Cultural significance

Recently I got to watch a video of Thom Mayne lecturing at UIC. What really grabbed me, however, was a statement that our school’s director, Bob Somol, made while introducing the speaker:

No one is more surprised [than Thom] that Thom has become the unlikely poster boy of the green architecture movement… This points to the point that rather than make a big deal about it Thom’s building just perform, and perform very well, and that Thom wants to get on with other concerns of architecture, where his interests and investments lie, at the cultural stakes of architecture. [my emphasis]

Here Bob assumes two things: one, that the true calling of architecture lies not in designing buildings but creating cultural significance, and two, that cultural significance can be consciously created by the architect.

This brings up a number of questions that I’m not really prepared to answer unequivocally but which should be examined: Is this kind of engineering of cultural significance possible, or is it destined to fall flat on its face? When did the idea of design for cultural importance start? Was it the Renaissance or did it happen only with the advent of Modernism, or perhaps even later? Le Corbusier certainly had civilizational goals in mind for his work, but I’m not sure that this was the kind of cultural focus that Bob had in mind. Ditto Aalto. Ditto early Mies, ditto the pre-WWII avant-garde. I’m starting to think that it began with one of my least favorite theoreticians, Peter Eisenman, who was either the first or one of the first to suggest the idea of self-referencing architecture. Until then, architects designed buildings for various reasons, but I don’t think it was specifically with the aim of building cultural significance – that was something their creations acquired later, rather as a by-product of their original intent.

In contrast, Eisenman’s seminal House Series project certainly does have cultural significance, especially among architects, and the designs were undoubtedly created not as buildable structures but as cultural statements. Others have followed since. Succeeding waves of “critical architecture” have commented on – what else – the architecture that came before them. Even the “post-critical” and “projective” architecture that Bob (incidentally also a former Eisenman disciple) remains firmly self-referencing, revolving only in it own insular world. Social, environmental, technical concerns be damned – as long as there’s something for the illuminati to talk about.

With the advent of Eisenman and the spread of his idea that true Modernist architecture should be self-referencing, the discipline lost some of its multidimensionality. No longer would buildings (i.e. “architectural” buildings – the stuff that ends up being discussed in schools and by critics) be built with the aim of honoring someone or something, to illustrate the power of this or that religion or idea, or for that matter to simply house people or their workplaces. This new architecture was and is being created to talk about itself, its own significance. That seems very symptomatic of our PR-driven world, where being in the tabloids is the highest possible level of achievement for many. Design for cultural significance has turned into design for publicity. That’s a thin foundation to build an entire discipline on, in my humble opinion.

There are exceptions to the rule, but they generally get short shrift from the academic establishment. And even someone like Daniel Libeskind, with his much scoffed-at symbolism, can easily be accused of pandering to the media more than really working with the significance of the symbols he uses. So his new WTC will be 1776 feet tall? So it will look like the Statue of Liberty? Not the most sublime of references. Still, as at least partially a monument to the nearly 3,000 people who lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks, it was the sole entry that was unabashedly and refreshingly NOT self-referencing. Maybe that’s why the public responded to it, and not to some of the “cool” entries that stared just a bit too deeply into their own disciplinary belly-buttons.

In conclusion, I think it’s time for something to shift somewhere deep down – someone will have to break through this wall of self-adoring babble that leads to nowhere. Koolhaas and his programmatic approach is probably a good direction for starters, but I also see green architecture giving the discipline a much-needed breath of fresh air – and yes, the pun was intended.

Libertarianism redux

After reading the answer from Steve from to my earlier post on libertarianism (here), I thought my answer really deserved a separate post.

My general problem with libertarianism isn’t that it seeks to expand the scope of individual freedom – this I wholeheartedly agree with. Rather, it’s the fact that libertarians have limited the idea of individual liberty to freedom from government coercion. My way of thinking is that in most cases this is an insufficient approach, and in some a completely counterproductive one.

As I’ve written before, while we choose to live in society, the concept of total unfettered liberty is a Utopian dream. What there is is a delicate balance of power relationships between the individual and others members of society. There really are two types of interactions – individual-to-individual and individual-to-group. For the sake of this argument I’ll stick to the relations between individuals and groups, although it’s important to remember that groups are themselves composed of individuals, no matter how monolithic they may appear.

In dealing with groups, an individual is generally at a disadvantage – groups by their very nature have more power, and this is the main reason why they are formed in the first place. The bigger the group, generally the more powerful it is. The power of a group over an individual is also directly related to the amount of influence it has over the individual’s material and emotional well-being. In my mind, there is really no substantive difference between the government and any other group exercising its power over an individual – the difference lies entirely in its magnitude.

