architects without architecture – mammoth // building nothing out of something

architects without architecture

As a coda to our collaborative reading of The Infrastructural City, mammoth spoke with Kazys Varnelis, editor of that book, about how the infrastructural city and “network culture” are related, what the contents of an imaginary new chapter for The Infrastructural City might be, and the future of architecture in the wake of global economic crisis.

mammoth: For readers who are not familiar with the larger body of your work, we thought we might begin by situating The Infrastructural City within that broader context. Besides editing The Infrastructural City, you’ve also edited two other books (Networked Publics and The Phillip Johnson Tapes), co-authored Blue Mondays with AUDC co-founder Robert Sumrell, and are writing another book, Life after Networks: A Critical History of Network Culture. Our understanding is that you are trained and typically describe yourself as an architectural historian, not an architect, though of course you have taught architecture at schools on both American coasts, as well as overseas. How do the “networked ecologies” that The Infrastructural City describes relate to this larger body of work — particularly your investigations of “network culture” and your training as a historian?

Varnelis: I did receive my primary training as a historian of architecture. Now that training took place within Cornell’s architecture department , as opposed to, say an art history program and I took studio—the sort of ultra-disciplinary, purely formal “Cornell and Cooper” studio that is virtually extinct these days—and worked in an office for a time. But it’s an important distinction to draw. More than virtually any other field, architects generally insist that only individuals trained (or even licensed) as architects are qualified to speak about it. This is endemic to the discipline and detrimental to it. Manfredo Tafuri would say that it forces every argument to be operative; another term for this would be instrumental. If a text doesn’t end with an uplifting little section on how architects can use it in their work, it’s not only damaged, its potentially damaging. That’s a common perception and it is a bad thing for criticism since it reduces it to a subservient role; it’s a bad thing for architects since it suggests that they couldn’t possibly be intelligent enough to think for themselves; finally, it’s a bad thing for architecture since it prevents its deepest assumptions from being called into question.

Some people have expressed confusion about what we were out to do since they wanted it to be a ringing endorsement of a direction. They wanted to see OMA-designed windmills and so on. That would have been a very different project and a very predictable one as well. But that was a misunderstanding. Our intent was to produce a book that would redefine how we understand cities, infrastructure, and Los Angeles. I wanted the book to be relevant decades later, the way that Banham’s Los Angeles: Architecture of Four Ecologies was (although by now, I’m afraid, it’s long since worn out its utility). Superficial readings that aim for endorsements of design decisions won’t work. One has to dig deeper to understand what our point is. Older forms of infrastructure are history: we say that on the back cover. We’re in a different condition in this country: you can tilt at designer windmills all you want, but unless things change radically at a sociopolitical level, they aren’t going to get built. Our current administration is more interested in supporting the ethereal structures of financialization than any sort of building. Let’s get that clear. Republicans will do even worse, unless perhaps, you are a fan of military technology. Either way, the cards are stacked against us. Under the boom, things looked mildly better in Europe, but the EU is unlikely to leave the recession behind anytime soon. The Infrastructural City might be a good guide to the near future of architecture there as well, even if we didn’t anticipate it would be. And please, let’s not chase the dream to China:  demographics are stacked against the Chinese. A decade of growth and they’ll in the same situation as we are, only without any kind of social safety net.

As far as how this book fits into my current work, I have always been much more interested in big picture investigations—the scale of the Annales school or of thinkers like McLuhan, Jameson, and Baudrillard—than in microhistories. Even my dissertation was an affront to accepted notions of what a Ph.D. in the history of architecture should be: I set out to investigate how architecture turned to a spectacularized design methodology in the postwar era (most notably that very “Cornell and Cooper” education that I was taught) and how that synced up with a general aestheticization of politics in the field. When I was doing this kind of work everyone else was focusing on the small scale, on miniaturesque accounts of noble architects toiling somewhere in obscurity.

With regard to the Johnson Tapes, he was a key player in this moment and I’m still fascinated by the postwar era. Modernism had lost its ideological impetus but continued on in its own way, zombie-like, unable to cope with the consequences of an increasingly complex, technological society. When Joan Ockman approached me about editing the Johnson Tapes for the Buell Center, of course I was glad to do it. Columbia’s been great to me and this was an opportunity to do something very direct for the school while also reviving my work on Johnson and late modernism. I think that a critical book on Johnson is necessary: Schulze’s bio is hardly that. And the field of late modernism is still wide open: I’ll be working on Kevin Roche later this year and that will give me the opportunity to revisit that work as well.

