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,

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,

from cosmos to earth II: seeing

To classify, therefore, will no longer mean to refer the visible back to itself, while allotting one of its elements the task of representing the others; it will mean, in a movement that makes analysis pivot on its axis, to relate the visible to the invisible, to its deeper cause, as it were, then to rise upwards once more from that hidden architecture towards the more obvious signs displayed on the surfaces of bodies.

Michel Foucault[1]

The principal impulse by which I was directed was the earnest endeavor to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection, and to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces.

Alexander von Humboldt[2]

Humboldt is subject to the vital impulse, he is directed by the same internal forces that animate the phenomena he studies. He can only look at the signs in the surface, can only measure the exteriority of things: He takes notes, measures temperatures, types of plants, populations. He likes charts, he compares numbers. He keeps track of locations, has maps drawn, “from Observations made on the Spot By Alexandre de Humboldt.” Humboldt knows no frontiers: his maps show no boundaries, political divisions are irrelevant, nature is bigger than man’s petty politics (Fig. 2). The names of countries float over rivers like spidery veins and mountain chains like violent scars. His plans are detailed, and aspire to be exact: they include latitudes and longitudes, they show regions, geographical systems: the course of a river, the delicate joining of Panama to South America. Humboldt likes sections: they join the delicate detail of his drawings and the scientific precision of his charts. He makes comparative sections of mountain peaks, lines up the Chimborazo, the Popocatepetl and Mont Blanc, and measures them with a ruler (Fig. 1).[3] His maps pinpoint “cities, villages, farms, settlements abandoned, astronomical observations made by M. de Humboldt.” Hence Humboldt himself in inside his maps, just as he is subject to the vital force of nature, he also wants to be tabulated and mapped along with nature. In the same way we will also find him in his drawings.

Humboldt draws. He sketches mountains, valleys, the ruins of ancient civilizations, volcanoes, waterfalls. He returns to Paris to have them engraved, but retains his authorship: “d’aprés une esquisse de M. de Humboldt.” He publishes his views of the Andes in two volumes, one of engravings and one of explanations. The engravings often show himself, or his teammates, peeking into a crater, admiring a volcano, or in conversation with people from the region. Hence he often draws himself looking at himself while drawing. Sometimes llamas look back (Fig. 5). He is in the text, in the maps, in the images, in the credit lines, part of the nature he is trying to map the surface of.

For dispossessed minds such as these, space seems to constitute a will to devour. Space chases, entraps, and digests them in a huge process of phagocytosis. Then, it ultimately takes their place. The body and mind thereupon become dissociated; the subject crosses the boundary of its own skin and stands outside of his senses. He tries to see himself, from some point in space. He feels that he is turning into space himself –dark space into which things cannot be put. He is similar; not similar to anything in particular, but simply similar. And he dreams up spaces that “spasmodically possess” him.

Roger Caillois[4]

Reclus wants to be alone. He is not present in his text, he disappears in the environment, floating lightly above. If Humboldt is in the foreground, Reclus hides obstinatedly in the background, mixed in with the statistics on populations and growth, stepping forward every now and then, to point out a colleague’s mistake. He wants to think it is against his will, but the pattern betrays him. From the Swiss Alps, his schizophrenic gaze knows no boundaries. He can see everything: the frontier disputes between Perú and Ecuador, the heights of the Andes, the depths of the Pacific, the economic conditions and mineral wealth of countries.

Reclus reproduces (not himself, although he does have children). He reproduces maps, sections, and drawings in his volumes. He selects them personally from other publications and has illustrators copy them. Views are redrawn from photographs, maps traced from topographic surveys. His books are always “illustrated by numerous engravings and maps.” He seamlessly mixes the confluence of rivers, geological formations, rainfall amounts, underwater depths, with populations, political divisions, frontiers in dispute. Photographs are used increasingly as the 20th century approaches, first traced into drawings or paintings, later cropped and inserted carefully into the text, specimens laid out for examination. It is still best to understand through diagrams, objective quantities do not lie, subjective points of view might lead us to distraction. The redrawn images and drawings look once removed, more like the illustrations in a story book or unreliable images in a high school geography textbook: they remain vague, limits too broadly defined, nuances erased, everything is one or the other, the complexity of the cosmos has been filtered and quantified into graphic data that seems to both claim and avoid scientific accuracy.

Thus while Humboldt inserts himself within ‘nature,’ but keeps his distance as the the actor in front of a backdrop, Reclus looks at man as part of nature, but situates both in the realm of the finite and remains himself, an observer.

[1] (Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences 1994, 227)

[2] Author’s Preface (Humboldt, Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe 1860, vii)

[3] See “Lower Limit of Perpetual Snow in different Latitudes,” in (A. d. Humboldt 1818-21)

[4] (Caillois 2003, 100)

Filed under: ., caillois, foucault, humboldt, maps, reclus,

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