From Objects of Austerity to Processes of Scarcity
We live in an age of austerity; or, rather, we are continually told that we live in an age of austerity and therefore must live by its strictures. Both the political left and right promulgate the notion of, and need for, austerity programmes. Such is the unconditional acceptance of the term that it controls all aspects of our lives, from the very personal (that means shortened shopping lists) to the very public (cutbacks all round in major spending projects). Architecture, as a discipline that spans this private-public spectrum, is thus inevitably bound to the conditions of austerity, and so it is worth unpicking some of the ways that austerity is formulated and the reaction of architects to these formulations.
Author: Jeremy Till – published in: archithese 6.2014, Fresh Europe, p. 44–49
The essay will look briefly at two examples from the twentieth century in which programmes of austerity inflected on architectural production in order to see if particular traits emerge. I will then argue that austerity as a term is not sufficiently nuanced to describe the complexity of operating under the current social, economic and ecological conditions. The final section will therefore move to a formulation for spatial production based on the notion of scarcity.
This process of the abstraction and subsequent reification of austerity can be identified in my first episode of austerity and architecture, that of Weimar Germany in the late 1920s and early 1930s, in which enduring post-war scarcities, global economic collapse and rising population combined to induce programmes of austerity, most notably in the Weimar budgets from 1930 to 1932. Against this economic backdrop and faced with a combination of housing shortages and the lack of resources to build that housing, architects responded in a very particular manner.1 This was also the period in which the tenets of international modernism were being formulated, and what we see is a merging of modernist ideologies with the expediencies required by austerity.
The discussion is focused most clearly through the second CIAM Congress in Frankfurt in 1929, entitled Die Wohnung für das Existenzminimum (literally translated as “The Subsistence Dwelling”), which was subsequently recorded in a book of the same title. Faced with an unprecedented demand for housing, but against the backdrop of post-war scarcities, architects responded in two ways: first through the development of plans for reduced space standards, and second through the employment of new industrialized technologies. Thus Karel Teige’s The Minimum Dwelling famously opens with the words: “Essentially, the housing question is a problem of statistics and technology, as is any question concerning the provision and satisfaction of human needs.”2 Teige’s directness is tempered in the language of other early modernists, who tied this technocratic regime into a wider project of social emancipation but in all cases we can see parallels with the economic discourse of the time.3 As Siegfried Giedion notes in his opening address to the Frankfurt congress: “It was settled (at the first CIAM conference) that the prime task of the architect is to ‘bring himself into line with the times’ […]. Connection of architecture with economy could obviously not help being made the first point of the Programme.”4 The new science of architecture takes human need in the context of imposed limits, and frames it in the quasi-scientific language that went hand-in-hand with the progressivist rhetoric of early modernism. Austerity was seen as something that could be overcome through architectural ingenuity, rational thinking and technological advance – and more than that it was something that the older approaches to architecture and construction simply could not deal with; efficiency of means was required and the old forms of building and aesthetics did not meet this criterion. A new way of thinking and doing was required. It is here that austerity, although framed as a challenge, actually becomes a covert opportunity to pursue the modernist agendas developed through CIAM.
Austerity post-war Britai
This confluence of austerity and modernizing tendencies can also be identified in Austerity Britain – the period immediately after the Second World War. As Andrew Saint argues, this period represented “a coming together of many things: the Modern Movement, a puritan strain in British philosophy and design, the needs, constraints, opportunities and organization of post-war reconstruction, and the triumph of fresh thinking about childhood, teaching and learning.”5 Again, industrialization, efficiency and technical prowess are employed as the means to address austerity, this time allied with the technical and industrial advances achieved as part of the war effort. Austerity Britain was remarkable for its political ambition, largely driven by ideals of collective provision of health, education and welfare. For the reformers, austerity, far from a brake to the establishment of the future, was actually the motor. As David Kynaston notes in his book on the period, architects were to the fore in the envisioning of this brave new world: “If for Keynesians, social reformers and educationalists the war provided unimagined opportunities for influencing the shape of the future, this was even more true for architects and town planners and their cheerleaders.”6
In his book Building the Post-war World that documents the architectural history of the post-war era, Nicholas Bullock traces two routes under the conditions of austerity.7 One is that of the architectural elite in an internalized story of the establishment of certain forms of modernism, set apart from the backdrop of post-war exigencies and turmoil. More interesting, because less self-referential, is the second route in which the conditions of production and limits of resources lead to new forms of architectural invention. Austerity, as in the 1930s, becomes both the driver and excuse for innovation. Although these new forms of construction and planning did not, as Bullock points out,8 necessarily save money, they certainly provided new opportunities for architects and builders. As Andrew Saint notes of the Hertfordshire Schools architects, who were prominent at the time: “They wanted to compose not an essay or a book but a language and vocabulary, and to write the first literature in it all at the same time.”9 Austerity, far from a limitation on progress, was its very genesis.
One may hope to derive lessons from these two previous episodes in order to suggest ways of coping with the contemporary conditions of austerity. However, one major difference must be noted: where the previous two periods were tied into a reformist political agenda, the present situation is determined by a regressive economic ideology in which neo-liberal dogma demands a singular diet of austerity.10 The argument is continually made that in order to re-establish economic equilibrium, programmes of austerity are absolutely necessary. But scratch the surface and what one finds is that this argument for the “inevitability” of austerity masks a deeply ideological underbelly in which social inequality is ramped up and the private sector is given renewed prominence.11
For architects two apparently opposing positions arise out of these conditions of contemporary austerity. For the vast majority of the profession – let’s call them the 99 % – the wider context of economic leanness leads to cut-rate fees, continuous value engineering and the drive towards the technicization of the processes, with assumed efficiency gains through BIM and other industry-led programmes. In all these aspects architects, far from operating at the forefront of cultural expression as they were in the previous episodes of austerity, are left on the back foot, denied the resources to operate and marginalized in the wider debate about the means of production. The austerity drive passes down to architectural education as well, with ever more strident demands for market-ready students framed in terms of the decadence of the academy, an anti-intellectualism that threatens the very basis of educational values.
It is maybe not surprising that the other reaction to contemporary austerity is one of escape from its political constructions and into the more rarefied air of aesthetic discourse, treating it simply and uncritically as a condition to be reified, even celebrated. This is the path of the elite discourse in architecture, let’s call it the 1 %, which although the minority still acts as a point of salvation for the 99 %, allowing them to feel that there is a higher existence beyond the dross of efficient gains. Here the aesthetics of austerity emerge; they were there of course in the earlier modernist episodes, but now they become a source of solace, the means of establishing the very essence of architecture in the face of the fallen world outside. Right from the beginning of the current economic crisis in 2008, the decadent architecture of the 2000s has been mentioned in the same breath as the excesses of the period. After establishing guilt by association, the argument goes that in order to demonstrate the propriety of architecture, we need to reassert its core authentic values.12 Thus a loose grouping of European architects are championed in the pages of publications such as Building Design, 2G and Detail as prophets of an era of austerity and good architectural sense: Caruso St John, Tony Fretton, Sergison Bates in the UK, Peter Märkli and Valerio Olgiati in Switzerland, and a whole range of Flemish architects including Robbrecht & Daem and Stéphane Beel. With all of these, and more, tectonic rectitude and aesthetic decorum come to the fore. Austerity is appropriated for its worthiness and in this is completely detached from its regressive economic and political genesis. The architecture of austerity does not just employ the aesthetic virtues of simplicity, precision and honesty, but celebrates them as a form of moral action. “Beauty is the most radical thing I know”, says Peter Märkli.13
I have described elsewhere how this attachment of aesthetics to morals ends up in a dangerous cul-de-sac where architecture assumes righteousness, but is actually completely detached from the dynamics of real ethics, played out as they are in social space, so the morality that it posits is a false one.14 Part of the problem, which the contemporary condition shares with the two previous episodes, is that the designer’s response is strongly tied to objects, now in the sense of them representing austerity, then through the hope of new futures being founded in the efficiency of stuff. At least in the two former examples from the 1930s and the post-war era, the objects were attempting to deal with the condition of austerity, whereas now they simply freeze it, either through the diminished architecture of the 99 % or the austere aesthetic of the 1 %. However, in either case they do not (and cannot in their static conception) address the forces that have produced austerity in the first place. We may look to the previous episodes for inspiration as to how to cope with austerity more inventively, but in the end this is in vain because the externalities that produced it are so different. The innovation and optimism that were associated with the progressivist idealism of the previous periods has been replaced with a dour realism consistent with the regressive and sometimes punitive political mood. In the place of the current understanding of austerity we need a more nuanced term that deals with both cause and effect, with the externalities and their implications. That term is scarcity.
Scarcity versus austerity
Scarcity is not the same as austerity. Although austerity and scarcity are intertwined – the programmes of austerity do indeed induce real scarcity of resources – the genesis of the two terms is different, and in this lie the clues as to how to deal with the contemporary condition. As argued above, it is important to understand austerity as an imposed condition; it is not a natural or inevitable constraint, but one that is established as a result of other economic and political forces. In the current programmes of austerity that are being played in the majority of the Global North, the pervasive argument is that the economic crisis demands austerity. In these terms, austerity is the outcome of the ideologies of neo-liberalism, whereas scarcity is a higher-level condition that both drives those ideologies and also threatens them. Scarcity is the motor of capitalism in the way that scarcity of supply regulates the market; too much of something diminishes desire and competition. But it is a threat in so far as the mere whiff of limits undermines notions of growth and freedom on which capitalism is founded. Scarcity as an economic fact is thus far more complex than austerity, which is usually presented as a blunt instrument, a fait accompli that is left as a given for architects and others to work with, and not a concept that can be unravelled strategically and tactically.
Where austerity is created in response to a presumed condition, and in this is more artificial than natural, scarcity is both real (things really are running out) and constructed. From Malthus onwards, neoclassical economists have attempted to naturalize scarcity, describing it as an inevitable condition that drives the economic machine, most obviously in Lionel Robbins’ famous statement: “Economics […] is concerned with that aspect of behaviour which arises from the scarcity of means to achieve given ends. It follows that Economics is entirely neutral between ends.”15 However, recent discussions of scarcity have focused on its constructed nature.16 The most direct example is food scarcity. There is enough food in the world; it is just in the wrong places.17 Food distribution systems, the politics of food subsidies, the machinations of global food corporations – all these and more combine to construct a scarcity of food. The result is very real – hunger – but the underlying condition is constructed.
An understanding of scarcity might allow us to have a better grasp of how to operate in the contemporary conditions under which the built environment is produced. If one feels impotent in dealing with the causes of austerity because of their macro-economic genesis, the same is not necessarily true of the two sides of scarcity, the real and the constructed. One might expose the ideological bases of programmes of austerity, but it is difficult to intervene in its bluntness as a financial instrument; the only way we can tolerate this impotence is through believing the premise that austerity is a short-term necessity out of which growth will once again arise. On the other hand, scarcity, both real and constructed, widens the field beyond the straightforwardly economic and forces one to engage with its underlying social, ecological and economic constitution and the dynamic relationship between these parts. Scarcity is also not going to go away; it can but get more exaggerated in both real and constructed modes, the former as resources become increasingly stretched, the latter as the market finds ever more need to manipulate systems of production and distribution in order to keep itself going.
The first step in dealing with scarcity is to think beyond the object. Real scarcities challenge the received notion that architecture should be defined through the act of building alone. Architectural progress is generally signposted through the addition of something new to the world, but under conditions of scarcity, the need to continually add is not viable, because adding built matter by default subtracts from the natural resource base. Scarcity undermines the assumption of endless growth on which neoclassical economics is based. Where austerity leads to a solution of continued building, but with less resources or less often, scarcity leads not to adding, but instead redistributing what it already there. In this the creativity of the designer is focused not on objects but on systems of distribution (see examples by 00:/ and MOM). Scarcity discourse here leads away from the standardized tenets of sustainability, which tend to work within notions of limitation, of using less, saving carbon, measuring output, and in this essentialize scarcity rather than deal with it, particularly in the increasingly technocratic mode that sustainability is turning to.
In terms of constructed scarcity, the designer shifts to an understanding of the way that scarcity has been produced. Take another example of constructed scarcity, that of space. There is more than enough raw enclosed space to meet demand in many of our cities; it is just in the wrong hands or legislative framework, and so it often lies empty. The challenge here becomes to unlock those frameworks; this is inherently a spatial problem and therefore one that architects as spatial agents should be adept at addressing.18 The attention again shifts from the object to the underlying political and social processes. This has been shown brilliantly in the space hacking movement, most notably the Renew Newcastle project in Australia, which has released thousands of square metres of empty space in the centre of Newcastle, New South Wales, through dealing with what Marcus Westbury calls the software rather than the hardware of the city.19 We can begin to see some of the same responses in Detroit with the work of urban pioneers such as Dan Pitera and Dan Carmody.
The strictures of austerity tend to lead us towards a diminished form of architectural practice overseen by the values of the market and the assumptions of state-led programmes of cuts, whereas the more complex nature of scarcities catalyzes different ways of thinking and working. Once again austerity and scarcity are intertwined, with conditions of austerity forcing people to look for other ways of working, often motivated by political or activist positions that are in opposition to mainstream orthodoxies. However, there is only so much capacity around the edges. What is now needed is for the lessons in dealing with scarcity to be brought back to the centre, allowing architects to operate in an expanded field that sees scarcity as much more than essentialized lack. The combination of lack and object-centered practice is inevitably reductive, whereas the territory of processes and networks that scarcity presents is much more open to creative intervention. Take one example, that of procurement of buildings. Presently this is framed solely in economic terms, with project managers and value engineers controlling the entire process, which under conditions of austerity is defined through endless cost cutting. If, however, procurement is seen as part of a chain of constructed scarcities, then creativity is needed to unlock those constructions, taking the terms of reference away from those of the pure marketplace. This is a designerly and spatial act, beyond the limited remit of project managers, in which resource flows can be diverted (see for example 2012 Architecten), material use can be redeployed (see for example Raumlabor) or briefs rewritten to get away from purely quantifiable descriptions (for example DEGW).
My argument therefore is that we need to move beyond the limits presented by austerity, which end up either in a retreat, in which the architect dons an aesthetic hair shirt of false morality, or else in helplessness in the face of larger forces. If austerity is indeed a result of immediate crisis, scarcity (for all its scariness) presents longer-term possibilities for architectural practice.
The text was originally written as a working paper for a presentation at the Society of Architectural Historians Annual Conference in Detroit, April 2012, and published on the Scibe website (www.scibe.eu/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/11-JT-From-Objects-of-Austerity.pdf).
Jeremy Till is an architect, educator and writer. Since 2012 he has been Head of Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design and Pro Vice-Chancellor, University of the Arts London. His extensive written work includes Flexible Housing (with Tatjana Schneider, 2007), Architecture Depends (2009) and Spatial Agency (with Nishat Awan and Tatjana Schneider, 2011). As a practising architect he worked with Sarah Wigglesworth on the project Stock Orchard Street. In 2006 he curated the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale.
1 As Catherine Bauer Wurster notes in her seminal book on modern housing: “There was an acute shortage at the end of the war, accompanied by a complete breakdown in the old agencies of housing production.” Catherine Bauer Wurster, Modern Housing, Boston 1934, p. xvi.
2 Karel Teige, The Minimum Dwelling, Cambridge Mass. 2002, p. 9.
3 Hilde Heynen is particularly good on the intersection of the social, the aesthetic and the technological within the wider context of economic crisis in the period of the Neue Frankfurt, out of which Existenzminimum arose. Hilde Heynen, Architecture and Modernity. A Critique. Cambridge Mass. 1999, pp. 43–50.
4 Ernst May, Die Wohung für das Existenzminimum, Frankfurt 1930, p. 8.
5 Andrew Saint, Towards a Social Architecture, New Haven 1987, p. viii. The book’s focus is schools, hence the last part of the quote.
6 David Kynaston, Austerity Britain. 1945–1951. London 2008, p. 29.
7 Nicholas Bullock, Building the Post-war World, London/New York 2002.
8 Ibid., p. 192.
9 Saint, p. 65.
10 Though even as I write, Standard and Poor’s (who amazingly still have some credibility despite being a major agent in the economic crisis in their wrapping-up of junk CDM/CDCs with decent ratings) have downgraded European economies because “austerity alone becomes self-defeating”.
11 In the UK so-called austerity programmes in higher education, schooling and health are in many cases actually costing the taxpayer more. Thus in higher education, fees will triple in 2012 on the grounds that the public can no longer afford to pay for universities, and so the burden should shift to the students who benefit. However, the reality is very different: far from reducing public costs, the increased fees actually increase the burden on the taxpayer because the government will have to fund the higher loans. Under the guise of austerity in universities, the government is effectively privatizing them. See: Jeremy Till, “Scar(c)e Times”, in: Occupied Times, April 5, 2011.
12 One could cite many examples, but a recent one is: Peter Buchanan, “The Big Rethink. Towards a Complete Architecture”, in: Architectural Review, January 2011.
13 Florian Beigel, “Peter Märkli in Conversation”, in: Architects’ Journal, November 2007. In an article in Building Design published around the same time Ellis Woodman writes: “Neither of these projects [by Märkli] is easy to digest, being as they are concerned with issues that preoccupied architects for centuries – grammar, proportion, propriety, measure – but are discussed only in the most limited terms today. If we are once again to have an architecture that speaks of values other than the spectacular, it is surely through a return to those concerns that that we will find it. Märkli’s work offers a crucial signpost along that path.” In: Ellis Woodman, “Beyond Babel. The Work of Swiss Architect Peter Märkli”, in: Building Design, July 2007.
14 See: Jeremy Till, Architecture Depends, Cambridge Mass. 2009, esp. chapter 10.
15 Lionel Robbins, An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science, London 1932, p. 40.
16 See for example: Lyla Mehta (ed.), The Limits to Scarcity. Contesting the Politics of Allocation, London 2010. See also: Nicholas Xenos, Scarcity and Modernity, London/New York 1989; Jeremy Till, “Constructed Scarcity”, in: Scibe, January 2011, scibe.eu
17 Stephen J. Scanlan, J. Craig Jenkins, Lindsey Peterson, “The Scarcity Fallacy”, in: Contexts, vol. 9, no. 1, 2010, pp. 34–39.
18 Nishat Awan, Tatjana Schneider, Jeremy Till, Spatial Agency. Other Ways of Doing Architecture, London 2011.
19 Marcus Westbury, “Cities as Software”, in: marcuswestbury.net (accessed January 16, 2012). See also: “Renew Newcastle”, www.renewnewcastle.org/about, (accessed January 16, 2012).