Architectures of Ideology: How City Planning Controls Our Minds

Reviewer: Cbxtn the Fig

Venue: The Divided World / Narkomfin Apartment Complex / Saginaw Yacht Club

“Just squares making squares”

-Pierre St. Jupiter observing the American landscape from an airplane.

As stated on the Saginaw Yacht Club charter, our mission is “to encourage and promote the imaginative use of public space.” It is a broad and exciting mission which seeks to rethink our relationship to space and use it in new ways. However, the Yacht Club hasn’t done anything particularly new or imaginative with public space yet. We’ve assembled in a park and had a few picnics, a clean-up, some poetry moments, but nothing beyond what one expects in Potthoff Park. Perhaps this lack of imaginal flowering is due to the inescapable ideologies imbued into space itself.

By “space”, I mean the place between physical space (the ground on which you stand) and symbolic space (the way you think about where you stand) – the place between the purely physical and the purely symbolic is social space. It is when our symbols are imbued into the physical and thus compels us to behave or act accordingly. Even when we are alone, the way we act in a market is different from the way we act in a house of worship. One example: when in a market place, food beautifully presented on a table invites us to take it – however, if the table were made of intricately cut marble and the nearby windows all shimmering with stained glass, we would not touch the food (if anything, we’d put more food on the table as an offering). Much of our behavior is cued by the symbolic interpretations of objects in our surroundings and the structural features of our environment. Unlike most Michiganders, it is not obvious to a deer to stay on the sidewalk when a sidewalk is available.

The Marxist philosopher, Henri Lefebvre, wrote the treatise, The Production of Space, which argues that spaces perpetuate ideology. Although we may think of space as a passive setting, space is actively influencing our decisions and value systems – it is the lens through which almost everything relegated to human thought must pass. Most importantly, a space makes an ideology real. “What is an ideology without a space to which it refers, a space which it describes, whose vocabulary and links it makes use of, and whose code it embodies?” Ideologies in practice, such as free market capitalism, already have physical spaces which allow it to operate. Theoretical ideologies, such as anarchism[1], rely on imagined spaces to situate their logic. If the anarchist ever wishes to see the fruition of anarchist practice, it requires an anarchist space. Without an anarchist space (or socialist space, or communist space, or neo-futurist space, afro-futurist space, feminist space, surrealist space) the practice could never form into day to day reality.

Space is fully encompassing, always active, and ever legitimizing its own logic. This logic needs no explanation because it produces its own necessity and reason. For example; highways, at one point, were a question of if – what if we built highways? But now that we’ve built a system of highways, we rarely debate the general merit of highways as much as debate where we should build highways. Prisons were a question of if only a few hundred years ago – what if we built prisons? But now that we’ve built an industrial complex around imprisoning people, we rarely debate the abolition of prisons as much as debate how best to reform prisons[2]. When most people see a traffic light, no one ever questions the fundamental purpose of traffic lights. Traffic lights are so entwined with urban space, they appear self-explanatory: traffic lights are tools to regulate vehicular traffic (duh!). Why is there so much vehicular traffic? People going to work, shipping products, or maybe visiting a friend for the mandatory lunch break (duh!). Maybe they’re driving to a national forest during their scheduled 48 hour of free leisure time to enjoy some nature-oriented escapism known as “camping”. Traffic lights, like highways, the prison industrial complex, zoning laws, national forests, lunch breaks and weekends are the artificial products of capitalist society – now unquestionable necessities of civilized life, further solidifying and legitimizing capitalist functionality (duh![?]).

Whether it be cities, suburbs, or farmland, the square is the ubiquitous shape of the American landscape. It is the most efficient shape for dividing property, dividing neighborhoods, organizing routes, parceling every square-inch into use-value. So pervasive is the square, that “high-end” suburbs now demand curvy roads to create the luxurious illusion of being seamlessly intertwined with nature despite just being a quick-shot development cash cow, which is still “square” in function. If the square is not enough, then a variety of other monstrous polyhedrons can be employed to secure ideological reign. Gerrymandering, the twisted and absolutely artificial construction of political space, is used to secure and manifest political ideologies. Political, economic, and racial ideologies are also obtained by overlaying sleazy invisible shapes called “school districts” “hospital districts” “historic districts” – never mind that one’s legislative district has nothing to do with one’s school district nor with one’s municipal water district. And don’t bother examining zip codes – legally, it doesn’t signify any form of spatial logic outside of efficient postal delivery. Zoning districts is primarily about securing function of space whether or not it actually secures people.

