Geography vs. Operative Criticism

When I was putting Subnature together (btw, latest extremely thoughtful, interesting review here), lurking in the back of my mind was the critique of Manfredo Tafuri against “operative criticism”. Subnature, provocatively (if not dangerously) tries to form some contemporary rapprochement with the blend of history, theory and criticism, that Tafuri would ultimately label “operative”. Tafuri was suspicious of histories that naturalized (or reified) the present; that is, a history that makes the present appear as inevitable. The “operative” aspect of operative criticism is the alignment of history with criticism of contemporary work — alignment is the key concern.

Many historians utilized Tafuri’s critique to open a new path in historical work — a disentanglement of history from the concerns of contemporary practice (what might be termed an “autonomous” historical project). In some practices this led to a new freedom and intense criticality in historical inquiry, and in others a type of anti-design, micro historical form of writing. Curiously, autonomous history often contained more oblique entanglements with practice: For example, many “autonomous” historians practice architecture, so the remnants of operative history are replaced by practice itself. Within these practices, the connections between history and practice are more abstract, but they’re there to be identified by historians in the future! More directly, Tafuri himself promoted architects such as Rossi or Gregotti, just not within his actual historical work; he even protested (successfully) the construction of certain buildings; so in practice, he was deeply involved in the realization of contemporary architecture. The above forms of contemporary engagement are certainly not “operative” but they nonetheless keep the historian within contemporary practice debates.

Many of the experimental works on this site, by myself and others, seek out new “operations” for history within practice, keeping the misalignments (that mark critical, autonomous history) in place. But within Subnature, I thought I would butt up against that operative edge (I often find unsaid rules to be the most irritating). In many of the chapters, I attempted to replace the tissues (“practice” or “architecture”) that once held history, theory and criticism together with geographical methods. That is, by performatively identifying certain forms of matter — dankness, debris, etc. — lurking within the writing and imagery that form history, theory, and criticism, I could momentarily hold dispersed forms of inquiry together. I think the “Debris” chapter is the most successful in this regard. And a few other chapters show how history, theory and criticism can be briefly aligned in a type of architectural inquiry that deserves continued exploration and enhancement — a discursive architectural geography that I hope to pick up in future projects.


  1. martin

    hi david,

    its been a while, but i just grabbed your book. really enjoying it!

    totally unrelated – this is the blog of one of my classmates here at Pratt. really excellent collection of stuff. his english needs some work, but the ideas are great. just wanted to share. take it easy!

  2. dlgissen

    Thanks for coming back for a visit! and thanks for “grabbing” the book (but you paid for it right? this wasn’t some type of heist!). The projects on that blog are visually stunning – thanks.

    • martin

      as much of a penchant as i have for abe hoffman-esque antics, i did pay; full price too! no amazon discount here.

      question: i am writing a paper on vidler’s architectural uncanny, and i was wondering if you came across anything that might be related, as some of the projects and ideas in ‘subnature’ have uncanny tendencies..

      [shameless self-promotion…ahem. you might want to check back to that blog’s dec. 13th post. someone you may or may not know is featured………]

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