appeared in Perspecta 41, "The Grand Tour"
What is the point of constructing a Grand Tour today? What are the monuments for an era immune to solidity and absent of lasting meaning, when any sense of place is evacuated by the logic of the virtual, in which architecture itself has become immaterial by being thoroughly leveraged in a delirious calculus of speculation?
The first Grand Tour was as an antidote to the excesses of capital. Providing a first-hand demonstration of enduring values, the Grand Tour was originally not a finishing school for architects but rather a rite of passage for the British aristocracy and rising mercantile classes. The Grand Tour offered its participants an anthropological diagram of an earlier empire that demonstrated not only economic and military but also cultural success. In contrast to the rough, provincial culture of a rapidly industrializing island nation on the outskirts of Europe, the ruins of Rome underscored the importance of the pursuit of virtue while emphasizing the fatal dangers of decadence and overindulgence.
But where to go now? Today, the global economic order of Empire embraces everything, leaving no exterior. Diffuse, global, uncontainable, Empire operates on the illusion that the economy is divesting from the physical and that the world is dominated by the virtual. Thus, a defining feature of Empire is that it is placeless. There is no one Rome anymore: no capital for Empire and no one place to see the ruins of the previous order. Of course there are obvious choices like Detroit, but these are the ruins of the earlier era of Fordism, obsolete except for a nostalgic interest. Today Rome is both nowhere and everywhere. Like Piranesi’s Romans, we live within the ruins of the world, undone for momentary profit, the best materials carted away by barbarians. Wherever we find Empire’s most advanced form, whatever its diverse manifestation—the EU, China, Japan, the United States, the former Soviet Union—we also uncover its ruins. Like Robert Smithson’s Passaic, the superpowers of our day rise up into ruin, their currency eviscerated, economies emptied out by overinvestment. Forty years later, Passaic is everywhere.
The following tour is generic, uncovering everyday locations that describe the evacuation of values under Empire. Each of the stops isolates a place in transition, a node where the physical form of Empire's evacuated body lies in decay, disguise, or neglect. Each of these stops is crucial in a survey of contemporary urban life, but each can be found virtually anywhere.
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Our contemporary Grand Tour must begin at the airport.
During the process of modernization, airports were glamorous harbingers of modernity designed by cutting-edge architects. Eero Saarinen built the main terminal at Dulles and the TWA terminal at JFK, Charles Luckman and William Pereira built the UFO-shaped Theme building as the centerpiece of LAX (William Pereira’s brother Hal provided inspiration with his flying saucer from the film the War of the Worlds, for which he was art director), and Paul Andreu (a student of Gilles Deleuze) built Terminal 1 at Charles de Gaulle, embodying the philosopher’s hopes for a more fluid order in an arrival and departure machine. Built to operate as special zones within the city, such structures were the last modernist utopias, freed of the need to cater to place or history.
But with the introduction of widebody planes and the deregulation of passenger airlines, flying became as banal as riding the bus. It wasn't until the mid-1990s that the promise of globalizing modernity was nostalgically recaptured by Wallpaper* magazine and its heady advocacy of a slick, jet-setting consumer avant-garde. Corresponding to this was the fleeting architectural fancy for Supermodernism and the belief that the virtuoso architecture of the airport could extend into cultural attractions in city centers to magically bring tourists into decayed urban milieus.
After 9/11, even this temporary suspension of disbelief turned hollow. As the global élite turned to private jets boarded at smaller more discrete airports, the rest of us find Supermodernism run aground. To perpetuate a state of terror and to remind travelers of their humbled position in the world, security regulations now demand that elegant leather dop kits be replaced by primitive zip-lok bags. The passage to modernity is now done barefoot, with your pants hanging off your ass. Here, the excitement of travel finally runs aground. If there is any comfort, it is that the security teams exude ineffectiveness, suggesting that there will likely be more excitement in the future.
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In contrast to the degraded airlines, overnight couriers such as FedEx are more efficient and reliable for sending important information and expensive goods. However, even with the more flexible use of larger planes on additional routes, the majority of cheap imports still flood the developed world through a massive and ever-growing system of ports. Packed in universally-sized shipping containers stacked up to 15,000 to a ship, goods move overseas at a leisurely pace only to be rapidly unloaded and hustled across the country by trucks and train lines to distribution centers from which they are often sent directly to the home, leaving the marketplace and agora as distant memories. With the United States having few marketable exports, the same ships return empty, with their decks often bare even of shipping containers. Electronic funds transfers flow outward, from West to East, but with currency now a matter of euphoric speculation, and global trade based on a vast pyramid scheme, no one can question the madness.
Scores of containers build up in massive graveyards, reflecting the imbalance of trade. For many architects, this is a new source of dreams. As inspirational today as Henry Ford's Model T was for the modernists, the shipping container plays to our fantasies of responsible reuse while appealing to our childhood dreams of playing with building blocks.
Nevertheless, the productive culture of modernization is long gone. A house built of shipping containers is nothing but a device for storage, a place to put the interchangeable junk that the container brought in the first place. But we hardly need to build houses out of shipping containers in order to understand this. Our dwellings are already little more than that, containers devoid of any romance, empty vessels waiting for us to fill them until one day we take our junk elsewhere and leave them behind, valueless discarded shells.
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Containers and the goods they hold generally reach their final destinations via the Interstate Highway System. Built for high-speed travel, the highways were places in which a postwar generation tasted unfettered freedom. Driving on the unfinished New Jersey turnpike, Tony Smith was awed by an experience so large that it couldn't be framed. Art, he concluded, could no longer compete with a culture that could produce such intense experiences. In the White Album, Joan Didion described driving as “a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over.” Songs like Steppenwolf's "Born to be Wild," Rush's "Red Barchetta," and Judas Priest's "Heading out on the Highway" were recorded in order to be played loudly on the road, romanticizing the solitary freedom of the road, much as films like "Smokey and the Bandit" and television shows like "BJ and the Bear" did.
