A New Career in a New Town

I moved Varnelis.net to Kinsta yesterday, widely seen as the best WordPress host around. I also updated the site theme to GeneratePress which I first used at the Native Plant Society of New Jersey where I am the head of advocacy and, to help out, brought the Web site to WordPress. The site struggled after I had serious security issues earlier in the year. Not only was that a crummy experience for you, the backend that I write posts with glitched constantly and it was frustrating for me to enter new content. The new site is a delight for me and, I hope, is interesting for you as well. The theme is ultimately based on Indexhibit, which was admirably minimalist in a way a Lithuanian artist could love but never worked for me as a content management system.

I have lost count of how many times I have said that I will be posting more on this site, so I won’t make promises I can’t keep, but at least the site won’t be an excuse anymore. So what about blogs? Aren’t they dead? Archinect’s blog, aggregat:456, archidose, ballardian, javierist, m.ammoth.us, markasaurus, sit down man you’re a bloody tragedy, strange harvest, subtopia all gone, lgnlgn a record of an aborted restart ten years back. Even bldgblog barely posts more than I do now. But I refuse to go. Loos titled his first collection of essays “Spoken into the Void.” Being untimely may be the strongest position of all.

Now, there’s not that much to say about architecture anymore, but that’s ok. Times change. Architecture is at its lowest point in my lifetime. There is no excitement. When is the last new building that interested you, I ask my friends? Nobody knows. Maybe the Casa da Música, one said. That’s like saying the Ford Foundation building was the last great building in 1981. Not one great building on this list of top ten buildings in the 2010s, not even one good building. The scandal isn’t that there is a scandal, the scandal is that nobody cares and nobody talks about it. Conceptual architecture is dead in the water. Architecture fiction was the last burst of a shooting star deep in the atmosphere before it disappeared. In fairness, I don’t know if either AUDC or the Netlab will do anything again, although I continue my own work in earnest (more on that work another day).

But there is plenty to talk about; we can talk about late network culture and the sorry state it has brought us to, the failure of networked publics. we can talk about art, and we can talk about the environment and the importance of native plants in the landscape. We can even talk about architecture since art forms that seem to be things of the past have an uncanny way of coming back to life. I have a lot to say about these things and, with the end of (native) planting season upon me this week, I may be doing just that. But I won’t be doing that on social media. Sure, you may see these posts on Facebook or Twitter, but I’m not really there much anymore. After logging off Facebook for a year, I found I didn’t want to use it anymore. Facebook doesn’t create a feeling of belonging, it creates anxiety and depression. No wonder young people don’t want to use it anymore. Facebook’s troubles are deepening and it’s ridiculous foray into virtual reality will, we all hope cause its utter demise. Twitter stayed relevant for longer, but I am noticing many fewer posts from my friends there these days. Growth at both of these platforms has ceased, even reversed. So Elon Musk is buying Twitter. That’s the equivalent of buying a new gasoline car today, a dying platform terrible for the environment. Twitter is dying. If Elon brings back the seditious, short-fingered vulgarian now suffering through mid-stage dementia, it will just bring end Twitter to an end and wipe out his ludicrous $44 billion investment. Young people increasingly hate these platforms, regardless of what money-chasing analysts want you to believe. Yes, there are podcasts. I love them, but I worry about the effect of constant voices in my head, perhaps because I read Julian Jaynes many decades ago. There are Medium and Substack, but the endless demand for money is tiresome. You may read this on Substack. Great. But you don’t have to. Read it here instead.

The social media era is over. Long live the blog. My posts may be few and far between, they may be late, they may be bad, you may not read them but they are still something I own. I can say what I want, unbeholden to anyone else and I’m not going anywhere anytime soon.

On Drupal, or Wither Web 2.0?

With the end of the year approaching, I might as well begin my reflections with yet another rote lament for why I don't post enough anymore. Blogging is dead for many and has been dead now for about as long as it thrived. Somehow, I resolve, I'll turn back to blogging one day, but other things come first, like my kids, my project at MoMA, various projects at the Netlab, teaching, articles that I have neglected too long, writing my book, working on the restoration of my house and so on.

But every now and then it turn back to the Web, if not to blogging then to working on the infrastructure beneath my stable of Web sites. In this case, this morning I took the Networked Publics site and converted it to from a live Drupal installation to a static site. Networked Publics ceased to be live years ago as it was the record of a year-long workshop that took place from fall 2005 to fall 2006 and the book that came out of the workshop was published in 2008. Besides me the last log at Networked Publics comes from my late colleague and friend Anne Friedberg some six years, twenty-four weeks ago. I find it sad that the group we formed doesn't stay together virtually, but such, I suppose, is the nature of scholarly collaborations involving individuals from radically disparate fields. Still, as a historian, the record of a year spent by a team of scholars investigating a topic seems worth paying a few dollars to keep registered so I spent a couple of hours to ensure the site wouldn't be tied to an aging Drupal 6 infrastructure.  

