Architecture or Techno-Utopia

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 Ant Farm, Clean Air Pod (1970). Performance at lower Sproul Plaza, University of California, Berkeley.

Architecture or Techno-utopia: Politics after Modernism.
Felicity D. Scott.

The scholarship piece is an “alternative genealogy of the postmodern turn in American architecture, focusing on a set of experimental practices and polemics that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s” published by architecture historian and Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation Professor. Felicity D. Scott. Scott is also a founding editor of Grey Room, a scholarly journal devoted to the theorization of modern and contemporary architecture, art, media, and politics.

Scott’s ‘Architecture or Techno-utopia’ insist on supporting the aesthetic, theoretical, and political discourses of architecture, just as Le Corbusier‘s ‘Architecture or Revolution’ insisted on supporting the modernist movement warning of a political upheaval if this would not happen. Scott includes critics (Schapiro, Tafuri), curators (Drexler, Ambasz), institutions (MoMA), futurist techno-visionaries (Fuller), radical practices and experiments (Superstudio, Archizoom, Drop City, Ant Farm), and studies (Koolhaas’s Exodus) to trace the contemporary architectural practice.

Reyner Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age from 1960, and Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past from 1976, had been 2 influential sources during Scott’s graduate studies at the School of Architecture at Princeton University in the mid to late 1990s.[1] The context for these books had an America rocketing into the space age and computerization, while embroiled in an imperialist war in Vietnam. Banham’s narrative of an architecture driven by technological advancement appeared to have a promising future. The second machine age: miniaturization. But not the kind of miniaturization from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point which is pulling all creation towards it.1 But rather the miniaturization of all technological advancements, which would reduce architecture into an amalgamation of technological apparatuses, serving all needs of human comfort, thus not needing a house anymore. But even if Scott writes an introduction referencing Banham, is not his figure the main trace of the book.

The first chapter is focused mainly on Meyer Schapiro, and his reviews and critiques through a socialistscope. Sometimes under the pseudonym of John Kwait, Schapiro’s targets were MoMA’s “Modern Architecture: International Exhibition” of 1932, Buckminster Fuller’s “Universal Architecture”, Lewis Mumford’s “Technics and Civilization for New Masses” and Frank Lloyd Wright and Baker Brownell’s “Architecture and Modern Life” book of 1937. His Marxist direction and his intellectual work related to his political convictions are extensively traced by Scott, in a rather difficult episode to read.

Starting with a dossier published in August 1976, Scott takes us into yet another debate as the previous chapter. The “Grays” versus the “Whites” regarding the ‘resemanticization’ of architecture and how modern architecture could then find a way out of the dilemma of the late Modern Movement, through the advent of semiology and structuralism announced by Manfredo Tafuri. Just as Tafuri, Colin Rowe plays an important role because is precisely on Rowe’s “ashes of Jefferson” that Tafuri would build his own melancholy reflection on the end of revolutionary politics.[47] Those ashes were the architecture’s engagement with electronic technology that signaled the emergence of an information economy. Pointing work of Archizoom, Superstudio and Ugo La Pietra among others. Manifesting that the practices of experimental architecture remained entirely without a political efficacy. Is in this sense that Scott systematically integrates a parameter often absent from architectural histories – the inscription of architects in their social, cultural and political contexts.

Arthur Drexler’s curatorial work at MoMA addressing the impact of information technology on architecture and design is the main subject here. Scott’s ambition is to demonstrate that Drexler’s exposition of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts of 1975, had a more subtle critical agenda than proposing a return to the past. While doing so she takes us through MoMA’s institutional role in the exhibition of the late modernist work, through the dissolution of the systems into fragmented array of parts, and through the introduction by Drexler of the RAMAC circuit board, which would haunt his “consideration of the impact upon design of this new generation of machines”.[81]Machines seeking to liberate humans from labour on a futuristic society, robots that one day could produce all human-labour, leaving humans to expand their consciousness through means of the senses. Liberating society from democracy (mediocre) governments seeking additional power, territory and scarce resources at any cost rather than strive for peace.2

