Reinier de Graaf on the ideals of Modern architecture
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Park Hil, Sheffield

"The same architecture that once embodied social mobility now helps to prevent it"

Opinion: the ideals of Modernism can't survive the pressures of a voracious market that views buildings purely as capital, says Reinier de Graaf.


How modern is Modern architecture? Modernism had a rational program: to share the blessings of science and technology, universally. Recent decades, however, have shown that Modern architecture can just as easily be deployed to work against its original ideology. No longer is the "economy of means" a way to provide buildings efficiently for the largest number of people, but rather a way to reduce cost and maximise profits.

After the conservative revolution of the 1980s, the built environment and particularly housing acquired a fundamentally different role. From a means to provide shelter, it has become a means to generate financial return.

A building is no longer something to use, but to own – with the hope of increased asset-value, rather than use-value, over time. Buildings become part of an economic exchange cycle: conceived for the lowest possible cost, traded for the highest possible sum.

In this context, Modern architecture's original mission – an affordable living standard for all – largely proves counterproductive. From here on, Modern architecture can only survive when stripped of its ideological dimension: only once it relinquishes its emancipatory pretentions, can its "aesthetics of reduction" be used to the full advantage of the economic system.

Under the imperatives of the market economy (maximising profit), the contemporary home must be cheap to build, but should never be cheap to buy. Modernism evolves into a "style", because, as in the fashion industry, it is above all the idea of "style" that suspends – almost like a state of hypnosis – any awareness of a relationship between production cost and selling price.

This development affects both rich and poor. With sale values spiralling ever further out of control, a building's quality is no longer evaluated in terms of the day-to-day experience of space, but exclusively in its potential profit once sold. Even the notion of real physical luxury is superseded by a value on paper.

Architecture is worth whatever others are willing to pay for it. Unless major technical flaws come to light, the material or technical quality of a building barely plays a role. As long as the hype continues, the "investment" is safe.

A small anecdote: this year, in one of the wealthier boroughs of central London, a high-end residential project will be completed. The project consists of some 50 luxury apartments. The obligation to realise a percentage of the apartments as affordable homes – a legal requirement according to London planning policies – has been met by offering an alternative site in a somewhat poorer neighbourhood, some distance from the development itself.

The project is targeted at the expatriate market, broadly known to settle purchases in cash, without loans from the bank. Sales go quicker that way. The cheapest apartment in the project costs about £10 million. The price of the most expensive apartment remains privileged information between the buyer and the developer and is covered by a confidentiality agreement.

The sales brochure speaks of "outstanding modern architecture in a green setting." For quite a few of the prospective residents (rich Russians, perhaps) the idea of Modern architecture in the green will invoke memories of a political system whose collapse funded their personal fortunes.

The architects are rumoured to have considered weather-resistant cardboard as a facade material, offering the supreme irony of having some of the world's richest people pay record prices for a cardboard box. The client, an old hand in the development business, has remained unfazed by this and has allowed the project to proceed, albeit on the condition that there is a "slight change" in facade material.

Despite its "aesthetics of poverty", the building is substantially over budget. By coincidence, the cost consultant released a report (urging major cost cuts) on the same day that the estate agents released their list of buyers: incidentally, an interesting collection of uber-wealthy Americans (many with Dutch surnames), Russian oligarch-billionaires and Arab oil sheiks.

Their combined fortunes represent about twice the size of the British economy. The "poorest" of the prospective buyers is worth about 50 times the project's construction budget. To ensure that the finances will "add up", the cost of the project has subsequently been cut by about 40 per cent.

This anecdote, despite some of its tragi-comical notions, is symptomatic of overheated residential markets like central London's, where even record prices paid by astronomically rich residents do not prevent the downward pressure on construction. Ultimately, even the happy few get short-changed.

It is not just new property that falls victim to this system. The recent fire-sale of council property in central London boroughs is indicative of the same process. After the first generation of tenants is offered to purchase their rental apartments at subsidised rates, the next round of sales quickly conforms to market rates, generally making the apartments unaffordable for the income groups for whom they were originally intended.

Where previously inner-city Modernist projects were primarily reserved for low and middle incomes, we now see the opposite trend, where they are increasingly the domain of the rich. The Erno Goldfinger-designed Trellick Tower, a 31- storey building with 217 flats in North Kensington, built in 1972 and very familiar to architects, long had a reputation for anti-social behaviour and crime.

Many of the flats were bought by tenants following the introduction of the "right to buy” council homes in the mid 1980s. A new residents' association was formed and several security improvements were introduced, including the employment of a concierge.

After the building's Grade II* listing in 1998, property prices rose sharply and flats in the tower came to be regarded as highly desirable residences. Despite serious technical problems within the building, properties in the tower have sold for between £250,000 for a small one-bedroom flat to £480,000 for a fully refurbished three-bedroom flat. The maximum obtainable mortgage on an average annual gross income of £32,188 in the UK in 2014 was £152,000.

Central London is not the only place affected by this phenomenon. The Park Hill Estate, in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, a council estate built in 1957, went into decay in the 1970s. In 1998 the complex was Grade II* listed, following which English Heritage – in collaboration with a private developer – launched a renovation scheme to turn the flats into upmarket apartments and business units. The renovation was one of the six shortlisted projects for the 2013 RIBA Stirling Prize.

According to Sheffield's own website, the city has "the lowest annual average salary of the UK's core cities" at around £24,000, allowing a maximum mortgage of around £115,000.

Outside of the UK, the original units of Le Corbusier's Unité d'Habitation – one of the great Modernist apartment buildings – are currently being sold for: €151,000 for a 31-square-metre studio, €350,000 for a three bedroom flat and €418,000 for a four bedroom flat. The average annual wage in France is €30,300, allowing a maximum mortgage just shy of €120,000.

Modern architecture's social mission – the effort to establish a decent standard of living for all – seems a thing of the past. The Existenzminimum, the establishment of a universally acceptable minimum standard of living in the 20th century, seems to have become a privileged condition in the 21st.

Architecture is, perhaps now more than ever, a tool of capital, complicit in a purpose antithetical to its erstwhile ideological endeavour. Fifteen years into the new millennium, it is as though the previous century never happened. Trellick Tower, Park Hill, l'Unité d'Habitation... the same architecture that once embodied social mobility in béton brut, now helps to prevent it.


Reinier de Graaf is a partner of Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) where he directs the work of AMO, the research and design studio established as a counterpart to OMA's architectural practice.