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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Is There a “Libertarian Architecture”?

Some styles may be ruled out.

I sometimes ask myself if there is a “libertarian architecture” when thinking about what a purely libertarian culture — one that has been free from government intervention long enough to flourish — would look like.  Not something I can answer in several hundred words, but let me begin.

By “libertarian architecture” I don’t mean a particular style.  In the absence of government intervention, however, I do think certain kinds of projects would be unlikely to emerge, and so it may be possible to rule out styles associated with such projects, from those of the Roman Forum to the Palm Islands of Dubai.

My question may not seem so far-fetched to those who have read The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s influential novel about an uncompromising individualist architect, Howard Roark, who battles and defeats the forces of collectivism and conformity.  For Roark/Rand individualist integrity means the radical rejection of traditional Palladian forms, the classical orders, and the aesthetics of the École des Beaux-Arts.

Rand has Roark adopting a Frank Lloyd Wrightian, form-follows-function principle the product of which actually sounds like the hyper-modernism of le Corbusier, the architect whose (Euclidean) geometrical designs for entire cities, ironically, appeal more to the Cartesian rationality of collectivism than real human reason, which Michael Polanyi explains must actually rely tacitly on often inarticulable rules.  But I don’t see why a libertarian architecture would necessarily reject traditional design.

The Market Test Versus Liberating Wealth

It seems that there are two somewhat contending forces to consider here.  The first is the market test; the second the artistic freedom enabled by the wealth that markets create.

Howard Roark’s survival depends on finding the right clients for his highly personal work, and at first there aren’t many of them.  Tyler Cowen explains in In Praise of Commercial Culture that the reemergence of extensive trade in the late middle ages and the Italian Renaissance gradually transformed the artisan, beholden to a rich prince or bishop, into an artist, who could select clients from a growing number of wealthy churchmen, royals, and especially merchants.  This not only changed the nature of art (with cheaper materials, novel techniques, and new subject-matter), but it also unleashed the creativity of men like Michelangelo, Donatello, and Raphael.  In this way the market enables creativity and innovation to flourish.

But it also constrains.  It requires compromises in order to sell, which is the burden that the Howard Roarks of the world have always struggled against.  In a (libertarian) commercial society, however, I believe that precisely because of growing demand the burden would be lighter and the ways of getting around it more plentiful than in earlier, more authoritarian eras.  On net then, the opportunities that wealth creates offsets the market test. Creativity overcomes conformity over time.

With respect to authoritarian architecture, the issue is also subtle.  Today, buildings, from the porticos of townhouses to the facades of banks, are still festooned with ionic columns and Greek friezes.  Why do we still build and honor these?  The nobility they lend to a structure is undeniable.  Do they tap into some need for awe buried deep in our psyches?  While the origins of this style were probably modest post-and-beam structures of early Mediterranean civilization, what has come down to us today in the form of the Parthenon and the Coliseum (in Rome and in Los Angeles) is the result for the most part of massive government spending.  That is significant.

State subsidies and protection would enable a Howard Roark “starchitect” much greater creative expression because he wouldn’t have to meet the market test, though there would be political constraints.  (As it happen, Roark’s big chance to scale the heights of creativity is a government-funded, low-cost housing project called Cortlandt Homes – which he ultimately blows up.)  So perhaps in the short term, with respect to a given project, interventionism might permit an architect greater artistic freedom, but I believe this would stunt the evolution of architectural expression in the long term.

I should mention that John Silber, the former president of Boston University, disagrees that architects should aspire to be artists.  Architects should be — and he argues they too often are not — grounded in reality.  He claims there is a tradeoff between artistic fancy and roofs that don’t leak.  He has a point.

The Holdout: Problem or Solution?

An important obstacle in constructing big projects is the “hold out” who refuses to sell.  A developer in a libertarian society would have to try to solve that problem without using coercion such as eminent domain.  Without eminent domain the developer’s cost is much higher and so the size of purely private construction would certainly be much more limited than in today’s world of so-called private-public megaprojects.  Although a network of private neighborhoods (which Peter Gordon and I have written about) might occasionally allow developments on the scale of, say, the former World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, these would be rare.  In a libertarian world the gigantism that inspired much classical and Renaissance architecture would be mostly absent.

So without all that massive church and state funding, would the Palladian classical orders exist?  I think not.  Their replacements would doubtless have had their own wonder, yet to me losing that grandeur would be a real pity.  And just what would have taken their place no one, not even Rand, can say.

You can find a Portugese translation of this article here


  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.