Archive for the ‘History’ Category

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.



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.


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). 

Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion of the possible forgery of the Getty Kouros sparked the following post/thought/project. If the Kouros was forged, then those that pulled off this particular forgery applied a type of mold (potato mold) to the Kouros to give it the appearance of something ancient — something buried in the earth for hundreds of years.  Potato mold wasn’t central to Gladwell’s story, but it struck me because it suggests that running through art and architectural history is a natural history that enables what is ancient to appear so. In other words, our detection of age is often the perception of molds (magnified below), the abrasions of sand, the bleaching of the sun. In cities, this extends to our subliminal register of the accumulation of pollution on buildings.


Another aspect of the ecology of historical appearance is the nature used to make objects appear extremely clean. To make objects look like natural history they are typically brought to a sparkling clean finish with acid and/or bugs. Bones, in particular, are immersed in containers of insects — Dermestidae (below). These little beetles, which can eat bits of flesh, enable conservators to bring a whiteness to skeletons.


And in addition to mold and bugs, there are also all of the gasses, which preserve the historical documents of social history in an endless time. Argon (below) is one of the cheaper of these inert gasses. When visiting archives and museums to look at the most precious and fragile documents (dead sea scrolls, the US consitition), you often see documents through invisible clouds of argon gas.


All of these bits of nature construct the image of the past, which is ironically, simultaneously an image of decay, cleanliness and timelessness. I am not yet certain how all of these conflicting images of history move together so easily. More curiously, all of these involve forms of nature that are frightening and, at times, grotesque. Molds, pollution, bugs and poisonous gas are not forms of nature that are particularly desirable, nor are they forms of nature one would immediately associate with displays of history. These and many other things, in total, speak of the natural history that moves through history.

ecohistory diagram

We can bring these three forms of nature (animal, mineral vegetable!) into a type of ecosystem of the archive: mold and sand for buildings, bugs for the skeletons of its former inhabitants, and gasses to preserve the documents of this former civilization. This is the ecosystem of historical appearance. It’s the ecosystem overseen by curators and archivists.

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).


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.

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.



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.

“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.


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.


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.



A few weeks ago I read Jeffrey Schnapp’s excellent essay “The Face of the Modern Architect.”  This essay is part of a small handful of essays and book chapters that examine the ways architects control the image of their discipline through portraiture. Schnapp traces the eyeglasses, ties, pipes and cigars that accompany most portraits of architects, finding within these items concepts of class, authority, introspection, and anonymity.  Here is Schnapp on eyeglasses for example: “The eyeglass teasingly establishes the architect’s depth, individuality, and authority, while also defining him as a pure surface that ideally merges with the public surfaces of his body of work.” He sees smoke as a nod to mass comfort, ties as images of bureaucracy; Anyway, purchase the issue it is in, read it, and enjoy.

Schnapp’s essay makes me wonder — what is the image of the architectural historian, the architectural writer?  This question is partially answered by Schnapp, as two of his contemporary examples — Peter Eisenman and Daniel Libeskind — are, or have been, architectural historians. In their portraits we see the same ties and glasses as many of the architectural historians in the RIBA collection of architectural historian portraits. We can argue that such elements represent a type of bureaucracy of historical research or that the glasses are for the near-sighted historian versus the far-sighted architect (or perhaps that’s the reverse?) But the images of the architectural historians in the RIBA collection, and others, contain a stillness, a weight, missing in the corresponding images of architects analyzed by Schnapp. Architectural historians, who explore archives and who often “sit” on a building, are like architects except that they do not appear to move. And lets be honest, they generally don’t dress as well, operating with smaller salaries and a smaller audience.

But all of this is changing, especially as architectural historians and other architectural writers seem increasingly uncertain about their role in architecture culture. On the one hand, architectural historians simply appropriate the portrait image articulated by Schnapp. Architectural historians dress in ways that make them indistinguishable from architects and engineers; more interesting, is that architectural historians and theorists increasingly absorb the meta-image of the “kinetic elite” advanced by internationally succesful architects. Within early twentieth century photographs, architects would have portraits taken of themselves gazing with a look of surprise and fierce interrogation at some far off, but unseen structure. This signified that they were in a previously untraveled (by them) precinct. Today, architectural historians and writers increasingly portray themselves on the move. We can see this in the sidebars of architectural historian bloggers that keep us informed of their travels, or more aggressively with the global tracker that was once a prominent feature of Kazys Varnelis‘ site (I tried to find it, but that part of the site is gone now). 

But I think the architectural historian is due for a complete makeover. We should feel confident about our discipline and our stillness (Although I feel as if I have been living inside an airplane these past two years.). That image of stillness, of staying close to material in an archive is one that might be reconsidered; likewise, we should feel fine that we are, generally, not the most travelled in our departments. So, what might this new image of the architectural historian be? When I sit for a photograph, I hope to have some suggestions.

