You would be hard-pressed to find someone in architecture today with the kind of versatility that Keller Easterling exhibits. Her ability to navigate in waters as diverse as theater, urbanism, technology, theory, comedy, globalization, literature and capitalism have made her an essential figure in decoding the contemporary condition. Additionally Easterling writes (and speaks) with a highly developed customized vocabulary that serves her choreography of such seemingly unrelated topics. From protocol to spatial products to cocktails to errors , she has devised a way to occupy both literary space (theater) and physical space (architecture / city). Language as a fly tower with layers and layers of malleable phyllo-like backdrops.
The scale that she operates at is typically massive. So massive it is sometimes invisible - infrastructurally present yet physically obscured. Her recent book Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and its Political Masquerades is structured into six stories (and near mythologies in their own right) of infrastructures as "repeatable spatial items" and three contemplations serving as further speculation. The spatial items Easterling alludes to have the kind of tough-nosed capability to succeed or contaminate in difficult terrain. Development operates as a germ, and urbanism as a slot machine.
Keller responded to several questions on theatre, networks, organizations, and profitably durable urban contagions . Game on.
-- Mason White
American Town Plans (1996), Organization Space (1999), Enduring Innocence (2005)
MW: Your previous book, Organization Space, centers on landscapes of physical and direct connectivity. In some ways it seems focused more on the calibrated space of the line in the network - highways, Appalachian Trail, and town subdivisions - over the point, while Enduring Innocence focuses on the encoding of the system of a network and its dispersed points - ports, Wal-Mart, and megachurches. In the interim between the two books, what factors or observations led you from Organization Space (1999) to Enduring Innocence (2005)?
KE: Your question is the very one I am asking myself now, after having finished Enduring Innocence . There is a larger research premise that sanctions both Organization Space and Enduring Innocence . Maybe that question concerns an amplified understanding of what constitutes infrastructure. For some time we have been considering infrastructure to be something beyond transportation, communication and utility networks. Infrastructure may even include collective standards or shared mechanisms of financing. Still some of our spatial skills would find new territories (and seductions) in an understanding of infrastructure as a recipe for political disposition. A recipe for the character of a polity. Organization Space was already looking at landscape networks as a kind of infrastructure. More importantly, it was looking at the spatial product of suburban housing as an infrastructure. The suburban house was not designed with our conventional skills. The depression era FHA home was a protocol for formatting the land in a way that would revive banks and provide employment through in the building trades. The building trades employed the most people in America after agriculture at that time. Beyond an infrastructure of networks or grids, here was an infrastructure as aggregated field of repeatable spatial items tied to distributed services. It is not really a stretch to consider this kind of spatial protocol as an infrastructure. Infrastructure has always been a technique of political organization, often even a tool of military theaters. Using both networks of services as well as explicit repeatable spatial protocols is an ancient practice. One can jump forward through history from Roman military towns to the Laws of Indies, etc.
Using both networks of services as well as explicit repeatable spatial protocols is an ancient practice.
It is also not much of a stretch to see the similarity of spatial products like suburban houses and spatial products like cruise ship tours, distribution "parks," malls, golf courses, retail formats or IT campuses. In the interim between the two books I worked on a project called Wild Cards: A game of Orgman that tracked a suite of companies that exported spatial products. It was a moment when there remained in the globalism discourse some remnants of globalization as "Americanization." This study was a web installation that appeared to be a slot machine in the global gambles over space-making, a game where everyone was both importing and exporting. That it was called "a game of orgman" relates to your question. Orgman was Harold Rosenberg's nickname for William Whyte's "organization man." My contention was that there was a new orgman who was heir to late twentieth century logistical spaces that are related to US suburbia. There is a Perspecta article [I wrote] titled "The New Orgman" that makes this point. I suppose that article and the Wildcards project are the clearest links between the two books.
