Feedback Loops

Feedback Loops

An Email-Interview about Media, Architecture, and the Aesthetics of Organization

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This text was translated and published in
Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, No. 12, 2015.

Deutschsprachige Version dieses Beitrags hier.

Founded in 2000, the quarterly journal Grey Room has been one of the leading forums for scholarship at the intersection of architecture, art, media and politics. Architecture’s relation to (other) media has also been one of the main research topics of Grey Room’s founding co-editor Reinhold Martin. In his widely acclaimed book The Organizational Complex (2003), Martin analyzes post-war corporate architecture as a technology of organization, reflecting on its entanglement with the discourses of cybernetics and systems theory as well as new communication technologies.1 Thus, he is ideally positioned to discuss the relationship between architectural studies and media studies. So, too, is Meredith TenHoor, the current chair of the Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative, founded in 2006. Aggregate’s collaborators – some of whom are also on the current editorial board of Grey Room – follow a multidisciplinary approach, foregrounding architecture’s relationships with other media, practices and fields of knowledge. In 2012, Aggregate published their first collected volume Governing by Design, assembling a series of case studies of architectural projects that are described as events mediating political, economic and technological practices and processes.2 TenHoor’s own research focuses on the role of architecture in the distribution of resources. In her dissertation, she examined the design of food distribution systems in twentieth-century France.

 

Henri Colboc, Georges Philippe: Rungis market, 1964–69, market halls

Henri Colboc, Georges Philippe: Rungis market, 1964–69, market halls

 

ZfM: Reinhold and Meredith, both your works are devoted to advancing scholarship in architectural theory and history in an interdisciplinary context. Why do you consider interdisciplinarity as so important for architecture? Which relevance does the history and theory of media have for your work?

Reinhold Martin: That might depend on what we mean by interdisciplinarity. The academic disciplines as we know them are of relatively recent origin. Yes, of course, architecture has existed for millennia in the form of monumental building traditions, along with discourse about those traditions. But the academic study of architecture as one discipline among others really only begins in the nineteenth century. It accompanies the founding of art history departments in the new research universities in Europe and a bit later, in the United States. Which is one reason that I have been studying the history of those universities: not in order to write a disciplinary (or interdisciplinary) history of architecture, but an architectural history of disciplines.

By architectural I mean a material complex in which architecture, as traditionally defined, links up with other media, like printed books or electric light. Understanding this requires getting at how media operate in general, as well as how particular media operate within specific situations. Rather than limiting ourselves to understanding architecture, then, as one among many disciplines, I would suggest that we redefine it as one among many media. All media belong, in turn, to contingent historical processes interacting with one another. In which case, studying these processes may therefore even require replacing architectural history with media history, while at the same time recognizing that both are simply iterations of history-as-such—not necessarily as studied in history departments, but as a contingent formation in its own right. And so we can speak of intermediality as well as interdisciplinarity.

Meredith TenHoor: I discovered architectural theory in the wake of the development of the world wide web in the 1990s, as I was searching for conceptual models that would help me write about the relationship between the design of such interfaces and the subjectivities, powers, and aesthetic experiences of users. I had studied media theory and worked as a computer programmer, and while questions about subjectivity from my training in film theory, philosophy, and psychoanalysis were invaluable, they offered an incomplete set of conceptual tools to analyze the material and aesthetic dimensions of things like software.

Yet within the discipline of architecture, there had been thousands of years of concentrated thought about the relationship between buildings and their users, and architectural theory offered plenty of concepts for the analysis of materials, aesthetics, subjectivity, and power. Software, like a building, could be seen as a designed system shared by a particular kind of public, and one could think about the relationship between the architecture of the system and the experience of using it. Of course there are serious limitations to this analogy, but media theorists would probably still do well to mine architectural theory more deeply for analytic tools.

