Archive for the ‘Criticism’ Category

A few days ago I looked at new posts on some of the most popular architecture blogs, and I left wondering why the overall mood of these blogs is so consistent when the particular content of them is not? Why does it seem that posts on subjects as different as military landscapes, tunnels, or moving buildings come through the same pair of eyes, the same mind? The people that write on these subjects are terrific writers, but why the flattening of the overall methodology? I don’t think we can definitively state that one of these writers influenced the other; although some of them might see it that way. I think there is something more interesting happening.

surfer

I considered how these sites are viewed and how their authors often assemble their particular imagery. I focused on the term “surfing” as uncovering the structure that ties their aesthetic and methods together. In focusing on this term, I am inspired by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s observation that “surfing” is one of the operative metaphors for late-modern experience. He wrote this well before “surfing the web” became a common phrase in the late-1990s. Deleuze’s point was that the surfer was immersed in a situation without beginnings or ends – a situation in which one was surrounded by terrain. For Deleuze the surfer was a method to absorb the world.  But we can also add that the surfer represents a type of intellectual production process in which the disparities of data become assembled into a whole. The surfer moves between disparate situations in place.

surfing1

banham-2

Of course “surfing” architectural thinkers predate contemporary architecture blogs. If we look at the work of Reyner Banham in relation to contemporary architecture blogs we see aesthetic similarities; and this is no accident. With Banham we see the beginnings of the HTC surfer. In his television show “Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles” (images above), Banham transformed an automobile into a method through which the architecture of a city might be experienced. Banham “surfed” or more accurately “cruised” the city as a historian/theorist. And if you look at the images filmed through the windshield of Banham’s car they are similar to those that appear in our screens as we read contemporary architectural bloggers. And this includes  the images of enormous technological landscapes, the use of interviews, roundtables (in his car), and the constant appearance of Banham.

surfer_atlas

We might argue that surfing is more than just navigating the continuum. Surfing is also about navigating a landscape in such a way that the particular tensions that make that landscape less than whole disappear (as in the surfing diagram above by Reiser+Umemoto).  Surfing lulls us into thinking that technology, nature and human subjectivity form some type of well-articulated entirety enacted through the desires and prowess of the surfer him or herself. Surfing makes us abandon methodological self-reflection for the thrill of the continuum. And this I think is the danger of the surf aesthetic, because the spaces navigated by Banham and the architectural bloggers are spaces that are less than whole. They are filled with tensions that cannot appear when surfed.

There are only a handful of architecture blogs that drop this surfer image; it is time that we encouraged some more. In upcoming posts I’ll revisit some themes below and redirect them to the issues above.

econ-graph

Probably all of us who work in the architectural HTC area have heard stories about how architectural thought–particularly architectural theory–increases in times of economic hardship.  When the markets are down and the economic indicators turn south, the architect begins to think, to write, to theorize. When the markets are up we “do” and don’t think much. Based on this argument, all one has to do is look at the economic chart above (it traces gdp in the US and Europe) and literally turn it upside down to map the intensity of architectural thinking. 

The latest version of this narrative claims that as the neoliberal economy collapses it simultaneously brings both “post-critical” and “generative design” down with it; a very simple way to put this is that the cutting-edge architect of today will suddenly trade Rhino for Microsoft Word. 

Besides the reductive economic determinism that underpins such arguments–“when the cash flow dries up we suddenly think more and when we’re flush we don’t reflect as much”–its authors offer little statistical evidence. And I make this cold empirical assessment because the best economic determinist thinkers rely on empirical data to fuel their theories (consider the work of David Harvey as an example). And I would imagine that some of the very authors who imagine the generative-downfall, have Harvey-esque, neo-Marxist ideas in their back pocket, even if not explicitly stated as such.

But the neoliberal/generative coupling and its downfall, and the larger narrative of which it is a part is not only based on economic determinism; it is also based upon a faith that when the economy is bad architectural theory suddenly flourishes. But this article of faith needs to be proved, or the larger argument falls apart.

And for me, this is an extremely interesting question; how exactly could we chart this relationship? Would I go to the Avery Index and search for the number of architectural theory articles between 1973-75; 1980-82; 1990-91; and 2001-03? Would I then compare them to the number and “significance” of articles written outside these years–during the booms?  Such cross-referencing sounds ridiculous; I know this. But even more surprising is that when I scan my most recent theory syllabus I realize that some key pieces of contemporary literature are actually not written during these lean years. In fact some of the key pieces of literature are written during the booms.

The chart above traces an “economy”–one of the great social constructions–but I am not sure it truly traces any indicators of architectural thought.

This is the earliest image I can find from the history of architectural theory that explores the inter-relationships of an assembled crowd, their leader, and the larger space in which this assembly occurs. This is from Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc’s “Dictionary”* — the important book, published in the mid-19th century, that examined Medieval architecture and its theoretical implications. We could locate this image as one of the earliest in a visual taxonomy of the crowd that moves through the history of architectural theory — consider the crowd images by Terragni, Speer, Mies, and Fuller. And, as if it needs stating, I am thinking about images like this as Tuesday approaches and as we see images of roaring crowds.

