Monday, March 24, 2008

Theorizing the American City

"One of the major problems between architecture and urbanism today," so declares Italian architecture theorist Pier Vitorio Aureli," is that ... the contemporary city is constantly researched, but it is no longer theorized." This quote, from Aureli's lecture at Yale School of Architecture this past fall, seems to act as a corrective (or tonic) to the current state of thinking that permeates architecture schools. Formalism and politics are linked together in Aureli's world view -- a point made more poignant by his observation that site has lost importance in the "recent history of architecture."

And before arm-chair critics invoke the hallowed banner of "context", consider how the "c" word has very little relevance for Aureli. Site is not context. Siting (the act of creating a site) is the "establishing of appearance within the public space of a project." These are highly-charged and provocative statements, to be sure. Yet Aureli's opening statement -- that cities are no longer theorized -- is a little too conclusive for this writer's own taste.

This is precisely what makes Fred Scharmen's eloquent and passionate "love letter" to Baltimore so refreshing and so poignant. Here, in this short, sweet feature for Archinect entitled "Baltimore, Place of Yes and Yes", Scharmen does much more to resuscitate what Aureli sees as lacking in current architectural thinking. Here is a vital piece of writing that theorizes the city. Not Dubai. Not Beijing. But Baltimore.

Scharmen begins his piece with a Molly Bloom-esque affirmative:
Baltimore is Postindustrial, Multilayered, Patinated. It's made of brick. Cold in the winter, hot in the summer, Baltimore is full of colleges, nonprofits, art schools, universities, bars, but also, according to the 2000 census, over 40,000 vacant housing units. There's a lot of crime and rent is cheap. The contradictions are there in the slogans: 'Bodymore Murdaland' aka 'The City that Reads' (or 'Bleeds'). 'Stop Snitchin' or just 'BELIEVE.'
What's the proper reaction to these conditions? Resignation? Hope? Irony? Is it possible to appreciate the aesthetic consequences of Urban Decay while decrying the socio-economic forces that have produced it? Is it possible to make a living city that retains its Authenticity without producing a Generic Monoculture?
As my first studio critic used to say, whenever we asked him an either/or question: 'Yes and Yes'.
Scharmen then takes us through a photographic tour of his city. We see abandoned water fronts, dilapidated brick curtain walls, and various other ephemera that we normally associate with the (now here's a term) postindustrial. We even get to know Baltimore through the critically-acclaimed TV series, The Wire. It's all there: networked urbanism, infrastructural reckoning, and architecture. Yes, architecture.

But I cannot do the article justice. Kudos to Fred, and to Bryan Boyer, for instigating what promises to be a fantastic piece of architectural and urbanistic thinking. And be sure to check our Fred's photostream. You see, the city is being theorized.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Laredo is The Reason

I've just come up for air from a prolonged excursion to the Texas-Mexico border with my family. It was hot, dusty, and windy (yes, 60+ mph winds only a couple of days ago). I also witnessed a couple of things I had never experienced before, such as a Mexican illegal hiding in my parents' property, en route to Houston, and even bobcats. Several nights ago, I was out on the deck, and noticed a strange, infernal glow coming from the southwestern sky. A brush fire. It looked as if the horizon was aflame.

I also spent a long afternoon in Laredo, Texas. The last time I was there was back in 1986, when we crossed the border to take my grandfather to see a dentist in Nuevo Laredo. This goes without saying, but Laredo's transformation has been equally alarming and stunning. Now known as a locus of Cormac McCarthy-esque vioence, Laredo is one of the United States' most important ports of entry. Taking these two aspects into consideration -- it's bordertown woes and infrastructural significance -- one wonders why writers on urbanism and infrastructure have neglected this very important city along the Rio Grande River.

Take this, for example, from a report published by the U.S. Department of Commerce:
[T]he port of Laredo is ranked first among ports along the Southwest border and fourth among all U.S. land ports for the value of goods that are shipped through the area. In 2004, $130.8 billion worth of goods and merchandise passed through the port of Laredo, an increase of 13 percent over the previous year. Over 40 percent of northsouth traffic that crosses our international border with Mexico drives across one of the international bridges in Laredo.

