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– Yes, it’s the first time I fly in two years.
– Did you hearr, it’s the firrst time Pedrro trravels in two years.
– I actually enjoyed not being in planes for, well, almost two years. It’s bad for your health, y’know? Especially if you have to do it every other week…
– Yes, tomorrow I fly to Moscow…
– I have to go back to Zurich at 8.30…
– Are you taking the plane??
– No, I go by trrain.
– See, lucky you… No such luck where I come from.
All the time I was guessing that, behind their shiny eyes, a thought was lurking like, goshh, yourre rrealy péripherique. And then maybe not, because they were truly nice, warm people, and they did love Portugal, like half the world does now – often with an eye on a conveniently super-péripherique pied-à-terre.
And indeed, I had been invited to Paris on being périphérique, which is fine, or on being from the Global South, which is also completely fine, even if, as the panel conversation started, I immediately tried to clarify that you cannot really call Lisbon or Athens the Global South.
If Lisbon and Portugal, or for that sake Greece, seem always on the verge of financial collapse, or already over the top of social and economic inequality, you still can’t say they belong to the Global South. With Lisbon’s colonial history, that would sound harshly offensive to our friends beyond Gibraltar.
It is brilliant that the new Lisbon Mayor announces winds of change and breaks the formality of its inaugural speech with Jéssica Pina* – even if it is just slightly weird and illuminating that Jéssica Pina is singing out of Comporta’s icy-white minimal posh architectures. But it is still brilliant that Lisbon is welcoming cultural hybridity again, as it always has done.
Yet, even if the cosmopolitan spirit of World War II is lurking back, Lisbon is still pretty much the cité blanche that it always has been.
In any case, when in these post-pandemic times you arrive from Lisbon to Paris, starving for the sav-air of the metropolis, you do feel you are coming from a poor, fearful country.
Paris is already joyfully diving into its Roaring Twenties, with amazing queues of people squeezing together for any dinning spot, and with countless boulangeries distributing luscious butter croissants to the masses. If Antoniette ever knew that you could actually stuff them numb with croissants – and a bit of wifi – she would have played it better.
Except, wait, she didn’t have wifi. Ooops.
As long as governments reassure us that the supply chain crisis is temporary, and that the energy price hikes are just a fleeting anomaly, and that car brands will soon resume production of lavish electric cars, we will be OK.
Ah, Paris! It never felt so expensive. It never felt so luxurious. It never felt so obscene.
And look, I’m not trying to sound moralistic. Really. Fucking enjoy it while you can.
That, at least, was the lesson I took from Timothy Morton. As he put it, with cheap renewables you could now have “full-on strobes and decks and people partying for hours and hours, all day, every day.” I concluded our party’s reduced carbon-footprint would help us forget the tornados outside and the petty nuisance that the ecological emergency was now irreversible. Suddenly politically correct, Tim told me in person that was not what he had meant.
Back to Paris with another soundtrack,* it is telling that at lunch you cross paths with a wealthy Beirut exilée – and she softly rolls her eyes at the state her country is in. Conversely, before dinner you rather notice a burst of Lebanese delicatessen around town.
This is the best of two worlds: failed states’ refugees with some money can find a second chance here; while tourists and city-dwellers with some money can delight on the newfound flavours of their overpriced felafels. Join the party while you can.
It is also revealing that, while the new coqueluche Fleux stores spread like a fungus around Lafayette Anticipations – yes, that’s what they call art-led gentrification –, from the Marais to la Pigalle you can no longer find the cheap street food that was once one of the delights of Paris’ diversité. That was perhaps too “worrld,” like my friend curator was being called these days? Inexpensive is definitely not cool.
Indeed, the obscenité comes from the small fact that this is the same megalopolis where a just-off-from-film-school bunch of kids made one of the most insightful and thoughtful TV series on what the ecological collapse may look like. And if you think I’m exaggerating, just give yourself the trouble to compare the gas-pump sequence in the first episode of L’Effondrement with recent news footage of British petrol queues.
