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In defence of our dépense

Maria Smith

There’s more to life than the strictly necessary – thank goodness

Are you fed up with being told you don’t value your time or skills? Are you fed up with everyone you meet at parties thinking that you must earn swathes of cash for parading god-like around huge models of tower blocks?

Do you sit at your desk churning out designs for developers while dreaming of public libraries and concert halls? Do you feel uncomfortable on the frontline of capitalism?

Do you harbour a simmering vat of resentment for the time you have to spend on PQQs, ITTs and competitions? Could you scream if one more planning officer offers you design advice?

Do you feel a bit sick any time you don’t recycle something because you know it’s nothing compared to the environmental impact of your last specification? Do you believe there are right and wrong ways to treat materials that have nothing to do with sustainability credentials?

Are you frequently in trouble with your friends and family for working late, bringing your work home, taking your work on holiday, and going on holiday to work? Do you lust after hand drawings, hand-thrown bricks, and handed plans?

Have you had it up to here with calls for bringing back the fee scale, reforming education, and the endless rhetoric about the marginalisation of architects?

Perhaps you’re a selfish, whiny brat. Or perhaps what you’re picking up on is that identified in the 1940s by French intellectual George Bataille: the notion of dépense.

Proponents of dépense point out that the expenditure of excess energy is not curtailed by these moral imperatives; it is privatised

Dépense is the spending of excess energy not required for the conservation or reproduction of life. The theory goes that living things only require a limited amount of energy in order to survive, yet additional energy is available and so this must be used up on non-essential (or as Bataille would put it, non-’servile’) activities. Examples of dépense or expenditure include funerals, pyramids, cathedrals, and music. Some might define these as culture. The key is that they are not means to some other end, but ends in themselves. Dépense diffuses the stress connected with shouldering this excess energy and enables the non-utilitarian expression of society.

The problem is that dépense, or indeed anything non-utilitarian, is difficult to justify in today’s society. Austerity, political uncertainty, the housing crisis, climate change, etc etc conspire to create a sense of emergency where things must be expended only with utmost consideration and necessity. Proponents of dépense point out that the expenditure of excess energy is not curtailed by these moral imperatives; it is privatised. The act of burning off this excess energy is left to individuals who, to varying degrees depending on personal wealth, splash out on exuberant luxuries.

This, however, won’t do. Not only is it horribly unfair but unless the energy is expended socially, it fails to diffuse this stressful burden. According to the theory of dépense, contemporary society desperately needs to find festive social outlets into which to pour our excess energy and in so doing bond with each other.

Is dépense an action architecture should play a part in? Can architecture be a form of social ritual, of expending energy, of sacrifice even?

Is our fatigue with the marginalisation of architects actually a fatigue with the patronising idea that we’ve lost our foot hold in an industry that grew to complicated for us silly creatives to navigate?

Is our frustration with the bureaucracy that shackles the making of architecture actually fury against the propagation of this myth of a vigilant battle in the face of countless unavoidable disasters that were carefully planned and executed for political gain?

Is our fondness for civic over private clients not a love for big government but a deep seated knowledge that unless the spending of our extras is shared, it does not meet our need for social ritual or diffuse our collective stress?

Architects are frequently accused of not engaging sufficiently with the business realities of our clients or the industry in which we operate. This is hardly surprising given that the widespread private commercial practice of architecture is a relatively young industry that has grown up in a rapidly changing environment. Most architects still worked in local authorities until the 1980s and since then we’ve had to grapple not only with developing viable business models but also huge technological change.

It would be easy to write off architects’ discomfort – even distaste – for business as naivety or immaturity, but this could be dangerous. Perhaps this suspicion and squeamishness points to something important; perhaps to a transition that we architects could play an important role in bringing about. 

Maria Smith is a director of architecture and engineering at Interrobang



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