On Site review
Monday
Feb092015

0.0 call for articles for On Site review 34: on writing, or not 

Writing about architecture.  Who does it, who is if for, and why is it done?

Tuesday
Sep012015

Daniel Fairbrother: the book will kill the edifice

‘The book will kill the edifice.’

This will kill that.’  

Thus Dom Claude Frollo – Victor Hugo’s Archdeacon of Notre Dame – feared for his church.  His fear, examined at length by Hugo in a digressionary chapter of which David Foster Wallace would have been proud, is said to have two meanings.  First, on the surface, it is ‘the terror of the ecclesiastic before a new force – printing.’  Here it is not so much the church itself which is doomed but the sort of speech it houses; the monopoly of the pulpit, and the library of rare manuscripts feeding it, is to be undercut.  Second, though, there is a threat to architecture itself; Hugo thinks that somehow books can compete with buildings directly.  If this sounds paradoxical, it is because we normally think of books as offering something intangible – quite unlike buildings, if not entirely fictional.  For Hugo, though, this doesn’t hold: buildings were first silent bearers of memory, mere markers for the tribe, and then carriers of fragmentary inscription.1  ‘Last of all’, he says, ‘they had written these marvellous books which are equally marvellous edifices: the Pagoda of Eklinga, the Pyramids of Egypt, and the Temple of Solomon.’  But now, with cheaper editions in paper – not stone – it is impossible to return to an age when ‘you would have thought that the world had cast off its old raiment and clad itself anew in a white raiment of churches.’

By using ‘the book will kill the edifice’ as an epigraph for his White City, Black City, what Sharon Rotbard really means is: this book will kill the edifice. 2  The edifice, in this case, is the modernist white raiment which Rotbard says has been used to smother the inconveniences of Israel’s history; in particular, it is white Tel Aviv imposed on black Jaffa.  The self-conscious whiteness of Tel Aviv is taken to begin with its founding myth of a perfect democratic initiation on what Rotbard calls a ‘virginal dune’ near Jaffa.  Here, sixty-six families are said to have divided up the land by a ‘seashell lottery’ in 1909, the first local materials to be used in the making of this national home.  This is not quite ex nihilo, as Rotbard proposes, because it is the story told by European Jews claiming a return to long-neglected rights.  Seer of modern Israel before it existed, Theodor Herzl called for an ‘old-new land’ – Altneuland (1902) – fixing its right as timeless but detaching any specific obligations. So ‘first a book, then a city’, as Rotbard puts it, Tel Aviv came to think of itself as a Bauhaus piece, reflecting the white sands in a way Hugo could not have foreseen.  Others see it as a different sort of brutalism.  

The book raised an edifice.  That grey concrete didn’t seem so white to later visitors like Jean Nouvel (‘do you see white?  I don’t see any white’) didn’t seem to matter.  The whiteness could be written in.  Tel Aviv was commemorated in catalogues like Michael Levin’s White City and films like Boas Berr’s Air, Light & Utopia, and finally consecrated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, specifically as a white city, in 2003.  All this seems to miss what was written out.  Rotbard wants to reinstall the black city in memory: the disfavoured neighbourhoods missed off maps; the failing orchards bought from Arabs by early Jewish settlers (as they failed they showed whiter in the monochrome photography of the time); and the hundred-thousand Arabs who seemingly melted into the beaches during the 1948 war.  The white city was only possible with the clearance of its footings.  Here the book and the edifice have become entwined, and Rotbard thinks only correcting its history will force an acknowledgement of architecture’s silent speech – the better to argue with it.    

So in White City, Black City architecture is dragged into history and conversation, maybe malgré lui.  It is foremost a story where buildings have only walk-on parts.  With more than a nod to Franz Fanon, the meaning of the colours comes from people, the buildings reflected (on) in their light.  The importance of writing about architecture is something Israelis like Rotbard have been fighting for – in words – since the schism of architects over the censoring of A Civilian Occupation in 2002.  Prepared by Rafi Segal and Eyal Weizman, with Rotbard as one of the contributors, the catalogue was set to accompany an exhibition making conspicuous the role of architecture in Israel’s project of domination; the lauding of Tel Aviv’s “International” Style and the concrete enclosure of the Palestinians were almost simultaneous.  Despite its initial support, the Israel Association of United Architects claimed that the catalogue’s ‘ideas’ were ‘not architecture’ and destroyed five-thousand copies.  But enough people disagreed for it to be published by other means.      

The edifice tried to kill the book.  Nevertheless, the actual result was a multiplication of books and words and exhibitions – a second tower of Babel, as Hugo puts it.  Rotbard’s book, and later Eyal Weizman’s Hollow Land, were nothing if not provoked.  There is a sense, though, in which the ‘not architecture’ claim was correct, but it missed the point that it is essential to architecture to be open to the non-architectural – open to people, and therefore open to history.3  Buildings that are designed to be dead already, or for the quality of their anticipated death – as in Albert Speer’s theory of ‘ruin value’, which Rotbard says is the key to the Etzel Museum commemorating Israeli paramilitaries – are therefore in a deeper sense ‘not architecture’.  

Rotbard’s historical technique in White City, Black City is thus to put the content back into the drained white form; yet Weizman’s, in Hollow Land, is to convey the very emptiness of the form.  He aims much less to tell a story than to give you a way of seeing the whole within which all the stories move.  The book itself is assembled as what Weizman calls an ‘archival probe’, multiple essays and aspects held together by the title’s load-bearing metaphor.  Its coherence surpasses that of similar but more album-like efforts such as Léopold Lambert’s Weaponized Architecture.4  Cities become containers for the barest of lives, domestic buildings exploded to let the soldiers flow as freely as the sewage; Palestinians fear ghosts in abandoned Israeli homes; and where previously ‘Jerusalem Stone’ was assigned in planning law to enshrine Israel’s national substance, it is allowed to thin to a facade.  As a writer, Weizman has found a way to organize these disparate materials into a single ‘imaginary object’.5  The book has become a kind of edifice.  Its clarity lies in its openness to the bodily senses.  Stills of Palestinians crushed into checkpoints, queuing eyes, settlers scoring the desert, and the sweeping arms of military commanders and civic planners are all given their movement in the larger whole of the written text.  It is an impossible survey, compressing so much that is disparate across such a torn quarter of the Middle East.6

There is, of course, a long tradition of reading meaning into these sands.  Part of the devilry of mapping a peace here is in the layering of the two sides’ sacred sites.7  For interloping Christians, whose combats are now mostly elsewhere, the place of Jesus’ death has been tangled in memory with the significance of their written bible.8  Medieval crusaders were keen to triangulate chapter and verse.  No less – well – imaginative was imperial Briton Gordon Pasha’s claim in 1884 that the architecture and topography of Jerusalem revealed a (cartoonishly) literal symbol of the body of Christ.9  This avowal of coherence is equally a feature of the German tradition of history-writing which says that the historian’s writerly task is to tell the story of the identity of a nation by representing its ‘historical idea’ or ‘seed’ – to bring its essential aspects together under a single concept or metaphor.10  Weizman’s book answers to these traditions, but inverts them both.  A hollow object sits where an affirmative idea might have been expected.  It is this hollowness which drives the Arab-Israeli conflict on and on.  What is hollow, finally, is the soullessness and “insecurity” of all enemy-defined nationalisms.

Much inspired by Weizman, Penelope Curtis curated an exhibition about the Arab-Israeli conflict called the object quality of the problem.11 The metaphor ‘object’ seems half-right to describe the overall unity of Hollow Land, but what sort of object is it?  Curtis thought of sculptures, but artist Adania Shibli disagreed because ‘we are in the sculpture’.  This sounds less sculptural than architectural.  Weizman’s object is made of writing, exploding many buildings and compacting them together in a mostly verbal picture of human conflict.  The explosions, though, are notional.  The writer, and the architect and planner, as organisers of others’ material, in their dependence on others and each other, share a common ground.  For our time, with so few meaningful inscriptions and so many modernist white walls, the edifice needs the book:  

'Undoubtedly this, too, is a structure, growing and piling itself up in endless spiral lines; here, too, there is confusion of tongues, incessant activity, indefatigable labour, a furious contest between the whole of mankind, an ark of refuge for the intelligence against another deluge, against another influx of barbarism.'12



1  Victor Hugo, Notre Dame of Paris.  Charles William Eliot (trans.): Harvard Classics. 1917  

2  Sharon Rotbard, White City, Black City: Architecture and War in Tel Aviv and Jaffa.  Babel Press, 2005 (Hebrew): Orit Gat (trans.): Pluto Press, 2015 (English)

3  For the difficult connection between Zionist architecture and Nazism see Black City, White City, p.43.  Compare Raymond Geuss, ‘Politics and Architecture’ in A World Without Why.  Princeton University Press, 2014   

4 Léopold Lambert, Weaponized Architecture: The Impossibility of Innocence.  dpr-barcelona, 2012

5  RG Collingwood, The Principles of Art.  Oxford University Press, 1938: 139-144

6  The blending of bodily detail into the abstracted totality of Weizman’s Israel comes close to one ideal of literary realism.  

7  See Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.  Willard R Trask (trans.): Princeton University Press.  Princeton and Oxford, 1953

8  See Meron Benvenisti, Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948.  University of California Press, 2000 See Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory.  Lewis A Coser (trans.): University of Chicago Press, 1992

9  Daniel Bertrand Monk, An Aesthetic Occupation: The Immediacy of Architecture and the Palestine Conflict.  Duke, 2002: pp.20-21.  

10  Historismus; see Frank Ankersmit, Meaning, Truth, and Reference in Historical Representation.  Cornell UP, 2012: chp.1.  All roads lead through Hegel here.  

11 Penelope Curtis, The object quality of the problem.  Henry Moore Institute, 2008.  

12 Victor Hugo, Notre Dame of Paris: book 5, chapter 2.  One thinks, of course, of Tatlin’s tower: see Svetlana Boym, The Architecture of the Off-Modern.  Princeton Architectural Press, 2008.  The original interpreter of the writing on the wall was – Daniel (5:17).


Friday
Nov062015

Danielle S Willkens: Epistolary Architecture: the Transatlantic Design Network, 1768-1837

This article, “Epistolary Architecture: the Transatlantic Design Network, 1768-1838”, examines how written discourse and transatlantic exchange influenced architectural culture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The dynamic visualizations contained within examine a select group of international figures and argues that they effectively constituted a ‘Transatlantic Design Network’: a shared and fluid network of people, sites, texts and objects that transcended nationalistic concerns. The use of letters as a means of design exchange and impact of the network on architectural culture will be traced through a study of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) and Sir John Soane (1753-1837). Although they never met, they were both connected to Maria Hadfield Cosway (1760-1838), an artist, designer, and educator, who corresponded with each man for over four decades. Over this period, Jefferson and Soane exchanged with Cosway not only letters, but also material objects, such as drawings, books, artifacts, and personal contacts, through which they cultivated a distinct set of shared aesthetic, political, and social concerns. Through their correspondence and subsequent letters of introduction that broadened the shared veins of epistolary exchange, they facilitated international networks that sidestepped existing aristocratic ones, gave agency to women, and advanced professional and stylistic developments of architecture on both sides of the Atlantic. In mapping the network, Jefferson, Soane, and Cosway serve as the generative nodes and they are connected to approximately 200 other members of the network (architects, artists, doctors, lawyers, statesmen, scientists, farmers, and writers) through various strands of association: immediate correspondence, genealogy and marriage, mentorship, patronage, and communal membership in other formal networks such as the London-based Royal Society, Royal Society of the Arts, and Royal Academy and the U.S.-based American Philosophical Society, Academy of Fine Arts, and Columbian Institute. In addition to the large map, the network is further visualized through ‘geographic’ timelines and diagrams that illustrate the primary documents, over 2,000 letters, sampled for the study of the network.




Time wastes too fast: every letter
I trace tells me with what rapidity
life follows my pen. The days and hours
of it are flying over our heads like
clouds of windy day never to return--
more. Every thing presses on—
from Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy ,
3rd ed., 9 vols. (London: Printed for J. Dodsley, 1760-1767), 2:VIII.

Although these borrowed lines may read as the preface to a romantic saga, this article does not tell the story of a love triangle or an affair. Rather, this is the story of a series of architectural relationships: two architects, from opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, and their respective meetings with a young, charismatic artist that sparked forty-year friendships and how this triumvirate formed the core of a generative and active network of peers who spend decades sharing letters, drawings, and design ideas across borders and continents. The architects were Thomas Jefferson and Sir John Soane; their shared aesthete was Maria Hadfield Cosway. Much has been written about the probability of a romantic relationship between Jefferson and Cosway and the obsession over their imagined affair is understandable given the famously passionate nature of their early letters. Nevertheless, this story does not focus on their possible affair but rather their shared ardor for aesthetics and architecture.

From top down, timelines of the lives of Jefferson, Soane and Cosway in the style of Sterne’s plot line diagrams in Tristam Shandy , drawn by author. The upstrokes represent times of professional success, the flourishes represent significant meetings or events, and downstrokes represent the death of a significant loved one.

The lines above from Tristram Shandy are particularly relevant to a discussion of Jefferson and Soane in relation to their first meetings with Cosway: both meetings were brief but for decades the friends would relive their travels together through the pages of letters that traveled across countries and continents. Both Jefferson and Soane were reading Tristram Shandy around the time they first met Cosway. It is curious to imagine that Jefferson and Soane, both of whom generally favored works of nonfiction, poured over Sterne’s brilliant line diagrams that illustrate the meandering paths of Tristram’s narrative like a section through a wild and imaginative landscape. As the reader progresses through the course of Tristam’s ‘autobiography’, the digressions within his narrative, represented as sinuous curves or abrupt peaks and valleys in the literal plot line, are the most pivotal elements his journey. Much like Tristram, the meetings of Jefferson and Soane with Cosway could be dismissed as insignificant detours along their professional paths; however, these supposed diversions were significant experiences for the architects that, like their correspondence with Cosway, stayed with Jefferson and Soane for the rest of their lives.

Introduction
During the colonial era and the emergence of the new United States, aspiring North American designers had limited educational and experiential opportunities in comparison to their European counterparts. Typical studies of the early American built environment state that North American occupants could only acquire architectural knowledge by traveling across the 'Western Ocean', engaging in the extremely limited field of architectural apprenticeship, and studying architectural pattern books and treatises. These limited, yet commonly held views of American architectural development in the Early Republic fail to acknowledge the presence of a larger and highly influential transatlantic network of relationships that activated the exchange of design ideas and books while shaping careers in the built environment: an architectural Republic of Letters. A study of the Transatlantic Design Network aims to bridge this gap by tracing how the letters, material objects, such as drawings, books, artifacts, and personal contacts cultivated a distinct set of shared aesthetic, political, and social concerns among an international pool of architects, artists, collectors, and educators.

The analysis of this dynamic community proves that architects, artists, and patrons fluidly traversed the Atlantic Ocean through many means: the exchange of letters, drawings, and publications, personal travels, and international recruitment for architectural projects. An analysis of the Transatlantic Design Network, a shared and active network of people, sites, texts and objects that transcended nationalistic concerns, offers an alternative approach to the examination of late eighteenth and early nineteenth Anglo-American architecture where the ambitions and sensibilities of architectural design in America and Europe were not at odds, where Americans were naïve hobbyists and Europeans alone were cultivating architectural professionals, but rather intrinsically linked through the shared interests and travels of interconnected figures such as lawyer-architect-statesman Thomas Jefferson, architect Sir John Soane, artist Maria Cosway, and several others. Scholarship on Jefferson and Soane is plentiful, but these texts study the designers within only nationalistic contexts and this, consequentially, has imposed a monograph-driven silo effect that fails to identify or properly attribute the existence of a ‘Transatlantic Design Network’

The Transatlantic Design Network, 1768-1838

There is an interesting lexical gap in the English language: unlike Romance languages, it does not make a distinction in the use of the verb 'to know' between the knowledge of a fact and knowledge of a person. The Italian verbs sapere and conoscere and the French verbs savoir and connaître linguistically recognize the differences between familiarity with a object or concept and familiarity with a person, thereby revealing a vein of epistemology that recognizes the importance of personal interaction in the formation and dissemination of knowledge. Architects like Thomas Jefferson and Sir John Soane learned their discipline from books, on-site investigations, and in the case of Soane, formal academic training and apprenticeship. However, for both men, their understanding of art, architecture, and culture was very much shaped by the interests, observations, and talents of their personal acquaintances. By reading letters, diary entries, and account books of Jefferson and Soane, it is possible to trace how conversations in coffeehouses and salons, as well as casual journeys undertaken with friends, influenced their architectural theories and design goals.

