Most of the scholars who have written extensively on populism agree that it is a rather tricky topic, difficult to recognize, describe and define. In my opinion, discussing populism in architecture is even more challenging because its definition and description is so complicated. The moment one is dealing with actual constructions and built forms, as well as written texts and theories, the question of populism in architecture hinges on unstable ground. Is there a populist architecture, or just a populist discourse about architecture? Does populism in architecture refer to constructions and forms, or only to strategies and practices? Is every ‘pop’ or popular architectural form by definition populist? Is any architect who cares about the wills and choices of users or clients a populist architect? Adopting the designation of populism by Arditi as being a ‘inexact object’ [1: p. 75], and taking into account contemporary literature that examines populism from its broader political to its architecturally orientated modes, the attempt in this essay is to highlight two divergent areas of counter-theoretical architectural discourse in which populism appears strongly. I will argue that although those historians and theorists who have written about populism in architecture still treat the subject in relation to Post-Modernist architecture’s ‘pop’ imagery [2, 3], or as a symptom of decline in an era of Late-Capitalism [4, 5], and thus a characteristic of architectural discourse in the contemporary global marketplace, there were – and still are – a number of architects who embrace an equally populist rhetoric in an effort to attack the abovementioned ‘pop’ discourse. Therefore I will argue that populism is a shared characteristic of two discrete and opposing but equally anti-theoretical agendas: the first related to the fantasy of the liberating power of the global market; and the second one related to the idealization of people as the ‘natural’ agents of architecture.

A 1970s View on Populism

In one of the very first texts to deal with the subject, Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre developed an interesting critique of the ‘populist movement in architecture’, as they termed it [6]. Written during their stay in Strasbourg’s Institut d’ Architecture et d’ Urbanisme in 1972, and then published in Bauwelt (1975) and Forum (1976), their article was titled: ‘In the Name of the People: The Populist Movement in Architecture’. Their essay started by discussing populism as the post-war re-appreciation of banal, everyday architectural production. Tzonis and Lefaivre explained how through a range texts and projects by contemporary architects and critics – taken from Gordon Cullen, Peter and Alison Smithson, Douglas Haskell, Tom Wolfe, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown and Reyner Banham – there was a growing legitimization of a popular, commodified architecture that was visually rich but theoretically sterile, and that the populist trend has started to become more and more acceptable in the minds of important architects and renowned architectural schools.

According to Tzonis and Lefaivre, an even more threatening, and equally populist, aspect of this phenomenon was being hidden behind the advancement of the notion of ‘participatory design’. Citing for example Philippe Boudon’s research on Pessac, Chester Hartmann’s study of low-income dwellings, Brolin and Zeisel’s social research into mass housing, John Turner’s work on Lima’s barriadas, and Herbert Gans’s examination of the ‘undemocratic’ top-down design process, Tzonis and Lefaivre observed that these ‘populists’ wished to overturn current methods of architectural practice ‘in favour of an activity centred around the needs of the individual user … [and that hence] the user was to become the official mentor, if not master, of the design decision.’ [6: p. 297]. They added, again critically:

‘Whether these writers favoured the low-brow and popular visual expression on the strip, or the implementation of user participation and self-help design in the slums, they urged in all cases that the design process should be carried out “in the name of the people”.’ [6: p. 297]

But whom or what were these populists trying to confront? According to Tzonis and Lefaivre, post-war architectural populism had emerged as a reaction against the technocratic Welfare State and its centralized design practices. Thus the designers of the Welfare State were portrayed as ‘a class of professionals oppressing the class of laymen’, and any architect who represented the state in this way was attacked as a ‘peer-oriented professional imperialist’ [6: p. 299]. In contrast, the populists were opposed to Welfare State architecture because the ‘class values of the user had been disregarded in the traditional design process in favour of those of the designer’ [6: p. 301]. In the view of Tzonis and Lefaivre, the populist user-oriented mentality was just following the model of a ‘design supermarket’ in which the happy consumer was given the pretence of feeling powerful and emancipated, while in reality the multiplicity of purchasing choices concealed the lack of real power and independence of the people in what was becoming an ‘increasingly fragmented and privatised world’ [6: p. 305].

However thought-provoking Tzonis and Lefaivre’s 1970s essay was, it still left many unanswered questions. Why does the desire for popular architecture equal populist architecture? Was the architectural discourse about the Post-Modernist ‘decorated shed’ the only popular architecture there might be? Had not Modernist architecture been equally popular for several decades before becoming seen as problematic in the eyes of experts and the general public?

In 2005, Liane Lefaivre tried to respond to some of these questions in a kind of a postscript to the original 1975 essay. In a new text titled ‘Populism Redux?’, she explained that ‘by “populist architecture”, we did not mean “pop architecture” – or, rather, not only’ [7: p. 283]. Lefaivre continued by noting that although ‘the origins of this other political and social side of populist architecture have much the same origins as Pop architecture … [going] back to the post-war bottom-up “Humanist Rebellion” against the regimenting, authoritarian ClAM generation’, what she and Tzonis had defined in 1975 as populism, disguised as it was then under the banner of participatory design and advocacy planning, was in fact ‘a critique of a regimenting, technocratic welfare state, which, in its top-down way, ironically, let “the people” down in failing to meet its needs’ [7: p. 283–4].

