Architecture, Space and Ideology: between Adorno and Lefebvre

Published in: SAJ (Serbian Architectural Journal), 2018

Architecture within critical theory: with or without ideology?

Architecture mainly dwells in philosophy as an ideological power. Almost every important philosopher of the 20th century wrote at least one essay concerning architecture and it does not come as a surprise, that most of them were dealing with ideology: Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, Henri Lefebvre, Fredric Jameson are just some of the most distinguishing names of such an entry point into architecture. This entry point was declared in a cohesive statement also by the Italian architect Aldo Rossi, who saw architecture as a hegemonic work, which could be read as a dominance of ideology: “There are no buildings of opposition, because the architecture that is going to be realized is always an expression of the dominant class.[i]If architecture is always an expression of the dominant class, i.e. a spatial manifestation of its ideology, what would be the entry point to reflect on architecture, which would still leave space to a coherent epistemology[ii] of architecture?

Ideology was elaborated in length by critical theory, which is usually associated with the Frankfurt school and its influence. Ideology was mentioned by Plato and is generally referred to as being a misconception. Karl Marx defined ideology in The German ideology (1846) in a more exact way, as a specific “camera obscura”: “…the camera obscura that gives us an inverted picture of the world, so that ideas and not material processes come to be seen as the determining factors[iii].“ Adorno was one of the prominent leader of the Frankfurt school, who continued arguing in the direction of this position: as the central focus of his work was aesthetics, he was intrinsically associating everything from the cultural realm, together with architecture, with ideology.

With this paper, which is certainly just a sketch giving the vast, multi-layered and complex of issues on the table, I would like to (re)open the reflection on architecture from a critical perspective, thus provide some formulas to reflect on the intersection of architecture, space and ideology. While trying to sketch the basic position of Adorno and Lefebvre on this notion, I would like to draft an answer to this question: Is contemporary space and architecture alienating to the point, that we are so domesticated to this estrangement, we cannot see behind the scenes of the machinery anymore? This question is in a way a rhetorical one and has been present in philosophy, especially the one with a materialistic background, hence in the architectural discourse, prominently in the second half of the 20th century[iv]. Can we build an answer?

Adorno on architecture: art opposing cultural industries of total system

Adorno’s perception of art, cultural industries and architecture, could be an extremely fertile position for a contemporary reception of architecture, because of its insistence on the negative as such and especially on the negative side of progress.

Since Adorno’s fundamental statement was the negative side of progress and reason, which is embodied in the concept of the negative dialectics of the Enlightenment, we can take his stake on architecture to be almost a pioneering critical one in the 20th century. In his main works, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944, with Max Horkheimer) and The Negative Dialectics (1966),  Adorno was questioning the contradictory, back side of the “apparent” progress, which is related with reason overcoming myth during the Enlightenment periods of bourgeois revolutions. The aim of the Enlightenment for Adorno was to make everything reasonable, i.e. to dominant fear, which was coming from the myth and mythological, with science. Within the Enlightenment, science becomes a new master and mathematics with its complete abstraction is its best manifestation. Adorno (and Horkheimer) were looking at the back side of progress, liberation and other ideologically connected terms of the Enlightenment, in order to identify the source of fascism and totalitarism. Their conclusion of their endeavour was, to put in simple terms, that this project was a failure, because it became its own ideology, which is now leading the world.  

The negative side of development, of reason, of sciences taking over religion and all former beliefs, was shaping also Adorno’s view on architecture and his conception of modern living.  For Adorno, modern living was immanently crossed, prevented and impossible. Modern living was placed here within capitalism, i.e. within the inescapable “total system” of the western societies that was characterised by the “seamless web of media technology, multinational corporations, and international bureaucratic control”. One of the founding elements of the total system are cultural industries, as films and all other forms of mass distraction, which Adorno put on the other side of art. He found art, where he included also some specific – not all – forms of architecture, to be the only possible exit from the dominance of the machinery of the total system of the development. We can read his statement “art is the negative knowledge of the actual world[v] precisely in this horizon.  Adorno’s definition of the essence of the work of art is remarkably long-sighted: “…a successful work… is not one which resolves objective contradictions in a spurious harmony, but one which expresses the idea of harmony negatively by embodying the contradictions pure and uncompromised.”[vi] He inscribed this urge to embody contradictions also to “true” architecture.  The art works, such as the work of Kafka, Beckett, Schonberg, were art in Adorno‘s view, precisely because of „their intransigent refusal of any form of reconciliation[vii]“. If cultural industries are the ones who support the total system, art should expose its contradictions.

