Archive for the ‘Criticism’ Category


The terraforming device from Star Trek II“The Genesis Device” — is a bomb that completely remakes the surface of a planet into a biological and geological version of the earth. It’s like a nuclear weapon that produces an ecosystem. In the video above we see the genesis device transforming a lost moon into a world akin to the Earth.

Genesis is a fictional tool for making nature, but it’s also a system of historical representation; although this latter aspect of the device is completely unexplored in the Star Trek films. Not only does the genesis device make barren moons into a depopulated biotic version of Earth, the Genesis wave generates specific historical landscapes and historical images of landscape — culled from Western systems of colonization and exploration . Genesis fabricates jungle landscapes, large oceans, and mountain ranges on top of a surface that looks suspiciously like the moon.

Ultimately, Genesis creates the double image of colonization: it remakes an unexplored moon into a landscape that looks like unexplored continents. Genesis is really a system of historical representation that makes the explorative vista (the depopulated, resource-rich landscape) appear as something scientific.

Genesis is critiqued in the scripts of Star Trek II and III, but from an entirely different perspective: For the script writers, Genesis represents the dangers of nature made by human forces. I believe the message of the film-makers suggests that the landscape of earth belongs on earth, not elsewhere (btw, this is also the subtext of the science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson). For the writers of Star Trek, the freakishness of genesis lies in its auto-generation of earth-nature — aggressive terraforming without consideration of a planet’s inherent nature.

A post-structuralist or Marxist geographical lens provides a necessary critique to the the above critique. Within critical strands of geography, all nature is a production and a representation; Every tree we encounter is, in some sense, the result of a Genesis Wave: the American Parks Movement, Johnny Appleseed, the Lumber Industry, Suburbanization.

One might argue that from a critical geographical perspective, all nature is a Genesis project.

But if a genesis wave is both a system of historical representation and a representation of reality (versus a scientific fantasy) that only makes its effects (and what it represents) all the more interesting.

The fantasy of Genesis lies in the notion of nature authorship: Can we release the Genesis wave from the literalness and naturalism that underpins a large amount of the sci-fi genre?

What if a genesis wave was less literal and more literary, less a scientific endeavor and more a philosophical and historical one?

What if it we understood this less literal force conceptualized by post-structural geographers or architects with a hankering for critical representations of nature?

What if, like the Genesis device itself, such nature-production was never finished, but an ongoing and unstable process? What landscapes would be generated; what imagery produced? What aesthetic sensations the result?

Postscript

The imagery above and these questions have been on my mind lately: In the past four months I’ve slowly been asking a group of architects, scientists, geographers and urbanists colleagues to consider these possibilities (albeit without the Star Trek referencing!) In a forthcoming issue of AD — “Territory” — something akin to the Genesis Wave will be reconceptualized, reconsidered, made into something far more interesting and perhaps aggressive. The issue proposes a type of terraforming outside the science-fictional and within the nitty gritty of the historical and geographical.

As the issue takes shape and as the above ideas become more formed, I’ll post updates here.

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I always enjoy talking to my friend and colleague Ron Rael.  Ron is the author of Earth Architecture, an excellent book that outlines the history and explores in-depth contemporary uses of earth in architecture.

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Ron’s book is a book about design, but it’s also a powerful corrective to those commentators that view buildings made of earth, or the matter that constitutes earth buildings (mud, sand, gravel, soils), as primitive, poor, or crude. One of Ron’s points is that earth buildings have a far more complex history; describing earth matter as inherently “poor” is often just a way to tie specific practices to specific (often global southern) geographies and histories. As Ron notes, earth is free; but this does not suggest that it is a defacto representation of poverty.  In more recent discussions, Ron describes earth as a type of infrastructure. In his narrative and case studies earth emerges as a material with far reaching technologies and representational implications. 

Ron’s book is engaged with aesthetics, technology, and history; it’s less explicitly concerned with political problems. But in releasing earth’s denigrating associations with poverty, we are left with more than just “rich” earth; we arrive at a less denigrating poverty of earth that is tied more to the “common” than the geographically poor. When I consider free earth molded into something more than a representation of the poverty of those building with it, I begin to imagine it also being part of a terrapolitical structure — a “red earth.” This earth that may be at some base level “poor” but also open to a new image, much more than “not poor”.

In arguing for a red earth, I’m not arguing that earth holds an innate leftist proletarian politics in its chemical composition (!), nor am I completely arguing for the social construction of earth. I am arguing that our engagement with earth offers the possibilities for new liberatory ways of understanding space, that remain tied to earth’s commonness. 

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A powerful concept of red earth, tied to its ubiquity and free nature, might be found in the roots of much red thought — Marx himself. In his Critique of German Ideology, Marx understood earth (as concept and thing) as the base of political economic philosophy. In one of his most famous passages, he wrote “In total contrast to German [idealist] philosophy, which descends from heaven to earth, we here ascend from earth to heaven.” Marx saw earth (both soil and “the earth”) as the base of his philosophy because it was the defacto element that contained the material and ideological possibilities of society (its nourishment, production, and metaphysics).  For Marx, earth contains the conditions of society by society. Earth not only delivers the grains grown by a farmer, but when a person digs his shovel into earth to grow something he or she becomes “a farmer.” When a person binds the earth into bricks he or she becomes “a builder.” The earth is social matter and structure, how we engage with it repeats existing structures and opens up new concepts.

