architecture, design, geography, politics

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):

cover2.5

The Rise Of the Darists

Final draft submission 2012

http://platjournal.com/

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everyday, geography, news, politics

A BIG Bailout

Some months ago I had some kind of email exchange with Geoff Manaugh about an interesting little article in Bloomberg. As Geoff summarized it in BLDGBLOG: “financially hard-hit homeowners in the Los Angeles area have begun temporarily renting out their houses as filming locations for TV commercials and pornos.” In a twist to the current events of foreclosure and crisis (which is still sliding downward), well, what if one of those rented locations was actually used to re-enact a home eviction in and of itself? In other words, a home on the brink of foreclosure becomes a movie set, and then becomes the scene of a feigned foreclosure, which then leads to—as anything in the collective mind of Porn Valley does—sex.

The actors (barely “acting”, of course) pretend to arrive at a foreclosed property to take it in the name of the bank, and the homeowner asks to see a “big” bailout… Or something to that effect. A threesome ensues. Homeowner rolls the camera. It’s a take on relational art. And so, in relational fashion, a porn impresario has indeed now made perhaps the first 21′st-century crisis scene in a porno movie (or any movie, for that matter).*

If this first that we’re reporting here is any sign of a culture shift, it might be somehow reflective of a focus on the wrong place. As Dante Chinni’s brilliant blog in the Christian Science Monitor speculates: “If Americans become more like people in ‘Tractor Country,’ the drop in consumer spending may last longer and fundamentally change how we live and spend.” What much of Chinni’s reporting seems to reveal is that the home as site of disruption and conflict at the hands of foreclosing banks (see above), has actually been so from day one–a site deeply at the mercy of capital flows and speculation.

The confrontational nature of foreclosure as played out in the scene has been seething under the surface all along, bursting now and then (perhaps finding a valve in the sexual act). What Chinni, with research from James Gimpel, says is that: “‘Tractor Country’ was the only community type to see a decline in foreclosures between November and April – a dip of about 7 percent.” And as such, it is perhaps in the spending and saving behavior of Tractor Country that most Americans will locate their north star, and reshift the rest of the culture along the way. In other words, the foreclosed homeowners who felt “suburban“, in many ways find themselves suddenly “ruralized” in place. Meanwhile, the NYTimes reports that U.S. Home Sales Remain Sluggish as Supply Soars.

*For the curious about the foreclosure scene, Google Search yields this text: “Gianna, Carmella & Marco from the bank come to evict Jules. He wants a “bailout”, but instead they ball-out his house!” Tread with caution.

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architecture, geography, politics

“High Quality Rolex Replica Watches”

Let’s start with this seemingly simple question: Who blogs in society? What disciplines and professions are blogging as social groups?

To begin with, it is very difficult in the present day—if not impossible—to ascertain which professionals are blogging most, if in fact they are doing so as a part of their professional culture, or blogging about their profession itself. For this reason it’s also difficult to draw any conclusions about how architecture compares, not to mention how to distinguish such traditional professionals from bloggers that just blog as a profession in and of itself. What are they all blogging about? For what audiences? And who actually reads them? These questions would make an interesting long-term project to research for some people, like the Pew Center. That said, anecdotal evidence seems to indicate a remarkable presence of legal blogs, as well as a visible presence of influential, online special interest law projects (i.e. Electronic Frontier Foundation, Digitaldemocracy, the Berkman Center).

This might not come as a surprise, although it seems weird to hear, no? Those who dispense standard legal wisdom are also throwing that common sense to the wind, the web being the evidence flynet that it is, right? But upon second thought it makes sense. As Pew Internet research has confirmed, people spending most time online tend to be affluent (with salaries above 75K) and digitally-connected, awash in a fog of networked devices.

It seems that we are aware of the so-called digital-divide. We decry it, and even design against it. Nevertheless, many agree without question that online rights and personal identity should be a natural focus of thinking. Meanwhile, lawyers can use this logic to augment their disciplinary power. An influential slice of the digerati assume that there is a universal interest in abstract issues of privacy and digital rights. This common-place framing of the social problem is foundational even to the establishment of an everyday agreement of how you’re supposed to blog, starting with the very design and structure of blog pages and platforms. This also sets up an unwritten set of conventions that bloggers informally follow, perhaps indicating through sheer apathy to class and economic issues that blogging as a profession, or professions that blog, are a different thing than working.

bbstudy

The image above shows a micro-analysis of a snip of Boing Boing’s blog as the ur-blog: Highlighted portions indicate conventional blog devices. They also call attention to the ways in which “working” is camouflaged by blogs and is translated into a series of socio-communal actions and personalized rights. Related to this, we also have contradictions, such as the one between “trademark” and “defeat censorware”, which imagines somehow a utopia with private rights but without censorship. (For larger image, more examples, and discussion see the slideshow; image captured on March 29, 2009).

