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?

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Puffery and Critique in the “Other Spaces” of Architectural Discourse by Shannon Mattern, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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

  1. shumi September 17, 2010 2:10 PM

    Shannon,
    Excellent reading of the archiblogger situation; found Javier’s piece interesting but only partial, and illustrative of questions that differed to the ones which occur in witnessing this phenomenon.. will write to you shortly but meanwhile, thank you for – or stop freaking me out by – eloquently phrasing things that I’m considering myself!!

    • Shannon September 18, 2010 12:15 AM

      Thanks, Shumi. I look forward to hearing from you. It looks like we have a lot to talk about!

  2. Tim Maly November 12, 2010 12:35 PM

    Can I ask why you chose to write a post about the need for critique rather than writing the critique itself?

    You know Geoff’s work well, you obviously still follow it, and you wrote one of those pieces of “universal drooling praise” about his book. It seems like you are eminently qualified to be the critic you are calling for.

    • Tim Maly November 12, 2010 9:29 PM

      Shannon, I wouldn’t call your review of the book drooling praise either. But in your post you described the response to the book as being “universal drooling praise” and given that your book was in the universe, I figured…

      This is an admittedly snarky way to make a point, which is that there has been a more diverse response to Geoff’s work than your post acknowledges, something that you know perfectly well, because you are part of that diverse response.

      As to the cult of personality question, I think you’ll find that a better way of thinking about it is fandom. Geoff has fans. It should come as no surprise that those fans read his writing and generally agree with him. I bet most of Peter’s subscribers sat sagely nodding their heads in agreement with his essay. Nor should it come as any surprise that the few negative comments come from extremely negative places. All of these things are part of the dynamics of blog comment sections.

      I don’t understand your trepidation about Geoff’s response. Peter wrote a 4 page densely typeset column calling out a bunch of people by name for failing to write the kind of writing that he thinks is needed. Geoff wrote an essay agreeing with many of Peter’s points but disagreeing with the diagnosis and suggesting that Peter himself could write the things he wishes were being written. That’s how the discourse works, isn’t it? Call and response?

      Is your feeling that Peter ought to be able to criticise without being criticised in return? I hesitate to write that, as I worry that I’m making a strawman. But then, in your original post you describe Geoff’s teaching work as “vanity courses” so it seems like you think ad hominems are fair game.

      Most of all, I’m wondering at your use of the world “alternative”. Do you take it to mean “alternative in exclusion to”? I’ve been thinking of it as “alternative as addition to”. I don’t think that anyone seriously thinks that blogs replace academic journals and the rest of that process. Many writers maintain both. Some specialise in one or the other. Myself, I rely on academic papers as grist for the blogging mill. The point of bloggers in the archives was always “what if one more person got in there and offered an orthogonal view?”

      You might find that valueless. I think it matters a lot.

      • Shannon November 13, 2010 2:47 AM

        Thanks again. I obviously have to think about how to better articulate what bothers me about this stuff. It’s certainly not the case that I see no value in “one more person [getting] in there and offer[ing] an orthogonal view.” As I mentioned in my original (admittedly rough and occasionally hypocritical and self-contradicting) comments, I have no stake in maintaining the exclusivity of the archive or of architectural discourse. I’m nobody; who am I to take a protectionist stance? It’s rather that that “orthogonal view” deserves a critical reception just as much as those “niche monographs” written by the “five professors who have been deemed qualified enough to explore” an archive’s contents (Manaugh). Especially when these “orthogonal” writers are presented as “critical” alternatives to the establishment (Arbona).

        You’re right: there has been some critique of the architecture blogging enterprise: mammoth wrote today about Blueprint’s unfortunately off-base assessments by Tim Abraham and Peter Kelly. Shumi has apparently written a thesis (which I haven’t read, but would love to) about new media and architectural discourse. I’m more interested, as my original post indicates, in examining the relational and power networks of these orthogonal writers. Given that many of these bloggers are offered as alternatives to the academic or professional establishment, and that some regard their role as “democratizing” architectural discourse — opening up the discussion to those “who actually [live] in this world (and who [don’t] teach at Columbia)” (Manaugh, Icon, Aug. 2007) — and given the faith placed in social media in general, we should be asking questions about politics, affiliations, finances, etc.

        A few weeks ago, after having noticed that a particular high-profile local design speaker series is 80% male (sadly, a vast improvement over the previous year’s series) and includes seven of the same designer/archi-blogging figures it invited the year before (none of whom have any particular expertise in the series’ weighty theme, which ostensibly expands way beyond architecture), I started to write a post about the Boys Club of architectural blogging — but never having played the gender card before, I thought better of it and deleted it soon after I posted it. Yet it’s obvious to me that certain clannish power structures persist, even in this “satellite” design discourse. Maybe I’m just not looking or listening in the right places, but I haven’t seen anyone point out the political parallelisms between these “orthogonal” design discourses and the institutional discourses to which they supposedly offer a critical alternative. Geert Lovink and others have said as much about blogging in general — but let’s apply that discussion to architectural discourse.

        • Shannon November 14, 2010 7:22 PM

          Geoff, I’m not denying you anything. I don’t have the power to deny you anything (yes, I work for a university, but I’m nobody special) — and even if I did, I wouldn’t. I read lots of blogs written by lots of designers and non-designers, both academic and non-academic, and I get a lot out of them. And while I still read and enjoy your blog (granted, not every day; as I mentioned in my original post, your CCA posts weren’t my favorite), I have been turned off by the way debate is handled. Dissenting opinions are commonly rebutted either with sarcasm, vitriol (“how scared and unfortunate a life you must lead”), or, in my case, name-calling (Gollum? Seriously?). Supporters and dissenters are divided into “fan clubs” (is that what a debate is?). I would dig back into the archives to offer some additional examples, but I’m waiting for a plane and I’ve got only about 15 minutes.

          My primary point (which, unfortunately, might’ve gotten lost in some unnecessary snark — and for that I apologize) is that you, and some of your fellow independent design commentators, have been networked into several elite institutions. That paragraph in which I describe your recent activities was not an attempt to judge your competence or worthiness to teach or curate or serve on panel discussions (if my tone was off, again, I apologize). Rather, it was an acknowledgment that you’re now a part of the same “discourse networks” that encompass major cultural and educational institutions. You’ve become a new counter-establishment — but nonetheless an establishment. As such, I’d hope that you — and folks in other “other spaces” of architectural discourse — would find more constructive ways (aside from sarcasm and Hobbit insults) to welcome critique of your own viewpoints, and would accept that, as part of “the new establishment,” your role in shaping design discourse should be subject to critique. Critics of social media and net culture are already debating the politics of alternative publication formats, the “openness” and publicity of networked exchange, etc.; I’m just saying that we need to extend that debate to the design blog realm. I’m hardly the first person to say this.

          In short, I’m not not taking seriously what you’re doing. To the contrary, I’m saying that, in order to take it seriously, we have to seriously debate the merits not only of your individual posts — but of the whole blogging network and of all the other institutions with which you’re occasionally affiliated (museums, galleries, archives, universities, etc.). Allow me to apologize for the parts of my original post that came off as a personal attack. I set out to make a much larger (though not terribly profound) argument; it just so happened that you were a convenient “case study,” given not only your popularity, but also the fact that Javier made an example of you in his article. I meant no personal attack, Geoff.

        • Geoff Manaugh November 14, 2010 8:35 PM

          (Sorry for leaving this comment twice; I seem to have really screwed up the placement of it somehow. Feel free to erase or ignore the identical version that appears somewhere much higher above.)

          Shannon, cool; I’m glad we’ve had this exchange. In all case, I think that non-anonymous, direct conversation is always best (as such, the unnamed person who identifies him or her self as “President of the Shannon Mattern Fanclub” over on BLDGBLOG cannot possibly expect me to take their comments seriously; wasn’t it Alexandra Lange who once wrote on Design Observer that we can’t take Nicolai Ouroussoff seriously unless we know where he’s coming from, even where he lives, what he stands for outside of his writings? I can’t utilize that commenter’s opinions for this exact reason—who is s/he? what does s/he stand for? why is s/he scared to have a face-to-face conversation?).

          In any case, a few quick things. You write “Supporters and dissenters are divided into ‘fan clubs’ (is that what a debate is?)”—but that’s definitely not my own division. I share your skepticism about the value of such camps (even if, in some cases, they are categorically accurate). Dueling fan clubs sounds like something out of Spinal Tap or Bob Roberts.

          And the Gollum thing—which I want to emphasize was meant as an attitudinal comparison, nothing else—was simply in reference to the fact that it sounds, in your post, like you are trying to hold onto something precious—specifically, exclusive academic access to the archive—at all costs and against anyone else who might want to come along to share it. However, I’m afraid my reference to Gollum sounds quite immature, as if I am saying you have cooties. That was not my intention; I was referring to what I perceived as a kind of enraged, kleptomaniacal insistence on your part that the archive is the property of the academy’s, end of story.

