The Immediated Now on Networked: A Networked Book

Networked: A Networked Book on Networked Art is now live.

Produced by and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, Networked includes a chapter that I wrote entitled The Immediated Now. Network Culture and the Poetics of Reality.

In this chapter, I suggest that network culture is not limited to digital technology or to the Internet but rather is a broad sociocultural shift. Much more than under postmodernism, which was still transitional, in network culture both art and everyday life take mediation as a given. The result is that life becomes performance. We live in a culture of exposure, seeking affirmation from the net. My chapter explores the resulting poetics of the real from YouTube to the art gallery. To be clear, the new poetics of reality is different from established models of realism, replacing earlier codes with immediacy, self-exposure, performance, and remix.

One distinctive feature of this book is that it is open for comments, revisions, and translations and you may submit a chapter for consideration by the editors. I hope my readers not only read the entire book, but contribute. Many thanks to Jo-Anne Green and Helen Thorington of for putting up this project. It’s been in the works for a while and is sorely needed. 

I’m excited that the research that I did for this chapter is now taking on another form as it feeds my book on Network Culture. I’ve been writing 1,000 words a day and its moving at a good clip. I hope you enjoy the chapter as a preview, and if you haven’t read the introduction yet, you can do so here.   

Finally, I’ll also confess to another role in the project, which is that the CommentPress system, developed at the Institute for the Future of the Book came in part out of a discussion that members of the Institute and I had after one of my courses three years back. That said, WordPress isn’t the best system for this. I’m dying for it to be ported to Drupal.


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design in the age of intelligent maps

The Netlab has the first product of this summer of work over at Adobe Thinktank. Our article, "Invisible City: Design in the Age of Intelligent Maps" went live this morning. A new link is here (2014)

Many thanks to my collaborator at the Netlab, Leah Meisterlin and to David Womack at Adobe, a great editor.

As usual, your comments make all our work worthwhile!

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log 11

cover image of log issues 11


The Winter 2008 issue of Log 11 is out.

In Žižek!, Slavoj Žižek states that everything he does is a spin-off from a book project. That is certainly an effective model for him and something I’ve been hoping to emulate for the last couple of years. As a consequence, of late my output of articles has a bit scant although I have three books slated for publication this year. 
In Log 11, however, I offer a teasing glimpse of some of my future work with the Network City book in a brief "Postcard from Passaic, New Jersey." Eventually I’ll post this, but for now you’ll have to get Log 11 to read it.
Note that a brief glance in the bookstore won’t suffice. Like any good naughty magazine, the issue is shrink-wrapped and if you unwrap it your fumbling efforts will be visible for all to see.



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Is There Research in the Studio?

Is There Research in the Studio?

Kazys Varnelis

Over the last decade, “research studios” have become common in schools of architecture. Investigating clothing, logistics networks, favelas, malls, airports and cities worldwide, such studios invoke analysis rather than design as their method and aim for publication or exhibition as end products. But as is often the case in architectural education, this pedagogical model has thus far has been little theorized.

Running from 1996 to 2000, Rem Koolhaas’s Harvard Project on the City, is the most well known of these. Over the course of an academic year, teams of architecture students led by Koolhaas explored shopping, Lagos, the Pearl River Delta, and Rome.[1] Although Project is no exception to the prevailing lack of explicit methodological statements in research studios, by looking at its product we can deduce a method, at least to some degree. Research in these kind of studios is architectural in so far as it draws on the processes of information gathering, analysis, and synthesis that an architect undertakes in the early phases of design, utilizing the architect’s skills in structuring visual and verbal communication into a coherent whole.

But just where did the research studio come from?

