random thoughts on architecture history theory and criticism

moustache competition

Filed under: ., lyautey, moustaches, munthe,

reading ruscha

with all the hoopla around the archigram archival project, another archival website has gone a bit under the radar—granted, the archi-radar is entitled to ignore art archival at its peril—. i’m talking about the ed ruscha website, an interesting effort towards archiving and tracing the whereabouts of the artist’s paintings, and coinciding with two recent publications, alexandra schwartz’s ed ruscha’s los angeles and ed ruscha: fifty years of painting by ellroy, rugoff, and schartz. what follows are some notes from a paper i wrote long ago on ruscha’s links to architecture. but first, some chronological information.

although ruscha’s most obvious links to architecture have been made through his books series, done in a short lapse of time during the 1960s and early 70s, his more continuous production of ‘word’ paintings and often paintings of buildings with words attached have been just as important both in their dialogue with, and influence to influential architects and architectural historians. this chart positions the book production along some of the architectural texts that reacted to them at the time, and ruscha’s other paintings. keep in mind then that the books represent a relatively short lapse of time within ruscha’s larger production (i have a chart for this also, but it’s not as pretty).

so that said, let’s go after the architects. part of ruscha’s story actually begins with an architectural influence. in 1955, he traveled to mexico, met luis barragan, and saw his house [official site here] and the architecture of mexico city: “that was the first cosmopolitan thing that i’d ever done in my life” [ruscha]. barragan’s bright colors would soon become part of ruscha’s palette, and although the general consensus is that his work is tied to california, it’s hard not to see barragan’s work as an important influence once you see the images of the house. more importantly, barragan’s work might have been influential in connecting art and architecture [those stairs btw look a lot like the accordion-like structure of the sunset strip book, but that may be a stretch].

two years later colin rowe and john hejduk published an essay on lockhart, texas, making an argument for the recovery of the banal:

Seen dispassionately, these buildings are utilitarian structures casually enlivened by an elementary eclectic symbolism, deriving something of their effect from concentration and material uniformity. But it is now impossible and meaningless to dismiss them as this alone: in terms of a not unduly sentimental taste they have intrinsic virtues of a high order, while only too obviously their extrinsic attributes are even more telling.

Colin Rowe and John Hejduk[1] 

although their text is prior to ruscha’s work, rowe and hejduk’s essay shows a more complete understanding of the generic as a series than some of the architectural misreadings that would come later and focus on isolated moments of his work. it reminds us that at the time, the return to the vernacular or the idea of the generic in architecture already had some roots in architectural academia, related to similar developments in pop art. coincidentally, according to ruscha, 1957 was the year he decided to become an artist after seeing reproductions of jasper jones’s flags and targets in print magazine.

ruscha would go on to fabricate his legendary book series, and would soon be noticed by denise scott brown, who along with venturi and izenour would draw heavily on the sunset strip, parking lots, and gasoline station books for learning from las vegas. a few years after the book, an interesting debate on misunderstanding ruscha took place between kenneth frampton and denise scott brown in the pages of casabella (1971). while scott brown seemed both fascinated and repelled by the “deadpan, scholarly” photographs of parking lots, frampton interpreted ruscha’s photography as “clinical observation” highlighting the alienation of the environment and generally suggesting ruscha’s attitude as closer to a perverse delight in the desolate than to a promise of the productive possibilities of the generic. but after defending an architecture of the ugly and ordinary, v&sb’s work would come closer to ruscha’s word paintings than to his generic photographs. by focusing on architecture as sign, venturi and scott brown’s buildings are coded into a language of signs that reach out for attention from the viewer (“read me!”), putting the generic aside in favor of the symbolic.

also in 1971, reyner banham’s los angeles: the architecture of four ecologies used several of ruscha’s parking lot pictures, but did not mention him in the book except in the illustration credits. the last image in the book, ruscha’s hollywood sign, highlights the other side of ruscha’s work, the symbolic, which takes on new relevance by its juxtaposition with the generic. they are both sides of the same picture. shortly afterwards, banham wrote an essay for one of ruscha’s catalogs (see “under the hollywood sign,” in ruscha’s prints and publications 1962-74 London: Art Council of Great Britain 1975) and effectively connected the language of the generic with the nature of the sign:

The clear, non-verbal instruction that comes with, say, Twenty-six Gasoline Stations is ‘These twenty-six gasoline stations are worth looking at.’

