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.

kateoplis: Nope, this is not a still from Blade Runner. It’s...


Nope, this is not a still from Blade Runner. It’s smog in Beijing

"The Future is Unwritten" RIP Joe Strummer 8/21/52 -...

"The Future is Unwritten"

RIP Joe Strummer

8/21/52 - 12/22/12 

The music of the Clash changed my life. His  Meeting Joe Strummer in Sophie’s one night in New York in 1989 was one of the high points in my life. 

The Instagram Storm and the City

It’s been almost a week since Hurricane Sandy hit New York and New Jersey, delivering the sort of punch that used to be a once-in-a-lifetime but now seems to be an annual event, if slightly worse in ferocity.

We’re been fine, but kept busy by the difficulties of running things off a generator for a week and dealing with two small children who have an unexpected week and a half off. Best-laid plans have again come awry and any thoughts of being able to focus on my work have been banished by the necessity of learning the fine points of chainsaw operation, waiting in line for gas, restocking our fireplace inserts with wood, and helping out neighbors without generators or heat.

Manhattan is steadily getting back to normality, with lights back on after days of outages in some of its most fashionable neighborhoods while limited subway service has been re-established with Brooklyn. Things could have been much worse and I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly and easily these services were brought back on line, given the city’s antiquated and ill-maintained systems.

Sandy is the Instagram Storm, with individuals (as well as Time Magazine, which sent out five photographers to document the storm using the service) posting storm images at a rate of 10 per second and a Web site titled #instacane built to display them. Of course individuals and publications resorting to Instagram sought to lend an air of retro-hipness to their work while sharing it on social media, but perversely the over-exposure of Instagram images (since when has anything still hip been on the cover of Time?) will kill the service, forcing hipsters away from it; while numbers will likely rise for a short time, the Facebook-owned service's days are now numbered. Sandy is likely to remain the only Instagram storm, its photographic record permanently marred by an injudicious use of a gimmicky filter. I suppose we should just be happy it isn't the HDR storm. But of course it couldn't be, since HDR's images are so firmly un-hip, their over-saturated images recalling the paintings of Thomas Kinkade. Instead, Instagram's trick isn't that it just creates a look, but rather that its pre-distressed antique images produce affect, allowing both the taker-as-viewer (here less as an artist and more as a dandy with a Claude Glass) and viewer alike to suspend between temporalities, simultaneously inhabiting both the 60s and 70s heyday of Kodachrome as well as a more recent moment of viewing the color-shifting of Kodachrome dyes as they age (as evoked in tumblr blogs of scanned photographs like http://myparentswereawesome.tumblr.com). In the case of the Instagram Storm, the use of Instagram evokes the storm's status as a legendary event, something to be lived through to tell one's grandchildren about while also emphasizing that this was the place to be at that moment—that is, both experiencing the storm and being a part of the Instagram buzz about it. But the temporal displacement also invoked a saccharine sweet sense of loss. Philosopher Edmund Burke wrote "The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature . . . is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other." But experiencing the storm through Instagram suggests detachment and an inability to have experiences, no matter how overwhelming, except through media. Still, we should not confuse the use of Instagram to experience the storm with the viewing of events on television. On the contrary, as a social network Instagram bonded users together as a participatory, networked public while Instagram's filters made the photographs seem more personal. 

But where the hip parts of Brooklyn largely experienced the storm through Instagram and where lower Manhattan was immersed in a days-long blackout, large areas of both the city  and the Northeastern megalopolis beyond the five boroughs were destroyed. Although the blackout may have undone the smug sense of superiority that some Manhattanites have about their way of life, it reinforced the differences within global cities. The post-Sandy experiences of Instagram-wielding Open Source urban adventurers winding their way, Situationist readers in hand, through the darkened streets of Lower Manhattan in search of candle-lit bars are a far cry from the harrowing conditions that individuals in Staten Island and Queens continue to live under. This is, in at least two ways, the product of neoliberalism. First, neoliberalism has flattened some differences between developed and developing countries, creating a larger Gini coefficient in the former—particularly in the United States. The result is the development of a third world in the first, of élite, secure enclaves such as Manhattan (below 125th street, at least) surrounded by vast territories of the disenfranchised. Second, utility deregulation, a low tax regime, and the rise of NIMBYism have left infrastructure in the developed world fragile and overloaded, as we documented in the Infrastructural City.

It's unlikely that any of this will change soon. Rather, we should expect the opposite. Crisis is the new normal under network culture. Climate change is producing more severe weather events even as the stagnant global economy seems like it can only operate on a boom and bust cycle. Collapsing infrastructure and the cycle of economic crisis provide a fertile terrain for the Shock Doctrine, which was so effectively applied in New Orleans after Katrina.

Little question that Wall Street will finish its pull out from Lower Manhattan, which is now largely a symbolic and historical base of operations. I'm still uncertain about what the effect on poor areas of New York and New Jersey will be, but it's unlikely to be positive. Watch carefully for signs of the Shock Doctrine being put in place though, it is lurking right around the corner…… 

slavin: …Saville talks about creating the album cover, lifting...


