At the invitation of Camila Sotomayor and Tim Matts, I’m contributing an essay to their collection Territories of Trauma and Decay for Punctum Books (2015). I will be drawing from and expanding upon some of the research I’m undertaking for a book I’m currently working on for this. One of the issues I’m addressing in this context is how and why the term ‘environment’ is mobilised in the 60s and early 70s, simultaneously and interrelatedly, within cybernetics, architecture,computing and ecology. My working thesis is that this valorisation of ‘the environment’ is, amongst other things, a move toward what we might now call the ‘post-political’, especially in the wake of May ’68. Certainly this is what Baudrillard suspected. As he wrote for a paper delivered to the Design and Environment Conference at Aspen in 1970, essentially addressed to one of its organisers, Reyner Banham:
The burning question of Design and Environment has neither suddenly fallen from the heavens nor spontaneously risen from the collective consciousness: It has its own history. Professor Banham has clearly shown the moral and technical limits and the illusions of Design and Environment practice. He didn’t approach the social and political definition of this practice. it is not by accident that all the Western governments have now launched (in France in particular for the last six months) this new crusade, and try to mobilize people’s conscience by shouting apocalypse.
In France, the environment issue is a fall-out of May, 1968, more precisely a fall-out of the failure of the May revolution. Ideology, which the political power tries to divert onto rivers and national parks, could happen in the street. In the United States, it is not a coincidence that this new mystique, this new frontier has been developed during and parallel to the Vietnam war. There is in France and in the States a potential crisis situation. Both here and there the governments restructured their fundamental ideology in order to face this crisis and surmount it. We see that ultimately the real issue is not the survival of the human species but the survival of political power.
Looking over the list of sponsors for the 1970 conference also serves as a caution against thinking that corporate financial interests jumped on the environmental bandwagon at some latter and more recent date. They were on the case from the start. Coca-Cola, Ford Motors, IBM, Mobil Oil.
Below is the abstract for my essay.
Scenes of American Desertification: Banham, Baudrillard and the Environment
In the Los Angeles freeway and the Mojave Desert Reyner Banham locates territories of pure circulation; environments in which the subject, unencumbered by the weight and stasis of architecture, joyfully surrenders its autonomy to a cybernetic ecology and its will to the immediate experience of ‘sheer space’. His visions of architecture as the technological facilitation of environmental mobility, of flexibility and adaptability, are realized in America.
Affirmed by Banham, in Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies and Scenes in American Deserta, these same territories were, for Jean Baudrillard, scenes of trauma., The desert, as encountered in his Amerique, was an arid terrain in which a tradition of western intellectual engagement with critique, reflection, depth and interpretation would come to perish. The American freeway – ‘an extravaganza of undifferentiated space’ – with its fetishization of fluidity and circulation, represented the refinement of the new modes of cybernetic and environmental control that had long been the object of Baudrillard’s critique.
Now that imperatives toward circulation, fluidity, and design for ‘the environment’ have become the doxa of architecture, this essay returns to the perspectives of Banham and Baudrillard, and to the scenes of their dispute, so as to reflect upon their significance for an analysis of contemporary architectural discourse and practice.