An Old Take on Make New History: Architecture Beyond the Flatline

This is an old essay that I wrote for for an issue of AD edited by FAT and Charles Jencks that explored our adventures in the ashes of Postmodernism, and what it might mean for contemporary practice. Remember, this was a long time before it became acceptable – fashionable even – to declare an interest in postmodern architecture. When our interest was a love that dare not speak its name. Long before the Chicago Architecture Biennial’s Make New History, but I think still relevant as an accompaniment to the discussions around the Biennial. Especially of the effect of digital culture on architectural production, but also suggesting what is at stake culturally and politically.

Architecture beyond the Flatline: The Hotel Bonaventure is Everywhere.

Marx argued that history repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce.  But Marx never had cable TV or he would have seen history repeating endlessly every night. In the age of digital information, events come around again and again, their mode and meaning shifting with each cycle. Tragedy becomes farce and then spins into a dizzying blur of genres: Rom-Com, Family Drama, Satire, Pornography and so on. So Marx was half right. History repeats, first as tragedy, then as farce and then as tragi-farce-romcom-porno or slasher-drama-chic-flick-docudrama.

In architecture, the same cultural trajectory holds true. Modernism ran its course as tragedy (heroic failure) while Post Modernism acted out farce (ironic failure). After this, it – where ‘it’ means the historical trajectory of architectural culture – splinters into kaleidoscopic genre-Moderns: Neo, Retro, Alter, Super, Para and Extra Moderns. Porno-Modern, Slasher-Modern, Feelgood-Modern. Everything is flattened into an infinitely wide and depthless pool where image, text, history are dissolved by the solvents of media and communication. Not the end of history, but an intensifying and multiplying of histories into the present where we can be pre and post, neo and authentic simultaneously.

High post modernism anticipated the structural collapse of culture. It not only told us this would happen (why else would it have been so invested in the 2D?), how it would happen (media, advertising, cars, and other consumerisms), and why it would happen (the ideology of late capitalism). It also knew that the mechanisms of culture would transform so radically that its own foundation would collapse, that its own critical position would too be flattened. Its ostentatious physical gestures were not waving but signaling a desperate truth at the moment before invisible torrents of neo-liberal, free market capitalism washed over everything.

You can feel tremors in Marshall McLuhuan, Archigram, Ant Farm, through Venturi and Scott Brown. Consumerism, media and electromagnetic communication begins to reconceptualise physical space. “Americans don’t need piazzas, they should be at home watching TV”, Venturi wrote – and then placed a golden TV aerial on top of Guild House as a monument to communication make sure you knew how serious he was.

When everything is one click away from everything else, high post modernisms critical dialectic – the rhetoric of ‘Double Coding’  – has exploded into multiple and provisional relationships. In our era of networked information, juxtapositions of high culture with popular, the historical with the contemporary or the academy with the everyday can no longer operate. Nodal points – Rome and Las Vegas; the temple and the shed; the pediment and the billboard – now bob in the flat pool of culture. Despite its interest in the everyday, the commercial and the ordinary, post modern architectures field of operation was within the academy, which like every other armature of culture, has been flattened by neo liberal ideology. ‘This’ vs. “That” no longer exists. Instead “This” “That” “Them” “Those” and “These” all happen simultaneously in a great horizontal flux.

Post Modernisms critical project was to recognize architectures connection to its social, political and economic context. Just as Modernists had revealed mechanization and industry as the context of early 20th century architecture, Post Modernism situated late 20th century architecture in the increasingly powerful contexts of globalisation, the growing ubiquity of media, liberalized markets and the free flow of capital, the pervasiveness of communication technology, the fragmentation of ideology and so on. It was thanked like any messenger bearing bad news.

The effects of fully-fledged neo liberal capitalism on our physical, social and economic landscapes is profound and disorienting. In the wake of intricate pretzel logics as Credit Default Swaps, we might add confusion to Post Modernisms complexity and contradiction. These are the forces that dismantle meaning and scatter traditional cultural structures into a wide, horizonless moraine. The Hotel Bonaventure is everywhere.

Architectural responses to this Post-Regan, Post-Thatcherite condition develop Post Modern tendencies to different ends. The recent mainstream avant guard (a phrase which in itself is a neo liberal tautology) married Post Modernisms tendency toward academic autonomy – the formal game – while removing its explicit critical and communicational position. From Bilbao onwards, distorted (and de-politicised) abstractions of Modernist and Constructivist languages became the clearest illustrations of the sensations of late capitalism: fluid form at audacious scale, the swoosh of volumes, the lightheadedness of refection and translucencies, curves of overblown sensuality. This litany of affects formalises the heady liquid state of mind of millennial abstract-boom economics into physical and spatial form – literally sensational.

An alternative architectural approach explicitly recognizes the system within which architecture operates. Positioning itself between the mechanisms of globalization and its effects on particular situations, it articulates a broader and nuanced understanding of architectural context. You can see this in the charts and diagrams of networks that characterize its projects. Mappings of influences, agencies and the specifics of territories are not just research but become tools. This concern for the intersection between networks and place, the overlapping of economic, legal, political and social realms with the physical context is a way of defining an architectural framework.

RPMs contextual concern is also revealed in its propensity for detailed fieldwork and close reading of place rather than generalistion. Tracing the specifics of history, narratives of place, the particularities of occupation and the specifics of local activity and culture is a way of cataloging moments of difference. These concerns act as a form of resistance to the ubiquity of global culture. They offer a means of inscribing particular narratives into the flatness and abstraction of generic urban planning.

