Panic in the Year Zero, by Eric Kahn – October 1994

Central Office of Architecture, Ready Made (rectifie) version no. 2-1994, photomontage and ink, 15 cm x 23 cm

‘Panic in the Year Zero’
Architecture Under Duress: Modernity: The Questions of Revisionism or Recontexualization, by Eric Kahn

Life Magazine

1271 Avenue of the Americas

New York, New York 10020


To: Editor

Fr: Central Office of Architecture

Re: LIFE The 1994 American Dream House: A House  for All America-June 1994 issue


1975: Just because taste is always concerned with form, and never with content, it finally induces in the mind a dangerous tendency to neglect reality altogether, and to sacrifice truth and morality to the alluring dress in which they appear.  All substantial difference between things is lost, and appearance alone determines their worth.

–Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man


1900: The dream is the (disguised) fulfillment of a (suppressed, repressed) counter-wish.

–Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams


1954: The start and frightening realities of our world will not be softened by dressing them up with the “new look,” and it will be equally futile to try to humanize our mechanized civilization by adding sentimental fripperies to our homes.  But if the human factor is becoming more and more dominant in our work, architecture will reveal the emotional qualities of the designer in the very bones of the buildings, not in the trimmings only; it will be the result of both good service and good leadership.

–Walter Gropius


1986: The American imagination demands the real thing, and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake…for historical information to be absorbed, it has to assume the aspect of reincarnation…The “completely real” becomes indentified with the “completely fake.” Absolute unreality is offered as real presence…

–Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyper-reality


1991: Don’t believe the hype…

–Public Enemy


0: ‘Panic in the Year Zero’

When Aristotle began an inquiry into a profound subject, with the intent to produce a critique, he commenced his treatise with an apologia, and requested that the reader attribute the author’s inquiries not to presumption or arrogance, as if he were interfering with things of which he had little or no knowledge, but rather to the reader’s moral sense and desire to discover and establish true doctrines, as far as lay within the potential of human intellect.

I write you not as an embattled defender1of modern architecture2, nor as a bitter academic who is more intent on providing justifications for himself by attacking an alternate set of cultural and architectural values3.  My purpose is more severe.  This letter has grown out of a personal conviction that much of the international debate about the tenability of cultural modernity starts from presuppositions that must be fundamentally recontextualized in order to move through the pervasive contemporary condition of evasive, ongoing nihilism and cultural decadence.  Although it is outside the scope of this letter to strategize an operating navigational course through modernity itself, I would like to put forth a provisional ground vis-a-vis a series of interconnections of phenomena/critical theories from which we can locate a set of reference points.  Once established, I can use these points to address the implications against modernity as slated [through radical revisionism] in your article.  My critique responds to and only to the specifics embodied within the article.  I profess no inside knowledge [nor do I care to have any] regarding the Faustian agreement between the featured architect and Life magazine.

The overall intention of this letter is to situate Robert Stern4 as the preeminent representative revisionist5 within the torrent of contemporary architectural culture through a discussion encompassing both ‘reflective’ critical theory and biblical allegory.  For terminological purposes I will use the term ‘degraded late modernity’ as used by ‘recontextualists’ of modernity who search for continuity with the modern through a redemptive critique, and the term post[M]odernism will designate the crisis-based critique used by ‘revisionists’ of modernity.  I do this out of deference to the reader who understands the term post[M]odern as defining a broad spectrum of cultural spheres [and therefore must accept a labyrinthine dispersion of interpretations fraught with antinomies].  I prefer to use Lyotard’s, rather narrow definition of the post[M]odern simply as “distrust of metanarratives.”  I employ degraded late modernity to emphasize non-totalizing continuity within the modern project.  The author is acutely aware of the problems associated with attempting to periodize historical thought in simplistic dualistic and oppositional terms, which automatically categorize man/woman, superior/inferior in favor of a nuanced and potentially more tragic and diachronic account[s] of history[ies].  In the face of the historiographical violence perpetrated by the conservative rhetoric of the revisionist, everyday life contingent, the recontextualist critique ‘uncouples’ abstraction and ideology from the apparatus of institutionalized modes of authority as a [re]enlightened redemptive critique which incorporates true multicultural conduits for [O]ther voices.  The reader will see that I am especially hesitant as an architect, to accept self-referential post[M]odern as a pervasive force which describes every part of culture as swerving off in the same direction at approximately the same time.  More often than not, we want the best from incompatible versions of the world history[ies] and, as a result, we get nothing.  Finally, I am aware that many of the points/questions I present could be independent essays, and so I ask for patience from the reader as to the number of sources and ideas that have been brought to the fore.

