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Environment and Planning B, 1979, volume 6, pages 105-116

Marxism and architectural theory: a critique

of recent work

P G Dickens
School of Cultural and Community Studies, Arts Building, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton,
Received 29 January 1979, in revised form 26 February 1979

Abstract. A number of writers are currently trying, as part of an attempt to improve on the
relatively impoverished state of architectural theory, to relate the study of building form to
Marxism and aspects of semiology. It is suggested here that, although this recent work is
provocative and stimulating, many of the more difficult aspects of the theory from which this work
is borrowing remains relatively undeveloped. The purpose of this paper is to outline some of these
main areas of neglect.
Architectural studies become periodically seized by intellectual convulsions. A single
book or related body of literature leads to the exploration of new bodies of theory
the fundamental question being: can a systematic theory of architecture be envisaged?
Such questions have recently been raised once more by the appearance of two works,
Tafuri's (1976) Architecture and Utopia and Rational Architecture by Krier, Vidler,
and others (1978) which attempt to relate Marxist theory to the study of architecture.
These books have been greeted with particular adulation by certain commentators
(Dunster, 1977; Maxwell, 1977), who insist that they represent the most significant
contribution to architectural studies for a decade. In this article these views are taken
to task. Both books are certainly stimulating, but, since they do not demonstrate a
firm grasp on the fundamentals of well-established Marxist thought, it is argued here
that they remain locked firmly within the bourgeois high-art category of architectural
coffee-table products.
An indication of the general scope and purposes of Tafuri's book (as well as of the
prose style adopted) can be given by the following key paragraph from his preface
(page ix):
"It should be stated immediately that the critical analysis of the basic principles of
contemporary architectural ideology does not pretend to have any 'revolutionary'
aim. What is of interest here is the precise identification of these tasks which
capitalist development has taken away from architecture. That is to say, what it
has taken away in general from ideological prefiguration. With this, one is led
almost automatically to the discovery of what may well be the 'drama' of architecture
today: that is to see architecture obliged to return to pure architecture (Tafuri's
emphasis), to form without Utopia; in the best cases, to sublime uselessness. To
the deceptive attempts to give architecture an ideological dress, I shall always
prefer the sincerity of those who have the courage to speak of that silent and
outdated 'purity'; even if this, too, still harbors an ideological inspiration, pathetic
in its anachronism."
What Tafuri appears to be saying is that architecture (particularly since the Victorian
age) has veiled and obscured the 'realities' of the power system inherent in capitalism.
Thus "the phenomenon of capital's direct management of land" (page 170) has been
systematically concealed from the working class. Architecture should, Tafuri suggests,
turn from such deception into the design of 'pure form' shorn of symbolic overtones,
a theme developed by Krier.


P G Dickens

In a series of loosely connected chapters, Tafuri provides chapter-and-verse instances

