The Infrastructure of Participation: Cultural Centres in Postwar Europe


Kenny Cupers
in: Martino Stierli and Mechtild Widrich (ads.), Participation in Art and Architecture: Spaces of Participation and Occupation, 2016

Participation is enjoying a peculiar resurgence in contemporary art and architecture. Although invigorated by political and aesthetic theories from Henri Lefebvre’s to Nicolas Bourriaud’s, the current debate suffers from the type of forgetfulness that characterises cultural revivals of many sorts. Whether they uphold participation as the motor of democratic politics or dismiss it as a surreptitious technique of domination, contemporary critics understand its rise primarily in light of the civil rights movements of the 1960s and the protests of May 1968. Thus, they tend to posit the politics of participation as a matter of resistance against dominant social structures and norms—a revolutionary moment that was co-opted in subsequent decades to become part of a machinery of institutionalised decision-making. Such a view reinforces a dialectical understanding of participation as situated between resistance and domination.

This essay argues that the contemporary problematic of participation in the arts is based on a crucial misunderstanding of its historical development. Rather than excavating the reflections of radical politics in the cultural production of the 1960s and 1970s, the rise of participation needs to be situated in a longer historical trajectory that encompasses not only the politics of empowerment and democratisation but also the major forces with which it was enmeshed. These forces are the bureaucratic development of the welfare state and a burgeoning culture of leisure and mass consumption throughout the twentieth century. Therefore, this essay analyses participation in the context of a set of government policies, architectural experiments, and social ambitions as they converged in the making of the ‘cultural centre.’ An ambiguous mix of arts, recreation, and community facilities, it was known in France and French-speaking regions as maison de la culture or centre culturel, in German-speaking countries as Kulturhaus or Freizeitzentrum, in the Netherlands and Flanders as cultureel centrum or ontmoetingscentrum, and so forth. Such centres proliferated especially during the 1960s and 1970s. However, the cultural centre as a type of institution was long in the making, and its historical development is crucial to understanding why it became such a widespread vehicle for cultural participation in towns across post-war Europe.

Largely ignored by cultural critics today, the large-scale production of such facilities during this period amounts to a historical shift that fundamentally confounds distinctions between resistance and domination in the politics of participation. Rather than celebrating a post-war avant-garde of artists and architects and coming to the conclusion that their radical politics were not manifested in the world at large, or were corrupted in the interest of the powerful, this essay provides today’s critics with the possibility of an alternative historical outlook. It does so by taking a decidedly more pedestrian route. The first part places the cultural centre within the historical context of a variety of new social, cultural, and community facilities dating back to the late-nineteenth century. Supported by a variety of social movements and political ideologies, these institutions gradually entered into the purview of the welfare state. During the post-war period, cultural centres proliferated as part of large-scale state-sponsored construction programs on both sides of the Cold War divide. Although policy-makers tapped into nationally distinct traditions and harnessed the institution for a variety of political goals, they were surprisingly united in their emphasis on the cultural institution as a facilitator of participation, even if “participation” was often understood in restricted terms. The second part of the essay focuses on the architectural manifestations of these state-led ambitions. Although a variety of spatial and stylistic concepts had been employed to shape cultural institutions earlier in the century, post-war architects employed modernist forms to represent changing ideas about welfare, culture, and participation. Even more important than concerns with representation was the question of how architecture could actively stimulate the participation of its users. How should the cultural centre be designed to facilitate such participation? Could the infrastructure of participation actually be designed?

Image: Animation hall of the Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels © PSK Archives