on performance, green architecture, and architecture fiction

From the late 1970s into the early 1990s, architecture was obsessed with form. Whatever the surface appearance of the work—modern, postmodern, decon, or weird conceptual stuff from the early 1990s that everyone has forgotten (remember folding and mapping?)—form underpinned virtually all architectural research. Much of this formalism was underpinned by process, a painful obsession with making iterations of designs until the most complex object imaginable was produced. 

As work on form became more and more involved (read: dug a deeper hole for itself), it became more and more obscure until finally it imploded and the theorizing ceased. Instead, we wound up with shape, which is kind of like form's stupid brother. I don't really think much of shape, since there's not much to say about it, except that its emptiness means that at least I don't have to hear about it anymore, which is a relief.

To be clear, I do like the kind of indexical work by, say, Johnston Marklee or MVRDV (when they were still fresh, take WoZoCos as an example). In those cases form is revealed as the Hugh-Ferriss-like product of overdetermined urban conditions in which every move has to be negotiated. That's a different story entirely to me, since it engages architecture with the subconscious, invisible terrain of the city. It means architecture looking outside of itself and talking to a world beyond architects. That's far more interesting to me. On the other hand, it's the exception rather than the rule.

Instead, as form began to lose its ability to galvanize architects, performance came to replace it.

Bilbao is the signal moment here: the monument to end all formal buildings, it was also too dumb to be discussed as the product of a process (there's no method behind Gehry's work) or form. So instead, Bilbao and its successor, the Experience Music Project, wound up being discussed in terms of the technological feats necessary to achieve their construction. This kind of discussion—and Bilbao wasn't the only example by any means—led to a rhetoric of performance in which what was crucial was not how buildings performed (this would have been too obvious…), but how much effort was put into their construction. Since form is now either the produced of a purely instinctual process (shape) or produced by a computer (parametric design), the discussion turns to how that complex form is constructed.

This turn in architecture is, I'm afraid, little better than the work on form that preceded it. Arguably, it is even more masculinist in its emphasis on building and the technological innovation necessary to achieve the mighty form.

With the economic crisis, the curtain is setting for this sort of work. Instead, the last great hope for some architects is green architecture and sustainability. Unfortunately, this is nothing more than a recessionista version of performance. It is also fatal for the discipline.

Emphasizing a world of metrics, big, hard tech, and performance is fatal for the discipline. To make a small shift from using the same technologies for "sustainability" (by whose measure) instead of for shape is not going to revive the discipline, it will only prolong the intellectual bubble that has dominated it for too long. 

I have little doubt that we need to act fast in order to prevent further damage to the environment but frankly, green building is the wrong way to go about it. It's little more than "rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic."

If architects were serious about sustainability, they would call a halt to new building in the developed world right now. Enough buildings already! Let's stop now. There is virtually nothing else that we can do that is more polluting than building more. Moreover, a moratorium on building might help architects get back to thinking before doing. I argued against solipsism during the 1990s when architects couldn't make a move without second-guessing it to death. Now I'm arguing against architects who do before they think (CCTV). 

So let's dump the idea of reworking performance architecture into green building and turn to architecture fiction instead. Let's find creative ways to live in what we already have. I'm fascinated by Bruce Sterling's concept of "architecture fiction."

Could any 1960s building be more compelling than Archigram's spectacular Instant City of the 1960s? We barely even remember Jorn Utzon's Sydney Opera House or Safdie's Habitat, but Instant City we do remember. Or take the Living City Survival Kit, No Stop City, the City of the Captive Globe, or Delirious New York. these taught us about the cities we live in already, in the most radical way. 

ecologies of deceit

Via Edwin Gardner, who makes the great Prss Release, comes a link to Panayiota Pyla's "Counter-History of Sustainability," an essay for Volume, a cautionary account of sustainability in architecture, and none too soon.* Panayiota, like me, is a student of Mark Jarzombek's, and she does a great job picking apart the almost theological faith that some architects have in sustainability. For another perspective, see this interview with James Lovelock, the inventor of the Gaia hypothesis. If Lovelock is right (and his points of view have often been controversial), the rhetoric of sustainability in architecture may be more a performative style**, about as useful as shopping at Whole Foods is. Lovelock would probably suggest that we should stop building all but nonessential projects now and learn to live with what we have. In sum, however, Pyla is right on the money with her sharp critique of sustainability. Let's not let this turn into a new architectural religion. 

*One thing to point out for the reader: as the Network Culture project suggests, I disagree with her statement "Always Beware of Metanarratives," but I would agree that we should always beware of metanarratives with an ax to grind. If the network culture project is a metanarrative, it has no telos behind it. To me that's the distinction. We've lost track of our ability to create historical meaning in part because historians, paralyzed by fear of metanarratives, have abandoned macroscale attempts to produce meaning. 

