Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression
Jonathan Ochshorn

contact | contents | bibliography | illustration credits | ⇦ chapter 14 | chapter 15 | epilogue ⇨


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Free competition is the real development of capital. By its means, what corresponds to the nature of capital is posited as external necessity for the individual capital; what corresponds to the concept of capital, is posited as external necessity for the mode of production founded on capital. The reciprocal compulsion which the capitals within it practice upon one another, on labour etc. (the competition among workers is only another form of the competition among capitals), is the free, at the same time the real development of wealth as capital.

Karl Marx1

Architectural theory can never stray very far from the Vitruvian functional triad of firmitas, utilitas, and venustas—firmness, commodity, and delight in Henry Wotton's 17th-century translation—especially if venustas is taken in its broadest sense to include all manner of expression, ethics, and beauty. Yet there is an aspect of venustas that is really more of a meta-function, in that it transcends the mere acknowledgment and analysis of expression, ethics, and beauty, however those terms may be understood, and instead seeks to explain the overarching purpose of architecture within society. Even if we accept the fact that both architects and building users find buildings expressive, beautiful, delightful, symbolic, or pleasurable in various degrees—and consider such qualities to be the function of venustas (i.e., to be expressive, delightful, symbolic, and so on)—there is still an important question left unanswered: what is the function of the function of venustas? In other words, what explains the phenomenon of architecture, where the word architecture is used as a shorthand for those buildings that embody the function of venustas?

The short answer to this question—adding to Vitruvius's Latin place holders—is pecunia, a term which refers to money or, within civil law, to "every thing which constituted the private property of an individual, or which was a part of his fortune; a slave, a field, a house, and the like, were so considered."2 In modern capitalist democracies, architecture is property; and private property, in turn, is the essential form of wealth in contemporary society.

Thus, to explain the function of architecture within society—its purpose—one needs a theory that explains the phenomenon of architecture as property, addressing the question of why there is architecture in the first place. Such a theory of architecture differs not only from the kind of critical theory that tells us what's good and what's bad, but also from the kind of surveys that outline what various architects want to do (i.e., what their intentions are) and how people react to the forms they create.3 In other words, a meta-theory of architecture needs to abstract from the many competing formal, spatial, behavioral, or psychological aspects of particular architectural styles or tendencies, and instead explain the phenomenon of architecture itself. In doing so, the subjectivity of critical analysis does not necessarily lose its relevance but is subsumed within the overarching and objective meta-theory.

We start with the world of individual ownership, where each person uses his wealth against all others, and in turn is excluded from the private wealth of everyone else; this world is, of necessity, a world of competition. Architects compete against architects; students compete for grades; workers compete for jobs; etc. Competition is inherent in the relations of production called capitalism; it permeates every aspect of our lives. Moreover, competition appears as an external necessity—one cannot decide to play with a different set of rules. Even the American Institute of Architects (AIA) urges its members to compete against each other by sponsoring "How To Win" seminars.4 The various manifestations of venustas, for which I will substitute the word "fashion" in what follows—fashion being used in the sense of "a prevailing custom, usage, or style"5—are strategic elements deployed in this competition.

It is not necessary to itemize the ever-changing array of styles and aesthetic/formal tendencies to acknowledge the importance of fashion within architectural pedagogy and practice. Nor is it necessary to correlate the degree of corporate or individual aesthetic sophistication with particular stylistic preferences, where terms such as "sophistication" and "connoisseurship" are, unsurprisingly, claimed by the elites for themselves. The purpose of fashion is competition, within all levels of class, wealth, and power. People use fashion to compete.

