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Reification and Representation:
Architecture in the Politico-Media-Complex
Libero Andreotti

Graham Cairns

Graham Cairns’s book is a study of how political advertisements use images of architecture. The book comprises two sections, each having three chapters devoted to political campaigns in the US (Section 1) and in the UK (Section 2), with introduction and conclusion serving to present the author’s more general argument. The book brings together essays from the online journal Architecture, Media, Politics, Society, now in its seventh year, of which Cairns is also executive editor.

Each chapter centers on a single image, usually a photo-op in which the choice of architectural setting is deliberate. Cairns’s cases are well researched, historically, and extensively documented and footnoted. His readings are wide-ranging and contextually relevant. Particularly insightful, in my view, are Cairns’s examinations of the politics behind Thatcher’s “Right to Buy” campaign and Blair’s use of council housing imagery in his so-called Third Way politics. Altogether, the study exemplifies an interdisciplinary approach that embraces sociology, visual culture, political science, and media studies. The result is an interesting account of architecture’s role in political discourse in the US and the UK from the late 70s to the present.

The best parts of the book are the visual analyses, which might recall Roland Barthes’s pioneering work of semiotics, Mythologies (1957), in the way they effectively contextualize campaign imagery.1 Among other things, readers discover how images of low-income and minority homeownership were used in Bush’s political campaign and the role they played in the disastrous subprime loan assistance program of his administration. Also noteworthy is the fact that while Bush was often presented in front of suburban homes, Obama favored institutional architectural backdrops: from the Old State Capitol in Illinois, used to launch his campaign, to the Lincoln Memorial-like setting for the 2008 Democratic National Convention. These settings served to counter the perception of Obama as an inexperienced newcomer and to exploit the cultural meanings ascribed to neoclassicism in nineteenth-century America, including the intellectual, moral, and democratic legacy of the Enlightenment. In contrast to both Bush and Obama, Trump favored the glitzy atrium of Trump Tower, New York, suitably refashioned into a populist icon through what Cairns describes as “post-structural promotional strategies” (74) centered on shock and controversy to convey an antipolitical and anti-Washington narrative. Here as elsewhere, the methods of semiotic visual analysis inaugurated long ago by Barthes help to highlight the place of architecture in the public imagination and the ideological work it can do.

One unfortunate aspect of the book is Cairns’s tendency to vastly over-theorize the significance of his findings. The whole last chapter, for example, is an elaborate argument for what the author calls “the agency of the image” (176 ff.), a point already amply demonstrated in previous chapters. The book is also filled with complex semiotic terms that add nothing to our understanding of the issues at hand. After describing an image of Cameron addressing an ethnically diverse audience against the background of Pugin and Scott’s Houses of Parliament, for example, Cairn goes on to argue: “if read in relatively isolated terms, [the image] can be said to represent an intricate coded iconic ensemble employing Barthesian multiple lexia which, when framed in a post-structuralist formulation of multiple connotations, creates a writerly text in which the reader, or various readers in this case, are invited to engage in linking its syntagmatically arrayed references to generate any number of self-contained narratives” (107-108). Throughout the book, this kind of theoretical overkill poses a serious readability problem. As International Socialism reviewer Adrian Budd wrote recently about one of Cairns’s most cited sources, influential Lancaster University sociologist Bob Jessop, “this is academic Marxism of the kind that requires a dictionary to navigate its thickets, and a memory sufficient to remember how a sentence started when you reach its conclusion.”2 Innumerable typos and editorial mistakes also make reading difficult while offering occasional comic relief (Pierre Bourdieu’s surname is consistently misspelled as “Bordieu,” and the common Gallicism coup de grâce is repeatedly rendered as “Coup de Grasse.”)

Overall, the book’s main value is showing the extent to which images of architecture play a role in ordinary political discourse and how they function, in Louis Althusser’s sense, to anchor ideological notions more deeply by actively recruiting (or “interpellating”) the subject.3 The book’s most serious shortcoming, in my view, is its lack of any critical reflection on the phenomena it describes. For a book that relies so heavily on a tradition of ideological critique, this is major limitation. References to Althusser, Antonio Gramsci, and David Harvey notwithstanding, Cairns’s overall perspective tends to passively reproduce the assumptions of the field of political advertising he is investigating. Thus, to take just one example, while the book’s title recalls Hungarian philosopher György Lukács’s famous (and devastating) critique of the alienating force of capitalist commodification, which he called “reification,” Cairns’s own analysis only looks at architectural images as units in a communication strategy.4 Cairns has little to say, in fact, about architecture’s reduction to a mere image, or its reification in Lukacs’s sense. Instead, in what is almost an inversion of Lukács, he uses the term “reified” to indicate buildings’ material characteristics, which he believes critics overvalue when compared with the immateriality of the image. In stark contrast with established tradition of Marxist thinking, therefore, Cairn conceives the image as opposed to reification, while completely ignoring how both are, in fact, manifestations of a deeper process of commodification which Cairns assumes as a given and never questions. Only in a world where everything has already been commodified, where formerly critical Marxist categories have turned into ontological truths, in fact, can such distinctions have any meaning. This is not surprising. Behind Cairns’s numerous, at times stimulating, theoretical references lies a depressing status quoism that offers no real alternative to the current neoliberal paradigm. Readers with a more hopeful and generous view of architecture will have to take what is useful here and move decisively beyond it.


Roland Barthes, Mythologies. Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1957.
Adrian Budd, “Politics Without Enough Economics,” International Socialism: A Quarterly Review of Socialist Theory 119; http://isj.org.uk/issue-119/
See Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 121-176.
See György Lukács, History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge MA, MIT Press, 1972). See especially the chapter “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat,” 83-232 For a contemporary understanding of reification quite different from Cairns’s, see Timothy Bewes, Reification: or the Anxiety of Late Capitalism (London and New York: Verso 2002).

Libero Andreotti is an architect, critic, and historian of European avant-garde movements between the two World Wars and after. He writes on architecture and politics during Fascism and the post-war movements on the 1960s, especially the Internationale Situationniste. A native of Italy and two-time Fulbright scholar, from 1994 to 2011 he was Director of Georgia Tech’s Paris Program at the Ecole d’Architecture de Paris-La Villette in Paris, France. Andreotti’s books include Spielraum: Benjamin et L’Architecture (Paris, Editions La Villette 2011), Le Grand Jeu a Venir: Ecrits situationnistes sur la ville (Paris, Editions la Villette 2007), Situationists: Art, Politics, Urbanism, with Xavier Costa, based on the exhibition he curated at the MACBA in 1996 (Barcelona, ACTAR 1996), and Theory of the Derive and Other Situationist Writings on the City (Barcelona, ACTAR 1996).

How to Cite this Article: Andreotti, Libero. Review of Reification and Representation: Architecture in the Politico-Media-Complex, by Graham Cairns. JAE Online. October 11, 2019. http://www.jaeonline.org/articles/review/reification-and-representation#…