Architecture Has Never Been Idle
Mark Wigley

In a very original text written for the dossier of this edition of Electra, the architect, historian, theorist and critic Mark Wigley, author of a work that is noted for the novelty of the questions it raises and the audacity of its relationships with art, philosophy, culture and technology, speaks of the conceptual attitude of architecture, as a possibility of activity, in the face of idleness. Wigley has been a professor at prestigious universities, such as Princeton and Columbia, in the USA. He has curated exhibitions in several museums, including MoMA in New York, where the landmark exhibition ‘Deconstructivist Architecture’ (with Philip Johnson) was presented. Together with Rem Koolhaas and Ole Booman, in 2005 he founded Volume Magazine.

wanda pimetnel

Wanda Pimentel, Envolvimento [Entanglement], 1969 © Photo: Marco Terranova / Courtesy Beatriz Pimentel


Is there an architecture of idleness? Not just an architecture for the idle but an architecture producing, nurturing, preserving, and intensifying idleness? Or is idle architecture a contradiction in terms? After all, architecture is a putting‑to-work. It defines spaces for activity. Every defined space – and the definition can be as delicate as a dotted line, or a shift in color, light, texture, temperature, humidity, sound, or floor level – fosters activity, even if that action is relaxation, sleep, meditation, withdrawal, or escape. It is not simply a matter of choreographing actions by shaping, sequencing, and nesting spaces. The spacing is what makes action possible, even inspires or imposes it. Architecture might be the very opposite of idleness.

Strictly speaking, architecture is the possibility of activity. A ‘dining room’, for example, is not just the space designated for dining but its possibility. Dining, as distinct from eating, can only happen in a space. To dine outdoors requires treating part of the outside as a room. It requires architecture. This possibility of activity provoked by a space precedes and accompanies any action. Or, to say it the other way around, the imagined activities of dining are in a sense always going on in the spaces dedicated to them. The thought of dining conditions any act of dining, or non-dining, in the same space. To sleep on a dining table is not the same as sleeping on any other table. Sex on a dining table – not by chance the staple of so many films – takes its charge from intruding on the idea of dining and all its protocols, equipment, symbolism, and highly structured civilities. In reverse, an act of dining that doesn’t at least partially violate an expectation of dining might not even be an act, in the same way that breathing is only a conscious action when it is difficult, noisy, smelly, irregular, magnified, picked up by a microphone, interrupted, or stops.

As Walter Benjamin described in 1935, architecture is usually received ‘in a state of distraction’. It is not an object scrutinized by conscious focused attention but an environment that is usually only detected unconsciously. Like water to a fish, it always envelopes our species haptically, and has done so from the beginning ‘as a living force’. Other arts have come and gone. ‘But the human need for shelter is lasting. Architecture has never been idle’.1 It is invisible precisely because it is so active. A space might only be perceptible as such inasmuch as activity within it deviates from the expectations it installed. Conversely, acts of disconnecting from space, like meditation, paradoxically require the construction of a particular space with the body and a rhythm of breathing or chanting, even before the arsenal of mats, benches, tranquil pockets of space, or religious buildings. Deep sleep has of course its own elaborate architectures.

The dance between architecture and activity is itself a continuous whirl. Most architecture is a stockpile of straight lines but it is never straightforward. To think that the way architecture choreographs activity is simple is to be disinterested in architecture.

"As Walter Benjamin described in 1935, architecture is usually received ‘in a state of distraction’. It is not an object scrutinized by conscious focused attention but an environment that is usually only detected unconsciously."

In this spiraling chain set of complications, architecture is fully active even when unoccupied and not necessarily more active when occupied. Indeed, most human actions are so synchronized to the spaces dedicated to them that they are paradoxically a form of inaction. In reverse, apparent stasis in and around spaces, moments of stillness, can become actions. Emptiness itself, or the sense that a room, building, or street is no longer working, or is haunted by activities that are not happening, can become intense, even overwhelming. Which is to say again that idleness subverts architecture, even terrorizes it. Architecture is not just the opposite of idleness. It is constructed by the fear of idleness. It is what that fear looks like.

