Archive for the ‘preservation’ 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.

[To be expanded for a forthcoming article]

If a stable, humidity, temperature, dust, and pest controlled environment is the ideal setting for preserving historical material, could we produce the inverse environment? In other words, if late-modern history relies on a type of ecosystem for the preservation and study of historical material, could we produce the anti-ecosystem of historical maintenance?

This anvironment (parallel or anti-environment) would be a space where historical preservation was impossible but that would nonetheless be a stable integrated nature. Like a black hole in a historical universe; the eye of a historical hurricane.

So consider some type of room with incredible levels of humidity, swirling dust, and horrible heat. It would be a place that also happened to represent two of the West’s key enviro-phobias — tropiphobia and aridiphobia. This room would be an orangey green place of sweat and dirt where pieces of paper, building elements, and other artifacts don’t stand a chance of surviving.

Ultimately, such a place forces us to reflect on the stability required for history, and the environments lurking in our future.

Picture 1

I always enjoy talking to my friend and colleague Ron Rael.  Ron is the author of Earth Architecture, an excellent book that outlines the history and explores in-depth contemporary uses of earth in architecture.


Ron’s book is a book about design, but it’s also a powerful corrective to those commentators that view buildings made of earth, or the matter that constitutes earth buildings (mud, sand, gravel, soils), as primitive, poor, or crude. One of Ron’s points is that earth buildings have a far more complex history; describing earth matter as inherently “poor” is often just a way to tie specific practices to specific (often global southern) geographies and histories. As Ron notes, earth is free; but this does not suggest that it is a defacto representation of poverty.  In more recent discussions, Ron describes earth as a type of infrastructure. In his narrative and case studies earth emerges as a material with far reaching technologies and representational implications. 

Ron’s book is engaged with aesthetics, technology, and history; it’s less explicitly concerned with political problems. But in releasing earth’s denigrating associations with poverty, we are left with more than just “rich” earth; we arrive at a less denigrating poverty of earth that is tied more to the “common” than the geographically poor. When I consider free earth molded into something more than a representation of the poverty of those building with it, I begin to imagine it also being part of a terrapolitical structure — a “red earth.” This earth that may be at some base level “poor” but also open to a new image, much more than “not poor”.

In arguing for a red earth, I’m not arguing that earth holds an innate leftist proletarian politics in its chemical composition (!), nor am I completely arguing for the social construction of earth. I am arguing that our engagement with earth offers the possibilities for new liberatory ways of understanding space, that remain tied to earth’s commonness. 

Picture 5

A powerful concept of red earth, tied to its ubiquity and free nature, might be found in the roots of much red thought — Marx himself. In his Critique of German Ideology, Marx understood earth (as concept and thing) as the base of political economic philosophy. In one of his most famous passages, he wrote “In total contrast to German [idealist] philosophy, which descends from heaven to earth, we here ascend from earth to heaven.” Marx saw earth (both soil and “the earth”) as the base of his philosophy because it was the defacto element that contained the material and ideological possibilities of society (its nourishment, production, and metaphysics).  For Marx, earth contains the conditions of society by society. Earth not only delivers the grains grown by a farmer, but when a person digs his shovel into earth to grow something he or she becomes “a farmer.” When a person binds the earth into bricks he or she becomes “a builder.” The earth is social matter and structure, how we engage with it repeats existing structures and opens up new concepts.

Red earth also becomes red through its potential to release the history of the common, the poor, the defeated. Earth is an endless historical archive of tragedy that does not have to be nurtured, funded, or maintained (like most archives) to hold records of such tragedy. As an archive of social misfortune, our engagement with earth is a barometer of how we come to grips with our crimes. Murder, corruption, and  lurking forms of power are hidden through manipulations of earth (from mass graves to buried toxic pits). But these things often reappear through manipulations of the earth.

Picture 4

What is the fascism and corruption that appears in contemporary film but a big earth-burying operation? The justice that often appears in film is a big excavation. Consider some of John Sayles recent films in which the bad guys bury their crimes and the good guys, quite literally, go into the earth to excavate those crimes. Or just about any film that explores genocide involves mass burials and excavations.

