Although my training as an architect makes me utterly unqualified to comment on Piketty’s economic theories, I cannot help but notice the resonance between Piketty’s narrative of economic history and the story of my own profession. If one studies the history of architecture, and particularly that of the last century, a striking confluence emerges between what Piketty identifies as the period of the great social mobility and the emergence of the modern movement in architecture. From Le Corbusier to Ludwig Hilberseimer, from the Smithsons to Jaap Bakema: after reading Piketty, it becomes difficult to view the ideologies of modern architecture as anything other than the dream of social mobility captured in concrete.
The resonance of Piketty’s historic analysis of capital with the progression of architectural history is eerie. The first intersection, economic output exceeding the returns on capital just prior to World War I, clearly coincides with the emergence of the avant-garde, but the resonance even applies at a more subtle level within the twentieth century itself. From the early to mid-1970s, for the first time in the twentieth century, the lead of economic output over the returns on capital begins to diminish. And towards the end of the 1970s, a different political wind begins to blow. The conservative revolution first sweeps America and later Europe, forcing an agenda of economic liberalization and the slashing of government spending. The size of the public sector is steadily reduced and large public housing projects become a thing of the past.
This period essentially and concurrently marks the end of an unfettered belief in the merits of modern architecture. In 1972, the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St. Louis is demolished, an event that is generally heralded by critics as the end of modern architecture and, on a larger scale, the end of modern utopian visions for the city. After the demolition of Pruitt-Igoe, the confidence in the architectural profession is severely shaken. The mood becomes pensive and the major seminal works of architecture are no longer plans but books, no longer visions but reflections. It is telling that the most noteworthy architectural manifesto of 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the onset of an uncontested global rule of capitalism, is A Vision of Britain by Prince Charles. The modern age prefigured in The Futurist Manifesto, at the tail end of the ottocento with its hereditary hegemonies, ironically concludes with an anti-modern manifesto written by a member of the British Royal Family.
If the egalitarian climate of the 1960s and ‘70s had made modern architecture generally unpopular, the neoliberal policies of the ‘80s and ‘90s made it obsolete. The initiative to construct the city comes to reside increasingly with the private sector. “Thought production” by the architectural profession, in the form of theoretical manifestoes or wholesale urban visions, gradually comes to a standstill. The very grain through which the city is constructed changes. Large interventions in the city, using public housing projects as the texture from which to compose a new and alternative urban fabric, become virtually impossible. As part of a wholesale privatization program, public housing associations are privatized and home ownership takes a dramatic rise. By transforming large sections of society from tenants into homeowners, the prevailing powers also hope to garner political sway. As soon as people own their homes, a mortgage will give them a vested interest in keeping interest rates and inflation down. Locked into an inescapable financial reality, they will have little alternative but to sympathize with the economic agenda of the right.
In the 1980s, the built environment and particularly housing start to acquire a fundamentally different role, from a means to provide shelter to a means to generate financial return. A building is no longer something to use, but to own (with the hope of increased asset-value, rather than use-value, over time). Buildings become part of an economic exchange cycle: conceived for the lowest possible cost, traded for the highest possible sum. In this context, modern architecture’s original mission, an affordable living standard for all, largely proves counterproductive. From here on, modern architecture can only survive when stripped of its ideological dimension; only once it relinquishes its emancipatory pretentions can its aesthetics of reduction be used to the full advantage of the economic system. Under the imperatives of the market economy (maximizing profit), the contemporary home must be cheap to build, but should never be cheap to buy. Modernism evolves into a style because, as in the fashion industry, it is above all the idea of style that suspends (almost like a state of hypnosis) any awareness of a relation between production cost and selling price.
It is not just newly built projects that are affected by this trend. The recent fire sale of council property in Central London boroughs is indicative of the same process. After the first generation of tenants is offered to purchase their rental apartments at subsidized rates, the next round of sales quickly conforms to market rates, generally making the apartments unaffordable for the income groups for whom they were originally intended. Where previously inner city modernist projects were primarily reserved for low and middle incomes—cheap to build, cheap to rent—we currently see the opposite trend, where they are increasingly the domain of the rich. Trellick Tower, a 31-story building with 217 flats in North Kensington, built in 1972 and very familiar to architects, long had a reputation for anti-social behavior and crime. Following the introduction of the “right to buy” council homes in the mid-1980s, many of the flats were bought by the tenants. A new residents’ association was formed and several security improvements were undertaken, including the employment of a concierge. After the building’s Grade II* listing in 1998, property prices rose sharply and flats in the tower came to be regarded as highly desirable residences. Despite serious technical problems within the building, properties in the tower have sold for between £250,000 for a small one bedroom flat to £480,000 for a fully refurbished three bedroom flat. The maximum obtainable mortgage on an average annual gross income of £32,188 in the UK in 2014 was £152,000.
Central London is not the only place affected by this phenomenon. Park Hill, a council estate built in 1957 in Sheffield, North Yorkshire, went into decay in the 1970s. In 1998 the complex was Grade II* listed. Following this, English Heritage in collaboration with a private developer launched a renovation scheme to turn the flats into upmarket apartments and business units. The renovation was one of the six shortlisted projects for the 2013 RIBA Stirling Prize. According to Sheffield’s own website, the city has “the lowest annual average salary of UK’s core cities” at around £24,000, allowing a maximum mortgage of around £115,000. Outside the UK, the original units of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation are currently being sold for: €151,000 (for a 31-square-meter studio); €350,000 (for a three bedroom flat) and €418,000 (for a four bedroom flat). The average annual wage in France is €30,300, allowing a maximum mortgage just shy of €120,000.
If we are to believe Piketty, we may well be on the way back to a patrimonial form of capitalism. With that, modern architecture’s social mission—the effort to establish a decent standard of living for all—seems a thing of the past. The existenzminimum: the establishment of a universally acceptable minimum standard of living in the twentieth century seems to have become a privileged condition in the twenty-first. Architecture is perhaps more than ever a tool of capital, complicit in a purpose antithetical to its erstwhile ideological endeavor. Fifteen years into the new millennium, it is as though the previous century never happened. For Trellick Tower, Park Hill, l’Unité d’Habitation, the same architecture that once embodied social mobility in béton brut now helps to prevent it. The twentieth century taught us that utopian thinking can have precarious consequences, but if the course of history is dialectic, what follows? Will the twenty-first century mark the absence of utopias? And if so, what are the dangers of that?