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.”