foundation_louis_vuitton_indiaartndesign-2

Slum Porn

It might not be true that all architects do is add value to property but, as a yardstick for judging real world results, it’s never done me wrong. In the unreal world of the very rich, it’s all about the amount of money spent on creating something of no actual value other than an as indicator of the amount of money spent to create it. This is often confused with beauty.

faberge-egg-easter-russiaAnd so with architecture. Frank Gehry’s in our faces again. First for being in Spain getting pissed off at a journalist asking if his architecture is about spectacle.

frankgehryfinger

I think that’s a “yes”. The week before had seen the media unveiling of his new building thingy for the Louis Vuitton guy, Bernard Arnault Net Worth US$35.3 billion. A building shaped, ostensibly, like a cloud. It’s been a while since the world’s had a cloud-shaped building. It’s not really a cloud of course. Or anything like one to tell the truth. It just passes for one in the world of architecture because clouds are “natural”, “freeform” and a bit white sometimes. They also have no obvious relationship with the ground.

d664a33e7710a41ecdb4d4a3c8652d6c

But you gotta hand it to Gehry. He’s a crafty old dog good at his game which is extracting money from people with too much of it. He’s also skilled at spotting an opportunity to throw that money at a building that will never be a prototype for anything useful. This building sees the conceptual removal of floors. Sweet. This animated gif neatly shows the difference between functional space and architectural space although the  purpose of much of the functional space is no doubt to provide vantage points from which to admire the architectural space.

 foundation_louis_vuitton_indiaartndesign-2

It has to be so, otherwise the architectural money space is wasted – at least on the inside.

tumblr_mzr51p4g6d1qhymn9o4_500

I fully understand what Khrushchev was getting at when he said “We are not against beauty, we are against useless things.”

If you’re not as rich as Bernard Arnault, you can still show people you have a lot of money to spend on somewhere to live – as many times and in as many places as you want or need to be.

russia house

Some people have houses built just to spend summer weekends in.

But the rest can perhaps only ever afford one house or an apartment in which to live.

PIC_40-W-57-14

For those people, their property is probably the largest investment they will ever make but they still think of it as their home and not as an investment vehicle. It’s quite common for people these days to purchase a property as a buy-to-let investment. The end effect of this is to return the UK to a feudal system of landlords and tenants – except this time around it’s tenants who are being farmed.

batterseapowerstation_movie4

It makes the old system where people with a bit of spare cash would buy a second house to use as a vacation or holiday house rather quaint even if they did make a bit of money renting it out to other people when they weren’t using it.

Commodification of supplementary housing on the leisure market takes many forms. With time-share, many-unrelated investors purchase a share of a vacation house and occupy it for negotiated periods of time. An entire industry evolved to build, market and manage such properties.

headers

All these investments still require a significant amount of capital. Another way of staying  someplace you don’t normally live is to stay in a hotel. Hotels are good. They do the same things they always did. They typically have a view, food, bedlinen and hot water better than you’re probably used to.

7492_ho_05_p_1024x768

In times gone, some people used to just live in hotels. London’s Savoy Hotel opened in 1889 and had the world’s first serviced apartments. Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous actress the world had ever known, promptly moved in.

sarah-bernhardt-painting-by-georges-clairin-sarah-bernhardt-fine-art-prints-and-posters-for-sale-1368018137_org

The problem with hotels is that they’re usually too expensive to be viable as long-term accommodation or, for most, even as short-term accommodation. There are hotels for all budgets but small-scale hotels known as a B&B’s (for bed and breakfast) are popular with budget-conscious travellers and, depending on the location, with vacationers. These are typically people’s houses run as a business. The owner lives there and may even do all the cleaning and cooking. Here’s a particularly nice one if ever you’re in Hertford, Hertfordshire, UK.

Untitled

With B&B’s, the occupants of the house are running most of the rooms of their house as a hotel and, as with all hotels, the boundaries between owner and guest are clear. It is not a home. It is the commodification of residential space.

Untitled

Airbnb further blurs those boundaries. In the October 2014 Architectural Review, Luis Ortega Govela notes that

in five years, Airbnb has re-purposed an unprecedented amount of architecture around the world. What used to be the fortress of the family and the individual is now a marketable asset.

The principle already existed in post-war times in many countries when many people took in paying lodgers to monetise a room they might for some reason have spare. It worked well for people looking in other locations for both short or longer-term work. These people were, in a sense, part of the family. Taking in lodgers is a pre-internet example of commodification of the domestic space. Owner/guest boundaries blurred.

cloudstreet3

The difference is that the internet speeds up and intensifies the process of joining up people wanting to monetise their space with people wanting to pay less for a place to stay. There’s nothing wrong with that. Municipalities worldwide though are miffed at money moving without them taking a cut. Ditto governments.

Airbnb is morphing quickly. People are buying properties in order to rent them via Airbnb and furnishing them with the trappings of attractiveness and authenticity. It’s a fairly conventional relationship between landlord and tenant/guest if the former doesn’t live there. But what if they do? If there are now chatboards sharing advice on how to make one’s living room look more authentic, then what about one’s personality? The commodification of domestic space is nothing compared to the commodification of all those things that make us who we are. In order to make a few extra $$$, will an owner avoid certain topics of conversation, perhaps dress a tad more bohemian than they really are, pretend to be more laidback than they really are, strategically pimp their bookshelves with ecelcticism, suddenly start leaving the olive oil on the kitchen counter if they didn’t already?

YOU BET THEY WILL!

In our working lives it’s not uncommon to tone it down a bit and adopt an appropriate persona, look and behaviour. When domestic space becomes a money earner, it’s reasonable to expect that the personalities we show others will adapt to suit. Home life, for what it’s worth, will be the same as work life. The domestic sphere becomes a stage-set for staging domesticity for financial gain. We are essentially selling our souls.

Once domestic space is commodified, there’s only personal space left to sell. Sharing one’s bed with paying strangers is probably where this trend is heading. Now there’s an idea! I wonder if anyone’s ever thought of it? As soon as the commodification of personal space becomes socially acceptable, the only space we’ll have left to be ourselves is in our dreams.

• • •

The August 2014 issue of Architecture Review carried an article calling for an end to the fetishisation of the architecture of the poor. I think they really mean the buildings poor people live in. In all their other writings, what poor people live in isn’t usually counted as architecture but suddenly it’s getting a look-in, or at least a look at. There’s money to be made from slum porn somewhere. Despite the talk, there’s little in the way of inquiry into why architecture students and architecture magazines find slum porn so fascinating. This is the cover of October’s Architectural Review.

slum porn cover

My guess is that the buildings the poor live in are the only examples of pure housing left in the world, the only buildings where housing is housing and not somebody’s investment vehicle. Looking at such buildings is the only time we can actually see structures truly function as places for people to live. All the frontmen, middlemen and endmen are absent. It’s a shame that many of those structures are unsafe, unsanitary and unhealthy but there is an honesty of purpose and dependency lacking in all other architecture. The people need the buildings in order to live with a degree of decency. The buildings need such people to give them a moral reason for existing.

This current interest in slum porn is a good thing. It means we haven’t completely lost the capacity to admire the symbiotic good that buildings and people can create, even if we can’t say it out loud. But instead of being architectural voyeurs, we should get a life and do it for ourselves.