While seemingly sparked by the pandemic, today’s economic crisis in the United States has been long expected; another crisis caused by the decades of deregulation, privatization and cuts to social programs dating back to the Reagan era. A mass uprising against police brutality was also long overdue, but the violent suppression of the protests and the federal government’s total ineptitude in handling the pandemic have greatly exceeded even the most pessimistic forecasts.
Tens of millions of Americans are unemployed, and the economy is shrinking at an unprecedented rate. There are over 550,000 Americans without a home (evictions cause the number to increase daily), 2.2 million people in prisons and tens of millions losing health insurance along with their jobs. At the same time, American police consistently kill 1,000 civilians a year, and over 170,000 Americans have died so far from the virus.
The pandemic has forced much of the middle and lower classes with a home or apartment to shelter in place, whether that means working from home, being one of the over 40 million Americans who are unemployed because of the pandemic or being an essential worker with no place to spend time off.
While there are many factors playing into the current moment, I couldn’t help but notice, as I was running from a cloud of tear gas covering the streets of Columbus, Ohio, that the most-visible-yet-unnoticed factor is the role that space (geography, architecture, cities, suburbia, etc.) has played in supporting the system we’re now questioning. I remembered how being on an assignment documenting the opioid epidemic in Ohio reminded me of Todd Hido’s Homes at Night images and the role that architecture and geography played in projects like Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi, the images of which became more politicised after President Donald Trump was elected. Once the tear gas cleared and I regained my vision, I couldn’t help but notice the skyscrapers looming over all the protests as if they were protecting – and being protected by – the heavily armed police. Like the British writer and journalist Owen Hatherley put it, ‘Architecture, unlike the other arts, can’t be ignored, can’t be passively consumed, not if you have to live in it.’Owen Hatherley, Militant Modernism
(Winchester, UK: O Books, 2008), 36.
Parasite: Global Capitalist Tensions
In Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 film Parasite, the Kim family lives in the cramped basement of an urban residential building in Seoul, South Korea. There’s a spatial deprivation that haunts the family. In Bong’s words, the building is a ‘realistic texture of a poor family neighbourhood.’Gabriella Paiella, ‘Parasite
Bong Joon-ho on the Art of Class Warfare’, GQ, October 2019. https://www.gq.com/story/paras... . There’s an anxiety induced by uncertainty as the Kim family works from home as pizza-box folders, scrambling to the bathroom corner to get access to Wi-Fi through a neighbour’s unsecured network.
The Kim family is constricted by this space, and yet, to a certain extent, it does have a spatial effect that pushes the family closer together. Their closeness helps them successfully cheat their way into jobs with the very wealthy Park family, whose house they end up spending most of their time working in and around.
The Parks’ high modernist home, designed by fictional architect Namgoong Hyeonja, has ample space, is modestly decorated with high art, has a yard and even has secret passages. ‘This family, they want to show that “We do have money, but we’re also sophisticated. We’re not ostentatious, we’re not cheesy about it.”’Paiella, ‘Parasite’. The Kims, who are hiding behind fake upper-middle class identities, see this expensive dwelling as a sanctuary that provides basic and surplus amenities that poverty doesn’t allow. However, being exposed to this inequality of spaces quickly becomes an unsustainable point of tension.
The back-and-forth between this expensive high modernist home and their tiny rented basement becomes a problem. It’s as if the two places are in a fight for hegemony in the family’s life and psyche – a fight between the harsh reality of poverty and the fantasy of unattainable riches. The family is confronted by their poverty not only when they return home but also when the Parks speak of the family’s ‘odd smell’. This smell, like a permanent sign, reminds them of the façade, of the unreality of financial riches in a system of extreme inequality. This tension eventually erupts into the chaos of the final scene.
Parasite is a story that pairs a geographical narrative of inequality with a historical one of class tensions, bouncing back between the basement apartment and the million-dollar house until the Kim’s basement floods and all hell breaks loose. Working class Americans experience a similar tension in their daily commutes to work, drives by gated communities or glimpses of financially unattainable lifestyles on TV. There’s an exposure to an unequally developed system.
