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Updated: 2018-03-05T23:35:56.845-05:00


The Face of the Earth ... Masked by Beard, Glasses and Wig


130 year-old man from Minnesota, from László Moholy-Nagy, Von Material zu Architektur (1929)In Von Material zu Architektur (1929) (later translated to English as The New Vision), László Moholy-Nagy introduced a remarkable portrait of a 130-year old Minnesota man to demonstrate a point about photography and the perception of time. Remarking on the deep wrinkles that spread crevasse-like across the surface of the man’s skin, Moholy-Nagy reminded readers how the photograph was “essentially a time-compressing view of the alterations in the epidermis: an airplane view of time” (“Fliegeraufnahme der Zeit”).[1] This equating of physiognomy with aerial views is an important concept and deserves further scrutiny. In one sense, physiognomy became a metaphor for aerial photography of the landscape. Like the Minnesota Man’s skin in the photograph, the landscape was also an epidermis. The successive layering of soil and vegetation corresponded to the deep incisions of time visible on the Minnesota Man’s face. The “airplane view” became a heuristic for recording evidence of the passage of time, but only showing the latest stages of this passage. It only captured the evidence of change at the very point an image was captured on the photographic plate. O.G.S. Crawford (1886-1957)Moholy-Nagy's contemporary, the English archaeologist and geographer Oswald Guy Stanhope (O.G.S.) Crawford (1886-1957), offered something closer to a method, one that would give this physiognomic aspect further temporal dimensions with the invention of the discipline he called “aerial archaeology.” In works like Wessex From the Air (1928) and Air-Photography for Archaeologists (1929), a manual he wrote as the Ordnance Survey’s self-appointed “archaeological officer,” Crawford defined aerial archaeology as a method “to indicate what kinds of ancient sites are suitable for air-photography, and what is the best time of year and day” for the examination of such sites.[2] On a first glance, Crawford’s texts were primers detailing the various procedures for taking and interpreting aerial photographs of archaeological sites in England.(Top) Crawford, Wessex From The Air (1928); (Bottom) Air-Photography for Archaeologists (1929)Yet Crawford's version of aerial archaeology amounted to an attempt to understand the relationship between the physical remains of ancient English settlements and the various geological—and historical forces—that shaped them. Art historian Kitty Hauser explains how Crawford “thought prehistory should be approached not through texts (as many archaeologists preferred) not through fetishized ‘finds’ (like those collected and admired by antiquarians), but through the spatial logic of geography.”[3] Yet it must be pointed out that the very things that Crawford looked at through his aerial cameras were remains of buildings. Almost all of the plates from Wessex From the Air and Air-Photography for Archaeologists show evidence of ancient foundations and walls—evidence of architecture. It is an interesting notion, for before Crawford became famous for his promotion of aerial photography techniques for field archaeology, he would gain some amount of fame among preservationist circles for his remark, “[T]he surface of England … is a palimpsest, a document that has been written on and erased over and over again.”[4] The very skeleton key needed to uncover and decode the layers of this palimpsest, to peer x-ray-like at the ancient structures on the ground, summoning them from their peaty graves, was the aerial photograph. Taken from vertical or oblique angles, Crawford’s aerial photographs operated as a way of organizing visual information beyond their sensory characteristics into a system of categorized knowledge. He arranged his images into three general categories—"shadow-sites," "crop-marks" and "soil sites"—each describing the light and topography in which a particular archaeological feature was found. As method, however, Crawford’s aerial archaeology became a kind of a[...]

A Reader's Guide To A Reader's Guide


(Left to Right) Dennis Wilson, Laurie Bird, and James Taylor, with a 1955 Chevrolet 210 Hardtop, from Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)It is easy to admire Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, Reyner Banham’s 1971 inspired take on Los Angeles, once thought of as the most elusive of American cities. This book has a lot to answer for, especially in the way it expands the way we analyze and study the contemporary city. Indeed, it is hard to imagine this book existing independent of William Cronon’s rigorous spatial history of Chicago, born under the occluding signs of Karl Marx and Walter Christaller, or even Lars Lerup’s Duchamp-fueled fever dream of Houston, one that may leave you seeing skyscrapers as chocolate grinders and marine layers as “zoohemic canopies.”[1]What in the hell have I just read? you may ask yourself, and this is why it is even easier to love Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, the 1972 BBC short documentary film that gives Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies visual grist for the literal mill and shows an avuncular, perhaps slightly stoned Banham taking a motorized gander around the so-called “Metropolis of the Future.” Now we know what the Plains of Id, Autopia, and Surfurbia look like, thank you very much. This paean to the technologically-mediated modern landscape resonates in an age when our primary means of knowing a city is not through the writings of a Cronon or a Lerup.(And in the case of Los Angeles, the Thomas Guide is all but an antediluvian spiral-bound sheaf of grids and coordinates, gone by the way of the Dodo, Great Auk, or Sabre-Toothed Cat.)Our reliance on smart phones and tablets for urban wayfinding is so common that it deserves only the most fleeting of mentions. Interfacing has become the new wayfinding, one brandishing its own peculiarities. The female voice on the Google Maps app can be too bossy, imploring you, “In 500 feet, TURN RIGHT.” Can we actually measure distance while staring ahead over a steering wheel? Indeed, that voice immediately takes me back to my eighth grade typing class, especially those moments when my teacher would demand that we type sentences, clackity-clack, in time to a record playing a kind of Lawrence Welk-ish champagne music with firecracker snares. Her voice was mellifluous, but not too much, barely containing a hair-trigger snarl that would uncoil the very instance you fucked up your keystroke. The female Google Maps voice is more forgiving—not as much as Scarlett Johansson's in Spike Jonze's Her (2013)—even while insisting that you turn around as she quickly reroutes your itinerary.Banham’s guide to Los Angeles is the “Baede-kar Visitor Guidance System,” a technology that straddles centuries, at once evoking Karl Baedeker’s travel guides from the 19th century, as well as guidance systems for modern intercontinental ballistic missile—two completely different ways of “knowing” a city, one as destination, the other as target. The female voice issuing from the molded speakers of the “Baede-kar Visitor Guidance System” is more Siri-like and soothing, but lacking the latter’s notable cheekiness. It is a shame that we do not pay more attention to the “Baede-kar,” its voice, or for that matter, the various technologies on display in Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles. They create their own constellations, each gizmo or doohickey bringing its own origins and relationships to bear, making connections in time and space, revealing something about our own mediatic situation in the process.Take, for instance, the opening scenes from Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles. Note how Banham, tweedy, with newsboy hat and giant sunglasses, walks from the Arrivals terminal at Los Angeles International Airport and boards a 1970 Pontiac Grand Prix Hardtop. And like in other films of this time, we immediately associate the driver with his car, each becoming the other. The Grand Prix Hardtop is a close cousin to the 1970 Pontiac GTO Judge that Warren Oates drives in Monte Hellman’s[...]