Red earth also becomes red through its potential to release the history of the common, the poor, the defeated. Earth is an endless historical archive of tragedy that does not have to be nurtured, funded, or maintained (like most archives) to hold records of such tragedy. As an archive of social misfortune, our engagement with earth is a barometer of how we come to grips with our crimes. Murder, corruption, and  lurking forms of power are hidden through manipulations of earth (from mass graves to buried toxic pits). But these things often reappear through manipulations of the earth.

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What is the fascism and corruption that appears in contemporary film but a big earth-burying operation? The justice that often appears in film is a big excavation. Consider some of John Sayles recent films in which the bad guys bury their crimes and the good guys, quite literally, go into the earth to excavate those crimes. Or just about any film that explores genocide involves mass burials and excavations.

This more red earth, that is the condition of society and the history of society, appears in a few contemporary works of architecture.  One of my favorite “earth” projects, The Irish National Pavilion is discussed by Ron in his book; it’s a project about history, denigration, and earth. Another more explicitly red project (not in Ron’s book) is the Open Air Cafe proposal by Manuel Herz, which I wrote about in my article “Debris” in the current issue of AA files (and that also appears in Subnature (along with the Irish Pavilion)).

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In this latter project (above), Herz proposes excavating the ground of Cologne — site of one of the most notorious bombings during World War II — and heaping the mixture of earth and war debris (held within the earth of Cologne) over a series of concrete armatures for a park cafe. The war debris becomes a type of historical material that forces residents of Cologne to consider the history within earth and the conditions of a future nature in this particular city. It’s a proposal that enables us to see earth, the crimes it holds, and its potential representational structure in historical terms. 

This brief discussion of a red earth builds on Ron’s observations. I think it also positions some ideas about earth differently from those concepts of earth and ground in either contemporary green or parametric design. Both of these latter movements  see earth as an uncorrupted source of vitalism for a future architecture; an instrument of literal or digital vectors springing out of its surfaces. The earth of Herz (or the Irish Pavilion) is an earth examined (versus generalized); it’s an earth that is historical without being historicist; and it offers us images of earth as both life and violence against life, versus a more flippant vision of life and beauty.

Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments goes to press next week. I can confidently say that it’s going to be one of the most provocative books in the “nature” section of your bookstore/architectural bookstore/amazon list. What do the following three, illustrated spreads from this book have in common? Check out Subnature, better yet, BUY Subnature and find out!

book spreads

Now that Subnature is done, I would like to take a break (!); but timing is such that I’m in the midst of developing a forthcoming issue of AD — Territory: Architecture’s Geographical Operations. Final confirmations of authors are pouring in; and some new friends/colleagues will be joining the mix, which makes me very happy. We have a great line up planned, and I will be posting more information about the issue soon, including a description and some work samples. 

Thanks again for stopping by. Now that school is out, I look forward to more regular updates…

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There is so much discussion of infrastructure these days — from efforts to rethink infrastructure to efforts to rethink buildings as infrastructure, and hundreds of ideas in between. I would like to enter this discussion with another idea, that is not discussed as much — the relationship between infrastructure and history; and I would also like to enter this discussion with a proposition — that we work to produce “historical infrastructures.”

Infrastructure is a defacto element of a city’s history. But more specifically, in a late-modern era, historical knowledge can operate at an infrastructural scale and with infrastructure’s transformative power. To put it another way: history has become an urban necessity in the development of our ideas of urbanity.

First, let me distinguish historical infrastructure from infrastructures that are historical: In San Francisco, where I live, we have cable cars transporting people around various parts of the city; these are also tools of historical knowledge about the city’s infrastructural past. They appear as history, but can be utilized as infrastructure. These turn-of-the-century cable car are often proudly distinguished from tourist busses that resemble cable cars but that are not tied to the cable car system. However important this distinction may be, in terms of my agenda for a historical infrastructure, the point between the cable cars and the busses that look like cable cars is a moot one. They are both representations that offer images of the past, but neither offer us possibilities beyond representations of the past in the present or immediate future. Whatever historical knowledge we derive from them is all statement without method; history without historiography; factoids without techniques.

By contrast, a historical infrastructure operates in two different ways: 1) the representational aspects of historical inquiry are delayed to make the activity of historical inquiry appear first and foremost as the thing represented; and 2) it uses historical reflection to unleash something that was not otherwise possible without this act of historical reflection. Historical infrastructure operates like a water or electrical system, but instead of matter it stitches the mechanics of historical inquiry into a city’s fabric to make history a powerful engine of social and urban life, whose ultimate form is unknown.

Perhaps the closest built methodologies of historical infrastructure are those handful of intense urban historical works completed in Berlin in the last thirty years (many of which were just reviewed in the NY Times). Of these, the practices of architect Peter Eisenman are some of the most powerful, and I would argue there is a trajectory within his work that illuminates the potential of “historical infrastructure” [his work illustrated at the top of the post]. Since his Cannaregio project (discussed in my previous post) Eisenman discovered techniques to turn an exploration of a city’s history into a type of historiographical tissue. In the mid-1980s Eisenman directed this type of work to Berlin, first in his original proposal for the Checkpoint Charlie Housing (the original, unbuilt version being such a monumental project), and more recently in his Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Berlin’s immensely troubling past demands that historiography — the act of historical inquiry — be built into the fabric of the city itself. A memorial as a thing, or as a representation of a past is not enough. History must become the process of inquiry upon which this city’s viability might ultimately rest. Eisenman’s layers of urban grids in the first Check Point Charlie Housing acknowledge this and the necropolis-like textures of his Memorial, place a form of historical exploration firmly in the center of the city. All cities require this historical infrastructure, but a city such as Berlin simply more so.

