Unglued

As part of the lecture series 'Arguments' hosted by Andres Jaque at Columbia GSAPP (New York), an introduction text (below) and a presentation (see video) were produced by Maarten Gielen. The presentation was followed by a public presentation.

Preliminary reading for ‘Arguments’ Maarten Gielen/ June 2018

1.
There’s little that generates as much consensus among architects as the idea of a profession in crisis. It’s a recurrent theme at biennales, keynotes and monographs by a wide range of contributors. Upon closer inspection, there are as many versions of the architectural crisis as there are practitioners and theorists. It is now economic in nature, then ideological. Sometimes the crisis concerns the dwindling societal relevance of the profession (and its effects on salary), sometimes it deals with the seeming absence of new architectural styles. Typically, all these crises are formulated and then mobilised to set apart a particular practice or school of thought. These narratives offer a way to distinguish the work of certain practitioners as more relevant than that of others(1) . It is thus tempting to do entirely away with the notion as a tired rhetorical device.

Unfortunately, crisis there is, on a scale and of a complexity that cannot be overestimated. And it is not merely the profession that is in crisis. What we have on our hands is a crisis at the scale of the human ecosystem, a term used here in its broadest possible sense to include both the physical ecological, conceptual and ideological infrastructure.

Certainly, climate change is to be mentioned in this context, as well as the collapse of crucial biological subsystems. We are witnessing one of the greatest and fastest reductions in biodiversity in the history of this planet. For instance, the proliferation of invasive species, the creation of mutated super-microbes under the influence of antibiotics, the increasing scarcity of pollinating insects, the widespread and irreversible pollution of the oceans with plastic debris ... Nature, the concept of a pristine environment unaltered by humans, just does not cover it anymore. What remains is a heavily affected hybrid state of affairs. This new condition offers little resilience and is at constant risk of dramatic failure.

The various interlinked environmental degradations constitute a blatantly obvious indicator that the economic models organizing the planet are dysfunctional. Infinite growth cannot be sustained (2) . The decades-old dogma that underpins the world economy is walking on its last legs. The rationale of 'development' dies with it. For a few decades, it was said that all population groups could expect to raise their quality of life to the standard set by the 'global north'. Sure, the so-called 'developed' countries had come earlier to the table than others, but the idea was promoted that here would be enough cake for everyone, and that these temporary advantages would even out in the long run. It is now abundantly clear that there are not enough physical resources available to realise such a project. In a finite world, organizing extraction and transformation is no longer the main problem. The question is now rather: how are resources to be divided. Historical privileges, especially those obtained by colonial exploitation, are increasingly difficult to defend morally (and even militarily).

Adding spice to the mix, there is an increasing influence of very powerful human-non-human hybrids that are nearly indistinguishable from humans. Algorithms, working autonomously on behalf of humans, direct the vast majority of transactions on stock exchanges. Their impact on the economy cannot is tremendous. Through social media, similar androids gain influence in both very personal events and major public occasions such as elections. When the full power of artificial intelligence and deep learning shall be unleashed a few years from now, the vast majority of the infrastructure we base our sense of reality on will be mediated by such hybrids.

To give an example; in a drive to maximize advertising revenue, a series of web-entrepreneurs in Macedonia started to produce content that people seemed to want most: spectacular fake news on presidential candidates in the US (3). The Facebook algorithm soon figured out what content to match with what audience (fake news on Trump for Hillary supporters and vice versa) and generated a viral following. It is plausible that these kinds of posts had a significant impact on the election results. What is scarier: a foreign nation actively pursuing influence in the elections, or a relatively simple algorithm that inadvertently influences election results just by pursuing a preset economic goal? As algorithmic and AI systems become more accessible, it is predictable that those same technologies will also be used to more efficiently spread disinformation. In short, the battle is on to constitute what is perceived as reality. Soon it will be fought by highly complex, self responsive and quite incomprehensible systems, operating with incomprehensible agendas.

