Matthew Soules has a multi-faceted career. The busy professor of architecture at UBC is a thought-provoking artist, designer and author.
More recently, Soules helped design šxʷƛ̓ənəq Xwtl’e7énḵ Square (formerly known as Vancouver Art Gallery North Plaza) where he designed the white cloud-shaped pavilion at the northeast corner.
He is also a sought-after commentator on architecture and design who creates provocative public art, from Victoria’s award-winning pissoir – billed as the “the coolest public urinal in the world” – has a large scale installation, made from construction safety nets, for the Burrard Street Bridge in Vancouver.
His latest offer is a new book, Icebergs, zombies and ultra-thin (Princeton Architectural Press, 2021) which discusses the impact of global capital on major cities like Vancouver, Toronto, Barcelona and New York.
In this Q&A, he explains what the book has to say about the future of housing and urban design, and how it shapes our lives.
What inspired the title of the book, icebergs, zombies and the ultra thin?
This work stems from my research a few years ago funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. I was particularly interested in how the use of architecture as an investment tool has accelerated over the past decades, contributing to ever greater inequalities in our cities and destabilizing the global economy. This situation was highlighted with the global financial crisis of 2007 and 2008. I wanted to explore the role of architecture in this dynamic.
Not very busy, ultra-thin “pencil towers” are on the increase in some cities. We see “iceberg” houses sprawling many stories below street level. In many cities around the world, unoccupied neighborhoods and abandoned housing estates are a growing concern. These “zombie” neighborhoods are not quite dead, but not totally alive either.
Your central argument is about how financial capitalism transforms not only architectural forms, but also the very nature of our cities and societies. Can you elaborate?
Buildings serve three important functions. They provide shelter and protection from the elements. They embody cultural values, which is why a building in 18e century Jakarta is different from one in 21st century in Vancouver. Finally, buildings are always a store of wealth – they manifest wealth and can be traded.
In the book, I assert that in recent years the financial reserve of wealth and the market dimension of construction have grown in importance due to the logic of financial capitalism. Increasingly, buildings are seen as a way to store and even create wealth. It is now to discard the other two functions. Construction, and particularly housing, is increasingly seen as a financial tool as opposed to its primary function of housing.
How does this affect cities like Vancouver and the people who live there?
Of course, buildings treated as investment vehicles lead to inequalities and a lack of affordability. As more and more capital flows through real estate, prices skyrocket and there is a growing disconnect with local income.
Part of this means that the buildings look and function differently. The current emergence of odd shapes in Vancouver housing projects is a deliberate attempt to attract capital investment through iconicity.
At the same time that the buildings appear more exotic from the outside, the architectural space is more and more standardized and simplified to function better according to the expectations of the investors.
The podium tower model, in which much of the growth of Metro Vancouver takes, can even be understood as an example of this. The podium lifts most of the units off the ground, isolating them from the messy unpredictability of the public realm. And the slim proportions of the tower have the effect of minimizing the number of units on any given floor. The result is that each condominium unit is less likely to be affected by the social life of those around it. The very shape of the podium tower protects the architectural assets for those who invest in it. In the process, our social lives are edgy and devalued.
Ironically, designers and developers are also adding all kinds of bells and whistles – infinity pools, concierge service, Peloton rooms – to make things complex even if they are basically standardized. It is a kind of compensation for the ruthless investment logic at stake.
Is there a way forward that balances these complex and possibly conflicting needs?
Breaking out of inequalities and socially limited urban environments will require working on many fronts. Architecture is central to the effort and can help by designing homes that don’t focus on exterior appearances, but make delightful and upbeat contributions to how residents can interact with one another. Our goal should be to build a world where housing is a place for establishing and maintaining human contacts, and not for speculation.
To access a review copy of the book or schedule interviews, please contact [email protected]
Language (s) of the interview: English