Emilio Ambasz’s importation into MoMA of debates on environmental design and information technology through the international symposium on the Universitas project on 1972, sponsored by MoMA’s International Council and the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies, and his failure on founding an actual university and experimental city. Someone could ask if there is a relation to construct an urban experiment such as Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti (1970), which is also constructed under a portmanteau of architecture and ecology?3 (Which for many is also a failure, due to its economic approach.) But Ambasz’s conception of environment was not only ecological, according to him the environment is the man-made milieu. His intention then, was one to outline a “‘synthetic‘ system of thought capable of designing [the institutional] milieu according to a dynamic notion of order].”[92] institution which would take the task of evaluate and design this man-made milieu. Scott takes us through the development on the working papers, the essays submitted by the invitees, and the multidisciplinary debate on the future of design and design institutions in the postindustrial era, engaged by international figures such as Umberto Eco, Hannah Arendt, Henri Lefebvre, Richard Meier, Octavio Paz, Meyer Schapiro, Michel Foucautl and Eisenman, among others.

MoMA’s 1972 exhibition “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape” curated by Emilio Ambasz, is Scott’s following trace. The exhibition showcased the Italian design scene, which for Ambasz was a “dominant product design force”[118] with a high level of socio-political consciousness. The exhibition “embodied a careful, analytical approach to categorization”.4 The first level of categorization distinguished ‘Objects’ —conformist, reformist, and contestatory— from Environments —commentary, pro-design, counter-design—. Objects were place on a field of crates at the museum’s gardens, while ‘Environments’ were placed within the galleries, implying “that the exhibition would stage an assessment of not only these specific environments but also of “environment” as an architectural term or strategy.”4 While Robert Jensen considered the exposition “an attempt to beat us into submission before some of the most powerful forces in our culture”[136], and even if for Tafuri these were purely formal exercises, a ‘theater of utopia’.[136], or an invitation to the proletariat for a populist anarchism, Ambasz remained optimistic on architecture’s capacity to formulate hypotheses for change. The utopian projects presented were not just aesthetic, formal, or semantic, but recognized social, technological, economic, and political implications.

In a “moment of protest against global social and economic injustice, human rights violations, environmental destruction, and the Vietnam war”[153], Scott takes us through the paradoxical embrace of Buckminster Fuller’s technocratic inventions as the architecture of a new revolutionary society, Drop City. On 1965, ‘Droppers’ sought to withdraw from the existing social, economic, and urban structures, finding Fuller’s do-it-yourself domes as their medium. Scott takes Steve Baer’s Dome Cookbook —“zomes” recipes to “fight against the tyranny of the architect’s world of cubes”.[211]— and Lloyd Kahn’s Domebook series, to tell the story of this experimental city, the counterculture they produced —with the “conduct [your] own education” motto—[166], the city’s evaluation, and its failure. But what is important is the acknowledgment of the society’s “refusal of the disciplinary regime and the experimentation with new forms of productivity”[171] as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri would argue and the society’s exodus —exodus from wage labor and toward activity—[175] as suggested by Mitchell Goodman. Scott’s revolution trace is then taken into a more academic context with Chip Lord and Yale graduate Doug Michel, Ant Farm. Their work “engaged in their historical moment, seeking political and aesthetic potentials inherent within new technologies”.[180]

