Archive for the ‘Protest’ Category

2705091852_4129911977

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.

Advertisements

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.

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)