22 September 2008

The Magick Bullet

This is connected to the notion of utopia and the perfect form.

The magick bullet is the one perfect solution that is going to make everything better. An idea that is in many ways part and parcel of utopian idealism, implicit in the hubris to assume that your solution will in fact succeed where others have failed and will make the world a better place. Such is hubris well spent, normally, but it is hubris nonetheless. Particularly because most such ideations get fixated on one solution to one problem or one set of solutions to one set of problems, on the assumption that fixing that will cause everything else to fall conveniently into place.

Thus we are first presented with Plato's Republic, ruled by carefully schooled philosopher kings, who are more equal than others, and who will bring the world to a grandeur akin to Hesiod's Golden Age. And from there we progress through the Western tradition (I confess not having enough knowledge on other traditions to speak meaningfully about them) in a series of what are essentially debates on who is fit to rule and why, each manifest in material form and represented in architectural and urban forms. Of course, the argument about who is fit to rule in this context is not one of who is the wisest, for the scholars long ago realized that wisdom has many faces. It is not a matter of how much wisdom, but rather whose wisdom and correct and contains the greater truths that will lead the world toward perfection.

Although it is easy to find the historical record of this, bringing it closer to the modern time makes it more difficult to see who is propounding what. And there is a reason for that.

Somewhere in the evolution of modernism and its children we made the shift from which ideas and ideals, in their realization, will provide the magick incantation that will make the world a better place. Now we instead are caught up in which devices and forms will provide this for us. Certainly the first glimmer of this can be seen in things like Ebenzer Howard's Garden cities, but it is much more evident in the new urbanism. In the new urbanism, it is not a set of ideals that make the place a good place, but the correctness of its form. The new urbanism builds infrastructures for living. And, as people are finding, just because it is built to look like the perfect place ...

So we hunt for forms that will somehow allow us to transcend to a better world, not only in highly planned urban forms, but also in architectures that attempt to be the voice of the new, somehow invoking deep insights in the masses, leading to a realization of an elightened populace through expanded consciousness. At least, I can think of no other motivation for such experimentation beyond ego. Not that much of it isn't beautiful to behold. But we tend not to hear as much about functionally aesthetic as we do pure aesthetic. We hear much more about Frank Gehry's latest melted contribution than we do about things like the ACROS building in Fukuoka. Unless, of course, we are reading books by Ken Yeang and studying sustainable design.

Although sustainable design fits this mould of forms and technologies as magick bullets. Who knows, it may even validate the idea that good forms make good people and all this bickering about who's ideals were right are an antiquated way to try to make things better. It is also a nice segue into the other aspect of the topic: technology and devices as solutions.

Much architecture and urban form in the modern age is built around the idea that certain technologies will automatically make things better. Certainly an inarguably visible one is the automobile and the idea of personal transport. If everyone is free to move where they will, as they will, the world will be a better place. The problem, of course, is that the resources of the world are not sufficient to support everyone in the world having a car, except maybe as a place to live, There is just not enough room to put everyone on the roads. Besides, where would they go where we to succeed?

The problem with expecting technologies and devices to move us toward utopia (barring being able to find it on a map and driving there) is two fold:Oone is that the forms we devleop begin to become more focused on accomodating that device or technology and less on human needs. The other is the surrendering of agency to that technology to allow it to assist us, even though it is an agency that the technology does not possess. In other worlds we expect something an inanimate object to actively assume the role of caring for us. This is where the magick bullet comes into the picture.

The point of the magick bullet is that even though it is supposed to be an inanimte object, technology, or concept, devoid of agency, it is nonethelss infused with a divine agency (thus the magick bit) which allows it to function in a way that goes far beyond its expected parameters and create some effect, hopefully for the better.

In many ways it is taking the idea of unintended consequences and trying valiantly to ascribe them to something by laying claim to an unkonw agency, and then extending that to the assumption that there is yet more agency to be discovered if we can just purify our bullet and find its true form.

I would hope that for some of you, in the context of the discussion, the notion of "purify" is cause for a momentary discomfort. It should be. The world is a messy place, and works much better when allowed to stay that way.

Beause of this shift from representation of ideals as forms to the presentation of the ideal device or technology in the way on which we build our structure and urban forms we have created a model for both architecture and urban form that are no longer about place. They are no longer about capturing our ideals both projective and in the historical trappings of our culture. Rather they are about representing the machine which constructed them. The putatively post-modern of today (and whatever we chose to name what has come after it) is not so much about the destruction of form as it is about representing the limits of technology. Put simply: look what I can do with my toys.

Certainly this has happened across history, just look at cathedrals. The difference is that prior forms were grounded in cultural context, a context of human society, not of machine. The beginning of this loss of the human component is as old as the Industrial Revolution, though it did not really gain strength until the height of modernism, where the worship of clean and crisp efficiency stripped away the old cultural trappings, which now only return in ironic, rather than iconic, forms.

When we find people competing to design the largest, tallest, or most abstract building yet to grace the skyline of Dubia, or of Mumbai, we see forms not generated for people, but to praise the machine. In other words, we have not escaped modernism, only purified it (there's that word again) and abstracted it, so it is an empty vessel that no longer contains a assumption of the same clean efficiencies with.

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