Indeed, only the naïve anarchist would go to city hall and propose the dissolution of all zoning regulation; “Are you crazy?” city council would respond, “Dissolving all zoning laws would render this city so disorganized – we could never efficiently build, maintain, or regulate it.” Yes, the backbone of modern cities depends on regulating space, and without any zoning regulation whatsoever the modern city would collapse. And though zoning is a tool for efficient organizing and growth, zoning also produces (consciously and unconsciously) red-lining, class stratification, unequal access to public resources, etc.

Cities, as spaces and ideas, are symbiotically linked to the ideologies of commerce. To imagine a city in which efficient commerce isn’t a goal is preposterous[3] because cities are a product of commerce. After all, most major cities have been established in locations conducive to trading and transportation, such as along riverways or large bodies of water. Any effort to transform a city away from commerce will fail because the logic of the city is built for commerce. Sure, capitalist ideals of a space can transform over time, perhaps by becoming more “green” or supporting local businesses. Perhaps a city might implement a strategic plan for more urban farming. But urban farming does not necessarily replace capitalism – it is just a remedy for some of the problems created by extractive profit culture. More public parks, libraries, and other socially beneficial spaces do not provide a solution to the underlying problems generated by capitalist ideology but, rather, are necessary supplements to the ever-evolving capitalist structures. In a bleak perspective, the very function of “public parks” (a concept to arise during the industrial revolution) is to facilitate the continued acceptance of private property, just as weekends were created to placate the restless working class.[4]

Speaking of property; who’s space are we inhabiting? If I own property, is it my space? If it’s my property, then why is it illegal to tear down my house and put up a tent in its place? It devalues property in zoned neighborhoods. The “safety” consideration of “tent-living” is a red-herring, for if the Law were actually concerned about the safety of tent living, then we’d be quick to build more shelters for the homeless, increase wages to help stop people from becoming homeless[5], and stop penalizing people who struggle to pay their water bills. Indeed, the spaces we “own” come with a thousand and one caveats regarding “proper” use. In capitalist space, the only function of ownership is to facilitate capital– often, whatever subverts the facility of capital is illegal for that property owner. The very concept of property (and the ideology that it subliminally infuses in our perceptions of how the world operates) is a violent apparatus which always places property above the person. The desire for property is what made the dehumanization of Indigenous Americans so easy for the colonizers because where the Indigenous lived was more important than the Indigenous themselves. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a 19th century French anarchist thinker, decried the false analogy that property ensures liberty. “Is property just?” he asks rhetorically, as he also asks “Is political and civil inequality just?”  Whereas the fight for property always depends on unequal access and violence when necessary, he states, “if you wish to enjoy equality, abolish property; otherwise, why do you complain?” In a twisted perspective, the idolization of property may render us property of property; the ideology of property enraptures us, shaping our lives to best fit the needs of acquiring and maintaining property.

Talk of implementing anarchist ideology, socialist ideology, or any form of egalitarianism is not much more than small-scale fantasy if there isn’t a space which allows it to function. As Lefebvre writes:

“What of socialism – or, rather, what of [that thing] so confusedly referred to as ‘socialism’? There is no ‘communist society’ in existence, and the very concept of communism has become obscure inasmuch as the notion serves chiefly to sustain two opposing yet complementary myths: the myth of anti-communism on the one hand and the myth that a communist revolution has been carried through somewhere . . . To rephrase the question therefore: has state socialism produced a space of its own?”

Since space facilitates ideology, a true socialism (that is, where the workers own the means of production collectively) needs a spatial logic unique to it. Soviet Russia began experiments in socialist architecture during the 1920s though was quickly stymied as Joseph Stalin consolidated power. One of the famous experimental constructions is the Narkomfin apartment complex designed by Moisei Ginzburg[6]. The Narkomfin complex aimed to reinvent everyday city life via collective living. Families had personal spaces, but kitchens, dining rooms, libraries, gymnasiums, and gardens were communal. There were even facilities within the apartment complex for child care, thus providing women the opportunity to step away from traditional housewife roles and into professional ones (Russia’s push for women in the workforce was decades ahead of U.S.). Nonetheless, experiments in socialist architecture halted immediately in order to meet the need of a totalitarian and his elite class of wealthy, powerful individuals. Housing and economic needs of Moscow couldn’t support a collective lifestyle, and communal rooms were immediately subdivided into more private apartments, fitted with tiny personal kitchens, to meet the demand of the city’s growing population. Soviet Russia was never truly a socialist state and the function of its infrastructure is relatively no different from the United States.

