Introduction

AUDC formed in January 2001 as an informal research unit at the Southern California Institute of Architecture where Robert Sumrell was a graduate student and Kazys Varnelis was teaching and running the Program in History and Theory of Architecture and Cities. In the polar wilderness of contemporary life, like lemmings, we were driven by a single compulsion, to understand the predicament of the individual through architecture. We found our time working together, in studio as well as in courses we taught, immensely productive and—with Robert’s graduation upon us—created AUDC to continue our collaboration. These were the last, heady days of the Clinton administration”—it was hard to imagine that Bush could conceivably do any harm—a delirious period of optimism, perhaps the last time that America will ever be that optimistic again.

Our naïve first thought was that we would compete with Rem Koolhaas’s AMO, operating as a consultancy or design practice. We called ourselves Architecture Urbanism Design Collaborative [AUDC], a name we intended to have as few connotations as possible. In doing this, we sought to use AUDC as an “ideological tool to enter territories where architecture has never entered” to appropriate Koolhaas’s own description of AMO. Like AMO, we were encouraged by the limitless bounds achieved by the dot-com industry. Surely we could do as well. But the handwriting was on the wall: Pets.com had already collapsed, NASDAQ was on its way down from its all-time high, and AMO’s web site for Prada remained shuttered. Within months, the dot.com bubble burst. A half-year later, the 9/11 attacks laid low our remaining optimism about the possibility of such a consultancy.

So what to do? We quickly dropped the get-rich-quick scheme of emulating AMO. We kept little from that post-critical time, save for the idea that meaningless acronyms were best. Given that architecture today is generally thought of as incapable of representation, we felt it appropriate that our name should also reflect this condition and communicate nothing. Hence, today AUDC means only AUDC.

Being an archaic remnant of the craft era, architecture is by necessity slow. So even as the dot-com boom imploded, architecture wound up infected by its worst impulses. Buoyed by profligate economic policies intended to prop up the teetering global economy, the most affluent generation in history, the Boomers (in Europe, the 68’ers), turned its mighty investment power from stocks to buildings, thereby feeding a frenzy of construction that would be greatly accelerated by insane lending policies such as the five year interest-only adjustable rate mortgage. Leveraged beyond belief, architecture itself became less and less real until it finally became as speculative as an investment in dog sock puppets during late 2000. For a generation of architects, this means that the crucial gestational period as they develop their practices is now a last-ditch rush toward whatever they can pass off as “new”: new materials, new forms, new practices, new eyeglasses, new shoes. “Make it new” has become a mantra again, some seventy years after Ezra Pound first put the idea to paper, only this generation forgets that Pound ever said it and seems compulsively unable to make anything new.

Having learned our lesson once with the dot.com era and, watching in amazement as architecture increasingly became irreal, we could only seek ways out and turned to mapping our condition. We devised a practice that would not produce buildings—after all, who needs any more of them?—but rather would undertake speculative research to reveal the contemporary condition. To be sure, from the start, AUDC never set out to make buildings. Even in our month-long guise as a consultancy, our mission statement was and remains to this day, “AUDC constructs realities not objects.” But neither did we intend to replicate the solipsistic “critical architecture” of the 1980s and 1990s, those empty squiggles accompanied by even more empty words. For in our eyes, the biggest legacy of critical architecture was to pave the way for the leveraging of architecture today. It is no accident that the architects associated with that time are now among our most successful. For as Jean Baudrillard has taught us, the fragmentation of the sign is one with the logic of contemporary capital. Freeing buildings of their use value and of any pretense to meaning—a task deconstructivism began and supermodernism completed—allows them to float freely, existing in the realm of exchange value only, an ideal pretext for a building boom based on little more than fantasy. After all, only when meaning and responsibility had been thoroughly evacuated from architecture could Daniel Libeskind seriously propose a 1,776 foot tall replacement for the World Trade Center towers.

Instead, then, we set out to use the tools of architecture and research to pry open entryways into new territories. More than anything, we thought, we could build on the unique ways of thinking inherent in architecture as a form of speculative research. For models, we turned to the architettura radicale of Archizoom and Superstudio. These groups intervened at a moment structurally parallel to our own. Just as our time comes at the end of post-Fordism and at the dawn of a new period of economic crisis, environmental collapse, and global antagonism to the United States, the late 1960s were the last years of Fordism, with the Vietnam war still a thorn—not yet a spear—in the U. S.’s side and the OPEC energy crisis still to come. Then, like today, many of the leading practitioners in architecture and design were fatally enthralled by the possibility of form as a generator of affect, of being able to appeal to a broader public by wearing the mantle of hip consumerism.