On the one hand, we have a collapsing ecosystem, on the other the breakdown of the global economy, and in the middle a crisis in the collective sense of reality. These conditions have been anticipated for decades, they are the perfectly predictable outcome of choices made in the past and have been formulated and argued in more detail by many before. These ideas were present in the American counterculture of the 1960s and the theoretical framework of the Italian Radicals in the 1970s. Even Hollywood has jumped on the bandwagon in the 1980s and 1990s with a series of apocalyptic movies. And we should certainly not forget the almost continuous contributions in the form of Japanese Manga's. Politically speaking, however, the ideas seem too impractical. How does one act on the prospect of looming chaos?

The response in the field of architecture is disappointing. The discourse around sustainable development, initially formulated sufficiently open, soon translated into a closed and enforced quest for resource efficiency, urban density, technological innovation, mixed land use planning, or energy efficiency. Confronted with uncertainty, it seems architecture retreated to the relative safety of the confines of modern discourse. Have we not already been through this?

But the rhetoric is failing. This generation of architecture students has grown up as natives to the technocratic discourse of sustainable development . They are accustomed to trash cans in 3 different colors (to allow for sorting). They have rehearsed children's songs about the need for insulation and solar panels. And yet the environmental crisis does not seem to have improved in their lifetime. A whole generation is conditioned to pay lip service to the idea of sustainable development, but talk privately with them and it is clear that they operate on a cocktail of cynicism, denial, indifference and frustration. To cope with this schizophrenia, a very productive ambiguity about what exactly is the nature of the field of architecture is welcomed. In theory, it is the field that could take a lead in fundamentally changing everything. In practice, it is a profession that derives its mandate from convenience and therefore has little or no power.

2.
Our work at Rotor over the last 10 years can to be understood as a gradual coming to grips both with the chaotic, erratic condition of the human ecosphere, and the unkept promises of architecture, a supposedly world-changing field of expertise that supposedly lacks the mandate to go about it.

Architects sift through everything that is, and everything that could be. Proposals of what to keep, what to amplify, what to invent, what to enact, what to glorify or what to erase are the essence of the practice. As such, it is a major device for the distribution of pretensions and narratives. Part of these narratives will almost always flatter or serve the commissioner, there is little sense in trying to escape that. However, without exception they also serve as justification for other, seemingly unrelated constructions. For instance, while the choice for marble cladding might help express a certain pretension of luxury or sophistication of a hotel, that choice also justifies the existence of a quarry and certain landscape alterations. The design has thus two spatial outcomes at the same time. An addition of material in an urban context, and a subtraction of material in its economic hinterland. Why is the one considered more ‘architectural’ than the other? Isn’t the architect ordering both of them with the same gesture?

Even without physical alterations, it is the use of an infrastructure or a discourse that ensures its continued existence. Things become real when there is a shared agreement that they are. And so architecture is in a position to help define what is real.

During my talk, I will show a selection of projects of Rotor, the practice where I have worked in the past decade. It will focus on our ambition to understand and make visible the forces that we mobilize. We are interested in the choices that are implicit inside the choices we make more consciously as designers, like infinite sets of matryoshkas. We do not want to do this from a position of moral superiority, - “thou shalt not use petrochemicals”- nor do we pursue the discovery of an absolute and overarching truth. To some extent, our motive is curiosity. But more crucially, we are interested in these mechanisms because we suspect they can be mobilized to have influence on society, to have fundamental impact.

Our buildings, designs and schemes are as fictitious as those of others. Their existence needs to be constantly facilitated and argued for. They equally need to be used to exist and they are certainly not less artificial. But we try to organize them in such a way that they offer the possibility for “alternative” practices and narratives to exist. A demolition site can be a quarry, a macon can be considered an interpreter, work can be organized around the needs and wants of workers, counterintuitive alliances can be made, ...

