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Say hello to ghostmodernity: Keller Easterling's Subtraction

Now that buildings have been transformed into currency, Easterling argues for demolition as an agent for growth, rather than a symbol of failure, and calls for the contribution of architects to policy-making

Keller Easterling has a bona fide reputation as one of the leading figures in contemporary architectural debate, and her latest title Subtraction only reconfirms that position. The book is the outcome of a decade of research into the topic − a term described by Easterling as the dark matter of architecture and the building industry. For her, the more buildings become spectacular, the more demolition becomes an obscure yet powerful act. Indeed, demolition, she argues, shapes the contemporary city as much as building, and should be conceived as an industry running in parallel.

As such, Easterling is one of the few architectural writers today to frame the act of building as part of a larger technological and human mechanism, a conglomeration of transport infrastructures, political decisions and financial instruments. One might say she is the biggest enemy of those who argue in favour of architecture’s disciplinary autonomy. Her research focuses on the built world at large, or, as she puts it, ‘spatial products’, rather than strictly just architecture.

The more buildings become spectacular, the more demolition becomes an obscure yet powerful act

Nevertheless, the ideas in the book are of utmost interest, even for the ‘autonomists’. Over the last century the financialisation of architecture, and the commercialisation of architectural ‘objects’ has changed both design and the discipline tremendously. There remains a real urgency for architects to address the problematics of this condition, which is simply the transformation of buildings into currency.

The supremacy of financial metrics in the production of buildings has led to their metamorphosis into abstract and immaterial assets, traded on the same plane as bonds or futures (or even more exotic products). Of course, the instability of imagining that concrete structures can operate in this way has become tragically apparent in the wake of the 2008 crisis. This book eloquently unpacks that mutation, and in this way it should be regarded as an essential read for the post-2008 architect.


Ghostmodernity, from the Dutch graphic design collective Metahaven’s photo-essay in Subtraction

The financial crisis of 2008 has challenged basic notions like the permanence of architecture and the symbolic capital attached to the home. Easterling makes the case for a subtraction economy which ‘materialises risks and rewards with tangible spatial variables that can be traded and banked on in a parallel market’, making demolition an agent for growth rather than a symbol of failure.

The unfolding of the book’s examples is a manual for subtraction, a series of exemplary practices that highlight the procedures and protocols of the art of demolition. In Detroit, for example, a strategy of subtraction aids a city suffering from decades of decay, depopulation and, more recently, bankruptcy. Natural disasters, fire and wars, while tragic, are reframed as opportunities to ‘rewire building and landscape networks with new associations and adjacencies’. Subtraction is recognised as both an act of warfare (Palestine) and a myth of architecture’s past (the tabula rasa).

The last section of the book presents the reader with an operative thesis (complete with diagrams) on how to use demolition and subtraction to re-appropriate the logic of finance and the trading of property portfolios to the benefit of local communities rather than the speculation of global financial entities. Easterling names this section ‘active forms’, as opposed to what she perceives as the traditional static forms of urban design. These existing and forecasted practices try to ‘reorganise vacancy as a positive asset [to] rewrite urban relationships previously controlled by financial networks’. The key to this ‘operative’ chapter is to posit urban design as the design of interdependent linkages between properties, arguing for a parametric urban strategy that assigns spatial qualities to any point of the city (such that they can be joined, to increase both control and profit of the land).

In the larger context, the book is a call for a new professional figure, what might be called an architect of policy. Easterling makes this point as a response to the fact architecture has ceased to have any real political agency (mainly due to the progressive reassignment of architects’ responsibilities to bureaucratic and other processes). By contrast, an architect of policy would apply their unique design knowledge specifically to policy making. Although this figure doesn’t yet exist, there are several contemporary architects − Eyal Weizman or John Palmesino and Ann-Sofi Rönnskog of Territorial Agency, among others − who are already invested in exploring the possibility of architects’ meaningful contribution to policy-making. As this new category of professional continues to emerge it is vital that those architects invested in policy-making work together with architects invested in form-making; ultimately form and policy are the substance of contemporary cities.


Author: Keller Easterling
Editors: Nikolaus Hirsch and Markus Miessen
Price: £12.50

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