But what I like about the above image, and Viollet-le-Duc’s description, is that Viollet-le-Duc appears to acknowledge that this very image of the architectural leviathan is one filled with risks. Viollet-le-Duc wrote of the lurking power, potential, and violence in a room such as this where a “lord gives his orders” to “a vast reservoir of men”; their life is all “warring,” he wrote. But, Viollet-le-duc also wrote, rather humbly, that his illustration gives a “weak idea” of this form of power when people are assembled by their leader. The “atmosphere,” to use a word so popular today, of this crowd’s anxiety cannot be adequately conveyed.

*See the entry “Donjon.”

In 1996 a former architectural history professor of mine at Columbia asked me how I enjoyed being a student at the Yale School of Architecture, particularly how I enjoyed being an inhabitant of Paul Rudolph’s Architecture + Art Building. Like virtually all students who have been in that building, I think the building is an extraordinary feat of design and construction; The building was just renovated, expanded and renamed, and I can’t wait to see it.

But as a disabled person my relationship to that building was peculiar, to say the least. It’s not just that the building is set over many levels, and many levels on one floor. Navigating the interior spaces and the multiple floor changes and stairs was a pain. The “floating stairs” everywhere, particularly in the entryway leading to the building’s foyer, were particularly difficult to negotiate. What seemed like comedy to my friends, but really just a huge nuisance to me, was, my former professor argued, an avenue to architectural criticism. “You should write about it”, she said, and now more than ten years later I am.

But it’s not just the Rudolph building; I have literally rolled (in a wheelchair), limped and crutched in many “masterworks” of modern architecture. Here is my not-so-brilliant critical assessment of disability in architecture: Anything that claims to have been inspired by some type of architectural heroism or any building in which someone might describe the architect as “heroic” (as is virtually always the case with this particular work by Rudolph) will generally impart a bumpy ride for the disabled inhabitant. If I start an architectural tour and someone mentions one of these concepts as the inspiration behind the building, I generally brace myself for the inevitably intense walking experience. 

And this is no accident. The Romanticist theory that lurks behind the concept of a heroic architecture contains a strong masochistic streak. After all, the Romanticist writers who inspired the call to “experience” and “heroics” in the late 18th and 19th century were people who wrote about the intense effects of tuberculosis, war and other horrific assaults on the body.  In acknowledging this, we should seriously consider how many war-time and post-war-time architectural practices  (Civil, Spanish American, WWI, WWII, Korean, think also Jameson/Vietnman/Bonaventure) often unleash spaces in which the body appears to be pressed to some type of physical limit – pressed, one might argue, into the position of hero. As I recall, it was the historian of Rudolph, Timothy Rohan, who acknowledged a hyper-masculine and masochistic tenor to the spatial and material treatments of the Yale Architecture School. The space was about many things, including Rudolph overcoming his own subjectivity as a closeted homosexual man. But this heroic overcoming, articulated by Rohan, is certainly imparted to many of those (not just Rudolph) who navigate this space.

 

But to address my teacher’s call for “disability criticism,” I do not think the very act of struggling to move through a building can be read as an act of critique in and of itself. Do the struggles of a disabled person ever read as architectural criticism? The “failures” of the body/space interaction here always falls back either on the “disabled” person or the “larger social” milieu in which disability appears. The disabled cannot seem to speak through disability against particular theories of architecture.  What is demanded here is something that we might term “performance critique” where the interface between disability and space is continuously repeated to uncover the ideas I mentioned above. That is, through repetitive performance we see disability as an idea designed to be overcome in those spaces that appear inherently “insensitive”. In the case above, by demanding repetition, we uncover the hidden image of overcoming the “lesser body” that I really believe moves through the heroic theory of architecture.

 

To make all of this visible I will make sure to have a friend shoot some video of me climbing those steps – as many times as I can. And if I can do it without limping too much I will give myself a medal as an ironic, heroic critic of the Yale Architecture Building.

I want to thank all of the visitors that have made the first week of this site such a success. It’s hard to imagine that a website about the methodological minutiae of architectural history, theory and criticism could have more than 20 visitors in one week; but according to my “stats bar” we have reached about 290 in seven days. That is a modest accomplishment (in upcoming days I will add some new features: a “blogiography” that will list publications that are now referred to in name and date, and some links to other relevant material).

When I was assessing this first week and looking at the image of the “stats” bar, I am reminded of the way “architectural theorists,” in the name of cultivating architectural thought, gauged their reach. The earliest image I can recall that graphically measured the extent of an architectural theorist’s readership is Le Corbusier’s map of subscribers to L’Esprit Nouveau (shown below)

According to Colomina (1988 ), the map was used by the publishers of L’Esprit Nouveau (LC and Ozenfant) to both demonstrate the reach of the journal for potential advertisers, and to provide a snapshot of the reception of a particular type of architectural writing in the early 20th century.

