Sunday, December 23, 2007

Happy Holidays

As much as I love spaceships, airplanes, and pretty much anything that is not earthbound, I found this collection of Soviet holiday cards absolutely wonderful (Thank you, Anne, for the awesome link).

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Other Forms of Primary Authority

George Inness, The Lackawanna Valley, 1856. National Gallery of Art, Gift of Mrs. Huttleston Rogers

I was thinking about this question this morning: if historians and critics can deploy Kant and Hegel in service of an argument, why are people loathe to consider novels and other literary works in the same light? A novel is not a primary source, the professor or Ph.D student will tell you. Okay, but ......

Consider this brief book review I wrote for a Historiography of Technology class taught by Emily Thompson:

Eloquent, energetic, and impassioned, Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden (1964) continues to resonate with contemporary audiences. The book’s enduring appeal has made it a staple in various disciplines, and yet the very methods underlying Marx’s arguments remain controversial for current generations of students and academicians.

The central idea behind The Machine in the Garden is that the introduction of technology in the 18th and 19th centuries transformed American society. This may seem a truism, but it is how Marx seeks to prove this idea that becomes novel. The author uses 18th and 19th (and to a certain extent, 20th) century American literature as evidence of the technological effects on American thinking. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories, as well as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and even F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) become source material. In his afterword to the 35th anniversary edition of the book, Marx himself even alludes to the problem with this approach: “Though poetry and fiction are not very helpful in establishing the historical record as such, they are singularly useful, I learned, in getting at the more elusive, intangible effects of change – its impact on the moral and aesthetic, emotional and sensory, aspects of experience.”

If literature provides the intellectual backdrop of Marx’s argument, then the literal object of inquiry is the landscape. In other words, the technological reshaping of the American landscape is evident in the very literature Marx chooses to analyze. This line of thinking permeates The Machine in the Garden’s structure. The first chapter begins with Hawthorne’s impressions of a steam locomotive interrupting his enjoyment of Concord, Massachusetts’ natural environs. The antecedents and repercussions of this literal intrusion of technology into the American landscape are significant, Marx argues. An excursion into the history of the American idea of pastoral follows, whereby sources as disparate as Virgil’s Eclogues and Shakespeare’s The Tempest are used to great effect setting the stage for the most important chapters in the book. Whereas “The Garden” is a chapter that somewhat debunks the idea that thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson valued only the idea of an untrammeled, unspoiled yeoman-tilled landscape, “The Machine” confirms that American society was indeed mentally preparing itself for the introduction of technology into what Marx calls the “pastoral ideal.” Using the written materials of thinkers like the French –American writer J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur and American entrepreneur Tench Coxe, Marx documents the creation of a “middle landscape”, a figurative, contemplative space where such thinkers could assess the significance of the “machine’s” entry into the “garden.” This is a point bought to bear in the last chapter, called “Two Kingdoms of Force.” In this chapter, Marx relies on Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand”, Moby Dick, and Huckleberry Finn to demonstrate how “a distinctive national culture” and “unique conception of life” emerges due to “the combined influence of two forces: technology and geography – the transportation revolution and the unspoiled terrain of the new world.” Marx concludes the book by stating that all these literary works confirm that the new American landscape of the 19th century is “the industrial landscape pastoralized.”

Although Marx calls attention to problems in using literature as primary historical sources, it is important to note reasons why such an approach is of value to historians. Marx’s interest in using famous works of literature to elucidate history is echoed in the work of subsequent literary theorists and cultural historians. Works like Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), Wartime (1989), and even Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Railway Journey (1987) use a similar approach to Marx’s in detailing histories of military technology and railway travel. Seasoned historians of science and technology may well opt to choose other works to investigate these topics. Yet The Machine in the Garden works particular well in one respect – it can be best understood as a document detailing representations of technology in 19th century America. One wonders if Marx’s own aspirations are greater than this. In a 1956 article for The New England Quarterly, also entitled “The Machine in the Garden”, Marx gives a thumbnail sketch of some of the ideas for his 1964 book. Unlike the book, Marx opens the essay with quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “…the artist must employ the symbols in use in his day and nation to convey his enlarged sense to his fellow-men.” This clarion call extends to scholars as well. In a 1998 article, a critic assesses Marx’s own predilection for literary sources, therefore claiming “This awakening to literature, to its voice and narrative devices, has something, too, of the pastoral. For it seems, especially in academe, we have become too sophisticated, we know too much and use what we know too keenly.” The beauty of Marx’s book is in its ability to augment our understanding of a complicated subject of inquiry.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Border Blasters, and Other Forms of (Literal) Culture Jamming

Map of Border Blasters (AM-frequency Pirate Radio Stations) on the U.S./Mexico Border

A fascinating piece from WNYC's On The Media, on Border Radio and the politics of airwaves on the U.S./Mexico border.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Out There ....

From Form, Ausgabe 41 (1968)

To see some interesting discussion out there about utopias, dystopias, and other bugbears and bête-noires -- it warms the cockles of one's heart.

Monday, October 29, 2007

That's Some Pig!!!!

Album Cover to Pink Floyd's Animals (1977)

(On the architectural significance of the pig). At a review this past Friday, I was admiring a student project that placed pigs and humans in close quarters. This lead to some excessive ruminations on the iconography of the everyday pig. For another class, Emily Thompson remarked that pigs were the "SUV's" of preindustrial society. Pigs were on the brain.

But while considering the student project, I remarked that the greatest statement concerning the architectural significance of the pig comes not from a designer, but from Pink Floyd. Yes, that Pink Floyd. I was remarking specifically on the cover to the band's 1977 album, Animals. The cover art features a giant, inflatable pig flying through the smoke stacks of Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's Battersea Power Station. According to Pink Floyd's website, the inflatable pig was launched during the album cover photoshoot, in 1976. A marksman was on hand to shoot the pig in case it broke free from its moorings. On the second day of shooting, the pig did become unmoored, and flew onto incoming Heathrow traffic, causing delays. Heathrow control tracked the pig up to an altitude of 18,000ft, asking all traffic to be aware of a giant pig flying in the area. The pig eventually landed gently on a pasture.

Pink Floyd's pig is heavyhanded symbolism. Animals was famously inspired by George Orwell's Animal Farm, and thus the pig is associated with control (Pig="Pig"=Police). But the image of a pristine, plump pig flying in between Battersea's massive cooling towers ... one would not be surprised to hear Raymond Williams or Leo Marx invoked. And the latter is especially poignant, as Animals tracks the reintroduction of the garden into the machine.

Images of Jeffrey Shaw, Pig for Pink Floyd (1977) (Source: Medien Kunst Netz)

Although we can thank Storm Thorgerson (a member of the English graphic design collective Hipgnosis) for Animals' cover art, it was Jeffrey Shaw, an architect, who created the inflatable pig for Pink Floyd's North American tour in 1977. The pig, designed to fly inside arenas, above people's heads as the band played on, definitely echoed Shaw's own thoughts on architecture, spectacle, and pneumatics. In a 1969 article for Art and Artists entitled "Concepts for an Operational Art", Shaw declares architecture as a "multi-state and responsive morphology of structure." Shaw continues:
The environmental planning of an age is not neutral ... rather it is the expression of the prevailing attitudes, and when in existence it reinforces those attitudes by structuring the basic elements (house, street, city landscape) from which we infer the structure of the whole. One of the main festures of the present environmental design programme is a monumental rigidity which precludes any significant role or identity of the user. It is the same third-rate democracy as the political structure as a whole ... the range of freedom given (voting and furniture) is demeaning. To counteract this and again indicate to every individual his capacities as architect of the totality, an alternative form of environmental situation is envisioned which is in itself as undetermined as possible, depending for its life and forms on participant action and invention. Pneumatics seem at this moment to be one of the mose useful means of realizing this programme. But not as a futuristic fantasy on paper, but as an event in operation now, confronting the institutional monolith in its midst (1969: n.p.).
Indeed, for Shaw, the rock concert and the flying inflatable pig may as well be indicative of a "particular structuring of art/architecture/spectacle/technology" that "makes operational an expanded arena of will and action open to everyone" (1969: n.p.). Yet the pig's delicate slalom among the power station's slender towers remind us of a different type of inflatable spectacle.

Plaque commemorating a 1915 Zeppelin Raid on London, Farringdon Road (Source: Paul Frink)

From 1915 to 1916, the Marine Luftschiff Abeitlung (Naval Airship Unit) introduced the new L20-type Zeppelin to bomb Allied land and sea targets. L20's were the largest airships of their day -- they were 163.5 meters long and 21.7 meters in diameter, and could carry a payload of about 16,000 kilograms (around 16 tons). On January 31, 1916, nine L20's under the command of Korvettenkäpitan (Commander) Peter Strasser set out for a nighttime assault on Liverpool. The weather conditions were poor along the English coast, and through a series of navigational errors, the assault fleet ended up lumbering over East Anglia. The L14, commanded by Kapitänleutnant (Lieutenant Commander) Alois Boecker, started attacking targets in Tammworth, Overseal, and Swadlincote, with little effect. He turned the L14 towards Darby, and hit several high-profile targets with high-explosive and incendiary bombs: the Rolls-Royce Factory and Testing Track, the Metallite Lamp works, the Midland Railway's Carriage and Wagon Works, a lace factory, as well as some open sites and minor industrial buildings. According to a 2001 article from the Derby Evening Telegraph, the casualties amounted to 61 dead and 101 injured. In nearby Scunthorpe, results from the same air raid tell that the victims included "three people and a pig."

