Trevor Boddy

Architecture critic and historian

Interview in Ouro Preto, Brazil, November 1994

Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss & Ivan Kucina 
 
 
 
 


 

- One of my interests is in a kind of an indirect way by which you could do criticism. There is a kind of Western tradition of magazines and newspapers which may not exist in other parts of the world. It doesn't exist here. Here in Brazil there is no architecture critic for Belo Horizonte. You know, some newspaper. So you do it by other ways. When I was in Moscow there was a guy called Slava Glazishev who is quite an interesting character. He has this whole problem. He is a critic and a very good one, very accute, very perceptive, very on top of the Western Soviet Architecture, even ten years ago. He said that the whole challenge for the architectural critic in Eastern Europe was to find other indirect means by which you could do architectural criticism. His means was by rewriting history books. So writing abbreviations as his you could change the lives. He would go back and then say, 'This is bullshit', 'This is what really happened.' Then if you take this line of traditional design it comes to this moment and due to it does this and this. So he perseveres in talking about the situation in the 20's, 30's and 40's and talking about Russia today. He said 'I could write' because books are freer than magazines and journals. When I was there in 1988 there was no architecture critic. There were some really small, very poorly read intellectual magazines that had some commentary on architecture. He thought he had to invent new ways of getting the message out. Simultaneously there were some really interesting people in Hungary I have met last year who do architectural criticism by TV. They by-pass the print medium entirely. It is very Marshal McLuhan, who is from my city, Edmonton in Canada. Very Marshal McLuhan-kind of criticism the way they do electronic criticism. Because if it was in print and was a round longer they would have run into trouble. Because it was television and people are just odd on television so, 'Don't get excited Mr. Architect, don't worry about this criticism, it's just television.'

- Is there any effect to...

- That is what I can't tell. I mean I have never lived in Hungary and I don't know. Haven't done anything about any Hungarian architects. All I know, for example, is that they were in Chicago in 1992 at UIA Conference. They were a complete crew: the sound man, a video man, a producer and a writer. Four people paid to come to interview people like me. I was interviewed for the show in Budapest. They wanted a Western critic to talk for a while. It is very strange, because I thought television is the last place you could ever get architecture criticism. I think it is very crucial that we don't get caught in a kind of early 20th century British or American model of what criticism is. I mean, why not? Why wouldn't we have architecture criticism in a song, popular song? Or not have it on my computer databases? You could log in. There is now a virtual computer journal of criticism. On computer! You could log in and what they do is that people who do prints of architectural press, very good architectural book publishers in New York, now have an electronic version because they realized that there is no criticism. So what they do is get people like me so they asked me to put an article in the virtual library. And then you ask for comments. OK? It's amazing! It is like bees! The cyber-space bees are finding you on! BBBeeeeeaaazzzzzzyyyyyyyoooomm! They come down and they all also do have 50 comments on your article from all over the world. From Finland, you don't know where. You have no knowledge of where am I coming from. So that's kind of virtual computer journal of architecture. I think that's actually a very interesting possibility. You could addict places like Eastern Europe that haven't a conventional tradition of criticism a la France, a la Italy or a la England or... you would probably build one much better through a virtual journal. The way things are going now it is getting easier and easier to put images in it. Not just words. You put images in and video. You have a low resolution video, so I can take some of my interview of Joao Diniz of Belo Horizonte, I could put it out into a video equivalent, you could log in in Belgrade and you have an interview of Joao Diniz, you could have plans of six projects. If you'd like them you could save them, and you could have working drawings, you could have a detail, and you could save them on a file in Belgrade. So you will have the architect, you could have my criticism, in five seconds. It's a very interesting possibility for criticism, I think. 

- Is this a special network or...

- It is already there. You just need to know where to go. It is just starting some months ago. This is the future. You see what I mean? With the Internet, when everybody is on the Internet, all is coming very quickly. In one year it has been an enormous difference in Northern America. Right now it is free. This is the wonderful anarchy happening. I could talk to you, on line, directly, without charge on either side. Once we are in the system it doesn't matter if it's Belgrade of if it's Oakland or New Zealand or Ottawa. You are in the same virtual space. 
 


 

- Could you find any connection between virtual space and...