The brief, aforementioned, foray into linguistics provides the background for the importance of analyzing how knowledge is acquired and formed through personal connections, often referred to as actor-network theory. Network theory is frequently referenced in contemporary, popular culture as 'six degrees of separation' and in terms of scholarly analysis, it is typically deployed in twentieth century studies as evidenced in the work of Latour (2005), Fraser (2007), and Yaneva (2009). Yet, important circles of interpersonal exchange have operated for centuries and that personal influences and conversations, not just pattern books and transplanted designers, were responsible for America’s architectural development in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  

One significant precedent for the dissection of pre-modern international communication as a means of theoretical discourse and exchange is the Republic of Letters. This was a period of communication and intellectual dissemination that blossomed during the Renaissance, concurrent with the new affordability and availability of paper in the West in the 1500s. Further exploration of this topic may be found in several sources (e.g. Cook, 1996; Hindley, 2013; Shuffelton, Baridon, & Chevignard, 1988). Through the transactions of social and institutional networks, as well as interpersonal connections, participants within the Republic of Letters often corresponded with individuals they never met: they operated within an intellectual community of epistles. The culture of the Republic of Letters highlighted the European interchange of information that eventually spread veins of communication to other parts of the world via trade routes and colonization. Additionally, the Republic of Letters illustrated the Janus-faced nature of Enlightenment. In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), John Locke wrote that enlightenment was a product of both the introspective act known as a ‘talk with oneself’ as well as interpersonal discourse.

The use of epistles

Author’s collage of the Transatlantic Design Network, 1768-1838, with letters from Jefferson and Cosway overlaid charts of the Atlantic Ocean, currents, temperatures, and trade routesLetter writing was a means of gathering one's thoughts, disseminating those thoughts, and establishing a dialogue that, unlike diary writing, could be directly challenged and influenced by others. Correspondence frequently triangulated conversations since it was desirable to send letters through personal conveyance: by transferring a letter from author to recipient, the person delivering the note was often provided with a letter of introduction and consequentially benefited from access to new organizations, sites, and networks. Additionally, epistles from prominent figures were often printed in newspapers and leaflets; letters weren't necessarily private. For many authors, this was actually advantageous for broadening international discourses. It is important to note that the epistles sampled for this study were not always transmitted transatlantically: sometimes they traveled within the same country, or even the same city, but their authors had knowledge of and experiences with both sides of the 'Western Ocean', the Euro-centric term often used to refer to the Atlantic Ocean.


 Over 2,000 letters were consulted in the research and this sampling of documentary evidence was initially defined by correspondence between Jefferson, Soane, and Cosway. The sample was then expanded to include correspondence between figures that knew at least two members of the triumvirate or were directly engaged in conversations with Jefferson, Soane, or Cosway about the arts, travel, and educational practices. Of the larger sampling of letters, a little over 500 were selected as representative conversations within the network in terms of their focus on the means of cultivating architectural taste, the relationship between buildings, people, the design process, and the nature and scope of travel needed to broaden one’s visual and experiential catalog. These letters were used to study and map trends within the network. They were also beneficial for the identification of eighteen figures from America and Europe, in addition to Jefferson, Soane, and Cosway, who helped delineate the nature and composition of the Transatlantic Design Network. These figures were not selected because they were the most prolific correspondents of Jefferson, Soane, or Cosway but rather because of the ways they interacted: what they sent to each other, where they traveled, who they provided letters of introduction to, and how their contributions in design, education, curation, or even law may have impacted the forms, collections, and architectural thinking at contemporary sites such as Jefferson’s Monticello and Soane’s Museum.

Characteristic of the network


The Transatlantic Design Network was composed of several unique, identifying factors: the introduction of newly-nationalized 'American' individuals and their associated interests, professionally-driven travel, and the extension of communication and exchange beyond initial, transitory meetings and social engagements. As evidenced by the Republic of Letters, several independent European mail systems were established in the sixteenth century and the increased frequency of centralized mail systems in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries bolstered letter writing. These systems, however, could rarely be trusted for either discretion or delivery. As maritime travel improved, more noncommercial ships crossed the Atlantic therefore more letters were exchanged through personal conveyance that, unlike the mail systems, ensured transfer and timely delivery while simultaneously reinforcing professional connections and social circles. Consequently, the architectural Republic of Letters, unlike the preceding Enlightenment-era Republic of Letters, was composed of more diverse European and North American constituents. The members of the network, therefore, became rich resources for obtaining and disseminating information and, therefore, it was important for select visualizations of the Transatlantic Design Network to display where any key figures met, began cycles of exchange, and encountered common associates.

Unlike a conventional timeline, this geographical timeline, tracing date in the ‘x’ or horizontal axis and place in the ‘y’ or vertical axis, allows the activities and travels of the contemporaries to be read in parallel, identifying both shared and divergent paths of travel as well as points of contact. Through the dramatic vertical rises and falls, representing transatlantic and intercontinental travel, this time line clearly shows Jefferson’s transience in comparison to the localized European travels of Cosway and the even more limited travels of Soane. As evidenced in the images below, the dense, linear information from these graphics is very difficult to display within the constraints of a typical, printed page. Consequently, many of the images featured in this paper have been made available online for closer inspection.

Initially, Jefferson, Soane, and Cosway were selected as formative figures for the study of the Transatlantic Design Network because of their triangulated correspondence and due to the way that they were characterized by some of their contemporaries in letters and descriptions. The generalizations often used in discussions between Jefferson, Soane, Cosway and their peers disclose many of the presumptions and societal conditions that existed in the transatlantic world and contextualize the cartoons in newspapers and flyers from 1750s to early 1800s that played to caricatures of the Englishman, the American, and the Female. In the case of the selected triumvirate, the caricatures had some merit. Jefferson was labeled ‘the noble savage’, a common stereotype for Americans in Europe, initially perpetuated by Franklin as noted by Flavell (2010:189). In truth, Jefferson was raised in the country and was leery of both big cities and big government. As a plantation owner he also embodied the contradictory nature of many of his revolutionary peers who fought for national freedom while profiting as life-long slaveholders. Soane's professional and social ambitions inspired the critique among certain Royal Academy colleagues that he was a social climber this was perpetuated in the satirical poems of the Observer and the reviews of the Examiner. Soane’s ambitions were confirmed by his deliberate attempts to obscure his humble heritage that even included adding an 'e' to the end of his surname, as noted by several previous researchers such as Darley (1999: 16). His plans to transcend his class took him from the country to the city and in his Memoirs on the Professional Life of an Architect Between the Years 1768 and 1835(1835), he wrote that, as if by divine intervention, he was “led by natural inclination to study architecture at age fifteen” (11). Cosway was potentially the most caricatured and, consequentially, dismissed of the three. She embodied the image of the attractive artist and within the majority of extant scholarship, her romantic role as a muse has consistently overshadowed her numerous artistic commissions and contributions. Yet, she served as a conduit for her closest correspondents by advancing connections between international figures in the arts, helping circulate publications on architecture and landscape, and providing eyes on the artistic scene of Europe.

As an interconnected triumvirate, the projects by and longstanding relationships between Jefferson, Soane, and Cosway demonstrate a particularly distinguished sample of the Transatlantic Design Network. The humble backgrounds of each figure distinctly differentiate their travels and experiences from those of most aristocratic participants in the Grand Tour who traveled at a leisurely pace with substantial funds, spent the majority of time abroad with their own countrymen, and resisted the full exploration of foreign cultures, much like Smelfungus of Laurence Sterne’s satirical account A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, by Mr Yorick (1768). Additionally, the travels of Jefferson, Soane, and Cosway were typically sponsored, professionally driven expeditions that, although inclusive of leisurely pursuits, were largely shaped by working interests. As designers, agents, and patrons, they were participants in post-Enlightenment intellectuals circles and highly attuned to aesthetics and new developments in architecture. Jefferson, Soane, and Cosway were also linked to a transatlantic community through their desire to disseminate knowledge and to bring international experience to a larger audience through their localized architectural and educational endeavors: Jefferson's house-museum of Monticello and his Academical Village of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia; Soane's Museum and his work as a Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy in London, England; and Cosway's Collegeio delle Grazie in Lodi, Italy, a multi-lingual school that taught the arts, humanities, and science to adolescent girls. The geographic timeline for eighteen other figures within the network is featured below and shows that Jefferson, Soane, and Cosway were not the only correspondence within the network embarking on professionally driven travel and founding educational institutions. The figures featured in the timeline below were all shared correspondence of at least two of the members of the JefferSoanian-Cosway triumvirate. Due to the density of information, this map can also be found online as an interactive graphic that allows users to filter and more closely example certain places of travel, professional categories, nationalities, and dates.

Visualizations of the Transatlantic Atlantic Design Network

The forty-year correspondence of Jefferson, Soane, and Cosway had wider consequences: they facilitated international networks that sidestepped existing aristocratic ones, gave agency to the voices and initiatives of women, and advanced professional and stylistic developments of architecture on both sides of the Atlantic. Direct examples of the influence of correspondence are the fact that Cosway was responsible for the dissemination of privately published texts by Jefferson and Soane. Although Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) was printed in London, Cosway introduced members of her circle to the text. Similarly, she was responsible for introducing Soane’s Museum to her acquaintances in Italy, noting in a letter to the architect that, “your beautiful book has been admired all over Milan & architects have taken translations of great part of it” (SJSM, III.C.4, no. 36).

In order to better understand the operations and potential architectural and epistemological implications of the Transatlantic Design Network, several diagrammatic investigations were constructed. For example, the network map below illustrates the connections between approximately 200 figures. Jefferson, Soane, and Cosway served as the generative nodes for this map and they are linked to other members of the network through various strands of association: immediate correspondence, genealogy and marriage, mentorship, patronage, and communal membership in other formal networks such as the London-based Royal Society, Royal Society of the Arts, and Royal Academy and the United States-based American Philosophical Society, Academy of Fine Arts, and Columbian Institute. Here, it is important to note that these organizations represent a very selective sampling: Pevsner identified more than 100 artistic academics in Europe during the late 1790s (1973: 141-143). The organizations used for the Transatlantic Design Network study and subsequent visualizations were selected as six organizations, three from England and three from the United States, that were most active in reference to design-related publications or exhibitions and these organizations also had the largest concentrations of practicing designers. The latter distinction of ‘practicing’ verses ‘professional’ architect or artist was used to cast a wider net since the nascent United States lacked both the educational infrastructure and established systems of apprenticeship to support formal architectural training and the promise of steady commissions to support the pursuits of the arts as a full time profession. Painter John Trumbull, now noted for the creation of an extensive graphic record of America’s founding fathers and key moments in the nation’s developing history, noted in his Autobiography that he was reluctant to return from Europe to America in the 1780s because he feared there would be little work: “You see, sir, that my future movement depend entirely upon my reception in America, and as that shall be cordial or cold, I am to decide whether to abandon my country or my profession" (1841:160).   

As evidenced by the map, active members of the network were also connected to selected writers and architects who, although departed, were influential in the discourses on design within the network. The diagram is divided horizontally by travel: North Americans on the far left and Europeans on the far right. The placement of individual figures within the longitude of the diagram was dependent on the individual's travel within their respective nation and continent as well as any travels across the Atlantic Ocean. Expatriates are identified in the center of the map. An interactive version of this map can, too, be found online.

It is import to briefly note a facet of the origins of this visualisation project: initially, the study of Jefferson, Soane, and Cosway was initiated to better understand transatlantic design operations around the turn of the nineteenth century and, by extension, to try and understand how Jefferson’s Monticello and Soane’s Museum could share so many parallels in their fabrication, form, and collections despite the fact that the two architects never met. A diagrammatic map featuring the connections between Jefferson, Soane, and Cosway was initially constructed on large sheets of tracing paper, quickly taped together, with markers as a way to keep complex and ever growing shared network of this triumvirate. Used as a notational tool, it became clear that this network map had significant value beyond its initial process-driven construction: it was a previously unexplored visualization of the social, geographical, and professional connections between some of the most notable figures of the Atlantic world in the late 1700s and early 1800s. As the study of the network continues to evolve and find its way into a digitized form, it is expected that a larger database will be developed for other researchers to add members and activities to the network, thereby crowdsourcing content to build a more robust picture of the network, its participants, and its impacts.


References

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Private Correspondence. Archives of Sir John Soane's Museum. Sir John Soane's Museum, London.

Shuffelton, I., Baridon, M., & Chevignard, B. (1988). Travelling in the republic of letters. Publications Universite de Bourgogne, 66, 1-16.

Soane, J. (1835). Memoirs on the Professional Life of an Architect Between the Years 1768 and 1835. London: James Moyes Castle Street Leicster Square, Privately Printed, Not Published.

Sterne, L. (1768). A sentimental journey through France and Itlay, by Mr Yorick (3rd ed.). London: T. Becket and P.A. de Hondt.

Trumbull, J. (1841). Autobiography, reminiscences and letters of John Trumbull, from 1756 to 1841. New York, NY: Wiley and Putnam.

Upton, D. (1998). Architecture in the United States. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Winterer, C. (2012). Where is America in the Republic of Letters. Modern Intellectual History, 9(3), 597-623.

Yaneva, A. (2009). The making of a building: a pragmatist approach to architecture. Oxford: Peter Lang.

Sunday
Aug022015

Graham Hooper:  Columns


Columns are written by columnists

A recurring piece, a regular feature in a publication

Explicitly contains the author's opinion or point of view

 

One or more vertical blocks of content

Positioned on a page

Separated by gutters (vertical whitespace) or rules (thin lines)

Used to break up large bodies of text that cannot fit in a single block of text on a page

To improve page composition and readability

 

A structural element that transmits

Through compression

The weight of the structure above

To other structural elements below

Sunday
Sep132015

Hector Abarca: Heralds of their own gospel

Heralds of their own gospel
Architects & writing: An invitation to talk the walk and walk the talk

1.
 
In 1946, Ernesto Nathan Rogers, wrote in the editorial of Domus magazine, “the problem is one of forging a taste, a technique, a morality, a different manifestation of the same problem: the problem of building a society”.

This editorial was part of one of the first issues published after the end of World War II, and Rogers, like all the other professionals that have lived through the horrors of war, was immersed in the project of reconstruction, of the city and of the man. Metron was another important Italian magazine that under the editorship of Bruno Zevi led the reconstruction debate by discussing planning and building issues focused in correcting the ideological mistakes made by the first Italian modernism or the rationalist movement which fell under the spell of Benito Mussolini and the spectacle of crisp volumetric compositions of the fascism. The new Italian postwar architecture was aesthetically rebuilt upon Zevi’s writings  that found in the architectural space the needed answer that unleashed the independence of architecture from materiality, understood as an evolution of the European functionalism.  

Like Rogers and Zevi, architects emerged as public figures embracing their technocratic role first as authors. Le Corbusier compiled the lectures he held in Argentina in “Precisions: On the Present State of Architecture and City Planning” (1930), which later led to the engagement to lead the design workshop that created the Ministry of Education and Health in Rio de Janeiro (1936), the first truly modem high-rise ever built. Josep Lluis Sert, years before being appointed the dean of Harvard GSD was an illegal alien that abruptly left Spain escaping the Francoist persecution touring America with the mock-up of “Can Our Cities Survive? An ABC of urban problems their analysis, their solutions.” (1942), the visionary book that changed America’s understanding on urban design.

Back in Europe, Sert was the editor of A.C. Actividad Contemporánea, a leading avant-garde architectural magazine published in Barcelona. Like Le Corbusier with L’Esprit Nouveau, Lina Bo Bardi also started her career as an architectural journalist in Milan before moving to Brazil, where she helped define the Paulista School and their scrupulous view of architecture and public space that had unfolded in the ingenious structural work of Paulo Mendes da Rocha, 2006 Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate.


2.

We know about the financial hardships that Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, Louis H. Sullivan, Paolo Soleri, Adolf Loos, and Arthur Erickson experienced at countless points of their careers, as they were dedicating time to travel to promote their ideas and writings with the international community. For them it was both, a need to shape-up their ideas about the complexities of the environment and the forces that encompass design and gain acceptance in the scholarly circles,

With their passing, the days of the visionary architectural office also ended, for the precise reason that this model is considered economically unviable, discouraged and ignored by professional associations of architects that by mandate focus only on the architectural practice and its business.  In 2012 the Internship In Architecture Program published by the Canadian Architectural Licensing Authorities deleted requirements for discretionary experience in Related Disciplines and Post Graduate Study/Teaching/Research, these were 1880 hours of ancillary activities that can be a visit to an exhibition, writing and attending a lecture.

