Margaret Kohn. Radical Space: Building the House of the People. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. x + 203 pp. $22.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8014-8860-3; $57.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-3992-6.
Reviewed by Malcolm Miles (Faculty of Arts, University of Plymouth, United Kingdom)
Published on H-Urban (May, 2005)
People Make Places But Places Make People, Too
This book is a potentially important contribution to scholarship in the field of social architecture on two grounds: it reintroduces a dialectical approach to architectural space, which gives due attention to its occupation and to the somatic aspects of that occupation; and it investigates an otherwise little known architectural type, the House of the People (casa del popolo) in Italy, in which working people met in the earlier decades of the twentieth century. It is also of more general interest because it grounds its specific investigation unusually well in discourses of space, place, and power. This is done in the first few chapters, which would be helpful reading for students in disciplines from architecture to social anthropology and cultural studies. There is useful material, also, on wider aspects of the growth of the Italian labor movement and developments in Italian politics from the 1890s to the 1920s. The author compares buildings designed in Europe for workers' movements and fascist organizations and thus adds another dimension and some unexpected findings. Examples discussed include Victor Horta's Maison du Peuple in Brussels, opened in 1899, and Giuseppe Terragni's Casa del Fascio (1932-36) in Como which, like Horta's building, has a central atrium, spaces for offices and social services, and emphasizes the effects of light through glass to produce a monumental transparency. Kohn's research draws, then, both on theory and the detail, derived from secondary sources in Italian as well as from studies of specific buildings and places, of Italian labor history. But it does so not to produce a collage of two kinds of material but to construct an incisive argument that "[p]olitical spaces facilitate change by creating a distinctive place to develop new identities and practices" (p. 4). The book takes, as this suggests, a politicized approach to architecture and is underpinned by Kohn's hope "that a careful analysis of sites of resistance ... might strengthen a conception of democracy that is useful today" (p. 2). I am persuaded by the book's clear writing and excellent mapping of its subject matter that this is so.
The book has nine chapters, moving from broad theoretical coverage of space and politics and the public sphere, to particular investigations of the factory as a site of discipline, the cooperative movement as resistance and mutual aid, and the house of the people as a new architectural entity from the 1890s onwards. It continues to look at the chamber of labor and the idea of municipalism as articulating twentieth-century social and civic values, and ends with a short concluding chapter that sums up the book's main arguments and aims. Among Kohn's conclusions are that the power of place results from its contextualizing a shared world, making a visceral as well as intellectual impact; and that the uses of certain spaces such as those studied in this book is a definite (by which I mean defined and specific) factor in the growth of workers' movements. As Kohn writes:
"In a political movement, these spaces facilitate and deepen the connection between militants and supporters of the cause as well as between times of mobilization and normal periods. Sites of resistance are a microcosm of the polity itself, and therefore they provide important political training and experience that is otherwise unavailable to the disenfranchised" (p. 156).
To create such spaces is a world-building act, beset by contradictions and uncertainties but always evidently the work of human beings who have, as the history of the house of the people demonstrates, a capacity to intervene in the conditions of their lives. In this respect dialectical materialism permeates the book as much as the histories to which the book refers. I very much welcome that.
The book could, at first glance, be put beside, for instance, David Harvey's Spaces of Hope (cited on p. 91); but I think a more appropriate way to situate it would be in the same critical terrain as recent writing by Jane Rendell or Kim Dovey. My point is that the book is, primarily, a critical commentary on the Houses of the People and not a description of them, though it provides considerable detail even so. In her central chapter, chapter 6--"The House of the People"--Kohn goes further than Harvey in defining a relation between place and radical action. Beginning with Foucault's idea of the heterotopic space as housing radical difference from the dominant society which might lead to resistance, even in sites such as the boarding school (a heterotopia which marks a liminal stage in human individuation) or prison (a heterotopia of deviance), Kohn argues that Harvey refutes Foucault to say that alterity does not as such produce resistance, or even critique. Hence, sites of mass consumption "employ their distinctiveness to perfect rather than to dismantle dominant patterns" (p. 91). She then draws on the work of Francesca Polletta to introduce the precise concept of a heterotopia of resistance: "a real countersite that inverts and counters existing economic or social hierarchies. Its function is social transformation rather than escapism, containment, or denial" (p. 91). The Houses of the People are for Kohn such sites. From my reading of Kohn, I would suggest that without such spaces the workers' movement would have been less able to contest exclusionary forces in bourgeois society initially, and then later in 1930s fascism.
As the reader will have gathered, I like this book. Its concise and incisive argument on space and power is usefully pinned down in the specific cases it reviews. It is well written throughout, and carries a sense of hope seldom found in writing on space today, even in the work of Marxist geographers such as David Harvey or Edward Soja. It has a distinctly European intellectual quality in its scrutiny of the rhizomatic shifts of the urban lifeworld, and says much which remains relevant in today's desperate political climate. My only reservations are that it is printed on rather cheap paper so that the archive photographs do not reproduce very well; and that personally I find the Harvard system of referencing more user-friendly than the Chicago system used in the book (and this review of it).
. Jane Rendell, The Pursuit of Pleasure: Gender, Space and Architecture in Regency London (Athlone Press, 2002); see also Jane Rendell, Barbara Penner and Iain Borden, eds., Gender Space Architecture: An Interdisciplinary Introduction (Routledge, 2000); Kim Dovey, Framing Places: Mediating Power in Built Form (Routledge, 1999). Also relevant is Joan Copjec and Michael Sorkin, eds., Giving Ground: The Politics of Propinquity (Verso, 1999).
. Michel Foucault, "Of Other Spaces," in Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory, ed. Neil Leach (Routledge, 1997), pp. 350-355; David Harvey, Spaces of Hope (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000); Francesca Polletta, "Free Spaces in Collective Action", Theory and Society 28 (1999): pp. 1-38.
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Malcolm Miles. Review of Kohn, Margaret, Radical Space: Building the House of the People.
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