network culture

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.   


george orwell in the sentient city

Yesterday's New York Times reports on something I've been saying all along: that the sentient city is also a surveillance city and the digital trail we leave as we move through it allows corporations and governments to spy on us like never before. Yes, there's a chance it's all for our benefit. But for how long? See You're Leaving a Digital Trail. What About Privacy?

on postindustrialism and thinking dangerously

Two "posts-" occupy my thoughts this morning. First post-criticism. I've suggested that the models of thought operative in post-criticism are tied to the economic collapse, but as always, I'm interested in the need for post-criticism to have emerged in the first place. Post-criticism came about out of growing frustration with how critical theorists deployed theoretical impasse to prevent new thought. Tenured critical theorists, eager to safeguard their own positions by ensuring that a new generation would never achieve tenure-track, let alone tenure, found it profitable to argue that any new theories were insufficiently theorized one way or another. Only microhistories or inconsequential theories would be permitted.

Take for example, a relatively recent colloquium at Columbia, when I proposed to our esteemed visitor (who remains nameless to protect his naive innocence) that the reason that we don't periodize is because our culture has lost the ability to think of history temporally. He responded brusquely that periodization was simply wrong and that was why we did not do it.

At the same time he still talked about the "modern" and the "postmodern" or the "baroque" and the "renaissance"  as if these were somehow universal categories and not historical periods, that is products of historiography. His desire to extinguish any new theories—no doubt founded on the fact that he couldn't up with a single idea with any traction in the last fifteen years—had become so dominant in his mind that he was unable to see that he had become thoroughly uncritical.

No wonder the post-critical crowd ran.

Or take another historical problem. Many Marxists became flustered by the idea of post-industrial society (the second "post-" in my thoughts today). For one, they suspected the enthusiasm of many of its proponents, who suggested that traditional class relationships were being remade under it. They also didn't understand how post-industrial society could fit into their historical framework. After all, Marx didn't account for it. And, after all, post-industrial society still requires industrial production to reproduce itself, right ?

So now we have a problem. The theory doesn't mess with the reality. Most of us DO live in post-industrial societies. Take a look at the CIA World factbook's 2007 estimates of the composition of GDP in world economies

 United States agriculture 1.2% industry 19.8% services 79% 
 China agriculture 11.3% industry 48.6% services 40.1%
 Japan agriculture 26.5% industry 26.5% services 72% 
 European Union agriculture 2.1% industry 27.1% services 70%
 World agriculture 4% industry 32% services 64%

In not adequately addressing the consequences of a world economy that has long since left manufacturing behind as the dominant sector of production, we shortchanged critical thought on the topic.

What does it mean to be living in an economy that has subsisted on froth for three decades?

Now is not the time for theoretical impasse and microhistories. But can historians and theorists dig themselves out of this situation? The theoretical shut-down of history and theory mimics other conditions of stalemate in society (more on these in a later post), but historians and theorists can think outside that shutdown by thinking not just differently but dangerously. Let's see if we rise to the occasion. 



sometimes sharing is not caring

Mark Evans feels digitally inundated today. The massive amount of constantly updated information, particularly from the firehose of data produced by social networking sites from Delicious to Flickr to Facebook) is crushing him. He points to a post by Techcrunch blogger Eric Schonfeld (curiously, someone I knew in college) about Friendfeed in which Schonfeld similarly calls for help (actually he says "kill me now"). 

To be sure information overload is a major issue for us today. But here's another danger with the "new economy": as we've converted to a service economy, we've produced so much "experience" that we're massively overloaded. Not only are we overloaded by all these feeds, we're overloaded by experiences. We pile signature work of architecture atop signature work of architecture, smash movie on smash movie, fashion on fashion, gadget on gadget. But we're bored of it. Crisis in capitalism are typically crisis of over-accumulation: too much money has been made (not by you) and people stop spending. This crisis is a bit more complex, but make no mistake, there is massive over-accumulation out there. Apart from all the cheap junk produced in China by exploited laborers, there has been far too much experience out there. Please, we don't want anymore. In high school in the 80s, stuck in a rural community in Western Massachusetts, I was bored to tears by the lack of information around me. Connectivity, at that point, was over a 2600 baud modem so you can imagine how limited that was. Still, it was a lifeline. Today I can be endlessly amused until the end of my years by what's already available online, I don't need anymore. Sometimes sharing is not caring. 

