architecture

on fashion and history

In "We Are All Googie Now," over at Sit Down Man, You're a Bloody Tragedy*, Owen Hatherely looks at roadside architecture in Southern California and concludes that contemporary neo-modernism has more in common with the Googie than with the classical modernism of the 1950s, e. g. the works of Mies, SOM, the Smithsons, Corbusier, and so on. I noticed this myself when I first moved to Los Angeles. Take a bit of easily-consumable architecture designed for viewing from the automobile—e. g. modernism reduced to logo—add some acid-addled Bucky Fuller forms, and you have an effective reduction of modernism to postmodernism. Owen is right that this is where neo-modernism comes from. Architecture is logo and little more.

But what about the repressed term? What about modernism? I had the good fortune of being taken to lunch at the Four Seasons the other day and it gave me the opportunity to reflect on high modernism. Given the other hats I wear at AUDC and the Netlab, people are sometimes surprised that I received a doctorate in the history of architecture and urbanism nearly fifteen years ago. But so it is, and perhaps the upcoming Johnson book will serve as a useful corrective. Anyway, one of my concerns as a historian is to articulate the distinct phases of modernism. We still lump modernism together in a naïve way when there is a big distinction to be made between the heroic modernism of the 1910s and 1920s and the high modernism of the 1950s. The former was marked by a belief in the possibilities of the avant-garde, that art could become sublated into life, that modern design could become everyday and with that, a spiritual transformation would take place. The latter came after the Depression and the War. If modernism was sold as producting a societal transformation, that transformation was now lessened, its promise of social and spiritual change reduced. Looking at the work of Mies at this point I discern not a faith in modernity, but a stoic understanding that modernity had been permanently damaged, that it could no longer deliver what was promised. Seagram is very different from Mies's Friedrichstrasse skyscraper. If the latter was an irruption of a new order into the city, the former removes itself from the city, delivering no promises except that of endurance as a monument. Modernity was something Mies wanted no part of by this point.

 

curtains at the four seasons

Deconstructivist architecture replayed this moment, but in its agonism, made everything too clear, too legible. Adorno became Cobain, and the movement swiftly exhausted itself to be replaced by an easily consumed neo-modernism. Today's architecture cares little about history. Koolhaas, who is one of the few architects who might still think in historical terms, came to an understanding of the contemporary condition in Junkspace, but rather than facing it, gave in. This is the neo-liberal approach—if everything is damned, enjoy your food and have dirty sex—and it too is ahistorical.

"We Are All Keynesians Now" was the title of a cover story in a 1965 Time Magazine, right before the economy expired. When I first saw this article described at Things Magazine, I was tired and misread it. I thought that Owen said we were all Google now, that the forms of Google's offices have infected design. I suppose ultimately this is true as well, for Google comes out of the same Californian Ideology that neo-modernist design comes out of. Things suggested that architecture was now undone by its subservience to fashion, by being reduced to a backdrop for fashion (both clothing and design) magazines. 

So, berefit of history, architecture wants to operates under fashion.

But not so fast. Fashion and history cannot be easily separated. Fashion came about at the same time as history did—with the end of the aristorcracy and the beginning of the Enlightenment, as a means of legitimation for the competing classes. With the end of distinction under network culture, history is gone, but fashion is not far behind. If, as Wired magazine suggests, "Dressing For Success Means Looking Like Hell," (Obama being our last hope in even more ways, apparently), then architecture is not far behind and the fashion for architecture may soon be over. Let's remember the fate of the Googie was to be forgotten. After a brief run, it was replaced by the more informal "environmental look" epitomized by McDonald's in the 1970s. Brown mansard roofs, anti-architecture. The economy was similar, the national mood was similar (Vietnam->Iraq of course)  and architecture's delirious run during the 1950s and 1960s parallels the run from the 90s to the present day.

Cementing this interpretiation, my misreading also evokes the collapse of the economic model that the network economy has been based on.  

We Are All Modernists Now. We Are All Keynesians Now.
We Are All Googie Now, We Are Alll Google Now.

Famous last words. 

 

*This is the best name for a blog. It could, in fact, be the name for most anything.

for image disembodiment

In my post on Lebbeus Woods, I suggested that architects might one day find themselves no longer making buildings. This may seem surprising, but we're only at the dawn of network culture. We were under Fordism from the 1920s to the mid-1960s and under post-Fordism from the mid-1960s until about 2000. So no surprise that we have yet to see the full effects of this era. This essay from the photo blog "the Luminous Landscape" (must reading for photographers) suggests that just as film has faded into history, the print will too. As high definition screens exceed anything that print can do (this will come one day soon), why continue to valorize an outdated technology? 

And why not? I already barely use my printer for my photographic work. It's either printed in books and magazines or viewed on the Web. Can any gallery deliver the kind of recognition that Flickr can? Why own? Of course unless things go awry, high definition screens for viewing art will be open and works will soon be pirated and traded openly. You'll be going to rapidshare to download the newest Gursky. Artists may protest that this is awful. But it isn't, really, it's just a different model of property that other fields, like music, have to deal with. 

Property, it seems, is the last thing to invest in. 

architecture against itself

The ponzi scheme created to sell real estate at preposterously inflated levels during the last eight years is now having a new feedback effect. Just as it drove rampant construction, producing far more housing than anybody will need any time in the near future, it is now undoing that housing. Once foreclosures happen, houses and apartments are not only neglected, they become the focus of their occupants' rage.

CNN explains.

the secret life of robin hood gardens

I just read a beautiful post at one of my favorite blogs, Kosmograd, on "the Secret Life of Robin Hood Gardens." Although I suppose it is better to destroy the project than tartify it with some kind of crazy scheme by Will Alsop, the thought of losing such a place is depressing. Waking up and stretching one's arms out at Robin Hood Gardens while looking out the window must have been a fabulous experience, a moment in which one could have been capable of anything. As Komograd points out, the residents would agree, but money and urban growth beg to differ. A tragedy.

hertzian writings

I've uploaded Architecture for Hertzian Space.

Originally in the May issue of A+U, this brief article gives a taste of some of the more recent research we've been involved with at the Netlab. Look for a second installment on mapping and design under network culture coming this week or next.

architecture for hertzian space

A+U, issue 2008:5 

In the Rise of the Network Society, sociologist Manuel Castells recounts the unexpected collapse of the USSR. In 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev promised to outdo the industrial production of the United States within two decades. By the 1980s, the Soviet Union had achieved that goal, producing more steel, more cement, more oil, more fertilizer and more pig iron than its Cold War rival. At the same time, however, the USSR utterly missed the revolution in information technologies. Castells observes that the PC revolution simply never came in a country tied to a paradigm of information centralized under government control. Within a decade, the Soviet Union collapsed.

During the worldwide building boom of the last decade, architecture rejected theory in favor of practice in a feverish pursuit of new construction. Post-criticism became the order of the day for many as architects eschewed thinking in favor of doing. To be sure architects had little choice but to pursue what may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build. Today, however with the boom on the wane, we ask what does this pursuit of the material have to do with the increasing dominance of immaterial forces in everyday life? Is architecture—much like the Soviet Union in the early 1980s—pursuing the wrong path utterly?

Over the last decade everyday life has radically transformed. The Internet has gone from being a tool for researchers and hobbyists to the dominant form of communication while the mobile phone has become ubiquitous. If Castells suggested that the global economy was undergoing a massive shift to a network society, then today that very network society is maturing. Year after year, new media grow while sales of music CDs are dropping, television networks face dwindling audiences, newspapers watch their subscription numbers slide, and Hollywood fails to compel our attention with its predictable product.

And what of architecture? To be sure, the discipline has tried to respond to this condition, but it has done so largely by subscribing to the paradigm of the Bilbao-effect: that high-tech in architecture means new, unprecedented form. When considered in a broader perspective, however, this response seems almost perverse. Much has been made of the virtues of design in mobile digital technology, and good design is indeed crucial, but it is far from our delirious obsession with form.

Take Apple Computer, one of the most successful companies of the decade. Since Steve Jobs appointed Jonathan Ive as Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple, the company’s devices have often been lauded for their design. Looked at objectively, however, head-turning designs with unprecedented form such as the original iMac, the Blue & White G3 tower or the Apple Studio Display monitor were produced only between 1997 and 2001. Coinciding with the twin cultural ruptures of the dot.com crash and 9/11, Apple turned toward a studied minimalism, to designs that harkened back more to the Ulm School minimalism of Dieter Rams instead of conjuring a vision of the future. Dispensing with the notion that design is primarily a question of unprecedented form, these devices simply get out of the way so that individuals could use them.

