Archive for December, 2008

New Year’s Greetings

Happy New Year to all, and thank you so much for stopping by. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again — who knew that a site seeking a more experimental methodological program for architectural history could attract so many visitors? I appreciate you spending some time here.

The url for this blog is now http://htcexperiments.org.  The WordPress people claim redirects will happen without a problem. 

Thanks again, DG

PS. Oh, and how could I not mention this. A faithful reader was inspired by my post on economic determinism in architectural thought and emailed me this table (below) that he is slowly filling out. Thanks for sharing “T” — a welcome holiday gift. 

 

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“The bourgeoisie mistakenly believes that the end of his world is the end of the world” Karl Marx

We’re growing weary here reading end of the year blogs by historians, theory types, and writers that predict the end of this and the end of that. The responses to the housing and economic crisis escalate. We are told that we will witness the end of irony, the end of criticality, the end of post-criticality, the end of suburbs, the end of the city, the end of infrastructure. It seems there is no place to hide! But many of these predictions are either exceedingly literal or naive. Who could have predicted that the collapse of the 0% down, adjustable rate American mortgage would mark “the end” of Reykjavik? Such an accurate prediction is, in hindsight, beyond the framework in which most forecasting is staged.

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But more important, I don’t like that historians engage in this forecasting role. I find it odd. Why are people who look to the past asked to predict the future? Many historians I know refuse to engage in this type of exercise. I enjoyed reading a recent 2009 prediction, in which the historian/author reprinted a prediction from the 1930s. It enabled us to see the futility of the prediction business.

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I once, mistakenly, agreed to offer a prediction. On September 20th, 2001, when I was the curator of architecture at the National Building Museum, I was asked by a major national newspaper to predict the future of the skyscraper. Like many people who witnessed 9/11, I predicted the end of the skyscraper. One of the museum’s major funders, one of the largest developers of skyscrapers in New York, predicted the end of the skyscraper. I believed him. But between 2001 and 2008, his real estate company posted record profits on office and apartment rentals within his various, exceedingly tall, properties. I’m sure he was happy he was wrong. I decided to stop making predictions.

It’s okay not to know the future. Historians are not fortune tellers.

All I can say is that in this new year let’s all take a deep breath. I can predict that I will be taking many.

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A few weeks ago I read Jeffrey Schnapp’s excellent essay “The Face of the Modern Architect.”  This essay is part of a small handful of essays and book chapters that examine the ways architects control the image of their discipline through portraiture. Schnapp traces the eyeglasses, ties, pipes and cigars that accompany most portraits of architects, finding within these items concepts of class, authority, introspection, and anonymity.  Here is Schnapp on eyeglasses for example: “The eyeglass teasingly establishes the architect’s depth, individuality, and authority, while also defining him as a pure surface that ideally merges with the public surfaces of his body of work.” He sees smoke as a nod to mass comfort, ties as images of bureaucracy; Anyway, purchase the issue it is in, read it, and enjoy.

Schnapp’s essay makes me wonder — what is the image of the architectural historian, the architectural writer?  This question is partially answered by Schnapp, as two of his contemporary examples — Peter Eisenman and Daniel Libeskind — are, or have been, architectural historians. In their portraits we see the same ties and glasses as many of the architectural historians in the RIBA collection of architectural historian portraits. We can argue that such elements represent a type of bureaucracy of historical research or that the glasses are for the near-sighted historian versus the far-sighted architect (or perhaps that’s the reverse?) But the images of the architectural historians in the RIBA collection, and others, contain a stillness, a weight, missing in the corresponding images of architects analyzed by Schnapp. Architectural historians, who explore archives and who often “sit” on a building, are like architects except that they do not appear to move. And lets be honest, they generally don’t dress as well, operating with smaller salaries and a smaller audience.

But all of this is changing, especially as architectural historians and other architectural writers seem increasingly uncertain about their role in architecture culture. On the one hand, architectural historians simply appropriate the portrait image articulated by Schnapp. Architectural historians dress in ways that make them indistinguishable from architects and engineers; more interesting, is that architectural historians and theorists increasingly absorb the meta-image of the “kinetic elite” advanced by internationally succesful architects. Within early twentieth century photographs, architects would have portraits taken of themselves gazing with a look of surprise and fierce interrogation at some far off, but unseen structure. This signified that they were in a previously untraveled (by them) precinct. Today, architectural historians and writers increasingly portray themselves on the move. We can see this in the sidebars of architectural historian bloggers that keep us informed of their travels, or more aggressively with the global tracker that was once a prominent feature of Kazys Varnelis‘ site (I tried to find it, but that part of the site is gone now). 

