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Architecture and Excess: Reflections on the Recent Boom

Last week I attended a presentation by Shohei Shigematsu, a partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) founded by Rem Koolhaas. The presentation was for a new cross-disciplinary arts building at the University of British Columbia that would be used by the schools of architecture, landscape architecture, and planning, among others. (I got my master's degree at the UBC school of architecture).

 Detail from OMA's Seattle Public Library

As a presentation for a new architecture building, Shigematsu's slideshow was disappointing. I was in a studio with Patricia Patkau (whose firm is one of the competitors of OMA for this project, as it happens) and one of the first things we did in that studio was study Rem Koolhaas's presentation for the Seattle Public Library. In both cases, UBC and Seattle, the purpose was not to present a design, but rather to show the firm's approach to design.

Detail from Patkau's Grande Bibliotheque du Quebec

Koolhaas's presentation in Seattle was a masterpiece of analysis and wit. His presentation showed that OMA would engage more deeply with the project than the other firms, and that this engagement would lead to a better building. OMA was of course chosen to do the project, and the resulting building is one of those rare successes that is admired by architects and the general public alike. The project also propelled OMA towards becoming one of the great architecture firms of the recent boom.

Shigematsu's presentation last week did not have the same effect. It was witty, and at times brilliant, but the attention paid to the UBC project itself was scant, and showed none of the intellectual brilliance of Koolhaas in Seattle. The overall impression was of a firm that has enjoyed enormous success, but is now perhaps not as hungry as it was, or should be.

The most interesting series of slides for me was Shigematsu's reference to the recent economic downturn, and the effect it has had on the architecture profession. Shigematsu is based in New York, and he said that unemployment among architects in the United States is 40%. This slide was highlighted by graphs of major stock indices such as the DOW and NASDAQ showing them falling off a cliff over the last few years.

Shigematsu then reversed the slide, showing the chart trending up dramatically, and called it a graph of architectural intellect, or something like that. The idea is that during these periods of unemployment, architects have time to think and publish, and the ideas they come up with will make for better design and fuel innovation in the next boom.

If only it worked that way.

No doubt it appeals to the vanity of architects that the brilliance of their work is related to the brilliance of their ideas. Certainly there are phenoms out there like Zaha Hadid, who spend years generating fantastic design before ever constructing an actual building. But architecture is ultimately about putting theory into practice, and practice means getting the building built. And getting the building built is much more likely to happen during a period of excess, like the one we have just been through.

Zaha Hadid's Maxxi Museum in Rome

What do I mean by "excess"?

I mean something very specific, and it comes from the theoretical works of Georges Bataille, in particular his line of thought about "The Accursed Share."

Anyone could tell you that works of significant architecture are more likely to be produced during times of prosperity. Large, extraordinary buildings are expensive, and require a lot of money, materials and labour. If you look at any textbook on architectural history, you can see that there is a one-to-one correspondence between "great architecture" and periods of great wealth. When wealth was accumulated in one place - historically through empire, but more recently through big business - some of that wealth was spent on extravagant buildings.

How Egypt spent its surplus

There is a significant counter to this, namely that the accumulation of that wealth, and the buildings that came from it, generally resulted from a lot of suffering. The theory is that the surplus used to create the buildings was produced by the labourers who made them. That surplus rightfully belonged to them, and not the emperor or mogul who commanded them to construct their monstrosity. Call this the marxist argument.

Another counter is that this only talks about "great architecture." What about buildings constructed on limited means, the vernacular architecture produced by ordinary citizens, who built from local materials and used ingenious means of crafting their dwellings to suit them to the local environment? Call this the sustainability argument. 

This is where Georges Bataille comes in. Bataille starts by flipping standard economics on its head by arguing that the central problem of human society is not scarcity, but surplus, or excess. The standard condition of human life on this planet is that we have adapted to our environment in such a way that we are capable of producing more than we need.

Bataille's favourite example is the native American potlatch. Periodically a successful elder would take his accumulated surplus and throw a ritualized party in which he would give away his excess goods to the rest of his family and his nation, even to his rivals. Why would anyone do that? Because the surplus has to be spent somehow, and it is ultimately an exchange: by giving it away, he receives prestige in return, and puts everyone into his debt.

How Chetzemoka spent the surplus

In other words, if the human condition is one of producing excess, we are then faced sooner or later with the problem of how to spend the extra that we produce.