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Built To Last

Yucca Mountain, Nevada

A very interesting set of propositions. First, how do you build something that will last 10,000 years? And second, 10,000 years from now, how do you let others know that you've built this something? This is especially important if the thing you've built is designed to store, of all things, nuclear waste.

As we all know, the controversial Yucca Mountain Repository is a giant site located inside a mountain designed to handle and store spent nuclear reactor fuel and radioactive waste. Because of the long half-lives of the various radioactive materials to be stored inside the mountains, the Department of Energy took on the task on building a structure that would last as long as needed to accommodate the 10,000+ year process of radioactive decay. This type of building would prevent contamination of human environments at least until other types of technologies can be developed to handle the problem.

As part of the contract, the Department of Energy entrusted the Nuclear Regulatory Division with creating signage to be deployed at Yucca Mountain warning future generations of what is actually inside the mountain. According to the U.S. Office of Radioactive Waste Management (OCRWM), the signage system placed along Yucca Mountain constitutes "a redundant message system consisting of perimeter monuments, smaller markers, and larger monuments serving as information centers" that "would convey information by an unnatural-looking design, the strategic placement and use of materials, and the use of many languages and symbols."

Artist's rendering of one of the monument/information centers at Yucca Mountain (Source: OCRWM)

The OCRWM continues:

A series of tall enduring monuments about 25 feet high would be placed along the site’s perimeter as well as on and near the mountain’s crest. They would be designed to be noticed and to endure natural events, even water from future floods or the build-up of sand dunes deposited by wind. The warning messages on the monuments would be inscribed in several languages as well as pictures and symbols. The languages that would be used are the six official languages of the United Nations: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. The messages may also be displayed in some simplified form of the sign language used by the hearing impaired. Linguists have recommended that a variety of picture symbols be used, including perhaps a unique international symbol for “nuclear waste repository.”

These messages would be inscribed about 40 inches or higher above the ground’s surface to prolong legibility. To better withstand corrosion and erosion, the monuments could be constructed from either granite or basalt. The messages must survive natural forces and remain legible and comprehensible as long as possible. Natural factors to be considered are abrasion from wind-borne particles, general surface erosion, and “desert varnish,” a dark coating or polish often found on rock surfaces after long exposure in desert regions; desert varnish is typically caused by a buildup of iron and manganese oxides.

The shapes and dimensions of the monuments are also important factors. The current concept calls for the perimeter monuments to be six-sided cones pointing upwards at varying angles. As shown in the schematic drawing, they would rise out of the ground above the repository near the larger monuments, as well as around the entire surface perimeter of the underground repository. They would be designed to be unnatural-looking so they would draw attention, but not be misconstrued as memorials of honor.
The monuments would be accompanied by a series of "nine-inch warning markers ... anchored into the ground and easily visible by a wandering human being. These markers would be designed as a redundant message system. To ensure the markers would last, they could be made of diverse durable materials such as granite, fired clay, and stainless steel. Each marker would display the international radiation symbol and one of the written messages."

Site plan of OCRWM's system of monuments and signage at Yucca Mountain Repository

The project is ambitious in its scale, to be sure. One wonders about the degree of detachment one must employ in order to be involved in such a project. After all, NRC and OCRWM are designing for a time when natural and non-natural landscapes will be altered, when such surfaces will bear the mark of unforeseen climactic change, and when humans will have a completely different relationship with their environments.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Malaria! - Geld/Money

A (198x) video from Malaria!, a totally fascinating band affiliated with the Neue Deustche Welle (German New Wave). This video is (I believe) part of the permanent collection at K21/Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Taking Stock

Aggregät456 has been around a little over a year now. You wouldn't know it, especially since I post so infrequently, and especially since I received relatively few comments. I have all this site-meter-tracking stuff, which kinda gives me an idea of who reads this website and when. But honestly, I have a difficult time reading these, seeing that such apps are primarily designed for those who are trying to maximize the return on their investment.

Which is to say .... that has nothing to do with this website. And I cannot really tell you what it's about. Yes, I study architecture. I write about architecture. I think about it during my waking hours .. I have to, it's my job. This site first started out as a way to hash out paper ideas for school. Then it became a place to place aborted paper ideas. And then, a place to repost papers or projects I have previously written. And now?

Today, I visited, a site that (along with Speedbird, BLDGBLOG, and others) I frequent daily. Kazys' latest post is a totally apposite commentary on the nature of blogging, a post that is rightly critical and tacitly pessimistic about the relationship between self-publishing and the built environment. But what struck me about the post was a link to a top-ten list of architecture blogs ... a list that includes this very website.

Aggregät456 is listed as a "must read." Although I am incredibly thankful for the positive encouragement, I have to ask, a must read for who? Architects? Urban planners? Graduate students? Undergraduates? Dilettantes? Enthusiasts? I only ask because the site never aspired to much more than a virtual notebook, a place where I could communicate with the very ideas and images that continue to interest me to this day.

In other words, I share Kazys' own ambivalence about online publishing. I wonder how this site will change over time. I already changed the color scheme. That's something, right?

Friday, September 14, 2007

Paul Rudolph on Flickr

Flickr member kelviin has posted some lovely images of Paul Rudolph's drawings. Criticized for his neo-brutalist fantasies, one must admit that Rudolph's drawings are absolutely ravishing. To wit:

Original rendering for a concept for the Yale Art and Architecture Building

Rudolph's drawing for the Temple Street Garage

Notice how the top drawing conceived of a building that would dominate the corner of York and Chapel streets. And note how skillfully Rudolph uses different pencil line weights to evoke the building's brushhammered surface. In the bottom drawing, the garage has a completely different relationship with the streets, a fact made more poignant by the fact that the building works better in a less-dense urban fabric.

These drawings are not only a testament to Rudolph's skill, but they are a sad reminder of how much New Haven has changed.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Techno-Novela: William Gibson's Spook Country

In a word: disappointing. William Gibson handles the conceptual aspects of Spook Country, his latest novel, with a surprising lack of deftness. Usually touted as a writer brimming with ideas, this book shows Gibson concerned more with name-checking pop culture ephemera and devices than anything else. More attention is given to the description of the insoles of Adidas GSG-9 boots and cesium bullets than actual story development. The "chapters" are anything but, and give the novel the feel of a technologically-mediated novela on Univision -- an episodic thiller ripe with stereotypes, characters drawn with the broadest brush strokes possible, and lukewarm ideas that leave the reader wanting more.

Unlike his critically-acclaimed previous effort, Pattern Recognition (2003), Gibson's latest founders in a sea of contemporariness vividly rendered through countless cultural references. But, more on the object-oriented aspects of Spook Country. The emphasis on locative media, visors, bullets, black coats, shoes, et cetera reads as a combination of Bruce Sterling, John Seabrook, and Naomi Klein. Gibson's objects act as part of a post-capitalist dingpolitik (to borrow Bruno Latour's borrowing of Martin Heidegger's idea). One would expect a anti-neo-liberal spin: the media übermogul should be the bad guy, yet is the unseen hand that manipulates the narrative's aprocryphal puppet strings. But once Hubertus Bigend's ideas and work is sanctioned, the narrative loses teeth. Once gets the sense of "Bigend is behind all of it ... ho hum."

The novel is also touted as an example of Gibson's new take on science fiction, a variation on the shibboleth that truth is stranger than fiction. Stranger indeed, but many of the ideas that Gibson presents have historical, artistic, and literary antecedents. These antecedents seem to deal with such ideas in more interesting ways than Gibson's. For example, the idea of Latourian dingpolitik reaches a chilling denouement in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Locative media find much more satisfying results in the work of Shimon Attie or Krzysztof Wodiczko. These artists' work questions the very meaning of, as well as the potentialities, of locative art.

Shimon Attie (American, b. 1957) At the Coliseum (Looking Towards the Arch of Titus), on location slide projection, Rome, Italy, Lambda Photograph, from The History of Another (2003) (via Jack Shainman Gallery)

Some of the "cooler" gadgets have also seen previous lives in the narratives of sci-fi classics. Take, for instance, Garreth's and Tito's guns. The use of a specially designed gun with vaporized (or pneumatic) projectiles is a nod to Alfred Bester's The Demolished Man. Again, more instances of "Been there, done that."

