Jia Sally Huang

Surveillance and Control:
The Role of Architecture in a Digital Monitoring World


As our lives start to shift into a majority online presence, we are forced to take a step back and re-evaluate the drastic change the digital world has on our lives, and our society. The technical realm has been slowly and steadily overtaking and redefining every rule and order of our live. We continue to celebrate the capabilities the technical realm offers without questioning the risks and fragility it leaves behind.1

I’ve often noticed the strange way people with laptops tend to put a little sticker over their built-in camera. They do so as if their camera was an eye-like hole that represents the vast of surveillance beyond. This paranoia is fueled by countless news and media outlets that propagate the idea of a faceless FBI detachment supposedly watching your every move2, where homes and bedrooms might be considered private to strangers, but exposed to anyone who has the ability to access cameras and phones. It begs the question – is there still privacy in an ever-changing digital world?

Essay Structure

This essay will explore how surveillance and control have evolved throughout the years, and how its shift to the digital realm creates new possibilities for architectural responses. New technological advances, such as artificial intelligence and facial recognition, could prove to be the foundation for new architectural typologies and design rules, rendering an unrecognizable future. The essay will start with traditional forms of surveillance, such as sovereign societies the design of panopticons, later diving into modern theories of control regimes such as the concept of liquid surveillance and pharmacopornographic societies. Finally, it will explore the case study of Sidewalk Labs and other potential new developments of similar smart cities, in regards to how elements of surveillance played a part in their demise.
The Death of Dark Alleys & Removal of Architecture as Vessel

As digital surveillance becomes more ubiquitous, it will cause the removal of so-called dark alleys in the built environment. No longer will there be spaces that are invisible to the omnipresence of surveillance, which may lead to the facilitation of spatial complexity due to the sense that every nook and cranny has the potential to be monitored at all times. Fundamentally, on an architectural scale, it would cease to influence the design of architecture, due to the simple fact that architecture itself is saturated by surveillance. Architecture transitions from a vessel of power and control, gradually to nothing more than fundamental shelter itself. Surveillance is a tool for social control, but it should not be thought of as a tool for stopping crime. Instead, surveillance should be considered an aid to post-crime punishment. Unlike Minority Report, there is no guarantee that an artificially intelligent machine can predict crime on an unbiased scale. Thus, surveillance, regardless of digital or physical manifestation, should be about maintaining social justice, and at the foundation of it, the use of mass surveillance is a political issue of use and policy.

Traditional forms of Surveillance

The Sovereign Society - Torture

To understand the history of social control, Foucault begins with the most basic understanding of control – that of monarchies and sovereign power.3 Generally referring to classical or medieval times, these forms of government have minimal observational and surveillance power, unable to physically see into the homes of every citizen. Instead, they must resort to basic public execution and corporal punishments to make a spectacle of their control over society. Public hangings, display of bodies, these were all a form of ceremony to send a message to the public, a warning to those who would dare rebel and attack the authority of those in power. Thus, any crime automatically becomes an opportunity to reinforce the rigid hierarchical structure of a sovereign society. As seen in figure 1, as Foucault describes, “These convicts, distinguished by their ‘infamous dress’ and shaven heads, ‘were brought before the public. The sport of the idle and the vicious, they often become incensed, and naturally took violent revenge upon the aggressors.

To prevent them from returning injuries which might be inflicted on them, they were encumbered with iron collars and chains to which bombshells were attached, to be dragged along while they performed their degrading service, under the eyes of keepers armed with swords, blunderbusses and other weapons of destruction.”4 In these societies, particularly the ones from before the 18th century, communication was mainly through word-of-mouth, so you could not have any type of information that is guaranteed to reach every household or individual.5 If you want to instill fear into the hearts of many, the best way to do so is through something so public and monumental that hundreds would watch, but thousands would hear through tales and rumors. Few events have as much impact on the masses than a public corporal punishment. If the impression of the gallows at a public square was enough of a reminder of sovereign power, then the society was more or less controlled, the social order was maintained, and the existing power structure was preserved. The architecture that represented power, in this case, was a simple artifact that reinforced the possibility of such public corporal punishment, working alongside a similar representation of the power and stability of higher power, such as castle walls, rigid but lavish palaces, etc. These types of architecture help to promote the one concept that is vital to society – the absoluteness of power.6
A Panopticon Society of Control - Punishment

The 18th century marked a radical shift in the concept of surveillance and social control, with the introduction of the panopticon.7 The idea began as a basic solution to solve issues of watching factory workers in a particularly underperforming factory. However, this architectural format was quickly adapted as a more effective way to organize a prison layout. This began the shift in power and control in a post-sovereign world. The panopticon was likely perceived to be, at first, a utilitarian organizational method that would effectively utilize minimal manpower to maximize efficiency. In the case of prisons, it meant having minimal guards to watch over a maximum number of prisoners. However, it was the dynamic power balance, this asymmetry between watcher and prisoner, that became central to later concepts of surveillance and control. The watchers are, in this instance, the ones who have the power. Armed with the knowledge of knowing who and what they are observing at any given time. The inmates, on the other hand, are severely disadvantaged because they have lost the ability to know if they are being watched or not. A constant prickling fear of punishment due to the unknown presence of the all-seeing eye leads to self-policing.8

The panopticon thus effectively implemented social control by the few (powerful) over the many (society). As compared to the sovereign society, the fear of physical punishment remains, but the representation of power through knowledge is transitioned to a non-visual state. Instead of fearing guards or police physically checking in at random times, now the mental idea of authority hovers over the inmate’s heads constantly. Foucault later explains this very concept in Discipline and Punish, “the Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system: it is in fact a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use.”9 That is to say, the actual architecture of the panopticon means very little. It is stead the shift of power within the design that lays the foundation for a new surveillance society. Bauman similarly dissects the concept, citing it as being an opposition between freedom and unfreedom. A peaceful existence is all that is required of the inmates, and as it is humanity’s basic instinct, they will seek happiness through their own behavioral control.10 The small nudge of reminder through a guard tower placed at the center of their lives, physical or digital, is enough to assure them that peace will be maintained so long as they live under the design of the powerful.11

Post-Panopticon Regime – Discipline

Slowly but surely, prisons began to change, alongside society and its use of control. What was formerly no more than a tiny space in which solitude, a lack of freedom and engineered boredom was the main focus of prisons, there now exists a new set of rules that began to shift how people were to behave. The exact scale of control changed drastically, from the former treatment of prisoners as a whole to the gradual separation of the mind from the body. New regimes and rules in prison are now designed to attack the mind, creating what Foucault called a more “docile” person.12 A subtleness went into the design of these rules and regimes, it was less about force and more about getting the body and mind to become adapt to certain binding rules, to adapt to a series of influences that would eventually become manifested within. If a man were to be woken up at 6 am every single day for 10 years, he would continue waking up at this time for the rest of his life. His mind and body have become accustomed to this way of living, and thus he is a slave of this simple rule.13 Current society tends to think of past decades as less reformed, more barbaric, and this mindset is applied to the previous way punishment regimes were run. Activities such as flagging and simple confinement are understood to be savage behaviors, as individuals of power believed that reform should come from the mind, not the body. More “enlightened” thinkers sought to develop ways to create a more docile and safe society, and thus the discipline regime was pushed to be incorporated into other facilities. The most notable ones are schools and militaries. This concept is not hard to see in the current context, as both schools and militaries drill into individuals the importance of rules and discipline. Young children are expected to bury their instincts to explore and instead must sit quietly and obey all the rules of their teacher. Similarly, militaries are even more strict when it comes to rigid timetables and mundane tasks, all posed under the idea that adhering to rules and performing orders will make you a more “successful” soldier. It is precisely this advertised outcome that will often see children who misbehaved regularly be sent to a stricter school. Similarly, young rebellious teens are sent to the military to “whip them into shape”. These rehabilitation centers take in those who do not conform to a traditional model of society, or as Foucault calls them, “abnormal”, and reshapes them to be more docile and easier to manipulate into subjects.14 The architecture of these places generally has alarming similarities. They are generally stereotypically rigid in layout, with closely guarded spaces and fixed furniture (think children’s desks bolted to the ground). There were hard restrictions on which facilities were open to participants and which were out of bounds, deemed private to all but those in power, there were solid sturdy walls and sharp corners, with fencing meant to keep people from leaving the premise at random. At the fundamental scale, the shift from the panopticon to the disciplinary regime was one of shifts of power structure. The panopticon can be seen as a concept of mutual engagement, two sides of the power relationship confront each other and create a balance of control. This asymmetrical power dynamic began from the sovereigns, where power was taken through wars and force. However, now it is taken through strategies and tactics, games played by the few on the many, a game where the final outcome is to acquire power by whatever means necessary.
Modern Surveillance in a Modern World

Capitalism is not a new concept. Lots of current issues in society can be considered as a direct result of capitalism, as its fundamental definition puts profit at the forefront of all that is deemed to be important, rendering humanity as second-tier considerations.15 People have always been exploited for the sake of profit, such as underpaid labor, class exploitation. These have all been around since the beginning of capitalism in the 17th century.16 However, as technology advances, there is a new form of capitalism on the rise, one defined as Surveillance Capitalism. To understand surveillance Capitalism, we must first consider Zygmund Bauman’s concept of modernity.

Liquid Modernity

Bauman coins the current period in society as a liquid modernity, one that is plastic and fluid compared to past periods of modernity. He claims that society is heading towards a phenomenon of fragility and vulnerability, one pushed by a steadily driven economic globalization.17 The push for a liquid state comes from the need for a neoliberal economic system, one that can freely operate in a society without a solid structure norm. This leads to the phenomenon of having everything be an economic potential – everything from religion to food can be marketed and sold to consumers, each element of society is a market piece.18 As the rules and regulations that generally impede capitalism are removed, corporations become the new conglomerate of mega-companies become the new sovereign of this globalized world. The concept of liquid also defines a new understanding of the individual in this state of modernity. If capitalism must sell to individuals to continue existing, then the fundamental status of each person is rendered as an individual solitary consumer. The identity of a holistic or collective grouping of our lives are erased, social and cultural bonds are dissolved, everyone is freed from the norms of society. However, as much as this freedom sounds enticing, it also leads to the uncertainty and fragility of a liquid state, as individuals are given freedom but also are demanded to be adaptable and non-conforming, to survive in such a rapidly changing society. As Bauman states, the shift in power control is the fundamental reason for this liquid state, stemming from the separation of power and politics.19 Politicians and governments are no longer the sole members who possess the power to change society, it has now also fallen into the hands of other aspects of our lives, from cyberspace to giant corporations. There is no one man in charge, and as a result, the unpredictability of society renders it a non-solid state. Such is the new state of surveillance and control.

