Wednesday 11/21

A Prompt for Architectural Theory

by Troy Conrad Therrien, Partner, Therrien–Barley, tagged with IDEAS CITY, Istanbul, Untapped Capital, architecture
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Urban Think Tank proposal: An app that provides a form of crowd-sourced mobility, enabling inhabitants to act as transport mediums for goods or other travelers as they pass through a complex urban environment.

Following a lively exchange on the topic of networks during an IDEAS CITY: Istanbul panel, Kickstarter cofounder Yancey Strickler closed with a jarring prompt. “Perhaps,” he considered aloud, “networks are a new religion.” Much as the nuclear age had its obsession with science, he argued, our age too has its demigods. From the internet entrepreneur whose creation has raised more funds for creative projects than the National Endowment for the Arts in the past year, the implications of Strickler’s query was all the more potent. For, he concluded, they too will pass.

Howeler + Yoon proposal: A rendering of the interior of the consolidated regional transport bundle that partner Eric Howeler called “the social space of transit.”

Over the previous two hours, the topic had carved out two increasingly distinct camps, articulating a boundary that unsurprisingly followed the geographical distribution of panelists. For the New Yorkers, the power of networks in human affairs was a naturalized fact. The Istanbul locals operated according to no such given—seeing the city as a site for political action precisely because of the proximity of physical bodies, for instance, rather than the ubiquity of the networks for their mediation. Although made up of journalists, theorists, entrepreneurs, scientists, and architects rather than a multifaceted prism presenting a plurality of ideas, positions, and allegiances, the panel offered a dialectic, a coherent common ground from which Strickler was able to glimpse the shadow of an emergent ideological figure. Regarding the same topic, the exhibition of the work of five teams of architects vying for the Audi Urban Future Award downstairs presented no such polarization.

NODE used an iPhone as the organizational metaphor for a city to migrate its active mobility systems entirely underground.

Though globally, technically, linguistically, and conceptually dispersed, the five teams—tasked with presenting visions of cities of tomorrow—converged around a single given, the mobile app. For four of the groups, the one immutable fact seemed to be that they would require a technological compass. Rather than façades, mobile networks would provide the human interface. The mobile phone was absent in the proposal of the fifth, CRIT of Mumbai, yet they went even further, wholly embodying the paradigmatic characteristics of mobile tech. Their proposal consisted of a set of “tools” for urban entrepreneurs, effectively architectural apps for hacking the city. The future city visible from the present, then, was unthinkable outside of mobile technology. It provided the single lens through which to imagine a plurality of urban futures. Amid a wide spectrum of processes, theses, observations, and geographies, the architects presented a monolithic message, conceding that the contemporary urban imaginary cannot escape the grip of technology.

Whereas the panel provided the site for the critique of a looming ideology, the Award proposals, taken as a whole, testified to it. But this consolidation of urban thinking does not leave us at an impasse. The opposite is true. By so clearly presenting a default condition, we can step outside by simply inquiring as to its consequences. By simply asking what is at stake when architects unanimously adopt technology as a sort of prosthetic in order to make an urban proposal stand. That is, faced with the grafting of mobile apps onto architecture, we only need to ask what has been amputated to make way?

Superpool’s PARK (TM) proposal: Artist rendering of an app that allows citizens to rent out space that would otherwise be used by vehicles.

For one, architecture is deprived of one of its oldest fantasies. Classical architecture turned on the belief that well-ordered architecture would dictate a well-ordered society. Universalist principles like proportion vertically integrated architectural design with the human form below to the cosmos above in order to provide a mold into which society could be poured and emerge, itself, ordered. Though the rhetoric has changed, the essential belief in the social agency of architecture is still prevalent, resurgent out of a postmodern malaise. But resigning the function of social order to technology—to mobile apps—castrates architecture. It demotes it to a derivative agency, to the circumstantial hardware that supports the programmatic software.

Going outside, then, allows us to rethink the inside. When architecture fades, its double, architectural theory, arises to assume its vacancy. While the panel had an explicit prompt for a rethinking with historical implications, the implicit prompt in the Award indicates a historical transformation. Or, at least its possibility. What if, instead of playing the role of ersatz UX designer, architects unleashed architectural theory on technology? Viewing the platforms that order more and more of our everyday lives as we do material edifice opens them up to the devices of architectural theory. Which is all to say, perhaps in a world increasingly eaten by software, there can be a place for architects to do more than assimilate.

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