All’s Well That Ends

"All’s well that ends." That was Robert Sumrell‘s tag line all year long. For me, its been a good year, although not without its share of frustration. But I’m adept at triumph over adversity, so I got most everything I set out to do completed, even if at times the effort required was superhuman.

The Infrastructural City, Networked Publics, and the Philip Johnson Tapes are out, although at times I wondered the first of those would ever see the light of day. My plan to have the books published a semester apart was undone by forces beyond my control. Promoting the books is going to be a lot more difficult now and that annoys me to no end. Next time I’m going to have to be a lot more strict in terms of the contracts I sign with publishers in terms of delivery and who I work with as my designer. On a positive note, Michael Bierut and Yve Ludwig were phenomenal as the designers of the Philip Johnson Tapes as was my student from days gone by Israel Kandarian, who came up with the cover concept for the Networked Publics book. Susan Surface gets a special mention for saving the summer for me as the graphic designer for the Netlab.    

The highlight of my year was that Robert moved to the city, giving us an opportunity to teach the fall Netlab studio "This Will Kill That" together and to bring new life to AUDC. Early signs of what we’ll be up to can be found in Perspecta 41. I was thrilled that our studio did fantastic work. With another year drawing to a close, I’m glad that once again, I’m at Columbia.

I was also delighted to teach a course in the fall semester at MIT. My students were excellent and I learned so much from them. Going to Cambridge every Tuesday was a real treat: great friends at a great school. 

When it comes to this site, January 1st brought a new look, still in Drupal but based on Daniel Eatock and Jeffrey Vaska‘s Indexhibit software. I was, perhaps, wrong that 2008 was the year that blogs stopped looking like blogs although it was a year in which Wired’s Paul Boutin suggested that Facebook and Twitter had stolen blogs’ thunder. 

Those of you on Facebook know that it certainly captured my attention—as it did for so many people (AG, you’re the only exception left among my friends, I think!) and although Twitter didn’t really engage me, I’m going to try to make more of an effort to understand that scene in 2009. Twitter is still very much for the geeks, but these days the geeks are often ahead of the game. After all, if the best thing about Facebook is the status updates, maybe that’s enough right there? 

My planned series on new radical architecture took a back seat thanks to the three books, and the planned book on Network Culture got delayed too but I soldiered on. 

I read a number of great books in 2008, including Nicholas Carr’s The Big Switch: Rewiring the World From Edison to Google, Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Sanford Kwinter’s Far From Equilibrium: Essays on Technology and Design Culture, Felicity Scott’s Architecture or Techno-Utopia: Politics After Modernism, Kevin Phillips’s Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism as well as Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.  I had hoped to post reviews of some of these, but I was never able to pull it off. It’s a real shame. Read them. I did manage a review of Far From Equilibrium for Cite. Print that pays by the word still captivates. I was also fascinated by Warren Neidich’s work on neuroaesthetics and hope to engage with that topic more in the future.

While at the DLD conference in January, I saw the amazing Anish Kapoor show at the Haus der Kunst. In the right venue, he’s one of our best artists. 

As my long-standing prediction that the real estate market would implode became reality and—preposterously late—even the New York Times finally admitted it, I turned my critique against all pundits that think the suburbs are the source of all evil. I pointed out that cities are going to be hit hard but that this may be for the better…they have long ago become urban playgrounds for the well-off, instead of places of diversity like they once were. 

2008 was also the year that objects became suspect. Designer Philippe Starck retired, concluding "I was a producer of materiality and I am ashamed of this fact." "Everything I designed was unnecessary. … design is a dreadful form of expression." As we drown in cheap doo-dads made in China, it’s hard to disagree. 

Instead, I proposed that we have all the technology we need for quite some time. iPhone version 2.0 took locative media out of the proximate future and into the everyday. Now what do we do with it? The key is going to be to figure out how to make this stuff really sing—without letting it become an excuse for the coils of the late capitalist serpent to tighten further around us. In particular, I warned about the dangers of surveillance society and echoed Nicholas Carr’s concerns about the centralization of everything. For architects, I wrote an article about the Architecture of Hertzian Space in A+U. For cartographers and users of maps, I wrote Design in the Age of Intelligent Maps for Adobe Think Tank. I also began sketching out a history of the present with my essay Simultaneous Environments. Social Connection and New Media at Vodafone Receiver.  

As a Ph.D. carrying historian, I wrote a manifesto about how historians need to go beyond the microscopic and inconsequential, to think big, make mistakes and risk everything while Enrique Ramirez and I looked back to twenty years ago and how the postmodern music of its day reshaped our perception of the city. Sonic Youth was—and is—so more important, than the cheap condos of the day.  

