In some architecture circles, hating on Patrik Shumacher’s “parametricism” is like hating on Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”. It signals a basic shared understanding that, among many other things, artistic professions are not removed from politics, that their practitioners do have responsibilities outside of formal concerns, and that replicating structures of violence is, in general, not a good thing. These conversations are so frequent that they are starting to feel rehearsed: first the staid question, then the momentary pause, finally the sigh of relief. “Now we can move on to the important things.”
I most recently had this experience with a young Austrian student who decided to study at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna – where Shumacher leads studios along with Zaha Hadid and Greg Lynn – known for its supposed avant-gardism. Our conversation circled around Schumacher’s fraught assumption of the term, as well as more generally around a perceived belatedness in architecture in comparison to other fields like design and art. Of course, one of the reasons for this – as Rem Koolhaas has astutely noted – is simply the mechanics of a profession where ideas are realized years after initially drawn out. But there are more vital reasons why Schumacher is considered more a conservative reactionary than an avant-gardist for so many young architects.
The Viennese student and I discussed Schumacher’s most recent diatribe that he uploaded to his Facebook in March (reproduced above). Schumacher’s rant was directed at the judges of the 2012 Venice Biennale, whom he accuses of being “politically correct” and incapable of distinguishing art and architecture in their decision to award the Golden Lion to an installation documenting the Torre David vertical slum in Caracas and the Best Pavilion award to Toyo Ito’s installation. There are so many things to take issue with that it’s hard to know where to begin. The very need to rant against the implication of politics in deciding an architectural award stamps Schumacher as incredibly out of touch with the contemporary moment. But there is also his attempt to totally distinguish form from content, as if form doesn’t already invoke the content of its materiality in the consumption of real objects. And then there’s his aggrandizement of architecture, which reeks of the absolutist tendencies of the last century that have had such dire implications for the world and that are only now beginning to be dismantled. Even his most innocuous comment – distinguishing art from architecture – continues the regressive modernist practice of separating and isolating disciplines.
It is particularly ironic, then, that the architectural thinking that seems most relevant today to many of young architects (and practitioners and thinkers outside the profession) that I know isn’t coming out of the architectural profession but out of art. This conversation, like so many others, moved seamlessly from architecture to a larger consideration of practices that deal with the changes the internet has had on experiences of space and place.
In general, Schumacher’s ideas feel dated because they ground their radicality in the advent of new technologies in the 90’s, and maintain the techno-futurist aesthetic of that period. But now, in 2014, it feels much more radical to approach these technologies in light of their utter banality and ubiquity. More profound than the opening of new formal potentials is what the internet has done to everyday experience, to the individual’s relation to (physical and virtual) built worlds on discrete levels.
Today, we never actually “log on” or “log off.”
The work of artists variously labeled “net” or “post-internet” often explores and interrogates these territories. The latter term is specifically used to describe the work of a group of artists whose work circulates on digital networks but moves beyond considering the Internet a novelty. It is art after the internet first emerged, art after the existence of the internet as a discrete component of life separate from others. Today, we never actually “log on” or “log off.”
Like other historical attempts to define and brand a new art movement, post-internet discourses have been the target of criticism, particularly in recent months. The use value of the term is debatable and it is used to brand a diverse range of artistic practices that probably shouldn't be branded together. Rather than engaging in the specifics of this debate, or playing the game of labeling artists as participatory in it, I will simply acknowledge the term for its conceptual usefulness and as a basic framework with which to look at the work of a few artists that has compelling implications for architecture.
iSkyTV is a project by the Institute for Infinitely Small Things, a group that “conducts creative, participatory research [aiming] to temporarily transform public spaces and instigate dialogue about democracy, spatial justice and everyday life.” The project reimagines Yoko Ono’s 1966 video work “SkyTV,” which consists of placing a video of a cloudy sky in a gallery, to disrupt the distinction between outside and inside. iSkyTV furthers this gesture by detecting the users’ locations and displaying images of the sky above them using Google Street View. iSkyTV further complicates any distinction between interior and exterior as well as between public and private spheres. It brings an image of “nature” that is housed in a database, has been “digitized, databased, copyrighted and archived,” back into the interior of the home.
One of the artist Jon Rafman’s many projects that deal with architecture and urbanism, 9-Eyes also utilizes Google Street View to explore new relationships with place. Combing through the vastness of the Street View project, Rafman finds images of solitary individuals in diverse landscapes, animals struggling on roads, youths in masks hurtling projectiles, and even what looks like an escaped convict. In selecting and presenting images taken by Google vehicles, he displaces much of the role of the photographer to a machine, leaving only the act of framing and selecting. His work underscores the changing way the user can relate to a larger context, exploring the world – even find moments of the sublime and the uncanny – within the interior of a bedroom.
London-based artist Felix Melia considers the ways individuals perceive infrastructure and architecture as they pass through it, as well the narratives encoded in that process. One of his on-going projects, Vast Montage, invites users to submit footage of places that are added to an archive and then randomly ordered into an never-ending montage. The work speaks to the way the Internet changes our understanding of our environments and puts us into a continued engagement of editing, choosing, and arranging images. For Melia, this change is not isolated in the virtual, but bleeds into our engagement with 3D places.
Geoff Manaugh, the author of the popular BLDGBLOG, recently compiled a collection of projects by architects and artists that engage in speculative architectures. This, of course, is not a new practice but rather follows in the footsteps of such visionaries as Lebbeus Woods and Archigram. That more and more architects are turning to fictitious projects that will never be, nor are intended to be, realized is not merely a symptom of economic recession (as many have argued). Rather, it showcases a certain ethics of restraint in one’s relation to computer-aided design. Just because something can be built doesn’t mean it should be. Moreover, fiction allows the injection of radical artistic, ecological, and political concerns into architecture, rather than on relying only on a Schumacher-like obsession with creating new forms.
If you’re in search of the next vanguard, you might have more luck on MineCraft then in parametricism.
Many other artists working today are exploring our changing phenomenological experience of space and place – I will highlight others over the course of the next few weeks. A common concern in their work is the exploration of the territory opened up by the shattering of the interior/exterior binary that has plagued architecture since the Greeks. Rather than utilizing new technologies to imagine spectacular(ly expensive) structures, architects can look at the work of artists as a model for understanding how the Internet has changed our relation to space. The Internet is not an additional virtual world but is deeply real and deeply physical. Architects must start to comprehend the implications of this, starting with moving away from understanding their field as contained entirely in the act of building. The avant-garde architectures of the future won’t need dirty money to transform conceptions and experiences of place. In fact, if you’re in search of the next vanguard, you might have more luck on MineCraft then in parametricism.
Writer and visual artist living in Los Angeles. I am interested in the margins of architecture, in particular its intersections with art, politics, and ecology. Contact me! firstname.lastname@example.org