Laredo’s primary industry is transportation and warehousing. In 2003, these industries contributed 16.2 percent of the total earnings of the area. Crossing the Rio Grande River into Nuevo Laredo, one finds numerous maquiladoras. The Delphi and Sony manufacturing plants are the top two employers for all the maquiladoras in Nuevo Laredo.

And even this snapshot of the Port of Laredo, taken after a momentary glance through Google Earth, gives an idea of the sheer amount of truck traffic exchanging through this city:

Port of Laredo Trailer Docks (intersection of Bullock Loop and Interstate 35)

And for those of you of have an interest in the prehistory of cybernetics, consider that the old Laredo Army Air Field (now known as Laredo International Airport), was the site where the U.S. Army Air Force calibrated their computerized gunsights.

AAF Gunnery Crews test nose turret configurations in Laredo, Texas (source: LiberatorCrew)

Driving north along the Bullock Loop, I even noticed some windowless DC-9 aircraft. These are freight forward aircraft operated by Kalitta Air that fly directly to Willow Run, Michigan. Yet the ones I saw bore no markings, and in fact, bore a striking resemblance to the red-flashed Janet aircraft Trevor Paglen often writes about (see previous post on this very topic). That Laredo International Airport is a site with bustling DHS aerial operations is no surprise, as it is one of the facilities used to ferry illegal aliens and other personae non grata to various locations throughout the hemisphere.

A series of articles (and perhaps a book) needs to be written on different types of urban and infrastructural phenomena in Texas. Perhaps it will begin here.

Myra Warhaftig's Forgotten Architects

Harry Rosenthal (1892-1966), Arnold Zweig Residence, Berlin 1929-30 (Source: Forgotten Architects)

The first half of the twentieth century could very well be considered a type of design diaspora. Much has already been written about how architects and designers were displaced by authoritarian, nationalist, and anti-democratic regimes. We know about the Bauhaus exodus, for example. The United States became a fertile ground for the likes of Herbert Bayer, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. The same could be said for England, where designers like Arthur Korn and Erich Mendelsohn became influential figures within expatriate design communities. Lesser-known artists, such as the Catalan anti-Franco graphic designer Josep Renau, are slowly becoming the subject of proper historical treatment. However tragic the individual stories may be, these designers are known.

There is another history to be written, one that considers the work of designers and architects that did not fare as well as Mies, Gropius, and scores of others. And this is precisely what makes Myra Warhaftig's thoughtful compendium of the work of 43 Jewish German architects so compelling. This document is soon to be published by Pentagram, whose weblog describes the project in greater detail:

In the 1920s and early 1930s, German Jewish architects created some of the greatest modern buildings in Germany, mainly in the capital Berlin. A law issued by the newly elected German National Socialist Government in 1933 banned all of them from practicing architecture in Germany. In the years after 1933, many of them managed to emigrate, while many others were deported or killed under Hitler’s regime. Pentagram Papers 37: Forgotten Architects is a survey of 43 of these architects and their groundbreaking work.

The paper is based on the extensive research of architect Myra Warhaftig, who sadly passed away last Tuesday, 4 March at age 78. Warhaftig spent twenty years investigating the fates of these architects and only recently published her findings in her book German Jewish Architects Before and After 1933: The Lexicon. An exhibition based on her work is set to open at the Jewish Museum Berlin later this year. David Sokol has written about Warhaftig and her project in an article published today in the Jewish culture blog Nextbook.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Art of Notation (Pt. 2)

(see my previous post on this topic)

From John Cage, Williams Mix (1952-3), the composer's first work composed for audiotape (Source: Newton Armstrong)

Faust, Faust IV, Virgin Records UK (1974) (Source: Faust-Pages)

Friday, March 14, 2008

Game Space_1: Portal/Fez

At SXSW this past week, Bryan and John both alerted me to some interesting games out there. The first is kokoromi's Fez. Think Mario Bros. on X-Y-Z gimbal axes. The result is, to say the least, pretty awesome.

