bowie vs architecture

Yesterday, I discussed Bowie and his prescient understanding of network culture. But what of Bowie and architecture? Shouldn't I say something about that?

Generally speaking, architects have been unwilling or unable to learn Bowie's lessons, stuck in an idea of branding borrowed from business books from the discount table at Barnes and Noble and history borrowed from art historians seeking the hand of the master. Many of the architects who would be the easiest to compare to Bowie in the way their were able to put on different masks—Charles and Ray Eames, Erik Gunnar Asplund, and 1950s Corbusier—preceeded him.

So what of Johnson and Bowie? Of course there is a similarity in that both had a flirtation with fascism in their youth, but in Bowie's case there is no evidence of any actual political involvement. Bowie's coked-up ramblings were meant to scandalize and were dropped soon enough. Johnson's political activities lasted the greater part of a decade and he never rejected them as bluntly as Bowie did in his derision of fascists in Scary Monsters or criticism of imperialism in Let's Dance. But the issue at hand would be the ability to transform. Johnson likely learned from Bowie's shape shifting as he returned to prominence to the 1970s, but in fairness, Johnson was more like an aging crooner and if, like Bowie, he was always a provacateur, he lacked Bowie's technical and formal instinct. With the exception of the AT&T Building, none of his works after his return in the 1970s were "hits."

Then there's Koolhaas. Jeffrey Kipnis mentions Bowie in a reference meant to contextualize Rem Koolhaas, Elia Zenghelis, Madelon Vriesendorp, and Zoe Zenghelis's Exodus or the Voluntary Prisonerso of Architecture: "London's Architectural Association 1970-72: a school awash in sex, drugs, and rock and roll. David Bowie hanging at the bar. …" But this is hardly history, rather it's name dropping meant to build up a myth. Even so, it deserves mention. At one point Koolhaas did seem like Bowie. The early 1970s work followed by Delirious New York, a bad period of terrible work in the 1980s, then a comeback in the 1990s with works like the library at Jussieu, the TGB, the Kunsthal, and Zeebrugge. For a time, it seemed like Koolhaas might wear many masks, but by the early 2000s, his career became less like Bowie's and more like Johnson's. Where Bowie repeatedly put his career at risk to pursue his artistic vision, Koolhaas has been in a nihilist death-spiral for 15 years, out to produce more junkspace than anyone else. No way would Bowie have ever put out a clunky salute to authoritarianism like the CCTV building.

I don't feel comfortable adding myself to this mix, but as I've already publically stated that I've been influenced by Bowie, I suppose I have to. Simply enough, early on in my education I realized that architecture—as conventionally practiced—was too slow and too tied to capital to keep pace with my ideas. Influenced a bit too much by Manfredo Tafuri on the one hand and reluctant to call myself an artist when my father had that market cornered pretty well, I began as a historian of architecture. After about four or five years, I set out to look at urban infrastructure and work with the Center of Land Use Interpretation. Toward the end of this period, I began to work with Robert Sumrell to create AUDC and our Blue Monday project, a book that we consciously conceived of as a sort of historical-philosphical LP.* From 2008 to 2015, I was engaged with a number of participatory projects under the guise of the Netlab at Columbia, such as the New City Reader. Over the last year, with the labs experiment at Columbia's GSAPP—which one day will be seen as a formative moment for architectural education—drawing to a close, I've rethought the Netlab's role as an independent entity and shifted the focus of my attention more toward Europe and less toward the US. There will be new work, which I hope you will find as compelling as I do from Leigha Dennis and myself, operating as the Netlab on exhibit in from early June to August at the ┼áiuolaikinio Meno Centras/Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius, Lithuania. The focus of my contribution to this exhibit will be large, physical, constructed and something that I think hasn't been seen yet. I'm not suggesting that I'm living up to what Bowie did by any means. But rather, that his ability to transform himself is something that has remained intriguing to me over the years.

