random thoughts on architecture history theory and criticism

chronicle of deaths foretold

1831, victor hugo announces that print will kill architecture. labrouste responds by designing a killer library.

1936, walter benjamin announces mechanical reproducibility will kill aura—or the notion of the original, in any case. at the same time, he makes a lot of his readers nostalgic for a lost aura they have just become aware of.

1964, marshall mcluhan announces that medium doesn’t kill but does take over the message. the message, overshadowed, despairs.

1979, the buggles announce that video has killed the radio star. on mtv. in my mind and in my car, we can’t rewind we’ve gone too far.

1980s. peter eisenman announces the end of the classical, the end of the beginning and the end of the end (1984). thousands of architects skip simulacra for perspecta. rem (not that one) thinks it’s the end of the world and we know it (and they feel fine). francis fukuyama announces the end of history (1989). marx and hegel turn over in their graves.

2010, architectural education is killed by the internet video. also, big kills rem but plots with oma and colin rowe comes back from the dead to tell us peter eisenman is still alive.

ps. image: one pencil’s paltry revenge

pps. also 2010, nicolas negroponte announces the book is dead, long live the narrative.


Filed under: ., benjamin, big, death, eisenman, evil, lists,

technology as collective dream

Walter Benjamin, [Iron Construction], Convolute F, The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 1999, 152.

at the start of the 20th century, benjamin writes on the 19th century struggle to understand iron as construction technology. roughly 100 years later, reading him made me think about the mistakes and failures we make in applying contemporary technology. are we trying to force new technologies into older formats? are we disguising old dreams under the mask of utopia? what are our awkward struggles and dead-end roads, and how do they inform our collective dreams?

what lies are we telling ourselves? and what can we learn from them?

Filed under: ., benjamin,

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,

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,

post no bills

pps. to previous post: on writing, some advice from wb. we might as well be as pedantic now with our writing instruments as he was with his pen and paper [hardware—choice of laptop, mouse, and software—specific fonts, programs]. but we now share online.

Benjamin, Walter. “One Way Street,” in Reflections  : essays, aphorisms, autobiographical writings. 1st ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978, pp. 80-81.   

The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses

I. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with himself and, having completed a stint, deny himself nothing that will not prejudice the next.

II. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.

III. In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.

IV. Avoid haphazard writing materials. A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens, inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable. 

V. Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.

VI. Keep your pen aloof from inspiration, which it will then attract with magnetic power. The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.

VII. Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas. Literary honour requires that one break off only at an appointed moment (a mealtime, a meeting) or at the end of the work.

VIII. Fill the lacunae of inspiration by tidily copying out what is already written. Intuition will awaken in the process.

IX. Nulla dies sine linea — but there may well be weeks.

X. Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.

XI. Do not write the conclusion of a work in your familiar study. You would not find the necessary courage there.

XII. Stages of composition: idea—style—writing. The value of the fair copy is that in producing it you confine attention to calligraphy. The idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, writing pays off style.

XIII. The work is the death mask of its conception.

Filed under: ., benjamin, lists, writing,

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,

without at least an intuitive grasp of the life of the detail in the structure, all love of beauty is no more than empty dreaming

walter benjamin, the origin of german tragic drama, trans. john osborne (london: verso 1977), p. 182

Filed under: ., benjamin,

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