Digital screens have become a pervasive presence in our lives. We carry them in our pockets, are guided through cities by those installed to help us navigate transportation services, and often begin and end our day receiving news and entertainment. During the work day, they have become one of the primary points of engagement. This is true not only in professional and service oriented occupations, but manufacturing, logistics, construction, and maintenance. In the context of those engaged in the design, construction, and maintenance of the built environment, the screen has become the primary surface via which design occurs, contractors are increasingly constructing buildings with a paperless job-site, augmented reality on mobile tablets is being used to validate accuracy of construction, and tablets have become pervasive in operating and maintaining buildings once they are complete. At the same time, screens are integrated into the finished product to support the end users.
On one hand, there are no significant challenges for the designer to address as this occurs. Architects have no trouble integrating screens, building management systems, and new generations of IoT products. Product designers have thrived in the context of a consumer culture that has enhanced the demand for their work. BIM, 5D design and planning, and other digital technologies have been embraced by many of the most cutting edge architects as tools that can help them to streamline the design process and deliver more accurate drawings and finished building products that ultimately save their clients time and money. In doing so, these designers see an easy symbiotic relationship between their work and the growing range of apps and technologies serving the built environment, energy, water, waste, and mobility sectors. They see little conflict in venture-backed tech companies creating products that will deeply influence the urban form, how we live, and how we relate to our built environment.
The challenge with this view is that ultimately these trends will transform what we want out of our built environment and the role that architecture and the conventional tools available to the urban planner play. While it is important to examine how the conventional design tools are transformed – a task that we have undertaken in more detail in our essay “Twinning” and that we will touch on as it relates to the primary concern of this essay – the focus of what follows will be what is taking place on these screens and how this is impacting the users and how they relate to space. In particular, we will consider the way in which these screens deliver a range of media – news, text messages, voices, videos, books, and artwork – as well as the way that they support interaction and communication. In doing so, we will consider the way that these screens have created a new relationship to non-digital media holding a particular history of being sited in the city, within buildings, and as part of the flow of our lives. This will allow us to better understand the historic shift that has occurred and see greater historic context for the current digital media so that we might understand the impact they have on the built environment. In part, we will describe an initial impact of the absence of such media encountered in the world and will show that the migration of media into a ubiquitous, mobile, and absorbing digital realm in which people can dwell for considerable periods of time has altered how we relate to space and what we demand of our architecture. Moreover, we will show how this migration has largely foreclosed the capacity of media to mediate. Finally, we will explore how architecture through a new allegiance with other media can restore mediation to the world.
Media, as the plural of medium, are the main means of communication. Historically, media have been both mineral and plant based, spoken and enacted. They have ranged from carved stone to wood pulp used to make paper, sand melted to make glass, metal rolled to create sheets that can be etched for printing, theatrical and dance conventions, and musical forms. Each is able to hold a form that conveys information to someone who knows the language associated with the particular form. This occurs in the context of a broader set of people who share that language and convention of interpretation and understanding.
The historic examples of media find their origins in the earliest form of society. Objects, wall drawings, the spatial configuration of settlings and homes all conveyed meaning and transmitted values. As civilization evolved, sacred objects and fixed wall drawings gave way to a broader set of media including drawings on pottery, sculptural objects, etchings on walls of sacred building, poetry, music, dance, architecture, painting, theater, oral and written mythology, printed books and drawings, reproduced paintings, photographing, film, television, and, ultimately, digital media delivered via screens. Each media has evolved considerably through a wide range of paths determined by discourse and the contribution of specific creators who push the medium forward. Multiple paths within different media are often taken and reconciled through how the new work is received both generally and by a critical audience. In the process, a language is codified and conventions of where media is encountered and sited in our lives and the city are established.
This introduction of media is largely drawn from art history as codified in the early 19th Century by Hegel and later the German and French Romantic art historians. The trajectory of media used to make art, as well as the vast proliferation of media in the service of other ends, calls for an expanded framework of understanding media. More specifically, it calls for us to understand how media are embedded in both the material and cultural realms of society with the capacity to affect and be affected by politics, economics, social values, and the spatial and temporal arrangement of the built environment. In doing so, we should consider the division between the use of media for high art and the segregation of this art in a particular reified realm of curiosity cabinets and museums and mass media ranging from pamphlets to television, streaming news, and the various social media platforms that have come to play such an important role in our lives, our businesses, how we represent ourselves, and how we gain attention and success.
While spoken and written language has remained largely consistent in recent years, the medium that conveys this language has changed significantly with the introduction of digital technology and screens in particular. While minerals still play a significant role in the underlying infrastructure, the medium is now one made of particles. This trend began with the introduction of projected moving images that relied on light passing through celluloid to manifest the medium and continues with the roles that bits, pixels, and illuminated screens play in coming together to constitute the digital medium as one of tremendous flexibility, mutability, and recyclability such that the substrate can hold digital representations of multiple other media from one second to the next, collaged, or superimposed. In the process, media have become both increasingly ephemeral and ethereal as well as accessible and present. While the air itself has not exactly become a medium just yet, it has become an integral part through the conveyance of information that might be decoded to manifest an image on a screen. At the same time, as smart speakers proliferate, the words that one says and that pass into the air begin to transform the color of light, the temperature, images, and products to the point where it is hard to really create a division. This is a condition that we explored in collaboration with Amazon for our design of the world’s first smart-salon.
