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Book Review of World's Greatest Architect

  Published in edited form (PDF) in The Architect's Newspaper  
  March 4, 2009  


  World's Greatest Architect: Making, Meaning, and Network Culture
William J. Mitchell
MIT Press, 2008


Collecting over thirty short essays originally appearing in the British publications Building Design and RIBA Journal, this book continues the MIT School of Architecture former dean William J. Mitchell's investigations into the influence of technology on urban space, architecture and design. As the current head of the Smart Cities research group in the school's well-known Media Lab, the professor and author is situated in an ideal position for such ongoing academic analysis. These essays, admittedly written at airports and other non-places during the travels of a global nomad, indicate a predilection for readable and highly accessible writing that is as thought-provoking as it is varied.

Locating itself as a record of the middle portion of the decade coming to a close, Mitchell's book touches on timely subjects both obvious (the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Wal-Mart, the Iraq War) and unexpected (plastic water bottles, Whole Foods, potato chips as analogies for architectural form). In all cases, it is his personal take on the topics – his search for meaning in artifacts beyond functionality – that makes the reading worthwhile, such as the reeling of inmate jurisprudence at Guantanamo Bay back to international transportation and security networks that technology has enabled.

Many of the essays are structured as miniature histories. Discussing the Gitmo controversy, Mitchell moves from the 16th-century Tower of London to the present day, stopping in Australia, Nazi Germany and The Gulag Archipelago on the way. These histories point to an evolutionary treatment of how we arrived at today's digital culture, denying a break with history that some critics envision. Like a shaping of the paradigm-breaking shifts theorized in Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Mitchell's brief forays into technologies like digital cameras and computer-aided-drafting are smoother, more continuous. Amazon's Kindle e-book, as discussed by Mitchell, is linked to previous artifacts (books) via intention (reading text on a page) and design (book-size and with a cover), before the new device is allowed to exploit its new technology and carry itself in a new direction that may have people in the future asking, “whatever happened to books?” (The device's name boldly implies a burning, a destruction of the book as an artifact.) It happened with cars and horse-drawn buggies, so why not with Kindle and books? Or so Mitchell would have us believe.

Mitchell's technocratic views are countered, or complicated, by an embrace of traditional public space, numerous references to popular culture and a cynical attitude towards many of his subjects. The first is most overt in his essay on the “Wal-Martians” attacking American small towns, destroying their downtowns and small businesses in the name of everyday low prices. His common-sense criticism of the alliance between commerce and public space being trashed by anonymous big-box stores in a sea of asphalt is appealing, if hard to align with the technological means in which Wal-Mart manages to expand its retail empire (just about everywhere but New York City, it should be noted).

Mitchell's embrace of technology is not value-free, particularly when something as commendable as the corporation's “brilliant organization of its global supply network” is accompanied by low wages, poor to non-existent health benefits and dead downtowns. The author begins numerous essays with references to songs, movies and other bits of popular culture, with these and other essays often concluding with cynical remarks veiled in ironic humor. These two characteristics of Mitchell's writing diminish his already readable text, appealing to readers but without doing his ideas any service.

Two of the book's 32 essays exceed the typical four pages that separate each. They focus on surveillance and security, obviously two important considerations in the decade that started with the events of 9/11, but also highly contested ones affecting public space. Not surprisingly, he embraces the careful use of these technologies in the urban realm, like a latter day Oscar Newman. Calling for civil liberties while simultaneously developing urban defense strategies lacks the passion of the critiques he levies against Wal-Mart in the name of public space. While unfortunate, these essays are stand-outs in the book and markers in Mitchell's ongoing investigations, much more than the essay that lends the book its intriguing title.


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