The Discipline And Capitalism Cultural Studies Essay

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Architecture is a profession, which not only is affected by social, political, and economic shifts, but also is capable of modifying them. As a discipline, it has a deeper impact on society and can be used as a tool to demonstrate its beliefs. During the 18th century, the discipline was subverted due to the economic crisis. From the passive task of symbolic representation, it came under the complete suppression of the capitalist power. Adam Smith, pioneer of political economy, highlighted the consistent structuring and separation of tasks for the sole purpose of increase in productivity, which exposed the true nature of the capitalist regime; the reorganisation of the societal structure and space. The unconscious integration of architecture into the capitalist demands, according to Manfredo Tafuri, was the demise of architecture as a discipline. (Tafuri, 1976)


Capitalism had the most profound impact on architecture in the 19th Century during the "golden age of Victorian Capitalism (Cowden, 1963, pp.40) i.e. the Industrial Revolution in England. As a response to the birth of the culture of consumerism, new architectural forms started to arise. The organisation of design was now informed by the structure and methods of the industrial design, which eventually led to its reflection in the ways proposed for the consumption of the "object". The Crystal Palace and St. Pancras Station in London serve as exemplars of this capitalism-influenced architecture.

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Figure - The Great Exhibition -Crystal Palace, available at as accessed on 13 Jan 2013

"The largest, most celebrated and remembered Victorian building of iron-and-glass construction" (Curl 1990. pp.205) built by John Paxton, the Crystal Palace housed the Great Exhibition of 1851. Designed to create an enormous space within with the minimum use of prefabricated components and standardised forms (Biddle 1986), the building has increased capacity and square footage. The architecture of the building was meant to embrace the exposed structure as a symbol of progress and industrialisation. "The Crystal Palace became the precedent for a great number of large temporary exhibition buildings... involving mass produced factory-made components" (Curl, 1990), which was both overwhelming and impressive. In Marxist's terms, it was a "fetishism of commodities." (Marx, K. 1896)

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Figure - St. Pancras Station, available at as accessed on 13 Jan 2013

The Great Exhibition was an enormous event that required massive mobilisation of people, goods and construction materials. The expansion of the Railway terminals and rail lines in England made it possible to accommodate the massive influx. Moreover, the expansion "changed not only building technology but also the very fabric of society." (Pevsner 1951. Pp.18) St. Pancras station, built by William Henry Barlow in 1873, can be seen as a monument of the capitalistic growth. The entire railway industry is considered an outcome of the industrial era and this one in particular is a physical manifestation of commerce and industry as mentioned by Asa Briggs: "St. Pancras was a commercial rather than a civic building and the mid Victorian achievement was above all else industrial and commercial." (Briggs 1974, pp. 217) The station allowed the networking of people and goods thus enabling capitalism to thrive.

Made of Iron and Glass, materials of the industrial age, the exhibition hall and the railway station can both be regarded as structures closely related to and in a way celebrating, the characteristic traits of the Industrial revolution- capitalist aspirations for economic growth and the development of a consumer- centred society. Both the exhibition hall and railway station are architectural forms intimately linked with economic progress, consumer growth and capitalist aspirations of the Industrial revolution. One serving as a display- site for products and instigating consumption (Crystal Palace), the other enabling the abundance by allowing free movement of people and goods (St. Pancras Station) , ultimately they both celebrate the emerging economy-oriented values of the new capitalist society/"represent the economic values of the new capitalist society" (Norberg-Schultz, 1975) Whether displaying products for consumption or moving people and goods, both the Crystal Palace and St. Pancras Station "represent the economic values of the new capitalist society." Every aspect of architectural design seemed to have methodically fused with the assembly line of the industrial era, from the very basic elements- the cells, the single building blocks through the housing projects, public buildings and ultimately the assemblage of the city itself, architecture clearly and coherently manifested the mechanical process of the Industrial era.


The traditional concept for architecture is developing design "which gives form to permanent values and consolidates urban morphology."(Tafuri 1976) Instead, the capitalist power bound architecture to the destiny of the city, where it became a place of technological production and the city itself as a technological product, eventually reducing architecture to a mere link in the production chain (Tafuri 1976).

In his book "Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development", Manfredo Tafuri , while denying any further division within the movement itself (such as postmodernism), regards the entire cycle of modernism as an unimpaired continuous development, in which the utopian avant-garde ideas came to be esteemed as an idealized celebration of capitalism, transforming their rationale and turning it into an ideology associated with the rationality of the autonomous form of architecture's "Plan".

The "Plan" became instrumental for executing economic management, a necessity confiding the wild, animalistic tendencies of the market and a tool enticing people and alleviating every-day anxieties with promising projects of the future. After the onset of the worldwide Great Depression in 1929, the very concept of a looming crisis served as a booster for the Capital's various apparatuses, effectively imposing the stratagem of the Plan over every social stratum that lead to acknowledging the importance of the working class as a driving force of economic progress. (Tafuri 1976)

Consequently, it can be speculated the backbone of Modernism extends beyond the fascination with the precision of machines and the efficient technology and actually lies in the strategy for alleviating the effects of the crisis, by mitigating the uncertainty and improbability of the volatile market with the stability of the Plan and rationalizing calamities into proponents of production.

