Welcome to Madison!

I’ve done it! I just moved back to Madison, Wisconsin, almost exactly 18 years after I left. I have joined the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an assistant professor, where my focus is digital media studies. I’m surrounded by an outstanding group of colleagues and students and can’t wait for the semester to get rolling—which it will, in one week.

This semester, I’ll be teaching Media Fluency for the Digital Age and shadowing the Introduction to Mass Communication class, which has 400 students. It also means that I’ll be returning to blogging, as well as teaching students about it.

It is exciting to be back here. When I moved to New York in 1995 and then onward to all the places I’ve lived, I never expected that I would come back to Madison, let alone to be on the faculty of this university. To make things even more poignant, my parents went here as well. Coming here again closes a loop in my life, completes a phase or two and starts another. I’m delighted, I’m excited, I’m excited.

weeknote 13: greetings from montreal

Greetings from the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal! I’m here on a Collections Research Grant to use the Cedric Price Archive. There are about 30 scholars in residence right now from the US, Canada, Italy, France, Spain, Belgium and points beyond, some younger, some more advanced, some traditionally academic, others less traditional like Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG. That doesn’t even include the curators, archivists, librarians and other people who work here — they’re lovely as well. When you walk through the Study Centre, you never know what’s going to be on the tables… Susanna, from Venice, found a drawing of Peter Eisenman’s House VIII, not published. Zubin, from Montreal, is trying to make sense of the narratives in John Hejduk’s Masque drawings. Geoff found Oilstrike, a game sponsored by BP from 1970 — the irony. Samantha Hardingham, the one person in the world who publishes extensively and intensively on Cedric Price, was here this week as a part of her long research project in which she is looking at every single project he did. In any case, it’s a wonderfully convivial experience and a total delight to be here.

While I’m here, I’m looking at several Cedric Price projects that deal with information and technology, most of which have not been published about to any great extent. These include some crazy projects: a 1966 proto cybercafe for Tottenham Court Road in the Oxford Corner House; a 1967 design charette called Atom for a new town around a nuclear reactor that would have a “town brain” and a “life conditioning” unit that would educate its citizens; the British and Midlands Headquarters that incorporated the information flows and planetariums from the Oxford Corner House project — and Cedric Price’s own plans for an information storage and retrieval system to be used in his own office. It extends the work I did on my master’s thesis, which examined Price’s Generator project– a 1976-79 plan for an intelligent set of cubes on a landscape that would get bored if not moved and recombined.

On Monday, I presented to the scholars here on the Oxford Corner House project, a talk titled “Storage of Information Becomes Activity” — a note scribbled on a drawing from a different project, but that seems to indicate so much of what Price is doing with his kit of parts buildings, the mobility and the information screens and the learning and the computers. I’m coming to the conclusion that Price really did see architecture as information architecture in a very literal sense: a structuring of information, an organizing of it into activities, and then an organizing of architectural objects and tools to accommodate the movement through these informational exchanges.

The archive is a treasure trove and it’s a delight to look at more projects than just Generator, for which I was here in 2006. Some of it is laugh-out-loud funny, like the image above of the Inter-Action Centre, one of the few things that Price built (built 1977, demolished 2001) — or the letter that not only requested information on hovercrafts, but a demonstration. Some of it is amazingly futuristic, like the information flows and technologies suggested for the Oxford Corner House. I’ll publish bits of it here as I crunch through the material.

Finally, Montreal is one of my favorite cities. I’ve been here three times, twice in 2006 in late fall (brr!) and once for Design Engaged in 2008. This time, I’ve had a chance to relax into it– though I’ve been too socially busy to relax. It’s beautiful in summer, one reason why I decided to do the fellowship in July, not October. Where I’m staying on the other side of Mount Royal, there are huge maple trees and rolling hills. It all draws to a close in just under a week, when I go to Minneapolis for my 20 year high school reunion. (Shaking head.) That’s going to be its own archive.

Dissertation proposal! Artificial Intelligence, Architectural Intelligence: The Computer in Architecture, 1960–80

UPDATE: My dissertation proposal.

I’ve completed my dissertation proposal! My dissertation is tentatively titled “Artificial Intelligence, Architectural Intelligence: The Computer in Architecture, 1960–80.” At noon, I defend it. Wish me luck! Here is the abstract:

With the advent of the information age, architects in the 1960s and 70s found themselves contending with more complex design problems than they had in the past. In response to these changes, the architectural profession began to turn to computers and computer- related sciences including cybernetics and artificial intelligence (AI), and to ways to solve and represent problems using the computer. The computational shift promoted design process over formal object, moved the architect out of a central role in the design process, and generated architectural solutions beyond the capabilities of machine or architect alone. This dissertation will examine three architects, Christopher Alexander (b. 1936), Nicholas Negroponte (b. 1943) and Cedric Price (1934–2003) and the influence of, and their collaborations with, key figures in cybernetics and artificial intelligence. The period from 1960 to 1980 is significant because it marks the introduction of computing paradigms to architecture and the beginning of the mainstream of computers in architectural practice. Throughout, this dissertation will develop the notion of generative systems in architecture; that is, systems that incorporate models of intelligence, interact with and respond to both designer and end user, and adapt and evolve over time.