1979 (Book Zero)


Spread from Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) (Source: The Newberry Library)1.Ponce, Puerto Rico was the world I once knew best. It was a small city nestled on a leeward coastal plain, intensely hot, strangely arid, and occasionally dusty. And within this world, there was our house. Small, marble-floored, with brises-soleil and a large, concrete carport with black, cast-iron gates, it sat on the end of a cul-de-sac, Calle C D-12, on a bluff overlooking a large sugar cane field. A large Honduras pine marked the entrance to our driveway. From there, we watched as crop dusters strafed the field, the combustive whine of rotary engines sharpening in pitch as the pilots nosed their machines over the edge of the bluff, slatted wings trailing ribbons of atomized insecticide that descended on the houses in a murky, cooling cloud. Then there were the pre-harvest burn-offs—large, controlled fires that singed the leaves off the cane stalks and left a forest of draggled pikes. One never saw the flames during the day. There was only a grey billowing that smelled like burnt trash. The heated winds carried blackened slivers of ash that rained and dissolved into the air above. At night, if you looked hard enough, you could see a corona of flames through the haze. And then there were rats, scampering up the bluffs, dun phalanxes escaping the fires. Once over the edge, they helped themselves to the pigeon coop in our back yard, leaving slurries of feathers, blood, and eggshell in their inroad.On those days without smoke, insecticide, rats (or, once even, a late-night temblor that caused the iron gates on the carport to issue an infernal clanging)—that is, on most days—it was a world for the senses. We drank lime water underneath a hurricane fence canopy braided with bougainvillea and Indian mallow, a technicolor refuge from the sun’s cruel transit. Weekends were for excursions by station wagon. Driving inland, to where the coastal plains sloped up into the humid mountains, we went to a company picnic in an abandoned sugar cane farmhouse. Land crabs scampered along dilapidated floorboards, making a clicking sound as they sidled onto the manicured, virisdescent lawns. From dusk until darkest night, the air was noisy with animal banter, from a cane toad’s solitary staccato, to the coquí’s onomatopoetic mating call. A trip through a winding road at dusk in Adjuntas led to an emergency stop by a creek bed to tend to my carsickness, revealing a scene of wonder: jittery constellations of glowing fireflies and click beetles hovering slightly above the ground, a sight rivaled only by that of a spear fisherman jumping into a phosphorescent bay at night, emerging lambent and wraith-like, as if outlined by St. Elmo’s Fire.I often played by myself, either outside or in. And if I was not busying myself with die-cast cars and airplanes, I was always opening books. I was reading at age 2, but cannot remember the act of doing to so. I preferred the images inside encyclopedia or issues of National Geographic, searching for fighter jets, space capsules, solar systems and galaxies, anything that could be reproduced on a notebooks or graph paper with pen or pencil. That was one way in that I engaged with the world outside my home. Then there were times when my mother would wash the marble floors inside or the smooth, concrete carport with a garden hose, leaving pools of water. I would find one that was large enough and lie in it face down, turning and lowering my head so I could submerge my ear into the cool liquid. I listened as the world outside became a watery roar. The carport was my planetary conch shell, amplifying the surging of faraway oceans.2.It is now May 1979, and I am in Moss Bluff, Louisiana. We moved here in February, to this little town north of Lake Charles, where my father took a position as an operations manager at a chemical plant. Our house was in a newish development, each plot of land carved out of a longleaf pine forest, with ditches running along [...]

The Law of Levity is Allowed to Supersede the Law of Gravity


Cover to R.A. Lafferty, Space Chantey (1968)   It was an age of freaks, monsters, and grotesques. All the world was misshapen in marvelous and malevolent ways.Alfred Bester, The Stars My Destination (1955)Now this almost goes without saying: but why S, M, L, XL? Why this huge, unwieldy mess of a thing, poorly bound, weighing more than the stack of National Geographics you use to hold up the end of your musty couch? Would it not make more sense to devote a special issue to Delirious New York (1978), that most provocative of texts, one whose historical and theoretical contours are, at least in retrospect, a bit more clear? Yes, for one could then chart a sort of intellectual course for Rem Koolhaas, plot his stints in screenwriting, studio work at the Architectural Association in London, the oft-quoted “Exodus, Or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture,” and furtive intellectual encounters with Oswald Mattias Ungers—such tacking and jibing among meridians and parallels, useful materials for scholars, historians, theorists, and practitioners to consult in order to make sense of the work of Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture. And yet when confronting S, M, L, XL, we are—how best to put it—slackjawed?As a guest theme editor for this issue of the Journal of Architectural Education, I regret to inform you that our only response to “Why S, M, L, XL?” is “Why Not?” It sounds rather defeatist, does it not? As if we are scuttling any serious discussion of this text in favor of some other agenda. But rest assured that we are not. This issue of JAE is something altogether different. Sure, there are essays, design proposals, reviews. Look more closely at the contents, however. There are a lot of personal reflections. There is even an article about space stations! Seriously: what is this thing you are holding in your hands? For starters, it is not an issue devoted to an issue. There are no considerations on historical themes here, no ruminations on the meaning of inchoate terms like “Crisis”, “Utopia”, or “Design +”—which only remind us, is not this the very essence of a theme, to articulate some kind of putative outline for an idea, cast it off into the world, and let others respond to it? If this is so, then an issue dedicated to S, M, L, XL makes all the sense in the world because it makes no sense. Imagine, if you will, being in that most antiquated of spaces—a bookstore for chrissakes!!!!—during the mid-1990s. At least for American audiences, the appearance of S, M, L, XL coincided with the appearance with a slew of other “big books.” We are not talking here about texts like Bernard Tschumi’s Event Cities (1994), Diller and Scofidio’s Tourisms of War (1994), or even the various oversized, overbound issues of El Croquis. Here, we are reminded of big books redolent with big ideas, of tomes that are worlds onto themselves, heavy, oceanic: the publication of a new, unedited two volume translation of Robert Musil’s unfinished The Man Without Qualities (1995), David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (1997), Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997). Yup, these books are big. Did you read them? Probably not. Do you want to? Well, should you find yourself in some kind of summer party at MoMA-P.S.1 feigning ennui while scanning the crowd for some seemingly more important person to talk to, or if you are pouring yourself a cup of stale, catered coffee in between sessions at a symposium where architecture students and faculty rhapsodize on the state of the field of architectural history, eyes locked on each others’ name tags, beguiled by institutional affiliations and academic pedigrees like moth to candle, you will probably say something like, “I own it, but have only read part of it.” You are now doing Rem Koolhaas and the Monacelli Press a huge favor because you are, in essence, equating S, M, L, XL to those other monuments to money[...]

Follow The Light


Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), The Annunciation (1899), Oil on Canvas, 57 x 71 1/4 inches (144.8 x 181 cm) Framed: 73 3/4 x 87 1/4 inches (187.3 x 221.6 cm)Henry Ossawa Tanner’s The Annunciation (1898) is a study of illumination and intimacy. The angel Gabriel appears as a shaft of amber light, brightening the room where a young Mary humbly sits. We take in what others have already noticed. Mary appears all too young, free of any kind of religious adornment. The light casts a noonish shadow, shortened as if at vernal equinox. Hanging carmine and burgundy tapestry protecting against pockmarked walls; unkempt floor rug barely covering the cobbled floor; lapis lazuli gown issuing over a roughly-hewn wooden chest; clay urns; an oil lamp whose flickering barely registers against the glowing visitant: these are all known, and yet what is truly striking about the painting is the way it captures a moment of intense intimacy. Mary is learning that she will give birth to the Son of God, and Tanner’s choice of warm, gilded hues seems at odds with the actual moment, an annunciation as expansive and radiating as it is hushed and secretive.Mary does not avert her gaze. She stares at a point above the glimmering, somewhere beyond the picture frame. Her eyes remain intelligent and searching, committed to an act of seeing familiar to us across various registers. All are premised on knowing more things, more people, more insights. As we “look down” on the offensive or “look askance” at a problem, we also “look up” words and “look up to” people: expressions that associate seeing with a specific vantage point. Or, the very objects and images that capture our sights reveal something different or surprising once we orient ourselves at various angles.William Eggleston, Untitled n.d. from Los Alamos, 1965-68 and 1972-74 (published 2003.) 1965-68 and 1972-74. Dye transfer print, 12 x 17 ¾ inches (30.5 x 45.1 cm.) Private collection © Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy of Cheim & Read, New York.This is one reason why I find William Eggleston’s work so arresting. His dye-transfer color photographs of supermarket aisles, car lots, hairdressing salons, and gas stations in the American South are mundane and meticulous. The subjects may be humdrum; a considered look reveals that they are everything but. For example, in Untitled (n.d.), a woman talks to a friend at a diner. At least, this is what we think is happening. Taken at eye-level, the photograph frames the back of the woman’s head, a greying bulb of symmetrical whorls restrained by clear, flower-topped combs. Her pink gingham dress reveals even more than what we think. The clasp on the necklace was once aligned on the center of the back of her neck, now only slightly off from the zipper top stops. This accentuates the difference in the angles between neckline and shoulder: the woman is shifting, perhaps in mid-sentence, or even covering her mouth as she is laughing at her companion’s joke. The woman is seated along the same axis her companion, each holds their cigarette with their left hand, a mirroring suggesting the two are familiar, comfortable. In this image, there is conversation without content, and yet the setting, dimly lit with seafoam green booths and dark, ruddy brickwork, reveals an intimate communiqué inside a Tennessee diner, on any night, at any time.William Eggleston, "Red Ceiling," or Greenwood, Mississippi, Dye transfer print, 12.625 x 19.0625 in. (32.1 x 48.4 cm), 1973 (prints in MoMA and J. Paul Getty Collection)William Eggleston, Untitled (Blue Ceiling) 1970-1973, Dye transfer print, 16 x 20 in. (40.6 x 50.8 cm.)Should we elevate ever so slightly and train our eyes towards the ceiling, we may see something like Eggleston’s Greenwood, Mississippi (1973). Featured on the album cover of Big Star’s Radio City, the blood red ceiling in the photograph is remarkable because it is, for lack of a better term, so red. The photo[...]

