Small Breaths, Big Ships

Last weekend I made my (almost) monthly trip to Chelsea with a long list of shows to see. I started off with two sound-related exhibitions:

Voice Array

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Voice Array and Last Breath were at bitforms (where, I just discovered, one of my fantastic students works). From the press release:

Voice Array is a construction for vocal improvisation that uses blinking LEDs and a customized intercom system of audio playback and recording. Capturing hundreds of voices and translating each one into a series of light flashes, the piece stores a unique pattern as a loop in the first light of the array, until the next participant speaks into the intercom. Each new recording is pushed along its long horizontal band of LEDs, as sounds of the voices gradually accumulate. When the first voice reaches the other side of the piece, the participant’s phrase is once again released as sound, punctuated by the staggering pulsation of all the lights in tandem. The ever-changing voices stored by the piece play back through a directional speaker, during moments of less activity.

Last Breath is a robotic installation that stores and circulates the breath of a person forever, between a bellows and a brown paper bag. The apparatus is automatically activated 10,000 times per day, the typical respiratory frequency for an adult at rest. With each breath the piece generates quiet sounds from the bellows, the motor and the crackling of the paper bag. The piece also sighs 158 times a day. For the exhibition in New York, the piece is a biometric portrait of Cuban singer Omara Portuondo.

Then I was off to Susan Philipsz’s The Distant Sound at Tanya Bonakdar. From the press release:

The exhibition takes its title from the 1910 opera, Der ferne Klang, or The Distant Sound, by the Austrian composer Franz Schreker. In Schreker’s work, a composer is haunted by an ethereal noise that he tries all his life to capture. It is only on his deathbed that he realizes the sound has been around him all the time, in the rhythmic textures of modern life. In Philipsz’s installation, bits of the score for the horns, strings, and chimes from Schreker’s opera are disassembled and transcribed so that each note comes from its own speaker. Abstracting the individual notes from the composition as a whole transforms the music into sound and creates an open-endedness that allows the ambient noises of the space to intermingle with the work… A set of photographs that document the journey from Glasgow to Dundee, taken while Philipsz was still in college, create a stark visual landscape along the back wall of the main space. The atmospheric diptych, capturing cables in transit, speaks of the dynamic of movement and separation.

Oddly, I can’t remember a thing about this work — but ArtFagCity has a good write-up, which might help to explain why the show didn’t gel for me or plant itself in my memory.

Susan Philipsz

Perhaps in keeping with the layering theme, but translating it into the visual realm, I saw Michelle Stuart’s lovely Palimpsests at Leslie Tonkonow. From the press release:

The forensic-archeological term palimpsest, defined as “something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form” can be seen as the operative metaphor for Michelle Stuart’s entire body of work, from the pioneering Land Art pieces of the late 1960s and 1970s to the paintings, drawings, sculpture and mixed-media objects that have followed to date.

And in regard to her subject matter:

Since the 1960s, Michelle Stuart’s ardent curiosity about the natural world, fascination with the cosmos, and lifelong commitment to social justice have emerged in works of art that transcend geographical, philosophical, and aesthetic boundaries.

Michelle Stuart

And continuing with the visual palimpsests, I then saw Barry Le Va‘s The Italian Project: Monica in Grey at Sonnabend (which, for some reason, always seems to have a Bernd + Hilla Becher show going on!). Le Va’s 49 collages feature images of Monica Vitti (from Antonioni’s films) and lots of graphical references to optics.

Barry Le Va
Dennis Adams, Malraux’s Shoes

Le Va’s work had an archival quality that continued through in Dennis Adams‘s Malraux’s Shoes and Tagging the Archive at Kent Fine Art. I’ll quote at length from the press release, given the relevance of this piece to next week’s discussion — on the “archival impulse” — in my Archives Libraries Databases class:

In his new video work, Malraux’s Shoes, Dennis Adams masquerades as André Malraux (1901–1976), the French writer, adventurer, Resistance fighter, cultural provocateur, art theorist, orator, statesman, and passionate archivist of the world history of art. Malraux’s arrest at age twenty-one by French colonial authorities in Cambodia for stealing bas-reliefs from a Khmer temple is an early testament to what would become his obsessive sampling of visual art from diverse cultures. For Malraux, this sampling was a means of laying claim to the very possibility of art’s transcendent value. Over the last forty years of his life, Malraux would assemble, disassemble, and reassemble montages of photographic reproductions to create Le Musée imaginaire, which ranks as one the twentieth century’s seminal manifestations of the archive along with Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, Hanne Darboven’s Cultural History 1980–1983, and Gerhard Richter’s ongoing Atlas project. Malraux’s idea of an imaginary museum, a “museum without walls” (which he first announced in 1947), is a prescient manifesto of the digital age that enacts the displacement of the physical art object and the museum by photographic reproduction. And Malraux’s privileging of curatorial over artistic production is a first instance of explicitly locating the creative act in the process of assembling, grouping, and displaying works of work.

The set for Malraux’s Shoes is a reconstruction of the iconic photograph of Malraux standing in his study with the plates of his book The Imaginary Museum of World Sculpture laid out on the floor before him. The entire video is shot on this single set. With the camera positioned overhead, the plates on the floor become the backdrop for every shot; no walls are ever visible. As the camera moves between fixed shot and slow pans, details of the images on the floor create a visual landscape that runs through the work.

More Adams — a Situationist reference, I presume?

Finally, I loved that my afternoon ended with the contrast between the restraint of Richard Tuttle‘s Systems, VIII – XII at Pace, and the abandon of Thomas Hirschhorn’s Concordia, Concordia at Gladstone.


Hirschhorn’s work was “inspired by the sinking of the cruise ship Costa Concordia, which ran aground off the coast of Italy in January 2012.” I love his explanation of how this event was emblematic of so many contemporary conflicts:

I was struck by this apocalyptic upside down vision of the banal and cheap “nice, fake, and cozy” interior of the overturned ship. This pictures the uncertainty and precariousness of the past, of the present moment, and of the future. I saw it as an amusing and disturbing but nevertheless logical and convincing form. This must be the form of our contemporary disaster… I want to do a Big work to show that the saying “Too Big to Fail” no longer makes any sense. On the contrary, when something is Too Big, it must Fail – this is what I want to give Form to. I want to understand this as a logic and this is the Form!

In the corner where the wall meets the ceiling, a table

Media Archaeology Crib Sheet

Daguerreotype via Archaeographer 

Last week in my Urban Media Archaeology class we welcomed two of my former students, who shared with us their fantastic mapping projects from semesters past. There was so much interest in their work — which elicited lots of questions — that we didn’t leave (okay, I didn’t leave) enough time to discuss our readings for the week, which focused on Media Archaeology. To atone for my poor time management, I put together a compilation of quotations from various sources that distill some of the main themes in Media Archaeology. I thought I’d share these notes here, too [and here it is in pdf format].

