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Rene Daalder
Los Angeles, US
Immortal since Jan 18, 2007
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    Retroactive Manifestos
    Many manifestoes have been written during the last century by architects wanting to lay claim to new territory for their practice.  Some of the ones that come to mind are the Futurists in Italy, the Constructivists in Russia, and French architect Le Corbusier who was seen in Russia as the prototype of the New Man who would emerge from the social revolution, capable of bridging the gap between science, the arts, and technology. The main inspiration for their manifestos was the machine age which would change everything, to the point of putting in question their own profession.  Le Corbusier, for example, proclaimed that the environment of the future would no longer be built by architects but by engineers taking their clues from airplanes, cars and ocean liners.  

    Years later, writer/architect Rem Koolhaas observed that very few buildings were ever built on the basis of these manifestos, while across the ocean the great metropolis of Manhattan had spontaneously emerged in the absence of any intellectual discourse whatsoever.

    When Le Corbusier first laid eyes on New York City he was overcome with jealousy that everything he had conceived of in his mind was already realized (mostly by engineers who typically aren’t prone to write about such things), and he went on to publicly decry the skyscrapers as too small and corrupted by decorative facades that were painfully at odds with his modernist vision.  In an attempt to do New York one better he presented his baffled American hosts with a superior alternative: horizontal skyscrapers!

    A few decades later, Rem Koolhaas is fascinated by Le Corbusier’s rage, as well as the ambivalence felt by Salvador Dali, who is more shocked by New York than the New Yorkers are by him. Both men were preceded by  Sigmund Freud who visited the New World in 1901 and declared America “a gigantic mistake”. Rather than fessing up to his own envy, Rem sets out to write his career making book “Delirious New York”, which includes a hilarious chapter on the city’s jealous European visitors.  In a characteristic master stroke, he conceives of the book as a retroactive manifesto, which allows him to become the self-appointed “ghost writer” for the unsung heroes who built the city and in the process claim some of Manhattan’s glory for himself.

    To Koolhaas’ generation the machine age had long since become common place.  He was more interested in the city as a “social condensor” and proclaimed that “the culture of congestion is the culture of the 20th Century.”  As opposed to the earlier manifestos that didn’t seem to foster any results, the book started his career, but like the architectural thinkers before him, it would still take many years before his own buildings would be realized.  By that time the ever growing congestion he foresaw went hand in hand with widespread consumerism. And before long the computer age was threatening the status quo of established institutions which started to increasingly reach out to “starchitects” for final architectural affirmation of their once undisputed place in the scheme of history.  Indeed, by the time the internet rolled around,once again everything began to change, and there was hardly any intellectual discourse to reinforce the major engineering feat that would accomplish this. 

    During World War II one early pioneer of the internet, Vannevar Bush, was coordinating 6000 scientists  for the application of science to warfare.  Looking ahead he advised his team of scientists that once the fighting had ceased they should turn their attention to the massive task of making more accessible our bewildering repository of knowledge.  Two decades later scientist Douglas Engelbart started a research program at Stanford, which was also funded by the military and devopted the augmentation of human intellect by using computers. This research led him to the all-important invention of the mouse.

    Who signed these men’s paychecks is ultimately irrelevant.  What counts is that they provided us with the backbone of the current internet – a feat of computer engineering and collective genius that was even more seminal for human progress than the buildings of Manhattan rising from the grid into the skies, stacked around gravity-defying elevator shafts.

    Thinking about this, it struck me that, since its inception, much of the writing and thinking on SpaceCollective can be looked at as a retroactive manifesto for the internet, which - like Rem Koolhaas’ book – might allow us to share some credit for its collective genius after the fact.  This certainly isn’t an uncommon strategy for those who call themselves futurists, nor is it contradictory to taking a proactive stance.  Just look at (engineer) Ray Kurzweil who extrapolated the historical equation of Moore’s Law into his far-reaching Singularity theory, which may once again change everything

    Many of us on this site advocate a similar revolution of consciousness, based on the ever increasing connectivity of the internet and the collective genius from which it has emerged.   
    In this context, one could argue that the dismay about New York its esteemed visitors from Europe felt at the time was at least partially due to the fact that no individual could lay claim to its inception.  Both its grandeur and its failings seemed like the spontaneous outcome of an emergent event.  However, no matter how much Le Corbusier had once exalted the role of anonymous engineers in the age of modernity, the fact that no single genius, like himself, was present at the city’s birth, ultimately proved counter-intuitive to his decidedly European mindset.

    I have often wondered to what extent the complexity and connectivity of our time is still capable of producing and nurturing the individual genius attributed to the likes of Le Corbusier. Over time I have met a fair share of people the world has endowed with genius status, but these days I can’t help but feel that there is  something truly antiquated about the concept.

