Puffery and Critique in the “Other Spaces” of Architectural Discourse

In his “Spaces for Architectural Discourse and the Unceasing Labor of Blogging” in the new MAS Context 7, Javier Arbona writes:

All this attention [from popular architecture blogs, like BLDGBLOG, Pruned, ArchDaily] has been positive for architectural discourse, setting aside for a moment concerns about the lack of a critical approach to the cross between the rights talk and the design talk, but here’s the key factor: architecture academia and related institutions have largely missed the debate anyway, and shouldn’t they be the ones instigating it?

Architecture schools and institutions haven’t tried to come to terms with how these popular bloggers, much like the vast universe of other bloggers in other disciplines, establish a presence that sustains and nourishes a perch at the top. A co-mingling between human labor and the internet infrastructure results in particular socio-spatial configurations. It is telling that these networked subjects—the bloggers—sustain the uneven distribution of power by constantly laboring (mostly for free) in the digital salt mines: interacting on Twitter, constructing a page on Facebook, using Archinect commentary boards, and incessantly tapping on their phones to nourish networks. To slow down is to fade out.

In 2007 I began a research project that examines several of these issues — and I discovered there has actually been a whole mess of recent exhibitions, fora, conferences, publications, etc. that focus on new materialities of architectural discourse; their “formal ideologies”; the intellectual labor that creates them; their practices and paces of production; and their relationships to various professional, creative, and educational institutions. (Interestingly, the article in which I address these issues has now been under review at an academic journal for almost a year; whereas blogs run on a compulsive drive to produce quickly, academic journals are pretty much the opposite.)

Arbona continues: “…we have yet to see an institutional response — an amelioration (or maybe just a single fellowship for an architecture blogger) — toward these spatial relations of power on the web.” In the footnotes, he acknowledges one recent exception: BLDGBLOGger Geoff Manaugh’s Summer 2010 appointment as a Visiting Scholar at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Manaugh described his “bloggers in the archive” experiment as follows:

After all, are academic essays the only textual form appropriate for archival exploration, or does the relatively ad hoc, point-and-shoot blog post, motivated less by scholarly expertise than by curiosity and personal enthusiasm, also have something valuable to offer?

No, academic essays aren’t the only textual form appropriate for archival exploration — but then again, academic essays certainly aren’t the only publication form that emerges from archival work. Even if it were the case, I have to wonder if Manaugh’s typical fare — clever “what if…?” speculations — are the most “appropriate” alternatives.

According to Manaugh, his stint at the CCA offers hope that “suddenly collections all over the world [will be] appreciated and seen by more than the five professors who have been deemed qualified enough to explore a specific phase in architecture, design, or landscape history.” But if the selection of archival works for presentation is determined solely or primarily by “personal enthusiasm,” who’s to say that anyone else should care?

Alexandra Lange shared my annoyance with this myopic view of existing archival work. As Lange writes, “Someone has to bother to step away from everything that is on screen and sit among the dusty and undigitized boxes. And sit…. Archival research is a zen experience, but the idiosyncratic rules can be maddening. After you sift, you have to construct a narrative.” Are the “city-as-Bruce-Lee” and “furniture as exercise machines” narratives I really need to hear?

People enjoy Manaugh’s stuff. For several years, I did — until the gee-whizery got to me. Maybe it seems as if I’m just being a stick-in-the-mud on this whole “the archive is a space for serious research” business. But that’s not the point. My concern is with the positioning of Manaugh as an “appropriate” alternative to the traditional, scholarly archival researcher — and furthermore, as Arbona suggests, as a critical alternative.

BLDGBLOG’s been going strong for roughly six years now. Manaugh’s been made a fellow at venerable institutions. He’s taught vanity courses [Ed., I’m now realizing, months later, that I meant to say “boutique” classes rather than “vanity” classes; that’s a rather unfortunate mistake] at Columbia and Pratt. He did that Quarantine project at Storefront. Every time I turn around, he’s on a panel somewhere. He published a book that received, as far as I can tell, near-universal, drooling praise. He’s an institution. As such, he should be subject to critique himself. Yet there’s been no such critique. [Ed. 11/14: Yes, this is snarkier than it needed to be, and I apologize for that — yet rather than simply edit my original text, I’ll let it stand and fess up to my error.]

Blogitecture at MIT HTC Forum from Kazys Varnelis on Vimeo.

Trained researchers are taught to be reflexive — critical of their disciplinary conventions, their methods, their epistemologies; aware of the underlying ideologies of the academy and of the research enterprise. And those researchers know to expect criticism of the work they produce. It’s not easy to take — but it’s part of the game.

There’s no little [Ed., 11/14: okay, critique is not nonexistent, but it’s scarce] apparent constructive “critique culture” among architectural bloggers. Yes, bloggers can of course be critical of the stuff they’re writing about, but who’s launched a serious critique of the bloggers themselves or the blogging enterprise — or of all the other “other spaces” of design discourse: the peripheral publications and labs and collectives? We have an opportunity to be critical of the role that Manaugh and the Archinect folks and others play in shaping architectural discourse. We have an opportunity to look critically at the net politics of the cLAB / NetLab / Volume (all Columbia-supported; I’d love to take a peek at GSAPP‘s books!) / New Museum nexus. Yet all we get is boosterism. Fawning reviews. Beverage company-sponsored downtown gatherings in who-knows-how-they-can-afford-this? penthouse studios. Chuckles over the cleverness of it all. Critical comments (critical not only of the argument being made, but also of the blogging practice or platform) posted to one’s blog are typically immediately (and sometimes ungraciously) rebutted [Ed., 11/14: Manaugh actually called me a “xenophobic” “Gollum-like figure” — so we’re pulling out the Hobbit attacks, are we?].

Yes, the conversations that take place in these venues are critical. But where’s the critique of the venues themselves? And by critique I don’t mean that we’re obligated to find some ugly underbelly or conspiracy — but, rather, that we should at least attempt to make some sense of their intellectual architectures and institutional infrastructures, their politics, their publics, their openness and accessibility, their modes of dissemination, their rhetorics, their techniques of self-presentation, their funding, etc.

These “other spaces” are the institution. We seem to mistake the network structure for the politics: we assume that because it’s a “satellite lab” or an “independent publication” or an “other space,” it’s necessarily aberrant, deviant, subaltern — that it’s already engaged in critique and therefore immune to critique itself. Not so. These “other [networked] spaces” are networked right into the big institutions. And in some cases we might say that they constitute institutions in and of themselves. Why do we not apply the same critical lens to the the bloggers and the “satellite labs” as we do to the institutions to which they purportedly offer an alternative?