Was there ever a time when architects felt properly valued? Probably not. Certainly not since the profession became dependent on the business of America, which is business. With economic growth as the country’s prime directive through the 20th century, architects—as members of the construction industry—played their part. How? By designing buildings of all kinds that were lighter, cheaper, and quicker to erect. Architects’ values might have been social, artistic, even cosmic, but their value to society has been primarily economic.
Philip Johnson summed it up well when, in Interview magazine in 1989, he declared: “The International Style swept the world because it [came] along at the same time developers wanted to make cheap buildings, and this was cheaper than any other architectures.” Not a word about the style’s “cheapness” could be found in the 1932 show at the Museum of Modern Art that he co-curated with historian Henry-Russell Hitchcock, nor in the book that followed. Johnson knew perfectly well that what accounted for the success of the International Style in Europe—economy and returns to scale—would soon take over America.
The numbers bear out the story. Let us start at midcentury with data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA). In 1955, the share of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the U.S. accounted for by nonmilitary building construction was 5.9%. In 1995, its share of GDP was 7.4%. Sounds good. But building production over the same period increased from 1.7 billion square feet per annum to 3.4 billion square feet per annum. This means that a 100% increase in construction volume was achieved with a 25% increase in percent-GDP expenditure. These figures include residential construction, primarily houses. Remove this component—because very few architects are involved in producing houses—and we find building construction accounting for 3.3% of the GDP in 1955 and dropping to 2% of the GDP in 1995, with annual volume going from 600 million square feet in 1955 to 1.3 billion square feet in 1995. Here, a 116% percent increase in annual floor area was achieved with a 65% decrease in percent GDP  expended.
What do these statistics show? Increasing efficiency? Returns to scale? These are the explanations preferred by economists and the construction industry. But they ignore that the product itself has changed, and also that Americans devoted relatively less of their economic energies to creating, maintaining, or improving the quality of the built environment—and that has had an adverse effect on their quality of life and on the environment. With some exceptions, we’ve been freeriding on the intense, GDP-generating, city-making activities of our 19th and early-20th century forbears. This is why we take out-of-town guests to see our historic neighborhoods and downtowns, old structures, treed squares, high places, and riverfronts, claiming they represent the true spirit of the place and the people, and do not take them to see the same-everywhere architectural litter that is exurbia, the wire-crossed skies of our strip developments, the abandoned industrial zones, the “projects,” the pile-ups of apartment and condo blocks, or mile upon mile of mirror-clad, freeway-side office “parks” and parking lots, fast-food pavilions, and discount retailers, all housed in tired buildings, thin, drained, and numbed, yet somehow able to turn over enough money to keep the lights on and their landlords in loafers. This architectural “material,” which Rem Koolhaas aptly called junkspace, surrounds older American cities (and many European ones, too) like flotsam. Junkspace  surrounds our older cities, but it fairly constitutes our younger ones, like Atlanta, Dallas, and Denver. And all of it was designed by architects.
Politicians rightly raise alarms about America’s crumbling public infrastructure. Our roads and bridges, electrical grid, transportation hubs, sewage systems, and so on, really are falling apart, sometimes dangerously so. Yet few politicians seem to notice, or find worthy of trying to reverse, the parallel degradation of the privately owned, not-so-wealthy components of our cities, suburbs, and countrysides. That degradation reflects the same relative devaluation, the same freeriding. “Let the market take care of that,” say politicians, as they gaze happily at developers’ schemes and think about how to engineer tax breaks. But these schemes, like the lifestyle, shelter, and architecture magazines/sites they resemble, and that architects look at, too, over-represent the exception . When it comes to investing their own money, and when it comes to doing business, Americans on the whole don’t value beautiful buildings and healthy landscapes very much.
Perhaps this is why Biden’s hard-won Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 contains nothing remotely architectural or civic. It’s why bills like it in the future will not reverse the 80-year-long decline  we are talking about. Something else is needed.
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Now, some readers might resist this line of argument by pointing out how expensive buildings are to construct today, and how high rents and real-estate prices have become on a per-square-foot basis. Does this not attest to architecture’s high and robust value? No. To see why, we must spend a few minutes studying how economists infer valuation (and people’s “values”) from investment and spending patterns rather than from prices.
