Less is Enough: on Architecture and Asceticism = Меньше — значит достаточно: об архитектуре и аскетизме
«Less is more» goes the modernist dictum. But is it? In an age when we are endlessly urged to do «more with less», can we still romanticise the pretensions of minimalism? For Pier Vittorio Aureli, the return of «austerity chic» is a perversion of what ought to be a meaningful way of life. Charting the rise of asceticism in early Christianity and its institutionalisation with the medieval monasteries, Aureli examines how the basic unit of the reclusive life — the monk’s cell — becomes the foundation of private property. And from there, he argues, it all starts to go wrong. By late capitalism, asceticism has been utterly aestheticised. It manifests itself as monasteries inspired by Calvin Klein stores, in the monkish lifestyle of Steve Jobs and Apple’s aura of restraint. Amid all the hypocrisy, it must still be possible to reprise the idea of «less» as a radical alternative, as the first step to living the life examined.
- 07.00.00: АРХИТЕКТУРА
- ВО - Бакалавриат
- 07.03.01: Архитектура
- 07.03.03: Дизайн архитектурной среды
- ВО - Магистратура
- 07.04.01: Архитектура
- 07.04.03: Дизайн архитектурной среды
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АУРЕЛИ ПЬЕР ВИТТОРИО МЕНЬШЕ — ЗНАЧИТ ДОСТАТОЧНО: ОБ АРХИТЕКТУРЕ И АСКЕТИЗМЕ 3-е издание (электронное) Москва «Стрелка Пресс» 2017
AURELI PIER VITTORIO LESS IS ENOUGH: ON ARCHITECTURE AND ASCETICISM 3-rd edition (electronic) Moscow Strelka Press 2017
УДК 72 ББК 85 А94 Aureli, Pier Vittorio. А94 Less is Enough: on Architecture and Asceticism = Меньше — значит достаточно: об архитектуре и аскетизме [Электронный ресурс] / P. Aureli. — 3-rd ed. (el.). — Electronic text data (1 file pdf : 51 p.). — М. : Strelka Press, 2017. — System requirements: Adobe Reader XI or Adobe Digital Editions 4.5 ; screen 10". ISBN 978-5-906264-12-1 «Less is more» goes the modernist dictum. But is it? In an age when we are endlessly urged to do «more with less», can we still romanticise the pretensions of minimalism? For Pier Vittorio Aureli, the return of «austerity chic» is a perversion of what ought to be a meaningful way of life. Charting the rise of asceticism in early Christianity and its institutionalisation with the medieval monasteries, Aureli examines how the basic unit of the reclusive life — the monk’s cell — becomes the foundation of private property. And from there, he argues, it all starts to go wrong. By late capitalism, asceticism has been utterly aestheticised. It manifests itself as monasteries inspired by Calvin Klein stores, in the monkish lifestyle of Steve Jobs and Apple’s aura of restraint. Amid all the hypocrisy, it must still be possible to reprise the idea of «less» as a radical alternative, as the first step to living the life examined. УДК 72 ББК 85 The source print publication: Less is Enough: on Architecture and Asceticism = Меньше — значит достаточно: об архитектуре и аскетизме / P. Aureli. — Moscow : Strelka Press, 2014. — 50 p. — ISBN 978-0-9929-1460-8. ISBN 978-5-906264-12-1 © Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, 2014
INTRODUCTION For many years, ‘less is more’ has been the catchphrase of minimalist design. Instantly associated with the restrained work of the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who borrowed this dictum from a poem by Robert Browning,[1-] ‘less is more’ celebrates the ethical and aesthetic value of a self-imposed economy of means. Mies’s stripped-bare architecture, in which formal expression was reduced to a simple composition of readymade industrial elements, implied that beauty could only arise through refusal of everything that was not strictly necessary. In recent years, but especially since the 2008 economic recession, the ‘less is more’ attitude has become fashionable again, this time advocated by critics, architects and designers in a slightly moralistic tone. If in the late 1990s and early 2000s architecture was driven by the irrational exuberance of the real-estate market towards the production of increasingly redundant iconic objects, with the onset of the recession the situation started to change. Those who had previously acclaimed (or even produced) the acrobatics of architecture in the previous decade now took to complaining about architecture’s shameful waste of resources and budgets.  This change of sensibility has provoked two kinds of reaction. Some architects have tried to translate the ethos of austerity in merely formal terms.  Others have advocated a more socially minded approach, trying to go beyond the traditional boundaries of architecture.!⁵] It would be — 5 —
