Aesthetics and beyond: against the Commodification of Architecture

by Ramon Rispoli

Compasses Magazine

In the Passagenwerk – his unfinished project on the Parisian arcades written during the 1930s, and posthumously published – Benjamin proposed a reflection both on the origins of capitalism and on the formation of the modern metropolis.

The arcade was a nineteenth-century building typology that was going into decline during the very years in which he was writing, and that he saw as the key to the understanding of the early culture of consumption. Such structures were early experiments in iron and glass, just like the railway stations and exhibition halls that appeared throughout Europe in the post-revolutionary era: the spaces of the triumphant bourgeoisie of that time. The arcades served many functions: as means of access to the interior of a block; as walking spaces sheltered from the rain; but above all, they provided a new form of organizing retail trade and displaying luxury goods to walking window-shoppers.

The first thing that seems interesting to point out is that, in his description of the inner mechanisms of consumption, Benjamin often resorted to the term “magic”. Is it possible to establish a relation between capitalism and magic? This is what Benjamin asked himself, and his answer was radically different from the one widely accepted at that time.

In fact, back then, the majority of sociologists and political theorists tended to agree that capitalism was based upon the principles of Protestant ethic, leaving behind any sort of “magical” vision of the world. Max Weber, as is known, argued that capitalism was associated with a form of disenchantment: since any form of magic implied the existence of a realm beyond the calculable, capitalism perceived it – according to him – as a serious obstruction to the rationalization of economic life.

In contrast to Weber’s view, for Benjamin the modern metropolis abounded with magic: far from desacralizing the world, capitalism generated an extremely powerful sort of “secular enchantment”. Directly challenging Weber’s thesis of rationalization, Benjamin looked for the irrational elements typical of the modern, capitalist city; and in doing so, he explicitly referred to the concept of “commodity fetishism” proposed about sixty years earlier by Karl Marx, in the first chapter of Das Kapital. Such fetishism – that sort of “metaphysical”, even “theological” dimension acquired by commodities within the space of their exhibition – was exactly what Benjamin referred to with the terms “magic” and “phantasmagoria”.

The commercial arcades of Paris were, therefore, the theatrical spaces for the display of commodities. This is why Benjamin placed so much emphasis on the visual and spatial aspects created within them by lighting, glass, mirrors and wrought iron: the magical commodity required a magical stage and the arcades were perfectly designed to provide it. Yet the commodity on display was just one of the many images of his phantasmagorical Paris: there were also universal exhibitions, world fairs, panoramas, i.e. a whole range of collective experiences in which the masses revealed themselves as subject to the extremely powerful fascination exercised by the commodity system. Clearly, such experiences can be seen as the early manifestations of what Guy Debord would later define société du spectacle.

But, as is known, the metaphysical and theological dimension of the commodity which Marx referred to is just a matter of surface: this sort of “capitalist magic” does not have to do with mystical powers, but instead with trickery and deception. The fascination caused by the modern city and its commodities immediately revealed itself as illusory: a deceit perpetuated by the market. Benjamin used the notion of “dreaming” in referring to such unconscious state of fascination, “auratic” seduction brought about by the universe of commodities. Dreams and phantasmagorias were, in this sense, the dimensions of the unconscious, of the extra-rational: i.e. the cunning trap of the commodities – their seductive power – into which the consumer inevitably fell. Against the consumer’s endless pursuit for the fulfilment of individual desires, he wanted to shed light upon the reality of economic and social imbalances hidden behind the exchange-value of commodities. As he wrote: «an inferno rages in the soul of the commodity, for all the seeming tranquillity lent it by the price».

As is clear, aesthetics played an essential role in providing the commodity with this “seeming tranquillity”; and this is a crucial point, even more if we consider the change that was taking place, at the same time, within the sphere of the arts. In his well-known essay The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility, Benjamin argued that modern art was detaching itself from beauty – to say it in his own words, it was abandoning «the realm of the beautiful semblance» – in order to take on a brand new, manifestly political dimension. Just when arts seemed to be leaving that realm, commodities made their way into it. In the dazzling lights of the arcades’ storefronts, commodities were exhibited just as if they were works of art: in other words, they became “auratic”.

It was already clear that, within the capitalist logic, the embellishment of any commodity was essential to increase its attractiveness on the market. In a machinery of this kind, design was by all means a crucial piece. Suffice it to mention the triumph of the Streamline Design in the United States during the 1930s (exactly when Benjamin was writing): a movement in which designers reduced their work to pure styling – that is the embellishment of the artefacts’ superficial appearance – along the lines of the famous slogan put forward by one of its pioneers, Raymond Loewy: ugly things sell badly.