“Architects, more often than artists are heralds of their own gospel,”  - said Henry- Russell Hitchcock – “and faith and works are not always of the same value or consistency.”  We have left the task of taking care of the rest of the city to the boutique design firms and the “plan factories,” as Wright was used to call them, as only available options.

Frank Lloyd Wright, a prolific writer, pointed out in “Architecture as a profession is all wrong (1930),” “The commercially degenerated architect (1930)” and “Away with the realtor (1958)” the intellectual crisis of the standard business model that requires a “safe-man” and disregards “how much of an architect this fellow is, if he can make a popular picture of his building.” to the point of calling his colleagues that have compromised that ideas are an anathema that clogs their machinery.

Wright made us remember that in the scheme usually customers are to blame for their lack of architectural culture when buying property, but he takes the stance to the realtor and his financer who are accountable for having packaged up a faulty product that limits the freedom of the man. An arrangement that actually involves more actors, from the architect’s staff to city’s building officials; we all have contributed to perpetrate an architectural sin.  Today it is impossible to act as conscientious objector and expect to stay in the office payroll or stick to our beliefs acting like Howard Roark or Louis H. Sullivan risking destitution to compromise.


3.
In 1926 when Adolf Loos arrived to Paris he was already a famous architect, but not because of his built work, that’s still remained humble, but for his writings. Beatriz Colomina remained us that for Loos only when it has been deintellectualized the printed word can give back the language to culture. Bruno Zevi shared the same awareness declining,to “subject buildings to rigorous ideological scrutiny.”

Robert Campbell, architect and architectural critic of the Boston Globe, that he is used collect “these gems of pretentious illiteracy,” or overly elaborated intellectual architectural rants, ArchiSpeak , as he calls them. But let’s do pay too much attention to Campbell wordsmithing mastery. Carter Wiseman, author and professor of architectural writing and criticism at Yale University, recalls Campbell to note that with the advancement of technology and the increasing complexity of the actual projects, clear written communication has declined; even among the best educated professionals.  At first thought it might be that current times have left little time for reading and writing, but Campbell states that “architects, especially academics, may feel they’re so smart they don’t need to master the technology of writing.”


4.

Since the 80’s we have finally elevated architecture again to the level of art as it was in Baroque times. It is debatable how it started, with Mitterrand’s grand travaux or, tha Barcelona 1992 Summer Olympic games, of the British high-tech architecture, of the Second Machine Age, as Martin Pawley, long-time columnist of the Architect’s Journal, called it, paraphrasing the famous book of Rayer Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960). Nonetheless, the Guggenheim of Bilbao was the work that modified our instance for architecture. Maybe since the times of Fillipo Bruneleschi, no other building has received so much copious media attention, and like the Florence Duomo, both unmistakable dominate their cities’ skylines making architecture popular again. From connoisseurs to day-trippers, from academic papers to tourist guides, everyone is writing about the handful of architects behind every other city’s reprise attempt of the Bilbao effect that would bring crowds to the city core, to download the smartphone application to find the right spot to take the best selfie with the curvaceous landmark, and write about that, in a blog, social media or a journal.


But Alexandra Lange, the young design critic, author and Loeb Fellow, rejects the idea that architectural criticism is constrained to talk about a specific new building that actually only has an impact on a handful of people. In “Writing about Architecture”  she points out that there is enough talk but focused on real estate, investments, and commodities; being design, an accessory element of the equation. What we actually need are more critics—citizen critics— equipped with the desire and the vocabulary to remake the city. Her call is for public service, the critic as a mediator between the city and the individual, breaks the mold of the traditional newspaper critic,

 “While Some buildings might seem to speak for themselves, even the best ones may need some help to be fully appreciated” , begins the conclusion of Wiseman Writing Architecture. In “Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles” , a short pop film aired by the BBC in 1972 in which Banham explains Los Angeles to us, as “it needs some explaining because it’s normally regarded as an inexplicable sprawling maze.”

These architects and critics have relinquished from leaving the architectural debate to academia giving to it a popular voice, that still comes from afar, reverberating in hallways, blogs and short run magazines. As Colomina reflects, we should start thinking architecture as media, accepting that is not a matter exclusive to architects, but a high artistic practice in opposition to mass culture.

In current secular times the feeble relationship of the practicing architects with architectural theory has been reduced to the design philosophy printed in a corporative brochure and in the project brief submitted to a city’s Design Panel, part of a submission that can be hundreds of sheets long, that still leave us empty; because the architecture we produce is not high anymore. It seems that after all the architecture produced we haven’t done too much to challenge this practice.

A reflection irrelevant for the developer but appealing to the young professional and the city activist, we need to learn how to read a building, an urban plan, and a developer’s rendering in order to see where critique might make a difference and communicate to the reader and the writer, the citizen and the critic.

Images can be compelling but are often best conveyed through the written word especially to those who may not have visual training.
To give an example, let’s travel with the plume of Wright in “In the Cause of Architecture,”  one of his first collaborations for Architectural Record, finishes saying, “As for the future – the work shall grow more truly simple: more expressive with fewer lines, fewer forms; more articulate with less labour, more plastic; more fluent, although more coherent, more organic. (…) but shall further find whatever is lovely or of good repute in method or process, and idealize it with the cleanest, most virile stroke I can imagine.”

The work associated with this statement, has lost importance, we don’t really need it to visualize the arresting power of the architectural writing when it encompass good architecture.  Because writing takes over what drawings are not able to fully express, “especially when it comes to urbanism” said Le Corbusier. And let’s do not forget that he referred to himself as homme de lettres, as it was his listed profession in his French identity card; because at some point of his career he found himself in the position of a narrator above, or supplementary, to his role of architect.

  Zevi, B. (1945). Verso una Architettura Organica. Turín: Einaudi.
  Zevi, B. (1948). Sapere Vedere l’Architettura. Turín: Einaudi.
  Henry-Russell Hitchcock. (1935). Le Corbusier exhibition arranged by the Department of Architecture of the Moma, New York: Museum of Modern  Art.
  Campbell, R.  (2001, October) Having trouble understanding what the architectural cognoscenti are saying? You’re not alone. Architectural Record 189 (10), 79.
  Wiseman C. (2014). Writing Architecture, a Practical Guide to Clear Communication about the built environment. San Antonio: Trinity University Press. 2.
  Lange, A. (2012). Writing about architecture: Mastering the language of buildings and cities. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.
  Wiseman C. (2014). 207.
  Cooper, L. (1972) One pair of Eyes: Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles
  Wright, F. L. (1908, March). 'In the Cause of Architecture.' In Wright, F. L., Pfeiffer, B. B., & Wright, F. L. . Frank Lloyd Wright collected writings. Vol 1. (pp. 84-100). New York: Rizzoli.

Tuesday
Sep012015

Igsung So: Post-Medium Narrative

“We write to make ourselves see what we have got in the inescapable present...to give another interpretation of the same ruins...to show a glimpse of another aesthetic.”
Smithson, Alison & Peter, Without Rhetoric – An Architectural Aesthetic 1955-1962, Latimer New Dimensions, London, 1973.

Why bother writing about architecture when you could render it? Why would you verbally explain a work of architecture when you could make a video of it? Better yet: bake out a real-time virtual environment using ready-made video game engines for you to walk around in it. The digital age allows you to construct your own understanding of the space. You create your own narrative. It’s certainly more ‘democratic’ this way. Writings are dumb. Don’t take offense: it’s true! Words are slow, unresponsive, and often misunderstood. They have become a medium that architects resort to when drawings and diagrams have failed to explicate the full breadth of their design.

So why lament its transformation? Is there much use in reviewing the heydays of architectural writing? Why not instead attempt to uncover its post-medium specific condition in its unheroic, unexciting state? Simply accept the ruins of writing in its changing reality and present it so.

In the mid-1960s and 1970’s, in the midst what was then called the electric information age, collaborative efforts of Quentin Fiore, Jerome Agel, and Marshall McLuhan output a series of print matter marketed towards the mass public. Their principal aim was to be inexpensive and intellectually accessible. Most notable of these, as we all know, is The Medium is the Massage: a typo-pictorial translation of McLuhan’s esoteric writing geared towards a nonspecialist audience. Rooted in the techniques of cinematography, the reading experience was delivered as a casual synthesis of both visual and verbal matter, proposing a non-linear narrative to supplant traditional written communication; writing as a formal medium was dissolved; linearity of prose had collapsed. It heralded the end of ‘nature’ as we knew it and inched us closer in accepting a post- medium condition of the arts, media and architecture: what we now commonly, and endearingly, refer to as interdisciplinary.

If images and movies are celebrated for their ‘clarity’, then writing can be championed for its ambiguities and misunderstandings. By extension, writing could be the last remaining medium that engenders multiple narratives and interpretations: critical subsistence in maintaining our collective imagination.

The following is a series of orthographic and perspective drawings presented in pairs. In parallel, an undecorated prose accompanies the paired drawings. As such, the visual and verbal artifacts are presented simultaneously as a means to communicate specific qualities of a fictional building in Voss, Norway. The writing focuses on a fictional character, Malin. Via her brief encounters with the building throughout her life, the architecture is disclosed in fragments. In doing so, the architecture is not explained under architectural terms, per se. The readers’ understanding of the building will draw from her personal memories evoking highly specific qualities of particular spaces within the building: all the while remaining ignorant
of the rest of the building. Afterall, this is how we often experience a building—only as it relates to us personally. The ambition of the writing is not to overwhelm the understanding of the project with a singular, machismo narrative: a PR tactic often deployed today to reduce architecture to bite-sized marketing packages. Similar to a cinematic soundtrack, the words will construct a backdrop for the unfolding of the project’s architectural sequencing, events, and materiality. Along with the visual artifacts, the words will reveal spatial depth and evoke tactile memories. The content and delivery of the narrative are as plain as the visuals. Life in plain sight. Exceedingly conventional, exceptionally (sur)real. It is literally a story about architecture, vaguely familiar. Music...cue.

Approach to building from neighbouring streeMalin remembers visiting her mother’s house in Voss as a child. Every other summer, she would take the trip from Amherst, Nova Scotia to Voss, Norway; from nowhere to nowhere, she always thought. Each trip, she notices a strange double house down the hill when exiting her mother’s car .


Ground Floor Plan Ground Floor Perspective of PorcShe begins a habit of asking her brother to visit the strange house with her. To Malin’s disappointment, he chooses to watch the TV instead each time. She steps out of her house in search of some company. In a slight distance, she notices the girls next door skipping along the road. She approaches with a smile and a hello. They spoke limited English but they made efforts in communicating with her. She liked that. She had been craving attention. To her slight surprise, it appears that the girls had the same strange house in mind as well. They invite Malin to a party hosted at the double house coming Saturday. What is more, there will be a large pool. This instantly excites Malin. She had never swam in a pool before. Only the salty ocean off the rocky shores of Amherst. That Saturday, Malin walks down the street in her bathing suit, ecstatic for a swim. At the foot of the property, she arrives at a field of flagstones. Hopping along the stone she goes, winding her way towards the strange house. This leads her to the exact centre of the strange house. Two choices. On the right, a door. On the left, a covered walkway. She hears a general murmuring at its end. She begins her way through the walkway, arriving at a large planometrically square porch covered by a dominating glulam roof structure. The crisp edges of its floating beams skirts the view of the mountains beyond and the fresh breeze greets her. Sitting along the edge of the porch is a queue of girls from
the village. All clothed in Bunad, the traditional Norwegian wear. It’s Norway Day, May 17. She notices her two neighbours and approaches shyly. She was the only one wearing a bathing suit. “O we are going to swim right now.” She feels relieved.

Lower Floor Plan Lower Floor Perspective of PoolFollowing her friends’ lead, Malin walks back out towards the entrance and picks up on the flagstone path on her left. It leads her down the slope of the hill, along the southwest wall of the building. She descends the path, running her fingers along the smooth and warm concrete wall. The sun is perfect today, she thought. As she turns the corner, she can already hear the gentle splashes of the pool. The two girls run into the building to change out of their Bunad. Malin stands still. She doesn’t know what to do. She inches towards the pool and stands along the edge of the pool with two other girls. They raise their head to acknowledge Malin’s approach, then continued to gaze on the pool. A gentle breeze. Shimmering surface of the water. Not much talk. Malin stands with them in silence, watching the pool. A lady with a white bathing cap. She notices the familiar warmth of the concrete wall on her back. A warm silence, she thinks.

Detail Section of Roof StructureGround floor perspective under bisecting beamAt around the age of eighteen, Malin ceases her visit to Voss as she leaves for university. She felt convinced in studying art history. Postmodern painters like David Hockney had always interested her. Wait, Alex Colville too?... She couldn’t be too sure. Besides, it was their mundane expression that drew her in. So flat, so good. Every summer, she works as a clerk at a small gallery in town in lieu of her visits to Voss. Paintings of the water, boats and lighthouses—too many lighthouses. She didn’t care for them. It was almost too real. During her third summer at the gallery, she receives a call from her brother. Malin’s mother had passed. The funeral is scheduled for next week in Voss.
When she arrives at her mother’s house in Voss, all members of the family are there to greet her. Malin’s grandparents, her brother, two aunts, four uncles: and 6 cousins she had never met. Hellooo. Even her father is present. All of them talk. About this and that, about things. She is exhausted from the flight and attempts to politely ask them to see her room. There are no more free rooms. Not great, she thinks. They tell her that there is a small hostel/spa down the road. It has two roofs, you can’t miss it, they say. She recalls the strange house immediately. The pool, she thinks. Down the street she goes, then stepping through the familiar flagstones, she arrives at the covered opening once again. This time, she enters the building through the doors on her right. Upon entering the reception space, she recognizes the same glulam roof structure as she had seen on the porch before. The large wooden beam bisected the room in perfect symmetry. Malin looks around the lonely space. Mostly empty. A few chairs around the fireplace, that’s about it. Was there a party?
Cut-away isometric of staircaseLower floor perspective of movement studioThe next morning, Malin is awake by six. AM. Jetlag. The family had agreed to meet back at the house at ten o’clock. She walks back to reception to ask for a towel. Empty again. The silence was overwhelming in a way. Upon noticing a large, curved concrete staircase, she follows it down to the basement. Through the window on her right, she watches the ground disappear above her as she descends. Down. At the foot of the steps, she looks up to observe the impressive wooden ceiling. Pretty freaking tall. Straight ahead, she noticed the pool brightly lit by the morning sun. She soon notices that there are no orthogonal corners in the basement. All filleted. She enjoys how the light bent around its corners. It showed her where to go. She forks left to follow a perpendicular corridor along the pool. Projected on its smooth tiled walls, are shimmering, wavering sunlight reflected off the pool. Refractions, she thinks. She continues her way along. At its end, she hears voices. To the voices she goes. She finds a bright large room with six dancers. They are focused and beautiful. She watches them in silence from the corner of the room, and waits for ten o’clock. Lisa Ullmann teaching Meg Tudor Williams, Lorn Primrose, Mary Elding, Valerie Preston and Warren Lamb.

Tuesday
Mar222016

Jon Astbury: studying the architectural journal

View the digital edition of November’s China edition of  The Architectural Review and you will be met with a disclaimer:
‘This is to make clear that all contributors, including photographers and writers and the institutions they represent in a personal capacity, had no prior knowledge of, and are not responsible for, the editorial presentation of their work.’

We often overlook the complex gulf that can exist between the representation of an architectural work and its editorial presentation: a relationship that, in the case of China, can be an extremely dangerous one to negotiate. In The Architectural Review’s China Issue, the representation of architecture was one that, on the whole, sported a conventional genre of flattering photography, and yet its editorial frame took a far less flattering stance on the Chinese state, a stance that was then treated as an independent entity.

Naomi Stead has remarked that such self-censorship is what defines criticism, which can only progress by becoming more aware of its agendas and allegiances. The movement of a photograph or piece of text from its owner’s possession into the pages of a journal is a highly transformative one: there is, arguably, no going back. The journal draws upon many sources in its presentations of architecture, but rather than flatten them all together in a neat institutional package, they each retain their complex ideologies and jostle against one another within the journal’s editorial frame.