within this general theme. As regards the Victorian era, we are informed that "the
unproductiveness of intellectual work was the crime that weighed upon the conscience
of the cultural world of the nineteenth century, and which advanced ideologies had
to overcome" (page 50). This assertion leads to a discussion of the Utopian theme,
a theme which was stressed throughout the nineteenth century and incorporated art
and architecture as a means of camouflaging the conflict between capital and labour.
"Ideology assumed for itself the task of unifying the subject and object of production.
In other words, ideology was transformed into capitalistic-industrial Utopia" (page 70,
Tafuri's emphasis).
The theme is further pursued by Tafuri in relation to the 'avant-garde' artists and
architects of the 1920s and 1930s: Hilbersheimer, the German Expressionists, early
Soviet experiments in art and architecture, Ernst May's well-known Frankfurt housing
estate built for a left-wing city council, and Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City. A
'crisis' for the Utopian theme emerged (Tafuri informs us) with Le Corbusier's plan
for Algiers: at the very time when this architect was designing architectural schemes
which "constitute, even today, the most advanced and formally elevated hypotheses
of bourgeois culture in the field of architectural design and urbanism" (page 133),
Keynes, it is argued, was actually solving the problems of capitalism to which Utopian
projects were an ideological response. Tafuri then turns to a criticism of recent
semiological and linguistic approaches to the study of architecture: building being
related to the general body of theory (developed by Saussure, Peirce, Barthes, and
others) in which the forms and functions of signs in society are explored. Instead of
accepting "the completely marginal and superstructural role which the present
capitalist use of land assigns to a purely ideological phenomenon like architecture"
(page 161), semiology, Tafuri informs us, implies "a need to hide behind new ideological
schemes" (page 161). Finally he turns to the present 'crisis' within the architectural
profession, suggesting that architecture must dismantle its ideological status and that
"a truth must be recognised" (page 178); this being that:
"the entire cycle of modern architecture and of the new systems of visual
communication came into being, developed, and entered into crisis as an enormous
attemptthe last to be made by the great bourgeois artistic cultureto resolve, on
the always more outdated level of ideology, the imbalances, contradictions, and
retardations, characteristic of the capitalist re-organisation of the world market and
productive development" (page 178).
Architecture then, according to Tafuri, has now been fully hoist with its own p e t a r d architectural solutions to societal problems are no longer possible, and the sooner
architects recognise this, stop agonising over their role in society, recognise their own
uselessness, and start designing straightforward buildings, the better.
The need to return to a "Rational Architecture" also forms the starting point for
Krier and his coauthors. Here the new architecture becomes the means for what Krier
terms "The Reconstruction of the City". Krier's analysis of the dilemma in which
architects and planners have found themselves, particularly during the postwar years,
bears similarities to that of Tarufi:
"Our generation is both witness and victim of a cultural tragedy to which there is
no precedent in history. The radical commercialisation of urban land becomes now
even a menace to the architectural profession. The architects as servile executors
of grand speculation and the large building monopolies have lost their traditional
credibility as creators of a better tomorrow. Building, once a promise, constitutes
now a threat for the collectivity" (page 38).

Marxism and architectural theory: a critique of recent work


The work of Krier and the Italian Rationalists, although recognising that there can be
no architectural solution to the evils of capitalism, appears to be aimed at the
restoration of 'eternal human activities' with an architecture which gives primacy to
building types, urban reconstructions, and forms of town which help to restore the
zoned separation (necessitated by nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century capitalism)
between the public and the private domains. The approach of Krier and the Italian
Rationalists is thus openly critical of the established social order, envisaging architecture
and urban design not as yet another panacea for the reordering of society but as a
part of wider political struggle against capitalism. The architectural and urban
contribution to such struggle would consist of a new "Art of Building Cities",
emphasising the integration of work, leisure, and culture, and bearing in mind cultures
and associated architectural and urban forms which predated the rise of industrial
capitalism. For Krier and his colleagues the resurrection of "the public realm"
becomes the prime concern of rational architecture and urban design, with the
integration of human life, the rediscovery of "the street, the square, the quartier"
(page 42, Krier's emphasis), becoming one of the central themes of the new movement.
In their analyses and objectives (particularly in their insistence on the revival of the
public realm) the Italian Rationalists appear to owe much to the Marxist writer
Hannah Arendt, although this influence is not made explicit.
The most recent (and perhaps the most developed) exposition of the concept of
'rational' architecture and urban design has appeared in papers by R Krier (1979) and
L Krier (1979). R Krier claims again, now on the basis of a relatively limited exercise
in the generation of possible geometrical alternatives and a comparatively brief historical
analysis of existing forms, to have established a basic grammar of urban space. L Krier
deploys this grammar in his proposals for Luxembourg, again emphasising the notion
that a pure architecture, transcending cultures, social formations, and political systems,
can recapture an integrated urban way of life which existed in preindustrial eras:
"The historic city did, above all, result from the aspirations of the inhabitants
themselves who under whatever political conditions, knew how to appropriate in an
empirical way the city and its buildings for collective life" (L Krier, 1979, page 23).
As part of their analysis and proposals, Krier and his codesigners and coauthors
make considerable reference to the work of the eighteenth- and early-nineteenthcentury theorists such as Laugier and Durand. In a thought-provoking chapter of
Rational Architecture, entitled "The Third Typology", Vidler spells out not only the
assumptions made by certain of these early writers (such as the assertion that
primordial architectural languages act as metaphors for 'natural' or man-made forms
such as the forest or the primitive hut) but also the implications of this body of work
for the present day: Vidler reaffirms Krier's insistence on the need for new architectural
and urban typologies which
"is evidently born of a desire to stress the continuity of form and history against
the fragmentation produced by the elemental, institutional, and mechanistic
typologies of the recent past" (page 31).
Vidler describes a "third typology" (the word 'typology' here appears to be closely
related to Le Corbusier's notion of a 'standard type') or elemental language which
would form the basis for the New Rationalists' reconstruction of the city. This third
typology is, Vidler suggests, to be seen as an addition or alternative to the two
typologies which have dominated and legitimised architectural production for over
two-hundred years: the return of architecture to its natural origins (through, for
example, reference to the primitive hut) and the linking of architectural forms to the
products of mechanised industry. Whereas the validity of the first two typologies