The opening lines of Adorno’s Minima Moralia (1944) are quite disturbing: life is reduced only to consumption, the only way to come underneath this estranged form is to analyse the objective powers that are determining the individual existence. Adorno stressed here that it is impossible to understand an individual phenomenon, without grasping the whole, where ideology has a key role: „Our perspective of life has passed into an ideology which conceals the fact that there is life no longer.[viii]“ Adorno dwelt in the intersection between life and ideology on culture as a prominent feature, which was essential for the Frankfurt school and was reduced for him to a complete lie.  In this position, where life is reduced to ideology, where “world is systematized horror[ix], and where culture is just a false manifestation, a lie, meant to hidden the true relations within society, architecture works within the system: “The predicament of private life today is shown by its arena. Dwelling, in the proper sense, is now impossible.[x]” His view on modernistic architecture, that was mostly known in its functionalistic appearance, especially in Germany, is extremely negative. “The functional modern habitations designed from a tabula rasa, are living-cases manufactured by experts for philistines, or factory sites that have strayed into the consumption sphere, devoid of all relation to the occupant: […][xi]”Architecture is reduced in its modern manifestation just to boxes, to cases for philistines. A house in Minima Moralia does not have a meaning any more, just as the home does not exist any longer. Also architecture is not possible, as dwelling in the era of fascism and of a total system (in the western world) were not possible at all. Architecture is just one of the notions of ideology, it just gives a façade to the culture as ideology and works within the dialectics of the Enlightenment. Within the concept where everything is ideology, where culture dwells as a lie, it seems the only function of architecture is the ideological one.  

Adorno broaden this position in the essay Functionalism Today (1965), where the opposition to Adolf Loos and his fight against the ornament(al) in architecture was in the forefront. For Adorno, Loos conceived the ornament from a distinctive bourgeois works ethics perception, where the ornament is repulsive exactly because it doesn’t have any purpose. This is also the perspective of the total system, which wants to cut every enjoyment. Adorno read Loos’s rejection of a style and the fight against the ornament(al), that was intrinsic for functionalistic architecture, in its contradiction and wrote: “the absolute rejection of a style becomes style[xii]”. For Adorno, the key attribute for architecture, that would be able to surpass the ideological notion of the dialectic of the Enlightenment, is to work as an autonomous art. He is striving for an architecture, which would be able to open the uncompromised contradictions of the society: “Architecture contradicts the needs of the here and now as soon as it proceeds the serve those needs – without simultaneously representing any absolute or lasting ideology.[xiii]”  

Architecture in this realm should be able to combine its two extremes: the formal construction and its function. In this approach, Adorno introduced a distinction between “true” architecture and other buildings / interventions in space, which are part of the machinery, as works of ideology. In making those distinctions within architecture, he is proposing some practical proposition in order to look beyond the (mis)conception on how art/architecture can present the truth.

The power of ideology in Henri Lefebvre’s concept of everyday life and abstract space

Taking Henri Lefebvre’s notion of the distinctive scenery of architecture, the everyday life, and his theory of the abstract space, we can expand the possibility of a critical materialistic epistemology of architecture. In order to present an interconnection between alienation, space, architecture and ideology, I am proposing some formulas to underline the key ideas of two of Lefebvre’s central books – The Critique of Everyday Live (1947-1981) and The Production of Space (1974).

Lefebvre recalls everyday life as a forgotten and neglected entity within theory. His main aim in The Critique of Everyday Live is to put everyday life on the stand again, because only at this level a revolution, a change in society could occur. It is important to underline, that for Lefebvre exactly this basic scenery of architecture, the everyday life, is intensely subjected to alienation: »elements of everyday life (work-family and ‘privateʹ life- leisure activities) implies an alienation[xiv]«. Although we perceive our everyday life as familiar, this does not mean that we actually understand them. For him, alienation works precisely at the core of privacy of the everyday life of an individual. Alienation is also the predominant feature of the post-war social capitalist system; it is in a nutshell the best explanation for all the contradictions and tensions within society. The wholeness of work, leisure activities, family life and privacy for Lefebvre creates a global structure, the totality of conditions, where life is at most colonized by capitalism. At the spatial level, architecture, cities, markets and other spatial elements, have an apriori ideological determination, as they are marked by the alienated everyday life.

Lefebvre proposed a critical notion of the dominance of the system on space also in his main work The Production of space (1974). The central argument of the book is space is not a neutral container. The French Marxist is primarily concerned with the social connotation of space, which can be traced already at the beginning of the book, concerned with the question: “In which way social relations exists?”. Lefebvre introduces the concept of the social space in order to answer this question and he defines it as: “Social space is a social product.” Lefebvre coins as well a variety of different types of spaces, among them are abstract, social, real, ideal, absolute and historical space. What defines social space, is that it is a explicit space, created as a derivate of specific modes of production of a society. It contains social relations of reproduction and production modes, which differ from society to society. Social space is for Lefebvre the outcome of a multitude of reigning efforts; it cannot be an empty, neutral container.

Going further, Lefebvre wrote space is produced, not simply given: »The production of space is a process.” Since space is produced, Lefebvre proposed to shift the focus of reflection from space to the social production of space, which is crucial for the reproduction of society and capitalism itself. At this point Lefebvre introduced the importance of the understanding of abstract space: “Capitalism and neocapitalism have produced abstract space.« The abstract space is for Lefebvre the space of goods, money and the state, which was created by the bourgeoisie. The abstract space dominates our perspective on space and presents, on the abstract level, ideology in a spatial formation. For Lefebvre abstract space is thus the one where contemporary city has exploded.

