Archive for July, 2012

Walter Benjamin and Architecture: An Exploration of Porosity and Ruin

July 16, 2012

Written two years ago, but now the Olympic moment is upon is I thought I’d post it. Someone, somewhere, might find it useful.


The purpose of this dissertation is an investigation of the aesthetics and spatial unfolding of both explicitly capitalistic space, and the possibility of its refutation. These forms – one concrete, and one of possibility – frame the space of the city. The material analysis of this dissertation concerns London and is constellated around the site of the forthcoming 2012 Olympic Games. The claim is that the constellation of the contemporary incarnation of the site, and moments of its eclipsed history, provide the two poles of spatial expression under investigation.

The thinker prominent here is Walter Benjamin. It should perhaps be taken as an investigation of Benjamin as much as through Benjamin. That we can derive a number of concepts from Benjamin’s work in an attempt to illuminate current conditions is not an appeal for its primacy over history. What we might suggest, given the conditions of society, and the relations of production that continue to inform it, is that Benjamin provides us at once with a conceptual legacy and methodology. To relate this to the contemporary moment is, with reference to the dialectical interplay of past and present, material and conceptual, an attempt at illumination or the production of possibilities latent but unrealised.

To this end, the dissertation is structured in the following manner. The first chapter attempts a justification of the horizon of the investigation, with reference to both the city – and its extreme poles – and Benjamin. The second chapter is an exploration, through the appeal to ideas of ruin, myth and petrification, of the Olympic Park as an example of capitalism’s explicit space. The third chapter deals with attempts to imagine, or point toward, the immanent refutation of the aesthetic and spatial unfolding of a dominant capitalism. This is undertaken through ideas of utopia, recuperation, and porosity.


‘The experience of our generation: that capitalism will not die a natural death’ – Walter Benjamin.[1]

The quotation above, written by Walter Benjamin in The Arcades Project, serves now, as it did then, as an aggressive challenge to the ongoing domination of capitalism over all forms of life. History shows us that it is not only Benjamin’s generation that experienced capitalism’s vitality. That it has mutated, adjusted and transformed itself while lurching from crisis to crisis shows it to have a heartbeat as discernible today as in the 1930s. Informed by these transformations, the space on which capitalism is inscribed as our society’s built environment is, to borrow words from Michel Foucault, ‘messy, ill constructed, and jumbled’, but above all, enduring.[2] Society is framed by its extremes, at one pole we might point to places that explicitly exhibit the dominant configurations of capital. At the other pole, in obfuscated form, perhaps lie part materialised fragments of utopia. If Benjamin’s pronouncement remains as correct now as it was at the time of writing, is there room to develop through his conceptual and philosophical work, an aesthetic for the built form of a non-capitalist space? This is not solely a question of what architectures of resistance – and beyond this, of a liberated society – may look like, but to question the processes and interrelation of action and aesthetics that shape them.

This dissertation is intended as an exploration of Benjamin with particular reference to aesthetic and spatial concerns, and concomitantly, an exploration of these concerns through Benjamin. However, our site is not Paris of the 19th Century, but London of the 21st, and in particular, the East London location of the forthcoming 2012 Olympics. Although we must acknowledge the inherent tension in the application of a historically marked body of work to the present time, the claim is that the wider conditions of society both then and now – the continuation of a capitalist mode of production, the lasting and indeed increasing number of human residents in cities – permits the bringing together of the past and present in the hope of divesting insights, if not hidden, then perhaps unseen. Consequently this dissertation should not be read as a disavowal of any claim to the historicity of Benjamin’s work, but an attempt – in telescoping the conceptual framework derived from Benjamin through the material analysis of the contemporary moment – at producing unforeseen constellations.

In constellating the project around the London Olympics, it serves, as a site steeped in the explicit logics of capital, to unlock the city surrounding it. Accordingly, the first chapter of the project, with the city as its locus, attempts to explicate ideas of catastrophe, the commodity form, and the relationship between time, space, and a redeemed history. The second chapter pays particular reference to the Olympic Park, treating it as one pole of the unfolding of capitalistic space. It is informed by David Harvey and seeks to explore ideas of non-use and inflexible and spectacular spatial configurations. The third chapter seeks to investigate, with reference to constructions linked to the Olympic site, the possibility of the refutation of the dominant logics that inform the space now. Drawing on Benjamin, it tries to suggest there may be value in porous and flexible imaginings.


‘Definition of basic historical concepts: Catastrophe — to have missed the opportunity. Critical moment — the status quo threatens to be preserved. Progress — the first revolutionary measures taken.’[3]

‘The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe.’[4]

If the purpose of this project is the investigation of the built space – and here we draw a distinction between place as site, and space as network of places as interrelated with human activity – of the city, and in particular, the two poles that bracket the bulk of its messy and ill constructed form, the quotations above, taken from Benjamin’s Arcades Project, prompt a number of questions. Firstly, we may ask why the city? Secondly, we may ask why Benjamin? And thirdly, if the two preceding questions can be answered satisfactorily, what is to be taken from the critical relation between city as site, and Benjamin as its investigator? Consequently the purpose of this chapter is to provide the justification and conceptual apparatus from which the second and third chapters will subsequently draw.

The city or urban form of habitation, as a 2007 UN report tells us, is now the mode in which the majority of the world’s population lives.[5] Beyond this, the city is intimately linked with capitalism as process. Marx’s analysis of capitalism’s infancy was possible because capitalism’s processes – its contradictions and movements – were expressed in Manchester’s factories and urban spaces. Accordingly the expanding form of the city is now one of the hallmarks of 21st Century capitalism. This link is exhibited globally, but in particular, we might point to the metropolises of China that crystallised around the Special Economic Zones (Shenzhen and Shanghai for example) first opened in the 1970s, because they offered the importation of explicitly capitalistic operations into a society ostensibly predicated on communism. While China serves as a pertinent example of the link between capitalism and the tendency of a rapid industrialisation to generate urban forms, it was up until recently predicated on production in the sense identified by Marx in Capital. That is, the production of commodities. However, the tendency of advanced capitalism has been the reorganisation of the city and its resources – and indeed, the illusion of resources in the instantiation of credit and finance capital – toward production of ephemera as spectacle, and its consumption.

The city then, is still the predominant site of capitalism’s exchange logics. What has changed (notably in the First World), is that the urban form now situates itself as the site of predominantly consumptive, rather than productive opportunities. We see this in a number of ways. Firstly, we can suggest that the majority of labour in (Western, and specifically London, as our site of further investigation) cities is devoted, through the digitisation of labour inputs, to management, service industries, entertainment and leisure. Secondly, where production in the manner that Marx described still occurs, it is increasingly returned to suburban locations at nexuses of transport interchanges. Thus, labour in this manner tends to be hidden in the city, and instead, the production of office spaces as interchangeable centres of management or logistical processes monopolise the urban form. Thirdly, around these are situated commercial, entertainment and leisure forms and complexes with attendant advertising.

Of course, this shift is not a sudden or radically new process. Adorno and Horkheimer identified it as the ‘culture industry’, Debord as ‘spectacle’ and Benjamin as the ‘phantasmagoric’ (to which we will return). This is not a claim for a coherency of thought as synonymity between the aforementioned thinkers, but that a key theme links them. It is, in Debord’s terms, the production of spectacle (and, to return to China, here one may think of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics). Understood as the production of the hegemony of the image, of the appearance of things over their reality – so that all that was once directly lived, is now lived through representation.[6] The network of images that constitute the spectacle correlates with the self-valorisation of exchange-value that comes to define the culture industry. It amounts to the expression of illusory progress, but at the cost of the ‘exclusion of the new’ so that ‘the machine rotates on the same spot.’[7] The spectacle and culture industry are thus extensions of Marx’s machine to which the human is mere ‘appendage’, as people are ‘enslaved by’ it in its capacity as ‘overlooker’. [8] The construction of the city as consumptive locus, amounts to the generation of a place of inhabitation in which alienation from the social whole is the dominant mode of consciousness.

This answers the first question. The city is the place of focus because it provides, historically, and in the contemporary moment, the expression of capitalism’s logics, contradictions and processes in its most explicit form. Secondly, the city currently marks the mode of inhabitation – and accordingly experience – of the majority of the world’s population. Thirdly, as the interaction of our first two claims, the city in this manner is the site of alienation, of isolation as transmitted ideology – here we may think of the manner in which individuals attempt to privatise public space through mobile phones, portable music players, iPads and other devices – as a way of refuting social cohesion. That is to say, the city, while the site of potential collective relationships, operates as a method of fragmentation that brings together (in proximity) and isolates (through gentrification, relocation and modulation) as dialectical movement. As Jappe suggests, it keeps ‘individuals, who were just as ripe for emancipation as the productive forces would allow, from becoming aware of that fact’.[9]

The answer to the second of our initial questions is derived from the first. The Arcades Project, Benjamin’s unfinished study of 19th Century Paris, contains conceptual and material analysis that attempts representation, dissection and the methodology of a response to the effects of the city. An attempt to explicate just why this is the case needs to engage with the city on the terms we have already delimited. That is to say, that it is an engagement with the city as the locus of experience under capitalism: the frame for experience, and a limit to possible experience. Accordingly, an explication of Benjamin’s interpretation of the city as phantasmagoria, its relation to his historical project, and the dialectical image as spatially resolved engagement of the two, follows.

In ‘Convolute N’ of The Arcades Project, Benjamin, on the pathos of his work, stated that ‘I find every city beautiful’.[10] While the dust covered arcades of Paris, the porous and ramshackle buildings of Naples, and the winter streets of Moscow all formed a network of places for an intense aesthetic engagement, the city was not just the object of a detached, artistic contemplation. For Benjamin, the city was intimately linked to experience, that is to say, to the possibility of life directly lived. In his earlier writings, particularly One-Way Street with its composition of memories represented through spatial attribution, and the autobiography of A Berlin Chronicle, the connection between memory, experience and city space is made.[11] Precisely because of its structure as both the site of experience and limits to experience through the ideological transmission of capitalism’s spatial structuring. Consequently Benjamin’s engagement with the city resembles a search for an account of the subject radically disengaged from capitalism. It is one that rejects autobiography as ‘to do with time, sequence and what makes up the continuous flow of life’ to talk instead of ‘space; of moments and discontinuities.’[12] The interruption of the autobiographical flow, through the spatially resolved construction of a personal history from these moments and discontinuities, is the goal for the subject, for all subjects mobilised as the proletariat.

