random thoughts on architecture history theory and criticism

thresholds 41: REVOLUTION!

t41 image

i just edited thresholds, the journal of the MIT department of architecture. thresholds 41: REVOLUTION! is available for download here.

What actions are prompted by revolution in the space of the city? Which publics take part in this struggle, and who are the agents that mobilize it? And after a revolution has subsided, how is it remembered, represented and memorialized? thresholds 41: REVOLUTION! turns to the history, design, and cultural production of the public realm as a site of dissensus. Rather than focusing on a specific revolutionary time and place, we have strived to include different periods and regions, organizing contributions in terms of the relations they establish between sites, actors, and contexts. In the essays and designs featured in these pages, political struggle often shifts established roles—agitators create new types of public space, designers become activists and fundraisers, individual figures fade in favor of collectives or groups, and actions are best remembered through misrepresentation. How do we write revolution, who writes it and for whom? And, in turn, how does urban conflict inform writing, design, and cultural production at large? Our authors, designers, and artists open up revolution as subject, as event, and as historiographical problem—a problem complicated by discrete actions, multiple publics, critical practices, and the politics of display and remembrance. [keep reading on issuu]

Filed under: ., cities, cv, jarzombek, kant, koolhaas, le corbusier, memory, participation, politics, ruins

representing the storm

iwan baan’s beautiful images of sandy have been circulating on social media, and illustrate the cover of the new yorker. they remind me of another set of beautiful images by baan, the ones of torre david in venezuela, which won him—and collaborators justin mcquirk and urban-think tank—the golden lion at the last venice biennial. similar to the sandy images, in torre david we are shown the unexpected beauty of a painful, difficult situation. but it is important to remember baan is an artist, not a reporter or a historian. his images render the beauty of the storm but often obscure its consequences, the pain and suffering of people caught up in the midst of a disaster. we see gorgeous flickering lights, distant clouds, the geometries of buildings, the beauty of faces and textures. the scenes are never jarring or painful. they pull us out of the event, and highlight its unexpected beauty—but they do this through an operation of removal.

what i find problematic in baan’s images is that a powerful storm, or an unfinished building taken over by people without the resources to afford a home, are not beautiful situations. they are instances of human beings confronted with the might of circumstances beyond their control—in other words, in terms of representation they belong to the kantian category of the sublime. kant distinguished these categories, defining the beautiful as an affinity between the images captured by our imagination and how they are processed by our understanding, producing a sensation of agreeableness or pleasure. he described this affinity as disrupted in the sublime, in which our understanding cannot process a situation and finds it jarring and uncomfortable. the beautiful satisfies us, the sublime upsets us. if we are picky with the kantian definition, the sublime is unrepresentable, an oxymoron as an aesthetic category: it describes a feeling that cannot be adequately depicted.

baan is a fantastic photographer and all photography is, of course, a representation—and ultimately there is no “right” way to represent disaster. for what it’s worth, the more images the better, as in quantity we might approach, asymptotically, the impossibility of reaching the infinite. in other words the weariness of image overload might be the nearest we can get to representing the sublime. i disagree with aaron betsky’s assessment that the proliferation of images in social media was morbid and turned disaster into spectacle. as absent witnesses, we want to know—we need to know. a region has been damaged, its people are in pain. it is insulting to confuse the painful need for information with voyeurism.

what i want to problematize is our reception of these more polished images. when baan turns from architecture to disaster, what is he representing, and why are we so fascinated by it? we find, perhaps, consolation in a form of representation that returns all that suffering to something easier to process, easier to cope with. we are comforted, in other words, by this shift into the realm of the beautiful.* it is easy to get lost in the beauty of baan’s photography, but we should do well in remembering the storm and torre david are not beautiful situations: they are instances of grave tragedy that these images—unintentionally—tend to distance us from.

if you haven’t done so please consider contributing to the red cross and if you’re in the area, you can volunteer through nyc service or occupy sandy.

ps. i apologize to baan for making him the case study of what is an unresolvable problem. i admire his skill and talent as a photographer and appreciate the attention he has gathered for these situations.

pps. i am also aware the focus on new york has obscured the more severe plights of other areas, not only new jersey and staten island, but also the caribbean.

* edit: see kazys varnelis’ analysis of the use of instagram, i would argue its nostalgic filters veer towards the burkean picturesque.

** edit: alexandra lange reminds me iwan baan also did some of the photography of the projects for moma’s small scale, big change exhibition (i still haven’t forgiven them for misplacing chile in ecuador, see my comment in her post).

** for details on the setup of the new york baan photograph, go here. architizer covers randy scott slavin’s sandy photography here.

Filed under: ., kant,

on 1790

Filed under: ., kant,

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,

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