When architects were men

House for a standard georgian frontage

Towards a Notion of Hypology.

 Without doubt this is a tortuous neologism of the kind, which marks the presence of an aspirant technical class. It is one of those terms which although completely meaningless bullies meaning out of a vacuum of ignorance and hyperbole. It is truly a term of myopic desperation but it serves at least one good purpose. By default it suggests a state of transcendence if only by strained reference and by a remorseless butchery of otherwise independently functioning phonemes. This at least is important because the conditions of an operating ideological fantasy, a state of what one might call a ‘hyper-real’ consciousness has for many writers, not least for Baudrillard, characterised the nature of consciousness at the end of the twentieth century.

 The key fragment is the phoneme ‘hyper’. It is to this fragment that the fantastic dimension of a hyper real consciousness is attached. What is hyper is paranoid in this sense, that it requires an all consuming self-reflexiveness, making all things simultaneously present to consciousness each taking an exaggerated role. What is hyper is also neurotic in the sense of a magnified or inflated over attentiveness. Hypology then might mean an over stimulated state, a ‘going beyond’ in the sense which Baudrillard sketched out with a term ‘potlatch’, borrowed from cultural anthropologist Marcel Mauss; a kind of remorseless competitive bidding-up.

 Such a ‘going beyond’ then might well be described as a transcendence but one in which the matter of consciousness is structured from the ordinariness of the everyday. What is hyper might then be a sort of over stimulated transcendence but one, which is firmly rooted in the familiar, a magnified familiarity, a kind of soap-opera everydayness.

This is precisely the condition of the much-vaunted hyperspace. The web experience is firstly an innocuous and inoffensive experience raised to the level of spectacle though its association with a mythicised technical medium, precisely a massaged medium in Marshal Macluhan’s sense: a sort of Sears catalogue for the Saturn five or the F1-17. What makes it hyper is that it promises an impossible totality, like Italo Calvino’s library of everything in which all things human both produced and expected are recorded. Both paranoid in so far as it assumes a totality and neurotic in its inclusion of excessive detail, hyperspace is palpably transcendent. It is a sign of a promised totality in which everything is simultaneously present.

The key term here is simultaneous. It is a dramatic feature of late capitalist communications systems that they exacerbate a phenomenon first noticed at the turn of the century with the advent of a popular press. Simultaneity is the palpable experience of a compressed geography; an experience in which one is aware of the simultaneous occurrence of events situated in distant locations. Television and most especially live television makes this phenomenon dramatically present. Whilst at one time the reporting of distant events was always delayed by the speed of communications -it took two weeks for the London Times to receive reports of the Bore War for example- today reporting such events occurs instantaneously. At this point, a global spatiality at least conceptually possible and implies a paranoid and neurotic transcendence into a global or hyper spatiality. If it is now possible to think globally in terms of simultaneous events, planning globally becomes a competitive necessity.

Paul Virilio, probably the only critical urbanist to speculate on the conditions of communications speeds as the primary paradigm of city form, extends this thinking. He argues that the shape of the city relies upon its strategies for defense rather that upon its strategies for the spatialisation of commercial activity. The contemporary situation, he argues, which has seen the creation of the spread city and most particularly the assimilation of major cities into extended metropolitan fields known colloquially as megalopoli, result directly from the obviation of urban defense against external attack by the latency of the four minuet nuclear strike. If destruction is instantaneous and total, defense is irrelevant.

Cities, once a kind of thickening of human activity and cultural production traditionally resisted easy penetration at the perimeter. Today they attempt to facilitate increasingly fluid connections between fields of urban concentration. The edges of these fields are indistinct and time distances between them are increasingly reduced by the increasing speed of inter-metropolitan communications. The freeway is the key adjunct to the modern perimeterless metropolitan field. It subtends a line of communication and extension between concentrated urban fields facilitating their coalescence. The New York, Philadelphia, Washington megapole is the end game of all coalescing urban field concentrations from the perspective of the Virilio model. The freeway is the line of transcendence along which the consequences of a paranoid and neurotic urban idea can flow. The hyper-city is the globalised city: paranoid because it requires that global connections be established and neurotic because it demands that all affects of the contemporary city are simultaneously and instantaneously available.

A web space, what is known colloquially as ‘hyperspace’, is now a little more decipherable. It becomes the icon of this paranoid/neurotic transcendence of the hyperological. It is the image of the globalized urban spread, the hyper-city of a variegated but continuous urban field in which all is globally connected and simultaneously available.

Some signs of this paranoid/neurotic transcendence, this hypology, already exist. The projects of two radical Italian architectural groups of the late sixties, Archizoom and Superstudio projected the end game of a paranoid/neurotic extension of the city as continuous building. Their projects extemporize a fragment of the hyper-city displaying its key features which are:-

1. the continuous and extendible floor plate

2. the incorporation of existing structures, particularly building which are seen to have some enduring value, within a single containing volume.

3. the shift from a series of cellular volumes to a single containing volume. This is most evident in the use of ‘black-box’ design.

Black box architecture is the containment of the architectural guts of a building within a continuous perimeter container. Usually constructed from glass they are usually rain-screen skins inside which a separate building is constructed. The resulting void between the perimeter skin and the architectural guts is used as atrium space.

4. the use of topography and landscape as the primary spatial paradigm.