In market economies, per-unit prices do track value, but only roughly, and not directly. So rather than prices directly, economists look at ratios of going prices for a given class of goods (e.g., prepared food, passenger cars, laptop computers). The argument is distillable into this simple formula : the ratio of the values of good A and good B is equal to the ratio of the prices of good A and B in the same class. Other things being equal, people will pay double (or work twice as hard) for something they value twice as much. The actual numerical price of a good (one dollar for an apple, a thousand for a smartphone, etc.) has more to do with the accumulated costs of making and bringing that unit good (or batch of them) to market, as adjusted by the (im)balance of supply and demand.
A more sophisticated measure of value looks at a finite resource, like a fixed income or allotment of space or time, and asks: Given a sudden increase in the availability of this resource, what amount of that increase would (or do) people devote to or spend on more-or-better A versus more-or-better B?  The greater the percent increase in expenditure on good A, as over the percent increase in expenditure on good B, indicates how much more we value A over B. Should thousands of people make the same allocation, the economist becomes entitled to call A, by its nature as it were, a “superior good,” and B an “inferior good,” at least relatively.
Put more simply: superior goods are ones we devote relatively more of our time and money to as we get richer. They tend, mistakenly, to be called “luxury goods.” Normal goods are ones whose fraction of our budget stays steady as we get richer, and inferior goods are the ones we spend proportionately less on as we get richer .
At the scale of the nation, then, architecture is an inferior good.
That’s what the data shows. (See also Figure 1.) While some individuals and organizations might spend proportionately more on their surroundings as they become better off, collectively we do not. Although real wealth per capita in the U.S. has tripled since 1958, the wealthier we have become as a nation, the smaller has been the fraction of our resources and of our collective productive effort that we have devoted to producing, enjoying, and paying for the “utility,” value, benefit (call it what you will) of architecture broadly conceived. That construction costs have risen so much, and with them real estate prices and rents (some would say the latter drives the former), is due to “regular old” inflation compounded by an undersupply, in desirable cities , of housing, further compounded by the general financialization  of the economy. Setting all that aside, the pre–World War II buildings that people prize today—buildings with high ceilings, operable windows, well-defined rooms, clarifying moldings, solid walls, and pleasing decoration, the ones we sigh we can no longer build today “because they would cost too much”—were not cheaper to build back then. Indeed, they were relatively more expensive to build back then, and they absorbed proportionately more of our then-wealth, time, and income. They were built at a time when the norm was that where you lived and worked should be a cause for pride. That norm changed as the century progressed. We have greater wealth now, but also more ways to earn and spend it, communicate, have fun, make money, get together, construct an identity, ensure our futures. The story is one of changing relative values .
Let’s look a little more closely: Figure 1 shows “percent GDP expended per billion square feet built” in the U.S. from 1964 to 2000, excluding military and infrastructure construction and single-family houses. The annual change in this statistic is consistently negative. On the principle described above, that “negativity”—the downward slope—is a measure of new construction’s decreasing value to us per square foot. As a nation doing well by economic measure, we directed a certain amount of time and money to the quality of the places we live and work, true. But we directed all of our gains toward acquiring other goods and enjoying other activities than toward architecture, broadly speaking—among them healthcare, higher education, travel and tourism, insurance, financial investments, sports and entertainment, dining out, personal services, thinner TVs, faster computers, newer phones, cooler cars, smarter machines—the list is long—and bigger houses (which is not the same as better ones). And not just enjoying these things as consumers, but providing them, too, as inventors, workers, and managers, as contributors to the increasingly complex production processes behind these very same goods.
So what is to be done? How might architects, builders, and lovers of fine buildings and landscapes get back into the game and claim more of the GDP? In this series of essays, I will offer 18 “ways,” 18 proposals. Most are aimed at revaluing architecture by enlarging people’s understanding—and perhaps architects’ understanding, too—of what buildings and their surroundings do to enhance life. Many are aimed at adjusting the profession’s institutional and contractual arrangements. Implicit in offering such thoughts is my belief that architects have not made their best case.
But why make the effort, really? Architects have done pretty well these past few decades, and its schools are oversubscribed. Is it to enrich the building trades further, including architects, by inducing more money to flow toward the built environment? Or is it to induce more people to enjoy what architects enjoy—the beauty, the goodness, of a well-designed, well-made, and well-loved environment—the way chefs and musicians want everyone to understand and enjoy their art. I respect the second of these motivations more than the first, as self-interested as both can be. But surely the chief reason to revalue architecture is that achieving a better-designed, better-made, and better-loved environment in all its complexity of process and result would constitute a source of health, wealth, pride, and joy for everyone. Also, it would offer a chance to moderate inequality, as well shall see.