The obscenité comes from the evidence that nobody cares – except, of course, for their own, immediate joy. I guess, by now, even long-time advocates of climate action will be giving up. “Fuck it!, they are considering, I’ll start regenerating my small plot of land in some forgotten, conveniently péripherique area, and let my grandchildren raise the barbed wire around it, if needed be.”
I did it. (Location undisclosed). And it felt weird, I must confess, that it only cost me a mediocre one-bedroom apartment in Portugal’s second city. But, while I tend to my micro forest and my centuries-old olive trees, I will still be happy to join all tomorrow’s parties, in whatever big cities they will be going on…
Sure, thanks to Anne Hidalgo, more people than ever are trying to manage the Parisian crowds with their shared bikes. But the feast their driving to is still obscene. And not because it is wild and/or has a fetish theme. No, the party is just obscene because instead we were supposed to be heading to a ‘great collective decarbonisation transition.’
Paris tells you to sickening evidence that such collective efforts are fated to failure. Because croissants are too easy and delicious. And because tons of champagne and other expensive inebriants don’t even give you a headache the morning after. So, Glasgow’s COP26 is doomed to fail. And official pledges like Biden’s clean energy plan are already being wiped out into lobbying oblivion. And so, I too will enjoy the parties while they last and come my way.
Shortly after 2008, people thought the party was over. But the party is actually coming back in grand style. Cet weekend I came to the conclusion that Covid-19 was not really a dress rehearsal or an eye-opener for things to come, as I once considered.
No, the pandemic was just the excuse we needed to jump guilty-free into the last fireworks – into a hysterical swan’s song of humanity’s rape of Gaia. A sort of distended, slow-motion version of Darren Aronofsky’s Mother, but with Jake and Dinos Chapman-like revelries instead of just grand guignol.
This is possibly why talk-of-town Galleria Continua just decided to let go, and thought that Italian political art from the 70s should now share the stage with other Italian-nostalgia commodities. So, with a supposedly ironic wink, street artist JR turned Continua’s space into a Lacaton & Vassal-like ruin-cum-shop, where Pistoletto’s hanged boys alternate with funky biscotti boxes designed in late-19th century Sicilia. Didn’t they say of postmodernity that everything goes? Now everything must go.
So, if this is bye-bye from this blog, do not pity it. The world is now full of amazing shrapnel. From diamond shrapnel to food, drugs, art or junk shrapnel, you name it. You just have to look around and see through it. No more comments needed.
*This is your soundtrack, for a fully immersive experience 😉
While an ‘overheated debate’ has just turned sour* around the Chicago Architecture Biennale and its critics, I thought this was an excellent opportunity to unashamedly publicize my own recent reflection on current architectural criticism.
The piece came out on E-flux a couple of weeks ago, and is accessible to everybody without any paywalls or difficult-to-find print publication – one of the reason why I decided to have it there, rather than in any other outlet.
After all, this or any other piece of reflection will today be scarcely paid – in this or any other medium – so if one is certainly not going to make a living out of writing, why shouldn’t one favor the platforms that reach a wider audience without any barriers?
Here, I offer you one of the short-stories I included in “Five Meta-Reviews and Some Footnotes on the (Im)Pertinence of Architectural Criticism.”
This is actually my favorite of five micro-narratives. As it is usual in its specific literary quality, science fiction really serves well the purpose to interrogate what is emerging around us…
John blinked one eye, then the other. The newsfeed started to feed into her retina in a joyful cacophony of ads, algorithm-selected content, and personal video-messages. She hit pause in her temple and jumped to the desk chair on the other side of her 7.5sqm cubicle in the Newark expanses. Her latest successful IkeaRabbit bid had been confirmed while she slept, tagged with a 12-hour deadline, Hong Kong time. She now had 1 hour and 34 minutes to do the obituary.
