Infrastructural Fields

One of my favorite journals, Quaderns has posted an essay that I wrote for them a year ago, entitled "Infrastructural Fields." There, I make the argument that architects need to embrace the new, invisible world of Hertzian space as they design. What are the tools by which we will do this? How will we create an architecture that, as Toyo Ito once stated, can float between the physical and the virtual world? If Ito set out to do this in the Sendai Mediatheque, why have architects been so reluctant to go further? 

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Where Do Good Ideas Come From?

The most recent issue of MAS Context has an essay by Ben Brichta on the Network Architecture Lab's recent event on copyright at Columbia with Amy Adler, Lebbeus Woods, Sean Dockray, and Geeta Dayal. Thanks to Ben, who did a great job for the Netlab with his essay. You can find it here

I'm honored to finally be in MAS Context, which is a great publication that I'm sure you're either familiar with or about to check out. Other friends in the issue are Klaus and Quillian Rieno. I was thrilled to be introduced to Martin Anderson's Suburbia Gone Wild piece, which looks at how suburbia has grown throughout the developing world and can be found in expanded form at his Web site as well as Pedro Hernández's piece on the abandoned architecture of the Alicante coast. I've only had a short time to look over the issue at breakfast, but it promises to be really worthwhile.  

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Terminal Condition. Spring 2012 Netlab Studio

 

Terminal Condition
Spring 2012

Columbia University
Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation
Network Architecture Lab

Professor: Kazys Varnelis, Ph.D.
Assistant: Leigha Dennis

Description

This studio explores the re-construction of a large-scale infrastructural element in the city, specifically the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City. A structure of 1.5 million square feet, passed through daily by hundreds of thousands of commuters, over seven thousand buses, and thousands of automobiles, providing parking for over 1,000 spaces for automobiles on top, surmounting a subway below, linked to the Lincoln Tunnel through massive ramps for vehicular traffic, and accommodating a significant shopping area, the PABT operates in a realm between building, city, and infrastructure. We are interested in this overlap as a venue for experimentation in programming and design.

As the largest commuter facility in the city, the PABT is a necessary part of everyday life for hundreds of thousands of workers in the city. The PABT was constructed in response to growing traffic congestion in midtown produced by the operation of eight independent bus terminals in the area a decade after the opening of the Lincoln Tunnel in 1937. Costing $24 million, the PABT bus terminal started operations in December 1950, consolidating eight independent bus terminals located in the midtown area. The building has been expanded twice to accommodate growing bus traffic: in 1963 a $30 million expansion added new decks and in 1979 a north wing was built at a cost of over $160 million, integrating with the original structure with a bridge over 41st street through a series of massive X trusses designed by Port Authority chief structural engineer Eugene Fasullo.

Bringing over 50,000 sightseers to the city daily, most of whom stop at Times Square, the PABT has been a key player in midtown, caught up in a longstanding crime problem that only abated during the last decade. With a new, modern exterior and a tiled interior resistant to vandalism, the 1979 reconstruction was intended as an architectural solution. But the expanded space quickly wound up serving a growing population of hundreds of homeless people, drug dealers, and male prostitutes while the “Minnesota Strip” on Eighth avenue outside became a site where newly-arrived runaways of both genders, particularly from the Upper Midwest, would be pressed into prostitution. Soon, the brutalist trusses became seen as a symbol of the decay of the Times Square area. In response, the Port Authority invested significant funds in the redevelopment of the neighborhood and implemented crime prevention strategies. The building is now vastly safer, but with the successful redevelopment of Times Square, the PABT is one of the last vestiges of an older, less commercialized New York. Over the last decade, the Port Authority was working with the Vornado Realty Trust to construct a skyscraper over the north wing, which was built with the possibility of exploiting its air rights in mind. Plans for a forty-story office tower by Richard Rogers including a rooftop garden and eighteen new bus gates came to naught when the Chinese developer pulled out this past November.