I subsequently became much more involved in studies of infrastructure. My work on food systems, markets, and food infrastructures designed by architects in the 1960s in France has been deeply informed by media theory, because of my own training, but also because the architects I write about were reading media theories of the day, and self-consciously attempting to build networks and systems that emulated digital ones. Part of what makes this time a particularly fertile one to examine, for those interested in posing questions about the degree to which architecture is a form of media, is that certain «media theorists» of the time (Jean Baudrillard and Guy Debord, most notably) shaped their criticism invisibly around emerging architectural spaces. That particular form of media critique needed built architecture to articulate the dystopian dimensions of a fully technocratic society. My research on this period has made clear to me that the disciplinary boundaries that we might hold up between media and architecture were no more than «other realms» across which ideas and designs had to be translated in order to be constituted as such. Architects draw from and reinterpret media theories; media theorists think through architecture. Perhaps we could also say that in this way disciplines themselves act as media.

 

ZfM: Especially in the American discussions about architecture, for example in the surroundings of Grey Room, one can notice an increasing interest in the mediality of architecture. This interest can certainly be traced back to the 1990s, with, most prominently, the work of Beatriz Colomina, but it seems to us that in the current conversations something has changed: While earlier discussions focused on the interaction between architecture and media, understanding media primarily in the sense of visual mass media, current discussions seem to explore architecture’s mediality itself in a more fundamental way. Architecture, in this view, is discussed mainly as a medium of organization and distribution – rather than as a medium of representation. Would you agree with this observation?

R.M.: Yes, you are right. Let me say first that I think some of the most important work in moving these questions forward is being done today by the Aggregate group and by the new editors of Grey Room. While from the outset Grey Room engaged with various aspects of the architecture-media discussion, we were quite aware of how it was being formulated at the time. And in different ways, I think it is fair to say that we sought to open up new directions. Speaking for myself, it has never been a question of cataloguing the ways in which architecture was «like» other media—filmic, photographic, televisual, etc. It was and remains, a question of grasping architecture as one among many media linked up concretely in any number of feedback loops. So again: intermediality rather than mediality.

Behind this, however, is another distinction that has recurred over the years for media studies as well as for architectural studies. That is the distinction between mass media and technical media. While many modern media such as film, television, or architecture are clearly both at once, emphasizing one or the other aspect has notable consequences. For example, at one point, in dialogue with Samuel Weber’s Mass Mediauras 3 and with other post-Benjaminian scholarship, I found it useful to describe the mid-century curtain wall, typical of post-war corporate architecture, as a «mass medium». But on reflection, that was only possible after having considered the metal-and-glass curtain wall in some detail as a technical system based on modularity. The point, after all, was not just that the curtain wall, like the Hollywood cinema analyzed by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, transmitted messages associated with postwar consumerism, although it did do that. It was that in the end, its actual «message» was rather more structural: the scaleless, gridded patterns that were the source code, or syntax—so to speak—of corporate organization itself, a universal space enabling flexibility, variety and standardization. And as technique, that code operated more on the epistemic plane than it did on the ideological (or semantic) plane that Horkheimer and Adorno associated with «mass deception».

M.T.: Indeed, when Beatriz Colomina asked «why isn’t architecture media?» it launched a lively dialogue in our field. But I want to invert the question: What isn’t a form of media? As a historian, my impulse is to identify the moments and spaces in which definitions of things like media and architecture are constituted, either from or against each other, or locked in the feedback loops Reinhold mentions. So I’m not sure I know what media is in a trans-historical sense, just as I can’t claim that architecture has been stable trans-historically.

To address the second part of your question, I think the understanding of architecture as a distribution or organization mechanism must also be understood in historically specific terms. One of the arguments of my work on modern architecture in France is that the very definition of political economy depends on an architectural model, but also that markets – architectural ones, those actually built – become a way of both inventing and testing different modes of political economy. In the long modern period there are many moments in which architecture is primarily understood as a distribution system – or even more broadly a means of managing circulation. I and others have tried to trace these moments in our work; I am thinking particularly of Anthony Vidler and Bruno Fortier’s work on Parisian hospitals of the eighteenth century in France.4 Yet organization, logistics, and distribution are hardly all that architecture is, and reducing architectural practice to these dimensions would be a strange symptom of certain strains of technocracy. When the architects I have written about in my dissertation tried to reduce architecture to logistics, their work became almost monstrous, and they spent a lot of time trying to resuscitate the other abandoned dimensions of architecture in work they did elsewhere.

