Category Archives: fiction

No Country for Young People

Between the Beach and a Hard Place*

I’ve recently visited one of those summer music festivals in which youth is given a “free zone” to let off steam. Except for the upper floors of the sponsors’ VIP lounges, the beautiful landscape around was hidden from view by way of advertising panels, much like in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Youngsters received a wristband with an electronic chip so as to record their booze consumption. Drones blinked around silently. The sophisticated urbanism of the grounds reminded me of refugee camps in which city life is quickly recreated. One could look at this fenced universe as just another benign festivity, or as an expression of a dystopian apparatus that has been insidiously making its way into the most common aspects of our everyday life.

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster typically makes us aware
 of hidden meanings in apparently innocent environments. In the first site-specific commission for the new MAAT building, in the context of an inaugural program addressing Utopia/Dystopia, the artist offers us a fictional setting for an alien species to observe humans. Hinting at Lisbon’s easy-going lifestyle, the place looks like an artificial beach. Yet, spectators are soon caught in a performance that rather suggests the camps in which humans have been regularly amassed. Between a rock and a hard place, the artwork presents a critical dilemma. Between the escapism of a beach and the tension of a fenced camp, several possibilities lay ahead of us – but none seems ultimately tenable.

This is the small text I contributed to the Pynchon Park publication, released on occasion of the large environment created by Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster for the opening of MAAT’s new building.

pynchonparkPynchon Park by carlos.h.reis, via Instagram.

In her piece, Dominique captures very well the duality of our times, where dystopic forms of entertainment – from distorted theme parks to recent young adult Hollywood blockbusters – continue to provide the metaphors for our worst fears, as well as a form of escapism to what is now called ‘the perfect storm.’

After 150 years it was first uttered, the term dystopia has become a household companion. That is in itself revealing. However, while being mostly a fictional device, the concept also delivers a theoretical tool to struggle with what is going seriously wrong in our societies.

Coming back to Portugal, I reencountered some of the mildly dystopian characteristics that are now typical of an old and ageing European country – issues that can’t possibly be changed in the course of one political mandate, or the four years I was away.

Amidst the excitement and buzz that make Lisbon 2.0 so attractive – including very lucrative music festivals to which thousands of young tourists flock every year – Portugal is still tarnished by the decaying dominance of a few rich families, the average mediocrity of political and economic elites, the growing social inequality, the low productivity of most labor force, and last but not least, a sort of desperate and overarching nepotism in the face of a widespread lack of job opportunities.

It gives me intense pain to refuse one interesting resumé after the other, even if my small museum team is overworked and, at the rate of 18 exhibitions a year, will be burnt out in one year or two. The most I can offer is a paid internship, which always reminds me of one of the funniest and sharpest artwork series exhibited at this year’s Manifesta.

internsArtwork by my colleague at MoMA, Pablo Helguera, for Manifesta 11.

Look at Tuk-Tuk drivers around Lisbon and not only are they good looking, they also have Master’s degrees. Others, not so lucky to be outdoors, are buried in call centers. Youth unemployment thrives as much as in Spain or Greece, currently at nearly 30%. If novelist Cormac McCarthy suggested the US is ‘no country for old men’, Portugal is certainly not a country for young people.

Alas, the Portuguese state invests heavily in the education of these young people, with university fees as low as $1500 a year. But then, it practically hands out this highly qualified labor force to countries that are already economically ahead. The most educated generation ever in the history of the country is pushed away, forced to emigrate to Germany or the UK. How stupid can that be?

Sure, things must change, and things can change. We can take advantage of a tourist boom, without necessarily falling into the plights of Barcelonization. We have to promote entrepreneurship, although this is difficult in a country where a public service career – and, if possible, the petty corruption that comes with it – is still considered the safe way up and out.

Portuguese authorities must understand that what we are doing to our educated young adults is atrocious. Dystopian indeed.

In face of this, does the country want to be as avant-garde as some of its cultural institutions? Look at the way the world is transforming (art world included), think of the great stagnation coming ahead, and start immediately discussing the 20-hour working week. It’s the only way everyone will get its share of work and opportunities towards a better society.

