Architecture and capitalism

Event review
Architecture
and Capitalism:
1845 to the Present

Book launch at the Storefront for Art
………and Architecture in Manhattan

Featuring:
Thomas Angotti
Peggy Deamer
Quilian Riano
Michael Sorkin

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The following review of the book release event for the new collection Architecture and Capitalism was first published over at Quaderns d’arquitectura i urbanisme, the journal of the Association of Architects of Catalonia. A trilingual publication, it features articles written in Spanish, English, and Catalan.

Last night’s book launch for Architecture and Capitalism: 1845 to the Present drew a large crowd to the Storefront for Art and Architecture in Lower Manhattan. The precise relation of the event to the newly-released Routledge collection was obscure, however. Of the four featured speakers — Thomas Angotti, Peggy Deamer, Quilian Riano, and Michael Sorkin — only Deamer and Sorkin contributed pieces to the volume. Deamer, the prime mover behind Architecture and Capitalism, wrote the introduction; Sorkin was responsible for its pithy four-page conclusion. Effectively bookending the discussion, then, the book’s themes entered into the conversation in a largely oblique fashion. For the most part, the talk was limited to generalities.

Architecture and Capitalism - Quilian Riano, Michael Sorkin, Peggy Deamer, and Thomas Angotti (photo by Anna Kats)

Architecture and Capitalism: Quilian Riano, Michael Sorkin,
Peggy Deamer, and Thomas Angotti (photo by Anna Kats)

Some of the topics focused on by the speakers were fairly familiar, by now standard fare for reflections on architecture’s role in society. There was reference, of course, to the supremely compromised position of the architect within the existing system of capitalist reproduction. Given the present constraints encountered in the profession, Sorkin and Angotti pointed out, designers are typically bound to the whims of their clients. What little leverage can be mustered during the building process is usually a function of the “name recognition” of their firm. Otherwise, architects have very little say in how their visions are eventually realized, unless they stipulate specific guarantees beforehand (making it far more difficult to secure a contract in the first place). If they don’t follow the instructions or meet the expectations of their employers, in most cases, all funding is cut off and the commission is lost. Questions concerning the supposed ethical obligations of the architect were also raised in this connection. Should architects refuse to lend their name to certain kinds of building projects? Prisons featuring cells for solitary confinement were listed by Sorkin as obvious examples, along with military installations with facilities built-in to serve as torture chambers. Deamer brought up the extraordinary conditions of exploitation suffered by the workers mobilized to construct, for instance, gleaming skyscrapers in Abu Dhabi or Dubai. Not only the living labor involved in their assembly, Riano added somewhat vaguely, but also the dead labor embodied in the materials assembled.

Besides these scattered considerations, more theoretical issues of interpretation were also touched upon. Included here was some debate regarding the relationship between the material “base” of social production and the ideological “superstructure” it supports — that controversial architectural metaphor supplied by Marx over 150 years ago. Continue reading