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Kazys Varnelis: The Logistics of Distance
Geoff Manaugh, 12 Aug 06
[Image: Kazys Varnelis]


In July 2006, Columbia University announced that Kazys Varnelis would both found and direct a new Network Architecture Lab – or NetLab – at the school. The NetLab will be part of Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, and it will open its doors only a few weeks from now, in September 2006.

For the past five years, Varnelis has worked with Robert Sumrell at AUDC, a "non-profit architectural collective" that "specializes in research as a form of practice." He has also taught at SCI-Arc; been a founding faculty member at the University of Limerick's new School of Architecture; and served as a research fellow at the USC Annenberg Center for Communication. Combining the intellectual energy of AUDC with the institutional resources of a university setting, the Network Architecture Lab will act as

an experimental unit at Columbia University that embraces the studio and the seminar as venues for architectural analysis and speculation, exploring new forms of research through architecture, text, new media design, film production and environment design. Specifically, the Network Architecture Lab investigates the impact of computation and communications on architecture and urbanism. What opportunities do programming, telematics, and new media offer architecture? How does the network city affect the building?

We spoke via telephone.

•
GM: For the last decade you’ve been teaching and working amidst two very different urban geographies: on the one hand, there’s the acentric, automotive sprawl of greater Los Angeles; on the other, the pub-saturated city core of Limerick, Ireland. To what extent have these geographic and spatial juxtapositions influenced your research interests? Or is all that movement and travel a kind of lived demonstration of your work?

KV: Of course, the conditions I’ve lived in have influenced my work – until moving to Los Angeles, I had studied at Cornell, where my focus was 1970s architecture. I couldn’t help but become interested in the posturban condition given my move.

As for the difference between Los Angeles and Limerick, perversely, the condition you describe is actually reversed. Los Angeles is done sprawling and is increasingly densifying, while Ireland is in the midst of an explosion in sprawl the likes of which the country’s never seen. One-third of the Republic’s housing has been built since 1990. It must be what Orange County, circa 1970, was like, McMansions popping up all over the place. If the US has the myth of a cabin on the frontier, the Irish have the myth of a farmhouse in the emerald country. Moreover, with the exception of Dublin and its phenomenal growth, the Irish seem to subscribe to the idea that city and town cores are to be abandoned for houses in the countryside. It’s very much an “Ecology of Fear.” Limerick City, for example, is called Stab City and shunned, while the area around it fills with nightmarish housing estates and shopping centers for the bourgeoisie. The Irish now drive more per capita than Americans do – and they’re graced with some of the worst congestion and pollution in Europe as a result. It’s remarkable how the country is just repeating the mistakes the US made so many years ago.

Los Angeles, on the other hand, is demonstrating what the future of this condition will be: a Tokyo-like horizontal sprawl that is nevertheless hyperdense, incredibly expensive, and – being thoroughly privatized – extremely difficult to intervene into.

[Image: Suburban tract housing in Ireland; Kazys Varnelis]

GM: Of course, you’re now leaving L.A. for New York.

KV: That’s right. To be sure, the move is partly opportunistic. Columbia University has given me an incredible opportunity to found the Network Architecture Lab, a research center for investigating the impact of recent changes in telecommunications and computation on architecture and urbanism. Such opportunities don’t appear everyday, and it’s hard to imagine being able to find the institutional support for such a lab in L.A., where discussion seems to be fixated on formal issues.

At the same time, though, there is a political weight to the move east. It seems more sane, not to mention sustainable, to base myself in the greater New York area than to buy a house in L.A. While L.A. is always evolving, the things that really interest me here have concluded: the urban recovery is done, the mad building boom is at its end, and the city is on the tipping point toward a long period of stasis. My sense is that New York – and the northeastern seaboard as a whole – now offers a more interesting urban condition. A few years ago, a lot of people were moving to L.A. from New York; but, now, many of the most interesting people I’ve worked with are heading in the other direction. This suggests to me that a kind of generational project has ended here, that something has concluded, and that the new projects and opportunities are opening up in New York.

One point worth noting is that I’ll be living in a town in New Jersey, which is as far from Penn Station as Park Slope is – but it's more intriguing… not to mention more affordable. This spooks many New Yorkers, particularly my friends in Brooklyn, but that, to me, seems all the more reason to go, and to continue exploring the urbanism particular to the region.

GM: Could you elaborate a bit on your press release, then, and explain what exactly you’ll be doing in New York? What’s the background for the Network Architecture Lab, for instance, and with whom at Columbia will you be working?

KV: Under Mark Wigley’s deanship a new way of thinking about the role of the architecture school is emerging at Columbia. A number of labs are being developed there to serve as an interface between the school and the rest of the world – places where the school can undertake projects involving people both inside and outside the school, where a new kind of experimentation can develop.