unfair to put these positions on the same level (as the second may be more plausible than the first), but what they seem to share is the idea that the current crisis is an opportunity to do - as an Italian architect turned politician put it - ‘more with less’.[⁶] It is for this reason that ‘less is more’ is no longer just an aesthetic principle but the kernel of the ideology of something else, something where economy of means is not just a design strategy but an economic imperative tout court. Within the history of capitalism, ‘less is more’ defines the advantages of reducing the costs of production. Capitalists have always tried to obtain more with less. Capitalism is not just a process of accumulation but also, and especially, the incessant optimisation of the productive process towards a situation in which less capital investment equals more capital accumulation. Technological innovation has always been driven by the imperative to reduce the costs of production, the need for wage earners. The very notion of industry is based on this idea: to be industrious means being able to obtain the best results with fewer means. Here we see how creativity itself is at the very root of the notion of industry. Creativity depends not just on the investor finding ways to spare resources but on the worker’s capacity to adapt to difficult situations. These two aspects of industriousness and creativity are interlinked: the worker’s creativity forcibly becomes more pronounced when capital decides to reduce the costs of production and economic conditions become uncertain. Indeed it is creativity, as the most generic faculty of human life, that capital has always exploited as its main labour power. And in an economic crisis, what capital’s austerity measures demand is that people do more with less: more work for less money, more creativity with less social security. In this context, the principle of ‘less is more’ runs the risk of becoming a cynical — 6 —
celebration of the ethos of austerity and budget cuts to social programmes. In what follows I would like to address the condition of less not by rejecting it but by critically assessing its ambiguity. Both the ‘less is more’ attitude in design and the ethos of austerity politics seem to converge within the tradition of asceticism, which is commonly understood as a practice of abstinence from worldly pleasures. In recent years asceticism has indeed been identified as the source, both ideological and moral, of the idea of austerity. A major argument put forward in favour of cutting public spending is that we have been living beyond our means and that from now on we will have to lower our expectations of future wealth and social security. Only by making ‘sacrifices’ will we find the path to salvation and avoid economic armageddon. In an economy driven by public debt asceticism has a particular resonance, in the form of moral guilt. Debt is not only about economy but is first and foremost a moral contract between creditor and debtor. As Maurizio Lazzarato has recently argued, the neoliberal economy is a subjective economy that is no longer based -as classical economics was - on the producer and the barterer.  A fundamental figure of the neoliberal economy is the ‘indebted man’ -that is, the indebted consumer, the indebted user of the welfare state and, in the case of nation state debt, the indebted citizen. To be indebted does not only mean owing something to someone; it is also the feeling of guilt, and thus of inferiority, towards the creditor. It is precisely the subject’s sense of guilt and longing for atonement that is often understood to constitute the meaning of ascetic practices. Asceticism is here understood as abstinence and self-discipline, as a willingness to sacrifice our present in order to earn our future -something which goes beyond the religious meaning of the term and — 7 —
has more to do with the ethics of entrepreneurial capitalism. In his famous book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber identifies two kind of asceticism: inner-worldly and otherworldly.  In the first instance, asceticism denotes withdrawal from the world, as in the case of hermits and monks; in the second case, asceticism becomes more secular and addresses the possibility of an existence that frees itself from mundane distractions in order to dedicate itself fully to the ethics of work and production. Weber sees other-worldly asceticism as one of the fundamental sources of the ethics of capitalism: with the advent of Calvinism, he notes, asceticism spread beyond the confines of the monastery and became a diffuse mentality within the city. Asceticism required the repression of natural instincts and adherence to a strict discipline of ethical rationality. For Weber this ethical rationality was both the foundation of the bourgeois life-style and the very ‘spirit’ of capitalism as