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Assembling Values: Architecture and Political Economy

Sat, May 7, 2016    10am

Organized by the Ph.D. in Architecture program at the GSAPP, the conference Assembling Values: Architecture and Political Economy seeks to measure the extent to which architecture has not only been formed by, but is also productive of political-economic formations throughout the world.

Since the global financial crisis of 2008, a landscape marked by foreclosed homes, empty luxury towers, divided cities, and occupied streets has fueled debates concerning architecture’s relation to political economy. Salient among such debates is the question of whether architecture is doomed to remain a testimonial backdrop, a mere reflection, of financial capitalism, or whether it may offer more nuanced, and more effective, histories and analytics for the study of political economy.

If so, then this global, increasingly uneven, landscape compels us to recognize the instrumentalities and values that sustain and augment economic power relations through architecture’s own workings and operations. The moment is ripe for the reevaluation of old frameworks in order to consider the role of architecture, planning, and development in assembling the political-economic nexus.

Organized by Aaron Bradley White, Alexander Hilton Wood, Amy Zhang, Ashraf Abdalla, Erik Carver, Eva Johanna Schreiner, Jonah Rowen, Manuel Shvartzberg-Carrio, Norihiko Tsuneishi and Oskar Orn Arnorsson

Panel 1 — Techniques

10 a.m.
Michael Kubo, MIT
Speculation and Spectacle: Oil and Architectural Modernization in Kuwait

Among the earliest and most extreme examples of large-scale urban transformation in the Gulf after World War II, the demolition and planning of Kuwait City after 1952 formed the core of an ambitious program of development that would fundamentally alter the relationship between the state and its citizens. Constructing a vast, empty canvas upon which to erect the concrete emblems of a speculative finance economy based on oil, the city provided the ground for an array of governmental and commercial architectures through which the state sought to project the spatial and economic bases of a “modern” Kuwait onto the world stage. The role of foreign architects in creating these images of modernity was crucial. In the decade between the spike in crude oil prices in 1973 and the events that marked the end of the Gulf construction boom after 1982, Kuwait became the space for what Lukasz Stanek has described as “a global market of architectural resources which, besides labour, included building materials and technologies, discourses and images.”

I will explore the notion of speculation as a framework for understanding the scope and consequences of Kuwait’s urban transformation and its reciprocal impacts on the foreign architects who sought to practice there in these decades. Referring at once to the processes of speculating for oil reserves and to the abstract mechanisms of global financial speculation that were built atop these flows of capital, the term also captures the contemporary sense of Kuwait as a speculum, or mirror, for the structural changes taking place in architectural practice in the West. I argue that it is in the relationship between this changing economy and the processes of modernization in the Gulf that the evolutions of both late-modern architecture and and the increasingly anonymous modalities of corporate architectural practice can be traced.

Aleksandr Bierig, Harvard
The London Coal Exchange

On October 30th, 1849, a new Coal Exchange opened on Lower Thames Street in the City of London. The building presented a heavy masonry façade in line with its neighbors. Its interior was radically different, a skeletal dome of iron and glass, one of the first of its kind. On the occasion of its opening, the Illustrated London News devoted an entire issue of its weekly publication to the new building and, as the title of its feature article suggested, “The Blessings of Coal.”

The shift to mineral energy was decisive for the emergence of industrialization in England, as Kenneth Pomeranz, E.A. Wrigley, and many others have explored. The Coal Exchange, however, inherited a history that extends far in advance of industrialization. The use of coal for domestic heating began in Roman London, and written evidence of its effects exist from the fourteenth century. The design of the Coal Exchange building expressed this longer timeline. Its iconography memorialized centuries of ships delivering “sea coal” to the metropolis. Its urban presence embodied an attempt by the merchants who had long controlled the market to solidify their authority in architectural form. Yet, as the building reached completion, another history was beginning to appear. The intensified use of railways, steamships, and advanced industrial techniques—all powered by coal—would soon upend the trade in London and the transform the shape of architecture, empire, and environment throughout the world.

Henry-Russell Hitchcock described the architecture of the Coal Exchange in his 1954 Early Victorian Architecture in Britain, but the building has not received an extended study since its demolition in 1962. Against the global environmental anxieties of our present moment, there is a temptation to seamlessly link the Coal Exchange with the rise of fossil fuel use. But the history of the coal trade in London is the opposite of seamless; it is characterized by material bottlenecks, internecine labor disputes, and reactive regulations. Placing the Coal Exchange within this contentious context provides an opportunity to investigate just what kind of material and symbolic negotiations were required to construct a world made from coal.

