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Architecture's Commons

The thesis of this volume is that by framing architecture’s agenda through the perspective of the Commons, it is possible to recalibrate the role of design, generating awareness of its complicit contribution to neoliberal economics. The central argument is that design can create positive externalities: a surplus of value that, while perhaps not monetary, can certainly contribute to the reconstruction of the Commons. The result of fortifying the Commons would in turn, result in the reduction of the barrier of entry for new designers, increase education and literacy both of architects and the public, increase collaboration and reduce exploitation in the form of free labor.

The practice of architecture suffered a pivotal turn toward individual exploration since the failure of larger narratives present in the modern period. As Reinier de Graaf reminds us, Koolhass’s “City ofThe Captive Globe” recognizes a condition of architecture where each plot is considered its own manifesto:

After The City of the Captive Globe, architecture exists only in the plural, suggesting an apex of multiple choice. Formerly absolute ideologies are confined to the walls of their facades; their validity is limited to the boundary of their plots. Their simple coexistence within a single territory makes them relative; each vision cancels out the validity of the next. In The City of the Captive Globe architecture has agreed to disagree.35

De Graaf argues how modernist narratives failed in their attempts to unify. The pursuit of standardization and industrialization of architecture were part of postwar efforts to generate a collective consensus. The research of Christine Wall analyzing the project of “Dimensional Coordination” or “Modular Coordination” pursued by the Modular Society in the 1950s demonstrates an effort establish protocols of collaboration in order to seek reduction of waste and improve building efficiency.36 This would be achieved by developing a unified system of components that could be reduced to a universal grid. These efforts focused for many years in agreeing on what would be the fundamental module; i.e., the smallest unit that would dictate a system of coordinates.

Any project of standardization suggests a degree of coordination, establishing agreements across the market. While maintaining competition, standardization suggests that there are mutual benefits from agreeing module sizes.The Modular Society was attempting to put in practice an economy of scale, where unit cost can be reduced by their serialization.The challenge they had to face was not the economics but rather the totalizing nature of their agenda when it comes to living.

Standardization and modular coordination constructed a narrative of efficiency and would propel innovation and technical development. There was an implicit intention of homogenization, which became a central argument of critique for architectural movements to come. The research in digital architecture, even today, is centered on the differentiation and mass customization of building elements, rejecting any form of standardization. Nevertheless, the question that arises today, specially when revisiting efforts of dimensional coordination, is if it is possible to conceive of collaborative forms of production and coordination between different economic actors without the totalizing and homogenizing principles established by the Modular Society.

Here is where the Commons intersects architectural thinking, as the challenge of the Common as argued by Negri and Hardt, as well as Professor Stavros Stavrides, is to define forms of collaboration that are not based in a process of homogenization but rather in a process of multiplicity.37

The Commons in the age of the Internet

Today we operate in a networked information economy. The Internet has become a place for the creation and propagation of knowledge. As argued byYochai Ben-kler, a Harvard University law professor, in an information economy the physical capital for production is distributed throughout society. This means that the barrier of entry for creative or collaborative enterprises drops dramatically as individuals already possess the capital capacity for participation.38 This departs from the legacy condition where capital requirements limited the capacity of individuals and collectives to contribute through creative endeavors.

Yet architecture has not radically changed since the introduction of network infrastructure. Structural changes in the practice of architecture utilizing digital networks are still to come. This places architecture at a critical advantage that will enable it to avoid the same mistakes made by other fields, where network infrastructure has been used as an extractive practice.

Architecture construction still depends on capital, due to material requirements, and perhaps even more importantly, dependence on land. Nevertheless, architectural knowledge and skill development, as well as the field’s disciplinary and cultural capital, have the potential of utilizing information networks to reduce barriers of entry and democratize access to the discourse.

The content generated by users on the Internet provides a new form of social production that operates with its own set of values. As argued by Tiziana Terranova, the creation of value from social networks is not measured by the metric of labor, yet it is today driving financial capital.39 The digital platform emerged at the turn of the 21st century as a piece of technological infrastructure that was able to standardize the involuntary contribution of thousands of individuals. Establishing a hierarchical relation with their users, platforms are able to dictate rules of engagement and define interactions in a format that is conducive for exploitation. Through digital platforms, individuals are unintentionally participating in the largest effort to coordinate user communications under a standardized protocol. Grand narratives are here, yet they are invisible under the propaganda of individual freedom.

Platforms like Uber encourage workers to think of themselves as liberated workers, owners of their own business or even as entrepreneurs able to design their own lifestyle and income structures. As Christian Marazzi points out, this move toward the externalization of labor has been a progressive method of increasing productivity by outsourcing production processes to users. This externalization of value production is demonstrated in the consumer-as-producer phenomenon, where companies like IKEA are able to externalize production by asking the consumer to identify the code of a product, locate the product, load and transport and finally assemble the product. As Marazzi explains, “The consumer contributes to market creation, producing services, managing damages, and hazards, sorting litter, optimizing the fixed assets of suppliers and even administration.”40

For Marazzi, the implications of this massive expropriation of value goes beyond capital gains and the production of inequality. He defines such expropriations as a form of structural economic violence where value extraction decimates societal values not categorized by the economic model. He expands:

These crowdsourcing strategies, leaching vital resources from the multitudes, represent the new organic composition of capital, the relationship between constant capital dispersed throughout society and variable capital as the whole of society, emotions, desires, relational capacities and a lot of “free labor” (unpaid labor), a quality that is despatialized as well, dispersed in the sphere of consumption and reproduction of the forms of life, of individual and collective imaginary.41

Crowdsourcing platforms, in the current form, extract from the Commons. By formalizing and integrating the Commons in our design and economic discourse, we no longer regard it as an externality or an unclaimed or underregulated resource free for the taking.

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