Google’s Gatekeepers

Today’s New York Times Magazine relates some of the complexities in Google’s control of the Internet search market. In order to deal with less tolerant legislation regarding the freedom of speech, Google sees itself forced in the positon of gatekeeper, deciding what to allow and to censor. See Google’s Gatekeepers.

Update: Hmm… I wonder what’s been banned from my Google searches. For some reason, even though I am located in Montclair, New Jersey and my IP clearly says that, Google thinks I am in Germany and I frequently see the Google.de page when I go there.

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Braudel on the Event

 “Events are the ephemera of history; they pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion. Every event, however brief, has to be sure a contribution to make, lights up some dark corner or even some wide vista of history. Nor it it only political history which benefits most, for every historical landscape–political, economic, social, even geographical–is illumined by the intermittent flare of the event.”

– Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (New York: Harper Collins, 1973), volume 2, 901.

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classic varnelis.net

I’m aware that it’s a dead period for my American readership due to the holiday, but I thought I’d add something in the spirit of a more frequently updated site. I am posting more regularly. Seeing these three books off to print this year was a massive undertaking that took its tool on the blog. I am now under way with my next book project and I will be using the blog to relay some of my thoughts and early drafts of the book.

With that in mind, I have redone the classic blog view for varnelis.net to make it easier to read and to bring it in line with the general appearance of the site. Although most of you seem to be reading my posts via RSS and I prefer the Indexexhibit style for the default view, the classic view can be useful if you haven’t been to the site in a few days and want to catch up.

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hatch

AUDC is featured among the "114 architects who will define the physical fabric of our cities for the next 30 years, as well as the theoretical and interpretive background of architectural practice worldwide" in Hatch: The New Architectural Generation. Although some of the info is off (there’s a photo of Robert labelled as me!) and the introduction mentions that Enrique Ramirez (who deserves congratulations for being included too) is the only blogger in the book, it was an honor to be included and nice to see the collection break out of the usual selection of eye candy. Instead, editor Kieran Long understands practice much as Dean Mark Wigley does, as an expanded field, not limited to the production of buildings (or floating blobs in space). 

You can see some of the spreads at the publisher’s Web site..

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the infrastructural city

The Infrastructural City has been published and is now on its way from Spain to the United States. Those of you in the EU may already be able to get it from ACTAR. Other readers can preoder their copies at Amazon.com.

This book has taken a long time to get to press, but I’m delighted that it will be in the stores by Christmas. Much more important is that I am confident that it will be read for years to come. Our goal was not modest: we set out to replace Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles. The Architecture of Four Ecologies as the key text for understanding the city urbanistically. Looking at the finished product, I can’t help but think that we accomplished this goal. I wouldn’t say this if I didn’t feel this was true. 

Unlike Banham, who wrote in a simpler time, I realized that a project of this scope needed to have not one author but many, guided by an overall organizing framework. Thus, I commissioned some of the most intelligent observers of the city to write about areas in which they specialized. The process of editing these texts and collecting images wasn’t easy. Unlike some editors, who merely collect disparate pieces together and then put their name on the project, I wanted these pieces to read as if they were part of one book. Authors retained their voices, but I set out to give the book an overall sense of coherency. At times, the texts were a sea of red pen. Similarly, we worked to give the book a stylistic coherence by choosing images carefully and, when needed, I would go out and shoot my own images. The Netlab also provided every chapter with carefully rendered maps, again seeking coherency between the essays. 

Where Banham saw ecology as the basis of his understanding of Los Angeles, I sensed that the key to understanding the city (or indeed, any other city today…for unlike Banham’s effort, this book is as much about any city as it is about Los Angeles) is infrastructure.

Modern architecture was obsessed with infrastructure. It served as the basis upon which modernism could realize its plans. The greatest American example of a modern city served by infrastructure, Los Angeles is an ideal case study. Today however, Los Angeles is in perpetual crisis. Infrastructure has ceased to support architecture’s plans for the city. Instead, it subordinates architecture to its own purposes. The city we uncovered is a series of networked ecologies, complex interlinked hybrid systems composed of natural, artificial, and social elements, capable of feedback not only within themselves but between each other.

We hope you will take a look. 

Please click on the image below to launch a slideshow of selected pages from the book.