Continuing on…In other words, the more you have to log on, the more likely you are an educated professional of a certain income bracket or with certain cultural capital, and the more you’re likely to engage—as consumer or producer—with blogs. Privacy and rights have been heavily discussed in recent years, and yet labor time (as a blogger or a content contributor on social networking sites like Facebook, which are private content providers), or labor rights (as online producers), are not problematized much at all. If there is such a thing right now as a unifying consciousness of a blogger, it is one along the lines of being digital consumers with consumer right demands—not workers.*∞

Now, on the other hand, a glance at some of the most powerful blog platforms and social sharing sites (i.e. wordpress, blogger, technorati, delicious) can give us an idea of what content people are tagging online. What emerges often is a picture that shows professional identities and professional or academic categories becoming less important. For example, ‘medicine’ is no longer a privileged discipline (see image below, taken from wordpress.com on March 29, 2009; digitally altered to highlight tags). Web filtering seems to have less use for it than, say, ‘health,’ which emerges in its stead to cross disciplinary boundaries and interest areas. This lends the impression that the web democratizes content and spans the general public, the news media, and the professionals as equal agents in an even field, above wages. (Is there a coincidence in this phenomenon preceding one of the most massive periods of wage devaluation ever for journalists and other knowledge workers?)

wordpress

However, not everyone tags content. Tagging—the practice of cataloging online content in a publicly visible way—is a cousin to blogging. Both inevitably fall into specialized communities that socially privilege them more than other communities. One might reasonably assume that tech professionals (programmers, web designers, entrepreneurs) spend the most time blogging and cataloging content that is of interest to them, and a quick skim of delicious can bear this out. But then I would argue, that far from being a distorted metric of web culture, the amplification and dissemination of web literature through practices like blogging and tagging can then have an active, dialectical role in shaping the overall perception and culture of the web (architecture culture among it); a culture that slants more heavily to ideologies of innovation, progress, techno-fetishism, green salvation, and open-source—all these often refracted through a lens of masculinity.

In this light, the question is, then, how authority is established on the web, and does it really dissolve and reconfigure itself along with the seemingly disappearing boundaries? My tentative, unscientific conclusion to this is that while disciplines do get reconfigured—some of their members fading out into off-line irrelevance, perhaps—traditional disciplinary categories can gain traction and entrenchment as they adapt the dominant practices of the web as badges of authority, but all the while leaving powerful ideologies of the web alone, including malformed concepts of plurality, democracy, and the web as aspatial or post-geographical. Architecture talk on the web, of course, is not any different here and criticism has unfortunately not stepped in to respond. In addition, I have a crude suspicion that a fascination with informal architecture, an identifiable strain in architecture blogging (i.e. airoots), has been due to an unfortunate parallelism made by bloggers between representations of the web (as somehow free from state control) and slums.‡

Let’s close in on architecture for the sake of brevity. Let me talk for a moment about the most popular blogs in architecture. I think it’s important to remember that maybe to an extent, more than anything before them, blogs seem to achieve their buoyancy not from some baptismal light shone upon them by institutions of power, at least not always, and do achieve it from their virtual and real-life networks. As the popular wisdom goes, they achieve prominence through popular citation, organically rising to the top of the cumulus. Nonetheless, architecture blogging, probably like any other discipline online, also has a pyramidal structure that can greatly accelerate the vetting process from above to below—both online (as in Archinect’s school blog project; better postings are often selected for the news feed) as well as in real events like Postopolis, or from communities where the important architecture-related bloggers meet the Pantheon of West Coast digerati.

My own cursory count puts among others Inhabitat, the green-savvy, “future forward design for the world you inhabit” at the top of that heap. Also most influential is, of course—I think many of you know this—Geoff Manaugh’s laudable bldgblog: “architectural conjecture :: urban speculation :: landscape futures”. In addition to those, Dezeen, Interactive Architecture, Pruned, DailyDose, and MoCoLoco, a “modern and contemporary design blog,” seem to coalesce at the top of many lists. And then we have the one-and-only, Architecture for Humanity’s Cameron Sinclair, who seems to pop up everywhere. More than a blogger, he epitomizes the digitally-enhanced professional. Of course Archinect is pretty difficult to compare, as it is a network of websites under the tutelage of Paul Petrunia, that includes its news log (which is like saying an old school blog), the spaceinvading image “tumblelog”, and the school blog project. (Full disclosure: I’ve been the chief editor at Archinect and continue to be informally affiliated). And finally, you then have the utmost popular—though not exclusively architectural—Worldchanging, Treehugger, Curbed, and Gothamist blogs, which actually pay salaries at least to some of their bloggers, I believe. All these websites can be approximately ten to up to eight-hundred times more popular—I estimate—than blogs produced by academic types like us with academic-looking commentary, or with student projects.

