Friday, June 12, 2009

Beware of the Aristocrats: Architects and the Elite

Whether it's because humans have evolved in response to the challenges foisted on them by nature or because God wanted to ensure that universal agreement and understanding is impossible, people will always take sides. Humans belong to tribes, social classes, nations that compete against each other to obtain limited resources. Politics is by definition the study of this aspect of human behavior, as it tries to explain who gets what and why. There is much that can be understood about a political issue by taking looking at who represents either side. Knowing what cultural norms, values, and world views govern a tribe/class/nation/interest group will reveal lots about their motives and expectations facing an issue. Since there are as many groupings of values and philosophies as there are people and a finite amount of resources (natural and human) and time, political conflict will forever continue to remain with us. Compromises merely suppress long-running conflicts temporarily, or create new unforeseen conflicts (unintended consequences).

I keep the above concept in mind when looking at every issue, but in particular when it comes to environmental policy. As an architect these days it is well near impossible to avoid engaging in this issue. From my observation, architects, in desiring a status as independent craftsmen/artists, are relatively naive about the political dimensions of environmentalism and instead prefer to reflect on its attendant virtues of sustainability and harmony between man and nature. In the real world, we architects' inability to solidly grasp the theory of economic value and the mechanics of wielding political influence makes them incapable in making lots money or effecting real change. As we strive to improve the look and feel of our communities, we are often blissfully unaware of people's economic interests and the major political factions and powerbrokers that make things happen in the real world (...until it slaps us in the face in the form of architectural review committees, value engineering or canceled projects).


For instance, nothing makes us architects happier than to realize a structure that responds poetically to the landscape or achieves efficient ways of harnessing energy. Anything that can result in smaller mechanical rooms or reduced ceiling plenums is welcome by us designers. Smaller A/C units, more compact ductwork, eliminating waterheater closets and elevator machine rooms not only allow us more freedom, they are also usually greener. For urban planners, density in the form of compact infrastructure and utilities is preferred over suburban-style decentralization, and it also delivers greener benefits as well. In isolation such thinking becomes orthodox, and makes design professionals antagonistic to opposing points of view. Outside this architect/planner bubble, such orthodox assumptions look increasingly idealistic. It ignores the valid economic interests of a majority of people, and it is too myopic to consider unintended consequences of translating their ideals into public policy. Issues of cost, personal freedom, and social winners and losers are often not understood fully by us architects.

This myopia among architectural professionals also makes us unaware of where we stand in the existing political landscape. As a result we are repeatedly manipulated by outside factions and movements, with questionable benefits to our profession. Our willingness to side with whatever faction to bring about our own aesthetic and enviromental ideals contributes to the paradoxical way architects are portrayed in society: in spite our fairly middle-class incomes, architects are perceived as elitists. The values that drive our work and our thinking often mirror the values of the economic and political elite. That's not surprising when we realize that our profession almost exclusively depends on these elites for our paycheck. After all, it is extremely difficult to derive an income from middle-class clients alone. Whether we recognize it or not, our political objectives as a profession rarely diverge from those pushed by entities at the very top of society. Architects throughout history have always been, to put it crudely, mercenaries of the powerful- from carrying out the will of kings, popes and aristocrats to putting into concrete the social control on behalf of a modern technocratic state (e.g. Le Corbusier, Albert Speer, et al.)

The political agenda of the socio-economic elite and architects who depend on them continues to converge on the contemporary issue of environmentalism. As a philosophy, environmentalism offers a system of values and morals, an appealing sense of unity with the world for all people of secular persuasion. As a set of policies, however, environmentalism leads to inequitable outcomes that favor governments and their bureaucracies and encourage corporatist big businesses to use regulation hinder competition. Other winners are wealthy people who lament the upward mobility of the social classes beneath them. It is no coincidence that environmentalism emerged to the forefront of social consciousness as soon as a certain level of social wealth had been attained. This is firmly linked to people's natural concerns about quality once the material abundance brought about by prosperity reveals the shallowness of seeking satisfaction from sheer quantity.


To value the quality of things, to consider important yet immaterial matters-- these are luxuries. Before industrialization dramatically raised individual productivity and resulting in a broader distribution of wealth, land and political kinship were practically the only way to enjoy the luxury of contemplating about beauty, philosophy, science and mathematics. This traditional elite, the artistocrats or plutocrats, have been the lifeblood of cultural and intellectual development for most of human history. Although not necessarily the greatest minds themselves, they were benevolent patrons of the most influential artists, musicians, poets and philosophers. One thinks of King Philip of Macedonia and Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci at Amboise Castle, or of the lively salons taking place at a nobleman's (or noblewoman's) house. What are universities or non-profit organizations other than institutionalized salons where people can write, research, or create art and music on the dime of someone else's private trust (a modern legal form of aristocratic patronage) or taxpayer funds? These sorts of modern 'salons' are privileged settings where people can focus on qualitative matters that are given relatively short shrift in the world outside governed by economic rules, even if they rarely produce works of quality.

