Hasty Habits of Mind: A Lament

Posted in Vol 13 No 4 by bsaab on November 4, 2010

Rethinking how we think.

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Intellectuals in architecture form a tiny subculture in which most know most others and thus want to offend none. Architects’ careers are precarious and need protecting. We are trying to earn respect for good architecture in a culture not all that interested in it. So we believe that we should stay positive. All this produces a reluctance to be bold and candid when we come across junk and sham.

Negative criticism can seem mean-spirited. It’s more pleasant to be post-critical. But the prices we pay are to have too many delusions, especially delusions of grandeur, and to waste time foraging dead ends. It took a ferociously demanding critic, F. R. Leavis, to save my generation of English majors from having to spend much time reading mush like Tennyson’s poems or bloviation like much of Milton. To whom have we been able to turn for high standards and fearless iconoclasm? Sorkin sometimes. Huxtable back in the day. And within the academy? Sylvia Lavin and Jeff Kipnis are not timid. Some scholars like Barry Bergdoll are not afraid of taking stands.

We are often intellectually malnourished because we clutch a narrow set of ideas that we perceive, mainly through talk at juries and conferences, to be the only currently legitimate ones. If we look back 30 years, we see a parade of short-lived must-follows: Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze … The fold. Datascapes. The surface. Patterns and tessellation. Words ending in -ity. And a coming-to-acclaim of designers and design modes marginalized within two or three years. (This is not to say that these figures, ideas, and modes have nothing to offer!)

With a yearning for intellectual hipness comes a scorn for passé ideas. OK, Ptolemy was wrong. But was Chaucer “wrong”? Was Paul Rudolph “wrong”? Beyond science, the category doesn’t apply. In Harvard Design Magazine, someone said about Sorkin’s position, “It’s so Sixties.” Of course times change, and we must change with them, but when something was created doesn’t determine its value.

In fetishizing newness, we ensure obsolescence: Issues of ANY were exciting in the ’90s, but do we turn to them now? Many au courant ideas we don’t really think through but merely think about—or, worse, think that we should think about. Really fine essays will be engaging 40 years after they were written.

Our subculture has a hard time keeping off the smudges of the adjoining larger cultures of fashion and status-seeking consumerism. Architects reach many more people through the pages of Elle Decor, Icon, Architectural Digest, and Wallpaper than they do through Log, Volume, Grey Room, and Praxis. The Style sections of newspapers breathe down our backs and tempt us to bend our values. Is serious culture inevitably the domain of a tiny elite? Should it bother us that there are more than half a million purchasers of Elle Decor but only one or two thousand for periodicals like Log, Grey Room, and Praxis? Trying to communicate effectively with a broader culture is usually futile.

The director of the Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia University framed a recent conference with this question: “How is contemporary architecture discussed and evaluated in public?” The answers aren’t always heartening. For every 200 of “us” there are two million like the person who wrote on Morphosis’s new Cooper Union building: “Aliens, please park spacecraft elsewhere.”

But even within our subculture, there are common modes of “serious” discourse that we should find troubling, and all have to do with a compulsion to move fast while scooping up or tossing out tiny morsels along our paths. Here are four such modes:

Tossed off Tweets: Fast food for the mind, no chewing required. We see this in blogs, but increasingly also in academic discourse. Not taking time is a primary value. Haste doesn’t force Tweets to be shallow, but it sure nudges them that way.

Chopped-down content: Conferences are overloaded with speakers who are underloaded with time to develop thoughts and present information. Books serve as clip binders for conference transcripts. Monographs are boosterish photo albums with smidgens of writing or loose compendia of qualitatively uneven short essays. The creation of book content becomes mere accumulation.

Indiscriminate and overwhelming content: A lazy tossing-in of everything that can be grabbed partly explains the publication of a few doorstop architectural books of a thousand pages or more. (Tongue half in cheek, OMA recently exhibited 40,000 pages of its publications as The OMA Book Machine at London’s Architectural Association.) Can and does anyone read such books? Are they not made just to be flipped through like magazines, with at most five minutes of reading now and then? “Boogazines” occasionally present scads of information through complex but cartoonlike graphics—the overall look of the page is dazzling, and this very dazzle discourages patient absorption of details. Information overload induces information ignorance. Exhibitions feature countless words and images impossible to absorb in one visit (this material belongs in books). Magazines lie in mounting piles zipped through once a month. Overall there is a reluctance to be discriminating, to decide what is not worth thinking about. Data, data, more data!

Glib gnomic generalizing: Easy yet world-encompassing assertions of meaning are offered as profound cultural analysis. This reflects the vast influence of Rem Koolhaas, with his original and revelatory perceptions, presented with subjectively culled evidence but still striking one as diagnostically dead on. (See, for instance, his essays on Atlanta and Singapore in S,M,L,XL.) Yet from Delirious New York on, Koolhaas has also produced plenty of bloated, ungrounded utterance. His followers, lacking his astounding acuity, imitate just his mode of summing up “contemporary conditions.” The name of the game is “Assert whatever you can about some special newness in our social/cultural moment.” So when you cryptically write, for instance, about “the current crisis,” we join you in pretending to know precisely what you are talking about. We nod our heads in jittery conspiratorial intimacy. We suppress acknowledging that we don’t really know or understand.

This mental smoke screen has recently been most obfuscating among some Dutch and American academicians and journalists; in France, it is long familiar. Intellectualism becomes a manner. Research—laborious, lengthy, uncompromisingly careful and responsible investigation—slackens into barstool musings. The compulsion to say something new leads to things like this real example from Volume: “Treating the [retail] big box as a potential form of high art could lead to an aesthetic breakthrough.” Or not.

Perhaps I am writing this in the very mode I am criticizing. Carefully cooked slow food for thought is available for those willing to pull off the main drag (find yourself a copy of The New York Review of Books, for starters). There is even some on the main drag. Just take the pedal off the metal.

Photo © Gideon Mendel/Corbis.

2 Responses

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  1. Will Gerstmyer AIA LEED AP said, on January 11, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Mr. Saunders,
    Finally, something worth reading in Boston Architecture. Very well put. I cannot hold our art to any less standard than what other artists achieve in their works, like novels or movies – where there is communication on a large scale. All art should communicate with anyone who has a reasonable amount of education and cares to talk about what is active in our culture. This, of course, would demand change.
    Architects, as a group, have too long hidden behind veils such as:
    • the public just doesn’t get it (my friends like it)
    • idiosyncratic genius need not explain anything (I also don’t want to reveal my fantasies)
    • there is no context to respect (I am creating the context that will arrive in the future)
    • form and space have no relation to anything (I am sculpture – hear me roar)
    • we’re of our time (it’s award-winning so it must be good)
    If we want to make an impact on our culture and the future we will need to be a part of the general discussion, be a part of what drives thought and insight. Right now, our work is mere fashion. Citizens think of us this way: some problem-solving ability, but mostly concerned about looks. If any citizen finds a thread of content, they are flabbergasted. Truly the emperor has no clothes.
    Thank you. I will read the longer works cited at the end of the article – unless you would direct me elsewhere. Keep up the good work, Will

  2. Letters « ArchitectureBoston said, on February 3, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    […] S. Saunders’ essay “Hasty Habits of Mind: A Lament” [Winter 2010], brief as it is, is one of the most profound and fearless critiques of […]

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