[URBANTH-L]Miles on Kohn, _Radical Space_

Angela Jancius acjancius at ysu.edu
Mon May 9 15:11:15 EDT 2005

[x-posted from H-Urban]

Published by H-Urban at h-net.msu.edu  (May 2005)

Margaret Kohn. _Radical Space: Building the House of the People_. Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press, 2003. x + 203 pp. Illustrations, notes,
index. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8014-3992-2; $19.95 (paper), ISBN

Reviewed for H-Urban by Malcolm Miles <M.F.Miles at plymouth.ac.uk>, 
Faculty of Arts, University of Plymouth, United Kingdom

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. [1] 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 (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. [2] 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).


[1]. 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 (editors), _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 (editors), _Giving Ground: The Politics of
Propinquity_, (Verso, 1999).

[2]. Michel Foucault, '"Of Other Spaces"', in Neil Leach (editor),
_Rethinking Architecture: A Reader in Cultural Theory_ (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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