If one assumes that architectural theory has substance only to the degree that it reflects or embodies the historical development of its subject/project, a reading of its current status may be useful to sketch.  However provisionally, this can clarify which critical theory may be employed as a proactive form of cultural resistance.  But such activity requires criteria, and those can only be furnished by speculative theory.  Contemporary critical theory6, after the end of theory, is an open-ended and dialectical mode of inquiry.  Its goal is to provisionally construct criteria which allows for emancipation and enlightenment in the agents who hold them [Raymond Geuss].  The abstractness of theory formation is often matched only by the blind concreteness of individual architectural interpretations.  And, for this reason, it is useful to critique, through the use of critical theory, specific works to expose the current crisis  in the production of architecture.  I begin by asking, in 1994, how could a proposal such as Stern’s come forth?  Herein lies the present undertaking.

Your suggestion that Robert A.M. Stern’s 1994 LIFE Magazine Dream House in any way serves as a tenable contemporary model of ‘domesticity’ is highly problematic.  First of all, the sweeping opening statements on the cover [LIFE: June 1994 issue] rely on a rhetoric of hypnotic and libidinal persuasion, which is anything but innocent.  He [Stern] is not ‘great’7, nor is the house ‘classic’8 or ‘remarkable’.  It would not suit my ‘family’, nor can one or should one be able to build a house ‘anywhere’ with adaptations “by almost any architect” [p. 83]. Contemporary critical discourse warns against such categorical proclamations, yet to enter into this critique I find it necessary to refute these points head on.  lt ought not to be necessary to belabor these points.  Everyone concerned with architecture should recognize this mode of the appropriation, domination and production of space as the preeminent hegemony, which aggressively seeks the dissolution of architecture.  I hope to contextualize these apparently subjective statements within a historical framework and follow with a constructed argument.  This way, the central issues taken up here will, I hope, be brought into focus and, to a great extent, be clarified.

The text of the LIFE article blindly reduces contemporary architectural discourse[s]/ histor[ies] to nothing more than a parade of styles9, a real freak show.  It is an apparition of the finished form of future catastrophe10, the end game of the western logos [mis][dis][re][de]figured which presences itself as the imminent prelude to the end of the world.  This supposed dream house is not a tenable model for a contemporary mode of living and it is certainly not a redemptive critique on the questionable status of the existing paradigm of the individual American dwelling.  Without embarking upon a genealogical reconstruction of Greco/Judaic-Christian civilization, I will focus on the pervasive revisionist myth that contemporary (wo)man has been cut off from traditional11 values and the practice of the everyday life-world as a result of the undeliverable promise of modernity. The two sides of this supposed debate focus on those who feel that cultural modernity can deliver and rejoice in its becoming [pro-abstraction, pro-continuity], while those who argue the other side seem to fear the results of the Enlightenment and lament the loss of roots.  Skeptical incredulity suits the recontextualist whereas simple piety and organized mysticism is all that was necessary for the disingenuous anti-modernity of the revisionist who advocates another homecoming for the anesthetized herds.

To appropriate Malcolm Bradbury’s notion of cultural seismology, the attempt to record the shifts and displacements of cultural sensibilities is manifested through three orders of magnitude.  The first is that of the tremors of fashion, the second is that of larger displacements forming extended periods of style which extend over centuries, and finally, the third category, those which record cataclysmic upheavals and new beginnings which create actual reference points in the tremendous sweep of time.  We could possibly say that cultural modernity, as seen through the project of the Enlightenment, arose through an upheaval of this third and cataclysmic order. Mr. Stern’s retreat can be seen as part of an unfortunately popular and willful immolation of architecture through a mass media based ‘first order’ project.  This indiscriminate trigger tendency is highly characteristic of the revisionist post[M]odern, disposed to apocalyptic12, crisis-centered views of histor[iesl.

