Cardboard Orthogonal Blob: An Architecture for Self-Realization
April 2002

Modernity Redux

Since the turn of the millennium, the world has been buffeted by turmoil: economic over-exuberance followed by bubble-bust calamity; political stability erased by unspeakable acts of terrorism; the end of history replaced by war without end; limitless possibilities for design instantly exhausted.

But is this condition unprecedented? Or is it simply the refusal of modernity to be reduced to feel-good slogans in Fast Company and Wired? Traumatized and shaken by this (once again) alienating world, the individual is lost, uncertain and rootless. In response, architecture must return to being a field of engagement with contemporary life: for what is more fundamental to the task of modernism than articulating the struggle between the individual and a mass-produced world that threatens to annihilate that very being? And where does that struggle emerge more clearly than in the built?

Twenty-Seven Million

AUDC's response to this renewed call for the articulation of the individual in modernity emerged in response to our contribution of a Multimedia Viewing Station [MVS] for deployment during the fall 2001 Jane's Addiction tour. Inside the MVS, individuals were to view a presentation on contemporary slavery developed for the Jubilee Foundation.

Although few of us think of slavery as a contemporary problem, some twenty-seven million people are enslaved throughout the world today. In Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and even in the United States, individuals are subject to complete deprivation of freedom either through violence or through indentured servitude. Never before have so many been enslaved. Never before has the existence of slavery been so forgotten.

Jubilee's multimedia presentation depicts the reality of contemporary slavery. Yet, it does so with discretion. The multimedia presentation focuses on the Jubilee festival. Common in world religious tradition is the idea of a fifty-year interval at the end of which a festival is held freeing slaves and releasing those in debt from their obligations. Depicting celebration rather than victimization avoids further symbolic acts of violence against slaves. Even without sensationalism, any represention of slavery would underscore the free viewing subject's superiority to the enslaved viewed. Depicting individuals as slaves would enslave them further. Instead, the multimedia presentation takes place as a series of interviews with the freed about their new lives. Experiencing the freedom of the former slaves allows the viewer to share a personal journey without assuming a position of superiority.

All Masters, All Slaves

Jubilee understands that it is only through working to free others that we free ourselves. If there are twenty-seven million slaves, what of the rest of us? Only the most naïve might think of the contemporary subject as truly free. We are all masters and slaves. The establishment wishes us to think of ourselves only as masters of the world. This is literally true for many: the number of individuals owning stocks is at an all-time high. The restructuring of pension plans to allow employees direct choice within the stock market, the growth in profit-sharing, together with the explosion of choice in individual investment, makes us all capitalists. We are even told to look forward to the privatization of the Social Security program to allow individuals to invest their contributions on Wall Street. More people than ever before share in the wealth created by exploiting the labor of others.

But our role as masters only underscores our role as slaves. It is not merely others who are exploited; after all, they are likely to own stock too. Never have our jobs been less secure. The corporation's responsibility to shareholders – who are, after all, people similar to us, or perhaps, through profit-sharing, are quite literally ourselves – means that layoffs are a constant threat. And never has the workplace been so cutthroat: who does not live in fear that one's superiors – or underlings! – will decide that this is the day to call one's bluff? Coupled with this vertiginous lack of job certainty is the direct enslavement we suffer to others through debt. Between student loans, mortgages, automobile loans, and credit cards, personal debt is at an all-time high. And with the world thoroughly capitalized, there is no refuge to avoid enslavement. Under late capitalism, art, phenomenology, sex: these are all first and foremost sources of profit, thereby subject to its inexorable laws.

Neither can we turn to Marxism. Not only has it been colonized for profit wherever possible – what highly paid professor in the humanities does not purport to be a Leftist? – the analytic model developed under Marxism runs aground against this new blurring of identities. Marx's analysis depended on clear distinctions between bourgeoisie (slaver) and proletariat (slave). Yet under late capitalism our complicity in the system is total. We are each other's masters; we enslave ourselves. To that, Marxism's critique has no answer.

Yet while Marxism failed as a means of analysis, the unpredictable swiftness of Communism's collapse in the East Bloc a decade ago demonstrates the possibility of self-awakening and liberation within individuals. Once the populace understood they were enslaving themselves and the bleak regimes controlling them were of their own invention, they stopped believing in them. Communism collapsed overnight.

Beyond Master and Slave

In viewing the multimedia presentation, it becomes possible for spectators to grasp their simultaneous roles as slaves and slavers, thereby attaining self-realization. By working to free others, spectators are able to grasp freedom themselves.