Media Archaeology


Impetus for Zielinski’s book: 1990s: “The shifts, which had become standard practice, were judged to be a revolution, entirely comparable in significance to the Industrial Revolution. Hailed as the beginning of the information society and new economy… Every last digital phenomenon and data network was celebrated as a brilliant and dramatic innovation” (Zielinski 8)
____20th c fascination with “all things digital” – “The twenty-first century will not have the same craving for media…they will be a part of everyday life….Thus it is all the more urgent to undertake field research on the constellations that obtained before media became established as a general phenomenon…” (Zielinski 33)

studies of new media often share a disregard for the past… The new media have been treated as an all-encompassing and ‘timeless’ realm that can be explained from within.” – yet “Numerous studies and collections addressing the media’s past(s) in relation to their present have appeared in recent years…. Still, one cannot avoid noticing how little attention has often been devoted to defining and discussing methods and approaches” (Huhtamo & Parikka 1)


Michel Foucault, Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Giedion, Ernst Robert Curtius, Dolf Sternberger, Aby Warburg, Marshall McLuhan, recent “debate on new historicism” (2) – “Theories of cultural materialism, discourse analysis, notions of nonlinear temporalities, theories of gender, postcolonial studies, visual and media anthropology, and philosophies of neo-nomadism all belong to the mix” (Huhtamo & Parikka 2)

“When classifications of media archaeology have been attempted, a binary division has usually been drawn between the socially and culturally oriented Anglo-American studies and the techno-hardware approach of German scholars, who have taken their cue from Friedrich Kittler’s synthesis of Foucault, information theory, media history, and McLuhan’s emphasis on the medium as the message.
____One way of explaining this division is to see it as a consequence of different readings of Foucault. We find quite different readings of Foucault in the German variant of media archaeology, which was strongly influenced by Kittler’s Aufschreibeststeme 1800/1900 (1985)…

Foucauldian Archaeology

“The old questions of the traditional analysis (What link should be made between disparate events? How can a causal succession be established between them? What continuity or overall significance do they possess? Is it possible to define a totality, or must one / be content with reconstituting connexions?) are now being replaced by questions of another type: which strata should be isolated from others? What types of series should be established? What criteria of periodization should be adopted for each of them? What system of relations (hierarchy, dominance, stratification, univocal determination, circular causality) may be established between them? What series of series may be established? And in what large-scale chronological table may distinct series of events be determined?” (Foucault 3-4)

“how is one to specify the different concepts that enable us to conceive of discontinuity (threshold, rupture, break, mutation, transformation)? By what criteria is one to isolate the unities with which one is dealing; what is a science? What is an oeuvre? What is a theory? What is a concept? What is a text?’ (Foucault 5)

German Tradition

Kittler argued for the need to adjust Foucault’s emphasis on the predominance of words and libraries to more media-specific ways of understanding culture. According to him, the problem was that ‘discourse analysis ignores the fact that the factual condition is no simple methodological example but is in each case a techno-historical event.’ To be able to understand media technologies from the typewriter to the cinema and on to digital networks an coding paradigms, one must take their particular material nature into consideration – an idea Kittler’s followers like Wolfgang Ernst have adopted for their own work” (8) – Michael Wetzel – “…Kittler has denied any affiliation with the notion of media archaeology” (Huhtamo & Parikka 9)

Anglo-American Tradition

“The Anglo-American tradition has valorized Foucault as a thinker who emphasized the role of discourses as the loci where knowledge is tied with cultural and social power. Material bodies, events, and institutions are all conditioned by discursive formations. The effects of ‘hard’ technology are considered secondary to immaterial forces that differentiate and mediate their uses.” (Huhtamo & Parikka 9)

Anglo-American media archaeologists – “received impulses from the new historicism” – “new cultural history” – “H. Aram Veeser aptly summarized (new historicism’s) ‘key assumptions’ by stating ‘1) that every expressive act is embedded in a network of material practices; 2) that every act of unmasking, critique, and opposition uses the tools it condemns and risks falling prey to the practices it exposes; 3) that literary and non-literary ‘texts’ circulate inseparably; 4) that no discourse, imaginative or archival, gives access to unchanging truths or expresses inalterable human nature; 5) finally…that a critical method and a language adequate to describe culture under capitalism participate in the economy they describe.” (Huhtamo & Parikka 9)

“The German tradition has been claimed to emphasize the role of technology as a primum mobile, which has led to accusations about technological determinism, whereas Anglo-American scholars often assume that technology gets its meanings from preexisting discursive contexts within which it is introduced.” (Huhtamo & Parikka 8)


Discarding the Linear Arrow of Progress

linear successions, which for so long had been the object of research, have given way to discoveries in depth.” (Foucault 3)

“one thing above all others is refined / and expanded: the idea of inexorable, quasi-natural, technical progress…absolute necessity for simple technical artifacts to develop into complex technological systems, or the continual perfecting of the illusionizing potential of media. In essence, such genealogies are comforting fables about a bright future” (2-3) – “The notion of continuous progress from lower to higher, from simple to complex, must be abandoned, together with all the images, metaphors, and iconography that have been – and still are – used to describe progress. Tree structures, steps and stairs, ladders, or cones with the point facing downwards…are, from a paleontological point of view, misleading and should therefore be discarded” (Zielinski 5)

“What is it that holds the approaches and interest of the media archaeologists / together, justifying the term? Discontent with ‘canonized’ narratives of media culture and history may be the clearest common driving force” (Huhtamo & Parikka 2-3) – see Zielinski’s Variantologies

a way of studying recurring cyclical phenomena that (re)appear and disappear and reappear over and over again in media history, somehow seeming to transcend specific historical contexts” (Huhtamo 1997: 222)

Looking at the Margins and Layers

“construction of linear histories runs the risk of leaving important statements, objects, and networks of power in neglected margins” (Parikka & Ernst)

“emphasis is shifting into treating history as a multi-layered construct, a dynamic stream of relationships” (Huhtamo 1997: 221)

Relating the New and the Old

“For…Geert Lovink, media archaeology is by nature a ‘discipline’ of reading against the grain, ‘a hermeneutic reading of the “new” against the grain of the past, rather than telling of the histories of technologies from past to present.’” – “Media archaeologists have challenged the rejection of history by modern media culture and theory alike by pointing out hitherto unnoticed continuities and ruptures. As a consequence, the area for media studies has been pushed back by centuries and extended beyond the Western world. On the basis of their discoveries, media archaeologists have begun to construct alternate histories of suppressed, neglected, and forgotten media that do not point teleologically to the present media-cultural condition as their ‘perfection.’ Dead ends, losers, and inventions that never made it into a material product have important stories to tell.” (Huhtamo & Parikka 3)

“…we will need a different perspective from that which is only able to seek the old in the new. In the latter perspective, history is the promise of continuity and a celebration of the continual march of progress in the name of humankind. Everything has always been around, only in a less elaborate form; one needs only to look. Past centuries were there only to polish and perfect the great archaic ideas….Now, if we deliberative later the emphasis, turn it around, and experiment, the result is worthwhile: do not seek the old in the new, but find something new in the old” (Zielinski 3)

question obsolescence: “If we define obsolescence as something that has fallen out of fashion or has become unwanted, unusable, or outside the mainstream then this definition relies on the constitutive mainstream itself” – “key logic of capitalist production” (Parikka & Hertz)


“My quest in researching the deep time of media constellations is not a contemplative retrospective nor an invitation to cultural pessimists to indulge in nostalgia” (Zielinski 10)


Finding Foucault’s Ruptures, As Well as the Clichéd

“For the anarchaeological approach, taking account of the specific character of media with regard to time has two important consequences. [First,] The field of study cannot encompass the entire process of development; exploring different historical epochs has the aim of allowing qualitative turning points within the development process to emerge clearly. The historical windows that I have selected should be understood as attractive foci, where possible directions for development were tried out and paradigm shifts took place” (31) – 2: “a heightened alertness to ideas, concepts, and events that can potentially enrich our notions for developing the time arts….They appear in the guise of shifts” (Zielinski 32)

“Still, amid all the variety, there is a need to define approaches and perhaps even to crystallize them into ‘methods,’ at least in a local and tactical sense” (14) – Erkki Huhtamo’s “effort to apply the idea of topos”; “The topos approach eschews ‘the new’…emphasizes the clichéd, the commonplace, and ‘the tired’… Identifying new ways in which media culture relies on the already known is just as essential as determining how it embodies and promotes the never before seen. In fact, these two aspects are connected with each other; the new is ‘dressed up’ in formulas that may be hundreds of years old, while the old may provide ‘molds’ for cultural innovations and reorientations” (14) – “the topos approach helps to detect novelties, innovations, and media-cultural ruptures as well” (Huhtamo & Parikka 14)

Foucauldian Archaeology (Discourse Analysis), Minus the Discourse

“Media Archaeology, indebted to the German scholar Friedrich Kittler, as well as the French Michel Foucault and the Canadian Marshall McLuhan, excavates the technological conditions of the sayable and thinkable and strongly critiques narrative media history. As Wolfgang Ernst explains, ‘media archaeology describes the non-discursive practices specified in the elements of the techno-cultural archive. Media archaeology is confronted with Cartesian objects, which are mathematisable things…’ However, if cultural studies has been criticized for not engaged technology rigorously, media archaeologists often appear as ‘hardware-maniac, assembler-devoted and anti-interface ascetics, fixed to a (military) history of media without regard to the present media culture.’ They often seem blind to content and user practices.” (Chun 4)

Rummaging Through Archives

“Media archaeology rummages textual, visual, and auditory archives as well as collections artifacts, emphasizing both the discursive and the material manifestations of culture. Its explorations more fluidly between disciplines, although it does not have a permanent home within any of them. “Such ‘nomadicism,’ rather than being a hindrance, may in fact match its goals and working methods, allowing it to roam across the landscape of the humanities and social sciences and occasionally to leap into the arts.” (Huhtamo & Parikka 3)

Examining False Starts, History’s Losers

Registering false starts, seemingly ephemeral phenomena and anecdotes about media can sometimes be more revealing than tracing the fates of machines that were patented, industrially fabricated and widely distributed in the society – let along the lives of their creators – if our focus in on the meanings that emerge through the social practices related to the use of technology” (Huhtamo 1997: 223)

“mobilizing histories and devices that have been sidelined during the construction of totalizing histories of popular forms of communication” – “lost traces of media technologies” – “’dead’ media technologies and idiosyncratic developments reveal important themes, structures, and links in the history of communication that would normally be occluded by more obvious narratives. This includes tracing irregular developments and unconventional genealogies of present-day communication technologies” (Parikka & Hertz)

“…media archaeology (1) as a ‘history of losers,’ or what linear history of media ‘forget’; as a multilayered resonance with new film history and the multiple connections and modalities of media, (3) as recurring themes (Huhtamo, Bolter, Grusin) (Parikka & Hertz)


“The mere rediscovery of the forgotten, the establishment of oddball paleontologies, of idiosyncratic genealogies, uncertain lineages, the excavation of antique technologies or images, the account of erratic technical developments, are, in themselves, insufficient to the building of a coherent discursive methodology” (Druckery ix)

“danger is often marginalia for its own sake, a curiosity cabinet way of doing media history” (Parikka & Hertz)


“Drawing on Foucault and Kittler, Wolfgang Ernst has suggested that media should be primarily researched as nonsignifying channels. The fact of mediation should be considered before any idea of hermeneutic meaning. The phenomenological content of communication is too often mistaken for the essence of media. For Ernst, media archaeology focuses on the agency of the machine, the ways in which technical media themselves contract time and space. See Wolfgang Ernst, “Let There Be Irony: Cultural History and Media Archaeology in Parallel Lines,” Art History 28 (November 2005): 582 – 603” (Huhtamo & Parikka p. 18, note 36)

“What I want to use from Foucault is a certain neomaterialist mode of cultural analysis that comes up with approaches that touch on the singularity of the material assemblages, of which technology is one component. In other words, specificity and singularity should be some of the key ‘aims’ of a media archaeological excavation” (Parikka & Hertz)

“…the question of singularity and specificity of media in its material qualities for expression is as much a political as an aesthetic question because it points towards thinking of media as potentials for action; what can a medium do? What are its potentials?” (Parikka & Hertz)

Foucault’s dispositif: “What I’m trying to pick out with this term is, firstly, a thoroughly heterogenous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions–in short, the said as much as the unsaid. Such are the elements of the apparatus. The apparatus itself is the system of relations that can be established between these elements.” (Foucault, Confessions)


“Everyday consumer media,…curating practices, representational techniques, and spatial modes of organizing media can borrow heavily from history…rewiring of some of the connections of the past and the present, in order to come up with something new” (Parikka & Hertz)

Media Archaeology has inspired imaginary media, hardware hacking, circuit bending, “operative diagrammatics”

“How can we write such histories of media not historically but more ‘media artistically,’ that is, taking into account the materialities through which history is articulated, not relying on written narrative as the only way of producing historical, temporal knowledge?” (Parikka & Hertz)

“adopting and investigating temporal processes that are either too quick or too slow for the human senses?” (Parikka & Hertz)

“media archaeology needs to be executed, not constructed as a narrative” (Parikka & Hertz)

See the work of…:

Jussi Parikka’s ‘beta’ definition

“Media archaeology has succeeded in establishing itself as a heterogeneous set of theories and methods that investigate media history through its alternative roots, its forgotten paths, and neglected ideas and machines that still are useful when reflecting the supposed newness of digital culture. The definitions have ranged from emphasising the recurring nature of media cultural discourses (Huhtamo) to media archaeology as an-archaeology, or variantology (Zielinski) which in its excavation of the deep time layers of the way we sense and use our media always tries to find an alternative route to dismantle the fallacy of linear development.

Furthermore, I see media archaeology as a history-theory enterprise, in which temporal excavation of media functions as a theoretical force as well; a reading of old media and new media in parallel lines. Media archaeology is decisively non-linear, and rigorously theoretical in its media historical interest of knowledge. In a Benjaminian vein, it abandons historicism when by it is meant the idea that the past is given and out there waiting for us to find it; instead, it believes in the radical assembling of history, and histories in the plural, but so that it is not only a subset of cultural historical writing. Instead, media archaeology needs to insist both on the material nature of its enterprise – that media are always articulated in material, also in non-narrative frameworks whether technical media such as phonographs, or algorithmic such as databases and software networks – and that the work of assembling temporal mediations takes place in an increasingly varied and distributed network of institutions, practices and technological platforms. Indeed, what media archaeology investigates are also the practical rewirings of time, as is done in media artistic and creative practice work, through archives digital and spatial, as well as DIY and circuit bending which recycle, and remix obsolete technology as much as they investigate how technology is the framework for temporality for us.

