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If the price is right: the hard currency of architecture

Cost is an inextricable determining factor in the difference between architecture and building, with lower outlay generally signalling dearth of quality

Architecture today includes a remarkable plurality of built environments, distributed globally and diachronically. Yet a much narrower usage emerged within the expansionist programme of Western capitalism when the word appeared in 15th-century Europe to distinguish elite practice from mundane building. Buildings that deserved the capital-A appellation were expensive demonstrations, executed by elites and presuming a comparatively generous budget from the outset. Leon Battista Alberti, taking up Vitruvius’s triad (in which cost is filtered through use, durability and aesthetic address), nonetheless also focused on architecture as a tool ‘necessary … to the acquisition and establishment of an Empire’ for which the expertise of an architect was essential.

‘How would architectural history and theory change, were cost to become an analytical rubric for assessing change over time?’

The profession of, and discourse on, architecture in this context are intimately tied to a sizeable outlay of money in building projects. Often dedicated to the highest intellectual ideals, such buildings were nonetheless also intended to realise profit through investment, speculation and conquest (Sven Beckert’s ‘war capitalism’). And yet, theories and histories of architecture have steadfastly treated the economic underpinnings of building projects as epiphenomenal to their true value. In fact, implicit associations between architecture and capitalism that were present in early Modernism gave way to a later phase that eschewed them. This phase, most local to the 20th century, emerged with an equally implicit programme of serving mass audiences and providing social betterment in the face of 19th-century critiques of capitalist exploitation. All the stranger, then, that in a period in which mass democratisation movements took shape, architects and their writers exercised greater silence on the socioeconomic agency of building than earlier Western architects who aspired to build villas and palaces.

Francisco mujica skyscraper claire zimmerman architectural review 01

Francisco mujica skyscraper claire zimmerman architectural review 01

Images from Francisco Mujica’s 1929 History of the Skyscraper included the ‘100-Story City in the “Neo- American Style”’

Part of the difficulty rests in finding effective methods to unlock historical knowledge of architecture as capitalism, without reinstating notions of an implacably exploitative or malevolent force over which individual buildings or people have little agency. Frankfurt School critiques of the politics of cultural practices are virtually unanswerable for this reason. Yet architectural history and theory have an untapped resource through which to connect capitalism to buildings in a way that opens up new possibilities rather than closing them down. Might the connection between money, cost and building production transform the built environment from witless tool of market forces into crafty means of resistance? In other words, questions of how much things cost, how costs are balanced, and where the money goes in large and complex building projects could unlock new ways of understanding architecture in society. Such connections, operable through time, also might be more consciously deployed in contemporary building (politics). The great economic historians of the 20th century (Lucien Febvre, Marc Bloch, Ferdinand Braudel) sought this kind of knowledge beyond the limits of the built environment. Their echo in environmental history beckons to us today.

Francisco mujica history of the skyscraper claire zimmerman architectural review 01

Francisco mujica history of the skyscraper claire zimmerman architectural review 01

Francisco Mujica’s 1929 History of the Skyscraper

How would architectural history and theory change, were cost to become an analytical rubric for assessing change over time? ‘Everyone knows’ a luxury building costs more than others, yet architectural historians have been reticent when it comes to connecting that knowledge to its sociopolitical context. Looking back to writing that accepted the triad (implicitly or explicitly), cost adds an index of analysis against which to calibrate measures of building use, structural fitness and beauty. Architects and historians have not limited their purview to these three for some time, yet, as a datum that immediately introduces a quantitative idea of value to offset the qualitative concerns of architecture culture, money cost indexes other aspects of building. Of two buildings with similar quality X, that of lower cost would immediately rise in value by offering more quality (of experience, of aesthetic address, of social engineering, of public good) for less quantity (of currency). This index describes a fundamental mechanism of capitalism: get more out for less put in (or, get something for nothing). It is hardly surprising that a desire to subvert this transactional logic by establishing that value, seemingly independent of money cost, might coexist with an implicit denial of its importance in the production of buildings. Rather than deny such logic, though, historians might find better ways to expose it in the production of meaningful, even operative, histories.

