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If Form didn't follow Finance: Think Space/Money Unconference and Publication

Wiping out the capitalist paradigm to question the potential evolution of our cities and the architect’s future role in a world without money inevitably leads to an inconclusive publication

At a recent lecture on the history of capitalism I was amused, if not slightly saddened, to learn that London retains almost no trace of the British East India Company, whose whispered legend shaped my childhood in Calcutta. The corporate headquarters, East India House (1648) − a grand, colonnaded and porticoed building − was demolished as the Company went into decline (although more than a dozen years before it was dissolved completely). Its site on Lime Street was eventually occupied by Rogers’ mighty Lloyd’s building. This year that company further crystallised their assets in vertiginous steel and glass with a new Leadenhall building. Thus and thus do financial institutions shape our cities − securitising risks with 100-storey assets; carrying forth the feverish enterprises of East India Company-men into the age of a new Empire obsessed with growth.

The third cycle of Think Space − a ‘platform for spatial experimentation and exchange’ initiated by the Zagreb Society of Architects − takes money as its theme. The Think Space platform consists of three parts: a competition cycle, a call for papers, and an intriguing ‘unconference’ (seemingly differentiated from a ‘conference’ only by its non-institutional and energetic attitude). The accompanying book brings together extracts from the first two activities, collecting the best design entries as well as the most thoughtful papers. The selection of money as a lens to consider architecture is both timely and timeless: form has long followed finance; indeed, finance is arguably the primary driver behind architectural production both today and historically. Buildings are erected either for the consumption of goods in exchange for money, or devoted to the production of it, through increasingly dematerialised labour practices. And yet, though the dependency of architecture and construction on money for their realisation is well known, the exchanges between the two are seldom discussed.
The double act of Ethel Baraona-Pohl and César Reyes Nájera − joint curators for the Money cycle of Think Space − are aptly qualified to deal with this topic. Baraona in particular has led many discussions, in print and online, on the need to think beyond established capitalist paradigms: their publishing house DPR-Barcelona was one of the first booksellers to accept bitcoins. The pair also appointed an illustrious panel of judges for design competitions and for the appraisal of papers, including Pedro Gadanho, curator of Contemporary Architecture at MoMA in New York; David Garcia, director of MAP Architects and founder of The Institute of Architecture and the Extreme Environment; Brendan Cormier, curator, researcher and managing editor of Volume magazine, and Keller Easterling, an academic at Yale University and author of the forthcoming Extrastatecraft.

The selection of money as a lens to consider architecture is both timely and timeless: form has long followed finance

However, the publication that emerges from Think Space/Money would have benefited from a stronger hand at the tiller, as the material takes multi-directional swipes in a manner either too superficial to be given much credibility (particularly in the case of competition entries), or too sluggish, in papers provided without context or proper academic citations. A little more on how submissions were evaluated, or perhaps a closing statement as well as the brief from each of the adjudicators, might have helped to tie these themes together. For instance, it is confusing to find one whole category dealing with extreme geoclimatic frameworks. Meanwhile, ‘exchange’, as a theme, prompts responses which reconsider compensation for labour and ensuing civic implications. Projects proposing ad-hoc cultural centres suggest structures that represent the coalescing of spontaneous labour and energy into monumental form; alternative currencies are evaluated while their spatial realities and implications for identity are considered. These ideas tend to be better as specific examples rather than conceptual designs, such as the thorough proposal for public spaces in Athens in the paper ‘Bitparcels’, which described collective ownership and participation on a governance level (crucially leaving architecture to architects, but opening broader societal processes to all).

Perhaps it is Easterling’s ‘Subtractions’ theme (see Alessandro Bava’s review) − as ‘a moment in a set of exchanges and advances, aggressions and attritions’ which has the most direct implications on the agency of the architect as we currently recognise him or her. However, the winning entry, from Antonas Office, is hard to gauge; the scant paragraph presented with a small grainy thumbnail does little to elucidate its concerns. Elsewhere, the consideration of what architecture might be without the exchange mechanism provided by money, through other measures of ‘value’, is in turn woolly and exuberant: frequent keywords include collaboration, localisation, cooperation and most of all, the dissolution of the traditional architect. The breathlessness with which the traditional roles of the architect are not only blurred but joyfully dissolved recalls every other chapter of history where such a prospect seemed appealing; kill your parents. If Marx’s concept of labour, production and capital are starting to look a little old, immaterial culture (and its understanding of the bank books) is perhaps still in its adolescence.

That’s not to say one should argue with the courage and exhilarating, optimistic intent inherent in the ideas here. These are, after all, the reflections of professionals who are used to thinking about, and making do without, money; relying instead on the polyglot rhetoric of cultural theory and technological optimism. Take the idea of the multitude-architect − the builder of networks and communities rather than arches and walls, which draws heavily on Judith Butler and Italian Marxist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi’s work. But what if, as the author of this paper suggests, the architect transmogrifies into a ‘spatial minstrel’? Well, then others will have more to do; even if we divest ourselves of the responsibility for the physical environment, those impulses which continue to believe in ‘fixed’ capital will keep shaping the world around us, regardless.

The ideas presented in this collection are necessarily inconclusive; they discuss formats and possibilities for a life which doesn’t yet exist, outside the capitalist paradigm, and in which the vast majority of architectural activity in fact has little interest … Yet just as real is the groundswell of activity − including architectural activity − which is starting to consider alternative civic, social and physical agendas. If implications for architectural design seem abstract at this point, it is certain that emerging as well as established structures are subject to change and that the professional contingency and compliance with such precarity of money is under intense scrutiny. The Think Space/Money publication is, of course, not a definitive exploration of such matters − but as a record of concerted conversations, its contents will be an interesting barometer in the future.

Think Space/Money

Unconference publication, 2013-2014
Available free online

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