Archive for the ‘Visiting buildings’ Category

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Wow; finally saw this film chronicling Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the World Trade Centers.

I usually have some shame when plugging major release motion pictures, but I loved this film. In fact, I think Philippe Petit’s tight rope walks on (between) the World Trade Center, Notre Dame, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the Superdome make him one of the most important spatial critics of the early 1970s. His tightrope walks critique the overwhelming mammoth and monstrous structures that architecture critics in the early 1970s also scrutinized. Honestly, I love the writing of Manfredo Tafuri (or Ada Louise Hutable), but Philippe Petit is just as good! Imagine giving your students Tafuri’s “Disenchanted Mountain: The Skyscraper and the City” and then sitting them down to watch Man on Wire.

Much of the critical thrust of Petit’s performances emerge from his Nietzschean (really Deleuzian) descriptions of the labor of the wire walker. In Man on Wire, Petit describes the experience of the tight rope as a negotiation of the geological aspects of the built environment. The rotations of the structure, the force of the wind, the expansion of stone and steel under the sun, are all moving through his body as he walks the rope. When I watched this film, I wondered if he had read Anti-Oedipus. After all, that book was all the rage in the early 1970s middle-class artistic circles that Petit would have circulated as a performer.

But Petit also offers us lessons as writers, critics, architectural perfomance artists. His absorption of geological and urban force is so novel, so different than any discussion of cities and buildings as dynamic objects, circulating today. He takes in this force of the built world in absolute stillness. I find it so much more interesting than those contemporary written or built projects that also see the city through this Nietzschean/Deleuzian system and merely regurgitate it in its own image of dynamism. For me, a more significant critique shows the human subject’s ability to process these “dynamic flows.”

Check out the film.

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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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An ongoing obsession here involves the possible links between architecture and geography. There are so many different ways to think about this: the historical use of geographical thought in architecture,  the development of geographical methods for architectural and architectural historical research, the architectural history of geographical exploration, etc. It’s one of my favorite subjects.

Lately, I have been reconsidering another, more direct and crude application of geographical ideas within architecture — in particular architectural history. I’m interested in the architectural historical appropriation of those structures used by geographers to produce knowledge. I mean “structures” with absolute literalness. Those deployables, vehicles, and sensing stations that we see in geographical methods of examining the world might be considered by architectural historians to examine the built world. This could be done as an aspect of a normative or more experimental historical technique.

When I was working on my phd between the departments of geography and architectural history, I often fantasized about venturing with the geographers (the “real” geographers) who conducted fieldwork in the most extreme environments. At the department of geography at UCL, I recall one expedition to Chad, in which the geography students of UCL went to the “dustiest place on earth” (that’s the image above) with some interesting field equipment.  I have been in a nasty archive or two, but the images in the geography newsletter suggested that these students were in some  entirely different situation (and using some cool tools). It was a bit frightening and exciting to imagine the possibilities.

This form of “exploration” appears throughout the history of architecture, where it has a long and often troubled history. But I’m not here to berate the explorers; others are far better at that than me.  I am interested in considering the possible alterity that might be found in these acts of geographical/architectural curiosity. The use of geo-explorative structures, which is part of this larger history, is much less examined. Perhaps it’s there where something new might be found.

One of my favorite examples of an architectural appropriation of geo-exploration is the Otranto project by Renzo Piano and Peter Rice. In 1979 Piano and Rice appropriated the imagery of geographical field stations for a Unesco-sponsored workshop on the restoration of Otranto, Italy. Within this deployable station, workshops were held with local residents to consider strategies for renewing this somewhat impoverished Italian town. I still find the project (below) an interesting counterpoint to most contemporary imagery surrounding “community” based, restorative architecture — the latter movement typically embracing a low-tech, folksy  and local visual grammar. Here, a community architecture, is understood as something that draws on the technological prowess of a contemporary state.

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In the 1980s, a different, but equally technological realization of  geographical knowledge systems within architecture appeared in the tree raft structure (below) by Gilles Ebersolt. Here, the French architect worked with naturalists and environmental geographers to develop an architecture that enabled scientists to explore the canopies of rain forests. In some projects, Ebersolt developed fantastic research stations for use in urban sites. In enormous inflatable spheres, Ebersolt’s urban explorers move through terrain, appearing with a sometimes troublesome scientific detachment.