Media, of course, must be both conceived and received. Historically, its creation has been undertaken by artisans, craftsmen, and artists. They produce a range of objects from decorated baskets to complexly composed paintings that illustrate a significant moment from a religious text. Both communicate the intent of the author as well as a broader cultural meaning through context, placement, and use. While we might consider all of these things as media of sorts, a distinction should be drawn between those things, surfaces, objects, and performances that engage in representational activities and utilize a structured language and those that do not. In this sense, an industrially produced objects such as a stapler or even a woven basket with a geometric pattern is very different from a sculpture of a political leader or the person holding that basket performing a part of a story. A big part of this distinction is the intentionality of the creator and the extent to which that intentionality is communicated. While someone designs the stapler, the production process and the labor become equally significant in it functioning. By contrast, there is an immediacy between the hand of the artist and the eye of the person gazing upon the painting. Through this logic, we can extend media to include specific ways of manipulating fashion and food that does not apply to all clothing and things we eat – specifically, clothing that represents and reconciles societal forces and food that represents and synthesizes desires, places, and cultures.
Mass media shows a slightly different structure. While the reporter or news anchor is speaking directly to the receiver and is utilizing an underlying language, they are doing so with the support of a vast production apparatus. They are also utilizing a representational language that does not present a fiction, but seeks to convey facts and deliver information about an underlying reality. In many ways, the appeal of platforms like Twitter and Instagram lies in the un-produced line of direct communication – albeit one that still relies on a huge infrastructure – to a wider range of people. It is appealing because it allows for a connection to cultural producers – celebrities – in a way that gets behind their conventional representational fictitious medium for which they are known and to an “authentic” presentation of their life, experiences, and values.
This relationship between different goals of representation as it relates to both the producers and the receivers illustrates both the range of what media can be used for and the range of what we desire from it. Recently, it appears that this desire is for more “reality” – both in the stories that we are interested in and in the documentary media we consume. While one might think that this would lead to greater interest in the physical world, our hunger for this reality has only led us away from the architecture that surrounds us and into the digital realm where we are told our desires can be fulfilled by what we find is a representation of reality. In doing so, we have left a number of physical media including architecture behind and placed our confidence in what the digital allows for, where it is sited, and those who control its existence. This has sacrificed a number of things that those other media have supported – namely representation of people in general and mediation – in favor of gambling on the digital realm to fulfill our desires. In what follows, we will explore this potential loss and how we might restore what we have lost.
If digital screens are pulling our attention away from the physical world and the media encountered there, it is important to understand from what we are being pulled. Architecture is somewhat unique among the other media that we have mentioned. While it certainly represents things – some would argue columns represent trees, pyramids the structure of the universe, palaces our desire for immortality, and cathedrals God’s home on earth – and while there is certainly a language defining rhythm, proportion, spatial arrangement, legibility of navigation, form, material, and color that is quite similar to music, architecture is unique in being able to contain all the other media. It is defined in containing these other media. Concert halls serve arrangements of musicians and audience as well as acoustics. Cathedrals are designed to accommodate glass, stone, and carved wood surfaces that tell the story of God the place serves. Great halls and personal suites of elite accommodate large frescos and picture galleries are conceived with a specific height and lighting condition. More recently, living rooms are designed to accommodate radios and television screens. Airports and stadia incorporate media screens conveying information about what is taking place in the building and the surrounding cultural context.
In addition, architecture is somewhat distinct because, like orchestral as opposed to program music, it communicates without a direct connection to text. While a door invites entry, a window facilitates a view, lighting and atmospheric conditions make one feel a certain way, and scale convey monumentality or intimacy, they do not say why one should enter or what the pyramid means. This task is left to text chiseled into the stone itself. Some architects have sought to uncover a latent textuality of architecture and develop an entirely autonomous language of architecture that does not have to communicate or collaborate with other media or contexts in order to support meaning and drive user satisfaction – perhaps as a fitting in-ward looking response to the increased retreat from the physical into the virtual by the inhabitants of architecture. Their ambitions range from attempting to excavate some fundamental language of form that speaks to the inhabitant and can be used to tailor form to desire to the hope that architecture can be the site of reconciliation of opposing forces. Some have sought to develop an architecture that can reconcile traumatic events of the past with a present lived reality that might help those who engage the architecture to heal and overcome the violence of the past. Others have called on the building itself to negotiate the line between one side and the other in order to reconcile what is taking place on either side.
