architecture

Valdas Ozarinskas, 1961-2014

Valdas Ozarinskas passesd away yesterday and a bad year became much worse. I had heard he was not well when I was in Vilnius last week and I feel awful that I didn't make an effort to see him. 

Valdas was a brilliant architect. For years he practiced at the Šiuolaikinio Meno Centras/Contemporary Art Center in Vilnius, Lithuania, creating exhibitions that were stunning. Minimal but aggressive, Valdas's works were comparable in force only to the very earliest moment of minimalist art, before it became a style, an architectural equivalent of industrial music (I mean from the days of Throbbing Gristle, not the drum-machine driven works of the 90s). Valdas publically eschewed ideology but could probe theoretical questions as deeply as any architect I know. We had many conversations whenever I visited Lithuania, generally about the problem of the individual in a post-industrial society. Had he spoken English and had he written his thoughts down others would have understood how deep a thinker we have lost. The loss, to put it in a Lithuanian context, is comparable to the loss of George Maciunas 35 years ago, another figure of similar force, but who I only had a chance to meet once. Their minds were not dissimilar: both Sloterdijkian kynics in the best sense.  

He made many projects, but I will only reflect on one here. Valdas often collaborated with Audrius Bučas and together they produced Black Pillow, which was shown at the ŠMC in 2011 and subsequently at the Liverpool Biennial. The show'sweb site wrote that given its exhibition at the peak of the economic crisis in Lithuania,

The two architects’ formalist idea was initially supposed to appeal exclusively to the limits of the viewer’s phenomenological experiences. However, it quickly got wrapped in various stories and interpretations due to its unusually large dimensions, menacing black colour and the moods that prevailed in Lithuania at the very peak of the economic crisis. Black Pillow took a symbolic shape and dimension accumulating all the possible personal and collective failures of our lives.

From our discussions in the gallery next to the black pillow it was clear that Valdas understood and intended such a symbolic dimension from the start. Or more specifically, he intended—as he often did—to give us a neutral but cathetic object that we could project onto as we wished. Never melancholy, Valdas was always relentlessly positive even about the bleakest of conditions, albeit often astounded at the stupidity of our world.

Alain Badiou's 12th thesis on contemporary art reads "Non-imperial art must be as rigorous as a mathematical demonstration, as surprising as an ambush in the night, and as elevated as a star." Nothing could describe Valdas's work better. One night over beers at the ŠMC cafe, its Lithuanian Soviet modernism itself brilliantly reconstructed by Valdas, I read the theses to him, translating them into my broken Lithuanian as best I could and we shared our analysis of the theses.  

Even last week Valdas was putting together a final show, at the Antanas Moncys House in Palanga. That we have lost such a mind only proves how stupid our world is. To talk to Valdas was to hear the Lithuanian word "siaubas" or "horror/terror" over and over. That was the madness of this place we inhabit, a world in which we battle against zombie bureaucrats and power-mad psychopaths, where goodness is rarely rewarded but idiocy is. To remember him, what can we do but we keep marching forward, one foot in front of the other and say, anything is possible? 

Architecture, Network Culture + Minecraft

It's my great honor to be speaking at Taliesin West today, 27 February at 7pm in Scottsdale, Arizona. My lecture will be about network culture, my work with the Netlab, and my kids' constructions in Minecraft). 

On Drupal, or Wither Web 2.0?

With the end of the year approaching, I might as well begin my reflections with yet another rote lament for why I don't post enough anymore. Blogging is dead for many and has been dead now for about as long as it thrived. Somehow, I resolve, I'll turn back to blogging one day, but other things come first, like my kids, my project at MoMA, various projects at the Netlab, teaching, articles that I have neglected too long, writing my book, working on the restoration of my house and so on.

