The Truth is Out There
Have you ever heard of Leo Ryan? He was a schoolteacher and a politician from California who served in the California State Assembly and later in Congress. Ryan was known for his hands-on approach to governance. After the riots in 1965, he moved to Watts and found a job as a substitute teacher to better understand the conditions on the ground. Five years later, he voluntarily served a ten-day sentence at Folsom prison under an assumed name (he was the chairman of the assembly committee that oversaw prison reform at the time). On a trip to Newfoundland, he lay down on the ice between fur hunters and a baby harp seal. Some people dismissed him as a showman, dismissed his fact-finding missions as mere publicity stunts, but in the current political climate there is an undeniable appeal to the thought of a member of congress willing to put his body on the line for something he believes in.
In 1978, Ryan went to Guyana on a fact-finding mission to witness firsthand the conditions at the Peoples Temple settlement after several of his constituents complained that friends and relatives were being held against their will by Jim Jones. The visit did not go well. On November 18, Ryan and four members of his delegation were shot by gunmen from Jonestown while attempting to flee the compound in a small airplane. Later that day, over 900 commune members, at least 300 of whom were children, committed suicide by drinking Flavor-Aid laced with cyanide.
I first learned about Paprika! when Christopher Pin approached me after a lecture in Hastings Hall and furtively passed me Issue 00—Architecture Kool-Aid, folded five times into a neat square. I later told Christopher that the assembled broadsheet reminded me of a letter smuggled out of prison. I was joking, of course. You are not prisoners. You belong to no cult. You were institutionalized under your own free will and no matter how you might assess your position in the fog of sleep-deprivation, you still possess extraordinary, enviable, agency. So, what am I to make of this document?
The pandemic is over, and a lot of people are realizing that exploitative labor practices are unpleasant. They do not want to go back to work in restaurant kitchens, warehouses, offices, or schools. If it were more organized, it might feel like a labor movement, but millions of personal epiphanies can be powerful too. No one wants their labor to be undervalued. Perhaps you all are feeling the same way? The problem is that while the pandemic may have changed the way we see our place in the capitalist system, it did not change the capitalist system. The pandemic did nothing to destabilize the hierarchy—Yale made twelve billion dollars last year, how did your friends who are architects do?
Now, consider the fact that you are indebting yourself to the former for the privilege of joining the ranks of the latter and I can understand why you might feel disenchanted by the status quo. To be clear, I say this all without judgement… we all know that the first line of every cult story is, “no one ever wakes up in the morning and says to themselves, ‘today I am going to join a cult.’”
The question then is how to devote an entire broadsheet to this subject without doing more to reinforce the archetype than you are doing to destabilize it? And that, I think, is the best criteria on which to evaluate this issue. I hope you will forgive me for not responding to each writer individually here, but rather to the prevailing mood.
In their editors’ note, Saba Salekfard, Claudia Ansorena, and Christopher Pin describe observation and translation as the two opposing forces of architectural practice. The entire project of architecture, at least in the academic context, might be condensed to this push and pull of observation and translation and much of what I am reading here suggests to me that the scales have tipped too far toward translation.
While I agree that hard work, rigor, and determination are “surefire markers of worthy translation,” I am less that convinced that the same is true of the loss of sleep and sanity. Hard work is a crystalizing force to be sure, it can make great observations come to life, but without great observations, no amount of translation will help (just as a great observation, poorly translated, does not amount to much). The trick is to not let the influence of one side overwhelm the other.
A good cult leader never lets her followers sleep. It has always seemed to me that the most cult-like condition of architectural education is not the predetermined uniform or the glorified leader (these are hallmarks of any subculture), but rather this sadistic obsession with sleep deprivation. Why willingly subject yourself to a condition that so dramatically undermines your decision making? Sleep deprivation is just labor expended in the name of translation at the expense of clarity and conviction. No one with a clear head confuses their heroes for idols.
None of this is to say that there are not great observations here. I love, for example, the concept of the round robin critique put forward by Claudia Carle in “The Paradoxical Performance”—a modest adjustment that undermines the fallacy of objective opinion while simultaneously giving the student significantly more information to work with. Sometimes, the simplest ideas can be the most radical. You should make the school what you need it to be.
A good cult leader never lets his followers leave the compound. In “Excite and Offend,” Elise Limon writes about the “bleak scenario” of “the student as consumer,” but there can also be agency in that role (remember, the customer is always right). What are you so anxious about, anyway? The school should be working for you, not the other way around. Limon focuses on the example of the formation of NATØ at the AA in 1984. A good model, whose power comes, as Mark Prizeman wrote so clearly, from a desire to “travel over the frontier and join the rest outside of architecture.” This is observation.
It is not lost on me that multiple authors evoke Beatriz Colomina who has been an essential model for me in how architectural thinking can benefit from looking beyond its traditional boundaries. Colomina has always been adept, both as a writer and a teacher, at letting the outside in. You are making buildings that exist in a highly mediated world, so how do you expect to do that well without participating in it?
Prizeman’s idea is reflected again in Reese Lewis’ simple, but seismically important point about time. How do you expect to change cultural production if you are not allowing yourself the time to participate in cultural production? How can real observation happen without what Limon describes as “a considered engagement with the force of external social and political circumstances.” Again, the answer here might not be complicated at all. Go for a walk. Allow the outside in. You don’t need to burn the building down (someone already tried that, it didn’t work), but you may need to look for answers beyond its walls. Come join the rest of us.
- Uncredited illustration from, “School Methods,” The Last Whole Earth Catalog: Access to Tools, (1971): 397. ↩︎