why contemporary architecture sucks and why economic sociology is the future we’ve been waiting for

Biranna Rennix and Nathan Robinson have a long, but well-written essay called “Why You Hate Contemporary Architecture, and If You Don’t Why You Should”.  The hook: name one example of a building built in the last 70 years that stands up to anything built before the War?  You, like me, probably have a hard time thinking of an answer.

The explanation they offer is that this isn’t just a question of taste.  It is that computers have allowed architects to do things now that weren’t possible before the war.  So we don’t design buildings anymore, we engineer them.  And the engineering possibilities far outstrip normal human capability.  Combine that with capitalism’s emphasis on efficiency and what you get is buildings that are both ugly and inhuman.

As I started reading it, I was thinking to myself “it is so nice to read something long and thoughtful that has nothing to do with Donald Trump.”  But of course, it’s not that simple.  Eventually, I found myself substituting the phrase “public policy” for “architecture.” And in doing so, I found myself coming to an explanation for the “populist moment” we are living through: Just as post-war architecture became more and more focused on efficiency and technical superiority at the expense of feelings and human needs, public policy in the post-War period has become more distant, abstract and technical.

I sympathize with the reaction of elite architecture professors who resist the idea that the solution to the problem of contemporary architecture is to retreat into “nostalgic” buildings.  Similarly, I resist the idea that the response to the critique of contemporary public policy is to go back to a nostalgic pastiche of an vaguely defined golden era.

But here’s the thing: even if I don’t agree with the treatment for the illness I can’t ignore the underlying diagnosis.  Massive policy projects—whether the European Union or reforming the American health care system—are Le Corbusian in their ambition and intelligence as well as their capacity for mass alienation.  And that policy alienation has produced a real and consequential backlash that we should not ignore (despite our moment of joy over the results in Alabama–go ‘Bama!).

The upshot of the architecture article is a call to reintroduce fallibility and limited human capacity into processes by which buildings get built.  Venice and Bruges resulted from the work of builders who contributed in ways that improved on what was already there.  They did so with tools and technologies that suffered from human limitations.  But the result was architecture that is human and even sometimes beautiful. These places evolved in response to—and, were limited by—the people and communities that inhabited them, not the other way around.  Can we find a way to make public policy that takes the same lesson to heart without retreating to a past that never actually existed?

This is where economic sociology comes in.  I don’t go too much for economist bashing.  I like economists.  Some of my best friends of economists.  The strength of their insights is undeniable.  But there is no doubt that the quantitative turn in economics is the equivalent of the arrival of CAD technology in architecture.  It has lead to an exceptionally technocratic era of policy analysis the goal of which is to rationalize and to engineer policy-making on a superhuman scale.  Intellectually, it’s good stuff.  But over-reliance on it, in combination with embracing a certain form of capitalism the last fifty years, has introduced a lot of the same problems that CAD technology introduced into architecture.  We have extracted humans and history from the process of making policy and Trump (and Brexit, and Marine Le Pen) are a result.

Economic sociology, if it doesn’t get itself too distracted by fancy tools, has a contribution to make.  Or more than a “contribution”, economic sociology could become the intellectual basis on which to build a new approach to thinking about public policy.  One that reintroduces a focus on human interactions—with their faults and frailties, as well as their capacity for beauty and insight—as the central actor in the process by which strong societies—not just policies (i.e.,buildings) but societies—are built.  It is not just a matter of understanding the behavioral psychology of people in response to the engineered policies in which they live.  It is understanding how the interaction of human beings produces and evolves social institutions.

The irony of ironies is that Donald Trump—the guy who brought the idea of “look at me” architecture to its tackiest heights when he demolished the perfectly nice 1929 Art Deco Bonwit Teller building in order to build a minimalist brass-tinted-glass monument to value engineering—should be leading the populist policy “movement”.  We can and should reject both his facile, anti-intellectual nostalgia and also the technocratic policy elitism of the second half of the 20th century.  Economic sociology, or at least some version of it, seeks to understanding how institutional fabrics emerge and evolve.  Yet we have not really figured out how to translate that knowledge to a wider audience.  But, we need to (because if we don’t someone else will)

Yes we can.


Written by seansafford

December 13, 2017 at 3:19 pm

7 Responses

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  1. You think ugly architecture has nothing to do with Trump? You don’t live in New York.

    Liked by 1 person


    December 13, 2017 at 8:13 pm

  2. That’s terrible selection bias. Ugly (and a lot of pretty) pre-war architecture got demolished. Ugly post-war architecture is still useful. Plus, our opinions change over time–Philadelphia’s city hall is now loved as a gorgeous building (also, the redesign of its courtyard in the past three years made the space public and friendly for the first time in forever). When it was built it was criticized as an absurd, corrupt boondoggle (#21 on their list of public favorites). One of the world’s most loved pre-war buildings (still not complete, to be honest) is La Sagrada Familia which is inspirational in part because of its engineering feats.

    But fine–here are some gorgeous postwar buildings: THE SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE. the Guggenheim in Bilbao. The Aqua Tower in Chicago. Heydar Aliyev Center. Auckland Art Gallery. The Bird’s Nest in Beijing.The Parasol in Sevilla. The Museum of Islamic Art. I loved the Getty Center in LA.

    Or to stick to Philadelphia, yes the best buildings are pre-war (the Fisher Fine Art Library at Penn >>>>> City Hall). But there’s also the gorgeous Singh Center for Nanotechnology, 1200 Intrepid in the Navy Yard, and the new Barnes museum (as much of a debacle as it is that the Barnes is in Philadelphia). I’m not the biggest Robert Stern fan, but his new tower next to the new Mormon Temple is pretty nice. And Philly’s widely criticized as a relatively timid architectural city.

    Liked by 3 people


    December 13, 2017 at 10:59 pm

  3. I don’t think you presented a very strong argument. Large buildings today are built to a code that is far more advanced and foresees far more contingencies than did pre-WWII buildings. The pre-war buildings were perhaps built with more rick and cement than todays, but they were not built for warmth, no insulation standards, and they require constant maintenance – replastering. The very large buildings are neither earthquake proof nor flood proof. It is also true that many houses built today can be accused of being ‘ticky-tacky.’ New houses today are however built with considerations for air conditioning, heating, plumbing, drainage and fire than older buildings.

    The PROBLEM i that there is not enough housing and the given infrastructure is incredibly insufficient for the population size of urban centers. What is needed is NOT the continuous repair of urban centers but a building of multiple centers within a close distance of each other, a network that serves as the urban center – a decentering. Transportation, roads, schools and housing can be built between these hubs. Bottom line is that urban centers are RIDICULOUSLY crowded and inefficient. AND, most of the housing in these urban areas stink! We are overwhelmed by problems of sanitation, plumbing, roads/transportation and living conditions generally.


    Fredrick Welfare

    December 14, 2017 at 8:19 pm

  4. >We have extracted humans and history from the process of making policy and Trump (and Brexit, and Marine Le Pen) are a result.

    This is kind of a bizarre comment to make. The last fifty years are also post-Civil Rights Act, as well as in an era post-Nixon where politicians are subject to far more public scrutiny than they were before. There’s easily a story you can tell of us having *more* human access to policy rather than less. (I also would find it hard to argue that the majority of the populace even understood well the areas of policy that have not risen in technocraticness–foreign diplomacy, for example)


    drive-by commenter

    December 15, 2017 at 4:45 am

  5. also, talking about backlashes to or alienation from the ACA is ignoring that we didn’t see the same long-lasting backlash to even larger social policy programs, like Social Security and Medicare.

    sorry, but this “getting distracted by fancy tools” is just a gentle Luddism.


    drive-by commenter

    December 15, 2017 at 4:50 am

  6. A somewhat abstract discussion on the need for concreteness. An example of how economic sociology might be of use would, well, be useful. NB. Policy schools are not short on good ideas. For example, popular participation in policy formation and implementation has been a key topic of interest and research in policy schools for decades. Perhaps this is where the sociology of knowledge, more than economic sociology, could come in. A pertinent challenge is to understand why serious social science does not more often shape policy. A secondary set of questions concerns why this varies between policy fields, and between countries. I can certainly think of places where the academic policy community and senior people in public administration mix freely. Of course, some good work is being done in this space, not least by folks studying the rise of think tanks.



    December 19, 2017 at 3:51 am

  7. I’ve been trying to make the case for a while now that Gieryn’s “What Buildings Do” (2002) could very fruitfully be read as “What policies do” (and it incorporates sociology of knowledge/STS insights too!)

    Liked by 1 person

    Nathan Lauster

    December 19, 2017 at 5:51 am

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