Archive for the ‘Theory’ 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

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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.

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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?

Postscript

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.

[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.

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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. 

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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.

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

Subnat Cover2

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

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

book spreads

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

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

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

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

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

vriesendorp

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

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

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

cannaregio

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

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

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

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I just finished reading Anthony Vidler’s Histories of the Immediate Present: Inventing Architectural Modernism; it’s his examination of the historiographical techniques of Emil Kaufmann, Colin Rowe, Reyner Banham and Manfredo Tafuri, and their impact on the unfolding set of concepts that we call architectural modernity. It was, with some qualification, a page-turner, at least for an architect interested in history:  it gives us historians a project, it impels us to operate in new ways, while giving us a new history of our discipline. I wrote over 3000 words of notes on the book in an MSword document! I take type-written notes on virtually every architectural book and essay I read, but the scale of note-taking on such a short book is, in and of itself, a huge endorsement and a warning to readers that this book is an involvement. The following review is exceedingly clipped; but i imagine the ideas of this book will find a way into future posts.

At one level Histories is a defense of architectural history. Histories appears at a troubling time in the architectural historical discipline. Today, many departments of architecture  have an antagonism towards history far different than the battle with history that characterized modernity. In addition to the para-historical ideas circulating in contemporary architectural practice, the number of academic architectural historian jobs dropped from about 20/year five years ago to about 10 this past year. In this way, Histories is a memory of the not-so-distant good-old-days when architectural historians piloted “Architecture”. 

At the same time, and related to the above point, Histories is a subtle critique on the unambitious nature of contemporary architectural history. The post-war, youthful historians that Vidler recuperates operated in a way quite different than the young contemporary historian of our immediate present. Kaufmann, Rowe, Banham and Tafuri were cartographers of architectural modernity and pilots of a late-modern architectural agenda. Their most significant articles appeared in the types of public venues that many contemporary architectural historians and tenure-committees disdain; they lectured in both the academic lecture hall and in public settings to a complex and diverse audience; they didn’t reserve their most “important” thoughts to weirdly reclusive conferences.

So what type of agenda did these historians establish? Vidler neatly ties each historian to a particular read of modernity which is then transformed, if not implicated, in a particular architectural agenda played out to the present:

The first case study examines Emil Kaufmann; a historian who coined the term “architectural autonomy”. Kaufmann drew on the Kantian notion of autonomous will, as a hallmark of enlightenment (and bourgeois) society. The autonomous object is not absorbed (or “concatenated”) into its environs but appears as a distinct self-reflective procedure distinct from its surroundings. As Vidler argues, such a concept potentially connects Ledoux to Eisenman; but more significant, Kaufmann used such a concept as political critique against the cultural concatenations (and evictions) of Fascist Europe.

Following the chapter on Kaufmann (which is, I think, the best chapter in the book) we read about Colin Rowe and his desire to establish a history of modernity that engages concepts of historical will and development, but that is distinct from a progressivist, functionalist, and technologicalist approach (i.e. the approach of Banham). Rowe arrives at a vision of history, in which the historian uncovers an “infolding” order (or concept) that can be employed for a future architecture — an extension (if not inversion) of Wolfflin that ultimately traps Rowe into his own posthistorical philosophy.

The chapter on Banham may be the most intriguing; in addition to reviewing Banham’s recuperation of the Futurists and his embrace of the architectural program (a concept formalized by his contemporary John Summerson), Vidler offers one of the most unique histories of Banham’s Four Ecologies. Whereas previous critics understood that work as a “pop” history or urban monography, Vidler argues that Banham’s Four Ecologies essentially entangles the rhetorical gestures of Vers une Architecture with the methodologies of mid-century German geography. Such methods enabled Banham to arrive at an Architectural Histoire Autre that matched his interest in an Architecture Autre (typified by his unhouse).

