random thoughts on architecture history theory and criticism

Traduciendo a Rossi, en PLOT 8

mi artículo analiza cómo marina waisman desde summarios y peter eisenman en oppositions usaron el libro de rossi de manera estratégica para sus propias agendas teóricas. lo presenté en octubre pasado en una conferencia en la casa de rossi.


Filed under: ., cv, eisenman, rossi, waisman,

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,

on books, buildings, and new narratives

i recently read neil levine’s “the book and the building: hugo’s theory of architecture and labrouste’s bibliotheque ste-genevieve,” a text i should have read a while ago and that i recommend to anyone interested in the multiple links between books and buildings. levine tells us that hugo actually consulted with labrouste when writing the more architecture-relevant chapters of the hunchback of notre dame, in particular the well-known ceci tuera cela.

as the title suggests, the essay is divided in two parts (moreover, the same two parts as hugo’s dictum). the first one (ceci, the book) is an analysis of hugo’s thoughts on architecture in the context of the ecole des beaux-arts in paris and the predominance of composition as the multiple iterations of layouts within a set of established rules (levine dwells more on hugo than i will). the second one (cela, the building!) is a description of the literary qualities of labrouste’s bibliotheque ste-genevieve (1843-61). the building is considered part of the neo-grec movement, a reaction against the beaux-arts system: opposing the closed vocabulary of classicism championed by the beaux-arts system, labrouste made the function and program of the library ‘readable’ in literal and metaphorical ways (for example, he went printed the names of the authors on the facade according to their placement on the shelves on the other side of those walls). a readable building as reaction to the printing press, the library was labrouste’s response to the crisis victor hugo had announced.

levine takes care to distinguish labrouste’s readable architecture from ledoux’s architecture parlante: this is not architecture that speaks, it does not loudly announce. instead it asks to be read, it draws you in and requires attention—different episodes are carefully linked into a chain that must be reconstructed. it does not operate through a pre-established formal language (classicism), but attempts a more universal approach—or at least a specifically french approach, citing authors and works known to french culture.

because levine’s essay was published in 1982, i can’t help but associating such claims of readability with peter eisenman’s proposal of architecture as text, in “the end of the classical: the end of the beginning, the end of the end” (perspecta 1984), and venturi, izenour, and scott brown’s earlier learning from las vegas (1972). strange bedfellows, for sure, and there is apparently a great distance between them. labrouste’s bibliotheque tautologically writes its own meaning onto itself, and requires careful exploration to exhaust its references. eisenman’s architectural texts fabricate fictions of their own, not so much meant to be read as deciphered by the chosen few. v&sb’s building-billboards playfully opened the door to pre-existing codes, but the inclusion of historicist references soon undermined their claims to modernity. however, there are some shortcuts that bring them closer.

while the semiological wave would take postmodernism into different directions, it is interesting to read the catalog of one of the exhibitions that jump-started it all—arthur drexler’s beaux-arts exhibition at moma in 1975. the catalog includes an essay by levine which precedes the one on the library (both related to his phd dissertation at yale, 1975), and more relevantly, a piece by drexler, which hints at paths not taken in the study of beaux-arts strategies, less as a model of classicist form, and more as a compositional strategy of iterative design (for an insightful analysis of drexler’s thought, see the felicity scott essay cited below). while writers in the catalog levine and david van zanten strive to separate the neo-grec from the ecole des beaux-arts, drexler sees both as a unified whole that dominated 19th century french architecture, and whose insights—he claims—have been lost in the confrontation between complexity as goal (obviously, a reference to venturi, or the grays) and engineering and modernity as extreme abstention (the whites, and the followers of mies, a bit arbitrarily dumped into one group). drexler argues that the beaux-arts model can be used for an alternative path, in which free play and necessity are balanced, hierarchy mediates between inclusion and exclusion, and scenography plays a role between image and diagram. in trying to find a path between grays and whites, drexler reminds us that both groups had more in common than they cared to admit, with different interpretations of architecture as language, as something to be read (both as building and text).

finally, levine’s essay on hugo and labrouste is particularly fascinating because of its complete out-datedness. in a moment when the end of the printed book has become old news before actually happening, the essay brings up a russian doll-like problem-within-a-problem. if the book destroyed architecture, what happens to architecture now that the book is being destroyed? (is it?) if the printing press destroyed architecture, it provided it with a program: with more books being printed, libraries became available to the public. with the book being replaced by its digital counterpart, the architectural program seems to evaporate into hardware and software, disseminate into our individual cocoons of preferred reading devices, only tenuously held together by the precious wifi signals that we depend so much on. perhaps this condition of dispersion has come to define us, and prompts some of the most intriguing architecture research going on, focusing either on similarly expanded territories (scroll down to sheppard and white’s panel): environments, weather, and so on… or on the intimate scale of the object: the iphone as architectural device.

perhaps this is where nicolas negroponte’s piece is useful: it is the narrative that takes precedence, the content over the form, or as mimi zeiger put it more recently, the message over the medium. no more architecture as text. but can we recover a narrative for architecture?

ps. i just googled architecture narrative and found this. go ahead, laugh.


the bibliotheque ste-genevieve in googlemaps—i recommend the street view although some scaffolding is currently obstructing the facade.

arthur drexler, museum of modern art, the architecture of the ecole des beaux-arts (new york, cambridge: museum of modern art, mit press 1977).

anne friedberg, “place, ubiquity, and the thing,” in networked publics.

neil levine, “the book and the building: hugo’s theory of architecture and labrouste’s bibliotheque ste-genevieve,” in robin middleton, the beaux-arts and nineteenth-century french architecture (cambridge: mit press 1982).

nicolas negroponte, “the paper book is dead, long live the narrative” (thanks to namanand henderson for pointing this out!)

felicity scott, “when systems fail” in perspecta 35 (2004).

mimi zeiger, “discontented, or the pursuit of content in a format age,” in mas context information.