Pharmacopornographic Regime

Beatriz Preciado also discusses the transition from a disciplinary regime before the 1900s to the current new regime of control. The disciplinary one, as he calls biopower, is a “tentacular and collective utopia of national health and reproduction connected to a series of dystopic confining institutions for the normalization of the body and subjectivity.”20 So, architecture, in this regime, is less so a virtual representation, but something that functions as a political vessel to physically create, morph, and reshape bodies to fit into a structured norm. One example Preciado gives is the birth of modern hospitals in France, the most explicit example of the study of architecture as a governmental technique. The layout of the hospital is one that represents a spatialization of medical knowledge and power, a physical manifestation of the technology and skills used in the disciplinary regime, a power of subjectivation.21

So, on the next evolution path of power regimes, Preciado brings forth a new concept, one morphed from the three main tools used in this new society – pharmaceuticals, pornography, and graphics and media. The biopower techniques have slowly mutated to adapt to a new emerging society, one that is filled with technology, social media, and the wildest drugs imaginable, thus, the elements of a controllable individual extend to the body, sex, race, and sexuality.22 Instead of the power punishing you or disciplining you after you have been deemed uncontrollable, the dynamic shifts completely. You are designed, created, and conditioned from the moment of birth, reducing the risk of anomalies, and more importantly, the tangible weapons of control become invisible, creating the illusion that there never was anyone controlling you in the first place. The human body becomes a “clip-on port for biopolitical technologies”, and in turn, architecture becomes “night-of-the-living-dead”.23 It is lifeless, thoughtless, meaningless, and exists only to serve the purpose of control, without contempt for the purpose of the individual. If the body, sex, race, soul, is the new target of control, and the weapons used are micro, unseen, intangible, and invisible, then it only makes sense that as the regime mutates to be micro, so too does architecture. “In the pharmacopornographic regime, the body no longer inhabits disciplinary places but is now inhabited by them. Architecture exists in us.”24 In such a society, one can argue that the very idea of architecture becomes porn, the idea of property ownership, the fancy dazzling images of houses and apartments on Instagram, the millions of articles on Archdaily and Dezeen, are these not pornography intended to entice and lead us to think that these are objects of desire that we crave, a glittering simulation that promises a better life.

Whether it’s Trump's gold dazzling apartment in New York or IKEA’s more modest living room sets, architecture becomes part of the porno weapon in a pharmacopornographic society, just another enticing object to lead you to follow the path designed by the power.

Surveillance Capitalism

Similar to Bauman’s concept of Liquid Modernity, Shoshana Zuboff discusses the term information civilization, one that entangles the very basic question of knowledge, authority, and power, tracing their roots to the necessities of daily life and every form of social participation.25 This type of surveillance capitalism renders all human experience as free, raw material for translation into behavioral data, fed into “machine intelligence” and fabricated into prediction products that anticipate and design your future move.26 Like a skilled gardener, capitalism waters and watches all the plants, nudging, coaxing, tuning, and herding until all the flowers grow to conform to his exact satisfaction – a profitable outcome.27 “At its core, surveillance capitalism is parasitic and self-referential. It revives Karl Marx’s old image of capitalism as a vampire that feeds on labor, but with an unexpected turn. Instead of labor, surveillance capitalism feeds on every aspect of every human’s experience.”28 What’s perhaps worse, is the fact that society is unaware of this turn of control, individuals are taught that they’re not worth watching, and thus willingly pay for our domination, through smart speakers, amazon accounts, phones, and smart TVs, all the gadgets we surround ourselves with. Perhaps the most visible evidence of this is the smart cities concept.
A Future of Surveillance – the Smart Regime

From Smart Devices to Smart Cities

As people become accustomed to a work/study life at home (this shift, one can argue, started happening even pre-COVID), their digital setup slowly increases. Starting with laptops and pcs, and then comes the need to accessorize and expand the capabilities of these basic digital devices. Slight conveniences of life are being advertised as being the future of home living, and all you would have to sacrifice is your data being collected by whatever company is selling you these smart devices, and to some, that may not seem like a big deal. This phenomenon not only happens at the small scale, it is also being applied to the city scale. For cities, larger smart tactics promise more urban innovations to solve uniquely urban problems, things such as traffic control, waste management, housing, transit, etc. However, the very idea of being “smart” is an extremely relative concept, as for cities, being smart is about faster smoother functioning and attracting money and technology. For the technology companies, being smart is about a method of capturing the rising value of data flow, the next big evolution in knowledge control. Data can be used to either directly monetize behavior insights, or indirectly to control and persuade services from the public.29

Sidewalk Labs

In 2017, Waterfront Toronto sent out a request for proposals to develop a formerly industrial piece of land on the Toronto waterfront. They wanted to find an “innovation and funding partner”, one who can help transform the land into a shiny new development along the waterfront.30 At that time, Sidewalk Labs was a relatively new company, but one that had the backing of Alphabet and Google, making it a promising partner with solid credentials. The Sidewalk Labs Toronto project was widely advertised, pushed to the front page of every paper, and it seemed that for a while this was going to be a glittery new project that would shape Toronto as one of the most innovative cities of the world. However, things quickly went sour and in May of 2020, the project was announced to be canceled, leaving the large site in Portlands once again abandoned. The following is a breakdown of what may have gone wrong.

On the political side, an issue with the democratic governance in Canada is that the public is largely unaware of non-government organizations who have power over local matters despite being a non-municipal body.31 They often play a critical role in shaping cities, and Waterfront Toronto (WT) is no different. Until the announcement of the Sidewalk project, WT was not an organization that appeared on anyone’s radar, and so it was a shock to hear of such a massive project being led by a local organization.32 Furthermore, Sidewalk Labs quickly took over the initiative and became the face of the project, while WT retreated to the side. This left the public confused, and not to mention a little wary of dealing with an unknown entity, especially one that was foreign to Canada and had the shadow of Google behind their back. Distrust already runs in society, especially towards mega conglomerates who are taking over all aspects of everyday objects. Brands such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Google are near impossible to avoid. As such, it was not a surprise that Toronto was uncomfortable with the idea of a residential project in the total grasp of Google, spurring a “techlash”33 towards the entire project. A challenge to the fundamental right of privacy, one headed by a faceless conglomerate no less, forces individuals to give up their exclusive rights to not only decide to give up data but also the right to decide what the data will be used for.34

On the technological side, there is no doubt the plans of Sidewalk Labs were one of the most innovative proposals yet. Titled “the world’s first neighborhood built from the internet up”, the vision of the community was extremely ambitious.35 The proposal was supposed to have state-of-the-art sustainability tactics, autonomous vehicles, sensor-based surveillance, and data-driven responsive services, all promoting the visions of a city of the future.36 However, all these accessible services came with a price – the price of handing over your life to Google. Should people be allowed to be tracked in public realms in the first place? Who stands to benefit from such tracking and data collection? Should we even allow our entire lives to be, as Bauman says of modernity, be commodified as an item, to be put into the pool of the market and sold as a commodity, or should we set limits to what is marketable and what is not.37 The community, at the end of the day, is no more than a series of domestic homes. If the very idea of a home, a private domain, one which is fundamentally composed of trust, simplicity, sovereign of the individual, and inviolability of personal space, was rendered obsolete, then what becomes of our lives?38 Urban innovations are, when set out to solve urban problems, always a positive for the city. However, privatized urban innovations can be cause for concern, especially when the hidden agenda of these proposals are not released to the public. A step further than the pharmacopornographic regimes, this new form of surveillance regime not only designs and controls society through the medicating, desiring, and numbing of subjects, but also through collecting data from individuals to better upgrade and perfect their methods. What all previous regimes lacked in the ability to gather knowledge and intel; this new “smart” control system perfected. Aided with the use of artificial intelligence and rapid supercomputers, the processing of big data could lead to unlimited potential. As Bauman mentioned, the liquid of society comes from a separation of power and government, and here, is where the power is dispersed from. If corporations like Google can collect more data on individuals than governments, then whosoever holds the most data is the one with more power. In the panopticon, the guards are in control because they hold the access to information in terms of who is being surveilled. In a smart city, the forces behind the technology become the knowledgeable guards, the ones who can control what and who and when they see.
What are the outcomes?

How does architecture fit into this picture of a “smart” regime? As Sidewalk Labs portrays itself as a harmonious, beautifully rendered utopia, the streets are clean, the sidewalks are wide, the materials are sustainable and aesthetic, and thanks to the smart waste system, there is zero trash anywhere. However, it begs the question, is this city scheme designed based on humans and for humans, or is it a scheme that favors the ease of data collection above all else? If the fundamental goal of smart cities is to gather data, adapt, and upgrade to perfect themselves, then the architecture must be based on such foundations as well. It is less so a community for citizens, more a testbed for the newest automated technologies, a simulation that veils the true identity of surveillance. If reduced to a single item, the smart city is one giant machine, one that serves not the functions of humans, but simply the function of itself that it was programmed to do, with no discern regarding privacy and freedom.
So, what happens when architecture is designed for privacy? One particular building in Tokyo, designed by Satoru Hirota Architects, focused specifically on providing privacy for a single-family located in the heart of the city. Due to the density of Tokyo itself, and the fact that the lot faced a public street, the design played with the sense of distance and opening, minimizing the views inside from the front façade.

Offset boxes with gaps were used to still provide light and ventilation within the house itself.39 However nice the interiors are designed, there is no doubt this is an attempt at sacrificing views and connections in exchange for a little privacy within the busy city, and this only deals with privacy on a physical note, ignoring completely the idea of digital privacy within the walls of the confined. Is this to be the future of architecture if paranoia of privacy reaches the masses? Are the likes of Philip Johnson’s Glass House to be forever a purely aesthetic and never practical design?


