Archive for the ‘David Gissen’ Category

This post spins out of a talk I gave recently; a question I dodged a bit at the end of the talk; and considering it’s content, it’s also a great way to celebrate this site’s first anniversary!

I often wonder how architectural reconstructions can serve an agitational role in contemporary architectural, urban and infrastructural debates. This is an old question for me; in fact, the very first “experimental historical” project I ever attempted explored the possibility of agitational reconstructions.

Reconstructions, strictly defined in this architectural historical context, are primarily drawn visualizations of the buildings of antiquity — eg. drawings of temples (example above), basilicas, baths. Renaissance architects drew many of the first architectural reconstructions — primarily focusing on those buildings designed by the ancient Roman engineer Marcus P. Vitruvius, of which no surviving remnants remain. In particular, architectural writers of the Renaissance and late-Renaissance explored the possible appearance of Virtuvius’ “Basilica at Fano”. Below, are some of the many images drawn of one of Virtuvius’ only known designs. The first pair are pulled from this article about Fano reconstructions.
These types of reconstructions of no longer extant buildings extended to structures of biblical origin, most notably the Tower of Babel and Solomon’s Temple. An excellent book by Stanley Tigerman (The Architecture of Exile) compiles almost all known architectural reconstructions of the Solomonic Temple.

Within early modernity (1750-1850), reconstructions became more explicitly active components of an architectural theory. The reconstructions of Greek antiquities, in particular those by LeRoy, Stuart and Revett (above), Labrouste, Schinkel, Botticher, and Semper, were intense reflections on key architectural debates. Issues such as structural expression, contour, light, ornament and polychromy, reflected in various reconstructions, touched on concepts regarding the foundations of architectural knowledge.


If all of this sounds peripheral to a more direct architectural history, just consider that Labrouste was paraded by his fellow classmates for his highly personal interpretation of the Paestum Temples (above). Within his reconstructions Labrouste advanced the Temples as part of robust secular society, a radical interpretation of classicism and one that drove many of his own original architectural explorations.

campus martius

But perhaps the most radical of these early modern architectural reconstructions was the Camp of Mars (Campus Martius, above) reconstruction undertaken by Piranesi. Manfredo Tafuri argues that Piranesi’s “reconstruction” is in fact a denial of the ability to understand the constructs of the city through any rational lens. We can see this reconstruction as aimed against many of those (mentioned above) that attempt to use an archeological knowledge in the name of rationality.

Architectural reconstructions as forms of historical reflection on contemporary architectural problems appear to have dwindled within the modern books and manifestoes that comprise modern architectural theory. Sure, there’s an image of a reconstructed hut or tent here or there; and there’s no denying that such works were important illustrations of core aspects of architectural thought. But these latter constructs (stretching from Semper to LC) lacked any specificity; they were all speculation (all theory), minus a more direct form of historical visualization.


Reconstructions reemerged more recently — in various neo-classical work and neo-modern work. For example, Leon Krier reconstructed Pliny’s Villa Laurentium in 1982 as a way to revive neo-classical concepts within a neo-classical practice. His reconstruction referred back to the reconstruction of Schinkel’s; it was a way to tie methods and style together in what was then, a startling embrace of a seemingly antiquated practice. In fact, without any qualification of Krier’s concepts, his Pliny reconstruction remains one of the most “agitational” of all late-modern forms of this practice. But the agitational reconstruction also reemerged in a less explicitly historicist form; I’m thinking of Delirious New York, in particular; and that book’s reconstructions of the Downtown Athletic Club (above).

In some ways, reconstruction work that appears on htc experiments extends out of these more recent reconstructions (eg. The floating bath project or the air-conditioning map). On the one hand, these projects embrace the antiquated nature of reconstructions (evident within the work of Krier) and yet they attempt to modernize the practice itself (in the example set by Koolhaas’ New York book). Of course, the work on this site (both by myself and others) takes this practice in some directions that differ from this more recent work too.

Where this goes, we shall see. Thanks for visiting this past year. More posts soon.

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…


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


“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!


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. 

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.


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.


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.

HTC experiments talk

Three weeks ago I spoke at the Berkeley PhD Program’s colloquium on architectural research. Rather than lecture about my more traditional work in architectural history and theory, I chose to speak about this site.  Talking about this site was a great experience and also a little weird. I always considered this site a respite from the more formal setting of architectural history and theory. It was both a bit unsettling and thrilling to let this parallel intellectual environment I created enter the more familiar academic environment. Additionally, I never navigated a website as part of delivering a lecture, but I think it worked well.  The PhD  students, in particular, empathized with my drive to find some form of intellectual production that rewires the role of the historian/theorist relative to its service role in academia and practice. The reception of the work was very warm and the questions were excellent. Future posts will address some of the issues raised – human beings as archives; the affective search; reconstructions of reconstructions. A big thank you to Yael Allweil and Greig C. Chrylser for making the arrangements.


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