However, if we read Lefaivre’s 2005 essay, then further questions arise. Why was participatory design seen as something opposite to or even alien from the politics and practices of the post-war Welfare State? Were not these and other new ideas coming from disciplines like anthropology and the social sciences embraced by the Welfare State at certain points? Indeed, did not the Welfare State even try to use exactly the same tools in its attempt to appear closer to general public and their needs? In any case, Lefaivre observed that when they had written their original 1975 article it was already too late to save architectural populism. Post-Modernism, and the accompanying ‘phase of narcissism’ had already made its appearance, alongside the ultimate collapse of the Welfare State system. And since there was no ‘elitist’ Welfare State anymore for populists to attack, then architectural populism itself just silently disappeared.

The doubts and ambiguities generated by Tzonis and Lefaivre’s articles about populism demonstrate just how perplexing it can be to discuss architectural populism. It was no coincidence that there was no existing literature on populism mentioned in their 1975 text; not a single reference. That was not because Tzonis and Lefaivre did not care to include such references, but because serious research on populism by sociologists and political scientists only really began in the 1990s. Back in the mid-1970s, architects were instead forced to discuss and describe populism within a vague, ad-hoc context. In practice, this meant that terms like ‘populism’ were used simply to indicate different kinds of ‘-isms’ within a genealogy of architectural currents and trends (e.g. Modernism, Scientism, Narcissism, Post-Modernism), rather than being a word with particular content and meaning.

Nonetheless, the two kinds of populism that Tzonis and Lefaivre mentioned in their 1975 text, ‘In the Name of the People’, can be seen as related to the two contemporary and opposing populist currents discussed in this essay. The first of these present-day currents has to do with the promotion of a commodified architecture that suits the functions of a global market economy; while the second is related to the idealization of the people as the subject and object of architecture par excellence, and precisely set against the abovementioned commodified architectural produce of the global market economy. Furthermore, in order to make my arguments more specific, and to accord with contemporary political definitions of populism, I propose the following assumptions as the basis for this essay:

  1. There are no populist architects or populist buildings; instead populism exists only as a form of rhetoric embedded within architectural discourse.
  2. Populism promotes the idea of ‘opaque’ architectural discourse that is explicitly against theory.
  3. Populism avoids or attacks architectural theory in order to give simplistic answers to questions that in actuality can be responded to only through serious investigation.
  4. Populism supports an idea of architecture that fails to represent the ideal of the emancipated citizen and of an open, democratic society.

In order to explore these propositions, what I will do next is to discuss in more detail the problematic, indeed worrying, aspects that are raised by the use of populism by architects and scholars in the field. This will then be followed in the rest of the essay by a more specific discussion of the role of populism within Greek architecture from the early-twentieth century through to the current day, tracing how this kind of anti-theoretical position is still there bubbling under the surface.

Shapes against Theories

In 1978 Rem Koolhaas described in Delirious New York the ways in which Manhattan had been subconsciously searching for a new theory that would reflect its architectural and urban form:

‘If Manhattan is still in search of a theory, then this theory, once identified, should yield a formula for an architecture that is at once ambitious and popular.

Manhattan has generated a shameless architecture that has been loved in direct proportion to its defiant lack of self-hatred, has been respected exactly to the degree that it went too far.’ [8: p. 10]

But was this ‘ambitious and popular’ architecture in Manhattan ever really in search of a theory? Was it indeed ever related to any theoretical discourse, and, if so, of what kind? In my opinion, the answer lies in the Koolhaas’s use of the word ‘shameless’. For what ‘shameless architecture’ means in this case is a kind of architecture that forms its identity by rejecting every critical discussion, and by destroying any theoretical foundation. It is in essence an architectural mode that advances and expands without ever having to apologize to anyone, without having to explain anything, without the need of any theory or discourse whatsoever. This architecture, according to Koolhaas, was powerful exactly because it was loved and respected by many, and thus precisely because it was popular (Figure 1).

Figure 1 

Trump Tower (1983) as a typical example of ‘ambitious and popular’ architecture in Manhattan. [Photograph of the interior by Sebastian Bergmann; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons].

The characterization of the word ‘populism’ by Ernesto Laclau as being an ‘empty’ and ‘floating’ signifier [9: p. 41, 43] describes well its openness and ambiguity within the broader political context [10]. Although any reference to ‘the people’ can be problematic (what exactly does ‘the people’ mean, and for whom?), its role as as a signifier cannot, as Benjamin Moffitt demonstrates, be removed from political considerations [11]. Thus it is important to note that the use of the term ‘the people’ does not presuppose a populist background; instead it is the use of the term in a reference in a specific discursive context that determines whether it is populist or not.

