Michael Kubo: On Lateness
On Lateness explores lateness as a discursive category—as in the cultural constructions of late capitalism, late style, and late-modern architecture—along with the ceaseless transformations of architecture and its related fields of cultural production during the last half-century of “late” modernity. If the seismic events of the end of the 1960s can be said to have inaugurated our entry into the epistemic condition of lateness—a shift marked in architecture by the passing of the last heroes of avant-garde modernism and by the generational traumas of war and cultural revolution—then where do we stand after fifty years of being late?
Hi everybody, my name is Michael Kubo. I'm an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of History and Theory at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design, at the University of Houston. I'm speaking with you today from Houston, not from Melbourne where I had planned to be this month on a residency fellowship at Monash, to work on a research project on lateness, which I'll talk about today as my topic. So instead I'm joining you virtually in the hopes that someday I will be able to be there in person, hopefully soon, and that this will be a kind of a teaser until then. I want to thank Naomi Stead, Timothy Moore, Jordan Kauffman and everybody at Monash that has made this possible and is giving me the opportunity to join you all virtually now, but hopefully in person in the future.
So I'm going to share a few slides with you, hopefully this won't be… this won't be too long, this will go maybe for about 25 minutes, maybe a little bit longer and then there will be a Q&A on Thursday morning that I'm hoping all of you can join for and ask questions to further the discussion about the things that I'm going to show. Now this is going to be a little bit casual, a little bit informal, this is more something done in the sense of putting together a series of thoughts that I've had lately on these questions of lateness, rather than the final result of a more formal research project. So I'm very much hoping for your feedback in the Q&A.
I should say that this is a project that has been done collaboratively, I'm one of four people that have been working together on these questions of lateness and temporality in architecture and art, especially in the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. The four of us are Mimi Zeiger based in Los Angeles, Enrique Ramirez based in New York, Chris Grimley based in Boston and myself. Some of us, like Mimi in this article recently published in Ness Magazine, have already been writing and speculating on topics around different questions of lateness in culture, in criticism and in architecture.
The Lateness Project began for us out of a sense of a certain kind of historical benchmark let's say, that we wanted to explore. We felt like, especially around 2018-2019 and the last few years, there was a lot of celebration of an older benchmark, of 100 years especially, of the Bauhaus and those kinds of anniversaries of early… what's typically referred to as earlier avant-garde, modern movement or modernism. We felt like we wanted to explore a different kind of a benchmark, not the 100-year-ish kind of century of modernism or modernity, but let's say the second half of that. What was referred to, and kind of understood as the death of the modernist project, and a condition that we felt like we very much still lived in and were a part of and wanted to explore.
I think it's epitomized quite succinctly by this collage by Stanley Tigerman called The Titanic from 1978, that refers in a quite literal way to the sinking of modernism, as represented by Mies’s Crown Hall, an image that many of us know. This kind of historical benchmark of the death of the modernist project, for us was keyed to other sorts of dates and especially for the kind of window of dates around… hinged around things like 1968, the kind of annus horribilis of Paris may 1968 and a host of other events all around the world. It was a year… let's say a year as a representative of many years’ kind of before and after, in its immediate context of rioting, of rupture, of cultural fissure notably in the streets of Paris during May 1968, but also in many other places like Mexico City for example, became a site of protests by student, the working class and many others for better conditions in society. That took place in a canonical site of modernity and of avant-garde modernism in Mexico, Mario Pani 's project. Pani was referred to as, for example, the "Le Corbusier of Mexico" as one of the kind of founding heroes or fathers of modernism. That became, out of these protests, a site of massacre and of state violence that perpetrated onto the populations that were rioting. There were many other events around 1968, riots at the Chicago democratic convention in the US, this was a year after the six-day war in Israel-Palestine. This was a period of assassinations of the deepening of the Vietnam war, the Midline Massacre and other sorts of things, so it was very clearly a cultural moment. For us when a certain faith in a kind of modernity or modernist project was ending. Something that clearly ended, and something was shifting culturally that inaugurated a new kind of reality that you wanted to look at.
