polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Designing the Corporation

by Peter Sigrist

Corporations are too often undemocratic engines of profit at the expense of a more broadly shared wellbeing. However, as collections of minds working together, they are highly effective and full of potential.

Individual gain seems to be the force that holds corporations together and tears them apart. What could take its place? Coercion, ideas, and altruism have their limits. Basic self-interest seems to be a constant. It may not be our highest calling, but we can count on it. In making use of self-interest to effectively address ecological problems from poverty to environmental degradation, architecture can play an important role.

Actually, this calls for an explanation of what I mean by architecture. At its best, architecture is collaborative design, planning, and implementation of well-informed ideas. By collaborative, I don't mean that individual architects should be marginalized in favor of an unwieldy group-think. It's more about people working together, using their talents in ways that are best for them, communicating effectively, and bringing about well-conceived, democratically formulated plans. It involves the design of self-improving systems — from ecological processes to infrastructure, organizations, technology, events, and other contributing factors.

Architecture as a term seems as obsolete as monarchy. How many architects can honestly call themselves master builders? Doesn't the client usually make the final call? And given the amount of capital needed to realize most projects, clients tend to be wealthy and powerful. Large-scale architecture has pretty much always been controlled by these kinds of patrons, but maybe that can change. On a side note, urbanism seems equally problematic. Why should the urban be such a rallying point? The "-ism" implies a valuation of cities over other places, which seems limited in scope when considering global problems. It also brings up unnecessary associations with fascism, racism, and sexism, especially in light of the overwhelming amount of attention and resources that metropolitan areas already attract.

Expanding the field of architecture requires an engagement with the processes of implementation if it is to become more than fantasy. This would include humans and nonhumans working together in well-coordinated ways, guiding self-interest toward a common good. It shouldn't be limited to the urban.

For coordinated action at a global scale, it's hard to imagine a more effective structure than the cooperation. What if it were applied toward solving ecological problems? Does its effectiveness depend on evading the accountability of democratic governance, or can it play a useful role?

Credits: Photo of La Paz, Bolivia, from Lottelies.