Mutations of Fame
         

by Mark Wigley

It is no surprise that education and celebrity have become inseparable. Schools earnestly point themselves towards the celebrated few, bringing the ambitions of student, teacher, institution and discipline into a strict, almost totalitarian, alignment. For all their talk about the complexity of architectural practice in a globalized world, most programs are devoted to reproducing the work of star designers, operating as low resolution Xerox machines that hold our field back by locking students into the norms of the recent past. The best young minds are enlisted in old battles rather than empowered as activists in new ones. Celebrity reshapes the curriculum, even if it is never named or studied as such. Dullness becomes mandatory through the quiet synchronization of all design practice. The problem is not imitation or repetition as such. Both can be put to destabilizing ends. It is more a question of the mode of attention adopted, and particularly the rhythm. After all, a curriculum is simply an allocation of time - a division of the field into sectors and the assignment of a particular length of time of study to each - and celebrity is simply a way of revaluing time.

The basic formula is clear: the more your celebrity, the less time you should spend in the school. Indeed, the proof of your importance is the minimization of your presence. You have to compete with your colleagues to be seen less. The mission is to be the least available to the students, and therefore appear the most valuable to them. Teachers fight to be absent and schools compete for teachers who promise to be there less. The celebrity of a school itself depends on maximizing the number of star teachers who are dedicated to minimizing their effort. A school might even unconsciously encourage its most famous faculty to be away more. The most ambitious school of all would need to amass and celebrate a formidable army of absent teachers. Students would bask in the glow of the infinite importance and distant location of their faculty. How could one possibly be impressed by anyone who has time to spend with you? Your dream teacher need only appear for a single micro-second of unimaginable intensity in which your whole identity as an architect is transformed, a single massive dose of a pedagogical steroid.

If the first proof of a teacher’s importance is the minimization of their time, the second is the maximization of their compensation. Having demonstrated their increased value by being less present, they need to be rewarded for their new status. The essential formula governing architectural education is less for more, less time = more money. A simple graph of this Miesian logic would show the salary increasing exponentially as the amount of time spent in the school declines, offering a continuous spectrum from the ever-present unsung teachers on the left to the celebrated absentees on the right. Architecture schools are increasingly organized by this absurdly simple but unavoidable formula. In general, there are more teachers at the left hand end than the right, but each school draws differently from the range to assemble a unique ecology. Some try to use only the far ends of the spectrum, assembling a large team of anonymous dedicated worker-bees to support a small roster of superstars. Others also draw from the middle to maintain a clearly divided coach, business, and first class section (without any upgrade program). Others draw only on the middle, concentrating on the sweet spot of time commitment and compensation. Many cannot afford to even think of going towards the celebrity end. But the basic ambition of schools, like that of each member of faculty, is to move towards the right hand side of the graph, maximizing the imagined contact with the force of fame, paradoxically bringing the professional world into the school by allowing the faculty to be out of the school so much.

This ambition, whether realized or not, structures the contemporary landscape of education. No school is immune. Even the least celebrated parts of the least celebrated schools are organized by the relentless mystic of celebrity. There is no untainted corner, no pocket of resistance to the intrusions of the marketplace that is not defined by the very thing it seems to resist. One obvious form of resistance to celebrity value is the lack of money, but in a strange way the absence of celebrities from schools that cannot afford them gives those absent figures precisely the same pull on those schools as is dreamed of by the schools that can afford them. The team of absent stars acts as a mobile facade to all the schools that crave their attention, a facade to architectural education itself. Their bright glow keeps our attention away from the incisiveness and perversity of student invention. Experimentation is kept in check by generic formula. The atmosphere at the school of architecture at Columbia is completely determined by its continuous attempts to undermine this default economy, differentiating itself from its sister institutions by polemically celebrating the as yet uncelebrated. It is a unique school in that its mission is to educate the profession rather than the students as such. The internal ecology of the place is meant to challenge the external ecology rather than mimic it. It is a school where an unknown person with a new idea is valued more highly than a famous person without one. A more horizontal logic is maintained, an artificial flattening out of the basic chart. Intellectual leadership is expected to come simultaneously from all points along the spectrum and students are anyway expected to exceed their teachers, or least try. Only by abandoning the thought that ideas come from a particular place can they come at all. To commit an entire school to the experimental impulse is by definition to suspend contemporary value judgments. Fame is usually an impediment to mutation. Indeed, the famous is precisely that which is reproduced, that which must be mutated.

Yet disturbing the reproductive imperative is not meant as a criticism of celebrity as such. On the contrary, many celebrities operate at Columbia, are exhibited there, publish there, and are incubated there. Indeed, almost all the biggest names in the field play some kind of role through the years, in a wide range of time commitments from a one hour lecture to a full design studio and seminar. Furthermore, the school itself is a celebrity on the international stage with its work being imitated all over. It is just that everyone in the place, from the most famous to the newest student without a prior background in the field, is asked to operate a little differently within the classroom. The whole school, in all its complexity, is asked to assume the leadership role usually accorded an isolated star. Celebrity is relocated in the collective intelligent mechanism of an ever evolving experimental think-tank. It is ambition precisely that drives this twisting of the usual formula. Powerful forces of innovation are seen to lie within the very mechanisms of the default ecology of fame that otherwise so efficiently dulls our discipline.