The high quality of these top blogs is notable, and we can see that their meaning has found its way to smaller critical ventures, as with varnelis and htcexperiments debating fictional architecture through bldgblog, or my own recent interest in informality. It’s proof of the influence of these blogs. But what we haven’t come to relate into our discussion is how these class-A bloggers establish a networked presence that sustains and nourishes their perch at the top of the pyramid—and do so at the basic level by constantly laboring (for free) in digital mines like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Archinect commentary boards, and incessantly tapping on their phones with their various online networks.

What I think is interesting is not how much more popular the popular blogs are, though I think the numbers are quite staggering, if they are anywhere close to correct. But what I think is important is that, alongside the limits of digital rights talk, I don’t feel that we have developed anything remotely like a critical consciousness toward the spatial relations of power on the web, let alone figured out some way of carving a space for academic work that can be either independent or critical of those relations, and begin to spatialize it on and off line, like the Berkman Center does.§ Nor have we begun to articulate in a serious way a critique of the ideologies of the dominant strains in the blogosphere and perhaps it is because we’re still caught in a fantasy of evenness cutting across the web, still stuck in the shadow of Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth (see Turner, 2006).

Just to give you one sample tweet from a fellow blogger who writes for both a national publication online and his own sustainability blog: “one last point. news orgs: assume you are part of a news ecosystem. People draw info from their own unruly mob of sources.” I disagree with such notions of an “unruly mob”. It’s a rule-bound mob. What’s worse is that we continually miss the opportunity to actively investigate these rules, as both social and spatial, especially as they course from the web into social life and back. One can already imagine a day when some will look back and still see an idealized Agora that never existed.

What might be needed now is an architectural imagination that can problematize the cartographies and ideologies of the web, showing that far from the boundary-less stew—an ideal, conflict-less space—they are bordered, spatialized, and conflicting in particular ways, probably along some lines of labor mobility and flexibility. “Elsewhere Mapping” has been done, now what about the simple ‘where’? Does architecture have something to contribute beyond the green proselytizing, the fetishism of informal architecture, the datamining, and the spectacular forms of dezeen?

How would we begin this project? Well, in a way, as much as I admire my friends that throw Postopolis, there’s something about it that doesn’t seem to jive for me. As a space of encounters it replicates the privileged space of the blogosphere (which, as I discussed above, is in itself hidden by an informal communalism). In a way, they curate an eternal present. They do it extremely well. But if one wanted to investigate some of the “hidden” spaces of the web, and start to investigate our little-understood lack of spatial rights, we might actually begin by inviting bloggers from dead architecture blogs and ask them to talk about their own history. Why did they stop? What are the limits of blogging as it currently stands? In other words, we can begin to develop a critical memory in a space that does not (seem to) forget anything.

—–

Notes:
*On the point of multiple forms of labor , see Terranova, 2003: “It is about specific forms of production (Web design, multimedia production, digital services, and so on), but is also about forms of labor we do not immediately recognize as such: chat, real-life stories, mailing lists, amateur newsletters, and so on. These types of cultural and technical labor are not produced by capitalism in any direct, cause-and-effect fashion; that is, they have not developed simply as an answer to the economic needs of capital. However, they have developed in relation to the expansion of the cultural industries and are part of a process of economic experimentation with the creation of monetary value out of knowledge/culture/affect.”

∞ For more examples of the discourse of blogger rights, speech protection, and consumer rights see EFF’s Blogger Rights or the Center for Digital Democracy’s project on Digital Marketing, Privacy & the Public Interest. This digitally-altered image shows the selectivity of rights discourse (accessed on the EFF website on April 5, 2009).

effstudy

‡ An example: “The Net Generation in particular recognizes itself in the story of this self-developing city, which is powered by the collective intelligence and individual aspirations of hundreds of thousands of people.” From: “Taking the Slum Out of Dharavi” in airoots, February 21, 2009. Accessed on April 12, 2009.

§ On this subject, see Jo Guldi’s “Reinventing the Academic Journal: First, Take Down Your Website” on inscape, February 7, 2009 (Last accessed on April 12, 2009). Guldi explains how the academy could begin to spatialize itself on line as a kind of endowed (I assume) curator of the glut of online content, but so far journals have approached the web with some trepidation.

