Beyond Buildings



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In my last post, I spoke of the new iPad and the retail environment that presaged its transparency as an object. Look carefully at the iPad and learn more details about the device and you will realize that it may be open in appearance, but is closed as a system. Only applications optimized for this kind of Apple will work on it, and if you want to use its Internet connectivity, you have to sign up with AT&T. No Flash, no eBooks that are not in the .pub standard can enter into your virtual loft. You have to pay for (most of) your tunes and your apps.

This is an Apple tradition, and stands in stark contrast to the modernist ideal that its form seems to represent. The objects may be minimalist, the desktop a sea of possibilities, and the aesthetics engendered by its screens as redolent of endless space as any Mondrian, but its commercial arena is closed. It is in this a perfect analogy to what has happened to modernism as a style: it is a high-priced alternative to the more traditional and fluid forms informed by past forms. The iPad is part of the same universe as the expensive interiors of John Pawson and Sir David Chipperfield, of the W Hotels and the Moss Store in New York. Openness and freedom are things you have to buy and buy into.

It is ironic that it turned out this way, as modernism had an egalitarian and democratic component, even, despite what Thom Wolfe claimed, in the United States (see: Frank Lloyd Wright). It might even be a vindication of classicism as a lingua franca that is easier to produce and to understand than the almost nothing whose refinements only refined minds can understand.  Modernism’s open qualities are limited, reserved, and difficult to enter into, whether mentally or financially. I’ll never forget the realization, as a young architect, of how expensive it was not to use baseboards and other details to hide reveals.

The closed universe is not limited to modernism, however. Chains such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Hollister’s have long realized that showing a closed façade can be an enticement to enter into a supposedly exclusive club. The back rooms and VIP mezzanines of clubs are only the latest version of the intimidating facades of gentlemen’s clubs, Masonic temples, and first-class sections of airplanes. Making and controlling a space is a mark of power and ability. The decision to be closed or open is separate from style, and we should realize that Adolf Loos’ modernist interiors, hiding behind their enigmatic facades, are as much part of the legacy of a style that wanted to break open the box as Wright’s open corners. Both are part of our hierarchical social and economic system.

Look carefully at Apple’s objects, and the strength of the border, rounded and containing, becomes clear, as does the separation Moss’ vitrines establish. The only moment of dissonance is between the Apple stores, with their illusions of no barriers, and the fact that you still have to pay for things, both in the store and once you buy the product. Ironically, by creating some of the most minimalist objects and spaces you can enter or buy, Apple has revealed the truth of capitalism. You have to afford it.


Comments (5 Total)

  • Posted by: joearchitect | Time: 5:27 PM Thursday, February 04, 2010

    I don't see this so much as Apple vs Microsoft - which so many things seem to sink to - rather it is about Minimalism (as a part of design therory ) and Capitalism (as a part of our 'real world). Apple is just the example, maybe the epitome of this realtionship. It actually is a very astute set of observations.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 2:33 PM Thursday, February 04, 2010

    Luxury has always been defined by what the massed cannot have. In the pre-industrial era luxury was defined by more. Now, in the age of consumerism it is defined by less. Mondernism was more about form follows function, production and serving the masses than minimalism. Its Abstract nature was derived from the industrial production methods and material. Minimalism is the true theater because in reality life is messy. The great appeal of Apple is that it cleans up the mess; it appears to simply your digital life into one simple geometric whole.

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  • Posted by: whosband | Time: 2:28 PM Thursday, February 04, 2010

    I don't think Aaron is saying that the iPad or Apple's product concepts are flawed, he is simply pulling back the curtain and showing us that behind the scrim of technological democracy, freedom and openness (clearly Apple's intended imagery) is the mechanism of capitalism. Steve Jobs = Wizard of Oz? And, were it any different, Apple might have gone the way of the Commodore 64 and the BetaMAX, and we wouldn't have our iPhones and our sweet 24" iMacs with perfect color clarity and crisp resolution. Which road do you think leads to tech utopia? Apple Ave. or Microsoft Way? Apple innovates, Microsoft imitates. We're getting there and Apple is leading the way. Apple's method is what excites me; "imagine something great, and make it." Microsoft starts every creative endeavor with, "how do we avoid the problems of the past?" I understand and agree with Aaron's observations, and I still choose Apple.

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  • Posted by: rojorob | Time: 12:47 PM Thursday, February 04, 2010

    Exactly, Aaron, and that's the way we want it. We want it that way because it works. Allowing every pseudo software developer to port to an Apple product makes them ............ uh, whats the word ......... oh yeah, MICROSOFT! Wake up, buy an Apple product, use it for a while then come back an apologize because you "just didn't get it".

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:36 PM Thursday, February 04, 2010

    I think you are overly simplistic in the definition of open and closed. Plus Apple's closed system is more reliable, user friendly and less prone to attack and viruses than the open systems you speak of because they have better control.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.