Architecture and the Invisible Hand

April 24, 2013

One of the main principles of capitalism (i.e. classical liberal economics) is to divide strictly between the production of goods and their consumption. After this principal dogma the ideal supply and demand situation of the free market can only be set up by clearing the relation between the consumer and the producer from all political, social, aesthetical, ethical etc. components. Only in a setting like this the invisible hand is capable of doing its job of distributing the wealth not only between singular, egoistic market participants, but also between common goods-oriented nations.

Tthe price to be paid for an ideal market of that type is complete, mutual anonymity between producers and consumers. In order to not distort the invisible hand-mechanics of the capitalist free market, an ideal consumer is expected to not buy a chair made by his brother in the neighbor village if it is more expensive than a chair made in china and shipped around half the globe. The only medium for the decision to consume one thing rather than another one shall be the price tag on the product; i.e. the reduction of all economically relevant properties of a good to an anonymous but in return universally comparable number. Thus the condition for the ideal free market to function seamlessly is the mutual ignorance between producer and consumer: what is being exchanged on the market are not individual desires and customized products, but standardized products and generalized desires. These are the only things the invisible hand can handle: standardized products and generalized desires.

Of course there is no such market in realitas —  but for a hardcore market liberal this only indicates that we need to try harder to finally reach the ideal market situation and so to enable the invisible hand to do its job. It’s not the underlying model of the market that is wrong, but it’s us as we don’t behave market commensurable. Thus the radical liberal sets out to get the individuals to act market commensurable, using stimuli and constraints. And if this wasn’t enough, he not only tries to consolidate existing markets, but also sets out to create evermore free markets as, according to him, the free market is the solution to everything: drinking water, pharmaceuticals, education, nutrition.. you name it.

Without entering to deep into the question whether the radical liberal market conception realistically catches the dynamics spanning between people trading with each other, it seems quite obvious that the basic distinction between production and consumption does not hold for architecture. Architecture is not based on a separation between those who produce it and those who consume it, but exactly on the opposite: the quality of architecture stems precisely from how well its creation is related to its use. Ignorance between the producers and the consumers of architecture is in no way a precondition for architecture nor does it lead to a better ‘flow of architectonical goods’. The better the architect and the users know each other, and the better the context and the history of a project is known, the better architecture can get.

Architecture is, let there be no doubt, bound to economical processes, as is everything generated under the paradigm of the division of labor. That is not the point. The point is that if architecture is rendered under the economic distinction between production and consumption, it becomes something else. There is no way of turning back this development and go back to a sort of romanticized ‘subsistence architecture’ where everybody builds its own little hut. But we need to think about how anonymously produced building units can be transformed into architecture again, inhabited by real people, not by generalized desires. The way to achieve this is to resist to external imperatives (Habermas) and to face Realpolitik from an architectonical point of view. Architecture doesn’t have to fit into economical patterns — whenever a McKinsey guy tells that story, he is lying or he doesn’t know any better — in which case it would be strange why McKinsey should employ him in the first place. Architecture is neither produced nor consumed in the economical sense of the word. Architecture is build and inhabitated and used. Thus we need other ways of dealing with architecture than only the reductive model of supply and demand.

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