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.
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.