In search of an answer, we might turn back to founding editor Turpin Bannister’s “The Research Heritage of the Architectural Profession,” in the first issue of the Journal of Architectural Education. Bannister traces a long tradition of research in architecture to the Renaissance, a lineage that he observes flourishing in the academies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like scientists, Bannister notes, architects once came together in professional meetingsand publications to share their discoveries and to receive input from others. But to Bannister’s lament, in the latter part of the nineteenth century architects gave up their leadership in structural and technological innovation to engineers in favor of pursuing a purified art of design. With remarkable optimism, Bannister envisions the JAE as a key institution in renewing the role of the architect as researcher, capable of sustaining and encouraging such dialogue among architects.[2] Regrettably, Bannister’s hope for the JAE is hardly born out by the evidence of subsequent years. The agenda set out in Bannister’s first issue of the Journal was immediately replaced by the publication of the proceedings of the annual meeting. When articles began a decade later, they were largely polemics about where architecture should go rather than specific accounts of r­esearch projects.[3] Research and scholarship, as such, remained in the purview of the history of architecture, largely a sub-field of the history of art or architectural technology.[4] The sort of research studio that we are now familiar with would be absent in the academy for a considerable time.

By this point, however, two collaborative practices, that of Charles and Ray Eames and that of Peter and Alison Smithson, began to pioneer early forms of architectural research. The former gained experience in design research through their wartime experimentation with plywood and their work on mass production of plywood splints and plywood. Starting in 1953, the Eameses undertook a series of documentary films such as A Communications Primer or Powers of Ten, sometimes for clients, sometimes for their own purposes. Often constituted as a rapid succession of images, these films produced what film critic Paul Schrader called “information-overload” as a means of delivering one fundamental idea.[5] Ideas were central to the Eameses’ films. Charles explained: “They are not really films at all, just ways to get across an idea.” By contrast, Eames felt that more traditional architectural design had no hope as a medium for ideas since intermediaries such as the bankers, contractors, engineers, and politicians would “cause the concept to degenerate.”[6]

Similarly, in Britain the Smithsons took the world “as found” as a point of exploration, exploring both the city around them and an equally compelling landscape of commodities and advertisements emerging out of postwar rationing. Influenced by Marcel Duchamp’s practice of found objects, the use of photographs of industrial objects in early modern texts by Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, the photographs of East London working class neighborhoods taken by Nigel Henderson, as well as the pioneering work of the Eameses, the Smithsons set out toward “a new seeing of the ordinary, an openness as to how prosaic ‘things’ could re-energise [their] inventive activity.”[7]

The Smithsons’ interest in the everyday life of the East End of London together with their fascination with commercial images was influential on a key architectural research project, Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi’s Learning from Las Vegas. According to Scott Brown, for a studio method, she drew upon urban planning studios that she had taken at the University of Pennsylvania: “structured research, conducted in teams, with a teaching aim but also aims for research and artistic discovery.”[8] Unlike the work of the Eames and the Smithsons, Learning from Las Vegas was developed with an architecture studio and maintained a more systematic process of investigation into the city. If Learning from Las Vegas was a key moment in architectural research, it spawned relatively few followers, with the notable exception of Rem Koolhaas’s own investigation, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan. In this work, Koolhaas drew upon the work of the Scott Brown and Venturi, together with urban research studios run by O. M. Ungers into various aspects of Berlin and used the “Paranoid Critical Method,” which he appropriated from Salvador Dali, to blur the boundaries between research and fiction.[9] But like Learning from Las Vegas, which remained important mainly in urban planning studios, Delirious New York inspired few immediate followers in architecture.[10] Both texts would have to wait a generation for their impact to be felt.

Instead, the discipline turned the lens of architectural research in on itself, taking form as its subject of investigation. More compelling at the time than the work of Scott Brown and Venturi or Koolhaas, architectural historians such as Vincent Scully and Colin Rowe offered influential lessons in design pedagogy, elaborating more specifically architectural methods of researching form.[11] “The Formal Basis of Modern Architecture,” Peter Eisenman’s dissertation under Rowe, undertaken in Cambridge and finished in 1963, is the epitome of this sort of work and, had it been published earlier, might have offered a certain kind of model to the discipline.[12] Driven by these early forms of research and by the impact of history and criticism in the studio, architecture began to adopt the trappings of reflexivity. In response, architects began to pose themselves as historians and even as theorists. Some, like Eisenman, went on to get doctorates, but as that demanded a considerable time commitment and generally required that architects study in history of art programs rather than in design studios, most did not. Under postmodernism, which reached its heyday in American architectural education in the mid-1980s, research into historical form and typology began to emerge as a significant aspect of design studios.

