Design for the One Percent

Contemporary architecture is more interested in mega projects for elites than improving ordinary people's lives.

Zaha Hadid, a pioneering architect and the first female recipient of the Pritzker Prize, died in March at the age of sixty-five. Her vision and ambition have been rightfully celebrated around the world in the weeks since. But her passing also offers a moment to reflect critically on the state of contemporary architecture.

Not so long ago, the world’s leading architects debated how architecture could be used to transform society by providing housing for workers, improving public health, and fostering social solidarity. Today, global architecture is peopled with “starchitects” like Hadid who specialize in mega projects for the global elite.

Some of the starchitects’ projects are beautiful, to be sure. But they also often waste public money, facilitate corrupt and exploitative practices, and strengthen a planning model that excludes the populace from decision-making.

Many architectural creations are poorly constructed, requiring exorbitant maintenance costs (invariably following massive budget overruns) and lacking consideration for the people who actually live in the built environment. Consider one of Hadid’s first buildings, a fire station. While aesthetically attractive, it was impractical for firefighters and was later converted into a museum.

The Vitra fire station in Germany. Wojtek Gurak / Flickr
The Vitra fire station in Germany. Wojtek Gurak / Flickr

And Hadid’s curvaceous Maxxi building in Rome: in some respects it’s a wonderful design, yet it’s also like a fortress, failing to integrate or even engage with the surrounding neighborhood.

The New York Times reports that maintenance costs on the building are $6.6–7.9 million per year (on top of the $150 million construction bill), more than the Maxxi’s annual budget from the Italian government, which has already had to bail the museum out on several occasions.

Architecture is unique for its inherent social and utilitarian value. No one lost a home when Dylan went electric. No one became an indentured servant to print the latest Franzen. Yet ordinary people, whether they like it or not, must live with the consequences of architecture’s creations.

A building can destroy your neighborhood, destroy your livelihood, even destroy your life. But many leading architects, and most architecture critics, fail to acknowledge the basic reality that architecture isn’t just a vacuum of aesthetic virtues and vague adjectives — it is a product of its political, economic, and social context.

This context is overwhelmingly shaped by elite prerogatives. For example, Hadid’s $450 million Dongdaenum Design Plaza in Seoul was the pet project of former mayor Oh Se-hoon, who resigned after opposing a free school lunch program. Its construction displaced more than nine hundred merchants in local markets and occasioned the destruction of a historic baseball stadium still used by the community.

Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center in Azerbaijan is an even starker example of the insidiousness of contemporary architecture. Hadid worked on that project with Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev — a flagrant human rights abuser whose corruption and nepotism has been likened to that of a feudal state — to help transform Azerbaijan’s capital city into the next “global cultural hot-spot” (in the words of Baku, a quarterly magazine edited by the president’s daughter and published by Conde Naste).

Hadid’s design for the center, named for President Aliyev’s father, delighted architecture critics and won the London Design Museum’s 2014 Design of the Year award — cold comfort for the 250 families expelled from their homes to make way for its construction.

Hadid’s giant Galaxy Soho mall in Beijing is also sited on contested land. The mall displaced a neighborhood of traditional hutongs, whose residents say their land was coercively expropriated. Her firm insists that the area was already cleared by the time they got involved and that it complied with government regulations, but corrupt land deals are endemic in China.

Perhaps the clearest distillation of architecture’s relationship with broader structures of oppression is Hadid’s work in Qatar, where she designed the Al Wakrah stadium for the World Cup.

Asked in a February 2014 interview about working conditions in the Gulf States —indentured servitude, wage theft, worker fatalities — Hadid responded, “I have nothing to do with the workers. I think that’s an issue the government — if there’s a problem — should pick up. Hopefully, these things will be resolved.”

When pressed, she rhetorically threw up her hands: “I’m not taking it lightly but I think it’s for the government to take care of. It’s not my duty as an architect to look at.”

The Starchitects

Architects were not always so indifferent to workers. Indeed, the aversion to ornamentation that modern architecture famously espoused was less an aesthetic judgment than an opposition to labor exploitation.

As the Austrian architect Adolph Loos argued in his 1908 essay “Ornament and Crime,” ornamentation perpetuated poor conditions, long hours, and low wages. No ornamentation would mean higher wages and less work: “Ornament,” he wrote, “is wasted labor power and hence wasted health.”

For the modernist architects that followed Loos, creating affordable housing for workers was a moral imperative that could fundamentally alter the character of society. At the height of their careers, architects like Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius (and Bruno Taut and Ernő Goldfinger) were still designing large-scale housing projects.