The former group that sees a fundamental language of architecture has largely led to self-referential architecture concerned with form that, although interesting, largely relies on a textual, oratorial, or personal imagination accompaniment to make any sense of the form and actually constitute meaning – thus restoring that collaboration between an external media. The latter group has produced very powerful and moving spaces that, like the former group, require additional explanation and context. Still, the latter group has been more successful because of the way in which the form of their architecture engages the context and existing historic architectural form. This act of framing, pointing, and contrasting invokes a range of media that have been used to describe and give meaning to that context. In this sense, their work both seeks to codify a medium specificity of architecture through geometric structure that collages, collates, and edits other media in order to convey meaning and provide a space for reconciliation of potentially disparate media, languages, cultures, histories, and values. In our work, we see great potential in this clarification of the specificity of what architecture can accomplish, but have sought to streamline the complexity of geometric languages while also contemplating an expanded field in which we work through collaboration with a wider range of media – thus ultimately producing a non-media specific work that includes architecture as one aspect.
Media require infrastructure to support their distribution to the point where they can be consumed. This process of distribution has significant spatial and architectural implications. It also reflects the specific market for media – both as determined by exchanges that purchase that media and general consumer demand. The markets themselves have a specific architecture as does the specific point where the means of transmitting the media gives way to the media itself either through some form of translation through a device such as a phone or through the unpacking or presentation of the media as with a painting or performance. This transmission process occurs via wires, roads, bridges, railroads, ships, vehicles, printing presses, and production studios among other elements. These networks are created and controlled by governments and companies that make content and support the network infrastructure as well as the network of people that consume the media.
The screens that have entered our daily lives are only the most recent expression of capital control and production as the underlying media and mediating force. They create an interface that enforces the system – both as a distraction that can fill leisure time and that can do so as people work less as automation and capital investment decreases the need for human labor. In recent years, the screen has itself become money – or, at least, a representation of money. It is a means of both paying and finding things to buy. In the process, pressure has been placed on traditional forms of urbanism that have risen around places like banks, stores, and malls.
The construction and maintenance of this infrastructure is supported by direct consumption of the media and its content. It is also often subsidized by a government or organization that can borrow on future revenue to invest in costly infrastructure systems. In many cases, a network designed to deliver one sort of media may sell another media the right to use that network in exchange for access to the attention of those interested in the communication occurring via that network. This is the case when advertising is sold on news websites or space in high-end art fairs is sold to luxury vendors. The consequence of both is the possibility that the primary purpose of the media is subverted to the capital sources – ultimately running the risk of reducing all media to the service of the media of capital and those that control it.
The infrastructure that support media and the delivery of the message makes it possible to convey a message over a considerable distance. This is often a costly endeavor and we shouldn’t be too quick to reject the presence of capital in communication networks. A great deal has come from the investments made in global communication ranging from underwater communication lines to space-based satellites. These have created a wide range of possibilities for society, jobs, and development. The coordination has led to a greater sense of global security and overall a more unified approach to how we live together on this planet. It has also led to an increasing capacity to travel, meet other cultures, and experience extraordinary places. This process of globalization has had a tremendous impact on how we build – both through a wider vocabulary available to the architect as well as access to a wider range of materials and manufacturing options with which to build new structures.
At the same time, these networks create the possibility of promoting allegiance to a particular person, system, or way of life. Both infrastructure and media are tools of control of space and time. They make it possible to control how mediation occurs between the economic base of a culture and the ideas and value systems of the culture that is given rise by this base. As Marx suggested in The German Ideology “The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.” In the current context, there is a struggle over the freedom of the use of digital media and who profits from and controls the infrastructure of distribution. On one hand, companies are eager to control data to facilitate advertising as the economic engine that supports infrastructure. On the other hand, you have users who want to use the media as a genuine site of mediation and tool to resist oppression and organize a protest or even a revolution. As this occurs, media blurs with lived reality and individual will as a constitutive process.
Once media has been distributed, it is encountered in a moment or as part of an event. Historically, we find stained glass in the walls of churches, paintings in alcoves of chapels and the great halls of private villas, sculptures in public piazzi to commemorate a victory or victor, and murals on the sides of buildings to celebrate a narrative. At the same time, we encounter the radio sitting in a chair by the fireplace, the newspaper on the front step, newsstand, or at the breakfast table. We find books resting by comfortable chairs and travel to movie theaters to watch films. Today, we watch films on our own couch and can stream any digitized versions of all of the above media anywhere in the world. In this sense, the specific event of conscious encounter has been subverted by a generality of encounter that leaves us less attuned to the encounter and more desensitized – thus diminishing the impact of the media, the reward we attain, and our desire to participate in the future.
These sites of encounter create specific parameters for the shape of the room, the type of furniture that might be there, and the lighting and air quality. At the same time, they create routes that we travel through the city and focal points that set up a logic of how new construction might occur. In this sense, the historic relationship between media and architecture is one in which media frames and places demands on spatial arrangements. The best relationships are ones in which the architecture exceeds the demands of the media and in doing so creates a form that attracts future attention and desire to be there together. We can see this in great museums and theaters as well as in domestic architecture that create stunning settings to relax with a book and corporate architecture offering great lobbies to display artwork that shows the values of the organization.
