Stream: We started from the idea that global urbanization is now a fact. It was theorized in the 2000s by Rem Koolhaas, Saskia Sassen, or in the book Mutations. This being said, what has changed during the last decade? What are the key factors in the evolution of this global urbanization?
David Ruy: It’s interesting to see how since 9/11, globalization is no longer celebrated without some reservation. We have become painfully aware of all that is problematic about it. Globalization has presented difficulties since the beginning, but the general hope has always been that it would be a net gain for civilization. When those towers came down, I think we could sense that an important line was crossed in history. A few months after that terrible day, I was at Kennedy Airport in New York, and I lingered at Eero Saarinen’s beautiful TWA terminal. It had been recently announced that TWA would shut operations and flights would no longer leave from this building that had so beautifully symbolized the future at one time. It was troubling to see that everything that was promised about the future had actually come true but with consequences never anticipated.
Ultimately, I’m less focused on the politics of 9/11, and more on how such events are a possibility within the technological regimes of contemporary civilization. Globalization, beyond political policies, is only possible because of things like mobile phones, the Internet, airplanes, cargo ships, virtualized capital, and the like. As astonishing and liberating as these technologies can be, it is remarkable and disturbing that every technology also seems to open up a completely new form of danger. I’m still amazed that I can jump on an airplane, fly to another part of the world and withdraw my money in a foreign currency from a machine using a piece of plastic inscribed with a magnetic code. It is also amazing that someone in another part of the world can hack the database of an online merchant that I bought something at and retrieve the very same code and withdraw the same money. The very same airplane that I flew to Paris in could easily have carried the next flu pandemic. These are just small examples of scenarios that are thrilling, terrifying, and unprecedented. Despite the fact that these types of scenarios inspire a great deal of negativity regarding technology and globalization, it seems naïve to me to think that these problematic innovations can somehow be reversed. Technology is not some external malevolent force, it is instead an embodiment of our knowledge. We can’t un-know what we know.
What has certainly changed in the last decade is that the narrative of globalization no longer reads like a fairy tale. At the start of the century, Google famously framed their informal corporate motto, “Don’t be evil.” I can only shake my head in amazement at how quickly that childlike aspiration changed. With everything we learned recently about the NSA’s activities, it is impossible to look at a company like Google today as a liberating force for positive change. However, Google shouldn’t be singled out, as they are just one of many actors that are now designing and constructing the infrastructure for globalization 2.0.
Though much of our attention is on the very old political battlefields, much of what has come and is yet to come is now being formulated in the technological arena. Beyond the political will to communicate and circulate globally are the technological platforms that allow this to occur. Whether it is Monsanto patenting and trading your DNA, or your love letters sitting in some server in a data center, or Amazon sending you a book before you even knew you were going to order it, or your selfies sitting on Facebook for years after you die, these are just dress rehearsals for far stranger platforms that will constitute what we will eventually call “the world.”
What might turn out to be the strangest thing about the next version of globalization is the emergence of not one but many worlds. Each of these worlds will be defined not by human experiences but by the technological platforms that give each world coherence and the ability to communicate to itself. And, inevitably, each of these worlds will have a tendency to close off from the others, or at least, to miscommunicate with the others. Our habits are structured or “formatted” according to the mutations of our technological regimes. This has always been true to some degree. However, the proliferation of platforms is becoming a disturbing trend because the frustration we’ve all experienced with regard to file formats might become a problem regarding life itself. We’ve all had a file that we’ve invested a lot of work into that we could not open because we switched platforms. What if we’re not talking about files in the near future but persons? Globalization depends on the universality of the formats in which its actors operate. And if in globalization 2.0, we have multiple formats that vie for supremacy, how global will globalization actually be? How much of our happiness will be constrained by the transportability of our formatting? These transformations to our civilization largely remain invisible, which is why much of what I’m saying here will probably sound strange to most people.
My concern as a cultural practitioner is how culture is being leveraged today to distract us from these mutations. It raises many difficult questions about the efficacy of architecture, and its capacity for participating in the shaping of a future. One of my favorite watches is the Rolex GMT. It is a beautiful watch that was designed for the first transatlantic commercial pilots and was given to the Pan Am pilots who made the first journeys. It was designed to keep track of multiple time zones and embodies in its design all the glamor and promise of a global, internationalized life. You see, pilots don’t wear this watch anymore except maybe out of nostalgia. You see it more on the wrists of bankers on Wall Street as a precious object of desire. It’s rumored that Saarinen’s TWA terminal will be reopened soon as a restaurant or shopping area. It’s been owned by Jet Blue for a number of years now, and it’s just been sitting there for symbolic purposes, much like the Rolex on the banker’s wrist. One can’t help but conclude that behind these beautiful objects is a less visible object that wields more influence on our lives.
Some metaphors of nature
Stream: Do you think we live in a new era, an era of anthropogenic rupture? That it's possibly too late, we’ve gone too far ?