One always knew that suburbia was a logistical apparatus which was also host to psychic content and emotional cultural stories about home ownership and patriotism. But was that phenomenon just related to a spatial product like housing, known to pull at the heart strings? The Wildcards study gradually revealed an entire pantheon of characters, myths, costumes, rituals and bizarre fictions that attached themselves to different products. It was not just the old story of the sentimentality that often accompanies power, but an assortment of fictions and stories that were able to float over a logistical revenue stream. The logical, indexical substrate was, in fact, perfectly married to the illogical, fictive accouterment. The more disparate the two, the less likely any reconciliation of the inconsistent, multiple tales used to refresh branding. The ways in which this naturalized, instrumentalized fiction mixed perfectly with the techniques of political programs all around the world should also not have been surprising. But that is another story... perhaps I digress.
In answer to your question, it may also be worth mentioning that Wildcards and the articles that led to Enduring Innocence were also eventually nourished by discussions of various forms of sovereignty and extra-jurisdictional space that were part of the discourse on globalism. Still the evidence related to spatial products gave me a foothold in the discourse and served as a heuristic device. Architects have more to learn than to teach about global studies, but these formats proved to be good indicators of market aggression and political disposition. Their bid to remain intact and exempt from political responsibilities is itself a special form of violence. So the behavior of these formats led me to speculate that we have something valuable to contribute to discussions of globalization.
The "World Cup Course", Nicklaus Course in Mission Hills, Shenzhen, China.
MW: I wanted to come back to the Wildcards project in a moment, but first could you speak a bit more about the idea of infrastructure and sovereignty in the distribution of repeatable spatial products? In your book you characterize several organizations such as Arnold Palmer Golf Management, the Maharishi Global Development Fund, and IT Parks in India and Hong Kong as similar formats for political assertion. How are these organizations inscribing infrastructure and urbanism any differently than the franchises of say McDonald's in the 1950s or the easyGroup of the 2000s or even the early sites of manufacturing for Ford or Toyota? How are today's organizations more socially savvy and politically charged in their ability to distribute and aggregate?
KE: Yes there are a number of important distinctions to make there. I could try to contribute a few. I could also try to undo any confusion that my hyperbolic stories may cause. In the stories of Maharishis and golf celebrities, I was trying to demonstrate not a break, but a continuity in the techniques and organizations of power. The workings of Arnold Palmer or a global port organization like P&O are ancient in their desire to index the work for advantageous situations. There are real similarities between these organizations and the charismatic conquerors or the East India Companies of another time. I find it difficult to say this clearly: The distinctions to be made might have to do with overcoming some expectations about the ultimate trajectory of capitalism as understood from within an industrial period. In other words, the distinctions might have to do with reestablishing some historical echoes to pre-capitalist moments. I am not talking about structuralist continuities, but echoes and recurring desires in contemporary recipes for power and economic success.
I was just mentioning the "new orgman." We think of the orgman of mid-century as in receipt of a hierarchical chain of command. He was still living in a barracks suburb that was built on principles rehearsed by the nation in a military campaign. He was, as Whyte pointed out, also the pawn in a hierarchical corporate organization. For the new orgman, logistics is no longer a cage or tool of hierarchical corporate structures. (One thinks of an extinct IBM.) Rather logistical techniques rehearsed by Ford, Toyota, McDonalds, Walmart help a slightly altered management style to emerge. [Manuel] Castells is still the best resource here, and he helps us avoid Kevin Kelly esque positivism. One can think back to the basics of Taylorism, but this most recent alteration, emerging most clearly over the last half-century, relies on a mixture of just-in-time manufacturing, container shipment, trade deregulation, increases in foreign direct investment, branding and new legal parameters for urbanism such as the Free Trade Zone, Export Process Zone and Special Economic Zone. It has taken decades. The first successful experiments with both container shipment and Special Economic Zones happen in the 1960s and accelerated in the 1970s.
