The fifth edition of inter·mission, discussing the overwhelming nature of the information age. Download PDF.
Note from the Editors
Flooding is a problem1. As sea levels rise and forests burn down, our screens are constantly inundated with disturbing imagery — injustice, hate, neglect, anger, despair — that makes us pause to “react”, more digitally than emotionally, and perhaps resist for a bit before we shake our heads and move on to the next travesty.
It would seem that we can take anything. Be it environmental or political crisis, our feeds stuff it all down our throats. Sure, we “protest” at the mere push of a button and host ‘birthday fundraisers’ without lifting a finger, but (how) do we measure the impact of our “actions”? If friendships have been reduced to Snapchat streaks, and good design has been diluted to “photogenic-ness”, is advocacy now merely a matter of thumb-twiddling?
The power of contemporary communication platforms cannot be ignored. Evocative imagery has swayed nations to revolution, helped businesses stay profitable, and even sustained architecture students through reviews. Whether or not we realize it, what we see on our screens dictates what we do — or don’t do — off them and, for many of us, has become our main source of connection to the outside world.
In some ways, the irony of the issue is that both this physical artifact and the discourse it carries are products of and participants in the process it criticizes. Perhaps it is hypocritical of us to call Instagram out as the downfall of “real experiences” and at the same time (heavily) rely on it to promote this newsletter. However, what this edition has done for us — as we hope it will do for you — is that it has offered us multiple lenses through which to not only dissect how society operates, but more importantly, examine our own role(s) in the network within which we are undeniably embedded.
1. the recent flooding in Venice caused 20 years’ worth of damage to the mosaic floor in St Mark’s Basilica, in a single day.
Negligence by Design, Design by Negligence
One solemn evening in 1964, Kitty Genovese, an average, middle-class New York waitress was driving home in her red Fiat from the bar where she worked. While waiting at a light, she was spotted by one Winston Moseley, as it later became apparent, had followed her home. Armed with a hunting knife, he approached Genovese, who ran toward the front of the building. But Moseley ran after her, overtook her, and stabbed her twice in the back. Moseley stabbed Genovese several more times before raping her, stealing $49 from her and running away again. The attacks spanned across approximately half an hour. A neighbor, Sophia Farrar, found her shortly after and held her in her arms as she breathed her last. Another isolated late-night New York City crime, no?
No. In fact, this crime was actually committed in front of thirty eight eye-witnesses. 38! They screamed and boo’d and aah’d, but no one took action. They all watched her die. You might say that this is somewhat of an anomaly, and that if you — an upstanding citizen — had seen this, you would have intervened. Surely, you would’ve done something.
Most of modern psychology would tell us otherwise. In fact, I would argue that you’re acting as a bystander right now. You, I, definitely the entire discipline of architecture — almost all of human society — is a victim of the Bystander Effect.
The Bystander Effect refers to the reduced likelihood of individuals to help a person in distress when other people are present. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely it is that any of them will help. This effect, commonly preached throughout anti-bullying seminars at public
high schools is somewhat of a contemporary cliché. We have all heard of it and, if anything, the individual propagating it comes off as somewhat of a soap box orator. But the thing is — this effect is applicable to more than teenage bullying.
Negligence comes from the old French word with the same name neg·li·gence — meaning “injury” or “injustice”. While the word traces its roots further back to Latin, here, the meaning is quite identical to the way we use it in modern times. What’s interesting in the difference between the French understanding of ‘negligence’ is that it implies a certain damage done through this word; it alludes to a certain activeness in action that’s fundamentally different from the passiveness this word implies.
Back to the twenty first century, where on a daily basis we’re bombarded with images — of the seemingly unending wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and countless other places, of innumerable human rights violations and injustice in all forms of environmental damage, from completely eroded forests to a chunk of ice four times the size of Manhattan breaking away from the northwest coast of Greenland, of that giant hole we have neglected and therefore made in our planet’s ozone layer and, most recently, images of the inhumane shooting in our own backyard. Sometimes, when these events affect us enough to want to do something, Facebook offers us the option to change our profile picture, our Instagram feeds and stories are filled with condolences and universal anger over the events, including our own. But all action that takes place is virtual, with very little percolating into the real world.
In their book, “are we human?”, Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley write about anesthetic design and how it relates to modern architecture. For them, modern architecture was essentially a means of anesthesia, a form of numbing the modern nerves so terrorized by the agony of the world wars. This argument however, does not end with modern architecture, or for that matter, with architecture as a whole. The notion of design as a stabilizing force has entered the virtual space but the actions we take on social media in response to trauma and injustice are just that, anesthetics. They give us a false sense of stability in a rapidly crumbling landscape. We’re able to take agency, take some action. But then here’s my question, how are we any different than those 38 observers who watched Kitty Genovese get raped and killed? All that seems to have changed, is the medium of booing and aah’ing. If anything, the bystander effect is even stronger, with us watching thousands of people doing the same thing we are. The lack of action is also designed. Neglect has been shaped.
