Submission deadline:

March 1, 2024

Vesper No. 11: Miserabilia

Rivista di architettura, arti e teoria | Journal of Architecture, Arts & Theory

Miserabilia aims to focus on spaces and spectres of misery in imagination and reality.

Two assumptions underlie it: the removal of the space of existence of misery in the concrete and immaterial context of the West in favour of ‘measurable conditions of poverty’, and the presence of buildings in cities as evidence of a past in which poverty was a ‘matter’ of governance and planning.

Misery in Western societies is today unthinkable and unrepresentable, unspeakable and invisible, exiled to a historical, geographical, cultural elsewhere. Yet, in the past, misery took majestic forms in Italy, for instance, from the Great Schools of Venice to the almshouses for the poor. Monuments gave way to the anonymous architecture of service centres or temporary structures responding to emergency situations. If the monumentality of misery expressed an aesthetics, the architecture of poverty rejects it in the name of functionality: today the space of misery is emptied of phenomenology, evidence, quality, quantity, scale, extension, discourse.

At Iuav in Venice, the theme shaped studies that insisted either on the links between capitalist system, spatial configuration, and social production and control, or on the methods of managing imbalances and conflicts in the city (Astengo, Cacciari, Ceccarelli, De Carlo, Indovina, Secchi, et. al.). The end of the ‘political’ season which envisioned remedial solutions with a view to the ‘abolition of misery’ coincided with the fading of the dialogue between the disciplines engaged in the pursuit of bringing it into focus.

In architecture, misery was the subject of specific observations in historical studies concerned with the massive structures that, by accommodating, educating, and controlling outcasts, compensated for the grandiose displays of power. In 1929 Le Corbusier designed the ‘floating asylum’ for the homeless in Paris; in 1933 the same architect created, with Jeanneret and always inside the French capital, the Citè de Rèfuge: a monument to misery. In 1986 Hejduk designed Abandoned Chapel: Housing for the Homeless for Bovisa, and in 1994 Vidler published The Architectural Uncanny, in which he emphasized the theme of vagabonds in Hejduk’s work. In 2004, Clèment in Manifeste du tiers paysageoverturned the negative meaning attributed to the discarded space, showing it as a place rich in biological diversity. Photography keeps investigating the vitality of the ‘zones’ in which misery is the driving force for experimentation on public space.

In 2015 Branzi and De Lucchi curated ‘The Aesthetics of Misery’ exhibition in Milan, presenting an investigation into forms and scenes of misery. In 2022 in Munich ‘Who’s Next? Homelessness, Architecture and Cities’ exhibited historical and contemporary architectural projects for the homeless. Deliberately removed from cities – consider ‘hostile architecture’ and anti-homeless devices – or associated with studies on the scarcity of resources and materials, misery has no space. Scarcity today is, in the research of various making works in rich territories and cities, a language, often not associated with its content.

In philosophy, misery appears in one of the most classic places of Western thought, Plato’s Symposium: Penia (Misery and Poverty), coupling with Poros (Plenty and Resource), begets Eros (Desire). In modern times, misery remains just as central, but associated with the scarcity of natural resources for subsistence, it becomes increasingly the prerogative of the economic discourse of early liberalism, which, for example in Smith and Malthus, revolves around need rather than desire, polemicising the nascent socialism of Proudhon’s The Philosophy of Misery (1846), to which Marx’s The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) responds.

Foucault in Sécurité, territoire, population (2004) speaks of the ‘invention of poverty’ by the arts of governance from the 17-18th century onwards, which ends up concealing the philosophical significance of misery. In Benjamin’s Erfahrung und Armut (1933) and Deleuze’s Kafka. Pour une littérature mineure (1975) we witness a recovery of misery as a philosophical category, where the already Platonic sense of ‘potentiality’ is highlighted, configuring the possibility of a form of communal life as pointed out in Altissima povertà by Agamben (2011). In even more recent times, the link between desire and the potentiality of misery is seen again in the debates on the environmental crisis as an alternative to the ‘governmental’ implications of the discourse on scarcity and debt.

In sociology, misery represents a kind of limit concept. The exclusion to which it alludes seems to exceed any form of solidarity, as well as the scope of the Weberian Verstehen and the Marxian idea of class itself. Even an eccentric essay such as Soziologie (Simmel 1908) avoids it: the miserable are not included in the interplay of forms of society unlike the foreigner, the enemy, or the poor. Yet even misery has a spatial form. This ‘space of representation’ was denounced as a scandal in How the Other Half Lives (Riis 1890) or explored by documentary sociology after 1929.

However, misery remains an objet caché of the sociological imagination, relegated to areas that are underdeveloped or affected by catastrophic events. Its everyday life re-emerges in an attempt to give voice to ‘invisible’ subjects (Bourdieu 1993). And it forms the background of various ethnographies on extreme forms of marginality, informality and violence interpreted as the result of a punitive turning point and of production processes of hyper-ghettoes and urban outcasts. As Avery Gordon writes, if the feminist, postcolonial and intersectional theory helps to consider misery as sexed, racialized and materially (re)produced, the excessive dimension that defines it, however, would seem to be one that ‘unites’, indicating something that remains and looms, like a spectre.

Misery is therefore a question of space and spatiality, in the reality and in the collective consciousness. In the first place, the architectural space: the evident, theatricalized and flaunted one in the past and the invisible, anonymous, residual and looming, therefore ghostly one, which has gradually taken over. Secondly, the philosophical space of words to designate and speak about misery. Thirdly, the space of words between people, or the social space, what Henri Lefebvre designated as the territory of representation. Where misery is not represented or representable, it does not disappear at all: in anonymity it rather ends up being internalized, expressed at the most in blaming and indebtedness, even in the criminalization of poverty, which is counterbalanced by the moral immiseration of affluent neighbourhoods, increasingly isolated and closed to the rest of the city. The result is an urban space in a permanent state of crisis, where the spectre of impending poverty everywhere ends up legitimizing an art of governing emergency and precariousness.

Only the ‘boundless’, discarded, forgotten space persists as an environment in which misery can settle, set up camp, recognize itself.

Abstracts must be submitted by March 1, 2024
Abstracts acceptance notification by March 15, 2024
Papers submission by May 6, 2024

Publication of “Vesper” No. 11, November 2024

For further information visit and or write to

Share this post

News from the field

On the Traces of Misery

“Miserabilia” investigates spaces and spectres of misery in the imagination and reality of the contemporary Italian urban context. The main objective is the definition of tools for the recognition and investigation of the tangible and intangible manifestations of...