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When I was putting Subnature together (btw, latest extremely thoughtful, interesting review here), lurking in the back of my mind was the critique of Manfredo Tafuri against “operative criticism”. Subnature, provocatively (if not dangerously) tries to form some contemporary rapprochement with the blend of history, theory and criticism, that Tafuri would ultimately label “operative”. Tafuri was suspicious of histories that naturalized (or reified) the present; that is, a history that makes the present appear as inevitable. The “operative” aspect of operative criticism is the alignment of history with criticism of contemporary work — alignment is the key concern.

Many historians utilized Tafuri’s critique to open a new path in historical work — a disentanglement of history from the concerns of contemporary practice (what might be termed an “autonomous” historical project). In some practices this led to a new freedom and intense criticality in historical inquiry, and in others a type of anti-design, micro historical form of writing. Curiously, autonomous history often contained more oblique entanglements with practice: For example, many “autonomous” historians practice architecture, so the remnants of operative history are replaced by practice itself. Within these practices, the connections between history and practice are more abstract, but they’re there to be identified by historians in the future! More directly, Tafuri himself promoted architects such as Rossi or Gregotti, just not within his actual historical work; he even protested (successfully) the construction of certain buildings; so in practice, he was deeply involved in the realization of contemporary architecture. The above forms of contemporary engagement are certainly not “operative” but they nonetheless keep the historian within contemporary practice debates.

Many of the experimental works on this site, by myself and others, seek out new “operations” for history within practice, keeping the misalignments (that mark critical, autonomous history) in place. But within Subnature, I thought I would butt up against that operative edge (I often find unsaid rules to be the most irritating). In many of the chapters, I attempted to replace the tissues (“practice” or “architecture”) that once held history, theory and criticism together with geographical methods. That is, by performatively identifying certain forms of matter — dankness, debris, etc. — lurking within the writing and imagery that form history, theory, and criticism, I could momentarily hold dispersed forms of inquiry together. I think the “Debris” chapter is the most successful in this regard. And a few other chapters show how history, theory and criticism can be briefly aligned in a type of architectural inquiry that deserves continued exploration and enhancement — a discursive architectural geography that I hope to pick up in future projects.


Critics part 3

Ronald Rael, the author of Earth Architecture, and someone who is quickly becoming one of my favorite contemporary architects and theorists, wrote some very nice words about Subnature. Among his thoughts, he wrote that “[t]he book is not about fashionable topics surrounding sustainability and ecology. With chapters on smoke, dankness, debris, exhaust, weeds and other counter-architectural conditions, Gissen seeks to expand one’s perception of truly alternative materials in a positively original way.”

I’m appreciating all of the great reviews; but I wonder if the dazzling and weird contemporary projects in the book overwhelm some of the textual arguments (particularly those in the beginning and conclusion) that are key to an understanding of the subnatural.

For example, at a recent lecture someone asked how Subnature intersected with earlier ideas about abjection or modernity. This book is not a return to alterity via the ejected and gross; it’s a concept of nature that’s ultimately less binary, and more subversive and unwieldy: nor is the book simply about ironic inversions of nature. One of the things I appreciate about Subnature is how it appears in various social liberatory movements (from the debris piled into a revolutionary’s street barricades to forms of post-national expression, as in the Niemeyer and de Paor projects linked above); it is afunctional (it cannot be appropriated into buildings instrumentally, except with enormous distress) and it’s also a type of nature laced with social history. Unlike a tree, the subnatural mud (that, for example, a critic such as Rael describes so well), will always appear historically mediated in ways that more normative forms of nature cannot. These ideas of social agitation, anti-instrumentality, and history, make my idea of subnature laced with Marxist and various post-structural concepts; it not an easy way to see nature; but it’s key and makes the reader’s absorption into the ideas of this book rewarding. Consider bringing this book into your thought world.

Critics, part 2

“Gissen’s book is a timely and important text in shifting our attitudes towards more holistic, interdependent, and pluralistic views of nature”-A daily dose of architecture (John Hill)

In case you missed a Daily Dose of Architecture’s review of Subnature, it’s a genuinely thoughtful review. It’s interesting that Hill sees Subnature as part of a broader concept of sustainability. This comment came up again at a recent lecture about the book. I more than welcome those interested in sustainability to find something in this book that extends the arguments of an earlier book such as Big and Green. I’m not certain that the technical aspects of sustainability are entirely compatible with the representational and historical problems of Subnature, but I welcome the effort to provide another rapproachement here. That’s an interesting thought project.

