Monday, January 26, 2009

Dust In the Air Suspended ...

The National Film Board of Canada has just uploaded portions of their catalog online. In 23 Skidoo (1964), director Julian Biggs trains a moving camera across a startlingly empty cityscape. Habitation is extremely recent. A pair of broken glasses sits on a sidewalk as if they had just been dropped. Police streamers wave in the air next to upended police barriers. Towards the end of the film, a single medium shot explains the predicament.

Be sure and check out other offerings on the Film Board's website.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Legibility of Destruction

Le Corbuiser, Villa Savoye before Restoration (Source)

What does it mean to destroy a building? How do we read a damaged version of Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye at Poissy? For architecture historian Andrew Herscher, destruction is a type of language, a "form of design" that is "at least as significant as any of the elements from which buildings are constructed for living, for the living." [1] But let us take this further. If a building calls attention to itself when it has ceased to exist, is there a middle ground, an intermediate representational stage that not only forecasts a language of destruction, but that also evokes the purely conceptual urgings that inspired the design of the building in the first place?

Some images of Erich Mendelsohn's buildings will begin to shed some light on this question.

Erich Mendelsohn, Einstein Tower on Front Cover of Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung (1921) (Source: Klaus Hentschel, The Einstein Tower, An Intertexture of Dynamic Construction, Relativity Theory, and Astronomy [Stanford UP, 1997]).

The first image, from a 1921 of Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, is one of the first ever taken of Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower (1921-1924). Here, Mendelsohn's signature expressionisms become fully visible. Sweeping, curved surfaces wrap around the building, creating volumes that bleed and dissolve into each other. A dark shadow covers the building's entire front facade. The lighting creates a high degree of contrast with the building's white wall. This contrast also highlights the Tower's exaggerated forms. The curved walls and apertures now stand out even more because of the lighting, giving a sense of how Mendelsohn's most famous building is a volume quite literally carved from space.

Photograph of Damage Caused to Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower, 1945 (Source: Hentschel)

The second image, taken after the German surrender in 1945, shows the extent of bomb and artillery damage during the Second World War. It is interesting to note that this picture was taken from almost the exact same vantage point as the photo from Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung. The degree of contrast in both photographs is nearly identical. However, in the latter photograph, the white walls are anything but. Smoke damage and paint flecks mar the otherwise smooth surfaces. The window mullions are also broken or missing, their glass blown out and strewn throughout the site. Debris covers the front entrance and grassy slopes on the side of the tower.

Erich Mendelsohn, Einstein Tower, Sketches (1920 et seq.) (Sources: Victoria and Albert Museum, and architecturesketches)

The image of the destroyed Einstein Tower fascinates for its ability to recall Mendelsohn's original sketches for the building. As in the photograph from 1945, the sketches reveal the lenticular dome atop the tower as a broken and incomplete form. The ground seems incomplete and upturned in the sketch, much in the way it would appear in the second photograph. Is it possible that the building, when damaged and eviscerated, speaks more to the architect's vision than a completed building? The form of the Einstein Tower has withstood damage, but it is a form that has become reduced to its constituent lines of force. Strangely, the bomb blast, with its incredible displacement of pressure, earth, and energy, makes the building more legible. But is this because we are filling in the blanks, completing the forms? Are we visualizing a completed dome atop the building even when we look at the image of the damaged Einstein Tower?

Mendelsohn, Hat Factory at Luckenwalde (1921-23) (Source), and Recent Photograph (Source)

Mendelsohn's Hat Factory at Luckenwalde (1921-23) shows a different type of damage. The original, tell tale hat-like form is clearly visible in the more recent photograph. Originally built as a dyeing facility, Mendelsohn's main hat-like structure became a munitions assembly plant under the Nazis, as well as a textile plant under East German oversight. Since 1990, the German government has identified the building as a national landmark and begun to restore it. The building has been gutted during this process. This act of dismantling -- a type of damage that is commensurate with the process of historic preservation -- has revealed the building's original poured concrete spans, facade brick courses, as well as some of the wood framing. If damage has made the Einstein tower's form more legible, then in the case of the Hat Factory, it has made the structure readable once again.

