Form + Function Kati Rubinyi curator Guggenheim Gallery, Chapman College, Orange, California 10 February - 22 March 2003 The Most Expensive Space in North America explores the relationships that we have developed between architecture, objects, and telecommunications. We take as our starting point One Wilshire, a 39-story tower in downtown Los Angeles constructed at the apogee of modernism by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. One Wilshire unequivocally declares that form follows function. Perhaps the worst building SOM ever designed, excusable only as a product of the provincial San Francisco office, One Wilshire appears to follow only two guiding principles. First, in order to create a visual identity, One Wilshire is designed as a skyscraper. Second, One Wilshire’s window areas are maximized to provide light and views for the occupants. Throughout the design, expression of any form, including the expression of structure, is eliminated as superfluous. One Wilshire is a pure modernist building. Its neutral grid lacks symbolic content, making it a tower without qualities. One Wilshire embodies the desire of the bourgeois metropolis to appear at all cost. Awkward in proportion, and off-axis with regard to Wilshire boulevard, its only feature is height, incessantly affirming the value of the land beneath it. Damaged by the decentralizing policies of Cold War urbanism and increasingly threatened by the sprawling suburbs, Los Angeles's congested vertical urban core began to empty in the 1970s. One Wilshire’s once beneficial vertical signification of “office building” and “valuable real estate” began to get in the way of its own economic sustainability. By the mid-1980s, the regime of horizontality was firmly in place and One Wilshire was obsolete. Eventually, however, a new opportunity presented itself and One Wilshire’s height returned to its advantage. With the deregulation of the telecommunications industry, long distance carrier MCI, which had its own nationwide microwave network, required a tall structure on which to install microwave antennas in close proximity to the AT&T (formerly SBC, prior to that PacBell, before that AT&T) central switching station at 400 South Grand Street downtown. Although as a condition of deregulation, competing long distance carriers are, by law, allowed access to the lines at the central switching station, AT&T does not have to provide them with space for their equipment. Only three thousand feet from the central switching station and at the time one of the tallest buildings downtown, One Wilshire was ideal for MCI. Seeing a friendly environment close to the central switching station, other long-distance carriers, Internet service providers, and networking companies began to install their equipment at One Wilshire. Soon, however, carriers turned to fiber optic technology, glass lightbearing strands that can carry multiple data streams simultaneously. As fiber technology has become the primary means of carrying telecommunications traffic, the microwave towers on top have dwindled in importance”—they are now used by Verizon for connection to its cell phone network. With One Wilshire’s proximity to the coast and cable landing stations in the Santa Barbara and Ventura areas, a good portion of transpacific traffic from the Americas—and even Europe—flows through One Wilshire. As a consequence, One Wilshire is not only a staging ground for carriers connecting to the local system, it is a key peer-to-peer connection point. In the fourth floor Meet Me Room, telecom providers are allowed to run interconnects directly between each other without charge. By creating direct connections between each other’s lines in the structure, telecom providers avoid charges imposed by linking through a third-party hub. The result is a dramatic cost savings for the companies, allowing One Wilshire’s management to charge $250 per square foot per month in the Meet Me Room, the highest per-square-foot rent on the North American continent. Because space in One Wilshire is at such a premium, companies run conduit to adjacent structures. Over a dozen nearby buildings have been converted to such telecom hotels, providing bases to telephone and Internet companies seeking locations near the fountain of data at One Wilshire. This centralization of information defies predictions that the Internet and new technologies will undo cities. But neither does it lead to a revival of downtown in classical terms. The buildings around One Wilshire are valuable again, but largely uninhabited. Ironically, if one of the reasons for the downfall of the American downtown is the slowdown in transportation and wear on infrastructure created by congestion, the emptiness of the streets in Los Angeles’s telecom district ensures that this will never again be a problem for this neighborhood. One Wilshire stands as a continuous demonstration of the phases of the metropolis and the current state of the postmetropolitan realm. One Wilshire proves that the new functions of the city do not need a shape of their own but rather are repelled by that possibility. Physical form is secondary today. The transformation that One Wilshire undergoes from its construction in 1966 to the present parallels the transition from material reality to virtual reality, from Cold War to Empire. With the full development of the postmetropolitan realm and the corresponding global saturation of material production, we enter the world of immaterial culture. The virtual is generally perceived as a drive against the spatial or physical world. Nevertheless, as One Wilshire demonstrates, the virtual world requires an infrastructure that exists in the physical and spatial world. Though Ether is formless, it has to be created. Its production requires an enormous amount of physical hardware and consistent expertise. Because of this, Ether is produced in places such as Hollywood studios, locations where highly skilled technicians can meet and collect around cameras and computers. Massive telecommunicational hubs like One Wilshire and their radial networks make the virtual world possible, and firmly ground it into the concrete cityscape. Once this raw data of Ether is created, it has to be stored and organized through stable control centers. These control centers, filled with row after row of servers, generate an enormous amount of heat and require vast cooling systems with multiple back-up power units in order to function without interruption. Constant monitoring of these systems is vital as interruptions affect the entire system. Once the data has been collected, it has to be distributed outside of the building. Fiber optic cable, currently the most effective way of transmitting large quantities of data out of the building into the rest of the world, is expensive to lay and requires a significant negotiations to secure rights-of-way. Most telecommunication companies cannot afford all of these investments individually and so pool their resources at a single location providing connectivity close to the transmission source. Through One Wilshire, virtually all of the global market leaders share a physical investment on the West coast. Being “plugged in” is their literal