This more red earth, that is the condition of society and the history of society, appears in a few contemporary works of architecture.  One of my favorite “earth” projects, The Irish National Pavilion is discussed by Ron in his book; it’s a project about history, denigration, and earth. Another more explicitly red project (not in Ron’s book) is the Open Air Cafe proposal by Manuel Herz, which I wrote about in my article “Debris” in the current issue of AA files (and that also appears in Subnature (along with the Irish Pavilion)).

Picture 7

In this latter project (above), Herz proposes excavating the ground of Cologne — site of one of the most notorious bombings during World War II — and heaping the mixture of earth and war debris (held within the earth of Cologne) over a series of concrete armatures for a park cafe. The war debris becomes a type of historical material that forces residents of Cologne to consider the history within earth and the conditions of a future nature in this particular city. It’s a proposal that enables us to see earth, the crimes it holds, and its potential representational structure in historical terms. 

This brief discussion of a red earth builds on Ron’s observations. I think it also positions some ideas about earth differently from those concepts of earth and ground in either contemporary green or parametric design. Both of these latter movements  see earth as an uncorrupted source of vitalism for a future architecture; an instrument of literal or digital vectors springing out of its surfaces. The earth of Herz (or the Irish Pavilion) is an earth examined (versus generalized); it’s an earth that is historical without being historicist; and it offers us images of earth as both life and violence against life, versus a more flippant vision of life and beauty.

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.


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.


“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!


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.



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.


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.


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.


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. 

swamp from biodiversity site

The swamps at the edges of my childhood town in Bergen County, New Jersey were strange zones of muddy flats and reeds that ended in the Manhattan skyline. If you grew up in New Jersey and were not that interested in going to the mall, you probably went to the swamps. We “swamp kids” were metal-head teenagers, who thought “fun” involved transforming this landscape by whacking reeds, shoveling out trails and building hills. The swamps were viscous landscapes, where virginity was lost, D-batteries drained (playing awful music on tape decks), and road bikes shot up dusty hills. The swamps were places where the more normative, middle-class trajectory of suburban adolescence was momentarily suspended. It was a space I constantly considered as a kid, but have not thought about in a long time.

The swamps of New Jersey never appeared in recent and hilarious representations of New Jersey youth, primarily because they do not fit the narrative role that New Jersey often plays. The swaps were the furthest thing from the “malls” — spaces that typified aspects of New Jersey town life and that are endlessly contrasted to the more urbane Manhattan. The malls of Jersey appear in publications and writings, but the swamps do not. But despite the swamps invisibility, I have come across the swamps again in the most unexpected of places — an art practice, an essay, a film. What I never knew, was that adults also saw the swamps as spaces of transfiguration.

Here is Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt’s video “Swamp,” (1971) filmed in the New Jersey swamps of Bergen County. It completely captures the minimal flora and sounds of these landscapes.

In an interview Holt conveyed some thoughts about the film

“it deals with limitations of perception through the camera eye as Bob and I struggled through a muddy New Jersey swamp. Verbal direction cannot easily be followed as the reeds crash against the camera lens blocking vision and forming continuously shifting patterns, confusion ensues.”

And Smithson added…”it’s about deliberate obstructions or calculated aimlessness”. 

As Smithson and Holt wandered the swamps, the swamps were used as dumping grounds for building debris from Manhattan. As a child, my friends and i could watch trucks roll into the swamps and dump bricks and stones into mounds which we would then climb. It is only recently that I learned that the remains of Pennsylvania Station were dumped here. Architecture history buffs traverse the swamps looking for the remains of this and other famous New York City buildings


In the past few years, I have come across the swamps again, as an aspect of post-structuralist urban theory. In the opening passages of his essay, “Anxious Landscapes”, the architecture historian Antoine Picon recalls looking out of an airplane on his way into Newark airport and seeing a strange landscape neither wholly natural or human. Picon was viewing the swamps. His perception of the swamps begins this essay on architectural and technological history, concepts of nature, and the production of selfhood. The Anxious Landscape, as he labels it, can be seen in the New Jersey swamps, and in the visions of Piranesi, Boullée, and contemporary films, such as Blade Runner.


Within this landscape of anxiety (the swamp and related spaces), Holt, Smithson, the scavengers, and Picon all revel in the momentary  disorientation.  For Holt, Smithson and Picon, the contemplation (or navigation) of this type of space produces an alternative form of subjectivity.  In Smithson and Holt’s video, we witness a type of anti-explorer — a parody of geographical exploration. In Picon’s essay, he also questions how one might navigate or map the anxious landscape without a corresponding transformation in the viewing subject. This is a form of landscape that demands a certain transformation in those that move through it. I suppose that was how I used the swamp, as a landscape in which to get a bit lost and to try to become something different.


