mardi 16 novembre 2010

# Capitalism's Architecture

Here is another text I originally wrote for my post-professional thesis...

So far, I have been focusing exclusively on the militaro-political aspect of the problem I propose to study in this essay. However, it would be deceiving not to evoke the economical system this first aspect attempts to protect: in the Western world, namely Capitalism. In fact, Capitalism as well necessities a space, and architecture, more or less consciously is ready to provide it.
This chapter will be divided into three parts which will attempt to explore the process of gentrification and the two paradigmatic examples of capitalist architecture that are the privately owned public spaces and the shopping malls.

Gentrification is a process extremely illustrative of how Capitalism operates. In fact, only a part of the capitalist system is based on the more or less objective value of manpower and raw materials. A very important other part is provided only by values that are based exclusively on the virtual. That is how a low social class’ neighborhood that despite a not so comfortable aspect, provides a relatively cheap place to live in the center of a city, can be transformed into the new area where the wealthy youth has to spend their nights.
This process usually starts without any transcendental will, with a little amount of middle class young people who decide to move to this kind of districts in order to benefit of the low rents and the authenticity of the neighborhood. Politics, speculators and developers do not need a lot of time before becoming aware of the potential of such area in the center of the city. For the first ones, it constitutes a good opportunity to get rid of a population that is considered as risky and marginal; for the second and third ones, it is a very good way to develop a good financial investment. When politics are taking measure to transform this “dangerous neighborhood where nobody want to come out at night” into a “better and safer place” –understand a place that the authorities can fully control-, speculators buy the current buildings, increase considerably the rent from years to years until the tenants cannot pay anymore and eventually replace them with a population can pay or even destroy the concerned buildings. The developers can then intervene and build new complexes of commercial activities and condominiums.
Gentrification sometimes necessities a dozen of years to become actually effective; however it often implement itself in a much faster way, such as in Williamsburg in Brooklyn where it only took six years to transform a low social class black area into one of the main hipster place of New York City.

Capitalism does not stand not to be in full control of every space of the city. It does not bear either that its best architectural invention, the skyscraper that virtually reproduces infinitely a parcel of land for only once its price, could be limited by urban codes. That is how, in 1961, the City of New York made a deal with private entities in order to reform those codes. In exchange of a significant area of public space on their parcel, corporations and private owners would be authorized to build their towers higher. However, this little zone of public space was not meant to be given to the city so those private actors remained the owners and controllers of this area. They therefore keep the right to authorize or forbid activities to occur and persons to pass on those spaces. Under an appearance of openness, privately owned public spaces are in fact extremely selective of their public. Employees working in the towers are of course welcome; those open spaces are part of a post-modern biopolitical capitalism that appears as taking good care of its subjects. People who spend money on those sites in order to buy coffee, hot dogs, or newspapers are also targeted for this type of public spaces. Others are regarded as unwelcomed and even suspect and can even be asked to leave in case of a “subversive” activity such as playing with a ball, taking pictures or picnicking.
Both corporations and governments are satisfied with those public spaces. Corporations are able to build higher their skyscrapers, provide open space for their employees, developing commercial activities while governments see their public space being maintained by private actors and any potential space of gathering being controlled and supervised.

Shopping malls are another typology of private spaces open to the public under determined circumstances. Once again, two birds are being killed with one stone: the paradigm of the Greek Agora as public space is replaced by a hyper-controlled space owned by private corporations AND this space is able to be highly productive in consumption.
First shopping malls in their contemporary version are said to have been invented by the Austrian-American Victor Gruen in the mid 50’s. In fact, he is probably the one to have thought of those pure capitalist architectures as pieces of urbanism. In an America that was tremendously starting to move its middle class –to whom shopping mall are addressed- in large spread out suburbia, shopping malls were going to become the equivalent of Europeans old cities’ centers, a pedestrian place of gathering and activity. However, probably observing that those European public spaces had been the same spaces that hosted the various national revolutions and insurrections, the United States placed this new kind of public space within the frame of a private supervision, control and police. As Mike Davis describes it for Los Angeles: “The ‘public spaces’ of the new megastructures and supermalls have supplanted traditional streets and disciplined their spontaneity. Inside malls, office centers and cultural complexes, public activities are sorted into strictly functional comportments under the gaze of private police forces.” By designing this space as an interior area accessible by definite entrances and supervised by dozen of video cameras and sensors, corporations were assured to limit to the minimum the population that was not welcomed on “their public space”.
The design is also oriented in order to compose a whole interior fantastic world of itself that is supposed to be perceived as better than the reality. This world is safe, clean, warm, entertaining and attractive and it is always a disappointment to leave it for the consumer who forgot reality thanks to it.

The main characteristic of capitalist design is to leave nothing to chance. Indeed chance provokes uncertainty and uncertainty provides an illegibility that can be unproductive for Capitalism. Supermarkets’ products are placed on their shelves according to various consumers surveys and marketing studies; malls are designed in such a way that in order to reach the place their consumers intended to visit, they would have see the integrality of the shops in presence; hyper-visibility discourage homeless people, kids and political activists to take place on private piazzas etc. Legibility is the ability of Capitalism to transform space into an object, both marketable and controllable.