There are new or reemergent cocktails of tools and techniques, but historians will also quickly point out that we have always had some version of the free trade zone. One thinks of city-states like Venice or cities entrepot like Genoa, Cochin or Dubai. And who can forget the Baltic ports of the Easterlings in the 14th century - my own shady ancestors and the original free trade crooks. These are, of course, foremost in our minds. In this "new/old" world, to borrow a term from the activist group RETORT , all of the emerging factors mentioned above perhaps allow extra-national operations and territorializations to be more widespread and less directed by any one nation. A nation or a consortium of nations now affiliates many war machines, many Dutch East India Companies, moving around the world irrespective of national boundaries.
Similarly when one thinks of branding - the irrational values attached to economic exchange that reflect and create desire - one tries to reconcile this evidence to evidence of pre-capitalist practices. Pierre Bourdieu 's discussions of symbolic capital, for instance, come to mind: The family buys extra oxen at the end of the harvest season when it is not really needed to raise the apparent worth of a daughter that is soon to be married. If branding adds a new twist on this old practice, it is that the irrational desire is also completely capitalized in the conventional sense. It is assigned numerical currency values and lending points. It is capitalized symbolic capital. (Marx's discussion of the fetish flies out of the book and has its own self-possessed life.) Economic exchange (let's not call it "capital" if that relegates the discussion to an evidence-excluding Marxist historiography) is very agile and able to alternate between amnesias and "discoveries," national and non-national swaggers or believing and cheating. It is all part of a special stupidity with which to create a refreshed narcotic reality.
MW: So techniques employed by these organizations, like the orgman of today, use a weak, or even absent, hierarchy that allows them to operate covertly - almost viral - and without borders. Are we likely to see this kind of innovation in other sectors besides tourism and commercial distribution, or other contexts besides Asia? And how would you characterize the urban fabric that these boundaryless agencies and their attraction to free economic zones establish?
KE: Well, I think we would have taken this to be a long standing observation to which I can add very little. This borderless movement of economic forces intertwined with the "state" is a pan-global phenomenon with which political theorists, social scientists and philosophers (among them Mattelart, Appadurai, Guattari, Deleuze, Castells) have been grappling for some time.
The "urban fabric of these agencies" is still very much a frontier. While one is familiar with the enclave in its many forms, maybe the aggregations of these enclaves are less familiar. For ports there may be aggregates hundreds of kilometers large. For large export processing zones like the maquiladoras of MEXICA, there are large regional formations. Free zones aggregate at many different kinds of border crossings everywhere in the world. This aggregated field creates a very different kind of global city than the financial global city on which we focused in the 90s. There is no center and the margin may sometimes be distributed within the field: one thinks of El Ejido or the hutments and labor camps at the edges of construction sites all over the world. The margin may be everywhere but the enclave: one thinks of the IT campuses of Malaysia or India. The margin may be remote to this new form of global city: one thinks of the myriad cases when a periodic margin imported from somewhere else in the world is present and then disappears. Here is another space of migration and another constitution of labor than those with which we are familiar. One can characterize many of these formations as abusive, abusive of human rights, labor and environment. Sometimes they are characterized as a form of exception as Agamben has described it. But they may be much less direct and forthright than that. Market forces shelter within both national patriotism and oligarchic independence. They may embody mongrel forms of exception, with even more duplicitous and untraceable movements.
Hutments of Bangalore.
Maquiladora factories, an inland form of offshoring, of Mexico.
MW: You have often employed the idea of “the sea” to illustrate the contemporary global condition, whether it is the “place of pirates and the cauldron of democracy,” offshore trade zones, capital “as a colloidal liquid,” or a critique of Deleuze and Guattari's “smooth space par excellence” as also capable of confounding and deterritorializing. In addition you are quick to point out the distinction between landskip and landschaft as they relate to the productiveness and temporal qualities of territory. How important are these discussions of landscape and terrain - smooth, hard, liquid, or solid - to architects today? And how are they manifest?
