random thoughts on architecture history theory and criticism

three old-fashioned dishes prepared with new tools

The following three recipes are meant to introduce you to digital reading. I have ranked them according not to the difficulty of the texts themselves, but to the level of engagement expected of you in their preparation.   The purpose of these instructions is to show how to take advantage of digital reading, by taking an active attitude in the composition of the file. In the end, you should be able to jump to specific parts of the text through a series of organized and annotated links. The recipes will increasingly demand more active participation, until you find yourself unable to distinguish preparation from consumption.

1.       Kant’s Critique of Judgement

Difficulty Level: Easy

guyer’s kant, annotated. note bookmarks in outline form to left.


 1 pdf for Kant’s Critique of Judgment.

1 pdf editing software.

Hardware of your choice, be it laptop, ipad and keyboard combo, or multi-monitor array (great for extra reading space).

When shopping for your Kant, you will generally find three translations: Guyer, Pluhar, or Bernard. I recommend the Bernard, which has been described to me—by much wiser people—as the most accurate. Guyer is regarded by many as the standard academic version, but can feel unreadable, and Pluhar is the easier version, but many subtleties are lost. Kant is, of course, not what you’d call an easy read, but the preparation is very straightforward and a great pre-reading exercise.

Preliminary treatment

Open your file and make sure you have text recognition, which will allow you to underline and find passages. If you need to do an OCR text recognition, be sure to save afterward, as it sometimes takes time and you don’t want to loose any work. I also like to go to the Advanced section and re-paginate everything according to the document’s page numbers, so that I can easily jump from page to page and reference people to the right page in a discussion.

Let’s get into it!

Open the bookmarks tab, and start by finding the Table of Contents. An efficient way to do this is to bookmark bigger sections first (that would be, the big chapters, such as the Critique of the Power of Judgment, the book on the Beautiful, the book on the Sublime, etc.), but i often enjoy getting a sense of the flow right away. Either way, it helps to have the TOC bookmarked first so you can jump back to it quickly if you feel you’ve skipped a chapter or section.

Once you go into the Critique of the Power of Judgment, remember there will be sections, like “First Moment,” and then there will be the famous Kantian paragraphs. Add one bookmark per book, section, or paragraph, regardless if they are on the same page! And very important, be sure to nest smaller sections within larger sections, which you can do by dragging the bookmarks. This means the paragraphs should be contained into their sections, and the sections within their corresponding books (exactly as folders contain files in your computer). What you want to have at the end is a proper outline structure, so you can close your sections for a very general outline, or open everything for a detailed reference of all the chapters.  

If all goes well, in the end not only will you have a completely bookmarked Kant (cheat: you can actually just download the Bernard translation pre-bookmarked), but you will have a good sense of the Kantian rhythm—that is, how he tends to repeat the structure of his arguments. This gives you a great advantage in reading Kant, as you will have a sense of how his logic works. This might seem like a very formal reading of Kant, but remember this pre-reading preparation will let you anticipate the flow of the text.

2.       Michel Foucault, The Order of Things

Difficulty Level: Intermediate


– 1 Foucault, The Order of Things, preferably scanned single-paged. If you are using a Knowledge Imaging Center (KIC) scanner to scan your own texts, you can do this easily by changing the setting so that it separates the pages for you. You want to do this so you can re-paginate the document and are able to jump to the correct page number easily, again, a must for cross-referencing.

– Same as above: PDF software, computer, monitor(s).


By now you know to look for the TOC right away, but Foucault writes in longer sections than Kant. Because of this, for The Order of Things I recommend bookmarking the chapters first. Since you will not be intensely bookmarking every page (as with Kant), this will give you a preliminary structure to build upon. Remember to also bookmark parts I and II, and then go into all the chapters. After you’re done, go into each chapter and bookmark each section directly—you’ll see they all have five to eight sections, except the first one on Las Meninas. By the way, please feel free to veer briefly into graphic mode and diagram the different axis Foucault talks about in the painting—you know you want to. And also bookmark the endnotes, so you can jump to them directly when reading.

