[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-Urban]: Calvo Salve on Arantes, 'The Rent of Form: Architecture and Labor in the Digital Age'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Wed Feb 19 13:30:35 MST 2020

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> From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
> Date: February 19, 2020 at 8:53:59 AM EST
> To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>
> Subject: H-Net Review [H-Urban]:  Calvo Salve on Arantes, 'The Rent of Form: Architecture and Labor in the Digital Age'
> Reply-To: h-review at lists.h-net.org
> Pedro Fiori Arantes.  The Rent of Form: Architecture and Labor in the 
> Digital Age.  Translated by Adriana Kauffmann. Buell Center Books in 
> the History and Theory of American Architecture Series. Minneapolis  
> University of Minnesota Press, 2019.  312 pp.  $30.00 (paper), ISBN 
> 978-0-8166-9929-2; $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8166-9928-5.
> Reviewed by Miguel Calvo Salve (Marywood University)
> Published on H-Urban (February, 2020)
> Commissioned by Alexander Vari
> The book under review is a translation and revision of the original 
> _Arquitetura na Era Digital-Financeira: Desenho, Canteiro e Renda da 
> Forma_, written by Pedro Fiori Arantes in Portuguese and published in 
> 2010 by the press of the Universidad de Sao Paulo, Brazil. The 
> original book is an adaptation of Arantes's PhD dissertation of the 
> same title completed in 2010 at the Universidad de Sao Paulo. The 
> reworked English translation brings the publication up to date as a 
> timely book, although most of the projects mentioned in it already 
> have been in existence more than ten years. Yet the topic is still 
> current in the field of architecture since the commoditization of 
> images of architecture has continued to proliferate. The elitism and 
> monopoly of the so-called star-architects in the discipline have also 
> increased, with the search for the "wow effect" masquerading as 
> architectural innovation. This approach to building design is already 
> dominant in many schools of architecture, and students fascinated 
> with digital technologies and fabrication through 3D printers, 
> robots, and so on are falling for a simplistic vision of architecture 
> as cool images and icons. 
> The book, before addressing the digitalization of design as part of a 
> series of factors that are currently affecting the discipline of 
> architecture, astutely presents in its first chapter the background 
> that helped it to come into being and sets the ground, first with the 
> proliferation of highly prepared and professional images of 
> architecture, a development that is not new at all. In the expansion 
> of the mid-twentieth-century modernist movement, more had been done 
> by the vision of photographers than by architecture critics with 
> their lectures and speeches on what modernism meant. As Helio Piñón 
> has pointed out, we cannot separate Richard Neutra's architecture 
> from Julius Schulman's photographs, or Marcel Breuer's architecture 
> from Erza Stöller's photographs.[1] Chapter 1 continues with what is 
> called "the Bilbao effect," in other words, the cascading effects of 
> Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in the city of Bilbao, Spain, and the 
> ways its success made many local governments since then approve 
> strategic plans of urban revitalization and redevelopment or strive 
> to create a tourist attraction by implementing and introducing iconic 
> projects, frequently commissioned to star-architects. This effect led 
> to the concept of the "Architecture of Brands," a process that 
> started mainly in the third quarter of the twentieth century. 
> According to Robert Adam (_The Globalization of Modern Architecture_: 
> _The Impact of Politics, Economics and Social Change on Architecture 
> and Urban Design since 1990_ [2012]), by that time the structure of 
> architectural practice followed the same pattern as any other 
> business organization. The Architecture of Brands is built on the 
> belief that such iconic architecture must be instantly recognized, 
> marketed, and promoted in the media as a commodity, moving architects 
> and architecture firms toward the capitalism and monopoly of brands. 
> It is not new that throughout history many architects were connected 
> with the power of financial oligarchies and upper-class society. When 
> critiquing US architecture at the end of the twentieth century in 
> _Power and Style: A Critique of Twentieth-Century Architecture in the 
> United States_ (1996), Robert Twombly already noticed how some of the 
> most famous architects in the US, like Mies van der Rohe and I. M. 
> Pei, have always designed buildings for the upper-income class and 
> big corporations and were hired by the elite private sector without 
> ever designing any type of social housing. Reading Arantes's book, we 
> must not forget that it is also true that architecture was and still 
> is an important part of the development of social housing, high 
> quality urban spaces, and cultural neighborhood centers and has 
> promoted important improvements in the quality of peoples' lives, as 
> well as that, in addition to "starchitecture," there is a popular 
> architecture that Bernard Rudofsky in 1964 called "architecture 
> without architects" (_Architecture without Architects: An 
> Introduction to Non-pedigreed Architecture _[1964]). 
