Archive for April, 2009


I just finished reading Anthony Vidler’s Histories of the Immediate Present: Inventing Architectural Modernism; it’s his examination of the historiographical techniques of Emil Kaufmann, Colin Rowe, Reyner Banham and Manfredo Tafuri, and their impact on the unfolding set of concepts that we call architectural modernity. It was, with some qualification, a page-turner, at least for an architect interested in history:  it gives us historians a project, it impels us to operate in new ways, while giving us a new history of our discipline. I wrote over 3000 words of notes on the book in an MSword document! I take type-written notes on virtually every architectural book and essay I read, but the scale of note-taking on such a short book is, in and of itself, a huge endorsement and a warning to readers that this book is an involvement. The following review is exceedingly clipped; but i imagine the ideas of this book will find a way into future posts.

At one level Histories is a defense of architectural history. Histories appears at a troubling time in the architectural historical discipline. Today, many departments of architecture  have an antagonism towards history far different than the battle with history that characterized modernity. In addition to the para-historical ideas circulating in contemporary architectural practice, the number of academic architectural historian jobs dropped from about 20/year five years ago to about 10 this past year. In this way, Histories is a memory of the not-so-distant good-old-days when architectural historians piloted “Architecture”. 

At the same time, and related to the above point, Histories is a subtle critique on the unambitious nature of contemporary architectural history. The post-war, youthful historians that Vidler recuperates operated in a way quite different than the young contemporary historian of our immediate present. Kaufmann, Rowe, Banham and Tafuri were cartographers of architectural modernity and pilots of a late-modern architectural agenda. Their most significant articles appeared in the types of public venues that many contemporary architectural historians and tenure-committees disdain; they lectured in both the academic lecture hall and in public settings to a complex and diverse audience; they didn’t reserve their most “important” thoughts to weirdly reclusive conferences.

So what type of agenda did these historians establish? Vidler neatly ties each historian to a particular read of modernity which is then transformed, if not implicated, in a particular architectural agenda played out to the present:

The first case study examines Emil Kaufmann; a historian who coined the term “architectural autonomy”. Kaufmann drew on the Kantian notion of autonomous will, as a hallmark of enlightenment (and bourgeois) society. The autonomous object is not absorbed (or “concatenated”) into its environs but appears as a distinct self-reflective procedure distinct from its surroundings. As Vidler argues, such a concept potentially connects Ledoux to Eisenman; but more significant, Kaufmann used such a concept as political critique against the cultural concatenations (and evictions) of Fascist Europe.

Following the chapter on Kaufmann (which is, I think, the best chapter in the book) we read about Colin Rowe and his desire to establish a history of modernity that engages concepts of historical will and development, but that is distinct from a progressivist, functionalist, and technologicalist approach (i.e. the approach of Banham). Rowe arrives at a vision of history, in which the historian uncovers an “infolding” order (or concept) that can be employed for a future architecture — an extension (if not inversion) of Wolfflin that ultimately traps Rowe into his own posthistorical philosophy.

The chapter on Banham may be the most intriguing; in addition to reviewing Banham’s recuperation of the Futurists and his embrace of the architectural program (a concept formalized by his contemporary John Summerson), Vidler offers one of the most unique histories of Banham’s Four Ecologies. Whereas previous critics understood that work as a “pop” history or urban monography, Vidler argues that Banham’s Four Ecologies essentially entangles the rhetorical gestures of Vers une Architecture with the methodologies of mid-century German geography. Such methods enabled Banham to arrive at an Architectural Histoire Autre that matched his interest in an Architecture Autre (typified by his unhouse).

I found the concluding case-study chapter on Tafuri a bit frustrating. In a review of Sanford Kwinter’s FFE, Thomas Daniell wrote that it is difficult to write about Sanford Kwinter without sounding like Kwinter, and I would argue that this is doubly-true for writing on Tafuri. The history in this chapter was not quite the awakening of the previous three, perhaps because Tafuri work is the most historicized in the recent literature, or perhaps because Histories is, itself, the product of a partially Tafurian methodology. Here the methods of the book and its subject come together in such a way that we cannot get a necessary analytical distance. 

If architectural history still impacts practice (and I think we all agree that it does), I think the most historically involved, and yet progressive, practices invoke the oft-contrasted  procedures of Tafuri and Banham. While Vidler (among other historians) contrasts Tafuri to Banham, we might argue that these ideological opposites spent the last years of their careers focused on very similar problems. Both wanted to reconceptualize the techniques that defined architectural history, because both understood that those techniques were deeply implicated in the possibilities of architectural production. The concluding case-studies of this chapter suggest unrealized and potential closures between the critical and autre methodologies, although this is not an interest (per se) of Vidler’s. The former, but not the latter,  is the thesis of Vidler’s book and the ultimate lesson it offers for the architectural historian and the architect. I imagine many people will read this book to understand some of these historians; I hope people considering a career in architectural history read this awesome book to realize the power of their possible, future career.


