Thursday, December 27, 2007

Building a Better World: Why elite designers keep worshipping power

Recently I listened to a podcast hosted by Glenn and Helen Reynolds in which discussion revolved around the persistent strain of statist totalitarian philosophy that subliminally resides in contemporary political discourse. At one point in the program Glenn made a reference to Le Corbusier's dedicating his architectural manifestos "To Authority..." as a way of illustrating the common belief that government was to function as the master planner and allocator of a nation's resources in order to achieve utopian social goals.

Such appeals to state authority during the interwar period had become a standard tactic perfectly complementing the rise of highly mobilized and increasingly pervasive state apparatus found in socialism and fascism. We can accuse Le Corbusier and Philip Johnson for sullying their reputations for their involvement with communists and fascists, or for the Bauhaus school for being originally founded by a socialist worker's council, but in the end it became a default mindset to desire an omnipotent and hopefully benevolent state that would usher in radical social progress. Mild transcendentalist libertarians like Frank Lloyd Wright were intellectually out of the loop during the interwar period.

Nowadays we like to shrug off Le Corbusier's naive embrace for unlimited government power to build the cities of tomorrow, pointing out that people prefer not to be treated as mere units to be arbitrarily arranged at the planner's own discretion. After numerous experiments with Modernist town planning resulted in continued social failure, changes were made to supposedly improve the Corbusian model in the hopes of improving the project's appeal to residents as well as to curb endemic social pathologies. Large-scale social housing projects continue to be built with much willing participation by talented young architects looking for their big break, each putting their own ingenious spin on the multi-family Corbusian prototype. In most parts of the world, the planning of communities has not evolved all that much from a man who appealed to authority and awaited impatiently the coming of an all powerful state to set things right (and obviously guided by the architect's god-like genius).

The reason I say that not much has changed in the worldview of many high-design architects is that few if any have made the radical leap in their conception of state power. In the design and building of a better world, the question is never whether the state has too much power. Rather, the question becomes: how can the state acquire more power so that the proper thing can be done? Of course, contemporary designer architects are not political theorists, and such abstract thinking about state power is never meditated on nor even clearly articulated. Rather this unconscious draw to state power is revealed by the kind of projects they choose to highlight in their journals, books and even internet sites. Beyond the multi-million dollar houses exhibited, one often finds projects made possible either by government funds or tax-exempt cultural institutions where matters relating to profitability are outside the scope. And thus architecture magazines are loaded with shiny images of museums, performance halls, stadiums, public housing and university buildings. At school, the curriculum in the studio courses called for public housing, galleries, interpetive centers, museums, arts facilities and a brand new downtown district for a Dutch city.

Design specialties that tend to be market-focused, such as retail shopping centers, resort hotels, mid-priced apartments, office buildings and 99.9% of single-family houses are given little to no attention. Specialties requiring detailed programatic knowledge and the maximizing of efficiency such as hospitals, penitentiaries, or assisted living centers are for the most part equally ignored. Architecture journals and publishers of architect produce what they like and are inspired by. In a better world, more money should be spent on the kind of buildings high-design architects enjoy doing, projects liberated from the mundane cares of liberal capitalist society like private property rights, limited budgets, eeking out profits, and desire average people to simply be left alone.

In a better world, architecture firms would not be run like a business but more like a collaborative studio workshop, where fees are considered secondary compared to the opportunity of creating something truly spectacular and endowing it with a high-minded moral purpose. There is no need to watch the bottom line, nor worry about how much to pay your workers since it should be an honor to the have the privilege to be part of such important work (which describes what actually happens in many of the most high-end boutique firms worldwide).

In a better world, government would be structured in a way that would favor architects, managing a limitless number of public works projects to keep everyone busy and enacting regulations and policies that conform to their ideals, from proper town planning to strict environmental policies that would prevent individual non-designers from realizing their own buildings without adequate guidance from professionals who better understand the expanding minefield of approved materials and methods. Instead of winning jobs by pleasing repeatedly pleasing the client or skillfully marketing potential target opportunities, competitions judged by culturally enlightened dignitaries and sympathetic architects would be the main means of selecting designers for all sorts of civic projects. It would ensure a consistently high level of creative and artistic quality while jettisoning the need for designers to balance both conceptual depth and running an enterprise of dedicated employees who seek stable careers. Quality would prevail over profitability, exquite detailing and technological sophistication triumphing over pragramatic simplicity that aims to be just good enough.

In a better world, preparing for war would not be a priority. Rather, all that money supposedly wasted on national defense could be more productively spent on even more government-comissioned public works projects. Some of those projects could function as a solution to global conflict, such as centers for peace, memorials or museums recalling this or that episode of genocide, goodwill bridges, and more international sports festivals such as the olympics that always call for additional garissons of architects. Better yet, redevelop areas devastated by war in such a thoughtful way so as to prevent social upheaval or inter-ethnic strife. Just as career diplomats put their faith in papering over inter-state conflicts with one toothless accord after the next, some elite architects and their clients (often non-profit foundations determined to do good without achieving any meaningful reform) believe in the spiritual and emotional power of buildings and cities to overcome unresolvable political fissures.

