Scarcity contra Austerity

Designers need to know the difference.

Graffiti in Norwich, England, in July. [Photo by Gerry Balding]

We live in an age of austerity; or, rather, we are told that we live in an age of austerity. In the United States and throughout Europe, austerity is presented as a necessary stricture, and the mantra “cuts now, growth later” is repeated so steadily that it seems an inevitability, with consequences ranging from the personal (shortened shopping lists) to the public (cutbacks in major civic projects). As a discipline that spans the private-public spectrum, architecture inevitably is bound to this new regime, and so it is not surprising that the machinations of economic austerity are being played out in the mainstream of contemporary building.

For the large majority of the profession — let’s say the 99% — the wider context of economic leanness is profoundly influencing every stage of the process. It is a depressing and paradoxical turn of events that the global financial crisis, which was caused by indiscriminate risk-taking, should result in a culture of heightened risk aversion. In architecture — certainly in the U.K. and likely elsewhere — this has meant that the choice of architects is largely determined by procurement managers making crude calculations that effectively exclude smaller practices and those who produce value through design rather than spreadsheets. Once selected, architects are then increasingly asked to take the hurt during the early stages by working on speculation; if the job lands, they are then paid at ever-reduced fee levels, set against project costs that are continually pared down through value-engineering (an Orwellian euphemism indeed). When the job goes on site, the contract is endlessly subdivided in order to pass risk down the contractual chain, and there is ever increasing reliance on off-site and standardized construction. Nor is the architectural academy exempt from the drive to austerity, given the ever more strident demands for market-ready students, often conveyed in terms of the irrelevance of theory or experiment, and revealing an anti-intellectualism that threatens the very basis of educational values.

There is nothing particularly new about such straitened circumstances; the design professions have navigated successive waves of recession, e.g., in the early ’80s, the early ’90s, the early ’00s. But the current crisis has persisted to the point where conditions of austerity are magnified and architecture seems helplessly adrift in the wake of wider economic currents. It’s not surprising, then, that another reaction to contemporary austerity is the effort to escape its political constructions and take refuge in the more rarefied realm of aesthetic discourse, in which austerity becomes reified, even celebrated. This is the path of the architectural elite — let’s say the 1% — which although in the minority nonetheless functions as a kind of redemption for the 99%, offering the promise of loftier values beyond the dross of efficiency gains. Rationalized by the revived Miesian homily, “less is more,” the aesthetics of austerity thus emerge, and become a source of solace, the means to revalidate the very essence of architecture in defiance of the diminished world outside the studio.

Top left and bottom right: Peter Eisenman, City of Culture, Galicia, Spain (2012). [Photos by Inmobiliaria Lares] Top right and bottom left: Oscar Niemeyer, International Cultural Center, Avilés, Spain (2011). [Photos by SurfAst and disgustipado]

During the boom years — so recent yet so distant — there was a real correlation between the culture of the global plutocracy and the resulting architectural excess, with the design production of the 1% predictably reduced to another form of commodity. In Spain, for example, the barely occupied shells of buildings by architects such as Oscar Niemeyer and Peter Eisenman have become poignant markers of the collective madness of the period. So in the new age of austerity, architecture is encouraged to disassociate itself from this previous decadence: to demonstrate the propriety of the discipline, critics argue, we need to reassert its core and authentic values. 1 Thus a loose grouping of European architecture offices are championed in the pages of publications such as The Architectural Review, Building Design, 2G and Detail as bearers of good sense: Caruso St John, Tony Fretton and Sergison Bates in the U.K., Peter Märkli and Valerio Olgiati in Switzerland, Robbrecht & Daem and Stéphane Beel in Belgium, to name just a few.

Most of the buildings designed by these firms are not exactly austere, at least in the financial sense; but they typically aspire to an aesthetic of minimalist decorum and tectonic rectitude in contrast to what now seem the baubles of the past decade. Writing in Building Design about some recent work by Peter Märkli, Ellis Woodman notes that the projects are “… concerned with issues that preoccupied architects for centuries — grammar, proportion, propriety, measure — but [that] are discussed only in the most limited terms today. … If we are once again to have an architecture that speaks of values other than the spectacular, it is surely through a return to those concerns that that we will find it.” 2 And just as the politics of austerity often claims a moral imperative (“we are all in this together,” has become the chant of the right wing in Britain), so too this architecture of austerity — of the 1% — does not merely trumpet the aesthetics of simplicity, precision and honesty, but insinuates that they are a form of moral action. “Beauty is the most radical thing I know,” claims Märkli. 3

