The Politics of the Envelope

A Political Critique of Materialism
by Alejandro Zaera Polo

Before delving into the argument, I should probably admit a personal aversion to political ideology that goes beyond its application to architecture and which probably has a biographical origin. My experience of Spain’s transition to democracy has left me with a rather cynical view of political ideology as an effective tool for understanding or transforming reality. I was born in a dictatorship and I remember having to learn to vote at school as one of the new protocols of the new democracy. As a left-leaning adolescent, I remember longing for the Western powers to intervene against Franco’s dictatorship, an episode that came back to haunt me thirty years later when pondering Western intervention in Iraq, in a far worst dictatorship and in a far more globalized world. In Spain I first witnessed Javier Solana, then Spanish Minister of Culture under the Socialist Government, campaigning for Spanish integration into NATO. Then came the termination of compulsory military service by Aznar’s right-wing government, with the Socialist Party in opposition, which reinforced my doubts about political ideologies. On the other hand, I had witnessed the subversive effects of foreign tourism on sexual behavior during Franco’s strictly Catholic era and the impact of low interest rates, home ownership and massive infrastructure construction on social mobility. The demise of the Aznar government, brought down by text-messaging, convinced me of the deeply transformative political potentials of seemingly neutral technological and economic processes.

It is precisely in the most pragmatic, concrete operations where contemporary politics are to be found.1 The current American presidential campaign proves that within contemporary politics, an all-encompassing mass politics focused on class, gender, race, creed and identity and built upon partisan ideologies is less effective than more nimble molecular politics capable of engaging swing voters. Within the contemporary processes of the built environment, where an increasingly complex interaction between different agents takes place, ideological politics often become an obstacle to urban development.

The discipline has been split between those who believe architecture is a mere social construct and those who believe that architecture’s facts are determined by the inexorable laws of physics, economics, buildability, climatology and ergonomics. Recent attempts to shift the grounds of the architectural debate away from technology and production toward political critique and ideology are rightly aiming to recover some political ground that has been missing for some time within the discipline. However, they haven’t succeeded in coupling political genealogies or ideologies with disciplinary traits, and therefore have been unable to produce effective political strategies in architecture, let alone new architectural possibilities. The attempts to politicize architecture have emerged from the hypothesis that architecture is a ‘social construct’, a cultural fabrication and an embodiment of political concepts, disassociated from an architecture governed by natural laws, statics and climatic demands.

But architecture is as much a physical construct as it is a social or political one and to understand architecture as a mere representation of the political is as problematic as to declare architecture entirely ruled by natural laws. In order to enable a viable strand of architectural politics, we need to politicize the discipline as the mediator between humans and non-humans, culture and technology and as the mechanism that will enable us to produce problematized matters of concern: Things rather than Objects.2

This text is an attempt to initiate an effective link between architectural technologies and politics and to advance a new political critique of architecture capable of addressing the challenges posed by globalization by incorporating political content to architectural entities.


1. ‘The conflict over the basic terms of social life, having fled from the ancient arenas of politics and philosophy, lives under disguise and under constraint in the narrower and more arcane debates of the specialized professions. There we must find this conflict, and bring it back, transformed, to the larger life of society’. Roberto Mangabeira Unger, What Should Legal Analysis Become (New York: Verso, 1996).

2. Following the description proposed by Bruno Latour in Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences Into Democracy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004). Latour retrieves the Heideggerian notion of Ding (‘thing’ in German) to coin the neologism Ding - politik as an alternative to Realpolitik. In the Latourian conception thing is an assemblage between humans and nonhumans, politics and nature as well as concerns and facts that is neither merely a natural object nor a socially constructed one, but an assemblage of both, the object and its attachments.























Content Management
Full PDF- Download