As Simon Critchley points out in his book on Bowie, this re-invention was not a lack of authenticity, but rather an understanding that authencity lies at a deeper level than style. It's unfortunate that in instead of being taught to experiment, architecture students are urgerd to relentlessly hone a particular look and even hired on that basis: being able to sum yourself up in a one-liner is more important than depth and the ability to come back and reinvent yoursef. The latter is what network culture demands and the inability of architects to do so is quite boring, isn't it? *Which is not to say that there won't be future AUDC books. Far from it…

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Goodbye, Starman

So much to say and not enough time. Never enough time. Bowie's dead. I hadn't expected this would happen. I've been trying to finish this post all day. 

I had hoped to make a year end post, just as I had hoped for the last four years, and failed again, just as I have for the last four years. The last year was a tough one, with my mother passing away in September with my transition from full time teaching in the United States to focus on the Netlab, and now this. 

Perhaps it's odd to speak of the death of a pop star and of the last of one's parents in the same post, but perhaps not.

In the case of Bowie, I always thought that while he was alive, I would still be young. With my mother passing and Bowie's death in quick succession, it's become suddenly clear that I am no longer young. I guess to anyone else, it should be obvious, but such things are rarely obvious.

The death of my mother was a largery a matter of private mourning for my family and those who joined us in Vilnius at her funeral. She was hugely important to me and my father's work would have been inconceivable without her and a discussion of her life would pit the decline of sociability today against the role of the salon for earlier generations of artists, something rarer and rarer today. But that remains a matter for another day, for working through over time. 

In the case of David Bowie, the death is public and epochal. I feel the need to go through the cultural implications on this obsolete medium.

Its clear to me, and has been for some time, that Bowie was the most important living cultural figure. There is no one comparable to him. Bowie redefined not only rock music, but also fashion and gender, even science fiction. Some of the points being made about Bowie today on the Net surprised me. He was—and once I saw it, I was reminded of it—a pioneer on the Internet, possesing an email address in 1983, and creating not only the first downloadable single, but also Bowienet, an online network launched in 1998, a community where fans could interact with each other. Bowienet was remarkable as it was one of the earliest networked publics based on culture, not technology.

More than that, Bowie understood the deeply transformative effect that networked publics would have. Check out this 1999 video with BBC interviewer Jeremy Paxman.

Here Bowie states that he became a musician because it "was subversive in the age before MTV, before wall-to-wall blanket music.…It was very hard to hear [rock and roll] music" but that he was drawn to it because understood that "this is the thing that will change things."

But, Bowie observes, that world was gone, "music has become a career opportunity. … The Internet is … now carries the flag of being subversive and possibly rebellious, embodying the chaotic, nihilistic…"  

Bowie understood that there would never again be individuals like himself, "I embrace the idea that there is a new demystification process between the artist and the audience…The point of having somebody who led the forces has disappeared." This is, he stated, "personified by the rave culture of the last few years, where the audience is at least as important as who is playing at the rave."

Paxman responded to Bowie's prophecies about the Internet saying that there wasn't anything cohesive about the it and that it wasn't as radical as the youth revolution of the 60s. Bowie, who in the video has begun to lose his patience, explains that in the 1970s there was a "single, absolute, creative society … an era of known truths." With the "singularity" of culture gone, "we are living in total fragmention." For Bowie, the Internet had the capacity for being both good and bad, wonderful and terrible, "we are actually on the cusp of something exhilirating and terrifying." 

Still unconvinced, Paxman said the Net is just a tool. Bowie lauging, responds, "No, it's not, it's an alien life form."

And that's what it was. Where better to see the fragmentation not just of culture and the concomitant fragmentation the self than in the below scene from the Man Who Fell to Earth?

I turned on the television this morning to reach out to some kind of greater community, but there was nothing about Bowie on the network morning shows, MTV or VH1. 1,000 channels of garbage. I was horrified, and I guess I still am, but eventually I realized that, for better or worse, that was the condition now, and that there was a community of other people out there who were sharing their grief on social media. This is the world that Bowie predicted and if we can be thankful for anything, it's that we're lucky enough to be able to see a little bit more of its inscrutible alienness… 

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