Reyner Banham[2]

for banham, ruscha’s generic images become signs through ruscha’s printing operation: the generic as series is as much as sign as the direct word paintings. it is through repetition that these objects are able to get our attention. 

highlighted in banham’s four ecologies book is a young frank gehry, who was part of the circle of artists that included ruscha, ron davis, and billie bengston. ruscha’s influence in gehry can be seen particularly in the santa monica place garage, which looks much like a ruscha painting in its dependence on text as graphic and its glorification of a generic material (chain link fence) as texture.

finally, writings by rem koolhaas on the generic give us a more ambivalent take on the formless city. see for example “junkspace: modernization’s fall-out” in arquitectura viva sept-oct 2000. among the photographs in the article, koolhaas included an aerial view of a parking lot that recalls ruscha’s images, only the parking lot is filled with cars and the image is cropped so that there is no visible limit: the parking lot now extends forever.

looking at these notes after several years, it seems to me three aspects of ruscha’s work have been often overlooked in their architectural translations. the first one is that of the series or the collection. ruscha is, after all, a collector, who liberates “things from the bondage of utility” if we follow benjamin. this is more closely approximated in rowe and hejduk’s musings over lockhart. the second one is the idea of the generic and the iconic as reciprocal concepts, perhaps best understood by banham. finally, the third aspect is the mobilization of these operations as critique, something koolhaas did in a somewhat incomplete (or at least to me, unsatisfactory) manner. these three operations work best simultaneously.

finally, a note on medium. although ruscha’s books have become sought after works of art, he always emphasized their primary nature as, well, books. he even donated some to the library of congress (they rejected them—ruscha published the rejection on artforum, and hilarity ensued). the idea that art should be disseminated through mass media brings us of course to our contemporary blogging paradigm, where ruscha’s operations and their subsequent misreadings might take on new relevancy.

ps. reyner banham loves los angeles. the 1972 bbc documentary, look out for the interview with ed ruscha towards the end.

pps. tyler green on alexandra schwartz’s “ed ruscha’s los angeles” considers she dwells too much on architectural influences in the 1970s. i haven’t looked at this book, curious to read her take.

ppps. the architect’s newspaper review of same thinks schwartz does not take a critical stance on ruscha’s ambiguity.

[1] Colin Rowe and John Hejduk, “Lockhart, Texas,” In Architectural Record [March 1957]: 205

[2] Reyner Banham, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” in Edward Ruscha. Prints and Publications 1962-74 (London: Art Council of Great Britain 1975)

Filed under: ., banham, gehry, hejduk, koolhaas, rowe, ruscha, scott-brown, venturi,

variations on benjamin

continuing with the benjaminian theme [and with apologies to my fb friends who’ve seen part of this already]:

etica de la liberacion en la edad de la globalizacion y la exclusion [a book by enrique dussel, 1998]

a voyage on the north sea: art in the age of the post-medium condition [a book by rosalind krauss, 2000]

the work of architecture in the age of commodification [an essay by kenneth frampton, 2005]

multitude: war and democracy in the age of empire [a book by michael hardt and antonio negri, 2005], via rku

the bureaucracy of beauty: design in the age of its global reproducibility [a book by arindam dutta, 2007]

the invisible city: design in the age of intelligent maps [an article by kazys varnelis and leah meisterlin, 2008]

entering a risky territory: space in the age of digital navigation [an article by bruno latour, valerie november, and eduardo camacho, 2009]

directions: design in the age of technological change [a graphic design conference at princeton, 2010]

access restricted: intellectual property in the age of digital reproduction [a panel from the lower manhattan cultural council, 2010], via nv

…there are tons of other examples, i just chose the ones with best known names for the added thrill.

Filed under: ., benjamin, lists,

borges & benjamin on maps & labyrinths

I have long, indeed for years, played with the idea of setting out the sphere of life—bios—graphically on a map. First i envisaged an ordinary map, but now I would incline to a general staff’s map of a city center, if such a thing existed. Doubtless it does not, because of ignorance of the theater of future wars. I have evolved a system of signs, and on the gray background of such maps they would make a colorful show if I clearly marked in the houses of my friends and girl friends, the assembly halls of various collectives, from the “debating chambers” of the Youth Movement to the gathering places of the Communist youth, the room and brothel rooms that I knew for one night, the decisive benches in the Tiergarten, the ways to different schools and the graves that I saw filled, the sites of prestigious cafés whose long-forgotten names daily crossed our lips, the tennis courts where empty apartment blocks stand today, and the halls emblazoned with gold and stucco that the terrors of dancing classes made almost the equal of gymnasiums. And even without this map, I still have the encouragement provided by an illustrious precursor, the Frenchman Léon Daudet, exemplary at least in the title of his work, which exactly encompasses the best that I might achieve here: Paris vécu. “Lived Berlin” does not sound so good but is as real.

