Goodbye, Foreign Bureau

With the uprisings in the Middle East and the aftermath of the Sendai earthquake, media and how we view them continue to be revolutionized.

There's been a lot of talk about Twitter in both cases, but social media sites are only part of the story. Twitter is good for fast breaking news, but Twitter has its problems, some of which are described in this piece by Robert Niles at the Online Journalism Review. It's hard to sift for information among the noise. Take the earthquake and tsunami, for example. When they hit, it was only because I visited CNN's Web page that I found out about them. My Twitter feed was occupied by other matters and news on the topic had scrolled by. Moreover, Twitter easily drags us into multiple, overlapping conversations. For example, yesterday the whole death of criticism discussion began again derailed my day for some time until I could finish a blog post on the topic and then discuss it with other individuals on Twitter. When crises like this are happening, its easier to turn off Twitter and look to media that demand less participation, like video streams.

But American news channels like CNN or MSNBC quickly lost their appeal for me as sources for what is going on in Japan. I don't need to see celebrity reporters like Anderson Cooper and Soledad O'Brien in Japan describing how harrowing their trips from the airport were or how small their hotel rooms are. When one American reporter reported that Japan was strange, like the film "Lost in Translation," it was time to turn off the channel.

Instead, I've been watching NHK World's English feed on my television via a stream to my Mac Mini home theater PC. NHK repeats footage and, as the national broadcasting network of Japan, strikes me as the voice of the government, but if there's going to be breaking news, it seems likely that I'll see it here.   

Similarly, when the revolutions in the Middle East began, like many people, I turned to Al Jazeera. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's comments hit home:

Al Jazeera has been the leader in that [it is] literally changing people's minds and attitudes. And like it or hate it, it is really effective… In fact viewership of al Jazeera is going up in the United States because it's real news. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you're getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials and, you know, arguments between talking heads and the kind of stuff that we do on our news which, you know, is not particularly informative to us, let alone foreigners.

(see here for more) 

Al Jazeera has hardly been a bystander in all this, repeatedly suggesting to viewers that they demand their local cable companies ask for feeds. At times this seemed a little crass, but given the kind of self-promotion that US news outlets revel in, understandable. 

Western media outlets once thought that as the world globalized, they would expand endlessly. But the opposite is proving true. With access to more news outlets, we are finding the older ones too ideologically corrupt and superficial (Judith Miller anyone?) and instead of monitoring hastily put together foreign bureaus, wind up turning to local sources. 

Of course the same goes for architecture. Why would anybody want to read an American critic flown to China on an all-expenses paid junket to praise a building by Zaha Hadid in China (or worse yet, look at some renderings and pronounce it cool) when a Chinese critic might critically discuss the building in its context?  

If the result is a better-informed world, saying goodbye to the foreign bureau will hardly be a loss to anybody but the reporters.  

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Everybody’s a Critic

Over at Urban Omnibus, Diana Lind reports on Critical Futures #3, an event at Storefront that I was unfortunately unable to attend. If I had attended, I probably would have said something on the nature of the following. 

There's a constant and sustained rhetoric of crisis among architecture critics now. Roughly summed up, there seems to be a sense that something has gone wrong in criticism—some people think that critics are too reactionary and mean spirited, others seem to think that they are in bed with architects—that blogs are a threat because of their peculiar obsessions (although what these may be never seems to be clearly stated), and that all this must be fixed.