Aaron Cayer, UCLA
A Political Ecology of Practice: Daniel, Mann, Johnson, Mendenhall

As widespread forces of deregulation were coupled with jolts by the U.S. Department of Justice against the AIA in the 1970s, the competitive spirit of American architectural practice was radically amplified, leaving the economic value of design to be more strategically considered by all. This struggle was most explicit in corporate offices, wherein architects began to take cue from industrial corporations to diversify their services as a strategy of neoliberal accumulation. This paper explores one key narrative in the story of multi-firm assemblage as put forth by architects at Daniel Mann Johnson Mendenhall (DMJM) in Los Angeles—now AECOM—which adopted emergentist structures of practice based on theories of merging with and acquiring other services and firms. There, architects were consciously challenged to reveal the economic potential of their work in new ways. DMJM Design Director Anthony Lumsden was key to this process, as he defined the financial framework of merging and acquiring other companies as a political ecology for structuring his design thinking—allowing him to work on projects that varied in type, scale, and program. As part of the L.A. Twelve, he was referred to as a “spokesman” of design, responsible for “disciplinary interfacing” and for communicating the role and value of system processes to other architects. He became a translator—of highly technical processes of optimized interchange, capable of drawing sewer treatment plants, transportations systems, and urban plans into the canon of architecture. By the mid 1980s, however, Lumsden’s work paid off: Kentucky-based Ashland Oil Company acquired DMJM based on its clear aesthetic rigor and diver range of designed projects, and it broadcasted the faces of architects and the architectural projects out to its shareholders and potential investors.

At a current moment when the economic potential of design labor is under radical rethinking, and as the logics of corporate practice continue to slip beneath rhetoric-based cultural differentiations, this paper reveals the ways in which the structure of an unabashed entrepreneurial ecology of practice both augmented and provided stability for the U.S. political economy.

Megan Eardley, Princeton
Shaft Versus Klap: Acclimatization on the Johannesburg Gold Mines
By the mid twentieth century, the world’s deepest mines had tunnels nearly two miles below the surface. In South Africa, prospective gold miners were required to undergo an extensive acclimatization process in order to cope with the intense heat and humidity secreted by the ore itself. To streamline and increase the efficiency of this process, companies developed a series of experimental chambers that could replicate extreme subterranean conditions above ground. As industry scientists worked to establish a “standardized work rate” through the classification of Black miners’ bodies, the climatic room became a privileged site of racial articulations, as well as material and physiological concerns. In papers such as “Factors Affecting Mechanical Efficiency of Men Shoveling Rock in Stopes,” and “Capacity for Physical Work of Bantu Recruits Weighing Less than 50 kg,” the Chamber of Mines published a series of studies concerning the physical performance of “underweight” “heat adapted individuals” which reveal both disdain for and intense interest in the exposed body. This paper explores how the design of the climatic room reconfigured relationships between the miner, the compound, and the transnational networks that bound laboring bodies. It is alert to the dubious ontology of the building— which both functions as an extension of the mine, and models the mine as an object.
Response by Meredith TenHoor, Pratt


12-1 p.m.

Panel 2 — Subjects

1 p.m.
Ateya Khorakiwala, Harvard
Architecture’s Scaffolds: Bamboo as an Aesthetic of Labour in Postcolonial India

In 1952, upon encountering a Gandhian conference pandal (temporary bamboo structure) Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wrote a letter to his chief ministers,

The first thing that struck me was the simplicity of arrangements … a special pandal had been erected … with extreme simplicity and artistry, and the expenditure was very little. The pandal was a bamboo structure with a covering of leaves etc.

Pitting this against the pomp and ostentation of government ceremony, he noted

We are a poor country and we must always avoid unnecessary or wasteful expenditure, remembering that it is at the cost of the millions of our people in India. But, apart from the money involved, there is a question of taste and it does not appear fitting to me that some of us should function in a way which is so utterly removed from the conditions in India.

This paper takes, as its provocation, Nehru’s call for an ethical aesthetic of scarcity, exemplified in the simple artistry of bamboo architecture. It looks at the signification of bamboo both as an aesthetic object  and as the site of labor in the official archive of India’s nation building project, amid great resource-shortage in the early years of independence.

Bamboo crops up over and over in images of development; as structure, it is the site of politics and festivity, and as scaffolding, it is the temporary architectural element that appears and disappears, much like the laborers who scale and inhabit it, leaving behind a permanent mass of material architecture. Bamboo is a material of poverty: abundant, strong, but also dangerous. In this paper, I investigate a range of bamboo structures: peasant meeting grounds, dam-building sites, festival enclosures, and other moments of construction-in-process, to investigate scaffolding as a site where workers and peasants were produced as laboring subjects. I then use this to analyze scarcity, the technical term for shortage in classical economics, which prompted Nehru’s call to think of bamboo as India’s aesthetic motif.

