The Maintenance Crew At La Villette

John Cage’s Eur­opera 5, to quote Mode Records’ pro­mo­tion­al copy, is a col­lage scored for two singers, each singing five arias of their own choos­ing from the stan­dard opera reper­toire. A pianist accom­pa­nies’ them by play­ing six dif­fer­ent opera tran­scrip­tions. They are joined by a sin­gle 78-rpm vic­tro­la-play­er, play­ing six his­tor­i­cal opera record­ings and a per­former play­ing a pre-record­ed tape, plus the use of a radio and a silent tele­vi­sion.” That goes on for an hour.

Is it an insult to call this idea a joke? Or a joke in reverse? A joke dis­tills the humor out of what would be an inter­minable sit­u­a­tion – say, being stuck on a desert island. It tends to zero in on the slight Boolean over­lap between the banal and the excep­tion­al, so as to let a lit­tle bright light into the banal. In the same way that you might enjoy the view, or the feel­ing of the wind on your face, while scal­ing a moun­tain­side to vis­it a guru, you might find some pleas­ant moment of enlight­en­ment in Eur­opera 5. Are you more like­ly to find it there, or in a plain old opera? 

Maybe it is more fair to con­sid­er this from the oppo­site angle. Con­sid­er Cor­nelius Cardew’s Trea­tise as a draw­ing. It’s a good draw­ing! Imag­ine sit­ting down with your vio­lin and play­ing it. That would be worth doing. It would be equal­ly worth doing to sit with a group of peo­ple and try to make it through the whole thing togeth­er; you would be just­ly proud of your­selves. Now: imag­ine sit­ting out­side of that mag­ic cir­cle and try­ing to listen. 

What I am try­ing to say is that if a cul­tur­al form – say, clas­si­cal music – has per­sist­ed, it has done so through the par­tic­i­pa­tion of a coali­tion of groups. Par­venus, enthu­si­asts, mono­ma­ni­acs; musi­cians, com­posers, audi­ences; luthiers, pro­mot­ers, pub­lish­ers; each par­takes in the form, some more and some less. If they all make a com­mon form leg­i­ble through their com­mon effort, each par­ty also makes its own bids to dis­tort ele­ments of the form to suit its own pref­er­ence. Hav­ing made their own per­fect­ed ver­sion of the form, they might look around, dis­ap­point­ed that the rest of the coali­tion has not respond­ed to it. 

A multitude: sample of botulism bacteria.

I sat down with S M L XL the oth­er day again after who knows how long. Have you had the expe­ri­ence of encoun­ter­ing your­self in a book, not because some­one else got you, or felt the same way you do, but because you had already incor­po­rat­ed a piece of the book’s DNA in your­self, and had all mean­while been copy­ing that tem­plate into your own thought, to the point where you had for­got­ten where the ini­tial gene trans­fer had come from?

For today’s read­er, the book acts as a per­fect stent con­nect­ing today and the mid-1990s. The pieces on Atlanta, on Sin­ga­pore, on the Gener­ic City, all accu­rate­ly iden­ti­fied our future unequal­ly dis­trib­uted through what was then the present. Ever since, the book has lay there con­sis­ten­ly point­ing out these chaot­ic con­di­tions to young (or young-ish) design­ers like me who might just as eas­i­ly have over­looked them. The virtues of S M L XL as a whole – com­plete­ness, curios­i­ty, a ded­i­ca­tion to real­ism – were as rare and valu­able then as they are now. Some­how, those qual­i­ties were not what got imi­tat­ed by OMA’s ambi­tious peers. 

It is worth ask­ing: what is it about this book that is not sim­ply a well-engi­neered pro­mo­tion­al con­tain­er, or even a social venue for those in the OMA orbit to come togeth­er through? What is there about it that actu­al­ly com­mu­ni­cates to the read­er a uni­ty above and beyond the sum of its parts? 

reddit place
A multitude: the r/place subreddit.

I’ll lay­er anoth­er ques­tion on top of that. If OMA can cre­ate such a mul­ti­tude in a book, why do they twice fail to cre­ate a park? A build­ing might be con­demned to be a place, they noticed, but a land­scape need not be. In line with their obser­va­tions of weedy gener­i­ca through the world, OMA tried in both of their park com­pe­ti­tions to shape a space that would not be a place — a space to do things with things, with the absolute min­i­mum of iner­tia. Both La Vil­lette and Downsview are meant to accel­er­ate the inter­est­ing parts of the urban con­di­tion, to mul­ti­ply points of change and tran­si­tion in one space. If La Vil­lette is not just a fair­grounds with a few hangars, it is in its effort to max­i­mize fric­tion between known things, such that the golfer’s ball rolls from the for­mal gar­den into the farm.

If this is urban­i­ty, it cer­tain­ly isn’t the Atlanta ver­sion, which metas­ta­sizes the indif­fer­ence baked into the old­er urban sit­u­a­tion – the way that peo­ple two inch­es apart agree to pre­tend that the oth­er doesn’t exist. To dri­ve to an appoint­ment at an office park is pre­cise­ly not to expe­ri­ence any over­lap, but to pass through one thing after anoth­er. Anoth­er way to get to that: a bunch of land­scapes in a field are dif­fer­ent from a sky­scraper in that there isn’t a struc­ture to keep them apart. 

So the speed and extreme jux­ta­po­si­tions of the OMA parks are meant to show urban­i­ty wrig­gling at the end of your fork, to make plain what oth­er­wise gets papered over in a pro­ces­sion of tropes. They engi­neer a series of bro­ken pieces, because urban­i­ty appears when urban­i­ty fails. Or: an urban con­di­tion is look­ing for­ward to see­ing the urban con­di­tion break down for some­one else. Tragedy is when I stub my toe, com­e­dy is when you lose your head.

ananta shesha
A multitude: Ananta Shesha, pictured with Vishnu and Lakshmi.

A park or a city is only the sum of rou­tines that goes into it. Every kink in the rou­tine becomes its own headache. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing at La Vil­lette, where the com­pe­ti­tion orga­niz­ers tied them­selves into knots to dis­qual­i­fy OMA’s design, just because no one want­ed the respon­si­bil­i­ty of keep­ing it afloat, of sweep­ing the sand of the desert back off of the ten­nis court. If there is one thing that OMA does not seem to under­stand, it is ecol­o­gy, in the sense that ecol­o­gy is the sum of the dull rou­tines of dull crea­tures, crea­tures very stuck in their ways. (Look at the Kool­haas House­life doc­u­men­tary to see the trou­ble that ensues when the idea, the joke, has to be tend­ed, haunt­ed, repeated.) 

Both com­pe­ti­tion entries pride them­selves on the irri­ga­tion of ter­ri­to­ries with poten­tial,” and when pressed describe a first reme­di­a­tion to make their sites plantable. Would you trust an exten­sion agent who told you exact­ly how to water and fer­til­ize your field the first year – and said noth­ing about how to har­vest it, or even weed it? With­out propos­ing a nov­el and work­able mod­el of col­lab­o­ra­tion that stretch­es into the future — ideas being dropped in occa­sion­al­ly, care being poured in inces­sant­ly — we will only get more of what we already have, which may be Sin­ga­pore or, sor­ry to say, Columbus.

If I can try to pull all of these strings togeth­er into a knot, it would be to say: it’s enough to expect an idea to be a shin­ing excep­tion, a crack in the wall, with­out expect­ing it to inti­mate, to imi­tate, a whole society. 

(October 2021)