2013, Jovis Publishers
Three propositions about the added value of the Land and Buildings Policy in Antwerp
Questions about the existence of neoliberal architecture are generally answered from the standpoint of emblematic architectural projects in major urban developments. This paper argues that suggesting an indirect relationship between architecture and neoliberalism evokes a complex of resistance. The evacuation of neoliberalism from design levels the path either for an opportunistic or idealistic reflex. In the former case, architecture becomes indifferent to neoliberal machinations from above, while in the latter case architecture is heralded as cornerstone of utopian visions. As both reflexes aim at the de-politicisation of architecture, they easily coexist in the contemporary architecture – sometimes even practised by the same architectural office.
Instead of fighting phantoms with phantoms, this paper is an initial albeit incomplete steppingstone towards the ambition of identifying neoliberalism in specific aspects of the architectural discipline such as practice, form and scale. The production of architecture under the Land and Buildings Policy in Antwerp provides a test case for sketching a direct and complex engagement between architecture and neoliberalism. The design of the single-family homes in the so-called 19th century belt of Antwerp exhibits the commodification of architecture, the struggle for architectural added value and the function of architecture in internal city marketing. The search for neoliberal (and anti-neoliberal) architecture must start from these classic capitalist logics.
The much-discussed architecture production under the Land and Buildings Policy by AgVespa, Antwerp’s autonomous municipal real estate and city projects company, is a prime example of urban regeneration in Belgium. In Antwerp’s 19th century urban cluster, AgVespa has purchased a substantial number of dilapidated dwellings and free parcels of land in recent years to remarket them as desirable urban homes suitable for young families. The hope and the expectation is that this ‘pinpricking’ will revive parts of the city currently plagued by negative social situations.
Over the past years the Land and Buildings Policy has yielded some 100 homes acclaimed by professional and mainstream publications for their architectural intelligence. A fundamental factor is the participation of architects identified by representative bodies in the professional sector as young, highly promising talent. The objective is for dilapidated dwellings and free parcels of land – at a disadvantage in the housing market because of their troublesome physical location – to incentivise young architects to come up with innovative design solutions. Another reason for choosing young architects is their rapid employability because of their enthusiasm and idealism.
Although the production of architecture is modest in absolute terms, it is nevertheless unique in the context of Belgium’s traditionally liberal policy. Housing production is considered a private matter with government involvement confined to regulatory matters without taking any initiative of its own. The administrative passiveness is usually compensated by a compulsive sensibility programs and construction of prestigious model projects in the government real estate portfolio. AgVespa personifies the Antwerp city council’s entrepreneurial approach to doing something about the architectural quality of the living environment. Through the construction of everyday dwellings, the autonomous municipal company is applying the rules of the housing market to act correctively.
The city of Antwerp has broken with tradition in the housing policy without impairing liberal principles. The autonomous municipal company is a vehicle for carrying out strategic and above all recognisable model housing projects. To accomplish this, a market operation is being set up within which a revolving fund is being used to produce and distribute architecturally valuable single-family homes. The homes are developed in a cost-covering model within which any profits are used for new model projects and any losses are made good by the available regional, federal and/or European subsidies (housing policy, major conurbation policy and regional development, respectively).
The ambiguous structure of the autonomous municipal company allows us to examine in greater depth the question of the existence of neoliberal (or anti-neoliberal) architecture. It is remarkable that the acclaimed production of architecture under the Land and Buildings Policy simultaneously denies and confirms the well-known recipes of capitalism – that we define conveniently as the ground stream of neoliberalism. Depending on the perspective, the architectural product of AgVespa manifests itself as the outcome of capitalist logics or, conversely, as a rejection of them. Herein we notice once again that it is not enough to say that capitalism has produced a homo economicus without adding that this man is inevitably a little bit confused.
