Architecture as a Biopolitics of Society

by gunnarphilosophies

Conceptual Cluster 12: Biopolitics

Human beings are social creatures, and as such tend to seek a life together with others. As a result, humans tend to form societies on various levels – from the overarching “global” society, through national, regional and down towards subcultures and other “informal” constellations.

How does a society change and who decides? From the science fiction movie: Planet of the Apes (1968)

Societies are constantly being renegotiated and reproduced. This is done, amongst other things, through political means. Foucault (2000) describes two different positions or approaches in politics. Polizeiwissenschaft is given as an example of a heavily controlled system, whereas liberalism is described as the counterbalancing, less controlled one. Foucault goes on to argue that the term liberalism has been used as a way of critizing governments that are too controlled in their approach.

Whether the political control is strong or not, politics constitute only one of many factors influencing a society. Within the humanities and the discourse of new materialism (see e.g. Coole & Frost, 2010), some scholars argue that influences on a given situation are derived, not only from intention driven subjects (as in a Polizeiwissenschaft), but also from seemingly “passive” subjects as well as dead objects in the world. The new materialism is thus oriented towards a process thinking that includes several aspects of a given situation. New materialism is applicable also on a society, because in a society, many things and processes are constantly overlapping. The “dead” objects – as e.g. architecture and city spaces – influence it as well.

In Bulldozers in Utopia: Open land, Outlaw Territory, and the Code Wars, Felicty D. Scott (2012) suggests that the settlers of a controversial “hippie” camp called the Morningstar used alternative architecture as a means of producing critique against established society. The “shaggy” and unconformified structures would thus not only be due to the lack of skill in architecture and building, but as Scott argues – part of the expression could come from a statement and distancing from the established and normative society. Scott describes, furthermore, how the alternative architecture becomes destroyed several times by established society (even though the camp is situated on private ground).

The example illustrates how the norms of a society can be questioned and negotiated through different means. What is particularly interesting here, of course, is the role of architecture in this process. Architecture, in this case, as described by Scott, takes on the role of a kind of comment on society. And the comment is critical.  Established society, on its part, responds by tearing the architecture down, thus performing an act of biopolitcs. Other examples of biopolitical acts performed by societies in control include the situation in Germany before and during the time of the second world war, when jews were deported and put into concentration camps (as described by Giorgio Agamben in Homo Sacer (1998), and exemplified by Hannah Arendt in We Refugees, 1994).

There are several examples in Sweden today where people are taking control of the environment in similar manners as in Morningstar through for example guerilla gardening or spontaneous housing projects. Or for that matter – children’s dens, as exemplified in the picture below.

Spontaneous architecture: A den with a “For Sale” sign. Photo: Gunnar Cerwén

The initiatives described above constitute examples of grass root movements. If we turn to architecture and city planning, however, we have a different and more of a “top down” planning situation. What can be said about the role and application of architecture in this context?

First of all, the architect and urban planner can be said to represent the established society, so any comments upon this society must be regarded in a different light as compared to the “spontaneous” one described above. It is likely that the influence of “design statements” emanating from a trained architect or urban planner should become less rebellious, and take more the form of a discussion than the grass root based one. Architects do have some established forums for commenting on contemporary issues, including e.g. magazines, competitions, exhibitions and research articles.

The architectural statement is thus possible, but different. But it is important to remember, that even when there is no obvious statement or expression involved – architects and urban planners influence society to a great deal.  The design and layout of different spaces will attract or deter certain groups of people, as different people are drawn to different kinds of spaces (and some spaces attract no people at all). Architects can in that respect be said to control how people move and behave in a society. Furthermore, considering again that architects are generally part of “established society”, architecture, in this respect, would actually seem to be a form biopolitics.


Giorgio Agamben, ‘The Camp as the Nomos of the Modern’, in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Hannah Arendt, ‘We Refugees’ in The Menorah Journal, vol. 3, 1943.

Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, ‘Introducing the New Materialisms’, in Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, eds, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010

Michel Foucault, ‘The Birth of Biopolitics’, in Ethics: Essential Works of Foucault, London: Penguin, 2000.

Felicity Scott, ‘Bulldozers in Utopia: Open Land, Outlaw Territory, and the Code Wars’, in Iain Boal, Janferie Stone, Michael Watts, and Cal Winslow, West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California, Retort. 2012