The concept of historical infrastructure suggests something more than most contemporary discussions of infrastructure. Most discussions of infrastructure treat infrastructure as a technical affair. A historical infastructure can be part of a city’s efforts to rebuild its spaces and systems. And as the examples of Eisenman suggest, such a rebuilding can also be a historiographical technique as much as a thing.

I was putting together drafts of syllabi, and I kept coming across the term “fiction” in specific writings of architectural theory. As frequent readers of this and many other sites know, the term “architecture fiction” has been bouncing around the blogo-twitto-tumblo-sphere. It’s emerging as an alternative and experimental form of architectural writing and as a potential form of architectural practice. Among the numerous discussions of this subject, architect Pedro Gadanho has a new book out on architecture fiction — Beyond: Short Stories on the Contemporary. I look forward to reading it, and potentially reviewing it on this site.

In writing this post, I certainly was not hunting for a genealogy of the term “fiction” in architecture; in fact, I was looking for discussions of “program”. But the fiction term emerged, often in surprising ways.

The earliest reference I found to architecture fiction (a reference that relates to its contemporary use) was in Koolhaas’ Delirious New York. Koolhaas refers to Manhattan and his philosophy of Manhattanism as ” urban science fiction.” This use of “fiction,” also related to Koolhaas’ concept of narrative program,  is what we see in the work of Bldg Blog or Bruce Sterling — fantastical tales situated within equally (but not obviously) fantastic structures, each informing the other.

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“Fiction” also appears as a more specifically critical strategy in post-war writings; eg. Peter Eisenman’s 1984 article “The End of the Classical: The End of the Beginning, the End of the End.” In this piece, Eisenman writes of architecture’s enduring fictions:

“Architecture from the fifteenth century to the present has been under the influence of three “fictions.”…They are representation, reason and history. Each of the fictions had an underlying purpose: representation was to embody the idea of meaning; reason was to codify the idea of truth; history was to recover the idea of the timeless from the idea of change….”

Eisenman argues for a “dis-simulation” of the three fictions, which, I think means that architecture’s inherently fictional quality should appear doubly so. That is, the critical architect is one who builds these representations of architecture as a fiction, versus fictional representations of architecture as reality (eg. various strains of modernist or contemporary minimalist architecture). Eisenman arrives at a more critically fictional architecture through strategies such as scaling, grafting, tracing, and so on. A building such as the Wexner Center or his Canareggio project (below) are forms of architecture fiction within this latter definition. The building becomes a set of narratives (minus the “story” evident in Koolhaas’ work).

cannaregio

Most recently, this post-structural concept of fiction has been aligned with the earlier programmatic concept of fiction in the writing of Felicity Scott.  Scott uses the term “fiction” in a piece from October, which also appears in her book Architecture or Techno-Utopia. The use of fiction is not unlike Eisenman’s, but Scott reaches for a definition of the term traceable to Foucault’s discussion of history as a type of fiction. If all of this sounds confusing, read the quote below. Referring to the strategies of Koolhaas, Italian Experimental Architecture, and Foucault, Scott writes

“Fiction is not just escape from reality but can produce an engaged withdrawal. Foucault commented on this quality in his own work, noting that ‘I am well aware that I have never written anything but fictions.” And of fiction’s importance, he went on to explain: ‘I do not mean to say, however, that truth is therefore absent. It seems to me that the possibility exists for fiction to function in truth, for a fictional discourse to induce effects of truth, and for bringing it about that a true discourse engenders or “manufactures” something that does not as yet exist, that is, “fictions” it. One “fictions” history on that basis of a political reality that makes it true, one “fictions” a politics not yet in existence on the basis of a historical truth.'”

Here the Koolhaas idea of fiction and the more critical Eisenman concept of fiction come together. But something else is added. In the above quote, fiction becomes a utopian project, an idea that I think is missing in the most recent discussions. It is a planned escape versus an alternate reality that better enables us to understand what is real and what is not, or simply what could be just for the sake of difference. But what the Foucault discussion also suggests is that historians are active in developing this form of fictional political activity. How that will be staged, remains to be seen.

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I just finished reading Anthony Vidler’s Histories of the Immediate Present: Inventing Architectural Modernism; it’s his examination of the historiographical techniques of Emil Kaufmann, Colin Rowe, Reyner Banham and Manfredo Tafuri, and their impact on the unfolding set of concepts that we call architectural modernity. It was, with some qualification, a page-turner, at least for an architect interested in history:  it gives us historians a project, it impels us to operate in new ways, while giving us a new history of our discipline. I wrote over 3000 words of notes on the book in an MSword document! I take type-written notes on virtually every architectural book and essay I read, but the scale of note-taking on such a short book is, in and of itself, a huge endorsement and a warning to readers that this book is an involvement. The following review is exceedingly clipped; but i imagine the ideas of this book will find a way into future posts.

At one level Histories is a defense of architectural history. Histories appears at a troubling time in the architectural historical discipline. Today, many departments of architecture  have an antagonism towards history far different than the battle with history that characterized modernity. In addition to the para-historical ideas circulating in contemporary architectural practice, the number of academic architectural historian jobs dropped from about 20/year five years ago to about 10 this past year. In this way, Histories is a memory of the not-so-distant good-old-days when architectural historians piloted “Architecture”. 