In addition to admiring the experimental history of Mt. Rushmore by artist Matthew Buckingham, I am also intrigued by a project from 2005— a proposed “historic preservation” of the Cross-Bronx Expressway (a roadway completed in 1955). This roadway, like much of the country’s transit infrastructure requires significant repairs — but a preservation?


In this proposed preservation — a master’s thesis from Columbia University by the historian and preservationist Michael Caratzas — the author suggests that infrastructural networks can now be viewed as historical constructs. It’s a more direct “historical” outcome of the possible pasts that might be staged within a network society or a network culture — ie a “socius” defined by networks.


A preservation of the Cross-Bronx Expressways is a fascinating idea because it takes the discursive apparatus of preservation, which is often used for buildings or built landscapes, and directs it into a vast infrastructural system. The Cross Bronx Expressway is a stretch of highway without clear boundaries; it is filled with both beauty and unpleasantries; and because it is a roadway, we tend to think of it as a site demanding constant upgrades. How does one simultaneously preserve and upgrade a roadway system?


Perhaps more to the point, Caratzas notes that the construction of infrastructural systems generally, highways more directly, and the Cross-Bronx expressway more particularly, often destroy historical neighborhoods and buildings. We tend to view these mid-century highways  as so suspect that they are outside of that realm we call “culture”. But the notorious destruction and construction completed to create the Cross-Bronx Expressway is part of a particular historical activity that is now more feebly revived. This is the site where Robert Moses (shown below)  decided to “swing the meat ax” — evicting thousands and destroying entire precincts of the Bronx for this stretch of highway.


Although I find Caratzas recent description of the Cross-Bronx Expressway as a “cultural landscape” a reduction of the power of his original thesis, it drives home the point that infrastructures are not just instruments but objects that ossify historical concepts. A preservation of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, or the New Jersey Turnpike for that matter, is a fascinating idea and a contribution to the possibilities of experimental architectural history. I was inspired by his thesis to produce the sign below; perhaps this will stand at the entrance of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, or perhaps some version will stand at another highway. Perhaps it will be the preservationist societies and not the engineers that salvage the United States’ infrastructure. 


this poster by the artist Matthew Buckingham — “The Six Grandfathers, Paha Sapa, in the Year 502,002 C.E., 2002″


I first saw this poster 6 years ago, and I finally bought it from Cabinet Magazine. This is Buckingham’s description of the image:

“This is what geologists believe the Six Grandfathers will look like in the year 502,002 c.e. Located near the geographic center of the United States in the Paha Sapa, or Black Hills, this mountain has also been called Slaughterhouse Peak, Cougar Mountain, and is now referred to as Mount Rushmore. Cultural historian Matthew Glass writes that Mount Rushmore’s “distinction among the many symbols of patriotism marking the American landscape stems precisely from the lack of interpretive clarity surrounding the memorial since its earliest days. Just what does it mean?” Where does this inherent ambiguity originate? This photograph is part of a series of projects which work to reassess the cultural, political and social meanings generated by Mount Rushmore. The photograph asks the viewer to imagine Rushmore’s inevitable failure and slow return to ‘nature.’ As its representational powers become less clear, the paradox of Rushmore’s ‘meaning’ as a shrine to democracy carved out of stolen sacred Sioux lands by an artist who was an active member of the Ku Klux Klan become more clear.”

If you have been following this site, you can probably appreciate my interest in this image. It’s a form of experimental history that entangles social and “natural” time, which in this context, further entangle ideas of restitution

Buckingham’s work is part of the exhibition — “Questioning History” — at the Netherlands Fotomuseum. The catalog (below) can be purchased from NAi publishers.


Here is a description of the exhibition:

“History is increasingly central to public and political thought, and there is a growing interest in the representation of the past in contemporary visual art and photography. This extends to diverse facets of history, historiography, transmission, historical awareness and education.