    A few weeks ago I came across a thread initiated by Wildcat who posted an article from MSNBC which posed the question: Does groupthink harm diversity and innovation?  
    In response, Mushin Schilling states that “the answer to the title is NO. This is still coming from the premise that there are these creative geniuses who, after deep thinking, come up with something brilliant whereas innovation, I'm sure, nowadays comes from groups of creative people, loosely interconnected, that openly share their ideas and then someone happens to put formerly unconnected things together in an innovative way...” 

    Shortly after, Wildcat happens upon another response in the form of a Kevin Kelly article about Brian Eno’s “Scenius” concept: 

    Brian Eno suggests the word to convey the extreme creativity that groups, places or "scenes" can occasionally generate. His actual definition is: "Scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius. Individuals immersed in a productive scenius will blossom and produce their best work. When buoyed by scenius, you act like genius. Your like-minded peers, and the entire environment inspire you.” 

    As a filmmaker, I work in an extremely collaborative medium, and the same can certainly be said for a musician like Brian Eno, who is a music producer for other people’s bands before he is a solo artist or for that matter a futurist.   

    Without wanting to bother the reader with my personal biography right now, let me just mention that I once had a film group that was very much opposed to the creative hierarchy imposed by the French Cinema d’Auteur with its relentless focus on the director, often at the expense of actors, writers, cameramen, production designers, effects supervisors, composers, etc. There were five of us, including Jan de Bont who started out as a cameraman and went on to direct Hollywood blockbusters, and, as it happens, the above mentioned architect Rem Koolhaas.  We made a series of successful short films in each of which one of us would alternate as star, director, writer or cameraman, and we even published a number of manifestos about our democratic ambitions for the medium. Though our ideas proved very controversial at the time, this collective effort started our careers, and most of us have continued to pursue collaborative working models whenever possible.

    Before the French auteur theory got hold of America, Hollywood revolved around a studio model that drew from a vast roster of in house talents who identified with the studio’s distinct sensibilities and were collectively responsible for Hollywood’s Golden Age.

    In today’s Hollywood, the sole organization that has enjoyed a golden decade of its own is Pixar, whose computer animated movies have consistently been highly rewarding, both creatively and at the box office. At Pixar, all creative people share in the company’s successes, and it’s in-house animators, writers and directors all work together to assure the best possible outcome for every one of its pictures, regardless of their final job description on any particular production.  It helps of course that the company is fully entrenched in the digital culture which provides mutual access to everybody’s networked computer, and a strong Silicon Valley pedigree in contrast to a backwards film industry which hasn’t been able to figure out the magic that makes Pixar one of the most critically acclaimed film studios of all time.  Clearly, this success story is a shining example of the collective genius that is deeply ingrained in the digital age.

    Every expression of the collective genius described above revolves around emerging technologies, from the elevator and the mouse to HTML and animation software.  And in almost every instance, it concerns collaborations between engineers, developers and interface designers who create the tools, which consequently become a medium that generates new content.   To stay close to home, even as we contemplate Wildcat’s notion of a polytopian mind habitat, Spacewaver’s call for a new mind, or SpaceCollective’s early references to a collective consciousness, we all know that on some level we are contributing to a retroactive manifesto for the world transforming powers of the internet itself, whose system is our essential idiom of expression.  As proper heirs to Marshall McLuhan, to whom I referred in my last post, we have reached a stage where the medium and the content it promotes are deeply intertwined.  Or to put it differently, one could say that our discourse is rooted in both the tools we have been handed and the future tools we desire.

    Right now the tools that encourage “scenius” are scattered all across the web, from Twitter and Tumblr to Facebook, Friendfeed, etc.  A collaborative open source tool - Google Wave -which will allow users to edit each other’s content is on the way, and there no doubt is a lot more to come, and even more to be desired in the pursuit of our game changing ambitions which have been stirred by science and technology.

    But thus far, no single online platform is properly equipped to harness the true potential of our collective genius. So it’s up to each of us to individually cobble things together, which luckily is something the internet excels at. In fact, no infrastructure that went before it has ever been as jury-rigged as the worldwide web and its unwieldy contents. Part of its emergent genius is that hardly anybody ever seems to know which online initiatives will fly and for what exact purpose. The people who ended up developing Flickr set out to create an online game (The Game Never Ending), Twitter was initially perceived as a quirky fad, Craigslist was a small email community featuring local events in San Francisco, while MySpace morphed from a virtual storage space into a social network with a completely unexpected emphasis on music and Facebook was born from a prank.