But perhaps the most serious flaws in the book are the general lack of interest it generates in some of its more important concepts. The narrative's own fascination with locative media becomes undeveloped and uninteresting in the end. A wildly fascinating art form is rendered meaningless and fleeting in Gibson's narrative. In addition to creating some wholly unbelievable characters (read: Sarah Ferguson, who seems to know about Chombo mathematical software), Gibson always seems to lobotomize some of the best aspects of his stories. This is a repeat offense, for in Pattern Recognition, two of the book's most poignant moments are treated off-handedly. One involves a video rendering-cum-prison in northcentral Russia. The other, an excavation of an Operation Barbarossa-era Junkers Ju-87 dive bomber.

The total unbelievability of Spook Country runs counter to many reviews of the book. Such verbage claims that the book is an example of how "scary" the contemporary world is, et cetera. If this is the case, and it is, then how is Gibson positioning himself to illuminate this idea? My guess is that he isn't.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Союз 31, 26 August

In 1978, Lt. Col. Sigmund Jähn, a pilot and scientist for the Luftstreitkräfte der NVA (East German Air Force), became the first German in space. He was one of the first trainees of the Soviet Intercosmos program, and was the third Warsaw Pact cosmonaut to go into space (after Vladimir Renek from Czechoslovakia and Miroslaw Hermaszewski from Poland).

Jähn, along with soviet cosmonaut Valery Bykovsky, were crewmembers on Soyuz 31. Their mission included docking with the Salyut 6 station. The cosmonauts returned to Earth aboard Soyuz 29.

The Soyuz 31 mission launched on August 26, 1978 ... a date that figures prominently in the German imagination (as well as the plot of Good Bye Lenin!)

I was born on August 26, 1971 ...

Happy Birthday to me!!! Woo-hoo!!!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Three Voyages

Joseph Michael Gandy, Drawing for John Soane's Bank of England (1830)

On November 18, 1761, the British war frigate H.M.S. Deptford sailed for the island of Barbados in the West Indies. On board was William Harrison, son of John Harrison, a horologist and clockmaker who was currently embroiled in a legal and technical spat with both the Crown and the Royal Observatory regarding the accurate calculation of longitude. Harrison carried with him a chronometer simply called the H4, a cumbersome piece of equipment encased in an airtight brass casing that was set to the Royal Observatory clock in Greenwich. He hoped to win the £25,000 Longitude Prize, reserved for those who could build a chronometer so accurate that it would lose an acceptable, albeit minimal, amount of time over the 15-month voyage to the West Indies. Harrison was finally recognized as the winner in 1773. He died in 1776, just one year after Captain James Cook returned from his second voyage of discovery. Captain Cook carried a modified version of Harrison's chronometers on board.

In June 1792, two French astronomers embarked on a similar quest as Harrison’s. Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-François-André Méchain left Paris with a cache of scientific equipment (including the innovative Borda Circle), hoping to measure part of a longitudinal arc running from Dunkirk on down to Barcelona. Whereas Harrison sought an accurate measure of time, Delambre and Méchain wanted to establish an accurate measure of distance. The two French scientists wanted to demonstrate that the new measure – “the meter” – would be “one ten millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator.”

A little over 20 years later, in March of 1818, an extensive array of architectural fragments arrived on English shores aboard H.M.S. Weymouth. The Weymouth’s crew sailed from Leptis Magna, an archaeological excavation site on the Libyan coast of North Africa. The shipment contained architectural fragments from Roman antiquity: 22 granite columns, 15 marble columns, 10 capitals, 25 pedestals, 7 loose slabs, 10 pieces of cornice, 5 inscribed slabs, and various fragments of sculptured figures (for example, “Statue in halves Head and Feet deficient”).

These three episodes demonstrate an interesting trajectory of events mirroring contemporary developments in Enlightenment science and natural history. William Harrison's voyages to Barbados, as well as Méchain and Delambre's jaunt along the French meridian, exemplify one of the main characteristics of Enlightenment science in Western Europe: the ability to calculate, to rationalize the dimensions of space. Such experimentation was a necessary corollary to the mania for colonization, for the ability to measure space accurately expedited the process of dominium. Thus, for the crew of the H.M.S. Weymouth, an accurate chronometer would have to be indispensable to navigation, and by inference, to the proper securing of said architectural artifacts.

And although the unloading of artifacts from the Weymouth’s hold brings us closer to the true purpose of this post, at this juncture, the achievements of late-Enlightenment scientists and natural historians are considered alongside the exploits of contemporary architects. Architecture and science are forms of cultural and intellectual expression whose coexistence suggests an intermingling of sources and inspirations. It can be thus argued that the scientist influences the architect and vice versa. These two realms share a commingling of circuitry: the spark of innovation crosses frequently between the two, creating a literal and figurative livewire of intellectual activity.

The work of the English architect John Soane (1753-1827) and his draughtsman/renderer, Joseph Michael Gandy (1771-1843), thus takes on a special significance. Although the two men only collaborated on a single project, some of Soane's work must necessarily be considered along Gandy's, for we know as much about Soane the celebrated architect through Gandy the struggling artist. When considering these two men, we look in particular to Gandy's rendering of Soane's Bank of England as well as his depiction of the interior spaces of Soane's house at Lincoln's Inn Fields. These works present an analog to what the explorers, cartographers, and collectors previously mentioned faced. The carrying of an H4 chronometer necessarily involved the carrying of a chronometer set to Greenwich Mean Time -- thus Harrison in Barbados carried a temporal fragment of England along his voyage. Méchain and Delambre likewise carried temporal fragments of Paris en route to Barcelona and Dunkirk. The crew of the H.M.S. Weymouth carried physical fragments of Leptis Magna to England. All show an obsession with the collection and depiction of artifacts. And to further elaborate the point, to demonstrate how architecture and natural science were part of a common intellectual milieu, this post thus aligns the work of Soane and Gandy with that of a contemporary French natural historian and scientist – Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832). As will be shown, Cuvier’s particular contributions to natural history give us a basic intellectual framework for a possible understanding of Soane’s and Gandy’s passion for collecting and depicting architectural fragments.

Cuvier, Soane, Gandy: connected briefly

Cuvier becomes of interest primarily because he is a contemporary of Soane's and Gandy's. The Baron Cuvier’s life and career mirrored Soane’s own in several ways. For example, Soane displayed a bust of Cuvier in his house at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Soane was even knighted the same year that Cuvier was ennobled. Soane also alludes to the influence of Cuvier’s lecture style in his own Royal Academy Lectures. Cuvier's position as Professor of Comparative Anatomy mirrors Soane's position as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, where he was curator of a collection dedicated to "comparative architecture." Inspired by Cuvier, Soane mentions the importance of comparative architecture at the close of his Lectures on Architecture, while Gandy, influenced by both Soane and Cuvier, would attempt an impossibly large treatise entitled "Comparative Architecture." But to further the objective of this post, this narrative introduces three specific innovations by Baron Cuvier: the notion of functional integration, the belief in cataclysmic extinction, and the idea of revolution as a vital geological events. These three intellectual innovations are considered insofar as they parallel the work of Soane and Gandy.

Functional Integration

Cuvier saw organisms as integrated wholes. Each part's form and function were incorporated into the organism's entire body. This meant that no part could be modified without impairing the organism's functional integration:
[T]he component parts of each must be so arranged as to render possible the whole living being, not only with regard to itself, but to its surrounding relations, and the analysis of these conditions frequently leads to general laws, as demonstrable as those which are derived from calculation or experiment.
Unlike subsequent natural historians, Cuvier did not believe in the evolution of species. For him, any change in an organism's anatomy would make it unable to survive. To support his claim that organisms did not evolve, Cuvier demonstrated that mummified remains of animals brought back from Egypt were no different from their living counterparts. Each organism being a functional whole meant that any change in one part would destroy the delicate balance of nature. Each part of an organism, no matter how small, thus bore signs of the whole. And this made the reconstruction of organisms from fragmentary remains (using rational principles) entirely possible. Cuvier became famous for his ability to "assemble" organisms from fossilized fragments. Yet this ability was not immune from controversy, as "he based his reconstructions less on rational principles than on his deep knowledge of comparative anatomy of living organisms."

Section drawing of Soane's House and Museum at Lincoln's Inn Fields

Selections from Georges Cuvier's sketchbooks

Soane and Gandy: Functional Integration

Soane's House and Museum provides a suitable analog to Cuvier's mania for functional integration. If Cuvier is able to reconstruct whole biological specimens from few fragments, then what exactly does Soane "reconstruct" when assembling all the various fragments inside his home? Primary sources indicate that the seemingly disparate architectural and sculptural fragments throughout the house create, as the title of Soane's own 1827 book suggests, a Union of Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting. Soane's contemporary, the geographer John Britton, uses Soane's House and Museum as an example of such a union and states:
Archaeology is certainly most indispensably [sic] connected with [architecture], in order to familiarize the student with the models of antiquity, and to enable him to catch their spirit,and to emulate their principles of composition, whether generally, or with respect to details; and we may venture to affirm, that the more thoroughly the artists understands these, the less liable will he be to copy their beauties servilely, and to apply them indiscriminately; as he will at once be able to judge how far they ought to be modified, according to the peculiar circumstances of his own design.
Much like Baron Cuvier uses parts of animals to reconstruct the whole, Soane uses his collection of architectural fragments to create a cohesive historical narrative within the walls of his home. When viewed in relation to section, the various architectural and sculptural ephemera do suggest a narrative trajectory. Each floor of Lincoln’s Inn Fields forms a crucial part of this narrative. One author even suggests that:
[T]he narrative of the tripartite section is organized from the light and Apollo in the Dome above, to the characters occupying the middle strata of the Museum, and finally to the Crypt and mortality below. This backdrop is essential, recalling at once the cycle of the rise, meridian, and setting of the sun, an important allegory derived from classical mythology.
In conjunction with this tripartite structure, one must also keep in mind Chantrey’s bust of Soane, flanked by statuettes of Michelangelo and Raphael. Together, all elements combined suggest a true union of architecture, sculpture, and painting.