Media archaeology takes place in artistic labs, laboratories where hardware and software are hacked and opened, but as much in conceptual labs for experimenting with concepts and ideas.” [via Media Cartographies]



“A vital theme in Benjamin’s cityscapes is his critique of the city as the locus of an illusory and deceptive vision of the past. False history, myth, is to be liquidated through the revelation and representation of a different, hidden past. This in turn is to be achieved by adherence to a particular set of critical and redemptive historiographic principles…:

  • Archaeological: an approach concerned with the salvation and preservation of the objects and traces of the past that modern society threatens to destroy.
  • Memorial: Benjamin exhorts the Critical Theorist to oppose the modern propensity for amnesia, to remember those whose struggles and sufferings in the past would otherwise be forgotten.
  • Dialectical: Benjamin develops his conception of the dialectical image, the momentary mutual recognition and illumination of past and present.” (Gilloch 13)

“History itself is a construction of the present age and must always be read backwards from the ruins which persist in the here and now.” (Gilloch 14)

“Benjamin is engaged in an archaeological excavation of the city to salvage its fragments so that they can be refunctioned.” (Gilloch 18)

“Urban archaeology…. The notion of repeated excursions into the same spaces and moments…” (70) – “’ It is the medium of the past experience, as the ground is the medium in which dead cities lie interred. He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging…’ (OWS, p. 314)” – “The task of the archaeologist is to dig beneath the surface of the modern city and the modern sensibility it engenders, to unearth the evidence of past life and the shocks that have become lodged in the depths of the unconscious.” (Gilloch 70)


* * * *

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Introduction: “Did Somebody Say New Media?” In Wendy Hui Kyong Chun & Thomas Keenan, Eds., New Media Old Media: A History and Theory Reader (NY: Routledge, 2006): 1-10.

Timothy Druckery, Foreword to Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006): vii-xi.

Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (New York: Pantheon, 1972).

Michel Foucault, “The Confession of the Flesh” In Colin Gordon, Ed., Power Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings (Pantheon, 1980): 194-228.

Erkki Huhtamo, From Kaleidoscomaniac to Cybernerd: Notes Toward an Archaeology of the Media” Leonardo 30:3 (1997): 221-4.

Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka, “Introduction: An Archaeology of Media Archaeology” In Ibid., Eds., Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011).

Friedrich A. Kittler, “The City is a Medium,” New Literary History 27:4 (1996): 717-729.

Jussi Parikka, Interview with Garnet Hertz, “Archaeologies of Media Art” CTheory (April 1, 2010).

Vyjayanthi Rao, “Embracing Urbanism: The City as Archive,” New Literary History 40:2 (Spring 2009): 371-383.

Kazys Varnelis, “Centripetal City,” Cabinet 17 (Spring 2004/2005): 27-33.

Siegfried Zielinski, “Introduction: The Idea of a Deep Time of the Media” In Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006): 1-11.


Statuary and Soft Drinks

There’s been not much activity here here lately because of stuff going on in my non-teaching, non-researching life. I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of making time for things that may be less pressing than the next publication deadline, or tomorrow’s class prep, but which are ultimately more important. And today these ruminations made me think of the poem that my husband and I printed in the back of our wedding program:

Having a Coke with You

is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne
or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona
partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian
partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt
partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches
partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary
it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still
as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it
in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth
between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles

and the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint
you suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them

I look
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time
and the fact that you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism
just as at home I never think of the Nude Descending a Staircase or
at a rehearsal a single drawing of Leonardo or Michelangelo that used to wow me
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them
when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank
or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully
as the horse

it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience
which is not going to go wasted on me which is why I am telling you about it

—Frank O’Hara


Revisiting Paju

Photo by Yeong Ran Kim.

I spent the month of July in Seoul, researching Paju Bookcity with my research assistant Ran. I wrote about my Korean adventures here and here and here. A landscape and urbanism journal asked me to write an article about my research — and as I put the finishing touches on that article tonight, I thought it might be useful to review my “fieldwork” and post a few pictures, so they’re easily shareable with my editor. The following research agenda is a little stilted because I had to write this up to satisfy the requirements for two different funders’ final reports:

I conducted two on-site visits to PBC: one full-day visit on July 20 and one two-day visit on July 24-25. During that time I, with help from my research assistant/translator, employed the following methods:

  • We toured – by car and foot – PBC and conducted spatial analyses of the site (e.g., examining the variety of architectural forms and facades and how companies made use of both their interior and exterior spaces, understanding how buildings are situated in relation to one another and how people who work and live in the area circulate throughout Bookcity, etc.);
  • We documented PBC via photo, video, and audio;
  • We toured the surrounding area – Heyri Art Village, the DMZ, various nearby “new towns” – to get a sense of the local landscape and of PBC’s design “context”;
  • We spoke informally with shop owners and office workers, who told us what it’s like to work in Paju, and what new opportunities and challenges working in Paju has presented to them and their companies;
  • We met on July 24 with Lee Hojin, Assistant Manger of PR and Marketing for the Bookcity Culture Foundation, who spoke with us about the original goals for Bookcity, how the Bookcity cooperative measures success, and its future plans for growth.
  • We met on July 24, for nearly five hours (which was highly unexpected!), with Yi Ki-Ung, President of Youlhwadang Publishing and Chairman of the Bookcity Culture Foundation and the Cooperative of Paju Bookcity. Mr. Yi, the driving force behind Paju Bookcity since the late 1980s, told us about his inspiration for the project and recounted PBC’s coming into being. He also addressed the core values of Bookcity and his vision for future development, and while doing so, he shared with us various renderings for future design projects at PBC.
  • We met on July 25 with Chang Ki Young, Director of the Korean Electronic Publishing Association, with whom we spoke about how digital media are changing the Korean – and global – publishing worlds, and how these changes are or aren’t reflected in the infrastructure of Paju Book City. As a tenant of PBC, Chang was also able to discuss what it’s like to work there.
  • We met on July 25 with Lee Hwang-Gu, Managing Director of the Bookcity Culture Foundation and the Cooperative of Paju Bookcity, who told us about the mechanics of the project’s development, including its financing.
  • We met on July 25 with Kim Young-Joon, Principal of yo2 Architects, who’s been involved with the design of PBC since the beginning, is leading the design of Phase 2, and has developed the macro-scale design scheme for Phase 3. He discussed the challenges the designers faced in Phase 1, discussed his plans for future development of PBC, and shared models and renderings for Phases 2 and 3. He kindly provided us with copies of the project’s design guidelines.
Photo by me.
The not-so-exciting behind-the-scenes stuff that’s still an integral part of making books. Photo by me.

We also interviewed a few individuals in Seoul:

  • On July 19 we were given a guided tour of the Kyobo bookstore and, afterward, met with Baek Won Keun, Chief Researcher of the Korean Publishing Research Institute, with whom we discussed the history and future of Korean publishing, and how that past and future have informed, and should inform, the evolution of Paju Book City.
  • On July 23 we met with leading architect Seung H-Sang, one of the primary design coordinators for PBC, who discussed with us his own involvement in the design of Phase 1 of Paju Book City, his thoughts about contemporary Korean urban planning, and his hopes for the future development of Paju.


Koolhaas’s Libraries

Today I read the New Yorker feature on Bjake Ingels (whom we discuss in my Media + Architecture class in our lesson on comics, and who, as was mentioned a couple times in the article, was the subject of the first issue of CLOG). The piece mentioned Ingels’s work on the design for the Seattle Public Library, which, as anybody reading this probably already knows, was the subject of my dissertation — and a big part of my book. Anyway, it got me thinking about Koolhaas’s other library and educational space designs. So I went back to a draft of my pre-dissertation lit review and dug out the section in which I look at OMA’s previous library projects. The writing itself is rather embarrassing (I take everything at face value, and I quote way too much!), but it was still interesting, for me at least, to revisit these projects — to see how concepts and forms are shared between the various sites, to consider how they foreshadowed the Seattle Public Library, and to examine how they individually and collectively represented a particular turn-of-the-21st-century epistemology.

