From Objects of Austerity to Processes of Scarcity
University of Westminster, London, UK
This paper will discuss austerity in relation to scarcity through comparing the two terms conceptually and historically. Starting with a brief review of the use of these terms in post-war architectural discourse, the paper will then show how, using examples from the UK’s 1950 and 1960s, austerity is generally conceived as a reaction to perceived economic and resource scarcity. Three issues arise in this reading of austerity. First, in being defined through lack it is haunted by – and implicitly still yearning for – the ghosts of progress and growth. Secondly, it still adds stuff to the world rather than redistributing what is already there. Thirdly, the designers’ response is bound to objects, with aesthetic and spatial representations of austerity rather than interventions in, or revealing, the systems and discourses that might have produced it.
Where normative architectures of austerity might be 'cheaper' according to dominant economic value systems, the paper will discuss how critical architectures of scarcity challenge existing definitions of value, modes of production and resource limits. This is based on a reading of scarcity that moves away from its place in neo-classical economics and instead understands it as a socially constructed condition. Based on a current research project funded by HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area), the paper will use contemporary and historical examples of spatial agency to show how architects’ creativity under conditions of scarcity has shifted between the design of objects alone to intervening in the social and political ecologies within which the built environment is produced. The paper will end with pointers as to how architectural theorists, historians and practitioners might be equipped to articulate and even intervene in understandings of scarcity in the built environment.