I’ve chosen Foucault as an intermediate author because he always uses what my French teacher called ‘Cartesian-style composition’—that is, he writes in a gridded way, with general themes partitioned into smaller sections. Once you are in the middle of it all, it is very easy to get lost on where he was going, since the ‘grid’ can get pretty large. This is when your bookmarked outline can be particularly helpful, as it will become a map to the text, which will let you jump to the appropriate passages.

Since Foucault doesn’t cut the text into such small pieces as Kant, you may want to go into some additional bookmarking, according to your personal preferences. Going into the structure of the sections, in this case, will mean actually starting to consume  the text. This mixed process of preparing and consuming will give you an insight into the thought process of how the text was constructed, something easy to miss when just consuming one paragraph after the other.

3.       Derrida, The Truth in Painting

Difficulty Level: Advanced

derrida, annotated and highlighted [pre-scan].


– 1 scanned copy of Jacques Derrida’s The Truth in Painting, if possible heavily highlighted by your professor/colleague/last owner of book.

– 1 PDF software, computer, monitor, as needed

– 2 aspirins


This is indeed a difficult dish to digest, not so much because of the text organization (which also has its highlights, of which later), but because of the general “are you fucking kidding me?” nature of the first pages.  I’m sorry, dear reader, but I have little patience for Jacques pulling my leg so much. However, he does eventually pull up the curtain and suddenly there it is, an insightful analysis of Kant’s critique, which will make your dinner come full circle. Every meal needs a heavy dish, and if Kant is more akin to the complex layers in good sushi, Jacques here is more like a rich, creamy desert that is sometimes too sweet, but ultimately rewarding.


That said, Derrida does have a chapter structure, so I suggest you start by bookmarking them. Then you must decide—do you accept Derrida’s framed spaces as deliberately haphazard (that is, formal devices inserted into the text randomly) or deliberate (first the text was written, and then the spaces between sections were framed). The answer will make your work easier or harder, but as I’m all for easier, let’s do that, which has interesting consequences. It lifts the curtain and reveals Derrida’s apparent rambling into its own structure—in a way, it disrobes Derrida of his emperor’s clothes. But he’d probably enjoy it.

By now you will have found that if preparation and consumption was an option in Foucault, it’s inevitable with Derrida. In other words, active pdf preparation always involves consumption for this type of material, and you might as well go full into it. Remember you can use the tools to highlight or block out relevant portions of text, so you can start your own Derridian framing (the rectangle tool is ideal). Finally, although there are text tools in the software, I generally skip them—they are not efficient yet, and for extensive notes I’d rather keep a separate text file (this is when dual monitors are ideal). For short notes, it is always better to stick to bookmarking, since you’ll be able to find them easily and appreciate their location within the structure of the text. For the same reason, I do not recommend using the ‘post-it’ note option in the software—while cute, it’s basically useless as the note will get lost in the file.

That concludes our three-course special.  As you become more agile in digital reading, you will want to experiment with the different features the format allows you. You can find specific words or passages with relative ease, and copy/paste references into other files. In other words, the tools of digital reading allow you to move with ease between reading and writing. The bookmarked, underlined, and annotated files you have produced are no longer the primary text, but a collaboration between the author and you. By actively engaging the text, you have stopped being a consumer and become a co-producer.


Filed under: ., derrida, foucault, kant, reading,

constructing monads

Walter Benjamin. On the Concept of History. Gesammelten Schriften I:2. Suhrkamp
Verlag. Frankfurt am Main, 1974.

i was reading this benjamin text and it occurred to me just how architectural he makes out the labor of the historian to be—i know i see architecture in everything, but i love his description of constructing a historical narrative as designing a structure, or more precisely, a very tightly wound monad, with universes within universes [sort of like a christopher nolan movie, but better]. the historian threads her narrative through the monad, using the path of the zero hour, going through a constellation overflowing with tensions, where history is brushed against the grain.

image: gabriel orozco, kytes tree 2005.

