Against Internet Explorer

Somewhere along the way, Internet Explorer has ceased to work with my site. I generally debug against both Explorer 6 and 7 when I do a major site upgrade, but this has caught me unawares. I am also a bit surprised that nobody mentioned it. The logs suggest that some of you still visit using Explorer. I’m going to try to figure this out, but it’s another unexpected task. Explorer is a nightmare to support. If I get my sites working is Safari, they almost also work in Firefox and Chrome, but then Explorer is an entirely different animal. Why anyone continues to use it or why it continues to exist is beyond me. 

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The Big Nothing

As I’ve fruitlessly tried to get Technorati to update its listings for this blog, it’s become more apparent that the service is in zombie mode. Like many companies today, Technorati has done away with support personnel in favor of having users try to answer each others’ questions in a discussion forum. But that’s hardly of any use anymore as the forums fill with notes that Technorati doesn’t respond to support tickets. Still, how could they? As the economy tanks, there’s no money for firms with questionable business models like Technorati and the server bills have to be paid before little things like functionality are addressed. 

This is hardly meant as a rant against Technorati. In contrast, it strikes me that the "social Web" is imploding. Over at Newser, MIchael Wollf observes that Facebook’s CFO has left and concludes that "The wheels are coming off the bus at Facebook." Things are no better at Twitter although it seems that Google and Microsoft are competing to buy that service so it may have a reprieve. 

In other words, I’m suggesting that what we are seeing is not so much the replacement of old media by new, but the annihilation of both. Marxists have long predicted that capital’s contradictions would undo it and, although I’m hardly optimistic about the prospects of a Red future, it seems like we’re getting a taste of this now. 


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Blogitecture at MIT HTC Forum Video

The video for the Blogitecture presentations that Javier Arbona and I gave at the MIT HTC Forum, together with the discussion we had with Mark Jarzombek and the MIT audience is now up at Vimeo.  

Our talks worked quite well together, I think, as we both addressed the political and disciplinary implications of blogs in architecture. 

Blogitecture at MIT HTC Forum from kazys Varnelis on Vimeo.

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The End of New York City

Today I was think ing about the New York City economy so and how it’s a mystery to me that it hasn’t tanked much further. I went over to Wikipedia to look at this article on New York City’s economy and found the following table, which I am lifting in its entirety. 

Of course there are other people who work in the city, in fields like advertising, marketing, law, consulting, architecture, and design. In other words, fields that service companies like those listed below. 

Companies in green are in finance, companies in yellow are in entertainment. Many, if not most, face insolvency.   

