curiosities and the hawthorne effect

I was at the MIT Press bookstore the other day where I saw that the Infrastructural City is already available. Since Amazon has apparently already run out of stock, just minutes after the book finally became available there, MIT is your best bet for a few days.

I also bought the new issue of Perspecta on “the Grand Tour” since it features AUDC’s most recent piece “An American Pastoral.” This is our first project since Blue Monday and marks a new direction for us, away from the model of the cabinet of curiosities and toward a more universal understanding. If we were suspicious of master narratives when we began writing Blue Monday, by the end we realized that—pace to that grand narrativist Lyotard—fantasies of escape from the master narrative were dubious, if not impossible. To lead to anything at all, curiosities, like life demand master narratives (more, from a more theoretical perspective, on this soon!). After all, just because the academy gave up its ambition in favor of minor narratives doesn’t mean that power did. Take a good look at the last eight years for evidence of the utter failure of that strategy on the part of the academic left. In any event, our new work, of which this is a fragment, sets out as nothing less than an inventory of the contemporary world.

A few of you who saw the piece complained about the design making it hard to read the text. I know. I’m not really sure what to say about it except to observe that our experience is that many graphic designers think that a straightforward text with straightforward photos need a non-straightforward layout. Architecture is like that too, I suppose. Maybe it’s the Hawthorne Effect? Robert and I often observe that the Hawthorne Effect is nothing less than the operative principle for all culture. Is that, perhaps, the title for our next book? I ran it by Robert and he thinks so. Could be! 

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on shipping today

One of the most interesting parts for me in the Philip Johnson Tapes was Philip’s recounting of how the clocks in the PSFS were built by Cartier because in the Depression it was possible to get such labor for nothing. So, assuming you haven’t leveraged yourself beyond belief (you didn’t, did you?), how is it possible to take advantage of the new economy? 

Time Magazine just carried an article about the utter collapse of the shipping industry. On the one hand, it made me think about how the economy in my old hometown of Los Angeles is largely dominated by real estate, construction, and international trade. The future of the City of Quartz looks very grim indeed (but whose doesn’t? I predict that China is all but doomed), but maybe it’s time for some fantasy. 

Two months ago capesize vessels—ships so big that they couldn’t pass through the Panama or Suez canals—rented for $234,000 a day. Now they rent for $2,320 a day. Now I’m sure that there are pesky other costs like fuel, but just think of it, you probably have the cash on hand or at least available via credit card to rent one of these units and, together with your friends, you could ship a few hundred thousand tons of dead weight overseas or, conversely bring it here. What would you do? I wonder how much the Disney Concert Hall weighs? How long would it take to bake enough cookies to fill that ship? Maybe you can get rid of your CDs finally. There are all sorts of possibilities. What could you bring here?  

capesize ship



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network culture chart

Fredric Jameson’s classic description of Postmodernism as the cultural logic of late capitalism is now well over twenty years old. Jameson’s analysis is crucial for understanding late twentieth century thinking, but in the intervening years, culture has changed radically. As part of my Networked Publics fellowship at the Annenberg Center for Communication, I am preparing a series of documents about the cultural dominant that succeeds postmodernism. This material was developed over the last four years with new media architecture collaborative AUDC. Instead of a theoretical piece, I’ll open this discussion with a table outlining some empirical observations about this new condition which we can term "Network Culture," or perhaps "Transcontemporaneity."

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finding the flexible personality

What am I trying to do with the network culture book? Very much what Brian Holmes sets out to do in his essay the Flexible Personality. Toward a Cultural Critique. This is one of the best things I’ve read in a while. In an era that undoes its historicity, it’s more urgent than ever to understand the present historically. In an era that undoes critique, it’s more urgent than ever to critique.

Make no mistake, I don’t set out to sing the praises of network culture.

There are plenty of people who do that. Sure, there are tactical necessities to arguing against increasing restrictions of copyright or for network neutrality or in praise of amateur cultural production. Don’t get me wrong on that, but let’s not lose sight of the big picture. This isn’t a happy ending for class struggle. Or did you notice that the über-class is getting richer and richer while we live paycheck to paycheck? As Deleuze wrote in one of his moments of greatest lucidity, "The coils of a serpent are even more complex that the burrows of a molehill." Most definitely. 


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reality as disorder

Any modern age needs to have its own psychology disorders. Hysteria, kinesthetic neuresthenia, nervous breakdowns, attention deficit disorder: afflictions and their treatments reveal much about the position of the subject in society. 

Psychologists have identified ‘Truman Show’ syndrome as a new disorder afflicting a generation immersed in reality television and YouTube. See this article in the Telegraph

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I contributed a version of my essay on network culture to the catalog for Dispersion, a show currently on view at the ICA. I’m hoping to make it there before it closes, but do check it out if you’re in London.

Anne Collier, Folded Madonna Poster (Steven Meisel), 2007. Courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora, London.

Anne Collier, Folded Madonna Poster (Steven Meisel), 2007. Courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora, London.

3 – 23, 27 – 30 Dec 2008, 2 Jan – 1 Feb 2009

Henrik Olesen, Hito Steyerl, Seth Price, Anne Collier, Hilary Lloyd, Maria Eichhorn and Mark Leckey.

Dispersion presents seven international artists who work with photography, film, video and performance. All of these artists explore the appropriation and circulation of images in contemporary society, examining the role of money, desire and power in our accelerated image economy – from the art market to the internet and art historical icons to pornography.

