Alumni Review: Dispatch 01

Publication Date
April 30, 2021

Editors’ note: This alumni review was originally distributed on February 14, 2021 to the Paprika! Collective.

The Dispatch is a new gadget in Paprika!’s toolbox. It encourages slowness while continuing the commitment to text printed on paper—here, green on gray. “Dispatches,” the editors write in a statement, “are collections of image, text, etc. that are ambiguous in theme and format; each one responds to, analyzes, critiques or further develops past Paprika! Content and/or current events.” This spring there will be fewer issues of Paprika! and a handful of dispatches to fill in the gaps. This makes sense for a semester where students remain dispersed and the pandemic still reigns.

It’s notable that, in a few short years, Paprika!’s intensity has resulted in a trove of texts and positions such that the community can return to those entries and find meaning. This “compounding conversation,” as the editors describe in their letter, invites internal dialogue, a necessary part of any intellectual community. This seems to indicate a healthy spirit of support when the buzzing hive of Rudolph Hall is quieted. Can a publication named after a specific carpet survive when few tread on said floor finish? Likely yes—the show must go on. At a moment where things continue to feel strange—fucked up, more accurately—it’s good to see this effort continue, and especially so as a vehicle of care decoupled from some ingrained idea that we must continue to “be productive” just like we were in the before-times. Not so.

This Dispatch’s survey includes snippets from the lives of others. These are fun windows into the Zoom life of the school. The difficulty of synchronous learning in different time zones is real—I too have triple-checked my muted status before hustling to my apartment’s bathroom. The editors also recommend additional readings from the publication’s archive as a way to prepare their audience for this semester’s filings.

The bulk of the Dispatch is given over to Joshua Tan’s interview with Eric Wycoff Rogers, who wrote about major and minor architectures in Paprika!’s first issue. Rogers graduated in 2015 from Yale’s MED program and since then has been active putting some of the ideas encountered there to good use, including the founding of Nookzy,1 a start-up where people can rent micro-environments. There’s also talk about the post-work city, which is a timely concern (Keith Krumwiede taught a studio about it at MIT in 2017, among others who are exploring this future). The conversation ended with fantastic images of their current living space, a neon, electronic, leafy fantasy, complete with a ball pit, all concealed within a generic trailer. It was a welcome contrast to a recent article about people in tiny houses dealing with the pandemic.2

The conversation—and Rogers’s exciting body of work—reminds me of the deep connection between architectural counterculture and the origins of Silicon Valley, a trajectory explained in Fred Turner’s amazing From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, The Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.3 Some of the ideas that continue to power start-up culture have their roots in the spatial experiments of the late 1960s. When Rogers describes the goal of Spontaneum as the emphasis of “the contingency of urban spaces, and [the demonstration of] the latent potentiality and abundance that saturated the city,” this has the same ambitions as Haus-Rucker-Co or Hans Hollein, among others.

But the initial egalitarianism of Silicon Valley appears to be nearly extinct as companies exploded in size, VC funding, market valuation, and universal usage. The “minor” little-guy operations of the 1990s and early 2000s are now “major” digital institutions. It seems like the only site that didn’t totally sell out is Craigslist. “Hacking” is how new ideas start, and remains relevant: Rogers describes the power of “the hack” as the “basis of startup culture.” I know there are “subversive, radical, interesting and out-of-the-box thinkers” still left in Silicon Valley, but they seem to be small in number and their work results in fewer big contributions (Signal is one,4 though). The “hack” dims in value when we witness the huge re-shaping of public consciousness underway thanks to companies like Facebook and Twitter that now deliver so much of the content we see, which in turn makes us less engaged and knowledgeable, according to one study.5 I’m grossly oversimplifying here, but there’s a discernible trend from the early days of the internet—a teeming ecosystem of different sites—to today’s situation in which consumption is consolidated onto a handful of platforms. It’s also notable that WeWork’s co-founders Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey grew up on a kibbutz and a commune, respectively, which provided inspiration for the communitarian snake oil that powered the company until it crashed last year.