In architecture there were corresponding cultural shifts, one was generational. Literally the deaths of the founding… kind of male canonized modernist heroes was taking place exactly in these years, the Corbusier died a few years earlier in 1965. But then in 1969 both Mies and Walter Gropius die in the same year, along with other sort of canonical modernist figures that had died either at the end of the 1950s, like Frank Lloyd Wright, or through the 1960s like Eero Saarinen. So, there was a kind of generational passing of the torch. Also critiques of existing architectural institutions, educational institutions, and other kinds of touchstone event. Like the fire at Yale School of Architecture, the Art and Architecture building, Paul Rudolph's famous building. Not clear whether it was deliberately set, sort of an unknown origin, but certainly was taken as also as a kind of benchmark for a certain kind of demise of the modernist project, as elder figures like Paul Rudolph were continuing the project relative to their students. I remind you that the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris was also a site of violence, one of the crucial sites of May 68 protests in Paris.
In 1972 of course another touchstone event, the demolition of the Pruitt-lgoe apartments in St. Louis. Something that was taken not just by architects, but at large as yet another benchmark or kind of touchstone for… you know something you could point to as a clear sign of the ending of a certain kind of faith in the present, and in the future, and in the capacities of modernism, or of the kind of modern world to inaugurate a better future, and the kind of collapse of the social project that had accompanied it. It was certainly taken in literature and architecture in many, many platforms as a kind of official death date, this is according to Charles Jencks in his book The Language of Postmodernism 1977. As what he declared to be the official death state of modern architecture and ties quite specifically to this moment in 1972. All of this is summarized later by historians and other characters like Bifo Berardi, the Italian kind of radical political theorist and activist. In books like this one, After the Future, he talks about 1977 as a year that for him marked the definitive end of radical political movements on behalf of workers in Italy, in which he was a participant. He keys this idea of after the future to the Sex Pistols, their album Never Mind the Bollocks came out in 1977, and the kind of clarion call of the Sex Pistols for example, no future, no future for you no future for me. What Bifo Berardi terms the slow cancellation of the future, in other words what's dying here is not just the modernist project, but more specifically a belief in, and faith in a future, so the future as a project in some sense dies. Just as a reminder, early avant-garde self-declared modernists, members of the modern movement by their own declaration, were obsessed with the future. Futurism and revolution was very much the kind of ideological, let's say ethos or kind of belief framework for you know, all sorts of characters that we know, the Italian futurists, the futurist manifesto, the Corbusier, the idea of architecture or revolution that the state of architecture was linked to, the state of a kind of a revolutionary politics in society.
So really part of this is a going back to the history of time and temporality, concepts of temporality, over the past century plus. I think it's possible to say that certainly early avant-garde modernism believed in, or let's say allowed, only one sense of time, or maybe two that turn out secretly to be one. By that I mean of course a belief in the present, that architecture, in these kinds of famous declarations, this is Mies in architecture and the times, architecture is the will of the epoch translated into space. That what one wanted, and the only real way to be as an architect was to try to be of one's time. Right there was this notion of the zeitgeist, of being contemporary, being contemporaneous with technological and other social developments of one's time, and what you couldn't do was look backwards. It is not possible to move forward and look backwards, he who lives in the past cannot advance. The thing that they were scared of, or kind of disallowed, as a way of attaching themselves to the present was any ability to look backwards. That was kind of prohibited. I think that these two modes, the faith in the future and the need to be of one's time are kind of linked, and maybe secretly are kind of part of the same expression. The only way to advance into the future was to be thoroughly of one's presence. So being contemporary and projecting forward into the future, and sometimes continuous with the same project, I think you could argue. In any case what's not possible, what is absolutely forbidden is to look backwards.
So, there are signs of this kind of shot through this sort of avant-garde production, like Corbusier for example. The plan was on 1925 for Paris, that's known as one of the major acts or propositions of tabula rasa, of this kind of clearing or demolition. But as a reminder the Corbusier included in this project certain kinds of preservation of older, historical buildings of kind of a smattering of different styles gothic, renaissance, kind of later baroque etc that existed on the site in this part of Paris. But he was very careful to say that this kind of preservation he saw as keeping some of these elements almost as neutered fragments of the past, as relics, as things that by becoming kind of neutered, frozen in time or in amber. In this sort of act of preservation lost any capacity to affect the present. They became kind of dead residues of the past, that could be admired as kind of follies or trinkets almost, but that had no longer any capacity to infect the present if you like, and that this was maybe one of the first acts of something that you could see as an attempt to prevent the ghosts from the past from infecting or haunting in some sense the present. Therefore, being as contemporary as possible without risk of the past kind of entering one's space. All of this I think is what's really encapsulated in the Titanic collage, not just the literal deaths of the modernists, but the death of the modernist project kind of full stop, and specifically of the need to be contemporary, to be only of one's time as the only permissible category and of the belief in the future as a kind of project that is now lost.
