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.


sevensixfive said...

Great entry, Enrique. Kwinter especially is guilty of this sort of thing. In the Verb monograph, I remember him suggesting that Ito's Mediatheque was, in actuality, some previously undiscovered fifth form of matter. Like all dogmatic Deleuzians, he took pains to point out that this was not a metaphor. I have a friend who's an architect and a physicist, he loves to collect Kwinterisms ...

Two things:

Do you think that there will ever be a test for successful design writing? Design itself is notoriously unverifiable (to use the scientific term), so criticism, as a second or third order discipline, would be even more soft, right? Isn't the resort to borrowed terminology just a kind of rhetorical device? And the test for success or failure of design writing just another way of saying whether or not the rhetoric was persuasive or not? This leads back to a question of style, which some of the best writers have in spades. I'm thinking of first-order Deleuze here, especially, not his style-deficient cadre of misguided apologists and unnecessary explainers. Deleuze has got style, original style, and that's what ultimately makes his writing successful and persuasive.

And the other thing: I'm not sure where this fits, but one of my favorite phrases of Keller's is 'things to think with' isn't it one of the purposes of science in general to come up with, not only new facts, but new metaphors and models that are themselves productive - even, or especially, when misapplied?

enrique said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joy said...

That note from Einstein is great. Totally classic.

Thanks for another wonderfully written musing about a problem that I wish more people were sensitive to. I just finished a paper on Banham's references to "the new biology" in the 1961 "History of the Immediate Future". It was educational for me, but ultimately clear that the aesthetic and the social capital were what he was after.

Speaking of Banham, I haven't heard Rudolph particularly juxtaposed with the Non-Plan utopia group before. When was the A and A built? I am just thinking that if Banham was (at least in the late '50s) a big fan of the New Brutalism, would he have seen the A and A as a good example of the next step for modernism, or as repressive? Perhaps the 'formal bloody-mindedness' of the A and A is exactly what he thought should be used to combat the stuffy architecture of the new towns. Not sure. I think for Banham in the Non-Plan article, he seems more interested in advocating for more gas stations and neon signs and poking at the establishment? Imho Banham is perhaps the most socially naive of that particular group of socially naive Brits. Have you read the letters in New Society in response to the Non-Plan article? Some of them make good remarks about how it is merely a knee-jerk response, and would really just favor the interests of businesses in planning. So, maybe the problem is not that these techno-utopias were so much believed at the time, but that they are so much believed now. Rather than writing about people who have no snazzy images attached, we write about walking cities. It's much easier. Just show the slide and no one listens to you anyway.

But I think something like Reiser is a bit different, a bit. I think the realm of aesthetic adaptation, when you admit that is what you are doing, is a different set of questions. No? I don't know why, but it seems different. I guess I don't think that rigorous applications of science can give you a satisfying building form, so much of it is cultural and aesthetic. So, if you want to use a metaphorical adaptation of a structure or a way of thinking that you found in biology (and you admit it) that seems okay to me. No? Maybe on another day I wouldn't say that. I mean, I think the building that results should satisfy all the basic requirements of a solid building, all the hvac and way-finding qualities, but there is a lot of room left over to do something intellectually interesting.

Anyway, delightful read.

enrique said...

Joy ... I think your comment does a better job of articulating these issues than my own post. Case in point: So, maybe the problem is not that these techno-utopias were so much believed at the time, but that they are so much believed now.

That's precisely what I find really unnerving about this sort of technologically-deterministic, rosy-colored, wasn't-the-60s-great attitude that some seem to espouse. The near-blind acceptance (I think it's near-blind, at least) of it is troubling not only because it skips any type of critical assessment, but also because this body of work becomes wholly divorced of any subtle meaning. This is the case especially when Debord, Banham, Archigram, Price, et al., are used by technologists. Why do people look to Banham in lieu of Heidegger for some provocative statements about technology? Banham is treated as some kind of sagacious wunderkind.

I have only read Paul Barker's recollections of the New Society stuff in the Non-Plan book. And I am not surprised that the critical backlash against the idea of non-Plan is similar to that leveled against Jane Jacobs, for example. The more I immerse myself in Banham's stuff, the less tolerance I have.

As for Rudolph, you are right. Banham only mentions the Yale Univeristy Art Gallery, along with the Stirling's Ham Commons and some of the Smithson's work. One wonders indeed what he would have thought. Yet the criticism that Stewart Brand levels against that particular building is basically a restatement of Barker's "non-plan" test, which is what began my rant.

You are absolutely spot-on when you notice that I too use arguments from other fields in my own service. It is almost a necessity in something as interdisciplinary as architecture history. But as I said in my response to Fred's comment, I am not sure what the answer is. I only point to others, and their tack seems noble: 1) be clear about your operative strategy; and 2) go beyond the mere aesthetic and superficiality (i.e. go beyond a mere semblance of provenance) that a ready allusion to someone else. Academia seems, at least in my neophyte world view, to have safeguards against this (citations, peer review, etc) ... but I am concerned about non-academic stuff (is that even a legitimate concern? There is only a small number of people who really cares about "academic" stuff). I feel that the use of 60s era stuff with out any depth makes our discipline look bad. Maybe that's my paranoid self speaking.

And as for Reiser's [i]Atlas[/i], it was Kwinter's interpretation of the work that troubled me. I guess that for Kwinter, the test of his interdisciplinary brand of research is: do you buy it? I don't. So, again, is it just a matter of persuasion?

I don't know. This issue really confuses me for the exact reason you said: I am guilty of those very things I criticize, and I am looking for a way to rationalize it. I guess my own test is: am I doing a good job? Fortunately, I am only answerable to myself at this moment.

And thanks for your comment ... glad to know that there are fellow travelers out there wondering about these things.

sevensixfive said...

Hah! You're using BBCode! This ain't archinect, Smokety!

Joy said...

Yea, I am looking forward to you joining our travels in the fall. It was, at times, a lonely road for just this reason. Anyway, I do think that for the design part of architecture, the test can be just whether it's persuasive. Just as long as you remember when you are using an idea as a metaphor and when you aren't. But as a scholar / critic / historian I think our job is to critique, to point out what is not persuasive, what is UNSATISFYING and not just scan fun pictures. We can also scan fun pictures, but it's our job to raise questions not act as boosters.

To be a nerd, one of my favorite quotes on the subject is from Lacan:
"We can give "free rein to our speculations so
long as we retain the coolness of our judgement and do not mistake the
scaffolding for the building."

But, of course, being Lacan, a few sentences later he says: "seeing as advice is given so as not to be followed, since then we
haven't missed an opportunity of taking the scaffolding for the
building." So it seems to me, use the metaphor just remember that it is a metaphor, you are not a biologist, technologist, etc just because you can draw it.

Another favorite, I think it's Brad Pitt's character in Fight Club, 'you can stuff feathers up your ass but it won't make you a chicken'.