Neoliberalism and design

I try to stay away from books which take “neoliberalism” as their target. Yet I made an exception for Non-Design. Architecture, Liberalism & the Market by Anthony Fontenot and I suggest you make it too.

Fontenot, who teaches architecture at Woodbury University, wrote a fascinating book arguing that economic thinking can influence architecture and design. Its work focuses on an unlikely parallel: that between tendencies in design theory in the 20th century and the renaissance of classical liberalism (which alas sometimes goes under the name of “neoliberalism”) after WWII.

As some of you may remember, In the third part of The Constitution of Liberty (1960), F. A. Hayek devoted a chapter to housing and town planning. Convinced that “civilization as we know it is inseparable from urban life”, Hayek pointed out that “the market has, on the whole, guided the evolution of cities more successfully, though imperfectly, than is commonly realized”. Fontenot begins his book not with Hayek’s assessment of the unintended consequences of rent control or public housing. But he adds a concise and accurate presentation of the broader argument against top-down planning and for “spontaneous order”, hinting that such a theory had vast consequences, even at the intersection of urban planning and design, calling into question the very role of the designer as something more than an interpreter of consumers’ needs. Fontenot points to the works of Hayek, Mises, Michael Polanyi (the very originator of the expression “spontaneous order”) but also to Karl Popper, for his criticism of historicism, and to Ernest Gombrich, who channeled Popperian views in the history of art.

In the 1950s, Hubert de Cronin Hastings, chairman of the Architectural Press, was animating the Townscape movement, an architectural and planning movement which emerged in the 1940s and advocated for urban density and respect for the individuals’ needs and wishes. Hastings called for an understanding of complexity in the urban landscape as “recognition of the urge of the parts to be themselves to make a new kind of whole”. “Hastings implored planners to ‘love, or try to love’ all the parts, including the common unplanned urban landscape with all the messy complexities that accompany a metropolitan democratic society”. According to Fontenot, he “relied on classical liberalism” for his new vision, including differentiating (as Hayek did) between a French radical rationalist approach (Le Corbusier and his disciples) and a British, more liberal one to landscape and planning.

Fontenot thinks that “throughout the 1950s, the liberal economists’ message that the free market, as a value-free or neutral framework, was the only sensible alternative to state planning was generally known, if not accepted” and that influenced also thinking on urbanism and architecture. Though he successfully points to some assonance, it is not always clear there is a causal link (reading X by A influences B to write Z). Couldn’t it just be the case that some problems with planning, after much enthusiasm, were coming to surface?

Writing on Jane Jacobs, Fontenot maintains that “a comparison of Jacobs’s main conclusion with those of Mises and Hayek shows a striking similarity in core principles”, insinuating that “an entirely new paradigm was emerging, one in which planning was beginning to be denied by a new generation who struggled to reorient itself with a different set of values that opposed the history of collectivist central planning”.

The book hardly embraces these ideas and is strongly critical – to say the least – of the English architectural critic Reyner Banham. Banham is labeled by Fontenot a “free-market radical” for “his unwavering defence of free-market economics and the indeterminate city, matched only by his staunch and consistent rejection of planning”. Banham “suggested that the standards of design culture use contend with free-market economics, linking objects explicitly with their functions and technological evolution”, “finely tuned to the desires of the public”. “Highly sceptical of the various control mechanisms imposed on design by agencies such as the welfare state, the Council of Industrial Design, and the Museum of Modern Art, Barnham sought a free design philosophy”.

It may well be that Fontenot, as a few other intellectual opponents of “neoliberalism”, exaggerates the importance and influence of the classical liberal tradition. It may well be that the link between a certain approach in politics and another in architecture or design is not as apparent as Fontenot maintains. The book however is a rich comparison of ideas developing in different realms, and a most suggestive one. Plus, those interested in the history of political ideas will learn a lot about design and architecture, and vice versa I guess.