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.