Archive for January, 2009

My favorite works of architectural criticism (by authors Cesar Daly, Montgomery Schuyler, Lewis Mumford, and Ada Louise Huxtable) are put to shame by pre-modern forms of architectural criticism. If today we consider the criticisms of buildings in newspapers and magazines to partially determine their value and fate, in the pre-modern era one might look to strange tribunals and courts concerned with the fate of “lifeless” things. 

In a 1916 essay on the history of prosecuting the lifeless in pre-modern western law,  the scholar Walter Woodburn Hyde described how inanimate objects  could be put on trial if they were suspected for crimes. The list of the inanimate and lifeless included building elements and urban adornments. If a beam in a house fell and killed someone, or a wall collapsed, the inanimate object could be prosecuted; And if you thought a statue looked at you in a strange way; you might be able to prosecute it for conveying dangerous curses.

If found guilty, the beam, statue, or stone could be sent into exile — cast out of the city in which it “committed” its crime. If a lifeless thing was found guilty of falling and hitting someone; it could be exiled or the surviving family members of the deceased could claim ownership of it — incorporating it into another structure. Most guilty things were exiled to join other criminal lifeless things. It’s so unreal, but imagine a landscape of exiled objects just outside the borders of the Athenian city state: here statues, beams and stones, are lying about, damned for their unfortunate intersection with urbanity.

If you think the above prosecutions sound strange and alien, they reappear in our era. The imagined landscape, described above, is eerily reminiscent of the swampy New Jersey Meadowlands (just outside New York City) which contain the remains of the original Penn Station among many other buildings. The television program Demolition, aired on BBC, has more explicitly revived the pre-modern tribunals of lifeless things. The show has been widely damned by architects for infantilizing the discussion of buildings. In this program viewers evaluate some of their country’s “worst” buildings, determining which in the end should be demolished. The show has been criticized for many things (its peculiar focus on modernity), but we might evaluate the program as a form of experimental criticism that simply revives the earliest practices of architectural critique outlined above.

Should we put buildings on trial again? Perhaps; but unlike Demolition, we might consider a setting that does not so easily appear as entertainment, in which prosecutor and defender can present their cases for a particular building. I have been obsessed with the fate of one of my favorite modern buildings — Robin Hood Gardens; It appears that for Robin Hood Gardens to survive, its residents, architectural critics and a good (and literal) legal defender must mount a defense against its prosecution. Perhaps bringing the “crimes” and fates of buildings into courtrooms is one of the most civilized activities we can encourage.

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Since at least the 19th century, various upper-class social explorers have posed as people of a poorer class to explore the particular inequities of slums, sweatshops and marginal spaces of urban vice. The exploits of these actors were reported back to middle and upper class readers who were often shocked by the world inhabited by the less fortunate. The most famous of these recent social class explorers was Barabara Ehrenreich, who recounted her days posing as a waitress and house cleaner in the book Nickle and Dimed. In an excellent piece in Representations, the contemporary historian Eric Schocket labeled these class poseurs — “class transvestites” —, a term both immensely descriptive and ultimately damning of their activities.

In addition to class transvestitism, we can also locate a curious (and recent) temporal transvestitism, made possible through reality tv shows and their significant budgets. Programs such as 1900 House (above), Frontier House, and Manor House, enable participants to live a life in “the past” (Frontier and Manor House actually combine both class and temporal cross-dressing/acting) and they invite viewers to watch their confrontation with historical and antiquated means of living. These programs interest me because they are avenues to experimental spatial historical technique, but they’re also troubling in ways — ways that only make them that much more intriguing.

On one level, these programs encourage historical understanding through reenactment. Enactments sound horribly corny, but I was surprised and fascinated to learn that Thomas Laqueur uses actors to teach world history to his students at Berkeley. These programs also interest me, because all three (painfully) instill the present within history. Although we empathize with a modern family’s struggle with a technologically unaccommodating past, the programs’ producers advance a woman’s housework, property ownership, and class inequity as part of the historical continuum; that is, we see how popular history is commandeered to advance and fix contemporary socio-spatial dynamics.

But there is another ideological strand moving through these reenactments of the past that’s altogether less Barthesian, and ultimately more disturbing. 1900 House and Frontier House may actually not be reenactments of the past, but televisual priming of a possible apocalyptical future. They portend a possible demodernization that haunts contemporary Western discussions of infrastructural collapse and ecological disaster. In these shows water must be fetched, waste disposed, and food gathered, in ways far different than the modern infrastructural city. Additionally, all of the programs emphasize forms of cleaning, eating, and heating, that seem more environmentally palatable — homes more disentangled from global networks.

In fact, within Frontier House, it is only the historical dress that makes this show a part of history and not some ecopocalyptical scifi program. On the program’s website, the producers write “The Challenge: Blizzards, hunger, scorching sun, forest fires….” This could easily be the description of The Road, as much as a television show set on the American frontier. As always, “history,” particularly “public history,” offers us the opportunity to consider a possible future.

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Susan Sontag’s vaguely noirish, Chandleresque and glamorous crit of the Seagram Building — “Like a gigolo’s hand up a silk stocking…” Need we say more? Watch it all below.

