The Rise of the Darists

At long last, Rice University School of Architecture’s Plat 2.5 is out. Actually, it’s been out for the last few months. I have an essay called “The Rise of the Darists.” In this essay, dar is an abbreviation for “design as research.” I explore what the rise of post-critical forms of research discourses imply for architectural practice and its relevance to today’s social needs. Here’s a quote:

Locating the boundaries of Dar is not simple, but we may approximate its major threads and limitations. Dar fuels the noticeable proclivity to fortify projects with large data sets and algorithm-fueled software. The translation of these data clouds into any number of scales and forms—from parametrically-derived undulating pavilions to urban farming master-plans—yields a popular impression of formal and rhetorical rigor underlying the project’s gestation. Although intricately related to a history of research practices in architecture, Dar exceeds these.

Examining the idea of research in architecture doesn’t fit into a single essay, so perhaps this can be just a start. But in this piece, as a rapid scan, I wanted, not to examine all the history of research in architecture—which would have been impossible—but the recent replacement of theory with the simulacrum of a research practice in design. In addition, “design” itself has risen, of late, to camouflage the crises of architecture. In other words, I look at a marriage of the rising stock of design with the mimesis of research. I argue that the coupling of “design as research” is problematic because each term refers tautologically back to the other, not only as a semantic trick, but in practice as well.

I discuss how the problematic appropriation of research in architecture, bundled with the business-friendlier term of “design,” has certain origins in neoliberal market ideology. The fallacy of objective research that is instrumental for post-critical forms of business and governance is best exemplified by MVRDV’s Pig City proposal. In conclusion, as an alternative to dar, I identify a kind of compass point in, yes, King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp’s Frippertronics—an example of an alternative coupling of design and research, where each is autonomous and yet informative to the other.  I hope that leaving behind “design as research,” we can turn a new leaf and examine more embodied, affective, and scalar forms of architectural practice.

I’m really happy to finally post this essay. I’ve been stewing some of the ideas in this essay for a long time, as a part of a text that by now seems to have died at the shores of the economic crisis for a certain book publisher. Some of the work for this text emerged during preparations for the 2010 iteration of the architectural theory capstone course I co-teach at California College of the Arts—my thanks especially to fruitful conversations with students, and with my colleagues David Gissen, Clare Robinson, and Tom Beischer. Thanks, as well, to Yanni Loukissas, Nick Sowers, and Bryan Finoki for reading and commenting on the draft. I worked with the journal editor-in-chief, Mary Casper, who was exacting and relentless (and I truly appreciate all her attention). And thanks as well to MVRDV for image permissions. Any errors, omissions, or unheeded advice are my own fault.

I posted a PDF scan of the essay and a final draft (which might be a bit easier to read on digital devices):


The Rise Of the Darists

Final draft submission 2012

Journeys to narcostates and military landscapes

I want to bring to your attention two new and exciting items…

First, I recently filed this OpEd for DomusWeb, the website sibling of Italian architecture magazine Domus. In the piece, I imagine what I might do on an itinerary to El Paso, Texas. I have been to El Paso before very briefly on my way to California. Of late, some commentators and urban experts have hailed El Paso as a model of a new American urbanism, and in this piece, I treat that model as a series of misleading abstractions that conceal a highly corrupt and profitable narcopolitics. Here is a pull-quote:

What San Francisco was once to the world across the Pacific Ocean, El Paso is to the adjacent Ciudad Juárez and the southern world beyond: a fortified golden gate. It appears that El Paso has outlandishly benefited from controlling one of the hardened valves through which globalization flows. Besides, El Paso is not a “mid-size city,” as the census and (Joel) Kotkin mis-categorize it, once understood, as one should, as the swankier side of a much larger, transnational urban entity intrinsically tied to booming Juárez as its adjacent industrial labor zone. Small wonder that El Paso has created ancillary jobs faster than the slumping average. While Juárez consumes itself in a civil war over control of the border ingress point, El Paso’s business establishment is busy marketing the city as the “safest big city” in the United States. For wealthier Mexicans, El Paso is a short charter flight away for a day of shopping, bypassing the violence.