After World War II, the geographical impact of architectural theory, suggested in Corbusier’s image was replaced by images that concentrated on the development of architectural theory within and relative to other architectural theory and thought. We see this in the image above by Charles Jencks (discussed by Martin, 2006 as a type of ecology) and below by Stan Allen (on the cover of Hays, 1998). The latter absorbs geographical location within the development of architectural theory itself. The social locations on the earth are now situated within theory — “Moscow,” “Berlin,” “Prague” — rather than theory being distributed through them.

Both these images suggest that architectural theory from the 1970s to the 1990s was a somewhat closed enterprise –either ecosystem or feedback system—which, considering the intense circulation of roughly 30 key authors at that time, it may very well have been.

Both the geography of readership and the geography of thought itself appears to have been supplanted in recent years by a concentration on bestseller lists or best of lists. We seem to care less who is reading what in specific precincts, or how ideas are mapped together. We just want to know what is being read. This seems particularly ironic. After all, aren’t we itching to know exactly what architectural books are being read in the new post-critical building boom cities? 

But let’s look at these non-geographical lists; when so many authors discuss the death of theory it is surprising to see architectural theory titles at the top of best-seller lists (as in the lists below (Princeton Architectural Press, at left, and a recent article in the Independent (UK), at right).

This is a good time to reassess the reach of architectural thought, particularly the representation of this reach. Rather than documenting the movement of journals, terms, and ideas through geographical and historical zones or quantifying the amount of sales or hits of books and posts – what if we transformed the cartographic map of architectural thought into a representational fantasy, but one that was nonetheless achievable?

I believe every work of architectural history, theory and criticism has within it, sometimes on the surface, sometimes deep, the fantastical desired cartography of its readership. What this readership looks like is a cartography we carry in our heads as authors. Every writer or architect I meet tells me of that person, or those individuals who comprise a school of thought, that they wished viewed their work; and some architectural historians seem to have a fantastical audience built into the work (the White House; a specific  revolutionary). Perhaps one simple pursuit of htc is to make this imagined, fantastical geography of readership into a map of a real existing one.

In 2005 when I was living in Baltimore, someone (never caught) was shooting bullets at the glass curtain walls of a few of the city’s modernist buildings. The shooter only “attacked” buildings at night — when they were lit — and when they were clearly empty. When the Maryland Institute College of Art’s (MICA) new Brown Center Building (2003) was attacked there was enormous outrage at the seemingly senseless act and the obvious destruction of property. The image of this building’s taut curtain wall glass punctured with the characteristic hole from a bullet was circulated online — symptomatic of our city’s particularly violent character.

While the various administrators of MICA described the crime of the shooter, I jokingly called this person the “architecture critic.” After all, this building (and it was designed by some good friends of mine) was a pretty strange statement about what an elite institution might be in a city of enormous strife. Plus, it did not appear that the architecture critic tried to shoot people, just those buildings that symbolized certain aspects of the city’s future margins. Rather than categorize the above act within the confines of “crime” and outside of the larger discourses we label “criticism,” we might consider this brazen act as a form of commentary on the push for development (at any cost) at that time in Baltimore.

My joke label — “the architecture critic” — also had a peculiar irony to it, because during this time our city’s ONE official architecture critic was under investigation by his employers at the Baltimore Sun; he was accused of using laudatory architectural criticism to advance those buildings in neighborhoods in which he owned property! The $15,000 it cost to replace the Brown Center’s windows was nothing compared to the increase in personal property values that this architectural critic achieved by writing about the loveliness of those buildings at the center of his real estate holdings.

But all of this raises larger issues than just whether the criminal is the guy doing the drive-by shooting of an empty building or the guy at the reporter’s desk. In considering all of this, we might recall the 1976 performance of Gordon Matta-Clark at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in New York City. The architect and theorist Andrew McNair had invited Matta-Clark to participate in an installation in the Institute’s Midtown Manhattan gallery. Instead of showing images of his work or, completing one of his more characteristic “cutting” projects, Matta-Clark decided to shoot out the windows of the gallery with an air rifle. The directors of the Institute were infuriated (as anyone responsible for the maintenance and budget of an institution was and should be) but Matta-Clark’s shooting has subsequently gained praise as a brilliant act of architectural criticism.

I think the example of the Baltimore shooter, the Baltimore architecture critic, and Matta Clark ultimately point toward the same issue: criticism demands more criticism — to move from crime to critique or the opposite direction. And this is especially the case in the extremes of experimental criticism that such a critique of the critique is especially needed. Then and only then can we understand such acts as commentary — and an often badly needed one at that.

Blowout, Gordon Matta-Clark, 1976 (Note this is not the performance at the IAUS)