The home of the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, in Oslo, resembles a glacier that’s calving great wedges of glass and white marble, and at night its windows, which are huge, project sheets of amber light onto the Oslo Fjord. Yet the Opera’s main impact, since its opening, in 2008, has been civic rather than aesthetic. It was built on an old industrial site as part of a larger effort to reclaim a stretch of ruined waterfront, and, despite its unpromising location, its roof—which slants upward from the harbor and seems to emerge from the water—has become a busy public square. Parents push baby carriages to the top; tourists pull suitcases from the train station; swimmers, sunbathers, kayakers, and swans treat the western edge as a beach. Dog walking, Tai Chi, and sunset watching are popular. For a performance of “Carmen” in 2009, the opera company showed a free simulcast on a large screen in front of the building, and some five thousand people spread picnic blankets on the roof to watch it. During the building’s inaugural performance, a young couple were discovered making love above the auditorium. One of the architects told me that he considered their act both a compliment and the building’s “consummation.”
The Oslo Opera House was designed by the Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta, which was named for an object (a mountain in central Norway) rather than for a star partner or partners. There are two principals, both in their fifties: in Oslo, Kjetil Thorsen, who is Norwegian; and in New York Craig Dykers, who is American but has spent most of his life in Europe, including sixteen years in Norway. Both downplay their personal contributions to the firm’s designs, and neither has an instantly recognizable style. Dykers described Snøhetta’s approach to me as “collectivist,” and said that “anyone can suggest anything about anything.” Thorsen called the firm’s ethos “open, direct, accessible, egalitarian—strange value words that don’t mean anything until you see what they do.”
One manifestation of that ethos has been an eagerness to take on potentially exasperating public assignments. Snøhetta’s first American commission was for an entrance pavilion at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, at the site of the World Trade Center. The pavilion isn’t large, but, because of a succession of complications involving the entire site, the building is still unfinished, eight years after the contract was awarded. More recently, the firm was chosen by New York City to, in effect, redesign Times Square—one of the city’s most famous landmarks and, for residents, perhaps its most despised one. A third of a million people pass through the square daily, yet the visitors are mainly tourists and their predators, and when the big theatres let out on summer evenings the human crush can seem cataclysmic. Among Snøhetta’s goals, Dykers told me, is to reconfigure the space in such a way that city residents will stop walking blocks out of their way to avoid it. Construction is expected to begin this summer.
Both the Times Square and the Oslo Opera projects are attempts to use architecture to alter a city’s relationship to itself. Both also depend on successfully managing the complex psychology of public space—a Snøhetta specialty, and a field in which the firm has drawn insights from an eclectic range of sources. Dykers told me that among his architectural influences for Times Square are books and articles about livestock management by the animal scientist Temple Grandin, whose work has been informed by her autism. “There’s so much emphasis on consciousness in philosophical discussions,” he said. “But I think consciousness is a small part of who we are. I have a friend who had a sheepdog, and he said whenever he had a party it would herd the guests. It would tap their ankles or their knees, until, by the end of the evening, everyone at the party was in one corner. The dog was happy, but the important thing was that nobody noticed. As architects, I think, we have to try to be like the sheepdog at the party.”
Snøhetta’s Oslo headquarters is a fifteen-minute walk from the Opera, near a cruise-ship terminal on the Oslo Fjord. The building is warehouse-like, and its entrance doesn’t face the street. Its exterior is so nondescript that, after I’d walked a hundred yards past it, a policeman I asked for directions pointed me the wrong way. The interior is mainly one huge room loosely divided into three zones, which Thorsen, whom I met there, characterized as “the head” (desks, drawing tables, and computers for roughly a hundred employees); “the stomach” (a commercial kitchen and two long rows of dining tables, at which everyone eats lunch); and “the hands” (workshops in the back). The side of the building facing the fjord contains many tall windows, and I asked Thorsen whether the water view, which is sweeping, wasn’t a distraction from work. He said that, in fact, the view acted as an office-wide pulse lowerer and productivity enhancer. “The harbor has a sort of slowness,” he said. “The ships start over there, and after half an hour you look up and still see them.”
Thorsen is tall, and he has short reddish-brown hair and a skimpy graying beard. He speaks with about as much urgency as a cruise ship traversing the Oslo Fjord. In 1987, when he was twenty-nine, he and a small group of other young Norwegian architects and landscape architects formed a studio, which they named for the tallest mountain in what is now Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park. The group was more concerned with drinking beer and discussing ideas about architecture than with designing actual buildings, but, in 1989, Thorsen and a few other members decided to enter an international competition to create a modern replacement for the legendary Library of Alexandria, which was burned in 48 B.C. They teamed up with an Austrian architect friend of Thorsen’s and an American friend of the friend’s—Dykers—who had been working on their own proposal in Los Angeles.
The Alexandria competition accepted more than five hundred submissions, from architects all over the world, many of them famous. Snøhetta, at that point, wasn’t just unknown; it wasn’t even a real firm. Thorsen, Dykers, and their friends created their proposal in an apartment in Los Angeles, which they’d rented for six weeks. They leased furniture from a company that supplied props to movie studios. “It was a film-set office,” Thorsen told me. “The stuff in it was real stuff, but what was unusual was that we were using it for its real purpose.”
The main design challenge, Thorsen said, was finding a way to honor the ancient library’s legend without seeming to displace it. “It had to be something completely new, so that you wouldn’t confuse it with the picture in your head. At the same time, it had to make some impression of being great, and maybe even monumental. But it had to be a human monumentalism, which then opened up and invited people in.” The site was at the edge of the city’s harbor, near what is believed to be the location of parts of the original library, but it was relatively small and was in a neighborhood dominated by undistinguished institutional buildings, separated from the water by a broad boulevard. For the main building, the architects designed a truncated cone with a slanting, circular roof facing the Mediterranean, and they placed four of the main library’s eleven floors underground, so that the entrance would be in the middle of the structure. For most of the curving exterior of the main building, they specified a windowless sheath of unpolished granite blocks, carved with thousands of written characters, from a hundred and twenty ancient and modern writing systems. The carved-granite expanse was meant to provide a symbolic bridge between the original library and the present, while also shielding the building from winds that sweep up from the Sahara.
Thorsen, Dykers, and the others felt that they had no chance of winning. “But we did think that our design was unique,” Dykers told me, “and that the judges would give us something.” Thorsen said that, when the selection committee called, he couldn’t tell whether the man on the line, who was Egyptian, was saying “first” or “third.” “I thought it was a joke, actually,” he said, “and I had to get a number and call back. But it turned out that we had won.”
The new library wasn’t completed until 2001; merely negotiating the contracts took until 1993. But Thorsen said the drawn-out schedule was actually useful, because the delays gave the young architects time to acquire an address, permanent furnishings, and the equivalent of a postgraduate education in design and construction. Training Egyptian workers to carve the symbols in the granite sheathing took two years. (The symbol scheme was created by Jorunn Sannes, a Norwegian artist, who is Thorsen’s wife.) For several years, the architects received financial support from various sources, including the Norwegian government and UNESCO—a necessity, Thorsen said, because when the project began they were all broke.
The roof of the Oslo Opera looks like a dangerous place: people seem to be walking up to and along the edges, without railings to keep them from plunging to the marble expanse below. But the peril is an illusion, because the main surfaces are separated from the edges by a ha-ha, a sunken walkway that functions as a barrier. The Snøhetta architects took the idea from zoos. They also angled the roof in such a way that, as you climb, you can seldom see other buildings. The effect is exhilarating: the people ahead of you and to the side are often silhouetted against the sky, as on a mountain. And at the bottom, where the roof slides into the water and disappears, there’s a similar sense of exposure, which feels both precarious and liberating.
