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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On Architectural Photography Today

As my readers know I am writing a book on network culture* this year. In writing about architecture under network culture, it struck me that the role of architectural photography has changed.

During postmodernism it seemed to observers that architecture was being produced more and more for photography. Kenneth Frampton dubbed architectural photography "an insidious filter through which our tactile environment tends to lose its responsiveness" and complained that the actual buildings that looked so seductive in photographs often were poorly detailed. Fredric Jameson suggested that "it is the value of the photographic equipment you consume first and foremost, not its objects." Under network culture, architecture photography becomes freed from architecture.

To be sure, photographers, particularly members of the Frankfurt School such as Andreas Gursky, Laurenz Berges, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth (and with even if he is an exception due to the constructed nature of his environments, Thomas Demand), have given new, sustained focus on architecture as a subject. Architecture, in this sense, becomes not a matter to represent, but rather a way to represent the delirium of globalized space today. As they do so, these photographs also allude nostalgically to the ambitions of modernism—many of these photographers directly invoke the modern past with their subject matter—and to a time in which architecture was our primary spatial experience of the world, grounding us. 

Still, architecture itself seems to have worked free of architectural photography. No new generation has come up to replace the great late modernist architectural photographers: Marvin Rand, Julius Schulman, and Ezra Stoller. The architecture of network culture has a certain hostility to the photograph, generally refusing—even more than modernist works—to allow for a single viewpoint. The well-worn patch of grass at the Villa Savoye, is foreign to structures like Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, FOA’s Yokohama Terminal, or OMA’s Casa da Musica at Porto. After all, the Bilbao-Effect only works on such structures if they are visited in person whereas many of the icons of postmodernism were private structures and museums had not yet understood the potential of a global tourist draw.

Thus, if the architectural photograph is still necessary so that such works can appear on front page of the New York Times, its less of a self-sufficient sign and more a pointer, an advertisement. This is not to say that the architecture of network culture is not designed on the screen. After all, it but the postmodern role of the fixed architectural photograph as a driver for building design is over.   






*I am also excited to be teaching a seminar on the topic at Columbia this fall. 


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deferred action


In response to a reader’s request, I have posted my 1999 essay Postmodern Permutations to the site. It was good to revisit this nearly decade-old work that came at a crucial moment for me. In the essay I am still concerned first and foremost with architecture. I have not yet begun the move into my broader research emphasis on architecture’s role in urbanism or into computation and networks. But the essay is consciously framed within the context of dot-com Los Angeles. This is already after the demise of Assemblage and the exhaustion of a certain critical project in architecture, but unlike the purveyors of post-criticism (note: when is the last time that term still seemed current?), who largely formulated their project a few years later, my interest lay in complicating matters not simplifying them. 
As my project this year is to continue my work on Network Culture, looking back at that issue, I can see the importance of periodization to me already. I begin the essay by recounting my students’ bafflement at my asking them what period they live in (modern, postmodern or other). To a degree, I misread the signs, arguing that in fact we were postmodern and that stylistic postmodernism could now be dispensed with in favor of a more complex and postmodern relation between architecture and capital. Now, in a sense I was right. The post-critical obsession with capital highlights this. Read in the context of this essay, post-criticism is a last moment of postmodern culture. As readers of my network culture work know, our cultural dominant is the network. Post-criticism now seems adrift against the demands of a new culture emerging from the context of the infomatic realm. My students were already telling me that we were not postmodern and that we were in another time altogether. 
But there’s another dimension to the article.
I don’t have the capacity to incorporate the student work that accompanied the piece. For that you will have to go to the issue of Thresholds itself. But I was able to scan and OCR a small section of that text and reproduce it for you here: 
The SCI-Arc project "Sampling Linux" represented on the opposite page and throughout this article is Rocio Romero’s reaction to the impact of post-Fordist capital on design, and her propositions for other, future forms of design methodology and practice. Inspired by the Utopian possibilities inherent in late capital, Romero proposes a new model for architectural practice. This model explores forms of consumption and production on the Internet for which capital has literally become superfluous, even an impediment. If the Internet can be seen as the furthest elaboration of the Post-Fordist service economy, it can also be seen as an anticipation of a future stage of culture in which capital has withered away. This exploration led to the copyright-free Linux, an "Open Source" version of the UNIX operating system hacked together for personal computers. Linux avoids capital to an even greater extent than the academy, the former, self-proclaimed locus of resistance. Proponents of Open Source software make what they need for themselves and share it. When traditional software companies offer to produce software for Linux, they often find the only way to succeed is to make their software free. This might be the beginning of a new, even more pervasive form of capital, but it could also be the beginning of a new Utopian impulse-one in which capital, pushed to its furthest extreme, becomes pure information.
-Kazys Varnelis
Open source and networks paid off for me. And what of my student? Although she hasn’t ventured back into open source, Rocio instead developed her research with prefab. To be sure, prefab is not the same thing as open source, but nevertheless it is a much more advanced way of thinking about architecuture in that it posits object-oriented thinking over the repetitive redesigning necessitated by animation software. While I haven’t seen her in a few years, I hope to see Rocio this weekend at one of her LV Homes in the greater New York area this weekend. Rocio’s work has been featured in a lengthy piece in the New Yorker by Paul Goldberger, in Dwell, and in many other venues and she’s one of the most succesful students to ever graduate from SCI_Arc. 
It’s fascinating to see where things wind up, years later. 


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