21 September 2006


Michielangelo recently has re-launched his blog as Eikongraphia, an updated version of his ongoing investigations into the role of iconography in architecture. I've definitely enjoyed Michiel van Raaij's thoughts and speculations as to how a building's iconography relates to its form and meaning -- his commentary is hard to categorize but easy to appreciate. The basic premise consists of short vignettes that take on a building strictly on iconographic terms (some of my favorites include the Penis and Vagina entries), thereby attempting to reconcile traditional formal concerns with a building's actual lasting effect -- essentially, how it is consumed by its observers. Read van Raaij's "Narrative" for a more detailed description of his methodology. While I do have some concerns with reading a building simply as an object for consumption, I am intrigued by the notion of "iconicity" (a term I presume coined by van Raaij? I've never come across it before) as an architectural quality to be pursued, or even perfected. It potentially offers a new, post-Venturi Scott-Brown way of understanding architectural form, and I'm curious to see how it plays out -- and if the politics of form/iconography will come into play.

link: Eikongraphia

20 September 2006

artkrush 41 / boeri

Check out the new issue of Artkrush (their third architecture issue) - there's an interesting interview with Stefano Boeri (of Boeri Studio, Multiplicity, and editor of Domus) in which the Italian architect talks about some of his myriad research endeavors throughout the globe. I've always had a few misgivings about Boeri's methodology -- which essentially consists of obsessive and exhaustive documentation of super-local conditions -- as it walks the fine line between studied observation and sensationalist exploitation (dare I say exoticization). While I know that Boeri's intentions are of course not to exoticize or exploit, and I appreciate his rigorous explorations of emergent urban conditions, there is always a certain ambiguity in my mind about who is actually benefitting or profiting from the research.

Regardless -- the interview is pretty interesting. In relation to my own concerns, I found this excerpt on Boeri's intentions particularly compelling:

I believe that the act of observing, describing, and interpreting the built environment helps us understand the community we inhabit. And I believe that the landscape — the territory continually defined by our movements, reinvented by our desires, punctuated by what we build — is an excellent metaphor for our society. The local is a treasure chest rich in details and clues that tell us about the forces that permeate our daily lives, forces that at times are manifest in the space that surrounds us, perhaps just for a few instants, like footsteps in the snow. Architecture's political dimension is not to be found in the labels we attach to our projects, nor in our magniloquent political declarations; rather, it lies in the production of useful and critical knowledge about the world that surrounds us — knowledge that is useful because it is critical.
I also am intrigued by Boeri's interpretation of borders and boundaries as potential sites for intervention and action: "I try to conceive of boundaries as the sensors of contemporary world dynamics — dynamic 'devices,' which vibrate with the energy and resistance that drive current history." Since it seems that the world we live in is increasingly defined by different degrees of boundaries and "devices" of separation, it makes sense to pursue architectural strategies that subvert and redirect these divisive phenomena towards a more productive purpose. The question is: how?

14 September 2006

complexity and contradiction, revisited

[all photos: Venturi Scott-Brown Associates]

I had a chance to swing by Columbia last night for a presentation by Bob Venturi, followed by a discussion between the architect and GSAPP dean Mark Wigley. You are probably rolling your eyes, since I seem to always have Venturi and his wife/partner Denise Scott-Brown on my mind. But indulge me once again -- there were some interesting moments worth sharing.

The event was loosely structured as a celebration of the 40-year anniversary of the publication of Venturi's seminal debut book, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966). For those who haven't read this -- you should. It is absolutely one of the most essential texts (along with Venturi's 1972 follow-up, Learning from Las Vegas, co-authored with Denise Scott-Brown and Steven Izenour) for understanding the predicaments facing contemporary architecture. After a stirring introduction by Lee Bollinger, Columbia's president and Venturi's old client back at Michigan, Venturi began with some brief reflections on both the book's inception and critical reception. Reiterating comments he has made over the years in various articles and symposia, he insisted that interpretations of the book or of him as being anti-modern or postmodern are completely misguided. This has always been pretty clear to me -- the book, while celebrating the immense stylistic diversity of historical architecture, by no means prescribes a specific style. Rather, it advocates an approach of celebratory, almost hedonistic, eclecticism -- or what Venturi likes to refer to as mannerism. While much of VSB's architectural production has involved neoclassical elements or historical references, the style itself is arbitrary and almost besides the point. [And furthermore, in line with Venturi's claim last night that Complexity and Contradiction ultimately affirmed a functionalist approach to architecture, almost all of the VSB work follows a strict functionalist paradigm of boxy, ultra-efficient floorplans that often divorce service spaces from served spaces. A reference to Kahn, no doubt, to whom Venturi also paid tribute tonight. The functionalist imperative appears again and plays a huge role in Learning from Las Vegas.] Anyway, the point is that it's understandable why historicist postmodern architects latched on to Complexity and Contradiction as justification for their stylistic carelessness, but the sweet irony is that, in true form, they completely missed the intricacy of Venturi's argument.

The discussion consisted mostly of Wigley's characteristic wizardry with words that seemed to completely baffle poor old Bob. He essentially asked the same question -- why did you write Complexity and Contradiction? -- a dozen times in a dozen different ways. The hope was to elicit some sort of polemical commitment to manifesto-writing and the activist potential of theorizing (to which I fully subscribe), but Venturi simply refused to cede Wigley any ground, insisting that the book grew out of his lectures for a theory class he was teaching at Princeton in the early 60's. I wondered if Wigley was actually talking less about Venturi and more about himself: if he was trying to posit a projective role for the writer in order to justify his own career as a non-practicing architect. Maybe that's getting a little too Wigley-psychoanalytic. Who knows. Anyway, the banter continued at length until Denise Scott-Brown, who, like the rest of us, could not take any more of the labyrinthine inquisition, finally decided to tell him what he wanted to hear. "Bob writes to figure out what he thinks," she said, explaining how the writing indeed came to inform their practice. Whether she was actually sincere, or whether she was just doing us all the favor of neutralizing the debate, I'll never know. But her brief words made me want more. Even though the event was nominally in honor of Complexity and Contradiction, which Venturi wrote solo, I realized (yet again) that Venturi without Scott-Brown is really only half the story.

