random thoughts on architecture history theory and criticism

Lina in Bahia, Bahia in Ibirapuera


It’s SAH time! Looking forward so much to the annual archinerd reunion, particularly since this time it’s in California. I’ll be presenting some new material about Lina Bo Bardi and Martim Gonçalves’ exhibition “Bahia no Ibirapuera” in the session That Which Does Not Last: Ephemeral Architecture After Modernism. There are a few papers on Bo Bardi in this SAH iteration, but only mine will break your heart.


Filed under: bo bardi, brazil, cv, italy, participation, politics

architecture and the paradox of dissidence

the proceedings publication for ahra 2012 is out, edited by ines weizman. i am very happy to have been part of the conference with my paper “designing dissent” and to now be part of the publication available here. here’s a short description:

Architecture and the Paradox of Dissidence maps out and expands upon the methodologies of architectural action and reinvigorates the concept of dissent within the architectural field. It expands the notion of dissidence to other similar practices and strategies of resistance, in a variety of historical and geographical contexts.The book also discusses how the gestures and techniques of past struggles, as well as ‘dilemmas’ of working in politically suppressive regimes, can help to inform those of today.

This collection of essays from expert scholars demonstrates the multiple responses to this subject, the potential and dangers of dissidence, and thus constructs a robust lexicon of concepts that will point to possible ways forward for politically and theoretically committed architects and practitioners.

Filed under: cv, politics, revolution, vilanova artigas

the (new) book of questions by @____thenomad

aml tnboq

Filed under: evil, politics, revolution, utopia

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

designing dissent

i’ll be presenting “designing dissent: vilanova artigas and the são paulo school of architecture” at the upcoming ahra conference at the london metropolitan university, titled architecture and the paradox of dissidence, organized by ines weizman. you can find more details in their website, including the complete program with abstracts (nov 15-17). here’s mine:

Between the 1964 military coup and its institutionalization in 1968, Brazil went through a complicated period of increasing violence and repression, which also coincided with the construction of the São Paulo School of Architecture, designed by Jõao Batista Vilanova Artigas along with a new curriculum. In a series of printed and public forums, Vilanova Artigas argued for the possibilities of architectural agency. He was opposed by younger faculty group Arquitetura Nova, who viewed him as a a passive collaborator of the regime and questioned the possibilities of resistance within the boundaries of the discipline. The debate still holds weight today: can architects play a role in political change, or must they leave their disciplinary boundaries to do so? Vilanova Artigas defended the right of architecture to think critical utopias. I argue that he attempted to construct such a utopia in the school, by establishing dissidence through pedagogy, and resistance through design.

Filed under: ., cv, participation, pedagogy, politics, vilanova artigas,

shelter as symbol

architecture—and the expanded, overlapping disciplines of urban planning, art, and other types of cultural production—has played a prominent role in the development of the occupy movement. from tahrir square—a protest known primarily for the name of its site, an urban square—to the acampadas—encampments, meaning the act of camping out, of settling a shelter on the outdoors—the occupations of 2011 have been very much based on the appropriation of space as the vehicle for protest.

because the basic need for shelter has prompted some of the occupations in the us—houses foreclosed, houses without people and people without homes—settling usually private activities in the public realm takes on a special poignancy. by displaying the private act of dwelling on the public realm, protestors have made visible the disparities and inequalities of the system. the problems generated by dealing with homeless people trying to find a refuge at occupy camps only highlight these disparities.

however, it is important to distinguish this type of conflictive appropriation from more phenomenological discourses of clearing space and making place. in the excitement of the protests, some critics have seen occupy as an argument for more heideggerian strategies, without understanding that the tactics of the movement have been, from the start, discursive, argumentative, and political—and therefore incompatible with such objectives. that is, physical occupation has been one of many tactics of occupying different types of space (including the space of the media, and digital space) and the movement should not be reduced to the purely physical act of bodies on the commons. in other words, the occupation has included both the physical realm of the commons (as theorized by hannah arendt) and the public realm of media (as theorized by jürgen habermas).

perhaps because of this, within these protests, the tent—a very fragile, small shelter—has gone beyond its utilitarian role to become the symbol of the movement. for now i’ll end with some examples of tent tactics:

the beautiful floating tents of occupy cal at uc berkeley, on 18 november 2011

ows marched to duarte plaza using lit tents as their banners on 20 november 2011

protesters were asked to pitch a tent in their own lawns as symbolic protest by occupy la around 30 nov 2011:

the wonderful dancing tents of melbourne confused the hell out of police on 3 dec 2011.