The second is Valve's Portal. The online entry for the game tells us that
The game consists primarily of a series of puzzles that must be solved by teleporting the player's character and other simple objects using the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device ("Portal Gun" for short), a unit that can create an inter-spatial portal between flat planes. The player character is challenged by an AI named "GLaDOS" to complete each puzzle in the "Aperture Science Enrichment Center" using the Portal Gun with the promise of receiving cake when all the puzzles are completed. The unusual physics allowed by the portal gun are the emphasis of this game, and is an extension of a similar portal concept in Narbacular Drop; many of the team from the DigiPen Institute of Technology that worked on Narbacular Drop were hired by Valve for the creation of Portal.

These games are fascinating in that they involve some type of spatial manipulation. Specifically, Portal reminds us of the work of Israeli architect Eyal Weizman. In a 2006 essay, Weizman describes the IDF's theoretical approaches to navigating hostile urban spaces. He writes:
During the battle soldiers moved within the city across hundreds of metres of ‘overground tunnels’ carved out through a dense and contiguous urban structure. Although several thousand soldiers and Palestinian guerrillas were manuvering simultaneously in the city, they were so ‘saturated’ into the urban fabric that very few would have been visible from the air. Furthermore, they used none of the city’s streets, roads, alleys or courtyards, or any of the external doors, internal stairwells and windows, but moved horizontally through walls and vertically through holes blasted in ceilings and floors. This form of movement, described by the military as ‘infestation’, seeks to redefine inside as outside, and domestic interiors as thoroughfares. The IDF’s strategy of ‘walking through walls’ involves a conception of the city as not just the site but also the very medium of warfare – a flexible, almost liquid medium that is forever contingent and in flux.
All in all, these two games are evidence of practices that fall outside architecture's more normative realms.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Architecture at SXSW Interactive

Less than a week has passed by since SXSW Interactive 2008 came to an end. I was fortunate enough to participate as a panelist this year. Our panel -- comprised of Mimi Zeiger (Loud Paper), John Szot (Brooklyn Digital Foundry), Molly Steenson (activesocialplastic), Bryan Boyer (sorry, Bryan - my bad) and me -- was called "Meet the Architects", and it must have seemed out of place in what has become a very web- and technology-heavy conference. According to the SXSW website:
A new kind of digital practice has emerged. We see it in our buildings and our cities: new architectural interfaces, new communities, new ways of thinking about the physical world around us. In "Meet the Architects," we'll take on these ripples in physical architecture and urbanism. This panel tracks new directions in architecture culture at the intersection of digital, film and urban environments; architecture zines, blogs and communities; and architectural and urban research.
The response, however, has been uniformly good. And this is no doubt because of the superior caliber of my fellow panelists. I would like to think that we brought something different to SXSW. Something more interdisciplinary and compelling than the usual SXSW fare.

Overall, it was a thrilling experience. Being the aprocryphal "fish out of the water" at this conference meant that I could think about my own work within a larger context. Molly, Mimi, John, Bryan and I have some more conference-like things to hammer out in the future. Stay tuned.

Image Source: Mr. Biscuit

(p.s. I'm the one in the grey sweater)

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

MidWeek Roundup

Website for SVA's Where The Truth Lies

Just a brief summary of things round the web that have me interested of late:

1) Molly Wright Steenson's new site, Active Social Plastic has a very interesting post on the bluff as a type of architectural gesture. The only thing missing is a Toblerone Bar.

2) Websites can be the site of recovery for architectural esoterica -- of the written variety of course. Check out The Honeywood File, a website dedicated to republishing a long-forgotten architecture text from pre-World War II England.

3) Although this event has long passed, the website for the SVA's Where The Truth Lies conference deserves some careful attention. Although the conference was ostensibly about propaganda, the use of a polygraph machine here is fascinating, to say the least.

4) The website for the current MoMA exhibit, Design and the Elastic Mind, is sure to draw ire from webgeeks out there. Although it is as cluttered and messy as the "real" show, this site is quite fun, in my own opinion.