 

ZfM: What you just said leads us to the centre of what we are interested in. What we are trying to show in this issue is that what is understood as architecture and what architects try to achieve varies historically. For centuries, architectural theory was focused primarily on facades, then at around 1800 questions of distribution and organization became important, disappeared after high modernism and now seem to become more prominent again. While to some degree these changes can be explained by discursive changes, it seems that technological changes also play an important role. So, if we think of the renewed interest in the organizational dimension of architecture: Would it be possible to explain it with the emergence of new technologies like ubiquitous digital infrastructures and mobile media, which have enabled new forms of tracking, tracing and controlling the movement of people and things, i.e. logistics in the broadest sense?

M.T.: I’m not sure I agree that a theoretical focus on logistical processes and organization disappeared after the period of high modernism and is now reemerging – though certainly this preoccupation hasn’t consistently been an avant-garde or academic one, it has persisted in the field of architectural thought, and especially in some of the more «minor» works of architectural theory written by those currently in the recesses of our canon. But without a doubt the work of Reinhold and the other editors of Grey Room spurred many architects, historians and theorists, myself included, to think of architecture as a field where we could take these questions more seriously.

Within architectural practice as well, there is certainly a fascination with logistics, and with questions around how we might represent data collected through mobile media. Students today produce legions of beautiful «logistical drawings» depicting food systems, trade routes, and networks. This form of representation is enabled technologically through drawing and data-gathering tools, and I think is at least partially a response to the ways that technological changes have re-ordered our notion of how to represent the physical world. To some extent these technological changes spur theoretical work too: personally I am quite interested in the architectural questions that can be posed around the «architecture» (we might more properly call it an armature) of the database. I am beginning to work on a book about privacy and data that draws from architectural notions of this term, in part because of my concerns about tracking and tracing, which stem from my work as a database designer, and which keep me up at night. Many members of Aggregate are also approaching the question of data-gathering critically – but there might be a bit more of a fetishization of data within architectural practice. I hope that the conversations happening among historians can help to situate this use of data and open up more skepticism about the adoption of such models within practice.

R.M.: I doubt that technical changes lead directly to architectural changes, though I do agree that the two correlate strongly. Suggesting that one leads to the other, however, obviously risks rehearsing the sort of technical determinism that media theory has spent a good deal of time complicating if not refuting for the past few decades. Certainly, the emergence of new technical infrastructures has had a decisive impact. But that is not what I have mainly addressed in my own work on architecture’s «organizational complex». It is, on the contrary, the interplay among networks of words, networks of images, and networks of things, which (in this case at least) is what intermediality looks like. Logistics are important. But in today’s reorganized technosphere, there are still words and images.

 

ZfM: Reinhold, could you please elaborate on this? For our topic, the 1960s and what you understand as the «organizational complex» are especially important. What is this complex? How would you describe the exchanges between technological and architectural developments in this period, and which role did the quite intense interchange of ideas between media theory (including cybernetics and information theory) and architectural theory in the 1960s play?