Through sovereign to disciplinary regimes, architecture continues to be a vessel for control, a solid physical state in which Foucault’s theories run. However, with the mutation of biopower to pharma-power, the boundary of exterior and interior control slowly dissolves, as does the architecture which binds us to society. Today, in the case of smart cities, architecture is no longer a representation of control and surveillance, as it is no longer even required to be such a tool. The technological advances of surveillance have successfully broken the “fourth wall” and settled into our bodies and minds, thus rendering the function of physical architecture back to its purest form, the form of shelter. Architecture itself no longer holds the propaganda, as the streams of controls have embedded themselves past the physical walls of a home, deep into our bodies and minds.
That is not to say that architecture is no longer important in the role of surveillance and control, but that it is merely a lot more complex and uncertain, as its role become fragile, just as the liquid state of modernity does. If architecture is no longer relevant as propaganda, then perhaps its aesthetic will no longer be determined by external power struggles, and can be free to be designed to only suit the individual and not the society. Or, perhaps, there will come a time when privacy becomes a thing of the past, and people will happily relinquish control over their data in exchange for a more pleasant peaceful life, no fear from the watching eyes of others. All architecture, in that case, might be transparent and public, like Philip Johnson’s Glass House, a whole life on display to the world. Either way, the architecture of surveillance and control will change alongside society, and for better or worse, only time will tell.


  1. Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: the Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York: PublicAffairs, 2020).

  2. “Are Your Phone Camera and Microphone Spying on You? | Dylan Curran,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, April 6, 2018), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/06/phone-camera-microphone-spying.

  3. Michel Foucault and Alan Sheridan, “Part One: Torture. The body of the condemned” in Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Books, 2020), page 38.

  4. Ibid, page 16.

  5. Michel Foucault and Alan Sheridan, “Part One: Torture. The spectacle of the scaffold” in Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Books, 2020).

  6. G. Carrio et al., “About the Impossibility of Absolute State Sovereignty,” International Journal for the Semiotics of Law - Revue internationale de Sémiotique juridique (Springer Netherlands, January 1, 1965), https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11196-013-9333-x.

  7. Jeremy Bentham, Panopticon: or the Inspection House (Whithorn: Anodos Books, 2017).

  8. Michel Foucault and Alan Sheridan, “Part 3. Discipline - Panopticism,” in Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Books, 2020).

  9. Ibid, page 231.

  10. Zygmunt Bauman, “Individuality” in Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018), page 42.

  11.   Antonia Mackay and Susan Flynn, “The Panoptic City” in Surveillance, Architecture and Control Discourses on Spatial Culture (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2019).

  12. Michel Foucault and Alan Sheridan, “Part 3. Discipline - Panopticism,” in Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Books, 2020), page 237.

  13. Ibid, page 120.

  14. Michel Foucault and Alan Sheridan, “Part Three: Discipline – Docile Bodies” in Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Books, 2020), page 147-192.

  15. Zygmunt Bauman, “Emancipation” in Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018). 

  16. McLEAN, Iain, and Alistair McMILLAN. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

  17. Zygmunt Bauman, “Community” in Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018).

  18. Ibid, “Individuality”

  19. Ibid.

  20. Preciado, Beatriz. "Architecture as a Practice of Biopolitical Disobedience." Log, no. 25 (2012): 124. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41765746.

  21. Ibid 22.

  22. Ibid.

  23. Ibid, page 128.

  24. Preciado, Beatriz. "Architecture as a Practice of Biopolitical Disobedience." Log, no. 25 (2012): 130. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41765746.

  25. Shoshana Zuboff, “The moat around the castle” in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: the Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York: PublicAffairs, 2020), page 110-137 

  26. Ibid, “Home or Exile in the Digital Future”, page 10-32 

  27. Ibid, “The Elaboration of Surveillance Capitalism: Kidnap, Corner, Compete”, page 138-187

  28. Ibid

  29. Goodman, Ellen P. and Julia Powles. "urbanism Under Google: Lessons from Sidewalk Toronto." Fordham Law Review 88, no. 2 (2019): 457.

  30. Flynn, Alexandra, and Mariana Valverde. “Where The Sidewalk Ends: The Governance Of Waterfront Toronto’s Sidewalk Labs Deal.” Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice 36 (September 18, 2019): 263–83. doi:10.22329/wyaj.v36i0.6425

  31. Flynn, Alexandra, and Mariana Valverde. “Where The Sidewalk Ends: The Governance Of Waterfront Toronto’s Sidewalk Labs Deal.” Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice 36 (September 18, 2019): 266. doi:10.22329/wyaj.v36i0.6425. 

  32. Ibid 

  33. Doug Brake Robert D. Atkinson, “A Policymaker's Guide to the ‘Techlash’-What It Is and Why It's a Threat to Growth and Progress,” A Policymaker's Guide to the "Techlash"-What It Is and Why It's a Threat to Growth and Progress (Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, October 28, 2019), https://itif.org/publications/2019/10/28/policymakers-guide-techlash. 

  34. Shoshana Zuboff, “August 9, 2011: Setting the Stage for Surveillance Capitalism” in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: the Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York: PublicAffairs, 2020), page 34-70

  35. Ellen P. Goodman; Julia Powles, "Urbanism under Google: Lessons from Sidewalk Toronto," Fordham Law Review 88, no. 2 (November 2019): 457-498

  36. Ibid

  37. Ibid

  38. Shoshana Zuboff, “Home or Exile in the Digital Future” in The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: the Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York: PublicAffairs, 2020), page 10-32

  39. Designing for Privacy: Architecture in the Surveillance Age - Design & Build Review: Issue 55: April 2020,” Design & Build Review | Issue 55 | April 2020, May 5, 2020.


“Are Your Phone Camera and Microphone Spying on You? | Dylan Curran.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, April 6, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/06/phone-camera-microphone-spying.
“Designing for Privacy: Architecture in the Surveillance Age - Design & Build Review: Issue 55: April 2020,” Design & Build Review | Issue 55 | April 2020, May 5, 2020 
Flynn, Alexandra, and Mariana Valverde. “Where The Sidewalk Ends: The Governance Of Waterfront Toronto’s Sidewalk Labs Deal.” Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice 36 (September 18, 2019): 263–83. doi:10.22329/wyaj.v36i0.6425.
G. Carrio et al., “About the Impossibility of Absolute State Sovereignty,” International Journal for the Semiotics of Law - Revue internationale de Sémiotique juridique (Springer Netherlands, January 1, 1965), https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11196-013-9333-x.
Goodman, Ellen P. and Julia Powles. "urbanism Under Google: Lessons from Sidewalk Toronto." Fordham Law Review 88, no. 2 (2019): 457.
Jeremy Bentham, Panopticon: or the Inspection House (Whithorn: Anodos Books, 2017).
Mackay, Antonia, and Susan Flynn. Surveillance, Architecture and Control Discourses on Spatial Culture. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2019.
McLEAN, Iain, and Alistair McMILLAN. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Michel Foucault and Alan Sheridan, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison (London: Penguin Books, 2020).
Preciado, Beatriz. "Architecture as a Practice of Biopolitical Disobedience." Log, no. 25 (2012): 121-34. Accessed December 15, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41765746.
Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: the Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: PublicAffairs, 2020.
Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018).
Figure 1. Chng, Pamela. “The Soul Is the Prison of the Body.” Medium. Medium, May 7, 2018. https://pamchng.medium.com/the-soul-is-the-prison-of-the-body-bf8ef943fe4.
Figure 2. Sciences, Posted by Sunderland Social. “Is Everywhere a Panopticon?” Social Sciences Blog, September 21, 2018. https://sunderlandsocialsciences.wordpress.com/2018/09/21/is-everywhere-a-panopticon/.
Figure 3. “Beatriz Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs, and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era - Http://T.co/bs7o2h2eII Pic.twitter.com/lA9WTtelUe.” Twitter. Twitter, November 26, 2014. https://twitter.com/aaaarg/status/537592744588636161.
Figure 4. Torontoist. “Civic Tech: A List of Questions We'd like Sidewalk Labs to Answer.” Torontoist, November 13, 2017. https://torontoist.com/2017/10/civic-tech-list-questions-wed-like-sidewalk-labs-answer/.
Figure 5. 2016. "Gallery of House of Fluctuations / Satoru Hirota Architects." ArchDaily. October 09. Accessed December 16, 2020. https://www.archdaily.com/796882/house-of-fluctuations-satoru-hirota-architects/57f6f9afe58ece756100003f-house-of-fluctuations-satoru-hirota-architects-photo.

Konner Mitchener

The Post-Singularity Architect


In the following critical analysis, the works of various theorists and researchers in the fields of architecture, design, and computer science are studied and presented to make a case for what will be understood as the “architectural singularity.” As will be illustrated in the work of Raymond Kurzweil, there is increasing evidence pointing towards an inevitable technological “singularity;” a point at which artificial intelligence (AI) may surpass biological intelligence. As our society becomes more technologically advanced, the traditional role that architecture plays will be challenged, and the way that architects design and interact with the built context will shift drastically. Architecture is likely to take on new forms, previously unimaginable, as it nears closer to the architectural singularity. Through this analysis, it is proposed that architects should prepare to find new roles within the relationships between humans, machine intelligence, and the built form.

Machine intelligence already plays a key role in the ways that we consume information and interact with each other and our environment today. In the segments to follow, concepts and questions are proposed to break down and shed some light on where the architecture profession may be headed in the age of the singularity. Some material being analyzed, among other works, includes Ray Kurzweil's book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Benjamin Bratton's book The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, Carl Frey and Michael Osborne's research The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?, Margaret Boden's Creativity and Artificial Intelligence, and Tim McGinley's research A Morphogenic Architecture for Intelligent Buildings. This analysis will be broken down into eight discrete segments discussing the premise behind the architectural singularity, the challenges it raises, and how to approach the future of the architectural practice with this speculative outlook in mind.
The Architectural Singularity

To begin to unpack this topic, it is important to first understand the premise that we may be approaching a technological and subsequently architectural singularity. In the field of physical science, the singularity represents a point at which space and time “merge indistinguishably and cease to have any independent meaning”1 as described by Matt Williams in Universe Today. The use of the term “singularity,” in reference to technological advancement is often attributed to Ray Kurzweil, an American inventor and futurist, and author of books titled: How to Create a Mind, The Age of Spiritual Machines, and The Singularity is Near.