the night after occupy boston got evicted, the general assembly was held at the boston common. the crowd had mixed feelings until someone brought out a tent—this tent was not evicted! it was all a bit ridiculous and sentimental, but also very direct. yes, they didn’t take it all. yes, we will still occupy. 

occupy boston makes a miniature tent city in front of the fed on 24 december 2011—they got evicted!

finally, the movement to occupy symbolically by pitching a tent in your own private space has been reinforced with these diy tiny tents. i like this one occupying an atm:

as the movement hunkers down to strategize over the winter, there is some time to reflect on what has happened and what comes next. i’d like to say that what comes next has to do with going from symbol to action—architecture as protest, is it possible? can architecture ever truly be revolutionary? some say no. yet at the same time, following chantal mouffe, architecture always inevitably has a political dimension—it is for us to decide which one.

Filed under: ., cities, politics,

linear documentation

two recent twitter posts made me realize the strange similarities between the documentation of the sunset strip by ed ruscha and the documentation of the berlin wall in east germany. see rob walker’s post on ruscha as proto-google street view on design observer, here (link via @loudpaper) and this link to a video on the photographing of the berlin wall by east germany troops (link in german, via @maximolly), both in 1966.

the similarities in style and format—plus the coincidence in time—make a stark contrast to the differences in content. both sets document a linear void, the sunset strip and the void between the two walls—my german is almost gone, but from the images i can make out that the exhibition pairs images that seem to be looking at both sides from within the void. a sunday morning in california and any day within the void of the wall—the streets similarly empty of cars and people.

ruscha had been researching deadpan, documentation-style photography for a few years by then, and his images looked for that aesthetic. in contrast, the east germany documentation comes out as unexpectedly beautiful, both chilling in what its representing and engaging in its careful look at buildings, streets, and graves (a quick image in the video compares them to the becher’s photographs). the wall is a constant, but the images jump—they are moments along the line. in ruscha the only constant is the invisible presence of the pick-up truck and the formal construction of the images as continuous.

as walker observes, google street view is now intent on representing every building on the planet—but i like to think one morning in los angeles and berlin, a california artist and a german soldier were both thinking of the linear void in their respective cities. did one think of the other? did the soldier think about the unexpected beauty of his images? did ruscha think about the split, the mirror line that would be implied in his reverse display of the photographs? did los angeles think about the division happening in berlin?

i once visited a friend’s friend in east berlin. she grew up listening to american music, dreaming of the other side of the wall. it was bad music—she played some for us—but it had a completely different meaning for  her. she had built this whole image (distorted, she now knew) of the united states based on those tunes. should we start documenting sections of streets, across the void instead of along it? i mean this in several ways. or has google pre-empted further attempts at street documentation—made us lazy? what both photographs from the 60s tell us is that even documentary photography, trying to be anonymous and deadpan, shows a particular intent.

i’d like to see both works exhibited in the same place.

ps. previously on ruscha.

pps. also relevant, chantal mouffe. according to mouffe, a work of art either “contributes to the reproduction of the given common sense” or “contributes to the deconstruction or critique of it.” mouffe’s point is that either way, all works of art are political, but but how do these works come out if we use mouffe’s choices? this is perhaps their greatest similarity, that in their insistence on being neutral, they stand nearer the first, rather than the second option—by avoiding critique, they become complicit with the situation that created the landscape they document. of course i do not expect critique from a soldier asked to record the surroundings of the berlin wall, but ruscha’s case is more complicated. is his silence a critique in itself? the empty street, the formal construction of linearity, all become part of the artistic apparatus that ruscha both erects and hides in plain sight. i once read he’s still photographing the strip, even now. i’d like to think he is, and that one day in the distant future he will reveal his final work—the ultimate documentation, across time and space, of the strip throughout his life. this act of stubborn work could be the critical stance that the book sometimes seems to lack.