Cuvier, Comparison between Mammoth Jaw fossil and Indian Elephant Jaw (1798)

Cuvier's most important contribution to biology was the establishing of extinction as a verifiable fact. This was an important intellectual development, as Cuvier's predecessors "believed for centuries that fossils were the remains of once-living organisms". Fossils may have represented life forms that no longer existed: for example, the Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) (one of Cuvier’s direct predecessors), wrote that "We have monuments taken from the bosom of the Earth, especially from the bottom of coal and slate mines, that demonstrate to us that some of the fish and plants that these materials contain do not belong to species currently existing." Such views did not rest easily with scientists, who refused to believe in the systematic extinction of species, or that adhered to the belief that fossils were remains of living species. For example, “fossil mammoths found in Italy were interpreted as the remains of the elephants brought by Hannibal when he invaded Rome.” Others thought that the unusual organisms then known only as fossils must still survive in unexplored parts of the world – according to one source “no less a personage than Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, speculated that mammoths might yet be found living in the American wilderness.” Cuvier had plenty to say on this matter. In a lecture before the National Institute of Sciences and Arts in Paris in 1796, Cuvier states:
It is evident that one cannot say anything demonstrable about the problem before having resolved these preliminary questions, and yet we hardly possess the necessary information to solve some of them. The studies of elephant bones published up until now contain so little detail that even today a scientist cannot say whether they belong to one or another of our living species, and of the enormous quantity of fossil bones about which so many writers have spoken, we have good drawings of only two or three.
Cuvier went on to publish detailed studies proving that fossilized remains of African and Indian elephants were different from living elephant species, thus "proving" that the fossilized remains belonged to extinct animals. Using a similar analysis, Cuvier proved that the similar remains of other animals (the giant ground sloth, the Irish elk, the American mastodon, et cetera) were unrelated to living counterparts, and hence extinct.

For Soane, extinction was not necessarily a fact, but a definite possibility. Gandy's drawing of Soane's Bank of England in an "idyllic landscape" is a projective history that visualizes the Bank as an element of a ruined, extinct landscape. The idea of the destruction of the Bank is valuative: we look to the use of the term idyllic landscape to connote a Romantic ideal and perhaps even a connection to the notion of the picturesque. Thus one author considers Soane's House in relation to his Bank of England:
Soane's house-museum may also be read as an experiment in the picturesque on a microcosmic scale, further inspired by his memories of eighteenth-century Rome, and conceived of as a series of incremental ruined fragments within a precinct. This formal organization can be observed in both the plan of the Bank of England and in the poché plan of the Soane Museum, where discreet walled-in compounds relate to one another, displaying picturesque composition. The character of both plans suggest that they would look equally magnificent as ruins.
We also look to the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich for inspiration. Whereas Gandy's commissions depict very little human activity, Friedrich's paintings depict an individual lost in the cosmos. Such examples suggest a nod to Cuvier's theory of extinction. As Cuvier predicted that no new species would be discovered, Gandy's painting of the Bank of England suggests that no further life will spring from this so-called idyllic landscape.

Periodic Revolutions

How exactly did Cuvier account for extinction? He believed that the destruction of species was a result of periodic catastrophes (or "revolutions") that altered the Earth's shape and biomass. For him, these “revolutions” had not only natural causes, but presented a vital geological problem. Cuvier never associated periodic revolutions with events from the Bible. However, some later geologists, notably Rev. William Buckland in England, suggested that the most recent revolution was the Biblical Flood. This remained a popular hypothesis until Louis Agassiz (who had studied with Cuvier) showed that the "flood deposits" were actually formed by glaciers.

Joseph Michael Gandy, rendering for John Soanes's London Commissioners' Churches (1820s)

We again look to Gandy's drawings for some corroboration of these developments. In particular, his drawing of Soane's London Commissioners' Churches suggests a periodic revolution, or catastrophe, and its immediate aftermath. In the picture, one set of ruins is strewn about, while another set obviously resembles a plan. With the ruins at the far bottom left of the pictures suggest a catastrophic event, our eyes move along the bottom and to the right, and seeing how he ruins reconstitute themselves into a plan. And thus we let our gaze follow the telemetry of the cathedral-like spires as they literally ascend in a sidereal drift.


This post considered some of the work by Sir John Soane and Joseph Michael Gandy in relation to contemporary scientific developments. Three specific theories by the French natural historian Baron Georges Cuvier provided a basic intellectual framework from which the relationships between early 19th century English architecture and late Enlightenment science can be teased out. More specifically, Cuvier’s beliefs in functional integration, cataclysmic extinction, and periodic revolution are mirrored in Gandy’s renderings of Soane’s buildings. But the parallels between Cuvier, Soane and Gandy lead to further investigations. For example, Soane’s work may mark a transition between the exacting rationalization of late 18th century architecture and the picturesque romanticism of the 19 th century. Such a development can be inferred from contemporary science, as Cuvier’s theories marked an important transition from Enlightenment era natural history to the evolutionary biology and Darwinism in the mid-nineteenth century. There are many ways in which contemporary architecture and science partake in a unitary intellectual milieu, yet hopefully this post has demonstrated one of many possible ways to make such a connection.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

No Thugs in Our House

Cover to single version of XTC, "No Thugs in Our House" (Virgin UK, May 14, 1982) (Source: Chalkhills)

The song, from English band XTC's 1982 double album, English Settlement, reminds one of the ideological divides between "city" and "country". It is plausible that Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, et al., were familiar with critic Raymond Williams' The Country and the City (1975), but at least there seems to be a subtle, indelible thread connecting these works. Take, for instance, Williams' assertion that urban views on the pastoral, and that pastoral views on the urban both constitute a "problem of perspective" made manifest through English literature in the 19th century. Williams notes:
For it is a critical fact that in and through these transforming experiences English attitudes to the country, and to ideas of rural life, persisted with extraordinary power, so that even after the society was predominantly urban its literature, for a generation, was still predominantly rural; and even in the twentieth century, in an urban and industrial land, forms of the older ideas and experiences still remarkably persist. All this gives the English experience and interpretation of the country and the city a permanent though of course not exclusive importance. (1975:2)
The song "No Thugs in Our House" from English Settlement also aims at this essential paradox of views. The song opens with an acoustic-electric Kinks-inspired riff, snare drum bristling in the upper register. The brash, new wave, post-post skiffle rocker finally kicks in with two angular themes: the first, a series of modes played on an overdriven electric guitar periodically interrupted by a giant crash of cymbals; the second, singer Andy Partridge's prolonged, guttural scream hovering over the raucous noise.

The perfect English country estate, record label, XTC, "No Thugs in Our House" (Virgin UK, May 14, 1982) (Source: Chalkhills)

Is there is something incessantly urban, unabashedly "London" about the sound? Perhaps. Yet the song's lyrics reveal something that Williams himself may have been alluding to. The lyrics itemize the elements of a rural tragi-comedy: an unthinkable violent act, a controversial investigation, and a surprising suspect -- all having the combined effect of brining urbanism's malaise into the English countryside. In the song's opening verse, Partridge sings:
The insect-headed worker-wife will hang her waspies on the line.
The husband burns his paper, sucks his pipe while studying the kitchen-floor.
His viscous poly-paste breath comes out.
Their wall-paper world is shattered by his shout.
A boy in blue is busy banging out a headache on the kitchen floor.
The boy in blue is Graham, a prime suspect in a racially-related beating. In the ensuing investigation, no one seems to be able to make of Graham's peculiar habits, all signs that this rural boy is perfectly capable of carrying out an act thinkable only in the dank, dingy alleyways of a London borough. This, of course, surprises Graham's parents, especially after some major revelations about their son's past surface soon after his arrest:
They never read those pamphlets in his bottom drawer.
They never read that tattoo on his arm.
They thought that was just a boys' club badge he wore.
They never thought he'd do folks any harm.
It all ends with a remarkable miscarriage of justice. Graham escapes incarceration (his father is a magistrate), the peace in the country is maintained. The incident becomes a footnote in the county ledgers. As the lyrics tell, the remote, isolated countryside is indeed the world where Graham "could do just what he wanted to." In other words, total freedom leads to wanton violence.

