Tonight I’ve been reading Marx before I head to bed. I haven’t seriously read Marx in a very long time and I’m lucky enough to be surveying a class on the history of Marxism this semester at WSU. It’ll be much easier to refresh my knowledge of Marx in a classroom setting where I have other people to share and discuss my thoughts with.
Anyway, I’m reading the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts which covers Marx’s critique of capitalism in a more humanistic or “abstract” manner (I don’t feel that those terms do the critique justice, or are even all that accurate, but I’m being brief). While reading and thinking about the alienating effects of capitalist society (but, really, when don’t I think about that?) I was reminded of something I had said to a friend the other day.
I prefer to do most of my banking through an ATM located in the old General Motors headquarters in New Center (in Detroit). I could do my banking through an ATM in the Wayne State student center, but one reason I prefer to do it at the old GM HQ is because of the awesome architecture and design inside the building. The building was probably designed in the 20’s and probably got touched up in the 1940’s through WPA. I think seeing genuinely interesting and beautiful architecture really makes a major improvement on my attitude while getting ready, or winding down, from an 8-hour day of painfully boring work. Even if for only 5 minutes.
This is an aspect of more contemporary capitalism that happens to cross my mind frequently, as there are new developments springing up around this area in Detroit all the time. Along Woodward, throughout the Cass Corridor (or “Midtown”) and so forth. However the new architecture almost always is flat, cold and boring (although people will find exceptions, I’m sure). Take for example this new development:
The Studio 1 apartments were a project of Wayne State University, who has a mission to tear down some genuinely beautiful old buildings and put up boring, droll, banal crap like this in their stead. A large section of this development that you can’t see is the totally essential parking garage located right behind the building from the angle this photo was taken at. This building now includes a 5/3rd Bank, a Radioshack, a chain coffee shop and a sports bar that no one I’ve ever spoken to has been to and seems almost constantly vacant.
This was built on top of the old Vernor’s Ginger Ale factory — a historic and cultural cornerstone of Michigan’s character. While the factory itself certainly wasn’t an example at all of the kind of beautiful inspiring architecture I’m talking about, the building at least held some significance to the city’s history, and I think that in itself is beautiful and inspiring. Of course, that kind of beauty and inspiration serves to not even raise the eyebrow of the people with the power and resources to decide what gets destroyed and what gets built in this world. C’est la vie.
I suppose that is exactly what I’m talking about. It’s far less expensive and profitable to make nauseatingly droll and boring buildings like the one above, than it is to invest in fixing old vacant buildings or to invest in creating newer, beautiful buildings. It’s all about “efficiency” and “function” (for profit). However, for us, everyday people on the ground, we lose out — it’s patently inefficient. Boredom isn’t efficient — it’s boring! It’s uninspiring. Being surrounded by, or trapped inside, bland structures is depressing and even maddening. How is any of that efficient for us?
But how much more lovely would life be if you could be inside buildings that maximized windows and natural light, or where there weren’t windows there was art? I especially love the entrance in the Guardian building in Downtown Detroit as an example of the kind of design that I would like to see more of:
Here’s the Guardian building from the outside:
Another example would be the Maccabee’s Building, which houses academic and administrative offices for Wayne State University.
Of course, people will say that capitalism produced all of these buildings I’m celebrating, so what am I complaining about? I don’t really have a great response to that. Partly I think that there’s a cultural difference between now and the early 20th century, which has to a large degree sacrificed aesthetics for the sake of profit. I also think that much of what I’m referring to, especially in the pictures above, was produced during the WPA period which was largely a government response to the need for jobs and specifically to massive popular anti-capitalist sentiment and outrage. The WPA was the largest part of the New Deal agency started under Roosevelt, and in addition to public infrastructure projects, also created programs to renovate already existing buildings with art and other things to make the buildings more attractive.