Modern Architectural Design and the Capitalist Style

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If you've ever taken a history of architecture or art course, you've encountered the idea that across the decades and centuries, various artistic styles have arisen and then passed. Some of these styles were limited to architecture but some were more general and others were focused on other art forms.

When the style was actually happening, people were not always very keenly aware of it, and so perhaps just called it modern. Or maybe they failed to see the trend at all and just chalked it up to being the prevailing cultural norm or a long-standing tradition.

Sometimes it was only decades later, when the style and its variants had died out and many poor or mediocre examples of it had been wiped from history and only superlative examples remained, that it was given a name.

The style I shall name is not yet dead. But I believe it deserves to be dead, and one cannot kill a thing if one cannot discern it and conceptually isolate it, so I shall name it.

This modern style is especially prevalent in architecture (think: Barnes and Noble and McMansions and glass-faced skyscrapers) but also somewhat in painting (think: Kinkade), and ceramics (think of brand name potters using molds for "hand thrown" work), and to an extent in sculpture. It is the dominant style in music.

I call it the Capitalist Style. You might react by saying, oh no, that's not a style, that's just what we call garbage. And I agree that much of it is awful stuff. Yet some of it could be called superlative. But an average isn't determined just by the best or the worst, but by the majority.

It is mostly a trickle-down style, or perhaps one could call it a suck-up style. For it is not a populist style or an ethnic style or a purely aesthetic style. So just as under Mussolini there was a fascist style of architecture and presumably other things, which was determined by a regime and its power and ideology, in the USA today and in other countries we are seeing more and more of a style that represents also a corporate regime and its power.

It is also true that the prevailing materials flows and money flows in the global society are determining and imposing this style. Our architecture and our personal and public art are directly affected. In addition, the possibility of seriously opposing this style is increasingly being reduced by the actions of the style's proponents. For the forces that impose the style are the same that would shut down populist systems such as free, unfettered trade between people and free exchange of information via the Internet.

The Capitalist Style

I characterize it as follows.

The Capitalist Style, version 1.2 of the definition by

  1. Material-wise
    • materials that don't last and are meant not to last.
    • lots of very toxic adhesives and coatings and additives everywhere.
    • chemicals everywhere (think of the Ikea formaldehyde fiasco in Germany), even in food (melamine in Chinese milk) and lotions and women's make-up.
    • a distinct lack of genuine craft, replaced by either mass-produced junk that merely appears crafty like the faux ornamentation on a Barnes and Noble store, or by nothing at all.
    • use of filler materials, e.g. styrofoam in architecture, melamine in pet food, partially-hydrogenated oils in numerous foods, petroleum wax in candy.
    • very bad copies of former styles.
    • high-maintenance materials (which generate further profits) for elite consumers, such as a building whose skin is entirely energy-losing glass windows.
    • use of materials that are highly toxic to manufacture and to use which represents some kind of strange profit value; such as fiberglass, enameling of metals, particleboard, luster on ceramics.
    • a disdain for natural materials, but when they are used, they are attacked with modern chemical coatings or are juxtaposed with things that are so-coated; or, fake versions of them are used (think: fake leather, fake wood-like side panels on cars).
    • when natural materials are embraced, the price of them or products that use them is inflated into the realm of luxury in order to serve as a tool for profit-reaping.

  2. Attitude-wise
    • a cynical, unsympathetic attitude that serves to compliment those who have money (hipster consumerists) as being the best and brightest, while backhanding the poor. (think: McMansions, expensive cars).
    • parodying of high art (think: Kinkade)
    • infantilism legitimized (e.g. as spontaneity) to promote consumerism [note, the infant does not require quality, only quantity]
    • genuine culture eliminated:
      • a lack of respect for local heritage or tradition
      • steamrolling or plowing over existing culture
      • disrespect for genuine spontaneous culture formation because it is not subservient.
      • a concealed but perceptible antagonism toward genuine heritage.
      • imposition of a crude cartoonish, pretentious, simplified copy of culture
      • elimination of talented individuals from participation in culture creation since only people who are loyal to the power structure may create.
      • existing cultural "memes" hijacked as a means to profit; replaced by manufactured units that serve the system's owners.
    • buzzwords everywhere, symbolizing "new" ideas that prove to be trite, old, or superficial (ubiquitous in Hollywood); clever terms and expressions popularized by magazine writers (think: Wired magazine). These buzzwords are many and oppressive since they reinforce the concept of "in" and "out" groups.
    • careerism and profit-reaping takes priority over quality.