Centerville/Interzone, or: Map Ref. 41°N 93°W


(Figure 1) “Views of Centerville” (Source: L.L. Taylor, ed. Past and Present of Appanoose County, Iowa: A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement (Chicago: S.J. Clarke, 1913), n.p.)From the root of our national psyche, an Exhibit of sorts. The evidence is probative, sure, but what other admissible facts, what other morsels of conjured truth are there to be found? To our esteemed Jury of Peers, to this coterie of readers whose only task is to take in this skein of confabulation, let me assure you that this Exhibit is real, but only in the sense that it is something that occurs in space and time. Like Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom (né Virag) in the “Ithaca” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), we levitate into air, beyond the stratosphere, holding our breaths as satellites and space junk whir by our geostationary lockstep. We peer into the cerulean and phthalo patchwork world below and there, a surface once familiar rendered now into a joining of parallel and meridians. Decumanus and cardo intersect somewhere in the glacial moraines of southern Iowa, among the hills the Sioux call paha.Rivers of anthracite once flowed underneath this rolling, hummocky prospect like blackened veins. On the surface, railroad lines scored the land’s carboniferous circulatory system with iron spurs. Steam locomotives bear their bills of lading, emissaries of shipping lines that read like an abecedarium of Midwestern capital: Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul; Keokuk & Western; Iowa and St. Louis. Affluents of coal and iron join at the headlands of the Mystic Coal Bed, near a city founded in 1846, first as “Chaldea,” a riverine name, reminiscent of that alluvial flat where the Tigris and Euphrates once joined, now a settlement attracting a host of New Englanders, Central Europeans and Scandinavians, as well as profiteers seeking bounty from individual treaties with Sac, Fox, and Winnebago tribes in the wake of the Black Hawk War. Less than a year later, on January 18, 1847, a law issued by the first Iowa legislature proclaimed that this town, the seat of Appanoose County, be renamed Centerville (instead of “Senterville,” for the Tennessean William Tandy Senter, long admired by the city’s founder, the surveyor Jonathon F. Stratton). Stratton himself was an expert in all things Centerville, and in 1878, along with other early Iowans, became one of several sources for an oral, comprehensive history of Appanoose County.Of these men, Colonel James Wells, a veteran of the War of 1812 and the Black Hawk War, became known as one of Iowa’s most famous homesteaders. Around 1839, he built a cabin in “Section 16, Township 67, Range 16” in the County, a platted quadrant near the berm where the Missouri, Iowa & Nebraska railroad passed over the Indian River. And three years later, walking near a cabin owned by one “A. Kirkendall,” Wells spotted a man sitting at the base of a tree with his torso slumped forward. He approached the body and noticed a small, charred bullet hole rimmed with dried blood in the middle of the man’s forehead. He must not have been aware of the marksman sighting him from a distance before the fatal shot—Wells found a pencil and small, lined ledger book in the man’s hands with entries resembling “the notes of someone looking up lands; but as the township lines had not been laid, this seemed inexplicable.”[1] This was the county’s first recorded death, a plot line braided into a larger, malevolent act of fiction, for “It is barely possible that the man had been riding away a horse not his own, had been followed, captured and put to death, and that the entries had been made by his executioners, in order to lead possible inquiry on a false scent.”[2] Plot line is no different from plat line, as Wells’ homesteading is also a supreme act of fiction, a conjuring of something tangible fro[...]

Thomas Pynchon's 115th Dream


Hibbing High School, Hibbing Minnesota, From The Air (Source: Minnesota Historical Society)"I think I'll call it America" / I said as we hit land"-Bob Dylan (né Robert Allen Zimmerman), Hibbing High School, Class of 1959 [1]Dear Reader, for this inaugural excursion into the American landscape, indulge me for a moment and let me parse the above epigram. If your tastes gravitated once towards the mythical and legendary, this brief quote may cause you to recall a series of stories and images, of the Mayflower, an oaken sloop dashed upon a rocky Massachusetts coast, of Colonies of the Bay and Lost varieties, of Myles Standish standing proud, or even of the Wampanaog emissary Tisquantum planting oily mossbunker in the Plymouth loam. You may even imagine the leathery boot with rusted lachets making transition from gunwale to granite, with a weatherbeaten William Bradford in oilskin frock declaring the visto unfurling before his eyes a map made real, of meridians and parallels, hachures and rosa ventorum—all becoming trees and sand. He thinks he’ll call it America, so the epigram goes, with nary a mention of Vespucci or Vinland, at least not yet.Here are the beginnings not of America, but of “America,” words belonging to one “Captain Arab,” the Captain of the Mayflower who is not ingrained in our historical consciousness as much as he is part of our pop cultural landscape. He is a character in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” Bob Dylan’s raucous send-up of the American originary myth from his 1965 album, Bringing it All Back Home. It is a song known as much for its false start—Dylan begins to sing “I was riding on the Mayflower/When I thought I spied some land”[2] before breaking down in laughter and having to restart the song—as for its fabulous concoction of a New World replete with French bistros (staffed by angry servers and exploding cookware), English hot dog stands, “hobo sailors,” malfunctioning telephone booths, bowling alleys, and even a cameo appearance by a jail bound Christopher Columbus. This is not the duck-jacketed Dylan we see on the hazy cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, huddled with Suze Rotolo on the corner of Jones and West 4th Streets—as idyllic an image of Greenwich Village as we will ever know. This is Electric Dylan, appearing rakish and squinty-eyed on the cover of Bringing it All Back Home, sitting on a musty couch in a cluttered living room in Woodstock, New York with a reclining Sally Grossman. They are surrounded by mid-sixties ephemera, from Robert Johnson and Françoise Hardy albums, to a Time magazine cover featuring Lyndon B. Johnson, and even a wayward Fallout Shelter sign. (Aficionados of this album will recall that the original version this photo shoot reveals a book at Dylan’s feet—the Bollingen edition of Richard Wilhelm’s translation of the I Ching, the same version that inspired Philip K. Dick to write The Man in the High Castle three years before.) “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” finds our former folk revivalist about to become the Stratocaster-wielding De Tocqueville we know from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival—parrying his sonic parting shot on unsuspecting ears thanks to a rollicking version of “Maggie’s Farm” (the third track from Bringing it All Back Home), barely drowning out the audience’s caterwauling.This historical comparison is not far-fetched. Something like the booing at Newport can be found, perhaps not surprisingly, in some of the first travelogues of the American landscape. In 1709, the English explorer John Lawson wrote A New Voyage to Carolina, an account of his experiences among the Catawba and Waxhaw tribes in North and South Carolina. He took keen interest in how their warriors “have a Tune, which is allotted for that Dance; as, if it be a War-Dance, they have a warlike Song, wherein they express, with all the Passion and Vehemence imaginable, what they i[...]

