Architecture and the Evolution of Commercial Culture

By Andrzej Piotrowski.

Published by The International Journal of the Constructed Environment

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Some of the most significant changes in human history have been associated with the emergence and evolution of the culture of consumerism. This paper asserts that from the Victorian era to the twenty-first century, this deep transformation of reality was supported by architecture. While commercial forces have dismantled traditional value systems and relationships in order to permit unbounded practices of commodification, built environments have disguised these processes and implied that commercial experimentation is culturally benign.
This point is substantiated by a discussion of three examples. First, the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London shows how the experience of commercial sensory overload was contained in and balanced by the hyper-rational structure of the Crystal Palace, thereby elevating practices of promotion into a culturally sanctioned aesthetic experience. Second, a typical opulent Victorian interior of the end of the nineteenth century reveals a similar double process in which homes were filled with unrelated objects and visual effects arranged by interior decorators to create an illusion of a holistic order in an intimate but widespread effort to domesticate the conflicted character of commercial choices. Third, leaders of High Modernism equated progress with total control over the inhabited spaces and lives of people, projecting the notion that human behavior and preferences, like commodities, can be mass-produced. Finally, I suggest that, as in Victorian England, the contemporary popularity of decorative patterns and the obsessive interest in surface effects represents a remedy for the discomfort that dominated cultural discourses of the end of the twentieth century.

Keywords: Architecture, Culture, Consumerism, Decorations, Victorian Interior, Victorian Architecture, Modernism

The International Journal of the Constructed Environment, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp.51-64. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.686MB).

Andrzej Piotrowski

Associate Professor, School of Architecture, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

Associate Professor at the School of Architecture, University of Minnesota, USA. Educated as an architect in Poland, he practiced architecture in Poland and the United States. His scholarship focused on the interconnections between representation, epistemology, and design has been published, among others, in MEI (Médiation et information), The Humanities in Architectural Design: A Contemporary and Historical Perspective (N. Temple R. Tobe, J. Lomholt, S. Bandyapodhyay editors), Architectural Theory Review, Medieval Practices of Space (B. A. Hanawalt and M. Kobialka, editors), Cloud-Cuckoo-Land: International Journal of Architectural Theory, and Traditional Dwellings and Settlements, Working Paper Series. It was also presented at many interdisciplinary conferences and exhibited. He is the co-editor, with Julia Williams Robinson, of The Discipline of Architecture (University of Minnesota Press, 2000) and the author of forthcoming Architecture of Thought.