human being on Sun, 6 Sep 1998 21:27:08 +0200 (MET DST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> a tale of two architectures

 A Tale of Two Architectures:
 the Fast-Food Restaurant and the Museum

 Recently I have been trying to illustrate some scenes via
 short 1/2 hour black pen on paper sketches with notes on
 color, which i bring back to my computer and then resketch
 the scene with a digital drawing tablet, a 6x8" wacom artzII,
 with the 216 web palette, which often takes several hours.

 In the course of sketching landscapes, buildings, and machines
 (relating Paul Shepheard's same-titled book) I've found what seems
 to me to be a quintessential juxtaposition between the different
 ideas of architecture today in their sacred and profane dimensions.

 These recent sketches are at:

 But I write to attempt to share thoughts on two of these sketches,
 #18 and #19, the fast-food restaurant and the museum. If you want
 to see these images alone in a frame, go to the following urls:

 My interest is as an independent architectural researcher, slash
 explorer, who tries to understand the everyday built environment.

 From my experience, the architectural institution fails to teach
 of the relationship between these two types of architecture. But
 instead, the institution loves to teach about the virtues of the
 "real" and "true" sacred and unique architecture exemplified by
 the art musuem, while, at the same time ignoring the architectural
 relevance and value of the profane, mass-quantity, aesthetically
 identitical franchise buildings that occupy the built environment,
 such as the fast-food restaurant, or any other franchised building
 -type of its repeatable nature.

 These comments regard almost any combination of fine-art/modern art
 museum and any international franchised company with a consistent
 building design/aesthetic. Thus, if you have a Walker Art Center or
 Pompidou Center, or National Gallery museum and any McDonalds or
 Kinko's Copy Center, it should be available for the same comparison.

 Or for that matter, any exclusive definition of architecture which
 limits the definition of 'good' and 'legitimate' architecture to
 only those buildings that are of value to the ideals of the high-
 culture that they portend, as exemplified by the unique and one-of-
 a-kind designs (ie., individuality) of those who are in power, as
 in complete juxtaposition with that which is considered as not-being
 good enough, or valued as architecture, because of its consumerist
 value, and surplus of mass-identification, whereby everything that
 is designed by architects is considered definable as architecture.

 In a sense, this comparision is between modernist and postmodernist
 views, understandings, and definitions of architecture, with a twist.
 The twist is a paradox, that both examples reflect the qualities of
 the other to some degree, which I imagine others can elaborate much
 more succesfully than I, if i can get the basic premise across.

 The first building is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art which
 is designed by Mario Botta.  It is a refined, beautifully massed,
 wonderfully planned urban environment intergrating another museum
 and park complex across the street with it, the Yerba Buena Center
 of the Arts.

 My drawing of the museum from across this street can be seen at:

 It is not quite close, due to pixel-issues of scale, to the real
 building, but nevertheless gives an iconic impression of the site
 and the building itself. My comments on experiencing this building
 are as follows:

 It is a building which took me a few visits to appreciate due to
 its unique nature. I'd never been to Florence, Italy, but apparently
 its aesthetic is based upon this striation of stone on the central
 cylindrical ocula between alternating between the grey and the white.

 This external solid massing and emphasis upon this main cylindrical
 source of light is echoed in the interior of the building, where all
 light seeminly comes to the museum through this central window's eye,
 falling down several stories through an atrium to the ticket counter
 and bookstore below.

 When inside the museum, this natural light is immediately apparent,
 yet, it disappears as one hits the central stairs to go into the
 cavernous galleries, where the exterior masses are reflected inside
 in blank white walls and high ceilings, and the rare and collected,
 highly valued artworks inside, artificially lit.

 This building thus focusses and is planned around this reverance
 for natural light, and has an emphasis on its massing, and of the
 refined sense of materiality, often a premise in the architecture
 of modernist taste.

 This building, no doubt, is officially considered "architecture",
 and good architecture at that, and is a nice experience to have if
 you happen to get the chance to visit it.

 More information on this building and the history of the museum
 can be found at the following urls:

 The San Francisco Musuem of Modern Art:

 An architectural overview of the building:

 A history of the SF MOMA:

 (And, in case you're interested: alexander calder's southern cross,
 which is depicted in my sketch of the museum)

 In contrast to the museum, where I go to see the thoughts and images
 of the reflected world as often as there is a free-day, there is the
 projected world, entirely on the surface of the restaurant that i've
 been meditating on for some months.