 

Bem-Vindos ao Futuro 2.0 (Utopia vs. Distopia)

Em jeito de continuação do post anterior, e em modo de boas-vindas a 2014, tenho-me lembrado com alguma regularidade da entrevista que fiz a Saskia Sassen no âmbito do projecto #unevengrowth.

Na entrevista, a socióloga holandesa sediada na Columbia University revisita uma dicotomia que parece particularmente apropriada para pensar o porvir das cidades globais: a distinção assaz tópica entre uma visão utópica e uma perspectiva distópica do futuro.

S Sassen interviewSaskia Sassen on Utopia vs. Dystopia: ver 7’12”.

Como sugere Sassen, há uma visão utópica que acredita que, perante uma crise grave, todos se unirão e a criatividade emergirá para superar as divisões sociais existentes nas cidades de hoje. Do outro lado, porém, há a possibilidade distópica de que a desigualdade corrente traduza, de facto, “a absoluta desconsideração” de uma minoria privilegiada por “qualquer noção de um projecto colectivo.”

Um dos factoides interessantes com que deparei na minha chegada aos Estados Unidos foi justamente que o adjectivo “distópico,” antes reservado a novelas de ficção científica relativamente obscuras, é agora banal e corrente – tanto no discurso académico, como na prosa diária de jornais respeitáveis.

A dialéctica emergente da utopia vs. distopia – que também se pode traduzir na oposição optimismo/pessimismo – veio-me de novo à memória ao ler “Sillicon Chasm,” um artigo perturbador sobre as ilusões da igualdade de oportunidades – essa noção que antigamente informava o sonho americano.

Enquanto, por aqui, uma demência conservadora estarrecedora continua a tentar convencer toda a gente dos benefícios da economia trickle-down – a ideia delirante de que se houver uns quantos bilionários a sua riqueza  vai pingar magicamente para todos à sua volta – o texto do Weekly Standard mostra com números e estudos que, mesmo no último reduto da cultura empresarial libertária, a desigualdade só continua a aumentar.

Basicamente, a mensagem é agora: “Habituem-se!!”*

Enterrada a quimera de uma classe média minimamente afluente, autores como o economista Tyler Cowen dizem-nos que não há como a resignação para nos ajudar a atravessar a grande estagnação que aí vem – a qual o professor universitário compara sem grandes problemas a uma nova Idade Média na qual… the Average is Over.

Soa distante? Soa a distopia? A única diferença é que agora os servos andam de metro, e em vez de religião têm televisão e lojas de 99 cêntimos. Onde a esperança antes se encontrava num acto de ƒé, hoje encontra-se num auto de consumo que se arrisca tornar fátuo.

De facto, nenhum economista explicou ainda como é que o consumo continuará a alimentar a economia quando o novo proletariado já não tiver margens para qualquer tipo de consumo conspícuo. O Japão aguentou-se durante a deflação? Talvez. Uns tempos. Mas atente-se no nível de vida que já se atingira por aí…

Como os políticos bombardeiam todos os dias, em Portugal o nível de vida vai ter que se resignar e adaptar à (baixa) produtividade local. Mas não se desespere. Ganhe-se conforto na ideia de que vai ser assim em todo o lado – mesmo nos lugares de alta produtividade.

Como se aponta no artigo referido, “85% da população, isto é, 267 milhões dos 315 milhões da América, terão sorte em encontrar empregos de nível MacDonalds ou em ‘amigalhar’ ganhos marginais freelance a realizar biscates a 25$ cada para os seus superiores via TaskRabbit.”

Com o aprisionamento de todos os aspectos da cultura ocidental pela lógica corporativa que assegura o sucesso dos 15% do topo – já que o dinheiro (mais que a mecanização) tomou o comando – recordei-me também que a leitura ideal para 2014 continua a ser The Year of the Flood de Margaret Atwood.

Mas, mesmo se não tivermos mais nada para fazer, não é preciso ir tão longe como ler um livro – que horror! – para perceber que as várias incarnações da perspectiva distópica estão a invadir a nossa cultura popular em várias frentes.

thething1958Image hacked from The Celluloid Highway

A indústria da cultura sempre teve o dom de popular o nosso subconsciente com os temas do dia – quer se trate dos aliens em vez dos comunistas dos anos 50, ou zombies em vez dos pobres de agora. E o momento corrente não é excepção.

