random thoughts on architecture history theory and criticism

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,

institutional critique [of sorts]

i stumbled upon the very interesting joseph gandy reading up on notions of the picturesque and its relationship to modernism, and although his own architectural designs are much more interesting, i suddenly realized he’s the gandy that did this painting of the bank of england as a ruin in 1830:

Joseph Gandy, cut away perspective drawing of the Bank of England as a ruin, 1830, John Soane Museum, (official site) London.

looking at it, i was struck by how similar it is to ed ruscha’s los angeles county museum on fire:

 Ed Ruscha, Los Angeles County Museum on Fire, 1968
 oil on canvas
 53 1/2 H x 133 1/2 W (inches)

in both cases the building looks more like a model than an actual building—isolated, with an awkward perspective and an artificial sheen to it. the degree of violence on the buildings is different, almost like watching a before—with ruscha, the fire has just started and the building is still pristine—and an after—gandy doesn’t tell us what happened, we only see the ruins that conveniently reveal the guts of the building, the inside spaces of the bank. furthermore, in ruscha’s image the glossy surface reflections suggest the fake water of a bad model. but this flood has caused no damage—it just makes the building into an island, and emphasizes the museum as a fictitious object.

it is fitting that gandy (an architect) is more interested in displaying the spaces of the building while ruscha (an artist), who is more interested in subtle pop references through the use of color. but because of the artificiality of the construction, the images are innocuous—the destruction too friendly and harmless in ruscha’s case, too decorated and precious in gandy’s. although the bank is in ruins, they seem too convenient in their reading of interior spaces. despite their similarities, both images remain anchored in their own eras: in an age obsessed with archeological digs “abroad,” (read: empire) gandy creates a ruin in london. likewise, ruscha turns the museum into the scene of a comic book or an advertisement, and fittingly, the fire can’t burn the blase coolness of this object.

in fact, both paintings are so successful in turning the buildings into fiction, that—having never seen either of them—it is surprising to see the bank and the museum are still there. the deliberate artificiality of the paintings is more successful than the violence they depict in casting doubt on the reality of these institutions.

ps. institutional critique

Filed under: ., gandy, ruins, ruscha,

reading ruscha

with all the hoopla around the archigram archival project, another archival website has gone a bit under the radar—granted, the archi-radar is entitled to ignore art archival at its peril—. i’m talking about the ed ruscha website, an interesting effort towards archiving and tracing the whereabouts of the artist’s paintings, and coinciding with two recent publications, alexandra schwartz’s ed ruscha’s los angeles and ed ruscha: fifty years of painting by ellroy, rugoff, and schartz. what follows are some notes from a paper i wrote long ago on ruscha’s links to architecture. but first, some chronological information.

although ruscha’s most obvious links to architecture have been made through his books series, done in a short lapse of time during the 1960s and early 70s, his more continuous production of ‘word’ paintings and often paintings of buildings with words attached have been just as important both in their dialogue with, and influence to influential architects and architectural historians. this chart positions the book production along some of the architectural texts that reacted to them at the time, and ruscha’s other paintings. keep in mind then that the books represent a relatively short lapse of time within ruscha’s larger production (i have a chart for this also, but it’s not as pretty).

so that said, let’s go after the architects. part of ruscha’s story actually begins with an architectural influence. in 1955, he traveled to mexico, met luis barragan, and saw his house [official site here] and the architecture of mexico city: “that was the first cosmopolitan thing that i’d ever done in my life” [ruscha]. barragan’s bright colors would soon become part of ruscha’s palette, and although the general consensus is that his work is tied to california, it’s hard not to see barragan’s work as an important influence once you see the images of the house. more importantly, barragan’s work might have been influential in connecting art and architecture [those stairs btw look a lot like the accordion-like structure of the sunset strip book, but that may be a stretch].

two years later colin rowe and john hejduk published an essay on lockhart, texas, making an argument for the recovery of the banal:

Seen dispassionately, these buildings are utilitarian structures casually enlivened by an elementary eclectic symbolism, deriving something of their effect from concentration and material uniformity. But it is now impossible and meaningless to dismiss them as this alone: in terms of a not unduly sentimental taste they have intrinsic virtues of a high order, while only too obviously their extrinsic attributes are even more telling.

