Last year, I had the honor of being interviewed by filmmaker Marc Lafia for a project examining the impact of networks on contemporary thought. This is an important project, which tackles the same issues that I'm tackling in my work on network culture.
Simply enough, as I say in the clip below, the network is becoming a cultural dominant. We are increasingly networks not just as technology of connectivity, but as a means of explaining and interpreting the world. Certainly, as we saw at Tahrir Square, networks can be liberatory, but they also provide an illusion of power and freedom that can be dangerously misleading. Producing a film on this topic is crucially important.
Check out this trailer.
Marc, Joanna (the producer), and their team are reaching out by Kickstarter with one day left. The project is fully funded already, but that funding was only the minimum needed to keep the project going. They not only interviewed me, they also interviewed Manuel Delanda, James Delbourgo, Anthony Pagden Michael Hardt, Saskia Sassen, Nishant Shah, Cathy Davidson, Geert Lovink, Wendy Hui Kyong Chung, Alex Galloway, Florian Cramer, and Natalie Jeremijenko.
Check out Empires above and, if you feel compelled, visit the Kickstarter site. If you read this blog, chances are you're going to want to see it.
I had the great pleasure of participating in “Thinking Big: Diagrams, Mediascapes and Megastructures,” a symposium on the work of Kevin Roche this past week. Sometimes people seem to be surprised that I’m interested in late modernism, or “corporate” architecture from the 1970s. Now, to be sure there’s some degree of nostalgia there for me, but I think my talk makes some links between then and now that should explain some of those interests. I’m publishing it on my site in hopes that you’ll enjoy and give me comments.
Kevin Roche and Late Modernism
In this talk I want to situate Kevin Roche’s work of the 1970s and 1980s within a theoretical context of late modernism.
The commonly accepted narrative for the history of postwar American architecture goes roughly as follows. During the 1960s, modern architecture—having identified too closely with big business and big government—ran aground. Only the experimentation of the New York Five, together with the development of postmodernism, got the discipline back on track. Obviously, such heroic narratives should always be regarded with suspicion.
In that history, late modernism barely warrants a mention except as a sort of zombie that continued after its time was up. It’s easy to convince yourself of this, take a look at the pages of Oppositions, the key critical journal of the day. It’s nowhere to be found. In one of the few works on the topic, Charles Jencks describes the Late Modernists as having “taken the theories and style of their precursors to an extreme and in so doing produced an elaborated or mannered Modernism.” In contrast to the postmodernists who produced buildings employing more conventional, historical allusions to form, Jencks argued, the late moderns limited their efforts to exaggerating the structure or technological image of a building.
But I think we can come to a more theoretically sound definition of Late Modernism than Jencks’s stylistic classification. If late modern comes after the exhaustion of the modern theoretical position, the cause is different than Jencks suggests. In the Architecture of Good Intentions, Colin Rowe points out that although modern architecture claimed to be based on reason, its adherents adopted a messianic conviction in the “good news” of its coming. Conveniently, Kevin Roche confirms this:
I grew up against a very Catholic background, in which one lived constantly in the fear of sin, sin which would destroy one. … What Mies did was to translate this feeling into architectural terms. He really created the idea of mortal sin in architecture and that there was a right way to do something and there was a wrong way. The wrong way was a loss of life. The right way was beautiful, divine. A world of absolute black and absolute white.
Now the generally accepted narrative suggests modernism failed, that the People’s Temple of modernism, too caught up in messianic fervor, annihilated itself.
But what if the break with modernism isn’t because it failed but because it succeeded?
I find it useful to employ T. J. Clark’s suggestion that modernism prophesized, even demanded the modernization of the world. Once modernism had won, sometime around the year 1960, something changed. Proclaiming the “good news” simply became passé. It might be possible, then, to associate this condition with the problem of the “end of ideology,” as pronounced by Daniel Bell for political history, also around that date. All this is of course also rather similar to the postwar economic condition that Ernest Mandel calls “late capitalism.” In Mandel’s reading, a postwar economy based on a third technological wave of information electronics but also, crucially on the thorough penetration of the world by capital.