To be sure, cultural modernity generates its own aporias. It would be simplistic to argue from a purely pro-modernity standpoint, tout court, as the mixed blessing of modernity delivers both the horrors and blessings of progress.  The protracted rate of change institutionalized by mythic 'pitched roof' constructs/models of dwelling seem to voice a universally human conservative mistrust of changes and the concomitant evolution towards abstraction, voicing a suspicion that progress is anything but progress and a reluctance to accept transformations of the established order of things.  To deny Modernity's pulse is an overt act of historical desecration as well as a form of hermeneutic violence as it promotes forgetfulness/amnesia [revisionist tendency] effectively denying the work of modernity’s progenitors whose beheaded bodies are strewn throughout the sweep of history.  Moreover, it is only through the construction of a precise statement in which an authentically contemporary worldview can be intuited, a worldview congenial to the thought(s), science, technology, peculiar to our day reconciled with the ongoing project of architecture itself.

Architecture’s ontogenetic project lies in its etymology, that is to say, its arche13, the disclosure of the underlying structure of things.  This demiurgic inclination reveals architecture’s anamnestic transhistorical implications through its persistence.  As such, Architecture is an epistemological speculation; like philosophy, it is a first order way of knowing that aspires to wisdom.  Architecture takes its cues not from dogmatically institutionalized theories, nor from an overarching Weltanschauung which is validated solely through ‘hiding’ and faith, but rather from a diachronic reflective modality of the knowing subject.  Yet, as I will point out later, the realm of architecture includes ‘an ethically witnessed account’ of the social, political, spiritual, economic order(s) of culture[s] and therefore encompasses not only matters of mind and intellect – but also actions and conduct.  Architecture combines these two: belief, attitude, or worldview, which we may call ethos, and also behavior, way of life, or right action, which we may call, loosely, an ethical dimension which obligates and couples architecture’s project to the entire sweep of histor[ies] project[s] of realization.  This, nothing else, is what compels us to architecturalize.

If the word architecture’ itself has been immolated through the hegemony of the revisionist project then soon all else will decay and be forgotten. In response to this situation there have been extensive writings which boldly proclaim the “the end of,” the “the death of,” and “the crisis of” the regime. Of western modernity.  This current has colonized much of the terrain of global intellectual activity and has been termed ‘The New Conservatism’ by Jurgen Habermas [the Frankfurt school] in his essay Modernity: An Unfinished Project. Much of his critical theory stands in direct opposition to the chain of French philosophy from Bataille through Foucault to Derrida. I mention this genealogy, in this context, to point out an altogether different tendency within Habermas’ promising critical recontextualization of the meta-narrative of cultural modernity which stands in direct contrast to the French line [obtained from Nietzsche] which deconstructs that same narrative.  It seems an almost pervasive sentiment that the norms and truths which were once believed to be absolute and universal are being questioned.  In the light of post[M]odern thought and investigation much of what was once taken for granted is declared to be in need of demonstration and proof [i.e. Enlightenment ideas regarding progress, truth, rationalism, and reason].  Furthermore, the criteria of proof has become the subject of dispute.  We are witnessing not only a general mistrust of the validity of ideas and Ideologies but also the motives of those who assert them.  However, it becomes equally unacceptable when all forms of the good are labelled utopian. Categorical and systematic descriptions characterize them as totalitarian, as well when virtually any defense of rationalism is turned into a brief for the automatic suppression of otherness and heterogeneity [this point has been advanced by Lezek Kolakowski in his book Modernity on Endless Trial]. Increased secularization of the sphere of life, sharpened social antagonisms, contemporary global culture addicted to mass spectacle, and the accentuation of the spirit of personal competition have permeated regions of the contemporary life-world in such an insidious way as to bring us to the edge of an abyss.

Although the present critique of the cultural sphere of the modern started well over 100 years ago, our present situation accelerating towards the turning of a century, let alone the turning of a millennium, puts into effect an acceleration of our attempted caesurian14 exile from modernity by overturning seminal modernist tendencies and the historiographic father figures who promoted them.  This change in numbers has a strong chiliastic effect; as a representative part of the apocalyptic of the New Testament and as the telos of Western Christianity [and the reactionary 'crisis oriented polemic' of the new American Christian Right].  This restless fear of change and nervousness over the arrival date of the messiah [promising, yet not yet delivered] manifests itself in mass collective hysteria which has been encoded and submerged inside the carefully manipulated and managed atmosphere within.  Stern’s anxious idolatry. Awaiting the delayed return of Moses [the meta-narrative of modernity exiled or somehow eclipsed] from his odyssey on Mount Sinai, the bewildered herd lost their belief in the project of collective realization and enlightenment through the entangled dialogic project of monotheistic Judaic abstraction [The LORD as incorporeal entity] and redemption [the allegory of Utopia as infinite becoming], began to create, through the hand of Aaron, their own objects of diversion, pagan polytheism, idolatry, appearing through the bourgeois decadent ‘false gods’ of revisionist cults:

When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Come make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt–we do not know what has happened to him.”  Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your daughters, and bring them to me.” And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.  This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf.  And they exclaimed,  this is your god…”15

This attempted break from modernity’s covenant with the ‘ideological commandments’ is a strange and overtly a-rational attempt to ease the traumatized Christian meta-narrative of the fin-de-siecle apocalypse. On the other hand, Jews live life through an eternal canonization of the lifeworld, the Torah itself being the preeminent authoritative canon.

