Ownership is Dead


Buried sold sign
© Eleanor Chapman

 

Essay by architect Eleanor Chapman

 

It’s not fashionable, but I have to own up to a bit of a soft spot for the old model. Yes, I admit it. I quite like owning things. That brief, giddy rush of post-purchase endorphins gets me every time. Of course, it’s on its way out, I know. Ownership – at least in the conventional definition of the term – is dead. OK, so maybe fast forward a few years for the actual ‘death’ part, the burning to the ground and from the ashes rising the phoenix of the new paradigm or whatever your preferred metaphor might be. What we’re seeing right now is maybe just the beginning of the end and perhaps more akin to a death by a thousand cuts than a bang. So just to recap – that’s one inherently negative premise, projected into being at some as-yet-undetermined future date. Still with me? One more thing: the following is not an argument carefully constructed from historical events in the field rolling on to a neat and logical conclusion, but more a series of chaotic mind wanderings loosely drawn together under sub-headings, some in the form of word formulas inspired by the Occupy sign shown below (the significance of which will later be explained). [1]

Buried sold sign
© Eleanor Chapman

Ownership – A rather narrow definition

Once upon a time, ownership concerned a transaction, a purchase. Something (let’s say money) is exchanged for goods (let’s say a cow). Ownership changes hands; “congratulations, you now own a cow.”[2] And so the cycle of production and consumption rolls on. Simple. Australia, particularly Melbourne, the city I call home, continues to hold its inhabitants in thrall to the turning cogs of consumerism. Most things available to do and have cost money, and our lives are very much dominated by this exchange. Of course there are different ways to come to own something (a gift, an inheritance, trawling the local hard rubbish collection), but the story of most goods that come in and out of our lives is part of the conventional cycle, and somewhere along the way that usually means a purchase transaction. Mostly I find it’s an unconscious state of affairs; it’s usually only on returning after being away for a while, particularly after travels in the developing world, where it’s perhaps too easy to romanticize the abundance of informal economies and sense of community that are painfully absent that the local Costco tries, and fails miserably, to recreate, that I’m bewildered at the rediscovery of the amount of junk waiting for me in storage, and the machinery of production and consumption is exposed in all its hollowness. Soon enough, though, I seem to get re-acclimatized, or de-sensitized – and slide right back into the cycle and I suspect it’s something of a guilty relief when that feel-good hit at the counter kicks in again.

Ownership = Empowerment. Or does it?

I’ve never owned a building, or even a piece of land for that matter, but I imagine the purchase endorphins must really get going. Home ownership seems to inspire a fervor of almost religious proportions in my part of the world. The sense of desperation to ‘get in’ to the market calls to mind for me the disembodied voice exhorting the citizens of Blade Runner’s LA to depart for the new world or be left behind forever. In the marginally-less dystopian real world property market, brows furrow and shoulders hunch while feverishly scanning online real estate at inner-city cafes, and mortgage repayments are discussed in hushed tones at suburban barbecues.

Sold sign
© Eleanor Chapman

There’s a good reason for this of course, and it’s not confined to the thirty-something macchiato set. Groups such as The Landless Workers Movement in Brazil challenge the unequal distribution of wealth, acknowledge the marginal existence of those without access to property rights and fight to deliver them such rights. It’s just one among scores of others. Ownership of property has traditionally promised security, stability, comfort, some of it perhaps psychological, but in a real way it provides a foothold on the path to upward mobility – the cornerstone of capitalism. Historically, ownership in a conventional and somewhat narrow sense, i.e., the acquisition of goods, has been equated to empowerment.

More stuff ≠ Progress

Back to that sign. Change is afoot. We live in interesting times indeed. The consumerist drive that has long propelled much of the Western world forward has some cracks appearing in its skin. There are rumblings of support for the notion that exponential growth does not equate to progress, triggered by a groundswell of concern for the impending climatic disaster that looms somewhere not too far down the path of our current production and consumption trajectory, and more recently fueled by the failure of seemingly infallible systems in the wake of the ever-lengthening Global Financial Crisis. Home ownership (with a little help from the bank) has proven not to deliver the promised security after all – a painful lesson learnt in the burst of the housing bubble in the US. And while in Australia the market has not (yet) taken such a drastic plunge, house prices have climbed to levels that are absurdly out of step with earnings, pushing the dream of buying a house ever further out of reach for many. In this climate, the phenomenon of the upwardly mobile individual acquiring ever more material goods is giving way to a different attitude towards consumerism: one where sharing, bartering and renting are gaining ground as valid alternatives to outright ownership. As goes for any pop culture movement worth its salt, some snappy buzzwords are emerging to describe the shift: ‘Collaborative consumption’, ‘The Sharing Economy’, ‘Grassroots Capitalism’. While many of us might be motivated purely by belt-tightening to get on board, the impact is potentially much further reaching. The Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab (VEIL), a Melbourne-based research body with a stated mission ‘to identify and promote emerging technical and social innovations that could form part of future sustainable systems’ [3] (which has coined its own descriptor: ‘Distributed Systems’) notes that ‘the social networks and direct participation that distributed systems foster can create an enabling platform through which people gain new skills, share risks and build social cohesion. Each of these factors will be critical in creating communities that can adapt to impacts from climate change and resource scarcity’. [4] A key premise of VEIL’s research base is that existing centralized infrastructure is ill-equipped to cope with the crisis of imminent resource scarcity. In the distributed system model, instead of the machinery of production operating at a massive scale, smaller localized producers offer goods and services, with initiatives already in operation being as simple as guerrilla gardening (where public and private spaces are claimed to covertly grow food) and small photovoltaic panel systems supplying the mains grid. Interestingly, an alternative form of ownership emerges in this scenario: consumers themselves become participants in production systems rather than passive recipients. It’s ownership, but not as we know it.