After all, it is not just at school that famous architects are paid more not to be there, even encouraged not to be there to elevate the status of the institution. The same is true in their professional offices. The more famous a designer is, the more projects they have and the less time can they spend on each one. There is an exponential reduction in the attention that can be given to design, or even to those who are doing the designing. It is as if the greatest ambition of an architect is to have no time to design. Each task must be allocated an ever-smaller amount of concentration. Architectural practice involves traversing a landscape of disconnected points of intensity, and finding ways of networking those points into a form of creative intelligence. Successful architects have to stitch together all the different and increasingly fragmented pieces of their private and professional lives with a wide range of technologies, starting with personal assistants, video conferences, email and text messages. The real design work becomes that of time management.

The celebrity designer must be everywhere and therefore very little anywhere. They operate within schools in the same way as they do within their offices, orchestrating collective intelligence in the most efficient way possible, initiating a process, monitoring it, feeding it, and ultimately packaging and promoting the results. The more the teacher is absent, the more the mode of operation resembles that of the office. In a kind of reproductive spiral, the same assistants in the office often act as the assistants in the studio, and are often ex-students of the star. The teacher with no time therefore represents a form of professional realism. To challenge the profession, this default understanding of time needs to be disturbed. It is not a matter of banning all visiting professors who only have limited time. It is important to remember that the little time that a celebrity spends in the school might still be more than they spend on any one project in the office. Such studios can sometimes generate explosively radical results in the same way that a single lecture can transform one’s mindset. Rather, it is a matter of undermining the default association of increasing fame with decreasing time by producing a bio-diversity of rhythms and a less predictable relationship between outside status and inside time.

The central principle behind the generic cult of celebrity and the institutional apparatus it shapes is the seemingly innocent but entirely suspect belief that good architecture is contagious. It is assumed that any encounter with strong architecture, in the form of a building or its designer, will increase the odds of producing more strong architecture. Architecture itself is seen to be infectious and the best architects are seen to be efficient communicators of its positive force. To come into contact with a great building or designer is supposedly to immediately absorb a magical force that one can then invest in one’s own work. The magic of the star exudes out of their pores with such intensity that a small number of people can easily infect a whole field. A short time in the presence of a great designer is therefore worth so much more than a long time with a less great one. The contact can be minimal but it must be personal for the transfer of genetic material to occur. More than anything, the celebrity has to be a personality with every detail of body, clothing, manner, and private life closely monitored by every medium in the field, such that the moments of actual contact are supercharged. The personal encounter with the designer is understood as an encounter with the magic that is normally invested into the object, with the student even becoming the designated object in the transformative moment of exchange.

Yet what if this theory of contagiously good architecture has always been wrong, more of a wish than a reality? What if the exchange of architectural ideas is indeed viral but only bad or superficial architecture can be spread on contact, so a reduced time of exposure to strength actually accelerates the reproduction of weakness? What if the star architects are increasingly compelled to reproduce themselves in such an inescapable and ever deepening spiral of self-branding that they don’t have time to incubate new strains of design ideas through productive mutation? What if the inability of the star to evolve cripples the field that is so devoted to these anointed few? Or what if all of these things are true, such that a minimal contact with the stars can only deliver a weak dose of a progressively weakening trajectory, so the star system actually acts as a kind of vaccination program, inoculating the field against change?

The production of ideas within an architectural office is similarly viral but the role of the celebrated architect within that office may have as much to do with picking up ideas that are circulating in the room as it is with generating and transmitting them. The star has a special talent to absorb ideas so that the presentation to a lecture audience, magazine readers, or a studio class is more like a flu shot, a defensive cocktail of different weak strains, giving celebrity a profoundly conservative role in the field. Perhaps the celebrity never has ideas as such. To have a strong idea might be counter-productive in limiting the extraordinary ability to absorb, synthesize and rebroadcast the various ideas one comes into contact with. Celebrities don’t speak to you from the inside of their heads but channel what the wider network of circulating concepts is thinking. In other words, they operate like loudspeakers connected to very sophisticated receiver, able to pick up what is going on around the office or the profession.

One of the primary advantages of the celebrity bouncing endlessly around the world from project to project, magazine to magazine, and school to school, is that they can pick up things along the way and spread them around for students to quickly analyze and move on from. They clearly define the space that an experimental generation does not have to explore. Following the relentless logic of the basic economy, the bigger the celebrity the more the quickly they bounce. The smaller the amount of time they land in the school, the bigger the audience. Schools can use visiting celebrities as an efficient way of passing blocks of ideas from one group of students to another. The real value of celebrity may simply be to maximize the efficiency of information transfer, allowing both the xeroxers and the experimentalists to get to work more quickly.

