Capitalisms Influence on Architecture


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Architecture is subconsciously affected by contemporary ideology. In the recent past, it is affected by capitalistic thought as evident in Manhattanism, where congestion and hyper-density mark the islands growth in the early 1900s at the same time as when people took to the notion of capitalism and applied its ideas of demand-supply, uniformity, and scale to the built environment. This paper will describe how architecture has been affected by capitalism, and discuss how capitalisms influence on architecture is good and bad; finally, it will explain how architecture has lost its agency and follows the contemporary political economys direction.

How Architecture is Affected by Capitalism

It is the famous dictum of Sullivan that form ever follows function. Tasked with creating skyscrapers that could represent the capitalist impulse at the driving heart of Americana in the late-19th and early-20th century, Sullivan sought to produce buildings of scale while simultaneously elevating the consciousness by enhancing the works with some aesthetical beauty. However, as time wore on and the more aggressive characteristics of capitalism prevailed, form became more and more the slave of function. The capitalist ideology overtook architecture.

What is the capitalist ideology? Essentially, the ideology centers on the idea of a free market, in which private owners produce goods and services to compete with others in the marketplace. The goal is to obtain a profit through fair competition. One of the major flaws in capitalism is that it can lead to excessive risk taking, rampant greed, and corruption via cronyism. Adam Smith believed that so long as people act virtuously in the marketplace, capitalism should function sufficiently well. However, the whole of human history is a story of virtue competing with vice, and in many instances vice has a devastating impact on that story. Capitalism provides no safeguards or guarantees against vice. Indeed, the vicious zero-sum game often played in global capitalism is evidence of this rather serious flaw.

In architecture, Manhattanism is linked to capitalism in terms of its excessiveness. Koolhaus refers to this excess as hyper-density or as a culture of congestion.[footnoteRef:2] New York City is the best example of Manhattanism because of its dense, mixed-use buildings, which offer both vitality and chaos in the urban setting. Manhattanism was an effect of mass transportation, real estate speculation, and the rise of the dense and vertical city; Richard Ingersoll states that in New York, municipal authorities imposed the limit of the floor area ratio of future buildings to 12:1 and proposed five different prescriptions for the heights of street facades according to the type of street.[footnoteRef:3] Laws requiring stepbacks for large commercial buildings were implemented to allow a modicum of daylight to reach street level. It was this combination of towering commercial skyscrapers in an urban jungle of block units that characterized Manhattanismand it is the chaotic intertwining of the gargantuan and the exotic with the mundane and the insipid in a densely populated and developed urban setting that effectively gets to the heart of Manhattanism. [2: Rem Koolhaus, Delirious New York (Monicelli Press, 2014), 4.] [3: Richard Ingersoll, World Architecture: A Cross-Cultural History (Oxford University Press, 2018), ch. 18.]

As capitalism has spread around the world, so too has Manhattanism in architecture, with major cities on a global scale adhering to the architectural model provided by New York City. The architecture in New York City reflected the various growth stages of capitalism in the 20th century, starting with the first skyscrapers that began to be developed at the end of the 19th century, often built by big business leaders in steel, finance, and consumption, but developed by the leading lights in architectural design. Neo-gothic, art deco, modernism, and post-modernism all followed in turn over the decades in terms of design features, which reflected changing ethos under the capitalistic umbrella. All of these designs have in turn contributed to the concept of Manhattanism. Critics view Manhattanism as the architectural representation of capitalisms inherent flaws, with Manhattan itself acting as a nonstop consumption palace pushed to the extreme, which to its many critics (critics of capitalist corruption, or critics of liberal identity politics) can only lead to inevitable disaster or eventual decline.[footnoteRef:4] [4: EDBC, Not So Delirious New York, EDBC, 2020.]