Filed under: ., eisenman, scott-brown,

on writing and reading

like many who write (saying you are “a writer” sounds inaccurate and not sure what would make it true…getting paid for it maybe?)  i have a love-hate relationship with writing. i am actually not comparing myself with fellow bloggers, although after a while of reading someone you get to know their posting rhythms, which is nice. without naming names (they know who they are), some tend to have long silences followed by a series of brilliant posts, while others keep a steady flow of musings, often  more than one a day—it all depends of course of the type of blog they keep (some, more research-based, others, more introspective or reactive to current events, etc.). there are also of course the multi-taskers, who keep up with both by double-blogging or combining different feeds, usually a shorter one for comments and a longer one for essays.

so, back to the start again (you see this writing post is all very meta). like many of those who write, except perhaps these great bloggers, but like many very self-conscious writers at least that have written about writing, i have a love-hate relationship with writing. my problem is that my love of writing is at odds with my need to organize and plan things out. but although i can plan researching and reading, i can’t plan writing, which comes usually as a product of the above, but in an ingrateful, distrustful, and sneaky way. i’ll sit there and stare at the screen (i type very fast, which sometimes makes it even more frustrating). and nothing. i can’t plan writing, although it is easier to plan academic writing—at least the part that is research-based, and comes as a result of processing information. but i can’t plan blog writing. i’ll plan to write a post about something and it turns out boring and awful.  but of course, when it’s the least convenient, when i haven’t planned it at all, i’ll get an idea and spend 5 minutes and suddenly there it is, working quite nicely.

so what happens when nothing comes along? then, i read. but as a ph.d. student, reading is my job, and it has now become a completely different verb. reading is reactive, and it must be said, it is aggressive. the text is there as a site to be closely inspected, pulled and pushed apart for clues, dissected in search for the writer’s conscious and unconscious intentions and desires. this is why partly i’m so skeptical of the i-pad frenzy, because reading (i read entirely on pdf now) for me requires writing (reacting). each piece of text that i read as a pdf is bookmarked into its own outline to the side, and embedded with notes. more extensive notes, if required, go along on a separate word file, but the noted, bookmarked, and highlighted pdf becomes the product of the conversation between the writer and me. additional word files keep track of further notes relating the text to other texts, putting authors in conversation with each other or perhaps with themselves at a different date. i become, then, the mediator, the filter and the bridge that connects this web of texts. how should i build my web? in a way, i also approach this as an architectural problem: not only these connections, but the texts themselves.

perhaps because i am also an architect, i’m particularly attentive and interested in the structure of writings, so it’s something i look for when i read. for example, michel foucault is an extraordinarily organized writer: his essays outline very easily, consisting of main topics and secondary subtopics. but intriguingly, he hides this structure, eliminating subtitles and presenting the text as long chapters. in contrast, kant is the master subtitler, with the argument tidily partitioned in a series of very short chapters that echo each other, so that we understand the structure when we happen upon it again. it is a pet peeve of mine that early peter eisenman writings are all gridded (as his architecture!): he cross-references two different topics to come up with different iterations and then stays with the last, more complex one, as his proposal (see, for example, notes on conceptual architecture, where the combination of noah chomsky’s deep and surface structures with synthactic and semantic notions results in four different variants of architecture).  these are of course very formal analysis, which don’t take into account other subtleties of writing. a weakness of mine.

as a result of such architectural reasoning, i constantly turn texts into diagrams or charts. my colleagues tend to either tease me fondly or look at them suspiciously: there is that danger in the diagram, that things become too simple, that rationalism defeats the intricacies of the text. but it brings these questions to the foreground. what structure should i use for my text? how should i write my reading? in the end, the action of diagramming or charting a text is both reading and writing, and the great diagrams or charts (they are not the same thing!) only happen with great texts, and often prompt more writing. and more reading.

ps. lydia millet on reading, via loudpaper’s twitter feed

Filed under: ., eisenman, foucault, kant, reading, writing,

we have always been modern

mmjmodernity equals rupture. we have always been modern.

bl: we have never been modern.

pe: we have never been modern, but now i’ll be modern. or rather, post-functionalist (c.1976).

rk: actually, you are being poststructuralist. or if you like, postmodern.

cg: but modernity is medium specificity!

ta: yes. and the only way to resist reification is to resist those culinary delights. only where the appearance of enjoyment is lacking is the faith in its possibility maintained.

mt: everybody is either reified or at a previous stage of nerve intensification. hence the dialectic of the avant-garde is between the sphere and the labyrinth, and both are stuck in the irrelevancy of the boudoir.

fn: manfredo. i believe you are ripping off my apollonian/dionysian impulses from the birth of tragedy.

mt: what if i am? we should forget about the avant-garde and think about the means of production anyway. and since we can’t, i’m going to go read some renaissance. buh-bye.

kmh: actually, we should think about the avant-garde as the critical, as a way of resistance [not form + not culture]

sw: but there is no reason for the critical to be negative. we should be projective. and the projective can be critical too.

mmj: discontinuous rupture happens throughout history. we have always been modern.

gwh: kids, could you keep it down? trying to sleep here.

Filed under: ., adorno, eisenman, greenberg, hays, imaginary conversations, jarzombek, krauss, latour, nietzsche, tafuri, whiting,

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,

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