P G Dickens

relies on reference to nature and technology, the third typology is intended, Vidler
suggests, to give architecture and city design its own autonomous sphere of activity,
largely independent of the society for which and by which it is built. And, although
he elaborates on this new typology, it becomes clear that Vidler's analysis is close to
that of Krier. The third typology
"utilizes the clarity of the eighteenth century city to rebuke the fragmentation,
decentralization, and formal disintegration introduced into contemporary urban life
by the zoning techniques and technological advances of the twenties" (page 32).
There can be little doubt that the ideas contained within these books will stimulate
considerable debate and bring new insights to areas of study which have been sadly
lacking in theoretical discussion. But bringing 'Rationalism' and Marxism to architecture
in the way attempted by these authors is in many ways problematicas indeed certain
of the authors involved themselves appreciate.
Tafuri's book and Krier's contribution to Rational Architecture suffer from being
badly written. This applies particularly to Tafuri: his book is in large almost totally
incomprehensible fragments, and his more cynical readers may wonder whether this
alone has endeared it to certain commentators. But, more important than the question
of whether communication is made to other 'intellectuals', the fundamental
question remains whether the ideas have the potential to be transformed and made
intelligible to the working class, an issue surely of paramount significance to any
'Marxist'. The founding fathers, Marx, Engels, and Lenin, were all very capable of
making their ideas generally accessible. By contrast Tafuri systematically mystifies
complex issues which have already been tackled by Marxist and non-Marxist authors.
It is indeed extremely difficult to imagine a comprehensible political manifesto
resulting from his book.
Bad writing perhaps matters less in Krier's case, since communication in Rational
Architecture is much more dependent on exquisitely drawn architectural schemes and
town plans. Nevertheless polemics (combined with curious misspellings) do little to
assist Krier's case; he and his colleagues have important things to say, but they
cannot be said by such mumbo-jumbo nonsense as:
"The brutal class character of this cultural promiscuity, is once more demonstrated
by the latest experiments of the english (sic) building industry in the new city of
Milton-Keynes. ... It cannot be by a mere chance that the name of the greatest
capitalist economist should resound so conscipiuously (sic) in its name" (page 39).
More important, however, than pedantic criticisms concerning spelling mistakes and
straightforward errors in information is the pervading impression that much of the
confusion encounteredparticularly in Tafuri's bookis a product of confused
thinking rather than confused writing or confused translation. If Marxism is to be
successfully applied to the study of architecture and urban design in the ways
suggested by Tafuri and Krier, then it is important to establish what Marxian theory
has already established and with which it is still struggling in such related fields as
land use (in relation to capitalist economies), the state, and ideology. And, above all,
from an analytical viewpoint it is important to stress the relationships between these
issues, a fact which these authors ignore. If we can begin to clarify what has already
been achieved in these fields we may be able to reconstruct a 'Marxist' theory of
Presumably any 'Marxist' analysis of the history of architecture should begin,
however, with Marxist theories of history themselves. These, crudely speaking, would
give prominence to class struggle combined with technological innovation as the
principal motors of social change; and to ideology and the state as stabilising factors