Finally, in what was unquestionably the most controversial post this blog has ever seen, I asked if there was much significant new architecture built in this decade. If I came to that question thinking I knew the answer, I was secretly hoping to be dissuaded. Sadly, I wasn’t. 

Has 2008 shown us that the owl of minerva has flown on the sort of architecture that defined the last two decades? Has the legacy of the Deconstructivist architecture show finally been put to rest as architecture has been unloaded of meaning and value? Do we have the energy and the courage to realize this and figure out what’s next?

On a personal note, I said goodbye to my cat Daisy forever. My constant, funny companion was by my side or on my lap for the majority of my blog posts and all of my books as well. My friend long before I started this blog, life without her is much poorer.     

Here’s to 2008: all’s well that ends. As we lay it to rest, I hope that the next year is a real improvement.

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predictions for the year ahead

My predictions—and those of a whole bunch of members of "architects, bloggers, academics, Archinect editors, and other members of [the Archinect] community" for the year ahead at Archinect.

I’ll add to my prediction by adding that if we get it right, light urbanism will be all the rage. Something along the lines of this or this or this. There are lots and lots of dangers to such scenarios, but a burst of new, heavy but green infrastructure (e.g. light rail, green power plants, podcars, whatever) is pie in the sky in an age that will give new meaning to NIMBYism as homeowners seek to protect what value they have left.  

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2008 design in review

Archinect asked me to post with my predictions about the future of architecture and I’ve contributed with even more gloom than usual.

But the end of the year means that your favorite blogs will be doing year-in-review posts. Although good significant buildings have been in scant evidence, I thought it opportune to list the design highlights of the year. Some of these, but not all, are personal.

You’ll notice that almost every entry also has its down side. In our era of perpetual beta/continuous partial attention, it is difficult for designers and developers to focus long enough to get out a finished project. Speaking of which, having been sleep deprived for days (Christmas with small children does that), I’m sure I’m missing all sorts of stuff…

Anish Kapoor at the Haus der Kunst

I was floored by Anish Kapoor’s show at Munich’s Haus der Kunst. The retina-searing pigments and restrained but fluid surfaces of Kapoor’s installation created a vision of another world that architecture could learn a lot from. Sadly the show at Boston’s ICA was so much smaller in scale and failed to engage the architecture (partly the fault of it being relegated to a much smaller space). 

Situated Technologies Pamphlet Series

The Situated Technologies pamphlet series, curated by Mark Shepard, Omar Khan, and Trebor Scholz brought together some of my favorite thinkers to reflect on the evolving role of ubiquitous computing and architecture. Freely downloadable or available for purchase at Lulu, this series does present-day pamphlets right by picking a great format and impressive content. 

I’m hoping to do one too, that is if the organizers ever come around to my idea of writing the pamphlet online as a discussion with my readers on this blog.

Macbook

Although the Macbook Air was released this year, the real story was the fall’s aluminum Macbook. If its confused design and strange use of black made it less visually appealing than the more Ulm-school plastic Macbooks and if the glossy screen and the sad omission of Firewire is typical of Apple’s longtime misunderstanding of users’s needs, at least there’s finally a small, blazingly fast Mac. Adding icing, Apple’s unibody aluminum chassis means that the Macbook is much sturdier than the previous thin-skinned  models. Sporting a decent graphics card and, wonder of wonders, a hard drive nearly as easy to upgrade as the battery, the Macbook air won me over. With the Infrastructural City done, I sold my 17” Macbook Pro and moved to a Macbook that is just about as fast. My shoulder is happy.

Running atop a flavor of Unix and easily capable of running Windows via a number of different technologies, today’s Macs are great machines. Apple’s decision to focus on bugs in its next OS release is most welcome as frustrating bugs still abound.

Facebook

This was the year that I joined Facebook and, judging from my friends’ list, the year many of you did as well. Social networking sites are a remarkable phenomenon, fundamentally changing the way we connect to others. Too bad then, that Facebook’s redesign is so bad. Just how am I supposed to post links or add a photo to my profile pics again? The designers and coders for the site are clearly too busy to actually use it.