It is such concerns that preoccupy the emerging field of architectural journal studies: one that works with the journal as more than a historical record but as the key to revealing the mechanisms of editorial projects and their wider impacts, from Townscape or Manplan in the The Architectural Review to the postwar avant-garde in Architectural Design. It is a particularly pertinent time in the history of the UK’s architectural press to undertake such studies. Amidst the longstanding and growing fear that the old greats - among them The Architects’ Journal and The Architectural Review - will be forced towards digital-only by their owners, we are faced with the prospect of this editorial frame being reduced to a simple online template.

In light of this, writing a review of Robin Wilson’s book Image, Text, Architecture is something of a bizarre exercise, in that having read it I am now equal parts curious and suspicious of the processes my writing will be subject to once it is submitted.* Of course there may be spelling or factual mistakes, or issues of clarity, but most notably of all it will enter into On Site review’s editorial strictures, be they in print or online, and will never be quite the same. To quote Wilson’s opening gambit, ‘the authored text…no matter how respectfully handled…has entered into profoundly different circumstances of legibility and meaning.’
This is the key concern of Wilson’s text: the way in which the contributed content of a journal meets with and is shaped by the ideological determinations of its editors, such as those made blatant by The Architectural Review’s disclaimer. Wilson’s gaze, however, is far closer than other studies of the journal: it moves beyond a particular editor or issue to an investigation the individual pages of the journals themselves - their construction and physical layout as much as their content. The result is an evolution of more traditional journal studies, aligned with art practice’s recent preoccupation with the ‘pagework’, treating the page as a space of performance, meaning and tension. Through such a methodology we are led from the surface of the page into its depths, emerging equipped to reassess the surface as a whole. As such Wilson’s work sits in something of a field of its own making.

Crucial to the study are theories of the utopian from French theorist Louis Marin and Frederic Jameson, suggesting both the role of the journal as site of projection, but also one in which repressed utopian tendencies are seen to re-emerge, often against the editorial frame in which the work of architecture appears. Via Marin and Jameson, Wilson presents the journal page as a dynamic space that articulates both a repression of the utopian and its latent second-coming, disrupting the supposedly stable projection of architecture that the journal offers us.

With each chapter structured around a specific case study, we move from Paul Nash in The Architectural Review to the photography of Sophie Warren and Jonathan Mosley in The Architects’ Journal, Lacaton & Vassal in Spanish journal 2G, Andrew Mead in The Architects’ Journal and finally the work of Hisao Suzuki, photographer for El Croquis. Each study demonstrates an instance in which the traditional notions of the journal are challenged, be it by the primal scene of Nash’s Monster Field or the potential of Mead’s editorship to challenge representational norms.

The case studies themselves move from relishing detective-like details - the broken bark of a fallen tree or the threads on a sleeve - to considering entire editorial and photographic practices as sites of utopian emergence. In this sense they not only demonstrate an unveiling of these specific sites, but construct a way of reading the journal page that, albeit with mixed success, could be subsequently applied to any other page.

What unites each study is their sense of indeterminacy or even error, in which revelations of the utopic hinge on states of ‘doing nothing’ or indeed doing the wrong thing as with Lacaton & Vassal’s project in 2G, or absences in Mead’s texts in The Architects’ Journal. It is perhaps coincidental that these, as the ‘fault lines’ of architectural journal articles, are in themselves faults. Closure or reification is denied both in the sense of the depiction of an architectural ‘ideal’ and in the sense of a complete textual or photographic work. Yet for all these mistakes we also encounter measured digressions from institutional norms: the utopian impulse manifests itself both in ‘high’ and ‘low’ forms.

Particularly memorable are the photographs of Suzuki, in which the editors of El Croquis, Fernando Márquez Cecilia and Richard Levene, repeatedly appear standing in the photographs of the buildings featured in the journal. For Wilson, this repeated deployment of the same figures is not only a divergence from photographic norms, but a reflection on the image’s mechanisms of production, containing the image of an architectural ‘idea’ that the journal propagates.

Just like these recurring figures, once read the spectre of Image, Text, Architecture hangs in the periphery when viewing any journal page. At a time when many are anxious of the journal’s future, Wilson’s book comes as a pertinent reminder that it still has much to give us, often in strange, unexpected ways. These engaging and enlightening snapshots from a handful of architectural journals demonstrate above all the complexity of the architectural journal – a ubiquitous means of dissemination but one we rarely grasp in its entirety. It is time we took these archives from their shelves and revisited them not as historical artefacts, but as the sites of discourse on the architectural media that are still very much alive.
 


*  for the suspicious reader and writer, not a thing has been changed here, for better or worse, other than the impositions of font and column width and the addition of images.  The text is the same as the original file.  But form is all; two columns reads with different expectations than one typewritten page, so in this sense, yes, it will never be quite the same.  —ed.

Tuesday
Mar222016

Jon Astbury: the forensic criticism of N Ratsby in The Architectural Review

In 2006  The Architectural Review published ‘Blackbird Pie’, a feature in the Evidence series examining Niall McLaughlin’s then still in-progress project for a private residence at 49 Duncan Terrace, Islington. Work on Duncan Terrace began in 2001, and involved stripping back a Georgian end-of-terrace property, restoring its original interior layout, adding a modern extension to the back of the site, connected to the terrace at the front by a glass corridor. Situated in a conservation area, the modern extension was not permitted to announce itself to the street, and as a result the only reference to its existence is a window in the exterior wall facing the street and perhaps a glimpse of the corridor’s glazed roof. However, as Ratsby states, ‘McLaughlin is not the first visitor here: the exterior walls show the location of a previous window - bricked up with fresh masonry and strikingly obvious alongside the soot-marked bricks of the original house.’1

49 Duncan Terrace is home to a couple, although nowhere in the feature are they mentioned and nor do they appear in any of the photographs. One unpublished photo includes a hand [figure 9], but this would seem to be the only example. It is unclear whether their omission is simply an indication of a lack of interest in the use of people as subjects, or a result of a focus on the material traces of lives. Although Ratsby makes no direct reference in the article, notes on his original photographs2 suggest that he had a great interest in Freud’s work on the uncanny, in particular the dual meaning of heimlich as both ‘that which is familiar and congenial’ yet also ’that which is concealed and kept out of sight’.3 This is particularly applicable to Duncan Terrace as an act of restoration, when quite unfamiliar modern additions pierce the familiar fabric of the original house.

Ratsby’s ‘Blackbird Pie’ runs over six pages: 15 often indistinct images, two plans and a section, a thousand words. Ratsby’s methods are effective when applied to projects dealing with existing conditions, and the quality of traces at Duncan Terrace is rich both in terms of materiality, the owners’ belongings and their extensive collection of artworks. Among Ratsby’s few studies this one is perhaps the most intriguing in terms of its narrative depiction of space, one guided by a reference to a short story quoted by an artwork in the residence: ‘In the dining room of 49 Duncan Terrace hangs an artwork reciting a passage: ‘the radio played softly in the other room. It was a little suite I’d h—’  (the passage is cut off mid sentence).’

This passage is taken from Blackbird Pie, a short story by Raymond Carver where a wife leaves her husband. It begins with a letter slipped beneath the husband’s door, which, despite containing knowledge he feels could only be known by his wife, is not characteristic of her sentiments, nor written in her hand. The man promptly misplaces this letter, but due to his uncanny ability to retain facts, he remembers its contents and is later able to recall them with great accuracy.
Carver’s story frames several themes that help better understand both Ratsby’s study of 49 Duncan Terrace and a wider debate on criticism. First is the husband’s uncanny ability to retain and recite historical fact in the absence of any material evidence. Second is his apparent ability to deduce the author of the letter through traces in the text – ‘Take this word talked for instance. That simply isn’t the way she’d write talked!’4.  Third is the act of losing the letter. Last is the latent violence implied in Blackbird Pie, which a policeman refers to as a domestic dispute.

Surface/Depth
Key to  this study is the relationship between surface and depth. Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best, in their 2009 work Surface Reading, explore a renewed interest in ‘modes of reading that attend to the surfaces of texts rather than plumb their depths’.5  They believe that analysis dependent on the concealed has neglected the surface. Vital to this is the role and function of the critic: ‘if criticism is not excavating hidden truths’ they ask, what exactly does it add to our experience of an architectural present?

Telling us of his ability to memorise facts in Blackbird Pie and how he is able to ‘recall every word of what I read’,6 the husband proceeds to recite pages worth of dates, battles and wars. This presentation of facts with no judgement is perhaps one answer to Marcus and Best’s question — some expect the critic to be able to fastidiously date any piece of architecture as taught through Pevsner’s ‘Treasure Hunt’, acting as a sort of historical taxonomist.  Studies of the surface need not be so prosaic.  

Ratsby’s description of the rooms in 49 Duncan Terrace in ‘Blackbird Pie’ mirrors Carver’s character’s deadpan recital of facts, but rather than connect them to or arrange a broader sense of history, they relate only to events in the house itself:
‘I could hold forth with great confidence if called upon to talk about the texture of the floor... each mark of paint and each scratch left by a chair leg...in the dining room a shutter hangs at an angle where two screws have come loose from the wall...’

This descriptive tone continues throughout Ratsby’s text. Implicit is the idea that the most accurate description of the operations of contemporary architecture is not something that must be extracted by the critic, but something immanent or latent in the architecture itself: ‘depth is continuous with surface’.7 In 49 Duncan Terrace, many of these surfaces, from bubble wrap and packaging to the smooth plastic coverings on clothing, jar with the clean, neat lines of the modern addition.

Marcus and Best look unfavourably on what they term the ‘suspicious detective’ who, in looking past the surface and moving straight to an analysis of details often misses that which lies in plain sight, an unsuccessful method which Edgar Allan Poe’s The Purloined Letter ‘continues to teach us’.  With Dupin, Poe laid the groundwork for the basic conventions of the modern detective story. In the search for the missing letter, the police, anticipating it to be hidden cleverly, search everywhere, in what Jacques Lacan termed an ‘exhaustion of space’.8 The twist, of course, is that the letter is there in plain sight all along, and it is simply a failure to read the surface that means it is not discovered sooner. An excess of suspicion would seem to be the police’s downfall.
 Dupin’s success in Poe’s novel, as Anthony Vidler has stated, ‘was not a triumph of visual acuity...his feat was the result of intellectual introjection, precisely a feat of not seeing’ (my emphasis).9  The paradox outlined in Marcus and Best’s work is that while reading like a detective may be concerned with uncovering some hidden truth, it will always articulate an inordinate interest in surface matter. It is, after all, on the surface that most clues will be eventually found.
 
Something’s Missing  
This reveals a fertile dichotomy within Ratsby’s critique: a preoccupation with the detective’s extortion of meaning also values the reading and describing of surface. When architectural criticism attends to the surface it is often accused of superficiality: I would argue that the photograph’s ability to infer a reading both of surface and depth itself acts as a detournément of this accusation. We spend so long searching for the critique – the future – that we unwittingly pour over the surface – the present – that laterally enters our vision.

Ratsby’s essay presents The Architectural Review’s demarcation of the contemporary as  ‘akin to the tape at a crime scene through which only the works chosen by the critic may pass into the canon’.  As a space, the crime scene is one that simultaneously possesses a wealth and a dearth of meaning, able to charge or exhaust a space.

The imagery and text in ‘Blackbird Pie’ indicate that there is something to be found; that there is a pattern to be drawn between the images displayed. The text mentions some we can see – ‘the shiny plastic coverings on clothes suggest infrequent usage’ — but others, such as the shutter ‘hanging loose from the wall’ are not illustrated. Giving no clear point of focus, the images – a bed and a skewed lampshade or the legs of a table – reinforce a sense of unease, encouraged by the text: ‘the duvet bears only light impressions but the lamp, askew, speaks of violence.’

The images are aligned to the grid of the journal’s page.  In the difference between human vision and the detective’s fluid visual acuity, the publication grid is a reflection of the more pragmatic spatial grid applied to a modern scene of often criminal evidence. We are perhaps not only witnessing an act of detection within the home’s spaces, but are ourselves being drawn into an act of detection of the journal page itself.

Marcus and Best allude to this grid. While Jameson would encourage the reader to ‘sketch the ideological rectangles...in order to move toward what lies outside of them’, a reader of the surface would ‘find value in the rectangles themselves’. Here, more important than the meaning of patterns is their identification and delineation. The mention of geometry is pertinent. As Vidler notes in 'The Exhaustion of Space', in the Basic Course Unit Guide provided for the training of California peace officers, a geometrically controlled search pattern is advocated rather than a ‘point to point’ search that jumps from one object - or perhaps interpretation - to another.

In many of Ratsby’s studies the geometrical rigour of contemporary architecture coupled with the messiness of lived traces articulates this relationship, but in particular ‘Blackbird Pie’, with its views through corridors, open cupboards and bookshelves, is a rigorous attempt to search everywhere. The text moves vertically, floor-by-floor through the house, while the photographs follow no such order: it becomes almost impossible to jump from one mode of representation to another and still understand where one is. The search culminates in the attic, where Ratsby finds perhaps what was being searched for: the ‘strongest connection to the house’s origins’, unlike the ‘oddly reticent’ spaces below.

This approach remains distinctly two-dimensional – Vidler imagines the interrelation of these fields in three dimensions as something of a Klein bottle, transforming ‘the geometrical space of rational detection into a knot of abyssal proportions’11 – one that consistently returns the searcher to the beginning, just as the detective narrative ends at its omitted beginning. We can attempt to use Ratsby’s photographs to understand the space – or create some impression of the future – but we remain stuck in the uncertainty of their present.

The layouts of The Architectural Review at the time were also what we could consider as highly two-dimensional, frozen and flattened. Yet through their images they introduce a projection into the future that introduces some sense of a critical trajectory, even if it is towards a false future. In Ratsby’s photographs architecture is presented far less as an object and more as a series of ‘scenes’. Crucially, it moves away from the photograph as the fixed dissemination of a completed architectural idea, and transforms it into a temporal site of investigation and a search on the behalf of the reader.

Again, this refers back to Poe’s The Purloined Letter, and the spatial considerations created through ideas of crime and evidence. Most of all it articulates a relationship Ratsby was constantly exploring: that of the reader as detective.

What does this act of searching mean for criticism? In its presentation not as an immutable object but as what Eyal Weizman would call a dynamic ‘field’, ‘Blackbird Pie’ does not simply enter into the forum of the journal but transforms it. The journal’s ability to determine what the future may be is no longer possible and we are instead forced to remain in the present of the search. Utopia is no longer presented to us but rather, as Elana Gomel states, ‘to gain a utopia, one needs to solve a puzzle’.12 As with all puzzles, we soon become aware of the time spent trying to solve it.
f

1 Ratsby, N. ‘Evidence: Blackbird Pie’. The Architectural Review, May 2006. pp 48-53
2 See the attached selection of photographs
3 Freud, S. The Uncanny. London: Penguin, 2003
4  Carver, R. ‘Blackbird Pie’ in Where I’m Calling From: Selected Stories. London: Harvill Press, 1993.  p406
5 Marcus, S and Best, M.  ‘Surface Reading: An Introduction’. Representations. 2009 v.108 n.1 2009.  pp. 1-21
6 Ibid.
7 Lacan, J. ‘Seminar on the Purloined Letter’, in Écrits, New York: WW Norton, 2007
8 Vidler, A. ‘The Exhaustion of Space’ in Jacobson, K. (ed.) Scene of the Crime. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997
9 Marcus, S and Best, M.
10 Vidler, A
11  Ibid.
12  Gomel, E. ‘Mystery, Apocalypse and Utopia: The Case of the Ontological Detective Story’, Science Fiction Studies, v.22 n.3. 1995.  pp343-356




afterword
 
[It is impossible to speak of architectural criticism without] ‘also speaking of literary technique, rhetoric, and the persona of the critic as author.’1
      The works of N. Ratsby presented and studied here are fabricated studies produced by the author. The history into which they have been inserted is factual. I will here reveal and explain this purely for the benefit of additional readers who were not party to this work’s creative processes.
      This essay has been an almost autobiographical experiment in the simultaneous production of a piece of criticism and a critique of that work. As such, the fabricated work was aware of what the criticism of it would say, while the criticism itself generated new ideas as the fabricated work was produced. As such, both, similar to the theories they study, remain unfinished – both still ‘wait’ for one another to reach a conclusion, feeding off the productive potential I have mentioned to continue generating one another – the conclusion is self-referential of the ability the work itself has attempted to demonstrate.
    What such an experiment sought to understand was the interaction between the critical potential immanent in the work of architecture with the external status of the critic or, more broadly, the interaction between the practices of historiographical evidence-making undertaken in the duration of the MA programme and the practice of written criticism undertaken in my work for The Architectural Review. The work was the result of the friction I experienced in moving between these two disciplines every week, as well as a prior interest in the Review’s history of pseudonyms among its authors seemingly as a means of allowing the writer to present opinions or ideas perhaps counter to their own.
      Under the guise of Contributing Editor, I was able to visit both Duncan Terrace and Haslemere Road with free reign to photograph and explore. These photographs then became the accompaniments to works I produced under the anagrammatic pseudonym of N. Ratsby, my detached critic alter ego. There were several reasons for this fabrication. Naomi Stead writes how it is impossible to speak of architectural criticism ‘without also speaking of literary technique, rhetoric, and the persona of the critic as author.’2 In creating my own persona I was able to create criticism free from any historical strictures, while simultaneously undergo the creation of a ‘character’ similar to that which the critic will always create. It also allowed this persona itself to be the generator of a narrative, running alongside the theoretical study.
     Above all was the desire to create this ‘forensic criticism’ against a richly narrative backdrop, one that would amplify but also call into question its theoretical position as suspicious or paranoid. This allowed the work itself to become subject to a detective gaze, and the photographs that accompany this essay are a testament to this ongoing investigation – a means of allowing the reader to take part in it themselves.

