So far, I have been focusing exclusively on the military-political aspect of the problem I propose to study in this essay. However, it would be deceitful not to evoke the economical system this first aspect attempts to protect namely Capitalism. In fact, Capitalism necessitates a space, and architecture, more or less consciously can be ready to provide it.
This chapter will be divided into three parts which will attempt to explore the process of gentrification and the two paradigmatic examples of capitalist architecture: privately owned public spaces and shopping malls as a new form and organization of public space.
Gentrification is a process extremely illustrative of how Capitalism operates. In fact, only a part of the capitalist system is based on the more or less objective value of manpower and raw materials. A very important other part is provided only by values that are based exclusively on something virtual. That is how a low social class neighborhood, one that despite a not so comfortable aspect provides a relatively cheap place to live in the center of a city, can be transformed into a desirable new area occupied at night by the young middle class.
This process usually starts without any transcendental will, with a little amount of middle class young people who decide to move to this type of districts in order to benefit from the low rents and the authenticity of the neighborhood. Politicians, speculators, and developers do not take long to discover the potential of such areas in the center of the city. For the politicians, it constitutes a good opportunity to get rid of a population that is considered risky and marginal; for the others, it is a very good way to develop a lucrative financial investment. When legislation is taking measures to transform this “dangerous neighborhood where nobody wants to come out at night” into a “better and safer place,”–to a place that the authorities can fully control- speculators buy the current buildings, raise the rent considerably from year to year until the tenants cannot pay anymore and eventually either replace them with tenants that can pay the higher rates or even demolish the building. The developers can then intervene and build new complexes commercial and residential complexes
Gentrification sometimes requires several years to become actually effective; however, it often implements itself in a much faster way, such as in Williamsburg’s neighborhood in Brooklyn where it only took six years to transform a low social class black area into a high middle class white neighborhood.
Capitalism cannot maintain complete control of every aspect of a city just as its greatest architectural invention, the skyscraper, cannot be limited by urban codes.
It does not bear either that its best architectural invention, the skyscraper that virtually reproduces infinitely a parcel of land for only once its price, could be limited by urban codes. That is how, in 1961, the City of New York made a deal with private entities in order to reform those codes. In exchange of a significant area of public space on their parcel, corporations and private owners would be authorized to build their towers higher. However, this little zone of public space was not meant to be given to the city so those private actors remained the owners and controllers of this area. They therefore maintained the right to authorize or forbid activities from taking place or people from passing though those spaces.
Under an appearance of openness, privately owned public spaces are in fact extremely selective of their public. Employees working in the towers are of course welcome; those open spaces are part of a post-modern biopolitical capitalism that appears as taking good care of its subjects. People who spend money on those sites in order to buy coffee, hot dogs, or newspapers are also targeted for this type of public spaces. Others are regarded as unwelcome even suspect, and can be asked to leave in case of a “subversive” activity such as playing with a ball, taking pictures, or picnicking.
Both corporations and governments are satisfied with those public spaces. Corporations are able to build taller skyscrapers, provide open space for their employees, and develop commercial activities while governments see their public space being maintained by private actors and any potential space of gathering being controlled and supervised.
Shopping malls are another typology of private spaces open to the public under controlled circumstances. Once again, two birds are being killed with one stone: the paradigm of the Greek Agora as public space is replaced by a hyper-controlled space owned by private corporations and this space is able to be highly productive for consumption. Shopping malls, in their contemporary version, are said to have been invented by the Austrian-American Victor Gruen in the 1950’s. In fact, he is probably the first one to have thought of this pure capitalist architecture as an element of urbanism. In an America whose middle class –for whom shopping malls were intended- was rapidly expanding to a large spread out suburbia, shopping malls represented the equivalent of old European city centers, a pedestrian place of gathering and activity. However, probably from observing that those European public spaces had hosted the various national revolutions and insurrections, the United States placed this new kind of public space within the framework of privatized supervision, security, and control. As Mike Davis describes it for Los Angeles, “The ‘public spaces’ of the new megastructures and supermalls have supplanted traditional streets and disciplined their spontaneity. Inside malls, office centers and cultural complexes, public activities are sorted into strictly functional comportments under the gaze of private police forces.”
By designing this space as an interior area accessible by definite entrances and supervised by dozens of video cameras and sensors, corporations were able to minimize the number of undesirables that were allowed in “their public space”. The design is also oriented in order to compose a whole interior fantastic world that is supposed to be perceived as better than the outside reality. This world is safe, clean, warm, entertaining and attractive, which fits with a depolitized population that is more attached to standards of comfort than some abstract principles of freedom.
The main characteristic of capitalist design is to leave nothing to chance. Indeed chance provokes uncertainty and uncertainty provides an illegibility that can be unproductive for Capitalism. Supermarket products are placed on their shelves according to various consumers surveys and marketing studies; malls are designed in such a way that in order to reach the place their consumers intended to visit, they would have to see the integrality of the shops in passing; hyper-visibility discourages homeless people, kids and political activists to use privatized public spaces. Legibility is the ability of Capitalism to transform space into an object, both marketable and controllable.
The interesting thing about such precision in the design is that one can diametrically invert this process in order to reach illegibility and therefore compose a resistive architecture.