Dyson Airblade

Hand dryers in public bathrooms make me angry. They are so frustrating that I usually wind up using my jeans if towels are lacking. That’s why I’m so delighted by the Dyson Airblade, a hand dryer that works! Moreover it doesn’t require you to touch a grungy button to activate it. The Dyson Airblade made my trips through Boston Logan’s Jet Blue terminal much happier. Now if only the people in charge of mounting them on the rest stops in Connecticut’s I-95 would learn that they should be mounted much lower than the useless old hot-air blowers of the past.

iPhone 3G

Apple’s iPhone 3G is of much greater consequence than the first iPhone. Driven, perhaps, by a burgeoning DIY distribution system for iPhone apps, Apple made it possible for developers to write applications to be sold over Apple’s application store. Sadly, Apple also  limited the application store in arbitrary, sometimes insane ways. For example, if you want a video recording application or want to share your 3G connection with your laptop, you’ll need to jailbreak your iPhone. The logic behind such rules is hidden for end-users and suggests that Apple wants a happy fascist version of the Internet. I’m definitely not a fan of that approach.. Luckily, hackers have filled the gaps Steve Job created. Beyond that, the iPhone 3G is not only faster, it has GPS built in, making it the first really major application for locative media applications. If only the battery life wasn’t so pathetic, another example of Apple’s lack of connection with its users.

Drupal

Like all of my sites, this site runs on Drupal, a decision I made back in 2004, and one that has proven on target. Drupal also runs many, many sites, including the sites for the architecture programs at Yale and Columbia (in the very near future!) as well as the students of the Harvard architecture programs. I was there first! This year the steep learning curve of Drupal flattened a bit at the same time. But if  user-contributed modules give it immense flexibility, Drupal also witnessed a speed bump with the upgrade to version 6 and ground-up rewrites ofmodules used by many developers. Adoption of the new version on production sites was slow (I still haven’t upgraded any of my sites to 6). Still the future is bright for my favorite content management system.

Panasonic DMC-LX3

Instead of more megapixels, better megapixels. We published a number of photos in Infrastructural City using the Panasonic DMC-LX2. The LX3 is a significantly better camera, capable of saving its output in RAW, decent low-light photography, with a nice wide lens (f2.0 and 24mm Vario-Summicron lens), able to shoot HD video, a hot shoe for flash, and even an elegant black leather case. This thing often beats my Canon 5D for image quality. What more can I ask from a pocketable camera? To save in Adobe’s open DNG format would be nice, but I’ll take what I can get .

Booby Prize:

Ares I 

As if to cement the historical verdict that Bush was a total disaster as President, NASA’s new Ares I launch system was revealed as wildly expensive, insanely complex, delayed, and possibly a crew killer. Only two things may save the manned space program. First, Obama’s transition team may realize this and cancel it outright, replacing it with either the Direct 2.0 system or a man-rated Atlas V or Delta IV. Second, if Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 is successful, it may be able to take over after the Ares pogos to smithereens during its first launch. Then again, maybe we should just save our money for unmanned space?

 


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forty years ago

Perhaps, forty years later, it is time to put the self-aggrandizing myth of 1968 to rest. Much as I’d like to believe that 1968 was a great moment for the Left, it was actually a point of closure, not of opening. 

Instead, when we think of 1968, for tonight at least, let’s think about not the rebellion of a hip generation coming of age but about a product of technology originated under the Nazis and finished by a government waging a Cold War. If the origins were bathed in innocent blood, the circumstances all wrong, the moment is still one of the greatest achievements of humanity.

Forty years ago the crew of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders, became the first men to fly around the moon. It was a feat of great audacity, the first manned flight of an Apollo capsule atop the mighty Saturn V stack, a Hondo Civic-sized capsule atop a structure taller than Lever House packed full of compressed explosives. On lift-off, the rocket produced more sound than any other man-made phenomenon save the Bomb. If its origins were in military technology, unlike any other manned rocket built, the Saturn V was effectively useless for military purposes (the Vostok rocket that launched Gagarin, the Redstone and Atlas that launched Mercury, the Titan that launched Gemini, the Proton which launched Soyuz were all derived from ICBMs and the Space Shuttle was envisioned as having a military role). The race for the moon may have been mad, but it was as good as madness could get. Instead of building bombs, we raced to the moon.

To the 68ers, the moon shots seemed ridiculous, what could such an expensive effort tell us about the problems of Earth, they asked?  

But, then, on December 22, 1968, the inhabitants of the Earth gazed back on it for the first time.

Below is the image of Earthrise, as taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts. Is there another image from the twentieth century as moving, as important? 

We realized ourselves, alone on a fragile blue sphere adrift in space together. Is it beyond imagination to think that without this photograph we would have blown ourselves up? All at once, during the darkest time of winter (for those of us in the Northern hemisphere) it became apparent that the world was one. Soon after the flight, Borman received a telegram, "You saved 1968." And perhaps a whole lot more.