Scary Archivists


In a post a few weeks ago, I explored how certain archives appear horrific. I argued that certain archives are scary because their particular form of organization (or disorganization) is scary. This “archive horror” extends into another image — the image of the scary archivist. If the scary archive is that space that an experimental historian might unintentionally generate (the spaces of Soane, Eco, Collyer) then the scary archivist is that personae that lurks in these spaces (eg. Eco’s archivist above and Collyer below); it is the “subjective” product of unusual productions of history. We might probe this figure that lurks in literature and film as a potential subject for future projects and proposals related to experimental history.


The roots of the scary archivist can be traced to various figures in Greek mythology, particularly the mythological story of Medusa — the female guardian who turns the living into stone. She cannot interact with the living, and through the course of living increasingly surrounds herself with frozen representations of the world. The Medusa image moves through the scary archivist image in various ways. Like the Medusa, the abilities of scary archivists to capture the lived world are often related to their disabilities and disfigurements. They appear either as blind, wheelchair bound, obsessive compulsive, or horribly malformed. The scary archivist is often a woman who turns “men to stone” through a type of emotional ferocity. This particular (often misogynistic) image of archival guardians is partially captured in the whimsical site “Scary Librarians”.


Every historian builds an image of the archive, which also suggests that every historian invokes a type of archivist that manages this imaginary archive. The best archives are always a bit scary, and they always have (seemingly) intimidating (sometimes frightening) archivists.  It’s what makes going to these places exciting and interesting; bringing the contents of these archives back into “the world” requires navigational skills and often-epic struggles with their keepers. The best histories emerge from these struggles. The best archives and archivists project a bit of fear to make this possible.


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.


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.



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.


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.


Many of the scary creatures that lurk in horror movies, such as vampires, blobs, and robots, are a type of archive – a horrific archive. For example, I was watching HBO’s new series “True Blood” and the protagonist, the vampire “Bill”, told his love-interest “Sookie” that once he drank her blood he would have “a little bit of her” inside of him. He would then be able to sense her feelings, track her location; she was in some sense stored within his body. This archival monster has similarities to the “T-1000” in the film Terminator 2. Once the “T-1000” touches another living being or object it may assume its form at any time. It too keeps a record within itself. Or you might consider the Blob, from the 1988 film version of that movie; the blob absorbs people into its structure. All of this is a literal realization of the notion that when things enter the archive they die (or are un-dead), as they are disconnected from the context that gave them their particular meaning.

The horrific archive is interesting because it only reveals the entirety of its contents when it dies or falls apart – usually through some intense act of violence. In the case of the vampire, the blood within it explodes out, sparkling with its collected souls. In the Terminator and the Blob films, the archive gathered by these creatures suddenly appears as an explosive outpouring of data and imagery when the monster is about to expire. The collected bodies of the T-1000 (above) are suddenly represented in quick succession.


More traditional forms of archives also contain this element of horror. Consider the elderly pack rats that we read about from time to time (eg. the Collyer Brothers House, shown above). Some poor fellow who piled newspapers and magazines for years and years is suddenly found buried beneath his collection, when its entire contents come tumbling down. These people are eventually consumed – literally – by their collecting activity as their archives collapse on them. I can recall many times entering an archive and fearing that the shelves of material would come crashing down on me; or who has not thought that they might be accidentally trapped by those rolling shelves that most libraries use?

Although they are a bit disturbing (or because they are disturbing) I find this horrific image of the archive inspiring when considering what archives might be and how historians might collect data. Perhaps we should build an archive that is a type of beast that collects. This is what John Soane did in his house. His house was a type of being that he kept feeding with more and more classical fragments. Perhaps we should reconsider the Soane-ian image by appropriating the image of the archive that moves through horror films; we should engineer an archival beast that will consume architectural knowledge.



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.”

We are settling on the above image for the plume/idling project — the reconstruction of an exhaust plume from the busses once housed at CCA. The image does not look like exhaust per se; in fact, it could easily be a reflection of a cloud from outside the building — through the skylights. And that is exactly what we want for this project. We want to articulate this ambiguity between an external nature — what we call “Nature” — and an internal nature (which never appears as “Nature”) through an act of reconstruction. The one appears to be produced by the energy of the earth and the other by the energy of society. I think we will rename the project “Idling Cloud,” as “plume” is too evocative of noxious exhaust.  

[a thank you to my colleague Andrew Kudless for the background photograph]

In this project we continue to revisit experimental acts of architectural historical reconstruction. The California College of the Arts (where I teach) is housed in a former bus maintenance shed designed by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in the early 1950s. The space must have been filled with a somewhat foul milieu from the idling busses as they entered and left the facility. In this project — a “sketch” of which is shown above — we recreate the exhaust plume from one of the busses in its original setting as a digital model. I will put additional images of the project on the site as they become available.

Architectural theory is often considered a process of writing (and often denigrated as a result), but the production of architectural thought always engaged other tools of expression besides quill, pen, pencil, typewriter, or computer. Some of the most significant written innovations in architectural theory are interlaced with tools of inquiry that lie outside those directly involved in writing. Or put another way, architectural theory is full of tools that help the author gather data and precede writing – ad hoc structures, optical instruments, vehicles (e.g. Le Roy’s drawing structures, le-Duc’s use of the tele-iconograph, Banham’s automobiles). I am not arguing that these devices or strategies of acquisition produce forms of knowledge; rather I am arguing that what we think we want to know as authors of architectural thought often entangles us with things that rarely appear in the final outcome of our thought experiments.

Such things that precede or move alongside writing appear from the very start in architectural theory.

For example, the origin of modern architectural theory lies in the consideration of Roman and Greek classical architecture. Authors of this early architectural theory often developed a host of strategies and structures to ascend, dangle from, and surround ancient classical buildings. To measure the antiquities of Athens, the architectural theorist Julien David Le Roy literally built buildings around ancient buildings to measure them more carefully. Such literal “building” techniques that enabled careful examination, exploration and measurement are essential, but virtually unvisualized, features of architectural writing focused on ancient classicism. The image above by Henry Parke of a student climbing a ladder to measure a Corinthian entablature, and the image below by Piranesi, are a couple of the small handful of images I know that directly depict some of this para-theoretical activity. Through these images we see a structure involved in understanding the past (ok, it’s just ladders in these instances); but in the Parke image we also see the seeming risks involved in this act of architectural exploration and the “aha” that the architectural thinker experiences as they enter, what for them, was a previously unexplored archive. 


All works of architectural theory and history contain activity that lurks behind writing. This site is in part about making those images (past and present) appear a bit more visibly.

I’ll be writing more about case studies in this aspect of architectural theory in future posts.

Within architectural history the edge between modernity and late-modernity is filled with images of the elderly, mostly elderly women. We see this most famously in the photographs of the Vanna Venturi house and Guild House, by Venturi Scott Brown and Associates.

Because the most staged and circulated images of these buildings include images of women, and because they are older, some historians have advanced these buildings as representing a new type of subject within architecture. For some, these buildings marked a shift towards a then new emphasis on “usability” or “livability”. In these images we saw expressions of previously unexpressed lives.


But the less discussed image operating here is the very alone-ness of the people in these famous images. If we consider the photographs of the Guild House (above and below), we see this with both older woman and men. In the exterior photograph sanctioned by Venturi Scott Brown, notice the man sitting by himself outside of the Guild House (to the right of the entrance).


In considering these iconic images of post-modernism it is as if this approach to architecture is a movement whose seeming gaiety is in actuality filled with a latent and unstated sadness; it is a movement full of older people who are alone – what we might somewhat insensitively  (but in some instance, more accurately) call images of “widows.” It is not just that the people in images of post-modern architecture represent subjective shifts away from the subjects of the past – that great collective of laborers and bureaucrats that moves through an earlier architectural theory – it is as if the people in the photographs described above mourn those very conditions of a former subjectivity.

(An aside: Revisiting these photos of the Guild House today seems to beckon the architectural historian less to consider the problems of modernity’s edges and rather, to simply pay these people a sorely needed visit as an act of architectural historical kindness!) 


But in considering this image of widow-hood at the margins of modernity, consider another image taken just a bit after the images of the Guild House that also emphasized subjective shifts, “usability” and general late-modern maneuvers. In the photography of his Overloop nursing home design in the Netherlands (above), the architect Hermann Hertzberger also develops an image of architecture filled with the elderly. Unlike Venturi, Herzberger’s elderly do not advance an architecture of the elderly as a pathway to some type of architectural levity, nor does Hertzberger image them alone. Here is that “collective spirit” articulated as one of the inspirations of an architecture in an industrial age — the “New Architecture.” In fact, notice the older woman at the center of the photograph who does not acknowledge the photographer; she is that older woman who sits alone in every other architectural book that depicts the shift from the modern to late-modern; but here she walks away (to some friends one hopes).

One might argue that Hertzberger found a way to link the percolating subjects at the edges of modernity (these are older people after all)  to the project of modernity — linking the “production” of a society to these seemingly “unproductive” subjects. Thus, Hertzberger’s space  escapes the mourning-image of modernity that moves through the images of then contemporaneous late-modern American work. But in avoiding this mourning image it also further avoids the real existing historical transformations that surround this insulated world. In the end, Venturi’s images of images of productive loss, is  a form of projection. The mourning of a modern subjectivity found in that proto-post-modernism has become the dominant form of subjectivity.

[For more on the issue of the user in the modern/late-modern divide see the work of Adrian Forty; and for more on the imagery of Venturi’s work see the recent exhibition at CCA, Montreal by students at the Columbia GSAPP.]

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.