    In this context, it is of interest to mention the soon to be launched Cargo platform, which was spawned by SpaceCollective and produced by founding members Folkert & Josh (check out SC’s now much emulated card-look and Folkert’s SC Gallery).

    The initial release of Cargo is a creative publishing platform where users can present their multimedia content and create personal networks, "following" whoever they want.  But in the near future it hopes to offer many functionalities that will allow people to easily create their own scalable communities and collaborative work spaces, and continue to evolve into an all-encompassing compendium of the latest web technologies.

    Who knows, from the site’s versatile templates a colony of Polytopian mind habitats may suddenly emerge, which – like the skyscrapers of Manhattan rising from its urban grid – will one day merit a retroactive manifesto of its own.

    Wed, Aug 12, 2009  Permanent link

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    3LSZVJA9     Mon, Aug 17, 2009  Permanent link
    It's also interesting to read the "1958 Mould manifesto against rationalism in arquitecture" by Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

    I'm currently living in a city less than 60 years old where rationalism in arquitecture met with real state speculation.

    The result is just what Hundertwasser would call "planned mass murder by premeditated sterilisation".

    And why not continue quoting:

    Today’s architecture is criminally sterile. For unfortunately, all building activity ceases at the very moment when man "takes up quarters", but normally building activity should not begin until man moves in. We are outrageously robbed of our humanity by defiling dictates and criminally forced not to make any changes or additions to façades, the layout or interiors, either in colour, structure, or masonry. Even tenant-owned dwellings are subject to censorship (see building-inspection regulations and lease statutes). The characteristic thing about prisons, cages or pens is the prefabricated "a-priori" structure, the definitive termination of building activity prior to the prisoner’s or animal’s moving in to a structure which is innately incompatible to him or it, coupled with the categorical restriction that the inmate may change nothing in this "his" housing, which has been imposed upon him.
    For true architecture grows out of normal building activity, and this normal building activity is the organic development of a shell around a group of people. Such building growth is like the growth of a child and of man. Absolute completion of building construction is tolerable, if at all, only in monuments and uninhabited architecture.
    But if a structure is intended to house people inside it, the discontinuation of construction prior to habitation must be seen as an unnatural sterilisation of the growing process and as such as a criminal act which should be punished.
    The architect as we know him today is only entitled to construct uninhabitable architecture, if he is indeed capable of doing so. Habitable architecture is not his responsibility, and he must be vehemently denied the right, just as society does not leave a notorious poisoner or a mass murderer free to his devices.

    To give just an idea of some exemplary, healthful contemporary architecture, and this list is, unfortunately, shamefully short:

    1.The Gaudí buildings in Barcelona.
    2.Certain Art Nouveau buildings.
    3.The Watts Tower by Simon Rodia, in a residential section of Los Angeles.
    4.Le Palais Du Facteur Cheval in the Département de la Drôme, France.
    5.The slum sections of cities, the so-called "urban blemish" ("taudis" in French, sections in "salubres").
    6.Homes of peasants and primitives, whenever still handmade, as earlier.
    7.Old Austrian and German "schrebergärten" (workers’ allotment-garden houses).
    8.Illegally built American self-made houses.
    9.Dutch and Sausalito houseboats.
    10.Buildings by the architects Christian Hunziker, Lucien Kroll and a few others.

    In 1964 he added:

    The architect’s only function should be that of technical advisor, i.e., answering questions regarding materials, stability, etc. The architect should be subordinate to the occupant (tenant, owner, lodger) or at least to the occupant’s wishes.
    All occupants must be free to create their "outer skins" – they must be free to determine and transform the outward shell of their domicile facing the street.
    rene     Tue, Aug 18, 2009  Permanent link

    Thanks for the great rant by Hundertwasser whose interventions in the appearance of existing buildings are without precedent. One of his radical notions was that

    "a person in a rented apartment must be able to lean out of his window and scrape off the masonry within arm's reach. And he must be allowed to take a long brush and paint everything outside within arm's reach. So that it will be visible from afar to everyone in the street that someone lives there who is different from the imprisoned, enslaved, standardised man who lives next door."

    A while back I wrote a piece for a book about pioneer of generative architecture Greg Lynn, the introduction of which struck me as appropriate in this context:

    "Besides an occasional landmark building, the cities in which we live aren’t all that different from the urban environments we’ve had to contend with since the day we were born. Perhaps the only change you might remark on is that there is more of the city today than there once was. But for those of us who engage with culture as an ever-changing expression of the Zeitgeist, it can be frustrating to live in a time capsule that exhibits the frozen relics of an otherwise long-forgotten past. There are, of course, many reasons for this—among them the various demands and requirements of clients, politicians, urban planners, contractors, etc.—but the most fundamental is architecture’s inherent immutability. Once erected, a building’s walls rigidly maintain the status quo, whereas culture at large constantly reinvents itself."