De Hunger Games e Elysium até In Time – só para referir alguns blockbusters de Holllyood que já nem se dão ao trabalho de criar metáforas – abundam como nunca as antecipações de mundos que, sem qualquer catástrofe pelo meio, se encontram perfeitamente divididos em duas classes sociais antagónicas.

O problema da perspectiva distópica é que já não se pode perguntar: de que lado quero estar? Desaparecida a classe média em que muitos cresceram, e mesmo com o aparente advento da meritocracia – que, é bom notar, também tende para a exclusão –, a possibilidade da escolha está a desaparecer.

Como Saskia Sassen e muitos outros nos dizem, num mundo que, como Nova Iorque, é cada vez mais “first come, first served”, a velha ideia de “mobilidade social ascendente” também anda cada vez mais pelas ruas da amargura.

E, assim, por entre os pensamentos pessimistas que as distopias nos provocam em jeito de cautionary tale – pensamentos que podem ou não envolver o fim de civilizações desenvolvidas no pico do seu auge – resta saber onde encontrar algum optimismo.

Será que encontraremos soluções na aparente capacidade da tecnologia para ir resolvendo todos os problemas que se lhe deparam até à debandada final, tipo filme de crianças versão Wall-E?

Wall-E1-800x960Wall-E hacked from WallPapersUs (Pedrog Re-Edit)

Acreditemos que sim. De facto, sem esse optimismo, projectos como Uneven Growth, ou a ideia de que arquitectos ou designers ou outros podem endereçar estas questões, careceriam de qualquer tipo de sentido.

Para regressar às noticias que muito selectivamente leio de Portugal, onde não vejo soluções locais para os problemas económicos da grande estagnação é no recurso ao Conselho da Diáspora (de que, em jeito de disclaimer, faço parte), a “fixar arquitectos” (dos quais já descolei há tempos), ou, enfim, a acreditar no conto de fadas de que o “crescimento vem aí.”

De facto, dada a globalização vigente, em última instância não determinamos o nosso próprio crescimento –  simplesmente procuramos adaptar-nos ao que vai acontecendo à nossa volta. E a dita Diáspora também não vai ajudar porque, globalizada ou escorraçada, não faz mais que também ela tentar sobreviver.

Quanto a “fixar os arquitectos,” e sem desprimor pelo meu apreciado colega e recém-empossado Presidente da Ordem dos Arquitectos, não vejo mesmo como é que João Santa-Rita vai operar esse milagre.

Diversificação? Só se for no estrangeiro, como poderei pessoalmente afiançar. Investimento e empenho estatal na reabilitação das cidades com obrigatoriedade de emprego de arquitectos? Seria lógico e apetecível, mas, mesmo com vontade política, apenas se ainda houvesse dinheiro para isso…

Como diz o outro, o economista, mais vale que nos dediquemos a saborear a resignação de alugar uns quartinhos reabilitados no Airbnb.

Enquanto o turismo global dos 85% tiver pernas para andar, claro. Porque os 15%, ou os 5%, ou os 1%, obviamente dispensam essas coisas rascas.

Arquivo de Ficção

Enquanto descubro por acaso que um dos meus últimos artigos, Pimp Up Your Cart – Notes and Fictions on Instant Vendor Urbanism, já está parcialmente online – mesmo antes de sair o livro ao qual se destinava – penso que talvez seja tempo de actualizar o arquivo dos textos que vou guardando e expondo por aqui.

Quando o presente nos ocupa excessivamente com as praticalidades do management, nada como esquadrinhar no passado para redescobrir umas pérolas de pensamento (em roda) livre. Como se dizia num dos fracturantes títulos já aqui arquivados, Cada Escavadela uma Minhoca.

Averso aos circuitos insidiosos da legitimação académica cada vez mais boring e tecnocrata, sempre gostei de contribuir para revistas mais ou menos obscuras, fanzines, publicações de estudantes ou até magazines de life-style.