The utility of fashion for competition has two aspects. First, architectural fashion provides visual clues that indicate one's "membership" within a group, class, or subculture. Second, within a particular group (or class, or subculture), fashion acts as a means of competition. Since the first aspect is a prerequisite to the second—it is necessary to be in a group, acknowledged as being in fashion, before one can compete within that group—the utility of fashion for competition is absolute and unequivocal. That the same phenomenon shows up in various non-human species, for example, in the sexual ornaments and displays of certain birds, can be taken as evidence in support of the argument, but also as evidence of its dysfunctionality: according to Richard Prum, there is no necessary evolutionary benefit in the use of fashion within avian culture, other than enabling sexual selection (i.e., competition) on the basis of arbitrary aesthetic criteria. And these criteria may well be maladaptive, "resulting in a worse fit between the organism and its environment."6 This insight was brilliantly captured by Theodor Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) in his 1958 story about "a girl-bird named Gertrude McFuzz"7 who, competing with another female bird, decides to grow dysfunctional quantities of tail feathers that ultimately prevent her from flying. E.H. Gombrich argues that such unintended and disastrous outcomes of competition, characterized by a "threat summed up in the word 'escalation,'" are often found in human societies.8

Just as various aesthetic ("fashionable") practices have evolved within avian societies that enable members to self-identify and compete within their species, individual humans who are competing (i.e., seeking, first, to identify themselves within a particular subculture and, second, to compete within that subculture) inevitably discover that they need to wear appropriate (fashionable) clothes, style their hair in an appropriate (fashionable) way, and so on. Fashionable buildings are commissioned and designed for the same reason. To the extent that buildings are needed for their utility only, that is, where their quality as fashion isn't useful, we find utilitarian (i.e., non-architectural) building. That one period's utilitarian "style" becomes another's high art does not alter this conclusion; it only shows that it is not the content of the fashion that counts, but only the fact that it is fashion. The reason that fashion must change is the same as its purpose: competition. A static and universal style of art would be useless for competition since everyone would soon be able to understand and make use of it. Therefore, once fashion becomes commonplace, it has already been replaced by a new avant-garde. The vicissitudes of fashion, and the inevitable death and replacement of avant-garde styles, are often noted, even if the underlying motivation—serving as an aid to competition—is not acknowledged: "The final phase of a fashion is its death, when it becomes poncif, literally a 'pounced drawing' and figuratively a 'commonplace piece of work.' At this point it may either be overthrown by another fashion challenge or consumed as part of a generic style."9

In spite of some parallels with non-human species, the phenomenon of a permanently evolving avant-garde cannot be explained by analogy to the mutations and adaptations through which living creatures co-evolve within their environments. Such an argument is proposed by architect-theorist Patrik Schumacher, who writes that "the sole responsibility of the avant-garde architect is to mutate and give innovation a chance… The client's immediate interests are served only inasmuch as they coincide with the new, generalizable interests of contemporary civilization that the avant-garde exploration tries to address. In the absence of this coincidence, the client might find some compensation by exploiting the innovative thrust of the project for the promotion of his reputation."10 Schumacher argues that the avant-garde project is undertaken primarily for the improvement of society ("contemporary civilization") and only secondarily to benefit the client who commissions and pays for it ("the client might find some compensation…"). But the client's interest in such a project—whether the client is corporate, governmental, or just a status-seeking individual consumer—is the reason that such projects are commissioned, paid for, and built. The client's interest, and therefore the function of this type of architecture, is to enable competition, not to serve some unspecified "generalizable interests of contemporary civilization."

The fact that advocates of particular architectural styles may not understand the purpose of fashion in their architecture results in a never-ending debate on the merits of their favored styles. Whether the debate is in terms of "ethics," "economy," "contextuality," "complexity," and so on, the criticism of last year's model for not solving some particular human problem is always possible, since its purpose never had anything to do with solving that type of problem in the first place. Val Warke argues that:

As seducer, a fashion may urge the adherents of the established fashion to reevaluate their allegiances by suggesting a plausible, though previously forbidden, variation on the apparently stable style's primary tenets. The fashion as antagonist will confront a popularly held fashion or style by underscoring the fallacies of the target's basic advertised presumptions and propositions (that is, of its soft-bellied verisimilitude). Since verisimilitude is not verity, it is always sensitive to opposition from similar constructs, particularly when those constructs insist upon their own opposing truth.11

