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06.07.21 – Daniels students learn about the architecture of global capitalism

Architecture school isn't all drawings and models. This winter, graduate students in assistant professor Jason Nguyen's course, "Sites of Exchange: Architecture and Capital Flows," spent a semester studying the way architecture influences, and is influenced by, the global flows of capital that undergird modern civilization.

Over the course of 10 weeks of reading and discussion, Nguyen's students studied physical locations that have enabled global trade and capitalism over the past four centuries — places like plantations, ports, cargo ships, markets, and stock exchanges. Then they each produced a final project in which they picked one "site of exchange" to examine in detail in a scholarly essay.

"The classical Marxist way of studying capitalism is to focus on labour and production," Nguyen says. "I wanted to think beyond that framework to consider capitalism as a process of trade and exchange — a system of political and economic operations that generates different forms of value on a global scale. This understanding of capitalism allows us to better assess the systemic impacts of capitalism in architecture and society, including those tied to race, climate change, and the political economy of nation states."

Students were asked to consider not only the way architecture affects capital — for example, by providing a physical space where goods or securities can be exchanged — but also the way capital shapes architecture.

For instance, one student, Chaya Bhardwaj, chose to study the Aalsmeer Flower Auction, a sprawling auction site in the Netherlands with hundreds of thousands of square metres of storage space.

Bhardwaj traces the architectural origins of the auction site to the dawn of financial capitalism, in the 17th century, when Dutch tulip bulbs became the basis for the first modern asset bubble — a period of frenzied financial speculation now famously known as "tulip mania." The Dutch dominance of the flower market established during that time, Bhardwhaj argues, led to Aalsmeer becoming a physical locus of the flower trade in the 21st century.

Diagrams showing the layout of the Aalsmeer Flower Auction and flows of capital in and out of the Netherlands. Images by Chaya Bhardwaj. Click to see larger versions.

Even the internal structure of the auction site's storage spaces, she argues, were shaped by the demands of international commerce. "At the building scale, this site coordinates a highly choreographed sequence of events across 518,000 square metres of warehouse space," Bhardwaj writes. "Flowers arrive at loading platforms along the perimeter of the warehouse and then are transferred to cooling chambers where they are tagged, measured, and sorted. Flowers then travel to one of three auction halls where they are bought and sold on a global scale through electronic trading platforms."

For Nguyen, the Aalsmeer Flower Auction is a perfect example of the way architecture can become an intersection point for global economic forces. "The site brings a lot of important concerns into focus," he says. "There's a relationship between nature and culture — between a flower, which is quite fragile and doesn't have a long lifespan, and human consumers. Another layer is the relationship between the global north and global south. Many of the buyers are from North America, Europe, and East Asia, but the flowers by and large come from Africa and Latin America, so there are important issues to consider regarding environmental exploitation and the global economic balance, and imbalance, of power."

Another student, James Noh, studied the Salar de Atacama, a salt flat in Chile that is one of the world's largest and purest sources of lithium.

"Lithium extraction is used for the green economy," Nguyen says. "James looked at sites where lithium is actually extracted from the ground, which involves a huge amount of infrastructure development. Huge amounts of water have to be pumped in to process the lithium."

Project image

A diagram showing the flow of lithium from extraction site to consumer products. Image by James Noh. Click here to see a larger version.

In his essay, Noh discusses the way lithium extraction from the Salar de Atacama has enabled global production of consumer devices like cell phones and electric cars while at the same time creating adverse conditions for the Indigenous communities that live among the mines.

"Lithium extraction has led socio-environmental pressures on the site to overexploit water in hydro-social territories, resulting in significant damage to the ethno-culture and its ecosystem," Noh writes. "Local animals such as vicunas and flamingos are constantly losing more access to water. Local farmers are also losing more agricultural activities such as the cultivation of corn, quinoa, vegetables, and fruit, along with small-scale Andean livestock that develop in the Salar — mainly guanacos, llamas, and alpacas."

The course is an extension of Nguyen's research on the architecture and infrastructure of trade and exchange during the early modern period. "I'm interested in the construction of global capital networks within the context of European colonization and mercantile expansion," he says. "By studying sites of exchange, I hope to better understand architecture's multifaceted and often troubling role in the creation and distribution of modern wealth, including its connections to contemporary globalization and enduring systems of economic and racial inequality."