Banner image Essay 2

On the Waning Value of Architecture in an Increasingly Complex World

In the first essay of this series, “18 Ways to Make Architecture Matter,” I described how, despite escalating construction costs, the value of buildings and their environs—as a category of goods among other categories of goods—has been declining in the U.S. for around 80 years. The basis for this conclusion came, first, from simply looking at the hardened neighborhoods, neglected building stock, and careless miles of what Rem Koolhaas called junkspace and wondering why they exist here in America, one of the richest countries in the world. And it came, second, from learning, by way of economic research, that since the 1930s, millions more square feet have been built per year each year—rising at a rate greater than U.S. population growth—while consuming/generating an ever-smaller share of the Gross Domestic Product.

Now, it is perfectly natural for certain industries and sectors of the economy to grow while others shrink. Institutions evolve, technologies improve, tastes change. In market economies, allocations of resources follow appraisals of relative value-in-return, with the result that what most people need gets produced first, what most people want more of (for long enough) gets produced most efficiently, and what enough people want better of gets produced more sensitively and intelligently. We should be happy with this result, and not surprised. The marketplace, after all, is where people “vote with their dollars” on a daily basis. It’s where people communicate their wants and offer their skills at a very fine grain; and these two processes give the market, as an institution, a kind of wisdom. To respect the market’s wisdom, let it be noted, does not require us to disparage government in principle, or to join the neoliberal fold: we can agree that markets must be regulated, that the vulnerable must be protected, and that public goods [1] must be provided, and agree as well with thinkers like F. A. Hayek, following Adam Smith, that the complexity of a large and modern nation’s efforts to meet its millions of citizens’ needs and desires is so great that no central planning, pricing, or incentive system could handle the information load. Nor could any centralized, deliberative political system. For a country to prosper in the modern age, it fairly must let its people invent, produce, compete, price, sell, consume, invest, trade, and travel—as well as inquire, argue, risk, enjoy, and associate with each other—as freely as possible. [2]

The extent, then, to which we assent to the market’s wisdom (we need not think of it as perfect), is the extent to which people who champion pursuits demonstrably losing share of the GDP over the long term, like architecture, have simply to accept the situation and adapt. [3] After all, the People have voted. [4]

Or at least, the majority of people have voted. And therein lies the traditional “out” for prospering architects, their way to adapt. For while architects can take pride in examples of “architecture for the people”—by which I mean civic and cultural buildings [5] that are “better than they have to be”—and while they can point out, correctly, that since the effects of most private buildings in the city reach far beyond their property lines and so are, in part, public goods too, [6] most architects actually ply their trade among the very few individuals and organizations doing well, for whom architecture is a normal or superior good. [7] These people and organizations—clients, but also others—are not always the elites that populists scorn: snobs, Europhiles, etc. Nor are they always developers seeking prestige while treating their buildings as rent-producing wells or tradable financial apparati. [8] Many are individuals and organizations who, for one reason or another—who, for reasons we can discover—place more-than-usual value on the health and beauty of their surroundings. These are people peculiarly willing to devote more of their rising good fortune to the project of environmental improvement, and/or who are resistant to cutting expenditures on that project when their fortunes decline.

As for the built-world-in-general’s scrappy appearance and rundown physical condition, practicing architects tend to be realists, accepting with a sigh that the bulk of the built landscape is destined to be hastily erected, and soon neglected, for reasons beyond their control. [9]

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Before offering my suggestions for how to resist this conclusion without Overthrowing Capitalism, let me explain how I differ from some of my equally idealistic, design-oriented friends. I mean architects, enthralled by the Bauhaus project, who believe strongly in the power of design. Is it not true (they ask rhetorically) that cheap things can be beautiful and expensive things ugly, that cheap things can be useful and expensive things useless? The difference is design, they will tell you, and design creativity is the architect’s trump card. Indeed, the meagerer the budget the better, and also, the faster the pace; for then design creativity becomes more essential. With ingenuity, wit, grit, and command of the latest and/or most appropriate technologies, creative architects can make wonderful architecture for anyone, at all price levels, anywhere!

To such colleagues I reply, regretfully, that any style or technique that succeeds in making buildings legally cheaper will do a long-term disservice to the profession and to the environment, just as it did in the 1930s. (Recall Philip Johnson in my prior essay.) Quality costs time and money; always has, always will. Until and unless architecture returns to being a normal or superior good for most people, cheaper styles and faster construction techniques will continue to lower the bar of “normal” construction costs and, with soon-to-be-AI-assisted CAD and BIM, lower the bar of normal design fees, too. Mainstream economists may call this progress, but it’s the kind of progress that will further shrink architecture’s claim on the GDP and so keep it an inferior good. Although it will be punctuated by short periods of marvel at some architects’ creative, more-for-less ingenuity, attention to the built environment at all will continue to spiral downward, this as that ingenuity is copied, its value is monetized, and the “savings” achieved are siphoned off to spend/invest elsewhere, on other kinds of goods, services, and experiences. [10]

The second problem with architects’ pride in their creativity will get its own essay: in brief, it is the loss of their bargaining power when competing with (representatives of) life’s intransigent “realities.” Who do you think gets to go back to the drawing board? No, in the long run, and for the sake of a better quality of life through placemaking and place-experience for everyone, it behooves architects to argue why buildings and their environs should cost more, not less, and give true value back in return. [11]

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I will have more to say about architects’ unreasonable belief in the power of their creativity. That clever ideas and new technologies can yield the treasured “more for less” cannot be denied. Indeed, it is a good thing, as long as we take care to examine what the “more” consists in, for whom it is accrued, and where the savings are going. Care is needed. And a modicum of power. For in addition to architects’ belief in their own creativity, there is a second belief to which they are prone, one which makes them easy prey to economizers and value engineers. This belief goes back to 16th century Europe and the Reformation. (I will be brief.)

