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The Powers that be: Architectural potency and spatialized power

Mark Crinson

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1It used to be thought that an academic discipline was healthy when it had a balance of inward and outward movements. Centripetally, one addressed what was at the heart of the discipline; centrifugally, one moved outwards, exploring the edges of what it was taken to be. The discipline had a clear sense of its foundational problems and formative thinkers, and of how and why it had developed since them. It identified and debated what phenomena were at its core and what was specific about its ways of approaching them. It either reached out in interdisciplinary directions or it was challenged by new ideas, discrepant discoveries, and para-disciplinary methods. So the disciplinary precinct of self-criticism was challenged, shifted and made newly relevant by the big world beyond, if not by some lively and less constrained discipline nearby. Probably no discipline was ever really like this; perhaps it is just a misty vision thrown up in moments of academic anomie. But it is a tantalizing ideal nevertheless, and we must all have experienced brief moments when something like it seemed close.

2The everyday norm probably always has been a combination of practices, some at an angle to this ideal, some blithely indifferent to it. The main body of a discipline carries on in cumulative fashion, working the seams opened up by pioneers, absorbing the shocks, or simply carrying on regardless, resulting in disciplines manifesting the methods of many generations practiced simultaneously, like exposed geologic strata somehow become animate. There has seemed for some time, however, to be another academic phenomenon, one that promotes—such is the spirit of this age—communities of interest rather than those of disciplinary propinquity. We have more to say to people spread across the world working in our “area,” than we do to the disciplinary colleagues in our own corridor. And what that means also is that we have more flexibility to take up shared concerns and models that have no disciplinary lodging. Disciplines now seem more identified with administrative structures than with common intellectual endeavour. So we promote these areas, these new “turns,” these always emerging formations colonizing new spaces for research both bridging and between the old disciplines. New associations of academics spring up with acronyms and enigmatic titles, like privatized public utilities or vanguard groups (and in both cases better equipped to win grants). New journals are launched; conferences proliferate.

3The question that colonial and postcolonial architectural history has always faced since it emerged some thirty years ago, is whether it is one of these new kinds of areas or whether it is a subfield within an old discipline (architectural history). And the question is of course complicated by the fact that architectural history is an odd discipline because it has never had the status of departmental authority behind it, always being a sub-discipline of art history or architecture. Thus colonial and postcolonial architectural history is a subfield of a subdiscipline, and one with many other disciplinary associations (geography, anthropology, history, and so on) that might have sometimes equal intellectual claim on it. Moreover, as a subfield it has a potentially vast range of geographies and cultures to cover. While this situation has always encouraged innovative work it also has the built-in problems of marginality and lack of focus. As a result the audiences for our work remain frustratingly small; we still barely register even with our parent disciplines, nor has our work significantly changed their perspectives or canons or ways of thinking. Are we doing enough even to influence, for instance, global histories and surveys of architecture? Do our ideas and methods register significantly enough to influence the practices of other disciplines?

4The energy and hope, I think, of new formations and new areas comes when they focus on a certain problematic, a certain nexus of conditions, ideas or objects that beg for illumination through new hypotheses, new modes of observation and analysis, new types of archive, or new conjunctions of scholarly activity (and perhaps old forms too). Such work saves itself from mere fashionableness when it recreates some of the conditions of the ideal discipline but in a more flexible way (prepared, for instance, to die off when it either loses vitality or its ideas have become more widely influential) and free of the association with administrative structures. We can benefit more from all this to go beyond our sub-field, sub-discipline status.

5My suggestion for this problematic, for what lies at the heart of colonial architectural history, should not be unexpected; it is power. Power relationships, of course, are always present in a medium that depends so much on money, labour, knowledge and property as architecture does. The claim in colonial relationships and situations might be that the shapes and forces of power—its enabling and containing dimensions—are given greater profile, made more pervasive, even more actual than illusory. But inevitably what we understand by power needs analysis and needs to be opened up to elaboration alongside those architectural and spatial practices that form and are formed by it.

  • 1 Jiat-Hwee Chang, “Building a Colonial Technoscientific Network: tropical architecture, building sc (...)
  • 2 Aggregate, Governing by Design: Architecture, Economy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century, Pitt (...)