Please don’t judge; I was a 23-year-old fool when I wrote this (in 2000).

*   *   *   *   *

[I first talked about the Educatorium @ Utrecht; the Kunsthal in Rotterdam; the Grand Palais in Lille, France; and the Nederlands Dans Theater in The Hague.]

…His current commissions include a concert hall in Porto, Portugal; a student center on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology; three U.S. stores for Prada, the Italian fashion designer; the Dutch Embassy in Berlin; Guggenheim galleries for the Venetian resort in Las Vegas; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and plans for the development of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the cultural district around the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  These new projects range from civic and educational architecture to exhibition and commercial architecture to urban planning.  The variety allows for—and promises—a great deal of cross-pollination.  In a preview of the Las Vegas Guggenheim project, the Las Vegas Business Press (October 2, 2000) raises the question of a “commercial entity using a nonprofit museum as a tourist draw” (p. 1).  Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, raises another: “How does architecture assert its value in [Las Vegas,] a world saturated by manipulative advertising and mass-market entertainment?” (p. F1).

The Unbuilt: OMA’s Libraries

Koolhaas has addressed similarly provocative questions in his previous designs—particularly in those designs that have never been built.  One question he has explored in a few projects is how to house information in the digital age, or how information structures architecture in the digital age.  Koolhaas’s unrealized plans for the Library at Jussieu University in Paris; the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, also in Paris; and the Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM), a “mediatheque” in Karlsruhe, Germany, show how OMA has become “specialists (in library design) without having built one” (Goldsmith, May 27, 1999, ¶23).  Unfortunately, because there are no physical structures to tour, the Seattle Library Board missed the opportunity to explore OMA’s three conceptualized pseudo-libraries.

Jussieu. Via Design Enaction 

Yet these three projects in particular convey Koolhaas’s “fear of repetition” and his aversion to “the whole idea of a typology” (Zaera Polo, 1992a, p. 20).  As is evident in these three projects, Koolhaas is instead “interested in invention,” in “shocking or provoking” (Zaera Polo, 1992a, p. 18).  Architecture critic Michael Speaks (July 2000) explains the “real significance” of OMA’s inventive architecture:

Problem solving simply accepts the parameters of a problem given by society or, in the case of architecture, by the client.  The object of design is then to work within those parameters until a solution to the problem is reached, a final design.  This is how “the art of architecture,” traditionally represented by cultural institutions such as the Pritzker Prize [which Koolhaas won in 2000], and indeed by much of the architectural establishment, approaches the dramatic changes thrown up by the forces of globalization.  Innovation…works by a different, more entrepreneurial logic where, by rigorous analysis, opportunities are discovered that can be exploited and transformed into innovations (p. 92).

OMA has even opened a New York based office dedicated solely to “virtual architecture”—that is, “designs or redesigns of human environments that don’t resort to the tools of the construction industry” (Wolf, June 2000).  “My ambition,” says Koolhaas, “is to modernize and reinvent the profession by making use of our expertise in the unbuilt….” (Wolf, June 2000).

Via CracPreservation 

Koolhaas’s and OMA’s methodology for invention involves linking an architectural form to “a whole range of associations: mechanical, industrial, utilitarian, abstract, poetical, surrealist…” (Wortmann, 1993, p. 22).  He considers the social, cultural, economic, and technological conditions in which a project must function—and allows those conditions to inform his design.  Zaera Polo (1992b) claims that OMA’s recent work “tests a redefinition of temporal and spatial paradigms through material practices.  It initiates a new approach to architecture as the discipline of material organization within post-capitalism” (p. 32).

How do the social, cultural, economic, and technological conditions of a digital, global, post-capitalist system influence each of his library designs?  Ayad Rahmani (Winter 2000), architecture professor at Washington State University, argues that Koolhaas is brilliantly capable of “synthesizing the metaphors of the electronic age, namely the idea of the Web, with the need to make for a new structural expression”—especially for the library—“in architecture” (p. 26).

Libraries, Sorbonne University, Jussieu, France

Koolhaas’s design for the Jussieu Library considers both the urban condition and the state of information.  The project entailed constructing two libraries and several communal facilities for the Jussieu campus of the Sorbonne University, which had been unfinished since 1968.  As Koolhaas explains, “Our task was to create a lively public domain, to integrate the campus into the city and to turn it into an urban experience” (Harbort, 1993, p. 81). The building was to integrate the university’s science library, its humanities library, and an existing parvis, or enclosed courtyard.  In the June 1993 edition of ARCH+, Hans Harbort describes the design:

The science library with its relatively large proportion of closed storage areas is partly sunk beneath ground level, with the freely accessible storage facilities of the humanities library above.  Both libraries are separated by the entrance and reception area, which is part of the urban axis linking the Metro station with the River Seine.  This realm of social activities extends into the lower library in the shape of a double helix, forming an entrance to the conference center adjoining the library.  This double helix of the lower part of the building consists of two elements: the vie sociale, a ramp with cafeteria, auditorium and squash courts, and the series of ramps serving the science library.  Both of these ramps intertwine in one and the same space without touching….  The individual superimposed floor levels of the building are cut and deformed in such a way as to connect with the next level above and below, forming a continuous circuit which winds through the entire building like a meandering boulevard lined with all the elements of the library like houses lining a street….  The visitor becomes a flaneur who is seduced by the world of books and information, of urbanist situations such as plazas, parks, monumental stairways, cafes, boutiques, etc., which supplement the program of the two libraries (Harbort, p. 81).

Another “continuous circuit”: the “book spiral” @ Seattle. via OMA

Why should the science library include so many closed storage areas, while the humanities library affords free access to its materials?  What does the placement of the building’s elements—the science library rooted in the ground with the humanities library above—say about the nature of scientific knowledge and about the knowledge of human constructs?  Why should the social areas of the building extend into the research areas in the form of a double helix?  What does this double helix structure, the structure of DNA, say about the social or educational functions of the library?  Why should the building’s floors be integrated into a “continuous circuit?”  What does this continuity say about the division of knowledge into classes and disciplines?  Why should the “continuous circuit” winding throughout the library resemble an urban street?  Why is the visitor regarded as a flaneur, and why should he or she be “seduced” by books and information?  How does flanerie impact one’s mode of inhabiting the library space and the uses one makes of the space?  What does this act of seduction say about the nature of knowledge and the processes of knowledge acquisition?  Is the library obligated to play a role in this seduction?  Has the library outgrown its role as a storehouse for knowledge and become a purveyor of info-tainment?  These are among the questions that the Jussieu design raises.

Sanford Kwinter (1992) asserts that “all of OMA’s recent urbanist work is about the setting into motion of dynamic self-regulating and self-driving informational ecologies” (p. 85).  What kind of an informational, or media, ecology is “set into motion” at Jussieu?  According to Alejandro Zaera Polo (1992b), partner of Foreign Office Architects in London and Tokyo, the Jussieu library embodies “the change of phase between diverse states of information: from the solid phase of storage to the liquid state in its active phase.  …The amount of information is inversely proportional to the structure of the system” (p.45).  In other words, more information is available in less structured systems.  It follows that the most information-rich environments are those with relatively open, flexible floor plans and open access to their resources.  Koolhaas proposed such an open plan for Jussieu.  Instead of using fixed walls within the library, Koolhaas used movable and removable partitions, walls, and curtains to differentiate between open and intimate spaces (“Office for Metropolitan Architecture: Two Libraries,” Autumn 1993).  As one author explains, these differentiated spaces serve not as a collection of rooms, but as a “series of incidents”—“and because every floor has different incidents, there is also a kind of identity for each floor.  It is no longer simply a library but rather a system with many different components” (Harbort, 1993, p. 81).