KE: Someone reading the contemplation about seas in Enduring Innocence might find it to be theoretical reverie that has little to do with their position as an architect in the world. Some may wish that critical/theoretical writings were not entirely necessary because they are hard, and because they open up a black hole of branching reference and philosophical reconciliation. Annoying too are the ways in which some critics seem to long for an exalted, immortal position relative to the magnificence of their sophistry. (Yesterday's favorite: Paul Virilio's "I am read seriously by the French military." A zero-hour claim cum Gilbert and Sullivan lyric.). Yet I can't somehow find the limits between constructive speculation and applicability. I called some sections of the text "contemplations" because I wanted them to be more amuse bouche than a litigious proof or academic ventriloquy. Also since crucial to anything we make is the way it is positioned and aimed, the contemplations are in some sense practical offerings to use in sharpening that aim. One wants to contribute some work that will help focus the massive scatter of efforts that are involved with architecture, urbanism and politics.
But that is not what you were asking. It may only be a very long answer that would address your question properly and I don't want to rehearse the argument that has already appeared. The sea seemed to be a very useful index to the works of a number of thinkers on the left and the right about what constitutes state, polity, resistance and war. One can also get a sense of a thinker's particular brand of historiography by their reference to the sea as one of history's main characters. The sea is also a main character in titantic moral struggles (the Behemoth and the Leviathan). So reference to the sea was useful for me in reading not only the position but the disposition of a thinker -- the way in which they made their story epic, righteous or utopian using the sea as a grand backdrop. The main thing I wanted to do was counter monism, either of the one-world or Empire variety. We are all nourished by Empire, perhaps even by its description of a Goliath-Goliath or Leviathan-Leviathan struggle. Yet a righteous symmetrical architecture embodies the very violence we oppose and may not be effective against more duplicitous political dispositions. It seems that there are so many other opportunities for tricking and manipulating the system in ways that are not configured as symmetrical "resistance." I prefer to imagine myself in impure ethical struggles -- in the logical fallout between multiple worlds. We are not innocent. We are all, after all, Empire, and we have lots of camouflage and many ways of ducking for cover in an alternative world. Can we not be ingenious (or sneaky) enough to be effective against duplicity and evasion. Righteous symmetry is not complex enough. It may even serve a camouflage for actions we oppose. More than any other profession I can think of, the work of architecture engages multiple realms from finance to logistics to the heights and depths of frivolity and fiction that ultimately rule the world. Some think that work in the communication stratosphere is the truly powerful position. But with architecture one also engages the heavy material of global economies, moving from communication and branding to shipping to the physical/financial shape of a golf course to the designing of functional expressions between layovers and shopping to the indexing of global labor and materials. Would it not make us powerful political animals to simply be aware of this nexus of movements and begin to index and make ethical choices within it? We are in a position to help divert some of the world's most abusive situations.
MW: Absolutely, even if only to participate ourselves in the pirating and trickery ... and this sits well with the book's "masquerade" subtitling. In coming back to the Wildcards project, how do you position your work and research alongside the historical trajectory of game, chance, and play in architecture and urbanism?
KE: Urban design hails the power of the circumstantial, but it seems as if we still have very few techniques for designing within it. Urban design still often prefers control and even prefers the specification of building envelope as a means to that end. Game theory and political theory are not very different. They develop logics that are not designed to deal with deception and folly. Strange, since urban design and planning as they are accomplished every day, must dig their way out of a pile of circumstantial detail that is most sturdily arranged by bureaucracy. One wonders what opportunities or epidemics might appear if its administration was arranged in a more entrepreneurial fashion. The orgmen of the world are certainly operating within a gaming environment. Urbanism is a slot machine.
I might have referred more directly to those urban thinkers or architects who have used comedy as a technique (Situationists, Archigram, Archizoom and their more immediate offspring.) That would have been an awkward stretch to this material somehow. Their work is too sophisticated for the buffoonery that is in my sites. I also wanted to step to the side of the more tragic ultimates of a Situationist political position. So I did not do a very good job of referencing a historical trajectory. [Johan] Huizinga and [Mikhail] Bakhtin (as they related to urbanism) allowed me to remain interested in architecture initially, and since I come from a theater training Alfred Jarry is the king of my personal pantheon. All of these things influence a habit of mind, but in the book, the character who delivers is probably Gregory Bateson . His theory of laughter as the result of errors in logic allowed some point of translation between theories of laughter (e.g. Gilbert Ryle, Henri Bergson) and the logical formats for spatial products. (I wonder if this was delivered too quickly in the book.) The pirate and the comedian do the same thing: they upset the accustomed construct with extrinsic information or an incompatible logic or inversion. Spatial products are in constant battles with each other, killing each other or altering each other with an incompatible logic. A new marketing wrinkle or a tiny shift in desires can bring down an enormous organization. The book asks a question about whether we as architects are capable of making these "jokes." It seems like an opening worth pursuing in a myriad of different ways. To offer one example of an approach, I wrote a bit about a germ, a detail in the world that is designed but that propagates without complete control. The germ was offered as a joke to upset spatial logics.
Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi was first performed in 1896 in Paris.
Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead in New Guinea, 1938.
MW: By "germ," do you mean the greenhouses of El Ejido?
KE: Since one observes that the world can be so drastically altered by a spatial detail or invention such as the propagating greenhouse detail in El Ejido, one wonders how to calibrate our own practice to be able to make details which are explicitly designed but which propagate in ways that are not entirely predictable. An elevator could be seen as just such a spatial germ. Savannah, Georgia was similarly designed with an explicit formula for real estate arrangement that was then propagated to create an unpredictable overall outline for the city. Each ward was an expression of relationships or interdependent ratios between programs and between public/private, urban/exurban space. Every time it reproduced, it reproduced these same relationships but the overall pattern of these in the aggregate was not necessarily known. So a germ might be a detail repeated over a series or it might be a functional expression, a parametric specification, or an explicit spatial protocol of another type. It repeats, is carried along by an environment and passed to another. The ways that merchandise reached the captive audience of post war suburbia might be another example of a germ. One can think of many others. Many of the studios with which I have experimented at Yale (Columbia too, really) were organized to design a germ of fitting- to turn the studio upside down and run it backwards. So studios did not move from master plan to detail, but rather began with detail and moved to multiple scenarios for the propagation of the detail. If it had been drama school, it would have been not a master class in the recitation of Hamlet's soliloquy, but rather a class in building reactive skills necessary for improvisation.
El Ejido, Spain, site of 35,000 hectares of greenhouses for fruit and vegetable production.
1777 plan of Savannah, Georgia showing accumulation of wards.
Savannah, Georgia ward unit.
MW: And I'm glad you mentioned Jarry, Huizinga, and Bateson alongside your background in theatre. Using Bateson's metalogues, Jarry's absurdism, or Huizinga's conception of play it seems a short distance between your role as a playwright and your writing on urbanism after globalization. So how do the subjects or methods of your plays figure in your recent writing? Maybe the slot machine extends to language as well? Come to think of it, El Ejido or I Love Cruise would make for pretty captivating stage material...
KE: I think, in conversation, I must be allowing it to be more and more apparent that I rely very heavily on skills learned in a theatrical training, often putting them before those skills acquired in an architectural training. I didn't learn very much in my architectural training, so I just used other tools. In theater you had to make everything out of action. Verb rather than noun. We all spoke in infinitive expressions (very annoying) since what you were doing on stage was all that mattered. States of mind, mood, and title were only background that you almost forgot so that you could do something. It is crucial to be able to acquire that skill since what one was saying was not always what one was doing. "I love you, darling," she said. But what she was doing was murdering him in her mind. It changes how you are saying it obviously.
So it would have been nice if my teachers had been Cedric Price or someone like him. I would have been able to understand architecture a little better. As it was transposed, the theatrical training has made the idea of active organization and the mechanics and character of organization more clear to me. In a cocktail with theatrical training, Bateson offers insight about the architecture of active organization.
In Bateson's metalogues one sees that he understood what dialogue is. It is not exposition but the scraps of sentences and the noises people are making while they are doing something else. Now, in some new work, I think I am drawing on this theatrical training in understanding the disposition that organization possesses. Erving Goffman is helpful here, and he too is compatible with a theatrical habit of mind. I am trying to think about the character of a polity as embedded in infrastructural organizations. Making a play and making an architectural design have always seemed like the same things to me, an organizational structure that inflects actions, form, text. The only thing is that architecture is easier. Within seconds you can hoist up a sketch which is the general target seen with half-closed eyes. With a play or other kinds of writing (for me) sometimes I don't know what it is until it is finally done. Much more precarious.