Walter Benjamin[1]

Of Exactitude in Science

…In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point. Less attentive to the Study of Cartography, succeeding Generations came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome, and, not without Irreverence, they abandoned it to the Rigours of sun and Rain. In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography.

From Travels of Praiseworthy Men (1658) by J. A. Suarez Miranda

Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares [2]

[listen to borges]

Paris has taught me this art of straying; it fulfilled a dream that had shown its first traces in the labyrinths on the blotting pages of my school exercise books. Not is it to be denied that I penetrated to its innermost place, the Minotaur’s chamber, with the only difference being that this mythological monster had three heads: those of the occupants of the small brothel on rue de la Harpe, in which, summoning my last reserves of strength (and not entirely without an Ariadne’s thread), I set my foot.

Walter Benjamin[3]

ps. one of my favorite borges labyrinths, the house of asterion, available here in english and spanish.

pps. view my maps

ppps. another map fan

[1] Benjamin, Walter. “A Berlin Chronicle,” in Reflections : essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings. 1st ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978, p. 5.

[2] En aquel Imperio, el Arte de la Cartografía logró tal Perfección que el Mapa de una sola Provincia ocupaba toda una Ciudad, y el Mapa del Imperio, toda una Provincia. Con el tiempo, estos Mapas Desmesurados no satisficieron y los Colegios de Cartógrafos levantaron un Mapa del Imperio, que tenía el Tamaño del Imperio y coincidía puntualmente con él. Menos Adictas al Estudio de la Cartografía, las Generaciones Siguientes entendieron que ese dilatado Mapa era Inútil y no sin Impiedad lo entregaron a las Inclemencias del Sol y los Inviernos. En los Desiertos del Oeste perduran despedazadas Ruinas del Mapa, habitadas por Animales y por Mendigos; en todo el País no hay otra reliquia de las Disciplinas Geográficas.

Suárez Miranda: Viajes de varones prudentes, libro cuarto, cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658.

First published under the name B. Lynch Davis, Los Anales de Buenos Aires, año 1, no. 3 (Marzo 1946) and later in Borges, Historia Universal de la Infamia (1946). English translation quoted from J. L. Borges, A Universal History of Infamy, Penguin Books, London, 1975.

[3] Benjamin, Walter. “A Berlin Chronicle,” in Reflections : essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings. 1st ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978, p. 9.

Filed under: ., benjamin, borges, labyrinths, maps,

3 unasked questions

after a conference-filled week, i don’t think i have the energy, time, or desire to summarize, but i did accumulate a series of unasked questions in my notes. here are the 3 most critical ones, in lieu of commentary:

to alejandro aravena:

how do you deal with the government? can you explain the slide you skipped over, where all your houses had political propaganda on them? [i won’t say which one] you argue that to compete with the private industry, you have to undercut their prices, isn’t that a dangerous stance to take? tafuri [your former teacher, i believe?] critiqued ernst may’s siedlungen because they were enclosed neighborhoods that did not address the city’s problems, one might argue the same of your interventions: they don’t address the enormous scale of illegal settlements. do you have any thoughts on ways to address this problem at the scale of the city? [yes that’s more than one question]

to peter eisenman [webcast], a question requiring three preliminary statements:

1.      postmodernism cannot be reduced to venturi and scott-brown [hey you were there too], and venturi and scott-brown cannot be reduced to genius loci and zeitgeist. this glaring omission of your own contribution to the postmodernist discourse seems to be a way to hide and resurrect an old argument anew [yes krauss called you a postmodernist. we’re not talking historicism here, but rather the whole time period and all its different manifestations].

2.      where would the denise scott-browns of today write their books, you asked. where would they go? um, the internet? india? south america? china? your examples of the incongruity of a brooks brothers store in an airport [whereas before, all harvard, princeton and yale people would go to the same store] just reminded us of the elitism and old white male club character of architecture. who cares there is a brooks brothers store in an airport?

