Home Design that has been reified into an instrument that quietly drills people, conning them out of wasteful activity, has the orderly and economic virtue of improving their utility and efficiency. As power is drained from the will in order to render the body more productive, increasingly docile and better conditioned for a stable consumer society, people are gradually trained into leading a complacent existence, one that is not unrelated to automata and, Dostoyevsky would say, to animaux domestiques.
While it might be easy to relegate Foucault’s critique to the most reductive and barren kinds of commercial or institutional buildings, and consider it moot in the context of the dazzling imagery and amusing kitsch of contemporary decorating, the latter trends are in many ways more alarming, for they distract us from awareness about the loss of something essential – human causation – which is rapidly vanishing from the physical environment. We can still feel the erosion of freedom in highly restrictive spaces, but this humiliation is obscured when standing before a display of exotic building forms so visually striking they stupefy their audience.
The architectural spectacle, which seems at first to offer relief from an otherwise brutally practical world, is no less domineering than the disciplinary space, for it reduces our experience to the passive enjoyment of somebody else’s creativity. I am referring specifically to buildings conceived to excite the eye while denying any real possibilities of action, diminishing our bodily freedom. Provided are many choices of sensation, but not choices of action. The importance of this distinction is made clear by Charles Olson in his essay ‘Human Universe’, in which he writes: ‘Spectatorism crowds out participation as the condition of culture … If man is once more to possess intent in his life, and to take up the responsibility implicit in his life, he has to comprehend his own process as intact, from outside, by way of his skin, in, and by his own powers of conversion, out again. For there is this other part of the motion which we call life to be examined anew’, Olson concludes, ‘man’s action, that tremendous discharge of forces.’8
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It takes only a glance at the changing silhouettes of most major cities, and the role of sensationalism in today’s architectural schools and press, to recognize the societal stress being given to aestheticized and photogenic end products, in which the potential creativity of people has been stolen by the architect. These glamorous objects constitute a large portion of our accepted architectural history and are magnets of architectural tourism vital to economic growth. Helping to hasten and strengthen this reversal of power in our consumerist culture is a cult of personality and glorification of virtuosic design.
Sadly, we are barely aware of what we have lost, because we are so well trained in a Foucaultean sense and because we are so complicit in the docile joys of entertainment. Reinforcing this ominous pleasure in human submission, and dissociation of power from the human body, is a growing and by now universal obsession with computers and smart phones, not to mention television and films, based upon sensational effects, all of which are making us into extensions of imagery that has been programmed by others, to which we can only react in predictable patterns. ‘The serious threat to our democracy is not the existence of foreign totalitarian states’, notes philosopher John Dewey in Freedom and Culture. ‘It is the existence within our own personal attitudes and within our own institutions of conditions similar to those which have given a victory to external authority, discipline,
The innate human desire and capacity to weigh and decide one’s own courses of action, and to do this wisely in the light of personal interests and limitations, is rooted in our collective evolution. People in the distant past who fell into habitual patterns of perception and movement, unable to adjust to shifting opportunities and threats, were likely to meet an early demise. This process must have encouraged the natural selection and refined the genetic constitution of humans who could intelligently deliberate risks and options, and then innovate by responding creatively to unexpected stimuli.