Utilitarian buildings are economical; there are no added frills, wasted space, etc. Fashion, on the other hand, costs money. The conspicuous expression of the money it costs is, in fact, a necessary aspect of fashion, as Thorstein Veblen noted in 1899: "The superior gratification derived from the use and contemplation of costly and supposedly beautiful products is, commonly, in great measure a gratification of our sense of costliness masquerading under the name of beauty."12 One can compete with fashion because it is expensive (if it were cheap, anyone could buy it). Perhaps a more accurate formulation would replace the word "expensive" with the word "rare," thereby allowing room for certain creative designers to be fashionably cheap. Gombrich, for example, argues that

fashion can be described in terms of a rarity game. At one time it may be the display of rare lace that arouses attention and competition, at another a daring décolleté, the height of the coiffure or the width of the crinoline. At various times competition has driven fashion to notoriously foolish 'excesses'—though what we call an excess here is harder to tell.13

On the other hand, since the whole premise underlying capitalism is to accumulate private wealth, there is simultaneously an opposite movement away from fashion, toward utility.

At times, one side of the contradiction comes to the fore; at other times, the opposite side. More often, both sides of the contradiction struggle to coexist, often by invoking the architect's design skills, and not just the cost of construction, as evidence of the architecture's fashionable pedigree. Frank Gehry's conspicuous and ironic use of cheap plywood as an interior finish within expensive corporate or institutional buildings, or his earlier use of sheet metal—with details inspired by mechanical ductwork—for exterior cladding, are canonical examples, but are hardly unique. Michael Graves, at one point in his career, also sold fashion on the basis of his "design" skill (i.e., his ability to manipulate color and form), abstracting from the conflict between fashion and utility, a conflict which he dismissed as merely a moral dilemma: "I don't know whether lay people know it's gypboard. For many modern architects," he said, discussing quasi-classical column capital motifs in his postmodern Portland Building, "it's a moral question: If it's gypboard, they feel it should be read as gypboard. That doesn't interest me. It's a surface that gains some identification beyond the junk it's made of, by virtue of its color, its texture, its placement."14

As tools of competition, both fashion and utility are desired in a positive sense, to the extent that they make a building more valuable to its owner. Yet they also seem to be forced on the owner of the building, since their omission places the owner at a disadvantage with respect to other building owners.

Changes in style are called fashion. Changes in utility are called progress. Stylistic change incorporates and therefore reflects progress (in which technological change plays a major role), but technology is not the reason for style. Form follows function and form follows fashion. The particular blend of "art" and "utility" varies from building to building and from one period to another, depending on the usefulness of fashion in the particular case. Since fashion costs money, it is applied only to the extent that it is useful. Houston developer Gerald Hines puts it this way: "We try to be on the cutting edge, but we don't want to be unusual for the sake of being unusual."15

It is sometimes claimed that the art, or fashion, of architecture itself counts as an objectively logical aspect of the building, just as things like structure, insulation, and egress stairs do. People need fashion, and developers profit from fashion, so it must have some objective standing. This argument is true as far as it goes—one can objectively discuss the purposes and logic of fashion, in spite of its subjective nature. But what one is discussing in this case is not fashion qua art, that is, examining a particular object to the extent that its subjective meaning or interpretation is of interest; rather what is at issue is the part that this "art" plays within a larger context, as a means of competition, that is, as a useful expression of wealth, power, or taste. In other words, fashion examined objectively is not criticized on the basis of its subjective merit ("Gehry has crafted one of the most beautiful towers downtown"16) but on the basis of its objective purpose ("In fact, apartments [at the Gehry-designed building] are going at 15% to 20% premium over the average luxury building rental"17) .

