16 2015
THIS is Issue 1 of PNYX, in which we enlist
the help of Reinhold Martin to dig deep into
the historical origins of our namesake, the
Pn yx, the monthly stage of political !ife in
Periclean Athens. Below, Reinhold investi·
gates the Pnyx as an early site of 'direct
democracy ' and its spatial implications.
Reinhold Mart in
Can political life be described in properly
spatial terms? The question has been asked
many times, often enough with the classical
polis as its principal referent. Not necessarily
coincident with the city or the city-state per
se, the polis is, as Hannah Arendt would have
it, a "space of appearance" before others for
the purposes of "acting and speaking
together" in a political fashion. Although
Arendt uses the term in a general sense, she
locates its origins in Periclean Athens, where
citizens frequently gathered in the urban
space of the agora, or marketplace. However,
while noting that "tyrants" had persistently
sought to transform the Greek agora into "an
assemblage of shops like the bazaars of
oriental despotism," Arendt does not mention
the most visible monument to the polis as a
site of political speech. That would have been
the Bouleuterion (or council chamber)
located in the agora's central precinct, where
soo or so propertied male citizens, serving as
representatives of the people (or demos),
assembled regularly to debate and vote on
day-to-day political matters and attend to the
daily business of the city-state.
Stretched to its widest scope, this scene
constitutes an imaginary ground on which
the figure of democracy has been erected
over the past three centuries or so in
European and North American political
discourse. Reconstructed archaeologically,
the Bouleuterion exhibits several distinct
although hardly unique spatial characteris·
tics, distance from dwelling houses, inward
orientation, and enclosure. Another space,
The Pnyx in Periclean Athens
however, more decisively locates the polis as
topos. During the city-state's periods of
democratic rule, once a month Athenian
citizens would gather in a popular assembly
on the Pnyx. In contrast to the representative
nature of assembly in the Bouleuterion, and
taking into account the complex differentia·
tion of the Athenian populace into socioeco·
nomic strata and by gender, which limited
citizenship and participation in formal
political life to male property holders, the
Pnyx was much closer to being a site of what
we would today call "direct" democracy.
The Pnyx is located on a small hill
adjacent to the agora and opposite the
ancient Acropolis. Today it resembles a large
earthwork, in which a slightly sloped semicir
cular open-air auditorium has been cut into
the side of the hill, facing in wards toward an
orator's podium, or bema. Archaeologists tell
us that us that the Pnyx was constructed in
three stages, from the 6th century BCE
through the 4th century BCE, although it is
unclear whether the third reconstruction
was ever completed. Some accounts point out
the orientation of the auditorium away from
the acropolis, on the slopes of which earlier
assemblies had been held. This seems to
indicate a turning away from divine author·
ity, in a gesture of what our era might call
secularization. Archaeologists do not always
agree on how many citizens typically
occupied the Pnyx during meetings,
although consensus tends t oward 6,ooo,
which was the number required for a
quorum. All sorts of inducements were tried
to encourage or coerce citizens to climb the
hill at dawn to attend the meetings, includ·
ing a stipend for political service not unlike
that offered for jury service. Relatively little
is known about how the assemblies were
conducted, including even such mundane
details as whether participants sat or stood
during the deliberations. Regardless of these
unknowns, it is fair to suggest, I think, that
the popular assemblies held at the Pnyx offer
the most accurate paradigm of Arendt's "space
of appearance" in the ancient polis.
The popular assemblies also help us to grasp
the polis as a set of topological relations. I say
"topological" rather than "topographical" since,
by virtue of its location on a hilltop, the Pnyx,
like the Bouleuterion and like any modern
parliament though by different means, lies
outside the everyday space of the city. It thus
helps constitute the polis by way of a primary
Edited by Adolfo Del Valle & Oskar johanson. Printed by Paperback Press, London.// pnyx.aaschool.ac.uk © PNYX
topological distinction. In Arendt's schema, as
in ancient Athens, the polis stands conceptu·
ally differentiated from the household, or
oikos, as the political is clifferentiated the
social, and as outside is differentiated from
inside. The household is a site of production
and reproduction which, by virtue of being
sharp! y distinguished from the polis while also
supporting it, remains subject to despotic rule
by the same male citizens who - in principal
if not in fact engaged in monthly
democratic deliberations on the Pnyx.
In her idealization of the Athenian model,
which endorses this division of political life
from economic life, or public from private,
Arendt tacitly accepts this contradiction. She
and her interpreters also generalize the
underlying topology into an imaginary map or
diagram by which any city might be
partitioned, in which the "public" space of the
polis is opposed to but also dependent upon
the "private" space of the household. To be
sure, the opposition of public to private is
easily deconstructed, and has been many times.
