Jeremy Till

The Economies of Architecture

The Economies of Architecture

Editorial for Ardeth No. 3. September 2018

The defining virtue of “Ardeth” is that the journal is solely focussed on the projects of architecture. This shifts attention from the visible aspects of architecture, most obviously the production of buildings and the attendant discussions around taste, form and technique. It also moves away from standard narratives of the hero figure of the individual architect who is deemed to have ‘created’ architecture. This is a necessary move because architects are only a small part of architectural and spatial production. Instead “Ardeth” concentrates on the flows of forces, often invisible, that gather before, during and after the moments of architectural creation.

Of all these flows, that of money arguably has the most impact on the projects of architecture and at the same time has remained suppressed in much architectural discourse, at least until very recently. It is as if talking money in some way besmirches the image of architect as artist, floating above the concerns of normal life. The profession has always had a problem in resolving the schism between being a set of businesses against the desired myth of autonomy, with architecture existing in a world set apart. It is easier therefore to suppress or ignore the discussion of money, and its power and influence over the profession.

This issue of “Ardeth” is framed to surface the issues of money and architecture’s relationship to economies. It builds on work of scholars such as Peggy Deamer (2015) and Doug Spencer (2016). What their work, and that collected in this volume, clearly show is that the theories and discipline of architecture are always submitted to the forces of global capital. It is only through a better understanding of the way that contemporary economics cuts across architectural operations and projects that one can learn to deal with these dominant forces in a resistive and transformational manner.

The most obvious entanglement of the architectural project with economy is in the way that buildings are costed. In the United Kingdom at least this whole process of costing gave rise to a new profession, the quantity surveyor. Often derided by architects, quantity surveyors take all the complexities of spatial production and reduce them down to a spreadsheet, over which only they have full control. At a stroke the project is wrested from the hands and values of one profession, and from hereon in is overseen by the methods and values of another. Architecture never really recovers from this moment of severe abstraction: as the bottom line spewed out by the spreadsheet dominates the processes of the project, so the architect is left clinging to a few remnants of aesthetics and technique.

In a standard manoeuvre of neo-liberal economics, the spatial project is then effectively outsourced, as the spreadsheet is carved up into smaller and smaller parts which are offered to an atomised market of subcontractors. Where once the architect oversaw the entire process, now they are left swinging in the wind of economic forces controlled by others. What this financialised system of spatial production enforces is a single view of value, reducing buildings to commodities in a chain of exchange. The actual cost of construction, let alone design fees, is far outweighed by the maintenance and operating costs during the lifetime of the building, which in turn are far exceeded by the cost of operating the business during that lifetime. However, because of the urgent imperative for immediate profit, any sense of design contributing to offsetting maintenance or business costs is sacrificed for short-termism.

As long as the neoliberal market keeps its stranglehold on political and economic policies, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for architects to find real points of resistance. Instead, as Doug Spencer notes in his book The Architecture of Neoliberalism (2016), the profession (including the academic profession) has become complicit in promulgating the forces of neoliberalism, most notably in the willingness of the architectural elite to have their identities exploited and so commodified.

One therefore needs to look beyond the architectural project as normally defined in order to expose the other invisible forces that are part of the wider spatial project. Recent work by a range of scholars and activists (many collected together in Melanie Dodd’s review in this issue of “Ardeth”) has concentrated on the labour that underpins all projects. The structures and manipulations of this labour have rarely entered into architectural discourse or mainstream histories, probably because they interrupt the narrative that the architectural object arrives fully formed, without birth pangs. But it is clear that this standard narrative is a creation myth, constructed to assert the presumed dominance and glory of the architect over the construction world. However, the work of WBYA? (Who Builds Your Architecture?), Contracondutas and others show very clearly that the profession is enmeshed in the various forms of exploitation and control that the construction industry sets up. In parallel, The Architecture Lobby (http://architecture- ) highlight that the profession is far from free of the precarity and exploitation that characterises the rest of the labour force.

It seems too obvious to say that architects, far from being removed from the machinations of money, are in fact deeply implicated in them, and so should be fully aware of them. Critical theory tells us that ignorance of or, worse, turning a blind eye to dominant forces is the way that one gets ensnared by them. Better then to face up to these uncomfortable truths in order to know better how to deal with them. This issue of “Ardeth” does not presume to present prescriptions for economic action, because engagement with economies entails ethical judgement, and ethics in the post-modern era defy certainty or abstraction. As Zygmunt Bauman (1993: 32) notes, “Human reality is messy and ambiguous – and so moral decisions, unlike abstract ethical principles, are ambivalent”. Instead the various contributors bring to the surface thematics that might otherwise have been suppressed; by bringing these concerns to our attention they ask us to position ourselves in relation to them.