1   Macarthur, J., Stead, N. ‘The Judge is Not an Operator: Historiography, Criticality and Architectural Criticism’. OASE n. 69 (2006) pp. 116-139
2   Macarthur, J., Stead, N. ‘The Judge is Not an Operator: Historiography, Criticality and Architectural Criticism’. OASE n. 69 (2006) pp. 116-139

Tuesday
Sep012015

Lane Rick: Writing ON Architecture: the signage of Times Square

Our writing, like our cities, outlives us. The inherent longevity of the written word, like the built form, informs our histories and relays information over centuries. But another, more temporary written language thrives in our cities in the form of advertising and wayfinding signage. These written elements appear and vanish with ease, a by-product of the ongoing dialogue between a city and its citizens.

The very essence of Times Square is defined by its signage, both now and in the past. Gaudy billboards crowd the elongated intersection of Broadway and 7th Avenue, replacing architectural facades with a 24-hour display of glowing words and images. Since the bowtie-shaped intersection was renamed Times Square in 1904, its electric signage has defined its urban identity and growth. Unlike buildings, signs are easily replaced with newer, more outstanding ones, which in turn cultivates an atmosphere of innovation rather than preservation, prefers the temporary to the permanent. At a time when New York is increasingly concerned with preserving its character and urban fabric, what does preservation mean when a space’s historic identity is about newness? The very adaptability of one of New York City’s most iconic public spaces means that efforts to preserve it must wrangle with the unusual process of maintaining its most consistently capricious element: the signage.

By the 1920s, Times Square was a thriving entertainment and cultural district. The already famous aggregation of neon signs and illuminated billboards, or ‘spectaculars’, in Times Square had cemented the district’s role as the sign-mecca of the city. In part due to the influence of theatres that profited from both Times Square’s reputation and a heightened street visibility of their marquees, a 1916 zoning ordinance was passed to permit the installation of large illuminated signs in the square, while restricting them in other neighbourhoods over concerns about the vulgarity of the lights and their tasteless endorsement of commercialism. Nearby Fifth Avenue businesses successfully lobbied the 1922 passage of a law that banned all projecting and illuminating signs along the entire street. With similarly tight regulations on spectaculars appearing across much of New York, electric signs increasingly concentrated in Times Square, where they were welcomed by the theatres that saw in illuminated signs both an opportunity to out-shine neighbouring competition and the cultivation of a bustling and thriving tourist attraction. As businesses sought to out-wow their competition, they installed bigger, brighter signs in a vicious cycle of one-upmanship. To this day, constantly evolving technology further accommodates the rapid obsolescence of the most interchangeable component of buildings and brands: the signs affixed to the facade.

The district’s identity emerged in the decades that followed precisely because of the absence of nostalgia among the theatre-managers and business owners that lined the intersection. The illuminated signs transformed the urban space, and in turn attracted more businesses and visitors, thus contributing to the bustling changeability of the district. The freewheeling evolution of entertainment and spectacle in Times Square only encountered preservationist forces after its rapid degeneration in the dilapidated context of 1970s New York. As economic decline and rising crime rates led to a widespread debilitation of the city, Times Square adopted a deviant subculture of hustlers, adult video stores, and peep shows. Regardless of the changing streetscape, the signs of Times Square remained a strong part of its character; plastic backlit panels and movie marquees replaced many signs, new neon signs that were installed advertised sex shops and peep shows in fluorescent colours. The intersection was still illuminated into the night, but with female silhouettes and racy titles of porn flicks instead of Coca-Cola bottles and Broadway shows. However, in the 1980s, the New York City Planning Commission worked with public and private interests to rehabilitate the floundering theatre district. Through eminent domain land seizures in 1982, landmark status designation for 28 of the district’s 44 theatres in 1984 and a comprehensive rezoning in 1986, Times Square was slated to undergo a total rehabilitation in the form of family-friendly entertainment in Broadway theatres, restaurants, and retail shops along the ground floors, and funded by office towers overhead.

To execute this manoeuvring act, the City Planning Commission consulted Robert A. M. Stern and graphic designer Tibor Kalman, whose ‘42nd Street Now!’ proposal oversaw the incorporation of signage in subsequent development of Times Square. The city approved massive glass office towers along the intersection, but required that each building mount illuminated signs on its facade, to preserve the district's character. This paradoxical gesture of preservation marks a disparity between Times Square’s architectural legacy and its cultural legacy. Unlike other historically-relevant neighbourhoods of New York, the architectural motifs were not deemed the most critical element of the district’s identity. Instead, it was the signs, which cover even those buildings that were landmarked for preservation. The 1987 Zoning Resolution was directed at fostering high-volume commercial and entertainment spaces in Times Square, and mandated the installation and upkeep of huge signs on the buildings’ facades and roofs. Signage regulations in most districts in New York City set a maximum area, height, or percent coverage for exterior signs, but Times Square follows the reverse condition: each building must exceed a robust minimum area of illuminated sign coverage, essentially ensuring that each building along the ‘bowtie’ has a 75-foot tall base of continuous signage.

Many of the buildings that were erected after 1987 display unusual efforts to incorporate the signage into the facades, often exceeding the minimum requirement by as much as 50%. The bands of LED screens on Gwathmey Siegel's 1585 Broadway alternate with horizontal windows, providing unobstructed views from inside the building. The drum-shaped corner of Fox & Fowle’s 4 Times Square accommodates its windows by wrapping a rounded screen about the facade and punching out the windows, leaving black squares scattered across the moving words on the facade. The subway stations are brightly advertised. In lieu of the recognisable green bulbs at the entrance, glittering lights spell out ‘subway’ above glowing medallions that mark the train lines that access the station. Even the pavement has words on it, bronze plaques that map the theatres of Times Square into an abstracted plan of the district.

The historic buildings, however, are no less extreme in their signage. The old New York Times Building at One Times Square can be better placed in history by its signage that its architectural form or facade. One of the earliest illuminated signs in Times Square was a news ticker, the ‘zipper,’ installed in 1928 near the base of the 25-story building, and to announce Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s victory in the 1936 presidential election, a two-story billboard of his face was installed on the facade. But with sign designer Douglas Leigh’s purchase of the building in the 1960s, the facade took on a new prominence, for he mounted over a dozen billboard panels to the exterior, and used them as a testing ground for new signs, including the famed smoking Camel sign and later, the steaming Cup O’ Noodles sign. As the building changed hands over the next half century, billboards were added and replaced, though the zipper remained, a subtle nod of preservation to the past. When Lehman Brothers bought the tower in 1996, they ran a cost analysis and concluded that more money could be made through wrapping the building in billboards than by renovating and leasing the relatively small office space on each floor. The building has been vacant since then, save the bottom three floors, which presently house a Walgreen’s, as though the drugstore’s very presence is an advertisement for the brand’s convenience and ubiquity.

The influx of capital that drives Times Square today has produced harsh accusations of ‘Disneyfication’ in an increasingly corporate urban space. Architects deride the tasteless corporatisation, and New Yorkers proudly avoid the tourist-heavy mobs, but the ongoing transformation of Times Square in fact reveals it as a unique urban typology, one that is inextricably tied to the signs that obscure the buildings behind them.

Times Square has always preferred the ostentatious to the nostalgic. By the 1890s it had already been nicknamed the ‘Great White Way’ due to its early adoption of electric street lighting. When vulgar spectaculars were banned in districts concerned with tasteful streetscapes, Times Square welcomed the illuminated signs with fervour. When economic decline pushed old businesses out of the district, theatres survived by showing porn films, replacing old marquees and ads with x-rated movie promotions and dancing silhouettes. With the arrival of the corporate financiers that upended the district  in the 1990s, Times Square acquiesced, exchanging its seedy shops and streetscape for Disney musicals and chain restaurants. With each transformation, the bright signs of Times Square continue to attract visitors. The district’s unifying element through decades of change has been twofold: culturally, it has adapted without losing its iconic peculiarity and distinction from the neighbourhoods that abut it; typologically, this has been possible because Times Square’s identity is not wed to its architecture and history so much as it is to the bustle of entertainment and the signs that promote it. Times Square’s very existence hinges on its disregard for its past, and its iconic identity thrives because of that, not in spite of it.

Times Square is still changing. In 2009, the 4-lane wide stretch of Broadway that passes through it was paved over and converted to a pedestrian plaza. Instead of honking taxi cabs, visitors can sit in chairs and benches that scatter the newly-formed plaza. The signs have evolved as well. John Portman’s 1986 Marriott Marquis Tower recently replaced the former collage of smaller signs on its facade with one massive LED screen, spanning as wide as a football field and stretching six stories high. In both its transformation and its preservation, Times Square has become a paradoxical icon of ephemeral newness. Its adaptability to new technologies and expectations has propelled it to evolve, but also reinforced its role as a shameless and immersive promoter of commercialism, entertainment, and advertising. People visit Times Square not for its architectural character, but for the glowing writing and imagery that hang off the glass and stone facades and compose the urban space, relegating the buildings to mere scaffolding. Even as Times Square changes, the illuminated billboards float overhead, a loud and colourful nod to the plaza’s history.

Tuesday
Sep012015

Linda Just: Digital Shalott || On the parallels of building and writing in the virtual age

In his 1982 text 'Architecture of the City', Aldo Rossi described built forms as urban artefacts to present the dual nature of architecture.  Namely, that it is both the built world as a whole, as well as its constituent parts – which are, in turn, not only physical entities, but also the history and culture laid upon them.  This duality – the notion of the abstract and concrete – is innate to the architectural discipline, reflected in the fact that even the word “building” describes both the act and the product.  Consider then also the medium through which Rossi chose to convey the idea:  text.  In many ways, one could argue that writing bears marked similarities to building.  They are both the aforementioned act and product.  Both are developed by the assembly of smaller elements that each carry their own significance, in addition to the larger [sometimes different] connotation of the combined whole.  

Writing is used to capture the ephemeral – ideas, events, emotions – and presents it in a comprehensible fashion to other individuals.  This is achieved through structured phrases and vocabulary.  Buildings conceptually echo this process with their concrete delineations of intangible space.  Occupants experience and interface the defined spaces through their constituent material and geometry – as everything from vaulted ceilings to windows to stair treads.  These elements, interpreted through their relationship to the human body via haptic, aural, or visual perception, are the architectural vocabulary by which one reads and understands architecture; they can define the successful use and navigation of spaces.  Buildings that do not account for this phenomenon, or aggressively deny architecture’s relationship to the body in scale and proportion, will almost always sit negatively in public perception.  For this reason, much of architectural design still happens with physical analogs.  Concepts may be through graphic means, but model making is still a regular tool in the process of design.  Physical samples are also still reviewed before final approval is given – viewed in daylight and at full scale.  This assures the connection between ideas and reality is strong and present.  

That importance of material is no less present in print; how and what one reads is constantly influenced by colour, texture, and form.  MacLuhan’s observations of the relationship between medium and message are clearly demonstrated in every well-published monograph as much as it is in a newsprint flyer.  Paper stock, typeface, and layouts speak to and of the hands that made them, and the eyes that will ultimately interpret their content.  The very best examples of will naturally draw the reader to touch and inspect its form and revisit it on multiple occasions.  This is perhaps the increasingly overlooked potential of writing, though it is also the reason typewriters still carry a mystique, and software stubbornly employs skeuomorphic interfaces and pseudo-script fonts for notepad applications.  These tools and representations are appealing in their familiarity, but there is an odd and unsettling disconnect in scrolling through a seemingly endless tableau of text, or rendering errors non-existent with the press of a key.  Print is finite, permanent, and knowable; as frustrating and constraining as that may be at times, it is also extremely reliable and comforting.



That reliability lends itself well to preservation.  Writing and architecture both establish a corporeal form for the intangible – space within buildings, ideas within text; those physical objects can then long outlive their makers.  The ephemeral nature and fluidity of digital media contradicts the permanence of the fabrication process – of literally setting in stone.  The final product -- the unapologetic deliverable -- requires considerable energy and resources, since the implications of permanence demands care.  Both buildings and manuscripts are thus refined through draft forms, to reduce the risk of having an error writ large and forever present for public scrutiny.  

For this reason, editing and curation play a major role in this aspect of text and architecture. Economics, culture, and politics can all impact whether a project is ultimately realised.  Seen positively, those factors can be constructive filters for quality, and stimulants for creative thinking.  They can also be quite detrimental, as they just as easily stifle ideas in the names of profit, censorship, propaganda, or elitism.  The accessibility and unilateral nature of digital media has the compelling ability to forego the negative limitations, and so the internet has become a global market place for the previously unknown and unrealised.  However, the converse to the condition is that some of that content also eschews the benefits of editing – and the sheer volume of material can make the task of finding truly exceptional [and perhaps most troubling, factual] work increasingly challenging.  This, if nothing else, is a major argument against those who would fully reject print as moribund and its content as irrelevant.  The digital realm has yet to establish the filters and standards that physical publication had imposed upon it by the constraints of its evolution and development.

As a necessarily physical response to the basic need of shelter, architecture cannot be fully realised in an intangible format as text can, but it is susceptible to many of the same conflicts writing has met with its increasing conversion to digital media.  Information models, animations, and renderings are highly sophisticated tools that allow more detailed and varied experimentation.  They are alluring in their malleability and in the degrees of perfection and complexity they can achieve.  With them, designers can now frame and present their envisioned worlds with cinematographic precision, and prospective users can get a sense their spaces before ground is even broken.  

Complete reliance on such techniques does, however, have its risks.  No rendering can approximate the impact of sound, temperature, or continued variation in light, on personal experience of space.  Hyperrealism makes it easy to forget these factors, and they can be so convincing that they need very little inference or imagination on the part of the viewer.  Trust and expectation management are then critical, should the end result not faithfully match the projected image.  There also comes another Icarian risk with that advanced a degree of virtual representation:  too close an attempt at reality can cause the Uncanny Valley phenomenon to kick in, and then surrealism and perfection garner a completely opposite reaction of incredulity and suspicion.  Additionally, forms that can be created easily in a virtual world at times do not translate so well into the tangible one.  Here again, curation becomes important, and one must weigh the measures of novelty and experimentation against those of quality and relevance.  The last few decades of design and construction have witnessed many failed attempts to reconcile the disconnects between conceptual aesthetics and practical means of execution.

The argument in this broader comparison between text and architecture is not intended to denounce the potential of the digital, or to demand a return to traditions of ink and mortar.  But rather this:  in processes such as writing or building – where there exists this duality of form and execution – a balanced approach plays a critical role in their value and successful realisation.  To ignore the appeal and significance of writing’s physicality to the reader would be like denying the emotional and psychological impacts of architecture on its occupants.  It may not always be necessary to manifest all qualities simultaneously, but they should at least be acknowledged and reflected upon.

++

Rossi wrote his pieces to expose a layer of complexity in architecture that may not easily be seen, but that can certainly be felt.  The spaces he described likewise cannot fully be understood without occupying them.  The great capacity of the virtual and digital is that it expands the boundaries of creativity exponentially – limited in some ways only by the very devices through which they produce and present: screens.  Screens are still an intermediate filter of information before it is ever registered by the nervous system that will finally interpret it.  To exclusively and impassively consume information through such a lens limits the multifaceted and dimensional perception of reality.  It almost denies the existence of the relationship between the physical and the abstract.