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In the past ten years, the architect Laura Kurgan updated the image of geo-knowledge  production within architecture, transforming it into something far less instrumental and far more informed by various “critical” turns. In a recent project that illustrates her interests, Kurgan used imagery from the Ikonos satellite to examine how the attacks of September 11th registered in geographical space/time (below). The project considers how September 11th will be recorded as a historical event due to the particular remote strategies of seeing that pervade contemporary strategies of planetary visualization.

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The above projects present many interesting possibilities. Among the possible geo-machines yet to be staged within architecture, I continue to consider recent robotic imagery in contemporary experimental architectural practice. Various architects embrace robotic to reconsider architectural program and construction labor, but could we reinterpret the robot image as a form of knowledge production about architecture. This makes particular sense, as robots are already used to examine sites remotely, particularly those inhospitable to direct human observation, and unreachable via satellite (eg. the urban underground and extra-planetary!).

I am not sure how such a project would intertwine with additional forms of commentary evident in the work above, particularly the critical directions implicit within Kurgan’s work. Kurgan’s project, and perhaps Piano’s, foreground the techniques of knowledge production in such a way that knowledge and its instruments are open to debate, even as they are put to use. That, to me, is the key in the development of a remote-sensing, geo-architectural historical machine.

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Susan Sontag’s vaguely noirish, Chandleresque and glamorous crit of the Seagram Building — “Like a gigolo’s hand up a silk stocking…” Need we say more? Watch it all below.

*ps: and for contemporary hpstr-esque criticism, check out this hilarious post (first architecturally spotted by Owen Hatherley). 

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.

Within architectural history the edge between modernity and late-modernity is filled with images of the elderly, mostly elderly women. We see this most famously in the photographs of the Vanna Venturi house and Guild House, by Venturi Scott Brown and Associates.

Because the most staged and circulated images of these buildings include images of women, and because they are older, some historians have advanced these buildings as representing a new type of subject within architecture. For some, these buildings marked a shift towards a then new emphasis on “usability” or “livability”. In these images we saw expressions of previously unexpressed lives.

 

But the less discussed image operating here is the very alone-ness of the people in these famous images. If we consider the photographs of the Guild House (above and below), we see this with both older woman and men. In the exterior photograph sanctioned by Venturi Scott Brown, notice the man sitting by himself outside of the Guild House (to the right of the entrance).

 

In considering these iconic images of post-modernism it is as if this approach to architecture is a movement whose seeming gaiety is in actuality filled with a latent and unstated sadness; it is a movement full of older people who are alone – what we might somewhat insensitively  (but in some instance, more accurately) call images of “widows.” It is not just that the people in images of post-modern architecture represent subjective shifts away from the subjects of the past – that great collective of laborers and bureaucrats that moves through an earlier architectural theory – it is as if the people in the photographs described above mourn those very conditions of a former subjectivity.

(An aside: Revisiting these photos of the Guild House today seems to beckon the architectural historian less to consider the problems of modernity’s edges and rather, to simply pay these people a sorely needed visit as an act of architectural historical kindness!) 

 

But in considering this image of widow-hood at the margins of modernity, consider another image taken just a bit after the images of the Guild House that also emphasized subjective shifts, “usability” and general late-modern maneuvers. In the photography of his Overloop nursing home design in the Netherlands (above), the architect Hermann Hertzberger also develops an image of architecture filled with the elderly. Unlike Venturi, Herzberger’s elderly do not advance an architecture of the elderly as a pathway to some type of architectural levity, nor does Hertzberger image them alone. Here is that “collective spirit” articulated as one of the inspirations of an architecture in an industrial age — the “New Architecture.” In fact, notice the older woman at the center of the photograph who does not acknowledge the photographer; she is that older woman who sits alone in every other architectural book that depicts the shift from the modern to late-modern; but here she walks away (to some friends one hopes).

One might argue that Hertzberger found a way to link the percolating subjects at the edges of modernity (these are older people after all)  to the project of modernity — linking the “production” of a society to these seemingly “unproductive” subjects. Thus, Hertzberger’s space  escapes the mourning-image of modernity that moves through the images of then contemporaneous late-modern American work. But in avoiding this mourning image it also further avoids the real existing historical transformations that surround this insulated world. In the end, Venturi’s images of images of productive loss, is  a form of projection. The mourning of a modern subjectivity found in that proto-post-modernism has become the dominant form of subjectivity.

[For more on the issue of the user in the modern/late-modern divide see the work of Adrian Forty; and for more on the imagery of Venturi’s work see the recent exhibition at CCA, Montreal by students at the Columbia GSAPP.]





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