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The polarization of architecture

The pursuit of architectural innovation through commercial means depends on large accumulations of capital. Architects for centuries have come to cherish the possibility of finding a client that could operate as a benefactor for the development of their architectural vision. An iconic example can be studied in the relationship that Frank Gehry established with Peter Lewis and the development of the Lewis Residence. As noted by Paul Goldberg, the reputation of Gehry allowed him to gather rich and adventurous clients, where Peter Lewis, who had earned billions in the insurance business, would spend six years and more than $6 million in fees having Gehry design multiple versions of an $82 million house that Lewis would ultimately choose not to build.7 Gehry later acknowledged that the support received by Lewis equated to his receiving a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” money that would allow Gehry to develop his most advanced ideas with no strings attached.8

It is fair to say that there are not enough clients like Peter Lewis and that it is unrealistic to cultivate such design expectations in architectural education. Nevertheless, a disproportionate amount of architectural research and education is dedicated to commissions that could only be supported by such an improbable client.

The field has become aware of this disproportionate interest for artistic exercise and has articulated a backlash in recent years. Architecture has attempted to rediscover an ethical compass by emphasizing humanitarian and low-income projects. The 2016 Venice Architecture Biennial, curated by Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, emphasized architects who have created solutions for segregated or misrepresented populations. These efforts are attempting to counter and critique architecture practice as subservient to what Naomi Klein has called “Shock Capitalism,”’ turning the gaze toward architecture engaging with the victims of dispossessions and populations left astray after ecological or financial disasters. As Christopher Hawthorne has framed it, the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennial established a critique to global real estate speculation, the expropriation of pools of collective knowledge and the monetization of common spaces by the so-called “sharing economy” of Uber and Airbnb.1"

Both of the attitudes just described, formal exuberance for elite clients and the inevitable backlash in attempting to build an ethical high ground, are indeed the inevitable face of a neoliberal system. As Paul Mason reminds us,

Capitalism is the Primark Factory that collapsed in Bangladesh and it is the rioting teenage girls at the opening of the Primark store in London, overexcited at the prospect of bargain clothes."

Architecture model of the Lewis Residence by Frank Gehry

FIGURE 1.2 Architecture model of the Lewis Residence by Frank Gehry.

Source: Image Courtesy by Gehry Partners.

This “winner-takes-all” mentality operates in the edges of a bell curve. The center, or belly of the curve, has shrunk, disappeared or even worse, become uninteresting as a project for architecture.The belly of the bell curve is the bulk of the population, a middle class that occupies the bulk of the architecture of cities.

The body of professionals urgently needs to reclaim the authority to define a value for labor that is not dictated by the asymmetries of capital. A first step is to reject a tradition of subsidizing the avant-garde through free or underpaid labor. Progressive architecture has become synonymous with regressive social practices. This are systemic problems that are echoed in other fields. As reported by Ross Perlin in the years following the financial crisis, “(Ijnternships are replacing untold numbers of full-time jobs: anecdotal evidence abounds of managers eliminating staff and using unpaid interns instead, and of organizations replacing paid internships with unpaid ones.”12 What is clear, as Paul Mason has framed it, is that this generation will not have the same opportunities as the previous one.13

Architecture production, at the beginning of the 21st century, reflects the polarization of the field; on one hand, there is a thriving field of research and practice that operates under ruthless competition where many actors are willing to work for free in order to “make it” into the star circle. On the other hand, there is a turn to austerity and “core” values of architecture that attempt to rectify the exploitations and dispossessions as a result of the economic order. While contradictory, both of these paths have become valid models of architectural practice, and it is not rare to see design firms practicing at both ends.

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