predictions for the year ahead

My predictions—and those of a whole bunch of members of "architects, bloggers, academics, Archinect editors, and other members of [the Archinect] community" for the year ahead at Archinect.

I'll add to my prediction by adding that if we get it right, light urbanism will be all the rage. Something along the lines of this or this or this. There are lots and lots of dangers to such scenarios, but a burst of new, heavy but green infrastructure (e.g. light rail, green power plants, podcars, whatever) is pie in the sky in an age that will give new meaning to NIMBYism as homeowners seek to protect what value they have left.  

obama and mies

Obama, of course, is Time's Person of the Year. See here.

The piece begins…

You probably sat in a fancier conference room the last time you refinanced or heard a pitch about life insurance. There's a table, some off-brand mesh office chairs, a bookcase that looks as if it had been put together with an Allen wrench and instructions in Swedish.

To reach this room, you pass through a cubicle farm lightly populated by quiet young people. Either they have just arrived or they are just leaving, because their desks are almost bare. The place has a vaguely familiar feel to it, this air of transient shabbiness and nondescriptitude. You can't quite put your finger on it ...

"It's like the set of The Office," someone offers.


It is here that we find Barack Obama one soul-freezingly cold December day, mentally unpacking the crate of crushing problems — some old, some new, all ugly — that he is about to inherit as the 44th President of the United States. Most of his hours inside the presidential-transition office are spent in this bland and bare-bones room. You would think the President-elect — a guy who draws 100,000 people to a speech in St. Louis, Mo., who raises three-quarters of a billion dollars, who is facing the toughest first year since Franklin Roosevelt's — might merit a leather chair. Maybe a credenza? A hutch?  

Now wait a second. Obama's campaign headquarters is in the Kluczynski Federal Building in Chicago designed by Mies. So a federally-owned building likely is pretty bare-bones inside, but no mention of Mies? No mention of a man Time magazine called a "disciplinarian for a confused age"?


more on then and now


My little experiment got a bit of attention on Archinect, but I can't say that the responses that contributed buildings (which is what I asked for, remember?) dredged up much work that I hadn't thought about. There's Siza and Zumthor, but that work is (how shall I say this in a nice way?) timeless. It doesn't engage with our contemporary era except by disengagement. I still recall a Zumthor lecture at SCI_Arc in which he said "I don't believe in images." That was the last audible line he had during his lecture. He proceeded to show very carefully taken photographs of his work and mumble the entire talk so that all we could do was sit and stare. He blamed the microphone (this too was audible, nothing else), but I was in the front row, directly in front of him! Prankster. 

Other good offices—such as FAT, Atelier Bow Wow, and Big—have appeared on the scene, but have not yet had their chance with the major commissions that might test their methods. Ana Maria Leon suggested that I should be searching for new forms of practice. That seems like a legitimate suggestion to me and I've often thought that's where the fertile thought lies. Still, I suppose it's possible to find alternative forms of practice throughout history. To name but three: there's Behrens's product design and branding at AEG, the Eames's furniture and films, and Archizoom's dystopian vision. Maybe we are in a longue durée of architects outside architecture? That would suggest that something strange has still happened.    

The significant architecture of the 1990s was often very much of its time, engaging with the world that it inhabited through architecture. I am thinking of Herzog and de Meuron's Central Signal Box 4 or Ito's Sendai Mediatheque or NL Architect's Wos 8 or OMA's Maison à Bordeaux or Herzog and De Meuron's Ricola or  MVRDV's WoZoCos or Sejima's Gifu Kitagawa or FOA's Yokohama Terminal or Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao. Many of these structures employed high technology or innovative design processes, but what really struck me is that they engaged with crucial issues of their day head-on: individual identity in a changing society, the role of technology and media, and the impact of globalization. 

I'm not saying that architecture breathed deeply of the Zeitgeist then and there is none now, but to me architecture in the 1990s was worth studying not just on its own terms but because it was capable of revealing so much about—and commenting on—our society. In that, it shared much with postmodernist.  Like it or not, postmodernist architecture was hugely significant culturally. Recall that Fredric Jameson, a literary critic, had to turn to architecture to understand postmodern culture. Architecture was at the forefront of cultural innovation then. So why is it that when I'm setting out to write my book on network culture, the architecture of our time doesn't have anything remotely resembling that kind of importance. I find this fascinating. I've done what I could to prove that it's my own fault, but failed to do that—in fact, my colleagues with whom I've discussed this offline over the last few years agree…and for the architecture fanboys out there, you'd be heartbroken to know that many of those include the very architects I suspect you're so enthused about. Architecture fanboys misunderstand yesterday's post as an attack on architecture. Rather, I was hoping to be proved wrong, but my suspicions were only confirmed. So now it's time for a postmortem: why did this happen? Is it an internal trajectory? Or is it external forces? Maybe societal conditions? Or some kind of interrelationship between these? This is what I have to puzzle out in the months to come.   


where is the good new architecture?