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We are living in a time when climate change has become the preeminent long-term threat to human welfare. Caused by human activity, something has to be done by humans, if the planet is to stay hospitable to existing forms of life. More and more people realize this. Indeed, it has reached the point that for politicians, CEOs, and the techno-professional classes not to address climate change at every turn amounts to a dereliction of duty.
Architects are doubly put on the spot, first because of how much energy their creations consume (buildings account for some 60% of the national energy budget if you include their materials, their manufacture, their heating and cooling, and transportation between them), and second, because architects are popularly perceived to be stylists still, leaving “performance” and efficiency concerns to engineers.
The first observation is true but helplessness-making: even if every new building were to be net-zero in energy consumption and carbon-neutral in energy embodiment, the national/global effect would be unmeasurable for centuries, so vast is the stock of buildings already in use.
The second observation is true but unfortunate, but it goes right to the heart of who/what architects think they are. Consider: the modern movement began in architects’ envy and admiration of the work of engineers, whether structural, mechanical, naval, aeronautical, or automotive. And it resulted in the conviction among architecture’s thought leaders that buildings could be—should be—“machines for living in.” I will not repeat the story here but will point out, rather, how the climate crisis and environmentalism generally since the 1970s rejuvenated the 1930s architecture-as-machine metaphor and, later, the architecture-as-organism metaphor. Set aesthetic consequences aside: as climate and energy concerns intensify, these two metaphors will likely increase in dominance over architecture’s older self-understandings as an art and science with social and symbolic missions, and this is cause for concern. For if we have learned anything about anthropogenic climate change, it is how deeply entwined it is with how our economic system works—or, more specifically, with how capitalism works, intentionally or not—to deplete resources, pollute skies, rivers, and oceans, and generally exceed the carrying capacity of the earth’s natural ecosystems. How economic systems work depends in turn on value systems, on myriad historical, religious, cultural, psychological, political, and, yes, “artistic” factors. “Art” in this context does not mean self-expression, nor only ameliorations of the ugliness of the world—paintings over, decorations. It refers to the songs of canaries. It refers to the stirrings of dawns.
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It follows that the profession of architecture can respond to climate change in two corresponding ways: (1) technologically, with building materials and techniques (e.g., mass timber, recycling) that take less energy to produce, that help sequester carbon, that insulate, ventilate, and air-condition efficiently, all on the grounds that “every little bit helps”; and (2) culturally, with building designs and narratives that allow spatially denser living and working patterns to take root with dignity, as well as the creation of buildings that reward close attention to their finer points because they—the “finer points,” that is—exemplify attitudes to the environment and relationships to each other that defeat the plundering, flattening, financialization tendencies of neoliberal capitalism.
Architecture’s neighboring disciplines—urban design, landscape, interiors—can do the same in their domains. The words they use matter less than the parallel recognition that climate change, economic inequality, environmental degradation, and loss of biodiversity come from a single but immensely complex source: not the sun burning hotter, but the exponentially increased number of humans on earth pursuing what they believe to be goods in a market-driven system. What an enlightened architecture profession needs to address, and perhaps to lead others in addressing, is the idea of qualitative economic growth. Qualitative growth is growth in complexity, which is the desire, the pith, of life itself. Qualitative economic growth can supplant quantitative economic growth, which is mostly what we have now: more of everything, and worse.
Let us have better of everything and more of nothing, then. Let life expand into the space made by complexity. Qualitatively better objects and experiences take more expertise to manufacture and connoisseurship to appreciate, each engendering the other in an upward, virtuous spiral. Better goods cost more, but they earn more, too, so that in a qualitatively growing economy, GDP increase is ensured, though it has a different basis. Better goods are not just more beautiful, meaningful, functional, interesting, and durable, but more ethical , too, with regard to each other and sustainable with regard to nature. How might such a program play out in architecture, but not simply on its behalf? That is the underlying subject of this series. The next essay looks at architecture’s value in the marketplace and the body politic more closely, and concludes with an overview of all 18 proposals to revalue it.
This essay is the first in a series, appearing roughly monthly on Common Edge.
Featured image by the author.