I’ve been quiet lately because I’m suffering a bit of “liminal paralysis” — “in-between” on so many projects, places, and positions that I’m not quite sure where I am, what I’m doing, or what I think. I recently left a fellowship in Montreal and am now here in Seoul, digging into a completely new research project (without finishing what I started in Canada). I’m “half-way there” on a half-dozen assignments. I still haven’t received word about my tenure review, and the lack of closure on that front is a little unsettling (although I’ve been told by “reputable sources” not to worry).
Because I’m finding myself incapable of making decisions, I’m currently in absorption mode: just taking in new experiences, new languages, new ideas, new foods, etc., without exercising much critical judgment. I’m doing a lot of reading, too — but even though, for the most part, I’m just letting all the new ideas percolate, I have felt some little pricks of annoyance with a few of the texts I’ve read lately. There’s some shadiness out there in the design review world.
A decade-or-so ago, when I was working on my dissertation and reading tons of stuff about Koolhaas and the Seattle Public Library, I regularly had déjà vu: “Wait, did I read this article already?” I chalked it up to four years of extreme sleep deprivation. But I eventually discovered that that déjà vu was for real: quite a few of the articles I read in major design magazines lifted paragraphs from one another and copied lengthy passages from press releases and architect’s statements, verbatim, without citation. A handful of Asian design magazines — which, granted, were better known for their images than text — even copied articles wholesale without attribution. I was a young, conscientious grad student, and was thus shocked by this unscrupulousness.
Here I am now: wizened and disillusioned, and I’m experiencing that effrontery all over again. In the past week I’ve read dozens of articles about Paju Book City, subject of my current research project, and noticed a ridiculous amount of lifting, pilfering, and passing-off-as-one’s-own. This morning I read, in a reputable magazine, a stylishly written article with a rather provocative thesis — and I thought to myself, My, that’s an interesting interpretation. Then tonight I read a book in which the architect himself puts forward the very same thesis that had so intrigued me hours before. Using the same metaphors and everything.
I know this problem isn’t unique to design publications, but because I read a lot of design pubs, it’s where I see it most often. I hope the “authors” of these pieces aren’t getting paid by the word.
Another, perhaps less insidious, tendency is the attempt to provide historical and cultural context for a design, but falling back on a bunch of myths and misconceptions. Example: there have been quite a few recent articles and blog posts about “little libraries.” I contributed one such article a couple months ago; in that article, I commented on the flurry of giddy attention paid to these projects. There’ve been plenty more since then: see this and this and this and this.
Don’t get me wrong: I love these projects and completely understand the enthusiasm. What bugs me is how they’re historically contextualized — or miscontexutalized. Consider this Domus article about Alumnos47/ PRODUCTORA’s Mexico City-based A47 Mobile Library:
At a time when digital information is replacing almost every kind of printed document, iPhones, iPads, Kindles and other similar portable devices have become books.
Okay, we’ve heard this before. But I think we’ve also recognized that it’s not quite so simple. There are plenty of printed documents that haven’t been, and won’t be, digitized. And iPhones haven’t “become books”; they can hold books, among many other media forms, but the phones themselves aren’t books.
It is hard to imagine the concept of a mobile library without immediately thinking of downloading its volumes from the Internet.
Are books themselves not portable? Have we not read Benjamin? He must’ve moved those books before unpacking them, no? And what about bookmobiles? Mule libraries in Appalachia? Biblioburro? Traveling lighthouse libraries?
Many people would regard it as an anachronism to think that a library could still have any relevance as an architectural typology in the face of the digital upheaval that has changed the ways we approach information and objects, transforming entire industries, such as the video, music and printing industries.
<Sigh> Do we have to do this?
How do you take something so opposite to a piece of architecture as a lorry and turn it into not just a library, but a structure capable of hosting an entire spectrum of cultural activities? Looked at in this way, the archaic idea of building libraries started to regain a sense of modernity. Working on this premise, Mexican architecture studio PRODUCTORA came up with the design for a cultural centre within a 20 square metres space on board a Freightliner M2 20K lorry — a travelling building.
So Productora modernized the library by reimagining it as a site for an “entire spectrum of cultural activities”? Rather than heroicizing the designer, again, let’s give some credit to the librarians who already figured this out. The Carnegie libraries hosted an “entire spectrum of cultural activities” — as did, to some degree, the Library of Alexandria.
And here’s another recent “small collection of little libraries” post: To set up a contrast with the informal libraries they’re about to profile, Architizer paints the following picture of the traditional library:
Originally built to protect books from ruin, libraries are generally gigantic bunker-like buildings. Inwardly focused, they restrict access to their treasure troves to those who whisper and can thrive without sunlight.
Maybe a hundred and fifty years ago that was the case — before Labrouste, before open stacks, before children’s rooms, etc.
With the advent of the internet, however, all of the world’s knowledge is available instantly to anyone who desires it.
All of it? Really? I bite my tongue.
Books are no longer precious for the information within them, but rather for their physicality: you can’t hold the internet or turn a webpage (discounting the swipes of an iPad). This frees libraries to pursue another of their functions: to foster dialogue and investigation.
Have not libraries been fostering dialogue and investigation for millennia? Sure, for a good portion of their history, when books were scarce and valuable, protecting the books was a prime concern. But that era ended quite some time ago — unless you’re talking about rare books libraries, which I don’t think they’re thinking of here.
In short: Yes, I understand that you want to ascribe some historical and cultural significance to the design projects you’re reviewing — by suggesting, say, that a team of up-and-coming designers has revolutionized a thousands-of-years-old institution by proposing a new program and making it mobile; or by painting a really bleak picture of the status quo, to which your featured design offers an alternative — but let’s try not to fabricate that context.
And in regard to the previous issue of lack-of-attribution: Yes, I realize that the popular press isn’t beholden to the same standards of citation that we adhere to in academia. But still, I think a little credit when it’s due, and a little less reliance on press releases and rehashing designers’ own proclamations about their work, couldn’t hurt.