Hal Foster: The Art – Architecture Complex


The Art – Architecture Complex by Hal Foster is a book concerned with contemporary architecture and design, a subject I am vastly under-qualified to critically pursue. How I could venture into this task without the requisite specialization is best explained by my conviction that marginality with respect to such specialization is sometimes preferable to expertise. And it may well be that both art and architecture are fields too important to be left to their professional defenders. And anyway, if Foster’s observations are accurate, architecture has itself been dissolved, our ways of building and dwelling transformed into cinematic encounters under consumer media’s management.

With this title, The Art – Architecture Complex, Foster invokes that sense of capitalist conspiracy first expressed in the 1960’s phrase “military/industrial complex.” The book is massively informative but characterized by the author’s trademark polemic with regard to the pluralism that is post modernity in general. Foster has long made clear his preference for purity over plurality. Here, his target is the current work in design produced by “starchitects” such as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel and others, whose activity Foster terms “image building” and “pop civics.” Foster indicates his awareness that his view – that the spatial arts have been co-opted by spectacle, and theatricalizing narrative, and that they have become mere “decorative design” – will be received as yet another puritanical gesture from “old socialism.” He likes to refer to these designer’s productions as “commercial pursuits” and to Rem Koolhaas as a “dandy.” There may, however, be traces of Foster’s own perhaps defensible star-gazing to be found between the lines here in that Foster perhaps objects too much.

By “image building” we surmise a reference to the seminal essay Society of the Spectacle written by Guy Debord in 1967. “Capital” and “spectacle” are the concepts by which Foster navigates the tyranny of contemporary culture. Why not take the first few lines from Debord’s book as predictive: “Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” (1) This still seems close enough to a description of our current situation, although what it means and how it came about is debated. For Foster it seems adequate to blame “capital” and to rest with the predictable commitment to a theoretical perspective drawn from the Frankfurt School.

Following Debord’s thesis, apparently there was once a time when the world was “directly lived.” Applying this to architecture, we could argue that, in former times, buildings were not constructed with “images” and surfaces, or facades, but were in the round and made of substantial stuff like stone, glass and steel. That is, their materiality was bodily, although understood in the sense of a physicality that stops short of recognizing “flesh,” that wonderful term of Merleau-Ponty’s that now encompasses the electronic environment.

This metaphysics, the foundation for Foster’s criticism in general, is oppositional in form. He typically opposes resistance and transgression to complicity, outside to inside, the real to the illusory, and the virtual to the actual. This marks a limit to his analyses and, for some, renders his conclusions helplessly conservative, even though his objections to “capital” might seem necessary. This is the crux of his situation; critical for his historical consciousness, conservative for the same Foster’s oppositionality leaves him without traction with regard to a historicity of experience now re-composed by way of electronic “abstraction.” In this new situation, Foster refuses to acknowledge how antiquated his use of “the image” and “spectacle” has become, clinging as it does to some notion of an objective foundation, a reality that would offer an external standpoint from which critique proceeds. His fervent conviction that there is an “outside” with which criticism can orient itself and from which critical attacks may be mounted – the “distance” definitive of criticality – fails to account for and integrate the pluralizing impact of electronic communications media with which the post modern [contemporary?] is to be identified. Even a likely sympathizer such as Bruno Latour asks, “Are we not like those mechanical toys that endlessly make the same gesture when everything else has changed around them?” (2)

Foster’s attitude with regard to electronic media culture makes him a traditionalist. Another writer afflicted with what is often called “Benjaminian nostalgia,” the historian of architecture, Kenneth Frampton, invoked a practice he called “critical regionalism,” in which architechtonics, truth-to-materials, site-specificity and other such dreams of the decade were the key aspects of building. His essay on the topic was included in The Anti-Aesthetic, a 1983 anthology edited by Foster. (3) Here, Frampton lays out a heartwarming defence of real things, place as the here and now, and an actuality that is understandably founded in a longing for “the” body. The phenomenological version of realism adhered to in Frampton’s essay runs right up against the theorizations of media expressed in my own favoured text on architecture, the interview between architect Jean Nouvel and Jean Baudrillard. What is perhaps intriguing is the parallel between Foster’s perspective, which targets the use of digital media in so far as they are the tools that have facilitated architecture’s having become image and that of the Nouvel/ Baudrillard dialogue, in which the electronic media facilitate a general dematerialization and a world without “outside.” Baudrillard, informed by the media theory of Marshall McLuhan, developed a more “performative” vision of architecture’s relationship with new media. Although the literary character of his thought has often been anathema to traditionalists such as Foster, his observations are acute if expressed in apocalyptic language. His willingness to embrace the media as environment means he spends less time spinning his wheels positioning critique somewhere that is no longer available as it was in the nineteen eighties.

Perhaps what is needed, following Foster’s denunciations of design as mere consumerist manipulation in the service of greater efficiencies for capitalism, is recognition of a more general outline, an outline that attributes the root of the problem more deeply in a description of the rationalist prejudices that dominate our thinking and being. For the style of critique demonstrated by Foster and his colleagues this would be bad news, leaving them revealed as a part of the problem in so far as their project is itself inextricably dedicated to the founding of criticality in a modernity that is already itself a practice of instrumental rationality. In this sense, the critique mounted from Foster’s “leftist” optimism has become a rearguard defence inevitably and finally supporting and requiring those elements of purification and linearity so essential to the drive of technics (including capital) for ever greater efficiency.


1. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, trans. unidentified, Black and Red, 1970, Detroit, 5

2. Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam” in Critical Inquiry, Winter 2004, University of Chicago, 225

3. Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism,” in The Anti-Aesthetic, ed. Hal Foster, Bay Press, Seattle, 1982

4. Jean Nouvel and Jean Baudrillard, The Singular Objects of Architecture, trans. Robert Bononno, University of Minnesota, 2002