The philosopher Slavoj Zizek suggested that it’s perhaps possible to eliminate this kind of tension when he compared the postmodern house of architect Frank Gehry to the modernist tension in Hitchcock’s 1960 film Psycho:
Gehry’s work offers a more ambiguous case of the same antagonism: he takes on of the two poles of the antagonism – an old-fashioned family house or a modernist concrete-and-glass building – and then either submits it to a kind of cubist anamorphic distortion (curving walls and windows, etc.) or combines the old family home with a modernist supplement. So here is my hypothesis: if the Bates Motel had been built by Gehry, directly combing the old house and the modern motel into a new hybrid entity, there would have been no need for Norman to kill his victims, since he would have been relieved of the unbearable tension that compels him to run between both places – he would now have a third place of mediation between the two extremes.Slavoj Zizek, Living in the End Times, (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 2010), 257.
Zizek argued that there’s an aesthetic tension through architecture that can solve psychological tension; however, I want to understand whether this extends to a more general spatial tension that can solve political and social tensions.
There’s ultimately something ideological hidden under and simultaneously exposed through the veil of architecture and geography. The Russian constructivist architect El Lissitzky once said, ‘Architects are convinced that through the new design and planning of the house they are actively participating in the organizing of a new consciousness.’El Lissitzky, ‘Amerikanizm’, European Architecture, Krasnaya Niva, No. 49, 1925:138. The ideology is physically embodied in and through architecture and space. As one of the first critical theorists to address geography and space in this way, Henri Lefebvre observed that ‘space has been shaped and molded from historical and natural elements, but this has been a political process. Space is political and ideological. It is a product literally filled with ideologies.’Henri Lefebvre, ‘Reflections on the Politics of Space’, trans. M. Enders, Antipode 8 (1976): 30-37. But can spatial tensions be relieved by internalising social tensions through a unified geography? What about, for example, high-rise buildings as opposed to the spread-out class tensions between the Kim and Park homes?
High-Rise: Unequal Exposures
In JG Ballard’s 1975 novel, High-Rise, we see what happens when these contradictions are internalised in a single structure. In the 2015 film adaptation, the building is a brutalist skyscraper, a concrete structure with affordable housing, swimming pools, a bank, a grocery store, luxurious units towards the top (the architect has the entire top floor) and high-speed lifts.
Since the only back-and-forth tension is between work and the luxurious high-rise, the contradictions are streamlined to create an ideal environment in which residents could have resolved any tensions via the architecture instead of in their own lives. However, the opposite happens. As one character puts it, ‘It’s this place. Won’t let me find my equilibrium.’High Rise. Dir. Ben Wheatley. StudioCanal, 2015. Film.
In the movie and book, the residents in High-Rise start to abandon their jobs, completely severing any dialectic with the outside world. However, the high-rise internally supplies the very hierarchical back-and-forth of being exposed to the upper class while staying in this single building. The apartments, which get more expensive as you go up, start to bleed into the psyche of the residents. The floors start to organise themselves into different class distinctions and slowly descend into chaos. The upper floors go to war with the lower floors.
High-Rise is loosely based on the failures of many – though not all – mid-twentieth-century public housing projects, the most well-known being the Pruitt-Igoe project outside St. Louis, Missouri. Public housing was implemented in the United States with federal funds to solve a housing crisis across cities in the mid-twentieth century and also acted as a tool of empowerment by honouring basic human rights, like housing, to lower income Americans. Government posters said things like ‘Eliminate crime in the slums through housing’ and ‘Better housing: the solution to infant mortality’.Federal Art Project. WPA. 1936-1938. https://www.loc.gov/pictures/ St. Louis’s well-known Pruitt-Igoe housing project sought these same goals when it was built in 1954.
