Archive for February, 2009

swamp from biodiversity site

The swamps at the edges of my childhood town in Bergen County, New Jersey were strange zones of muddy flats and reeds that ended in the Manhattan skyline. If you grew up in New Jersey and were not that interested in going to the mall, you probably went to the swamps. We “swamp kids” were metal-head teenagers, who thought “fun” involved transforming this landscape by whacking reeds, shoveling out trails and building hills. The swamps were viscous landscapes, where virginity was lost, D-batteries drained (playing awful music on tape decks), and road bikes shot up dusty hills. The swamps were places where the more normative, middle-class trajectory of suburban adolescence was momentarily suspended. It was a space I constantly considered as a kid, but have not thought about in a long time.

The swamps of New Jersey never appeared in recent and hilarious representations of New Jersey youth, primarily because they do not fit the narrative role that New Jersey often plays. The swaps were the furthest thing from the “malls” — spaces that typified aspects of New Jersey town life and that are endlessly contrasted to the more urbane Manhattan. The malls of Jersey appear in publications and writings, but the swamps do not. But despite the swamps invisibility, I have come across the swamps again in the most unexpected of places — an art practice, an essay, a film. What I never knew, was that adults also saw the swamps as spaces of transfiguration.

Here is Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt’s video “Swamp,” (1971) filmed in the New Jersey swamps of Bergen County. It completely captures the minimal flora and sounds of these landscapes.

In an interview Holt conveyed some thoughts about the film

“it deals with limitations of perception through the camera eye as Bob and I struggled through a muddy New Jersey swamp. Verbal direction cannot easily be followed as the reeds crash against the camera lens blocking vision and forming continuously shifting patterns, confusion ensues.”

And Smithson added…”it’s about deliberate obstructions or calculated aimlessness”. 

As Smithson and Holt wandered the swamps, the swamps were used as dumping grounds for building debris from Manhattan. As a child, my friends and i could watch trucks roll into the swamps and dump bricks and stones into mounds which we would then climb. It is only recently that I learned that the remains of Pennsylvania Station were dumped here. Architecture history buffs traverse the swamps looking for the remains of this and other famous New York City buildings

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In the past few years, I have come across the swamps again, as an aspect of post-structuralist urban theory. In the opening passages of his essay, “Anxious Landscapes”, the architecture historian Antoine Picon recalls looking out of an airplane on his way into Newark airport and seeing a strange landscape neither wholly natural or human. Picon was viewing the swamps. His perception of the swamps begins this essay on architectural and technological history, concepts of nature, and the production of selfhood. The Anxious Landscape, as he labels it, can be seen in the New Jersey swamps, and in the visions of Piranesi, Boullée, and contemporary films, such as Blade Runner.

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Within this landscape of anxiety (the swamp and related spaces), Holt, Smithson, the scavengers, and Picon all revel in the momentary  disorientation.  For Holt, Smithson and Picon, the contemplation (or navigation) of this type of space produces an alternative form of subjectivity.  In Smithson and Holt’s video, we witness a type of anti-explorer — a parody of geographical exploration. In Picon’s essay, he also questions how one might navigate or map the anxious landscape without a corresponding transformation in the viewing subject. This is a form of landscape that demands a certain transformation in those that move through it. I suppose that was how I used the swamp, as a landscape in which to get a bit lost and to try to become something different.

Installation by Los Carpinteros at the Hayward Gallery, London  Installation by Los Carpinteros at the Hayward Gallery, London

I am intrigued by the recent coinage “architecture fiction.” If you don’t know the term, you can read a little about the idea here, here and here. I am using this post to help me define the term, its uses, history, and to come to grips with its possibilities as a form of practice, especially a form of experimental practice in architectural writing.

First, let’s consider some brief quotes by Kazys Varnelis that try to describe, and in some cases define, architecture fiction:

“Instead of absorbing into itself, a Dada Capitalist architecture would look out into the world, creating architecture fiction, a term that Bruce Sterling coined after reading this brilliant piece on modernism by J. G. Ballard, to suggest that it is possible to write fiction with architecture.”

“So let’s dump the idea of reworking performance architecture into green building and turn to architecture fiction instead. Let’s find creative ways to live in what we already have. I’m fascinated by Bruce Sterling’s concept of “architecture fiction.”