Kurzweil proposes in his book that within the next few decades, artificial intelligence will eclipse human biological intelligence and that by 2045, the singularity will have arrived, and we cannot possibly predict what the world will look like beyond that point.2 Kurzweil is quoted in The Singularity is Near as saying “human-created technology is accelerating and its powers are expanding at an exponential pace.”3

With this statement, Kurzweil is proposing that technology is advancing at a rate that will completely alter the human environment as we know it.

In his book, The Technological Singularity, Murray Shanahan describes how a technological singularity would change human life as we know it, and that current economic and governmental models would be completely altered in the face of new advancements in artificial intelligence and neurotechnology.4 These advancements in artificial intelligence would include the ability to improve performance in an exponential fashion, similar to how the advancement of transistors and integrated circuits followed an exponential curve in processing power throughout the late twentieth century.5 In his work, Shanahan proposes that following this logic, “intelligence itself…would become subject to the law of accelerating returns, and from here to a technological singularity is but a small leap of faith.”6 In other words, the technological singularity could represent a time at which intelligence itself, whether it be artificial or some form of bio-technical hybrid, could grow in processing power at exponential rates, with significant implications on the built world and future growth of human society.

Extending this logic to the architectural realm, the architectural singularity can be understood as a point beyond which we cannot even imagine what the built world of tomorrow will look like. Tim McGinley poses, in A Morphogenic Architecture for Intelligent Buildings, that beyond the singularity architecture may become more like a living organism that, through its design and components, is more intelligent than both its user and designer.7 In order to understand how intelligent buildings function or might come to be within the age of the singularity, it is important first to clearly define and understand the difference between biological and artificial intelligence.

Defining Intelligence

A highly simplified breakdown of biological intelligence is outlined in the chapter titled “Whole Brain Emulation,” in Shanahan’s book, The Technological Singularity. It is illustrated that biological intelligence is made up of neurons, which are a combination of axons and dendrites. Axons can be understood as a neuron’s output, while dendrites can be understood as its input. Where the input section of one neuron is located closely to the output section of another neuron, a synapse can form, essentially creating a link between the two neurons, allowing information flow between them.8 Neurons form a complex network that allows for the communication and processing of information. It is this network of inputs, outputs, and connections that is often the goal to be recreated in artificial intelligence, essentially mimicking the function of a biological brain.

While it may be possible to recreate this communication network artificially using digital technology, this does not guarantee the creation of an “intelligence.” As described by Shanahan, a unique and important property of the biological brain is its plasticity.9 The network of connections between neurons in the brain is under constant change and adaptation throughout the life of the organism. It is this constant change or reworking of neural connections that enables learning and memory in biological intelligence.10 These key properties are a goal of replication in the creation of an artificial intelligence. The creation of a “plastic” machine intelligence, or one that is capable of learning, memory, and informed reconfiguration, brings artificial intelligence significantly closer in function to biological intelligence. The premise of the architectural singularity is as follows: within the architectural realm, artificial intelligences will be capable of performing design tasks to the same level of quality and understanding as a human architect, and intelligent buildings will exist that are as intelligent (if not more) as both their users and designers. The second point of this premise will be the focus of the following section, outlining how exactly a building can be designed and understood as “intelligent,” and what implications this has on the architectural realm.
Intelligent Buildings

Today, intelligence is used to describe buildings which are designed with lifespan, construction, and management phases in mind, as well as implementation of measures ensuring the building remains adaptable over its entire lifespan, as described by Victor Callaghan in his chapter titled “Intelligent Environments” in Derek Clements-Croome’s book, Intelligent Buildings.11

Intelligent buildings in the age of the singularity will likely take on a different form of intelligence than that used in architectural discourse today. As described in Manic et al.’s work, Intelligent Buildings of the Future, intelligent buildings are composed of networks of smart hubs, sensors, meters, renewable energy generators, and energy storage systems.12 These complex systems within a building produce increasingly large data sets which will require “automated and adaptive approaches to information processing and real-time decision making.”13

Today, there are several metrics designed to measure the “intelligence” of a building, typically in relation to sustainability and building performance. These metrics include BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method), LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), LBC (Living Building Challenge), and more. In respect to these rating systems, “intelligent buildings” perform optimally according to performance standards, and automatically respond to user requirements and changes in the building environment.14 While this understanding of building intelligence touches on forward thinking concepts, the intelligent buildings of the future will be capable of processes typically undertaken by humans, as we are capable of “reasoning, planning and learning.”15 This is to say that intelligent buildings will be able to analyze the immense data sets created by their integrated monitoring systems and make informed decisions on adjustments or adaptations needed for improved overall building performance and environmental comfort.

This concept can be further expanded to a larger scale through an understanding of how intelligent systems will interact in the future. To better understand the implications of a global system of intelligence, one can turn to Benjamin Bratton's work, The Stack, where he breaks down the various layers in which software and technology shape and control our lives and the built environment. Bratton proposes that all the world's computation systems form The Stack, a "megastructure" comprised of six layers including Earth, Cloud, City, Address, Interface, and User.16

The Stack illustrates an understanding of the world's various computational systems not as isolated, individual systems, but as a deeply intertwined network of human connection, social interaction, and control.17 In the realm of an architectural singularity, Bratton's Stack can be understood to be an important model within which to work. Viewing our approach to the practice of architecture going forward within the context of an intelligent global computation system will allow us to pose important questions about where the profession is headed and where we as humans can fit into the emerging new social-political system.

The aforementioned definition of intelligent buildings is not all too farfetched from the reality we currently inhabit today. One might argue that there are likely automated systems performing these exact functions already. The turning point at which one could argue for the emergence of the architectural singularity is, as described by McGinley, “the point at which the intelligence of the building’s fabric and systems become superior to the intelligence of the occupants."18

To understand how this might occur, it is important now to define the ways in which machine intelligence might surpasses biological human intelligence. In his work, Shanahan argues that the successful emulation of a human brain marks the breakthrough necessary to pave the way for what he refers to as a “superintelligence.” Shanahan makes two critical arguments regarding brain emulation that support the theory of an architectural singularity. First, if we successfully emulate the function of a human brain through a digital medium, this digital brain can now be copied a near-infinite number of times, only bound by the limits of digital media storage. This marks the first milestone in creating a superintelligence, as it forms the basis for a network or collective intelligence.19 Secondly, Shanahan argues that a digital intelligence is no longer bound to physical constraints, allowing it to be sped up. This combination of collective intelligence performing actions at rates faster than biologically possible forms the basis for Shanahan’s definition of superintelligence and marks a turning point for all human activity.20 With an influx in super-intelligent computation, it will be crucial to understand possible implications on both the architectural practice, and human employment in general.

Computation and Work

As the argument for an architectural singularity is highly speculative, it is nearly impossible to definitively determine the effects that superintelligence will have on the human workforce. While it already proves difficult to speculate what the workforce would even consist of in the age of the singularity, one can extend current discussion to this line of thinking. To understand where employment is headed in the age of increasingly powerful computation, one can look to Carl Frey and Michael Osborne's 2013 research titled The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?

In this work, Frey and Osborne analyze the likelihood of 702 various occupations being rendered obsolete through computerisation in the not-too-distant future. They propose that an estimated 47 percent of jobs in the US are at risk of computerisation, further explaining that we are seeing a polarization of the workforce towards either high-income cognitive jobs, or low-income manual jobs, and away from middle-income routine jobs.21 Frey & Osborne do address that not all jobs in the future would be rendered obsolete solely due to computerisation. They also provide the example of "offshoring,” like we have seen in professions such as customer service or telemarketing. A job is considered “unable to be offshored" if it meets two criteria: the work is location-specific and requires face-to-face personal communication.22 To demonstrate this, Frey and Osborne present the example of cashiers that have largely been replaced with self-serve technology. This task must both be performed at a specific location and requires face-to-face contact. Therefore, they cannot be offshored, but it can be automated with relative ease.23

To support the notion that human architects are well poised to remain relevant in the workforce despite rapid computerisation, Frey and Osborne place architects as the 82nd least likely profession to be computerised out of a total 702 occupations. Frey and Osborne’s methodology consists of ranking each individual profession by probability of computerisation, according to nine discreet variables. These variables are as follows: Assisting and caring for others, Persuasion, Negotiation, Social Perceptiveness, Fine arts, Originality, Manual dexterity, Finger dexterity, and Cramped workspace.24 Some might argue Frey and Osborne’s classification of architects as 82nd least likely to be computerized to be inaccurate due to the difficulty of truly grasping the job function of an architect without experiencing the role first-hand. If one regards this classification generally, there is still a strong indication that architects will continue to be relevant, in one form or another, despite increasing computerization.
To provide some clarity regarding their rankings, Frey and Osborne outline some bottlenecks of computerisation of various industries. These are aspects of the work that make a particular profession challenging to automate through computerisation, and include Perception and Manipulation, Social Intelligence, and Creative Intelligence.25 It will be increasingly important to address the latter two aspects outlined as bottlenecks by Frey and Osborne, as they will help to inform the role of the post-singularity architect going forward.

It is proposed in this critical analysis that while the “architect” may continue to exist despite increased computational power, the definition of this role is likely to undergo a significant transformation as it approaches the architectural singularity.

Artificial Creativity

To address the concept of creativity in relation to artificial intelligence, one can turn to Margaret Boden's research article titled Creativity and Artificial Intelligence. Boden's work proposes that artificial intelligence can prove useful in creative work in three ways:

  1. It can produce novel combinations of familiar ideas
  2. It can explore the potential of conceptual spaces
  3. It can make transformations that enable the generation of previously impossible ideas26

A key takeaway from Boden's work is that AI will likely be much better at creating or modelling new ideas than it will be at evaluating their success in the lived human context. Boden describes that the challenges facing an AI regarding creative thinking lie within the concept of “domain-expertise” and “valuation.”27 This is to say that newly implemented AI systems lack experience within the domain or realm which they are inserted into. Like a human intern starting work in an established firm, the AI may have been “trained” with traditional knowledge in building science or architectural design, but it lacks the ability to evaluate its performance without feedback from an overseeing entity. This limitation of artificial intelligence is outlined in Martin Rooney and Steven Smith’s research titled Artificial Intelligence in Engineering Design.

