Oikonomikos/Polis

 

- WHAT -

A thesis about housing

- WHEN -

Aug '17 - Apr ‘18

- WHERE -

Pittsburgh, PA

 
 

“Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.”

- Margaret Thatcher -

A project about housing—but also possibly: the city, urbanization, neoliberalism, tension, collectives, Marxism, cultural hegemony, structuralism, post-Fordism, cultural capital, ideology, prefigurative politics, Taylorism, Absurdism, Neo-Marxism, luxury, the domestic, labor, property, friction, ownership, late capitalism, #ACCELERATIONISM, commons, the future, the 1% (and the 99%, or rather, all percentages thereof), the home, conflict, people, architecture, and Architecture.


PREFACE

Housing has long been the crux of city life. An arena in which the social, political, cultural and economic forces of life collide. The last four decades of market deregulation, the privatization of every facet of public life, and increasingly global flows of capital, have created a never ending period of widespread real estate and property speculation as seen in the boom and bust cycle of modern housing.

The market-driven development of the city, and more particularly, the housing stock, has perverted the very idea of home, redefining housing as commodity, discarding the social function of home and house. Whether in the form of mortgages or rent, the general public has been consigned to living in conditions of perpetual debt.

Housing will always be in crisis under contemporary neoliberalism, and it becomes this projects prerogative to investigate manners in which this system can be dismantled. Reconfigurations of living, as understood spatially, socially, politically and through economics can promote more communal understandings of property and space, lessening the cultural conflation of house and commodity, subverting the power given to real estate by market driven economies, in pursuit of a more equitable and just form of housing.

As Margaret Thatcher once professed, “Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul.” This project asks, can the polis, the collective good, can politics change the soul?


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ACT I | Vacancy/Exchange

The Tower is everywhere and nowhere. Its gridded exterior reflects the sheen of this contemporary neoliberal city. The grid is optimistic in nature, flexible, adaptable—presenting all the promise of modernism. In reality, this grid is an immutable dictum, the only physical presence from the all hailing, never present entity. It’s exterior appears to be concrete, but one cannot be certain. Ostensibly, it does not matter, the tower is a body for capital accumulation, at this point, the cladding matters very little.

The Tower exists in a precarious space, as much a producer of capital as a product of capital itself. Inside its walls, the wealth is in the air—literally. The lobby, as tall as it is wide, is a frictionless space, scarcely welcoming those who own. The domestic is a stage for luxury, optimized for display. Redundant in every regard, it is laced with hidden, anonymous, idiosynchronicity. Spaces of recreation are facadist and distinctly private. Nothing makes sense, but that doesn’t matter. The tower is not a space for people, it’s empty afterall, it is a space to be owned by people.

The people that own are known as the Owners.


ACT II | Occupation/Use

The Tower does not simply exist. The absence of the Owners, is not the absence of consistent maintenance. Akin to the financial advisor, the maintenance done by the Workers is crucial to the continued generation of wealth. Inside the Tower, the vacancy is palpable. Increasingly marginalized by the housing market, the Worker families begin to fill the void.

The Worker community inside the Tower quickly grows, constantly reorganizing the space within. The extralogical systems organization of the high rise lends itself to the redivision of space, crafting multiplicity in the plan of the single unit floors. Discrete, private recreation spaces, are slowly rebuilt based on community need. Workers quickly organize, collectivizing their floor groupings around specific responsibilities within the larger community of the Tower. Decisions are made democratically. The Tower is functioning and being used for the first time ever. Workers around the city follow suit, and begin to occupy other towers.

Hoping to liquidate their financial asset, the Owner returns to discover the occupation.


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ACT III | Stasis/War

A highly mobile team of legal representatives, asset managers, property brokers, and personal assistants discretely descend on the Tower to assess the situation for the Owners. A call goes out to warn similar communities in Towers across the globe. Exercising discretion, the assembled team immediately moves to cut water and power to the Tower. Already near utility self sufficiency, the Workers adds to their solar panel arrays and begin to erect makeshift water tanks on the roof. The management team returns to find the Tower still occupied, seeing no choice but to take back the property with force, they cut off access to the circulation core with armed guards.

Inside, the Workers only have as much time as remaining supplies and farming efforts can sustain them. They quickly begin to hobble together circulation and supply networks on the exterior of the building. Incensed, the Owner exercises extralegal, private might, to forcefully evict the Worker community.