I just returned from the University of California Santa Barbara’s Humanities Center event on environmentalist thought in architecture (where I spoke about the Subn) — a very enjoyable group of speakers and locale. In particular, the work of Kennedy Violich Architecture (KVarch), presented by Sheila Kennedy, demonstrates how certain fundamental architectural theoretical concerns (at their most raw) can be absorbed into an environmentalist practice. The constant turn to the Semperian dressing/scaffold concept in their work, as the site for an environmentalist expression, is extremely intriguing. And, if that particular concept was not played out in project after project, this firm often literally works with textiles in metabolized forms. It’s just another example of how the technology/autonomy divide may be morphing into something else right now, via a qualified return to 19th century theoretical conceptions.


Well, it appears that my essay “Architecture’s Geographic Turns”, a fairly straightforward critical overview of the history of geographical thought in architecture and its appearance in today’s various post-critical and research practices, has perturbed everyone.

Various research architect colleagues don’t appreciate it very much. They think of their work as marking a break with “architecture” proper, which in some ways is true. Therefore a history of cartographic imagery in architectural theory simplifies their work into a larger narrative. Admittedly, absorption is often an after-effect of narrative history. But, mind you, the historical information in my essay was based on secondary sources – by various authors also examining the reach of the geographical image in architecture.

In addition to the above, friendly email banter, a more biting piece of criticism — “In defense of design” (by Mark Foster Gage in Log, but available here online) attacked my essay and the type of work explored in my essay, calling it the “virus” that “mutated the red blood cells of architectural design”. If you thought architectural theories of aesthetic degeneracy were a thing of the distant past, you really need to read this essay! He understands research architecture as a pervasive and threatening influence in architecture schools. One would think the often difficult and critical work of an Eyal Weizman or Laura Kurgan was everywhere around us, threatening the architecture of “wonder” that Gage ultimately argues for. Anyway, it seems the author of this essay truly misunderstood my piece, which was ultimately a CRITICISM of research architecture practices, not a defense.

Finally, and ironically, the most recent criticism of Geographic Turns appeared from an editor who is publishing it in a collection of recent projects and theory writing. The editors of this particular publication asked if the criticisms of geographical imagery in architecture in the essay could be toned down, lest they offend those who map and diagram the environment.

So, you see the binds of writing subtle criticism: on the one hand you’re criticized for defending the thing you’ve actually criticized; and on the other you’re asked to soften your criticism.

“Architecture’s Geographic Turns,” which was great fun to write, ends with a proposition: What if architects stopped turning to geography as a source from which to interpret the world empirically, and instead projected concepts of architectural thought into cartographic worlds? In other words, what if they rewired the historical relation between these fields and architecture entered a new aestheto-cartographic narrative (recall Fredric Jameson argued for something similar at the end of his pomo essay).

Rather than answer that question (or the details of specific criticism) with an essay; I took on the above question in a more ambitious and total form: I just guest-edited an issue of AD that includes writings by some of my favorite geographers, historians and architects. In that issue, which will be out later next spring, we will see work that attempts to craft geographical “Territory” (versus site or autonomy) with architecture.

As always, once that issue is out, criticism is welcome.

Thanks, and more…

The CCA event was terrific. And thank you to everyone who came out — what a crowd! And thanks for buying so many copies of Subnature too (much appreciated). The best part about the lecture was explaining the historical concepts within the book to so many non-architects. I’m very excited about this book’s appearance at this particular moment of debate regarding cities and nature.

Up next, a lecture at the University California Santa Barbara where I hope to expand on some of the ideas from Subnature for a conference on “Design After Oil”. The event is sponsored by the UCSB Humanities Center — a research unit that’s generated some of the most interesting critical interpretations of contemporary culture. I look forward to that.

Following this, I’ll be speaking in Copenhagen about the book at an event sponsored by the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art and the City of Nantes, given in concert with the UN Conference on Climate Change. Some terrific people are involved, so I’ll send along more about that as it develops.

Finally, the book Design Ecologies is out — a collection of essays on architecture and environment edited by Lisa Tilder and Beth Blostein. It contains my essay “Ape”, a reflection on, among many other things, 19th century street barricades in revolutionary Paris. Check it out.