In this exercise, we set out to develop new hypotheses for the future of the PABT which we see as needing to respond to a world in which mobility is as much a matter of portable networked telecommunications devices as travel. With the resurgence of bus travel, the Terminal has the opportunity to become an even more significant gateway into the city for both commuters and visitors. Containing significant retail space, the PABT is a major center of commerce in the Times Square area. How do we make a building that embraces civic, commercial, and infrastructural spaces while remaining secure?

Semester Plan

This studio understands the architect as a builder of not merely physical edifices but also social, conceptual, and technical structures. Our interest is to use architecture and the most advanced thinking in network culture to construct new and better ways of life. In doing so, this studio is engaged first and foremost with institution building and shaping of social behavior.

We will begin the semester with team-based based scenario plans. Students will identify the drivers in society, technology, economics, ecology, and politics likely to impact the building over the next generation. These scenario plans will be communicated through the technique of architecture fiction. A review exploring these scenario plans will be held in mid February.

Students will individually develop detailed proposals for the reconstruction of the building by mid-review in March. These proposals will take the form of books that define the mission and goals of the reconstructed PABT and a preliminary idea for an architectural program.

Cloud

As a Netlab studio concerned with the topic of mobility, this studio will be the first prototypical studio in the GSAPP Cloud. To this end, students will be expected to maintain Tumblr blogs of their research and to keep up with the online work of other students. All student work will be posted online and aggregated to the emerging GSAPP work site.

Program

Students will be responsible for devising programs for a 21st century PABT. With the scenario plans from the first part of the studio in hand, students will be asked to identify the programmatic direction of the new PABT. Crucial to this will be a balance between city, building, and infrastructure. How can the building maintain its own identity while integrating better with the urban environment surrounding it?

In the wake of an era defined by the attention-seeking strategy of shaping, it is only appropriate to ask if architecture shouldn’t lose its singularity and obsession with performance. Can we develop architectural strategies aimed at producing less individualistic works that operate in a more ambient register, embracing formlessness instead of shaping, works that build intensity more subtly rather than giving it away all at once, works that question the boundaries between the city and the building rather than affirming them?

With regard to the site, students will be encouraged to consider the extension of the PABT into New Jersey through the Lincoln Tunnel and the dedicated Exclusive Bus Lane (XBL) that stretches from the New Jersey Turnpike onto Route 495, underneath the Times Square area through the underground subway station and the subway routes beyond.

Engineering

Students will work with roving engineers from ARUP during the semester to address the immense requirements of the PABT and the prospects for the construction of their project without disrupting the terminal’s operation.

Representation

Ultra-realistic perspective and Photoshop-based montages are banned in this studio. We propose that this sort of representation is inappropriate, corresponding to what Mark Fischer has dubbed “capitalist realism,” a condition in which we are offered nothing but the present the eagerly wait for the next thrill the system has to offer.[1] Evacuated of any critical intent, such work only cements the false notion that modern technology has made communication transparent.

But more than that, if all architects produce a form of science fiction, then to paraphrase William Gibson, we need to remember that as we construct futures, all we have at our disposal is the moment that we are currently living in.[2] The moment we construct a future it starts to age rapidly. Since the crash, along with the development of technologies that were formerly consigned to an endlessly deferred proximate future such as near-universal wireless Internet, locative media, tablet computing, and touchscreen interfaces, it seems that we have exhausted the era of the next new thing, of rapid technological and cultural development and obsolescence.

Thus, envisioning the future through architecture forces us to follow Alex Galloway’s suggestion that “all media is dead media,” to understand that appropriate representational strategies that might resist capitalist realist representations might emerge out of a new understanding of what Gibson calls a “long now,” a temporally stretched condition out of which we can freely recombine material and representational motifs.[3]

We will look at forms of representation immanent to our topic at hand, from schedules to traffic engineering plans, flowcharts, to exploded axonometrics for vehicle parts. Such diagrams not only offer rich territory to mine for representational strategies, their close study allows us to better understand the topic we are involved in. Precise, unshaded hidden line drawings, plan, section, elevation, and axonometric offer us a carefully and logically articulated system of delineation appropriate for a bus terminal.

