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05.04.2010
Comment> Hasty Habits of Mind
Architects subsist on tossed-off tweets, sound bites, and glib, gnomic generalizing, writes William S. Saunders.
Desert rider Reyner Banham, one of a bygone generation of candid critical thinkers.
Tim Street-Porter

Intellectuals in architecture form a tiny subculture in which most know most others and thus want to offend none. Architects’ careers are precarious and need protecting. We are trying to earn respect for good architecture in a culture that is not all that interested. So we believe that we should stay positive. All this produces a reluctance to be bold and candid when we come across sham and junk.

Negative criticism can seem mean-spirited. It’s more pleasant to be post-critical. But the prices we pay are to have too many delusions—especially delusions of grandeur—and to waste too much time foraging dead ends. It took a ferociously demanding critic, F. R. Leavis, to save my generation of English majors from having to spend much time reading mush like Tennyson’s poems or bloviation like much of Milton. To whom have we been able to turn for high standards and fearless iconoclasm? Sorkin sometimes. Huxtable back in the day. And within the academy? Sylvia Lavin and Jeff Kipnis are not timid. Some scholars like Barry Bergdoll are not afraid of wielding sharp edges.

We are often intellectually malnourished because we clutch a narrow set of ideas that we perceive, mainly through talk at juries and conferences, to be the only currently legitimate ones. If we look back 30 years, we see a parade of short-lived must-follows: Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze. The fold. Datascapes. The surface. Patterns and tessellation. Words ending in -ity. And a coming-to-acclaim of designers and design modes that are marginalized within two or three years.

With this comes a scorn for passé ideas. OK, Ptolemy was wrong. But was Chaucer “wrong”? Was Paul Rudolph “wrong”? Beyond science, the category doesn’t apply. Why are we feeding ourselves tiny bites when history offers us a huge banquet? In Harvard Design Magazine, someone said, about Sorkin’s position, “It’s so ’60s.” Of course times change, and we must change with them, but when something was created doesn’t determine its value.

In fetishizing newness, we ensure obsolescence: Issues of ANY were exciting in the ’90s, but do we turn to them now? And how carefully were they read back then? Robert Somol wrote in the final Assemblage: “Out of the 240-odd items published, I read about 12 all the way through. No shit. Five percent. Three of those were mine.” Many au courant ideas we don’t really think through, but merely think about, or, worse, think that we should think about.

Our subculture has a hard time keeping off the smudges of the adjoining larger cultures of fashion and status-seeking consumerism. Architects reach many more people through the pages of Elle Decor, Icon, Architectural Digest, and Wallpaper than they do through Log, Volume, Grey Room, and Praxis. The style sections of newspapers breathe down our backs and tempt us to bend our values. Is serious culture always the domain of a tiny elite? Should it bother us that there are over half a million purchasers of Elle Decor but only one or two thousand for periodicals like Grey Room, Log, and Praxis? Does intelligence in the latter publications eventually trickle down to the former?

Columbia’s Buell Center and its director Reinhold Martin recently posed this question to guide explorations in a 2009 conference: “How is contemporary architecture discussed and evaluated in public?” Here are some possible answers.

For every 200 of “us” there are two million like the person who wrote on Morphosis’ new Cooper Union building: “Aliens, please park spacecraft elsewhere.” Indeed, within our subculture, there are common modes of “serious” discourse that we should find troubling, and all have to do with a compulsion to move fast while frantically scooping up or tossing out tiny morsels along our paths. Let me offer a few examples:

Tossed-off tweets are fast food for the mind, no chewing required. We see this in blogs, but increasingly also in academic discourse. Tweets must be short. This doesn’t force them to be shallow, but it sure nudges them in that direction.

Increasingly content is composed of sound bites. Conferences are overloaded with speakers who are underloaded with time to develop thoughts and present information. So books become clip binders for conference papers and talk transcripts—loose compendia of qualitatively uneven short essays, prose quips, flashy graphics, and glamorous data presentations. Creating book content becomes merely accumulating.

Information overload induces ignorance. This lazy tossing in of everything that can be grabbed partly explains the publication of a few doorstop architectural books of a thousand pages or more. Can and does anyone read such books? Are they not made just to be flipped through like magazines, with at most five minutes of reading now and then? Putatively serious essays are of bite-sized briefness.

Then there are “boogazines,” which occasionally present scads of information through complex but cartoon-like charts—the overall look of the page is dazzling and this very dazzle discourages the patient taking-in of details. Sometimes this can be seen in exhibitions of countless words and images graphically arranged on walls. It would take a viewer many minutes to absorb just what is before the eyes, much less a whole gallery’s worth. Overall, there is a reluctance to be discriminating, to decide what is not worth thinking about. Data, data, more data! Magazines mount in piles to be zipped through once a month.

Lastly, we partake in a culture of glib, gnomic generalizing. Easy yet world-encompassing assertions of meaning reflect the vast influence of Rem Koolhaas, with his profound originality and revelatory perceptions, presented with shards of evidence but still striking one as diagnostically dead on. (See his essays on Atlanta and Singapore in S,M,L,XL.) But from Delirious New York on, he has also produced plenty of bloated, ungrounded utterance. His followers, lacking his astounding acuity, imitate just his mode of offering huge generalities about “contemporary conditions.”

The name of the game seems to be: Assert whatever you can about some special newness in our social/cultural moment. So when you cryptically write, for instance, about “the current crisis,” we join you in pretending to know precisely what you are talking about. We nod our heads in jittery conspiratorial intimacy. We suppress acknowledging that we don’t really know or understand.

This mental smoke screen has recently been most obfuscating among Dutch and American elites; in France it is long familiar. Intellectualism becomes a mental manner. Research—laborious, lengthy, uncompromisingly careful and responsible investigation—slackens into barstool musings. The compulsion to say something new leads to things like this real example from Volume: “Treating the [retail] big box as a potential form of high art could lead to an aesthetic breakthrough.” Or not.

Carefully cooked slow food for thought is still available for those willing to pull off the main drag. The New York Review of Books, for instance, offers lots of solid fare. There is even some on the main drag. Just take the pedal off the metal.

William S. Saunders

William S. Saunders is editor of Harvard Design Magazine and has written slower essays on Koolhaas and on criticism.