But all is not lost, for architects abound in two other groups, The NYC Infrastructure Task Force, headed by Marilyn Taylor from SOM and New York/New Visions, an "unprecedented coalition of planning, architecture, engineering and design organizations representing over 30,000 professionals" but, which is in actual practice largely run by the New York AIA. SOM’s offices were close to Ground Zero but despite its genuine concern as a member of the downtown neighborhood, Taylor’s organization has become less visible. In no small measure, I suspect, because of Skidmore’s unseemly ties to the developer. For sheer volume of declarative output, NYNV takes the prize. This group has shown remarkable generosity and worked unbelievably hard. They are as earnest as the day is long. But, ultimately, their good intentions have produced a remarkably conventional and unsurprising set of ideas and proposals given the extremely unconventional circumstances that have produced one of the most significant urban planning projects in modern history.
It is precisely these unconventional circumstances that have all of these organizations banging heads. But the head-banging is not contentious, no one is trying to bushwhack or undercut the other. It is rather like very good friends groping their way along in the dark, apologizing to their neighbor each time a toe is stepped on. Overt criticality is unseemly, full democracy is perceived essential to the polity, and the autocratic specialist speaks circumspectly and defers to popular sentiment. Niceties abound in these weirdest of days and, so far, the "vision thing" has not been very persuasive.
To further complicate matters, this straining to see the inchoate future of the World Trade Center site is burdened by the intense gaze of both the global community and, at a more local scale, the tourists. Both constituencies have a legitimate claim to what is a national and international tragedy. Yet, while deliberative and governing bodies in the international community await a geo-political response beyond a global attack on Al-Qaeda, and an urban response that might reflect new US attitudes toward the environment, mega-risers, defensible architectures, and public space, tourists from many nations have swarmed to the periphery of Ground Zero.
The city, spurred on by lost revenue in the wake of the event, suddenly caught its post-9.11wind and began to move quickly to organize the tourist spectacle.
In January, the Diller+Scofidio, David Rockwell, and Kevin Kennon Viewing Bridge opened and artist Mary Miss’ project for the chain-link fence facade around the site was given the go ahead.
As the streets of Lower Manhattan filled once again, a number of police officers and recovery firemen complained bitterly of the undue stress that managing the city-encouraged tourists imposed on them but I also know they were thinking of their peers who to this day continue quietly and in small groups to rake the ground before the heavy machinery in search of bodies.
It is easy to forget that less than half the firemen and police officers killed on 9/11 have yet to be found or identified. Private affairs as public spectacle is hard duty.
And that, as they say, is the News from New York.
Although my remarks may appear patronizing or cynical here, truly, at heart, I am trying not to be either. We should all be deeply grateful for the genuine efforts and good intentions of our colleagues. I also believe that, down the line, what will be distilled from all of this will be of genuine value. At the same time, I suspect that whatever this value proves to be, it will be most unexpected. Indeed, the more dogmatically prescriptive any one of these groups is, the less it will have to contribute to the others. We seem to be engaged in a social process that knows no other way to conduct itself and which feels frustratingly inadequate.
And that brings me to the issue of the space of Time, the time of Space, and some ideas about their relationship to social practice in an environment.
II…Cognitive Maps, Docile Bodies, and Ecological Niches
Earlier I had mentioned architecture’s odd capacity to both reflect and determine social practice. What strikes me as odd is the fact that this seemingly paradoxical condition of being able to both engineer and exemplify our social activities seems to have both a synchronic and asynchronic nature. Characteristic of feedback loops - that cybernetic and counter-intuitive notion which has screwed forever our romance with the smooth flowing River of Time - it is a condition that seems to fall weirdly outside of coherent temporality because of the built-in reflexivity of the relationship and because it is intrinsic to architecture while often disjunctive in its social consequences.
The feedback loop works like this: The social body (all of us), which most of the time barely notices the material and institutional constraints that architectural space places on it. By this, I mean things as simple as directing our bodies to turn leftward, say, into the sun and not rightward into deep shadow, or as complex as the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas Hearings where the institutional formation of the room’s classical space-shape and formal detailing, panoptic arrangement of male-attended furniture, Washington DC urban milieu rather than, say, Hill’s home territory at the University of Oklahoma, and the prime-time scheduling surely contributed more to their fates than any specific testimony.
Also, of course, is the often-noted example of the perceptual & conceptual collision between bin Laden and most Americans’ architectural understanding and use of the Twin Towers…pretty different attitudes here of the poetics of the skyscraper in relation to gravity, I’d say as well.
But, getting back to the feedback loop… the social body, taking care of its daily business, barely notices these material and institutional constraints that architecture places on it. Yet, when it does take notice, it typically begins to question what it is our architectural configurations (whether object buildings or land-use patterns, etc.) signify about us. It then begins to imagine new configurations (symbolic, formal, and spatial). These new architectures, by placing new constraints on our activities, produce, yet again, new social configurations which, then, acquire new significations which, in turn, are questioned anew, and so on, and so on. It seems that it is this critical looping that propels us onward in creative change and makes for what we call the history of architecture among other histories, sociological and otherwise.
