Archive for the ‘Reconstruction’ 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.
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.
The terraforming device from Star Trek II — “The Genesis Device” — is a bomb that completely remakes the surface of a planet into a biological and geological version of the earth. It’s like a nuclear weapon that produces an ecosystem. In the video above we see the genesis device transforming a lost moon into a world akin to the Earth.
Genesis is a fictional tool for making nature, but it’s also a system of historical representation; although this latter aspect of the device is completely unexplored in the Star Trek films. Not only does the genesis device make barren moons into a depopulated biotic version of Earth, the Genesis wave generates specific historical landscapes and historical images of landscape — culled from Western systems of colonization and exploration . Genesis fabricates jungle landscapes, large oceans, and mountain ranges on top of a surface that looks suspiciously like the moon.
Ultimately, Genesis creates the double image of colonization: it remakes an unexplored moon into a landscape that looks like unexplored continents. Genesis is really a system of historical representation that makes the explorative vista (the depopulated, resource-rich landscape) appear as something scientific.
Genesis is critiqued in the scripts of Star Trek II and III, but from an entirely different perspective: For the script writers, Genesis represents the dangers of nature made by human forces. I believe the message of the film-makers suggests that the landscape of earth belongs on earth, not elsewhere (btw, this is also the subtext of the science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson). For the writers of Star Trek, the freakishness of genesis lies in its auto-generation of earth-nature — aggressive terraforming without consideration of a planet’s inherent nature.
A post-structuralist or Marxist geographical lens provides a necessary critique to the the above critique. Within critical strands of geography, all nature is a production and a representation; Every tree we encounter is, in some sense, the result of a Genesis Wave: the American Parks Movement, Johnny Appleseed, the Lumber Industry, Suburbanization.
One might argue that from a critical geographical perspective, all nature is a Genesis project.
But if a genesis wave is both a system of historical representation and a representation of reality (versus a scientific fantasy) that only makes its effects (and what it represents) all the more interesting.
The fantasy of Genesis lies in the notion of nature authorship: Can we release the Genesis wave from the literalness and naturalism that underpins a large amount of the sci-fi genre?
What if a genesis wave was less literal and more literary, less a scientific endeavor and more a philosophical and historical one?
What if it we understood this less literal force conceptualized by post-structural geographers or architects with a hankering for critical representations of nature?
What if, like the Genesis device itself, such nature-production was never finished, but an ongoing and unstable process? What landscapes would be generated; what imagery produced? What aesthetic sensations the result?
The imagery above and these questions have been on my mind lately: In the past four months I’ve slowly been asking a group of architects, scientists, geographers and urbanists colleagues to consider these possibilities (albeit without the Star Trek referencing!) In a forthcoming issue of AD — “Territory” — something akin to the Genesis Wave will be reconceptualized, reconsidered, made into something far more interesting and perhaps aggressive. The issue proposes a type of terraforming outside the science-fictional and within the nitty gritty of the historical and geographical.
As the issue takes shape and as the above ideas become more formed, I’ll post updates here.
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!
I am impressed by these images of Robert Moses’ Lower and Mid-Manhattan highway proposals reconstructed (or I suppose in this case constructed) into google maps. It’s a form of experimental historical practice (we like that), and it always strikes me when someone goes to the effort to produce something like this. The author of these can be found here.
I do wonder why one would choose google maps to make these. Perhaps google maps is the objective language of the present. It’s what a city looks like now (versus an aerial photograph, a birdseye view, a Bollman map). But the potential problem with this and other google map reconstructions is that it places the historical projects of the past into the uniform language of the present. The methodologies, the visual language, and the platform of representation are absorbed into tools currently used to measure traffic, scope out real-estate, and find a restaurant. That is, the system of representation and the thing represented emerge from entirely different concepts of the urban. It makes the Lower Manhattan Expressway look so tame!
But what makes this so interesting is that the map works. Why? Because google maps and our understanding of Moses hang on the contemporary concept of infrastructure. Like the concept of “nature”, the contemporary term “infrastructure” is becoming one of the most important, but trans–historical terms of our epoch. It appears to describe everything (now and “then”) through one single concept; and that’s a problem. The maps are great, but the social structure that makes it convincing is troubling.
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.
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.
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.
Since at least the 19th century, various upper-class social explorers have posed as people of a poorer class to explore the particular inequities of slums, sweatshops and marginal spaces of urban vice. The exploits of these actors were reported back to middle and upper class readers who were often shocked by the world inhabited by the less fortunate. The most famous of these recent social class explorers was Barabara Ehrenreich, who recounted her days posing as a waitress and house cleaner in the book Nickle and Dimed. In an excellent piece in Representations, the contemporary historian Eric Schocket labeled these class poseurs — “class transvestites” —, a term both immensely descriptive and ultimately damning of their activities.