Designed by Minoru Yamasaki, who would go on to design the World Trade Center, Pruitt-Igoe was his first large independent project and garnered international praise. Even the residents considered the units as ‘poor man’s penthouses’Freidrichs, Chad and Freidrichs, Jaime. "The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History"
(TV documentary) America ReFramed on PBS World, 2011. compared to the slums that many lived in prior. It was, to a certain extent, an aspirational social experiment that constructed tall structures as a kind of monument intended for America’s lower income class. These buildings were like skyscrapers that gave residents the same views as expensive downtown penthouses; they could see the skyline in the distance, although they were too far away to experience the city’s economic benefits.
Pruitt-Igoe was quickly struck by a combination of challenges: since the project was explicitly segregated, desegregation caused many White residents to flee rather than live with Black residents; the city wouldn’t help with the maintenance costs; and the location of the projects and blunt racism deprived many residents from employment. The project descended into instability as it faced a continuous series of paralysing blows that Black residents experienced primarily. When it was demolished in 1972, the Pruitt-Igoe project was declared the end of Modernism and the end of the ideology of government welfare that supported federal housing projects.
When the buildings started deteriorating, burst pipes pouring sewage into the courtyards, residents were exposed to the structures behind the walls. They were exposed to the flaws of the superstructures that struggled to maintain the buildings.
While an affordable high-rise might at first seem like a monument to the working class, what happens when residents start living in them can expose what was concealed beneath ideological infrastructure, design and spatial organisation.
The monumental aspirations of high-rises like the Pruitt-Igoe project exposed the seemingly unintentional hierarchies of those who built them. The most obvious indicator of this is that, when first built, they were legally segregated. Black residents lived in one group of buildings and Whites in another. When projects were required to desegregate, White flight instantly resulted, greatly reducing the population and, therefore, revenues for building maintenance.
Spatially unequal development took place; while public housing was on the outskirts of St. Louis, it was usually nowhere near factories, retail stores or reliable transportation; meanwhile, the suburbs weren’t only spatially beneficial but also politically and socially backed by the state and private interests, not to mention St. Louis’ private streets in the middle of downtown, which were owned by rich residents and recently came to public attention after an armed couple pointed guns at peaceful protesters walking by their mansion located on one of these private streets. Although post-war America was much more helpful to its citizens than in the 1920s or today, the base on which it was operating was ultimately capitalist and founded on deep-seated and, at the time, legal racism.
Though visually exposed to the unequal geography of capitalism, skyscrapers and the St. Louis Arch, the primarily Black residents were intentionally prevented from physically, economically or psychologically experiencing the benefits, causing tension from Pruitt-Igoe’s very beginning.
The project exposed the shortcomings of any American government effort to help its people through welfare because it exposed the exclusionary practices of a repressive structure as weak compensation for a failed system. In other words, the state wasn’t fracturing a repressive system through public housing – it was supporting one. More generally, it was ‘the process whereby the capitalist system as a whole is able to extend its existence by maintaining its defining structures.’Edward W. Soja, Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertions of Space in Critical Social Theory, (Brooklyn, NY: Verso, 1989), 91.
The Zone: The Unconscious American Dream
In Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, Stalker, a large zone guarded by the military is said to be an alien area where visitors’ desires are fulfilled. In Post-WWII America, through public housing and loan-funded suburbs, the United States government attempted to manufacture the very grounds on which desire could be fulfilled: the American Dream. However, like in Stalker, visitors realised that they didn’t actually have access to their true desires because those desires were alien to them, inaccessible in the unconscious and out of reach.
The suburbs became the true landscapes for fulfilling desires but only for Whites, who lived in a kind of ‘Bourgeois Utopia’Robert Fishman, Bourgeois Utopias, (New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc.), 39. , as urban historian Robert Fishman called it. When Black Americans made it to the suburbs – despite the racist redlining that hindered them from getting loans – realtors commonly went door to door informing White residents that a Black family had moved in, and they would then ask if Whites wanted to sell their houses because of it.https://www.columbusalive.com/... Many did. Although referring to a different context, Frantz Fanon wrote that ‘there is a zone of nonbeing, an extraordinarily sterile and arid region, an utterly naked declivity where an authentic upheaval can be born’, where ‘black is not a man.’Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, (New York, NY: Grove Press, 1952), 10.
