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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.102 Santiago ago. 2019

http://dx.doi.org/10.4067/S0717-69962019000200064 

Readings

Architecture as currency

Riccardo-M. Villa1 

1Department of Architecture Theory and Philosophy of Technics, Technical University of Vienna, Austria. riccardo.villa@tuwien.ac.at

Abstract

When it comes to uncertainty about the future, architectural competitions and the real estate market are the spaces of speculation par excellence. Departing from this idea, the following article shows how competitions - by developing and recycling architectural forms - favor the accumulation of capital within the office, since without a final destination projects are increasingly resembling money.

Keywords: speculation; critique; design; essay; competition

Bien immeuble, ‘immovable property,’ is the term by which most European languages refer to a building or land - a ‘spatial’ property or good - that can be exchanged for money, as in real estate.7 Other types of properties need no adjective: goods are ‘mobile’ per definition, as their condition depends on their ability to be exchanged, to circulate, to be ‘on the move.’ Real estate can then be considered as a sort of boundary condition of a good, as its exchange cannot be effected through the movement of the property - there can be no physical exchange - from an owner to the other if not in ‘imaginary’ terms. In Politics, Aristotle states that everything we possess has two uses: a “proper” use, tied to the “final cause” of the thing - its telos - and an “improper” one, that manifests whenever an object is ‘exchanged’ for something else. “For example, a shoe is used for wear, and is used for exchange; both are uses of the shoe” (Hénaff, 2010:87).8 The primacy of the first - what we understand today as ‘use-value’ - is explained by the fact that, in the very end, this is the use that will ‘exhaust’ the thing. This is particularly evident not only in the case of objects like clothing, as in Aristotle’s example, but in the most basic form of goods like nourishment, that literally get ‘consumed’ (“corrupted,” in Aristotle’s words) as they are used. Exchange is then what subtracts the thing from this consumption, or at least ‘suspends’ it from an end that will eventually be met. To this regard, money has a peculiar status: as a “substitute of need” (hypallagma), following Aristotle’s definition in the Nicomachean Ethics, money can only be exchanged. This means that its suspension from any final use is ‘eternal,’ it constitutes money’s ‘destiny.’ This aspect of a never-ending exchange is precisely what the term ‘currency’ embodies: a continuous flow, a ‘current’ that never finds a final state of rest.

As an artifact, architecture is always conceived with a certain purpose - it is endowed with a ‘use-value,’ to say it in economic terms. This teleological matrix has appeared under many names: destination, function or program could all be seen as different declinations of that ratio utilitatis that constituted one branch of Vitruvius’ famous triad. Yet, whenever a building is ‘traded,’ whenever it happens to fall under the category of real estate, purposefulness is not anymore what constitutes its ultimate end, nor it is relevant whether the building is actually used or not. What only matters is that it can be exchanged. In this sense, the architectural object leaves the ‘reality’ of building with certain usefulness and enters the same ‘virtuality’ in which money moves. The building becomes a token. Conceiving something so stable like a building as a term of exchange, as something that can be put into circulation, seems to be almost an absurdity in this sense; looking at it again through the Aristotelian paradigm, one could ask how can something so ‘grounded’ like architecture be suspended from its real use?

Despite the apparent contradiction, such a suspension is not so uncommon for architecture, nor it is limited to the domain of real estate speculation. There are conditions in which architectural form, even before being built, can be considered as suspended from a final telos, from its purposefulness. To show it with a concrete example, one can look at the case of OMA’S Casa da Musica (Figure 1), in which the form of an unused foam model initially designed for a private villa is simply scaled up and turned into an ‘iconic’ music hall:

The design originated in a commission for a house in suburban Rotterdam several years ago. (…) But the client was not happy with the design and he dropped the project just as the OMA was entering a design competition for the Porto concert hall. Thus, the abandoned and temporarily forgotten model of the private house came up to the office and re-entered the cycles of design. Lingering on the tables of models for months, it was finally taken with new assumptions, reshaped, refreshed and adjusted (Yaneva, 2009:86).

Source: © Aleksandr Zykov / CC-BY-SA-2.0

Figure 1 OMA. Casa da Musica. Porto, Portugal, 2005. 

Here the image (eikōn) provided by the project prevails over any possible destination and transcends it - turning at some point even into a “mediator” in the negotiations between the architect and the different clients (Yaneva, 2009:87). This is certainly not an exceptional case, but just a well-documented one: architectural offices have often relied on the re-use of forms and solutions conceived for previous projects, to the extent that for some architects the repetition of formal solutions turned into a true stylistic leitmotiv. Seen under this light, the accumulation of re-usable or ‘expendable’ forms constitutes a true capital for any architectural practice: an accumulation of forms-as-currency that can be potentially converted (or literally ‘ex-pended,’ removed from their ‘suspension’) according to diverse purposes. Like the real estate developer seeks to increase its business by accumulating properties that can be sold, architects can ‘accumulate’ designs that can be rendered into specific projects at the best occasion.