Attributing Modernism


Antonin Raymond, Summer House at Karuizawa, South and East Facades, Nagano Prefecture, Japan (1933) (Source: Kurt Helfrich and William Whittaker, eds. Crafting a Modern World: The Architecture and Design of Antonin and Noémi Raymond (New York: Princeton Architectural Press), 155)The idea of copying necessarily invokes problems of authorship. Before a quick-minded reader evokes Benjamin Franklin’s calls to “Imitate Jesus and Socrates”[1] or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s invective that the “imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity,”[2]  or even before any heart-wrenching calls that decry the loss of the “aura” in the face of rampant “mechanical reproduction” or “technical reproducibility”[3] can be made, I only offer the idea that a copy presupposes an author. There are two ways in which this can happen. On the one hand, there is the unauthorized copy, a canvas, novel, or piece of music that is actionable because it was not sanctioned by the original’s author. On the other hand, there is the authorized copy, the so-called “derivative work”[4] that merits its own recognition though it incorporates another author’s work. An example of this would be a translation of a foreign-language novel, or a scholar’s annotations to a previous work. Thus a copy also invokes a chronological lockstep: it summons or copies a piece of art that existed before. The actionable counterfeit, fake, or simulacra cannot exist without a previous source.Copyright, patent, and trademark laws provide a series of useful cultural barometers that shed further light on authorship. These statutes contain some very important boilerplate language defining the deceptively simple question: what is copyrightable? The United States Copyright Acts of 1909 and 1976 maintain a tried and true formulation and affirm that a copyrightable work is an “original work of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression.”[5] All the non-conjunction words in that definition have been the subject of countless litigations and exegeses in American and international jurisprudential circles. But for our purposes, the words “original” and “authorship” are of greatest importance. This is because though the author may be able to copyright an “original” work, he or she can also assign the right of that work to a third party. Should an author decide to copyright a derivative work, however, then he or she must recognize the copyrighted material that inspired the new material. This is done through attribution; quite literally, through quoting and giving cognizance to someone else’s work.[6]A specific instance from Czech-American architect Antonin Raymond’s career in Japan may shed some important light on the architectural significance of attribution. Raymond’s Summer House and Studio in Karuizawa, Japan (1933), is one of the architect’s most well-known and critical successes. Built on a mountain retreat near the Karuizawa Golf Course, the house is nestled between a series of ponds and grassy berms. The house plan reveals a distinct emphasis on observing these landscapes. By ignoring the biaxial plan common to regional Japanese architecture, and by subsequently adopting a distinct asymmetrical scheme inherited from Weimar modernism, Raymond’s plan allows the house to take in different views of the landscape. The house also is not perpendicular to the plot of land, a strategy that allows for a maximized view of the surroundings. The desired effect, if not of a house that blends into its immediate surroundings, is then of a project that at least indexes the region via a carefully deployed articulation of material flourishes and tectonic strategies. Raymond used chestnut logs for the supporting structure as well as cedar for other structural elements as well as siding and other furnishings. The house’s metal roof is covered with b[...]

The Aerodynamic Lightness of Being


Louis-Pierre Mouillard (1834-1897), Nile Vulture (Otogyps auricularis), from L’Empire de l’air (1881)The year is 1881. Convalescing in Alexandria, sketching images of Nile Vultures gliding in the sweltering Mediterranean skies, the French ornithologist and engineer Louis-Pierre Mouillard writes of an air teeming with life. Appearing early on in his influential treatise on bird flight, L’Empire de l’Air, Mouillard’s powerful, sublime description of the air casts a prophetic eye to the future: “O! Blind Humanity! open thine eyes and thou shalt see millions of birds and myriads of insects cleaving the atmosphere. All these creatures are whirling through the air without the slightest float; many of them are gliding therein, without losing height, hour after hour, on pulseless wings without fatigue; and after beholding this demonstration given by the source of all knowledge, thou wilt acknowledge that Aviation is the path to be followed.” [1] Here, then, is a plea to view the world differently. It is a new sensibility that does more than call attention to the changing air; it asks us to look at the numerous denizens of the air as something altogether different. This is because for Mouillard, these are not birds or insects. They are airplanes.In Mouillard’s world, these creatures maneuver easily through the air thanks to their nearly weightless bodies. This was the predominant view for centuries. Even that most dedicated chronicler and student of animal flight, Étienne-Jules Marey acknowledged how those before him thought that insects and birds were able to “float” in the sky because of air-filled sacs that made them no different than balloons. Marey and his contemporaries looked to the flight mechanisms of birds and insects as models for human-powered, heavier-than-air flight. And during its initial moments, heavier-than-air flight was only slightly heavier than air. This was the case with the earliest airplanes: delicate, cumbersome assemblages of cloth, wood, and wire that strained to escape the surface of the earth only to fly slowly, elegantly, and effortlessly on currents of air. This was not a common sentiment, however. Franz Kafka referred to the various machines lined up like flying mantises at the 1909 Brescia Air Show as “suspicious little wooden contraptions.” [2] For the budding modernist, aircraft were no different than Gregor Samsa, the scarab-like tragic figure from The Metamorphosis: insects with uncontrollable appendages that were “continually fluttering about.” [3]Samsa’s fantastical predicament moored him to some very real concerns. And despite Kafka’s plodding verse, we can think of another modernity that follows Nietzsche’s clarion call to “kill the Spirit of Heaviness.” [4] Here, instances like F.T. Marinetti’s descriptions of pilots, who upon returning to earth, leave their machines “with an elastic ultralight leap,” [5] or Le Corbusier’s observation that airplanes are a “sign of the new times” advancing forward “in a winged flurry,” [6] tell of a modernism imbued with a lightness. It is a physical and metaphysical lightness. An aerodynamic lightness.As stated by James A.H. Murray in the New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (1858), “Aerodynamics [is the] branch of pneumatics which treats of air and other gases in motion, and of their mechanical efforts.” [7] Murray’s definition is based on an earlier entry from the Popular Encyclopedia of 1837: “Aerodynamics; a branch of aerology, or the higher mechanics, which treats the powers and motion of elastic fluids.” [8] Though these definitions speak more of laboratories and experimental chambers, consider how Siegfried Giedion, that most stalwart promoter of architectural modernism, puts forward the laboratory as a metaphor for the creation of new architecture. Using fe[...]

Exit Strategy


Timofey Pnin's Isometric Head (Source: ccassidy)February, 1957. A wintry day at fictional Waindell College, somewhere in the fictional Northeastern United States. The world is at its greyest. Bare-armed campus elms, no longer adorned by leafy crenellations, offer no resistance to the freezing air. The sun carves a shallow transit against the cirrus formations: silvery, aeriform scars illuminated by a hovering pale orb in the withering light. The previous year is only recently dead, and the new year, fraught with growing pains, is just coming to terms with its own anxieties. The future, unclear, is inevitable, looming.Atoms have just been spilt, their energy uncontrolled and dangerous. Boundaries, thought and drawn, calcify East and West. Sputnik is yet to become a wandering star. Yet even within the secluded groves of this Waindelled world, the faintest flickering of distant events prime the murmuring heart. All is not well in the world that is the University.An imaginary professor of Russian literature has just found out, to crushing disappointment, that he has been assigned to teach a theater course in the French department. His name is Timofey Pnin. Son of an ophthamologist, survivor of "The Hitler War," sifting through the flotsam and jetsam of a failed marriage, Pnin mulls over his latest failure. Tenure was not guaranteed, but in the fantastic, cobweb-ridden corners of Pnin's mind, it was a possibility as distant, tangible, and impossible as a nebula.Witness the exit strategy, the transition, the turning-over. Lists are made, appointments canceled or confirmed. Our elderly professor, defeated, collects his meager belongings in a small valise: tortoise-shell glasses too narrow for his crown, an omnibus volume of Sherlock Holmes stories, a fob of linen, a brilliant set of false teeth. Everything else seems like a film played backwards. Dishes are emptied of food and leap into the covert in neat, ceramic ziggurats. The sink fills and empties repeatedly, trash disappearing into the whorls and eddies of an infinite drain. Table and bed linens crumple into orthogonal forms and fly into closet drawers in spectral choreographies. These are the last days. Pnin writes to his landlord: "Dear Mr.___ : Behold the instructions for closing a bank account."Our esteemed professor enters a small, four-door blue sedan, and takes the driveway out from his rented house through the tall trees onto a busy street. A sure, if not steady driver, he leans into the gas pedal to avoid a swerving truck. Waindellians remembered a bluish blur leaving acrid smoke and petrol in its wake. "Did I just see Pnin?" they ask, commenting on an image-like composition of bald pate, glasses, and brilliant teeth accompanied by guttural threnodies of vrooms and even more vrooms. Pnin sightings increase in frequency as the car speeds away to some unknown terminus. And he is gone.In the wake of this noisy, smoky departure, there’s nothing. But wait: Is that a rustle of leaves? A cool breeze stirs the budding boughs. An icicle falls from a tree and shatters on the soft earth with a plink. Spring is not as far off as it seems.(Note: A version of this article appeared in Fulcrum, the Architectural Association's student broadsheet, in May 2011)[...]