But every now and then it turn back to the Web, if not to blogging then to working on the infrastructure beneath my stable of Web sites. In this case, this morning I took the Networked Publics site and converted it to from a live Drupal installation to a static site. Networked Publics ceased to be live years ago as it was the record of a year-long workshop that took place from fall 2005 to fall 2006 and the book that came out of the workshop was published in 2008. Besides me the last log at Networked Publics comes from my late colleague and friend Anne Friedberg some six years, twenty-four weeks ago. I find it sad that the group we formed doesn't stay together virtually, but such, I suppose, is the nature of scholarly collaborations involving individuals from radically disparate fields. Still, as a historian, the record of a year spent by a team of scholars investigating a topic seems worth paying a few dollars to keep registered so I spent a couple of hours to ensure the site wouldn't be tied to an aging Drupal 6 infrastructure.  

Looking back at the low-fi Web 2.0 site and the low-fi videos on it, it already seems like ancient history. But this was the state of the art not 15 or 20 years ago but rather a mere eight years ago. The trends that the Networked Publics group identified—the rise of DIY media in particular—are now not the province of nerds and geeks but rather part of our everyday lives. It's stunning to think back and remember showing the group the first video iPod that I had purchased soon after its release that year. Such, I suppose is the process of aging in the technological future. One gauges oneself as much by the personal milestones one experiences as by the tech one leaves behind.  

For me, development on Drupal has become something to leave behind as well. Last year I concluded my development of Docomomo-us.org, which I had transitioned from outdated custom cgi code to Drupal back in 2006, by having Jochen Hartmann take over as web developer and earlier this year I replaced the Drupal sites for both AUDC and the Netlab with sites driven by Indexhibit. This process of steadily whittling down my Drupal sites means that this remains the only one I have left (minus the seriously neglected Lair of the Chrome Peacock). 

But this isn't a mere status update regard the infrastructure of these sites. Changes in infrastructure, as my readers should know, are never innocent, but rather embody ideological and social changes. When I first came to Drupal back in 2005, I was encouraged by the ease of extending the system and its Open Source development. For a time I was active in the community at Drupal. Not being much of a coder anymore, I asked questions, gave suggestions, and helped out with some problems people had on the forums, but it became clear to me that most people on Drupal's communty site fell into three categories. Those just starting out, those trying to help out as they could (and usually fleeing when they felt overwhelmed… this typically happened after they had submitted a new module or theme), and those who were either dedicated hobbyists or worked with Drupal for a living. Not being part of the latter two, I wound up retreating.

As a designer, I had this foolish idea that my site should look the way I want it to look so I spent a ridiculous amount of time tweaking these sites by building themes for them and outfitting them with extensions called "modules." Unfortunately in an effort to optimize its code base, the developers of Drupal have adopted a mantra which states that "the drop is always moving" which simply means that Drupal will actively break any themes and modules during each major point release. The result is that I found myself needing a month of down time to upgrade my sites from Drupal 5 to Drupal 6. For a scholar to do this is preposterously difficult. For a scholar with kids to do this is virtually impossible. 

Drupal 7 came out a while back, but lacking any compelling features, I chose not to upgrade. After all, a month of down time just to get back to where I was is hardly attractive. Now Drupal 8 promises adaptive themes that will appropriately react to the mobile platforms that increasingly drive Web traffic so I am likely to go to it, but even though new development was frozen in the system a year ago, it seems far from prime time. I spent more than half an hour today looking for a release date for the first beta and couldn't find anything but long-outdated information. If this site is to be believed, there are more critical bugs in Drupal 8 today than a year ago. 

Therein lies the trouble with Drupal and modern coding: immense complexity (see my comments on complexity at Triple Canopy). Projects of this size become impossible to manage, impossible to code, and impossible for users to work with. My front page is aging, an artifact from an era in which laptops commonly had screens with a resolution of 1024 X 768 not 1920 X 1200 (as my current one does) but to redo when it will only break again soon seems ludicrous. Perhaps I'll use another system like Wordpress to run this site or maybe I'll pickle it and fork off to another platform. Any of this is possible, but I'll hardly recommend Drupal to anyone again or do anything but build the most minimal theme I can for it.  

