The Standards of Living; Whitney Museum of American Art; Drawing Center; Museum of Modern Art; PARC Foundation Gallery (All New York)

Article excerpt

COMPUTERS ARE WIDELY CREDITED with transforming architecture: Digital tools have changed even the most basic day-to-day design practice, largely replacing the rigors of the drawing board with the screen's more flexible capacities for spatial projection, and leading to an explosion of delirious abstract structures by such celebrity architects as Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and Rem Koolhaas. But while these stand-alone sculptural monuments are exciting, they seem to contradict the fundamental conditions of the digital era, which is characterized by networked systems of distribution based not on singular forms, but on a panoply of standardized elements. To take the example of Koolhaas: During the past twenty years the architect has pioneered a design process premised on extensive analysis of program and site; according to these procedures (which are now highly influential and widely imitated), a building's form should emerge as an expression of information analysis. This is a strong response to the network conditions that frame architectural practice--and yet it typically results in freestanding landmarks such as Koolhaas's leggy CCTV headquarters in Beijing. It seems to me that the radical challenge facing architecture in an information-rich postindustrial economy is not to invent unheard-of shapes for a conventionally monumental program, but to rethink the singular building in light of infrastructural networks; in short, to identify standardized elements and, further, theorize them as what could reasonably be called architectural "part objects." Such a program might entail multiple smaller-scale buildings introduced into the existing urban fabric in order to address housing needs or public services while fostering life at street level. This approach seizes on the implications of Koolhaas's celebrated 1995 book with Bruce Mau, S, M, L, XL, structured according to the scalability fundamental to digital objects, in which forms may be adapted to contexts encompassing the small, the medium, the large, or the extra large.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Four exhibitions on view in New York this year offered a striking opportunity--when considered together--to evaluate anew the possibilities for such a "distributed architecture": the R. Buckminster Fuller retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art; "Frederick Kiesler: Co-Realities" at the Drawing Center; "Home Delivery: Fabricating the Modern Dwelling" at the Museum of Modern Art; and finally the smallest, but most compelling in terms of indicating a model for the digital future, "Estudio Teddy Cruz: Practice of Encroachment--From the Global Border to the Border Neighborhood" at the PARC Foundation Gallery. If scalability--the capacity for a particular unit (either virtual or actual) to expand and contract to macro and micro scales--is one of the fundamental tenets of digital technology, then it is no wonder that Fuller, whose structural innovations are founded on modular systems such as the geodesic dome, would strike such a chord in 2008. One statement of Fuller's, quoted by K. Michael Hays, cocurator of the Whitney exhibition, seems particularly resonant in this regard in insisting that the house might be rethought as an effect or function of information networks: " 'House,' in comprehensive designing, would be as incidental to the world-around network dwelling service as is the telephone transceiver instrument to the energy processing in communications systems." Though Fuller's projects for distributing modular housing worldwide (like telephones) were certainly Utopian and ostensibly impractical, today's housing industry is premised on the standardization of architectural part objects: Windows, kitchen cabinets, bathroom fixtures, and even lumber arc mass-produced in ways that allow limited forms of customization and maximum economy in the clear-cut suburban developments that, at least until the current mortgage crisis, were being rolled out in the exurbs of every American city. …