Marxism and architectural theory: a critique of recent work


preventing overt class warin the case of capitalist society, serving to preserve the
social relations necessary for continued capital accumulation. It is unclear then why
Tafuri's analysis should begin in the late eighteenth century with the 'overthrow' of
Laugier and other architects of the Enlightenment, given such emphasis on the
ideological. The professional architect as we now know him can be traced much
further back; at least as far as the sixteenth-century Italian Renaissance, when the
architect as ideologist began mediating between patron and builder. Earlier than this,
the architect can be envisaged as the 'best builder' engaged as part of a building team
(with albeit a considerable division of labour made necessary by the building process)
hired by a patron such as the Church or Crown; but, as the building industry became
capitalist and independent, a 'neutral' arbiter supposedly refereeing builders' and
patrons' interests became necessary. The architect then (and, as suggested later in
this paper, it is unclear throughout as to what Tafuri deems to be 'the architect' and
'architecture') is indeed a necessary product of capitalism, but some two-hundred
years earlier than the Enlightenment, and in Tafuri's home country, not France.
As regards economics and the capital-accumulation process in the contemporary
social formation, it is important to place Tafuri's rhetoric concerning "the capitalist
use of land" firmly within the fundamental constructs of Marxist theory. In particular,
as regards the ownership of land under capitalism, it is important to recognise and stress
that production of surplus occurs in the process of the manufacturing of commodities.
Thus questions involving land ownership and land rent need to be placed in the
context of the surplus production made by industrial capital. In Marxist terms
therefore, Tafuri's continued insistence on "capitalist use of land" is, in addition to
its analytical deficiencies, 'secondary' in the sense that, although patterns of land
ownership under capitalism may present what Massey and Catalano (1978) term "barrier
effects" (or obstacles to capital accumulation) and may have distributional consequences,
the fact remains that we are, insofar as architectural theory remains involved with the
ownership of use of land, concerned with the organisation and redistribution of
existing surplus value appropriated at the point of commodity production.
Furthermore it is both lazy and dismissive to continue an insistence on "the capitalist
use of land" when no seriously minded Marxist would argue that there is a simple or
single such capitalist interest. At any point in recent history we should be concerned
with different fractions of capital (for example, industrial, finance, and landed), with
their different and sometimes competing demands on land use and their sometimes
opposing requirements of the state.
As with economics, so with politics, Tafuri's writing remains largely at the level of
rhetoric, and leaves aside the more difficult and thorny problems of analysis. The
state has recently become a keenly disputed subject in Marxist circles (Poulantzas,
1973; Miliband, 1973), but nowhere in either Tafuri's or Krier's work are we aware
of these debates. How then do these authors conceptualise the capitalist state? It is
indeed curious that supposedly radical works concerned with domination and power
do not at least begin to address themselves to this most central question for current
Marxist thinking. Some explanatory framework is needed: one simple if perhaps
over-mechanistic starting point might be that put forward by O'Connor (1973) and
other writers in the Marxist tradition. His formulation suggests that the state in
capitalist society is, at any given historical instance, engaged in the contradictory
function of providing suitable conditions for capital accumulation while at the same
time attempting to maintain social harmony and mass loyalty. How is this delicate
balancing act achieved? Above all by ideology, by the state appearing to remain in a
neutral, referee-like, position while in fact necessarily aligning itself with capitalist
interests. So a consideration of the state brings us therefore to ideologya question
which Tafuri often mentions but inadequately conceptualises.


