Tag Archives: satire

Reinier de Graaf on the insular nature of architecture academia

Dominated by old boys, architecture academia in the US has become insular and out of touch, says Reinier de Graaf

Source: Reinier de Graaf on the insular nature of architecture academia

“Can I see some hands raised? Who in the audience think of Frank Gehry’s Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park as contextual?” (No hands raised.) “Who think of it as not?” (No hands raised.) “Since apparently none of you know, let me tell you!”

What follows is a lengthy exposé about what, according to the person asking the question, is a highly contextual piece of architecture. Speaking is Jeffrey Kipnis, theorist, designer, filmmaker, curator, educator, founding director of the Architectural Association’s Graduate Design Program and professor at Knowlton School of Architecture, Ohio State University.

The exchange (if one can call it that) takes place during one of the parallel sessions at the biennial. Apart from Kipnis, the session includes Patrik Schumacher, design director at Zaha Hadid Architects; Peter Eisenman, principal of Eisenman Architects and a pivotal figure in American academia (present and past positions too many to list); Theodore Spyropoulos, founder of architecture studio Minimaforms; and me, a partner at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture. The panel has been assembled to express its views on a potential agenda for 21st-century architecture.

The composition of the panel seems odd: most of the panelists’ formative lives have been lived in the 20th century, and all the panelists are from a part of the world to which – unless all current indicators are completely misgiven – the 21st century will not belong.

The venue is The Gold Room in the Congress Plaza Hotel. Tickets have sold at $50 and, while that ticket price suggests the event is in high demand, the room is only half full, making its grandeur perfectly inappropriate for the occasion. One of African architecture’s rising stars speaking at a venue next door appears to have drawn a larger crowd. Still, the modest turnout hardly fazes the panelists. The epicenter of American academia thrives even in the absence of an audience.

Schumacher’s opening salvo is a proclamation of the end of pluralism (delivered with an impeccable German accent) and of the imminent global dominance of a single remaining master-style – his own. Eisenman, who is next, suggests a change of format: “Only Patrik should present, while the rest of us put up a collective resistance.” His request is denied and Eisenman has to content himself with “agreeing to disagree”. His presentation calls for “heroes instead of stars in architecture”. Not something anyone could agree to disagree with, although Spyropoulos tries. But here, in the context of an all-male, all-white stage, his call leaves a somewhat dubious taste.

After Eisenman, it is open season, not just for each of the panelists’ individual obsessions (in order of appearance: parametricism, Alberti, Gehry, Piketty and robots), but also for the audience. Someone, who introduces himself as humble teacher at a humble university, asks why there are no women on the stage. With almost Trumpian bravado, Kipnis replies that he LOVES women, but is dumbfounded by the stupidity of such a question, which he then views as a logical explanation for the career progress (or lack thereof) of the questioner. In an attempt to rescue the situation, Eisenman murmurs that women have become so popular these days that they have become unaffordable. We simply have to assume he means as panelists.

It is Kipnis’ turn. His idea of offering the audience value for money is to subject it to a kind of intellectual waterboarding. His positions are invariably introduced via the same discursive formula: “Did you know…? You did not…? You should! Since you don’t, let me tell you…” It is unclear to what extent – if at all – he is seeking a discussion. Kipnis tempts the audience with long pauses, invariably followed by “let me finish!” when someone interjects.

The main topic of his presentation is the Guggenheim Helsinki museum competition, a competition that to this day has not produced a realised building and doesn’t look like it’s going to any time soon.

He presents the many entries to the competition as a repository of contemporary design intelligence, showing a meticulously categorised inventory of apparently simultaneously emerging families of design solutions to particular problems. Akin to the prolific genres in contemporary music, certain “design waves” are identified and tagged with a name. Any link to the individual authors is discarded. Trends take priority over signatures. Originality is no longer a paradigmatic feature. The myth of individual genius is dismantled in favor of architects as a virtual, yet largely unaware collective.

