly reproduced in the pervasive circulation of images. Against this condition Arquitetura Nova’s work offers a method. Not only they exercised a radically collective form of design against authorship and placed the workers’ knowledge at the centre of the design and building process, but they turned the gap between the real and the imagined subject of their theory and practice into the substance of their political project. In its very material form the archetype of the vault-house exposes and reclaims architecture as common knowledge collectively produced: architecture as praxis, rational critical action.

Davide Sacconi is an architect, founder of CAMPO and PhD candidate at the Architectural Association. He has been teaching in UK since 2012, including the MArch Urban Design program of the Bartlett UCL and at the Liverpool University, and since 2017 he is visiting lecturer at the School of Architecture of the Royal College of Art and the Director of the Syracuse University London Program. In 2019 he curated the first monographic exhibition on the Brazilian collective Arquitetura Nova, organized in the occasion of the Architecture Biennale of FRAC Centre-Orleans.

An Acre per Week:
Crystal Palace, Flexibility and the Deskilling of the Labour Force
Georgios Eftaxiopoulos

The Crystal Palace was a gigantic glass structure that covered 19 acres under one roof. It was conceived by Joseph Paxton, head gardener at the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth estate, and intended to host The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, 1851 which for five and a half months put forward a miniature of the world’s achievements at the south side of Hyde Park. Nearly 112,000 exhibits were organized in its transparent room that was designed as a flexible floor plan punctuated by an even field of columns and used for its building only three materials: iron, timber, and glass. The 8-foot module, the maximum possible width of a sheet of glass able to be produced quickly and cheaply, as well as its multiples (24, 48, 72) defined the whole structure. The famous contractors, engineers and ironmasters, Charles Fox and John Henderson, developed a sophisticated method of construction that capitalized on standardization and relied, for the first time, on a large-scale use of prefabricated parts. However, the division of the entire building into a simple system of small components did not only permit the adoption of last-minute amendments, but particularly reflected the ethos of its construction process, where the separation between the conception and execution of the design and the absence of craftsmanship on site allowed a unique building rhythm of almost an acre per week. This talk will argue that the construction of the Crystal Palace took the form of a mere logistical challenge where skilled labour was no longer necessary. It will claim that, beyond the exhibition’s atmosphere of delight, it was precisely its flexible structure that not only contributed to the acceleration and establishment of a risk-free building process but created a new deskilled labour subject and increased capital’s power over the workforce and manufacturing at large.

Georgios Eftaxiopoulos (AADipl, AAPhD) is an architect and Teaching Assistant Professor at Aarhus School of Architecture. He has previously practiced in Belgium and Switzerland and taught at The Berlage, the University of Navarra, the Royal College of Art and the Architectural Association, where he developed his dissertation on a critique of flexibility in architecture.

New Sites of Labour:
Proprietary specification and the rise of building products in Interwar Britain
Katie Lloyd Thomas

In this paper I look at the emergence of the proprietary specification as a key aspect of the architect’s practice in the interwar period in the UK. For the first time, at least at scale, the architect took responsibility for selecting one branded building product over another – Venesta Ltd over Flexo Plywood Industries; Critall’s windows over Henry Hope and Sons Ltd; Ripolin paint over Pinchin Johnson and Associates. If manufacturers could persuade the architect to enter their brand into the legally binding document sales were guaranteed.
This change not only put architects into a new position – becoming product brokers on behalf of industry – it also extended the kinds of jobs available in the building industry from traditional work on the construction site to the factory and sales floor, and helped open the industry to women as well as men. Their involvement, as building products saleswomen, as electrical demonstrators and as factory workers led, I argue, to a ‘feminisation’ of a hitherto technical arena, but also raises the question of the changing sites of building labour. If as Sérgio Ferro has argued, ‘the building site occupies a special position in the sphere of social production’ because it remains a manufacture ‘fundamentally characterized by the essential operational role of labour power’, why during this period did it do more than ’only occasionally resort to industrial products (materials, components, some non-essential machines)’ and with what effects?

Katie Lloyd Thomas is Professor of Architectural Theory and History at Newcastle University and an editor of Architectural Research Quarterly. Her research focuses on materiality, technology and the production of architecture. She will present her research on the architect’s role in the circulation of proprietary building products in the interwar period in the UK.