###

This work was presented at the MIT HTC Forum on April 7, 2009, as part of “Blogitecture: Architecture on the Internet”, with Kazys Varnelis and the author, (and moderated by Mark Jarzombek). Audio slide show available on Vimeo thanks to Kazys Varnelis. New modifications and edits for clarity have been introduced in this version.

The title of this talk and post comes from typical spam that I receive multiple times a day, but also relates to the subject matter at hand.

Additional Reading:

  • Janet Abrams and Peter Hall, Editors. 2006. Else/Where: Mapping; New Cartologies of Networks and Territories. University of Minnesota Design Institute.
  • Javier Arbona. 2009. “Revisit the Known World”, javierest. February 23.
  • Jo Guldi. 2009. “The Age of Digital Citation”. unimaginable inscape. April 8. link
  • _____. 2009. “Reinventing the Academic Journal”. unimaginable inscape. February 7. link
  • Mary Madden, Sydney Jones. 2008. “Networked Workers”. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Washington, DC: September 24. link
  • Tiziana Terranova. 2003. “Free Labour: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy”. electronic book review. 6/20. link
  • Fred Turner. 2006. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. link

• More sources consulted for this project are bookmarked at: http://delicious.com/javierarbona/for-mit

Acknowledgements:

My thanks go to Anne R. Kenney, Cornell University’s Carl A. Kroch University Librarian, for our enlightening (and fortuitous) conversation about digital archives and her knowledge of law profession blogs, as we rode on a bus from New York city to Ithaca, on March 21, 2009. Plataforma Arquitectura’s David Basulto, aka Tricky, was also a very generous email interlocutor as I thought out this talk, and thanks to Cristobal García for putting us (back) in touch.

Kazys Varnelis, although technically a co-presenter in this instance, was also a wonderful collaborator in the research leading up to the panel. Amber Frid-Jimenez dropped on me a number of very interesting articles after the talk which I still have to digest further. And last but certainly not least, at MIT, many thanks to Mark Jarzombek, Rebecca Uchill, Sarah Katz, and Kate Brearly for putting this event together and coordinating.

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architects, architecture, artists, city, geography, politics, urbanism, video

Architecture imagined as ecological

(To coincide with the Ecological Urbanism Conference at the Harvard GSD)

Not so long ago I heard from a former student. She was anguished and deciding between applying to one out of two master’s programs offered by a famous architectural institution that only let her apply to one. Her choice was between a program specialized in housing and another one in sustainability. What a choice! How symbolic, I thought, of the quagmire we’ve gotten ourselves into: To dwell…Or to survive! Let’s have a look…

The all-encompassing discourse of sustainability is tangled up with global geopolitics at every turn, but that discourse hides its tail. What’s worse is that “sustainable architecture” can be the proverbial “greenwash,” as I think has become more than evident. We would only have to pass a roll-call of all the eco-resorts done in years of economic fluidity. Thinking about a sustainable practice is (still) supposed to arouse in us a moral instinct of how to satisfy our needs without “compromising the needs of future generations”. The small house movement serves as a good example of an architecture informed by notions of what is said to be ‘basic’.

Our “needs,” however, are a mirage. We know that they are essentially malleable. They’re subject to crass marketing manipulation. They evolve through the sieves of culture and desire. They’re hard to pin down and it’s no accident that capitalism pulls the rug from underneath us as soon as we try. Besides, unless the global economic crisis ends up destroying capitalism, we satisfy our so-called needs through an increasingly global economy, despite the localist and nationalist fantasies some may have. Even if we didn’t have capitalism, we’d still have trade, and subscribers to notions of Malthusian natural limits fail to adequately take this into account. Sometimes the sustainability talk sounds to me even xenophobic in its suggestions that a certain number of citizens will have a right to the city (blurring further the notion of what is natural: Numerical limits? Naturalization, as in citizenship?)

The ideologues of sustainability might deny that it is an issue of power and not morals, but it is. It has to do with who determines how much is a reasonable need for some and not others, both at a local and global level. By the way, I’m sorry for even using these terms like “local” and “global” because they pertain to imprecise scales, especially when ecological processes are involved. But none of this has slowed down the field of architecture. As often times is clear in the works of architects like Michael Sorkin and other adherents to the “ecological footprint,” design is an index of how much nature is judged to be fair and balanced according to some metric of consumption.