In other words, Mandel’s late capitalism fits quite well with Clark’s observation that about the thorough modernization of the world. If in Fredric Jameson’s reading, capitalism’s thorough colonization of the world produces the cultural logic of postmodernism, what I want to argue here is that postmodernism is not the only logic of late capitalism, that late modernism is also a cultural logic of late capitalism and should be understood as such.
Read in the light of historical necessity, then, the critiques leveled against the conformist, rationalist structures of Fordist business and the functional structures of modernism can be understood not merely as reactions to an oppressive moment but also as internal critiques that allowed capitalism to make the transition to Post-Fordist organizational (and architectural) structures able to thrive in the more difficult environment of late capitalism.
So where does Roche fit into this? If he inherits a high modernist firm, as he hits his stride in the1970s, in the series of projects following the Ford Foundation, he makes a fundamental break with high modernism. Now by that point, Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities was already over a decade old and Philip Johnson’s break with Mies and functionalism was past history. Even Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction could be commonly found, if not on top of student desks, hidden underneath them. So what is Roche’s break and how is it different?
Let’s look at a few Roche buildings. Take the College Life Insurance Company Headquarters, the United Nations Plaza, the projects for downtown Houston and Denver designed for Gerald D. Hines, or the John Deere educational center.
Don’t spend much time looking at these. Look fast.
In passing, you will have observed two things: simple, geometric forms and structures that might seem to be informed by postmodernism. But Roche is up to something else entirely. In the interview with Francesco dal Co in the 1985 monograph of his work, Roche reflects on the skyscraper, explaining “There is no indigenous form to the high-rise building. It has no essential form. It literally can be almost anything. The technology is such that without the expenditure of additional money it can be almost anything.” We can confirm this isn’t off the cuff by observing that Roche employs nearly identical phrasing in “Statements for History,” a 1984 tape made for Monica Pidgeon, suggesting that “…one of the characteristics of a high rise building is that there is almost no preordained form for it. It can be almost anything you wish it to be because the engineering is such that it is as easy to build it one way as another.”
In other words, advances in building technology allow Roche to let form and function to go their separate ways. Still for an architect educated in modernism, this might appear to be a vertiginous condition. If the primary dictum of modernism no longer held, then on what basis would it be possible to design?
Roche responds that the architect needs to turn to identity, to produce a distinctive building that can provide an identity for a corporation. But matters are complicated by the late modern condition. For one, the growing automobility in American culture determines the ways in which buildings are perceived. Roche explains of College Life Insurance,
“we have about 3 seconds to identify some kind of an image for the building group so this is a rather strong formalist image of a glass building with rather solid concrete walls. It is of course entirely functional but it is arranged in such a way as to be an arresting combination of forms…”
Of General Foods, he explains,
“the few seconds that you have to see this building, it’s on axis of a major highway in new york state and as you barrel down the highway you suddenly round the corner and there’s this building and you say to yourself well what is this and it clearly isn’t a warehouse it clearly isn’t a church it is something else and that something else we then try to identify with the company and with the headquarters function very much in the sense that the castle or the chateau in France is an administrative center for the community the modern corporation is a kind of administrative center for a different community, it is a place where you have an organized structure, it has a presence on the landscape which is very similar.”
Contrast this with Jencks and Robert Venturi, even Peter Eisenman, who argue for a sustained reading of a building to fully understand it. Instead of complexity and multivalency or contradiction and double-coding, Roche argues for rapid legibility.
But not every Roche project is meant for high-speed viewing. How do we explain United Nations Plaza or the Federal Reserve Bank?
We can shed light on Roche’s strategies and their difference from both modernism and postmodernism by turning to the theories of Marshall McLuhan. For McLuhan, of course, the saturation of post-1960s society suggests a shift from Hot to Cool, that is from media that demand high levels of attention to media that demand lower levels of attention, from media of high definition to media of low definition.