> Arantes's second chapter addresses the "digital-turn" in 
> architectural production, taking as an example Gehry's office that in 
> 1989 only had two computers, not used for design, and, since then, 
> the office has immersed itself in the most advanced technology 
> development ending in the creation of Gehry Technology, to develop 
> his innovative architecture. It is not completely true, however, that 
> without computers many of the iconic architectural buildings that we 
> see nowadays cannot have been designed or built. Although by 1965 at 
> the time Italian engineer Pier Luigi Nervi wrote his book on 
> aesthetics and technology in modern buildings (_Aesthetics and 
> Technology in Buildings_ [1965]), it would have been possible to 
> calculate the structures by using electronic computers, Nervi 
> actually built the Orvieto Hangars in 1935 among others without 
> access to computers just by testing the structural system and shapes 
> using scaled models. The so-called BIM (Building Information 
> Modeling) used today is a 3D-design and model-based process used in 
> architecture, engineering, and construction for a more connected 
> multidisciplinary and efficient work, that, as Leslie Sklair has 
> pointed out (_The Icon Project: Architecture, Cities and Capitalist 
> Globalization_ [2017]), has been promoted by governments and 
> corporations in order to speed up construction processes. 
> Arantes continues his second chapter with an extensive and nostalgic 
> take on how the work of architects changed as a result of the 
> introduction of the computer and digital design software in 
> architects' offices, and insists, in line with the general topic of 
> the book, that this transition also serves big corporations; this is 
> also recognized by the socialist critic Owen Hatherley in his book 
> _Militant Modernism_ (2008). He argues that the beginning of the 
> twenty-first century has seen an emerging new step in the development 
> of architectural modernism, which changed its goals from its 
> reformist mid-European origins to serve corporate business. This new 
> architecture, what Hans Ibelings calls "Supermodernism"_ 
> _(_Supermodernism: Architecture in the Age of Globalization_ [1998]), 
> produced since the end of the twentieth century more and more 
> buildings whose sole intention is to dominate the city skyline, by 
> creating the highest skyscraper, innovative shapes, or bolder 
> cantilevered volume lacking any involvement with their context. 
> Chapter 3, probably the most innovative of the book, addresses the 
> effect of this new architecture on construction sites from the 
> perspective of labor at the moment those buildings are being built. 
> This topic has been addressed before by the author. His 2002 book, 
> _Arquitetura Nova: Sergio Ferro, Flavio Imperio e Rodrigro Lefevre, 
> de Artigas aos Mutiroes_, clearly defines Arantes's vision of 
> architecture in respect to labor, construction, and its social, 
> political, and economic implications. Based on Sergio Ferro's Marxist 
> ideals formulated in his book _O Canteiro e o Desenho_ (1979), 
> Arantes elaborates in this third part, with some sort of nostalgia 
> for the artisanal work of the past, on the transformations in 
> construction sites of the social relations of production due to 
> automation, new workers' attributions, workers' rights, and the 
> presence of migrants, as well as the presence of an "army of 
> subcontractors" to reduce costs and dilute investors' 
> responsibilities (p. 168). Another important point that Arantes 
> touches on at the end of the chapter is that many iconic architects 
> pay less attention than ever to the working conditions on 
> construction sites. In 2014, _The Guardian_ revealed hundreds of 
> migrant workers' deaths at the construction of Zaha Hadid's 2020 
> World Cup Stadium in Qatar, to which the architect responded "I have 
> nothing to do with the workers."[2] 
> Arantes elaborates in this book a pointed and unequivocal critique of 
> the digitally generated architecture that is being nurtured by the 
> architecture of "spectacle," the rise of the media, and the branding 
> efforts and derivative financial profit of investors, due to which 
> architecture is seen as a commodity and is used by oligarchies to 
> deprive it of its inherent social and environmental "responsibility." 
> He also makes clear how global firms of architecture and iconic 
> architects act as elites and financial corporations in their 
> architectural production. Nonetheless, Arantes concludes his book 
> with hope, pointing out that there is clear evidence that "the agenda 
> of sustainable architecture had emerged strongly" proven, among 
> others, by the fact that the 2016 Pritzker Prize in Architecture was 
> awarded to the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, an architect 
> committed to serving greater social and humanitarian needs in his 
> work (p. 211). 
> Notes 
> [1]. Helio Piñón, "Volver a ver la Arquitectura Moderna," in 
> _Colombia Arquitectura Moderna_, by Maria Pía Fontana and Miguel Y. 
> Mayorga Cárdenas (Barcelona: ETSAB, 2004), 18. 
> [2]. "Zaha Hadid Defends Qatar World Cup Role Following Migrant 
> Worker Deaths," _The Guardian_, February 25, 2014, 
> https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/25/zaha-hadid-qatar-world-cup-migrant-worker-deaths. 
> Citation: Miguel Calvo Salve. Review of Arantes, Pedro Fiori, _The 
> Rent of Form: Architecture and Labor in the Digital Age_. H-Urban, 
> H-Net Reviews. February, 2020.
> URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54614
> This work is licensed under a Creative Commons 
> Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States 
> License.

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