David Ruy: From a geological perspective, the Anthropocene seems to be pretty much a fact at this point. Setting aside cultural perceptions, just examine the actual geology. Drill a hole in the ground and extract a cylindrical cross section. In the boring sample, you’ll typically see distinct lines that mark the major geological periods. For example, the last such period was the Holocene. We trace that to the last major line that appears in the cross section. What drew that line? The Ice Age. Though it is still up for debate, there appears to be a new line visible marking the start of a new geological period, the Anthropocene. What drew that line? It was us, through pollution, agriculture, mining, and, of course, building. Civilization has become a force of nature. This should be a cold shower for humanists. Any persisting desire to separate the human being as a special case of being now seems hopelessly nostalgic. Whatever nature is, if there actually is such a thing, we are part of it too.
The Copernican revolution was founded on the realization that the earth is not at the center of the universe. I think we have another such revolution where we are starting to realize that the human being does not have a special ontological status that is outside of nature. I don’t think we properly appreciate the implications of this revolution. This is not a call to reject civilization and embrace “the natural.” I am deeply suspicious of the tendency to valorize nature as somehow possessing an intelligence that we don’t have (which I think is superstitious). When we say “nature” isn’t it weird that what comes to mind is a lush green forest with a lake and mountains in the background? We don’t think of bacteria in the stratosphere; we don’t think of bioluminescent marine life; we don’t think of the boiling cauldron of ammonia on Jupiter. Most of all, we don’t think of ourselves. We have to acknowledge that our pastoral desires still extend from the Romantic period. We really need to get past this.
I’m not a doomsayer, however. There are profound dangers in the environment, but I don’t think we’re living a condemned existence. However, I’m pretty sure that sustainability as it is understood today is a deeply unsatisfactory response. In my view, sustainable and mainstream ecological practices are political palliatives and underscore a deeper problem regarding the management of risk in capital investments. I think it is far more likely that all of these planetary problems like climate change, the erosion of the pedosphere, the eventual depletion of fossil fuel energy reserves, the poisoning of food and water supplies will ultimately require solutions that will be shockingly unnatural (from our current perspective) and technologically aggressive. It won’t be pretty.
Stream: You define architecture as being caught somewhere between nature and technology, and you say that you work at this intersection. Can you explain this idea?
David Ruy: The two most noticeable movements of the past two decades have been the one towards nature and the one towards computation. The past two decades have seen not only the birth of the sustainability and green agendas but also a thorough incorporation of digital tools that has completely changed how architecture is designed and built. These two historical trends have generally been understood as separate phenomena, but I think they are intimately linked.
The ecologist Daniel Botkin writes something very interesting in his book Discordant Harmonies. He points out that in Western civilization, there have been two dominant metaphors for nature. In antiquity, you have the metaphor of nature as divinity (Poseidon rules the oceans, etc.), followed in the age of enlightenment by the metaphor of nature as machine (a kind of grand calibrated clockwork). In the first case, humanity is victim to this great unknowable power that either provides for us or destroys us. The second case is more interesting. Nature as a great machine implies a steady state, but more importantly, implies that the human being is outside that machine. And what does humanity do? We break that machine. We throw the clockwork out of time. It is then the burden of the enlightened mind to understand and care for this grand machine. We have to be careful not to break it with our greedy, imprudent nature. As you can probably see, many of our attitudes even today extend from this metaphor. Botkin provocatively points out that what we are probably seeing today is the emergence of a third metaphor: nature as computer. Biologists today are decoding your DNA. (What is DNA? It is code.)
Theoretical physicists postulate black holes as giant quantum computers. Mathematicians study one-dimensional cellular automata as a possible explanation for seemingly random patterns in natural objects. Engineers use computer simulations of wind, seismic movements in the earth’s crust, fracture dynamics of materials to implement building designs. I could go on like this for a while. However, I don’t think I would go so far as to claim that nature is actually a computer. Rather, I find it interesting and illuminating to see that this is a new metaphor for our moment in history. This analysis truly links the nature discourse with the computation discourse, and I think architecture should respond to this because it is here, at the intersection of the two, where I think the deepest innovations will occur and where the most progressive expressions of our time will be designed.
The beauty of urban uncertainty
Stream: Some new cities conceived as “smart” and “green” (like Songdo or Masdar) play on extra technology and connectivity (more than changes in behavior), but they often lead to a form of over-planning which rejects the complexity of urban nature, its dynamic form, incompleteness, and constant evolution. Should architects focus more on that complexity than on technology?
David Ruy: I dislike these kinds of planning ideas and fundamentally disagree with them. Use of terms like “smart” and “green” are the worst kind of euphemism for what is in actuality a risk management strategy for preventing unexpected outcomes through deeper regulation. You can make the argument that risk has to be managed in order to release the flow of capital. However, this is antithetical to all that we have come to value in urban life—the profundity of life in the city is all about risk and unexpected outcomes. Thinking in terms of predictable systems devalues the beautiful uncertainty of urban life.