One afternoon, a former member of the Opera’s ballet company gave me a tour. (The dancers retire, with a state pension, at forty-one; opera singers retire in their fifties.) We began in the vast foyer, which is open and bright and fully visible from outside. Its main feature, which Snøhetta calls the Wave Wall, is the curved exterior of the auditorium. It’s covered in unstained strips of oak, and it looks a little like the way the Guggenheim Museum might look had Frank Lloyd Wright specified oversized matchsticks for the exterior rather than painted concrete. The oak strips vary in thickness and in color, and they have been arranged randomly, to scatter sounds and to create a nonuniform texture.
The doors to the Opera foyer are unlocked most of the time. “Everyone can come into this house,” my guide told me. “Someone wrote that our opening hours compete with 7-Eleven’s.” (One consequence is that the restrooms in the foyer are among the most heavily used in the city.) The Opera’s success has strengthened Snøhetta’s interest in “keyless” structures—public spaces that never close. A recent example is the firm’s Norwegian Wild Reindeer Center Pavilion, in Hjerkinn, about four and a half hours north of Oslo, which has won several design awards. The building is roughly the size and shape of a shipping container. It is situated on a rocky hilltop across a valley from Mt. Snøhetta, and it has one long glass wall, facing the mountain. Visitors come there to contemplate the scenery and, if they are lucky, to observe passing herds of reindeer and musk oxen. The rear wall was fabricated from a stack of ten-by-ten pine timbers by a Norwegian shipbuilding firm, which used a computer-controlled industrial machine to carve undulating recesses, in which visitors can sit or recline. The wall looks as though it had been shaped over eons by wind or moving water, and as you look across the valley you feel as if you’re sitting in the mouth of a cave. When I visited, a national-park employee, whose job title was “nature interpreter,” told me that she had brought an elementary-school group to the pavilion on a field trip early one recent morning, and that the children’s boisterous arrival had awakened a couple who had spent the night on the floor—another “consummation” of a Snøhetta design.
At the Opera, an initially controversial decision by Snøhetta was not to conceal the functions that support the performances. Six hundred and fifty employees, in several dozen specialties, work in a four-story structure, called the Factory, which extends from beneath the upper end of the sloping roof. If you walk around to the back, you can watch through large windows as workers design sets, build scenery, sew costumes, mix fake blood (an operatic staple), and perform other backstage chores. Some of those workers objected, at first, that visibility would destroy the mystique of the performances, but since then virtually all have come around, and many now display samples of their work on their windowsills. The transparency of the Factory, my guide told me, has increased local acceptance of the high price of opera tickets: people can see where the money goes.
One of the relatively few parts of the Opera that aren’t visible from outside is the interior of the main auditorium. We visited it last, and entered by way of the uppermost balcony. The over-all impression made by the rest of the building is of light—large expanses of glass, white marble, and honey-colored wood—but the auditorium is enveloping and hushed and cathedral-like. My guide described it as “a magic world” and said that she was still moved each time she entered. The balcony fronts and other wooden elements were milled into subtly complex curves by the shipbuilding company that created the seating wall for the reindeer pavilion, and the wood, which is oak, was treated with ammonia to darken it. The seat cushions are tomato-red and orange, and against the background of the woodwork they have the visual impact of stained glass. The seats are sized and upholstered so that they have virtually the same sound-absorption properties when they are empty as when they are occupied. In the previous hall, as in many auditoriums, performers had to adjust their voices depending on whether they were rehearsing in front of empty seats or performing before a live audience.
Snøhetta’s New York office is in the old Cunard Line Building, on lower Broadway. It overlooks Arturo Di Modica’s “Charging Bull,” a three-and-a-half-ton sculpture, which stands at the northern end of Bowling Green Park and functions as a tribute to Wall Street. The spot is a popular destination for tourists, many of whom pose for photographs with the statue. Dykers told me that he has observed the crowds around the bull for years, and that the tourists can be divided roughly equally into those who pose at its head and those who pose at its rear end. (The bull’s nose, horns, and testicles have been rubbed, for luck, to more or less identical degrees of shininess.) Dykers said the statue is a useful reminder that humans are diverse, and have their own ideas about design. “A lot of our work as architects takes into account that just as many people are interested in the backside of the bull,” he said.
Dykers is more compact and less rumpled-looking than Thorsen, but he is similarly self-effacing. It took me a couple of days to realize that Elaine Molinar, who also works in the New York office and has been a member of the firm since the Alexandria project, is his wife. (“There are people at the company who didn’t know for several years that we were married,” he told me.) They met in the early nineteen-eighties at the University of Texas at Austin, where both were undergraduates and where Molinar studied ballet before switching to architecture. They live in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, near Fulton Landing, and commute to work by ferry.
Snøhetta opened its New York office after receiving the commission for the World Trade Center pavilion, and one afternoon I walked over to the site with Anne Lewison and Aaron Dorf, Snøhetta architects who have been involved in the pavilion’s design for several years. We put on hard hats and yellow vests, and, after a security check, we entered a gate at the edge of the construction zone. The site is still chaotic, but the part of the plaza surrounding the memorial fountains—which are set within the spaces once occupied by the foundations of the Twin Towers and were designed by Michael Arad and Peter Walker—is already one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations. Snøhetta’s pavilion, now tentatively scheduled to open in late 2013, is an asymmetrical three-story crystal of stainless steel and glass which appears to have fallen from the sky and embedded itself in the plaza. It will contain the security checkpoint for the 9/11 Museum, which was designed by the American firm Davis Brody Bond, as well as a food area, a small auditorium, and a sanctuary-like room reserved for the survivors of 9/11 victims. Designing the pavilion was complicated by the fact that no part of the building has its own foundation: most of the structure sits on top of a PATH station, which was designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, and the rest overhangs the museum. “We couldn’t even add things,” Lewison said. “We couldn’t say, ‘Could you just give us a little more cantilever here so that we can pick up the north side of our building?’ So the north side of our building is actually hung from a shaft at our roof level.”
Lewison said that she and her colleagues had viewed the project’s constraints as a challenge rather than as an annoyance, and had employed several optical tricks to make the building seem bigger. The irregularity of its shape and subtle horizontal stripes in the glass-and-stainless-steel cladding, she said, make the pavilion’s dimensions unclear to someone viewing it from the plaza. “You don’t know how big it is,” she said. “If you’re standing close to it, it looks like it could be really tall, or really long, and if you look along one of the sides you have a sense of great length.” The ambiguity is similar to the infinite-edge effect on the roof of the Oslo Opera.
Snøhetta’s largest American project currently under construction is an expansion of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The current museum building, which opened in 1995, was designed by the Swiss architect Mario Botta, and it’s a darkly forbidding structure: a red-brick fortress on a crowded urban block in what used to be a marginal neighborhood. Snøhetta will leave the Botta building mostly intact; the addition, when viewed from the street, will look a little like a white ocean liner parked behind and above it, and it will roughly triple the museum’s gallery space. Accommodating the expected crowds—SFMOMA’s annual attendance has more than doubled since 1995, to roughly six hundred and fifty thousand, and the expansion will attract more—will require some of the same feeling for urban dynamics that guided Snøhetta’s design for the Opera. This past summer, the engineering firm Arup, which is also working on the project, ran a computer simulation called a “visitor-flow model,” which enabled Snøhetta to observe how elements of its design would be likely to affect the movements of museumgoers. The architects were able to fill a computer model of the building with hundreds of virtual human visitors, and study what happened. “Each person gets programmed,” Dykers said. “Weight, height, walking speed, interests. Then you set them in motion, and you can see where you need more stairs or bathrooms or ticket booths, and you can actually see what people’s irritability levels are.”