Yesterday, I presented some notes and images from my forthcoming book Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments at the CCA/Stanford conference “Rising Tide: The Arts and Ecological Ethics.” Here are my notes, collected together:

1. Architecture does not have an environment but environments. [i]

2. These environments are found within the theories of architecture stretching from early modernity to the present. [ii]

3. The environment of architecture is not just the environment of the environmentalist. [iii]

4. Lurking in architecture’s environments is a form of nature/environment that threatens architecture, its forms and practices — a “subnatural” environment. [iv]

5. If the natural environment is that realm from which architecture may draw its resources and many of its social concepts, the subnatural environment is that realm that threatens the concepts and forms of architecture, and often the natural environment. [v]

6. The subnatural environment is not composed of essentially subnatural things. [vi.]

7. Matter in the environment becomes subnatural relative to architecture through historically conditional concepts. [vii]

8. Although subnature often appears threatening to architecture, it can be brought within architecture.

9. Architecture can also produce subnature. [viii]

10. To bring subnature into architecture, or to use architecture to produce subnature, fundamentally transforms architectural concepts and practices in often radical ways.[ix]

11. The role of the architect is not only to understand the nature that constitutes environments but to produce the ideas and forms that constitute the nature in environments. [x]


[image above is the Patio and Pavilion installation, Alison and Peter Smithson, 1956]

i. see eg. Canguilhem, George (2001 (1948)) “The Living and its Milieu” in Grey Room 3: 7-31; or this translation
ii. see Picon, Antoine (2000) “Anxious Landscape: from the Ruin to Rust,” Grey Room 1: 64-83.
iii. ibid.
iv. see eg. Gissen, David (2009) “Debris” AA (Architectural Association) Files 58.
v. see eg.  writings in French architectural theory on “nature” stretching from  Laugier to Francois Roche, which essentially arrive at this conclusion, from obviously, and significantly, different perspectives.
vi. see eg. Jacob, Sam, (2003) “Architecture: Dirty Filthy Things,” Contemporary, 73; or a more scholarly take in Campkin, Ben (2007) “Ornament from Grime: David Adjaye’s Dirty House, the Architectural Aesthetic of Recycling and the Gritty Brits”. Journal of Architecture, Volume 12 (4): 367-392.
vii. ibid.
viii. see Gissen, “Debris” (above)
ix. As the practices of Lebbeus Woods, Nox, Philippe Rahm, Francois Roche, Jorge Pailos, et al. demonstrate.
x. see Gissen, David (2009) “The Architectural Production of Nature” Grey Room 34: 58-79


Wow; finally saw this film chronicling Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the World Trade Centers.

I usually have some shame when plugging major release motion pictures, but I loved this film. In fact, I think Philippe Petit’s tight rope walks on (between) the World Trade Center, Notre Dame, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the Superdome make him one of the most important spatial critics of the early 1970s. His tightrope walks critique the overwhelming mammoth and monstrous structures that architecture critics in the early 1970s also scrutinized. Honestly, I love the writing of Manfredo Tafuri (or Ada Louise Hutable), but Philippe Petit is just as good! Imagine giving your students Tafuri’s “Disenchanted Mountain: The Skyscraper and the City” and then sitting them down to watch Man on Wire.

Much of the critical thrust of Petit’s performances emerge from his Nietzschean (really Deleuzian) descriptions of the labor of the wire walker. In Man on Wire, Petit describes the experience of the tight rope as a negotiation of the geological aspects of the built environment. The rotations of the structure, the force of the wind, the expansion of stone and steel under the sun, are all moving through his body as he walks the rope. When I watched this film, I wondered if he had read Anti-Oedipus. After all, that book was all the rage in the early 1970s middle-class artistic circles that Petit would have circulated as a performer.

But Petit also offers us lessons as writers, critics, architectural perfomance artists. His absorption of geological and urban force is so novel, so different than any discussion of cities and buildings as dynamic objects, circulating today. He takes in this force of the built world in absolute stillness. I find it so much more interesting than those contemporary written or built projects that also see the city through this Nietzschean/Deleuzian system and merely regurgitate it in its own image of dynamism. For me, a more significant critique shows the human subject’s ability to process these “dynamic flows.”

Check out the film.


“Historical Practice” was the driving theme of my presentation at Storefront for Art and Architecture’s Postopolis! LA. I spoke  on Wednesday, April 1st; stuck around to hear extremely interesting presentations, interviews, and impromptu thoughts; and then headed off to the SAH annual conference in Pasadena (a much different scene).  At Postopolis! I enjoyed seeing Mary Ann Ray and meeting Joseph Grima, Geoff Manaugh (responsible for my appearance), Nicola Twilley, Brian Finocki, Gaia Cambiaggi, Cesar Cotta and Dan Hill. It was such a playful and innovative event. Anyway, if you’re interested, you can see a recording of the presentation here.

In addition to Postopolis!, a small taste of my forthcoming book, Subnature, is out in the current issue of the journal AA Files (#58) — the chapter “Debris”. My essay is among others that explore the historical image in architecture (a subject I explored much more broadly in my postopolis talk).

It’s shaping up to be a great, but busy month; in addition to Postopolis!, I’ll also be speaking at Kim Anno and Tirza Latimer’s Stanford/CCA conference “Rising Tide” — an examination of art and ecology.

Finally, I am happy to report that a A Daily Dose of Architecture named HTC Experiments one of their 33 favorite blogs. Thanks for that!


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