Through ‘Acid Visions’, Scott relates the story of Fuller’s vision of a geodesic world —which is compared by himself to “the [world] kids get with psychedelics” [187]—, intermedia environments; such as the work of the USCO group, and their “Infinity Machines”, mind-altering impact to psychedelic drugs; liberating consciousness, and the relation of their fluid aesthetic tropes operating towards a geopolitical register. LSD offered architects a design tool as Eric Clough would report about his mescaline experience, his “sense of oneness with the universe and a disappearance of the feeling of being separated from other people and the physical environment”. Scott then introduces NASA’s first images of the world, this “interplanetary” consciousness would translate into a revolutionary scale.[201] Along with it, Scott traces Fuller’s World Game exhibit at Expo ’67, a 100-foot-diameter world globe showcasing a Dymaxion map with data of world resources and with the objective of providing an equitable distribution of resources. All these events would then translate into an emerging one-world ideology, through the eradication not only of nation-states but of democratic political and juridical institutions.[201] A Marxist vision of a new world order, in which such distribution of resources, would derive into a world without the need for money.2

The history of politics of the ecology movement, the relation with the militarized environment and radical practices such as Ant Farm’s works are traced [by Scott] through ‘Shouting Apocalypse’. Starting with Ant Farm’s inflatable Clean Air Pod, a bunker protecting from possible deadly pollutants, Scott presents the architectural engagements with the politics of the environment. Ant Farm’s —self-consciously embraced as products of the space race—[215] cult of mobility is then presented by Fat City, Rock City, Edge City and Real(C)ity. But is it’s engaged withdrawal and it’s artistic staged work “seeking new social and political[reactions towards] a dominant system of control”[220] which is important in this chapter. Backing up Ant Farm’s “Art Politics” Scott brings us to a previous time when the city of Berkeley had been under police and military occupation. The demolition of the People’s Park within the university, opened fire to demonstrations which were rapidly over-controlled with fire, not only against demonstrators but on passerby and students, as well. And the reaction protest against this military control, on Berkley’s Lower Sproul Plaza, controlled this time with a National Guard helicopter and white smoke-like tear-gas.[226]Thus, Scott makes us aware of the history behind the inflatable Clean Air Pod. In addition to this, Fuller’s Dome over Manhattan, presented a larger scale bunker shielding against possible atomic radiation. Is then, when Scott’s account of the relation behind the politics of the ecology movement, —seeking to diverse society’s anti-war minds into a survival state—[238] is presented as evidence behind the contemporary environmental architectural practice.

Through the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s competition for the reconstruction of the World Trade Center site, Scott’s traces the proposals’ failures to recuperate the political engagement from previous architecture practices. The proposals submitted by internationally renowned architects, didn’t “question the historical forces conditioning the competition program but fell back on clichéd versions of social tropes, without offering critical strategies to address the political issues they raise”.[248] Taking as a departure point Rem Koolhaas and Elia Zenghelis’s 1972 Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture, Scott looks at a politically informed work with a more proximate experimental legacy[255], which tries to escape from the discipline’s normative function. Koolhaas’s Exodus “marks a turning point from an architecture of form and signs to an architecture forged by the organization of program”[257], a “kit of parts” playfully deployed, asemantic, operational and diagrammatic.[263] combining the “aura of monumentality with the performance of instability”[266]. Instability that Scott compares to Diller + Scofidio’s Blur Building, pavilion for the Swiss Expo, 2003. She proposes then, a practice of architecture forging theoretical tools and critical strategies, responding to new technologies, new social subjectivities, and new geopolitical organizations while continue formulating ethical and political agendas.[281]

Scott’s genealogy aims to make us aware of the necessity of an ethico-political project in architecture. Studying and learning from the lessons of the past without trying to rebuild it, but rather tracing architecture and planning theories and where do they come from, to address in a better way contemporary architecture practice.

1 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “The Phenomenon of Man”, Harper Perennial, 1975
2 Raël, “Geniocracy: Government of the People, for the People, by the Geniuses”, The Raelian
Foundation, 2008
3 Paolo Soleri, “Arcology: The City in the Image of Man”, Cosanti Press, 2006
4 Peter Lang, Luca Molinari, Mark Wasiuta, “Environments and Counter Environments «Italy: The New Domestic Landscape» MoMA 1972”, GSAPP, Columbia University & DHUB, 2010-2011

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