The goal of such an exercise isn’t always to eliminate sources of irritability; sometimes, he said, the most interesting results come from creating impediments rather than removing them. Thorsen told me, “The roof of the Opera enabled people to experience certain things they hadn’t experienced before. I think that’s interesting in architecture—to generate new situations. So you dislocate and you locate. You remove known obstacles and you introduce new ones. By doing that, you change the movement, and by changing the movement you change the perception of the space. And it’s exactly the same thing with Times Square.”
Dykers has a brother, five years older, who was a gifted structural engineer until, in his late thirties, he suffered a cerebral aneurysm and, as a consequence of surgery that was intended to repair it, lost his ability to remember new things. “You’ve probably seen the movie ‘Memento,’ ” Dykers told me one day. “My brother is basically like that, but not as dramatic. He doesn’t tattoo reminders on his skin, but he keeps papers in all his pockets and calls them his memory. His math skills are still amazing. I play chess with him sometimes, and if he leaves the table and comes back he won’t remember whether he’s white or black or what his strategy was. But he will notice, when he sits down again, that you are obviously on that side of the table and he’s on this side, and he’ll see where the pieces are on the board, and in his mind he’ll try to retrace the game backward and then run it forward—and that gives him an advantage, paradoxically, because he sees the mistakes. And he will almost always beat you.” The brother can’t function as an engineer anymore, but he has inadvertently helped Dykers in his work as an architect, because his brain injury, Dykers said, makes him a perfectly naïve test subject. “He can’t rely on memory to navigate through spaces. If we’re in a restaurant and he goes to the toilet, he won’t remember how to get back to the table, even if he’s been there ten times. So I watch him, and try to understand what clues he’s using to move through unfamiliar surroundings.”
How people move through unfamiliar surroundings has been a central issue for Snøhetta in Times Square. David Burney, who runs the city’s Department of Design and Construction, told me, “Ninety per cent of the people using Times Square are pedestrians, yet ninety per cent of the space was devoted to cars.” In 2009, the city began trying to shift that balance, by converting especially troublesome sections of roadway into pedestrian zones. It covered the asphalt in those zones with paint—in Times Square, the paint is now mostly tan (like beach sand) and blue (like the ocean)—and it installed café tables, chairs, and large plastic planters. The modified road plan improved traffic flow and reduced the number of accidents—“They took away the knot,” Dykers told me—but managing the tidal surges of pedestrians remained problematic. In 2011, the city engaged Snøhetta to complete the transformation.
One afternoon, Dykers and I met at his office and then took the subway uptown to look at the site. As we waited for an express at Fourteenth Street, he said that in most stations you can anticipate where the doors of the next train will open by looking for concentrations of chewing-gum splats near the edges of the platforms. (Subway riders apparently tend to spit out gum either just before entering or just after exiting a train.) Much crowd behavior is predictable, Dykers said, but it isn’t perceived consciously by the crowds themselves. “Your brain is working continuously, gauging things like reflections and space and shapes,” he said. “You’ll hear people say that they’re more likely to collide with other people in Penn Station than they are in Grand Central, and the reason is that when you have hundreds and hundreds of people in one place there’s a natural movement that your body will make to get out of the way, and in Penn Station there’s not enough room to do that. It’s counterintuitive, but I think one reason Grand Central works so well is the kiosk in the middle of the main concourse. You’d think it would be a disaster, since it’s right in the center of everything, but it pushes people to the sides and creates more flow. It’s like fish swimming around rocks in a stream.”
We emerged from the subway at Forty-second Street, at the southern end of Times Square, and headed north, into a part of Seventh Avenue from which motor vehicles have been banished. In most places in the United States, planning has heavily favored the automobile. The Times Square project is unusual in having removed car lanes rather than added them—a gain for pedestrians in what was already one of the most pedestrian-friendly cities in the world. But the memory of cars is strong. Dykers and I walked for about a block in a blue-painted zone, and in comparison with the sidewalk it was practically empty. Dykers observed that simply removing the vehicles hadn’t caused pedestrians to inhabit an area that, despite the paint, they still registered as roadway. “A curb—especially two parallel curbs—says ‘street,’ no matter how much you paint it,” he said. “The reason is that your brain is saying, ‘Street! Car! Danger!’ even though the pavement is blue and you know, consciously, that no cars are there.” Snøhetta will eliminate the vestigial curbs, and raise the entire pedestrian space to the level of the existing sidewalks, removing the subliminal danger signal.
We crossed a section of tan pavement, toward Broadway. “The paint is fun,” Dykers said, “and it was well done, for what it is, but these kinds of bright color seem out of place in Times Square. In people’s collective memory, Times Square is not about the beach.” It had rained overnight, and Dykers said, “It’s nice that the ground is wet, because you get a kind of reflection that we want to bring back. The first time we came here, it had also just rained, and that made us think immediately about how we could create a more monolithic surface.”
Other firms’ proposals for Times Square have typically involved adding visual complexity—especially lights—but Snøhetta took the opposite approach, and its design constitutes what David Burney described to me as a refreshing “de-cluttering.” Dykers told me that he and his colleagues had studied historical photographs, and decided that a critical element missing from the square’s modern iteration was a uniform band of relative darkness at street level, in contrast to the frenetic light show created by billboards and other signage. In old photographs, he said, there was also usually a band of darkness above the billboards, because in those days the lights in office buildings were less likely to be left on all night. There’s no way to restore darkness in the offices above Times Square’s lights, but Snøhetta’s plan will darken the zone beneath. The pedestrian surfaces will be finished with gray concrete pavers. The pavers will be studded with nickel-size stainless-steel “pucks,” which will be slightly reflective, but the sidewalks won’t contain lights. Their purpose will be to frame the existing illumination, not to augment or compete with it.
Dykers and I walked along one side of a row of tub-like planters, which divided a pedestrian area from a traffic lane. The planters were added by the city when it changed the lane configuration, and they serve both as decorations and as protective barriers. They won’t be there for long, though. “All the vegetation you see here now will be eliminated,” Dykers said. “It’s not natural for a tree to be here. These big planters get cigarettes thrown into them, and people pull plants out of them, and on New Year’s Eve the city has to remove them because people climb on them and sit on them and pee in them, and it’s not good for the plants. Putting trees here would actually be the opposite of green.”
Dykers pointed to a man standing beside a fire hydrant and smoking a cigarette. The hydrant was flanked by three steel stanchions, which created an enclosure that was isolated from the crowd on the sidewalk. “See where he’s standing?” Dykers said. “He has unconsciously chosen this one protected place, where people can’t bump into him.” In Snøhetta’s plan, large granite benches will perform much the same function, by providing places for people to sit or stand, and by breaking up pedestrian spaces in ways that provide navigational cues. The benches, some of which will be fifty feet long and five feet wide, will conceal built-in access to electrical, digital, and fibre-optic networks, reducing the need for power cables and generators for events held in the square.