I called the collapse of the real estate market years ago (some day I'll check to see when, but I'm pretty sure it was before Nouriel Roubini, no offense intended). I'm calling the collapse of the experience economy. Moreover, it has already happened.


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.

Rapid Response: Collapse!

I will be leading a discussion at Studio-X next Tuesday on the topic of the recent economic changes. This is part of the Rapid Response series at Studio-X, an open and undetermined platform for quick response to events that have transpired over the last thirty days.

Collapse! explores the spatial consequences of the "new" economy—the panic of 2008 as well as the last two decades, and the last two years—at a variety of scales: the NYSE trading room to Manhattan, the city to the suburbs, the United States to the world. I will lead a discussion with Daniel Beunza, Assistant Professor, Management Division, Columbia Business School and Micah Fink, Emmy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker. 

Collapse! is produced in collaboration with the Network Architecture Lab.

Refreshments provided by Barefoot Wines

Free and open to the public

WHEN: Tuesday, October 28, 6:30 pm
WHERE: Studio-X, 180 Varick Street, Suite 1610
1 train to Houston Street

whence and wither

I got back from teaching in Limerick yesterday and am slowly plotting my next steps. Certain things are in play. I continue to do new work with Robert at AUDC. The Netlab is going to launch a large project or two during the next year. But the foremost question in my mind now is: "what's my next book?"

Fate conspired to make three years of edited books come out this fall. That's not ideal, but we take what we can get, I suppose. Part of the fall will go to the inevitably necessity of promoting these books, but my clever strategy of having projects published in neat succession was undone by one slow publisher, one collaborator who wanted his project out by this Christmas, and one project that came out on on time. So a barrage of books will be followed by a gap as I gear up to the next project.

Originally, I had planned to write my network culture book, but now as the economy is tanking, I'm wondering how such a book will be received and where it would fit into such a rapidly degenerating condition. So another strategy may be to finally put together my work on Philip Johnson, add some more research, and publish that.

Now, as anyone reading this blog knows, I have been predicting the implosion of the markets for years. In any sensible world the market would have had a correction years ago so of course this one is much worse than expected. Well, I told you so. If anything surprises me about the world economy's current plight it's that anybody professes surprise. The signs of the collapse have been around us for a long time and, this will come as unwelcome news to many, but things are worse even than they might appear. My current bedside reading is Kevin Phillips's Bad Money. Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Failure of American Capitalism, a harrowing account of how this collapse happened, written in 2007 (!). See the Bill Moyers interview with Phillips here. If the book is written in 2007 and the interview is from September of this year, they both anticipate and explain the current collapse.

Since the collapse is a key moment in network culture, once I can get a handle on its consequences, it would only make sense to continue that project. This strain of thought argues toward network culture as the next book and that's likely to happen. There'll be a lot of thinking aloud,  wondering, and asking you, my reader for advice along the way no matter where all this winds up.


for image disembodiment

In my post on Lebbeus Woods, I suggested that architects might one day find themselves no longer making buildings. This may seem surprising, but we're only at the dawn of network culture. We were under Fordism from the 1920s to the mid-1960s and under post-Fordism from the mid-1960s until about 2000. So no surprise that we have yet to see the full effects of this era. This essay from the photo blog "the Luminous Landscape" (must reading for photographers) suggests that just as film has faded into history, the print will too. As high definition screens exceed anything that print can do (this will come one day soon), why continue to valorize an outdated technology? 

And why not? I already barely use my printer for my photographic work. It's either printed in books and magazines or viewed on the Web. Can any gallery deliver the kind of recognition that Flickr can? Why own? Of course unless things go awry, high definition screens for viewing art will be open and works will soon be pirated and traded openly. You'll be going to rapidshare to download the newest Gursky. Artists may protest that this is awful. But it isn't, really, it's just a different model of property that other fields, like music, have to deal with. 

Property, it seems, is the last thing to invest in. 

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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