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Money, or the Elephant in the Room

Denaro, o il convitato di pietra
Francesca Frassoldati, Alessandro Armando, Daniele Campobenedetto, Valeria Federighi, Caterina Barioglio and Federico Cesareo
p. 5-9
This article is a translation of:
Denaro, o il convitato di pietra [it]

Editor's notes

DOI: 10.17454/ARDETH03.01

Full text

1The theme of this third issue of “Ardeth”, Money: The Economies of Architecture, explicitly confronts one of the main problems that the journal is concerned with, i.e., the problem of power around the project of architecture. The project of architecture takes on the dimension of money and of economies from many angles, as highlighted by guest editor Jeremy Till in the call for papers. Money can be intended as a social object (money itself), as the set of flows and circulation of entities invested in some form of value that weave projects (evaluations, procedures, negotiations, i.e., that is, networks of exchange), or, again, as the very paradigm of binding or deontic power, embodied through contracts: “an allegory of the human bond,” following the definition that Angelo Condello gives in her dialogue with John Searle and Maurizio Ferraris.

2It seems therefore inevitable that the encounter between theoretical investigations around the project of architecture and this matter should cross the field of critical discourse. Or, at the very least, this is what emerges from the received contributions: authors answered the call for papers primarily by considering money as a problematic matter, one that calls for close unpacking in order to denounce inequalities and forms of exploitations, to demystify biased representations, and to unveil latent powers or opaque systems of speculation. Quite differently from what might have happened in a journal dedicated to building management or operations research, none of the authors chose to work on issues of innovation, efficiency, or development of the project of architecture by tackling its economic dimension in its instrumentality and (hypothetical) neutrality. In 2014, the editors of “Perspecta” opened the editorial of the thematic issue of the journal, Money, with these words: “There is an elephant in the room. It sits at every client meeting. It chooses every material, sets length of every cantilever.” And again: “formless itself, money forms architecture – but the academic community remains hesitant to broach the subject” (Andrachuck, J., Chrisovalantis Bolos, C., Forman, A., Hooks, M. A., 2014, “Perspecta: The Yale Architectural Journal”). Inside the issue, Peggy Deamer and Phil Bernstein reflected on the very definition of architectural labor as a professional service to be recognized and remunerated – as opposed to the common conceptualization through terms such as creativity and calling – that is carried out by operators of architectural design services and that ends up making the architectural intellectual effort both a product to be commoditized and the designated victim of competitive pricing pressure. Without taking up those sections of disciplinary debate, the spectrum of contributions in this issue of “Ardeth” paints a picture of quite diverse positions, not only with respect to a set of values that can be debated but is ultimately accepted but especially with respect to the discursive forms that architectural design theory can take, from an ideological critique to pragmatism.

3As in the previous two issues, the editorial board proposes a comparative reading map of the contributions. Our hypothesis of distribution – a partial one, and finalized at registering only a stage of the debate – is based on two differential axes. The horizontal axis refers to the form of discourse and distinguishes between critique and strategy. Critique (pars destruens) refers to papers that are predominantly critical in their use of case studies or consider the object of argumentation as an element to be deconstructed. Strategy (pars construens), the second form of discourse, features papers that are predominantly categorized by a strategic focus on a hypothesis of reaction to the status quo, a possible way out, or even an operative proposal for the project. The vertical axis refers to the varying conceptions of the power of the project. These, too, can be narrowed down to two categories. Resistance refers to the concept that the project of architecture as a tool (and a discipline) is able to take a stand in itself, even in opposition to the institutional nature of processes, of dominant narratives, and of technical, administrative, and economic imperatives. Dependency, meanwhile, starts from the assumption that the action of the project of architecture is structurally intertwined with current institutional conditions and with administrative and financial apparatuses from which the power of the project consequentially emerges regardless of unfavorable conditions.

4In this reading map, the contributions have been spread out in a complementary fashion to reveal correlations and oppositions that can, we hope, be useful in carrying the debate further.