As tensions rise, governmental force is required to maintain civility.


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ACT IV | The Oikos/The Polis

With control of the Tower back, the Owners immediately begin to disassemble informal features associated with the functional use of the building and start to reassemble and restore the value of the property. This disfiguring and refiguring of the Tower, however, proves futile. The escalation of this global conflict and continuous threat of an empowered class of workers has alienated the global class of property traders. Effectively, the luxury real estate market has crashed, erasing the wealth of the Owners.

Unable to liquidate their property asset, the Owners abandon the property and the Tower enters foreclosure. Almost overnight the Tower is reoccupied. The Workers collectively cobble together the little money necessary to purchase the property, forming a cooperative. Having never occupied the upper floors, the collective rent these spaces out as market rate units. Seeing vast investment potential in the technology of the Workers, a previous owning class occupy these units, if only to feel a sense of ownership over the technology by proximity. 

The Tower is now home to two disparate populations, forms of living, and value systems. However, both populations have found use for the Tower, no longer so irreconcilable.


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ACT V | Politics/Friction

Today, the Tower looks nearly identical to the Tower of yesterday. The built form is ostensibly what it has always been, however it is not without traces of its history, most evident inside it’s gridded walls.  

Today, the Tower is an arena for friction. Hoards of seasonal luxury furniture found in the Tower’s sublevels flood the lobby space—a maze of oratory, conflict, and social tension. Forums are scattered around the building, formal spaces to conduct informal debate. A network of communal spaces and uses promote interaction and discussion. Most of all, the Tower can be seen all around the city, a new City of Friction. 

The renters of the upper floors are constantly invited to participate in socially democratic processes of decision making within the collective. Most remain resistant, but this is changing.

Overtime the Cooperative erodes the identities of the Worker and the Owner. Differences persist and the population doesn’t always agree, but it is precisely this social contrast that moves them forward. To what exact ends, to what future they move towards, that is to be determined, but determined by the collective.



ON POLITICS, ON UTOPIAS, ON ARCHITECTURE, ON HOME | A thesis manifesto

Broadly speaking, this thesis is about the city and the people that reside within its bounds. Globalization and Western cultural imperialism have made it such that the ability to talk about any global city in isolation is not only futile, but irresponsible. This is not to dismiss the importance and power of context, however, the interconnected network of problems that contemporary neoliberal governance present make it such that both proposals and critiques alike must be all encompassing and holistic in nature.

01. On Politics

While the critiques of capitalism present in this thesis are not done without a measured amount of intention, it is not the goal of this project to perform a calculated and targeted critique of capitalism. However, the topic is necessarily unavoidable. Robert Reich’s 2015 book Saving Capitalism, takes the position that capitalism can work for many and not the isolated few that it increasingly serves. This thesis does borrow from this writing, and does not stand in opposition to that hypothesis, but centers its attention and energy on the present form of late capitalism and the neoliberal ideology, suggesting there is no “return” to some foregone past, only a gaping desire for a new radical politics.

The very title of Reich’s book is representative of the present brand of Western politics. On both sides of the political spectrum, there is a considerable amount of nostalgia that longs for a fictitious moment when “America was great” or when “capitalism worked for everyone.” In the face of such impending climactic crisis, economic volatility, extreme resource depletion, and an unprecedented state of constant war, the necessity of a new politics becomes imperative. Today’s politics are stuck, unable to generate new ideas or modes of civil organization that can propel society forward. In the words of Williams and Srinicek, “In this paralysis of the political imaginary, the future has been cancelled.”

Despite the precipice society teeters on, neoliberalism has remained the dominant global political ideology. Since the late 1970s, in one form or another, neoliberalism has been persistent in much of the global north. Almost in spite of deep cultural, societal, and structural challenges (most recently the global financial crisis of 2008) neoliberal ideologies, policies, and programs have only strengthened and deepened in their reach. Instead, the neoliberal project, which has been aptly named “neoliberalism 2.0,” has sharpened its talons and sunk them deeper into every disparate part of public life; continuing to structurally alter society, politics, economics, culture. Through markedly aggressive power grabs by the private sector, the project wages on, removing and restructuring whatever is left of social democratic institutions and services.