Grading:

20% Attendance and Participation

Students are expected to attend studio sessions, be on time, and ready to discuss their work at every session. Students are expected to participate in group discussions, to cooperate with other studio members by offering criticism, advice, and good spirit.

Group meetings, regularly scheduled once per week allow us to share our research and constantly re-tune our method and approach to the material.

Students are expected to be at pin-ups and reviews on time with work ready to present. Students who are not ready at the beginning of the pin-up or review forfeit the right to receive criticism. Students are expected to contribute to pin-ups and reviews, both in terms of criticism and questions as well as by working in a team to ensure that rooms are ready to present in (adequate chairs, projectors, and so on).

40% Concept

Students will be graded on the originality and rigor of their concepts. All students need a coherent thesis in this studio.

Columbia teaches in English. There is help available for difficulties with the English language in the university, but lack of understanding is not an excuse.

40% Execution and Presentation

A good concept means little if it is poorly executed or presented. Presentation and execution are not trivial, nor are they mere “polish,” rather the choices made in presentation and execution should inform, and be informed by, the concept.

Students are expected to render and present their work clearly, succinctly, and elegantly.

Work should be thoroughly and represented.



[1]
Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative,  (Hampshire, UK: Zero Books, 2009).

[2] Scott Thill, “William Gibson Talks Zero History, Paranoia and the Awesome Power of Twitter,” Wired Underwire Blog, posted September 7, 2010, http://www.wired.com/underwire/2010/09/william-gibson-interview/all/1.

[3] Alex Galloway, “Cory Arcangel (Beige) and Paper Rad’s The Mario Movie" (2005)http://www.deitch.com/projects/press_text.php?pressId=29. Michael Parsons, “Interview: Wired Meets William Gibson,” Wired UK posted October 13, 2010, http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2010-10/13/william-gibson-interview.

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What is the Future of Network Culture?

 

One of the central tenets of the Network Culture book is that we live in an atemporal condition, a paradoxical time in which we no longer understand the world in historical terms. The sort of historical narratives that were crucial to modernism and postmodernism did not accompany us into the new millenium. My position on atemporality requires a long argument so you're better off reading the chapter in the network culture book if you want to find out more. Purposefully, however, atemporality (and the concept of network culture as a whole) is a broad generalization, ridden with exceptions and fault lines. Rather than flaws in my argument, I understand these as flaws in the system to be exploited in order to undo the worst parts of network culture. In the case of atemporality, the most pernicious parts are our inability to map ourselves historically in order to take stock of our condition and the lack of alternative temporalities together with the possibility of rupture. 
 
Still, its becoming clear that there is a kind of early network culture that came before the economic crisis of 2008 and a late (or high? middle? its too early to tell yet, we'll call it late for now, in hopes of something better coming down the pike in a decade) network culture that follows. So, too, we could well also speak of a first phase, a proto-network culture that began in the mid-1990s and ended prior to the dot.com crash of 2000, the millenium, and 9/11. 
 
Is periodizing network culture not a contradiction? Of course it is, in the terms I outlined above but only to a point. These periods are scarcely felt. They are not periods with which, generally speaking, we mark our time, but each marks an intensification of network culture, accompanied by a higher level of atemporality. 
 
Proto-network culture is both postmodern and not. It is marked by the overwhelming sense of the end of history, of the millennium as postmodernism itself was. Yet it is also marked by the sense that postmodernism has come to an end. Symposium after symposium on the end of history and the end of theory consumed academe at this point. But the unimaginable future was nigh, no longer the product of the nuclear bomb (that future had not come to pass) but rather of the information bomb, the explosive promise of the dot.com boom. Soon, it seemed, a new economy would take hold. Everything would change. Everything did change, but it wasn't just a matter of the spread of e-commerce, broadband, and endless connectivity. The dot.com crash itself established the boom and bust nature of network culture, with its heady optimism about a revolutionary, but even more highly capitalized future and its ability to throw away that future seemingly overnight in a panic. If unable to consider the past, this phase of network culture, then, was still obsessed with a future, an endlessly deferred proximate future of technological promise. 
 
