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Living a Designed Life: SoMA Condominiums as a Designed Secession from Human Reality
2010


Financial District towers trail off to the north. The setting sun nestles behind Twin Peaks. The East Bay hills and the waters of the bay reflect the blaze of sunset. Nothing intervenes between you and the twilight sky. City lights are warming up for their nightly performance. You pour a drink and sink into a deck chair to watch. More than twenty stories up, on your private roof terrace, the city is yours.
– from the BLU SF website

The future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.
– Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition


While urban high-rise condominiums are certainly nothing new, the current spate of slender, blindingly reflective towers going up in the SoMA neighborhood of San Francisco provides an interesting moment in which to examine the language of escape so endemic to condos and their advertisements. For example, it is hardly an accident that in two separate buildings (the Arterra and the Millennium Tower), the shorter of two buildings is named “City Residences” while the tower contains the “Sky Residences” or “Grand Residences.” In much the same way that the towers are nothing if not vertical and inward secessions from a city floor that is dirty, loud and hectic, their websites advertise them as escape capsules from which to look down upon the contentiousness of real urban life. But at the same time that they repel the city—and life lived within the city with other people—they also endeavor to reintroduce the image of the city as an amenity, impeccably designed by the same forces responsible for the condo itself.

It is illuminating to consider this contentiousness of life on the actual city floor, which the sleek and unforgiving designs of the condo imply by contrast, in conjunctionwith Hannah Arendt’s understanding of the realm of human action as something inherently unstable and unpredictable. In the section of The Human Condition called “The Traditional Substitution of Making for Acting”, she cites these qualities as the reason behind an age-old temptation to escape into a world of stability where man knows everything he makes. With this in mind, I read condominiums (as they are advertised) as examples of an escapist impulse that Arendt traces back to Plato’s utopian blueprint. I would also argue that the advertised condominium ultimately fails as a container for human activity for the same reasons that Arendt finds the substitution of making for acting to be inadequate to the reality of human affairs.

Furthermore, when looking at how these condo websites advertise a building that has literally thought of everything—through neurotically detailed floor plans and the ever-present concierge—it will be useful to turn to Foucault’s discussion of biopolitics and forms of administrative power. His description of the plague town in particular, with its pervasive analysis and placement of the body, provides the language for the ways in which the condo administers to the residents’ every need at the same time that it produces and determines those residents’ identities. In this manner, different rooms on different floors are presented as a packages for varying “personalities”; that is, designed personalities which are up for sale. This will also be the place to examine the point at which the websites’ computer-generated residents, and even real actors, fail to be representations or averages and begin to be injunctive examples.

The condominiums I am considering here include BLŪ (631 Folsom St.), Millennium Tower (301 Mission St.), the Arterra (300 Berry St.), Radiance at Mission Bay (330 Mission Bay Blvd), the Infinity (160 Folsom St.), and One Rincon Hill (425 First St.). I will first examine the ways in which the architecture of the websites themselves already constitutes a separate, heavily designed, and scripted space. I'll then look more closely at the condominiums’ use of escape metaphors, as well as the language of order (presented as an antidote to the disorder of the outside). I will also consider the way that the city itself, seen from the inside of the condo, is abstracted, re-ordered, and re-packaged as an additional amenity. Finally, I will look both at the ways in which prospective residents are heavily determined, and how this overdetermination in turn renders the condo potentially unrealistic as a container for human activity.


Entering a new space

Ubiquitous in SoMA condo advertising is the use of the Flash movie introduction. These inevitably begin with the screen fading to all black or all white, as if in anticipation of a feature film. But even after one sits through a parade of techno music and sparkling images of the Bay Bridge, the websites retain their scripted character. Unlike a conventional HTML website, an entire Flash website is in fact constructed in Adobe Flash as a movie, which stops and continues only when you push a button (hence the fact that the mechanism used in Flash websites is called Action Script). Thus, the link on the Millennium Tower website that leads to the Flash intro reads, “click here to experience Millennium Tower” and the BLŪ link invites you “into the BLŪ.” The website, like the condominium itself, is constructed as a total, enveloping experience, so much that actual information (address, pricing, construction updates) can seem incidental or even hard to find.