Writing a dissertation proposal has more to do with writing a brief, a pitch, or a grant application, and less to do with writing the actual dissertation. That was the hard part: I kept sitting down and attempting to write the whole thing. It was thanks to the help of my friend Janet Vertesi one afternoon in Venice, with two plates of truffle french fries and a glass of rosé, that I finally got my head around the fact that I needed to write the argument for the project, not the project itself.

Defense the proposal marks the final hoop before finally starting the dissertation and my work for the next two years. I’m delighted to begin.

Catching up

I’d been chugging along, updating Girlwonder frequently and then school started up again. Somehow, I’m now midway through my final semester of coursework at Princeton.

This month is the month of conferences… today at O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology conference, I present “Shared and Sometimes Stealthy: India’s Mobile Phone.” Then, I go to my 12th South by Southwest Interactive, where I moderate a panel called Tangible Interactions in Urban Spaces on Sunday. Finally, at the end of March, I deliver a paper on pneumatic tubes at the Yale School of Architecture, my alma mater, during the Spatial Illiteracies symposium.

It’s otherwise been a good semester. I’m immersed in Marx (a Marxist theory class taught by Ben Conisbee Baer), global cities, cybernetics and urbanism, and 20th century intellectual and cultural history.

I’ll catch up on more later… I’m off to finish putting together my talk!

The series of tubes is out of control

Yesterday, I woke up to a bunch of comment notifications on a post I’d written about pneumatic tubes and the postal service in France on Active Social Plastic, my other blog. My first thought was, “Uh oh. Spam.” (There’s an inferiority complex for you.) It turned out that Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing had linked to my post. It was heartening and inspired me to update more of the paper I’m writing right now about the birth of the pneumatic post in Paris.

If only academic writing were as easy as a blog post, or for that matter, a paper proposal for a conference. The pneumatic tubes paper seems to be about everything and nothing. On one hand, it’s good that this is the case: it’s likely a dissertation topic or subject for a book. On the other hand, what part should be the focus? Is it the specific interfaces for the network? Is it the fact that it was supposed to be auxiliary and yet reflected a massive expenditure and outlay? Is it about economies of scale and the introduction of other products and services in the communication economy, like parcel post and banking? To what extent is it about the failures and promises of telegraph? Should I write it as an argument or as a narrative? How should I undergird it other architectural historical arguments or theories, like Sigfried Giedion on the importance of iron in 19th century as the subconscious formation of architecture? And what about Walter Benjamin? What about the concept of the image?

I’m writing the tubes paper for a class on Walter Benjamin, “Image, Interior, Archive,” taught by Brigid Doherty. The class took on the Arcades Project and a number of Benjamin’s other writings. Brigid is an outstanding professor, razor sharp and intense. I started keeping near transcripts of what she said in class in order to revisit it later: she delivers so much information when she speaks. This is not unintimidating. Add to it the fact that she, along with Tom Levin and Michael Jennings in the German department at Princeton, are among the foremost translators, scholars and interpreters of Benjamin. The three of them just published the Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, a new translation of that essay and other published and unpublished works. It’s even the second class I’ve taken on Benjamin and the Arcades — I took the first one my first year of graduate school with Henry Sussman (who’s like the Howard Rheingold of comparative literature and media). I could probably take five more classes on it and never get to the heart of it, it’s so intense a work. Anyway.

Today, I need to find the thread of this paper. I write 2000 words, only to throw away 1000. My sources are in French, which slows me down. There’s always more I could research and look for but I somehow need 20 or so pages on one thing. This part is the hardest part.

Paper writing time

The way things work in my PhD program, we have a 12-week semester and then we write research papers. The papers aren’t generally due within the semester. In the winter, we hand them in in January, during the reading period.

I’m firmly in the middle of that period right now. So far, it’s going well. I’m writing a paper about urban pneumatic tube networks and I’ve been working on a more theoretical angle that ties in Sigfried Giedion and Walter Benjamin, as well as some more contemporary information theory. I’m not convinced about how I’m going about it so far but I’ll feel much more comfortable when I start writing about the network itself. It surprises me to find myself writing my second paper on some aspect of 19th century Paris and its architecture and urban infrastructure, but it turns out to be the most interesting case study. I’m one of the few people I know who doesn’t love Paris: I find it overwhelming. (I like Berlin better, but you probably know this about me.) At any rate, it’s harder to study things that I love. Either that, or I might be discovering I really like Paris’s subterranean wackiness and its unwavering devotion to its networks.