If this seems like reaching, let’s turn to Roche again.
… we are competing in world in which it is very difficult to penetrate the mist of images, and the perception of people is fogged substantially by the multiple images that they have to deal with. Because of this it is necessary at times, as it always is in art, to overstate the case in order to penetrate the fog.
… One frequently feels the need to overstate, in order to make a point at all, because if you make a point which is understated, it is very difficult for it to reach its audience; the noise level may be a little too low. That is a problem with all architecture today. Sometimes I choose to overstate, particularly when dealing with the highway and the automobile and the passing moment.”
In the oversaturated city, images come at you fast. This is architecture comes at you fast, but is overstated, thus leaving an afterimpression.
Now if at this point also Roche produces forms we would commonly identify as historicist, they are subject to the same seamless treatment that the works we would identify as sculptural are. So whereas the postmodernists reanimate historical forms, Roche unloads them, not to exalt them but to reduce them. Thus, in discussing the UN Plaza and the Morgan Bank, he states
They are both buildings which have usable floors that go to a certain number of stories in height. They have mechanical equipment. They have all the right dimensions. So, what is the appropriate expression? In one case, it was derived from minimal sculpture, in the other it was derived from a more historic, more refined kind of architectural geometry—the geometry of the column, which has a base, a shaft and a top. They are both the same building, you could exchange the interiors.
The column, which Roche first explores in depth at the Central Park Zoo, emerges, he states,
from the simple idea of chamfering a piece of stone to create a base and top between a brick shaft, and apply[ing] that form to a larger scale building…The columnar form that we are working with is a minimalist columnar form. It is as abstract as the form of the U.N. Plaza. … The Denver and Houston projects are very simple forms. Just a modernist box with a few cuts which switch the character entirely. It’s very interesting—if you start with a box, put a skin on it—it is a typical building from the fifties or sixties. Now nick the corners to imply a base and the same to imply a top, and if you slope the top a roof is created. But it is still minimalist sculpture. It is the same aesthetic. It is just a slight in language—quite different from the traditional skyscraper form.
Rather than taking the postmodern turn, what Roche is up to in these buildings is closer to what Claus Oldenburg does, producing legible, overscaled pieces (indeed, once again Roche beats me to the point, identifying Oldenburg as a parallel to his work).
Roche’s cool shaping thus anticipates the iconic structures so popular today among architects like Kazuyo Sejima, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, and Rem Koolhaas.
But not always. As Eeva pointed out, in structures like Richardson Vicks or Union Carbide, the client had no interest in an interface with the public so visual appearance gave way, producing anti-architecture, some of the more extreme versions of infrastructural architecture to date.
Still, such projects were not removed from mediation. Of Union Carbide, Roche explains.
Most suburbanites live in houses which have attached garages. In this arrangement, when they leave for work in the morning, walk through the kitchen, get into their car, drive into the building, get out and into their office—[you get] an immediate connection between their home and office.
Now Roche sends us for a twist. He continues.
Which raises an interesting question. Can we anticipate that with the development of electronic communications, that in the very near future there will be no need at all for people to get together in office buildings? Will people simply stay at home and save themselves all the trouble of traveling? Almost in anticipation of that, what we have done is take the library or den out of the home and put it in the office building. These offices are really a collection of private dens or little workspaces attached by the umbilical of the car, to the home now, but in the near future, maybe attached by the umbilical of electronic communications to the headquarters, and the headquarters, in fact, would become just the center of electronic communications.
“…many of the things we did at Carbide, we did also at General Foods. But there is a fundamental difference between them and that is that Carbide has no exterior image for the employee. It is in a sense a transfer of a living room or working space from home into a treehouse in the woods. The umbilical being the automobile. General Foods is a more positive place of arrival. It is a place that is written in your memory on the outside, a more traditional expectation; it is done for the automobile. There is a front door and you drive into it. … Carbide could have been built as General Foods or vice versa. It wasn’t appropriate to do so … because Union Carbide did not want such a presence. General Foods couldn’t avoid it. It had a smaller site out on a highway. They couldn’t avoid being seen. They had to be seen.