If idle architectures or architectures of idleness are contradictions in terms, so too is the idle architect. Not by chance did Le Corbusier, the most influential modern architect, begin the most famous manifesto for modern architecture in 1923 by denouncing the disenchanted ‘idle’ architect with ‘nothing to do’ anymore because unwilling to engage with the new realities of mass-industrialized technologies.2 The manifesto aimed to put the architect back to work by embracing the new forms of work – machines, statistics, filing cabinets, airplanes, electric circuits, and radio. Modernity itself called for the unique labor of the architect and architecture has no limits for active architects. Everything calls for definition, whether on the ground, in the air, or across the electromagnetic spectrum. The architect is always at work putting things to work. The figure of the architect is permanently restless. Architects don’t have working hours since all hours are for work. They have no time for weekends. They don’t retire. They often die in the studio, on construction sites, or transiting between the two. Louis Kahn, the most celebrated American architect of his generation, used to sleep for short intervals during the day while teaching until 10.30pm, when his real work began. His clothing was always elegant yet rumpled in a kind of permanent portable representation of the restless architect. In March of 1974, he was travelling back to his office in Philadelphia from a trip to the site of the Business School building project in Ahmedabad and was found by police dead of a heart attack in a public lavatory on the lower levels of Penn Station. Not knowing who he was, the body was unclaimed in the morgue for three days but the four drawings for the Roosevelt Island Park project found in his briefcase would be realized thirty-eight years later, as if the architect was still working.

wanda pimentel

Wanda Pimentel, Envolvimento [Entanglement], 1969 © Photo: Marco Terranova / Courtesy Beatriz Pimentel


"Architecture is not just the opposite of idleness. It is constructed by the fear of idleness. It is what that fear looks like."

Architects constantly project the aura of an inhuman capacity to absorb endless calls for multi-dimensional dynamic synthesis of seemingly incompatible forces, policies, protocols, technologies, and desires. Images of an exhausted Mies van de Rohe curled foetally on a stone bench in Pura, Ticino in 1933 and Buckminster Fuller splayed out in the field outside Black Mountain College in 1948 are not images of rest. They are polemical images of heroic work. Schools of architecture pathologically sustain the exploitative culture of exhaustion and all its mythologies. It is easy to identify an architecture school in any university because the lights are all on in the middle of the night. The idle architect is not an architect. Architectural education is a bio-psycho-techno idleness-reduction program.

These paradoxes organizing both architecture and the architectural species are already built into the concept of idleness – which is something beyond rest, relaxation, or leisure. Rest, for example, is just another activity and even part of the activity it interrupts. Sleep is essential to the daily activities of body and brain, and a complex activity in its own right. In fact, the brain is never more active than during the deepest phases of sleep as memory and cognition are rebuilt along with the immune system. The unique work of sleep is to make the body and brain work. It is not time out. On the contrary. Likewise, leisure is always hard work, even a crucial part of work. Not just in the sense of the vast array of industries, technologies, buildings, landscapes, expert knowledge, energy, regulations, education, and policing devoted to it in the contemporary economy. But all this work is seen as essential to the efficiency of labor. Leisure is supposed to strengthen the worker’s ability to work. The leisure industry is a crucial part of industrialization itself. Leisure is an economic investment. Individuals, institutions, corporations, and governments call on themselves to invest more and more in not working. Vast energy is devoted to ‘non-productive’ activities in the name of production. Leisure extracts more from labor and is itself laborious. The inventions of the working day and weekend were meant to serve work and resist revolution, putting in place an ecology of mass industrialization that is sustained, defended, and anesthetized by leisure. Leisure is both distraction and intensification. A huge labor and energy is devoted to the illusion of temporarily not laboring.

1. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction‘ (1935), trans. Harry Zohn in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, 1969.
2. Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture (1923), trans. John Goodman, Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2007, p. 94.