MIT HTC Forum 2009

See me at the MIT HTC Forum next month.

Javier Arbona, Mark Jarzombek, and Kazys Varnelis
Blogitecture: Architecture on the Internet
The state and influence of architectural criticism in an age of digital networks

Tuesday, April 7
6:30 pm
Room 3-133

 "Has a blog actually had a significant impact on a building in the process of being designed or built? What was the outcome? ...But even if this were the case, I'm not sure that blogs have actually changed much of the way theory is written or performed." 
-Javier Arbona, Javierest (

"Blogs have, thus far been both anti-theory and anti-history. I think they've played a role in that regard." 
-Kazys Varnelis (

Mark Jarzombek will moderate a discussion between bloggers Javier Arbona and Kazys Varnelis on the state and influence of architectural criticism in an age of digital networks, from their respective positions as producers of criticism and scholars of architecture. 

Javier Arbona is a PhD candidate in geography at UC Berkeley and a former chief editor at He blogs at

Kazys Varnelis, PhD, is Director of the Network Architecture Lab at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. He blogs at

Mark Jarzombek, Professor of the History and Theory of Architecture and Associate Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT, will moderate the discussion.


The lecture will be at 6:30pm in 3-133 at  MIT, 77 Mass Ave. Cambridge, MA 02139, see 

htc forum 2009 poster 

Floating Architecture

Sadly I missed the Lieb House floating by on the East River today. It was just a little too early today, but my friend Tim Ventimiglia who works at Ralph Applebaum Associates organized a viewing and his colleague Tommy Matthews took these great photographs. 

Lieb House approaching

Lieb on its way

Lieb departing 

The Lieb House is among of the best works by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, one of the last classic works before the office wound up mired in bad taste and lousy classicism. 

A developer bought the vacation house, located on New Jersey's Long Beach Island as a tear down. Not only is this a gem, surely it's big enough as a vacation house for any family! I can only imagine what sort of awful monstrosity the brute will build in its place.

Luckily a couple who understood the structure's value bought it and are moving it to Glen Cove in Long Island next to the Kalpakjian House, one of VRSB's few decent postmodern structures. Bravo. See Newsday for with more.  

urban anxieties

Here is yet another project aimed at one-upping the suburbs, this time in the form of Tom Vigar's Master's Thesis at Sheffield University. Nicely illustrated, its had a bit of attention in the blogosphere lately. 

But I have my problems with it. To be fair, I have not seen the whole work, only a few excerpts. Still, I'm a little confused by the reference to bomb shelters and ICBMs as it is 2009 not 1955, isn't it? Are people in the suburbs really that concerned with terrorism? That seems to me to be largely an urban phenomenon. The whole reading seems a trifle easy to me. 

I also wonder about gunning down the suburban straw-man in yet another drive-by. As readers of this blog will know, I have high hopes ludicrous fantasies for the new economy and one of these hopes fantasies is that the desperation will force us past the urban-suburban divide. The history of the suburbs and the city is the history of one entity, not two. Until we can learn to think regionally both city and suburbs will continue their pointless squabbles.

It'd be fun to do a counter-project, skewering the hipster lifestyle of urban hyper-consumption, a world of Prada and Moss Design, of eating out every night at restaurants with winkingly offensive names, of Starchitects and museum-discos, a world of ethnic heterogeneity made safe by the eviction of the poor, a world of knowing smirks and v-neck white T-shirts, all supported by constant CCTV surveillance, draconian police forces, ludicrous financial models, and of course a global military order.

The hipster city is where Peter Sloterdijk's cynical reason holds, where you know very well what you do is wrong but you do it anyway. The self-congratulatory hipster city is where money has defeated criticism. It's where the post-critical rules, captivated by its own catty but inane chatter. 

It might look just a little bit like this, although it would have to have an architectural component. Or maybe it would be a little like this (disclaimer: AUDC project). 

But the reason I'm blogging this is to ask a simple question: this is not the first such project so why this common urge to take pot shots at the suburbs? What's up with that? Are people just spinning their wheels endlessly and in need of new targets? Is it really that hard? Why not use that brilliant wit to poke fun at Manhattan or London or Dubai or Beijing?