At Carbide the worker goes from television screen to computer screen by means of the windshield, the building compresses into infrastructure. Hidden in the woods, Carbide is a step along the way to a network culture, to a re-envisioning of architecture as media and electronic technology that a future generation will have to take on.
 Charles Jencks, Late-Modern Architecture and Other Essays (New York: Rizzoli, 1980), 10.
It will be my charge to edit articles on Web sites, films, software, digital books, databases, and other media at a moment in which my field is undergoing a revolutionary transition. I am in debt to Beatriz for paving the way by creating a stellar review section, to David Brownlee, JSAH editor for inviting me to take part in his journal, and to Dean Wigley for his support in this new endeavor.
If you are a historian of architecture and you read my blog, please do contact me using the form on the left. This is a most exciting appointment.
I’ve had my iPad for a short while and am enjoying it immensely. Anecdotally speaking, I’ve noticed that people who don’t immediately understand how they would want one wind up taking them back to the store or, if they didn’t purchase one, sometimes even get hostile (sometimes, even when they should know better because, say, they teaching in the digital media field).
There’s no question anymore that this is a successful implementation of a computing typology that is fundamentally different from either a laptop or a desktop. A tablet computer that is ready to go at a moment notice is great for looking up recipes in the kitchen, for reading a newspaper or a book in the subway, and perfect for taking notes in lectures. It’s much less intrusive than a laptop, which can’t be held in one hand when standing and creates a barrier between the individual and others in a seminar or classroom. The multitouch interface works much better on the iPad than it does on the iPhone. Of the two, the latter seems like the unit I can more easily live without.
I take immense pleasure in being able to haul around hundreds of books in a device that weighs less than a copy of Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism book and occupies less space. Highlighting isn’t available yet, but it will be soon and with it, full-text search. At that point, the transformation of academic books into immaterial objects will be just a matter of time. I used to care a great deal accumulating a library at home, but if I can have one with me in my bag, then which is more useful?
Still, don’t get me wrong. If a comparable product emerges from another vendor, I will defect immediately. I’m no great fan of the walled garden of applications that Apple has created, nor am I a fan of their "Father Knows Best" attitude toward the user. But everything so far is still vaporware or much less capable, so I’m stuck with the iPad for now.
As promised in the title of this piece, there IS a fatal flaw to the iPad, only it’s fatal not to Apple but to the media. There has been a lot of noise about how the iPad would give the media one more chance to survive. I was dubious that the iPad would play Jesus to the media to begin with, but now that Apple has banned applications developed by Adobe’s Flash Packager for iPhone, it’s game over.
Where a periodical previously would have been able to develop an issue in Indesign, distribute it in print and over the net, convert it to Flash for non-Apple devices and use Flash Package for Apple devices, now the latter are inaccessible unless the media developer hand codes the application. This is much, much harder. At the Netlab, for example, we would have loved to produce periodicals, pamphlets, and books to read on the iPad using a workflow consisting of Indesign, Flash, and the media packager, but now this is impossible. I’m not lamenting this too much. It’s disappointing, but our material will appear on the Web and as PDFs.
I see no great reason to complain. The Netlab doesn’t make money off its publications. But what about commercial periodicals? They’ll have to struggle to monetize content on the iPad and that difficulty—precisely at a time when they’re struggling just to stay afloat—will prove fatal for many. The rapid pace of creative destruction moves on.