As a relativising device, cost provides a way to measure other kinds of value, if only because hard currency regulates how people live. But money cost also introduces politics into architectural assessment, more or less by stealth – a politics that emerges with greater drama during times of crisis, shortage or contraction. When resources are scarce for many, lower cost matters to those who have less – as well as to those who profess to represent them. The luxury of ignoring cost, by contrast, is equally indicative of prosperous socioeconomic status, and thereby acquires its own political association with elites. Those with abundant resources can ignore cost if they so choose. Factoring the money cost of building into architectural discourse thus lays bare the class basis of architecture itself, cancelling many of its claims for social betterment, or embedding them deeply in an elitist, paternalistic concept of social engineering. Avant-garde or progressive credentials do not mask this class basis; they only make it more apparent by restating its claims in a slightly different language. The avant-garde is not so much the canary in the coal mine of capitalism as its mechanical avatar, never to be killed by the noxious vapours of the host. We have gone beyond the time of the avant-garde; now, as we contemplate the challenges to architects posed by degrowth, alternative historical paradigms might include the arrière-garde – better yet, they include a rejection of art historical models altogether.

Francisco mujica history of the skyscraper claire zimmerman architectural review 193 0

Francisco mujica history of the skyscraper claire zimmerman architectural review 193 0

History of the Skyscraper included the the links that Mujica, a Peruvian architect, detected between US skyscraper setbacks and pre-Columbian pyramids of Central America

Looking for alternative models for history writing, in which cost features as a base condition of architectural analysis (such as site, materials, programme, style), the end stages of the Second Industrial Revolution bring forward one work of theory and one of history. Both refer back, buffering the violence of their own present – characterised by seemingly untrammelled consumption and rapid technological change; both writers focused on building types that emerged from such change to serve large occupant populations. Moritz Kahn, trained in the College of Engineering at the University of Michigan, published an obscure theory of architecture, The Design and Construction of Industrial Buildings, in 1917, while 12 years later, Francisco Mujica published the remarkable History of the Skyscraper with his own Paris-based imprint.

Kahn moritz the design and construction of industrial buildings 1917 book design claire zimmerman architectural review

Kahn moritz the design and construction of industrial buildings 1917 book design claire zimmerman architectural review

Both books belong to a period of American architectural history (North and South) that has received insufficient attention, perhaps eclipsed by the twin juggernauts of world war and the dramatic landing of Modernist art on these shores. What do these books offer to a consideration of cost in architectural history? Both reflect architecture deeply embedded in capitalist systems; both take for granted that market forces define and constrain what architects do. For Mujica, these constraints guided the development of a building type generated by land and real-estate speculation: the high-rise office building. For Kahn, serving a demandingly profit-conscious clientele, buildings were quite literally production machines. High-rise buildings generated profit by maximising urban land, stacking floor upon floor as ‘machines to make the land pay’ in the words of Cass Gilbert. Factories, by contrast, were profligate of land, spreading out over acres, making the land pay through saleable output. Both books, usefully informative about their historical context, also merit re-reading today. Should one wish to combat ‘capitalist sorcery’, in the words of Philippe Pignarre and Isabel Stengers, one might first understand its operations, and seek escape valves before they are cut off. The authors warn, the ‘sounder of the depths’ of capitalist building activities needs to keep a sharp eye on the waters ahead.

Kahn albert concrete fram daylight factory system claire zimmerman architectural review

Kahn albert concrete fram daylight factory system claire zimmerman architectural review

The Design and Construction of Industrial Buildings outlined the concrete-framed ‘Daylight’ factory system espoused by his brother Albert

Kahn’s treatise came out of the phenomenal demands that factory construction exercised on Detroit architects and builders in the first 15 years of the new century, when his brother Albert was active. As Moritz noted in Design and Construction, design exercises a critical influence over all stages of production; the architect’s responsibility is intimately tied to a detailed understanding of how buildings work over time, not merely at their moment of inception. Rather than the plan, Kahn describes the importance of the ‘routine diagram’ that spatialises production processes, moving methodically through stages of architectural production from start to finish, with two exceptions: a chapter on worker welfare preceded by another on architectural treatment. Throughout, the architect is conceived not only as an agent of the client, but also as the representative of those who will occupy the plant over time, whether people or machines.