6Far from a concentrated focus on power, however, there may be emerging in some recent work an unfortunate division and antagonism between the study of what has been called “visible politics” and that devoted to “spatialized power”.1 The distinction is polemical and one made by the spatializers of power for whom the biopolitics of late Foucault or Latour’s actor network theory are better ways to understand colonial power than an approach caricatured as only concerned with studies of buildings where power is most visibly materialized, where power simply resides. The Foucaultian notion of “governmentality” rules, given an extended life because of the continuing publication of the late lectures. The problem of power is understood as how to manage desire, how to make docile bodies, how to produce normative behaviours, and how to do all this as part of an ultimately self-regulating and secure society. This is, we are told, not simply a matter of monumental symbolism and space, state power and authority, imposed control and surveillance.2 Rather it has a more all-encompassing grasp, governing what we do in our private life and interior spaces as much as in how society is administered and organized; the norms and forms of everyday life. Architecture as a system of knowledge, then, rather than architecture as material object.

  • 3 See Anthony Vidler’s critique of the limits of Foucault’s concentration on technologies of visibil (...)
  • 4 Foucault’s own claim that “where there is power there is resistance” remained little explored: Mic (...)

7This is a very important contribution to our understanding of architecture’s imbrication with other forms of knowledge, but there are at least three salient problems with its claims. First, there still remain the old criticisms of Foucault’s method. The panopticon is a mere paradigm of power, a promise, even a fantasy, of visibility and control. When enacted the surplus it produces equals any system of spectacular power: it fails to induce total self-censorship, fails to enact complete visibility (why else would we need to keep filling prisons?), and creates a surfeit of knowledge without leverage.3 Second, there are the constraints Foucault put on his method: the concept of class is banished, enquiries into causation are hors de combat, actions of resistance and non-absorption are largely ignored,4 and about colonialism there are at best only after-thoughts (leaving as deeply problematic how colonialism’s violence can be reconciled with a theory based on liberal governmentality in the west). Finally, and directly relevantly for this “Debate” article, the claims over-reach themselves in a way which is symptomatic of the all-encompassing net the Foucaultian method spreads over its subject. No attempt is made either to account for co-existing regimes of power or to enquire into the deficits or failures of disciplinary power. To do either would be to lose the totalizing beauty of the theory, which must mirror the supposed efficiency and effectiveness of its analyzed objects.

  • 5 Terry Ward, “Kenya Landscape,” 244 The Journal of the University of Manchester Architectural and P (...)

8Two brief examples can remind us just how complex power is in relation to architecture. The British gave the name “emergency” to their postwar crises of authority in Kenya and British Malaya. Crisis is of course endemic to colonialism, challenges to its authority recurrent, but it may be that the word “emergency” was not just a retort to “insurgency” but at some level recognition of the final endgame for a certain mode of colonial rule. In these postwar instances persuasion was accompanied by coercion, each aspect of policy significantly employing architecture. The “hearts and minds” policy of Sir Gerald Templer in Malaya is well known, the architectural politics of the new villages in Malaya and Kenya less well so, at least in any detail. They went arm-in-arm, and arm-in-arm also with such technical knowledges as tropical architecture: power in the postwar colonial welfare model co-existed with continuing forms of power as coercive and persuasive. Architecture’s job was to make crisis livable. And it was not as if persuasion was simply located in one (architecture as image or message) and coercion in the other (architecture as enclosure, as concentration camp). One only has to read the much-mediated words of a contemporary representative of the colonial optic to recognise this: “A complete change of environment was strictly avoided by the planners,” he writes of the new villages in Kenya, “instead, the simplicity of the early homesteads was retained”. And this cod-vernacular was not just about security and control, he convinces himself: “The solution answered some of the more immediate problems relative to the emergency and contributed to the overall progress of the native.”5 Progress is tied directly to the management of revolt; architecture is their method.

  • 6 See Fintan Cullen, “Marketing National Sentiment: Lantern Slides of Evictions in Late Nineteenth-C (...)
  • 7 See especially Irish Times, 23 June 1897.
  • 8 Catulle Mendes, Les 73 journées de la Commune: du 18 mars au 29 mai 1871, Paris: Lachaud, 1897, as (...)

9The other example is to do with events around the Jubilee of 1897 in Dublin, which figured and reconfigured a kind of topography of power and resistance both in Dublin and in its relation to rural property and production. These events included official and unofficial celebrations (military and commercial) but also counter-monuments and a range of anti-jubilee protests, some using satire and mimicry, others destructive. Among the imaginative protests was an open-air magic-lantern show projecting the sites of rural eviction in the very heart of Ascendancy Dublin.6 Among the destructive were riots and glass-breaking, staged and unstaged acts often accurately targeting architecture’s visceral, commercial, and proprietorial relationships with colonial authority.7 The different ways these protests related to Dublin newly exposed it as a space of colonialism, the way it had been constituted as “a permanent insult to the vanquished by the victors” (as the Paris Communards had pronounced about Paris in 1871).8 But what happens to such rich histories of resistance when we talk about power and architecture?