Mais que para as ditas revistas sérias, com os seus monótonos resultados de pesquisa pseudo-científica, a sua crítica enjoada* e os seus encenados peer-reviews, sempre preferi ensaiar o gospel experimental e despreocupado que mais se adequava a revistas não propriamente arquitectónicas.

Assim, já depois de passada a torrente de elegias fúnebres dedicadas a Oscar Niemeyer, ocorre-me recuperar um desses artigos de revista leves e espirituosos, que possivelmente constitui a celebração crítica mais justa da energia subversiva que emanava dos inimitáveis gestos arquitectónicos do arquitecto brasileiro.

De resto, regresso a Niemeyer depois de ter visto as imagens de Todd Eberle aquando do lançamento do último número da revista Wallpaper* aqui em Nova Iorque. Um desses momentos socialite que, em jeito de festa de aniversário da minha mulher, me vai fazendo lembrar de morder a Big Apple…  pelo menos de vez em quando.

Todd Eberle_Architecture_10

Em jeito de presente de São Valentim…. Imagem via Todd Eberle.

A minha elegia ao OVNI de Niemeyer foi publicada na LAMag, uma revista que desapareceu sem rasto, inclusive dessa internet que erradamente tomamos como duradoura. É uma peça que vejo como um exemplo possível de crítica arquitectónica explicada às crianças – ou aos não-iniciados, o que resulta precisamente na mesma coisa.

Como tenho dito em conferências, apesar de admirar a enorme herança intelectual de Manfredo Tafuri – e a sua capacidade de praticamente sozinho ter criado um magnífico impasse da crítica arquitectónica, particularmente deste lado do Atlântico – sou cada vez sou mais um fan confesso de Reyner Banham.

Como se pode descortinar em Pimp Up Your Cart, nos escritos de Banham, como nos seus contributos mais extravagantes noutros media, gosto do modo como, com uma verve exuberante e imparável, o crítico submerge os temas arquitectónicos na comemoração irónica e selvagem do quotidiano mais banal.

Nesta era de capitalismo tardio e neo-liberalismo assanhado, onde parecem desmoronar as esperanças de a seriedade intelectual se oferecer como uma alternativa viável, a sátira total é, mais uma vez, uma das possibilidades honestas de assumir esse dark optimism de que ouvirão falar em breve.

Esta atitude irónica – que, apesar de tudo, recusa o cinismo – é, de resto, uma das formas mais habituais como, apesar da eventual estranheza, a ficção se infiltra e entranha na realidade como uma espécie de reduto político.

Como se diz no início de Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles sobre a extraordinária antecipação do GPS em versão guia turístico, há ficções que são úteis. Algo de tão mais verdadeiro quando se quer pensar sobre o futuro a partir da reflexão do presente.

Ideias a revisitar à medida que a ficção vai invadindo o campo arquitectónico

The Stone Raft

Incognito in Lisbon, I happened to pick a strange day to again visit the streets that, no more than six months ago, I used to walk two or three times a week. As it was, I soon realized that Lisbon’s downtown was unexpectedly packed due to a bizarre event in the city’s most prized praça.

Praça do Comércio, a.k.a. Terreiro do Paço, is like a Spanish plaza mayor but with a twist: one side opened onto a wide, sumptuous river.

This is the kind of small, but generous spatial detail that has always made the difference between nuestros hermanos’ obstinate colonial urbanism – which led to grid-locked cities like México City – and the sensous, easy-going Portuguese city-making, which gave the world its most beautiful city: Rio de Janeiro.

During some of its many lives, Terreiro do Paço was a carpark during the Seventies and got polemically redesigned two years ago – when it also received alternative visions such as the one below, by this humble servant of yours.

Nonetheless, as a part of the larger Enlightnment plan that allowed for the reconstruction of Lisbon after the infamous 1755 earthquake, this truly royal amphiteater was conceived as a welcome space for incoming imbarcations – a maritime entrance to the city at the vaguely fabulous time when airports had not yet transformed traveling into a sucession of non-places.

This peculiar weekend, however, the magnificent Baroque setting where once the King had offered river fireworks* to the people – became the rental venue for a populist mega-picnic. In essence, as Lampedusa would say, nothing changed.