I found the concluding case-study chapter on Tafuri a bit frustrating. In a review of Sanford Kwinter’s FFE, Thomas Daniell wrote that it is difficult to write about Sanford Kwinter without sounding like Kwinter, and I would argue that this is doubly-true for writing on Tafuri. The history in this chapter was not quite the awakening of the previous three, perhaps because Tafuri work is the most historicized in the recent literature, or perhaps because Histories is, itself, the product of a partially Tafurian methodology. Here the methods of the book and its subject come together in such a way that we cannot get a necessary analytical distance. 

If architectural history still impacts practice (and I think we all agree that it does), I think the most historically involved, and yet progressive, practices invoke the oft-contrasted  procedures of Tafuri and Banham. While Vidler (among other historians) contrasts Tafuri to Banham, we might argue that these ideological opposites spent the last years of their careers focused on very similar problems. Both wanted to reconceptualize the techniques that defined architectural history, because both understood that those techniques were deeply implicated in the possibilities of architectural production. The concluding case-studies of this chapter suggest unrealized and potential closures between the critical and autre methodologies, although this is not an interest (per se) of Vidler’s. The former, but not the latter,  is the thesis of Vidler’s book and the ultimate lesson it offers for the architectural historian and the architect. I imagine many people will read this book to understand some of these historians; I hope people considering a career in architectural history read this awesome book to realize the power of their possible, future career.

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Yesterday, I presented some notes and images from my forthcoming book Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments at the CCA/Stanford conference “Rising Tide: The Arts and Ecological Ethics.” Here are my notes, collected together:

1. Architecture does not have an environment but environments. [i]

2. These environments are found within the theories of architecture stretching from early modernity to the present. [ii]

3. The environment of architecture is not just the environment of the environmentalist. [iii]

4. Lurking in architecture’s environments is a form of nature/environment that threatens architecture, its forms and practices — a “subnatural” environment. [iv]

5. If the natural environment is that realm from which architecture may draw its resources and many of its social concepts, the subnatural environment is that realm that threatens the concepts and forms of architecture, and often the natural environment. [v]

6. The subnatural environment is not composed of essentially subnatural things. [vi.]

7. Matter in the environment becomes subnatural relative to architecture through historically conditional concepts. [vii]

8. Although subnature often appears threatening to architecture, it can be brought within architecture.

9. Architecture can also produce subnature. [viii]

10. To bring subnature into architecture, or to use architecture to produce subnature, fundamentally transforms architectural concepts and practices in often radical ways.[ix]

11. The role of the architect is not only to understand the nature that constitutes environments but to produce the ideas and forms that constitute the nature in environments. [x]

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Notes
[image above is the Patio and Pavilion installation, Alison and Peter Smithson, 1956]

i. see eg. Canguilhem, George (2001 (1948)) “The Living and its Milieu” in Grey Room 3: 7-31; or this translation
ii. see Picon, Antoine (2000) “Anxious Landscape: from the Ruin to Rust,” Grey Room 1: 64-83.
iii. ibid.
iv. see eg. Gissen, David (2009) “Debris” AA (Architectural Association) Files 58.
v. see eg.  writings in French architectural theory on “nature” stretching from  Laugier to Francois Roche, which essentially arrive at this conclusion, from obviously, and significantly, different perspectives.
vi. see eg. Jacob, Sam, (2003) “Architecture: Dirty Filthy Things,” Contemporary, 73; or a more scholarly take in Campkin, Ben (2007) “Ornament from Grime: David Adjaye’s Dirty House, the Architectural Aesthetic of Recycling and the Gritty Brits”. Journal of Architecture, Volume 12 (4): 367-392.
vii. ibid.
viii. see Gissen, “Debris” (above)
ix. As the practices of Lebbeus Woods, Nox, Philippe Rahm, Francois Roche, Jorge Pailos, et al. demonstrate.
x. see Gissen, David (2009) “The Architectural Production of Nature” Grey Room 34: 58-79

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“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!

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As the architectural journal Assemblage approached its end, the so-called “theoretical turn” — promoted by authors within  Assemblage and in its parent journal Oppositions — came to a cross roads. One avenue led to “post-criticism” and the other led to the “historical turn”.