- It is an interesting thing about virtual space of icon images, the Iconostas, the Icon Wall. The idea of taking the Icon off the wall and taking it into the town and at the end of procession putting it back. It is a kind of virtual memory. It is a countable memory. It is a very interesting kind of system. And of course I don't know much about it but it sounds very, very interesting. But you know of Icon's both senses. It's a double Icon. The double Icon is the Icon of the orthodox church, the Iconostas, the other Icon is the Macintosh Computer Icon. You know, double click on your Icon and this will bring down the image. So what I think is interesting is that Serbia is in an interesting position that goes from Icon to Icon, with nothing in between. Why do you need to have a newspaper criticism? Why do you need to have the magazines? Why don't you go from Icon to Icon? In other words from a very traditional image culture to the electronic image culture. (Es posible sopa de galigna...Molto bem. Y um cerveja mais perfavor)...

- How could E-mail and all kinds of virtual systems, actually very limited by their own rules, affect appearances of...

- One writer that everybody is looking at again, we have not looked at this writer for ten or twenty years, we are looking again to Marshal McLuhan. Marshal McLuhan is extremely important. We couldn't realize that at the time. He is the first POP intellectual. He was a TV intellectual. Everybody in the world knew MM. 

In the Woody Allen movie Annie Hall, if you remember when they are waiting for the movie and there is an obnoxious, pseudo-intellectual bullshiter in the line talking how this film is like the ideas of MM, and then there is the real MM, this is the actual him, the actual guy. He says: 'I just happen to be MM and you don't know what the fuck you're talking about.' This is a wonderful moment because it is a kind of a meta-moment. It is like a Brutal Postmodernism in a moment when MM, playing himself, tells someone that he completely misunderstands his theory. So MM is now coming again because he was hit by academics because he was too popular. 
 


 

Because, on television they talked about MM. Also Time magazine and Life magazine talked about MM. So therefore, by definition, anyone who has talked about it has to be stupid. It is a kind of conservative academical response, 'If it is popular it has to be bad', 'If it is obscure it has to be good.' So MM fall out of favor. MM is from my city Edmonton in Canada, in the West of Canada, in the pampas of Canada, in the Belo Horizonte of Canada. This place is extremely far away from everywhere. Latitude 53 North. Very cold. The end of the world. There is no more cities. From my city to the North Pole there is nothing. It is like Siberia. And MM grew up in this city, and his interest in media in magazines, radio, later television etc. came out of being not in the center, not in the metropolis, but at the edge. You don't understand power in the center because you are completely in it. At the edge you could have really understood that. And I think that is a kind of advantage that Edmonton in Canada and Belgrade have. So MM growing up is inevitable. It's a place that was completely inhabited by cultural consumers, not cultural producers. Magazines, films, radio, music, art, everything came from elsewhere. There is no possibility of original cultural production. And he said that this situation was the perfect place to understand the power, the 'biases', the 'bias of media'. 

In other words, how a particular means of transmission of information changes how you understand it. So I think this the very interesting idea, we are almost in a same sort of situation. I think, probably those places where it's very hard to get on the Internet those are probably the best places which would have the best knowledge of the true nature in the Net. In North America it's just shopping malls, everywhere in the Net. The corporations have just discovered the Net. You can buy furniture from the Net. You can get sex from the Net. You log in, describe the kind of girl you want, and she will be at your door in two hours. All done by virtual Internet. Real girl! You enter your credit card number - American Express, Visa, MasterCard, Boom, 'Card Return', Boom, OK? Two hours later she is at your door. You've got a profile: black, 22, over 1.5 m, whatever. Whatever you want. So we didn't completely develop it. The edges of the Internet will be very interesting places. There is a magazine that you should know, called Wired from San Francisco. The guru of this magazine is MM. For every issue they have a different quotation from MM. It is the magazine of cyber-space, cyber culture. It is looking not so much what software is or hardware is, it's boring. That's for jerk-offs, young guys with pimples. Who cares about that? This is the incredible journal because they are talking about the computer culture. The golden culture that is emerging because of computers, CD-ROM, Internet and so on. It's a very smart journal and a kind of commercial journal at the same time. And this is the most popular magazine in North America in the last five years. It has gone from nothing to 200,000 copies every issue. And it is very good. Because they are very good about issues like freedom on the Internet. There is a very interesting issue about "Right now it's free!". Corporations want now to take over the Internet and charge you. So if I took your text for example, if I read an article in your journal and you want to send me the edits or the text even in your language, in Serbian, by the Net, it would be very easy, Boom! But there will be a kind of time when corporations would want to take a fee from doing that because that's the anarchy. They can understand that telephone is being so expensive and fax, and post etc. How it is possible that information can leak around the planet for free? This is very disturbing. 

- The question is who is controlling...

- Exactly! This is the future of the Internet. Corporations want to control it in a very big way. They are fighting. There is the computer anarchy. The Electronic Freedom Foundation takes some taxes. It is a sort of anarchist ultimatum to the corporations. They are using legal means. They are taking money. They are fighting in the courts to preserve the freedom of the Internet so it would not turn to the telephone system which is private and makes incredible profits. It is a very interesting moment in political struggle within cyber culture. We don't know where it will go. If the corporations come in at this moment then it will become completely incorporated. It will not be that kind of anarchical tool it has become now. It is quite amazing! Wired magazine published a list of the most used databases. Of the Top Ten five have to do with sex, three have to do with mass serial killers and two had to do with shopping. All databases about technical subjects are way, way down. Some people are worried about this. I think it's wonderful. Let people log onto what they want to. If they want to talk about S/M sex so it is a perfect erotic form for the age of AIDS...

Do you know the idea called MUD? Multiple User Dungeon. It comes from the fantasy games, like Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings that was played all over the world. Multiple users at the same time. So you would have a person in France, a person in Zimbabwe, a person in Rio, all playing the same game. This has evolved now not just to games but to any simultaneous cyber space gathering. If we were having this conversation on cyberspace instead on the tape recorder it would be called a MUD, Multiple User Dungeon. We are all in the same prison together. MUDs are very interesting. This worries the people, the good fathers, the Christian fathers that look over if that has been used for sex and so on. That this is a misuse of cyberspace. I don't know I am enough of the anarchist, I think it is the best thing. Why not? Why restrict it? What is scaring me is that two of them are shopping services. They would have five thousand pages of electronic illustrations so you could find the perfect thing you want, 'hard-return, credit card and you you've got it'. That's scary. That's the part I don't like. But it's kind of a cyber-sex sickness. There is a very interesting phrase called Tele-Dildonic. Dildo is a plastic penis. Tele, like telecommunication. Tele-dildo. Tele meets plastic penis. Tele-dildonics is the state of the art of virtual sex, of virtual cyber-space sex. This whole realm of virtual cybersex is very, very 'natural' in it's development. Who would ever have predicted when you got Internet going, one of the key uses would be for the erotic pleasure of people who are too afraid and too limited by viruses (...) other is that they could be erotically free to do anything they want in real time with other people. It is a fantasy, you could do what ever you want. You could do any perversion you want. And it's kind of safe, but it's called also fantasy. MM talks about the technology with its completely unexpected effects. There are things you could predict that will happen but there is also a completely unpredicted effect. I think we are into that sort of period. The unpredicted effect of Computer Aided Design, CAD, is that architects simultaneously and around the world are now interested in the organic and the amorphous form. This is very interesting. Now, when the computer first came in we all worried that everybody will make completely calm, wax-like structures completely without soul. What's happening is that the tool allows you, empowers you, gives you ability to describe almost every form possible. And there is a very interesting thing if you talk about the building industry. If you are a contractor and you have to - with a survey instrument - lay out five or six different points and form the wall for some parking structure, if you have to make all these points and settle all those things, you don't really care if it is straight or circular. It is 5% more cost if it is circular then if it is straight. So now I think that the major resistance to true architecture was our drawing instruments. The parallel rule was to make the rectangular grid for the high modernists. Then the drafting machine proposes any possibility of 60, 45, 30 degrees so you could do reverses and flips. Certain things were very easy so you have all these artisans of the 60s and 70s with facets of 45 degree angles and so on. Now you can describe any kind of amorphous form or curve. The effort the computer takes - like 40 nanoseconds more to calculate this complex form then it would to do a box. It is now a non-issue. If architects want to do amorphous form they can. Everybody from Zaha Hadid to you-name-it are now doing it on the computer. I don't know about you but in architecture school they told me that most building materials like steel, or wood, are from linear processes, straight pieces. You cut them. And then you assemble straight pieces to make boxes. This was the ideology we've got. Well certainly that is not today so important. There is a possibility for other kind of form which is an unpredicted effect of the technology of CAD. We predicted ten years ago when I was a student when we first used computers that they will make very boring repetitive structures. In fact it is making Vitra Museum by Zaha Hadid, it is making Daniel Liebeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin. It is making Stansted Airport and so on. It is doing exactly something different than what we thought and I think this is where architects in general have to get off their asses and confront the new technology. Because the lot of us were stuck in the solemnity of the 19th century. You know we want to be painters, we want to be pretty, we want to be bohemians, we want to make creative acts, and so on. And meanwhile the world is passing us by. The world doesn't give a shit. And if we want to play this game that we are suffering artists that we have tuberculosis and that we are dying in some garret in Paris and we need someone to take care of us, no one's gonna care. No one's gonna care! 

