Architectural Non-fiction

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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.

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  1. another insightful post, david.

  1. 1 Ephemera « HTC Experiments

    […] Ethics of Dust for this year’s Venice Biennale (cover below). This essay expands my post on “historical practice”, using Jorge’s work as its […]




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