The Lightheaded View from the Helipad
It all begins with a proposal that no one, barring roughnecks lacking any degree of sensitivity, would disagree with: the world is moving too fast. This is also unfortunately becoming a bit of an alibi to not have to think too hard. As the distribution of information accelerates and the hierarchies that once determined the value of its units vanish, experience is impoverished. The world becomes flimsier. Thinking unanchored. And Clog, a journal which has dedicated its latest issue to Miami, aims to do what it can in the field of architecture and urbanism to render the conversation robust again. It wants to challenge the way that ideas and buildings and problems land on blogs and other platforms only to be pushed aside, before anyone can get beneath their most superficial layers, by the next shallow novelty that comes along. Clog wants to jam the process through which good and bad, important and frivolous, innovative and imitative are homogenized and rendered interchangeable as the material for an informational torrent that drains our capacity for critical reflection. Or at the very least reduces the amount of spaces where we can set it to work.
Noble intentions, to be sure. Almost noble enough to keep us from asking what exactly it is that Clog is doing with this Miami issue. I don’t mean: What is it claiming to do? I mean: What is it doing? What effects is it generating? What uses is it lending itself to? What does it want? What is it for? What does it pass off as natural and normal? What is it mapping? These are questions that are directed not at the parts, at the individual bite-size, one-page entries (they are each about one particular thing or another), but at the assemblage that they form. How does Clog as a whole locate itself, beyond purported intentions, in relation to current architectural and urbanistic production, and to the discourse and money that circulate around it? For instance, what does it mean to select a contributor who deems it important to celebrate Miami’s post-war Tropical Modernism as a harbinger for the new sorts of typologies that should be developed as single-family shelters (now that insulation technologies, the thermal capacity of glass, and the like have advanced) for a city whose massive and growing wealth disparity can be easily tracked through the lopsided “bounce-back” of a housing market in which single-family homes absorb the fallout of the subprime debacle in the shadow of a speculative luxury condo free-for-all? And what is the significance of placing him in the company of five entries dedicated to Lincoln Road, where, supposedly, “private infrastructure is public architecture,” as if the mediatic spread of images (say, the ubiquitous jpegs of the 1111 parking garage) is some kind of contribution to the commons? On the face of it, this seemingly means nothing much. But this very face, the innocent veneer of architectural commentary, when multiplied, is the problem: it veils the reality of the city. It hides what is fueling all the rampant luxury architectural production in Miami in the first place: a mixture of sanguinary economic gestures, institutional co-optation, urbanistic shortsightedness, citizen disempowerment, and corrupt politicians.
Why not map Miami Beach through its changing demographics and tax brackets, its rising rents and hotel room fees, to understand public accessibility to space in economic terms, rather than through a Nolli map (an 18th-century artifact; in Clog, a pull-out centerfold) based on a logic that, in this case, extends itself well into the sphere of parody when it attempts to pass the multiplex as “an interior public space”? It’s not, of course, that there is anything inherently wrong with reproducing the Nolli, it’s that enough of these gestures blot out the truth with innocuous diagrams and academic exercises, allowing for a thickening layer of untruth. We end up with an obfuscating mosaic that, in lieu of getting to how things really are, reproduces what needs to be perpetuated in order to sustain the interests of a particular segment of the population. That the issue ends with an interview with three developers may have been intended to signal some sort of hardboiled realism, but instead simply and sadly reveals Clog Miami’s end result: a transmutation of advertising that, rather than promoting a product, promotes, as Marcel Broodthaers may have put it, the entire system under which it is made. It’s copy—against its very own editorial laments—for the glam depredations of the turbo-capitalism that we are stuck with, and for its particular manifestations in this city. A little more Tafuri would have gone a long way.
This is not to say that some of the entries don’t hold up on their own. Someone should follow up on the contradiction that Raymond Fort’s unearths at the very heart of New Urbanism-inspired Miami 21Code (the city’s current zoning plan—which has created “the most advanced regulatory environment in the United States,” writes the overconfident hand of Andrés Duany, one of the parties behind the code) which, contrary to its intention, has Miami “on track to become a city of mega projects like Beijing or Dubai.” Eric Firley’s mock standardized condo-sales brochure with blanks to be filled-in by developers is breezily on point. Anna Lizzette Tión’s introduction of Hialeah as a site of important bottom-up urban development—and not of developer’s “urbanism”—that emerges from everyday gestures responding to real needs quietly interrupts the general tenor of the issue. Nick Gelpi’s modest contribution is a highlight. There is something that tickles the imagination in the “prototypical investigation” in which he inserted mineralized chips of an invasive tree species into the cast concrete that is so loved by architects who work in Miami (from Hilario Candela of Miami Marine Stadium fame to Herzog & de Meuron), testing the potential of xeno-materialities and alien composites. BLD shows fangs, but doesn’t quite develop the sort of critique that seems to be needed generally, and certainly in the pages of this issue. That may be because its linking of Andrés Duany’s latest effort (what he’s calling lean urbanism) to the forced flexibility of labor and generalized precarity of post-Fordist times, to be fleshed out properly, demands far more than the space for a few hundred words that the editors of Clog were willing to offer.
But some of the entries sink to insipid lows. A fawning profile of the Luminaire design store founder (recasting him as urbanist magician/behind-the-scenes uber-strategist) spreads senselessly across two sickly pink pages. Jennifer Ly’s defense of “The Miami Model”—shorthand for the private museums of collectors—is ridiculously innocent. The constant naming of Miami as the Capital of the Americas or some such thing goes, as always, unsupported by anything other than someone’s deep and unfulfilled wish. I can’t imagine this idea ever being articulated in Buenos Aires or Bogotá or Havana or Mexico City. Miami, from down there, is no more than where most of the splatter lands when the shit hits the political fan. This is not to say that the splatter and the splattering haven’t produced very interesting effects (e.g., Tión’s Hialeah), it’s merely to underscore the self-evident: the way that the emperor of ice cream may still think of himself as an emperor, Miami flatters itself as the capital of some imaginary continent, some Tlön or Uqbar that only the people writing about the city can locate. Finding this fantasy reiterated repeatedly is of course par for the course, but claiming Miami as the true image of Simón Bolívar’s unified Latin America, oblivious to the historical modulations that this idea has been put through, has to be an exercise in humor, especially coming from Mexico City-based architects (see Felipe Orensanz/Zooburbia entry, p. 13). Miami as the other Bolivarian Revolution? I’m all for parody and hyperbole, but only when they toil to reveal interesting insights.
Clog, in the end, is symptomatic of a fundamental problem that current cultural work faces: mimetic production—the snapshot compilation of the issue, for instance—has ceased to be an useful tool for mapping a reality that is too complex to conceptualize in toto. This is hardly a new problem, but it seems to be intensifying as this idea of capturing something directly and faithfully has become, in its wasted state, in the amnesia it exhibits in relation to the task of debunking the layers of falsity that attempt to pass the current constitution of the world as natural and immutable, a new region of the ideological. It’s a mechanism through which to dress up the vulgar pushing of narratives that uphold and perpetuate certain values in the garb of respectable knowledge production and in the words of professional experts in the disciplinary fields concerned with the city. What this issue of Clog may ultimately reveal, it may do so in the form of a gaping hole at the center of it: that what matters, against what is being peddled, is the dark and throbbing crater, full of energy and unexplored transactions, at the foot of a ring of luxury towers. It seems, of course, a crater only from the nose-bleed heights of the penthouse. At ground level, it’s actually Miami.