Why luxury? And how?

Luxus Kick-off 20.10.2016

  • Good news for whom? Sold out before the building exists. Luxury housing development in the heart of Shoreditch, London. © Yuca Meubrink

  • Luxury apartments in tenement style, Queens, New York City. © Yuca Meubrink

  • Luxury flats inserted into traditional terraced housing, London. © Yuca Meubrink

  • Back alley off Commercial Street, Tower Hamlets, London... © Yuca Meubrink

  • ... with an entrance for less well-off residents (›poor door‹)... © Yuca Meubrink

  • ... and another entrance for wealthy residents/owners. © Yuca Meubrink

  • Luxury high-rises with affordable housing units on the back side of the buildings in the heart of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City. (c) Yuca Meubrink

  • Entrance for the rich residents on Riverside Boulevard, near the Trump Place Apartments, while the less well-off tenants have to use a side entrance (>poor door<). (c) Yuca Meubrink

Cities in Western Europe are characterised by an increasing lack of affordable housing vis-à-vis a growing luxury sector marketing high-end office and living spaces. While the notion of luxury is highly contested, it is generally connoted with extravagance, excess and pomp. Sombart famously described luxury in 1922 as above and beyond the necessary 1 . Of course it is equally open to debate how to define the ›necessary‹– normatively or morally or subjectively – and it isn’t quite unproblematic either to cite Sombart who as a economist and sociologist supported the anti-semitic policies of the National Socialists, but his definition of and work on luxury is still a point of reference. This definition raises important questions around justice and the criteria for distribution – of goods, jobs, access, space and time. Speaking with Bourdieu 2 , luxury builds on distance: it entails a form of access to resources that are available to the few, but equally implicates the many without access. Following his materialist line of thinking, luxury thus refers to a maximum distance to needs; it is the distance from necessities secured by economic and other forms of capital. In order to function, this distance between the few and the many produces two modes of compensation on the part of the many: they either develop their small everyday surrogates for luxury or acquire an ascetic and affect-laden political narrative that charges luxury with negative moral values, such as decadence. These mechanisms of distancing call for a spatio-political conceptualisation of luxury that provides the tools to analyse social demarcations and their underlying politics. According to Rancière 3 , the question what luxury is necessarily involves the negotiation of the partition or distribution of what is perceptible or sensible.

In many places, luxury has become a commonplace style or aspiration or even genre in architecture and contemporary new-builds. Annette Condello in her study ›The Architecture of Luxury‹ (2014: 3- 4) 4 writes that ›its meaning and value have changed. The key changes to the term ›luxury‹ in modern times have been its relation to deluxe consumption goods, marking the buildings as brands, and as benefits for most people to enjoy, especially the middle class. The problem of luxury in architecture is its distastefulness to some people because its excesses are thought to engender unethical behaviour.‹ Conversely, Christin Ross (2015) 5 picks up the theme of Communal Luxury and considers the Manifesto of the Paris Commune in which the Federation des Artistes calls for a luxe communal, an appropriation of the beautiful, leisure, education and de-privatisation of the arts and aesthetic that shall be available for all. Ross draws a parallel to contemporary protest forms and their ›politics of encampment and occupation‹. Such a politics of appropriation aims to question ›how to refashion an internationalist conjuncture, the future of education, labour and art, the commune-form and its relationship to ecological theory and practice‹ (2015: 2). This perspective on luxury is particularly interesting for our research and teaching programme Urban Design where we study the phenomenon of ›luxury‹as part of the urban fabric with a view to inquire its implications for housing. For our purposes, the spirit of challenging the distribution and modes of distancing surfaces most prominently in Anne Lacaton’s and Philippe Vassal’s (2007) 6 call for ›luxury for all!‹ Contrary to conventional perspectives, they understand social housing as epitome of such a luxury for all, or communal luxury: ›Luxury isn’t related to money, it’s the condition of achieving above and beyond what was imagined to be possible‹. Luxury, it seems, has to be enacted and practices in order to come into being, it doesn’t exist on its own, but has to be acted out, understood, read and – especially with the prospective annual theme ›modes of realising’ in mind – realised in relation to what isn’t luxury.

We had invited two guests for our kick-off event opening the annual theme ›Luxury – Spatial Politics of Comfort‹. Luna Glucksberg and Yuca Meubrink each gave a presentation about their research into phenomena related to luxury in contemporary housing politics and practices. Following their presentations, we revisited in conversation some of the research practicalities and methodological approaches and invited the audience for more questions.

Following the two presentations, we discussed the practicalities of doing ethnographic research, identifying and making contact with interview partners and undertaking participatory observation in the context of such sensitive research topics such as housing, wealth accumulation and class relations. In debating how such research can contribute to actually addressing the wider problem of increasing wealth accumulation and hovering pension funds seeking return through investing in housing, questions were raised as to the role of the state and legislation that legitimate such practices. Luna expressed the bottom line of the problem in concluding that the wrong kind of housing and the wrong kinds of units are built at the wrong places and at the wrong prices.

Some of the questions we have tackled throughout the semester therefore concerned the typologies of luxury from a relational perspective and how they are articulated. We similarly asked how is luxury produced? What kinds of socio- and spatio-political decisions and legislations influence perceptions and practices of luxury? We were concerned with how urban populations want to live together and what kinds of normativity and ethics (and morals) apply. What techniques and kinds of governance or governmentalities of distribution and circulation are in place? How are questions of care, welfare and diversity approached? Which practices, places and things articulate the luxury of the urban and how does this occur?

  1. Sombart, Werner (1922): Luxus und Kapitalismus, München.
  2. Bourdieu, Pierre (1982): Die feinen Unterschiede, Frankfurt a.M.
  3. Rancière, Jacques (2008) : Die Aufteilung des Sinnlichen, Berlin.
  4. Condello, Annette (2014) The architecture of luxury, Farnham.
  5. Ross, Christin (2015): Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Com- mune, London and New York.
  6. Lacaton, Anne; Vassal, Philippe (2007): Game Changer in: 032c, http://032c.com/2013/o-architects-where-art-thou-game-changer-lacaton-vassal/