Why would that be a problem? If we have more than we need, surely that is a good thing. It means that we can put some aside for later. We can re-invest the surplus, in other words. Or we can consume it and enjoy the fruit of our labour. We can throw a potlatch, and give it away to others. We can spend the surplus on taking care of the disadvantaged in our society, or taking care of the elderly and infirm. Yes, that's all true. However, re-investing the surplus only leads to a greater surplus, which at some point has to be spent. And consuming the surplus only leads to greed and waste. The ultimate wasteful expenditure is war: the large surplus that is built up is used to produce weapons and support and train an army of unproductive young people whose job is to destroy.

This is what makes the extra "share" that we produced "accursed."

This curse attaches to our labour whether we like it or not. Following the marxist argument, where each labourer gets to spend their own surplus instead of having it taken away by capital, all this means is that the choice of excess expenditure is smaller scale. At its best it means a broad producing-consuming class that spends at a great aggregate rate. At its worst it means that destruction is wrought by individuals or small groups instead of corporations or governments - by a terrorist cell or a well-armed militia instead of a national army. Surplus is a destructive problem no matter who spends it.

The fact that individuals are spending it does not make it less destructive. That is the central lesson of 9/11. The easy access to technology - whether it is planes that can fly into tall buildings, roadside bombs, automatic weapons in luxury hotels, or nuclear weapons in suitcases - makes it possible for individuals and small groups to wreak disproportionate damage.

(I will respond to the issue of sustainability and surplus in another blog post, because it's a big and, I think, really interesting topic. For now all I would say is that the idea of a surplus economy turns sustainability on its head, because sustainability is predicated on the idea of scarcity.)

Getting back to the economic boom of the last ten to thirty years, the signs of excessive consumption and destructive spending are everywhere. The lifestyle of the McMansion and SUV set, 9/11, the Alberta tar sands, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Beijing Olympics. This enormous economic bubble that we have lived through, when so many people and so many governments lived the high life for so many years, is in retrospect a litany of destruction and waste.

And then there is architecture.

I would argue that of all the ways to spend the surplus, architecture is one of the most appealing.

Perhaps the most succinct case to make for spending the surplus on architecture is to look at the past ten years in terms of the divergence in paths between China and the United States. Those two nations have produced and spent more wealth than any others in recent times, and they spent it entirely differently.

In the United States, Bill Clinton ran a budget surplus for the first time in generations, and he used it to pay down part of the federal debt. Then when George Bush came to power, he took that surplus and he spent it not once, but twice: first he gifted the surplus to the wealthy in the form of tax cuts and low interest rates, and then he spent it a second time in the form of two wars, an arguably necessary one in Afghanistan and an unnecessary one in Iraq.

Of course if you only have one surplus to spend and you spend it twice, you are going to have to pay for it at some point, and that is what we are seeing now, as the United States will be paying for the debts run up by Bush for many years to come.

 How George Bush spent one surplus

How George Bush spent another surplus

Then there is China. In 2008, the world witnessed perhaps the most extravagant potlatch in world history in the form of the Beijing Olympics. China announced its presence on the world stage as the next great superpower. The opening and closing ceremonies were spellbinding, the control exerted over the city and the populace was ruthless and astounding, the event ran like clockwork. Westerners could only look in awe, and console themselves by criticizing China's human rights or environmental record.

How China spent the surplus

Architects, however, couldn't help thinking about the buildings. The backdrop of every camera angle, it seemed, was framed by the work of a notable starchitect. The most famous of these was the Bird's Nest by Herzog and de Meuron.

Another building that showed up in fewer shots, but which was no less extravagant, is the one commissioned by the state television station in China, CCTV. This building was designed by Rem Koolhaas and OMA.

OMA's building for CCTV, under construction

Perhaps more than any other building, the cantilever on the CCTV building is so absurd that it can only be about one thing: excess. 

Like a potlatch, part of the purpose of the Beijing Olympics was to humiliate and to put others in debt. The West, and in particular the United States, is deeply in debt to China for other reasons. What the cantilever of the CCTV building says is something slightly different. It says: we are so wealthy that we can spend ridiculous amounts of money hiring your best architects to design utterly frivolous and unnecessary monuments, monuments so profoundly expensive that they could only be built in China, under our system.

The same archiecture firm that designed the CCTV building just presented to the school of architecture at UBC to build its new building. That firm, OMA, may send one of its partners to tell witty stories about the creativity of unemployed architects, but the reality is that OMA's built works are the product of a period of unprecedented excess, of employed architects being paid to create astounding design.