Some of the most decisive features of such “commodified beauty” were geometric perfection, cleanness, transparency, but also smoothness. In 1957, in his well-known Mythologies, Roland Barthes – in describing the aerodynamic, captivating forms of the Citroën DS 19 that had just been launched on the market – wrote: «smoothness is a permanent feature of perfection, insofar as its opposite betrays a technical, profoundly human operation of “adjustment”: Christ’s tunic was completely seamless, just as the spaceships in science-fiction are made of jointless steel».

Passagenwerk Benjamin’s unfinished project on the Parisian arcades

Nowadays, such imperative of “embellishment” has become stronger and more widespread than ever, affecting nearly every field of contemporary life, from images to objects, from bodies to experiences, from architecture to urban space: this is what Gilles Lipovetsky and Jean Serroy refer to as the “aesthetization of the world”. Moreover, such embellishment has extended the sphere of its dominion also in sensory terms: it is not just about the visual dimension, as it used to be in the nineteenth-century arcades. This is clearer than ever in an Apple store, where there is no glass, no dividing surface at all between the consumer and the object of his desire: there is only a steel wire that prevents the object from being stolen. The consumer is induced to “fall in love with the commodity” with all his senses: the aesthetization has gone multisensory.

We are surrounded by an entire universe of flawless, clean, transparent and smooth artefacts, without any trace of sharpness or opacity: objects entirely available to the subject/consumer, in all the wide range of their sensible manifestations. As it is clear, this also applies to contemporary buildings, which tend more and more to appear like large-scale objects.

This obviously contributes to the commodification of architecture itself. When provided with such aesthetic features, buildings enter more easily into the dynamics of the marketplace: “innovative”, “efficient”, or “iconic” buildings are seen to have higher exchange-value within this system, and terms such as innovation, efficiency and symbolic power have become the keywords of successful architecture, tightly bound as they are to the values of neo-liberal capitalism.

Moreover – and this is also an essential point – the seductive power of such kind of “architectural commodity” goes hand in hand with the contemporary mythology of the architect/designer as a creative genius. Somehow, the 18th century idea of architecture as one of the Fine Arts has become even stronger nowadays: firstly, because the building is conceived primarily as a work of art, but also because it is perfectly consistent with the myth of the architect as a hero, as it is evident in the contemporary celebration of figures such as Norman, Renzo, Santiago, and so on. In fact, it can be said that also such heroic vision of the architect has become stronger nowadays, regardless of how seldom architecture is the product of an individual, and how little of our built environment is associated with one of those creative geniuses.

There are, nonetheless, ways to react against such contemporary commodification of architecture, in the field of aesthetics and beyond it.

As far as aesthetics is concerned, a case can be made – even in architecture – for an utterly different idea of beauty, somehow along the lines of the Japanese wabi sabi. In contrast to the pervasiveness of the aforementioned flawlessness, cleanness, transparency and smoothness, in wabi sabi – as is known – the beautiful is something opaque, rough, not geometrically perfect, and also closely connected with the patina, the passage of time. For instance, the kintsugi – the traditional technique of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold – perfectly conveys the idea of a humble beauty made of imperfections and restorations, but also the idea of time as a value. Therefore, the metaphor of kintsugi in architecture and design is useful also inasmuch as it implies an idea of recycling, reuse, re-assemblage of materials, artefacts and spaces that are too easily discarded due to the contemporary imperatives of novelty and perfection at any cost.

However, another form of reaction – arguably more powerful – lies in the ability to go “beyond” aesthetics. It is commonplace to say that the aspiration of almost every architect is to make the world a “better” place through the design of “better” buildings; the problem, though, lies in what we exactly mean by “better place”. As it has been pointed out, the field of architecture is still dominated by the idea of the artistic genius, also combined with the authority of scientific reason: this explains the great focus put on both aesthetics and technique, usually considered as the primary measures of architectural success. Obviously, it is not about abandoning these measures, but about integrating them with many others, thus expanding the idea of what a “better place” really means. In this regard, Awan, Schneider and Till write: «our skepticism concerning the efficacy of architectural beauty as a medium for the greater good does not imply the corollary of the promotion of ugliness. Instead, it comes from a belief that beauty has been used too often as an excuse to retreat from some of the more contested areas of contemporary life […]. To argue that there is not direct, causal, link between beauty and happiness, or at a wider level between aesthetics and ethics, is not to argue for the dismissal of the role of aesthetics and tectonics, but to more realistically understand the role they play in the context of a much wider set of social conditions to which architecture contributes». This, in fact, implies revaluating the social and environmental dimensions of architecture, that are just as crucial as the creative and technical ones. Therefore, the processes that take place within building and urban spaces, and the socio-environmental and political consequences of architectural and spatial production must become worthier of attention than the buildings themselves.

Both within aesthetics and beyond it, a struggle must be fought for a radically different vision of architectural and urban design, less concerned with the pursuit of seductive power, and more aware of their social and environmental agency.

From C30

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