Modesty and Moonshots

How does architecture embody and become inflected by political theory?  Bell and Zacka’s recent edited collection offers a series of fascinating and challenging accounts, addressing the role of architecture as encouraging behaviour and imparting meaning to actions; as symbolizing values; and as fostering a political ethos (5).[1]  The book offers on the whole restrained optimism, recognising even in its gloomier moments that architecture can create democratic space, and sometimes its greatest strength is in its less ambitious statements, on the balconies of Beirut (Zacka), in the preservation of neighbourliness (Rosenblum), or amid the modest power of the greenways (Aslam).

Pulsing through the book is a tension between centralized, totalizing discourses, either political or architectural, and the power of the everyday, the local and the contingent.  One of the most direct explorations is Margaret Kohn’s response to Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, using Dufferin Grove Park as an example of where socio-economic structures and decisions can support, rather conflict with, design.  It is a short step to Hofmann’s rethinking of Lefebvre’s famous notion of a ‘right to the city.’ If cities indeed liberate, as Jacobs thought, their advantages should be more widely spread; ‘prospective migrants to the city might be thought to have occupancy rights to a place in which they are not currently embedded’ (209).  In this section, the book is both prophetic and strangely untimely.  As our cities have become eviscerated by home working and the sudden challenge represented by crowds, the long commutes of support workers into the city from the suburbs veer between a stark reminder of inequality of access, and an easy casualty of economic logic.  Where will the new jobs be found if cities dwindle?[2]

The belief that architecture has social efficacy pushes the book repeatedly towards a reassessment of modernism, a redemption of ambition recast in more modest terms.  At the same time, there is a sense that the result should be an alternative to the spaces of late or neo-capitalism: gated communities, buildings which reflect instead of being transparent, untethered from locality, symbols of the abolition of limit.  The appeal to the past (Plato in particular) is here frequently functional not whimsical self-referentiality.  So Betegh contrasts Plato’s Magnesia and Costa’s unfulfilled plans for Brasilia.  Arendt’s agora is a point of reference (Beiner).  Mihai refers to the Lebbeus Woods’ notions of radical reconstruction to insist on the importance of preserving the tears and wounds of the violent past in order to create spaces liberated from the past, freespaces.  There is a repeated emphasis on materiality – on drawing out the politics of architecture through individual experiences of the sensations created by surface, volume, space, texture and light (Picon). 

What emerges is an appeal to architecture to enable the capacity to imagine an alternative world, to give signification to the smallest of actions and responses.  Towards the end of the volume, Picon cites Constant Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon, the attempt to create a city which, predicated on the freedom of all through the development of mechanical reproduction, gave space for the unplannable and for infinite possibility.  Here, though, one of the ghosts which haunts this collection comes to light; how can an optimistic architecture avoid becoming a nightmarish utopia? 

One answer is offered by Coleman’s reference to Ernst Bloch’s principle of hope.  Hope mediates between the criticism of the present and the risk of a crushing utopia by making explicit the possibility of disappointment:

‘Hope is the opposite of security.  It is the opposite of naïve optimism.  The category of danger is always in it.  This hope is not confidence. … If it could not be disappointed, it would not be hope.  … Hope is surrounded by dangers, it is the consciousness of danger and at the same time the determined negation of that which continually makes the opposite of the hoped-for object possible.  …  There would not be any process at all if there were not something that should not be so.’[3]

The promise of a politically hopeful architecture is therefore precisely the acknowledgement that it should allow space for our disappointments, the imperfection of our world, without ever allowing that there is no path to the better.  One of the intriguing features of cities, as we have seen time and again, for instance in Tiananmen Square, Taksim Square, throughout the Arab Spring, in the Black Lives Matter protests and in the mass gatherings in Minsk, is that even despite themselves and the attempt by rulers to make cities project the stability of power, the open spaces and routeways of cities can be colonized for the imagination of a different world.

The other answer comes in Lindstrom and Malpas’s invocation of a short essay by Albert Camus, Democracy is an Exercise in Modesty, from 1947.  Lindstrom and Malpass are unconvincing in their choices; Monticello and I. M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art in Doha would not have sprung to my mind as examples of modesty. 

But the invocation of ancient ideas of limit (frugality, parsimonia), and Camus’ radical modesty, is suggestive.[4]

Camus echoes Churchill’s view of democracy, as imperfect but preferable to its alternatives, and he places strict limits on the capacity of reason to prove universal imperfection and therefore remove any need to try to change, or to claim that reason points to a single mechanism for social improvement. 

As a result democrats are modest. They admit to a certain degree of ignorance and recognizes that their efforts possess characteristics that are in part risky and that they do not know everything. And because they admit that, they recognize that they need to consult others, to complete what they know with what others know. Democrats recognize no rights for themselves unless they are delegated by others, and they constantly subject these rights to their agreement. Whatever decision they decide to take, they admit that the others for whom the decision is being taken can have another opinion and let them know that.[5]

The line between modesty and ambition is unresolved in Lindstrom and Malpass’s essay.  They choose very prominent buildings, ambitious in scope, to illustrate modesty.  And somewhere here is the point of friction which both animates and troubles this volume; how can the highest ambitions of architecture be reconciled with a politics that is animated by a respect for the individual and their own choices, their own hopes and their own ambitions?  How can space and material animate democratic flourishing?