Infrastructure and distribution networks have determined the current relationship between media and architecture. This relationship is defined by a hierarchy of media and the spaces in which they are encountered. These can be divided between interior and exterior, public and private, G and X-Rated, sacred and profane, young and old, free and costly, open and exclusive, banal and stylish, general and elite. Each is sited within the city at a particular location that has come to be associated with its qualities and served by infrastructure scaled and tailored to its needs. While we still encounter all the media of the past, some examples of how new media is sited in relationship to architecture include large screens such as those in Times Square, televisions in restaurants, screens in elevators, large projection walls, colored facades and building tops that convey a message, radios and dashboard screens in cars on roads, earbuds connected to smart phones and their screens moving through buildings, tablets moving through buildings, tablets used as augmented reality devices to maintain buildings and equipment, screens embedded in walls that control building systems, computers screens mounted to desks, projects within offices, screens that one orders food from at restaurants, watches moving through buildings, screens at the gym, digital billboards along roads, on building, and in public plaza, and digital public sculpture.
Beyond initial delivery, there are some media that go on to be exchanged repeatedly. These media have a certain significance such that those who come into contact with the media feel that it is necessary to share the media with others in hopes of furthering the message and perhaps creating a community that values the message. This could be a pamphlet that expresses a certain view of the monarchy or a totemic object that is said to protect the beholder. It could equally be a recorded message that is shared on social media by millions of people. In each case, the object or substrate holding the media gains value in the process. Sometimes this occurs by valuing the singular object as a rarity. In other cases, it occurs through compensating the creator for each time the replicable object is downloaded or viewed. In either case, the process of circulation creates value beyond the initial value system inherent in the object. This makes it possible to debate both as we consider media, how it functions, and how it impacts the built environment.
This process of circulation and valuation has architectural implications that are unique to each media. While we could examine how the circulation of traveling theater and opera companies, films, and novels has impacted architecture, we will focus on one example that is perhaps the most impactful for architecture and can be extrapolated to other media: the relationship between painting and architecture. From pre-historic wall paintings to Renaissance frescoes, painting has – perhaps with the exception of Byzantine idols – been wed to the substrate of the wall. This symbiotic relationship was only deepened during the Renaissance when creatives worked as both architects, sculptors, and artists and, in the process, invented perspective that was used both to design spaces and construct the paintings on the walls of the spaces that now were able to convey a greater sense of reality and thus, simultaneously, illusion – giving rise both to a new power of representation as well as the capacity to fool.
The works of art, however, that were created on these walls could not circulate or be exchanged. In this context, we see a shift from the wall as the substrate of painting as fresco to canvas and stretcher bar as substrate and support system. This shift not only made it possible to remove a painting from a building that was going to be torn down, but made it possible for the painting to be sold and for it to be easily de-stretched and rolled to travel at a fraction of its original size. This mobility and capacity to circulate ultimately culminated in the current situation of streaming images constituting a world museum accessible from any screen.
In the process, the context and frame are removed. The medium becomes site-less. While the spatiality and temporality contained within the limits of the medium may remain intact, the removal from context abstracts the receiver of the medium. They become a general receiver outside of a particular space or time. This generalization removes the biases, languages, histories, and bodily physicality of the receiver, thus removing the medium from a lived time. While the media can be re-installed, the media runs the risk of being perceived as an alien entity. To compensate, additional text may be required to restore the context. In many cases, this care is not taken. The more this occurs, the more that media ignores this requirement and becomes tailored to a generalized receiver.
As the media continues to circulate, however, those involved in the circulation may be presented with the possibility of repackaging it for specific types of receivers such as has occurred with museum exhibitions of African Masks and with advertisements custom tailored to specific geographic regions or demographic types. In the process, those who package the media can make assumptions about those audiences that do not accurately reflect who the person is outside the media. Sometimes this common when making assumptions about specific racial or ethnic groups. The subject is invented as an extension of the logic of the language of that media. The result is that the temporality of the human body in a lived reality does not necessarily sync with the time and space of a given media.
While the temporality of a human body might be considered to be relatively standard across classes and geographies, the temporality of different media are not. This creates an opportunity for myriad disjunctions between the time of the body and the time of the media as more forms of media enter our lives and as these forms become more ubiquitous and pervasive. The conflict does not necessarily feel good as one is forced to rush or wait without consideration for health. In this context, people might be tempted to become allied with media time and abandon their bodily time – with expectedly disastrous long term affects. Moreover, the more their reality is ignored by media, the more they might want to abandon that reality and embrace an allegiance to that other reality and perhaps the control that such a power structure might want to impose in order to continue to enhance the number of people that are interested in a platform – thus increasing its profitability and capacity to replicate the process in perpetuity.
The purpose of media is to communicate, to reconcile difference through mediation, and do so in such a way that we can understand the meaning and ultimate value of what has occurred. Communication addresses specific groups that have the capacity to decode the language of the medium. This can be seen in the ways that religious paintings brought together the clergy and the wealthy patrons supporting the artists who created the paintings. It can be seen in the community of the illiterate faithful who came to know the stories of the Bible via stained glass windows and carved reliefs. More recently, it can be seen in those members of Paris Society who were concerned with the most recent works to debut at the Salons and be produced by the Académie.
