Immaterial Culture

For the most part, One Wilshire is an ugly and ordinary building, akin to the now classic postmodernist retirement home designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Guild House. In designing Guild House, the architects decided to avoid the monumental and instead build a structure more appropriate to the banal demands of modern life. Cut-rate detailing and lowcost prefabricated elements made Guild House a stark reminder that modernism won its battle not because of ideology but because it was cheaper to build than neoclassicism. Projects by the firm that followed this methodology would be condemned as “ugly and ordinary” by Skidmore Owings and Merrill’s lead designer Gordon Bunshaft. In response Venturi and Brown adopted Bunshaft’s term of derision as a virtue. Choosing to strike preemptively against the ill-suited signage that clients inevitably put atop modernist buildings, Venturi and Scott Brown added their own sign to announce the structure’s name: a second-rate panel that simply states “Guild House” above the entrance. At the top of the building the architects also mounted a non-functioning, gold anodized antenna to denote the building’s common room and signify that the elderly watch a lot of TV. Seen by both critics and occupants as a cynical joke at the expense of the inhabitants, this useless antenna was later removed. The loss of the antenna was not, however, a fatal blow. Venturi and Scott Brown observed that the ability to remove or replace signage at will gave flexibility to structures. Upon returning from a research trip to Las Vegas, the architects coined the term “the decorated shed”? to refer to a modernist universal space coupled with a sign. Developed by Venturi and Scott Brown specifically to address the needs of a democratic information society, in the decorated shed both function and meaning could be changed at will. Although Guild House is held by many to be a key building in the evolution of postmodernism, the ideas of the decorated shed and ugly and ordinary architecture proved too controversial for even the most avantgarde architects and Venturi and Scott Brown were virtually ostracized from the profession.


guild house


Like Guild House, One Wilshire is simply a neutral shell lacking any aesthetic gestures. There is no reason to think that Bunshaft wouldn’t have called One Wilshire “ugly and ordinary”? as well. It was constructed at almost the same time as Guild House and shares many of its features. Unlike the AT&T Long Lines building, which Venturi and Scott Brown would have classified as a duck for possessing a form indissociable from its function, One Wilshire is a decorated shed. It has its own second-rate sign: banal modernist lettering across its façcade announces “One Wilshire”? to the rest of the city. Although the antennas at One Wilshire originally had a purpose, they are now just as superfluous as the ornament once crowning Guild House, empty symbols of a retired modern technology. But One Wilshire goes a step further than the decorated shed: its signage is obsolete from the start. It will never need to be removed. The building’s real address has never been One Wilshire, but rather 624 South Grand. An unbridgeable gap between signifier and signified, between form and function, opens up at One Wilshire. The fact that this architecturally meritless structure is also the most valuable real estate in North America only confirms that the role of the building as a producer of effect or meaning is obsolete.

Where Guild House was a home for the elderly, One Wilshire is the home in which we dwell telematically. Just as the elderly watched television in Guild House as a way of checking out of the weariness of life, we check into the global space of telecommunications in order to escape the dead world of objects. In both cases, however, the desire is to leave behind this world of material goods for something more pure, to escape our responsibility to objects by submitting to something greater. Managers of progressive nursing homes today understand that this is part of our lives, often requiring that residents divest themselves of both financial and physical assets in order to better facilitate their care.

The objects produced during the 1970s and 1980s were largely throwaway novelty goods and fashions and are transitional objects on the way toward immaterial culture. Real things give themselves up too easily, they are quickly known and classified. Like potential lovers, once they are purchased, objects become dead to our desires, lifeless pieces of junk. They are items for a fractured marketplace, without group needs or identities. Communication technology has also changed way people interact, creating a form of culture devoid of material references. Cell phone conversations, MP3 players, and the Internet all offer an alternative to consumer goods. The telecommunicational realm promises that the spirit can finally part from flesh and exist fully in a world of electronic images. These images are seductive because, circulating endlessly in an ethereal world, they cannot be possessed. We can fantasize about having such images to no end without ever feeling the disappointing responsibility of ownership.

Before late capitalism, objects had meaning because they were necessary but scarce. In our affluent society, however, objects are overabundant, becoming merely components within a system of exchange without any clear use-value to determine their price. The very basis of late capitalism presupposes the delinking of currencies from the gold standard or any other guarantor of value. Today money proliferates wildly even as it means nothing. There is no longer a clear logic to the system of capital. The dot-com boom, beanie babies, and vastly inflated real estate values are all based on mass delusion. Value itself does not come out of any deeper truth but is constructed by temporary notions and mass delusions.

Within immaterial culture, consumer goods lose their natural meaning and become fully abstracted as empty forms, ready to be filled with a variety of meanings that we apply to them depending on context. Immaterial culture makes possible a system of consumption beyond cynical reason in which even the most sinister or foul objects can be desirable. All objects are now wild signs, free-floating signifiers unable to represent anything specific themselves, part of the mechanism of circulation, which has become a goal in and of itself. Money, as Hal Foster observes, purportedly the guarantor of value, is the ultimate wild sign. Gold is locked away at Fort Knox, too heavy to move. Instead, the value of currency is tied merely to abstraction and desire. With nothing underwriting it except Derridean différance, the economy is sustained only because of the continued inevitability of circulation in the network.