Top left: Caruso St John, Nottingham Contemporary, England (2009). [Photo by Steve Cadman]. Top right: Sergison Bates, Centre for the Applied Arts, Ruthin, Wales (2008). [Photo by John Lord] Bottom: Tony Fretton, Fuglsang Art Museum, Lolland, Denmark (2008). [Photo by Jens Gyldenkærne Clausen]

Caught between the diminished architecture of the 99% and the austere architecture of the 1%, we are left helpless; architecture is once again simply a kind of after-effect — the residue of dominant economic forces. But architecture is of course far from the only victim of austerity. Politicians often suggest the inevitability and universality of austerity, and argue that it is necessary in order to re-establish economic equilibrium; but too often programs of austerity function to conceal powerful systems of authority. Scratch the surface and one finds that this argument for “inevitability” masks a deeply ideological underbelly, which on both sides of the Atlantic is resulting in ever greater social inequality and ever more privatization of vital public goods. 4 In the U.K. — and in the U.S., Spain, Greece, Italy, et al. — citizens are expected to endure stringencies in the short term in order to ensure economic salvation in the long term: budget cuts today, we are assured, will produce growth tomorrow — and growth, of course, is the sine qua non of capitalist orthodoxy.

But here the argument becomes necessarily more complex: here the political ideology of austerity is challenged by the real condition of scarcity. For if we understand that austerity is a political response in the Global North to the economic crisis, and as such neither natural nor inevitable but imposed; and if we understand scarcity to mean the actual phenomenon of lack — the quantifiable dwindling of limited resources — then it’s clear that we are being confronted with nonnegotiable limits to growth. Endless growth is impossible in the context of finite resources — especially as the harmful impact of that growth on the biosphere becomes increasingly palpable. Growth, as a bedrock assumption of capitalism, is thus shadowed by the condition of scarcity. This is why scarcity has long been the spectre at the feast of neoclassical economics.

Although austerity and scarcity are inevitably intertwined — the regimes of austerity induce real scarcities — austerity is not the same as scarcity. Austerity is the outcome of the ideologies of neo-liberalism, whereas scarcity is a higher-level condition that both drives those ideologies and also threatens them. Scarcity is the motor of capitalism: scarcity of supply regulates the market; too much stuff diminishes desire and competition. Yet the mere intimation of limits — on the supply of resources, the actions of industry, the freedom of markets, etc. — undermines the expectations of unfettered growth upon which extreme capitalism depends.

Top left: Valerio Olgiati, Visiting Center, Swiss National Park, Zernez (2002). [Photo by El Bra]. Top right: Robbrecht and Daem, Concert Hall, Bruges, Belgium (2002). [Photo by Amaury Henderick] Bottom left: Stéphane Beel, Courthouse, Ghent, Belgium (2006). [Photo by Amaury Henderick] Bottom right: Peter Märkli, Novartis Visitor Center, Basel, Switzerland (2006). [Photo by Novartis]

As an economic factor, scarcity is thus more complex than austerity. For one thing, scarcity is all too real (things are truly running out). From Thomas Malthus onwards, neoclassical economists have sought to naturalize scarcity as an unavoidable condition that propels the economic machine; as the influential London School of Economics professor Lionel Robbins put it, in the early 1930s: “Economics … is concerned with that aspect of behavior which arises from the scarcity of means to achieve given ends. It follows that Economics is entirely neutral between ends.” 5 Yet scarcity can also be constructed. 6 The clearest example of this is food; there is plenty of food on the planet, but much of it is in wrong places; or at least, not in places where people are truly hungry. 7 The inefficiencies of distribution systems, the politics of subsidies, the machinations of global corporations: all work to construct localized scarcities of food. (And though the scarcity might be artificial, the hunger is real.)

Beyond Austerity

So how might an understanding of the difference between scarcity and austerity allow contemporary designers to grapple with current challenges? One might deplore the new regime of austerity; but for most practitioners it will remain a bleak economic reality imposed by macro-economic forces beyond our individual or even disciplinary control. We are left trying to do the same thing but with less and, in contradiction to Mies, less really is less. But scarcity is another matter; scarcity, whether real or constructed, might inspire us to widen the field of practice and allow us to operate more creatively.