The 17 visual artists and photographers presented in Questioning History have turned their attention to the genesis of historical narratives, how they are written and rewritten, and subsequently forgotten or even erased. They take the multiform, highly differentiated and sometimes paradoxical nature of ‘definitive’ history as their baseline for a critical examination of the way in which historical representations are propagated by the mass media and how
historical awareness is moulded and manipulated. In their work they endeavour to expose prevailing media strategies and dissect current representations of history. Some of the participants do this by critically analyzing and unravelling historical constructs in the media, while others create alternative historical narratives that undermine accepted conceptualizations. They draw from ‘small-scale’ personal perceptions as well as from the perspectives of global history.”

This description interests me; surfing through images by the artists in the exhibition, I detect a different take on the decline of historical awareness and meaning. History is losing its power because it appears everywhere; not because it’s hidden away in the academy. Historical imagery laces through TV commercials for ersatz-butter and on the front page of the Enquirer. It is artists like these that enable us to see the ubiquitous and pervasive historiographies that move through every moment of contemporary experience.  

PS. check out Matthew Buckingham’s website; and an expanded commentary on the image. I believe his work has influenced, and will continue to influence, emerging concepts of experimental history, preservation and geography.

My favorite works of architectural criticism (by authors Cesar Daly, Montgomery Schuyler, Lewis Mumford, and Ada Louise Huxtable) are put to shame by pre-modern forms of architectural criticism. If today we consider the criticisms of buildings in newspapers and magazines to partially determine their value and fate, in the pre-modern era one might look to strange tribunals and courts concerned with the fate of “lifeless” things. 

In a 1916 essay on the history of prosecuting the lifeless in pre-modern western law,  the scholar Walter Woodburn Hyde described how inanimate objects  could be put on trial if they were suspected for crimes. The list of the inanimate and lifeless included building elements and urban adornments. If a beam in a house fell and killed someone, or a wall collapsed, the inanimate object could be prosecuted; And if you thought a statue looked at you in a strange way; you might be able to prosecute it for conveying dangerous curses.

If found guilty, the beam, statue, or stone could be sent into exile — cast out of the city in which it “committed” its crime. If a lifeless thing was found guilty of falling and hitting someone; it could be exiled or the surviving family members of the deceased could claim ownership of it — incorporating it into another structure. Most guilty things were exiled to join other criminal lifeless things. It’s so unreal, but imagine a landscape of exiled objects just outside the borders of the Athenian city state: here statues, beams and stones, are lying about, damned for their unfortunate intersection with urbanity.

If you think the above prosecutions sound strange and alien, they reappear in our era. The imagined landscape, described above, is eerily reminiscent of the swampy New Jersey Meadowlands (just outside New York City) which contain the remains of the original Penn Station among many other buildings. The television program Demolition, aired on BBC, has more explicitly revived the pre-modern tribunals of lifeless things. The show has been widely damned by architects for infantilizing the discussion of buildings. In this program viewers evaluate some of their country’s “worst” buildings, determining which in the end should be demolished. The show has been criticized for many things (its peculiar focus on modernity), but we might evaluate the program as a form of experimental criticism that simply revives the earliest practices of architectural critique outlined above.

Should we put buildings on trial again? Perhaps; but unlike Demolition, we might consider a setting that does not so easily appear as entertainment, in which prosecutor and defender can present their cases for a particular building. I have been obsessed with the fate of one of my favorite modern buildings — Robin Hood Gardens; It appears that for Robin Hood Gardens to survive, its residents, architectural critics and a good (and literal) legal defender must mount a defense against its prosecution. Perhaps bringing the “crimes” and fates of buildings into courtrooms is one of the most civilized activities we can encourage.

Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion of the possible forgery of the Getty Kouros sparked the following post/thought/project. If the Kouros was forged, then those that pulled off this particular forgery applied a type of mold (potato mold) to the Kouros to give it the appearance of something ancient — something buried in the earth for hundreds of years.  Potato mold wasn’t central to Gladwell’s story, but it struck me because it suggests that running through art and architectural history is a natural history that enables what is ancient to appear so. In other words, our detection of age is often the perception of molds (magnified below), the abrasions of sand, the bleaching of the sun. In cities, this extends to our subliminal register of the accumulation of pollution on buildings.


Another aspect of the ecology of historical appearance is the nature used to make objects appear extremely clean. To make objects look like natural history they are typically brought to a sparkling clean finish with acid and/or bugs. Bones, in particular, are immersed in containers of insects — Dermestidae (below). These little beetles, which can eat bits of flesh, enable conservators to bring a whiteness to skeletons.