Jingru Cyan Cheng, Architectural Association
Radical Settlement: The Architecture of the People’s Commune in Rural China

The peopleʼs commune is a socio-political, economic and spatial model that profoundly restructured Chinese society from the 1950s to the 1970s. It was the essential political instrument of the state to impose mandatory collectivisation of agricultural production and living conditions on Chinaʼs population. Radical changes in social institutions inevitably necessitated the reconstruction of the subjectivity inherent in peopleʼs being. The state aimed to instil collective aspirations in 500 million peasants and to raise their political consciousness through politicising the fundamental operation of architecture: to settle.

Typical commune settlements were tightly organised around public services, a layout that would impose rigid control over the daily routine of commune members. In housing units designed for commune settlements, kitchens were to be removed and living rooms minimised, resulting in a domestic space constituted of a combination of bedrooms. This reveals a radical attempt to eliminate the concept of family and to weaken patriarchal clan authority, both elements that are deeply rooted in Chinese tradition. Activities originally taking place in private kitchens and living rooms were to be reorganised to occur in public canteens. By doing this, eating, the most essential activity of everyday life, became a compulsorily collective activity. The public canteen was thus the centre of life for commune members. The dominance of the public canteen was crystallised and enhanced in settlement plans where public canteens clearly framed the way in which space was organised and oriented. This form of settlement spatialized the stateʼs dictatorship and provided conditions for habitation where peasants were to enact a socialist style of living. As a form of architecture produced in a time of revolutionary social and political changes, the radical settlement exemplifies how to define and reproduce of specific forms of life.

Masha Panteleyeva, Princeton
The Apolitical Politics of Form: Soviet Experimental Architecture during the Thaw

Most architectural histories examine post-Stalin change in architectural culture primarily from technological or economic perspectives, yet the question of urban form as an agency in restructuring future societies in correlation to the needs of the state economic production has not yet been sufficiently investigated. Although the ideologically ambivalent Khrushchev’s Thaw—a mix of control and liberation—allowed modernism to make its comeback after the domination of Stalinist Neoclassicism, it was reduced by the Soviet state into a politicized tool of industrialization forcing technologism and standardization into architectural practice. As a reaction, in a context where “political” was increasingly tainted by the official state ideology, a specific “apolitical” cultural production had gradually began to dominate the architectural sphere, turning to a more human side of architecture. According to the anthropologist Alexei Yurchak, who termed this phenomenon as “politics of vne (being outside),” it was not a “withdrawal or apolitical cynicism” but “an active act of distancing”—an alternative political action.

This paper examines the phenomenon of “quiet” architectural nonconformism focusing on the Soviet unofficial architectural group New Element of Resettlement (NER) and their futurist urban proposals. NER’s idea of spontaneous socialization as the center of urban activity and its environmental basis referred to Marx’s notion of Verkehr and built upon his ecological critique of capitalism. Formalizing social structures in space and time, they attempted to reconcile socialist ideology with a new economic plan via ecological approach in design, where the new formal and aesthetic paradigm of socialism was defined through the hierarchical stratification of society—an extremely provocative idea that went against mainstream socialist beliefs. This paper examines NER as a precursor to the later understanding of architecture as environment in its opposition to over-bureaucratized state-sponsored ideology, and as an agent of bridging socialist and environmental philosophies.

