April 1998

   T H E RaVEN C H R O N I C L E S  
 

 


Pacific Northwest
Urban Writing


 




















 

I Think I'm Dumb

Matthew Stadler <stadler@thestranger.com>

 

In 1993 the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas published his "Manifesto of Bigness" in a magazine called Wiederhall. They convened a conference in Rotterdam later that year to discuss "bliss" and some of Rem Koolhaas's ideas. I was asked to comment on the Manifesto. In the talk I gave, I referred to some of the other conference talks - Bernard Cache's discussion of vectors, Jeffrey Kipnis's talk about artistic communities, and a few others - but mostly I tried to talk about the West in the US, where I think we have big architecture and big urban spaces.

THE TITLE , of course, is Kurt Cobain's trenchant revision of that tired old dictum of Descartes, and also a recipe for a certain kind of bliss. We enter this conference from so many directions, some of us astride vectors, that my instinct is to try and finesse a coherence out of it all. I would like to connect everything that has been said before me but alas I can't. I'm a novelist and I'm primarily interested in particulars. I have an appetite for the specific and the concrete. And yet here I am, obviously and easily seduced by abstractions like bliss.

When Bernard Cache made the little curve on the screen with his color markers, I was delighted, I think by the elegance of his gesture, and yet abstraction seems to be what we were all flying toward on the wings of his particular charms. A series of curves would not have been enough without his larger generalizations which encompass and make coherent the amazing diversity of his gestures. We might have thought he was dumb if he'd just given us the shapes and no theory, and that is interesting to me.

I propose to be dumb without being stupid. Mostly I want to tell you about the city where I live. Let's say I'm a subject of a study giving info to the anthropologists, with all of the problems that metaphor implies. Abstraction will sneak in to destroy me at the end. I am sort of like a dog-bite victim who still likes the dog. I want to tell you specifically what it's like to live in the built environment of Seattle, and then afterwards I'll toss together a generalized conclusion, a little theory hovel for all of us to cower in, which maybe can connect my experience to some of what else is being said today.

I THOUGHT THE Rem Koolhaas manifesto 'Bigness' was not only intriguing and infuriating, but also would likely be common-ground for everyone involved with the 'Bliss' conference. My notes on the manifesto were as follows: First I wrote, 'I live next to the biggest building in the world' which is true, and I'll make a drawing of it here so you can see how huge it is. It's about thirty miles from my home in Seattle. I'm not sure how they calculate its bigness, I think it's the cubic footage inside, but there are postcards all over Seattle and Everett, the city where this building is, saying that it's the biggest. It's part of Boeing's factory for making airplanes. It really is huge, and thirty miles isn't far from my house, because the freeway goes there directly. Everett is actually a kind-of northern extension of Seattle, I mean it's hard to tell where one ends and the next one starts.

Biggest Building!Nothing out there is very far in any case, whether it's thirty miles or a hundred miles or down the block, it's all pretty much the some. You just get in the car and go. Almost everything in Seattle is big. The buildings, for example, though they're not much larger than buildings in the average American downtown (comparable to let's say Philadelphia or Minneapolis) are truly big, by which I mean they're built for beyond the demands of their function. Stadler's NeedleThey have an imperative toward size, independent of anything else. Downtown we have the usual army of decorative glass boxes none of which are ever full but each of which begs to dominate our attention, We've also got, and I think you might know this from the famous Seattle Supersonics basketball logo, the Space Needle. It's a 200-meter tall restaurant that seats about 300 people. I can draw it for you too. It looks like an old pie-plate/UFO on metal stilts. Our other landmark is the Kingdome, which does seat a lot more people, around 50,000, but like the Space Needle its primary assertion is one of brute size, which you can see in my sketch here.