In the spirit of bushy-tailed California politicians visiting Texas for enlightenment, I imagined what I would put on an itinerary in order to explore the distinctly Texan urban visions that El Paso amasses in all of its volatile mixture of deregulation, paranoia, religiosity, and fossil burning.

Read more at Domus!

Second, my collaborator Nick Sowers and I are going to offer a walking tour in the Marin Headlands as part of a Sunday program called Desire Trails. Nick and I are two-thirds of a group called Demilit that we started along with Bryan Finoki, aka Subtopia. Demilit is a little bit over a year old, but we already have a good track record and have been exhilarated to be working together. This is what we promise to do on September 25th, 2011:

DEMILIT has crafted a walk soundtrack out of a series of audio recordings taken from current organizations with leases in the Headlands. The auditory accompaniment intends to reveal some of the least noticed ways in which the military past infiltrates the present, particularly in the repair and reproduction of nature. A dispersed forest megaphone. Sousveillant recordings. Discussions archived in vibrations of leaves. A voice that lingers forever in the bowels of missile silos.

The event is totally free, which we love doing. There will be an additional organic meal after the walk which is optional and will be served at the Headland’s mess hall, a kitchen with a stellar cooking reputation. We look forward to meeting you and discussing our work further! Checkout the whole lineup of artists offering tours, RSVP for the walk, and to order a ticket for the lunch.

Reaching Out for Who?

The Connected States of America: Is this an example of cartography, as the authors profess?

Carlo Ratti and his team are back. Ratti directs MIT’s Senseable City Lab, delivering very elegant “visualizations,” or an incarnation of neo-realist art. You think you’re looking at data. You’re really looking at something else. But what? We need to figure that out. To start, Ratti explains their latest Senseable project, a cell-phone cartography of the United States, in a July 2 OpEd.

Phone-Call Cartography
AMERICANS are more connected now than ever. Mobile phones allow people to maintain relationships with friends, family and colleagues across long distances. If you analyze aggregated cellphone traffic – as researchers at M.I.T., AT&T and I.B.M. did with United States data from July of last year – interesting patterns emerge.

The gist of the findings? On a macro-geographic level of counties and states, connections sometimes defy geographic boundaries like state lines, revealing hidden maps of regional spaces. Surprising? Hardly. You might intuitively know this. For example, you might live in Cincinnati, Ohio, but shop across the Ohio River in Covington, Kentucky. Maybe you often call the owner of a gun store you patronize. (Covington is known in part for its gun shops and lower sales tax than Cincinnati). For many intricate reasons, Cincinnati on a map looks one way, yet feels like another place in “lived experience.” Sure, it’s nice to have good visuals that demonstrate the complexities of how people interact with their environments and with other people (assuming the new maps are accurate).

Sometimes, borders even look antiquated and mysterious. Visualizations are a way to imagine “communities” (a tricky word that Ratti used in his OpEd above) along other–better–lines. This post below on Good explains a bit more:

This Is the Connected States of America – Business – GOOD
This is what our state lines might look like if we drew them based on who actually talks with each other, at least according to cell phone data gathered by MIT. These are the geographic clusters of who texts with whom within an area, from the MIT Senseable City Lab’s Connected States of America mapping project.

But now the magic has worked. The demo has turned the raw data of the connections into a “community” that imbues the reader or user of the interactive maps with a warm and fuzzy feeling of belonging to something more “real” than the borders imposed by government bureaucrats. Not sure what I mean? These communities are our new neighborhoods, in a Jane Jacobs vein. In that neighborhoody way, they are reassuring and natural. It’s incumbent upon us to ask questions about the raw data, for this now has deep implications in terms of our political unions, loyalties, and economies. Who do your taxes support? Who’s interests are not represented in the political sphere when they live “across the river” in a less-powerful Congressional district, for example?

Is this warm feeling new? AT&T has paid for efforts to manufacture such emotions before, as was the case with the enormously successful “Reach Out and Touch Someone” campaign above. 

We therefore should bear in mind that MIT’s project is sponsored in part by AT&T, and uses AT&T’s call data. (Or at least that is what I can gather from all the articles on this topic, but I’d be happy to be disabused of such notion). We should also bear in mind, then, that when we visualize these communities, we’re really seeing some version of AT&T’s communities. Do you suppose that Metro PCS call patterns look like AT&T’s? And what of the relationship between being an AT&T customer and belonging to a trans-boundary space? Is that good or bad? Who represents these communities in the political sphere: the community’s own people, or AT&T’s suits?