Early network culture was marked by this constantly receding event horizon. The moment it was reached another, generally mobile technology promised a revolution in everyday life. Urban wireless networks, mobile broadband, smart phones, geolocative smart phones, tablets, and ubiquitous computing; each of these, their prophets suggested, would crank us into a world of unprecedented, shiny newness. Smart cities would be just around the corner, as bright and promising to us as Corbusier's Contemporary City must have seemed in the mid-1920s. But there was already a notion that everything had changed, that a new economy had taken hold, as demonstrated by the impossible rise of the housing market and the endless profusion of easy credit. We lived, it seemed to many, in a newly globalzied, urban wonder-world dominated  by creative city-states, liberal science fiction wonderlands in which architecture and technology would be wedded together to create places that would be nothing less than a great deal of fun.
 
Its only with the collapse of the housing bubble, the onset of the prolonged recession and the proliferation of that last promised technology, the tablet, that network culture has entered more fully into a condition of not only a suspended past but also a suspneded future. The housing bubble itself was a crisis of the future. As history had ended, so now the future ended. Ezra Pound's old cry "Make it new!" could now only be uttered by tired characters in a thought bubble in a New Yorker cartoon. And just as the days after 9/11 gave us a war without end, we are now given a recession without end. The new stationary economy seems punctuated by mini-booms that will buoy markets and epochal crises (like the impending collapse of the Eurozone, the second leg of the Great Recession, and of course everyone's great terror, the collapse of the massive Chinese property bubble). But the Great Recession is itself no longer even something that finance fears. The canny will make billions as before. Everyone else will be poorer, their futures more exhausted, less full of promise than ever.  
 
My interest in all this, as before, is to ask what sort of fissures the edifice of network culture might have. How do we find ways not to get out of the cycle but to get out of the system itself?  

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Irish Architecture Now

 

I will be the responder at the New York instance of Irish Architecture Now, tomorrow, September 26, 6.30pm at Cooper Union in New York City. Tickets are $15 for non-members (of the Architectural League).
 
Architects from six leading contemporary Irish practices will showcase their work and discuss issues concerning architecture at leading U.S. architectural schools and institutions this Autumn as part of Irish Architecture Now – Ireland's first architectural showcase in the US which is part of Imagine Ireland, Culture Ireland's year of Irish arts in America in 2011.
 
Curated by Raymund Ryan from the Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh the event is produced by the Irish Architecture Foundation, Dublin and will also be supported in the U.S. by Enterprise Ireland.
 
Bucholz McEvoy Architects, Shih Fu Peng of Heneghan Peng Architects and Niall McCullough of McCullough Mulvin Architects will visit the East Coast of the U.S. in September where they will speak at The Cooper Union, New York, Harvard University Graduate School of Design and at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.
 
The event is presented by the Architectural League of New York and co-sponsored by The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture.

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Against Management Theory

For a decade now, I've railed against the proliferation of management theory in architecture. In one of those transmutations that only architecture theorists of a certain generation could produce, In Search of Excellence was the next logical entry after Milles Plateaux on the graduate reading list. 

To be fair, this has abated somewhat, although the rhetoric of management theory is often still heard in parametricist discourse, which itself accompanies the stock market in a march of the zombies, stalking us even after their thorough immolation in the economic collapse of 2008.* 

So I was delighted today to run across Matthew Stewart's article "The Management Myth" from a 2006 issue of the Atlantic Magazine. Stewart, who trained as a philosopher but ran a management company for a time, has expanded on the article in a book that I am going to have to seek out (more information here). As Stewart points out, management theory tends to consist of nothing but a bunch of platitudes (be efficient! make people feel like they belong!). Only Elton Mayo's Hawthorne Effect—which makes up the key story of AUDC's next book, to be titled the Hawthorne Effect—proves to have some worth and that's only because it serves to show that management theory itself is nothing more than a process of variation and stimulation.