For the last decade, I’ve been interested in how cities, society, and culture are transforming at this very moment. It’s not just a matter of how network technology drives forms of inhabitation, it’s how society is changing, partly in response to new technologies  but also actively shaping those technologies in specific ways. With Robert Sumrell, I began exploring these questions both through conceptual design and through theory. AUDC continues to go strong and you’ll see work from us from time to time.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with the Networked Publics team during a year-long residency at the Annenberg Center for Communication at USC and, after I came to Columbia, we shaped that material into a book for Doug Sery at MIT Press. We’ve continued asking the question of how the public is changing throughout the spring of this year and are collaborating with Domus and with Joseph Grima on new projects related to the topic throughout the summer and fall.

My big project currently is a book on network culture. This is a theoretical reflection on our own time as an era distinct from postmodernism. I mean, surely we can’t operate with the idea that, a generation after it first came together, postmodernism is still a current theoretical model. The role of technology in everyday life is completely different, for example. It’s become a new dominant, a kind of horizon for our culture that it most emphatically was not back in those days. Meanwhile, financialization has risen to new heights and manufacturing has all but expired in the developed world. I’ve published stretches of the book already and am aiming to have a draft on my Web site by the end of the year. It’s a huge undertaking—and a shifting one—but it’s crucial to leaving behind the notion that analysis has nothing to teach us anymore. Instead of bemoaning our economic condition, let’s celebrate the fact that the unreflective scramble for shoddy work is over.

Let’s start thinking again.

mammoth: It seems to us that The Infrastructural City essentially does two things. First, it is aimed at a better understanding of the infrastructural city. We might call this mapping (in a more generalized sense that the mere production of graphical representations of urban conditions), you refer to “redefin[ing] how we understand” cities. That task clearly constitutes the bulk of the text. Second, it is also, at least occasionally, concerned with the question of how urbanists can operate — can pursue desirable change — in the infrastructural city. As it develops an understanding of the infrastructural city, it shows why the traditional tools of the urbanist (first and foremost, the plan) have become increasingly ineffectual, and argues that we need, in response, to develop new tools. Later, we’d like to return to this second concern, to suggestions about what might replace those traditional tools, because we think The Infrastructural City contains some valuable hints about those tools — such as your discussion of a “command line” architecture in “Invisible City”, or Roger Sherman’s argument for an architecture that interacts directly with property, risk, and the informal transactions that produce the form of the city. First, though, a question that relates to the task of understanding the infrastructural city, as well as the “different conditions” you allude to.

In the two years since the publication of The Infrastructural City, we’ve seen several major social and political events that are affecting the city and its infrastructures. First and foremost amongst these is the global economic decline. Prognostications for the future of that decline vary wildly, but it is indisputable that the bubble conditions in which the latest layer of growth in the infrastructural city was laid down — the cell networks, the vast ex-urban speculations, the “return-to-the-city” condominiums — have ended, and been replaced by economic uncertainty. (Though we doubt anyone would accuse you of having failed to anticipate this decline, it is one thing to anticipate it, and perhaps another to watch it play out.) One might also add to this the major political swing that you’ve just noted, from Bush to Obama, which corresponded to a fairly broad hope (amongst urbanists, at least) that infrastructure would have its day in the sun of federal funding, and the disillusionment that has followed as what infrastructural funding has been forthcoming has been largely concentrated on (admittedly needed) road repairs and (unnecessary) rural highway expansions, both prized for their ‘shovel-ready’ quality. Meanwhile, technological changes — and corresponding societal shifts in the use of technology — have continued. As Lane Barden anticipates in the text, the Nokia phone featured on an ad cascading down the side of an office tower in one of his photographs now looks virtually antiquarian, so distant is it in form and function from the smart phones which increasingly dominate the cellular market. And their adoption is not strictly limited to the wealthier technophiles one might expect. The Census Bureau, for instance, recently found that one of the most effective ways to reach impoverished Hispanic neighborhoods in Los Angeles is through downloadable apps and content.

