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Other Plans

Before the Renaissance, empty space was considered a vacuum, a lacuna which, precisely because of its intangibility and incommensurability, could not be grasped. Yet with the proliferation of techniques to accurately measure space that flourished in the late middle ages, empty space was no longer an incommensurable reality, external to the world of physical objects, but a datum that could be used to measure the objects it contains.[28] Within this space the floor plan is thus not just the projection of the horizontal section, but the projection of all the parameters that materially define the space in which we dwell. But the floor plan’s abstraction of spatial relationships is not just informed by the calculus that allows us to measure space. As we have seen, such an abstraction is deeply interrelated with the social contingencies that animate and ultimately produce space. The floor plan acts as mediating device, a Rosetta stone that reveals all the conniving techniques for domesticating its subjects. Yet it is precisely because the plan is always imagined and constructed in this way that it can be re-assembled to anticipate alternative forms of life, different from the ones that have been enforced through the deployment of specific plans.

Such an operation would firstly require understanding disciplinary aspects of architecture and their historical determinations not to be pitted against one another as in the fruitless cold war between “form” and “content.” Up until today, the history of architecture has been largely been written as a succession of styles. Another possible reading would focus on the way strategies of normalization, standardization, and typologization have been put forward in the attempt to conform lived space to certain economic and social conditions. While buildings’ elevations the use of specific ornamental features often present the most ideologically charged aspects of architecture, the floor plan of buildings reveal how inhabitation is organized in the most literal terms. As argued by Robin Evans, “If anything is described by an architectural plan, it is the nature of human relationships, since the elements whose trace record—walls, doors, windows, and stairs—are employed first to divide and then selectively to re-unite inhabited space.”[29] A history of architecture through floor plans would reveal the way life has been constantly ritualized, abstracted, and thus reified in order to become legible and organizable. Understood in this way, the plan demystifies the naturalization of power relations since it shows how they have always been deliberately constructed by the formation of habit and perception. 

With the rise of novel ways to design and coordinate the vast apparatus of the building industry such as BIM (building information modeling) software, the floor plan is no longer the primary object of design. Starting to design a building from its floor plan, as suggested by architects like Alberti and Le Corbusier, may have become an obsolete praxis (even in architecture schools), since today architects can design a building in plan, section, and elevation simultaneously. Yet this does not mean that the control of the floor plan has ceased to be a relevant parameter. In fact, the logic of the “plan” as apparatus has arguably becomes even more pervasive vis-à-vis the way in which life is managed, organized, and put to work. It is for this reason that we should shy away from looking at plans as autonomous objects. Instead, we should view them as where both reification and the “power to abstract”—two essential ways to construct space—can be reclaimed from the way they have become commodified. After all, it is precisely the reclamation of abstraction and reification from their instrumentalization for the sake of profit and exploitation that we still call, for lack of a better word, socialism.


[1] A fundamental explanation of the phenomena of reification is contained in Georg Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness in the chapter “Refication and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.” Glossing Marx’s discussion on the passage from use value to exchange value within the organization of labor, Lukacs emphasize how the pervasive organization of labor as a process capable of making human labor itself a commodity required a vast “quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable “things.” As Lukacs wrote in a crucial passage: “We are concerned above all with the principle at work here: the principle of rationalisation based on what is and can be calculated. The chief changes undergone by the subject and object of the economic process are as follows: (1) in the first place, the mathematical analysis of work-processes denotes a break with the organic, irrational and qualitatively determined unity of the product. Rationalisation in the sense of being able to predict with ever greater precision all the results to be achieved is only to be acquired by the exact breakdown of every complex into its elements and by the study of the special laws governing production. Accordingly it must declare war on the organic manufacture of whole products based on the traditional amalgam of empirical experiences of work: rationalisation is unthinkable without specialization.” George Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness. Studies in Marxist Dialectic, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London: Merlin Press, 1971), p. 84.  

[2] Karl Marx, “Chapter 2: The Process of Exchange” in Capital. A Critique of Political Economy, Volume One, trans. Ben Fowkes (Penguin Classics: London, 1990), 178–188.

[3] Alfred Sohn-Retel, Intellectual and Manual Labor. A Critique of Epistemology (The Macmillan Press: London, 1978), 90.

[4] “Hence geometry did not appear to the cultivators in their own garb, but in the attire of the Pharaoh’s tax officials accompanied by their field measurers.” Ibid. 91.

[5] Gill Harklay, Avi Gopher, “A New Look at Shelter 131/51 in the Natufian Sit of Eynan (Ain-Mallaha), Israel” in PLoS ONE 7, 10 (2015); See also: A. Nigel Goring-Morris and Anna Belfer-Cohen, “A Roof Over One’s Head: Developments in Neolithic Transition,” in: Jean-Pierre Bocquet-Appel and Ofer Bar-Yosef, The Neolithic Demographic Transition and its Consequences (Berlin: Springer, 2008), 239–286. Because the architectural refinement of Shelter 131/51, Haklay and Gopher have interpreted as the communal room of the village, yet its form is exemplary of many Natufian dwellings some of which were often use as communal spaces or even graves.