The unmistakable reality is, however, that we are both abstract minds and physical bodies -- products of our histories and environments – and this fact registers in our every action.  It is why we build, and why we write: to express, and to remind.  And there is some pleasure and wisdom to be gained in recognising ourselves in those actions and objects, whether we are reading prose or cityscapes.

Wednesday
Mar162016

Magdalena Milosz: notes on writing space

I want to create a reader. This is what I am doing, in writing. [1]    – Lucy Ives

On writing
The creation of a reader, through writing, is first and foremost the creation of oneself. As I write, I read, then rewrite. This feedback loop constitutes both a generative process and the deciphering of an idea that already seems to exist, but must be uncovered. The pen tentatively taps paper, the cursor blinks, and each word I write pushes uncertainly towards something that must be figured out, the something I may not know until I begin to write. "I use writing as a way of figuring out what I think",[2] according to Annmarie Adams. This practice of writing, then, can be permissive, enabling, through play or experimentation, the discovery of what it is that I am thinking.

The process, or verb, of writing in due course becomes its product, or noun: that which can be read by others. It would seem at first thought that this transition renders static the fluidity of writing, fixing a series of drafts into a final draft, not to be further altered. But writing (verb) in the form of writing (noun) now has the potential for reading (verb), which brings us back to the idea of the creation of a reader and the re-instigation of the process begun by those tentative attempts at stringing words together. (Of course, a piece of writing, finished or not, may sit in a drawer, or more likely on a hard drive or in the cloud, never to be read again—by the writer or a reader. In this state, what does it become? If it is deleted, does it still exist?).

Continuing from the epigraph at the beginning of this text, Lucy Ives suggests that the creation of a reader, perhaps of an entirely new reader, apart from any real person, could constitute the creation of a kind of permission to ‘be more desirous of reading itself’ or simply ‘the present of reading’.[3] This is also why I enjoy reading others’ writing specifically about writing. The creation of a reader is really the creation of a space for the reader to inhabit, and for those of us inclined to write, it can create a space for us to inhabit—a space to write. Reading about writing reveals possibilities.

Through writing, I become an inhabitant of a space, creating myself within this space, not as a view on my past self of ten seconds or a minute or six months ago, but as a present engagement. As a reader, the awareness of a past self, writing, does not take precedence over the present, but folds over and into the present. Likewise, when I read the writing of others, I am not transported back to the moment of writing but I am created, or create myself, as a reader, in the present. The caveat is that writing can never be a direct and unmediated mode of translating thoughts, of externalising mental space into social space. Reading and writing are both ultimately escapes from the loneliness of our thoughts into which each one of us is cast, not by a one-to-one translation, but by an imperfect approximation, always an attempt.

On space
The past leaves its traces; time has its own script. Yet this space is always, now and formerly, a present space, given as an immediate whole, complete with its associations and connections in their actuality. Thus production process and product present themselves as two inseparable aspects, not as two separable ideas.[4]     – Henri Lefebvre


We always inhabit a space that has already been and is being created, so what might it mean to create a space through writing, or to inhabit a space through reading? What do I mean when I write, space? I favour an understanding of space as that which is evolving, not as a pre-existing void to be filled, but, as Lefebvre suggests, something that is produced. This understanding implies that space and time are not distinct, but inseparable, because space is produced in time. And just as we experience time as heterogeneous and multiple because the virtual past coexists with the actual present (the past being the condition of the present), perhaps we can free ourselves to think of space in the same way. In this vein, Elizabeth Grosz proposes that we can conceive of space as “an unfolding space, defined, as time is, by the arc of movement and thus a space open to becoming, by which I mean becoming other than itself, other than what it has been.”[5]  It is perhaps more accurate, then, to think of spaces rather than a singular, all-encompassing space.

In what ways, then, are spaces produced? Architecture is often thought of as defining space, especially in urban areas, and especially by those of us working in the realm of producing or thinking about architecture. It is a practice that has more obvious spatial connotations than, say, writing, as suggested by the fairly familiar phrase “architectural space” and the lack of an analogue for texts. Writerly space, writing space, textual space, or literary space are candidates that, depending on one’s orientation, can imply many different spaces, and allude to the melding of process and product Lefebvre refers to above with regard to space. By contrast, architectural space denotes a fixity and permanence that can only be animated by the representational space, "space as directly lived through its associated images and symbols", imposed upon it by its inhabitants.[6] In this sense, if the creation of a reader can be the purpose of writing, can the creation of an inhabitant be the goal of architecture? And does this reframing of aims help us to think through an architecture that permits, rather than restricts, and that can enable, through time and presence, an unanticipated future?

Both writing and architecture (among other practices), are means of engaging with space and, in time, shape space as a product. Lefebvre likes to distinguish between signs and symbols that are verbal (writing, speech) and non-verbal (music, painting, sculpture, architecture, theatre, presumably also photography, etc.), and claims that there is an overemphasis on the former as bearers of intelligibility.[7] It seems to me that his worry comes from the treatment of non-verbal forms as reducible to verbal forms, so that only speech, or writing, can truly mean something. In the case of architecture, this might amount to writing explanations of what is not self-evident, or perhaps even that which appears to be. But this does not mean that architecture, or any other mode of production, is reducible to any other, including writing. Nor does writing, in its relationship to architecture, have to serve only a subservient role of interpretation.

On writing space
If writing can be about creating a reader, and architecture can be about creating an inhabitant, the idea of writing space may be about creating a literate inhabitant – an individual conscious of the spatial narratives they are embedded in. If you have gotten this far in reading this text, you may have noticed that I am writing with the intention of creating a reader, of creating a space for you to contemplate the ideas I am bringing forward. I cannot know whether these ideas resonate with you or whether you understand them the same way I do, or in a different way that I hadn’t thought of. So it goes. You may question my introduction of a term such as spatial narrative without properly defining it. Yet this is something I love very much about writing, and why I continue to write. When I began to write this text, I didn’t know what it would be. It is conceivable, through writing, to create the possibility of something, something as yet undefined. A spatial narrative may be something like a spatial practice, a way of producing physical or mental space, or something else entirely. It is perhaps an invitation to think about space and its modes of production differently.

In our time, the perceived overemphasis on text is being increasingly surpassed by an apparently intensifying overemphasis on the image. The image flattens architecture, despite dynamic perspectives implying motion and occupiable space, despite Photoshopped people at different distances to the picture plane enjoying the building or, conversely, pristinely empty photographs into which viewers can project themselves. It is flattened not only in the physical sense that its three (four) dimensions are reduced to the two-dimensional plane of paper or screen, but also in its nonphysical dimensions—the social, political, and economic forces that shape the spaces we inhabit and that they in turn  shape. These dimensions hover around it silently, unread. They spill beyond the confines of the image and swell beyond the physical, built artefact, threatening to undo our beautiful projects. Architecture is far too big for images alone.

This is where I defend writing as a method of gathering up these traces. This is not to say that architecture and its images do not have their own mode of experience. The spatial and visual characteristics of a project can clearly be experienced without mediation or interpretation, written or otherwise. The use of images to convey not just architecture but architectural ideas tends to emphasise the product over the process, so borrowing from writing’s awareness of process is something we can use in transforming the practice and the product of architecture. Writing, as an analogue of thought, can also help us to think about architecture, especially whatever about it its images or its physicality cannot express.

Back to Lefebvre: he thinks that not only is there an overemphasis on writing as a mode of understanding, but that we fall back on verbal modes to the detriment of other practices that influence space, assuming that everything is illuminated through writing or speech. This may very well be the case, and is certainly the case with the kind of visual representations of buildings we have come to expect. To begin to resolve this overemphasis, we cannot abandon writing and image-making, but must become more aware of how they participate in producing space in tandem with other modes.

Here, an analogy with embodied cognition may be useful in conjoining theory with practice and/or experience. Embodied cognition is the theory that the mind, typically conceived as a nonphysical entity, is not separate from the brain, and that the brain is so interconnected with the rest of the physical body that it is impossible, or perhaps simply not useful, to separate them. Because we are used to thinking within dualities and categories, we prefer to separate things out without examining the potentially messy interplay among them. Likewise, we inhabit a space that is not purely physical nor purely symbolic, but that has visible and invisible qualities and that we also help to produce.

We need to find new relationships between writing and architecture based on the ways in which they participate in the creation of the space of our societies. Writing cannot solely form the conceptual basis or the critique, or the mere verbal description, of the architectural product. This product—the capital that enables its creation, the labour in its production, its physicality and tactility, the power it affords, its role in economic systems and its myriad political complexities—cannot serve solely as the object of a piece of writing, but rather should be experienced and understood in its totality in time. We can perhaps reconcile the sometime-antagonism between writing (theory, criticism, exposition, narrative, experiment) and architecture by experiencing them both spatially, as productive of space. Without reducing architecture to the verbal and making writing subservient or inferior to architecture, the reconciliation of architecture and writing should look to expanded forms of knowledge and the creation of possibilities.

 

1 Lucy Ives, “Meditations on the Art of Reading,” C Magazine 134 (Fall 2015), 8.

2  Annmarie Adams, Routes of Writing, McGill Writing Centre, . Joan Didion wrote something similar: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

3  Ives, “Meditations,” 8.

4  Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 37.

5  Elizabeth Grosz, “The Future of Space: Toward an Architecture of Invention,” in Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 201), 118.

6  Lefebvre, 39.

7  Lefebvre, 62.

Tuesday
Sep012015

Michael Leeb: The Writings (Writing-on-stone, Alberta)

A spirit place of
discovery
a discovery of one-self and
the discovery of spirit

imbued with the spirituality of
a cosmic order
an order of nature
providing a spiritual insight/wisdom
induced by deprivation (hunger and thirst)  
a vulnerability
hence danger
an aridity

a place between
the celestial and
physical worlds
where transport from
one state to another
of being
is made possible

||  (physical) and (metaphysical) ||

with an intercessor
a celestial creature
providing insight, an
“allusion to flight” (1)
the flight of
the Thunderbird

requires
reconciliation for
cosmic unity
peace

 

          (1) Barry, P.S. Mystical Themes in Milk River Rock Art.Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 1991. p.59.

Tuesday
Sep012015

Open Letter

Irene Chin
Lara Mehling
Miranda Mote
Chelsea Spencer

http://www.openletters-online.com

this is the original proposal, which gives some context to the epistolary essay which follows:


Written correspondence has held significance throughout the history of architectural practice and continues to evolve in the digital realm. However, the need for fluent written correspondence has not changed. We suggest that ultimately the letter has always been and will remain a valuable means of design inquiry and critique, especially since design considers nostalgia, the vulnerability and humanness of architecture and architectural practice, esoteric and poetic topics that fuel creativity and ingenuity, social activism,; design criticism,; the practice and business of design,; and most especially gratitude. Design must always acknowledge a debt to the past, present, and future.
Open Letters is a print experiment that tests the epistolary form as a device for generating conversations about architecture and design. Through this project, we aim to question the contemporary value and relevance of this mode of communication while recognizing the pretense and contrivances of editing and publishing personal missives. For On Site review 34: On Writing, or not, we, as former editors of Open Letters, propose to reflect and comment on the project (with 30 published issues it will soon enter its third year of production). We have found that within the context of design and architecture, letters have allowed us to explore many themes within the discipline, represent diverse voices from young students to experienced practitioners,; and convey tones from the nostalgic to the critical, from the esoteric to the deeply personal.
To address the aforementioned key values of epistolary writing, we propose a collaborative project: a written exchange between the four of us that would directly reflect the format we are questioning and diversify the types of text featured in this issue of On Site.

And below is the written exchange.

Dear Chelsea,
Between you in New York, Lara in Zurich, Miranda in Philadelphia, and myself in Montreal there are a couple continents, several time zones, many miles, and even more kilometers (I need to adjust to thinking in metric).

There is this physical distance now, but what feels farthest is your old kitchen in Cambridge where, two years ago, we first met to discuss your idea of a publication to feature writing about architecture and design in the form of letters. It seemed like an obvious idea at the time, but one that was risky too.

I trained through years of reviews and pinups in architecture school, but putting myself out there through writing was terrifying on a completely different level. There is no obfuscating with text like you can with a rendering, little room for interpretation with your choice in words as you might find in a drawing.

And unlike the objective proximity of one’s position in a journalistic piece or the critical distance
one can take in a scholarly essay, in signing a letter you consequently expose yourself.1 You embody your writing hopefully, with earnestness. (My favorite valediction so far has been Bryan’s “In upbeat sincerity"). Although, I did break that rule about signatures just once2...it was this vulnerability that we kept poking at with each issue. Trying to tease out emotions and opinions, be it humor or anger, romanticism or criticism.

I’ve always wanted to ask you about your training, in dance. What your experience on stage was like communicating with audiences. It was my sense that this shaped the presence you command on paper. If I could ever learn to be comfortable with my limbs in public, I bet I would in turn become a more confident writer also.

Now the four of us might write to keep in touch, but I would venture that Open Letters was about making a deliberate effort of being in touch with ourselves, each other, and the environments around us. Maybe some designers are accustomed to constructing and shaping in world axis mode, from a virtual distance. But the medium of the letter allowed us to deliberate topics from the value of theory to issues of divestment. It gave us an opportunity to be sentimental 3 and also be held accountable for our politics. Our featherthin publication became a sizeable platform for all kinds of personalities and perspectives.

You wrote in Issue 00, that you were worried about this project turning out “to be a waste of paper.”4 I hope with each 30 lb box of newsprint that we continue to order we are helping to fill in some space between.

Yours,
Irene


1 “ Ingrid Bengtson and Sarah Bolivar respond to Anonymous” Open Letters , Issue 20, December 12, 2014.

2 “ Anonymous writes to GSD,” Open Letters , Issue 19, November 21, 2014.

3 “ GSD Students write to Niall Kirkwood,” Open Letters , Issue 13, April 18, 2014.
4 “ Chelsea Spencer writes to Mack Scogin,” Open Letters , Issue 02, October 3, 2013.

 

Dear Irene,
It was with great excitement that I received your message last week. I'm thrilled to be in touch with you, Lara, and Miranda, all the more so because we've flung ourselves so far. I've been thinking about how I'd reply for these past eight days , but of course not actually putting fingers to keys. I always do this with writing, and I can't say whether it's productive or the opposite: I fantasize about how I'll phrase certain things – usually a few words, not whole sentences. The problem is that I so rarely get to the sentence writing part and quickly forget those little particles of language fused only in my imagination. My year of editing all day every day has made me come to realize that people write at different scales. My problem these days is that I write at a scale slightly smaller than the clause (i.e., "the smallest grammatical unit that can express acomplete proposition"). But I most admire writing that advances at the scale of the sentence.5 I think it is between sentences – the vaulting from one declaration, or question, to the next – that an author's thinking is revealed. Earlier this year I was helping to edit a collection of essays, translated from French, by the structuralist philosopher Hubert Damisch. He starts practically every sentence with mais . Mais je m'éloigne du sujet.

I don't know that I've ever been asked about writing and dance. The two worlds have always remained very separate, neither curious about the other. I think there's two ways you could look at it. One is that dancing and writing draw on two very different, perhaps even opposing, intelligences. The great dance critic Edwin Denby wrote a piece in 1944 called "A Note on Dance Intelligence," which he begins like this: "Expression in dancing is what really interests everybody, and everybody recognizes it as a sign of intelligence in the dancer. But dancing is physical motion, it doesn't involve words at all. And so it is an error to suppose that dance intelligence is the same as other sorts of intelligence which involve, on the contrary, words only
and no physical movement whatever." Mind you, this is around the time of Martha Graham's height, when the most modern of dance was a melodramatic expressionism/exorcism.

Dancing on stage – under blindingly bright lights behind which an audience you can't see but know is there sits, watching, ensconced in darkness – is an utterly transcendent experience.  Lots of dancers count the music and organize their movement recall that way. 6 I can't do it, because even that degree of articulation – just to say the numbers one through eight – interferes with the articulation that (I hope) is functioning at another register and that, for me, has always been silent and has everything to do with the good ol' mute gaze.

The other way I look at the relationship between dancing and writing is this: Both are performances. In both, you get to decide to be whomever you wish. Of course in dance, you've got a choreographer telling you what they want to see. I think that makes it easier – this wedge of external directions that moves action away from identity. The more ridiculous, the more you must commit to that ridiculousness with total seriousness. Physical limitations impose themselves too: there is no pretending to turn out five perfect pirouettes; there is only doing it. But even the most exquisite technicians can lack what dancers and choreographers call "commitment" – the elimination of doubt and hesitation. I detest the word presence , but it has something to do with the seamless fusion of time, space, energy, and corporeality. (Which quality is scarily instrumentalizable.)