For one thing, this implicitly privileges the first-world consumer. Architecture seems to always want to rectify, say, energy consumption but is usually passive (or silent…) about the overabundant economic resources of its patrons, except to sometimes mildly chastise their bad taste. For another thing, the implicit focus on consumers (of energy, of resources, of food…) validates the continual restoration of a global project of resource and space distribution. Architecture and planning help with the order and design of this distribution but practitioners can’t face it. Sustainable architecture has circumscribed itself to an environmental crisis but not a geopolitical one, probably so as to not offend any clients. The economic crisis has hit architects very hard and it partially evinces how interlaced the bubble economy and ecological principles were. We can’t even look at now-historic images of green buildings in Dubai without a painful grimace. The mythical rupture with the past rears its head again. But, what is the global idea of self-proclaimed “green” architecture? How do we see nature and our uses of it through the representations made by these forms of architecture?

I think we can identify two general responses to the questions. Both treat the environmental crisis as a problem whose solution lies in addressing consumption. As David Gissen points out (pdf), both responses also treat the natural and the social as two separate spheres. To this we should also add that both responses reassert an age-old divorce between city and country (at the expense of the country and the gain of the city). By the way, let me stop here and address what might be a big protest in the mind of the reader. I suspect that even when flashing images of “production” in the form of vertical farms and windmills, the real anxiety beneath the image is about how we might sustain our first world consumption, not create, say, a more bearable life for the actual human laborers that will compose the new “rurban” peasant class in these future cities, let alone even think about what the future countryside will be like (hint: it’ll be more brutal, not less).

In addition, the mode of thinking of green or ecological urbanism ultimately defends a hazy abstract idea of cities at all costs as inherently good for the planet. (And defends a notion of the world in which first world cities do not yield their place as the governators of finance, power, truth, migrations, ideas…). But let’s continue…

The first of these responses in the architecture world is abstention. This architecture imagines a world without humans. Architecture therefore is our UFO for visiting a planet that we can only damage and we should not touch. No surprise either that architects are so obsessed with documenting the design of post-apocalyptic bunkers, temporary military structures, inflatables of all sorts, and polar research stations (no worry, I love ‘em too).

The second trend, which seems to dominate architects’ imaginations nowadays even more, is a strategy that attempts a metabolic relation with the planet, supposing that idealized science (as if science wasn’t ideological) can reveal the correct balance. I admit my own enthusiastic participation in this trend too. As much as anyone, I still demand and expect a response to our modernity’s crass relation to the environment. Nevertheless, the current architectural operations proposing this kind of benevolent cycling base their idea of nature on a nice Eden. Have you ever seen any green architects show renderings of their green cities in the fall or winter, or on a cloudy day, or in any inclement weather for that matter? This is no mere coincidence.

These ideas of nature are so rooted in the historic first world domestication of the rudeness of nature that their authors confuse socialized nature with primeval nature itself. ‘If we only let nature work, it would give us everything we need to consume.’ Did everyone think that so much lushness and farming envisioned in the city aren’t going to open up new Pandora’s boxes of infectious diseases and sanitation problems as we come into contact with more manure, more bacteria, and more wild animals that we urbanites are not at all “naturalized” to? Of course, that’s all fine and dandy; our powerful scientific establishment will (hopefully) take care of it, but if you thought that inoculations would be fairly distributed to the urban world population, think again. (This message brought to you by Pfizer).

Both of these architectural trends idealize nature as divorced from the economy, society, and politics. Both think of nature as a self-regenerating realm. They distort history because they forget that nature has always been social, starting with how, as Donna Haraway among others has articulated, the body itself, inside and out, has evolved through survival mechanisms necessitated by a larger totality.

Worse of all, as Gissen also points out (see “Anxious Climate” pdf), architects in these camps seem to isolate in their minds the knowledge necessary for their design enterprise from what they know about the nature they conceptualize. We have to ask ourselves how do we even know about the environmental crisis in the first place if not through the tools (satellites, computers, genetic tests) that reveal it? These tools, of course, are part and parcel of the industrial revolution that brought on the crisis itself, while at the same time, strains of green architecture use them to measure flows of energy, quantify wastes, produce renderings, and wire buildings throughout with the high-tech communications that we demand. As Gissen says: “In attempting to maintain an imagined separate “natural world” we have proliferated a messy network of links between nature and society.” Or in other words, it’s harder to isolate society from nature than what we want to think, or shall we go on this voyage without navigation tools? (Of course, some architects still latch onto that sort of radical back-to-nature primitivism).

As countless theorists have revealed, we’re dealing with a natural world that for some might seem implausible because of how artificial it actually is. Another aside: we have to remind ourselves that most of the ideas of nature we transact with are the product of a highly urbanized and male realm of thought, written by many men that have constantly liberated themselves from many direct encounters with nature thanks to the unjust division of work and the sexes, starting with child-rearing itself. But let’s keep going.

