“… anarchism in essence is the ethics of practice…”

(David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology).

Spreefeld, Berlin 2014 (a photograph by Partner und Partner Architekten).

As soon as I promised to write an article on the subject of anarchy, I realized this was a light-minded move. My lagging-behind intuition started whispering to me that anarchy and architecture were similar to fire and ice – absolutely incompatible substances. In human consciousness, anarchy is first of all associated with disorder, disorganization and chaos, whereas most talks about architecture start with the classical order and this word itself implies orderliness. Therefore, any attempt to compare these two concepts causes some confusion.

After searching on the Internet, I’ve come to a conclusion that in the Western tradition, the theory and practice of anarchy focuses its criticism on capitalism, questions the existing labour relations, consumerism, commodification of all forms of life and private property. On the other hand, the theory of architecture, at least according to the Lithuanian academic tradition, rests upon the pillars of Vitruvian trinity of “firmness, utility and beauty”, most often is restricted to studies and research in the areas of planning, tectonics, typology and aesthetics, and never tends to touch radical social and especially political struggle themes. A critical thought in architecture is often directed towards the rectification of negative consequences or improvement of condition, but never towards any radical transformation of existing situation, as suggested by anarchists. Sometimes, though, we have to face accidentally or deliberately misleading cases, when analyses of such things as architectural utopia, which, I believe, is a tool of social and political critique, are generally referred to as cultural studies (Samalavičius, 2008).

In recent Lithuanian context, the publication closest to the subject under analysis should be considered Alytaus avangardizmas, nuo gatvės meno iki visuotinio psichodarbininkų (meno) streiko (Redas Diržys, Kęstutis Šapoka, 2014), although it is related to the field of art, rather than architecture. It is also noteworthy that the authors of this treatise dissociate themselves from any scientific structure and do not consider this publication an academic one thus emphasising their anarchist approach and criticism of artistic institutions and bureaucracy. Speaking of foreign translated books on the theme of political anarchy, quite a few are available in Lithuanian. First of all, we have to mention Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology by outstanding American anthropologist and political activist David Graeber (Anarchistinės antropologijos fragmentai, Graeber, 2020), as well as several other publications by less known authors published by Lithuanian non-commercial publishers Kitos knygos and Hubris. The situation in the field of architecture theory is quite different, though. The subject of its relations with anarchy is quite new in Lithuanian context and still has to be explored.

The word “anarchy” itself derives from the Greek language and has a meaning “without a ruler”. On the level of political ideas, anarchy can have a host of interpretations accentuating different things. The clearest explanation of anarchy to me has been that of a social structure formed on the self-governance principles, without any higher authorities and hierarchies. The notion of self-governance “without authority” means the absence of any power representative, such as a sovereign (king, president, dictator, rector, etc.), and “without hierarchy” means the absence of any power apparatus, network of institutions or complex organization structure. The only acceptable form and method of anarchist self-governance is a general meeting. Besides, even the generally accepted democratic voting is criticized by anarchists as a harsh violent mechanism imposing the majority opinion upon the minority. Therefore, anarchists consider a consensus, general agreement, as the only acceptable way for correct decision-making.

It is often emphasised that such form of general meeting is typical to the historically early political structures or simple organizations, “flat” organizational structures. In anthropology, examples of political structure organized according to the anarchy principles are small peoples and tribes living in remote corners of the world. The pirates of the Caribbean, Israeli kibbutz or squatters in Christiania are also some historical and more recent examples of anarchist Western societies.

In response to the fierce proponents of anarchism, critics of this political idea often require to give an actually existing and smoothly functioning example of an anarchist organization, and, without even waiting for a proper answer, accuse anarchists of attempts to reject the achievements of modern society and return back to the times of tribal societies. Fighting back, anarchists state that this position is outdated, sticking to the Western “project of Modernism”, which devaluates any primitive forms of organization and marginalizes any non-progressive, lagging behind or simply different forms and structures. Anarchists are marginalised together with national minorities, fighters for gender equality, rights of persons with disabilities and animal rights, and make new ideological alliances.

