14. the mass for a small group

Reconstruction of Athena Nike (“Athena the victorious”) temple, Athen Acropolis, 427 BC)

Here we have a similar mechanism to the one we have seen in the class before, simply the whole design process is not meant for just one person but rather for a small elite. Phidias sculpting the golden statue of Zeus in Olympia is one of the finest (and most impressive) expressions of collective effort to glorify an individual (regardless the individual is a real person, dead, alive, invention).

Reconstruction of the chryselephantine statue of Zeus at the temple of Olympia

The hundre thousands workers (spread on a work lasted for centuries) allowing the Khmer civilization to build the complex of Angkor Wat, as a lasting glorification of the entire civilizations could be considered what we mean by “the mass for a small group”.

Angkor Wat ruins, Cambodia, c. XIIth to XVth century

It is obvious to note that moving from the Zeus temple to the whole archeological complex of Olympia, we reach a similar condition to the one of Angkor Wat (the mass working for a small group / selected elite), replacing the classical Greek cosmogony with the Khmer one).

Remaining in ancient Greece, the correct example of the mass for one persone, it would be then Delphi: a complex architecture/environment built in its wholeness for a single person (the famous oracle).

Delphi (Greece), the site of the Delphic oracle, c. 6th century BC

In the above mentioned cases, we have labour as a byproduct of some kind of coercion (physical rather than psychological.) To find some contemporary reference we could go to the Arabian peninsula: these countries are based on an economy based on an extraordinary amount of foreign labor at all levels, for the benefit of a local minority of citizens who enjoy the fruits of an economy developed very rapidly.

From this point of view it is interesting to note that there isn’t such a big difference between the Pakistani or Bangladeshi truck driver and the Western architect busy in the building site of some fancy skyscraper. In both cases these are people who sell their work at an higher price they would be able to sell it back home.

Nakheel Properties, “Palm Island” artificial complex in Dubai, 2001/on-going

From this point of view is also interesting to think for a moment on the multiple ways we could analyze the contemporary post-Fordist production system. On one side we can say that a corporation is a large system (because of the hundreds of thousands of people working in). At the same time we could say that a corporation is an apparent “big group”: its true nature is to be a “small group” of people (the shareholders who own the company rather then offshore investment funds) taking the benefits of a big labour force.

Detail of a map generated with “They Rule“: visualization of the power structure of the most important American companies and corporations (2004). From the website: “They Rule allows you to create maps of the interlocking directories of the top companies in the US in 2004“. More on: “about they rule“.

To build a Medieval European cathedral you need substantial economic resources, thousands of people working for time measured in centuries (by the way: time and its variables would be another extraordinary prism through which to view the world of design: but this would end up on another course and we leave it for another time…). To build a cathedral implies all kind of different and sophisticated skills to reach a final product meant to celebrate the church (as an institution) as well as the community part of the construction process.

Giovanni Pisano, Giovanni di Cecco, “Cattedrale dell’Assunta” (Siena’s cathedral), XIIIth / XIVth Century (as seen from outside the city)

To some extent the construction of an F-16 Lockheed Martin could be compared to the Medieval cathedral (obviously not in terms of final outcome but in terms of process). After years of research, prototyping, complex engineering, you achieve the desired goal. Here as well we have a number of complementary skills in action, with obvious similarities in terms of symbolic value. Symbolically speaking, the Piazza del Campo in Siena could be intended as a Medieval symbol for the Tuscan city in the same way the F-16 warplane (or the Apollo 11) is to the XXth Century United States.

NASA, Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 space suit

Once this has been said, yet there is a not so marginal difference: the square in Siena was designed for public enjoyment and collective rituals (both in its everyday use as well as in special events such as the Palio). At the same time the F-16 is the flagship weapon produced and commercialized by a corporate company owned and ruled by an incredibly small number of people.

F-16 assembly line

In this extent, we could say that one of the most important skills of the contemporary “prince” (using the well-know category described by Nicolo’ Machiavelli in its: “The Prince“) is to be able to convince the majority of the citizens that this “all for a small group” mechanism is actually a real “all for a big group” (or even: “all for all”).

The history of military forces is plentyful of examples like these, and we can say that what used to be the Soviet empire collapsed precisely for this cause. In terms of absolute symbolic value it is definitely true that a MIG-21 is as powerful as the American home cooking appliances of the mid  1960’s (or probably even more). A car per family is a good symbol as well as the Sputnik orbiting around mothership Earth). Finally if all these things do not bring any real value for the everyday life of the masses, the system in its wholeness is bound to collapse.

Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev in the famous “kitchen debate“, July 1959

It is interesting to imagine a contemporary shopping mall, five hundreds years now. Will we use it in the same way we are using it now? Will it be a ruin like Angkor Wat or the Foro Romano in Rome? Will it be transformed in some kind of futuristic Diocletian Palace (hybridized in all possible ways, transforming it completely compared to its current use)?

Piazza Anfiteatro, Lucca (generated by an ancient Roman amphitheatre transformed and reused in the following centuries).

Name and things useful + important (to be remembered for the exam):

Arms industry

Athen Acropolis


Economy of Dubai

The kitchen debate


Laika ready for her last voyage in Sputnik 2. (1957)


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