…Saville talks about creating the album cover, lifting the image verbatim from a science book depicting the very first reading of a pulsar from 1967.


When pulsars were first discovered, their measurable emissions were so strictly intervaled (ticking like a clock—hence the Pulsar brand of watches), that scientists couldn’t ignore the possibility that they could have been created by a distant intelligent species to serve as lighthouses across the cosmos.

So when someone looks at Unknown Pleasures and doesn’t really know what they’re looking at, they actually can re-create a very specific place and time in science, when the Universe sent mankind a signal that we didn’t yet understand.

For nearly two decades I’ve been saying that network...

For nearly two decades I’ve been saying that network culture in architecture isn’t parametric or generative design. This is a great example.   



Mr. Wright, why don't you sit down and shut up?

Mr. Wright, why don't you sit down and shut up? :

Bruce Graham, interviewed by Detlef Mertins

DM: How was Mies significant for your work? BG: He was significant, but Chicago architecture is a broader historical thing. It isn’t just Mies. It isn’t just one person. Louis Sullivan wasn’t exactly stupid. The structures of Louis Sullivan are also very clear, very clearly expressed. By the way, that’s why I went to Holabird & Root first, before I went to SOM. They had a tradition of doing structural engineering and architecture together.

DM: Wasn’t it also Mies who suggested that you do that? BG: Yes. When I was a student, I came from Philadelphia to see him. He received me. He was a very nice man, a very simple man. I asked him where I should go to work, and he said Holabird & Root.

DM: What else did you talk about with Mies? BG: We were good friends. There wasn’t another intellect like him in the city. There just wasn’t. The person I didn’t like, as a person, was Frank Lloyd Wright. He was a real son of a bitch. I gave him hell one time. He was giving a speech at the University of Chicago and was blasting me. So I finally got up and said, “Mr. Wright, why don’t you sit down and shut up?" And I walked out. It’s ridiculous for an architect to criticize another architect that way. But by that time, he was a little insane. He certainly wasn’t a constructivist. Fallingwater nearly collapsed. He wouldn’t listen.

DM: Did you see Mies as a constructivist? BG: Yes.

DM: What did you talk about with him? BG: How the wine was. Once in his old apartment he had an easy chair with a table and his cigars and his martini and all the furniture against the wall—somebody asked him why he didn’t move into 860 Lake Shore Drive. He said, “There’s no place to put the furniture. I was born in a little village in Germany. I can dream and imagine this new world, but I can’t live in it."

This is one of a large number of plans from Archive of...

This is one of a large number of plans from Archive of Affinities. Although on the surface these reveal a similarity to Colin Rowe and Fred Koetter’s postmodern collage techniques as explored in their Collage City, we can also see some crucial differences here that reveal this project to be part of network culture.

Chief among these is that, on the one hand, these plans demonstrate a forced relationship between unlike elements and, on the other, these plans lack any trace of rupture or artifacts of their collision. This is a paradoxical inversion of postmodern design, in which elements would be chosen for their contextual nature, but when collided would retain traces of their violent encounter while also announcing their inability to ever produced a whole.

In other words, what we see is atemporality at work, not a postmodern revival.    



Into the Cloud (with zombies)

Today's New York Times carries a front-page piece by James Glanz on the massive energy waste and pollution produced by data centers. The lovely cloud that we've all been seeing icons for lately, turns out is not made of data, but rather of smog. 

The basics here aren't very new. Already six years ago, we heard the apocryphal story of a Second Life avatar consuming as much energy as the average Brazilian. That data centers consume huge amounts of energy and contribute to pollution is well known.

On the other hand, Glanz does make a few critical observations. First, much of this energy use and pollution comes from our need to have data instantly accessible. Underscoring this, the article ends with the following quote:   

“That’s what’s driving that massive growth — the end-user expectation of anything, anytime, anywhere,” said David Cappuccio, a managing vice president and chief of research at Gartner, the technology research firm. “We’re what’s causing the problem.”

Second, much of this data is rarely, if ever used, residing on unused, "zombie" servers. Back to our Second Life avatars, like many of my readers, I created a few avatars a half decade ago and haven't been back since. Do these avatars continue consuming energy, making Second Life an Internet version of the Zombie Apocalypse? 

So the ideology of automobliity—that freedom consists of the ability to go anywhere at anytime—is now reborn, in zombie form, on the Net. Of course it also exists in terms of global travel. I've previously mentioned the incongruity between individuals proudly declaring that they live in the city so they don't drive yet bragging about how much they fly.  

For the 5% or so that comprise world's jet-setting, cloud-dwelling élite, gratification is as much the rule as it ever was for the much-condemned postwar suburbanites, only now it has to be instantaneous and has to demonstrate their ever-more total power. To mix my pop culture references, perhaps that is the lesson we can take away from Mad Men. As Don Draper moves from the suburb to the city, his life loses its trappings of familial responsibility, damaged and conflicted though they may have been, in favor of a designed lifestyle, unbridled sexuality, and his position at a creative workplace. Ever upwards with gratification, ever downwards with responsibility, ever upwards with existential risk. 

Survival depends on us ditching this model once and for all. 

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