"No Thugs in Our House" clocks in at a respectable 5'16, fading into the opening strains of "Yacht Dance", which is perhaps English Settlement's loveliest pastoral. Yet the UK single version of "No Thugs in Our House", released on May 14, 1982, features a packaging concept that toys with the urban/rural divide, that reminds us of Williams' observation at the beginning of this post. The single's cover art (and included printed matter) are compelling examples of how pop culture artifacts can operate as a formidable form of architectural representation and not-so-minor armchair culture criticism.

The single's front cover (see topmost image) evokes capital- "T" Theatre. It is an illustration of a gilded proscenium stage. The apron and wings are marked with a series of horizontal lines that suggest music staves. Everything is interspersed with random red squiggles. On the right and left wings, orphic lyrae sprout upwards and form a set of gaudy city street lights. A red damask curtain dangles precariously inside the proscenium arch. The curtain accentuates a series of gilded pierrot masks almost floating above the stage apron, also acting as a counterpoint to the apron bearing the sign "XTC Theatre". All of these suggests something incessantly urban -- street lights flank and frame the audience's nosebleed view to a performance.

Sleeve insert to single version of XTC, "No Thugs in Our House" (Virgin UK, May 14, 1982) (Source: Chalkhills)

The interior sleeve is the performance's own stage set. It is a sectional perspective of a two-story rural house. If one were to peer in through the stage, he or she would be immediately aware of a staggering difference in scale. The gas range, the kitchen table, cupboard are immense. But perhaps this scalar distortion reminds us of Williams' own views. The rural homestead literally becomes an object to be analyzed and dissected. The proscenium stage's maw becomes a lens through which the malaise of rural life can be properly diagnosed.

The interior, then, is basically a caricature of a proper English country residence. Everything is set for a nuclear family of three: three plates, three chairs, three kettles, three spoons, three coffee mugs. All the bric-a-brac of everyday English rural existence is rendered in a gaudy palette of near-primary colors. The table, rug, and chairs are all yellow. The stairs, a deep scarlet. The curtains are drawn in hues of royal azure. All in all, the bottom floor suggests the colors of the standard Union Flag: brilliant, pristine, impeccable.

Is is thus ironic that the very object that covers sleeping Graham in the dark, unlit upper storey is a Union Flag. The main protagonist of "No Thugs in Our House" is draped in the mantle of his nurturing homeland ... a system that allowed him to get away with a heinous offense. Graham sleeps soundly, his back turned to the theatre audience. We only see the top of his head, his amorphous body now becoming the only symbol of civil and political affiliation.

Paper cut-outs, XTC, "No Thugs in Our House" (Virgin UK, May 14, 1982) (Source: Chalkhills)

The other characters in "No Thugs in Our House" -- Graham's magistrate father and insect-headed mom, and a police investigator -- are drawn as paper cut-outs. They are hewn in various action poses. The cutouts contain several versions of Graham's father: sitting reading a paper and smoking a pipe; in a barrister's get-up; embracing his insect-headed wife. The mother, on the other hand, is shown in various poses connoting utter domesticity. Perhaps the insect head is entirely appropriate as it suggests an ant-drone-like existence, an unquestionable follower tangled in a skein of authority. The cerulean-uniformed, bobby-capped police investigator, on the other hand, is frozen in a typical pose: he raises his hand, forbidding someone from jaywalking, pointing at the aphoristic cat trapped in a tree. It is an image of sham authority. All are two-dimensional puppets in a theatre. Graham is literally above it all, oblivious, carefree, asleep.

To be sure, this is more than a suggestion of theatre. In 1982, a person could have walked into a record shop and purchased the single for "No Thugs in Our House." After a long bus ride, he or she would enter the bed room, undo the shrinnk wrapping, and play with figures of Graham's parents while listening to Andy Partridge's angry, Johnny Winter-esque screams. The ingenious packaging for the "No Thugs in Our House" single is invariably resonant. "XTC Theatre" is one of those rare devices that undergird Raymond Williams' observation, again from The Country and The City:
A critique of a whole dimension of modern life, and with it many necessary general questions, was expressed but also reduced to a convention, which took the form of a detailed version of a part-imagined, part-observed Rural England. It is a convention that has since held the shape of many lives. (1975:261)

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Gentle, Diversionary Rant

The visionary architect is as au courant as ever. Whether it is Cedric Price's Fun Palace, or similar works by Archizoom Associati, Constant, Superstudio, Groupe Utopie, UFO, Internationale Situationniste (insert 60s-era "visionary" here), such works are always deployed as evidence of utopian ideals. We admire this generation of architects precisely because of their unabashed ability to give a spatial language to these ideals. From Constant's tangled supraurban conurbations, to cities that are literally and figuratively mobile (ahem, that would be Archigram and Yona Friedman, respectively, of course), contemporary thinkers and critics deploy such work in near-excess, envisioning a realm where the design alternative was just that, a reaction to modernist orthodoxy, and where the idea of non-plan rules supreme.

Not that this is a bad idea. The issue of New Society bearing the imprimatur of non-plan, the 1969 folio co-edited by Reyner Banham, Peter Hall, and Paul Barker rightfully attacks the "perverse and often futile attempts to impose criteria of urban form and aesthetic design from above." As Barker recently recollected in the Simon Sadler-edited compendium of similar works, Non-Plan: Essays on Freedom, Pariticpation, and Change (2000):
So often, and this continues to be true, an urban plan was said to be fulfilled when it had only been completed. No one checked whether it did the job it set out to do. The same shortcoming pervades architecture: almost all interest ceases, among the professionals, once the building is built … The test of a house, after all, is not just its fitness for the purpose for which it was built, but its continued fitness and adaptability to the purposes that will come along down the years. You might call this the Non-Plan test.
This is an idea that has had very long legs. From Christopher Alexander's system-obsessed pattern languages, to Leon Krier's celebrations of medieval city forms, to Stewart Brand's understanding of buildings in terms of shearing layers, these ideas are forged from the impulse to bemoan buildings that do not adapt to their users' needs.

There are two aspects of such logic that should nevertheless inspire the student of architecture to protest. First of all is the casual manner in which thinkers dismiss certain buildings, describing them either as "failed" or "non-working". A favorite target is, of course, Paul Rudolph's signature piece, the ire-inducing Yale Art and Architecture Building. The criticisms are manifold: harsh, brush-hammered surfaces; labyrinthine circulation patterns; overpowering anchoring of the corner of York and Chapel Streets in New Haven; poor systems integration. As Brand and others suggest, such things are evidence of poor design. Rudolph's neo-Brutalist fantasy has indeed failed the "Non-Plan" test. (Not that anyone has ever documented the unusual and less-than-subtle ways in which the building actually works, or noted that it is obviously a building generated in section).

The way in which the Non-Plan alternative is absorbed into other disciplines informs the second aspect. In other words, the Fun Palaces, Spatial Cities, New Babylons, Plug-In Cities of architectural significance are cited as valiant examples on how to do things right. And such examples are used to inform arguments in other design professions, such as user experience, service design, and even industrial design. The best, most outspoken thinkers in this area continue to take solace in the work from the 60s. Their implication is that one can learn something from these collectives and that this something is, again, related to the idea of non-plan. Take, for instance, this excerpt on user experience from the popular website Speedbird:

Could it be that more headway will ultimately be made when designers conceive of desired experiences as overarching but essentially open narratives, into which individual consumers can insert or demount components at will?

In architecture, the idea of maintaining precise control over the specification of an infrastructural framework, while ceding control over local circumstances to the user, is one with a respectable pedigree, so much so that it has historically appeared in a variety of places, times and guises.

The “kit of parts” approach - in which theoretically endless cities are generated by plugging housing, recreation, and production modules into circulation networks, like the pieces of some gigantic children’s construction set - is most often associated with the delightfully high-flying British collective of the 1960s known as Archigram. Similar tendencies characterized the work of Archigram’s direct Japanese contemporaries, the Metabolists.

Other architects went further still. Constant Nieuwenhuis’ New Babylon, Yona Friedman’s Spatial City and Cedric Price’s Fun Palace all envisioned immense open bays in which finer-grained control of the environment was left to individuals, or small groups. Meanwhile, Reyner Banham and the other prophets of “non-plan” architecture proposed that all but the most vestigial urban planning be done away with, the better to allow a community to find its own most vibrant mode of spatial expression.

There will be a great deal that contemporary experience designers can take from these examples, especially their sense of the continual, shifting, delicate negotiations between the overall perception of an ecology, and how that perception is locally inflected by the input of participants.
This is a fine line of argumentation. Yet the wholesale embrace of non-plan is problematic in that it takes several things at face-value. On the one hand, there is an implicit suggestion that the Archigrams, Cedric Prices, and Constants of the world "got it right." Such views must be questioned, however. In other words, do the conditions of Barker's non-plan test have to be met? And if so, what are the stakes if such conditions are not met -- i.e. if the non-plan test fails? Does this constitute bad architecture? Poor design? Furthermore, the very architects that inspire the idea of non-plan (or user-experience, or service design), should be looked at with a more critical eye. Thus, the issue of whether the Archigram collective had a proper understanding of the systems and technologies they embraced has to be interrogated. What about Cedric Price? Did he truly understand his cybernetic forbearers? More importantly, did he want to understand them? Price's Fun Palace is to be venerated, yet hardly anyone questions whether it was a good idea, or for that matter, good design. The fact that it was a) attributed to Price; and b) flirting with newly-fangled ideas about technology is good enough to place it in the historical record. And that's good enough to place it in service of one's argument.