Lunch Break

Walter Segal and the Rigorous Simplification of Building Process
Hugh Strange

During construction of his own house in London in 1963, the Berlin-born architect Walter Segal built a temporary structure within the garden space, in which he and his family would live during the main works. The construction of this interim dwelling established a number of principles he was to pursue for the remainder of his career, later characterised as the ‘Segal Method’. The rationale of the temporary house was centred on the use of readily available, mass-produced and dimensionally coordinated materials. These off-the-shelf elements were employed with minimal on-site alteration, and fitted, with dry jointing, into a timber post and beam structure that was dimensioned according to standard insulation slabs and plywood sheets. The omission of wet trades, and the reduction in secondary alteration, transformed the nature of on-site work towards a process of assembly. The resultant build was extremely cheap and fast.
In the following decade the method was developed and refined in a number of private house commissions, always with a view towards rigorous simplification of process. These projects were undertaken with no main contractor; their pared-back logic requiring only a carpenter, an electrician and a plumber. Eventually clients, observing the straightforwardness at play, realised that they could do the works of the carpenter, and took on elements of the works themselves.
Existing solutions to the question of housing provision were being questioned and challenged in London, as elsewhere, throughout the 1970’s. Alternative solutions favouring dweller control seemed to offer greater autonomy for residents over their own lives. Within this political context, Segal was eventually able to apply his method of building to a series of self-build houses on council owned land within the London Borough of Lewisham; the radical simplicity of his approach allowing unskilled residents to construct their own houses with their own hands. In this manner Walter Segal’s work exemplified an architecture borne of ideas around and about construction and oriented towards the building site, while his approach suggests the potential of ideas of construction to radically reconfigure roles and relationships in the building process.

Hugh Strange is principal at London-based firm Hugh Strange Architects. He is currently undertaking a PhD at the Oslo school of Architecture and Design in parallel with his practice.


Cosmic Labor:
Eladio Dieste and the Workers of La Iglesia de Cristo Obrero

Federico Garcia Lammers

Economía Cósmica or “the profound order of the world”, as it was described by Eladio Dieste, was central to the late Uruguayan engineer’s structural innovations in Cerámica Armada or steel-reinforced structural ceramics. Dieste grounded the cosmic vastness of the world through the practical, on-site choreography of construction materials, and workers’ minds and bodies. This presentation and paper focus on a series of under examined documents associated with the construction of La Iglesia de Cristo Obrero (Cristo Obrero) in Atlántida, Uruguay. Archival construction photos, client notes, schedules, budgetary outlines and workers’ pay stubs expand the rhetoric of modernity and suggest a form of Cosmic Labor. As a non-standard collection, these documents link Dieste’s oeuvre to the immigrant-led Uruguayan workers movement of the early 1900s.

During the second half of the 20th century, Dieste and MontañezSA, the construction and engineering practice led by Dieste and his partner Eugenio Montañez, constructed approximately 1.5-million square meters of structural ceramics projects in Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil. This high-volume production started in 1952 with Cristo Obrero, their first architectural commission. From 1958-60, the construction of this 500 sq. meter church, combined two structural innovations: Ruled Surfaces (walls) and Gaussian Vaults (roof). More importantly, Cristo Obrero connected the invention of construction mechanisms, like pre-tensioning devices and kinetic formwork with the agency of construction workers. Many of the relationships developed during the construction lasted for over three decades and defined the transfer of knowledge across dozens of projects.

The organization of construction labor at Cristo Obrero is deeply linked to the legacy of Italian and Spanish immigration to Uruguay. In the first decades of the 20th century, European immigrants consolidated the Uruguayan workers’ movement and started the Federación Obrera Regional Uruguaya (Regional Uruguayan Workers Federation). Weaving the politics of construction around the notion of Economía Cósmica, Cristo Obrero was the first in a series of immigrant-led constructions to connect the workers movement to Eladio Dieste’s structural innovations in Cerámica Armada.