later manifested in Benjamin Franklin’s economic utilitarianism, which was concerned not only with the rational acquisition of means towards an end, but was in itself a transcendental ethical goal. Here Weber proposes that asceticism paved the way for a profound transformation of human subjectivity, giving it the capacity to undertake the continual adjustments of the inner self that are required by the economic processes of capitalism, which are never resolved -there is no end in sight, either in terms of satisfying personal needs or even in the mere process of accumulation. Although Weber’s argument remains one of the most powerful readings of asceticism, I have chosen a slightly different path in what follows. Precisely because the practice of asceticism addresses the transformation of the self, I argue that it can be both a means of oppression and also a form of resistance to the subjective power of capitalism. When we talk about resistance to power we understand this concept — 8 —
in terms of ideology or belief, but rarely as a matter of habits, customs and even the most humble aspects of everyday life. What is interesting about asceticism is that it allows subjects to focus on their life as the core of their own practice, by structuring it according to a self-chosen form made of specific habits and rules. This process often involves architecture and design as a device for self-enactment. Because asceticism allows subjects to focus on their self as the core of their activity, the architecture that has developed within this practice is an architecture focused not on representation, but on life itself - on bios, as the most generic substratum of human existence. As others have argued, the development of modern architecture itself, with its emphasis on issues such as hygiene, comfort and social control, has been driven by a biopolitical logic.[11-] However, it is especially within asceticism that the enactment of forms of life becomes explicit. This is evident, for example, within the history of monasticism, where the architecture of the monastery was expressly designed to define life in all its most immanent details. Although monasticism ultimately spawned such disciplinary and repressive typologies as the Hotel-Dieu, the hospital, the garrison, the prison and even the factory, at the outset the main purpose of its asceticism was to achieve a form of reciprocity between subjects freed from the social contract imposed by established forms of power. And this is why this tradition still stands as a paradigm for our time, when capital is becoming not only increasingly repressive but also increasingly unable to ‘take care’ of its subalterns as it did in the heyday of the welfare state. We will see that asceticism is not the preserve of monks in cells but, on the contrary, suffuses everything from the logic of capitalism itself to the concept of ‘social’ housing and the ideological rhetoric of minimalist design. The question is, can it lead us towards a different way of life than the one forced upon us by the status quo?
PART 1. The word ‘ascetic’ comes from the Greek askein, which means exercise, self-training. Asceticism is a way of life in which the self is the main object of human activity. For this reason the practice of asceticism is not necessarily related to religion. Indeed it is possible to argue that the very first ascetics were philosophers. In ancient times the fundamental goal of philosophy was to know oneself: to live was understood not simply as given fact but as an art, the art of living. Within asceticism life becomes ars vivendi, something to which it is possible to give a specific form. In the case of the ancient philosophers this meant a life entirely consistent with one’s own teachings, where there was no difference between theory and practice, between logos and bios. Philosophers were thus individuals who, through their chosen form of life, deeply informed by their thinking, inevitably challenged accepted habits and social condi tio>iis.[12 Asceticism is thus not just a contemplative condition, or a withdrawal from the world as it is commonly understood, but is, above all, a way to radically question given social and political conditions in a search for a different way to live one’s life. It was for this reason that early Christianity absorbed asceticism, in the form of monasticism. In the process, however, asceticism acquired a very different meaning. Its main goal was no longer to change the existing social order, but rather to prepare for the Second Coming of Christ: it was practised as a precondition for salvation. And yet those who embraced monastic life also did so as a way of refusing the integration of the Christian faith within the institutions of power. The origins of — 10 —