While discussing the origins of anarchism, philosophers distinguish the binarity of ancient Greek thinking, their constant need to divide everything into the opposites, the inside and outside. Gradually, the antithesis between anarchy, chaos and an orderly democratic political system, as well as antithesis between classical city-state and tribal society of the North or tyranny in the East had been formed in the Classical philosophy. Still present tradition of modern thinking has inherited such a binary principle. However, recent gradually forming postmodern society acknowledges diversity and complexness, and anarchism has also found its place in it. With transition of postmodernity towards more complicated, non-binary forms of knowledge and thinking, the idea of anarchy is also being included into the structure of newly revalued world. Therefore, anarchy can become an integral part of the whole, its role in society and politics (maybe also in architecture) can be rediscovered (the online presentation of David Graeber’s book Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1719228941577850).

While searching for connections between anarchism and architecture, it would be good for nothing to be tempted by romanticized image of anarchy as rebellion and creative flight, thus going on the surface and attributing all “alternative creative offers” without exception to anarchy. Anarchy should be looked upon instead as a political idea or systematic principle. Therefore, to my mind, several important subjects emphasized by foreign thinkers should be discussed – namely, those of private property and mass housing, social promise, flat organization structure scale, temporariness and consensus. Anarchy should be also reviewed from a perspective of social science.

            Equality of all citizens being one of the main principles of anarchism, any other ideas, including that private property, are rejected by anarchists as breaching or distorting this principle. Anarchists further claim that even the ownership of production tools or assets breaches the equality principle of society members and forms unequal conditions to receive benefits from performed work or living conditions. But here, at this point of discussion, we can discern some contact with the sphere of architecture – mass housing construction. Authors debating on the issue of anarchy mark that, in difference from construction of public-purpose buildings, residential housing is the only area, in which architects have a direct contact with society and flat organization structure. In cases of public-purpose building construction, architects interact with customers and representatives of hierarchic power or capital structures, such as politicians, bureaucrats or developers.

            Speaking of mass residential housing, social programs for housing supply initiated after the WWII in Western Europe and Soviet Union had to ensure equal rights to residential housing and essentially complied with the equality principle cherished by anarchists. But eventually the programs gained new shapes and obtained different goals. Privatization of residential housing owned by the state started. For example, the Housing Acts passed the United Kingdom in 1977 and 1980 providing for “a right to buy” had turned the mass housing into an object of privatization, created conditions to concentrate, accumulate this “class of property”, turned it into an object of tenancy business and real estate speculations. The situation in Lithuania was quite similar. A phenomenon extensively researched in the Lithuanian theory of architecture – soviet industrialized housing construction, the most important political promise of the communist party to provide every soviet family with a flat, had transformed (Drėmaitė, 2017). After regained independence, every citizen of Lithuania was given a right to privatise his/ her residential housing. Regardless of such seemingly just and honest property distribution principle, the results of privatisation in reality have turned to be extremely varied, far from ostensibly “equal” society, showing quite different starting positions and capabilities of society members.

            At present, the state’s obligation to provide housing for its citizens has been reduced to the minimum and turned into the social care. Development of mass housing construction has been passed into the hands of private property owners, former soviet “housing construction plants” replaced by “the real estate developers’ associations”. The situation is further differentiating with new appellative names, such as “perkūnkiemis”, being formed, which reflect the shortage of public spaces and functions in residential environment being built based on incorrect principles. But, on the other hand, Lithuanian media is full of information about the record year 2020 in the area of residential housing construction, its prices soaring up to 7,000 euros for a square meter and a huge newly constructed flat in Subačiaus Street, Vilnius, sold for more than two and a half million euros (https://citify.eu/misionieriu-sodai/). Thus, like other spheres of contemporary living, mass residential housing, which was supposed to provide decent housing to a great number of people, has become an object of commodification and today is available only to a certain part of society.