From the above quotes we can speculate that 1. Architecture fiction is against concepts of architectural autonomy; 2. It’s an alternative to green building and parametrics; and 3. Its definition lies within writing by Bruce Sterling, particularly this post.

And this is Bruce Sterling’s definition of architecture fiction from that post:

“It’s entirely possible to write ‘architecture fiction’ instead of ‘science fiction.’ Like, say, Archigram did in the 60s. ‘Plug-in City’, ‘Living Pod’, ‘Instant City’ and ‘Ad Hoc’. ‘Manzak’, ‘Suitaloon’, ‘Cushicle’, ‘Blow out Village’, ‘Gasket Homes’ and the ‘Walking City.’ You read this wayout Archigram stuff nowadays and it’s surprising how thoughtful, humane and sensible it seems.”

the post that started it all....For Sterling, architecture fiction seems to be something that uses buildings (versus the language of science?) to articulate possible worlds and, as yet unrealized, realities.

But I see two problems if we collapse the different definitions by the above authors together: One, a turn toward Archigram would be an ironic alternative to contemporary “green” and “parametric” architecture, considering that Archigram’s work fuels much of the visual language of green, parametric architecture (eg. Richard Rogers or Norman Foster). Two, although one of the projects used by Varnelis to illustrate his idea is fantastic (and inspiring), the case can be made that all architecture is architecture fiction.

As the decades-old research of Beatriz Colomina demonstrates, the imagery produced of modernist buildings (non-fiction?) involved forms of stage-craft and fiction. For me the idea that one form of architecture is more “fictional” than another is not particularly satisfying and can be dismantled with some historical and critical distance.

But, that’s ok.

Sterling’s piece offers another possibility for an architecture fiction that is less about reviving earlier practices and more about forms of architectural writing. He writes “I even wrote some architecture fiction myself, once.” and links to this piece — “Grow thing” (2003) — inspired by the work of Greg Lynn. riffing off the bio-morphicism of Lynn’s architecture, Sterling imagines a scenario played out in a bio-technical world: 

“I gotta admit, when Monsanto went into architecture, they really did it up brown. They’ve got it going on with that enigmatic spatial fluidity.” It broke his heart when she stood there bravely on the Facility’s windblown rubber launchpad, tethered to a kite and clutching her overstuffed pack. The passing zeppelin snagged her with a wire retrieval. Gretel shot into the sapphire Texas sky as if packed in a mime’s invisible elevator. Goodbye, till the next time he got custody. Milton pulled off his thick black glasses and rubbed both hands all over his close-cropped hair and beard. My God, reproduction is such a fantastic, terrifying business.”

If we take the above essay as a truly alternative form of architectural writing practice (a claim btw, that Sterling does not explicitly make) then this form of architecture fiction might have some problems too. Like architectural drawing and photography, numerous forms of critical writing on architecture contain fictional propositions and speculations — eg. the writing of Lewis Mumford, Rem Koolhaas, Michael Sorkin, and Keller Easterling. But clearly, Sterling’s form of architectural fiction takes the speculations of these authors to an entirely different level.

This latter definition — architectural fiction as a form of writing on buildings — seems a bit more durable to me, and potentially more influential. Contemporary architectural criticism by Geoff Manaugh of BldgBlog is the latest iteration of this idea. In this recent piece, Manaugh critiques a building through a more fictional voice, and the speculative nature of the writing suggests some new possibilities for architectural criticism. Last week, Manaugh wrote (tweeted) that “Instead of monographs, architecture firms should commission and publish novels. A novel by Ian McEwan… set in buildings by Richard Rogers.” Here we see architectural fiction as something truly new and experimental.

the tweet that launched 1000 lulu booksTo conclude all this: at its best, architectural fiction is a form of appropriation that rethinks the relation between writing and building. It gets us past the problems of modernity (“the critic” reacting against “the work”) and into new territory, by rethinking the very foundation through which the reception of a work and the work relate. Architectural fiction will neither involve “criticism” or “theory” in the traditional sense — like the writing of Doug Haskell or Ada Louise Huxtable on the Pan-Am Building or Sanford Kwinter and the parametricists he inspires. Rather, architectural fiction will involve some new closure between the written and the built that remains to be staged.