This is a natural model of research in other fields – such as engineering and science – and it’s not merely an academic fashion: architectural offices are increasingly undertaking research of their own – into culture, into technology, into ecological questions, into materials, into form. At Columbia, the research labs address these issues, and the department has filled each one with the most interesting staff in the world. Now people can go out and do experiments that play a role within the architecture school – but they can also reach outside the school, for funding or grants, and pursue projects that are within the school’s larger mission.

GM: In your press release, you mention using both film and text as modes of architectural analysis – but what genres do you think you and your students will be working in? Are you talking about producing narrative films, in other words, or just elaborate site fly-throughs? For that matter, are you talking about having your students write academic papers – or asking them to write short novels?

KV: As far as film production goes, I think it’d be more interesting to think of the documentary as a model for the kind of film-making we want to pursue – elaborate site fly-throughs don’t really don’t interest me. As far as fictionalized film goes, we might produce a few things like the more radical or visionary work that Superstudio and Archizoom did. But I doubt any films we’d want to spend our energy on will be concerned with fiction, per se; our interests are more in reality and nonfiction, which are strange enough as it is. That’s why documentaries are so attractive to me – because, in many ways, they’re far stranger than anything Hollywood could dream up.

As far as the rest of these genres and media are concerned, we’re interested in operating across multiple medias and materials, depending on the logic of individual research projects. It will be constantly active and in process. One way of looking at it is that we’re just inventorying various genres – and we won’t limit ourselves to something like film. If film works as a model, then we’ll do film; but we’ll use any genre as we see fit.

For instance, our very first project, starting this September, will be a year-long look at the work of the Architecture Machine Group, or ARCMac. The direct precursor to MIT’s Media Lab, ARCMac was founded by Nicholas Negroponte in 1968 as part of MIT’s architecture program. Negroponte was first interested in how computers might be able to help architects make more intelligent architectural decisions – but the result, for Negroponte, was actually a move beyond architecture. Initially, he wanted to have non-architects making architecture – and he was very directly influenced by Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects – and, later, he became more interested in reshaping the man-machine interface. For instance, ARCMac did a project called Put That There, and it was really the first spatial metaphor for organizing computer data – as in literally, “Let’s put that there… Let’s move this…” Which is how the Finder works today. The desktop metaphor, according to the various developers of the Macintosh, really came out of the Architecture Machine Group’s work.

At the same time, though, the NetLab will be working with the Institute for the Future of the Book – which is where our idea for doing a project on the Architecture Machine Group first came from. The Institute is a Williamsburg-based publishing lab, composed of writers, researchers, and designers. It’s spearheaded by Bob Stein, who led the development of the Criterion Collection of DVDs, and, as founder of the Voyager Company, produced the earliest CD-ROM titles. The goal, then, is to create a new form of media that we’re calling the Networked Book. It’s a multimedia book, if you will, that can evolve on the internet and grow over time. We’re now hoping to get the original players involved, and to get commentary in there. The project won’t be just the voice of one author but the voices of many, and it won’t be just one form of text but, rather, all sorts of media. We don’t really know where it will go, in fact, but that’s part of the project: to let the material take us; to examine the past, present, and future of the computer interface; and to do something that’s really bold. It’s not that we don’t know what we’re doing [laughter] – it’s that we have a wide variety of options.

[Image: "BlockWorld," by the Architecture Machine Group]


GM: How do the computer interface and the coding of software and so on affect the teaching and practice of architectural design?

KV: I think that one of the problems architectural education now has is a lack of understanding of the importance of code. Building code and computer algorithms are not actually that dissimilar. This kind of architectural scripting is lacking in most schools, and it could be a tremendously powerful thing if you incorporated it into the curriculum.

Of course, the idea of architectural code is also a question of logistics. For instance, the NetLab is also doing a studio to analyze spatial logistics in the larger New York metropolitan area. With the rise of the internet, ever more sophisticated forms of logistics are being put to use by very large, very powerful organizations – Amazon, FedEx, UPS, Wal-Mart, Home Depot. We’re asking: what are telecommunications doing to buildings and cities? Manhattan is a very interesting place to study that question because, as you can imagine, moving materials through space and time in such an incredibly compressed environment is really, really interesting. Of course, the same thing could be said of the entire northeastern megalopolis. So we’re going to be running a studio on the role of logistics – how do you load a space, or organize a space, and what kind of activities might you prescribe for that space – and, as with all NetLab projects, we’re intending for this to lead to a publication.

GM: Will that entail actual site visits to exurban warehouses in New Jersey, and how they relate to Manhattan geography?

KV: That’s the hope. [laughter] Warehouses are very easy to find – but much harder to access.