The usefulness of "starchitecture" in adding to a commercial building's value has a relatively short history; architectural critic Paul Goldberger, for example, first discussed the tendency in a 1976 New York Times article on Philip Johnson and the developer Gerald D. Hines: "Still, there is no question that the building [designed by Johnson] needs slightly higher rents than its neighbors to make money. Hines gets them (25 to 50 cents per square foot per year more than his competition) by selling the building's architectural quality as an asset; in other words, he makes a profit on prestige."18 In the same article, Goldberger notes that cultural institutions and governmental entities have, for a much longer period of time, also found architecture useful—he doesn't explain why such institutions have been patrons of architecture, but the motivation is not hard to determine. Architecture reinforces wealth, power, and status in numerous ways that are useful to all sorts of institutions, governmental entities, and individuals. Cathedrals and courthouses awe and intimidate those they are meant to impress; museums announce a world of refined taste and, more recently, are explicitly subjected to a kind of cost–benefit analysis based on the calculation of what it takes these days to get on the international touristic map, the so-called Bilbao effect.

Discussing the art of architecture as an objective attribute of buildings, rather than as a subjective judgment made by critics and connoisseurs, is complicated by the fact that those who subjectively evaluate architecture—even the architects themselves—may have no useful insight into the purpose or reason for their creations. What one typically finds in architectural criticism are combinations, or rather conflations, of facts (not always correct) and judgments. The judgments are subjective and cannot be verified (refuted, or falsified, to use Karl Popper's criteria for evaluation of scientific theory). The facts are of various types—biographical details of clients and designers, formal historical antecedents, physical or material descriptions, and so on. The critic often juxtaposes facts and judgments without differentiating between them, as if they all have the same evidentiary value, or as if facts somehow explain their judgments. Paul Goldberger illustrates this tactic perfectly in his review of "New York by Gehry," Frank Gehry's New York City apartment tower at 8 Spruce Street (Fig. 15.1): "But its effect is dramatic, thanks to a curtain wall made up of ten thousand three hundred stainless steel panels, weighing half a ton each, into which are cut twenty-four hundred windows."19 The facts are these: there are 10,300 panels weighing 1,000 pounds, each made from stainless steel with 2,400 windows. The judgment is this: the effect is "dramatic."

Image of gehry-designed building with shimmering and curved stainless-steel panels as exterior cladding.

Figure 15.1. Frank Gehry's "New York by Gehry" at 8 Spruce Street, New York City.

Of course, the judgment cannot be logically deduced or inferred from those facts, or from any set of facts; the opposite judgment could just as easily be made. For example, here is James Gardner's take on the same stainless steel panels on the surface of the same building: "The metallic cladding of 8 Spruce Street, which seems to be slipping off the surface like grease that puckers, puddles and undulates in its descent, comes off as little more than a big gimmick … the undulations along the surface look like halfhearted wavelets."20 So, is the stainless steel cladding "dramatic" or "halfhearted"? The short answer is this: it all depends on how you feel when you look at it, or how you feel when you think about it, or how you feel when you write about it. And feelings are not always reliable indicators of objective conditions.

Virtually all criticism is merely a transcription of the critic's feelings, albeit hidden deep within critical frameworks (sometimes called "theory") and ornamented with special vocabulary designed to obscure the subjectivity of these critical judgments. Hegel describes such feelings as "the lowest form in which any mental content can exist … a mode which [man] has in common with the animal." He goes on to describe precisely the type of subjectivity that renders feelings useless as a logical mode of discourse:

If one says: 'I feel such and such and so and so,' then one has secluded himself in himself. Everybody else has the same right to say: 'I don't feel it that way.' And hence one has retreated from the common soil of understanding. In wholly particular affairs feeling is entirely in its right. But to maintain that all men had this or that in their feeling is a contradiction in terms; it contradicts the concept of feeling, the point of view of the individual subjectivity of each which one has taken with this statement. As soon as mental content is placed into feeling, everybody is reduced to his subjective point of view.21