Writing can be more forgiving. Writers need not muster the energy, renew their commitment to every word, every punctuation mark, again and again for the piece to subsist. You can gather facets of your writerly self over the course of working on it. The work of writing leaves a durable (though not necessarily stable) proxy on the page – a score, if you will – and the rest is up to readers. The work of dance can only ready you to start the piece from the top, at which point you're only as good as your fortitude, strength, and readiness in that moment.

At the same time, the necessary immediacy of dancing – the indispensability of repeatedly
rehearsing a piece from top to bottom with your own irreplaceable body until you are prepared to carry out and commit to the performance of every gesture with conviction – grants its own undeniable gratifications and possibilities.

With love and eager curiosity,
C


5 “Edward Eigen responds to John Davis,” Open Letters , Issue 12, April 11, 2013.

6 “Mack Scogin responds to Chelsea Spencer,” Open Letters, Issue 02, November 01, 2013.

 

Dear Lara,
I noticed the Harvard Art Museum is hosting a symposium this week, Material World . Anni Albers’ 1926 ‘Wall Hanging’ is front and center (you know the one we lingered over with magnifying glasses last Spring —finally, some redemption for our beloved Anni.7 I wonder if the museum will tweet about her weaving? “#BR48.132. German silk 3ply weave textile, complex layering, made by beautiful woman #AnniAlbers in 1926 #itsabouttime.” Could a tweet absolve art history and the Bauhaus from about seventy years of footnoting the women of that studio and their progeny? In June, I walked through the museum one last time and noticed next to Albers’ ‘Wall Hanging’ a curious textual drawing: a typed pattern of ‘X’ and ‘O’s on printed newsprint. It was a weaving pattern composed by Ruth Asawa when she was a student at Black Mountain College in Anni Albers’ weaving studio. It was framed as if it was a drawing, but it was really a complex, coded set of instructions for a loom, which described the relative position of thread in three dimensions across its warp and weft. I suppose, because it was coded with ‘X’ and ‘O’s, mathematicians or software engineers would like to see it as a curious set of syntactical relationships. Well, in this regard, Anni was a ‘coder’, a junky of pattern and nearly imperceptible, luxurious detail that can only be felt when the fabric is wrapped around our sad, cold, ailing shoulders. She also wrote, well. German was her language, thread was her vocabulary, the loom was her syntax.

Irene, in her concise genius, declared that “there is no obfuscating with text.” I write because, in my achey social anxiety, I want to connect with my own and other’s intellect as much as I want to connect and interpret my own imagination. Anni wrote about art and design while in Germany, in the thick of antiSemitic rhetoric (a world saturated with malevolent tweets and judgments). She also wrote about the collective weaving genius of the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus’ administration’s hypocrisy that subjugated women to weaving, but consequently consolidated a team of genius that would code the magic of textiles for modern design . “Art — a Constant. Times of rapid change produce a wish for stability, for permanence and finality, as quiet times ask for adventure and change. Wishes derive from imaginative vision. And it is this visionary reality we need, to complement our experience of the immediate reality.” I suggest that there 8 is little room for hypocrisy in a signed letter. The obligation of writing as a physical, printed, signed act keeps our public selves sincere and disciplined. So yes, I write slowly and with ink. Because, I love you, Anni and everything she valued.

Sincerely Yours,
Miranda

7 “Anni Albers writes to Ise Gropius,” Open Letters, Issue 21, January 30, 2015.

8 Albers, Anni. “Art—A Constant”. Ed. Brenda Danilowittz. Anni Albers Selected Writings on Design.
Weselyan University Press, Hanover, NH, 2000, p. 10.

 

 

Dear Miranda,
Facebook has just informed me that today is #nationalpunctuationday. I got sucked into taking the Which punctuation mark are you? quiz: Results cast me as a full stop/period, “.” calm, helpful, and distasteful of drama. More interestingly, the quiz describes the punctuation mark itself as nondramatic, calm and helpful. Personally, I am partial to the semicolon. This discovery reminded me of Chelsea’s comment on writers progressing their ideas at different scales. If Chelsea longs to scale up from clauses to sentences, I am stuck at the scale of punctuation. (If clauses are capable of expressing a complete proposition, what can a single punctuation mark reveal? They Punctuation marks are defined as singular characters, which separate sentences and their elements to clarify meaning. But I would argue, they do more; they connect sentences,
stitch the elements together.) My eyes catch tiny things; I was the one who found the dropped earring back, the invisible pin, the single, miniscule flower in a world of brown, grey and green. Here, my windows stand wide open so gusts of fresh air will force me to look out while I copyedit. Occasionally, I must extend my depth of vision, give my eyes a rest but they won’t ignore a misplaced comma. Is an obsession with text at this scale connected to the luxurious detail of a textile?

I share your fascination with pattern because I think in terms of digits, units, spaces set into an expansive field. My initial idea for the Open Letters covers was to mine the writing for details, which I could weave into an encrypted graphics that would act as an abstracted background.9 Even as the wallpaper patterns faded, I stuck with details: like a Dawn Redwood’s needles.10  Until now, I had never thought to consider why I took on the role of design editor. It appears rather obvious: I gravitate toward looser structures and rather than write to provoke thought, I write to organize it. It’s a bit odd to declare, but I find pleasure in layout, the more physical orspatial composition of thought. With a given document size, a margin, I can draft an idea theway I draft a plan for a landscape architectural design; by treating the paper space as modelspace. And just as hard and soft materials come together on the ground, text is, for me, only half the equation. It is in the play between image and text that I find meaning. Designing the cover graphics for Open Letters gave me this freedom: to treat text as both a formal organization of thought and an aesthetic composition. Text , more than writing, obsesses me, because it isolates the compositional element, brings it down to the tiniest terms.

In Zurich, there is no avoiding even the smallest elements of graphic design. The big, bold, sans serif type developed in 1957 by Max Miedinger and Eduard Hoffmann catches my eye at every corner. Of course, in Switzerland, its birthplace and namesake (the Swiss name for the country is Helvetia, or Confoederatio Helvetica ), it is no surprise. Thanks to Chelsea’s good taste, we stuck with Benton Sans Condensed and Baskerville for a classic yet contemporary look.

In addition to clean, readable typeface, the Swiss Style established uniformity through a mathematical grid. A standard procedure today, but in the 1920s the use of the gridin the pursuit of minimalism, functionalism and simplicityrevolutionized graphic design in accordance with modernist ideals. I am not a graphic designer but I, too, recognize the grid as the most legible means for structuring information. Using this method, the structure precedes the content. Text is applied to a grid, snuggled into the predetermined order. Like Asawa’s textural drawing, which you saw hanging at the Fogg, communication relies on a composition of units in our case, a system or grid of letters. The International Style cast designers not as artists but as conduits for disseminating information. The semicolon in me wants to say we are, in our different ways, both. The grid is my playing field; it has order, but it is infinite. (We set the frame.) And the reason, I think, for our affinity with Albers’ textiles is our approach to composition. We are writing with warp and weft: First we hold the “composition stick” in our hands and put the lead type into order, and then we set the type into the press bed along with wooden “furniture” (placeholders). Whether by hand, with a typewriter, or on a keyboard, I approach writing like I print text on an analog letterpress: The bed is the field. I am tempted to
think that it has something to do with being a landscape architect, rather than an architect. Looser structures allow for visible threads and multiple meanings. Letters are our scale. They are the unit we prefer because each letter can stand alone and yet it is enrichened by a response. And a response could expand the grid in any direction.

I am the full stop, but we know this conversation has no end. A bit homesick for American culture and lit., I am reminded of Emerson’s “Circles” essay: “ Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on midnoon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” Don’t we write/solicit/edit/publish letters in order to grow, to redefine ourselves in terms of each other, in even greater contexts? Ultimately, I think our project embraced the openness of a letter, of inquiring without any guarantee for an answer, because we have learned to accept “do[ing] something without knowing how or why; in short, to draw a new circle.” The textual fabric has no boundaries of its ownwe set and reset the frame. A collaborative editorial team is in constant exchange, sending verbal missives at full tilt. With that, nothing, not even me, is a full stop.

Let the ruckus begin –

Lara

 

9 “ Kiel Moe writes to Open Systems,” Open Letters, Issue 15, September 26, 2014.
10 “ Cali Pfaff writes to Dawn Redwood ,” Open Letters, Issue 05, December 06, 2013.

Tuesday
Sep012015

Paragraphs on Architectural Criticism

Rafael Gomez Moriana


    1.    Architectural criticism is what distinguishes architecture from building, inasmuch as those two terms are distinguishable. Buildings exist perfectly well without criticism, but architecture does not exist without it.

    2.    Architecture is never logically or self-evidently right or wrong; only arguably better or worse. Criticism must therefore always be based on sound argument.

    3.    Architectural criticism provides an interpretive reading of a work of architecture. This reading need not coincide with the architect’s stated intentions. In fact, it is much more interesting when a critical reading differs from an architect's intentions. The last thing a critic should ever be is a spokesperson for an architect (or a politician, or a developer, or anyone else for that matter).

    4.    A critic must demystify architecture without mystifying criticism in the process, testing architecture and if necessary challenging claims, calling bluffs, and denouncing charlatanry. Criticism should be based on architectural work, not on architectural personalities.

    5.    A critic is a public intellectual first and foremost, defending the public interest. To this end, they must always refuse to engage in whitewashing, greenwashing, or puff pieces.

    6.    A built work of architecture is best criticised post-occupancy, i.e. after it has started to perform within the life-world. Otherwise, the criticism may be overly based on theory. Buildings are too often perfect in theory.

    7.    Criticism, whether positive or negative, should be shared by all the ‘stakeholders’ involved in an architectural design project, including the client, planner, builder, consultants, and users (if involved in a design). Just as an architect has no right to claim exclusive credit for a built work when it is successful, they can similarly not be expected to shoulder all the blame for a project when it is unsuccessful. Built architecture is always a collaborative endeavour, for better or worse.

    8.    Architectural criticism cannot ignore a work’s social, political, cultural and economic context; otherwise, it becomes solipsistic. But by the same token, it also can’t pass judgment based exclusively on such factors.

    9.    A building that is problematic from an ethical standpoint can nevertheless possess certain architectural qualities. Conversely, just because a work of architecture is socially and environmentally worthy of praise does not automatically entail it is architecturally praiseworthy.

    10.    Built work, precisely because it is part of a complex life-world that renders it imperfect, generally makes for much more nuanced criticism than so-called ‘paper architecture’.

   11.    Architectural criticism cannot be based exclusively on renderings or photographs of buildings. Architecture has to be experienced in situ and ‘in the flesh’ in order to be fully appreciated. This is not to say that architectural photography cannot be a subject of critical review.

    12.    Architectural criticism must be seen to be independent. It cannot be directly sponsored by corporations nor can it be seen to be in bed with professional associations, trade unions, guilds, political parties or religious organisations.

    13.    Curating is not the new criticism, no matter how critical. While both have an effect upon the canon, they are fundamentally different; curated exhibitions being legitimate subjects of critical review.

    14.    Internet can be just as good a vehicle for architectural criticism as print. Neither medium is inherently more or less critical.

    15.    These paragraphs are neither conclusive nor certain. They constitute a theory of criticism that, like any other theory, exists to be improved or debunked by others.



Monday
Oct122015

Paragraphs on Architectural Criticism: response 1

Brendan Cormier

There's only one point of Rafael Gomez Moriana's Paragraphs on Architectural Criticism that I disagree strongly enough with to write some kind of response.  It is point 1: Architectural criticism is what distinguishes architecture from building, inasmuch as those two terms are distinguishable. Buildings exist perfectly well without criticism, but architecture does not exist without it.

There are types of construction that are bespoke, carefully considered, and conceived by architects, that we would generally term ‘architecture’. Then there is the vast majority of construction in the world which operates under a different more prosaic logic - generally of cheapness, mass-production, and minimum standards - that we would call buildings. While buildings have generally existed without a strong culture of criticism behind them, that is certainly more an oversight coming from the culture of criticism, rather than a determining factor for the distinction between architecture and building. Indeed if critics truly care about raising the standards and quality of our built environment, then more careful analysis and critique of buildings and the systems from which they arise is necessary. Critiquing and improving the 99% of our world which we would call buildings on top of the 1% of our world which we would call architecture would certainly be a noble and worthwhile pursuit. And this is something, despite the semantics. an ‘architecture’ critic can do.
 
Furthermore, architecture and buildings can, and have, existed without criticism. They might even prefer it that way.    

Monday
Oct122015

Paragraphs on Architectural Criticism: response 2

Stephanie White

well, I take exception to point 2 of Rafael Gomez Moriana's Paragraphs on Architectural Criticism: architecture is never logically or self-evidently right or wrong; only arguably better or worse.  Criticism must therefore always be based on sound argument.  

This is very slippery.  What does 'right' or 'wrong' mean, or better or worse?  I think one must go back to the very definitions of architecture, something assumed in Rafael's Paragraphs as if we were all starting on the same page.  If architecture is to be delineated in some exclusionary way that does not admit the social weaver bird nests of the Kalahari, which we included in On Site 33:land, or does not cover the house brand architecture of Starbuck's, or the suburban house, then it implies that 'architecture' has higher ambitions, socially, visually, historically, structurally, aesthetically, that set it apart from the 99%.  Okay, but this is the traditional definition of architecture: a superior art, practiced by qualified, sophisticated, educated architects.

As a very cheap shot (and it is very cheap but it does start to investigate the moral dimension of right/wrong better/worse architecture), what about Speer's work for the Third Reich?  It was solid, commodious in the extreme and delighted the rebuilders of Germany after the shaming Versailles Treaty of 1919. Was the architecture better or worse than the Bauhaus the Reich banned?  It was based on completely different precepts, which we now judge to be not right,  quite wrong, not good classicism, worse than Rome.  Or what about the mid-1980s rediscovery and re-evaluation of 1930s Italian fascist architecture?  It was better than the German stuff.  If this is a critical position, choosing between national socialism and fascism and the architecture each produced, what are the terms of reference for a critique of the architecture?  

Is the Shard better or worse than the Gherkin?  It has a better nickname; it is newer, taller, owned by shadowy Qatar rather than by squeaky-clean Swiss Re (at the time of building), but is its architecture better or worse?  I'm not sure one can divorce shape, structure, its place on the historical trajectory of extremely tall buildings, from the ambitions of its owners and the role of architecture in such circumstances to brand a globalised financial venture.  

What is the sound argument in laying out the conditions by which architecture is fulfilled as being good, bad or indifferent?  What is fair game when judging a building?  or rather, what isn't fair, historically a much larger category.  Feminist critique of architecture remains a marginal activity.  Marxist critique is dismissed as being Marxist.  Populist critique is generally seen as uninformed.  What constitutes good architectural criticism then; is it too neither right nor wrong, but better or worse?  And is the worst of it worse because of the political and social standing of the critic?  To not declare one's larger position in the world as a critic means there will always be an elephant in the room of one's critique. 

Monday
Oct262015

Paragraphs on Architectural Criticism: response 3

Ania Molenda

Paragraphs on Architectural Criticism Point 11:
“Architectural criticism cannot be based exclusively on renderings or photographs of buildings. Architecture has to be experienced in situ and ‘in the flesh’ in order to be fully appreciated. This is not to say that architectural photography cannot be a subject of critical review”

My response to Point 11 of Rafael Gomez Moriana's Paragraphs on Architectural Criticism is related to the actual capacity in which architectural criticism can be useful and to a general misunderstanding of what architectural criticism is assumed to be and what it could be.

I personally don’t think that architectural criticism should be condemned to the production of sad post-factum comments and I find the assumption that “Architecture has to be experienced in situ and ‘in the flesh’ in order to be fully appreciated” problematic, because it is exactly what puts the critic following that rule in a difficult position. This point of view on criticism is precisely what contributes to the negative connotations with the word critic and criticism that focus on bringing out only the negative aspects of any undertaking, also known as complaining. Of course we can claim that criticism does not have to focus solely on flaws, it can also praise the beauty of architecture or ingenuity of its utilitarian aspects, but why was the term ‘constructive criticism’ invented then?