Architettura radicale stood against this position while offering a way of practicing that went beyond either “going with the flow” or adopting the empty postures of academics. Instead, architettura radicale is founded on the principle of superarchitecture, “the architecture of superproduction, of superconsumption, of superinducement to consumption, of the supermarket, of Superman, of super-high-test gasoline.” In the words of Andrea Branzi, the founder of Archizoom, “Superarchitecture accepts the logic of production and consumption and makes an effort to demystify it.” This integration of production and consumption into a critique of the same system, the pursuit not of resistance or autonomy but rather of exacerbation and overload is architettura radicale’s seminal innovation, deployed repeatedly in subsequent projects such as the Continuous Monument or No-Stop-City. For Archizoom and Superstudio architecture is an act of analysis, not merely a project of formal delirium or self-legitimating theory.

This was a time of immense opportunity for the 68ers, it was also a period of closure for architecture. Fatally associated with Fordist big business and big government, modernism accompanied them in their collapse. Coupled with this, leftist critiques of planning and technology, most notably Manfredo Tafuri’s pronouncement that architecture was dead, took the wind out of the sails of new practices. Branzi understood this moment, however not as punctual and final, but as a time of renewal. In a later interview, he recalls: “all the most vital aspects of modern culture run directly toward that void, to regenerate themselves in another dimension, to free themselves of their disciplinary chains. When I look at a canvas by Mark Rothko, I see a picture dissolving into a single color. When I read Joyce’s Ulysses, I see writing disappearing into thought. When I listen to John Cage, I hear music dissipating into noise. All that is part of me. But architecture has never confronted the theme of managing its own death while still remaining alive, as all the other twentieth-century disciplines have. This is why it has lagged behind…” Like Archizoom, AUDC’s investigations have always been at this vital periphery of architecture, at the moments when, exacerbated to breaking point, it may cease to be.

During a time of “post-criticism,” and “going with the flow,” this flirtation with architecture’s annihilation may seem thoroughly unacceptable. But as Freud points out, the drive of each organism is towards stillness and ultimately death. As organisms come to being from a plenum of inanimate matter, he hypothesizes, they possess a drive to return to this undifferentiated state, the death drive or pleasure principle. If, however, the organism experiences “the influx of fresh amounts of stimulus” through a traumatic moment such as a union with another, it can be irritated enough to go on living or, if the stimulus is strong enough, reproduce. In architecture’s morbid fear of reflection and criticism and in its over-identification with a post-Fordist culture now nearing collapse under threat from a new networked society, we sense a moment as dangerous”—and as pregnant—for architecture as that of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In this spirit, then, we give this project as a gift to architecture, a challenge and a stimulus to a field that urgently needs to refresh itself.

This is not to say that we do not find influences in our own time. On the contrary, we draw great inspiration from the work of young groups like Anarchitektur in Berlin, Valdas Ozarinskas and Aida Ceponyte in Vilnius, or Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis and Baxi / Martin in New York as well as by two Los Angeles institutions: the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Center for Land Use Interpretation. Together, these collectives demonstrated to us the continued value of working collaboratively and the possibilities for speculative forms of research. In particular, the latter two institutions made it possible for us to think of the territory previously called art as fertile ground, recently emptied by a diet of bankrupt formalism and specious pseudo-critique (would you prefer a dissected shark in formaldehyde or a crucifix in a vat of urine today, sir?).

On the surface, both the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Center for Land Use Interpretation could be considered art practices. They receive funding from sources traditionally associated with giving to the arts such as the LEF Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and the Lannan Foundation. Individuals working at these institutions often, although not always, have been educated in the arts such as photography or cinema. Art critics frequently praise the work of both and museum curators have included the Museum and the Center in shows. And yet, neither organization claims status as an art practice. Instead, both are organized around curatorial practices. The Museum is a cabinet-of-curiosities-like collection, a compilation that, according to its mission statement is “a specialized repository of relics and artifacts from the Lower Jurassic, with an emphasis on those that demonstrate unusual or curious technological qualities.” These range from a show of artworks executed on the head of pins to an exhibit on a bat that can fly through lead by vibrating from the extreme ultraviolet into the X-Ray range to a collection of collections from Los Angeles mobile home parks. Throughout, a nagging uncertainty about what is real and what is fake haunts the visitor. For its part, according to its mission statement, the Center for Land Use Interpretation is devoted to “exploring, examining, and understanding land and landscape issues. The Center employs a variety of methods to pursue its mission”—engaging in research, classification, extrapolation, and exhibition.” Recent exhibits have explored the remains of submerged towns in America, live footage of livestock, and soil in the margins of Los Angeles.