Here’s to Apollo 8 and to all that was good about the space program. 

 

 

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The Californian Candidate?

Unquestionably, the election of Barack Obama is the end to a long global nightmare, an affirmation by Americans that we are neither evil nor idiotic as a country. But we need to stand guard too. Obama’s first choice, chief-of-staff Rahm Emmanuel is a Zionist and former investment banker, two very questionable allegiances in my book. There’s Hilary Clinton and the other former members of the Clinton cabinet, suggesting that this might be business as usual for the Democratic machine. If that wasn’t enough, there is Robert Gates’s continued presence as defense secretary, another odd choice since a 180 from Bush policy seemed in order. 

But I want to raise another issue here, this time about change.gov? Now on the one hand, after eight years of outright lies and deceit, I relish the promise of governmental transparency. On the other hand, I wonder about the promise of participation that the site holds out. It smacks of the Californian Ideology, the idea that new technologies will bring about a libertarian democratic techno-utopia. I’m not sure that change.gov really meshes with some of the choices that Obama’s made in his Cabinet. Moreover, I worry about it being smoke and mirrors. Now I can’t imagine anything being even half as bad as the last eight years, but the Cabinet is hardly a model for transparency…

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obama and mies

Obama, of course, is Time’s Person of the Year. See here.

The piece begins…

You probably sat in a fancier conference room the last time you refinanced or heard a pitch about life insurance. There’s a table, some off-brand mesh office chairs, a bookcase that looks as if it had been put together with an Allen wrench and instructions in Swedish.

To reach this room, you pass through a cubicle farm lightly populated by quiet young people. Either they have just arrived or they are just leaving, because their desks are almost bare. The place has a vaguely familiar feel to it, this air of transient shabbiness and nondescriptitude. You can’t quite put your finger on it …

"It’s like the set of The Office," someone offers.

Bingo.

It is here that we find Barack Obama one soul-freezingly cold December day, mentally unpacking the crate of crushing problems — some old, some new, all ugly — that he is about to inherit as the 44th President of the United States. Most of his hours inside the presidential-transition office are spent in this bland and bare-bones room. You would think the President-elect — a guy who draws 100,000 people to a speech in St. Louis, Mo., who raises three-quarters of a billion dollars, who is facing the toughest first year since Franklin Roosevelt’s — might merit a leather chair. Maybe a credenza? A hutch?  

Now wait a second. Obama’s campaign headquarters is in the Kluczynski Federal Building in Chicago designed by Mies. So a federally-owned building likely is pretty bare-bones inside, but no mention of Mies? No mention of a man Time magazine called a "disciplinarian for a confused age"?

 

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Blue Christmas

It’s amazing how much attention my post about the lack of good architecture these days got compared to how nobody remarked on last Saturday’s post on newspapers. It’s also amazing how quickly I got buried again. This must change fast. 

In the meantime, how about a shameless plug? 

With Christmas coming up, if you’re thinking of giving (or receiving!) presents, think about two books with beautiful shades of blue in the cover, e.g. Networked Publics and the Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in Los Angeles. Don’t ask me why the latter is not at Amazon yet or why ACTAR just shipped it to them yesterday. I don’t know. On the other hand, the MIT Press bookstore has it, as does St. Mark’s (two left on hand) and Hennessey and Ingalls. If those aren’t options, then how about Blue Monday? And don’t forget Philip Johnson feeling blue, which he recounts in The Philip Johnson Tapes: Conversations with Robert A. M. Stern, which I also edited. See Michael Beirut’s blog post about that book (and two other books he and his team designed) here

People have been asking me what I’m up to lately, what better way to find out than to buy a book for your holiday reading?

 

 

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on malls and newspapers, or virtualization and the new economy

I have always been fascinated by how different areas live through historical moments in different ways and at different times. I can’t pretend to know too much about England, having never lived there, but apparently malls or shopping centers are still a new phenomenon, hence this piece (courtesy Dan Hill’s excellent City of Sound) from the Guardian, declaring outrage at the death of the traditional city at the hands of the mall.

It’s weird to see the British replay the mall panic that gripped American writers on urbanism in the 1980s. Even before the economic collapse, mall construction had ended in this country. Online sales appear to have had something to do with that, according to Business Week. Offering little more than an unappetizing display of product, old-style enclosed malls couldn’t compete with the more pornographic gratification of purchasing on the Internet and began dying off at a rapid rate as construction ceased. For a time, as the Business Week article suggested, lifestyle centers such as Los Angeles’s the Grove stemmed the bleeding, but now, with the economy in decline, Newsweek suggests that even those are doomed. So the British need only wait, No-Stop-City isn’t coming anytime soon. The fancy will pass there as it did in the U. S.