Tonight at the California College of the Arts (CCA), I’ll be speaking about two recent projects of mine — the exhibition Anxious Climate (curated in 2005/2006) and the book Subnature. The former just opened at CCA (in the “nave” space); and the latter was just published by Princeton Architectural Press. The fun starts at 7:00p. If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, please stop by.

A reading

Baudrillard Aspen
I just finished reading “Architecture and Techno-Utopia” (after having read many of the chapters in Grey Room); in one of the many excellent chapters, the author refers to — this brief lecture by Jean Baudrillard written in 1970. JB delivered this address — “The Environmental Witch Hunt” — at the Design and Environment Conference in Aspen (Baudrillard pictured above at left in attendance at the conference with Jean Aubert of Utopie). I recalled how I read a transcription/translation of the address about five years ago; and how significantly it influenced my thought on the architecture/environment interaction. Enjoy.

Subnature on Amazon

Today, the New York Times published an olfactory map of Manhattan — “Smells of New York City.”

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The map (above) is a more ironic version of the olfactory cartographies that first emerged in Victorian London and Second Empire Paris. One of the most interesting of these is Hector Gavin’s “Pestilent Disease Mist of Bethnal Green,” his map of the odors in that struggling area of London from his book Sanitary Ramblings (1848).

In 2005 I viewed an original edition of Gavin’s map (slightly unfurled below) in the majestic Peabody Library at Johns Hopkins University. The reddish brown areas illustrate his perception of the odors of feces and undrained sewerage.  It’s an incredible work of documentation, individual curiosity, and olfactory paranoia. It’s also an interesting work of history, as Gavin understood the odors to be products of this particular neighborhood’s past (and this, of course, moves through the New York Times cartography).

Gavin 1848b

Excellent histories of the map, and the history of olfactory cartography include Robin Evans “Rookeries and Model Dwellings” (in Translations from Drawing to Building) and  a terrific book by Erin O’Connor Raw Material. You can also read a bit about the map (with one of the finest reproductions we could find) in the chapter on gas inSubnature: Architecture’s Other Environments.

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It’s one of those truly under-rated odors. It seems very old books always have it, but in new books it’s a more volatile smell and must be savored quickly. This past week I’ve been enjoying smelling (reading, looking, and holding) an advance copy of my new book — Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments. If you missed my description of the book from earlier posts; you can read a little about it here and here. The book will be released in October, so please pre-order and hold tight; I promise, it will arrive soon.

A quick post to tell you to check out this animated history of the Parthenon. It’s quite good, and having recently written about the Parthenon, I enjoyed the dramatic (and saddening) depiction of its bombardment by 17th century Venetian mercenaries. But the biggest tragedy depicted in this film is the dismantling of the remaining statuary by teams hired by Lord Elgin. “She” (the Parthenon) speaks towards the end. Oh, and it’s directed by none-other than Costas Gavras

After writing the earlier post on artist-designed traffic jams, I just remembered one of my favorite projects by the Dutch architect Wiel Arets — his “Boulevard Domburg” (1990). In this masterplan, Arets designed a bottleneck-producing, z-shaped stretch of road, set within a larger highway scheme that incorporated housing.

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In many ways “Boulevard Domburg” recalls the early Obus Plan proposal by Le Corbusier for Algiers. But unlike the much more famous Obus Plan (that also incorporated housing and highways), Arets’ project challenges the concepts of circulation driving Corbusier’s and many other modern city planning schemes.

Aret’s project involves something we might term “anti-circulation.” Arets purposely includes a bottleneck, a detour that forces cars to slow to a standstill. Within this zig/zag detour Arets brings the existing town and the seaside into the view of the driver. It enables a driver and their passengers to consider their particular location within the slipstream of an automotive environment. Arets not only brings a new appreciation of a highway’s particular context, he opens up a space, a very interesting space, for other forms of knowledge to enter the experience of driving.

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As anyone knows from driving in the United States, there’s a certain direct and palpable relationship between speed and historical knowledge. Zipping through a town not only limits our ability to understand it; the highways and roads of the United States are dotted with historical markers and signs that are comically unreadable at the speeds most people drive. I often recall particular detours — due to accidents, sudden natural hazards, or road work — that led to fantastic discoveries — an old mill town, the site of a famous battle or event, basically something I had driven by many times but never knew.