Given these events, it seems quite possible to us that your reading of the infrastructural city has shifted in those two years. Is that true? How might you map the infrastructural city differently today? One way to think about this might be: is there a chapter that you would include in a 2011 edition of The Infrastructural City that you didn’t include in 2008?

Varnelis: I’ve thought a lot about what the new chapter would be. I think that the book holds out a bit more hope than the current situation really warrants and I needed to be more precise about the problems we face.

So many people today hold out this idea that technology is our horizon: anything that goes wrong, it seems, technology can fix. Design, in this sense, is technology’s right-hand. All of the pseudo-academics and critics who praised the “creative city” and the Bilbao-effect suggest that design can get us past any problems. Is your city a post-apocalyptic rust belt? Well, some clever design, say via a Muji Store and a couple of design museums, will solve the problems. Or heck, embrace the favela chic and just re-brand it as the Rome of the Rust Belt.

A new chapter would analyze how we got where we are and the impossibility of achieving the kind of change that we need through design. Specifically, this chapter would be on how the problems of complexity, over-accumulation, and diminishing returns in our society block the older idea of infrastructure as a form of commons.

There’s little question that over-accumulation produced both the boom and the crash (just why this is a mystery to so many economists is beyond me). We’ve seen, to put it in the simple terms that This American Life used, the growth of a giant pool of money that business has accumulated since the start of capitalism. It took centuries for the well-off and even relatively well-off to accumulate $35 trillion of investment money worldwide, but in the six years between 2000 and 2006 that giant pool of money doubled. All of these investors with all of this money wanted high returns; they looked at the performance of market indices like the Dow and saw unprecedented rates of profit (in the case of the Dow from 891 in 1980 to over 11,000 in 2000), considerably more than the historical rate of return from manufacturing (which historically speaking has been roughly 8%). After all, many of them had accumulated their money that way so why not expect the good times to continue? And of course rates of taxation that also were historically low helped all of this. The theory went that as long as tax rates were low, the economy would boom and the resulting growth would generate even more revenues than if taxes were at a higher, sustainable level. This was a great idea except that it was a little akin to taking speed to get you through a project: surely if it improves your stamina tenfold, it’s got to be good for you, right? Well, eventually your teeth will fall out, but if you keep at it you can always get out, right? Collectively, investors in the developed countries ceased investing in production and instead turned more and more to complex financial instruments that could produce high rates of return, even if these were based on  bubble economics. Manufacturing’s been gutted in places like the US or the UK. In our case, in 1980 manufacturing was about 25% of the GDP while financial services were about 12%. By the end of the bubble in 2006, manufacturing was down to 12% while finance had soared to over 20%. I hate to say that things have gotten worse since, but they have.

Again as far as “solutions” go, the case of China is a special one: capitalists are investing in an area with tremendous inequalities and inefficiencies and able to reap huge rewards from low wages and massive productivity gains. That’s how you can make good money on a $40 DVD player that cost a dollar or two to produce. But that won’t last forever.

And then there’s housing. Architects were eager to participate in that boom and it was quite stomach-turning to see them plunge headlong into a mad system. And housing did well, for a time, returning the necessary rates of investment, but again, it was based on something from nothing. Even now, in so many places—including the countries that I know well, the US, UK, Lithuania and Ireland—the bubble still has some 20 to 40% to fall to return to reasonable rates based on long-established historical relationships of what kind of real estate wages can support. Architecture became virtual in the last decade, but it did so in “luxury” housing, not in cyberspace. Moreover, just how economies that have no more real industrial base are supposed to produce the wages to pay for this inflated real estate is beyond me.

I mentioned it in my introduction to the book, but now I’d be more emphatic about the role of neoliberal economy policy in all this. Low taxes means little investment in infrastructure. Railroads are literally falling apart. Gutted by underinvestment, average train speeds have been declining for years. Refineries and the electric grid are stressed to a breaking point as deregulated industry avoids tying up capital in rapidly-depreciating physical things whenever possible. So it’s no surprise that, when Obama picked Larry Summers to come up with an economic policy for him, the former Harvard President who once said that women weren’t smart enough to be scientists or engineers chose bailing out financial services and handing out stimulus checks to consumers instead of investing in infrastructure.

That’s the reality we’re up against and the Zaha Hadid-designed windmills that critics are upset with me for not going ga-ga over are little more than Potemkin Villages masking a world continually collapsing.