It would be, of course, naively simple to reduce the present discussion to a battle between icon maker and the iconoclast.  In the current post[M]odern condition, it has been observed, architecture has certainly lost its first principle, its navigational reference points, in short its utopian and human project.  Ironically, this Dream House is an accurate expression of that impoverished post[M]odern ethos16.  Where once the modern exerted an ethical and aesthetic author(ity) the post[M]odern crise de conscience invites and allows for an uncritical heterogeneity.  A type of willful Dionysian Intoxication which is highly suspicious of concepts, structures, and wisdom.  Progressive Apollonian modernity18, from this point of view, appears as both a spiritual and scientific adventure, one in search of enlightenment through reason and overcoming19 through both the virtuous project20 and the social project21, whereas the often Dionysian regressive post[M]odern can be seen as the subsequent weak [Vattimo] retreat from that same adventure.  Modernity is associated with the tendency toward ‘disclosing’ or ‘revealing’, while the post[M]odernist work tends towards ‘concealing’.  The conventions and devices used in constructing a post[M]odernist work shows itself for the contrivance it is, and in doing so it operates at a meta-discourse which states that everything else is a contrivance too and that there simply is no escape from this cultural impoverishment.

Moreover, post[M]odern narratives tend to consume the past.  Acting insidiously, they propagate forgetting so that something else can take place.  This ability to reduce or shrink experience and abolish difference is the fulfillment of the anesthetization process necessary for nostalgic projects such as Stern’s.  It exhibits no resistance; in fact, this work represent an acceleration of socially prefabricated schemes of symbolic [be]longing.

Rudderless and adrift in its own sea of complacency Stern’s LIFE Dream House accepts without critical reflection its own versimilitudinal nature.  This is the nightmare of the revisionist elsewhere sustained crisis in historical continuity coupled with the suspension or the eclipse of the historical absolute, has resulted in the production of netherworld of simulations/replicas.  As Stern would have us believe, stylistic promiscuity is somehow an authentic attribute of American Democracy.  The critically aware citizen has been transformed into an addicted anxious consumer.  Architectural malaise is a form of forgetting caused by a psychopathology of self-induced amnesia, full of solipsistic Dionysian narcissism which instantiates the symptoms of memory loss brought on by revisionist post[M]odernism.  Fully decadent22 and raving on ecstasy, its celebration in its attempted ‘release’ from they hyper-rationalized lifeworld of late capitalism is unsustainable.  It is the American Dream stripped bare; its vacuous condition tacitly acknowledging its own addiction to consumption, thus exposing its schizophrenic/fetishistic concern for the surficial appearance of this lifeless alien landscape.  Removed from the realm of architecture and aligned within the cycle of production and consumption of ‘goods’ the role of the architect becomes one of willing organizer and promoter of that very cycle. Many theorists, including Ed Soja, have picked up on David Harvey’s concise definition of this phenomenon:

“Capitalist development must negotiate a knife edge between preserving the values of past commitments made at a particular point in time, or devaluing them to open up fresh room for accumulation.  Capitalism perpetually strives, therefore, to create a social and physical landscape in its own image and requisite to its own needs at a particular point in time, only just as certainly to undermine, disrupt and even destroy that landscape at a later point in time.  The inner contradictions of capitalism are expressed in the restless formation and re-formation of geographical landscapes.  This is the tune to which the historical geography of capitalism must dance without cease.23


‘Contrived depthlessness’ as a motif is how Jameson has described the postmodern architectural condition.  This phenomenon of compulsive consumption, the fear of boredom, and the cult of joy, combined with the pop hedonism and its notion of architecture as both play and display are among the factors that have caused a serious confusion between self-realization and self-gratification [the orgasmic effect of degraded late modernity noted by R. Barthes and F. Jameson].