In any event, at least take a look at Stewart's article. I'll leave you with this question: shouldn't architecture's job in the first place have been to articulate what it offerede and how the changed it promised was different from the world of business?   

*See Owen Hatherley, "Zaha Hadid Architects and the Neoliberal Avant-Garde" in mute magazine, October 26, 2010 and Sam Jacob, "Architecture's Abstract Hubris Lies in Ruins," Architects Journal, November 27, 2008. 

 

   

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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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Almost Anything

I had the great pleasure of participating in “Thinking Big: Diagrams, Mediascapes and Megastructures,” a symposium on the work of Kevin Roche this past week. Sometimes people seem to be surprised that I’m interested in late modernism, or “corporate” architecture from the 1970s. Now, to be sure there’s some degree of nostalgia there for me, but I think my talk makes some links between then and now that should explain some of those interests. I’m publishing it on my site in hopes that you’ll enjoy and give me comments.

Almost Anything

Kevin Roche and Late Modernism

In this talk I want to situate Kevin Roche’s work of the 1970s and 1980s within a theoretical context of late modernism.

The commonly accepted narrative for the history of postwar American architecture goes roughly as follows. During the 1960s, modern architecture—having identified too closely with big business and big government—ran aground. Only the experimentation of the New York Five, together with the development of postmodernism, got the discipline back on track. Obviously, such heroic narratives should always be regarded with suspicion.

In that history, late modernism barely warrants a mention except as a sort of zombie that continued after its time was up. It’s easy to convince yourself of this, take a look at the pages of Oppositions, the key critical journal of the day. It’s nowhere to be found. In one of the few works on the topic, Charles Jencks describes the Late Modernists as having “taken the theories and style of their precursors to an extreme and in so doing produced an elaborated or mannered Modernism.”[1] In contrast to the postmodernists who produced buildings employing more conventional, historical allusions to form, Jencks argued, the late moderns limited their efforts to exaggerating the structure or technological image of a building.[2]

But I think we can come to a more theoretically sound definition of Late Modernism than Jencks’s stylistic classification. If late modern comes after the exhaustion of the modern theoretical position, the cause is different than Jencks suggests. In the Architecture of Good Intentions, Colin Rowe points out that although modern architecture claimed to be based on reason, its adherents adopted a messianic conviction in the “good news” of its coming.[3] Conveniently, Kevin Roche confirms this:

I grew up against a very Catholic background, in which one lived constantly in the fear of sin, sin which would destroy one. … What Mies did was to translate this feeling into architectural terms. He really created the idea of mortal sin in architecture and that there was a right way to do something and there was a wrong way. The wrong way was a loss of life. The right way was beautiful, divine. A world of absolute black and absolute white.[4]

Now the generally accepted narrative suggests modernism failed, that the People’s Temple of modernism, too caught up in messianic fervor, annihilated itself.

But what if the break with modernism isn’t because it failed but because it succeeded?

I find it useful to employ T. J. Clark’s suggestion that modernism prophesized, even demanded the modernization of the world.[5] Once modernism had won, sometime around the year 1960, something changed. Proclaiming the “good news” simply became passé. It might be possible, then, to associate this condition with the problem of the “end of ideology,” as pronounced by Daniel Bell for political history, also around that date.[6] All this is of course also rather similar to the postwar economic condition that Ernest Mandel calls “late capitalism.” In Mandel’s reading, a postwar economy based on a third technological wave of information electronics but also, crucially on the thorough penetration of the world by capital.

