Thursday, July 4, 2013

Commoditising Architecture

Aditi Surie Von Czechowski critiques the sublimation of architectural form by capital in her discussion of Joshua Comaroff's lecture, "Poor Form". 
Josh Comaroff’s talk on “Poor Form” asks us: “what do we learn about the life of forms, when form itself appears to be challenged?” Comaroff started by foregrounding the oft-incommensurable relationship between architectural practice and the requirements of capital. What does it mean when architectural form fails? In other words, moments in which architecture is awkward, comical, menacing, or tragic; when architects fail to unify the elements of function or scale with design, or when the values to which they are committed are at loggerheads with the logic of rentierism embodied by the buildings themselves.
Comaroff picks moments of “articulate” failures: failures of form that emerge under specific historical circumstances and tell us something significant about their genesis. For an architect, form means something quite specific: the transformation of the functional and technical requirements into a coherent aesthetic form using architectural vocabulary. Most architects see form as inseparable from function, but understand it as a medium for molding all parts of the building in harmony. This holistic idea of form, according to Comaroff, is what is under pressure today, when the relationship between the form of a building and its interior contents often seems arbitrary and contingent. Architecture like this, where there is no notion of form as following function, is emerging globally, particularly in places like China. The building as commodity begins to exert continual pressure on form, as seen in the example of the protean blob with its vast and highly profitable interior, aestheticized as a signifier of high design, but nevertheless vulgar; or in the cases of buildings that exemplify the tensions of tailoring size, density and repetition to high real-estate value and the requirements of investment. The picture below - Thames Town in China, a reproduction of an entire English style town close to Shanghai -  for instance, shows the end result of the logic of repetition and reproduction; a spectacle of architectural mimicry, it embodies the unheimlich:

Comaroff draws on a dazzling array of architectural examples across a spatial and temporal spread, from the Chicago loop to semi-detached houses in Singapore to point to the effects of commodification on the built environment. Architecture, as a commercial enterprise, can no longer use form to subordinate the technical and economic core of a building, or its relationship within a larger context. An example of formal failure might be novelty architecture, or a building of such sheer scale and numbers that an architect cannot express anything but quantity. These awkward forms, then, show the effect of market logic on formal proposition. They show, in Comaroff’s words: “the violence that value asserts on the built environment” – whether thought in the purely rentier terms of maximizing profit at the expense of dead space, or in terms of the maximization of value and the corresponding scales of density in the production of affordable housing.
The title, “Poor Form” is perhaps more adequate than Comaroff originally imagined: it points to both the poverty of forms as well as the both the economic and aesthetic poverty engendered by the move away from architectural formalism – the “drift in which architecture, under the sway of its evolution as an economic substance, floats away even from architecture itself.” Indeed, within the architectural profession, some have espoused the idea that the responsibility and centrality of the architectural profession has suddenly moved away from form.
Like Massimo Cacciari, Comaroff demands that we become aware of what is incommensurable in advanced capitalist societies – that we recognize, rather than sublate, the tragic and farcical elements of modern culture, that we treat these moments as a sort of analytical technique. But whereas for Cacciari, negative thought resides in the “Metropolis,” Comaroff’s architectural examples, though determinedly of the modern city, seem to float somehow above or outside of it as forms in and of themselves. In fact, buildings come to resemble cities in boxes – what he terms “potted urbanism.” Recalling Arjun Appadurai’s opening talk at JWTC, can we connect our understanding of the functioning of financial capitalism and real-estate speculation to the very real problems of architectural form? That is, rather than removing the C from Marx’s M-C-M, can we put it back in with a renewed force?
Comaroff described his intellectual enterprise as a kind of sleight-of-hand – but we can also see the crisis of form in the sleight-of-hand performed by terms like “sustainable architecture” or “architectural renewal” – that is, times when forms do not quite fail, but become entirely beholden to the logic of making capital(ism/s), rather than anything else, sustainable. Here, forms appear adequate, even perfect, but their appropriateness conceals their intended purpose. I am thinking of places like the High Line Park in New York, a gorgeous, once-abandoned railway track that has been rehabilitated into a lovely mid-city-level park. It now draws in hordes of tourists, pushing up real-estate values in the neighbourhood, and “revitalizing” formerly uncared-for areas near the West Side Highway and undesirable parts close to midtown transport hubs. Similarly, parts of East London, the construction of sporting, travel and accommodation infrastructure for the Olympics has brought in a surge in real estate investment and a corresponding exodus of large numbers of working class Londoners who can no longer afford to live there. How are we, then, also to approach the innovation of forms as those which are welcome, but disguise something menacing in the promise of a better-designed, functional-yet-prettier future?
Aditi Surie Von Czechowski is a PhD Candidate in Middle East, South Asian and African Studies, Columbia University

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