MW: I like that - organizational structure inflecting actions, form, and text. I saw the 2000 documentary No Maps for these Territories on William Gibson recently, and he talks about his initial frustration with writing fiction in trying to get characters to move. He had such difficulty introducing action into narrative that he developed a form of imaginary VR technology that protected him because it allowed characters to change channels. All he had to do was "switch tapes" and that spared him the embarrassment of not being able to get characters up and down stairs. However, he expressed total confidence in articulating finite details of objects within a narrative. In a way, that is where architecture and theatre part ways. In theatre, content is direct action and reaction as well as form.
We have talked of globalization as it relates to economics and politics mostly, but I know you have done quite a bit of travel internationally. So, what is your sense on tourism, leisure, and travel in our current age? And what kind of traveler are you - map-in-hand or wanderer or idle café observer?
KE: No one would mistake me for an adventurous daredevil or intrepid traveler. I am as nourished by solitude when I travel as I am when I am at home. But I have a canine mind that learns better when placed in light and air in the actual location under consideration. Some corporeal neuron finally carves out a place for me to store information. I am otherwise tossing loose sheets of information into a huge pile in an unknown room and quickly slamming the door behind them. I take myself places. It is work. I don't understand the concept of leisure and don't know how to comment on it as a result. Also when one travels, one is often working, giving a talk or trying to understand the motives and personalities at a conference.
I suppose I am a peeking-at-the-map-in-my-purse type. My attempts at other tongues usually result in an accented double talk that almost uses actual words found in the language. Soupy Sales could do no better. I am also that other type: embarrassed to be an American (mostly in Europe), but, despite feigned nonchalance, not embarrassed to be a tourist. I react badly to critical remarks about tourism as delivered by continental philosophers or leftist advocates. It betrays a profound misunderstanding of global economies and reveals instead an elitist concern for good taste. Dean MacCannell likened the tourist installation to the factory in one kind of argument. Tourist spaces have even exceeded his prescient remarks as they have truly become the new factories. They are spaces of revenue and employment as well as consumption. Excluding them or failing to understand and manipulate them politically is unimaginative. Along these lines, I try not to fight the American stereotype that precedes us. I agree with it and laughingly foreground America's stupidity as our greatest national resource, something we can learn to use wisely. The stupidity is so pervasive and the political deadlock so obdurate that is it strangely ... inspiring.
In Dubai, tourist and housing developments are created for media cycles. The urgent goals and excessive capital of the kingdom allow it to actually develop physical improvements at the pace of journalism. Sometimes they are even too fast for newspaper and magazine coverage, only getting satisfaction from the web. Development is not as fast as journalism. It is also as fast as a monetary trading, so that nationals can flip properties from one Palm formation to the next before they are even built, creating a gigantic roulette wheel of artificial islands. When I was there a few months ago, the long hot car rides between these various attractions were way too slow. It was as if they were designed for media hits. Finally, it was more stimulating to read a book on the gulf and the Emirates that I could only find at a museum there.
The Dubai Mall, a 12.1 million square feet development, by Emaar.
Serbia and Croatia succeeded in lulling me out of my usual hotel laziness. I am not sure what was so adventurous about this quiet little trip, except that it was constantly stimulating to learn or to position the canine mind on the boundaries between the Turks and the Habsburgs. Lovely, generous friends from Belgrade saying learned things. And the peculiar sensation of seeing landscapes/streetscapes just slightly out of familiar cultural and visual registers.
Keller Easterling is an architect, urbanist, and writer and is Associate Professor, Yale University School of Architecture.
Keller Easterling (Online) Bibliography:
On Pirates, Statisticians and Cruise Ship Directors
On Walter Pitts
Plotting the Highline
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