For some, the death of the mall is welcome evidence of the terminal illness of the suburbs. Soon, we are told these abominations will descend into the misery they deserve, becoming the next slum. A fitting end for all those dumb middle class dreams! In its stead will rise a creative city, clean, safe and fun, filled with a happy, shiny creative class of knowledge workers.

Now this is obvious nonsense, which is why it’s remarkable it’s still being touted. I’ve long  criticized the neoliberal advocacy of the city as nothing more than the latest mantra for the same developers who built the suburbs to take advantage of. Where they’ve won, in cities like San Francisco or Manhattan the city as it once was has ceased to exist, replaced instead by a diseased tissue of wine bars and mall stores, filled with hipsters touting smart phones. Gone is real diversity, replaced by a pleasant, mildly multiracial mix of individuals pretending to be classless. Gone is the city as a place of production. Industry and its attendant horrors of lowbrow culture, pollution, and class strife moved offshore long ago. Recent immigrants, illegal immigrants, poorly paid service workers, the unemployed, and even the homeless have been moved into inner-ring and exurban suburbs where they won’t trouble the city’s tax base. After all, when nobody defends the suburbs, they become a convenient place for all the dreck we wouldn’t want in the city (or in the carefully secured suburbs in which other clusters of the mega-rich live) anyway. Curiously, this was just the same strategy that the Situationists, embraced as heroes by the advocates of the new city, sought to stop before Paris was turned into, in Peter Eisenman’s vivid image, a stuffed animal.         

So stands the happy new creative city, purged of its problems, home to the global élite and to the creative class, the unalienated knowledge workers of network culture. Just clean up the historic districts and add some condos and Bilbao-effect urbanism and you’re ready to go.  

Well maybe not. The creative class and with it, the new city, are in trouble. If the new economy of fall, 2008 hasn’t been enough of a wake-up call, look at what’s happening to newpapers. Just last year, the New York Times abandoned its old, crusty digs in Times Square for a fancy new headquarters design by Renzo Piano. I suppose that the management thought that with the Times being one of the most identifiable and trusted brands in knowledge production in the country, a little slick architecture would bring it out of the dark ages and into the new economy. Nicolai Ourousoff, the Times’s architecture critic suggested as much in his review. But Ourousoff finished his otherwise enthusiastic review with a cautionary observation, noting that journalists were concerned about the future of the paper under pressure from the Internet: 

Journalism, too, has moved on. Reality television, anonymous bloggers, the threat of ideologically driven global media enterprises — such forces have undermined newspapers’ traditional mission. Even as journalists at The Times adjust to their new home, they worry about the future. As advertising inches decline, the paper is literally shrinking; its page width was reduced in August.And some doubt that newspapers will even exist in print form a generation from now. 

Now, in a move that seems more like a beleaguered homeowner trying to keep up with its mortgage with a home equity loan, the Times is trying to borrow up to $225 million against its headquarters to deal with cash flow problems. See here. No doubt you have already heard of the spectacular bankruptcy of the Tribune company, parent of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Is the Times building the 2000s equivalent of the AT&T building? 

This is a death spiral. If newspapers cut the quality of journalism further (at the LA Times this is almost unimaginable), they will lose what readership they still have. If they do away with print, they will lose more advertising and have little to distinguish themselves from portals. It’s not going to be easy for them. Now I think it’s of great significance—and not that welcome— that the lights are dimming on this key institution that emerged with the new class structure of the 19th century, the very institution in which publics really formed. Moreover, it suggests that the creative class is far from a solid economic base for cities. Let’s take another example. How about the music industry. Consumers hated it and, when they found out that they could trade music for free on the Net, left it to rot. Since 1999, the industry has lost 29% of its revenues. The recent growth of cities as based not so much on the creative class as on finance and on wild, speculative investment. Real estate in Manhattan was little different than in Clark County, Nevada. 

Goodbye mall, goodbye creative city. Imagine the New York Times building a decade from now. The company is long gone, bought up by by Slate and located downtown where the bad memories don’t linger. The skyscraper is half-empty, its floors rented out to temporary labor agencies and their ilk, its façade accumulating a thick layer of diesel soot from the buses of the Port Authority Bus Terminal across the street, ersatz mall and gateway to suburbia. What’s next? Maybe a better question is, what’s left? 

 

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