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Mach 1 (and Other Mystic Visitations)

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Chuck Yeager’s Photo from Academy of Achievement’s website

Kwinter, Sanford. “Mach 1 (and other mystic visitations).” Constructing a New Agenda: Architectural Theory 1993-2009. By Krista Sykes. New York: Princeton Architectural, 2010. 80-89.

Sanford Kwinter is a canadian-born architectural theorist and writer, he has taught at Rice University, Harvard University (GSD), MIT, Columbia University, Cornell University and Pratt Institute. Kwinter is also known as a co-founder of the Zone Books independent nonprofit publishing house.

In his essay Mach 1 (and other mystic visitations), he discusses about the changing nature of architectural discipline in the late twentieth century as illustrated through the example of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. He also touches upon other questions regarding the role of architects and the possibilities towards the future. First, he noted the current effect of architectural discipline as being less relevant due to the integration of design into our daily lives. Since architecture is not directly associated with the act of exchange and not ‘driven by forces of unrelenting supplication’. We live in a world surrounded by design, where everything is every moves and gestures are anticipated and micro-engineered. This then makes design inseparable from our lives.

Design has now penetrated to, even threatens to replace, the existential density, the darkness, the slow intractable mystery of what was once the human social world. In its place it is installing a shrill new immediacy, a garish transparency of postures, glances, and address” (Kwinter, 81)

Compared to architecture, design in other fields such as commercial fashion design has produced a ‘true innovation’, ‘figures of genius’ includes Rei Kawakubo, Martin Margiela, Hussain Chalayan. ‘heroes of popular notoriety’ refer to Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. Lastly, ‘consumer house-cults’ which are familiar brands such as Prada, Chanel, and Gucci.

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Example of Hussain Chalayan’s design

Kwinter then noted that more than fashion, innovations can be found more explicitly in the field of media design as once the hero figures were musicians, now the heroes are ‘webmasters, software packages, crossplatforms, and high-speed IP connections’ which all form a ‘seamless performative mesh, a cultural project in the fullest sense of the word, one of non-stop modulation and adrenalated display.’ One of the design heroes emerged from ‘Ray Gun’, an experimental typographic design magazine which was published in 1992. Kwinter then implies that these changes in the the way of design are influencing the consumers to become “those whose task is to bestow the queasy, modern, disaffected “look” of our digitally poisoned, post-literate world: the communications systems shape-givers”.

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Ray Gun Magazine

What then is the role of architects? When infrastructural demands are ‘breeding and mutating in kind and not only degree.’ It is necessary to consider the ‘soft infrastructures: knowledge infrastructure, program infrastructure, cultural infrastructure, virtual infrastructure’ instead of the modern approach to design stoic and autonomous building when architects are no longer a part of the principle means of production.

Kwinter suggests the type of architecture that ‘relays’ in a comprehensive cultural system of management, administration, and engineering of human affect and historical unfolding. Like coils of anaconda made from loops of soft infrastructure, in other words, architecture that limits expansion in unwanted directions, guide movements subtly but uncompromisingly toward other ends.

Despite all the aspects that architecture aims to encompass, “architecture has never been the vastest, most intensive, form-giving cultural enterprise; that position has always been occupied by war.” The soft infrastructure in war all has its origins and reason for being. Kwinter states that the classic military triumvirate of Commands/Communication/Control corresponds to the trend of designs for the past decade. In the field of architecture, it seems that logistics operations has assumed its position as an informational regime oriented to performative environments, to protocols, and, in extremis, to psychological operations.

Kwinter then shifted us to the latter half of the essay which he narrates his experience of visiting Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. The aspect that links back to the topic of ‘soft infrastructure’ mentioned earlier is how the museum transforms the city socially, economically and culturally. However, the ‘neurotically euphoric reception’ of Bilbao reflects an “undeniably morbid, complacent and self-congratulatory act”

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Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, 1997 and RMS Titanic, 1908

Yet the unveiling of the dancing behemoth of Bilbao, like an electrical shimmer on the twenty-first century’s terrifying horizon, has been greeted with a hysteria redolent of nothing less than a mystic visitation.

The basque (offshore) setting both isolates and intensifies the architectural gesture in intellectual, existential, and historical terms, but it also banalizes it significantly…this shiny new museum for the common market does not qualify as a summary statement on the relations of society, form, and modernization at the end of the great modern century.

RMS Titanic represented a collective transformation of political, economic, aesthetic, and sexual. It also represents an accomplishment in technological development and the sinking intensifies its definition of cultural longing, speculation and fantasy in a sense that none of the architectural accomplishment can be compared. Not Dymaxion House, the empire state or Corbusier’s villas could be compared. “Once long ago, ocean liners had all but stolen architecture”

While architects were fascinated by the Bilbao, Kwinter was more interested in the news on October 14th, 1947 when General Chuck Yeager piloted the rocket-powered Bell X-1 to a speed of Mach 1.07 and became the first person to fly faster than the speed of sound. This opened up many possibilities when the limitations of speed and distance with which humans were able physically to converse and interact with their world were eliminated; and that building things beyond the limit of the earth and its gravitational field became possible. This reflects on the change in how one may perceive architectural discipline in comparison to aeronautical design which possesses more potentials in creating new innovations with flexible and transformable envelope that allows for more experimental designs. The experimental spirit of architectural discipline has been subsumed by “pseudo-innovation” and architecture is left rehearsing “variations on familiar themes.”

 

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