Transparency

 

one wilshire facade

 

No matter how banal, One Wilshire is the product of modernism and through its curtain wall grid, partakes in the movement’s blanket promise to deliver democracy through technology, visibility, and neutrality. Founded on visual spectacles such as testimony, the Senate, the Parliament, the inauguration oath, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the State of the Union address, democracy takes place in public, in the street, in the agora, and in the newspaper. In contrast, the clandestine, the shady, and the back-room deal are the realm of corrupt politicians and the theater for cynical reason.

Advocates of modern architecture proclaimed that a culture of brick prevented democracy from functioning and proposed translucent or transparent glass as a means by which to produce political transparency. In his 1914 book Glasarchitektur theorist Paul Scheerbart declared “Colored glass destroys hatred” while in his 1926-27 competition entry for the Palace of the League of Nations, Bauhaus director Hannes Meyer proposed a neutral and transparent glass grid with exposed stairwells to prevent the making of covert deals. During the Cold War, Western governments, eager to demonstrate their allegiance to democracy, adopted International Style modernism to signify democratic action, even if that signification dissimulated what really happened in the grid. The recognition of the dark qualities of modern democracy—the revelation of the Pentagon papers, widespread domestic surveillance, Nixon’s Dirty Tricks and Watergate—accompanied the collapse of modernism in the 1970s.

If One Wilshire promises transparency through its glass façade, the same is often said of the glass fiber optic network that fills it. Proponents of the so-called “Californian Ideology”—largely based in the Bay Area, not in Los Angeles—suggest that the convergence of media, computing, and telecommunications will result in a new world of electronic transparency with near perfect knowledge, spirited debate outside the media machine, and participatory democracy of a libertarian bent for everyone. But just as the façades of International Style modernism dissimulated invisible dealings within, the fiber optic net’s presence does not reveal what passes through it. The privatization of the Internet and global communications networks have made them unknowable. The flow of telecommunications today is classified property, a question of corporate intelligence. The recent attempt by geographers to create an Atlas of Cyberspace concluded that the privatization of the Internet and modern telecommunications have made the dominant forms of contemporary space fundamentally unmappable. This corresponds to Fredric Jameson’s thesis that since late capitalism is total and lacks any exterior, it is impossible for the subject to understand his or her position in the system. We can make cognitive maps—indeed, Jameson suggests, that is our task—but they must be incomplete and imperfect. The promise of a world of clarity and transparency is undone by the reality that modern telecommunications constitute a web that refuses to become visible. Yet again the modern tries for the transparent through technology, yet again it fails.