Filed under: ., benjamin, writing,

i heart concrete

this recent post by bustler on the housing tower at kripalu center for yoga by peter rose + partners elicited an old familiar reaction—ohhh pretty concrete! recently, discussions on the relocation of the whitney museum from its original building by marcel breuer and negative reactions to the ohio historical center by ireland and associates have kept the topic of concrete animosity in the news [i’m particularly fond of breuer, having helped in the efforts toward conservation of his grosse point library, one of his non-concrete buildings]. but as an architect raised by concrete-loving, unapologetic modernists, i can’t help myself [and why should i?]: i love concrete [coincidentally, recent post here on lovability or lack thereof of brutalist buildings and their preservation chances].

perhaps it’s the fact that i went to several all-concrete architecture schools—starting with my alma mater in gye [sorry the pic is so blurry!]: picture a fallingwater-type composition layered on the side of a tropical hillside but made by a poor man’s tadao ando [i love the building but economic conditions did not allow for a good clean finish]. the architects if i remember correctly were bravo & robalino, both still teachers at ucsg. in any case, animosity against concrete always confuses me. why the hate, when there’s so much to love?

so without further comments, some concrete porn for all kindred souls who also salivate a little at the sight of some good concrete…

poetic: tadao ando at vitra factory in weil am rheim

unexpected: frank lloyd wright’s guggenheim during renovation in 2007

rough: paul rudolph’s government service center in boston

… and soft: rudolph’s government service center stairs

sculptural: column at st. mary’s cathedral, sfo, by pier luigi nervi and others.

infrastructural: underspass in sfo periphery

whimsical: casa del puente, by amancio williams, in mar del plata

floating: carlo scarpa, tomba brion at san vito d’altivole

mythical: carlo scarpa, iuav gate at venice

… and underneath that roof: faites l’archi, pas la guerre!

ps. plug for my pals from heroic: boston concrete

pps. i cannot resist giving you one more:

surreal: sesc fabrica da pompeia by lina bo

Filed under: ., bo bardi, brutalism, scarpa, wright,

on stadiums, politics, and rock

after several weeks of football immersion, i’ve been thinking that stadiums in south america [and in many other places] are sites in which sports, politics, and music often converged. without the funds for multiple scenarios, cities used stadiums for all sorts of public events. stadiums were the site of important political events, as large spaces ideal to congregate or imprison crowds. as large public arenas they were for large rock concerts. this singularity of site and multiplicity of events [perhaps this is too jargon-y a way to think about it?] is perhaps related to how these events were incorporated into popular music. hence many south americans grew up singing songs related to politics.

today, the role of stadiums has shifted and those memories are fading—politicians now operate through media and violence has shifted to more nuanced manipulation. political rallies prefer open spaces without barriers. at the same time, youtube has allowed information to re-emerge and become easily accessible. so while the new generations are growing up without these associations, the previous ones are remembering them. protest songs themselves are too many to list, but these ones in particular pick up on the strange links between football and politics in the continent.

1. estadio victor jara, santiago, chile

read about it listening to matador, by los fabulosos cadillacs

mira hermano en que terminaste por pelear por un mundo mejor

que suenan, son balas me alcanzan

me atrapan resiste, Victor Jara no calla

political event: the murder of victor jara [and many more]

2. estadio monumental, buenos aires, argentina

read about it listening to crimenes perfectos, by andres calamaro

me parece que soy de la quinta que vio el mundial ‘78

me toco crecer viendo a mi alrededor paranoia y dolor

political event: the ‘78 world cup during the argentinian dictatorship

for nicer memories, there is dieguitos y mafaldas by joaquin sabina on the bombonera stadium. however, the club that plays in the bombonera, boca junior, has its training facilities close to a recently discovered underground detention center. here the metaphor of hidden associations is all too literal:

on dissappearance: los dinosaurios by charly garcia [in an mtv special, of all places, but it’s hard to get good sound from his older performances].

3. estadio olimpico universitario, d.f., mexico

political event: the ‘68 olimpics were took place in the context of the tlatelolco massacre, 10 days before, in the plaza de las tres culturas.

the stadium itself is the site where tommie smith and john carlos protested against racism by performing the black power salute during the medal ceremony for the 200m.

no song, but you can listen to estadio azteca, by calamaro, on the estadio azteca which was also an olympic site.

ps. for more on tlatelolco, read Luis Casteneda, “Beyond Tlatelolco: Design, Media, and Politics at Mexico ′68,” in Grey Room Summer 2010, No. 40: 100–126.