Experience, or the possibility of experience under a capitalism that transmits received ideologies and establishes people as machine parts, forms the thematic link between the culture industry, the spectacle, and Benjamin’s description of Paris as the home of the phantasmagoric. Writing in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 Marx used the phantasmagoria – a leisurely or touristic attraction popularised in Paris that played on the stimulation of the senses through illusions – as a description of the shift in social relations brought about by the transition from use to exchange value.[13] The significance of this shift is that it establishes the appearance of a form of social relations as dominating actual social relations.[14] Thus Benjamin’s targets of investigation in The Arcades Project – the liminal figures of the pimps, prostitutes, and flâneurs that populate Paris – are those that exhibit the forms and tensions of subjective commodification as both complicity and resistance. Phantasmagoria describes the extension of the relation between commodities and people, to cover the interrelationships between people whose subjectivities are constituted as commodities. This takes the form of a mythic anguish that, as Benjamin wrote in the Exposé of 1939, is the defining characteristic of ‘modernity’.[15]

The city as phantasmagoria is then a metonym for capitalism itself. For Benjamin, the value of the examination of cultural forms (as made clear at the start of The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility essay) is in its power to extend Marx’s analysis of capitalism’s ‘infancy’.[16] Marx, in describing this period of infancy, wrote in the 1859 of the distinction between the mode of production’s substructure and the ‘legal and political’ superstructure that arises from it as the totality of social relations.[17] Traditionally ‘the transformation of the superstructure… takes place more slowly than the substructure’, but the advent of the era of technical reproduction resulted in the expression – across an accelerated cultural sphere – of the same dialectics in say, architecture, as in political economy.[18] Physiognomic analysis prompted superstructural extension so as to cover the totality of the mode of production’s cultural unfolding as the face of capital.[19] In expanding the superstructure to cover the cultural sphere of 19th Century Paris, Benjamin did not mitigate the problem (of reciprocal affect and effect) between substructure and superstructure, but expanded the site of possible class contestation.[20]

For Benjamin, as Marx described, the city as the preeminent space of society’s wealth appeared as the ‘immense accumulation of commodities’.[21] In Capital, Marx starts his analysis with the commodity because it forms the simplest building block of capital. The analysis of the fetish character of the commodity, in its form as monad, makes visible in each unit the contradictions that are inscribed across the system as a whole.[22] Thus, although the point of critical scrutiny differed – Marx emphasised analysis of the substructure, while Benjamin turned his attention to the superstructure – both held validity. The city as the face of capitalism, through its monadological quality, expressed all the contradictions and configurations, the dialectics of building and activity, place and people, architecture and engineering, of the wider systemic form.

Formulated in this manner, the reified form of the phantasmagoria divests a number of contradictions. Firstly, it relies on the movement of fashion: the combination of the societal tendency to rapidly forget the recent past with its mobilisation as novelty. Fashion, as this movement, is sold as progress but masks the primary contradiction between the ever same – the relations of production – and the ever new as the phantasmagoria of mobilised commodities. Secondly, the commercialisation of the commodity under this movement, requires, as Adorno describes, a paradoxical incompatibility between the ‘just like’ and ‘original’ tenets of its form, derived from a system that ‘must simultaneously develop and enchain productive power’.[23] Thirdly, the reanimation of myth as a self-validating veneer for the phantasmagoria of the commodity form belies its sclerotic nature.[24]

Phantasmagoria qua city, marks the contradictions of the bourgeois narrative that Benjamin identifies in his historical account. Catastrophe informs history. It is, as Benjamin makes clear in his definition of historical concepts, a state of ongoing missed opportunities: the opportunities to construct the relations of production around a classless configuration. The aim is not to follow a bourgeois account of history with its loaded strictures to possibility, but to construct it. Benjamin makes this point in Thesis XVII of the Theses on the Philosophy of History, in reference to a bourgeois ‘historicism’ predicated (as in the phantasmagoria) on what Gilloch identifies as the mobilisation of myth, historical closure, empathy and the idea of progress as addition or falsification.[25] Consequently the Theses… are best read as an advocacy of the dissolution of a bourgeois history – a history as commodity – in favour of an engaged and constructed account that necessitates an actualising of real possibilities over received appearances.[26]

The Theses… deliver both Benjamin’s most protracted meditation on the idea of catastrophe, and one of his most famous images. The Angel of History, inspired by the Paul Klee painting Angelus Novus, illustrates an account of history based on ongoing catastrophe. Benjamin wrote that the Angel of History, with his face turned toward the past, is caught in a storm blowing from paradise that propels him unceasingly into the future. The Angel, unable to turn toward the future, where we see the appearance of an unbroken chain of events, sees the past as ‘one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet’.[27]

In the intersection of the appearance of a chain of events as proffered by a singular bourgeois history – a history that appears as the additive process of global events that provides the at once universalising and limiting, world historical perspective – with the gaze of the Angel, history is revealed as a disjunctive sequence of events characterised by its false starts and missed opportunities. Consequently the additive processes of a linear history, one ‘which we call progress’, are understood as ‘this storm’.[28] The politicised history that Benjamin wished to write is one that seeks utopian moments, possibilities immanent and unrealised, in order to assemble an account that moves beyond appearance. This was to be achieved through ‘the telescoping of the past through the present’ as an alteration of historical perception.[29] In doing so, revealing that the ‘“status quo” is the catastrophe’.[30]  To recognise the status quo as catastrophic is to recognise a set of conditions of possible experience – experiential limits – that are, under a radical politicisation, to be swept aside.

This sweeping aside was to be achieved, in part, via the dialectical image. Through stopping the movement of history, viewing the frozen image of time – and accordingly, the catastrophic structure of history – in space, it reveals ‘chronological movement… grasped and analysed in spatial image’.[31] Here then, is the intersection of the city as phantasmagoria and history in Benjamin’s account. It is made possible because the phantasmagoria is a frozen form. As Eagleton suggests, Benjamin’s approach involved levying the commodity form against itself: ‘if there is a route beyond reification, it is through and not around it.’[32] Adorno too, made note of Benjamin’s reifying ‘Medusan’ gaze. [33] If the tundra of the phantasmagoria is the static form of modernity, the goal is grasping through the dialectical image the ‘“petrified nature” (erstarrte Natur)’ of ‘those commodities that comprise’ it, its shattering and reanimation: its historical redemption.[34]

The construction of the dialectical image acts as a prompt in the re-evaluation of the perception of time. In constellating objects, the ‘rags, the refuse’ of history, the potential was provided for a new way of seeing in order to uncover history’s latent but unrealised possibilities.[35] The point of interruption – the flash of illumination that is the intended result of the dialectical image – becomes the Messianic import, or the ‘chips of Messianic time’ in the construction of history.[36] In this manner, historical materialism eschews the additive processes of universal history – that the Angel sees as one catastrophe – in favour of a constructed approach that offers a ‘revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past’.[37] Viewed in respect of its Jewish origins – as opposed to the Messiah of the Christian teleology – the Messianic is a secular acknowledgement of the possibilities of creating Heaven on Earth, interpreted as the potential in each moment for the radical change of everyday conditions. [38] This is the service of theology that Benjamin wished to enlist.[39] Not the promise of a redemptive afterlife, but the political charging of each and every moment of experience.

If the present is grounded in the idea of ongoing catastrophe, how does Benjamin suggest we may move away from this? The answer, through the moment of illumination, is the instantiation of ‘now time’. In the historical materialist’s construction of history it is the ‘constellation which his own era has formed with a definitive earlier one’ which establishes a perception of the ‘present as the “time of the now”’.[40] This ‘time of the now’ is a time of realised possibility. It is not the maintenance of the present as it is, but the emergence of possibilities characterised by what the present is not. Revealed through the flash of illumination it owes itself to both the negative thought that informs it – revolutionary measures are not the maintenance of the status quo – and the broader ‘didactic intent’ of the historical materialist’s construction of history.[41] This construction, made visible through the dialectical image allows the politically charged re-reading of time, constructing a radical break in the temporalities of past, present as catastrophe, and redeemed history.[42] The ‘time of the now’, following the illumination of the dialectical image, is the transformation of the present, a transformation Caygill calls the ‘fulfilment of historical time’ instead of a ‘fulfilment in historical time’, as opposed to the continuation of an empirical chronology of history.[43] Making redeemed time the ‘interruption of the temporal order itself’.[44]

To answer the second question in light of the explication attempted above is to acknowledge Benjamin as a thinker of the intimate relationship between space, time and the city. Beyond this though, Benjamin held on to the redemptive power of utopian moments, of the use of discarded fragments and unfinished forms that he wished, in pointing out their extant status, to ‘merely show’. [45] It is this positivity that provides the justification for appealing to Benjamin’s conceptual apparatus. Capitalism has outlived Benjamin. But the work of avant-gardes, vanguard artists and theorists in the intervening period between Benjamin’s tragic death and today should not be eclipsed by history, as the potentialities of the Arcades were for him. To bring the past into contact with the present, to re-read and re-think ideas, dreams and spaces constrained by the mode of production is to engage with their political possibilities.

The third of our initial questions is just what does the relation between cities and Benjamin’s conceptual apparatus have to offer at this moment? The answer is more thoroughly explored in the following chapters but is grounded in two key ideas. The first is that Benjamin offers us a way of reading existing spaces in light of their relation to capitalism. To attempt this is to engage with the spatio-temporal restrictions (phantasmagoria and bourgeois accounts of history) that inform capitalism’s unfolding of space. Secondly, he may offer us pointers to the composition of a redeemed space. Informing both is the dialectical image. Specifically in its ability to bring about unforeseen constellations, to collide the past and present in spatially inscribed objects. Bursting from the dialectical image at the moment of illumination is the opportunity of a revised optic, a method of re-apprehension that privileges the fragmentary over the whole, and the marginalised over the received. In doing so it asks for a reconsideration of the restrictions – the limited binaries of progress and stagnation, public and private, individual and social – of a capitalist system in its entirety.

The first claim, of the benefit to analysis of the arrangement of spaces under capitalism, is informed by the idea of ruin. In the 1935 Exposé Benjamin wrote that in ‘the convulsions of the commodity economy we begin to recognise the monuments of the bourgeoisie as ruins before they have crumbled’.[46] Given the nature of the boom-bust economic cycle that after the 2008 banking crisis left many developments, cancelled, or part-finished (in particular, to return to Marx’s original point of analysis, in a Manchester stripped of most of its industrial power), is it possible to read these spaces as ruin? To suggest this, is to talk of the ill-constructed centre. At the pole of the explicit expression of capitalistic space we might point to the monumental: in London, in particular, to the development of the 2012 Olympic Park. The second chapter of the project attempts to suggest, as a result of petrification and phantasmagoria, that this is the case.

The second claim is that Benjamin may be able to point to a redeemed space. Here, this is understood as space in which experiential conditions are free from capitalistic restriction. To map the form of the dialectical image – its use of montage and juxtaposition – to spatial construction is perhaps not to ask for a reconsideration of restrictions. What it may hold is the potential, through the importation of ideas of porosity, to unlock unmediated social relationships, that is, a fragmentation and composition of space that plays on unseen and unanticipated collisions to dispel ideological isolationism and promote social cohesion. The third chapter attempts to rub against the grain the history of the Olympic site, in order to investigate moments of a part unfulfilled history.


David Harvey, taking Marx’s notion of use divulging value in the manner of the motion of capital, that is, the system of capitalism as requiring a perpetuation of flows or movements of capital, suggests that capitalism requires necessary and cyclical devaluations. It is, he claims, a self-regulating mechanism of capitalism that is manifested as a series of geographically diverse crises.[47] If capitalism’s functioning requires crises at regular intervals – resulting from, for Marx, the contradictions of capital, in neoliberal diction, something like ‘systemic risk’ – then capitalism itself is predicated on the potential for cyclical crisis. Rather than existing in a permanent state of crisis it is the ‘tendency towards and potentiality for crisis that is permanent’.[48] While we might question the nature of crises, are they for instance, singularly identifiable as social, political, economic and so forth, or indeed a non-identifiable interrelation of multiple factors? For the purposes of this investigation they are understood in economic terms – antecedent to superstructural expression – as regular periods of devaluation: the financial crisis of 2008, the dotcom bubble of the early 2000s. For which the cultural manifestation of economic factors – pervasive ‘austerity measures’ in current political vernacular – are lagged indicators.

