The Rules Of Foamspace

There is an almost cute resonance between Sloterdijk's choice of foam as the metaphor for the globalized world and the block-by-block caffeine-drip infiltration of cappuccino urbanism that globalization has spawned. Still, in place of the word "society," foam offers us a way to conceptualize the configuration of individuals in the contemporary world that captures some of the ambiguities and contradictions thriving today. Gone is the air of Hopper's Nighthawks, thick with smoke and mechanical loneliness, to be replaced by a clearer medium, more personal and pervasive but less physical. This vacuum insulates individuals from casual contact but paradoxically creates the need for more invasive means of communication. One may no longer feel so willing to chat up a stranger in a bar, but they also shouldn't be surprised to suffer the ring of their cellphone in the middle of a tryst. This 'connected isolation' assumes a condition of multiplicity wherein individuals are "always co-isolated islands that are momentarily, or chronically, connected to a network of adjacent islands constituting mid-sized or larger structures."

Paralleling Foucault's transition from punishment of the body to discipline of the mind, individuals in contemporary society increasingly rely on mediated means of communicating their concerns to one another. Discipline no longer remains solely in the halls of institutions like schools and prisons, but leaks into smaller, supposedly more casual structures like condominium associations, hobby organizations, or online chatrooms, as each develop their own constellations of power to govern their subjects. This proliferation of subjectivity necessarily plays itself out in space rather than time, resulting in an increased importance of place. There is, in some sense, a real seat for each of these multiplied powers (even if it's not where we expect it to be) and the physical reality of these loci help to define how their power is exerted. Architecture, to summarize Sumrell and Varnelis, assists in creating these groupings by "articulating moods and milieus" that differentiate the city (p. 129).

If we accept that there is a networked public, to use the term of Sumrell & Varnelis, or Foam the question remains, what role does architecture play in this organization of individuals? Sloterdijk's own reading of the French Revolution becomes instructive as he articulates the demands that a new political body put on architecture and vice versa. Specifically, the celebration at Champ de Mar on July 14th, 1790 diffused architecture into the very identity of the national body by becoming a vessel to contain Sloterdijk's foam and allow its internal pressures and tensions to play out. Importantly, the architecture in question is not a temple or monument that wields the overwhelming over of an icon, but instead a careful development of the physical environment of the festival to create a milieu that generates its own mythology and persistent visual images.

Informal versions of this festival had occurred on a smaller scale across France in the year leading up to the fete, but this celebration outside Paris marked the culmination of the revolution. Champ de Mar was thus the site of a synechdotal celebration: both a lasting visual that would contribute to a burgeoning national identity and, through the dissemination of those visuals, become a stand-in celebration for all those who were not able to attend. The fete had to break with both the Ancien Regieme, for obvious reasons, but also with the festivals of the ancients which brought with them a conception of society too divided to satisfy the fraternal desires of the revolutionaries. An appropriate newness was achieved through manipulations to the proportion and scale of known types such as the ampitheatre and triumphal arch as well as the redefinition of existing formal tropes described by Etlin: "This altar rose, no longer to dominate men, but to approach the sky" (p.29).

Interpreting his analysis of the French Revolution in Foam City, we can glean from Sloterdijk a few important lessons about the architecture of foam:
  1. Foamspace must "enable both the isolation of individuals, and the concentration of isolated entites into collective ensembles of cooperation and contemplation." It is both/and.
  2. Foamspace is the recapitulation of previous spaces, rinsed and washed of their former structures but never completely evading them. It is historical.
  3. Foamspace must allow "occasional assembly" even if society is so large that this assembly must always function as a synechdote. It is representational.
  4. Foamspace creates the largest structures ("the masses", "the nation", or "the people") only when the physical assembly is elaborate. It requires affect.
  5. Foamspace must degrade gracefully: it should make sense to those who can read it, entertain those who simply look at it, and command the attention of those who may only gaze. It is layered.
Etlin, Richard. Architecture and the Festival of Federation, 1970. link
Funcke, Bettina. Against Gravity. link
Sumrell, Robert & Varnelis, Kazys. Blue Monday. link