P G Dickens

Tafuri refers to "the always more outdated level of ideology" (page 178) and this
betrays the crude form of Marxism which he is deploying. He is implying a primitive
'base-superstructure' model of capitalist society in which the 'underlying' processes of
capital accumulation give rise to political forms (with ideology as superstructural)
being relegated to systems of ideas perpetrated on the working class by the dominant
social orders, whose concern is to conceal the 'realities' of capital accumulation and
politics. But, as Williams (1973a) has convincingly shown, it is simply not possible to
consider economics, politics, and ideology in this hierarchical manner. It is a view
perpetrated by certain economistic Marxists but it is certainly not an accurate
reflection of Marx's own thinking. Marx's own view is surely best summed up by the
classic statement
"Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they
do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances
directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the
dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living" (Marx, 1968,
page 96).
But the whole question of ideology and ideological forms has been much developed
by Marxist thinkers since Marx was writing. It again seems curious, for example, that,
in discussing questions of power, legitimacy, and the maintenance of social cohesion
through ideological rule, Tafuri nowhere mentions the important work of the leading
hero of the Italian Left, Gramsci. His concept of ideological hegemony would help
Tafuri to avoid the somewhat manipulative overtones now associated with the concept
of ideology. The concept of hegemony allows culture to become envisaged not as a
set of ideas somehow passed 'down' by the dominant classes to the dominated classes
(Boggs, 1976). Rather, hegemony refers to a lived system of meanings and values
which are shared by almost all social classes, not to notions of formal or conscious
coercion or the product of 'basic' economic pressures.
A concentration on hegemony may allow Tafuri to calm down over questions of
architecture and Utopian thinking: if society has in the past placed trust in the
remedies proposed by architecture and planning, this is because almost all classes of
society have required simple explanations for and solutions to complex social upheavals
and events. Similarly, if architects and planners are now being scapegoated for the ills
of society, this is not a crisis for architecture or for town planning but is a small
symptom of a much bigger crisis for capitalism.
Armed with some reasonably coherent conceptualisations of the capitalist economy,
of the role of the state and of ideological hegemonyand placing particular emphasis
on the interlocking and reciprocal relationships between these conceptswe may be
able to return more profitably to the theme which so obsesses Tafuri: that of Utopia.
Thus (instead of attempting an amalgamation of the garden-city movement, the work
of the Regional Planning Association of America, Wright's Broadacre City, and
Kropotkin's anarchist visions as essentially similar 'antiurban' undertakings) we may
be in a position to examine Utopian contexts in their specific historical contexts
perhaps in the meantime doing some justice to the particular movements involved.
If, for example, we wished to undertake an analysis of Utopian thinking in this
country, adopting a Marxist perspective we would start by examining the marked
contradictions between economic necessities and political pressures which emerged
during the nineteenth century (contradictions, incidentally, which are briefly spelt out
by Krier in Rational Architecture). Economic necessities during this period principally
took the form of the industrial capital's objective of maintaining domination over the
world economyand the consequent growing need for urban expansion in the form
of industrial premises and an easily accessible labour force. Correspondingly there