[1] Andrew Herscher, "The Language of Damage", Grey Room 7 (Spring 2002), p. 69.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Pidgin 6 Rollout

January is turning out to be "Architecture Magazine Roll-out Month" ....

Princeton University School of Architecture is delighted to announce:


Friday 01/23/09
Urban Center Books
457 Madison Avenue NY 10022

Panel Discussion 7-8pm, party 8-9pm
Panel participants: Stan Allen, Glen Cummings, Jeffrey Inaba, Marc McQuade

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Object-Problem and Wreckage

Boeing 737-800

How do we describe an airplane? The short answer (of course), to this is that it depends on the audience. To a loved one who is picking us up from an airport, we use the carrier as a term of reference. “I am flying Continental from Newark to San Antonio”, one may say. Some may even be interested in a carrier’s livery. Let’s take the Continental flight once again. We could say, “It is a white plane, with a gold line along the latitudinal cheat line, with a blue tail, and on that blue tail, there is a globe.” To those who are interested, we say, “It was a Boeing 737.” To the airplane buff, we continue, “It was a Boeing 737-800, registration N37277, manufactured in Renton, Washington in 2004.” We describe this passenger jet according to its airframe, engine configuration, and any other number of metrics. The methods are never consistent, yet we are dealing first and foremost with a very tricky object.

How tricky? Consider, for example, that the modern passenger airplane is the ultimate mediated object. In Grammophone, Film, Typewriter, the German media theorist Friedrich Kittler describes how in an airplane “The crew is connected to radar screens, diode displays, radio beacons, and nonpublic channels” and how “The passengers' ears are listlessly hooked up to one-way earphones, which are themselves hooked up to tape recorders and thereby to the record industry.” The passenger jet is therefore a networked object. It delivers the promise of connectivity at all scales: from interpersonal communications among crew and passengers, to hub-and-spoke airline route systems, to the literal and figural networking of myriad geographical points across the globe.

My charge is to introduce a series of tools that help describe and analyze aircraft in light of the many complexities that I have just mentioned. I should add that these tools are not architectural nor art historical. These tools are not the beneficiaries of the alphabet-soup methodologies we are accustomed to: there are no STS’s or ANT’s. The tools I bring to this table come from American jurisprudence as well as public and private international law. This means that I eschew the role of architecture historian and, for this post only, write from an attorney's point of view.

Jurists and attorneys contemplate, dissect and analyze a complicated object such as a passenger jet in the context of jurisdictional power. Let’s think of it this way: a Federal court has authority to hear a case regarding an object, person, or transaction that occurs in the state where that court sits. It also has the authority to hear the cases that involve issues of Federal law. With this in mind, how do we comprehend a passenger jet, an object that crosses many international boundaries, with passengers and crew from myriad countries, with reservations made via innumerable electronic transactions? The short answer is that attorneys and jurists have been doing this for a very long time. I want to illustrate this process by first introducing a real set of facts and a real set of legal opinions, all involving the fight of a Boeing 707 passenger jet from Santiago de Chile to New York and a car-bomb explosion in 1976.

Wreckage of Orlando Letelier's Car, near Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C. (1976)

On September 21, 1976, operatives working for the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA, the Chilean Intelligence Directorate) detonated a radio-controlled explosive device attached to car traveling down Embassy Row in Washington, DC. Inside the car was Orlando Letelier, the Defense Minister under recently-ousted Chilean president Salvador Allende, and head of the Institute for Policy Studies. Along with his American secretary, Ronnie Moffitt, Letelier died instantly.

The prime suspect behind Letelier’s assassination was Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet. Letelier’s and Moffitt’s families sought a wrongful death action and petitioned a Federal Court to seize Chilean assets in the United States. Prosecutors relied on an unusual legal theory: because the assassins flew to the United States, the Chilean-owned airplane was viewed as a seizable asset. The Federal District Court for the District of Columbia subpoenaed the offices of LAN (Lineas Aereas Nacionales), the Chilean national airline.