We will now describe the accumulation of architecture under the Land and Buildings Policy based on:
- Struggle for profit
First rule: No architectural quality without budgetary discipline
Neoliberalism is generally defined as being characterised by a return to the one-sided primacy of the commodification in the way society is organised to function. When applied to architecture production, commodification means that the decisive arguments in the design process are characterised by the interests of the stakeholders in the merchantability of the product. The motive for a design is then not so much its quality, but its return. Every design decision appears as a cost item that must be justified on the financial balance sheet. From a purely architectural standpoint, the market harmonisation in the design process forms the shadow side of architecture. Disregarding architectural quality in an individual project would not be so bad in itself, were it not for the fact that architectural quality in Antwerp is part of the public interest. The fad of a client affects not only the living conditions of the person himself, but also the living quality for people living nearby and the image of the city. Former Mayor Patrick Janssens cited architectural development as a spearhead of the social conquering of the city.
The production of architecture under the Land and Buildings Policy squares up ambiguously with the principle of commodification. As a client AgVespa pursues architectural production that is breaking away from the trend of mindless repetition of inappropriate housing models currently in evidence in the Flemish housing market. Within the contours of the design brief for single-family homes, the architect gets the latitude necessary for free experimentation. The Dodoenstraat corner house (design URA, 2007) is perhaps one of the most striking results of the pronounced innovation agenda. The design consists mainly of an intelligent stair solution in OSB covered with transparent plastic. The triangular spiral shape was obtained by a simple offset of the facade lines in the centre of the home. The small intervention produced numerous benefits compared with the original situation of the corner house – where the stairs were positioned against the only common wall of the home. Placing the stairs in the heart of the very narrow corner house reorganises the internal circulation and by consequence also the distribution of space. The most important contribution of the spiral shape lies in the reduced usage of floor space for internal circulation. The footprint of the spiral stairs is minimal and, what’s more, it obviates the need for an extra system of corridors. This is because the spiral staircase offers direct access to the different rooms arranged around it. An additional quality is the value generated by experiencing the stairs. While going up and down the stairs, the user repeatedly sees the home from different perspectives, which is intensified by extra openings in the stair walls.
Interestingly, the architectural specificity and singularity of the Dodoenstraat corner house has not been at the expense of heavy investment, but is actually thanks to the austere expenditure policy of AgVespa. The Land and Buildings Policy is a real estate programme organised with a revolving fund. The expenditure for purchase and alteration is treated as pre-financing that will be earned back from the sale of the buildings – possibly topped up by applicable subsidies – in order to reinvest later in a new building project. So in other words the design of the Dodoenstraat corner house is not subject to a direct pursuit of profit, but to accumulation necessary for the survival of the overarching investment programme. It is in that light that design decisions are taken that weigh heaviest based on strict budgetary discipline. Any superfluous design intervention is rejected with a view to delivery of the core. The home is provided only with facade finishing, a useful division of space and connecting points for technical systems (gas, water and electricity). So it is only logical that all design effort was directed solely towards the stairs. At the same time, we see an architectural quality not based on excess in detail and ornament, but on a sort of ascetic formalism and contextualism. The texture of the spiral stairs derives from a rough and naked use of materials – in this instance, a compound wood material that under normal conditions would not be used visibly.
The asceticism is also evident in the use of untreated bricks as a facade material in other AgVespa designs, such as the three Lucky Bar houses (design Mys-Bomans and RAUM Architects, 2009). Interestingly, the Lucky Bar architect based the design on a search for what he called the basis of housing. The basis lies in creating space to meet the user’s residential needs. The appropriation of the home (covering and furnishing, etc) is a matter for the user and not the architect. Viewed in this light, the prime consideration for the architect will be to opt for obvious materials for structure, usage, view, form and texture. It is easy to boil down the architect’s motive to a rationalisation of the client’s financial considerations. But it is more important to recognise that the design in any event shows how AgVespa’s budgetary discipline simultaneously forms a design discipline generally acknowledged as a source of a unique architectural quality.
Second rule: The added value of architecture is not for consumption
A second rule concerns the basic feature of capitalism, namely an economic system that socialises costs and privatises profits. Nowhere is this rule more in evidence than in real estate were value is generally determined not so much by the inherent properties of a building, but by factors in the surroundings. The proximity of amenities, the quality of the public space and the creative atmosphere in the neighbourhood are external factors that outweigh the costs for materials and labour. By so doing the real estate market imposes a one-sided claim on public space, while the costs are transferred to society. In the best case scenario, the damage will be made good via an indirect system of property tax. In this context, we better speak of a parasitical relationship, because the real estate market does not even need to privatise the external factors in order to utilise it as added value.