In architecture, populism has often been linked to the promotion of any communicative strategy in which the use of a clear shape, form, sign or image can become much more powerful and influential than any more complex, critical reading of the subject. In Kenneth Frampton’s words:

‘The primary vehicle of Populism is the communicative or instrumental sign. Such a sign seeks to evoke not a critical perception of reality, but rather the sublimation of a desire for direct experience through the provision of information … In this respect, the strong affinity of Populism for the rhetorical techniques and imagery of advertising is hardly accidental. Unless one guards against such a convergence, one will confuse the resistant capacity of a critical practice with the demagogic tendencies of Populism.’ [2: p. 21]

Accordingly, within contemporary architectural practice, there are multiple examples of such populist schemes promoting ‘the communicative or instrumental sign’. Michael Shamiyeh has for instance explained how Daniel Libeskind’s success in the competition to redesign ‘Ground Zero’ in Downtown Manhattan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks was the result of a well-orchestrated threefold communicative strategy: firstly, a campaign addressed at the general US public and its sentiments and desires; secondly, a tactic which played ‘the patriotic card’ in order to be popular; and thirdly, an effort to make Libeskind’s design simple and understandable to ‘the people’ [12: p. 123]. Similarly, Justin Fowler analyses Bjarke Ingels of BIG Architects as an elitist architect who positions himself outside of the elite, carefully promoting himself instead as one ‘of the people’ and as someone whose ‘work has the people’s best interest at heart’ [13: p. 228]. This is the reason, as Fowler notes, that Ingels is so intent on ‘cutting out the middleman and bringing his message directly to the people’ [13: p. 228]. Again, the vehicle of this message lies in the simplistic form of the architecture that Ingels produces (Figure 2). Of particular interest in the case of BIG is the way in which a design concept is communicated to the greater audience – whether architects or not – through abstract primary shapes that after a series of simple linear moves or actions, are transformed into supposedly ‘exciting’ architectural creations.

Figure 2 

Homepage of the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) website in which each project is represented by an abstract shape. [Courtesy of BIG Architects].

Architects who board this rhetorical formal vehicle imply (voluntarily or not) that the solution to extremely demanding and complicated design issues are to be found in basic, ‘smart’ shapes. This communicative technique resembles a child’s game by depicting, through abstract images and diagrams, how such basic objects and forms can then be ‘magically’ converted into stunning creations (Figure 3). Here the shape of the building itself takes the place of theories and arguments; the shape absorbs ‘seemingly irreconcilable socio-political issues’, according to Fowler, and thus ‘corresponds to attitude, a mode of operating that covers for ideological ambivalence’ [13: p. 229]. So, it is not the form or the shape of the building itself that is populist; it is the way in which the shape is used as a rhetorical act that seeks to bypass the theoretical (and political) discussion that every big-scale architectural gesture necessarily asks for.

Figure 3 

BIG’s Via 57 West in New York as a simple ‘instrumental sign’ turned into a visually impressive building. [Photograph by Razvan Dinu; courtesy of Wikimedia Commons].

If the shapes used by Daniel Libeskind in the 1980s and ‘90s were products of an earlier subtler theoretical exploration, Libeskind’s shapes of the 2000s are vessels of a raw populist message; not because the shapes themselves are necessarily more simplistic or less sophisticated, but because their uses are different and the audience they are addressed to is different. What I would call a ‘post-populist’ architectural demagogy suggests that architects do not have to ponder too much since the path to great architecture can be easy – so easy that one has to be dumb in order to doubt it. As Adolf Loos’s close friend Karl Kraus pointed out long ago: ‘the secret of a demagogue is to appear as dumb as his audience, so that these people can believe themselves as smart as he’ [14: p. 113].

The widespread digital channels now available within architecture mask the anti-intellectualism that is an inherent feature of populism. If, as Bart Lootsma reminds us, the 1970s and ’80s saw Post-Modernist architecture able to benefit from the spectacular drop in the price of colour printing, contemporary architecture is rather dominated by the explosion in electronic media [4: p. 262]. Websites, blogs, e-magazines and social media today burst with glossy renderings, colourful diagrams and extravagant collages. In most instances, either the image has totally replaced the text or else the text has become short, naïve and entirely descriptive. This poverty of critical discussion and bleakness of theory are being used as modern tools of propaganda directed to an international public that loves to consume architecture as a fresh product, without having to lose time in reading or reflecting upon what they are seeing.

As a genuinely populist project, the new ‘post-populist’ architect is able to simplify any issue, problem or request and return it as ‘solved’ to the audience. Such an architect always promotes themselves as an ordinary person, one of ‘the people’, but also one who is able to fulfil any wish. That is why an architect like Ingels does not hesitate to characterize himself as a ‘yes man’ [13: p. 228]; in other words an architect who always tries to reply with a simple ‘yes!’ to any challenge or demand, however serious and complicated those may be [15: p. 82]. It is a ‘yes’ that constrains all discussion, before the latter barely begins, in order to disarm competition by flattening all ideological origins, political contexts and cultural backgrounds. In this sense, Kasper Lægring’s recent claim that Bjarke Ingels’s use of ‘pop’ imagery and representational techniques is a return to the good old Post-Modernist trope of ‘contextualism and replication’ seems to be the appreciation of a return to nowhere; a self-referring act without locality and a replication of images emptied of any critical power. While Lægring finds Ingels’s use of replication ‘particularly interesting’ because ‘it reveals a need to conceal the paradoxes that arise from the postmodern condition where the architect has to satisfy contradicting local, regional and global expectations’, it is exactly this concealment that is so deeply problematic [16: p. 334].