          Finally, your concern that the comment threads on BLDGBLOG can become sarcastic is worth bearing in mind; I agree that I should watch out for that. In fact, I’m embarrassed to read that someone might associate my website with sarcasm. Having said that, though, referring to my career as consisting of “vanity classes” is not criticism; it’s also sarcasm. Hopefully we can learn to address one another’s work in more constructive ways.

        • Shannon November 14, 2010 9:10 PM

          Awesome. Now maybe you could post a little addendum to the comments over at BLDGBLOG so your millions of readers aren’t left with a vision of me as a small-minded, xenophobic, door-slamming ogre. This is of course assuming that I’ve had some success in disabusing you of this notion.

        • Geoff Manaugh November 15, 2010 1:25 AM

          Sure—perhaps you could also remind your own readers someday that I’m not swaggering around Manhattan teaching professionally corrupt vanity classes (unless, of course, you still think that I am).

        • Shannon November 15, 2010 1:47 AM

          But I never said…….! Actually, I’m going to leave this alone and just say: sure, I’ll remind my readers — all 10 of them. I’ve never seen Geoff Manaugh swagger around Manhattan. And he doesn’t teach professionally corrupt classes.

  3. Geoff Manaugh November 14, 2010 8:26 PM

    Shannon, cool; I’m glad we’ve had this exchange. In all case, I think that non-anonymous, direct conversation is always best (as such, the unnamed person who identifies him or her self as “President of the Shannon Mattern Fanclub” over on BLDGBLOG cannot possibly expect me to take their comments seriously; wasn’t it Alexandra Lange who once wrote on Design Observer that we can’t take Nicolai Ouroussoff seriously unless we know where he’s coming from, even where he lives, what he stands for outside of his writings? I can’t utilize that commenter’s opinions for this exact reason—who is s/he? what does s/he stand for? why is s/he scared to have a face-to-face conversation?).

    In any case, a few quick things. You write “Supporters and dissenters are divided into ‘fan clubs’ (is that what a debate is?)”—but that’s definitely not my own division. I share your skepticism about the value of such camps (even if, in some cases, they are categorically accurate). Dueling fan clubs sounds like something out of Spinal Tap or Bob Roberts.

    And the Gollum thing—which I want to emphasize was meant as an attitudinal comparison, nothing else—was simply in reference to the fact that it sounds, in your post, like you are trying to hold onto something precious—specifically, exclusive academic access to the archive—at all costs and against anyone else who might want to come along to share it. However, I’m afraid my reference to Gollum sounds quite immature, as if I am saying you have cooties. That was not my intention; I was referring to what I perceived as a kind of enraged, kleptomaniacal insistence on your part that the archive is the property of the academy’s, end of story.

    Finally, your concern that the comment threads on BLDGBLOG can become sarcastic is worth bearing in mind; I agree that I should watch out for that. In fact, I’m embarrassed to read that someone might associate my website with sarcasm. Having said that, though, referring to my career as consisting of “vanity classes” is not criticism; it’s also sarcasm. Hopefully we can learn to address one another’s work in more constructive ways.

  4. Jeremy November 19, 2010 2:20 AM

    interesting discussion – and not just the part about swaggering corruption and golems. Shannon’s post made me wonder – Does the architectural blogosphere promote, unconsciously or not, a common set of aesthetic values?

    The influence of some of the most popular blogs emerge as beneficiaries of the network effect. Its not the blogging, but often the re-blogging that has the most influence.

    • Shannon November 19, 2010 3:22 AM

      Thanks, Jeremy. The fact that you’re reading this post now and commenting is a perfect example of network effect: you never would’ve found me if my two-month-old post hadn’t first been referenced in Blueprint, then in Geoff’s post from this past weekend. The “network” thus connects not only the “blogosphere,” but also links in more traditional publications and other educational and cultural institutions.

  5. Javier Arbona November 20, 2010 4:53 AM

    Shannon — Hello. First of all, I’m honored you’ve read my piece at such great length (even the footnote about Geoff). Second, it’s very late so I’m keeping this comment short. I did a whole search through my document for the word “critical” and I didn’t find it next to Geoff Manaugh. With all due respect, you seem to take my query for a critical response to the blogosphere (don’t we actually agree on this point?) and you pair it with my acknowledgment of Geoff’s fellowship as an opening—merely a first step—as if I had said that were enough, or that it were manna from heaven. I think my words are being taken out of context.