The call for papers suggested a number of themes to frame submissions. The first is Economies of Work, a topic that this issue covers in some depth. As an educator I am continually reminded of, and disturbed by, the mismatch between the false hopes that are set up for students and the frail economic future that they face. The profession by so fully participating in the economic markets, has left itself exposed. A pincer movement of declining fees in a competitive marketplace and the scope of architectural work being reduced as others have entered the system has meant that the architectural economy has been radically cut in the past twenty years. It may be too late to reverse this situation, but attention to the mechanisms that have given rise to it is a good starting point, as is the assertion of other forms of value in the built environment beyond that of pure financial exchange.

The second theme is The Economies of Theory. The so-called “post-critical” turn in architectural theory and practice may be read as at best a pragmatic acceptance of the prevailing economic orthodoxy, and at worst a full-blown complicity with it (Baird, 2004). It is doubtful that Michael Speaks’ (2002) contrarian polemic asserting that architectural practice and theory should align with corporate management practices was taken as a blueprint for action, but it - and others in the same field (Solon, Whiting, 2002) - did sanction a displacement from notions of resistance. Such disavowal of the critical role of theory is simply another sign of capitulation to the brilliant subterfuge that capitalism presents, namely that there is no alternative. Against this, the role of theory has to be reasserted, not in an instrumental manner, but as an imaginary that allows other forms of spatial economy to be proposed and thought through.

The third theme is The Economies of Stuff. Architecture is at is most basic level about the combination of different forms of matter, of material and products. Construction, to trace its etymology, is an action of piling up (construere in Latin means “to pile together”). These bits of matter are then subject to the evaluation of the market and treated as commodities of exchange. Other systems on evaluation sometimes intervene, most notably those of environmental assessment, but even these are subject to the strict measure of quantity so as to be entered into the abstraction of LEED, Passivhaus or BREEAM spreadsheets. Overlaid on all this are the risk-determined curbs of the insurance industry, who rule that an ever-smaller range of materials and products be allowed. A UK architect was recently told by a contractor to get rid of all rooflights because “they leak.” “But, you are installing them,” she protested, “make sure they don’t leak!”, only to be met with the cold stare of risk avoidance. In the face of such curtailment we need to envisage other economies of stuff – those that envisage supply chains beyond the multi-national corporates, those that allow for disassembly and reuse, those that value processes of assembly as much as what is assembled.

The fourth theme is that of The Economies of Value. It has become a commonplace to argue that architecture, at least in the 1% version of its stars, is employed to increase the cultural capital, and hence economic value, of global development. The names of those 1% are used as marketing devices, and name alone is enough: what is produced is often of dubious merit. What this shorthand argument ignores is the 99%, who exist below the gaze of the media: sometimes struggling to do the very best they can in constrained circumstances but often simply closed down by value-engineering and the dismissal of any other form of value beyond the economic. Once again, the conceptual and actual constrictions of capital exclude the appreciation or appraisal of other forms of value. We need urgently to bring these other forms of value back to the forefront – to talk of how architecture is bound to forms of social value, of environmental value, of cultural value. Each of these is not mutually exclusive to economic value, so we also need better evidence and argument of how these different forms of value are also consistent with versions of economic value.

The final theme is that of The Economies of the Future. With the spectre of the collapse of capitalism haunting much current political debate, we need to start thinking about other economic models and their spatial implications. We asked how such alternative models might inflect on architectural operations, from the nature of practice to new spatial and material figurations. If answers were not directly forthcoming from our contributors, then that is perhaps an indication of the challenge of the question. But if I have learnt one thing from being part of this issue of “Ardeth”, it is this: we must, really must, believe that other models are possible, and that these other economic forms will produce new social, and hence spatial formations. In this light a priority of the project of architecture becomes one of acting as agent for the spatial imagining and realisation of new economic futures.

Spencer, D. (2016), The Architecture of Neoliberalism: How Contemporary Architecture Became an Instrument of Control and Compliance, New York, Bloomsbury Academic.

Deamer, P. (2015), The Architect as Worker, London, Bloomsbury.

Bauman, Z. (1993), Postmodern Ethics, Oxford, Blackwell.
Baird, G. (2004), Criticality and Its Discontents, "Harvard Design Magazine", n. 21, pp. 1– 6.

Speaks, M. (2002), Design Intelligence and the New Economy, "Architectural Record", n. XX pp. 72–79.

Somol, R., Whiting, S. (2002), Notes around the Doppler Effect and Other Moods of Modernism, "Perspecta", n. 33, pp. 72–77.