Colin Rowe and John Hejduk[1] 

although their text is prior to ruscha’s work, rowe and hejduk’s essay shows a more complete understanding of the generic as a series than some of the architectural misreadings that would come later and focus on isolated moments of his work. it reminds us that at the time, the return to the vernacular or the idea of the generic in architecture already had some roots in architectural academia, related to similar developments in pop art. coincidentally, according to ruscha, 1957 was the year he decided to become an artist after seeing reproductions of jasper jones’s flags and targets in print magazine.

ruscha would go on to fabricate his legendary book series, and would soon be noticed by denise scott brown, who along with venturi and izenour would draw heavily on the sunset strip, parking lots, and gasoline station books for learning from las vegas. a few years after the book, an interesting debate on misunderstanding ruscha took place between kenneth frampton and denise scott brown in the pages of casabella (1971). while scott brown seemed both fascinated and repelled by the “deadpan, scholarly” photographs of parking lots, frampton interpreted ruscha’s photography as “clinical observation” highlighting the alienation of the environment and generally suggesting ruscha’s attitude as closer to a perverse delight in the desolate than to a promise of the productive possibilities of the generic. but after defending an architecture of the ugly and ordinary, v&sb’s work would come closer to ruscha’s word paintings than to his generic photographs. by focusing on architecture as sign, venturi and scott brown’s buildings are coded into a language of signs that reach out for attention from the viewer (“read me!”), putting the generic aside in favor of the symbolic.

also in 1971, reyner banham’s los angeles: the architecture of four ecologies used several of ruscha’s parking lot pictures, but did not mention him in the book except in the illustration credits. the last image in the book, ruscha’s hollywood sign, highlights the other side of ruscha’s work, the symbolic, which takes on new relevance by its juxtaposition with the generic. they are both sides of the same picture. shortly afterwards, banham wrote an essay for one of ruscha’s catalogs (see “under the hollywood sign,” in ruscha’s prints and publications 1962-74 London: Art Council of Great Britain 1975) and effectively connected the language of the generic with the nature of the sign:

The clear, non-verbal instruction that comes with, say, Twenty-six Gasoline Stations is ‘These twenty-six gasoline stations are worth looking at.’

Reyner Banham[2]

for banham, ruscha’s generic images become signs through ruscha’s printing operation: the generic as series is as much as sign as the direct word paintings. it is through repetition that these objects are able to get our attention. 

highlighted in banham’s four ecologies book is a young frank gehry, who was part of the circle of artists that included ruscha, ron davis, and billie bengston. ruscha’s influence in gehry can be seen particularly in the santa monica place garage, which looks much like a ruscha painting in its dependence on text as graphic and its glorification of a generic material (chain link fence) as texture.

finally, writings by rem koolhaas on the generic give us a more ambivalent take on the formless city. see for example “junkspace: modernization’s fall-out” in arquitectura viva sept-oct 2000. among the photographs in the article, koolhaas included an aerial view of a parking lot that recalls ruscha’s images, only the parking lot is filled with cars and the image is cropped so that there is no visible limit: the parking lot now extends forever.

looking at these notes after several years, it seems to me three aspects of ruscha’s work have been often overlooked in their architectural translations. the first one is that of the series or the collection. ruscha is, after all, a collector, who liberates “things from the bondage of utility” if we follow benjamin. this is more closely approximated in rowe and hejduk’s musings over lockhart. the second one is the idea of the generic and the iconic as reciprocal concepts, perhaps best understood by banham. finally, the third aspect is the mobilization of these operations as critique, something koolhaas did in a somewhat incomplete (or at least to me, unsatisfactory) manner. these three operations work best simultaneously.

finally, a note on medium. although ruscha’s books have become sought after works of art, he always emphasized their primary nature as, well, books. he even donated some to the library of congress (they rejected them—ruscha published the rejection on artforum, and hilarity ensued). the idea that art should be disseminated through mass media brings us of course to our contemporary blogging paradigm, where ruscha’s operations and their subsequent misreadings might take on new relevancy.

ps. reyner banham loves los angeles. the 1972 bbc documentary, look out for the interview with ed ruscha towards the end.

pps. tyler green on alexandra schwartz’s “ed ruscha’s los angeles” considers she dwells too much on architectural influences in the 1970s. i haven’t looked at this book, curious to read her take.

ppps. the architect’s newspaper review of same thinks schwartz does not take a critical stance on ruscha’s ambiguity.

[1] Colin Rowe and John Hejduk, “Lockhart, Texas,” In Architectural Record [March 1957]: 205

[2] Reyner Banham, “Under the Hollywood Sign,” in Edward Ruscha. Prints and Publications 1962-74 (London: Art Council of Great Britain 1975)

Filed under: ., banham, gehry, hejduk, koolhaas, rowe, ruscha, scott-brown, venturi,

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