His argument takes a bizarre turn when he digresses into a strange and unexpected endorsement of Frank Gehry, who in many ways personifies the exact opposite. Unlike the struggling souls of the Helsinki competition, Gehry is the ultimate signature architect. His approach to architecture is his and his alone, it permits no following other than through imitation. In bringing up Gehry, Kipnis turns his own suggestion of architecture as a form of collective progress into scorched earth even before it has landed.

Kipnis seems blissfully unaware of the contradiction. He proceeds to explain Gehry’s design intentions as if he were the oracle of Zeus. The silence that ensues at his question about the contextual nature of the Pritzker Pavilion is not so much a sign of the audience’s ignorance as it is of its bewilderment. Don’t all Gehry’s buildings look the same?

It is clear to everyone in the room (at least to those who have built a building) that whatever the magnitude of the intentions that go into a design, it must ultimately subside to the prevailing perception – however unfair – of its physical presence, at which point the only correct answer to Kipnis’ question is that it is irrelevant. If legacy is ultimately a question of numbers, what constitutes the more significant intellectual fact: one person’s supposed insight into Frank Gehry’s design intentions, or the vast majority’s willful ignorance of them? Who holds the key, Kipnis or the Simpsons?

As the evening progresses, the event turns into a painful X-ray of the current state of American academia: a strangely insular world with its own autonomous codes, dominated by some antiquated pecking order with an estranged value system and no hope of a correction from within. The often grandiose character of the debate stands in stark contrast to the marginal nature of that which is being debated.

The western architectural ivory tower has become a theatre of the absurd, blind to its decline into irrelevance. Self-referencing and obsessed by minutiae unrelated to the built environment, our academics need to break out of their closed information loop and get back into the real world.

Kipnis’ definition of context doesn’t go beyond the immediate physical surroundings of the architectural object. Any notion that architecture might be shaped by a larger political, societal or economic context does not seem to register on his radar. It is as though America’s architectural establishment is preoccupied with studying footnotes under a microscope hoping they will turn into a novel.

Those who attend the dinner afterwards are cautious with their alcohol intake. Even with the debate officially concluded, one has to remain alert. Dinners serve as extra time for the settling of undecided intellectual battles – a last chance to turn defeat into victory. When all other subjects appear to have been exhausted, for some unidentifiable reason the table conversation turns to the brain and the question whether it ought to be discussed as an organ or as a muscle.

Just when the vision of a brain without a skull is about to make me lose my appetite, Kipnis turns to a young woman at the table. He asks her to guess his favorite organ. When she looks at him in shock – she must be less than half his age – he smiles: “Rest assured, my favorite organ is my mouth.” Eisenman points out that the mouth is in fact not an organ. For the first time that evening, Kipnis looks genuinely unsettled, prompting Eisenman to ask the question of the day: “Jeff, have you been drinking?”

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TBD Catalog – the story

TBD Catalog – the story.

How might the promise of what at the time was called an “internet of things” play out in the near future? What would the future look like in a world blanketed by advances in protection and surveillance technologies? If Autonomous Vehicle innovations continued its passionate race forward, what would it be to pick up the groceries, take a commercial airline flight, commute to work, have mail and parcels delivered, drop off the dry cleaning, meet friends at a bar across town, go on cross-country family vacations, or take the kids to sports practice or school? Would food sciences offer us new forms of ingestible energy such as coconut-based and other high-caloric energy sources, or caloric burners that would help us avoid exercise-based diets? In what ways would live, streaming, recorded and crowd-authored music and filmed entertainment evolve? How might advances in portable spring power hold up against traditional chemical battery power? How would emerging forms of family and kinship be reflected in social networks? How will Chinese migration to Africa shape that continent’s entry into the world of manufacturing, and how would that inevitability shape distribution and production economies? What is to become of open-source education and the over-supply of capable yet unemployed engineers? Would personal privacy and data hiding protocols be developed to help protect our families and businesses from profile pirates and data heists? What happens to our sense of social relations as today’s algorithmic analytic interpersonal relationship matchers get too good and algorithms effectively pre-pubscently “couple us off” before we have a chance to experience the peculiarities of dating life? Will crytocurrency disrupt today’s national currencies? What will become of coffee and plant-based protein products?