Filed under: ., memory, stadiums,

on shrimp farms and mangrove trees

this post [soccer city in infrastructural context], by mammoth reminded me of the multiple environmental crisis that surround the barcelona stadium in gye [not that the stadium is related to them]. anyway, much more interesting than the estuary being filled up with garbage to create new territory by enterprising slum builders [as much as that’s actually pretty interesting, and i may post about it sometime] are the shrimp farms that are eating away at the fantastic mangrove trees that line the estuary [similar to new orleans, in gye we’re destroying the natural protection against floods and other natural disasters]. anyway, the image is scary and beautiful at the same time. you can find it here [pan north for the city, to the sides for more shrimp farms].

Filed under: ., evil,

on translation

While content and language form a certain unity in the original, like a fruit and its skin, the language of the translation envelops its content like a royal robe with ample folds. For it signifies a more exalted language than its own and thus remains unsuited to its content, overpowering and alien.[1]

for the past few days i’ve been doing research at the cca, as part of a month’s long grant. already living in montreal becomes an constant bilingual challenge, but working at the cca brings the task of translation to another level. with italian, brazilian, spanish, mexican, and french (and one ecuadorian!) scholars doing research in the same place, our conversations constantly switch from language to language. politeness often makes us change language with the arrival of a new colleague—often at the expense of the flow of conversation. it is, of course, extremely fun and stimulating, but it foregrounds the bumps and wrinkles that translation involves, not only between languages, but also between disciplines and even research schools.

por eso me puse a pensar en un post sobre la traducción, porque hasta cierto punto es algo en lo que tengo que pensar constantemente, porque mi idioma materno es el español, pero ahora vivo en estados unidos y debo hablar y pensar en inglés constantemente. resulta extraño también por eso estar ahora en montreal, porque de repente la gente asume que mi idioma natal es el inglés, y no es así!

before coming to the states to do a phd, i was teaching architecture courses in ecuador. because the institution where i was working had a relatively small library, i was forced to translate many of the texts that i wanted my students to read. so translating became a part of my teaching routine, and actually a very helpful exercise in order to review the texts. at the same time, i started footnoting my translations—at first for the sake of accuracy, but soon in a conversation of sorts with my students, leaving hints and comments of possible relations to other texts we had read. i’ve also had to fill in as impromptu translator at public events (after a couple of hours of translating, i would start translating backwards, talking to spanish-speakers in english and viceversa). previous to that, my first trip to europe provided an unexpected shock: for the first time, i did not speak the language of the place! this, plus the suspicion that eventually i would do a phd (which i’m doing now), made me start learning additional languages—and further thinking about translation.

por supuesto, lo mas entretenido de la traducción es lo que no se puede traducir—por ejemplo, resulta un ejercicio muy interesante tratar de traducir el tono pretencioso de un autor, o la elegancia de otro. cuando traduzco del inglés al español, la cosa es distinta, y trato (como lo aconsejaba benjamin) de traducir palabras mas que oraciones, es decir, de no sacrificar el ritmo del español por lograr una traducción más fluída. pero famosos errores de traducción han llevado a continentes enteros a errores de interpretación notables.

architecture-related texts have had unexpected twists involving translation. there is for example the famous mistranslation of tafuri, turning a convoluted writer into nearly unintelligible. more interesting than the mistranslation to me is the framing that was done of both tafuri and rossi in the us academia of the late 70s and early 80s (read eisenman), which turned rossi into an unwilling poster child for autonomy, and tafuri into a defender of negative criticality a la adorno, something he (dark and gloomy as he might have been) never strongly advocated (refering to negation only as the lesser of evils, and in his earlier days even arguing instead for an architecture based on the study of production relations via benjamin). on the other hand, the prescient early translation of modern architecture: a critical history by kenneth frampton, published almost simultaneously in english and spanish, made the book popular in many spanish-speaking architecture schools, probably with the extra push given by the fact that the critical regionalism argument seemed to validate projects more focused on identity and materials and less dependent on big budgets.

adicionalmente, el famoso error, admitido en la traducción al inglés, del fatto urbano de rossi como “urban artifact” ciertamente no facilitó la comprensión del concepto, mucho más fácil de entender como ”hecho urbano” en español.