            Therefore, alternative forms of housing provision appear, and even the organization of public spaces on a larger scale can be mentioned – starting with the most primitive and spontaneous, such as squatting of abandoned or inappropriately maintained places, to the complex and well-organized, such as architectural activism, participatory design and self-made city or partisan, tactical urban praxes (Urbonavičiūtė, Krikščiukaitytė 2014, Mankus 2015, Grunskis 2016, Vasiliauskaitė 2017).

            Regardless of different examples of such activities, methods used and diversity of their goals, they have one thing in common – that of flat process organization and initiative “from below”. Contrary to the dominant procedures, this trend makes us speak about changes in the architect’s profession. Similar discussion has rippled recently in the social media (Andrius Ropolas. The discussion on the subject of architecture and anarchy was held on LRT Klasika podcast https://www.facebook.com/ropolas/posts/10224584743589661). In the social media, Lithuanian architects raised several issues: anarchy as a creative method in breach of the established order, prospects of an architect’s profession and its possible turn into a moderator’s job, architecture as non-artistic activity.

            But, I think, here we should abstain from from trying to generalise the observed trends or treat the changes as completed ones. I would prefer to remember some thoughts by Vytautas Kavolis raised in the second half of the 20th c., including the concept of multidirectional development (Kavolis, 1998). According to him, in difference from the single-directional developmet of reality, which prevailed at the beginning of the 20th c., today we have to talk about the multidirectional development of civilizations (including culture and architecture). If we follow this Kavolis’ model, various trends, accelerating or decelerating, even incompatible with one another, having different scales and patterns, can coexist under the sun. When looked from such a perspective, the scale and time (duration) become important in the analysis.

As I’ve already mentioned, one of the main features of anarchy is simplified organizational structure and direct relations between elements within a structure. So, it’s time to touch upon one more factor – scale. Based on the general knowledge, as the scale increases, majority of flat organizational structures usually turn into a pyramid-shaped structures and later obtain even more complicated forms. So, an assumption can be made that anarchistic principle may be maintained within a structure, community or project of limited, low-scale size. Even in case of such huge international organization as IWW (@iww), its decentralized organization with completely autonomously functioning and independent decision making sections is always emphasised (Graeber 2020). Members are kept together in such a huge body only by a common principle, which is followed by everyone.

            Authors developing and analysing anarchistic initiatives often mark tactical, guerrilla, short-term or even temporary character of such activities. Such temporariness is perceived not only as their specific quality, but also bringing some benefit on a larger scale. Sociological research distinguishes the interaction between different scales and some related gain. Local, small-scale, short-term changes become catalysts for much bigger transformations necessary for a city. On the contrary, large-scale, long-term projects or solutions may become significant help in solving local problems (Čiupailaitė 2014).

            Smaller scale and short-term goals in the city often are sought by anarchistic means, while those of larger-scale – by other methods. Thus, the new moderator’s activities can take a certain part of the entire architect’s practice, but can’t really substitute or cover the whole architect’s job. Fears expressed by the architects’ community in social media reminds me of a critical study on liberalism, which criticizes liberals’ persistent wish to raise the freedom principle up to the absolute thus transforming the idea of liberalism itself to its opposite – religious doctrine called libertarianism (Jokubaitis, 2017).

            Discussions on architectural anarchism held in social media remind of the practice of anarchism itself. The pressure from below by unofficial social media channels goes upwards to architects’ creative and professional organizations, municipal administrations, educational institutions and public establishments functioning according to hierarchic structure. All these structures seem like a huge, massive whole suspended above the idea of anarchy, like dark clouds or mountain range.

            This entire range, like an ancient flat disk of the Earth, which rested on three elephants, now rests upon the EU Directive and the Law on Regulated Professions and Recognition of Qualifications. This Law stipulates eleven requirements for an architect’s profession (education). First ten requirements are closely connected to Vitruvian “trinity”. Four of them establish knowledge in arts and art history, similar amount – in structures and technologies, at least two of them – in the sectors of economy and construction. There is only one requirement, which defines an architect’s knowledge in the social sphere. This is the sphere, where the subject of anarchism could or even should find a new place.