I'll play puzzled for a minute. When was this golden age of criticism. Was it in the 1970s when architecture critics typed their columns on typewriters in Philip Johnson's office? The days of Montgomery Schuyler? When was it? And how are these mysterious bloggers to blame? Bldgblog seems to be invoked from time to time but to blame Geoff Manaugh is a category error. Geoff writes about architecture, but he has his own take on it which has less to do with contemporary criticism and more to do with creating a particular vision of architecture that is studiously idiosyncratic and extends much beyond the boundaries of the discipline. If every now and again he might get excited about a building, I hardly see him as a critic in the traditional sense, any more than I see Things Magazine as a critic. In contrast, we have blogs like Enrique Ramirez's Aggregat 4 5 6, Owen Hatherley's Sit Down, Man You're a Bloody Tragedy, Charles Holland's Fantastic Journal, Sam Jacob's Strange Harvest, Stephen Becker and Rob Holmes's Mammoth and Mimi Zeiger's Loud Paper. These are the blogs I read regularly (I'm sure I've omitted a few and I apologize). Indeed, these are the writers on architecture that I read regularly. All have particular, distinctive voices. Although two (Owen and Mimi) also write criticism, I regard them more as writers who occasionally have to keep themselves fed by writing about buildings. If there's a long list of blogs that I should be reading and I'm not, please enlighten me. There's archinect, but that's less a blog these days and more a news source coupled with a forum.

What interests me about all of the above blogs is that they situate architecture within a broader context. Disciplinarity is dying at a rapid clip. I suspect the lament is partly a reaction to the end of disciplinarity. We are losing our ability to talk about architecture on its own terms. On its own, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Many of my readers—and many of the critics out there today—are too young to remember the bad old days of the early 1990s when architects mumbled ill-informed nonsense about Derrida* and showed random squiggles during their lectures that were supposed to be about the emptiness of nothing. Those were bad days, supposedly the days of disciplinarity. We don't want to go back there.

But speaking of the 90s, I think that what we are experiencing now is a crisis akin to that which critical theory went through in that decade. These conferences and articles (typically blog posts, thus reminding me of Johannes Trithemius's De Laude Scriptorum) are attempts to work through, or mourn the death of traditional criticism. We no longer live in an era in which people want to be told what to think. Those days are over and the old Bourdouvean critique no longer works so easily. Critics are something like travel critics today, largely serving to get buildings on the front page of papers, validating the next work of must-see starchitecture. It'd be great if they could have an impact on the generally shoddy quality of work that passes for advanced design today, but it's unlikely On the whole, however, the practice of describing a buliding in print is obsolete. Under network culture, everybody's a critic. 

People just aren't interested in traditional criticism anymore. That's something that critics will need to get used to, just as historians of architecture have had to get used to the idea that there are precious few positions in that profession left anymore (starting a Ph.D.? do you have a particular angle or hook? perhaps a large trust fund?). Coupled with the destruction of ad-based revenue for newspapers and magazines that has led to mass butchery of editorial staffs and you have the reason for the crisis of criticism. Just don't blame the bloggers. They're not playing the same game.  

*Note well. I am a big fan of Derrida.

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The Return of Galt’s Gulch, or Enclave Urbanism

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about exurban communities for the ultra-rich that have thrived even as the rest of the real estate market has collapsed. Over at the Wall Street Journal, Nancy Keates, who writes on luxury real estate for the paper, looks at the Aspen and other exurban areas inhabited by the super-wealthy. 

If Aspen is the most expensive town in America, it isn't alone; a friend who is an architect in the Hamptons reports that construction for the ultra-rich has barely slowed due to the crash. Budgets? For these the ultra-rich cost doesn't matter. Instead, they set out to build structures that are modelled less on vacation homes and more on resorts. Forget Dubai, everyone knew that was a bubble: the real money goes to places that don't need to advertise. 

For some time now, I've been warning that uncritically worshipping city life (or rather, the increasingly bland Starbucks blend that passes for life in global cities like New York, Los Angeles, or London) blinds us to the real changes and problems such communities face. Although some of these—like the lack of economic diversity and growing homogeneity—appear to hardly be of interest to urban boosters, the development of exurban enclaves should be.

