Dirt: Coping with things
It's easier to mourn a front yard than an entire lifestyle.
Daisy Alioto on data storage, mid-century architecture and object-dependence.
My mother, born in 1957, first lived in Bethpage, Long Island. In 1962, Grumman, a company that formed a central part of the local economy, was awarded the contract to build the lunar module. By 1988, the number of employees had jumped from 13,789 to 34,000 across multiple sites. I give you these numbers to acknowledge that the moon was a business and that it was booming.
“Each day, the early shift would be extruded from the giant hangars and would wind their way down Stewart Avenue. The egress points on Lafayette and Cherry avenues would spew forth the cigarette-smoking, gas-guzzling, freedom-loving, God-bless-America, Lunar-Module-building great American defense industry backbone,” wrote a member of the same generation, Ann C. Kenna, in a Newsday essay.
Stewart Avenue, my mother’s home street, widened to accommodate traffic and equipment flowing to Grumman. Eventually, my mother’s front yard was swallowed; her family moved.
I was reminded of this story when I read Josh Dzieza’s award-winning investigation into Foxconn, published October 2020 in The Verge. The village of Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin — just outside Racine — paid over $152 million to acquire 132 properties that would accommodate road widenings around the planned Foxconn facility, according to reporting by Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Watch.
Instead, Foxconn embarked on a hiring spree for fake jobs. Essentially, what they offered was a simulacrum of work — the jobs had all of the elements of work, but were really just a cheap imitation. No lunar module, no nationalistic flex, just unfettered, post-Fordism kabuki. Dzieza reports that the company rushed to hire the 260 employees it needed to get a generous subsidy from the state of Wisconsin: “Recruiters were told to hit the number but given little in the way of job descriptions. Soon, the office began to fill with people who had nothing to do. Many just sat in their cubicles watching Netflix and playing games on their phones.”
Some employees would cry with frustration. Others would scream out of nowhere, attempting to cope with things.
Coping with things is the prevailing mood in my corner of the universe. As I write this, America has just completed an election in which many people voted primarily for the idea of voting. The prevailing candidate? Less an individual than an avatar of civility and liberalism. That candidate won Wisconsin, the home of the Foxconn scam, by 20,600 votes.
We are a country founded on an idea and not an identity. In the lead up to the election, our social networks were populated with shareable graphics designed, seemingly, around the idea of shareability. And what’s wrong with that? Americans have a way of obscuring reality through grand symbolism and none of the accompanying semiotic rigor. As if the facade of democracy can be upheld by not looking too closely at increasingly undemocratic outcomes — our high tolerance for multiculturalism tenuously predicated on everyone struggling equally. The difference between idea and identity is both our saving grace and our downfall. Democracy: watch the gap.
Dzieza explains that Foxconn received a permit to shift their focus from manufacturing to storage. Making nothing. Keeping everything. Storage plays a crucial role in object-dependent capitalism. The dominant tech companies are, in essence, storage companies, the Amazon warehouse storing both goods and workers. Things and the humans coping with them.
Storage is deeply intertwined with what it means to be human. Archaeologist Ian Hodder writes about the upward trajectory of stuff that accompanied human life following the end of our mobile, hunter-gatherer period ten thousand years ago: “Once people had settled, the potential for surrounding oneself with material things increased. Or we might turn this around and say that increasing material accumulation forced people to settle down and start farming.”
Nobody knows the true order events at this critical juncture, and it doesn’t really matter. Did nomads stop moving to collect things, or did they collect so many things that their movements ground to a halt? This open question tells us everything we need to know about the relationship between humans and things: we depend on each other.
I am not an archaeologist, but I suspect the first encounters between humans and things helped us define our humanness via juxtaposition. Alive; not alive. Breathing; not breathing. Now, we look at things in aggregate to deduce the quality of our lifestyle. And the things we own aren’t the foils to our aliveness, they are extensions of ourselves. (Something like a potted plant really muddles the spectrum.)
The value we place in ownership is the symbolism that creates this extension–like a financial umbilical cord tying us to a parade of Adidas sneakers and outdated headphones. But things don’t have avatars, or if they do have avatars they are us, the people who invest symbolism in them. This is the principle of hyperreality: the preference for a humanity that looks more like things.
“Capital is no longer the invisible center governing the production process; as it accumulates, it spreads to the ends of the earth in the form of tangible objects. The entire expanse of society is its portrait,” writes Guy Debord in his 1967 book, The Society of the Spectacle. Capital, today, looks like a worker playing games on her phone in her cubicle, counting the hours until she can go home and water her potted plant. Alive; not alive.
Debord again: “The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images.” There is seemingly no limit to the accumulation of digital images. The mechanizations of quarantine have put a fine point on lifestyle theater. Travel has become primarily the idea of travel, which, of course, it always was. Either that, or the memory of travel.
Half a century before my mother was born, her great grandmother’s brother Miksa Roth helped build the Hungarian pavilion at the Giardini della Biennale in Venice. Today it is one of 30 permanent pavilions standing on former marshland once drained by Napoleon Bonaparte. The architect of the pavilion, Géza Maróti, was also known for a 600-page study about the city of Atlantis. The study has never been published.
The word pavilion comes from the same Latin root as butterfly and tent–something ecological, temporary, nomadic. The pavilion is also, I would argue, the architectural archetype of the midcentury.
I grew up with an apocryphal story, that the hospital where my mother was born was demolished to make way for the 1964 World’s Fair and Shea Stadium. However, when I revisited the topic to write this piece we realized that the hospital is still there — just a couple of blocks from the fairground. I took this as a lesson less on the fallibility of memory and more the arbitrary acts of The Power Broker.
Amidst the park is the 140-foot unisphere, installed as part of the globally-oriented 1964 fair (due to the arrogance of Robert Moses, the fair itself was not sanctioned by the Bureau International des Expositions). It was his world’s fair, they were all just living in it. The unisphere was built on the same site as The Trylon and Perisphere from the 1939 World’s Fair, a ball sitting next to a spire. Squint, and they are objects in a still life. (The co-architect, Wallace Harrison, later served as the Director of Planning on the United Nations complex.)
I’ve seen the unisphere in person, just once, on a rainy night during the US Open. But the rest of the fairgrounds–an assortment of one-off preservation projects and ruins–was a mystery to me. The arbitrariness of what was allowed to decay (Philip Johnson’s “Tent of Tomorrow”) and what remains polished (rocket replicas from NASA) made it easy to believe the hospital story for so long. In search of the past, I decided to attend a virtual tour of the grounds, offered during the pandemic.
As I sat in front of my laptop, I began to map the ambitions of the fair onto the corporate headquarters of its sponsors. Here was the GM Pavilion, a sleek expanse abutted by a dome, just like the General Motors Technical Center in Warren, Michigan designed by Saarinen.
Then there was the Bell System Pavilion, a flat, googie structure–squatting like a crab, or a lunar module. Googie, a jet-age visual vernacular, was supposed to be the architecture of the future, though now its remnants, concentrated in Southern California, are endangered. It was Google, no relation, that would become the real (digital) architecture of the future. As much as the company branches into drones and self-driving cars, their power derives from a great, invisible warehouse (including 23 physical warehouses filled with computers). They store stuff.
The symbiotic relationship between wealth and storage calls to mind the myth of Atlantis. Atlantis was a shadow city, a repository for the cultural mythology of nation states that dared to abandon humility. Although it’s been depicted in pop culture as a high tech utopia or digital labyrinth the only data it stores is a perennial warning: do not exceed your own capacity.
When I expressed interest in the story of my mother’s front yard, she sent me a printout of the Wikipedia page for the Apollo Lunar Module with the word Grumman circled in red. Six months prior, she had mailed me my birth certificate concealed between a tearsheet from Down East Magazine and a Bed Bath & Beyond sale coupon. I needed the birth certificate for my marriage license, procured mid-pandemic, which I got for the purposes of love and health insurance.
I planned my wedding the way people talk about what they want to have for dinner, confined as we were to our home. We took pictures along the Hudson River — I live in Northern Westchester, the place where the river bends and looks more like a lake. In the background of some of our photos was the half-sphere of the Indian Point Energy Center, a nuclear power plant in its twilight era.
A month later, I was sitting in the waiting room of the dentist’s office. I needed an emergency wisdom tooth extraction. A commercial came on the radio for Holtec, the company responsible for decommissioning Indian Point. The narrator read off the URL for the project’s website. I pulled it up, skipped straight to the Frequently Asked Questions: “Three words can sum up the process – safety, compliance and transparency. Safety of employees, contractors and the surrounding community will remain the top priority.” Holtec plans to store used fuel onsite until it can be sent to storage in New Mexico. The governor of New Mexico has called this “economic malpractice.” Even defense is ultimately a storage business.
The Polish-German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “Don’t you understand that the overall disaster is much too great to be moaned and groaned about? I can grieve or feel bad if [my cat] is sick, or if you are not well. But when the whole world is out of joint, then I merely seek to understand what is going on and why, and then I have done my duty, and I am calm and in good spirits from then on.” It is easier to mourn a front yard than an entire lifestyle.
The residents of Bethpage were certainly familiar with the concept of lifestyle. “We flew our flags, paraded on Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. We went to church on Sundays and respected each other's families and property. We practiced our faiths, our pianos and our fastballs. We defended our country and ourselves from bullets and bullies,” writes Kenna in Newsday. Here, the collective “we” obscures a narrower cultural view: an us dependent on a them.
Between the dentist’s office and the election a pamphlet arrived at my house. Indian Point Emergency Guide 2020-2022 Edition. It is mailed to everyone within 10 miles of the plant. Are you ready? It says on the front cover. No, I thought. Inside was a section on potassium iodide and a map of evacuation routes. I stuffed it away in a binder with the printouts about Grumman.
Outside of the Foxconn factory/storage space in Wisconsin is a nine-story sphere. Dzieza reports that it was originally supposed to be the dot on the “i” in the word Fii (Foxconn Industrial Internet), which would be visible from the air. Looking at photos of the empty sphere reminded me of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed S. C. Johnson & Son headquarters, also in Racine.
After the S. C. Johnson building was built in the 1930s, other American companies sought their own campuses imbued with the optimistic symbolism of the post-war economy. Architect Eero Saarinen was commissioned by General Motors, TWA, IBM, Bell Telephone, John Deere, and CBS. Saarinen had already worked with his father, Eliel, on academic campuses– including at Cranbrook in Michigan and Drake University.
Not everyone was a fan of Saarinen’s cozy relationship with companies like GM: “Saarinen’s willingness to serve the needs of corporate America by creating a new language of popular architectural imagery was also viewed with deep suspicion,” says Alice T. Friedman in Places Journal.
Friedman explains that Saarinen’s critics were concerned with the effects of advertising on American minds, but they should have also been concerned with the military-industrial complex that was making all this building possible.
The relationship between midcentury campus architecture, corporate interests, and the military could also be seen in the competition to build the Air Force Academy in Colorado. Frank Lloyd Wright lost out to Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill. Here’s what Wright had to say about that: “The world knows what I can do in architecture. If officials of the Air Force have missed this I can do no more than feel sorry for what both have lost.”
S. C. Johnson makes things. Foxconn, in Wisconsin at least, makes nothing. Still, the need for architecture to legitimize corporations is rooted in Racine: a way of life that really wasn’t so great either. People employed by the mid-century economy may have had a lifestyle more in line with their wages, but the incentive was still to succeed while others failed. (“It is imperative that the Left renounces one of its most dangerous addictions, its nostalgia for Fordism”: Mark Fisher)
After the 1964 World’s Fair, there was some discussion among Moses acolytes about turning the grounds into an international city. Instead, the “permanent world’s fair” became Disney’s Epcot, in Florida. Walt Disney shrewdly used the corporate-funded pavilions of GM, Bell and co. as free Research and Development for the future park.