Criticism, however, is hardly rendered useless because of its subjectivity. In fact, subjectivity is precisely the point of criticism. Critics are valued because they tell the rest of us, or more accurately tell some self-selected subset of "us," how to feel about something: you, the interested reader, should like (or dislike) this wine, this pair of shoes, this movie, this work of architecture. Why should I like (or dislike) it? Because I, the critic, like (or dislike) it, and because you (the reader) want (need) to feel the way I feel. And why do I need to feel the way you feel? Because liking the right things, or feeling the right way about things, is a means of competition—a way of advancing, or even just remaining, within a particular social or economic group. You want to compete, and "understanding" architecture may be useful in that competition (whether that competition is in the social, economic, or any other sphere of your activities). Therefore, you need to be initiated into the subjectivity of this particular field, and you need to be periodically updated with credible opinions about specific and current examples within that field.

If you should somehow, through naivety or bad luck, find yourself attracted to a critical framework that is misaligned with your social or economic aspirations, rest assured that your peers or superiors will quickly notice and provide a correction. If you nevertheless choose to propound your uninformed or poorly informed opinions, you will quickly discover that such a principled stance is never respected within the group and is entirely counterproductive as a useful means of competition: as argued by Gombrich, social taboos regulate and enforce the utility of fashion:

Debates about artistic merit, though I do not consider them empty, tend to be laborious and inconclusive. What wonder, therefore, that there are few areas where 'social testing' plays a greater part than in aesthetic judgments? The adolescent soon learns that the group can be a dreadful spoilsport if he confesses to liking something that has fallen under a taboo… The more seriously art is taken by any group, the more adept will it be in such brainwashing; for to enjoy the wrong thing in such a circle is like worshipping false gods; you fail in the test of admission to the group if your taste is found wanting.22

Buildings get built for purposes of speculation (built to be sold); or, when built for a specific client, either as means of production (factories, office buildings, etc.), as articles of consumption (including both buildings for subsistence and, primarily for elites, luxurious buildings), or as ancillary facilities to support that production, consumption, and speculation (governmental buildings, schools, etc.). Yet these categories, even for ordinary production and consumption, are intertwined, with production implying consumption and vice versa.23 For architecture, the situation is even more complex, since gratuitous consumptive elements—those fashionable formal gestures that decorate otherwise utilitarian sheds or contort such normative structures into ducks24—may well be included in buildings intended either as means of production or as necessary articles of consumption. This is because nothing prevents the public faces of buildings, even when their underlying construction serves as means of production or as "necessary means of subsistence," from being designed and consumed as "articles of luxury," that is, as ideological billboards supporting those corporate, institutional, or governmental entities for which the buildings are commissioned.25

Were it merely a question of utility, architects would be quite superfluous in building these structures; in fact, "utilitarian" buildings of all types can be designed and constructed by the various technical consultants and building trades without the services of an architect being required at all. The distinction between "building" (mere utility) and "architecture" (as art, or as embodying fashion) already admits this possibility. John Ruskin expressed this distinction quite clearly in 1849, arguing that we must "distinguish carefully between Architecture and Building. To build … is by common understanding to put together," whereas architecture must also "impress on its form certain characters venerable or beautiful, but otherwise unnecessary."26 Lewis Mumford rejected Ruskin's argument that ordinary buildings needed to be ornamented with painting or sculpture, but nevertheless accepted Ruskin's basic premise, writing in 1951 that "Ruskin's notion, that architecture is more than mere building, was in fact sound." Mumford, however, wanted the architect, rather than the painter or sculptor, to treat "the whole building as an image and a plastic form, in order to express, by his modification of pure functional needs, the meanings and values that are integrally related to the structure: underlining the relevant human purposes and values, designing an office building so that it will make the workers in it feel more efficient and business-like, a university so that the students will be prompted to habits of study and intellectual intercourse, a church so that its communicants will feel more indrawn and exalted."27


Where buildings are built in order to be sold (or rented) at a profit, the role of the architect will vary according to the developers' need for "design" (i.e., fashion) in maximizing their profit. Where the buyers of their products need utility only, or where the particular ratio of supply and demand assures them of selling their product in any form, developers will cut down or eliminate altogether the costs of "design."