Rogers states influence from Keller Easterling, who continues to deliver interesting books about latent ways in which our environments are designed and controlled. But Easterling’s wordy indirectness gets more difficult to parse when faced with the bluntness of today’s crisis. She recently filed an essay called “On Political Temperament,”6 which Marianela D’Aprile, in a responding essay titled “Not Everything is ‘Architecture,’”7 summarized like this: “Politics are currently polarized. This creates volatility and the potential for violence in the public realm. The form of political messages matters. Sometimes that form is violence, which is bad. Not everything has to be binary.” D’Aprile goes on to criticize Easterling’s project as an academic one that, in its theoryspeak, shuts down action:

Easterling’s obtuseness allows her to smuggle in anti-left politics. She can’t be pinned down, as her language—“superbug,” “sugar,” “lumpy”—could mean anything. The inscrutability is both cover for a centrist politics and evidence that Easterling does not care to understand what actually goes on in the world so much as she is committed to projecting some sort of progressive-in-appearance-only theorem onto it.

Easterling’s privilege is enabled by her position within academia, which traffics in ideas, versus the wider economic environment, which deals with reality. D’Aprile’s brief but strong essay deserves a full read; it’s a wake-up call to anyone enamored with theory. She claims that Easterling’s work “posits that we can hack capitalism, make it slightly better, design our way out of it. This is nothing but an attempt to circumvent class conflict, which is the only thing […] that can bring about favorable change.” She writes that “architects and other professionals are taught to identify first and foremost with their job; it’s a great tool of capitalism to alienate us from our lives and make us servile to nothing other than profit for someone else. But all of our actions don’t have to pass through the profession. We can engage with the world as people first—and as workers.” In conclusion: “If you’re a centrist, say it. But quit trying to hack capitalism.” The “hack” here surfaces not as a revolutionary feat, but as a brief short circuit in otherwise uninterrupted flows of capital.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, while I learned from this interview with Rogers and appreciate their work, I grow tired of the “minor” project. When is the “major” project going to stage a comeback? It hasn’t been around for a while; some might say since Manfredo Tafuri’s Architecture and Utopia in the mid-1970s, others might cite Francis Fukuyama’s “the end of history” idea from 1992. Yes, the minor project is endlessly fascinating—there are hidden stories, obscurities to crate dig, and all permutations of formal experiments to undertake—but the major project is one with the capacity to change the System.

Rogers rightfully talks about interiors trends as a form of the major, but it goes deeper than that—as they mention, a popular aesthetic easily “perpetuates itself without architects.” This is the core of Tafuri’s critique: To produce form without utopia is to resign the architect to a place of “sublime uselessness.” 8 We’re all just financial instrument decorators unless there’s a larger apparatus at work. What about labor reforms that would help architects (or designers, more broadly) earn a living wage or address student debt? What about initiatives that broaden the clientele for architecture, which would increase the slim part of the population that directly engages with practicing architects? What about architecture’s active role in the crises of our time, namely climate change, through the design of our buildings and cities? What architecture’s role within the global history of colonialism and the embedded spatialities of racism? What about the ongoing effort to diversify the profession, which will only serve to strengthen it? What about decommodifying housing, which would define it as a right and not an investment? These are major issues! They can be approached through hacks, but systemic changes would be a rising tide that lifts all boats.

In music, there’s a cadence called a Picardy third,9 in which a series of minor chords resolves, unexpectedly, to a major chord. The “wrongness/grief” of the minor is terminated by the “rightness/happiness” of the major. The sound, once you know it, appears in many genres, to the extent that some label it as “unremarkable, or even clichéd.” Despite all evidence to the contrary, I remain hopeful that there will be upcoming sociopolitical Picardy thirds—shifts in which the minor ideas about big change that are under discussion develop a legitimate chance of becoming major reforms. It might take some time, but it’s so important.

Publication Date
April 30, 2021
Graphic Designers
Coordinating Editors
Web Editors
Gray Golding
894 words