Archive for September, 2008
Last year (soon after moving to the SF Bay Area) I decided to pay a visit to one of the buildings that established my interest in modern architecture — The Oakland Museum of California (Roche Dinkeloo, 1968). The Oakland Museum combined three independent museums into a huge, block-long building that includes galleries, exterior terraces and a large central garden. In a recent interview in Perspecta, the architect of the building, Kevin Roche, argued that he was attempting to relate the building to the infrastructural scale of post-war California. He was inspired by the engineering of highways, and surely his work with the landscape architect Dan Kiley on the project suggests that they were both inspired by the unusual scale of the plantings in the California Highway System–those strange zones where redwood trees rise from cloverleaf interchanges. The Google Earth view below is a particularly potent conveyor of the building’s concept — the museum operating at the level of a transit system (not just in terms of size but its relation to nature as well).
When I visited the building last year it was upsetting to see such an important structure in such horrible shape. I counted at least three buckets in the building’s interior spaces to catch leaks from water; many of the beams for the building’s exterior pergola were askance; plywood was draped on many sections of the building from former, unfinished projects throughout the museum. I cannot recall any time visiting a building in which I felt so compelled to take it upon myself to remove, fix and correct the various problems with the maintenance of the building. My removal of pieces of plywood, shoring up of beams on a pergola, and other small acts were forms of maintenance and forms of criticism.
I was reminded of my small acts of maintenance last week while observing the official “Coastal Cleanup” of the East Bay’s Bay Area Trail — an 8 mile zone bordered by one of those California highways that inspired the Oakland Museum. In the coastal cleanup (part of a nation-wide effort) teams of volunteers swarm the length of the Coastal Bay Bike Trail pulling trash, detritus and other forms of removable pollution out of the Bay. They are overseen by experts who determine whether a log is pollution or a habitat for some species being cultivated by conservators.
The Oakland Museum is now undergoing an official renovation, like many museums do once millions of dollars have been raised. But I wonder if the impulse to maintain, as an act of critique, that we see at sites of great beauty like the bay or along highways by volunteer and hired crews, could not be reoriented toward a building like the Oakland Museum. If, as Roche argues, this building’s concepts operate at the scale of California’s infrastructural systems; then why not appropriate the techniques used to maintain these blurred zones such as the East Bay trail? Why not launch a maintenance critique of the Oakland Museum under the supervision of architectural experts and historians? I could easily imagine many of the people I saw at the Coastal Cleanup pulling trash and errant plants out of the Oakland Museum’s planters and pools; and teams of architects could surely donate time to repair the pergola and other misshapen elements of this place. But the larger point is that we might consider launching forms of maintenance of buildings that operate within those building’s particular conceptual logic. Some buildings demand official renovations, but surely other buildings can begin by attempting some form of renovation that is far more experimental.
I want to thank all of the visitors that have made the first week of this site such a success. It’s hard to imagine that a website about the methodological minutiae of architectural history, theory and criticism could have more than 20 visitors in one week; but according to my “stats bar” we have reached about 290 in seven days. That is a modest accomplishment (in upcoming days I will add some new features: a “blogiography” that will list publications that are now referred to in name and date, and some links to other relevant material).
When I was assessing this first week and looking at the image of the “stats” bar, I am reminded of the way “architectural theorists,” in the name of cultivating architectural thought, gauged their reach. The earliest image I can recall that graphically measured the extent of an architectural theorist’s readership is Le Corbusier’s map of subscribers to L’Esprit Nouveau (shown below)
According to Colomina (1988 ), the map was used by the publishers of L’Esprit Nouveau (LC and Ozenfant) to both demonstrate the reach of the journal for potential advertisers, and to provide a snapshot of the reception of a particular type of architectural writing in the early 20th century.
After World War II, the geographical impact of architectural theory, suggested in Corbusier’s image was replaced by images that concentrated on the development of architectural theory within and relative to other architectural theory and thought. We see this in the image above by Charles Jencks (discussed by Martin, 2006 as a type of ecology) and below by Stan Allen (on the cover of Hays, 1998). The latter absorbs geographical location within the development of architectural theory itself. The social locations on the earth are now situated within theory – “Moscow,” “Berlin,” “Prague” — rather than theory being distributed through them.
Both these images suggest that architectural theory from the 1970s to the 1990s was a somewhat closed enterprise –either ecosystem or feedback system—which, considering the intense circulation of roughly 30 key authors at that time, it may very well have been.
Both the geography of readership and the geography of thought itself appears to have been supplanted in recent years by a concentration on bestseller lists or best of lists. We seem to care less who is reading what in specific precincts, or how ideas are mapped together. We just want to know what is being read. This seems particularly ironic. After all, aren’t we itching to know exactly what architectural books are being read in the new post-critical building boom cities?
But let’s look at these non-geographical lists; when so many authors discuss the death of theory it is surprising to see architectural theory titles at the top of best-seller lists (as in the lists below (Princeton Architectural Press, at left, and a recent article in the Independent (UK), at right).
This is a good time to reassess the reach of architectural thought, particularly the representation of this reach. Rather than documenting the movement of journals, terms, and ideas through geographical and historical zones or quantifying the amount of sales or hits of books and posts – what if we transformed the cartographic map of architectural thought into a representational fantasy, but one that was nonetheless achievable?
I believe every work of architectural history, theory and criticism has within it, sometimes on the surface, sometimes deep, the fantastical desired cartography of its readership. What this readership looks like is a cartography we carry in our heads as authors. Every writer or architect I meet tells me of that person, or those individuals who comprise a school of thought, that they wished viewed their work; and some architectural historians seem to have a fantastical audience built into the work (the White House; a specific revolutionary). Perhaps one simple pursuit of htc is to make this imagined, fantastical geography of readership into a map of a real existing one.
Due to the relatively recent, but large investment in studying the history of architectural photography, we are now able to see architectural photographs as non-textual forms of architectural theory. The staging, manipulation, doctoring and transmission of photographs cycles content in ways analogous to those forms of architectural theory that appear, somehow, more about “content” than “image”.
We know so much about the history of architectural photography today, and yet I cannot think of a time in which architectural photographers appear to have so little to say about the potential intellectual contribution of their discipline to the ideas that adhere to buildings. And many of the images made by architectural photographers that have been venerated recently – images by Stoller, Korab and Schulman – appear to uncritically reflect the very types of images that architects are interested in producing with software. It seems the larger sentiments of historians of the architectural photograph (e.g. Colomina, Rosa and Forty) are somehow lost and the more marginal work of the mid-century photographers is somehow ignored.
In light of the peculiar present of architectural photography, we might take a new look at an architectural photographer who has not been discussed nearly as extensively as his American counterparts, but whose contribution seems so critical right now: the architect Michael Carapetian. Michael Carapetian took my (absolutely most) favorite photograph from those photographs that are now part of the history of architecture – “The Man on the Economist Plaza” (Economist Building, London, Alison and Peter Smithson, 1964) shown above. When most photographers were taking crisp photos of buildings with their characteristically strong shadows and deep perspective, Michael Carapetian demanded that architectural photography be filled with provocations and new ideas. In an email exchange we conducted recently Michael wrote to me about this important photograph:
“I was totally against the photography of buildings with large plate cameras where perspective was over corrected, the building was always in focus, top to bottom, and the clouds etc ‘fixed’ with filters… I just felt we did not perceive buildings in that way…I did not want to shoot the building in sunlight, and a good misty/wet day was ideal to show the materiality of the building , the sensitivity of the materials used, scale of the elements and how well they fitted in with the context. the misty day was almost accidental, but perfect. the puddles of water etc. were ‘found’…”
“So, I was setting my camera up, then I spotted the guy in a black coat, umbrella, and a bowler hat. He was walking towards me… I asked him if he would kindly walk away from me in the opposite direction… he did and walked in a great way… so I shot him… just once. like a film… unfortunately I never took his name, not thinking that he would be so famous… published in so many books and magazines.”
In what is the most “wet” photograph in the history of architecture, Carapetian discovered new peripheries in architectural photography; the mist creates new edges to that of the camera frame; and the puddles reflections produce images within images. The “man on the plaza” feels these things — in his seemingly shivering body– as we watch the larger discursive play of photographic image making. This is a photograph about the particular limits of architectural photography at this time and the role of the architectural photographer in “capturing” the building.
But equally as important as the image itself, is that this photograph produced a rippling “Carapetian Effect“ (consider the “Ken Burns effect” we see today in iphoto software). The Italian architectural historian Leonardo Benevelo used the Carapetian Effect in his development of the history of modern architecture (image above). Benevelo photographed the important buildings of European Modern architecture surrounded by puddles. Archizoom used the Carapetian Effect in its imaging of its non-stop city; and so on. Each used the Carapetian Effect to lessen the distinction that the architectural photographer often produces between the building photographed and its particular social milieu.
We need new iterations, and new contemporary extensions of the Carapetian Effect. The Carapetian Effect is that act in architectural photography that produces images in images, new fuzzy zones in architectural photography, that releases buildings into a previously unarticulated territory.
But perhaps we just need Michael to take more photographs again. For those of us interested in the limits of architecture’s “system” we can only hope that this happens soon.
Snowdon Aviary, London Zoo, Cedric Price, Frank Newby, Tony Armstrong Jones, 1964
The people in the house next to ours own an African Grey Parrot (we will call him “Abraham” to protect his identity). Abraham is quite sweet and friendly, but his sounds are distracting, to say the least. His squawks and squeaks stress the limits of our patience while writing and reading. Recently, I gave up on trying to write during the bird’s latest squawking fit. But as I stopped working long enough to listen to Abraham’s song, I finally realized that the sounds he made were not just some secret African Grey Parrot language but his variations on the sounds surrounding us in our neighborhood and between our two houses. Abraham replicates the sounds of our squeaking doors, the alarms on our microwave ovens, the screeching brakes of busses that stop in front of our houses. Abraham mimics the clanging of his owner’s dishes, pots and pans. In short, Abraham is a type of architectural and urban, living archive.
We of course exist in the age of the “living archive.” Everything alive is treated as an archive, from trees (“growth rings”) to our DNA to the fish swimming in the ocean (Mercury deposits). We see life as a type of recording device. While this may make for exciting television programs on nature, I find this general trend troubling. The living archive, as it has appeared thus far, appears to actually dehumanize life itself as an instrument of historical inquiry. If the natural history museums of the 19th century reduced life, including antipodal human life within the unfolding narrative of “nature,” then the natural archive locates history within nature as well. Such a view of history – as stored deep within our bodies (as in a library) – diminishes the real existing human strife that producing historical analysis involves and that archiving data also often entails. People undergo displacements, enormous migrations and even death to bring material into the archive.
But all of this does not mean that we must give up on the living archive. It just means that we should consider this life as part of a broader social sphere in which it takes place. And all of this returns us to Abraham. A bit of research reveals that the majority of African Grey Parrots engage in a migratory pattern in Africa that extends from Liberia into the Sudan. In other words, Abraham’s species-kin move through some of the most troubling areas of the African continent in the very expression of their lives. This, of course, is a far smaller scale version of the tremendous human displacements due to violence in this stretch of Africa. But when we actually consider the living archive encoded through the social archive and vice-versa, we begin to arrive at an image of Abraham and his African Parrot kin that is far more complex than the naturalist who bores into a tree ring to tell us about our earlier “carbon footprint.” These parrots are involved in something that exceeds our current notions of the living archive. The African Grey moves with social violence, and it both records and reacts to this violence — due to its own biological features and due to the natural displacements that forms of social strife produce (the violence impacts how the African Grey moves through the continent.).
To conclude, imagine the naturalist, the geographer and the urban historian collectively capturing some of these birds, with the violence they have recorded, and bringing them into our urban zoos. One might imagine recoding the zoo, an archive that appears as a space of entertainment, as the representation of trans-continental war and conflict that it really is – those animals come from somewhere (usually an “elsewhere”). If we can imagine bringing Abraham’s brothers and sisters into a space where we might reflect on their song of urban and social destruction, we will hear things that will shock us, frighten us and make us consider the particular power and moving nature of archives that are part of life itself. When we consider the way non-human life is used as an archive, we realize that the social, the natural and the historical cannot be so easily divided.
Julian David Le Roy’s 1770 Travelogue of the Bay of Piraeus
I recently completed teaching an undergraduate course (“Emerging Territories”) which reviewed architects’ writings on globalization and theorists of globalization’s writings on architecture. For one of the assignments I asked the students to develop a focused, audio travelogue/guide focused on recent spatial transformations or spatial phenomenon in the San Francisco Bay Area. We very briefly discussed the long history of travelogues in architecture — from recently translated work such as Palladio’s 1554 guide to Rome, the work of Le Roy, to more recent work by the Harvard Project on the City. In this assignment, it was important that they examine their chosen space while responding to the ideas they read in authors such as Appadurai, Augé, Jameson, Koolhaas, Easterling et. al.
The above, are two of the most successful of the final assignments — Livia Foldes, “guide to guides” is a short take on the recent phenomenon of tours of the often overlooked urban spaces that become prominent due to their appearance in famous films. Marie Millares, much longer piece, provides an examination of the restaurant Jollibee, a fusion/fusion Filipino fast food restaurant, popular in the Bay Area.
It is a map, a proposal, a fantasy archive for the retrieval of future data related to the indoor atmosphere of cities. During the course of my dissertation I spent a great deal of time exploring the politics surrounding indoor air in Western cities in the 1970s. This was way before debates about sick building syndrome; the issues were much different back then, more about what indoor air might enable as an aspect of urban development and institutional politics. When I was writing my dissertation, I lamented the fact that we had no archive of indoor air; as we do for all other manner of indoor elements of the built environment—furniture, designed objects, fashion. The specific content of the air of the interiors of the past is lost to us —its bio-physical make-up is gone; we really can’t study it with a full range of analytical methods. But I wondered…what if we archived our current indoor urban atmosphere for the historian of the future? Why would we do this, and how would this be done? In this speculative proposal I imagine using the tools we currently have to study the air of the past, but wiring them in reverse. What if we made urban core samples of the air inside buildings and then stored them like we do with core samples from the North Pole or Antarctica? What would people in the future study? Every historian “builds” his or her archive; what does this say about the archive?
Two students of mine at CCA, Judy Wu and Jessica Miller, developed a fascinating and funny (!) mockumentary for their final project in my class on theories of Space and Nature in architecture. I had asked my students to consider new methods for conducting environmental histories of buildings, using one building as a case — the Crown Zellerbach Building in San Francisco (SOM, 1959). Judy and Jessica used the visual and textual language found in televised natural history programs from the past to consider the fictitious impact of the Crown Zellerbach Building on the surrounding remnants of nature. Using the current lingo of “bio-mimicry,” they imagine the Crown Zellerbach building working in reverse; the surrounding birds, insects and other life suddenly acquire the characteristics of the building. Watch, and enjoy Judy’s impressive “British” accent, and Jessica’s work in stop action animation.
In a recent project I wondered if one could use the type of spatial production evident in the work of Superstudio as a form of historical visualization and reconstruction. I made the above image as part of an effort to reconstruct the smokey air of Pittsburgh at the early 20th century. Architectural reconstructions often involve the reconstruction of structures versus the larger milieu in which they once were conceived. I imagine it is difficult to understand much of the architectural work of Pittsburgh from 1900-1950 without an understanding of the former state of the city’s atmosphere.
Of course the scale of the above proposal is completely unrealizable — technically, financially, and politically. Thus, the above image stands as a type of historical provocation. I considered how one might develop the idea at a more reasonable (but still formidable!) scale below. This, I imagine would be a balloon, of the type used for advertisements that is merely patterned with an image of smoke–floating above the city, a smoky Leonidov.
In 2005 when I was living in Baltimore, someone (never caught) was shooting bullets at the glass curtain walls of a few of the city’s modernist buildings. The shooter only “attacked” buildings at night — when they were lit — and when they were clearly empty. When the Maryland Institute College of Art’s (MICA) new Brown Center Building (2003) was attacked there was enormous outrage at the seemingly senseless act and the obvious destruction of property. The image of this building’s taut curtain wall glass punctured with the characteristic hole from a bullet was circulated online — symptomatic of our city’s particularly violent character.
While the various administrators of MICA described the crime of the shooter, I jokingly called this person the “architecture critic.” After all, this building (and it was designed by some good friends of mine) was a pretty strange statement about what an elite institution might be in a city of enormous strife. Plus, it did not appear that the architecture critic tried to shoot people, just those buildings that symbolized certain aspects of the city’s future margins. Rather than categorize the above act within the confines of “crime” and outside of the larger discourses we label “criticism,” we might consider this brazen act as a form of commentary on the push for development (at any cost) at that time in Baltimore.
My joke label — “the architecture critic” — also had a peculiar irony to it, because during this time our city’s ONE official architecture critic was under investigation by his employers at the Baltimore Sun; he was accused of using laudatory architectural criticism to advance those buildings in neighborhoods in which he owned property! The $15,000 it cost to replace the Brown Center’s windows was nothing compared to the increase in personal property values that this architectural critic achieved by writing about the loveliness of those buildings at the center of his real estate holdings.
But all of this raises larger issues than just whether the criminal is the guy doing the drive-by shooting of an empty building or the guy at the reporter’s desk. In considering all of this, we might recall the 1976 performance of Gordon Matta-Clark at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York City. The architect and theorist Andrew McNair had invited Matta-Clark to participate in an installation in the Institute’s Midtown Manhattan gallery. Instead of showing images of his work or, completing one of his more characteristic “cutting” projects, Matta-Clark decided to shoot out the windows of the gallery with an air rifle. The directors of the Institute were infuriated (as anyone responsible for the maintenance and budget of an institution was and should be) but Matta-Clark’s shooting has subsequently gained praise as a brilliant act of architectural criticism.
I think the example of the Baltimore shooter, the Baltimore architecture critic, and Matta Clark ultimately point toward the same issue: criticism demands more criticism — to move from crime to critique or the opposite direction. And this is especially the case in the extremes of experimental criticism that such a critique of the critique is especially needed. Then and only then can we understand such acts as commentary — and an often badly needed one at that.
Blowout, Gordon Matta-Clark, 1976 (Note this is not the performance at the IAUS)
A student of mine manipulated this famous image of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial for an assignment on myth and architecture. I had asked my students to read Roland Barthes’ Myth Today and to then select an important image from the history of architecture and to recode its “mythic” content based upon a select manipulation of that image. This student, Kylash Chintalapalli, dealt with the inherent nationalism of the original image. By removing both the Washington Monument and the family descending into the Vietnam Memorial, he highlighted the sense of loss and mourning of the soldier.
The assignment was inspired by Rachel Schreiber’s work with students at the Maryland Institute College of Art (1999-2007), where she asked them to transform the meaning of important images from the history of photography. I include a more extensive description of my architecture history/theory assignment below:
“Architecture, the Photographic Image, and Myth”
In his essay “Myth Today,” the French critic and theorist Roland Barthes described a type of symbolic communication method that he called “myth.” Myth, according to Barthes, relies on familiar, pre-conceived, and often clichéd imagery to communicate hegemonic social and political concepts. Myth relies on the supposed truthfulness of certain forms of communication – photographic images, journalism, cinema verite–to capture things “as they are.” Myth relies on repetition to empower its own system of meaning. Myth, according to Barthes, is a depoliticized form of speech, an uncritical reflection of everyday practices and norms.
