Editorial Volume #30: Volume for Sale

It’s only been seven years now, since Volume started its quest of how ‘to go beyond architecture’. In this time where optimism, nearing indifference, was still the rule, and record after record was being broken, it seemed inescapable to rethink architecture’s contribution to society. And to check anew what society would need of architecture.

In the 1970s and 1980s, disappointment in modernism’s results produced postmodernism. More specifically, postmodernism targeted modernism’s inability to transform its program of rigorous equality to more individualized ways of working (despite brave, but all too fragmented attempts to do so). Modernism was born from industrial society and – using its methods of production – promised a better world for all. Postmodernism was born from consumer society and promised a better product for those who could afford it; the assumption being that society had reached a level of affluence in which everyone was able to purchase at will.

This shift from program to product came about during a period where the dominance of the market as the sole economic principle was paramount. The American model of creating ever more to satisfy everyone’s needs, irrespective of the distribution of goods and services between members of society had won over the European model of keeping everyone ‘on board’ first and then moving to higher levels of quality and affluence in society.* Solidarity had to give way to maximizing profitability; the ‘every individual contributes to his or her capabilities’ principle was replaced with a Darwinist competition model.

Like it or not, we’re seeing the end of that development, though at present the picture is still a bit blurred.
During the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, ‘the market’ was the path to a golden future and privatization was the way to go. There were some examples showing that privatization didn’t necessarily lead to cheaper, better products and services; but this didn’t change the general appreciation of the principle. Over the last five years of consecutive financial crises, the assumed superiority of neoliberal ideology has been questioned and debated more fundamentally. But it hasn’t ended privatization; for now it is still called upon as strategy to save what we have. The immense debts that were incurred from the festive consumerism-for-all from previous years necessitated a recalibration of private and public spending, with budget cuts and privatization as default prescriptions to cure the disease. Earlier, privatization was sold to the public as liberty and free choice, as the better option; today it is presented as a potentially painful but inescapable reality.

Up to this point, privatization is understood as the transfer of public services to the private sector. Instead of a local, regional, or national authority, a private company provides or produces the service or product. Low-income housing (formerly known as social housing), public transport, health care, higher education, and all sorts of social arrangements are being left or transferred to the market. But today privatization has yet another dimension. Now larger institutional and public investment has practically come to a standstill – especially the building sector, which is confronted with a thirty to fifty percent reduction in investments in Europe – and private initiative has to come to the rescue. Small-scale and bottom-up initiatives have to compensate the loss. By themselves or in small groups or entities, people can build their own home and workspace, can supply their own energy and security, set up their own schools, etc. The limits that governments, developers, and investors are running up against, because they cannot get a hold of funds or cannot sell their products, can be compensated by an accumulation of individual small-scale investments. Crowd funding for cultural products is yet another expression of this trend.

It is challenging to consider what frameworks are needed to make this work on a larger scale. Can the adding up of individual plots and houses produce more than a sea of differences, a monotonous diversity? Can mixed neighborhoods come into being without top-down planning and urban design? Or slightly more radical, can parts of the infrastructure (maintenance and maybe even construction) be left to bottom-up initiative? This produces the fascinating prospect of collective or communal interests being addressed by the stakeholders themselves; a bottom-up socialism, or at least local communality as a basis for action.

All of a sudden the unstoppable trend towards large-scale and global is complemented by small-scale and local. A new balance between local and global has to emerge from all of this with a new role for the government to guard communal and collective interests of the individual and the larger entities that together form the organism of our society. And it will come with a new role for design and the designer. Less focused on authorship, more on making things happen.

In this issue of Volume we’ve privatized parts of the magazine, taking a page from the rest of the publishing world. In black we present ‘Volume’ contributions (not necessarily produced by the editorial team), in red ‘private’ ones, presenting a personal take or position. The latter are often as much ideas as advertisements or advertorials for an activity, product, or firm. It’s to the reader to judge if the outcome is more than the sum of the individual parts.

* See the Timothy Mitchell interview in Volume #30.

Fantasy Maps