Land speculation is the primary motive for city-building today, not need. The “building industrial complex”, one of the largest global economic sectors, is premised entirely on land being a commodity that can be bought and sold for profit. Precisely because land is a finite resource, it can be counted upon to generally rise in value, though not without occasional downturns and cyclical “market corrections,” of course.
As with any other raw material, the profits that can be made from land increase in direct proportion with the degree to which it is refined and processed into a value-added product. Land is refined through processes that include changes in land-use regulation, parcelization, subdivision, road and infrastructure provision, edification, and gentrification. In a global market, large development corporations enjoy a competitive edge over small builders due to the economies of scale, political influence, and vertical integration that they are able to implement.
And as with any value-added product, it is design that adds much of the value, that creates objects of desire imbued with what Jean Baudrillard termed “sign-value,” as distinct from mere functional value. The design and marketing of buildings by architects and advertisers can make an important difference in a developer’s bottom line.
This seminar will look at the effects of real-estate speculation upon the shape of cities and patterns of everyday life, as well as the role of architecture within its “system of objects.” Is it not a paradox that, while the private development industry grew in size and perfected its moneymaking formulas throughout the late twentieth century, the discourse on buildings and cities became increasingly focused on esoteric and aesthetic aspects of the “art” of architecture? Is architecture the “critical” discipline it purports to be, or is it, by its very silence on all things economic, the alibi of the development industry?
The first of the three seminar sessions will survey the historical rise of development corporations and their power in shaping cities. The second session will discuss the bifurcation between urban development and architecture. The third will chart the rise of popular anti-speculation movements and NGOs, as well as discuss alternative forms of service delivery on the part of designers and architects.
“The slab and the tower can be seen to form dialectical opposites. The slab, ideally sited in a park, is representative of European academic modernism and CIAM urbanism—Le Corbusier, in short—while the tower is associated with ‘vulgar’ commercial real-estate development—the stuff of Manhattan or Hong Kong. The slab speaks of welfare-state housing and utopian planning, the point tower of private-sector pragmatism. […]
The point-tower became an established building type in Benidorm due to its high commercial viability and the views that this building type permits, even in a normative situation. Views matter especially in a tourism destination, and a city of slender towers permits more glimpses through the city and toward the surrounding landscape than a city of wall-like slabs. The modernist slab may exploit land efficiently, but not landscape—unless of course the slab is a relatively isolated occurrence in the manner of Le Corbusier’s standalone unités.
But then, architecture is premised entirely on the notion of exceptionality. […] As a mark of cultural distinction, architecture privileges the unique, isolated object; figure over ground. In Benidorm, there is no architecture: there is “the tallest building in Spain” which is also “the tallest hotel in Europe” (the Hotel Bali), but there are no buildings that stand out architecturally. Spanish architectural guidebooks do not list any of its buildings, making Benidorm an exceptional city without exceptional buildings.
This generic quality permeates Benidorm’s urban fabric with perfect consistency. The point towers contain mostly hotel rooms and vacation apartments inhabited by middle-class Britons, Germans, Scandinavians and Spaniards, such that the city effectively comprises a sort of modern Euro-space. In fact, Benidorm can be seen as a representation in built form of one of the core values underpinning modern Europe: the right of every citizen to free time and leisure. Leisure is democratized and made affordable precisely by the efficiency of the point tower type.”
Rafael Gómez-Moriana, “The Pursuit of Pleasure by the Most Efficient Available Means: The Urbanism of Benidorm, Spain”. Onsite Review #14, pp. 16-19.