Curation reflects a dominant condition of network culture: as the processes of globalization, urbanization (and dis-urbanization) and the hegemonization of the world under late capital have closed the last frontiers and, consequently, the new is played out, novelty is now created through aggregation and commentary. Digital technology aids greatly in this, making remixing part of everyday life for many individuals. Lev Manovich observes that the “emergence of multiple and interlinked paths which encourage media objects to easily travel between web sites, recording and display devices, hard drives, and people changes things. Remixability becomes practically a built-in feature of the digital networked media universe. In a nutshell, what may be more important than the introduction of a video iPod, a consumer HD camera, Flickr, or yet another exiting new device or service is how easy it is for media objects to travel between all these devices and services”—which now all become just temporary stations in media’s Brownian motion.”

Bit players in this culture of curation and aggregation, we assembled a group of peculiar and compelling conditions and turned to investigating them. To be sure, we could have simply documented these conditions through text and documentary photography, but we chose not to do that. Instead we draw the reader’s attention to a recent statement by Bruno Latour: “’Things’ are controversial assemblages of entangled issues, and not simply objects sitting apart from our political passions. The entanglements of things and politics engage activists, artists, politicians, and intellectuals. To assemble this parliament, rhetoric is not enough and nor is eloquence; it requires the use of all the technologies—especially information technology—and the possibility for the arts to re-present anew what are the common stakes.” In that spirit, we felt obliged to respond by with all the tools available to us: drawings, models, new media, photography, historical research, video, and new media. In doing so, we affirm the value of architecture as a way of knowing and a means of research. To be clear, it is not architecture’s task to explain these conditions through interventions. We do not seek a return to a semiotics of building. Just as the set is essential to any film, however, it is possible to use architecture—models and drawings—as part of a process of speculative research.

So too, we have let the different sites for our work”—articles, public installations and exhibits, lectures, videos and the Web impact the way we work. Of these, the Web merits particular mention for it has not just been a site to deploy our work on, it has been a venue to work in. In 2004, we deployed Wiki software on our site to allow us to work collaboratively on-line. Invented by Ward Cunningham in 1995, a WikiWikiWeb, or Wiki, for short, is a communal, hypertext repository of knowledge on the web. “Wiki wiki” means fast in Hawaiian. Employing a simplified subset of HTML and markup within the web browser itself, a wiki page is much faster to develop than most web pages. Moreover, wikis are editable by multiple individuals and generally actively encourage anyone who visits them to contribute. Cunningham’s project, the Portland Pattern Repository, inspired by architect Christopher Alexander’s idea of a pattern language for designing buildings and cities, gathered information on design patterns, recurring solutions to problems in object-oriented design programming. The most well-known wiki is Wikipedia.org, perhaps the largest collaborative work in human history, consisting of more than 3,380,000 articles, including more than 985,000 in the English-language version (as an example of network culture, it bears mentioning that Wikipedia editorial policy is firmly against any idea of creating new understanding or creating definitive positions, but instead clings firmly to the ideal of a “neutral point of view” for all articles). Using Mediawiki software, the same software that runs the Wikipedia, albeit heavily modified for our purposes with support from the Institute for Multimedia Literacy and the Annenberg Center for Communication, we wrote the bulk of these texts online. We initially hoped to open up the wiki so that others, even unknown others, could contribute, but even though we gave access to it to a number of individuals, we found that they didn’t contribute (the sum total of three months of input was one period mark added to a sentence) and that un like Wikipedia, our own project thrived on a distinct point-of-view that was emerging out of our collaboration. The virtue of the wiki as a collaborative tool remains, however, as it is a useful means of breaking down the idea of sole authorship, which is increasingly an artifact of the past. We are much more interested in the hybrid, subjectless process of writing that emerges through the wiki. More and more texts”—virtually all scientific and engineering papers, as well as many of the great recent works in the humanities such as A Thousand Plateaus or Empire—are written by entities that are greater than the sum of their authors. Moreover, wikis inherently tend toward non-linear navigational structures, something we took advantage of in creating a navigational structure for the site. But we also found that narratives are a time-tested method of telling stories that people naturally gravitate to. To this end, the last three months of writing took place on Writely.com, a Web-based word processor that allows real-time, networked collaboration on more traditional documents.

As we looked at the various conditions we encountered, we realized that they were illustrative of broader themes in contemporary culture: a dissipation of the subject, the proliferation of object culture, the rise of the digital, the Dadaist nature of the contemporary economy, and the fictionalization of the world. But as Keller Easterling points out, this is dangerous territory. Architecture has a fatal attraction to monist explanations. The master narratives of Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus and Hardt and Negri’s Empire are as appealing to architects as the relentless geometry of screen-based animation programs. Builders by nature, architects tend to weave theories together into improbable grand narratives. As in the autonomy theory of the early 1970s, theory, in this guise, is generally a means of self-legitimation, an elaborate affirmation of whatever form is being extruded that day.