[6] See: Paolo Virno has defined this line of anthropological thought “the tradition of modesty” because it theorized the human animal as deprived of those specialized instincts that characterized all the other animal species. For Virno language itself and the human ability to make a “world” are faculties that supply to the lack of specialized instincts. This hypothesis has been further developed by philosopher Massimo De Carolis who has interpreted the ritual as praxis related to the human species’ lack of specialized instincts. See: Paolo Virno, Scienze Sociali e “Natura Umana” Facoltà di linguaggio, Invariante Biologico, Rapporti di Produzione (Rubettino: Soveria Mannelli, 2003), 26; Massimo De Carolis, “La costruzione della Normalità:dal rituale al mercato’ in “Filosofia Politica” n. 1, 2014, 59-76; see also: Johann Gotfried Herder, “On the Origin of language” in Jean-Jacque Rousseau and Johann Harder, Essay on the Origin of Language, trans. John Moran and Alexander Gode (University of Chicago Press: Chicago 1986).

[7] See: Kurt Goldstein, Human Nature in the Light of Psychopathology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1940). In commenting the thought of Kurt Goldestein in relationship with abstraction Matteo Pasquinelli has argued that for the German Neurologist “Antagonism with the environment, the struggle for adaptation, always proceeds by the invention of new equilibria, habits, norms, and categories. Adaptation always happens via the production of new abstractions.” See Matteo Pasquinelli, ‘The Alien Hand of Technosphere: Kurt Goldestein and the Trauma of Intelligent Machines’ in Technosphere Journal (October 2015).

[8] On this exceptional document of ancient Rome see: Gianfilippo Carettoni, Antonio M. Colini, Lucos Cozza, and Guglielmo Gatti, La pianta marmorea di Roma antica. Forma urbis Romae (Rome: Danesi Editore, 1960). See also: David West Reynolds, Forma Urbis Romae: The Severan Marble Plan and the Urban Form of Ancient Rome (Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Michigan, 1996).

[9] See: Liba Taub, ‘The Historical Function of the ‘Forma Urbis Romae’” in Imago Mundi 45 (1993), 9–19. 

[10] Yan Thomas, Yan Thomas, “La valeur des choses. Le droit romain hors la religion,” Annales. Histoire, Science Sociales 57, 6 (November/December 2001): 1431‒62.

[11] Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, eds. Ingrid D. Rowland and Thomas Noble Howe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 1.2.2.

[12] On the history of monastic architecture in the West see: Wolfgang Braunfels, Monasteries of Western Europe: The Architecture of the Orders (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972). For a radical interpretation of monasticism as the making of a form of life see: Giorgio Agamben, The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-life, trans. Adam Kotsko (Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 2013).

[13] This is why the plan of Benedectine and later Cistercians monasteries was often organized according to modular structures.

[14] On this drawing see the important: Walter Horn, Ernest Born, Plan of St. Gall: Study of the Architecture and Economy of, and Life in, a Paradigmatic Carolingian Monastery (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980).

[15] Facilities were planned to enact specific uses of space. The lack of heating in the dining hall, for instance, was meant to discourage the excessive enjoyment of meals.

[16] This also because Benedictines gave so much importance to labor and production making monasteries not just places of contemplation but “factories.”

[17] This tendency will manifest itself in the increasing standardization of architectural components both in terms of their design and materialization and in the rise of what in lack of a better term we can define as “generic architecture.” Francesco Marullo has identified the rise of generic architecture in the emergence of a specific kind of floor plan: the “typical plan.” See: Francesco Marullo, Typical Plan. The Architecture of Labor and the Space of Production (Ph.D. Dissertation, Technische Universiteit Delft, Berlage Institute, 2014). See also: Francesco Marullo, ‘The Typical Plan as Index of the Generic’, in The City as a Project, ed. Pier Vittorio Aureli (Berlin: Ruby Press, 2014), 216–260.

[18] See: Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage Books, 1977); see also Gilles Deleuze, Foucault, trans. Sean Hand (London: Continuum, 2006). 

[19] See: Richard Bradley, Ritual and Domestic Life in Prehistoric Europe (Oxon, UK: Routledge, 2005); See also: Richard Bradley, “A Life Less Ordinary: The Ritualization of the Domestic Sphere in Later Prehistoric Europe,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 13, 1 (2003): 5–23.

[20] See: Gwendolyn Leick, Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City (London: Penguin Books, 2003).

[21] See: Aristotle, The Politics, trans. T.A. Sinclair (New York: Penguin, 1957), 62; Scott Meikle, Aristotle’s Economic Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[22] Aristotle himself implicitly acknowledged this paradox when he spent the first book of Politics on the organization of the household.

[23] The plan a taxonomic ordering of space has been investigated by Alejandra Celadon Forster. See: Alejandra Celadon Forster, Rhetorics of the Plan. Architecture and the City (Ph.D. Dissertation, Architectural Association, 2014). 

[24] Xenophon, Oeconomicus, trans. Ralph Doty (Bristol: Bristol Classic Press, 1998), 23.

[25] See: Henry Roberts, The Improvement of the Dwellings of the Labouring Classes (London: Ridgway, 1859); See also: Robin Evans “Rookeries and Model Dwellings. English Housing Reform and Moralities of Pivate Space” in Translation from Drawing to Building and Other Essays (London: Architectural Association Publication, 1997), 93–117.

[26] Ibid.,  Roberts, 10.

[27] Ibid. 12.

[28] In other words, the system of orthogonal projections praised by architects and artists such as Leon Battista Alberti, Raphael, and Palladio as the most trustable representation of architecture, before such as system would be finally codify by Gaspard Monge in his Géométrie descriptive, was only possible when the space of these projections was quantifiable.

[29] Robin Evans “Figures, Doors, Passages” in in Translation from Drawing to Building and Other Essays (London: Architectural Association Pubblication, 1997), 56.


Delany Boutkan, Marten Kuijpers, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Setareh Noorani
Alex Walker