Filed under: ., politics, ruscha,

occupying outdated utopias

My other point, to conclude, was not that we should do finger pointing about the social consequences, for we can lament for-ever the ever monstrous realities of capital, but that we can still manage to have a utopian-driven ambition for society in which architecture plays a leading role.

mark jarzombek, an anti-pragmatic manifesto

ethel barahona’s report for domus, waffle urbanism, makes a great read along with pedro’s post here at la periferia domestica. both ethel and pedro deal with “las setas,” jürgen mayer’s project in sevilla, occupied by the spanish events started at puerta del sol in madrid and also known as the spanish revolution (a link in english here). the ideas on these posts generated a great conversation in twitter that has been storified here (in spanish). you can find updates on acampada sevilla here.

the occupation of mayer’s indulgent mushrooms, a government project, becomes a powerful form of protest. ethel asks, do we believe in utopias? yes—but we also believe some of them are never meant to be built. in architecture, we tend to conflate formal and political utopias as a single group, when they are often at odds with each other. the megastructures of the japanese metabolists, as beautiful as they were, could only have been built by a powerful, centralized authority. we can appreciate their formal beauty, but we must understand the danger such centralized power represents.

the old debates on radical change vs. incremental intervention (robert moses vs jane jacobs) sometimes tend to conflate change with revolution and contextualism with conservation. it is useful to remember that one of the most important fights for the city took place in the context of the works of one such radical modern intervention. the 1871 paris commune was the first revolution to take place after haussmann’s strategical incisions (not only broadening streets and cutting through the city fabric, but also communicating the barracks with the place de la bastille, for example). the defeat of the communards has been linked to subsequent theorizations for dispersion—in utopias from morris to ginsburg, the deliberate suppression of the dichotomy between city and countryside still resonates with engels’ condemnation of the city as the place of capital.

while modern utopias were easily appropriated by authoritarian governments—the vision of brasilia easily taken over by brazil’s military dictatorship, for example—the vision of dispersal dreamt by architects on both sides of the political spectrum (both ginsburg’s disurbanization and wright’s broadacre) turned into suburbia: not only a space dominated by capital, but also one were conflict and difference are suppressed more easily than in the barricades. rather than resurrect debates on city vs countryside, density vs sprawl, or more recently, new urbanism vs landscape urbanism, i want to take a step sideways. i want to make a case for the friction of difference: a case for spaces were disagreement can happen (following rosalind deutsche, or jacques ranciere’s dissensus), and discussion can take place. a space for acampadas—from the occupation of british universities to tahir square.

i still agree with jarzombek—utopia can still excite! but let’s be critical of what we propose, and go beyond easily appropriated, sexy formal moves. utopia can still excite, but it must be operative, programmatic, and participative. in other words, it can return agency to the discipline by returning agency to the people, instead of being simply complicit with power.

ps. in a certain way—and also following jarzombek—i’m arguing for that most modern of spaces, the 14th century piazza that responded to the formation of the public, clearing an open space from the convoluted medieval streets of siena.

Filed under: ., jarzombek, politics, revolution,

on dispersion: communists and capitalists

He would be a rash prophet who should assert that the expansive character of American life has now entirely ceased. movement has been its dominant fact, and, unless this training has no effect upon a people, the American energy will continually demand a wider field for its exercise. But never again will such gifts of free land offer themselves. For a moment, at the frontier, the bonds of custom are broken and unrestraint is triumphant. There is no tabula rasa.

Frederick Jackson Turner[1]

At the start of the 20th century, and particularly in the period between the world wars, architects and planners looked away from the density of the city fabric towards an alternative of dispersion. The following post briefly compares several such examples, visions of dispersion used as arguments from opposite political ideologies. 

Dolores Hayden[2] tells the story of the expansion of suburbia as a private venture that encouraged individual enterprise, although it often resulted in ill-advised investment and frustration. The 19th century pattern books and plan books eventually evolved into the Sears catalogs in the first decades of the 20h century (1908-1914). This ‘kit-of-parts’ approach often deceived buyers as to the final price of the investment by offering a bare-bones product that required buying a lot of extras for a completed project, but its flexibility and ability to rapidly populate the land with houses-in-progress would be the aspiration of later utopias. However, these developments depended on infrastructure that would take a long time to arrive, and commuting distances and the lack of basic services made life difficult. The lots were laid out without provisions for public space, and the need for better planning eventually resulted in the creation of zoning ordinances during the 1920s. Later, in the 1930s, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) would create manuals to advice architects on how to design subdivisions with larger lots and more green space, although this made the end result less affordable.