The Carousel of Progress, performed by animatronic actors, is now the longest-running stage show in American history — despite the fact that there are no humans in the cast. This is what Umberto Eco observed when he talked about hyperreality at the Disney parks: “The pleasure of imitation, as the ancients knew, is one of the most innate in the human spirit; but here we not only enjoy a perfect imitation, we also enjoy the conviction that imitation has reached its apex and afterwards reality will always be inferior to it,” Eco writes.
In a fantastic inversion, Venice is also there — pavilionized.
The pavilion was a place to put things, an architectural backdrop for the appreciation of objects and technology. Robert Moses didn’t get a park to rival Olmsted, but the ethos of the pavilion has become a permanent fixture of cities. Instead of a stroll through Futurama, we attend sponsored pop-ups to take pictures for Instagram. Any collection of objects can function as a proto-museum like Snark Park, a (now-closed) exhibition space designed to harness the buzz of New York’s Hudson Yards. Visitors paid $18 to take selfies among bleach-white abstract formations, like artificial stalagmites.
The centerpiece of that neighborhood is Vessel by Heatherwick Studio. A piece of architecture meant to be part of a "meaningful public legacy for New York" – which it is, if that legacy lives on our smartphones. When Vessel debuted, I was managing the Instagram account of a nearby convention center. I sometimes posted pictures of The Oculus, another splashy piece of new architecture. I was told to stop promoting The Oculus, as it belonged to a “competing” neighborhood.
In case it’s not clear, neighborhoods can only compete as capital. At The Queens Museum, a short walk from the unisphere, lives The Panorama of the City of New York–a miniature diorama of the city conceived as part of the 1964 Fair. In an effort to bring the model up to date, the museum enacted an adopt-a-building program. “Suggested donation levels range from $100 to ‘purchase’ an apartment to $1,000 for a small commercial building, low-rise apartment building, or warehouse.” In exchange, donors receive a title deed.
In 2000, an exhibit in the Hungarian pavilion at the Venice International Architecture Biennale called Towards a New Atlantis paid tribute to the pavilion’s architect Maróti with a model of the imagined city.
If the pavilion was the archetype of midcentury America, the geodesic dome represented the backlash. Popularized by Buckminster Fuller and incorporated into the Queens Zoo aviary after the 64 Fair, by the summer of 1970 geodesic domes were embraced by the rural communes that collectively made up the back-to-the-land movement.
Drop City in southern Colorado was a famous example, with 10 Fuller-inspired domes on the property. When the commune collapsed, the land was sold off to the neighboring ranch. In 1968, Drop City affiliate Steve Baer wrote the Dome Cookbook with detailed instructions for building a dome of one’s own. It was listed in the Whole Earth Catalog, the guidebook for the back-to-the-land lifestyle. Steve Jobs later cited the catalog as one of his influences. Even technology’s skeptics are accessories to its progress.
In a cartoon by Maddie Dai, three humans are positioned inside a circle of four fruits and one vase, each painting the humans on its own canvas. “The still life revolts,” it says.
I think we are more like objects than we’ve ever been before. The preference for hyperreality has been subsumed by digital reality, made up of images we ourselves construct and store in vast data centers that rival the carbon footprint of the aviation industry.
The real vessel is our exhaustive capacity for lifestyle. But the transition from objects on display in pavilions to images of objects within the architecture of the Internet accompanies a sort of depersonalization. The idea of the American individual, part of the national optimism that fueled the Space Race, is far less prominent than the citizen-consumer. Attaining a degree of celebrity, still a coveted means to financial stability, thrusts one into the category of “celebrity,” where image overtakes personhood. We’ve seen the way this drives public figures to madness but it’s hard to summon sympathy from a desk chair in a job that might not be Foxconn, but certainly isn’t work.
Lifestyle, like work, is something we can only see in aggregate. Technological gains don’t relieve the pressure for ownership; they merely reinforce it. A meme format labeled “The World If…” uses futuristic imagery to posit changes that would improve society, ranging from the comical to the revolutionary. But we’ve already seen that world in the mid-century exhibits about Tomorrow. Tomorrow came, and took your job with it.
If the endpoint of contemporary citizenship is to own things, and the endpoint of contemporary architecture is to store things, we should rightfully name things the architects of the 21st century.