So, one of the questions we were asking was after this kind of half century of lateness, was sort of what comes after this loss in the belief in the future. Our answer, at least projectively, is that what happens afterwards… what comes in place of this belief in the future or in contemporaneity is lateness, is a kind of resurgence of the past in the present. An exposure suddenly to other kinds of temporality, where the past comes rushing back, and where there starts to be certain sorts of layerings of the past, the present and possibly the future, that are signposts of this kind of epistemic condition of lateness.
So we wanted to ask the question in our own time of, where do we stand after something like 50 years of being late?
What does it mean to be late?
Late for what?
What's the after?
Right is there a kind of after party or other sort of potential that's unfolded in that?
But we felt like there hadn't been the attention that we were sort of interested in the cultural condition of lateness. As well as the architectural condition of lateness, that's summarized by somebody like Charles Jencks specifically in this book, Late-Modern Architecture, first published in 1980, so it's the successor to his book on postmodernism. So, postmodernism and late modernism were for us these kinds of two oscillating categories, of a kind of periodization or a certain sort of temporal categorization, late versus post, as two different responses to the question of what comes after mainstream modernism has ended. It's also of course related to other sorts of terms that are circulating at the time and since then. Specifically late capitalism, late modernity and then the sort of overlap in somebody like Fredric Jameson between an idea of post-modernism, not as a stylistic category, not architectural post-modernism as a style, but rather the broader cultural condition of post-modernity, post-modernism as a cultural condition that corresponds to what he and Mandel and others describe as late capitalism or the conditions of late capo.
All of this is summarized I think pretty nicely by this exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art curated by Arthur Drexler in 1979, called Transformations in Modern Architecture. That's a survey of the previous 20 years or so of architectural production globally, and which captures something of this sense of demise of the modernist project and of a cultural condition of lateness. Transformations garnered a huge amount of criticism for its curatorial method and its method of display, as you see here. In which an extraordinary number of projects, something like 400 projects, were put together, strung together one after the other, after the other and grouped essentially in categories of like with like. Buildings that were similar formally or looked like each other were grouped together, this was seen… this kind of levelling operation was seen as a hugely embarrassing, or kind of dismissive of the works that were being put on display. This is, I remind you the Museum of Modern Art, an institution that was largely responsible for the project of promoting and sort of promulgating modernism, for at least the previous 50 years, and was seen as institutionally part and parcel of the modernist project until this point. You can see this curatorial method in the catalogue, it's in some sense even more brutal as a form of levelling than the exhibition itself, the display and the exhibition.
Of these kinds of chapters, "Culminated Roof" for example, it puts together a whole series of buildings that become very quickly somewhat indistinguishable from each other, other than on kind of my new levels. As minor variations of a type, that as the formal ideas of mainstream modernism have become more and more widespread, and more and more replicated and copied that there is this kind of neutral levelling and there's the inability to produce anything new. It's pointed up, even more so I would say, in the section on glass skins. Glass skins as a kind of trope of this sort of late modern aesthetics. Where you get the sense that these are all simply different forms of the same thing, you know, each building kind of looks like all the other buildings and that they're kind of all sort of strutting, and gyrating, and trying to look original but that what in fact you see is repetition, replication to the point of exhaustion. Sort of over and over and over again. The exhibition also was criticized very heavily for including only one section with colour imagery at the centre of the exhibition, a series of light boxes with these kinds of photographs, these are some of the photographs from the exhibition that were reproduced in colour. Entirely of glass skin, often mirror glass buildings, like the ones that you see here and this was criticised as a kind of co-opting of the exhibition by corporate interests but Drexler was rather clear that he was extremely interested in photography's relationship to these kinds of late modern, aesthetically late modern buildings, and that photography was really the proper medium for capturing the fleeting reflections of this sort that you see.
