I’m at a newsstand at Penn Station in New York, randomly browsing through the shelter magazines. An article about a house located in the Napa Valley in northern California, designed by a young San Francisco architect, catches my eye. Made of redwood from a renewable forest, the house gets its electricity and most of its energy for heating and cooling from rooftop solar panels. The interior, furnished with 20th-century classics and flea market finds, has radiant floors. On the south side, floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding glass doors open onto a deck and swimming pool fed by a system of filtrated rainwater. The same reservoir irrigates the landscape, which is planted with fruit trees and native shrubs. The owners, a couple who produce history documentaries, share a workspace in an outbuilding that doubles as a garage for their hybrid SUV. The dwelling doesn’t break any new ground architecturally, but it has an inviting and relaxed California-contemporary feel, and it’s obviously trying hard to be ecologically correct. Both the designer and owners are proud of the bit they are doing for the planet.
Fifteen minutes later, I’m sitting on a train and unfold my newspaper. Protests by hundreds of workers at the Jinko Solar factory in the Chinese city of Haining have shut down the plant. Local residents have been complaining about toxic smokestack emissions. After heavy rain a week earlier, the release of improperly stored wastewater contaminated with hydrofluoric acid killed hundreds of fish in an adjacent canal. Dozens of pigs died after farmers gave them the water to drink. Government inspectors sent to the site have confirmed that the fluoride concentration in the water is ten times higher than acceptable. People in the vicinity have also blamed the plant for a spike in cancer deaths, although officials insist their fears are exaggerated. 1
How to connect these two stories? Or to reframe the question, how many degrees of separation exist between them? It occurs to me that there’s a good chance the solar panels in the house in Napa were manufactured in China, maybe even at the Jinko Solar plant.
How many degrees of separation exist between the eco-conscious house in the Napa Valley and the toxic solar panel factory in China?
Actually, the pollution scandal just described occurred ten years ago, when I first began writing a version of this essay. The original Jinko plant in Haining opened in 2006. Today, the company, headquartered in Shanghai and listed on the New York Stock Exchange, is one of the largest producers of solar panels in the world. It employs 15,000 workers globally, with nine plants around the world and dozens of overseas subsidiaries. Far from the stereotype of the offshore sweatshop, Jinko’s new factories and others like them are high-tech, automated facilities with smart machines operated by a skilled labor force. 2 The Chinese have the capital and construction capacity to build and staff these plants with incredible rapidity. Their government is also eager to subsidize them. As manufacturing capacity has increased exponentially, panel prices have fallen and China continues to dominate the world market. The industry has also made deep inroads into the domestic Chinese market. More than just big business, clean energy is a matter of life or death today in China, as the devastating consequences of pollution in both the cities and countryside have dramatized.
Back in the United States, American factories have a difficult time competing. 3 A series of start-ups have failed, beginning, infamously, with the bankruptcy of the Obama-administration-subsidized Solyndra in 2011. The debacle led to hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer losses. Since then, the U.S. has imposed tariffs on imported solar cells and modules, and in January 2018, the Trump administration raised them to a stiff 30 per cent. 4 For Trump it wasn’t only a matter of staving off the competition or simply a perverse desire to reverse his predecessor’s policies. His intent was to protect one of his most loyal constituencies, the fossil fuel industry. No matter that this meant stubbornly denying climate change. 5
Yet solar panels are, at best, only a piece of the solution. Beyond the fact that the manufacturing process throws off hazardous by-products, the panels themselves at present contain lead, copper, aluminum, and photovoltaic cells that are made of crystallized silicon encased in a thick plastic membrane. The lifetime of the current generation is between 20 and 30 years, and the waste they produce will be difficult and expensive to recycle. Some experts are calling them a “ticking time bomb.” 6
More insidiously, the hype around solar power tends to lull people into thinking they may have solved a wicked problem. Social theorist and geographer David Harvey, among others, cautions against the illusions of greenwashing. “There is a huge question mark,” he writes in an essay titled “The Fetish of Technology: Causes and Consequences,” “over the exact role to be played by science and technology, as opposed to transformations in social relations.” 7 In the absence of a comprehensive social and economic approach, in other words, the costs of technological innovation can outweigh the benefits.