How might this happen? I would argue that the first step in engaging the dilemma of scarcity is thinking beyond the object. Real scarcities counter the long-held assumption that the discipline of architecture should be defined solely through the act of building — that architectural progress is necessarily signposted through the addition of new stuff to the world. Real scarcities of raw materials such as rare earth minerals, of energy sources such as petroleum, and of natural resources such as old-growth forests all underscore that the option of continually adding new stuff will sooner or later cease to be desirable or even viable. But at the same time what we might call “scarcity thinking” opens up new possibilities for redistributing what already exists. By redistributing I do not mean doing more with less, or even renovating things in the world; I am arguing for a different kind of activity in which the creativity of the designer is focused not on objects but on the processes that precede and follow the making of objects.

Consider, for example, the processes of building procurement (which range from the traditional design-bid-build, to design-build, to construction management). Almost always these processes are framed entirely in economic terms, and tightly controlled by project managers and value engineers; and as noted, are nowadays a matter of endless cost-cutting. But what if we were to understand — to redefine — building procurement processes within the context of real and constructed scarcities? What if the quantities and costs of construction materials were not solely the purview of project managers? What if architects took on the creative challenge of redefining — you might even say deconstructing — those quantities and costs and construction materials in light of such pressing realities as finite resource flows and proliferating waste streams? The work of several practices already points in these directions.

2012Architecten, Wikado playground, Rotterdam, Netherlands (2008). [Photo by 2012Architecten]

2012Architecten is a Rotterdam-based office established in 1997 with the broad goal of developing strategies “to facilitate the transition to a more sustainable society,” and the more specific agenda of exploring ways to reduce the quantity of resources used in the production of space. Typically its designs repurpose materials, components and objects in the forms in which they are found; an approach which, unlike recycling, doesn’t require further energy and resources to alter the found thing into another thing. The 2012 Architecten partners Jan Jongert, Césare Pereen and Joroen Bergsma call this process “super-use,” and in diverse projects they deploy surplus materials otherwise destined for landfill or incineration. For instance, Moes, a restaurant and bar in Amsterdam, features acoustic tiles from a nearby office building and light boxes from Schipol Airport; Wikado, a playground in Rotterdam, turns the discarded blades of a wind turbine into a maze-like recreational space; Villa Welpeloo, a residence for artists, is made from steel beams discarded from a textile factory and wood slats from old cable reels.

Raumlabor, a Berlin-based collective, is also challenging the conventions of design practice. (“No trust no city” is the idealistic slogan that greets visitors on the firm’s homepage.) A good example is Officina Roma, a project commissioned by the Roman museum MAXXI as part of its recent exhibition RE-Cycle: Strategies for Architecture, City and Planet. Working with high school students, Raumlabor constructed a temporary building in the garden of the museum’s new building by Zaha Hadid. The partners describe the project as a “collage,” with kitchen, sleeping room and workshop made variously from old bottles, car doors, worn-out furniture, and used oil barrels and drywall panels. Raumlabor seems aware that their rough temporary structure is inevitably in a kind of dialectic with Hadid’s MAXXI. “Although situated in the very dynamic and exclusive garden of the MAXXI,” they say on their website, the Officina Roma “speaks of deadlocks, interdependencies and the need for more fundamental and tougher negotiations over privileges in our future society.”

One more example, this from another innovative collective, the London-based 00:/. For its entry into a competition to redesign the congested corridor of a secondary school, the firm took a strategically modest approach. They spent days carefully watching the space, noting when and how it was used, and then, rather than proposing a redesign, they proposed easing the crowding by retiming and staggering the daily breaks. The physical arrangement of the corridor would remain as it was.

In all these projects the designers were confronted with scarcities — of materials, of expertise, of money — but understood these as opportunities rather than obstacles. And in each case they shift the attention from having less to using design ingenuity to redefine the project. Where architectural procurement is normally focused on the efficient production of new buildings, here spatial intelligence is deployed to redistribute what is already there in a manner that mitigates the effects of scarcity.

Officina Roma, MAXXI, Rome, Italy (2011). [Photos by Raumlabor]

Beyond Sustainability

In moving beyond the fixity of objects to the dynamics of processes, scarcity thinking also begins to unravel some of the accepted norms of sustainability. At first the discourse of scarcity might seem to fit neatly with that of sustainability. If scarcity is defined at core as lack, then the commonsense response is to use less, which is one of the central planks of sustainability in the built environment. All the main systems of sustainable measure, from BREEAM in the UK to LEED in North America, focus on using less: less water, less energy, less embodied energy, less waste, and so on. All would seemingly address the issues of scarcity head-on, by reducing the potential for future lack; and to the extent that sustainable design may result in a lessening of extraction from the biosphere, it does align with imperatives that arise from the increasing scarcity of resources.