One of the most important elements of this “experience” is the music, which (on every website except the one for BLŪ) plays intensely during the introduction, then settles into a dull repetition for the rest of your website experience. What many of the songs playing on each website share is an extensive use of spacey synthetic instruments, bland jazz chords, and bass-heavy percussion that manages to be vaguely sexual. The Arterra website plays a default song but allows the viewer to choose among “Barrio Beats” from OM Lounge 7 (a combination of UFO-like sounds and hints of jungle animals), and “Close” or “It’s You It’s Me”, both by the lounge DJ Kaskade. Of the first, the lyrics are simply “You… so close to me / You… so close.” The second features a hard-hitting club beat with the same woman now crooning:

You never know who’s waiting for you
You never know when love is comin your way (comin your way)
But if tonight I look again into your eyes
Then it’s you and it’s me and love
Then it’s you and it’s me and love oo baby

It is possible to see in these examples that the often reverb-intensive music functions alongside the Flash rendering as a way to set the website apart, like a spacious black or white chamber, from the rest of the internet. Its second function is as a (variously) subtle component of seduction; specifically, seduction of the viewer into the experience of the website and the experience of the condo, which appear one and the same.


The language of escape

The most obviously prevalent metaphor across the advertisements for all six condos is that of escape, particularly on a vessel headed into “the future.” Thus, the tagline of the Radiance website is “Casting Light on a New Era”; Arterra is called “Not Just a Home; a Bold Step Forward”; the Millennium Tower presents “San Francisco Evolved”; while One Rincon Hill is “fast becoming the city’s best address for a lifestyle of convenience and prestige.” By using the concept of a “cutting edge” which is constantly threatening to leave one behind, the condos (or, more properly, the “living experiences” they provide) are presented as fantastic cruise boats or space shuttles that are about to depart from the mundane and troublesome world of the present.

The condos pursue the escape metaphor in two different directions: inward and upward. First, the websites portray the condominiums as intensely reflective buildings that become unreadable as anything except symbols of inscrutability and mystique. For example, the Millennium Tower is not a building but a “crystalline sculpture”, where ten facets of glass converge to form 60 stories of residential extravagance. "As light shifts through the day, so does the view of the Tower to passers by: shimmering when awash in sunlight; stately in the fog; then twinkling with the evening lights." This reflectivity is a way of seceding from the city, similar to the mechanism that Fredric Jameson associates with the round, mirror-like towers of the Bonaventure Hotel in Downtown LA:

… the glass skin repels the city outside, a repulsion for which we have analogies in those reflector sunglasses which make it impossible for your interlocutor to see your own eyes and thereby achieve a certain aggressivity toward and power over the Other. In a similar way, the glass skin achieves a peculiar and placeless dissociation of the Bonaventure from its neighborhood: it is not even an exterior, inasmuch as when you seek to look at the hotel’s outer walls you cannot see the hotel itself but only the distorted images of everything that surrounds it.

Following this logic, advertisements portray the SoMA condos—particularly the Infinityand the Millennium Tower—as so shiny that they become hidden behind their own glow, visually impenetrable spaces into which a resident can magically disappear.

The condominium websites also promise a vertical escape from the city floor, advertising homes on the 60th floor as miraculous and disconnected oases in the sky. All of the websites feature computer generated “flyovers” which approach the condominium building not by way of the street but which instead careen through the air and between nearby high-rises. They favor dizzying, revolving views downward from the roof, showing cars that crawl like ants across the city grid. In a video titled “Architect Vision” on the Infinity website, mastermind architect Bernardo Fort-Brescia assumes that you live higher up in the building:

When you think of what it is to live in a high rise, you’re replacing your backyard with another kind of backyard; that is, in this case, the bay, and the sky beyond. You have an infinite backyard.

One Rincon Hill’s website more explicitly embraces the wider implications of the height metaphor in its slogan: “Your life… above all.”

