Archive for May, 2009

I recently received my copy of Sean Lally’s Energies issue of AD. Sean invited me to contribute an essay that explores some of the recent experimental historical work I completed these past few years, much of it on the theme of energy. It includes new descriptions of my posts on the Plume/Idling project, Urban Ice Core and Manhattan Air Conditioning Map. It also includes an abbreviated version of an aborted text I wrote for Harvard Design Magazine. This particular issue of AD is one of the best I have seen in a long time, and it was great to be a part of it. Some architects I have written about in the past and whose work is a constant source of thought and reflection are included as well. The opening spread of my essay in AD Energies is below. 

Picture 2

Another essay that I wrote, and that draws on material from this site, appears in Jorge Otero-Pailos’ catalog The Ethics of Dust for this year’s Venice Biennale (cover below). This essay expands my post on “historical practice”, using Jorge’s upcoming installation at the Biennale as its subject.


As readers of this site know, I’m a big fan of Jorge’s work; it appears on the cover of Subnature. I am pleased to post (below) the latest version of Subnature’s cover, backcover, and inside flaps, albeit in need of a few minor text edits. The designer, Paul Wagner, did a fantastic job interpreting Jorge’s installation as a work of book cover art, and editor Laurie Manfra wrote great copy for the inside and back flaps.

Subnat Cover2

I’ll be posting some new content on this site soon. Some of it expands on earlier posts and one or two new posts will respond to some criticisms thrown my way. I’ll also be trying out some new formats for content; perhaps even making this blog a subset of a larger site. I look forward to more writing and thinking about this site’s future formats in the upcoming weeks.

Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments goes to press next week. I can confidently say that it’s going to be one of the most provocative books in the “nature” section of your bookstore/architectural bookstore/amazon list. What do the following three, illustrated spreads from this book have in common? Check out Subnature, better yet, BUY Subnature and find out!

book spreads

Now that Subnature is done, I would like to take a break (!); but timing is such that I’m in the midst of developing a forthcoming issue of AD — Territory: Architecture’s Geographical Operations. Final confirmations of authors are pouring in; and some new friends/colleagues will be joining the mix, which makes me very happy. We have a great line up planned, and I will be posting more information about the issue soon, including a description and some work samples. 

Thanks again for stopping by. Now that school is out, I look forward to more regular updates…


There is so much discussion of infrastructure these days — from efforts to rethink infrastructure to efforts to rethink buildings as infrastructure, and hundreds of ideas in between. I would like to enter this discussion with another idea, that is not discussed as much — the relationship between infrastructure and history; and I would also like to enter this discussion with a proposition — that we work to produce “historical infrastructures.”

Infrastructure is a defacto element of a city’s history. But more specifically, in a late-modern era, historical knowledge can operate at an infrastructural scale and with infrastructure’s transformative power. To put it another way: history has become an urban necessity in the development of our ideas of urbanity.

First, let me distinguish historical infrastructure from infrastructures that are historical: In San Francisco, where I live, we have cable cars transporting people around various parts of the city; these are also tools of historical knowledge about the city’s infrastructural past. They appear as history, but can be utilized as infrastructure. These turn-of-the-century cable car are often proudly distinguished from tourist busses that resemble cable cars but that are not tied to the cable car system. However important this distinction may be, in terms of my agenda for a historical infrastructure, the point between the cable cars and the busses that look like cable cars is a moot one. They are both representations that offer images of the past, but neither offer us possibilities beyond representations of the past in the present or immediate future. Whatever historical knowledge we derive from them is all statement without method; history without historiography; factoids without techniques.

By contrast, a historical infrastructure operates in two different ways: 1) the representational aspects of historical inquiry are delayed to make the activity of historical inquiry appear first and foremost as the thing represented; and 2) it uses historical reflection to unleash something that was not otherwise possible without this act of historical reflection. Historical infrastructure operates like a water or electrical system, but instead of matter it stitches the mechanics of historical inquiry into a city’s fabric to make history a powerful engine of social and urban life, whose ultimate form is unknown.

Perhaps the closest built methodologies of historical infrastructure are those handful of intense urban historical works completed in Berlin in the last thirty years (many of which were just reviewed in the NY Times). Of these, the practices of architect Peter Eisenman are some of the most powerful, and I would argue there is a trajectory within his work that illuminates the potential of “historical infrastructure” [his work illustrated at the top of the post]. Since his Cannaregio project (discussed in my previous post) Eisenman discovered techniques to turn an exploration of a city’s history into a type of historiographical tissue. In the mid-1980s Eisenman directed this type of work to Berlin, first in his original proposal for the Checkpoint Charlie Housing (the original, unbuilt version being such a monumental project), and more recently in his Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Berlin’s immensely troubling past demands that historiography — the act of historical inquiry — be built into the fabric of the city itself. A memorial as a thing, or as a representation of a past is not enough. History must become the process of inquiry upon which this city’s viability might ultimately rest. Eisenman’s layers of urban grids in the first Check Point Charlie Housing acknowledge this and the necropolis-like textures of his Memorial, place a form of historical exploration firmly in the center of the city. All cities require this historical infrastructure, but a city such as Berlin simply more so.

