On Stock Photography and Rainbows

It’s a horribly unproductive day. I’m slowly catching up with my blog reading. Since my last post was about one of Owen Hatherley’s blogs and it was about three hours ago, you’ll be delighted to hear that I’ve actually made it to his other blog. Progress.

There he contrasts a photography collection from the days of the Weimar Republic, “with their ‘overriding impression of utter chaos, civil unrest and the rising tide of Fascism'” with photosets from the present day, including the scenes from the recession I posted earlier and this set only to ask “Could we honestly look at the contemporary photosets linked above and feel much more secure about our own future?”

No, not at all. This is why it baffling me that people feel that as an academic I’m somehow supposed to know the answer. Things are really screwed up, moreover they have been screwed up for a very long time (read Kevin Phillip’s Bad Money if you don’t believe me), and all the hope and rainbows in the world aren’t going to fix the screwed-up system we’re in. And Owen’s right, contemporary photography is a record of our day, which leads me to wonder about that particular ill of network culture, stock photography. Stock photography is much worse than pornography as at its worst, at least the latter leaves the individual as an object of desire to be consumed. Stock photography devalues the individual utterly, making them little more than a gesture. It’s photography for an era in which the visual is emptied of any meaning. Look at the fate of Everywhere Girl, for example.

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Novels and Imperialism

While working on the Network Culture book, I’ve been thinking about the absorption of identity politics into a globalized idea of art and literature (what Bourriaud labels as "altermodern").
On a global scale, this parallels the absorption of dialects into a national language during the early modern state. As this happened, dialects did not just disappear, but rather continued to exist and were even incorporated into literature. 
Wlad Gozich and Nicholas Spadaccini have reflected on this with respect to the novel Don Quijote: 
“Its famous dialogical structure represents an attempt to inscribe as many discourses as possible within its frame. The only question is who can read them. In a sense, the answer is: the state. Only the state can claim to be the adequate subject for reading a novel like the Quijote. … In practice this means that such a novel serves to provide its readers with an experience of what it is like to look at things from the perspective of the state…” (citation)
The ideal reader of Don Quijote takes in the text from the perspectival viewpoint of the omniscient narrator, occupying the position of the state itself to embrace the different dialects within the text (or nation) as one whole. Today’s reader takes in the diversity of global art and literature from the position of our contemporary master reader, Empire. 

So, too, if the novel allowed colonial powers such as the British to create a new shared cultural field that they could share with their subjects in the form of a medium posited as universal, superseding existing structures, the Internet promises a single world order, made possible through technology, undoing the specificity of the local except as it continues to exist for cultural consumption. 

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Not the Last Word

For Cite 75, Summer 2008

Sanford Kwinter, Far From Equilibrium: Essays on Technology and Design Culture, edited by Cynthia Davidson (ACTAR: Barcelona and New York, 2008), 196 page paperback, $33.00.

For a New York writer to review a book by one of Houston’s great architectural thinkers in Cite is unquestionably risky. But given Sanford Kwinter’s own dual allegiance to these two cities and his fascination with the potential lying in the concentrated and dissipated forms of urbanism that these cities respectively epitomize, perhaps it is not impossible. And where better to talk about Kwinter? After all, it is in Houston—both the city and the intellectual milieu—that Kwinter rethought urbanism.

Kwinter’s fundamental contribution to architecture is to redirect urbanism away from an image-based notion of the city (I am thinking here of urbanism from Garnier and Corbusier to Lynch and Rowe) in favor of an understanding of cities as products of dynamic forces.

Far From Equilibrium is a collection of essays surveying the evolution of Kwinter’s thought. Most books of collected essays come up short, reflecting less a coherent body of work than a wandering mind. But this is not the case here. Selected from his writings in the nineties, these essays form a new document, as relevant to us today as they were in their first iteration—perhaps more so.

Most, but not all, of these essays are from editor Cynthia Davidson’s ANY magazine, for which Kwinter regularly contributed a column called "FFE" (originally titled "Not the Last Word," but renamed at Kwinter’s request). Intended to accompany the conferences and the books that Anyone Corporation produced, ANY began publication in the wake of Jacques Derrida’s influence on architecture, giving life to the suggestion that writing and theory were the highest forms of (architectural) intellectual work. Initially designed by Massimo Vignelli as a graphically flamboyant tabloid, ANY visually announced that the writing in its pages would be radical, not merely observing but rather agitating for and inventing a new architecture.