Looking back at the low-fi Web 2.0 site and the low-fi videos on it, it already seems like ancient history. But this was the state of the art not 15 or 20 years ago but rather a mere eight years ago. The trends that the Networked Publics group identified—the rise of DIY media in particular—are now not the province of nerds and geeks but rather part of our everyday lives. It's stunning to think back and remember showing the group the first video iPod that I had purchased soon after its release that year. Such, I suppose is the process of aging in the technological future. One gauges oneself as much by the personal milestones one experiences as by the tech one leaves behind.  

For me, development on Drupal has become something to leave behind as well. Last year I concluded my development of Docomomo-us.org, which I had transitioned from outdated custom cgi code to Drupal back in 2006, by having Jochen Hartmann take over as web developer and earlier this year I replaced the Drupal sites for both AUDC and the Netlab with sites driven by Indexhibit. This process of steadily whittling down my Drupal sites means that this remains the only one I have left (minus the seriously neglected Lair of the Chrome Peacock). 

But this isn't a mere status update regard the infrastructure of these sites. Changes in infrastructure, as my readers should know, are never innocent, but rather embody ideological and social changes. When I first came to Drupal back in 2005, I was encouraged by the ease of extending the system and its Open Source development. For a time I was active in the community at Drupal. Not being much of a coder anymore, I asked questions, gave suggestions, and helped out with some problems people had on the forums, but it became clear to me that most people on Drupal's communty site fell into three categories. Those just starting out, those trying to help out as they could (and usually fleeing when they felt overwhelmed… this typically happened after they had submitted a new module or theme), and those who were either dedicated hobbyists or worked with Drupal for a living. Not being part of the latter two, I wound up retreating.

As a designer, I had this foolish idea that my site should look the way I want it to look so I spent a ridiculous amount of time tweaking these sites by building themes for them and outfitting them with extensions called "modules." Unfortunately in an effort to optimize its code base, the developers of Drupal have adopted a mantra which states that "the drop is always moving" which simply means that Drupal will actively break any themes and modules during each major point release. The result is that I found myself needing a month of down time to upgrade my sites from Drupal 5 to Drupal 6. For a scholar to do this is preposterously difficult. For a scholar with kids to do this is virtually impossible. 

Drupal 7 came out a while back, but lacking any compelling features, I chose not to upgrade. After all, a month of down time just to get back to where I was is hardly attractive. Now Drupal 8 promises adaptive themes that will appropriately react to the mobile platforms that increasingly drive Web traffic so I am likely to go to it, but even though new development was frozen in the system a year ago, it seems far from prime time. I spent more than half an hour today looking for a release date for the first beta and couldn't find anything but long-outdated information. If this site is to be believed, there are more critical bugs in Drupal 8 today than a year ago. 

Therein lies the trouble with Drupal and modern coding: immense complexity (see my comments on complexity at Triple Canopy). Projects of this size become impossible to manage, impossible to code, and impossible for users to work with. My front page is aging, an artifact from an era in which laptops commonly had screens with a resolution of 1024 X 768 not 1920 X 1200 (as my current one does) but to redo when it will only break again soon seems ludicrous. Perhaps I'll use another system like WordPress to run this site or maybe I'll pickle it and fork off to another platform. Any of this is possible, but I'll hardly recommend Drupal to anyone again or do anything but build the most minimal theme I can for it.  

Beyond a stern caution about the complexity that Open Source projects can generate and that can choke them, as Drupal has been choked, for all of the technological maturation that we've seen over the years since Networked Publics, the one thing that we've drifted away from is Web presence. If the static Web marked the 1990s, Web 2.0's dynamic Web sites dominated the time in which we wrote Networked Publics. Bringing varnelis.net back to life with Drupal in 2005, I envisioned it as part of an interlinked ecology of sites, both local (AUDC, DoCoMoMo-US, the Netlab, etc.) but also global, interlinking to other sites through RSS feeds and commenting systems. This hasn't happened, to this site or any other. Web 2.0's strongest links such as social bookmarking (repeated problems with Delicious at the hands of Yahoo! and AVOS and the meltdown at ma.gnolia) and RSS suffered a similar fate after Google Reader shut down this summer. As Open Source withers when it becomes over-complex, struggling corporations like Yahoo! and Google undo matters in their binge and purge cycles, buying up whatever they can in hopes of monetizing the Web and then wiping out communities when they turn out to be too hard to profit from.    