**How's that for a neologism? A performative style would be a fashion for a way of doing things, replacing a fashion for form. Thus the dominnant forms of architectural design today: diagramming, parametric modeling, and sustainability would be performative styles. Or styles of performance perhaps? 

a few zines

I'm starting off the New Year in appearances by moderating A Few Zines: Dispatches from the Edge of Architectural Production at Studio-X accompanying Mimi Zeiger's exhibit on the topic. Over the next week I'll have a few posts relating it to the work we did in Networked Publics. In the meantime, see Mimi's blog for more. 

A Few Zines: Dispatches from the Edge of Architectural Production
January 8–February 28, 2009

In the 1990s, zines such as Lackluster, Infiltration, loud paper, Dodge City Journal and Monorail subverted traditional trade and academic architecture magazine trends by crossing the built environment with art, music, politics and pop culture—and by deliberately retaining and cultivating an underground presence. Much has been made of that decade’s zine phenomenon—inspiring academic studies, international conferences and DIY workshops—yet little attention has been paid to architecture zine culture specifically, or its resonance within architectural publishing today.

A Few Zines: Dispatches from the Edge of Architectural Production does both. Rather than attempting to present an exhaustive retrospective of architecture zine culture, it highlights complete runs of several noted zines that began in the nineties. The exhibition also features contemporary publications that continue to draw inspiration from the self-publishing tradition, such as Pin-Up, Sumoscraper, and Thumb.
To launch this exhibit, curator Mimi Zeiger has published a new issue of loud paper and organized a party and panel discussion, including:

Luke Bulman, Thumb
Felix Burrichter, Pin-Up
Stephen Duncombe, NYU professor and author of Dream and Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture
Mark Shepard, University at Buffalo professor, Situated Technologies
Andrew Wagner, Dodge City Journal and currently, American Craft
Mimi Zeiger, loud paper

Moderated by Kazys Varnelis, AUDC

When: Thursday, January 8, 2009, 7 pm
Free and open to the public

Studio-X, 180 Varick Street, Suite 1610, New York, NY 10014

Exhibition hours: Tuesday-Saturday, noon-6 pm

Contact: Gavin Browning, Programming Coordinator, Studio-X, (212) 989 2398,

[Studio-X is a downtown studio for experimental research and design run by the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation of Columbia University.]

predictions for the year ahead

My predictions—and those of a whole bunch of members of "architects, bloggers, academics, Archinect editors, and other members of [the Archinect] community" for the year ahead at Archinect.

I'll add to my prediction by adding that if we get it right, light urbanism will be all the rage. Something along the lines of this or this or this. There are lots and lots of dangers to such scenarios, but a burst of new, heavy but green infrastructure (e.g. light rail, green power plants, podcars, whatever) is pie in the sky in an age that will give new meaning to NIMBYism as homeowners seek to protect what value they have left.  

obama and mies

Obama, of course, is Time's Person of the Year. See here.

The piece begins…

You probably sat in a fancier conference room the last time you refinanced or heard a pitch about life insurance. There's a table, some off-brand mesh office chairs, a bookcase that looks as if it had been put together with an Allen wrench and instructions in Swedish.

To reach this room, you pass through a cubicle farm lightly populated by quiet young people. Either they have just arrived or they are just leaving, because their desks are almost bare. The place has a vaguely familiar feel to it, this air of transient shabbiness and nondescriptitude. You can't quite put your finger on it ...

"It's like the set of The Office," someone offers.


It is here that we find Barack Obama one soul-freezingly cold December day, mentally unpacking the crate of crushing problems — some old, some new, all ugly — that he is about to inherit as the 44th President of the United States. Most of his hours inside the presidential-transition office are spent in this bland and bare-bones room. You would think the President-elect — a guy who draws 100,000 people to a speech in St. Louis, Mo., who raises three-quarters of a billion dollars, who is facing the toughest first year since Franklin Roosevelt's — might merit a leather chair. Maybe a credenza? A hutch?  

Now wait a second. Obama's campaign headquarters is in the Kluczynski Federal Building in Chicago designed by Mies. So a federally-owned building likely is pretty bare-bones inside, but no mention of Mies? No mention of a man Time magazine called a "disciplinarian for a confused age"?


more on then and now


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

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

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

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


where is the good new architecture?

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

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

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

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

the philip johnson tapes released

The second of my three book projects this year, the Philip Johnson Tapes, Interviews by Robert A. M. Stern has just been published. My role in this project was to take a set of raw tapes of interviews that Stern conducted with Johnson in 1985 and turn them into a coherent, readable narrative. According to the readers who've seen the book, I was successful. A beautiful design by Pentagram and a huge amount of photo-archive research and fact-checking by Stern's office made this something I am quite proud of.