"I am unpacking my library. Yes, I am." That’s how Walter Benjamin begins the essay which, not surprisingly, he calls "Unpacking My Library." Benjamin, whose library has been packed in boxes during two years of instability caused by personal and political troubles, recalls his intellectual development as he pulls books out one by one. Each book reminds him of where he bought it, why he bought it, and his frame of mind at the time. Thinking of himself as a specimen of that twentieth-century type, the collector, Benjamin writes
…ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them. So I have erected one of his dwellings, with books as the building stones, before you, and now he is going to disappear inside, as is only fitting.
The library, Benjamin’s passage suggests, is not only a data bank, it is an mnemonic device for an intellectual’s life.
Like many days this year, I find myself in the same situation as Benjamin. When we moved from Los Angeles, I decided to put most of my books in storage, leaving them in boxes in the basement. The official story I told was that we would be moving out of the place we were renting into a permanent home soon and it would be too much of a hassle to unpack all of the books only to repack them a few years later. Moreover, with a toddler around the house, the books would be sitting targets.
But this was only a ruse. I had decided long ago that it was time to rid myself of these things. Moving from Los Angeles only confirmed my feelings. After the movers had gone, I looked at my apartment and thought about the shelves that once lined them, stuffed full with books.
"The modernists had it right all along," I said to myself, "but damn them. They wrote too many books." I resolved to do something about this.
With three of my own books published last fall, my pace slowed from frantic to manic and I had some time in the evenings to unpack my library, but not to lovingly put it back on the shelves as Benjamin did. Instead, I would sell it off mercilessly.
As I unpack a book, I evaluate it. What are the chances that I’ll want to read it again? If not (and in most cases I am not going to read a book that has sat in a box for two years anytime in the near future), I enter the book’s ISBN code into a Web page on Amazon.com, describe its condition, and assign a price, which according to an unwritten code shared among the more honorable book sellers on Amazon, will be a penny less than the least expensive exemplar of that book already on sale. When an order comes, I have a procedure set up. I print out the packing slip, put the book in an appropriate envelope, weigh it, and then print out a mailing label on a label printer. On average I sell a book or two a day, but as I put more of my library up for sale, the number of books I sell rises. The curious can see what I have for sale here.
[not my library but rather Philip Johnson’s]
Into my thirties, this would have been foreign for me. My father is an artist and a book collector although he prefers the term bibliophile. His collections are not insignificant and are on display in Vilnius, Lithuania in a museum dedicated to them (together with his art work) and have been the topic of a dissertation at Vilnius University. Emulating him, I began collecting books as a child, although sadly all of those were discarded over the years by my parents (from a psychoanalytic point of view, I suspect my past and present attitude toward book collecting is related to this loss). From the 1980s through the late 1990s, I built a small library of art, architecture, and theory books, perhaps four or five thousand volumes, along with a reasonable collection of records and CDs. In this, I could empathize with both Benjamin and my father.
But things are different now. Benjamin was only twenty-five years older than my father and they shared the same world. Book were precious objects, defined by their scarcity. The bookstore, particularly the used bookstore run by a keen-eyed bookseller in a large city, was a shrine for them.
My moment is quite different. Today virtually any book is available on the Internet for a few dollars and a few days wait. Used book stores are disappearing. London’s famed Charing Cross, mecca for the book lovers from around the world, is all but defunct.
[another image from Johnson’s library]
The musty smell of the used bookstore fades from my memory. I can’t recall the last time I went into one for pleasure. Perhaps a decade ago in Los Angeles? I remember the bitterness that I felt when I tried to sell a box of art boxes to that bookseller and he offered me twenty dollars. I knew that I had spent dozens of times that amount on the books within and I knew he would retain a substantial margin. Of course he had to eat and he employees and rent to pay, but nevertheless I left in disgust. I was a good customer but I wouldn’t return. On Amazon, my books sell for a sizable fraction of their original price. Some books, out of print but still in demand, sell for much more.
Today if I need a book, I can guarantee that it will be here in a matter of days. So why should I hang on to it when I am done with it? It’s better to pass it on into the hands of someone else who wants it enough to pay for it.
There is no question that I lose memories as I sell off my unwanted books, but there are other considerations. My father is proud of his collection—after all it is part of the Lithuanian National Museum now—but he is also melancholy. The amount of matter to haul around and preserve weighs heavily on the soul. Selling my books allows me to realize, if even partially, Superstudio’s greatest dream: life without objects.
The global continuum of information and product flow that we live in means anything is available to anyone at any time. When that is possible, the need for permanent ownership ceases. Does life become a constant field of variation, our possessions an endlessly reconfigurable but minimal set of objects?
Polymeme brought me to this post by Ethan Zuckerman, about the irrationality of newspaper advertising in a pay-for-performance world. I was interested to hear mention of the Berkshire Eagle, which was the local paper when I was growing up. In a nutshell, Zuckerman suggests that in an advertising world in which performance can be measured, the high costs of ads doesn’t support the expenditures required to publish the Eagle or, for that matter, the New York Times. Now it’s worth mentioning that the Berkshire Eagle is, as far as newspapers go, a hold-out of real local news in a relatively intelligent part of the country and that localism may go a long way to explaining the high cost of the ads. Still, Zuckerman has a good point: earlier models of cultural production don’t pay anymore.
But new models of cultural production don’t pay either. Although new models of cultural production employ a certain number of people, as Zuckerman points out with regard to his own online citizen media venture, the efficiency they create means they can run much more leanly than previous models and still reach the same audience numbers.
This sounds great, but what happens to the other jobs? Unfortunately, they aren’t needed anymore. New models of cultural production have streamlined them out of existence as effectively as the most ruthless downsizing strategies of the 1980s did to blue-collar jobs.
So now what? If employment in industry is long gone, is in free fall in finance, real estate, and construction, and is rapidly contracting in cultural production on what basis do economies exist?
My sense is that the long boom was not just the product of speculation. Rather, much of that speculation came out of a collective belief that technologies was leading to new efficiencies. This helped fuel the boom as some corporations were able to take advantage of that condition. But now what? The efficiency is largely there (unless you really think we need video teleconferencing, which I’ve had on my machine for three years now and used all of twice), the jobs have been eliminated, but the growth is gone. Is there any way to restart it?
This is a fundamental theoretical problem with Network Culture and I’m afraid I don’t see an easy answer out there.
I’m starting off the New Year in appearances by moderating A Few Zines: Dispatches from the Edge of Architectural Production at Studio-X accompanying Mimi Zeiger’s exhibit on the topic. Over the next week I’ll have a few posts relating it to the work we did in Networked Publics. In the meantime, see Mimi’s blog for more.
A Few Zines: Dispatches from the Edge of Architectural Production
January 8–February 28, 2009
In the 1990s, zines such as Lackluster, Infiltration, loud paper, Dodge City Journal and Monorail subverted traditional trade and academic architecture magazine trends by crossing the built environment with art, music, politics and pop culture—and by deliberately retaining and cultivating an underground presence. Much has been made of that decade’s zine phenomenon—inspiring academic studies, international conferences and DIY workshops—yet little attention has been paid to architecture zine culture specifically, or its resonance within architectural publishing today.
A Few Zines: Dispatches from the Edge of Architectural Production does both. Rather than attempting to present an exhaustive retrospective of architecture zine culture, it highlights complete runs of several noted zines that began in the nineties. The exhibition also features contemporary publications that continue to draw inspiration from the self-publishing tradition, such as Pin-Up, Sumoscraper, and Thumb.
To launch this exhibit, curator Mimi Zeiger has published a new issue of loud paper and organized a party and panel discussion, including:
PBS's Frontline carried another fantastic episode today, "the Persuaders," on advertising today.
In 1957, Vance Packard wrote "The Hidden Persuaders" on how corporations employed subliminal techniques. Do the Persuaders really need to be hidden anymore? Frontline finds out. As usual, the show has an impressive web site with discussions between key analysts, supplemental material, opportunities to speak out, and the entire show online (just in cased you missed it).