The Value of Inefficiency
Efficiency exists as an appeasement to systems of capital. If the only goal of living is to make money, then “wasting” money, time and resources is the ultimate sin. The architect situated within capitalism functions to maximize usable square footage while minimizing costs for the owner. This leaves little room for design and ultimately leads to the continuous reproduction of generic space. Not only have we learned to live in generic space, but we have also learned to love its ease of use. We know that our Ikea sofa will fit in our standard-sized living room, that milk is at the back of the supermarket and produce at the front, and if you order the “number one” at McDonald’s, you’ll get a Big Mac. Somewhere along the way we forgot that humans weren’t emotionless machines cough LeCorbusier cough. Our modern systems were designed to beat out any wasteful excess. We have been taught to utilize every minute of every day to increase our productivity. We never stopped to ask why this was better. We never stopped to ask if the cult of efficiency was doing more harm than good.
“Inefficiency” is a bad word in our society. It implies there was some degree of failure in the system resulting in the production of something deemed unnecessary. But it is inefficiency which gives us the unique, interesting, and odd. When things don’t function exactly the way they should, they take on character, they are no longer inert objects. It’s the qualities of imperfection, even awkwardness which draw us to older buildings and buildings not mass produced. You have to jiggle the doorknob a certain way to get the door to open, the light switch is placed at an awkward distance from the entry, and the bedroom is in a distorted shape. Inhabitants of such buildings are forced to react to them, the building is no longer an inert stage set, but rather an entity to be bargained with.
Paradoxically, efficiency is not the means to having less, but rather exists in service to creating more for the sake of more. Why have one expensive car when you can have three cheap ones? Why patch up old clothes when you can just buy new ones? Throw away the outdated iPhone because this one can turn your face into an animal. Things are made cheaper so you can buy more. Isn’t the same true of contemporary architecture?
Architecture has aesthetically moved past efficiency, but we are still ensnared in its economics. It has been over fifty years since mainstream architecture began to shun streamlined modernism. It is in the Vanna Venturi House, the pivotal moment into Postmodernism, where we can find an embrace of functional uselessness. Not only did Venturi bring back the idea of decoration on a façade, he also built a stair to nowhere from the second floor to the nonexistent third floor. The stair lies behind an unassuming door as if to hide it, but an internal window is placed directly next to this door. These elements are all playing a game with one another and demonstrate Venturi’s notion of contradictory architecture. This stair stakes a claim against pure functionality, it flies in the face of everything Modernism stood for. It suggests that things do not need a purpose, they can simply just exist. Their uselessness makes them strange to us and forces us to develop an emotional response to them that we likely wouldn’t for a well-functioning utilitarian object. Useless things, strange spaces, peculiar details all help create a sense of place. They are what distinguish Here from There and provide some degree of wayfinding in the world. Abnormal features often become landmarks or they demarcate a specific space rather than a generic one. If the proposition of design is placemaking and not profit, then why are designers more beholden to the latter? I believe it’s simply because we have failed to articulate the value of inefficiency.
Inefficiency is not “anti-efficiency.” The argument is not that design should be purposefully wasteful of time, money, and resources simply because it can. Instead, inefficiency argues for a reprioritization of ideals where making every last square foot count is less important than creating a stimulating and unique space. We have spent the better part of this past year in our homes, many of which were not designed to hold our interest, but to shield us from the turbulent world outside. Even when we do engage with the world at large, the spaces we inhabit are designed for ease of use and comfort. Bodies seamlessly move from beige house to car to Starbucks to the third floor of an office park building to car and back to a beige house without the need to be aware of their environment. By instilling just the right amount of indeterminacy and abnormality into the built world, the public would maybe again take notice of it. By cherishing mistakes rather than covering them up, by embracing uselessness and praising abnormality, we could make the valueless invaluable. If the sole aim of a building is no longer efficiency, but place-making through inefficiency, then the built environment can move from an inert backdrop to an active participant in daily life and enrich the lives of those who interact with it.