Governmental, non-governmental, and corporate power are all encompassing of the Right, and continue to creep and leech into the crevices of social life, due, in part, to the ineffectual malaise of the Left. The past four decades of ideological imperialism by the Neoliberal State have set the Left into a spiraling paralysis, unable to conceive and engender new and radical thinking. Guised as an effort to look back to look forward, the popular methods of the Left simply look back, projecting a return to Keynes, neoclassical economics, and the glory of post-war social democracy. Presently overwhelmed by increasingly divisive identity politics, a Neo-Keynesian economy seems improbable at best.  

Times are decidedly different, industrial-Fordism, familial female subjugation, segregated suburban utopias, and an international landscape rife with colonies, empires, and imperialist hold-over, are not the context du jour. Though recent neo-socialist revolutions have gained traction for short periods of time, they remain incapable of imagining any alternative beyond the neo-Marxist normative of mid-Twentieth Century socialism. The neoliberal project continues to hollow out and devalue the power of labor. Without any fundamental and structural changes to contemporary modes of thinking, labor will remain without a collective power.

Even the most recent movements, most prevalent in the wake of the 2008 housing bubble, have been unable to devise a new political future. Instead, what we see is an over reliance on local, grassroots organization. How, or when, growing your own vegetables or establishing a narrowly localised, grassroots distribution network became a radical ecological praxis, escapes me. The “folk politics” of localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism are entirely incapable of confronting a force that is abstract, non-local, and deeply rooted in our everyday infrastructure. If the forces are global, so too, must be the response. These efforts move towards disengagement, making no attempts to address the complex webs of relationships that constitute the spaces of a globalized world, and consequently lack a plausible path from this world to theirs. 

What then, of the future?

While this thesis borrows considerable framing from the writings of Williams and Srinicek and #ACCELERATE politics, it is not directed at a techno-utopian, transhumanist, post-work, future. The brash polemic vision of #ACCELERATIONISM entirely disregards the human condition and social relationships, framing them almost as challenges to overcome in order to reach a new technological potential. The critiques of accelerationism are many, but one thing is clear, the future contains people. The notion that the accelerated advancement of technology will somehow save the human condition lacks nuance and any sort of technological understanding. Present technology situates itself to connect and bridge gaps, but only functions as another arm of the machine of capital, trapping us further in ourselves. This thesis moves to produce an architecture in which prefigurative and performative politics can gestate. For what potential lies beyond our alienated ways of working together and through each other is unknown. What is for certain, however, is that we must move, and move with urgency towards a future of potential.

02. ON UPTOPIAS

There is an almost infinite abundance of material in the theoretical space of architecture and utopia. Lest we go five minutes without mentioning the word. We embrace projects for being utopian (read also “dystopian”), we also find it all too easy to dismiss on the basis of dystopia (again—read also “utopian”). As such, we oft fail to properly engage with such narratives. Understandably characteristic of a discipline so often physically anchored into the ground via piles, slabs, or concrete perimeters, architecture finds it difficult to suspend realities in order to imagine new ones. Or, conversely, ignore potential because of reality. The future must still live on. 

The future comes in two flavors—utopian and dystopian. So quick, we are, to form dichotomies, easy for categorization, easy on the mind. The space in between is not only muddy and complex, it’s necessarily boring—stuck in the middle of two shiny and defined ends. This is, however, the space where we so often exist. Heaven forbid we admit this to ourselves. By all accounts, utopias are categorically “good” in nature and operate in opposition to a proposed “bad.” Always held on a pedestal, utopias simply exist—a distinct disregard for how or why we transform and progress. This is, no doubt, the entire point of creating utopias, but a new understanding of the word itself, may yield a more fruitful relationship.

The etymology of the word is traditionally known to be Thomas More’s seminal writing on the subject. Widely regarded as a critique of 16th century Catholicism, the writing itself is split into two books. The first book directly critiques the ills that plagued Europe at the time of writing, framing the present as a moment of deep strife and struggle. The second book stands to offer an alternative. Imagining a fictitious place, the island of Utopia, no private property, no war, free hospitals and communal meals. The two books stand in purposeful opposition to each other. The most important of the writing however is an addendum in which More addresses the historically confused etymon of the word.