Boeing 707, LAN (Lineas Aereas Nacionales) Chile, Miami International Airport, January 1976

At issue was whether the Court had jurisdiction over the LAN Chile aircraft, a Boeing 707. From 1976 until 1995, attorneys debated the legal status of this object. Jurisdiction depended on the extent that the aircraft was Chilean property. In other words, if LAN Chile was sufficiently independent from the Pinochet regime, then the airline could not enjoy sovereign immunity and would be subject to American jurisdiction. But if the airline was truly a state airline, the doctrine of sovereign immunity would apply, thus leaving Letelier’s and Moffitt’s family without any legal remedy. The courts eventually found that the LAN Chile airliner could not be considered a separate juridical entity. In other words, the airliner was a piece of Chilean property, engaging in Chilean business, with Chilean nationals. In his 1984 opinion for the Letelier case, Circuit Judge Cardamone describes these conditions:
From January 1975 through January 1979 LAN’s assets and facilities were under direct control of Chile, which has the power to use them; Chile could have decreed LAN’s dissolution and taken over property interests held in LAN’s name; Chile, though its agencies, officers, and employees, intentionally used facilities and personnel of LAN to plan and carry out its conspiracy to assassinate Orlando Letelier by (a) transporting [assassins] between Chile and the United States, (b) transporting explosives on several occasions, (c) assisting with currency transactions involved in paying off the co-conspirators in the assassination, (d) providing a meeting place for the co-conspirators, (e) arranging for [assassins] to exit the United States under an alias after the assassination.
The 1984 opinion continues this trajectory, noting that despite all this malfeasance, Chile was not abusing its corporate form. In a strange and poignant moment, Judge Cardamone notes that engaging in state-sponsored terrorism, the planning of assassinations, etc., are not traditionally commercial activities. In other words, Chile was not abusing its corporate form because it was doing what countries do all the time.

But before the Letelier decisions, American courts were using other tools for analyzing object-ness for jurisdictional purposes. The classic formulation comes from a 1945 U.S. Supreme Court decision, International Shoe Co. v. Washington. In that case, the Court held that “A state may exercise personal jurisdiction over an out-of-state defendant, so long as that defendant has ‘sufficient minimum contacts’ with the forum state, such that the exercise of jurisdiction will not offend traditional notions of fair play and substantial justice …” In this case, the “minimum contacts” were a series of shoe displays used by International Shoe’s traveling salesmen. The Court subsequently used the doctrine of “minimum contacts” to investigate whether a manufacturer was liable for negligence under products liability statutes for injecting products (for example, automobiles) into the stream of commerce. Thus in World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson (1980), the Supreme Court held that an Oklahoma court had jurisdiction over Volkswagen and Audi for a car accident occurring in Oklahoma, and this despite the fact that the companies did not intentionally send their products to that state.

The Court held differently in Asahi Metal Industry v. Superior Court (1987), where a Japanese manufacturer of motorcycle cylinders and a Taiwanese distributor could not be held liable for a fatal motorcycle accident occurring in California. The difference between the two cases not only rests on the size of the object -- introducing a car into the American market is more foreseeable than introducing a motorcycle engine cylinder – but on the burden placed on the defendant. It was deemed more burdensome to sue a manufacturer of a motorcycle cylinder than an automobile maker. This line of thinking also appears in earlier cases involving aircraft accidents. For example, in Piper Aircraft v. Reyno (1981), a Scottish family could not sue an American aircraft manufacturer in a Pennsylvania Federal court for a fatal accident occurring in Scottish airspace.

These cases, though concerning grim events and issues of corporate responsibility and products liability, are similar in that they theorize the ramifications of introducing an object into the international sphere. They theorize the significance of that object as it is connected to corporate actors via communication, distribution, political, and various other networks.

The Letelier decisions, as well as the cases involving the legal doctrines of minimal contacts and forum non conviniens, all deal first and foremost with objects. Indeed, we would be on solid ground if we use these cases to conceptualize of a passenger jet as an object forged by various transactions and exchanges. This is confirmed by the fact that Friedrich Kittler and Circuit Judge Cardamone are saying very similar things. But to get back to our case at hand – the legal status of aircraft – we must recalibrate our scope of inquiry a little.

We can use principles from international law – specifically maritime and aerospace law – to conceptualize of a passenger jet as an object in motion. These principles also help us understand the passenger jet as it moves through three-dimensional space – and this is because such movement has consequences.

