The architecture of austerity

Alan Clawley ponders on local government double standards.

We are constantly being told by the government that we live in an era of austerity, yet when I see public and private money being spent on the useless decoration of buildings I wonder. Decoration is not needed for buildings to function, yet their owners demand that their architects wrap them in expensive clothing the symbolism of which is not even clear.

The return of decoration in architecture suggests either that this austerity is a myth and that some sectors of society can still afford the luxury of gift-wrapped buildings or that austerity is indeed real but it can be subverted by clever technology that allows designers to do what looks like luxury on the cheap. It depends on your point of view.

The ‘austerity-is-a-myth’ argument goes; it’s the wealthiest individuals and organisations, those which can borrow very large sums of money, that can afford to splash out on unnecessarily expensive new buildings. As a class they have hardly been affected by the crash of 2008. They can spend money even when the government demands austerity from the rest of us.

Local government is no exception, so, whilst Sir Albert Bore complains of unfair cuts imposed by Whitehall, his predecessor, with his implicit support, borrows £186 million to build an over-sized library on which the decorative rings alone cost £3 million. Does this signify an era of austerity? New Street Station is likewise being needlessly wrapped in silver foil at a cost of millions, not to improve the trains but to show to the world how much money the city can throw around just to make an impression on its visitors.

The ‘austerity-is-real’ case goes like this; we do genuinely live in an era of austerity, but architects do not need to design austere-looking buildings. Computer-aided design (CAD) has enabled them to produce complex buildings as cheaply as simple ones. The cost of embellishment, curviness and complexity is no longer a constraint. Architects are free to go beyond the bare functionalism of modern architecture. Computers do most of the design work and installers assemble the building from factory-made components.

If the latter explanation is true, then why can’t digital technology be used to rescue us all from austerity? Digital technology was supposed to release humankind from drudgery by replacing people with machines just as the steam engine and spinning jenny did in the industrial revolution. But it’s plain to see now as it was then that the benefits of mechanisation are always unevenly distributed.

The Luddites foresaw that factory owners would increase their profits while they were thrown on the scrap heap. Likewise, the inventors and producers of today’s labour-saving technology, the computer, have grown incredibly wealthy. But, it seems to me that their wealth comes mostly from selling consumers electronic gadgets with which to amuse themselves, rather than cutting working hours or raising pay. We still have to work hard just to buy the gadgets.

If, as we are led to believe, society is becoming extremely productive and super-efficient through the widespread use of digital technology the benefits should be more evenly distributed. Technology can’t do that on its own.

One thought on “The architecture of austerity

  1. Likewise Centro’s “consultation” about having to reduce spending on the buses at same time as £36M is waved through for yet another organ-extension of the metro to further mess up the buses around Centenary Square and yet again with no consultation of bus users..

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