Instead of falling victim to the economic structures that govern our lives, architecture needs to redefine the value it contributes to society and promote degrowth
One of the largest coins in the world is 4 metres in diameter, weighs several tonnes and sits at the bottom of the sea. The Micronesian islanders of Yap carve their currency from vast boulders, driving holes through the centres to form massive stone doughnuts. Dotted about the islands, these ‘Rai’ have no intrinsic value and are effectively immobile, and yet they serve the same purpose as the notes in your wallet or the numbers in your bank account: they are money.
More than 6,000 Rai exist and have been exchanged for everything from land and livestock to dowries, their ownership moving between families even while their physical location remains static. It is unimportant where a stone is. Whether deep in the jungle, under the water, or on the pavement, what matters is who can lay claim to its value. The stones are giant physical abstractions for the worth conferred on them. As long as the Yapese collectively agree that the stones are valuable; they are.
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The architectural scale of this currency is unique, but in function it is barely different from the euro, pound or yen. Each stands in for a social contract, an agreement to suspend scepticism and treat an inanimate metal disc or cluster of pixels (or big rock) as if it had meaningful value, in the confidence that others will extend the same favour in the future. The balance between the status quo and revolution rests on these agreements. Every day, we jointly choose to continue honouring the value of money. If overnight we all decided our coins were worthless, or if Yap turned its back on Rai, their value would evaporate.
Today architects are merchants of value. Speak to any developer about what an architect brings to a construction project and the reply will be that they ‘add value’. Their taste and ingenuity combine in a potent tonic, ‘design’. Attend the annual MIPIM property fair in Cannes, and you’ll see architects from across the world boasting of how their design skills add value. Structures which minimise material use; plans which give their inhabitants a sense of openness; lush facades bursting with visual character – all these architectural moves are boiled down to a single qualifier: value.
‘Today architects are merchants of value. Speak to any developer about what an architect brings to a construction project and the reply will be that they “add value”’
However, what constitutes value and how it is arrived at are somewhat more elusive. Despite its centrality to architectural labour, very few architects seem to enter the profession pursuing this trophy. In the interview rooms of architecture schools around the world, rarely do wannabe students answer the admissions’ tutor’s question, ‘so, why architecture?’, by describing a deep desire to add value to a client’s property portfolio. Visiting a cathedral for the first time, children are unlikely to be struck dumb by the value added to an otherwise humdrum chapel by its masons weaving an intricate lace-like tracery of vaults. More so than with most other disciplines, there is a gulf between the traits which make architecture enticing, and the tactics on which the profession actually thrives.
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Source: ROBERT ALEXANDER / ARCHIVE PHOTOS / GETTY
Take, for example, the renowned Patek Philippe campaign. In one of its advertisements, pictured above, we see a handsome father and son sailing. The father, whom we assume is experienced from the fact that he isn’t wearing a lifejacket, is teaching his son to tie a knot as they cruise through gentle waters in a tranquil bay. The image is seductive. It speaks of a life lived in the lap of luxury, of the loving respect of a child. Of hope for the future and the serenity of ageing well. It even attempts to defy death, invoking the feeling that families and traditions will endure through generations. All those delicious ideas are what the advertisement is selling, and yet the product at the end is a mechanical watch and cufflinks – finely tooled, no doubt, but in no way able to live up to the promise of the advertisement’s depiction of the good life.
The gulf between promise and product, endemic in contemporary marketing, can be deeply depressing – the sign of an industry blatantly lying, manipulating our deepest desires to sell what is often tat. However, in How to Reform Capitalism, edited by the School of Life’s Alain de Botton, the argument is that this disjunction is a source of hope. The ideas in many advertisements are ultimately the right ones even if the merchandise is lacking. It’s as if deep down we know what enriches life, but have become so confused about where true value lies that we allow ourselves to be duped by canny advertisers projecting the things we crave onto stuff which cannot hope to satisfy the hunger. It is a clash of values, real and imagined. A bad blend of true worth and retail price. We have conflated the concept of value and the concept of money.
‘The price of a building is often not determined by how it can be used, but to what extent it can be converted to other types of value’
There is an infinite number of ways that something can be valuable. It might be considered important or deserving of respect and care. It might nourish us, lifting our spirits or fortifying our bodies. It might help express feelings which are hard to squeeze into words or provide protection from danger. Yet to truly monetise something requires not only an appreciation of the specific value in it, but making it liquid – capable of being easily cashed in for other things of commensurate value. In economic anthropology this is called ‘general-purpose money’, a currency that can be used to purchase virtually anything.