As the name suggests, authors of post-criticism argued for a “cool” response to the architectural landscape of late-capitalism. It was a much less confrontational movement than “critical architecture,” and its authors were largely uninterested in criticism’s dialectics and its lingering neo-Marxism. Journals such as Praxis or Hunch promoted post-criticism at its earliest stages, and some of the architectural work in these journals typified the approach.  

A much less discussed and debated offshoot of critical architecture is the so-called “historical turn.” Like the critical turn, the historical turn was devoted to debunking architectural absolutes rooted in trans-historical concepts. The writing that emerged from the historical turn helped young architects understand that ideas such as “space” or “form,” which once seemed natural to architecture, were developed at specific times within specific circumstances. The historical turn also advanced a more responsible and rigorous use of theory rooted in historical time. That’s one of the more simple explanations of what the historical turn offered, but if you read the journal Grey Room (the epicenter of the historical turn) you quickly realize the complexities of its aims.

Unlike post-critical architecture, the historical turn never developed into a form of architectural practice. In recent articles in Perspecta and JAE, the historians Mark Jarzombek and Sylvia Lavin, acknowledged that the impact of the historical turn on practice was virtually zero. I am not sure how one would quantify the overall impact, but Multi-National City (by Baxi/Martin Architects) is the only work I can recall that demonstrates how the historical turn directly entangles with practice.  In this book, the architects draw on their historical analyses of atria, corporate towers (among numerous other things) to develop inversions of those forms’ historical trajectories and development. It’s a difficult book, meant to be explored for its methods as much as the actual mechanics of the architecture within it (Multi-National City inspired the format of my forthcoming book Subnature, a book very much influenced by the larger agenda of the historical turn). 

Post-criticism now seems like a failure; but the historical turn, while innocent of the vices of post-criticism, has some problems too. And these problems extend past its usefulness. In the name of continuing a more critical architectural project it often breaks one of the golden rules of that project — Manfredo Tafuri’s dictum that architects must not use history as an instrument to justify the present. In some weird twist, most likely too difficult to articulate in a blog post, the historical turn ultimately uses history to justify the contemporary aims of an earlier critical architecture. History becomes an instrument to justify a certain type of work or a certain political agenda, and it somehow begins to appear very unhistorical, if not uncritical. 

But the problems with the historical turn do not signal a larger problem with history in architecture more generally. For me, the problem with the historical turn is that it also (accidentally) reinforces the divide between historical analysis and architectural production.

Many of the projects and people discussed on HTC Experiments talk about a new variant  of the historical turn, what we’ll call (for now) “historical practice”.   A historical practice does not require the architect to divide  work into separate sections or behaviors — “now I write; “now I draw”. Historical practice involves unleashing all the lessons of the historical turn into a form of production in which historical analysis and a new world are made all at once. It can be found in work featured on this site, such as the proposed preservation of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the conservation and reconstruction of dust and smells, and the archiving of a building’s air. All of these works involve THINGS, but they are all also very explicit acts of history.  I believe it is these forms of historical practice, and not the rare work that came out of the historical turn, upon which the turn towards history will ultimately rest.

subnature

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. 

Installation by Los Carpinteros at the Hayward Gallery, London  Installation by Los Carpinteros at the Hayward Gallery, London

I am intrigued by the recent coinage “architecture fiction.” If you don’t know the term, you can read a little about the idea here, here and here. I am using this post to help me define the term, its uses, history, and to come to grips with its possibilities as a form of practice, especially a form of experimental practice in architectural writing.

First, let’s consider some brief quotes by Kazys Varnelis that try to describe, and in some cases define, architecture fiction:

“Instead of absorbing into itself, a Dada Capitalist architecture would look out into the world, creating architecture fiction, a term that Bruce Sterling coined after reading this brilliant piece on modernism by J. G. Ballard, to suggest that it is possible to write fiction with architecture.”