The HKNYT local editors had thought it would be fun to do arch-obits to keep Manhattan’s memory alive after the great ’29 quakes. Some called it ruin porn, but every day a new tower was revived in 6D from its own rubble, and its 1k-story dully fed into the global newsfeeds. Today was the twenty-fifth anniversary of 432 Park Avenue’s “topping out” (as they used to say).
As she called out the building’s name into FountainApp, the left screen started pouring out data into different columns. As most self-appointed art critics, she always went first for AGR ratings. Yet, if she wanted to avoid a blatantly negative yield, she had to balance it with specialist social media and a couple of academic feeds from wisdomquotes.com.
Guidelines also determined that she ought to include at least one piece of self-referential archive info from the old nyt.com. Fortunately, most AGR top-rated material came from there. In this case, she realized, most of it came from 425 commentaries on one single piece published at the time of the building’s completion. She dived into the first entries:
1. I can see this building from where I live. To me it’s a colossal monument to wretched excess and megalomania. I’m sorry it’s there.
2. A vertical ghost-town, standing as a monument to excess.
3. So, we’re supposed to welcome this phallus into the pantheon of noteworthy Manhattan architecture because the developer says we should?
4. Some people call 432 phallic; I call it a giant middle finger extended upward.
5. An astonishing addition to the panoply of useless, and utterly irrelevant residences for non-resident buyers.
6. I am not particularly upset about the proboscidian height and arguably unimaginative architecture of the 432 Park Avenue building, per se. Times change, cities grow, and architectural taste is subjective. What upsets me most is that this building is symptomatic of Manhattan’s decline as a place where people of moderate means can afford to build a life, raise a family, and be part of the wonderful history here.
7. It looks like the architect was poking fun at modernism. The perfectly square windows and extreme height make it a caricature of the modernist skyscrapers it’s surrounded by. It’s a perfectly contextual, satirical building.
8. This odd fixation with the material side of things at the expense of their aesthetic value (or lack of it) speaks volumes, and it promotes a culture of dumb strength.
9. As an architectural form, I think 432 Park Avenue is beautiful in its simplicity and symmetry. As a reflection on our city and society, the view is much less pleasant.
10. The clicking of boot heels on cold concrete. The distant churning of a furnace. An ocean of unreckonable souls reflected outwards, away, in the gloss of a pure and total pane of triple layer bulletproof tempered Paramount™ glass.
11. … (1)
This was truly the voice of the people as scored by their attention-grab nodes. Since Applefabet had secretly started to record and keep neuronal information from readers’ retinas around the mid-teens, this rating was the most reliable source for juicy, fun stuff.
She had a $9.99 budget for samples, and only from authorized PremiumWiki pages. So, any online vox populi had to be manually twisted and made invisible to piracybots. That was her job. And, with a little help from her apps, she excelled at it.
She spent the next 15 minutes selecting an amount of relevant information from other sources. From what seemed like one of the few specialist magazine publications on 432, she picked a nice contrasting opinion from one Aaron Betsky: “The tower’s very appearance represents the transformation of this and every other city into a place for the wealthy to live and play, but on the other hand it does so with an elegance, borne out of its simplicity as much as its height, that make it clear that it is still possible to make a beautiful skyscraper.”(2)
From another source, the single academic review she could find on the tower, she collected a cool-sounding theoretical reference: “Here, myths such as the democratic equanimity of the market and the rationality of global capital—performed in the repetition of squares, the flexibility of plans, and the durability of materials—are exposed in the act of their reproduction.”(3)
As she went along, she couldn’t help noticing that the building had elicited a lot of arguments on economic inequalities, which were now mostly incomprehensible. When the wealthy and powerful migrated to their cryopods and started to control things from their virtual paradises, such debates had become outmoded.