After all, it is an example of how contemporary discourse adopts, as Lootsma notes, ‘the dominant irrational but powerful aspects of marketing and propaganda’ in order to deify the ‘naturalness’ of the market [4: p. 254] – even to the extent that any opposition may even be pinpointed for criticism for being ‘anti-democratic’ [17: p. 1267]. Certain writers often promote the global marketplace as ‘more democratic than democracy’, wilfully ignoring that this marketplace is being gradually transformed from an open common space for all to a privileged power game for a very few [4: p. 261]. Nonetheless, the enthusiastic acceptance of such practices by certain architects confirms the success of this populist strategy, all within a situation whereby all the typical reactions of group psychology are vividly unfolding. As if enchanted, the followers of this kind of populist architectural discourse are driven by shallow emotional reactions that leave no room to doubt, preferring to let go of their grasp of reality for the sake of believing their fantasies. Unable to challenge conventional certainties, they willingly repeat architectural ‘recipes’ by copying what are already successful ideas, techniques and forms – and in doing so they abandon their individuality and independence just in order to feel that they belong somewhere, ‘for their love’ (‘ihnen zu Liebe’), as Sigmund Freud phrased it [18].

Background to the Populist Architectural Discourse in Greece

Modern Greek architecture, with its rich regionalist tradition, has often been promoted by the likes of Kenneth Frampton as a distinctive paradigm that stands against the cynical commodification of the Post-Modern built environment. But, while the ‘shameless’ populism of the global architectural marketplace is easily discernible in the work of say Bjarke Ingels, the other side of the clash cannot alas avoid adopting their own mode of populist rhetoric. Indeed, in the case of Greek architecture the use of populism is not just a current symptom, since it has never been problematic for Greek architects to favour openly anti-theoretical perspectives. Andreas Giacumacatos in an essay titled ‘From Conservatism to Populism, Pausing at Modernism: The Architecture of the Interwar Period’ made the assumption, albeit without explicitly saying so, that populism in twentieth-century Greek architecture was related to a conservative regionalism influenced by the old vernacular tradition in ‘a period of great national crisis and disillusionment’, which started in 1936 when the nationalist Metaxas government was elected, soon to become a dictatorship [19: p. 38]. As Tzonis and Lefaivre also claimed, already in the late-nineteenth century a historicist form of regionalism had developed in Greece with a ‘populist character focusing on contemporary folk architecture’. They added:

‘The development of critical regionalism in Greece was full of difficulties and contradictions. There was always the danger of abandoning the more difficult critical approach for a sentimental utopianism, making architecture an easy escape to the rural Arcadia, poor but honest.’ [20: p. 176].

Tzonis and Lefaivre made this observation as part of their famous 1981 essay in which they first set out the case for ‘Critical Regionalism’, drawing mainly upon the work of Greece’s two most celebrated Modernist architects – Dimitris Pikionis and Aris Konstantinidis – as the basis. Yet in fact their quote above had been equally true for those Greek architects who were de facto critical regionalists even before Critical Regionalism was invented. Indeed, the most influential architects in twentieth-century Greece had long expressed a deep esteem for the architecture of ‘the people’, in what they used to call ‘universal’ or ‘true’ architecture. Back in 1925, the 38-year-old Dimitris Pikionis wrote about ‘the simplicity of the people’ and criticised the absence of this simplicity in the works of contemporary architects, by asking ‘how is it that the simplicity of the people has not become ours yet?’ [21: p. 54]. As Giacumacatos notes, Pikionis believed that the art and architecture of the people was ‘true’ and ‘unmistakable like their instinct’ [22, p. 18], and it was for this reason that he thought it was crucial for every young artist or architect to keep a close affinity to the land and the people [23: p. 169].

Similarly, in 1947 the 34-year-old Aris Konstantinidis argued that only the ordinary Greek people were in contact with nature, and only these people could feel ‘the soul, lines, texture and spirit’ of the land [24: p. 15]. In his view, the people are able to ‘speak the language of nature’ as they are ‘one of its parts, a part which has sprouted in the land such us the shrub, the tree, the blossom’ – and thus the authentic person is the one who can merge with the landscape, and is only able to do that ‘as long as he [sic] is not alienated from nature … [and] as long as he remains essentially part of the people’ [24: p. 16]. Compared to this ‘true’ architecture of the ordinary people (Figure 4), the buildings being designed by modern educated architects in Greece represented ‘a dry technique’ because those who have studied architecture in the universities ‘are no longer people’ since they ‘have lost contact with nature’ [24: p. 23]. It is interesting to note that even when these simple constructions made by the people, which Aris Konstantinidis loved to photograph, became commodified – as effectively ‘decorated sheds’ that had advertisements placed onto their white plastered walls (Figure 5) – Konstantinidis still embraced them as ‘elements of self-knowledge’, as paradigms of an expression that is simple and abstract and pure and honest because it was of ‘the people’ [25]. Eventually, Konstantinidis was even to advise every young Greek architect that they should ‘first become people’ since ‘if there is a purpose, a goal in all this effort, this is one and only: to once again all become “people”, so that our contemporary works can be as true and great [as those buildings made by the ordinary public]’ [24: p. 28].