Here too, however, we must be careful about asserting that this is a new phenomenon, after all, the critique began with the historical caesura as theorized by Walter Benjamin in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which reveals the lack of status of the original in contemporary global culture.  Similarly, and as Rosalind Krauss points out, “authenticity empties out as a notion [of an original] as one approaches those mediums which are inherently multiple”–To ask for an original24 1994 LIFE Dream House would make no sense.  Implicit in Robert A.M. Stern’s 1994 Life Magazine Dream House is the idea of an ‘original’ i.e. a hand crafted and individualized, or at least customized creation for each potential consumer. In fact, the cover to this specific issue incorporates the possessive ‘Your Dream House’ implying singularity and individuation.  The task of your feature article in this case would be to portray the form-giver [Stern] as the maker of an ‘original LIFE 1994 American Dream House’ mold which dispenses multiple ‘originals’.  Of course, this is impossible if thought through in rational terms. Instead, this formal proposal is logically multiple and nonauratic [W. Benjamin] [structurally, conceptually, economically] it is a machine which makes an image–replica without an original. As Barthes says: “realism consists not in copying the real but in copying a (depicted) copy.  Through secondary mimesis [realism] copies what is already a copy.”25 Why cling to the protracted tyranny of the cult of originality which has absolutely no place among the world of replicas in our present day world.  Further implications, within an extended discourse on the copy, would suggest deployment of a language of abstraction [sign] and functionalism [index] over the picturesque image of salvation [icon].  Stern’s proposal, surprisingly, is highly Apollonian in character.  He is the God [according to one interpretation by Nietzsche] who wraps humanity in “the veil of Maya” protecting humankind from the harsh realities of an altogether frightening and pitiful existence.  Realizing this, we see the proposal as the opposite of a tenable solution for the myth and ritual of everyday life [as it is portrayed] and furthermore excludes ‘otherness’ by its radical and amplified Apollonianism.  Returning to Gropius’s initial quote regarding “The stark and frightening realities of our world … ” is actually a call for a Dionysian annihilation of the veil which opens the way for a direct and unmediated participation in the everyday life-sphere through the functionalist ergonomics of the Existenzminimum and by inference Le Corbusier’s recontextualization of dwelling clearly stated as a “machine a habiter”.

This supposed dream house is not a tenable model for a contemporary mode of living and it is certainly not a critique on the existing paradigm of the individual American dwelling. Its anguished sense of loss and alienation from architecture-in-itself as well as the sphere of everyday life is self-evident.  By acknowledging its own decadence, it dramatizes its own deep sense of crisis and utter lack of conviction.  Creating suburbia through the proliferation of the ‘dream house types’ offered in LIFE magazine would produce a landscape so utterly crazy that even Mr. Stern would be appalled by its effects.

Quite logically then, it would seem explicit from my argument that Mr. Stern’s dream house is an overt act of desecration against architecture.  It is a spurious version of architecture meant to pacify the marching morons who suffer from dwindling faith and a faltering life-impulse.  Therefore it “de-situates” architecture displacing it from its historical continuum rendering it atopic.  The simulation denies the honesty and integrity of life, of actual existence.  It portrays a steady-state world of permanence and order. Yet it is certainly not an order associated with architecture.  Architecture, redefined and portrayed in these terms, essentially wants nothing else to occur in its world let alone anything defined as spatial or architectural logic.  It presents a tableau, a wax museum, a diorama.  One thing Stern does not want to tell us about is change, how things come to be what they are and how they might ruin over time.  The collapse of time-horizons and the preoccupation with instantaneity have in part arisen through the contemporary emphasis in cultural production on events, spectacles, and images.  And most importantly, it is a versimilitudinal world creating a deep sense of estrangement, something like the final scene in 2001: a Space Odyssey, where we find ourselves inside the white room filled with surface replicas created by alien beings [portrayed as an elaborate simulation of everyday life gained from scanned television programs]:

He [Bowman] stopped beside the coffee table. On it sat a conventional Bell System vision-phone, complete with the local directory.  He bent down and picked up the volume with his clumsy,  gloved hands.

It bore, in the familiar type he had seen thousands of times, the name: Washington D.C.  Then he looked more closely; and for the first time, he had objective proof that, although all this might be real, he was not on earth.  He could read only the word [Washington]; the rest of the printing was a blur, as if it had been copied from a newspaper photograph.  He opened the book at random and rifled through the pages.  They were all blank sheets of crisp white material which was certainly not paper, though it looked very much like it.  He lifted the telephone receiver and pressed it against the plastic of his helmet.  If there had been a dialing sound he could have heard it through the conducting material.  But, as he had expected, there was only silence.