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In addition to admiring the experimental history of Mt. Rushmore by artist Matthew Buckingham, I am also intrigued by a project from 2005— a proposed “historic preservation” of the Cross-Bronx Expressway (a roadway completed in 1955). This roadway, like much of the country’s transit infrastructure requires significant repairs — but a preservation?

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In this proposed preservation — a master’s thesis from Columbia University by the historian and preservationist Michael Caratzas — the author suggests that infrastructural networks can now be viewed as historical constructs. It’s a more direct “historical” outcome of the possible pasts that might be staged within a network society or a network culture — ie a “socius” defined by networks.

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A preservation of the Cross-Bronx Expressways is a fascinating idea because it takes the discursive apparatus of preservation, which is often used for buildings or built landscapes, and directs it into a vast infrastructural system. The Cross Bronx Expressway is a stretch of highway without clear boundaries; it is filled with both beauty and unpleasantries; and because it is a roadway, we tend to think of it as a site demanding constant upgrades. How does one simultaneously preserve and upgrade a roadway system?

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Perhaps more to the point, Caratzas notes that the construction of infrastructural systems generally, highways more directly, and the Cross-Bronx expressway more particularly, often destroy historical neighborhoods and buildings. We tend to view these mid-century highways  as so suspect that they are outside of that realm we call “culture”. But the notorious destruction and construction completed to create the Cross-Bronx Expressway is part of a particular historical activity that is now more feebly revived. This is the site where Robert Moses (shown below)  decided to “swing the meat ax” — evicting thousands and destroying entire precincts of the Bronx for this stretch of highway.

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Although I find Caratzas recent description of the Cross-Bronx Expressway as a “cultural landscape” a reduction of the power of his original thesis, it drives home the point that infrastructures are not just instruments but objects that ossify historical concepts. A preservation of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, or the New Jersey Turnpike for that matter, is a fascinating idea and a contribution to the possibilities of experimental architectural history. I was inspired by his thesis to produce the sign below; perhaps this will stand at the entrance of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, or perhaps some version will stand at another highway. Perhaps it will be the preservationist societies and not the engineers that salvage the United States’ infrastructure. 

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this poster by the artist Matthew Buckingham — “The Six Grandfathers, Paha Sapa, in the Year 502,002 C.E., 2002″

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I first saw this poster 6 years ago, and I finally bought it from Cabinet Magazine. This is Buckingham’s description of the image:

“This is what geologists believe the Six Grandfathers will look like in the year 502,002 c.e. Located near the geographic center of the United States in the Paha Sapa, or Black Hills, this mountain has also been called Slaughterhouse Peak, Cougar Mountain, and is now referred to as Mount Rushmore. Cultural historian Matthew Glass writes that Mount Rushmore’s “distinction among the many symbols of patriotism marking the American landscape stems precisely from the lack of interpretive clarity surrounding the memorial since its earliest days. Just what does it mean?” Where does this inherent ambiguity originate? This photograph is part of a series of projects which work to reassess the cultural, political and social meanings generated by Mount Rushmore. The photograph asks the viewer to imagine Rushmore’s inevitable failure and slow return to ‘nature.’ As its representational powers become less clear, the paradox of Rushmore’s ‘meaning’ as a shrine to democracy carved out of stolen sacred Sioux lands by an artist who was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan become more clear.”

If you have been following this site, you can probably appreciate my interest in this image. It’s a form of experimental history that entangles social and “natural” time, which in this context, further entangle ideas of restitution

Buckingham’s work is part of the exhibition — “Questioning History” — at the Netherlands Fotomuseum. The catalog (below) can be purchased from NAi publishers.

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Here is a description of the exhibition:

“History is increasingly central to public and political thought, and there is a growing interest in the representation of the past in contemporary visual art and photography. This extends to diverse facets of history, historiography, transmission, historical awareness and education.

The 17 visual artists and photographers presented in Questioning History have turned their attention to the genesis of historical narratives, how they are written and rewritten, and subsequently forgotten or even erased. They take the multiform, highly differentiated and sometimes paradoxical nature of ‘definitive’ history as their baseline for a critical examination of the way in which historical representations are propagated by the mass media and how
historical awareness is moulded and manipulated. In their work they endeavour to expose prevailing media strategies and dissect current representations of history. Some of the participants do this by critically analyzing and unravelling historical constructs in the media, while others create alternative historical narratives that undermine accepted conceptualizations. They draw from ‘small-scale’ personal perceptions as well as from the perspectives of global history.”