As the specificity of media has been relaxed and the rules governing the media been challenged, the community too has become far more diverse to the point where there are no limits to who can join. While their remains a barrier to entry in the contemporary art world in terms of the time needed to learn about the myriad artists producing new work, what drives them, and attain the entre that will allow you to be validated as a collector worthy of becoming a custodian of their work, there is no barrier to seeing a new show at a gallery or museum.
With this new openness comes the possibility of diffusion of the message that a work might contain as well as a generalization of the discourse carried by the medium to the point where nothing is being said because of the desire of a broad general appeal. In this context, those working to produce content for media must be particularly rigorous in the logic of their work, their intentionality, the precision of their craft, and the broader purpose. Those helping to frame and present the media – whether a person or in some cases a digital device or architectural frame – must help support this rigor and translate or interpret intent if necessary and, in some cases, make the illegibility of intent clear as esoteric hermeticism designed to obscure a lack of anything to say and propel a career within the economy of images.
It is important to understand the role that classical media played in the reconciliation of societal forces – such as the publication of inflammatory pamphlets that called people to revolution – as well as the role that new media are playing and how both past and present are allied with more fundamental media such as capital or money. Moreover, we should understand where they were sited and what it means for them to become increasingly ethereal and ubiquitous in our buildings. This is especially important because this ubiquity is accompanied with control by large digital corporations, venture funds, and investment trusts that have the capacity to foreclose independent platforms, open media, free exchange, and dissent that might seek to reconcile negative living conditions, wages, or personal freedoms. In this sense, we should ask in what follows, how can architecture participate in reconciliation of opposing forces towards the creation of a better society.
While media can be used to convey a simple message that may have little consequence, they can also perform a much more significant role in society – often through the cumulative activities within a media, the collective activities across media, and through an understanding of a hierarchy of media and their relationship to underlying forces existing within a media that account for what happens in other media. This process makes it possible for media to serve as the site where different physical realities are represented, the representation debated, and the physical reality changed as a result. This has generally been referred to as mediation or the reconciliation of two opposing forces. The central mediating factor of a given culture has historically been considered to be the medium of communication itself. It is there that opposing societal forces such as between the cultural and material realms or the superstructure and base, can be worked out. In the context of Marxism and the problem of determination, capital becomes the mediating or determining factor, with the capitalist setting the wage rate or exchange value of labor. Given, however, that labor is itself worth something, the mediator might be considered to be money itself. In this sense, while media such as television and twitter might be venues in which forces are reconciled, they ultimately both reflect and influence how they are reconciled at a more fundamental or perhaps higher level through another medium.
Media has the capacity to create a buffer or reconcile our relationship to the spaces that we inhabit. This occurs when we use a map to navigate the world or understand a message from a mural adorning the side of a building or interior of room. Historically, these instances of mediation have helped people to read and engage their environment. With the introduction of digital media, there are some instances where digital screens help us to navigate and engage the physical reality. There are perhaps a greater number of instances, however, where digital mediation has created a greater distance from the environment we inhabit. On the other hand, media has played a significant in reconciling opposing forces within a society. This has occurred through communication of opposing values through a process that brings a community together in support of a set of values that determine what people are allowed to do, how a society is configured, the norms of social intercourse, and how the physical environment in which we live is constructed. In this sense, while the mediation that occurs within a given medium – perhaps we could call it virtual rather than physical mediation – does not always directly impact the walls, windows, and roof a building, the results of that mediation can have a very significant impact.
The presence of these digital surfaces are mediating our experience and how we engage the world. They have created something that stands in-between us and our world. In doing so, they have also created the potential for us to have avatars or proxies that exist within that surface that fulfil needs that we might not be able to fulfil in the physical world – perhaps as a result of the growing presence of those surfaces and this state of mediation. Creating distance or something in-between the subject and the world that they inhabit effects the physical constitution, design, and construction of that world. This mediation sets the parameters for what we need out of habitat – both to compensate for the deficiencies of mediation and to compliment them. Each subsequent new media supported by new technology requires a unique habitat that the architect must design.
In the context of the flatness of the surfaces on which media are consumed today, we might consider ways in which architecture can restore depth and provide balance to the time spent looking at a glowing screen. It can be restorative – helping eyes to reset and bodies tired of sitting in chairs looking at computers to heal. At the same time, we might look at ways in which architecture can capitalize on the artificial depth of the screen that allows for the simulation of traveling great distance that disengages the receiver from their physical environment. This might involve a more intimate collaboration with digital game architects and those of the built environment to create genuinely compelling physical and virtual environments that are uniquely accessed from a specific point in the world. This would restore a specificity to the location of media in the city rather than having ubiquitous screens streaming the same content everywhere.