“So let’s dump the idea of reworking performance architecture into green building and turn to architecture fiction instead. Let’s find creative ways to live in what we already have. I’m fascinated by Bruce Sterling’s concept of “architecture fiction.”

From the above quotes we can speculate that 1. Architecture fiction is against concepts of architectural autonomy; 2. It’s an alternative to green building and parametrics; and 3. Its definition lies within writing by Bruce Sterling, particularly this post.

And this is Bruce Sterling’s definition of architecture fiction from that post:

“It’s entirely possible to write ‘architecture fiction’ instead of ‘science fiction.’ Like, say, Archigram did in the 60s. ‘Plug-in City’, ‘Living Pod’, ‘Instant City’ and ‘Ad Hoc’. ‘Manzak’, ‘Suitaloon’, ‘Cushicle’, ‘Blow out Village’, ‘Gasket Homes’ and the ‘Walking City.’ You read this wayout Archigram stuff nowadays and it’s surprising how thoughtful, humane and sensible it seems.”

the post that started it all....For Sterling, architecture fiction seems to be something that uses buildings (versus the language of science?) to articulate possible worlds and, as yet unrealized, realities.

But I see two problems if we collapse the different definitions by the above authors together: One, a turn toward Archigram would be an ironic alternative to contemporary “green” and “parametric” architecture, considering that Archigram’s work fuels much of the visual language of green, parametric architecture (eg. Richard Rogers or Norman Foster). Two, although one of the projects used by Varnelis to illustrate his idea is fantastic (and inspiring), the case can be made that all architecture is architecture fiction.

As the decades-old research of Beatriz Colomina demonstrates, the imagery produced of modernist buildings (non-fiction?) involved forms of stage-craft and fiction. For me the idea that one form of architecture is more “fictional” than another is not particularly satisfying and can be dismantled with some historical and critical distance.

But, that’s ok.

Sterling’s piece offers another possibility for an architecture fiction that is less about reviving earlier practices and more about forms of architectural writing. He writes “I even wrote some architecture fiction myself, once.” and links to this piece — “Grow thing” (2003) — inspired by the work of Greg Lynn. riffing off the bio-morphicism of Lynn’s architecture, Sterling imagines a scenario played out in a bio-technical world: 

“I gotta admit, when Monsanto went into architecture, they really did it up brown. They’ve got it going on with that enigmatic spatial fluidity.” It broke his heart when she stood there bravely on the Facility’s windblown rubber launchpad, tethered to a kite and clutching her overstuffed pack. The passing zeppelin snagged her with a wire retrieval. Gretel shot into the sapphire Texas sky as if packed in a mime’s invisible elevator. Goodbye, till the next time he got custody. Milton pulled off his thick black glasses and rubbed both hands all over his close-cropped hair and beard. My God, reproduction is such a fantastic, terrifying business.”

If we take the above essay as a truly alternative form of architectural writing practice (a claim btw, that Sterling does not explicitly make) then this form of architecture fiction might have some problems too. Like architectural drawing and photography, numerous forms of critical writing on architecture contain fictional propositions and speculations — eg. the writing of Lewis Mumford, Rem Koolhaas, Michael Sorkin, and Keller Easterling. But clearly, Sterling’s form of architectural fiction takes the speculations of these authors to an entirely different level.

This latter definition — architectural fiction as a form of writing on buildings — seems a bit more durable to me, and potentially more influential. Contemporary architectural criticism by Geoff Manaugh of BldgBlog is the latest iteration of this idea. In this recent piece, Manaugh critiques a building through a more fictional voice, and the speculative nature of the writing suggests some new possibilities for architectural criticism. Last week, Manaugh wrote (tweeted) that “Instead of monographs, architecture firms should commission and publish novels. A novel by Ian McEwan… set in buildings by Richard Rogers.” Here we see architectural fiction as something truly new and experimental.

the tweet that launched 1000 lulu booksTo conclude all this: at its best, architectural fiction is a form of appropriation that rethinks the relation between writing and building. It gets us past the problems of modernity (“the critic” reacting against “the work”) and into new territory, by rethinking the very foundation through which the reception of a work and the work relate. Architectural fiction will neither involve “criticism” or “theory” in the traditional sense — like the writing of Doug Haskell or Ada Louise Huxtable on the Pan-Am Building or Sanford Kwinter and the parametricists he inspires. Rather, architectural fiction will involve some new closure between the written and the built that remains to be staged.