In their work, Rooney and Smith define the difference between objective and subjective cases within the realm of design. Objective cases refer to aspects of design that can be addressed through calculations and can be applied consistently between projects.28 Subjective cases in this realm refer to aspects of the design process that traditionally require human input, as they typically deal with aesthetic decisions. Subjective cases can vary from one design to another and are rarely able to be widely applied like objective design aspects.29 In order for artificial intelligence to be able to evaluate its performance in subjective design decisions, it requires a feedback mechanism. The feedback mechanism outlined by Rooney and Smith works to apply previous design experience to a problem, extract relevant information to be used in a subsequent problem, and store the extracted information for later use.30 As described by Rooney and Smith, today’s human designer typically carries out these feedback steps subconsciously as they progress through the design process. Outlined in this research is the key to one future role of the post-singularity architect, where it is stated that an intelligent “program” would be able to change its decisions or “self-modify” according to the previous successes and failures outlined in the aforementioned feedback loop.31


To summarize the findings of this analysis, three scenarios are proposed as the likely future role of the architect in the coming age of the architectural singularity: Architect as Teacher, Architect as Curator, and Architect as Luxury. These scenarios could occur individually or simultaneously, forming a new hybrid model for the architect. These models could also form the new major career paths in the architectural field. Like how many students today studying architecture in tertiary education are presented with the choice between architecture, building science, and project management, the practice in the age of the architectural singularity may morph into a system that prepares students to enter the practice as evaluator or curator of AI-designed architecture, or as “legacy architect,” a service only accessible to the hyper-rich.

There will be a need for someone to define the constraints within which the AI is programmed to work. Like setting site boundaries or a maximum height in CAD and BIM software, the AI needs to know which parameters to consider and which to ignore when ideating new designs or when working towards a new “optimal” form for a given context.

Secondly, as mentioned in Boden's work, AIs may not yet be able to properly evaluate their performance without feedback from humans. There will be a need for human evaluation against project requirements and overall current cultural values against which an AI may not be equipped to evaluate. As human culture and values are constantly changing, and since architecture reflects our culture, the AI will need to be constantly fed new information and evaluated on its performance.

Finally, as the price of computation is driven downward by increased adoption of new technologies, there is an increasingly strong case for the possibility of AI that can design architectural solutions more efficiently than their human counterparts. These buildings may however be part of a limited class, at least in the beginning of this new technological era, that are bound by straightforward criteria and end-goals. The section to follow expands on the proposal of these three possible roles for the post-singularity architect.  

Architect as Teacher

As noted in Boden’s work, the weakness of AI lies in its ability to self-evaluate. This is where the first role of the post-singularity architect comes into play: the architect as teacher. The architect as teacher acts as a liaison between the values and desires humans posses for their architectural projects, and the computational power of the AI-architect. By programming the specific parameters within which the AI is to design, the architect as teacher influences the design outcome by guiding the AI through which parameters are to be optimized for and which are to be ignored. By defining the constraints within which the AI is intended to design, the architect as teacher prepares the AI-architect to be passed along to the next stage in the new-age design process: evaluation.

Understanding the architect as teacher or evaluator implies some level of authority maintained over machine. The AI-architect could be understood as being given “limited freedom” in the sense that it is free to ideate and test the optimal architectural forms within a confined set of specified parameters.

As noted in Rooney and Smith’s research on artificial intelligence in design, it will be important to maintain human control over artificially intelligent designers, especially when it comes to subjective design decisions. Rooney and Smith are quoted as stating, “it is important for professional liability that the human designer remain in control and the artificial intelligence component act as an experience consultant.”32 In other words, artificial intelligence should be understood as a powerful tool in design, but not as the governing body or overseer. The role of overseer is to be maintained as a human position: the architect as curator. Maintaining some level of human control over the outcome of AI-designed projects will allow us to maintain cultural and aesthetic value in our designs, even beyond the singularity.
Architect as Curator

With the emergence of a new wealth of machine-born architectural designs, a new human role is proposed. While artificial intelligence may be able to be programmed to produce designs under specific conditions, within specific parameters, as is outlined in Boden’s work, artificial intelligence may not yet be able to evaluate the success of these designs. In other words, while there could be an infinite amount of design iterations presented for a particular architectural project, there may be a need for human intervention in the decision-making process for which design best suits the needs of the client.

Tim McGinley discusses the possible future role of the architect as forming a sort of “bridge” between desired architectural solutions and self-organizing systems. For instance, if a client provided specific criteria to be met for a desired building project, and an AI-architect was programmed with these specific parameters to generate a multitude of “ideal” design choices, based on the given criteria, it now becomes the role of the architect as curator to review these options through a critical, human-oriented lens and decide which is most successful for the project brief.

This example highlights the strong relation between the roles of the architect as teacher and curator, as these roles could be understood to form a cyclical relationship. As the architect (as teacher) defines specific parameters within which an AI-architect is to work, the AI learns which variables are considered valuable in various design conditions. As the architect (as curator) chooses or rejects proposed designs, the AI-architect learns which projects were successful or unsuccessful and why or why not. In this sense, the architect as curator acts as a form of direct evaluator, as well as an indirect teacher, constantly giving the AI feedback on proposed design interventions and feeding it information regarding which proposals were most liked by clients.

Following the logic of this feedback loop, one could argue that through this relationship, the human architect (as curator or teacher) could render themself obsolete by providing the AI with compounding data on successful architectural projects. Machine learning depends on large datasets to learn from and only improves in accuracy as more “feedback” is provided. In this sense, it could be argued that the architect, in providing feedback to the AI, could be laying the groundwork for an AI that is eventually knowledgeable enough to make decisions regarding the success of an architectural intervention without the feedback of a human architect. At the very least, the AI could be “intelligent” enough to predict the success of a design to a close degree of accuracy.

This argument might be sound if humanity were a static entity. However, humanity is very much a dynamic, ever-evolving entity. This is where the question of culture comes into play. Culture varies drastically, dependent on many factors including geographic location, population demographics, religion, and more. Traditional or “legacy” architecture is typically reflective of the cultural values of the place and time in which it is built. For the same reason that some criticize globalized architecture produced today by what we know as “starchitects,” an AI could likely never reach a level at which it could objectively decide the most appropriate or successful architectural form for a given context. This is because of humanity’s inherent dynamic nature. As human culture continually evolves, it can be argued that in order for an AI-architect to remain current or “up-to-date,” it will require the architect as teacher to continually provide information regarding cultural and aesthetic value in order to continue to ideate successful and relevant architectural designs.

Figure 1 illustrates the relationship of the architect as teacher and curator in a workflow diagram influenced by Rooney and Smith’s 1983 intelligent CAD model illustrations. In this model, the architect as teacher works to “program” various constraints, values, and parameters to be optimize within the artificially intelligent design program. The “AI-architect” then begins the process of ideation, iteration testing, and analysis informed by the parameters input by the human teacher. The AI-architect then presents the “optimal” design schemes to the architect as curator, who decides on a final revision or restarts the process again with new constraints or variables. Once an acceptable design has been chosen, it can be presented to the client and accepted or reworked using the model outlined above. Once a successful design scheme has been chosen, the AI-architect then extracts relevant information to be stored and used as learning experience for the next design proposal. Within this theoretical model, the AI-architect learns how to better perform with each new application of the process. The human architect as teacher and curator remains, however, to ensure that the AI model is properly trained and to maintain human oversight in the decision process of the final revision.

Architect as Luxury

As machine-designed architecture gains traction due to its financial incentives, architects as we currently know them may become a niche within the practice, referred to in this work as “legacy architects.” With most domestic architecture being designed by AI which churns out generic solutions to static housing typologies, and commercial architecture being outsourced to powerful algorithmic design studios designing for an optimal balance between predetermined criteria, legacy architects become something of a luxury that only the ultra rich can afford.

This dynamic could work similarly to purchasing a built-to-order, hand-made custom Rolls Royce today. With claims that this method of construction is somehow “more authentic” and exclusive, the markup renders such objects only attainable by the ultra rich. This model remains financially viable as the low volume vehicles are sold at exorbitant prices. Architecture, in this sense, could operate as a niche practice of a select few providing a “hand-made” type of service reminiscent of what will be understood as the legacy architecture of today.

It is entirely possible that small to mid to large-size architecture firms will begin to outsource their design efforts to machine intelligence, while ultra-popular “starchitects” will be presented with opportunities to pick and choose specialized projects demanding a “human touch,” hired for outlandish financial compensation.
Some may argue that architecture designed by artificial intelligence is somehow less human, or removed from humanity, in comparison to what we understand today as “traditional,” human-designed architecture. By extension, this argument implies that these “less human” spaces are somehow less desirable than human-designed spaces. To address this perspective, one could argue that, since artificial intelligence is ultimately created by humans, by extension, the things that AI creates can also be counted within the realm of human creation. To further argue this point, if artificial intelligence is tasked with ideating and creating architecture for humankind, the architecture remains deeply connected to humanity through its very purpose, maintaining its definition as an ultimately human endeavour.

There is agreement among researchers and theorists that the singularity is coming, with less agreement on exactly when it may come. Now is a crucial time to consider the structure within which architects will work given these speculative advancements in machine intelligence. If architects and others in the field approach the problem carefully, we may be able to carve out a lasting role even beyond the architectural singularity. This role will depend highly on the development of artificial intelligence and its success within the design industry. Despite the likely implementation of AI into the practice, human architects are likely to remain firmly integrated into society as critical evaluators and curators within the feedback loop enabling the creation of architecture beyond the era of the singularity.


  1. Matt Williams, “What Is A Singularity?,” Universe Today, last modified January 7, 2017, https://www.universetoday.com/84147/singularity/.

  2. Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (London: Duckworth, 2016), 10.