            Now, I would allow myself to fantasize: with changes in EU political attitudes, appearing initiatives of the new Bauhaus, it can turn out that present requirements for an architect’s profession have to change. The notion of an architect as “creator for the sake of creation” has been burdensome, and his/ her little social responsibility – unsatisfactory. The principle of “making architecture for people” has to be changed into “making architecture together with people”.  Architects are urged “to descend from their ebony tower”, reject elitism, stop creating incomprehensible art, focus on turning their work towards society. In such a case, the list of requirements for architects will be changed in favour of some area, let us say, that of social science and, knowing the limited time for studying, a part of art studies will be abandoned and architecture declared a social – technical profession. In such a case, sociology of art (or maybe sociology of architecture?) or other disciplines in this field could find its place in academic studies. Thus we can know better about the relation of art (architecture) and society, tools and concepts used in sociology and maybe even the role of anarchy in the general performance.

            One of the concepts in sociology is the idea of social fields and capital spheres. Even after a brief look in to the Lithuanian social reconstruction of the art field (Kuklytė, 2013), it becomes clear that four of such capitals function in the field of art: social, economic, cultural and symbolic. Social capital is understood as useful relations and acquaintances, economic capital – as money and other assets, cultural – as education or knowledge helping to act in the art field, and finally symbolic (probably, of the highest value) as a status, prestige and appreciation of activities. In the social field, several actors act, first of all – “agents” seeking to obtain one or another capital, second – “gate keepers” allowing the “agents” to move to the requested sphere, or not, and safeguarding the limits and standards of the sphere.

            Let’s fantasize further and make a bold assumption that the field of architecture also has similar capital spheres. In such a case, social capital would include architects’ ability to form a team, fast dealing with municipal procedures, ensure continuous flow of commissions unavailable to others. Economic capital would include drawing of countless square meters, close and mutually beneficial interaction with developers or orientation towards larger markets. In the field of architecture, agents and gate keepers of cultural capital, without any doubt, would be university teachers, members and experts of scientific editorial boards, critics and gallery curators, editors of websites and magazines. The sphere of symbolic capital would also have many steps. The lowest would be occupied by attested project supervisors, somewhere in-between – chair-men/women of various councils and unions, winners of international competitions, and at the top – national prize winners. Gate keepers of each sphere would be quite fiercely protecting the standards and integrity of their sphere. It would take some time to get to the selected sphere, this move would require all possible attempts and capabilities, therefore achievements would not be worthless, nobody would be going just to give them up or refuse them. Anarchy (according to the book Alytaus avangardizmas) is just the opposite: it questions any hierarchies and limits of social spheres, privileges and assets. Moreover, anarchists suspect that elite of some spheres tends to take over the control over other spheres, thus turning the entire social (architectural?) field immovable. Probably, you have guessed that, too, seeing the same faces in different spheres. 

            Against the background of such complex social structure, the information about anarchism I’ve heard on Homo cultus podcast seems to me too simplified. An attempt to ascribe some features of anarchistic behaviour to an “agent” of symbolic capital (the national prise winner) sounded really superficial to me. Therefore, it seems, more discussion awaits, in order to figure out the place of anarchy in architecture.

            One question still has remained unanswered: whether architecture can be considered art in the context of anarchy? Or is it just a social construct? According to V. Kavolis’ description, one of conditions for appearance of a piece of art is its emotional resonance in spectator. If a piece of art causes an emotional resonance in a viewer, we can speak about artistry. Another feature of art (piece of art) is considered the recognition of its value, when such value is recognized by others, not connected directly to the work or appraisers in another period of time. Therefore, no doubts should be raised about modernist architecture. It is true art. It was back then and it is now. Just remember all those publications of photo albums dedicated to soviet modernism, or busy planners of Openhaus excursions. They have been just at the top of their fame. Occasionally, objects of Hundertwasser type try to break into the ranks of artistic architecture, but soon they are displaced by a new portion of concrete causing emotional resonance.

            In architecture, the discipline of composition is engaged in resonance-making. Axes, symmetry, perspectives, contrasts, dominants, hierarchy and other formal juggle are applied in forming impressive perspectives of avenues, breath-taking panoramas (similar to the Urban Hill on the right bank of the Neris river) or sprinkling the landmarks of cult or commerce around the city, not to mention the sightseeing places, which are willingly bought by tourists and investors alike, in a direct and figurative sense. Architectural composition works here in full capacity.