Where is the good new architecture? Name five significant buildings done in this century. I dare you. I can think of Porto and the Seattle Public Library and the list ends there. 

Take this article from New York Magazine on the architecture of the last building boom. None of it is great. I don't think any of it is good. Most of it is mediocre. A lot of it is awful. Architects not only got drunk on the methylated spirits of the last building boom, they went blind as a result. As a historian I seem virtually nothing of worth in this decade. Recently I had to give a lecture on the architecture of network society and I found plenty of it by OMA, MVRDV, Herzog and de de Meuron, FOA, and others. Unfortunately all of it was from the last century. Am I getting old? I ask my younger friends and they can't identify anything good new either. CCTV? That is a sad joke, an example of a once great architect doing a lousy imitation of Peter Eisenman for an evil client. I can't take it seriously. Good thing Corb never worked for Mussolini. You can only imagine what he would have done. Overexposed and uninteresting, I predict CCTV will sink like a rock. Gehry hasn't made a single good building since Bilbao, although he has built some unbelievably awful structures at MIT and on the West Side Highway. Herzog and de Meuron are boring beyond belief. I guess whatever talent worked for them in the 1990s went its own way. It's bad out there.

What's really sad is that for most of these architects, this was the last opportunity to build in their lifetimes. The boom is gone for good and if people were wary of architecture before, they will run from it now. I'm waiting for the museums caught up the Bilbao-effect to close their doors.

Please prove me wrong. Name five significant buildings done in this century. I very much doubt I will agree.

the philip johnson tapes released

The second of my three book projects this year, the Philip Johnson Tapes, Interviews by Robert A. M. Stern has just been published. My role in this project was to take a set of raw tapes of interviews that Stern conducted with Johnson in 1985 and turn them into a coherent, readable narrative. According to the readers who've seen the book, I was successful. A beautiful design by Pentagram and a huge amount of photo-archive research and fact-checking by Stern's office made this something I am quite proud of.

Expect some Johnson-related events in the near future as well as more work on Johnson from me. A critical analysis of the architect's role and work is in the future, I suspect...

athe philip johnson tapes

the Post-Critical Collapse

This weekend I took some time off and outlined the network culture book that I've been thinking about for a while. I had originally wished to have it not merely outlined but drafted by the end of the summer, but events got the best of me. On the other hand, it seems better to be able to put the economic collapse in perspective in the book.

So to the collapse then, and what it says about architecture. Now architecture is not going to be a focus of the network culture book. My goal is to write a history of the contemporary, not a history of contemporary architecture and it's a peculiar aspect of network culture that the theory and aesthetics of architecture seem to play a much less crucial role than they did under modernism or postmodernism. Modern art and literature began to flourish in the late 1900s and 1910s and modern architecture was developing rapidly at this point, although it would take the 1920s for it to really come into its own. In the case of postmodernism, architecture was clearly at the forefront in visibliity, if not in terms of theory. Under network culture, architecture's role is less visible. Architecture has floundered for an aesthetic or theory during the last decade. Supermodernism, which promised much during the 1990s, ran aground as the culture of disconnection it sought to give form to was replaced by a culture of connection. In its stead, we have nothing in particular.

If architecture had a theory during the last decade, it was post-criticism. Since post-criticism began from the premise that architects should do, not think, its proponents had a tough time articulating their position. Nevertheless, at heart, post-critical theorists argued that the deconstructivist and critical architectures of the late 1980s and early 1990s were misguided in resisting cultural hegemony (an increasingly problematic concept, to be sure) and capitalism. Instead, they embraced Koolhaas's injunction that the architect should surf the waves of capital.

But how to do this? Here post-criticism was vague, not surprising given its aversion to theory. Still if there is any core design strategy to post-criticism, it is to embrace the diagram (later on this would become the more computationally-enabled parametric modelling) and model the inputs and variables in a given condition. If detailed enough, the argument went, such diagrams would allow design to emerge automatically. In some cases, this could be quite literal: corporate "flows" might be modelled in computer animation programs and literally given structure to become buildings.  

Such modelling relies on a simple notion of information very much like that of the efficient market hypothesis which informed thinking about financial markets for the last two decades. The efficient market hypothesis was predicated on the network making accurate information available to everyone equally and that everyone would act rationally with regard to that information. But the actors involved turned out not to be rational. The irrational behavior of players led to the real estate boom that I had warned about for years, the subsequent collapse, and this fall's panic. The failure was not one of not enough information, it was a failure to think critically. As any student of network theory knows, robust networks use error-checking to verify the veracity of the data involved. It was not a failure of individuals, but rather a faliure of the network to police itself. In other words,the economic collapse of 2007-2008 was a network failure.

