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.

2 comments:

sevensixfive said...

Thanks for the good words, Enrique, and for the context. I'll have to look up Aureli, the connection between Formalism and Politics always seems so obvious it's a wonder more people don't mention it. I think the basically political motives of any claim to Formal Autonomy belie those same claims. You can't say it's all about internal consistency when the purpose of all that consistency is just external coercion. If you've got a hidden agenda, you ain't autonomous.

Form is much more interesting as a template, a 'thing to think with' as Keller would say. She's definitely someone who's theorizing the city, one of the few non-bloggers out there who's doing it, actually. Hmmm, have to think about who else is on that larger list and get back to that ...

progressive reactionary said...

Agreed. The piece on Baltimore was fantastic, and I hope to see more like it. I especially enjoyed the reference to The Wire... the show is phenomenal and, particularly as it relates to urbanism, deserves its own critique/analysis.