According to Koolhaus, Manhattanism is an architectural laboratory wherein metropolitan living and architectural experimentation come together in a collective environment, supplanting the natural environment for a kind of factory of man-made experience. Manhattanism promotes the fantasy of a man-made world, totally divorced from nature. The density, ecstasy and blueprint of its architecture is rooted in the idea of the modern culture of capitalism in which man has the freedom to compete, to excel, to own, and to create in myriad and often chaotic forms that are all nonetheless grounded in a systematized grid that allows the experience to develop.

Capitalism is directly tied to the development of technology, and it is technology that has enabled Manhattanism to thrive. The first great example of the influence of capitalist thought on the built environment is Coney Island in New York at the end of the 19th century. It was the development of new bridges and transportation in Manhattan that allowed Coney Island to be created.[footnoteRef:5] The electric lights, the fanfare, and the idea of an island offering a unique man-made experience represents Manhattanism in its embryonic stage.[footnoteRef:6] The Coney Island Bridge Company created the first artificial connection between the island and the mainland in 1823. The railroad tracks followed a few decades later. Coney Island attracted visitors intent on seeking out pleasure and in the final quarter of the 19th century, a 300 foot tower was erectedthe Centennial Towerfrom which Manhattan could be viewed. The tower symbolized for Coney Island all the collective energy and self-consciousness that embryonic Manhattanism had to offer.[footnoteRef:7] The creation of the iconic Brooklyn Bridge then made Coney Island even more accessible and more important in terms of giving the people of the city a way to get to the idyllic natural setting that Coney Island offered along with its mix of urban fanfare. But instead of suspending the urban characteristics of Manhattan, Coney Island intensified them by becoming its own mecca of technological marvel, with its gravity-defying architectural towers and railroad loops and eventually the roller coaster. Luna Park in Coney Island became an electrified wonderland of towers and lights, with a lake at its center like the lagoon at the center of the Chicago Fair.[footnoteRef:8] In this manner, Coney Island became an architectural amusement park. But as Koolhaus notes, it suffers from the same self-defeating laws of capitalism: it can only skirt the surface of myth, only hint at the anxieties accumulated in the collective subconscious.[footnoteRef:9] The synthetic experience of Coney Island reflects the dream of American life and pleasurebut underlying it is the danger of the capitalist beast, capable of escaping and overtaking one at any moment; for that beast itself represents the perils of vicegreed, cronyism, and exploitationwhich haunt the capitalist ideology just like the flaws of Dr. Frankenstein haunt him in the person of the monster that he created. For Maxim Gorky, the socialist writer, Coney Island represented the freak culture of capitalist America: an absurd jungle of straight lines of wood, a cheap, hastily constructed toyhouse for the amusement of children.[footnoteRef:10] In other words, it was architectural distractionnothing srious or meaningful with respect to the sublime. [5: Koolhaus, 20.] [6: Koolhaus, 21.] [7: Koolhaus, 26.] [8: Koolhaus, 30.] [9: Koolhaus, 31.] [10: Koolhaus, 40.]

Another example is the art deco Chrysler Building in eastern Manhattan. Completed in 1930, it stood as the tallest building in the world at the time of its completion and is still the tallest brick and steel framework building in the world. It was itself a product of competitionemblematic of the capitalist ideology: it was the brainchild of Walter Chrysler, head of the automobile company Chrysler Corp. The building was to rival the Empire State Building. With New York having become the most populated metropolis in the world by the 1920s, it stood to reason that one with wealth, such as Chrysler, should represent this massive concentration of capital and population in architectural terms with a building that would symbolize the economic boom of the early 1900s. The race was to create the worlds tallest buildingno different from any other race in a capitalist economy to create the biggest, best product for consumption. The winner obtains bragging rights and brand equity. As the developers of the Empire State Building caught wind of the plans of the Chrysler Building, they upped their strategy by adding more stories and an observation deck to their tower, which would in turn gave them bragging rights over Chrysler upon completion.

A third example is that of the Twin Towers, completed in 1973. These towers represented the glories of capitalism in the latter half of the 20th century. Until the completion of the Sears Tower in Chicago, the Twin Towers at 110 stories, were the tallest buildings in the world. The Twin Towers were the World Trade Center, the heart of financial capitalism in New York. They were iconic emblems of capitalism and were featured in hundreds of films to heighten their dramatic appeal. Rectangular, oblong and monotonous, they also represented the soul-deadening, monolithic enterprise of capitalistic thought: a non-descript beast, towering over everything, intent on dominating and consuming whatever it could in order to be the winner in the worlds zero sum game of monopoly.

Is Capitalisms Influence on Architecture Good?

The argument can be made that capitalisms influence on architecture is good because it creates an atmosphere of competition in which designers, developers, builders and visionaries come together to create grand works of architecture. As Owen Hopkins notes, architects have traditionally been the mediators of this process, working to ensure that the public effect of a building is a positive one.[footnoteRef:11] It was Sullivan who, seeing the problems that modern architecture presented the architect in terms of aesthetic value, saw the great challenge of architecture being the need to produce a form that served the function of the building (capitalism) but that provided aesthetic value for the good of the public. To some extent capitalism has enabled this to happen. Works such as the Chrysler Building have their own aesthetic value, typify the art deco style of the early 20th century, and stand tall as icons of modern architecture. Were it not for capitalisms influence, such a building never would have been produced. [11: Owen Hopkins, Architectures Faustian Pact, Owen Hopkins, 2020.]

Yet, the Chrysler Building is unique because what makes it appealing is the fact that it was created at a time when focus was still given to form; although it was the capitalist spirit that motivated its creation in the first place, the art and style of architecture still existed and had not yet succumbed to the materialistic insistence of capitalist enterprise. In a few decades the art of architecture would be hammered out by capitalism, as residences and commercial buildings gave up all pretense of aesthetic value and saw their contribution to the public good in wholly utilitarian terms. But at the start, capitalism allowed architects to flourish in new ways with grand designs.

This happened because there was plenty of money to invest into large projects like the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building. But even by the 1970s one can see that the tall towerssuch as the World Trade Centerwere far removed from the style and aesthetic of the 1920s. The Twin Towers were monolithic and interesting only because two of them stood side by side, like twins. Outside of that singularity, there were no embellishments, nothing of any artistic significanceonly steel and glass hiding inside the financial dealings of the operators within.

Thus, for a short time, capitalism allowed the art of architecture to flourish. But as with the case of Coney Island, the art was often garish and superficial. Sullivan attempted to enhance or elevate the concept of the skyscraper by giving it some semblance of aesthetic value. Without capitalism the opportunity for such an initiative would not have been presented. Capitalism was the driving economic force of the times, and it is how the money was made. That money sought expression in architecture in big waysso as to show offand enough principle and insistence upon style still carried over from the preceding eras to prevent a soulless form of architecture from developing all at once. In time, however, architecture became crippled by the cost-focused building decisions of developers.

Is Capitalisms Influence on Architecture Bad?