Figure 4 

The ‘choria’ (permanent farmhouses) representing the ‘true’ vernacular architecture of Mykonos and its people were among those idealised by Aris Konstantinidis. [Courtesy of Philippides D (ed.). Greek Traditional Architecture, Vol. II. Athens, 1983: 51].

Figure 5 

Aris Konstantinidis’s own photographs of advertisements painted onto Greek vernacular buildings. [Courtesy of Stoicheía autognōsías, gia mia alēthinḗ architektonikḗ. Athens, 1971].

The so-called ‘true’ Greek architecture that Konstantinidis sees as expressive of the culture of the vernacular community is an architecture that, like Manhattan’s ‘shameless’ architecture, does not have to prove anything, and thus does not have the need for any theory or discourse. The earth, the people, and their architecture are seemingly bonded in a direct, ‘natural’ way that is not mediated by theory. Eventually, therefore, what links this ideal native community to the global capitalist market is the fact that both are pragmatically legitimized as ‘physical phenomena’ that can emerge and evolve independently from any architectural discourse (Figure 6).

Figure 6 

Two architectural paradigms that are of supposedly ‘natural’ evolution: the community as ‘nature’ versus the global market as ‘nature’. Left: A typical traditional tower in Mani. [Courtesy of Architecture in Greece. 1975; 9: 190]. Right: A typical skyscraper of Manhattan. [Photograph by Kostas Tsiambaos].

How can an architect like Aris Konstantinidis, among the heroes nominated by Kenneth Frampton who offered the ‘resistance’ of Critical Regionalism, be at the same time equally singled out as an advocate of what Frampton warned as the ‘conservative policies of populism or sentimental regionalism’? [2: p. 20] What is this evident contradiction founded upon? Even if there is little doubt that Konstantinidis’s works are far detached from ‘pop’ architectural imagery, as Fessas-Emmanouil argues [26: p. 51], one could well claim that a milder but still pronounced populist background can be recognised in many of his writings and ideas. Intriguingly, the ideological schema of a natural affinity between the people and their land might even be interpreted as a Germanic cultural influence on both Dimitris Pikionis and Aris Konstantinidis – after all, Pikionis lived in Munich from 1908–10, and Konstantinidis studied architecture at the Technische Universität München (Technical University of Munich) from 1931–36. However, the idealised notion of ‘the people’ that Konstantinidis had in his mind was not just something taken from the past but was, in essence, in direct conflict with the actual people of his own epoch, as the following revealing incident tells us.

When serving as the head of the research office in the Workers’ Housing Organization (OEK) from spring 1955 to summer 1957, Aris Konstantinidis designed a significant number of smaller and larger social housing projects in Athens, Piraeus, Thessaloniki, Serres, Pyrgos and so on. It is also well known that Konstantinidis only worked for two years for OEK before he chose to resign. In a text published in 1957, and titled ‘This Is The Way We Want It’ [27], Konstantinidis explained that one of the causes of his resignation had been to do with the colouring of the facades of his housing projects; in particular the fact that the OEK board declined his proposal to paint the walls of the complex in Nea Filadelfia in Athens using the three basic colours of Greek tradition – red, yellow and blue. Instead the board had decided to paint the dwellings in an ‘off-white’ colour in order to match the adjacent apartment buildings. Konstantinidis angrily identified this as being a major problem due to the strong distinction that he made between ‘the people’ and the nation’s elites:

‘What is the benefit now of unravelling this dreadful aspect of modern Greek reality, the mental misery, the moral decay, and the spiritual misery of certain individuals who satanically thrust themselves into the stratum of modern life, destroying everything, in a place with the most sacred architectural tradition, with the most cultivated (spiritually and aesthetically) simple, “folk” people?’ [27: p. 130]

This simplistic distinction drawn by Konstantinidis between corrupt individuals (the officials), and the simple but cultivated ordinary people (the housing scheme’s residents), cannot in my opinion describe anywhere near the complexity of the problem. For example, what the OEK officials were suggesting in no way seemed to arise from an elitist mentality. On the contrary, their intention, as Konstantinidis himself admitted, was precisely not to distinguish this new working-class housing from the other, typical apartment buildings of the area. The board’s worry about the colouring of the building facades demonstrated their concern about social discrimination; namely the danger of stigmatizing these working-class homes as being strange or alien ghettoed houses that would, sooner or later, become disconnected from the local community. In other words, if Konstantinidis identified the problem as being of a ‘people’ vs. ‘elite’ division then this was because he underestimated, avoided, or could not see the ‘people’ vs. ‘people’ distinction that could otherwise possibly emerge. Konstantinidis’s preference for the red-yellow-and-blue colours of the Greek tradition (uncannily also close to those favoured by De Stijl) was thus referring to an idealized people who came from the past in order to impose their presence upon the actual people who would have to live in this modern Athenian settlement.