The history of architecture is full of mythic photographic images—Corbusier’s placement of glasses and a hat on a table on the roof of the Villa Savoye; Mies staring at the frame of the Farnsworth House; Frank Lloyd Wright surrounded by adoring interns; Frank Lloyd Wright witnessing the indestructible columns of the Johnson Wax Headquarters; the implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Project. These images often are, or were, used to communicate the ideas of modern architecture; through subsequent use and repetition many have become myth.
The assignment consists of three inter-related parts: Select a photograph from architectural history for analysis and manipulation that contains “mythic” content (in the Barthesian sense). In the first part of the assignment you are asked to discuss the mythic quality of the photograph, using both direct observations and some research about how the photograph has been used to communicate ideas.
In the second part of the assignment you are asked to manipulate your selected photographic image, either by digital or mechanical technique or by re-staging the scene, in a way that transforms the meaning of the photograph. In the third part, you are asked to discuss the changes you made, and why they transform our fundamental understanding of the image’s meaning.
I made this image when I was the curator of architecture at the National Building Museum (2000-2002). I had just purchased Robert Augustyn and Paul Cohen’s book “Manhattan in Maps” (Rizolli, 1997) and enjoyed examining the most recent efforts to map the midtown sector of the city. But I felt that none of the recent maps actually captured how it feels to be in those spaces. I wanted to develop a birds eye view that captured the immense production of indoor air in these spaces, the scale of air-conditioning. The map would later lead to my dissertation project and years of inquiry into indoor air in New York City.
In this project I explored the possibilities of “mock history” in architectural and urban history. As a friend of mine recently pointed out, the idea of “What if?” scenarios are a long-standing trope in comic book concepts. But in history they are generally considered forms of historical projection, and inherently irresponsible. The historians task is not to chart possible pasts, nor do we have any evidence that the study of the past can inform what might have been — the strange smashing together of historicism and determinism.
Nevertheless, after visiting an exhibition at the New York Historical Society on Central Park, I was curious what New York City might look like without Central Park. I thought this study could operate within a broader context of restitution politics. The current area of Central Park once contained Seneca Village, a small but racially diverse settlement. What if the land of Central Park was returned? Considering its value would building commence immediately? I also thought this question could operate within ethical questions about development. Why do the great works of the past appear so cruel to us? The latter question was explored in an exhibition concept for the Citadel in Central Park (the then current commissioner nixed it as too controversial) the latter concept appeared in Cabinet Magazine and the Venice Biennial.
Model of an 1870 pool (David Pascu, model maker)
Yale University and The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, NYC
The project started my consideration of “historical practices,” which in this context implies the operation of historical work in which all of the aspects of historical production are thrown into question.
In an architectural history course at Yale we were reintroduced to the work of 18th and 19th century architects who sought techniques for reconstructing buildings from Roman and Greek ruins. This primarily entailed drawings that represented buildings as they may have once existed– work by Le Roy, Labrouste, among numerous others. The work of Henri Labrouste was particularly inspiring as he sought to place the act of architectural reconstruction within the particular social activity of a former society.
In considering this earlier activity of reconstruction, the following questions were posed: How might a reconstruction operate today? How might the reconstruction of a building from the past be a provocation? What does it mean to reconstruct the very act of reconstruction?
As a case study, I chose to experimentally “reconstruct” the floating pools that once enabled people to swim in the East and Hudson Rivers in New York City. The idea of swimming in these rivers seemed in 1996, as it might still today, inherently provocative, frightening, repulsive. The idea was to reconstruct the building through drawings, photos and models to enable debate, protest, discussion about the position of the river in the experience of New York City. The processes of Labrouste were wired in reverse.
The project was staged at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City in 1999
Read the reviews of the project in the Village Voice and the New York Times