Although these projects are both speculative and critical essays in a distopian architecture, an architecture which projects the consequence of analysis in a negative rather than a positive way, they extend what these groups took to be a negative tendency within the corporate architecture of the late sixties to a possible conclusion, a conclusion which can no longer be dismissed as irrelevant speculation since they are strangely resonant of emerging tendencies in current architectural practice.

There are signs, most particularly in the areas of commercial retail and leisure that aspects of these hypological visions are now being explored. Certain developments at the theoretical limits of architectural practice have recently come together to facilitate this. Firstly the wider acceptance of the ideas of Bernard Tschumi, most specifically concerning the reappraisal of an exclusive modernist programmatics, is of primary importance. Tschumi’s investigations into what is widely referred to as ‘cross-programming’, the juxtaposition of otherwise exclusive and antithetical programmes -sky diving in the elevator shaft, roller-skating in the Laundromat- provoked not only a reinvigorated interest in programme, per se, but the idea that distinct programmes might be juxtaposed in the same space rather than exclusively preserved in a cellular arrangement. The notion of a broad floor plate which contained different programmatic types without separation now became possible for the first time.

Speculation concerning an architecture which might contain this kind of programmatics has lead to a number of developments which extend the floor slab as a deep plan facility and to its further development in section as a continuous ramped plate unencumbered by fixed vertical circulation, as the end game of an unobstructed multi-programmed plate.

The interest of practices such as OMA and MRVDV in this approach stems from a coincidence of these issues and has developed into a full blown topological or landscape paradigm in the work of FOA, Jesse Reiser, Stanley Allen and Kevin Rhowbotham. What has driven this shift compositionally is a wish to rid the floor plate of all intervening objects, to make it a flow space constructed from conditions of intra-programmatic flow rather than the navigation of fixed objects or ranked cells.

At this point the coincidence with notions of spread-city and simultaneity become apparent. Phenomena no longer are divided into discrete and discontinuous entities like eggs in a basket, they appear rather as thickenings and areas of high density, like on a weather map. This is the hypological state. It embraces both paranoid and neurotic aspects of this idea as a globalized extension – the continuous ramping plate- and as a field of programmatic inclusion – everything is simultaneously available on the same surface. The organization of these hyperlogical spatialities has also passed beyond a familiar modernist picturesque vocabulary. The organization of the multi-programmed plate can no longer be achieved by neo-plastic or classical compositional devices, which concentrate on the organization of objects within an undifferentiated field of space. The organization of objects as programmatic containers and dividers is now redundant. What this new hypological architecture requires is the inversion of the traditional object/field relationship, so that field rather than object now predominates. The consequences of this are that the organizational vocabulary of architecture is undergoing a dramatic transformation and a new one is emerging dealing with flows, densities, horizons, territories, concentrations, singularities, attractors and so on, a vocabulary which singularly rejects the discontinuities of an objectness and a containing space.

While all this has been going on the hypological web has created a dramatic transformation in the nature of commerce, most especially and most importantly for architecture in the area of retail. The nature of urban retail outlets, the way they are organised and the way they present commodities for sale is undergoing a number of dramatic transformations. The appearance of web retail has constituted a reorganization of traditional divisions within the global marketplace and forced their reorganisation. The most dramatic is the association of the retail and leisure industries.

The recent Time, Warner, AOL, EMI concurrent mergers has seen the creation of the first global, retail/entertainment conglomerate which has the facility to provide publishing, cinema and popular music to a huge number of internet users. At a current market valuation of $2,000 billion US it has a capitalisation of twice the size of the UK’s current GDP (gross domestic product). The purchasing power of such a capital rich leviathan and its interest in pressing home a global  brand image behind its ubiquitous web presence makes large sections of the world’s hyper-cities Paris, London, New York, Tokyo vulnerable to its territorialisation. Not only is it entirely possible for such a commercial phenomenon to territorialise large areas of the central districts of these cities but it is already underway. Nike Town is a branded neighborhood, a kind of forerunner of a comprehensive branded district in which tens of blocks of mid-town Manhattan for example, could be assimilated and dedicated to the retail of a single conglomerate brand. The retail crisis in Oxford Street makes it vulnerable too.

These transformations however will not be retail Malls or shopping centres in the accepted or familiar sense, although they will most certainly meet and exceed their scale. The formulation of the multi-programmed plate by leading theoretical architects makes the visions of Superstudio and Archizoom not only probable but immanent. A hypological architecture is about to be built.

 The new Leisure /Retail plate.

Market oriented western governments keen to embrace a ‘third-way’ deregulatory policy have abdicated their prior responsibility for directing urban redevelopment wholly to the private sector. Although traditionally resting on commercial developer control the creation of new hyper-monopolies with unprecedented access to global markets through the web threatens to shift responsibility away from the commercial developer directly into the hands of brand conglomerates. Competitive attempts to dominate global markets has lead to the establishment of major sub-urban developments in pursuit of substantial brand identification. Such is the current direction of the Disney empire.

Associating the urban regeneration of sectors of the hyper-city urban core may well only be feasible, certainly on a grand scale,, by these market players. The reason for doing it is to associate the full spectrum of leisure programmes from participatory sports and low key entertainments to spectator sports facilities within a continuous retail plate. This requires facilities with substantial volume occupying many contiguous city blocks.

If there is a future for inner-city retail after the debacle of the internet then it is one in which the notion of the Deborian spectacle can be included in the experience. Shopping as spectacle will involve the appearance of Manchester United within the retail plate.

 


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