Stephan Trüby is a theoretician and professor of architecture and cultural theory at the Munich Technical University. From 2009 to 2014 he ran the postgraduate programme mas Scenography / Spatial Design at the Zurich University of the Arts and from 2012 to 2014 he was a lecturer in architecture theory at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. He was also head of research and development for the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale, directed by Rem Koolhaas.
Exposing right-wing spaces
Interview with Stephan Trüby
By George Kafka
We realised that many of the so‑called private homes of right‑wing radicals are not actually private. They are in fact also infrastructural home bases for political movements.
— Stephan Trüby
In the period following the political ructions of 2016, increasingly hard lines have been drawn between filter bubbles and spaces on both the Left and the Right. In response to the political pivoting of former-colleagues, the architecture theorist and writer Stephan Trüby has been researching how these tendencies translate into built form. In this interview, he explains his interest in what he terms “right-wing spaces”, the subject of his forthcoming book, and reflects on the role architecture plays not only in in their creation and but also their sustainment through being disguised.
What led you to begin researching right‑wing urban spaces and architecture?
There’s a kind of biographical starting point and a theoretical starting point. I’ll start with the latter and the question: “what is interesting about architecture?” I would answer by saying that architecture is interesting not because some buildings are nice or work well. For me, the most interesting aspect of architecture is the fact that it is a kind of crossing point where different trajectories – from politics, economics, science, technology and art – come together. Architecture is relevant for the world beyond it because of the meeting of those different agencies. And obviously if you want to be a good architect you need to be competent not only in the fields of technology or art, but also in the fields of economics or politics. Autonomous architecture doesn’t exist; architecture is always, at the end, or maybe also at the beginning, a political project. That’s the theoretical basis of this work.
The biographical basis is a kind of personal shock. I realised shortly after I completed my PhD with the philosopher and cultural theorist Peter Sloterdijk that I was part of an intellectual group where right-wing thinking was becoming somehow normalised. The racism of [the German politician] Thilo Sarrazin for example, was often defended. And Marc Jongen, the philosopher and former assistant of Peter Sloterdijk, later became an AfD politician. When I realised this, I started to work against it.
How did these two things – your architectural and political convictions and the recent resurgence of the far right – come together?
Previously I have argued that there’s no such thing as “right-wing architecture” or “left-wing architecture”, but there is a major distinction between a more regional and a more global approach to what architecture is. Both of these conditions of architecture can either be right‑wing or left‑wing. Similarly, we can see local or regional approaches to architecture that can again be right wing or left wing. They can be völkisch [folkish], but they can also be a kind of local architecture in the form of a leftist project working against an economic or global organisation.
So you don’t think there is something like right-wing architecture but that there are right-wing spaces?
Maybe you’re aware of the discussion around the LD50 gallery in London.1 To talk about the architecture of LD50 is probably not interesting. The same applies for the headquarters of Cambridge Analytica. If we look at their building close to Tottenham Court Road station, also in London, we can’t establish a link between the ideology of Cambridge Analytica and the office building which they rent. So indeed I would say that architecture and right-wing politics don’t come together as right-wing architecture, but actually as right-wing spaces.
Can you give an example?
The most extreme and well‑known example of völkisch approaches to architecture is German national socialism. One of the core political Nazi ideas was Blut und Boden, blood and soil. It meant that certain races have their perfect place in a certain landscape.
If you travel to some rural areas in Germany, you can come across small villages that were abandoned twenty or twenty-five years ago. In more recent years these same villages have been bought up by neo-Nazis who have started from scratch with a kind of new ethnically homogeneous way of living. They’ve started to adopt a kind of anti-liberal, anti-urban way of life in these areas. The aesthetics of these settlements are sometimes completely normal, but sometimes also slightly or openly paranoid, with highly articulated boundary condition and high fences and a flag in the middle, with a differentiation made between a peaceful interior and a hostile outside world. Sometimes, these settlements work like camps.
Are there similar examples in other countries?
Settlements of right-wing extremists in the United States, such as the kkk or Aryan Nations, are similar, but often more extreme. If you look at the aesthetics of these settlements the you realise that they are always based on the same elements: fences, flags plus architectural typologies which provide communal life easily. Many of these camps copy hippie ways of life from the 1960s and 70s. However, the difference between them is that the right wing idea of communal living is based on the idea of a purity of race or of group and that there is a strong interest in gaining dominance over the outside world.
By tracing these organisations and people on a map and identifying ownerships etc. we can identify infrastructures – between people, party offices and publishing houses, for example. We can assume links between different groups and speculate also about co-operations.
You mentioned previously that you’ve visited some of these rural camp sites as part of your research. What does that involve?
That’s the dangerous part of the research. Many of the sites I visit are highly secured because they might get attacked by the Antifa. The inhabitants are aware of people looking at their houses and some of them are very quick at calling together a group of neo-Nazis who might follow you there. But I did a couple of trips with friends to different regions, mainly in Germany. We try to identify the houses, the locations, the boundary conditions etc. Not in order to attack these houses but just to think: what does it mean to be there? And you can make a couple of very interesting observations. For example, the numbers of the houses often follow a hidden number code. 18 in German stands for the first and the eighth letter in the alphabet, A and H: Adolf Hitler. You come across many of these. You can also see this with the number plates of the cars.
We try to be careful, especially in areas where we don’t know the shortcuts and hidden paths. We don’t want to get beaten up, obviously, but we do want to know more about these locations and these sites and these buildings.
In order what to find out exactly?
In order to find out more about what some right-wingers call “meta-politics”. It’s actually a term born in leftist ideology and is from [Antonio Francesco] Gramsci, the Italian socialist/communist philosopher. Meta-politics means that in order to gain cultural and political hegemony you need to work in a field which is not yet politics: everyday life, media, art and so on. But in my opinion this distinction between private life and public political life doesn’t work for right-wing ideologies, because for the people living in these camps, declaring them as territory for an ethnically purified population is a political act already. Through our research we realised that many of the so-called private homes of right-wing radicals are not actually private. They are in fact also infrastructural home bases for political movements. This is why we want to question privacy in many of these homes. By travelling there, we want to find evidence that what is going on there is actually political and just not meta-political.
Considering the conflicts around Confederate Monuments and the Charlottesville Unite the Right March in the US, would you see these as rightist spaces as well?
As in Germany, also in the US the cultural debates about monuments are the first step for right-wing extremists to arrive in the inner-city. This debate about monuments is the first step in a strategy of entering the inner-cities – and the second step would be to establish houses in the inner-city, not just in the countryside. In Germany we have seen a similar debate about monuments through Peter Eisenmann’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. Neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists from the AfD are suggesting that this Holocaust memorial is not, as they say, “atmospheric enough” and not “beautiful enough” to be placed so close to the Brandenburg Gate. They argue for it to be moved to the outside of the city where it would be less prominent. The message is very clear: let’s move everything that reminds us of the Holocaust out of the city centre. ■