  3. Kurzweil, 10.

  4. Murray Shanahan, “Introduction,” in The Technological Singularity (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2015a), xv.

  5. Kurzweil, xviii.

  6. Shanahan, xix.

  7. Tim McGinley, “A Metamorphogenetic Architecture for Intelligent Buildings,” Intelligent Buildings International 7, no. 1 (2014): 4, https://doi.org/10.1080/17508975.2014.970120

  8. Murray Shanahan, “Whole Brain Emulation,” in The Technological Singularity (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2015b), 15.

  9. Shanahan, 17.

  10. Shanahan, 17.

  11. Victor Callaghan, “Chapter 5: Intelligent Environments.” in Intelligent Buildings (London: ICE Publishing, 2013a), 72, http://dx.doi.org/10.1680/ib.57340.071.

  12. Milos Manic et al., “Intelligent Buildings of the Future: Cyberaware, Deep Learning Powered, and Human Interacting,” IEEE Industrial Electronics Magazine 10, no. 4 (2016), 38, https://doi.org/10.1109/mie.2016.2615575.

  13. Milos Manic et al., 38.

  14. Callaghan, 72.

  15. Callaghan, 72.

  16. Benjamin Bratton, The Stack - On Software and Sovereignty. (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2016), xviii.

  17. Bratton, xviii.

  18. McGinley, 4.

  19. Shanahan, 36.

  20. Shanahan, 36.

  21. Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?,” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 114 (2013): 3, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.techfore.2016.08.019.

  22. Frey and Osborne, 5.

  23. Frey and Osborne, 5.

  24. Frey and Osborne, 31.

  25. Frey and Osborne, 31. 

  26. Margaret Boden, “Creativity and Artificial Intelligence.” Artificial Intelligence 103, no. 1-2 (1998): 347, https://doi.org/10.1016/s0004-3702(98)00055-1.

  27. Boden, 355.

  28. Martin Rooney and Steven Smith, “Artificial Intelligence in Engineering Design.” Computers & Structures 16, no. 1 (1983): 281, https://doi.org/10.1016/0045-7949(83)90167-0.

  29. Rooney and Smith, 281.

  30. Rooney and Smith, 281.

  31. Rooney and Smith, 281.

  32. Rooney and Smith, 282.


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Rooney, Martin F, and Steven E Smith. “Artificial Intelligence in Engineering Design.” Computers & Structures 16, no. 1 (1983): 279–88. https://doi.org/10.1016/0045-7949(83)90167-0.
Shanahan, Murray. Introduction. In The Technological Singularity, xv-xxiii. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2015a. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/lib/ryerson/reader.action?docID=3433796&ppg=1.
Shanahan, Murray. “Whole Brain Emulation.” In The Technological Singularity, 15–50. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2015b. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/lib/ryerson/reader.action?docID=3433796&ppg=75.
Shanahan, Murray. “Superintelligence.” In The Technological Singularity, 85-116. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2015c. https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/lib/ryerson/reader.action?docID=3433796&ppg=110.
Tamke, Martin, Paul Nicholas, and Mateusz Zwierzycki. “Machine Learning for Architectural Design: Practices and Infrastructure.” International Journal of Architectural Computing 16, no. 2 (2018): 123–43. https://doi.org/10.1177/1478077118778580.
Williams, Matt. “What Is A Singularity?.” Universe Today. January 7, 2017. https://www.universetoday.com/84147/singularity/.

Tess Macpherson

The Commodification of Architecture:
How it Challenges the Right to the City


Architecture is grounded in utopian thinking. What is the job of the architect if not to try to design the best possible future for people and society? This perspective is challenged in today’s cities, where the interests of the market take precedence over the interests of people. In 1967, Henri Lefebvre wrote an essay called “The Right to the City”, which demanded the right for citizen participation and appropriation of space.1 One year later, the general strike and student uprising in France, known as May 1968, put Lefebvre’s words into action. Students and workers rose to challenge neoliberalism, capitalism, and consumerism which had come to dominate postwar urbanization. It was a demand for centrality for those who had been peripheralized, referring to immigrants, women, workers, the ghettoization of low-income neighbourhoods and public housing.2 Lefebvre saw May 1968 as “Utopia’s last stand”3, because the uprising ultimately failed, leaving cities to become more deeply intrenched in neoliberal hegemony. Emerging out of Lefebvre’s work on “The Right to the City”, came one of his most influential books, The Production of Space.4
The following paper draws on some of the key concepts discussed in this book, such as the commodification of space and the right to centrality, which is further analyzed in relation to urbanism and architecture through the works of Nathaniel Coleman, David Harvey, and Stefan Kipfer. With a majority of the world living in urban areas today, space within cities has never been more contested. Cities are the center of consumption, and architecture has become commodified to the point that it has become a part of what Marx theorizes as “commodity fetishism”.5 Lefebvre’s emphasis on the importance of the “everyday” becomes central to how architects can work outside the realm of commodity fetishism. This paper argues that the commodification of architecture challenges the Right to the City and reduces the ability for architects to both represent and design for the reality of everyday life. However, architects can challenge this through alternative forms of representations and counter-hegemonic practices that use architectural knowledge and awareness of space to critique society and expand participation and collaboration.

History of Urbanization and Rise of Consumption

By looking at the history of urbanization since the mid-20th century, one can get a better understanding of how consumption has come to define the way we think we should live our lives, and the way that architects design. Harvey states that “since urbanization depends on the mobilization of a surplus product, an intimate connection emerges between the development of capitalism and urbanization”.6 During the 1940s, the capacity for industrial production was significantly increased for the war effort. Once WWII ended, this capacity for production needed new outlets for consumption to stabilize the economy.7 In North America, this was done through suburbanization and promotion of new lifestyles. Harvey states,

“The suburbanization of the United States was not merely a matter of new infrastructures… it entailed a radical transformation in lifestyles, bringing new products from housing to refrigerators and air conditioners, as well as two cars in the driveway and an enormous increase in the consumption of oil”.8

These lifestyles were further engrained into society by offering subsidies that made it possible for people to own their own homes. This strategy not only put values of property ownership and individualism before the community, but also pacified the population.9 Those who owned property and were paying off debts were less likely to cause civil unrest.10 This contributed to neoliberal hegemony, which Antonio Gramsci argued was constantly perpetuated through “popular culture”.11 A level of consent amongst society continues the dominance of hegemony, because if people are invested in these new lifestyles, they refrain from challenging the status quo, making it difficult for people from seeing any other alternative way of life. Suburbanization left the cities abandoned, except by those who could not afford to leave.12

Cities became the antithesis of the suburbs and centers for civil unrest. They were places for the homeless, squatters, and those who did not fit into the new lifestyles in the suburbs. The desertification, lack of investment, and financial crash in the early 1970s, led to many cities becoming bankrupt, such as New York City in 1975.13 According to the government, cities were in a crisis. The response to this crisis was to create a new urban market. During this time, buildings in downtown were affordable, if not abandoned. This invited squatter movements, and the growth of underground cultures and arts communities. Inevitably, as these places became more popular, so did the cost of living.14 A new market started to focus on the service industry, which targeted students and yuppies that came to live in these areas.15 Harvey argues that 1972 was a turning point towards a new kind of capitalism, which he calls “flexible accumulation”.16 The rise of the entrepreneurial city led to the competition amongst cities to be centers of consumption in response to deindustrialization.17 During this time we see a shift in architectural thinking, from the modernist to the postmodernist movement, which was a shift from having a sense of social responsibility of urban renewal towards commodification and aestheticization that became a symbol of social status.

There was an ambition amongst modern architects to solve the world’s problems, through standardization, efficient design for the masses, and social housing developments.18 Modernism also had a political edge through promoting democracy. This is seen by advocating transparent diplomacy through the free plan and Hannes Meyer’s glazed rooms of his proposal for the League of Nations.19 As cities became deteriorated, there was an opportunity to reshape them. This led to a complete restructuring of the city centre, with government funded public housing projects that would ensure the pre-war slums would not re-emerge.20 However, by the 1960’s many began to criticize the modernist movement. McLeod describes the changing views of the public housing projects, which became seen as a “wasteland of urban renewal”.21 She further states that the style of the architecture became seen as “arcane, mute, and of little appeal outside a narrow cultural elite”.22 Modernism became associated with capitalist accumulation and Fordist modernization, which dominated the internationalist corporate aesthetic.23 Lefebvre’s critique of urbanism was partly in response to the homogenization and standardization of modernist architecture.24 Despite the failures, there was at least a sense of responsibility amongst architects to address concerns in society. Postmodernism rose out of a reaction to modernism, with a much lower sense of social responsibility.
The financial crash in the early 1970’s and a lack of work for architects led to a rise in theoretical exploration, which created space for architects to question the modernist movement. The failures of the public housing projects led to a disillusionment amongst architects, questioning if architecture could be an effective tool for social change.25 Postmodernism reacted to what was seen as dull and mundane, and sought to explore diversity and complexity in design. Architecture came to be seen as an art rather than an agent of social change.26 The nature of art relies on the idea of praise, which promotes ideas of luxury and elitist consumption.

As soon as the economy picked up in the 80s, architects went from focusing on theory to cashing in on this new ability to market architecture.27 As an art, it was able to be sold through books, magazines, and exhibits like never before.28 Harvey states that “postmodernism is nothing more than the cultural clothing of flexible accumulation”.29 Just as modernism became associated with the corporate aesthetics of the elite by the end of its reign, so too did postmodernism become the new style of the elite classes. Whereas modernism was focused on form, postmodernism focused on image.30 As the cities were becoming reclaimed by the social elite, architecture was becoming more commodified and sold through promoting an image of social prestige.