Again, as the city is our focus, we will concentrate on the large-scale, cyclical reorganisations of capital unique to them, that constitute the pole of an explicit expression of capitalism’s spatial inscription. This is not to claim some sites are the direct expression of cyclical crisis, but that they are attempts to mitigate crisis (and an expression of the potential for crisis) through pre-emptive large-scale devaluations. The Olympics, along with the FIFA World Cup, are currently the largest global sporting events. They are, in their logistical and organisational requirements, international ambassadors of capital that require huge reorganisations, relocations and developments of host cities, generating in this manner complementary disorganisations, dislocations and destructions. Our focus will be on London’s 2012 Olympics as an example of an architecture and space of dominant capitalistic practice that may, as we see historically in other Olympic Parks, express a tendency toward everyday non-use.

Harvey, in The Limits to Capital, expresses Marx’s ideas of fixed capital and value in the following manner: ‘capital is value in motion. Value can remain value only by keeping it in motion.’[49] There are a number of things to be understood here. Firstly, that value refers to surplus value, that is, profit extracted from labour. Secondly, and this becomes important in the reading of space as petrified, is that fixed capital refers in Marx’s terms, not to a static configuration of technology – although it may appear in this manner – but capital located as technology in order to help produce surplus value.[50] Fixed capital is, in this way, placed – as a component of locating technology somewhere – but also in motion. It is at once fixed and moving – as stasis – because it is located within the wider networks of capitalism. Capital passes through it in order to produce surplus value. In this way fixed capital has a use value and exchange value. It is in the Olympic Park, the technology, stadium, aquatic centre, and athlete’s village, that allow the production of surplus value through labour. [51] However, it must be remembered that the Olympics in its contemporary incarnation thrives on what Debord termed the production of spectacle, that is, the colonisation of things by appearance, expressed in productive form through increasingly fleeting periods of duration for commodities.[52] Alongside the physical labour of the competitors exists a broader network of state and privately sponsored trainers, support staff and other professionals, that together with an all-encompassing media and broadcast nexus provides ephemeral opportunities for advertising, sponsorship and other profit generators.

But what of capital that is no longer fixed but obsolete? What of the bourgeois monuments of sporting events and ill-conceived speculations? Capital located in this manner is a function of cyclical devaluation. Here one may think of the Millennium Dome, and the protracted period of stagnation that the structure underwent after its initial yearlong opening period in 2000.[53] The Dome’s cost of around £958 million was never fully recouped, and it was sold at a loss for subsequent redevelopment.[54] The project then, in its inflexible architecture and period of non-use, restricts it from playing any part in the generation of surplus value. It finds itself possessing a tendency toward the form that Borges, in The Immortal describes as a place of non-use. [55] It is an architecture designed to produce spectacle, that when stripped of this function, is not simply unused, but without use. The claim is for a mode of spatial appropriation that follows the narrative of development (and exclusion at the time of construction), access (to a privatised, short-term, spectacular event), and legacy (intended use after the site’s explicit purpose), but that results in an end point place of non-use. When these places are shed of their explicitly capitalistic operations, their built characteristics reveal themselves as inappropriate for repurposing or reintegration into communities out of which they were initially carved. It is this narrative that marks the Olympic Park.

Figure 1: Map of the Olympic Park site.[56]

The Olympic Park is nestled between the industrial spaces of Hackney Wick to the West, and the rapidly expanding site of property speculation in Stratford, to its East. Along the Southern edge of the site runs the Greenway – a sewer remade into a walking and bicycle trail that runs from Hackney Wick to West Ham – and from which the bulk of the construction site is visible. Approaching the site along the Greenway from Hackney Wick one is met by The Big Yellow Self Storage Company’s Hackney depot. On this building hangs a banner that reads ‘Get some space in your life’. It is the company’s slogan, but acts as an explicit and alienating counterpoint to the Olympic Park’s closing off of space. Here, we are exhorted by the banner to rid ourselves of excessive things in order to create more private space in our homes, and yet presented on the other side of the Greenway, with a space once public but currently radically privatised and inaccessible. Part-funded, as can be seen in Figure 1, by the inclusion of ‘Stratford City’ a shopping centre of over 175,000 square metres that is intended to anchor the ‘long-term regeneration’ of East London (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Photo of a map situated on the Greenway overlooking the Olympic Park development. The text concerning Stratford City (noticeably absent from the map on the Olympic 2012 website) reads: ‘Located adjacent to the Olympic Park, Stratford City is one of the largest shopping centre developments ever undertaken in the UK. Stratford City is due to open in Spring 2011 with 175,000sq m of retail and entertainment space and is a key building block in the long-term regeneration of East London’.[57]

Figure 3: Screengrab of the interactive map on the website.[58]

In the site of the Olympic Park we see the expression of the logics of contemporary capitalism: the production of spectacle, encroachment of private space onto public, rhetoric of regeneration coupled intimately with promotion of consumer culture. The insidious effects of the treatment of this space come in its fortification and removal from the public, albeit in order for it to be returned in a more privatised form at a later date. In a manner that corresponds to Mike Davis’s description of the fortification of the spaces of downtown Los Angeles in City of Quartz, we see the fortifying of the Olympic Park.[59] The site is surrounded by two fences, one of Olympic blue-board (the Blue Fence), and more aggressively, an electric fence reminiscent of a prison that explicitly prevents public access (see Figure 4 and 5). We are invited to view from the periphery the space that once included accessible public and common ground – allotments, the canal side – but that no longer does.

Figure 4: Looking east: the electric fence running alongside the Greenway.[60]

Figure 5: Looking East from behind the Counter Café in Hackney Wick. The main Olympic Stadium behind the electric fence.[61]

What matters most is not the summer of 2012 when the Olympic Park will be in use. It will, if the organisers are to be believed, continue the line of 21st century, spectacular Olympics, of which Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 are the recent predecessors. The concern is for the use of the Park’s space after the shedding of the Olympic Games’ metrics of exchange. Now, in its construction, it draws in labourers, resources, architectural practices and tourists to its fences. But, given the peripheral location and the current vagaries of the ‘legacy planning’, what can be expected of it?[62]

The Park can be read, as Benjamin wrote, as a place in which ‘monuments of the bourgeoisie’ can be recognised as ruins before they have crumbled. [63] The ruin here is at once in its time and yet recognised as out of time. It expresses its dilapidation, through its shining newness, in advance. Given the necessity of catastrophe to the historical materialist project it sets itself as a ruin of another possible way of life. To crudely simplify within the constraints of capital, if the money available for the construction of the Park had been used in some other manner, to close the societal wealth gap for example, we might view the finished Park as the ruin of this unrealised opportunity. Granted, this particular account, through the reformism inherent in interpreting the world within catastrophic constraints, does not change it. But crucially, the engagement of the space of the Park as ruin may illuminate the ideological and societal structures that shape its construction.

Ruin then, requires its counterpart. It finds it in the mobilisation of myth. Myth, as Gilloch claims of Benjamin, is the result of the ‘historicism’ decried in the Theses…, it sets itself in three manners: the myth of historical closure, the myth of historical empathy, and the myth of historical progress.[64] The Olympic operation mobilises itself on these levels. In the closed cycle of the four-year games, adapted, in times of global conflict, to an ambassadorial tool (pre World War Two), location of symbolic contestation (during the Cold War), or, in the extreme, placed on temporary hiatus. The cyclical nature of the Games presents itself as the renewed – or made new, as phantasmagoric – of a closed historical system. While the location of the Games changes, the underlying social relations that structure it do not. Secondly, empathy is stressed in the rhetoric of inclusivity, in the binding of nations – themselves increasingly a relic of industrial capitalism in a space of transnational global capital transcendence – in a shared global history. The history of the Olympics is the history – the additive, bourgeois history – of the contemporary world. Indeed, inclusivity, to be part of the Olympics as nearly all the world’s nations are now, reads as an historical account of dominant global powers. While the exclusion, or perhaps including out of nations as an incentive to inclusion in the Games in future, reinforces an arrangement of dominant nations, the empathetic account of a global subject, that is, that the Olympics teaches us we are all one people, is the explicit narrative. Thirdly, the Games mobilises the myth of historical progress through the narrative of a singular global subject with a common or shared history. It is a progress measured through competition in the pursuit of records, and away from the sporting events in measures of development, construction and regeneration.

Benjamin, fascinated by the mythic treatment of the phantasmagoric commodity form in Paris, shares thematically, the ground which Adorno and Horkheimer cover in The Dialectic of Enlightenment. The eponymous dialectic is the thesis that the Enlightenment’s promise of liberation and the dispelling of myth regresses to the use of the mobilisation of myth to sustain its advancements. So that the Enlightenment ‘by taking everything unique and individual under its tutelage’, by pushing the universal application of identity categories that leave no room for non-identity, ‘left the uncomprehended whole the freedom, as domination, to strike back at human existence and consciousness by way of things’.[65] In doing this, ‘things’, that is to say commodities, strike back at human existence through reification: motivation through the domination of nature. Thus the obfuscation of social cohesion is inherent in the transposition of the fetish character of the commodity form to society’s human interactions. This diagnosis of the increasingly alienating effects of the triumph of exchange over use-value finds its apogee in the construction of a society that operates on the ‘wholesale deception of the masses.’[66]

The structure of this society predicated on deception is resolved as the constant making new of established binaries and dominant powers. The example of Odysseus and the Sirens is indicative of the mutually reinforcing societal positions of the exploited – the labourers who must always ‘be fresh and concentrate as they look ahead’ – while Odysseus is transformed into the exploiter of labour through his own requirement that his men do not untie him from the mast.[67] Odysseus hears in the Sirens’ song, the promise of the destruction of mythologised pre-history. In glimpsing this but not being able to make use of it, the song of the Sirens is turned to art; its emancipatory power becomes the artistic object of contemplation. The rhythm of the labourers’ oars, the clatter of the machines in the factory, set the two in opposition as exploiter and exploited. This deception and reinforcement of societal position finds itself translated into the built form of the Olympic Park through the explicit acknowledgement of myth. The stadium, aquatic centre and other venues, are to be filled with people through promise a collectivity that is revealed to be illusory: witnessing competition as a mass composed of isolated individuals. The proposed cladding of the main stadium (see Figure 6), depicting Greek figures – derived from images made iconic through pottery – exhorts the acknowledgement of past as image, divorcing the connectivity of past and present in the capacity of reflexive analysis, in favour of a maintenance of historical linearity: an Olympic lineage from antiquity to today in which we are all situated.

Figure 6: Rendering of the main Stadium.[68]

Adorno and Horkheimer write that the mobilisation of myth under the patriarchal society under capitalism – embodied in Zeus in pre-history – constitutes the ‘Olympian chronique scandaleuse’.[69] We find across Iain Sinclair’s representation of London’s east, through the intersection of the myth and ruin of to-be-non-used capital, the chronic Olympic scandal. Given Sinclair’s approach relies on the blurring of fact and fiction, of documentary and myth of his own making, we must by wary of his digressions into the hyperbolic that exaggerate the kernel of resistance that grounds his work. Writing in Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, Sinclair describes the site of the Olympic park – and his Hackney in general – as ground under the reorganisation of private interests and property speculation, with particular opprobrium reserved for the Olympic Park. The appearance of the blue-board fence that surrounds the development site is described in the manner of a miniature Berlin Wall as an ‘exclusion zone’.[70] In Sinclair’s – borderline conspiratorial – account the pernicious influence of developers stretches out from the site through the public transport network that is currently being reorganised to serve Olympic need. The opening of the Dalston Overground station on the newly re-commissioned East London Line, with its light-blocking developments of 20 storey Barratt Homes, an explicit point class war through privatisation and development.