R.M.: Well, as I initially defined it at least, the organizational complex was (and in many ways, still is) the technological and aesthetic extension of the military-industrial complex that formed during the 1950s, in the United States but also worldwide. Architecture occupied both poles—technological and aesthetic—from the start. That is why curtain-walled office buildings, for example, can be described as technologies of organization. They combined certain technical procedures, like modularity, with certain aesthetic processes, like what Gyorgy Kepes called at the time «pattern seeing». That is, the technical and artistic «reorganization of vision» to pick up integrated patterns as modulations of a continuous, dynamic field. Many, like Kepes, assumed that this could form the basis for a new, machinic organicism which despite itself, I argue, reproduces rather than resists corporate power. By organization I therefore mean more than logistics in the narrowly technical sense, and hence a bit more than the (admittedly beautiful) logistical drawings that Meredith refers to. I mean a way of seeing, a set of nonlinear relations between managing things, visualizing them, and knowing them in the first place. And more specifically, I also mean an organicism that was the very basis of an emergent corporate imaginary.

Within this relational field, there are no clear distinctions between architectural developments and technological ones. There are only tendencies, clusters of activity. You can therefore read in my work an unapologetic rejection of the idea of architecture’s autonomy. That is why I mentioned earlier the discipline’s relatively recent invention. Even when we consider exchanges among disciplines or fields, such as architecture and media theory, we risk inadvertently replaying the fiction of disciplinary autonomy. In fact, it was no accident that architecture’s autonomy was reinvented in Anglo-American discourse during the 1960s specifically in relation to media and information theory, cybernetics, and linguistics. Whereas in Utopia’s Ghost, I also tried to explain that the expanded sense of architecture as «environment», associated with figures like Buckminster Fuller and ultimately, with Marshall McLuhan, as well as with many European and American experimentalists in the 1960s and early 1970s, was merely the other side of a linguistic turn that is more commonly associated with formalist attempts to reclaim architecture’s autonomy as an artistic language.5 Although it is not obvious, both of these otherwise opposing neo-avant-gardes would have been unthinkable without cybernetics, or the science of control and communication.

In my view, then, the main question is not so much when and how architects began learning about cybernetics. It is rather how translations across the two languages contributed to new discursive formations and a new set of power relations that shaped and was shaped by the multinational capitalism of the 1960s. Analyzing these relations architecturally allows us to see the role of aesthetics – as well as technics – in consolidating power and in reproducing capital.

 

ZfM: Meredith, the specific constellation of the 1960s is also the topic of your dissertation, where you analyzed the entanglements between political, economic, social and architectural developments in the Parisian food markets at Les Halles. Which role did discursive and technological developments play in your research?

M.T.: Les Halles is an amazing site for examining how aesthetics and technics consolidate power and reproduce capital, but it’s also a place where many practices of resistance to that consolidation were elaborated. Les Halles had been Paris’s central food market since the eleventh century. It was demolished in the 1960s,6 and a replacement market was built in a suburb of Paris called Rungis; it opened in 1969. Les Halles and Rungis markets have been primary infrastructures for the maintenance of biological life in the Parisian region. Yet when Rungis replaced Les Halles, this urban function became invisible. For many cultural critics, such as Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard, the aggressive removal of sites of industry that were biologically necessary to all, and economically necessary to the working class, came to symbolize the cultural shifts that characterized a culture of spectacle. This was true for Henri Lefebvre in relation to urban organization as well. In such criticism, urban change was akin to shifts in the operation and function of media in modern culture. Yet, although it was clear that Les Halles’ removal was one of the primary spatio-cultural events that spurred critics’ invectives, the physical market seemed to disappear from their writing. This was surprising, and my project began with a desire to investigate the architectural dimensions of a space which was vital for formulating theories of culture and media (wholesale markets were thought of as huge physical networks) but which was largely unknown in and of itself.

 

Henri Colboc, Georges Philippe: Rungis market, 1964–69, market hall

Henri Colboc, Georges Philippe: Rungis market, 1964–69, market hall

What seemed most crucial in that project was to highlight the roles that Les Halles and Rungis play in conceptions of biopolitics and biopolitical economy. Foucault’s theories of discipline of course famously lean on the architecture of the panopticon. But other eighteenth century buildings, especially architect Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières’ Halle au Blé (1763), which was the grain market of Les Halles, advanced theories of political economy in even more meaningful ways: debates about grain regulation at Les Halles were resolved discursively, but also through building practices. Looking at Les Halles in longue durée makes clear that architecture and discourses of political economy depend on each other. The point is not to establish whether architecture has a governmental function, but rather to identify technics and media, especially architecture, through which a particular form of political economy can emerge both discursively and technologically. I would argue that it’s hard to have a debate about free vs. regulated markets without the architectural marketplace as a model. This helps to make clear why, in the 1960s, invisible Rungis actually became quite important in formulating a mode of biopolitical economy in France.