Marxism and architectural theory: a critique of recent work


occurred (particularly towards the end of the century) a catastrophic decline in the
fortunes of landed capital. As regards political pressures, rising crime rates and disease
threats became, particularly in the 1880s and 1890s, combined with increasing workingclass militancy in the metropolis and other urban centres (Stedman Jones, 1971).
In short, the concentrations of population necessitated by industrial capitalism
threatened to undermine the very social system that they had been created to support.
And in such a context, the origins and development of Utopian thinking, promoted by
reformers such as Robert Owen, the garden-city movement, and (in due course) the
state, becomes more clear. Utopian proposals (promising the rejuvenation of the
countryside, the continued expansion of industrial capital, the dispersal of the
working class, and disease-dispelling fresh air) appeared to many as a resolution to the
contradictions between economic necessities and political pressures. And in attempting
to understand how Utopian solutions appeared to almost all social classes as an
apparent solution, it is indeed to ideology, and in this case to the ideology of the lost
bucolic rural existence (Williams, 1973b), that we must turn. By the beginning of the
present century, for example, politicians of many shades, influential writers such as
William Morris, and widely respected composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams (as
well as, of course, devotees of the garden-city movement) were able, once the worst
excesses of rural deprivation could be forgotten, to offer visions of a relatively
idyllic rural past.
Such analyses of the economy, of politics, and of ideology can be extended to the
interwar and postwar periods, which Tafuri also discusses. We would find a continually
fluctuating balance of class forces and relationships between fractions of capital with,
particularly in the case of the postwar period, the rise of finance capital. And such
fluctuations would give rise to changing demands on the use of land and shifting state
policies. By the period of the Second World War, industrial capital was becoming
anxious to expand outside existing urban areas. Landed capital, however, was
encouraging state policy to concentrate such industrial development in concentrated
areas which did not compete with low rural wage rates. Finance capital (fuelled by
pension and insurance funds) was becoming increasingly involved in city-centre
commercial and office buildings. The mythology of an arcadian rural existence has
continued to haunt British cultural life, but in coming to the interwar and postwar
periods we begin to encounter upsurges of alternative ideologies such as the belief
(again shared by many, including architects associated with the 'Modern Movement')
that technological progress would in the long run bring about 'the end of ideology'.
Thus Tafuri's historical account involving the use of much Marxist jargon
("the working class", "the bourgeoisie", "the always outdated level of ideology",
"the capitalist use of land", and so forth) becomes, when examined in any historical
detail, almost entirely lacking in analytical and political value.
If Tafuri's sense of history is unhelpful, both his and Krier's proposals concerning
the future of architecture are problematic and in many ways misleading. Here we
become involved in the concept adopted by the Italian Rationalists: that of the 'pure
sign'. The difficulties associated with this concept are touched on by Vidler in his
contribution to Rational Architecture:
"When typical forms are selected from the past of a city, they do not come,
however dismembered, deprived of their original political and social meaning. The
original sense of the form, the layers of accrued implication deposited by time and
human experience cannot be lightly brushed away and certainly it is not the
intention of the new Rationalists to disinfect their types in this way. Rather, the
carried meanings of these types may be used to provide a key to their newly
invested meanings. The technique or rather the fundamental compositional method


P G Dickens

suggested by the Rationalists is the transformation of selected typespartial or

wholeinto entirely new entities that draw their communicative power and
potential criteria from the understanding of this transformation" (pages 31-32).
The notion of a 'pure sign' devoid of meaning and historical significance is indeed
impossible. As Barthes (1967, page 41) has written, "semantisation is inevitable;
as soon as there is a society every usage is converted into a sign of itself". The New
Rationalists are perpetually engaged therefore in a series of mixed metaphors: applying
forms with historically accrued values to contemporary urban design. Vidler implies
that these contradictions are intentional and that the Rationalists are deliberately
playing on such ambiguities and contradictions as may arise. But if we are to believe
in Tafuri's emphasis on architecture's "sublime uselessness" and in Krier's steadfast
avoidance of these difficult issues, it is not clear whether such complex intellectual
gymnastics are in fact being attempted by the participants, let alone appreciated by

Figure 1. Derby marketplace: James Stirling and Leon Krier, 1970 (source: Krier, Vidler, and
others, 1978, page 66).

Marxism and architectural theory: a critique of recent work


the observers. What are we to make, for example, of a 'rational architecture' for a
new marketplace (presumably financed by banks and insurance funds, with the
support of local government) in the centre of a major British city (figure 1)?
Similarly, are Krier's proposals for the reconstruction of the Royal Mint (figure 2)
(where the state literally makes money for capitalism) also to be simply interpreted as
Krier suggests, as the recreation of the urban "public realm"? Alternatively are we
being treated to some kind of gigantic intellectual send-up which is revelling in the
contradictions involved? Again Krier writes that
"We want to state very clearly that Rational Architecture is not concerned with
the revival of the Rationalism of the 1920ies (sic). It is ... primarily to do with the
revival of Architecture 'tout court'" (page 39).
But his urban projects contain manic and Utopian wishful thinking on a scale which
makes the social-engineering optimism of the Modern Movement look relatively puny.
Under an illustration for his proposal to extend another "public realm"the Piazza
Navona in Rome (figure 3)he writes,
"I have been working on a building type to house the new social centres in italian
(sic) towns. A large covered public square would become the main feature of these
centres. The columns which carry the roof into the silhouette of the italian (sic)
cities, will house restaurants, cafes, small libraries, workshops, etc... The life would
go on here for 24 hours a day and soon replace the decadent institutions of church
and State, the cathedrals, the schools, the 'case popolare'. They will become the
true centres of the new quartier life" (page 151).
What the New Rationalists are touching on but are not adequately or rigorously
exploring is the highly complex issue of semiology and the considerable body of
literature on this subject. As a 'Marxist', Tafuri is surely right to be somewhat critical

Figure 2. Royal Mint Square, London: Leon Krier, 1974 (source: Krier, Vidler, and others, 1978,
page 67).


