To Hell with Architecture?

“Christ in Lambo” by Hieronymus Bosch

“Christ in Lambo” by Hieronymus Bosch

In advance of the upcoming conference at the Manchester School of Art “To Hell with Culture? Re-examining the commodification of culture in contemporary capitalism”, organised by Dr Dani Child and Hugh Wahl I have been looking at Herbert Read’s famed essay.  Specifically I have been looking at Read’s ideas through the lens of housing as a form of architecture most associated I would argue with Read’s ideas. I’m questioning is architecture as we experience it today an art? And can it ever be de-commodified as a form of artist expression.

As Dani Child says in the conference “call for papers”: ‘Over 70 years ago, the anarcho-syndicalist art critic – Herbert Read – wrote ‘To Hell with Culture’ (1941). This was an essay that sought to criticise the capitalist co-optation of culture, whilst simultaneously calling for a functional art within a democratic society. While Read understood function in terms of a natural beauty, an understanding perhaps based on his anarchist ideas coupled with a modernist conception of the artist, his essay provides a useful starting point for thinking about the commodification of art today, drawing upon Marxist, communist and anarchist ideas.’

Obviously my politics being what they are I’m taking is solely from the anarcho-syndicalist tradition from which Read too hails. As is explored in Hugh Wahl’s film To Hell with Culture? (2014) on which the conference is premised, Read was a contradictory character a rich man, son of Yorkshire farmer, obsessed with the natural world. Read lived on large country estate and accepted a knighthood for his services to literature yet maintained he was anarchist. This perhaps typical of the compromises that someone self-identifying as anarchist in our authoritarian, capitalist, representative democracy has to make, but accepting a knighthood is something of step too far I feel.

However, back to the architecture, famously referred to by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright as the ‘mother art’, it can be argued is the basis of our civilisations, or as Wright continued it’s soul: ‘Without an architecture of our own we have no soul of our own civilization’.

Architecture therefore stands along side the production of artists per se as a key element of a society’s culture. Like valued art valued architecture is preserved, glorified and held up as an example of the cultural achievement of a civilisation. Architecture is also a manifestation of society’s politics and, as Bill Risebero explores, the hegemony of a culture:

‘Architecture, like all other elements of the social superstructure, rests on our society’s economic base, that is the capitalist mode of production, which determines its essential nature. […]

Conversely, politics depend on culture. What Antonio Gramsci calls ‘hegemony’, that is, the ability of a bourgeois-democratic state like that of Britain to obtain and exercise power, depends not only on the coercive machinery of state itself but also on the participation of the people.’ (Risebero:1992:34)

Art and architecture are then both tools of hegemony the latter perhaps more so than the former, as whilst art may attempt to be revolutionary and to ask question of the status quo, architecture is, due to the very nature of its realisation bound to the hegemony of its culture. As Risebero goes on to say:

‘“The ruling ideas of any age”, as Marx and Engels have said, “have ever been the ideas of the ruling class” – and these ideas include architectural ones.’ (Risebero:1992:34)

It is perhaps possible to argue that contemporary housing does not represent a form of cultural production, or not in the way that Read uses the term. However I see the current condition of housing architecture to be a consequence of the development of housing from a social project into an element of commodity fetishism. The subjective market value of property has become realised to such a degree that houses are now valued above and beyond their functionality, or their reliability or sustainability. Their value is now determined by the price it is possible to sell them for and the market determines this, as do the locations and the professions involved in their sale.

Therefore the value placed on buildings may in some cases be more tangible but can also be just as conceptual as with art. If a building is not valued for its physical properties, its materiality or its use value, it can only be valued for the experience it enables one to consume within its confines.

 

But is architecture art? And if so has it been commodified in the same way as Read argues in this essay art has? I would answer yes in both cases. To illustrate the first point I invoke Read himself:

‘If an object is made of appropriate materials to an appropriate design and perfectly fulfils its function, then we need not worry any more about its aesthetic value: it is automatically a work of art. Fitness for function is the modern definition of the eternal quality we call beauty, and this fitness fir function is the inevitable result of an economy directed to use not to profit.’ (Read:2002:18)

The example that Read gives in the essay is that of a chair but the analogy can be extended to buildings or entire towns which are in and of themselves objects only differing in scale from the chair.

Therefore by Read’s definition the work of Modernist architects such as the famed Le Corbusier, or Alison & Peter Smithson, or Chamberlin, Powell & Bon can be classed as art. This architecture is often decried as ugly or cold and perhaps betrays Read’s call for us not to ‘…worry any more about its aesthetic value’ perhaps because pure Modernist architecture in particular is considered by many to have no such value. As a purely functional, yet I would argue beautiful, way of building buildings it is perhaps the closest architecture comes to Read’s conception of a work of art.

As I see it housing, and by extension housing architecture, has become a key example of the commoditisation of the art of architecture. Housing, as opposed to just houses, has since Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ become an integral part of the UK and indeed Western economies in general.

It was in housing that something of a seachange occurred after 1980 in the UK. The post-war social project of providing decent publically owned housing for all, not just the working classes, which had begun to be eroded by the Labour administrations of the 1970s. By 1980 housing began its inexorable slide into a commodity to be traded and to be used to create wealth. This is not to say that housing has not been a commodity before the 1970s, it clearly had, but the ‘Right to Buy’ generation made the failure of the project of social housing all the more acute due to the fetishism thereby associated with the ownership of property. Property has therefore become a means of creating wealth from nothing.

So has architecture in this field stopped being an art? Yes and no. Where housing architecture is actually produced for specific clients and sites or in similar circumstances by co-operative groups or self-builders then yes, much housing architecture may qualify as an art as defined by Read. Where however it is produced by “volume housebuilders” it may be consider as nothing more than an object, and badly produced one at that. The chair analogy that Read uses in To Hell with Culture provides us with an apposite description of the volume housebuilder’s product:

‘…the capitalist must progressively lower the quality of the materials he is using: he must use cheap wood and little of it, cheap springs, cheap upholstery. He must evolve a design that is cheap to produce and easy to sell, which means that he must disguise his cheap materials with veneer and varnish and other shams…

Such is production for profit.’ (Read:2002:17)

The self-builder, whilst historically serving as an example of “other ways of doing architecture”, has also recently been co-opted by the housing market owner-occupier fetishism. This form of housing architecture (I will focus on housing again as this is chief area in which self-build manifests) is one example of where the architect and more importantly the architectural profession and establishment has been excluded from building for the first time in the industrial and post-industrial ages.

Prior to the industrial age architects as we conceive of them today did not in fact exist. As Read explains: ‘…the Middle Ages, is rivalled only by the Greek Age; but, oddly enough, it too was not conscious of its culture. Its architects were foremen builders, its sculptors were masons…’ (Read:2002:11) As such architects were skilled craftsmen not a rarefied stratum of society, an over-educated and culturally elevated professional. The skill of the craftsman still exists in architecture but often now as an element of a lengthy and anonymised process. This is sometimes at an extreme, as in the example of the volume housebuilder, where the skilled craftsman is utterly divorced from the totality of the work of art (gesamtkunstwerk) and the end user as to make their presence meaningless.

The master craftsman role does manifest in the example of the self-builders building their own homes. Be that as a group of autonomous individuals in a co-operative or a single individual employing craftsmen to build for them. The self-builder has returned to what N. John Habraken called, in an echo of Read, the natural relationship. The natural relationship is at its most pure in the expression of individuality: ‘It [the natural relationship] all started at a primitive stage when this relationship expressed itself directly in the action of man who by himself, without any help, built his protective environment’ (Habraken:1999:25). Clearly many degrees of separation now exist between the occupant and this direct expression of the ‘natural relationship’ in mass housing. It was the mass housing process that Habraken was railing against in 1967. The self-build thesis therefore presents an opportunity for the natural balance to be restored.

So as Read said regarding the artist, I say to hell with the architect!

‘I have said: To hell with culture; and to this consignment we might add another: To hell with the artists. Art as a separate profession is merely a consequence of culture as a separate entity, in a natural society there will be no precious or privileged being called artists: there will be only workers. […]

“The artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is special kind of artist”.’ (Read:2002:23)

That precise argument is the one I would make for architecture and architects, as a mode of cultural production, as a form of elitist and privilege. I concede however some of these questions and challenges do come from inside the professions, as the architect and theorist Michael Sorkin said last year in New York ‘[We architects] should not renounce our expertise, but use our expertise in order to build socialism.’ (Sorkin:2013)

But in the end the drive for these changes come now from the people as it did in the 1970s in the UK (see earlier posts). Whether we today have an opportunity truly subvert the nature of architecture, to turn it into genuine tool for democratisation of development, of design and of land ownership remains to be seen. But the examples of the Architects’ Revolutionary Council give us further evidence that this tradition of alternative building, which is building without architects or architecture, is a lot older than architecture and representative of something and perhaps somewhere else.

 

References:

Habraken, N.J. ([1972]1999), Supports: An Alternative to Mass Housing. (2ndEdition), London: Urban International Press UK.

Ibelings, H. (2002) Supermodernism: Architecture in the Age of Globalisation. Rotterdam: NAi.

Read, H. (1941) “To Hell With Culture”, in Read, H. (2002) To Hell with Culture. London: Routledge.

Risebero, B (1992) Fantastic Form: Architecture and Town Planning Today. London: Herbert Press.

Sorkin, M.(2013) “Architecture or Capitalism/Architecture and Capitalism” at Storefront for Art and Architecture, 97 Kenmare St, New York City. [online] [url: http://blogs.artinfo.com/objectlessons/2013/11/06/5-thoughts-from-michael-sorkin-on-architecture-and-capitalism/]

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About Michael Coates

Michael is a Principal Lecturer for Contextual Studies at the Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University, and a PhD student in architecture history at the Univeristy of Sheffield.

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