Occupation = Empowerment

There’s something a little jarring about Time magazine naming ‘the protester’ as its 2011 person of the year. When counter-culture hits the mainstream, does that automatically make it a spent force? Or is the reverse true: does it in fact legitimize a cause, effectively opening the way for a real cultural shift? In any case, protest in public space was too big to ignore last year, and it played out in significant public arenas throughout the globe: the Arab Spring in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia; Los Indignados in Spain; the Occupy movement pretty much everywhere else in the Western world.

Time magazine
© Eleanor Chapman

While results have been mixed, and in some cases both the long-term consequences and the demands themselves are unclear, one of the most striking messages to emerge is the reclamation of mass public protest as a means of claiming power. The self-proclaimed ‘anti-consumerist’ Adbusters Media Foundation was a big part of the Occupy push. While the group’s hijacking of mass media as a tool for social activism has been attacked for at times becoming complicit in the very system it claims to challenge (imitation being one of the highest forms of flattery), the aim ‘to pioneer a new form of social activism using all the power of the mass media to sell ideas, rather than products’ [5] is a compelling one in the context of re-inventing our relationship with commodities. Adbusters has been around since 1989, and has always seen its practice of ‘culture-jamming,’ where ‘the goal is to interrupt the normal consumerist experience in order to reveal the underlying ideology of an advertisement, media message or consumer artifact…to challenge the large, influential corporations that control mainstream media and the flow of information’ [6] as a form of protest. But it’s the specific recent conditions, namely the combined environmental and economic crises, coupled with the freedom and immediacy of information sharing created by social networking technologies, that have brought this relatively faint voice of protest from the fringe into the mainstream. In the occupied public space, demands are made, voices are heard, and change looks possible.

There’s no room for reactivism in Architecture

Well, maybe there is right now. At least, it’s what most architects are used to doing every day. Much as architects might like to see themselves as innovators, invariably the reality of making architecture, much like the reality of a conventional purchase transaction, is about operating within fairly limited parameters. A client has a series of needs and a budget that becomes a brief, which is interpreted and a response produced. Ultimately, through a process of development and refinement, the concept becomes a reality (maybe) and a new thing is deposited in the built environment. It’s partly the product of an architect’s mind – or more than likely a number of minds and voices – but it’s also predetermined, to an extent, by some pretty non-negotiable factors. How many clients come to an office with intentions of building a shopping mall and end up with a homeless shelter? An architect’s lot is historically to be a re-activist. But in the fledgling economy of ‘collaborative consumption’, is it really viable to be reactionary? Applying this new model directly to the practice of architecture conjures a scenario where the end users of a project actively participate in its design process: just as the line between consumer and producer blurs, so too might that between designer and client, potentially resulting in a project that is a more direct translation of the needs and desires of users. The piece ‘An open manifesto for mass creation’ appeared in an earlier edition of MAS Context, where Lick Fai Erick Ho argues for the reinvention of the architect’s role in this context and posits humbler alternatives: research journalist, brief writer, facilitator, design partner. It’s an attractive notion to me. Personally, I think a sizable stick of humility is needed to take on the mountain of egos this industry has nurtured, but it’s a wobbly one, too. There’s a risk in eroding the agency of the architect – the particular skills that might actually help enable others – by assuming that all parties come to the table at the same level. And it’s a lack of clarity around the distinction between designer and user that is in danger of being annoyingly fuzzy and ultimately useless.

What can architecture take from the protest movement? The reclamation of public spaces as places for loud political expression and action is a reminder that politics and the built environment are stable-mates for better or worse. That should be a no-brainer, yet there are practitioners in the design of our cities and neighborhoods that maintain a steadfastly apolitical attitude. Fear of upsetting depended-on clients and an insistence that design operates somehow on an elevated cultural plane which transcends political engagement may be among the culprits. This seems an outdated (not to mention reactive) attitude and I’m not sure it is one architects can afford to maintain in the current climate. Interpreting a brief is not in itself a political act. The traditional practice of architecture is facing the demise of ownership on a weak footing, and part of the problem is that it is a pursuit premised on response rather than initiation. If architects want to get empowered, activism, not reaction, is called for.