At the same time, and related to the above point, Histories is a subtle critique on the unambitious nature of contemporary architectural history. The post-war, youthful historians that Vidler recuperates operated in a way quite different than the young contemporary historian of our immediate present. Kaufmann, Rowe, Banham and Tafuri were cartographers of architectural modernity and pilots of a late-modern architectural agenda. Their most significant articles appeared in the types of public venues that many contemporary architectural historians and tenure-committees disdain; they lectured in both the academic lecture hall and in public settings to a complex and diverse audience; they didn’t reserve their most “important” thoughts to weirdly reclusive conferences.

So what type of agenda did these historians establish? Vidler neatly ties each historian to a particular read of modernity which is then transformed, if not implicated, in a particular architectural agenda played out to the present:

The first case study examines Emil Kaufmann; a historian who coined the term “architectural autonomy”. Kaufmann drew on the Kantian notion of autonomous will, as a hallmark of enlightenment (and bourgeois) society. The autonomous object is not absorbed (or “concatenated”) into its environs but appears as a distinct self-reflective procedure distinct from its surroundings. As Vidler argues, such a concept potentially connects Ledoux to Eisenman; but more significant, Kaufmann used such a concept as political critique against the cultural concatenations (and evictions) of Fascist Europe.

Following the chapter on Kaufmann (which is, I think, the best chapter in the book) we read about Colin Rowe and his desire to establish a history of modernity that engages concepts of historical will and development, but that is distinct from a progressivist, functionalist, and technologicalist approach (i.e. the approach of Banham). Rowe arrives at a vision of history, in which the historian uncovers an “infolding” order (or concept) that can be employed for a future architecture — an extension (if not inversion) of Wolfflin that ultimately traps Rowe into his own posthistorical philosophy.

The chapter on Banham may be the most intriguing; in addition to reviewing Banham’s recuperation of the Futurists and his embrace of the architectural program (a concept formalized by his contemporary John Summerson), Vidler offers one of the most unique histories of Banham’s Four Ecologies. Whereas previous critics understood that work as a “pop” history or urban monography, Vidler argues that Banham’s Four Ecologies essentially entangles the rhetorical gestures of Vers une Architecture with the methodologies of mid-century German geography. Such methods enabled Banham to arrive at an Architectural Histoire Autre that matched his interest in an Architecture Autre (typified by his unhouse).

I found the concluding case-study chapter on Tafuri a bit frustrating. In a review of Sanford Kwinter’s FFE, Thomas Daniell wrote that it is difficult to write about Sanford Kwinter without sounding like Kwinter, and I would argue that this is doubly-true for writing on Tafuri. The history in this chapter was not quite the awakening of the previous three, perhaps because Tafuri work is the most historicized in the recent literature, or perhaps because Histories is, itself, the product of a partially Tafurian methodology. Here the methods of the book and its subject come together in such a way that we cannot get a necessary analytical distance. 

If architectural history still impacts practice (and I think we all agree that it does), I think the most historically involved, and yet progressive, practices invoke the oft-contrasted  procedures of Tafuri and Banham. While Vidler (among other historians) contrasts Tafuri to Banham, we might argue that these ideological opposites spent the last years of their careers focused on very similar problems. Both wanted to reconceptualize the techniques that defined architectural history, because both understood that those techniques were deeply implicated in the possibilities of architectural production. The concluding case-studies of this chapter suggest unrealized and potential closures between the critical and autre methodologies, although this is not an interest (per se) of Vidler’s. The former, but not the latter,  is the thesis of Vidler’s book and the ultimate lesson it offers for the architectural historian and the architect. I imagine many people will read this book to understand some of these historians; I hope people considering a career in architectural history read this awesome book to realize the power of their possible, future career.

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Yesterday, I presented some notes and images from my forthcoming book Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments at the CCA/Stanford conference “Rising Tide: The Arts and Ecological Ethics.” Here are my notes, collected together:

1. Architecture does not have an environment but environments. [i]

2. These environments are found within the theories of architecture stretching from early modernity to the present. [ii]

3. The environment of architecture is not just the environment of the environmentalist. [iii]

4. Lurking in architecture’s environments is a form of nature/environment that threatens architecture, its forms and practices — a “subnatural” environment. [iv]

5. If the natural environment is that realm from which architecture may draw its resources and many of its social concepts, the subnatural environment is that realm that threatens the concepts and forms of architecture, and often the natural environment. [v]

6. The subnatural environment is not composed of essentially subnatural things. [vi.]

7. Matter in the environment becomes subnatural relative to architecture through historically conditional concepts. [vii]

8. Although subnature often appears threatening to architecture, it can be brought within architecture.

9. Architecture can also produce subnature. [viii]

10. To bring subnature into architecture, or to use architecture to produce subnature, fundamentally transforms architectural concepts and practices in often radical ways.[ix]

11. The role of the architect is not only to understand the nature that constitutes environments but to produce the ideas and forms that constitute the nature in environments. [x]