In allying architecture so closely with the market, post-criticism has repeated the reasoning of high modernist architects in the postwar U. S. But that era came to an end in the late 1960s and, as post-Fordism came into question, so did the discipline. Now that architecture has allied itself with a failed theory of the market, what will become of it? This isn't an idle question. As society and culture reconfigure, an architecture that has little to offer except a direct representation of capital flows is unlikely to succeed. Moreover, the fascination that post-critical architects had with producing designs through software parallels the reduction of architecture to complex financial instruments that existed primarily in the network. This has already been called into question in the market. Architecture is, as usual, just a little behind.  

Compounding this, architecture has been in vogue during the last two decades due to the so-called Bilbao-Effect, the idea that through the sheer effect (for reasons originally having to do with the writing of Gilles Delueze, architects write this as “affect”) of its form, architecture can improve economic conditions either for a business or for a city. For advocates of diagrammatic thought, the complexity of the forms generated by diagramming were ideal for producing the Bilbao-Effect. But these structures, be they built by businesses or by cultural institutions, were highly expensive and generally heavily leveraged. As they start to go bust, architecture is likely to be blamed for the failure. Most of today's young hot-shot architects are too young to have experienced the attacks that architecture suffered in the 1970s for failing to live up to modernism's promises of function. These may yet pale compared to the disparagement that architecture could receive for failing to generate the promised miracle profits.

Architecture is in a grim situation after the collapse. How it will survive is not yet clear to me, although if I had to make a guess it would be to turn to the idea of the "expanded architect" that Columbia architecture Dean Mark Wigley promotes, suggesting that architecture school is a great training ground for the flexible designer of the future, even if she or he can't doesn't work in architecture.

As far as post-criticism goes, it looks like the sun has set on that idea. Post-criticism has always been flawed since it fundamentally misunderstands that architecture is by its nature an irrational endeavor. Architects are hired not to produce the normal, but the abnormal. Architecture is a strange survivor of the pre-capitalist craft era. That it survives is only because it is able to offer something other than "going with the flow."


Simultaneous environments—social connection and new media

My latest article, "Simultaneous Environments—Social Connection and New Media" is now available at Vodafone Receiver. In this piece I explore questions of alienation and connection as they develop in place, non-place, and networked place.

Rapid Response: Collapse!

I will be leading a discussion at Studio-X next Tuesday on the topic of the recent economic changes. This is part of the Rapid Response series at Studio-X, an open and undetermined platform for quick response to events that have transpired over the last thirty days.

Collapse! explores the spatial consequences of the "new" economy—the panic of 2008 as well as the last two decades, and the last two years—at a variety of scales: the NYSE trading room to Manhattan, the city to the suburbs, the United States to the world. I will lead a discussion with Daniel Beunza, Assistant Professor, Management Division, Columbia Business School and Micah Fink, Emmy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker. 

Collapse! is produced in collaboration with the Network Architecture Lab.

Refreshments provided by Barefoot Wines

Free and open to the public

WHEN: Tuesday, October 28, 6:30 pm
WHERE: Studio-X, 180 Varick Street, Suite 1610
1 train to Houston Street

against fuller

I happened to see the Fuller show at the Whitney on Saturday.

The drawings were intriguing—although hardly signifying anything—and some of the models ·(particularly the one of the suburban development of Dymaxion houses) were nice. What struck me, however, was the utter impracticality of his work. Fuller had an obsession with the outsize: the Dymaxion car, the Dymaxion House, the geodesic dome, all enclosed much more space than was necessary for their functions. He also had a fetish for geometry which he has passed on to a new generation of architects that seems to misunderstand design as the production of "novel" geometries. Not only did the show point out how they have done little to develop what Fuller had already done, it pointed out the pointlessness of it all.

For if the exhibit makes noises about how Fuller was a visionary, the viewer can't help but come away with an image of Fuller as an eccentric tinkerer, convinced that the strength of his vision would assure its realization (like Corbusier at his worst). But of course Fuller's ideas were unworkable. Returning to them will hardly solve any problems. Its always disturbing when I agree with Philip Johnson and here I did. The point of Fuller is no more clear in 2008 then it was in the early 1980s when I discovered him while in high school and found I couldn't make sense of his rambling texts (somehow the covers make me think of Scientology).

Architecture is periliously close to being irrelevant today and novel geometry is as doomed an enterprise as cool form. I was too busy to attend the panel talk on sensation at school yesterday, but maybe someone who went can tell me if anything of interest was said by the LA contingent.