So it was with reading this post by Brendan O'Neill, a British journalist, about Prince Charles' latest hippocritical crusade, that I was reminded of a scene filled with finely clothed men in long white wigs sitting on plush chaises longues listening to the latest epic from their favorite young poet. The future King of England, inheritor of a tremendous family fortune and one of the biggest beneficiaries of taxpayers' largesse, has dabbled in a number of public issues throughout his non-productive career. One of his main pursuits included architecture, in which he founded a school to promote the revival of traditional design. In recent years he has moved on to champion environmental causes and the virtues of growing organic food all while burning mind-blowing amounts of fuel on his private jet. As O'Neill reminds us, far from demonstrating the courage of conviction, Prince Charles is merely keeping up with his fellow English aristocrats who have played a larger than assumed role in raising environmental awareness. Reading the passage below undermines the idea that the environmental movement is a purely grassroots effort:

...Many of the major players in British environmentalism are posh, rich, and hectoring. One of Charles’s top advisers is Jonathon Porritt, a former director of Friends of the Earth and a patron of the creepy Malthusian outfit, the Optimum Population Trust (OPT). Porritt is a graduate of Eton, Britain’s school of choice for the rich and well-connected, and is the son of Lord Porritt, the 11th Governor General of New Zealand. The increasingly influential OPT also counts Sir Crispin Tickell (who is as posh as his name suggests) and Lady Kulukundis, the wife of a Greek shipping magnate, among its patrons.The head of the organic-promoting Soil Association, Peter Melchett, is also known as the Fourth Baron Melchett: that’s because he is the Eton-educated son of the Baron and Sir, Julian Mond — former chairman of the British Steel Corporation — and is heir to Sir Alfred Mond’s extraordinary ICI fortune...

...Zac Goldsmith, editor of the greens’ monthly bible The Ecologist, is the son of a billionaire (Sir James Goldsmith) and an aristocrat (Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, the daughter of the eighth Marquess of Londonderry.) And if you thought it was grating to be lectured to by the mansion-owning, electricity-zapping Al Gore during his Live Earth bonanza two years ago, then spare a thought for us Brits: during Live Earth, we were given the Gore-approved “Global Warming Survival Handbook,” written by one David de Rothschild. Yes, David is a member of the mind-blowingly wealthy Rothschild banking family and is an heir to its enormous fortune.

Couple the above British "who's who" with their American counterparts, namely the Hollywood elite (like Al Gore's friends Laurie David and Leonardo Dicaprio) and it becomes clear that such consistent support from people at the top should make those of us from below a bit suspicious. If one's convictions are influenced by one's social status, then it make sense to look into why this aristocratic class is so involved in environmental causes. An overriding sense of guilt due to their great fortune is an obvious explanation, similar to my fellow architects' feeling of culpability in destroying natural resources and adding to the energy burden with every building they design. Tied to this is a belief that possesssing a public profile demands protraying oneself as a model citizen. Just as we had chivalry for medieval knights, and social expectations for aristocrats to exemplify virtues of loyalty, respect and a reverence for tradition and intellectualism, today's elites project an embrace of virtues that are judged preferable for public consumption. Being green is good, and no celebrity or European aristocrat could maintain a good reputation by openly shunning it.

Take away environmentalism's emotional and social dimensions, and we are left with its political and economic dimensions. Suddenly the moral standing of the aristocratic eco-warriors crumbles. To begin with, if politics is the study of who gets what, how and why, then it becomes apparent that the aristocrats have the least to lose from environmental policy. Isolated by their wealth from having to struggle daily to make a living, they don't tend to be aware of the vastly different priorities of people below them. Depending on what social status one belongs, priorities will range from the mostly material and monetary for those at the bottom, to ones that cherish qualitative, spiritual and intellectual at the top. Power enables one's priorities to be enacted over another. In an aristocratic arrangement, a small landed elite has power over everyone else and thus enforce their priorities at everyone elses expense. If something is favored by an aristocrat, it is prudent to question the political motives of these self-appointed leaders.

If economics is the study of how goods and services are produced, distributed and consumed, then who would be the least familiar with all this than these very people who don't produce anything but consume a lot? Environmental policies presents serious ramifications to economies worldwide, whether through regulations that that limit production or through subsidies that distort market signals and tax policy. While aiming to clean the environment and reduce carbon emissions, these policies tend to have the unintended (or intended) effect causing economic hardship to many and dragging down national economies through the wasteful use of capital and low productivity. From many contemporary architects' perspective, policies that would force urban density, mass transit and less automobile use would result in a better built environment The aristocrat would tend to agree, but for a potentially different reason: these policies would limit the personal and economic freedoms of the middle classes beneath them and would lower their standard of living relative to their own. It would keep the masses in crammed into cities, which tends to discourage property and home ownership, thus returning more power and influence to an oligarchy led by the governing elite and well-connected families.

Are these the kind of political bedfellows architects want? As a long-time admirer of the many fruits of traditional aristocratic culture, I understand the importance of the finer things that enrich life at an extremely deep level. It drives the passion of many designers and artists, and fulfills us more than the naked  pursuit of profit. Greek and Roman patricians along with most European aristocrats had a high disdain for merchants, traders and self-made men for precisely this reason. But in this age of republican democracy, shouldn't architects respond to the ordinary needs of everyday people? Thus far many of us have been guilty of declaring that we are designing for the people, while in reality it was done from an elitist point of view. We claim to build and plan for the masses, only refer to them so abstractly that we come up with solutions that encumber personal freedom and economic mobility.

By embracing elitist points of view and political causes, architects are logically perceived as part of the world of elite, not of the common man. Our services are considered by most people as a luxury, even if architecture has a useful role in enriching the simplest and cheapest of construction. It's ironic that although the building of shelter or the shaping of functional space are among the most primordial needs of man, the professional most dedicated to such endeavors, the architect, is considered largely unnecessary. If this is to change, it may require a revolution in the way we practice, but it has the promise of enabling architects to become independent advocates of design in the community rather than remote agents of the rich and powerful.

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