The zone, in the case of public housing, is a kind of spatial and economic red zone in which there are little to no businesses or job opportunities and, by the standards of a capitalist society, no real path to the fulfilment of desire. In a capitalist society, it’s the combination of money and power that ‘converts my wishes from something in the realm of imagination, translates them from their meditated, imagined or desired existence into their sensuous, actual existence – from imagination to life, from imagines into real being.’Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, (Moscow, Russia: Progress Publishers, 1959), 61. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Economic-Philosophic-Manuscripts-1844.pdf Despite the magical nature of the zone in Stalker, its geography was a vast, overgrown and abandoned area, similar to the vestiges of Pruitt-Igoe.
Though racial segregation slowly became illegal in the United States, from the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, racial segregation didn’t end, and nor did racism. Segregation was only further enforced as it was hidden in seemingly unintentional tools and structures that created spaces of anti-Blackness without explicitly saying so. Lee Atwater, the racist campaign consultant who worked in Ronald Reagan’s administration and on George H. W. Bush’s campaign, explained the ‘Southern Strategy’ of maintaining a racist politics in America after segregation was made illegal (warning: strong language):
You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ – that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this’, is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’
Segregation and racism increasingly transformed into de facto strategies, retreating under the surface of legislation while supporting the same racist superstructure built on the same base of repressive capitalism. The aspirations of those in public housing were met with the very real opposition from the state that funded that very housing.
From the far-off windows of Pruitt-Igoe, the skyline and St. Louis Arch could only just be seen. It’s as if the state, rather than seeing housing as a stepping stone to class mobility, really just wanted lower income Americans out of the way for larger private projects – this was certainly the case in St. Louis, where much of the inner city slums were demolished and sold off to private developers while former residents watched from afar. When housing in the United States is implemented in the systemically corrupt fashion that it is – prioritising private companies and profits, using racist policies, etc. – the aspirations of the welfare state remain only a dream; change is constantly around the corner, or viewed from a top-floor window, but it can never be reached.
The aspirations of federal public housing ultimately fell short (although they were by no means a complete failure: 2 million Americans live in federal public housing), and they represent an ideology that fell dormant from the 1980s until today. During that time, the only high-rise structures that went up represented the explicit overtaking of the state by the private sector. The working class monuments of public housing were replaced with corporate monuments in the 70s, and this pattern locked itself into American life come the Reagan administration in the 80s.
From the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 – which cut federal funding for social programs like food stamps, school lunches, and Medicaid – to reinstituting stock buybacks for companies – which led companies to today spend upward of 65% of net earnings on stock buybacks – the federal government has exacerbated inequality, abandoning any prioritisation of lower, middle income and working class America in favour of CEOs and shareholders.
El Lissitzky recalls a quote from Harold Loeb, the editor of Broom in the 1920s, who wrote, ‘For a nation to create art, it must have its ideal, its god. America’s god is the dollar: so its architecture has produced skyscrapers…'.El Lissitzky, ‘Amerikanizm’, European Architecture, Krasnaya Niva, No. 49, 1925:138 David Harvey, a leading theorist in the field of urban studies, jokingly imagined (video below) a future in which we point to Manhattan’s skyline buildings as ‘monuments to [the] stupidity of a certain era in which the ultra-rich were so rich that they didn’t know what to do with their money except build things like this.’
Public housing couldn’t provide the stepping stones to dismantle the racist capitalism that plagues America; it couldn’t because, in this kind of system, money and power, neither of which lower income and Black Americans were given, are required to challenge it. Corporate monuments, however, have the architectural power to further cement the richest Americans’ real power in the United States and the world, as they’re built by the powerful and wealthy, not simply products of capitalism but, inversely, supporters of it too. As the architect Zaera-Polo has observed:
The question now is not whether certain architecture is aligned to the right, to the left or to a certain political party – as in earlier embodiments of architectural politics – but rather what architectural strategies may trigger effects on the distribution of power… Contemporary politics are giving way to a new wave of powerful material habitats, artificial environments, artificial organizations, belongings and attachments, which are literally redefining political surroundings in which we are and co-exist. Both governmental agencies and corporate organizations are moving toward multiple layers of governance with intensified connections between them.Alejandro Zaera-Polo, ‘The Politics of the Envelope: A Political Critique of Materialism,’Volume 17, (New York, NY: Anyone Corporation, 2008), 102.