These days, however, the oeuvres of starchitects are full of questionable projects and clients. Santiago Calatrava has left behind a trail of shoddy construction and massive budget overruns — most recently, $4 billion for a transit station in lower Manhattan. Rafael Viñoly and Frank Gehry have designed edifices that send blinding rays of light onto unsuspecting neighbors.

Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building in Beijing, one of the most celebrated buildings in recent years, is more than a technical wonder — it’s a tool of propaganda for the Chinese state. Norman Foster had no qualms working with Kazakhstan’s authoritarian government to assemble the ironically  named Palace of Peace and Reconciliation.

Abu Dhabi has brought together a constellation of starchitects to erect both a complex of cultural institutions and a branch of New York University called “Happiness Island” — built by bonded labor working under not-so-happy conditions.

Rem Koolhaas's CCTV building in Beijing, China. Jim Gourley / Flickr
Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building in Beijing, China. Jim Gourley / Flickr

Nowhere is the break from the socially minded past more pronounced than in housing. To the extent that starchitects build lodging at all, it’s for millionaires and billionaires. Frank Gehry’s biggest housing project is 8 Spruce Street in lower Manhattan, where the average apartment rents for more than $5,500 (requiring a net monthly income of about $14,000).

Bernard Tschumi, the radical leftist of the group, made his first foray into housing with the Blue Condo in the Lower East Side. Average sale price? $1.5 million. Yet these are relative bargains compared to other starchitect projects. Apartments in Hadid’s soon-to-open New York debut range in price from $4.9 million to $50 million. Rafael Viñoly’s 432 Park Avenue has a $95 million penthouse.

Because architects are largely beholden to their clientele, their predilection for designing luxury lodging is partly attributable to changes in the housing market and the global economy. But we shouldn’t let them off the hook that easily. By and large, elite architects have disengaged from efforts to make the most fundamental unit of architecture available to all.

The one prominent exception proves the rule: Alejandro Aravena, the most recent winner of the Pritzker Prize, has developed plans for low-cost housing that he’s made available for free. By contrast, the luxury housing developments his colleagues busy themselves with are manifestations of plutocracy that simultaneously raise the cost of living for the vast majority of city residents.

Prime movers in gentrification, Hadid and her fellow starchitects have deployed their talents in service of an urban development model that erects symbolic monuments for elites rather than improve the lives of ordinary people.

The Bilbao Effect

Ever since Frank Gehry designed the Guggenheim Museum in post-industrial Bilbao, instantly turning the city into a tourist destination, municipalities around the world have been shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars in public money for civic and cultural buildings.

Boosters claim these cultural institutions will attract more transnational capital flows, more real estate investment, more tourists, more “innovation hubs” — the buzzword soup is bottomless.

These projects don’t address, however, the structural problems — declining industry, wages, and state investment — that precipitated their supposed necessity. They don’t aim to “revitalize” the city, they aim to globalize it.

The poor are all but ignored in the planning stages and then tossed aside post-construction, pushed out of public spaces by their idealized replacement. The primary beneficiaries are cultural tourists, major property holders, and the egos of public officials.

Were the residents of Dongdaenum yearning for a Hadid-designed international design expo in their midst? Was Guangzhou in dire need of an opera house?  Did anyone bother to ask the denizens of the city?

Defenders of such projects often cite job creation as a justification. But while erecting flashy cultural institutions sometimes generates well-paying, unionized construction jobs, these are always temporary. Once up and running, low-paying service jobs predominate.

A museum requires a few curatorial and research positions (which are not necessarily well-compensated) and many more security guards, tour guides, and cashiers. At New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), one of the richest museums in the world, the starting salary for a shop worker is $29,000, and maxes out at $50,000 for non-executive white collar workers.

In addition, the expected efflorescence of high(er)-end commerce in the surrounding neighborhood, the ultimate goal of many such projects, largely produces a proliferation of waiters, cooks, shop workers, and so forth — a model of economic development that hinges on the patronage of wealthier consumers. Far from a boon for the city’s workers, the biggest beneficiaries are again property owners and capital.

In our age of austerity, the folly of the Bilbao approach is even more apparent. As local residents struggle with high unemployment, stagnating wages, the rising cost of living, and reduced government services, municipalities are devoting significant resources to projects that are, in effect if not intent, created for tourists.

The residents of Rome, for instance, likely did not need a new contemporary art museum. Local artists need cheap rent and gallery space. Italians undoubtedly need government investment in jobs and social services — the country’s youth unemployment rate is currently 37 percent. What they got instead was the Hadid-designed Maxxi building, which opened in 2010.