This tale offers another way to argue that populism is not something entrenched within the design or the forms themselves, since there was nothing overtly populist about Konstantinidis’s architecture. Populism emerged only as a rhetorical device whereby Konstantinidis could bring forward simplistic proposals and imaginary distinctions, whereas in fact the processes relating to the community he was being called to design for – including his housing scheme as an act of power imposed on this community – were rather nuanced and complicated. Therefore, the fact that populism did not emanate through Konstantinidis’s design work but through his discourse can guide us in understanding the performativity of this kind of populist discourse; its latent, multiple and indirect ‘perlocutionary acts’, to remember John Langshaw Austin’s phrase, thus acting unseen on the surface of the ‘silent’ and ‘innocent’ architectural forms.

The Populist Temptation in Contemporary Greek Architecture

In a country where, according to Yannis Stavrakakis, there is a ‘context dependent’ relationship between nationalism and populism, leading to a diffused ‘populist desire’, the ideal of populism has been revived over the last decades among Greek architects as a sort of symptom that can help them against new conditions, difficulties and challenges [28: p. 247, 249]. Hence my own interest in certain aspects of recent architectural discourse in Greece is in highlighting just how far such examples of a people-inspired architectural countermovement are now commonly reflected in writings, talks and interviews in Greek journals, magazines, newspapers and exhibitions.

In the early-2000s the discussion about populism within Greek architecture was triggered by events around the 8th Venice Architecture Biennale. Under the title of ‘Athens 2002: Absolute Realism’ the three curators of the Greek Pavilion – Takis Koubis, Thanassis Moutsopoulos and Richard Scoffier – presented the Greek capital as a ‘fragmented city that looks more like an eternal building site’, in marked contrast to the dominant Athenian symbols dating from ancient times; in their view it was now a city ‘liberated from the foremost condition that it had undersigned with the powers, capable of portending the complex and contradictory structures of future democracy’ [29: back cover]. It was also however a curatorial project that provoked strong criticisms and raised a lot of negative comments both from experts and the general public back home in Greece. As Andreas Giacumacatos noted:

‘Here there was only an “anonymous architecture”, an unprecedented populist neologism that implies every random ugliness that essentially regulates the current image and functions of urban form. Worst of all, it has long been attempted to theorize the unacceptable, merely indicative of the administrative deadlock of the city … the holy contractors can, with their official blessings and with “absolute realism”, continue their work unhindered.’ [30]

In other words, in contrast to the ‘anonymous’ vernacular architecture of the ‘good’ people in rural Greece in the past declared by the likes of Aris Konstantinidis, the generic ‘anonymous’ architecture of the ‘bad’ contractors of modern-day Athens could no longer seen as ‘true’ or ‘universal’, and thus needed to be rejected. The discourse promoted by the curators of the Greek Pavilion in the 2002 Venice Biennale was thus seen as threatening precisely because of its populist desire.

Around the same time, it was in March 2002 that Vassilis Mistriotis launched Greek Architects (GRA) as the first – and soon to become the biggest – architectural e-magazine in Greece. In the 844 videos posted since 2002 on GRAtv, i.e. up till June 2017 when this e-journal stopped posting new content, one can still view many of the interviews, discussions, conferences, and public debates in which older and younger architects, seminal professors in architectural schools or emerging young professionals, share their opinions and ideas about contemporary architecture and also reflect upon the identity of Greek architecture, its particularities and its potential future perspectives [31]. A consideration of this material as an oral discourse is interesting for this essay as there are many instances where a populist rhetoric occurs, spoken through various anti-theoretical positions. Again, I would like to stress that I am not describing architects who are ‘populists’, neither am I referring to a ‘populist’ architecture. In fact I doubt that either of those categories can ever be defined. What I am referring to is how, in the case of Greece, populist ideas have become dispersed within recent architectural discussions. This is the reason why I have consciously chosen not to mention the name of whichever Greek architect happens to be speaking, instead merely identifying each person through sequential random initials to indicate when they are talking, given that my actual intention is to highlight how far populism is today spread as a broad discourse and mentality rather than labelling specific architects as populists or their work as populist.

In deliberate opposition to the glamorous protagonists of the global architectural elite, Greek architects generally claim to endorse the authenticity, simplicity and purity of ‘another’ architecture – this being, according to AA, a ‘true architecture’ that one needs to ‘rebuild or rediscover’ against an undesirable ‘star system of architecture’ [31]. Hence the traditional, indigenous architect is idealized via this viewpoint: a ‘pure, folk architect’ who is engaged upon ‘pure, vernacular architecture’ are just two phrases used by BB, and these terms appear as constant references that allow Greek architects to ‘reconnect with our past’, to ‘rediscover our architecture and ourselves’, or so CC claims [31]. The equivalent of traditional folk architect in our Hyper-Modernist era is apparently those people who are not experts of architecture. Thus in contrast to the alienated educated architect, AA labels the ‘non-connoisseur’ as the superlative judge of contemporary buildings because they have an ‘unconscious’ attitude that remains ‘pure’ [31]. This ordinary person, as DD argues, is the ‘Man [sic] with a capital M’ who is against the professional elite, and as such acts as ‘the human Man, the Man who is all the people together’ [31]. Hence the non-expert is simply one of the people, and as such the figure who can resist the destructive influence of the globalised markets that are, in EE words, ‘against architecture and the Community’ [31].