Beyond a stern caution about the complexity that Open Source projects can generate and that can choke them, as Drupal has been choked, for all of the technological maturation that we've seen over the years since Networked Publics, the one thing that we've drifted away from is Web presence. If the static Web marked the 1990s, Web 2.0's dynamic Web sites dominated the time in which we wrote Networked Publics. Bringing varnelis.net back to life with Drupal in 2005, I envisioned it as part of an interlinked ecology of sites, both local (AUDC, DoCoMoMo-US, the Netlab, etc.) but also global, interlinking to other sites through RSS feeds and commenting systems. This hasn't happened, to this site or any other. Web 2.0's strongest links such as social bookmarking (repeated problems with Delicious at the hands of Yahoo! and AVOS and the meltdown at ma.gnolia) and RSS suffered a similar fate after Google Reader shut down this summer. As Open Source withers when it becomes over-complex, struggling corporations like Yahoo! and Google undo matters in their binge and purge cycles, buying up whatever they can in hopes of monetizing the Web and then wiping out communities when they turn out to be too hard to profit from.    

Instead of the open Web then, we have apps and the privatized, Balkanized world they promise. It's hard not to be gloomy about this, hard to find a happy face to put on all this. Perhaps that is my wont, but sometimes there isn't one. The problems of cooperation, collaboration, and democratic decision-making remain the thorniest of problems for Networked Publics. 

Uneven Growth Show @ MoMA

It's my absolute delight to finally be able to announce that the Network Architecture Lab will be collaborating with MAPOffice in the 2014 "Uneven Growth" exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

Pedro Gadanho, curator for contemporary architecture at MoMA is curating the exhibit which runs from November 22, 2014 to May 10, 2015. The show will be launched on October 26 of 2013 with presentations by the different teams at MoMA's PS 1. More details here.  

It's an incredible opportunity for myself and the Netlab, not only because of the importance of the venue and Pedro's brilliance as a curator, but also because of the subject matter. It's going to be a great journey!

Text from the press release follows:

In 2030, the world’s population will be a staggering eight billion people. Of these, two-thirds will live in cities. Most will be poor. With limited resources, this uneven growth will be one of the greatest challenges faced by societies across the globe. Over the next years, city authorities, urban planners and designers, economists, and many others will have to join forces to avoid major social and economical catastrophes, working together to ensure these expanding megacities will remain habitable.

To engage this international debate, Uneven Growth brings together six interdisciplinary teams of researchers and practitioners to examine new architectural possibilities for six global metropolises: Hong Kong, Istanbul, Lagos, Mumbai, New York, and Rio de Janeiro. Following on the same model of the MoMA exhibitions Rising Currents and Foreclosed, each team will develop proposals for a specific city in a series of workshops that occur over the course of a 14-month initiative.

Uneven Growth seeks to challenge current assumptions about the relationships between formal and informal, bottom-up and top-down urban development, and to address potential changes in the roles architects and urban designers might assume in the evolution of cities. The resulting proposals, which will be presented at MoMA in November 2014, will consider how emergent forms of tactical urbanism can respond to alterations in the nature of public space, housing, mobility, spatial justice, environmental conditions, and other major issues in near-future urban contexts.

Urban Case Study Teams:

New York: Situ Studio, New York, and Cohabitation Strategies (CohStra), Rotterdam

Rio de Janeiro: RUA Arquitetos, Rio de Janeiro, and MAS Urban Design ETH, Zurich

Mumbai: URBZ, Mumbai, and Pop Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge

Lagos: NLÉ Architects, Lagos, and Inteligencias Colectivas, Madrid

Hong Kong: MAP Office, Hong Kong, and Network Architecture Lab, Columbia University, New York

Istanbul: Superpool, Istanbul, and Atelier d’Architecture Autogérée, Paris

Uneven Growth: Tactical Urbanisms for Expanding Megacities is organized by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in collaboration with the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK), Vienna.

This is the third exhibition in the series Issues in Contemporary Architecture, supported by Andre Singer.

The accompanying workshops at MoMA PS1 are made possible by MoMA’s Wallis Annenberg Fund for Innovation in Contemporary Art through the Annenberg Foundation.

See MoMA's press release.

