On Restructuring

I’m always pleasantly surprised when the New York Times gets a story right, so today, with the government releasing its statistics about high unemployment, I was impressed to see that they published this piece: Crushing Job Losses May Signal Broader Changes. I would agree completely. This is not a temporary recession that will end in two years, at the end of which the jobs will magically reappear.

Instead, we are seeing a second wave of restructuring akin to what we saw in the 1980s. Most of the jobs being shed now are history. Certainly a large number of these are in manufacturing: positions that survived earlier cutbacks being made redundant. But we are also seeing something new: the masters of the universe are in trouble. Financial jobs are coming undone and there is nothing to replace them. From Wall Street to Dubai, these jobs are going away forever and with them, the lavish lifestyles that propped up architecture and design (sorry Mitchell Moss). At least architects and designers have some real skills that can be applied elsewhere, given some reorientation and retraining. It doesn’t look so pretty for those people involved in finance. But make no mistake, Richard Florida’s creative class took this one on the chin. Restructuring is going to hit them hard. Working at the ad agency sure beats handing out parking tickets.

There’s more too. Crime in cities has fallen due to two reasons: the poor have been driven out by neoliberal policies of segregation-via-high-rents, a reasonable abundance of marginal jobs that make crime less attractive, and an escalated police presence. During a protracted recession, the marginal jobs are going to go away while police budgets will shrink, and the result will inevitably be a rising crime rate. Another trigger to higher crime will be the changing demographics in the cities. Some inner-ring suburbs (and more distant places too, welfare cities like Newburgh, NY) will become more dangerous and, lacking a good tax base, will see huge increases in crime and collapses in their school systems. The result will be a return of the poor to the cities, particularly of parents of school age children, hoping to take advantage of better schools and the lure of jobs, few though they may be. But that without the marginal jobs, the crime rate will escalate further and so it goes.

Is there an easy solution to this? No. We have wasted the mad money of the last two decades on starchitecture and jet skis instead of a physical and social infrastructure that would allow us to deal with the realities of the city. It’s going to be a long process of rebuilding and, given the bad politics of both parties (albeit especially the Republicans), the odds are against us.

Delirious though it was, this was a golden age for cities. The last time was probably the 1950s and before that the 1920s. You very well may not see another one like this in your lifetime.    

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Take a Break, Babu

Updated: See below.

Hot on the heels of the last post… I couldn’t help but let out a squeal of delight that one of the two greatest symbols of the decadence of architecture and the bubble economy, the Burj Dubai, is on hold for a year. Poor Babu can finally come down. 

Will it ever restart? How long can a building of that height be left idle before it goes Ryungyong? 

Quick: which is which?  

burj dubairyungyong

Photo of Ryungyong by Pricey. Photo of Burj Dubai by Orbit 77


Update. Alas, I am wrong again. It turns out the Burj Dubai is not shuttered. Andrew Blum points out that it’s the Nakheel project. Hard to keep tabs on all these efforts to make the world’s tallest building! I still hope Babu gets to take a break.  

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Wrong About Architecture

I was wrong.

Previously, I’ve suggested that the architecture of the last decade (the decade of the Bilbao-effect) did little to embody network culture and I thought it peculiar that the best examples of architecture that fits network culture are from the 1990s.

Over at Strangeharvest, Sam Jacob suggests otherwise and he is right.

I was wrong. The emptiness of the last decade perfectly embodies the period.

The punch-line (but do read the article):

Tomorrows visitors to todays (or yesterdays) iconic buildings will feel the swoosh of volumes, the cranked out impossibility of structure, the lightheadedness of refection and translucencies. They will marvel at buildings that hardly touch the ground, which swoop into the air as though drawn up by the jet stream. They will feel stretched by elongated angles that seem sucked into vanishing points that confound perspective, and will be seduced by curves of such overblown sensuality. And in this litany of affects they will find the most permanent record of the heady liquid state of mind of millennial abstract-boom economics. We might rechristen these freakish sites as museums of late capitalist experience, monuments to a never to be repeated faith in the global market.

Well said.

This is going to take a lot of unpleasant work to unpack from a historical perspective, but it’s part of this year’s book project.

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the Post-Critical Collapse

This weekend I took some time off and outlined the network culture book that I’ve been thinking about for a while. I had originally wished to have it not merely outlined but drafted by the end of the summer, but events got the best of me. On the other hand, it seems better to be able to put the economic collapse in perspective in the book.

So to the collapse then, and what it says about architecture. Now architecture is not going to be a focus of the network culture book. My goal is to write a history of the contemporary, not a history of contemporary architecture and it’s a peculiar aspect of network culture that the theory and aesthetics of architecture seem to play a much less crucial role than they did under modernism or postmodernism. Modern art and literature began to flourish in the late 1900s and 1910s and modern architecture was developing rapidly at this point, although it would take the 1920s for it to really come into its own. In the case of postmodernism, architecture was clearly at the forefront in visibliity, if not in terms of theory. Under network culture, architecture’s role is less visible. Architecture has floundered for an aesthetic or theory during the last decade. Supermodernism, which promised much during the 1990s, ran aground as the culture of disconnection it sought to give form to was replaced by a culture of connection. In its stead, we have nothing in particular.