Capsule Review: The Heights


From Kate Ascher, The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper (2011)Deep into the index of Kate Ascher’s likable and engaging The Heights: Anatomy of a Skyscraper (The Penguin Press, 2011), we learn that “skyscraper” was not only the name of a racing horse, but that it also referred to the “triangular sky-sail” of a ship. The fact that such data appears in such a manner is poignant—here, in a book teeming with information, in the very part dedicated to the categorization and organization of names, nouns, verbs, et cetera, we find what is perhaps one of the most important concepts of the book. The word “skyscraper” is both performative and descriptive: not only does the Oxford English Dictionary tell us that “Skyscraper” was sired by “Highflyer” (these must have been very tall horses), but that along with “moonrakers,” “skyscrapers” were cast out during light wind conditions, presumably to catch an errant breeze that may guide a foundering vessel back to port.Similarly, The Heights uses its sumptuous graphics to present a performative and descriptive (i.e. anatomical) look at skyscrapers. To do so, Ascher abandons the impulse to conflate “skyscraper” with “architecture” and presents tall buildings more as urban objects. Repeating and elaborating the formula that made her earlier graphic study on infrastructure, The Works: Anatomy of a City (2005), so successful, Ascher offers the reader hundreds of drawings, as crisp as legible as anything offered by Ernst Neufert or Otto Neurath, all showing how skyscrapers are, in essence, compact, vertical cities. This emphasis on verticality goes well beyond the book’s title: The Heights is organized in a roughly vertical fashion, with some parts dedicated  to the laying of foundations, and others showing how concrete is pumped towards upper floor plates via a complex series of compressors and tubes. (The table of contents even appears as an elevator control panel, which seems counter-intuitive unless one starts thinking of The Heights as vertical.)A book about verticality, organized verticallyAscher’s book is by no means flawless. Those with afflictions for history (such as me), will find the introductory material either very familiar or somewhat lacking. For example, the tried and true method of showing the history of skyscraper construction on a timeline only serves to show a progression in form with only a very cursory investigation of the social, political, and cultural contexts that gave rise to these building types. Yet this is not a serious fault, for the book’s preference for graphic design and visual analysis gives the reader a detailed and comprehensive glance into the design, composition, and maintenance of skyscrapers. In all, the book’s greatest strength is its ability to communicate complex information for all kinds of audiences. This means that while perusing The Heights, I was able to suspend my own predilections for historical analysis if only for a moment to confront the complexities of architecture and urbanism in a different and exciting way.[...]

Some Updates



Directions for camera usage (Source: Richard Linklater, Slacker [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992])

A very quick note to let you know about some things I have written of late that have appeared outside the space of this humble little blog (which, by the way, turned 5 this past summer).

1. In August, Materia, an Italian professional architecture journal published by Paolo Portoghesi, ran a piece by me called "L'aerodinamica leggerezza dell'essere" ("The Aerodynamic Lightness of Being.") It's a brief essay that truly exposes audiences to one of my own pathologies: namely, of writing about airplanes as a kind of architecture. Though the article was translated into Italian by Daria Ricchi, the English version of the piece also appears in the magazine. I may publish an extended version of it here, with more images.

2. Late last month, Quaderns d'arquitecture i urbanisme (better known as Quaderns) published "Air Control," my own brief, ruminative account of how the physical and metaphorical control of air defined the course of architecture through modernity into the present day. This article appears in English, Catalan, and Spanish.

3. Lastly, my own take on Richard Linklater's Slacker, from Places. It is the first of a small series of articles concerning the depiction of Texas cities on film. Bonus points to those who read the footnotes. Those of you who read all the way to the end will understand the above image.

Special thanks go out to the editors I've been working with over the summer: Kazys Varnelis, Nina Rappaport, Mario Ballesteros, Guillermo López, Caroline Fuchs, Daria Ricchi, Nancy Levinson, Josh Wallaert, and Iben Falconer.

Stay tuned ....

Rocket Talk


Space Capsule, from Walter Hohmann, The Attainability of Heavenly Bodies, Technical Translation F-44, U.S. Joint Publications Service, trans. (Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1960), 65. (Official translation of Hohmann, Die Erreichbarkeit der Himmelskörper [Berlin and Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1925].)No matter the scale of an object, whether it is a small, hand-held device or a tall building, we ask of it to more or less “act” human. This is the familiar conceit underlying MoMA’s Talk To Me, an exhibition showcasing technologies “that enhance communicative possibilities and embody a new balance between technology and people, bringing technological breakthroughs up or down to a comfortable, understandable human scale.”[1] This act of asking, of needing technological objects to be more like people takes different aspects, is based around notions of reflexivity; That is, of acting, reacting, responding to our own impulses in a like manner.Things do not “talk.” They may communicate, send us messages, data, or other kinds of information, but only at our own behest, on our own terms. We identify and design the contours and parameters that allows technology to communicate with us. We imbue the objects we design with a kind of communicative ability that has nothing to do with physiology or language, but that has everything to do with prescribed routines and tasks. If things indeed do “talk,” this is only because we “tell” them to.[2] One wonders, then, if a technological object’s own verisimilitude to humans—whether it can “talk,” “see,” and otherwise sense the world like us—becomes the sine qua non of good contemporary design. One also wonders if this desire is actually a burden. If so, who or what shoulders the weight of this seemingly impossible task?Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote of an unburdened modernity that would “kill the Spirit of Heaviness.”[3] This unburdening is more than philosophical; It describes the actual, physical unshackling of bonds of gravity. No endeavor has captured the sense of philosophical and physical unburdening like human flight. From Icarian waxwings to Otto Lilienthal’s hang gliders (and, to a certain extent, even Yves Rossy’s jetsuits), a quick inventory of the history of manned flight amounts to no less than a study of how tinkerers and scientists persisted in modeling human flight on bird flight even into the early 20th century. And with the advent of modern rocketry, of conceiving and executing the machines that finally allowed humans to escape gravity’s burdensome maw and spring into the weightlessness of space, the Icarian folly was abandoned in favor of technologies that looked more “human” than ever before.Boitard's engravings showing flightsuits for Gawry (top) (Source) and Glumm (bottom) (Source: Paltock, The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, Vol. 1 [London: Reeves and Turner, 1884])The literal “human” in “human flight” is the subject of a post at Ptak Science Books that calls attention to the visual similarities between two images of flying humans. The first is an engraving by Louis Peter Boitard from Robert Paltock's The Life and Adventures of Peter Wilkins, a Cornish Man, Relating Particularly, His Shipwreck near the South Pole; his Wonderful Passage thro a Subterraneous Cavern into a kind of New World, his there Meeting with a Gawry or Flying Woman (1750). It features a scantily-clad female figure, anything but demure, with a kite-like device harnessed to her back. Boitard’s engraving only alludes to flight, as our posed, Icarian Gawry stands with one hand pointing up, the other down, alluding to her role as a person mediating between earth and sky, yet all-too-root[...]