Kwinter’s role in ANY was crucial. After his brief response to a query from Robert Somol on the status of form in architecture was printed in Issue 8 as "Form Work: Colin Rowe," Kwinter arrived in full force in Issue 9 with "Urbanism vs Architecture: The Bigness of Rem Koolhaas." This was a pivotal issue for ANY, marking a change in editorial staff as well as a shift away from deconstruction toward a broader interest in culture, technology, and diagramming. The graphic language of the magazine was redone, the formalist Vignelli design replaced with a more gridded approach by Michael Rock, Susan Sellers, and Georgianna Stout. This new look reflected the influence of Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, both already associated with Kwinter.

But ANY was formulated as a ten-year project, and when that point was reached in 2000, it was shut down. Davidson and Kwinter then reunited as editor and writer, shaping the "FFE" columns—together with other essays that they felt applicable—into this new product. The result is hardly a complete selection of Kwinter’s thought, nor does it comprise every text he wrote for ANY. Instead, this book picks out a particularly vital thread in Kwinter’s intellectual narrative, reframing key texts from the ANY period that emphasize Kwinter’s current commitment to resistance. Thus, the book bypasses the aspects of Kwinter’s work in the 1990s, such as his "new pastoralism," that could be misinterpreted as supporting less critical motifs in contemporary thought.

Far From Equilibrium’s rewriting is not revisionism. In the essay that’s the key to the book, the 1996 "Radical Anamnesis (Mourning the Future)," Kwinter concludes, "Through (selective) memory the future becomes possible, a future that the past could not think and that the present-alone-dares not." In this spirit, working with Davidson as his editor, Kwinter has discovered a radically new book among these decade-old essays, unabashedly facing up to the dangers of technology while challenging architecture to justify itself today.

During the publication process, Far From Equilibrium passed to Actar Publishers, where editor Michael Kubo and designer Reinhard Steger punctuated the book graphically. In line with the editorial mission, the design moves the book forward to the present day, expounding on the work of Bruce Mau, who designed Kwinter’s Zone Books starting in the 1980s. A series of gatefold pages reveal projects by architects such as Diller Scofidio+Renfro, Ábalos & Herreros, and Toyo Ito, work forged in the same milieu as Kwinter’s writing. Just as these gatefolds disrupt the flow of reading, they also mark a transition in typefaces. These disturbances are registered at the threshold of the reader’s consciousness, affirming, as Kwinter does, a faith in the powers of design itself to reconfigure our thought.

This is only a mere overview. Throughout, Kwinter’s critical, incisive voice questions what design can do for society today and calls for us to make a stance-to take the road not taken by criticism, which has moved to a vacuous endorsement of the lowest common denominator, either embracing post-criticism or banal journalism. If Far From Equilibrium was once "Not the Last Word," we can be sure that this magnificent work is, if nothing else, not the last word that we will hear from this brilliant thinker.

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The Johnson Tapes Again

A couple of you have mentioned it, so I suppose I should as well. I’ve been meaning to write a longer blog post on Philip Johnson, given the recent publication of the Constancy of Change, edited by Emmanuel Petit, a book certain to have a huge impact on the way we think of Johnson, but I am spending all my free time working on the Network Culture project and putting myself in a Johnson state of mind takes me away from that.

In any event, Franz Schulze has a disappointing review of the Johnson Tapes in the March Architectural Record. Three points in response.

First, Schulze misses the mark. The book is by no means a definitive document of Johnson’s life. We say that throughout. The tapes were incomplete and it took a huge effort to turn them into something publishable. If that’s something that Schulze is not interested in, fine. To spend the review quibbling about details (as if there are no inaccuracies in his biography) is not so much petty as foolish.

Second, the review is sour grapes. Schulze’s voice is the clearest absence from the Constancy of Change. He was not invited to the symposium or to contribute to the book even though many scholars who had far more dimmer opinions of Johnson than Schulze were, myself included. Since the symposium and book were spearheaded by Robert Stern, the pitiful attempt at payback is evident. Although I don’t recall that Bob and I ever discussed why Schulze wasn’t invited, the sentiment of a few of the other speakers was that in his biography, Schulze treated Johnson’s activities on the extreme right in the 1930s and his homosexuality as equivalent. Not only is this a version of the Hitler’s missing testicle fallacy, Schulze’s implicit equation of homosexuality and fascism is patently offensive. I’m afraid that the biography hasn’t aged well and being left on the sidelines during this reassessment of Johnson’s life must have hurt. I thought all this was obvious. I wonder what the editors at Record were thinking. 

Third, good reviews (and by this I mean the quality of the review, not its judgment) should shed light on the topic. Later this week I will post my review of Sanford Kwinter’s Far From Equilibrium. My review is far from negative but I took the project seriously, writing with the idea of informing the reader. 