In addition to class transvestitism, we can also locate a curious (and recent) temporal transvestitism, made possible through reality tv shows and their significant budgets. Programs such as 1900 House (above), Frontier House, and Manor House, enable participants to live a life in “the past” (Frontier and Manor House actually combine both class and temporal cross-dressing/acting) and they invite viewers to watch their confrontation with historical and antiquated means of living. These programs interest me because they are avenues to experimental spatial historical technique, but they’re also troubling in ways — ways that only make them that much more intriguing.
On one level, these programs encourage historical understanding through reenactment. Enactments sound horribly corny, but I was surprised and fascinated to learn that Thomas Laqueur uses actors to teach world history to his students at Berkeley. These programs also interest me, because all three (painfully) instill the present within history. Although we empathize with a modern family’s struggle with a technologically unaccommodating past, the programs’ producers advance a woman’s housework, property ownership, and class inequity as part of the historical continuum; that is, we see how popular history is commandeered to advance and fix contemporary socio-spatial dynamics.
But there is another ideological strand moving through these reenactments of the past that’s altogether less Barthesian, and ultimately more disturbing. 1900 House and Frontier House may actually not be reenactments of the past, but televisual priming of a possible apocalyptical future. They portend a possible demodernization that haunts contemporary Western discussions of infrastructural collapse and ecological disaster. In these shows water must be fetched, waste disposed, and food gathered, in ways far different than the modern infrastructural city. Additionally, all of the programs emphasize forms of cleaning, eating, and heating, that seem more environmentally palatable — homes more disentangled from global networks.
In fact, within Frontier House, it is only the historical dress that makes this show a part of history and not some ecopocalyptical scifi program. On the program’s website, the producers write “The Challenge: Blizzards, hunger, scorching sun, forest fires….” This could easily be the description of The Road, as much as a television show set on the American frontier. As always, “history,” particularly “public history,” offers us the opportunity to consider a possible future.
We are wrapping up the (hopefully) final version of the proposed plume/idling installation. The project is a reconstruction of an exhaust plume from the busses once inside the original SOM bus shed that is now the California College of the Arts (where I teach).
The latest version of this project (above) involves filming one of the last functioning industrial stacks in this part of San Francisco and simply projecting that footage on the floor of the SOM building. The slight distortion will make it appear akin to exhaust from automobiles.
The reason I decided to do this is that it enables us to understand how we experience pollution (or the lack of it) and urban change in tandem. The smokestack is in a part of this larger precinct of the city that is not as rich, but that is experiencing the pressures of neighborhood transformation (what, in an earlier time, we could simply call “gentrification”). Like the former exhaust plumes from busses in the, now, more posh side of town, the smoke plume may eventually disappear in the name of urban and economic health.
In addition to the above play on the slow time of urban change, what I also find intriguing, is that in re-projecting real-time footage of the exhaust stack, we appear to be slowing time down in this reconstruction. That is, to our eyes, smoke appears to eject more slowly from smoke-stacks than exhaust from vehicles (cars, busses, motorcycles). The real-time footage will appear to be “slow-mo” once projected inside the bus shed. See a comparison of found footage below if this sounds confusing:
All of this suggests something, not yet fully developed, for new protocols within histories of architecture — the historian (or anyone interested in historical reconstruction) might be understood as a manipulator of space/time. There are, of course, significant histories of the idea of space/time in architecture; but there aren’t many acts of history that attempt to manipulate the experience of space/time relation itself. Philippe Rahm’s Climate Ucornia is one of the few I know.
I am writing about this because the above project excites me, but also because there has been an interesting discussion here and elsewhere (and here too) regarding the historian’s working relationship to time. Within which, of our concepts of time, should the historian’s efforts be situated — past, present, future? The above project intrigues me, as it suggests that these may not be so easily parsed or fixed.
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.
Probably all of us who work in the architectural HTC area have heard stories about how architectural thought–particularly architectural theory–increases in times of economic hardship. When the markets are down and the economic indicators turn south, the architect begins to think, to write, to theorize. When the markets are up we “do” and don’t think much. Based on this argument, all one has to do is look at the economic chart above (it traces gdp in the US and Europe) and literally turn it upside down to map the intensity of architectural thinking.
