Those Who Walk Through Walls & Other Hertzian Tales

I have two pieces out concurrently that in some way speculate on the architectural space of broadcast and communication technology. In a sense, they describe the beginning and the end of what we could call the ‘Hertzian dream’ of liberation from the physical realm into new worlds whose fluid possibilities of geography, time, ownership and identity might offer freedoms that our material domain denies. The other end of this story is the creep of corporate media into our most intimate and private spaces and into the very structures that are intended to maintain civil society, and the privatisation of communicational space.

The first piece is in Domus on phone hacking, News International and the way in which realms of private and public were distorted through the technologies of the mobile phone as well as the collapse of the spatial organisation and distinction between corporations, government, police, and our own intimate privacies. It was written back in the summer, so may have dated a little with such a fast-paced and sprawling story.

The second is in Perspecta 44: Domain and on the development of radio, the construction of the BBC as a Hertzian empire and the architecture of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Here, a cut-up experiment between the two:

A little after midday on 12 December 1901, three bursts of electromagnetic radiation traveled above the Atlantic ocean at 186,000 miles per second—beep beep beep—from Poldhu, in the south-western corner of England, to the hilltop cabin of Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. Three beeps that spelt ’s’ in Morse code, delivered in Marconi’s headset with an induction coil and spark. These beeps were radio transmissions connecting two geographically distant people who, just before lunch and breakfast respectively, experienced something unique: the sound of one kind of geography collapsing, and another nascent geography flickering into existence.

While Marconi’s dematerialized beeps sped across the Atlantic, proto-Modernists had their eye on the tail end of the Industrial Revolution. They were enamored with tThe formal characteristics of new machines, vehicles, and industrial structures became the mainstays of the Modernist source book, and part of the pseudo-functionalist quasi-logic of Modernist rhetoric. But it is possible that there was a subtext to Modernism that eluded this rhetoric. A subtext born of wireless communication that reaches out to us across a century of exponential developments in communication technology.

With Marconi’s radio in mind, those canonical Modernist concerns of the open plan and the glazed curtain wall may not just be accidents of evolution in construction technology. Perhaps they are the first signs of an architecture that seeks to respond to the new experiences of wireless communication. Connecting places that once were separate, dissolving physical boundaries between rooms and the things that go on in them, topologically blurring relationships between the inside and the outside in ways that echo the electronic dissolution of space. Maybe Modernism is an architecture made by and for people who dream of being everywhere, all the time, simultaneously. Maybe this Modernist subtext, submerged under the grand narrative of the industrial, is at the heart of understanding contemporary space, born at the beginning of the 20th century. ‘S’ spelled the origin of a new formulation of domain: a blank space, a white noise, pristine and immaterial that was everywhere, all at the same time.

This buzzing network of connections between one place and another creates and dissolves in equal measure, forming an alternative, invisible geography in flux. It reshapes relationships formed by geology and history into unstable and ethereal formations.

We see this everywhere-at-the-same-time quality as an emergent architectural condition through the 20th Century. We see it when we look at the Maison Domino in its open frame where down is the same as up and here is the same as there. We see it too in that quality of the Farnsworth House described by Peter Smithson as ‘Ruburb’ by which he meant the concertina-ing of rural and urban into a simultaneous experience. Or in the horizontal continuousness of the Johnson Wax building, or that strand of super-horizontal spatiality developed by Norman Foster first in Willis Faber Dumas where escalators become so integral to the spatial logic that difference between floors – such a fundamental architectural distinction between here and there – is erased. Each of these (amongst may other examples) might be read as attempts by architecture to enact the spatialities first experienced in 19th Century laboratories.

The rhetoric of transparency seems to derive from an architectural condition. More specifically, its corrective quality echoes architecture’s own interest in transparency. For modernist architecture, the idea of transparency challenged traditional notions of interior and exterior, and in doing so reconfigured the relationship between public and private. Dissolving the barrier of the wall, so it might be argued, dissolved the hierarchies of the old order— actually and rhetorically. Transparency then is an architectural strategy that makes public, and thus apparently accountable, the private spaces once concealed within neoclassical or Beaux-Arts solidity. Transparency then, is part of modernism’s rhetoric of truth. And it is this simplistic notion of transparency that is mobilised in current political discussion.

If we are looking either to understand or extend the metaphor of “transparency” as used in contemporary political discussion, perhaps we should learn from architecture’s own experience of the limits of transparencies in ideological operation. Think perhaps of Dan Graham’s pavilions, or perhaps in SANAA’s conception of transparency. Here, the idea of transparency becomes more complex. The glass surface, once employed because of its see-through-ness, amplifies other characteristics. Manipulations of curve, angle, lighting, and so on, so that its properties of reflection become the spectacle, promoted over direct transparency. Rather than seeing through, we find ourselves looking at an image of ourselves and our circumstance reflected back, sometimes clearly, sometimes as a distorted or ghostly image.

The contemporary interpretation of transparency is then very different to its modernist root. Rather than assume an idealised positive effect, it presents transparency as a problem, suggesting that as much as we might see through, we also end up looking in the opposite direction, that as soon as we train our gaze on a subject through something, it becomes framed, obscured and mediated by the very mechanism that is allowing us to look. The phone hacking scandal also sets into relief the way in which communication and media have radically altered traditional spatial and organisational principles. An entity like News Corp constructs a continuous space that extends from the voicemails of Milly Dowler to clandestine discussions with Prime Ministers, to the hectoring rhetoric of a Sun headline to the apparent respectability of a Wall Street Journal leader, to geostationary satellites, to its nasdaq stock listing and far beyond.