The photograph on the right is by Wayne Tom, based in Los Angeles, a photographer who is known for these kinds of photographs that captured the ephemeral reflections of these kinds of buildings.
Jencks tries to put some kind of stylistic definition, similar to what he had done for post-modernism, onto these sorts of categories. He tries to distinguish what he sees as post versus what he sees as late. So he talks, for example, about post-modernism in terms of what he calls double coding. The idea that a building would be half modern, but also half something else and by the something else, he means generally historical references, clearly marked historical references to a different kind of building of another temporality. By contrast, he says late modern architecture is singly coded, it kind of doubles down on modernism and its formal tropes, but it takes these ideas and forms to an extreme. As he says exaggerating the structure and technological image in its attempt to provide amusement or aesthetic. Pleasure, he describes it as ultra-modern in its exaggeration, extreme logic, extreme circulatory and mechanical emphasis, mannered and decorative use of technology, and as a kind of complication ultimately of early avant-garde modernism.
So he gives some of these categories, of what he's trying to talk about, extreme repetition, enclosed hermetically sealed skin volumes, a reductive, elliptical gridism that becomes extremely hard to read, formally or semantically unlike the clarity semantically of a lot of post-modernism. Especially slick skin or up effects, or what Jencks calls elsewhere “the wet look” of these buildings, like you see here, Pacific Design Center and others that trade in this kind of shimmering optics of glass. Just to give some examples of this Fountain Place in Dallas, Pei Cobb Freed , Henry Cobb who recently passed away. This sort of endlessly transforming, ambiguous optical character of these buildings that shift depending on the point of view at which you see them, depending on the time of day, the qualities of light, the angle of the sun etc etc. Then Cobb's earlier masterwork, the John Hancock Tower in Boston and again the optical project, what you could call the late modernist, kind of minimalist optical project of these sorts of mirror glass skins. This comes very close to somebody like Jameson, at the point where he describes what he calls this cultural condition of post-modernity and its affiliation with late capitalism, when he gets down to architectural brass tacks, it's precisely this kind of hermetically sealed, mirror glass, optically complex, geometrically complex buildings, specifically the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles by John Portman and associates. For him is the precise analogue of the kind of delirium, what he calls the hyperspace, of late capitalism and of this condition of post-modernity, in a way that's rather close to what Jencks described stylistically as late modern.
I'm talking to you today and kind of bringing you these thoughts from Houston, Texas which has very much spurred my thinking on lateness, late modern aesthetics and late modernity and architecture has a very unusual kind of environment. Houston is in many ways, I would argue, a late city. It's certainly described that way in this kind of literature, these are the books that have been written sort of in urbanism and architecture over the years, the last 20... 30 years on Houston, that have these kinds of titles; The Last American City, because it's the only city that… major American city that doesn't have zoning and allows a kind of rampant capitalism without limits.
Or for Lars Lerup, more famously after the city, the idea that the urban condition of a metropolis like Houston comes in some sense, after the traditional dense, compact idea of the city or at least the European city has died. So that in other words Houston is again, something that comes as a condition after the demise of something more normative or more mainstream. Houston is also temporarily late in the sense that its heyday, in the 70s and 80s, coincided exactly with this period that Jencks and others have been describing as the kind of high point or peak of late modern aesthetics or kind of late, stylistically late modern architecture. Most of the major kind of architectural landmarks in Houston, at least the downtown, are from this era. It's also temporarily laid in the sense that Houston's peak in those years corresponded to depression and kind of economic stagnation everywhere else. Houston as a city is based economically on oil, on the oil industry, on petroleum, which means that in the 70s, specifically between 1973 and 83, when there was a spike in crude oil prices under the OPEC embargo. Houston did extremely well at the same time that this induced… basically recession and stagnation everywhere else. So, Houston was late in the sense that while, what you see on the left, was the condition everywhere else, generally, certainly in North America of lines for gas and you know, economic decline collapse and virtually no construction or very little construction anywhere else. Houston at the same time was in a very different kind of temporal mode. Houston was projecting the tallest building in the world, that would be built in these decades. Houston was booming and was doing quite well and then on the back end of that after 1983 and through the 1980s, in the period when everyone else started to recover economically from the collapse in oil prices, Houston then crashed. So the end point of this kind of heyday of Houston architecture and urbanism, was precisely… sort of out of time, out of kind of temporality or too late relative to everybody else, in a way that came to be called the see-through years, in reference to the building projects that were abandoned in Houston after the mid 1980s, and stood there sort of as open floor plates that you could see through from the highway.