Speaking of that sensational city…a reminder: I'll be in Los Angeles to talk in the seduction panel at the Hammer tonight. I'll be speaking about Philip Johnson's Glass House and seduction, focusing on Philip's encounters with Mies van der Rohe and Andy Warhol at the Glass House.

this will kill that

AUDC presented our first studio yesterday at school. The studio abstract follows, below.

Advanced Studio V
Fall 2007
Kazys Varnelis
Robert Sumrell
Columbia University
Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation

This Will Kill That

This studio begins with our observation that the process of building cannot keep pace with the conceptual ambitions of architecture. Buildings are dead before they are built.Take CCTV—endlessly hyped, it is the building of the year, complete with a MoMA exhibition on it even before it is finished. Who will want to see it now? Oversaturated in media, its Bilbao-Effect already spent in a junkspace of print, CCTV, like many buildings, is exhausted in advance of its occupation. Buildings today exist for the media, for journals, for books, for the Web. Even when constructed they serve chiefly as visual wonders to see during sporting events on television or as backdrops for photoshoots in fashion magazines. In this radical present—a condition in which the past and the future become impossible to conceive of—critical architecture is so slow and expensive as to be nonexistent. We set out to seek other strategies and to look within architecture to seek what intelligence it still has to offer.

If today the building is an after-effect of media, our method is to go against logic and turn back to it. This studio is conceptual, aimed at developing arguments and polemics, but it sets out to do so using the tools of the architect. Dispensing with the prospect of realizing buildings as constructions of matter, we instead maintain that buildings can be constructions of thought, conceptual machines that produce arguments and state positions.

Although we expressly abandon any interest in construction, we nevertheless aim at designing buildings, or rather conceptual structures that look and perform very much like buildings. Against the dominant forms of architectural education today, this is not a scripting studio, nor a place for unbuildable Hollywood fantasy, nor is it a last refuge of the real or its friend, tired from too many hours surfing the Internet, the hand. Against these outmoded positions, we propose architecture based on rigorous design, architecture as a system of thought that makes abstract knowledge experiential and conceptual thought objective, rigorous and understandable. In setting out to design buildings not diagrams, our goal is to see what the world is telling us, not what we are telling the world.

Rather than lamenting the servility of architecture to media, we engage media head on, not innocently, but rather as a praying mantis embraces her mate. 

Long ago, Victor Hugo suggested that the book will kill the building. As a dominant producer of social meaning and order, it did. But now the book is dying. This studio examines the crisis of the library, one of the oldest and most important institutions in society.

The goal of architecture has long been to become incorporated into the library, to be absorbed into the flimsy papers that would be placed on the stacks. If this will kill that, that was a suicidal masochist who wanted to die. Libraries are repositories of dead information, where things go to expire. Architecture knew this, but still always desired the stillness of the book as its real goal. Nor were architects somehow more perverted than anyone else. On the contrary, as Freud suggested in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the universal goal of life is stillness. The library gave us what we wanted, a tomb we could all dwell in, a place in which thought would quiet down once and for all, a place of silence in which noise and disruption was forbidden.

Under pressure from the pornographic thrill of the Internet, libraries, like architecture, are themselves dying. Year after year, circulation plummets and readership declines. Paradoxically, however, as both architecture and the library expire, they become pervasive. If buildings are obsolete (the current building boom being analogous to the manic expansion of Borders and Barnes and Noble in the last two decades), the strategies of architecture have become pervasive. Design is now everywhere. The tools of architecture are accessible to anyone.

The Internet and digital technology has made the library's promise of access to knowledge laughable. One hard drive is now capable of holding as much data as a medium-sized city library. In spite of this, libraries are special places. Not only is the Internet (like television) largely filled with garbage, more importantly, books are the first products of immaterial production, and thus they anticipate the dominant economic order of the information economy. But they are also their own worst enemies, heavy objects that lie inertly, gathering choking mold and dust. Still, libraries are ideal research sites for architects, their systems of organization clear, conceptual diagrams of knowledge. As these systems of classification are undone by a world in which "everything is miscellaneous," and Open Source software and peer-to-peer file sharing annihilate any concept of property, the uniqueness and even the physicality of the objects in libraries is threatened. For any book, even the most expensive would be much more valuable if you could perform a full text search on it, something Google understands full well. Soon, books may not be valuable except for the odd collector item. When they wear out, nobody will care.

But is that the fate of the library? Against the idea of the library as a base for knitting clubs and youth sex leagues or as an Internet café for the homeless, we propose to investigate the institution itself as a system of conceptual thought, and as a form of social organization. Thus, the library becomes an ideal place for architecture to re-discover its own methods of thought, its theoretical purposes.
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