Another common defense of these buildings invokes the great cathedrals of Europe: were they not expensive temples to elites? Were they not also “over budget” in some sense? Hasn’t their longevity proven their value?

Putting aside the fact that we shouldn’t use medieval Europe as our moral barometer, there is a crucial difference: those churches were used by everyone.

They were a social center, a town hall, a marketplace, the manifestation of the community’s highest spiritual aspirations, the place that gave life meaning. Few starchitect-designed buildings reach toward those heights; they were more apt (until being prohibited in New York City) to contain “poor doors.”

The Architects’ Retreat

Architects are not entirely to blame for the current state of affairs. By the 1960s, and especially the 1970s, a backlash was brewing against more socially minded modernist architecture, now derided for its perceived homogeneity and decontextualized abstraction of place; in the common indictment: rows of monotonous, dreary boxes, or simply, boring and ugly. Brutalism — a derivative of modernism known for its extensive use of exposed concrete — came under especially harsh criticism.

Increasingly, public housing projects, closely linked to modernist architecture, were similarly pilloried. This culminated in the nationally televised demolition of St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in 1972, later dubbed the day “modern architecture died” by architecture critic Charles Jencks.

At its core, the modernist architecture pioneered by Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and others was an attempt to create an approach that was a prism of its era. Emerging in the febrile atmosphere after World War I, modernist architecture took the machine as its icon, the factory as its temple, and rationalism as its guiding philosophy. “The house,” Le Corbusier famously said, ”is a machine for living in.”

And it was easier and cheaper than ever to build. With pre-fabrication techniques and new building materials, a house could effectively be manufactured in a factory, and at a significantly lower price — enabling modern, high-quality housing for the whole of society.

Many of the modernist architects were socialists or communists. Le Corbusier — who worked for both the Soviet Union and Vichy France — evinced a more technocratic, anti-radical attitude.

For him, the adoption of a rational, mass housing program provided “modern man” with material and hygienic comfort as consolation for the destruction of the traditional world —helping stave off revolution. But even Le Corbusier exhibited a greater concern for the poor than most prominent architects today.

For some time, the unadorned buildings and utilitarian calculations of Le Corbusier and his modernist colleagues dominated the field. When Pruitt-Igoe opened in 1954, it was a measure of the style’s influence. By the following decade, with conditions in the buildings deteriorating, it had become seen as modern architecture’s damning offense.

The Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, Missouri being demolished in 1972. Life magazine
The Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis, Missouri being demolished in 1972. Life magazine

Yet detractors omitted the social context: St. Louis, like other American cities at the time, was struggling with an evaporating industrial base and rapid white flight. The vast majority of Pruitt-Igoe’s residents were black, effectively barred from the new suburbs through de facto and de jure racism.

The government was also to blame for Pruitt-Igoe’s poor condition. Building maintenance was lackluster, rents were hiked on increasingly impoverished residents, and community bonds were forcibly broken. Fathers were not allowed to stay with their families at the housing complex because the state thought this was unbecoming for welfare recipients.

But some looked at the problems of public housing and decided it was architecture’s fault.

What started as an aesthetic backlash — “less is a bore,” postmodern architect Robert Venturi quipped — developed into a more comprehensive critique of modernism’s social ethic.

The modernists were portrayed as hubristic for thinking they could change the world and criticized as elitist for thinking they knew what people wanted. Architecture, dominated by modernism and its variants for nearly half a century, struggled to find a new language and sense of purpose.

In response to these challenges, architects moved away from modernism and its explicit politics and sought to infuse buildings with semiotic character — “whimsical” references to the past, or metaphysical deconstructions of buildings.

Hadid, for example, often cited Russian suprematism as a formative influence on her work. Arguably the first “pure” abstract art movement, suprematism eschewed objective reference in reality (exemplified most famously by founder Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square).

But what Hadid found most appealing was the theoretical aspect — the possibility of a purely abstract architecture, devoid of its practitioners’ radical politics.

Malevich identified his “revolution” in art with the Russian Revolution, and El Lissitzky created some of the most iconic imagery of the Soviet Union, for which he worked almost his entire professional life. (The admiration was ultimately not mutual: abstract art was suppressed under Stalin as ideologically suspect and supplanted by socialist realism.)

By contrast, Patrick Schumacher, Hadid’s chief theorist, is an ardent libertarian who dreams of a “radical free-market urbanism” and rails against “political correctness” in architecture (e.g.,  “concern for the underprivileged”).

This shift has helped most leading architects maintain the image of the ethereal aesthete while simultaneously freeing themselves from the burdens of political substance.

Structure for Structure’s Sake

There are still many socially minded architects who would prefer to design and build social housing or carry out other progressive projects. But structural impediments often derail such ambitions.

