Architecture remains the most tangible way of constructing the social. Yet, the system we call “architecture” is not reducible to the physical, the tactile, the obvious. In the history of avant-garde architecture, immateriality and intangibility carried a promise of liberation, of escape from the heaviness of building, from completion, from gravity or reality. A new contemporary architecture would be built out of pure knowledge—drafted on paper as an idea to be shared, never bogged down by the technicalities of constructing in dimensional space, or even any spatial paradigm altogether. The history of the avant-garde can’t—as Beatriz Colomina has pointed out—be separated from its engagement with media and communication. Building would move at the speed of thought and spirit, superseding calculation, regulation, codes, and existing infrastructure.
Architects today do not conceptualize their work in such radical terms. Is it because they are too busy stalking clients in China and the Gulf? Maybe. But at the same time, architects today also have to contend with the fact that other immaterial, intangible forces have subordinated much of the spatial thinking that historically situated architecture in relation to the building and planning of spaces and cities. As Keller Easterling has written in a previous essay, “it is as if architecture, as customarily defined, cannot access some of the most important levers of explicit, measurable spatial change, leaving control of them largely to the financial industries.”
But what are these levers? Or for that matter, how has architecture always given form to the immaterial or intangible spatial effects in communication pathways, or war, rubble, memory, tourism, and cultural capital? Hasn’t architecture always provided a way of reading ethical transgressions in reverse, of giving them form, for better or for worse? How has physical architecture always been a symptom of ideology? How has it always been a communications infrastructure?
How, then, can we contextualize more recent advances in registering and distributing space, in order to place them back into the history of architecture? Just look at how something like Airbnb abstracts and dissolves, even fiscalizes, core notions such as what constitutes a home. And it presents this as data before an economy of sharing and selling that takes place above and beyond architectural intervention. In the cities where Airbnb is being used most heavily, it is planning urban space, but without urban planners. Except maybe someone like Molly Turner, Airbnb's new director of public policy, who is an urban planner, and describes Airbnb as part of a “third wave of tech … taking all of the connectivity and transactions that are occurring online and bringing them back offline into the real world.”
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