Instead of the open Web then, we have apps and the privatized, Balkanized world they promise. It's hard not to be gloomy about this, hard to find a happy face to put on all this. Perhaps that is my wont, but sometimes there isn't one. The problems of cooperation, collaboration, and democratic decision-making remain the thorniest of problems for Networked Publics. 

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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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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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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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On Owls, Starchitects, Papers & Growth Machines

When philosophy paints its gray in gray, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy’s gray in gray it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.

In perhaps his most eloquent moment, Hegel was referring to the way that philosophy came to an understanding of topics precisely at the moment that they were no longer relevant.

An example of this would be the explosion of visual studies in the 1990s just at the moment when two centuries of the visual being a cultural dominant were being eclipsed by the rise of the non-visual, by the code and procotols of network culture. Nobody talks much about visual studies anymore.

But it isn’t just philosophy and theory that operate this way. It’s a phenomenon we see in culture over and over. Milton Friedman (and Time Magazine) declared We are all Keynesians now just as the long postwar boom expired.

Or look at how stores like Barnes and Noble appeared, carrying huge amounts of books and magazines just as print began its terminal decline. Or the appearance of the SUV right before peak oil (I have friends who bought those things and used them for everyday driving…crazy!).

So what about Starchitects? There has certainly never been an explosion of interest in Starchitects like there has been today. But when the economy recovers (and I think that will be a long, long time from nunless the government comes up with another unhealthy quick fix), I’m not so sure we’ll have starchitects anymore.

The reason is simple: newspapers made starchitects. It’s common knowledge that recent construction by major cultural institutions was driven by the desire to make it to the front page of the New York Times. This could only be guaranteed if the architect was Gehry, Herzog and de Meuron, Koolhaas, Hadid, Nouvel, and Foster (some of these names may change a little, a second tier includes Piano, Morphosis, Sejima, Ito, and I’m sure a couple of others that I forgot). I have friends who work with such institutions and they were commonly told that the project had to be on the front page.

This is not surprising. Newspapers are key institutions for the growth machine (see more here). They seek to drive growth, making it seem natural and promoting it, generally regardless of the cost. They are where the growth machine sees itself and celebrates itself.

But now, eviscerated by bad financial models and online publications, newspapers are dying. Certainly blogs have encouraged Starchitecture a bit, but in many cases—such as at Archinect—they did so in part because they are in the business of linking to content from newspapers. In many cases bloggers are more critical of starchitecture than newspaper critics are. Blogs are bottom-up, newspapers are top-down. Thus blogs are snarky, newspapers are proper. Blogs also have comments so when a blogger gets something wrong, a reader can call it out.

As you may read on twitter, the media is dying. As big papers start to shut down or go to online-only formats in the coming years, will starchitects disappear as well? I can’t imagine that the heads of major cultural institutions will insist on architects who will ensure their buildings be mentioned on Archinect.

If they do, what will take their place, a Warholian YouTube-style culture of young architects being famous for 15 minutes? Or will architects begin to specialize toward niche audiences, much as blogs do?

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A Modest Proposal for Social Networks or, How This Could be the Next Facebook

I’m still trying to catch up with my big blog post (maybe a white paper?) on the research we did on Networked Publics and the Infrastructural City, so bear with me. In the meantime, how about some pie-in-the-sky ideas about Web 3.0 (so sorry)?  

A couple of weeks ago, Traction Software’s Jordan Frank wrote an intelligently-written post titled "Wither Web 2.0 Social Networking? My 2 Cents." Jordan begins with a series of gloomy links on the failure of social networking technology to monetize. It’s pretty obvious to those of you on Twitter or on Facebook…we use these sites all the time. Some 150 million people subscribe to Facebook and half of them use it every day. It costs a lot of money to run Facebook’s servers (the photo below is of some of the over 10,000 servers Facebook uses) and back in 2007, Fishtrain calculated that the server cost alone was around $1.05 a user and of course there are employees, office space, and so on.

In other words, that’s crazy money and for social networks to stay afloat, they are going to have to make some real cash fast. Facebook could well be racing the New York Times for which one will shut its doors first.

facebook's server room

Advertising is the hitch here. Social networks, search engines, and of course newspapers and magazines have long relied on advertising to fund their businesses, but as advertisers are able to see results more directly than ever before, they find that perhaps ads—especially the sort of relatively unobtrusive ads that appear on social networks…but that users still hate—aren’t really generating the kind of results they want.

Remember "it’s all about eyeballs?" I remember doe-eyed business school graduates telling me that a decade ago and look how far that went…

User fees are certainly possible but extremely unlikely, in my opinion, to succeed.

