In “The Ruin in the Age of Junkspace”, Anik Fournier discusses the term that Rem Koolhaas coined to describe the late 20th and 21st century urban design which, in many ways is waste architecture: “Today, the design of entire cities and their financial districts, shopping malls, and airports, seems to anticipate decay, as the structures become ever quickly more obsolete.”1 This follows consumer culture’s urgency for renewal, yet it is more of a repetitive process of making, one that is a condition of late capitalism, overpopulation and market saturation: make it crappier so it needs to be constantly replaced. While the idea of planned obsolescence has been in practice since the Great Depression, it seems completely ridiculous translated into Architecture. What junkspace evokes is a fear of death: we shorten the life cycles of everything we make and own, trying to bring our world current with the present moment for maximum productivity. At what point does the present become so instantaneous that we collide with the future? The faster we update all buildings and products to the actual present moment, the closer we get to our future death. In film, particularly Hollywood, the future is almost always represented as the apocalyptic; it is a future with a foreseeable endpoint, or, it is a future that excludes us from it, as it exists beyond our own time.
Why do we feel the need to facilitate this acceleration? One could argue that as we grow in population, there is a need for more products to fulfill the market. Likewise, much of our ideas of job growth relies on production and distribution, therefore, the more we can make (read: import), the more we can sell, the more people will have jobs, the more the economy will grow. This seems so simple and is why the first solution in any economic downturn is to get out and spend money on more consumer goods. We must feed the capitalist machine so that it lubricates the wheels of freedom and democracy. Yet it should also be obvious that this practice leads to an exponential growth of waste products, landfills, and a parallel depletion of resources. How much energy and resources are wasted to create all this crap vs. how much of what it replaces actually gets recycled.
Fournier also talks about the purpose of the ruin in our landscape, particularly around the most recent container architecture. “As a material relic from the past located in public space, the ruin works…to evoke and even insist upon the intertwining of histories, memories, and desires, past and present…to make resonant the latent silences and anxieties that accompany the architecture of “junkspace” in the present.”2 In Detroit, the word “ruin” is spoken and eyes roll. For anyone coming outside of the city, ruins are fetishized and photographed, their natural essence captivates. A few moments later they resemble car crashes. Those who live in the city have a different relation to them. They can be dangerous, physically and socially. They are a daily reminder of lost dreams and current failures. They divide the city further. They display the failings of government.
Any city with an industrial past has these ruins. The gross part is that we are critiquing ruins by the barf of modernist boxes that litter the outskirts of the city (and dot the interior a bit). Box stores, single story buildings, anonymous looking structures with Drive Thru windows, or LED encrusted facades which always carry the sterility of newness, always the same and always air conditioned. (Koolhaas harshly critiques the “conditioned environment.”3) Ideas of nature get smaller and more precious as the air conditioned environment grows bigger. It connects swaths of “wilderness” to provide us with “civilization”, contenting us with our ever increasing pear-like resemblances, larger cars replacing formerly spacious ones, parking spaces widening, everything stretching out, like the Prozac yawn of suburbia.
So far the 21st century has seemed like one long recession, so at this point, almost all of us are at least a little worse off than before, and if we are lucky enough not to be, it stills feels like it. Stores with names like “Design Within Reach” seem to come from a more prosperous time. Most people can’t consider buying one galley kitchen stool for $865 when it equals their rent. The clumsy knockoff from IKEA, however, will be functional for about one year. What about all that crap from Target? You could go on a $300 dollar shopping trip there and still not know what you spent the money on; most likely (ok, most definitely) buying a bunch of ugly crappy plastic and particle board products that will undoubtably litter your home, camouflaging themselves among the rest of the ugly plastic and particle board things; some almost witty T-shirts that 6 million other people are already wearing, or ripping the sleeves off of while drinking Bud Light Lime, and about a month’s worth of toilet paper. “Crap. I should have bought the really nice $865 stool instead, such a sleeker, smarter choice; at least I would have felt like I accomplished something”, you think as you try to figure out what to do with all the oversized plastic bags you now own by default, adding to the physical testament of your dog’s ability to create an endless supply of poop. Yet now, as it is clear that the bags, lifeless because they are empty, are multiplying faster than he could possibly re-purpose them, you wonder if you could just throw out everything you own and be happy with little more than a roof over your head. It may be that we are trying to escape from the worst possibility we can imagine as we enter another year of a recession with no end in sight: bankruptcy, financial ruin, homelessness. By amassing things – anything – we keep ourselves mentally further from this fate.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America” a brilliant summation of the middle class’s fear of poverty: “…men whose comfortable existence is equally far from wealth and poverty set immense value on their possessions. As they are still very close to poverty, they see its privations in detail and are afraid of them; nothing but a scanty fortune, the cynosure of all their hopes and fears, keeps them from it.”4 According to this observation, what happens of the homeless? Do they undergo another class structure, of those with no possessions, those with very few, and those maintaining a shopping cart of salvaged goods? Or is it that this last group is newer to the biggest failing of society and hasn’t learned to let go? “Damn! That could be me! And if I bought that sweet stool it would be me! I wouldn’t have been able to pay my rent and I’d be out here! Thank God I’ve got all that plastic and particle board stuff at home to suffocate me to sleep.” This, of course, exists in a thought bubble above your head as you walk in the rain to your apartment carrying a bag in each hand of toiletries, convenience food and items in vacuum molded plastic packages up out of some displaced knowledge that it will augment your life in incrementally infinite ways. Zoom in to the moment your set these items down on the counter and eagerly assimilate them into your life. Once the bags are empty you realize that all the trinkets from China couldn’t add up to one bird flying into Fabio’s face while riding a roller coaster. There’s no end to all the things you could buy for under twenty dollars.
