random thoughts on architecture history theory and criticism

las mujeres y el campo expandido de la arquitectura

gracias a la invitación de Pedro “La Periferia” Hernández, he publicado un pequeño artículo en Arquine titulado “Las Mujeres y el Campo Expandido de la Arquitectura.” el artículo argumenta que a fin de sortear las dificultades de la práctica, muchas mujeres encontraron maneras alternativas de practicar la disciplina, y al hacerlo expandieron el campo de la arquitectura. El artículo es parte de un diálogo que Arquine busca realizar en torno al tema–pueden ver los otros artículos aquí.


Filed under: bo bardi, cv, feminism, rant, scott-brown, waisman

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,

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,

women architects: f’ing cool

denise and other monuments

the new york review of books recently published this article titled “the world’s foremost female architect,” giving it up for denise scott-brown. my first reaction was that selecting “the world’s foremost” seems like a particularly [excuse my political incorrectness] male thing to do. i mean, do we really need a foremost female architect? because being the leader necessarily means being lonely there at the top, and as a woman architect myself, the experience of ‘lone woman in the office,’ while dealable, is not something that i would call pleasurable. let me be clear. while i’ve often enough been the sole women at the office, or at the studio, or at the class, or at the faculty meeting, i’ve been lucky to have had fantastic male colleagues [well, most of them] that have minimized any friction that might come from a ‘gender unbalanced’ environment. in fact, i long ago decided that this would not be a problem, and it largely hasn’t [ok, there was that creepy guy that liked to stand by my desk and watch me work, but we won’t go there]. and i should add i’m delighted that many younger generations have not had this lonely experience [actually lonelier when working in the us than back in ecuador].

source: and ray eames

so back to the article above. part of the problem with female architect role models, is that there are really very few of them that ‘fit’ a perfect ‘role model’ mold. denise is part of a husband-and-wife team, as were alison smithson [although, note the dark overtones of the photograph, with her literally in the blurry background] and ray eames [a fun image, i’ve always thought, but part of its humor coming from the observer being amused at the fact that she is driving]. more recent examples of such partnerships include diana agrest of agrest and gandelsonas, billie tsien of willians and tsien, sarah whiting of ww architecture, and monica ponce de leon of office dA. although all these partnerships work in different ways, they have managed to keep their respective offices working successfully.

interesting anomalies in these examples are the recent split of farshid moussavi and alejandro zaera polo, of foa architects, and the changing partners and office of enric miralles, carme pinos (her studio here) and benedetta tagliabue (who decided to keep his name in the office).

these women are all fantastic examples of accomplishment, yet we are left wondering, what would have happened if they had been on their own? would certain clients have been less than willing to hire? (in this sense, pinos and tagliabue make interesting examples) why do we seem to thrive more easily in an academic environment? is it possible for a woman to make it on her own, as an architect?

this is probably the reason so many flock to zaha hadid as feminist role model. but, lest we forget, zaha does have a partner in the office, patrick schumacher. and what about sanaa? kazujo sejima has ryue nishizawa. actually, is there any ‘big’ architecture office out there, with a sole woman partner?

but this is the wrong question to ask, because it uses the same logic of the ‘foremost.’ in fact, most architects work as partners, male or female- design is a process enriched by discussion. and i love discussion: i love talking about architecture, and although i can happily spend a night designing [or more recently, writing and researching] on my own, i love coming out for air and discussing my work, or someone else’s work. so perhaps we should stop looking for the foremost and think more about the great role women architects have in these partnerships. let’s stop looking for the one example and focus on the many.

there are of course, the forerunners. eileen gray (1878-1976), margarete schutte-lihotzky (1897-2000!), charlotte perriand (1903-1999) and lina bo bardi (1914-1992) are early examples of women architects (and by the way, move over oscar niemeyer, 103 years old, props margarete!) that not only managed to work on their own [sometimes], but made no excuses about their interest in designing a kick-ass kitchen or incorporating some very handy domestic gizmos into the home [nudge, nudge, wink wink].

so, what can eileen, margarete, charlotte, and lina teach us? be sure to get credit for your work [i’m talking about you, old editions of k. frampton’s modern architecture with your incomplete, yet recently corrected, credit on the kitchen]. don’t let your old boss take over your beach house at cap martin. don’t let the pritzker forget about you. but also, relax. let’s stop apologizing for having partners, if we want them. let’s chat more: conversation is good between partners, it should also help us as professionals. yes, it’s satisfying to denounce nasty old men’s misogynistic ways, but perhaps we need more information about the cool women that were able to work things out. because we are cool, too. f’ing cool.

ps. don’t let the pritzker forget about DSB!

Filed under: ., bo bardi, feminism, gray, perriand, rant, schutte-lihotzky, scott-brown,

decorated shed

shaykh zayn al-din mausoleum

decorated shed

Filed under: ., scott-brown,

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