In an article for the London Review of Books, Sinclair writes as a travel reporter – although given his ‘mad thesis’ that ‘there is only one city and it doesn’t work’ – city transposer may be a more accurate description.[71] Visiting Athens, the site of the 2004 Olympics, the Greek riots of 2008, and ongoing disputes over austerity measures, a locus for radical political activity, he claims that the current unrest results from both a cultural incompatibility with the Olympic project, and the expenditure of 2004 telescoped into the national debt of today.[72] The ongoing encroachment of the Olympic project into the lives of the Greek population is a story of staggered temporalities.[73] The financial seepage from 2004’s Games plays out in the riots and strikes. But more than this, the culture of ‘brown bagged money’ or ‘coffee cash’ – quotidian corruption – as normative level, was incompatible with the regulated neo-liberalism of a European Union sponsored Olympic incursion.[74]

It is his description of the space of the Athenian Olympic Park that may point to the fate of London’s. Sinclair describes it as a scene of desolation. Now home to packs of stray dogs, its social housing is increasingly dilapidated; a result of a peripheral location and legacy planning that failed. To be drawn from this is that the spatial configurations of the site, for all the intentions of the planners and post-Olympic committee suggestions, is too prescriptive, too bulky, and too rigid, to enjoy easy reintegration into the space of the city. In a neat example of spatial repurposing contra-legacy, Sinclair explains that it is not the Olympic running track that locals take their weekly exercise on, but the path leading to it.[75] Through the words of a local, Aristotelis, it is suggested that the Greeks are historically ‘used to living among ruins’ but that the buildings of the Olympic Park, the developments of a modern capitalism, are ‘just ruins, they were never anything else.’[76]

We might claim that Sinclair’s account, like Adorno and Horkheimer’s description of the culture industry, is necessarily hyperbolic. If this is levied as opposition alongside the claim that the Olympic Park does, in its architectures and spaces, have something to offer, where might we find this? Are the sites of modern capitalism to be read solely as prescriptive ruins? Or is there a manner in which capitalism can be built out of?

Undoubtedly Benjamin kept faith in new technologies as modes of potential liberation.[77] But this faith was placed, firstly, in a technical architecture, and secondly, in its effect on proletarian subjectivity. In this manner the technical construction of the iron and glass architecture of the Parisian arcades, with its emphasis on the interpenetration of the interior and exterior, top lighting and shaping of a social environment that refuted prescriptive behavioural logics, were places to glimpse utopia. However, Fourier’s Phalanstery, a utopian community – a city of arcades – Benjamin condemned as reactionary and stifling.[78] The Eiffel Tower in particular, left unclad, Benjamin used as an example of the production of unforeseen constellations, because its frame acted as a fragmenting lens for spatial montage. Paris, viewed through the Eiffel Tower, was distorted, fragmented and recomposed in a near endless series of frames. Benjamin’s claim on the power of montage finds itself, through iron construction, as Mertins notes, engendering a new way of viewing spatial aesthetics.[79]

To make this claim for the constructions of the Olympic Park may be to stretch the argument, such that a critical negativity may be retained for two key reasons. Firstly, as we have covered, the site is steeped received capitalist ideology in its mobilisation of myth, maintenance of existing narratives and binaries and modes of exclusion. Secondly, while the might point to superficialities such as the lighting gantries on the Olympic Stadium (Figure 6) as reminiscent of the structure of the Eiffel Tower, they do not represent either a new form – they exist as a well established template of architectural tropes – or a technical architecture as such. Indeed, we might make the claim that the Olympic Park privileges artistic architecture as a whole. Understood in this way as an embrace of a postmodern sculptural form conceived as iconic image. That is, as a structure readily translatable to image for consumption or as a way of advertising the park. This is seen in both Zaha Hadid’s Aquatic Centre (Figure 7) with its sloping roof, and the proposed form of the privately sponsored Mittal Tower.[80]

Figure 7: Rendering of the Aquatic Centre. [81]

What Benjamin suggests is to be taken from an embrace of the technical form of architecture – over its contemplated, artistic counterpart – is a means of bringing the immanent politico-aesthetic potential of construction to bear.[82] It is the constructors of this new architecture, the ‘engineers and proletariat… alone at that time provided an opportunity to recognise the decisive, new spatial feelings of these iron constructions.’[83] These feelings offered the proletariat the opportunity to develop a subjectivity radically disengaged from capitalism’s narratives. But is this enough? The idea that the spatial feelings accessible to the constructors of this architecture are, in some way a refutation of the bourgeois perspective, perhaps does not hold. The embrace of the industrial aesthetic, the technical form as stylistic trope – whether through personal, commercial or public building – and its accessibility as touristic pursuit – stadium tours, backstage trips to places where once only construction would have access – renders it the path finding of the avant-garde.

If Benjamin holds that the immanent critique – that is, built form – of architectural construction contains the potential for emancipation then Manfredo Tafuri is far more pessimistic. Tafuri’s interest in a dialectic of production and recuperation (something best understood as the power of capitalism‘s image-hegemony to appropriate as image, that opposed to it), under capitalism expands Meyer Schapiro’s critique of the treatment of Modernism in The New Architecture.[84] If Schapiro’s claim to the inseparability of form and use in architecture so that aesthetic reflects social arrangement, and social arrangement informs aesthetic, his criticism of the ‘International Style’ as a style derived from an aesthetic form without the social content requires consideration.[85] While Meyer, like Benjamin, may have claimed that the development of aesthetic and built forms that accurately reflect a social relations at odds with the dominant mode structuring society is possible, Tafuri extends the scope of the argument to reject such notions. Interpellation within a system necessarily complicates attempts at being against that system.[86] So that an aesthetic that anticipates a changed form of social relations cannot be built within the constraints of a society that rejects liberation from capitalism.

Tafuri, taking Benjamin’s engagement with history as the basis of his project of architectural critique, looked to engage with a counter-hegemonic, constructed history.[87] He sees the ideological imperatives of modern architecture – as we have identified in the Olympic Park – as complicit with capitalism. There is, he claims, an eclipse of history, in which the historical relevance of construction is sacrificed for a spot in a bourgeois historical account.[88] While Benjamin’s belief in the power of montage is itself an advocacy of the avant-garde techniques of Surrealism, Tafuri insists that avant-garde behaviour is not a genuine refutation of capitalist processes, but instead, their path finding. The interrelation of production, consumption and distribution with industrial design and artistic practices ensures the transmission of ideology. So that ‘ideology was not imposed on artistic operations… but had become an internal part of the operations themselves.’[89] The techniques of the avant-garde thus become the testing ground of the ideas of capital and where they are employed for radical purposes, are those which ‘capital used in the first phases of its development, but has since rejected.’[90] For Tafuri, there cannot, as there can for Benjamin, be immanent developments of a potentially redeemed social form in capitalism. For Tafuri, ‘there cannot be founded a class aesthetic, art or architecture, but only a class criticism of the aesthetic, of art, of architecture, of the city itself.’[91]

Tafuri’s negativity is, one might claim, a response to a capitalism that folds everything into its own horizons. But if Tafuri’s insistence that the dominant logics of capital cannot be built out of prior to social transformation, there may be localised refutations, even subterranean examples of what Brecht, as cited by Benjamin called umfunktionierung.[92] Umfunktionierung is translated in the Theory of Distraction as ‘refunctioning’.[93] In The Author as Producer it is referred to as a ‘functional transformation’.[94] Meaning a refutation of exchange in favour of use value. This ‘functional transformation’ of place – a détournement of place – or the materials of place, beyond the encoded capitalist ideology of a Tafurian critique of architecture, is a functional or ludic disengagement with exchange.[95] If the Olympic Park provides us with the regimented encoding of capitalist function – the space of national competition, sponsorships and merchandise – then its ludic counterpoint may be found on its periphery. A détournement, a transformation of material, and consequently the spatial characteristics of the liminal spaces surrounding the Blue Fence, could be seen (until its theft and sinking) in the sailboat moored on the canal behind the Counter Café in Hackney Wick. Constructed by Henry Stringer, Director of Practice Architecture and Hackney Wick resident, from Olympic blue-board reclaimed from the fence that surrounds the site.[96] It offered itself as a form of transport; object of recreation and enjoyment, it encapsulated a sentiment of playful resistance in turning a material used exclusion and restriction to travel, into a form of travel.

Here the debate, which has broadly covered building, may meet claims for the non-transformative nature of built space. If Tafuri suggests that a building aesthetic cannot transform life – that ‘class’ architecture is impossible – and, as we will come to see in the next chapter, we may make the claim that Benjamin, through the immanent developments of new technologies, holds this transformational aesthetic is possible, we may ask a question of the role of action. Space, as Lefebvre claims, takes on the form of reality as it is ‘neither a “subject” nor an “object” but rather a social reality – that is to say, a set of relations and forms’.[97] What’s suggested, on one hand, is that building has the potential to be transformative. After all, as Foucault claimed of heterotopias, it works for one system – that is, capitalism – in modulating behaviour, leading us to ask whether it can work for another system by way of resistance.[98] On the other hand, the claim is that built environments are not exclusively transformative; they cannot shape life across the whole spectrum of human activity. In de Certeau’s terms, the built environment attempts to localise, but it is people that spatialise: there is a range of activity and behaviour inaccessible to the control of modulating structures.[99] While we may wish to accede ground to de Certeau as there patently are instances of spatialisation that refute capitalism’s logics – the détournement mentioned above may serve as a pertinent example – the suggestion is that this spatialisation is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. Even more likely perhaps, is that it does not offer a critical entry point into a restructured society, but acts as a differing expression of an existing one. However, for our purposes the answer may lie with Lefebvre somewhere between the two poles: so that at once people are localised and spatialise, but there is a dialectical operation that constitutes this fluctuating relationship – the relationship of space – between people and place.

We may argue then that the problem is still of built form. This chapter attempted to illustrate one of the poles that bracket society: the space of explicit capitalistic construction. The next chapter will explore, by explicating the conceptual content of the arguments of Tafuri and Benjamin touched upon here, and with reference to the Situationist avant-garde, the attempt to imagine an architecture that reflects a changed form of social relations: an architecture for a liberated society.


‘The question of utopia would seem to be a crucial test of what’s left of our capacity to imagine change at all’ – Fredric Jameson [100]

On the ‘fulfilment of utopia – one cannot speak, only bear witness’ – Benjamin in a letter to Paul Scheerbert [101]

The two quotations that act as an introduction to this chapter are not intended to serve as an entry into a full discussion of utopia. While we must acknowledge the concept as necessary to our discussion of the possibility of non-capitalistic built forms, it is to be taken as a point constellated among many and not an engagement with it on its own speculative terms. That utopia is inherently immaterial or virtual – a homophonic coinage of Thomas More’s that plays on the Greek root ‘no place’ and its pronounced form ‘good place’ – is in effect politically irrelevant.[102] Its value is to be taken as a mechanism of motivation: a political end point framed negatively that illuminates the present. While utopia may not itself be realisable, as Jameson suggests, the ability to imagine change at all hinges on our ability to imagine the grandest change of all. Utopia shows its value in this discussion as a means of illustrating Benjamin’s claim to a new aesthetic, the power of rubbing history against the grain for its utopian fragments, and the recuperative power of capitalism.