Thank you to Metropolis, Pruned, and BldgBlog for covering/linking the Urban Ice Core/Indoor Air Archive project this past week. I appreciate all the new visitors. I always think of the immensely popular, latter two sites, (particularly Bldgblog) as an uncanny reverse engineering of the London and Oxford schools of urban/nature thought — albeit in a more publicly accessible form. I appreciate the now more materialized (virtualized?) links. Thanks to Elizabeth Evitts Dickson for starting the link party.

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As for the project they discussed, it will appear alongside crisp new images of Plume/Idling, the Air-Conditioning Map, and expanded commentary on those projects and experimental historical technique, in AD’s forthcoming “Energies: New Material Boundaries,” edited by Sean Lally (above). It promises to be a fantastic issue with new friends/colleagues Philippe Rahm, Cero9, and more.

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Finally, if you’re in NYC, check out the Urban China exhibition at the New Museum, which opens this week. I wrote a piece for Volume’s “boot leg” catalog for the show (above) with the artist/historian Rachel Schreiber. That too promises to be a great issue of Volume, and I hear there are some great people participating.

There’s much more happening this month, but that’s enough for now. Thanks for visiting, and I promise to post something more substantial soon.

Immediately to the right, I have put permanent links to some of my recent print essays and articles. This is just a small portion of my material circulating “out there;” and, as contracts permit, I’ll post more. The recent essays are re-linked and described below:

“Architecture’s Geographic Turns” explores the geographical sense of contemporary architecture theory, tracing this geographical aura back to the earliest works of architectural writing. It was published in LOG 12, along with some great essays and interviews by some of my favorite architectural writers.

“Anxious Climate: Architecture at the Edge of Environment” is the catalog essay for my exhibition on the work of R&Sie, Philippe Rahm and Cero9/AMID. This exhibition is slowly traveling around the US; it just closed at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture, which was the most impressive staging of the show to date.

“Exhaust and Territorialization” is an early draft chapter from my dissertation, examining the history of the Washington Bridge Apartment complex in New York City. The Bridge Apartments were one of the first “air rights” schemes in the United States (building complexes spanning over highways), and it was also a complex that inspired Reyner Banham’s concept of “megastructure.” This was published last year in Ben Campkin’s fantastic compilation “Architecture and Dirt” — a special issue of the Journal of Architecture.

Finally, “Thermopolis” was a published version of a literature review that I wrote in 2004-05 (again, for the diss.). In this marathon-like essay, I review most of the novel literature on the history of architectural environmental systems. I argue that a more geographical-inspired interpretation of this literature could crack open the history and direction of environmental technology, pushing it away from the “techno-historical” and “cultural-historical” directions that typify most engagements with the subject. It appeared in JAE in 2007.

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.

 

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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?)

{Above, David Copperfield makes the Statue of Liberty disappear]

While some of my very favorite texty types are predicting the future, we might reflect on our more traditional role as commentators on the past.

Five years ago when my partner and I were beginning our PhD’s we sat at a restaurant table with some of her fellow graduate students. While waiting for our meals, these new graduate students went around the table talking about their goals. One intended to write a definitive history of this or that aspect of the past, one intended to write an untold history, and so on. But one of these “PhD’s to be” said something I will never forget: He intended to erase a historical event. He intended to disprove a key aspect of the past that all of us understand to be part of the historical record.