 

The iPhone, vastly successful in the United States, is a case in point. From the point of view of form, there is nothing particularly compelling about the device. Its face consists of a black rectangle with rounded corners (less a bow to the commonplace rounding in design and more a necessity for slipping in and out of a pocket), a button, and a thin slit for a speaker. But it is precisely that deceptive reticence that makes the iPhone compelling, for the moment that you push the button, it lights up to reveal a brilliant, high-resolution screen. Most surprising, however, is how readily the device responds to the light touch of your fingers. Here, then, is the iPhone’s brilliance: it isn’t a phone as much as a magic object, a promise of a day to come in which more and more material objects will cease being dumb and instead become intelligent.

For its part, Microsoft has pursued a different vision that may yet prove equally compelling. This spring, they intend to ship glass-topped table that can respond to your commands through a touch-screen interface much as the iPhone does. Although the Microsoft Surface table will initially cost between $5,000 and $12,000 and be aimed at hotels and casinos, the positive reaction of the public is leading the company—which in many ways has found itself playing catch-up to Apple in other fields—to fast-track development for consumer units.
 
Compare this to how today’s top architects think of computation in design, using advanced software to make ever-more-complex forms. The only debate seems to be whether these forms should be produced by scripts or whether they should be tweaked by hand to achieve a desired effect. This pursuit becomes an architectural equivalent of Moore’s law as each avant-garde designer tries to outdo the competition with a project previously impossible to build or model. Ultimately such a condition is unsustainable, producing research that has little day-to-day application and misses the point of a radically changed urban condition as much as the Soviet Union missed the PC revolution. For beyond corporeal space, we increasingly also live in Hertzian space, a cloud of electromagnetic radiation that bathes us in information.

Hertzian space is as real as the physical world. Physicists tell us that electromagnetic forces are far more powerful than gravity (a tiny magnet holds up a paperclip against the entire gravity of the Earth). Investors find telecommunications and the Internet to be immensely lucrative. What might an architecture that actively engaged Hertzian space look like?

Two examples tentatively suggest ways in which urbanism might take into account our radically changed environment. The first of these forces us to confront the invisible forces in our environment. The second proposes to warp the very fabric of the city.

seen - fruits of our labor image

In Osman and Omar Khan’s project “SEEN-Fruits of Our Labor,” the designers crafted an 8’ tall, 4’ wide black acrylic screen, reminiscent of the 2001 monolith or perhaps a massive iPhone (the iPhone was actually released a year after the first installation) and installed it in front of the San Jose Museum of Art. The designers set out to foreground questions of labor in the United States by asking members of three groups crucial to the Silicon Valley economy—technology workers, undocumented service workers and outsourced call center workers—the question “What is the fruit of your labor?” The Khans displayed the responses on the screen via a grid of infrared LEDs. This light source is invisible to the naked eye, but can be seen via CCD apparatuses present in digital cameras and phone cameras.

As the mysterious object incited viewers into photographing it, viewers saw a message that otherwise existed only in Hertzian space, invisible to the eye, on their camera screens. Repeated photographs yielded new messages and, as viewers stood in front of the monument with their cameras, the experience spread virally.

SEEN-Fruits of Our Labor provokes a series of questions. To be sure there is the very real social content of the project, content that might appear heavy-handed if simply displayed on a visible-light LED screen. By hiding the messages in plain view, however, the designers subtly expose our own complicit relationship to conditions that we prefer to keep invisible. The project does not so much make visible the invisible as force us to engage in it. We can’t help but ask what mysterious forces—Hertzian or economic—permeate the city? 

Robert Sumrell and I produced the second piece, “Windows on the World” at AUDC, an architectural and urban research think-tank in 2005. We were captivated by an earlier work done in November 1980 entitled “Hole in Space” by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz. A “Public Communication Sculpture,” Hole in Space turned two walls, one at Los Angeles’s Century City Shopping Center and another at New York’s Lincoln Center, into two-way portals. Video cameras transmitted images from each site to the other where they were beamed, full size onto walls. Microphones and speakers facilitated audio transmissions.