In the absence of a comprehensive social approach to climate crisis, the costs of technological innovation can outweigh the benefits.
Among the downsides of technological innovation is, of course, the impact on jobs. While highly automated factories are much better for the environment than their predecessors, they pose a threat to the existing labor force. “Skilled Work, Without the Worker” headlined the front page of the New York Times back in 2012. “The [robot] arms work so fast that they must be enclosed in glass cages to prevent the people supervising them from being injured. And they do it all without a coffee break — three shifts a day, 365 days a year.” 8 Protagonists of the third industrial revolution (or fourth, depending how you count), robots are inescapably job killers. Their effect has already been felt significantly in the U.S. and Europe, where high-tech companies racing to dominate the market in clean energy are opting for smart machines over fallible human bodies.
A walled precinct, closed to outsiders, Foxconn’s ‘worker city’ is populated by hundreds of thousands of employees who both live and labor there to assemble iPhones.
In China too, where the pool of available human labor is vast, factories are being robotized at a remarkable pace, with huge consequences for workers. At Changying Precision Technology Company in Dongguan City (also known as “World Factory”), 60,000 workers were replaced with 60 robots in 2015. The model facility, which produces cell phone components, is now run almost entirely by machines that also work in the dark and churn out three times as many units as before at higher quality. Other companies have followed suit, including Taiwanese-owned Foxconn, the largest employer in China and one of Apple’s biggest subcontractors. Among the places where Foxconn assembles Apple’s iPhone is Longhua, a district within the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen. A walled precinct more than two kilometers square, closed to outsiders, Foxconn’s “worker city” is populated by hundreds of thousands of employees who both live and labor there to assemble the indispensable devices. 9 After a litany of complaints came to public light in 2010 describing quasi-military working conditions, grueling twelve-hour shifts, low pay, and a rash of suicides, the company began thinking seriously about retooling. Robots are less of a “headache” than human workers, stated Terry Gou, the company’s billionaire founder and former chief executive. They don’t get sick. They don’t sue. They don’t go slow or go on strike. 10 Foxconn’s entire Chinese workforce would be 30 per cent robotized by the end of 2020, he announced. After an initial cut of 60,000 jobs in 2016, though, the company reversed course, explaining that robots can’t yet match the cognitive capacities of humans.
Over the past couple of years, the Covid-19 pandemic has reignited demands to augment automation in workplaces that require on-site labor. Whatever the recent twists and turns, however, today’s intelligent machines are only the newest frontier in an ongoing history of technological innovation. The story is an old one: higher productivity combined with lower labor costs equates with higher profits. As the jobless recovery that followed the 2008 recession confirmed, machines are, from a business perspective, a less risky and more cost-effective investment than human beings.
In response, theorists from across the political spectrum have sought to imagine the consequences of the end of work as it’s now known. Economics guru Jeremy Rifkin forecasts a future in which a new social economy will emerge based on an independent third sector composed of community-based service organizations. 11 Further to the left and more militantly utopian, Italian political theorist Antonio Negri holds out the prospect of greater human creativity and opportunity for self-realization in a society in which smart machines enable shorter working hours. Among the sources invoked by Negri and his colleagues is a somewhat enigmatic text of 1858 by Karl Marx known as “The Fragment on Machines.” Here Marx appears to make the case that once industrial capitalism reaches the most advanced stage of automation and living labor ceases to be the basis of production, individuals will reap the benefits of their liberation from the toil of manual labor. Free to function primarily as cognitive workers, they will become part of a distributed network of intelligence, a “general intellect,” able to partake in new and higher forms of subjectivity and to exist “for their own development.” 12
Yet in this unfinished text, Marx contradictorily postulates that this same capitalist telos also has the potential to absorb and annex the human agents who have made it possible, subsuming them into its abstract logic and reducing them to a “mere living accessory.” 13 From this more pessimistic and dystopian perspective, Negri’s expectation that people will become “communists like us” within a post-work regime is no doubt rosy. As political economist George Caffentzis argues in “The End of Work or the Renaissance of Slavery?,” freedom is not the opposite of work. Non-work is. Unemployment and precarity are.