The postmodern skyscrapers of the 1980s and 1990s are both powerful corporate and government buildings. Today, it’s both the public and private sector skyscrapers that act as corporate monuments, greatly diminishing the power of American citizens in their government.
This power blurring through architecture and society can be seen most visibly today in private development and the U.S. government’s response to the economic impact of the pandemic, specifically in the billions of dollars in tax breaks from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, which had a loophole allowing 43,000 millionaires to receive an average refund check of $1.6 million each and banks to get $10 billion in fees from the government’s small business loan program, not to mention billionaires getting over $565 billion richer during the pandemic. It’s clear where the federal government’s priorities are. While protesters were gassed in the streets, SpaceX launched a rocket; skyscrapers in Manhattan’s billionaire’s row are under construction while over 30 million Americans still haven’t received their $1,200 stimulus check.
Our cities’ downtowns physically embody this dynamic. Most cities, like Columbus, Ohio, where I am now, have a few old nineteenth century government buildings built in a Greek Revivalist style with democratic ideals in mind, but they’re surrounded by towering skyscrapers owned by both companies and the state. Postmodern skyscrapers surround the nineteenth century Ohio Statehouse; it faces the Huntington Center skyscraper built in 1983 (part of a block of skyscrapers and buildings owned by Huntington Bank), which is next to the Vern Riffe State Office Tower built in 1988 (where 2,000 state employees work). The architecture in American cities physically embodies the declaration of state and corporate power. It’s no longer hidden; it’s shoved in our faces. What can we do to challenge this? As urban theorist Edward Soja claimed, the first step should be to ‘tear away its layers of ideological mystification.’Soja, Postmodern Geographies, 73. Second, we should remember, as Zaera-Polo told us, that
the challenge to power can only be selective and a division of political labour has to be addressed by multiple disciplines operating independently and simultaneously…A singular politics of resistance is no longer capable of challenging contemporary forms of instituted power.Polo, Politics of the Envelope, 102.
David Harvey in ‘David Harvey and the City’. An Antipode Foundation film directed by Brett Story, 1 June 2020, video,12:36.
Towards a Radical Postmodernism of Resistance
Both Parasite and High-Rise display an architecture and geography that embodies these large structures in a society’s ideology. These are the social and spatial inequality present in the hierarchical organisation of high-rises and the inequalities between the Kim and Park homes that led to chaos. At first, they’re symptoms of these systems. When the stagflation of the 1970s led to the end of a reified government welfare prioritisation, so too did the architectural and spatial organisations start to change:
During the early phases of stagnation in the 1970s, financial barriers had a major effect. They were largely responsible for the transformation of metropolitan cores, through urban renewal and reduced low-income housing supplies, into spectacular new centres for finance capital institutions.Soja, Postmodern Geographies, 100.
But more importantly, there’s a response from these geographies created by capitalism; it’s not just a one-way street. Lefebvre observed that ‘space and the political organization of space express social relationships but also react back upon them…’Henri Lefebvre, La Revolution Urbaine, (Gallimard: Paris, 1970), 25. Architecture and cities aren’t just symptoms or embodiments of society’s ideology or social hegemony – they also affect and support them.
While utilizing this dialectic is mostly seen as helping our capitalist system, there have been attempts to implement this in revolutionary alternatives. This was most acknowledged by the Russian Constructivists, who saw space as a key part of revolution, not simply a by-product but an essential support to reproduce revolutionary aims.