The Top 25 Fortune 500 Companies in New York City
rank in:corporationHeadquarters
(New York, NY)
Fortune 500 industry group2007
($ million)
118Citigroup399 Park Ave. 10043Commercial Banks
2212J.P. Morgan Chase & Co.270 Park Ave. 10017Commercial Banks
3313American International Group70 Pine St. 10270Insurance: Property and Casualty (stock)
4517Verizon Communications140 West St. 10007Telecommunications
5620Goldman Sachs Group85 Broad St. 10004Securities
6721Morgan Stanley1585 Broadway 10036Securities
7830Merrill Lynch4 World Financial Center 10080Securities
8937Lehman Brothers Holdings745 Seventh Ave. 10019Securities
91043MetLife200 Park Ave. 10166Insurance: Life, Health (stock)
101147Pfizer235 E. 42nd St. 10017Pharmaceuticals
111249Time Warner1 Time Warner Center 10019Entertainment
121475American Express200 Vesey St. 10285Diversified Financials
131577Hess Corporation1185 Sixth Ave. 10036Petroleum Refining
141680Alcoa390 Park Ave. 10022Metals
151782New York Life Insurance51 Madison Ave. 10010Insurance: Life, Health (mutual)
161884News Corporation1211 Sixth Ave. 10036Entertainment
171986TIAA-CREF730 Third Ave. 10017Insurance: Life, Health (mutual)
1820125Bristol-Myers Squibb345 Park Ave. 10154Pharmaceuticals
1921139Loews Corporation667 Madison Ave. 10021Insurance: Property and Casualty (stock)
2022156Bear Stearns383 Madison Ave. 10179Securities
2124172Bank of New York Mellon Corporation1 Wall Street 10286Commercial Banks
2225181CBS51 W. 52nd St. 10019Entertainment
2326182L-3 Communications600 Third Ave. 10016Aerospace and Defense
2427186Colgate-Palmolive300 Park Ave. 10022Household and Personal Products
2529191Viacom1515 Broadway 10036Entertainment
NYC = New York City; NYS = New York State; US = United States
All data except stock price changes are for either the calendar year ending on December 31, 2007 or the company’s fiscal year ending before February 1, 2008.
Stock price changes are for the calendar year 2008. Declines of over 50% are in boldface. Over the same period (December 31, 2007 to December 31, 2008), the 30-stock Dow Jones Industrial Average declined by 33.8% and the Standard & Poor’s index of 500 leading stocks declined by 38.5%. By the end of 2008, the stocks of Bear Stearns (acquired by JPMorgan Chase) and Lehman Brothers (in dissolution) were no longer being traded.
Sources: Fortune 500 website and Fortune, May 5, 2008 (Volume 157, number 9), pages F-1 to F-10, F-28, F-34, and F-40 to F-41.
Stock price change between December 31, 2007 and December 31, 2008 from "Year–End Review: Markets and Finance 2008", The Wall Street Journal, Friday, January 2, 2009 (Volume CCLIII, number 1), pages R-15 to R-18.


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a note on blogs

A video of the lectures that Javier Arbona and I gave at MIT on blogs and the discussion we had with Mark Jarzombek will be up soon, but until then I thought I’d put up a few notes that I ran out of time for in my talk.

I think that we need to look at blogs not as something that will transform architecture or architecture criticism per se, but rather as phenomena of network culture. What follows is a brief set of observations about the importance of blogs to architecture, and to network culture.

Blogs are not temporal. The chronological nature of posts is a ruse. That’s not how we read blogs. Chronology doesn’t accrete in the blog. Our sense of time is being redefined.

Blogs are symptomatic of a redefinition of the individual. What matters to bloggers are the links into their blogs. A blogger only exists as a function of the links into their site. An unknown blog is a scream in the forest. Instead of an authorial voice, the blogger is an aggregator, a switching machine that remixes content. The blog is a transition away from the old notion of individuality. In many ways, this is a return to pre-modern ideas of the self.

Blogs blend the public and the private and have no space for high and low. We’re in a new flattened field of nobrow. As Alan Liu writes "No more beauty, sublimity, tragedy, grace, or evil: only cool or not cool." Instead of distinction we have linkbait. Say something outrageous and you get more readers. Topless architecture!   

Blogs embrace the niche. Blogs appeal to idiosyncratic, niche audiences. For a blogger finds it is better to have 100 fanatical followers than 10,000 lukewarm fans. If today there are bloggers who are more well-known than their professors, will there come a time when bloggers will be hired by universities (am I the first in architecture)?

The wealth of blogs is a great question mark. During this economic crisis, we a massive decapitalization of knowledge work in favor of free labor. Not only does Open Source software drive most of the Web today, but news bloggers are effectively replacing newspapers. If the best architecture criticism is now on blogs, how does this culture of free actually function anymore? Is there any room for anyone who doesn’t have a trust fund or access to lots of credit cards to contribute to culture?   

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On Informality

Quilian Riano asked me to participate in the blogging revolving around the GSD event on Ecological Urbanism. Although Quilian is live blogging the event, like the live blogging for Postopolis going on simultaneously, I think it makes much more sense to the participants than to those of us listening in at a remove, observing highly compressed fragments of the conversation.

Even if I take my knowledge of the event second-hand, I thought I’d offer a response, prematurely broaching a topic that I’ve been engulfed in for the first part of this year. I’ll begin with the event’s statement of purpose, the core of which reads as follows:

The conference is organized around the premise that an ecological approach is urgently needed both as a remedial device for the contemporary city and an organizing principle for new cities. An ecological urbanism represents a more holistic approach than is generally the case with urbanism today, demanding alternative ways of thinking and designing.

