PRINT December 2008

David Joselit

COMPUTERS ARE WIDELY CREDITED with transforming architecture: Digital tools have changed even the most basic day-to-day design practice, largely replacing the rigors of the drawing board with the screen’s more flexible capacities for spatial projection, and leading to an explosion of delirious abstract structures by such celebrity architects as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Rem Koolhaas. But while these stand-alone sculptural monuments are exciting, they seem to contradict the fundamental conditions of the digital era, which is characterized by networked systems of distribution based not on singular forms, but on a panoply of standardized elements. To take the example of Koolhaas: During the past twenty years the architect has pioneered a design process premised on extensive analysis of program and site; according to these procedures (which are now highly influential and widely imitated), a building’s form should emerge as an expression of information analysis. This is a strong response to the network conditions that frame architectural practice—and yet it typically results in freestanding landmarks such as Koolhaas’s leggy CCTV headquarters in Beijing. It seems to me that the radical challenge facing architecture in an information-rich postindustrial economy is not to invent unheard-of shapes for a conventionally monumental program, but to rethink the singular building in light of infrastructural networks: in short, to identify standardized elements and, further, theorize them as what could reasonably be called architectural “part objects.” Such a program might entail multiple smaller-scale buildings introduced into the existing urban fabric in order to address housing needs or public services while fostering life at street level. This approach seizes on the implications of Koolhaas’s celebrated 1995 book with Bruce Mau, S,M,L,XL, structured according to the scalability fundamental to digital objects, in which forms may be adapted to contexts encompassing the small, the medium, the large, or the extra large.

Four exhibitions on view in New York this year offered a striking opportunity—when considered together—to evaluate anew the possibilities for such a “distributed architecture”: the R. Buckminster Fuller retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art; “Frederick Kiesler: Co-Realities” at the Drawing Center; “Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling” at the Museum of Modern Art; and finally the smallest, but most compelling in terms of indicating a model for the digital future, “Estudio Teddy Cruz: Practice of Encroachment—From the Global Border to the Border Neighborhood” at the PARC Foundation Gallery. If scalability—the capacity for a particular unit (either virtual or actual) to expand and contract to macro and micro scales—is one of the fundamental tenets of digital technology, then it is no wonder that Fuller, whose structural innovations are founded on modular systems such as the geodesic dome, would strike such a chord in 2008. One statement of Fuller’s, quoted by K. Michael Hays, cocurator of the Whitney exhibition, seems particularly resonant in this regard in insisting that the house might be rethought as an effect or function of information networks: “‘House,’ in comprehensive designing, would be as incidental to the world-around network dwelling service as is the telephone transceiver instrument to the energy processing in communications systems.” Though Fuller’s projects for distributing modular housing worldwide (like telephones) were certainly utopian and ostensibly impractical, today’s housing industry is premised on the standardization of architectural part objects: Windows, kitchen cabinets, bathroom fixtures, and even lumber are mass-produced in ways that allow limited forms of customization and maximum economy in the clear-cut suburban developments that, at least until the current mortgage crisis, were being rolled out in the exurbs of every American city. Despite the modesty of such standardized elements, which are available not only to professional builders but at Home Depots everywhere, they probably represent the most economically significant type of prefabrication in the building industry, where higher-end integrated design systems have been notoriously difficult to market.

This fact was demonstrated along the way in the historical survey of MoMA’s “Home Delivery.” But the exhibition might have done more to explore how these economically dominant, aesthetically overlooked architectural elements have been or could be exploited in rigorous and socially responsible ways. (Fuller, for instance, wasn’t afraid to design the entire contents of a dome house in his “Standard of Living Package” [1949] in such a way that they could be packed and transported in a single container; and the MoMA catalogue itself describes how Charles and Ray Eames designed their iconic Los Angeles home not from a building component system of their own making, but, more efficiently, from commercially available standard elements.) True, the bulk of the MoMA show impressively documented the ways in which the history of prefabrication is closely tied to collective housing in the service of politically progressive goals, but its ambitious centerpiece, consisting of five projects, chosen for actual construction in an empty lot next to the museum, seemed more like “Starchitecture Within Reach” than thoroughgoing efforts to make housing more egalitarian through the economies of prefabrication. With the exception of a project by MIT’s Lawrence Sass that focused on inexpensive, digitally fabricated housing for New Orleans, these exhibition buildings appeared to take single-family luxury housing as their model. Beyond any question of the implications of the digital medium, it seems to me that the promise of prefabrication must reach beyond simply providing the upper middle classes with “affordable” versions of the sleek glass boxes Richard Meier has established as the gold standard of the sophisticated home among the urban superrich.

Frederick Kiesler’s frankly utopian designs, as evidenced by the Drawing Center survey, imagine an interminable space that fundamentally, if only theoretically, challenges the discrete private residence. The largely unrealized architectural projects of this Austrian émigré, who came to the United States in 1926, were rooted in an uncompromising effort to transform perception. His signature work, the Endless House, developed primarily in drawings and models over a period of many years, consisted of surfaces folded into themselves in ribbons of space whose convolutions typically formed an egg. Kiesler’s objective was, in other words, to produce a kind of architectural form that had not yet solidified into an object—one that functioned as an environmental manifestation of human preconsciousness. (If Fuller is known for his domes, Kiesler, as Beatriz Colomina insists in her excellent catalogue essay for this show, was drawn to the cave, with all its associations of physical and psychological interiority.) Indeed, Kiesler is best known for his Surrealist-inspired exhibition designs, notably that of Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century Gallery in 1942, where new forms of subjective viewing and an acute consciousness of one’s placement in space are key. In an architecture like Kiesler’s (reminiscent of the premonumental projects of architects such as Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry), space can never become property; it is returned to the realm of perception—and, like information, it is characterized by flows rather than by singular objects. While Kiesler’s work predates our information era, it is clear from his acknowledged and unacknowledged progeny that the architectural “flow” he imagined has become a favorite spatial expression of the digital network.

It is one thing to invent metaphorically rich propositions, but quite another to attempt urban interventions. In this regard, it is Estudio Teddy Cruz—which, I should note, also appears in the MoMA exhibition—that offers the best hope for a socially responsible architectural part object under current conditions. Located in San Diego’s border region, Cruz’s practice has established a dual strategy: creating infill buildings within the underpopulated “public spaces” of suburban sprawl in American cities like San Diego (a tactic he describes, engagingly, as “dismantling . . . the LARGE by pixilating it with the micro”); and putting surplus building materials to use in Tijuana, Mexico, in scaffolding infrastructures that support ad hoc construction. Through this two-pronged effort, Cruz calls into question uneven economic development while addressing the pressing need in two very different, though adjacent, urban landscapes: the alienated American suburb and the populous Mexican shantytown. Rather than focusing on producing singular buildings that, after all, are only accessible to highly capitalized individuals or organizations, Estudio Teddy Cruz uses architectural elements to leverage systems. As Cruz puts it in the exhibition brochure: “Architecture practice needs to engage the re-organization of systems of urban development, challenging the political and economic frameworks that are only benefiting homogenous large-scale interventions managed by private megablock development.” This is the kind of systemic thinking appropriate to a digitally inflected architecture. Given our declining urban infrastructure and the reduced access to housing not only for the poor but now, in the throes of the mortgage crisis, even for the middle classes, these four exhibitions exploring architectural responses to network conditions—and particularly the solutions proposed by Estudio Teddy Cruz—seem among the most significant of 2008.

David Joselit teaches modern art at Yale University in New Haven.