Yet the most commonly received definition of sustainability, which is that of the Bruntland Commission, places a straitjacket around scarcity, potentially limiting it to issues of constraint. If we follow the Bruntland version of sustainability — “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” — then sustainability is assumed to be a matter of sustaining what we already have in terms of lifestyle and consumer behavior. But I would argue that Bruntland should be read not as an emollient assurance that it is possible to sustain our current lifestyles, but rather as a straightforward contradiction in terms. Scarcity, in its challenge to assumptions of continuing growth, allows us to reassess some of the grounding principles of sustainability, and to underscore that the very phrase “sustainable development” has become an impossible oxymoron.

We can thus see how sustainability —by reducing the complexity and temporality of the built environment to the fixity of measure and object — essentializes scarcity. Sustainability thinking assumes that scarcities are inevitable and can be quantified, and that the way to handle these scarcities is through programs of reduction and control. As the British radical thinker Iain Boal has said so precisely: “Scratch an environmentalist and you will find a Malthusian underneath” — a reference to the Reverend Malthus’s infamous proposition that future food shortages can be only be managed through population control, particularly of the poor. 8

And as with Malthus two centuries ago, the essentializing of scarcity today is used as the justification for very specific programs of control. The essentializing of scarcity has resulted in building regulations and guidelines that concentrate on very limited aspects of the design process, such as air changes (e.g., the German Passivhaus system) or carbon reduction (e.g., the UK SAP, or Standard Assessment Procedure for residential energy usage). In their various ways, all such guidelines concentrate on the technical production of the built environment and thus on the building as object, rather than on what comes before and after the object. And the assumption that the object should meet a standard of sustainability works to distract us from the more fundamental question of whether the object is needed in the first place; it also suggests that technical fixes are the solutions to problems (diminishing resources and global climate disruption) that were brought about by technological progress.

Passivhaus scheme for energy-efficient “sustainable” building. [Diagram by Pascal Billery-Schneider]

This is exactly where scarcity thinking allows us to reevaluate and rework the tenets of sustainability thinking. If, as argued above, scarcity asks us to do things differently rather than to do the same thing with less, then the discourse of sustainability is shifted from measuring and technically refining the object to understanding the object within a wider and more complex set of dynamics. To note one example: many studies show that after the installation of energy efficient measures, energy usage sometimes actually increases or at least does not deliver expected savings; this is due to the “rebound effect,” which happens when occupants believe that energy is being used more efficiently and so leave appliances on, or else never learn to use the simple controls and instead open windows when it gets too hot or cold. 9 By concentrating on the non-human, technical aspects of a project, we can too easily overlook the human, behavioral aspects; which suggests that designers should turn their attention from the design of the kit to the use of the kit.

Scarcity thinking also allows us unpack to some of the accepted “truths” of sustainability. For example, the prioritization of energy saving through the reduction of heat loss has allowed the thermal insulation industry to dominate building design and construction. But if one sees this process in light of constructed scarcities, one can then introduce questions about that prioritization, e.g., by questioning the temperature norms that have set the energy targets or by challenging the dominance of multinational product companies and the subsequent marginalization of more local or closed-loop systems of procurement. Sustainability is thus revealed to be a political condition in which limits, set under the guise of apparent objectivity, are actually partisan.

Constructions of Scarcity

Scarcity thus has a twofold constitution: first as an actual limit on resources; and then as a socially constructed condition that results in the uneven distribution of resources. Neither kind of scarcity is going away any time soon. As long as global economic growth remains a guiding assumption of the global market, resources will inevitably dwindle, and as long as the market remains the dominant force in politics, the development and distribution of resources will become ever more uneven. And so I am arguing that in the coming age of scarcity, the focus of the designer needs to shift away from simply using less, as under the rule of austerity, to understanding the constitution of scarcity — where and why and how resources are lacking — and grappling with this in a creative manner.

Renew Newcastle makes temporary use of empty space for artists and creative enterprises, Newcastle, Australia. [Map by Renew Newcastle]

I’ll end with a brilliant example of how this might play out in action. Newcastle is a typical post-industrial city in New South Wales, Australia; it’s got a deserted city center surrounded by an inner ring of abandoned factories and then an outer belt of suburbs to which people and retail retreated years ago. The buildings in the center were controlled by outdated regulations and by owners who had neither the will, means or imagination to find new uses, alternative tenants. The result was a paradoxical impasse — the city had an abundance of space but a scarcity of availability. Enter an innovative non-profit organization, Renew Newcastle, led by the artist and festival director Marcus Westbury. Working with local planners and property owners, Renew Newcastle has devised ways to help them realize the value of their buildings and spaces beyond the limited purview of traditional office or commercial retail. Through creative leasing arrangements — e.g., owners license their properties to the non-profit, which then finds short- and medium-term uses for the spaces — Renew Newcastle has brokered the reoccupation of downtown by creative businesses, social entrepreneurs and artists. While Westbury identifies this problem as essentially spatial, he argues that it’s best addressed by working not so much with the hardware of the city — the built environment — but rather with its software, “the rules and restraints that are imposed and enforced by governments.” “You need,” he writes, “to start by rewriting — or hacking — the software to change not what the city is but how it behaves.” 10