P G Dickens

of this body of work; but for Marxism the problem of semiology is not simply the
somewhat vacuous notion that it is "an ideology of communication" (page 166).
Much of Barthes's work such as Mythologies (1972) is overtly politicalattempting to
expose how signs reinforce and, to use his word, "mythify" or render 'natural'
dominant bourgeois values and ideology. But the central problem of the mainstream
literature on semiologyparticularly in its more codified and mechanistic forms based
on communication theory (Guirard, 1975)is that it systematically abstracts signs
from history. Semiology is based on the assumption that there exist conventions to
which human artefacts can convey meanings and symbolic intentions. It is therefore
incumbent on those working within this field to develop theoretical insights (which
are dependent on and offer guidance to empirical enquiry) which explore these
relationships in historical perspective. Neither the Italian Rationalists nor the existing
literature are engaging in the difficult task of explaining how forms of communication
have come to possess certain references to, for example, distinct social classes in

Figure 3. Piazza Navona, Rome: Leon Krier, 1977 (source: Krier, Vidler, and others, 1978, page 151).

Marxism and architectural theory: a critique of recent work


specific but changing social formations. It seems, to say the least, unrealistic to
simply assert that there exist certain primordial architectural forms which can be
transferred out of 'primitive' societies into contemporary capitalism.
There are certain similarities here with the problems and debates surrounding
linguistic theory. Chomsky (1972) has maintained, for example, that all human
languages share similar deep structural qualities and that children possess innate
knowledge of a fundamental grammar. He has attempted, rather as Krier and his
colleagues appear to be attempting, to develop a 'rationalist' theory of language with
universal application. He has become engaged in debates over such questions as: can
a linguistic theory be developed which is simultaneously generalised enough to cover
all languages while at the same time excluding (as part of its theoretical structure)
sentences which are not known to exist? These are protracted debates, and (although
the crucial question of how individuals come to possess native linguistic capacities
remains largely overlooked) they are conducted by theoreticians who have a wide
knowledge of actual languages and who are prepared to specify theories in some detail
rather than engage in rhetoric and empty assertion.
But perhaps the most glaring problem in this literature is the uncritical assumption
that architecture will continue to be the province of professionals and their apologists.
There is no sign of a break with traditional concepts of 'great' architecture, no real
indication that architecture might become in any sense undermined, abolished, or in
some way democratised. This neglect is particularly surprising since such questions
have preoccupied many Marxist commentators on aesthetics, such as those in the
prewar Frankfurt School. In the case of architecture these matters are now under
active discussion by such groups as the New Architecture Movement. If architecture
was the product of sixteenth-century capitalism then it would seem reasonable to
suppose that a transition to some form of socialism might involve at least a questioning
of the traditional division of labour between client, designer, and builder. But of this
there is again no sign: Rational Architecture, it seems, remains firmly the province of
intellectual elites. Contemporary technology may now have no particular need for the
primordial forms prescribed by the New Rationalists, but capitalism remains able to
exploit and reproduce such forms on a massive scale, as and when deemed appropriate
by culturally informed (and armchair) radicals such as the New Rationalists.
These books have opened a dialogue with Marxism, but they are in real danger of
falling between the twin stools of bourgeois high art and first-year-undergraduate leftwing politics. We must be grateful to Tafuri, Krier, and their coauthors for opening
this dialogue, but the important intellectual effort still remains to be made.
Barthes R, 1967 Elements of Semiology (Cape, London)
Barthes R, 1972 Mythologies (Paladin, St Albans, Herts)
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1979 a Pion publication printed in Great Britain