But both these movements—into the mirror-like building, and up into the sky— are symptomatic of the paradox inherent in all six condos’ advertisements. While they are marketed as “vibrant urban living”, with unceasing reference to the figure of San Francisco, they are also marketed as closings-off, as impenetrable capsules completely dissociated from the city. The condominiums are in San Francisco, but they are also not in San Francisco, a confusion that frequently leads to sentences like this one on the Radiance website:

Large suites, generous private and public outdoor spaces, designer features and finishings, water views, and a convenient, dynamic neighborhood create a home that is both a getaway to a vibrant urban lifestyle and a welcome sanctuary from a hectic day.

At the same time that all of the websites heavily market an image of San Francisco, their use of terms like “getaway” and “sanctuary” simultaneously present the city as dangerous or undesirable, something that it is necessary to ward off. The height and severity of the condominiums’ architecture only furthers the implication of a fortress. Mike Davis describes a similar mechanism at work in the structure of Frank Gehry’s Goldwyn Library in Los Angeles, which “relentlessly interpellates a demonic Other (arsonist, graffitist, invader) whom it reflects back on the surrounding streets and street people.”

The final articulation of the condominium’s secession from the city is to recreate public and private space within its own architecture, as a kind of replacement or substitute for that of the actual city. All six of the condos include some kind of park-like spaces for “public” gathering, but they are enclosed by walls and often raised several stories off the ground (if not to the roof). It is only within these spaces that a desire for visibility and interaction suddenly re-emerges: the Radiance virtual tour shows six emptychairs around a fire pit and zooms along rows of barbeque grills; One Rincon Hill shows CGI people lounging about and talking next to a sparkling swimming pool; chairs in the Millennium Tower lounge face each other in suggestive clusters. In emphasizing the way the architects have exhausted every recreational possibility within the condominium itself, the advertisements imply that one would never have to go outside. Again, Mike Davis provides a useful parallel, this time in a parking structure near the Reagan Building in downtown LA:

In contrast to the mean streets outside, the parking structures contain beautifully landscaped lawns or microparks, and in one case, a food court and a historical exhibit. Moreover, both structures are designed as ‘confidence-building’ circulation systems, miniature paradigms of privatization – which allow whitecollar workers to walk from car to office, or from car to boutique, with minimum exposure to the public street.

The substitution that takes place in the SoMA condos begs the question: what about the city’s actual public streets is so undesirable that the condominium would need to provide its own private, controlled replacement? In other words, what drives this escape to planning? It seems that the condo’s secession from the city attempts to substitute the controlled environment, designed as an escape by a single architect or team with a single vision, for the contentious and inherently plural reality of urban life. Thus visiting the “park” inside the condo carries none of the risks and unpredictabilityassociated with visiting a real public area (e.g. encounters with panhandlers or the homeless, drug users, protestors, or even just people of different socioeconomic status).

Therefore it is possible to read the secession into the private condominium and awayfrom the public street as an architectural manifestation of the shrinking of the public realm that Arendt decried in The Human Condition. The ultimate irony is that something so heavily marketed as “urban living” would exhibit such a strong disavowal of so much that we think of as urban.


The language of order

We have seen that the escape that the condominiums offer (through height, reflectivity, etc.) is specifically an escape to an ordered space of predictability, versus the disorder outside. One of the ways the websites translate this impulse visually is to let the viewer see and “experience” every subdivided level of detail in the entire architectural rendering of the condominium, before even visiting. The Millennium Tower website features a shiny blue rendering of the building which the viewer can rotate at will by dragging the cursor, seeing each facet of the building at different angles and levels of light. In the condominiums with separate buildings or towers, the sections are named according to their progression away from the ground, such as the City, Park, or Sky levels (Arterra) or City Residences, Residences, and Grand Residences (Millennium).