The Land and Buildings Policy exemplifies how private homeowners get responsibility for the quality of public space in Antwerp. For example, we can see in the single-family house Veldstraat (design Huiswerk, 2006) a large glazed window area at street level that provides a view of residential functions on the front side of the building. This creates a facade-wide entry portal that allows the parking of bicycles, prams and other requisites of young families. More important is that the open street facade creates public space that people are able to experience, according to the goal defined by the Chief City Architect of Antwerp, Kristiaan Borret. Design decisions of this kind are diametrically opposed to housing tradition in Belgium where everyday life – particularly the kitchen and dining room – occurs in ancillary buildings at the rear of the home. Reducing the resident to an end-user makes it easy for AgVespa to market homes that no longer turn away from public space, but generously open up towards it. In this respect the Land and Buildings Policy subverts the basic formula of capitalism: the cost item of architectural quality is privatised (the housing consumer pays) and its added value is socialised (in the form of the living quality of the street).
Nevertheless, the architectural added value of the Land and Buildings Policy is still being privatised significantly. We are not talking about a user who is given the privilege to live in the most desirable parts of the street. The upgrading of the street’s liveability is maximised by selecting parcels of land and dilapidated buildings at carefully chosen places in the neighbourhood. Corner houses are grateful elements because they are situated on several lines of sight and thus generate maximum impact. From the consumer’s perspective the profit is limited, because he/she is obliged by the delivered core to make alterations to the building before it attains usefulness. It is symptomatic that the most important architectural interventions in the Dodoenstraat corner house turned out to have no value whatsoever for the consumer. The new owner was not a family, but a single person who uses the building as a private home with bed-and-breakfast facilities. For this purpose the owner reorganised the minimal distribution of space and closed off the openings in the spiral stairs. To no avail he even made some attempts to paint over the OSB; this failed because of a plastic treatment of the OSB. Privatisation on the part of the consumer is outweighed by the double costs that he/she must bear for the purchase and the necessary alterations. The main architectural added value is privatised by the producer – in this case a producer that acts on behalf of the public interest. Within AgVespa’s way of working, the single-family houses are a sign of professional city management by the parent company, namely the City of Antwerp, a market tool to seduce families to settle in the 19th century belt and an example project in the sensibility of the local residents. Moreover, AgVespa taps the architectural added value at the time of the transaction. For the housing consumer, the created architectural quality proves to have little value and is rather a source of frustration. This brings to the fore the perverse logic of what we call the free architectural policy of the City of Antwerp: expenditure on architectural quality is billed to the consumer, while the quality has significance and value only for the producer.
Third rule: Internal city marketing exploits architecture of the everyday
The third rule concerns the need of the neoliberal system for an ideological, universal framework that provides a place in the accumulation process for all share- and stakeholders. The concurrency between cities and urban regions functions today as a decisive framework for the production of an endless stream of emblematic architectural projects designed by the worldwide army of starchitects. It is universal because every city that does not engage in the urban competition, lags behind inevitably. Since Frank O. Gehry’s design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, a high-profile building developed by an architect with an equally high-profile name has become a central element of any self-respecting city’s future vision . Besides being a product, emblematic architecture has a leveraging role for urban development projects. A landmark architectural icon guarantees the public awareness of the development area and the essential investment funds.
In Antwerp, Museum aan de Stroom (design Neutelings Riedijk Architects, 2000, opening 2011) functions as a lever of the development of the old port area called Eilandje. Remarkably, even while it was being constructed, the reason for the existence of Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) was called into question, because it was unclear which collection would be housed in the immense building and what its financial viability would be. But the unclear use value of the building was not hampered by the perspective for development of the area. The opposite is true. Right from the discussion about the protracted construction, the eccentric form experiment of MAS did what it was meant to do: it functioned as a sublime and immensely high landmark for the Eilandje development area.