Parallel to these private visions of dispersion, Francesco Dal Co[3] tells us of the intervention of the state in the construction of workers’ villages during World War I. The policy was seen as an efficient strategy given limited economic means, but it was followed by accusations of socialism after the war. While Hayden gives an example of private dispersion as an example of entrepreneurship, Dal Co shows how town building in the 1920s was taken up by the state through the Regional Planning Association of America (RPAA). According to Dal Co, the RPAA’s ideology was influenced by Geddes and the European descentralist tradition including Kropotkin and Howard, resulting in a synthesis that was both pragmatic and idealistic, dedicated to civic reform, and connected to values identified with the United States such as individuality and democracy. 

…at the time there still seemed to be no alternative to the Western idea of a city conceived as a center of habitation and production; subsequently this very conception was to be questioned and the view expressed that “the city” was an archaic and obsolete model inseparably linked with the capitalist philosophy of production.

Anatole Kopp[6]

These descentralized visions of democracy resemble the socialist disurbanist vision of M. Okhitovich, presented in Moscow in 1930. The disurbanist city was to be based on a grid of power stations scattered throughout the territory of the Soviet Union. The grid would allow an equal distribution of factories in order to establish industrial centers and allow the population to spread evenly, eliminating the difference between city and countryside. The disurbanists distanced themselves from the ‘urbanist’ group by arguing against communal houses and proposing instead lightweight prefabricated houses, easily assembled and dismantled, to adapt to different living conditions (bachelorhood, marriage, family, divorce). Communal social activities and separation of the children were reminders of the collective nature of the socialist state. These ideas were applied in Ginzburg and Barshch’s Green City, a proposal for the dispersion of Moscow first published in SA in 1930,which included drawings for these prefabricated units. Aesthetics aside, these units can be compared to the sears catalog houses as similar examples of a typology of small prefabricated units intended to be deployed on a low density landscape.

…what is more important here is that the general socialization of land permits the opening of a completely new debate on the instruments of planning

Manfredo Tafuri[4]

In his analysis of the development of Soviet urban planning from 1917-1928, Tafuri concludes that soviet proposals fit one of two equally useless paradigms: either a more or less romantic empiricism or the artificial universe of the avant-garde. Sakulin’s dispersion strategy for Moscow, for example, is read as a formalist exercise that is more dependent on the availability of land and the anxiety to socialize the territory, than on real analysis of the industrialization program or the overall economic strategy (Tafuri 156). The land as an ‘unprecedented theoretical field for experimentation’ was a characteristic shared with proposals from the United States. For example, Ivan Leonidov’s proposal for the new city of Magnitogorsk[7] bears a resemblance to Wright’s Broadacre City.

To reiterate: the basis of the whole is general decentralization as an applied principle and architectural reintegration of all units into one fabric; free use of the ground held only by use and improvements; public utilities and government itself owned by the people of Broadacre City; privacy of one’s own ground for all and a fair means of subsistence for all by way of their own work on their own ground or in their own laboratory or in common offices serving he life of the whole.

Frank Lloyd Wright[5]

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City of 1932, is described as a continuous but porous or dispersed ‘city’ in which the grid provides a constant background of infrastructure and communication while the plots highlight variety and individuality. The dispersed quality of the proposal makes it rely on technological innovations for communication and production. By eliminating the city, Wright hopes to eliminate government to a minimum. The architect is designated as the agent of the state, chosen by each county and resulting in a purported individuality that is nevertheless subject to the invisible rule of Wright’s organic architecture. Architecture is elevated but at the same time fragmented and de-scaled (everything is described as ‘little,’ see Wright 247). In supporting a maximum of independence and individuality, themes such as economics and class differences are ignored or assumed as resolved.

Kopp’s conclusions on the utopian character of these disurbanist proposals and the damage they inflicted to the cause of city planning align with Tafuri’s disapproval of their formalist nature. However, both should be contrasted with the rural dispersion going on a few years prior in the United States, which offered a formally similar solution of small lightweight and transformable houses while arguing individual entrepreneurship instead of collective efficiency.  Both Turner, talking about the USA, and Tafuri on the USSR, seem to come to the conclusion that the impulse to cover their respective vast territories might have been more important than any ideological justification. Perhaps in the end it is the common element of the land as experimental field that unites both ‘communists’ and ‘capitalists’ in their need to expand and occupy the landscape.

[1] Turner, Frederick. “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” in The frontier in American history. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1962, p. 38.  

[2] Hayden, Dolores. “Mail-Order and Self-Built Suburbs,” in Building suburbia: green fields and urban growth, 1820-2000. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003, pp. 97-127.  