GM: Speaking of logistics, Wal-Mart has suddenly and – at least to me – unexpectedly become a kind of one-man cartographic avant-garde. In other words, Wal-Mart’s attempt to track all its goods in real-time – streamlining delivery, stocking shelves, tallying merchandise – has led to literally classified techniques for understanding economic geography: algorithms and radio technologies and so on. Which means that we’re at this rather strange moment when Wal-Mart, of all things, has become the most sophisticated modeler of data sets outside of, say, the NSA or DARPA – and yet it’s all to sell bath towels and non-stick pans. What do you make of Wal-Mart’s sudden ascension to the heights of geography, and how has Wal-Mart’s use of radio-frequency ID chips (RFIDs) facilitated this mastery of commercial space-time?

One of the things that’s both amazing and kind of frightening about RFIDs is that they remain with you long after you leave the store. There’s no reason why RFIDs couldn’t already be the subject of incredibly sophisticated, long-term forms of tracking – or why, if you enter Wal-Mart already wearing clothes tagged with RFIDs, you couldn’t be greeted with highly specific and individualized forms of product information. Let’s say Geoff walks in, and he’s already bought two t-shirts and a pair of pants: from the RFIDs still embedded in his clothing, the store will know exactly who he is, even what he might be shopping for.

GM: The store will know you better than you know yourself.

KV: Well, you can imagine many more of these Minority Report-like situations arising from the use of RFIDs. What’s striking is how little outcry there has been. Certainly, there have been some calls for legislation, but on the whole we have just given ourselves up to RFIDs. The focus of AUDC's project Blue Monday is our desire to give up control. It’s not enough to say that power emanates top-down: we give it the right to do so. Which has barely been explored...

GM: As your reference to Minority Report suggests, however, fiction is clearly not obsolete – at the very least, it can be strategically useful as a means for modeling future situations. Could you talk a bit more about the particular appeal documentary nonfiction has for you, and how that genre can be used to explore architecture and urban space?

KV: Reality is ever more perverse and ever more fascinating. Proportionally, more and more people are reading nonfiction today. The documentary, which, twenty years ago, was this kind of weird, unpopular genre that was maybe only shown on PBS, is now being watched by millions of people. Whether that’s March of the Penguins or the Al Gore movie or, for that matter, a reality TV show, there’s a kind of obsession with reality now, an obsession with finding new ways to represent and document existing conditions. It’s a counterpart to the culture of political surveillance: working with the fact of being watched everyday becomes one of the quickest available routes toward cultural participation.

Fiction just seems to be adrift. Where fiction does thrive, it’s in video games – and those aren’t so much fiction as alternate realities. In either case, the world is bizarre enough. The new content we are seeking is already out there. That’s why, if the aspiration of so many architects during the last quarter of the twentieth century was to produce an architectural novel, with AUDC we’ve been working on producing the architectural documentary, or reality show. Right now we’re captivated by the proposition that reality is the strangest thing we can think of. Sixteen years ago, a friend of mine went to Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong, and I have yet to see an architectural project that rivals that. Or Quartzsite, Arizona, for that matter – or the Berlin Wall. The reality of our world is already so amazing. We’ve started to research conditions that are so strange we found we can’t stop investigating them.

[Image: Quartszite, Arizona; Kazys Varnelis. See also Polar Inertia]


GM: To bolster your point about reality outpacing the novelistic imagination, there’s always the Baltimore train tunnel fire – an event that cut off internet access for countries as far away as Africa, making very clear how the supposedly ethereal presence of digital space is deeply rooted in the material world. Could you discuss how techno-utopian fantasies – of an immaterial, digital future made entirely from information – are contradicted by the real, physical fragility of satellites, wires, and fiber-optic cables?

KV: There is a definite fragility to digital infrastructure. If terrorism truly wanted to make a dent in a country’s economy, it would be relatively easy to take out a few structures and cripple both data and voice traffic throughout the country, even internationally.

It’s become clear that the converse is also true, however: that the intense centralization of networking infrastructure makes it all too easy to track and control internet traffic. Over a decade ago, Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron identified The Californian Ideology as a dominant strain in thinking about networking technology. Drawing on counterculture individualism and misunderstanding the basic structure of the internet, they suggested that the supposedly distributed nature of the internet would give nearly-unlimited freedom to the individual – and they consequently endorsed a libertarian approach to the internet, even to politics in general. But this is what I’ve been saying in my work on telecoms all along: the Californian Ideology is incredibly naïve. By adopting a laissez-faire attitude, we’ve failed to realize how tight the noose has gotten as government and industry collude to create unprecedented forms of control.

That anyone could have gotten worked up about Watergate seems comical and quaint in an era in which all of our online activities and all of our telephone conversations are being forwarded to the NSA for data mining.