My thinking is that rising urban anxieties are being displaced onto the suburbs, anointed as a safe object of symbolic violence. Instead of confronting our anxieties we displace them.         



On Restructuring

I'm always pleasantly surprised when the New York Times gets a story right, so today, with the government releasing its statistics about high unemployment, I was impressed to see that they published this piece: Crushing Job Losses May Signal Broader Changes. I would agree completely. This is not a temporary recession that will end in two years, at the end of which the jobs will magically reappear.

Instead, we are seeing a second wave of restructuring akin to what we saw in the 1980s. Most of the jobs being shed now are history. Certainly a large number of these are in manufacturing: positions that survived earlier cutbacks being made redundant. But we are also seeing something new: the masters of the universe are in trouble. Financial jobs are coming undone and there is nothing to replace them. From Wall Street to Dubai, these jobs are going away forever and with them, the lavish lifestyles that propped up architecture and design (sorry Mitchell Moss). At least architects and designers have some real skills that can be applied elsewhere, given some reorientation and retraining. It doesn't look so pretty for those people involved in finance. But make no mistake, Richard Florida's creative class took this one on the chin. Restructuring is going to hit them hard. Working at the ad agency sure beats handing out parking tickets.

There's more too. Crime in cities has fallen due to two reasons: the poor have been driven out by neoliberal policies of segregation-via-high-rents, a reasonable abundance of marginal jobs that make crime less attractive, and an escalated police presence. During a protracted recession, the marginal jobs are going to go away while police budgets will shrink, and the result will inevitably be a rising crime rate. Another trigger to higher crime will be the changing demographics in the cities. Some inner-ring suburbs (and more distant places too, welfare cities like Newburgh, NY) will become more dangerous and, lacking a good tax base, will see huge increases in crime and collapses in their school systems. The result will be a return of the poor to the cities, particularly of parents of school age children, hoping to take advantage of better schools and the lure of jobs, few though they may be. But that without the marginal jobs, the crime rate will escalate further and so it goes.

Is there an easy solution to this? No. We have wasted the mad money of the last two decades on starchitecture and jet skis instead of a physical and social infrastructure that would allow us to deal with the realities of the city. It's going to be a long process of rebuilding and, given the bad politics of both parties (albeit especially the Republicans), the odds are against us.

Delirious though it was, this was a golden age for cities. The last time was probably the 1950s and before that the 1920s. You very well may not see another one like this in your lifetime.    

Richard Sennett on Brittle and Open Cities

A paper by Richard Sennett on brittle vs. open cities can be found here

Some observations:

Starchitecture was the ultimate manifestation of the brittle city he describes. In breaking the rules formally, it produced the impression that cities were places of freedom when in fact they were getting more and more tightly controlled, more exclusive and more homogeneous. Who cares about a building by Herzog and de Meuron in Manhattan when you can't get a decent slice of pizza in most places anymore? Which is more valuable to a city, a Nouvel apartment building that testifies to the diversity of form or diversity of ethnicities and classes? 


How the News Works

graph of architecture vs. infrastructure in nyt 

This graph shows how often the words architecture (green) and infrastructure (blue) appeared in the New York Times each month. See here for more and here for the link to generate your own graphs. These two are also amazing: Obama vs. McCain and Clinton vs. Obama

obama vs. mccain


clinton vs. obama

After the publication of the Infrastructural City review in the LA Times, I noted that almost everybody who mentioned it to me had not bothered to read the article. These graphs suggest that the actual content of the news doesn't matter, all that matters is the frequency.

Architecture of Bling

Take a look at this table of 15 skyscrapers that are on hold due to the economic "crisis." Many of these are quite curvy, giving the impression that they are dancing or swaying in the wind. Now first of all, this conceit seems rather pathetic: skyscrapers don't dance and they don't sway in the wind, so why should they look like they do? 

Perhaps the proliferation of flash in architects' Web sites during the early part of the decade led to this nonsense. But unlike gratuitous flash portfolios, which are mildly offensive, these things are the architectural equivalents of Hummers. Not only are they contradictions in design logic, given the amount of steel necessary to construct these signature follies, they make a mockery of contemporary architecture's green ambitions. When one of the green architects comes out with a serious attack on this kind of thinking then I will take them more seriously. 