The latest version of this narrative claims that as the neoliberal economy collapses it simultaneously brings both “post-critical” and “generative design” down with it; a very simple way to put this is that the cutting-edge architect of today will suddenly trade Rhino for Microsoft Word.
Besides the reductive economic determinism that underpins such arguments–”when the cash flow dries up we suddenly think more and when we’re flush we don’t reflect as much”–its authors offer little statistical evidence. And I make this cold empirical assessment because the best economic determinist thinkers rely on empirical data to fuel their theories (consider the work of David Harvey as an example). And I would imagine that some of the very authors who imagine the generative-downfall, have Harvey-esque, neo-Marxist ideas in their back pocket, even if not explicitly stated as such.
But the neoliberal/generative coupling and its downfall, and the larger narrative of which it is a part is not only based on economic determinism; it is also based upon a faith that when the economy is bad architectural theory suddenly flourishes. But this article of faith needs to be proved, or the larger argument falls apart.
And for me, this is an extremely interesting question; how exactly could we chart this relationship? Would I go to the Avery Index and search for the number of architectural theory articles between 1973-75; 1980-82; 1990-91; and 2001-03? Would I then compare them to the number and “significance” of articles written outside these years–during the booms? Such cross-referencing sounds ridiculous; I know this. But even more surprising is that when I scan my most recent theory syllabus I realize that some key pieces of contemporary literature are actually not written during these lean years. In fact some of the key pieces of literature are written during the booms.
The chart above traces an “economy”–one of the great social constructions–but I am not sure it truly traces any indicators of architectural thought.
This is the earliest image I can find from the history of architectural theory that explores the inter-relationships of an assembled crowd, their leader, and the larger space in which this assembly occurs. This is from Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc’s “Dictionary”* — the important book, published in the mid-19th century, that examined Medieval architecture and its theoretical implications. We could locate this image as one of the earliest in a visual taxonomy of the crowd that moves through the history of architectural theory — consider the crowd images by Terragni, Speer, Mies, and Fuller. And, as if it needs stating, I am thinking about images like this as Tuesday approaches and as we see images of roaring crowds.
But what I like about the above image, and Viollet-le-Duc’s description, is that Viollet-le-Duc appears to acknowledge that this very image of the architectural leviathan is one filled with risks. Viollet-le-Duc wrote of the lurking power, potential, and violence in a room such as this where a “lord gives his orders” to “a vast reservoir of men”; their life is all “warring,” he wrote. But, Viollet-le-duc also wrote, rather humbly, that his illustration gives a “weak idea” of this form of power when people are assembled by their leader. The “atmosphere,” to use a word so popular today, of this crowd’s anxiety cannot be adequately conveyed.
*See the entry “Donjon.”
We are settling on the above image for the plume/idling project — the reconstruction of an exhaust plume from the busses once housed at CCA. The image does not look like exhaust per se; in fact, it could easily be a reflection of a cloud from outside the building — through the skylights. And that is exactly what we want for this project. We want to articulate this ambiguity between an external nature — what we call “Nature” — and an internal nature (which never appears as “Nature”) through an act of reconstruction. The one appears to be produced by the energy of the earth and the other by the energy of society. I think we will rename the project “Idling Cloud,” as “plume” is too evocative of noxious exhaust.
[a thank you to my colleague Andrew Kudless for the background photograph]
In this project we continue to revisit experimental acts of architectural historical reconstruction. The California College of the Arts (where I teach) is housed in a former bus maintenance shed designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in the early 1950s. The space must have been filled with a somewhat foul milieu from the idling busses as they entered and left the facility. In this project — a “sketch” of which is shown above — we recreate the exhaust plume from one of the busses in its original setting as a digital model. I will put additional images of the project on the site as they become available.
Architectural theory is often considered a process of writing (and often denigrated as a result), but the production of architectural thought always engaged other tools of expression besides quill, pen, pencil, typewriter, or computer. Some of the most significant written innovations in architectural theory are interlaced with tools of inquiry that lie outside those directly involved in writing. Or put another way, architectural theory is full of tools that help the author gather data and precede writing – ad hoc structures, optical instruments, vehicles (e.g. Le Roy’s drawing structures, le-Duc’s use of the tele-iconograph, Banham’s automobiles). I am not arguing that these devices or strategies of acquisition produce forms of knowledge; rather I am arguing that what we think we want to know as authors of architectural thought often entangles us with things that rarely appear in the final outcome of our thought experiments.
Such things that precede or move alongside writing appear from the very start in architectural theory.