Tafuri ultimately dedicated his work to exposing ideological spuriousness- the absurdity of what he refers to as "anachronistic hopes in design", thus retreating to criticism of the dilemma produced by the misconceptions of the modernist pioneers of the era between the two World Wars, who believed it possible to muster the goods and affluent resources derived from industrial capitalism and make them serve a particular social goal or use them for achieving social benefits. Consequently that turned into his main discontent with the architects of the Welfare States in Europe, whose work he argued was ineffective and impractical and rather added than alleviated the anguish and hardships of the working classes (Frazer 2007)

Architecture as a discipline still worked towards ameliorating social conditions and architects who strongly opposed the values of capitalism demonstrated their critical judgement of the dominant principals, although their approach still operated within the realistic parameters of capitalist development. This is evident through the work of Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi. As Bernard Tschumi stated

"Architects act as mediators between authoritarian power, or capitalist power, and some sort of humanistic aspiration. The economic and political powers that make our cities and our architecture are enormous. We cannot block them but we can use another tactic, which I call the tactic of judo, that is, to use the force of one's opponent in order to defeat it and trans-form it into something else." [1] 

However, even though Tschumi managed to encapsulate his critical analysis of capitalism in theory, it was practically impossible for the architect to implement the idea in practice. Throughout his oeuvre of essays, Tschumi delineated the duality of modern architecture, functionalism and zoning, which are now accepted as values for capitalist development. (Tschumi, 1981)

Even for Rem Koolhaas, who effectively criticised the architectural impositions of Capitalism through theory, interventions in design did not yield similar impact. One such paradoxical example of Koolhaas's work is the Central TV headquarters in China (CCTV); although it contains a public passage through the state controlled functions, it does not challenge the imperialism of the institution. There is still a clear hierarchy, which when manipulated through functions and spaces, could have obtained the desirable impact.

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Figure - CCTV Headquarters, OMA, available at as accessed on 13 Jan 2013

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Figure - Prada store, available at as accessed on 13 Jan 2013

While the CCTV is a project very much affiliated with the state relations of Capitalism, Rem Koolhaas's design for Prada stores in Manhattan and Los Angeles is an embodiment of the economic ideals. The store consists of a space, which could be as open as a public promenade and has virtually no commercial use. Just like the value of the brand, the space itself represents empty-value consumption. [2] 


Like communal spaces, Malls are the new parks and social infrastructure. They are like internalised idealised city within a city. Befitting the idea of Walter Benjamin's 'dream world' and very similar to the original arcades in Paris, the shopping malls include the long snaky corridor with shops flanked on either side or a massive foyer where people are bombarded with images and notions of consumerism. Made of Glass and metal, the mall is an introvert structure protecting, or rather manipulating, people from the harsh reality that exists outside. It accelerates and perpetuates the insinuations registered through the advertisements on television; materialistic consumption is directly proportional to happiness, both collective and individual. The mall implements specific futuristic visions through architecture and media that expresses a notion "of a utopian desire for social arrangements that transcend existing forms". (Buck-Morss, 2000)

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Figure - New Babylon by Constant, available at as accessed on 13 Jan 2013

The utopian environment created by the shopping mall is uncannily similar to the concept of the megastructures . Analysing the avant-garde movement which supported the building of ideal structures and city in the post war era, actually surfaces the ironic similarity between the principles of Capitalist forerunners -such as the shopping mall, and the iconic Megastructures such as the New Babylon (Banham, 1976). Both were created with the idea to house a self-sustaining environment; providing a disconnection from the outside world, a place where the notion of time is eliminated.

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Figure - New Babylon as a mall, Photomontage by WAI, available at as accessed on 13 Jan 2013

Nowadays the concept of shopping has gone to a new dimension of virtual. The Online world is another domain of the capitalist regime of virtual sustenance, which operates on the same parameters as the shopping mall; eliminates time, reduces effort and provides countless products for consumption. It even enforces dominant security used to monitor the activity of the 'trapped', maintaining complete authority and control over the user.

The progress of and the domain over technology is Capitalism's method of survival, which have even dominated the field of architecture, even though architecture is still realised through the act of physical construction. Almost every architect, including Peter Eisenman, has projects that are informed by such mediatic techniques. Eisenman believes that modern architecture "resisted the forces of gravity and its meaning was symbolized in this resistance." Modernism's resistance to mechanical force is baseless in the electronic age. The negation of physical space and tectonics has induced phantasmic architecture that is paperless and 'bodiless, which is realised through to the problematic relation between architecture and the city; the playground of Capitalism. Capitalism demands a space to thrive and architecture is apt to providing it over and over again.