Terreiro do Paço, 1650, Dirk Stoop, via Wikipedia.

At this time, one of the richest men in Portugal, a supergrocer, offered the people cattle in corralspimba singers and five tons of food (being that the latter was, at least, providentially channeled to increasingly demanded-upon charities.)

This was not a case of pearls (or brioches) to pigs – which sounds too much like the kind of elitist afterthought that the politically-correct elites have learned to avoid – but one of pigs to peasants, which, carefully considered, is also somewhat of a less cynical statement.

A huge marketing operation for Portugal’s biggest chain of hypermarkets (and their anchored jumbo shopping centres), the event certainly deserves a short description beyond the praise offered on national TV by a former representative of the Portuguese gauche-caviar, now a most active representative of the city.

Imagine an historical, symbolically charged public space taken over by a highly-organized guerrilla urban farming, and you’ll start to get the picture.

Image

The corrals were actually well designed, a cornfield surrounded the statue of King José I, and the smell of coriander was in the air. And, cast against a giant stage for the endless procession of local kitsch, there it was: a megashow of the glorious produce sold by Portugal’s most beloved entrepeneurial empire.

For the first time in their suburban lives, children marveled at cows in their natural habitat – i.e. piles of hay –, while flocks of seventy year olds were dragged in from the countryside in Toyota coaches and acted as self-appointed tour-guides of a rural world made utterly obsolete by European bureaucrats.

I couldn’t but smile in a stupedified state of candor when I realized why the crowds gathered around one of the impromptu pavilions from which techno-folk emanated. If this had been Northern Europe, in similar context I would expect sculptural Russian whores dancing atop the sound-system. Here, it was only an old guy in checquered swim trunks who danced his spirits away behind the beer barrels, drawing a sort of neo-realist laughter from the exurban mob.

The most interesting outcome of the mega-event was, however, how its mega-audience quickly spilled to the nearby city centre. Hundreds of thousands of people – what the absentee Lisboetas would poetically call the ‘país real’ – rummaged through the last remnants of an ultimately sold-out city centre. Some of them would half-proudly, half-ashamedly, proclaim aloud how they had not set foot in Lisbon’s downtown in the previous two decades.

They cheerfully joined the hordes of tourists who had already realized that, in the midst of accelerated impoverishment, Lisbon quickly became the cheapest capital city in Europe. Besides beach and good food, one can buy exquisite antiques, fine leather shoes, top clothing and whatever else for a tiny fraction of their price anywhere else. And all of this without the annoying street riots of Athens, of course.

Rather, as I walked around, I noticed there were no signs of anarchy or unrest in sight; everybody was orderly and happy. Even if the masses carried with them the usual riff-raff of petty criminals, fake pot gypsy sellers, and the odd surviving heroin addict, all of these seemed to content themselves with only intensely eying the beef chicks (or, as the local slang goes, the bifas.)

Only as one would flow away from the epicenter of the megapop picnic, would Lisbon reveal more of itself, like in that lively corner of Rossio in which ginginha-drinking backpackers and black immigrants get together by the Wall of Tolerance and the bankrupt National Theatre.

This corner suddenly felt like an island of cosmopolitanism. There is definitely a sort of lost elegance in meeting in the streets to just talk. Not to smoke like an outcast, nor to binge-drink like an idiot, but just to talk. Small groups of Africans debated European politics, as if to better report back home.

As I myself made my way back home, I still had the chance to see a band of Spanish cokehead pijos laughing and shouting hysterically at the bewildered peasants in an open mini van. Like so many of their Portuguese counterparts, they looked and dressed like advertising people out of the Nineties.

They had rented a tour minibus and were being loud around town, possibly commemorating the eminent bailout of Spain – or, as one could put it in literary gist, rejoicing the very last acts of the Iberian empire.

After weeks of paradoxically uninspiring travels to so many challenging cities – from startling Medellín to unreal Los Angeles, from puzzling Santiago de Chile to spooky Philadelphia – those guys’ shouts in my old neighborhood seemed to have woken me up from a prolonged dormant state.

Aspleep in Niagara, © P. Gadanho. From an upcoming travelogue series.

The fleeting and noisy impression of that rattling minibus in the middle of the overheated, overpopulated Lisbon downtown finally instigated me to write again. And it also gave me the title for this post, after a great novel by the Portuguese Nobel prize, José Saramago.

As for that particular old favorite, The Stone Raft tells the wonderful and frightening story of how, most suddenly, the Iberian landmass gets severed from Europe and becomes a wandering jutland. If you are truly following European events you will know how this has again become a suitable metaphor for more than one of the Old Continent’s southern peninsulas.

Salon des Refusés #02

Penguin Pool, Berthold Lubetkin, London Zoo, 1934. Via PostalesInventadas.

Park Life*

A final blow to the mythology of concrete as the ultimate, universal modern material took place in 2004, when the last remaining penguins in Berthold Lubetkins’ Penguin Pool at the London Zoo polemically left their celebrated shelter in search of a setting that would feel closer to their natural environment. After 70 years, Lubetkin’s architecture was still deemed organic, but not sufficiently so. Sympathetic to the penguin’s stand, a local zookeeper was reported to say that the pool was “an architect’s dream, not a penguin’s.”

 As the Armory Show is coming to town, and as yesterday I was hearing Michael Loverich of Bittertang describing the birdcage they had just fabricated, I couldn’t help remembering that Candide #5 is finally coming out – with the personal plus that it carries four micro-fables I much enjoyed fabricating myself last year.

The cautionary penguin tale above was one of five that were actually left out of the forthcoming issue of the magazine led by Susanne Schindler and Axel Sowa, which is to be released next week through Actar. In print you will find another four very-short stories featuring a coakroach, some cad-monkeys, the inescapable Orwellian pigs and, most naturally, a Venturian duck.

The Big Duck, New York, 1931. Via Wikipedia.

The fables were initially proposed for LOG #22, after Michael Meredith invited me to participate in his guest-edited issue on the absurd. I thought the best way to reflect on the absurd was obviously to produce something absurd. Thus, the predominantly post-apocalyptic Fables of the Reconstruction (after REM).

Nonetheless, the editors obviously preferred politically-correct theoretical takes on Bruno Taut. This being said, it is understated that I will never understand the editorial logic of architecture magazines around this side of the globe, except if for their odorous lust for an imprecise academic celebrity.

Conversely and ultimately, and as I was confiding to both the former Michael and Cristina Goberna of FakeIndustries, I do think one of the more delightful and obscure crazes recently unfurling in the para-architectural world is precisely that of a bizarre, wide-range excitement for animal architecture.

Daniel Arsham, Untitled (Kangaroo), 2009. Via Flavorwire.

In this case, the absurd is definitely not in the eye of the beholder. It really is lurking out there. And it certainly has something to say on architecture as a discipline today. Remotely, it may even provide for its critique.

As Gogol had it in The Nose, back in 1836: “Where aren’t there incongruities? — But all the same, when you think about it, there really is something in all this. Whatever anyone says, such things happen in this world; rarely, but they do.”

Postscript: finally, how would I resist adding an image of Tom Ford’s doghouse?

..Image courtesy of Todd Eberle.

On the Drive of Writing (and Reading)

             © Pedro Gadanho, Untitled (Tallinn Winter, 2011).  Soundtrack here.

13.

Translator Richard Howard writing on Roland Barthes reminds us of the latter’s fierce determination to assert “the pleasure we must take in our reading as against the indifference of (mere) knowledge.” Barthes, himself, evoked the writerly bliss as that which “unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions,” a specific event that “brings a crisis to his relation with language.” Meanwhile, it sounds like architecture only recently has come to be seen as a form of knowledge, a language that is related to something more than just erecting buildings. Now that its erogenous zones have been reallocated, maybe the bliss of writing (and reading) on architectural matters can be about something else. It may now be about merrily upturning our liaison to architecture’s very foundations, instead of further tying us down to its fundamentalisms, its recurring institutional incarcerations, its plain unfortunate downturns.”

in “On Experimental Architectural Writing and Its Media”

This is one of sixteen sections in a text I have recently contributed to the catalogue of the exciting Archizines exhibition, opening this Friday November 4th at the Architectural Association, in London.