5Kaji-O’Grady describes the world of philanthropic donations to biological research in the USA by underlining the close (and unavoidable) relationship of dependency between architectural work and the symbolic and strategic choices of investors. These billionaires use their money to mold the form and even the function of projects. In a way, the project is looked at from the outside, as if it were a minor and passive component, constrained within an enormous mechanism of concentrated flows of money. Ultimately, these monarchical decisions are accepted in the name of future science and its progress.

6In a similar way, Torisson focuses on the symbolic and mystifying strength of a future promise (the construction of Studio Building in Malmö) aimed at carrying out urban transformations by avoiding opening the process up to negotiations and controversies that might prove disruptive (and affect efficiency). The project, once again, is described as a passive piece amid strategies decided within settings and roles that are extraneous to architecture: the project is a mere tool, and the architect is a technician (“expert”). In this case, however, the author hopes for a social and participatory turn in which the project of architecture can regain ground and weigh on urban destinies wherever it is possible for it to not merge with neoliberal rhetoric around a falsely harmonizing promise of urban futures.

7Malfona writes about the case of a modern paradigmatic building, the Apple Park in Cupertino, reading it in morphological, typological, distributive, and even geographical terms, while also comparing it to similar older buildings. The reference to Tafuri (also present in Torisson’s paper) and to his critique of “super-technological monuments” clarifies the fundamentally critical cut of such a reading by interpreting the homologies between the style of the company and the meaning, either deliberate or involuntary, of architecture (“Golden prison or Utopian city?”).

8A different cut appears in Gough’s paper, which opens with a strategic question: how can architecture resist neoliberalism? The answer appears in the writings of Deleuze and Guattari and, although rooted in critical theory, attempts to find a propositive direction (“Criticism... is only a preliminary step”). According to the author, it is flows and conditions of relation governing the project – implications, we would like to call them – that work not only as constraints but also as “surplus” and thus as a fundamental lever for the power of the project. Capitalism is only solid in its effects, not as initial substance. The conditions within which economic imperatives are created, the dictatorship of money, emerge time and again through incremental assemblages, within which the same project takes strength and grows tougher by transitioning from the enunciation of fictional futures to the constraining structure of contracts. It is possible, then, to develop project strategies that are able to deviate such conditions from the inside: “In one sense this is a policy (with Sorkin.) of tactics.”

9In a way that is somehow parallel, Groth makes an operative proposal as answer to a list of problems regarding the progressive delegitimization and devaluing of architects’ work. In this case, the argument refers to a system of values rather than of structures. The challenge concerns the recodification of architects’ ethics in architecture schools, which should adopt a broader understanding of architectural education. The economic, professional, and personal value form a triad towards a lucid pedagogical program that would allow future architects to learn competence and emancipation in an integrated way.

10Wood, as Kaji-O’Grady and Torisson, takes on the issue of promises of the future and their dangerous (but effective) strength in dominating collective narratives around projects of architecture. The case of public–private partnerships for the building of schools in the UK and Italy is explored in detail in order to highlight the connections between speculative strategies and future educational reform models – reform that promises to be innovative and overcome models that are, in turn, simplistically described as obsolete. In the name of a future, unilateral, non-negotiated promise, public programs are colonized by present-day private interests within a system that postpones the payment of the debts that such operations generate. The modes of financing and partnership constitute the terms within which the project, as a process, takes shape and accepts working as mere executive tool. The final proposal, as a consequence, does not exceed the mainly critical cut of the text and is a call for a “humbler, less heroic approach” – one that is more attentive to present conditions.

11Gritti, Micelli, and Oppio start from a distinction that, in a way, corresponds to the horizontal axis of our diagram, i.e., the difference between critical autonomy and pragmatic measures (with Michel Serres). While it is presented as deliberately critical, the paper proposes a strictly theoretical strategy that can overcome this distinction through the development of “new ways to represent space.” The authors seem pragmatically oriented to recognize as a given the conditions that are a result of global markets, but they also seem to want to explore forms of integration between the disciplines of the project and those belonging to economic evaluation.