*ps: and for contemporary hpstr-esque criticism, check out this hilarious post (first architecturally spotted by Owen Hatherley). 

Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion of the possible forgery of the Getty Kouros sparked the following post/thought/project. If the Kouros was forged, then those that pulled off this particular forgery applied a type of mold (potato mold) to the Kouros to give it the appearance of something ancient — something buried in the earth for hundreds of years.  Potato mold wasn’t central to Gladwell’s story, but it struck me because it suggests that running through art and architectural history is a natural history that enables what is ancient to appear so. In other words, our detection of age is often the perception of molds (magnified below), the abrasions of sand, the bleaching of the sun. In cities, this extends to our subliminal register of the accumulation of pollution on buildings.

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Another aspect of the ecology of historical appearance is the nature used to make objects appear extremely clean. To make objects look like natural history they are typically brought to a sparkling clean finish with acid and/or bugs. Bones, in particular, are immersed in containers of insects — Dermestidae (below). These little beetles, which can eat bits of flesh, enable conservators to bring a whiteness to skeletons.

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And in addition to mold and bugs, there are also all of the gasses, which preserve the historical documents of social history in an endless time. Argon (below) is one of the cheaper of these inert gasses. When visiting archives and museums to look at the most precious and fragile documents (dead sea scrolls, the US consitition), you often see documents through invisible clouds of argon gas.

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All of these bits of nature construct the image of the past, which is ironically, simultaneously an image of decay, cleanliness and timelessness. I am not yet certain how all of these conflicting images of history move together so easily. More curiously, all of these involve forms of nature that are frightening and, at times, grotesque. Molds, pollution, bugs and poisonous gas are not forms of nature that are particularly desirable, nor are they forms of nature one would immediately associate with displays of history. These and many other things, in total, speak of the natural history that moves through history.

ecohistory diagram

We can bring these three forms of nature (animal, mineral vegetable!) into a type of ecosystem of the archive: mold and sand for buildings, bugs for the skeletons of its former inhabitants, and gasses to preserve the documents of this former civilization. This is the ecosystem of historical appearance. It’s the ecosystem overseen by curators and archivists.

Post coming soon…

School is starting, and I also have about six writing projects to wrap up before writing new posts. I have a lot to say about images of a post-boom world,  architectural writing, ecosystems of historical appearance and more…But it will have to wait. Thanks again to Javier and archinect’s Paul Petrunia for all my new readers.

We are wrapping up the (hopefully) final version of the proposed plume/idling installation. The project is a reconstruction of an exhaust plume from the busses once inside the original SOM bus shed that is now the California College of the Arts (where I teach).

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The latest version of this project (above) involves filming one of the last functioning industrial stacks in this part of San Francisco and simply projecting that footage on the floor of the SOM building. The slight distortion will make it appear akin to exhaust from automobiles.

The reason I decided to do this is that it enables us to understand how we experience pollution (or the lack of it) and urban change in tandem. The smokestack is in a part of this larger precinct of the city that is not as rich, but that is experiencing the pressures of neighborhood transformation (what, in an earlier time, we could simply call “gentrification”). Like the former exhaust plumes from busses in the, now, more posh side of town, the smoke plume may eventually disappear in the name of urban and economic health.

In addition to the above play on the slow time of urban change, what I also find intriguing, is that in re-projecting real-time footage of the exhaust stack, we appear to be slowing time down in this reconstruction. That is, to our eyes, smoke appears to eject more slowly from smoke-stacks than exhaust from vehicles (cars, busses, motorcycles). The real-time footage will appear to be “slow-mo” once projected inside the bus shed. See a comparison of found footage below if this sounds confusing:

All of this suggests something, not yet fully developed, for new protocols within histories of architecture — the historian (or anyone interested in historical reconstruction) might be understood as a manipulator of space/time. There are, of course, significant histories of the idea of space/time in architecture; but there aren’t many acts of history that attempt to manipulate the experience of space/time relation itself. Philippe Rahm’s Climate Ucornia is one of the few I know.

I am writing about this because the above project excites me, but also because there has been an interesting discussion here and elsewhere (and here too) regarding the historian’s working relationship to time. Within which, of our concepts of time, should the historian’s efforts be situated — past, present, future? The above project intrigues me, as it suggests that these may not be so easily parsed or fixed.

News item….You must see the latest issue of the Architectural Association journal — AA Files 57. Not only does it have excellent articles by — most-favored-historian-status types — Mitchell Schwarzer and Briony Fer, but it contains the brilliant “Olfactory Reconstruction of Philip Johnson’s Glass House” by Jorge Otero-Pailos. It’s the first, “scratch and sniff” history article I have ever read or smelled. An “experimental preservationist,” Jorge’s projects (and his own journal) have been an important influence in the larger set of emerging practices that we must still tentatively label “experimental practices in history.” Thomas Weaver, the affable new editor of the AA journal has seriously expanded the relevance of this already impressive journal: he’s staged something that cannot, as of yet, be staged online. Congratulations to all.

