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Reclaiming the middle

In 1914 Henry Ford decided to increase the minimum wage of workers to five US dollars a day, which equated to double the average wage of automakers at the time. Ford understood that the consumer power of his workers was linked to the industry he was trying to grow. As he explained,

[T]he owner, the employees, and the buying public are all one and the same, and unless an industry can so manage itself as to keep wages high and prices low, it destroys itself, for otherwise, it limits the number of its customers. One’s own employees ought to be one’s own best customers.14

Ford was attempting to allow his workers to afford the cars they were building.Today, after accumulating considerable amounts of student debt, American architects cannot afford the type of architecture they are asked to design. The culture fostered by the “starchitect” system requires substantial subsidies coming from underpaid intern labor and exploitative practices. Even practices that engage with a social agenda have come to rely on the subsidy of free internships.Young architects accept low-paying jobs to design one-of-a-kind buildings and exuberant furniture while they can only afford IKEA products. Isn't it possible to realign architects’ design aspirations with the middle-class wage offered by our practice?

At the beginning of the 21st century, an architecture for the middle class seems to be driven by commercial imperatives. The central portion of the bell curve has often been associated with a market that is not in the hands of architects, what Rem Koolhaas calls “Junkspace.”"' Lacking the glamor of the bespoke or the heroism of a humanitarian aid, the middle has been rendered no longer valuable for the pursuits of the discipline. The field is still fearful to engage in larger narratives that are reminiscent of the modern movement. Perhaps there are avenues to develop a critical discourse and practice that does not operate outside or at the fringes of the market.

However, an economic deadlock produced by the extraction imperative17 of the neoliberal agenda has forced a project of autonomy to emerge from self-provision. Architects can recast themselves as both users and producers of the architectures they envision, recalibrating the aspirations of design contributions to sustain and reconnect to the culture that they belong to.

The reclaiming of the middle does not imply a turn toward asceticism or austerity. Austerity has been an imposition from financial institutions to force governments to slice public services in order to pay debt, as opposed to the potential increase of taxes for the financial institutions that generated the problem in the first place. The term austerity has been a branding mechanism to persuade the population that after events like the 2008 financial crisis, governments will be expected to limit public spending, while banks will be bailed out. As explained by Randy Shaw, the housing crisis is an affordability problem: an increasing number of citizens can no longer afford to live in the places where they work.18 It is necessary to establish a counterbalance to market speculation by both the public sector and by the Commons. Emerging movements founded on notions of collectivism can define a third leg of what traditionally has been a public/private duopoly.

This book advocates for the reclaiming of the middle and actively engages in the production of larger narratives that could rekindle a collaborative imagination. It hopes to invigorate the theorization of the collective and design practices that can define their own value system.

The post-2008 perspective

The 2008 financial crisis brought a new sense of awareness of how deep neoliberal economics has been accepted and perpetuated by both liberal and conservative governments and a creeping awareness that the system is not working in the majority’s interests. The reality of the architectural discipline is that all architects are on the receiving end of an economic model that siphons value from the middle to the top. The year 2008 was a wake-up call to consider how the tools we architects use are in fact socio-technical systems that have an implicit economic agenda. Architectural form can no longer be disentangled from economic drives and motivations behind the capital that enables it.

From a socio-technical perspective, the weapon of choice of current economic practices has seen the rise of digital platforms as tools for the standardization of users and the extraction of capital. What Nick Srnicek has denominated “Platform

Capitalism”1* or what Susana Zuboff has called “Surveillance Capitalism”2" denounced the rise of platforms. Platforms are global organizations that operate as network providers, dictating the rules of interaction between users and profiting from the knowledge acquired by the monitoring of transactions on the platform. The rise of platforms has been accompanied by accentuated forms of economic inequality, as they offer novel ways to bypass market regulations.

In architecture, the architectural competition can be read as an embryonic platform, but perhaps a far more primitive and vicious one. The architectural competition also operates at a higher hierarchy, determining what does and does not constitute work worth remunerating. Competitions constitute a form of speculative work and have become mechanisms, as argued by Trebor Scholz, to bypass market regulations regarding employment, working hours and minimum wage.21 Like Uber, competitions celebrate an architect entrepreneur who is his or her own boss and should wager the risk/reward to take part in a given call.

The 2008 financial crisis has started to work as an eye opener for a generation of architects that operates within architecture’s very own speculative market. The first realization is that of belonging and understanding that we have accepted and celebrated a ”winner-takes-all” economic system in the design work we so often do for free in the hope of recognition from a competition or another platform aggregator. The emerging NolSpec movement gives evidence of the uncanny realization that we have been engaging with unethical business practices, and it is necessary to design alternative models.22 The financial crisis energized the rise of a resistance movement that can point out the consequences of unregulated markets, where speculative labor operates as a loophole that facilitates power asymmetry generating a structural divide and increasing inequality.

However, the 2008 crisis has also accelerated the production of alternatives, a socio-technical awareness that connects ideology with infrastructure that attempts to fabricate a different model. Such a model seeks for models of collective prosperity emphasizing the sovereignty of the labor practices we engage in. These include the creation oflicense agreements that can ensure the propagation of knowledge between users, as in the work of Richard Stallman with the General Purpose License and the copyleft movement; the creation of decentralized ledgers that can guarantee trust in a decentralized fashion, as in the advent of blockchain technology; and the design of Open Source forms of architecture that can empower users to self-provide dignified building solutions at affordable costs in the work ofAlastair Parvin with the WikiHouse. This book is about such architectures. It is a socio-technical analysis of the infrastructures that are attempting to construct at different levels—ideological, tectonic, legal or computational—the rise of the Commons, as an independent and autonomous sphere of governance, one not predicated in the public/private dichotomy.

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