Some might argue that simply seeing AT&T’s calls is problematic because we don’t know anything about the content of those calls themselves, leaving us guessing about why those patches of community are forming. (Why would I be calling that gun store so much, anyway? And who initiated the call anyway?) Indeed, even Ratti and his team might be aware that the data is not an end-all, be-all, though they should remind reporters of that more often.
I agree with such objections to this work, and I’ve heard them before. But I think there is a bigger problem here that involves corporate funding, lack of transparency, and the immediate media hype that Ratti is able to move (coup: BoingBoing). The larger issue, at the same time, gets obscured by the reasoning that the infographics are step one, and the qualitative analysis comes next. The data dump is political in and of itself. Why?
Consider this: While AT&T shares its data with MIT, it fights to limit the access of FOIA requests to its information, a case that AT&T lost in the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, AT&T is also active in sponsoring “community-building” of another sort. While many are demanding equal access to the essential tools of communication in a tele-connected world, AT&T actively works to *break-up* these efforts so that it can tier services at its own benefit. AT&T is a cartographer in a truer sense. AT&T draws new lines to align community representatives (like GLAAD and the NAACP) with its TMobile merger (see below). 

AT&T gave cash to merger backers – Eliza Krigman
AT&T is lining up support for its acquisition of T-Mobile from a slew of liberal groups with no obvious interest in telecom deals – except that they’ve received big piles of AT&T’s cash. In recent weeks, the NAACP, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the National Education Association have each issued public statements in support of the deal.

If the communities Ratti shows us have a degree of reality to them, they are just as much subject to corporate manipulation as they are to seemingly unmediated social bonding or spatial opportunities of proximity. Could qualitative research address this kind of issue while also working with data that may be proprietary (and potentially not available to other independent researchers), and while also funded by corporate money?

Back to the original question: What are you really looking at when you’re looking at The Connected States of America? I’d say you’re watching an ad produced for AT&T, but I’d like to hear arguments otherwise.

Note: A new post at the SingularityHub, equally fetishistic about the revelations in these maps, claiming that somehow this is more “real” than “arbitrary” historically determined lines. And AT&T’s connections are what exactly? Natural? 

Are Nations Less Important Than Phone Calls? New MIT Map Redraws The U.S. According to Communication | Singularity Hub
by Aaron Saenz August 10th, 2011 | Comments (0) Who we talk to may be a better measure of how to draw our maps than the arbitrary lines laid down by history. MIT’s Senseable City Lab has used hoards of data compiled by telecommunications giants like AT&T to craft a map of how the United States is linked.

Reading the Bay Area, or a #ReadingSF [Updated]

This is the start of a reading list, perhaps with more titles to come, as inspired by Christopher Hawthorn’s Reading LA… The idea is simple: to create a community around discussion of San Francisco’s urbanization. But if it is (somewhat) clear why there is a “ReadingLA”, the first step here is to even begin to articulate what is cohesive about the San Francisco Bay Area. Is there a robust body of literature on San Francisco’s architecture and vernacular landscape, or its urbanism? John King indicated somewhere that there wasn’t, and perhaps he is right. But San Francisco, like any city, merits a read on its own terms, and that’s what maybe is interesting about starting to study the texts on this city: a search for a theory.

This community could take shape online as well as offline. The list has expand, drawing titles that may not conform to preconceived notions of what an “urbanism” or urban development text should look like. Nevertheless, I am adding more in order to have plenty to choose from. Some of these books align more closely with the interests of people from planning, architecture, landscape or geography disciplines. But to get a really grounded sense of Bay Area politics and change, I feel that we also need a good dose of history. Finally, given that San Francisco—city and county—is but a minor portion of the huge Bay Area, this list would suffer if not taking into account books about the contiguous, greater region.

Please send me any other suggestions through Twitter or email (address on the right column), or use the comment form below. The list has contributions from: Julie Kim (JK), Desmond Bliek (DB),  Benjamin Grant (BG), and several more submissions in the comments section below.