A spade = A spade

Architecture has successfully set up shop inside its ivory tower, with heavy fortifications from both within and without. There’s a protective attitude of ‘specialness’ towards the title ‘architect’ (from within the industry) that I’d suggest is both disabling and ineffective. Disabling because the inherent snobbery that goes along with such defensiveness in the face of threats from inferior ‘building designers’ and worse DIY reality TV home renovators only serves to heighten the fictional opposition between the profession and an ‘ignorant’ public. It’s ineffective, because the term is already borrowed with frequency to describe both IT professionals and warmongers. And just as architectural discourses generally unfold in language not readily accessible to the ‘general public’ (that imaginary beast), similarly, the title ‘architect’ can be seen as guilty of obfuscating unnecessarily: sure, the wrapper is on display – commonly the bespoke beach villa with the infinity pool – but it’s not clear to everyone what’s inside the package. The problem to me is twofold: 1) an anxiety inside the industry about the feared erosion of the title and its associated professional status; and 2) the failure of this role to have established itself in the public eye as delivering a necessary community service. Both combine to distance the architect from the kind of grassroots ‘design activism’ that could be the key to architecture’s role in the new post-ownership (post-capitalism?) paradigm. Architecture is fundamentally a service industry as well as a cultural and aesthetic discipline, yet these services are not viewed in the same vein as lawyers, doctors, or even hairdressers (as Guy Horton wryly points out in his recent Archinect feature ‘The Divisions that Bind Us’). In the current climate, this is a seriously disempowering condition. In Australia at least, it’s too easy to lament the general lack of appreciation for design of the built environment. It’s also charged with an inherent arrogance. But most of all, it’s just not helpful. My mind boggles at the thought of the massive education program that might be imagined in order to get that ‘public’ up to speed on the ins and outs of spatial qualities. As Horton notes, ‘If one has to go through the rigors of architecture school in order to “understand” the importance of architecture, then we are faced with a significant problem’. [7] So how then might the status quo be transformed? The alternative hats for the architect mentioned earlier are all valid. But is it possible the title itself, that some architects might imagine already encompasses these things and more, is essentially getting in the way of doing them? Why not call a spade a spade? Or in the words of Markus Miessen, ‘Not to be seen as an architect is often one of the most successful ways of getting things done’. [8]

Derailment = Empowerment

What I’m proposing finally is essentially a ‘détournement’: an about-face, a subversion, but most interestingly a derailment, although it’s perhaps a willful misinterpretation of the word, to return to the culture-jammers (and their predecessors the Situationists, although I suspect that by doing so I might be perpetuating the problem of the insular architectural discourse and taking a punt that the modern-day Situationists, the culture-jammers, have firmly entrenched themselves in mainstream counter-culture by now). A radical act is called for, rather than a few quirkily devised subversive in-jokes or even a gradual transformation. We are seeing the conventional notion of ownership disintegrating, and that empowerment is being sought and gained through user-participation in systems that have historically positioned active providers and passive receivers in opposition to one another. We’re seeing political engagement in public spaces gaining legitimacy as a means of effecting change. Accepting that the role of the architect needs reinventing too, why not go one step further and derail it? Abandon it entirely? If architects want to trespass over disciplinary boundaries, to indeed be research journalists, facilitators, design partners, they just might be better off doing it by throwing off the shackles of a label that is becoming something of a hindrance. There are surely buzzwords out there waiting to be claimed – socio-tect, anyone? Co-designer? Design collaborator? My advice is to grab your banner and ditch the black-rimmed glasses. Go incognito = get empowered.
 

Notes

1. Alright, you’ve been warned, no responsibility will be accepted for any offence, confusion, or thought of any other kind whatsoever that might be provoked from this point forward.

2. Unless you foolishly squandered your pennies for some magic beans at the market that day, in which case you can expect a hiding from Mother when you get home.

3. Extract from http://www.ecoinnovationlab.com/about-veil

4. C. Biggs, C. Ryan, J. Wiseman, ‘Localised Solutions: Building capacity and resilience with distributed production systems’, Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab, 2010, p.7

5. Jim Motavalli, April 30, 1996, “Cultural Jammin'”. E – The Environmental Magazine 7 (3): 41

6. Extract from ‘History’, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adbusters

7. G. Horton, ‘Contours: The Divisions that Bind Us’, Archinect http://archinect.com/features/article/34746431/contours-the-divisions-that-bind-us

8. M. Miessen, ‘Spatial Practices in the Margin of Opportunity’, Did Someone Say Participate?, MIT Press, 2006, p. 289

 

Eleanor Chapman is an architect and president of Architects for Peace, a non-profit organization with an international reach, advocating the pursuit of social justice in the built environment profession and facilitating pro bono design projects.
www.architectsforpeace.org

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