[…]

Ultimately though, our task was to decant even the most preposterous idea through a series of design procedures that would make it as normal, ordinary, and everyday blasé as, for one retrospective example, the billions of 140-character messages sent into the ether each day – a form of personal individual communication that must have, at its inception, seemed to most of the world to be the most ridiculous idea ever. The point being that the most extraordinary preposterous social rituals have often made their ways into our lives to become normal and even taken for granted.

A report (or catalog, such as TBD) offers a way to normalize those extraordinary ideas and represent them as entirely ordinary. We imagined it to be a catalog of some sort, as might appear in a street vending box in any neighborhood, or in a pile next to the neighborhood real estate guides or advertising-based classified newspapers near the entrance to your local convenience store.

[…]

Rather than the staid, old-fashioned, bland, unadventurous “strategy consultant’s” report or “futurist’s” white paper (or, even worse – bullet-pointed PowerPoint conclusion to a project), we wanted to present the results of our workshop in a form that had the potential to feel as immersive as an engaging, well-told story. We wanted our insights to exists as if they were an object or an experience that might be found in the world we were describing for our client. We wanted our client to receive our insights with the shift in perspective that comes when one is able to suspend their disbelief as to what is possible.

[…]

During our workshop, we used a little known design-engineering concept generation and development protocol called Design Fiction. Through a series of rigorous design procedures, selection protocols, and proprietary generative work kits, Design Fiction creates diegetic and engineered prototypes that suspend disbelief in their possibility. Design Fiction is a way of moving an idea into existence through the use of design tools and fictional contexts that results in a suspension of one’s disbelief, which then allows one to overcome one’s skeptical nature and see possibility where there was once only skepticism or doubt.

There were a variety of tools and instruments we could put in service to construct these normal ordinary everyday things. For example, several canonical graphs used to represent trajectories of ideas towards their materialization would come in handy. These are simple and familiar graphs. Their representations embody specific epistemological systems of belief about how ideas, technologies, markets, societies evolve. These are typically positivist up-and-to-the-right tendencies. With graphs such as these, one can place an idea in the present and trace it towards its evolved near future form to see where its promise might end up.

We also had the Design Fiction Product Design Work Kit, a work kit useful for parceling ideas into their atomic elements, re-arranging them into something that, for the present, would be quite extra-ordinary. But, in the near future everyday, would be quite ordinary.

[…]

No. Not prediction. Rather we were providing thought provocations. We were creating a catalog of things to think with and think about. We were creating a catalog full of creative inspiration for one possible near future – a near future that would be an extrapolation from todays state of things. Our objective was to create a context in which possible-probables as well as unexpected-unlikelies were all made comprehensible. Were one to do a subsequent catalog as a reflection on another year, it would almost certainly be concerned with very different topics and, as such, materialize in a rather different set of products.

[…]

There were no touch-interaction fetish things like e-paper magazines, no iPhones with bigger screens, no Space Marine Exo-Skeletons, no time-traveling devices, not as many computational screen devices in bathroom medicine cabinets as one may have hoped or feared. There was no over-emphasis on reality goggles, no naive wrist-based ‘wearables’, a bare minimum of 3D printer accessories. Where those naive futures appeared we debased them – we represented them with as much reverence as one might a cheap mass-produced lager, an off-brand laundry soap, or an electric toothbrush replacement head. We focused on the practicalities of the ordinary and everyday and, where we felt necessary, commoditized, bargainized, three-for-a-dollarized and normalized.