Of Hyphens and Hurricanes


S.S. Phemius (Built in 1921, Sunk by U-515 on 20 December 1943) (Source)Hurricane season is upon us, so consider these excerpts from Richard Hughes’ largely forgotten novel In Hazard (1938). Both are descriptions of the engine-room of the Archimedes, a cargo ship caught in the whorls of a catastrophic hurricane during the entirety of the novel:An engine-room is unlike anything in land architecture. It is an immensely tall space—reaching from the top of the ship, more or less, to the bottom. Huge. But, unlike most large architectural spaces (except perhaps Hell), you enter it through a small door at the top.And then:The stokehold (or fire-room), which you enter at the bottom ordinarily, through a low door from the bottom of the engine-room, is a very different place. The air here is hotter still; but quite dry. Here, moreover, is a symmetry more like that of land-architecture: a row of similar furnaces, small at the bottom and growing larger above, so that overhead they come together, like gothic arches in a metal crypt (or the walls of a room in a dream).[1]These passages call our attention to a subtle difference between “land architecture” and “land-architecture.” These two terms identify something we are all familiar with (buildings), and yet it is the use of a hyphen that really merits our attention. In the first excerpt, the words “land” and “architecture” are unconnected: they are separated both physically and conceptually. If architecture is different than land, then the engine-room is different from any kind of building we may be familiar with.With the second passage, however, the hyphen joins “land” and “architecture.” This is more than just a typographic connection. Here, it is as if buildings were literally connected to the earth. This gesture evokes such terms as site, location, and even context—all expressing different ways in which buildings become part of something else. History may even be the very thing  that  connects “land” and “architecture.” Notice how Hughes describes the engine-room’s stokehold as “symmetrical,” an attribute that immediately brings to mind the symmetric plans of classical or Beaux-Arts architecture. If the stokehold is “more like” a building, then equating its furnaces with  “gothic arches” is another  deliberate architectural description. Yet what connects these two descriptions are the parenthetical asides. In the first, the engine-room is “Hell”; in the second,  “walls of a room in a dream.” These are architectural ideas, and thinking of a ship as architecture is enough to make it so.Admittedly, this all amounts to a fair bit of hair-splitting. We may even excuse the narrator for any errors of judgment or observation he may have made. This is, after all, neither an architect nor a historian, but a novelist that is making these equations. Yet this interest in equating the design and making of ships with the design and making of buildings is not foreign to the history of architecture. Nor is it foreign to the history of the history of architecture.Antoine-Denis Chaudet, Julien-David Le Roy, 1803-4 (Source: Christopher Drew Armstrong, "The Architect as Revolutionary Hero: A Monument to Julien-David Leroy," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 66, No. 3 (Sep., 2007), 317.)Enter Julien-David Le Roy. As an architect, archaeologist and historian, Le Roy (1723-1804) is credited with creating a dualist approach to history that lingers to this day. Think of this approach as one that views the same building under two separate lenses—one historical, the other architectural— and that can yield different results. This was no doubt a [...]

The Harvard Candle


Detonation of Napalm M47 Device, Harvard University, 4 July 1942 (Source: Louis F. Fieser, The Scientfic Method: A Personal Account of Unusual Projects in War and in Peace [New York: Reinhold, 1964])These signs are real. They are also symptoms of a process. The process follows the same form, the same structure. To apprehend it you will follow the signs. All talk of cause and effect is secular history, and secular history is a diversionary tactic. Useful to you, gentlemen, but no longer so to us here. If you want the truth — I know I presume — you must look into the technology of these matters. Even into the hearts of certain molecules — it is they after all which dictate temperatures, pressures, rates of flow, costs, profits, the shapes of towers …[1]I wasn’t eager to hear Zapparoni’s opinion of the army. Very likely he thought of it as a department of his factory, where teams of scientists and engineers worked in overalls – a company of non-horsemen and vegetarians with sets of false teeth who loved to press buttons – and where a half-witted mathematician could cause more damage in a second than Frederick the Great …[2]The above quotes suggest how the most cataclysmic aspects of war often had small beginnings. Small, in the sense that they sometimes depended on the whims of a few individuals. Small, as they involved that most fundamental of phenomena — the chemical molecule. The sites of such developments were more than just laboratories and universities. Their origins were more than likely institutional, the result of various government-sponsored joint ventures and committees entrusted with creating advanced weapon technologies.The most powerful and influential of these was the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), which came into official existence on July 2, 1940, more than a year before the United States entered World War II. That year, President Roosevelt appointed Carnegie Institute president Vannevar Bush as the NDRC’s first chairman. Original committee members, in addition to representatives of the armed forces and the government, included Roger Adams, head of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Illinois, Karl T. Compton, President of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, James B. Conant, President of Harvard University, F.B. Jewett, President of the National Academy of Sciences, and R. C. Tolman, the Dean of the Graduate School at California Institute of Technology. Shortly after his appointment, Bush organized the NDRC into five separate divisions, each entrusted with a general type of weapons research.With Bush’s endorsement, Dr. Conant’s was the first NDRC division to receive funding. This division’s sole charge was the research and development of different types of bombs, fuels, poison gases, and “chemical problems.”[3] Bush immediately contacted a group of professors from universities throughout the country to begin work in this area. On October 23, 1940, the committee members met at Roger Adams’ home and finalized the very mechanisms that would “draft” prominent scientists into the war effort. Participation in the NDRC structure was highly secretive: each member was to receive the highest security clearances and very wide-ranging powers regarding the nature of their research.Louis Fieser's NRDC identification card (1944)One of these professors was Harvard University chemist Louis F. Fieser. A widely-published expert on organic and synthetic chemistry and student of James Conant's, Fieser’s job was to evaluate the explosive potential of new types of nitrogen-based compounds.  He enlisted a group of other well-known scientists for his cause: Richar[...]

Architecture on Trial


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A colleague of mine is raising funds for a film about Jim Stirling's Leicester Engineering Building (1963). Called MORE THAN a Building? Architecture on Trial, the film promises to be a detailed look at Stirling's iconic building. Director Joseph Bedford has already amassed over 40 interviews for this film from critics, scholars, and architects. Bedford's film is related to an upcoming exhibition on Stirling set to open April 1 at the Architecture Foundation — funds will go towards the completion of this project. For more information, check out the embedded trailer.

(This, of course, does not excuse you from checking out the Canadian Center for Architecture's site dedicated to the James Stirling/Michael Wilford archive.)

Utopia For Sale


Stanley Resor (1879-1962) (Source: Karen E. Mishra, "J. Walter Thompson: Building Trust in Troubled Times," Journal of Historical Research in Marketing, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2009), 246-269)The idea that good design matters seems so pervasive as to be a near-truism. One would be hard pressed to find materials — books, magazines, podcasts, et cetera — that do not bemoan a lack of good design. But what is meant by the term “good design”? Is it an objective term describing an object’s particular qualities, or is it a function of a user’s subjectivities? Enter the leagues of design experts, writers, and consultants willing to provide guidance and polemics. Consider, for example, a 2001 roundtable discussion from Wired called “A Conversation About the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Featuring a diverse body of designers and thinkers, the piece appears as a series of  infinitely quotable morsels that dissect previously held misconceptions about the value of design while at the same time offering a bit of prognostication tinged with some historical reflection. At one point, Paola Antonelli, a senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), claims that “People think that design is styling. Design is not style. It’s not about giving shape to the shell and not giving a damn about the guts.”[1] When compared along with everything else said during the discussion, this statement appears as a moment of untrammeled clarity, a provocation aimed to steer everyone away from a potentially meandering conversation about design. But it is also important to consider the rest of Antonelli’s quote, especially when she claims that “Good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need, and beauty to produce something that the world didn’t know it was missing.” [2]These quotes appeared almost ten years ago, yet they echo those of a similar debate occurring among American design and corporate circles in the 1920’s and 1930’s. In 1928, Art Deco designer Paul T. Frankl remarked that “Simple lines … tend to cover up the complexities of the machine age. If they do not do this, they at least divert our attention and allow us to feel ourselves master of the machine.”[3] Frankl here was writing about the rising demand for beauty in products, a demand that appeared sometime around the 1920’s when consumers became more interested covering the above-mentioned guts with a pretty shell and demanded more “attractive” products as opposed to “haphazard, disorderly” goods that evoked a “engineered as you go” look.[4] This emphasis on attractiveness would reach its clearest and most effortless expression only four years later in the pages of Norman Bel Geddes’ industrial design manifesto Horizons (1932). With sumptuous images of cars, airplanes, trains, houses and furniture — all designed by Bel Geddes — the former stage designer now turned design expert applied the visual vocabulary of aerodynamic and hydrodynamic design to a host of industrial and consumer objects. Along with the work of other early twentieth century industrial designers like Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague or Henry Dreyfuss, Bel Geddes’ projects are often heralded as examples par excellence of streamlined design.Diagram explaining principle of streamlined design, from Norman Bel Geddes, Horizons (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1932)With graceful curves and ovoid shapes evoking speed and efficiency, streamlining was more “an aesthetic device rather than an aerodynamic one.”[5] Yet the diff[...]

