The Guardian November 21, 2001


Architecture as commodity

by Peter Mac

A famous 18 century architect once stated that architecture had to have 
"commodity, firmness and delight". He used the word "commodity" as meaning 
"usefulness". But we can also use the word with its current meaning in 
relation to the practice of architecture, which almost always involves the 
provision of a commercial service, i.e. the design and/or documentation of 
works, with a view to the production of commercial goods, i.e. buildings or 
other structures, fittings, site facilities or landscape.

Many architects dislike describing their work in such vulgar terms, since 
architecture is supposed to be a noble art, capable of bringing together 
the arts and science in the design of the built environment, and in the 
process enriching human life while satisfying practical needs. And so it 
should be, and is, frequently  but by no means all the time.

The great works of architecture have always reflected the prevailing power 
structure, and especially in the construction of palaces, fortifications, 
houses, gardens etc., whose designers strove to make them appear grander 
and/or more opulent than those of lesser mortals.

However, one critical difference between modern architecture and its 
predecessors is that in previous eras the great structures of the rich and 
powerful retained a degree of unity with their more meagre neighbours, 
simply because of the limitations of technology and available building 
materials. 

Modern architecture, on the other hand, has at its grasp a huge range of 
materials and construction methods. Add to this vast reserves of capital, a 
volatile mix of developer's greed and architect's ego, an education system 
that promotes strong contrast between the individual creation and its 
setting, and a legal system that all too often favours gross or 
inappropriate major development  and you have a vastly increased 
potential for hideous visual clashes between works of architecture and 
their surroundings.

In some cases this may even be quite deliberate. The promotion of some 
consumer products in recent years has utilised a certain cultivated 
ugliness, in order to enhance an image of toughness or rebelliousness as an 
appeal to a particular market segment.

Architecture may follow suit, either as an attempt to appeal to a similar 
characteristic of the client, or simply as a novel design approach. The 
relentless quest for novelty may involve the aping of a current fashion or, 
occasionally, the creation of a distinctly new style, even where this is 
impractical..

In fact, the practice of architecture is subject to all the failings of the 
marketplace, including the artifical stimulation of demand for services 
which are not really required, and the promotion of design trends which are 
overly self-indulgent or even anti-social. 

The struggle for corporate promotion is the root cause of many of the 
failings of current architecture. However, in an age of corporatisation and 
privatisation of public services, and of the general subservience of 
government to corporate influence, these failings appear in government 
projects as well as those of the private sector.

One of the clearest examples of anti-social trends in architecture arises 
from the profit-driven demand of commercial developers for the removal of 
buildings or landscape of importance for cultural reasons, including its 
historic and/or aesthetic significance.

This was evident in the historic struggles waged in the 1970s over the 
preservation of areas of natural bushland and parts of our built history, 
for example Sydney's "Rocks" area, which was the first suburb, and the 
first home of the working class, in Australia.

These struggles resulted in state and federal legislation aimed (at least 
ostensibly) at the preservation of our built heritage. However, the 
deregulation of government over the last 20 years has resulted in a 
weakening of this protection.

As a result, there has been a re-awakening of the need to impose the 
tactics of the 1970s, including, where necessary, mass protests and the use 
of union "green bans". 

A vivid example of this was the recent imposition of a green ban on 
proposed works to Sydney's old Maritime Services Board building, now home 
to the cash-strapped Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) at Sydney's Circular 
Quay. 

The Carr Labor Government had proposed either the demolition and 
replacement of the building or its enclosure by a vast concrete "coffee 
table". The unexpected "green ban" threw the government into disarray over 
the issue, and it hastily withdrew its proposals.

The MCA case illustrates the point that the people, and grass roots 
organisations like the trade unions, can reverse anti-social trends in 
architecture or town planning, just as in other areas. 

There are plenty of other examples of the tendency of developers and 
compliant governments to ride roughshop over national heritage, and to 
subjugate the beautiful or interesting to corporate greed.

Look for the 1950s' revival monopitch roof plonked over the dignified stone 
former government building, the skyscraper shaped like an overful waste-
paper basket, the formless glass "shard" structures placed insensitively 
opposite a 19 century cathedral. 

Think about the current trend for structures which expose their skeletal 
frames within delicate glass skins, a design motif which has great dramatic 
potential but which often requires huge energy consumption to counteract 
"greenhouse" thermal load, and frequently conflicts with a traditional 
setting. 

And note the sunless "wind-tunnel" effect of huge buildings constructed on 
streets originally designed for horse-drawn traffic, and the progressive 
ruin of once-enchanting city skylines. 

A recently-aired TV series on Australian architecture showed many brilliant 
as well as appalling examples of the work of this profession. It also 
revealed some interesting responses on the part of its clients.

One government official, for example, commented that at first he hated the 
jagged glass fagade of a new building designed for his department. However, 
he declared that his colleagues and the architects had argued strongly that 
he should love it, and in the end he had taken their advice! 

He should have backed his own judgement. You don't have to like a thing 
just because someone calls it "art", and a lack of effective architectural 
criticism means that the community is in danger of falling prey to the 
"taste" of the corporations and their subservient architectural 
representatives. 

The environment in which we live is too precious for us to leave all the 
major decisions about it to big business, or to its representatives in the 
fields of architecture, town planning and government.

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