Hole in Space lasted three nights. During the first night, encounters were casual and accidental. Many of the first visitors did not believe it was live or thought that the ghostly black and white spectres on the wall were actors on a nearby set. Disbelief soon gave way to the creation of a new social space, to the invention of games and the telling of jokes. As word spread, separated friends and family made arrangements to meet through the portals on the second evening. On the third night, after Hole in Space was featured on television news, so many people attempted to participate in this shared human experience that traffic ground to a halt and the experiment was forced to end by the authorities. Incredibly, Galloway and Rabinowitz's project is all but forgotten today.

AUDC suggested that more than ever we need to radically reconsider the already existing. We accept the scale, setting, and privatization of telematic communication too easily and have ignored the fact that these conditions limit the ways by which we communicate. Based on readily available video conferencing technology, we set out to provide a fundamentally different experience. Windows on the World proposes to site multiple portals in multiple cities to create a true world planetary network, based not on capital and planning but on chance encounters. Remixing Hole in Space and Guy Debord’s map of the “Naked City,” we propose a telematic dérive, with each portal becoming what the Situationists called a plaque tournante, a center, a place of exchange, a site where ambiance dominates and the power of planners to control our lives can be disrupted. 

Windows on the World operates outside of commerce and planning. There is no advertisement. The project is at its strongest when it is by chance. Some portals are temporary, even hidden. Others are improbable or difficult to access. In a back alley in Prague is a portal to a zoo in Sao Paolo. From a dangerous street in the Bronx, a door opens onto the Champs-Elysees. Another portal, in Zurich, looks out onto a busy railroad yard in Rotterdam.

Expenses are relatively small: each portal needs only a video projector, amplifier, speakers, microphone, webcam, computer, and a wireless link. Portals will be operated by groups following the model of, and in conjunction with the free wireless community networks that have sprung up worldwide. Connections can be easily made with free software and public servers.

Like the Situationist dérive, to prevent portals growing stale through overuse we propose a degree of surprise, mounting the links in portable cases to be left in the open. Protected by wire mesh and locked to a site, these cases would be secure, but also portable, installable and demountable at a moment's notice.

Soon, we imagine, people would become addicted to Windows on the World. Youths leave the security of their houses to rove around their city, hunting for new portals, all the while discovering not just the world, but their city. The elderly find it a new form of recreation, arranging meetings with old friends, or making new ones. People fall in love. A terminally ill person asks to go to a portal to say goodbye to his friends. Some travelers seek out relationships, others try to conduct business only to find their portal closed one day. The network would be freely extensible. Eventually portals would be everywhere. The result would be a new city, a psychogeographic remapping of the Earth according to our desires.
 

a different form of architecture

What if avant-garde architecture were completely different? Like this, for example...

 

fractures

image of a cracked car hood

From Eric Kahn of COA comes a photograph of an old car I used to own, a 1983 Saab 900 with a hood that had spiderwebbed under the California sun. After five years, I sold the car to James Lowder, who was then a SCI_Arc student and is now teaching in the architecture program at the University of Buffalo. 

architecture of hertzian space

omar and osman khan fruits of our labor

Hot off the presses, my new article "The Architecture of Hertzian Space" has just appeared in issue 2008:5 of A+U. It's my first time in A+U and I am absolutely delighted that it's the lead article. 

Above, Osman and Omar Khan's fantastic project "Fruits of Our Labor," which I discuss in the article.

 

 

a historian's manifesto

Last fall Mark Jarzombek sent me his Anti-Pragmatic Manifesto. To me the most critical passage of that insightful piece read as follows:

I predict a new fascination with carelessness, a new tolerance for “whatever” in a “whatever generation” - an architecture that prides itself on neither history nor theory, to put it bluntly. This generation will take over the mantel of the “avant-garde,” and demand that it vacuate itself of purpose and thought.  

At the time Mark asked if I might respond with my own assessment of the status of the discipline of history in architecture. It's been all too long, but here goes. 

I wish I could somehow be optimistic about the state of history, but I'm afraid that I can't be. History is already in a dire condition in the discipline and, as Mark suggests above, may soon wind up even worse off. 

So much of network culture seems to involve the shutting down of institutions created in the Enlightenment: the public sphere seems to have transformed into micro-clusters and micro-constituencies, newspapers are in free-fall collapse, the novel is giving way to a new fascination with realism, traditional markers of distinction seem obsolete. Perhaps then it should be no different for history.