Moreover, Caffentzis elaborates, as capitalism strives to counteract the natural tendency of profits to decline over time, it pursues not only more high-tech solutions but also cheaper human labor, seeking the latter in downstream places where the exploitation of workers occurs at lower cost. “The very capital that owns ‘the ethereal information machines which supplant industrial production,’” he writes, “is also involved in the enclosure of lands throughout the planet, provoking famine, disease, low-intensity war, and collective misery in the process.” 14 In other words, the precarity brought about by technological innovation in developed economies exists together with the exacerbation of oppression in less advanced ones.
Steve Jobs’s gleaming legacy project in Cupertino was made possible by grim factories like the one in Shenzhen.
Again, an old story. But the inequities have taken on new magnitudes today. In the summer of 2017, Apple opened its new corporate headquarters in Cupertino, California, designed by British architect Norman Foster, at a building cost estimated to be $5 billion. Shortly before his death in 2011, Steve Jobs heralded it as the most environmentally advanced office complex in the world. Today the company boasts that it is powered by 100 percent clean energy, including a 17-megawatt rooftop array of 805,000 solar panels. Yet what made Jobs’s legacy project possible were factories like the one in Longhua. In a neat symmetry, both workplaces operate as secret cities, inaccessible to the public. And if the grim barracks of Longhua are the ineluctable other of Cupertino’s gleaming spaceship today, tomorrow it will likely be a plant in Bangladesh or Ethiopia. “The computer requires the sweatshop,” Caffentzis writes, “and the cyborg’s existence is premised on the slave.” 15
Do Cell Phones Dream?
So the industrial pollution doesn’t stop; it gets offshored. And the human bodies don’t really get replaced, they just slave away in another location. Which is to say that global capitalism systematically obscures the environmental degradation and heavy lifting that continue to go on somewhere. Out of sight is out of mind. The geography of invisibility is built into the system, flying under the radar until another scandal erupts in the global village and causes things far away (or simply hard to see) to loom into view. From this perspective, one of the most redeeming features of today’s ubiquitous telematic media is surely their capacity to peer into remote corners. Tempering McLuhanesque celebrations and offsetting fears of panopticism (however justified), they serve to illuminate the blind spots in supply chains and the abuses on building and manufacturing sites, exposing the fictions of frictionless flow and smooth integration that are underwritten by the ideological machinations of neoliberalism.
The gap between the troubling realities on the ground and the ‘immaterial production’ of global-digital design verges at times on the obscene.
As a profession and a practice, architecture can no longer turn away from these instances, especially when they are directly or indirectly related to the built environment. Back in 2014, Zaha Hadid notoriously unleashed a hailstorm of criticism when she declared that she had no power to counteract, and no accountability for, the immiseration of migrant construction workers in Qatar. At the time, she was designing a spectacular stadium near Doha for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Following her death in 2016, the project was completed by her successor firm, and it opened three years early in 2019. In fact, the London-based architect was within her legal rights to assert that she could not be held responsible for potential violations on her future building site: architecture offices and construction firms customarily sign separate agreements with their clients, thereby insulating themselves from each other’s liabilities.
Yet the ethical implications of Hadid’s disavowal remain troubling, especially in view of the disparities of power and wealth that obtain between a world-famous architect and destitute workers in places like the Persian Gulf countries. In comparison, the (also) much-talked-about “female” form of the stadium is a trivial matter. Yet from the standpoint of the politics of architectural representation, it’s hard not to see the barely veiled image of eroticism in Hadid’s drawings as a provocation, especially in an Arab context. It remains unclear what message she was trying to send by it; and, without actually visiting the site, it’s also hard to know whether the message comes through in anything but the renderings. Suffice it to say, however, that the yawning gap between realities on the ground and the “immaterial production” of contemporary global-digital design verges at times on the obscene.
