Gossip Matters

Below I republish my summary of the First AW Roundtable Discussion, which was held in March this year. The Chinese version of this essay appeared in the June edition of AW. An ipad version of Architectural Worlds can be downloaded at itunes store under ipad apps. We’re working on producing an iphone version.

I begin my report on the First AW Roundtable on Gossip and Architectural Practice with gossipy self-disclosure: I’m more interested in gossip about architecture than I am in architecture itself. I enjoy stories about buildings and their ghostly hauntings, listen attentively to the elegant yet doomed romances of medieval castles, and relish boomtown whispers of kickbacks and permit hassles. I have a fondness for gossipy architects. I appreciate their tales of thwarted efforts to transform a wasteland into a children’s park and admire their desire to realize social and aesthetic ideals through mud and clay, wood and rock, metal, glass, plastic, foam, and concrete. In other words, I value architecture to the extent that it provides a context – a stage, if you will – for the unfolding performances of everyday life, but I delight in gossip because it reveals not only the who, what, and where of a particular moment in a human life, but also and more importantly because it suggests the contours of shared and sometimes colliding moral worlds. In fact, I am tempted to suggest that gossip may be more important to the social life of architecture, than architecture is to social life.

Seven architects participated in the AW Roundtable, including Doreen LIU, LIU Xiaodu, Michael PATTE, RAO Xiaojun, Hilary ROBIE, ZHANG Miao, and Young ZHANG. They represented a range of cultural homelands (China, the United States, and France), a variety of architectural firms (international corporate, domestic partnerships, and individual practices), and a mélange of professional training, which encompassed top schools in China, the United States and Europe, in addition to their various apprenticeships in earlier stages of their careers. All interrupted extremely busy schedules to chat with others beyond the scope of their daily routines. Indeed, from my perspective as a non-architect, one of the most striking commonalities that participants shared was a hectic working life and in retrospect I now suspect that unless architects set aside time for chats, their “natural” gossip circle will not grow beyond the demands of a particular project or the time it takes to send and receive a micro-blog post. At the time, however, my artificial creation of a gossip circle had another motive; I was curious to not only hear how architects viewed gossip and its impact on their practice, but also to see how they interacted with non-architects who also cared about buildings and the construction of shared spaces.

All seven architects who participated in the AW Roundtable maintained that gossip had nothing to do with the actual practice of architecture, emphasizing instead that common technical training and aesthetic vision not only defined both their profession and their professional ethics, but has also created a circle of globetrotting professionals who receive similar technical and aesthetic training. Nevertheless, these architects have neither inherited common cultural traditions nor are familiar with the scale, scope, and changing players in each other’s hometown mass media, which are an important vehicle for national gossip. Even more narrowly, most are blithely unaware of the actual pedagogical process through which their foreign colleagues were certified in their home country. This lack of shared cultural experience means that amongst architects – especially those who work outside their home cultures whether domestically or internationally, technical training becomes the primary source of ethical standards and aesthetic choice emerges as an important marker of individual identity, begging the question: to what extent is an architect’s reputation nothing other than an “anthology” of the gossip about his concern for public engineering safety and his fidelity to a personal aesthetic vision?

The Backyard Reading Club hosted the AW Roundtable. The bohemian clubhouse reflected eclectic tastes and we sat in rattan chairs amidst Jack Daniel’s whiskey bottles, African masks, and quirky postcards from countries as diverse as Peru and Indonesia. Like the list of participants, the choice of the clubhouse was intentional; I thought that a relaxed and clubby environment would cause the distance between the architects and reading club members to soften, encouraging all to engage in lively conversation. AW provided snacks and drinks for precisely the same reason; hospitality generates the trust and good will necessary to meaningful dialogue. Robin Dunbar (1996) speaks directly to this point, “Gossip is good for you. Perhaps it is the development and equivalence of mutual grooming among other primate species, and that human language evolved precisely for this purpose: to soothe, reassure, and strengthen the bonds that exist in a community. Where chimpanzees will spend hours grooming each other’s fur, human beings will sit and chat for ages – in fact gossip makes up most of our everyday conversations – and the result is the same: a feeling of well-being and belonging. Rather than to make hunting in teams easier, or to allow us to express some metaphysical truths, language evolved to enable us to gossip.”

Dunbar’s chimps importantly remind us that proximity is a precondition for gossip to do its social work. Unlike rumors, which have no identifiable origin and flit nebulously along unmarked paths, gossip occurs between people in close proximity to each other. Chimps, for example, care about removing flees from their fur, while humans care about their family, friends, and neighbors and thus, as Dumbar notes, chimps and humans spend most of their waking hours near each other, grooming or chatting, depending on the species. These needs for mutual comfort are not simply psychological, but are also prerequisites to efficiently and pleasurably achieving common goals, such as healthy skin or designing, planning, and constructing an architectural project, respectively. During the AW Roundtable, for example, Michael Patte noted that as a foreigner who did not speak Chinese, he found it difficult to work in Shenzhen for the simple reason that trust relationships grow out of gossip sessions in which he could not participate. Hilary Robie made a related claim, when she provocatively suggested that what architects do is design places for people to gossip, small corners and winding halls, where unexpected encounters might occur, ideas might be nourished, and egos stroked, illustrating her point with observations a gossip map of her office.

Robie works in an open office, where desks are spread through out the space, representing several levels of space and thus several levels of gossip. On her interpretation, physical spaces provide opportunities for gossip which range from public to private. In the most public space, when the young architects and staff wish to gossip they walk over to a friend’s desk, pass notes, or qq. The content of this gossip is simple and its purpose, as Dunbar suggests, is to generate trust and a sense of belonging by sharing opinions about whether dislikes a design, has a favorite color, or admires a building. The next level of gossip occurs in semi-private spaces, like a glassed off office, where people feel more comfortable to gossip. Likewise, the staff canteen provides another space which encourages people to gossip and strengthen intimate bonds. The final level of gossip takes place behind the closed doors of the managers and partners’ private offices, where the topics of gossip include how to win from a certain investor or the aesthetic predilections of a particular urban planner.

Robie’s discussion importantly highlighted the ways in which “gossip proximity” is not simply a spatial concept, but also a metaphor for social position or power. Insofar as we are human, we gossip. However, insofar as we humans are a hierarchical species, we gossip with those of our own level (because they are next to us) about others (who may or may not be within touching distance). In fact, just as the firm partners gossip about officials in order to strategize the best way to pitch a design proposal, so too young staff members head off to the restroom to talk about said partner in order to figure out how to ameliorate an uncomfortable work situation. All this to say, in many instances the subject of a good chinwag is precisely someone we wish to influence because we have no formal means to control them, or as Max Gluckman argued in his foundational essay in social anthropology, Gossip and Scandal, “Gossip is a game, undertaken by members of a social group in order to maintain the coherence and unity of that group. When people gossip about each other, and about outsiders, they make ethical judgments about behavior and maintain their group’s social values.”

Gluckman’s point is two-fold, reminding us that although the content of gossip maybe trivial, nevertheless the purpose of gossip is anything but; when we talk about others we define ourselves as belonging to a particular circle – of friends, intellectuals, or even social class. This is important because none of us acts within only one social circle. Instead, we are constantly negotiating and redefining the boundaries of our various social identities, the relative importance of our various social memberships, and the extent to which we are willing to harden, police, and enforce the separation between our crowd and another.

I kept Gluckman’s insight in mind while editing my notes from the AW Roundtable because as the conversation unfolded it became clear that in addition to proximate intimacy, there must be moral ambiguity to make for an enticing and stimulating tête-à-tête. And there’s the rub: architects value engineering and aesthetics, while emotional wellbeing and social power are considered lesser or secondary professional values. This is perhaps why Doreen Liu suggested that the question of individual character was fundamental to holding social office such as politician or functionary, but that with respect to architecture private morality and professional ethics were separate issues: the standard for judging an architect was the quality of the object she designed and build. Young Zhang pushed the argument further, maintaining that creativity exists outside of morality. Liu specified that the creation of an architectural object is internal and personal to the architect, in contrast, once the design plans have been submitted to a competition or as a project bid, the object has a social life, which extends beyond the architect and over which she has limited control.

And yet. Architecture is fundamentally social. The built environment has meanings and possibilities that necessarily exceed the limits of architectural engineering and aesthetics. Importantly, engineering skills may be learned and standards specified, nevertheless architects and their work are talked about and evaluated within a diversity of gossip circles, which range from the City Hall, where government leaders meet to debate policy through the restaurants where developers and property owners meet to celebrate a sealed deal to the parks, where ordinary families relax after work. Crucially, if Dunbar and Gluckman are correct, then gossip and gossip circles external to architectural practice will have an important role in determining which buildings get built, where they are built, and to what purpose. In other words, to the extent that the planning, design, construction and aesthetics of diverse buildings place different groups of people into proximity with each other (thereby creating gossip circles), these same architectural practices also express the values of that society and as such are the legitimate topics of gossip, begging the question of how to delimitate the relationship between the specialist knowledge and tastes of those who design and the social values of those who will inhabit?

Doreen Liu usefully focused the roundtable discussion on two stages in the life trajectory of an architectural object, the personal and the social. Rao Xiaojun agreed with Liu’s characterization of architectural objects having double lives, but distinguished instead between the rational and irrational lives of architectural objects. On his interpretation, gossip was a manifestation of an object’s irrational social life. Urban planners and real estate developers award architectural commissions for reasons other than strictly aesthetic or technical standards. Rao maintained that if architects were to see their projects realized, then they needed to learn to successfully participate in non-architectural gossip circles – a provocative thought that cries for gossipy speculation: to what extent is the social life of successful architecture irrational and how might we take that irrationality into account when designing modern buildings and planning 21st century megacities? I ask this rather flippant question to make an unsettling observation: gossip is one way of dealing with the irrationality of modern cities, especially in the absence of organized public participation in contemporary architecture and urban design projects.

In reviewing my notes, I also kept returning to the fact that Dunbar’s chimps not only lived in close proximity to each other, but also in small bands, where any chimp could reach out and touch another. In contrast, AW Roundtable architects work all work in Shenzhen, where most of the Municipality’s 14.5 million inhabitants have never met an architect, while even the most active architects have gossip circles significantly smaller than the City’s official population. In fact, many of members of the Reading Club admitted that they had never been around so many architects at one time. Consequently, they were excited to have the opportunity to natter on about why there are so many ugly buildings as well as to satisfy their curiosity about architects as members of a profession.  One Reading Club member expressed architects’ strange fascination for the public, “There are buildings everywhere we go, but I’ve never talked with an architect. I’m curious about their motivations and how they see the world.”

AW Roundtable participants had obviously thought about these questions and offered answers that highlighted the complexity of lives lived beyond the intimacy of mutual grooming arrangements. Young Zhang mentioned that the importance of aesthetic design, technological innovations, and engineering constraints to architects and their gossip circles were ironically the same factors that made architects uninteresting to the general public. He then added that the reason the public didn’t understand architects’ situation was because most architects led low-key life, but in order to have a public voice in mass society it was first necessary to become well known. He joked, “Nobody wants to talk about us. We need to have some scandal.”

By raising the question of public scandal and its uses, Young Zhang reminded us that even as civil engineering advances and modernist aesthetics transformed architectural practice, so too modern technology transmuted the form and functions of gossip. Benedict Anderson introduced the concept of “imagined communities” to describe one of the social effects of mass media. Imagined communities are different from an actual community because they are not (and cannot be) based on everyday face-to-face interaction between all members. Instead, members hold in their minds a mental image of their affinity that they have obtained through various mass media, including newspapers, radio, and television. For example, the hometown feeling that many have for modern metropolises does not only arise through the intimate proximity of neighborhood life, but also (and increasingly) when one’s “imagined community” is represented through televised news reports, local newspapers and periodicals, as well as urban plans and famous buildings. In other words, we say that we belong to a modern city because we identify with its symbols and assume that others who live within the same geographic area feel the same way. Of course, we have no means to verify how closely our feelings align with others, but that was precisely Anderson’s insight: in a modern society, we have learned to live in imagined communities, depending on mass media (rather than grooming and face-to-face gossip sessions) to create a sense of connection between ourselves and others.

Obviously, mass media both elaborated and altered traditional gossip circles. On the one hand, traditional gossip circles based on intimate proximity (close enough to caress or backbite) remain an important social form. Reading Club members’ desire to personally meet architects, for example, confirmed the practical value of intimate proximity in contrast to the social distance of imagined communities. On the other hand, because urban identity is produced through participation in imagined communities, Young Zhang and Rao Xiaojun’s suggestions that architects learn to fight for their projects using mass media gossip channels alerts us to the fluidity between real and imagined gossip circles. Indeed, one measure of success in shaping an imagined community is the extent to which one controls or has access to mass media. After all, gossiping about strangers and what they may or may not be doing simultaneously strengthens proximate intimacy and shapes our understanding – our conceptual image – of the larger community to which we belong. The juxtaposition of traditional and mass media gossip highlights the fact that these are not separate social functions, but hierarchically integrated ones. We live out our lives in intimate proximities, even though those who live in and act beyond our social networks often determine the content of quotidian gossip. In fact, traditional gossip circles usefully buttress the imagined communities forged through abstract mass media gossip; others to think about and have strong feelings on the lives of strangers who nevertheless symbolically represent “people like us”.

Although both traditional and mass media gossip circles provide venues for shaping architectural practice, nevertheless they have complimentary limitations. Shared time and space restrict the scope of traditional gossip circles, which require both spatial and temporal proximity in order to fulfill social functions, such as reassuring intimates or controlling the behavior of others. Mass media is less limited by time and space than traditional gossip circles, but this is in itself a limitation. Unlike traditional gossip networks which have immediate effects, spatial and temporal distance lesson the impact of mass media gossip primarily because we cannot actually engage the authors of mass media gossip. We read articles or watch television broadcasts and thereby imagine ourselves as belonging to an identifiable hometown city, for example. However, precisely because we cannot interact with the author, either in real space or real time, the format often neutralizes actions that might otherwise result from gossip.

