Archive for November, 2009

When I was putting Subnature together (btw, latest extremely thoughtful, interesting review here), lurking in the back of my mind was the critique of Manfredo Tafuri against “operative criticism”. Subnature, provocatively (if not dangerously) tries to form some contemporary rapprochement with the blend of history, theory and criticism, that Tafuri would ultimately label “operative”. Tafuri was suspicious of histories that naturalized (or reified) the present; that is, a history that makes the present appear as inevitable. The “operative” aspect of operative criticism is the alignment of history with criticism of contemporary work — alignment is the key concern.

Many historians utilized Tafuri’s critique to open a new path in historical work — a disentanglement of history from the concerns of contemporary practice (what might be termed an “autonomous” historical project). In some practices this led to a new freedom and intense criticality in historical inquiry, and in others a type of anti-design, micro historical form of writing. Curiously, autonomous history often contained more oblique entanglements with practice: For example, many “autonomous” historians practice architecture, so the remnants of operative history are replaced by practice itself. Within these practices, the connections between history and practice are more abstract, but they’re there to be identified by historians in the future! More directly, Tafuri himself promoted architects such as Rossi or Gregotti, just not within his actual historical work; he even protested (successfully) the construction of certain buildings; so in practice, he was deeply involved in the realization of contemporary architecture. The above forms of contemporary engagement are certainly not “operative” but they nonetheless keep the historian within contemporary practice debates.

Many of the experimental works on this site, by myself and others, seek out new “operations” for history within practice, keeping the misalignments (that mark critical, autonomous history) in place. But within Subnature, I thought I would butt up against that operative edge (I often find unsaid rules to be the most irritating). In many of the chapters, I attempted to replace the tissues (“practice” or “architecture”) that once held history, theory and criticism together with geographical methods. That is, by performatively identifying certain forms of matter — dankness, debris, etc. — lurking within the writing and imagery that form history, theory, and criticism, I could momentarily hold dispersed forms of inquiry together. I think the “Debris” chapter is the most successful in this regard. And a few other chapters show how history, theory and criticism can be briefly aligned in a type of architectural inquiry that deserves continued exploration and enhancement — a discursive architectural geography that I hope to pick up in future projects.

Critics part 3

Ronald Rael, the author of Earth Architecture, and someone who is quickly becoming one of my favorite contemporary architects and theorists, wrote some very nice words about Subnature. Among his thoughts, he wrote that “[t]he book is not about fashionable topics surrounding sustainability and ecology. With chapters on smoke, dankness, debris, exhaust, weeds and other counter-architectural conditions, Gissen seeks to expand one’s perception of truly alternative materials in a positively original way.”

I’m appreciating all of the great reviews; but I wonder if the dazzling and weird contemporary projects in the book overwhelm some of the textual arguments (particularly those in the beginning and conclusion) that are key to an understanding of the subnatural.

For example, at a recent lecture someone asked how Subnature intersected with earlier ideas about abjection or modernity. This book is not a return to alterity via the ejected and gross; it’s a concept of nature that’s ultimately less binary, and more subversive and unwieldy: nor is the book simply about ironic inversions of nature. One of the things I appreciate about Subnature is how it appears in various social liberatory movements (from the debris piled into a revolutionary’s street barricades to forms of post-national expression, as in the Niemeyer and de Paor projects linked above); it is afunctional (it cannot be appropriated into buildings instrumentally, except with enormous distress) and it’s also a type of nature laced with social history. Unlike a tree, the subnatural mud (that, for example, a critic such as Rael describes so well), will always appear historically mediated in ways that more normative forms of nature cannot. These ideas of social agitation, anti-instrumentality, and history, make my idea of subnature laced with Marxist and various post-structural concepts; it not an easy way to see nature; but it’s key and makes the reader’s absorption into the ideas of this book rewarding. Consider bringing this book into your thought world.

Critics, part 2

“Gissen’s book is a timely and important text in shifting our attitudes towards more holistic, interdependent, and pluralistic views of nature”-A daily dose of architecture (John Hill)

In case you missed a Daily Dose of Architecture’s review of Subnature, it’s a genuinely thoughtful review. It’s interesting that Hill sees Subnature as part of a broader concept of sustainability. This comment came up again at a recent lecture about the book. I more than welcome those interested in sustainability to find something in this book that extends the arguments of an earlier book such as Big and Green. I’m not certain that the technical aspects of sustainability are entirely compatible with the representational and historical problems of Subnature, but I welcome the effort to provide another rapproachement here. That’s an interesting thought project.

I just returned from the University of California Santa Barbara’s Humanities Center event on environmentalist thought in architecture (where I spoke about the Subn) — a very enjoyable group of speakers and locale. In particular, the work of Kennedy Violich Architecture (KVarch), presented by Sheila Kennedy, demonstrates how certain fundamental architectural theoretical concerns (at their most raw) can be absorbed into an environmentalist practice. The constant turn to the Semperian dressing/scaffold concept in their work, as the site for an environmentalist expression, is extremely intriguing. And, if that particular concept was not played out in project after project, this firm often literally works with textiles in metabolized forms. It’s just another example of how the technology/autonomy divide may be morphing into something else right now, via a qualified return to 19th century theoretical conceptions.


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