I've received a couple of requests for my Goodbye, Supermodernism article, published in now-defunct Architecture Magazine back in summer of 2006. Here it is, with a couple of revisions.
public wi-fi at cancun airport, photo by júbilo haku via flickr
It is nearly a decade since Hans Ibelings published Supermodernism: Architecture in the Age of Globalization, his manifesto for an architecture of “superficiality and neutrality” and fourteen years since the book that inspired him, Marc Augé’s Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity first came out. In the intervening years, both texts have achieved huge success worldwide.
Supermodernism sold over 17,000 copies and became de rigueur in many schools and offices while the surprisingly popular Non-Places put an anthropologist on the reading lists of many architects for the first time in quite a while.
Augé’s remarkable observation was that, in the contemporary world, place is giving way to “non-place.” Places, Augé explained, are made up out of social interactions between people, accumulating in memory to form historical meaning. Contemporary life, however, is a relentless procession through spaces of transit. Airport lounges and freeways are non-places, but so are less obvious spaces: ATMs, computer workstations, and supermarkets. In these spaces shared experiences between humans rarely develop. Non-places, Augé concluded, remain empty, meaningless environments that we pass through during our solitary lives.
For Ibelings, this was simply a fact of globalization, nothing to lament. He brilliantly identified the rise of a “Supermodernist” architecture epitomized by the work of Herzog and de Meuron, OMA, Kazuyo Sejima, and Frank Gehry. Rejecting Postmodernism’s emphasis on symbolism as mere nostalgia for place in a world increasingly lacking it these architects instead deployed sensation through a play of surface and materials to sway the viewer. Supermodernism was, Ibelings insisted, expressionless and neutral, generally taking orthogonal form (the Box), but quite possibly also resembling sculptural objects (the Blob).
In revisiting these two texts recently, I lifted an eyebrow at how the edges of my paperback copies had yellowed (a glance at Amazon showed that Supermodernism was now out of print, a $94 collector's item) and as I read on, I was even more taken aback by how obsolete they seemed. I have had to do a bit of traveling for work during the last year so I know the airport lounge more intimately than I’d like. But my time there is far from solitary. Cell phone calls and email messages—if not via a wireless connection on my laptop, then via my iPhone—occupy my time. Nor is such connectivity limited to the digerati. During the last decade, the mobile phone became the most successful gadget ever, selling over 1.6 billion units, and the laptop computer—often outfitted with Wi-Fi—now routinely outsells desktop machines in developed countries. To appreciate how much wireless technology is changing our lives, visit your local Starbucks and watch the number of people browsing the web or, for that matter, get in your car: increasingly outfitted with Bluetooth wireless interfaces, many new automobiles are becoming mobile phone accessories.
This new technology facilitates our connections with co-workers, family and friends in a hectic world. Anthropologist Ichiyo Habachi has observed that the mobile phone creates a “telecocoon,” an extension of intimate personal space into our surroundings. Through both phone calls and text messaging, it is possible to feel the presence of others nearly constantly and non-places become domesticated. Moreover, as the Internet has matured, it too has become a virtual hang out, through social networking sites such as Myspace and Facebook but also through forums, blogs, photo sharing sites, and even multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft (don’t dismiss these out of hand: the average age of players is 28 and Warcraft has 8 million subscribers worldwide).
Does this mean that we are connecting with the others who share in the space we pass through? No, this networked culture does not portend a return to the place of old. But neither do we live in a space of solitude (although often we might wish to be in one). Instead, our space is a networked one, with wireless communications linking individuals both nearby and distant.
Yet more changes to our notion of space may be around the corner as well. Experiments by hackers and artists with “Locative Media” suggest that uniting GPS sensors and PDAs will allow us to overlay vast amounts of networked information onto the environment. Space will acquire new forms of networked meaning. Using your smart device, you will be able to pull up information—historical information, personal notes, restaurant reviews, and collective histories—about your environment.
Non-place, then, is only a brief transitional entity and Supermodernity only a way-station on the way to a network culture. As the vast collective reading/net surfing room of OMA’s Seattle Public Library or the tubes that reveal the infrastructural underpinnings of Toyo Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque begin to suggest, the new architecture for the twenty-first century will be less concerned with sensation and affect, less obsessed with either the box and the blob, and more concerned with a new kind of place-making, enabling us to dwell more creatively in both “real” and network space.