Even so, for the sake of context, she threw in a quote from a then famous business magazine: “The ascendance of 432 Park Avenue to its now-dominant place in the skyline says more about the state of our world than a thousand Thomas Pikettys typing on a thousand keyboards ever could.”(4) She was unsure this bit would fit in, but she liked the sound of it, and guessed the app would sort it out.
She fed it all into WordAI5.0.
Any arrangement of more than three words showing any resemblance to the original text was automatically presented between quote marks, permanently hyperlinked to the original and, once signed off, charged from her personal account. She used to joke that writing was now all about chasing inverted commas.
It took her another 28 minutes to edit connections, substitute words where needed, censor any ideological hues that the AI might have overlooked, and even add a personal flourish.
She re-read the piece, checked the 1000-character count, and felt good. She called out “Send!” and looked at the clock. She rejoiced, having made it 35 minutes before the deadline, adding a few precious credits to her online profile.
Now she could hit the shower, reconnect to the flow of her newsfeed and, like everyone else, wait for the notification on her next effective bid on IkeaRabbit.
- To the exception of points 7 and 10, all quotes from New York Timesreaders, on the piece Matt AV Chaban, “New Manhattan Tower Is Now the Tallest, if Not the Fairest, of Them All,” New York Times, October 13, 2014. Comment 7 taken from a comment placed on thisgreatname, “How do you architects like this building in Manhattan. It is referred to as 432 Park Avenue, but I like to call it ‘Stick Building’,” reddit, November 6, 2017, by ThatGreyKid.
- See Aaron Betsky, “432 Park Avenue and the Importance of Being There and Being Square,” Architect Magazine, October 16, 2014.
- See Jacob Moore, “432 Park Avenue: Pointing Fingers,” The Avery Review 4 (December 2014).
- See Joshua Brown, “Meet the house that inequality built: 432 Park Avenue,” Fortune, November 24, 2014.
*Here’s your soundtrack.
As I get back to Lisbon and Europe,* it would seem almost inevitable that this blog returns to its mother tongue. Now that new challenges take flight, time may prove scarce for the pleasures of the text, but the willingness is certainly here.
A good way to guarantee a certain flow, it dawned on me after my last, distant post, may precisely lie in offering sneak previews — or retrospective extracts — of contributions that I will try to continue providing for different publications around the globe.
As such, the following preview is from“Uprooting Urban Design as We Knew It: The ‘New Normal’ and the Return of Utopia,” a text that I have just delivered for the Shenzhen Biennale.
See you there (and discover the remainder of the essay) in December.
The ‘new normal’ has been diversely portrayed by various sectors of current thinking. In economic terms, it relates to the potential advent of a ‘secular stagnation,’ as former US Secretary of State Larry Summers has put it. The implication is that constant economical growth is no longer the macro-economic rule. In political terms this has translated —and will continue to translate— into the imperative to impose austerity as a permanent norm. This imposition, on the other hand, represents nothing but a compulsory anticipation of the need to rethink the use and consumption of our resources, soon clearly insufficient to sustain a world population that is growing both in absolute numbers and relative affluence. This being said, we won’t even address the ‘new normal’ of the increasing number of scientists who report the numbers of a steady progression towards the eventual mass-extinction of the human race.
The field of architecture and urban planning has done little to accommodate and reflect such notions. The majority of the field is still clinging to traditional notions of practice, thus blindfolding itself to violent massive change. In its mainstream version, it takes refuge in the lack of responsibility that comes with its willing transformation into an obedient, acritical service industry. In its intellectual sectors, it still finds it possible to hide behind the bubble of disciplinary autonomy, including both the infantile embrace of parametricism, or the stubborn clasp of a vaguely minimal and conceptual formalism.
The ‘new normal,’ however, demands a radical transformation of practice. And the radical practice means a fundamental uprooting of the meaning of architecture as we used to know it, not to mention the faster mutation of the role of design thinking itself. This is where an utopian drive that was dormant during some decades of post-critical numbness kicks back in.