The superpresent as commitment. As the sociologists Lash and Urry explain in Economies of Sign and Space, the identity of space and place is undergoing radical change due to the pressure of a new sort of modernity. Social structures are in decline and are being replaced by a structure of flows, i.e., a set of information and communication structures. Social inequality and social class are no longer determined by one’s position not in the mode of production but in the mode of information.
We can no longer explain this new modernity in terms of the contradictions produced by industrial society between feudalism and the nineteenth century. A new modernity is now penetrating our everyday lives with the utmost discretion, by way of normality. This time however, there are no political explosions or revolutions. This supermodern world – or rather, this second modernity – of everyday material and immaterial objects is experienced and consumed by all of us, while at the same time it virtually always escapes our vigilance, no matter how determined. We need to learn to look closely in order both to escape the fresh hypnosis of this supermodernity and to be able to assess at their true value the different qualities of this second modernity that lie concealed under the skin of society. New concepts, instruments and forms need to be devised if we are to operate within this second modernity in a fashion that is active and not consumerist. In short, we long for new fantasies and experiments.
This search for, and creation of, a new space for experiment is a fascinating quest, but there is also a danger lurking in it. I call this danger Fresh Conservatism. This is because the second modernity, while it enables us to find new possibilities – an immanent radical space and aesthetics2) – is also accompanied by an excess of political blindness. This illiteracy is generated by a middle class without perspectives. A striking feature is that this middle class, more than any before it, is colonizing the world. For a long time now it has been at home in our worldwide second modernity, while ordinary citizens remain confined to their national borders. But alongside the silent majorities, there are large numbers of men and women who are taking on an increasingly critical and reflexive distance with reference to the institutions of the new information society. This growing reflexivity is part and parcel of a radical enhancement in our second modernity of individualization. Today’s world is a ‘risk society’, as Ulrich Beck calls it, where humans themselves both have created global problems and are increasingly reflexive about monitoring the outcomes and developing at least partial solutions to those problems.
Contemporary life is premised upon the social organization of reflexivity, but of course it is doubtful whether that reflexivity can be organized so as to regulate and minimize the scale of those risks and depency of power.
Fresh Conservatism is a situation whereby a certain degree of conflict – subversion and radicalism – serves as stimulant and identity, thus forming an essential element in a fragmented society where the results of conflicts in power and interests are swept under the carpet. Fresh conservatism also stands for a condition in which deregulated capital and social democracy complement each other perfectly. Culture plays a decisive role in this game. In my view though, the thing that makes the development of a provisional utopia within our second modernity so difficult and at the same time so interesting is that many dimensions of Fresh Conservatism are potentially exemplary – namely of how to create a different and really potential new architecture within our second modernity. In order to surpass Fresh Conservatism we have to learn from it. Accordingly, I shall mention some of its important aspects.
Return to the ‘Realwelt’. Increasingly in art and architecture, and especially fresh conservative works, there is a need to break open a whole range of everyday conventions and stereotypes. Attitudes of distance or objectivity are shunned; instead people seek contact and interaction with the other in everyday reality. This architecture and art aims to coincide with reality. It is a plea for acting and experiencing. It is an architecture against architecture, an art against art; it does not attack the profession, rather it is a response to the mass presence of the other (with the risk of devouring the other as a result). The attempt is made to break free of space in the sense of demarcation, dependency, central management, centralized order and control. It aims to link up more places at once, so as to escape from the suffocation of the enclosed. The intellectual cowboys of Fresh Conservatism gallop through our worldwide citified landscape. A world is opened up where the presence of the past in the present has ceased to mean anything. They bowl over existing preoccupations that the market too knows are no longer effective. Research and analyze reality is their motto. Cooperate with the system, the market, the rules and the norm. Don’t reject them; make them work for you. Discover the gaps and holes in our ever-changing condition. Be optimistic and not sparing in one-word replies; more is possible, after all, than your prejudices can predict in advance. Pessimism is old-fashioned. The fact that these Fresh Conservative designers speak the language of our times, does not mean that they don’t distance themselves from mass culture. They express their opposition through a degree of unease, radicalism or subversion that at the very least provokes the public’s curiosity. It asks questions and gives new answers. There is always a moment of estrangement that cannot be contained by the familiar. In this sense they do not jive with mass culture. In this sense they are fresh. The question remains however where the shock of the new is intended to take us. Because if it doesn’t take us beyond the spectacle, this freshness will only give us an unadorned dottiness, promoting nothing but itself. The disappearance of the political. In the end Fresh Conservatism overlooks the fact that there is such a thing as a political dimension to everyday life. It forgets that the landscape also has its vertical moments. Fresh Conservatism changes the ‘Realwelt’ into an attractive carpet metropolis, glossing over the consequences of reality. That there is more to reality than a splendid visual and tactile surface does not concern these architects. The true nature of the artificial landscape is much more complex, more confrontational and far more exciting than the fresh conservative panorama would lead us to believe. This means that we come up against a trend – that many architects want to include as many differences and consequences in a landscape as possible, including forms of conflict and ‘risky spaces’, without bothering to categorize them. Whatever the ethical issues and no matter who the concerned parties are. The danger exists that this dynamic and shift of position will give rise to a friction that either does not know where it is going or else refuses to say. Fresh Conservatism has lost sight of the fact that textuality, ambiguity and deliberate vagueness are often on the side of the dominant ideological powers. What is lacking here is the idea that a social structure is composed of various fields or levels, some of which are more influential than others. In this series of numerous temporal moments with varying, divergent and fragmented aims, difference itself collapses under its own weight, so that all criteria or standards are absent. We can surrender to amnesia, ecstasy and hypnosis.
The risk is that Fresh Conservatism is changing our second modernity into a hypermodern theme park about banal normality. It is a museumizing of the superordinary – expressways, brain parks, supermarkets, air terminals, terrains vague, the body, war, gender, trauma, etc. Differences and contradictions are included in a horizontal landscape in a fresh way, but the essential forces of the economy of signs and space can go on fighting their old battles undisturbed. In this panopticum of pluralism, self-censorship disguised as individual freedom calls the tune. This is the horizontal landscape that functions both to totalize and to disorientate. We zoom around an opportunist, no-strings, perfectly functioning network of voids and concentration, without noticing the disturbing contradictions. They’ve simply become too beautiful.
Surpassing Fresh Conservatism
Operating and dealing within deregulated capitalism in order to redirect it is essential; disguising these trends or trying to duck them is pointless. This is an approach however that calls for courage, a willingness to take risks, and an openness to new possibilities; one needs both the nerve and the chance to experiment in our supermodern world. Experiment implies a risk of failure. It is a pity, but many recent experiments have still gone the way of Fresh Conservatism. They end up being the opposite of what their approach and preoccupations were aiming for. The approach I am after carries the charge of an utopian impulse but struggles against reproducing an idealist utopian vision that universalizes experience and promises progress. What we should opt for is a positive and necessary social responsibility, within deregulated capitalism, which relates to the world of the individual and that of the collective. This is an architecture that gives no primacy to form and abstraction, the optical and the figurative; it is the processes and powers that operate in space and the aesthetics they convey that are seen as crucial. What is important is not the distant and abstract, but that which is incorporated; not any fixed, clearly coded and demarcated functions, but overlapping, continually evolving political activities and a social contract. If we reject this choice, then we are forced back on a strategy that is in tune with the possibilities arising from the landscape of artificial normality; there will be no escape then from those buried conservative forces that increase dependency rather than liberating us. In that case, as architects, we will create a fresh dynamic space that will be perfectly in tune with the entire range of conservative mechanisms. And this is exactly what I want to warn about with the phrase Fresh Conservatism. We can learn a great deal from Fresh Conservatism but in the end we have to surpass it. Fortunately, our second modernity offers us a whole new range of possibilities that are not lacking in risks and adventure.
Roemer van Toorn is head of theory and history at the Berlage Institute Amsterdam and his company CinemArchitecture produces work in the field of culture, film and architecture.
1. The German version of ‘Fresh Conservatism, Landscape of Normality’ was published in Archithese no. 3, 1997 (special issue ‘Niederlande heute’). It is to be published in English later this year in Bart Lootsma (ed.), Poldergeist, New York (Princeton) 1997. The English text can be found on the Internet; http://www.berlage-institute.nl/ choose ‘selected BiA texts’ and click on ‘10.3 Roemer van Toorn’.
2. See also my article ‘Architecture against Architecture. Radical immanent architecture’ in the publication accompanying the festival Film + Arc 2, 1995.