As we pushed our way through a particularly dense crowd near the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, Dykers told me about a discovery the firm had made while surveying the site. “It was our landscape architects who noticed it,” he said. “At first, we couldn’t believe it, but Times Square isn’t flat. It’s actually hammock-shaped.” Three creeks once flowed together near the low point, not far from the intersection where we were walking. Although the old streambeds are now buried deep beneath asphalt and concrete, the depression they created remains. “It was like a sump,” he said. “We blew up a photograph and connected the dots of all the heads of all the people, and when we did that the elevation change was obvious. There’s an eight-foot drop over two or three blocks, and that’s the reason the area floods in a heavy rain. You don’t notice it when you stand here, because the space is so gigantic, but eight feet is a lot.” The topography of the square compounds the sense of congestion, creating a kind of “nightmare” zone near the bottom of the hammock; to a pedestrian walking there, the crowds to the north and the south seem to be pressing down from above. Snøhetta can’t change the city’s contours, but its redesign should reduce the sense of menace, by widening the pedestrian space near the pinch point.
We sidestepped some people who were selling tour-bus tickets and some people who were giving away comedy-show tickets. “It’s commonly believed that tourists love Times Square and New Yorkers hate it,” Dykers continued. “That’s fairly true, but New Yorkers, no matter how cynical they may be, are always going to be amazed by the lights, even if they’re angrily running through it. The challenge is that they’re not connected to it in the way they were seventy years ago, when they went there to listen to radio broadcasts of Yankees games and speeches by President Roosevelt, and Times Square really was New York’s space as well as the ‘Crossroads of the World.’ ” Reëstablishing even a semblance of the old relationship won’t be easy, he said, but he believes that much of what residents perceive as a problem with tourists is actually a problem with design, and designs can be changed. “Architects are magicians,” he said. “Now, we know that magic doesn’t really exist, but magicians have methods they use to make it seem real, and even though we know it’s a trick, we can’t quite believe it’s fake. They ask us to step outside of our ordinary world and view it from a different perspective.”
The most conspicuous landmark at the northern end of Times Square is the TKTS booth, just beyond the statue of Father Duffy, in the tiny plaza known as Duffy Square. The booth was completed in 2008. It has a roof that resembles a fan-shaped staircase, whose treads and risers are made of red laminated glass, and pedestrians use it as a rest area and observation post. It exerts the same sort of attractive force on visitors that the roof of the Oslo Opera does, though on a smaller scale, and its appeal is undoubtedly enhanced by topography: the roof faces downhill from the square’s highest point, like a scenic lookout at the rim of a valley. Dykers told me that he loves the TKTS plaza and that Snøhetta won’t alter it, although it will widen the pedestrian spaces on either side, where large crowds of prospective theatregoers stand in line to buy tickets.
We walked up the glass steps, which the rain had made somewhat slippery, and two young men—one black, one Hispanic, both wearing black T-shirts and jeans, both in their twenties—asked Dykers if he would take their photograph. Dykers hooked his umbrella over one elbow, and the two men leaned toward each other and smiled.
“Where are you guys from?” Dykers asked.
Both laughed, and the black guy said, “We’re actually from here. I never came up here before, ever—and I’m from here.”
The Hispanic guy said, “I live right down the street!”
Dykers explained who he was, and described the changes that Snøhetta was planning.
“Like, New Yorkers don’t come to Times Square, because it’s so annoying,” the black guy said. “So that will help out. That will be cool.”
“It’s the greatest city in the world,” the Hispanic guy said. “Come on.”
“That’s the thing, man. That’s the thing.” ♦
Top: Apple store, Fifth Avenue, New York. [Photo by Eric Wüstenhagen] Bottom: Steve Jobs and Rem Koolhaas. [Photos by James Mitchell, left, and Rodrigo Fernández, right]
1. An Apple for the teacher
Yet another treatise on Steve Jobs? 1 As an “architect” — really? And with Apple seemingly waning, aren’t we behind the curve on this? 2 Suffice it to say that my interest is not solely in Steven Paul Jobs himself, but rather in the challenge that the late computer impresario and legendary technologist poses to the methods and purpose of an architectural historian — starting with one who teaches across disciplines, at a public university near Apple’s lair in the Bay Area of California. My job and my location place me close enough to Silicon Valley that students might fairly assume that I have something cogent to say about all this (they have already indicated as much). Now Apple is working with Norman Foster to build a donut-spaceship as its headquarters in Cupertino. But since architectural stories are surprising rare here on the edge of the continent, I need a shtick; no matter my connoisseur-ish personal tastes and leftist political dispositions. So what are my options?
Compare and contrast, that trusty standby of art history, in which I drill my students. I can compare Jobs with … with whom, exactly? Bill Gates, or maybe Thomas Edison? That route would take us away from design, away from architectural history, away from aesthetics. Not necessarily a bad outcome, and like many architectural historians, I pay close attention to both Science and Technology Studies and Cultural Studies, which are the disciplines perhaps most comfortable with technology and the American experience. But neither the Apple HQ, or the iPhone for that matter, readily lend themselves to STS and Cultural Studies’ emphases on flattened and distributed innovation and on user-generated meanings. 3 So any methods I might borrow from those anthropologically-inclined fields will need to be augmented by the emphases on authorship and aesthetics that architectural history traditionally draws from art history: peel away his ruthless command of global consumer markets and Jobs can seem to the art historian more akin to Gropius than Gates. But Jobs’s ruthless command of markets is a fact that cannot be peeled away; and so we are obliged to deploy the criticality that has been central to architectural historical method since, say, Tomás Maldonado and Manfredo Tafuri. 4 In other words: I am duty-bound to tell students that design is not necessarily benign, especially when it seems to be.
Yet they can see me teaching from the MacBook I am writing on even now. Some of the students I have trained will graduate into Silicon Valley. I wonder what that suggests about my own complicity with the very things which I am attempting to critique? How does my salary, my adopted state, my consumption, tie me to all this? So I discreetly edge the conversation back to my own disciplinary competence by comparing the design for the new Apple headquarters with other corporate buildings. We take another iconic and somehow ominous HQ — OMA’s recently completed CCTV tower in Beijing — and we then compare Jobs with OMA’s head, Rem Koolhaas. Yes, as though they were both architects. And then we treat Jobs as though he were an offshoot of a Bay Area design history that was substantially driven by architecture. My concern, after all, is to have something to say about design in the far western region where I teach; even though major monumental buildings are scarce on the ground here, and even though the politics of good design are adulterated by my state’s politics of good business. This effort, then, becomes a test of the limits of my discipline, devoted as it has long been to the maintenance of European critical traditions, and to monumentality and the public sphere, and to the continued preeminence of the academic institutions of Northern Europe and the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. Such is the fate of many an émigré architectural historian in California, at once living and working within a global engine of economy, design, ideology and media, yet rather far from the concatenations of Greater New England architectural historical scholarship. We wonder whether there is any more that can be said about the Mission Style, the Case Study Houses, the freeways; or whether anything whatsoever can be said about California’s inland agricultural empire of the Central Valley, which is where I live.
Norman Foster’s design for the Apple headquarters, center, surrounded by the California architectural historian’s canon. [Photos, clockwise, by Eli Pousson, Neil Kremer, Dystopus, Keith Daly, Chris McSorley, Allan Ferguson, MyDifferentDrum and Roberto Estremo]
I believe that there is. But to talk about Jobs as though he were an architect — already a dubious proposition — is to talk as well about advanced capitalism, about global systems, the counterculture, Zen Buddhism, and all manner of phenomena apparently inimical to the critical tradition, to monumentality and the public sphere. This threatens to liquefy my discipline through a Golden State looking-glass. Maybe I should emulate the resolve of the philosophers Adorno and Horkheimer, both of whom, stranded in sunny Los Angeles during the war, refused to succumb to California languor. And yet; my faculty appointment is here, expectant students are assembled, and to be frank I think that architectural-historical methodology can benefit from this modest test, and prevail. So here I offers no scoops or intrigues into the Zen Master Jobs. This is one of those experiments in method encouraged — forced — by the study of California: here subject and method evolve symbiotically, as befits scholarship in a region enamored with holistic thought, even as my disciplinary training prevents me from ever going fully native.
2. Why it’s simpler to treat Jobs as a California Modern Architect
To the subject at hand. To my mind, treating Jobs as an architect has merit, if for no other reason than to bring to some sort of conclusion the popular psychologizing of what made him tick. It is no secret that Jobs was a “complicated” man. Unusually so, perhaps, though nothing more typifies the persona of the “great architect,” driven to get his ideas executed with minimum compromise, somehow distrustful of people yet seemingly concerned about their welfare, preferring to channel politics through design rather than to actually participate in political activity. “Despite the myriad ways his companies improved our lives, Jobs was a hero only in the Ayn Randian sense,” writes The Nation’s Eric Alterman, de facto connecting Jobs, via Rand, to that archetype of the “complicated” architect, Howard Roark, a.k.a. Frank Lloyd Wright. 5 A sense of what you might call “psychopathic humanism” attends such personalities: they are determined to improve the human lot no matter how many individual humans they offend along the way. Bucking our current postmodern era, Jobs and Koolhaas both seem to have been driven by the possibility that they can act inside, or around, a postmodern world resistant to purpose. Jobs and Koolhaas share, I suspect, an attraction toward design as a type of hermeneutics — a will to learn about the world through the attempt to change it. Koolhaas assigned his Harvard students and OMA assistants to track aesthetic multiplier effects through the study of shopping and of African urbanism; he is passionate, in a manner worthy of a surrealist or second-order cybernetician, about paradox and overdetermination. 6 Meanwhile both the personnel and the customers of the Apple Corporation functioned as an extension of Jobs, and not simply through the authoritarian exertion of will. In this sense Jobs hasn’t died in the same way that Mies van der Rohe hasn’t died: something of his very thinking, his gestalt, has been learned by other designers and consumers, and in this way Jobs’s legacy — like influential pedagogy — is “architectural.” That Jobs’s work, his products, has constituted a daily part of people’s lives over several generations was testified to by the peculiar and public demonstrations of grief at his passing.
Steve Jobs memorial, Apple store, San Francisco. [Photo by raumish]
Koolhaas, for sure, is a redoubtable figure for historians and theorists of architecture in a way that Jobs never will be. Judged by his impact on architectural pedagogy and his reception by critics, he probably remains our most important living architect, popular with scholars to the degree that he is apparently unpopular with, even obscure to, the public at large. Koolhaas invites interpretation. In contrast, scholars are left practically redundant by the sheer popularity of Jobs’s work: there is, apparently, no work of interpretation left for us to do. We can try to deepen our analyses of Jobs by, say, citing the pivotal influential of industrial designers like Dieter Rams; but accounting for Koolhaas’s interests in the surrealist paranoiac-critical method, Soviet Constructivism and Italian Autonomist Marxism would require graduate-seminar-level exegesis. Put another way: if Koolhaas’s aesthetic is difficult, Jobs’s is dumb. The categorical difference is that one really is an architect, steeped in the arts, and the other is an ambitious industrial designer, steeped in the applied arts; which is why Koolhaas presents an explanatory challenge, Jobs a functional literalness. I am not so sure about this distinction, though; whatever the philosophical and formal challenges which Koolhaas’s buildings pose, they function well. And Jobs’s intellectual formation was easily as esoteric as that of Koolhaas.
It’s no surprise, then, that architect Norman Foster has referred to Jobs as though he were a professional peer, “in every way so much more than a client,” as Foster put it in his tribute. “We are better as individuals and certainly wiser as architects through the experience of … working for him. … His participation was so intense and creative that our memory will be that of working with one of the truly great designers and mentors.” 7 (This is the sort of language we might expect Foster to have reserved for his earlier mentor Richard Buckminster Fuller — another figure whose functionalism, anathema to the richly formal work of Koolhaas, is adored in Bay Area.) When Jobs’s name is used as a search term in the scholarly Avery Index to architectural history, it retrieves a 2005 article from Britain’s ID magazine that lists, in this order, the most influential design thinkers in the world: the Museum of Modern Art’s Design Department, Steve Jobs, Rem Koolhaas. For ID, at least, we are in some way comparing like with like. And the listing of Jobs with MoMA and Koolhaas has the intriguing effect of drawing a westward axis of transnational design, as it transposes from The Netherlands, then to the United States via New York and Northern California, then onward to China, where Jobs and Koolhaas confirm their incendiary reputations in the factories of Shenzhen and the political machine of Beijing. The modernist tradition becomes — to use Koolhaas’s celebrated term — increasingly delirious, as it gravitates from the Heroic Age Netherlands, to Jazz Age New York, to Aquarian Age California.
If Koolhaas has capitalized upon a distinctively Dutch taste and Northern European aesthetic, Jobs has championed a distinctively Californian energy. In the early 1980s, the German industrial designer Hartmut Esslinger proposed that there should be a “born-in-America gene for Apple’s DNA,” one that would produce what Esslinger called a “California global” look. Esslinger, then newly arrived in the United States, initially suggested that Apple’s aesthetic be inspired by “Hollywood and music, a bit of rebellion, and natural sex appeal.” 8 But Hollywood, rock music, sex appeal and rebellion did not prevail in the iconic forms that embody the Apple brand identity created so obsessively by Jobs. In its stores, in its devices, even in the book cover he designed for Walter Isaacson’s biography (which he himself commissioned Isaacson to write), Jobs recovered a vision of the modern as clarified, normative, truthful, perhaps somewhat German though even more Zen. Is there a relationship between California and these qualities of clarification, normativity, truthfulness and Zen? I believe that Apple really does represent a genus of Californian design — that the slogan “Designed by Apple in California” conveys something like an ethos.
Top and Middle: Norman Foster, drawings for Apple headquarters, Cupertino, California, projected 2015. Bottom: Bernard Maybeck, Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, 1915. [Photo by Wally Gobetz]
Apple’s image evolved markedly from the early 1980s to now, but it remained consistent with Bay Area taste, from the countercultural feel of the offerings to be found in (say) its early-’80s gift collections 9 —with their totes, kites, belt buckles, wall hangings and rug kits — to the New Age aura of transcendent consciousness and spirituality of more recent Mac products, their concealed LEDs practicing controlled yogic breathing when left on standby. Apple was a Bay Area company led by a lifelong Bay Area homeboy steeped in such Bay Area enthusiasms as the Whole Earth Catalog and The Grateful Dead. 10 In the dominant culture of the Bay Area — if I can indulge in a sweeping summary — you find a deep distaste for representing established culture: culture is to be invented, here and now, and to be lived rather than observed and learned. It is a culture that imagines itself as exploring truth and possibility. This is a trait stretching back through several generations of Northern California designers — Bernard Maybeck is my personal favorite, with his eccentric combinations of materials, technique and historical association. Jobs, too, pursued an aesthetics of truth and possibility.