To be sure, architects, architecture historians and theorists are not immune from such woes. Like other pinnacles of 20th century cultural criticism, canonical works of architecture history and theory attempted to manage, interpret, and problematize the concurrent realms of architecture, science, and technology. In Technics and Civilization (1934), Lewis Mumford’s magisterial account of the industrialization of contemporary society, mechanization becomes the literal and figurative engine of urbanism. Siegfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command (1947) may be seen as the Swiss art historian’s major contribution (and addendum) to Mumford’s “technics.” However, it is in Space, Time and Architecture (1941) that the author tries to find a way to dovetail the “two cultures” of art and science. In that work, Giedion looks to contemporary physics as a way to legitimize the modern movement. He warps one of Hermann Minkowski’s famous epigrams, converting it to serve the purposes of modern architecture: “Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality." Giedion thus looks to the works of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, et al., as examples of a space-time architecture, a body of work that exemplifies the exciting advances in contemporary physics and demonstrates that aphoristic union of “thought” and “feeling." Giedion, however, was no physicist. While trying to embody the same synthesis of art and science in his Einstein Tower, architect Erich Mendelsohn refuted Giedion’s assertions as “pure fantasy.” In a reply letter to Mendelssohn, Albert Einstein himself dismisses Giedion’s urgings:
Dear Mr. Mendelsohn,
The passage you sent me from the book Space, Time and Architecture has
inspired the following reply:
It's never hard some new thought to declare
If any nonsense one will dare
But rarely do you find that novel babble
Is at the same time reasonable
Cordially yours,
Albert Einstein
P.S. It is simply bull without any rational basis.
["Nicht schwer ist es Neues auszusagen/Wenn jeden Blödsinn man will wagen/ Doch selt'ner füget sich dabei/Dass Neues auch vernünftig sei!" Translation and quotation from Wolf von Eckardt, Eric Mendelsohn (New York, 1960)]
If anything, the following exchange describes the absolute bifurcation between the “two cultures.” It is not simply a case of architects not knowing anything about science or vice versa. Rather, Einstein’s and Mendelsohn’s exchange illustrate the difficulty of finding a legitimate junction between two streams of cultural expression. If Giedion was indeed writing about physics, this does not necessarily mean that architects were influenced by physics.

This problem is not necessarily specific to the 1940s. In his contribution to The Presence of Mies (Princeton University Press, 1994), the Detlef Mertins-edited collection of essays concerning Mies van der Rohe’s Toronto Dominion Center, architecture theorist Sanford Kwinter invokes contemporary developments in organic chemistry to analyze Mies’ work. Beginning with diagrams of benzene rings, Kwinter tells us:
What I will do is suggest three new pathways – all of which certainly seem spurious at first – three historical developments of significant morphological consequence, whose sphere of effects are inseparable from the technical milieu out of which Mies’ own astonishing and deceptively elementary spatial lexicon arose.

I will deal schematically with three areas of modernist scientific and technological development: one, Adolf Hitler’s Autobahn program and other, secondary forms of rationalization of movement such as are found in Rudolf von Laban’s system of dance notation; two, the question of organic synthesis in the German pre-war chemical and pharmaceutical industries; and three, the discovery of certain new structures – mesoforms and other intermediate states of matter – in the theoretical biology of the 1920s and 1930s.
It is tall order indeed. A piece of criticism that spans intellectual and professional divides with eloquent largesse. And even more recently, Kwinter suggests that some of Jesse Reiser's and Nanako Umemoto's recent works, documented in the well-received Atlas of Novel Tectonics (2005), were inspired by the accidental invention of nitrocellulose, a type of ballistic propellant otherwise known as guncotton. Provocative? Yes. Meaningful? Sure, but it does not sit easy with those of us who are looking for some disciplinary rigor.

To say that this is an intractable problem that is far from being resolved is obvious. To say that writers and critics should exercise more rigor is also obvious. Borrowing from other professions in service of one's own argument has benefits. It at least adds depth to one's argument, and as the above-mentioned work shows, it makes for some very compelling and challenging reading (which is a great thing). But is there a standard that should be employed that prevents a design writer from mere name-checking? Proper citation formats in academia are one such device. But what about decidedly non-academic work? What about work that is aimed at larger audiences?

We can look to Kieran Long for some guidance. In his critique of Monocle's inaugural issues, Long properly harangues the magazine's seemingly mindless aesthetic. In his glib summary of Monocle's feature on the Japanese Navy, Long notes:
The cover feature on the Japanese navy begins with an inventory of military hardware straight out of Tom Wolfe or American Psycho: “Harpoon missile tubes and anti-submarine rockets… a missile-destroying Phalanx Close-In weapon system sits at its stern.” By the fourth page of the interview we are introduced to Akira Miyaji, the “sprightly” 81-year-old tailor to the Japanese armed forces. “In winter the dress uniform is black – a golden cherry blossom on the sleeve,” says the writer. There is no hierarchy between these observations. It is all just aesthetics.
Perhaps that is what those people who cull from other disciplines should avoid: aesthetics and "deep superficiality." And how does this translate into a more-than-cursory look at who said what, where and why? Those cited above use their sources in service of an operative strategy ... and that is indeed something to aspire to.

To circle back to the beginning of this essay, there is indeed something to take from the Archigrams and Paul Barkers of the world. Perhaps design writing should be subjected to its own form of the non-plan test. Perhaps one measure of design writing should be "continued fitness and adaptability to the purposes that will come along down the years." Not only would such a standard invite using interdisciplinary methods, but it would ensure that the end result is sound. That's the least we can do.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

De Brandgrens Van Rotterdam/Bombardment Periphery

West 8, Embedded LED system, Rotterdam Brandgrens, 2007 (Source: West 8)

These two terms are interesting if only for their subtle differences. The first, literally, The Rotterdam Fire Limits, evokes the idea of a boundary. Indeed, this project by the Dutch landscape and urban design collective West 8 literally inscribes the limits of the destruction of Rotterdam by Luftwaffe bombers on May 14, 1940. Along the dense urban fabric of the city, famously rebuilt after the disaster, a series of solar-powered LED's mark the true fire limits. According to West 8's website,
An iconic image of a flame is incorporated in circular light objects on the ground and in several information stations, that together form the marking. The image of the flame shows a visual connection with Zadkine's statue commemorating the bombing of Rotterdam. The light objects come to life at night when the solar-powered LEDs illuminate the icon. This physical marking of the fire limits is coupled with information about the historic meaning of the bombing, accessible through the information stations and a website.
The effect is to be experienced at two seemingly disparate scales: the intensely local, and the metropolitan. A person walking through the streets of Rotterdam would not doubt run across these lights.

West 8, Embedded LED system, Rotterdam Brandgrens, 2007 (Source: West 8)

He or she would experience the fire limit at its smallest, and most personal scale. For there, by that store, along that bike path, a fire burned and went no farther. There, a string of lights delimit two opposing zones: in the interior, the frightful pentecost of May 14; on the other, refuge. Thus, when viewed in plan, the array of lights give a sense of the scale of absolute destruction experienced that night.

West 8, Rotterdam Brandgrens, Plan, 2007 (Source: West 8)

But at that scale, the sense of abstraction does not carry the same weight as actually stumbling into the embedded LED's

Perhaps, then, what is so compelling about Mothership's installation, entitled The Bombardment Periphery, is that it allows people to experience such weight, but at the metropolitan scale. On the evening on May 14, 2007, the Dutch design collective pointed 128 light fixtures, each rated at about 7000 watts (and curiously referred to as "Spacecannons"), into a low, gray, cloudy sky between 10:45pm and 2:00am.

Mothership, Bombardment Periphery, 2007 (Source: Mothership)

To a certain extent, the columns of ethereal light reaching vertically into the clouds are reminiscent of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's eerie Speer-esque light cathedrals. But, as the photographs and film show, the installation has an incomparable effect of allowing the extent of destruction to be seen from a variety of vantage points on the ground.

It is as if an image of Rotterdam, circa 1940, is reflected in the phantom layers above. The two cities, one a fiery maw, the other, a symbol of Europe rebuilt, are connected by columns of light. Light literally tracing the bombs that fell on May 14, 1940.

Friday, July 13, 2007

101 Architects Directory

In an effort to connect this website with more contemporary facets of design and architecture culture:

Wallpaper*, the international design, fashion and lifestyle magazine, is unveiling this year’s 101 best young architecture practices in a new online directory. The Architects Directory features Wallpaper’s favourite emerging practices and studios, including the world’s most exciting new talents.