Therefore, the other side of the coin is that just as the risk of corruption arises in capitalism, so too does it arise in architecture that is influenced by capitalism. Again, it is Hopkins who notes that such rampant corruption in architecture can be seen in London, where indiscriminate and superficial development, more interested in making a quick profit than in sustaining the city in any meaningful or lasting way has pervaded the city.[footnoteRef:12] The problem of corruption occurs when architecture ends up operating solely as an agent of capital without regard to operating also as an agent of aesthetics and beauty.[footnoteRef:13] In such cases, the delicate balance of private and public interests, which should define the discipline, is ignored.[footnoteRef:14] An example of this type of corruption could, for instance, be seen in the Brutalism of Marcel Breuer, whose soulless tenement style architecture represented a kind of prison mentality found both in capitalist and in communist societies: no expression of beauty or aesthetic is given in Brutalismhard, flat, concrete surfaces abound on buildings in which non-descript people live. There is no hope or wonder in the architecture of Brutalism, but it is surely representative of the materialistic endgame of consumer culture: the buildings function is to house people, and form costs money, and in a capitalist (or really any materialistic) society money is not to be wasted on form as there is in the materialistic society there is too little regard for humanity or for human life. The almighty dollar reigns supremeso why bother with aesthetics? That is the essence of Brutalism. So whereas in the early days of capitalism there was still enough residual respect for form (ala Sullivan), by the time Brutalism arrived that respect was goneand the materialistic ethos at the heart of capitalism had killed it. [12: Owen Hopkins, Architectures Faustian Pact, Owen Hopkins, 2020. Owen Hopkins, Architectures Faustian Pact, Owen Hopkins, 2020. Owen Hopkins, Architectures Faustian Pact, Owen Hopkins, 2020.]

Thus, architecture has suffered under capitalism because there is too much influence on money, profits, costs, and labor, and insufficient consideration given to form and aesthetic valuehow a work might benefit the public in an aesthetically pleasing wa. Today, there is some renewed emphasis on style, but the style is typically superficial: gentrifying communities attempt to revive the older style of the early 20th century using cheap materials and facades. The true elegance and craftsmanship that existed in the era of art deco is only mimicked in such instances and never truly captured, thus preventing architecture from regaining its sublime greatness. The reason is simply that it is cheaper to create cheap exteriors that pay homage to the old style than it is to actually build in the old style.

But has capitalism actually damaged architecture? The answer is yes and no. To the extent that capitalistic forces of labor and cost prevail over form and aesthetics, then, yes, capitalism has damaged architecture. Architecture can still be created that is stunning and awe-inspiring, but in a capitalist system the overall emphasis is going to be on cost and functionality. The art of architecture today is more focused on safety, building to code, and technology. There is little focus on style as a priority. In this regard, capitalism has damaged architecture.

At the same time, to the extent that capitalism provides opportunities for architecture to flourish, the answer is no. Admittedly, these opportunities are rare. Most commercial buildings are created to minimize cost. Yet some creativity is still to be found in architecture today. The main problem is that architecture has lost its agency and follows the contemporary political economys direction.

Political Economy and Architecture

The influence of political economy on architecture abounds. Dunham-Jones notes that even Koolhaas has to admit this: Equating capitalism with modernization and change, Koolhaas identified early on how global capitalism created dynamic, highly speculative urban conditions that were transforming the contemporary city.[footnoteRef:15] And as Reinier De Graaf points out, architecture is now a tool of capital, complicit in a purpose antithetical to its social mission.[footnoteRef:16] This sentiment is acknowledged as well by Patrik Schumacher, who states, The relationship between architecture and politics requires renewed clarification at a time when political and moral issues are increasingly being drawn into our debates at architectural conferences, schools and biennials. Political and moral issues also start to dominate architectural criticism as well as the awarding of architecture prizes. This is problematic as it threatens to swamp our discourse, overburden our specific competency and distract us from our genuine societal responsibility.[footnoteRef:17] Because architecture in the past has served a civic and cultural function, it is alarming to many today to see architecture employed solely by capitalist forces that use it for its own functions. If art and architecture are representations of the soul and culture of the community, what they say today is that the soul and culture of the community has been wholly co-opted by the political economy. [15: Ellen Dunham-Jones, The Irrational Exuberance of Rem Koolhaas, Places Journal, 2013.] [16: Reinier De Graaf, Architecture is Now a Tool of Capital, Architectural Review, 2015. https://www.architectural-review.: Patrik Schumacher, The Stages of Capitalism and the Styles of Architecture. ASA, 2016.]

