On Real Estate as the 13th Element

by hannesfrykholmuma

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In his critique of the 2014 Venice Biennale, Reinhold Martin argues that real estate, and the regulations and economy that constitute it, should be considered an element along with the other (the door, the wall, the stair etc). Martin suggests that real estate is “a primary infrastructural element” that expands through the infinitely repeated process of subdividing undeveloped land “into a one-stop shop for single-family suburban homes.”[1] In the repetitive process of suburban housing, developers acquired “large, undeveloped tracts of land, […] laid out street patterns and utility grids, divided the land into smaller parcels, and built residential neighborhoods on those parcels.”[2] Since the main exhibition on “Fundamentals” according to Martin shies away from real estate as “arguably the one truly globalizing force” it also fails to recognize the ties between the elements of architecture and the economic and political conditions in which these elements are always situated.[3]

In Martin’s text contemporary architecture is placed in an unavoidable relation to power, and the most urgent question is therefore how to “limit, redirect or neutralize it, or at least not to be seduced by it”.[4] This call for a withdrawal from the power’s seduction reveals an understanding of the concept as innately repressive and static. In discussing power, Sven-Olov Wallenstein’s makes a distinction between on the one hand Michel Foucault’s understanding of power as being a relative and changing “series of transitional forms”, and on the other hand Giorgio Agamben’s reading of the concept as a “sovereign operation” happening in a “moment before or outside of history”. Martin appears closer to Agamben than to Foucault on this matter.[5] Power becomes an ontological concept that defines life from outside of life itself. This presents a problem. As a practicing architect it is impossible to detach from the structures of power, but at the same time it is impossible to engage in them, if one does not want to take the explicitly callous position of accepting global inequalities, etc. We are left with negation as the only way out.

Martin’s focus is mainly on the process of real estate prior to the completion of the project. The many different immaterial aspects of real estate, such as the “site acquisition, planning, construction, financing, insurance and marketing” take part in defining the conditions for particular modes of life. However, once the physical space of real estate is there, through for example a subdivision housing, it also carries an impact on a mundane level – through the doors, stairs, floors, lawns, driveways, etc. All of these elements form certain modes of life, and even though the immaterial forces are still there – for example through the ever looming threat of another housing recession – there is an immediacy of life that happens independently of planning documents, site acquisition and marketing. Martin does not deny this. His point is simply that the mechanism that produced all of the other elements, ie. real estate, should have been acknowledged in the biennale exhibition, as a primary condition.

There is a valid point in Martin’s critique of the exhibition’s tendencies to frame the elements as inert artworks rather than as performative objects located in a larger infrastructure. Is the Fundamentals exhibition not simply a collection of dead artifacts? A bestiary of the many different designs of toilets, that is then safely reintroduced into capitalism by the business fair-like seminars held around the inauguration days of the Biennale.

In his critique of the essentialist tendency of the exhibition, Martin introduces another essential category that operates with similar universal claims, that is real estate. Real estate supersedes and frames all other elements. It reduces them to components in an infrastructural system. Real estate is everywhere. It is for Martin the most common condition in which architecture meets the world. It appears in the subdivision units and in the colonization of generic land, but also in ”cultural monuments, leisure palaces and other political-economic symbols.”[6]

The concept of real estate, if analyzed from the “micro-historical” perspective that pervaded the main exhibition, probably would have been dissected into more parts than just “land”. The point is not the “eternal recurrence”[7] of a limited set of architectural categories, but the analysis of the small parts of architecture as a way to produce “evidence of key moments of […] metamorphosis while offering an interpretation of architectural elements as products of cultural and political shifts”.[8] To analyze the minor parts of architecture, can be a way to study the micro-politics of power as something plastic, rather than as a transcendental force of permanent oppression. This to me is an aspect missing in Reinhold Martin’s critique.

Hannes Frykholm


[1] Reinhold Martin, “Fundamental #13: Real Estate as Infrastructure as Architecture,” Places Journal.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sven-Olov Wallenstein, Biopolitics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), 16ff.

[6] Martin, “Fundamental #13: Real Estate as Infrastructure as Architecture”.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Rem Koolhaas, “Foreword,” in Elements of Venice, ed. Giulia Foscari (Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2014), 7.