The standard economy of celebrity cannot simply be inverted, replacing the dictatorship of vaccinating flu shots from on high with a non-hierarchical democratic multiplicity of new threatening strains on the ground. Complex networks require points of intensity. They generate the nodes that then appear to structure them. The overall network of architectural culture, of education, of design, and so on, requires a certain number of these broadcasters, a very particular number, so that a very short list of stars is kept in place. It is a very precise economy. All charts related to celebrity are exponential. The smaller the number of celebrities tying together a particular field, the celebrity effect gets exponentially greater. But a certain number is needed to assemble a range of different abilities to monitor the field. In an ideal world, the ultimate list of celebrities is just one, somebody able to single-handedly survey, pick up, concentrate, mix, and rebroadcast the evolving wisdom of a field, a pure infinite celebrity effect.

The celebrity effect ultimately absorbs and transcends the personalities credited with it, such that Le Corbusier, by far the most influential architect of the last century, can die feeling totally embittered and unappreciated, unlistened to. Even if the select anointed few have relentless personal ambition, canny and unending techniques for realizing that ambition, and a kind of amplified personality, they are appointed by the network itself, produced by the network in the end. Stars are by definition constructed as personalities but their role is structural rather than personal. Celebrity is precisely not the quality of a person. In fact, celebrity is almost the opposite of a personality. It is deeply, even painfully impersonal. It is as if the personal has to be sacrificed to the public cult of personality.

Even the wealth that accumulates around celebrity architects is not necessarily personal. They often hang on the edge of financial vulnerability. It is the innocuous designers who can guarantee mediocrity that usually amass the most resources. The rising level of compensation for the famous is matched by an exponentially expanding set of financial obligations. As fame increases, the celebrity body has to be prosthetically extended by an ever wider net of employees, and insulated by a courtly circle of assistants, partners, managers, lawyers, advisors, archivists, and publicists that monitor the external link to the public discourse and the internal link to the array of employees. This protective ring acts as the border zone between inner reception and outer transmission. The words coming out of the celebrity mouth can originate anywhere in the circuitry of the wide prosthetic net that both feeds the body and is fed by it. And the words have to keep coming since it is always those with the least time that are broadcast the most. The minimum time spent in any one place is over-compensated by appearing everywhere all the time in all the media channels. The body itself therefore remains the first, most important and most permanent project of an office. Not allowed to evolve, it is continuously groomed for the ever-lurking camera, and exercised for the rigors of the bouncing life, with a net of apartments and favorite hotel rooms around the world to provide a simulation of rest.

That is the central paradox. Stars maximize all of the non-hierarchical distributed intelligence of the network in order to produce the image of a singular figure that authorizes the entire system by broadcasting packages of ideas. It is by taking advantage of the unsung reception mode that mutations can be fostered. The most serious work occurs in receiving, carrying the thinking of a field forward by embracing new thinking and testing it through risky experimentation. Teaching no longer as form of reproduction but as an open source of mutations, any one of which could contaminate and change the field - mutations that are necessary to the survival of the discipline, even if the discipline devotes the majority of its time to resisting such changes. Again it is a question of the mode of attention. A school can mutate fame simply by embracing those teachers that still want an education and those students that are happy that their best teachers remain unsure what architecture is. Teachers who experimentally emphasize their receiving mode help students enter the broadcast mode.

In the end, it is about the pedagogical balance between reception and broadcast. A star who comes only to broadcast, as in a typical public lecture survey of accumulated projects, serves an important communication function - efficiently distributing ideas across the discourse. But any teacher who goes to school to be educated, as in the more intimate exchanges of an explorative design studio, seminar, workshop or research lab, can paradoxically have an exponentially greater viral effect. Those that go to school to momentarily broadcast themselves are safely quarantined by their own limited ambition while those that go to learn over time activate the more massive ambition to change the whole field. The default dulling economy is undermined by teachers who want to expose themselves to the risk of listening to those students who are dedicated to dislodging the current field in the interests of its future survival. An experimental school simply offers teachers a means of mutating their own status by recognizing that the students are equally under impossible time constraints. The unpredictable exchanges that this releases are the key. The presence or absence of star power is finally irrelevant.

If the highest ambition for a school is to foster a collaborative laboratory to incubate mutations of the field’s default settings, this is just a particular form of hospitality. Visitors are warmly embraced yet somewhat intimidated by what they encounter, raising the level of their ambition and performance. It is their capacity to listen that is the ultimate weapon, even if one only gets to put something in the celebrity ear for the short time that their fame supposedly allows, it could be sufficient to contribute to a deflection of the discipline if it leads to a change in attention span, and thereby another experiment or two. New relationships to time are crucial. Taking the risk of listening undermines the default economy of less for more without simplistically attacking the very figures that the field is so attracted to, even in the very moment that they are being denounced so passionately, since of course the only thing that can kill celebrity is not to care, not to have panels on celebrity like this one. 

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Contribution to a dialogue on The Cult of Celebrity: Superstar
Architects in the Academy
with Thom Mayne and George Baird, held at the Berlage Institute, April 17, 2007.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
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Ambition
Mark Wigley