Archive for November, 2011

Matthew Gandy’s new book – Urban Constellations – includes a section on emerging terms in urban studies (“Urban Lexicons”), including this short essay on subnature.


Interview in SA

Melany Park and I talk about the subnatural – just published in SA, an intriguing, international architecture magazine from Singapore.

A short reflection on how to continue the concept of autonomy within an architecture engaged with nature – from Kerb 19, RMIT’s journal.*
Thoughts on a Heap of Rubble [Kerb Journal, RMIT]

*I could have titled this essay: “some of my closest friends are vitalistic animists, but the work still makes me cranky”.

What did they eat?

This year I am co-teaching the survey course in the history of architecture. In a previous gig (long ago), I taught a survey of the intellectual history (otherwise known as “theory”) of architecture from the Old Testament through to late-modern architectural writing. I still find it easier to talk about ideas versus things, but the survey is a great, worthy challenge and I’m in very good hands with my generous and very smart co-instructor and our dedicated assistant.

Last week it was my turn on the stage, and the subject was Mayan architecture. If you’re trained in the intellectual history of architecture the Mayan are a challenge. Not only has the writing system been translated very recently, but very little of that writing touches on the network of ideas that form their spatial outlook.

More to the point, reviewing various scripts for teaching and discussing the Maya, I’ve noticed a pronounced focus on what they ate. This focus on agriculture and diet also figures into discussions of virtually all Meso-American and other indigenous American architectural practices.

Standing on the stage, in the very beginnings of a lecture that touched on maize and chocolate, I had a moment, a simple thought, and a medium-watt lightbulb went off over my head: do we analyze the diets of the builders of carolingian or renaissance space? Do we ask what Alberti and his circle ate and drank? Within five seconds the history of architecture flashed before my eyes, and I realized that the subject of diet almost only figures in discussions of pre-historic western Europe or any architecture produced by a civilization composed of people of color. I stopped myself.

Diet of course is a b-line to tying civilizations down with NATURE and the processes of naturalization. And when we discuss diet, we tend to imply that there is a naturalized link between food and the fabrication of culture. Yes, maize and chocolate appear in Mayan imagery, in their art and architecture. But grapes and wine barrels figure in the art-work of many contemporaneous European movements, and I can’t recall anyone who shows imagery of medieval viticulture when analyzing Carolingian space; or claims that the cultivation of the vine led to the Palace complex at Aachen.

At that moment, I called for a moratorium on discussions of diet in our class until we can sort this out. And in subsequent lectures the issue has come up again and again, if only to make us better think about this enterprise of the history of architecture. I’m not saying diet cannot appear in the survey course, I’m only stating that the subject is unevenly distributed in our analysis of architectural history.


You can nerd-out on the recording (above) of the presentations at the recent event on the future of architectural history and theory at the Graduate School of Design, Harvard University. A terrific event, and it's amazing how quickly these things get posted.

Coverage of the event can be found here:

The event was organized by William Saunders and Timothy Hyde, who taught this interesting experimental history course on Philip Johnson

25 October 2011–1 April 2012

CCA, Montréal
Canadian Centre for Architecture
1920, rue Baile, Montréal, Québec  Canada H3H 2S6
T 514 939 7026

Open on Wednesday–Sunday, 11 am–6 pm; Thursday, 11 am–9 pm

The Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA), Montréal presents Imperfect Health: the Medicalization of Architecture, on view in the main galleries from October 25, 2011 until April 1, 2012. Through a wide range of materials including photographs, publications, art and design projects alongside architectural models and drawings,Imperfect Health uncovers some of the uncertainties and contradictions in the idea of health and considers how architecture acknowledges, incorporates, and even affects contemporary health issues. The exhibition questions common understandings of “positive” and “negative” outcomes within the flux of research on and cultural conceptions of health.

At a time when health is a primary concern influencing social and political discourse across the globe, it also finds increasing resonance in an architectural debate that is becoming medicalized. However, much contemporary architecture, urban planning, and landscape design seem to uncritically address these issues, and may even look to health for a new mandate to be ambitious in familiar ways. This short-cut to restored relevancy has many side-effects, and it needs to be reconsidered.

Problems in everyday life are increasingly treated as medical issues and defined in medical terms. Within architecture, on the one hand, this medicalization largely takes two forms: on one hand, spaces themselves are being described with language such as “sick” or “healthy”; on the other hand, architecture increasingly incorporates solutions from the medical field to address issues of health. The exhibition includes projects and ideas with a range of programs—mostly non-medical—that nonetheless engage issues of health in ways that suggest new strategies and constitute an argument for the urgent demedicalization of architecture.

Modernist projects often saw a deterministic relationship between the environment and health; they tried to be curative, and their history of unexpected consequences is a one of the sources for the nuanced and more complex notions of health in some contemporary projects. Rather than aiming to eradicate or avoid negative factors, certain projects now actively incorporate such issues as dust, garbage, and disease management.

Many architects and designers understand the limits to what architecture can accomplish, acknowledging that efforts towards ideal solutions will achieve mixed results because of the inherent complexities and contradictions in architecture. As Machiavelli pointed out, “it is found in ordinary affairs that one never seeks to avoid one trouble without running into another.”

Thematic research has uncovered examples of projects related to health issues like allergies, asthma, cancer, obesity, epidemics, and aging. These are attractive targets in an age of anxiety for an abstract conception of health that transfers concepts between professional discourses fraught with their own contemporary ambiguities, and appears to restore architecture to a place of importance. But these projects ultimately face the resistance of an imperfect world. New strategies are required and some are already being attempted.

Could demedicalization restore architecture to a more appropriate relation with its social surroundings?


Imperfect Health: the Medicalization of Architecture is curated by Mirko Zardini, CCA Executive Director and Chief Curator, and Giovanna Borasi, CCA Curator for Contemporary Architecture.

The continuous flow of long glass walls through the exhibition explores specific projects and research by an international group of artists, designers, and architects in relation to broader health issues including allergy and asthma, obesity and movement, cancer including its causes and treatment, disease and epidemics, and aging. Providing context and evidence of our preoccupation with these issues are studies, publications, television monitors, and photographs. Works from the CCA’s extensive collection alongside loans from other individuals and institutions collections include images by photographers Robert Adams, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Robert Burley, Lynn Cohen, Geoffrey James, Alfred Stieglitz, Ezra Stoller, among many others.

A book accompanying the exhibition and extending this research will be published in Spring 2012 by CCA with Lars Müller. Edited by Mirko Zardini and Giovanna Borasi, it includes essays by Carla Keirns, David Gissen, Hilary Sample, Linda Pollak, Deane Simpson, Margaret Campbell, Sarah Schrank, and Nan Ellin.

Alongside the exhibition, the CCA will host a number of special events and lectures aiming at framing a discourse on the spatial and physical implications related to health issues.

Imperfect Health: The Medicalization of Architecture

[check out my essay: “An Architectural Theory of Pollution” which is in the exhibition catalog, along with an image of the Pittsburgh Reconstruction.]