If architecture had a theory during the last decade, it was post-criticism. Since post-criticism began from the premise that architects should do, not think, its proponents had a tough time articulating their position. Nevertheless, at heart, post-critical theorists argued that the deconstructivist and critical architectures of the late 1980s and early 1990s were misguided in resisting cultural hegemony (an increasingly problematic concept, to be sure) and capitalism. Instead, they embraced Koolhaas’s injunction that the architect should surf the waves of capital.

But how to do this? Here post-criticism was vague, not surprising given its aversion to theory. Still if there is any core design strategy to post-criticism, it is to embrace the diagram (later on this would become the more computationally-enabled parametric modelling) and model the inputs and variables in a given condition. If detailed enough, the argument went, such diagrams would allow design to emerge automatically. In some cases, this could be quite literal: corporate “flows” might be modelled in computer animation programs and literally given structure to become buildings.

Such modelling relies on a simple notion of information very much like that of the efficient market hypothesis which informed thinking about financial markets for the last two decades. The efficient market hypothesis was predicated on the network making accurate information available to everyone equally and that everyone would act rationally with regard to that information. But the actors involved turned out not to be rational. The irrational behavior of players led to the real estate boom that I had warned about for years, the subsequent collapse, and this fall’s panic. The failure was not one of not enough information, it was a failure to think critically. As any student of network theory knows, robust networks use error-checking to verify the veracity of the data involved. It was not a failure of individuals, but rather a faliure of the network to police itself. In other words,the economic collapse of 2007-2008 was a network failure.

In allying architecture so closely with the market, post-criticism has repeated the reasoning of high modernist architects in the postwar U. S. But that era came to an end in the late 1960s and, as post-Fordism came into question, so did the discipline. Now that architecture has allied itself with a failed theory of the market, what will become of it? This isn’t an idle question. As society and culture reconfigure, an architecture that has little to offer except a direct representation of capital flows is unlikely to succeed. Moreover, the fascination that post-critical architects had with producing designs through software parallels the reduction of architecture to complex financial instruments that existed primarily in the network. This has already been called into question in the market. Architecture is, as usual, just a little behind.

Compounding this, architecture has been in vogue during the last two decades due to the so-called Bilbao-Effect, the idea that through the sheer effect (for reasons originally having to do with the writing of Gilles Delueze, architects write this as “affect”) of its form, architecture can improve economic conditions either for a business or for a city. For advocates of diagrammatic thought, the complexity of the forms generated by diagramming were ideal for producing the Bilbao-Effect. But these structures, be they built by businesses or by cultural institutions, were highly expensive and generally heavily leveraged. As they start to go bust, architecture is likely to be blamed for the failure. Most of today’s young hot-shot architects are too young to have experienced the attacks that architecture suffered in the 1970s for failing to live up to modernism’s promises of function. These may yet pale compared to the disparagement that architecture could receive for failing to generate the promised miracle profits.

Architecture is in a grim situation after the collapse. How it will survive is not yet clear to me, although if I had to make a guess it would be to turn to the idea of the “expanded architect” that Columbia architecture Dean Mark Wigley promotes, suggesting that architecture school is a great training ground for the flexible designer of the future, even if she or he can’t doesn’t work in architecture.

As far as post-criticism goes, it looks like the sun has set on that idea. Post-criticism has always been flawed since it fundamentally misunderstands that architecture is by its nature an irrational endeavor. Architects are hired not to produce the normal, but the abnormal. Architecture is a strange survivor of the pre-capitalist craft era. That it survives is only because it is able to offer something other than “going with the flow.”

Rapid Response: Collapse!

I will be leading a discussion at Studio-X next Tuesday on the topic of the recent economic changes. This is part of the Rapid Response series at Studio-X, an open and undetermined platform for quick response to events that have transpired over the last thirty days.

Collapse! explores the spatial consequences of the "new" economy—the panic of 2008 as well as the last two decades, and the last two years—at a variety of scales: the NYSE trading room to Manhattan, the city to the suburbs, the United States to the world. I will lead a discussion with Daniel Beunza, Assistant Professor, Management Division, Columbia Business School and Micah Fink, Emmy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker. 

Collapse! is produced in collaboration with the Network Architecture Lab.

Refreshments provided by Barefoot Wines

RSVP: [email protected]
Free and open to the public

WHEN: Tuesday, October 28, 6:30 pm
WHERE: Studio-X, 180 Varick Street, Suite 1610
1 train to Houston Street

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