Apart from finding a home in the university, research|or at least more speculative production|was made easier in the postwar era by new granting organizations. The Graham Foundation, founded in 1956, and the National Endowment for the Arts, established by Congress in 1965, encouraged research-oriented and speculative projects. For example, the Graham Foundation funded Archigram’s Instant City, Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction, and Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles. Architecture of Four Ecologies. The Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies in New York, which Eisenman directed, served as a key institution during this period, operating from both tuition and grants, supporting a variety of forms of architectural research such as Stanford Anderson’s study of the street, funded by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development as well as Koolhaas’s Delirious New York.[13]

By the 1980s, as interest in critical theory spread in the field|in large part through the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies’ journal Oppositions|architects began to identify the most advanced sites of architectural thinking with theoretical investigation instead of with urbanism or formal research.[14] As a result, by the late 1980s and early 1990s studios that were largely textual in nature or that produced only representations began to proliferate in schools. If administrators and practitioners sometimes worried that such studios led to inaction or paralysis in the design studio and soon sought alternatives, these studios laid the groundwork for the research studios that would follow Project on the City.

To this incomplete narrative of the research studio’s late emergence, we need to add the dimension of the critical. In a “theory-backlash” in the pages of journals such as Praxis and Log, as well as in a recent rash of symposia at schools around the world, criticality and theory have came under attack by the proponents of “post-critical” thought, or as it has been more recently refigured, “projective architecture.”[15]

To address post-criticism in a broader sense is beyond the scope of this article and even superfluous, nevertheless, it is worth pointing to a certain alliance between post-criticism and the research studio in its origins in taking the world as found, be it in the relentless collecting of imagery by the Eameses or the Smithsons and appropriation of Duchamp. If historically derived from processes of appropriation, many research studios do eschew criticism in favor of information gathering. To some degree, Project on the City suffers from this, as Hal Foster has observed when he asked of the work “great poetry can come of this ambivalence, but that may be all?”[16]

So is the research studio scholarship? Often, footnotes disappear in favor of images and inhabiting the archive is replaced by surfing the web. But does the research studio merely co-opt processes of the history and theory seminar while abandoning methodology? Should we be hasty in dismissing its products as uncritical?

To be sure, any broader notion of scholarship in the university is hard to come by. Disciplines as radically disparate as dance, physics, English, sociology, public policy, law, mathematics, journalism, nanotechnology engineering, and Japanese language do not come together easily, most especially in cases of tenure review. When interdisciplinary interaction happens, it is against the grain of the university. Nevertheless, if we can identify a shared idea of what scholarship is in the university, it would be in terms of systematic research that produces a “contribution to knowledge.”

But what sort of space does the research studio inhabit in the university? To be clear, a studio is a room in which an architect, an artist, a photographer, or dancer works. In other words, it is a place for the arts. Nor is studio an innocent term in the discipline as a whole. Most architects work in offices. Only recent graduates and the self-styled avant-garde (generally those who teach in universities) work in studios. A research studio, then, aspires to systematic research, but of the sort that the avant-garde might undertake, not applied, or, if applied, promising radical results. Based on this, works of architectural research aspire not just to represent the world, but to help us look at the world in a fundamentally new way?

Perhaps the best analogy we might have for the research studio is a return to the Eameses and the emergence of the architectural research out of film, in particular the documentary. To take some of the examples we invoked, Powers of Ten, to a degree approached by precious few works in any discipline, helps us re-imagine the world anew from atom to the furthest reaches of the universe. The “as-found” work of the Smithsons on the East End of London is a contribution to knowledge in that they used visual means to present something that was otherwise ignored and forgotten. No texts could be as compelling as the simple photographs and analyses they showed. Learning from Las Vegas and Delirious New York allowed us to see their respective cities, and indeed, the world in fundamentally new ways.

This, then, is the question that research studios need to address, indeed it is a broader litmus test for architecture|be it post-critical, critical, or otherwise|how does it help us to re-envision the world anew? By this I do not just mean add to the existing condition, either through replication of data, through nonlinear geometries, or exotic materials and structures, but rather through a contribution to knowledge. By its nature, this suggests that we should not go with the flow but rather redirect it utterly, remaking the terrain through which flows travel. If such a goal is somewhat immodest, I would nevertheless argue that the promise of such radical architecture is precisely what drives great architecture and great architectural research. To do any less would be irresponsible.