The common pronunciation of the word in English renders the popular definition of utopia as an imagined, perfect place. However this is not the original use and meaning of the word. What we are used to saying is “eutopia,” swapping out the original “ou–” (οὐ) prefix for “eu–” (eὐ), meaning “good.” But looking to the Greek root (the prefix "ou-" (οὐ), meaning "not", and topos (τόπος), "place", with the suffix -iā (-ία)), it becomes apparent there is no tinge of moral evaluation in the word—no good, no bad. In fact, the most direct translation would be “noplace,” or “nowhere.” Indicating the fictitious nature of the imagined world, not necessarily the evaluative speculation of a “good” world.

This new (or, rather, old) framing of the term allows the utopia to live on as a positive informing model, rather than as an absolute, restrictive, and impossible one. It is here that this thesis finds itself.

 

03. ON ARCHITECTURE

Architecture has hitherto buried its collective head in the sand. It has turned its back on the world to face a series of -ism’s in a futile attempt to escape direct or even indirect confrontation with the pressing matters of the modern world. The conversations of architectural praxis move as an unfounded speed, with new found agility, dodging and swerving, camp to camp—parametricism, functionalism, environmentalism—whatever.[1] It’s all talk. It’s all bullshit. Discourse, in some mildly haphazard estimation, is an overabundance of opinion unfortunately deprived of reason. What happened to people? What happened to the city? Architecture has successfully avoided progress for nearly the last century.[2]

Emphasis on precedent study as the de facto pedagogical model further promotes the notion that we can look back to look forward. The present practice of this model is not a generative praxis, rather a REgenerative one. Instead, we repeat, we COPY-PASTE. Architecture has rendered itself useless as a model to imagine a future. Wherein lies the problem? The popular narrative holds Architecture, or architectures, as the de facto answer to a problem. This is not a reference to the notion that architecture is powerless, rather the opposite. Architecture is not, itself, the problem. The practice can become new again.

 Architecture is not, in and of itself, political, it may merely be “Architecture.”[3] We, of course, are speaking in dialogue with the work of Chantal Mouffe and the broader distinction between politics, non-institutional engagement, and the political, the democratic attempt at consensus. Pier Vittorio Aureli’s work makes the most direct application of this framework to architecture. First, he explains that architecture is never political.  Since the time of Vitruvius, architecture has been used to pacify the citizenry and avoid conflict—the built form a manifestation of consensus resulting from the coalescence of the disparate interests of developers, governments, users, et al. Hence Corbusier explaining the choice is between “architecture or revolution.” Aureli then adds that architecture is also always political in that it is an expression of hegemonic orders, and the ever present authoritarian structures of society. In this manner, architecture cannot avoid being political. This is the dichotomy of architecture—”the ideology of consensus versus the reality of conflict.”

This framework purposefully rejects the notion of a meliorist architecture to save the world, but rather seeks to expand the relevance of architecture in society by operating directly on the cities of today. Architecture must be repositioned not as The Solution, or even a solution, but a venue in which both critique and speculative futures can manifest in a prefigurative manner. The project of architecture must serve as a means to find answers, not as the answer in and of itself. It is clear that the model of architect as skilled craftsman is obsolete, increasingly irrelevant, and effectively marginalized. Architects should not exist as the stArchitect, individual genius, or, the popular turn of phrase, as “public intellectual,” but rather as producer. A producer that is conscious of their position to modify structurally the condition through which architecture today is produced.

The ends to which this architecture will tend cannot be known—yet. But rather, they must be found. The future ordering of the city lies not in infrastructural intervention vis-à-vis Robert Moses or contemporary landscape urbanism-as-such, but rather through the operative potential of architecture to define the urban experience. This thesis moves to expand the effective realm of the architectural project by eschewing rear-garde discourse on computational form, sustainability, technics, in favor of a discourse on the city and the life we live inside.

04. ON HOME

The function of the house and what constitutes home has necessarily shifted drastically in the last century. No longer is the house simply a place for living—that living is also considerably different. New technological practices have decoupled the dichotomous view of the house and the workplace. As such, the home proceeds today without any functional monism—if one ever did exist. A new plurality of life, however, is met with an unchanging, immutable domestic form. We still cook in kitchens, sit at tables, rest on sofas, sleep in beds, wash in bathrooms, play in yards, just as we have done for centuries. What is this shift—this crisis of housing?