And in addition to mold and bugs, there are also all of the gasses, which preserve the historical documents of social history in an endless time. Argon (below) is one of the cheaper of these inert gasses. When visiting archives and museums to look at the most precious and fragile documents (dead sea scrolls, the US consitition), you often see documents through invisible clouds of argon gas.


All of these bits of nature construct the image of the past, which is ironically, simultaneously an image of decay, cleanliness and timelessness. I am not yet certain how all of these conflicting images of history move together so easily. More curiously, all of these involve forms of nature that are frightening and, at times, grotesque. Molds, pollution, bugs and poisonous gas are not forms of nature that are particularly desirable, nor are they forms of nature one would immediately associate with displays of history. These and many other things, in total, speak of the natural history that moves through history.

ecohistory diagram

We can bring these three forms of nature (animal, mineral vegetable!) into a type of ecosystem of the archive: mold and sand for buildings, bugs for the skeletons of its former inhabitants, and gasses to preserve the documents of this former civilization. This is the ecosystem of historical appearance. It’s the ecosystem overseen by curators and archivists.

News item….You must see the latest issue of the Architectural Association journal — AA Files 57. Not only does it have excellent articles by — most-favored-historian-status types — Mitchell Schwarzer and Briony Fer, but it contains the brilliant “Olfactory Reconstruction of Philip Johnson’s Glass House” by Jorge Otero-Pailos. It’s the first, “scratch and sniff” history article I have ever read or smelled. An “experimental preservationist,” Jorge’s projects (and his own journal) have been an important influence in the larger set of emerging practices that we must still tentatively label “experimental practices in history.” Thomas Weaver, the affable new editor of the AA journal has seriously expanded the relevance of this already impressive journal: he’s staged something that cannot, as of yet, be staged online. Congratulations to all.



This will sound a bit grandiose; but it was a fun exercise:

I was putting together readings for this semester’s classes while also examining the UK Royal Collection of architectural theory. The Royal Collection holds the tutorial images and texts that the architect and theorist William Chambers made for the future King George III. It’s pretty impressive that the prince was so carefully trained in the theory of architecture. Inspired by this, and already in reader production mode, I thought of readings that might be assembled into a “presidential reader” on architectural theory – in time for the inauguration. Most of these readings either explore very specific architectural/social projections or the architect’s relations to various forms of (leviathan like) power. Of course, I have no pretension that this will actually be read by him; and I imagine that others (on whose work I often rely) are far better at assembling a list of 22 pieces of architectural historical literature for leader-types and those interested in the ensuing responsibilities. 

Even if you disagree with some of these selections, I hope you find the links to various libraries, archives, and digital collections useful.

1. Vitruvius Pollio, Marcus, “Preface” and “The Education of the Architect” from The Ten Books On Architecture

2. Alberti, Leon Battista, “Book IV: Chapter I” from The Ten Books of Architecture

3. Palladio, Andrea “Introduction to the Reader” 

4. Fontana, Domenico. Della trasportatione dell’obelisco vaticano (governments moving big objects)

5. Perrault, Claude, Frontispiece and Dedication, The Ten Books on the Architecture of Vitruvius (for an image of imperial power and its architectural implications)

6. Vanbrugh, John. “Letter to the Duchess of Marlborough” (an early sense of historical preservation and its value)

7. Ledoux, Claude-Nicolas, selected plates and commentary from, Architecture (on Chaux, nature and cities)

8. Chambers, William, “Dedication” and “Chapter 1″, A Treatise on Civil Architecture (see the intro paragraph above)

9. Piranesi, Giovanni Battista, Views of Rome (if only to see what empires look like in ruins)

10. Jefferson, Thomas. “Letters on Architecture” (even for the amateurs, architecture always involves writing — lots and lots of writing)

11. Pugin, Augustus Welby Northmore, Selected plates from Contrasts: Or, A Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Middle Ages, and Corresponding Buildings of the Present Day

12. Greenough, Horatio. “American Architecture”

13. Viollet le Duc, Eugene Emmanuel, “Donjon”  from the Dictionairre Raisonée (the pre-history of bunkers, Gitmo, etc..) 

14. Howard, Ebenezer, Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform

15. Wright, Frank Lloyd, “Organic Architecture”

16. AFK, “Under the wing of a great architecture” 

17. Le Corbusier, “Guiding Principles of Town Planning”

18. Fuller, Buckminster. “Universal Architecture”

19. Fathy, Hassan. “Prelude: Dream and Reality” (an almost, post-colonial approach to architecture; oh well…)

20. Tafuri, Manfredo. “Chapter One” of Architecture and Utopia (My favorite essay on DC)

21. Mcleod, Mary. “Architecture and Politics in the Reagan Era” 

22. Eisenman, Peter. “Liberal views have never built anything of value”  (how could we not finish with something from archinect?)

