31 January 2006

on progress

READING EMPIRE TONIGHT with Bush's State of the Union address in the background (I swear - not trying to be ironic, it just happens to be what I'm reading now!) got me thinking about the distinction between progress and reaction. At first, it seems simple: progress is going forward, proposing an affirmative agenda that moves on from the present, while a reaction is a step backwards, a negation. But isn't a belief in progress somehow rejecting the current state of affairs, and therefore a reaction to the present? And isn't there also embedded within the reactionary an equal (if perverse) belief that moving backwards will somehow make us all better off?

Not related to architecture, you say. Yet hear me out. In the ongoing disciplinary disputes over the validity of theory in contemporary architectural practice, we can oversimplify by saying there are two sides: those who value the role of criticality as a means of assessing the status quo with the hope of imagining a better future, and those who advocate more "pragmatic" or "projective" practices in which theory takes a back seat to the negotiation of real-world architectural projects. Here, at least in my assessment, the roles are reversed: the old adherents to critical theory remain committed to the greater cause of Progress (or at least maintain some sense of hope that architecture somehow can contribute to that cause), while the newer pragmatists are much more willing to sacrifice long-term vision for short-term success (monetary, fame, whatever). In other words, the post-critics are reacting to the long-term discilpinary hegemony held by the critical theorists, who, perhaps mistakenly, remain wedded to architecture's progressive imperative.

My point in all of this -- and to try to bring it back to tonight's presidential spectacle -- is that maybe the answer (or Answer?) is a hyrid of progress and reaction. Indeed, maybe the two are not mutually exclusive and are instead co-dependent -- or symbiotic, if you will. Maybe it is possible to posit a critical architecture that not only imagines, but projects and even realizes a better future. Maybe it is possible for an opposition party to do the same thing not with architecture, but with politics. Would that be a progressive reaction?

My apologies for talking in circles! It's just that kind of night. More to come, for sure - I'm working on an ongoing bibliography on the whole post-critical issue, so feel free to send links and references my way...

23 January 2006

FAT's postmodernism

I'VE BECOME FASCINATED LATELY with the work of the London office FAT (Fashion, Architecture, Taste), which recently has been commented upon here, here, and here. While at first glance, the architecture seems (at best) a weak update of earlier, perhaps more genuine attempts at architectural postmodernism, I think there may be something deeper going on here. After spending a short time on FAT's website (which, I'm sure not coincidentally, recalls that of Venturi Scott Brown), my initial disgust slowly is replaced by a more intellectual -- dare I say political? -- curiosity. Sure, it's easy to write these guys off (like I normally would) as typical anything-goes postmodernists, completely devoid of taste, ethics, conscience, or any other such redeeming quality. But this time I hesitate. Why?

It's simple: although on aesthetic grounds much of their work renders me mildly nauseous, FAT is nonetheless exonerated in my eyes by their relentless and engaging polemic. A refusal to accept the status quo -- in their case, the persistent dominance of English modernism as the benchmark for acceptable taste -- imbues FAT's project with something greater than mere "attitude." I identify with and commend the eagerness to reinvent architecture, how it is represented, and what is expected of it.

I also am intrigued (and even at times amused) by FAT's written polemic. Their website is full of mini-manifestos, many of which again bring to mind the legacy of Venturi Scott Brown. "Maybe its time to decriminalise decoration and arrange an amnesty on ornament," FAT asks us in Everything Counts (In Large Amounts), a treatise on the evolution of architecture in the age of electronic communication.

FAT member Sam Jacob, in a piece on his own website Strange Harvest, caught my attention with a subtle yet definite elaboration on the central premise of Venturi + Scott Brown's 1972 masterpiece Learning from Las Vegas. Check it out:

The Pop Vernacular is a both a graveyard for the old and the superseded and the spawning ground of unexpected futures. A cornucopia of architectural salvage. The Pop Vernacular draws on all of time and space. And despite its familiarity, it glows with optimism and freshness. Far from the end of history, it is the well spring of the imminent future.
For those of you who don't remember your postmodernism, VSB begin their manifesto with the assertion that "Learning from the existing landscape is a way of being revolutionary for an architect." Yet I would argue that they never really followed through with proving Pop's revolutionary potential (at least in any political sense beyond the superficial and symbolic). Although VSB's embrace of the formal language of Pop was a valiant polemical move, especially at the time, their approach ultimately is misguided as it fails to offer a way out of the black hole of consumer capitalism. Call me crazy, but it seems like here, Mr. Jacob is suggesting a potentially progressive -- if still totally vague -- role for the Pop Vernacular. Is he hinting at an instrumentalization of Pop that maybe goes beyond that of Venturi and Scott Brown? Or will he end up at the same claustrophobic dead end of the windowless, decorated-shed interior of some casino on the Strip? Can't wait to see.

I'd be interested to see if anyone has any other links/commentary/criticism with regard to FAT and their work.

link: FAT
link: Sam Jacob's Strange Harvest
link: Hugh Pearman's FAT is a postmodernist issue: British pranksters get serious.

22 January 2006

on empire (1)

I'VE JUST STARTED READING Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's 2000 book on the ascendancy of a supranational order and all of its political, cultural, social ramifications. After coming across the text several times during various research projects (not to mention the countless -- and often clueless -- references to the book during reviews and lectures while at school), I decided to give it a close reading. I'm especially anticipating the final section of the book, in which Hardt and Negri propose various models for opposition to the global order of Empire. (Their 2004 follow-up, Multitude, apparently picks up where Empire leaves off and continues the discussion of tactics of resistance and democratic alternatives to Empire.)

