The Tale of Architecture Commodification and the loss of public sphere-Prof.Jinisha Jain
One of my favourite stories of all times is Rabindra Nath Tagore’s ‘A Wrong Man in Worker’s Paradise’ (translated title), for it so beautifully explores the concept of utility visa-vis an intrinsic desire to look for meanings through art and creative pursuits and in that the latter can be a force to form social units. It talks about a paradise where everyone engages into some kind of an activity or exchange of services which is of ‘use’, except for one man. Quoting from the translation, “The man never believed in utility. Having had no useful work to do, he indulged in mad whims. He made little pieces of sculpture—men, women and castles, quaint earthen things dotted over with sea-shells. He painted. Thus he wasted his time on all that was useless and unnecessary”. You would have to read the story for its brilliant culmination but my reason of citing it is more for its bold questioning of utilitarianism as an ethical theory that believes that the best action is the one that maximizes utility. In today’s time, it is very relevant in that it makes one think if the best and most rewarding work is indeed the ‘paycheck’ and ‘wage’ type, or one where you sit and slog on a desk, for (someone’s) ‘profit’? In the words of environmental philosopher Dr Fred Guerin, utilitarianism wears “a magical invisibility cloak in the present age of Neo liberal Capitalism” and Consumerism, which have become the truth of our reality shaping the goals of our personal, social and cultural lives. Complex phenomena, as they are, one way to study their impacts on our lives and physical spaces, is through another phenomenon which is commodification. The dominant process underlying the transformation of life in all societies, since at least the mid-nineteenth century, is turning all things and activities into commodities, or commodification. Under advanced capitalism, commodification expands into all corners of social, economic and political life, with devastating consequences even on the urban fabric and landscapes of the cities we live and work in. Quote unquote, “Architecture is not a social art because buildings are important visual symbols of society but because through the ways buildings individually and collectively, create and order space, we are able to to recognise and nourish society.” Unfortunately, in the present context, design is a commodity, so is architecture and so are cities. People as machines with mathematizable and measurable deliverables, with hourly records of what they do and produce, are not spared either. More often than not, buildings and spaces are designed to house these breathing machines to serve their employers. Let us try to understand. Not everything useful is a commodity. And not everyone is a consumer. What makes anything a commodity is the possibility of trading it for profit. What makes everyone a consumer is the possibility of selling them this commodity, leading to overproduction. These outlooks not only changes the ideals in our lives, the way we lead them but also the spaces around. “Apples grown in someone’s back yard are not commodities; apples become commodities only when they are grown for sale.” Under capitalism, nothing is produced that can’t be sold for profit, so the production of commodities is Capitalism’s raison d’etre. And producing more than what is required (ofcourse for profit) and at the cost of available natural and human resources is Consumerism’s raison d’etre.