So, through this period, as I say, the major architectural landmarks of Houston are sort of a cornucopia of many of the high points, really anywhere of this sort of late modern aesthetics. Pennzoil Place by Philip Johnson / Johnson Bergee again a kind of optically and formally geometrically complex building. Also, Johnson Bergee which did an enormous number of projects in Houston in these years, for many for Gerald Hines the developer. Post Oak Towers, yet another kind of example of this sort of aesthetics. Johnson Bergee, Transco Tower, yet another one and then other sort of more ambiguous landmarks of this kind of… these sort of late modern tropes of mirroring reflection, distortion, skewing, fastening and other sorts of optically, informally complex manipulations of building profiles.
Like the CAM, the Contemporary Art Museum, designed by Gunnar Birkerts and opened in 1974 in Houston. Some of my students, with me, at the University of Houston this past year have been working on documenting, drawing and trying to understand some of these buildings that were designed in this time period, through sort of complex forms of drawings and other graphic production, and through the production of books, some of which like the one on the right pay homage to Doug Milburn's, The Last American City in their form. To look at various sites, not just buildings, but other sites of late modernity and late stage capitalism in Houston like the underground network of tunnels that link most of the buildings… of the high-rise buildings in downtown Houston.
So finally, just to walk you through some of the other concepts that this project of lateness has opened up for us. It's led to a look at other concepts of temporality… of temporality and time in relation to architecture, that circulate through much of the time period that we're looking at and that introduced other notions of temporality, I think, into the equation. There's of course in literary theory, and cultural and aesthetic theory, the notion of late style from Adorno through to Edward Said. Again this notion of late style, artistic late style, or aesthetic late style, as also having to do with the condition of being out of time, sort of incorrect in one's time, of coming after or of surviving sort of stubbornly into a time period that no longer corresponds with a mode of making art or an artwork. This idea in Adorno, that in the history of art, late works are the catastrophes. Late works are acts of rupture, or of the irreconcilable, the kind of unknowable or Said's extension of the concept to the idea of exile. An imposed… a self-imposed exile from what is generally acceptable, coming after it and surviving beyond it. So, lateness as a form of survival or of resistance.
Other concepts like hauntology, developed in particular by Mark Fisher in this sort of book Ghosts of My Life. Hauntology is a concept that comes originally from Jacques Derrida in the book Specters of Marx, who's looking at kind of the original haunt, or the original ghost of the modernist project namely, sort of Marx's Specter of communism, developed this notion of hauntology that Fisher extends sort of into the present. Hauntology, for Fisher and others, is the idea of a kind of inability to escape the past. So not the modernist attempts to prevent the past from infecting the present, but a temporal condition in which the past is constantly flooding into and sort of corrupting any ability to develop anything new in the present. Sometimes, self-consciously, for authors of artistic or creative production, but more often a condition where people are unaware of the ways in which they are condemned to these kinds of feedback loops, of the past kind of ceaselessly coming back into the present.
This is an article recently by Mimi Zeiger, again called Feedback Loops, on the ways in which these past futures haunt architecture’s present. Zeiger is looking at the work, for example, of more recently of Johnston Marklee architects, and the ways in which contemporary imagery or representations of buildings have become, in a way, condemned. Sometimes self-consciously, but often not, to include or incorporate constantly fragments of the past, that come sort of hurdling back into these sorts of representations, that seem unable to escape them, and that try to leverage forms of representation of the past as a way of channelling some sort of ideology or kind of claim about the present. But in ways that Zeiger sees, as often being wandered of the actual political or cultural content of these images from the past. Like this reuse, as you see in this collage of a Johnston Marklee project in Chicago, of super studio imagery from the 1970s, sort of into this image but now kind of without the actual content of the super studio project. Or Johnson Marklee's curation of one of the recent Chicago biennials, titled Making New History, and which sort of posed at its centre this conundrum of you know, this strange binary of new history, right. The new, but also the old in some sort of uneasy combination. Which had certain light motifs like Adolf Loos’s Chicago Tribune Tower, from the past… from 1922, that were given as prompts for people to sort of run with in the present, as a kind of spur towards their own work. Which itself as a term, as a title, is taken from a previous Ed Ruscha project, that you see on the left, called Making New History. This artwork from 2009, which they themselves are recycling, and so it's kind of new that is endlessly recycled out of the past sometimes rather unself-consciously.
