Archive for March, 2009

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As the architectural journal Assemblage approached its end, the so-called “theoretical turn” — promoted by authors within  Assemblage and in its parent journal Oppositions — came to a cross roads. One avenue led to “post-criticism” and the other led to the “historical turn”.

As the name suggests, authors of post-criticism argued for a “cool” response to the architectural landscape of late-capitalism. It was a much less confrontational movement than “critical architecture,” and its authors were largely uninterested in criticism’s dialectics and its lingering neo-Marxism. Journals such as Praxis or Hunch promoted post-criticism at its earliest stages, and some of the architectural work in these journals typified the approach.  

A much less discussed and debated offshoot of critical architecture is the so-called “historical turn.” Like the critical turn, the historical turn was devoted to debunking architectural absolutes rooted in trans-historical concepts. The writing that emerged from the historical turn helped young architects understand that ideas such as “space” or “form,” which once seemed natural to architecture, were developed at specific times within specific circumstances. The historical turn also advanced a more responsible and rigorous use of theory rooted in historical time. That’s one of the more simple explanations of what the historical turn offered, but if you read the journal Grey Room (the epicenter of the historical turn) you quickly realize the complexities of its aims.

Unlike post-critical architecture, the historical turn never developed into a form of architectural practice. In recent articles in Perspecta and JAE, the historians Mark Jarzombek and Sylvia Lavin, acknowledged that the impact of the historical turn on practice was virtually zero. I am not sure how one would quantify the overall impact, but Multi-National City (by Baxi/Martin Architects) is the only work I can recall that demonstrates how the historical turn directly entangles with practice.  In this book, the architects draw on their historical analyses of atria, corporate towers (among numerous other things) to develop inversions of those forms’ historical trajectories and development. It’s a difficult book, meant to be explored for its methods as much as the actual mechanics of the architecture within it (Multi-National City inspired the format of my forthcoming book Subnature, a book very much influenced by the larger agenda of the historical turn). 

Post-criticism now seems like a failure; but the historical turn, while innocent of the vices of post-criticism, has some problems too. And these problems extend past its usefulness. In the name of continuing a more critical architectural project it often breaks one of the golden rules of that project — Manfredo Tafuri’s dictum that architects must not use history as an instrument to justify the present. In some weird twist, most likely too difficult to articulate in a blog post, the historical turn ultimately uses history to justify the contemporary aims of an earlier critical architecture. History becomes an instrument to justify a certain type of work or a certain political agenda, and it somehow begins to appear very unhistorical, if not uncritical. 

But the problems with the historical turn do not signal a larger problem with history in architecture more generally. For me, the problem with the historical turn is that it also (accidentally) reinforces the divide between historical analysis and architectural production.

Many of the projects and people discussed on HTC Experiments talk about a new variant  of the historical turn, what we’ll call (for now) “historical practice”.   A historical practice does not require the architect to divide  work into separate sections or behaviors — “now I write; “now I draw”. Historical practice involves unleashing all the lessons of the historical turn into a form of production in which historical analysis and a new world are made all at once. It can be found in work featured on this site, such as the proposed preservation of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the conservation and reconstruction of dust and smells, and the archiving of a building’s air. All of these works involve THINGS, but they are all also very explicit acts of history.  I believe it is these forms of historical practice, and not the rare work that came out of the historical turn, upon which the turn towards history will ultimately rest.

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I am impressed by these images of Robert Moses’ Lower and Mid-Manhattan  highway proposals reconstructed (or I suppose in this case constructed) into google maps. It’s a form of experimental historical practice (we like that), and it always strikes me when someone goes to the effort to produce something like this. The author of these can be found here.

I do wonder why one would choose google maps to make these. Perhaps google maps is the objective language of the present. It’s what a city looks like now (versus an aerial photograph, a birdseye view, a Bollman map). But the potential problem with this and other google map reconstructions is that it places the historical projects of the past into the uniform language of the present.  The methodologies, the visual language, and the platform of representation are absorbed into tools currently used to measure traffic, scope out real-estate, and find a restaurant. That is, the system of representation and the thing represented emerge from entirely different concepts of the urban. It makes the Lower Manhattan Expressway look so tame!

But what makes this so interesting is that the map works. Why? Because google maps and our understanding of Moses hang on the contemporary concept of infrastructure. Like the concept of “nature”, the contemporary term “infrastructure” is becoming one of the most important, but trans–historical terms of our epoch. It appears to describe everything (now and “then”) through one single concept; and that’s a problem. The maps are great, but the social structure that makes it convincing is troubling.

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An ongoing obsession here involves the possible links between architecture and geography. There are so many different ways to think about this: the historical use of geographical thought in architecture,  the development of geographical methods for architectural and architectural historical research, the architectural history of geographical exploration, etc. It’s one of my favorite subjects.

Lately, I have been reconsidering another, more direct and crude application of geographical ideas within architecture — in particular architectural history. I’m interested in the architectural historical appropriation of those structures used by geographers to produce knowledge. I mean “structures” with absolute literalness. Those deployables, vehicles, and sensing stations that we see in geographical methods of examining the world might be considered by architectural historians to examine the built world. This could be done as an aspect of a normative or more experimental historical technique.

