Archive for the ‘Film/Television’ 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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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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The swamps at the edges of my childhood town in Bergen County, New Jersey were strange zones of muddy flats and reeds that ended in the Manhattan skyline. If you grew up in New Jersey and were not that interested in going to the mall, you probably went to the swamps. We “swamp kids” were metal-head teenagers, who thought “fun” involved transforming this landscape by whacking reeds, shoveling out trails and building hills. The swamps were viscous landscapes, where virginity was lost, D-batteries drained (playing awful music on tape decks), and road bikes shot up dusty hills. The swamps were places where the more normative, middle-class trajectory of suburban adolescence was momentarily suspended. It was a space I constantly considered as a kid, but have not thought about in a long time.

The swamps of New Jersey never appeared in recent and hilarious representations of New Jersey youth, primarily because they do not fit the narrative role that New Jersey often plays. The swaps were the furthest thing from the “malls” — spaces that typified aspects of New Jersey town life and that are endlessly contrasted to the more urbane Manhattan. The malls of Jersey appear in publications and writings, but the swamps do not. But despite the swamps invisibility, I have come across the swamps again in the most unexpected of places — an art practice, an essay, a film. What I never knew, was that adults also saw the swamps as spaces of transfiguration.

Here is Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt’s video “Swamp,” (1971) filmed in the New Jersey swamps of Bergen County. It completely captures the minimal flora and sounds of these landscapes.

In an interview Holt conveyed some thoughts about the film

“it deals with limitations of perception through the camera eye as Bob and I struggled through a muddy New Jersey swamp. Verbal direction cannot easily be followed as the reeds crash against the camera lens blocking vision and forming continuously shifting patterns, confusion ensues.”

And Smithson added…”it’s about deliberate obstructions or calculated aimlessness”. 

As Smithson and Holt wandered the swamps, the swamps were used as dumping grounds for building debris from Manhattan. As a child, my friends and i could watch trucks roll into the swamps and dump bricks and stones into mounds which we would then climb. It is only recently that I learned that the remains of Pennsylvania Station were dumped here. Architecture history buffs traverse the swamps looking for the remains of this and other famous New York City buildings

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In the past few years, I have come across the swamps again, as an aspect of post-structuralist urban theory. In the opening passages of his essay, “Anxious Landscapes”, the architecture historian Antoine Picon recalls looking out of an airplane on his way into Newark airport and seeing a strange landscape neither wholly natural or human. Picon was viewing the swamps. His perception of the swamps begins this essay on architectural and technological history, concepts of nature, and the production of selfhood. The Anxious Landscape, as he labels it, can be seen in the New Jersey swamps, and in the visions of Piranesi, Boullée, and contemporary films, such as Blade Runner.

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Within this landscape of anxiety (the swamp and related spaces), Holt, Smithson, the scavengers, and Picon all revel in the momentary  disorientation.  For Holt, Smithson and Picon, the contemplation (or navigation) of this type of space produces an alternative form of subjectivity.  In Smithson and Holt’s video, we witness a type of anti-explorer — a parody of geographical exploration. In Picon’s essay, he also questions how one might navigate or map the anxious landscape without a corresponding transformation in the viewing subject. This is a form of landscape that demands a certain transformation in those that move through it. I suppose that was how I used the swamp, as a landscape in which to get a bit lost and to try to become something different.

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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Since at least the 19th century, various upper-class social explorers have posed as people of a poorer class to explore the particular inequities of slums, sweatshops and marginal spaces of urban vice. The exploits of these actors were reported back to middle and upper class readers who were often shocked by the world inhabited by the less fortunate. The most famous of these recent social class explorers was Barabara Ehrenreich, who recounted her days posing as a waitress and house cleaner in the book Nickle and Dimed. In an excellent piece in Representations, the contemporary historian Eric Schocket labeled these class poseurs — “class transvestites” —, a term both immensely descriptive and ultimately damning of their activities.

In addition to class transvestitism, we can also locate a curious (and recent) temporal transvestitism, made possible through reality tv shows and their significant budgets. Programs such as 1900 House (above), Frontier House, and Manor House, enable participants to live a life in “the past” (Frontier and Manor House actually combine both class and temporal cross-dressing/acting) and they invite viewers to watch their confrontation with historical and antiquated means of living. These programs interest me because they are avenues to experimental spatial historical technique, but they’re also troubling in ways — ways that only make them that much more intriguing.