Today we have entered a new level of urbanization. Richard Florida’s book called The New Urban Crisis31, was written in response to the criticism he received from his earlier book written in 2002, called The Rise of the Creative Class.32 In this earlier book he argued that the success of cities relied on the ability to attract and support the young “cultural creatives” who attract large businesses and high-paying jobs.33 He was criticized for supporting gentrification as good for cities.34 This led him to re-think his argument, in which he recognized that he was ignoring the fact that gentrification was leading to a homogeneity of wealth, a decrease of the middle-class, and increased inequality in cities. This is what he is referring to as “the new urban crisis”. When Harvey discussed the “entrepreneurial city” and inter-city competition, he was referring to displays of wealth and commodification through the development of sports facilities and Disney worlds during the rise of postmodernism.35 Today, this competition amongst cities has transitioned to focus on what Florida calls,

“the new people-driven, place-based economy turned on doing the smaller things that made cities great places to live and work – things like making sure there were walkable, pedestrian-friendly streets, bike lanes, parks, exciting art and music scene, and vibrant areas where people could gather in cafes and restaurants. Cities need more than a competitive business climate; they also needed a great people climate that appealed to individuals and families of all types – single, married, with children or without, straight or gay.”36

He is emphasizing the need for cities to be vibrant, diverse, inclusive, and accessible. However, this ideal vision of the city lifestyle is not realistic. In the past, these vibrant music and art cultures only emerged because artists and diverse groups of people could afford rent in the cities when they were undesirable places to live. Now, cities have become highly desired and unaffordable. These “cultural creatives” are being pushed out of the city centre, and regions of “deadened trophy districts” are emerging, where “the global super-rich park their money in high-end housing investments as opposed to places in which to live”.37 Harvey argues that today “the traditional centrality of the city has been destroyed”.38 When cities were undesirable, they were places of refuge for those who could not afford to leave. The modernist movement sought to address this through mass public housing projects to prevent urban slums. Once cities became desirable again, the elite sought to take back the city centre from those who never left. Lefebvre’s notion of the Right to the City and the Right to Centrality is raised once again. Merrifield points out that maybe now, the right to centrality does not necessarily mean the physical centre of the city, but rather the centre of your being. The physical centre of the city has become so unattainable for most people. With the world becoming more urbanized, there needs to be multiple centers throughout the periphery that allow people to fulfill their needs of everyday life within their own neighbourhoods.

Commodification of Architecture

When cities become desirable, the spaces within them become highly valued as a commodity. Many theorists have discussed the terms “use value” and “exchange value”. Adam Smith defines use value by the usefulness that a product can fulfill ones needs.39 Exchange value is determined not by its usefulness, but by its purchasing power.40 Marx defines the relationship between use value and exchange value as a commodity. The only use value a commodity has for the owner is through the amount of exchange value it holds.41 Harvey discusses the issues that arise when land becomes the commodity.42 Firstly, people cannot exist without occupying space.43 This brings into question human rights that revolve around occupying space, one of them being the right to housing. Secondly, those who own property are more concerned with exchange value, yet they have a monopoly over determining its use value.44 When exchange value takes precedence over use value, architects become limited in their ability to design for how people use space. Instead, they must ensure that the design does not compromise the exchange value, despite what the present use of the space may be. Anna Minton points out in her essay “Who is the City For”, that “Lefebvre’s conception of the Right to the City was based around the everyday experience of people inhabiting the city, emphasizing use value over exchange value”.45 However, the Right to the City is being challenged by prioritizing exchange value. The development of land becomes dependent on its ability to sell. Lefebvre states, “We build on the basis of papers and plans. We buy on the basis of images”.46 Just as a city relies on marketing itself through imagery, so too does architecture become more concerned with its representation rather than its use. The representation of architecture for the means of selling brings it into the realm of Marx’s “commodity fetishism”.47 Architecture becomes a symbol of social status, feeding an endless need for consumption.

Architecture has and always will be communicated through drawing, imagery, and representation. Mass media and communication has contributed to an increased awareness and interest in architecture amongst the general population.48 The representation of architecture is not just for other architects, builders, and designers, but is used as a marketing tool to sell in the greater public sphere. There is always an intent behind an image. Swati Chattopadhyay recognizes three different kinds of representation.49 The first is a portrait, which is intended to portray a reality. The second is a “proxy”, which acts as a stand-in. The third is political, that which forms a critique. The public perception of architectural representation is that it is forming a portrait of reality. However, if the intent behind that representations is to sell, then the image can become heavily distorted. Lefebvre states, “the image kills”.50 When architecture becomes a commodity, the representation of it does not portray the whole truth, and even tries to “conceal and deceive”.51 As cities portray a deceiving image of a livable environment, the architectural representation that is used to do so becomes further separated from reality.

The nuclear family living in the single-family home in the suburbs is no longer the lifestyle that is being marketed on a grand scale as in the post-WWII period. Today, it is focused on young professionals living in condos in the downtown city. Gillad Rosen discusses the power that developers have in shaping cites, specifically Toronto52, which would be considered one of Florida’s “superstar city tech-hubs.53 Toronto has gone through a similar process of post-war deindustrialization as discussed in the previous section. What was once an industrial focused city, has grown into a consumer and real estate driven environment. Rosen uses the term “condo-ism” to describe the way developers have transformed our cities. Condominiums have become so ubiquitous in the city, that they are the new dominant form of rental housing. However, they are not managed like typical rental buildings, which would have one governing body. Instead, a new form of governance emerges that involves multiple internal private owners.54 This reduces the ability for public regulation over rental housing.
Furthermore, the business of selling these condos rely heavily on branding and marketing, focused on the city centre, young professionals and promoting the condo lifestyle.55 The images that are used to promote this lifestyle are often deceptive, for example real estate agents go to extreme lengths to make spaces look more livable than they are. With the use of new technology, such as drone photography and virtual tours, the representation of space can be highly manipulated. Wide camera angles are used to make spaces look much bigger than in reality. Steven Fudge, a sales representative in Toronto states,

“homebuyers are so reluctant to envision themselves anywhere but an unlived-in show home… buyers expect to step into a manufactured, aspirational lifestyle, and sellers are penalized if they don’t want to buy into the process”.56

People are not willing to see spaces in the reality of how we live. The fact that real estate agents have no choice but to resort to distorting reality to sell homes shows that there is a bigger problem of a lack of livable housing in the city.

Regent Park was Canada’s first and largest public housing development. It was built in the mid-20th century, during the time when the modernist movement had ambitions for social responsibility and urban renewal. In 2003, it was approved to be one of Canada’s first revitalization projects, which rested on the model of socially mixed income development. What set this development apart from others was its unique “right-of-return” policy, which guarantees a unit of similar size to existing tenants.57 However, only 27% of the new housing was subsidized, with a lottery determining who would be able to return.58 Martine August argues that the mixed-income development was marketed under the guise of promoting equality, when really it was about unlocking land value and introducing middle-upper income consumers into the city centre.59 August further argues that the city strategy for gaining support for the revitalization project was to “vilify, then gentrify”.60 To vilify the neighbourhood by spreading negative rhetoric that claims the only fix is to completely demolish everything and start with a clean slate. Then gentrify, by bringing higher income residents into the area to increase land value. The city plan even used language that August points out was very “paternalistic and condescending”.61 The Regent Park Revitalization Plan stated,

“Behavioral patterns of lower-income tenants will be altered by interaction with higher income neighbours. For example, social norms about workforce participation will be passed on to lower income residents”.62

Regent Park is an example of the city putting precedence of exchange value over use value. Higher-income residents are already able to command the space around them through exchange value, where as low-income neighbourhoods rely heavily on the community for support. By deconcentrating low-income residents, it becomes more difficult for people to contribute to and receive support from their communities. It is also a way to make poverty invisible. Before the revitalization of Regent Park, there were strong community ties, and the ability to organize that support was much easier. This is what Lefebvre would see as important to commanding ones own space in everyday life. Instead, the strategy of cities is to declare entire areas as “diseased”, and “they can only be cured by radical surgery as something necessary for protecting citizens”.63

How Architects Challenge the Commodification of Architecture

It is difficult to imagine how architecture can be an agent of social change when the work of an architect depends so heavily on others, which further perpetuates this sense of hegemony. Architects often feel frustrated with the external influences that prevent them from doing the kind of work they want to do. Samuel Mockbee states, 

“The professional challenge, whether one is an architect in the rural American South or elsewhere in the world, is how to avoid being so stunned by the power of modern technology and economic affluence that one does not lose sight of the fact that people and place matter”.64

Lefebvre sees any form of building as a “direct expression of power”.65 However, Coleman provides some solace through pinpointing aspects of Lefebvre’s work that indicate how one can challenge the commodification of architecture. Lefebvre saw the everyday urban setting as a driver for capitalist consumptions, as well as a source of resistance.66 Coleman calls Lefebvre the “philosopher of cracks”.67 By finding these contradictions in everyday life, one can form cracks in the system that begin to break away at the entire structure. Coleman states that, “In Lefebvre’s view, it is also – at least potentially – the landscape of the everyday out of which change can arise, but not before the everyday is subjected to sustained critique”. This requires rethinking the definition of an architect and expanding the scope of their work. The following section will explore examples of three different ways architects can challenge the commodification of architecture. The first is through representation that does not deceive and try to upsell unattainable lifestyles. The second is by using architectural knowledge to provide a critique of society, making the public see something that they may have overlooked before. The third is by broadening the role of the architect to design not for others, but with others. Each of these examples, which I would classify as counter-hegemonic practices, emphasize process over the final product.

Architects cannot escape representation; it is the basis of how they communicate. However, architects do have control over what they are communicating. Extra attention must be drawn to this when the imagery is being consumed by the masses. With increased public attention towards architecture as an art and a commodity, there lies a responsibility, and an opportunity for architects to capture this attention and draw it towards more realistic and meaningful perspectives. There is also a danger of not just fooling the potential buyers, but also fooling the architects themselves.68 Technology and computer visualizations have allowed architects to visualize imagined spaces in new ways that appear polished and perfect as soon as they are digitally modelled. As Coleman states, jumping to these techniques too early can “prematurely convince them of the value of their own work”.69 Tatiana Bilbao is a Mexican Architect that bans renders from her process until the very end of a project. Instead, she uses collages, models, and sketches, which allow for mistakes during the design process, and remind one that it is a work in progress. Bilbao states, “A Collage allows a lot of voices to be in one place.”.70 Figure 1 shows a collage for a Masterplan for Hunter’s Point in San Francisco. This kind of representation does not control the intent of the image but allows for multiple interpretations of it.