I was responding to a comment today about “Maintenance Criticism,” and I remembered that two years ago I  completed an earlier installation engaging with the subject of architectural maintenance as critique. 

The images below were for a student-run, faculty competition in 2006 (at my previous gig at PSU). Faculty were asked to design something that negotiated architectural “weathering.” I think the students were inspired by the David Leatherbarrow book on the subject.

For my entry, I met with some of the people that cleaned the architecture school and asked if I could make an installation for the competition about the weathering that occurs through their labor. The cleaners and machines they use slowly transform the color of the exposed concrete floor. I also thought it would be clever if I, as the full-time history/theory faculty member, limited my “design” to just the use of words. The semi-permanent stencils can be pulled off in two years, revealing the difference in floor color that occurs through these people’s work. I called the entry “Local 8″ after the name of the labor union that organizes the cleaning crews at the school. We also happened to win the competition.

Last year (soon after moving to the SF Bay Area) I decided to pay a visit to one of the buildings that established my interest in modern architecture — The Oakland Museum of California (Roche Dinkeloo, 1968). The Oakland Museum combined three independent museums into a huge, block-long building that includes galleries, exterior terraces and a large central garden. In a recent interview in Perspecta, the architect of the building, Kevin Roche, argued that he was attempting to relate the building to the infrastructural scale of post-war California. He was inspired by the engineering of highways, and surely his work with the landscape architect Dan Kiley on the project suggests that they were both inspired by the unusual scale of the plantings in the California Highway System–those strange zones where redwood trees rise from cloverleaf interchanges. The Google Earth view below is a particularly potent conveyor of the building’s concept — the museum operating at the level of a transit system (not just in terms of size but its relation to nature as well).

When I visited the building last year it was upsetting to see such an important structure in such horrible shape. I counted at least three buckets in the building’s interior spaces to catch leaks from water; many of the beams for the building’s exterior pergola were askance; plywood was draped on many sections of the building from former, unfinished projects throughout the museum. I cannot recall any time visiting a building in which I felt so compelled to take it upon myself to remove, fix and correct the various problems with the maintenance of the building. My removal of pieces of plywood, shoring up of beams on a pergola, and other small acts were forms of maintenance and forms of criticism.

I was reminded of my small acts of maintenance last week while observing the official “Coastal Cleanup” of the East Bay’s Bay Area Trail — an 8 mile zone bordered by one of those California highways that inspired the Oakland Museum. In the coastal cleanup (part of a nation-wide effort) teams of volunteers swarm the length of the Coastal Bay Bike Trail pulling trash, detritus and other forms of removable pollution out of the Bay. They are overseen by experts who determine whether a log is pollution or a habitat for some species being cultivated by conservators.

The Oakland Museum is now undergoing an official renovation, like many museums do once millions of dollars have been raised. But I wonder if the impulse to maintain, as an act of critique, that we see at sites of great beauty like the bay or along highways by volunteer and hired crews, could not be reoriented toward a building like the Oakland Museum. If, as Roche argues, this building’s concepts operate at the scale of California’s infrastructural systems; then why not appropriate the techniques used to maintain these blurred zones such as the East Bay trail? Why not launch a maintenance critique of the Oakland Museum under the supervision of architectural experts and historians? I could easily imagine many of the people I saw at the Coastal Cleanup  pulling trash and errant plants out of the Oakland Museum’s planters and pools; and teams of architects could surely donate time to repair the pergola and other misshapen elements of this place. But the larger point is that we might consider launching forms of maintenance of buildings that operate within those building’s particular conceptual logic. Some buildings demand official renovations, but surely other buildings can begin by attempting some form of renovation that is far more experimental.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 58 other followers