            It is obvious that anarchy looks critically upon all examples of seeking power or profit I’ve mentioned before, therefore, it seems, there is no place for architectural composition in anarchy. But after closer examination, we can state however that composition is present in anarchy. This was interestingly revealed in the Spreefiel project – famous self-made city initiative, when a community moderated by a group of architects built a residential housing complex in Berlin. While analysing the graphic material of the project, certain features unifying the organization methods and architectural composition have gradually revealed. In the project preparation process, discussions, debates on proposals and solution modelling were applied. To facilitate the work, certain sets of possible solutions and different elements were prepared, including “catalogues” of sanitation facilities and windows, if such commercial definition is correct. Project participants were allowed to choose different elements, which seemed suitable to them. In practice, all these solutions were connected into a whole with one, quite rarely used element of composition called “common base”. To put it simply, this way is similar to preparation of some food: when different in shapes, sizes and colours ingredients are placed into a frying pan and poured over with scrambled eggs. Liquid fills in all gaps between elements and finishes the composition or omelette. A common ground, the principle of community life, activities or construction connects different elements, wishes and needs together. Such method of composition is in full compliance with Graeber’s definition of anarchy as a practical activity.

            Can we make some generalizations out of this essay? Maybe. Any relationship between anarchy as a political idea and architecture as a discipline functioning in the areas of economy or power is hardly possible. They occupy quite opposite positions. Whereas, the relationship between anarchy as a method of activity and separate architectural projects is a convincing fact. But, as a matter of fact, still not in Lithuania.

            But is truly everything so clear? Post-soviet experiences mixed with the lessons of wild capitalism still looks like a freshly mixed salad in my head. And I keep on remembering an episode from an old movie series The Twelve Chairs. In it, by the end of episode two, viewers can see such a scene: Kisa Vorobianinov wanders around the theatre backstage. He is looking for a chair with possibly hidden diamonds inside. Suddenly, he notices the chair he has been looking for and rushes for it. Unexpectedly, Kisa appears on the stage, where a performance about workers’ struggle is being played. Actors are moving on the stage. Kisa is lost among them and losing his balance slam-bang fells into an orchestra pit. Theatre critics in the first row of the audience start admiring: “Such a deep dramatic thought! Torn apart intelligentsia is detached from proletariat and… tumbles!”.

Romuladas Kučinskas

Literature used:

Čiupailaitė Dalia, Architektų vaidmens ir statuso dilemos posocialistiniame mieste, VU, 2014.

Diržys Redas, Šapoka K., Alytaus avangardizmas, nuo gatvės meno iki visuotinio psichodarbininkų (meno) streiko, Kitos knygos, 2014.

Drėmaitė Marija, Baltic Modernism. Architecture and Housing in Soviet Lithuania, DOM publishers, 2017.

Graeber David, Anarchistinės antropologijos fragmentai, Hubris, 2020.

Grunskis Tomas, “?! Archaktyvizmas”, Nulinis laipsnis, 2016.

Jokubaitis Alvydas, Liberalizmas kaip pilietinė religija, Tyto alba, 2017.

Kavolis Vytautas, Civilizacijų analizė, Baltos lankos, 1998.

Mankus Martynas, Temporary Strategies, Volume #43: Self-Building City, 2015.

Samalavičius Almantas, Miestų kultūra, Technika, 2008.

Vasiliauskaitė Evelina, Socialiai orientuotos architektūros metodas, VDA, 2017.

Other sources:

Kultūra su LRT, Paviljono knygų savaitgalis 2020. Presentation of Davido Graeber’s book Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology translated into Lithuanian – Anarchistinės antropologijos fragmentai. https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1719228941577850.

“Architektūra ir anarchija”, Andrius Ropolas. Subject of the discussion on LRT Klasika podcast. https://www.facebook.com/ropolas/posts/10224584743589661.