Especially after Hegel, history operated under the principle of historicism, suggesting that an understanding of the past could be a guide for the present day. Whatever we may think about its problems, this gave a purpose to history writing (Manfredo Tafuri referred to this as "operative criticism"), making history vital and real for generations. For architects, key texts such as Nikolaus Pevsner's Pioneers of the Modern Movement or Siegfried Giedion's Space, Time, and Architecture grounded the present in the past.

Teleological in nature, such texts came under justifiable criticism from younger scholars, often bringing with them the anti-historicist methods developed by Karl Popper. But a second, perhaps more modernist meaning to historicism saved history at this point. This new history pointed to the past to suggest appropriate ways of operating within one's own time. Thus, the work of Palladio would be valued as an example of an architect who engaged with the forces around him and wrestled his structures out of that condition while the work of the Futurists could be resurrected in order to prove how banal modernism had become.

This form of historicism had an enemy: postmodernism. When I first went to school, the best historians argued that their work was a bulwark against postmodernism, that a modern approach was still the only appropriate response to the time. Postmodernism, which merely revived antiquated forms, was nothing more than a zombie form of architecture, misunderstanding the work of earlier architects, misusing it, and thereby threatening the legitimacy of the discipline. 

Soon after came the theory wars. As some theorists argued that history was outdated, now the best historians (Mark among them) argued that theory and history were deeply intertwined and that one should both historicize theory and theorize history. Slowly, history and theory reached a rapprochement.

Alas, this was just in time for the rise of computation. In a prescient text in 1992 entitled "Has Theory Displaced History as a Generator of Ideas for Use in the Architectural Studio, or (More Importantly), Why Do Studio Critics Continuously Displace Service Course Specialists?" Stanley Tigerman predicted that as architects began to dabble in history (as a consequence of postmodernism) and, thereafter theory, specialists in history and theory would be displaced from architectural education by more flexible personas who could also teach studio and the all-important new service courses in digital technologies.  

As this happened, historians began to reintrench into their own professional roles. Newly read in critical theory and particularly concerned about the dangers of operative criticism (as this of course could be so easily replaced by practitioners dabbling in theory). Thus empowered, historians turned back to the old process of academic distinction and discipline. No longer would history make pronouncements about the present. Instead, as Ph.D. programs were founded left and right (just what people would do with all these dissertations is a mystery to this writer, who sat jobless for two years in the mid-90s…maybe two or three programs are necessary at most in the entire country), historians turned toward research that would often be tangentially relevant. The handful of historians who did otherwise, can, I'm afraid, be counted on just a few fingers. 

Having turned to purposeful irrelevance, history now finds itself facing death by a thousands cuts. One course here, one course there. As the demands of accreditation grow, history slowly finds itself squeezed into a narrower and narrower slot in the curriculum. 

Simply put, this is a disaster. Our time would make the most bold of Futurists proud. We have little capacity for understanding historically anymore or even for understanding how others understood their times and reacted to their histories. 

I recently asked a historian about why we don't periodize anymore, he basically laughed at me, suggesting that I was naive for asking such a dumb question…after all, we all know periodization is bad, right. But is it? Mark calls for a reinvigoration of a Utopian imagination in architecture. Well what about a similar spirit in history? How about putting away our microhistories for a minute and making broad claims about culture, not just in the past, but today?

I recently observed that there were no more common texts in architecture. Ibelings' Supermodernism was the last one. And if the students and I found flaws in his argument sitting around the table in seminars at SCI_Arc (wasn't that our job after all?), we still recognized it as keenly intelligent, an attempt to explain the architecture and urbanism of that day historically. Operative criticism it was, but it was still a crucial historical argument, a signpost in a foggy field. And if it is outmoded today due to developments in telecommunications, that's fine too. Such is the nature of these kind of projects.

But wait, there are no more signposts in our foggy field. Just fog. And we continue to hurtle through it at breakneck speed. This is not a good condition and with the building boom about to implode, we seem likely to run into a massive pile of debris.  

So let's be naïve. Let's risk our careers. Let's make broad, sweeping observations. Let's make mistakes. Historians need to think big. They need to take stances and even condemn where such a condemnation is due. 

The alternative is more and more about less and less, until finally the accreditors and the administrators pull the plug on our life support system. And at that point, it seems to me, they will have done the right thing.  

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