Two things are hard about the papers: the slog and the self-doubt. My first PhD student paper ballooned to 50 pages with no end in sight. It turned out there was no central argument. Now, I carry around a book called The Craft of Research, suggested to me by my undergraduate professor Lew Friedland, to remind me how to structure arguments when I get lost in things. Academic writing is hard and it’s scary to admit that. It does not come naturally to me. I spent years trying to write clearly and simply, and while I try to do that in my papers, I need to construct more complex arguments than anything in the Web or the design world asked of me. Last year, I collapsed into tears after 8 hours in Marquand Library, where food and drink are not allowed. It didn’t help that I didn’t eat as I worked on my paper about Xanti Schawinsky and that I really needed something to keep my blood sugar stable. By the end of the three papers I had to write, I was dejected and exhausted.

For obvious reasons, I’m trying to keep that from happening this year. I’m getting enough sleep, setting page limits (Cory’s recent tips helped), giving myself small rewards, eating properly, exercising, even. I’m hoping to make it through without dissolving in a self-loathing mass.

Protection

There’s a nice epilogue to the whole grading story for the semester. On Monday, I got email from the professor who taught my favorite class last semester — a straight history class on Europe between the wars. I got an A- on the paper and an A in the class. (It made me cry.) This is all the more amazing to me because it’s the first college level straight history class I’ve taken. I’ve taken history of any number of things, just not a strict history class. It was a lot of work — sometimes 500+ pages of reading a week. But I loved it.

So I stopped by to visit the professor on Wednesday to say hello and thank you. He owns a little red terrier who comes to school with him. She and I like each other. I rub her ears, he and I discuss Germany history in the 20s and the 60s.

Anyway, another student tried to open the door and she ran over, barking. The student quickly shut the door.

“Very interesting,” he said. “You know what she just did? She protected you.”

I looked down and she was looking up at me, very pleased with herself. I told her she was a good dog and of course, rubbed her ears.

Things must be okay if my favorite professor’s terrier is going to bat for me.

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Final review at 1:30 — done!

Please to cross your fingers for me, to send good thoughts, to wish me well. At 1:30, I give my final semester presentation. It’s been an exhausting week, between long papers and my first Ph.D. application (and more than that–I’ll post later).

But. Think well of me at 1:30. This is the most exhausting presentation I do each semester. It’s scary. I hope it goes well.

Update

It was okay but not great — because right now, my thesis is at a not great point.

The good part of things were our critics: it was a great jury. As visitors, we had Hadas Steiner from SUNY-Buffalo, who works on architecture, technology and the neo-avant-garde (way relevant for me), and Spyros Papapetros, a Germanist from Princeton, who we had met during our visit there in November (he published a translation of Siegfried Ebeling’s 1926 Raum als Membran — Space as Membrane — in a recent publication and I flipped out: I’ve been looking for it for a decade.) They were both terrific–very thoughtful and played off each other nicely. Also, our beloved chaired visitor, Kurt Forster (who chaired the 2004 Venice Architecture Biennale) joined us, one of my favorite characters. He had many useful, thoughtful things to contribute. Overall, the other people on our committee were both supportive and appropriately challenging. I think the first year students got better feedback than we did a year ago, but they had prepared for weeks for the presentation.

It is obvious to me how much work I have to do. As he was leaving, Emmanuel (my advisor) told me and Federica, “Do not be afraid of criticism.” He went on to say that the criticism would never stop. Maybe it was just a Luxemburgian moment of nihilism, but I appreciated his comments. The thing is, from the very first time Nick Tangborn tore my review of the “Tubular Bells” remix to shreds in 1992, I’ve not really been afraid of it. When you write it, it’s no longer yours. If someone edits it or gives you criticism, your work gets better.

But. My work needs a lot of work. I need a heavy handed editor and some help finding direction for the rest of this project. I’m tired out right now and I don’t know which way it should go. I had an illuminating conversation in the bathroom, of all places, with Peggy Deamer, the (departing) associate dean and the faculty’s theory torchbearer. This afternoon, I’ll talk to Emmanuel again and I hope to at least figure out what to focus on over the holidays.

An history of wrong footing

“NB* The socially delightful usefulness of responsive architecture has only recently gathered an establishment smart gloss and in so doing has cheapened the tight nice original usage of the very word—responsive.” –Cedric Price, “AN HISTORY OF WRONG FOOTING—THE IMMEDIATE PAST,” undated.

Generator Folio DR1995:0280:65, 1/5, Cedric Price Archives, Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal.

Cedric Price was weary of what responsive architecture seemed it might become–long before blobs and wireless sensor nets. That’s what a good soaking of cybernetics could do for old Cedric… and why Generator was such a fascinating project. Would that it could have been built… though I suppose it makes for a better story that it was not. Still…

I’m looking forward to posting my chapter in progress here next week, when it is complete. When I do, it will be one of the only descriptions of Generator available online and the only description of any length published since the early 80s. I wish there were something I could link to to tell you more about it in the meantime: you might look at the pictures in the catalogue for the 2002 MoMA exhibition Changing of the Avant-Garde or the images and project descriptions in Cedric Price Works II and Neil Spiller’s Cyber_Reader.

In the meantime, back to writing.