finalmente, many of these authors were translated in a more liberal way by marina waisman, argentinian architecture historian extraordinaire, a quien he estado leyendo ultimamente. sadly, in her later book, “el interior de la historia,” waisman seems to basically synthetize (eso si, con mucha habilidad) the arguments of several well-known theoriticians, and the actual new content of the book might have been reduced to a dense essay rather than a prolongued reiteration of ideas. pero, dado el pobre estado de la historiografia sudamericana, waisman’s constant argument synopsis was probably justified: most of the texts she mentioned were probably not available to her readers, y al reiterar los argumentos de tafuri, barthes, foucault, frampton, rowe, et al, waisman was able to juggle the translation of their arguments to the south american context, which she did do with great skill.

ps. la imagen, una ironía de la vida… keine liebe für walter!

pps. i should say i’m re-reading waisman, since she was my introduction to architectural historiography on my first year of university back in ecuador! it’s weird to realize how much she (and the professor that assigned her, fantastic jose guerra at ucsg)  influenced my views.

[1] Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”, in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, London, Fontana, 1992 pp. 70-82.

Filed under: .,

a list of cemeteries

while i’ve implied before that architects are particularly bad at designing their own graves, the design project of housing the dead has long been an opportunity for introspection and reflection, from highlighting the significance of an individual, to meditating on the urban qualities of the city of the death. perhaps because the dead are less vocal users, and their visitors tend to filter out, ultimately the architecture of cemeteries has allowed freedom and personal introspection to a few architects. so why is this typology largely absent form school projects? rather than designing yet another digital library/multimedia museum, why not design a cemetery? i have seen studios on designing your own tomb, but the cemetery is perhaps too un-pc: it is, rationally speaking, a waste of space, in an era where landscape is a precious commodity (at least in most places). however, as the architects below prove, cemeteries can take on many different roles, from providing much needed green space to reflecting on the nature of architecture itself. and as boullee, woods, and hejduk prove, you don’t even need to build them (of course now we have virtual cemeteries, but let’s try to stay on topic). ultimately cemeteries show more about the designer than about the dead they house, and that is perhaps part of their allure—they can be (and often are) narcissistic exercises. but they are also an opportunity for design emptied out, for design as poetry. after all, what is more poetic than death?

so in no particular order, and including everything from the single unit/tomb to the density of urban housing (i have omitted monuments to the dead, which constitute a different category):

newton cenotaph, etienne-louis boullee

cemetery for chaux, claude-nicolas ledoux

cimitero san cataldo, aldo rossi

tomba brion, carlo scarpa

cementerio de la igualada, enric miralles

einstein tomb, lebbeus woods

cemetery for the ashes of thought, john hejduk

necropolis / cemetery for the deaths of architecture, john hejduk

ps. i’m sure i’m missing some, let me know! i’m aware i’ve stayed with big names and omitted famous cemeteries such as pere lachaise.

pps. krematorium treptow, alex schultes and charlotte frank

Filed under: ., death, lists,

i am not a “southamericanist,” i am an architectural historian.

ok, i am from ecuador, which is a country in south america (not in africa—that would be equatorial guinea—not being ironic about geographic ignorance, just gotten the question way too often). but, i am also an architectural historian, and i claim my right to write about whatever the hell i want.

1. when you meet me, if upon learning i am from ecuador, you ask, “oh and what area of ecuador will you be studying in your research?” i will probably smile politely and cross you out mentally. sorry, just the way i work.

2. nobody thinks to ask someone from say, the united states, why they have decided to work on france, or someone from canada why they choose to look at italy or whatever.

3. but, if for some reason i decide to look at an italian architect, i must put up with several questions. am i perhaps of italian descent? (no: actually, i’m half chinese). perhaps i’m being disloyal to my roots! (i’m not: can’t i just find something interesting that happens to be elsewhere?) i am clearly dismissing my own culture, which is in sore need of more study (yes it is, and i do intend to look at it, but don’t i have a right to look at other things also? why the need to categorize me?)