Benjamin, writing to the utopian fantasist Paul Scheerbert, insisted that utopia cannot be spoken about, but must be born witness to.[103] To contrast this with Jameson’s proclamation is to bring out a disjunction between the power of speculative imagining and the impact of the materialisation of these images. If utopias exist as immaterial contrast to distinctly material expressions of capitalism’s dominant logics, can we simply draw out the conceptual and structural characteristics that inform capitalism’s spaces and render a built utopia as their dialectical opposite? The answer is patently no. To reduce the dialectic to simple negation – in this case the negation of an inflexible space as space of flexibility – will not do.

What Benjamin saw in his dissection of cities, was the power of porosity, through the collisions of the dialectical image – in its interpenetration of the public and private, architecture and engineering, new and old – to combat static configurations. Here, as we will come to claim, is the basis for the aesthetic of potentially redeemed space. Simple petrified binaries are dissolved in favour of the processual characteristics of a dialectical movement. Through an aesthetic grasped in allegorical representation, or the creation of a space for the realisation of the hitherto unrepresentable: utopia, if it cannot be confronted head on, may be glimpsed from the corner of the eye. This is the second of the poles: not the built space of the Olympic Park, but utopian frame to the space in between.

If the idea of utopia as ‘no place’ is the counterpoint to explicit places of capital – to the non-places of supermodernity, steeped, in semiotic mediation and ideological transmission – can it, through critique and aesthetic consideration, be productively speculated on?[104] Can, if indeed there are, utopian kernels amongst the fields of capital, they bear witness to their status as potential building blocks of an alternative society? To return to Benjamin is to return to the idea that we are not witnessing, in the monuments of the bourgeoisie, the ruins of utopia, but that we may find utopia among the ruins.

The spaces of capital, informed by myth and expressing the ideological imperatives of an architecture of dominance – shaped by explicit engagements with capital and the profit motive – exist, for Benjamin, as built constraints to the potentially transformative power of new technologies. Benjamin, in the Exposé of 1935, dealt with the use of new technological forms in two important ways. Firstly, he recognised the strictures inherent in the mobilisation of myth to inform the aesthetics of new building technologies. And secondly, he linked ‘artistic’ architecture to the phantasmagoria of a bourgeois capitalism, and engineering – in the use of iron and glass architecture in particular – to the progressive power of social change. As Mertins stresses, the resulting tension of these new structures of iron and glass results in their Janus-like characteristics.[105] The dialectic of structural development at once impels building forward through the new possibilities of improved technology, and throws it backward through insistence that it must follow the historical mode of construction.[106] The resulting dream-image of capital thus expresses two tendencies, one toward social change, and the other toward the maintenance of the status quo. Reflected in the Janus-like visage, are the future potentials of the reworking of a pre-capitalist classless society, and its counterpart in the realisation of this dream-image without the social substance: what Buck-Morss terms the dream-image without the dream. Benjamin’s response is the attempted politicisation of the dialectic of architecture and engineering. By linking the former to artistic contemplation – as Tafuri rightly criticises in architecture that expresses the eclipse of history – and the latter to the development of an immanent new aesthetic brought about by the possibilities of new technologies, Benjamin enforced and radicalised the opposition inherent in building, into an ‘overarching dialectical struggle between the classes, the new and the old’.[107]

What is to be drawn from this politicisation? Benjamin, as Mertins tells us, admired Giedion’s Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferro-Concrete as it charted the development of iron and glass architecture to its self-reflexive and purified realisation.[108] This was important because it expressed both the potential critical content of a self-reflexive and thought architecture as immanent critique – read, counter to the Tafurian claim, as being both in and against capitalism – and the idea that a pre-emptive aesthetic form of a new society was possible.

The technology that facilitated public buildings – bridges, train stations, factories – proffered the development of a new aesthetic based around transparency, interpenetration and exposure. In The Arcades Project Benjamin stated that the technical forms of architecture measure ‘their progress and their success [in proportion] to the transparency of their social content’.[109] This content, derived from the form of technical construction, is not overtly marked by mythologised or ideological design. It allowed the possibility of the development of the self-reflexive and importantly, critically thought, aesthetic principles – transparency, response to social use, and the visibility of the pulse of life as social cohesion – without necessitating their transposition into a style. [110]

Running counter to this, Manfredo Tafuri, wrote in the Italian Second Edition of Theories and History of Architecture that: ‘one cannot ‘anticipate’ a class architecture (an architecture ‘for a liberated society’); what is possible is the introduction of class criticism into architecture.[111] [original emphasis] As we have already seen, Tafuri explicitly rejected the attempts of the avant-garde to change life through the built form. Although the acknowledgement is that life and space are necessarily linked – to change life one must change space, but concurrently one must change life to change space – like Benjamin, Tafuri held that the utopia of ‘liberated society’ cannot be spoken of, but born witness to. The question then becomes one of emergence. If the rejection of utopian imaginings, or even architecture conceived as classed, is a necessary part of the condition for the realisation of a liberated space, the conditions of this emergence are as yet unknown. To make this claim is to combat recuperation in advance, but to undermine a politically useful utopian mechanism. Tafuri’s project of critique becomes a writing of a politically committed history, one that draws into relation the past to the present. It’s critical function is composed in its form. Like Benjamin, Tafuri invests in the composition of counter-hegemonic, fragmentary histories, in the formation of constellations, but unlike Benjamin, he sees no opportunity for the development of the illuminating moment of an anti-capitalist aesthetic, within capitalism.

That Tafuri advocates critique of architecture over the attempted formulation of class architecture is – reminiscent of Debord’s claim that preceding avant-gardes had withdrawn to ‘the very doctrinal positions whose inadequacy had just been revealed’  – a result of witnessing the failures of avant-garde groups.[112] He states, that the ‘“radical” opposition (including portions of the working class) has avoided confrontation with the highest levels attained by capitalist development’.[113] In short: a misplaced focus on the ‘secondary contradictions’ inherent in design, rather than the primary conditions of the system.[114] To return to the earlier quotation, the implication is that capitalism must be swept aside before building can be started for the society beyond. Anticipating a post-capitalistic form within capitalism, for Tafuri, is impossible. Built environments produced under capitalism by virtue of their inclusion within a wider network are assured of their ideological complicity, no matter the claim for resistance.

But what of ‘anticipation’? Surely Benjamin shares the sentiment? After all, he rejects the utopianism of Fourier’s Phalanstery and states that utopia is not to be spoken of. What we can draw from this is a shared concern for Benjamin and Tafuri, of recuperation. However, Benjamin’s positivity over built forms as immanent critique and the nuances of his historical method, suggest there is a retained possibility in unknown anticipation, a notion to which we will return.

If recuperation through image is a pertinent problem for the production of visible modes of resistance under capitalism, we can appeal to Debord to further its description. If, as we might suggest, the spectacle is a totalising ontological claim that nothing lies beyond the image, that a reconfiguration of society rather than an unmasking becomes necessary to change it, then images of utopian futures produced within it are themselves reduced to part of the spectacle. Resistance, or the imagining of possible worlds, becomes a behavioural counterpart to the logic of complicity. Indeed, the premise of numerous forms of advertising sited within urban contexts hinges on a culturally recuperated image of utopia. Barclaycard’s 2007 ‘Welcome to the Future’ campaign, for example, provided illustration of a future London that – depending on the dreamer – plays on utopian visions, if not utopia itself.[115] The images took the form of illustrations of a London in which rooftops are littered with golf courses, and structures reconfigured as theme park rides. In doing so they played on received ideas of utopia: ludic attitudes, elements of leisure and play. However, each image’s orientation around capital was made explicit through the inclusion of an in-image advert for Barclaycard (on a blimp, or billboard) that monopolised the skyline: the leasing back of the utopian dream-image on credit.

In joining Tafuri’s critique with the work of Debord and the Situationist International we can illuminate both the utopian claims of a spatial revolution, and the counterclaim that the transformation of life is not something to be anticipated in built structure. The Situationist International, a French avant-garde group effectively led by Debord between the years of 1957 and 1972 encapsulate a number of key ideas. In a broad sense, the trajectory of the Situationist group is roughly as follows. Ivan Chtcheglov’s early battle cry that ‘we are bored in the city’ pointed to an interest in spatial and artistic concerns.[116] The group’s pursuit of unitary urbanism, détournement and psychogeography (in association with artists and architects such as Asger Jorn and Constant Nieuwenhuys), then gave way to a more overt politics of denunciation, and a rejection of exclusively artistic and spatial projects in favour of analysis of spectacular culture.[117] As Lefebvre, one-time friend and collaborator of the Situationists noted of their early utopian imaginings, referring to Constant in particular, and the wider (tactical) program of unitary urbanism and psychogeography in general, they acted as a method of uniting, artistic practice, city spaces and everyday life.[118] The later rejection of these programs – Debord called urbanism ‘ideology’ – on the grounds of ideology critique moved the group away from speculative future imaginings and projects grounded in urban space, to an explicit criticism of the image characteristics of space: that is, the spectacle of urbanism.[119] The Watts riots of 1965 provided a pertinent example. The rioting in Watts, attributed to race in mainstream media, to class by Martin Luther King, were read as a riot against the spectacular commodity by the Situationists.[120] Thus, and not without irony, the Situationist journal published a picture of a burning Watts building, with the caption ‘critique of urbanism’ – the image of urbanism – underneath it.[121]

The dispensing of the urban programs by the Situationists is not entirely surprising. Conscious of the stigmatism of artistic labels, Debord was keen to reject stereotyping that fitted the group into a history of avant-garde movements.[122] Achieved through the expulsion of artists operating under a ‘Situationist’ banner, claims through détournement were made for the repurposing – the umfunktionierung – of existing forms but not production ex nihilo. Thus, one aspect of the Situationist contribution to avant-garde legacy is defined through the ‘Situationist use of art’ but with the insistence that there is no such thing as ‘Situationist art’ itself.[123] Although Tafuri would argue for the inclusion of Situationist techniques – in particular the widespread use in the Internet age of détournement in advertising – in the arc of capital-avant-garde developmental complicity, the Situationists were aware of the problem of recuperation by capitalism. History would suggest that the overt work the Situationists did to set themselves against recuperation – denying collectivism qua ‘avant-garde’ label, decrying doctrine, or production of art under a banner – has failed: they now inspire exhibitions and huge amounts of academic study which Debord would have vigorously opposed. But, this is not to fully invalidate their ideas.