Today, with roads perpetually jammed by numbers they were never intended to carry, surfing the freeway is gone. Instead of communion with the flow there is only stasis amidst the fumes of the highway. Instead of solitude, only frustration expressed into the cell phone.
Nor is there any hope for a smoother-flowing future. To the contrary, traffic engineers now recognize jams as part of the solution, encouraging drivers to take shorter trips by frustrating them. Hopelessly overrun and without any solution, highways become ruins, their promise of Deleuzean fluidity gone forever. In this highways embody the ruins of all infrastructure. The master plan is gone forever, replaced instead by perpetual stalemate and increasing tolls.
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As we turn to the landscape for relief during the perpetual traffic jams that characterize today’s highways, we see massive distribution centers off which cities feed.
Distribution centers have replaced farmyards along the rural countryside. Where the latter still exist, as in California’s Harris Ranch (colloquially known as “Cowschwitz”), they increasingly adopt the logic of distribution centers. At such factory farms, hundreds of thousands of hormone-injected and antibiotic-fed animals are kept in tight confinement until ready for slaughter and shipment to the appropriate distribution centers.
Built to facilitate the unpacking and re-organization of goods from shipping containers to their next destination at minimal expense, distribution centers are largely devoid of aesthetics and can be distilled down to three main programmatic functions of loading, receiving, and storage. Staffing within distribution centers is equally minimal. Automated warehouse management and logistics systems enable more efficient and expedient turnovers of commodities with limited storage and down time. A single distribution center can support multiple, even competing, vendors with minimal separation between clients.
The most advanced distribution centers respond directly to online shopping. Much like a massive, distributed version of Cowschwitz, consumers increasingly order products online, never having to leave their comfortable homes as their arteries steadily clog with fat. In operations like the FedEx Logistics Distribution Centers, products go directly from the factory to consumer thereby simplifying the supply chain and eliminating the need for retail venues and intermediary storage. When products break down, if they are not discarded, they can be sent back for “factory” repair, repairs often done not in the factory, but in a shipper-operated repair center located on the premises of the distribution center.
During the Grand Tour aristocrats purchased the exotic goods that would bring quality and authentication to the rest of their lives. Today, the role of things and people are reversed in an animistic practice. It is objects that now dominate our lives, touring the world to visit us.
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Where distribution centers coalesce consumer goods, data centers reorganize the immaterial world into a more streamlined network. Data hotels such as One Wilshire allowed corporations to become immaterial, reducing their operations to assemblies of servers interconnected with servers from other corporations in a single building. Today, however, facilities like Google’s massive center at the Dalles, Oregon reduce the materiality of the corporation even further. Housed in massive horizontal structures holding countless numbers of cheap off-the-shelf processors and hard drives working together to emulate a single massive computer on which space can be rented, the contemporary data center undoes any need for separate servers at all. Multiple corporations simply rent parcels of its virtual space.
Increasingly, software applications are migrating to the Web as well. This is attractive for individuals since licenses are often free in exchange for precious demographic data that would otherwise be unavailable—hence no more need to pirate. Corporations embrace such services since leases of software can be more conveniently written off than outright purchases. Social networking applications allow us to reconnect, never losing touch with friends better left forgotten long ago while social content applications allow us to create meaningless content that can then be watched endlessly by individuals with little better to do. But after three decades of the means of production drifting downward into our hands, they give up to centralization, to a big computing that exists with minimal human intervention. Old meshworks are breeding new hierarchies.
If the PC was a device for production, applications based on data centers are much more clever. The Internet becomes a place in which we strive to appear, our need for publicity so great and our faith in brands so intense that corporations can rely on consumers to produce their own viral ad campaigns and shoot down the competition viciously. The data center is the modern temple, the place in which we hope to dwell in telematically, our Google shadow intense, our presence maintained on archive.org long after we are gone.
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Historically, cities were the place where capital appeared, where operations of investment were made visible, and where production occurred. Today the most advanced forms of capital hide in the network, leaving cities to maintain themselves through speculation and shopping. Instead of the place in which capital appears, cities are now the place in which capital disappears. The yuppie of the 1980s who defined himself through work as well as his consumption has been phased out by the hipster, whose source of income is vague but whose life focuses on consumption and blogging about that consumption. Meanwhile reverse commuting, the emergence of hipster parenthood, and the permeation of cities by malls and mall stores has effectively equated the city core and suburb; we are all hipsters, we are all suburbanites. The only movement that matters is that of finding the most fashionable neighborhood before anyone else. This is done through a Situationist game in which potential becomes an identity in and of itself. Once a blog announces that an area has potential (the next “Green Point”) hipsters kill it, obliterating any of the area’s authentic, local features. On a global scale, a formless unaccountable mass of NGOs, multinational conglomerates, and investment firms move from city to city, following crisis and opportunity in order to capitalize on speculation.
The contemporary city becomes a place of wonder, a moment to marvel at conditions that are seemingly impossible, most likely unsustainable or destructive, yet intensely desirable. Like the Romans we live in an Empire driven not only by power but by magic. Much like the urban fiction of today (such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius or Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones), Empire itself is a book of wonders, providing comforting outcomes and explanations for the anxiety produced by a city without attachment or alienation. Empire is a constructed myth that allows us to imagine order behind a power that should not, cannot exist. The multitude, whose home is the city, is a hipster dream state that speaks to our desire for the emotional substantiation of an empty experience.