So I live in a place with big things and I find that these buildings are dumb. That is, they're mute. They don't say anything to me except maybe a monosyllable like 'mm' or 'um.' They're simply there and nothing else, and there is no back-side to them either. A lot of you have probably been to Seattle and you must have seen the mountain. It's Mt. Rainier but it's called 'the mountain' and I don't know how exactly it links to the built environment I've described (except that I can draw it for you) but I must say it is the most dumbfounding, most mute, biggest bigness I have seen. It hides in the clouds and when it emerges, the guest from NYC in the passenger seat will look and say: 'What is that?'. You can only say 'It's the mountain'. There is nothing else to say. What can you say? And I find these buildings have the same effect on me. It's an effect that I think Rem Koolhaas described well in his 'Bigness', in the 5th of the theorems he said were latent in the book Delirious New York. He wrote 'together all these breaks - with scale, with architectural composition, with tradition - with ethics - imply the final, most radical break: Bigness is no longer part of any tissue. It exists; at most, it co exists. Its subtext is fuck context.'

I don't take this to be an entirely negative statement. It describes very well my visceral experience standing among these big buildings. To stand there with them is itself neutral (rather like being blind or asleep). I didn't resent or hate the sensation but nor did I get particularly enthusiastic about it. The buildings don't beckon my judgment in that way, they simply inhabit me, or I inhabit them. In any case there we are, me and these big buildings and there isn't much to say about it.

Nostalgia-DomeAll of built space in Seattle is this way to me. It feels like material scattered around in space or like electronic information. The huge glass boxes downtown could easily be kicked over, like models pumped up with growth hormones, huge and brittle air. Walking down the hill from where I live to downtown is like walking over a scab. The interstate freeway, which I mentioned, has twelve lanes and cuts right through the middle of the city. It goes from Canada to Mexico. There are glass boxes, office clusters, 20-acre malls, sheds as large as hills and many, many houses which gather and subside along this interstate all the way from Vancouver to Portland - a near-continuous stretch of growth. There's a long pause through southern Oregon and somewhere in the middle of California it starts up again and you have a corridor of growth which ends in this spasm in San Diego.

It actually goes on for a while after that, helped by NAFTA, and crosses the border into Mexico. This coast-long corridor, I-5, feels to me like the native home of Bigness. It may not have reached the shameless exuberance of Singapore (which Rem Koolhaas described in his slide-talk) but I think bigness is thriving and native here and it has a real effect on the materials and consciousness of cultural production (plus also the US West Coast is a model of much greater relevance to the mass-democratic, late-Capitalist West than the private fiefdom of Singapore, for obvious political and historical reasons). Singapore teaches a different lesson, but one to which I trust we'll also be attentive.

I KNOW THIS West Coast milieu fairly well and I see some rich and elusive atmospheres billowing out from the scattered bigness there. I believe that place has given rise to a peculiar, dumb and lovely pattern of work that [as Rem K ponders in his manifesto] 'reconstructs the whole' and is doing something with the collective (it's hard to describe exactly what that is), plus it sheds some light on 'the real' (more elusive, but maybe some intelligence about the subject will leak out of what I tell you).

The most beguiling aspect of this cultural practice - this interlocking pattern of material circumstances and what I would call pools of consciousness are beautifully implied in that most West Coast of terms, 'spaced out'. I think bigness gives rise to a spaced-out culture.

Los Angeles (here's a biographical aside: my experience is anchored in Seattle, because I live there and I grew up there. I also lived in New York for eight years and in one other great world metropolis, Groningen, but LA and San Francisco are my main points of reference after Seattle because I spend time in those cities), Los Angeles is the extreme case, the case with the most luxurious and luxuriant blossoms of this culture. This culture is visible, for me, primarily in the form of books, live and recorded music, visual art, some theater, critical discourse, and buildings. My speculations are anchored in these particulars. The work which I see is probably readily available to most of you. Everyone knows some of the music from the Northwest. Most of the books, this being Holland, are also available here, and quite a bit of the visual art that's effected me is also shown here, sometimes sooner than in America. Gary Hill for example, who lives in Seattle, never had a museum show there until last year. He didn't have a gallery in Seattle as of four years ago, but he's been known and seen in Holland for quite some time.

