Outlines for a Bestseller: The Secret Life of Buildings

by hannesfrykholmuma


In Jane Bennett’s argument for an ecology of matter, thing-power is the force of inanimate things to act, produce, activate and resist, despite being inanimate. For Bennett it is in the assemblage of things that the things themselves begin to have an impact on the surroundings, regardless of the will of humans. This argument transfers nicely into the practice of architecture, in that it allows for a long-needed detachment from the anthropocentric reading of the built environment as nothing but the mute stage for social interaction.

Could we for example imagine an inverted reading of Jan Gehl’s “Life Between Buildings”, in the form of an alternative bestseller entitled “The Secret Life of Buildings”, in which the complex assemblage of a building’s infrastructure is mapped in order to understand its impact on everyday life? The creaking staircase, the air conditioner regulating temperature, the noise from the pipes, the smell and dust of the painted plaster walls, the slowly but steadily expanding patch of mold on the inside of a wall only a meter from our desk, etc.[1] These are the more or less secret assemblages of objects that architecture often fail to acknowledge because they do not have a clear visual correlation to human life or to the city. To consider thing-power as defined in Bennett’s text is therefore not to apply a non-social perspective, but rather to accept the multitude of objects and conjunctions that also form life. This is how the bestseller would become a page-turner.

To think of the assemblage of objects as an activating force in the built, also suggests a critique of the analysis that limits itself to only dissecting architecture into a set of elements or distinct historical styles. This provides the first step of the analysis, but not the second or the third. If the first step is the autopsy of architecture into a number of objects (or “Elements” as they were called in the 2014 Venice Biennale main exhibition) that all perform in different ways, the second step of this anatomy would be to see the conjunctions between the different elements and how they operate together to produce something that is larger than the sum of its parts. The third, and most interesting aspect is to consider new possible assemblages and constellations between the objects of architecture. We can decide on a specific focus point when we perform the autopsy, but more importantly, in the third step of this analysis we are also responsible for a projective imagination of new modes of life.

In “The Secret Life of Buildings” there would surely be chapters of suspense and low-intense terror, as the building transgresses from the familiar into the “secretly familiar”[2] and produces the uncanny realization that we are integrated components in its hidden and sometimes ugly assemblages. In her text, Bennet considers the uncanny in relation to our bodies, as being the “uneasy feeling of internal resistance”.[3] However the same sensation could also appear when we realize how the multiple assemblages of objects that constitute a building – assemblages we assumed were either inanimate or simply not there – have been protecting, hurting, empowering and shaping us since our very first breath. We are moving toward the final chapter now and as any bestseller, the revelation is kept for the end: Following Bennet’s argument, the uncanny introduces fear, but also the potentiality of the secret life of buildings. The secret familiarity of thing-power presents a possibility that is “profoundly productive” and a “protean source of being”.[4] In this way, the uncanny aspects of thing-power can help us in the imagination of new modes of life, as they reveal a glimpse of the “invisible fields that surrounds and infuses the world of objects.”[5]

Hannes Frykholm

[1] In fact a good example of such a book would perhaps be David Gissen, Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments (New York City: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009).

[2] Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (London: Hogarth Press, 1955), 245.

[3] Jane Bennett, “The Force of Things: Steps toward an Ecology of Matter,” Political Theory 32, no. 3 (2004): 361.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 362.