Aswatha Raghunathasami

Professor M.Elango

Dissertation

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November 2009

CONSUMERISM IN
ARCHITECTURE

1. Background of the research

                         The globalised modern society is on an
economic drive altering the expression of several aspects attached to it. After
the Industrial Revolution, mass production of goods resulted in the supply
largely exceeding the demand. As a result, producers turned to advertising for
selling their surplus supplies and encouraged conspicuous consumption of their unwanted
goods and services. Consumerism endorses consumption and material possessions
as a necessity for our physical and emotional well-being. Thus began the era of mass consumption
and caused the shift of the society from being producer based to consumer
based.

            Consumer culture is indisputably
dominant feature of contemporary society, and architecture a prominent part of
it. The significance given
to consumerism by both society and architectural fraternity has increased
drastically over the last few decades. The idea of consumerism in
architecture rejects the idea of “art for art’s sake” in favour of architecture
as a practice directed towards people’s wants and desires as the primary
objective. Architects involved in designing consumerist buildings do not
have the free-hand to produce a design that satisfy their artistic
predilections or that reflects the context, but will have to communicate the
image held by the public. As a result, consumerism significantly determines how buildings are designed and it
becomes crucial to analyse the relationship between architecture and
consumerism to comprehend the creation of architecture itself.

            It
can’t be denied that consumerism is capable of design outcomes that can positively
reflect the place and the society. However, it is being constantly exploited for
economic gains that its potential is watered down. Not only are architectural
spaces are being consumed, its design, details, and features have become highly
desirable stuff for the reproduction of social identity. Consumerism is not
confined to the individualistic needs of a person but also extends into the
society at large.

1.1 Architecture
as a commodity

Consumerism in
architecture is not limited to the production of building categories
that aid in increasing consumption of products within it, but is much wider in
the globalised era ‘architecture’ itself has become a product to be consumed. Moreover,
this idea of consumption extends beyond individual buildings or spaces into a larger
context of city itself where it aims to project a different and new image and
in the process undergoes transformation in parts or as a whole.

Architecture has itself become a product to be consumed in the recent
years with the growth of constructors, developers and real estate agents. It is
referred to as a ‘commodity’ because like any other product they are also
built, sold, bought, altered and rented and the spaces are also quantified in
foot and meters. But this deals only with a narrow band
of consumerism in architecture. The typology of a building is a big determinant
of the building’s equation to consumerism. Shopping malls with its primary
objective of increasing consumption will have to attract the public and
resonate with the interests of all people irrespective of their age, gender or
social status. Therefore, their design in form and function will reflect the
collective image of the society. On the other hand, a single dwelling residence
will have to satiate the needs of few individuals to reflect their imagery
alone.

 

 

The values from the realm of consumption
spill over into other domains of social activities:

– Social life and culture

– Identity

– Economy

1.2
Commercialization of architecture

Architects role many at times
in the domain of design has been reduced to a bare minimum simply to the
production of outlooks that is seductive for the public whereas the other
concerns are dealt by real estate developers and constructors. It becomes
impossible to separate commercialization of architecture from globalization
since it has resulted in the usage of images and architects from various parts
of the world with the notion of creating a stand for themselves in the global market.
Architects themselves are considered to have different commercial values based
on the value of the product produced by them.

            The
Guggenheim museum designed by Frank.O.Gehry was conceptualised to revitalise
the economy of the city of Bilbao where it is located.  It was one of the most iconic building to be
built, that was lauded by designers and the general public alike. Transcending
beyond its analysis of form, function or contextual sensibility, its success
was its ability to attract tourists in large numbers and contributed millions to
the economy for which it was intended. The buildings of Walt Disney also have
an economic motive behind the ‘unique’ faces of all their designs. It functions
as an entertainment centre that reproduces imagery of the fantasy world held by
the people created through stories, promotions and movies.

3.0  Never-ending
and Ever changing needs

The insatiable need of the consumers has
strong relation with their notion of keeping up with the trends. The trends are
constantly changed through marketing, promotions and advertisements. This
results in consumers accumulating products more than they need or that they do
not need and this gluttony is utilised by the producer market. For example,
many of the residences in India built during the 80’s and 90’s have
predominantly used mosaic flooring. But in the recent times, imported Italian
marble is idealised as the flooring material for any high-end homes. Therefore,
we see of structures being retrofitted with such marketed products although the
older material would have functionally lasted for many more years.

