Archive for the ‘Theory’ Category

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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