For example, the origin of modern architectural theory lies in the consideration of Roman and Greek classical architecture. Authors of this early architectural theory often developed a host of strategies and structures to ascend, dangle from, and surround ancient classical buildings. To measure the antiquities of Athens, the architectural theorist Julien David Le Roy literally built buildings around ancient buildings to measure them more carefully. Such literal “building” techniques that enabled careful examination, exploration and measurement are essential, but virtually unvisualized, features of architectural writing focused on ancient classicism. The image above by Henry Parke of a student climbing a ladder to measure a Corinthian entablature, and the image below by Piranesi, are a couple of the small handful of images I know that directly depict some of this para-theoretical activity. Through these images we see a structure involved in understanding the past (ok, it’s just ladders in these instances); but in the Parke image we also see the seeming risks involved in this act of architectural exploration and the “aha” that the architectural thinker experiences as they enter, what for them, was a previously unexplored archive.
All works of architectural theory and history contain activity that lurks behind writing. This site is in part about making those images (past and present) appear a bit more visibly.
I’ll be writing more about case studies in this aspect of architectural theory in future posts.
In a recent project I wondered if one could use the type of spatial production evident in the work of Superstudio as a form of historical visualization and reconstruction. I made the above image as part of an effort to reconstruct the smokey air of Pittsburgh at the early 20th century. Architectural reconstructions often involve the reconstruction of structures versus the larger milieu in which they once were conceived. I imagine it is difficult to understand much of the architectural work of Pittsburgh from 1900-1950 without an understanding of the former state of the city’s atmosphere.
Of course the scale of the above proposal is completely unrealizable — technically, financially, and politically. Thus, the above image stands as a type of historical provocation. I considered how one might develop the idea at a more reasonable (but still formidable!) scale below. This, I imagine would be a balloon, of the type used for advertisements that is merely patterned with an image of smoke–floating above the city, a smoky Leonidov.
I made this image when I was the curator of architecture at the National Building Museum (2000-2002). I had just purchased Robert Augustyn and Paul Cohen’s book “Manhattan in Maps” (Rizolli, 1997) and enjoyed examining the most recent efforts to map the midtown sector of the city. But I felt that none of the recent maps actually captured how it feels to be in those spaces. I wanted to develop a birds eye view that captured the immense production of indoor air in these spaces, the scale of air-conditioning. The map would later lead to my dissertation project and years of inquiry into indoor air in New York City.
In this project I explored the possibilities of “mock history” in architectural and urban history. As a friend of mine recently pointed out, the idea of “What if?” scenarios are a long-standing trope in comic book concepts. But in history they are generally considered forms of historical projection, and inherently irresponsible. The historians task is not to chart possible pasts, nor do we have any evidence that the study of the past can inform what might have been — the strange smashing together of historicism and determinism.
Nevertheless, after visiting an exhibition at the New York Historical Society on Central Park, I was curious what New York City might look like without Central Park. I thought this study could operate within a broader context of restitution politics. The current area of Central Park once contained Seneca Village, a small but racially diverse settlement. What if the land of Central Park was returned? Considering its value would building commence immediately? I also thought this question could operate within ethical questions about development. Why do the great works of the past appear so cruel to us? The latter question was explored in an exhibition concept for the Citadel in Central Park (the then current commissioner nixed it as too controversial) the latter concept appeared in Cabinet Magazine and the Venice Biennial.
Model of an 1870 pool (David Pascu, model maker)
Yale University and The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, NYC
The project started my consideration of “historical practices,” which in this context implies the operation of historical work in which all of the aspects of historical production are thrown into question.
In an architectural history course at Yale we were reintroduced to the work of 18th and 19th century architects who sought techniques for reconstructing buildings from Roman and Greek ruins. This primarily entailed drawings that represented buildings as they may have once existed– work by Le Roy, Labrouste, among numerous others. The work of Henri Labrouste was particularly inspiring as he sought to place the act of architectural reconstruction within the particular social activity of a former society.
In considering this earlier activity of reconstruction, the following questions were posed: How might a reconstruction operate today? How might the reconstruction of a building from the past be a provocation? What does it mean to reconstruct the very act of reconstruction?
As a case study, I chose to experimentally “reconstruct” the floating pools that once enabled people to swim in the East and Hudson Rivers in New York City. The idea of swimming in these rivers seemed in 1996, as it might still today, inherently provocative, frightening, repulsive. The idea was to reconstruct the building through drawings, photos and models to enable debate, protest, discussion about the position of the river in the experience of New York City. The processes of Labrouste were wired in reverse.
The project was staged at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City in 1999
Read the reviews of the project in the Village Voice and the New York Times