This corporatised media space both extends and challenges Marshall McLuhan’s understanding of media as an extension of our nervous system. He argues that, for example, TV is an extension of our optic nerve and radio extends our ears. This anthropomorphic image of distended sensory organs suggests a naturalisation of media: that TV cameras, microphones, broadcast installations, the electromagnetic spectrum and the full array of broadcast technologies are in effect no different from our own bodies, and that contemporary media is, in effect, an inevitable techno-biological evolution.

In casting media as an extension of human sense, McLuhan attempts to position media as a natural condition of the human habitat. Yet media is an entirely unnatural invention, pure culture rather than an inevitable consequence of technobiological determinism. Media, as Rupert Murdoch understands it, is not natural but something that must be continuously constructed.

McLuhan is right though to describe media as a spatial phenomenon. It performs spatially by collecting and distributing information that distorts our experience of geography. Media forms connections, relationships, adjacencies; it alters distances in time and space and collapses geography. Its techniques of assembly and editing (the jump cut, fade and juxtaposition, for example) and its sequencing of experience into genre and schedule remake the world in its own image. Think for example of the corporate slogans: Microsoft’s “Where do you want to go today” or Starbucks “Geography is a flavour”. These trademarked mantras suggest the physical world reorganised by technology, media and experience; they propose that the base architecture of the planet is no longer a function of cosmology and geology but of the techniques and effects of media.

This effect then allows an entity like News Corp to exist—this is the ecosystem that it both inhabits and generates. It is also the condition that traditional spatial organisations find themselves within, subsumed by the flows and currents of globalised corporate media. The scandals that have rocked such fundamental institutions in the UK are a function of the tension between these two conceptions of space, the effect of erosion on the static edifices of traditional governance by the dynamic flows of contemporary media.

Elements of News Corp’s empire—the Sun, the News of the World, Fox News, and so on—operate as entities that while presenting themselves as sources of information are in fact a form of partisan politics, leveraged lobbying and devices that attempt to influence political policy in ways that often serve Murdoch’s self-interested commercial interests (in the uk this is evidenced most explicitly by News Corp’s agenda against the BBC and the euro). Against this hyperprocessed media, we might cite Wikileaks as its polar opposite. Here, its information dumps of pure, unrefined information exist without the contextualisation, analysis, editing or framing that traditional media bring to bear.

Though they may be entirely different types of information, Wikileaks and News Corp’s phone hacking suggests there is a crisis in the ability to construct a functioning architecture of the state within the field of modern media. Both obliterate the boundary between the public and private— be it state secrets or a celebrity’s extra-marital shenanigans. Both suggest a transformation of the idea of the private driven by the technologies of media and communication.

Increasingly data is cached on remote servers protected by encryption and passwords. These distant servers are always accessible through the omnipresent “cloud”. Here we begin to perceive the pretzel logic of contemporary media space: that our private data already exists everywhere. This is a radical counterintuitive spatial inversion, a prolapse of the traditional relationship of public and private.

We’ve come along way since James Clerk Maxwell’s ‘A Dynamical Theory of the Electomagnic Field’ published in 1864. Here, Maxwell demonstrated that electric and magnetic fields travel through space in the form of waves, and at the constant speed of light.

Between 1886 and 1888 the physicist Heinrich Hertz produced the first transmissions of radio waves through free space. His interest was theoretical, remarking that If Hertz was only interested in theoretical physics, demonstrating the existence and qualities of the electromagnetic spectrum, Marconi’s was a more commercial-minded approach. Marconi’s claims as a scientist are shaky at best, but his skill was in assembling and improving existing components into a unified system. It wasn’t the science, but his vision of what might be communicated and why – the content of the buzzes and bleeps. It is of little consequence that Maroni’s Poldhu – St. John’s transmission might only have been random atmospheric noise mistaken for a signal. It was the idea of what could be constructed in the space of wireless communication. In this is the suggestion that invisible parts of atmosphere can be colonised. And that the electromagnetic spectrum was a place, within which ideas of ownership and control would have to be invented.

The total Marconisation of the earthly radio spectrum is evidenced by its regulation and its transformation into real estate. Sections of the spectrum are auctioned off in chunks by government to communications companies. Analogue broadcasting is turned off to open up space for other opportunities. The spectrum, over-dense with communication: emergency services, military, TV, radio, telephone and so on. The electromagnetic spectrum is transformed from Hertzian free space into an echo of property, imagined into a state where it operates as an invisible natural resource. Regulation projects the legalities of earthly spatiality into the atmosphere. In doing so it turns physical characteristics of the atmosphere – vibrations in the electromagnetic spectrum – into a politicized spatial entity.

This invisible model of the earth surrounds us everywhere, all the time. Like any model it both represents and proposes. In its frictionless omnipresence, it both models and acts as the conduit for globalised economy. This domain envelops the planet like a secondary atmosphere, an ecosystem which supports other forms of life, a medium and conduit for connectivity. This is the domain with which trade and economics operates: the ships and airoplanes moving goods from one place to another. The spatiality of radio space mimics – or parallels – that of globalization, each an agent of the other. Globalisation flattens our spherical horizon into a single space where people, goods, ideas and money move with frictionless ease. Under these conditions, narrative, symbolism, capital, value and meaning are released from the physical constraints of geography and architecture.

The phone hacking scandal exposed the failures of traditional institutions to maintain boundaries, distinctions and thresholds against the spectrallike entity of contemporary corporate media. It has demonstrated their inability to control the pervasive flows that have ghosted through their structures, distorted their operation, and bent their purpose. The radically transforming nature of information, media and communication and the rise of corporate entities challenge the very idea of the state, threatening to dissolve its body into their flux. They are phenomena that have altered the dynamics of contemporary power and democracy profoundly, have remapped its topography and spatial organisation and transformed the ecosystem within which democracy attempts to exist.

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