On the other hand, where the buyers of their products need fashion to compete, where their competition forces them to produce "designer buildings," or where they see opportunities to increase the value of their brands by fashionably embellishing otherwise utilitarian buildings, the costs of such design become necessary costs in the developers' calculations. Where the costs of design are justified by the return on the investment, "fashion" becomes a positive means for the developer. This is as much true for Miuccia Prada (hiring Rem Koolhaas and others) in the 21st century as it was for Gerald Hines (hiring Philip Johnson and others) in the 20th century. Hines, for example, credited the fashionable architecture he developed in the 1970s and 1980s with higher rents and a 3 percent to 5 percent increase in profits.28


Showplace factories and sleek corporate headquarters are forms of public relations; they are never built without the assistance of an architect. However, where the profit to be derived from a particular production process is independent of the architectural quality its building possesses, then "non-architectural" building is sufficient.

Both in production and speculation, architecture may simultaneously appear as a positive means to make a profit and as an external necessity forced on its buyer; or it may simply appear as a waste of money. The competition among the owners of buildings assures that architecture is never, however, built purely at the whim of architects.


In order to live, people need shelter, food, and so on. In our society, these conditions of existence are not produced because people need them—they are produced and exchanged as private property, and then only to the extent that they realize a profit for their owners. Thus, it is a commonplace to discover that people go hungry when there is food in supermarkets, or that people need housing even when construction workers (and architects!) cannot find work. The fact that capitalists do "produce" useful things for people is not because they are useful, but because being useful is a necessary condition for being profitable. This should be self-evident, even if rarely acknowledged. Thus, when Alfred P. Sloan, General Motors's former president, chairman and CEO, wrote in the 1960s that GM's primary mission was "not just to make motor cars" but rather "was to make money,"29 this self-evident admission was energetically rebutted by corporate apologists, economists, and politicians, who preferred to cite instances of "socially responsible" capital, for example, the feel-good story of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Yet even in that case, according to Brad Edmondson, "by the late 1990s, consolidation in the ice cream industry made it difficult for Ben & Jerry's to continue as an independent company, even though most board members did not want to sell. Ben became estranged, board meetings resembled legal depositions, and it often seemed that investment bankers were calling the shots."30

Speculatively built housing needs to be a useful object of consumption in order to be sold; but because its purpose is not its use, but its profit, we classify it under "speculation." When speculators build their homes, however, they spend money, not for profit, but for use: in this case we have building for consumption—hardly the bare consumption for subsistence that underlies all human existence, but rather the consumption of luxury items that applies primarily to elite classes. Yet it is here, where usefulness might seem to be the only criterion, that architecture truly blossoms. The architect-designed private home is the arena in which the "battle of the styles" is fought. Here, the reputations of young architects are made; here, their bold experiments with fashion are carried out; here, the avant-garde establishes its credentials.

That the owners of wealth rarely choose to live in modest and utilitarian accommodations should not come as a surprise, in spite of the fact that spending money on gratuitous and luxurious items is in direct contradiction to their passion for capital accumulation. They need luxury and fashion in their homes just as they need it in their clothes, cars, and so on.31 Like all forms of competition, it appears as both inner drive and external necessity.


A capitalist nation-state competes within the international global economy for wealth and power, yet within its own sovereign territory remains necessarily outside the sphere of competition, at least in principle, acting rather as the power that forces competition on its own citizens: "In pursuing their individual advantage the members of a capitalistic society inevitably harm each other, so that they require a power removed from economic life to guarantee respect for person and property. They supplement their negative, competitive relation to each other by jointly submitting to a power that curtails their private interests."32 In either case, fashionable public architecture is the outcome, commissioned to demonstrate (and thus preserve and extend) state power. On the other hand, where the government is only providing the infrastructure of transportation and communication—prerequisites for the growth and existence of private property (which nevertheless appear to the owners of private property as expenses taken from them)—it is often satisfied with mere utility. Fashion is here seen as unnecessary embellishment. Of course, there are instances where the spheres of utilitarian infrastructure and fashionable public architecture (e.g., in trains stations and airports) collide. In such infrastructural projects, the boundary between utilitarian elements (railway tracks, platforms, tarmac, bathrooms, etc.) and fashionable elements (primarily the gratuitously grand terminal spaces with which cities and countries advertise their wealth and power in order to compete for business and tourism) is always clearly defined, consistent with the varying needs for utility and fashion.