As one of the most respected magazines in the architectural world, Wallpaper’s Architects Directory will be a trusted resource; and it will be searchable, allowing visitors to pinpoint practices and studios by location. Tony Chambers, Wallpaper* editor-in-chief, says: “Wallpaper* and its readers are passionate about architecture so launching this directory makes perfect sense. Wallpaper* cast its critical net across the globe to compile this directory of the best young architecture practices, which I’m delighted will be available to readers whenever they need it on” Andrew Black, Wallpaper* Publishing Director, adds: “ continues to grow and move from strength to strength. It is now an integral part of our business plan and our brand. It has become an increasingly important vehicle for our advertisers as well, and exciting developments such as the Architects directory are very important for them.”

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Mapping Undersea Urbanisms

Images from a 2005 GIS project where I attempted to map oil/gas pipelines in the North Sea. The data came from the Olje Direktoratet (Norway's Oil/Gas Administration) and the UK's Department of Trade and Industry. The idea was to develop a purely spatial comparison between British and Norwegian undersea pipeline networks. The results are far from visually stunning, evidence of GIS software's own visual and graphical limitations.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Confidence Men

Munitions workers at Antonelli Fireworks, Co., Spencerport, New York, circa 1942. Image: Town of Ogden, New York

A “dapper man in a dark black suit”, Amerigo Antonelli emigrated from Italy to the United States with his sons and daughters in 1910 with the hopes of continuing the family fireworks business. He settled in Spencerport, a sleepy town on the outskirts of Rochester, New York, and eventually founded Antonelli Fireworks, Inc. in 1917. The Antonelli family business grew steadily and withstood the economic downturns of the 1930s. Antonelli Fireworks remained a modest outfit responsible for some of the biggest firework displays in Western New York. It bears mentioning that the Antonellis specialized in the manufacture of display pyrotechnics. As Amerigo learned his history and tradition of his craft as a family apprentice, he was possibly familiar with the works of the French polymath Amédée-François Frézier (1682-1773). In addition to books about strawberries, Frézier gained notoriety for his most well-known text, the Traite es Feux d’artifice pour le Spectacle (1747), a treatise on fireworks that caught the attention of the French Academy of Sciences in 1752. Although Frézier’s work was primarily devoted to decorative pyrotechnics, it is important to note that he also wrote books about architecture, geometry and stone cutting. He also devoted his time to the study of defensive fortifications, eventually becoming a member of the French military intelligence corps as well as the chief military engineer for coastal defenses at Saint-Malo.

It is thus interesting to note that like Frézier, Antonelli also exemplified the movement from decorative pyrotechnics to military explosives. By 1941, a time when American military planners cautiously considered the idea of entering the Second World War, the town of Spencerport held a banquet in honor of Antonelli’s "loyalty to his country and his desire to produce for victory." Antonelli Fireworks was one among many companies in Western New York wholly mobilized for the war effort, companies that manufactured everything from camera lenses to M1 Carbines. That year also marked the year that Antonelli Fireworks entered into a series of contracts with the United States Chemical Warfare Service, worth around $1,005,000, for the manufacture of 3,000,000 incendiary bombs. The United States Chemical Warfare Service made an advance payment of 30% and also provided Antonelli Fireworks with money for new buildings, equipment, and employee salaries. After production of bombs started in February 1942, in July of same year Antonelli Fireworks entered into an additional contract for the manufacture of 1,000,000 M-14 incendiary grenades.

The contracts contained strict specifications of manufacture and outlined provisions for quality control of bombs and grenades. Specifically, the incendiary bombs and grenades were to be loaded with a “Therm-8” burster charge. “Therm-8” is a variant of thermite, a flammable compound used primarily for small explosive ordnance. The contracts further stipulated that specific mixtures of Therm-8 were to be loaded into the grenade or bomb “whether steel-jacket or magnesium, in four approximately equal increments, each increment to be successively consolidated”. Eighty per cent of the bombs were to be ordinary incendiary bombs and twenty per cent were to include burster charges. Antonelli was proud about the business he was generating for the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service. When asked about the "possibility of some of his own bombs being dropped on friends and relatives in his native land," he replied: "We're in this country. We love it. We must defend it. It's too bad about those people over there, but they started all the trouble. We must not let them stand in the way of our lives and liberty."

At 6:30 a.m., on the morning of June 22, 1943, under the authority of a search warrant issued by the United States District Court for the Western District of New York, F.B.I. agents entered Amerigo Antonelli’s home and arrested him for “willfully making defective hand grenades and incendiary bombs for the United States government and with conspiracy to defraud the government in making defective war materials.” The F.B.I. also arrested John and Joseph DeRitis, Dominick Barbollo, Bennie Piteo, Frank Bianchi, and Angelo Constanza – all family or employees of Antonelli Fireworks. A Federal grand jury eventually returned two series of indictments: Amerigo Antonelli, John and Joseph DeRitis, and Dominick Barbollo, were charged with fifteen counts of “defective manufacture of war material.” Bennie Piteo, Frank Bianchi, and Angelo Constanza were all charged with a single count with “conspiracy to defraud the United States in its war effort.” Piteo and Bianchi pleaded guilty. The court consolidated the two indictments; and after a trial that lasted from May 1 to June 10, 1944, and produced a record of nearly 4,000 pages, the jury acquitted the defendants of all charges of the indictment, but found the corporation, Antonelli, the DeRitis brothers, and Barbollo guilty as charged in the second indictment. Costanza was found not guilty. The court imposed fines upon the corporation and upon Antonelli, and sentences of imprisonment for eighteen months upon Barbollo, and for two years upon the other individuals.

M14 incendiary grenade in use, Anzio, Italy, May 1944. Image: Chemical Corps Association

Although local newspapers used the lurid language of sabotage to describe the ensuing trials, the trial court did ask the jury whether Antonelli, et al., indeed had produced defective weapons. At issue was whether the Antonelli’s grenades and bombs contained the requisite combination of Therm-8 and incendiary mixture. In a subsequent appellate opinion, Circuit Judge Clark quoted expert testimony from a Colonel in the United States Chemical Warfare Service, noting that “the employment of separate [Therm-8] increments was necessary to obtain a uniform center of gravity, and that the functioning of the bombs would be seriously impaired by consolidation of a lesser number of increments than called for by the specifications.” Circuit Judge Clark continues, “He [the Colonel] further testified that the purpose of the requirement for burster charges in 20% of the bombs was to discourage fire fighters from approaching the bombs too soon after they had fallen.”

Ensuing witness examinations revealed that Antonelli Fireworks had difficulty meeting production quotas and failed to mitigate deficiencies in the manufacture of incendiary bombs and grenades. For example, a 20-year old woman, the United States Attorney’s chief witness, revealed “how she had been instructed by Antonelli and two of his stepsons to put rejected hand grenades back into the assembly line.” The witness also testified that she was told to deliberately underload the hand grenades with only three scoopfuls of powder "unless (government) inspectors were there, and then we were to put four level scoopfuls in.” As the trial continued, other disturbing testimony emerged in newspaper accounts. Supervisors were seen personally putting rejected explosives back on the assembly line. As a result, more than half of 1,000 incendiary bombs randomly selected from the plant appeared to have been underloaded, clear and overwhelming evidence that a great many defective explosives had been produced.

Antonelli’s attorneys then sought to shift blame elsewhere as part of their strategy. Antonelli contended that the government itself had caused many of the problems by making it hard for the company to obtain supplies and funding and by insisting on stepped-up production methods that led to defects. One defense attorney wondered how such a high percentage of allegedly defective explosives made it past a supposedly "rigid" system of government inspection. If the inspectors were "not on the job," they — not management — "should be tried for criminal negligence." However, even managers took the stand against each other. One foreman, who had already pleaded guilty to fraud, turned state's evidence and claimed that Antonelli and his two stepsons had ordered the underloading. Another foreman also "turned against two of his former associates" on the witness stand. The Antonelli defense team, in turn, produced testimony suggesting the blame lay in the other direction. Even before the trial began, Ray Fowler, one of the defense attorneys, argued that there was no incentive for Antonelli Fireworks to take shortcuts. Any powder saved by underloading remained in government control, he claimed. Moreover, the company did not stand to reap any financial rewards because the profits it could make from any given contract were closely regulated. In the end, however, it was Assistant U.S. Attorney R. Norman Kirchgraber’s words that summarized the general feeling of the trial court. During Antonelli’s arraignment hearing in 1943, Kirchgraber told the District Court, "If our fighting men cannot depend on these very bombs they are using while endangering their own lives, then the very purpose for which these bombs were intended is defeated … If there is a more deliberate form of sabotage than in this case, I don't know where it is."