What was most interesting is that the deliverable – a catalog of the near future’s normal ordinary everyday – led us in a curious way to a state that felt rather like the ontological present. I mean, the products and services and “ways of being” were extrapolated, but people still worried about finding a playmate for their kid and getting out of debt. As prevalent as ever were the shady promises of a better, fitter, sexier body and new tinctures to prevent the resilient common cold. People in our near future were looking for ways to avoid boredom, to be told a story, find the sport scores or place a bet, get from here to there, avoid unpleasantries, protect their loved ones and buy a pair of trousers. Tomorrow ended up very much the same as today, only the 19 of us were less “there” than the generations destined to inherit the world designed by the TBD Catalog. Those inheritors, the cast of characters we imagined browsing and purchasing from this catalog in the near future, seemed to take things in stride when it came to biomonitoring toilets, surveillance mitigation services, luxurious ice cubes, the need for data mangling, living a parametric-algorithmic lifestyle, goofy laser pointer toys, data sanctuaries, and the inevitable boredom of commuting to work (even with “self-drivers” or other forms of AV’s.)

[…]

The near future comes pre-built with the expectation that, being the future, it must be quite different from the vantage point of the present. This is an assumption we were trying to alter for a moment – the assumption that the future is either better or worse than the present. Quite less often is the future represented as the same as now only with a slightly different cast of characters. Were we to take this approach, which we did, it would be required that the cast of characters from the future would be no more nor less awestruck by their present than we are today awestruck by the fact that we have on-demand satellite maps in our palms, that the vapor trail above us is a craft with hundreds of souls whipping through the stratosphere at breakneck speeds, and that when we sit down at a restaurant fresh water (with ice) is offered in several varieties from countries far away, with or without bubbles.

[…]

It was important that the concepts be carefully represented as normal, rather than spectacular. Were things to have a tinge of unexpected social or technical complexity as suggested, for example, by regulatory warnings, a hint of their possible mishaps, an indication that it may induce a coronary or require a signed waiver — all the better as these are indications of something in the normal ordinary everyday.

[…]

the near future may probably be quite like the present, only with a new cast of social actors and algorithms who will, like today, suffer under the banal, colorful, oftentimes infuriating characteristic of any socialized instrument and its services. I am referring to the bureaucracies that are introduced, the jargon, the new kinds of job titles, the mishaps, the hopes, the error messages, the dashed dreams, the family arguments, the accidental data leak embarrassments, the evolved social norms, the humiliated politicians, the revised expectations of manner and decorum, the inevitable reactionary designed things that reverse current norms, the battalions of accessories. Etcetera.

Also, concepts often started as abstract speculations requiring deciphering and explication. These would need to be designed properly as products or services that felt as though they were well-lived in the world. Predictive design and speculative design lives well in these zones of abstraction. To move a concept from speculative to design fictional requires work. To materialize an idea requires that one push it forward through the gauntlet any design concept must endure to become the product of the mass-manufacturers process of thing-making. To make an idea become a cataloged, consumable product in the world requires that it be manufacturable, desirable and profitable. Each of these dimensions in turn require that, for example, the thing be imagined to have endured regulatory approvals, be protected as much as possible from intellectual property theft, be manufactured somewhere, suffer the inevitable tension between business drivers, marketing objectives, sales goals and design dreams while also withstanding transcontinental shipping, piracy of all kinds, the CEO’s wives color-choice whims (perhaps multiple CEOs over the course of a single product’s development) and have a price that is as cheap as necessary in many cases but perhaps reassuringly expensive in others. Things need to be imagined for their potential defects, their inevitable flaws and world-damaging properties. A product feels real if it has problems it mitigates as well as new, unexpected problems it introduces. Things need names that are considered for certain categories of product, and naive or imbecilic for others. Things need to be imagined in the hand, in use in “real world” contexts – in the home, office, data center, one’s AV, amongst children or co-workers. They should be forced to live in their springtime with fanfare, and their arthritic decline on the tangled, cracked and chipped 3/99¢ bin. To do this requires that they live, not just as flat perfect things for board room PowerPoint and advertisements, but as mangled things co-existing with all of the dynamic tensions and forces in the world.