Symposium Season


A quick note to remind readers of a symposium I am helping organize at Princeton. Called "Teaching Architecture, Practicing Pedagogy," this event is dedicated to new research on the history of architectural education in the twentieth century. It will take place at the Princeton University School of Architecture on February 11-12, 2011.

For more information about the event, please visit the symposium website. Hope to see you there!

Happy Holidays


Christmas card by Bob Wirth depicting LCM Chair as Santa Claus. Sent to Charles and Ray Eames in 1948 (Source)
A quick note to thank everyone for helping make 2010 a great year for this is a456. I could not have done this without your support and enthusiasm.

See you in 2011!

A Sartorial Moment


"The unveiling of the Palace of Soviets' model, Paris, 1931" (Source: Jean-Louis Cohen, Le Corbusier et la mystique de l'URSS: Théories et projets pour Moscou, 1928-1936 [Bruxelles: Mardaga, 1987] 165)We are confronted by a strange image.[1] Taken in 1931, this photograph reveals a surprising episode from one of Le Corbusier's most trying (and defining) moments—the competition for the Palace of Soviets. It captures the very moment when the architect reveals the architectural model for the first time. To the left, we see Pierre Jeanneret and another employee from Le Corbusier's studio in the rue de Sèvres, holding a white sheet they have just pulled away. The Palace of Soviets model sits freshly uncovered, or, to use T.S. Eliot's term, "etherized upon a table"[2], that is, not asleep, but made ethereal. The project's telltale arch and roof-supporting spars are immediately recognizable against the ghostly cloth. And on the right, standing just to the side of the model is Le Corbusier himself, wearing a trim, fitted suit, hands wrapped around a double bass. His left hand cranes the instrument's neck. The right hand strokes the strings above the fingerboard, a position that could be a little too high for proper pizzicato technique, but a show nonetheless. He may be pretending to play the instrument. We are, after all, watching a performance.Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Palace of Soviets, interior perspective (1931) (Source: Le Corbusier Le Grand [New York: Phaidon Press, 2008]). Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, Palace of Soviets, axonometric drawing (1931).Perhaps it is the stark, uncompromising lighting, or even the stage-like composition that drapes the subjects in dark, void-like shadows and brilliant fields of white: there is something about this image that just seems so appropriate. Le Corbusier's competition entry, with its innovative programming, attention to acoustics, emphasis on closed air ventilation (or respiration exacte), and distinctive roof-supporting arch, was many things—skeletal frame of pure functionalism; death-knell for Constructivism; moment of clarity severing relationships between the European and Soviet avant-garde; explanation foreshadowing his support of Marshal Pétain. Yet the proposal remains enigmatic not because of its architectural gestures, but because of its fate. Le Corbusier's proposal, which could have been "perhaps the greatest building ever built"[3], never made it past the second round of the competition. On 28 February1932, a letter announced Ivan Zholtovsky, Boris Iofan, and Hector Hamilton as the winners. It was not Le Corbusier's first loss (he had been disqualified earlier from the Palace for the League of Nations competition). It was, however, his most stinging and significant defeat to date.The importance that Le Corbusier assigned to his proposal surely explains the ritual-like nature of its unveiling. But what was being veiled? Or, to use use the language of detectives and investigative magistrates, what was being uncovered? The amount of time and labor invested in this project is legendary, but why all the drama?  Le Corbusier's status as a figure in the history of architecture is undisputed. But an opportunity should be taken to examine all possible aspects leading to this claim, and hence the issue of "unveiling" takes an additional significance. The use of sheets as well as the clothes that Le Corbusier wears in the photograph from 1928 to 1931—a period coinciding with his Moscow projects— take on an special s[...]

Seen and Not Seen


Postcard depicting the Comte de Lambert's 1909 flight around the Eiffel Tower (Source: Wright State University Library Special Collections)The earliest, most well-known romance between architecture and aviation had everything to do with seeing ... and not seeing. We can look to the very opening moments of Le Corbusier's Aircraft (1935) to have this revealed before us, the portrait of the young architect as a young polemicist. The year is 1909, and the young Le Corbusier, then an apprentice in Auguste Perret's office, sequestered in a "student's garret on Quai St. Michel,"[1] hears a noise. It is the sound of the Comte de Lambert flying his Wright flyer around the Eiffel Tower. It may have not been the loudest noise in the world, and yet the aircraft's single 35-hp engine would have created enough of a distinguishable drone in the air to catch an unsuspecting ear. The flight was the latest event in what would be a watershed decade for the history French aviation—and a momentous occasion for Le Corbusier as well. This was, after all, the very moment when "men had captured the chimera and driven it above the city."[2] And yet the Comte's flight was literally obstructed by architecture. The noise was enough to cause our young architect to crane his head out the window, away from the building, so to speak, "to catch sight of this unknown messenger."[3]Such talk of messengers is wholly apposite, for as Le Corbusier tells us, it was some time later when Perret burst into his atelier brandishing a copy of L'intransigeant announcing Louis Blériot’s successful flight across the English Channel on July 25, 1909. These two events—the Comte de Lambert's fight around the Eiffel Tower and Blériot's channel crossing—have a special significance for narratives of architectural modernism in that they anticipate Le Corbusier's own romance with flight and flying machines. There are of course other, and in some cases, earlier and more fruitful instances where the cultures of architecture and aviation have merged. Yet what is important here is that this early entanglement with aviation would inform some of Le Corbusier's most important polemical statements about architecture.Le Corbusier-Saugnier, "Des yeux qui ne voient pas ... Les Avions" L'Esprit nouveau No. 9 (1921)Within the pages of L'Esprit nouveau, the publication edited and published by Le Corbusier[4] and Amédée Ozenfant from 1920-1925, there appears a series of installments with the cryptic title "Des Yeux Qui Ne Voient Pas" ("Eyes That Do Not See"). The phrase, attributed to a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé called "Le phénomène futur,"[5] is an indictment of Le Corbusier's contemporaries, architects who are incapable of seeing without any sense of clarity, of not seeing what "is right before our eyes."[6]  It is as much an appeal to contemporaneity as it is a demand for architects to really look at the various industrial objects around them to truly understand how to pose a design problem.[7] The first "Eyes That Do Not See" that appeared in L'Esprit nouveau No. 8 (1921) is about ships, and the second, from No. 9 (1921), concerned airplanes. Here, Le Corbusier looks to aircraft to demonstrate how architects should be looking at design problems. The logic goes something like this: if an airplane is a machine for flying, and a bomber a machine for bombing, then the reason why houses are not looked at as machines for living is that architects have not trained their eyes to really pose the question [...]