And indeed, Rungis illuminates a relationship between architecture and biopolitics in postwar France. Rungis was one of the largest public works projects of its time in France (though it was funded partially through private capital, and was one of the early experiments in the privatization of public infrastructure in postwar France.) It was designed by functionalist architects and planners inspired by avant-garde planning movements of the 1930s, rather than by engineers, as is more typical of such projects. It has an aesthetics. The goal of its design was to make food distribution more efficient, and food less expensive, and it was therefore also a key ingredient of the economic and social transformation of France from a society whose economy depended on necessary goods to one oriented around conspicuous consumption, exports, tourism, and leisure: low food prices were intended to free up room in household budgets for new forms of expenditure. Part of this was to be achieved through regulation, but much of it was to occur through design, both architectural and technological; food sales would be tracked and modulated by early computer systems. Using these early technologies, planners did all they could to eliminate the material resistance of food, to make it as informational as possible. But this was not a new goal spurred by technology – it had been part of the intentions of eighteenth-century market designers as well. So there is no technological determinism in this argument. Rather technology would be one of many techniques that designers try to wield to set up a given economic system …

 

Henri Colboc, Georges Philippe: Rungis market, 1964–69, prices on display

Henri Colboc, Georges Philippe: Rungis market, 1964–69, prices on display

 

ZfM: Reinhold, you said before that you were interested in how translations between the two languages of architecture and cybernetics contributed to the emergence of a new set of power relations that shaped and was shaped by the multinational capitalism of the 1960s. Could you describe this new set of power relations in more detail?

R.M.: A possible answer begins with the incomplete, drawn-out transition from what are described in Foucault’s works as disciplinary societies, to what Gilles Deleuze describes rather cryptically in a short, late essay, as «societies of control.» It may seem, then, that since the mid-twentieth century, first in the United States and soon thereafter globally, corporations have begun taking the place of states as the new sovereigns. But this conclusion not only ignores monumental public-private partnerships like the American military-industrial complex; it also ignores the fusion of state and corporate power in the office cubicle and in the home, as well as in the halls of government and in the boardroom.

On the other hand, and although Deleuze recognized the new mixture, it has always been my sense that, perhaps for obvious historical reasons, postwar French theory mainly set its sights on state power, even with nuanced concepts like hegemony, interpellation, or control, and even when speaking of social institutions like the family. In a related idiom, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have in good measure corrected this bias, as have any number of political theorists (and some political economists) concerned with the rise of so-called neoliberalism. But very little of this work has paid much attention to the technical specificity of the media systems through which all of this passes and is managed. Having initially tried to track patterns of control cascading up and down in scale through the spatial systems set up by the postwar corporations, I have tried more recently to follow the new forms of corporate-state power as they pass through material infrastructures and institutions associated with both the public and the private sector, at both the urban and the architectural scale.

 

ZfM: While most of the essays in our special issue describe architecture as an operational device, a spatial apparatus or an infrastructural system, in both your statements during the course of this interview the aesthetic dimension of architecture – its function not only as an instrument, but also as an image of organization – plays a major role. This striking difference leads to our last question: Would you agree that while being «one among many media», one of the specific features of architecture can be found in its special way of combining technical and aesthetic dimensions, spatial organization and visible form?