Beyond the products of work, the spaced-out frame of mind might also be familiar to you, maybe because of going and visiting the U.S. West, maybe from living over here. Groningen seems supremely spaced-out to me, so this isn't at all unique to America. One could argue that Rome is nearly identical to Seattle in this respect, except for the fact that it has 3,000 years of history and Seattle has none. In any case, on the American West Coast this spaced-out culture is not an exception, not a margin nor an aberration. It's just how things are. This centrality (and the consequent mindlessness around it - we don't theorize the air we breathe) is, I believe, unique to that place.

I'm here to praise the productivity, capacity, and elusiveness of the spaced-out culture of bigness. I'll describe it's material attributes and argue for some habits that can help it survive the coming onslaught of talk and manifestoes (like Rem Koolhaas 'Bigness'). In doing so I'll say a great deal more than I should. The culture I'm describing is dumb and shy. Dumb isn't the opposite of intelligent. Stupid is. Dumb is an extreme case of inarticulateness, the far opposite of articulate, and sometimes a very smart position to occupy. I think some of the practices and habits of this culture are dumb but rarely stupid.

These are some effects I've felt, living amidst bigness. I don't know if there are linkages, and if there are, what they are. I do know this is what it's like to live where I do. Big things don't have any size at all. All sense of scale is destroyed by their sheer expansiveness. They're neither big nor small. And it is only from a distance that their size is perceived. With Mt. Rainier, you have to be about 90 miles away in order to see it. When you are on the mountain there is no mountain; it doesn't have a size. The downtown, also, is built to be seen from the ferry boat, motoring in from 10 miles away across the water.

The big built things (urban layout and infrastructure as well as buildings) seem infinitely expansive and dimensionless all at once, so that I lose my sense of direction a lot, both inside the buildings and outside. I always get lost in the big shopping malls, but it can happen anywhere. Curiously, when I lose my way in these places I don't get very anxious. There's a sedative kind of contentment about wandering disoriented in the maw of these monstrosities, a sort of maternal safety that we must all have felt once, in the dim Arcadian past, with our infant faces dwarfed beside the swollen breast and its nipple of warm milk. I may feel like I'm nowhere, but it's a fine place to be.

I often leave the house without dressing properly. My sense of a private space, of a home, doesn't end when I walk out my door into 'public space'. The border seems to have been dissolved, so that the front porch, then the sidewalk, the street, the shops near-by, downtown, the freeway, LA, are just extensions of my living room, corners to which I could wander, drowsy in my pajamas, to retrieve just about anything, and it's fine, in fact everyone seems to do that in Seattle. This has something to do with reinventing the communal.

I'm sometimes unsure where things are exactly but I'm always confident they are there somewhere. Consequently, the yellow pages is the most useful and reassuring map I have of the city. A cartographic map is almost irrelevant, just a weird and useless picture. The yellow pages orient me, guiding me to what is there with greater ease and contentment than a 'real' map could. There are no direct routes (nor any indirect routes for that matter) to anywhere; everything is just 'an hour' from here and one simply goes there. In a smaller, compact city, for instance Amsterdam, I often feel like there is a way to get somewhere and I don't know it. I feel lost in Amsterdam (I don't know the way), whereas I never feel lost in Seattle - I just look in the phonebook; what else is there to know?

Nothing is either very far or very near. You'll notice when visiting, especially when visiting Los Angeles, everything is 'about an hour' away. The store, Santa Monica, Las Vegas, Mexico, it's all 'about an hour'. Driving is not an interruption, nor a means to get somewhere, it's more like being in another room of the house. Important socializing takes place there, business, romance, whole lives are lived. The car is part of your house. Consequently there's no distance between things, there is just time in the car. Far and near have collapsed because these trips work like elevators; you get in, and when you get out, you're there (only yours is a very well-equipped and private elevator).

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