"Architecture in hypercapitalism" / Kai Vöckler

archis 2000. nr. 10, page 75 - 78

As part of the BERLINBETA media festival in Berlin in early September, the architectural symposium ‘Urban Drift’ devoted two days to the cross resonances between architecture and IT. The speakers, who work in Western Europe and North America, were invited to discuss the influence the new information and communications technology has had on the design of the environment and to make proposals as to how architecture should respond to globalization.

It would have been interesting to hear a non-Western architect on this subject, one from a region where a telephone connection is enough to create problems. However, the Fact that access to networks and the control of IT by the new economy of 'hypercapitalism' Jeremy Rifkin) is all-defining was not mooted, any more than the fact that three-quarters of the world population suffer from want and are scarcely likely to ever gain access to the empire of cyberspace.

There was agreement that the contemporary city should no longer be conceived as a place in geographical space but as a node in the network of global flows of data, money and commodities. But no one had an answer to how architecture and urbanism should react to the deregulating supply systems in time and space, the overlapping of urban space by non-material communications spaces. In his introduction, the communications theorist Derrick de Kerkhove (Marshall McLuhan Institute, University of Toronto) saw the primal conflict between mind and matter in the conventional examples of utopian rhetoric, resolved by the emergence of cyberspace - assuming that it will still be possible to optimize mind-machine contact with the biodfeedback that is to be developed. The architects and planners were then invited to give their definition of the relationship between reality and virtuality.

Wilfried Hackenbroich (Berlin) saw little use in the distinction between physical and virtual space, because for him representations that have almost inseparable contact with the physical space already create virtual environments. He presented a project which focused on the design of ‘Interspace', or transitional space. By sending SMS reports by handy to a web address, the location in the urban space of Berlin was visualized on the web page and the urban space virtually simulated by the messages sent. Conversely, though, it was also possible to call up digital messages sent from other sites at real locations, thus subtly linking the two spaces.

Jan Willem van Kuilenburg (Mono Lab, Rotterdam) presented in terminology appropriate to the media hype, 'links' and 'hyper-rings' of crazy urban schemes for 'Randstad Cowboys', a compression of the most diverse urban functions and the stacking of entire city districts; but when questioned he had to admit to not yet working with digital space. Fiona Raby (Dunne & Raby, London) by contrast criticized the dearth of aesthetic quality in the distinctions made between material and virtual space. She sought the cause of this in the object fixation of designers of technological equipment. Designers, she felt, should visualize the influence of technology on space and conceive of the city as a medium. She uses Gaussmeters to investigate electromagnetic fields in the city and visualizes the radiation in space; or broad-band scanners to listen in to the frequencies of intercoms and baby-phones and transport the contents to the public realm. She sees it as her task as an architect to develop a remote control for the city that can make buildings speak and enable interactive communication with the city.

Marten Suhr (urbitect c-base e. V, Berlin) and Bettina Vismann (TU Berlin) are likewise concerned with communication with the city. Their claim was that there is a spaceship lying beneath the central-city area of Berlin that was damaged as a result of a failed leap in time in the prehistoric age and can now be reconstructed. This was a pointed allusion to the current Berlin architectural debate on perimeter blocks and cornice height that has itself got bogged down in history. It was immediately clear that the faked ruins of the stranded spaceship appeal more to the imagination than reconstruction of the ruined historical city, especially if you imagined the spaceship taking off after its reassembly.

Caroline Bos and Ben van Berkel (UN Studio, Rotterdam) formulated very different demands of IT using their design for the station in Arnhem. As a new design instrument, the computer enables the architect to process static material in such a way that dynamic forces such as the caIculated flows of future users or transport systems can be imprinted, as it were, in the building. The fluid transitions thus developed between inside and outside and between different levels, however, have perhaps more of a symbolic quality, because once the amorphous form has solidified into concrete it will scarcely be able to accommodate further changes in the parameters. But the computer not only optimizes technology, it also develops new organizational structures. So van Berkel and Bos see the architect not as a master builder, but as an intermediary in a network. Communication via the internet as an essential part of a process-orientated planning that is constantly adjusting to the present situation, also informs the urban design strategy of Ulrich Königs and Christoph Heinemann (ifau, Berlin). They recommend that cities get rid of their planning departments and replace them with an on-line planning platform where the different interest groups can organize their own planning - and are even forced to do so, because by not taking part, their interests and demands will not be represented as they are in traditional urban design. Königs and Heinemann call for critical and creative participation; not only the users of the city, but the investors and administrators too can join in this 'exhilarating' process of ongoing development and change. The architects are convinced that negative developments can be prevented by the possibility of immediate intervention, though they gave no indication of when the transition to built facts should take place, What is certain, though, is that this procedure needs to be an adequate urbanistic response to the move from a disciplined to a flexible society in which the individual controls his own life.