These past few weeks, the word ‘moonshot’ has gained a new currency.[6]  I take it to mean, in the current parlance, a venture with high ambition, potentially high returns but a high risk of failure. 

On a planet engulfed by pandemic, natural disasters, the suffocation of our oceans with plastic, loss of biodiversity, and widespread food shortages and poverty, no-one surely has the right to argue that we should not make every scientific attempt to confront these issues, however implausible success may seem, though reading Camus will be another encouragement to take a very broad view of what science means.

But as well as the lunar landings in 1969, the voyage to the moon that has come back to me is one described by Ariosto in the early 16th century in his poem Orlando Furioso.  Orlando, whose destiny was to lead the defeat of the Saracens, had fallen in love with Angelica.  She did not return his love, and he was driven mad, harming himself and his friends.  In an ironic retelling of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Orlando’s cousin Astolfo is led from a visit to Hell to Mount Athos, and then he and the Evangelist St John take Elijah’s chariot to the moon.

What by our fault, or Time’s relentless flight,

Or Fortune’s chances, or by accident

(Whatever be the cause) we lose down here,

Miraculously is assembled there.[7]

Amid kingdoms and titles, wealth and honour, love and unfulfilled desire, and the undeservedly neglected reputations of poets, Astolfo finds Orlando’s wits, and those of many others too, including some of Astolfo’s.  How foolish we must be, when so much of the intelligence we are granted has been lost and stored elsewhere; as Tobias Gregory wrote, the wisdom imparted there is not transcendent but cynical.[8] 

Astolfo discovers from his moonshot that the world is built on loss.  A less classical approach, and one embedded in architecture and space, might note that every choice – where to build, how to build, how to frame the conditions of living – necessarily entails some losses, some curtailment of possibility.  So what would a moonshot for radical modesty look like?  Both Camus’ insistence on finding completion through others, and Bloch’s even more radical view that hope exists in the incomplete, and in the process, entail risk and surprise, and countenance failure.  As Müller puts it here (34), ‘democracy is institutionalized uncertainty.’  In architectural terms, Bell and Zacka’s volume implies that a moonshot for a radically democratic yet modest architecture might well look more like a balcony than a bank, more like a green park than a gated suburb. It would have as its underpinning an articulation of values that would lead to the losses and gains contingent on the material framing of our lives becoming more equitably shared.  As Plato put it, ‘it looks as if our entire building programme needs thinking about pretty much from scratch…’[9]


[1] D. Bell, B. Zacka (eds) Political Theory and Architecture (London 2020).  Essays are as follows: 1. Jan-Werner Müller, What (If Anything) is ‘Democratic Architecture’?; 2. Josiah Ober and Barry Weingast, Fortification and Democracy in the Ancient Greek World; 3. Gabor Betegh, Plato’s Magnesia and Costa’s Brasilia; 4. Bernardo Zacka, What’s in a Balcony? The In-Between as Public Good; 5. Ronald Beiner, Durability and Citizenship: Towards an Arendtian Political Philosophy of Architecture; 6. Nancy Rosenblum, The Soft Power of Neighbors: Proximity, Scale, and Responses to Violence; 7. Duncan Bell, Scripting the City: J. G. Ballard Among the Architects; 8. Ali Aslam, Architecture as Government; 9. Margaret Kohn, Making Superstar Cities Work: Jane Jacobs in Toronto; 10. Benjamin Hofmann, Whose Right to the City? Lessons from the Territorial Rights Debate; 11. Nathaniel Coleman, Can Architecture Really Do Nothing? Lefebvre, Bloch, and Jameson on Utopia; 12. Mihaela Mihai, The Architecture of Political Renewal; 13. Randall Lindstrom and Jeff Malpas, The Modesty of Architecture; 14. Antoine Picon, Architecture, Materiality and Politics: Sensations, Symbols, Situations and Decors; Epilogue: Fonna Forman, Top-Down / Bottom-Up: Co-Producing the City.

[2] For the argument that cities are not an inevitable feature of human life, see G. Woolf, The Life and Death of Ancient Cities: A Natural History (London, 2020).

[3] Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno, ‘Something’s missing: A discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno on the contradictions of Utopian longing,’ in Ernst Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays, (Cambridge, MA. 1988), 1-17 at 16-17, cited at Bell and Zacka: 232.  The title of the conversation comes from Jim Mahoney’s line, in Brecht’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonnay, ‘Aber etwas fehlt.’

[4] See now I. Gildenhard, C. Viglietti (eds.) Roman Frugality: Modes of Moderation from the Archaic Age to the Early Empire and Beyond (Cambridge, 2020); for a collection of Camus’ references to modesty see Tommaso Visone, ‘The radicalism of modesty: democracy and art in Camusian thought (1945–1951),’ History of European Ideas 45:3 (2019) 454-464.

[5] Translation based on Albert Camus and Adrian Van den Hoven, “Democracy Is an Exercise in Modesty.” Sartre Studies International, vol. 7, no. 2, 2001, pp. 12–14, removing the gendered language.

[6] It is a concept with an unstable past; see https://www.merriam-webst.er.com/words-at-play/moonshot-words-were-watching

[7] Ariosto, Orlando Furioso Canto XXXIV.73 (tr. Reynolds).

[8] https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v32/n17/tobias-gregory/mad-for-love, reviewing David Slavitt’s translation.  Orlando is restored, but his presence in the later part of the poem is muted and he will suffer yet more loss and grief.

[9] Plato, Laws 778b.

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