I've also been reading up a lot on the (very) current debates going in academic architectural circles on the validity of "criticality" in contemporary theory and practice. You can guess on which side of the aisle I sit with regard to architecture's capacity (imperative?) to critique the status quo (and thus imagine a better future) -- but let's not get into that just yet. Part of my goal in reading Empire is to test the relevance of Hardt and Negri's political analysis to architectural discourse. In other words: can architecture both take part in and resist/subvert/undermine the power structures of globalization? What form would such an architecture take?

Expect more posts as I further sort out my thoughts... For now, I'll leave you with a quote from the authors' preface to Empire:

Our political task, we will argue, is not simply to resist these processes but to reorganize them and redirect them toward new ends. The creative forces of the multitude that sustain Empire are also capable of autonomously constructing a counter-Empire, an alternative political organization of global flows and exchanges. (Empire, p. xv)
link: Michael Hardt on Wikipedia
link: Antonio Negri on Wikipedia

19 January 2006

"FEMA trailers with dignity"

JUST CAME ACROSS the Katrina Cottage I - the first of what promises to be many misguided New Urbanist prescriptions for Gulf Coast reconstruction.

No time right now for a tirade, but I'd be interested to hear comments from my readers...

link: New Urban Guild's Katrina Cottage I

14 January 2006

one last hoorah


Thursday, February 16 - Saturday, February 18
Philip Johnson and the Constancy of Change
Symposium, organized with the collaboration of the Museum of Modern Art

Rumor has it that there's a panel discussion on the politics of Philip Johnson that will include Joan Ockman, Reinhold Martin, and Michael Sorkin. I'm pleased that Yale -- an epicenter of Johnson-philia -- at least has the guts to include participants who may refrain from the brainless praise and deification that often characterize commemorative events like this. Although there is a glaring omission of Franz Schulze, whose 1994 biography provided in-depth insight into Johnson's infatuation with Nazism (for even more, see this article by Kazys Varnelis), I'm especially surprised that Michael Sorkin was invited. Sorkin has been relentless in his critical stance towards Johnson, from his seminal 1988 essay "Where Was Philip?" to his more recent reflections on PJ's careeer.

Needless to say, I'll be there.

link: Philip Johnson: An Essay by Michael Sorkin, from Architectural Record
link: We Cannot Know History: Philip Johnson's Politics and Cynical Survival by Kazys Varnelis

09 January 2006

muschamp madness

FOLLOWING UP ON EARLIER POSTS regarding the weakness of contemporary architectural criticism:

Herbert Muschamp returns to the pages of the Times today with a rambling, stream-of-consciousness reflection on Edward Durell Stone's 2 Columbus Circle, claiming it as an icon for New York's 1960s gay culture. How this tiring and somewhat senseless article -- actually, more of a diary entry -- slipped past the Arts editor, I have no idea. The strangeness of this aimless piece approaches -- yet does not match -- the absurdity of his article on Zaha Hadid from 2004, which contains one of my favorite moments of architectural "criticism" ever printed:

You might find Hadid lying by the pool at the Delano in South Beach, where she often goes to chill out, her body glistening with oil, hands swatting at imaginary flies. She could almost be a British housewife letting her hair down at Butlin's Holiday Camps. And her laugh is a real ah-hah-hah!

I leave you with that image...

link: The Secret History of 2 Columbus Circle by Herbert Muschamp

05 January 2006

"the deaths could have been prevented"

SPACE AND CULTURE has a new issue full of essays on Katrina and its aftermath. Looks fascinating -- can't wait to check it out.

link: Space and Culture, Volume 9, No. 1

04 January 2006


AN INTERESTING PIECE in the year-end issue of the Economist discusses the megachurch as a uniquely American blend of capitalism and religion. The article fails, however, to touch on the architectural aspects of these enormous enterprises and how this revolution in American religious culture is deeply embedded in the larger context of suburbanity -- socially, economically, politically. After all, these congregations, these organizations -- and indeed, these buildings -- served a crucial role in the larger conservative network that helped to reelect our president last year. Certainly such a political purpose cannot be ignored. And remember: the architecture is no less complicit than those who sit inside it.

Check out Slate's slideshow from back in October for some examples of this emerging typology.

Also - does anyone know of any other research on the architecture of megachurches? I know Jeannie Kim did a studio titled "Superchurch" this past summer at Columbia GSAPP (syllabus here), but I haven't seen any of the output. Any other resources around?

link: Jesus, CEO from the Economist
link: An Anatomy of Megachurches from Slate

03 January 2006

complex conservatism?

CORBUSIER OVER AT Architecture and Morality has a thought-provoking piece on the capacity of political conservatism to operate in the context of complex systems. Not the way I usually conceptualize conservative politics.... some food for thought?
link: Complexity and Conservatism

working for nothing

NORMAN BLOGSTER AT PARTIV has a brave and absolutely right-on post on the rampant and willing culture of free labor that plagues our profession. He uses Foreign Office Architects as an example, but we all know many, many offices that take advantage of young architects who often think that "internship" means working for free. I've always said that if you work for nothing, then you're worth nothing. And I've also always said that if nobody would work for nothing, then nobody would work for nothing. In other words, the problem is less with the individual offices that commit these crimes and more with a pervasive culture of complicity. Maybe if we all insisted on adequate compensation for our time, the profession would be better off. Has it ever occurred to you that the constant worrying over our undervalued professional services could be rooted in a much deeper, internal crisis of self-worth?
link: Zeroes of our time: Foreign Office Architects