We do so because it is difficult to imagine physical spaces where new forms of radical architectural experiments could exist autonomously today. In the 1960s and 1970s the American desert perhaps still had some credibility as a place “outside” of the system, where social experiments could take place unhindered. Today such a posture has little merit. Drop City would be run over by Instagrammers in just a few weeks (4) , no matter where its location. We want to make possible and reinforce such “outside” spaces within the confines of our projects.Can this be seen as the ultimate failure of architecture, a universe that has lost its 'outside'? The monstrosity of a world governed by a single homogenous idea and logic, architecture as its delivery devise? Has this already happened, do we live on a planet covered in its entirety by a single sprawling infrastructure? Certainly, in such a place architecture should be concerned with subtraction, not addition.

3.
The glorified individual author, self-enabled “automated” processes, ‘neutral’ materials, the strict division between design and execution, the superior rationality of “western” civilization, the modern organization of labour, ... those should not be difficult myths to debunk or nuance in retrospect. Who is better positioned than architects to point out that the project of modernity was a fiction (5) ? Can a new, emancipating narrative be developed on top of it?

One author comes to mind as especially helpful for this exercise. Because “we are not learning to love Big Brother, (...) , nor have we been lulled by Soma and subliminal brain programming into (...) pervasive social hierarchies.” (6) It is Philip K Dicks future that we live in, a place where it increasingly hard to distinguish human beings from artificial things. A place where technology does not function as advertised. A civilization on the brink of collapse, with everything is interlinked.

In The Ganymede Takeover (1967), the last defence to defeat an invasive alien 'patronizing' force, is a hell weapon that turns illusions thought up by its users into reality. In The Man Who Japed (1956), a dark form of sarcastic humor forms the weapon of choice. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), the question of dehumanization is explored, in Galactic Pot Healer (1969) the main character takes on a challenge even if he knows he cannot accomplish it as his future is set, in UBIK (1969) the main characters wonder if they collectively died during a rocket launch...

In PKDs novels, the characters are denied the luxury of an unambiguous idea of reality. As a side-effect of drugs, improbable technologies, extra-ordinary talents or social constructions, spurious worlds come into being, and soon start breaking down. In these challenging contexts, the characters do not attempt to step back to make sense of things. In the midst of crisis, they have no choice but to cope with the situation at hand. They are to decide on the course of action without a proper understanding of the implications of their choices. They are offered no moral framework, no rewards.

Seemingly deliberate, one novel at a time, the author explores what attitudes make sense in a senseless world. The work as an ensemble constitutes a catalogue, each entry exploring the merits of a given attitude. It is the later work, if one can bear with the self-mythology, that offers the most interesting experiments.

As background reading for my presentation, I specifically suggest a text written by Philip K Dick in 1976; “How to Build a Universe that does not fall apart two days later”. It can be found here. One passage is quoted below.

So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo- realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing. It is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later. Or at least that is what my editors hope. However, I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it.

Do not believe — and I am dead serious when I say this — do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things. Before the new things can be born the old must perish. This is a dangerous realization, because it tells us that we must eventually part with much of what is familiar to us. And that hurts. But that is part of the script of life. Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves begin to die, inwardly. What I am saying is that objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live. And it is the authentic human being who matters most, the viable, elastic organism which can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new.

 

Footnotes: 
1 - See for instance “Architecture of Consequence”, the 2009 exhibition at the NAi that mobilised the narrative of ecological mayhem to promote Dutch Architecture abroad.
2 - See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Limits_to_Growth
3 - See: https://www.wired.com/2017/02/veles-macedonia-fake-news/
4 - See for instance: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burning_Man
5 - To clarify: postmodern architecture offers no escape in this context. It is quite probably not even necessary to distinguish it from modern architecture. Both mobilised very similar forces, in very similar processes. Their narratives can to some extent be reprocessed together.
6 - Quoted from Henri Farrel, http://bostonreview.net/literature-culture/henry-farrell-philip-k-dick-and-fake-humans

 

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