The philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre coined the notion of “production of space” in 1974, breaking with the vision of space as a container or scenario of objects and social relations, to move towards space understood as a process. From this vision based on the Marxist tradition, space is a product and a producer of social relations and processes.
Lefebvre’s great contribution leads us to reflect on what Marx called Commodity Fetishism: reducing the production and exchange of commodities to relations between things [money and merchandise], concealing the social relations implicit in the processes of production and exchange. Fetishism allows us to cover up the exploitation of workers because, through the merchandise itself, we are not able to know the working conditions of the people involved in the production processes. Thus Lefebvre proposed approaching the study and analysis of space, as Marx approached the study of merchandise:
Perhaps space must now be analyzed as things in space were before, in order to discover their social relations. The dominant trend fragments and cuts the space. It lists the contents of the space, the things, the various objects. Specialists divide the space and act on its parts, establishing mental and practical-social barriers.1
Understanding space as a product and social process makes it possible to reveal what is hidden, fading what Lefebvre calls the “Illusion of Transparency”. That is, to believe that objects or things communicate transparently the social relations implicit in them:
Things and products that are measured, that is, reduced to the common pattern of money, do not communicate their truth; on the contrary, they hide it as things and products. […] lie and conceal the time of social work that they contain, the productive work that they embody and also the relations of exploitation-domination on which they are based.2
Starting from Lefebvre’s position, and drawing a parallel with architecture, we could conclude that to know a building, project, or architectural object is not to know what is in sight and is presented to us as intelligible [formal, functional, structural, and aesthetic qualities], but knowing their production processes and the social relations that were generated during this process. However, in professional practice, architectural production processes remain hidden, thus feeding the illusion of transparency in architectural objects: it is still believed that it is enough to see some photographs or visit the site to learn about a project and the multiplicity of processes involved in its production.
Awards and recognitions are even given based on visual representations [photographs, renders, diagrams, plans, volumetries, etc.] and textual descriptions that address technical construction, and formal and aesthetic aspects, but that rarely [if ever] narrate the production processes of the architectural object. The fetishization of architecture leads to a series of social, ethical, political, economic, and environmental conflicts, on which we consider it necessary to reflect:
Individualization and technocracy
To understand architecture as a thing or object [where its value is placed solely on the formal and aesthetic aspects] and not as a social process that needs the organized participation and cooperation of many people to be produced, derives in individual authorship: How is it that a collective effort is erased to end up in the recognition of a person or a small group of people?
There is no architect who has the skills, knowledge, and tools to produce a building from start to finish, however, the current appreciation of architecture only views the moment of design as a creative activity worthy of recognition: why not value it with the same emphasis all people [and their knowledge] that make it possible to materialize such a design Undoubtedly, this is linked to technocracy, the coloniality of knowledge and epistemic racism: modes of oppression that assign different values to people’s knowledge and work in order to exploit and accumulate.
The philosopher Ivan Illich names this vertical and crushing technocracy as “Disqualifying Professions” arguing that:
Professionals claim to possess a secret knowledge about human nature, knowledge that only they have the right to administer […]. In any field where a human need can be imagined, these new professions, dominant, authoritarian, monopolistic, legalized, and that at the same time weaken and incapacitate the individual, have become the only experts in the common good.3
If we approach the study and analysis of architecture as a collective social process, we could understand that design is as fundamental as the masons that build, the people who manage, the drafters who make the plans, the supervisors of work who are responsible for managing permits, and countless people involved in different moments of architectural production. However, modifying the current valorization of knowledge would also lead to modifying the wages and working conditions of thousands of people, this being an attack against the processes of capital accumulation.
Invisibility and exploitation
As with merchandise, the fetishization of the architectural object implies the invisibility and exploitation of the workers involved in the processes of architectural production: in what working conditions are construction workers? What kind of wages and working hours do interns, social service providers, professional practitioners, and newly graduated architects/trainees have? In the guild, both nationally and internationally, well known are the precarious conditions in which the people involved in the different moments of architectural production perform.