GM: Changing the subject a bit, what you’ve called “horizontality,” or “the postmetropolitan urban condition” – in other words, urban sprawl – seriously challenges our ability to define, map, or even locate a “city,” let alone a city center. To what extent does this limitless horizontalization of urban growth involve architecture – or is it all just a question of logistics, divorced entirely from issues of architectural aesthetics and form?

KV: There’s little to say about the culture of horizontality that Andrea Branzi didn’t say over thirty years ago. It’s remarkable how much the essay that accompanied Archizoom's No-Stop-City really presaged our contemporary condition – not to mention Jameson’s theories of postmodernism, which were at least decade later. Any architect or urbanist should look at Branzi’s work if she or he hasn’t already done so. Branzi observed how the city was essentially a graph of capital accumulation. The skyline literally made visible the operations of capital.

If you are a utopian modernist, the prognosis isn’t great. Architecture is the last thing horizontality needs. Take a look at the world headquarters for top corporations such as Microsoft, Google, Wal-Mart or Home Depot. They are anonymous, even invisible. The logistics of flow in and out of the big box – which, again, Branzi presaged so clearly in No-Stop-City – is a problem of programming, not architecture. It’s all about queuing and flow control, the same kind of problems that chip designers have to deal with. And, of course, if you see the big box from above, it’s just a giant microchip.

Like Branzi, I’m interested in the potential of the architect as programmer, who may make a building from time to time as a means of testing situations, but who may also use the fantastic education that architects get to do something else entirely. I’m much more interested in the kind of architecture that OMA does – projects that set out to intervene into situations and thereby test them – than I am in the stuff that, say, Frank Gehry produces.

GM: From your work in locative media, it seems possible to conclude that a publicly shared urban world of macro-geographic landmarks is being replaced by a privatized micro-geography of individual, object-based routes and narratives. In other words, you won’t understand the city based on large-scale points of reference, but because your cell phone is beeping: it’s telling you that some friends once ate at that restaurant over there, or that this is where you once went out for drinks three years ago. So everyone will exist within private geographies, detached from common points of reference. You could say that location and geography are becoming dispersed – and that dispersed along with them will be cultural centers like museums and so on. Why go to MOMA, in other words, if you can visit Rhizome.org…? What will this do to the notion of a democratically viable public sphere?

KV: I would say that this is precisely the kind of thing that AUDC has been investigating. The biggest change to our relationship with cities is going to be in the ever-greater adoption of mobile technology. Locative media will surely become more widespread in the next decade, changing our relationship with space by overlaying information onto our surroundings. Imagine if you can find out if a restaurant is really good before you go into it. You can already do this to some extent with Vindigo, but this will only increase in the near future.

Further, museums are already taking steps toward becoming dispersed entities. For now, this takes the form of the Guggenheim Bilbao, Dia’s various projects throughout the country, or the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s American Land Museum; but I think you’re right: we’re going to see more diffuse kinds of museum projects in the future. When you go to a museum, you’re already outfitted with an audio device that triggers a narrative based on location. Why shouldn’t the museum be this device? To be sure, not every museum will disappear, but it seems likely that someone will have vast success with museum-like narratives on handheld devices.

At the same time, however, I would caution against thinking that this is some new and frightening division between the public – which is usually theorized as good – versus the private, which is usually seen as atomized and isolated and bad. This new digital geography is not a reversal of the public sphere; it’s just a mutation. The “public” simply doesn’t exist the way it used to. If you look at “the public” – even when it consists of fragmented demographics – there are still greatly shared experiences by various clusters of individuals. People who live in a post-suburban world, the world of pools and patios, share a lot of interests with other people who consume the same things, read similar publications, or reject certain kinds of brands and accept other brands, or who have certain preferences in all sorts of ways, from sex to art to automobiles. It’s almost frightening to see how much is determined for you by the cluster you’re in. There’s a fascinating book called The Clustered World by Michael J. Weiss that talks about this. The company that does this analysis, Claritas, has a website where they break down American consumers into, I think, 48 distinct clusters – and they’re really dead-on. Another way of looking at it is, okay, we’ve had the breakdown of human society into these clusters, but these clusters are increasingly connected across huge geographical distances. And a group in, say, Dupont Circle will be connected to a group in Lakeview, or to a group in London Soho. These groups are dispersed, but they’re connected telematically – those are real links – whereas you might go just five miles away and feel totally alienated. It’s a different group or cluster. So it’s hard for me to buy into the argument that we need to endlessly lament the end of the public sphere – when different kinds of human relations are clearly coming into being.

The NetLab’s core work will be about that investigation: looking into how contemporary urbanism creates the individual of today.

[Image: Kazys Varnelis]
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