I begin with a tenet of Roman Law, a dictum from the Justinian Code known as the "sic utere" principle. Sic Utere Tuo ut Alieum Non Laedas. We translate this as “use your own so as not to injure another”, and it is an idea generally applicable to the law of property and the international law of territory. An American legal treatise from the early 20th century defines the "sic utere" principle thusly: “it may be stated that every man has a right to the natural use and enjoyment of his own property; and if, while lawfully in such use and enjoyment, without malice or negligence on his part, an unavoidable loss occurs to his neighbor, it is damage without any legal wrong.” This is NIMBYism in its rawest, most literal, most Roman sense: do what you want, just keep it out of my territory. It is a principle that has been unilaterally applied to cases involving trespassing beasts of burdens, errant cannonballs, transborder pollution, and even atmospheric nuclear testing. I point out that this principle sets up a regime of responsibility for an object that crosses a territorial boundary. Responsibility stems from the fact that an object – a ship, hang glider, or even a Chilean Boeing 707 – is a piece of territory freighted with legal significance. This is essentially what the judges in the Letelier case were thinking: a Chilean airliner is a piece of sovereign territory even when it crosses international borders.

There are tools for understanding the significance of an object as it changes altitude as well. In a 1908 symposium on Aerial Navigation, a New York attorney invoked what was then known as the Fauchille Theorem. The attorney writes:
Fauchille and others have suggested that the states should agree upon a zone of isolation above which traffic shall be free. Within it, all craft shall comply with fixed regulations such as in respect of the signals to be given and the place of descent, and public craft must obtain the consent of the local state through diplomatic channels. But an attempt to set up artificial zones seems unwise if for no other reason than that of the topography of the earth and the limitation of atmosphere available for human life … The sphere of sovereignty should be determined not by arithmetical standards but by the safety and convenience of the state.
This is a reference to a 1902 legal regulation drafted by Fauchille, a French legal theorist, called Projet de Règlement sur le Régime Juridique des Aërostats. It was part of a larger project concerning the regulation ballooning operations. Fauchille continues, “It is sufficient to acknowledge that the navigation of the air is a matter of public concern, and that its advancement as a medium of commerce will depend upon the wisdom and breadth of view which the organs of government exercise in making laws and regulations for its guidance.” Yet Fauchille’s solution to this problem was decidedly architectural and arithmetical. His “zone of isolation” would be exactly 330 meters: the height of the Eiffel Tower, then the tallest structure in the world. In other words, airspace extending from grade to 330 meters would be considered adjacent territory, subject to the laws of the state. Anything above would be considered international airspace.

Alberto Santos-Dumont No.1 Dirigible Circles the Eiffel Tower, 1901

This is an application of the "sic utere" principle in vertical space. Although the Fauchille Theorem is outdated, its underlying idea still resonates. This is proved by a very familiar set of facts. On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103, en route from London Heathrow to New York’s Kennedy Airport, exploded in mid-air over Lockerbie, Scotland. 270 people died, including 243 passengers, 16 crew, and 11 on the ground. The subsequent investigation found that the explosion was caused by the detonation of a plastic explosive carried on board by a Libyan passenger. As with similar disasters and calamities, a protracted legal action ensued. But this case involved an international dimension: as United Kingdom wanted to bring the case in Scottish court, the Libyan proctors asked that the case be removed to an international tribunal. The Letelier and Lockerbie cases thus relied on two separate conditions, both derived from the "sic utere" principle: whereas the former conceives of a jet as it crosses an international boundary, the latter conceives of the jet as it crosses an altitude threshold.

Pam Am 103, Lockerbie, Scotland, December 21, 1988

How, then, do the Lockerbie cases contemplate of an airplane in relation to its altitude? What the Libyans' attorneys considered (and alternatively, what they did not consider) provide some guidance. In an case before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to determine jurisdiction, Libya's attorneys claimed that an international convention trumped the application of US/UK law. The convention the Libyans were referring to is the 1971 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Civil Aviation (also known as the Montreal Treaty). In its case before the ICJ, Libya argued that under the Treaty, it had the right to exercise its own jurisdiction over the case because Libyan nationals were aboard the aircraft, this despite the fact that Pan Am 103 was flying over UK airspace. There was a procedural reason for this -- a trial in Libya under Libyan law precluded the extradition of its suspects. But nevertheless, it is important to consider that for Libya, the vertical orientation of the aircraft would also have been at stake. The argument is very similar to Judge Cardamone's statements in the Letelier cases regarding the sovereignty of an object flying across international borders. However, it is important to note that as Pan Am 103 was flying over Scotland, its transit would have been subject to the auspices of the Bermuda Treaty, a 1956 bilateral agreement between the United States and the United Kingdom prescribing the routes and altitudes for London-New York flights.

To conclude, I reiterate that my charge has been only to introduce a different set of tools used for comprehending and conceptualizing the modern passenger jet. These tools, I argue, are useful because they help us understand the indelible, profound complexities underlying a Boeing or Airbus airliner. This study thus began with an invocation of these complexities. But even if a passenger jet is the ultimate networked (or mediated) object, I maintain that a series of general yet well-established legal concepts from American jurisprudence and public and private international law help capture these complexities. These legal tools are incredibly flexible; so much so that they not only help us understand the networked conditions under which a passenger jet operates, but also because they help us visualize of aircraft in their most fundamental condition – as objects that move in three-dimensional space at a high rate of speed. I began and ended this short study with difficult sets of facts … fallen aircraft, plastic explosives, and incomprehensible carnage. I invoke a famous legal shibboleth, this one from the 18th century Scottish jurist William Argyll: Hard cases, it is said, make bad law. This has always been true. I also believe that hard cases give us some of the best tools we have for understanding objects.

[Author's Note: this post is based on a talk I gave at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in March 2008]

Monday, January 12, 2009

P40/41 Party

The editors of Perspecta 40 "Monster" and Perspecta 41 "Grand Tour" invite you to celebrate with us the release of the two latest numbers of The Yale Architectural Journal.

You will find the full invitation attached to this email, but for your reference the details are as follows:

Time: Friday, January 16th, 7:00 PM
Location: 7 World Trade Center (250 Greenwich Street), 45th Floor

We look forward to seeing you there.


Marc Guberman, Jacob Reidel, Frida Rosenberg
Editors, Perspecta 40 "Monster"

Gabrielle Brainard, Rustam Mehta, Thomas Moran
Editors, Perspecta 41 "Grand Tour"

Saturday, January 10, 2009

An Experiment in Description

Opening Sequence and Titles to Sans Soleil (dir. Chris Marker, 1983)

[Note: for more on Norman McLaren,
go here; for more on Sans Soleil, go here]

Film Forum, 57 Watts Street, Manhattan (ca. 1983)

How to describe attendance. Local fire code (N.Y.C.F.C. §§ 108-12 et seq.) maintains a maximum occupancy of 222. Even at 75% occupancy, the theater seems crowded. Gross box office numbers (see, for example, Alfred Candlemaker’s exhaustive “Ut Pictura Poesis”: Excavating Gulf+Western Annual Reports, 1966-1984)[1] describe attendance on a per-capita basis. Literally. Each moviegoer represents a certain percentage of moviehouse receipts. The National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) shows that the average price of a ticket in 1983 was $3.15. At full occupancy, Film Forum will make $699.30 per showing. At 75% occupancy, Film Forum will make $524.48 per showing. A week-length run of Sans Soleil in 1983 ran to an average of $350 per screening – a little over 50% occupancy per night.

John Waters Wants You to Smoke a Cigarette While Watching Sans Soleil

Light Propagating from a Single Source

Camera obscura as darkened room. Half the seats are filled. Some disregard the fading “non smoking” signs tacked on the red velvet dampers along the walls. Movie theater as darkened rectangle. On one wall, a shimmering screen with 4:3 aspect ratio (adjustable to 3:2) faces a series of apertures cut into the opposing wall. Larger squares accommodate 32mm projections. Smaller ones reveal lenses for 8mm and 16mm equipment. At 8:00p.m. sharp, one of the larger squares becomes filled with light. The familiar clackity-clack sound of film magazine and sprocket interlocking become a momentary whirr, giving way for the opening strains and flickering images of an obligatory NO SMOKING announcement. On the screen, John Waters (above) smokes a cigarette at 24 frames per second. His gestures are bounded by a square of light. Through the smoky air, you can almost draw lines from each corner of the screen. Each imaginary line meets at the center of the movie projector’s lens.

Fig. 1: Superimposition of Circle with 8000-foot (1.5 mile) Radius onto Lower Manhattan

Radii and Diameters

Film as unit of measurement. A single 15 inch-diameter reel holds 1,000 feet of film. 1,000 feet of film averages about 20-24 minutes. A typical theatrical release consists of five “two-reelers”, which is industry parlance for a 2,000-foot reel. “Two reelers” hold around 40 minutes of film. Some contain 45 or 50, depending on the length of optical and image calibration tracks. The running time of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) is 130 minutes. A 130-minute film fits easily into 4 two-reels. A 130-minute film thus equals about 8000 feet, or 1.5 miles. Sans Soleil consists of footage taken all over the world: Reykjavik, Tokyo, San Francisco, Praia, Bissau. Unspool Sans Soleil from Film Forum outwards. Treat this as the radius of an imaginary circle with its center at the Film Forum, 57 Watts Street. This 3-mile diameter circle would certainly cover a sizeable part of lower Manhattan, including parts of SoHo and TriBeCa (see Fig. 1 above). The circle would extend eastward, almost touching Sara D. Roosevelt Park. Moving westward, it reaches the New York-New Jersey boundary along the Hudson River. The whole of the world superimposed on Lower Manhattan.

Fig. 2: Norman McLaren’s Diagram Showing Relationship of Cinematic Image to “Pure Forms” and “Symbols” (Source: Film Quarterly, 1961)

The Curious Status of the Moviegoer

One sits, immobilized between two sources of light. An electric engine turns a film magazine at 24 fps. A high power incandescent bulb (in some cases, a 4,500-watt Xenon source) ensures the crisp, legible projection of an image. On the screen, the illusion of flickering light synched with sound never fails to impress. One sits in a chair and stairs at a darkened screen. A female voice is heard. Three Icelandic children cross an ashen road as they stare at the camera. Now, black again. And finally, an A4 Skyhawk attack bomber descends into the innards of an aircraft carrier. The moviegoer is only seeing and hearing the representations of Icelandic children and military aircraft move on the screen. The actual objects exist somewhere else. As a moviegoer is immobilized between projector and screen, Sans Soleil’s images hover somewhere between image and object, light and dark, pure form and symbol (see Fig. 2). It is, to use a term coined by the Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren, a “different kind of association entirely – images."[2]

[1]This source does not exist. At least not in my recollection.

[2] “The Craft of Norman McLaren: Notes on a Lecture Given at the 1961 Vancouver Film Festival”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 2, With a Special Survey: Our Resources for Film Scholarship (Winter, 1962-1963), p. 18.

[Author's Note: I am experimenting with a type of post that reconstitutes materials from other posts]

Friday, January 09, 2009

Entering the Bibliothéque et Archives Nationale, Montreal, QC: 10:32 a.m.

I cannot remember being inside a library as thrilling as the one I am currently in. The Grande Bilbiothéque du Québec, by Patkau / Croft Pelletier / Menkés Shooner Dagenais Architectes Associés, is an extraordinary space.

From the Berri-UQAM subway stop, you enter a series of revolving doors, go up narrow escalator, and enter the main hall of the library. On the right, metal bars grace a curtain wall frosted with alternating bands of diaphanous glass (the image above is taken from the opposite end of the hall). In between its vertical supports are some x-shaped braces -- a move not unlike the giant "x" motif along the side of James Stirling's Community Center at Newton Aycliffe, his 1950 thesis project from the University of Liverpool School of Architecture ...

And slightly to the right of the curtain wall, are a series of giant ferroconcrete pillars that seem to stretch endlessly into the ceiling. And as your eyes travel down the pillar, and trace imaginary lines of site along the pristine whitened floors (indeed ... a clean, well-lighted place), you see on the left, bordering the main hall, a system of maple blinds that grace the individual floors of the library. It is almost impossible to discern the individual floors within the building, but the blinds complement the banded glass on the opposite side of the hall. When light enters, the two act as a series of coordinating brises-soleil that amplify, yet mute the light that enters the hall.

