Architect Alejandro Zaero-Polo of Foreign Office Architects comments that his generation emerged in a social and political context of “cheapness.” This societal pursuit of cheapness expresses a central strategy of economic growth— cost-cutting—one of several that are constant and pervasive, affecting our everyday lives.
Ultimately, growth relies on increasing profits; common ways to grow profits include reducing costs, increasing sales, expanding markets, and attracting investment. These economic practices aimed at increasing consumption, shape design in a number of problematic ways.
5 Ways Consumerism Shapes Design
Standardized, mass-produced and uniform materials (or plants, where landscapes are concerned), especially when made into the same basic shapes (standardized forms), are typically cheaper than many environmentally or socially preferred options.
Although designers and consumers alike may yearn for more diverse formal and material exploration, rarely does financial cost allow for it. The primacy of cheapness then constrains the scope of design work and leaves us with a uniform, frequently uninteresting environment where the lack of diversity itself carries a social cost.
It is now widely understood that the market and its financial or capital resources (for example, money, buildings or equipment) sit within a much wider economy made up of ecological and social resources. But the market doesn’t account for damage to ecological and social resources, in fact this kind of damage often represents a threat to consumer safety. For example, there are many economic pressures in favor of using harmful chemicals to grow and process fabric fibers.
Chemicals used in plastics and fibers make those materials more versatile, which allows for an expansion of market offerings—and consequent growth. At the same time, testing chemicals is expensive, and huge profits would be sacrificed if the 1000 or so new chemicals introduced each year had to be proven safe.
It’s a “multi-billion-dollar hornets’ nest,” so regulators keep their distance; most chemicals aren’t tested; rather they are presumed innocent until proven guilty—92 percent of chemicals in use are unregulated. Although evidence mounts against many chemicals that were formerly thought to be “safe” (an example is Bisphenol A (BPA) withdrawn from water and baby bottles in 2009), no major university chemistry department in the United States specializes in “green chemistry” (ecologically safe chemical development), and designers up against both economic pressure and lack of knowledge end up using “standard” materials such as BPA.
If we think further about the pursuit of cheapness, we find other design-related areas where prices are low precisely because they don’t capture social and environmental values. The pressure toward privatizing public services and public spaces illustrates the problem. There has been a strong trend toward cities contracting out the management of public spaces, along with other public services such as waste management.
Private companies compete to provide the lowest possible cost for services, while at the same time maximizing their own profit out of the deal. In these scenarios, civic values that a city may once have sought through design solutions are typically lost to the priority of maximizing profits in private “service” companies.
Prices also send the wrong signals through the mechanism of impact fees. Emily Talen describes how cities such as Phoenix and Chicago implement new parks and other public spaces not according to where they are needed, but rather, according to where developers have paid impact fees. In the case of Phoenix this means that parks are planned for low-density, peripheral locations rather than strategic locations that might synergistically enrich the public landscape.
The market focuses on “individual” consumers. In design terms, increasing sales also means focusing on individual solutions rather than seriously examining how groups might share structures and objects. For example, we sell more power tools, cars and washing machines when each individual or household owns their own private goods.
Research shows, however, that during its lifetime the average domestic power tool is used for a total of only about 10 minutes. Similarly, four- and five-seat automobiles are hardly ever used to capacity; most carry one passenger to work, sit parked all day, and return home with one passenger.
Yet priorities of increasing sales filter into design research and design innovation that tends to concentrate on individualization and solutions for the individual or single household.
Consumerism provides a form of social language based on private consumption. Using this language we gain social status, avoid shame, even shape our identities. The consequences of “keeping up” our social position through “positional consumption” appear in architecture and design. For example there is an emphasis on “buying new” over repairing and maintaining existing buildings, landscapes and objects.
Many modern appliances cannot be opened or repaired by their owners, and most are not “upgradable.” To keep up with the newest benefits, consumers must buy new products and structures rather than upgrade what they have.
Many of us will recognize this in its extreme form with electronic products such as computers and phones. Yet research also suggests that many buildings are outpaced by the changing contexts around them and are demolished long before their functional life has ended.
In general we can see how the relative cheapness of large-scale projects, mass production and privatization govern a number of aspects of architecture and design, typically at the cost of local scale and diversity.