  • 9 Charles Townshend, Political Violence in Ireland: Government and Resistance Since 1848, Oxford: Cl (...)

10While we may want to pick apart these different kinds of power, it seems self-defeating to elevate one for our exclusive study to the neglect of others. So part of my interest in the anti-jubilee is how it demonstrates the inadequacy and irrelevance of such a separation. Take the multiple functions of the police. The police that baton-charged the nationalist demonstrators were in this instance enacting direct, sovereign power (to use Foucault’s lexicon in describing pre-modern power). But this same force also included among their regular duties the collection of agricultural statistics, census work, the serving of poor-law election notices, customs duty, weights and measures inspection, factory inspection, maintaining a registry of prostitutes, and so on.9 Similarly, the magic-lantern images of eviction might seem a classic example of modern biopower but at the same time they reveal the limits of analysis only along these lines. We have an inadequate knowledge of them if we miss not only the ambiguities in their encapsulation of both surveillance and resistance but also their dynamic deployment in relation to the city itself as part of a choreographed script of urban colonial contestation. There is agency and affect in the anti-jubilee: architecture received distractedly, architecture as mere frame, but also still architecture as symbol, cause, and target. Different kinds of power, then, not one made artificially super-ordinate to others.

11Just as the capillary movements of disciplinary power can clog and malfunction, so monuments of representative power can remain alien, be ignored and bypassed. The lesson is not to look for power in one place or one form, nor to promote a mono-logic, selective theory. We should be talking as much about technologies, architectural training, indigenous practices, print cultures, architectural representations and analogies, and so on, as of architecture or technoscientific networks. Power, during and beyond colonialism, takes a kaleidoscopic range of forms. It is exemplary, coercive, persuasive, dissuasive, disciplinary, violent, dispersed, insinuative, knowledge-making, and knowledge-breaking. Pure versions of spectacular and disciplinary power are hard to find. The green maidan is a field of fire. The church on a little Pacific island stakes a claim for land as much as souls. Measurements are entered on a graph. The panopticon fails.

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1 Jiat-Hwee Chang, “Building a Colonial Technoscientific Network: tropical architecture, building science and the politics of decolonization,” in Duanfang Lu (ed.), Third World Modernism: Architecture, development and identity, London; New York, NY: Routledge, 2011, p. 211–235, esp. p. 229. See also Stephen Legg, Spaces of Colonialism: Delhi’s Urban Governmentalities, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007 (RGS-IBG book series); and Jiat-Hwee Chang and Anthony D. King, “Towards a Genealogy of Tropical Architecture: Historical fragments of power-knowledge, built environment and climate in the British colonial territories”, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, vol. 32, no. 3, 2011, p. 283–300.

2 Aggregate, Governing by Design: Architecture, Economy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century, Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012 (Culture, politics and the built environments), p. vii.

3 See Anthony Vidler’s critique of the limits of Foucault’s concentration on technologies of visibility: Anthony Vidler, The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992, p. 172. And see also John Tagg’s comments on the limits and failures of panopticism: John Tagg, The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Truths and the Capture of Meaning, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2009, p. 16–17, 22–23.

4 Foucault’s own claim that “where there is power there is resistance” remained little explored: Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality – An Introduction, London: Penguin, 1981, p. 95.

5 Terry Ward, “Kenya Landscape,” 244 The Journal of the University of Manchester Architectural and Planning Society, Spring 1960, p. 17.

6 See Fintan Cullen, “Marketing National Sentiment: Lantern Slides of Evictions in Late Nineteenth-Century Ireland’, History Workshop Journal, vol. 54, no. 1, 2002, p. 162–179. URL: Accessed 24 June 2014.

7 See especially Irish Times, 23 June 1897.

8 Catulle Mendes, Les 73 journées de la Commune: du 18 mars au 29 mai 1871, Paris: Lachaud, 1897, as quoted in Kristin Ross, The Emergence of Social Space: Rimbaud and the Paris Commune, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1988 (Theory and history of literature, 60), p. 8.

9 Charles Townshend, Political Violence in Ireland: Government and Resistance Since 1848, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1983, p. 70.

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Mark Crinson, « The Powers that be: Architectural potency and spatialized power »ABE Journal [En ligne], 4 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 juillet 2014, consulté le 27 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Mark Crinson

Professor, University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom

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