Click the book icon to navigate table of contents
swipe left & right
to navigate
Click the book icon to navigate
table of contents
Click here for
previous articles
Click here for
next articles
Scroll Down for
Feature article
LOADING
NEXT ARTICLE

THE LONGEST CATASTROPHE

WORDS BY Dan Schultz

When we talk about the future we are always measuring our words against the prospect of an imminent catastrophe, believing that catastrophe is a quantifiable narrative, that its solution is a series of discrete milestones, and that the future is a product of the here and now. Fourteen billion eyeballs stare at the horizon: “Is that it? Is that the end?” “No, it’s just another hole in the ozone”.

What we have failed to understand is that the catastrophe is here. It is everywhere. We are living in it and we are equal parts its cause and its effect. This prophetic catastrophe appears prodigious only in that it is the sum accumulation of a series of ongoing calamities; architecture being one element of the many in this long list.

This Russian doll of tiny architectural disasters is nested within the catastrophe of industrialisation; a somewhat counter-intuitive process by which overall civilisational complexity is increased through localised simplification. In the late 1700s, for example, the French military standardised its rifles thus shifting fabrication processes to produce parts rather than an entire product. In doing so, they transformed manufacturing from an open process based on flexible skills into a closed loop based on fixed routines. Later, the invention of the internal combustion engine provided a catalyst for major industrialisation. This, in turn, led to large scale economies producing institutions that had such economic, social, and political momentum they were accepted as the inevitable climax of cultural evolution.

Yet industrialisation is but one symptom of agri-logistics, an even older catastrophe that began in the fertile-crescent circa 9000 BC. As a pre-condition for industrialisation, agri-logistics brought together the technological breakthrough of Euclidean space, the division of labour, and organised militaristic control over large populations. It used these tools to create the ‘divisible field’ from which one could now exclude these turkeys from those turkeys, that wheat from this wheat, my property from your property.

The agri-logistic world we now inhabit, however, was only made possible by the catastrophe of language; the transition from Homo Erectus to Homo Sapiens. This ‘event’ – hypothesised by Terrance McKenna – began 100,000 years ago when our pre-human ancestors discovered Psilocybin Cubensis – magic mushrooms – as they migrated north across the African savannah. Nowadays we associate magic mushrooms with dance parties and rainy Sunday afternoons; small amounts of orally ingested psilocybin in primates, however, have been proven to improve visual acuity, decrease aggression, increase sexual arousal, and expand activity in the ‘language-forming region of the brain’, manifesting as involuntary, but syntactically structured, vocalisation. McKenna proposes that this automatic speech, in combination with simultaneous auditory and visual hallucination, was a mechanism in the emergence of language across a subset of the Homo Erectus population. The rest, as they say, is history.

Nevertheless, mushrooms and proto-human mouths might never have met if not for the cataclysmic collision of two rather large bodies in space and the resulting Cretaceous – Paleogene extinction event: the mass extinction of some three – quarters of plant and animal species on Earth — including all non-avian dinosaurs – over a geological instant, 66 million years ago. It marked the end of the Cretaceous period and with it the entire Mesozoic era, beginning the Cenozoic era that continues today and creating the conditions of possibility for the evolution of mammals from tiny forest-dwelling rodents at the bottom of the food chain to the most successful kingdom of animals on the planet.

But the Russian doll doesn’t stop there! The astronomical catastrophe that ended the global monopoly of the dinosaurs sits inside the strangest catastrophe of all: the infinitely unlikely evolution of the Eukaryote cell from the Prokaryote cell 3 billion years ago. The Prokaryote cell dominated the surface of the earth for 1.4 billion years. During this time they were so successful at metabolizing inorganic compounds into oxygen and carbon dioxide that they produced the atmosphere that we have today which was, for them, a disaster. Having poisoned their environment, they retreated deep into the warm, internal spaces of scant surviving organisms, the Eukaryotes. These climate vandals became the Mitochondria that still shelter inside our bodies today from the environmental disaster they created over 3 billion years ago. And from their view inside our cells they bear witness to the beginning of the latest atmospheric catastrophe: anthropogenic climate change.