________________________________________________

Notes
[image above is the Patio and Pavilion installation, Alison and Peter Smithson, 1956]

i. see eg. Canguilhem, George (2001 (1948)) “The Living and its Milieu” in Grey Room 3: 7-31; or this translation
ii. see Picon, Antoine (2000) “Anxious Landscape: from the Ruin to Rust,” Grey Room 1: 64-83.
iii. ibid.
iv. see eg. Gissen, David (2009) “Debris” AA (Architectural Association) Files 58.
v. see eg.  writings in French architectural theory on “nature” stretching from  Laugier to Francois Roche, which essentially arrive at this conclusion, from obviously, and significantly, different perspectives.
vi. see eg. Jacob, Sam, (2003) “Architecture: Dirty Filthy Things,” Contemporary, 73; or a more scholarly take in Campkin, Ben (2007) “Ornament from Grime: David Adjaye’s Dirty House, the Architectural Aesthetic of Recycling and the Gritty Brits”. Journal of Architecture, Volume 12 (4): 367-392.
vii. ibid.
viii. see Gissen, “Debris” (above)
ix. As the practices of Lebbeus Woods, Nox, Philippe Rahm, Francois Roche, Jorge Pailos, et al. demonstrate.
x. see Gissen, David (2009) “The Architectural Production of Nature” Grey Room 34: 58-79

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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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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.

lomex_google

I am impressed by these images of Robert Moses’ Lower and Mid-Manhattan  highway proposals reconstructed (or I suppose in this case constructed) into google maps. It’s a form of experimental historical practice (we like that), and it always strikes me when someone goes to the effort to produce something like this. The author of these can be found here.

I do wonder why one would choose google maps to make these. Perhaps google maps is the objective language of the present. It’s what a city looks like now (versus an aerial photograph, a birdseye view, a Bollman map). But the potential problem with this and other google map reconstructions is that it places the historical projects of the past into the uniform language of the present.  The methodologies, the visual language, and the platform of representation are absorbed into tools currently used to measure traffic, scope out real-estate, and find a restaurant. That is, the system of representation and the thing represented emerge from entirely different concepts of the urban. It makes the Lower Manhattan Expressway look so tame!

But what makes this so interesting is that the map works. Why? Because google maps and our understanding of Moses hang on the contemporary concept of infrastructure. Like the concept of “nature”, the contemporary term “infrastructure” is becoming one of the most important, but trans–historical terms of our epoch. It appears to describe everything (now and “then”) through one single concept; and that’s a problem. The maps are great, but the social structure that makes it convincing is troubling.

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My forthcoming book — Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments — is now in production with the good people at Princeton Architectural Press. It will be out in about six months. Subnature examines those forms of nature that architects, architectural theorists and historians have imagined in potential conflict with the ideas, forms, and inhabitants of architecture. In this book I examine this idea of subnature from early modernity (1700s) to the most contemporary work. The image on the cover (above) is by Jorge Otero Pailos. It’s his preservation of the polluted dust in a factory in Balzano, Italy. It’s a great image for the cover, as the book contains many projects by contemporary architects, experimental historians (including some material from this site) and experimental preservationists, such as Jorge. Not only does the book feature contemporary work that has never been published before, but I also had a few images from theory books (Cesariano, et. al.) re-photographed for the first time in many years. You are going to see some things that will surprise you and make you think about nature in architecture in new ways.

Although I do not write about this in the book, I always thought of this book as partially related to Mark Wigley’s concepts of deconstruction in architecture. When Wigley developed his concept of architectural deconstruction he positioned it against Le Corbusier’s notion that architecture was “the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of forms under the light.” Wigley attacked all of the assumptions within  Le Corbusier’s use of the term “form.” In counterpoint, Wigley advanced a concept of corruption to reconceptualize architectural form-making. I attack the latter part of Corbusier’s definition —  its emphasis on the stable, non-human, and external nature (“the light”) —  that we understand as a given natural arena for architecture. However, my concept of subnature is not about “corrupting” external nature. Things are a bit more messy now, and perhaps a bit less dialectical.

With a title like “Subnature,” the book features some work you might expect (eg. the disturbing nature visions of R&Sie), but the book is not simply about advancing an “abject” concept of  nature. Rather, it examines forms of nature within architecture that are explicitly produced through social and historical processes (and that cannot easily be re-absorbed into those processes).  Many of the works in the book happen to be frightening, but others simply operate against any normative concept of nature, and many appropriate various denigrated notions of nature to develop liberatory positions for architecture. Very soon you will be able to pre-order the book from Amazon, and I hope you will. 

Installation by Los Carpinteros at the Hayward Gallery, London  Installation by Los Carpinteros at the Hayward Gallery, London

I am intrigued by the recent coinage “architecture fiction.” If you don’t know the term, you can read a little about the idea here, here and here. I am using this post to help me define the term, its uses, history, and to come to grips with its possibilities as a form of practice, especially a form of experimental practice in architectural writing.

First, let’s consider some brief quotes by Kazys Varnelis that try to describe, and in some cases define, architecture fiction:

“Instead of absorbing into itself, a Dada Capitalist architecture would look out into the world, creating architecture fiction, a term that Bruce Sterling coined after reading this brilliant piece on modernism by J. G. Ballard, to suggest that it is possible to write fiction with architecture.”

“So let’s dump the idea of reworking performance architecture into green building and turn to architecture fiction instead. Let’s find creative ways to live in what we already have. I’m fascinated by Bruce Sterling’s concept of “architecture fiction.”

From the above quotes we can speculate that 1. Architecture fiction is against concepts of architectural autonomy; 2. It’s an alternative to green building and parametrics; and 3. Its definition lies within writing by Bruce Sterling, particularly this post.

And this is Bruce Sterling’s definition of architecture fiction from that post:

“It’s entirely possible to write ‘architecture fiction’ instead of ‘science fiction.’ Like, say, Archigram did in the 60s. ‘Plug-in City’, ‘Living Pod’, ‘Instant City’ and ‘Ad Hoc’. ‘Manzak’, ‘Suitaloon’, ‘Cushicle’, ‘Blow out Village’, ‘Gasket Homes’ and the ‘Walking City.’ You read this wayout Archigram stuff nowadays and it’s surprising how thoughtful, humane and sensible it seems.”

the post that started it all....For Sterling, architecture fiction seems to be something that uses buildings (versus the language of science?) to articulate possible worlds and, as yet unrealized, realities.