Coming back to neglect, do you see why the French definition holds up? Do you see the damage being caused? Neglect is not passive, it’s an active form of violence. If anything, I hope this article serves as a call to architects, to walk away from the anesthesia of design, to no longer make buildings that are “comfortable”, “nice” or “beautiful”, no longer give the false sense of stability. Architecture must instead de-stabilize, disrupt and disturb. Architecture can no longer shape neglect.
The Cheerleader Effect is a cognitive bias engrained in how we see patterns. It explains how when people are in a group, they may appear very attractive, but when each person is isolated, they don’t seem as beautiful. The key is that the characters in frame are just similar enough that they read as a whole, for example, cheerleaders’ outfits give them the uniformity needed to bind them all together.
This effect applies to any visual pattern: a group of people, a row of homes, a collection of drawings, or even an instagram feed; we are subconsciously looking for similarities. Designers take advantage of this, simply repeating a (mundane) module until it blurs into a pattern that achieves a visual effect. Then again, we must not be fooled by our own work.
Apophenia is the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena. We look for shapes in clouds and find faces in inanimate objects. Not only do we see faces in objects, but we also assign them emotion. Our understandings of human proportion are key to our understanding of ourselves as animals, as objects, as shapes.
It would seem the human brain is constantly trying to make sense of the world, particularly through geometric patterns. The ancient Greeks would connect stars to make constellations and find meaning in the night sky. In ancient Egypt, thousands of slaves were mobilized to construct large triangles. You count in tens because you have ten fingers. You have a pattern of knuckles and tendons. Look at the pattern of the wrinkles in your hands created by the way you’ve moved over time. Smaller wrinkles make up the smoothness of your skin and connect the pores that create the field of points that make up your hand — a sort of tessellation that is just as mathematical as a triangulated mesh. Within the very genetic code of our DNA, we are built to make patterns. It permeates our culture, our species, our perception and perhaps even our genetic code. Architecture should speak in some way to this intuition built into our systems.
I’d like to invite all of you to check your Instagram before reading this. Maybe venture over to Pinterest or Behance if you’d like. While you’re at it, give Facebook and Twitter a good scroll through too. As a product of our generation, age, and graphic-based profession, our daily lives are saturated with media. 95 million photos and videos are shared on Instagram each day1. It is disrupting and agitating trends, diluting and dematerializing authority, and affecting the way we perceive spaces and images like no other platform.
The sheer amount of content thrown at us is a major catalyst of burnout syndrome, one of the plagues of our age2, as identified by architectural historian and writer Beatriz Colomina. Being constantly inundated with information, regardless of its quality, forces us to compare our own work to that of unknown authors potentially thousands of miles away. The nature of the images shared is also problematic, as we only see the best of the best and there is virtually no sharing of process work or the “second-best” render.
Moreover, this constant stream of graphical precedent has a clear effect on our design methodologies. As students, we can almost shop for a representational style, parti diagram, or formal language from the myriad examples we see every time we open our feeds. The build-up and availability of past knowledge is in general a clear marker of societal progression, but the trap is that it becomes much easier to regurgitate instead of reinvent.
Architecture has become pornographic. No foreplay, no experience, simply a feasting to the eye. As the Money-Shot comes to define the entire project and buildings can be sold using a single image, capitalist motivations discourage the architect from putting further thought into the project. We see this in school too: representation can obfuscate a lack of any theoretical, social, or even functional concept in a project, and — depending on who you ask – justifiably so. It is a line we all carefully walk.
The phenomenon of archi-porn is not new, the basic notion could perhaps be traced back to Venturi and Brown’s “ducks” vs “sheds” in Learning from Las Vegas. The contemporary definition of the two types may be unclear but creating “Instagrammable” architecture is widely prioritized above issues of traditional architectural discourse i.e. private/public, form, space, and order. The square-cropped interface of Instagram has become the new lens through which we perceive space. Flat and filtered, the image becomes more desirable than the architecture.
Text has taken a backseat in discourse. Images scroll by, while text is limited to [functionally] 280 characters. The role of the authoritative, influential critic is practically dead. The most popular architecture websites like Dezeen and ArchDaily present content with no analysis, thought, or editorial comment. Architectural profiles on Instagram herald every post as “fantastic work”, offering little insight into what makes it fantastic. The discourse has moved out of the institution into the comments section — the new platform for architectural criticism.