The most interesting part of the evening was Venturi's emphatic characterization of his own writing as purely pragmatic and realist, as opposed to purely idealistic. In other words, he claims the basis of his learning and his analysis is always the existing conditions, the ordinary, the "real" world as it is, and that conclusions are never drawn from any preconceived ideologies. Hence the "Learning from..." technique that proved so crucial in the later collaboration with Scott-Brown and Izenour.

Clearly this enchantment with the messy realities, chaos, multiplicities, and vibrancies of everyday life is what really defines the Venturi Scott-Brown legacy. It certainly explains why I identify so strongly with their work. And seen in that light, it becomes evident why a school like Columbia would kick off its heavy-hitter lecture series with an event honoring good old Bob Venturi, who is still considered a postmodern pariah by many orthodox practitioners of architecture. It's definitely time, as architects as diverse as Koolhaas and FAT have come to realize, to reconsider the Venturis and their influence over the past forty years. Not only are they "back," as I've said - but maybe they never actually left.

12 September 2006

five years after

[image: New York Times]

AS I SAT TODAY in my office, a block from Ground Zero, with the constant drone of bagpipes echoing up from the memorial ceremonies below, I couldn't help but reflect on the terror attacks that so changed the world five years ago. Yet perhaps due to the weather -- so, so eerily reminiscent of that crisp fall morning in 2001 -- I began to ponder that maybe things haven't really changed that much. I started to think about accountability, and about how everything that has spun out of control since the Trade Center fell -- Afghanistan, Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, countless terror attacks around the globe -- can in a certain sense be traced back to a crisis of accountability. And then of course I saw this image of the ground zero site as it exists tonight, still a gaping hole in the city, such a fitting metaphor for the failures and missed opportunities of these last five years.

I often write of the architect's ethical imperative to design responsibly in a world of increasing irresponsibility. The stakes are even higher now, believe it or not, than they were five years ago, and it's pretty clear that architecture is ever more implicated. If we assume that every building imagines a better city (and, by extension, that every city imagines a better world), then what does the above image have to say about our future? Do we accept this status quo? Or do we insist it changes?

On that note (sort of), for those of you in Arizona, Delaware, Washington DC, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, or Wisconsin, don't forget that tomorrow (Sept. 12) is primary day. It's important. As a New Yorker, I'll be using the primary as an opportunity to make a statement, to demand a measure of accountability that seems to have vanished. Of course there is no chance of unseating the all-powerful Senator Clinton -- and, indeed, I'm not so sure that our long-term interests would be best served by replacing her with Jonathan Tasini, her under-qualified, anti-war challenger for the Democratic nomination. But a vote for Tasini offers a chance -- if admittedly futile -- to make a simple statement in protest of a legislator who made the wrong choice in supporting a very wrong war. [The previous two sentences reveal the constant debate between my inner pragmatist and inner idealist. I apologize.] A wise man once told me that democracy is not a spectator sport; voting is not a privelege, but a responsibility. It is our duty as citizens to make known such grievances to our elected representatives, and I can't imagine a better way for Mrs. Clinton to understand the gravity of her misguided support of Bush's war than to see her supposed invincibility diminish by a few percentage points in tomorrow's primary. See you at the polls!


07 September 2006

ground zero update: fosters, rogers, maki join the mix

This morning, Silverstein released images of Towers 2, 3, and 4 at the Trade Center site... at first glance, I must confess a hesitant fondness for the slight dissonance of the three towers, as they relate to each other and to the massive Freedom Tower. Although I still question the rationale of providing (in addition to the Freedom Tower) three additional office buildings that each approach (or reach, in Foster's case) the size of the Empire State Building, I do appreciate the heterogenuous quality of these latest images. The real problem for me, however, goes beyond form and has everything to do with program. The bottom line is that Lower Manhattan really doesn't need such a smorgasboard of new office space. Ask any New Yorker and they'll concur: the city needs housing. Until issues of affordable housing are put on the table, and until the city and state manage to pressure Silverstein & Co. to address some sort of social agenda (beyond the trite reliance on jingoistic iconography), no superstar architect, however skillful or progressive, will be able to make a positive impact.

link: "Designs Unveiled for Freedom Tower's Neighbors" by David Dunlap, in the Times

06 September 2006

blog radar :: 6 september

A quick post to mention two noteworthy blogs that I recently came across:

  • Exquisite Struggle , Andrew Faulkner's periodic ruminations and "reflections and Radical Critique on Architecture, Urbanism, Philosophy, and Daily Life." What hooked me was today's post on Paris Hilton. A must-read.
  • Tenuous Resilience, an endeavor by Evan Chakroff, an architecture student at Ohio State. The latest post is a thoughtful reflection on building codes and other architectural (and non-architectural) manifestations of the "illusion of safety." As Chakroff laments such illusions for limiting the thrill and dynamism produced by the threat of danger, he touches on (but never actually mentions) an age-old architectural preoccupation: the sublime. What seems most provocative to me is how he links this notion of the supressed sublime to a larger political imperative -- and by doing so, shows quite clearly that the aesthetic experience (or its repressions) is always fundamentally political.
At first glance, these two bloggers both seem to promise plenty of polemical commentary and critique... I look forward to future provocations!