But I see two problems if we collapse the different definitions by the above authors together: One, a turn toward Archigram would be an ironic alternative to contemporary “green” and “parametric” architecture, considering that Archigram’s work fuels much of the visual language of green, parametric architecture (eg. Richard Rogers or Norman Foster). Two, although one of the projects used by Varnelis to illustrate his idea is fantastic (and inspiring), the case can be made that all architecture is architecture fiction.

As the decades-old research of Beatriz Colomina demonstrates, the imagery produced of modernist buildings (non-fiction?) involved forms of stage-craft and fiction. For me the idea that one form of architecture is more “fictional” than another is not particularly satisfying and can be dismantled with some historical and critical distance.

But, that’s ok.

Sterling’s piece offers another possibility for an architecture fiction that is less about reviving earlier practices and more about forms of architectural writing. He writes “I even wrote some architecture fiction myself, once.” and links to this piece — “Grow thing” (2003) — inspired by the work of Greg Lynn. riffing off the bio-morphicism of Lynn’s architecture, Sterling imagines a scenario played out in a bio-technical world: 

“I gotta admit, when Monsanto went into architecture, they really did it up brown. They’ve got it going on with that enigmatic spatial fluidity.” It broke his heart when she stood there bravely on the Facility’s windblown rubber launchpad, tethered to a kite and clutching her overstuffed pack. The passing zeppelin snagged her with a wire retrieval. Gretel shot into the sapphire Texas sky as if packed in a mime’s invisible elevator. Goodbye, till the next time he got custody. Milton pulled off his thick black glasses and rubbed both hands all over his close-cropped hair and beard. My God, reproduction is such a fantastic, terrifying business.”

If we take the above essay as a truly alternative form of architectural writing practice (a claim btw, that Sterling does not explicitly make) then this form of architecture fiction might have some problems too. Like architectural drawing and photography, numerous forms of critical writing on architecture contain fictional propositions and speculations — eg. the writing of Lewis Mumford, Rem Koolhaas, Michael Sorkin, and Keller Easterling. But clearly, Sterling’s form of architectural fiction takes the speculations of these authors to an entirely different level.

This latter definition — architectural fiction as a form of writing on buildings — seems a bit more durable to me, and potentially more influential. Contemporary architectural criticism by Geoff Manaugh of BldgBlog is the latest iteration of this idea. In this recent piece, Manaugh critiques a building through a more fictional voice, and the speculative nature of the writing suggests some new possibilities for architectural criticism. Last week, Manaugh wrote (tweeted) that “Instead of monographs, architecture firms should commission and publish novels. A novel by Ian McEwan… set in buildings by Richard Rogers.” Here we see architectural fiction as something truly new and experimental.

the tweet that launched 1000 lulu booksTo conclude all this: at its best, architectural fiction is a form of appropriation that rethinks the relation between writing and building. It gets us past the problems of modernity (“the critic” reacting against “the work”) and into new territory, by rethinking the very foundation through which the reception of a work and the work relate. Architectural fiction will neither involve “criticism” or “theory” in the traditional sense — like the writing of Doug Haskell or Ada Louise Huxtable on the Pan-Am Building or Sanford Kwinter and the parametricists he inspires. Rather, architectural fiction will involve some new closure between the written and the built that remains to be staged.

Thank you to Metropolis, Pruned, and BldgBlog for covering/linking the Urban Ice Core/Indoor Air Archive project this past week. I appreciate all the new visitors. I always think of the immensely popular, latter two sites, (particularly Bldgblog) as an uncanny reverse engineering of the London and Oxford schools of urban/nature thought — albeit in a more publicly accessible form. I appreciate the now more materialized (virtualized?) links. Thanks to Elizabeth Evitts Dickson for starting the link party.

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As for the project they discussed, it will appear alongside crisp new images of Plume/Idling, the Air-Conditioning Map, and expanded commentary on those projects and experimental historical technique, in AD’s forthcoming “Energies: New Material Boundaries,” edited by Sean Lally (above). It promises to be a fantastic issue with new friends/colleagues Philippe Rahm, Cero9, and more.

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Finally, if you’re in NYC, check out the Urban China exhibition at the New Museum, which opens this week. I wrote a piece for Volume’s “boot leg” catalog for the show (above) with the artist/historian Rachel Schreiber. That too promises to be a great issue of Volume, and I hear there are some great people participating.

There’s much more happening this month, but that’s enough for now. Thanks for visiting, and I promise to post something more substantial soon.

Immediately to the right, I have put permanent links to some of my recent print essays and articles. This is just a small portion of my material circulating “out there;” and, as contracts permit, I’ll post more. The recent essays are re-linked and described below:

“Architecture’s Geographic Turns” explores the geographical sense of contemporary architecture theory, tracing this geographical aura back to the earliest works of architectural writing. It was published in LOG 12, along with some great essays and interviews by some of my favorite architectural writers.

“Anxious Climate: Architecture at the Edge of Environment” is the catalog essay for my exhibition on the work of R&Sie, Philippe Rahm and Cero9/AMID. This exhibition is slowly traveling around the US; it just closed at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture, which was the most impressive staging of the show to date.

