In Architecture from Below, Sérgio Ferro’s lectures and writings address the relationship between architecture and capitalist development

Architecture from Below: An Anthology | Sérgio Ferro | Edited by Silke Kapp and  Mariana Moura  Translated by Ellen Heyward and Ana Naomi de Sousa  | Mack Books  | $38 

Sérgio Ferro was schooled in a progressive vision of architecture. He learned from his teacher, the great Brazilian modernist Vilanova Artigas, that architecture should be “humane, magnanimous, and socially oriented,” or, “the primary art of a free people.” However, Ferro’s belief in the immediate possibility of realizing this vision was profoundly undermined by the experiences and circumstances of his youth. A new book published by MACK, titled Architecture from Below: An Anthology, tells this story through a collection of essays.

In 1957, Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek proposed a gargantuan project for a new capital city for the country. What Ferro and his collaborator Rodrigo Lefévre discovered working as architects at Brasilia, however, shook his faith in his profession. The appalling conditions in which construction workers were living and working stood in stark contradiction of the project’s intended social mission. When Brazil was shaken by the 1964 coup d’état that brought a right-wing military dictatorship to power, many on the left, including Ferro, took up armed struggle against the new regime. Serving a prison term for his actions, Ferro found himself in the company of jailed construction workers who shared with him their experiences of exploitation on building sites. After such experiences Ferro determined he could no longer practice architecture. “For the sake of coherence,” he wrote, “it would have been impossible to continue designing projects while denouncing the exploitative role of design.”

Architecture from Below: An Anthology (Courtesy MACK)

From such experiences Ferro forged a unique perspective on architecture. Appositely captured in the title of this anthology, Architecture from Below, his lectures and writings address the relationship between architecture and capitalist development from the perspective of their conditions of production. This perspective, framed through Ferro’s Marxism, affords important insights into the discipline, the profession, and its relations with capitalism. Until now, these writings were largely unavailable to English readers. These insights bear substantially on the history of architecture, from the late medieval period up to the present, yet they also suggest critical frameworks with which to grasp contemporary issues in architectural labor.

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(Courtesy MACK)

Edited by Silke Kapp and Mariana Moura and translated by Ellen Heyward and Ana Naomi de Sousa, Architecture from Below: An Anthology collates essays by Ferro spanning the period from 1967 to 2014 (with two further volumes already in preparation). Accompanied by illustrations and footnotes, these writings range across the author’s research into the politics and history of architecture, as well as the history of art. Ferro’s overriding concern might well be described as seeking to trace the circumstances and conditions through which architecture came to be a practice distinct from that of construction. To this end, he locates the emergence of the modern figure of the architect in the Italian Renaissance, as a product of the class struggles being played out at this time.

Ferro’s critical history of architectural production, and indeed the historical production of the architect, is relayed across several essays in this anthology. Rather than charting a linear narrative, these essays overlap in their historical content but address this across a range of themes and concerns. Taking the reader from the late medieval period to the present day, their cumulative effect presents a substantial challenge to the received historiography of architecture.

Among Ferro’s overriding concerns is the identification of how and why architecture came to be a practice distinct from that of building. Up until the late medieval period, the various building trades enjoyed a substantial degree of autonomy in the organization and execution of their work. The labor of these workers came, though, to be increasingly directed and determined by external and exploitative social actors. Especially in the development of techniques of architectural drawing—as a means to plan and project building works with and for a wealthy class of patrons—architects accomplished the separation of design from construction, of knowledge from execution. The work of building was effectively deskilled and the status of builders correspondingly diminished.

spread in book by Sergio Ferro

For good reason Ferro bluntly describes architects then and now as “courtiers of capitalism.” Filippo Brunelleschi is called out for special attention in this respect, particularly for the control he exerted over construction workers in building the famous cupola of the Santa Maria del Fiori in Florence. In the service of patrons wanting to mark their victory over the ciompi workers’ uprising of 1378–1382, Brunelleschi “hired workers from a neighboring city in order to break a local strike for higher salaries—only allowing the locals to return once they accepted even lower wages (thus increasing absolute surplus-value).”

The turn from gothic to classicism in the architecture of the Renaissance, seen from the perspective of the building site, also appears in a different cast from that of its usual historical treatment. Rather than marking a significant stage in a linear progression of styles, Ferro argues in the essays “From Strasbourg to Paris” and “From Paris to Dubai,” the turn to classicism was a means for architects to make the existing crafts skills of the stonemason, familiar only in working with the traditional forms of the gothic, redundant. An entire workforce was robbed of skills that it could once have used to negotiate better conditions and compensation for its work. Ferro argued that “[t]he workers from the Gothic period knew the rules, made a fair income, worked only nine months of the year, and above all, were in full possession of their priceless know-how. For the nascent economy, this was unacceptable. These workers had to be tamed, dominated.”

Ferro applies this same logic to our view of the late-19th- and early-20th-century transition from wood and stone to steel and concrete, as addressed in the essay “Concrete as Weapon.” Rather than straightforwardly signaling architecture’s embrace of modernity, these new materials were wielded as weapons in a class war waged by capital against the construction worker. Working in modern materials required different, more abstract forms of knowledge: calculations, structural studies, precise technical details, and exact quantities. The change in building materials thereby transferred knowledge, and with it power, again from workers to architects and engineers and from the building site to the studio or office.

Mobilizing a Marxist understanding of political economy, Ferro effectively captures the logic of class struggle driving these developments: “This turnaround reinforced relative surplus-value, meeting capital’s interests in the face of the increasing pressure for shortening the workday, that is, reducing absolute surplus value.”

black and white photo page spread
(Courtesy MACK)

Ferro also criticizes changes in the outward appearance and material composition of architecture as dishonest and illogical. Classicism conceals the labor of building. Concrete is used counter to the “logic of construction.” “The design which places itself in front of the real construction,” Ferro argues, “has the tendency to appear as a mask.” This line of argument, though, tends to be conflated by Ferro with Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism: where a commodity appears as the immediate expression of its own economic value. Of course, this value is really the product of labor. The “aesthetic dimension” of architecture, Ferro argued, “has an essential subterraneous function for capital: It deviates attention from the place and the moment where the dramatic extortion of surplus value occurs.”

Capitalism is an upside-down world where relationships between things really do dominate those between people. The conflation of architectural appearance with commodity fetishism (Ferro is not the first or the only one to have done this) has the unfortunate effect of implying that addressing the issues of one would resolve those of the other. It would not. Neither by following the logic of construction, nor by allowing the unconcealed expression of labor, could architecture actively undo its role in producing and accumulating value. Even if we know how and where value is so cruelly extorted from the construction worker, the architecture in question serves capitalism no less effectively.

text spread in book by Sergio Ferro
(Courtesy MACK)

Ferro’s larger perspectives concerning the class-based distribution of knowledge and technique remain pertinent. Many architects today find themselves now subject to deskilling—reduced to drones of design software to which they must accommodate themselves as their labor in large and globalized practices is increasingly directed by a small elite. Ferro’s understanding of the relations between capital, labor, and design could not be more important or essential to this predicament, making this new book required reading.

Doug Spencer is a critical theorist of architecture working on his next book, Form and Fetish: Architecture and the Ends of Capitalism (Bloomsbury Academic, 2025).

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