Formal Public Architecture and its Role in Establishing, Reproducing and Maintaining Power

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Question 6: Formal public architecture is often associated with political and religious power, but different theoretical approaches to the topic will focus on very different characteristics and methods of analysis. Discuss the major schools of thought on formal public architecture and its role in establishing, reproducing, and maintaining power. Illustrate these differences through two examples – one from the Old World and the other from the New World.

Many ideas exist on how architecture and the physicality of built environments condition interpersonal interaction and sustain political and ideological relations. The subject of architecture is of importance to archaeologists in that it is often a canvas for societal or cultural change. This discussion explores the different major schools of thought on formal public architecture and its role in establishing, reproducing, and maintaining power. By providing two examples separated not only by time but also by location, this paper explores how these different perspectives and how the archaeologists who use them tackle this type of research.

On examining how power can be established through architecture, many archaeologists and researchers have turned to the Ancient Maya. The Ancient Maya had a complex political system, which was certainly propagated through architecture (Weigand 1991). It is argued that exclusionary/network and corporate strategies “can be connected to specific institutions, often associated with formalized built space” (Beekman 2013:2). Inclusive group identity is characteristic of Maya society, and it is maintained through ceremony and ritual. Formally designed spaces “have restricted functions in service to the social hierarchy of a polity” (Weigand 1991:93).

Beekman (2013) argues for four types of formal architecture (characteristic of the Teuchitlan Tradition) that is seen during the Late Formative-Early Classic period as methods of political establishment and maintenance: shaft tombs, guachimonton structures, ball courts and elite households. Located under great public structures, shaft tombs are seen as an exclusionary strategy from which Maya elites drew attention to the wealth and connectedness of their lineage. Beekman (2013:4) argues that “the tombs in the ceremonial centers thus demonstrated greater genealogical depth for group claims to the titles or ceremonial positions associated with the public architecture…” Guachimontones, which are circular pyramid-like structures, played an important role in public ceremonies such as feasts, musical performances and ceremonial rituals. Important ceremonial roles were shared among several higher ranking groups due to their possession of sacred knowledge: “Holding a privileged position within the circles and participating in these ceremonies allowed elite families to accumulate increased prestige, reproducing their position and solidifying their social distance from subjects” (Beekman 2013:5). Ballcourts in Maya culture are another prime example of power: “… teams or individuals could potentially stand out through demonstrations of their skill” (Beekman 2013:6). Lastly, elite households further demonstrated group inclusiveness and the overall power of a group. The size and relative closeness to ceremonial centers suggests societal inequality – that some descendant groups had more access to resources than others.

Focusing on the Kingdom of Dahomey, which was a key player in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Monroe (2010:368) examines the role of royal palace design in disseminating social and political order: “[he argues] that royal palace design thus served as a material component of broader political strategies deployed by Dahomean kings to ground a vision of order and social hierarchy in politically turbulent times.” As the slave trade grew during the seventeenth century, Dahomean elites gained access to great wealth. As the kingdom became more and more politically and economically stable, the elites began to erect extravagant royal palaces. These royal palaces materialized political power in a number of important ways: “On the one hand, the structures themselves materialized the coercive power of the state… On the other hand, these palaces served as the stages upon which the annual ceremonies were performed, and during which vast quantities of wealth were distributed to the public” (Monroe 2010:378). The distribution of wealth, the public display of human sacrifice and the incorporation of coercive symbols of state authority present in the architecture’s configuration served to highlight both the redistributive and coercive functions of the state. Similarly, historical scenes embedded in the walls of these palaces served as a primary tool for generating a sense of historical continuity and precedent for ruling individuals. The interior space set to further reinforce Dahomean elite power: “It was within such courtyards that most matters of state were discussed, and certain more private elements of the state’s ritual cycle were conducted” (Monroe 2010:379). From exterior to interior, architecture and the space it created stood to impose a political, ideological and social power over the Dahomey landscape.

These examples stand as clear evidence that architecture is and can be used as a medium to establish and maintain political power. As the study of architecture in archaeology is growing in popularity, there stands this need to develop specific approaches: “Instead of being listed and categorized as an artifact, perhaps useful for dating or as artwork, structures are inspiring new theory and methodology with which to study them” (Drennan 2010:2). The major schools of thought on formal architecture can be divided into three categories: functional (processual), structural (post-processual) and social (political economy).

Proponents of the functional approach embrace a materialist outlook in dealing with architecture: “The functional approach asserts that the meaning of objects (including buildings)

lies in their purpose or use” (Johnston and Gonlin 1998:150). Function is defined in economic and social organizational terms—what a building or room is used for. The functional approach to formal architecture is largely classificatory and descriptive. Buildings are categorized by ‘type’ based on these functions. Function is established by investigating the formal properties of architecture, the presence or absence of features and the composition of artifact assemblages found within them. This approach spawns from settlement studies, which is the relationship between the spatial patterning of settlements on the natural landscape and the ecological determinants of settlement (Willey et al. 1965). In that the processual perspective looks a natural environment-human behavior relationship, a shift in language then allows processual ideas and methods to be applied in investigating a built environment-human behavior relationship. Spatial patterning methods, when investigating architecture, look at the distribution of architectural forms within a site as well as spatial distribution within buildings. Space within these structures plays just as important of a role in functional analyses: “There is a body of social-spatial theory associated with space syntax that posits a rather strict and deterministic relationship among buildings, movement, and social relations.” (Smith 2011:176). How spaces within a structure are arranged and related to one another and how a building mediates the relationships between its occupants and visitors. This perspective focuses on the importance of movement within built environments and the significance of access (restricted vs. open) for social interaction:

“[Functional approaches] work on the assumption that the space around buildings is structured such that strangers can move about, but only inhabitants and certain strangers (visitors) are allowed inside structures. Inhabitants have an investment of power and are the controllers, while visitors entre or star as subjects of the system and are therefore controlled” (Markus 1993:13).