Instead, here’s a thought experiment. With millions of blogs and content-management-driven Web sites out there (like this one, but also online user communities), what if social networks left the corporate-owned ghetto? What if a set of tools were developed—OpenId being only the first one—to allow all the goodies of social networking sites—meeting friends, posting profiles, tracking online actions, sending dumb gifts, unfriending people, posting kid photos, poking—to spread across the Web? How different would this be than losing America Online, Compuserve, and the various online services of the 1980s and early 1990s? What if all this social networking stuff just went into the cloud—not a cloud owned by Amazon or Google—but a cloud owned by everyone? A few new tools and Drupal 9.0 could certainly do this, I think. 

Surely some important technological breakthroughs would have to be made to make this a reality, but really, why not? 

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prss release

For those of you who don’t subscribe to blogs via RSS and even for those who do, Prss Release aggregates the contents of a number of architecture blogs into an elegant, downloadable weekly PDF. More confirmation of my suggestion that 2008 will be the year that blogs stop looking like blogs.

As blogs mature, I expect we will be seeing more experiments like this. 


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on intellectual property, my intellectual property

2008/02/13 UPDATE: The author of the piece kindly emailed me with an apology and corrected the issue. I don’t feel I need to keep the link to the piece in this post anymore now that it’s fixed (it’s pointing a finger at something that isn’t a problem anymore) and since the piece was well-written and provocative, I fully intend to get back to it in a later posting of my own. 

This morning, Adam pointed me to a recent piece on computing and the city. Since Adam doesn’t see the images on my site with his RSSreader (hey, Adam, you need to adjust your NetNewsWire settings or upgrade!), he had no idea that the piece used one of my images (my photo from If You See Something, Say Something) without what I consider proper attribution. This led to a long chat about questions of intellectual property, which led to the following post.   

The above piece does link to the blog post from which the photo is taken and no doubt there will be a small spike of readers looking at that older post out of curiosity. But the link comes after the photo, in another sentence. It’s not clear that the photo and the URL are linked directly. Instead, the photos all appear in the classic form of illustrations and my assumption as a reader is that the author took all of them.  

I appreciate the back and forth dialog as well as every link I get. I do take the time to find out who’s linking to me via an RSS feed I have set up through technorati and, less frequently, my stats pages. Most of the time, I add whatever blog made the link to me to my feeds, at least for a while. I’ve learned a great deal that way and it’s a key reason I keep at this. 

To be clear even though my work as a photographer is increasingly gaining in recognition, I don’t mind people using my images. I license them under Creative Commons sharealike, noncommercial attribution. Doing so is, I think, critical to the free flow of ideas and media in our networked society.

Moreover, from time to time I will borrow an image from another site. I will do so only under the following circumstances.

1) I directly know the author/owner and either have asked them or assume it won’t bug them since I mention their name and, 90% of the time, am focussing on whatever it is I am poaching.

Example: I didn’t specifically mention it to Miltos, but I don’t think he will have issues with the post Miltos Manetas Paints Cables since I am using his image to lure people to his fabulous work but if I illustrated the Undersea Net with his image and didn’t ask him or explicitly attribute it, well, I think he should call me out). 

2) The image is used under the idea of intellectual fair use. This is much trickier and I shy away from it as much as possible. In general, I will only use an image in this case without asking directly if it is owned by something big (e.g. Apple, Google, maybe the New York Times) and if I absolutely need to use it. If I do this, I will mention where I got the link from. 

In the case of If You See Something, Say Something, Part 2, I thought about including a shot from the video I referenced, but even though I think that would have been fair use, I decided not to and just put in the link.

The way that Geoff does this over at BLDGBLOG seems fair to me. He captions each image with a link back to the site he took it from and usually he is saying nice things about the image anyway (see #1).  

What bugs me is that there was no direct attribution in this case. To a casual reader, it appears that the photo was taken by the author. The link afterwards is incidental. I could have sent an e-mail to the author, but this is a more important issue that readers should know about, so hence this post. 

When so many of us make indirect revenues from our blogs by generating cultural capital, either as academics, journalists, or industry players, we are already blurring the boundaries of what is and what isn’t commercial. If it’s a 12 year old poaching an image that they got through Google images, I don’t care. But if you’re playing in the same playpen as me, I do. If you get 100 hits a day, I don’t care. If you get over 2,000, well yes I do. 

So if you’re considering using my images, think about the fact that I just spent a half hour on this post. I do care about attribution. The work on this blog is licensed under the Creative Commons license "Attribution-Sharealike-Noncommercial," as is my FLICKR stream.  

Go ahead, use my work. I want you to. I could turn off your ability to use the images on my site with a simple switch, but I don’t. But spell my name right, link to the site, and please give clear attribution where attribution is due. 

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