Architecture of Bling

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

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

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

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

Goodbye bling, and good riddance. 

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In Defense of Architecture (Fiction)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Complexity and Contradiction in the Air

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

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

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