In Context: Ross Wolfe

January 14, 2018

Writer and critic Ross Wolfe recontextualizes the MAS Context archives.


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In Context: Ross Wolfe. © MAS Context.

This contribution is part of “In Context,” a series that features guest curators who browse the archives of MAS Context, uncovering new relationships between articles and establishing new topics.

Architecture and Social Structure

Architecture today is, first and foremost, a social product. Not just in the sense that it’s constructed by means of a complex, global division of labor (though this also), but at an even more basic level—it both embodies and envisions certain relations between men, as well. Make no mistake of it, however. In no way should this be taken to imply that architecture is produced for the sake of society. Quite the opposite. Like any other commodity, a building comes about socially, through the productive agency of groups and individuals working together. But this work is directed toward ends fundamentally alien to itself; its purpose is not to benefit society or edify mankind but rather serve as a site for the accumulation of capital. Either that, or the built object merely rematerializes the ghost of that which already floated up from the base, ideological figments and fragments that outlive the historical epochs from which they first arose. These now nestle into mortar, stone, and brick. All that melted into air is made solid once again.

Of course, none of this is to say that great architecture can’t be produced under capitalism. Hardly anything could be further from the truth. The architectural legacy of the modern age is at least as impressive as that which preceded it—whether one begins, as Kaufmann did, with the French revolutionary architects of the eighteenth century, or reaches further back, like Tafuri, to the city-states of the Italian Renaissance. Modernism itself was nothing but the self-conscious attempt to take hold of the forms and forces unleashed by modernity, as the spirit of the times comprehended in concrete. Even if its sociohistoric mission was tragically cut short, the greatest examples of modern architecture are on par with any of the iconic structures of classicism, or for that matter the Gothic or Baroque. Some of what’s come afterward—postmodern populism, neo-avant-gardish deconstructivism, digital Deleuzeanism—has likewise yielded works of enduring value, though these are admittedly fewer and further between. Brilliant formal and technical solutions have been offered to address problems previously thought insoluble under capitalism, and who knows how many architectural innovations that may take place before this chapter of history finally closes.

Yet the fact remains that any social good that results from the erection of a given building is entirely incidental to its primary function: namely, as a reservoir for the storage, collection, and augmentation of value amassed over time. It may double, temporarily, as a conduit for the movement of capital (as money or commodities) through space. Or else it might serve as a site for circulation, the sphere in which the surplus-value of goods forged in the fires of production is realized in exchange. Until society achieves self-mastery, however, and directs the means of production toward its own enrichment—instead of the enrichment or fructification of capital—architecture as a social product will be held captive to an end outside itself, subordinated to a logic of production for production’s sake, in a world it did not design. A revolution worthy of the name would not only allow architecture to liberate its occupants and passersby, but would simultaneously entail the liberation of architecture.

Enough for now. The scope of inquiry—the social—has been delimited and defined. We proceed to method: structure. Structure doesn’t refer to architectural arrangement, or even the core around which a building’s cladding is organized. A series of binaries unfolds:

  1. Visible/Invisible
  2. Real/Virtual
  3. Production/Consumption
  4. Appropriation/Expropriation
  5. Work/Life

Dissecting its place within society, architecture can be articulated along these lines. In MAS Context’s context, several articles are exemplary. Ya’el Santopinto and Jonathan Wong propose the “invisible” architect as an alternative to the highly visible starchitect model in their jointly-written article, “The Disappearing Architect: Four Moves Towards Invisibility.” The invisible architect, they explain, is a kind of “cultural ghostwriter.” Wong’s spatial experiments, conducted anonymously, are presented as paradigmatic in this regard. But in highlighting his work, the authors risk a performative contradiction. Do they not seek to render his invisibility visible? Is his anonymity not compromised the very instant that he’s named? Vassiliki-Maria Plavou and Eva Papamargariti explore the possibilities of architecture in the digital age in “Netopias: Premonitions of Past Futures,” as new technologies facilitate ever more virtual connections across immeasurable real distances. The world at one’s fingertips: the annihilation of space by time. Or perhaps the annihilation of space by cyberspace? Past futures are peripheral to their chronicling of architecture’s love affair with technology, acting mainly as a springboard into Plavou and Papamargariti’s effusive account of intercontinental collaborations and expanded fields of communication. A danger resides in such enthusiasm, however—where technophilia abounds, technocracy is never far behind. Revolution may have been tweeted in Tehran 2009 (the largely forgotten “green” movement, a non-started revolution) and Cairo 2011, but can the gains of such virtual politics prove real and lasting? Nina Rappaport’s “Vertical Urban Factory” is one of the best articles yet featured on MAS Context’s website, tracing a history of Detroit’s overnight rapid growth as the automobile workshop of the world. Henry Ford, hero of the era of rational assembly-line production, found in Albert Kahn an architectural accomplice to match his own grandiose ambitions. As soon her narrative of Ford’s industrialism is finished, Rappaport quickly transitions to speculation about what the future of the factory might hold. In this, she touches on consumption. She advances the notion of a “Spectacle factory,” which represents what she calls the “consumption of production.” That is to say, the production process would be submitted to the public gaze. What would be consumed here is the spectacle of production itself, a rather terrifying prospect if you think about it. A glassy-eyed, half-erotic fixation on “factory porn” awaits the huddled masses. Continuing along the axis of consumption, we come to Eleanor Chapman’s reflection “Ownership is Dead,” written during that brief stretch of unrestrained optimism that accompanied the Occupy movement in Spring 2012. She warns against consumerist impulses, the insatiable drive toward new frontiers of appropriation, stressing auto-expropriation instead. One must also avoid re-activism, as Chapman writes: “An architect’s lot is historically to be a re-activist. But in the fledgling economy of ‘collaborative consumption,’ is it really viable to be reactionary?” From our present (2013) vantage of capitalist reaction, it’s fair to say her predictions were somewhat premature. Liz Potokar’s discussion of office layouts and business administration in “Workplace” rounds out this discussion. The article focuses on different management styles and their expression in various architectural styles. Completely elided is the life-world outside of work, the world of “free time.” Homes enter in only insofar as work begins to impinge upon life, in the form of home office.

Text by Ya´el Santopinto and Jonathan Wong.
Issue: 15 | VISIBILITY FALL 12

Essay by Eva Papamargariti and Vassiliki-Maria Plavou.

Essay by architectural critic, curator and educator Nina Rappaport.

Essay by architect Eleanor Chapman.

Essay by Liz Potokar.
Issue: 3 | WORK FALL 09