Recuperation in relation to the Situationist International is a decidedly intertextual narrative. The strands consist of their own future recuperation, the recuperation of earlier avant-garde techniques – in particular those of the Surrealists, by the Situationists for their own use – and the application of these techniques against an already recuperated Modernism. Indeed, the Surrealist tie informed the early utopian spatial preoccupations through Debord’s fascination with the Palais Ideal – a space of non-use but the location of Surrealist inspired dream imagery – and the authoring of the Proposals for Rationally Improving the City of Paris, themselves a playful rethinking of the Surrealist program.[124] However, this early embrace of Surrealism was limited by the knowledge that previous avant-gardes returned to ideologically defensive positions they initially refuted. If the tactics of the Surrealists were self-limiting in the manner that Lefebvre suggests – there is, through an overloading of meaning, ‘no way, by virtue of language alone, to make the leap from exchange to use’ – they at least provided an early method by which to engage with a bigger threat.[125]

If the Modernist project of the 1920s and 1930s had contained within it the willingness to shape lives for the better, the divorce of social content from aesthetic – in the instantiation of an ‘International Style’ – had returned to help reshape post-war Paris through the automobile-embracing urbanism of Le Corbusier in particular, in a manner that ran counter to the Situationists.[126] The proliferation of the automobile began its full Parisian realisation in 1958 with the start of the construction of the Boulevard Périphérique. This road, that encircles the historic centre of Paris and isolates the banlieues of its metropolitan periphery, is at once liberator and oppressor. Though the promise of the automobile was based on freedom and movement, its fragmentary and isolating effect as individual fortification in the urban environment struck back at the possibility of meaningful collective relationships within a city space. The Situationists, in the thrall of the immigrant populations of a then pre-gentrified Left Bank, decried the spell of isolation over a collective unity.

The repurposing of Modernism, and by extension of the principle of the speculative imaginings of an aesthetic for a changed future – the dream-image without the dream – is then evident (in a Tafurian manner) in the culture of today. Thus the Taylorism of the Frankfurt Kitchen, or the flexible living of the Corbusian house, both designed to liberate time through a production of spaces ostensibly flexible and responsive, are found to be without the pedagogical counterpart, restrictive and prescriptive. The Frankfurt Kitchen in particular, designed by Schütte-Lihotzky, for one person in a galley style, and representing the ur-form of the modern, fitted kitchen, found itself a visual success in its reproduction in the magazines and media of the day, but resolutely non-practical for those who used it. It was, in its processes, a domestic factory for food, but without the explanatory and educational training, one that was reluctant to divest the built-in timesaving measures.[127] Another example is found in the Weissenhof Estate in Stuttgart. Though the housing building designed by Le Corbusier in 1927, emphasises communal social space, the flexible interiors – notably a living area that turns into a bedroom complete with fold down bed for adults, and a pull out bed for children – offer up limited open-shut binaries.[128]

Figure 8: Conceptual drawing of New Babylon[129]

While this may be an advance over the traditionalism that, for Baudrillard, continued to inform domestic domination and patriarchy, it finds itself as a (slightly more) flexible accommodation for a flexible capital.[130] In the same manner, Constant’s New Babylon (Figure 8), designed around flows and ludic interaction through technical liberation, finds its theoretical counterpart in the deterritorialising and reterritorialising logics of capital that Deleuze and Guattari describe in A Thousand Plateaus.[131] Consequently, a spatial reorganisation that promises flexibility, play; one that responds to flows, finds itself, under capitalism, organising, directing and modulating these flows. Though the intention of flexible design is to liberate time – and time, as Marx states, is the basic constituent point of political economy – it finds itself recuperated.[132] Thus flexible living or spaces, as McDonough and Cunningham suggest, find themselves as the organising principle of the commodity form of capital: in short, the Ikea critique.[133] Simply put, the pronouncements and projections of a flexible, responsive form of living are not the realised imaginings of utopia, but built in to the productive, distributive and consumptive processes of contemporary capitalism. Consequently, the same vigilance and critical distance applied to overtly capitalistic sites should be applied to those purporting to represent a radical break.

If the recuperation, or indeed, pre-empting of capitalism by avant-garde processes is, as we might suggest, unavoidable, how is it possible to produce a new space beyond the use of détournements or short-term tactics? After all, as Lefebvre suggests: ‘a revolution that does not produce a new space has not realised its full potential; indeed it has failed in that it has not changed life itself, but has merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions or political apparatuses.’[134] The linking of a new space to the construction (the building as relationship between place and action qua life) of a new space is then, not to ask questions with explicit reference to styles, tropes or received aesthetic forms as de facto expressions of an ideological mode of this construction.

The production of a new space – in order to keep Benjamin’s concepts in mind – is perhaps best read as the production of a new aesthetic of space. Firstly though, we must make clear that an aesthetic is not equivalent to an advocacy. Thus the concern in light of the conceptual apparatus worked through previously, is an aesthetic that locates its primary or meta-aesthetic touchstones as ‘time and place’.[135] The production of an aesthetic is then paramount for two reasons: for one, it allows the rereading of space in alignment with a revised optic thus refuting the necessity of a radically new constructed place as the only means of engendering a new space. And secondly, as Benjamin holds, it allows for an emergence from processes – of action and place – that may have wider traction when acknowledged as process, that is, as something in constant development, rather than in the catastrophic linearity of a closed system based on a strict aesthetic style. The goal is an encounter between action and building as a production of an aesthetic: one that interacts with structures through what they do – their response to action – rather than through contemplation.

To return to the question of ‘anticipation’, we may ask questions of intent. Deliberate anticipation in image hints at prescription: but what of unknown anticipation? At stake is the use of the past without fear of recuperation – with its moments of utopian promise and construction – rather than its eclipse through bourgeois history.

As with his rejection of a bourgeois account of history, Benjamin’s treatment of space privileges the ideas embedded in the fragmentary over the dominant whole. If the analysis of the cultural sphere occurs through a primarily aesthetic account – and it must if we acknowledge a wider sense of what aesthetic means: etymologically as derived from the Greek for ‘perceptible things’ and ‘perceive’ as given to the senses, and, given a present grounded in catastrophe, analysis of the image hegemony of reality – Benjamin’s aesthetic, or perhaps, the optic of his aesthetic, is founded on a process of controlled ruination.[136] Given the goal of the dialectical-image is a ‘temporal constellation, in which the archaic and modern are woven together’ in order to reveal new possibilities, the process of creating the dialectical-image, as Buci-Glucksmann suggests, is grounded in a negotiation – one of baroque complexity – of past and present temporalities.[137] This ‘baroque reason’ produced through Benjamin’s interests in the mourning play, motifs of library, catastrophe and ruin, is what allows us to suggest that Benjamin’s anticipation of future architectures can be employed to find spaces that Tafuri, and wider concerns over recuperation, make impossible.[138] What’s to be drawn from this aesthetic in the investigation of space is as follows. Firstly, that it is a necessarily processual account. Secondly, that controlled ruination is an optic of engagement. And thirdly, its value resolves itself in politico-aesthetic potential.

How is this so? This aesthetic is necessarily processual because it is grounded in the dialectic. Although Adorno, in the letters contained in Aesthetics and Politics is quick to criticise Benjamin for not being dialectical enough in his approach, we may suggest that this is not entirely accurate.[139] As we have seen, the Exposé of 1935 grounds itself in the politicisation of the dialectic between architecture and engineering. The generation of dialectical images as the goal of The Arcades Project then set themselves as images resolved in process. The dialectic, necessarily predicated on movement, while frozen, still exhibits the tension of contradiction. While synthesis or higher resolution is the goal of the image, this is only achieved through the exhibiting of primary contradictions in the dialectical image’s crystallisation of capitalism. What it requires and divests is an understanding of process, of capital itself. Consequently this understanding requires engagement. It requires a critical reflexivity beyond surface apprehension.

This aesthetic engagement is informed by the idea that ‘allegories, are, in the realm of thoughts, what ruins are in the realm of things.’[140] The claim being made here on the value of allegory is through the corresponding value of ruin. That ruins divest information by being in time but out of their time is because they contain the sediment of history. Allegory can then be used in analysis as a method of ruination. It takes the gradual processes of physical ruin and supercharges them, encouraging analysis by blasting objects out of their temporal continuum; effectively ruining them in apprehension. Thus allegory allows Benjamin a form where ‘opposites join up and cancel each other, with no unitary hierarchy of the whole. Reality proliferates in all its dissonant exuberant details, without the form of the ‘grand style’ ever being able to contain or dominate it.’[141] The rejection of a ‘grand style’ is best read not as the rejection of a totality of relations, but of false accounts of social reality. What is preserved is the whole, but in a reconfigured form, not as narrative, but interrelation of parts.  Here then, is the political value of an aesthetic grounded in ruination. The refutation of dominant logics, of an overarching or over-structured narrative in favour of fragments is levelled as the politico-aesthetic refusal of the homogenising effects of capitalism.

Through ruination as an aesthetic engagement informed by the new structures of engineering and in turn, given back to them, one finds political purchase. However, we should be careful to delineate what is meant by this engagement. Firstly, the aesthetic immanent to construction should not be understood merely as a stylistic form, but an ongoing process of aesthetic development. To restrict it to a stylistic template to build from or to is to close the process of development and betray subsequent, unforeseen resolutions. Secondly, it must, if we are to make the claim for a wider spatial dialectic, be linked to a social process as the relation between action – experience – and building, understood as ‘porosity’.

If this political purpose is the creation of a space for a re-engagement with social relationships beyond the reified nature of those under capitalism, it requires an immediate engagement with the present beyond that of the ‘distracted’ or habitual nature that Benjamin posits in The Work of Art… essay. It requires, as Leach suggests, an engagement with architectural space on its own theoretical terms.[142] That is, through an aesthetic based on actualities over mediated representations. We find hints as to what this may look like in Benjamin and Lacis’ 1925 writing on the city of Naples.[143] Naples evinces as a city the processes that inform an aesthetic of ruination. It is a place where ‘one can scarcely discern where building is still in progress and where dilapidation has already set in’, offering a model of a fluid relation to building.[144] From this, Benjamin and Lacis develop the concept of porosity. Porosity is derived from the complex set of interrelationships and interpenetrations that compose Naples. The city, they state, is architecturally as ‘porous as [the] stone’ on which it is built.[145] However, beyond the structural or built characteristics of the city and its foundations exists the interpenetration of ‘building and action’ in ‘the courtyards, arcades, and stairways’.[146] It is a place in which the fabric of the city, both social and physical is in a constant state of flux. It preserves in everything ‘the scope to become a theatre of unforeseen constellations’ and the ‘stamp of the definitive is avoided’.[147]

Porosity, as Andrew Benjamin claims, is responsible for the dissolution of simple oppositions and binaries.[148] It is an aesthetic refutation of the strictures of capitalism through processes of flux, and interpenetration. In avoiding the stamp of the definitive, the unforeseen constellations preserved take the form of a de-alienated social engagement. We see this in Benjamin and Lacis’ description that a ‘living room reappears on the street, with chairs, hearth, and altar, so, only much more loudly, the street migrates into the living room’.[149] Families share spaces, children are looked after to a non-rigid timetable, areas exist so that ‘each private attitude or act is permeated by streams of communal life’.[150] Porosity thus marks a set of social relations in which interpenetration as opposed to opposition and alienation mark the ‘inexhaustible law of the life of the city’.[151]

Of course, this is not to claim that this account of Naples is a description of a wholly revolutionary space. It is a claim that it offers processes – and here it should be remembered that Italy in 1925 was under the rule of the Fascism and Mussolini, a place of limited freedom and dogmatic conformist inflexibility – which make plastic or set in motion frozen social forms. The importance of interpenetration in the porosity of action and building is the manner in which it sets in negotiation localising and spatialising characteristics. In this manner porosity may help inform construction by providing space in which unforeseen constellations – as revolutionary project – can emerge: the goal is perhaps not the construction of a revolutionary space, but to make space for a revolutionary space to materialise.

If porosity grounds the claim for a spatial dialectic based on interpenetration and movement it must exist in constant negotiation with the conceptual apparatus that informs it. To take the ideas that inform this dialectic – the political process, porosity, ruination – and apply them to built structure may be to meet the Tafurian counterclaim for recuperation. That is, the aesthetic template of a liberated architecture is something to be avoided. But, grasping an aesthetic based on porosity, requires extending the ground to the integration of a certain plasticity or flux as a processual claim. To bear witness to process, to moments of spatial porosity that refute capitalism as a space of domination, is in part, the goal of the creation of a space for the realisation of these moments.

Porosity must be more than a claim for flexible living. It demands a fluidity of the relations of building and action that compose space. In short an environment that responds to social relations and the actions derived from this metric over the shaping of them. Returning to East London and the Olympic Park we may look at the history of the site. To rub its history against the grain would be to be bring moments of its past into contact with the present. To suggest alternatives, or unearth possibilities latent but unrealised. Two of these moments, one built, one non-built, constellate with the location of the Olympic Park now. We will look at the plans for Cedric Price’s Fun Palace, as well as the architectural forms of the Manor Garden allotments that were cleared in order to allow the construction of the Olympic Park.[152]

Figure 9: Conceptual drawing of the Fun Palace.  [153]

Cedric Price’s Fun Palace (Figure 9) bears resemblance to the form of Constant’s New Babylon: a space predicated on the use of flows and movement. [154] It was to be ‘non-formalistic, abundantly porous, unenclosed and non-permanent.’[155] In structural terms it finds itself composed of a system of gantries, non-fixed places, escalators able to be relocated, visible service points and so forth. A space of improvisation, it was planned to serve the function of educational and creative development. Communal activity was encouraged by its structure but this is not to say that it ruled out isolation, contemplation, or simply doing nothing at all.

Of course, the criticism of New Babylon by McDonough could still be levied at the space – that it presents itself as site of play but reinforces existing logics. What may allow us to read it more politically positively are four things. Firstly, its purpose: it is a site of creative development, rather than pure ludic indulgence. Secondly, that it was designed to be self-limiting. Price, keen to avoid the institutionalising of such a design, was adamant that it be disassembled after a period of ten years – although we may claim that this is an arbitrary period – or after it had lost its use value. In this manner, it realises itself as a self-reflexive architecture, precisely because it is predicated around an awareness of the problems that confront its very existence. Thirdly, that its open structure suggested an embrace of nature, a porous relation to nature as the dissolution of an inside-outside binary, not its domination, exhibited in the way that New Babylon’s raised and enclosed construction hovers over an existing space. And fourthly, that it was mooted for an area near existing transport interchanges or a coalescing of flows, but not intended as a destination in itself.[156] That is to say, that it avoids the direct reshaping of space around it but attempts to set itself in and against the existing space. What we see in this built form that responds to improvisation, is a structure derived from a set of aesthetic principles correlative with the idea of porosity.

Figure 10: The Fun Palace in its proposed location. [157]

The open-sided structure encourages the interpenetration of the city and the space of the Fun Palace. It at once delimits its area but pushes itself beyond those limits. Imagining the space of a built Fun Palace one may, for example, engage with activities within its structural boundaries while being in sight and the site (Figure 10), of the city around it. One may, as one might when waiting at a street crossing or intersection of public spaces, find one able to see, hear, and smell, activities and spaces to which immediate access is not possible. As a constantly shifting city would require negotiation – and consequently engagement beyond the mimetic – so would the Fun Palace. What we see in its embrace of technology is an updating of the porous form of Naples that so enchanted Lacis and Benjamin. In its constant readjustments and rearrangements it refutes its recuperation into a pattern of mediated or fixed responses and allows unforeseen constellations. If the space of the Fun Palace is brought under criticism for its utopian elements, the response may simply be that it is not a utopian imagining. What the Fun Palace expresses is the achievable and technologically realisable aesthetic and structural projection of a built form that rejects capital’s dominant logics. In short, a mode of building based around a ‘group-form’ in Metabolist terms, that attempts a collective and porous social (through action) expression of technological (built) possibilities.[158]

Figure 11: Pompidou Centre.[159]

The imagined but non-built form of the Fun Palace finds aesthetic but not compositional elements integrated into the structure of some built work. The Pompidou Centre bears a strong stylistic resemblance; at least superficially, to Price’s conceptual drawings. What it fails to do is adopt the responsive and improvisational structural arrangements in its interior. Oddly, the spirit of the Fun Palace is perhaps found outside, in the shadow of the exterior escalator that apes its aesthetic form (Figure 11). The gently sloped Place Georges Pompidou, the public square that provides access to the Centre, encourages the kind of playfulness and environmental improvisation that the building itself lacks. By virtue of its sloping form – the suggestion is that if the square was level it may not provide the spatial characteristics that engender improvisational behaviour – it forms a porous amphitheatre. It is, at once, a public space, a site of performance, a thoroughfare and so on. This space then strikes a balance between localising – it draws people in to its space – but responds to the spatialising characteristics of people: dialectically, it is at once transformative and transformed.

If the Fun Palace represents the immaterial expression of a porous and flexible architecture, then the built form was found in the Manor Garden Allotments that were cleared to make way for the Olympic Park.[160] The aesthetic disjunction between the non-built form of the Fun Palace as a model of techno-centric architecture, and the distinctly rustic or dilapidated form of the Manor Garden huts, serves to illustrate the claim that moments of porosity are found in what may appear to be radically different stylistic forms united under the same conceptual-aesthetic apparatus. That is, that the aesthetic is founded on process rather than stylistic template to build from or to.

Figure 12: Manor Garden hut. [161]

Figure 13: Manor garden hut.[162]

The huts of the Manor Garden Allotments (Figures 12 and 13) provided the dialectical complement to the structures of the Olympic Park that have taken their place. In the photos above we see built forms (greenhouses, tool sheds) constructed from reused doors, frames, pieces of wood and other scavenged and gleaned materials. What they offer is a representation of the nature of the community established around the allotments themselves. Again, they take the porous form, blurring the boundaries between inside and outside, between private and collective space. In doing so they can be read as both in (through their allocation) and against (through their use as refutation of exchange) capital. Working as a détournement or reuse of existing materials and space, and in their use for the production of sustainable foodstuffs, they express a personal and intimate form of building grounded in collective action. As opposed to the Olympic Park which offers the promise of collectivity, but delivers isolation in a group form: that is, as one of the crowd. One only has to look at the passion and conviction of the campaign to save the allotments to illustrate a community beyond the atomised individual.

One might claim that the project of ‘’ is a distinctly Tafurian history, that it is this ‘fragmented yet immediate knowledge’ of a past – the history of the allotments – that was exchanged by the London Development Agency, responsible for the purchase and clearing of the Olympic land, for a loaded and linear account of the area centred on an Olympic telos.[163] Through the production of a set of social relations grounded in actualities instead of the mediated and phantasmagoric, the space was created for the realisation of communal activity – at once the individuation in built huts, and collectivisation through group construction – as a mechanism for the spatial rejection of capitalism. That the allotments were cleared in order to construct the Olympic Park is perhaps a reminder of capitalism’s hegemonic operation, but to be drawn from this history of community is acknowledgement of a moment of integrated critique and construction.


To conclude with an advocacy of an aesthetic as style would, in light of both the differing forms proposed as examples of a porous aesthetic, and concerns over recuperation, be to miss the mark. Perhaps, if there is to be a ‘revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past’ it may be through entering into a dialectic of possibility and impossibility.[164] That is to say, a strategy that holds to both Benjaminian excavation of utopian moments of the possibility of the spatial unfolding of a new aesthetic, and Tafurian critique as the impossibility of generating this form under capitalism. Dialectical composition is the suggestion of a non-closed system open to speculative possibilities but grounded in self-reflexive critique. A porous process whereby conceptual apparatus informs aesthetic, and aesthetic informs conceptual apparatus: which is to hold that built space is both a means of action and of knowledge.

To engage with the poles that frame the ‘messy, ill constructed and jumbled’ form of society, is to attempt to illuminate the whole. [165] The dissection of capitalistic spaces, while maintaining the claim for the preservation of utopian instants, is to acknowledge the political value in these moments. To do so is to ‘merely show’ possibilities restricted by the relations of production.[166] That we can see both the expression of an ideologically informed capitalist architecture in the Olympic Park, and the suggestion of its porous refutation in some instances of its constellated past and present, is not to suggest a program based solely on these moments, but to draw them into a wider and more complex constellation of possibilities. In doing so we may inform the construction of an aesthetic and space, not as the prescription or anticipation of what is to come, but one open to possibility: to the emergence of unforeseen future constellations.


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[6] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (AK Press, 2005), p.1

[7] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, (Verso Books, 1997), p.126

[8] Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto <; [accessed 21/09/2010]

[9] Anselm Jappe and Donald Nicholson-Smith, ‘Sic Transit Gloria Artis: “The End of Art” for Theodor Adorno and Guy Debord’ in SubStance, Vol.28, No/ 3, Issue 90: Special Issue: Guy Debord (1999, pp.102-128), p.107

[10] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.458

[11] Walter Benjamin, ‘One Way Street’ in One-Way Street and Other Writings, (Verso, 1997), pp.45-104

[12] Walter Benjamin, From ‘A Berlin Chronicle’ in One-Way Street and Other Writings, (Verso, 1997), pp.293-346

[13] Karl Marx, ‘Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844’, < > [accessed 03/09/2010]

[14] Margaret Cohen, ‘Walter Benjamin’s Phantasmagoria’ in New German Critique, No.48 (Autumn, 1989) pp.87-107, p.88

[15] Walter Benjamin, ‘Exposé of 1939’ in The Arcades Project (The Belknap Press University of Harvard Press, 2002), p.26

[16] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility’ in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty and Thomas Y. Levin, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008) p.19

[17] Karl Marx, ‘Preface’ to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, <> [accessed 03/08/2010]

[18] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility’, p.20

[19] Rolf Tiedemann, ‘Dialectics at a Standstill’ in The Arcades Project, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002), p.941

[20] A. G. Düttmann, ‘Tradition and Destruction’ in Destruction and Experience, (Clinamen Press, 2000), pp.31-32

[21] Karl Marx, Capital Volume One, (Vintage Books, 1977), p.127

[22] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.476

[23] Theodor Adorno, ‘On Jazz’ in Essays on Music edited by Richard Leppert, (University of California Press, 2002) p.479

[24] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, pp.43-80

[25] Graeme Gilloch, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City, (Cambridge Polity Press, 1996), p.107

[26] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ in Illuminations, (Pimlico, 1999), pp.245-255

[27] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, p.249

[28] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, p.249

[29] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.471

[30] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.473

[31] Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, (Verso Books, 2003), p.92

[32] Terry Eagleton, Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism, (Verso, 2009), p.20

[33] Theodor Adorno, ‘A Portrait of Walter Benjamin’ in Prisms, (MIT Press Paperback Edition, 1983), p.233

[34] Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing, (MIT Press, 1991), p.158

[35] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.460

[36] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, p.255

[37] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, p.254

[38] Howard Caygill, ‘Non-Messianic Political Theology in Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’’ in Walter Benjamin and History edited by Andrew Benjamin, (Continuum Publishing, 2005), pp.215-250

[39] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, p.245

[40] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, p.255

[41] Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing, p.252

[42] Peter Osborne, The Politics of Time, (Verso Books, 1995)

[43] Howard Caygill, ‘Benjamin, Heidegger and Tradition’ in Destruction and Experience edited by Andrew Benjamin, (Clinamen Press, 2000), p.10

[44] Howard Caygill, ‘Benjamin, Heidegger and Tradition’, p.10

[45] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.460

[46] Walter Benjamin, ‘Paris, the Capital of the 19th Century’ in The Arcades Project, (The Belknap Press University of Harvard Press, 2002), p.13

[47] David Harvey, ‘The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis this Time’, <> [accessed 06/09/2010]

[48] Peter Osborne, ‘A Sudden Topicality: Marx, Nietzsche and the Politics of Crisis’ in Radical Philosophy, (No.160, March/April 2010), p.20

[49] David Harvey, The Limits to Capital, (Verso, 1999), p.164

[50] David Harvey, The Limits to Capital, pp.204-206

[51] David Harvey, ‘The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis this Time’ <> [accessed 06/09/2010]

[52] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle

[53] David Harvey, The Limits to Capital, pp.192-193

[54] Staff and Agencies, ‘Legacy loses exclusive dome bidding rights’ in The Guardian <> [accessed 06/09/2010]

[55] Louis Borges, ‘The Immortal’ in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, (Penguin Classics, 2000)

[57] Photo by author, taken 05/09/2010

[58] Screengrab from <; [accessed 09/09/2010]

[59] Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, (Verso Books, 2006), pp.223-263

[60] Photo by author, taken 05/09/2010

[61] Photo by author, taken 05/09/2010

[62] ‘Legacy planning’ has been a key component of the London 2012 bid but exactly what this comprises is still under contestation. What is evident is that the legacy of the Olympic games is based around privatisation of space orientated toward profit. From the Westfield Mall (‘Stratford City’) to the Olympic Park Legacy Company’s Baroness Ford and Andrew Altman’s claims that the vision of a ‘great London estate’ based on Grosvenor and Cadogan’s holdings (see Paul Norman, ‘Exclusive interview with OPLC chiefs’, The Estates Gazette, <; [accessed 06/09/2010]) who between them own huge chunks of West London (see <; [accessed 06/09/2010]). Indeed, the debate surrounding the Olympic legacy as played out in the press puts the as yet undetermined future of the site in flux. With suggestions of buried radioactive waste affecting redevelopment, £400 million conversion costs for infrastructure (see Dave Hill, ‘At the 2012 Olympics, we’re playing for keeps’, in The Guardian, <; [accessed 06/09/2010[) the current odds at the time of writing on the main Stadium’s post-Olympic future suggest its demolition.

[63] Walter Benjamin, ‘Paris, the Capital of the 19th Century’, p.13

[64] Graeme Gilloch, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City, p.107

[65] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, p.41

[66] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, p.42

[67] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, p.34

[69] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, p.17

[70] Iain Sinclair, Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, (Penguin Books, 2009), p.574

[71] Iain Sinclair, ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’ in the London Review of Books, (27 May 2010), pp.32-33

[72] The Greek response to austerity measures is detailed here: Corrina Jessen, ‘Entering a Death Spiral? Tensions Rise in Greece as Austerity Measures Backfire’ in Der Spiegel, <,1518,712511,00.html&gt; [accessed 06/09/2010]

[73] David Harvey, ‘The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis this Time’ <> [accessed 06/09/2010]

[74] Iain Sinclair, ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’, pp.32-33

[75] Iain Sinclair, ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’, p.33

[76] Iain Sinclair, ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’, p.33

[77] Detlef Mertins, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious: Using Architecture as an Optical Instrument’ in The Optic of Walter Benjamin edited by Alex Coles, (Black Dog Publishing, 1999), pp.196-200

[78] Howard Caygill, The Colour of Experience, p.145

[79] Detlef Mertins, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious: Using Architecture as an Optical Instrument’, p.202

[80] Felix Clay, ‘Anish Kapoor unveils Orbit tower for Olympic site’ in The Guardian, <; [accessed 22/09/2010]

[82] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer’ in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty and Thomas Y. Levin, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008)

[83] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.156

[84] Meyer Schapiro, Felicity D. Scott, Sarah Ogger, ‘Looking Forward to Looking Backward: A Dossier of Writings on Architecture from the 1930s’ in Grey Room, No. 6 (Winter, 2002)

[85] The ‘International Style’ was brought, in its now widely accepted aesthetic form, to an American audience through the 1932 Museum of Modern Art exhibition of the same name, organised by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson. A book, derived from the exhibition, entitled the International Style contains, in its preface to the 1966 Edition, a note from the authors accepting the inaccuracy of their predictions of its widespread adoption. Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, The International Style, (The Norton Library,1966)

[86] Althusser, Louis, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’, (1970) <; [accessed 06/09/2010]

[87] Carla Keyvanian, ‘Manfredo Tafuri: From Critique of Ideology to Microhistories’ in Design Issues, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Spring, 2000)

[88] Manfredo Tafuri, Theories and Histories of Architecture, (Granada Publishing Limited, 1986), pp.11-78

[89] Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia – Design and Capitalist Development, (MIT Press, 1976), p.98

[90] Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia – Design and Capitalist Development, pp.170-171

[91] Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia – Design and Capitalist Development, p.179

[92] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer’ in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty and Thomas Y. Levin, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), p.85

[93] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Theory of Distraction’ in The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media edited by Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty and Thomas Y. Levin, (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), p.57

[94] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer’, p.85

[95] Détournement is used here in the Situationist sense. That is to say, it is defined as the playful repurposing of existing objects. Understood not solely as the preserve of art, but an attempt, through ‘ultra-détournement’ as the subversion and transformation of the spaces and practice of everyday life (see A User’s Guide to Détournement <; [accessed 07/09/2010]). In particular the User’s Guide mentions détournement of space derived from the ‘Plan for Rational Improvements to the City of Paris’.

[96] See <; [Accessed 13/09/2010]

[97] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, (Blackwell Publishing, 1991), p.116

[98] Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces’, pp.22-27

[99] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, (Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), p.97

[100] Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, (Verso Books, 1992), p.xvi

[101] Mertins, Detlef, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious: Using Architecture as an Optical Instrument’, p.219

[102] Thomas More, Utopia, (Penguin Classics, 2004)

[103] Mertins, Detlef, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious: Using Architecture as an Optical Instrument’, p.219

[104] Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, (Verso, 1995)

[105] Mertins, Detlef, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious: Using Architecture as an Optical Instrument’, pp.198-202

[106] Detlef Mertins, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious: Using Architecture as an Optical Instrument’ pp.193-219

[107] Detlef Mertins, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious: Using Architecture as an Optical Instrument’, p.200

[108] Detlef Mertins, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious: Using Architecture as an Optical Instrument’, pp.204-205

[109] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.465

[110] Detlef Mertins, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Tectonic Unconscious: Using Architecture as an Optical Instrument’, p.211

[111] Manfredo Tafuri, Theories and History of Architecture, p. xv

[112] Guy Debord, Report on the Construction of Situations (1957) in Situationist International Anthology edited by Ken Knabb, (Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006),pp.25-43

[113] Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia – Design and Capitalist Development, pp.170-171

[114] Manfredo Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia – Design and Capitalist Development, pp.170-171

[116] Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ in Situationist International Anthology edited by Ken Knabb, (Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), p.1

[117] David A. Ross, ‘Preface’ in On the Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time: THE SITUATIONIST INTERNATIONAL 1957-1972, (MIT Press, 1989)

[118] Henri Lefebvre, ‘Henri Lefebvre on the Situationist International’, Interview conducted and translated by Kristin Ross (1983, published in 1997), <; [accessed 31/08/2010]

[119] Henri Lefebvre, ‘Henri Lefebvre on the Situationist International’

[120] Unattributed, ‘The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy’ in Situationist International Anthology edited by Ken Knabb, (Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), pp.194-203

[121] Unattributed, ‘The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy’

[122] Unattributed, ‘Questionnaire’ in Situationist International Anthology edited by Ken Knabb, (Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), pp.178-183

[123] Unattributed, ‘Definitions’ in Situationist International Anthology edited by Ken Knabb, (Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), pp.51-52

[124] Lettrist International, ‘Proposals for Rationally Improving the City of Paris’, in Situationist International Anthology edited by Ken Knabb, (Bureau of Public Secrets, 2006), pp.12-14

[125] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, p.19

[126] Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’, p.2

[127] Thomas Elsaesser, ‘Domestic Modernity’ in Practicing Modernity: Female Creativity in the Weimar Republic edited by Christiane Schönfeld, (Verlag Königshaussen & Neumann GmbH, 2006), pp.44-46

[130] Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, (Verso, 1996)

[131] Gilles Delezuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, (Continuum, 2004), pp.1-28

[132] Karl Marx, Grundrisse, (Penguin, 1973), p.173.

[133] Dave Pinder, Visions of the City: Utopianism, Power and Politics in Twentieth-Century Urbanism, (Edinburgh University Press, 2005), pp.245-255

[134] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, p.54

[135] Andrew Benjamin, ‘In What Style Should We Build? The Style of Cosmopolitan Architecture’ in Style and Time: Essays on the Politics of Appearance, (Northwestern University Press, 2006), p.80

[136] Susan Buck-Morss, ‘Aesthetics and Anaesthetics: Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay Reconsidered’ in October, Vol. 62 (Autumn, 1992), pp.3-41

[137] Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Baroque Reason: The Aesthetics of Modernity, (Sage Publications, 1994), p.46

[138] Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Baroque Reason: The Aesthetics of Modernity, pp.22-23

[139] Theodor Adorno et al, Aesthetics and Politics, (Verso, 2007), pp.110-134

[140] Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, p.178

[141] Christine Buci-Glucksmann, Baroque Reason: The Aesthetics of Modernity, p.140

[142] Andrew Leach, ‘Manfredo Tafuri and the Age of Historical Representation’ in Walter Benjamin and Architecture edited by Gevork Hartoonian, (Routledge, 2010), pp.18-19

[143] Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, ‘Naples’ in Reflections, (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978)

[144] Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, ‘Naples’, pp.165-166

[145] Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, ‘Naples’, pp.165-166

[146] Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, ‘Naples’, pp.165-166

[147] Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, ‘Naples’, pp.165-166

[148] Andrew Benjamin, ‘Porosity at the edge: Working through Walter Benjamin’s ‘Naples’’ in Walter Benjamin and Architecture edited by Gevork Hartoonian, (Routledge, 2010), p.42

[149] Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, ‘Naples’, p.171

[150] Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, ‘Naples’, p.170

[151] Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis, ‘Naples’, pp.167-168

[152] Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood, ‘The Fun Palace’ in The Drama Review: TDR, Vol. 12, No. 3, Architecture / Environment (Spring, 1968), pp.127-134

[154] Cedric Price’s files on the Fun Palace project can be found at the Cedric Price archive. <> [accessed 01/09/2010]

[155] Arata Isozaki, ‘Erasing Architecture into the System’ in Re:CP, (Birkhäuser – Publishers for Architecture, 2003), p.34

[156] Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood, ‘The Fun Palace’, p.133

[158] Florina Urban, ‘Talking Japan’ in Architecture and Identity edited by Peter Herrle and Eric Wegerhoff, (Transaction Publishers, 2008), p.94

[160] <> [accessed 01/09/2010] provides a particularly good account of the struggle of allotment holders with Olympic planners.

[163] Andrew Leach, ‘Manfredo Tafuri and the Age of Historical Representation’, p.10

[164] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, p.254

[165] Michel Foucault, ‘Of Other Spaces’, p.27

[166] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.460