The economy is infrastructure. I should have been more clear about that.

I also think it would have been helpful to talk about complexity in the way that Joseph Tainter discusses it, yoking it to the framework that I’ve developed above. We’ve become so incredibly adept at routing around our problems that a topological map of our world—if it were possible—would be something like a map of the infrastructure in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. So to keep this increasingly convoluted and highly bureaucratized system going, we have produced intense levels of complexity that require greater and greater amounts of energy to keep going. This energy is quite literal and we’re seeing diminishing marginal returns on energy invested even as peak oil looms (and of course oil is our major source of energy). At a certain point, the system becomes unsustainable and the result is collapse, which Tainter defines as a greatly diminished level of complexity. Tainter suggests that the way out is innovation, by which he means technological innovation although I think that the financial innovations that I described earlier are similar. The problem is that these systems are unsustainable in a fundamental deep way. The Infrastructural City isn’t just a condition, it’s a bellwether for a long-term culture of crisis.

In that light, although I’m tremendously sympathetic to projects like Roger Sherman’s game theory urbanism as a way of operating within such highly complex environments, the lack of a larger approach within the book suggests the lack of a larger solution within design per se. Rick Miller and Ted Kane’s piece is brilliant in its unpacking of the problems that “light,” privatized infrastructure produce in cities. It’s not so much a question of AT&T not extending its coverage enough, it’s a question of how mobile phone companies lead cities to conceive of themselves as entrepreneurs. That’s not an appropriate role for cities: what happened to ideas of the Commons? That’s a failure point for the imagination and redevelopment of infrastructure today. Other pieces are like Calvino stories, unmasking the unsustainability that underlies the infrastructural city: a town that excavates itself turning into a series of giant holes, a river that will disappear if its restored to its natural state, the re-watering of a desert lake, and so on. The book’s value in my mind—and what I am trying to do through my current writing—is to make people go out and uncover the deep madness underlying our society. People talk about the irrelevance of academics. Maybe that’s because we got too busy talking about obscure theory and weren’t willing to focus on the deeper issues that, frankly, it was our duty to take on.

mammoth: How peculiarly American are these problems? While financial upheaval is clearly a globalized and interconnected phenomenon, one gets the impression that, as a political and cultural matter, the “idea of the Commons” remains relatively healthy in, say, continental western Europe. And that perhaps corresponding advantages accrue to design culture: there is a greater quantity (and quality) of public work to be done, critical infrastructures are more likely to be designed by public teams which include architects and landscape architects (rather than by private corporations). There, the odd, ad-hoc semi-publics that control American local, urban politics — NIMBYist neighborhood associations, our individualist distrust of the very idea of expertise, etc. — do not appear to have such a stranglehold on planning processes. Or, for that matter, even with all the governmental dysfunction and systemic poverty, the situation seems less deadlocked in South America, where young designers are thriving, backed by governments, institutions, and individual leaders who are arguing for the importance of a commons, and, critically, backing that argument up with targeted spending. We’re thinking, for instance, of the celebrated case of Medellin, where architecture has been treated as social and economic infrastructure.

Varnelis: These problems aren’t just American. We’re dealing with global problems endemic to an aging capitalism. The idea of the commons is certainly more popular on the continent, but if you listen to the response to the economic crisis there, it’s that this is the end of the European welfare state. In other words, the crisis will make Europe is going to be more like the US/UK/Ireland, not less. I hate to say anything bad about the unions in a country where unions are all but dead, but unions were part of the problem in the US and are a bigger part of the problem in Europe. Rather than working to build a more just system across the board, unions have instead turned to protecting entrenched membership. This is a major problem in America, whether it be the collapse of NASA or the collapse of cities and its increasingly the problem in Europe too. Watch for a European PATCO crisis soon. Don’t expect much building anytime soon, unless it’s done with funny money.