    3LSZVJA9     Tue, Aug 18, 2009  Permanent link
    At the point where architecture meets with politics and economics, it becomes easy to recognize the tendency to ignore the human factor.
    Giorgio Agamben points out that there used to be two different words to talk about life: Bios, wich included political, human life) and Zoos, wich only considered survival and functional life.

    Olena     Thu, Aug 27, 2009  Permanent link
    As a NY apartment-dweller, I couldn't agree more with these sentiments from your comments:

    "We are outrageously robbed of our humanity by defiling dictates and criminally forced not to make any changes or additions to façades, the layout or interiors, either in colour, structure, or masonry."

    The Hundertwasser quote ("...So that it will be visible from afar to everyone in the street that someone lives there who is different from the imprisoned, enslaved, standardised man who lives next door.") is especially beautiful.

    I've often had the thought, while walking around in the city, that from early childhood we're taught not to touch anything - and so we don't. It's our city, isn't it? Our world? But it's criminal to "deface" it. Like, "Child don't color on the walls." Because that's offensive to someone's standardized preference for a clean white? And how is that more criminal than all the polluting we do? And personally I would rather look at someone's creative, personal, legal-copy-less vision on my street than have ugly advertisements thrust into my view at all times.

    But never mind even coloring, or graffiti, or even changing the environment; getting back to just touching anything - even if not literally (ok, it is dirty). I just mean the idea of treating it as your own world instead of feeling like you're just being transported through your environment on a conveyor belt, as an unengaged viewer.

    Wouldn't it be lovely to "make yourself at home"? Wouldn't that inspire creativity?

    P.S. I really enjoyed reading this post & actually learning something new. Especially, the "scenius" concept - something to think about. Thanks.
    HelloAlexCL     Thu, Oct 8, 2009  Permanent link
    First of all, this is really great stuff, Rene. After taking two courses in architecture I was thoroughly fed up with the presumptuousness of the architectural manifesto and the "starchitect." Koolhaas was excluded from this fed-upness, in part. The whole idea of the retroactive manifesto really puts the starchitect in his place, although, as you observed, he is somewhat elevated by it. Lets leave this paradox aside, though. Here, the starchitect is no architect. He is emptied of authorship. The illusory starchitect stands as a placeholder for an impossible authorship. There is no identifiable author, and surely not an individual author. The author is the process itself, which is to say there is not author. Manuel De Landa, a big fan of (dynamical) processes, describes the birth of the skyscraper as part of a process:

    New York and Chicago in particular experienced an intense electrification and metallization, which resulted in the birth of the skyscraper, an original urban form unique to the United States…The iron frame, which allowed masonry walls to be replaced with glass, had been pioneered in European cities such as London and Paris. But it was in America that this metallic endoskeleton evolved into the skyscraper. Electric motors in turn allowed elevators to transport people vertically through these huge towers. Chicago pioneered the use of steel and electricity in the construction industry, catalyzed by the great fire of 1871, which destroyed the city’s commercial center and literally cleared the way for innovative building techniques to be applied. By the 1890s, Chicago was the world capital of the skyscraper, with New York a close second. (A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History 91)

    To think a fire had a bigger part in creating the vertical city than Le Corbusier’s grand ideas… The skyscraper is a "delirious" synergy between the steel endoskeleton, which provided structural stability, and the electric motor, which allowed the vertical rapid transport of people and material information throughout the structure.

    The architectonic form is topologically derived within the world of materials and energy, where it is constrained and channelled through concepts, which are ultimately nondeterministic. The retroactive manifesto thus superposes conscious intention over natural process. Most importantly, it is only readable after-the-fact. What is the genotype without the phenotype? What is DNA without the organism it participates in creating? DNA achieves its iterability, the privileged position of language, only through the relation between genotype and phenotype. One might even say it is this relation.

    As Koolhaas observes, the result that is Manhattan occurred spontaneously and naturally. New York, as Le Corbusier observed decades earlier, is “hot jazz in stone and steel.”
    rene     Fri, Oct 9, 2009  Permanent link
    Thanks HelloAlexCL.Your comment perfectly complements the post. I really like this notion:

    To think a fire had a bigger part in creating the vertical city than Le Corbusier’s grand ideas…
    klaitner     Mon, Jan 18, 2010  Permanent link
    perhaps gladwell's Outliers has something to add here too, that we are a product of our interactions with our environment and the opportunities presented. I would go further in keeping with the spirit of this post and say that even the concept of "opportunities" is revisionist history. the seething, writhing present cares little for our ambitions