Netlab Project Team

Kazys Varnelis, Director
Leigha Dennis
Jochen Hartmann
Robert Sumrell

A House for Pink Floyd

I am on the jury for "A House for Pink Floyd," along with frequent NYC co-conspirators Carla Leitao and Edward Keller together with Dan Coma, Dan Mellamphy, Nandita Biswas Mellamphy, David Gersten, Eric Ellingsen, Ezio Blasetti, Orhan Ayyuce, Juan Azulay, Kenneth Cameron, and Leopold Lambert. The competition is sponsored by ICARCH (International Competitions in Architecture), in partnership with Atelierul de Proiectare (AdeP - Design Studio) Magazine.

I'm looking forward to seeing the entries. On a historical note, I had been hoping that I could find that Pink Floyd playing at Rome's Piper Club directly influenced the idea of Superarchitecture as developed by Andrea Branzi of Archizoom since he mentions the Piper Club, but it turns out that the Floyd's concerts at the Piper Club came two years after the 1966 Superarchitecture show. One day, perhaps someone will do a definitive history of rock and architecture and elucidate all this for us.

Good riddance, Pritzker

Earlier today the Pritzker jury decided to do away with any good that the prize has ever done. Refusing to retroactively acknowledge Denise Scott Brown's contribution in the work of the firm that she shares with Robert Venturi, the jury voted instead to affirm its patriarchal authority. See the piece on the topic in Architect Magazine

Curiously, the Pritzker has previously been awarded to Ryue Nishizawa alongside Kazuyo Sejima. Not to denigrate his contribution, but I have heard SANAA referred to as "Sejima" as often, if not more, than I have heard VSBA referred to as "Venturi." Why the double standard? 

The sort of patronizing language used in the letter by Lord Palumbo is all too familiar. It is the voice of money and authority, the same sort of voice that spoke out against the rights of the women, the poor, and minorities. It is, alas, the voice of what Brown describes as the "sad white men's award."     

I see no way in which we can, in good conscience, think of the Pritzker as being anything but a detriment to the profession. Indeed, the entire notion of the Pritzker Prize stands testament to the misguided fallacy of architecture as the work of solitary geniuses, ignoring that it is almost inevitably a team product. Now we may give awards to individuals at school (although at Columbia we have also split those awards among partners), that is a special case in which students are work, in most cases, individually. Practice, particularly at the large scale that the Pritzker typically lauds, is another. 

After three decades of affirming much that is wrong about our profession, the Pritzkzer has run its course. If, collectively, we decide that it is invalid and pay it no heed, it will die. And die it must. There should be no second chances for an institution as bankrupt as this one. 

$100,000 a year is a lot of money. It's time to shut the Pritzker down and give that to people who need it, not to a bunch of well off sad, white men. Why not put take the list of countries ranked worldwide by GDP and distribute the money to needy students in countries in the bottom half? Jay Pritzker's money would be doing much more for the profession. At least it wouldn't be perpetuating misogyny.

Tract Homes and Starchitecure

 

It still strikes me that we haven't made the right links between the housing bubble and starchitecture. If much of the world is economically devastated, high-end architects and developers in global cities find their offices thriving. If starchitecture has pulled back a little, its perhaps in name only as the boom seems to continue, having missed only a beat or two.  

If the self-congratulating promoters of the creative city may pat themselves on the back these days about the failure of vast swaths of tract homes, they still fail to understand that the products of Toll Brothers and the products of Richard Meier Associates are the results of the same economic mutation.

I think we can all agree that there is an obvious relationship between the ill-fated real estate bubble of the 2000s and the new products for real-estate consumers developed and popularized at the time such as interest-only mortgages, balloon payments, subprime mortgages, and home equity lines of credit (HELOCs) as well as complimentary instruments for financial investment such as mortgage-backed securities and the credit default swaps and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that backed those securities. The creative innovation that brought us these financial instruments is the highest form of production in the global city, at least from an economic perspective. If the creative class that produced and marketed these instruments worldwide lived in the towers made by starchitects, the relationship also goes deeper than that.  