Among the fragmentary evidence that
archaeologists have adduced to reconstruct
the workings of the Pnyx is a passage from
Aristophanes, in his comedy The Assembrywomen, which was most likely written and
performed in the fourth century BCE. In the
play, a group of Athenian women disguised as
men leave their respective households at
dawn, enter the Pnyx, and join the popular
assembly. There, they propose that women
rather than men govern the polis, and, since
the disguised women are in the majority, they
win the vote and assume power.
In the play's opening scene, as the women
gather on a city street and don their disguises,
they conduct a mock assembly to practice
their speeches and decide who among them
should address the people. After some uncon·
vincing attempts from the others, the play's
protagonist, Praxagora, emerges as the group's
lead orator. Her practice speech is a blend of
accusation ("you, the sovereign people, are
responsible for this mess!"), logic (1 propose
that we turn our governance of the polis to
the women, since they are so competent as
stewards and treasurers of our households"),
and morality ("their [women's] character is
superior to ours"). In that sense, Aristophanes
parodies the arts of persuasion around which a
properly agonistic polis might form. But what
is most interesting for our purposes is that we
never see the women at the Pnyx, indeed, we
never see the Pnyx at all. Having chosen their
representative, the women depart for the
assembly, and, after a choral interlude and an
encounter with the men of Athens dressed in
their wives' clothes (for the women had taken
theirs), the action resumes with Praxagora
presiding over a reformed polis. The polis that
emerges is essentially communist in that it
renders all property common among all
citizens (though slaves remain excluded) and
establishes social equality and sexual freed oms.
But again, our question is less how it does so
than where it does so. If anything, the
symbolic and practical role of the popular
assembly gathered on the Pnyx, by which the
new regime was voted in, gives way to
sedimented, everyday activities that revolve
around food and sex. Still, whatever political
consensus had been achieved was illusory, as it
was obtained by deceit. Underlying antago·
nisms remain. Praxagora makes good on her
proposal to "remodel the city ... into one big
household," while the Pnyx itself remains
offstage. We can interpret its occult position
in three ways, 1. It remains, awaiting further
political deliberation, 2 It is obsolete, as the
post-political utopia has been achieved, or J It
is redundant, as politics has moved into the
Already at the point of origin, then, the
polis was capable of being reconceived as a
household, an oikos to be governed like a
domestic space. That this domestic space writ
large could take the place of the "space of
appearance" (rather than simply become that
space) and still democratically refound the
polis is the anti-essentialist wager with which
we, as moderns, must play.
Orlando on her return to England
This type of political topology. wherein
the polis is potential! y reconstituted
everywhere except in the formal assembly,
which remains outside the frame, is related to
but also different from that imagined by
theorists of a "factory without walls" in which
the social field and the means of production
coincide. It shares with these theorists an
emphasis on the economic sphere, in which
the social factory and the household are one
and the same thing. But rather than conceiv·
ing the metropolis as a factory writ large, or
reverting to the older, Renaissance notion of
the city as a large house, it takes seriously the
reversal of the political order established by
the new hegemony of the social.
However much we justly desire and agitate
for a more robust public realm, then, such a
thing as a reconstituted res publica will remain
condemned to repeat its past unless we attend
to the more basic repetitions on which it is
founded. These are the repetitions of the
sociaL the small, technical rituals by which we
are governed. For that is another way of
describing hegemony, as repetition. And if we
would be wise not to ignore it, we would also
be wise to consider any hegemony capable of
replacing the current order to be one in which
repetition is recognized not only as what
underpins political institutions - like the
once-a-month meetings on the Pnyx - but
also social practice, including the day-to-day
activities of caring for oneself. for others, and
for the collective household.
Housing is one such repetition. It is a
commonplace among architects and urbanists
that housing is a privileged site of political
articulation within the city. For about a
hundred years, the construction and mainte·
nance of housing has been a key arena in
which socialist or welfare states have
attempted to mitigate the predatory effects of
speculative capital. Housing has also been a site
where these two historical agents- states and
markets - have colluded to further the
interests of capital, in the form of real estate
development. None of which, however,
exhausts the real political makeup of what
Friedrich Engels called the "housing question."
In Engels's original formulation that question
extends well beyond the proletarianization of
workers newly migrated to the great, modern
metropolis, though this was clearly a motivat·
ing concern. It opens onto the inherently
political character of the house itself. That, in
our own era of informal labor and immaterial
production, factory and house seem to have
merged, only argues further for a thought
that is capable of considering the house and
with it, housing, as a space in which the agon
repeats, daily. Then, and only then, will we
have grasped the changing topology of the
Reinhold Martin is Associate Prqfossor qf Architecture in the
GSAPP, Columbia University, author, and cofounder qf the
journal Grey Room. This text is excerptedfrom a presentation
given at the Architecture Exchange symposium 'How is
Architecture Political?' held at the AA on 6 December 201 4.
Edited by Adolfo Del Valle & Oskar johanson. Printed by Paperback Press, London.// pnyx.aaschool.ac.uk © PNYX