5) a456 was reviewed in The Architect's Journal. Apparently the author of the review, Sutherland Lyall, thinks that my name is a pseudonym.

More forthcoming ....

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Big to Huge to Small (A Visual Essay)

Top: Konrad Wachsmann aside a model of his Space Frame system. Bottom: Maquette of Wachsmann's USAF Space Frame (Source: Axxio)

Konrad Wachsmann's most famous project is the space frame hangar system he designed for the United States Air Force in the 1950s. The literature devoted to this topic is exhaustive, and the space frame is often used as an example of Wachsmann's postwar experiments with joint-based modular construction.

Top: Drawing of Patent of Wachsmann's Space Frame, 1949, entitled "Building Construction" (Source: Google Patents). Bottom: Later USAF Space Frame elevation (Source: Axxio)

Nothing, however, seems to mention what the hangar was going to be used for -- housing what was then the world's largest airplane: the Convair B-36 Peacemaker.

Convair B-36 Peacemaker in flight over San Francisco (Source: YourZagi)

There is little doubt that Wachsmann's infinite-space construction was viewed as an optimal solution to house these gigantic bombers. As this image below shows, even moving a brand-new B-36 out of its manufacturing facility was a dangerous procedure. Here, the aircraft has to be elevated and moved out sideways and nose-up so that tail section and immense wingspan could clear the factory floor.

Production model B-36 moved out of assembly line hangar (Source: CleTrac)

Even at the conceptual model stage, Wachsmann's space frame was intended to house large several B-36's under one roof. The image below, for example, shows three B-36's parked side by side. Since each aircraft had a wingspan of 230 feet, the flow structure would have to be at least 690 feet wide and 162 feet tall.

Maquette of Wachsmann's USAF Space Frame with model B-36's inside (Source: Axxio)

And to get a sense of the B-36's immense size, of the massive hangar needed to house such an aircraft, consider this image: part of a B-36's fuselage is being stood on its end for structural static testing. One need only look at the small figures on the hangar floor to appreciate the B-36's size.

B-36 in static test (Source: Wikipedia)

Yet the B-36 was a megastructure of sorts. In addition to its being capable of delivering nuclear ordinance around the world, it was also designed to carry small aircraft inside its bombbay. This fanciful image from a 1948 issue of Popular Mechanics depicts a B-36 in flight, releasing small yellowish aircraft from its belly.

1949 Popular Mechanics magazine depicting B-36 and XF-85 in flight (Source: Airborne Aircraft Carriers)

Yet this small yellow jet was an actual aircraft: the McDonnell XF-85 Goblin, the world's smallest aircraft. There is a comfortable irony at work here -- the world's largest aircraft could be modified to house the world's smallest aircraft.

Top: McDonnell XF-85 Goblin (Source: National Air and Space Museum), Bottom: XF-85 on test flight underneath Boeing B-29 aircraft (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

These images thus show how the XF-85 could be retracted into the B-36's bombbay: via a piece of equipment looking like a trapeze artist's bar.

Top and Bottom: XF-85 retracted into B-36 aircraft (Sources: Wikipedia and Goleta Air and Space Museum)

Reyner Banham, that most outspoken enthusiasm of architecture's own interminglings with technology, offers a sober assessment of Wachsmann's space frame. In "1960 - Stocktaking" (from a 1960 issue of The Architecture Review), Banham claims that the space-frame was "evidence of a fanatical watchmaker ingenuity on the solution of certain problems within the given context of built structure" yet fraught with banality as it lacked a "radicalism of approach."

Wachsmann can be forgiven for this, especially when one considers how the B-36 program operates at every conceivable architectural scale. Wachsmann's hangar, with the potential to be infinitely expandable, exemplifies the largest scale possible. Inside this hangar, of course, are myriad aircraft of staggering size. And inside these aircraft are even smaller aircraft, no bigger than a small two-passenger sedan. When looking at the space frame as part of this system, perhaps Wachsmann's hangar seems more innovative than before. If not, at least more interesting.