An architectural education in America is expensive. In addition to an undergraduate degree, aspiring architects must complete three years of graduate school — and like everything else in higher education, the price has been rising of late.

At the Yale School of Architecture, one year of tuition (excluding room and board) is $46,500. Public universities are cheaper, but still steep: fees for in-state students at UCLA are about $24,000, and that’s before living expenses.

Shouldering enormous debt after graduating, architects are anxious to rid themselves of the burden as quickly as possible. But starting salaries are not particularly high, especially for those pursuing socially conscious projects.

Working for a bland corporate firm, if you can manage to get hired, offers security and benefits. Working for a star offers a path to increased prominence, with the potential to one day achieve a modicum of creative freedom — the freedom to choose what projects you want to work on, or at least pay down your debt.

Young architects’ low compensation is not necessarily a reflection of their importance to the workflow.

According to architecture scholar Peggy Deamer, as the field transitions away from an apprentice model and to complex software programs — which older principles are less adept at using — younger architects are increasingly responsible for substantive design decisions. Rising responsibility, however, hasn’t been matched by rising compensation.

An additional problem is the pedagogy of architecture schools, which focus largely on aesthetics to the detriment of social context.

But the greatest obstacle to a renewed social focus in architecture is the government’s retreat from social housing and similar undertakings. Before the rise of neoliberal politics, the government served as the benefactor for many young architects, pushing them to act on their progressive impulses.

In the post–Pruitt-Igoe world, the very idea of public housing has been tarnished. Broader changes in the operating ideology of the economy and political system — roughly contemporaneous with the decline of modernist architecture — have also made any ambitious government plan to provide affordable housing almost unimaginable.

These include: the assault on the welfare state; the fetishization of free-market efficiency and the reflexive promotion of privatization; and the increasing financialization of society, which re-conceptualizes things like housing as an investment rather than a means of shelter.

While architects cannot dictate the terms of public housing policy, they can create a discourse that challenges the prevailing consensus. But they have largely failed to do so. Like the much-maligned public housing blocks, architecture has absorbed the surrounding context.

Once adversarial, architecture now not only accommodates the economic system but aggrandizes its worst impulses, edifying its gross excesses with a glass-and-steel shroud of haughty benevolence, bereft of any social mission beyond displaying its own brilliance. It has become structure for structure’s sake.

Architecture for the People

In the weeks since Hadid’s death, the media’s overwhelmingly positive appraisals have largely focused on Hadid as a person. They’ve dwelled on the fact that she was an Arab and a woman. (She was, to her credit, an important advocate for women in the field.) The one negative article about her fixated almost entirely on her personality.

Profiles of Hadid before her death displayed the same fascination with the personal. They had a bizarre tendency to describe her hands (or other physical attributes) at length, speculate on her mood, or exhaustively itemize her various outfits. It was almost always about the semiotic character of Zaha Hadid.

If there were many slideshows devoted to her designs — collectively blowing our minds many times over — few explored the social context and implications of her architecture. Few examined what her work meant for the urban public, and whether it conflicted with the emerging hagiography.

Contra Hadid and others, a truly revolutionary architecture would concern itself with how to provide permanent, quality housing for the nearly one billion people currently living in slums, how to create accessible housing for the millions more adversely affected by a global affordability crisis in urban areas.

These are not just moral issues. The failure of governments to substantively attack social ills is, among other things, a major impediment to cities becoming the environmentally friendly, resource-efficient units we need them to be.

Nor must we dispense with aesthetic considerations in the pursuit of justice. A socially conscious architecture does not need to return to austere concrete cubes or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the sort of End of History urbanism advocated by some traditionalists. We can still have radical aesthetics. We can still have a riotous mosaic of styles and structures.

The aim is creating inclusive, beautiful public spaces and cities that work for the benefit of their residents. Grand Central Station is, nearly everyone agrees, a gorgeous building; ditto the New York Public Library — and millions of regular New Yorkers use both every year.

A few years ago, Frank Gehry blew off a Spanish journalist who questioned the utility of his buildings by telling him, “In the world we live in, 98 percent of what gets built and designed today is pure shit.”

That pure shit is where roughly 98 percent of us are fated to live our lives. Gehry and Hadid and other starchitects create architecture for the other two percent.

That’s who gets to live in the multi-million dollar apartments; that’s who gets to see the inside of the opera house; that’s who gets to experience the office suites of elite institutions, or jet set to the next global cultural hot-spot in search of architectural thrills.

We need less Gehrys, less Hadids, less bloated egotecture. We need more shit, more beautiful shit for the rest of us.