But what I want to draw your attention to is the inextricability of this relationship between the material world - architecture - and our self-identity within it. They are so embedded in one another that it seems incoherent to think of one without the other and, further, that even our language terms somehow always falls short of being able to describe it precisely. One contributing factor, I think, is that we are still so steeped in the essentialist Cartesian vocabulary still spinning its wheels over what architecture is , rather than what it does, not to mention the scratching of heads over what humanity is… as if we self-studying organisms could be meaningfully understood in terms of some pure psychological nature apart from the environment in which we conduct our affairs.
The history of philosophy, of course, shows this as a fundamental project. More recently, Frederic Jamieson has edged toward this problem in his logic-of-late-capitalist spin on Marxist historical-materialism, by suggesting the notion of cognitive maps to describe how we construct our perceptual and conceptual worlds in response to the material constraints of architecture. Foucault went further in his notion of architecture’s material and institutional disciplining of what he termed, our docile bodies. Both accounts, among other things, challenge the idea of the unmediated self by suggesting that essentialist/existentialist questions like "…who am I?" don’t make much sense in isolation from material, historical, or social context.
Now, for my part, I’d like to briefly add another story to these because I think the sweep of its implications is particularly broad. My story takes its theme from the idea of the ecological niche.
In ecological thinking, it is truly meaningless to separate the species from its so-called niche in an environment. The term, ecosystem, stemming from the Greek word, oikos, which roughly translates to mean "a place to live", refers to a complex, interrelated network of living organisms and their nonliving surroundings. Superficially, the relationship of an ecological niche to a species seems very similar to the relationship of architecture to Homo sapiens…our particular species. Furthermore, one might suspect in this analogy that the difficulties I have suggested in the way we think about the latter might pertain to the former. I don’t think so, if only for the fact that our study and understanding of the natural world is developing quite nicely, that is, so long as we don’t include ourselves within it.
In any case, here is the difference as I see it.
Firstly, the idea of the niche has been reconsidered by most evolutionary biologists because of what is viewed as an incorrect implication that it is an empty space in nature simply waiting to be occupied by the likeliest faunal species that happens to stumble upon it. Whether one is speaking of a savannah, a mountain range, tidal pool, or whatever, this "stage set" implication overlooks how the dynamics of biotic information coming from the organism itself actually produces the niche. Just as there can be no organism without an environment, so there can be no environment without an organism. The point is not that a physical world couldn’t exist without the organism, it is simply that this physical world needs to be constructed, in a sense, in order to become an environment in which an organism can conducts its affairs. And it is the reciprocal interactions, the feedback, between the organism and its outer world that makes this possible.
Richard Lewontin, the geneticist from your neighborhood, makes the comment that " the properties of a species map the shape of the underlying external world and (consequently) the study of organisms is really a study of the shape of the environmental space. The organisms themselves being but the passive medium through which we see the shape of the external world". He goes on to suggest one ask an ornithologist for the description of a bird and predicts you will hear something like the following: "The bird eats insects in the summer when they are abundant, but switches to seeds in the fall. It makes a nest of grass and small twigs held together with some mud, built about three meters above the ground in the crotch of a small tree. In the spring and summer, it is found as far north as 55 degrees, but in winter it flies south and is absent at about 40 degrees latitude. In the spring, males return first to establish breeding territories, which are later occupied by the returning females" and so on. He concludes, "Every element in this specification of the environment is a description of the activities of the bird. As a consequence of the properties of the animal’s sense organs, nervous system, metabolism, and shape, there is a spatial and temporal juxtaposition of bits and pieces of the world that produces a surrounding for the organism that is relevant to it." In a nutshell, so to speak, for Lewontin also implicates the non-dynamic flora to make his case as well, it is almost impossible to understand the spatial and temporal distribution of any species if the environment or niche is characterized simply as a property of a physical locale rather than of a space defined by the activities of the organism itself.
The Feedback loop, although most often identified with technological cybernetics and information theory, has a deep, and some say, originary history, in ecology and field biology. In fact, it is interesting to note the lexical similarity between ecology-speak and that of the digital information community (not to mention the latter’s excited interest in the computing capability of DNA). But there is an interesting distinction between its technological use and its use in ecology. While the concept of a servomotor might be an example of the former where output and input are carefully regulated via feedback inhibition to control the resultant condition, in ecology, feedback into the system produces emergent and unanticipated resultant conditions. As yet, there is very little conventional control or large-scale predictability in ecological processes. And to steer a way back to architecture, I believe this is also the case in our social practices. Worse for us, the implications of the emergent surprises in our lives are more dire and we see this each time we get rear-ended by our attempts to move forward in our relationship not just to the natural environment but also to the global community.
From our position as a technology driven, language using, and symbol mongering species, we have developed scientific thought (and by this I mean both the natural and social sciences) which places us in the unique position of being capable of speaking about all the species in the world without any of them speaking back…"but wait one moment here, fellow, I’m not sure you have it quite right"…this kind of thing never happens. It is only when we turn this science on ourselves that we get back-talk and it usually is not to everyone’s liking. 9.11 is but one example.
And so, without intending to commit the naturalistic fallacy here, my point is only that this analogy to the "natural" world seems useful to ponder if only to force us to think in evolutionary and environmentalist terms about humble origins, constructing appropriate nests for ourselves, and deep time.