By contrast, an essay with the Philip Dickian title “Do Cellular Phones Dream of Civil War?” is an attempt by two anthropologists, James H. Smith and Jeffrey W. Mantz, to shed light on darkness. Published in 2006 and subtitled “The Mystification of Production and the Consequences of Technology Fetishism in the Eastern Congo,” the essay is an early account of the hellish conditions under which some of the world’s largest deposits of columbite-tantalum, or coltan, are extracted from the ground. Coltan is a crucial component of the microchips found in all digital devices. Its mining in the Eastern Congo is not only ecologically destructive and biologically toxic; it is also at the heart of a network of smuggling, extortion, human trafficking, and violence. By beginning to connect the dots from one of the most impoverished and war-ravaged places on earth to the massive electronics factories in Asia and to the Silicon Valley technopole, the authors aim to make “explicit and intelligible commodity flows that post-Fordist philosophy and everyday life have rendered spectral.” 16
How can buildings be designed so as to make explicit the complexities and contingencies of their own creation?
What would it take to carry out an analogous project in architecture, a project of (let’s call it) critical cartography? In a field that claims to be deeply committed to “research,” what would such a forensically informed project entail? Admittedly, details of both material procurement and construction labor can be obscure and secretive, and supply chains can be so entangled as to be borderless. On the other hand, in an age of increasingly coordinated project management, global practice, and media penetration, greater visibility ought to be more possible than ever before and also more imperative. 17 So to pose the question again, directing it not just to architectural researchers and historians but to architects themselves: How can buildings be designed so as to make “explicit and intelligible” the complexities and contingencies of their own coming into being? How can buildings make these conditions transparent in their physical form? Obviously, I do not have glass in mind. In short, how can architecture be made to reflect and represent its process of materialization?
The topping-out, or topping-off, ceremony is a ritual that goes back to the Middle Ages, when construction workers hoisted a fir tree atop a newly erected building to mark the completion of their labors. Today it’s usually a flag. The practice not only symbolizes the triumph of embodied energy over entropy, of form over formlessness; it is also a salute to esprit de corps and intrepid teamwork. Yet virtually as soon as the ceremony ends, the workers vanish — poof! And at this moment, as Marx so colorfully puts it in the third volume of Capital, Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre begin to do their ghost dance, setting in play the caprices and seduction scenes of the marketplace. The photographer, the rental agent, the public relations team all arrive on cue. “Architecture” appears, as if “a power springing forth from its own womb,” an immaculate conception. 18 Marx elaborates on what he calls the “trinity formula”:
Capital-profit (or better still capital-interest), land-ground-rent, labor-wages: this economic trinity, as the components of value and wealth in general and its sources, completes the mystification of the capitalist mode of production, the reification of social relations, and the immediate coalescence of the material relations of production with their historical and social specificity. [This is] the bewitched, distorted and upside-down world haunted by Monsieur le Capital and Madame la Terre, who are at one and the same time social characters and mere things. 19
Leaving behind its lowly beginnings in subterranean excavation and hard-hat labor, architecture, as commodity, enters the exalted realm of “culture.” It enters into history.
Take an “iconic” building like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Frank Gehry initially envisaged cladding it in hand-polished stainless steel. But he was dissatisfied with the material’s variable reflectivity under changing light conditions. His second choices, zinc and leaded copper, also had drawbacks; the local engineers feared these metals would leach into the Nervión River. In 1994, just before the building went out to bid, Gehry happened to receive a promotional sample of titanium from a vendor. Titanium had been utilized for half a century in aerospace design and a few other industries requiring lightness, strength, and resistance to corrosion and toxicity. But it had not been used up to this time as a building material, except in small roofing applications in Japan, because the process of extraction and refinement made it prohibitively expensive. Gehry liked its consistent velvety sheen, though, and he persuaded the executive architect in Bilbao to list it in the bid as an alternative to stainless steel. Just then Russia, the biggest producer of titanium in the world, dumped a large quantity on the market, causing a steep drop in price. The amount needed to clad the museum was quickly acquired, and the rest is (architectural) history.