The fetishization of architecture is convenient for mercantile architectural production because it promotes the technocratic exaltation of the figure of the architect and, therefore, leads to the invisibility that annuls and hides collective work, but benefits from the cooperation of many people to exploit knowledge and obtain surplus value.
The fetishization of materials and the production of nature
Exploitation in architectural production processes is also generated in the natural environment through the concealment of the processes of extraction, production, and distribution of construction materials. It is necessary to recognize that, although there are industrialized materials such as cement, block, brick, and steel, they are all produced from natural assets, which implies “the production of nature”:
There is nothing in history and in society that is not acquired and produced. “Nature” itself, as it is apprehended in social life by the sensory organs, has been modified, that is, produced.4
Nature is generally seen as that which cannot be produced, it is the antithesis of productive human activity. […] the natural landscape appears to us as the material substratum of daily life, as the realm of use values and contrary to the place of exchange values. […] the development of the natural landscape is presented to us as a process of production of nature, whose differentiated results are material symptomsof unequal development. Therefore, at the most abstract level, it is in the production of nature that the value of use and the value of exchange, space and society, merge.5
The production of nature, like the production of space, presents us with a different way of approaching the social processes that establish the valorization, production, exchange and consumption of natural assets. This concept helps us to break, on the one hand, with the idea of pristine nature and environmental determinism that turns social disasters into natural disasters [very common when tragedies caused by unequal development need to be justified]. On the other hand, it invites us to critically review the environmentalist discourses of architecture or sustainable urbanism that make up with ecological technology [eco-technologies], scientific advances and green capitalism, the same processes of exploitation and accumulation.
In order to accumulate, capital must continually perfect the technical means of production, and this implies the continual advancement of science. If science grows with the imminent task of improving the productive forces, then it soon acquires an ideological function, to the point that it operates almost like a secular religion.6
Fetishizing architecture, in socio-ecological terms, means seeing architectural objects without questioning the production processes of nature involved in them: what materials were needed for the production of the project? Where were they obtained from? How were they transferred? What social impact did the extraction of the materials generate? What kind of working conditions do the people who produce these materials have? The fetishization of architecture implies other fetishization processes and it becomes urgent to ask ourselves: what kind of nature is producing architecture?
Relations of power, class and denial of participation
If we start by recognizing architecture as a product, then we would also have to ask ourselves: who has the means of architectural production? Why do they have the means of production? What social and power relationships are needed to participate? Who makes the decisions about the production of space?
These questions become important in the face of an academic learning process that takes little account of power and class relations: on the one hand, in the classroom we are taught to design great projects [museums, hospitals, banks, real estate developments and towers, among others] without telling us that to participate in their production it is necessary to have the economic resources or the power relations that are required to carry them out. On the other hand, little is taught to us to work with limited economic resources and under the logic of social production and an integral [technical and social] accompaniment, which is closer to the socio economic reality of our country: more than 70% of people who live in Mexico self-produce their homes.
Understanding architecture as a social process would lead us to highlight the power structures that allow the accumulation of mercantile architectural production [whether public or private work] and decision-making about the production of space in a few hands, alienating the majority of the population of the environments produced:
If coalitions of real state owners, developers, financiers, contractors, architects, planners, and governments have the power to produce the built environment of the city in which the rest of us live, then it is perfectly feasible for them to build urban landscapes from which the mass of the population is irretrievably alienated.7
It is under these dynamics of control and power that the State, together with the architectural guild as the executing arm, has generated, promoted and implemented projects and programs anchored in the logic of individual authorship and the fetishism of architecture. These types of projects and programs, among which we can mention “Del territorio al habitante” of INFONAVIT, “Construyes tu casa” of FOVISSSTE and the Urban Improvement Program [PMU], “Mi México late” of SEDATU, reflect the relations of power in the guild, the technocratic vision of the State, the accelerated fixation of capital in the built environment and the denial of collective participation in the production of space and housing.
If it is true that we are facing a political and social transformation, shouldn’t it be reflected in new ways of producing space? Why are old formulas that have proven their failure on multiple occasions continue to be used?