“Exhaust and Territorialization” is an early draft chapter from my dissertation, examining the history of the Washington Bridge Apartment complex in New York City. The Bridge Apartments were one of the first “air rights” schemes in the United States (building complexes spanning over highways), and it was also a complex that inspired Reyner Banham’s concept of “megastructure.” This was published last year in Ben Campkin’s fantastic compilation “Architecture and Dirt” — a special issue of the Journal of Architecture.

Finally, “Thermopolis” was a published version of a literature review that I wrote in 2004-05 (again, for the diss.). In this marathon-like essay, I review most of the novel literature on the history of architectural environmental systems. I argue that a more geographical-inspired interpretation of this literature could crack open the history and direction of environmental technology, pushing it away from the “techno-historical” and “cultural-historical” directions that typify most engagements with the subject. It appeared in JAE in 2007.

My favorite works of architectural criticism (by authors Cesar Daly, Montgomery Schuyler, Lewis Mumford, and Ada Louise Huxtable) are put to shame by pre-modern forms of architectural criticism. If today we consider the criticisms of buildings in newspapers and magazines to partially determine their value and fate, in the pre-modern era one might look to strange tribunals and courts concerned with the fate of “lifeless” things. 

In a 1916 essay on the history of prosecuting the lifeless in pre-modern western law,  the scholar Walter Woodburn Hyde described how inanimate objects  could be put on trial if they were suspected for crimes. The list of the inanimate and lifeless included building elements and urban adornments. If a beam in a house fell and killed someone, or a wall collapsed, the inanimate object could be prosecuted; And if you thought a statue looked at you in a strange way; you might be able to prosecute it for conveying dangerous curses.

If found guilty, the beam, statue, or stone could be sent into exile — cast out of the city in which it “committed” its crime. If a lifeless thing was found guilty of falling and hitting someone; it could be exiled or the surviving family members of the deceased could claim ownership of it — incorporating it into another structure. Most guilty things were exiled to join other criminal lifeless things. It’s so unreal, but imagine a landscape of exiled objects just outside the borders of the Athenian city state: here statues, beams and stones, are lying about, damned for their unfortunate intersection with urbanity.

If you think the above prosecutions sound strange and alien, they reappear in our era. The imagined landscape, described above, is eerily reminiscent of the swampy New Jersey Meadowlands (just outside New York City) which contain the remains of the original Penn Station among many other buildings. The television program Demolition, aired on BBC, has more explicitly revived the pre-modern tribunals of lifeless things. The show has been widely damned by architects for infantilizing the discussion of buildings. In this program viewers evaluate some of their country’s “worst” buildings, determining which in the end should be demolished. The show has been criticized for many things (its peculiar focus on modernity), but we might evaluate the program as a form of experimental criticism that simply revives the earliest practices of architectural critique outlined above.

Should we put buildings on trial again? Perhaps; but unlike Demolition, we might consider a setting that does not so easily appear as entertainment, in which prosecutor and defender can present their cases for a particular building. I have been obsessed with the fate of one of my favorite modern buildings — Robin Hood Gardens; It appears that for Robin Hood Gardens to survive, its residents, architectural critics and a good (and literal) legal defender must mount a defense against its prosecution. Perhaps bringing the “crimes” and fates of buildings into courtrooms is one of the most civilized activities we can encourage.

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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). 

News item….You must see the latest issue of the Architectural Association journal — AA Files 57. Not only does it have excellent articles by — most-favored-historian-status types — Mitchell Schwarzer and Briony Fer, but it contains the brilliant “Olfactory Reconstruction of Philip Johnson’s Glass House” by Jorge Otero-Pailos. It’s the first, “scratch and sniff” history article I have ever read or smelled. An “experimental preservationist,” Jorge’s projects (and his own journal) have been an important influence in the larger set of emerging practices that we must still tentatively label “experimental practices in history.” Thomas Weaver, the affable new editor of the AA journal has seriously expanded the relevance of this already impressive journal: he’s staged something that cannot, as of yet, be staged online. Congratulations to all.

 

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This will sound a bit grandiose; but it was a fun exercise:

I was putting together readings for this semester’s classes while also examining the UK Royal Collection of architectural theory. The Royal Collection holds the tutorial images and texts that the architect and theorist William Chambers made for the future King George III. It’s pretty impressive that the prince was so carefully trained in the theory of architecture. Inspired by this, and already in reader production mode, I thought of readings that might be assembled into a “presidential reader” on architectural theory – in time for the inauguration. Most of these readings either explore very specific architectural/social projections or the architect’s relations to various forms of (leviathan like) power. Of course, I have no pretension that this will actually be read by him; and I imagine that others (on whose work I often rely) are far better at assembling a list of 22 pieces of architectural historical literature for leader-types and those interested in the ensuing responsibilities. 

Even if you disagree with some of these selections, I hope you find the links to various libraries, archives, and digital collections useful.