Liquidity in architecture is endemic. The price of a building is often not determined by how it can be used, but to what extent it can be converted to other types of value. Architectural decisions about form, structure and programme are often made with the question of how each choice will impact on the project’s performance as a sellable commodity in the back of the mind. Liquid architecture reached a kind of zenith with emergence of investment properties, homes built, bought and owned without ever being lived in. Like gold bars, bitcoin and certain works of art, investment properties exist not as useful commodities but as a form of general-purpose money – repositories for storing capital.
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Alf Hornborg, professor of Human Ecology at Lund University in Sweden, argues that the tendency to push everything towards being general-purpose money is the underlying cause of many destructive aspects of the contemporary global economy. Organising society so that rainforests and Coca-Cola are traded in the same market doesn’t just enable, but drives environmentally disastrous decision-making.
For Hornborg, general-purpose money incentivises the maximum exploitation of differences in wage levels and environmental legislation, reinforcing the notion that ‘best value’ means cheapest in cash terms no matter the real planetary and social cost. He proposes an alternative in the form of complementary local currencies. Complementary currencies could recognise that enumerating something’s value doesn’t have to degrade it to such an extent that it can be swapped for anything at all given sufficient quantities. Instead trading could take place between linked groups of goods such that no amount of fizzy drinks could be exchanged for felling trees. Just as in urbanism, planning use classes frame how land can be traded based on its purpose, so complementary currencies could organise the trading of other resources. The land, materials and labour which go into the creation of schools, for example, might be traded in a wholly separate marketplace as those which go into luxury flats, radically reorganising their price.
‘Architecture as general-purpose money is liquid but dreary, without idiosyncrasy, or generosity’
But architects don’t simply assemble a collection of elements in such a way as to make them useful, value is created on top of that. Architects create something that, at its best, nurtures emotionally, bringing delight and solace. They hope to help people feel a presence of beauty around them, to rouse dynamic feelings of civic duty or playful exhilaration; to feel ordered, awestruck or at peace among many other emotional states. But when these effects are measured in pounds and pence, the rich tapestry of value that architects can weave becomes frayed. Unique houses for eccentric clients are not designed because architects are mindful of resale price. More perniciously, nothing can be designed that isn’t valued according to the current economic framework. Architecture as general-purpose money is liquid but dreary, without idiosyncrasy, or generosity.
If we could unpack our understandings of value and money – if we could skip the socialised mental leap from one to the other, perhaps this could liberate wider value-creating endeavours like architecture. Perhaps it would allow us to create a broader range of built value which has worth in its own right without the need to be weighed in terms of liquidity. Architecture could be very different if its quantification in general-purpose money weren’t part of the brief, if it wasn’t necessary to make it tradable for anything else of commensurate price. Perhaps it wouldn’t tend towards the average. Perhaps it wouldn’t be made from so many highly processed, low entropy components. Perhaps it wouldn’t be subjugated by its obligatory role in perpetuating economic growth. Perhaps it wouldn’t be locked into perpetuating environmental breakdown.
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Source: EFE NEWS AGENCY / ALAMY
The last year has seen an explosion of climate awareness. Architecture fi nally appears to be turning its attention to environmental design at scale. A cabal of more than 500 practices have declared a climate and biodiversity emergency and called for a paradigm shift. The Royal Institute of British Architects and an increasing network of architecture students have followed suit. We’re seeing a dramatic mobilisation of architects in the fi ght against climate change, but an architectural paradigm shift is impossible without also reconsidering what we value. The media frequently presents economics as a classical science – the study of a natural phenomenon beyond our control such as the moon and its tides. Really an economy is just a mechanism for deciding what to value. Economics is in fact a social science, a way of examining and theorising how humans assign worth. Just as when we talk about architecture we consider new forms, languages and techniques which might open up possibilities, when we talk about economics we should also be thinking about alternative economies. We should interrogate different ways of structuring trade, of measuring prosperity and of governing the relationships that exist within society. Different kinds of economies prioritise different ideas of what is valuable and so enable, or inhibit, different kinds of culture and architecture.
Hints of non-liquid architecture are already abundant, quietly flourishing around the world. In the Netherlands, for example, Humanitas Deventer is an experimental intergenerational retirement home where students can live for no cost alongside elderly residents in return for the investment of time each month contributing to the life of the community. The scheme has been criticised for its reliance on a generational wealth divide but, despite its flaws, takes the value exchange between renter and landlord out of a monetary system while enabling the residents to live free from the burden of mortgage debt.
Libraries of things, which are steadily growing in popularity, also attempt to disentangle valuable tools and toys from the money it usually costs to make use of them. SHARE Oxford – a library of things and repair café in England – seeks to save space, money and the environment by allowing its users to borrow items only sometimes or occasionally needed such as tools, outdoor equipment, or semi-professional cooking appliances. Sharing objects through membership of a lending institution is a strategy for minimising waste and chips away at consumerism by holding products in common, rather than private ownership.