[1] Pearl River Delta ran during academic year 1996-1997 and Shopping from 1997-1998. In 1998-1999, teams were split between Rome and West Africa and in 1999-2000, the dual track investigation continued, the latter being narrowed to Lagos. Koolhaas has continued to teach various research studios, such as a project on Communism. Project, however, had a delimited run, four years to culminate in four books. Jeffrey Inaba lays out the history of the project and some of the thinking behind it|albeit without explaining the methodology involved|in “Maybe. The Harvard Project on the City asks ‘Has the City Outgrown Architecture?’” in AMOMA / Rem Koolhaas, Content (Köln: Taschen, 2004), Content, 256-257. It is worth observing that the Project publications were extensively reworked after the studios concluded.
[2] Turpin C. Bannister, “The Research Heritage of the Architectural Profession,” Journal of Architectural Education 1 (1947): 5-12.
[3] Literature on this period in pedagogy is still largely lacking, however see Klaus Herdeg, The Decorated Diagram (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1983).
[4] The Society of Architectural Historians was founded in 1947 but only split its annual meeting from the College Art Association in 1973. See Osmund Overby, “From 1947: The Society of Architectural Historians,” The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 49 (1990): 9-14.
[5] Paul Schrader, “Poetry of Ideas: The Films of Charles Eames,” Film Quarterly 23 (1970): 10. See also Beatriz Colomina’s crucial work on the Eameses, largely collected in Domesticity at War (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007).
[6] Charles Eames quoted in “Films as Essays” in Eames Demetrios, An Eames Primer (New York: Universe, 2001), 143-144.
[7] Alison and Peter Smithson, “The ‘As Found’ and the ‘Found’” in David Robbins, ed, The Independent Group: Postwar Britain and the Aesthetics of Plenty (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990), 201-202.
[8] Denise Scott Brown in “Relearning from Las Vegas,” interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rem Koolhaas, The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping: Project on the City 2 (Köln: Taschen, 2001), 599.
[9] Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (London: Academy Editions, 1978; republished by The Monacelli Press, 1994). Koolhaas acknowledges the influence of Learning from Las Vegas on Delirious New York in “Relearning from Las Vegas,” 593.
[10] See, for example, the work in , John Colter and Mark Skiles, editors, Off-Ramp 6. Greatness Close to Home (Los Angeles: Southern California Institute of Architecture, 1996), especially Margaret Crawford as told to Mark Skiles, “My Daily Trip Down La Brea” and Roger Sherman and Harrison Higgins, “Out of Order,” 42-63 and 64-79.
[11] Stanley Tigerman, "Has Theory Displaced History as a Generator of Ideas for Use in the Architectural Studio, or (More Importantly), Why Do Studio Critics Continuously Displace Service Course Specialists?" Journal of Architectural Education 46, (1992): 48. This brief article is still crucial for understanding the recent trajectory of architectural pedagogy.
[12] Peter Eisenman, The Formal Basis of Modern Architecture (Baden: Lars Müller, 2006).
[13] Stanford Anderson, ed. On Streets (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1986).
[14] Jean-Louis Cohen, “L’architettura intellettualizzata: 1970-1990,” Casabella 586-587 (January-February 1992), [100]-105,125-126.
[15] See Praxis 5 “Architecture After Capitalism” and Log 5, guest-edited by Sarah Whiting and Bob Somol.
[16] Hal Foster, "Bigness," London Review of Books 23, (November 29, 2001).

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prada and the pleasure principle

I have uploaded the text to Prada and the Pleasure Principle, an article I wrote for issue 6 of Log. In this piece, my theoretical interest is in architecture's confrontation with new media and ambient informatics. Like many of the pieces that I've written in the last few years, the work of both AUDC and the NetLab (watch those spaces in 2007!) can be construed as a response.

