Today We Collect Nothing

The assignment, by now familiar to many of you, is to take two texts—Alison & Peter Smithson's "But Today We Collect Ads" and Reyner Banham's "The Great Gizmo"—and juxtapose them, with relevant commentary.

Published in 1956, the essay by the Smithsons preceeds Banham by nine years. It won't be my first time looking at it so let's start there. In "But Today We Collect Ads," the Smithsons look back at the era of heroic modernism when European architects like Gropius and Corbusier turned to American industrial construction for inspiration. Consciously or not, the Smithsons identify an epochal economic transition in the works, from Fordist industrialism to post-Fordist media and services. Instead of photos of grain silos, they collect ads. Since they are writing in 1950s Britain, in an economy constrained by postwar recovery and rationing, the ads are from overseas, filled with images of high-tech life in America and disposable throw-away bits of color from Japan.

For once, architecture was ahead of the game. Who else imagined, in 1956, that it would be the media, not big industry that would dominate economies, in direction, if not (immediately) in revenue? This essay anticipates the cultural logic of late capitalism at work and in that, is remarkable.

It also lays out a method: the high dips into the low for renewal, much as the Frederick Jackson Turner's American went to the wilderness to renew himself after too much time in the city. As the Smithsons point out, this is a tried and true modernist method, far from the studied confusion of the two under postmodernism.

Today, however, this hardly seems plausible. Network culture levels out the differences between high and low. The transactions are constant and if our access to knowledge isn't perfect, it's awfully close. There's nothing to collect anymore, no sources out there that are unknown to architecture. The Internet and globalization put paid to that. From Baudrillard's perspective, this condition of total knowledge puts an end to history. I suppose he's right, the coolhunt is over, we live in a world of stylistic tropics as Brian Eno puts it. Now I hardly think it's the end of intentionality, that we all might as well abandon culture for "intentionless" (as if there is no intent in code) generative architecture, but if not that, what then?

One hint is the utter collapse of the ad market during this restructuring period. The Post-Fordist darling is as dead as the automobile industry. Instead, technology has come to the fore, which leads us to Reyner Banham's "The Great Gizmo."

To be honest, I'm feeling a little exasperated with Banham now. I have to write about him for this piece and I have to put together a lecture for the University of Michigan in which I use Banham as the departure point as well. He's an unquestioned hero to a generation of critics, which means it's time to question him, something that I've been doing for half a decade now, albeit apparently with little impact. I know that my positions are too negative for many tastes, but I have my issues with the foremost advocate of technology and non-plan in architecture, patient zero in the conversion from morality to techno-fetishism.

Still what of the Great Gizmo and how do I reconcile attacking Banham for techno-fetishism with my suggestion that this precisely what we should be looking for in his essay? Let's recap Banham's argument, briefly: he describes the American type as overcoming the challenges of nature with portable technological apparti. I'm not sure where Banham slots infrastructure and the technological sublime that David Nye has written about so eloquently in his narrative, but still, you get the picture so let's run with the gizmo for now.   

Since Banham's day, the gizmo has continued to evolve from transistor radios, tape players big and small, laptops, portable media players, smart phones, to tablets. Even automobiles have been reshaped as gizmos, possessing not one but many electronic brains, each ready to monitor, interpret, and control an aspect of the vehicle's performance. That architecture hasn't caught up yet is a challenge to architects. No matter how cleverly designed by the latest parametric-modeling software, virtually all buildings remain dumb boxes, incapable of making decisions or accommodating the rapid pace of change. Of course I know that good friends and colleagues are working on this sort of thing (for example, the Living), but its not here yet, and that's what counts. Our lives have been thoroughly transformed by gizmos, but our architecture is much the same. Give us our smart phones and laptops and put us in the waiting room of Sterling Cooper and we'd be fine. Perhaps we might notice its a bit hotter than our taste in winter and colder than we'd like in summer due to the pre-OPEC penchant for over-conditioning the environment. But certainly there'd be little difference, nor would we see much difference in the places the mad men lived in, although we might notice that they had less junk than we did. Compare that to life in the 1920s when air conditioning did not exist, refrigerators were scarce, and many homes in the countryside had outhouses instead of toilets. 