Radical change doesn't just happen in booms, it also happens in crises and recessions. During the protracted crisis that will define this decade, we should watch the continued streamlining of upper-middle class jobs, particularly jobs in finance. The working class has long since lost the living wages they used to earn from factories. Now it's time for people like lawyers and accountants to find themselves automated out of jobs, as the New York Times reports. In Liquidated, Karen Ho points out that financial industries—the same financial industries that urban boosters rely upon for their vision of the creative city—see employees as costs to be cut. Times columnist, economist, and Princeton professor Paul Krugman is alarmed by this trend and wonders aloud if university educations are really worth it anymore in both this piece and this one.

The future won't be kind to global cities when this key group of inhabitants find themselves out of jobs. Certainly the kind of urban unrest that we saw in the 1960s and 1970s is likely, not from unemployed lawyers (though perhaps from their children who will face a bleak future) but from the massive underclass of service workers who will find themselves out of work. Many cities will also age, as baby boomers who have invested in real estate (apartment prices in New York can only go up!) will find themselves unable to sell their apartments at acceptable rates. 

The exodus of financial industries to places like Greenwich (note that it's mentioned in Keates's article) will continue and perhaps even accelerate (I have reason to believe that the construction of the NYSE facility in Mahwah is a step toward bringing financial capital industries to New Jersey) with offices in cities reduced to centers for wealth managers to meet with clients. But note also that Keates points to the growth of financial industries in Aspen. Few cities can boast financial services firms managing $775 million, but Aspen can. The sort of face-to-face deals that used to take place in the boardrooms and restaurants in the city may now take place away from prying eyes in Aspen or Sagaponack. Note the inversion from the usual logic of the global city in both of these cases: rather than being located near airports, they are located far from them. As Keates points out, it keeps the tourists away. Similarly, one of the main selling points of the Hamptons is the private airport at East Hampton. While tourists are stuck in traffic for hours, the ultra-rich fly overhead, their identities unknown.   

In the January cover story for the Atlantic Monthly, Chrystia Freeland looks at the growth of the ultra-rich and their increasing distance from us. Freeland reminds us of Galt's Gulch, a Rocky Mountain that Ayn Rand—that author so beloved by architects—had envisioned for the super-rich in her novel Atlas Shrugged. Freeland concludes that, historically speaking at least, Galt's Gulch is unsustainable and the super-rich will have to either violently suppress the rest of society or give up some of their wealth. This remains to be seen. The uprisings in Egypt and Libya may only be the beginning of a global protest by the disenfranchised middle class against the growing inequality in society.

Remember, it's not just Communists and Socialists who argue against such positions. For most of capitalism's history, excess concentration of wealth and the growth of monopolies were seen as obstacles to growth by capitalists themselves. 

But Galt's Gulch is seeming awfully real these days and is showing little signs of going away any time soon. Watch this space for developments.

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More on Public Finance

In a new post, Javier responded regarding my previous comments on public finance and universities. His point is well taken. I had not thought of the impact of ratings agencies upon university practices. 

A while back, at the University of Limerick, many of us were faced with severe difficulties getting paid. Why? It eventually turned out to be McKinsey and Company giving very specific advice to the university finance department about who should and shouldn't be paid. Yes, McKinsey and Company. Some individuals in the program walked away and never came back as a result. I nearly did. 

It goes further. Back in Los Angeles, I worked for one program director who thought of McKinsey and Company as his models and heros. Yes, McKinsey and Company. And this well-educated individual set out to run an architecture school along the lines of a cursory reading of McKinsey strategy: eliminate the "deadwood," hire recent graduates instead of experienced individuals, introduce readings from business strategy into teaching, strike alliances with consultants and businesses, and so on. 

Both of these experiences demonstrate how deeply corporate thought has pervaded the university. This is something that concerns me and something that I, as a faculty member of two schools, feel needs to be discussed openly throughout universities.  

Back when the full impact of the housing crash was still hard for newspaper critics to understand, I wrote this piece pointing to Harvey Molotoch's City as Growth Machine (which you can find here). The value of Molotoch's essay is that rather than making the issue personal (something one newspaper critic thought Javier and I were out to do), it points out the structural role of newspapers—and by extension architecture critics—in this condition. 