Renderings of the building on the Infinity, Arterra, BLŪ, and Millennium Tower websites also light up groups of floors with a yellow glow as you mouse over them. In all cases, clicking on a floor brings up a floor plan with several units or penthouses; clicking on a penthouse brings up its own floor plan with representative views; clicking on a room in turn opens a computer-generated picture of the furnished interior. All six websites provide virtual tours of the rooms where a “camera” pauses in each room to look around; the Radiance allows the viewer to direct this movement. The Millennium Tower’s 3-D floor plan of its club level has included each and every deck chair by the pool, everybarstool at the bar, every treadmill in the gym, and every bean bag in the children’s playroom. What this all amounts to is an infinitely subdividing blueprint; an architectural vision that has indeed so permeated the space of the condominium as to ensure “a life lived in the details” (Millennium), “a total immersion in fine design” (BLŪ), and that "everything about your new home has been thoughtfully planned and carefullycrafted down to the smallest of finishing touches." (Infinity)

This subdividing order even extends to the location of people within the building. The Millennium Tower says of its three sections, “three distinct living experiences have been created to appeal to different personalities, each featuring its own private lobby and 24-hour concierge staff.” Of course, the distinction between these living experiences is based on price, so that the condominium becomes literally a financial hierarchy where each person knows his place. In fact, it is because everything has been so meticulouslyplaced that location becomes weighted with significance; the units (and their residents) do not and cannot exist separately yet side-by-side, as in a conventional apartment building, but rather with meaningful locations and “personalites” in relation to the entire building.

The condominium websites thus assume that a resident not only wants to escape from the contentious urban reality of San Francisco, but that he or she prefers order—even when that means being inserted in and subject to it. We can think here about the cost that Arendt names for the escape from unstable plurality:

[t]he hallmark of all such escapes is the concept of rule, that is, the notion that men can lawfully and politically live together only when some are entitled to command and the others are forced to obey.

The frozen and meticulous nature of the condominium plan is important not only as an Arendt-ian escape but also as an antidote to the disorder of the city. In fact, the way that the condominium appears to neutralize the possibility of disorder through an extensivelysubdivided and 3-dimensional plan parallels Foucault’s description of the plague town as a disciplinary mechanism:

The plague is met by order; its function is to sort out every possible confusion: that of the disease, which is transmitted when bodies are mixed together; that of evil, which is increased when fear and death overcome prohibitions. It lays down for each individual his place, his body, his disease and his death, his well-being, by means of an omniscient power that subdivides itself in a regular, uninterrupted way even to the ultimate determination of the individual, of what characterizes him, of what belongs to him, of what happens to him.

The ways that this order continues down even to the “determination of the individual” is something to which we will return. For now, it is important to note the ways in which the infinitely navigable subdivisions of the SoMA condos approximate the subdivided plague town, where each thing is given its place ostensibly in the name of the safety and stability of the town’s residents. The condominiums attempt to ensure orderliness bydesigning it that way; that is, by planning the right place for each person and thing. This allows them to advertise a space that is immensely “safer” and more predictable than a disordered city full of chance, risk, and traffic. If we think back to the Goldwyn Library, it then seems reasonable that the “Other” which the SoMA condos both “interpellate” and escape from is an idea of disorder:

Behind the disciplinary mechanisms can be read the haunting memory of ‘contagions’, of the plague, of rebellions, crimes, vagabondage, desertions, people who appear and disappear, live and die in disorder.


The repackaging of the city

Not only do the six websites present their condominiums as infinitely ordered spaces, they also re-imagine and re-present the city (as seen from the condominium) as newly designed and ordered. Included in the abstract like an additional amenity, the city appears to have been concieved of by the very same person who designed the building. This explains why the Millennium Tower website compares the experience of the city to the experience of the building, rather than the other way around—“From the beach, to the mountains, to the city, the landscape of San Francisco is as varied as the living experience in the tower” (emphasis added)—and BLŪ calls the city “your urban masterpiece” which performs for you while you sit on your balcony. Not unlike navigation through the site itself, each of the six websites presents an experience of the city that is also scripted, highlighting the same aspects of San Francisco as if on a checklist:

Gridlock is replaced with a casual stroll when you commute to the Financial District. Closet space is appreciated when the world-class shopping of Union Square is so close by. Giants Fever is more addictive when you can walk to AT&T Park. And the epicurean advantages to the neighborhood are evidentaround every corner. (Millennium)

In fact, the scripted and reified city experience in urban redevelopment areas (of which SoMA is one) is something Sarah Chaplin and Eric Holding have observed in the essay“Addressing the post-urban”, wherein

re-development forces [set] up what might be described as an urban feedback loop, whereby entertainment developers capitalize on the collective mental image of a place, creating a recognizable image of a particular city… The actual city then has to live up to its image, such that in being offered as an experience to be consumed it effectively re-consumes its own image...

Perhaps the most obvious example of this “re-consumption” of the actual image of San Francisco is in the pervasive marketing of views. The Millennium Tower and the Arterra both include sample views along with each floor plan, while the Infinity offers day and night composite panoramas from the 42nd, 36th, 30th, and 24th floors, and One Rincon Hill shows north, south, east and westward views from the 40th floor. But besides these views, the virtual tours also show residents constantly consuming this image in other ways: a flat screen TV in a Millennium Tower living room shows the image of the Bay Bridge, while empty chairs in the screening room face a projection of boats with Alcatraz in the background. Yet another flat screen TV in the Arterra shows the Bay Bridge with boats, while a crowd of 30-somethings, each with his or her own drink and bowl of chips, watches the Giants in the screening room at the Infinity.



The city is thus turned upside down, emptied of its ambiguities and unpredictability, repackaged in the aesthetic of a particular condominium, and represented as an accompaniment to the condominium experience. What the websites offer is another Arendt-ian escape into abstraction: a tamed, reified version of San Francisco. Thus the condominiums recede from one San Francisco (the real, possibly dangerous one) and draw near to another San Francisco (the tourist destination), though they sometimes waver between the two. The role that the figure of San Francisco plays in this equation is not unlike what Roland Barthes describes in the use of myth, where the “meaning” is the actual reality of the city and the “form” is the city in advertisements:

The meaning will be for the form like an instantaneous reserve of history, a tame richness, which it is possible to call and dismiss in a sort of rapid alternation: the form must constantly be able to be rooted again in the meaning … it must be able to hide there. It is this constant game of hide-and-seek between the meaning and the form which defines myth.

This “hide-and-seek” helps to understand the odd moments in which the websites make recourse to an idea of “urbanites” in what is essentially a non-urban setting:

“Light up your Life in Mission Bay”
Never before have San Franciscans had the opportunity to be a part of a community designed for 21st century urbanites. Parks and boulevards, new architecture, a campus-like setting, all contribute to a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere within minutes of downtown.
(Radiance)

Thus, in their re-packaging of San Francisco, the websites are able to “call and dismiss,” as needed, a notion of urbanity in San Francisco—with its usual connotations of excitement, grit, and unpredictability—in order to sell a condominium experience that in fact recedes from that same urbanity.


The overdetermination of residents

Not even the living people of the condominiums are spared such feats of abstraction. Designers of the CGI virtual tours on all of the websites go to great lengths to include both “sample” residents (working out, cutting bread, looking pensively out a window) and various signs of humanity (two wine glasses, a book on a nightstand, a toothbrush). What is interesting in these efforts to represent the “average” resident is that the designer—who either renders the person digitally or selects (and dresses) the ideal real-life actor—must make active decisions about what the condominium resident should look and act like. This means decisions about age, sex, and ethnicity but also clothes, hair, facial expressions, and hand gestures. In social scenes, the designer or photographer must decide who is talking to whom; who is holding what kind of drink; who is laughing (and how hard). It is important to realize that these actors (real or CGI) are not playing themselves as people, nor do they represent an average of actual residents, since in many cases the virtual tour was made before the condominium opened. What they can only represent is the designer’s imagination of what sort of person ought to live there. Therefore these actors are not descriptive, as the renderings of swimming pools and landscaping are, but rather normative, because they determine what sort of people belong in this kind of building.