If you did time-travel back to the 1960s and happened to run into an aficionado of architecture (like Banham) about the future of houses, you'd get a vision virtually identical to the Wired dreams of our own day. Perhaps the only real difference would be the embrace of obsolescence and the lack of green, but both visions would include houses that could be remotely controlled, might reconfigure themselves as needed, anticipating our needs and desires, would be able to whisk away waste, and might even clean up after themselves. The future, when it comes to houses, has been deferred.

To blame architects would be a mistake. Something larger is up here, something coded deep into society. My sense is that it's that the house isn't necessary.

In part this is the fundamental innovation of American architecture. The Puritans could have chosen to build houses out of materials that would last, like brick and stone, but they didn't, believing that the Second Coming was on its way and to build for posterity would be tantamount to blasphemy. With the excess of capital that produced, settlers were able to spread swiftly across the continent while industry could expand even more rapidly than in Europe.  

That's one narrative, and it should be placed besides Banham's. But back to the gizmo. Already for the settler, it has taken over, letting the house become just a dumb box, a background condition. But don't take my word for it, check out another essay by Banham, in this case his A Home is Not A House in which he suggests that the ultimate modernist environment might be a conditioned space within a membrane enclosure, an "environment bubble" that seems to exist as much in metaphor as in reality.

banham bubble

So it's back to this will kill that, only this time via Banham not Hugo, and the house instead of the cathedral. But if our dreams are similar, and if the Internet realizes Marshall McLuhan's Global Village, then what about the bubble?

Could it be that the real estate bubble finally unloaded the house? Is it possible that this recession isn't just a recession but a fundamental restructuring, a restructuring of architecture that will undo the dumb box? By this I don't mean that the house will simply become smarter, more sentient, more technological but rather that in turning architecture into a virtual product in the financial realm, the bubble allowed it to become a virtual product in the physical realm? 

We will need at least a decade to absorb the excess housing currently in the market. With the credit crunch, it'll be much harder for renters to purchase their first homes and for homeowners to sell their underwater homes. Jobs will be scarce and individuals will have to be willing to travel for them. Mobility will rise, but homes will become less the spaces of self-realization that they were for the last decade (and which I predicted they would be back in the 1990s) and more shells to be filled temporarily, with only a few, highly-intelligent objects in one's possession. Maybe this is the dream that  gizmo-creator Steve Jobs had in his home in the early 1980s in unconsciously recreating this scene from Banham? 

Is this an end condition to architecture? Maybe. But when hasn't architecture been in an end condition? Even modernism's noble efforts were tilting against an impossible windmill of capital and postmodernism fared even worse. I'm sure some of us will figure out some way to keep the discipline doing the same old thing. But maybe there are other possibilities? 

It strikes me that architects are missing a major opportunity here. All of this is very similar to what the Eameses were up to when they moved away from construction to media. They built the best house of the century but architecture couldn't hold their attention. It was too slow. Instead, they turned to media. Today's media are more spatial than film ever could be. Hertzian space—and the interface to it—is the new frontier.

Architects should be sure not miss out.



Living It

I feel compelled to comment, though this will no doubt be terribly self-centered. I think I am living the transition you describe.

A few months ago I left architecture school to take a job designing and developing internet products empowering the increasingly dematerialized social graph. I think it's destined to be the most foundational shift in how we contextualize ourselves in relation to information in decades.

The last project I completed at school was for a housing studio. Instead of a residential building, we presented infrastructure designed to accommodate a mix of temporary housing types. Not a shell or a Sloterdijk dome so much as an infrastructure where many conceptual Sloterdijk domes lie cracked and intermingled. Or at least, that's how far my pseudo-grapsing at theory took me. You know, the heterogenous thing that all students seem to do these days, but with some tiny twists in an effort to ground it in a whole new kind of thinking.