Federico García Lammers is an Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture (DoArch) at South Dakota State University, where he helped start the first professional architecture program in South Dakota. Before joining DoArch, he practiced architecture in Minneapolis, Portugal, and New York, designing and building large-scale projects on four continents. His scholarship on the Uruguayan engineer Eladio Dieste has been published and presented in a range of academic venues in South America, North America, and Europe. In March 2020, Federico received a national Practice and Leadership Teaching Award from the American Institute of Architects and the Association of Collegiate School of Architecture for inventing and directing the Forensics Studio at DoArch. Federico is also a co-director of LAB-OR, a design practice in Brookings, South Dakota.

The American Superficial
Paul Preissner

Architecture tends to focus on the exotic at the expense of the ordinary. In the case of wood framing, the lack of disciplinary prestige comes from the exact same characteristics that make it so prevalent: it’s cheap and easy. This quality has enabled framing to become the predominant structure underneath the American built landscape. You cannot buy a better (or worse) 2×4. There is only one kind. It is this fundamental sameness which paradoxically underlies the American culture of individuality, flattening all our superficial differences and exposing the boundless narcissism of which we spend our money on to imagine ourselves as all different.

Paul Preissner is an architect and teacher. He runs Paul Preissner Architects, which is located in Oak Park, and he and Paul Andersen are the commissioners and curators of the Pavilion of the United States at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition – la Biennale di Venezia. Paul is the author of Kind of Boring: Canonical Work and Other Visible Things Meant to Be Viewed as Architecture, to be published this fall by Actar.

Building Brutalism:
Constructing In-situ Concrete in 1960’s London
Christine Wall

Moving between architectural history, oral history and the history of construction this talk will examine the tools, techniques and social organization of two building sites in 1960s London. The Barbican and the Hayward Gallery and Queen Elizabeth Hall on the South Bank are renowned examples of Brutalist architecture but are rarely investigated at the point of production: the building site. Oral histories are used here to examine the production processes of these complex, architectural masterpieces but also to shift analysis away from the notion of purely architect-authored schemes to include a wider, and diverse, cast of co-producers. These personal narratives from the building site enable us to arrive at new, and hopefully enriched, understandings of these buildings and their wider social, political and architectural importance.

Christine Wall is Professor of Architectural History, at the University of Westminster and founder and Co-Director of the Centre for Research into the Production of the Built Environment. She has published widely on architecture and the construction industry in the twentieth century, including the role of women as designers and builders, and recently led the Leverhulme Trust funded oral history project, Constructing Post-War Britain: building workers’ stories 1950-1970. She is a Trustee of the Construction History Society, Co-Editor of the Construction History Journal and a member of the Editorial Board of the Oral History Journal. Publications include; An architecture of parts: architects, building workers and industrialisation in Britain 1940-1970. Routledge, 2013 and ‘It was a totally different approach to building’ in Speaking of Buildings: oral history in architectural research, eds. Gosseye Princeton, 2019. She is currently a member of the judging panel of the RIBA Research Awards 2020.

Who Builds Your Architecture?
Kadambari Baxi
WBYA? (Who Builds Your Architecture?) is an advocacy group that asks architects and allied fields to better understand how the production of buildings connects their design and consulting practices to the workers who ultimately build them. Through workshops, exhibitions and publications, the group has brought attention to the underlying unequal systems that structure today’s architecture and construction. I will discuss WBYA?’s work and the group’s working methodologies: from resourcing human rights organizations’ reports on labor exploitation at transnational architectural project sites to producing drawings that connect architects to migrant construction workers in a direct line to organizing workshops where interdisciplinary participants debate charters for a new code of ethics for the built environment.
Kadambari Baxi is an architect and educator based in New York. Her current work focuses on climate, activism and novel forms of architectural agency. She works collaboratively, forming teams or initiating partnerships on a project basis. Most recently, she produced Climate Actions 2.0 as paired short-films, for an installation at the Seoul Biennale of Architecture; she and her interdisciplinary team of designers, filmmakers, and scientists, created the multimedia exhibition Air Drifts on transboundary air pollution, exhibited at the Oslo Architectural Triennale; and she cofounded an advocacy group WBYA? (Who Builds Your Architecture?), and the group’s work was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, Boston Art College and Istanbul Design Biennial. She is a professor of practice in architecture at Barnard College of Columbia University.