Often, the text itself on the website suggests this ideal already:

You live in San Francisco because you are San Francisco. Smart. Active. Outgoing, Environmentally aware. At the leading edge. So the last thing you want is another cookie-cutter condo. (Arterra)

But it is possible to determine further, from looking at the virtual tours, that everyone in all of the tours is either Caucasian or Asian, and fall into the category “young professional”—wearing either business suits (with skirts for the women), or dinner-part wear, except for in the gym. None of the women appear to be over the age of 40, while the occasional salt-and-pepper man is allowed in (always talking to a younger woman). All women wear black heels. People usually talk in groups of two to three, and those who are alone are women who read magazines (BLŪ), cut tomatoes (Millennium), or gaze out at their magnificent view (Infinity). Men and women are often shown holding a glass of wine, regardless of the time of day, and even in the bathtub.





Perhaps more insidious because they are more subtle, details even in empty rooms on these virtual tours speak volumes about what kind of person inhabits that room. Of course, wine abounds in the kitchens, often on a wine-bottle stand, on the balcony, and even on the wall, in the case of the two framed pictures of wine at the Arterra. At One Rincon Hill, a croissant, two glasses of orange juice and an espresso sit on an unnaturally clean countertop, while the ubiquitous baguette sits waiting on a cutting board at the Arterra. Two toothbrushes in the bathroom testify to the fact that you do not live alone at either Arterra or Millennium, as do the piles of books on both nightstands near a kingsize bed in the Arterra bedroom. A scale in another Arterra bedroom suggests that the condo-dweller is health-conscious, as does the amount of fruit that abounds in all of the kitchens. According to all six tours, condo-dwellers enjoy art that is a strange blend of edgy and corporate, such as vaguely futurist paintings (Arterra) and minimalist dashes of ink on white paper (BLŪ). At Millennium Tower, a piano asks to be played. All of the tours also include laptops (presumably because residents have computer-intensive jobs and are normally on the go); not one desktop computer is to be seen. Perhaps the most unsettling picture, however, is that of the walk-in closet at One Rincon Hill. This resident owns four identical shirts, all white except for one black one, and five pairs of pants orskirts that are carefully folded over hangers. Everything in the closet is black, gray or red, and folded in neat little piles; a hat is carefully placed; the shoes are lined up, except for a pair of black leather boots, one of which is placed a slight angle as if it had been casually kicked off after a long day’s work.

In the end, the reason these actors (real or CGI) and their artifacts take on such a pervasive sense of unreality is because they function only as logical outcomes of the architecture. When the Millennium Tower claims to “reflect the spirit of its residents”, what this really means (since the residents have not moved in yet) is that the residents will reflect the spirit of the building. And when the Arterra says that “the last thing you want is some cookie-cutter condo,” what they might as well go on to say is that “you want a condo that completely embodies and determines a very specific kind of lifestyle.” Bernardo Fort Brescia himself says of the Infinity that

after all, even though [your unit] is your personal space in the building, your identity is still associated with the building as a whole. You describe it to your friends; you tell the story of the building in which you live.

Here we are in a better position to understand how Foucault’s plague city can subdivide power “even to the ultimate determination of the individual, of what characterizes him, of what belongs to him, of what happens to him.” The overdetermined residents are simply the follow-through of that same subdividing order that determines the placement of couches and deck chairs. Because the condominium is designed for a certain kind of use, to be moved through in a certain way (much like the co rresponding website), it renders actions and living predictable and designed. It works exactly the same way as CityWalk—the city-theme park hybrid that Chaplin and Holding describe: “a ‘scripted space’ par excellence, that is, a space which excludes, directs, supervises, constructs, and orchestrates use.”—as well as the private domains analyzed by Mike Davis:

Ultimately the aims of contemporary architecture and the police converge most strikingly around the problem of crowd control … the designers of malls and pseudo-public space attack the crowd by homogenizing it. They set up architectural and semiotic barriers to filter out ‘undesirables.’ They enclose the mass that remains, directing its circulation with behaviorist ferocity.

From this point, every detail in the virtual tours, not least the people themselves, becomes insidious. What is seems to be attention paid toward the comfort of (often yet nonexistent) residents is in fact a kind of subtle conditioning of incoming residents from the inside. Like Foucault’s panopticon, this quality is built into the condominium:

In short, [the panopticon] arranges things in such a way that the exercise of power is not added on from the outside, like a rigid, heavy constraint, to the functions it invests, but is so subtly present in them as to increase their efficiency by itself increasing its own points of contact.