Life becomes a clutter of miscellaneous items providing some derivative of their intended functions. A blur of institutional grays, faux wood patterns, glossy, translucent primaries, matte pastels with vague references to Art Noveau, food splattered chromes which are really steel, brushed chromes which are really aluminum, plastics that resemble chromes in both matte and high gloss finishes, clear plastics as well as plastics in every color and recycling code, single color uniformly glazed mass produced ceramics; all of this nested somewhat chaotically in a box of sheetrock and lead-free house paint, the layers of which are too thick to count, their pale yellows, muted browns and thirty shades of white mark the years like the layers of sedimentary rock. They get juicy in the summer, they pathetically try to mimic daylight in the winter. Why do we live like this? Perhaps what we need is the occasional morse code dots and dashes of duct tape, it too attempting to fill our needs for choice; thumping along like a hangover in “Original Gray”, injecting a bit of fun while mending a hole with “Hot Pink” or “Lavender,” or getting ready for a drive to some desolate suburban hook up spot in a jeep with “Flames.” For the savvy 20- something there’s a purplish plaid, the aspiring chef can find comfort in “Houndstooth,” and for the painfully ironic hipster there’s “Mustaches”. For the running board that recently fell off my car, I had the choice of “Clear” or “Caribbean Blue.” I mistakenly went with the Clear, which aims at being inconspicuous but is anything but. The castrated zombie of duct tape, it is a surgery gone bad, a whole handful of hemostats sewn up inside it’s 3 inch width. Its like the end of H.G. Wells “The Invisible Man” on a 200 yard roll.
Duct tape is great at fixing things. Things that have worn out their usefulness gain a new lease on life. Things that never worked right in the first place might be saved from being smashed out of anger (or brought back to life afterward) by it’s power. Maybe there doesn’t need to be so many “useless” ruins after all. A little duct tape and some latex based primer/paint combo; a few scented candles from the Katie Brown collection and some mass produced canvases from Lowe’s will give that dilapidated flophouse a look that would make socialites flock to our industrial wastelands. That junkie in the corner? Cover him in “Chrome” duct tape until he resembles Leigh Bowery and your on your way to being the hottest new place in town. All the trash on the floor just becomes part of the ambiance as he nods out on his “Zig Zag Zebra” duct tape twin mattress, the stains concealed by the magic of the simulated animal kingdom.
Maybe the answer to the post-industrial-recession-late-capitalism-stagnation blues is duct tape. If we can make a wallet out of it, we can make a boat out of it and sail away to another land, away from all this stupid shit we’ve collected, all this crap that barely works right anyway, and start a new life. Build a house out of what we find and connect it with “Blaze Orange” or “Aqua,” with a splash of “Blue Surf” on the interior, for a little taste of nature. As our houses get more intricate, and the duct tape pine cone products get more complicated, more perfect, we’ll incorporate more of that lovely “Blue Surf,” its floral throw back pattern will harken back to the good old days of the height of the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis. It will maintain our connection with nature – not that crap holding together our shoddy little cube like huts, but that good clean, sterile, plastic kind that can be found on 3 inch rolls for under $5. “I feel just like Robinson Carusoe”, we’ll think as we breathe deep, as if for the first time.
1 Anik Fournier, “The Ruin in the Age of Junkspace” in Anik Fournier, Michelle Lim, Amanda Parmer, and Robert Wuilfe, eds., Undercurrents: Experimental Ecosystems in Recent Art, (Whitney Museum of American Art, dist. by Yale University Press, 2010), 45.
2 Ibid, 48 – 49
3 Rem Koolhaas, “Junkspace”, October 100 (Spring 2002), 175
4 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J.P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence (Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1969), 636