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on postindustrialism and thinking dangerously

Two "posts-" occupy my thoughts this morning. First post-criticism. I’ve suggested that the models of thought operative in post-criticism are tied to the economic collapse, but as always, I’m interested in the need for post-criticism to have emerged in the first place. Post-criticism came about out of growing frustration with how critical theorists deployed theoretical impasse to prevent new thought. Tenured critical theorists, eager to safeguard their own positions by ensuring that a new generation would never achieve tenure-track, let alone tenure, found it profitable to argue that any new theories were insufficiently theorized one way or another. Only microhistories or inconsequential theories would be permitted.

Take for example, a relatively recent colloquium at Columbia, when I proposed to our esteemed visitor (who remains nameless to protect his naive innocence) that the reason that we don’t periodize is because our culture has lost the ability to think of history temporally. He responded brusquely that periodization was simply wrong and that was why we did not do it.

At the same time he still talked about the "modern" and the "postmodern" or the "baroque" and the "renaissance"  as if these were somehow universal categories and not historical periods, that is products of historiography. His desire to extinguish any new theories—no doubt founded on the fact that he couldn’t up with a single idea with any traction in the last fifteen years—had become so dominant in his mind that he was unable to see that he had become thoroughly uncritical.

No wonder the post-critical crowd ran.

Or take another historical problem. Many Marxists became flustered by the idea of post-industrial society (the second "post-" in my thoughts today). For one, they suspected the enthusiasm of many of its proponents, who suggested that traditional class relationships were being remade under it. They also didn’t understand how post-industrial society could fit into their historical framework. After all, Marx didn’t account for it. And, after all, post-industrial society still requires industrial production to reproduce itself, right ?

So now we have a problem. The theory doesn’t mess with the reality. Most of us DO live in post-industrial societies. Take a look at the CIA World factbook’s 2007 estimates of the composition of GDP in world economies

 United States agriculture 1.2% industry 19.8% services 79% 
 China agriculture 11.3% industry 48.6% services 40.1%
 Japan agriculture 26.5% industry 26.5% services 72% 
 European Union agriculture 2.1% industry 27.1% services 70%
 World agriculture 4% industry 32% services 64%

In not adequately addressing the consequences of a world economy that has long since left manufacturing behind as the dominant sector of production, we shortchanged critical thought on the topic.

What does it mean to be living in an economy that has subsisted on froth for three decades?

Now is not the time for theoretical impasse and microhistories. But can historians and theorists dig themselves out of this situation? The theoretical shut-down of history and theory mimics other conditions of stalemate in society (more on these in a later post), but historians and theorists can think outside that shutdown by thinking not just differently but dangerously. Let’s see if we rise to the occasion. 

 

 

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sometimes sharing is not caring

Mark Evans feels digitally inundated today. The massive amount of constantly updated information, particularly from the firehose of data produced by social networking sites from Delicious to Flickr to Facebook) is crushing him. He points to a post by Techcrunch blogger Eric Schonfeld (curiously, someone I knew in college) about Friendfeed in which Schonfeld similarly calls for help (actually he says "kill me now"). 

To be sure information overload is a major issue for us today. But here’s another danger with the "new economy": as we’ve converted to a service economy, we’ve produced so much "experience" that we’re massively overloaded. Not only are we overloaded by all these feeds, we’re overloaded by experiences. We pile signature work of architecture atop signature work of architecture, smash movie on smash movie, fashion on fashion, gadget on gadget. But we’re bored of it. Crisis in capitalism are typically crisis of over-accumulation: too much money has been made (not by you) and people stop spending. This crisis is a bit more complex, but make no mistake, there is massive over-accumulation out there. Apart from all the cheap junk produced in China by exploited laborers, there has been far too much experience out there. Please, we don’t want anymore. In high school in the 80s, stuck in a rural community in Western Massachusetts, I was bored to tears by the lack of information around me. Connectivity, at that point, was over a 2600 baud modem so you can imagine how limited that was. Still, it was a lifeline. Today I can be endlessly amused until the end of my years by what’s already available online, I don’t need anymore. Sometimes sharing is not caring. 

I called the collapse of the real estate market years ago (some day I’ll check to see when, but I’m pretty sure it was before Nouriel Roubini, no offense intended). I’m calling the collapse of the experience economy. Moreover, it has already happened.

 

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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

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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."

 

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