need, not just an abstract notion. Because One Wilshire is tied to this physical location, it undermines the concept of an autonomous virtuality, revealing instead the simultaneous importance and abandonment of the physical world. Soon, however, carriers turned to fiber optic technology, glass lightbearing strands that can carry multiple data streams simultaneously. As fiber technology has become the primary means of carrying telecommunications traffic, the microwave towers on top have dwindled in importance”—they are now used by Verizon for connection to its cell phone network. With One Wilshire’s proximity to the coast and cable landing stations in the Santa Barbara and Ventura areas, a good portion of transpacific traffic from the Americas—and even Europe—flows through One Wilshire. As a consequence, One Wilshire is not only a staging ground for carriers connecting to the local system, it is a key peer-to-peer connection point. In the fourth floor Meet Me Room, telecom providers are allowed to run interconnects directly between each other without charge. By creating direct connections between each other’s lines in the structure, telecom providers avoid charges imposed by linking through a third-party hub. The result is a dramatic cost savings for the companies, allowing One Wilshire’s management to charge $250 per square foot per month in the Meet Me Room, the highest per-square-foot rent on the North American continent. Because space in One Wilshire is at such a premium, companies run conduit to adjacent structures. Over a dozen nearby buildings have been converted to such telecom hotels, providing bases to telephone and Internet companies seeking locations near the fountain of data at One Wilshire. This centralization of information defies predictions that the Internet and new technologies will undo cities. But neither does it lead to a revival of downtown in classical terms. The buildings around One Wilshire are valuable again, but largely uninhabited. Ironically, if one of the reasons for the downfall of the American downtown is the slowdown in transportation and wear on infrastructure created by congestion, the emptiness of the streets in Los Angeles’s telecom district ensures that this will never again be a problem for this neighborhood. One Wilshire stands as a continuous demonstration of the phases of the metropolis and the current state of the postmetropolitan realm. One Wilshire proves that the new functions of the city do not need a shape of their own but rather are repelled by that possibility. Physical form is secondary today. The transformation that One Wilshire undergoes from its construction in 1966 to the present parallels the transition from material reality to virtual reality, from Cold War to Empire. With the full development of the postmetropolitan realm and the corresponding global saturation of material production, we enter the world of immaterial culture. The virtual is generally perceived as a drive against the spatial or physical world. Nevertheless, as One Wilshire demonstrates, the virtual world requires an infrastructure that exists in the physical and spatial world. Though Ether is formless, it has to be created. Its production requires an enormous amount of physical hardware and consistent expertise. Because of this, Ether is produced in places such as Hollywood studios, locations where highly skilled technicians can meet and collect around cameras and computers. Massive telecommunicational hubs like One Wilshire and their radial networks make the virtual world possible, and firmly ground it into the concrete cityscape. Once this raw data of Ether is created, it has to be stored and organized through stable control centers. These control centers, filled with row after row of servers, generate an enormous amount of heat and require vast cooling systems with multiple back-up power units in order to function without interruption. Constant monitoring of these systems is vital as interruptions affect the entire system. Once the data has been collected, it has to be distributed outside of the building. Fiber optic cable, currently the most effective way of transmitting large quantities of data out of the building into the rest of the world, is expensive to lay and requires a significant negotiations to secure rights-of-way. Most telecommunication companies cannot afford all of these investments individually and so pool their resources at a single location providing connectivity close to the transmission source. Through One Wilshire, virtually all of the global market leaders share a physical investment on the West coast. Being “plugged in” is their literal need, not just an abstract notion. Because One Wilshire is tied to this physical location, it undermines the concept of an autonomous virtuality, revealing instead the simultaneous importance and abandonment of the physical world. This exhibit documents One Wilshire, together with its relationship to objects. Architecture, we understand, becomes nothing more than a universal container, an endlessly reproducible orthogonal blob that is activated by what fills it, not by its relentlessly monotonous, cheaply-made and crudely stamped-out form. These models ask us: what is the city today but a series of cardboard boxes filled with stuffed animals and the detritus of life, connected by a proliferation of cables? Which is more real and which is more banal: the infrastructure that underlies contemporary life or the superstructure that manifests it? Filling these boxes with what appears, on first glance, to be debris, makes apparent that our worldly possessions increasingly have no use-value whatsoever. Yet, each box corresponds to a regime of objects that defines a life. Together, the boxes form relationships, underscoring that we interact with each other and define ourselves through objects. Objects become receiving units within a network of information. Today we confront the possibility that this is not merely true in the semiotic realm. As every day more and more "smart" refrigerators, automobiles, and video recorders gain the capacity to connect to the global telematic grid, our objects will increasingly communicate with each other, independent of us. Eventually we will become secondary and as disposable to objects as objects are to us today. The cardboard boxes and their contents have a therapeutic role, forcing us to confront the heavy burden that material objects place on the soul. Some gallery goers expressed delight at the collection of objects which they saw as quaint, others expressed disgust and asked AUDC to remove them. One individual called the contents "junk," even though this person had not examined the objects very closely: the items within the boxes were collectable objects from Hollywood shows and by far the most expensive part of this exhibit dedicated to the most expensive space in North America. Although obviously the most didactic part of the exhibit, the immaterial culture models created the greatest confusion. This effect, which we had not foreseen or planned, is a function of the psycho-erotic nature of objects today. Objects confuse us, leaving us bewildered and lost.
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