[additionally, did it ever occur to you to think that italian theorists were promptly translated to spanish, and read at a different moment and in a different context, so interpreted in very different ways? don’t you find this generally interesting? i do. i know this does not further my argument, but i had to mention it.]

this ‘regionalist’ line of reasoning often claims to be sympathetic to the rights of the third world (i’m tired of ironic quotations so i’ll skip them), but often rubs me as yet another type of close-mindedness. that is, i am not allowed to question your architects, but should limit myself to study my own. there’s quite a lot of proprietary thinking here—sort of like “get out of my turf,” but with some additional unpleasantness (you fill in the blanks).

furthermore, the whole concept of regional studies makes no sense at all, at least in the very specific way it is sometimes framed. i am all for interdisciplinarity, but i don’t think being from south america automatically qualifies me to write about anything south american—from literature to chickens and whatnot. i do think by being trained in a discipline, i am given the tools to research and write about that discipline, here, there, everywhere. besides, it’s much more fun—and ultimately accurate—to look for connections instead of thinking in terms of boundaries. we already have too many of those. i am also very interested in the question of reverse influences, of rubbing subjects against the grain as it were, and that seems to confuse some people.

finally, by separating regional studies the so called ‘regions’ ultimately end up as separate entities, effectively excluded from the mainstream discourse. if, as a south american, i have a project, it is precisely to include the architecture of south america into the global discourse of architecture, but this cannot be done by excluding ourselves, but rather by claiming a relevance for the region. so perhaps i am a regionalist, but in the sense that i am globalist, and there are sometimes pieces missing from the global picture that need to be stitched back in, not studied separately as rarified objects.

so if you ever meet me, please don’t ask me what ecuadorian architect i’ll be writing my dissertation proposal on. if this keeps going, i may end up writing about architecture in the north pole (inuits had really interesting houses! tempting).

ps. this post influenced somewhat by my advisor, mmj, who has managed to practice history globally, although i take responsibility for all the rant-y unpleasant bits.

Filed under: ., rant,

selected sentences on 19th c. “science” and “art”

On Outer Space

Let me protest first against the expression ‘world war.’ I am sure that no heavenly body, however near, will involve itself in the affair in which we are embroiled. Everything leads me to believe that deep peace still reigns in interstellar space. (Paul Scheerbart, quoted by Benjamin 386)[1]

When I say “of human knowledge” I do not use the phrase with the intention of insulting the inhabitants of other celestial bodies, whom I have not had the pleasure of knowing, but only for the reason that animals also have knowledge, though it is in no way sovereign.  (Engels)[2]

On Toads ,Serpents & Bees

Serpents, however, always have complete command of their feelings. (Ruskin)[3]

But there is easy beauty, like the peacock’s, and difficult beauty, like the snake’s; and Natural History is a discipline in esthetic emotion. (Geddes)[4]

To the question: Why do toads have no tails?—up to now it has only been able to answer: because they have lost them. (Engels)[5]

It is the duty of every biologist to expose the seamy side of the beehive to which we are so often referred. (Geddes)[6]

On the End of the 19th Century

Now the nineteenth century is empty. It lies there like a large, dead, cold seashell. I pick it up and hold it up to my ear. What do I hear? (Benjamin)[7]

We shall therefore no longer say: This child is developing finely, but: It is composing itself magnificently. (Engels)[8]

[some people give going away gifts, i make lists of quotes. this is recycled from my end-of-semester list for ad’s 19th c. seminar last fall—kudos to him for the crazy reading list]

[1] Benjamin, Walter. Selected writings. Cambridge Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 386.  

[2] Friedrich Engels, Part I – Philosophy: Morality and Law: Eternal Truths, Herr Eugen Dűhring’s Revolution in Science (Anti- Dűhring) (New York: International Publishers, 1939), p. 100.  

[3] John Ruskin, The Eagle’s Nest: Ten Lectures on the Relation of Science to Art (New York: John Wiley and Son, 1873), p. 93. 

[4] Patrick Geddes, Chapter XII, “Biology in its Wider Aspects,” Life: Outlines of General Biology, Vol. II(New York: Harper and Brothers, 1931), p. 1195.  

[5] Friedrich Engels, “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man,” in Dialectics of Nature (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1934), p. 69. 

[6] Patrick Geddes, p. 1251.

[7] Benjamin, Walter, Marcus Paul Bullock, and Michael William Jennings. Walter Benjamin – Selected Writings, 1938-1940: S. Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 692 

 [8] Engels, “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man,” p. 88.

Filed under: ., benjamin, lists,

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