Asbury, Herbert. 1933. The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld. (Various editions)

Boyd, Nan. 2003. Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Brechin, Grey. 1999. Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Brook, James E., Chris Carlsson, and Nancy J Peters. Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture. San Francisco: City Lights.

Broussard, Albert S. Black San Francisco: The Struggle for Racial Equality in the West, 1900-1954. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Castells, Manuel. 1985. Part 3: “City and Culture: The San Francisco Experience.” The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements. Berkeley: University of California Press. (DB)

Chen, Yong. 2002. Chinese San Francico, 1850-1943: A Transpacific Community. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

DeLeon, Richard.1992. Left Coast City: Progressive Politics in San Francisco. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Didion, Joan. 1968. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. (Various editions) (JK)

Groth, Paul. 1994. Living Downtown: The History of Residential Hotels in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press. (Not limited to SF)

Hartman, Chester and Sarah Carnochan. 2002. City for Sale: The Transformation of San Francisco. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Johnsonn, Marilyn S. 1996. The Second Gold Rush: Oakland and the East Bay in World War II. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kazin, Michael. 1987. Barons of Labor: The San Francisco Building Trades and Union Power in the Progressive Era. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.

Litpsky, Florence. 1999. San Francisco: La grille sur les collines. Editions Parenthèses. (DB)

Lotchin, Roger W. 2002. (Selections from) Fortress California, 1910-1961: From Warfare to Welfare.Bloomington: University of Illinois Press. (NS)

Moudon, Anne Vernez. 1989. Built for Change: Neighborhood Architecture in San Francisco. Cambridge: MIT Press. (DB)

Pitti, Stephen J. 2003. The Devil in Silicon Valley: Northern California, Race, and Mexican Americans. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Scott, Mel. 1985. The  San Francisco Bay Area: A Metropolis in Perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press. (BG)

Self, Robert. 2003. American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Shah, Nayan. 2001. Contagious divides: epidemics and race in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Solnit, Rebecca. 2000. Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism. Susan Schwartzenberg, photos. New York: Verso.

_____. 2010. Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas. Berkeley: UC Press.

Vance, James E. 1964. Geography and Urban Evolution in the San Francisco Bay Area. Gov’t. Studies, Berkeley. PDF

Walker, Richard A. 2004. “Industry Builds Out the City: Industrial Decentralization in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1850-1950.” In Robert Lewis, ed. Manufacturing Suburbs: Building Work and Home on the Metropolitan Fringe. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

_____. 2006. “The Boom and the Bombshell: The New Economy Bubble and the San Francisco Bay Area”. Giovanna Vertova, ed. , The Changing Economic Geography of Globalization. London: Routledge. 121-47.

_____. 2007. The Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

What’s left of old greyhound bus shelter

Looks like someone has future plans for this lot. There used to be a greyhound shed that over time became a homeless camp, particularly during this last “downturn”. What happened to the squatters? Who sent them away?

.@archpaper “Architects Without Redevelopment Agencies” So what?

A new editorial by Sam Lubell in the Architect’s Newspaper is well-worth reading. Lubell sounds the alarm bells because Governor Jerry Brown has been looking into slashing redevelopment agencies from the state budget. And this probably means bad news for architects. Finally, one could say, an architecture publication is paying attention to the cuts in California.

But it is a sad state of self-serving affairs that it has taken this long for just about anyone in the architecture journalism and writing world to pay attention. I haven’t crunched numbers, but I’m willing to bet that architects in California should really be sounding the alarms for the long and deep cuts to housing, education, services, and health. What, like architects don’t design schools or urgent care facilities? Do homeless people with psychiatric problems not deserve better than electric shock at the hands of the police for health services? When clinics get cut, architects and their publications have stayed mute. It’s both a social issue and a professional one. But when it comes to corporate welfare for new stadiums, the Architect’s Newspaper chimes in? And this is not even discussing what Jerry Brown’s proposed $500 million cut to the UC will mean for architecture schools, at a time when it has already become prohibitive to even study architecture, let alone practice it. We can come back to that issue later…

See also some good discussion over here, especially Orhan’s comment. Gotta run… Back to this later.