Just as the apologists for corporate capitalism often deny the profit-seeking basis of their enterprise—by citing alleged benevolent motivations of corporate icons like Ben & Jerry's or, more generally, by maintaining the fiction of a "triple bottom line" in which social and environmental well-being are supposedly balanced against profitability—the apologists of architecture often deny the central role of fashion in their enterprise. Theory, for them, becomes not an explanation of the phenomenon of architecture but rather a self-serving and ideological criticism of architecture, one that presumes to illuminate "not only an architect's intentions and the mechanisms used to convert those intentions into building forms, but also how people experience those forms given their own knowledge, attitudes, and motivations."33 In other words, such theory concerns itself only with what architects want to do (their intentions) and how those intentions are implemented. So, if an architect intends to make buildings that are pyramidal and red, and if that architect has a design method to accomplish such an intention, this alone—according to the prevailing view—constitutes a theory of architecture.

It should be clear that such "theories" explain nothing about the phenomenon of architecture; they entirely avoid the question of why there is architecture in the first place, rather than mere building. Architecture, to be "consumed," must first be "produced," and not merely "intended." The gulf between the production and consumption of architecture, on the one hand, and the mere intention to create architecture, on the other hand, is enormous, and cannot be bridged without large expenditures of capital. Only where fashion is deemed useful for competition, no matter within which class or subculture this competition takes place, is such an expenditure of capital increased to pay for fashionable building—for architecture. Of course, fashion, driven by competition, is not inevitably the criterion by which architecture is commissioned, designed, selected, and built. There have certainly been societies in which competition, based on changing fashion, was not a driving force within the culture of building. In Egypt, for example, "the earliest royal monuments, such as the Narmer Palette carved around 3100 B.C.E., display identical royal costumes and poses as those seen on later rulers, even Ptolemaic kings on their temples 3000 years later."34

The idea that fashion and competition are driving forces within culture has been advanced by many theorists, but such ideas tend to be resisted within architectural theory. This may be because architectural theorists, following Adorno, tend to idealize the art of architecture, viewing fashion as something beholden to monopoly capital that "threatens the autonomy of the artwork."35 Such theorists become infatuated (distracted) by all the particular "artistic" qualities of the fashionable building—its mode of expression, its relation to prior artistic movements or prior forms, its intentionality, and so on—denying the overarching meta-function of architecture: to enable competition by deploying fashion.

The meta-theory of architecture, based on this meta-function, is deceptively simple: architecture is fashionable building. Fashion is a tool, among others, to enable competition. Competition is inherent in the capitalist mode of production: "It is ubiquitous as the principle of the way people deal with each other and as an imperative, anonymous law shaping the behavior of modern individuals."36 Competition is felt by its subjects in both a positive sense (as an opportunity to make money, to profit, to "win") and in a negative sense (as a compulsion to avoid failure, to survive even as others seek to surpass you). The competition to create fashionable buildings revolves around pecunia, flawed arguments based on a psychology rooted in "human nature" notwithstanding. Marx famously stated that "it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness."37 Karl Popper, otherwise critical of many Marxian formulations, defends this particular argument, writing that: "The universal occurrence of certain behaviour is not a decisive argument in favour of its instinctive character, or of its being rooted in 'human nature.' Such considerations may show how na´ve it is to assume that all social laws must be derivable, in principle, from the psychology of 'human nature.'"38

Because engaging in competition costs money, it is always purposeful, even if its motivation is idealized or otherwise misunderstood. In fact, it is common for theorists to focus precisely on the subjective and transient functions of fashion in relation to architecture; in other words, to examine how a building's form reinforces or upends its physical or historic context, what stylistic modifications or transgressions have been employed, what intentions can be surmised, what emotions or feelings are engendered by its formal presence, or what ironic references to bygone styles or other cultural domains are evoked. A meta-theory of architecture looks instead at fashion's stable and overarching meta-function as a means of competition: to transform mere building into architecture.