The confluence of urban and technologically generated spaces has led to the idea of 'Metacities', cities without a place, where the city is organized as a System of communication channels. Ivan Redi and his colleagues (ortlos, Graz/Los Angeles) consistently elevated the absence of place to a programme, at the same time virtualizing the profession of architect. Detached from the reality of building with its spatial and social responsibilities, they confine themselves to devising CAD-based scripts for developing the city, which they presented in two short animations. By contrast, the seven core members of the German group of architects OSA (Office for Subversive Architecture) obviously enjoyed their first confrontation with physical space, and their presentation of interventions in non-places was the cause of much hilarity. Their design for a three-roomed house in a pedestrian subway under a motorway, where you can look in from outside and which was recently offered to let, was an image that stayed with me.

The seriousness of the situation was made clear the following day when Kevin Rhowbotham (Alphaville, London) explained that cities have become no more than media for the production of spectacles. In order not to disappear as places, they have to design an image for themselves - only media coverage gains them the necessary attention, in the international rivalry between cities. It is therefore a question of taking the price to market. And concepts for the place are already being offered by megaconcerns, as Gunter Henn (Berlin/Munich) demonstrated with the 'Gläserne Manufaktur' of the Volkswagen company, due to be implemented in the inner city of Dresden. The customer is invited to spend a week watching his car being assembled through the windows of a transparent complex of buildings. The pre-industrial image of production on a single site, however, disguises the reality of present-day production methods which are essentially based on out-sourcing, the downsizing of production by farming out parts to other companies. Nevertheless, it is striking that this staging of car production is not only set within the framework of a cultural programme, but that the complex of buildings also makes semi-public spaces available. Henn expects this project to contribute to reanimating the centre of Dresden and makes it clear that it is the architect's responsibility to give shape to this new market space. That companies are proffering their visions on the city is nothing new (think of the World Fairs), but for them to build cities certainly is. For Volkswagen Henn designed the 'car city' in Wolfsburg, a project that cost almost 1000 million DM. The car manufacturer expects that the value of its products will rise by being presented in a staged space in a pavilion constructed for the occasion. The concept is intended to get the customer to buy his car directly from the concern instead of from a dealer. In economic terms this project is not interesting - the admission charge for non-customers is not even enough to pay for the upkeep of the building - but the idea is rooted in the conviction that by associating the brandname with a place, the customer will identify more strongly with the concern and his emotional relationship with it will be enhanced. In other words, the architecture sublimates the fetishistic relationship Germans have with their cars. Anna Klingmann (ETH Zurich) does something similar in her attempt to give the Adidas brand a physical form and a place in the real world. Proceeding from the product design, she developed a building typology for the head office of the concern in Herzogenaurach that gives physical shape to the advertising aesthetics of the manufacturer of sports articles and transforms it into three-dimensional objects. The landscape and the buildings meld into a scenographic sequence and are intended to create a space that is inseparably linked with the brand.

George Wiktor (BRC Imagination Arts, Rotterdam/Los Angeles), designer of the mise-en-scéne of the 'Gläserne Manufaktur' in Dresden, went on to make it abundantly clear that it is the way objects are perceived and experienced that is decisive now, not production and design. He demonstrated the transition from a capitalism geared to industrial production to one based on the cultural market by referring to the tourist branch, the biggest industry worIdwide. According to him, architecture should provide the right décor for the unlimited enjoyment of leisure. This presentation, which concluded with the image of a Mickey Mouse waving from the Brandenburger Tor, did not make things easy for the next speaker, Brendan MacFarIane (Jakob&MacFarIane, Paris). His design for the roof restaurant of the Centre Pompidou - an aluminium-coated, cave-like architecture - is intended to give the cultural building a new identity, yet was more reminiscent of the Flintstones' living room.

All that remained was the insight that present-day urbanism's endeavour to develop a form or formal principle for the city as a response to the dynamic of its structure, has failed. There were admittedly attempts, particularly by Dutch architects and urban designers, to regain planning expertise by resolutely involving all forms of urban activity in the planning aided by new programming techniques. However, in a city that has become the transmitter of an uninterrupted series of messages, that makes itself virtual through Is representation in the media, the aesthetic sensation has become less linked to objects and more of a process that can be experienced and enjoyed as such. As Manfredo Tafuri put it back in 1973 in his Architecture and Utopia, in the city as life-style fiction, ‘in order to "sustain" the metropolitan space, architecture seems obliged to become a spectre of itself.'