 

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This will sound a bit grandiose; but it was a fun exercise:

I was putting together readings for this semester’s classes while also examining the UK Royal Collection of architectural theory. The Royal Collection holds the tutorial images and texts that the architect and theorist William Chambers made for the future King George III. It’s pretty impressive that the prince was so carefully trained in the theory of architecture. Inspired by this, and already in reader production mode, I thought of readings that might be assembled into a “presidential reader” on architectural theory – in time for the inauguration. Most of these readings either explore very specific architectural/social projections or the architect’s relations to various forms of (leviathan like) power. Of course, I have no pretension that this will actually be read by him; and I imagine that others (on whose work I often rely) are far better at assembling a list of 22 pieces of architectural historical literature for leader-types and those interested in the ensuing responsibilities. 

Even if you disagree with some of these selections, I hope you find the links to various libraries, archives, and digital collections useful.

1. Vitruvius Pollio, Marcus, “Preface” and “The Education of the Architect” from The Ten Books On Architecture

2. Alberti, Leon Battista, “Book IV: Chapter I” from The Ten Books of Architecture

3. Palladio, Andrea “Introduction to the Reader” 

4. Fontana, Domenico. Della trasportatione dell’obelisco vaticano (governments moving big objects)

5. Perrault, Claude, Frontispiece and Dedication, The Ten Books on the Architecture of Vitruvius (for an image of imperial power and its architectural implications)

6. Vanbrugh, John. “Letter to the Duchess of Marlborough” (an early sense of historical preservation and its value)

7. Ledoux, Claude-Nicolas, selected plates and commentary from, Architecture (on Chaux, nature and cities)

8. Chambers, William, “Dedication” and “Chapter 1″, A Treatise on Civil Architecture (see the intro paragraph above)

9. Piranesi, Giovanni Battista, Views of Rome (if only to see what empires look like in ruins)

10. Jefferson, Thomas. “Letters on Architecture” (even for the amateurs, architecture always involves writing — lots and lots of writing)

11. Pugin, Augustus Welby Northmore, Selected plates from Contrasts: Or, A Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Middle Ages, and Corresponding Buildings of the Present Day

12. Greenough, Horatio. “American Architecture”

13. Viollet le Duc, Eugene Emmanuel, “Donjon”  from the Dictionairre Raisonée (the pre-history of bunkers, Gitmo, etc..) 

14. Howard, Ebenezer, Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform

15. Wright, Frank Lloyd, “Organic Architecture”

16. AFK, “Under the wing of a great architecture” 

17. Le Corbusier, “Guiding Principles of Town Planning”

18. Fuller, Buckminster. “Universal Architecture”

19. Fathy, Hassan. “Prelude: Dream and Reality” (an almost, post-colonial approach to architecture; oh well…)

20. Tafuri, Manfredo. “Chapter One” of Architecture and Utopia (My favorite essay on DC)

21. Mcleod, Mary. “Architecture and Politics in the Reagan Era” 

22. Eisenman, Peter. “Liberal views have never built anything of value”  (how could we not finish with something from archinect?)

{Above, David Copperfield makes the Statue of Liberty disappear]

While some of my very favorite texty types are predicting the future, we might reflect on our more traditional role as commentators on the past.

Five years ago when my partner and I were beginning our PhD’s we sat at a restaurant table with some of her fellow graduate students. While waiting for our meals, these new graduate students went around the table talking about their goals. One intended to write a definitive history of this or that aspect of the past, one intended to write an untold history, and so on. But one of these “PhD’s to be” said something I will never forget: He intended to erase a historical event. He intended to disprove a key aspect of the past that all of us understand to be part of the historical record.

He was inspired by the recent work of Michael Johnson, the Johns Hopkins historian. In a book review (of all things) Johnson examined several pieces of recent literature about the Denmark Vesey slave rebellion. This is one of the most important of Southern American slave rebellions. Revisiting the original sources, he proved that this famous rebellion — on which scores of books have been written, and grants and tenures awarded — never happened. The whole thing was a conspiracy dreamed up by slave owners, most likely to suppress any possible future rebellion. When I learned about this whole affair, I thought it was one of the bravest acts of contemporary history writing; and hearing this student dreaming of repeating this act in his field tapped into my own desires to radically rethink the past.

I am writing about this affair because this is an activity that I find so inspiring but laughable within architectural history and the history of architectural theory; you cannot make a building disappear (although David Copperfield did a great job of it when I was a kid)! Perhaps some elusive figure like Villard de Honnecourt never existed or some famous carriage ride that launched an architectural theory in the 17th century never occurred; but so what? The erasure does not register on the same scale.

But the moral of the story is not that we should necessarily strive to erase history. That is also silly as a goal, and also a bit irresponsible. What this teaches me is that we have to remain on our toes; we have to register every paradox from every archival source; we have to be willing to be frightening (we should not turn down writing book reviews!). We also might let the impossibility of historical erasure within architectural history (particularly modern architectural history) register in works of historical production. We might pretend to exaggerate those purposeful erasures of the past that are rediscovered; or we might exaggerate those past events that almost happened. It’s much easier than what was staged at Hopkins; but it’s the least we can do while reminding ourselves of larger goals.

For more on the historian’s role in a time of crisis, see this.





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