1 Marx, Grundrisse, 650–51.

2 "Pecunia," Legal Dictionary, (my italics).

3 Lang and Moleski, "Preface," Functionalism Revisited, xvii.

4 Contemporary equivalents of the AIA's "How to Win" seminars from the early 1980s include Enoch Sears, "Marketing for Architects: The Authoritative Guide (with Case Studies)," here, and Stasiowski, Architect's Essentials of Winning Proposals, sponsored by the AIA.

5 "Fashion," Merriam-Webster Dictionary, here.

6 Prum, The Evolution of Beauty, 11–12.

7 "Gertrude McFuzz," in Dr. Seuss, Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories.

8 Gombrich, "The Logic of Vanity Fair."

9 Val Warke, "'In' Architecture: Observing the Meanings of Fashion," in Fausch et al., eds., Architecture: In Fashion, 133.

10 Schumacher, Autopoiesis of Architecture, 134.

11 Val Warke, "'In' Architecture: Observing the Meanings of Fashion," in Fausch et al., eds., Architecture: In Fashion, 133–34.

12 Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 97.

13 Gombrich, "The Logic of Vanity Fair."

14 "Conversation with Graves," 112.

15 Robert Guenther, "In Architects' Circles, Post-Modernist Design Is a Bone of Contention," Wall Street Journal 63, no. 204 (August 1, 1983), 7.

16 Paul Goldberger, "Gracious Living: Frank Gehry's Swirling Apartment Tower," The New Yorker, March 7, 2011, 72–74, here.

17 Anne Field, "Buildings Designed by 'Starchitects' Pay Off Big," Crain's New York, November 27, 2011, here.

18 Paul Goldberger, "High Design at a Profit," New York Times, November 14, 1976, here.

19 Paul Goldberger, "Gracious Living: Frank Gehry's Swirling Apartment Tower," The New Yorker, March 7, 2011, 72–74, here.

20 James Gardner, "Gehry Undone: Spruce Street Building Billows to Nowhere," December 1, 2010,, here.

21 Hegel, Reason in History, 17.

22 Gombrich, "The Logic of Vanity Fair."

23 "Introduction," in Marx, Grundrisse, 91.

24 Venturi, Scott-Brown, and Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas, 64. The authors famously suggest that, along with "decorated sheds" (discussed in Chapter 10), the contortion of buildings into "ducks" provides a means for "symbolic and representational elements" to become embedded in architecture.

25 Marx, Capital, Volume II, 201.

26 Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 15.

27 Mumford, "Function and Expression in Architecture," 109.

28 Robert Guenther, "In Architects' Circles, Post-Modernist Design Is a Bone of Contention," Wall Street Journal 63, no. 204 (August 1, 1983), 7.

29 Sloan, My Years with General Motors, 64.

30 Edmondson, Ice Cream Social, vii.

31 Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class. See especially Chapter 6, "Pecuniary Canons of Taste."

32 Held and Hill, The Democratic State (in Chapter 1, "Freedom and Equality—Private Property—Abstract Free Will").

33 Lang and Moleski, Functionalism Revisited, xvii.

34 "Ancient Egypt, an Introduction," Kahn Academy, here.

35 Mahall and Serbest, How Architecture Learned to Speculate, 114.

36 Gegenstandpunkt, "The System of Free Competition and What It Is About," Section 1.

37 Marx, "Preface," in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

38 "Marx's Method: The Autonomy of Sociology," in Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, 86.

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