Maybe Schulze will have a chance to redeem himself with a more insightful review one day. I’d hope he’d be able to put aside his feelings if he reviews the Constancy of Change. My own work on Johnson slowly gathers steam. It’ll be much later on, to be sure, but I do expect to publish a book on Johnson sometime in the next decade.     


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On Facebook Self-Portraits

I am fascinated with the forced exposure that social networking sites create. Via Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s excellent blog The End of Cyberspace, I reached Slate author Brian Braiker’s article on how he finds seeing old images of himself uploaded to the net uncomfortable. From there, I found Euan Kerr’s piece for Minnesota Public Radio exploring the phenomenon of the Facebook self-portrait. This really piqued my interest since I’ve been fascinated by this phenomena since I joined the social network site.

The Facebook self-portrait is a product of network culture that reveals how we construct our identities today. It satisfies the version of Andy Warhol’s rule as modified by Momus: "In the future, everyone will be famous to fifteen people," except that it’s not the future anymore (in fairness the article is 15 years old) and it’s not 15 but rather 150 or 300 people, a typical number in a circle of friends on a social network site.

The Facebook self-portrait makes everyone a superstar, famous for no particular reason, but notable for their embrace of fame. So it is that on Facebook, I see friends who I never thought of as self-conscious take photographs of remarkable humor, intelligence, and wry self-deprecation. The Facebook self-portrait insists upon mastery over one’s self-image and the instant feedback of digital photography allows us this. Not happy? Well, try again.   

Long ago, when I was in high school, I read a book on the Bloomsbury group. I remember that the caption underneath a group photograph in the book (whose title now escapes me) pointed out that even in this über-hip clique, only one member was relaxed, only one understood that the right pose for the camera was a calculated non-pose. Our idea of the self can be read through such images: from the stiff formality of the painted portrait to the relaxed pose of the photograph to the calculated self-consciousness of the Facebook digital image. Each time, the self becomes a more cunning manipulator of the media. Each time, the self becomes more conscious of being defined outside itself, in a flow of impulses rather than a notion of inner essence.

So it was that in reading the first article, I felt that the author missed his friend Caroline’s point when she told him "You can never be too cool for your past." As your images catch up to you in network culture, you have to become the consummate manipulator of your image, imagery from the past being less an indictment of present flaws and more an indicator of your ability to remake yourself.

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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 (https://javier.est.pr/)

"Blogs have, thus far been both anti-theory and anti-history. I think they’ve played a role in that regard." 
-Kazys Varnelis (https://varnelis.net)

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 Archinect.com. He blogs at https://javier.est.pr/.

Kazys Varnelis, PhD, is Director of the Network Architecture Lab at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. He blogs at  https://varnelis.net.

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 https://whereis.mit.edu 

htc forum 2009 poster 

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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.  

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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.         



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Summing Up the Economic Stimulus Plan

But as signed into law by the President, the plan allocates only $48 billion to highways, rail, and mass transit. That’s a mere 6% of the Plan budget. Architects and the building sector will stand to benefit from more money allocated for improving public housing, veteran’s facilities, and federal agency buildings, but the dreams of an infrastructural stimulus for the profession are over.
Still, the administration continues to call the Plan the largest investment in infrastructure since the since the 1956 creation of the Interstate Highway System. It may be, but it runs a  distant second. The Federal-Aid Highway Act authorized the expenditure of $25 billion between 1957 and 1968. That is $188 billion in today’s dollars. Moreover it was accompanied by a gas tax that fed the system annually, raising $28.4 billion in 2006. Since then, with the drop in gas consumption that accompanied higher prices, revenue has fallen, but the point is clear: the Plan does not deliver a lot of money for infrastructure. 
In contrast, the American Society of Civil Engineers calls for $2.2 trillion of investment in infrastructure. To take a local example, New York is getting $1.25 billion for mass transit, more than any other state, but the Trans-Hudson Express Tunnel is estimated to cost $7 billion and the Second Avenue subway over $17 billion and those are only two planned projects. Instead of a vigorously rebuilt infrastructural future, we are treading water at best.  
Frustration with the Plan even led Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio, Chair of the House Transportation subcommittee on Highways and Transit—once discussed as a possible Secretary of Transportation under Obama—to break with party lines and vote against it. For DeFazio, funding tax cuts to appease Republicans at the expense of infrastructure funding and the total elimination of funds for school construction is unacceptable.  

DeFazio blamed Larry Summers, Obama’s top economic advisor, saying he “hates infrastructure.” But its more than that too. There are structural problems with funding infrastructure today, problems that I suspect contributed to the decision to cut spending.  

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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.    

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