With the above statement, and in conjunction with the definitive holdings of the Antonelli cases, one can begin to get an idea as to the official mood as to the relation between copies and the war effort. And here, a distinction will be made between three types of copies made for military purposes. First, there are objects whose main purpose is deception. This would include an inordinate number of structures strewn with vegetation, washed in dazzle paint, etc. that are wholly operational, but that exist to confuse enemy forces. This category would also include “bogus levels of communications traffic, fake radio messages, planted information ‘leaks’, and documents that were allowed to ‘fall into enemy hands’”. According to an Air Force historian, the object of such deception was nevertheless “to protect key assets by hiding a force or factory, deceiving an enemy as to what was hidden, or confusing an attacker just long enough to cause some weapons to miss.” It is a type of disinformation, a manipulation of data with the sole purpose of creating cognitive dissonance. This type of confusion not only serves to protect the structure (or people using the structures), but also allows the hidden to buy time, to gain advantage in conflict. As Paul Virilio explains, “There is no war, then, without representation, no sophisticated weaponry without psychological mystification.” This mystification is a direct product of deception, it is intentional and germane to the successful execution of a particular military strategy. As such, these are conditions not necessarily applicable to the fake grenades and bombs in the Antonelli cases. In those cases, the deception was for personal and pecuniary ends – wholly illegal and in contravention to the American war effort, as Mr. Kirchgraber suggests.

The incendiary grenades and bombs produced on the Antonelli assembly lines thus bring attention to a second type of copy – the defective copy. “Copying is ultimately imperfect,” writes Hillel Schwartz, an observation of the relation between an object and its defective copy. Schwartz continues:
The more widespread the act of copying, the greater the likelihood of significant mistranscription. Genetic slip or evolution, scribal mistake or midrash, whatever we call it, miscopying raises hard questions about identity, security, and integrity. The same technical advances that render our skill at copying so impressive also intensify the dilemmas of forgery. We use copies to certify originals, originals to certify copies, then we stand bewildered.
One way to unpack such bewilderment is to note that a defect in a copy may be literally and figuratively marked by an imperfection. The definition, identification, and isolation of an imperfection could bear the weight of institutional, cultural, legal, or even scientific authority. Whatever standards are created for the identification of an imperfection, it perhaps useful to think of them as set by a particular set of codes. In other words, an imperfection can be thought of as an occurrence, event, category, aspect, etc., that falls outside the prescriptive norms that a code can offer. In the Antonelli cases, for example, the defective hand grenades and incendiary bombs were actionable under 50 U.S.C. § 103, which provides for “fine or imprisonment up to 30 years for those who, when the United States is at war and with intent to injure or obstruct it in carrying on the war, willfully make in a defective manner any war material as defined in the statute.” The parties were also sued under 18 U.S.C. § 88, a conspiracy statute that provides for “penalties of fine and imprisonment up to two years for those who conspire 'either to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States in any manner or for any purpose.'” Again, the defective grenades were subject to a strict inspection regime. Observers from the War Department as well as from the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service constantly monitored the Antonelli Fireworks’ production line, a procedure that eventually contributed to a finding that Amerigo Antonelli and his employees were in violation of the two statutes listed above. The manufacturing of (literally) millions of incendiary bombs and grenades, the pressures associated with production quotas, the constant scrutiny by Chemical Warfare Service personnel – these all contributed to an environment that indeed “intensified” (to use Schwartz’ terminology) the likelihood that a defective copy would emerge from this process. As Circuit Judge Clark stated in the appellate opinion for the Antonelli case:
That there was defective manufacturing was thoroughly established; that it reached truly appalling amounts seems likewise clear. This was shown by the testimony and report of a disinterested X-ray specialist, who stated that in tests of Antonelli products, made at random and thus fairly representative of the entire output, he found that out of 777 steel-jacket bombs, only 291 contained four increments, and that out of a total of 272 magnesium bombs tested, none contained four increments and only 23 contained three increments. Similarly shocking results were reported as a result of visual testing by the Chief of the Incendiaries Branch, Chemical Warfare Service. Indeed, the defendants did not seriously dispute the fact of extensive misproduction, but rather contended that the deficiencies were entirely accidental and due to the sudden necessity of mass production, or that, if any criminal intent did exist, it was entirely on the part of subordinate employees.
At this point, however, mention again must be made regarding Kirchgraber’s statements at Amerigo Antonelli’s arraignment, for they illustrate a prevailing attitude at the time – that defective war materiel is actionable because it hampers the American war effort. This was a sentiment echoed by the U.S. Government in the closing statements to the first Antonelli trial. In that case, United States Attorney Kirchgraber stated:
I cherish an overwhelming confidence, ladies and gentlemen, in the belief that each one of you, after you have been instructed by the Court, will each render your verdict without malice, but without sympathy, that you will each render a verdict of which you can always be proudly justified in the presence of your fellowmen, those here at home who labor and have labored unceasingly in an honest effort to manufacture munitions of war as well as those of us beyond the seas who look to us for the things they need to sustain them in their hour of extreme sacrifice.
If anything, the above statement not only reiterates the unusual and incredible set of circumstances forming the background against which Amerigo Antonelli was arrested, indicted, and imprisoned. If defective war material is indeed actionable because it compromises the efforts of the American military abroad, then is there a situation where a copy can be considered as aiding such an effort?

At this point, we consider a third variation on the copy – the simulacrum. Although such an analysis may invoke some more obvious sources, debates about restoration and preservation come to mind for the purposes of framing some general issues. Thus an issue arises that asks about the nature of restoring lost buildings. On the one hand, there are those who see it as an endeavor wholly separated from the veneration for the object to be restored. For example, Gilbert George Scott, a self-avowed devotee of Gothic churches and luminary of the mid 19th-century Oxford Movements, observed that a restorer “should forget himself in his veneration for the works of his predecessors.” And then there are other architectural thinkers who see restoration and preservation as misnomers. An instance of this occurs when French architect and theorist Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc reacts strongly against the “reinstating in its entirety and in its minutest details, of a fortress in the middle ages, the reproduction of its interior decoration, even to its furniture; in a word, giving back its form, its colour and – if I may venture to say so – its former life.” If that statement sounds unusually prescient, one must keep in mind that Viollet-le-Duc was indeed combative when it came to issues of restoration. Viollet-le-Duc continues, “The term Restoration and the thing itself are both modern. To restore a building is not to preserve it, to repair, or rebuild it; it is to reinstate it in a condition of completeness which could never have existed at any given time.”

The creation of a simulacrum, however, requires the complicity of the huckster, the panache of the Melvillian confidence man. French thinker Gilles Deleuze provides some initial guidance on this matter. Deleuze readily distinguishes between copies and simulacra as two types of images. The former are “secondhand possessors, well-grounded claimants, authorized by resemblance,” whereas the latter are “false claimants, built on a dissimilitude, implying a perversion, an essential turning away.” Deleuze readily identifies a simulacrum’s author as a trickster, “the satyr or centaur, the Proteus who intrudes and insinuates himself everywhere.” Yet the creation of a simulacrum should not cause offense to the armchair aesthetician: “The simulacrum is not a degraded copy, rather it contains a positive power which negates both original and copy, both model and representation.” The simulacrum is thus a wholly modernist phenomenon as it “is not simply a false copy” and “calls into question the very notions of the copy … and of the model.” If we then take these observations as just that, and apply them to the instance of Antonelli Fireworks employees, we lack the sense of epistemological urgency that Deleuze attributes to the whole enterprise of identifying copies. As stated earlier, the employees faced insurmountable production quotas, and at some level in the decision-making process, a very bad decision was made. Deleuze’s scheme does not account for such errors.

However, the idea that the author of a simulacrum is a type of huckster is very salient indeed. Nothing demonstrates this more than R. Norman Kirchgraber’s suggestions that the Antonelli’s were immigrant saboteurs hellbent on derailing the American war effort. But, Deleuze sentiments are somewhat justified, for the ensuing legal cases really did call attention to the relationship between the defective and original incendiary bombs and grenades. Likewise, Gilbert George Scott’s and Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc’s statements implying that the restoration or recreation of a structure is really a sui generis architectural gesture also call attention to the relationship between the copy and the original.

The extraordinary climate surrounding the Second World War undoubtedly figures into this equation. Perhaps the fact that these projects were borne out of a climate of total, global war, and that war necessitates its own type of space is helpful. As Paul Virilio explains in an interview with Sylvere Lotringer:
The military space is something people don’t talk about too often. You’ll find it in Clausewitz, but it hasn’t really been taken up since. People speak of the history of war, of battlefields, of deaths in the family, but no one speaks of the military space as the constitution of a space having its own characteristics. My work is located within this concept. I suddenly understood that war was a space in the geometrical sense, and even more than geometrical: crossing Europe from North to South, from the shelters of the German cities to the Siegfried Line, passing by the Maginot Line and the Atlantic Wall, makes you realize the breadth of Total War. By the same token you touch on the mythic dimension of a war spreading not only throughout Europe, but all over the world. The objects, bunkers, blockhouses, anti-aircraft shelters, submarine bases, etc. are kinds of reference points or landmarks to the totalitarian nature of war in space and myth.
What, then, of a space of war that is both a simulacrum as well as its own type of space?