Recall that among the Catholic Church’s greatest “excesses” by the 16th century was its architecture: the very size of its churches and monasteries, the degree of their embellishment, the political power they represented. Less appreciated by Protestant reformers was that excess’s salutary effect on the general economy on Europe from the 10th century through the Industrial Revolution. Churches and monasteries greatly stimulated the growth of towns, both during their lengthy construction periods by providing meaningful and skilled employ, and later by the pilgrimages they generated, which stimulated all manner of “travel services,” from new roads and bridges to coaches, inns, taverns, caterers, guides, and robbers. The great churches of Europe were competitive with each other—they were the Bilbao Museums of their day—and to build them took generations of architects, painters, sculptors, carpenters, fitters, stonemasons and carvers, glassmakers, and metalworkers, plus laborers and transporters and lumbermen and miners, plus musicians, writers, and mathematicians, along with the townsfolk necessary to house, feed, dress, educate, heal, and entertain these workers and themselves. Simply put, a Catholic church was not a simple object, economically, culturally, or visually. [12] Glory was the controlling idea: the glory of God, the glory of Christ, the glory of Creation manifest and, of course, the glory of the Church itself. Money cost was “no object.”

All this, thought Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, had to go. [13] Instead of subservience to priests over priests arranged in a hierarchy, belief in an egalitarian “priesthood of believers”—of believers in God to be sure, but also in the fact that with “purity of heart” and “poverty of spirit,” direct contact between every Christian and God was possible. And instead of virtue in the complexity of sacred architecture, virtue in its humility and simplicity. [14] After the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, Protestant churches could and would be many, and small. Iconography would be all but absent; construction would be honest and direct, forms clear and unembellished. Gestures of power would be downplayed. Among upper-caste Protestants, wealth would not be ostentatiously displayed, either in clothing or in building, but transmuted into rare materials, fine details, and extreme cleanliness. Ideal behavior would combine studied un-exceptionality with grace-fulness. Instead of sinners seeking absolution from religious authorities, people would reflect on each other’s faithfulness and moral character, bring failings to public attention, and pray. Such were Protestant ideals.

The story of industrialization aside, it would not be wrong to see in such ideals the moral justifications for modern architecture. To see them deployed, we have only to read the essays of Adolf Loos or the rhetoric of Hendrik Berlage, Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, or the young Le Corbusier. Add Alvar Aalto (Wright was on a different track, as was Ruskin), and you have the source of the moral mandate, active to this day, to prefer simplicity over complexity, “poverty” over splendor, functionality over symbolism, and waste-not-want-not efficiency (including efficiency in the “rational pursuit of economic gain,” as Max Weber put it in his 1934 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) over density, difficulty, tribute, or joy. 

There is much to praise in Protestant ideals, and much to be grateful for. But there are several drawbacks to architects’ adopting Protestant ideals too literally, as we have begun to see. One is the shame architects feel when cost-cutting is subtly posed to them as an exercise in spiritual elevation, as proper modesty, or as the giving of “freedom” to future occupants—all these things instead of what it really is, which is their clients’ preferring to direct resources elsewhere. 

Another drawback, philosophically deeper, is that the humility/simplicity/efficiency directive of the Protestant “ethic” Weber describes neither reflects nor promotes life as it really is. I mean life, first, in a biological sense, i.e., as having evolved over millions of years in (and as) innumerable microbes, plants, and animals interacting with each other, and life, second, in an existential, personal sense, i.e. as something that we—you and I—want to live for the longest time possible and to the fullest degree. In both these senses of the word, life is exceedingly complex—and increasingly so. Life is, by nature, excessive, fecund, extravagant, baroque, heeding, and heedless. It is shimmery at the surface and yet endlessly deep. It is ever repeating and yet never redundant. It is saturated with symmetries leavened by chance—and it is sublime. Life is short and long, subtle and obvious, miniscule and enormous, ancient and new. “Desiring” only one thing—which is more of itself in quantity, quality, and variety—life is glorious from foundation to crown. It is anything but simple and efficient. [14]

It should not surprise us, then, that the most quality-of-life-producing and quality-goods-exporting countries in the world are also the most complexly developed ones, industrially, socially, and culturally. [15] The reader may remember my introduction to the idea of qualitative (as over quantitative) economic growth in the previous essay. With this economic consequence in mind, as well as with the deeper lesson, taken to heart, that life is complexity accepted, embodied, managed, and pursued, the next essay starts to explore the 18 practical suggestions I have assembled to revalue architecture in the U.S.— to wit, the “18 ways to make architecture matter.” None of them would make life simpler or more efficient. Just better, and a touch more glorious. 

Featured image by the author.



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