In ecological urbanism, the informal seems to crop up repeatedly. Instead of "green architecture" and its outworn advocacy of LEED to design our way out of a global ecological crisis, the conference proposes an urbanism produced bottom-up, in a natural way, like an ecosystem.

Sanford Kwinter’s keen observation that New York’s culture has come to a crashing halt under the weight of capital, overdevelopment, and hipsterdom serves as a set-up to ecological urbanism. Instead of a vital urban realm, we have a stuffed animal (to use a phrase Peter Eisenman once applied to European cities…and let’s just be clear that today cities anywhere in the developing world don’t fare any better than Manhattan does). In the face of this collapsing formal urbanism, then, Quilian observes, informality is thriving:

[There is an]… anxiety around the failure of the formal structures in the West. Populations are dropping, immigration increasing, manufacturing and economic strength shifting to other nations. Western nations are facing a changing culture at home and a shifting power structure abroad. As formal structures fail informal systems take over.  

We’ve heard this before, in the recent fascination with favelas and their capacity for self-organization. When Rem Koolhaas spoke he brought out Lagos, his exemplar of such a self-organizing city, a nightmare condition that nevertheless he feels somehow works. In doing so, he replays Venturi, Scott Brown, and Izenour’s Learning from Las Vegas as well as Reyner Banham’s Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, but in going to Africa, Koolhaas is not so much flipping the valence on a "low," pop phenomena as replaying the modernist obsession with the primitive (to be fair, on the East, the West is often seen in terms of the primitive). In the darkest places, the modern obsession with the primitive suggested, we would identify the next modernity. So Koolhaas hopes to do at Lagos.

If dysfunctional, the African metropolis of seven million shows up our aged cities. For if Lagos is broken and lacks a public realm, its market also appears to exist outside of organized capital or government control a perverse model of unalienated labor. Urbanization at its most base and at its most advanced, Delirious Lagos is a sci-fi fantasy of the New Bad Future* set on the Gulf of Guinea instead of in 2050. Lagos, it seems, presages the urbanism of the multitude.**

Cue Banham again and his valorization of the non-plan, which is little different from the model Koolhaas proposes, except that in Banham’s eyes, Los Angeles is still paradise, not the New Bad Future. To me, Banham’s model foreshadows the Californian Ideology all too neatly. Banham’s Los Angeles works because it has no central plan but rather is left to the competing forces of the basin. But if Banham was reacting against modernist urban planning, non-plan also encouraged neoliberalist planning ideas.*** It’d be easy to critique Koolhaas’s take on Lagos as an exacerbated version of Banham, a neoliberal city of non-plan pushed to extremes, not ruled by an unruly multitude but rather by a repressive regime that receives more than 50% of its income from (Royal Dutch) Shell Oil. 

Thank god we haven’t learned too much from Lagos yet, then. But the fascination with informality points to another problem, which is our civilization’s unsustainable level of complexity. I’ve been thinking about these issues a lot lately, re-reading Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies and studying the role of complexity in network culture. A proper response is going to require a lengthier post, or rather a series of posts, an article or two, and a book chapter****, but for now I can make a few key points.

Tainter’s thesis differs from Jared Diamond‘s (and also precedes it by a decade). Instead of turning to the external forces of ecological catastrophe (as Diamond does) or to foreign invasion (as other commentators do), Tainter sees complexity as the downfall of societies. As societies mature, he observes, they become more complex, especially in terms of communication. A highly advanced society is highly differentiated and highly linked. This doesn’t just mean that I have a lot of "friends" on Facebook and Twitter, it also means that just to manage my affairs, I have to wrangle a trillion bureaucratic agents such as university finance personnel, bank managers, insurance auditors, credit card representatives, accountants, real estate agents, Apple store "geniuses," airline agents, delivery services, outsourced script-reading hardware support personnel, and lawyers in combination with non-human actors like my iPhone, Mac OS 10.5, my car, the train, and so on. This is the service economy at work, and it’s characteristic of the bureaucratized nature of complex societies. If, in a charitable reading, we produce such bureaucratic entities in hopes of making the world a better place, keeping each other honest and making things work smoothly, in reality, they rub up against each other, exhibiting cascading failure effects that lead to untenable conditions. But more than that, in Tainter’s reading, complex societies require greater and greater amounts of energy until, at a certain point, the advantages of the structures they create are outweighed by diminishing marginal returns on energy invested. The result is collapse, which Tainter defines as a greatly diminished level of complexity. 