Undoubtedly, we are being confronted here with what Zygmunt Bauman calls the imaginary representation of the community as a pure (in ethical terms), archetypal social body:

‘In short, “community” stands for the kind of world which is not, regrettably, available to us – but which we would dearly wish to inhabit and which we hope to repossess … “Community” is nowadays another name for paradise lost – but one to which we dearly hope to return, and so we feverishly seek the roads that may bring us there.’ [32: p. 3]

This nostalgia for a sense of community is reflected in notions such as Tannock’s ‘prelapsarian world’ [33], or else Taggart’s ‘heartland’ [34]; a kind of mythical cradle that has not yet affected by culture, an area that one has to rediscover in order to see where we collectively must return to [35: p. 5]. According to Pierre-André Taguieff, this populist fantasy is also bonded to the mythology of identity, homogeneity and unity of a people who are ‘virtuous and simple and have the power to unite the national forces’ [36: p. 29]. In that sense, the limits of any community become the limits of culture since the community is then inherently intolerant to exterior cultural influences, or indeed to any other influence that can harm the soul and purity of the community itself.

Not avoiding the ‘temptation of innocence’ [37], Greek architects are thus being self-promoted as a solid body of ‘pure’ ideologues that never had a privileged relationship with the Market or with Capitalism. Contrary to a pathetic mass elsewhere in the world that yearns to consume every new architectural trend that pops up from time to time, these rebel-architects in Greece continuously fight, according to EE, against the menace of globalisation and the advance of ‘the New World Order’ [31].

However, this conception of the international architectural public as a pathetic mass lacking the knowledge or education to recognise ‘true’ architecture conceals an intrinsically elitist if not even authoritarian logic, according to Gerodimos [38: p. 615–616]. Authoritarian because, as Abts and Rummens argue [39: p. 421], it ignores the fact that society is not a homogeneous community with common interests and goals, and elitist because, while speaking in the name of society, this discourse simply tries to opt out of this process of manipulation and social control of the ‘weak and innocent masses’ it claims to be championing [38: p. 613]. Furthermore, this attack on global markets is a disingenuous attempt to ignore the fact that these self-same markets have funded many of the most important architectural works by both larger firms and smaller studios in Greece over the last decades – including for example the nine thematic museums funded by the Piraeus Bank Group Cultural Foundation and erected in urban and rural areas all around the country (Figure 7).

Figure 7 

Among the most interesting and respected works of contemporary Greek architecture is the network of thematic museums funded by the Piraeus Bank Group Cultural Foundation (PIOP) and located in many urban and rural areas around the country. [Courtesy of; accessed on 30th July 2019].

Bearing this in mind, I therefore disagree with Lootsma’s suggestion that the rise of Post-Modernism is associated with the rise of populism [4: p. 258]. On the contrary I would suggest, following Slavoj Žižek, that the populists’ anxiety to urgently find an enemy is a symptom of their inability to create novel worlds [40: p. 61]. The populists in Greek architecture need to invent an imaginary folk community as they can neither deal with the complexity of contemporary reality [41: p. 556], nor accept what Ulrich Beck describes as the ‘global, often irreparable, damage that can no longer be limited’ [42: p. 53]. For the same reasons the populists, as Canovan has demonstrated elsewhere, tend towards simplistic thinking that can offer ‘obvious’ and ‘immediate’ solutions [43]. Therefore, AA’s accusations against Post-Modernism for the ‘confusion of concepts that it imposes’ and for being suspicious of ‘anything that appears, or presents itself as new’, can be better described as a defence mechanism against the complicated and demanding reality of Hyper-Modernism [31].

In this way, the replacement of architectural dilemmas with ethical dilemmas, the canonisation of the ‘pure and moral’ architect who is above suspicion, and the repetition of the mantra of ‘blame, victimhood and revenge’ [38: p. 611], have each become elements of a populist strategy within contemporary Greek architecture that reinforces simplistic dipoles, stereotypical attitudes and conservative mentalities instead of opening up new critical paths. As Hélène Lipstadt has argued generally:

‘A logic that reduces social relations to this kind of simple dualism is one of those commonplaces in which politicians, especially traditional populist ones, have a vested interest: us vs. them, class vs. class, and race vs. race, and an obstacle to resistance to that kind of populism.’ [44: p. 137]

Whereas, in contrast:

‘A relational approach to group mobilization and group representations has potential for liberation. To assert the primacy of multivalent and dynamic relations in opposition to the reductive dualism of mobilizer and mobilized opens the way to a self-reflective understanding of our own practice and our self-representations as equally inevitably and inescapably relational, and thus, to the recognition that resistance lies in collaboration within these relations.’ [44: p. 137]