 I go on walks, along the beautiful Alameda, California shoreline of
 this island, and walk to an interior park, near my place, to sit at
 a bench, to see the palm trees with explosive climactic tops, and
 the blue night sky. But, at the edge of this park is a glowing alien
 of a building, the Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) franchise store.

 For an image of the scene, see:

 KFC is like a police search-light beaming constantly through the park.
 Shadows are cast everywhere. It glares. And, within a range of 150
 feet, the smell of burning chicken-fat and grease and oil abounds,
 so much so that I walk to the opposite side of the park when I need
 to cross the road, because the smell is so nauseating to me. Everytime
 I pass the building I wonder why environmental laws don't challenge
 this polluting smell and make them clean the air. A whole section of
 the park and the neighborhood smells like fried chicken.  Profane,
 indeed, if this is considered a "value" system of an architecture
 which represents the culture we would like to project as an ideal
 in which to follow.

 Instead, this KFC is projecting the values of the economic, social,
 and political system in which it finds itself as a pavillion building
 in the fair market of the world culture. KFC can pollute the air as
 long as no one challenges it, and who has more money and power to
 make them change their ways. This protection of the profit-making
 building as economic-engine is the real estate of the capitalistic
 building enterprise. The KFC franchise acts as a despotic individual
 in the neighborhood, littering, spoiling, smelling, staying up late
 and making a lot of noise through those walkie-talkie-like intercom
 systems that make the drive-thru voices sound like they are calling
 from planet-x, which happens to be inside the store itself.

 So, sitting on a bench, in the park, one of the few on the island,
 there is this monstrosity of a building. And, I think about my days
 in the architectural school where the moral-plays of what is and is
 not architecture are dramatised as a secret occult knowing that is
 the sacred and definable "architecture", good and real no less. That
 is, the architecture which represents the good "values" of culture
 which in turn, if one deconstructs a building via architecture, one
 would find the "true" nature of the economic, social, and political
 systems at work in and exemplified by its architectural design.

 There is the SFMOMA, the museum, I am thinking to myself, but, then
 there is this thing, this fast-food restaurant, KFC, that is just
 screaming: "I am culture! I am your econonic, political, and social
 system exemplified in building! Read me, as a semiotician!"

 My mind flashes back to work of the often-chided Robert Venturi et
 al, who propelled the architectural discourse into the realm of the
 fast-food restaurant via their Learning from Las Vegas, and their
 Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, where the mundane
 architectural landscape was investigated for its ability to project
 the meaning and values of the design of buildings in the landscape.

 This is postmodernism, looking at signs, looking through signs, as
 a way of seeing the same light, massing, materiality and structure
 of modernism in a new way.

 The architecture of the Kentucky Fried Chicken is the pinnacle of
 this postmodern architecture. Profanity and all. It takes the virtue
 of modernism, massive repeatability and mass-production as its value
 and creates an architectural machine meant for pure profit in the
 built environment. Yet, it goes further in its literal design.

 It is designed as a sign-system, what I would call a multimedia
 architecture, which designs one idea in many mediums. From menus
 to buildings, to people and advertisements, to uniforms, to
 food, to language, it is a single aesthetic: KFC architecture.

 The lighting is electric, the view through the glass is not for
 the customers to see out to the street landscape, but for those
 on the street to see in, to see the cultural building-machine at
 work, a factory for frying chicken-parts, a system based upon the
 concentration-camp like factory killing of birds to feed the masses
 without a moral qualm.

 The electrical light, too bright, blaring glaring, menus made of
 light, presenting the dish as sign, symbolizing the food aesthetic
 of good tasting chicken, with a price structure fluxuating through
 replaceable numbering systems, updated every quarter, or as needed.

 The uniforms, the visors, the cybernetic microphone attachment for
 the drive-through commander of the force of workers, and the image
 of the Colonel of Kentucky Fried Chicken looming overhead, as a
 ghost in the machine, a benign, or not so benign dictator whom
 directs the vision of the enterprise, as regimes like to be called.

 The building plan reflects the economy that drives the machine. The
 workers are squashed into an unbelievably small space, three workers
 squeezing so close as to have to touch eachother just to get into
 and out of different spaces in which they need to be, the order-
 machine spitting out ordered meals through its vents, from an
 invisible individual behind the veil, seemingly a cook, one would
 think. Grease is everywhere, the floor slick. The workers harried.
 Chaos. Money exchanged with automatic sayings of workers and from
 patrons. "Number 5 and a Coke" patron says. "$5.75" worker says.
 The transaction complete, the producer-consumer assemblyline is
 refined and well-underway. Modernist design is perfected in this
 building and exceeded into its next sphere, the totalitarianism
 of this value system as an architectural design ethic.

 It is inhuman, but it is also a perfect reflection of the culture
 which sustains this building-as-organism. Just another plug-in
 component in the electrical infrastructure. Add some chicken, and
 a personality/sales-pitch, and you've got a franchisable company
 ready to go global, and on the New York Stock Exchange, a weapon
 of culture, ready to do battle on the chess-set of the cultural
 grid of the world.

 I could be imagining that this KFC has any meaning beyond the values
 of unique architecture of modernism, instead, that it is meaningful
 in its repeatability, in its non-uniqueness, its quantity, its
 10,000 fast-food restaurants around the world that function
 just like one large building, like a privately-owned government.

 And, if one looked at this "bad" architecture from a postmodern
 perspective, one would see the "value" it projects is money, profit,
 de-centralization, and a public-private totalitarian rule. Who would
 want to do this? Well, it may be necessary to understanding the
 projected value of the commonplace buildings in the landscape,
 such as to see not only the facades mask, but the face behind it.

 My abilities to explain this are weak, but, thanks to the web, and
 to the vision of advertisers, my job is made easier because this
 same image is present in the online construction site for this
 same building-machine and its sign-symbol system of value.

 The following urls detail aspects of KFC that I am indeed not
 imagining, but that are present in its own material assemblage:

 (The following links are taken from , but are
 separated so as to aid in navigating to the appropriate links)

 Kentucky fried chicken restaurant (aesthetic) url:

 I felt so lucky to arrive at the Kentucky Fried Chicken website,
 because it reassured me of some notions I had in the park. One of
 which was the complete aesthetic of the franchise, almost being
 military, with a "colonel" as founding father, oedipal, with a
 sign for the company, lit up at night (as seen in my drawing)
 of the Colonel's face on the sign, and a red-white-and-blue
 design closely resembling a flag, and the flag of the United
 States at that, but for KFC, or KFC as country, or as KFC-USA,
 or as Dictator.. something.

 Then, to go online and find the head of the company, Colonel
 Sanders, being written about as being a benign dictator:

 And finding the KFC ideology almost that of a private government,
 or as an estate, or the the KFC state with its own "whitehouse",
 so emblematic of the culture (eco-soc-pol) that gave rise to it:

 Next, finding the KFC core values/founding truthes, also known
 as the 10 commandments or even Declaration of a KFC worker:

 And bizarre facts about KFC as entity, with origin-myth:

 And, of course, some sad facts about the commodified chicken,
 whose life is only mechanical, tortured, and brought unto the
 assemblyline of death, crystalized by the supposed uniqueness
 of the saving 'secret' recipe, and special 'pressure cooker'
 technique which brings salvation to these poor fowl:

 Ah, the orign-myth again, the beginnings of what has now been
 morphed into a 10,000 building enterprise of KFC restaurants
 around the world. These archaeological artifacts bringing the
 meaning and value, the overriding principles of 'hard work'
 from the down-and-out to the successful entrepreneur, as seen
 in the virtual tour of the original Sanders Cafe (be sure to
 click on objects on the map):

 And the site has the important history of the founding father:

 And, an almost pentagon importance to their mystical "secret"
 recipe of eleven herbs and spices for their product line:

 And finally, a brief history of Kentucky Fried Chicken as
 a global capitalist enterprise, with buyouts by PepsiCo,
 and other big players in ad-media architecture:

 If you've happened to get this far with this, you'll have noticed
 by the website that "reading" the signs of the local KFC franchise
 building as architecture yields some consistency to ideologies
 that can be found in the physical design of the building. Such
 that the building is an economic machine which optimizes profit,
 to which the human is an infrastructure for this purpose, in this
 cybernetic, automatic machine, on the social level which includes
 the kind of language an employee uses, the level of society at
 which they can exist with poverty-level wages, the institutional
 uniforms and sickening environment, both inhumane spaces to work
 in (as ultimate human-machine interface, the human-building) and
 horrid smells and dangerous conditions, and the excessively bright
 lighting found in every factory. And the politic of hierarchical
 private power, with the money=politic equation heading the way
 the franchise charts the waters. Founder as patron saint, as
 originating myth driving the machine. As despot, at whose knees
 the workers and patrons kneel to pray for their daily chicken.

 In fact, the whole website, with a chicken-city, chicken-theater,
 chicken-community-center, chicken-whitehouse, it all brings this
 reading in line with the common experience of this architecture,
 this building-machine on a park in any community in the world.

 The values are like a menu, meal number 5 brings money, profit.
 The ethic is that a chicken is a commodity to be eaten. And that
 this is the eminent domain of the KFC as institutional entity.
 It can all be summed up in the phrase: "finger-licken' good".

 What does this everyday profane culture and its architecture
 have to do with the architecture of a modern art museum?

 Could it be that the "reading" of the KFC can also be read into
 the museum, where a new building can be read, past the not-for-
 profit mask of value, and into the commodification, the menu for
 cultural profit of the rare art into purchaseable commodities
 for consumption. In the magazine review of the museum, in the
 newspaper ads and critiques of the exhibits, and in the famous
 scene of the art museum venue, its cafe, its restaurant, and
 its ubiquitous bookstore which sells postcards to umbrellas of
 the artwork in a new, more available medium. That is, that the
 multimedia architecture of the museum, in these other objects,
 can be read similarly as the fast-food restaurant. That is, that
 the building exists also as a postmodern entity to be read aloud.

 If one reads the SFMOMA beyond the classically-modern building,
 which exists as unity, beyond plain facade, but pure all the way
 through in its holistic design, the building reflecting the values
 of its civilization and culture, and into the mundane of artifacts
 of the museum, the kitsch, does it not promote the same aspects of
 the KFC, but with a different agenda, about what culture is and
 should be defined as, but, in the end, promoting the same economic,
 social, and political vision as a building-as-cultural-machine?

 Are these two architectures really that different in nature?

 Are their systems of production and consumption, even if different
 in rarity and ubiquity, the one versus the many, quality versus
 quantity, really different at all?

 The SFMOMA, if considered in its multimedia architectural aspects,
 can be read as a postmodern construction and deconstructed as being
 of the same "value" system as the KFC, and its egalitarian method
 of distributing chicken, or art, to the poeple. Profane in ways.

 The KFC can be sacred, as a testimonial to American entrepreneur-
 ship, from the bootstraps-up text of a successful capitalist, to
 the rarity of a unique vision, making a 'special' one-of-a-kind
 (and highly protected) secret-recipe and pressure cooker and to
 relocate this as a business _at_the_new_highway_offramp_, in a
 'unique' and one-of-a-kind motel-restaurant compound (see the
 virtual tour: city plan) which may become a National Landmark
 and protected historical site in the United States- to becoming
 a perfection of a modern-assemblyline of commodity production
 and consumption in its architectural building-as-chicken-machine
 where this once unique idea has become its own antithesis, and
 the restaurant is now a commonplace fast-food building which is
 strategically placed on the world grid, 10,000 buildings strong.

 In a sense, the KFC is ultimately a modern building, but in an
 advanced way, not classically-modern as the SFMOMA with a post-
 modern edge, but newly-modern, with a cutting post-modern edge.
 It is the evolution of modernism, still modernism, but moreso.

 Both of these architectures re-present, project and reflect the
 same economic-social-poltical, ie. cultural "values" in their
 buildings, but in a different way. Both mask, both also bare.

 Both are virtuous, both are vice-ridden, but both are ideals, and
 both buildings can be read as masks hiding something, a story or
 a false impression in stone, in plastic, or a truth of the nature
 of the building-machine that churns with energy into the future.

 It is summarized in trying to see a continuity in the landscape,
 beyond the splits and fragments, and into the bridges which span
 gaps in logic, in education, in taste, in value, in styles, to
 see the paradoxical nature: when one is considered real, and the
 other is avoided at all costs, as relevant.

 It seems more than clear that we need to begin to understand this
 profane landscape, to learn from Las Vegas, so as to understand the
 everyday cultural order and the value system we live within.

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: