Saturday, April 26, 2008

Hyperbolic Rooms

Technician adjusts wood model of North American B-25 Mitchell inside a wind tunnel (source: Library of Congress)

There may be a future project, one that looks at research facilities and laboratories not just as places where knowledge is produced, but also as places where the most extreme conditions are manufactured. A good example is a return-flow wind tunnel (above), which uses condensers and other equipment to simulate high or low atmospheric pressures. The two following examples, however, I find fascinating for the types of extreme architectural conditions they represent.

The first example I can think of is an anechoic chamber. Anechoic chambers are rooms designed to curtail, shape, or even prevent sound propagation. Typical examples contain some type of foam or cork sound baffling. The example below, from the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, England, is interesting as it is a room for testing radar equipment. This particular room, dating from the 1980s, is shielded from RF waves. The foam bafflers look menacing, almost like teeth. It is as the room were designed to literally eat soundwaves.

RF-Negative Anechoic Sound Chamber at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, UK (NMR.Crown Copyright)

The next example comes from NASA's Project Fire, a testing program from 1964-1967 designed to simulate the re-entry of an Apollo Command Module in the Earth's upper atmosphere. The idea was to understand the conditions of extreme heat, pressure, and friction a capsule would experience upon its descent.

Project Fire documentation (source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration)

The image below shows a section diagram of the Project Fire re-entry vehicle. It is, in essence an Apollo capsule crammed with telemetry equipment and various other sensors. The vehicle was launched from Kennedy Space Center , entered low Earth orbit, and descended in the vicinity of Ascension Island.

Project Fire II Re-entry Vehicle (source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration)

The below image shows a static test of a Project Fire vehicle. Here, technicians adjust the testing model inside a small, metallic room. On either side, large metallic perforations channel and radiate the incoming flames. Farther off, in the center of the picture, a concrete aperture provides a peek into a barren landscape. Presumably, some type of rocket booster would be placed inside the aperture and fired inside the room.

Project Fire static test preparation (source: National Aeronautics and Space Administration)

The above buildings are not of the type usually featured in architectural surveys. They are of special architectural interest, however. These are rooms, if not for habitation, but for silence and incineration. It is an odd affirmation of Steve Shapin's dictum about entering the spaces of science in 18th century England: "We can, it is true, make the occasional trip to places where scientific knowledge is made. However, when we do so, we come as visitors, as guests in a house where nobody lives."

Friday, April 25, 2008

It's Beginning To And Back Again

William James , Waterfall Illusion (1890) (Source: Harvard Gazette)

A couple of weeks ago, I presented a paper at a two-day conference and workshop hosted by MIT's Department of Architecture. As part of the event, we were given a personalized tour of Harvard's Scientific Collection by none other than Peter Galison. He drew our attention to one of the most well-known optical machines from the collection: William James' Waterfall Illusion.

The instrument was used by German psychologist Hugo M├╝nsterburg at Harvard's Psychological Laboratory (affiliated with, of all things, their Philosophy Department) for various well-documented trial experiments. Yet the Waterfall Illusion illustrates an important point about the relationship between the eye and the brain. The Dictionary of Psychology thus describes this relationship as,
An example of a negative after-effect. It is an illusion of apparent movement that occurs as a result of steady visual fixation on any portion of a waterfall. When the observer's gaze is shifted to the surrounding scenery, it appears to move in an upward direction. May be demonstrated in the laboratory with a waterfall illusion device such as one described by William James in his Principles of Psychology (1890).
I find the idea of an "illusion of apparent movement" fascinating. So much so that I was thinking about the waterfall illusion as I heard Mark Cousins speak at the Princeton University School of Architecture only a couple of nights ago. In a lecture entitled "History vs. The Past," Cousins (head of the Theories and Histories Program at the Architectural Association) bemoaned the current state of history in architecture school curricula. "History" was quickly put as a straw man, but only when understood in particular temporal frameworks, and under the dangerous rubric of "influence." Put another way, Cousins finds fault in the W├Âlfflinian approach of breaking down stylistic periods according to various attributes, and determining how those attributes were transmitted from from architect to architect.

A distinction was made between "history" and "the past." And Cousins advocated the latter rather than the former. When asked by an audience member how one would ever operationalize this idea, Cousins used the terms "relationship" and "engagement." In other words, the task is not to learn how ideas relating to the design of the Parthenon were communicated from generation to generation. Rather, the charge should be how individual architects dealt with the past. To use the Parthenon example, then: Cousins would opt for meditations and exegeses on how Le Corbusier "digested" the Parthenon in his writings and designs, or, to move on to more recent examples, how Peter Eisenman "made" Guiseppe Terragni.

The trouble is, the differences between "historical" methods and Cousins' interrogation of "the past" may be too subtle. They may be so subtle that the actual work of history -- the Blochian project of "crafting" history -- may fall by the wayside. The strange thing is that though the Q&A session was heated, Cousins and his critics were actually fighting the same fight. For two hours, people actually talked about "history", its guises and its pratfalls.

Yet for all the semantic wrangling between "history" and "the past", such distinctions can make for some confusion. But is this confusion good? Moving forward, in Cousins' pedagogical framework, means looking back. And one wonders if this wholly Benjaminian take is really just another version of Henry James' waterfall illusion. Do we think that our careful analyses and theoretical investigations move forward, when in reality we are mired in "the past"? Or is it the other way around: does our seeming reliance on precedent, influence, and any other deployment of concepts that require us to look backwards in time, in fact, move us forward? I'll leave it to James:
All currents tend to run forward in the brain and discharge into the muscular system and the idea of movement tends to do this with peculiar facility. But the question remains: Do currents run backward [?] (1918: 69).

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The National Park Architecture Sourcebook (A Review)

San Francisco Maritime Museum

The National Park Architecture Sourcebook
Henry H. Kaiser
Princeton Architectural Press
608 pp / 500 B+W
Publication Date: May 1, 2008

Our Federal Government is a large, expansive entity. Staffed by thousands, with millions upon millions of everyday objects, and with an immense archive of documents and work-related bric-a-brac, the U.S. Government takes advantages of its own economies of scale to produce stuff ... and lots of it. It is thus interesting how few ever consider our Government in terms of the sheer quantity of its architectural production. Sure, plenty of books and architectural monographs describe familiar objects: monuments, Capitols, banks, highways, courthouses ... but such descriptions rarely give anyone the sense of the absolute scale of our Government's building and design efforts. Put another way, our Government makes stuff. And lots of it.

This is precisely what makes Harvey H. Kaiser's The National Park Architecture Sourcebook (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008) such a fascinating document. Weighing in at a hefty 600 pages, Kaiser's book provides a regional, state-by-state account of all architectural objects (buildings, monuments, piers, etc) that fall under the aegis of the United States National Park Service. And if we look at the content, we quickly note that Kaiser provides a brief, refreshingly pithy essay for each of the 216 buildings covered in the book. This is, in many ways, reminiscent of the old Shell or AIA guides that lead us through the various tangles and conurbations of our built environment. And yet again, it is not overwhelmingly encyclopedic (nor extravagantly demonstrative, like Robert A.M. Stern's New York books). Here, we are told everything straight-up and poker-faced.

It is a fascinating read, to boot. Covering a wide swath of buildings, from the ruined villages at the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in San Juan County, New Mexico; to the Springfield National Armory Site in Massachusetts; to the Isle Royale National Park in Michigan. Each park is mined for its architectural and landscape offerings. And in some cases, the results are stellar. Consider, for example, the San Francisco Maritime Museum (see above image). Kaiser writes:
The San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park contains a superb example of streamline moderne architecture ... The park's centerpiece is the bathhouse, a gleaming white moored ocean liner. Now the Maritime Museum building, the four-story reinforced-concrete structure designed by the William Moosers, Sr. and Jr., is banked into the slope of land as it gradually descends into the bay. The main entrance is on the second floor at the foot of Polk Street. An oval plan, recessed upper stories, porthole windows, tubular steel railings, air vents shaped like ship's funnels, and historic white color add to the building's illusion as an ocean liner. The nautical theme is carried out in the interiors by murals, statues, and other artwork by artists Hilaire Hiler, Sargent Johnson, RIchard Ayer, John Glut, and Benjamin Bufano. The artwork is significant for its surreal and abstract forms not commonly found in WPA projects (46-47).
This is not cutting edge architecture theory. Nor is Kaiser's book a radical re-versioning of history. On the other hand, it is a thoughtful, remarkable collection that brings to light works which would otherwise be overlooked in the history of the American built environment.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Suck (or Vacuuming as Military Intelligence)

Buying a piece of intelligence in Carroll Reed's Our Man in Havana (1959). L to R: Alec Guinness as Wormold, Noel Coward as Hawthorne (Source: DVD Beaver)

I am a huge, unabashed fan of Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana (1958). But I would even say that I am bigger, more unabashed fan of Carroll Reed's subsequent film version from 1959. The story is the same: Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman in pre-Castro Cuba, is mistaken for a British intelligence operative. He opts for the MI-6 paycheck, the only caveat being that he has to provide other Field Agents with intelligence.

Poster for Reed's Our Man in Havana (1959)

As one of Greene's "entertainments", Our Man in Havana certainly is not lacking in its comic moments. Although it is not quite as funny as the stitch-inducing Travels With My Aunt, Reed's film version makes up for this through its brilliant casting. As the delicate, phlegmatic Wormold, Alec Guinness plays the part brilliantly, echoing the brilliant charm of his Ealing comedies as well as The Horse's Mouth. Noel Coward gives Field Station Chief Hawthorne a necessary and comic taciturn flair. Burl Ives' tragic and teutonic Hasselbacher becomes the film 's urgent, humanistic center.

But my favorite character in the whole movie is a household appliance. One of the story's high comedic points occurs when Wormold is asked to provide MI-6 with proof that the Cuban army (in an eerily prescient collaboration with the Soviets) is building a missile base.

Wormold's Sunday-Morning Comic from Reed's Our Man in Havana (1959) (Source: DVD Beaver)

Inspired by a pulp Sunday morning comic depicting an airplane crash in the mountains, Wormold concocts a tale of a downed pilot seeing what he thinks is a missile base (see above). He delivers a "picture" of the base: a vacuum cleaner.

Wormold draws his Cuban missile base, from Reed's Our Man in Havana (1959) (screen capture by author)

This vacuum cleaner is an exquisite architectural specimen. In what looks like a sectional perspective or cutaway drawing, we see the interior of the vacuum cleaner. It features a fairly standard architectural vocabulary: floor plates, monumental scale, HVAC systems. And even more impressively, it becomes a high-tech object.

Wormold's vacuum cleaner/missile base, from Reed's Our Man in Havana (1959) (screen capture by author)

We need only remind ourselves that the very same year that Reed directed Our Man in Havana, Banham published his influential Theory and Design in the First Machine Age. Wormold's vacuum cleaner does not make it onto the pages of Theory and Design. Yet we also recall an article Banham wrote in 1959 for The Architectural Review called "Neoliberty: the Italian Retreat from Modern Architecture." In that piece, Banham reminds us of the importance of Wormold's own pop icon:
[T]he domestic revolution that began with electric cookers, vacuum cleaners, the telephone, the gramophone, and all those other mechanised aids to gracious living that are still invading the home, and have permanently altered the nature of domestic life and the meaning of domestic architecture.
It is thus interesting how, in Wormold's drawn universe, the vacuum cleaner has transcended its role as architectural representation. For him, the vacuum cleaner is architecture.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

What is Your Object?

What is your object? This is a question that historians will ask those who are being trained as historians. If not a tricky question, then it is one that does play on semantic subtleties. So if an architecture historian is asked, "What is your object?", wouldn't it be plausible to equate that question with "What is your objective?" In other words, "What is your project?"

I post these curious semantic wanderings only in response to a great discussion that Kazys Varnelis initiated weeks back. This discussion, which was in itself a response to historian Mark Jarzombek's so-called "Anti-Pragmatic Manifesto", remains with very few comments. And this is a shame because Kazys put forth a brilliant question:
What of history? ... [W]hy is it that historians have ceded their need to understand the contemporary world to other disciplines? Where is the historiographic innovation needed to understand the contemporary? When will we begin the work on the theories of history necessary for understanding our world.
I offer a slightly different take on the question, and I hope that this gloss will help stimulate more discussion about this particular issue. When Kazys asserts that historians "ceded their need" to analyze to other disciplines, one must remember that he is first and foremost talking about architecture historians. With this in mind, I wonder if one reason for this is that, perhaps, architecture historians have guarded the objects of their own study -- buildings and cities -- too closely. It is, of course, more complex than this. After all, historians like Jarzombek continuously raise the importance of critical historiography. Others have pointed to architecture history as a curious amalgam of three separate, yet interdependent realms: theory, material culture, and "straight up architecture history."

But back to architecture history's "object" and "objective." A holistic approach to Kazys' comments would certainly involve looking at architecture's object status a little differently. Instead of looking at architecture and urbanism as the subject of myriad monographs and biographies, perhaps it is best to operationalize buildings and cities ... to use architecture to make bigger, more important claims about our world, our societies, our histories. These are the types of scholarship that I admire. And though it is true that examples of such scholarship sometimes occurs outside the ambit of architecture history and theory, there are plenty of texts (and upcoming dissertations ) that deploy this instrumentalist approach.

But I also see another more latent problem with the practice of architecture history, one that Kazys does not allude to (at least not to my knowledge). The discipline of architecture history and theory -- as one distinct from art history -- is a relatively new field. The original intent of these programs was to train architects to teach history at architecture schools. In many ways, this is still the objective. Take a look at the various catalogs for top-flight Ph.D programs, and you will encounter the proviso that "candidates should possess a master of architecture degree or its equivalent."

I'll put myself out on the line and say outright that this model is broken. The majority of applicants to Ph.D programs in architecture are not architects. In fact, one soon-to-be finished Ph.D candidate remarked to me that during the time that he worked on admissions, only a small number of the total applicant pool under consideration had an M.Arch or B.Arch degree. Applicant pools feature a interesting swath of interests: from art history, urban planning, anthropology, literary theory, computer science, and even law.

A distinction between "those with architecture backgrounds" and "those without" will forever be made within schools whose charge is to train architecture historians. This only harms the practice of architecture history ... for if our discipline is to acquire meaning in this world, it must exist beyond design studios and juries. And for this to happen, the expertise of those outside the realm of architecture is necessary.

I note that this is a different situation from what Kazys paints, that of architecture "ceding" its interests to other disciplines. To avoid what Raymond Williams famously referred to as a "problem of perspective", I think that we have to articulate this notion of "ceding" a little differently. In other words, architecture history must not "cede" its interests. Rather, it has to "embrace" these other interests and incorporate them into its own methodologies.

Whether one chooses to frame this "embrace" under the banners of "interdisciplinariness" or under the rubric of hot-off-the press historiographic "transnational approaches", it is important to note that, at the very least, these methods and aspirations offer something that architecture history sorely lacks: dialogue. This is what I think Kazys worries about ... and it is something we all should worry about as well.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Dankmar Adler on Form and Function

Therefore, if "form follows function," it does not follow in a straight line, nor in accordance with a simple mathematical formula, but along the lines of curves whose elements are always changing and never alike; and if the lines of development and growth of vegetable and animal organisms are infinitely differentiated, the processes of untrammeled human thought and human emotions are even more subtle in the differences and shadings of their manifestations, while the natural variations in conditions of human environment are as great as those which influence the developments of form in the lower organisms; and human work is further modified by necessary artificial conditions and circumstances.

Dankmar Adler, "Function and Environment", in Lewis Mumford, ed. Roots of Contemporary American Architecture (1952), p. 244.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Research Still in Progress

Big shout-out to the MIT HTC crew[*] for a great event this past weekend. And thanks to Bryan for letting me use his Eiffel Tower diagram.

* and AKPIA and HAA folks as well ...