Jussieu. Via OMA 

This notion of architecture “as a series of incidents” is an important part of Koolhaas’s design philosophy.   According to Herbert Muschamp (February 25, 2001) of the New York Times, “Koolhaas excels in conveying the idea that architecture is an art of organizing urban relationships, not the styling of discrete objects in space” (p. 42).  Koolhaas’s approach to design lies somewhere between architecture and urban planning.  He claims allegiance to a “New Urbanism”—a term Koolhaas uses to refer to a design method concerned not with “the arrangement of more or less permanent objects but with the irrigation of territories with potential”; a method aiming not for “stable configurations but for the creation of enabling fields that accommodate processes that refuse to be crystallized into definitive form”; a method not about “separating and identifying identities, but about discovering unnamable hybrids”; a method obsessed “with the manipulation of infra-structure for endless intensifications and diversifications”; a method committed to “the reinvention of psychological space” (Koolhaas, Winter/Spring 1995, p. 19).

Via OMA 

In creating “psychological spaces” instead of buildings and rooms, Koolhaas focuses more on the human experience of space than on the autonomous existence of the space itself.  In fact, he approaches architectural design in much the same way that a filmmaker approaches cinema.  In an interview with Arthur Lubow (July 9, 2000) of the New York Times Magazine, Koolhaas, a former screenwriter, explains that architecture, like film, involves the design of “episodes” and “montage” (p.37).  “It’s very scripted, the way people move and the possibilities he leaves for people in his buildings,” his partner, artist Madelon Vriesendorp, acknowledges.  “The experiences are laid out….  He sees a space and he sees what could happen—a scene in space” (Lubow, July 9, 2000, p. 37).  At Jussieu, the library is more than a building; it is an experience—a research experience, an informational experience, an urban experience.  And in the design process, Koolhaas is more concerned with negotiating the experience, or the empirical functioning, of the library—and hence its “operative” ideology—than in redefining the institution linguistically.  As Zaera Polo (1992b) explains, “OMA’s…work seems to indicate a new beginning with a basis that is not linguistic or textual experimentation, but the proposal of a series of geographies or topographies whose meaning is fundamentally operative rather than significant” (p. 35).  Although the negotiation process itself often requires establishing a linguistic or textual articulation of the ideas, ideals, and values embodied in a design, the physical building provides an “operative” embodiment of those ideologies.

Furthermore, in OMA’s projects, according to Kwinter (1992), “the argument always takes precedent over the project” (pp. 84-5).  He explains:

In other words, there is always primarily an engine, be it discursive or diagrammatic, never a design that is introduced in the urban milieu to be reconfigured.  It is never a question of organizing a space at the outset, but rather of unleashing, triggering, or capturing larger and already existing processes (Kwinter, 1992, pp. 84-5).

Via m[A]estronic
One of these “larger and already existing processes” is human movement, or existing circulation patterns.  Consequently, another key concept explored in, or another “engine” that is driving, Koolhaas’s design for Jussieu is that of circulation.  As Harbort (1993) maintains, the 1.5-km long boulevard winding throughout the building at a two- to four-percent slope provides for an “urbanist” means of movement—but the library’s elevators and escalators offer movement of another sort.

If the architectonic movement of the ramps is indeterminate and ambling, the mechanical movement of the elevators and escalators is linear and determinate.  Together these two types of connections form a complex network of spatial relationships, a variety of different paths through the building (Harbort, 1993, p. 81).

These two methods of movement symbolize two means of information gathering.  The “meandering boulevard” fosters a “flaneurial” type of information gathering.  Visitors may stroll through the stacks and browse through the titles on display.  In the process, they may find themselves “seduced” by flashy book covers or computer interfaces—or they may discover interesting resources through serendipity.  The direct route made possible by elevators and escalators allows for a “linear and determinate” means of movement throughout the building; as Zaera Polo (1992b) acknowledges, “it was always the revolutionary potential of the elevator to introduce a new era of liberated and randomized relationships between different components of a building” (p. 68).  But inside a library this transportation technology also fosters also a “linear and determinate” approach to research.  The visitor can enter search terms into a computer database, identify a resource that he or she wishes to access, and then take the elevator directly to the floor where that book is shelved—with no wandering or exploration en route.  He or she retrieves the material, takes the elevator back downstairs to circulation, checks out his or her book, and departs.  The elevator thus makes possible a “new era of liberated and randomized relationships between different” resources in a library, too (Zaera Polo, 1992b).

The ephemeralization of information, the increasing speed and quantity of information, and the challenges of accessing and sifting through that information—all are among the “social, political, economic and technological disruptions wrought by globalization” (Speaks, July 2000, p. 92).  And according to Koolhaas, his work is “aligned with the forces of modernization and the inevitable transformations that are engendered by this [modernizing] project which has been operating for 300 years” (Lootsma, January 1998, p. 40).  His design for Jussieu is in part a response to the speed of information and to the disintegration of the city center.  The library becomes a city—a social network—in and of itself.

It is the “center of gravity” on campus and within its greater urban setting (Harbort, 1993, p. 81).  The library sits at the convergence of several circulatory routes: the parvis, which runs through the building, is connected in the south with the Metro station and in the north with the Seine.  In addition, the library serves as a focal point for the region south of the Seine.  The entire building is enclosed in an envelope of overlapping, irregularly shaped “shingles” of tinted glass.  Again, Harbort (1993) explains the unique visibility afforded by this glass skin:

The interior of this urban building can be read from the outside like an x-ray photograph, revealing the dialectic between the regularly spaced needle columns and the irregularly deformed floor levels.  Floating within this structure are various enclosed volumes: reading rooms, separated studies, the cabins of the hydraulic elevators, book repositories, etc.  Looking from the Institut du Monde Arabe, the building appears so transparent as to be almost invisible.  If the building thus seems to dissolve when seen along the green axis (gardens along the river), it shows a stronger presence along the urban axis, facing the city (p. 82).

The library’s visage thus depends upon the perspective of its beholder.  This dynamic appearance conveys both a sensitivity to context—that is, an attempt to make the structure harmonize with its natural and urban surroundings—and an awareness of the dynamic nature of the institution itself.  The building’s varying opaqueness and transparency could even symbolize the two kinds of resources—digital and physical—held within.

Takeo Higashi (Summer 1993) addresses the compound identity of the Jussieu library—and how that identity can be embodied in a physical form:

What sort of image, and what basic functions should the library, with its massive stock of books, possess?  The information processing activity of symbolizing and classifying books, which possess their own microcosmos, and further simply arranging them, specifies the architectural program itself.  The virtual space of a vast and transparent information matrix is created here.  A physical space indispensable to the life of the campus, the library is also a communication space for people on campus.  The pliant human body, the space of the gardens that receives and terminates the circulation flow, and the hard edge of the city as a perceptual information space all come together here (pp. 92-3).

