An exploration of Marxism and modern architecture…
Karl Marx, ‘the great prophet of contemporary globalisation’, is known for many things – his architectural prowess is not one of them. In all his written work, he never specifically critiques or sets out a new way of thinking regarding architecture, however, if we view our built environment as a direct response to the wider social, political and economic context his philosophical teachings become applicable to an architectural critique.
In the age old debate of Free Will vs Determinism, Marx lands in an area of Determinism that is not so black and white to say that all our actions as humans are pre-determined, but instead they are constrained by our wider circumstances. He famously explores this notion using our anatomy as an extended metaphor. He suggests that in addition to our natural, anatomical organs, we also have ‘social organs’ that are materialised in the form of our society and therefore all our thoughts, choices and actions are constrained by our entire ‘inorganic body’. Due to its inherent and visibility, architecture becomes an inescapable physical manifestation of our ‘social organs’ and If we look at our own built environment beyond its materiality – the glass and steel structures that surround us– it is obvious that drama and spectacle are more and more frequently dominating the ‘brand image’ of modern architecture. There is no better example of this than the Burj Khalifa.
The Burj Khalifa (Dubai, U.A.E) officially became the tallest building in the world in 2007, three years after construction began and still it continued to grow. Standing at 828 metres it is an impressive example of the advancing feats of mankind but, because of its height, it can be seen from up to 95km away and therefore it also becomes a daily physical reminder of the wealth inequality in Dubai. The building becomes symbolic of architecture’s ‘immediacy to the social’ and the ‘seam it shares with the economic’ and consequently it raises the question of the wider repercussions of unrelenting technological advances and a capitalist ideology dominating all areas of society.
Marx foreshadowed that in its attempt to ‘conquer the whole world for its market’ modern capitalism will result in the ‘annihilation of space by time’. A global uniformity will replace individual culture as each developing state follows the same blueprint and ultimately the commodification of space under capitalism will lead to homogenisation. We can see this clearly in Dubai, where the Burj Khalifa, and its surrounding sky scrapers form a built environment that more closely resembles Toronto or Singapore than the neighbouring emirates. The U.A.E. is a relatively new country, set to celebrate its 50th national day this December. Prior to the discovery of oil in 1966, Dubai was home to many Bedouins and the local trades included pearl diving and camel breeding. Post the discovery of the oil reserves, Dubai began a period of rapid growth and the small, quiet corner of the world where the obligatory 4x4 was required for the school run transformed into the international hub we see today; in the process the emirate’s rich history, including the traditional architectural methods, was quickly abandoned in the pursuit of economic profit.
In creating these enormous cities the bourgeoise have ‘greatly increased the urban population as compared with the rural’ which in terms of financial gain is true when comparing Dubai to the neighbouring Emirates (excluding the capital, Abu Dhabi). However, the repercussions of this global homogenisation has spread further than simply the loss of individual culture, in its haste to stray away from traditional middle-eastern architecture after the economic boom, Dubai has saddled itself with the issue of being one of the highest per-capita carbon footprints in the world.
It becoming commonly accepted that climate change is the greatest issue we will collectively face and air conditioning accounts for 10% of global electricity consumption. In the summer, when temperatures in the United Arab Emirates often exceed 50 degrees Celsius, hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil are burned daily – mostly to power the nation’s air conditioning. Due to global warming, the global demand for air-conditioning continues to grow exponentially, and the climate-controlled skyscrapers and shopping malls of Dubai aside, it is ‘not remotely economical, let alone ‘green’ to wholesale air-condition all the hottest parts of the planet.’ And the funny thing is traditional middle-eastern architecture had already solved the need to regulate indoor temperate without electricity through the use of wind towers.
Overall, the inherent physicality of architecture means it is ultimately rendered the most visible example of our contemporary society, both its attributes and its flaws. The Burj Khalifa, in all dramatics is illustrative of the many issues that are inextricably linked to a capitalist system. Its modernity symbolises the erasure of Middle-Eastern history in pursuit of financial gain and it a prime example of how our built environment is detrimental to global warming and the fate of the planet. It reminds us of the rampant consumerism plaguing Dubai and the economic inequality that is expanding across the globalised world.