Log 29, Fall 2013
To glimpse the nebulous nature of contemporary architectural culture we should look to design's own forms of media. The frames through which we look at design are not transparent; they are mechanisms that construct design culture around the mass of manufactured objects we produce. Perhaps then it's not contemporary design itself, but rather the media that communicates it that is the source of its condition.
There was a time when design was routinely catalogued. Its objects could be counted and accounted for, arranged in sequences to construct particular narratives. Think of the way in which institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum or the Museum of Modern Art constructed narratives and ideologies of design through the things they collected and exhibited, and through their patronage. The museum, like the magazine, functioned as a particular kind of design media. From the late 19th through the 20th century museums and magazines constructed narratives, from Arts and Crafts to Modernism, Brutalism, and Postmodernism. They wrote design's narratives so indelibly that we still trace their intent today.
These once-strong curatorial frames are now just sieves in a digital tsunami. It's not that museums got small, it's that the quantity of design that we are exposed to has become monstrously voluminous. Website after website, blog upon blog, often regurgitating the same press releases, scraping each others stories, pasting each other's images. This unedited ebb and flow removes distinction. One thing seems to become much like another, renderings and Photoshop collages become indistinguishable from built reality.
Digital media has made design uncountable and uncuratable. Its sheer scale and speed have outgrown any of the limits of previous media and burst the seams of the definitions we used to clothe it with.
Architectural culture now flows through this new form of media as an endless glut of glossy imagery gushing through super-lubricated digital downpipes. Scrolling through, we quickly become nauseous at the sensation of unrelenting immediacy. We become dumb to the invention and imagination that designers exert. But as we gasp for air, drowning in infinite shallowness, we should recognize that this is also a product of our collective desire. It is the will of the epoch expressed in an insanely huge slick of stuff. In this slick we find a perfect storm where design's sense of individuality meets the flattened hierarchy of the digital, multiplied by the superfast churn of content.
In architecture offices digital culture has also changed working methods. Google Images, rather than the slide library, is the disciplinary source book. Image clouds surround us, vast fields of pictures sucked out of their original context and thrown into fleeting association by an algorithm rather than scholarship.
That's what makes architecture--and culture in general--faster and slower. Faster access, faster consumption, faster generation. But simultaneously slower in the sense that it no longer has its own velocity. Its momentum no longer carries it forward in a straight line of progress, because there is no straight line anymore. There's not even a direction we could call forward. We find ourselves in a fast-breeding stasis: accelerated to incredible speed without the appearance of motion that the Barr and Jencks diagrams suggested, winding across like the background scenery of a puppet theater. . . .
The disciplinary desires for distinct architectural modes, stylistic groupings, and generational iconoclasm are deep-seated in architectural culture. These are how we learn architecture and what we expect it (and us) to do. Their almost complete absence from contemporary architectural culture is, therefore, deeply unsettling. Seen in these terms, architectural culture has become inert. There is little at stake between one side and another. Everything is deflated, collapsed into an indistinguishable pool.
But there are other ways to imagine culture that grow out of our contemporary experience, where linear progress and stylistic affinity are no longer the x and y axes of architecture.
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