Figures of Involvement


Minutemen (L to R: d. boon, George  Hurley, Mike Watt) at the 1984 Los Angeles Street Scene (photo by Eric Stringer) (Source).While we are on the topic of statistics [1], I only need to remind you of a song verse. It goes something like this:Let's say I got a number. That number's fifty thousand. That's 10% of 500,000.   Oh here we are in French Indochina.  Executive order. Congressional decision. The working masses are manipulated. “Was this our policy?” Ten long years — not one dominoe shall fall.Some of you will recognize these as the lyrics to “Viet Nam,” from the Minutemen’s ground-breaking Double Nickels on the Dime (1984).  Released by SST Records the very same year as Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade, Double Nickels on the Dime was a blast of jazz-funk-inflected agitprop that continues to be recognized as one of the most important rock albums of the late 20th century, if not all time.  Combining guitarist d. boon’s slinky, trebly guitar parts, Mike Watt’s muscular and melodic bass playing, and George Hurley’s acrobatic drumming, the Minutemen did much more than just create the definitive sound of America’s music underground during the early 1980s.  They created a template for punk rock’s labors by setting a minimum threshold for band membership and songwriting.  Guitar.  Bass.  Drums.  That was all that was needed to write songs.  With hardly a guitar solo, and with tight compositions that made the most of the band lineup and instrumentation, Minutemen albums were, sonically-speaking, lean affairs.Top: What Makes a Man Start Fires? (1982) (Featuring cover art by Raymond Pettibon).  Bottom: Double Nickels on the Dime (1984)But that’s only part of it.  Not only could the Minutemen play songs better than most (they were all incredible musicians), but by the time your shitty band finished a song, boon, Watt, and Hurley already played four or five.  This was the Minutemen equation: don’t just play better music, but play more music.  The result was a head spinning catalog of music where almost all songs clocked in somewhere between 45 seconds to 2 minutes.  Listen to a Minutemen album, and suddenly the idea of diminishing returns is turned on its head.  Each musical volley leaves you wanting more and more.Here is some statistical evidence.  Their first full-length, The Punch Line (1981), contained 18 songs.  The longest track from the album, “Tension,” clocked in at 1:20.  The shortest, “Fanatics,” at 0:31.  The album’s total run time is only 15:00, which, by my math, is over 5 minutes shorter than Rush’s epic “2112” (which is somewhere around 20:33).  The Minutemen’s second album, What Makes a Man Start Fires? (1982) also had 18 songs but ran at a slightly longer 26:39.  The 8 songs from Buzz Or Howl Under The Influence of Heat (1983) could technically qualify their third studio recording as an EP, but it was marketed by SST as a full-length LP (its run time was 15:30).  These songs tended to be longer affairs, a trend that would continue with Double Nickels on The Dime (43 tracks, with a 73:35 running length).  Their last album, 3-Way Tie (For Last) (1985) featured their one of their longest songs, a cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s “The Red and The Black” (4:09).  With 16 songs, its run time is 36:11.  Here’s the final tally: 5 albums; 103 songs; and 4 hours, 16 minutes’ w[...]

Volume to Space


Olivier Messiaen in Bryce Canyon, Utah, 1971 (Source)More remains to be said about the relationship of music criticism to architecture criticism. Or put another way, music criticism should be considered as a kind of architecture criticism. This is not to say that the two realms have been far apart. Far from it. In fact, books like Mark Treib's Space Calculated in Seconds (1996), Robin Evans' essay "Comic Lines" from his posthumous The Projective Cast: Architecture and Its Three Geometries (1995), or even more deeply historical works such as Emily Thompson's The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900-1933 (2002) all consider, to a certain extent, a spectrum of relationships between music and architecture.  These relationships are both literal and figurative. As Treib's and Evans' work shows, the relationship between Le Corbusier, Iannis Xenakis, and Edgard Varèse went beyond physical artefacts such as the Phillips Pavilion (1958), but also extended to design methods as well. And as Thompson expertly demonstrated in her influential book, the history of architectural modernism could be understood through acoustical technologies.There is still more work to be done. Take, for instance, the role that the trip to the desert has played in the late 20th century. From Robert Venturi's, Denise Scott Brown's, and Steven Izenour's Learning From Las Vegas (1972), to Reyner Banham's Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), to Luis Buñuel's Simon of the Desert (Simón del desierto) (1965), and even, to a certain extent, David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the desert has become a place of reinvention and a site of reinvigoration. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has even given the desert an architectural significance of sorts. "What attracts the stranger to the city is what makes the city and desert alike," he writes. "In both, there is just the the present, united by the past, a present that may be lived as the beginning, and a secure beginning, a beginning that does not threaten to solidify into a consequence ... In the city as in the desert, the stranger, the wanderer, the nomad, the flâneur finds reprieve from time."[1] And yet this timelessness operates on a musical register as well. Thus in his preface to The Rest is Noise (2007), critic Alex Ross describes the effect of atonal music on 20th century audiences, noting how something noisy and disorienting can be "so singularly beautiful that people gast in wonder when they hear it. Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, with its grandly singing lines and gently ringing chords, stops time with every performance."[2]Cover to a CBS recording of Des canyons aux étoiles ... featuring an image of Bryce Canyon.The reference to Messiaen is very apposite, as the French composer created one of the most important desert-related works in recent memory. In 1971, philanthropist Alice Tully commissioned Messiaen to compose a piece for the upcoming U.S. bicentennial. To prepare, he took a research trip out west to Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah to study the various birds and landscape colors there. Messiaen, who had bi-directional sound-color synaesthesia, created a system for correlating the colors of the landscape, the local species of birds, and various sounds. Music historian Jonathan Bernard recognized the importance of Messiaen's ailment:His synaesthesia, like the true form of the phenomenon in any affected indi[...]

Wes Anderson vs. Jacques Tati


Check out Wes Anderson's new spot for Stella Artois.  A little Mon Oncle, no?

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Patina, Provenance, Mass Production


Sticker sheet and 'zine included with Fender's Sonic Youth-model guitars (Source)Is there an industrial, mass-produced object that resists change the way that an electric guitar or bass does?  Electric guitars and basses have withstood changes in consumption patterns, company ownership, construction techniques, and even fashion trends while maintaining their basic aesthetic, material composition, and to some extent, signature sound since their introduction into the American marketplace sometime after the Second World War.  Together they comprise a family of very provocative industrial objects.  This is because unlike airplanes, speedboats, sneakers, tennis racquets, jeans, and a host of other industrial objects, electric guitars and basses just keep on staying the same the more things change.A guitar or bass made by companies like Fender, Gibson, Rickenbacker and others has followed the same basic design for over half a decade.  They all feature similar bodies, pickup configurations, tuning peg arrangements, bridge locations, and electronics.  All are made of a dense wood like maple or alder, and all have rosewood or maple fingerboards.  Some may have glossy or painted finishes.  Fretwire is usually made out of a softer alloy.  Inlays are made of mother-of-pearl or some other synthetic plastic.  And there are even more expensive variants, each guitar or bass crafted from more expensive or exotic woods.  These are not as widespread as the entry-level, mass-produced bass or guitar.  And this leads to an important point: that there are more of these baseline Stratocaster, Telecaster, Precision or Jazz Bass guitars than, say, the $4200 bass that is manufactured to look (and sound) just like the bass that Jaco Pastorius played on all those Weather Report albums.  And like any other industrial product, an electric bass or guitar sells better if played by a famous musician.  This is the case even if the instrument is an inexpensive, entry-level variant.  Is it possible that Ernie Ball, Inc. sold more instruments after thousands of aspiring bass players saw Flea play a Stingray bass on MTV?  Of course it is.     This is not to say, however, that such objects do not have any cult value, or that they are not somehow fetishized by music freaks everywhere.  Far from it.  In fact, no object demonstrates the value of patina like an electric guitar or bass.  Patina equals more sku's.  Fender's Sonic Youth custom guitars (Source)This is precisely the point made recently in the excellent things magazine, where it was observed that "Signature guitars were once the preserve of conventional rock gods, but the inevitable spread of alt culture into the mainstream has created a market for slightly more eccentric instruments, ironically productionised versions of objects that were once customised by their owners to be unique."  Images of some very expensive equipment—specifically from Fender's "Artist" line of instruments—were included to make this point: Sonic Youth members Lee Ranaldo's and Thurston Moore's Fender Jazzmasters and Kurt Cobain's "Jag-stang" (comprised of parts from Fender Mustang and Jaguar guitars).  These instruments no doubt sounded a certain way, but it is more than likely that they are prized for the way that they looked.  And in some instance[...]