What we need, then, is a more fine-tuned approach. In other words, if these architectural options simulate nature as something we can consume in balanced ways or in some sort of moderation–or, absurdly, not consume it at all–the alternative must be an awareness that the current crisis is not one of environmental destruction, but of environmental production. Where we have failed is at producing livable natures for oursleves.

Of course, you might protest that many landscape architects and theorists have been discussing the “production of nature” for some time now, especially following the work of James Corner (or his writings), but that’s not what I’m talking about. So far, discussions on the production of nature in architecture have seemed to remain stuck, implying an ideal “first nature” somewhere out there, beyond the “second nature” that we produce, as well as suggesting that second nature can be somehow shorn from its market relations. We have so far failed to understand and work into architectural production a key insight from Neil Smith, following Marx, i.e. that under capitalism, second nature produces and comes to substitute first nature. (Obviously this point opens up a much larger series of questions but in the interest of time, those won’t be addressed at this moment).

To finish, then let’s take a look at a few examples that seem to start to open a new fork in the road. Though there is much work to be done, let’s take a look at some work that seems to internalize the complexity of a world where the organic and the industrial have been mixed for a very long time or were never even separate things.

One example continues the line of provocative investigations coming from R&Sie(n). “Lost in Paris” is the name of it. (Maybe on purpose or by accident they evoke a short film by Julio Cortázar that has the same name, where Cortázar’s character plays hide and seek with Carole Dunlop. Maybe the metaphor of the film works well to understand in a very useful shorthand the very behavior of nature in the capitalist world).

This “Lost” house resembles, at first, the usual rotation of green houses with their planted walls. (There is a fantastic post, by the way, on “Living Facades” by Owen Hatherly). In this case, the living facade seems almost cartoonish. These architects do seem to revel in sticking their tongue out at the establishment once in a while. The living wall goes a bit extreme, hiding hard architecture with soft architecture. But nothing here is quite what it seems.

This natural-seeming fern wall relies on a hydroponic system that feeds off of stored rain water and a mixture of minerals that the inhabitants have to adjust during the course of the seasons according to a manual of instructions that came with the house. What I find interesting about this project is the hydrosocial relation between photovoltaic beings, architectural systems, and humans, all seen through a hallucinatory ensemble. The ferns find their nutrition within a series of hanging vases that are nothing short of amazing. (See also ArchDaily’s post of it).

The system itself is a hybrid made by natural processes mixed in with manual labor, which includes the stunning human labor that went into making the vases and the inhabitant’s operations themselves. I suspect, though I haven’t asked them, that the architects wanted the house to be both a visual delight and an organic fright.

There is something to it that’s also perverse–perhaps a sophisticated joke. How is it that these humans now find themselves sustaining a plant that produces just about nothing except for maybe some clean oxygen and not, say, some yummy tomatoes? But then again, isn’t that what’s peculiar about all sorts of bourgeois social creations like private conservation easements? Isn’t that what modern living within nature–without having to actually labor it–is all about?

Surely, it’s a refined work. Somehow it also alienates us from our accustomed relationships with second nature. From what I can tell, the interior yields the sensation that someone drew a curtain and showed us an organism that we didn’t even want to see–an odious “organic machine”, as Richard White has termed it–although our lives depend on it. Unfortunately, this system also has something nostalgic encoded into it, something like a reaffirmation of an old modernity in the vein of the Frankfurt School, as if there was no alternative but to socialize nature by domesticating it.

What is another avenue? I’m not sure I know what it looks like. I think we can see the contours of it in some of the work of artist duo Allora y Calzadilla or in the recent work of Natalie Jeremijenko. These two folks, Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, have been generating a series of works where they experiment with dialectical relations between an artifice and an organism without falling into preaching about imposing stability or balance. Along a somewhat parallel line, Jeremijenko has been using architectural devices to reveal how the city itself is not just a second nature to animals, but that these animals have already partaken in forming social networks with urban dwellers for a very long time. What architecture does is reveal them.

In Allora y Calzadilla’s work, their monstrous ensembles don’t presuppose some kind of Promethean control over the system, as perhaps we see in the work of R&Sie(n). Who governs whom in these projects is never clear. And if the work will satisfy long-term collectors is also bravely unclear. As Tyler Green wrote in his blog about their piece “Artificial Light”: “The work is both relentlessly smart (I couldn’t help but think that long-ago decayed plant matter was powering the Holzer that was nourishing the Allora & Calzadilla plant) and a twisting of post-industrial assumptions. Can artificially-lit structures save their own environment?” That, my friends, is what saving the earth is all about, because there’s nothing quite “natural” about stuff like carbon credits.

###

This article first appeared in Spanish and was translated to English, with new modifications, by the author, Javier Arbona. (Published in Dialogo, March 2009, pp. 20-21. The original editor was Manuel Clavell-Carrasquillo. Any errors or ommissions are my own).