For the opening last year of its Beverly Hills epicenter, Prada did its best to emulate a typical traffic-stopping Hollywood movie premiere by shutting down Rodeo Drive for the event, thereby assuring its status as a fixture in the Industry. Nicky and Paris Hilton, Nicole Ritchie, Lindsay Lohan, Leonardo Di Caprio, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Aniston, and Brad Pitt assembled to toast the new collaboration between Rem Koolhaas/OMA and Miuccia Prada.

Amid the jet-set glamour, my thoughts strayed to Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's seminal analysis of capital in the era of globalization. Hardt and Negri conclude that we have entered into an era of momentous transition, in which national governments are withering under the de-territorializing forces of capitalism, while in their stead a new form of imperial sovereignty emerges. The diffuse network they call "Empire" replaces the old model of center and periphery with a placeless network of flows and hierarchies. Power, in Empire, emanates from the global network instead of from any one place. Its three tiers, which function as checks and balances on one another, extend Empire&aposts power to all realms: monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, forms of sovereignty that in turn correspond to the Bomb (American military superiority and nuclear supremacy), Money (the economic wealth of the G7), and Ether (the realm of the media, culture, and the global telecommunications network). Although these tiers are placeless, and any beachhead temporarily established is quickly destabilized by the deterritorializing nature of Empire itself, Hardt and Negri suggest that "new Romes" rise up to control them: Washington, D.C., for the Bomb; New York for Money; and Los Angeles for Ether.[1]

So it was that Prada brought OMA to the capital of Ether last summer. It would seem to be no accident that the two North American Prada epicenters are located in the capitals of Money and Ether respectively. (Washington, D. C., doesn't wear Prada, and the most naked form of power, the Bomb doesn't need fashion to legitimate itself.) Comparing these two epicenters, it seems entirely plausible that Koolhaas plotted them to reflect their status in Empire. The New York Prada aims directly at Wall Street and the fashion industry, while the Beverly Hills epicenter addresses Ether. To this end, Prada New York (installed in a loft building that once housed the Guggenheim-SOHO) draws the visitor down into the "wave," a mock auditorium constructed of zebrawood, supposedly intended to accommodate cultural gatherings. This seems like a calculated play to New York&aposs image of itself: not only the capital of money, but also a seat of enduring culture and good taste where conversations about, something like Empire might take place in ultra-hip commercial spaces. No doubt the OMA offshoot AMO would organize the event. Above all, however, the zebrawood wave asserts the gesture of the architect as form-giver.

In Beverly Hills, the focus is all on the grand entrance. On a street marked by over-the-top form (Frank Lloyd Wright's peculiar 1952 Anderton Court is across the street), OMA drew an aluminum curtain over the entrance, which spans the entire 45-foot shop front. The facade is thus undone, reduced to a blind surface hovering over a void. To some degree, this is meant to signify openness to the throngs of Midwestern and foreign tourists on Rodeo Drive. And indeed, compared to Bijan, a men&aposs clothing store catering to a clientele with monthly income of at least $1 million, Prada with its prêt-à-porter line is merely a merchandiser for the masses. But the facade's openness is deceiving: intense, black-clad greeters (are they salesmen or private security force?) ensure that the riff-raff are intimidated enough to stay on the sidewalk.[2] Still, this extravagant gesture of openness alludes to the reputed informality of Los Angeles, and to theater. For like the Paris Opéra, Prada Beverly Hills is centered on its stairs. Taking a cue from Morris Lapidus, Koolhaas draws us into the store with the promise of a fabulous ascent up a grand staircase.[3] On the second floor, glass panels alternately alternate between opaque and transparent, according to an inscrutable logic. Walls of Swiss-cheese-like green polyurethane suggest Prada's use of materials in unexpected ways.

The continued commitment to technology at Prada Beverly Hills is remarkable. The New York store is rumored to have cost $40 million, a monstrous amount to expend in a year during which the company only declared $28.6 million in profits. Much of this was spent on technology to somehow make shopping more efficient, a venture that proved largely pointless. Where New York's technology was largely intended to work its magic from behind the scenes, the Beverly Hills epicenter is more explicitly filled with technology to distract one from shopping.