Expect some Johnson-related events in the near future as well as more work on Johnson from me. A critical analysis of the architect's role and work is in the future, I suspect...

athe philip johnson tapes

the Post-Critical Collapse

This weekend I took some time off and outlined the network culture book that I've been thinking about for a while. I had originally wished to have it not merely outlined but drafted by the end of the summer, but events got the best of me. On the other hand, it seems better to be able to put the economic collapse in perspective in the book.

So to the collapse then, and what it says about architecture. Now architecture is not going to be a focus of the network culture book. My goal is to write a history of the contemporary, not a history of contemporary architecture and it's a peculiar aspect of network culture that the theory and aesthetics of architecture seem to play a much less crucial role than they did under modernism or postmodernism. Modern art and literature began to flourish in the late 1900s and 1910s and modern architecture was developing rapidly at this point, although it would take the 1920s for it to really come into its own. In the case of postmodernism, architecture was clearly at the forefront in visibliity, if not in terms of theory. Under network culture, architecture's role is less visible. Architecture has floundered for an aesthetic or theory during the last decade. Supermodernism, which promised much during the 1990s, ran aground as the culture of disconnection it sought to give form to was replaced by a culture of connection. In its stead, we have nothing in particular.

If architecture had a theory during the last decade, it was post-criticism. Since post-criticism began from the premise that architects should do, not think, its proponents had a tough time articulating their position. Nevertheless, at heart, post-critical theorists argued that the deconstructivist and critical architectures of the late 1980s and early 1990s were misguided in resisting cultural hegemony (an increasingly problematic concept, to be sure) and capitalism. Instead, they embraced Koolhaas's injunction that the architect should surf the waves of capital.

But how to do this? Here post-criticism was vague, not surprising given its aversion to theory. Still if there is any core design strategy to post-criticism, it is to embrace the diagram (later on this would become the more computationally-enabled parametric modelling) and model the inputs and variables in a given condition. If detailed enough, the argument went, such diagrams would allow design to emerge automatically. In some cases, this could be quite literal: corporate "flows" might be modelled in computer animation programs and literally given structure to become buildings.  

Such modelling relies on a simple notion of information very much like that of the efficient market hypothesis which informed thinking about financial markets for the last two decades. The efficient market hypothesis was predicated on the network making accurate information available to everyone equally and that everyone would act rationally with regard to that information. But the actors involved turned out not to be rational. The irrational behavior of players led to the real estate boom that I had warned about for years, the subsequent collapse, and this fall's panic. The failure was not one of not enough information, it was a failure to think critically. As any student of network theory knows, robust networks use error-checking to verify the veracity of the data involved. It was not a failure of individuals, but rather a faliure of the network to police itself. In other words,the economic collapse of 2007-2008 was a network failure.

In allying architecture so closely with the market, post-criticism has repeated the reasoning of high modernist architects in the postwar U. S. But that era came to an end in the late 1960s and, as post-Fordism came into question, so did the discipline. Now that architecture has allied itself with a failed theory of the market, what will become of it? This isn't an idle question. As society and culture reconfigure, an architecture that has little to offer except a direct representation of capital flows is unlikely to succeed. Moreover, the fascination that post-critical architects had with producing designs through software parallels the reduction of architecture to complex financial instruments that existed primarily in the network. This has already been called into question in the market. Architecture is, as usual, just a little behind.  

Compounding this, architecture has been in vogue during the last two decades due to the so-called Bilbao-Effect, the idea that through the sheer effect (for reasons originally having to do with the writing of Gilles Delueze, architects write this as “affect”) of its form, architecture can improve economic conditions either for a business or for a city. For advocates of diagrammatic thought, the complexity of the forms generated by diagramming were ideal for producing the Bilbao-Effect. But these structures, be they built by businesses or by cultural institutions, were highly expensive and generally heavily leveraged. As they start to go bust, architecture is likely to be blamed for the failure. Most of today's young hot-shot architects are too young to have experienced the attacks that architecture suffered in the 1970s for failing to live up to modernism's promises of function. These may yet pale compared to the disparagement that architecture could receive for failing to generate the promised miracle profits.

Architecture is in a grim situation after the collapse. How it will survive is not yet clear to me, although if I had to make a guess it would be to turn to the idea of the "expanded architect" that Columbia architecture Dean Mark Wigley promotes, suggesting that architecture school is a great training ground for the flexible designer of the future, even if she or he can't doesn't work in architecture.

As far as post-criticism goes, it looks like the sun has set on that idea. Post-criticism has always been flawed since it fundamentally misunderstands that architecture is by its nature an irrational endeavor. Architects are hired not to produce the normal, but the abnormal. Architecture is a strange survivor of the pre-capitalist craft era. That it survives is only because it is able to offer something other than "going with the flow."


Simultaneous environments—social connection and new media

My latest article, "Simultaneous Environments—Social Connection and New Media" is now available at Vodafone Receiver. In this piece I explore questions of alienation and connection as they develop in place, non-place, and networked place.

Syndicate content