More importantly, perhaps, one of the key differences between mass media and architecture is that architecture transforms a space. Although we may see a movie star onscreen and follow his love life in a magazine, nevertheless, the presence of mass media gossip is ephemeral. In contrast, buildings and roads, industrial parks and seaside resorts provide the context of daily life. Even if we never meet an architect, nevertheless we live with and within the shapes and colors of their vision and the changes to that vision, which others have made in the process of translating a design into an object. The invention and spread of online social media, especially micro-blogs have reconfigured the limits of traditional and mass media gossip. Suddenly, we face a gossip environment in which real time trends allow people to select gossip topics and be proactive in participating in conversations about shared issues. Indeed, the speed at which gossip spreads in this format is like nothing we’ve ever encountered and we are still trying to figure out what it means that we can’t actually verify the identity of an interlocutor, even though we can search for past statements. Moreover, the barrier for determining the symbols of our imagined communities is now no more than a hash tag about a common interest, but what kinds of communities might arise from a common interest in a rumor or changing gossip, even if that topic happens to be architects, buildings, or urban planning?

Several of the Roundtable participants and many in the Reading Club keep and read micro-blogs. Roundtable participant, Zhang Miao counts over 20,000 subscribers to her eponymous micro-blog and the Reading Club has a micro-blog secretary, whose job is to tweet activity updates to Club members. Zhang Miao’s discussion of micro-blogging reminded everyone in the room that not only architects or public officials have real interests in architecture; anyone who lives in a modern city has opinions about and ideas to improve architecture because we have daily, practical experience of what it means to inhabit a city. Moreover, outside of gossip, most urban inhabitants have few avenues for influencing the shape of where they live.

One of my motivations for organizing the gossip and architectural practice was to explore how one of the primary forms of human community building operates within a specific professional circle and then in turn interrupts and connects the relationships between architects and larger gossip circles, be they traditional, mass media, or weibo. Gossip is a juicy start to a discussion about the social meaning of architecture because gossip’s fraught status reminds us that human actions (like designing, erecting, and inhabiting a skyscraper, for example) are paradoxically polysemous and ultimately over-determined by what people say and how we say it. If we wanted to elevated this essay beyond the merely conversational into the rarified discourse of contemporary academia, for example, we could do worse than to define architecture as a particular amalgamation of “… dynamic and mutually constitutive, if partial and dynamic, connections between figures of anthropos and the diverse, and at times inconsistent, branches of knowledge available during a period of time; that claim authority about the truth of the matter; and whose legitimacy to make such claims is accepted as plausible by other such claiments; as well as the power relations with which and through which those claims are produced, established, contested, defeated, affirmed, and disseminated (Rabinow 2008:21)” and then to indicate that gossip is not only part of this social amalgamation, but also one of the primary genres through which truth claims are informally produced, established, contested, defeated, affirmed, and disseminated against and despite formal versions thereof. After all, Rabinow’s point is simply that in any society some people’s opinions matter more than others because they have a privileged relationship to the truth. Along those same lines, observing the various protocols and procedures which people have established for producing, debating, and disseminating truth claims is a useful way of distinguishing one group of people from other. Thus, we may speak of “the architectural object of anthropological inquiry” to establish our scholarly credentials, even as a flash in our eyes and a sudden quickening of the pulse reveal our gossipy inclinations.

I find merely academic or architectural or even economic analysis of gossip and architectural practice to be dissatisfying because ultimately, there is no single answer to the, “Why are buildings ugly?” Instead, different values shape urban possibility and the question of just how ugly a building is provides insight into how those values are socially ranked and measured. There is no reason other than social agreement why one value – aesthetics or engineering possibility, economics or social status – should be more important than another in contemporary architectural practice. Moreover, that agreement can only be reached through conversation and debate, in which gossip plays a critical role, especially when the public is excluded from conversations about the buildings in their neighborhoods and planning sessions. In fact, others have called for means to integrate the public into urban design of their neighborhoods and favorite urban haunts. To this large literature the First AW Roundtable on Gossip and Architectural Practice adds a simple footnote; not allowing the public to participate in architectural design and urban planning will not stop tongues from wagging about technical, social, aesthetic, economic, and/ or environmental values when designing, planning, and constructing shared spaces because human beings do gossip. More importantly, gossip is also a means for many outside formal conversations about whither urbanization to voice anxieties about the direction of urban development and to attempt to influence a situation over which they have no control. With respect to architectural practice, gossip is neither simply a means to nurture professional camaraderie, nor a weapon within social debates about whose designs will get built, but also a vehicle for creating imagined communities and expanding the conversation about what it means to inhabit shared worlds.

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