Even in the case of an apparently homogenous society like that in Greece, one ought to accept that contemporary architecture cannot be limited to addressing horizontally common needs and wishes, but should always be open to accentuating individual interests and desires that are equally real and important. On this basis too I would disagree with Lootsma’s view that the shift from a ‘needs-culture’ to a ‘desires-culture’ is problematic [4: p. 262]. Within a condition of Hyper-Modernity, our individual desires, whether conscious or unconscious, need to be accepted as being as crucial and real as common needs. This is therefore not the wish for an idealised communitarian society, but rather for a more rigorous theoretical pursuit that will allow the architectural community to define and agree upon the terms, conditions and limits of architecture’s desirable social context.

What is urgently required, in my opinion, is not a harmless radicalistic rhetoric but a radical revisionist discourse – to remember Heinrich Klotz’s term [45: p. 9] – that is compatible with our Hyper-Modernist era. Unfortunately, this dynamic has not yet been properly exploited, especially in the case of Greece where the ‘agitator’ and the ‘revolutionary’ are highly acknowledged and valued in the collective imaginary, while the ‘reformist’ is regarded suspiciously – being described for instance by AA as ‘the biggest problem of all’ [31]. Without going to the extent of believing, as FF does, that anything radical is beyond our times, one can leave this trendy superficial architectural imagery ‘to collapse into the very system that assures its demise, or retreat into hypnotic solitude’ [46: p. 2–5] and instead gradually restore the actual social context of architecture through revised demands for maximum representation and participation in both architectural discourse and the division of labour. This is one of the fundamental bases of a representative democracy, according to Moffitt, and requires a great capacity for empathy and critical stance in order for a new social contract to be signed [11: p. 6]. Within this context, Dennis Kaspori’s call for a new ‘open source’ strategy seems to point more towards a genuinely democratic and pragmatic reconsideration of the architectural profession today [47].

Final Thoughts

What I have tried to argue in this essay – based on the four assumptions presented in the introduction – is that populism is not the characteristic of a specific spectrum of architectural discourse but has become horizontally dispersed, as a concealed anti-theory, both at the global level of the star-architecture scene and at the more localised and reactionary regional actions against that scene.

In my opinion we have an obligation to stand critically against any kind of anti-theoretical rhetoric, wherever its origin and whatever its label. The demagogic aspect of architectural discourse can thus be, if anything, a key area for further historical and theoretical research. More than ever, in a ‘post-truth’ era, our role as architectural historians should be to investigate and reveal the latent content rooted behind any architectural construction or discourse. The assumption that architectural theory is unnecessary, if not harmful, to architecture as a practice is not a new thing. Anti-theory can be seen as the twin sister of theory, even since the Renaissance, if not earlier, as Christof Thoenes has shown so clearly [48: p. 19]. The idea that good architecture ‘talks by itself’ – in other words, the view that theoretical discourse deprives architecture of its creative purity and communicative power – was for a long time, and in some cases regrettably still is, favourable amongst architects and architectural historians. However, even those following the so-called ‘post-critical’ tide in the early-2000s in North American architectural discourse – struggling as they did to deconstruct the theoretical foundations of architectural design – were, as George Baird pointed out, paradoxically obliged to expand and enrich the already chartered theoretical discussion through books, texts, debates and lectures in order to enforce their polemic [49]. In this regard, the current of ‘post-critical’ writings (neutral, distanced or pragmatic) was theoretically productive, at least in its most engaging and honest moments. Yet the question that remains, in my view, is how can one ever positively respond to a negative call for the total rejection of theory?

In one of his investigations into modes of resistance in psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud explained the emergence of a ‘secondary resistance’ that ‘appears in the form of an intellectual resistance, battles by means of arguments, and makes use of all difficulties and improbabilities which a normal yet uninstructed thinking is bound to find in the theory of analysis’ [50: p. 250]. This kind of resistance to analytical theory certainly makes analysis harder, but it is also this exact resistance that emerges as one of the primary objects of analysis:

‘We know that these resistances must come to light; we are dissatisfied only when we do not provoke them in their full strength … these resistances are the essential achievement of analysis and are that portion of the work which alone assures us that we have accomplished something.’ [50: p. 252]

The argument made by this essay, is that all anti-theoretical discourse in architecture is nothing but a similar defensive reaction akin to the patient’s secondary resistance when they are lying on the psychoanalytic couch; a reactive stance against theory whose underlying aim is that of blocking self-reflective awareness [51]. Reconceptualised as such, those uncritical discursive projections – including the re-emergence of populism in current Greek architectural debates – are essentially fragments of a transference toward the architectural historian, a transference that should also be analysed as a latent unexplored area, and hence as the rich prime matter for our theoretical inquiry. This is certainly not an easy task and yet, as Baruch Spinoza observed in Ethics (1677), ‘sed omnia praeclara tam difficilia quam rara sunt (But all excellent [things] are as difficult as they are rare)’ [52: p. 250].