So–it was all a fake, though a fantastically careful one.  And it was clearly not intended to deceive but rather–he hoped–to reassure.26 [emphasis added]

The above scenario may sound like a humorous analogical stretch, as it is so highly fictionalized.  However, I maintain it is helpful in reconnecting to the discourse of the role of the copy in the post[M]odern which I see as being in stark contrast to the more analytic and reasoned temperament of the modernity of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  This tendency of representational carelessness and the destabilizing power of the ubiquitous image is absolutely consistent given the revisionist historical project.  The article’s persuasive rhetoric and overwrought use of synecdochical fragments triggers the desire response as it fetishizes the object itself propelling it into a vortex of libidinal and a-rationalistic temporal modalities.  Given the present critique of Stern’s project, I cite [1] the invented bucolic landscape of foliage which lacks any specific information that might inform us as to its botanical status [issue cover]; [2] non-functioning symbolic shutters p.88-89, the article states: “Modernism was the dogma when Stern started out, and his early work shared its clean lines and pared-down planes.  But Stern, and others, soon began busting up this cool austerity with post[M]odernism and its playful references to classical devices such as moldings, arches, and columns.”  His work had a self-conscious jokiness about it–…” p. 84.  Why make a point of Stern’s apostasy from the modern?  This is part of the revisionist tactic of apocalyptic crisis.  Certainly, we cannot expect his proposal to integrate or manifest any clear ideas regarding architecture’s project: the semantic and syntactic relationship of structure, circulation, and programmatic instability, and the spatial recording device as traced through history’s multiple constellations.  We recontextualists are reminded of the infamous Encyclopedie drawings of Diderot, himself a concrete product of French Modernity, which as philological investigations exhaustively classify and catalog the world [curiosity, youth].  In Stern’s version of the Odyssey, however, he has ‘supplied us’ with a thin version of our world or rather, the ‘likeness’ [taken in its most literal etymological sense], that of an approximated and disinterested post[M]odern world [amnesia, death].

But certainly this is a hoax of some sort, or perhaps an easily dismissble vision to be discharged through laughter.  Your article amounts to an elaborate masquerade: It is comparable to the ubiquitous infomercial [image bombardment], another insidious American phenomenon where snake oil salesmen [LIFE MAGAZINE] along with a highly touted expert [Stern] peddle free-flowing quantities of excitation to the oniomaniac masses; from car wax [Title: Amazing Discoveries], spray-on-hair products [Inventor : Ron Popiel], the Psychic Friends Network [Host: Dionne Warwick],  memory courses [Host Danny Bonaducci], and finally, the most recent and shocking incarnation which I viewed recently–the non-lethal personal protection device called ‘The Pulse Wave Myotron’ by the Arianne Foundation.  The infomercial The LIFE 1994 American Dream House: A House for All America must surely be in post-production already.  The commodity’s value [LIFE The 1994 American Dream House: A House for All America] is not based on the unmediated relation between a need and the object’s inherent qualities, rather the complex mechanism of desire is triggered through stimulating the complex network underlying the subjective, symbolic libidinal relationship to the consuming sublect27, which determines the relation of the subject to the object. The invisible producer as author has all but been erased through the process of the seductive message delivered through medium [McLuhan] as projected through Benjamin’s and Debold’s notion of mass consumption and ‘spectacle’.  In the post[M]odern, as David Harvey has pointed out “Refusing and actively ‘deconstructing’ all authoritative or supposedly immutable standards of aesthetic judgement, postmodernism can judge the spectacle only in terms of how spectacular it is.”28