Other forms of, sort of, strange temporality that are related to this… another is the idea of retro futures. This kind of looking backward to the past in order to unlock some kind of future, that was foreclosed. People like Owen Hatherley developed this concept in books like this, Militant Modernism, that goes back and looks at especially the kind of brutalist works, or heroic concrete buildings, social housing, cultural centres and other works of the 1960s and 1970s in particular, as emblems in their time of a certain future projection that has now been foreclosed, or has ended. This paradox of a kind of retrospective, nostalgia for a future, right. A future that never arrived and the ability to channel other foreclosed sorts of futures out of a past, which has now often been forgotten. So nostalgia, retro futures, etc… and I remind you that Reyner Banham in that time period… in 1974, in his book Megastructure gives it the title or the subtitle Urban Futures of the Recent Past. So there's already this notion of sort of the future, as paradoxically historical, right, he describes these buildings in the Megastructure book the emblems of this movement, already as kind of past as dead, as ruins or as you see in the title of chapter one, dinosaurs, dinosaurs of the modern movement. They centre these things as relics or as kind of stubborn… having stubbornly continued into the present, as a kind of resistance.
Ruination, in that sense, also related to this concept of retro futures or of the stubborn survival and resistance of the physical stuff… the physical matter of these buildings, as a kind of refusal to sort of… be of one's time or a way of… let's say, buildings becoming dislodged from any kind of contemporaneity and their kind of survival into the present. Ruination was of course one of the formal stakes of a certain mode of late modernist Production, at the time period that I've been describing. These are the Best product showrooms, one of them by a James Wines and SITE, his office that traffics and these kinds of tropes and rumination, that was understood here again as Arthur Drexler, in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, again the same year as transformations in modern architecture on the best product stores. Recognizes this kind of ruination and its sort of problematic temporal quality, right, a building's apparently ruined state that pertains not to a world long gone, but to our own, right. A contemporary ruin in the present.
Finally, I would add to this menagerie of other terms for belatedness, historical relation, and other periodizing terms, I would add some very recent ones in the last week or so… a couple of weeks that have now become in some sense more urgent in our current conditions of… not just of pandemic and of quarantine and the very different, very strange and unsettling kinds of temporality that we are all confronted with on a daily basis but, the more even more sort of existential dread of climate change. As something that's induced a lot of thinking about the sort of strangeness of these temporal modes. In being able to act in the present, in the condition of a sort of existential dread of the future, this is just in the last week again on the left, from McSweeney's, this kind of parody of how time works now and the ways in which… you know, a minute can either last an hour or it can take 3.5 seconds, right, a day, a month these concepts are relative, they can either be incredibly fast or incredibly short. Or the notion of Shadow-Time that I think has been developed by the Bureau of Linguistical Reality, as a kind of parallel or alternative dictionary, and the notion of a parallel time scale that follows one around throughout day-to-day experience of regular time. The feeling of living in two distinctly different temporal skills simultaneously. This is coming very much out of the kind of existential dread of climate change, in the ways in which it hangs over any decisions that get made in the present. This notion of Shadow-Time has now become the basis, just again in the last week, for a new e-flux reader on architecture and culture compiled by Cristina Parreno Alonso that I encourage you all to read.
Just to wrap up, these are all sort of concepts that we've tried to explore together in this project. There are other concepts that are related to this, for example there are… one strong area of work for us has to do with the stakes of representation, not just of photographs, like this one. This is by Bas Princen, but also of drawings, I think I will skip over those for now, but we can maybe talk about them in the discussion. So, I would encourage all of you to submit your questions for the Q&A and I look forward to seeing you all on Thursday and to engage in discussion with you. I really look forward to the questions that you all have and hope to see you soon. Thanks.