Another source for readers interested in these topics is David Harvey's A Brief History of Neoliberalism and the summary he gives of the book in this talk. When Wall Street bankers bailed out New York City during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, Harvey explains, city workers were forced to invest part of their pensions in municipal bonds. The result, naturally, is that city workers now are ever more beholden to the ratings agencies.

It's a brilliant, and vicious, system. It's also proven to be unsound. We are all paying the bills for the mistakes of the bankers today. Is it too much to ask that newspaper criticis rethink their roles and begin raising such questions in print? Yes, of course, they are concerned about what their editors and the publishers might think, but since most positions in print journalism are likely to vanish during the next round of cost cutting anyway, maybe it's in their own interests to speak out. 

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Ivory Towers of Debt

Javier Arbona has a new piece up called "The Sorrows of Finance Capital," in which he asks how it is that a university system in crisis can afford to build snazzy new buildings with vertiginously high budgets.

This is something that has bugged me a great deal lately. The credit crash has led to budget-tightening in universities, but the college building boom just keeps going. Whether it's at SFSU—which as Javier points out, can't afford an urban studies major anymore but can afford neomodernist digs—or at the University of Limerick, which during my at last visit a couple of weeks ago was sprouting more cranes than ever—it's been a striking feature of the Great Recession. 

As Javier points out, although the university brags that the building is funded by a $10 million gift, some $258 million (!) will have to come from construction funding. Now all this is—no surprise, alas—something that the press has chosen not to report on, and even seems to find hard to comprehend, as a series of Twitter exchanges between a newspaper critic and Javier on the above site demonstrates. 

Universities have let a Wall Street mentality infect them. As a recent report by the Tellus Institute concludes, colleges and universities not only embraced risky investment strategies with their endowments, they continue to gamble with their money even after the 2008 crash. Tellus concludes that these universities "have been as much contributors to the financial crisis as they were victims of it." 

Part of the problem is that, as Karen Ho points out in Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street, investment banks operate on ever-smaller time horizons. Lasting value is scoffed at in favor of immediate profits that can drive annual bonuses. With university boards populated not by faculty and researchers but by "leaders" in business, universities look at their endowments not so much in terms of sustainability and social responsiblity but rather as investments from which to wring maximum profits.

No wonder, then that university presidents are enamored with flashy construction projects which are much easier to justify to boards than equitably-paid faculty or low tuition for students (indeed, both of these are at odds with the sort of mentality that Ho observes on Wall Street: employees are always disposable and any university that keeps tuition down must be failing to charge apporpriately for its services).* After a few years at a university, the building-enamored president moves on to bigger and better digs, leaving faculty to struggle to get grants to fill buildings that shouldn't have been built in the first place.

As a byproduct, universities issue bonds and, so long as endownments keep flowing in, can service them. It's a giant ponzi scheme with little of value for students and, as Harper's described in a notorious graphic about the consequeneces of overbuilding in Brandeis (Brandeis has threatened a lawsuit and has accused Harper's of slander and libel over this piece), can collapse precipitously during times of economic crisis. But while bonds were hot, Wall Street couldn't have enough of them, so universities eagerly complied.     

With regard to Javier's exchange with the critic, there's been a lot of chatter lately about the effect of the Internet on the field and I suppose that for whatever reason, I'm going to have to add to that chatter on Tuesday at "Critical Futures" an event at Storefront. In anticipation of that event, I'll conclude by observing that when design critics are unable to confront kind of issues that Javier raised in his piece, then we should be asking just what merit the field has in the first place, unless its merely cheerleading for the next building boom.

* At one institution that I once worked at, the director told the staff one year that cost of living increases were not possible due to poor finances. After delivering the news to the board that he had held staff salaries down, the chairman—a local businessman—moved to raise the director's salary.   

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