There are certain tools that the
producers have handled for their benefits to increase consumption and to keep
up the ravenous need of the consumers intact. They are

3.1  Image
infrastructure

            The
main focus of image infrastructure is to capture attention. It is all designed
for capturing, tracking, quantifying, manipulating, holding, buying, selling
and controlling attention. Unless we come in terms with the global image
economy and the way it permeates the things we make and see, we are doomed to a
life of decorating and redecorating. 
(Bruce Mau in his book ‘lifestyle’).

            Consumer
culture is awash with signs and images. In the increasingly competitive
marketplace, both foreign and domestic business has scaled new heights in
advertising and publicity. This involves aesthetisation
of commodities and their environment. Many at times what we see are manipulated images
which show preferred architectures in beautifully composed and edited
photographs. The innumerable numbers of magazines and websites have become the
catalogue for a wide range of people from home makers to interior designers to
architects themselves. Architecture reduced to imagery, far more than the real
thing, allows an extremely quick and direct way for it to be consumed and its
ideas to be propagated.

Computers are important
elements in the design processes of today. They are used not only to make the
work easier but also as important aspects of the presentation of the design.
They are used to produce drawings, generate three dimensional views of the
building, create manipulated images etc. These computerised techniques used let
to envision the outlook of the buildings that is likely to come up in the future

Branding

Globalisation has led to the familiarity
in brands and products from all over the world. They are no longer limited by
local, regional or national boundaries. Individuals or group are able to
associate themselves with particular brands through previous usage, word of
mouth or marketing. They establish credible relationships in a competitive
environment which results in repeated usage of the product aiding consumption.
Architecture is also used a powerful branding tool in creating that identity.

Little India and Chinatown
are present throughout the world, including those in East Asia,
Southeast Asia, America,
and in many other parts of the world. Nowadays, many of these destinations are
considered significant centres of commercialism
and tourism.
They are reproduced with little modifications and are able to recreate the
image of new setting without having to travel long distances. This repetition
of built-form across the globe to create an identity and increase consumption
is utilised by many corporate companies. In addition to the spatial
organisation and exterior design, the buildings are saturated with signs,
images, and advertisements to strengthen the impact.

Branding can be those
representations of companies through icons like the ones seen in commercial
stores, offices, restaurants, hotels etc. And on the other hand it can also
represent those signage and hoardings and graphics which are very important in
the perception of the entire space. This kind of brand expression has created a
breed of consultants whose scope extends beyond the traditional limits of a
designer. They will have identify and create innovative solutions in many
mediums like advertising, packaging, identity creation.

Architects themselves are
boxed into a certain kind of branding. Daniel Libeskind for example, is well-known
for his museum designs. Laurie Baker is known for his sustainable low-cost building
design. Many architects gain international recognition for their innovative and
ground breaking designs. They are then used by developers to design high-rise residential
or office structures and the brand of the architect is used for the promotion of
the building.

By favouring the
creation of signature buildings over more comprehensive urban interventions and
by severing their identity from the complexity of the social fabric, today’s
brandscapes have, in many cases, resulted in a culture of the copy. As
experiences become more and more commodified, and the global landscape
progressively more homogenized, it falls to architects to infuse an ever more
aseptic landscape with meaningful transformations.

NIKETOWN COMPLEX

            Indeed,
some recent brand manifestations have been completely revolutionary. The Nike
town complexes are more promotion than store. This complex is steeped in such
experiential elements as exhibits that chronicle its past shoe models, display
of sports illustrated shoe models, displays of sports illustrated magazine
covers featuring athletes wearing Nikes, a usable half court basketball floor
and video clips of everyday athletes viewed in an intimate theatre. Nike town
NYC — it’s a theme park, a theatre, a retail store. This New York City
building’s interior constantly changes to accommodate interactive video
displays and moving props within a 5-story atrium.

According to a company press release for
the opening of the first Nike town in Chicago that store was built as a ‘Built
as a theatre where our consumers are the audience participating in the
production’. Through these flagship stores Nike aims to build its brand and
stimulate buying at other non-Nike retail outlets.

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