This is the also the angle from which Bernardo Fort Brescia appears more like a Arendtian benevolent tyrant (who, like the philosopher-king, “‘makes’ his City as the sculptor makes a statue”) when he says in his interview: “I believe the role of the architect has to be complete… to deliver a building that is a complete experience… where you sense a flow of ideas in every way.” (Infinity) In fact, there is an somewhat of an ironic parallel to the condominiums’ conditioning details in Mike Davis’ description of the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown LA (for “the managerial elite of narco-terrorism”), a stylish prison which incidentally looks on the outside not unlike some of the SoMA condos:

The interior of the prison is designed to implement a sophisticated program of psychological manipulation and control: barless windows, a pastel color plan, prison staff in preppy blazers, well-tended patio shrubbery, a hotel-type reception area, nine recreation areas with nautilus workout equipment, and so on … But the psychic cost of so much attention to prison aesthetics is insidious. As one inmate whispered to me in the course of a tour, ‘Can you imagine the mindfuck of being locked up in a Holiday Inn?


The dead condominium

In the same way that the virtual tours’ condo residents fail to seem human, the condominium seems impossible as a place for the flourishing of real human activity. Paradoxically, the further the lengths that designers and planners go to “accommodate” and render space amenable to imagined residents, the more rigid the structure becomes. In other words, as the condo designers optimize their architecture, furnishings, and website to a constantly narrowing and prescriptive ideal, the less realistic it becomes, because it leaves less room for actual, diverse human beings who may change and who act and use space unpredictably. This rigidity is the same problem that Arendt identifies in the Platonic impulse to “design” our way out of politics, driven by the strength of the temptation to "eliminate [action]’s risks and dangers by introducing into the web of human relationships the much more reliable and solid categories inherent in activities with which we confront nature and build the world of the human artifice."

Arendt observes that though Plato’s blueprint for utopia began a long tradition of thinking politics in the mode of fabrication, such methods tend to fail in practice:

…none of these utopias ever came to play any noticeable role in history—for the few instances where utopian schemes were realized, they broke down quickly under the weight of reality, not so much the reality of exterior circumstances of as of the real human relationships they could not control…

In their efforts to instate order, the SoMA condominiums commit a crime of abstraction: against the lifestyles they offer, against the city, and against prospective residents. This abstraction, in some ways, renders them dead before they even open their doors. Text on several of the websites is ridden with anxiety about seeming “alive”, so that the Millennium Tower insists that “life at Millennium Tower is anything but idle” and rather “alive with opportunity and freedom” in a “burgeoning downtown.” The Arterra finds itself entangled in such contradictions as the idea that one would want to live in the most “exciting and meticulously planned” neighborhood. It is as though the condominiums are on some level aware that they have become climate-controlled, regimented, predictable and rigid spaces—mausoleums of corporate-looking furniture, purified of all the excitement and instability of the city itself. The most disorder or chance that Millennium Tower can allow is in its virtual kitchen, where not all of the tomatoes fit in a bowl and some are strewn about on its side. After all, as in the plague town, the last thing the condos are designed for is freedom:

This enclosed, segmented space, observed at every point in which the individuals are inserted in a fixed place, in which the slightest movements are supervised, in which all events are recorded, in which an uninterrupted work of writing links the centre and the periphery, in which power is exercised without division, according to a continuous hierarchical figure, in which each individual is constantly located, examined and distributed among the living beings, the sick and the dead – all this constitutes a compact model of the disciplinary mechanism.

This particular trouble of the SoMA condominiums offers perhaps one of the more literal expressions of the function of design as delineation, marking out and “the adaptation of means to a preconceived end” where the preconceived end is a reified lifestyle with such extensive “attention to detail” as to be uninhabitable by acting, breathing humans. It is perhaps for this reason that while the Millennium Tower website entices the viewer with a link that says, “unprecedented living starts here”, the sparkling blue-and-white website of the Radiance has been plastered over with a garish yellow banner reading: “UNPRECEDENTED PRICE REDUCTION.”




Jenny Odell
2009



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