It seems that everywhere in the world, billboards along motorways, in public transport or glossy lifestyle magazines do not advertise only perfumes, mobile phones, cars or fashion anymore. A couple of years ago, they were taken over by advertisements for architecture – usually not particularly beautiful or unique. Did architecture in the meantime become another mass product?
All this started with the industrial revolution that not only made mass production possible but also led to an entirely new social class – the worker. Dreadful and unhealthy conditions in the new centers of industrialization required action. That came in two ways: as a paternalizing provision of better housing by the companies themselves within a growing political social movement, and in the form of embracing the very industrial production of living space under a new aesthetic paradigm – modernism. The latter did away with decoration and invented the home as an industrial product that could be replicated ad infinite. After the end of World War 2 and with the breakthrough of consumer culture, this approach fit perfectly – interestingly, on both sides of the Iron Curtain. And it was even for the same reasons but with greatly diverging ideological subtext: providing space at low cost and at decent standard. We all know where this led to: often prefabricated large scale housing estates with special centralized locations for social and commercial activity. Neighbourhoods that were designed with the ambition to provide everything needed for daily life within walking distance.
Mass housing has moved on and has undone itself from the image of the housing estate of the 1960s and 1970s. To a large extent that is owing to the fact that most of the current housing in large parts of the world is not done by state institutions or social housing societies but by commercial developers. Their business case still makes use of the modernist mass production principles, but they have gone a step further: housing is not a form of architecture anymore but a product that is developed, refined and marketed as cars and mobile phones. It is the ‘look and feel’, the value proposition, the image, the credibility of the brand and services that are provided – ranging from valet parking across smart home applications on your mobile phone to financing of the purchase.
What is the role of architect in all this? While in the ‘good old times’ they were the artists designing a building in its totality, here they are in charge of the look and feel of the outside. The architect’s name is like a brand asset that is used in marketing. The inner of the buildings, however, is defined by customer research, market analysts, construction economics and sales departments with floor plans, room sizes and fit out level defined to meet brand and product standards.
The established form of architecture critique today usually does not have many good words for these types of projects, since they are perceived as generic non places. That does not really come as a surprise, since this kind of mass architecture is at odds with the very ideals that the majority of architects and architecture critics adhere to. Architecture to them is an art form with a function. The design has to be original and unique and its author is an artist (occasionally with some technical knowledge how to make it happen – but that is not a necessity). This attitude and the architect’s toolbox make it difficult to measure the value of this form of building production and do justice to its qualities and what has been achieved with it.
Are there two different architectures that share that they both make buildings but for different purposes and within different frameworks? Or maybe it is not two different architectures, but the continuation of modernist Corbusian product design approach? Accepting that there are different paradigms gives us the opportunity to finally start looking into the inherent qualities that mass-produced, often dubbed generic neighbourhoods, actually have.
We can learn from all the other products presented on billboards for that. All these mass made mass market products try to portray individuality successfully: If you use an iPhone, you get something very personal. If you wear a Prada shirt, you are like no other. If you drive a Mercedes, you are one of a kind. But in fact it is not the individuality of a specific product – which is not individualistic at all – but the personal mix of them and the lifestyle peer group they give you access to.
Why do we perceive architecture differently and see mass-produced housing areas as socially problematic? Why do we perceive them as soulless and universally hated places? They are not the forecourt to hell. These generic city places are nowadays the centers of daily life, of finely tuned social and economic networks, and of home. They might not comply with western perception of what a piece of city is supposed to look like, but they are neighbourhoods their inhabitants can actually afford.
Abandoning mass production because of experiences from the past is missing out on a way of making housing more affordable. In all other aspects of life, we have accepted that this is the case. We moved away from custom-made furniture that cost a fortune and was only available to the rich. We don’t get our clothing tailored anymore but buy it off the shelf. Likewise, we moved away from individually made coaches to mass-produced cars and for many things we use there was not even a product that was not produced in large numbers. That brought prizes down and made many things only affordable. With more and more robotics and computerization nowadays, we can even mass-customize so that more individuality can be combined with cost advantages. Why do we still believe these benefits cannot apply to housing?
by Markus Appenzeller