Silicon Society and the Speculative Superstructure

In a basic sense, ephemerality and architecture are completely opposite in nature. Architecture is concerned with the construction of a physical reality, the rigid and physically violent organization of matter into a state of shelter. The ephemeral is the state of the imperceptible, the brief, immaterial realities that tease our senses and give a sense of satisfaction to the body and mind; Its what makes us fall in love with architecture.

The paradox is that it is the ephemeral world that gives architecture its value, existence and reality.

“Architecture” doesn’t exist without its ability to register ephemeral qualities against our senses. Why can the heaviest structures register as invisible, air filled entities, while the ‘lightest’ structures can feel like dense junk? The difference is “architecture” and a quality of ephemerality. These ephemeral sensations form a large part of architectural cognition. The symbiosis between the hard function of architecture and our imagination of it forms the womb in which architecture is born. Reality, natural or man made, is pregnant with the ephemeral, we either give it structure, or fail to.

There is no doubt that our reality is changing rapidly, everyday we are bombarded by technological claims of revolution. But the core of change is not the seemingly revolutionary, but the evolutionary. When the revolutionary loses its sensationalist, ephemeral nature, and its ubiquity is registered in our culture. When technological, social or cultural waves of change break against our collective consciousness, and retreat back into conservative reality, wetting our imaginations.

This is fascinating considering how sensationalist our culture has become. We can now detect ephemerality in our online social structures, the chaos of our global economy, and in the aesthetic with which new technologies present themselves. All the while, were using new methods of representation and technology to give it reality. Exhibitions of spectacle, advances in 3d technology, animation, new materials, the sense provoking, dazzling and temporary installation architecture.

There is an entire ephemeral life behind what we judge to be our culture, technology and society. We can only hope to identify the themes by which it operates.

Our fascination with an ephemeral architecture doesn’t just come from one place, but rather from a collective realization of the pervasiveness of these interrelated themes in almost all aspects of our society. In a broad sense these themes are speculation and discontinuity, sensationalism vs relevancy, and emptiness vs possibility. The purpose of this piece is to explore them as they relate to the architecture of our virtual society and our global economy.

Silicon Society and the Online Edifice

Our society has spent a good part of the last 20 years (a blip) building something called the internet; or to be accurate, constructing its useful parts, and lending it a sense of quality (as a broad generalization). It now has recognizable and ubiquitous structures that transmit communications, information and media. We are still throwing new constructs at it to see what will stick. Startups, popups, apps, apple, crowd-sourcing cloud architecture based instagramming masses. These are all digital constructs, attempting to lend architecture to an inherently chaotic online society. Being such a huge form of cultural transmission, if not the most dominant, we are locked into its ephemeral methods of exchange.

Our love affair with the internet is a powerful thing, it both feeds our design consciousness, while completely watering it down; infinite information and possibilities via disconnected experience. Yet we rely on it daily, and architecture is after all a direct reflection of the societies that construct it. But which society are we aiming to represent here? How reflective is online virtual society of ‘normal’ society?

Our virtual society is a buffet of ephemeral cultural consumption, which has become a huge cultural construct in itself, our cities are cultural constructs as well, but do cities construct us, or do we construct cities? If our virtual society is indeed a cultural construct, what is it acculturating?

These are interesting questions, especially since we ask the same thing in architecture; do we shape architecture, or does it shape us? Obviously the relationship is symbiotic, but with architecture the exchange is corporeal, and transacts with huge objects of material culture. Our virtual society transacts with the immaterial, informational and sensational.

We constantly switch back and forth between the virtual and the physical, blurring the boundaries over the thin space between each. There exists a cross fertilization in this process, the virtual substitutes for real interaction, and face to face interaction becomes more robotic and digital. This mutant reality frustrates us, we complain about it all the time. You can choose to disconnect from this architecture, but it’s become so intertwined with regular life that we question the nature of our global public society. So much of it exists in this commercialized virtual edifice, saturated with entertainment, speculation and disconnected irrelevancy. If we go back to basics, we see that the traditional definition of a society is a closed organization of people who associate with each other for the purpose of cultural, scientific or social exchange. The difference with our global online society is that its open source, and its contents are usually short lived and celebrated versus seriously contemplated over. Our 24hr news cycle and media based virtual communities represents a buffet of fleeting interaction meant to be consumed, shared and discarded. And it’s no wonder these networks evoke images of ephemerality; they are all beginning to operate in an entity literally called ‘the cloud’. To use architectural terms, the architecture of this virtual interaction is light, it structural connections are highly tenuous and in danger of transformation or collapse at any given moment.

Enter open source architecture and the promises of 3d printing, and you have malevolent 3d printing flash mobs hosted by Bruce Sterling.

All this reminds us that the architecture of the internet may be best represented as a temporal event space, and perhaps this is mirrored in our fascination with the architectural installation. However, our virtual edifice might still be too disconnected with itself to singularly shape a future where we all become robots.

How powerful is this new online edifice? If we are to make an honest assessment, considering its direct impact on the physical makeup of our cities, we must admit; very little.

It may have drastically changed our daily lives, and empowered our cultural awareness, but we still live in buildings made of brick, steel and glass. We are still human beings, more satisfied with face to face interaction and material culture. Architecture is still serious business, and real transformation occurs out of necessity. Looking back, we see that modernism was a response to the horrible conditions brought on by the trans-formative power of the industrial revolution and centuries of cultural stagnation.

In the same way, a new architecture could arise to address the cultural junk and physical disconnection we experience via the architecture of the internet.