In other words, Mandel’s late capitalism fits quite well with Clark’s observation that about the thorough modernization of the world. If in Fredric Jameson’s reading, capitalism’s thorough colonization of the world produces the cultural logic of postmodernism, what I want to argue here is that postmodernism is not the only logic of late capitalism, that late modernism is also a cultural logic of late capitalism and should be understood as such.

Read in the light of historical necessity, then, the critiques leveled against the conformist, rationalist structures of Fordist business and the functional structures of modernism can be understood not merely as reactions to an oppressive moment but also as internal critiques that allowed capitalism to make the transition to Post-Fordist organizational (and architectural) structures able to thrive in the more difficult environment of late capitalism.[7]

So where does Roche fit into this? If he inherits a high modernist firm, as he hits his stride in the1970s, in the series of projects following the Ford Foundation, he makes a fundamental break with high modernism. Now by that point, Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities was already over a decade old and Philip Johnson’s break with Mies and functionalism was past history. Even Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction could be commonly found, if not on top of student desks, hidden underneath them. So what is Roche’s break and how is it different?

Let’s look at a few Roche buildings. Take the College Life Insurance Company Headquarters, the United Nations Plaza, the projects for downtown Houston and Denver designed for Gerald D. Hines, or the John Deere educational center.

Don’t spend much time looking at these. Look fast.

college lifeun plaza

projects for houston and denverJohn Deere

In passing, you will have observed two things: simple, geometric forms and structures that might seem to be informed by postmodernism. But Roche is up to something else entirely. In the interview with Francesco dal Co in the 1985 monograph of his work, Roche reflects on the skyscraper, explaining “There is no indigenous form to the high-rise building. It has no essential form. It literally can be almost anything. The technology is such that without the expenditure of additional money it can be almost anything.”[8] We can confirm this isn’t off the cuff by observing that Roche employs nearly identical phrasing in “Statements for History,” a 1984 tape made for Monica Pidgeon, suggesting that “…one of the characteristics of a high rise building is that there is almost no preordained form for it. It can be almost anything you wish it to be because the engineering is such that it is as easy to build it one way as another.”[9]

In other words, advances in building technology allow Roche to let form and function to go their separate ways. Still for an architect educated in modernism, this might appear to be a vertiginous condition. If the primary dictum of modernism no longer held, then on what basis would it be possible to design?

Roche responds that the architect needs to turn to identity, to produce a distinctive building that can provide an identity for a corporation. But matters are complicated by the late modern condition. For one, the growing automobility in American culture determines the ways in which buildings are perceived. Roche explains of College Life Insurance,

 “we have about 3 seconds to identify some kind of an image for the building group so this is a rather strong formalist image of a glass building with rather solid concrete walls. It is of course entirely functional but it is arranged in such a way as to be an arresting combination of forms…”[10]

Of General Foods, he explains,

“the few seconds that you have to see this building, it’s on axis of a major highway in new york state and as you barrel down the highway you suddenly round the corner and there’s this building and you say to yourself well what is this and it clearly isn’t a warehouse it clearly isn’t a church it is something else and that something else we then try to identify with the company and with the headquarters function very much in the sense that the castle or the chateau in France is an administrative center for the community the modern corporation is a kind of administrative center for a different community, it is a place where you have an organized structure, it has a presence on the landscape which is very similar.”[11]

Contrast this with Jencks and Robert Venturi, even Peter Eisenman, who argue for a sustained reading of a building to fully understand it. Instead of complexity and multivalency or contradiction and double-coding, Roche argues for rapid legibility.

But not every Roche project is meant for high-speed viewing. How do we explain United Nations Plaza or the Federal Reserve Bank?

We can shed light on Roche’s strategies and their difference from both modernism and postmodernism by turning to the theories of Marshall McLuhan. For McLuhan, of course, the saturation of post-1960s society suggests a shift from Hot to Cool, that is from media that demand high levels of attention to media that demand lower levels of attention, from media of high definition to media of low definition.

