by Albena Yaneva. Bloomsbury, May 2017. 185 p. ill. ISBN 9781474252348 (pbk.), $26.95.
Reviewed November 2017
In her latest book, Five Ways to Make Architecture Political: An Introduction to the Politics of Design Practice, Albena Yaneva argues for a new understanding of the relationship of architecture and politics. Professor of architectural theory at the University of Manchester, United Kingdom, Yaneva was trained as an anthropologist and sociologist. She brings her social science background, situated within the domain of Actor-Network Theory (ANT) in which objects, ideas, and processes exist only in relation to the networks that support them, to bear on a new reading of architecture. Like her mentor, Bruno LaTour, Yaneva argues for an ontological plurality, which she applies to architectural theory: “The power of buildings does not lie in themselves. Instead, the political agency of architecture depends entirely on how buildings are networked with other things.”
In the introduction and first two chapters, Yaneva sets up the premise of her analysis. The reader learns that she aims to overcome the dichotomies of subject and object, of nature and culture, and of materiality and meaning to present a complex, interconnected and interdependent reading of the design, material, and processes of buildings. Through the following five chapters, one for each “way,” Yaneva describes at increasing scale from individual buildings to urban contexts how architecture becomes political. There is a disjuncture between the language of the title of the book, “ways to make architecture political,” and chapter subtitles, in which architecture becomes political, which results in unresolved questions of agency and intent. This is architectural theory and, therefore not an easy read, yet Yaneva presents a lot to ponder. Her conclusion efficiently brings together themes and helps clarify her approach to understanding the politics of architecture outside our long held assumptions. She reiterates that politics is not embodied by architecture, but as part of the design process and practice, is an expression of how a building engages people. That engagement is to be found at the micro-level and is “generated by artefacts, devices, material arrangements, settings, technologies and buildings as they connect with many other things in a network.”
Exhibiting her pragmatist approach, the final pages of the book include a glossary of a dozen terms that Yaneva uses in specific ways. The extensive bibliography, showing that this book has deep roots and is part of a much broader conversation, is followed by a useful subject index. A few black and white photographs judiciously illustrate the text. The reviewer recommends the book for architectural studies programs as well as architects and scholars exploring varied methodological approaches to architectural theory, particularly those interested in Actor-Network Theory studies.