The concept of historical infrastructure suggests something more than most contemporary discussions of infrastructure. Most discussions of infrastructure treat infrastructure as a technical affair. A historical infastructure can be part of a city’s efforts to rebuild its spaces and systems. And as the examples of Eisenman suggest, such a rebuilding can also be a historiographical technique as much as a thing.

I was putting together drafts of syllabi, and I kept coming across the term “fiction” in specific writings of architectural theory. As frequent readers of this and many other sites know, the term “architecture fiction” has been bouncing around the blogo-twitto-tumblo-sphere. It’s emerging as an alternative and experimental form of architectural writing and as a potential form of architectural practice. Among the numerous discussions of this subject, architect Pedro Gadanho has a new book out on architecture fiction — Beyond: Short Stories on the Contemporary. I look forward to reading it, and potentially reviewing it on this site.

In writing this post, I certainly was not hunting for a genealogy of the term “fiction” in architecture; in fact, I was looking for discussions of “program”. But the fiction term emerged, often in surprising ways.

The earliest reference I found to architecture fiction (a reference that relates to its contemporary use) was in Koolhaas’ Delirious New York. Koolhaas refers to Manhattan and his philosophy of Manhattanism as ” urban science fiction.” This use of “fiction,” also related to Koolhaas’ concept of narrative program,  is what we see in the work of Bldg Blog or Bruce Sterling — fantastical tales situated within equally (but not obviously) fantastic structures, each informing the other.


“Fiction” also appears as a more specifically critical strategy in post-war writings; eg. Peter Eisenman’s 1984 article “The End of the Classical: The End of the Beginning, the End of the End.” In this piece, Eisenman writes of architecture’s enduring fictions:

“Architecture from the fifteenth century to the present has been under the influence of three “fictions.”…They are representation, reason and history. Each of the fictions had an underlying purpose: representation was to embody the idea of meaning; reason was to codify the idea of truth; history was to recover the idea of the timeless from the idea of change….”

Eisenman argues for a “dis-simulation” of the three fictions, which, I think means that architecture’s inherently fictional quality should appear doubly so. That is, the critical architect is one who builds these representations of architecture as a fiction, versus fictional representations of architecture as reality (eg. various strains of modernist or contemporary minimalist architecture). Eisenman arrives at a more critically fictional architecture through strategies such as scaling, grafting, tracing, and so on. A building such as the Wexner Center or his Canareggio project (below) are forms of architecture fiction within this latter definition. The building becomes a set of narratives (minus the “story” evident in Koolhaas’ work).


Most recently, this post-structural concept of fiction has been aligned with the earlier programmatic concept of fiction in the writing of Felicity Scott.  Scott uses the term “fiction” in a piece from October, which also appears in her book Architecture or Techno-Utopia. The use of fiction is not unlike Eisenman’s, but Scott reaches for a definition of the term traceable to Foucault’s discussion of history as a type of fiction. If all of this sounds confusing, read the quote below. Referring to the strategies of Koolhaas, Italian Experimental Architecture, and Foucault, Scott writes

“Fiction is not just escape from reality but can produce an engaged withdrawal. Foucault commented on this quality in his own work, noting that ‘I am well aware that I have never written anything but fictions.” And of fiction’s importance, he went on to explain: ‘I do not mean to say, however, that truth is therefore absent. It seems to me that the possibility exists for fiction to function in truth, for a fictional discourse to induce effects of truth, and for bringing it about that a true discourse engenders or “manufactures” something that does not as yet exist, that is, “fictions” it. One “fictions” history on that basis of a political reality that makes it true, one “fictions” a politics not yet in existence on the basis of a historical truth.’”

Here the Koolhaas idea of fiction and the more critical Eisenman concept of fiction come together. But something else is added. In the above quote, fiction becomes a utopian project, an idea that I think is missing in the most recent discussions. It is a planned escape versus an alternate reality that better enables us to understand what is real and what is not, or simply what could be just for the sake of difference. But what the Foucault discussion also suggests is that historians are active in developing this form of fictional political activity. How that will be staged, remains to be seen.


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