[…]

Ultimately, things are an embodiment of our own lived existence — our desires and aspirations; our vanities and conceits; our servility and humility. A Design Fiction catalog of things becomes an epistemic reflection of the times. One might read such a catalog as one might read a statement titled “The Year In Review” – a meditation on the highlights of a year recently concluded. This would not be prediction. It would be a narrative device, a form of storytelling that transcends naive fiction to become an object extracted from a near future world and brought back to us to consider, argue over and discuss. And, possibly, do again as an alternative to the old journalistic “The Year In Review” trope. Is there a better name or form for the thing that looks forward with modesty from today and captures what is seen there? What do we call the thing that stretches into the near future the nascent, barely embryonic hopes, speculations, hypotheses, forces, political tendencies – even the predictions from those still into such things? Is it Design Fiction? An evolved genre that splices together naive fiction, science-fiction, image-and-graphic mood boards and the now ridiculously useless ‘futurist’ predictions and reports? Something in between crowd-funding as a way to prototype a DIY idea and multiform, transmedia shenanigans?

[…]

We started receiving inquiries from individuals around the world who wanted to order items and provide crowd-funding style financial backing for product concepts. Some entities demanded licensing fees because a product the “catalog” purported to “sell” was something they had already developed and were selling themselves or, in some cases, they had even patented and so were notifying us that they would pursue legal remedies to address our malfeasance.

We found that products and entire service ecosystems we implied through advertisements actually existed in an obscure corner of the business world. Of course, there were items in the catalog that we knew existed already. In those cases, our task was not to re-predict them, but to continue them along their trajectory using one or a combination of our graphs of the future (see following pages). In these cases, it can be expected that an unwitting reader of TBD Catalog would naturally make contact with us to find out why they had not be made aware of the new version of the product, how could they get a discounted upgrade, or how they could download the firmware update for which they simply had not already been aware.

[…]

One could write quite didactically about innovation of such-and-so, or make a prediction of some sort or commission a trend analysts report or a clever name-brand futurists’ speculation. Or, one could start with the names of some things and fill out their descriptions at their “consumer face” and let the things themselves come to life, define the sensibilities of those humans (or algorithms?) that might use them. How would those things be sold – what materials? what cost? what consumer segment? Three-for-one? Party colors? Or one could do a very modern form of combined prototyping-funding such as the ‘Kickstarter model’ of presenting an idea before it is much more than a collection of pretty visual aids and then see what people might pay for an imaginary thing. Design Fiction is the modern form of imagining, innovating and making when we live in a world where the future may already have been here before.

TV Go Home

TV Go Home.

TVGH -- Loading

TVGoHome was a website which parodied the television listings style of the British magazine Radio Times. It was produced fortnightly from 1999 to 2001, and sporadically until 2003, by Charlie Brooker. The site now exists only in archive form. TVGoHome columns also appeared for a short time in Loaded magazine, sometimes edited from their original web version.

The website gained a cult following, partly due to its tie-up with the technology newsletter Need To Know, and its use of strong language, surreal imagery and savage satire reminiscent of the work of Chris Morris. Regular targets for abuse were the Daily Mail, Mick Hucknall of Simply Red, and the TV presenters Rowland Rivron and Nicky Campbell. TVGoHome’s most consistent target, however, was fictional. Nathan Barley, an ex-public-school media wannabe living off his parents’ wealth, had his life chronicled in a fly-on-the-wall documentary series (in the TVGoHome universe) entitled simply ‘Cunt’. Detailing Barley’s life in comfortably wealthy Westbourne Grove in west London, the programme essentially mocked the “new media” scene and its population of middle-class web designers, DJs and magazine producers, their obsessions with absurd fashions and gadgetry, their inevitably feeble attempts at creativity and their tireless and ludicrous efforts to embody the cutting edge of urban cool. A spinoff book of the same title was later released featuring old and new material.

Brooker has cited the increasing absurdity of reality television as one of the main reasons he stopped writing TVGoHome. The ideas for real life shows such as Touch the Truck, in which contestants must continually touch a truck for 24 hours in order to win the truck as a prize, were the kind of idea that at one point would only have existed as a satirical creation of Brooker’s website. Now that they were becoming a reality, Brooker felt it was time to stop.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TVGoHome