The suggested way of reviewing qualities of architectural production leaves us in an unfavourable situation where 1% of the work is good, and as Brendan Cormier points out is than called architecture, and the rest of it is crap and is called built environment.  Point 11 of Rafael Gomez Moriana's Paragraphs on Architectural Criticism makes me think that architectural criticism becomes completely useless if limited to an in situ experience. If criticism cannot be based on renderings, drawings or ideas, which are the plans of architecture yet to be realised, it is excluded from the ability to contribute to the discourse on what still can be improved.

Perhaps paragraph 11 is one to be reconsidered for the sake of a better built environment with a higher percentage of architecture. The point being that architectural criticism should perhaps be more focused on what is yet to come and less on what has been done wrong, naturally without dismissing the value of lessons learned, but those could perhaps become the 1% of architectural criticism.

Tuesday
Mar222016

Stephanie White: on writing on architecture

Mark Dorrian, in Writing on the Image, Architecture, the City and the Politics of Representation, investigates how we see certain phenomena through constructed temporal and political lenses. How we understand objects, architecture, landscape, cities, power and culture is generally similar; his case studies, which traverse a couple of centuries and much of the world, are each unique with particular complexities.

The first essay, ‘The King in the City: the iconology of George IV in Edinburgh, 1822’ has all the lineaments of Dorrian’s project: the entry of George IV (German interloper, King of Scotland by some ghastly slippage of lineage) was staged for the city to see the King, and the King to see the city. It was like the management of one of today’s political campaigns: photo-ops, significant backgrounds, resonant sites. There were subsequent images – etchings, drawings and paintings of this event, its aspect and prospect where an object (a Hanoverian King) is dropped into a view (the city of James I).  The politicised landscape, celebratory, heroic, kilted, was artfully crafted. It could have been done by Lynton Crosby.

This is the basic premise of all the subsequent essays – what we see is a function of where we are allowed to stand. From the London Eye and surveillance society, to Dubailand as the air-conditioned inheritor of More’s Utopia, to living in the shadow of any tall building, especially Stalin’s Ministry of Culture, the view down, the aerial view, whether by balloon, airplane, satellite or drone, abstracts civilisation to pattern where details are lost. It is at this omniscient scale decisions are made, at the detail scale is where we live our daily lives. Our very being becomes abstract to ourselves, scenography, quaint, at best of little import. Such views, chosen and crafted often by architecture itself, put us into a place not entirely of our own choosing or understanding.

The essays themselves are beautifully written, each a rich education: after a wide-ranging discussion of the way that air, its purity or not, its capacity to hold water or not, its temperature, its ubiquity, has been the site of centuries of utopia-based procedures to manage population, weather and military advantage, the essay ‘Utopia on Ice: the sunny mountain ski-dome as an allegory of the future’ suddenly sharpens on the artificial ski hills of Dubai.  For Dorrian, Dubailand is not a ridiculous experiment enabled by petrodollars and irresponsibility to climate change, but rather simply another example of how we feel we can inhabit this world armed with technology and the right to rebuild nature to suit our increasingly worried desires. Dubailand presents us with the image of how it can be done.

These are all long essays, a form given at conferences and symposia and generally inaccessible to the wider community outside academia unless collected in a book, such as this one.  Each essay stands alone, each addresses the significance of the position from which we view architecture and the city through the image, and how the image places us. The politics of representation reinforces the impossibility of the innocent image, and by extension, the innocence of architecture. And not necessarily partisan politics, but rather the cultural politics of class, power, technology and partisan ambition. The long-form essay gives space to discuss such narratives, for they are not simple, or easily parsed.  Short essays such as those found in this journal (this very short and thus inadequate to the task essay, for example), are 1500-word abstracts to a discussion perhaps not yet written, perhaps fully-formed; they merely signal a wider, more complex discourse.  Mark Dorrian’s Writing on the Image is that discourse. It is also an example of the habit of thinking, the habit of thinking through writing, and the habit of writing itself.  There is a venue: continual conferences and symposia throughout the world, there is the need to publish, and importantly, there is a length – these are the structures that facilitate thought.  Without the venue and the need, would anyone write at all?  Of course they would, we all have a great need to speak. How articulate or fluent we are however, is dependent on the armature within which we produce thought.  

*

In On Site review 31: mapping | photography, Robin Wilson wrote about the kinds of images used conventionally to represent architecture in the architectural press and the dismay and disarray that happens when images of architecture that come from a different photographic sensibility are used. Wilson’s essays have been collected in Image, Text, Architecture, reviewed here. Wilson’s work and that of the reviewer, Jon Astbury, are an extended critique of hoary, vital British architectural journals such as The Architect’s Journal and The Architectural Review. Using the armature of the page size, the layout grid, the fonts, the proportion of image to text, they both have subversively undermined the assumption that the traditional armature of the architecture journal is a neutral venue for the presentation of architecture. Astbury’s project in this issue, ‘Forensic criticism of N Ratsby in The Architectural Review’, presents a kind of writing about architecture for the establishment press that one can only dream of. Within the conventions of publishing for a professional readership – plans, sections, site, clean description, and cleanly descriptive photographs – he proposes an incomplete and subjective description of what, in this case, is a rather beautiful modernist extension to a Georgian terrace house, an architectural interloper, with the magazine critic as interloper to architecture as a site of human occupation. Forensic criticism: the critic as detective.

**

Daniel Fairbrother writes, also in this issue (p32), about two books: White City, Black City by Sharon Rotbard and Hollow Land by Eyal Weizman.  After writing Hollow Land, Weizman developed a forensic strategy whereby architecture and planning, and how they are enacted and written, can be subject to an evaluation that lays bare political and metaphorical frameworks that compromise any idea that architecture is some sort of neutral being. This reinforces Mark Dorrian’s thesis of political representation, particularly through the image, often in this globalised media landscape the only way architecture is received.   

While I was reading Dorrian, I was also reading Ali Smith’s Artful, four essays given as lectures for the Weidenfeld Visiting Professorship in European Comparative Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford in 2012. One essay, ‘On Edge’ asks, ’Do words on the page hold us on a surface, above depths and shallows like a layer of ice?’ at which I immediately think of Dorrian’s feet in figure 6.2 in ‘The Aerial Image: Vertigo, Transparency and Miniaturisation’, a satellite image of London that is the surface of the lowest level of City Hall. One can view it from above, one can stand on it. Ultimately one is looking at, or standing on, an epilimnion which itself carries an image positioned thousands of feet below the putative eye, the camera lens. Where is the surface of this image: the pigment on the floor? the ground upon which London sits? And where, in this vertiginous in-between, are we?  Ali Smith quotes Virginia Woolf on the cinematic image and how ‘the exchange between eye and brain when watching the cinema forms a separating surface between us and participation.’ What we see has become ‘real with a different reality from that which we perceive in daily life. We see life as it is when we have no part in it.’

***

This detachment has become so naturalised that we can’t even see it, which certainly impairs our critical faculties. Earlier, last fall, I re-read the 1969 Meaning in Architecture, edited by Charles Jencks and George Baird, a project that grew out of their respective dissertations at the Bartlett in the mid-1960s. It consists of 15 essays, from Reyner Banham’s ‘A Home is not a House’ to Kenneth Frampton’s ‘Labour, Work & Architecture’, to Martin Pawley’s ‘The Time House, or argument for an existential dwelling –1. design for human ambiguity’. All the essays are annotated with marginalia: questions and comments by the other contributors.  This was the particular and popular book that translated Joseph Rykwert’s critical studies on semiology to a whole generation of young architects looking to escape the rigours of modernity. As criticism, it was an escape from New Criticism, whereby the object, whether it be a poem or a building, is a discrete, self-referential entity, answerable only to itself.  Modern architecture sought coherence within itself, rather than with the world; purity of form was self-defining, one of the conditions of modernity. Ambiguity, double readings, metaphor, subjectivity and intentionality had little place in serious critique until, converging with Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture of 1961, Meaning in Architecture thrashed its way through a number of architectural scholars, historians and thinkers, arguing point by point that there was a wider, more holistic, more layered way to discuss architecture in the world, rather than in itself. 3    

The contributors to this particular book, plus their schools, their students, their critical essays in the journals, undercut any codifiable critical position for the making of architecture. When, in 1961, Robert Rauschenberg declared in a telegram ‘This is a portrait of Iris Clert, if I say so’ he obviated the position of the critic who, as an observer, felt able to pronounce on a piece of art.  It was at this point that artist became critic; that architects and their projects became critics and critiques.  Ron Herron’s 1964 Walking City was an architectural proposal, a technological forecast and a critique of the authority of CIAM and its meta-theoretical urban solutions.  Archigram effectively said ‘This is architecture, if I say so.’ The object was utterly destabilised, becoming instead the subject of a wider discourse.

Hans Ibelings feels that the 1980s constitutes a ‘golden age’ of architectural criticism. This happens to be when the ‘68 generation flooded the universities, assuming positions of authority, from tenure professorships to Bernard Tschumi becoming the dean of the architecture school at Columbia in 1988. Every dog has its day, and while the 1990s were accompanied by a sinking dread as in project review after review students were asked ‘Yes, but what does it mean?’, by the 2000s architecture fell into a re-discovery of structure and building systems – the David Leatherbarrow world of material architectural culture.  

****

It is a fool’s errand to define what architectural criticism is today.  It is clearly more than description although it is not at all clear who is equipped to judge the success or failure of a building or a landscape, or whether exhibit A is better or worse than exhibit B. The last fifty years have invalidated such judgements as the unhelpful creation of hierarchies of value and reward systems.4  However, we are entering a new global era of hardened battle lines, social inequity and extreme ideologies that do judge right and wrong, good and bad – why would the discussion of architecture be exempt? Against this prospective rigidity, I find Mark Dorrian’s discussions of a wide range of often unpalatable architectural and urban installations so rewarding. Each case study is embedded in a description of a world exposed to enormous historical and ethical and political forces. His subjects, from Diller & Scofidio’s Blur to the images of ‘weapons of mass-destruction’ sites that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, are canaries reacting to the air in the mineshaft.

*****

Even books of collected essays are not discrete objects any more; Writing on the Image contains an afterword, ‘Postscript as Pretext’ by Ella Chmielewska on Dorrian’s work with Metis and a previous book, Urban Cartographies. A serious apologia, it gives context to Dorrian’s essays by showing them to be a continuation of his work where images and text interconnect and interact to establish an ambiguous liminal space: the kind of spaces examined in his essays. She invites the texts ‘to demonstrate, to make a place for writing: writing as a form of inquiry, the mode of writing with images that informs the thinking of architecture’ [her italics]. It is a given in Dorrian’s work that the terrain is unstable, shifting, netted with opposing forces, and in this place that never reveals itself clearly, is where the conditions for writing lie.   


1   Mark Dorrian. Writing on the Image. Architecture, the City and the Politics of Representation.  London, New York: I B Tauris, 2015
2  Ali Smith.
Artful. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2013. p121 and p129
3  In 1941 John Crowe Ransom proposed a scientific approach to criticism based on empirical evidence found within the text. New Criticism’s emphasis on close reading held sway from the 1940s to the 1970s when it was assailed by the emergence of feminism, post-structuralism, New History, and in architecture, post-modernism.  More or less.  
4 Nonetheless prizes, magazine covers and hero-formation persist, occupying a parallel universe to the discussion of architecture as a social and cultural act.

Tuesday
Sep012015

Ted Landrum: A Hunt for Optimism in the Middle, or Thereabouts

To preserve Ted's spacing, these are thumbnail images of the poems on the page.  Click on each to read at a larger size:

 

 

Tuesday
Sep012015

Thomas Nemeskeri: On Writing (about Architecture)

I discovered something interesting when I recently installed Instagram on my phone. I was looking forward to sharing my photographs (which, though not all instant captures, documented remarkable instances of the built environment), I knew that many people now use the app, and that like many forms of social media, its popularity has allowed it to create trends, which seems to have led to the ubiquity of so many aspirational selfies and food shots. Rifling through this seemingly endless stream, I discovered how flat architectural photography had become. With the proliferation of aspirational and lifestyle snap photography, the photogenic qualities of built space have been pushed to the fore, while the myriad ways in which architecture shapes our lives have been pushed to the periphery. Ironically, despite this proliferation of imagery, Architecture is at risk of being marginalised.


Contemporary architectural photography tends to focus on the quality of lifestyle that is associated with a given design; idealised lifestyles associated with the promises of modernity, like so much self-referential, glamorous isolation. Architectural photography has a proclivity toward iconicity by virtue of its subject matter - the built world stands as an exhibitive judgement of our relationship to the world, and is so used to represent desired ends. Architectural discourse, which includes photography, fulfills this purpose, but it is at best a limited understanding of architecture, and one that can be challenged. Indeed all architectural discourse that (like photography) is primarily visual tends to share this proclivity to contextualise built form as the space of human consumption.  The challenge of these forms of discourse is to project the quotidian aspects of the architecture that speak of a broader relationship to our world. Within the medium of photography itself, for example, moments of resistance may be found that suggest more complex sets of relationships and a broader context than the designers’ initial intentions (as the photographs accompanying this text attempt to do).

This seductive aspect of architectural photography, reinforced by the increasing realism of rendered scenes that typically precede built space, can dominate the discussion, analysis and public perception of significant architectural projects, to the point that other design considerations, such as responses to particular social or physical contexts, are inadequately addressed or just ignored. At its most cynical, this focus on retinal delight is capable of reducing architectural experience to a series of one-liners; a series of unrelated moments comprising a building. Short of employing collage to point out the fallacies created by some architectural photography, it is arguably writing, in combination with photography, which offers the greatest opportunity for ongoing re-assessment of a number of preconceptions about our relationship to the built environment, which may ultimately translate into an appreciation for the capacity of architecture to reveal and challenge such preconceptions.

This is not to suggest that architectural photography by itself does Architecture a disservice. It plays a crucial role in advocating the value of design, presenting architecture in its myriad social, political, economic and cultural contexts. Its ability to make explicit comparisons and contrasting associations can make architecture more accessible to a wider audience. However, there is a kind of exactitude that can be gleaned from the capacity of language inscription. This capacity is eminently useful to architecture, as it can evoke lived experience in a way that much architectural photography does not.

Writing about architecture tends to be either academic or journalistic. Academic writing is often at risk of alienating the reader through esoteric references, but uses a vocabulary and language that points to the values behind design approaches, offering insights into the relationship between architecture and the circumstances that inform its design; the capacity for language to express the ambiguities and contradictions of living in the built environment is made evident when understood in context of the practices and relationships that are at the roots of words. Though it’s not commonplace for this analytical approach to appear in journalistic reviews of buildings, their level of analysis reminds us of the greater virtues that architecture must serve, and must ultimately translate to an approachable argument about the value of the built environment. Written language is eminently capable of underscoring these larger relationships that architecture plays a part of, and this capacity is even more crucial when observed through an etymological lens.


The roots of words contain a residuum of wisdom about lived experience, which is informed by our development of relationships to the things around us. The ways in which words come about tell a story about how we have lived, live now and might live in the future, and how we have come to understand the world around us. As we explore the roots of words, we come to know how architecture plays a fundamental role in the formation of lived experiences, and how it exists as an exhibitive judgment of lived experience in general.  This reality is evocatively described by the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who in his essay Building, Dwelling, Thinking writes “It is language that tells us about the nature of a thing, provided that we respect language’s own nature.” This nature, he writes, comes about through the everyday practices that imbue our lives with meaning. He goes on to give a detailed account of the roots of the word building; how its etymology speaks of the Old Saxon word wuon and the Gothic wunian, like bauen (building), mean to remain in place. Wunian means to be at peace; to be at peace means to be free – friede – to be safeguarded. “To free really means to spare. Real sparing is something positive that takes place when we leave something beforehand in its own nature, when we return it specifically to its being…” (Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, p. 149). This simple account points to how ‘building’ is sustaining, and thus offers powerful insights into architecture’s role in mediating the natural world – as to how and why it ought to be safeguarded.

What then, of language inscribed, when so much of culture focuses on self-actualisation, on the amassing of experiences and practices when they are doled out as commodities? Where is the virtue of Architecture when it is served up in glossy shots of its Modernist promise? The current proliferation of architectural photography has not only flattened architectural experience to two dimensions, it has encouraged the perception and pursuit of architecture primarily as a form of retinal delight. By drawing upon that which differentiates written discourses from photographic ones, this reduction can be challenged, and in disrupting the flattening effects of idealised imagery we may both recover and uncover greater understandings of the ‘value’ of Architecture.