Archive for October, 2008

We are settling on the above image for the plume/idling project — the reconstruction of an exhaust plume from the busses once housed at CCA. The image does not look like exhaust per se; in fact, it could easily be a reflection of a cloud from outside the building — through the skylights. And that is exactly what we want for this project. We want to articulate this ambiguity between an external nature — what we call “Nature” — and an internal nature (which never appears as “Nature”) through an act of reconstruction. The one appears to be produced by the energy of the earth and the other by the energy of society. I think we will rename the project “Idling Cloud,” as “plume” is too evocative of noxious exhaust.  

[a thank you to my colleague Andrew Kudless for the background photograph]

In this project we continue to revisit experimental acts of architectural historical reconstruction. The California College of the Arts (where I teach) is housed in a former bus maintenance shed designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in the early 1950s. The space must have been filled with a somewhat foul milieu from the idling busses as they entered and left the facility. In this project — a “sketch” of which is shown above — we recreate the exhaust plume from one of the busses in its original setting as a digital model. I will put additional images of the project on the site as they become available.


I was responding to a comment today about “Maintenance Criticism,” and I remembered that two years ago I  completed an earlier installation engaging with the subject of architectural maintenance as critique. 

The images below were for a student-run, faculty competition in 2006 (at my previous gig at PSU). Faculty were asked to design something that negotiated architectural “weathering.” I think the students were inspired by the David Leatherbarrow book on the subject.

For my entry, I met with some of the people that cleaned the architecture school and asked if I could make an installation for the competition about the weathering that occurs through their labor. The cleaners and machines they use slowly transform the color of the exposed concrete floor. I also thought it would be clever if I, as the full-time history/theory faculty member, limited my “design” to just the use of words. The semi-permanent stencils can be pulled off in two years, revealing the difference in floor color that occurs through these people’s work. I called the entry “Local 8″ after the name of the labor union that organizes the cleaning crews at the school. We also happened to win the competition.

Architectural theory is often considered a process of writing (and often denigrated as a result), but the production of architectural thought always engaged other tools of expression besides quill, pen, pencil, typewriter, or computer. Some of the most significant written innovations in architectural theory are interlaced with tools of inquiry that lie outside those directly involved in writing. Or put another way, architectural theory is full of tools that help the author gather data and precede writing – ad hoc structures, optical instruments, vehicles (e.g. Le Roy’s drawing structures, le-Duc’s use of the tele-iconograph, Banham’s automobiles). I am not arguing that these devices or strategies of acquisition produce forms of knowledge; rather I am arguing that what we think we want to know as authors of architectural thought often entangles us with things that rarely appear in the final outcome of our thought experiments.

Such things that precede or move alongside writing appear from the very start in architectural theory.

For example, the origin of modern architectural theory lies in the consideration of Roman and Greek classical architecture. Authors of this early architectural theory often developed a host of strategies and structures to ascend, dangle from, and surround ancient classical buildings. To measure the antiquities of Athens, the architectural theorist Julien David Le Roy literally built buildings around ancient buildings to measure them more carefully. Such literal “building” techniques that enabled careful examination, exploration and measurement are essential, but virtually unvisualized, features of architectural writing focused on ancient classicism. The image above by Henry Parke of a student climbing a ladder to measure a Corinthian entablature, and the image below by Piranesi, are a couple of the small handful of images I know that directly depict some of this para-theoretical activity. Through these images we see a structure involved in understanding the past (ok, it’s just ladders in these instances); but in the Parke image we also see the seeming risks involved in this act of architectural exploration and the “aha” that the architectural thinker experiences as they enter, what for them, was a previously unexplored archive. 

 

All works of architectural theory and history contain activity that lurks behind writing. This site is in part about making those images (past and present) appear a bit more visibly.

I’ll be writing more about case studies in this aspect of architectural theory in future posts.

Within architectural history the edge between modernity and late-modernity is filled with images of the elderly, mostly elderly women. We see this most famously in the photographs of the Vanna Venturi house and Guild House, by Venturi Scott Brown and Associates.

Because the most staged and circulated images of these buildings include images of women, and because they are older, some historians have advanced these buildings as representing a new type of subject within architecture. For some, these buildings marked a shift towards a then new emphasis on “usability” or “livability”. In these images we saw expressions of previously unexpressed lives.

 

But the less discussed image operating here is the very alone-ness of the people in these famous images. If we consider the photographs of the Guild House (above and below), we see this with both older woman and men. In the exterior photograph sanctioned by Venturi Scott Brown, notice the man sitting by himself outside of the Guild House (to the right of the entrance).

 

In considering these iconic images of post-modernism it is as if this approach to architecture is a movement whose seeming gaiety is in actuality filled with a latent and unstated sadness; it is a movement full of older people who are alone – what we might somewhat insensitively  (but in some instance, more accurately) call images of “widows.” It is not just that the people in images of post-modern architecture represent subjective shifts away from the subjects of the past – that great collective of laborers and bureaucrats that moves through an earlier architectural theory – it is as if the people in the photographs described above mourn those very conditions of a former subjectivity.

(An aside: Revisiting these photos of the Guild House today seems to beckon the architectural historian less to consider the problems of modernity’s edges and rather, to simply pay these people a sorely needed visit as an act of architectural historical kindness!) 

 

But in considering this image of widow-hood at the margins of modernity, consider another image taken just a bit after the images of the Guild House that also emphasized subjective shifts, “usability” and general late-modern maneuvers. In the photography of his Overloop nursing home design in the Netherlands (above), the architect Hermann Hertzberger also develops an image of architecture filled with the elderly. Unlike Venturi, Herzberger’s elderly do not advance an architecture of the elderly as a pathway to some type of architectural levity, nor does Hertzberger image them alone. Here is that “collective spirit” articulated as one of the inspirations of an architecture in an industrial age — the “New Architecture.” In fact, notice the older woman at the center of the photograph who does not acknowledge the photographer; she is that older woman who sits alone in every other architectural book that depicts the shift from the modern to late-modern; but here she walks away (to some friends one hopes).

One might argue that Hertzberger found a way to link the percolating subjects at the edges of modernity (these are older people after all)  to the project of modernity — linking the “production” of a society to these seemingly “unproductive” subjects. Thus, Hertzberger’s space  escapes the mourning-image of modernity that moves through the images of then contemporaneous late-modern American work. But in avoiding this mourning image it also further avoids the real existing historical transformations that surround this insulated world. In the end, Venturi’s images of images of productive loss, is  a form of projection. The mourning of a modern subjectivity found in that proto-post-modernism has become the dominant form of subjectivity.

[For more on the issue of the user in the modern/late-modern divide see the work of Adrian Forty; and for more on the imagery of Venturi’s work see the recent exhibition at CCA, Montreal by students at the Columbia GSAPP.]

In 1996 a former architectural history professor of mine at Columbia asked me how I enjoyed being a student at the Yale School of Architecture, particularly how I enjoyed being an inhabitant of Paul Rudolph’s Architecture + Art Building. Like virtually all students who have been in that building, I think the building is an extraordinary feat of design and construction; The building was just renovated, expanded and renamed, and I can’t wait to see it.

But as a disabled person my relationship to that building was peculiar, to say the least. It’s not just that the building is set over many levels, and many levels on one floor. Navigating the interior spaces and the multiple floor changes and stairs was a pain. The “floating stairs” everywhere, particularly in the entryway leading to the building’s foyer, were particularly difficult to negotiate. What seemed like comedy to my friends, but really just a huge nuisance to me, was, my former professor argued, an avenue to architectural criticism. “You should write about it”, she said, and now more than ten years later I am.

But it’s not just the Rudolph building; I have literally rolled (in a wheelchair), limped and crutched in many “masterworks” of modern architecture. Here is my not-so-brilliant critical assessment of disability in architecture: Anything that claims to have been inspired by some type of architectural heroism or any building in which someone might describe the architect as “heroic” (as is virtually always the case with this particular work by Rudolph) will generally impart a bumpy ride for the disabled inhabitant. If I start an architectural tour and someone mentions one of these concepts as the inspiration behind the building, I generally brace myself for the inevitably intense walking experience. 

And this is no accident. The Romanticist theory that lurks behind the concept of a heroic architecture contains a strong masochistic streak. After all, the Romanticist writers who inspired the call to “experience” and “heroics” in the late 18th and 19th century were people who wrote about the intense effects of tuberculosis, war and other horrific assaults on the body.  In acknowledging this, we should seriously consider how many war-time and post-war-time architectural practices  (Civil, Spanish American, WWI, WWII, Korean, think also Jameson/Vietnman/Bonaventure) often unleash spaces in which the body appears to be pressed to some type of physical limit – pressed, one might argue, into the position of hero. As I recall, it was the historian of Rudolph, Timothy Rohan, who acknowledged a hyper-masculine and masochistic tenor to the spatial and material treatments of the Yale Architecture School. The space was about many things, including Rudolph overcoming his own subjectivity as a closeted homosexual man. But this heroic overcoming, articulated by Rohan, is certainly imparted to many of those (not just Rudolph) who navigate this space.

 

But to address my teacher’s call for “disability criticism,” I do not think the very act of struggling to move through a building can be read as an act of critique in and of itself. Do the struggles of a disabled person ever read as architectural criticism? The “failures” of the body/space interaction here always falls back either on the “disabled” person or the “larger social” milieu in which disability appears. The disabled cannot seem to speak through disability against particular theories of architecture.  What is demanded here is something that we might term “performance critique” where the interface between disability and space is continuously repeated to uncover the ideas I mentioned above. That is, through repetitive performance we see disability as an idea designed to be overcome in those spaces that appear inherently “insensitive”. In the case above, by demanding repetition, we uncover the hidden image of overcoming the “lesser body” that I really believe moves through the heroic theory of architecture.

 

To make all of this visible I will make sure to have a friend shoot some video of me climbing those steps – as many times as I can. And if I can do it without limping too much I will give myself a medal as an ironic, heroic critic of the Yale Architecture Building.





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