Competitions are perhaps the best opportunities to build up such a capital. They can be seen as a peculiar kind of device by which the architect is asked to provide a formal answer to a specific design brief in quite a reduced amount of time. This happens while the client - the ‘father’ of the project, after Filarete’s definition (1972 (1451-1464)) - keeps himself mostly out of the process, only providing initial requirements and intervening at last with his decision over the winner and, therefore, allowing the architect more ‘freedom’ than in an ordinary private commission. In this perspective, competitions are a favorable condition in which to ‘project,’ in a relatively short amount of time, the forms that, according to the architect, best fit the specific purpose. Furthermore, if we consider such specificity only as a temporal condition - in other words, if it is true that a particular formal solution, like the one drawn in response to a demand for a private villa, can be ‘expended’ again for a different aim, such as the project of a music hall - then the ‘accumulation’ of these formal solutions that happens through competitions can be considered in return as the manifestation of an ideal spectrum of all the projects that the architect has already designed as well as the ones he will ‘potentially’ design.9

Several architects have, especially in recent times, tried to ‘gain consciousness’ of this spectrality by making it manifest. In 2016, Kersten Geers and David Van Severen authored an exhibition in which they collected all their past projects (realized or not) along with art pieces they considered as references for their work, virtualizing a sort of phenomenological field in which everything they would consider as architecture could be accommodated. The title of the show, “Everything Architecture,” (Figure 2) echoed the famous motto coined by Hans Hollein some decades before, when, by saying that “Everything is Architecture,” the Austrian designer declared instead the totality of the world (everything ‘there is’) as the horizon of reference for his work (Figure 3). A similar all-encompassing definition of this spectrum is also the one provided by Archizoom’s No-Stop City, a project in which architecture dissolves into an infinite space, to which there is no outside (Figure 4). A “Universal Climatic System,” in which circulation and economic flows take over any possibility of accumulation; nothing can be withheld or accumulated, everything moves ‘non-stop’: capitals leave the stage to ‘capitalism.’ The speculation of Archizoom’s project is both theoretical and real: the omni-comprehensive infinity of the No-Stop City matches with the infinite horizon of time at the basis of financial speculation, whose profit relies in fact on an endless time, as any ‘final purchase,’ so to say, is endlessly postponed; its ‘action,’ to use the lexicon of Aristotle, has no other ‘end’ than the accumulation of further money, which is in itself a property with no other purpose than to be exchanged, thus entering in a sort of doomed tautology with no possibility of escape. Archizoom’s design is then not just an infinite, but an ‘indefinite’ city-form; an architecture without any ‘end,’ precisely like money and the speculation related to it.10

It is in such a realm, dominated by finance and market economy, that we find once again ‘competition’ as a driving force for speculation.11 Similarly to what happens in the architectural context, the artificial struggle between two or more parties to reach a determinate goal acts as a motor that brings forth projects, earnings, and developments. Development, as the specular product of competition, is in itself a rendering of the endless character of speculation: once affirmed as an absolute notion - development as such, not ‘of’ something in particular - it indicates a change that does not need to presuppose an end nor a following stage but insists on the changing itself. In this sense, it seems to well embody that continuous process of exchange and substitution that currency is capable of. Yet, in order to progress, this development must have its own stages, it must produce its own objects (its ‘objectives’), for however temporary and provisional they might be. These are the objects onto which a competition focuses, the aims that the different parties must strive to reach (or produce). ‘Interests’ are at the same time the aim and the product of financial speculation; Aristotle regards them with suspicion since, differently from ordinary ‘products,’ they are not destined to any particular end but that of further exchange. The Greek tokos literally translates as ‘child’ or ‘offspring’; interests are money engendered by money itself, a true ‘creative’ ability which is naturally belonging to living beings and that, thanks to speculation, is here artificially (unnaturally) operated by a product.12

Source: © BOZAR, Centre for Fine Arts

Figure 2 Office Kersten Geers David Van Severen. «Everything Architecture». BOZAR, Centre for Fine Arts, Bruselas, 2016. 

Source: © Hans Hollein

Figure 3 Hans Hollein. Non-physical environment (Architekturpille). Viena, Austria, 1967. 

Source: © Archivo Archizoom

Figura 4 Archizoom, No-Stop City, 1970. 

In the light of these considerations concerning the notion of speculation, in finance as much as in architecture, we can then perhaps regard both financial interests and architectural projects as a sort of ‘fictitious end,’ pursued and pushed by the mechanism of competition. It is through this conception that we can then try to consider architecture ‘as currency’: as an artifact that, like money, withdraws itself from a specific end, but that nevertheless can withhold such immediate absence through the finiteness of an artificial and fictitious form (by its very ‘design’) and, precisely by doing so, is therefore able to index a field of potentialities and to ‘actualize’ them in the course of time.

Referencias

CORBIN, Henry. Temple and Contemplation. London: KPI, 1986. [ Links ]

FILARETE, Trattato di architettura (1451-1464). Milano: Edizioni il polifilo, 1972. [ Links ]

FOUCAULT, Michel. Naissance de la biopolitique. Cours au Collège de France (1978-1979). París: Gallimard, 2009. [ Links ]

HÉNAFF Marcel, The Price of Truth: Gift, Money, and Philosophy. California: Stanford University Press, 2010. [ Links ]

YANEVA, Albena. Made by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture: An Ethnography of Design. Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2009. [ Links ]

*

Riccardo M. Villa Master in Architecture, Polytechnic University of Milan. PhD candidate, Technische Universität Wien, Austria. His interests revolve around architecture in its production, under a spectrum that spans from aesthetics and semiotics to biopolitics. Since 2009 he is a member and part of the editorial board of GIZMO, a Milan-based architectural research collective, and a platform for publications, events and exhibitions. His latest work, Backstage: l’architettura come lavoro concreto (Hoepli, 2016) deals with the state of the practice and the conditions of labor in contemporary architecture. Since September 2017 is assistant researcher at the Department for Architectural Theory and Philosophy of Technics at TU Wien.

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