When I was working on my phd between the departments of geography and architectural history, I often fantasized about venturing with the geographers (the “real” geographers) who conducted fieldwork in the most extreme environments. At the department of geography at UCL, I recall one expedition to Chad, in which the geography students of UCL went to the “dustiest place on earth” (that’s the image above) with some interesting field equipment.  I have been in a nasty archive or two, but the images in the geography newsletter suggested that these students were in some  entirely different situation (and using some cool tools). It was a bit frightening and exciting to imagine the possibilities.

This form of “exploration” appears throughout the history of architecture, where it has a long and often troubled history. But I’m not here to berate the explorers; others are far better at that than me.  I am interested in considering the possible alterity that might be found in these acts of geographical/architectural curiosity. The use of geo-explorative structures, which is part of this larger history, is much less examined. Perhaps it’s there where something new might be found.

One of my favorite examples of an architectural appropriation of geo-exploration is the Otranto project by Renzo Piano and Peter Rice. In 1979 Piano and Rice appropriated the imagery of geographical field stations for a Unesco-sponsored workshop on the restoration of Otranto, Italy. Within this deployable station, workshops were held with local residents to consider strategies for renewing this somewhat impoverished Italian town. I still find the project (below) an interesting counterpoint to most contemporary imagery surrounding “community” based, restorative architecture — the latter movement typically embracing a low-tech, folksy  and local visual grammar. Here, a community architecture, is understood as something that draws on the technological prowess of a contemporary state.

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In the 1980s, a different, but equally technological realization of  geographical knowledge systems within architecture appeared in the tree raft structure (below) by Gilles Ebersolt. Here, the French architect worked with naturalists and environmental geographers to develop an architecture that enabled scientists to explore the canopies of rain forests. In some projects, Ebersolt developed fantastic research stations for use in urban sites. In enormous inflatable spheres, Ebersolt’s urban explorers move through terrain, appearing with a sometimes troublesome scientific detachment.

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In the past ten years, the architect Laura Kurgan updated the image of geo-knowledge  production within architecture, transforming it into something far less instrumental and far more informed by various “critical” turns. In a recent project that illustrates her interests, Kurgan used imagery from the Ikonos satellite to examine how the attacks of September 11th registered in geographical space/time (below). The project considers how September 11th will be recorded as a historical event due to the particular remote strategies of seeing that pervade contemporary strategies of planetary visualization.

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The above projects present many interesting possibilities. Among the possible geo-machines yet to be staged within architecture, I continue to consider recent robotic imagery in contemporary experimental architectural practice. Various architects embrace robotic to reconsider architectural program and construction labor, but could we reinterpret the robot image as a form of knowledge production about architecture. This makes particular sense, as robots are already used to examine sites remotely, particularly those inhospitable to direct human observation, and unreachable via satellite (eg. the urban underground and extra-planetary!).

I am not sure how such a project would intertwine with additional forms of commentary evident in the work above, particularly the critical directions implicit within Kurgan’s work. Kurgan’s project, and perhaps Piano’s, foreground the techniques of knowledge production in such a way that knowledge and its instruments are open to debate, even as they are put to use. That, to me, is the key in the development of a remote-sensing, geo-architectural historical machine.

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My forthcoming book — Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments — is now in production with the good people at Princeton Architectural Press. It will be out in about six months. Subnature examines those forms of nature that architects, architectural theorists and historians have imagined in potential conflict with the ideas, forms, and inhabitants of architecture. In this book I examine this idea of subnature from early modernity (1700s) to the most contemporary work. The image on the cover (above) is by Jorge Otero Pailos. It’s his preservation of the polluted dust in a factory in Balzano, Italy. It’s a great image for the cover, as the book contains many projects by contemporary architects, experimental historians (including some material from this site) and experimental preservationists, such as Jorge. Not only does the book feature contemporary work that has never been published before, but I also had a few images from theory books (Cesariano, et. al.) re-photographed for the first time in many years. You are going to see some things that will surprise you and make you think about nature in architecture in new ways.

Although I do not write about this in the book, I always thought of this book as partially related to Mark Wigley’s concepts of deconstruction in architecture. When Wigley developed his concept of architectural deconstruction he positioned it against Le Corbusier’s notion that architecture was “the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of forms under the light.” Wigley attacked all of the assumptions within  Le Corbusier’s use of the term “form.” In counterpoint, Wigley advanced a concept of corruption to reconceptualize architectural form-making. I attack the latter part of Corbusier’s definition —  its emphasis on the stable, non-human, and external nature (“the light”) —  that we understand as a given natural arena for architecture. However, my concept of subnature is not about “corrupting” external nature. Things are a bit more messy now, and perhaps a bit less dialectical.

With a title like “Subnature,” the book features some work you might expect (eg. the disturbing nature visions of R&Sie), but the book is not simply about advancing an “abject” concept of  nature. Rather, it examines forms of nature within architecture that are explicitly produced through social and historical processes (and that cannot easily be re-absorbed into those processes).  Many of the works in the book happen to be frightening, but others simply operate against any normative concept of nature, and many appropriate various denigrated notions of nature to develop liberatory positions for architecture. Very soon you will be able to pre-order the book from Amazon, and I hope you will. 





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