What strikes me about these silly buildings today is that architectural fashion that associates itself with a moment in capital is rarely able to live past that moment's demise. Not only is it passé, but it is fatally associated with the previous moment. Deco and the 1920s, streamline and the late 1930s, high modernism and the late 1950s, late modernism and the early 1970s, postmodernism and the 1980s, decon and the early 1990s. So goes architecture fashion. 

But these fifteen skyscrapers suggest that perhaps there was still one last reason for visibility, for capital to appear: to unload itself of any meaning except excess, to concretize the vulgarity of bling. Like these buildings, bling has nothing behind it. No culture, no history, no morality, no taste, merely the desire to display wealth in a blunt and vulgar way. Nothing says it better than this site for the Burj Al Alam. There should be a way of preserving that site so that future generations can see the excess that developed in places Dubai, Beijing, and all the other capitals of bling. 

Goodbye bling, and good riddance. 

In Defense of Architecture (Fiction)

Over at HTC Experiments, David Gissen is the latest to tackle architecture fiction. I like David's writing quite a bit, but this time I'm moved to the defense of architecture and to expand the concept further in the direction I would like to see it go. I won't rehash the idea of architecture fiction again as I've written about it here and here while Bruce Sterling originated the concept here. Go read those if you're unfamiliar with the idea.  

David is puzzled by how Bruce is fascinated with Archigram and sees it ironic that I understand architecture fiction as a way beyond green architecture since the language of Archigram informs much of green architecture today . Somehow (I'm not quite sure how), David understands that irony as fatal. If there's a fatal irony, i would say that's its in the contradiction that the green design movement is appropriating Archigram's imagery. After all, by the late 1960s, Archigram was detested throughout schools of architecture worldwide for their commitment to technology, in particular their commitment to planned obsolescence and building. This was anathema for the young radicals of the early 1970s. I remember teaching Archigram in the mid-1990s and they were still thought of as retardataire, and that was at SCI-Arc! So, although Archigram conveys the message well, it's an originary work not without its problems.

Second, David notes that Beatriz Colomina demonstrated that all forms of modernism relied on fictional devices. This is a more serious charge since he feels that if architecture is by nature fictional, it means that architecture fiction is nothing new and therefore boring. In its stead, he suggests his own re-definition of the term: "architectural fiction as a form of writing on buildings." 

I have to admit that this prospect scares me. It seems like a perpetuation of starchitecture, which I would like to bury as fast as possible. If a novelist is moved to write about a work of architecture, then more power to them. I'm certainly glad to see that Bruce is inspired by Greg Lynn's work, although I think if an shoe inspired Bruce, he could cook up something equally smart, witty, and literary. I think the last thing we need is our favorite starchitect bothering a novelist to say "Hey, since I can't get on the front page of the New York Times anymore [the NYT having gone under in this fictional scenario], I need you to write a novel about me."  Moreover, if we're trying to judge by novelty, then what about Victor Hugo? This interpretation of architecture fiction has been going on for a while now.

But I'm grateful to David for prodding me on with regard to this topic. I'm interested in something very specific, narrower than anybody else's interest here. Let me try to articulate it. 

Instead of being Utopian or imaginative, might it be possible for architecture to shape our experiences in such ways as to approximate the effects of films or fiction? Or better yet, video games? Please don't take this to mean that architects need to copy Doom or Quake (they've tried that already). But rather, could architecture fiction be something that re-shapes our subjectivity? Yes, this is awfully similar to some of the ideas that Peter Eisenman threw around in the past, but substitute the theoretical armature, which he seemed willing to discard with predictable regularity with deliberate invention? And yes, this is similar to what Koolhaas and Tschumi suggested in the 1970s, but would that be a bad starting point for the present day?