Figure 1. Masterplan for Hunter’s Point in San Francisco.71

When representation is about reality, honesty is important. However, as discussed earlier, representation can also be political, providing a critique about society.72 Architects are trained to see space in ways that others have not, and can make others see things that they may not have previously thought much about. In 1973, Gordon Matta Clark, part of the Anarchitecture Group, used his knowledge of space as an architecturally trained artist, to critique the “value of space”.73 His project titled Reality Properties: Fake Estates, consisted of buying left over bits of land that was being auctioned off by the city of New York.74 As seen in Figure 2, Matta Clark presents this work by displaying the legal written descriptions of the land, with the architectural plans of the city block and realistic photographs of each plot, in order to reveal the conflicting interests and intentions behind each form of representation.76

Figure 2. Reality Properties: Fake Estates (Maspeth Onions’), 1973.75

Stephan Walker states that, “Matta-Clark’s initial purchases and subsequent (re)presentations call into question the illusory space of the drawing that predicates the real estate system”.77 There was a total of 15 estates, each one completely useless, yet still contained enough exchange value that the City of New York was not willing to let go of the land without some monetary exchange.
The ability for architects to critique society also goes beyond representation. Today in Chicago, Theaster Gates turns land that has almost no exchange value left and uses it to create a space that has immense use value for the surrounding communities. Although this kind of work may be difficult in “superstar” cities like New York, where even the small slivers of land retain a significant exchange value, there are opportunities in the peripheral landscapes of cities that can bring a sense of centrality to their residents. Theaster Gate’s project, Stoney Island Arts Bank (Figure 3), where he turned a derelict building into an art and cultural centre, was presented in the Chicago Biennale 2019.78 The Biennale that year was titled “…and other such stories”. This topic emerged out of a desire for architecture to not neglect its social responsibility and impact on society. The crisis of urbanization that has dominated the planet, in combination with neoliberal hegemony, has raised concern within the architectural community to remind themselves that architecture is really about people. This biennale exhibited many powerful stories were told through the lens of architecture that reminds us of Lefebvre’s call for the Right to the City.

Figure 3. Stoney Island Arts Bank.79

The top-down approach to architecture, where the architect holds all the intelligence, lends itself to commodification by monopolizing knowledge. Architectural knowledge should instead be used in conjunction with others, especially those that will be the users of what is being designed. Just as Lefebvre sees the potential for change in the everyday, Sarah Wigglesworth and Jeremy Till examine architecture outside of the realm of vanity, perfection, the iconic, and the monumental, by looking at architecture in the context of the everyday.80 The Everyday and Architecture is a collection of work by architects, such as Samuel Mockbee and others alike, who emphasize that the “real productive potential for architects lies in an endless movement between engagement and retreat”,81 to allow creativity to flourish and have many voices heard. Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture, of which Till is also a contributor, along with Nishat Awan and Tatjana Schneider, look at many examples of architectural practice, just as Matta Clark’s Fake Estates, which work outside the neoliberal realm of commodification.82 They also speak to Henri Lefevre, stating that “Lefebvre wrests the production of space from the clutches of specialists, most notably architects and planners, and places it in a much broader social context.”83 The contributors to this book argue not to abandon architectural intelligence, but instead foster mutual knowledge and agency to broaden the profession of architecture.84

An example of a practice that exemplifies what Wigglesworth, Till, Awan and Schneider are advocating is an organization in Sao Paulo called USINA_ctah.85 Their work was also displayed in the Chicago Biennale 2019.86 Sao Paulo is often discussed in terms of the Right to the City, due to its legal recognition of a collective right to the city that was included into their constitution in 2001.87 USINA_ctah is a group of architects, and researchers that work with communities to help them build their own homes and public spaces.88 Their exhibit, The Architecture of Land Struggles, displayed some of their projects that emphasize their focus on collaborative construction processes. One of the more substantial projects they worked on was the construction of Talara, which consisted of 20 buildings, a community hall, and a daycare, which would accommodate for 408 families.89 These were more than just single-family homes. Their main objective was to utilize the skills of the members within the communities to be included in both the decision making and construction process. They focused on “innovative uses of space driven by the needs of those who use it”.90 By reducing the need for skilled construction labor as much as possible, the community members were able to construct 5 to 6 storey buildings using self-supporting masonry (Figure 4-6). Their main objective is to

“overcome the authorial and strictly commercial production of architecture and urbanism… to integrate and engineer alterative processes to the logic of capital through counter-hegemonic social, spatial, technical and aesthetic experiences”.91

In addition to their practice, they work to expand the knowledge of what they do through exhibitions and educational workshops. In this context, the profession of the architect has been broadened to not just work for a community but with a community.

Figure 6. Construction of Talara94


Having a sense of social responsibility towards urban renewal is not new. This was evident in the modernist movement before it became branded as a corporate aesthetic. In hindsight, we can learn from the failures of their intentions. However, they had the support of the government behind them. In North America today there is a stigma against public housing, and governments are less willing to financially back them. They are however, still promoting equality and social responsibility to back urban renewal projects, which have been revealed as a guise for unlocking exchange value of land. Cities have entered a crisis today where the value of land and development is so high that architects are designing buildings that are not for those who live in the cities. This begs the question, who are cities for? This re-ignites Lefebvre’s famous call for the Right to the City. The commodification of space, combined with the focus of architecture as an art which ignores any sense of social responsibility, is a recipe for commodity fetishism. It is not that architecture cannot be artistic and beautiful. The problem occurs when that art no longer becomes about the users of the architecture. Architecture is not just about art; it is about creating spaces that address how people interact in their everyday lives. As Mcleod states, “buildings are rarely perceived at once for their aesthetic qualities and “content”; rather their impact occurs gradually through use and repeated contact”.95
Architecture as a commodity puts the final product before the process. I argue that it is the process that brings greater value to architecture, which never actually reaches a final product, because it is always subject to daily use and changes of use.

The role of the architect is once again being challenged to not be passive, and instead be what Samuel Mockbee calls “subversive leaders and teachers”.96 He states,

“I believe that architects are given a gift of second sight and when we see something that others can’t we should act, and we shouldn’t wait for decisions to be made by politicians or multinational corporations”.97

The examples discussed above show incremental ways that architects can be active actors in the community. Although it is incremental, these strategies provide real change in people’s lives. A modest project can have a larger impact on everyday life than a prestigious project can, which may look aesthetically pleasing but is deemed useless to the majority of the population. The neoliberal hegemonic system may seem so pervasive that it is hard to imagine any alternative. Rather than tackling the entire system as a whole, incremental counter-hegemonic practices that focuses on everyday life can reveal cracks in the system that challenge the commodification of architecture and create opportunities for everyone to have a right to their own centrality.


  1. Coleman, Lefebvre for Architects (New York & London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2015).

  2. Kipfer, Stefan. “Urbanization, Everyday Life and the Survival of Capitalism: Lefebvre, Gramsci and the Problematic of Hegemony”. CNS, 13, no. 2 (2002): 142.

  3. Coleman 2015, 34.

  4. Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. (MA: Blackwell Publishing. 1991).

  5. Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1989), 100.

  6. Harvey, David. Social Justice and the City. (Athens & London: The University of Georgia Press, 2009), 316.
  7. Harvey 2009, 318-319. Process of stabilizing capitalism after 1945.
  8. Harvey 2009, 319.
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  11. Kipfer 2002, 128.
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  13. Harvey 2009, 320.
  14. Van der Steen, Ask Katzeef and Leendert van Hoogenhuijze. The City is Ours: Squatting and
    Autonomous Movements in Europe from the 1970s to the Present. (PM Press, 2014).
  15. Van der Steen et. al. 2014.
  16. Harvey, David. “Flexible Accumulation Through Urbanization Reflections on ‘Post-Modernism’ in the American City.” Perspecta 26 (1990): 255, Accessed October 20, 2020. https://wwwjstororg.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/stable/1567167?pqorigsite=summon&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents.
  17. Harvey 1990, 255.
  18. McLeod, Mary. “Architecture and Politics in the Reagan Era: From Postmodernism to Deconstructivism”, Assemblage, no. 9 (Feb. 1989): 25.
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  32. Florida, Richard. The Rise of the Creative Class, Revisited. (New York: Basic Books. 2002). 
  33. Florida 2017, xiv. 
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  37. Florida 2017, 6. 
  38. Harvey, David. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. (London & New York: Verso, 2013), xvii.
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  40. Adam Smith cited in Harvey 2009, 153. 
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  45. Minton, Anna. “Who is the City For”. A Right to the City: A Verso Report. (London: Verso, 2017). 
  46. Lefebvre cited in Coleman 2015, 71. 
  47. Harvey 1989, 100. 
  48. Chattopadhyay, Swati. “Architectural Representations, Changing Technologies, and Conceptual Extensions,” in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, no. 3, no. 71 (September 2012): 271. accessed November 15, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/jsah.2012.71.3.270. 
  49.  Chattopadhyay 2012.
  50. Lefebvre 1991, 97.
  51. Coleman 2015, 58.
  52. Rosen, Gillad. “Toronto’s condo-builders: development approaches and spatial preferences”, in Urban Geography 38, no. 4 (2017): 606-625.
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  56. Counter, Rosemary. “Real estate photos are distorting reality, frustrating would-be home buyers”, Maclean’s. May 15, 2019.
  57. Hayes, David. “Inside Regent Park: Toronto’s test case for public-private gentrification”. The Guardian. December 8, 2016.
  58. August, Martine. “Social Mix and Canadian Public Housing Redevelopment: Experiences in
    Toronto”. In Canadian Journal of Urban Research (2008): 82-100. Accessed October 18, 2020, https://search-proquest com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/208735543?pq-origsite=summon.
  59. August 2008. Also see August, Martine. “Challenging the Rhetoric of Stigmatization: the benefits of concentrated poverty in Toronto’s Regent Park”. Environment and Planning A, no. 46 (2014): 1317-1333. Accessed October 18. 2020, https://journals-sagepub-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/doi/abs/10.1068/a45635.
  60. August 2014, 1322.
  61. August 2008, 94.
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Toronto Metropolitan Department of  Architectural Science Toronto, CA.