Architectural Agents

The Delusional, Abusive, Addictive Lives of Buildings

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Annabel Jane Wharton
  • Minneapolis, MN : 
    University of Minnesota Press
    , February
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Architectural Agents. The Delusional, Abusive, Addictive Lives of Buildings, Annabel Jane Wharton presents an insightful analysis of the political and social history of space and architecture in American, Middle Eastern, and European urban cultures, her expressed goal being to understand what effects built environments can have on their users, either consciously or unconsciously. Applying contemporary materialist theory drawn from semiotics, anthropology, and political philosophy, she explores the political significance of several markedly different “pathological” architectural sites and their historical and cultural contexts, in order to understand their involvement in various forms of cultural violence and ideological beguilement over time. Wharton argues that built spaces—both real and virtual—can have agency. As illustrated in the cases she details, they can affect our emotions, lead us into addictive behaviors, enhance the extraction of surplus, ensure the physical and ideological closure of exclusionary religious groups, and lure us into virtual arenas of play where visual pleasures obfuscate our engagement in acts of plunder and violence . . . all the while containing, and thus concealing, their violent histories.

Wharton’s analysis is divided into three sections with several chapters:  I. Death: Murder, Spoils; II. Disease: Amnesia, Urban Toxicity; and III. Addiction: Gambling, Digital Play. Each investigates a number of architectural spaces. The first section, Death, explores built spaces that were formed through colonial extraction and appropriation, the forgetting of the details of these formative processes ensuring their current benign character. In Murder, the history of the Cloisters Museum in New York is traced. Designed to replicate a medieval monastery where beauty and tranquility might inspire reflection, architectural elements of this secular building and its artifacts were extracted by sometimes unscrupulous collectors and connoisseurs from ancient religious sites in France and Italy before these countries had laws to prevent their destruction and theft. This is followed by Spoils, in which the history of the Palestine Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem is reviewed. Described by Wharton as, in turn, a product of imperialism and showcase of empire under British control during the 1930s, this museum was intended to trace the history of Palestine. However, through a lack of funding it suffered neglect, and with the 1967 war and resulting ideological turmoil, it was taken over by the Israeli state and renamed the Rockefeller Museum in order to dissociate it from Palestine; its collections were confiscated, thereby becoming in Wharton’s terms, spoils of war.

The focus in Amnesia is on the Hospital de los Reyes Católicos in Spain, built in 1492 near the church and shrine of St. James, martyr of the Crusades. This hospital became an ideological agent in the mid-1900s when, despite being witness to the violence of early expulsions of Muslims and Jews, Catholic discipline, and the Inquisition, it experienced a convenient amnesia when it was converted into a luxury hotel for wealthy tourists traveling on a nearby pilgrimage route. With inscriptions honoring the monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella as well as the dictator Franco, this state-run hospital idealized the past of Spain while providing an important source of income for the fascist state. Urban Toxicity examines the city of Jerusalem which, for over a century, has been subjected to the repeated traumas of religious conquest, from the violence of the Crusades to nineteenth-century prejudice and conflict between Protestant, evangelical, and other missionaries competing for converts, making this a politically intolerant, and in Wharton’s words, toxic place. In contrast, the religious community of the American Colony, established in the late 1800s, represented a hospitable, tolerant, and charitable place that accommodated difference despite persecution by Jerusalem’s colonial elite.

The third section, Addiction, examines, under the heading Gambling, the urban plan and addictive architecture of casino resorts in Las Vegas, and under the heading Digital Play, the virtual architectonics of digital games. Both are treated as spatial strategies that contribute as cues to addictive behavior. Whether real or virtual, the spaces created for addictive activities are intended to be, in Wharton’s terms, immersive. Las Vegas represents a site of spectacularization on a grand scale, with mega-resorts, neon lights, exploding volcanoes, and larger-than-life entertainment shows. Its gambling spaces reflect what is known in this industry as spatial formulas—having low ceilings, disorienting maze-like arrangements, pulsating sounds and lights, and an absence of clocks that effect a spatial-temporal disorder that can contribute to a gambler’s sense of dissociation or detachment from the real world, and through this, an increased propensity to remain in a casino longer to gamble and spend more, the ultimate goal of these spatial strategies being to increase profits for the corporation. Although different, the elements of an addictive environment explored in Digital Play are also reflected in digital field-of-play architecture, for here an immersive space is also created where dissociation from reality and timelessness is effected, and works as a cue that provokes “addictive responses,” with an ensuing entrapment. Significant in Wharton’s analysis of how virtual architecture generates addictions to violent video games is her discussion of verisimilitude and the aesthetics of picturesque landscapes. The representations of environment in the games Assassin’s Creed and World of Warcraft are described as landscapes with magical, idyllic, and gorgeous renderings, detailed textures, and realistic, complex, and lavish settings. The effect of this virtual architecture is both pleasurable and engaging, and is referred to as a “visual lure” that leads us to want to explore more of its built sites and spaces. In so doing, gamers are drawn further into the play space where “brutal combat” is enacted: that is, where the agency of virtual built form has its effect. It is in game play that income is generated for the game producers when players pay to acquire more and better weapons. As Wharton notes, “violence and profit are familiar bedfellows” (245, n.7). It is in this space, amidst such detailed and compelling surroundings, that one is drawn further into this chimera and the play of axes hacking, torture, and blood spurting.

Through this stimulating analysis of agency and built environments, we come to better understand the efficacy, as well as pathology, of architecture and space. With this knowledge, Wharton calls us to critically examine the effect of spatial practices around us and to assume responsibility for the architectural and virtual realities we create by asking how the meaning of space is created and contested and by whom, what spatial order exists, to what use space is being put, and very importantly, who stands to benefit from spatial practice.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Pauline McKenzie Aucoin is an anthropology professor at University of Ottawa.

Date of Review: 
May 20, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Annabel Jane Wharton is William B. Hamilton Professor of Art History at Duke University. Her most recent books includeBuilding the Cold War: Hilton International Hotels and Modern Architecture, selected by Economist as one of the best books of 2001, and Selling Jerusalem: Relics, Replicas, Theme Parks.



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