3.      your argument against the failure of innovation and your own lack of relevance seems to be an admittance of the failure of the autonomy project. if you can only see innovation in terms of autonomy, it is clear that this project is over. your paradoxical nostalgia for the paper and the pencil seems to be a nostalgia for the elitism of the cult of the individual. you said yourself how ‘architects like gehry’ are now pressured into building big—which is actually also a sign of lateness since i’m pretty sure you’re talking about 5 years ago and probably more—.

the question is, are your statements of lateness really a veiled attempt to disown your own progeny of form for form’s sake digitally rendered children through this late nostalgia and tongue-in-cheek awareness of your own irrelevance?

to rafi segal:

your initial focus on wittkower and corbusier seemed off-topic. i would suggest more attention to ernst may and margarete schutte-lihotzky, particularly the latter’s interest in taylorism, and relate that to neufert’s architect’s data.

using chantal mouffe’s statement on political art, i would argue that neufert’s drawings [which you showed as a search for the ‘minimal’] are intensely political in what they do not say: their search for an ideal ‘type’ is after all completely congruent with neufert’s nazi associations [which you also forgot to mention—hello?]. as an example, the whole south and central american continent used neufert’s book for decades, and keeps designing based on measurements drawn from an aryan type [plazola’s enclyclopedia is an alternative]. i also think you should address the fact that all of the drawings for the ideal type are men, except when it comes to cleaning, vacuuming, and dusting, when we see an exclusively female house cleaner.[not a fan of hyper-political correctness, but showing these drawings without some sort of acknowledgment of how outdated/offensive they are participates in their complicity—note: i could not find the exact drawings of the neufert hard-working maid—]. these drawings should remind us that our task as historians and critics is to precisely unmask these claims of neutrality, and i would argue that this unmasking was missing in your presentation, and would be helpful when addressing the auschwitz drawings—which in their seeming neutrality and banality of design, are actually politically charged, not in spite, but because of their claims to neutrality.

ps. for more on architecture and politics see krier and ockman’s debate on oppositions 24 (sept 1981), somewhat echoed later by eisenman and ghirardo on pa (ghirardo nov 1994, reply feb 1995).

Filed under: ., aravena, eisenman, may, mouffe, politics, rant, schutte-lihotzky, tafuri,

60’s introspection

walter pichler [via la periferia domestica], isolates the individual into a world where only media comes in. lygia clark, in contrast, was interested in self-awareness and the organic. her abyss masks blindfold the participant and have bags of air weighed with stones. while clark privileges the senses, pichler isolates the participant in a world of media. so, what is up with 1968 and the obsession with self enclosure and weird sci-fi masks? [the lygia clark link leads you to another 1968 example by stelarc, who is more into prosthetics and interfaces between body and machines].

clark was influenced by the work of french phenomenologist maurice merleau-ponty, widely read in the early 1960s—particularly after he was published in english in 1962—. however, external events might have had a bigger influence. in 1964, the brazilian military staged a coup and took over the government, starting a period of repressive military dictatorship. in 1968, the dictatorship instituted the institutional act 5 (ai-5), further reducing individual freedom and increasing the power of the military. that year, clark left brazil to present her work at the venice biennial and then moved to paris. clark’s most introspective projects, the nostalgia of the body series, were made between 1964 and 1968.

in contrast, pichler [born and educated in vienna] focused his research away from the self and into a world of media and technology. his speculative drawings remind me of the work of john hejduk, particularly in their premeditated narratives. his explorations into sci-fi seem very relevant in today’s world of ipods and ipads [there’s a smile for you in that link btw]. but the similarities to hedjuk make me skeptical to his project as a warning. after all, isn’t pichler enjoying his isolation a bit too much? [in the mid-1970s pichler retreated from public life and lives in isolation, only returning to the city to exhibit and sell].

we might say that clark found refuge from repression in introspection, until she finally decided to flee [in 1968, she writes of her domestication and sounds guilty about her lack of political activism]. perhaps an example of phenomenology’s inability to cope with outside forces. but was pichler really escaping from media, or finding refuge in it? there is a dual fascination and warning in his images, and i cannot help but think that he’s actually enjoying the seduction of media and the isolation it gives him.

Filed under: ., clark, pichler,

one cannot make a distinction between political art and non-political art, because every form of artistic practice either contributes to the reproduction of the given common sense—and in that sense is political—or contributes to the deconstruction or critique of it. every form of art has a political dimension.

Chantal Mouffe, interviewed by Rosalyn Deutsche, Branden W. Joseph, and Thomas Keenan. “Every Form of Art Has a Political Dimension.” Grey Room, no. 2 (Winter 2001): 99-125. 