Perhaps the necessity exists, but for now, we are just exploring possibilities, and satiating our imaginations. Guessing at what exists within that thin space between the digital and physical. Which, as a precursor to serious transformation, may be an important step. Perhaps when I need to travel 300 days of the year, to supervise the construction of ocean-scraping micro-blogging communities over the Atlantic, I’ll need to carry my house in a backpack, and sleep on holographic featherbed sponsored by Twitter. We aren’t there just yet.

Speculative Superstructures

We are saturated with news media and its infotainment perversions. If we step back from it, we recognize that all of society’s forces are on display, and we are all forming and testing our assessments of them, all in shorter and more ephemeral timescales.

Consider our economics; in the span of a generation, we have catapulted our economies into a state of hyper-complexity. Complexities which, play out in more unfamiliar spaces, and in shorter time frames. We trade with fiat currencies and our economies are based on a sense of faith and confidence; ephemeral, subjective realities. This is a natural progression of economy types, from commodity to goods, from goods to services, and from services to experience. It’s interesting to consider that this entire progression travels along a trajectory away from the physical, natural world towards an immaterial, ephemeral one. These superstructures, along with the idea that nothing can operate in isolation anymore, have turned the global economy into a massive superstructure in itself. A structure is a network of connections and dependencies, and our global economic architecture is no different. Delineating it fascinates us as easy as it alludes us, perhaps because of its ultra-complexity and power in our culture. Within which, there is a large space of discontinuity, possibility and speculation.

This environment turns architecture itself into speculation, an ephemeral activity. Architects are now possibility machines, navigating these speculative superstructures. An interesting reality, and possibly a romantic one.

All of these transformational forces swishing around us leaves nothing untouched, nothing rooted. This has created a sort of powerful vacuum, in which the traditional arbiters of the future, namely culture, become commodities in themselves (instead of a way of life).

Everything is sucked into this architecture, as our old world intangibles are abstracted and retrofitted with economic devices. Global culture is obsessed with putting this process of adaptation on display, designers are translators.

Architectures gestalt gazes towards the future. This process goes by many names; commercialization, homogenization or westernization. All of which usually carry negative connotations, and all of which have been underway for quite a while. As architects, we tend to identify it as an evolutionary process, whose aesthetics are rooted in a kind of distillation, a reduction down to an essential pure idea. Behind this though, we still question our larger role in society. What is it? The most basic answer is that we are rational agents in service of these transformations, and our role is to enshrine this process, representing its best ethical and aesthetic dimensions. Such has been true since modernism, a movement that defined the cleanliness with which we should practice our craft. An interesting precept if you believe that architecture plays a huge role in getting rid of societies ‘junk’. Architects may end up being the garbage men of the future.

Architects may end up being the garbage men of the future.

Techno Power

If there are any mad scientists or architects out there in the online virtual edifice or the speculative, economic superstructure, they are definitely watching one thing: Architectural technology. It may be the harbinger of a new, modern and ephemeral architectural typology, only time will tell. Technology is only as good as the visionary’s that put it to work. So while we prophesize the power of architectural technology, it is only as powerful as the architects implementation ability. This may also remind us that technologies inherent power is also its weakness, it offers incredible possibilities but no manual. As a result, it becomes easy for it to be used simplistically and in the spirit of sensationalism; as pure architectural showmanship. This situation is intensified by our relationship with the speculative superstructure. Architects need press… so we make sexy shapes, and propose unreal visions. By no means is this a bad thing, it has its benefits and has pushed architecture in new directions. It becomes a sad reality only when this concern is paramount and our perspective is narrowed towards it. Quality architecture has nothing to do with robotics, but their may be a quality of robotics in architecture. We may need to understand the essence of that before we get serious about building adaptive structures powered by matrices of sensory networks.

It is however easy to comprehend how we become mad scientists; we are renaissance people, easily led into fringe undertakings. We are obsessed with our own tools, and perhaps this is understandable; they are incredible by any measure.

These technologies often present themselves with a sense of cleanliness and minimalism. Freedom of pure creation. It’s tempting to get caught up in this imagination space, but we too easy forget that things age, rust and breakdown. Architecture needs durability, perhaps this is why alot of these technologies are used as facials, applied to otherwise conventional construction. There is a new poetic aestheticism in this, but if we are to eventually tackle serious typological change, we have to snap ourselves out of this trance. For now the poetics are infinite and potent.

Advances in microscopic biology show us in real-time how dynamically complex living tissue is. Particle physics verifies the ephemerality of actual matter. The possible rapidity of construction promises to activate dead urban space and or provide shelter to the transient or disenfranchised. Accessible 3d technology allows us to design and test anything, and animation leads architecture into storytelling. The list goes on and on.

Conclusion

Our obsession with architectural ephemerality is fundamental to our understanding and practice of architecture. The convergence of our economics, our virtual culture and technology are all redefining that understanding, and we are constantly searching and speculating at how the convergence of these things will actually shape a more permanently built architecture. In the meantime, we use the new aesthetic awareness they offer as an expressive avenue. But if we are serious about our profession, we must recognize that architecture is not only about expressive objects, but a timeless perfection of the human experience. Both physical, and immaterial.

Technology offers us so much possibility, but with more possibility comes more responsibility. There may be a frustration in this, as we are already responsible for a great deal. This frustration may be no more evident today than when we watch a veritable army of digital projection artists dissolve and deconstruct the old world architecture of Europe via short lived bursts of orgasmic digital projection. Their digital sledgehammers may be more potent to the creation of an ephemeral architecture than we realize.