Tract homes and designer apartment buildings were two sides of the same radical speculation, both precarious constructions of finance, carefully targeted to the appropriate demographic. The endless proliferation of tract home sameness found an echo in the ceaseless production of unprecedented formal innovations. If the latter aimed to always be new and photogenic, such works were not so much the products of polemical statements about architecture as they were of assembly lines capable of endless stylistic variations. Typically utilizing the most advanced computer-aided design and construction technologies available, such work cements a conception of architecture not as a series of enduring monuments but rather as part of a consumer fashion cycle.         

The difference between the repetition of the same and the repetition of the different is not so much an abstract notion of quality as a question of finance and motivation. The tract house was marketed as both a place for a family to dwell and as a lucrative but safe investment, an interchangeable commodity that could be exchanged at will for an ever-greater price. Its ubiquity was assured by the therapeutic figure of the realtor and the process of staging the interior to substitute traces of the unique with the universal. In turn, the high-end residential apartment was billed as a theatrical pied-à-terre, a temporary residence aimed less at existing city populaces than at individuals from abroad seeking to cement their identities as members of a global elite. They sought to join this society while diversifying their real estate investments internationally to hedge against any localized collapse in property values.

Developers of starchitect-designed properties targeted that demographic of the global elite already interested in investing in the art market or owning works of reputed cultural significance. In this, it is instructive to compare the branding of starchitect-designed apartment buildings with how Donald Trump-branded apartment buildings targeted at a market-segment interested in associating itself with more conventional ideas of celebrity and with conventional amenities such as interior waterfalls, high end French restaurants and billiards rooms. Whatever name a luxury building was branded with, be it Herzog and de Meuron or Donald Trump, the deeper pockets possessed by purchasers ensured that after the global downturn in real estate, the market would remain liquid and prices wouldn’t collapse the way they did for suburban tract homes.  

It's really the Pareto priniciple at work. After the collapse, the overproduction of real estate worldwide only served to cement the value of the core of global cities as what David Harvey has called a spatial fix for capital, thus demonstrating its value even further. In other words, it all worked out very nicely for everyone holding the cards, didn't it?  

Peepers, Flashers, and Other Law Breakers

 

The Netlab explores architecture, networks, privacy, voyeurism, and exposure on Monday, February 11, 2013 6:30pm in Columbia University's Wood Auditorium.

Since the Enlightenment, both architecture and the law have provided parallel and often complimentary definitions of the public and private. Under network culture, however, walls have a new permeability and laws have a new instability. Amidst all this, our own perception of what constitutes private life is changing with our use of online social networks.
 
Leaders in architecture, digital media, and the law take on this rapidly changing landscape in a wide-ranging conversation on privacy, self-exposure, and space.
 
Beatriz Colomina,  Princeton University SOA
Eric Höweler, Höweler + Yoon Architecture
Helen Nissenbaum, NYU Information Law Institute
Mark Shepard, University of Buffalo
Kazys Varnelis, Columbia University GSAPP
 

Infrastructural Fields

One of my favorite journals, Quaderns has posted an essay that I wrote for them a year ago, entitled "Infrastructural Fields." There, I make the argument that architects need to embrace the new, invisible world of Hertzian space as they design. What are the tools by which we will do this? How will we create an architecture that, as Toyo Ito once stated, can float between the physical and the virtual world? If Ito set out to do this in the Sendai Mediatheque, why have architects been so reluctant to go further? 

Where Do Good Ideas Come From?

The most recent issue of MAS Context has an essay by Ben Brichta on the Network Architecture Lab's recent event on copyright at Columbia with Amy Adler, Lebbeus Woods, Sean Dockray, and Geeta Dayal. Thanks to Ben, who did a great job for the Netlab with his essay. You can find it here

I'm honored to finally be in MAS Context, which is a great publication that I'm sure you're either familiar with or about to check out. Other friends in the issue are Klaus and Quillian Rieno. I was thrilled to be introduced to Martin Anderson's Suburbia Gone Wild piece, which looks at how suburbia has grown throughout the developing world and can be found in expanded form at his Web site as well as Pedro Hernández's piece on the abandoned architecture of the Alicante coast. I've only had a short time to look over the issue at breakfast, but it promises to be really worthwhile.  

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