Media have supported reconciliation as well as the form that this reconciliation has taken. The reconciliation of each media can be located when it becomes “political” by transcending being “just a painting.” This occurs when it breaks free from the system of value and transcendence of which it was a part and affects the broader condition. The work is no longer constrained within a power structure. We can see this occurring with the work of David during the French Revolution, the work of Goya during the conflicts between Spain and the French Empire, the Soviet Suprematists and Constructivists, the Situationists, and much more recently, artists such as Basquiat and other street artists. In each case, the artist either pushed the limits of existing media or, as in the case of the Situationists who made walking a part of their art and Basquiat who returned to public walls as the site of painting and writing, looked for entirely new configurations of their medium. In many ways, the shift towards an expanded field of art through non-media specific and yet site-specific artwork, is an attempt to increase the capacity for such transcendence. In this sense, any economics of the image sustaining artwork as currency ultimately rests on a political economy of the image as its true source of value.
The capacity to circulate has given works of predominantly visual art – mostly paintings and sculptures – tremendous value. Through an international art market supported by galleries, art fairs, auction houses, freeports, and museums, a system has been created that has allowed art to become a currency itself. This has made it possible for art to challenge money and capital as the fundamental medium in which reconciliation of forces occurs. Evidence of this reconciliation can be found in the advocacy of artists for greater environmental consciousness, equitable housing, and social equality that began to gain momentum in the 1960s. This advocacy continued through the 1980s and ‘90s with the collective response to the AIDS crisis. It can also be found in the validation of the content of the work, and the mediation that its content represents, of African American artists such as Kerry James Marshal, David Hammons, Rashid Johnson, Nick Cave, Mark Bradford, and Theaster Gates among many others. At the same time, it has supported the something similar for women artists ranging from Eva Hesse, Ana Mendieta, Adrian Piper, Carolee Schneeman, Joan Jonas, Helen Frankenthaler, Cindy Sherman, Linda Bengalis, Kiki Smith, and Marina Abramovic among many others as well as broader feminist activism.
In this context, we might consider the way in which architecture could attain a similar currency rather than being marginalized, subverted, or coopted by capital. This capacity for activism and reconciliation can of course be extended well beyond these largely visual art practices. It can certainly be found in theater, dance, and music across a range of genres as well as mass and digital media. We can see endless arguments traced on countless social media accounts and the ways that such behavior on social media has real consequences in terms of elections and broader geopolitical reality. We can also see the effects on how people see themselves, their communities, and country in which they live. Moreover, we can see how digital communication has real effects on what people consume, how they live, and what is built. Unlike a play that represents a process of reconciliation or an artwork that physically combines disparate objects or a socially engaged art practice that interviews community members, represents their desires, and gives them voice, it is unclear whether communication is actually the site of the mediation as opposed to facilitating or leading to or even provoking mediation elsewhere. We will consider this more in what follows.
Designers and architects should be more aware of the process of physical and virtual mediation. Their work can impact and enhance the quality and functionality of the spaces they create. They have the capacity to advocate for and manifest values and goals for society that those in control of media might not share and instead seek to subject others to values that are ultimately detrimental to society as a whole. This is particularly important within the context of a transition from a situation where the walls, their narrative decorations, and the style and organization of a building as well as how it is situated spatially in the city conveyed meaning and provided orientation to a situation where other non-architectural surfaces do so.
The need for architecture to actively take control of tools of mediation is particularly important in the current context of the foreclosure of the capacity of cities and architecture to accommodate difference and representation. Many aspects of the built environment is subject to control and securitization. This trend began when cities became the site of reconciliation of opposing forces instead of the battlefield. While cities have historically utilized walls to keep external forces at bay, once the walls were breached, the conflict was decided and all that remained was plunder and occupation. During the Late Middle Ages and as cities outgrew their walls and as competing forces grew within a given city, fortified palaces began to become increasingly common. Once cities no longer relied on walls for defense and in the context of the class struggles of the 18th and 19th Centuries, the streets became sites of considerable violence. Both sides of the conflict utilized barricades and other means to take control of the streets. With the success of various revolutions and counter revolutions, there has been a growing attempt to design the city in such a way as to prevent future revolutions from occurring as well as to introduce security forces and in some cases human and mechanical surveillance to prevent forces counter to the power structure from taking hold. This dialectical process often sees sites of meaning appropriated by new regimes that impose their mark through statues, murals, obelisks, and other means of communicating their control and value system. It might even be extended to a strategy of activating the whole surface of the city as a form of theater akin to that conceived by the Surrealists and later Situationists.
Beyond the medium itself as a site of reconciliation, media, and the underlying media of capital in particular, has played a significant role in the way that the built environment has been construction and modified over time. Wars have destroyed cities, new regimes have leveled neighborhoods to make way for new ambitions, and walls have been erected to divide communities. Places have become the sites of riots, murder, and genocide. At the same time, the way that infrastructure has been erected has created unique power structures that privilege specific communities that concentrate power and reflect the victors of past battles. Moreover, the leaders of victorious groups have used architecture as a means of reflecting their power, conveying their ideology, and creating space in which their supporters can gather. During such instances, the space is often filled with the sound of the leader sharing their message – turning the entire space into a container of media. In this context, pamphlets may be handed out, apparel signaling allegiance worn, and pictures taken to commemorate and spread the message of the event.
