The New York Times carried an artice last Friday that suggested that the United States’ key roll in the Internet was being left behind. The Bush administration couldn’t resist tapping into the flow of data in places like One Wilshire. So other countries couldn’t resist routing around it.
[this subway train broke down and we had to wait for it to be hauled away before the next one could arrive]
The Infrastructural City’s key lesson is that the infrastructure is now out of control, hybrid, perverted, and wild, a second nature. But if the first, original nature, could be tamed by constructing infrastructure to harness it, we can no longer do that. Building more just won’t do.
My experience in getting my three books to press this summer—something I had hoped would be done by the first of June—only cements my conviction that this condition is pervasive. Murphy’s Law, SNAFU, BOHICA: if these terms were coined half a century ago, they are daily operating principles today.
Whether its trying to get to my Soho office, struggling to get work done there (thank you to the building owner for !), fighting to get these books out the door, expecting to get paid in a timely manner (only four months late and only half my salary!) by the university system in Ireland, or keeping my server running it’s always the same story: everything that can go wrong will. Routing around damage isn’t just something the Internet does, it’s something I do, seemingly every minute of the day.
This morning I sit in a tunnel, watching a completely empty train pass our completely full train. We can discern no good reason for this even though we are so close to the tunnel’s end that we can see daylight out the window. At least we have a fighting chance to run if fire breaks out. One day it will, just give it time.
And so it is that instead of getting to the Network Culture project , I am winding up revisiting these projects to squash various bugs. This week we have been working on press packs for the Netlab and for the Infrastructural City. If you’re a member of the press, or organizing a lecture series, please send us an email with your address via the contact info link and we’ll make sure you get one.
In thinking about how to frame the project, I turned back to the most publicized investigation of urban conditions in the last two decades, Rem Koolhaas’s Project on the City at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Reading a press release for the launch of the Project, I was struck by the vast difference between his day and ours. Here’s what Koolhaas wrote of the Pearl River Delta:
“… a very small number of architects are working very, very fast, and working with minimal education and minimal honoraria, compared with Western standards. We still have the same name for the profession, but in terms of what it does and what it can do, it’s a totally different profession.”
The difference between China and the West is now inverted. Unpaid interns designing horrible towers in a few days only to have them built by unskilled laborers? Falling cranes? That’s New York City or Los Angeles. China has become architecture’s penultimate refuge (the last one being the mirage cities of the Emirates), where OMA pursues work not possible in the West. After years of phony economics, the dollar is evacuated, made worthless by a generation eager to cash out for their retirement. As a result, infrastructure is perpetually underfunded, and falls behind (and apart) more and more. Nor is this condition limited to the United States. Countries across the West are in a perpetual state of infrastructural collapse. Koolhaas came to understand this during Project. By the time he was working on Lagos, Koolhaas observed: “Lagos is not catching up with us. Rather, we may be catching up with Lagos . . .”
If Koolhaas made the classic European move of trying to understand his own condition by turning to the exotic (be it China, Africa or LA), the exotic is now everyday. Look out the window if you want to understand the city.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Jean Baudrillard wrote that the event was marked not by the end of evil, but rather by its diffusion everywhere, West to East and East to West. So it is with globalization. It is not only the developed world that has spread everywhere, it is the developing world as well. Lagos is in New York just as New York is in Lagos. This is not to say that there isn’t difference in the world anymore, but rather that instead of having such strong divisions, we have a common field condition with local inflections. This is why Michael Kubo, the editor of the book at ACTAR, suggested to me that this might be the last book to draw architectural lessons from a particular city. Future books may be about networks of cities instead of individual cities. I very much doubt (famous last words!) that I will be doing research on another city like this again. And if the era of the individual has closed behind us, then why not the same of the individual city? We may well think of cities in very different ways in the future, and not only for analytic projects.
Slowly my train (and this blog) starts to roll again. For how much longer?
[waiting for a train to jersey]
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.
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.
In an article in yesterday’s New York Times, Nicolai Ouroursoff paid homage to Lebbeus Woods. Ouroussof suggests that "Architecture is big business today. … But that he now stands virtually alone underscores a disturbing shift in the architectural profession during the past decade or so. By abandoning fantasy for the more pragmatic aspects of building, the profession has lost some of its capacity for self-criticism, not to mention one of its most valuable imaginative tools."
Has the profession (and increasingly architecture is a profession not a discipline, incapable of a critical or even intelligent discourse) produced any architecture of value in the last decade? Not much. I can think of Casa da Musica, which is a great building, and perhaps the Seattle Public Library, which is a good building, but OMA’s well has run dry. I don’t think much of the firm’s embrace of authoritarianism or the revamp of Eisenman’s Max Reinhardt Haus for CCTV. Rem’s last good essay, "Junkspace," was written before 9/11. Does he really have nothing to say? Herzog and de Meuron haven’t offered anything of merit since the 1990s. Other firms fair worse. Gehry, which epitomizes the boom, has been a free-fall disaster. Like puppies distracted by biscuits, architects have been so eager to build that they have unable to see the flames engulfing them. Who among them would write a critique of the next hot place, Ordos, like Woods did here?
Yesterday I was cleaning out my library and purged the office of monographs recording work done in the last decade. I only wondered why I didn’t exile them to the basement earlier. There is nothing in them that can hold a candle to anything Woods produced, nothing in them as interesting even as Eisenman’s recent Ten Canonical Buildings.
The boom has not only produced almost no good buildings, by distracting architects from the proper task of developing the discipline, it has set our task back by over two decades. There is almost no speculative work worth mentioning, almost no serious research going on in a field that begs to be rejuvenated. A few people, generally at the intersection of architecture and media, do interesting work. But they don’t get the attention they deserve and are constantly tempted by industry money. The architects I respect the most today work outside of the traditional field. They make exhibitions, set designs, graphics, program computers, and make maps but they tend to be abandoning a dying field rather than applying the defibrillation it needs. The boom has undone architecture. There are no new ideas and architecture is hurting.
Ourousoff invokes Archigram and Superstudio as predecents for Lebbeus, as "stinging attacks on a professional mainstream that avant-garde architects believed lacked imaginative energy." Whether we blame the dissoluting effects of network culture on personality or the abuse a generation suffered at the hands of the baby boomers, this kind of attack is absent today.*
Architects make little of our built environment. If they disappeared tomorrow nobody would notice. To survive, the discipline may yet abandon making buildings and do something entirely different. I don’t see why architects are afraid of this. If you read Vitruvius, you find that architects used to make catapults and war machines. Few architects seem to spend their time lamenting the loss of that aspect of the profession.
At AUDC, we have long been inspired by the example set by architects like Woods, Superstudio, and Archizoom. Architecture, in their hands, doesn’t give up. If this post sounds pessimistic, it’s only about the future of part of the field I abandoned almost twenty years ago to the day. On the contrary, now that Robert Sumrell, my partner in AUDC, has moved to New York, we are back at work. It would be nice to find more fellow travelers in the journey, but for that, I’m afraid, like Woods, we’ll have to wait. In the meantime, we’ve spent the summer hard at work, plotting and scheming.
* A note of caution here: Archigram and Supertsudio are often mentioned in the same breath. These groups are radically different. Archigram would have been happy to build. They were merely out of their era. If Cook was 40 today, he would be a leader in the boom, indeed he has been happy to be regarded as an inspiration for that crowd and has spoken out vehemently—and wrongly—against the impact of theory on the profession. Superstudio and Archizoom, on the other hand, thought of architecture in an entirely different way. Architecture, for them, was a means of critiquing society, not merely a way of making cool things. The rifts at the time were real. To overlook the differences between these groups is a mistake.
Now that I’ve had the second revision of iPhone software for a month and an iPhone 3G for two weeks, I’ve had time to live in the promised land of locative media. Applications on my iPhone allow me to annotate the area I’m in and read notes by other users, to locate my friends, to see what Flickr images were taken in the area, what restaurants, gas stations, or whatever are nearby, or look up the area I’m in on Wikipedia.
So finally this sort of technology is here in easy-to-use form on a mass-market handheld product. In anticipation of this being the "next big thing," it seems, there has been a rush toward locative media, mobile Internet platforms, and ubiquitous computing. First the dot.com boom, then Web 2.0, now the mobile, locative net.
But having this stuff in my hand is deeply anticlimatic. Retrieving information tied to a location is turning out not to have much of an impact on my perception of it. Maybe in a few years, when the amount of geotagged data out there is huge (I dream of chow.com being geotagged) and aggregatable (right now information is divided up between different information providers—Yelp, Flickr, Wikipedia, etc.—and searches need to be made repeatedly) things will be different, but I doubt it. Walter Benjamin’s old dream of being able to see a place’s history superimposed upon it seems to have come too late.
I apologize for the disagreement or depression the next statement will induce in developers (and architects), but my sense is that now, of all times in recent history, developing new technologies is a backwards move. Our ability do retrieve infromation is all but ubiquitous now. The real developments are going to be in the way that society changes—in terms of finance, sexuality, politics, urbanism and so on—and these kind of transformations are going to be bottom-up. The horoscope for savvy developers, then, is to carefully tune what you’re already doing, but find ways to tread water. We’ve had a tremendous technological run. The next few years are going to be a plateau. If I’m correct that we have yet to see the economy tank, then it might be a decade of this.
With that in mind, it’s time to begin scratching out the outline for the Network Culture book in what remains of the summer. I hope that much of that can be done on the blog, but time will tell.
Yesterday I turned in the final copy for the Infrastructural City. Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles. That makes three edited books done this summer (the other two being The Philip Johnson Tapes. Interviews by Robert A.M. Stern and Networked Publics). These have been long, multi-year projects and I am delighted to get them out the door. You will see all three of these books in bookstores later this fall. Doing three books in one year is total madness and I won’t repeat it anytime soon!
What’s next? A book-length project on network culture is in the works while I also continue to fill in the blanks on Johnson’s life, aiming toward a critical book on the architect. Perhaps most important, however, is that AUDC’s Robert Sumrell moved to New York last week. Expect new work from us soon. It’s coming as early as the Grand Tour issue of Perspecta, but we are also teaching a studio together at Columbia and other projects are in the pipe.
I’m taking a few days off to regroup, but afterwards, it’s time to go back to the blog.