This thesis is less about the house as a physical envelope, so-called “self-contained atmospheric envelopes,” instead, it has more to do with the extended notion of home. As Dionne Warwick’s song, “A Home is Not a House,” suggests, the domestic sphere is so much more than sum of the functions it performs. Rather, it has much more to do with the complex overlap of cultural references, daily rituals, unspoken desires, and lofty aspirations—an ever evolving domestic milieu converging in space. Reyner Banham’s 1965 critique of the techo-fetishization of the home renders an “environment bubble” with all the latest technological bells and whistles of the time. Despite its considerably radical appearance, the domestic is more or less unchanged.

For hundreds of years, the house has found marginally new and variant forms, without consideration to changes of the home. For nearly the last century, science-fiction authors have painted dystopic images of the city and the changes it would undergo. Almost all changes revolved around the technology that would shape the physical of the city, the architecture—skyscrapers stretching for the moon, flying cars, autonomous everything—without much consideration for the life of the city. In the future, life seems to go on as it always has—the dystopian, as well as the utopian (much more entertaining) strangely more plausible than reality. The speculative futures of present make it difficult to imagine a possible future that renders everyday life as new, the architectural envelope, and rarely anything else, is the only presently manipulated object. Today, the market scarcely even requires this—the house of today, and of the future, in so far that it has been imagined, is one of financial speculation.

Everybody needs a home. Most people can get by in life, without engaging with other asset classes—they don’t need cellars of vintage wine, collections of art, classic cars—but everybody needs a home. In Vers une architecture, Corbusier predicted “A house will no longer be this solidly-built thing which sets out to defy time and decay, and which is an expensive luxury by which wealth can be shown; it will be a tool as the motor car is becoming a tool.” Ironically, houses have become tools in today’s neoliberal market, and as such, they certainly don’t need to be solidly-built. As the house increasingly becomes a financial asset vessel, used extremely infrequently, if at all, its necessity to withstand the wears of use and time evaporate. You don’t need quality construction to accumulate wealth. 

As the market narrows housing’s focus to generating profit, the market has also created a work environment that asks more of the house. In our era of informal labor and immaterial production, the house and the factory have merged into the same space. The bifurcation of the factory as the site of proletarian struggle and the house as the site of bourgeois reform as initially questioned in Friedrich Engels “The Housing Question” is even more pressing today. The house becomes the central site in an increasingly global network in the political topology.

Throughout the 19th century, housing has largely been studied typologically, whether in reference to the building itself—the house—or the social conditions that are contained within the house—the home. The house, the domestic space, even in the theories of Marx, is not considered to be a political battleground to claim power over the city. Even Engels, despite his critique of approaches to the German housing crisis, engaged with housing as a typology, not as a topology. Shortly after his writing of “The Housing Question,” approaches to housing became obsessed with standardization, modularity, and efficiency, all taylored around the “average” or “normal” body—the house as a machine for living. This machine got replicated the world over, and is still, today, the vessel through which the social elements of life are produced and reproduced. There is an urgency to break this relationship and demand more of the home. As Engels explains, "it is not that the solution of the housing question simultaneously solves the social question, but that only by the solution of the social question, that is, by the abolition of the capitalist mode of production, is the solution of the housing question made possible."

Understood this way, housing is a topological rather than a typological question—as is the city itself. For we are not speaking of archetypal figures stored in the memory palaces of culture; we are speaking of scaled measurements, statistically derived norms, and regulatory parameters stored in charts, databases, filing cabinets, and hard drives. In these, the apparatuses that formerly distinguished inside from outside, house from city, oikos from polis, “housekeeping” from politics, have been abolished. A universal, frictionless urbanization, with no absolute inside or outside, has taken their place as the governing hegemony. Grasping its topology means tracing the nestings, linkages, networks, inversions, erasures, inclusions, and exclusions through which the new, thoroughly urbanized “household” is being assembled. It is only then that a return to the polis becomes possible.

[1] Architecture is susceptible to the same pitfalls that plague common society. Critiques of “identity politics” have their evident place in architecture as well. It seems suspect that politics finds a place in Architecture, however Architecture refuses to find its place in politics.

[2] Cessation of progress can be traced back to 1927, the year in which Ludwig Mies van der Rohe curated the Weißenhofsiedlungen Exhibition, in Stuttgart — “There is no progress—like a crab on LSD—culture staggers endlessly sideways.”

[3] Whatever the powers that be say that means.