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, Competition Entry

Via OMA 

Koolhaas again plays with the ideas of the virtual and the physical, solids and voids in his 1989 competition entry for the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF).  President Mitterrand called for “an entirely new (building) type,” and, according to Claire Downey (February 1990), the Paris correspondent for Architectural Record, “the competition for the Library of France provided the opportunity to explore both an architecture of addition—to Paris, to the history of library design—and a point of departure that envelops new technologies and techniques” (p. 123).  In other words, the competition involved the re-thinking the ideologies of place and of library that are embodied in this important civic building.  As Koolhaas says in his 1995 monograph S,M,L,XL, “we became more and more resistant to the norms of architecture in which everything has to be resolved through the invention of form.  We sought for the first time to really invent, architecturally” (p. 24-5).

Via OMA 

The three-million-square-foot space was to include five different libraries: a cinemathèque, a library of recent acquisitions, a reference library, a catalog library, and a scientific library—“each with its own idiosyncrasies and its own public” (Koolhaas, 1996, p. 23).  Because 60% of the program consists of public spaces and storage, Koolhaas proposed that all the storage “could be seen as one enormous cube, and then all the public spaces could simply be excavated” from that cube (Koolhaas, 1996, p. 25).  His design begins with a “solid block of information, a repository of all forms of memory, books, optic discs, microfiches, computers, etc.” (Zaera Polo, 1992b, p. 68).  The major public spaces are integrated as “absences of building, voids carved out from the information solid”—with the most highly public spaces located at the lower parts of the building, and those areas requiring darkness located at the core (Fisher, April 1990, p. 125; Koolhaas, 1996, p. 26).  Koolhaas refers to these carved out spaces as “multiple embryos floating in a field of memory” (Ouroussoff, April 17, 2000, p. F1).

Why should the materials storage areas be envisioned as, variously, a “solid block of information” and “a field of memory”?  Are not these two images of the “solid block” and the memory “field” somewhat opposed?  What does this imagery—and the seeming contradiction in the images—say about the materials housed in the library?  What ideologies about library does it embody?  And why should the public areas be regarded as, alternatively, “voids,” and “embryos”?  Can these public areas represent both absence, through the void, and life, through the embryo?  What ideologies of public do these “absences” and “embryos” imply?

Furthermore, in Koolhaas’s design each of the voids has a distinctive shape.  The Sound and Moving Image Library resembles, according to one critic, pebbles.  The Recent Acquisitions Library is a cross-shaped space containing audio and television viewing spaces that slope toward the river and intersect at an amphitheater.  The Catalog Room takes the shape of egg, and it provides a panoramic view of Paris.  The Research Library is housed in a loop or moebius strip.  And the Reference Library is a continuous, thrice-twisted spiral that connects five floors of semi-open storage and study carrels (Fisher, April 1990, p. 125; Zaera Polo, 1992b, p.70).

Zaera Polo (1992b) explains the significance of these shaped absences: “Since they are defined as voids, the individual libraries can be spaces defined strictly to their own logic, independent of each other, of the external envelope and of the classical obstacles of architecture…” (p. 68).  But what is the logic behind the choice of shape for each space?  Why should the Recent Acquisitions library resemble a cross?  And why should its multimedia areas converge at an amphitheater?  Does the theater’s positioning at this confluence point suggest that this classical auditorium—and the oral culture that it represents—still play a key role in our contemporary media culture?  Furthermore, does the egg shape of the Catalog Room imply that knowledge and enlightenment are nurtured and hatched in this area?  Or are these shaped purely functionally derived?

Canadian Centre for Architecture Exhibition, 2012 (which happened to be up while I was in residence there this summer) Via Abitare. 

Although each public area differs in form and function, these public spaces are all linked by escalators to provide continuity throughout the entire structure.  “Ordering the apparently arbitrary spatial forms is a series of parallel shear walls and a grid of nine elevators” (Fisher, April 1990, p. 125).  Downey (February 1990), in her review of the BNF competition entries, imagines that Koolhaas’s nine elevators enable one to move through the building “as if though ideas and information, almost like tracing the plan of a computer chip, yet far more serene” (p. 125).  What does it mean to inhabit information—to view knowledge as a physical landscape through which one can glide in a glass car?  Koolhaas (1996) proposed: “the elevator shafts…could be electric signs whose words, texts, or songs represent the destinations of the individual elevators.  All these letters, moving up, would make the building seem to hover, entirely supported by the alphabet” (p. 28-9).  It is significant that the alphabet provides the structural integrity for this highly digitalized library.

Standing amidst this core of elevators is the Great Hall of Ascension, where floors of glass “display the building’s treasures” (Zaera Polo, 1992b, p. 70).  What ideologies are embodied in this transparent building material, in the techniques of “display”?  From the great hall one can also view vertical electronic billboards on each of the elevator shafts.  Even the building’s glass facades, of varying degrees of transparency, become projection surfaces.  Koolhaas (1996) explains, “We thought we could use glass in such a way that it sometimes made disclosures.  Sometimes, like a cloud, it would obscure what was happening behind, and at other times it would simply block what happened by being opaque” (p. 30).  Other building elements play optical illusions, appearing at times as windows, at other times as tunnels, and at still other times as what Zaera Polo (1992b) calls “polished stones” (p. 74).  According to Downey (1990), this architectonic and optical play symbolizes that “word and image are joined.  The library…can become as much of an information transmitter as any video screen, turning the building itself into a readable surface and collector of images” (p. 125).  Thus, the library itself becomes a resource, a text, a medium.

Center for Art and Media Technology (ZKM), Karlsruhe, Germany

Again, in his 1989 competition entry for the Center for Art and Media Technology (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany, Koolhaas explores similar themes: circulation, mediation, virtuality, and physicality.  Yet there is one major distinction: the ZKM is not a library. It is a media center.  A feature on the design competition in the March 1990 edition of Diadalos, identifies the unique challenges of designing this brand new institution:

The historical library, the memory of national knowledge, already appears to be a thing of the past, given the present technological possibilities, in both its form and function of storing books and—in particular—as a site of academic work.  The “media center,” which everyone is now talking and thinking about, is a phenomenon which has yet to be defined precisely with respect to its real performance, function and appearance.  The architect, when designing, participates in a “hare and tortoise race” in which the hare of communications technology will always be a nose ahead of the architect-tortoise (and his well designed information container) (p. 123).

In other words, the ideologies that come to be codified in the media center do not entirely precede the process of architectural design, but emerge and are negotiated in the design process itself.  They are constructed along with the building.

According to Jeffrey Shaw (n.d.), Director of the Institute for Visual Media at the ZKM, the Center was originally proposed in 1984 as the centerpiece of an urban enhancement project and did not reach its “final definition” until 1989.  Koolhaas was selected to design the facility—but on July 16, 1992, the city council voted to abandon the project (Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Koolhaas, Mau, 1995).  In S,M,L,XL (1995), Koolhaas writes that the “fiasco showed that even where such a culture needs recombinations, the inevitable slowness of architecture—its inability to embody experiments quickly—tends to obliterate the fragile opportunities that occur in the unstable constellations of political and economic forces that indeed seal our fate” (p. 763).  The ZKM was later realized, by another architect, in “a massive monumental industrial edifice built in 1918 as an armaments factory” (, ¶3-4).  This seems an oddly appropriate site to house an institution dedicated to forging “new meeting grounds between art, science and society,” to nurturing “artistic achievement in the various fields of the media arts” and bringing “new qualities into the evolution of our technological culture” (, ¶2).