This description interests me; surfing through images by the artists in the exhibition, I detect a different take on the decline of historical awareness and meaning. History is losing its power because it appears everywhere; not because it’s hidden away in the academy. Historical imagery laces through TV commercials for ersatz-butter and on the front page of the Enquirer. It is artists like these that enable us to see the ubiquitous and pervasive historiographies that move through every moment of contemporary experience.  

PS. check out Matthew Buckingham’s website; and an expanded commentary on the image. I believe his work has influenced, and will continue to influence, emerging concepts of experimental history, preservation and geography.

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I am disturbed by the New York Times article on the economic panic sweeping Dubai. It’s the most popular article of the day! Must the western desire for the demise of this city result in the uncritical circulation of imagery of the non-western world? Is it just me or are these images of “post-boom” car lots in Dubai just a new form of orientalism? They’re rehashed Delacroix with Mercedes.

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How shocking to our sense of propriety that “3000 abandoned cars” sit in the Dubai airport. In terms of lost wealth, that is nothing compared to the trillions of dollars lost from the sloppy financing surrounding US home-ownership. But images like those above are already being circulated as “critiques” of Dubai. The criticism of Dubai is necessary and warranted, but the staging of photographs like these — as analogs for larger socio-spatial criticisms — frightens me.

Thank you to Metropolis, Pruned, and BldgBlog for covering/linking the Urban Ice Core/Indoor Air Archive project this past week. I appreciate all the new visitors. I always think of the immensely popular, latter two sites, (particularly Bldgblog) as an uncanny reverse engineering of the London and Oxford schools of urban/nature thought — albeit in a more publicly accessible form. I appreciate the now more materialized (virtualized?) links. Thanks to Elizabeth Evitts Dickson for starting the link party.

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As for the project they discussed, it will appear alongside crisp new images of Plume/Idling, the Air-Conditioning Map, and expanded commentary on those projects and experimental historical technique, in AD’s forthcoming “Energies: New Material Boundaries,” edited by Sean Lally (above). It promises to be a fantastic issue with new friends/colleagues Philippe Rahm, Cero9, and more.

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Finally, if you’re in NYC, check out the Urban China exhibition at the New Museum, which opens this week. I wrote a piece for Volume’s “boot leg” catalog for the show (above) with the artist/historian Rachel Schreiber. That too promises to be a great issue of Volume, and I hear there are some great people participating.

There’s much more happening this month, but that’s enough for now. Thanks for visiting, and I promise to post something more substantial soon.

Immediately to the right, I have put permanent links to some of my recent print essays and articles. This is just a small portion of my material circulating “out there;” and, as contracts permit, I’ll post more. The recent essays are re-linked and described below:

“Architecture’s Geographic Turns” explores the geographical sense of contemporary architecture theory, tracing this geographical aura back to the earliest works of architectural writing. It was published in LOG 12, along with some great essays and interviews by some of my favorite architectural writers.

“Anxious Climate: Architecture at the Edge of Environment” is the catalog essay for my exhibition on the work of R&Sie, Philippe Rahm and Cero9/AMID. This exhibition is slowly traveling around the US; it just closed at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture, which was the most impressive staging of the show to date.

“Exhaust and Territorialization” is an early draft chapter from my dissertation, examining the history of the Washington Bridge Apartment complex in New York City. The Bridge Apartments were one of the first “air rights” schemes in the United States (building complexes spanning over highways), and it was also a complex that inspired Reyner Banham’s concept of “megastructure.” This was published last year in Ben Campkin’s fantastic compilation “Architecture and Dirt” — a special issue of the Journal of Architecture.

Finally, “Thermopolis” was a published version of a literature review that I wrote in 2004-05 (again, for the diss.). In this marathon-like essay, I review most of the novel literature on the history of architectural environmental systems. I argue that a more geographical-inspired interpretation of this literature could crack open the history and direction of environmental technology, pushing it away from the “techno-historical” and “cultural-historical” directions that typify most engagements with the subject. It appeared in JAE in 2007.





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