That is to say, architecture and the space within it functions as a means of inequality - the exertion of power. A number of architects and writers have held the view that architecture is a symbolically-representative language and that buildings can be read as texts

The structural approach takes on a different outlook when examining architecture. Culture is viewed as an ideational screen or meaning system through which individuals conceptualize themselves, others and the world around them (Bourdieu 1985 and Giddens 1979, 1982). Central to this perspective is the assumption that individuals reproduce and express cultural structures by enacting them in daily practice (Hodder 1989). People draw from a reservoir of embodied memories accumulated over the course of a lifetime: “[Architectural design] is an eminently pragmatic human activity, with, additionally imaginative, allusory, and less tangible implications” (Patel 2009:1). It is an extension of a culture’s identity and of personal identity. It is reality. Architectural design is a process whereby social groups make choices concerning several recurrent sets of activities. Space solidifies social meanings. Structural approaches are is concerned with the ways in which planners and architects design cities and buildings are used to communicate specific messages, typically of a social, ideologicall and political nature (Smith 2010). The concept of “materialization of ideology” (DeMarrais et al. 1996) is closely related to this approach in that formal architecture becomes both a vehicle for communication of meanings and a stage for reproduction of those meanings in the context of daily practice. Formal architecture is perceived as “‘structuring structures’ - culturally loaded spaces that socialize by encouraging practices consistent with the meanings that they encode” (Johnston and Gonlin 1998:145). Social control as a mechanism of power is encoded in architecture, which serves as a stage where structures of power, privilege and inequality are created, enacted and re-created.

Additionally, a social approach, which follows much of the tenets of political economy, investigates the inhabitants or users of a particular space as socioeconomic entities. It is contended that place making is an inherently elite practice: “… [it suggests] that places are necessarily programmed and designed in accord with certain interests – primarily the pursuit of amenity, profit, status and political power” (Dovey 1999:1). Power is not inertly embedded in built form, but instead actively mediated through it. Social approaches allow for a better understanding of the political dynamics of place – how stratification of place as well as of individuals and groups – are established and maintained. As social units become increasingly specialized, artifacts with high symbolic content - especially built environments - are needed to help integrate a society’s disparate parts (Rathje and Schiffer 1982). There is a need for both separation and togetherness. In this, architecture refers to the social circulation of meanings, values and pleasures and to the processes of forming social identities and social relationships. Architecture is seen as a means of resource control.

By applying these perspectives to the examples provided earlier in this discussion, we see just how archaeologists begin to unpack architecture’s role in complex behavior. On the one hand, functionalists would see the Dahomey royal palaces as functioning as places of residence as well as centers of historical chronology, assembly and distribution. Correspondingly, the architectural forms of the Teuchitlan tradition function as centers of burial, ceremony, residence and competition/sport. The spaces within these architectural types function as strategies of inclusion and exclusion. These palaces served to mark transitions between domains such as inside/outside, sacred/sacrilegious, public/private and elite/commoner.

On the other hand, structuralists would see these structures as active players in the conditioning of human experience. These structure contain important information, which is vital for successful wayfinding. At one level, both examples performed élite power across urban landscapes, making symbolic claims to the nature of state authority and providing stages upon which historical claims to political legitimacy were expressed. However, no less important were the ways in which the everyday practice of politics was shaped by the internal recesses of these structures. This transformation was marked by an increase in both the segregation of political activities and control over movement within these spaces. These all can be argued as influential factors in how one not only perceives his world but also how one identifies himself.

Moreover, the social perspective sees that the Dahomean palaces and the structures of the Teuchitlan tradition speak to a more economic stance on power: access and control over resources. In that these structures have cosmological undertones and are directly tied to ceremonial rituals, the inclusionary and exclusionary practices suggest control over ritual knowledge. By limiting access to such knowledge, we see an exertion and reinforcement of the power. We see resistance and reconciliation. These architectural structures and the activities held within them are meant to separate and bring together.

In all, architectural studies within archaeology must be able to cope with its rich spatial and communicative aspects. Functional approaches are important, but we must move beyond this. As Hiller and Hanson (1984: 27) architecture and its relation to power need to “be not so much a by-product of the social changes, but an intrinsic part of them and even to some extent causative of them.” As laid out by Tilley (1996:162), the study of architecture in archaeology truly conceptualizes how space is used to mediate experience: “[Space is] experienced and known through the movement of the human body in space and through time.” These perspectives lend important insights that have aided to the discussion of power as materialized through architecture. We see how function, meaning and control all play a part in the rise and maintenance of power.