The idea that a single critic can define nearly an entire architectural movement — like Banham with Brutalism or Jencks with Postmodernism, feels outdated and quite frankly impossible in the contemporary situation. The proliferation of image and opinion has led to an increased difficulty in establishing a critical body of thought around any particular position. Are we experiencing the end of -isms? It may be the case that we are never able to gather enough momentum to establish an overarching architectural style to categorize our moment. The internet has allowed any and everybody to validate their opinions — no matter how preposterous — with countless like-minded people. Good criticism is still being written, but it is increasingly washed over by the rising tides of sheer data. The dialectic of Fact vs Fiction has dissolved into a sea of mere information.
Simon Nora and Alain Minc warned us about this exact situation in 1976. The pair was asked to issue a report on the dangers and possibilities of a computerized society to advise the current president of France. They predicted a situation in which everyone connected to the network could manufacture and disseminate information, leading to an incoherent and disjointed culture and a loss of trust in the truthfulness of content3.
This is not necessarily new either. When we think back to faux communist governments, we see a similar use of blanket equality to cover discriminatory practices. What is different and unsettling about our contemporary situation is the uncertainty of who is directing our information. Every platform we use to view information filters the data in its own way, with some of the more visible culprits taking the form of suggested friends and personalized ads.
Opinions diverge in face of our current moment. David Ruy writes, “I am puzzled and dismayed by how the left end of the political spectrum seems to be abandoning architectural speculation…How can the world be more progressive if everything remains the same or goes backward towards the historically familiar?”4, while Ryan Scavnicky (@sssscavvvv) writes, “Critics must develop fresh audiences by using strange and experimental critical forms and reflecting those findings back onto the architecture discipline.” — citing memes as the new modality of architectural provocation.
From another angle, the criticism of the public can often be more beneficial for the design process than that of a critic. Architecture is inherently tied to the public realm, and these same networks can be used to increase the transparency of design decisions that will inevitably affect them. In areas of social interest design and community-based projects, integration of social media into the design process could become a particularly vital methodology.
Crowd-sourced design doesn’t sound particularly appealing, but at the end of the day, anything is possible if you smash that like button.
inter·punct in conversation with Beatriz Colomina
also with Sarah Rafson, Kai Gutschow, and Spike Wolff.
Exerpts from a longer discussion taped during Beatriz Colomina’s visit to Carnegie Mellon University.
i•p: A lot of us experienced the events of Saturday from our beds, through a screen, through the media, on our phones. Very few of us have even third-degree connections to the incident, and yet we feel so connected and it tears at us. And it’s evidence of how the “front room” — which was once the television — has become our beds, as we scroll through traumatic events and “check in” with our loved ones while sitting in the relative comfort of our homes.
BC: It’s a radical inversion of what it public and what is private. Your household is public domain — it is broadcasted. In so many ways, you are broadcasting yourself. Even if you’re just buying a book on Amazon, or booking your vacation, you’re producing data; you’re all there — you’re in public. All of a sudden the most private space has become the most public.
i•p: And what it means to come together as a community has changed completely as well. There have been vigils where people gathered in person, but there have also been several groups on social media like Facebook, where people “gather” and talk and “come together” in almost the same way, except that the physical connection is completely removed.
BC: Also, when you come together physically, it’s normally because you got organized through social media. You hear about it, you communicate about it. Protests have changed so radically from the period of the 60s and the 70s. It’s impossible today to think about any kind of organization or any kind of protest without social media. You cannot think about the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street without social media — they would not have happened; they would have collapsed.
SR: So, you’ve experienced the events through social media, and now you’re here. There’s a sort of powerful thing there, the way in which we can be part of a traumatic event emotionally without being there — do you feel different being here?
BC: Of course, you cannot not feel it in your own body. I almost believe that we are not that different from fish and animals and other beings in the way we feel pain; you walk into a place and you feel the trauma.
During 9/11, for example, I was right there. But at the same time, even though I heard the initial impact and caught the noise and smells, I couldn’t understand anything — because the television wasn’t on. The television wasn’t on, so I didn’t know why people were running and where they were going — there was all this confusion. And then someone turned on the television, and then we went up to the roof, and then you could see it. You could see people at the windows waiting to be rescued, pieces of the building falling — all of it — so clearly.
i•p: But without the TV you wouldn’t have processed it.
BC: It was these two realities that were very different. People that only watched the TV saw something very different from those that were there, heard the screams, saw the madness. It’s very traumatic to see people falling or jumping from a building. With the television, you’re very removed.