The semester before that, I presented a museum centered wholly on metadata - a physical database of sorts. And the semester before that, I presented a laboratory headquarters designed to intermix natural and the artificial environments and ecosystems.

I mention these projects because all three address shifts you mention explicitly in your article - temporarily filled shells, the coming-to-the-fore of technology over industry, and the leveling effect of "network culture".

And, perhaps most epically, at the moment I started reading your article I was sitting on the floor of my single-room apartment in Palo Alto, reading your blog by the light of a single lamp on a computer that is using that exact picture of Steve Jobs as its Desktop Background. All that's missing - perhaps tellingly - is the Buddhism. I don't know how I've ended up dealing with so many of the things you mention over the last few years, but I really doubt it's accidental.

Obviously, I agree with your tentative conclusion. Personally, I think "Architecture" as it is conceived of by educated non-architects today is slowly (for the times) evaporating. For young architects, however, it seems inevitable to me that this will enable a period of extreme freedom in reframing how people relate to their physical spaces. Like, in the next 3-5 years extreme. How this will be deployed and lived is less clear, but that seems inevitable as well, especially in cities. I know it's folly to predict real-world activity, especially in light of such ridiculously large volumes of cash still sloshing around the world looking for a sponge. But conceptually, at least, this shift has already begun.

The problem: roles have reversed. In architecture school today the best teachers have almost no grasp of the tools being used by students, and students have very little exposure to the theory and history being mined by teachers. The result is a hell of a lot of pseudo-academic and aesthetic wankery, all of which is at odds with the spirit of the age. GSAPP is probably doing the best job at combating this wankery with the densely-packed power of the network, from what I can tell, but this is more scary than comforting.

With my own personal transition out West, I've been seeking to live a life in which my physical environment is simplified to extremes in order to clarify my mind and its consumption of media. Hence the photo of Steve Jobs on my desktop. What I find living like this though, of course, is that once there's no longer anything for the architect in me to discover instead I see the entire mundane realm of physical sensation become incredibly interesting. Architects, if any of them end up like me, will end up rediscovering the core of what makes Architecture so powerful. The end condition begets an amnesia. The white-washed fence is the most receptive to color and paint. Network Culture is the push through the membrane; it's the period of transition in a John Crowley-esque shift in how we design.

New Tools

Great comment, Evan. For what it's worth, almost every day I talk to Robert Sumrell at AUDC and hear about the latest fetish he has left on the curb. My own de-accessioning project, no doubt in part inspired by my father's legacy is to get rid of more books than I purchase. With the iPad on the horizon, why should I hang onto that pile of theory books (or El Croquis for that matter) when someone else might want the physical artifact more? 

I'm curious what sort of tools you're referring to. There are the tools of digital production in architecture, which I'll be the first to admit I have no knowledge of (don't ask me how to turn on the milling machine in the fab lab, please!).  There are also the tools of the net, from Facebook to Vimeo to Lulu to Twitter to Drupal to RSS readers, which I guess I have some clue about but which most other faculty seem to have no idea about. Some students really know the latter, some really know the former. Some don't know either. Few seem to know both.

Then there's theory. Your point is well taken. There's been an anti-theoretical backlash in schools for which post-criticism is just an excuse. Stanley Tigerman identified the problem years ago here. Schools have run out of time in the curriculum to handle all the new technology in the mix. History and theory have suffered as a result. But it's more that that. Students don't seem to be interested in those issues. Heck, who could be? Rancière, Badiou, Sloterdijk, Agamben, Zizek, Latour? I don't know how to put these together or juxtapose them in a productive way—nor have I seent it done—let alone figure out how to make them work for architecture. So they wind up on my own the cutting-room floor.