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Arets designed his detour as a critique of modern efficiency, but perhaps his detour represents some larger project that we can harness to better relate speed and history. In turn, one imagines that the detour becomes an aspect of a historical project.

“Can we preserve a traffic jam?” After I spoke at Postopolis LA! on experimental forms of history, BLDG BLOG’s Geoff Manaugh asked me this question. The question was meant genuinely, and also as a provocation, testing the limits of the experimental forms of spatial history that I had just discussed.


Just a few weeks ago, We make money not art, posted a review of the traffic jam created by artist Maider López. López asked a large group of people to drive their cars into a well choreographed  jam within a hilly area of Spain (below). The traffic jam looks suspiciously like the traffic jam (above) that stretched from the Catskills into lower New York State during the Woodstock music festival of 1969. This recent project suggests that — yes — it is now possible to preserve a traffic jam.

traffic jam


Continuing on the earthy kick…The chapter on debris from my forthcoming book Subnature has been posted to the right in the “Recent Essays” section. This abbreviated version of “Debris” appears in the current issue of AA Files along with texts by Mary Beard, Reinhold Martin, Thomas Daniell, and others. Tom Weaver (editor of AA Files) and Laurie Manfra (of PAP) helped me transform the initially (and admittedly) raw chapter into something much more incisive. If you’re at all curious about the Subnature book, its tenor and feel, download and check out “Debris.” The book has about fourteen images for each of its twelve chapters, versus the two images that illustrate the AA Files version.


As the architectural journal Assemblage approached its end, the so-called “theoretical turn” — promoted by authors within  Assemblage and in its parent journal Oppositions — came to a cross roads. One avenue led to “post-criticism” and the other led to the “historical turn”.

As the name suggests, authors of post-criticism argued for a “cool” response to the architectural landscape of late-capitalism. It was a much less confrontational movement than “critical architecture,” and its authors were largely uninterested in criticism’s dialectics and its lingering neo-Marxism. Journals such as Praxis or Hunch promoted post-criticism at its earliest stages, and some of the architectural work in these journals typified the approach.  

A much less discussed and debated offshoot of critical architecture is the so-called “historical turn.” Like the critical turn, the historical turn was devoted to debunking architectural absolutes rooted in trans-historical concepts. The writing that emerged from the historical turn helped young architects understand that ideas such as “space” or “form,” which once seemed natural to architecture, were developed at specific times within specific circumstances. The historical turn also advanced a more responsible and rigorous use of theory rooted in historical time. That’s one of the more simple explanations of what the historical turn offered, but if you read the journal Grey Room (the epicenter of the historical turn) you quickly realize the complexities of its aims.

Unlike post-critical architecture, the historical turn never developed into a form of architectural practice. In recent articles in Perspecta and JAE, the historians Mark Jarzombek and Sylvia Lavin, acknowledged that the impact of the historical turn on practice was virtually zero. I am not sure how one would quantify the overall impact, but Multi-National City (by Baxi/Martin Architects) is the only work I can recall that demonstrates how the historical turn directly entangles with practice.  In this book, the architects draw on their historical analyses of atria, corporate towers (among numerous other things) to develop inversions of those forms’ historical trajectories and development. It’s a difficult book, meant to be explored for its methods as much as the actual mechanics of the architecture within it (Multi-National City inspired the format of my forthcoming book Subnature, a book very much influenced by the larger agenda of the historical turn). 

Post-criticism now seems like a failure; but the historical turn, while innocent of the vices of post-criticism, has some problems too. And these problems extend past its usefulness. In the name of continuing a more critical architectural project it often breaks one of the golden rules of that project — Manfredo Tafuri’s dictum that architects must not use history as an instrument to justify the present. In some weird twist, most likely too difficult to articulate in a blog post, the historical turn ultimately uses history to justify the contemporary aims of an earlier critical architecture. History becomes an instrument to justify a certain type of work or a certain political agenda, and it somehow begins to appear very unhistorical, if not uncritical. 

But the problems with the historical turn do not signal a larger problem with history in architecture more generally. For me, the problem with the historical turn is that it also (accidentally) reinforces the divide between historical analysis and architectural production.