A case in point was an article I came across about the design of the new headquarters for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by Thom Mayne of Morphosis. Much of the article discusses the tension between the satellite center's users and the architect's bold vision. Making a practical building was already quite a challenge, but containing a soaring budget had become almost impossible when the federal government chose Mayne to design their edifices. Mr. Mayne appears to have no qualms, stating:"Why waste money on public buildings? Well, what else are you going to do to represent a culture?" He then goes on to equate the cost of his buildings with the amount of money the government spends on the Iraq war per hour, so as to avoid evaluating the cost of his project in absolute terms. By describing the cost of his projects in terms of how the same money could be spent on a war is an open declaration of Mr. Mayne's political values and an honest expression of where he thinks government funds should go. Far be it for a state to perform its most fundamental role (defend property from outside enemies) or achieve critical goals in ensuring a stable balance of power around the globe; rather, it should be spending unlimited sums on unnecessary architectural monuments to bloated government bureaucracy.

To this day I still remember statements made in a blog post at BLDGBLOG, one of the largest architecture blogs around. In writing about the development of a brand-new city by the communist chinese government that will implement to the most green technologies. It was apparent that Geoff Manaugh was awe-struck by the shear scale and ambition of the project, and that this somehow shoud shame Americans in trying to supersede it by launching an even more technically superior city built and designed from scratch. Manaugh writes,

"Compare that to the hum-drum initiatives under discussion now to rebuild New Orleans, and you can't help but conclude that the United States is in such an advanced state of structural decrepitude and urban-imaginative bankruptcy that opening up a few branches of CVS or a Ross Dress For Less somehow passes for successful urbanism."

Although building brand new communities at the small scale is an American tradition, building humongous planned cities by marshalling unlimited amounts of cheap and abused labor and discouraging the rights of private property owners is not in our cultural DNA. Somehow it is imaginatively bankrupt to foster a loose and decentralized blueprint that ensures maximum mobility and flexibility, but it is successful urbanism to dredge up Corbusian fantasies a la chinoise, a fantasy that requires tremendous amounts of state coercion and the inefficient acquisition of economic resources by the state that would have been more productively used by private enterprise.

As for New Orleans, the federal government's response to rebuild reveals several things: For all the billions funneled into the recovery effort, it is to be expected that much of the money has not been put to good use, which is to be expected when federal agencies manage anything. Second, public did not seem to be all that favorable to initiating a massively scaled rebuilding of a city that is below sea level, in particular when it was the result of another previous large-scale public works projects (Army Corps of Engineers' design of the Mississippi valley flood control system). An lastly, as the New Orleans has slowly recovered, the population has risen to about two-thirds the pre-Katrina level, which, having lived there myself, is probably sensible considering a good third were not up to much and not benefiting themselves by living in New Orleans. As the city could only the sustain the livelihoods of up to a certain number of inhabitants, it is not apparent that a massive public works undertaking would ensure long term growth and prosperity for the additional population. What is actually more fascinating and something few other countries around the world could accomplish is the successful relocation and significant improvements in the daily life of the poorest New Orleaneans who have found more welcoming homes in other cities so quickly. The logistics of such a massive evacuation in addition to the limitless numbers of volunteers and financial donations in such a short period of time attests to America's resilience and decentralized dynamism. This perspective cherishes individual resolve, economic flexibility, and voluntary association and providing solutions at the local level. It doesn't offer a sexy urban vision for aspiring and unadmitted power-hungry urban designers that would seem to prefer a massive mobilization of subjects to build something no one really needs.

As a self-confessed libertarian on many topics, it's not that I'm disturbed that elite high-design architects and the avant-garde urban planners would like to increase state power to build more projects to their liking. But rather it's that they do not want to openly admit they worship centralized political power, a form of enlightened despot that concurs with their visions for a better world: a world that reveres artistic passion over economic self-interest, constructing new cities and constantly reimagining the built environment (as if it needs it anyhow), and foresaking the government's role to provide for the national defense in favor of centralized construction policies.

This better world hasn't fully manifested itself yet, but as I browse the glossy architecture magazines these days, it's obvious that there is a part of the world that almost fits the bill as a better world: Europe. Some contemporary buildings there are amazing and gorgeously inspired, but it is also an extremely difficult environment for many who dream to practice architecture but are not part of an thin elite class of gifted designers. They build and they build, but even the most cutting-edge of schemes fails significantly ameliorate social misery and unrest. As they continue to build for a better world, I wonder if these conscientious creators ask themselves if in reality that have unknowingly made it worse.

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