Compare the design of two corporate animation facilities, one for The Walt Disney Company, in Southern California, the other for Jobs’s Pixar, in Northern California. In his 1991 design for the Team Disney building, in Burbank, Michael Graves employs the Seven Dwarves as Atlantes not only to symbolize a passing world of animated arts but also to make an inside joke about the conclusion of classical civilization. In contrast, in their Pixar Studios, in Emeryville, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson deploy the patterning of bricks of different hues to make decoration immanent to the materials themselves, in this way suggesting that the building itself is pixelated — a pattern waiting to be orchestrated. Facts before pictures. The tectonic and material truths of this factory of the virtual feel hyper-real. Its hand-laid brick courses suggest an unnerving sincerity far removed from the postmodern irony of Graves or the postmodern tragedy of Koolhaas. The Bohlin Cywinski Jackson practice, founded in 1965 in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, under the sway of Louis Kahn (that vital transitional figure between modernism and postmodernism who recovered architectural verity from dogmatic functionalism and returned it to custom, ritual and place) has proven adept at delivering to commercial and technological clients buildings of a local phenomenological intensity. In 1997 the firm completed the residential compound of another computer maven, one Bill Gates of Bellevue, WA, in an earnest regional “Pacific Lodge” style. A couple of years later, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson opened its San Francisco office to handle the Pixar campus for Jobs. What they delivered doesn’t look much like a fun factory. The main pavilion is an elegant warehouse, its flat arches an acknowledgement of the local light-industry context, with plate glass recalling the notoriously generic corporate architecture of Silicon Valley. The Pixar campus is a place for serious research, not decorative puns; a place where the arts of animation from the classic era of Disney are preserved within three-dimensional computer modeling originally developed for medical imaging; a place to discover the sorts of truths about the self and the world that were earlier discovered in the Marin County summer camps, Palo Alto garages, East Bay cafés, Silicon Valley laboratories and Silicon Alley warehouses recalled by the campus ensemble.
Top: Michael Graves, Team Disney Building, Burbank, California. [Photo by Loren Javier] Middle and Bottom: Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Steve Jobs Building, Pixar Campus, Emeryville, California. [Photos by John Lambert Pearson, middle, and Michael Heilemann, bottom]
The comic foil provided by the monumental Luxo lamp is an addition. The lamp — an homage to Pixar’s celebrated 1986 demo reel, “Luxo Jr.” — was a gift from Australia, as though Pixar were a new nation — a corporate nation that reaffirms the Bay Area as a center of the creative world (with a nod, in the naming of its new building “Brooklyn,” to an East Coast counterpart). Jobs was the undisputed ruler of this nation; Pixar employees knew him to be the hidden hand in the building’s design, 11 and Jobs was always adamant that all core creative production for his companies would happen in the Bay Area in real diurnal time, defying the industry trend for the globalized dissipation of the design process across facilities, specializations and time zones. 12 At a Cupertino City Council meeting in June 2011, a clearly ailing Jobs made what I assume was his last public appearance to present the plans for the new Apple HQ; he promoted the Foster + Partners design as a great entity in a traditionalist Bay Area landscape to be designed by Stanford University’s arborist. 13 The building thus becomes the capsule, the beehive, the phalanstery for 15,000 engineers circling the wagons against the outsourcing of Californian design.
Apple had thus become the new Californian “machine,” reproducing local tastes and predispositions even through its immigrant employees, like the British designer Jonathan Ive, or the German Esslinger and his practice frogdesign, all of whom were required to relocate to the region as part of their association with Jobs. Even the design presence of Baron Foster, whose ideas were profoundly affected by his admiration of the Case Study houses, does nothing to deflect the broad, synthetic Californianism of Apple’s trajectory. Yet ultimately Jobs’s phenomenology can be founded on certainties of place and language no more than the modern-day Bay Area can be founded on certainties of place and language. It is a light phenomenology, slickly tuning consciousness through sensory experience. 14 This calibration of affect, surely at Job’s behest, explains how Bohlin Cywinski Jackson effortlessly switched from the vernacular brick and iron opacity at Pixar to the Zen-like transparency of the 2006 Manhattan Apple Store. Opacity, transparency, Jungian forms, materials, place, tectonics: Jobs and his collaborators were trying to access phenomenological truths at the office and at the store.
Top: Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Apple store, Fifth Avenue, New York, 2006. [Photo by Jorge Láscar] Bottom: Early graphical user interface, Xerox Star, 1981. [Via DigiBarn Computer Museum]
Along the way Jobs conscripted the very typology of the window from the Graphical User Interface — which he explored soon after it was invented at Xerox PARC in Palo Alto — to the service of his light phenomenology that sought to reveal the world. Floor-to-ceiling windows, beloved by Bay Region architects, became the central motif of Jobs’s inventions — from the computers to the phones to the stores, the windowed grids of the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue relaying attention to the windowed tablets relaying attention to windowed operating systems, propelling us steadily out of history. Though routinely described as iconic, Apple products seem actually to be moving away from idiosyncratic forms like the trend-setting colored-jellybean style of the late ’90s iMac series. The aluminum, glass and radius edges of the recent products strain for ascetic neutrality. Without much difficulty the Apple consumer could imagine information one day floating in the environment, dematerialized into the “cybernetic meadow” forecast in the celebrated (if ridiculed) 1967 poetry collection by San Franciscan Richard Brautigan when he was poet-in-residence at Caltech. 15 So at the end of his life, Jobs settled on a Zen-like approach as the appropriate phenomenological architecture for information technology, just as a Zen-like transcendence had attracted generations of Bay Region aesthetes. Bay Region Style itself bore the clear imprint of Japanese Zen architecture. In a famous 1947 essay on “Bay Region Style,” Lewis Mumford described the style as “a product of the meeting of the Occidental and Oriental architectural traditions,” 16 and six decades later Steve Jobs concurred: “I have always found … Japanese Zen Buddhism … to be aesthetically sublime.” 17
“Zen is to California as Greece is to Germany”: so an uncommonly insightful student quipped to me recently, bridging the Bay Region’s dogged pursuit of higher consciousness and the German phenomenological tradition. 18 Jobs’s seemingly existential understanding of design does indeed remind one of the fascination exerted over architects by Martin Heidegger, for whom design functioned best in the background, the better to “bring forth” Being. Bay Area and German existentialism are even linked by a proud sense of their higher provincialism, the disdain for metropolitan affectation. 19 William Wurster, referring to the Bay Region Style, wrote in 1956 that “Architecture is not a goal. Architecture is for life and pleasure and work and for people. The picture frame, not the picture.” 20 Jobs enthused about the Bay Area’s mid-century stick-built houses developed by Joseph Eichler: Eichler’s “houses were smart and cheap and good,” Jobs told Walter Isaacson. “I love it when you can bring really great design and simple capability to something that doesn’t cost too much. … It was the original vision for Apple.” 21 And so we have that paradox that the normative or the provincial comes to embody rarefied taste and so occupy a central place in design culture. (Something similar happened with critical regionalism.) 22 By the early 21st century, Apple products were the summary forms of international modern design, recalling the abstemiousness of Viennese architect and journalist Adolf Loos at the turn of the 20th century, of the German industrial design of the Dessau Bauhaus of the 1920s, and of the Braun products of Dieter Rams in the 1960s, admiration for the latter of which Jobs developed when attending the Aspen Institute’s conferences in the early 1980s. 23
Top: Eichler home, original advertisement. [Via Architizer] Bottom: Dieter Rams, Braun radio and record player. [Photos by Nite Owl, left, and Toby Evans, right]
3. Thinking inside the box
What did it mean for Jobs to attempt to recuperate “normative,” “classically” modernist values for a postmodern, late capitalist world order — for a world order whose anguish seems better captured by the old-world Koolhaas, and in which modernism’s promise of emancipation is trammeled in the off-shore factories of Apple’s manufacturers? Is this nothing but a travesty of modernism? For of course we know that aesthetic culture is at best a poor substitute indeed for truly political society, and a sickening lie in its absence. 24
The clamshell form of the late ’90s MacBook was redolent of the sort of cigarette case that Loos identified in 1908 as the touchstone of modern culture: stripped, portable, repetitive. 25 Ornament became Crime, in Jobs’s mind as it had in Loos’s. The Mac and the cigarette case were trade objects emblematic of their respective epochs, their meanings indefinite, not predetermined: as a content-producing machine, the Mac strenuously obliges society with cultural “running-room.” Yet the aluminum sheathed MacBook is not quite the quintessential Loosian object. It is almost too refined for its purposes, courting the status of a commodity fetish, mystifying and objectifying human relations through its market exchange. The MacBook confuses the urn with the chamber pot, to borrow Loos’s terms; it struggles to distinguish the ceremonial from the functional. It ennobles the rituals of everyday life, like writing email, but it is too slick to disrupt our lived continuum, which for Loos was the critical function of art, architecture and language — a way in which to make sense of our world. So it is to Rem Koolhaas and his firm, OMA, that we must turn for manifestation of the disjunctions of tradition and modernity, of place and space.