In the background of The Production of Space, as in almost every Lefebvre’s book, is a formulation of a political program for the interruption of the existing relations of domination. This political program remains hidden in the underground until the very end of the book, when Lefebvre concludes: “Life can only be changed by the production of space.” This call for a radical twist, for a revolution, screams out from a space as a social paradigm, together with an urge for a change within architecture, which is built into space with this kind of a forceful ideological connotation.

Critical epistemology of architecture

Adorno and Lefebvre were stressing the dominant connection architecture has with capitalism, with the total system of contemporary society and its ideology. In doing so, they were looking at the impact of architecture, into the modes of its production and into the productive forces that are obliging its production. If something as a critical materialistic epistemology of architecture exists and if this epistemology could be extracted from Adorno’s and Lefebvre’s work, it would be focusing on the result of architecture and to its social, economic and political impact. This kind of epistemology would look beyond the fashionable names and adjectives of any architecture, it would dive into the whole surrounding environment, into the productive modes and the impact this kind of architecture has on society. In this way, it would enable a look behind the scenery of the machinery of the total system. This would also mean that if a building (or other result of an architectural work) does not condense the urgent oppositions of a society, would not be called architecture, but simply ideology in a spatial manifestation.

 The centre and the periphery, gated communities and slums, shopping malls and airports, residential building and business buildings: they are all condensed cases of the alienating force of space and architecture of the contemporary world. A critical epistemology of architecture could enable a possible dissolution of this ideology, which is working towards a dominant spatial estrangement.



[1] Aldo Rossi in Pier Vittorio Aureli, The Project of Autonomy. Politics and Architecture within and against Capitalism (New York: Princeton Architectural Press,2008), 68.

[2] I understand epistemology as a core area of philosophy, which is concerned with „nature, sources and limits of knowledge “as defined in: The Shorter Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, (London: Routledge, 2005).

[3] Sven-Olov Wallenstein, Architecture, Critique, Ideology, (Stocholm: Axl Books, 2016), xvii.

[4] In the introduction to the collection of essays Architecture, Criticism, Ideology (ed. Joan Ockman, 1997), we can read Fredric Jameson’s question of the intertwined relation between architecture, ideology, values and utopia: 

How is it possible for a cultural text that fulfils a demonstrably ideological function, as a hegemonic work whose formal categories as well as its content secure the legitimation of this or that form of class domination – how is it possible for such a text to embody a properly utopian impulse, or to resonate a universal value inconsistent with the narrower limits of class privilege that inform its more immediate ideological vocation?” Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious, in Joan Ockman (ed.) Architecture, Criticism, Ideology, (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1985), 11.

[5] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetics and Politics, (London, New York: Verso, 1997), 146.

[6] Theodor Adorno, Prisms, (London: Neville Spearman, 1967), 32.

[7] Presentation – Adorno, in: Aesthetics and Politics, (London, New York: Verso, 1997), 146.

[8] Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a damaged life, (London, New York: Verso, 2005), 15.

[9] Ibid, 113.

[10] Ibid, 38.

[11] Ibid, 38.

[12] Theodor Adorno, Functionalism Today, (London: New York: Routledge, 1997), 10.

[13] Ibid, 15.

[14] Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, (New York: Verso, 2014), 54.


Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia, reflection on a damaged life, London: New York: Verso, 2005.

Adorno; Theodor. Functionalism Today, in: Leach, Neil (ed), Rethinking Architecture. A reader in Cultural Theory. London: New York: Routledge, 1997.

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetics and Politics, London, New York: Verso, 1997.

Adorno, Theodor. Prisms, London: Neville Spearman, 1967.

Aureli, Pier Vittorio. The Project of Autonomy. Politics and Architecture within and against Capitalism. Princeton Architectural Press: New York, 2008.

Benjamin, Andrew and Rice, Charles. Walter Benjamin and the architecture of modernity, Victoria: re-press, 2009.

Benjamin, Walter. The Arkades Project, Cambridge (MA): Harvard University Press, 2002.

Ockman, Joan (ed). Architecture, Criticism, Ideology Princeton Architectural Press: New York, 1985.

Lefebvre, Henri. Critique of Everyday Life, The One-Volume Edition, London: New York: Verso, 2014.

Lefebvre, Henri. Produkcija prostora. Studia Humanitatis: Ljubljana, 2013.

Jameson, Fredric. Architecture and the critique of ideology, in: Architecture, Cirticism, Ideology, ed. By Joan Ockman, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1985.

Rotar, Braco. Pomeni prostora. Ideologije v urbanizmu in arhitekturi, Ljubljana: Delavska enotnost, 1981.

Tafuri, Manfredo. Progetto e utopia, Architettura e sviluppo capitalistico, Rome: Biblioteca Universale Laterza, 1973.

Wallenstein, Sven-Olov. Architecture, Critique, Ideology: Writings on Architecture and Theory, Stocholm: Axl Books, 2016.

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