[3] Dal Co, Francesco, “From the First World War to the New Deal: The Regional Planning Association of America,” in Ciucci, Giorgio, et al. The American city: from the Civil War to the New Deal. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press,  c1979, pp. 221-260.

[4] Tafuri, Manfredo. “Toward the ‘Socialist City’: U.S.S.R., 1917-28,” in The sphere and the labyrinth : avant-gardes and architecture from Piranesi to the 1970s. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 1987, pp. 151.

[5] Frank Lloyd Wright, “Broadacre City: A New Community Plan,” Architectural Record 1977 (April 1935): 254.

[6] Kopp, Anatole. “Town and Revolution,” in Town and revolution Soviet architecture and city planning, 1917-1935. New York: G. Braziller, 1970, p. 165.

[7] Also see Ginzburg, Moiseĭ I͡Akovlevich. Style and Epoch. Cambridge, Mass: Published for the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies by MIT Press, 1982.  

Filed under: ., cities, politics, tafuri, wright,

ecuadorian walls

recently i keep seeing posts about walls a lot. petit cabanon posts about nuno coelho and adam kershaw’s exhibition, including this comparison between the berlin wall with the wall between israel and palestine. lebbeus woods proposed walls as infrastructure for havana, cuba, also with an intro on the berlin wall [and excessive fascination with the aesthetics of informality, imo]. and in the news, the recent arizona law brings up the issue of of the border wall between mexico and the us [click here for some borderwall as architecture].

these very famous walls remind me of some of the walls that have been built in the last ten years in ecuador, where i’m from. i’d like to show you some of them.

this is the wall between an existing town called buijo historico and a new-ish gated community. the wall is 8 meters high [more than 26’], which seems to be about the height of the wall between palestine and israel.

the idea of course is that nobody in the new gated community would buy if they realized how close the town really is. the town is called “buijo historico” [historic buijo] because it lodged simon bolivar before he went into guayaquil [whether he invaded, liberated, or conquered guayaquil depends on who you are reading]. guayaquil is my hometown, a city surrounded by horizontal growth consisting mainly of invasions, privatized low income single family housing, and gated communities. in the example above, the town happened to be located in a piece of land that suddenly became very valuable.

on a reverse type of example, the following gated communities were planned as low income social housing near santa elena [zoom out to get the full picture], in the coast of ecuador.

these are my pics of the billboards some brilliant marketing exec planted in front of them a few years ago in a campaign for overpriced furniture [“exceptional comfort” and “environments that thrill”]. because poor people have a right to gated communities too! [actual paraphrasing from our socialist president, although not referring to these examples]. most of the people that live here have no cars, and have to wait for a bus to stop in the middle of a high traffic highway in order to get access to anything.

in this increasingly privatized environment, the city hall of guayaquil started renovating its public spaces, and promptly fencing them. under the guise of saving the city, the city itself was transformed into a series of walled spaces of atrophied publicness. the success of these spaces, in a city starved for public space, was confused with the validity of privatization as a strategy [x. andrade has written eloquently about this phenomenon and its consequences].

finally, new urbanist champions andres duany and elizabeth plater-zyberk are responsible for these upcoming gems: that’s right, moats replacing walls. i could say many things about this project, and there would be lots of four letter words involved, but i’ll let you come to your own conclusions. my own opinion might be slanted since i was involved in an academic exercise funded by the region’s city hall to project the future growth of this area. still, i’d like to believe my bitterness is pure and uncorrupted.

the border walls of berlin, palestine/israel, and mexico/usa are [or were] political walls, polemically separating zones of conflict, often the cause of disagreement and always the site of great tension. the 8 meter wall between palestine and israel tells us of the enormity of the problems between these countries. the 8 meter wall between a small middle-class gated community and a small river town in ecuador is a caricature.

the walls [and non-walls] popping up in ecuador come from an increased privatization of life, the constant [real and increasingly imagined] threat of delinquency, and the need to hide reality in order to imagine an idyllic life. in ecuador, walls hide dirty secrets and nasty realities and let us pretend things are ok. walls separate income levels and teach us to fear difference. walls make us deny everything that we are, and prompt us to pretend what we are not. walls increase intolerance, discrimination, and fear. and they give me a headache. let’s get rid of them.

if only it were so easy.

ps. related, entrevista con marc auge, via paco gonzalez.

Filed under: ., cities, politics, rant, walls,

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