Archive for February, 2010

As part of Glacier/Island/Storm I’d like to write about the “neutral” nature upon which the exceptional natures of the G.I.S. studio are based.

In other words, the world building, terraforming natures of GIS suggest a background of all those neutral natures that are unperformative, average, and boring: a dull grey sky, a sand dune, a border that just sits there. These neutral and boring natures are like the glass and stone box monolith towers that the dancing “parametric” towers always seem to hold as their referrent. The fantastical glaciers, curiously shifting territorial islands, and terrifying storms inversely invoke something like the following passage (from Thomas Mann’s novel Royal Highness):

“The time is noon on an ordinary weekday; the season of the year does not matter. the weather is fair to moderate. It is not raining, but the sky is not clear; it is uniform light gray, uninteresting and somber, and the street lies in a dull and sober light which robs it of all mystery, all individuality.”

Exciting stuff – no? And what’s curious, considering the mandate of the GIS studio, is that it’s virtually impossible to find an image that illustrates Mann’s sky on the web! Who would photograph such a sky and post it? The image below is the closest thing I could find.

It also might be interesting to note that the above passage by Mann- on weather, on nature, on a sky without qualities – kicked off Archizoom’s 1970 presentation of No-stop City in Casabella. As pointed out in Pier Vittorio Aureli’s excellent history (The Project of Autonomy), Archizoom wanted to present a city of with a “total absence of drama”, and a high degree of “abstraction”. Their urbanism, an intense parody of Archigram, might be useful as we witness the second (third?) round of recuperation of the British Group – now in the name of Nature, as much as Architecture.

Why bring all this up? In addition to fantastical natures built and invoked by architects today; it’s also time we set our sites to the average natures where real, actual power resides. Cities and governments spend far more time building invidious normal natures than weponized skies or creepy islands. That was the brilliance of Archizoom, in recognizing that the artifice should be directed in and through the boring, albeit in a purely architectural and urban scenario.

The closest thing I can come up with today that represents this project is the work of architect Philippe Rahm, who often, literally, tries to put visitors to his work asleep! Rahm, who works with air and climate as an architectural material rarely dabbles in the exceptional, except, occasionally to develop “monumental” atmospheres. One of his more interesting “neutral” natures is this 2004 proposal to create an eternal spring on an island in Austria. I imagine it may be one of the referrents for the projects shown on BldgBlog from Sean Lally’s studio and Energies journal. [Note: I’m not pointing this out as a gotcha; rather to show how ideas move through authors; including this one, who has reconfigured this particular project of Rahm’s for a future proposal]. Sean’s work is more about shaping complex programmatic space with architectural environment, while Rahm’s is more about inhabiting the climate as a given, as a re-presentation. In this particular project, Rahm proposes to harness the geothermal energy of the earth and electrical conduits to create an endless, and boring spring day in the forest – 70 degrees, 50 percent humidity. It’s like air-conditioning but on the terms of ecosystem.

Ultimately, this is where I think the “nature action” is. Not in Rahm’s work per se, certainly not in Archigram techno-nostalgia, but in this Mann-ian environment ennui. In the age of environmental reconfiguration, the real politic is within the constructed average, not the exceptional.


The American entanglement with Roman ideas and aesthetics is a core aspect of the originality of the American imaginary. This extends back to the founding of the country and is curious, as the US was essentially founded as a disentanglement from an Empire. However as Caroline Winter notes below, the American Romanization was precisely about maintaining a notion of Nationhood that constantly debated and restructured the line between Republic and Empire. Today, like 200 years ago, Americans wonder: “Are we Rome?”; And, as she points out, this question is consistently asked within American history. As she notes Empires produce both violence and cosmopolitanism, as in the 19th Century experience of London, which swallowed the world into one city. The sense of tragedy and possibility still course through that city’s neighborhoods (Daltson, eg.) Today, after the imperial presidency of Bush – Americans ask again: are we an empire or a republic; in other words, if we are Rome, which Rome are we?

This question interests me generally, but I am more specifically interested in the other possibilities for auto-critique offered by the Rome/USA dualism, In a few projects I’ve been drawn to self-reflective recoveries of the Roman recovery itself.

For example, in an ongoing project on the reconstruction of the polluted atmospheres of past American cities, I turned to a Roman form – the “triumph” – to articulate a possible critical reconstruction/reenactment. The image and description below is for the proposed “Object for an Atmospheric Triumph.” It engages with a serious subject, but it’s supposed to be a bit funny:

“The famous “triumph” of Republican and Imperial Rome was a celebratory parade of the victorious and the vanquished. Through the eyes of contemporary historian Mary Beard, triumphs were teeming landscapes — of warriors, monumental objects, exotic animals, and material stretching through a city’s streets. Soldiers marched in progression and the cumulative material of the lands they conquered were paraded as well.

Cognizant of the militaristic and imperial origins of the triumph, the proposed Object for an Atmospheric Triumph nevertheless attempts an enthusiastic, yet critical, engagement with this urban landscape of victory. The Object for an Atmospheric Triumph is an installation consisting of a series of images of people parading a sizeable square helium balloon that displays images of American urban air in the 19th century and the deflated balloon itself. The balloon visualizes the smoky, sooty, coal-ridden air of American cities of the past; but in its absolute difference from our contemporary American atmosphere, the object marks the sublimation of this particular airborne environment in the United States.

The Object for an Atmospheric Triumph is a contemporary reminder of our victories over the disturbing atmospheres of the past. In viewing images of contemporaries celebrating the triumph over a former polluted atmosphere, it enables us to understand historical successes and relocates contemporary environmental crises within a more monumental/historical perspective. It also humorously transforms a militaristic spectacle over foreign lands into a more powerful call for future speculation and activity. “

We will see where this project goes. But moving along, the reconstructions of Roman reconstructions have captured many art practices. One other project in this category is Duke Riley’s Naumachia staged at the Queens Art Museum. Naumachia were Roman reconstructions of naval battles. Like Triumphs they were violent reconstructions of historical events that reflected the Imperial/Republican aspirations of the Roman state. Riley’s Naumachia is used in the classic (or “classical”) American form, as a touchstone of critical assessment. Riley asks:

“With America beset by two wars overseas and economic recession at home, Riley figured it was time to revive the debauchery of the Roman age. On Thursday, August 13, he will host a modern-day naumachia in a big reflecting pool near the Unisphere (the imposing globe sculpture) in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. The spectacle will include lots of model ships and role-playing combatants waging war “with baguette swords and watermelon cannon balls.”

The video of the event is here, among many more on Youtube.

Triumphs, Naumachia’s, American Gladiators, the rise of Latin again and again, Rem Koolhaas’ recent reconstructions of Rome, this is an ongoing project deserving of a bit more serious attention. The future is almost invariably a reconstitution, as the neo-Archigrammian aesthetics of the present demonstrate. If that is so, if it’s always first as tragedy, then as farce, it’s time to grapple with the seriousness of the latter, farcical possibilities – albeit with some sense of what we are really doing. American self-consciousness has this twisted and fascinating link to the Roman – it’s not going to be about column orders – explore it.

Some Spring Events

If you are in the Toronto area, here are two events that may be of interest:

The conference, Architecture Therapeutics Aesthetics, organized by Rodolphe el-Khoury at the Daniels School of Architecture, University of Toronto, and the University of Waterloo, School of Architecture Spring lecture series, organized by Lola Sheppard on “Post-Natures” Poster below.

Hope to see you at either event.