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

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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.

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