To re-answer the expected reaction to this, that what I describe is merely bad work, the answer is no. Condemning it with one word misses the point and discourages people from asking why we are surrounded by ugly junky buildings and bad art styles and bad music. It is because of:

  • Material and money flows
  • The borish culture of greed and profit-reaping

Multinational capitalism and the globalization that it has spawned is becoming a system of global cartels that determine money flows and material flows.

We the consumers are left with strange options when it comes to art, architecture, food, music, and craft. In some cases, such as shipping containers used in architecture, the material end product is good. But this is a chance benefit.

It is the human being's creative capacity that transforms that dank, lifeless container from an artifact of globalization to a meaningful space. This is a pragmatic, human-helping solution.

Not all products of the Style can be transformed. I don't think a Kinkade painting, can be salvaged, except perhaps when it is used as toilet paper.

Also, one might ask, why not call it the Globalism Style, or even (stretching a bit) the New World Order style? The reason is that I think capitalism will naturally lead to globalism and anti-democratic government anyway, since it leads to an increasing concentration of power in corporate cartels that in turn control politicians.

"The West is now on a similar extremist ideological path [to communism]; the difference is that we are captive to detached and unaccountable corporations rather than to a detached and unaccountable state. It is ironic that the closer the corporate libertarians move us toward their ideological ideal of laissez faire capitalism, the less responsive the economy becomes to the real needs of people and planet."
-David Korten

Where to from here?

Given that we are in the grips of an adverse situation in which cheap, low-quality, mass-produced toxic products are drowning out the human spirit in many areas such as architecture, it's only logical to ask, how shall we oppose this?

I believe there are at least four solutions to our problem.

  1. The first answer is to capitalize on the inefficiencies of the corproate system.

    • Using shipping containers is one way of doing that, if you live in a place where containers are due to trade imbalance. The USA is such a place.

    • Use materials that are relatively nontoxic yet cheap. For instance, many people have built greenhouses using thick transparent plastic instead of glass, over a skeleton of aluminum tubes.

  2. The second answer is to bypass the corporate system when necessary. Use natural materials such as straw bales, wood chord, logs, or simply less materials. Don't automatically buy things that you need, because that puts you in a subservient position, reliant upon corporate designers and marketing people.

  3. I can't say enough, build things to last. The longer it lasts, the less you need to buy. The more of yourself you put into its design and style, the more endearing it will be. The more "organic" you make it (the less Ikea-like), the more that other people will be comfortable with it, and keep it around.

    Anecdote: Some time ago I got tired of buying wallets that lasted for a 4-6 months at most. So I bought some leather, a hold puncher, string, bee's wax, and a little pigskin and made one myself. After 2 years of using it, I decided to redesign it, although it would have lasted longer. The current one is even more durable, and will last a decade, I'm sure. Results: same cost roughly, but a far more durable product, and I learned a skill. More info: How to make a wallet.

  4. Form communication networks by which you can trade information and skills. Think of how in the Star Wars series, the Rebels responded to the Empire by banding together. Work toward an alternative, freedom-inspired, human-friendly approach to architecture, design, and all else.

Patterns of flows

A few years ago, the concept was put forward that one can look at computer software and find recurring patterns of organization. Books have been written on patterns in software.

I assert there are also patterns in the flows associated with the Capitalist Style. They are really patterns of profit maximization, since profit-reaping is the key theme of the style. Just one example:

The use of fillers in everything. Fillers are always low-cost. It is believed by the person(s) who insert them that they will not be noticed. Yet because fillers are low-cost, they are often toxic. They are intended to boost profits, but they may harm the consumer.