23 December 2006

"It is not going to make the front of Architectural Digest"

[image: New York Times]

That's for sure. The Times has an article on the recent shift away from those iconic FEMA trailers and towards "cozier, more permanent models of postdisaster housing." While I can appreciate (in concept) a rejection of the FEMA trailer in favor of a denser, safer, and more effective strategy of reconstruction, the renderings seem a good deal less promising than the rhetoric. Exuding the false nostalgia of New Urbanism (DPZ anyone?), these new FEMA alternatives fail to offer a truly progressive and regenerative solution to reconstruction. The smaller detached models (middle image) seem to be nothing more than FEMA trailers with a little "contextual" wedding-cake decoration on the outside - much in the vain of the "Katrina Cottage" that has gained so much currency this past year.

To me, the failure of this approach is twofold. First, by superficially manipulating exterior decoration to mimic so-called "traditional" architecture, these proposals impose a certain order and aesthetic regime that no longer has any social, political, or cultural relevance. I would go further (as I have done previously) by saying that, intentionally or not, the aesthetic agenda of New Urbanism is ideologically aligned to the right-wing agenda of no-bid contracts, redistricting through "reconstruction," and other such undesirable practices encouraged by the powers that be in Washington.

Secondly, the solutions offered thus far perpetuate the flawed status quo of prefrabicated architecture that has remained in place since the very inception of modular construction. Instead of replicating the FEMA trailers, re-cladding them with white trim and gabled roofs, and in some cases stacking them on top of each other, why not use this chance to rebuild the Gulf cities as an opportunity to re-imagine what a prefabricated architecture could actually be? The merits offered by the panelized construction system of the Katrina Cottage have hardly been exploited, in the sense that they propose a new architecture - and, consequently, a real new urbanism - for the Gulf region.

Baby steps, though, I suppose: one at a time. At least this one - moving on from the FEMA trailer - is in the right direction.

link: "U.S. Give Grants to 4 Gulf States to Upgrade Disaster Housing" by Eric Lipton in the New York Times

04 December 2006

one year on.

Today Progressive Reactionary turns one year old. It was exactly a year ago when I sat down and decided to conduct an experiment: to start a blog about architecture, urbanism, and politics, and to see if it would go anywhere. I was (and remain) thoroughly convinced of the political potency of two separate realms -- the blogosphere and architecture -- and I saw this project as an experiment to link the two, with the hope of exploring what such an intersection could produce and how such potential could be further developed. Having recently graduated from architecture school and just beginning to practice professionally, I am (still) deeply committed to the political dimension of architecture, and the fact that the smallest creative act -- whether designed, drawn, or written -- has larger political repercussions that always must be taken into account. The blog was to become a forum to test these assumptions.

It should be said that there were two main factors that initially inspired Progressive Reactionary. The first is a general political ignorance at both the academic and professional levels of architecture culture that, for lack of better words, just drives me crazy. Ignorance breeds inertia, and the unbelievable lack of political engagement on behalf of architects -- practitioners of the most political of arts -- is simply unacceptable and, truly, unsustainable. The second inspiration was the ongoing debate on the role of pragmatism in architecture: specifically, the flurry of articles and theoretical treatises in recent years on the merits and inadequacies of so-called "critical" architecture. What seems to be a perpetual dilemma for architects -- to what extent one should operate within or without the machinery of global capitalism -- seemed to be a logical starting point for a blog on architecture and politics.

So I thought it would be worthwhile to take a moment and look back on this year. A recap, if you will. And maybe a little pre-cap for what's to come. Anyway, without further ado...

Progressive Reactionary began with a simple provocation: could it be possible to have a reaction of progress? In other words, could reactionary strategies pragmatically be applied to progressive causes?

Several themes emerged. Hurricane Katrina and the incredible -- if tragic -- opportunity it offered for some kind of progressive reconstruction of the Gulf region became an obvious topic of discussion, especially as such progressive prospects dwindled and such opportunities were lost. I found myself posting numerous diatribes on New Urbanism and its discontents, an issue that continues to fascinate me and that will surely surface again. Reconstruction at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan became another target: the memorial design, the Freedom Tower , and the entire master plan have all devolved into artifacts of bureaucracy and poor leadership, and collectively they represent another missed opportunity.

Another recurring theme has been the work of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown, and their incredibly prescient embrace of architecture's capacity for social commentary. Apparently there is an obsession with the Venturi's that has been brewing in my subconscious and has been unacknowledged until I realized how many posts I had written about their work. A related obsession is the work of their young British followers, FAT. Stay tuned for more discussion of how garish postmodern architecture can interface with progressive political ambitions.

Some other highlights and random musings include: John Portman (a pseudo-hero, I'm a bit embarrassed to say), Paul Goldberger, Herbert Muschamp, various political postings (and then some), the Baghdad Embassy, the merits of sustainability, SANAA, and Herzog & de Meuron. Quite a grab bag, I know.

As for what's on tap... I have a long list of things that I'm planning, including numerous book reviews, plenty of more architectural criticism, and hopefully more coverage of lectures and events. I have a piece on the Danish architects formerly known as PLOT that I'm working on, as well as a look at the OMA / CCTV exhibition currently on view at MoMA. If only I didn't have a day job... alas. Thanks much to all my readers -- I never expected this experiment to take off so rapidly (I think the latest hit count was somewhere in the thousands, which always surprises me). As always, I appreciate any commentary, criticism, etc... you know where to find me.