This new iteration comes thanks to an instigation by Quilian Riano and the GSD Ecological Urbanism blog.Thanks, Quilian!

***
Selected Further Reading related to post:

  • Noel Castree (2000). “Marxism and the Production of Nature”. Capital & Class. Autumn. link
  • David Gissen, HTC Experiments. See especially: 2007. “Anxious Climate: Architecture at the Edge of Environment” [MICA].
  • Oven Hatherly (2009). “Living Façades: green urbanism and the politics of urban offsetting.” The Measures Taken.
  • Neil Smith (1984). Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space. New York: Basil Blackwell. (New edition now available)
  • Richard White (1996). The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River. Macmillan.

See also:

  • Mark Jarzombek (2003). “Sustainability, Architecture, and “Nature” Between Fuzzy Systems and Wicked Problems” Thresholds 26: denatured. Spring: 54-56.  PDF

Updated with new citations and clarifications. 4 April, 2009 @ 21:55

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architects, geography, politics

Who’s Afraid of ‘Slumdog’ (and in love with the slums)? – Part II

What informality once perhaps looked more like

(What “informality” once perhaps looked like). Eagle Fruit Store and Capital Hotel, Lincoln, Nebraska. 1942 [LOC].

Informality, as Nezar Alsayyad explains, comes into being as its own standalone concept in the 1970s, yet it has much in common with past forms of rural-urban migration and labor. In fact, he questions what is “new” about it at all (). For example, the development of American cities thrived on the pull of a rural population to the cities which performed day labor or “trade services”. Think of transients, hobos, journeymen carpenters and many others that today might fit the category. As Paul Groth explores, this (mostly-male) population often lived in flop houses, single-occupancy hotels, and rooming houses. As of the 1970s, especially with the work of Caroline Moser, “informality” as a term grouped together a combination of urban poverty, lack of property rights, and situations of unsafe dwellings (§).

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geography, politics

Who’s Afraid of ‘Slumdog’ (and in love with the slums)? – Part I

What does “informality” do for architects and why do they get so turned on by it? To many architects and planners, when it comes to housing and entrepreneurship, nobody does it better than those who shoulder the worst burdens of poverty. It’s an extreme spectator sport, watching in awe—often just through the web, the Economist, or the movies—as people build out of fridges, scrap metal or whatever comes along. Not to deny the skill of these folks; hey, I wish I could build like that. But once again, what does this fetish really ‘do’ for architects, planners, and even artists? Is it that it challenges our notions (us Westerners, that is) of scale and time?* I’ll come back to this question later (in a future post, maybe) but first, a step back. Continue reading

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geography, news, politics

Just Quotes…

Javier passed his PhD oral exam (see more on that) and in honor of being a step closer to being out there in the vaunted job market, here are some anonymous quotes picked from a geography listserv (institution names and authors removed in order to protect the innocent):

  • “(…)attempt to preemptively push back against the budget-cutting plans of our evil neoliberal administration (the President of the University of [redacted] made over $730,000 last year). The state budget forecast is coming out tomorrow, but the rumor is that[redacted] faces a 4-6 billion dollar shortfall;”
  • “I prefer not to call my institution “neo-liberal” just a good old-fashioned Marxist “exploitative”. We teach courses of 360 with one teaching assistant and there is constant pressure to make sure we are “using” our TAs to the maximum extent.”
  • Here is a related article in the NY Times.”
  • “So this past spring I taught three courses, with 110 students total, as an adjunct faculty member in [redacted]. The pay? Two grand per class, before taxes. And – of course – no benefits. That probably comes out at about minimum wage. (…) Here in the right-to-work south, when it comes to neoliberal institutions, we’ve been on the cutting edge for some time. Instead of being backwards – according to the common stereotype – maybe we’re the future.”
  • “At [redacted], the budget cuts are so severe that our department has had to lay off almost all of our non-tenure track faculty starting next semester. Some of these are people who had been teaching here for 15+ years. And we are all fully unionized. The future might be even worse than we think.”
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architects, artists, everyday, geography, news, politics, video

Design, gender, politics…

In my seminar class at CCA this semester, we started to talk last week about gender roles and the city in very general terms. In the coming weeks, we’ll be diving into more readings that will directly address how participation, or lack thereof, in the public sphere affects spatial and design outcomes; the built environment, if you will. To these ends I shared a few clippings with my students that i will re-post here with some addendums. Continue reading

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news, politics, video

Weirder things have happened…

Daddy Yankee and another standing corpse? Seriously speaking, though, there is sad irony to this endorsement coming from someone born in a U.S. colony, standing with an American military man. Guanabee has it right: “McCain visited Phoenix, Arizona’s Central High School this morning with a special guest in tow – none other than Harvard-endorsed reggaetonero, Daddy Yankee. And they call Barack Obama elitist! Ha!”

