Zartosht Ahlers | Updating Tafuri

By Zartosht Ahlers

In Architecture and Utopia, Manfredo Tafuri paints a deeply pessimistic view of the role of architecture in utopic thought. At one level, Tafuri highlights the impact of market forces that commandeer the intellectual ambitions of architecture.[1] More profoundly damning, however, is Tafuri’s criticism of the practice of architecture itself. Equating utopic thought with unrealized ambition, Tafuri writes that “Architecture as ideology of the plan is swept away by the reality of the plan when, the level of utopia having been superseded, the plan becomes an operative mechanism.”[2] An architectural plan, when realized, “becomes either a surpassing of outdated realities or an importune disturbance.”[3]

These twin failures come to full force in the grossstadt, the modern metropolis. The result of capital’s pursuit of productivity is a modern city ‘shocking’ its residents. Tafuri writes, “The experience of the ‘tragic’ is the experience of the metropolis.”[4] The ideology of productivity, having diminished the city to its function of a “productive unity . . . and, simultaneously, as an instrument of coordination of the production-distribution-consumption cycle,”[5] next works to devour the art of architecture itself, which must adapt the physical reality of the city, stripped to its brutal reality as a machine, to be endurable to the people that inhabit it.

Reduced to a “capitalist science,”[6] architecture is “directed to devis[e] hypotheses intended for the most part to redimension cultural work itself.”[7] And so, architecture becomes a “service to development as a reserve of tendentious models and as an arm for the extraction of consensus.”[8] In other words, architecture becomes a tool only to dull the public to the “shock” and disgust of the modern city. The art of architecture serves to teach that “one is not to ‘suffer’ that shock, but to absorb it as an inevitable condition of existence.”[9]

Architecture, in its perverted, co-opted form, becomes necessary to “persuade the public that the contradictions, imbalances, and chaos typical of the contemporary city are inevitable. . . the public must be convinced that this chaos contains an unexplored richness, unlimited utilizable possibilities, and qualities of the ‘game’ now made into new fetishes for society.”[10] In the role of beautifying the shocking reality of the modern ‘productive’ city, architecture serves to manufacture consensus. Architects become reduced to trough designer for slaughterhouses.

Nine years after Architecture and Utopia was written, James Wilson and George Kelling developed the ‘broken windows theory.’  Broken windows theory, understood in the light of Tafuri’s text, recognized the increasing difficulty of manufacturing consensus in the face of the disrepair of inner cities. In other words, the urban reality of the 80’s made it difficult to convince the public that modern cities “contain[] an unexplored richness [and] unlimited utilizable possibilities.”[11] The impossibility of manufacturing the consensus of workers in productive cities created new ideological needs that architects worked to fill.

On one hand, this new reality counterbalanced the forces Tafuri describes in his book—“the decline of  [architects as] active ideologists . . . decline of the architect’s ‘professional’ status.”[12] When Tafuri asks, rhetorically, “what remains of the role played historically by architecture?”[13] There was an answer: beauty was needed once more. On the other hand, of course, modern contemporary architecture does not signify the return of architects as active ideologists, just the needs of capitalism for a new type of service of architects in manufacturing consensus. While architects are permitted to return to the drawing table[14] as intellectuals, it is only in their “useful[]” form.[15]

If Architecture and Utopia had been written today, it surely would have covered the modern ‘campuses’ of large corporations. These campuses entice American white-collar workers with small walkable communities that offer amenities ranging from cafeterias to gyms to sleeping areas to hairdressers.[16] Architecture, once reduced to manufacturing consensus for dense, urban, productive cities, now serves to manufacture consensus for an office culture that blurs the lines between work and life.

Tafuri describes the decay of architecture towards a focus on the ‘minimal unit of production.’[17] But whereas the past urban model revolved around creating a productive city filled with Siedlungen of organized individual living units, the needs of modernity require heterotopias of different scales. A city can now become a countless number of productive minimal units, ‘tech campuses,’ repeatable at the frequency of every floor. Companies like WeWork even offer these minimal units of production on subscription bases.

Whereas before, the city was needed to be preserved in its productive form, the emergence of self-contained campuses requires a changed role for architecture. Capital can abandon the city fully and no longer needs to preserve and maintain the infrastructure that maintains metropolises.

At the same time, as people shop and consume from the comfort of their apartment, the consumptive element of cities is increasingly isolated. As a result, the role of architects is reduced even further—the minimal consumptive unit can be completely unmoored from the city at large, simply connected to the minimal productive unit. In Tafuri’s words, “we are witnessing the first—still utopian—attempt at capital’s complete domination over the universe of development.”[18]

There does not seem to be much of a saving grace for architecture in light of Tafuri’s thesis that “just as there cannot exist a class political economy, but only a class criticism of political economy, so too there cannot be founded a class aesthetic, art, or architecture, but only a class criticism of the aesthetic, or art, of architecture, of the city itself.”[19] While this might accurately reflect the theoretical reality—of which I know next to nothing—it is unclear whether this best represents the unique value architecture can offer. Tafuri describes architecture as a co-opted art. But perhaps it can be better seen as the discipline at the confluence of the productive imperative of capital and the pure intellectualism of un-co-opted art. Whereas other forms of art can be fully co-opted (like a commercial jingle), architecture, both as a finished product generating little further consumptive value and as a doorway to leisure, can never be fully co-opted in the same way.

Seen in this light, architecture, as an ideology with utopic (although semi co-opted) ambition, can serve to not only to improve the lived experiences of workers, but also as an axis on which capital development has to deliver tangible benefits to people. Tafuri himself acknowledges as much when he describes, in the context of the ‘architectural proposal’: “If now it was the entire city that assumed the structure of an industrial machine, solutions had to be found within it for different categories of problems.”[20]

Lastly, insofar as Tafuri describes that “[i]f architecture is now synonymous with the organization of production, it is also true that, beyond production itself, distribution and consumption are the determining factors of the cycle,”[21] architecture serves as the core legitimizer of capitalism—the answer to “What have you done for me recently?” In other words, capitalism must still provide for the consumptive needs of people. The ideological limits of architecture, in Tafuri’s vision, still constrains the ability of capital to legitimize itself along this axis. This presents critical thinkers with the enormous opportunity to limit the reach and growth of capitalism through architectural development.


[1] See e.g., Architecture and Utopia, pg. 67.

[2] Id. pg 135.

[3] Id. pg 136

[4] Id. pg 78.

[5] Id. pg 82.

[6] Id. pg 63

[7] Id.

[8] Id. pg 72.

[9] Id. pg 86.

[10] Id. pg 139.

[11] Id.

[12] Id. pg 176.

[13] Id.

[14] Pun intended.

[15] Id. pg 170.


[17] Architecture and Utopia, pg. 114.

[18] Id. pg 151.

[19] Id. pg 179.

[20] Id. pg 114.

[21] Id. pg 125.