The contrast in taste, in aesthetics, between Jobs and Koolhaas is illustrated most obviously by comparing the two headquarters buildings. With its twisting and grotesque form, the China Central Television tower underscores the tragic deterioration of the public sphere, as the production of information is impressed into the service of the capitalist dictatorship of the People’s Republic. It is practically a Salon work of art, simultaneously repulsive and fascinating, politically and aesthetically, in a way that reminds me of that classic of the Salon genre, Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818–1819). 26 Whereas the Apple HQ suggests a very different version of the Romantic legacy, of the recovery of a primordial reason beyond intellectualization — it strains to be “insanely great,” in Jobs’s famous phrase. The circle of steel and glass suggests no history, no past; its gesture is spontaneous, or Jungian, or Zen, childlike in its simplicity and secrecy. It needs no interpretation because, as designer Sean Daly blogged in The Architects’ Newspaper:
The ens?, or “circle,” is perhaps the most enduring motif in the Zen tradition, one that first appears in Japanese monasteries in the mid-1600s. The Zen circle is not a linguistic character, but rather a symbol that conveys a host of things — the universe, the cyclical nature of existence, enlightenment, strength, and poised contemplation. It suggests the Heart Sutra, which explains that “form is void and void is form” … 27
Like Pixar in Emeryville, Apple in Cupertino exemplifies a light phenomenology. It’s Zen kitsch. Jobs’s Zen postmodernism, of which Foster’s building is an embodiment, acts upon the world through process, intervening in a cybernetic cycle for which the record of historical struggle is but a dysfunctional footnote. In sharp contrast, the tragic postmodernism of Koolhaas and the CCTV feels jagged, a beauty of terribilità.
Top: Norman Foster, Apple headquarters, Cupertino, California, projected 2015. Middle and Bottom: Rem Koolhaas/OMA, China Central TV headquarters, Beijing, 2012. [Photos by Jim Gourley]
Koolhaas’s abstraction of modernity appeals more to critical tastes than Jobs’s interaction with modernity. It is almost as though Koolhaas courts his appeal to art-historical criticality, even contributing to its veritable organ, October. 28 Koolhaas, who clearly rejected “interactive” and “gadgety” design — as a young architect at the Architectural Association in London in the ’70s he had little use for the Archigram influence — seems to think like an art historian, and his relative lack of name recognition in the broader culture perhaps confirms the discernment of the specialists. Whereas the outpouring of grief over Jobs’s death was often in questionable taste. “It sounds crazy,” a student in my modern architecture class said the day after Jobs died, “but for people of my age, it’s like we lost our Bobby Kennedy.” Could my students be so lacking in discrimination? Perhaps … but perhaps not. I would be fuming if that student had responded in the same way to, say, the untimely passing of Mark Zuckerberg. No disrespect, but Zuckerberg is, we might agree, no Kennedy. So maybe we might agree as well that my student was simply one of many seeking inspiration as an Obama administration elected upon the promise of hope struggled to the end of its third tumultuous year.
And apparently she found it: I noticed her in the crowd when Occupy arrived at my university campus not long after Jobs’s death. One of the few commentators to understand the strange politics of the mourning of Jobs was Frank Rich. Writing for New York Magazine, Rich compared Jobs to Edison as an inventor-entrepreneur whose American technological “architecture” (so to speak) was constructive to the same extent that the upstart American financial-services “architecture” — of the type built by the GE Capital division that had eclipsed the GE industrial division founded by Edison in the 1890s — was destructive. “Some on the right were baffled that the ostensible Marxists demonstrating in lower Manhattan would observe a moment of silence and assemble makeshift shrines for a top one-percenter like Jobs, whose expensive products were engineered for near-instant obsolescence and produced by Chinese laborers in factories with substandard health-and-safety records,” said Rich. But, he continued:
If you love your Mac and iPod, you can still despise CDOs and credit-default swaps. Jobs’s genius — in the words of Regis McKenna, a Silicon Valley marketing executive who worked with him early on— was his ability “to strip away the excess layers of business, design, and innovation until only the simple, elegant reality remained.” The supposed genius of modern Wall Street is the exact reverse, piling on excess layers of business and innovation on ever thinner and more exotic creations until simple reality is distorted and obscured.
The paradox was also understood, more viscerally, by that bellwether of campus humor, The Onion:
Steve Jobs, the visionary co-founder of Apple Computers and the only American in the country who had any clue what the fuck he was doing, died Wednesday at the age of 56. “We haven’t just lost a great innovator, leader, and businessman, we’ve literally lost the only person in this country who actually had his shit together and knew what the hell was going on,” a statement from President Barack Obama read in part, adding that Jobs will be remembered both for the life-changing products he created and for the fact that he was able to sit down, think clearly, and execute his ideas — attributes he shared with no other U.S. citizen.
Sit down, think clearly, and execute ideas: this is what draws students to design in a postmodern age, yes? “Obama added” (according to The Onion) “that if anyone could fill the void left by Jobs it would probably be himself, but said that at this point he honestly doesn’t have the slightest notion what he’s doing anymore.”
Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Apple store, North Michigan Ave, Chicago, 2003. [Photo by Almond Dhukka]
We might decry the chirping of an Occupier’s iPhone as a mere simulacrum of political society. We might better see the fate of political society in the metaphor of Koolhaas’s atolls of beauty and social space cast adrift in a neoliberal world. But by a remarkable historical turn, the Pollyanna-ish aesthetic of the Apple Mac has forced us back (somewhat) to actual political society, to actual consumer-political activity. What R. John Williams has called Californian Techne-Zen was articulated so forcefully by Apple that it has seemingly necessitated its own exposure as a false consciousness. 29 Millions of consumers seem to have understood instinctively an incongruity between Apple’s aesthetic triumph and its refusal to advance social justice: it failed our expectation that advanced bourgeois art will articulate or resolve contradiction. Instead the iPhone starkly verified the dichotomy of its slogan “Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China”: capitalist differentials in land and labor value exclude millions from the Bay-Area nation. In so nearly sublimating the contradiction, Jobs’s art drew attention to the contradiction. Jobs’s electronics were so beguiling that their users were forced into a classic, bourgeois, visceral encounter with guilt, contradiction, tragedy: it was this that finally confirmed Jobs as an architect-provocateur on a par with Koolhaas.
