Archive for the ‘Maintenance’ Category

[To be expanded for a forthcoming article]

If a stable, humidity, temperature, dust, and pest controlled environment is the ideal setting for preserving historical material, could we produce the inverse environment? In other words, if late-modern history relies on a type of ecosystem for the preservation and study of historical material, could we produce the anti-ecosystem of historical maintenance?

This anvironment (parallel or anti-environment) would be a space where historical preservation was impossible but that would nonetheless be a stable integrated nature. Like a black hole in a historical universe; the eye of a historical hurricane.

So consider some type of room with incredible levels of humidity, swirling dust, and horrible heat. It would be a place that also happened to represent two of the West’s key enviro-phobias — tropiphobia and aridiphobia. This room would be an orangey green place of sweat and dirt where pieces of paper, building elements, and other artifacts don’t stand a chance of surviving.

Ultimately, such a place forces us to reflect on the stability required for history, and the environments lurking in our future.

Picture 1



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In addition to admiring the experimental history of Mt. Rushmore by artist Matthew Buckingham, I am also intrigued by a project from 2005— a proposed “historic preservation” of the Cross-Bronx Expressway (a roadway completed in 1955). This roadway, like much of the country’s transit infrastructure requires significant repairs — but a preservation?


In this proposed preservation — a master’s thesis from Columbia University by the historian and preservationist Michael Caratzas — the author suggests that infrastructural networks can now be viewed as historical constructs. It’s a more direct “historical” outcome of the possible pasts that might be staged within a network society or a network culture — ie a “socius” defined by networks.


A preservation of the Cross-Bronx Expressways is a fascinating idea because it takes the discursive apparatus of preservation, which is often used for buildings or built landscapes, and directs it into a vast infrastructural system. The Cross Bronx Expressway is a stretch of highway without clear boundaries; it is filled with both beauty and unpleasantries; and because it is a roadway, we tend to think of it as a site demanding constant upgrades. How does one simultaneously preserve and upgrade a roadway system?


Perhaps more to the point, Caratzas notes that the construction of infrastructural systems generally, highways more directly, and the Cross-Bronx expressway more particularly, often destroy historical neighborhoods and buildings. We tend to view these mid-century highways  as so suspect that they are outside of that realm we call “culture”. But the notorious destruction and construction completed to create the Cross-Bronx Expressway is part of a particular historical activity that is now more feebly revived. This is the site where Robert Moses (shown below)  decided to “swing the meat ax” — evicting thousands and destroying entire precincts of the Bronx for this stretch of highway.


Although I find Caratzas recent description of the Cross-Bronx Expressway as a “cultural landscape” a reduction of the power of his original thesis, it drives home the point that infrastructures are not just instruments but objects that ossify historical concepts. A preservation of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, or the New Jersey Turnpike for that matter, is a fascinating idea and a contribution to the possibilities of experimental architectural history. I was inspired by his thesis to produce the sign below; perhaps this will stand at the entrance of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, or perhaps some version will stand at another highway. Perhaps it will be the preservationist societies and not the engineers that salvage the United States’ infrastructure. 


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.

I was responding to a comment today about “Maintenance Criticism,” and I remembered that two years ago I  completed an earlier installation engaging with the subject of architectural maintenance as critique. 

The images below were for a student-run, faculty competition in 2006 (at my previous gig at PSU). Faculty were asked to design something that negotiated architectural “weathering.” I think the students were inspired by the David Leatherbarrow book on the subject.

For my entry, I met with some of the people that cleaned the architecture school and asked if I could make an installation for the competition about the weathering that occurs through their labor. The cleaners and machines they use slowly transform the color of the exposed concrete floor. I also thought it would be clever if I, as the full-time history/theory faculty member, limited my “design” to just the use of words. The semi-permanent stencils can be pulled off in two years, revealing the difference in floor color that occurs through these people’s work. I called the entry “Local 8” after the name of the labor union that organizes the cleaning crews at the school. We also happened to win the competition.

Last year (soon after moving to the SF Bay Area) I decided to pay a visit to one of the buildings that established my interest in modern architecture — The Oakland Museum of California (Roche Dinkeloo, 1968). The Oakland Museum combined three independent museums into a huge, block-long building that includes galleries, exterior terraces and a large central garden. In a recent interview in Perspecta, the architect of the building, Kevin Roche, argued that he was attempting to relate the building to the infrastructural scale of post-war California. He was inspired by the engineering of highways, and surely his work with the landscape architect Dan Kiley on the project suggests that they were both inspired by the unusual scale of the plantings in the California Highway System–those strange zones where redwood trees rise from cloverleaf interchanges. The Google Earth view below is a particularly potent conveyor of the building’s concept — the museum operating at the level of a transit system (not just in terms of size but its relation to nature as well).

When I visited the building last year it was upsetting to see such an important structure in such horrible shape. I counted at least three buckets in the building’s interior spaces to catch leaks from water; many of the beams for the building’s exterior pergola were askance; plywood was draped on many sections of the building from former, unfinished projects throughout the museum. I cannot recall any time visiting a building in which I felt so compelled to take it upon myself to remove, fix and correct the various problems with the maintenance of the building. My removal of pieces of plywood, shoring up of beams on a pergola, and other small acts were forms of maintenance and forms of criticism.

I was reminded of my small acts of maintenance last week while observing the official “Coastal Cleanup” of the East Bay’s Bay Area Trail — an 8 mile zone bordered by one of those California highways that inspired the Oakland Museum. In the coastal cleanup (part of a nation-wide effort) teams of volunteers swarm the length of the Coastal Bay Bike Trail pulling trash, detritus and other forms of removable pollution out of the Bay. They are overseen by experts who determine whether a log is pollution or a habitat for some species being cultivated by conservators.

The Oakland Museum is now undergoing an official renovation, like many museums do once millions of dollars have been raised. But I wonder if the impulse to maintain, as an act of critique, that we see at sites of great beauty like the bay or along highways by volunteer and hired crews, could not be reoriented toward a building like the Oakland Museum. If, as Roche argues, this building’s concepts operate at the scale of California’s infrastructural systems; then why not appropriate the techniques used to maintain these blurred zones such as the East Bay trail? Why not launch a maintenance critique of the Oakland Museum under the supervision of architectural experts and historians? I could easily imagine many of the people I saw at the Coastal Cleanup  pulling trash and errant plants out of the Oakland Museum’s planters and pools; and teams of architects could surely donate time to repair the pergola and other misshapen elements of this place. But the larger point is that we might consider launching forms of maintenance of buildings that operate within those building’s particular conceptual logic. Some buildings demand official renovations, but surely other buildings can begin by attempting some form of renovation that is far more experimental.