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The Will of the Epoch (1/2)

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Large buildings don’t build themselves. They’re always going to be the product of some well thought-out and scaled-up system of production. The field of project management exists to comprehend and control this system to deliver the required result at the appropriate level of quality, the required budget and the required time. I used to begin my introductory lecture for an undergraduate project management course by talking about The Pyramids. I wasn’t concerned whether the workers who built them were slaves or wage slaves but drew attention to the use of manpower as an energy source when much heavy stuff had to be moved around and positioned. People have speculated on arrangements of rollers, levers, ramps, pulleys and other simple machines that might have been used but the only available form of energy to power all these machines was muscle power. The diet of the workers therefore had to include a minimum amount of protein in order to ensure a continual source of that power. Carbs alone won’t cut it.

It 2010 it was reported that, working in three-month shifts, 10,000 workers would have taken 30 years to build a single pyramid, It was also reported that 21 cattle and 21 sheep from nearby farms were consumed per day. Now, if a typical beef steer is 600kg and about 42% is converted into edible meat, that gives 252 kg per animal. 21 steer would provide 5,292,000 grams of meat which (at 25% protein) yield 132,000 grams of protein. Assuming a sheep weight of 150 kg and the same conversion factors yields a further 330,750 grams of protein, giving a total of 413,438 grams for 10,000 workers. The recommended daily protein intake for an active adult male is 56 grams so that amount of protein is sufficient for 7,383 workers daily, or 75%, if three out of four shifts were active at any one time. 21 cattle and 21 sheep per day made pyramids do-able.

Windmills and waterwheels were more sophisticated arrangments of simple machines powered by renewable energy sources. Immobile by their very nature, they were first used to mill grain and reduce the dependency upon human and animal labour that was high-maintenance, needed rest and insisted upon reward. The construction of buildings remained dependent upon human labour but the invention of concrete and the later Roman invention of re-useable formwork enabled the amount of labour and resources to be significantly reduced. The later Mediaeval invention of vaulting without formwork was a significant innovation in terms of time, labour and resources but the downside was that these more ambitious buildings meant a higher dependency upon skilled as well as unskilled labour and for extended periods of time. (In France’s northern Burgundy, some people are building a mediaeval castle using only materials and technologies available at the time. [There’s a press pack.])

External combustion engines powered yet more complex machinery and could do so without stopping as long as there was fuel to power them. Products such as cloth no longer had to be woven by hand. During the 19th century it became possible to use mechanised looms to manufacture consumer items such carpets. Machines couldn’t do everything. A huge army of workers was still required to operate the machinery and convert their output into the input of later production stages. Rather than being called an energy source as such, these people were called a labour force or, simply, workers and their housing was provided by the owners of the factory or mill.

One of the things the new factories could do was form cast iron into building elements such as columns and beams formerly fashioned from timber by hand and, from the 1880s, it was possible to make structural beams out of steel as part of a system of continuous and increasingly efficient system of production. Much of this steel went into the construction of new building types such as high-rise office buildings and department stores, thus creating a new architecture suited to the needs of commerce as the primary driver of the economy. The on-site assembly of these many factory-made building components still required a small army of on-site labour that worked for more than 56 grams of protein per day.

So far, the clients for architecture had all been the big industrial and commercial players driving the economy. The industrial revolution didn’t result in factories suddenly becoming objects of architecture but it did result in some very large houses for industrialists. Factories still needed workers to man them and, for a while in the early twentieth century, worker housing was provided by employees. Next is a 1919 photograph of houses provided in Dearborn Michigan for employees of the Ford Factory and given as evidence of Henry Ford’s belief that tenements were unhealthy and immoral – at least for executives, judging by the Model T’s parked in the street. The photograph on the right shows some of Ford’s non-executives in 1914.

In the early 1920s architects didn’t know which way to turn. There had been few aristocracies and rich industrialists to begin with and wealthy retailers and businesses weren’t being created fast enough. However, factories were proliferating very quickly and housing their workers was crucial. For a short while, worker housing for factory owners looked like being the next big architectural market and architects and builders soon learned to design and construct housing quickly and efficiently. Some architects, such as Le Corbusier, hedged their bets and proposed their designs as either artist housing or worker housing.

But artists weren’t the ones powering the new economy and workers were housed in buildings with walls created out of lower quality materials made good with render, excess building volume of pitched roofs trimmed, and costly decoration shunned. Thus, a new way of building was born from the need to keep the factories running. This was neither exploitation nor altruism. The basic business contract is that people use each other for mutual benefit. Some architects pursued maximum industrialisation of the construction process and this is often understood as a desire to provide housing at lower purchase cost for the occupants rather than a lower capital expenditure for the providers. On a larger scale, it would also have the effect of freeing-up part of the labour force to produce things other than buildings.

Standarization of dimensions and components is a precursor to factory manufacture and, had Ernst Neufert’s 1943 House Building Machine ever been realised, it would have almost completely eliminated the need for human labour. [more here] William Jaird Levitt would have approved.

Here’s a little background information on Levitt & Sons. Their “innovations” were to promote assembly line production, freeze out union labour, use the latest construction technologies and shorten the supply chain. Mass production lowered costs and those savings were passed on to the buyers but having the other beneficial side effect of further reducing the market share of those less “competitive”.

It’s taught that good architecture is a product of its place and time and, even now, we are expected to applaud new applications of new products in the building industry as expressions of this. Good architecture is supposed to be innovative and groundbreaking, to push materials and technologies further and to do more to tell us that the next change will be even better yet. These next images are not specifically architectural but they do indicate that living will involve at least six electrical appliances in just the kitchen. The image on the right is volume housebuilder William Levitt’s endorsement of a more compact kitchen.

The post-war years were the era of office buildings, hotels and airports spreading (largely American) commerce around the world, and also of apartment buildings to house the people manning those offices. Apartment design was still a topic of mainstream architecture, even if those apartments had become receptacles for labour-saving devices of all kinds. For a while there was a balance between the needs of the economy and the needs and satisfaction of the people that made it function as a society and architects responded accordingly. As a system, it hung together better and for longer in the European social democracies.

In the mid-sixties it is as if the world suddenly decided the post-war period over, and along with it the role of the worker as producer and a person who needed to be housed. Almost overnight, the worth of populations changed from being producers of goods and services, to being consumers to be exploited, paying for goods at first, and then entertainment. The shift from Modernism to Post-Modernism marks this shift. In this next image we have the aspiration signalling of a Julius Schulmann being used to sell the appliances of General Electric and the architecture of the Case Study Houses being used to sell the products of the steel industry.

The main thrust of Architecture at any given time is to satisfy the dominant force driving the economy.
–1850: Landowners

1750–1850: Landowners and industrialists
1850–1915: Retailers and businesses

1915–1925: Industry (with worker housing integral)
1945–1965: Commerce
Circa 1965: Higher degrees of mechanisation and automation produced goods faster than people could purchase them. Economies worldwide shifted from being producers to consumers of goods and, later, services. Housing, even for the general population, ceased being a concern of architecture.

Up until 1965, Mies van der Rohe might have been loosely correct in saying Architecture is the will of the epoch, translated into space (if one ignores changes in whom that space served), but not after.

The history of architecture is usually taught as a forward-looking succession of styles, each “taking advantage of” new technologies and “responding” positively to social changes, thus masking the underlying consistency of the meta-history of architecture.

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This post will continue in Will of the Epoch (1965~ )