2012 and Obama: More of the Same

With the second inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States, we also breathe a guarded sign of relief. The eight years of Republican rule at the start of the millennium were enough to discredit that party for the rest of the millennium, but it also came with a certain weariness. This time around Obama did not run on a platform of hope. And how could he have? He squandered that platform within a month of assuming office the first time around, appointing a boys' club of advisors that made the early comparisons to Kennedy's Camelot seem all too prescient. The first Obama administration backing finance over building infrastructure and helping the poor, turned to the expediency of drone strikes over the messiness of peaceful resolutions, dismissed both single-payer and a government options for national healthcare, and stayed quiet about climate change.

In fairness to Obama, it isn't a personal failing that led to this as the emergence—indeed, yesterday's New York Times described how the Obamas themselves have been changed by the difficulties they have faced in trying to create change Washington. So, too, the conditions discourage the change that Obama stood for in 2008. After a violent correction created by six years of bubble economics—more if we count the dot.com years and the early 90s stock market run up before that—we have found ourselves in a stationary state in economics and a perpetual stalemate in politics, not only in the US but also in the EU.

The perpetual stalemate that I outlined in the introduction of the Infrastructural City has no spread worldwide, and not just in infrastructure either. The vital center is gone, replaced by a rat king. Instead of a pendulum swinging from left to right, we aren't going anywhere. Mummification or cannibalism seem to be the only options, and if the latter offers possibility, can you really be sure you are chewing on your neighbor, not yourself? 

But to underscore, better Obama and perpetual stalemate than Bush and 9/11, Starve the Beast , the mideast wars, and the economic correction of 2008.

Speaking of a perpetual inability to make progress, it's time for me to make some amends for my own lack of progress on this blog, at least for the moment. Jumping from a late-ending semester to a much-needed vacation to a scramble to the start of the semester delayed my traditional year-end review post, so even as I look ahead at the forty-nine weeks to come in 2013. 

But if our age is atemporal, what's a missed week or three? Obama proved not to be "the next big thing" and so I'll begin my look back at 2012 the same way I began the last two years, with my observation that

2010 marked the year in which "the next big thing" came to an end. (more here)

Such is life during the middle atemporal. Time passes, but we don't clock it. Obama is re-elected, but we find ourselves relieved, not hopeful. Since the dawn of the personal computer era, the steady progress of digital technology has seemed as regular as the seasons and technology drove our sense of change, particularly for generations younger than the Baby Boomers. It still is, but tablets and assisted-GPS-enabled smart phones aren't new anymore, they're part of daily life for most anyone who reads this blog, and the release of a new iPhone or iPad is becoming routine even for those who once accorded such releases a cult value. If Moore's Law still holds, the relentless doubling of megahertz and megabytes came to an end a while back. There's new technology on the horizon, most notably an Internet of Things that will permeate everyday life. We can see it in devices like the Nest thermostat and Twine wireless sensor block, but so far these networked objects are creeping, not rushing, into our lives the way smart phones and tablets did. Smart innovators understand that we are in a period of refinement now, not massive innovation. Make it good, not make it new.

For its part, architecture continues in the same listless, directionless condition that they have been for over a decade. But perhaps something has changed.


OMA's CCTV building, completed in 2012, is last heroic gesture in architecture, ending an era of over-indulgence. Rem Koolhaas, whose brilliant "Junkspace essay condemned the overdose of masterpieces under network culture turned out to have made the most over-wrought monument of all, befitting its function as the headquarters of the propaganda machine of the world's largest authoritarian government. In a brilliant master stroke, CCTV is a monument to self-importance, the biggest piece of junkspace around, necessitating massive amounts of structural steel and painstaking computer calculations for no particular reason whatsoever. Defying the general condition of political stalemate that we face across the world, CCTV affirmed the continuing possibility of tremendous effort, proving that a signature architect and an authoritarian government can cut through the red tape and get things done. Koolhaas explains "It took 10 years to realize, and I have been in Beijing once every month. You can imagine the degree of engagement that implies." But that's all CCTV was, an immense potlatch, a monument to engagement. With the building complete, the effort ceased and the building vanished. Nor should we be surprised. After all, it had been the subject of a show at MoMA back in 2006 and we had already lived through its destruction in 2008, when its previously unknown fraternal twin, the TVCC building, burned next door. The culmination of post-critical work, CCTV was smooth and easy, never difficult, leaving no invitations to criticism or even to architectural responses, its after-effect being that of complete saturation and total satiation.

But this is not to say that there are not possibilities out there. On the contrary, no steady state is truly steady. There is a lot churning in the murk, indeed churning more vital than most anything going on during the building boom on which my generation's best and brightest spent themselves. Contemporary architecture students today know no future besides economic stagnation. These recent graduates—and I am thinking of my students both at Columbia and at the University of Limerick in Ireland—are less interested in working for signature offices and more interested in carving out new models for practice. Open Source and commons-based architectural practices are no longer just concerns of theorists like myself but instead have become a possibility for practice. Likewise, the appointment of Pedro Gadanho as the curator of contemporary architecture at MoMA points toward the re-emergence of the political in architecture, albeit this time without the cynicism that marked that constellation in the 1990s, and towards the maturation of architecture fiction. What was once on the fringe is now coming to center stage. As it does so, how architecture fiction will maintain its radically remains a key question.

Architecture fiction's real-world counterpart may well be extreme climate events. Peter Cook one wrote "When it rains in Oxford Street, the architecture is no more significant than the rain." If this recently has been rephrased in terms of digital clouds, perhaps we could suggest, "When an extreme climate event hits Oxford street, the architecture will disappear in the rain." Extreme climate events wreak a sort of architecture fiction of their own, questioning the assumptions that we have literally built upon.

[Iwan Baan's post-Sandy cover of New York Magazine]

In the United States, last year was the hottest year on record, beating the previous year (1998), by an entire degree on average. In addition to Hurricane Sandy, 2012 delivered massive, damaging thunderstorms punctuated by tornados, Hurricane Sandy, an immense draught in the US midsection, torrential rains in Britain as well as in India and Bangladesh, floods in Lithuania, crippling snowfall in the Ukraine, and so on. Such events are becoming normal. Since we bought our house at the end of May 2012 we have experienced three once-in-a-lifetime storms. Since there are four of us, does that mean we have one more big storm to go in 2013? Or are we measuring insect lifetimes? In a presidency shaped by focus groups, Obama shows no interest in addressing climate change, thus creating a massive missed opportunity that will doubtless be noted by historians of the future. So we end with a paradox. 2012 taught us that the stagnant state of network culture isn't stasis. Instead, it is accompanied by massive, unpredictable change. It's up to us to figure out how to harness that unpredictability for good and how to use extreme change and extreme proposals work to better society. I hope that in retrospect I will have something more positive to say about 2013.