Mythologies about nature have always served as a background legitimization of systems thinking. It is a common belief that models for perfect systems are found in nature. I don’t share this belief. Systems are products of the human mind, even when you think you’re seeing it in nature. Systems always have to be forced, and every relationship that is established undercuts some nascent possibility. I am not an anarchist. I think some degree of rational planning must occur. However, I think it is essential to understand that systems are tools and not ontologies. There is no essential good in systems in themselves. I think systems, because they are tools, have to be legitimized relative to specific goals that can only be articulated politically.
The popularity of this trend towards regulation, however, is something that even the most famous laboratory of urban life, New York City, has been falling victim to in recent years. As many have remarked, over the past two decades, the risk to capital investment has been reduced, the crime rate has fallen, the parks have been cultivated, the waterfront reclaimed, bicycles have been introduced, nice buildings are being built, but yet, the cost of living has gotten out of control, the demographics have become more stratified, the cultural community has become marginalized, and it is becoming nearly impossible to be young and financially solvent. As New York City has become more regulated and investor-friendly, it must also become flatter and more predictable. It was for me a symbolic moment when the music club CBGB, the birthplace of punk rock, lost its lease. Patti Smith spoke out in public recently declaring, “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling. But there are other cities. Detroit. Poughkeepsie. New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: find a new city.” Yet people are still rushing to New York City—it is the fastest growing city in the United States. It is a victim of its own success to some degree. The much-celebrated previous planning commissioner of New York City, Amanda Burden, stated at a lecture at Columbia University a few years ago, “Our goal is to grow, but not change.” I find that statement very disturbing. What remains to be seen is whether or not the urban phenomenon that is New York City can resist this move towards regulation and predictability. It has throughout its history, so let’s see.
Which realism for architecture ?
Stream: How do you combine your speculative research and your applied work? Do you see a difference (utopia vs. realism)?
David Ruy: I am interested these days in something that might be neither utopian nor realist and have been carefully monitoring the work coming out of the speculative realist movement in philosophy, especially the work of Graham Harman. I think there is a third possibility in the work of these young philosophers that beautifully destabilizes this awful dichotomy.
There’s nothing worse for the architect than the phrase, “That’s not realistic.” That simple phrase can be shorthand for many things: it’s too costly, it looks structurally unsound, it won’t work with the program, no one will know how to build it. However, the most interesting version of why something seems unrealistic is this one: “It looks weird.” In other words, the proposed architecture doesn’t reflect how reality should look.
Ever since the publication of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, but perhaps even long before that, we’ve had reasons to doubt the mind’s ability to possess absolute knowledge. Even in antiquity, Plato describes our fate as one where we’re stuck in a world of shadows, doomed to never see things as they are. What’s interesting to me is that this has never been fully digested by our practices—all of which are built on assumptions about what constitutes the real. This is where philosophy becomes very valuable for questioning some of these assumptions. We will always have to assume some things about the real, but, sometimes, our assumptions become too static and unproductive. Sometimes we need the real to change.
If in fact we have no access to the thing itself, whatever we think the real is pertains more to how we think the real should look, rather than what it is in an absolute sense. Because of this, there is a representational problem with regard to the real, and this is where I think architecture is at its best. There is no other human practice that is so much about the problem of the real. Architecture is the first thing that tells us what reality looks like. Architectural aesthetics is not just about beautification and decorum; it sets limits on life’s possibilities and provides a framework for experience. So isn’t it dangerous for architecture to cease being progressive? Didn’t we already know this in May 1968?
What I think we need is a “weird realism”. We need strategies that are completely devoted to the problem of the real, but that question normative aesthetics concerning life’s possibilities. In the sixties, when utopian architecture was privileged, I think the strategy was very different. It was to locate the radical architectural project in the world of the not-real, and from there, throw rocks at the real. The intent was to construct new fantasies, believing that reality had become intractable and impossible to confront. The new fantasies would then subvert the real by changing our actions through newly constructed desires. It is no coincidence that Lacan had such a huge influence during this time. I think this strategy fails during late capitalism for two reasons. First, as I alluded to earlier, late capitalism depends on constructed fantasies to distract attention away from the instrumental (look at Songdo, they have their own version of New York’s Central Park). The perpetual construction of utopias is already a condition of our real. It has been thoroughly appropriated by governing institutions. Second, and more importantly, the construction of fantasies, or the not-real, assumes that the real is concrete, when the real is actually abstract. I think this is almost an unintended consequence of utopian strategies. They strangely reinforce the real that we know.
Given the failures of utopian architecture, the response cannot be a surrender to the normal, the everyday, and critical anti-aesthetic practices. Some believe that it is best to accept the constraints of “real” practice and somehow do some good from the inside (like an inside job bank robbery). I think this kind of idea overestimates the power of architectural intelligence to construct Trojan horses and ironically underestimates the power of architecture to directly produce a strange real without subterfuge. More importantly, such a turn towards a naive realism has the same problem as utopianism in assuming that there is a concrete real.
Like a person you’ve known for twenty years suddenly acting strangely, leading you to think, “I don’t know who this person is,” architecture at its best can do the same to the real. My favorite moments in architecture have always been those astonishing times when I thought to myself, “Wow, I didn’t know the world could do that.”
(This article was published in Stream 03 in 2014.)