While Beyond was chosen as one of the 60 independent architectural magazines on show, Elias Redstone was also so kind as to challenge me to dwell on “why it is again critically imperative for creative, fictional and personal narratives to be inventive in regards to architectural discourse and practice” – as related to media where this is still possible, as against the general (main)streamlining of culture.

The resulting exploration was an opportunity to finally weave together some wandering ideas on the pleasures of writing and reading architecture, especially after my participation in the On Experimental Writing panel debate, at the CCA, back  in February. (The podcast is still available on that link).

Beyond criticism, press releases and other boring reports on what’s up in the world of architecture, I specially wanted to focus on how writing can and should be a practice on its own terms, one that nonetheless only accomplishes itself when it reaches the reader through what Barthes appropriately called bliss.

Being an avid, curious reader, I tend to consider any text that fails to sustain my attention simply badly written. Fiction itself is about the precise technique with which one delivers a story, more than about the inventiveness of the narrated facts. Good writing is one that captures its reader through both idea and form.

This being said, there is a considerable difference in between the baroque complexity of one Pierre Bourdieu – in which the sheer strength of the ideas surmounts a decided, purposeful difficulty imposed on his readers as a sort of initiation rite – and someone whose thoughts are simply insipid and unclear.

Texts must want to communicate. They must want to communicate ideas, or emotions, or even straightforward information. In an age of information surplus, texts that lack such inner, initial desire, become merely superfluous. Vain. And the same should be said of any form of communication, architecture included.

Architects for Cultural Consumption

It sometimes happens that when one becomes a cultural producer, one absurdly stops consuming culture. Or else, one consumes only a very specialized section of culture, and mostly in mediated form: a free flow of specific information or, if one is keen enough, a knowledgeable accumulation of data and synapses that are only destined to provide more fodder for further expert fabrications.

So, yesterday, like if enjoying again the last summer of youth, I felt privileged that I could engage in a relatively uninterested expenditure of two out-of-the-ordinary cultural feats.

One was the yet unreleased A False Solution, by playwright Oren Safdie – which I read in one breadth. The other was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Lifewhich left me quite breathless. They are both cautionary tales on life and how to live it,* and they both came at the right time.

Hacked image from The Tree of Life, via MovieCarpet.

Curiously, however, both recur to architects’ characters to trigger intriguing ponderings on the significance of life – or how we want to express this significance in some sort of unavoidable, looping self-reflexivity. And that made me read them for the sake of their potential and intrinsic meaning for the field of architecture… (And there they went, my brief mental holidays.)

More directly in Safdie’s new play, more hauntingly in Mallick’s fifth feature film in 38 years, both works may remind us of how Ayn Rand once made use of the god-like traits of the professional figure of the architect to depict liberal individualism in 20th century America. But any resemblances terminate there.

The mature camp builder in King Vidor’s Fountainhead, via Petit Sophiste.

Recently, Christopher Nolan’s Inception had offered us the last glimpse of a subconscious hope in the virtual rebirth of the master builder under the guise of a promising young woman architect more than ready to pimp up your wildest dreams. This had been the last evidence of the simultaneous, paradoxical relevance and insignificance of the architect in today’s societé du spectacle.

Another Boring Postcard, #19, hacked image via Daily Bilboard.

The portraits of architects I’ve seen yesterday, however, are of (father/son) figures that are facing existential crisis – while at the same time they mirror some external tragedies that, in one moment or the other, seem to be bending Western culture under the weight of ever guilty guises on how to build one’s own yard.

Thus Safdie’s new Oedipal character signals the somehow resonant uncertainties of a withering starchitect faced with memorializing a collective mal d’être. Mallick just barely evokes the doubts of a seemingly corporate architect utterly lost in-between “nature” and “grace.” Freud would surely take delight in either.

The odd issue here is that where once architects aptly represented progress, they now seem to provide suitable metaphors for some kind of critical, painful regression. Considering this uncomfortable arrangement – but also, at this particular moment in time, the architect’s visibility in both popular culture and the collective unconscious– maybe it’s about time architects start marketing themselves in a whole new fashion.