This is architecture. It is embedded within a series of concentric catastrophes that give the world its timing, its qualities, and its disposition. Each catastrophe is an ‘event’ that radically modifies the possible, opening up previously inconceivable futures and halting the inevitable in its tracks. These world destroying catastrophes alter the body politic and re-write their own DNA as everything tumbles along with it, radically transforming the agency of each contestant stuck to its surface. Scrambled by the enormity of this ambient destruction, anxiety has become our new measuring stick of morality and catastrophe its compass: Did you offset that flight to Singapore? Did you fix that dripping tap? Are you as anxious about it as I am?

 

Architecture is over regulated, financially constrained and politically marginalised and all we can do is retreat further into environmental functionalism and historical narratives. A slave to the fear of our imminent death, we busy ourselves with everyday anxieties – readymade issues of apparent significance: arguing over the relative benefits of blue vs green Astroturf, or solving problems peg by peg as if incremental gains will one-day sum to infinity.

Slavoj Zizek calls these behaviours ‘pseudo-activities’. Pseudo-activities are ‘inactivities’. They are the most pervasive form of action in a culture of anxiety precisely because they are inactive: like a drug, the more we do them the less effect they have and before long – like junkies – we are doing all sorts of absurd things just to feel normal, like trying to draw a connection between magic mushrooms and building codes.

So, if architecture is already dead, what might be its future? Not so much for the world which has already moved on without it but for us, the architects? Do we maintain the current course? Perusing architecture as an undead corpse disguised by a veil of seemingly vital and possibly redemptive pseudo-activity that, while providing us with daily purpose, only serves to distract us from our rotting bride. Or do we face the music?

Do we name our anxiety rather than enjoy it? And doing so bring our zombie into the light where she might die a proper death.

Lacan makes the claim that our fear of death is not exactly a fear of death itself but the desire to die on our own terms. This is what I propose for the future of architecture: To die on its own terms. This is not really about endings, but as the wave of unfolding catastrophes that has carried us from one climate disaster to the next across 3 billion years; it is about new beginnings, radical alterity, or in the words of Derrida, “the arrival of the strange stranger.”

While ‘events’ might be easy to identify, it is important to note two of their less obvious characteristics:

  • Each is the result of a perfect coming together of any number of complex and mutually exclusive sub-events – Music, LSD, San Francisco, war and ecological disaster (in the case of ‘free love’), photography, electromagnetism, Riemann space, and Schrodinger (in the case of quantum mechanics).
  • In no case is culture transformed to the nature of the event itself but rather into futures which are entirely unpredictable, unknowable and mysterious: The ‘free love’ movement did not free up sex, but produced new kinds of sexual governance, just as quantum mechanics did not produce a world in which every cat is both dead and alive.

So, I propose that we seize this moment; that we name, reveal, objectify and empower the death of architecture, and in doing so transform it from cultural nonevent to cataclysmic catastrophe. I propose that the absence of architecture is its best chance at resurrection. Just as the things that we desire hold a power over us precisely because they are not there, its absence will pervade our subjectivity in many ways, both predictable and unpredictable. I propose that architecture becomes the Messiah-to-return, its power residing in the fact that it never will. I propose that as architects we put down our pencils, board up the windows, lock the doors and exit through the gift shop. I propose an exodus.

In the same way, the exodus is not intent on ending architecture but empowering it. It is an act of love. Its success is premised on a belief that cultural events have more significance for architecture than building and software technologies; that cultural events are at the very heart of innovation; that architecture is not about progressively solving its problems; that architecture is an excess rather than a remainder; that culture is a crab on acid.

It is often fervent participation in what you love that is the very thing that destroys it, and like the great lovers of the 19th century who venerated suicide, as in ‘The Sorrows of a Young Werther’ by Goethe, the most poignant thing to do might be to die. Nevertheless, I hope I have persuaded you that this is not nihilism. Perhaps there are real actions other than an exodus. That would be nice.

I guess, what I am trying to say, is that within whatever it is you do, if you cannot make a stand, not just for something, but for the thing itself, then you should stop doing it; to continue only defers the ‘event’, thus diminishing the chance for those fleeting but catastrophic moments of radical change that give our lives meaning.