Architecture and social structure

Originally published as part of MAS Context‘s “In Context” section. You can read the full piece over at Iker Gil’s elegantly designed website for the journal, including some pieces I curated from its back issues along new narrative lines.

Architecture today is, first and foremost, a social product. Not just in the sense that it’s constructed by means of a complex, global division of labor (though this also), but at an even more basic level — it both embodies and envisions certain relations between men, as well. Make no mistake of it, however. In no way should this be taken to imply that architecture is produced for the sake of society. Quite the opposite. Like any other commodity, a building comes about socially, through the productive agency of groups and individuals working together. But this work is directed toward ends fundamentally alien to itself; its purpose is not to benefit society or edify mankind but rather serve as a site for the accumulation of capital. Either that, or the built object merely rematerializes that which already floated up from the base, ideological figments and fragments that have outlived the historical conditions from which they arose. These now nestle into mortar, stone, and brick. All that melted into air is made solid once more.

Of course, none of this is to say that great architecture can’t be produced under capitalism. Hardly anything could be further from the truth. The architectural legacy of the modern age is at least as impressive as that which preceded it — whether one begins, as Kaufmann did, with the French revolutionary architects of the eighteenth century, or reaches further back, like Tafuri, to the city-states of the Italian Renaissance. Modernism itself was nothing but the self-conscious attempt to take hold of the forms and forces unleashed by modernity, as the spirit of the times comprehended in concrete. Even if its sociohistoric mission was tragically cut short, the greatest examples of modern architecture are on par with any of the iconic structures of classicism, or for that matter the Gothic or Baroque. Some of what’s come afterward — postmodern populism, neo-avant-gardish deconstructivism, digital Deleuzeanism — has likewise yielded works of enduring value, though these are admittedly fewer and further between. Brilliant formal and technical solutions have been offered to address problems previously thought insoluble under capitalism, and who knows how many architectural innovations that may take place before this chapter of history finally closes.

Yet the fact remains that any social good that results from the erection of a given building is entirely incidental to its primary function: namely, as a reservoir for the storage, collection, and augmentation of value amassed over time. It may double, temporarily, as a conduit for the movement of capital (as money or commodities) through space. Or else it might serve as a site for circulation, the sphere in which the surplus-value of goods forged in the fires of production is realized in exchange. Until society achieves self-mastery, however, and directs the means of production toward its own enrichment — instead of the enrichment or fructification of capital — architecture as a social product will be held captive to an end outside itself, subordinated to a logic of production for production’s sake, in a world it did not design. A revolution worthy of the name would not only allow architecture to liberate its occupants and passersby, but would simultaneously entail the liberation of architecture.

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