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Editorial: the price of everything, the value of nothing

The September issue of the AR looks at the topic of money in all its permutations, both glittering and dirty, investigates its relationship to architecture and explores the idea of degrowth as it gains wider traction

German hyperinflation valueless mark building blocks 1923 photo12 alamy architectural review

German hyperinflation valueless mark building blocks 1923 photo12 alamy architectural review

Source: Photo 12 / Alamy

Money regulates how we live and has done so since it was invented millennia ago, originally as physical grains of barley, later on as gold coins and banknotes and today, increasingly so, as virtual capital. It might be imaginary, a human construct reliant on trust, but its effects on the world are very real. Yet architects’ relationship with money is rarely straightforward and the source of internal contradictions. Claire Zimmerman recounts in this issue that the absence of cost as a concern is problematic and a determining factor in the shaping of architectural histories, when it should be ‘an index of analysis against which to calibrate measure of building use, structural fitness and beauty’.

The production of buildings is sometimes disassociated from the resources used to build them and the funds required to finance them. Concepts of money and value are confused, amalgamated, and interchanged – Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who knows ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’. Once completed, the values buildings represent and the profits they generate also become an essential part of them. Richard Seifert would know. Considered as a critical failure, this workaholic was also an astounding commercial success, thought to have changed London’s skyline more than anyone since Christopher Wren.

Money is stored as architecture, and cities become dense accumulations of capital that in turn produce interests, power and opportunities. ‘Like gold bars, bitcoin and certain works of art, investment properties exist not as useful commodities but as a form of general-purpose money’ warn Maria Smith and Phineas Harper in the keynote essay. The problem is that ‘architecture as general-purpose money is liquid but dreary, without idiosyncrasy or generosity’.

Whether we like it or not, architects are part of a broader supply chain, adding value to clients’ investments and involving exchanges of money and risk between building purveyors and end-users – and everyone else in between. Today, like our currency, the things we value are also more immaterial, assigned to ‘experiences’ and abstract notions of ‘well-being’. Architecture becomes the sites of these experiences, and architects, as the masters of constructing and selling images of a happy life, are the visionaries that mould them. From exclusive holiday homes to the continuous reinvention of shopping malls, architecture is packaged for easy consumption, a tool absorbed by marketing campaigns and splattered on social channels as proof of a fulfilled life.

There are a lot of questions in this issue. Quite a lot of ‘perhaps’. The word ‘degrowth’ makes multiple apperances. Our economy as we know it is profoundly incompatible with our ecology. For most of history, the economy stayed very much the same size, but in the last few hundred years it has spiralled out of control, and perpetual growth has become the ultimate motor, the definer of progress. The planet cannot physically accommodate everyone’s dreams of growth, putting into question Adam Smith’s revolutionary ideas on capital from the 18th century. The economic theories and models shaping our world have been incapable of incorporating into their calculations the finite resources they are dependent on. As they unearth the forgotten values of idleness, Michael Chieffalo and Julia Smachylo ask us whether a ‘design culture that sees itself as inextricably linked to growth’ can maintain its analytical lens on value production that exists outside the capitalist structures that constrain it.

Lead image: At the peak of German hyperinflation in 1923, the Mark was declared valueless, shaking the building blocks of capitalism. Today, as we speed into the abyss of a climate crisis, catapulted by our insatiable hunger for financial growth, the armature of our economic system lies in tatters once more

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