In this light, the culture of congestion that Koolhaas valorized in the 1970s is undone by the energy costs of that complexity. Now I suspect that Koolhaas understands this full well. His essay on Junkspace is an attack on what his earlier model of congestion had become, on the reduction of the City of the Captive Globe (note the absence of traffic in Madelon Vriesendorp’s drawings) to West L. A. at 4pm on a Friday. Lagos, for him, is the new New York, a non-Western Other outside the system, a (non-)plan for thriving in the over-complex, over-congested world. Koolhaas’s Utopian vision of Lagos is a model for life in Junkspace, an anarchist condition in which larger governing structures no longer dominate everyday life and the architect merely sets some scripts in play for others to follow. We can see this in some of OMA’s best work, like Melun-Senart or Yokohama, although less so in the last few years.  

A decade ago, I was enamored with this approach, but now I don’t think we can simply solve our problems by drawing on informality and distributed self-organization as models. For even if architects turn toward a radical humility, that doesn’t mean that all of a sudden complex systems somehow unravel themselves. Just as rigidity was the failure point for Fordism, complexity is the failure point for post-Fordism.

So I’d agree with Tainter when he concludes that the only hope to forestall the collapse of a complex society is technological advance. This is something we’ve been really good at lately and I’ve suggested elsewhere that it might be possible to dodge the complexity bullet again, even if think these advances will be outside of architecture. But, frankly, I’m not so sure we can do it. This is where my optimism rubs up against my nagging feeling that urban informatics, locative media, smart grids, and all the things that the kids at LIFT and SXSW are dreaming up are too little, too late. Technology itself is all but unmanageable in everyday life and adding greater layers of complexity can’t be the solution. It’s in this sense that the Infrastructural City was much more Mike Davis than Reyner Banham, something few have caught on to yet.***** We should have taken our lumps when the boom collapsed and retrenched for five or six years. Instead we added that much more complexity (take the debt and what is required to maintain it or the impossible war or the climate) and now our options are greatly limited. 

If ecological urbanism pushes us to ask some of the right questions, I suspect informality isn’t going to be the answer, just the latest buzzword. Instead, perversely, I’m going to suggest a little patience. Architects have been so stuck looking for the newest methodology for so long that we’ve exhausted our resources to understand the present. Urban theory needs to develop an entirely new set of tools to deal with the failures of the neoliberal city and the impossible conditions of complexity today. This is hardly an overnight task, if it can be done at all. 

Tainter holds one other card, suggesting that most of the people who experience collapse don’t mind it too much. Many of them seem happy enough to just walk away from the failing world around them, much like owners of foreclosed homes do today. Eventually a new civilization springs up and with it, with it, so do new tasks for design.   

*A 1980s phrase that never stuck, referring to films such as Blade Runner, Outlands, Alien/s, Robocop that point to a damaged future for civilization.

** If Lagos is a certain perverse model of the distributed urbanism of the multitude, then its also the opposite of AUDC’s reading of Quartzsite, for which of course you should see Blue Monday.

*** See Jonathan Hughes, "After Non-Plan" in Jonathan Hughes and Simon Sadler, Non-Plan. Essays on Freedom, Participation, and Change in Modern Architecture and Urbanism (London: Architectural Press, 2000).

**** Yes, this is likely to make it into the Network Culture book.

***** Except one writer, who referred to the book as colored by a Marxist vision, assuming I suppose, that in a mass-market publication that would be something of an insult.  


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