In the USSR between 1917 and 1925, an avant garde movement of city planners, geographers, and architects worked toward achieving a ‘new socialist spatial organization’ to correspond with other revolutionary movements in Soviet society…Spatial transformation was not assumed to be an automatic byproduct of revolutionary social change. It too involved struggle and the formation of a collective consciousness. Without such effort, the prerevolutionary organization of space would continue to reproduce social inequality and exploitational structures.Soja, Postmodern Geographies, 89.
This movement was later outlawed under Joseph Stalin in favour of socialist realism, and the spatial reorganisation was abandoned in favour of industrialisation and militarisation – the abandoning of the spatial intent was parallel with the ideological and political abandoning.
While the current context of a shelter-in-place order confines most people to their homes, the protests against police brutality have led residents to city centres, where masses have started questioning the very economic base that supports the structures. In John Berger’s The Nature of Mass Demonstrations, he lays out the spatial importance of a symbolic occupation of a city.
Demonstrations are essentially urban in character, and they are usually planned to take place as near as possible some symbolic centre, either civic or national…A mass demonstration can be interpreted as the symbolic capturing of a city or capital…They cut off these areas, and, not yet having the power to occupy them permanently, they transform them into a temporary stage on which they dramatize the power they still lack…They become corporately aware that it is they or those whom they represent who have built the city and who maintain it. They see it through different eyes. They see it as their product, confirming their potential instead of reducing it.John Berger. ‘The Nature of Mass Demonstrations’, International Socialism (1st series), No.34, Autumn 1968, 11-12.
Protests act as a symbolic occupation, an exposure to unequal geographies and a ‘tearing away of ideological mystification’ for the protesters who get a glimpse of what it might feel like to claim their ‘right to the city’Henri Lefebvre, The Right to the City, (Paris: Points, 1971). https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/henri-lefebvre-right-to-the-city. While symbolic gestures might seem to fall short against overbearing power structures, Berger argued that these protests are essentially rehearsals, or practices, for a coming revolution.
The question which revolutionaries must decide in any given historical situation is whether or not further symbolic rehearsals are necessary. The next stage is training in tactics and strategy for the performance itself.John Berger. ‘The Nature of Mass Demonstrations’, 11-12.
This is a liberating historical and spatial view for revolutionary movements. Not only are past social and political movements seen as contributions to the present (as is the case in traditional Marxism), but the geographies of the past and present (from the Constructivists to the decentralised postmodern city of today) act to ‘provide a lesson from failure and give birth to the possible’Henri Lefebvre, The Right to the City, (Paris: Points, 1971). https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/henri-lefebvre-right-to-the-city , as material to be used in creating new futures. In his book Rebel Cities, David Harvey sees this as the essential starting point, stating that ‘reclaiming and organizing cities for anti-capitalist struggles is a great place to begin.’David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, (Location: Publisher, 2012), 153.
Zizek’s claim that a postmodern structure that internalises contradictions can resolve social tensions can only be applied to a more general spatial theory if there’s a simultaneous social and political shift. It’s hard to imagine a situation in which Pruitt-Igoe would’ve been a grand success if a postmodern shell were placed in front of the buildings; it would’ve required a vast change in oppressive racial and spatial realities.
The geographical contradictions between working class apartments and homes, or those without homes, and gated communities, skyscrapers and other secluded zones of accumulation aren’t only products of a capitalist system – they also support it. With a movement calling for many of the essential structural changes along with occupations of city centres (CHAZ in Seattle, City Hall in New York City, etc.), an emphasis and imagination that focuses on new physical geographies and architecture is required to grow and sustain socially and politically revolutionary aims. Soja believed that a revolutionary spatial undertaking has yet to be fully utilised in our postmodern times but is essential in overtaking the neoliberal monopoly held on the present.
A new ‘cognitive mapping’ must be developed, a new way of seeing through the gratuitous veils of both reactionary postmodernism and late modern historicism to encourage the creation of a politicized spatial consciousness and a radical spatial praxis. The most important postmodern geographies are thus still to be produced.Soja, Postmodern Geographies, 75.