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The Soft City

Architecture's Public?

  • Part 1 of 2: Is neoliberal capitalism the right model to shape our future cities?

    “It has come to us from a dystopia where the rulers of the world pass their lives in glass towers away from the mean streets. Down there the excluded loot and burn, and the sky-dwellers profess to be shocked by their lack of morality.”

    Jonathan Jones (Journalist)


    The next two blog posts will explore the economic realm in which architecture and urban design current dwell. This first post will look more widely at the concept of neoliberalism in our economy, with the second concentrating on its relationship to the city.


    The economic system subscribed to by much of the western world is 'neoliberal capitalism'. A core element of neoliberal capitalism is a free and self regulating market. Campaigners for this capitalist personality advocate the nature of a free market system will self regulate and be a highly effective generators of wealth. This premise taken in isolation is correct. If you take away the regulations that protect workers' rights to a minimum wage or the right to maternity pay, you will generate more profit. So why in a system that demands a free and unregulated market do we have a minimum wage etc...? One reason is a minimum wage supplies an individual with an amount of money society deems necessary to maintain the minimum human standard of living. Due to moral and ethical reasons we intervene within the supposed free market for the benefit of wider society. Therefore markets which are deemed free of political biased and say they need freedom to function efficiently are in fact politically regulated.


    “So, when free market economists say that a certain regulation should not be introduced because it would restrict the ‘freedom’ of a certain market, they are merely expressing a political opinion that they reject the rights that are to be defended by the proposed law. The ideological cloak is to pretend that their politics are not really political, but rather an objective economic truth, while other peoples politics are political. However they are as politically motivated as their opponents.”  (Chang 2010)


    Parallels can be drawn to how we structure our society. We endeavour to achieve freedoms for individuals but, don’t allow total freedom. In a society of ultimate freedoms you have anarchy - freedom to kill, main, steal and oppress. Therefore we have regulations. These are core concepts behind a civilised and compassionate society. Can you have a form of capitalism that is more receptive to these core concepts?


    I'm not against capitalism and profit. I am a part owner of a small business and understand the need for profit. Profit allows you to improve your standard of living, reinvest and strengthen your business, increase the wages of your employees and generally it makes life less stressful. In essence profit creates economic lubrication. There are some areas of our life where a free market and the competition it brings, works effectively towards innovation and works to bring down costs for the benefit of society. There is a darker side to profit. A profit at all costs. Profit derived at the expense of communities, ecology and democracy. The political scientist, Benjamin Barbour sums up the dilemma between the excesses of individual profit at the cost of social good when he prescribes  "a capitalism with virtues that contributes at least marginally to democracy, responsibility and citizenship." (Barber 2008). My worry is that due to the need to maximise profits we are losing our freedoms. Democracy has becoming too expensive!


    The reason I feel our democracies are threatened is largely due to the growing inequalities in wealth caused by deregulation. Britain has been through an oscillation of wealth distribution over the last century. Here the richest one per cent took almost 20 percent of all income in 1918. That fell steadily to 6 percent in 1980, then started soaring again. By 2005 it was up to 16 percent, and rising. Like America, we are nearly back to the income inequalities of the First World War. An economic environment where you have a disparity of wealth on this scale is troubling when you take into account the nature of free markets.

    “Saying that an existing regulation should be abolished is saying that the domain of the market should be expanded, which means that those who have money should be given more power in that area, as the market is run on a ‘one-dollar-one-vote’ principle.” (Chang 2010).

    As markets permeate deeper into all structures of our society i.e. urban planning, architecture, political lobbying, healthcare, public ownership, and the education of our children, those with money will gain greater influence and control of these structures. Have Goldman Sachs become the Catholic Church of our era? They are the cathedral builders and the theologians of a fiscal doctrine. They create souring spires at the heart of our cities and dictate, "There Is No Alternative" and declare heresy on those that disagree.


    The next blog entry with focus on the effect a neoliberal environment is having on shaping our future cities. It will look at what we are building, who is building it and how that is changing our relationship to the city.

    Sources:

    Barber, B R. Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults and Swallow Citizens Whole, (W. W. Norton & Co, 2008).

    Chang, H J. 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, (Allen Lane, 2010).


  • Intuition and Instinct

      This post will focus upon some issues raised in a BBC Radio 4 episode of In Our Time (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00rfhx2), looking at the driving forces and ideology behind the creation of cities.  For those that can't access the audio material due to licensing restrictions, the...


  • In The Beginning

    Since completing my postgraduate degree, I've been looking for a way to continue exploring the themes I touched upon during my time at university. The role of the blog is to act as a pensive for my ideas and experiences within architecture and its relating fields. The name of the...


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About this Blog

The purpose of The Soft City is to question the motives and ideology behind our urban spaces. As urban users, we are active elements within a city. We have the ability to shape the city surrounding us. Consequently the environment around us offers resistance to our interactions and reshapes us in turn. This continuous moulding and reshaping of people and space is directly reflected in our societies. This relationship will help form the key theme for the blog; who is architecture's public?

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