a conversation with michael osman
ON EVIDENCE AND DATA
I want to begin by summarizing a point from an essay1 by John May, one of the best theoretical treatments of post-war architecture pedagogy that I’ve read.
He says that at some point around the middle of the 20th century, architectural pedagogy developed a jurisprudential, or legalistic form of argumentation: the student presented the “case” in front of a so-called jury. May thinks that this is a strange alignment of things, and particularly strange in relationship to architecture because it hinged on the unit of evidence. In this format, architecture students were pointing to various parts of their projects as evidence, and their arguments were judged by the faculty in relationship to that evidence. That leads to what he calls “the condition of dullness.” In addition, because of the status given to research in the university and the difficulty of placing it in the practice of architecture, when science was established as the dominant mode of research, it too came to easily dominate architects’ self-evaluation. You might say the legal defense of architecture became scientific. And there’s no reason for our pedagogy to be this way except for the cultural dominance of two regimes—science and law.
1John May, "Under Present Conditions Our Dullness Will Intensify," Project, Issue 3 (2014): 18-21.
So he defines the legal evaluation as units of evidence—what would you describe as the scientific evaluation?
Data, yeah. I wanted to start there because May does say that we’re now living under the power of data, marshalled as if it were evidence.2 New arguments are no longer arguments about, let’s say, history or the humanities, even—but instead a scientific claim about efficiency, sustainability, performance—these sorts of things. And you can see how this would be especially true when that essay was published, maybe five years ago. I think that unit is... not changing, but data is presenting itself in new and multiple forms.
2 Zeynep Çelik Alexander, "Neo-Naturalism," Log 31 (2014): 23-30.
There is a history of architectural practice for how these kinds of identities and their associated media and data circulate. I think what may be contemporary about that is that it has exerted itself in the studio, in the space of the institution, in a way that hasn’t been possible before.
Yeah, I want to talk about that, but I just want to be clear about why I introduced the conversation in this way, which is that there’s a certain kind of technological determinism that I want to avoid: that now these networks—data bots, or whatever—exist, and therefore our subjectivities are changing. Maybe it’s better to just say: “we seek these data machines out, we build them, and we submit ourselves to them,” perhaps out of a sense of the architect’s identity being dislocated from the humanities. So if, in the middle of the twentieth century, one identified oneself with a canon, or historical precedent to defend one’s work legalistically, by the end of the twentieth century the identity of the architect became more technocratic, and the work was defended with a kind of expertise which was called research.
Now it seems like an identity is emerging out of an exhaustion with data. Even though it is fundamentally data-based, it’s an exhaustion of the research-based model of identity formation. So, “what is your project,” that is to say, “what is your identity,” is a question that can almost no longer be asked. At one point, [Peter] Eisenman argued for a so-called disciplinary project, and I would say no one really believes in such a thing any longer. Nobody believes that from Alberti to the present there is a kind of genealogy of architectural difficulty. I think nobody believes that anymore. And, just as well, nobody really believes that architecture school is the way we’re going to find new and better forms of performance, either. Nobody believes in that science model anymore. So, in the death of two, now, false gods, there might be a third attempt at forming an identity through data exhaustion, deus ex machina, literally out of the data machine, a new kind of godhead. The question is, in a certain way, what’s at stake? I don’t think that studio has ever been isolated from these prevailing, normative identity-formation techniques. I think that studio is always inflected against a changing set of cultural values.
AFFIRMATION OR TRAUMA
But the question about architectural knowledge is bigger and more ethically charged, more immediately political. I have always felt that it was difficult to know, as a student, what was being transferred to me from my professors. Specifically: how does knowledge get transferred in studio? I understand how it would have been transferred in the legal regime, I even understand how it would have been transferred in the regime of research—you know, count the number of birds that land on a building over the course of a day.
From the 60s onward there were certain methods you could learn. But now, I think, perhaps what’s being transferred are techniques for affirmation. That, I think, is new. That’s what I’m worried about. I don’t know if it’s yet solidified into anything, but the shape of the heart that you put on an Instagram post, to me, is an iconic image of an emerging economy of affirmation. The heart. Each heart is a number, which adds x number of hearts to x number of hearts that already exist. Andrew [Atwood] told Anna [Neimark] that when he posted one of her pictures on his Instagram, he immediately got almost 200 likes. The conversation they were having was not whether or not the image was any good, but simply that she’s getting him some more likes. At that level, it’s affecting their practice. At the level of knowledge production and its transmission, those are harder to identify…
There are other similar functions that this kind of platform either facilitates or prevents. On the one hand, you can’t necessarily critique someone. Not because it’s viewed as aggressive, or that you’re trolling, but the fact that no one is going to look at the comments section in three hours. There’s a certain lifespan to these things
I also pointed out that there’s a much shorter lifespan in the jury format, which disappears instantaneously—aside from the pain that lingers after a scathing review.
Well, let’s talk about emotions... You can see in this picture of poor Ira Rakatansky, a photograph taken in 1946 of an open jury, [May] says, “linger for a moment on the student’s face. Imagine that his bewildered expression is not the sort of momentary surprise we see so regularly today provoked as it often is, by the adolescent behavior of one’s supposed mentors, but rather belongs to a more generalized and sweeping shock induced by the sudden realization that his own objects now require legal counsel.” I think that what you’re experiencing emotionally on the jury is not new. It’s this sense that there is some entelechy between you and the product you have produced; your authorship is embodied in it and your body only further represents an alienated relationship to your project. The jury is not a form of therapy for your alienation. It’s a form of counter-therapy. It’s a format for producing trauma. It seems as if it was intentionally made to produce trauma and produce neurotics who will reproduce their neurosis under as a pretense of discourse. Some of that trauma has to persist in order for there to be such a thing as discourse. Somebody needs to suffer.
The fact that there are bodies, and that it is an embodied performance is exactly the kind of sanctity that I think the flatness and the infinite accessibility of social media seems to threaten.
Yeah. So are we defending the institution that produces trauma against an incipient institution that relieves it? I told my class about my nephew who is now 14: I asked him why he has an Instagram account—I think he’s had one for two years, since he was twelve [raises eyebrows]—and I said “Adam, why do you have an Instagram account?” And he says, “If I didn’t have one I wouldn’t exist.” [Pauses] Yeah. So my feeling is that that’s a new form of trauma, too. It’s not that you’re going to be bullied or trolled or anything, you’ll just be ignored.
Perhaps that’s where the twelve-year-old and the 1st year M.Arch I student are a perfect analogy. The worry, or fear is that as students are being thrown into this practice of identity formation, one that is commodified and that requires a certain kind of duration requires certain commitments, and this practice has been part of architecture’s professional life for a very long time.
You mean this particular practice of the jury?
I mean the identity formation like Le Corbusier practiced—an entirely constant and continual production. And I think institutions do this, too.
[Phone rings in Michael’s office]
I can’t believe they still have phones down here.
What are the real products of this new regime?
I think the fear of students engaging with this flattened datascape is that it displaces, interrupts, or even confuses the traditional power hierarchy.
Yeah, like there’s an erosion of the traditional power of the family… here, I sound like David Brooks—euck. You see this when your kids get friends for the first time, when they’re around five, and they act differently with their friends than they act with you.
[Short burst of laughter]