Many of the projects and people discussed on HTC Experiments talk about a new variant  of the historical turn, what we’ll call (for now) “historical practice”.   A historical practice does not require the architect to divide  work into separate sections or behaviors — “now I write; “now I draw”. Historical practice involves unleashing all the lessons of the historical turn into a form of production in which historical analysis and a new world are made all at once. It can be found in work featured on this site, such as the proposed preservation of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the conservation and reconstruction of dust and smells, and the archiving of a building’s air. All of these works involve THINGS, but they are all also very explicit acts of history.  I believe it is these forms of historical practice, and not the rare work that came out of the historical turn, upon which the turn towards history will ultimately rest.


I am disturbed by the New York Times article on the economic panic sweeping Dubai. It’s the most popular article of the day! Must the western desire for the demise of this city result in the uncritical circulation of imagery of the non-western world? Is it just me or are these images of “post-boom” car lots in Dubai just a new form of orientalism? They’re rehashed Delacroix with Mercedes.


How shocking to our sense of propriety that “3000 abandoned cars” sit in the Dubai airport. In terms of lost wealth, that is nothing compared to the trillions of dollars lost from the sloppy financing surrounding US home-ownership. But images like those above are already being circulated as “critiques” of Dubai. The criticism of Dubai is necessary and warranted, but the staging of photographs like these — as analogs for larger socio-spatial criticisms — frightens me.

Post coming soon…

School is starting, and I also have about six writing projects to wrap up before writing new posts. I have a lot to say about images of a post-boom world,  architectural writing, ecosystems of historical appearance and more…But it will have to wait. Thanks again to Javier and archinect’s Paul Petrunia for all my new readers.

New Year’s Greetings

Happy New Year to all, and thank you so much for stopping by. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again — who knew that a site seeking a more experimental methodological program for architectural history could attract so many visitors? I appreciate you spending some time here.

The url for this blog is now  The WordPress people claim redirects will happen without a problem. 

Thanks again, DG

PS. Oh, and how could I not mention this. A faithful reader was inspired by my post on economic determinism in architectural thought and emailed me this table (below) that he is slowly filling out. Thanks for sharing “T” — a welcome holiday gift. 




I was reviewing some 18th century images of ancient classical buildings culled from important works of architectural theory by Adam, Le Roy, Dumont, et. al. I was reviewing these and selecting a few to be included in my forthcoming book with Princeton Architectural Press. Looking at these images, which often involve images of buildings excavated from the ground, I kept thinking that our contemporary image of the geo-architectural-historical interaction is mostly unchanged. We still understand the Earth to be a type of archive of the civilizations of the past and the archive that will one day hold the present. This concept of architectural history emerged in those earlier architectural theory images. Dumont (above), for example, understood that the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius buried a classical past. This, I think, might be one of the most brilliant of the early forms of the production of nature: Nature is the archive of social history. It’s an aspect of architectural history that I explored in a much different context in a recent piece for Grey Room, due out this February.

But, here, I want to think of some other possibilities for the specifically geo- historical/preservation machine. If the eruptions and convulsions of the Earth are one type of history machine, then there are others. Our geological concept of history is primarily based on strata; based on the seemingly “geological” processes that we ascribe to the 18th century project–dust, soil, and other terrestial matter that appear to consume the present.

But, consider the moon. The moon was formed by a violent geological collision on the earth — an asteroid, a planet? The moon is, in a sense, a piece of the Earth, ejected into space and preserved in space’s vacuum. The moon represents a horizontal concept of historical preservation. Its most direct social analogs are the actual pieces of socially produced space debris that ring the Earth’s surface that may sit there for thousands of years. But that’s the most literal interpretation of the horizontal concept of geo-history


Perhaps those architects and historians who produce the historical image of architecture might consider this Earth-moon relation as a type of perverse and inspiring geo-historical-image construct; one that considers the movements of architectural history in other “expressions” of “nature.” Perhaps this?


I am very happy to say that this site has received some attention from editors of print-run architectural publications.  I have been asked to put together a few essays about the history and potential of experimental practices of architectural history, theory and criticism. I have a handful of contemporary people that I will discuss – several involved with the journals listed in the sidebar at right – a few others from the long history of architectural history, and, of course, some work from this site.

So, if you read this site and have completed work that falls into the HTC experimentation area, (and I realize it requires some further definition) please, please, please email me and tell me what you are up to: