Archive for November, 2008
A few days ago I looked at new posts on some of the most popular architecture blogs, and I left wondering why the overall mood of these blogs is so consistent when the particular content of them is not? Why does it seem that posts on subjects as different as military landscapes, tunnels, or moving buildings come through the same pair of eyes, the same mind? The people that write on these subjects are terrific writers, but why the flattening of the overall methodology? I don’t think we can definitively state that one of these writers influenced the other; although some of them might see it that way. I think there is something more interesting happening.
I considered how these sites are viewed and how their authors often assemble their particular imagery. I focused on the term “surfing” as uncovering the structure that ties their aesthetic and methods together. In focusing on this term, I am inspired by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s observation that “surfing” is one of the operative metaphors for late-modern experience. He wrote this well before “surfing the web” became a common phrase in the late-1990s. Deleuze’s point was that the surfer was immersed in a situation without beginnings or ends – a situation in which one was surrounded by terrain. For Deleuze the surfer was a method to absorb the world. But we can also add that the surfer represents a type of intellectual production process in which the disparities of data become assembled into a whole. The surfer moves between disparate situations in place.
Of course “surfing” architectural thinkers predate contemporary architecture blogs. If we look at the work of Reyner Banham in relation to contemporary architecture blogs we see aesthetic similarities; and this is no accident. With Banham we see the beginnings of the HTC surfer. In his television show “Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles” (images above), Banham transformed an automobile into a method through which the architecture of a city might be experienced. Banham “surfed” or more accurately “cruised” the city as a historian/theorist. And if you look at the images filmed through the windshield of Banham’s car they are similar to those that appear in our screens as we read contemporary architectural bloggers. And this includes the images of enormous technological landscapes, the use of interviews, roundtables (in his car), and the constant appearance of Banham.
We might argue that surfing is more than just navigating the continuum. Surfing is also about navigating a landscape in such a way that the particular tensions that make that landscape less than whole disappear (as in the surfing diagram above by Reiser+Umemoto). Surfing lulls us into thinking that technology, nature and human subjectivity form some type of well-articulated entirety enacted through the desires and prowess of the surfer him or herself. Surfing makes us abandon methodological self-reflection for the thrill of the continuum. And this I think is the danger of the surf aesthetic, because the spaces navigated by Banham and the architectural bloggers are spaces that are less than whole. They are filled with tensions that cannot appear when surfed.
There are only a handful of architecture blogs that drop this surfer image; it is time that we encouraged some more. In upcoming posts I’ll revisit some themes below and redirect them to the issues above.
Many of the scary creatures that lurk in horror movies, such as vampires, blobs, and robots, are a type of archive – a horrific archive. For example, I was watching HBO’s new series “True Blood” and the protagonist, the vampire “Bill”, told his love-interest “Sookie” that once he drank her blood he would have “a little bit of her” inside of him. He would then be able to sense her feelings, track her location; she was in some sense stored within his body. This archival monster has similarities to the “T-1000” in the film Terminator 2. Once the “T-1000” touches another living being or object it may assume its form at any time. It too keeps a record within itself. Or you might consider the Blob, from the 1988 film version of that movie; the blob absorbs people into its structure. All of this is a literal realization of the notion that when things enter the archive they die (or are un-dead), as they are disconnected from the context that gave them their particular meaning.
The horrific archive is interesting because it only reveals the entirety of its contents when it dies or falls apart – usually through some intense act of violence. In the case of the vampire, the blood within it explodes out, sparkling with its collected souls. In the Terminator and the Blob films, the archive gathered by these creatures suddenly appears as an explosive outpouring of data and imagery when the monster is about to expire. The collected bodies of the T-1000 (above) are suddenly represented in quick succession.
More traditional forms of archives also contain this element of horror. Consider the elderly pack rats that we read about from time to time (eg. the Collyer Brothers House, shown above). Some poor fellow who piled newspapers and magazines for years and years is suddenly found buried beneath his collection, when its entire contents come tumbling down. These people are eventually consumed – literally – by their collecting activity as their archives collapse on them. I can recall many times entering an archive and fearing that the shelves of material would come crashing down on me; or who has not thought that they might be accidentally trapped by those rolling shelves that most libraries use?
Although they are a bit disturbing (or because they are disturbing) I find this horrific image of the archive inspiring when considering what archives might be and how historians might collect data. Perhaps we should build an archive that is a type of beast that collects. This is what John Soane did in his house. His house was a type of being that he kept feeding with more and more classical fragments. Perhaps we should reconsider the Soane-ian image by appropriating the image of the archive that moves through horror films; we should engineer an archival beast that will consume architectural knowledge.
Three weeks ago I spoke at the Berkeley PhD Program’s colloquium on architectural research. Rather than lecture about my more traditional work in architectural history and theory, I chose to speak about this site. Talking about this site was a great experience and also a little weird. I always considered this site a respite from the more formal setting of architectural history and theory. It was both a bit unsettling and thrilling to let this parallel intellectual environment I created enter the more familiar academic environment. Additionally, I never navigated a website as part of delivering a lecture, but I think it worked well. The PhD students, in particular, empathized with my drive to find some form of intellectual production that rewires the role of the historian/theorist relative to its service role in academia and practice. The reception of the work was very warm and the questions were excellent. Future posts will address some of the issues raised – human beings as archives; the affective search; reconstructions of reconstructions. A big thank you to Yael Allweil and Greig C. Chrylser for making the arrangements.
I am very happy to say that this site has received some attention from editors of print-run architectural publications. I have been asked to put together a few essays about the history and potential of experimental practices of architectural history, theory and criticism. I have a handful of contemporary people that I will discuss – several involved with the journals listed in the sidebar at right – a few others from the long history of architectural history, and, of course, some work from this site.
So, if you read this site and have completed work that falls into the HTC experimentation area, (and I realize it requires some further definition) please, please, please email me and tell me what you are up to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Probably all of us who work in the architectural HTC area have heard stories about how architectural thought–particularly architectural theory–increases in times of economic hardship. When the markets are down and the economic indicators turn south, the architect begins to think, to write, to theorize. When the markets are up we “do” and don’t think much. Based on this argument, all one has to do is look at the economic chart above (it traces gdp in the US and Europe) and literally turn it upside down to map the intensity of architectural thinking.
The latest version of this narrative claims that as the neoliberal economy collapses it simultaneously brings both “post-critical” and “generative design” down with it; a very simple way to put this is that the cutting-edge architect of today will suddenly trade Rhino for Microsoft Word.
Besides the reductive economic determinism that underpins such arguments–“when the cash flow dries up we suddenly think more and when we’re flush we don’t reflect as much”–its authors offer little statistical evidence. And I make this cold empirical assessment because the best economic determinist thinkers rely on empirical data to fuel their theories (consider the work of David Harvey as an example). And I would imagine that some of the very authors who imagine the generative-downfall, have Harvey-esque, neo-Marxist ideas in their back pocket, even if not explicitly stated as such.
But the neoliberal/generative coupling and its downfall, and the larger narrative of which it is a part is not only based on economic determinism; it is also based upon a faith that when the economy is bad architectural theory suddenly flourishes. But this article of faith needs to be proved, or the larger argument falls apart.
And for me, this is an extremely interesting question; how exactly could we chart this relationship? Would I go to the Avery Index and search for the number of architectural theory articles between 1973-75; 1980-82; 1990-91; and 2001-03? Would I then compare them to the number and “significance” of articles written outside these years–during the booms? Such cross-referencing sounds ridiculous; I know this. But even more surprising is that when I scan my most recent theory syllabus I realize that some key pieces of contemporary literature are actually not written during these lean years. In fact some of the key pieces of literature are written during the booms.
The chart above traces an “economy”–one of the great social constructions–but I am not sure it truly traces any indicators of architectural thought.
This is the earliest image I can find from the history of architectural theory that explores the inter-relationships of an assembled crowd, their leader, and the larger space in which this assembly occurs. This is from Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc’s “Dictionary”* — the important book, published in the mid-19th century, that examined Medieval architecture and its theoretical implications. We could locate this image as one of the earliest in a visual taxonomy of the crowd that moves through the history of architectural theory — consider the crowd images by Terragni, Speer, Mies, and Fuller. And, as if it needs stating, I am thinking about images like this as Tuesday approaches and as we see images of roaring crowds.
But what I like about the above image, and Viollet-le-Duc’s description, is that Viollet-le-Duc appears to acknowledge that this very image of the architectural leviathan is one filled with risks. Viollet-le-Duc wrote of the lurking power, potential, and violence in a room such as this where a “lord gives his orders” to “a vast reservoir of men”; their life is all “warring,” he wrote. But, Viollet-le-duc also wrote, rather humbly, that his illustration gives a “weak idea” of this form of power when people are assembled by their leader. The “atmosphere,” to use a word so popular today, of this crowd’s anxiety cannot be adequately conveyed.
*See the entry “Donjon.”