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architects, artists, everyday, geography, landscape, politics, San Francisco, video

On Dominique Lowell

Because I have been working a bit again on my Critical Mass paper, I was curious about a poem I came across in an online reprint of a bike messenger zine, Mercury Rising #6. In the paper, I try to use the poem, “Bike Messenger Leading the People” by Dominique Lowell, as a sample of the social concerns within the messenger community around the time Critical Mass was founded. So who is this Dominique Lowell, I asked myself. Many people used pen names in the messenger zines so I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find more googling. But I did. For one, she appears to have worked as a San Francisco messenger in the early 90s and a similar version of “Bike Messenger Leading the People” appears in the Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. Her bio is printed in the New Underground Poetry compilation. I also found a great spoken word performance that appeared in 93 on Fog Town Network, and it’s a small showing of just how conflictive the early 90s were. In the style I was already introduced to in “Bike Messenger…,” Lowell spills vitriol on the smug hipster and alternative urban cultures that passively but aggressively seize city spaces. But the end is not just near, it’s here and we’re living it, she states in this great performance:

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city, geography, news, politics

Catching up with the mail

Gregory Ain, Dunsmuir Flats, 1937. Photo by Orhan Ayyuce

Gregory Ain, Dunsmuir Flats, 1937. Photo by Orhan Ayyuce

I am currently on a “semi-vacation.” “Semi” is because I’m visiting relatives and enjoying myself immensely in a city where I’m a stranger, but at this time I have a lot of work to finish (and hence a good excuse to blog). So this semi-gives me a moment to sift through some weeks of email to find a fewreallyinterestingthings… Continue reading

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everyday, geography, landscape, photos, politics

The spatial fix will roll on a fixie

"The new land barons ride fixies"

Street stencil: "The new land barons ride fixies"

Thanks to Chris (shoes above) for this photo and his memorable visit! Thanks to Kabu for her appearance.  This stencil is on Valencia Street, the ground zero of San Francisco fixie culture, in front of Lost Weekend video. Spatial fix: see Arrighi; Harvey.

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architects, everyday, exhibitions, geography, landscape, news, politics

Cuina casolana, Cocina casera, or Home cooking…


“REACTIVATE!!” is a new show at the Espai D’Art Contemporani de Castelló (Spain) that joins with a previous exhibition at the Swiss Architecture Museum. From the catalog, which I just received in the mail, it looks like a really refreshing collection of art and architecture projects that seize nascent opportunities in between the cracks of corporate, regulated, zoned or otherwise prescriptive space. In short, this is about contemporary ‘hack-o-pportunism’ in the physical realm. With tinges of Situationism, Open Source and urban surgery, Santiago Cirugeda and Recetas Urbanas fit rather perfectly into the show, and I’m very pleased to mention that my article about their work has been translated and appears in the exhibition catalog.

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everyday, geography, politics, San Francisco

Gems from the Inbox: The Ivy Plus Society Mixer

The Ivy Plus Society. TIPS, for short. Just couldn’t resist posting this announcement of an event that invited elite grads to cavort and frolic in the very womb of underprivilege, San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood.

Slummin’ it with twelve dollar cocktails, while your own privilege gets accentuated by the contrast with the grimy misery all around. Check this out:

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geography, news, politics, Uncategorized

Landless movement occupies spaces of global capital in Brasil

The “Movimiento sin tierras” (Landless movement) mobilized in 13 states, interrupting rail, paralizing mining transport and more… “más de mil activistas interrumpieron las actividades del puerto de Pecém en protesta contra el proyecto de instalación de cinco termoeléctricas, una refinería y un centro siderúrgico.” See in El Pais. “It said its members had also occupied a Nacional supermarket, part of the Wal-Mart group, in the Rio Grande do Sul city of Porto Alegre to protest against what it called the control of agriculture by multinational companies” says Reuters.

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politics

Juan González of Democracy Now! in Puerto Rico

Juan González provided a good commentary on the absence of Barak Obama in Puerto Rico’s primary and its potential ramifications. González argues that Latinos in the U.S. will read the symbolism of his absence as political apathy, but complicating the matters is the fact that so few Puerto Rican voters, who can’t vote in the elections, actually cared to go to the polls. Hillary Clinton mobilized her machinery, thereby underscoring how the colonial situation at certain moments gets exploited, and extended, not resolved. Juan González on Democracy Now!.

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