The difference between MAS and the production of architecture under the Land and Buildings Policy could not be greater at first sight. There are no overheated ambitions for a disused development area, but an alternative and widely supported urban renewal operation in districts of the city starved of attention and investment for many years. Most projects in the Land and Buildings Policy exhibit a facade structure, building envelope and choice of construction material that carefully simulate nearby buildings in a contemporary embodiment – such as the three houses Gravinstraat-Gijselsstraat (design Henk De Smet Paul Vermeulen, 2011). The limited logo value is inversely proportional to the use value of the single-family homes. First and foremost the single-family homes meet the intimate housing desires of young families, the desire among local residents for a liveable street and an authentic design pleasure among architects – who are not usually mentioned in AgVespa’s communication. So the design is not intended as an object of desire for the remote and restless gazes of tourists walking around the city, but as a backdrop to the day-to-day comings and goings of the local residents.
The no-logo strategy that underlies architecture production in the Land and Buildings Policy nevertheless personifies a unique and priceless value in the public relations of Antwerp. Former Mayor Patrick Janssens – who built a career for himself as a communications expert – made clear more than once that, above all, a city must win the hearts of its own residents. The central idea is that residents who identify themselves with their city will have a stronger appeal to outsiders than any PR campaign. The single-family homes of AgVespa fit into this model of what we call internal city marketing: the single-family homes form small, obvious messages that convince local residents unconsciously of a positive city project. This has been done successfully: while MAS has been snowed under with cynical reactions and will be embraced by the citizens of Antwerp only over the course of years, the Land and Buildings Policy can bank on general appreciation and spontaneous acceptance. The immediate well-being of Antwerp residents is many times more effective as PR material than any kind of eyecatcher, which will often quickly lose its contemporary gloss and/or will be trumped by a rival design. Gazing into intimate, cosy interiors conveys a unique logo value: the daily presence and activity of the residents provide a scene of people who enjoy the good city life in Antwerp. The logic of appropriating an eccentric object is thus replaced by spontaneous identification with a recognisable situation.
The above article examined AgVespa’s architectural production based on three fundamental pillars of capitalism. Although the pillars have a knock-on effect in neoliberalism, we recognise that some customary themes from the literature on neoliberalism have not been elaborated, such as restoration of class power, unequal urban developments and neoliberal State intervention. We can merely remark here that AgVespa’s pinpricking architecture production deserves further discussion based on the social re-conquering of Antwerp, the trickle-down effect of architecture and the function of what we call ‘super-architects’ in formal and informal public-private partnerships.
The question regarding neoliberal (or anti-neoliberal) architecture deserves an answer that disregards the leftist myth of the totalitarian system that exploits every human faculty to maximise financial profit. We have described in the article how AgVespa’s working method places commodification, struggle for added value and internal city marketing in the light of an accumulation of architectural quality in Antwerp. AgVespa’s single-family homes are both speculative objects in social engineering and a sincere answer to the housing desires of local residents. This ambiguous design brief gives the AgVespa project leaders – most of whom are qualified architects – and the young architects the feeling of working together on an enterprise with the noble goal of improving the quality of the living environment. This also explains the willingness among the architects to deliver quality despite the underpaid working conditions offered by AgVespa. It would be wrong to assert in this context that AgVespa’s architecture production is subject to a neoliberal apparatus – as if architecture had its own subjectivity. An apparatus is an operating network of institutions, measures, knowledge bodies and practices that shape the behaviour of a human being. The architectural design is not the resulting subject, but a fully-fledged part of the apparatus. Instead of subjection we refer to a kind of self-integration; the commodification of architecture – by exclusion of the user from the design process – and other capitalist strategies are applied by those involved as a condition for a professional architectural culture in Antwerp. Awaiting the direct identification of neoliberal architecture within the Land and Building Policy, the search for anti-neoliberal architecture starts with this Gordian knot.
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Book chapter published in:
Ana Jeinić | Anselm Wagner [eds.]: Is There (Anti-)Neoliberal Architecture?; 2013; Vol. 3; Jovis Publishers; Berlin; pp. 104 – 117