The fact is that architecture cannot be built without capital (money) and is therefore forced to lose its agency. Whether one is of the societal function school of architecture or of the deconstructivist school, the fact remains: market forces deliver a coup de grace for moribund urban planning.[footnoteRef:18] The Renaissance period focused on innovation in architecture. The Baroque era projected the Renaissance architecture beyond the city limits. The arrival of nation states led to the fostering of Neo-classicalism. Top-down command and control of architecture developed along with the rise of the modern political economy born of nation states. [18: Patrik Schumacher, The Stages of Capitalism and the Styles of Architecture. ASA, 2016.]

Yet it is true that in every great age of architecture, capital is required; but does that mean architecture lost its agency then as well? The answer to this question is summarized in the answer of culture. What is the culture of the people and is it reflected in the art and architecture of the day? The great cathedrals of the middle ages were works of architecture whose agency was put into the hands of a powerful churchbut the church produced works that reflected the culture it sought to promote. Todays political economy promotes an uncertain culture in which the question of enrichment of the lives of the citizens of society appears to be ignored for the sake of continuing the dominant stride of the political economy. Thus, the Twin Towers became emblems of the political economyand they were struck by terrorists on 9/11 as a way of striking at the political economy.

However, all might not be lost. Tim Gough argues that architecture conjugates all sorts of things (flows, in the terminology used here) to create a surplus value beyond (or before) the capitalist surplus value that is only one negative instance of a broader positive phenomenon.[footnoteRef:19] In other words, architecture has the power to rise above the conditions in which it is produced to produce on its own merits something transcendent. Following this line of thought, it stands to reason that architecture can never be killed so long as architects possess the transcendent spirit and the public possesses something similar. But part of the problem is that capitalism erodes that spirit: all materialistic cultures erode such spirit. That is why Korody, on the other hand, suggests that in order for architecture to fulfill its potential it must be returned to the folk, outside the strictures of the political economy.[footnoteRef:20] Tafuri certainly sees the death of architecture at the hands of capitalist powers as a primary problem.[footnoteRef:21] In truth, the idealization of capitalism has undermined the integrity of the architectural formand this is reflected in the integrity (or lack thereof) of the culture. [19: Tim Gough, Flows of Capitalism, Flows of Architecture, Ardeth, 2018.] [20: Nicholas Korody, Architecture After Capitalism, in a World without Work. Archinect, 2016.] [21: Manfredo Tafuri, Toward a Critique of Architectural Ideology, In Hays K. M. (ed.) Architecture Theory since 1968. Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press, pp. 6-35. Translated from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli, pp.21.]


Architecture over the years has subconsciously lost itself to capitalism, and this is due to the fact that the culture bred by capitalism is materialistic and dominating. The art and style found in the architecture of the early 20th century still possessed some of the old world culture, which emphasized grace, harmony and beauty. Yet the political economy that developed, culminating in the symbolic architecture of the Twin Towers, eliminated that emphasis. The germ of this destructive path can be found in Coney Island, which represents Manhattanism in its embryonic stagea chaotic mess of man-made experience, replacing nature with inelegant behemoths of design and technology. Today, developers and real estate industrialists dictate architectural discourse. Rem Koolhaass Manhattanism is an example of how this phenomenon transpired: it began with speculation and development, was suported by advertising, travel, technological advancements, and the deployment of capital for the purpose of creating a man-made experience. Now, that experience is less and less human because less and less attached to the natural order and beauty of the created world. It is a distortion of the form of architecture, which now only follows a purely material function. Architecture today serves no purpose but to profit those who pay for it. Yet the architecture of the past served to profit the public through its aesthetic beauty, its cultural significance, its societal support, and myriad other ways. Today, architects must work for the developers and tycoons, industrialists and magnates who have the capital to support building projects. Their interest is not in serving the public good through architecture but primarily in serving themselves; thus, architecture is killed through suffocation, and the vitalizing spirit of architecture is lost because there is no way for form to follow this kind of function.


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Gough, Tim. Flows of Capitalism, Flows of Architecture. Ardeth, 2018.

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