The assignment, by now familiar to many of you, is to take two texts—Alison & Peter Smithson’s "But Today We Collect Ads" and Reyner Banham’s "The Great Gizmo"—and juxtapose them, with relevant commentary.
Published in 1956, the essay by the Smithsons preceeds Banham by nine years. It won’t be my first time looking at it so let’s start there. In "But Today We Collect Ads," the Smithsons look back at the era of heroic modernism when European architects like Gropius and Corbusier turned to American industrial construction for inspiration. Consciously or not, the Smithsons identify an epochal economic transition in the works, from Fordist industrialism to post-Fordist media and services. Instead of photos of grain silos, they collect ads. Since they are writing in 1950s Britain, in an economy constrained by postwar recovery and rationing, the ads are from overseas, filled with images of high-tech life in America and disposable throw-away bits of color from Japan.
For once, architecture was ahead of the game. Who else imagined, in 1956, that it would be the media, not big industry that would dominate economies, in direction, if not (immediately) in revenue? This essay anticipates the cultural logic of late capitalism at work and in that, is remarkable.
It also lays out a method: the high dips into the low for renewal, much as the Frederick Jackson Turner’s American went to the wilderness to renew himself after too much time in the city. As the Smithsons point out, this is a tried and true modernist method, far from the studied confusion of the two under postmodernism.
Today, however, this hardly seems plausible. Network culture levels out the differences between high and low. The transactions are constant and if our access to knowledge isn’t perfect, it’s awfully close. There’s nothing to collect anymore, no sources out there that are unknown to architecture. The Internet and globalization put paid to that. From Baudrillard’s perspective, this condition of total knowledge puts an end to history. I suppose he’s right, the coolhunt is over, we live in a world of stylistic tropics as Brian Eno puts it. Now I hardly think it’s the end of intentionality, that we all might as well abandon culture for "intentionless" (as if there is no intent in code) generative architecture, but if not that, what then?
One hint is the utter collapse of the ad market during this restructuring period. The Post-Fordist darling is as dead as the automobile industry. Instead, technology has come to the fore, which leads us to Reyner Banham’s "The Great Gizmo."
To be honest, I’m feeling a little exasperated with Banham now. I have to write about him for this piece and I have to put together a lecture for the University of Michigan in which I use Banham as the departure point as well. He’s an unquestioned hero to a generation of critics, which means it’s time to question him, something that I’ve been doing for half a decade now, albeit apparently with little impact. I know that my positions are too negative for many tastes, but I have my issues with the foremost advocate of technology and non-plan in architecture, patient zero in the conversion from morality to techno-fetishism.
Still what of the Great Gizmo and how do I reconcile attacking Banham for techno-fetishism with my suggestion that this precisely what we should be looking for in his essay? Let’s recap Banham’s argument, briefly: he describes the American type as overcoming the challenges of nature with portable technological apparti. I’m not sure where Banham slots infrastructure and the technological sublime that David Nye has written about so eloquently in his narrative, but still, you get the picture so let’s run with the gizmo for now.
Since Banham’s day, the gizmo has continued to evolve from transistor radios, tape players big and small, laptops, portable media players, smart phones, to tablets. Even automobiles have been reshaped as gizmos, possessing not one but many electronic brains, each ready to monitor, interpret, and control an aspect of the vehicle’s performance. That architecture hasn’t caught up yet is a challenge to architects. No matter how cleverly designed by the latest parametric-modeling software, virtually all buildings remain dumb boxes, incapable of making decisions or accommodating the rapid pace of change. Of course I know that good friends and colleagues are working on this sort of thing (for example, the Living), but its not here yet, and that’s what counts. Our lives have been thoroughly transformed by gizmos, but our architecture is much the same. Give us our smart phones and laptops and put us in the waiting room of Sterling Cooper and we’d be fine. Perhaps we might notice its a bit hotter than our taste in winter and colder than we’d like in summer due to the pre-OPEC penchant for over-conditioning the environment. But certainly there’d be little difference, nor would we see much difference in the places the mad men lived in, although we might notice that they had less junk than we did. Compare that to life in the 1920s when air conditioning did not exist, refrigerators were scarce, and many homes in the countryside had outhouses instead of toilets.
If you did time-travel back to the 1960s and happened to run into an aficionado of architecture (like Banham) about the future of houses, you’d get a vision virtually identical to the Wired dreams of our own day. Perhaps the only real difference would be the embrace of obsolescence and the lack of green, but both visions would include houses that could be remotely controlled, might reconfigure themselves as needed, anticipating our needs and desires, would be able to whisk away waste, and might even clean up after themselves. The future, when it comes to houses, has been deferred.
To blame architects would be a mistake. Something larger is up here, something coded deep into society. My sense is that it’s that the house isn’t necessary.
In part this is the fundamental innovation of American architecture. The Puritans could have chosen to build houses out of materials that would last, like brick and stone, but they didn’t, believing that the Second Coming was on its way and to build for posterity would be tantamount to blasphemy. With the excess of capital that produced, settlers were able to spread swiftly across the continent while industry could expand even more rapidly than in Europe.
That’s one narrative, and it should be placed besides Banham’s. But back to the gizmo. Already for the settler, it has taken over, letting the house become just a dumb box, a background condition. But don’t take my word for it, check out another essay by Banham, in this case his A Home is Not A House in which he suggests that the ultimate modernist environment might be a conditioned space within a membrane enclosure, an "environment bubble" that seems to exist as much in metaphor as in reality.
So it’s back to this will kill that, only this time via Banham not Hugo, and the house instead of the cathedral. But if our dreams are similar, and if the Internet realizes Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village, then what about the bubble?
Could it be that the real estate bubble finally unloaded the house? Is it possible that this recession isn’t just a recession but a fundamental restructuring, a restructuring of architecture that will undo the dumb box? By this I don’t mean that the house will simply become smarter, more sentient, more technological but rather that in turning architecture into a virtual product in the financial realm, the bubble allowed it to become a virtual product in the physical realm?
We will need at least a decade to absorb the excess housing currently in the market. With the credit crunch, it’ll be much harder for renters to purchase their first homes and for homeowners to sell their underwater homes. Jobs will be scarce and individuals will have to be willing to travel for them. Mobility will rise, but homes will become less the spaces of self-realization that they were for the last decade (and which I predicted they would be back in the 1990s) and more shells to be filled temporarily, with only a few, highly-intelligent objects in one’s possession. Maybe this is the dream that gizmo-creator Steve Jobs had in his home in the early 1980s in unconsciously recreating this scene from Banham?
Is this an end condition to architecture? Maybe. But when hasn’t architecture been in an end condition? Even modernism’s noble efforts were tilting against an impossible windmill of capital and postmodernism fared even worse. I’m sure some of us will figure out some way to keep the discipline doing the same old thing. But maybe there are other possibilities?
It strikes me that architects are missing a major opportunity here. All of this is very similar to what the Eameses were up to when they moved away from construction to media. They built the best house of the century but architecture couldn’t hold their attention. It was too slow. Instead, they turned to media. Today’s media are more spatial than film ever could be. Hertzian space—and the interface to it—is the new frontier.
Architects should be sure not miss out.