The works in Dispersion often take the form of archives, histories or collections, sometimes adopting an anthropological approach. In many cases, they are characterised by an interest in feminism and gender politics in the realm of sexuality and sub-culture. All the works however are informed by personal or idiosyncratic narratives, exploring the role of subjectivity in the contemporary flow of imagery and capital.

The title Dispersion is drawn from an essay written by participating artist Seth Price, which reflects on the role of ‘distributed media’ in avant-garde practice, from Duchamp to Conceptual Art. The exhibition has been curated for the ICA by Polly Staple, the recently appointed director of the Chisenhale, London and includes six gallery-based presentations as well as a special performance in the ICA Theatre.

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more on then and now


My little experiment got a bit of attention on Archinect, but I can’t say that the responses that contributed buildings (which is what I asked for, remember?) dredged up much work that I hadn’t thought about. There’s Siza and Zumthor, but that work is (how shall I say this in a nice way?) timeless. It doesn’t engage with our contemporary era except by disengagement. I still recall a Zumthor lecture at SCI_Arc in which he said "I don’t believe in images." That was the last audible line he had during his lecture. He proceeded to show very carefully taken photographs of his work and mumble the entire talk so that all we could do was sit and stare. He blamed the microphone (this too was audible, nothing else), but I was in the front row, directly in front of him! Prankster. 

Other good offices—such as FAT, Atelier Bow Wow, and Big—have appeared on the scene, but have not yet had their chance with the major commissions that might test their methods. Ana Maria Leon suggested that I should be searching for new forms of practice. That seems like a legitimate suggestion to me and I’ve often thought that’s where the fertile thought lies. Still, I suppose it’s possible to find alternative forms of practice throughout history. To name but three: there’s Behrens’s product design and branding at AEG, the Eames’s furniture and films, and Archizoom’s dystopian vision. Maybe we are in a longue durée of architects outside architecture? That would suggest that something strange has still happened.    

The significant architecture of the 1990s was often very much of its time, engaging with the world that it inhabited through architecture. I am thinking of Herzog and de Meuron’s Central Signal Box 4 or Ito’s Sendai Mediatheque or NL Architect’s Wos 8 or OMA’s Maison à Bordeaux or Herzog and De Meuron’s Ricola or  MVRDV’s WoZoCos or Sejima’s Gifu Kitagawa or FOA’s Yokohama Terminal or Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. Many of these structures employed high technology or innovative design processes, but what really struck me is that they engaged with crucial issues of their day head-on: individual identity in a changing society, the role of technology and media, and the impact of globalization. 

I’m not saying that architecture breathed deeply of the Zeitgeist then and there is none now, but to me architecture in the 1990s was worth studying not just on its own terms but because it was capable of revealing so much about—and commenting on—our society. In that, it shared much with postmodernist.  Like it or not, postmodernist architecture was hugely significant culturally. Recall that Fredric Jameson, a literary critic, had to turn to architecture to understand postmodern culture. Architecture was at the forefront of cultural innovation then. So why is it that when I’m setting out to write my book on network culture, the architecture of our time doesn’t have anything remotely resembling that kind of importance. I find this fascinating. I’ve done what I could to prove that it’s my own fault, but failed to do that—in fact, my colleagues with whom I’ve discussed this offline over the last few years agree…and for the architecture fanboys out there, you’d be heartbroken to know that many of those include the very architects I suspect you’re so enthused about. Architecture fanboys misunderstand yesterday’s post as an attack on architecture. Rather, I was hoping to be proved wrong, but my suspicions were only confirmed. So now it’s time for a postmortem: why did this happen? Is it an internal trajectory? Or is it external forces? Maybe societal conditions? Or some kind of interrelationship between these? This is what I have to puzzle out in the months to come.   


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where is the good new architecture?

Where is the good new architecture? Name five significant buildings done in this century. I dare you. I can think of Porto and the Seattle Public Library and the list ends there. 

Take this article from New York Magazine on the architecture of the last building boom. None of it is great. I don’t think any of it is good. Most of it is mediocre. A lot of it is awful. Architects not only got drunk on the methylated spirits of the last building boom, they went blind as a result. As a historian I seem virtually nothing of worth in this decade. Recently I had to give a lecture on the architecture of network society and I found plenty of it by OMA, MVRDV, Herzog and de de Meuron, FOA, and others. Unfortunately all of it was from the last century. Am I getting old? I ask my younger friends and they can’t identify anything good new either. CCTV? That is a sad joke, an example of a once great architect doing a lousy imitation of Peter Eisenman for an evil client. I can’t take it seriously. Good thing Corb never worked for Mussolini. You can only imagine what he would have done. Overexposed and uninteresting, I predict CCTV will sink like a rock. Gehry hasn’t made a single good building since Bilbao, although he has built some unbelievably awful structures at MIT and on the West Side Highway. Herzog and de Meuron are boring beyond belief. I guess whatever talent worked for them in the 1990s went its own way. It’s bad out there.

What’s really sad is that for most of these architects, this was the last opportunity to build in their lifetimes. The boom is gone for good and if people were wary of architecture before, they will run from it now. I’m waiting for the museums caught up the Bilbao-effect to close their doors.

Please prove me wrong. Name five significant buildings done in this century. I very much doubt I will agree.

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george orwell in the sentient city

Yesterday’s New York Times reports on something I’ve been saying all along: that the sentient city is also a surveillance city and the digital trail we leave as we move through it allows corporations and governments to spy on us like never before. Yes, there’s a chance it’s all for our benefit. But for how long? See You’re Leaving a Digital Trail. What About Privacy?

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