A revolution that does not give rise to a new space does not reach its full potential; it does not generate changes in life, it only modifies the ideological superstructures, the institutions, the political apparatuses. A revolutionary transformation is verified by its creative capacity […] in language and in space […]8
Hegemony in architectural production and representation
Power structures, individualization, invisibility and technocracy lead to hegemony in architectural production: there are few discourses that impose, value and determine what architecture is and how it should be produced, represented and narrated. These discourses mark not only the production processes, but also the learning processes in the classroom: we are taught to consume the architecture of spectacle through representations and images, without critically questioning the production processes of such architecture. Regarding this hegemony in the production of space, Lefebvre points out the following:
Perhaps it is necessary to go further and admit that the producers of the space have always acted according to a representation, while the «users» have passively experienced what has been imposed on them, more or less inserted or justified in their space of representation. If architects have a representation of space, where does it derive from? For the benefit of what and for whom is it «operational?9
Lefebvre’s questioning of architects is forceful and can only be answered through the knowledge of architectural production processes. Knowing architectural objects in an integral way would help us to stop fragmenting the discussions, reflections and actions on the production of projects and, in this way, break with the myth of architecture as an individual, innocuous and apolitical artistic expression, but as a process that necessarily involves an ethical and political stance [whether consciously or unconsciously]. We consider it necessary to move from the fetishization of the architectural object towards the knowledge of the production processes and the social relations they generate, as well as the recognition of participation as a collective right and not as a concession:
Participation is not a matter of good faith, assistance or good will. It is not the sharing of ignorance and altruistic voluntarism, nor is it a simple methodological question of instrumental reason. From stance of the Production and Social Management of the Habitat, participation is understood as an ideological, political and democratic position.10
Given this possibility, the following questions arise: if we knew the production processes of authorial architectural objects, would we continue to reward the same characters? Would we continue to recognize architectural objects that have implicit relations of power, exploitation and accumulation? Would we allow ourselves to consume and learn architecture in the same way? What would be our ethical-critical stance if production processes were not hidden? What kind of nature and space would we produce if the emphasis were placed on processes and not on objects?
If we really want to generate a positive social impact through architecture, it is necessary to be aware that the opportunity for social transformation does not lie in authorial architectural objects that hide and cover up unequal social relations. The opportunity for transformation lies precisely in the social processes involved in a collective practice for the social production of space.
[… ] we have the obligation to invest now in the collective and totally public search for some way to understand the possibilities of achieving a fair and ecologically sensitive urbanization process in contemporary conditions. [… ] How to translate this purely discursive moment of the social process into the realms of power, material practices, institutions, beliefs and social relations, is, however, where practical politics begins and reflective discourse ends.11
1 Henri Lefebvre. (1974). La producción del espacio. Spain: Capitán Swing. Page 145.
2 Henri Lefebvre. (1974). La producción del espacio. Spain: Capitán Swing. Page 137.
3 Profesiones inhabilitantes, H. Blume Ediciones, Madrid, 1981.
4 Henri Lefebvre. (1974). La producción del espacio. Spain: Capitán Swing. Page 125.
5 Neil Smith. (2020). Desarrollo desigual. Naturaleza, capital y la producción del espacio. Madrid: traficante de sueños. Cita en página 61.
6 Neil Smith. (2020). Desarrollo desigual. Naturaleza, capital y la producción del espacio. Madrid: traficante de 6 sueños. Page 85.
7 David Harvey. (1996). Justicia, naturaleza y la geografía de la diferencia. Spain: Traficante de sueños. Page 360.
8 Henri Lefebvre. (1974). La producción del espacio. España: Capitán Swing. Page 112.
9 Henri Lefebvre. (1974). La producción del espacio. España: Capitán Swing. Page 125.
10 Diseño Participativo: de la crítica a la praxis. Gustavo Romero Fernández, José U. Salceda Salinas, Javier Hernández Alpízar y Ulises Castañeda Carmona. Document provided by the authors.
11 David Harvey. (1996). Justicia, naturaleza y la geografía de la diferencia.España: traficante de sueños. Page 562.
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