If I'm coming to architecture's defense, then you've guessed that there's probably a catch. I firmly believe that there's a huge opportunity for architects—particularly during the coming protracted recession—to think about what is possible with the built environment (as it already stands) and pervasive technologies (as they already exist). In other words, if architects are such experts at shaping space, who is to say they always need to work with the building trades? The Eameses made furniture and films. If they were around today, I think they'd be out in the city, finding ways to shape the environment through existing forms of locative media. Look at the work Mark Shepard does for example. He's one of the few people who've got it figured out. 

Anticipating protests about architects not being in the software business, I'll ask what, if anything, are architects doing in studios today besides using (and even writing!) software? Those aren't drafting boards on the desks anymore. And there's a caution: if architects don't do it, others will. There are plenty of super-intelligent people already working on this kind of material, such as the good folks at area/code, and I fully expect magic from that group, but there's lots of room spectrum out there for everyone to play. Will architects take up this challenge? 

Instead of writing novels on a cell phone, why shouldn't we be reading the city on our cell phones? 

Complexity and Contradiction in the Air

In the new issue of Wired, Andrew Blum has an article entitled Air Repair about how consultants at the Mitre Corporation are rethinking the airspace above New York to alleviate congestion in the nation's most heavily travelled airspace. It was a great delight to read and this is precisely the kind of approach that new infrastructural initiatives will need to take. Not heavy construction or expensive technological retrofit, but rather applying intelligent thinking applied to making the most of out of conditions, hacking and social engineering what we've already got. 

It'd be great if there could be some kind of grand science of optimizing existing infrastructure, but I suspect that there's not going to be. There'll be some mathematical models, sure, but more than ever, I think we're living in an age of tactics, not strategies.    

On Owls, Starchitects, Papers & Growth Machines

When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy's gray in gray it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.

In perhaps his most eloquent moment, Hegel was referring to the way that philosophy came to an understanding of topics precisely at the moment that they were no longer relevant.

An example of this would be the explosion of visual studies in the 1990s just at the moment when two centuries of the visual being a cultural dominant were being eclipsed by the rise of the non-visual, by the code and procotols of network culture. Nobody talks much about visual studies anymore.

But it isn't just philosophy and theory that operate this way. It's a phenomenon we see in culture over and over. Milton Friedman (and Time Magazine) declared We are all Keynesians now just as the long postwar boom expired.

Or look at how stores like Barnes and Noble appeared, carrying huge amounts of books and magazines just as print began its terminal decline. Or the appearance of the SUV right before peak oil (I have friends who bought those things and used them for everyday driving…crazy!).

So what about Starchitects? There has certainly never been an explosion of interest in Starchitects like there has been today. But when the economy recovers (and I think that will be a long, long time from nunless the government comes up with another unhealthy quick fix), I'm not so sure we'll have starchitects anymore.

The reason is simple: newspapers made starchitects. It's common knowledge that recent construction by major cultural institutions was driven by the desire to make it to the front page of the New York Times. This could only be guaranteed if the architect was Gehry, Herzog and de Meuron, Koolhaas, Hadid, Nouvel, and Foster (some of these names may change a little, a second tier includes Piano, Morphosis, Sejima, Ito, and I'm sure a couple of others that I forgot). I have friends who work with such institutions and they were commonly told that the project had to be on the front page.

This is not surprising. Newspapers are key institutions for the growth machine (see more here). They seek to drive growth, making it seem natural and promoting it, generally regardless of the cost. They are where the growth machine sees itself and celebrates itself.

But now, eviscerated by bad financial models and online publications, newspapers are dying. Certainly blogs have encouraged Starchitecture a bit, but in many cases—such as at Archinect—they did so in part because they are in the business of linking to content from newspapers. In many cases bloggers are more critical of starchitecture than newspaper critics are. Blogs are bottom-up, newspapers are top-down. Thus blogs are snarky, newspapers are proper. Blogs also have comments so when a blogger gets something wrong, a reader can call it out.

As you may read on twitter, the media is dying. As big papers start to shut down or go to online-only formats in the coming years, will starchitects disappear as well? I can't imagine that the heads of major cultural institutions will insist on architects who will ensure their buildings be mentioned on Archinect.

If they do, what will take their place, a Warholian YouTube-style culture of young architects being famous for 15 minutes? Or will architects begin to specialize toward niche audiences, much as blogs do?

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