On one level, these programs encourage historical understanding through reenactment. Enactments sound horribly corny, but I was surprised and fascinated to learn that Thomas Laqueur uses actors to teach world history to his students at Berkeley. These programs also interest me, because all three (painfully) instill the present within history. Although we empathize with a modern family’s struggle with a technologically unaccommodating past, the programs’ producers advance a woman’s housework, property ownership, and class inequity as part of the historical continuum; that is, we see how popular history is commandeered to advance and fix contemporary socio-spatial dynamics.

But there is another ideological strand moving through these reenactments of the past that’s altogether less Barthesian, and ultimately more disturbing. 1900 House and Frontier House may actually not be reenactments of the past, but televisual priming of a possible apocalyptical future. They portend a possible demodernization that haunts contemporary Western discussions of infrastructural collapse and ecological disaster. In these shows water must be fetched, waste disposed, and food gathered, in ways far different than the modern infrastructural city. Additionally, all of the programs emphasize forms of cleaning, eating, and heating, that seem more environmentally palatable — homes more disentangled from global networks.

In fact, within Frontier House, it is only the historical dress that makes this show a part of history and not some ecopocalyptical scifi program. On the program’s website, the producers write “The Challenge: Blizzards, hunger, scorching sun, forest fires….” This could easily be the description of The Road, as much as a television show set on the American frontier. As always, “history,” particularly “public history,” offers us the opportunity to consider a possible future.

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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). 

We are wrapping up the (hopefully) final version of the proposed plume/idling installation. The project is a reconstruction of an exhaust plume from the busses once inside the original SOM bus shed that is now the California College of the Arts (where I teach).

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The latest version of this project (above) involves filming one of the last functioning industrial stacks in this part of San Francisco and simply projecting that footage on the floor of the SOM building. The slight distortion will make it appear akin to exhaust from automobiles.

The reason I decided to do this is that it enables us to understand how we experience pollution (or the lack of it) and urban change in tandem. The smokestack is in a part of this larger precinct of the city that is not as rich, but that is experiencing the pressures of neighborhood transformation (what, in an earlier time, we could simply call “gentrification”). Like the former exhaust plumes from busses in the, now, more posh side of town, the smoke plume may eventually disappear in the name of urban and economic health.

In addition to the above play on the slow time of urban change, what I also find intriguing, is that in re-projecting real-time footage of the exhaust stack, we appear to be slowing time down in this reconstruction. That is, to our eyes, smoke appears to eject more slowly from smoke-stacks than exhaust from vehicles (cars, busses, motorcycles). The real-time footage will appear to be “slow-mo” once projected inside the bus shed. See a comparison of found footage below if this sounds confusing:

All of this suggests something, not yet fully developed, for new protocols within histories of architecture — the historian (or anyone interested in historical reconstruction) might be understood as a manipulator of space/time. There are, of course, significant histories of the idea of space/time in architecture; but there aren’t many acts of history that attempt to manipulate the experience of space/time relation itself. Philippe Rahm’s Climate Ucornia is one of the few I know.

I am writing about this because the above project excites me, but also because there has been an interesting discussion here and elsewhere (and here too) regarding the historian’s working relationship to time. Within which, of our concepts of time, should the historian’s efforts be situated — past, present, future? The above project intrigues me, as it suggests that these may not be so easily parsed or fixed.

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.

 

Two students of mine at CCA, Judy Wu and Jessica Miller, developed a fascinating and funny (!) mockumentary for their final project in my class on theories of Space and Nature in architecture. I had asked my students to consider new methods for conducting environmental histories of buildings, using one building as a case — the Crown Zellerbach Building in San Francisco (SOM, 1959). Judy and Jessica used the visual and textual language found in televised natural history programs from the past to consider the fictitious impact of the Crown Zellerbach Building on the surrounding remnants of nature. Using the current lingo of “bio-mimicry,” they imagine the Crown Zellerbach building working in reverse; the surrounding birds, insects and other life suddenly acquire the characteristics of the building. Watch, and enjoy Judy’s impressive “British” accent, and Jessica’s work in stop action animation.