In this study, we track culture and commerce across three phases of their relationship. The first section broadly unpacks the conditions of their interdependence, while the following section demonstrates how co-opting has become a common technique for over-coming moments of conflict and imbalance. The third section takes stock of the lessons drawn from the first two and suggests that moments of conflict can be productively leveraged to design new relationships between culture and commerce.
The vast quantities of art currently being circulated, sold and stored in free ports is cited as an example of this conflict and thus forms the basis for a proposition to double the existing global network of free port art storage facilities as new forms of public galleries. The intent is to shift the focus from the current debates concerning the physical extension of museums and their relationship between front and back of house, toward the potential interface between anonymity and publicity found in a third condition: out of house.
Commercial viability and cultural validation
Many real estate developments treat that most abstract term - culture, as if it were a measurable variable. The attitude and formula is this - add Xm2 of cultural programming to ensure a ‘vibrant hub’ is part of your new development.
Because these developments depend on the promise of providing new ‘placemaking’ qualities to attract investment and mobilise political will, it is natural that the cultural component of projects are referred to through quantifiable metrics, and pre-established criteria. This relationship between culture and commerce is one of the most commonly cited examples, and is one that casts culture as subservient to commerce.
While this pattern is pervasive, it belies the many other complex interdependencies operating elsewhere in contemporary society. It is these more nuanced and hidden interdependencies that this study seeks to expose and address.
To uncover the interdependence of culture and commerce requires an exposition of the hidden mechanisms, infrastructures and competing agendas that drive and sustain the images of our cultural production.
The potential of this research within architectural practice is twofold. Firstly - acknowledging the complexities required to initiate a building project is a prompt to not passively receive a client brief, but take an active role in shaping it. Secondly, the specific design preoccupations that absorb a design studio, can be punctuated with a widescreen impression of the social, political and financial fluctuations influencing the project.
In championing this form of analysis we hope to encourage critical thinking about architecture’s ongoing potential as both a representation of capital, and index of cultural values.
Value of art ≠ production
We live in an increasingly quantitative world - one where the performance of everything is measured, ranked and recorded. However, the value ascribed to things has never been more unstable. Consider that the value of art is not equal production costs. This basic formula perpetuates the ambiguity of value in volatile markets, creates aura around price tags, rather than direct experience - and distinguishes the business model of art from architecture. That is to say - the value of art is bound to the profile of the artist, the influence of powerful buyers, and the words of critics. Comparatively, architects attribute their value to a percentage of the build cost.
This formula has profoundly accelerated the economic, spatial and branding transformations of cities. In Miami, MCH group imported the cultural authority of the Art Basel brand, bringing with it a level of cultural validation to match Miami’s previously underserved luxury market, stimulating new real-estate developments and splintering the local art scene into a series of satellite fairs.
Underexposed in an overexposed industry
What does it mean when cultural relevance is mobilised to gain ascendency over the commercial fashion world? Comme des Garçons creator, Rei Kawakubo, whose collections were once derided as ‘Hiroshima Chic’, represents exactly this transformation.
Kawakubo’s counter intuitive approach to retail through her guerrilla store concepts have since been emulated by more mainstream fashion brands, while her Dover Street Market’s highly sought after floor space is a regularly fluctuating mix of curated fashion houses whose creative interactions challenge the discrete, internalised nature of typical retail experiences.
Cool breeds cool
Collaborations, associations, and philanthropy are techniques frequently deployed to maintain relevance, establish legacies and find new audiences.
Musicians frequently cameo in one another’s songs and concerts, and crossovers between the worlds of stage design, fashion, and art are commonplace. An everyday equivalent is found in the notion of being ‘there’ - the process of using social media platforms to create association between oneself and the opening of a new exhibition, or an ostensibly authentic travel experience. Architecture is similarly involved in these patterns of association. Opened in 2014, the Louis Vuitton Foundation by Bernard Arnault, CEO of luxury brand empire LVMH represents a rare example of a privately funded museum in France. The collaboration between Arnault and architect, Frank Gehry created an intersection between a luxury brand, an individual’s legacy and local government - one that could only be resolved by the inevitable publicness of architecture.
There are many off-shoot effects of cultural projects that are not expressly declared, but play a massive role in reshaping cities.
The High Line in New York provides an example through its long, thin proportions which simultaneously produce a celebrated promenade through the city and a canny business model. The Highline can pass through the maximum number of neighbourhoods with the minimum footprint, selling its air-rights along this length to stimulate the development of adjacent plots. Through this process, the formerly elevated rail line, has similarly elevated the real-estate value of Manhattan’s west side.
Authors: Julia Gottstein and Nick Roberts
Header image: Ivanpah Solar Array, Nipton, CA, United States. Source: Google Maps