R.M.: Yes, architecture typically combines these dimensions in different ways. But I should clarify that by aesthetics I mean a mode of cognition, a way of grasping and making sense of the world, more than a philosophy of beauty, image, or artistic feeling. This mode of cognition is embedded in material systems; it is therefore built-in, but historically variable. Hardwired into technical media like architecture, such a mode could also be called mediapolitical, if by politics we mean power relations, like those biopolitical relations that Meredith’s work reveals, or those that govern Deleuze’s control society. Think, for example, of Erwin Panofsky’s thesis that perspective constitutes a historically specific visual infrastructure, and as such, that it rises to the level of «symbolic form». This thesis connects perspective drawing with the humanist episteme. But, because for Panofsky, Renaissance perspective also entailed the displacement of godlike sovereignty onto a point – which is both a standing point and a vanishing point – power, or more specifically, a constituting imaginary, is implicitly involved. The human is that which can be described as a perspectival point. Despite all the talk of posthumanism, this principle is still written into the software that architects use. Having dissolved into the gridded patterns of modernism (including modular curtain walls), perspective seems to be making a comeback on our (gridded, pixelated) computer screens. Does this mean that the control society thinks anachronistically, in perspective rather than in ones and zeroes? Or rather, do our hardware/software interfaces hold clues that disclose a secret epistemological alliance between the two? And if so, what new modulations in the organization of power does this alliance bring? These are the kinds of questions that architectural analysis, understood as mediapolitical analysis, allows us to ask.

M.T.: Indeed, it seems to me that aesthetics go beyond making organization visible or schematizing it, but also that they connect us to questions about capital, desire, and subjectivity. And while I have sympathies with the project of defining the specific features of architecture, I can’t think of a form of media that is fixed enough to have specific features. So while the intertwining of the aesthetic, the technical, and the spatial is what makes architectural analysis so appealing to me, my tendency is to resist making ontological claims about architecture. As Reinhold has mentioned, the intellectual traps laid by the discourse of architecture’s autonomy are rampant. They are symptoms of both professional and technological anxieties, and have too often distracted us from the project of developing methodologies to help us look at architecture alongside other media that inflect life. Aggregate and Grey Room, as ideally conceived, and each in their own manner, attempt to make those spaces available, to create testing grounds for methods that consider architectural-urban-infrastructural-aesthetic-technological complexes not for the differences between their various components, but as the matter of the world itself.

 

All images from: Techniques et Architecture, Vol. 30, No. 3, 1969, pages 50, 83, 85, 87.

  • 1. Reinhold Martin, The Organizational Complex. Architecture, Media, and Corporate Space, Cambridge, Mass. 2003.
  • 2. Aggregate, Governing by Design. Architecture, Economy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century, Pittsburgh 2012.
  • 3. Samuel Weber, Mass Mediauras. Form, Technics, Media, Stanford 1996.
  • 4. Anthony Vidler, Confinement and Cure: Reforming the Hospital, 1770–1789, in: idem, The Writing of the Walls. Architectural Theory in the Late Enlightenment, Princeton 1987, 51–72; Michel Foucault, Blandine Barret Kriegel, Anne Thalamy, François Béguin, Bruno Fortier, Les machines à guérir. Aux origines de l’hôpital moderne, Brussels 1979.
  • 5. Editors’ note: Martin refers here to the debates in American architectural theory around 1970, when authors like Peter Eisenman and Manfredo Tafuri argued for the necessity of defining architecture as a self-contained field with its own rules and clear boundaries. See Reinhold Martin, Language. Environment, c. 1973, in: idem, Utopia’s Ghost. Architecture and Postmodernism, Again, Minneapolis 2010, 49–67.
  • 6. Editor’s note: This was part of a major urban renewal project that changed the character of the whole area. A shopping mall replaced Les Halles and the Centre Pompidou was built on the former parking lots of the market. See Meredith Tenhoor, Decree, Design, Exhibit, Consume: Making Modern Markets in France, 1953–1979, in: Aggregate, Governing by Design. Architecture, Economy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century, Pittsburgh 2012, 216–236.
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