Both are indeed Salon designers, ageless enfant terribles and lightning rods, prompting and giving shape to otherwise formless feelings and debates. Still, nobody seems to be holding Koolhaas responsible for the work conditions of his building contractors or steel millers, though the unnatural and monumental gesture of CCTV did indeed draw attention to the furtive modes of production — the state censorship — of Chinese information. When it was occupying its old building (whatever it was), I had never heard of CCTV, nor paused to consider its role in censorship. And when I was using a Dell laptop, the working conditions enforced in China by Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn were remote from my awareness, even though Foxconn supplied Dell and practically every other electronics manufacturer of which I am a customer. Was it preordained, one wonders in retrospect, that Jobs’s iPad — which he loved to point at the front page of The New York Times during his famous new product presentations — would deliver New York Times reports about the wage and health and safety scandals in the Shenzhen factories in which the apparatus was made? I used my MacBook Air to sign a petition demanding that Apple redress Foxconn worker grievances. Every keystroke on the superlative machine reminded me of my desire for a better world, for a more complete and transparent political architecture, and of my complicity with forces I prefer to imagine as beyond my control. To borrow the terms popularized by anthropologist Bruno Latour, the works of both Jobs and Koolhaas function as “things” in and around which are assembled public “concerns” that might otherwise slip through the net of parliamentary discourses arrayed around both left and right. 30 Even the Wall Street Journal felt compelled to question the “secular prophecy” of technological salvation wrought by Jobs. 31 Apple and OMA objects succeed as works of art, and also as catalysts of public attention, not just by being so astonishingly outré, but also by picturing the world unexpectedly — in extreme resolution, in extreme disjunction — and then by suggesting a means to interpret our existence in the world.
Top: Taiwanese protestors outside Foxconn (Hon Hai Precision Industry Co.) headquarters in New Taipei, 2010. [Photo by Lennon Ying-Dah Wong] Bottom: Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Apple store, Fifth Avenue, New York, 2006. [Photo by Mecki Mac]
4. The varieties of bourgeois experience
I don’t want to muddy the waters of judgment as a caprice. My purpose is to draw attention to the way that art-historical judgment thinks in several registers, about design that works in several registers, in a world that operates in countless registers. To an art historian, the minimalism of the 2006 Manhattan Apple Store is evocative of European Rationalism and neo-Platonism, when to many other cultural critics it is simply an extravagant warehouse, a shop composed of nothing but shop windows. But now watch how Jobs and Koolhaas complicate the relation between value and values (between exchange value and human value) in similar ways, by thinking like art historians. “Great products,” Jobs told The New York Times, are triumphs of “taste” derived from “study, observation and being steeped in the culture of the past and present.” 32 OMA designs one of its best buildings for Prada, and Apple amasses $70 billion in cash. Both insist that we pay attention to the art of shopping but then shun the pursuit of business for its own sake. 33 Koolhaas’s studio at Harvard studied shopping, with delicious paradox, 34 and Jobs saw himself as the nemesis of Michael Dell’s fixation with the bottom line. No part of Apple’s organization would ever be “junkspace.”
Their work invites a moral response, and Jobs and Koolhaas pass onto us, their consumers and interpreters, the responsibility to square their contradictions. Jobs and Koolhaas alike chose the role of eyewitness to the student uprisings in Berkeley and Paris in 1968, and for each the activism of the Sixties would be formative; years later each would be content to observe the political responses to their work in the ’90s and ’00s with similar remove. These two modes of architectural ambition, interactive and abstract, Californian and European, are not categorically different modes — the one in a naïve or affirmative association with capitalism, say, the other in a critical relationship — but are two sides of the same coin. Jobs and Koolhaas each project variants of postmodern modernism: one optimistic but quietly doomed, the other doomed but quietly optimistic.
The reason of course is that design (like art) is pretty much inevitably a dialectic between God and Wall Street. The Occupier’s iPhone. The Eichler House. The double bind, built simultaneously, of OMA’s two West Coast projects: the Seattle Public Library and the Prada Epicenter in Los Angeles (both 2004). Enlightenment and shopping. Oscillating between Soviet constructivism, Manhattanite cosmopolitanism, and commercial midcentury modernism, Koolhaas reminds us that at the very moment that modern design triumphed, its utopian political project was doomed. Meaning that questions about Steve and Rem are ultimately questions about us. What more literal object lessons could we ask for, as art historians standing in front of our students, than OMA’s CCTV and Apple’s Campus 2? One abstracts the agony of the European public sphere, its workers eking out a living in a Chinese capitalist dictatorship, while the other promises an interactive Californianism after the near-eclipse of the New Deal. The university design studios of the Great Recession, rather than transcending the dialectic, are rather merging abstraction and interactivity, producing student projects that routinely integrate buildings with transgressive spaces, sites, economies, nutrition, mapping. Given the questionable origins of our own paychecks, it’s a devil’s bargain that few art historians can evade for long. Something of the Shenzhen “disgrace” of Jobs might reciprocally be carried over to art history, which is adept at using the abstractions of critical theory to describe the complicity of buildings and architects with economic regimes, but most often shies away from any explicit description of the deep connections that bind architecture to labor and poverty. 35
Left: Rem Koolhaas/OMA, Seattle Central Library, 2004. [Photo by Sean Munson] Right: Rem Koolhaas/OMA, Prada Epicenter, Los Angeles, 2004. [Photo by Corbin Keech]
Architecture is a lifeworld within which none of us can parse absolute judgments, yet it still offers ethical and actionable bearings. This I hope I am illustrating precisely by comparing two of its most notorious architects: the fascination of design is exactly its hermeneutic potential for thinking and working from the inside, across several registers. We can study the varieties of advanced bourgeois thinking that constitute and shape architecture as it re-combines — and reconciles [?] — base economic determination with the factors of geography, language, desire, technology, materials. Much as we return to other moments in the history of capital accumulation — Florence in the 15th century, Holland in the 17th century, Manhattan in the 19th century — and detect something mortal about their arcades, portraiture and still lives, so we can imagine art historians of the future scrutinizing the ambitions of OMA and Apple. One day the Bay Region will make for a particularly intriguing study in New Deal, systems-driven and neoliberal art history, the Golden Gate Bridge an analog of Brunelleschi’s Dome, a place awash with new money, fusing science, technology, engineering and learning, humans and gods, an outpost of godly and economic universalism at the center of a trade network. We can already see the next chapters getting written; Elon Musk is the latest guru. It is pointless to try and demote Musk’s wild gamble on the Tesla electric car, his fantastic ambition to save the world one drive-train at a time, his thinking across scales (the roadside rest and recharge stations, his concomitant interest in internet commerce and space exploration), the “insanely great” quality of his early products, his commitment to the Bay Area (to the point of locating his factories there) as an instance of business as usual. His products imply a cultural program beyond the marketplace. Musk compels public discussion. He’s a sort of architect.
Looking at California in this way points back to older, iconological approaches, art historical analyses applied across objects and institutions, ecologies and economies of dissimilar scale, type, intention, moving beyond connoisseurship and critical readings to capture something of the intellectual ecology behind things — the epistemology, or ontology; more than just the study of ideology, the study of ideas and intellectual frameworks particular to design, to its active attempts to mold the immediate future, and to its presuppositions about the world and the way it works. That things don’t just happen, that political economy and subjectivity aren’t givens; that the meeting of matter and consciousness can be altered is not a general understanding but one particular to a class educated in design.
At which point I might be able to take my students out of the lecture hall (where we study OMA’s staggering and faraway monuments) and attempt an architectural exegesis of the systems of the Central Valley, scouring it for meaning, agency, interruption, rather than celebrating it as a vernacular, or damning it as pure instrumentalism. Perhaps we can stand above Cupertino and regard it like the heroine in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), who observes a new town a little further south in California:
Like many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts — census tracts, special purpose bond-issue distracts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway … a plinth course of capital on which everything afterward had been built, however rickety or grotesque, toward the sky. … she thought of the first time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets … sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. … there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. … [A] revelation … trembled just beyond the threshold of her understanding … she and the Chevy seemed parked at the center of an odd, religious instant. 36
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