This is but one example of how conditions of scarcity demand new ways of thinking, an expansion of the role of the architect and designer outwards in order to function more broadly and imaginatively as spatial agents. In contrast to the regimes of austerity, which are ever more reductive, the territory of processes and networks opened up by scarcity is far more conducive to creative intervention. It is here that scarcity — which can seem at first a bleak prospect — can become the inspiration and context for constructive and transformative action.

Author's Note

This article is the result of a trans-European research project, Scarcity and Creativity in the Built Environment, funded by the Humanities in the European Research Area, or HERA. It is based on conversations with project members Isis Nunez Ferrara, Jon Goodbun, Deljana Iossifova, (University of Westminster), Andreas Rumpfhuber, Michael Klein, Georg Kolmayr (TU Wien), and Barbara Ascher, Christian Hermansen, Arna Mathiesen and Ed Robbins (AHO, Oslo).

  1. One could cite many commentaries of this sort; a fairly recent example is a series in The Architectural Review titled “The Big Rethink.”
  2. Ellis Woodman, “Beyond Babel: The Work of Swiss Architect Peter Märkli,” Building Design, July 27, 2007.
  3. Florian Beigel, “Peter Märkli in Conversation,” The Architects’ Journal, November 2007. In my recent book Architecture Depends, I argue that this effort to attach aesthetics to morals is misplaced. By associating ethics with the aesthetic statics of buildings, architecture is lifted up and away from the dynamics of social relationships, which is where ethical issues are truly played out. The ethics of aesthetics thus present a false morality, but one which many architects find comforting and indeed aspirational.
  4. In the United Kingdom, so-called austerity programs in education and health can actually cost taxpayers more. Thus in higher education, fees will triple in 2012, on the grounds that the public can no longer afford to pay for universities and so the burden should shift to the students who benefit. Yet the reality is very different: far from reducing public costs, the increased fees actually increase the burden on the taxpayer because the government will have to fund the higher loans. Under guise of austerity in education, the government is effectively privatizing the universities. See Jeremy Till, “Scar(c)e Times,” Occupied Times.
  5. Lionel Robbins, An Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science (London: Macmillan, 1932), 40.
  6. See for example, The Limits to Scarcity: Contesting the Politics of Allocation, Lyla Mehta, editor (London: Earthscan, 2010); Nicholas Xenos, Scarcity and Modernity (London?; New York: Routledge, 1989). See also Jeremy Till, “Scare Stories: Scarce Stories – the Ideology of Austerity,” Occupied Times.
  7. S. J. Scanlan, J. C. Jenkins and L. Peterson, “The Scarcity Fallacy,” Contexts, 9 (2010), 34–39.
  8. This quote is from a lecture by Iain Boal at the University of Westminster, June 2011, as part of the “Scarcity Exchanges” series.
  9. See Horace Herring and Robin Roy, “Technological innovation, energy efficient design and the rebound effect,” Technovation, 27, April 2007, 194–203.
  10. Marcus Westbury, “Cities as Software,” Volume, 27 (2011), 90
Jeremy Till, “Scarcity contra Austerity,” Places Journal, October 2012. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

Comments are closed. If you would like to share your thoughts about this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.

Past Discussions View
  • 10.12.2012 at 14:40

    One of the problems in this new age of austerity you describe is the rise of Gimmick architecture. Here is a passive house, here is a prefab house, here is a ____ house but that is where the story ends. Solyndra looked good on paper too, but why did it fail? Are these examples above good architecture that people want to live in?
    Who wants to live in an "austere" house? Not anyone I know.
    The key is to not lose the "design" of it all.. or the creation of a warm experience and space, finding beauty in the simplicity and not designing just from a sun diagram.

  • 10.12.2012 at 16:35

    Although another definition of austerity could just be a lack of pretentiousness, which is refreshing in our currently design culture.

  • 10.20.2012 at 21:00

    Thank you for the article. You have described a clear path that amplifies the meaning of design intelligence.