Habitat for homo-œconomicus

The Habitat of Homo Œconomicus, image for a diorama, ‘The Competitive Hypothesis’ curated by Adrian Lahoud with Thinkspace, Storefront for Art and Architecture, 2013

Ross Exo Adams & Ivonne Santoyo-Orozco

Outside the realm of high profile architectural competitions, another world of architectural competition unfolds in multiple, largely unrecognizable practices. Competition here exists as a background condition–the immense, brutal economic rivalry that has fermented in an oddly silent yet pervasive manner over the course of the recent decades. Under the growing demand for large scale private real estate development around the world, a new landscape of competition has materialized itself in the likes of Special Economic Zones, private districts and clusters and the generalized privatization of civic space at large. Unfurling at a scale reminiscent of state planning of the previous century, these new demands have shaped a very different architectural and urban design practice dominated by a slew of colossal yet anonymous design conglomerates. Analogous to the neoliberal restructuring of the state, developers in this new mode of production have increasingly found themselves faced with the problem of producing large scale collective spaces, while framing them around the interests of an anonymous, freely competing individual.

By the latter half of the twentieth century, the influential American economist, Gary Becker, would take neoliberal, free market ideology to its logical conclusion, offering forth a new politico-economic model which would only take shape decades later. Like his predecessors, Becker too would center his economic program on the figure of the homo œconomicus. However, unlike others before him, Becker would begin by radically reconceptualizing this subject: For him, homo œconomicus was someone who unquestionably accepts ‘reality’, embracing it as the totality of his or her given circumstances. Becker realized that economic calculations could not be based solely on an individual’s rational behavior, but must also account for his or her irrational behavior. By including all manner of conduct, Becker suggested that economic projections should therefore account for external stimuli which pre-condition behavior itself. In other words, Becker’s new form of neoliberal policy would expand its domain to account for the mediation between personal interests and the composition of the external, affective environment in which homo œconomicus dwells. For the entrance of homo œconomicus, a new world would have to be constructed, a world that would foster an economy of interests.

The majority of today’s architectural practices are required to intervene on both fronts, addressing the needs of large scale real estate development while idealizing them around the construct of the sensually aware, desiring individual. In order to keep up with these demands, architectural practices have sought to mediate this relation through a campaign of visual techniques. Beyond evoking certain identifiable trends in design–for architecture exists in the indifference of the background–, the imagery which has systematically colonized the entire architectural repertoire reveals much more about the external coordinates in which architecture operates today. Often eluding a clear subject or figure, such images instead depict spaces captured in the causual glance of a kind of super-subject who exists at once in the privileged, everydayness of its gaze as well as outside the image and in the immersive grasp it purports to place in the space beyond the image. Figurelessness and interchangeability are the very basis on which homo œconomicus’ constructs its individuality.

Shrouded in lush greenery, and bathed in warm, late afternoon sunlight; ‘vibrant’ streetscapes, crowded with families, tourists and young lovers; skewed perspectives which reveal the naturally curving layout of active frontage; aerial views at sunrise with fresh mist captured in the texture of a new-yet-familiar planned district; the integration of local ‘culture’ within the appropriate interpretations of what already exists—this is the construction of ‘place’ which has been rolled out across the planet by the anonymous firms of a multi-billion dollar industry today. It is the vibrant, perpetual summer of homo œconomicus, the verdant immersiveness of an ecology of interests.

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