The incommensurability of discourses that Lyotard described long ago is lived reality for us. Architecture has always prided itself on overcoming it. Is it too late now? Or can we find some way of navigating through it all? Your post suggests one way, perhaps not as personal as it might initially appear, of doing that. 

in response

Yes! A life without objects! Eliminating all that doesn't *really* matter! Thank you for your nice response. I react to books as you do, though I've yet to purge my collection. There's nothing like moving across the country to make one reevaluate one's relationship to objects. Books (and DVDs and CDs, which I've ripped and purged entirely) are the worst offenders. I hope that the iPad can revolutionize publishing - I am optimistic about it - but though I've loved Apple since I was a child, I do not trust them one bit when it comes to giving me control over my data (which, after all, are essentially my objects). Anyway, it is my hope that the technology-driven movement away from stuffing one's life with physical objects will help re-emphasize the importance of basic architectural characteristics, things like materiality and public space and natural lighting. Or, perhaps I'm conflating real-life and the Supersurface? Hah! :-)

Along this line, it is apparent to me that the educated masses, at least those of my age, have developed an earnest interest in Design, whether it be information, product, or interface. A combination of factors influence this: everyone living their lives in the designed environment of the phone / computer, the overloading of our minds with access to information, the insatiable hunger for quality content online, and most important the accessibly of the tools of Design. Like music (which in my opinion has flourished like never before in the last decade, though the good stuff is fully ignored by what remains of Pop Culture), Design is ascending, even if architecture remains static. That said, I don't know this definitively but I'm willing to bet that there are orders-of-magnitude more architects than there are interface designers, say, at least in the short term. And thank goodness: I often find the signal-to-noise ratio in architecture to be unbearable.

Which brings me to another thing that interests me about books: paradoxically - and I love how astounding this would seem to someone fifty years ago - in my life the most inaccessible content is content harbored in the walls of the physical library. Compared to content online, with a very few exceptions content in books is essentially irrelevant to most people my age (mid-late twenties).

Also, to clarify my reference to tools in my initial comment: I was referring (as you mention) to the literal tools of digital and physical production. As for the other tools, the information tools: most of the students are just as oblivious to them as the teachers are (which is part of the problem of architecture school, though I'm sure this will change greatly over the next decade). There are only a handful of students in the entire building, for example, who use RSS (I use it voraciously). But back to the tools of production: I may be wrong, but it seems to me that only a few teachers and/or critics know how to deal with the beautiful complexity that 15 minutes in Processing (say) can produce. It is much harder to draw / diagram something that communicates clearly than it is to draw something beautiful or complex. I also think that these powers distract many students most from seeing the value in history and/or theory. I mean, have you seen a theory book? So many words! ;-)

All of this said, I was extremely lucky in my time at GSAPP to study under critics who demanded their students tackle some theory, and who demanded conceptually rigorous work. For example Janette Kim, who I had first semester, obstinately assigned us a Latour article, and though I think none of us fully understood or appreciated it at the time, his take on contemporary design was so intuitively familiar and essential to me that I stuck with it and was ultimately led to the larger world of theory. But even if I hadn't, I think his metaphors are very accessible and own-able by students as foundations for thinking in studio. Just an example. More broadly, of course, basic architectural theory is wholly irrelevant to the public. I think that this is a more useful problem to think about than the problem of getting students to read theory. If contemporary architecture ever regained its relevance to non-architects, the rest would be easy, no?

History is another matter. I studied straight history as an undergraduate (as did my fiance), so it is dear to my heart, but as great as the courses at GSAPP are - and I do think they are amazing - I think most students like them well enough but have great difficulty connecting them to their work in studio. And I don't blame them: how it is possible for the most prestigious graduate architecture school in New York to graduate its MArch's without requiring them to read Delirious New York. Or any Koolhaas for that matter, let alone any Venturi, Eisenman, McLuhan, or anyone from the 60's. Let alone the less famous theorists. The history is great, but without the last fifty years is impossible to contextualize.

And, finally, I forgot to mention - in addition to all of the projects relevant to your post I mentioned above, I also wrote my History thesis in college on Nye and the technological sublime as it related to architectural lighting in the early twentieth century; and, in regard to your reply to my comment, I spent 9 months studying under Stanley Tigerman. It's a small blogosphere. :-)


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