This is not a criticism. If you have read this far, I hope you will see the argument: that human society produces a surplus whether it wants to or not; that this surplus needs to be spent somehow; and that it is much better to spend it in the form of extravagant architecture than extravagant weapons systems. This is all fairly straightforward. 

What is less straightforward, and what I have no idea how to explain, is how it came to be that a ruthless, authoritarian government chose to shock and awe the world with the beauty of its buldings, while an advanced democracy faced with spending a similar surplus chose to shock and awe the world with the destructive power of its weapons.


  1. Hi Graham, very interesting blog.

  2. Great post relating economic and architectural excess, but I think you make Bush more personally responsible than he was. Though his tax policy did work to distance rich from poor, he didn't actually spend a surplus on oversized single family houses. The Federal Reserve's refusal to raise interest on their (extremely safe) Treasury Bills that sent investors to the real estate market. Then there are the wiz kids on Wall Street, inventing financial products too clever to be regulated and too complex to be understood by the average investor, their banker overlords, underequipped and/or lazy regulators, private citizens whose personal savings rate fell to historical lows (see also credit card debt),...
    The situation in China I know nothing about, but I share your sentiment that it is unsettling that such a political regime could harness architecture as it has done. Perhaps the revaluing of their currency will help to balance that nation's growth, and set it on a course towards democracy before the century is over.
    Here's to optimism!

  3. Hi Tim,

    Yes, I wasn't suggesting that George Bush went out and bought a bunch of single family homes.

    Rather, he inherited a big budget surplus from Clinton when he first came into office, and he took the view that this money belonged to taxpayers, and so he cut taxes in a manner that disproportionately benefited the wealthy. That, combined with lax regulation of financial and mortgage markets, as well as low interest rates, stimulated the economy and helped to fuel the housing bubble. I symbolized this with the image of the in-construction McMansion.

    Also, the disturbing thing to me is not that China spent its surplus on architecture. Yes, it's true that they effectively used Western intellectual capital to benefit what still remains a very problematic, authoritarian state. However, I find that quite benign compared with how the United States spent its surplus, namely, two wars and a burst bubble economy that sparked a global recession.



  4. Graham,

    Catching up on your writing and work a bit late, and loving it. You're clearly very smart, with an interesting mix of experiences and thoughtful sharing. I hope we get to put the world to rights over a sleeve or two someday.

    I liked this post because it's something I've been musing about for a while, but coming at it from the pov of mechanisation and outsourcing of manufacturing. I came the conclusion in my own head that international surpluses ultimately bid up land values in pleasant places (like Vancouver) to the benefit of landowners over renters. The solution I came to is related to yours: make everywhere pleasant. Walkable interesting places with low pollution etc. Make Burnaby's streets and density closer to Kitsilano's. The question then is how to incentivize capital to invest in that direction (and in the direction of your pleasant architecture) rather than in destructive directions. A Quebec pension fund is building a new megamall in Tsawwassen because of these current structures: how do we get their capital directed to more pleasant built environments, while giving them the easy yield they want?

    One point I would dispute with you is this:
    This curse attaches to our labour whether we like it or not. Following the marxist argument, where each labourer gets to spend their own surplus instead of having it taken away by capital, all this means is that the choice of excess expenditure is smaller scale. At its best it means a broad producing-consuming class that spends at a great aggregate rate. At its worst it means that destruction is wrought by individuals or small groups instead of corporations or governments - by a terrorist cell or a well-armed militia instead of a national army. Surplus is a destructive problem no matter who spends it.

    I would argue that innovation comes from many small experiments, so that if everybody in the first world had sufficient savings (ideally earned and privately saved, but perhaps enforced like pension-plans and supplemented by government redistribution) to take a year off work and maintain their standard of living while pursuing some wacky entrepreneurial idea, then we'd all be much better off. Instead we have a lot of the capital gathered in very few un-innovative hands (Mr Jobs, etc. being the exception).

    Anyway, many thanks for the intellectual stimulation and I look forward to much more in future!


    1. Hi Neil,

      Thanks for the kind words.

      Good point that a lot of innovation takes place at the small scale.

      That's one thing I really admire about Americans: they are much more likely to take the risk to make their innovative ideas happen.

      Canadians, on the other hand, are more likely to apply for a government grant and, if they don't get it, drop the idea.