On Hipster Urbanism

Over at Fantastic Journal, Charles Holland writes about hipster urbanism, comparing the High Line, which turns infrastructure into tourism with the reopening of a train line in east London as…get this: a train line.

Hipster urbanism is hardly rare anymore. A short while back, I enjoyed a stroll on the Walkway Over the Hudson, a former railroad bridge in upstate New York. Near where I live in New Jersey a project is underway for a train line that leads into Hoboken. The idea of building a bike path to the city is laudable. After all, I could get a Brompton and ride to the PATH train and head to Studio-X. But note that not only do trains still use the line, the train company that owns it expects that use will expand in the next few years. So is riding my bike to the city really the best use of the line? Maybe industry is old hat? 

[Walkway over the Hudson]

In the countries once known as the developed world, we’ve replaced productivity with tourism. This is a prime difference between modernism and its successors, postmodernism and network culture. Few modernists could have understood relinquishing production. Think of Tony Garnier’s fabulous Une Cité Industrielle, for example. Today, however, industry plays little role in (formerly) developed economies like the United States or the United Kingdom. In the case of the former, where finance generated roughly 12% of the GDP in 1980 and industry generated around twice that, today the figures are reversed… and this has only been exacerbated by the economic crisis. 

Remember the Roger Rabbit conspiracy theories that General Motors paid to destroy the train system to favor the automobile? It’s hardly so simple, but surely as we are heading into a new century, we wouldn’t want to exacerbate those mistakes, would we?  


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Terence Riley Drawing Attention to the Philip Johnson Tapes

Over at Bookforum, Terence Riley reviews the Philip Johnson Tapes. I am thoroughly delighted by the review. The Philip Johnson Tapes was fascinating to put together and its great that it’s getting some attention. 

Two things are worth expanding on. I certainly appreciated Riley’s point that at times the interviews "do little to make Johnson more accessible, underscoring instead how impossibly distant his life experience was from most of ours." Absolutely. As T. J. Clark has written, "modernity is our antiquity."  I am glad the book conveys the foreignness of that time to us.     

When Riley mentions that "the most rigorous of historians will have to look elsewhere" to fact-check certain information on Johnson, it’s unlikely that people will find much more. The archives have largely been exhausted and the team of researchers at Stern’s office did an first-rate job digging up what they could. Here and there, I’m sure we’ll find something, but on the whole, great mysteries are going to remain barring the release of unseen archival material. For example, what was Johnson doing translating Werner Sombart’s Weltanschauung, Science and Economy? What was his involvement with the Veritas press, which was, in part at least, sponsored by the Nazi government? How about his friendship with Viola Bodenschatz, wife of Major General Karl Bodenschatz, Hermann Goering’s top aide? Johnson’s life falls in the inconvenient period in which people neither communicated primarily via letters (his chief letter-writing phase ends around 1931, or so it seems) nor via e-mail but rather via telephone. To address that difficult time, as I explain in my conclusion to the book, historian Allan Nevins developed oral history. And so it is, that with the oral history of Johnson’s life in hand, we’re unlikely to get a whole lot more. 

Once again, for emphasis: modernity is our antiquity. 

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on fashion and history

In "We Are All Googie Now," over at Sit Down Man, You’re a Bloody Tragedy*, Owen Hatherely looks at roadside architecture in Southern California and concludes that contemporary neo-modernism has more in common with the Googie than with the classical modernism of the 1950s, e. g. the works of Mies, SOM, the Smithsons, Corbusier, and so on. I noticed this myself when I first moved to Los Angeles. Take a bit of easily-consumable architecture designed for viewing from the automobile—e. g. modernism reduced to logo—add some acid-addled Bucky Fuller forms, and you have an effective reduction of modernism to postmodernism. Owen is right that this is where neo-modernism comes from. Architecture is logo and little more.

But what about the repressed term? What about modernism? I had the good fortune of being taken to lunch at the Four Seasons the other day and it gave me the opportunity to reflect on high modernism. Given the other hats I wear at AUDC and the Netlab, people are sometimes surprised that I received a doctorate in the history of architecture and urbanism nearly fifteen years ago. But so it is, and perhaps the upcoming Johnson book will serve as a useful corrective. Anyway, one of my concerns as a historian is to articulate the distinct phases of modernism. We still lump modernism together in a naïve way when there is a big distinction to be made between the heroic modernism of the 1910s and 1920s and the high modernism of the 1950s. The former was marked by a belief in the possibilities of the avant-garde, that art could become sublated into life, that modern design could become everyday and with that, a spiritual transformation would take place. The latter came after the Depression and the War. If modernism was sold as producting a societal transformation, that transformation was now lessened, its promise of social and spiritual change reduced. Looking at the work of Mies at this point I discern not a faith in modernity, but a stoic understanding that modernity had been permanently damaged, that it could no longer deliver what was promised. Seagram is very different from Mies’s Friedrichstrasse skyscraper. If the latter was an irruption of a new order into the city, the former removes itself from the city, delivering no promises except that of endurance as a monument. Modernity was something Mies wanted no part of by this point.


curtains at the four seasons

Deconstructivist architecture replayed this moment, but in its agonism, made everything too clear, too legible. Adorno became Cobain, and the movement swiftly exhausted itself to be replaced by an easily consumed neo-modernism. Today’s architecture cares little about history. Koolhaas, who is one of the few architects who might still think in historical terms, came to an understanding of the contemporary condition in Junkspace, but rather than facing it, gave in. This is the neo-liberal approach—if everything is damned, enjoy your food and have dirty sex—and it too is ahistorical.

"We Are All Keynesians Now" was the title of a cover story in a 1965 Time Magazine, right before the economy expired. When I first saw this article described at Things Magazine, I was tired and misread it. I thought that Owen said we were all Google now, that the forms of Google’s offices have infected design. I suppose ultimately this is true as well, for Google comes out of the same Californian Ideology that neo-modernist design comes out of. Things suggested that architecture was now undone by its subservience to fashion, by being reduced to a backdrop for fashion (both clothing and design) magazines. 

So, berefit of history, architecture wants to operates under fashion.

But not so fast. Fashion and history cannot be easily separated. Fashion came about at the same time as history did—with the end of the aristorcracy and the beginning of the Enlightenment, as a means of legitimation for the competing classes. With the end of distinction under network culture, history is gone, but fashion is not far behind. If, as Wired magazine suggests, "Dressing For Success Means Looking Like Hell," (Obama being our last hope in even more ways, apparently), then architecture is not far behind and the fashion for architecture may soon be over. Let’s remember the fate of the Googie was to be forgotten. After a brief run, it was replaced by the more informal "environmental look" epitomized by McDonald’s in the 1970s. Brown mansard roofs, anti-architecture. The economy was similar, the national mood was similar (Vietnam->Iraq of course)  and architecture’s delirious run during the 1950s and 1960s parallels the run from the 90s to the present day.

Cementing this interpretiation, my misreading also evokes the collapse of the economic model that the network economy has been based on.  

We Are All Modernists Now. We Are All Keynesians Now.
We Are All Googie Now, We Are Alll Google Now.

Famous last words. 


*This is the best name for a blog. It could, in fact, be the name for most anything.

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