Easterling’s warning is an apt one, but how to negotiate the territory of contemporary philosophy? We are certainly attracted to Deleuze and Guattari’s organizational logics and Hardt and Negri’s tales of Empire as well as to Baudrillard’s theories of totalized consumption of the sign and the system of objects, Zizek’s fictionalization of the real, and Jameson’s dissection of late capitalism. These are fascinating explanatory frameworks, but, scandalously, they don’t add up. To weave a coherent whole out of them would be sheer madness. So how to proceed?

During our research into the evolution of art, science, and philosophy we found that these fields were once much more intimately related than they had been in the last century. Prior to the Enlightenment and the development of the scientific method, science was dominated by natural philosophy, a method of studying nature and the physical universe through observation rather than through experimentation. Virtually all contemporary forms of science developed out of natural philosophy, but unlike more modern scientists, natural philosophers like Galileo felt no need to test their ideas in a practical way. On the contrary, they derived philosophical conclusions from individual observations of the world. Taken together, these didn’t necessarily add up. But the lack of metanarrative for natural philosophy is not an obstacle for us, instead it is a strength, encouraging further investigation instead of satiating desire.

Natural philosophy flourished from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries and with it did “cabinets of curiosities,” sometimes entire rooms, sometimes quite literally elaborate cabinets, filled with strange and wondrous things. These first museums collected seemingly disparate objects of fascination in a specific architectural setting, assigning to each item a place in a larger network of meaning created by the room as a whole. In the cabinet each object would be a macrocosm of the larger world, illustrating the wonder of its divine artifice. Together however, their affinities would become apparent and a syncretic vision of the unity of all things would emerge, as the words Athanasius Kircher inscribed on the ceiling of his museum suggested: “Whosoever perceives the chain that binds the world below to the world above will know the mysteries of nature and achieve miracles.” For the natural philosopher, the cabinet of curiosities possessed a reflexive quality: it was both an exhibition and a source of wonder, a system the natural philosopher built to instruct others but also to coax himself into further thought.

Like our Web site (http://www.audc.org) or an AUDC installation, this book is a cabinet of curiosities, consisting of a series of conditions that AUDC observes in order to speculate on them in the manner of natural philosophy, extrapolating not theories to apply to architecture but rather philosophies to explain the world. The result is neither the relativist pluralism nor a single monist philosophy, but rather a set of multiple philosophies that almost add up, but being situationally derived, don’t quite.

What follows then, is a book of non-fiction fables, collecting three stories—Ether, the Stimulus Progression, and Swarm Intelligence—that touch on our daily lives along with three brief interludes—My Dear Berlin Wall, Voluntary Slavery, and Mike—to illustrate the ways that people relate to each other and to the world around them. The three interludes are hopeless causes, each a story of damaged love for an object: a Swedish woman’s marriage to the Berlin Wall, a collector’s obsessive desire for his records, and a farmer’s devotion to a headless chicken. The three longer stories explore One Wilshire, the place where the Internet becomes physical while we become media; Muzak, the soundtrack to daily life as well as an invisible reshaper of cities; and Quartzsite, Arizona, an instant city based on the exchange of rocks. These three are intimately connected to architecture yet remain outside of it—a banal office building, a kitschy soundtrack, a brutally anti-aesthetic patch of desert filled with motorhomes. Architecture is unnecessary to them and to make standard architectural responses in them would be absurd. But that is precisely what draws us these stories—each one is a self-sufficient utopia that threatens to take over the world. Using research and speculation, we seek the organizational logics that motivate them, as well as the disorganizational factors that doom them. Their total conditions—the virtual world of the Internet, the all-pervasive nature of Muzak, and the threat of ephemerality and arbitrariness that Quartzsite levels at the contemporary city—exemplify the outcroppings of Empire that remain hidden in plain sight. Although—with the exception of the interlude on the Berlin Wall—these conditions are found in the United States, we claim no priority for that save for Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s suggestion that if Empire had a dominant country, it would be the United States. There is nothing particularly American about our stories; to the contrary, they all have global implications. But we don’t set out to justify our parochialism, rather we beg the reader to excuse us. We found most of the objects of study in Blue Monday near Los Angeles, our first base. Now that AUDC has moved to the Northeastern seaboard and spawned the AUDC Network Architecture Laboratory at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning, our focus will shift accordingly. This book, then, marks the completion of the first phase of AUDC’s work. In the end, our hope for this book is that it will arouse in our readers the same sense of wonder and amazement at these conditions that has compelled us on our own lemming-like quest to investigate them while forcing our readers to consider further the world of Empire.