edith macefield seattle house

How Winner-Take-All Capitalism Undermines the Real Value of Architecture

It’s been a few weeks now since I responded to the now quasi-infamous piece in Current Affairs, but my claim that the quality of architecture is entirely enslaved to capitalism seems to have sparked both interest and, in the case of Lance Hosey, heavy skepticism.


I’d like to speak to the issues that Hosey raises in his piece, published in Common Edge in late November, because we don’t entirely disagree. Hosey understands the close link between the capitalist economic system and buildings, and even concedes that sometimes, the strong pressures exerted by capitalism on architecture force clients to do things they might not otherwise. Near the beginning of the piece, he makes the point that when clients seek out big-name architects, their “motivation isn’t greed — it’s survival,” since often the construction of attention-grabbing structures on a university campus or similar institution helps to fundraise for other buildings. This situation stems precisely from the relationship to capitalism that I pointed out originally. In our current economy, all buildings are commodities, and it is in the best interest of developers (and of architects) to focus on building ones that are profitable.


The fact that certain types of buildings can turn a profit, though, does not mean that good design in and of itself is always commodifiable, as Hosey implies by citing an Arcadis survey that concluded that the built environment accounts for “some 40% of global GDP every year.” While I wonder how much of that 40% ends up in the pockets of architects and architecture firms, it’s worth pointing out that the “built environment” is not the same as the types of buildings Hosey later refers to, or even as architecture, as it encompasses things like railroads, bridges, power plants, and waterways.


There is no doubt in my mind that the solutions to architecture’s profit problem that Hosey proposes are based in fact and that the studies he cites are rigorous. But they largely remain abstractions. We all know that “best practices in energy efficiency” would be good not only for companies’ bottom lines, but also for the health of our planet and our bodies. Why don’t we widely practice them, then? Because 500 billion dollars in savings from “best practices in energy efficiency” means a 500-billion-dollar loss for someone else.


In order for capitalism to function, corporations have to spend, not save. The system is not built to withstand the kind of trade-offs that Hosey proposes, which may be the reason that they remain largely unimplemented. Further, the majority of architects, working in offices of five or fewer people, are too busy churning out drawings and managing contracts on slim margins to conduct and/or apply any of the research that Hosey cites. And while market forces do not conspire deliberately against architectural beauty, they do prioritize profit over good design. Of course, the way that architects engage with the limits imposed on them by economics has its own cultural logics. Most architects don’t sit in their offices complaining about what capitalism is making them do, but rather think of these compromises as part of their practice.


The problem is not that architects have the wrong ideas about the impact of design. I’d venture a guess that most architects agree that they can influence how someone feels through their design, as Hosey suggests. To indulge in a generalization, architects are typically an idealistic bunch. They get into the profession to make the world better. But, at the end of the day, what architects get paid for is not the quality of their design, because while that might save someone money, the instances in which it makes them money are rare. And unfortunately, architects typically don’t make any more money based on how much they save a client. The vast majority of working architects would be totally out of a job were it not for the legal requirement that they stamp drawings to ensure the well-being of the public. This small piece of regulation is permissible in this economy only because of the immense financial risk that fires and collapses pose to business—risks businesses wouldn’t necessarily check themselves. Hosey’s examples of increased productivity and better mental health due to better design, on the other hand, do not bring about enough material gains or avoid enough losses to merit the same type of regulation. This leaves it in the hands of individual businesses to accept proposals that improve well-being, which I agree are desirable, in the form of sales pitches. Hosey is correct to say that this paradigm needs to shift, but that won’t happen through ideas alone; the logics that rule it are inherent to the power structures of economy and law.


These questions about the value of architecture and how it interfaces with capitalism have been and are being explored at length by Phil Bernstein in his column in The Architect’s Newspaper called “Practice Values.” Like Hosey, Bernstein is invested in finding ways to increase architecture’s value within capitalism, but his strategy finds its roots not in hypotheticals about the “power of design,” but rather in a clear understanding of how capitalism operates and on a determination to position architects “directly in the systems of delivery—the financial and technical protocols by which the architect’s ideas are built.” This could include, among other things, changing fee structures to be based on cost savings to clients, rather than on an hourly basis or on a percentage of construction costs. Bernstein and I still disagree (my strategy is rooted in changing the systems themselves), but his position, similarly to mine, is rooted in an understanding of how the work of architects is valued in our current economy.


In my earlier generalization, I was referring to myself. I got into architecture to make the world more beautiful. I still think that should be possible, whether that beauty and the feelings it evokes make money for anyone. In order to move toward the future we want for the profession of architecture, we must be unabashed in our idealism while still realistic about its present. Hosey’s optimism about the potential of architecture, while admirable, skews his view of the field’s current state of affairs and of the realities of working as an architect today. I think we should have no pretensions about the state of things today, while still insisting that the value of beauty in architecture be beauty itself.


Lead image: the defiant Edith Macefield’s house, in Seattle. 



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