Archive for the ‘Travelogues/Guides’ Category

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An ongoing obsession here involves the possible links between architecture and geography. There are so many different ways to think about this: the historical use of geographical thought in architecture,  the development of geographical methods for architectural and architectural historical research, the architectural history of geographical exploration, etc. It’s one of my favorite subjects.

Lately, I have been reconsidering another, more direct and crude application of geographical ideas within architecture — in particular architectural history. I’m interested in the architectural historical appropriation of those structures used by geographers to produce knowledge. I mean “structures” with absolute literalness. Those deployables, vehicles, and sensing stations that we see in geographical methods of examining the world might be considered by architectural historians to examine the built world. This could be done as an aspect of a normative or more experimental historical technique.

When I was working on my phd between the departments of geography and architectural history, I often fantasized about venturing with the geographers (the “real” geographers) who conducted fieldwork in the most extreme environments. At the department of geography at UCL, I recall one expedition to Chad, in which the geography students of UCL went to the “dustiest place on earth” (that’s the image above) with some interesting field equipment.  I have been in a nasty archive or two, but the images in the geography newsletter suggested that these students were in some  entirely different situation (and using some cool tools). It was a bit frightening and exciting to imagine the possibilities.

This form of “exploration” appears throughout the history of architecture, where it has a long and often troubled history. But I’m not here to berate the explorers; others are far better at that than me.  I am interested in considering the possible alterity that might be found in these acts of geographical/architectural curiosity. The use of geo-explorative structures, which is part of this larger history, is much less examined. Perhaps it’s there where something new might be found.

One of my favorite examples of an architectural appropriation of geo-exploration is the Otranto project by Renzo Piano and Peter Rice. In 1979 Piano and Rice appropriated the imagery of geographical field stations for a Unesco-sponsored workshop on the restoration of Otranto, Italy. Within this deployable station, workshops were held with local residents to consider strategies for renewing this somewhat impoverished Italian town. I still find the project (below) an interesting counterpoint to most contemporary imagery surrounding “community” based, restorative architecture — the latter movement typically embracing a low-tech, folksy  and local visual grammar. Here, a community architecture, is understood as something that draws on the technological prowess of a contemporary state.

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In the 1980s, a different, but equally technological realization of  geographical knowledge systems within architecture appeared in the tree raft structure (below) by Gilles Ebersolt. Here, the French architect worked with naturalists and environmental geographers to develop an architecture that enabled scientists to explore the canopies of rain forests. In some projects, Ebersolt developed fantastic research stations for use in urban sites. In enormous inflatable spheres, Ebersolt’s urban explorers move through terrain, appearing with a sometimes troublesome scientific detachment.

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In the past ten years, the architect Laura Kurgan updated the image of geo-knowledge  production within architecture, transforming it into something far less instrumental and far more informed by various “critical” turns. In a recent project that illustrates her interests, Kurgan used imagery from the Ikonos satellite to examine how the attacks of September 11th registered in geographical space/time (below). The project considers how September 11th will be recorded as a historical event due to the particular remote strategies of seeing that pervade contemporary strategies of planetary visualization.

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The above projects present many interesting possibilities. Among the possible geo-machines yet to be staged within architecture, I continue to consider recent robotic imagery in contemporary experimental architectural practice. Various architects embrace robotic to reconsider architectural program and construction labor, but could we reinterpret the robot image as a form of knowledge production about architecture. This makes particular sense, as robots are already used to examine sites remotely, particularly those inhospitable to direct human observation, and unreachable via satellite (eg. the urban underground and extra-planetary!).

I am not sure how such a project would intertwine with additional forms of commentary evident in the work above, particularly the critical directions implicit within Kurgan’s work. Kurgan’s project, and perhaps Piano’s, foreground the techniques of knowledge production in such a way that knowledge and its instruments are open to debate, even as they are put to use. That, to me, is the key in the development of a remote-sensing, geo-architectural historical machine.

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swamp from biodiversity site

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.

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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). 

 

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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?)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

Julian David Le Roy's Travelogue from Greece, an early and exemplary example of this particular form of architectural theory

Julian David Le Roy’s 1770 Travelogue of the Bay of Piraeus

I recently completed teaching an undergraduate course (“Emerging Territories”) which reviewed architects’ writings on globalization and theorists of globalization’s writings on architecture. For one of the assignments I asked the students to develop a focused, audio travelogue/guide focused on recent spatial transformations or spatial phenomenon in the San Francisco Bay Area. We very briefly discussed the long history of travelogues in architecture — from recently translated work such as Palladio’s 1554 guide to Rome, the work of Le Roy, to more recent work by the Harvard Project on the City. In this assignment, it was important that they examine their chosen space while responding to the ideas they read in authors such as Appadurai, Augé, Jameson, Koolhaas, Easterling et. al.  

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Jollibee, San Francisco

The above, are two of the most successful of the final assignments — Livia Foldes, “guide to guides” is a short take on the recent phenomenon of tours of the often overlooked urban spaces that become prominent due to their appearance in famous films. Marie Millares, much longer piece,  provides an examination of the restaurant Jollibee, a fusion/fusion Filipino fast food restaurant, popular in the Bay Area.