If this seems like reaching, let’s turn to Roche again.

… we are competing in world in which it is very difficult to penetrate the mist of images, and the perception of people is fogged substantially by the multiple images that they have to deal with. Because of this it is necessary at times, as it always is in art, to overstate the case in order to penetrate the fog.

… One frequently feels the need to overstate, in order to make a point at all, because if you make a point which is understated, it is very difficult for it to reach its audience; the noise level may be a little too low. That is a problem with all architecture today. Sometimes I choose to overstate, particularly when dealing with the highway and the automobile and the passing moment.”[12]

In the oversaturated city, images come at you fast. This is architecture comes at you fast, but is overstated, thus leaving an afterimpression.

Now if at this point also Roche produces forms we would commonly identify as historicist, they are subject to the same seamless treatment that the works we would identify as sculptural are. So whereas the postmodernists reanimate historical forms, Roche unloads them, not to exalt them but to reduce them. Thus, in discussing the UN Plaza and the Morgan Bank, he states

They are both buildings which have usable floors that go to a certain number of stories in height. They have mechanical equipment. They have all the right dimensions. So, what is the appropriate expression? In one case, it was derived from minimal sculpture, in the other it was derived from a more historic, more refined kind of architectural geometry—the geometry of the column, which has a base, a shaft and a top. They are both the same building, you could exchange the interiors.[13]

The column, which Roche first explores in depth at the Central Park Zoo, emerges, he states,

from the simple idea of chamfering a piece of stone to create a base and top between a brick shaft, and apply[ing] that form to a larger scale building…The columnar form that we are working with is a minimalist columnar form. It is as abstract as the form of the U.N. Plaza. … The Denver and Houston projects are very simple forms. Just a modernist box with a few cuts which switch the character entirely. It’s very interesting—if you start with a box, put a skin on it—it is a typical building from the fifties or sixties. Now nick the corners to imply a base and the same to imply a top, and if you slope the top a roof is created. But it is still minimalist sculpture. It is the same aesthetic. It is just a slight in language—quite different from the traditional skyscraper form.[14]

Rather than taking the postmodern turn, what Roche is up to in these buildings is closer to what Claus Oldenburg does, producing legible, overscaled pieces (indeed, once again Roche beats me to the point, identifying Oldenburg as a parallel to his work).

Roche’s cool shaping thus anticipates the iconic structures so popular today among architects like Kazuyo Sejima, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, and Rem Koolhaas.

 

But not always. As Eeva pointed out, in structures like Richardson Vicks or Union Carbide, the client had no interest in an interface with the public so visual appearance gave way, producing anti-architecture, some of the more extreme versions of infrastructural architecture to date.

Still, such projects were not removed from mediation. Of Union Carbide, Roche explains.

Most suburbanites live in houses which have attached garages. In this arrangement, when they leave for work in the morning, walk through the kitchen, get into their car, drive into the building, get out and into their office—[you get] an immediate connection between their home and office.

union carbide

Now Roche sends us for a twist. He continues.

Which raises an interesting question. Can we anticipate that with the development of electronic communications, that in the very near future there will be no need at all for people to get together in office buildings? Will people simply stay at home and save themselves all the trouble of traveling? Almost in anticipation of that, what we have done is take the library or den out of the home and put it in the office building. These offices are really a collection of private dens or little workspaces attached by the umbilical of the car, to the home now, but in the near future, maybe attached by the umbilical of electronic communications to the headquarters, and the headquarters, in fact, would become just the center of electronic communications.[15]

Roche elaborates

“…many of the things we did at Carbide, we did also at General Foods. But there is a fundamental difference between them and that is that Carbide has no exterior image for the employee. It is in a sense a transfer of a living room or working space from home into a treehouse in the woods. The umbilical being the automobile. General Foods is a more positive place of arrival. It is a place that is written in your memory on the outside, a more traditional expectation; it is done for the automobile. There is a front door and you drive into it. … Carbide could have been built as General Foods or vice versa. It wasn’t appropriate to do so … because Union Carbide did not want such a presence. General Foods couldn’t avoid it. It had a smaller site out on a  highway. They couldn’t avoid being seen. They had to be seen.[16]

At Carbide the worker goes from television screen to computer screen by means of the windshield, the building compresses into infrastructure. Hidden in the woods, Carbide is a step along the way to a network culture, to a re-envisioning of architecture as media and electronic technology that a future generation will have to take on.

