The Possibility of Emancipating Architecture. Categories of Estrangement

Katja Hogenboom

Project Period:
Type: Affiliated PhD research
Program Area(s): Material Conditions


In my research I am investigating how Architecture, can play an emancipating role in society. Given the current crisises on many fronts, and the lack of social responsibility in architecture today, asks for a new approach. A new social commitment and engagement is needed.

I belief change starts when, you challenge the cliché, and activate other liberating possibilities. Conventions foremost affirm the status quo. I think categories of Estrangement (as strategy) with its specific set of tools, can open up a liberating direction. The example of the Guggenheim museum by Frank Gehry in Bilbao, although interesting as a strange new form, doesn’t question the status quo, it confirms it by its self-referential spectacle. It revolutionises the conventions, in this case the one of consumerism and musealization. Working with different kinds of techniques of estrangement; subversion, reflexivity, and the absurd, among others, creating possibilities of emancipation, and activating the spectator, is not new. A tradition of examples can be collected when we cut through history from this perspective of liberating estrangement.

Estrangement is a technique that originates in literary semiotics and the theatre of Bertolt Brecht. It was coined by the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky, as ostranenie – translated as defamiliarization or estrangement -in his early essay "Art as Technique" (1925) to suggest both distancing (dislocating) and making strange. Shklovsky’s theory of estrangement was intended in opposition to the economic and utilitarian discourse of efficiency and useful expenditure. The device of estrangement places emphasis on the process rather than the product of art, on cognitive ambivalence and play. Estrangement for Shklovsky was never from the world but rather an estrangement for sake of the world’s renewal.

I will trace the history of these different emancipating techniques to understand what they produce. At the same time I observed that there is a tradition of estrangement in architecture as well. In my research I will critically examine at least five canonical and contemporary architectural projects, among which the CCTV building in Beijing, beyond the purely traditional (stylistic) approaches of analysis that primarily focus on the formal aspects of a project. I belief that architecture should not be understood merely as an inert physical object, but should be considered from what it animates while being occupied and being seen. A building is not simply a reflection of its functions, but is in fact active, constitutes information, behaviour, actions and perception over time, which are expressed both through the materiality (aesthetics), the organisation of its program and the image it projects. By looking at case-studies, in parts or completely, the theory becomes more clear, and at the same time the architectural means become visible.

The goal of my research, besides theoretical reflection, is to make an atlas of examples -case studies -that show, without becoming a manual -how spatial and aesthetic techniques -(devices such as: windows facades, trajectory, colour, the envelope, plan section) of different scale, from object to city park, through their estranging potential, mobilise -provoke -install -emancipating alternatives, or in other words create *situated freedoms *in complex conditions. In short, I am looking for a micro-politics of change that reinvent the idea of publicness through an estranging and spatial aesthetic that enacts new forms of emancipation. With my presentation at the symposium I would like, on the one hand, to summarise what categories of estrangement are about (theoretical reflection), and on the other, exemplify its relevance through the case studies of different scale.

Researcher(s) Bio and Publications