The most impressive bit of high-tech is visible for those up early enough to be at the store when it opens at 10 in the morning. In what can only be seen as another theatrical gesture, lights flash on either side of the entrance and an alarm sounds rhythmically as the aluminum wall shrouding the shop at night sinks and finally vanishes into the ground, a process that takes around a minute. But technology also lurks everywhere within. On the second floor, a video display picturing Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld hangs among women&aposs blouses. Geopolitics as diversion? How could they be viewed any other way in a Prada store! Across the way, on a plasma screen, out-of-date "regional news" crawls slowly across Italian Renaissance ceiling frescoes; on one occasion, programming included the breaking story of Minutemen hunting border-crossers in Arizona, a story reported two months earlier by the rest of the media. On the third floor, a wall is littered with curious statistics. How many Americans own DVD players? How much money do they earn? Interesting information, but why doesn't Prada just keep copies of the State of the Nation Atlas or USA Today on hand for customers to peruse?

Stopping to think back for a moment, it should be mentioned that Koolhaas conceived of the Beverly Hills store at the height of the era, which may explain why it seems like a late arrival from that period. More charitably, if Koolhaas was indeed addressing the capital of Ether, what choice did he have? Ether is, after all, not just Hollywood, but the global telecommunications network that is the cornerstone of Empire itself. And the content of that network is only incidental to its structural dominance. In his review of the store for Architectural Record, Joseph Giovannini observed that the screens full of "content" are, in fact, empty:

With no real context, the image flow on the screens turns into a form of indecipherable visual noise that shoppers barely graze, if that. The graphs become fleeting observations, statistical cartoons …. If Koolhaas cedes form to content, then the judgment of his store rests on its content, which tends to remain superficial. Above all a mythmaker, the architect offers up an elegant box of mythology | set on the notion of breaking open commerce to culture. Here, the avant-garde posture and critical stance, rather than the information itself, creates the buzz: The myth of content is greater than the actual content or the message.[4]

Although the content of the latest Prada epicenter may be less than it purports to be, that cannot be said for Giovannini&aposs thumbnail review, which is in fact also a thinly veiled indictment of Content, the 2004 sequel to S,M,L,XL, first published in 1998.

Indeed, although OMA/AMO&aposs latest book has its moments, on the whole it virtually begs the reader to come away agreeing with Giovannini that "the myth of content is greater than the actual content." The oversaturated layout exploits amateurism and deliberately courts revulsion. Numerous utterly content-less spreads, such as "In Memory Of," to Prada San Francisco, the "Box vs. Blob" match, or the "Baalbeck" tour waste pages more effectively than Bruce Mau&aposs layout for S,M,L, XL. Ever since AMO&aposs special issue of Wired magazine, the office seems to be thoroughly infatuated by what Edward Tufte calls "chartjunk." When one of two Siamese-twin shape-building-monsters at the start of Content remarks to the other, "I&aposm not sure if this is a book or magazine," and the other replies "Actually, I find the tension between the two super-interesting," it is impossible to construe as anything but sarcasm.[5] Why the lack of content in Content? Just possibly, the book is nothing more than filler. After all, it is a chronicle of a number of troubled years at OMA, documenting a multitude of cancelled projects and designs that pale in comparison to the work gathered in S, M, L, XL. During its flirtation with culture, content, or rather the myth of content is all the firm had left. Things only start looking up with the revival of "shape" in the latest projects|notably the Casa da Musica and the Seattle Public Library|a strategy that Bob Somol describes in his two-page spread "12 Reasons to Get Back into Shape."[6]

What are we to make of this near-death experience for OMA and its triumphant return? It could be ascribed to the gap that opened up with the departure of key designers such as Winy Maas and Fuminori Hoshino, and the latter to the cultivation of the new generation that would eventually succeed them, such as Joshua Ramus and Ole Scheeren. Or it could be the record of a firm that became over-enthusiastic about a Zeitgeist that turned out to be not so much spirit as a phantasm. But when Koolhaas is involved, nothing is ever simple, and that would be too simple an explanation.