RPM often reports from the places where the effects of contemporary culture are felt most – from border conditions, favellas, post industrial regeneration, post utopian New Towns and rapidly expanding cities of emerging economies. These are places where the networks of economics, community, identity, history, power and politics have a direct effect in shaping the physical fabric of the city.

This is a form of resistance – or perhaps more specifically a re-introduction of roughness, of non-slip texturing. Where neo-liberalism brings abstraction, this approach creates meaning. Where it atomises interests, this coalesces. It does this through uncovering, through speculating and creating fictions of significance – through inventing and inserting local loops into the wider network.

Radical Postmodernism is in part radical because it addresses the scenarios of the ‘real’ directly. It is not about these conditions, but locates its practice amongst them. It does not extract the knowledge it ‘learns from’ to the cloisters of academia, but applies its learning within its own theatre of operation. Its politics and polemics are, therefore, more than rhetorical. Its radicalism, we could argue, originates from its practicality. Like singing into a Vocoder, RPMs voice is polyphonic. Its discourse operates across political, polemical and practical octaves simultaneously.

Networks are the things that make us flatline – the mechanisms which collapse cultural hierarchies and dissolve difference. Networks of instantaneous communication create what we might call a collapsing of geography – reconfiguring spatial relationships on the fly. The non-dimensional structure of the internet alters our relationship to information. It lays out the entire repository of culture like a giant puddle, infinitely wide and without depth – a flatland of undifferentiated information.

The technology and protocols of the internet – hyperlinks, search algorithms, the spatiality of databases and so on – create this flatness, this lack of distinction. The way that it is used however reenscribes meanings across its surface. Blogs, social media and so on reconfigure information around particular interests. The occupation of the internet creates many contradictory globalizations that occur simultaneously. Flatlined culture offers itself up to multiple reconfigurations and rereadings.

The vernacular expression of flatlined culture is the mashup.  Here, cultural fragments crash into one another creating fleeting associations. We see You Tube videos that cut together videos of piano playing cats to form the entirety of Arnold Schoenberg’s Drei Klavierstücke. We see films re-dubbed, images cut together in amateurish Photoshop, songs of different genres spliced. Even hastily assembled coalition governments might evidence mashup culture. In each case, things which apparently had different meanings – things that made them distinct – suddenly become synchronized. The tactics of avant guard art practice – collage, juxtaposition, and appropriation – have become the foundation of cultural practice in the age of the internet. The LOL Cat is the inheritor of a cultural heritage that stretches back to the Cabaret Voltaire. Marx’s historical repetitions flicker like a zoetrope, their multiple images blurred into singular visual persistence.

Radical Post Modernisms context is a function of these phenomena – where images, references, history and values click, click, click into multiple arrangements. The flatness of the network opens up cultural production as a practice of reorganizing existing information into provisional constellations. It reworks found models, remaking and remodeling imagery in ways that create new meanings.

What is at stake here is the value of meaning – which in itself is a radical position in relationship to the endlessly abstract machinations of mainstream architecture. Abstraction – we might argue – operates as a function of neo liberalist desire to reduce everything to market terms by removing signifying qualities that locate work in any specific context. Radical Post Modernisms desire to manufacture meaning addressing identity, class, taste and so on asserts other cultural and political values. The construction of meaning becomes an act of resistance.

The dominant mode of an information glutted, mediated culture is representation.

Image, information and communication are everyday, immersive experiences that work us over completely without respite. Architecture too plays its part in this image culture, but often implicitly. Its various modes of operation – functional, sculptural, ecological and so on – produce image as by-product. By re-engaging with explicit communication, architecture can develop its imaging quality as tool to engage with the cultures it finds itself in rather than simply in the service of culture.

There is a logic to the returning significance of the surface in architecture. Following the pretzel logic of late capitalism – the spatiality of the Hotel Bonaventure described by Jameson where inside becomes out, where up equals down, or the topography of globalization that Reinhold Martin describes as dynamic circularity where ‘every act of withdrawal into the ‘home … cannot help but connect back out into the networks from which it seeks refuge” suggests a strategic approach to critique. Perhaps the site of critique is not spatially opposite but rather contained within. If architecture-as-image is the condition demanded by late capitalist culture, then resistance might be contained within the ways that architectural imagery is constructed, in the manner it performs. This pretzel topography brings the surface and its operative possibilities to the fore. Not something that hides, behind which self-interest flows in secret, but rather surface as the site where ideologies are acted out in plain view.

If Post Modernism used communication as a critique of Modernist abstraction, RPM uses communication to place architecture within a wider cultural milieu. In high Post Modernisms dialectical approach, critique often retained or reaffirmed the paradigms it hopes to undermine. But in this flattened cultural landscape something else emerges – a plurality that is actual rather than rhetorical.

At its most potent, the narrative content of RPM is derived from its close reading of its theater of operation and its attunement to the intersections of interests that occur in any given site. Architecture becomes a surface through which these narratives can be publicly understood and articulated. Its ability to manufacture speculative narratives becomes a way of creating new forms of publicness and new associations of community. In effect, image performs architecturally. Cut loose by the associative and provisional nature of images in a networked world, architecture unleashes its kaleidoscopic Moderns.

In the click, click, click through the flatlands of networked culture, there is an inevitability to Post Modernisms re-appearance. Simulating Post Modernism has a perverse pop-will-eat-itself quality. But like every other mash up, repeating Post Modernism outside of its historical moment changes its meaning.

The effect of this reevaluation of a practice whose characteristics were explicitly inauthentic – this simulation of simulation – is surprising. What should result in an overload of irony seems to create instead a deep sincerity. Beyond farce, we can conceive of the discipline of architecture as an active social and cultural practice, a practice engaged with the flatlined nature of contemporary culture as its site of production coupled with a desire to communicate through explicit forms of representation.

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