Via OMA 

But at the time of the competition Koolhaas’s design was deemed the most appropriate structure to house a media center, and was selected from among all the competition entries.  When the competition was announced in 1983, city officials sought proposals for the redevelopment of Karlsruhe’s station area and the dilapidated area south of the station (Werner, 1991, p. 78).  Thus, the ZKM design had to respond to a “series of relationships between the existing city and the implications of the site and program” (Zaera Polo, 1992b, p. 118).  Zaera Polo (1992b) explains:

The classical city of Karlsruhe in itself contradicts the presence of a futuristic center of Art and Technology; while the railway station building is oriented toward the city center, the ZKM is oriented toward the periphery; part of the program accommodates research for the artists, while the other part is devoted to the public; the museum for modern art offers a spectrum of exhibition possibilities ranging from traditional to experimental (p. 118).

Furthermore, at that time, “nobody knew exactly what a ‘Medienzentrum’ really was, or ought to be” (Werner, 1991, p. 78).  “How then was it possible for an architect to define a…program, not to mention an architectural form, for something that could no longer be imprisoned in concrete materials, and for which he could find neither examples to serve as a comparison nor typological precedents?” (Werner, 1991, p. 79).

What architectural form did Koolhaas choose?  The cube.  Werner (1991) explains that this primary shape allows for the introduction of “an unexpected fluctuation of spaces exclusively in its nucleus” (p. 81).  In expecting the unexpected, in preparing for fluctuation in the institution’s mission and program, Koolhaas proposed a structure that emphasizes flexibility.  Despite such adaptability, however, Koolhaas (1996) claims that a “museum for media” is, in a sense, destined to be always already outmoded:

There is an incredible pressure for the media to always change, in terms of both its content and its form.  What is different about doing a museum for media is that curse of continuously accelerating events, combined with the problems of creating real space as well as space that is virtual, ephemeral, or destructible (pp. 34-5).

Eventually, though, the Center’s directors finalized a mission statement and established an identity for the ZKM.  According to Shaw (n.d.), the ZKM was to be

not a single entity, but a multiplex consisting of a number of synergetically interrelated departments.  The Museum of Modern Art…is a permanent collection of major international artworks with the emphasis on contemporary media art relations and with the intention to show the historical continuity of media art in relation to traditional forms.  The Media Museum…is a popular science museum with specially made exhibits that offer the general public ways to better understand the nature and future directions of our technological culture….  The Media Library is a large interactive library of audio visual and printed materials….  [The] Theater is a general purpose space for experimenting [with] the conjunction between media technology and the performing arts (

Just as the Center has multiple departments, Koolhaas’s cube, like all cubes, has multiple dimensions and axes.  And most critics see in Koolhaas’s design an attempt to position and organize along each of these axes the seemingly contradictory dimensions that the facility would have to incorporate: center and periphery; the classical and the futuristic; tradition and experimentation; and demonstration (public areas) and production (private studio areas) (Werner, 1991, p. 87).  Koolhaas’s design attempts to embody, in a single structure, these contrasting ideologies—and, in the process, to construct the ideology of the “media center” itself.

In linking these seemingly incongruous programmatic elements within a regular, clean cubic form, Koolhaas’s design also links ideologically several seemingly opposed ideas.  By architecturally connecting a traditional museum recording the history of contemporary art; an interactive media “museum,” or laboratory, with computers and audio-visual recording studios; an experimental theater; and a library containing archives and databases, Koolhaas brings the traditional arts into contact with new media arts—and thereby decreases the ideological distance between them.  His design “is charged with restoring a correct relation between the manually-based traditional arts and the abstract knowledge underlying digital technology” (Pogacnik, June 1990, p. 79).  Marco Pogacnik (June 1990) claims that by integrating old and new, the ZKM brings “research…down from its traditional ‘ivory tower’ and into the real world” (p. 78).  “The ZKM’s mission,” he continues, “is to see the design process as the transformation of reality into a ‘gesamtkunstwerk,’ a total work of art” (p. 79).  Here, classical distinctions, divisions, and dichotomies are dissolved.

Via OMA 

Furthermore, this total artwork becomes an immersive space.  Shaw (n.d.) explains, “Here the viewer is no longer a consumer in a mausoleum of images and objects, rather he and she are travelers, discoverers and creators in a dense new space of audio-visual information.”  Again, as in the BNF, Koolhaas’s design plays with the idea of inhabiting information: in the ZKM, “the artist and the spectator are no longer confronted by an object or work, but are inside it, in a hyper-real space created by a mix of holograms, music, words, computer graphics, and laser technology” (Pogacnik, June 1990, p. 79).  Koolhaas (1996) conceived of the theater as a “space where every single plane can be seen as a surface for projection; in that sense the entire space can be completely manipulated” (pp. 32-3).

This “information space” theme continues through to the building’s exterior, where a structural shell functions as a gigantic telescreen, “a monumental ‘magic lantern’ that projects onto its exterior an ever-changing array of snapshots, scenes, and videoclips of the various activities that are going on inside the building” (Werner, 1991, p. 81).  According to Koolhaas (1996), “the word, represented on the exterior of the building, presents to the outside a certain kind of message, in the most vulgar communicative sense” (p. 34).  Koolhaas revisits the architectonic illusion, which appeared in his design for the Jussieu libraries, too.  Pedestrians passing the ZKM would see it as a “black block which does not reveal its true content”—“a screen on which spectacle is projected” (Wortmann, 1993, pp. 22-3).  As they approach the building, however, it “dissolves into an abstract and airy pattern of cylindrical shafts” (Werner, 1991, p. 83).  What ideologies are communicated through this shift from slick screen to mechanical structure?  Could Koolhaas have planned this perceptive shift to represent the ZKM’s commitment to both traditional mechanical media and new digital media?  Could it symbolize the deceptive ability of visual technologies to hide their mechanical natures and internal structures?  Regardless of Koolhaas’s intention, Werner claims, “what matters most about this enormous visual barrel organ is its metaphorical significance: the medium is the message” (p. 83).

via arcspace 

And in Seattle, through what medium will OMA convey the Seattle Public Library’s message?  What ideological messages—about the place, the public, and the library—will the architectural medium embody?  How will those messages be negotiated and codified—or, as McLuhan might say, “massaged”—into a physical structure?


via SPL

Urban Media Archaeology — Now Even *More* Awesome! (…in my humble opinion)

via Stamen

I’m really happy with how both of my fall classes — Archives, Libraries & Databases and Urban Media Archaeology — shaped up this semester. Despite the fact that I started planning for both a couple months ago, I was only recently able to confirm a few additional special events for UMA. In addition to our “walking tour of the Internet” with Andrew Blum; our visit with two former UMA students, who’ll be sharing with us their fantastic projects; our pecha kucha with Anne Balsamo, Brian McGrath, and unnamed others serving as our guest critics, we’ll also have…

  • Lize Mogel, of Atlas of Radical Cartography fame, joining us in class on October 24
  • Eric Rodenbeck, CEO of Stamen Design, Skyping in on November 28
  • Postdoc Simon Ganahl joining us all the way from Austria …all semester long!
  • AND we’re going to unveil a major redesign of the Urban Research Toolkit, our collaboratively-designed, open-source mapping platform, very soon!