Far From Equilibrium

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words Daniel Miller

Ally of Rem Koolhaas and comrade of Bruce Mau, Sanford Kwinter is among the most influential architectural theorists of his generation. As one of the co-founders of the publisher Zone, he’s probably the closest thing to a successor to Sylvere Lotringer – the New York-based academic who established Semiotext(e) in 1974 to circulate radical French critical theory into America in a series of satanic black books. Far From Equilibrium comes freshly wrapped in mutant red plastic, but otherwise picks up where Semiotext(e) left off, blasting theoretically informed polemic at a post-industrial world in a tone best described as piratical.

The book pulls together a disparate series of essays and lectures originally composed in the 1990s and mostly published in the now-defunct architectural journal ANY (which has since morphed into Log). Topics – and standards – vary widely. Among the highs are an elegant and concise exposition of the concrete philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, and a fine testimonial to Peter Eisenman’s enigmatic and sombre Holocaust Memorial. Among the lows are a series of lunging polemics – against mediocrity, for vitality, against collegiality, for nostalgia – which Kwinter conducts too aggressively.

The central concern of this volume is the art of technology and its social effects. At a time in which the soft architecture of programs, passwords and protocols is increasingly surpassing the hard architecture of physical buildings, Kwinter warns of the dehumanising effects of the emerging new media landscape, and argues that the wiring of the world harbours totalitarian impulses. “This boundaryless new medium of ‘virtual’ reality,” he writes, “is… not a simulated environment… but a new space altogether… a new total institution, made possible not by confining walls and political, social and medical decrees, but by the seemingly ‘natural’ evolutionary convergence of telephones, data banks, computers, and televisions.”

The pessimism condensed here is clearly apparent: suffice to say that the term “total institution” derives from the work of the sociologist Erving Goffman, who originally used it in connection to prisons and insane asylums. Yet Kwinter is really more hopeful than he seems at first sight. In its recurrent invocation of a mysterious “we”, Far From Equilibrium reads in some ways like a time capsule, recalling the halcyon days of Studebakers and Stalin, in which intellectuals still remained confident that their prescriptions mattered. “To be a modernist,” Kwinter confirms, “is to be existentially committed to history... to believe against all contradictory evidence that one’s work and one’s existence are potential agents of historical transformation.”

Taking into account the sheer scale and complexity of the world historical forces in play here, this doctrine strikes me as questionable, and perhaps even naive. Nevertheless, the best critics aren’t necessarily people with whom you agree, but people with whom you would enjoy a good argument. Kwinter is certainly this, and Far From Equilibrium is an undeniably bracing and enlivening volume.

Far From Equilibrium: Essays on Technology and Design Culture, by Sanford Kwinter, Actar, €26

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