Filed under: ., mouffe, politics,

60’s tension

in her lecture last week on cedric price’s aviary, hadas steiner mentioned in passing the relation with the work of german-architect-turned-venezuelan-artist gego. comparing both works more closely, i’m interested in the autonomy of the aviary as an object: price described it as a spring, and indeed we sense snapping any member will dissolve the contained tension and everything will collapse. yet the work is designed to be inhabited, by birds, plants, and humans. in contrast, gego’s reticularea depends very much on the room it invades, but we are meant to walk around it, not inside it, not only in terms of its scale, but because we sense it is so delicate that it might quiver at the slightest touch. and what might the museum guards say then?

personally, gego’s work reminds me more of hungarian architect yona friedman’s spatial city drawings.

friedman, by the way, still alive [see here for a recent interview!] was an influence to price: both argued they were more focused on process than on objects. friedman’s spatial city meant to provide a framework for individual participation in building their own environment. in a way, this project has qualities of both price and gego- it is inhabited like the aviary but not autonomous, it depends on its surroundings for support like the reticularea but has a degree of intended rigidity that can stand for objects to populate it, hang on to it, inhabit it.

ps. how could i forget lygia clark’s mandala, 1969:

pps. and literally, “right after”—eva hesse, 1969:

Filed under: ., clark, friedman, gego, hesse, price,

pick your panel on politics

this started as one post that got so huge that i’m just going to split it in two and give you the news report first. the critical part will follow later [i hope, and with luck i’ll be able to report back on how some of these went, but of course this also depends on the pile of neglected reading i need to attend to]

so, pick your talk [some already past, but if you’re patient, there’s the video], and you don’t need to read too deep in between the lines to sense that there is something a bit bothersome in having such a great topic [in which i’m really interested and invested in] suddenly seem a bit too everywhere. for now let’s call this a good thing and hope for the best. also, i’m being very loose with the labels here. anyway, here they are:

earlier this spring, edward soja presented on spatial justice at the gsd in a lecture i missed [but i’m trying to be thorough at least link-wise].

at the gsd, on march 24 shigeru ban’s talk with mohsen mostafavi [available here] highlighted some problematic issues of the architect’s role as activist. ban avoided answering questions on how he manages to finance working on pro bono work such as the humanitarian housing that we all know and love. more on that on the promised later post.

on march 27th the university of kentucky college of design hosted the design + politics symposium, under the guidance of michael speaks, dean and part of the design intelligence postcritical discourse. the symposium had three speakers: two directors of national planning agencies, one from the netherlands and one from the usa [henk ovink and casey jones], and aaron betsky, director of the cincinnati art museum and former director of the nai.

on april 2 and 3 some ideas on the intersection between architecture and politics were sometimes touched upon in the architecture and the state conference at columbia’s gsapp [shameless self-promo: i presented this paper, available someday here]

on april 13th discussions in networked publics will have its panel on politics with stephen graham, deborah natsios, and enrique ramirez. which is to say, this is not exactly a panel on politics but a panel on networked publics regarding politics. i think. intriguing [i figure for whatever audience i have here i don’t need to say when you hear network, kazys varnelis is not far behind, but i’m linking to him just in case].

alejandro aravena of elemental fame [old-ish video presentation in spanish here] will be at the gsd on april 12, and i’ll say i think his architecture is a political act in that it manages various political forces through architectural means, something that is extremely hard to do. we’ll see if i still think the same after the talk.

finally, cambridge talks iv: design politics, will take place on april 16 and 17. cambridge talks is a yearly conference organized by harvard archi-phd students [disclaimer: friends]. the interdisciplinary program includes lecturers in history, politics, anthropology [the excellent ajantha subramanian], political geography, and of course, architectural history. the keynote is daniel bertrand monk and i’m particularly looking forward to the round table discussion, just because seeing michael hays and lawrence vale on the same table sounds like a fun idea.

and, just to cheer a bit for mit, we did have the producing geopolitics htc forum lecture series, last semester. alas, we’re always ahead of the curve [where to brag if not in your own blog? it’s sort of an unfair brag, but there it is]. here’s the bustler link to our last lecture to give you a taste.

looking forward to the events coming up, and to the different focuses on just how politics and architecture mingle and/or what it means to talk about politics from a design point of view.

ps. how could i forget the wasserman forum on contemporary art: parody, politics, and performativity, last march 13 at mit.

Filed under: ., politics,

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