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.

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why cities are so great today

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my concerns about today’s urban boosterism. Many american cities, we are told, are in a new golden age, witnessing an influx of trendy architecture, trendy stores, trendy people, and trendy ideas. Suburbs are the (not-so-)new evil, ungreen, untrendy, unloved by academics. 

But what’s really happening is a fundamental shift in the city that makes burb-bashing (of this sort, for example) increasingly questionable.

Some strange things are afoot. First, there is an overall demographic trend of the middle class moving out of the cities. See Michael Barone’s The Realignment of America in the Wall Street Journal for more. White flight takes place on a country-wide level as middle-class whites (and middle class African Americans too) move out of coastal cities such as New York or Los Angeles (yes, this is happening, please pay attention) to interior megalopolises. Much of this is happening at a metropolitan scale. In other words, many of these people are moving out of suburbs in coastal cities to suburbs in the interior megalpolises (what you thought that the kids who grew up in the Valley were all in Silver Lake now?).

Something else is happening within major metropolitan regions such as Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. In these places, for the first time in many decades, white flight has virtually stopped or even reversed itself. See this article on The End of White Flight by Conor Dougherty, again from the WSJ. Instead of undoing segregation, we are seeing a new condition. Forced out by rising rents, taxes, and the cost of living, poor African Americans as well as immigrants are moving out of cities to older inner suburbs (often left by the white middle class moving to the country’s interior). Being smaller, these impoverished suburbs have little political clout and even less revenue for schools or services. A downward spiral begins.

Are cities so great today? We hear a lot about how cities are diverse and suburbs are not, but what is diverse about fancy boutiques selling doggie clothes and organic take out? Does your neighbor from Switzerland who speaks better English than you do and lives off a trust fund make it diverse?

I’m not so easily convinced. I lived my first twelve years in a neighborhood in Chicago that was diverse. There were poor African American families, middle class whites, weird bohemian artist Eastern European refugee families (mine, and the only one in that area), Mexican families, Jewish survivors of World War II Germany, Greeks, gays, Indians, and many others. There was even one rich family. They lived in a penthouse on top of a residential hotel across the street. Urban homesteaders seemed like part of the diversity. They were not. In the decades after we left, that neighborhood got turned into yet another unaffordable hipster heaven. That kind of experience seems increasingly uncommon in cities today.

So a call to action for urban planners and writers about cities. Stop with the Jane Jacobs already! It’s been nearly 50 years since she formulated her theories. 50 years!!! Everything has changed since. And through away your Situationists. Their corpses have long since been infected by hipster real estate agents.

Let’s take a cold, hard look at cities and suburbs as they are today.

 

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On Philip Johnson and Sex Machines

I will be speaking on Tuesday, September 23rd at UCLA’s Hammer Museum at a panel discussion entitled "Architecture and Seduction
Bachelor Pads and Sex Machines
." I’m excited about the talk, which gives me a chance to focus on Johnson’s Glass House in some depth, and about the panel discussion with Paulette Singley, Frank Escher, Renata Hejduk, and Norman Millar. Please come if you are in the Los Angeles area. For more of my work on Johnson see Philip Johnson’s Empire and We Cannot Not Know History. And don’t forget about my new book coming out this fall, The Philip Johnson Tapes: Interview with Robert A. M. Stern. It’s a steal to pre-order at Amazon.

 

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losing touch

Over at the End of Cyberspace, Alex Soojoung-Kim Pang also comments on Clive Thompson’s NYT article, about which I wrote yesterday.

Alex makes the brilliant observation that ours is the last generation that will lose touch with friends. Social networking sites ensure connectivity in perpetuity. I wonder if Facebook will one day have provisions for a remote (and literal) kill switch on profiles so that if a user dies, a trusted party can let everyone know. It’s a matter of time, I’m sure. After that your profile becomes your virtual tombstone, as danah boyd suggested long ago (in Internet years at least). 

How will this change the way we live? Alex makes the good point that changing lifestyles, careers, and so on may become a problem. What if you want to keep things secret from certain friends? The century of network culture is going to be interesting.   

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ambience and attention

I’m back from my first day at MIT, where I’m moonlighting by filling in for Mark Jarzombek, teaching his history of theory class. MIT was great and I’m very much looking forward to my Tuesdays in Cambridge.

I’d like to juxtapose two unlikely texts: Clive Thompson’s piece in this Sunday’s New York Times on the “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy” and Walter Benjamin’s classic “Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility.”

Let’s begin with Benjamin. As a scholar in matters of architecture and place, the most crucial line in his essay is

“Architecture has always represented the prototype of a work of art the reception of which is consummated by a collectivity in a state of distraction.”

Architecture, in other words, is understood through habit, through a distracted awareness of the ambient environment not through contemplation. In this it is a very different kind of art from, say, painting or poetry. 

But as Thompson points out, our ambient attention is increasingly being occupied by digital media, from a constant stream of Facebook status updates, Twitter tweets, and SMS messages. I should add that the iPod also figures in this, painting a soundscape on the environment that creates an emotional ambience that simply overwhelms any architectural environment (imagine how your perception of architecture changes due to your music choice… think, for a moment, of the Boredoms at the Salk Institute or the soundtrack to Mary Poppins at Robin Hood Gardens). The ambient awareness of our architectural environment that Benjamin described is waning, as we find ourselves distracted by other media.

In this light, couldn’t we see the compulsion to form in recent neo-avant-garde architecture as a salvage operation, a move meant to ensure that architecture can still be visible to the senses. If distraction won’t do, then fascination will. But is this ecstasy of form sufficient? The modernists suggested that the spread of modernism in the ambient environment would lead to a rewriting of the sensorium, helping us deal with the split between our hyperdeveloped reason and atrophied emotional intelligence. If architecture cedes the ambient environment to technology, what of architecture’s ambitions?

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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
AUDC
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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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.

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