    Also, it seems to me—and perhaps I need to do more research on this—that you utilize my critique of the academy’s lack of engagement with what the academy itself labels an “outside” as a strawman (after all, “outside” was the whole rubric of the MIT Theory forum I presented at, which I’m not complaining about) . You point to my quote as if I were overlooking something. At this point, I’d have to disagree with you. I don’t think that all those conference and symposia make any concessions to the “outside”. I might argue, perhaps after looking at this more carefully, that all those conference you mention are precisely a rear-guard attempt to keep out all that pollutes the sense of what’s appropriate within architecture. I’ll leave it at that for now, but it’ll be a pleasure to discuss it further.

    • Shannon November 20, 2010 11:52 AM

      Thanks, Javier. Reading your article (and yes, that footnote in particular!) did inspire me to write this post — but my post isn’t intended to serve as an extended critique of your article. Your piece simply pushed me to try to articulate some ideas that had been swirling around in my head for quite a long time. Yes, I agree with much of what you say. But when, earlier in the piece, you call out the “lack of a critical approach” within design discourse, and then, in the footnotes, you celebrate that Manaugh had “broken through that glass ceiling by earning a pioneering fellowship [at the CAA]…which at least begins to facilitate academic practices for bloggers,” I start to wonder how Manaugh’s occasional tendency to rebut criticism with super-strength sarcasm, and his advocacy for following one’s personal enthusiasms (“academic rigor” be damned! [BldgBlogBook]– which, sure, I say to myself sometimes, too!) will “facilitate academic practices” [*]. As I’ve attempted to explain a few times now, I’m not saying that there’s no room for archive-based work that’s not traditionally academic — nor that bloggers have no place in the academy…or the archives…or the classroom. To the contrary, the bloggers are already in the academy — and if they’re going to stay (and I hope they do, because an academy comprised solely of academics is a miserable place) I’d like to see some of them develop a “culture of constructive criticism,” rather than the fandom and clubbiness and cliques that seem so prevalent in the blogs’ comments sections and blogger-organized events.

      I’m sorry if I seem to have misused your words.

      [*] Academic research projects are of course driven by personal enthusiasms, too. But they’ can’t be driven solely by one’s personal enthusiasms; if academia is to demonstrate its continued relevance to the larger public, it has to strive harder to find the places where academics’ “enthusiasms” meet social need and interest.

      • Javier Arbona November 20, 2010 1:39 PM

        Thanks for clarifying. I’d love to read more of what you’ve been finding. But here’s a thought and my own clarification.

        Sure, you might read my footnote as kind of fawning praise (I just wanted to acknowledge that something different was finally taking place). In general, I’d say, the tenor of my argument is in agreement with your point. What I say in that paper (which perhaps needs to be clearer) is that if it rubs the academy the wrong way that there is all this chummyness and cliques around blogs, then the academy could counter that by giving some talented and smart writers a space (indeed, with a salary or fellowship so that they can live). (And, if it gives them space, let them do what they do). Of course I go on to say other things that are about the geopolitics of the web and whatnot, but I won’t get into it here…

        Now, if Geoff’s responses are dismissive or cynical (in his own sharp way), why should you or anyone care? Read Bernard Tschumi back in the 80s. The guy was positively destructive of the rear guard (and we all know he went on to be a dean). So my point is that what I sometimes read people saying is something along the lines of ‘if they want a piece of the action in here, they better learn the manners and be domestic’. Does the architecture field demand that (and this is often a gendered thing too) Greg Lynn, Thom Mayne, or whomever be all polite and hyper-rigorous about their words all the time? Of course not, and that’s actually, one could argue, to the field’s own benefit, at least in terms of generating frictions and new ideas. In fact, schools of architecture are famous for making enormous concessions to people like Daniel Libeskind or Rem Koolhaas early in their careers to come in and NOT play by the rules; to produce work that slices against the establishment. Can’t blogs be a form of architecture also?

        Finally, as Geoff mentions somewhere, we did bounce several emails after that article came out, and I will say this. If I respected Geoff before that, I respect him even more after those emails. Geoff gets slammed on a lot in architecture schools, and that’s part of the game. But I have to wonder if some of those attacks have something to do not only with preserving architecture’s own sanctum, but also with protecting certain labor and economic relations that thrive upon exploiting blogs for their newness and creativity, yet making them be marginal and outside. This is something that plagues the academy in general. Just see how much of Subtopia is poached in all kinds of new academic books about military urbanism.

        Cheers.
        J

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