But I think the architectural historian is due for a complete makeover. We should feel confident about our discipline and our stillness (Although I feel as if I have been living inside an airplane these past two years.). That image of stillness, of staying close to material in an archive is one that might be reconsidered; likewise, we should feel fine that we are, generally, not the most travelled in our departments. So, what might this new image of the architectural historian be? When I sit for a photograph, I hope to have some suggestions.

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I was reviewing some 18th century images of ancient classical buildings culled from important works of architectural theory by Adam, Le Roy, Dumont, et. al. I was reviewing these and selecting a few to be included in my forthcoming book with Princeton Architectural Press. Looking at these images, which often involve images of buildings excavated from the ground, I kept thinking that our contemporary image of the geo-architectural-historical interaction is mostly unchanged. We still understand the Earth to be a type of archive of the civilizations of the past and the archive that will one day hold the present. This concept of architectural history emerged in those earlier architectural theory images. Dumont (above), for example, understood that the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius buried a classical past. This, I think, might be one of the most brilliant of the early forms of the production of nature: Nature is the archive of social history. It’s an aspect of architectural history that I explored in a much different context in a recent piece for Grey Room, due out this February.

But, here, I want to think of some other possibilities for the specifically geo- historical/preservation machine. If the eruptions and convulsions of the Earth are one type of history machine, then there are others. Our geological concept of history is primarily based on strata; based on the seemingly “geological” processes that we ascribe to the 18th century project–dust, soil, and other terrestial matter that appear to consume the present.

But, consider the moon. The moon was formed by a violent geological collision on the earth — an asteroid, a planet? The moon is, in a sense, a piece of the Earth, ejected into space and preserved in space’s vacuum. The moon represents a horizontal concept of historical preservation. Its most direct social analogs are the actual pieces of socially produced space debris that ring the Earth’s surface that may sit there for thousands of years. But that’s the most literal interpretation of the horizontal concept of geo-history

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Perhaps those architects and historians who produce the historical image of architecture might consider this Earth-moon relation as a type of perverse and inspiring geo-historical-image construct; one that considers the movements of architectural history in other “expressions” of “nature.” Perhaps this?

Scary Archivists

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In a post a few weeks ago, I explored how certain archives appear horrific. I argued that certain archives are scary because their particular form of organization (or disorganization) is scary. This “archive horror” extends into another image — the image of the scary archivist. If the scary archive is that space that an experimental historian might unintentionally generate (the spaces of Soane, Eco, Collyer) then the scary archivist is that personae that lurks in these spaces (eg. Eco’s archivist above and Collyer below); it is the “subjective” product of unusual productions of history. We might probe this figure that lurks in literature and film as a potential subject for future projects and proposals related to experimental history.

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The roots of the scary archivist can be traced to various figures in Greek mythology, particularly the mythological story of Medusa — the female guardian who turns the living into stone. She cannot interact with the living, and through the course of living increasingly surrounds herself with frozen representations of the world. The Medusa image moves through the scary archivist image in various ways. Like the Medusa, the abilities of scary archivists to capture the lived world are often related to their disabilities and disfigurements. They appear either as blind, wheelchair bound, obsessive compulsive, or horribly malformed. The scary archivist is often a woman who turns “men to stone” through a type of emotional ferocity. This particular (often misogynistic) image of archival guardians is partially captured in the whimsical site “Scary Librarians”.

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Every historian builds an image of the archive, which also suggests that every historian invokes a type of archivist that manages this imaginary archive. The best archives are always a bit scary, and they always have (seemingly) intimidating (sometimes frightening) archivists.  It’s what makes going to these places exciting and interesting; bringing the contents of these archives back into “the world” requires navigational skills and often-epic struggles with their keepers. The best histories emerge from these struggles. The best archives and archivists project a bit of fear to make this possible.

 





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