Kahn albert concrete fram daylight factory system claire zimmerman architectural review 25

Kahn albert concrete fram daylight factory system claire zimmerman architectural review 25

The mechanised approach to architectural design that Design and Construction lays out embeds creativity in a sequence of administrative and organisational procedures strictly controlled by money cost. Kahn indicates the range of skills an architect must master. Not merely laying out a building on a site, the architect of early concrete-frame buildings had to accommodate a complex and variable production sequence in a regular structural system of reinforced-concrete bays. As regular as they are, such buildings have a multi-scalar dimension as well. Machine operations were calculated by square feet of space that they and their human operators required; metal fixtures for maximal flexibility embedded in concrete beams and columns made it possible to accommodate both, and to change the line when production demanded. The site plan, by contrast, connects to regional or national infrastructure in the form of truck, train and boat lines. The architect became, in this scenario, the inventor and constructor of multi-scalar systems rather than buildings.

Albert kahn saul g bron president of amtorg detriot 1930 moritz kahn claire zimmerman architectural review

Albert kahn saul g bron president of amtorg detriot 1930 moritz kahn claire zimmerman architectural review

Source: COURTESY OF ALBERT KAHN ASSOCIATES

Albert Kahn (left) signing contract with Saul G Bron (right), President of Amtorg, Detroit, 9 January 1930. Standing centre behind them is Moritz Kahn

Attention to Mujica’s History of the Skyscraper of 1929 has focused on the book’s advocacy for Pan American skyscraper styling as an apt style for a building type invented in North America, based on antecedents from ancient Mesoamerica. The book appears to have had limited influence when it appeared, in part because of its small print run (a circulation of only 150 copies prior to a 1977 Da Capo facsimile). Reluctance to embrace a nativist history of architecture as the 1930s and ’40s wore on and the toxic nativism of fascist regimes worldwide became more apparent, also may have played a role. Regardless, the interest of the book today lies less in its theories of stylistic expression than in its exploration of a building type for which aesthetic address is highly circumscribed. Indeed, more than many others, the requirements of high-rise buildings control much of what follows in the design process. Like factories, these are buildings that house many occupants and whose importance resides, not in form, but in a host of other architectural characteristics. Mujica’s book includes a catalogue of high-rise buildings organised chronologically, from the Home Insurance Building of 1884 to One Wall Street, still under construction as the book went to press in 1929. In it, the author quantifies buildings quite literally – how many tons of steel, how much concrete, how many yards of marble, how many acres of rentable floor space. John Sloan’s foreword sums up the project nicely: ‘The younger school of American artists is now conscious, whether as a result of the war or because of the country’s gradual economic growth, or both, of the fact that an American art must perforce express those phases of American life that have been expressed more fluently through economic processes’. Mujica sought an American idiom; it was, at base, an economic one.

Albert kahn cost ledger 1907 1919 lima locomotive works ohio claire zimmerman architectural review

Albert kahn cost ledger 1907 1919 lima locomotive works ohio claire zimmerman architectural review

Albert Kahn’s personal cost ledger spanning the years 1907 to 1919. It details a cost analysis of the Lima Locomotive Works in Ohio. He spatialised cost by calculating it by the cubic foot, as opposed to the square foot

All of this leaves aside trickier questions that emerge when money cost becomes part of architectural historical analysis. The difficulty of computing currency fluctuation and changing exchange rates over time has been eliminated by digital tools. Yet the intricacies of cost accounting make it easy to come up with variable numbers for building cost. As it becomes part of architectural historical analysis, common metrics will be needed. More importantly, cost provides a lever to open the black box of architectural authority, to subject it to critique that requires articulate defence. This does not mean cost becomes determinative of building value; rather, the lever opens a portal connecting Sloan and Alberti – architecture, imperial economic force, take note of class and deliver on your promise.

This piece is featured in the AR September issue on money – click here to purchase your copy today