Steve rightly points out that businesses do not have many of the powers vested in most governments – to imprison, to prosecute, to dispossess, sometimes to kill. However, this is only a question of the balance between their power against those of others – in a completely unregulated world (i.e. anarchy) the power vacuum would soon be filled by groups that, unfettered by government power, would soon assume many of those prerogatives themselves.

The second issue is one I’ve mentioned before, but one that bears repeating: for me personal liberty is not some abstract idea, but rather the sum total of real opportunities for action open to the individual. Theoretical freedom is worthless if, for instance, economic conditions make it impossible for you to take advantage of it.

Now I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m not of a mind to get back to the sweatshop-ridden, child-laboring, subsistence-wage, laissez-faire capitalism of the 19th century. On the other hand, I’ve had more than my share of experiences as an entrepreneur and employer set upon by a burgeoning bureaucracy to know that totalizing government regulation is not the way to go, either. To me, the question is how to maximize real individual freedom not by limiting one side of the power equation, but by balancing all sides of the equation so as to have them leave the most opportunities for action to the individual.


Handed in my Theory project today, together with a presentation for Technology, and managed to be no more than 15 minutes late to Structures with my homework. Hooray for me!
This semester’s studio is a refreshing change from last semester’s, which was all-digital. Not that I had anything to complain about with Paul’s class, but all the same it is nice to actually work with physical models for a change.
Now if I could spread some of this positive thinking to my family, I’d be set and happy as a pig in shit. Or something.

More deep thoughts on libertarianism

It just won’t let me go. I promised myself I’d give it up, but here it is – I think I’ve arrived at a sort of a synthesis of my previous two posts on the subject:

Libertarians are looking for a maximum of liberty for the individual. However, if liberty is understood as a lack of reliance on outside factors, the world is heading in the opposite direction, largely unifying people into a cybersociety where any talk of genuine individualism is moot. And there’s no turning back, unless some unthinkable disaster strikes or a new band of Luddites takes over and turns us all Amish.

The Internet – or the world computer, as I’m beginning to think of it – is here to stay, incorporating increasing numbers of human neurons into it. However, the analogy to the Borg I gave a couple of posts down is a bit misleading in the sense that the Borg were controlled by their “hive”. The new cybersociety, even when we’re all wearing nifty brain implant communicators, is unlikely to work that way – mainly because the Internet operates on a commercial paradigm that has productivity at its heart. So individualists will continue to think they are individuals, and the fact that they are hard-wired into a network will not likely change that view – just as we today don’t think ourselves any less individual than our predecessors did, even if our lives and livelihoods are completely dependent on technologies that couldn’t exist without the collaboration of thousands of people.

Here I must warn you – the next bit is a bit weird, even for my usual standards. So if you have no mind for that sort of thing, go have some cocoa.

Now that the linear thinkers are gone, I can continue: I’ve started to think of society – no matter what kind – not as a collection of individuals, but as sort of a doughy cellular matter – the Blob, let’s call it. In this model people are not in any way individuals – everyone is connected to everyone else, though some are at the very center and some at the periphery. Here’s the key thing – some cells are stronger, some weaker. Some can barely impact their own vicinity of the matter field, some are strong enough to move entire sections of it. However, no single cell can move the whole mass – you can only act at distance by influence.

What’s the point of all this, you ask? Well, my idea is that this cyberblob – or call it “society” if the imagery offends – affords its cells unrestricted freedom within the system. Its actions are a resultant of their combined wills and actions. Each cell can decide what it wants to do, where it wants to push the whole mass, and is limited only by its own strength and the resistance of its neighbors, BUT NOT BY THE BLOB ITSELF, which does not have an individual will of its own. And exiting the mass is no more of an option for large segments of the blob than a mass dropping out of society is for us – if we all dropped out, we’d just coagulate into another blob somewhere else.

Now for the serious stuff – libertarianism calls for the establishment of free markets and for governments to butt out of people’s business. All fine-sounding slogans. However, if you allow yourself to adopt the blob analogy for a while, you can see that there’s no such thing as complete freedom. Free-market economics may rid you of government interference, but that doesn’t mean they’ll rid you of interference as such. You’ll always have somebody pushing you this way or that, and it’s only up to your strength of will whether you yield or stand. Now stick that in your pipe and smoke it.


Devoured by my jealousy over Margo’s brand-spankin’-new blog, I’ve decided to give her hot chocolate a run for her money with my patented hot cocoa:

Hot cocoa!

It’s easier than melting chocolate and warms you up just as well, with the added bonus of being much lower in fat. Still, I wouldn’t call this a diet drink by any means.