To explain how this works, we need to revisit Hegel's dialectic of the master and the slave. In this narrative, two individuals confront each other. In so doing, each comes to an awareness of his or her self by seeing how the other perceives them. As a result of the encounter, one individual becomes dominant, the master, and enslaves the other. The master comes to think of the slave as a mere tool to be used, a deficient self, living only to satisfy the master's needs. In time, however, the master grows dependent on the slave, relying on him or her for every need. Meanwhile the slave, depending only upon his or her own wits and skill, slowly frees himself or herself from any dependency on the master. Even if in shackles, the slave comes to understand that the work he or she does affirms his or her nature as an individual. Lacking that affirmation, the master winds up empty, without identity.

If today we are both masters and slaves, it is only through realizing those dual roles that we free ourselves. Only when we understand that we create not freedom but our own alienation and enslavement by exploiting others can we move forward.

Upon viewing the multimedia presentation, the individual comes to self-awareness, understanding that true inner freedom only occurs through acknowledging the enslavement of others and the need to fight for their freedom. Liberating others is a prerequisite to liberating oneself.

Not Too Smooth

How does architecture help the individual realize her or his place in an increasingly placeless world? In the heroic era, modernists firmly believed that good design could reconcile the individual to the mass-produced environment. Upon the failure of that paradigm, however, architecture turned down two roads: communicating through a language of architecture that flourished before the onset of mass production or, alternatively, representing the schismatic nature of society. Both approaches were contradictory, maintaining the avant-garde's task of critiquing society, even as they deliberately failed to produce new solutions.

In response to the dominance of contradictory architecture in the academy, the architectural avant-garde of the late 1990s embarked on a hunt for a post-contradictory smoothness between architecture and its socioeconomic context. Yet, smoothness has itself set a trap for architects. Two new poles now emerge to ensnare the unwary: one positing that the forces of the world should be made manifest through constant formal difference, the other maintaining that the madness of the contemporary urban realm is so inherently intriguing that it should be made visible through studied programmatic indeterminacy and/or conflict.

Its surface polemic against the contradictory aside, the post-contradictory shares with it a love of expressing difference. In the case of the contradictory, difference is achieved within the work. In the case of the smooth or post-contradictory, difference is achieved between works. Claiming radical formal innovations, generally enhanced through technology – nurbs, double curves, etc. - the post-contradictory is meant to be more radical and unusual than ever, either formally or programmatically. For both the contradictory and the post-contradictory, the inhabitant human is far less important than the architect's assumed right to expressing difference.

Today, however, difference itself has attained its own level of oppression. The media machine ritualistically admonishes us to "Be Different," to "Be Yourself" to the point that we cannot understand what is genuine difference and what is contrived for the sake of appearance. Such difference for its own sake is akin to Internet porn: a random repetition of images, each meant to arouse and titillate more than the others.

Cardboard Orthogonal Blob

The MVS is a cardboard orthogonal blob that acts a neutral, sheltering space in which the individual can approach self-realization. Like any true blob, the MVS is both a smooth whole and a multiplicity.

The design of the MVS is derived from its function: to facilitate the viewing of a multimedia presentation amidst the chaotic milieu of a music festival. The monastic isolation and deliberate remove from the hyper-expressive atmosphere outside allows the MVS to compel attention to the multimedia presentation. As a structure for isolated viewing, the MVS is a cell for becoming, a cellulose-walled structure serving the nucleic individual as a vehicle for attaining self-realization.

As blob, the MVS is not one unit but many, each stamped out of 100% post-consumer recycled cardboard, indistinguishable from the rest. That the MVS exists as a multiple allows as many to be deployed as necessary at a given venue. If the MVS is a multiplicity, it is also simultaneously a smooth whole, constructed out of one folded, pre-scored piece of cardboard.

Fabricated out of the easiest material to transport and assemble – each unit weighs less than ten pounds and can be put together in five minutes by an untrained volunteer – the MVS makes manifest its own temporariness. Against the increasingly profligate architectural gestures of the cultural elite, the smallness and simplicity of the MVS remind us of the necessary humility we must turn to if we are to survive in the coming era of scarcity and limits. As a completely recyclable structure, the MVS is not only ecologically sustainable, it replaces the perpetual drive for the unique and enduring at all costs by acknowledging the endless circle of life, death, and reincarnation.