 



[1]
Charles Jencks, Late-Modern Architecture and Other Essays (New York: Rizzoli, 1980), 10.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] Colin Rowe, The Architecture of Good Intentions. Towards a Possible Retrospect, (London: Academy Editions, 1994).

[4] Kevin Roche and Francesco Dal Co, Kevin Roche (New York: Rizzoli, 1985), 20.

[5] T. J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

[6] Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology; On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties, (Glencoe, Ill.,: Free Press, 1960).

[7] Compare with Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).

[8] Roche and Dal Co, Kevin Roche, 38.

[9] Kevin Roche, Statements for History (London: Pidgeon Audio Visual, 1984), Sound Recording.

[10] Roche, “Statements for History”

[11] Roche, “Statements for History”

[12] Roche and Dal Co, Kevin Roche, 72.

[13] Ibid., 38.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 63.

[16] Ibid., 64.

Continue reading “Almost Anything”

Announcing the New City Reader

I am delighted to announce the New City Reader, a newspaper on architecture, public space and the city, published as part of the Last Newspaper, an exhibit running at the New Museum from 6 October 2010‒9 January 2011. Editorial work for the New City Reader will take place in the Museum gallery, starting at 11 tomorrow, October 5.

at linco

Produced as a collaboration between myself/the Netlab and Joseph Grima, the New City Reader will consist of one edition, published over the course of the project with a new section produced weekly by alternating guest editorial teams within the museum’s gallery space. These sections will be available free at the New Museum and—in emulation of a practice common in the nineteenth-century American city and still popular in parts of the world today—will be posted in public throughout the city for collective reading.

The New City Reader kicks off today with the City section, a massively detailed graphic produced by the Netlab recounting the 1977 New York City blackout and its effects on the failing city to reveal the interdependence of infrastructure, information, and social stability. If the challenges of that era map to the difficulties facing both the country and the city today, the New City Reader will inquire into these parallels.

Each issue of the New City Reader will be guest edited by a contributing network of architects, theorists, and research groups who will bring their particular expertise to bear on the sections.

You can also follow our tumbelog at newcityreader.tumblr.com

Staff: 

EXECUTIVE EDITORS

– Joseph Grima

– Kazys Varnelis

MANAGING EDITOR

Alan Rapp

ASSOCIATE MANAGING EDITOR

– John Cantwell

ASSOCIATE EDITORS

– Brigette Borders

– Daniel Payne

EDITORIAL ASSISTANT

– Pantea Tehrani

ART DIRECTOR

Neil Donnelly

DESIGNER

Chris Rypkema

EDITORIAL CARTOONIST

Klaus

BLACKOUT! CARTOONISTS

– Momo Araki

– Alexis Burson

– Leigha Dennis

– Kyle Hovenkotter

WEB DEVELOPER

Jochen Hartmann

CONTRIBUTING EDITORS

David Benjamin & Livia Corona

C-Lab/Jeffrey Inaba

Program for Media & Modernity

common room

DJ N-RON & DJ/rupture

– Jeannie Kim & Hunter Tura

Leagues and Legions

– Michael Meredith, MOS

Network Architecture Lab

Frank Pasquale & Kevin Slavin

School of Visual Arts D-Crit

Robert Sumrell & Andrea Ching

Geminidas & Nomeda Urbonas, Nugu with Saskia Sassen

– Eyal Weizman, Centre for Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, University of London

 

 

Continue reading “Announcing the New City Reader”