Was the titanium purchased for Gehry’s building an incidental beneficiary of Russian oligarchs’ manipulation of commodity markets?
In retrospect, it is interesting to speculate on what caused the price drop. It was right around this time that the emerging oligarchs of the former Soviet Union were strategically manipulating the commodity market in metals. Was the titanium purchased for Gehry’s building an incidental beneficiary? It’s probably impossible to know. But doesn’t this murky background belong to architectural history too? The origins of the Guggenheim Bilbao lie not only in the napkin sketch of a genius architect in Los Angeles, not only in the franchise strategy of a canny museum director in New York, not only in the far-sighted planning of a local mayor in Bilbao, but also in the convergence of all of these different episodes (and others) with the fortuitous appearance of Russian titanium on the global market. And this was just the beginning of the material’s adventures. From Russia, the titanium for Gehry’s building was shipped to a plant in Pittsburgh where it was chemically treated and laminated; from Pittsburgh, it was transported in rolls back across the Atlantic to Spain; in a location in Spain, it was digitally cut into panels by an Italian-Spanish subcontractor specially set up for the joint venture; and finally the titanium was brought to the building site in the Basque capital. Does all of this, taken together, not reveal as much about contemporary conditions of architectural making — and indeed about today’s global world — as the publicity photos and even the trip to Bilbao to bask in the famous “effect”? Isn’t this the real meaning of the “global Guggenheim”?
Architecture as Form of Production
Colonial empires plundered raw materials from distant places. Indeed, this was one of their raisons d’être. And far-flung webs of architectural fabrication and assembly have existed since early modernity. Yet today these initial phases of production can no longer be considered merely incidental. As dynamic agents within a global economy and a global ecosystem, they are profoundly implicated in the realized project.
The effects of their invisibilization are no less so. It is, again, in the blind spot where raw materials and primary labor processes become commodities that Marx’s mystical marriage between Mr. Capital and Mrs. Real Estate is consummated. It is in this zone of oblivion that architecture becomes a fetish object. The reception of the Guggenheim Bilbao epitomizes this process of transubstantiation. In an early review sufflated with mixed metaphors, one smitten critic, the New York Times writer Herbert Muschamp, effused about the museum’s titanium surfaces billowing like Marilyn Monroe’s skirts while (at the same time) beckoning to architectural pilgrims like a “Lourdes [Cathedral] for a crippled culture.” 20
To state it axiomatically: the sweat of production evaporates in the sweetness of consumption. But is it really, truly possible to grasp architecture in relation to an entire cycle of production? To pursue such a holistic vision may appear quixotic. But I would argue that today the implications are not just geopolitical but ethical. At stake is not only the future of the architectural project but also the future of the planet. In other words, by recognizing that architecture is just one moment in the overall cycle, we can better appreciate its role and function as the aesthetic moment. Architecture is literally the form of production. Since capitalism systematically occludes the production cycle in its totality and renders it opaque, to oppose obfuscation is to begin to comprehend the disparities of what philosopher Jacques Rancière calls “the distribution of the sensible.” 21 It is to acknowledge that buildings do not fall from the sky but emerge from the ground, from multiple grounds, not as acts of sovereign creation but as assemblages of contingencies, chance events, obstacles, bodies with organs, and sometimes also crime scenes and distant suffering.
To recollect, within the design project itself, architecture’s initial formlessness and the multiple, separated sites of its construction is what I am proposing here to call the political ecology of architecture. It could also be called empathy.