12Opening the section of invited authors, Bojanic´ proposes that readers reflect on two key concepts, poverty and dwelling, by reading through authors such as Hegel, Wolff, Engels, Smith, and many others. The framing of the problem of poverty in relation to the social responsibility – or power – of architects allows a positioning of other, critically-oriented contributions by giving a historical perspective running through the whole trajectory of industrial civilization. According to Bojanic´, after the first acceleration, the progress of urban reforms slowed down early on, much earlier than the coming of modernism (“There are not many optimistic protocols in 1872, but the difference from 30 years prior is, it seems to me, far greater, than in the last 150 years”). A provocative solicitation for architects derives from this: to tackle the issue of the power and possibilities around the project of architecture more radically and extensively and to face the challenges of the present day.

13Condello, in her dialogue with Searle and Ferraris, takes on the challenge of framing the ontology of money. This piece is a good description of the vertical axis of our diagram, as the positions of the two philosophers with respect to the existence of the social object called money are unequivocally opposite. On the one hand, Searle states that money only exists because there exists a collective intentionality recognizing it; on the other, Ferraris maintains that money is founded on a “deep structure” that is made of inscriptions transcending the intentions of subjects. Within this opposition, Condello recognizes the specters of possible positions that can be assumed with respect to the problem of money as well as to social reality in its entirety, along with the conditions within which power is constructed and maintained.

14In the first contribution to the section dedicated to comments, Dodd gives an extended review of the Labour Symposium, which took place at London’s Central Saint Martins in March, 2018. The piece is both a map detailing a way around many of the matters discussed in the other papers and a geography of a live debate that circles around the issue of architects’ and building construction agents’ work in its various forms of exploitation and mystification.

15Finally, the two graphic articles published in this issue differ in form and content, both nonetheless showing some of the possible ways for using the tools of drawing and diagrams to build an argument in the field of architectural design theory. Zhao builds a map of the process of financing and building a treehouse through the mechanism of global crowdfunding. In this case, the concrete correlations between network, money, and project actions seem to suggest that it is, in fact, possible to hack capital, as suggested by Gough. On another matter, Who Builds Your Architecture? employs the tools of architectural drawing and sequential storytelling in order to reveal the controversial implications that tie the construction of big buildings to the conditions of the exploitation of workers – construction workers as well as designers – giving actual evidence of the issues raised by Dodd. By not stopping at a critical read, “WBYA” proposes a possible action that relies on measurable procedures for each of the problems encountered.

16Almost as a postscript, and pulling together some of the threads left hanging on the first issue of “Ardeth”, Dutto reviews the seminar Double Crossing that took place at the Architectural Association on May 30th, 2018, as a follow-up to the cycle This Thing Called Theory (cfr. Ponzo G., “Ardeth”, 1, 2017); this is a conclusive note underlining the problem of the difficult relationship between theories and practices of architecture, one that is marked by suspicion, unfaithfulness, and two-way betrayals.

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Bibliographical reference

Francesca Frassoldati, Alessandro Armando, Daniele Campobenedetto, Valeria Federighi, Caterina Barioglio and Federico Cesareo, “Money, or the Elephant in the Room”Ardeth, 3 | 2018, 5-9.

Electronic reference

Francesca Frassoldati, Alessandro Armando, Daniele Campobenedetto, Valeria Federighi, Caterina Barioglio and Federico Cesareo, “Money, or the Elephant in the Room”Ardeth [Online], 3 | 2018, Online since 01 May 2020, connection on 28 January 2021. URL:

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About the authors

Francesca Frassoldati

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Alessandro Armando

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Daniele Campobenedetto

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Valeria Federighi

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Caterina Barioglio

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Federico Cesareo

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