Archinect

Columbia GSAP (Derek Lindner)

 

Archived

Jan '05 - Mar '06

 
  • anchor

    Masses: Media, Culture, Housing, or, Rent-boy's Dilemma.

    Derek Lindner Mar 22 '06 0

    [I was going through some stuff from last semester, and came across this entry that I started then and never finished, so I'm posting it now. Better late than never.]

    Someone remarked the other day that housing studio is
    particularly earnest this year. Last year, the studio site was on
    Manhattan's west side, and though the aim was to design public
    housing (as it always is), it was still in the proximity of art
    galleries, shopping and urban amenties, offering the temptation
    to incorporate these as the prominent contextual elements.

    This year we're working in Brownsville, a neighborhood that
    claims New York's highest rates of poverty and incarceration. The
    sites that we have have to work on are adjacent to large arrays
    of 60s superblock public housing, elevated train lines, vacant
    lots, and derelict buildings. A lot of students (including
    myself) admit to feeling a certain malaise. It's difficult to
    face the most brutal parts of America's housing policy legacy and
    the egregious failures of whatever social contract this country
    can be said to have. Worse, the seeming inability of architecture
    to make any significant difference adds insecurity to depression.
    What action can we take in such a position? Where do we start?

    In the context of Brownsville, the social issues that influence
    the project are difficult to obscure behind formalisms. Throw in
    a studio critic who likes to lead discussions that engage (which
    is not to say embrace) Marx and Adorno, and the issues become
    inescapable. In these discussions, we talk about 'the masses', as
    the term is used commonly in the writings, but it is now a term
    that I (like most Americans, I imagine) usually encounter only as
    part of a few select phrases--huddled masses, mass housing, mass
    media, mass culture--and nearly never on its own.

    The 'huddled masses' (always yearning) provoke, perhaps, the
    strongest connotations of poverty and marginalization. However,
    the term is today only a bromide to conjure images of immigrants
    and refugees and evoke patriotic notions of freedom and
    opportunity. 'Huddled masses', I would venture, survives almost
    exlusively in the context of American history and heritage
    (particularly since immigration policies today embody a less
    generous view of foreigners than at Lady Liberty's peak).

    'Mass housing' shares the same connotations, but also has
    currency in usage. Mass housing conjures ideas of the least
    fortunate and least self-sufficient segments of society, deemed
    worthy of direct subsidy to meet basic housing needs. These
    masses are often assumed (whether justifiably or not) to be
    unskilled and undereducated.

    Mass media and mass culture, however, embody a distinctly
    different notion of the masses. 'Mass media' describes the most
    widely circulated messages and images in our society, and the
    means by which they are produced and distributed. Through
    constant repositioning, the media usually aim to be broadly
    inclusive, in order to achieve the largest audience. In doing so,
    the media have traditionally helped to define and exclude the
    margins.

    Mass culture can be described as the feedback loop between the
    public and the media, the process of appropriation of media
    imagery into American life, its translation into desire and
    consumption, and subsequent re-presentation as new consumer dream
    imagery in the media. The media become a vector of conformity,
    directing the course for the mainstream of society: the American
    middle class. The masses here are defined as the 'target
    demographic'.

    So masses can be cultured or huddled, that is to say, they can be
    the mainstream or the margins. Curiously, mass media draw the
    line between the two: the transition between these strata of
    lower and middle class is marked by the willingness to subjugate
    oneself to media messages, to become part of the mass culture.
    It's like the rant Renton (aka Rent-boy) gives in Trainspotting--

    Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family.
    Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars,
    compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good
    health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-
    interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose
    your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose
    a three piece suite on hire purchased in a range of fucking
    fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday
    morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing
    spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food in your
    mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your
    last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to
    the selfish, fucked-up brats you have spawned to replace
    yourself. Choose your future.


    Rent-boy's dilemma, yuppie vs junkie, is perhaps an extreme
    case--certainly not everyone who is poor or lives in mass housing
    has a drug problem--but it serves to highlight the gap between
    the two masses. To be associated with mass culture doesn't carry
    the same stigma (nor, it must be said, confer the same street
    cred) that mass housing (or a heroin addiction) does, Rent-boy's
    diatribe notwithstanding.

    The stigma of being part of the (huddled/housed) masses is built
    into a long-standing model for housing in the US, one that says
    that housing is temporary assistance for poor residents to get on
    their feet, and that once they become financially stable, they
    can move into a market rate apartment. In aiding the transition
    from the poverty of 'the projects' to the middle class lifestyle
    of mass culture, the purpose of mass housing has a parallel with
    that of mass media: as a society, we encourage everyone to make
    Rent-boy's choice.

    The stigma has given birth to euphemisms invented to avert
    potential associations between the two types of masses. Mass
    housing is usually called 'public housing' (superceding the
    earlier 'housing project') and mass culture has been rechristened
    'popular culture'.

    I'm not going to vilify middle class America and those who aspire
    to join it (that would be rather hypocritical of me) and I have
    no intention of romanticizing poverty and drugs, but there should
    be an option to joining the target demographic. Is there such a
    thing as 'popular housing'--a hybrid of pop culture and public
    housing--and do we want it?

    Lately, countertrends to mass media and mass culture have been
    growing--niche marketing, personalization, blogging (and other
    DIY media), the long tail--that resist the genericizing
    tendencies of media and that tweak our current notions of
    individuality and subculture. As these gain momentum, the idea of
    'the masses' will recede further, becoming even less common.
    How can we even conceive of mass housing in this context?

     

     
  • ×Search in:
 

Affiliated with:

Authored by:

  • Derek Lindner

Other blogs affiliated with Columbia University:

Recent Entries


Please wait... loading
Please wait... loading