There is yet another meaning here, ‘a third meaning’, which can be deciphered [operating at an entirely different level within the coded ruse of deception and reassurance signified within this work Deconstructed further, the 'choices' offered along the bottom of pages 84 and 85 [listed from left to right as Dutch Colonial, Craftsman, Classical, Tudor, and Spanish Colonial] are in fact not really choices at all; moreover, they are pan of a larger cultural apparatus of emptied markers which once stood for authentic architectural types, now, with only the superficial appearance of individual expression, they instead carry out their contract with a panicked conservative and xenophobic political landscape manifested by isolationist ethnocentric stereotyping. To illustrate the significance of this charge, clearly, from an(O)ther point of view these choices can be intuited as recurring versions of the same nightmare.  Offered up in their present state(s) they can be defined as a kind of symbolic crematoria where architecture-in-itself is both terminated and cremated by the ‘all cleansing primordial fire of revisionist post[M]odernism’ which sends architecture up through the chimney without a trace.  These are powerful images of both deception and reassurance, referring back to Arthur C. Clarke’s final comment on the alien forgery.  These symbolic crematoria appear [masked] as the myth of the picturesque American village of yesteryear.  The totality of the Volksgeist [people-spirit] as embodied through Goethe, Schiller and coopted by National Socialism which was a direct reaction and suppression to the advancing new aesthetic and political modernity represented in the French Revolution of 1789.  Its main anxiety was caused by the advancing internationalism of modernity.  Now, through the power of LIFE magazine, it has been delivered to America.  In a brilliant critique of revisionist post[M]odernist tendencies in architecture Habermas has stated:

Then they [Neoconservatives] ally themselves with the cult of the vernacular and the worship of the banal.  This ideology of the uncomplicated renounces the rational potential and the inherent aesthetic logic of cultural modernity.  Praising anonymous construction and an architecture without architects indicates the price that this vitalism become critical of the system is ready to pay, even if it has to mind another Volksgeist than the one whose glorification in its time supplemented the monumentalism of the Fuhrer’s architecture most admirably.29

Before rejecting this idea as simply outrageous, I remind the reader that the production of these amnesia machines is a bizarre recurrence in the cycle of model production and model destruction.  The deliverance of this form of amnesia is brought on by the revisionist30 will of the denier, who is intolerant of the obvious complexity of modernity and, in this specific case, delivers to [her]himself ‘the blow to the head’ which makes possible the symbolic longing for stability and pagan iconography. As in a Greek tragedy, the reader enjoys the privileged position of knowing the fate of the characters involved, and in this tragedy we again are privileged to ‘predict the future’ as Stern ‘s willful and total erasure of the event of western modernity itself lowers its mask to reveal the very face of the tyranny it attempts to combat.

This display calls into question both implicitly and explicitly the uselessness of architects in general.  Their portrayal as magicians that make small rooms look big and purveyors of neat tricks, as providers of an embarras du choix, is not only absurd, it is fundamentally incorrect.

The specifics of the house and accompanying text clearly display the above points.  For example citing from page 84 and 85: “A look for any neighborhood” presents a conception of architecture as a parade of fashion, a encyclopedic circus of ossified mutant styles lacking any rhyme or reason as referenced to any contemporary state[s] of reality.  Every cliche in the book of pseudo-architecture is deployed here; for example the “camouflaged garage” masked to look like some other aspect of the house [p 87].  Page 88 is devoted to “Plenty of panes” where the advertisement copy reads “Stern calls windows the eyes of a house and feels that too few of them make a façade seem anonymous… the wood muntins separating panes are only glued on but appear to be real.”  And finally, the entire discussion brought forth by Mr. Robert Coursey, on page 92, really exposes the sad condition of the entire proposal.  When the “overly detailed” house is stripped bare by her bachelors [developers], even, one can see that it was in fact an ordinary tract house tarted up in a shingle negligee without its doric morality.  Clearly, Mr. Stern’s fear of the abstract surface exemplifies his utter lack of spiritual strength.  His work misconceives plurality and stylistic promiscuity as freedom when in fact it is simply packaging.

Furthermore, on page 92, under the heading “The Finishing Touches: Getting Smart”, a narrative scenario is portrayed:

Looking from the kitchen into the great room, all is set for a party.  But something’s missing—you.  You ‘re stuck in traffic.  Not to worry; a smart new ’90s technology will save the evening.  You pick up the car phone and punch away.  A computer system preinstalled in the house walls turns on the lights, warms the canapés, heats your hair curlers and opens the garage.  Later the system will keep music playing, modulate temperatures and start the coffee.  Much later, if the doorbell rings as you’re falling asleep, turn on the TV: the system will show you who’s there.31

Compare the previous naively optimistic scenario of the techno-pastoral model with the following tragic description:

Baudrillard introduces diary sections on the district of Santa Barbara.  Suddenly Baudrillard begins to talk of the gardens and the houses in this area ‘the fake serenity is complete’ he remarks, in a section that could well have come from the object system of 1968: the proliferation of technical gadgetry inside the house, beneath it, around it,  like drips in an intensive care ward, the TV, stereo, and video which provide communication with the beyond, the car (or cars) that connect one up to that great shoppers’ funeral parlour, the supermarket, and lastly,  the wife and children, as glowing symptoms of success…everything here testifies to death having found its ideal home…the microwave, the waste disposal, the orgasmic elasticity of the carpets: this soft, resort-style civilization irresistibly evokes the end of the world.32

This constructed polarity between these two modalities of historical alignment tend to presuppose an irreconcilable divergence.  However, the disquieting and frenetic cultural crises of the post[M]odern appear to have had their wholesome influences on our efforts to recontextualize the modern.  Among these influences might be mentioned the tendency toward a more thoroughgoing self scrutiny and a commitment toward a comprehensive awareness of the interconnection between ideas and conditions that previously had not been suspected.  These inquiries ultimately question kind[s] of society[ies] we have inherited.  We must then ask, what kind of society[ies] do we want to live in.  How do we participate in constructing our own future and not throwing our hands in the air to an unnamed fate forced upon us.  Hal Foster has advanced this problem in his essay The Myth of Plurality, the massive breakdown in shared values and the concomitant splintering of ‘multiple truths’.  The Judaic notion of pluralism is linked to a concept of obligation to the self and the collective; this gives pluralism an ethical summons to which it must respond.  Plurality alone, as Nietzsche understood, leads to nihilism; if there is no G-d, everything is permitted.  Without higher ethical order[s], we only tolerate difference because we are equally indifferent to everything and everyone.

For architecture, a problem clearly stated, becomes not a call for a new architecture, but instead a rejuvenated connection within the ongoing project of cultural modernity.  Without this realization our situation as architects is a bit like the scenario of the act of rearranging the deck chairs as the Titanic sinks.  We need to develop vital strategies of resistance if we are to rise out of and move beyond this situation of such overwhelming gravity.  The recent malaise of the middle class is played against the atomistic and apolitical anger of the lower class.  This push and pull plays itself out in our politically volatile metropolis in such a way as to surface as wild eruption, such as the recent civil unrest in Los Angeles.  Problems are left unstated, kept unresolvable and are of such an incredible magnitude that answering or solving them are not even entertained.  It is with this attitude, recontextualized within multiple contemporary post[M]odern discourse(s), that architecture must proceed with a re[new]ed confidence in social advances, healthy moral growth, belief in an open universalism and abstraction, and finally, ideals.  As for the status of dwelling, we might recall Rimbaud’s “II faut etre absolument modeme” which has an appeal to this author’s particularly modern temperament as I have recently felt like a displaced [in both time and space] Jewish disciple of the Enlightenment.

It would be outside the intention and the current scope of this letter to propose how COA might make specific acts of architecture.  Now it may seem strange to critique phenomena which run at such different speeds: architecture, which aspires to universality and timelessness [modernity] and post[M]odernity which aspires to the accelerated collapse of the meta-narrative.  No culture, no civilization, especially one as pluralistic and elusive as ours, is capable of conceptually identifying itself.  This naming of the subject specimen [cultures] invites localized dissection and unconceals only glimpses of its constituent overall characteristics thus refusing rational categorization, as well as being notoriously charged with assertive ideologies of empowerment.  This naming is a way of terminating /overturning the reigning model/narrative thus exposing its own ‘will to overpower’ triggering the coroner’s report which stands as witness/executioner to the delivery of the autopsy.  However, seduced we become by ideas of historical ruptures, cyclical vs. linear time, eternal recurrence of epistemological breaks and the avant-garde, architecture must resist the temptation of their panicked schemes for radical schizophrenia.  Architecture-in-itself resides within another remarkably ‘unrealistic’ and protracted time sequence; remaining highly skeptical of Bradbury’s seismological data and instead steadfastly unfolds slowly across the centuries.  We might instantiate the open call for correcting narratives of amplified cosmopolitanism which distance themselves from the folks-village of yesteryear [boundary] and instead embrace the contemporary consequence of globalism [expansive] and the potential for more liberatory politic within the future de-colonized lifeworld of [re]enlightened modernity.

And finally, polemical sorties of this kind are also a form of negative recognition and, by a perverse effect, they can contribute to the success of that which they indignantly reject.  Fortunately, popular success does not often translate into intellectual and emotional credibility.

Eric Kahn

Back to October 1994 Newsletter