Response by John Harwood, University of Toronto

Panel 3 — Temporalities

3 p.m.
Deepa Ramaswamy, MIT
The Threatened City Report, New York, 1967
The paper examines Mayor Lindsay’s Task Force on Urban Design and their Threatened City report from 1967, to investigate the ways in which the architect tried to negotiate his position within the historic transformation of the city between the ‘urban crisis’ years of the 1960s and New York’s bankruptcy in 1975. These years marked the city’s gradual shift away from civic liberalism and welfare state policies, for an increasing embrace of the private sector in urban development. In a bid to “manage” the city out of its crisis, Mayor Lindsay applied business and management techniques to city government. Design came to be an administrative device that, it was hoped, would control and regulate the “physical presence” of the city through incentivized zoning, tax abatements for businesses, preservation laws and air-rights transfers. This was a broadening of the government’s sphere of action. However, there was a narrative of threat and nostalgia to the emotional language of the report that legitimized the notion that the state alone should not be held accountable for the city. The private sector and every individual needed to participate and do his bit. The nature of the rhetoric and the public-private partnerships in this period wanted to limit government involvement while simultaneously growing the governmental sphere of action. The architect was a part of this sphere of action, often mediating between the state and private sector. In the wake of the global economic slump, the period after 1975 saw the end of such engagements between architects and the city government in New York, with the discipline retreating into private practice or questions of autonomy and formalism.
Salvatore Dellaria, Cornell
Preservation’s Neoliberal Now and the Radically Eccentric Urbanism of Marcel Breuer’s Grand Central Tower
Frederic Jameson pinpointed, in 1991, the deep irony of historic preservation’s relationship with capital. If a multi-temporal dynamic of lags and anachronisms had accompanied modern capitalism’s incomplete absorption of pre-capitalist modes of production and exchange, in Jameson’s vision of postmodernity “the residue, the holdover, the archaic, has finally been swept away.” Where the past’s buildings remain, “renovation and restoration allow them to be transferred to the present in their entirety as those other, very different and postmodern things called simulacra.” If preservation is a discipline whose rhetoric would seem to commit it to the temporal heterogeneity of the contemporary city, as practiced, it reinforces the presumed uniformity of capitalism’s present. Preservation, as captured by pro-growth political machinery, helps render invisible the very non-simultaneities that it has been charged with safeguarding. Indeed, the ascendance of neoliberalism in the decades hence has sharpened awareness of the temporal unevenness that Jameson expected advanced capitalism to eliminate, and thus this paper looks for a model of preservation commensurate with such awareness—one that preserves anachronisms precisely as discernable and operative contradictions to the temporal logic of capital. Specifically, this paper puts pressure on the public and professional opposition to Marcel Breuer’s rejected 1968 proposal for an office tower floating in the air-rights above the landmarked Grand Central Terminal. The project was targeted by a number of parodies and satirical collages that mocked the surreality of its diagram—a modernist slab set upon a Beaux-Arts palace—but that also, unwittingly, emphasized the irreducibility of the temporalities signified by each. Through the eyes of his critics and against the grain of his intentions, one can begin to see in Breuer’s plan what a neoliberalized preservation hides: an urbanism of radical temporal eccentricity, of discontinuities and disjunctive contradictions, not only made visible but activated politically.
Albert José-Antonio López, MIT
Exchangeable Terms/Indefinite Definitions: Architectural Discourse and Political Language in Mexico 1945-1955

This paper examines the use of technical language as utilized in the political exchanges of Mexican architects between the late 1930s and early 1950s. It furthermore addresses the Mexican architectural profession’s interpretation of as well as influence upon the more overtly propagandistic political-economical language of Mexico’s ruling party as it was defined during the period and in particular during the administrations of Miguel Alemán (1946-1952) and Adolfo Ruíz Cortínes (1952-1958).  

This period has been characterized as a critical shift in Mexico’s political development. This shift occurred in the process of the “institutionalization” of the country’s dominant political party – from 1938 the Partido de la Revolución Mexicana (PNR); reorganized after 1946 as the Partido Revolucionario Institutional (PRI). “Political speech” associated with the typically problematic transitions of power abandoned its reliance on threats or acts of physical violence in light of the development of new forums to handle party disputes.  In the stead of violence, a more “modern” form of political speech was adapted by the dominant party that relied on ideological improvisation, political restructuring, and rhetorical strategies to essentially co-opt and neutralize the threat of opposition. Within this political clime I argue that there existed a condition whereby architects – as members of the more general and increasingly bureaucratized professional class that had come to power by the mid-1940s – had achieved a notable amount of agency within the mechanisms of the Mexican State and the PNR/PRI.

Drawing from the internal discourses of planificación integral (integral planning) and integracíon plástica (plastic integration) that were contemporary with this phase in Mexico’s political development, the architectural profession contributed to a visual, spatial, and formal means of communication that can be interpreted as a synthetic form of the “political speech” of the period. These political-economical and aesthetic theories were intended for the construction of socio-political consensus as well as the guarantee of a public vote of confidence from those upon whom power ultimately depended.

Within this broader context, I will look at one key figure and project from within the increasingly politicized profession during this period: Carlos Lazo Barreiro (1914-55), an architect, planner, as well as a top PRI politician in his own right is the subject of focus in this paper, as are a series of his writings that were collectively described as a Programa de Gobierno. Noting the coincidence of their publication with the elections of 1946 and 1952, and their functions as critiques of the Mexican political system and its actors, I will argue that their use of a conceptually layered, re-brandable, and multivalent technical vocabulary contributed not only to Lazo’s own political aspirations, but also to the ideologically ambiguous objectives of political aggregation, co-option, and the neutralization of opposition that belonged to his party.

Response by Lucia Allais, Princeton

Final Remarks and Discussion

4:30 p.m.

Moderated by Felicity Scott, Director of the PhD in Architecture Program