1. Vitruvius Pollio, Marcus, “Preface” and “The Education of the Architect” from The Ten Books On Architecture

2. Alberti, Leon Battista, “Book IV: Chapter I” from The Ten Books of Architecture

3. Palladio, Andrea “Introduction to the Reader” 

4. Fontana, Domenico. Della trasportatione dell’obelisco vaticano (governments moving big objects)

5. Perrault, Claude, Frontispiece and Dedication, The Ten Books on the Architecture of Vitruvius (for an image of imperial power and its architectural implications)

6. Vanbrugh, John. “Letter to the Duchess of Marlborough” (an early sense of historical preservation and its value)

7. Ledoux, Claude-Nicolas, selected plates and commentary from, Architecture (on Chaux, nature and cities)

8. Chambers, William, “Dedication” and “Chapter 1”, A Treatise on Civil Architecture (see the intro paragraph above)

9. Piranesi, Giovanni Battista, Views of Rome (if only to see what empires look like in ruins)

10. Jefferson, Thomas. “Letters on Architecture” (even for the amateurs, architecture always involves writing — lots and lots of writing)

11. Pugin, Augustus Welby Northmore, Selected plates from Contrasts: Or, A Parallel Between the Noble Edifices of the Middle Ages, and Corresponding Buildings of the Present Day

12. Greenough, Horatio. “American Architecture”

13. Viollet le Duc, Eugene Emmanuel, “Donjon”  from the Dictionairre Raisonée (the pre-history of bunkers, Gitmo, etc..) 

14. Howard, Ebenezer, Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform

15. Wright, Frank Lloyd, “Organic Architecture”

16. AFK, “Under the wing of a great architecture” 

17. Le Corbusier, “Guiding Principles of Town Planning”

18. Fuller, Buckminster. “Universal Architecture”

19. Fathy, Hassan. “Prelude: Dream and Reality” (an almost, post-colonial approach to architecture; oh well…)

20. Tafuri, Manfredo. “Chapter One” of Architecture and Utopia (My favorite essay on DC)

21. Mcleod, Mary. “Architecture and Politics in the Reagan Era” 

22. Eisenman, Peter. “Liberal views have never built anything of value”  (how could we not finish with something from archinect?)

{Above, David Copperfield makes the Statue of Liberty disappear]

While some of my very favorite texty types are predicting the future, we might reflect on our more traditional role as commentators on the past.

Five years ago when my partner and I were beginning our PhD’s we sat at a restaurant table with some of her fellow graduate students. While waiting for our meals, these new graduate students went around the table talking about their goals. One intended to write a definitive history of this or that aspect of the past, one intended to write an untold history, and so on. But one of these “PhD’s to be” said something I will never forget: He intended to erase a historical event. He intended to disprove a key aspect of the past that all of us understand to be part of the historical record.

He was inspired by the recent work of Michael Johnson, the Johns Hopkins historian. In a book review (of all things) Johnson examined several pieces of recent literature about the Denmark Vesey slave rebellion. This is one of the most important of Southern American slave rebellions. Revisiting the original sources, he proved that this famous rebellion — on which scores of books have been written, and grants and tenures awarded — never happened. The whole thing was a conspiracy dreamed up by slave owners, most likely to suppress any possible future rebellion. When I learned about this whole affair, I thought it was one of the bravest acts of contemporary history writing; and hearing this student dreaming of repeating this act in his field tapped into my own desires to radically rethink the past.

I am writing about this affair because this is an activity that I find so inspiring but laughable within architectural history and the history of architectural theory; you cannot make a building disappear (although David Copperfield did a great job of it when I was a kid)! Perhaps some elusive figure like Villard de Honnecourt never existed or some famous carriage ride that launched an architectural theory in the 17th century never occurred; but so what? The erasure does not register on the same scale.

But the moral of the story is not that we should necessarily strive to erase history. That is also silly as a goal, and also a bit irresponsible. What this teaches me is that we have to remain on our toes; we have to register every paradox from every archival source; we have to be willing to be frightening (we should not turn down writing book reviews!). We also might let the impossibility of historical erasure within architectural history (particularly modern architectural history) register in works of historical production. We might pretend to exaggerate those purposeful erasures of the past that are rediscovered; or we might exaggerate those past events that almost happened. It’s much easier than what was staged at Hopkins; but it’s the least we can do while reminding ourselves of larger goals.

For more on the historian’s role in a time of crisis, see this.

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“The bourgeoisie mistakenly believes that the end of his world is the end of the world” Karl Marx

We’re growing weary here reading end of the year blogs by historians, theory types, and writers that predict the end of this and the end of that. The responses to the housing and economic crisis escalate. We are told that we will witness the end of irony, the end of criticality, the end of post-criticality, the end of suburbs, the end of the city, the end of infrastructure. It seems there is no place to hide! But many of these predictions are either exceedingly literal or naive. Who could have predicted that the collapse of the 0% down, adjustable rate American mortgage would mark “the end” of Reykjavik? Such an accurate prediction is, in hindsight, beyond the framework in which most forecasting is staged.

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But more important, I don’t like that historians engage in this forecasting role. I find it odd. Why are people who look to the past asked to predict the future? Many historians I know refuse to engage in this type of exercise. I enjoyed reading a recent 2009 prediction, in which the historian/author reprinted a prediction from the 1930s. It enabled us to see the futility of the prediction business.

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I once, mistakenly, agreed to offer a prediction. On September 20th, 2001, when I was the curator of architecture at the National Building Museum, I was asked by a major national newspaper to predict the future of the skyscraper. Like many people who witnessed 9/11, I predicted the end of the skyscraper. One of the museum’s major funders, one of the largest developers of skyscrapers in New York, predicted the end of the skyscraper. I believed him. But between 2001 and 2008, his real estate company posted record profits on office and apartment rentals within his various, exceedingly tall, properties. I’m sure he was happy he was wrong. I decided to stop making predictions.

It’s okay not to know the future. Historians are not fortune tellers.

All I can say is that in this new year let’s all take a deep breath. I can predict that I will be taking many.