On the contrary, I would suggest that Content is a signal intervention in a theoretical debate, even if that theory, as may be appropriate for this "post-critical" moment, is not argued directly, but rather by implication. Content|and even the absence of content in Content|underscores Koolhaas&aposs position in the discipline. Over the last two decades, he has shared with his polar opposite, Peter Eisenman, the role of embodying the discipline's two dominant neo-avant-garde movements. For if Eisenman's career has been defined by a sustained engagement with architecture through the reconsideration of form, Koolhaas's has been defined by a parallel reconsideration of program, a.k.a. content. Eisenman and Koolhaas correspond to the two kinds of authors that philosopher Giorgio Agamben describes in his The Man Without Content. Using a distinction first made by Jean Paulhan in Les fleurs de Tarbes, Agamben explains that for rhetoricians, all meaning dissolves into form, while terrorists seek a language so real that, as he puts it, in its "flame the sign would be fully consumed, putting the writer face to face with the Absolute."[7]

Eisenman is the architectural rhetorician of our day while Koolhaas is our terrorist. Over the years, each has made it his mission to take his position to its limit, relentlessly reducing architecture to form and content respectively. But this is not merely a game of classifying neo-avant-gardes. On the contrary, reading Koolhaas through Agamben not only complicates Koolhaas's position, but also Agamben's argument. At once, we are faced with a problem. Agamben condemns the terrorist as a misologist, pronouncing his quest for absolute meaning null and void:

In order to leave the evanescent world of forms, he has no other means than form itself, and the more he wants to erase it, the more he has to concentrate on it to render it permeable to the inexpressible content he wants to express.[8]

In Agamben's analysis, the artist who seeks absolute essence must by necessity turn to the absolute essence of the work, which means the dismissal of any content. But when the work turns out to be void of content, it reveals itself as pure inessence:

If the artist now seeks his certainty in a particular content or faith, he is lying, because he knows that pure artistic subjectivity is the essence of everything; but if he seeks his reality in pure artistic subjectivity, he finds himself in the paradoxical condition of having to find his own essence precisely in the inessential, his content in what is mere form. His condition, then, is that of a radical split; and outside of this split, everything is a lie.[9]

The result, Agamben concludes, is that the artist is the man without content, with "no other identity than a perpetual emerging out of the nothingness of expression and no other ground than this incomprehensible station on this side of himself."[10]

If my reading of Koolhaas confirms Agamben's analysis, it also traces a philosophical distinction. For what is it beyond meaningless forms that informs Content? Is Content not deliberately a junkspace of chartjunk, information reduced to schematic diagrams and cartoons? Perversely, Content is at its strongest in the return to form, or shape, without logic, as empty as Eisenman's own systematic evacuation of meaning in architecture, but blunter, strategically dispensing with the brilliant rigor and relentless method that always characterize the American's work. Koolhaas's madness is to push program to the extreme, at which point it dissolves into meaningless infographics, and then to reduce the building itself to a subset of graphic design | exposing the "return to form" as ultimately empty.[11]

But the interest here is as much historiographical as it is theoretical, and returns us once again to Agamben. Having exposed the artist as the man without content, Agamben cites Hegel's familiar verdict on art in the first part of his Lectures on Aesthetics:

But while on the one hand we give this high position to art, it is on the other hand just as necessary to remember that neither in content nor in form is art the highest and absolute mode of bringing to our minds the true interests of the spirit. "¦ In all these respects art, considered in its highest vocation, is and remains for us a thing of the past.[12]

The artist, Agamben agrees, does indeed appear in a dark light: "At the extreme limit of art's destiny, when all the gods fade in the twilight of art's laughter, art is only a negation that negates itself, a self-annihilating nothing."[13] But Agamben does not end his project here. On the contrary, his goal is to open a line of argument with a particular vision of Hegel as the author of a teleological history, punctual and final, a history unfolding in the present, a history that seeks to shut down rather than open up. In this vision, Hegel's idea of the dialectic has an end in self-transcendence, in the full unfolding of the Hegelian system itself. Against such a moment of closure, however, Agamben proposes a Nietzschean history of eternal recurrence in which art is the very core of the will to power:

[T]he man [of art], starting from the ultimate tensions of the creative principle, has experienced in himself the nothingness that demands a shape and has reversed this experience into extreme approbation of life, into adoration of appearance understood as 'eternal joy of becoming, this joy that carries in itself the joy of annihilation.'[14]