All you need is this (amounts per serving, multiply as appropriate for any company you may be having):

  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 tsp good quality cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • bit of hot water

Start warming the milk over a brisk flame. Combine the cocoa and sugar in a mug, pour in enough boiling water to dissolve the mixture, then pour it into the milk. Keep stirring until it becomes hot, but without letting it boil. Pour into mugs. Optionally, you can toss in a few marshmallows to really take the kids into orbit. There, you’re done. Now it’s their turn:

Mmmm, good.

Happy wintering.


This morning I woke up agitated by the confluence of three pop-culture images I couldn’t clear out of my head: Douglas Adams’ Deep Thought, Gene Roddenberry’s Borg, and the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix. Different you say? Not so different – all three are worlds/societies that in fact constitute a single entity. The internet is quickly taking on the features of a mega-scale brain – each one of us sitting in front of our box, inputting or outputting information that came to us from another neuron in the network. We are just one step away from the Borg – all it takes is the simple act of implanting the connection into our brains and it’s done – you’re in the Matrix now.

I really don’t see this in such grim light as it might sound – in a world of six billion people the idea of individuality has lost some of its zing, to say the least. I doubt too that there are really any white mice controlling the process, and if I’m right the Matrix will be built by us for us, with few if anyone really objecting. Just imagine the envy of millions when some future Paris Hilton gets her CyberWorld™ implant at that fashionable Hollywood clinic for the rich and famous. Everyone will want one. When you think about it, it’s no scarier than cutting up your face to make yourself look sexy at 80.

Fact is that we may be becoming a single hyper-entity, whether we realize it or not. Doesn’t mean we’ll go out there to conquer the universe or (sadly) discover the meaning of life, the universe and everything. Just the next step in the evolution of mankind, that’s all. Good night folks, sleep well.

Libertarianism and power

For various reasons I’ve been rethinking classical liberalism. It’s an idea that on the surface of things promises all good things – personal liberty and a booming economy to boot. When I lived in Poland, the bloated, listless bureaucracy and dynamic business sphere made it seem like the ideal way out. However, once you start looking at it, the underlying idea becomes somewhat problematic.

First of all, you have to ask yourself what kind of vision of society you have. Laissez-faire economics view society as a collection of individuals related by ties of commerce (understood as any exchange of value, such as work for cash, and so forth). However, even a perfunctory look at society shows that the links are of a very varied nature – even discounting such instinctual relations as love and friendship, it is easy to see organizations (i.e. power structures) that have little or nothing with money (various social causes that have aims only very loosely related to the marketplace). What they all have in common is that they always aim to change the world in some small way – in other words, they all aim to exercise power.

In turn, you have to ask yourself why people view wealth in such a positive light. The three obvious reasons, the “instinctive” ones, are material security, the ability to purchase goods and services and financial independence. Without getting into long treatises, these all translate into power – the power to control one’s own life and that of others (by buying their services, for instance).

Therefore, it is easy to see that the whole of society can be seen as a complex of power structures, and not the rational machine that classical liberals hold it to be.

Second, I have a bit of a problem with economics as a prescriptive and not descriptive discipline. Obviously, for various reasons, a descriptive science of economics is useful. Conclusions drawn from analyzing the mechanisms of the economy are useful for achieving specific aims. However, the aims are what really counts here, and you have to have a consensus on these before you can look for ways of achieving them.

Third, the concept of personal liberty and economic growth have to be examined to see what, if anything, is meant by them. Let’s take personal liberty: “instinctively” we measure the level of personal liberty as the possibilities open to us at a given moment. A person who has more possibilities of action is more free than one who has fewer choices. It doesn’t seem very hard to see that personal liberty is simply an expression of personal power, and with society being a field of competing power structures – small and large – personal liberty isn’t something that can be seen only as the freedom from government regulation. To simplify things immensely, your free-market boss limits your liberty at least as much as the government, and perhaps much more so.

Next, economic growth is obviously the rate at which wealth is accumulated. But is it necessarily a goal to be striven for? That seems questionable – you have to ask yourself what a high rate of growth leads to. People being able to buy more things and more services? Up to a certain level this makes sense, but what beyond that? In classical liberalism, there is no “desirable” level of wealth. However, a common sense approach would suggest that it wouldn’t be desirable for EVERYONE to own a 130-foot yacht, or for EVERYONE to be able to lead a life of leisure. So there are limits to the desirable level of general wealth, clearly showing the inadequacy of economic growth as a goal in itself.

For me this puts too many holes in classical liberal dogma to make it viable. Please note that this is not a manifesto but a critique – I’m not proposing anything in its place. Maybe another day.