He was inspired by the recent work of Michael Johnson, the Johns Hopkins historian. In a book review (of all things) Johnson examined several pieces of recent literature about the Denmark Vesey slave rebellion. This is one of the most important of Southern American slave rebellions. Revisiting the original sources, he proved that this famous rebellion — on which scores of books have been written, and grants and tenures awarded — never happened. The whole thing was a conspiracy dreamed up by slave owners, most likely to suppress any possible future rebellion. When I learned about this whole affair, I thought it was one of the bravest acts of contemporary history writing; and hearing this student dreaming of repeating this act in his field tapped into my own desires to radically rethink the past.

I am writing about this affair because this is an activity that I find so inspiring but laughable within architectural history and the history of architectural theory; you cannot make a building disappear (although David Copperfield did a great job of it when I was a kid)! Perhaps some elusive figure like Villard de Honnecourt never existed or some famous carriage ride that launched an architectural theory in the 17th century never occurred; but so what? The erasure does not register on the same scale.

But the moral of the story is not that we should necessarily strive to erase history. That is also silly as a goal, and also a bit irresponsible. What this teaches me is that we have to remain on our toes; we have to register every paradox from every archival source; we have to be willing to be frightening (we should not turn down writing book reviews!). We also might let the impossibility of historical erasure within architectural history (particularly modern architectural history) register in works of historical production. We might pretend to exaggerate those purposeful erasures of the past that are rediscovered; or we might exaggerate those past events that almost happened. It’s much easier than what was staged at Hopkins; but it’s the least we can do while reminding ourselves of larger goals.

For more on the historian’s role in a time of crisis, see this.

A few days ago I looked at new posts on some of the most popular architecture blogs, and I left wondering why the overall mood of these blogs is so consistent when the particular content of them is not? Why does it seem that posts on subjects as different as military landscapes, tunnels, or moving buildings come through the same pair of eyes, the same mind? The people that write on these subjects are terrific writers, but why the flattening of the overall methodology? I don’t think we can definitively state that one of these writers influenced the other; although some of them might see it that way. I think there is something more interesting happening.

surfer

I considered how these sites are viewed and how their authors often assemble their particular imagery. I focused on the term “surfing” as uncovering the structure that ties their aesthetic and methods together. In focusing on this term, I am inspired by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s observation that “surfing” is one of the operative metaphors for late-modern experience. He wrote this well before “surfing the web” became a common phrase in the late-1990s. Deleuze’s point was that the surfer was immersed in a situation without beginnings or ends – a situation in which one was surrounded by terrain. For Deleuze the surfer was a method to absorb the world.  But we can also add that the surfer represents a type of intellectual production process in which the disparities of data become assembled into a whole. The surfer moves between disparate situations in place.

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banham-2

Of course “surfing” architectural thinkers predate contemporary architecture blogs. If we look at the work of Reyner Banham in relation to contemporary architecture blogs we see aesthetic similarities; and this is no accident. With Banham we see the beginnings of the HTC surfer. In his television show “Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles” (images above), Banham transformed an automobile into a method through which the architecture of a city might be experienced. Banham “surfed” or more accurately “cruised” the city as a historian/theorist. And if you look at the images filmed through the windshield of Banham’s car they are similar to those that appear in our screens as we read contemporary architectural bloggers. And this includes  the images of enormous technological landscapes, the use of interviews, roundtables (in his car), and the constant appearance of Banham.

surfer_atlas

We might argue that surfing is more than just navigating the continuum. Surfing is also about navigating a landscape in such a way that the particular tensions that make that landscape less than whole disappear (as in the surfing diagram above by Reiser+Umemoto).  Surfing lulls us into thinking that technology, nature and human subjectivity form some type of well-articulated entirety enacted through the desires and prowess of the surfer him or herself. Surfing makes us abandon methodological self-reflection for the thrill of the continuum. And this I think is the danger of the surf aesthetic, because the spaces navigated by Banham and the architectural bloggers are spaces that are less than whole. They are filled with tensions that cannot appear when surfed.

There are only a handful of architecture blogs that drop this surfer image; it is time that we encouraged some more. In upcoming posts I’ll revisit some themes below and redirect them to the issues above.

econ-graph

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.

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.





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