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Source: ALECSANDRA RALU CA DRAGOI / GUARDIAN / EYEVINE
Community Land Trusts go a step further, separating the value of buildings, and even entire streets, from their monetary price. Land, including any houses on it, is owned in trust by an independent NGO whose constitution prevents it from exploiting its residents or speculating on the value of the structures it owns. The trusts are legal vehicles which force buildings to be managed in accordance with their value as homes, locking out the option of converting them to cash. In a recent Labour Party report ‘Land for the Many’, ecologist George Monbiot and his co-authors propose a Common Ground Trust, a non-profit institution that buys the land underneath homes, making property affordable by protecting it from ever inflating land values.
These are examples of conventional buildings used in non-liquid ways, but architecture itself can become a tool to decouple a building’s value from its price tag – for example, by exploring new material strategies. With only a decade until the atmospheric carbon dioxide reaches an irreversible tipping point, every effort must be made to cut emissions quickly. However, despite the urgency, durable materials which can last for many decades are still frequently specified despite their often higher embodied carbon than lower impact, less hard-wearing materials. This harmful preference for longevity over periodic maintenance is a pathology driven in part by the instinct to make architecture a form of general-purpose money. We make a connection between the solidity of a building’s fabric and the stability of it as a financial asset.
‘To actively embrace maintenance, rather than avoid it, would mean a radical change in the material culture of construction’
A roof requiring seasonal maintenance might be beautiful, breathable and harmless to the planet, but its rhythm of erosion and repair makes it less static and so less liquid. A design strategy that embraces, rather than snubs, low-impact high-maintenance materials could not just dramatically cut construction-associated emissions but help to reframe the conception of architecture. To actively embrace maintenance, rather than avoid it, would mean a radical change in the material culture of construction. We should embrace thatch, adobe, hemp lime and other plant-based and natural materials with vigour, not in spite of their need for frequent maintenance, but because of it.
Mali’s Great Mosque in Djenné, first built in around the 13th century and rebuilt in 1907, is covered with protruding bundles of palm sticks. These toron posts are not just decorative but also act as permanent scaffolding for repairing the mud facade every year. The toron’s dual purpose as both ornament and celebration of repair is a rich architectural idea celebrating the constancy of care and unfolding history of materials. The facade of the mosque, like the worshipper’s relationship with God, is never complete and should constantly be topped up.
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Source: YADID LEVY / ALAMY
Buildings for those outside the predominant economic system also offer examples of non-liquid architecture: structures for the dead, for insects, for children, or for the land itself. If that which is currently constrained by limited charity donations or contorted three-way business models had freer rein, we might have a richer built environment more cognisant of planetary limits. Sydney-based Other Architects have proposed repurposing land used for meat production around Sydney’s metropolitan area for a bushland cemetery. This ‘Burial Belt’ mobilises our respect for spaces of internment and memorialisation and bestows this protection on the land facilitating reforestation and habitat protection.
Architecture as a temporary assembly of materials could be developed as a construction strategy. Moreover, it could be exclusively the design of the spatial configuration in architecture that had value as opposed to the resultant structure. Montreal-based practice yyyy-mm-dd have proposed a fabric template of a building that can be folded up and stored or transported until needed, and then filled with local aggregate to bring walls and columns into solidity. The sewn net is an extension of a construction drawing enabling a ‘just add mass’ project that questions where the value lies: in the design or in its realisation?
These examples explore ways that architecture can create and retain value that is hard to convert into money. The Yapese Rai, like works of great architecture, hold worth beyond their intrinsic properties. Yet unlike architecture, they are a currency, a means of exchange without wider value. The Rai, like coins and banknotes, might be perceived as beautiful objects, but they cannot soothe our fears or anxieties or shelter us from storms, or invoke half-forgotten national myths or inspire virtues. By asserting the value of value as something non-liquid – impossible to express in dollars, pounds or kroner – architecture can avoid the trap of becoming general-purpose money, thereby enriching itself, its inhabitants and the planet.
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Perhaps the most eloquent example of a non-liquid structure is also the simplest: a cairn. Made since prehistory across the world, cairns are collectively built pieces of wayfinding infrastructure. A simple, yet clear column of rocks made and maintained organically by travellers to help each other find paths in remote places. In fine weather, travellers pick up a nearby rock and place it on the cairn, constantly maintaining the humble structure as they pass. As fog descends, cairns can be seen through the gloom, allowing lost walkers to find the track back to safety. There is no exchange of money and no commissioning client. Nobody owns cairns and they are impossible to sell. Yet, from nothing, useful, even life-saving architectural elements emerge. In monetary terms cairns are worthless, but what could be more valuable?
This piece is featured in the AR September issue on money – click here to purchase your copy today