In the current context, we should return to an idea the we explored earlier: namely, that we find media is no longer the site of mediation. The way that media is sited in our lives and the city has occurred in such a way that mediation is largely foreclosed. Instead, we have an illusion of mediation. In its place, we see our desires displaced rather than fulfilled. They are consolidated within the digital surface of the media experience. In their absence, there is a void of investment in the physical world. All profits are increasingly being made and spent within the digital realm as a tight, integrated and homogenous standardized zone while all real difference and conflict is remanded to the surface.
We would argue that this foreclosure of the capacity for digital media to be vehicles of mediation is the result of their disconnection from the physical world and ubiquity, the disjunction between the temporality of media and that of the human body, the competing temporalities of different media delivered digitally, the fleeting nature of media on digital surfaces and the capacity to replace one piece of content with the other, and the control of digital media infrastructure by corporate forces. The disconnection and ubiquity makes it difficult to form communities that use the media itself as tools of reconciliation directed at some specific material force or reality. The disjunction between the time of media and that of the body makes digital media contribute to further alienation from self and thus, in a way, puts off reconciliation of forces. The competing set of media makes it difficult to focus a process of reconciliation. Instead, it is dispersed across a range of platforms. Finally, the fleeting nature makes it difficult to inscribe the consequences of mediation in the world such that we can see benchmarks and meet them in time. Finally, the control by capital seeks to defend the use of the media from anything that would threaten its power – namely, fare pay for those who create the base infrastructure that facilitates the existence of the digital realm from factory workers in China and call center workers in India to warehouse workers in the United States and everyone whose jobs are displaced via automation.
One might ask why it is important for digital media to support mediation. In many ways, it is not important for digital media to support mediation, but very important that mediation is possible. Given that digital media have surpassed all forms of traditional media in terms of attention and capital, it is somewhat alarming that the media does not fulfil the function that other media have in the past. In this context, we are left to look towards those media that we have mentioned and ask if there are steps that can be taken that will not only recapture some of the attention that has shifted to the digital, but perhaps create strategies that will allow the digital to participate in mediation and for progress to be made.
Some might point to the fact that digital media has been used to represent a range of political positions and that they have played a significant role in getting certain leaders elected. Digital campaigns have led to built projects moving forward or being canceled. While these cases certainly show evidence of the resolution of opposing forces, we feel that they are somewhat insufficient, that resolution is slow, and that clear agency is lacking. Moreover, we feel that there is a greater impression that digital media can contribute to deeper societal change than is actually the case. We are subject to media that represent mediation rather than actually engaging in mediation. In doing so, they cut off genuine capacity for digital media to communicate with other media in which mediation might actually be occurring such as contemporary socially engaged artwork on one hand and capital on the other. This is due to the fact that representation is driven by desire, agency, and intention while mediation is an event reflecting determining forces. This leads to a disjunction between occurrences at different material levels.
Architecture in collaboration with media can create site specific encounters and challenge the ubiquitous media network in order to provide an alternative to this illusion. It could re-introduce mediation to the city as a tool of reconciling the opposing forces of wealth and power and the people whose labor supports that wealth and power. It could support the reconciliation of the alienation of people from place and infusion of place with capitalist control and the desires of the base to not be alienated from their labor. To a certain extent, mediation would support the reconciliation of the past, present, and future of a place.
Before this occurs, however, we would need to un-mediate our lives and the city and un-mediate architecture. By this we mean to point to the need to remove the ubiquitous presence of media and create a new ground on which we might re-introduce media and facilitate mediation. This might occur by creating space that is first and foremost strictly off-line and not digital. It would be to subject architecture to a standard of silence that removes the mandate of communication and replaces it with an inward looking focus in order to arrive at the essence of that space and the architecture that contains it. This might be coupled with an invitation to specific groups of people to enter this meditative space and engage in a resetting process.
In order to restore the promise of genuine collaboration between architecture and media and the possibility of genuine mediation, we should examine the specific media with which architecture might collaborate. We can divide media into two groups: driven by medium specificity and non-medium specific. This lineage begins with drawing, painting, and sculpture as well as narrative storytelling, mythology, and poetry. It continues with the evolution of these forms during the Renaissance and the rise of printing, reproducible artwork, books, and eventually newspapers. At the same time, it evolved through the invention of photography and eventually film. In the process, people expected specific things from each media. Painting, in particular, was intended to evoke a scene from a shared narrative culture and was judged through the quality of the composition, rendition of the figures, color, contrast, and novelty.