Any type of ideology (Feminism, Environmentalism, Liberation Theology, “Communism”) can only function as a complement to the prevailing system if it has no space of its own. Although feminism is not discretely anti-capitalist, its goals of gender equality, female empowerment, and the dismantling of gendered stereotypes is functionally anti-capitalist. In the United States, it is unfortunate that most feminist legal victories required the continued oppression of other people. Despite the participation of black suffragists, the Suffragette movement of the early 1900s largely appealed to racist sentiments (known as the Southern Strategy) in order for women to secure the right to vote (white women implied). Without a space of its own, the theoretical practice of the feminist ideal will continuously buckle to discount the voices of women of color and transwomen.

This is the point of my essay: the human being is entwined intimately with the space that she inhabits. If we are to explore the depths of personal, social, and spiritual experiences of the human, we must be willing to radically reimagine how we use and navigate space. If we do not challenge the function of space itself, the ideological practice of what we aspire will not fruit. And what a shame it would be if every time we looked at a naturally beautiful seashore, we thought, “this is a perfect place for a hotel.” How boring if the only leisure in city living were drinking at bars and strolling through a park. How unimaginative if we believed a junkyard can only ever be a junkyard. If we do not demolish prisons, restorative justice will continue to be theoretical rather than a lived reality. If we keep building roads, we will keep legitimizing the use of vehicles over other methods of transportation. If we keep locking our doors, we will keep alive the over-inflated fear that our neighborhoods and neighbors are dangerous. Instead, as artists and rebels and curious humans and lovers of life, we must walk where walking isn’t allowed, grow plants where plants haven’t been pre-approved, build structures where structures haven’t been pre-approved, create new religions which involve unusual rituals for various spaces, give away personal property, live in public spaces and state forests (making public forests into your permanent residence subverts the ideology of recreational space), plant 7,000 oak trees, perform street theatre without a permit –

What can the Saginaw Yacht Club do? It must start to physically inhabit space in terms of civil disobedience. It must start gardening, adorning, infusing the space with non-regulated activities otherwise the Yacht Club may be no more than what it already is: a state approved picnic site.

[1] By “anarchism” I’m referring to the political theories of classical anarchism, also known as “Libertarian Socialism”

[2] Angela Davis wrote an excellent book examining the historical and social context of prisons, Are Prisons Obsolete? Every citizen of the United States should read this book.

[3] I’ve sat at the Saginaw Yacht Club day after day fantasizing with all my might what a libertarian-socialist (a.k.a. anarchistic) city would look like. I couldn’t. My possible cities had too many holes in it to be believable. The most believable visions of anarchical society I envisioned no longer had the form of a modern city.

[4] Are public parks really public? Potthoff Park, the location on which the Saginaw Yacht Club resides, had been sliced off for private developing interests.

[5] In the state of Michigan, when house size is not stipulated by a zoning regulation, 120 square feet is the required minimum house size. Although this law may protect renters from sleazy developer hawks, it also makes it illegal to build miniature houses, live in tents on one’s own property, among other things which directly penalize anyone who’s life is outside the boundaries of the capitalist ideal.

[6] Ginzburg (1892 – 1946) was a preeminent architect whose ideas about how space facilitates ideology predates Lefebvre’s argument. Ginzburg, along with his soviet contemporaries, developed the idea of “Disurbanism” – the slow deconstruction of cities. Cities were viewed as upholding capitalist ideals and class stratification in a way that was impossible for a Socialist reality to take root. So Ginzburg proposed Disurban settlements, in which small settlements of 100 or less would live throughout the country side, living collectively, growing their own food, all connected by a system of monorails. Magnetic levitation monorails were proposed to allow various public buildings to float to and from settlements.

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