Sites of Value: architecture and valuation

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"Sites of value: architecture and valuation" is a conference on architectural sociology, organised by Hilmar Schäfer and Johannes Coughlan

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Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, profound processes of “cultural regeneration” and “culturalisation” have transformed Western cities in terms of their specifically “cultural” qualities (experience value, consumption, tourist value etc.). These shifts are accompanied by social controversies regarding the role and purpose of architecture as either a vehicle for city branding and gentrification within the urban economy, or an agent to accomplish goals of different forms: aesthetic, political, ecological, etc. In this context, the built environment is increasingly becoming the centre of conflicting social practices of evaluation. Accordingly, the study of valuation and evaluation promises to offer a link between the research into concrete architectural practices and the wider concerns of cultural sociology and social theory.

Sociologists of architecture have addressed a large range of issues that lie at the core of cultural sociology, such as the construction of national and other collective identities through buildings (Delanty/Jones 2002; Vale 1998), the politics surrounding such identities (Jones 2011), the “social classification” enacted by buildings (Grubbauer 2014; King 2010), or their (material) agency (Gieryn 2002; Yaneva 2008). Reformulations of cultural theories more generally (Reckwitz 2002) have re-shaped studies of architecture and moved them beyond a “representationalist” paradigm towards praxeological (Hirschauer 2005, Gieryn 2002), performative (Thrift 2007), actor-network (Latour/Yaneva 2008) and neo-materialist (Voyatzaki 2018) methodologies.

Larger social issues have an impact on architects’ practice and self-understanding. Practices of valuation become the centre of such negotiations of architecture’s place in (late) modern societies. For example, institutionalised settings such as competition juries, public design forums, or UNESCO world heritage evaluations, assemble actors around architecture as a shared “matter of concern”. These assemblages are called upon to evaluate given buildings or design concepts according to different and often conflicting measures of, for example, economic profitability, aesthetic appeal, cultural and historical “fit”, or sustainability. Apart from these practices of valuation in architectural work and institutions of valuation, architectural discourses also negotiate competing values that all seek to contextualise the urban form within larger social concerns. These issues range from sustainable and “social” architecture, to concerns about authenticity and a re-evaluation of “vernacular” architecture (Grubbauer 2017).

Practices of architectural valuation are especially pertinent in the context of what Boltanski and Esquerre (2016, 2017) have described as the “economy of enrichment” – an area of economic activity that is structurally distinct from the “standard economy” of mass production and consumption. In this “economy of enrichment”, practices of valuation ensure the recognition of cultural goods as both economically and aesthetically valuable. This perspective has the potential to relate “valorisations” (Vatin 2013) of the existing and future urban built environment in the work practices of architects with institutional forms of “evaluation” and recent theories of society.

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