Ultimately, the subject becomes less important than the manipulation of the medium itself to the point where quality is defined by composition and materiality. Something similar might be said for literature and the culmination of the form in the great modernist works such as Finnegan’s Wake that were mostly concerned with language as opposed to meaning and narrative. The same, however, cannot be said of photography and film. Although some filmmakers have attempted to make artwork whose only content is the medium of film itself – evacuating the subject and concentrating on the contrast between light and its absence as well as the chemical composition and its potential decay of celluloid or later glitches in digital film – the greatest success of the medium has been in engaging the world, its architecture, and subjects. This is perhaps due in part to the fact that the medium reached their maturity after the end of the Modernist Epoch in the rise of a trend towards non-medium specificity. In the process, they paved the way for an expanded cinema similar to an expanded field of sculpture that would help elucidate what collaboration between media as well as between media and environment would look like.
The group of non-media specific artists sought to combine media, create artwork that referenced external conditions, and that incorporated a cultural context. Such work began to address the potentially placeless nature of artwork and the commodification of artwork as image. This occurred through site-specific work, earth art, relational artwork, and interdisciplinary collaboration. While we once might have expected a newspaper to relay recent events and a landscape painting to capture the sun setting over the crest of a mountain, this new approach to media has created the capacity for a single work to operate on multiple levels. In the process, it has created the possibility of addressing a wider range of groups that might have once been more attracted or suited to engaging one medium as opposed to another. It has also created the capacity for artworks to deliver messages with a wider range of speeds and at a greater range of scales than might have been possible within the context of a discourse driven by medium specificity that, in many ways, led to a very self-referential discourse that those unfamiliar with it struggled to find meaning in. The result is both a greater freedom to connect with people and environment and also a greater risk that the work will lack cohesion as a result of not delivering a legible language or trying to appeal to too many groups without succeeding in appealing to one.
Following this resetting to create a new ground, we might then begin exploring some of the collaborations that we have pointed to between architecture and artists as well as between architecture and a custom-tailored digital realm. In doing so, we should begin by acknowledging the implications that such a move would have for representation – both in terms of how a building is drawn and built as well as for how people are represented, how their values are accounted for, the voice they are given, and how their desires are reflected as a material reality. This would follow a shift from an era when representation relied on a perspectival hinge to one that has no point of view. This is essentially a shift from mediation as the act of drawing and constructing the future space and accounting for what existed to a situation where a digital model is the mediation. This model has the capacity to intersect with a range of other data sets and interfaces that can further integrate the experience, desires, and digital footprint of a user with how space is constructed. This would be a space where social and political representation can intersect with how we represent what we want space to look like in the future. This occurs in the context of extreme competition for attention and investment that causes the general consumer to focus on how their engagement with media can impact their built environment.
In the context of the distraction that screen can provide, it is important to consider the way in which the built environment can be absolved of construction quality and interest. It is easy to imagine a situation where all value is generated in the virtual realm and so little money is invested in the physical. If all interaction takes place in the virtual realm, investment in urban form that supports interaction does not have to occur. In this context, we should look at ways that the digital medium can serve as a platform that can create a habitat for a range of Apps that can improve the quality of the built environment through mobility, support the reporting of maintenance issues, enhance security and access to information, and support accessing food and health services among other areas. In this sense, we might build on the reflections of our essay on Digital Twins and suggest that a parallel Digital Twin can be used in a manner that enhances rather than detracts from the physical by, among other things, creating economic investment strategies to improve urban architecture and infrastructure. In this sense, we might see a very direct way of using media to influence the urban form through the support of capital that would in turn enhance the depth of physical and human interaction that is possible for a much wider range of people. In doing so, mediation of various conditions ranging from urban decay, unequal development, and educational disparity to income inequality and lack of job security might be supported.
In this context, the architect should think about ways that they can begin integrating this digital life for the building earlier in the design process and consider what should be inhabited virtually and what should be inhabited physically rather than leaving this to the owner, the inhabitant, or app developers. This would create new potential for architecture, space, and design to cultivate alignment with specific narratives, content, values, and meanings. The architect could imagine a virtual space accessed via their physical building that is essentially a virtual set for a story that the inhabitant can move through like a movie. This could be a game like environment, but could also be a narrative about the history of the city or the people who were displaced when the condo was constructed. It could also be a virtual reality that simulates shopping for groceries connected to an ordering platform. In either case, this sort of allegiance would create room for architecture to participate in mediation.
In addressing this disjunction through a resetting and reintegration, we might endeavor to create a more cohesive experience of time through increasing common room and integration of media that in turn leads to a more accurate representation with greater connectivity to a capacity to determine the material realm. This should not be an isolated strategy at a central point that one must seek out, but a strategy for the broader built environment in general. Such a strategy would require a set of tools, tactics, and strategies of creating specific interventions in the world. Some of these have been explored in an earlier work called “Mediated Urbanism.” In this essay, we considered what might possible outside the limitations of a specific client or urban reality that so often govern our work at FGP Atelier. In order to begin to take steps towards addressing the concerns that we have raised in this essay and implementing some of the strategies we have explored elsewhere we would have to develop a coalition seeking to change how we live and build cities, represent ourselves and our world, and reconcile forces towards a better future.