Now when we look at Medellin, certainly there’s a lot to applaud. But you’re also looking at a condition where capital has moved to a place that has been underproductive for too long. There’s no question that it’s easier to do more in places that are growing.

mammoth: You mention that the loss of the “idea of the Commons [is] a failure point for the imagination and redevelopment of infrastructure today.” But here in America, has there ever been a strong culture of the idea of the Commons guiding the development of infrastructure? Certainly, there have been select examples — Eisenhower’s freeways — but many of the infrastructures that have been most influential in the development of our cities, such as Los Angeles’ own streetcar networks and New York City’s subway, were privately funded and planned. Should architects be working to reclaim (or construct) the idea of the commons? Or do we — architects, landscape architects, designers, urbanists, who all presumably hold out some hope of remaining relevant to the future of the American city — need to find ways, like Sherman’s approach, to design around the absence of the commons? Or perhaps this pair of questions sets up a false dichotomy, and the way to continue working while not ignoring the “deeper issues” is to hold seemingly Sisyphean tasks like reclaiming the idea of the commons in tension with flexible and approaches which are aimed at small, tactical acts of productive architecture?

Varnelis: Let’s be careful about one thing: neoliberalism—coupled with Ameriphobia overseas—has been highly effective at depicting this idea of the US as having always been the same. There’s been a radical rewriting of history to make it seem like the frontier myth is all there is. There’s always been a back and forth and many of those infrastructures were turned public rather rapidly only to see much greater success. Often, of course this has been in service of real estate, as the case of the LADWP  shows too clearly.

As far as design: I agree with you. Architects have been too enthralled by neoliberalism for too long, e.g. public/private partnerships (don’t even get me started: bad loans for bad private projects are a major source of fiscal crisis in cities today), the market, etc. We need to advocated for policy change, toward greater shared resources. I think it’s obvious to anyone that the current political and economic system is massively dysfunctional and will come to an end. Just when, none of us know. Will it be replaced by a happy form of fascism? Just possibly. Architects need to advocate for positive political change, but as they do so, they’re going to need to find a way to make do and, in general, it is going to be tactics like Roger’s that are going to make a difference on an individual level.

mammoth: A consistent argument mammoth makes is that the value of architecture and architects lies in much more than just the design of buildings. Which is not at all to say that we find buildings uninteresting or unimportant, but rather that architecture as a discipline ought to think of itself more as a way of thinking than as a discipline that — like, say, structural engineering — is primarily concerned with developing a unique kind of technical expertise and defending that ‘turf’ from the encroachment of other disciplines.

You make a similar comment in a recent interview published in Triple Canopy, saying that “architecture doesn’t teach you how to regurgitate knowledge, rather it teaches you how to deal with problems. Architecture has always been about much more than just building buildings”.

This is a particularly relevant position, we think, in a climate where “building buildings” is, as you note, something we should expect to see relatively much less of. (Kenneth Frampton, writing in Steven Holl’s new monograph Urbanisms, notes that Holl literally had to go to China to find the regulatory and financial freedom to build the sort of “megaforms” that he had been drawing. Setting aside whether those buildings are necessary or not, it seems an instructive lesson in the difficulty of realizing what might traditionally be considered ‘significant’ architecture.)

Do you think, though, that architecture schools are really producing architects who are prepared to be thinkers rather than technicians?

Varnelis: Absolutely. The longstanding recession that started in the early 1970s and lasted until the mid-1990s led many architects to investigate radically different methods of production. Unfortunately, the building boom led the field astray, back into a disciplinarity of the most conservative kind just at the same time as it egged them on to build pretty much the worst buildings since the mid-nineteenth century. It was a colossal failure of a decade, a model of everything we shouldn’t have done. “Make it new!” So few of us were asking why, why should we make it new? Even fewer were asking why make it at all. Education, which could have paved the way for a new century of architecture, has been devastated. Most schools have either retrenched into a nostalgia for the hand or a fetish for parametric fantasies. Doesn’t anybody think about how these people will be employed?

But this is the reason that I’m at Columbia. Dean Wigley set out to create what he calls the “expanded architect,” building a school in which you get an architectural education, but you also employ the methods you learn in nontraditional venues. It’s a big enough school to easily accommodate such efforts.  The sort of work that the Spatial Information Design Lab, or C-Lab, or the Netlab is doing is, generally speaking, unlike what’s produced in architecture schools or in the typical office, but it’s essential for pushing the boundaries in the field. I’m optimistic that other schools will follow our lead to do the same in the future. Imagine what sort of students you might produce if a school decided it wasn’t necessary to deal with the accreditors anymore. People have been asking why teach history and theory. Well, why teach structures or professional practice? Maybe not everyone needs these classes. I think it’s a radical experiment that’s well worth pushing.

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