Here is another unpredicted effect of technology. All these software packages that are coming out now are amazingly architectonic. Windows! What is a window? Window is a part of the building. What is the visual metaphor that they use: windows. Using an architectonic metaphor is a basic premise of the software. In a lot of databases, a lot of complex programs, you log in, you click on the architectural representation, you use the rooms, there is a picture of the room, you click on the picture. There is a spatial organization of parallel keys of information. And the metaphor they use is architecture, because architecture is the most complex information system that most people know, whether they are architects or non-architects.

Architecture and urbanism forces are now present in cyberspace. Because people have a bias towards architectural representation and urban representation of the ideas. If you're trying to do an accounting package, if you're trying to do your taxes on the computer they use architectural means to represent. It is like a big building, then you go to the front door where you will be at the reception and after reception you go down the hall to the accounting department and they show you icons on the image on the screen so that you could remember where you are. The worst thing about software is that you don't know where you are. You have no idea. Some people have a kind of precise knowledge, I haven't. I am like a user, completely confused. I have to click five times to figure out where I am.

- Using and entering...

- Exactly! Enter is the architectonic phrase. That's the basis of the room communication. And there are partitions, screeens, mirrors etc. So it's very, very interesting. Architecture is recreating itself in cyberspace in a very interesting way. Who would have predicted it? Everybody thought ten years ago that computers will be the end of architecture. You and I would be replaced by a machine that would be much better then us. We know all the technical specifications, we would enter the best proportional aesthetics system of any culture and so on and that would replace what we do. Ironically, the system is acting the opposite. Architecture has never had the presence that it has now in the kind of virtual realm. And all that because we have, because we lived in these spaces with our own software. We have been coded. We have been programed with cities and buildings. Every human being is who lives in a city or a town. We have this with us. This enormous and powerfull bias software writers now exploit when they try to let you find your way. It is like a map or a town plan. 
 


 

- What is the relation between the global computer system and...

- MM is very good on this as well. Because he argues that technology is inherently localist and decentralist. If you look at the fall of the Soviet Union, more than anything else it was destroyed by fax and photocopies. Because you could not maintain the Stalinist lie in the period of photocopies and fax and computers. The Soviets realized this. They kept out personal computers as long as they could because they realized that by decentralizing information you decentralize power. With no central computer at University of Moscow to control things it would really vent out in another places. So technology is actually amazingly decentralizing. The whole idea of personal computers is this. So it's a threat to existing powers. And this is the struggle that we talked about earlier, the struggle for the Net. Struggle for the Internet is between the anarchist decentralist who says 'I want it, I want it free, don't touch it' versus the corporate interest which wants to centralize it, charge money and make sure only people with money could use it. It is a virtual war going on. The Cold War is the first virtual war. This whole period of Postmodernism begins with the Cold War because it's a symbolic war, it's not real. It's like 'I have this symbol, I send it to you, then you send back the Berlin Wall, and I send back whatever, Sputnik comes back as a symbol and I send back Mercury. It's all within the virtual war. Nothing happened. Not one person was killed. Not one! But it took billions of dollars and cost people having nightmares through the 30 years. So the beggining of Postmodernism is the Cold War. There are some subjects which are by definition Postmodern: Cold War, Madonna, Cyberspace.