But why eternal recurrence? I would like to shift from Nietzsche to Freud here to expose the rationale underpinning this seemingly mad system. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the founder of psychoanalysis describes the drive toward life and death. After an organism comes into being from a plenum of inanimate matter, Freud hypothesizes, it carries with it a desire to return to this undifferentiated state, the death drive or pleasure principle. If, however, the organism experiences "the influx of fresh amounts of stimulus" through a traumatic moment such as a union with another, it can go on living or, if the stimulus is strong enough, reproduce.[15]

If architecture has a death drive today, than surely it is Ether. Indeed, media has been a perpetual external threat to architecture since the dawn of modernity. The archdeacon Follo's cry, "This will kill that," in the Hunchback of Nôtre-Dame, underscores the fact that it is the book's much more effective capacity to carry content that undermined the dominance of the cathedral, both architectural and religious. A century and a half later, when theory|at the height of its excesses|suggested that textuality could utterly replace building, this was only a dress-rehearsal for the condition we face today: an immaterial world of Ether that erodes the physical far more effectively than the book, with its material form, ever did. Who would trade a building for a notebook computer and an Internet connection with a fat pipe? Certainly in this day of AutoCAD and overseas clients, few architects would. To do so would be tantamount to leaving the contemporary world. And yet, if the Bomb and Money both require architectural representation as part of their force, the fundamentally ephemeral force of Ether does not, a fact that accounts, historically, for the remarkable lack of significant architecture in Hollywood. Under pressure from Ether, architecture threatens to dissipate into chartjunk, on the one hand, and output from computer animation programs on the other.

In this light, then, Prada-Beverly Hills is a deliberate encounter with ambient information, a low point in the cycle of the pleasure principle.[16] Indeed, Koolhaas survived his confrontation with the anaesthetic forces of Ether at Prada and in Content to produce perhaps the best work in his career, the Seattle Public Library, a building that actively engages with the fate of architecture in this new world of content but remains a library nonetheless. What architects do with this lesson remains to be seen. Will architects face Ether head on and thrive on its annihilating forces or let the field dissipate in it, smothered by its velvety darkness once and for all?


[1] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000). For a further analysis of Ether's importance for architecture see the project by this author in collaboration with Robert Sumrell as AUDC, "Ether. The One Wilshire Building," in Verb 3: Connection (Barcelona: ACTAR, 2005), 34-49.

[2] Joseph Giovannini, "Prada. Los Angeles, California," Architectural Record (February 2005), 124-126.

[3] To be fair, Lapidus was always more interested in the descent. Also, he used to say that people are like moths, they are drawn to the light. The staircase ascends into darkness, thereby violating "the Moth Complex." See Morris Lapidus, Too Much is Never Enough, (New York: Rizzoli, 1996).

[4] Giovannini, 130, my emphasis.

[5] It is interesting to recall that the "architecture boogazine" Verb Processing predated Content by some 2 years.

[6] Bob Somol, "12 Reasons to Get Back into Shape," Rem Koolhaas, Content, (New York: Taschen, 2004), 86-87.

[7] Giorgio Agamben, The Man without Content, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 8. See also Jean Paulhan, Les fleurs de Tarbes, ou, La Terreur dans les lettres (Paris: Gallimard, 1990).

[8] Agamben, 10.

[9] Agamben, 54.

[10] Agamben, 54. The original is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T. M. Knox (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), vol. 1, p. 9, 11.

[11] Here Koolhaas echoes the work of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, whose Decorated Shed ultimately resolved itself in similar terms, as for example at their 1967 NFL Hall of Fame, in which architecture dissolved into pure infographics. Perhaps it is not coincidental that Koolhaas features an interview with Venturi and Scott Brown in Content.

[12] Hegel quoted in Agamben, 52.

[13] Agamben, 56.

[14] Agamben, 92.

[15] Sigmund Freud, trans. James Strachey, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, (New York: Liveright Pub. Corp., 1961), 52.

[16] On the coming moment of the ambient in architecture, see my "One Thing After Another," Log 3, September 2004, 109-115.

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