I walk through the security entrance into the reference area, and there, you can see the figural viscera of the space. Here, it is a bit darker, but you can see the series of stairs that criss-cross up and down, amplifying the "X" bracings on the far side of the grande salon. There is also an elevator, with all its tracks, pulleys and levers exposed to the world. Bear with me for a second, but consider the ironclad logic of the Jorge Luis Borges' The Library of Babel ... a series of connected, orthogonal shapes that extend upwards, outwards into an immeasurable infinity. Here, the logic of the Grande Bilbiothéque du Québec is literally circumscribed by its boxy envelope or dangerously obvious partí. The collection and circulation spaces seem to suggest an interlocking series of boxes, each new square formed by the junction creating a different space in itself.

But, back in the Grande Salon, if you pretend you are rewinding, walking backwards in time and space through the double filtered space, in a volume where a diffuse light creates something approximating Paul Scheerbart's manic alpine visions, and say, for a second, that you are headed back underground, towards the labyrinthine ducts and tunnels of the Berri-UQAM .. there, on your right, looking through the maple louvers ...a sculpture towers, reaching into the air. This is Espace Fractal by Jean-Pierre Morin -- a extruded rhomboid shape that meets in a series of polished aluminum pipes that sprawl like the impossible tangle of a Gorgon's head.

[Author's Note: I wrote this brief piece while in Montreal in 2006. It was originally published on Archinect on November 21, 2006]

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

"I Can Study Man, His Isometric Body and Glass-Jaw Mind"

Feature Trailer for Demon Seed (dir. Donald Cammell, 1977)

Anyone with a passing interest in issues of domesticity, architecture, cybernetics, psychiatry, surveillance and obstetrics (yes, obstetrics) should write an article about Donald Cammell's creepy Demon Seed (1977).

Demon Seed lobby cards (1977) (Source)

The Film Society at Lincoln Center, who held a retrospective on Cammell's films in 2007, gives a nice, canned description of Demon Seed:
Based on a Dean Koontz novel, Cammell’s 1977 movie is one of his very best. It’s a typically perverse story of a housewife (Julie Christie, in her most underrated performance) living in a scientifically enhanced domestic space called an Enviromod, who is recovering from the loss of her baby. She is impregnated by a super-computer named Proteus (who speaks in the voice of Robert Vaughn), created by her husband (Fritz Weaver), looking to break past its own boundaries ("I can study man, his isometric body and glass-jaw mind"). Cammell may not have generated the project himself, but this strange tale of machine lust remains an intensely personal merger of pulp and poetry. Beautifully shot by the great Bill Butler, with special effects by avant-garde legend Jordan Belson.
In fact, someone should curate a screening of architecture/horror films. If it were up to me, first on my list would be David Cronenberg's Shivers (aka It Came From Within) (1975), which I like to describe as "HVAC gone horribly, horribly wrong". As Thomas Caldwell states,
Shivers is set inside the clear and sterile Starliner Towers, a self-sufficient apartment high-rise complex with the infrastructure of a small community. A parasite that was originally developed to replace diseased organs goes rogue and transforms its human hosts into sexually violent sociopaths. The only way the parasite can spread itself is for the host to sexually attack other people so that it can spread itself into the new host via any orifice available. The self-contained world of the Starliner Towers becomes the perfect breeding ground for the parasites, as gradually everybody either living or working there is transformed into hosts during a frenzy of sexual violence.
It would be interesting to compare this type of filmic commentary, which operates at the domestic and architectural scales, to Tati's Mon Oncle and Playtime.

Shivers poster (1975)

All in all, it is a far cry from the type of speculation inherent in the Smithson's House of The Future (1956). It took only around twenty years to turn two archetypal modernist conceptions of living -- the automated home of the future and the clean, airy tower block -- into cinematic bêtes noires.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

More 'Zines

Following on my previous post, I wanted to alert folks to Mimi Zeiger's exhibition on architecture zine culture during the '90s. I plan on going. Maybe you will as well.

Here's the official spiel:

A Few Zines: Dispatches from the Edge of Architectural Production
January 8–February 28, 2009

In the 1990s, zines such as Lackluster, Infiltration, loud paper, Dodge City Journal and Monorail subverted traditional trade and academic architecture magazine trends by crossing the built environment with art, music, politics and pop culture—and by deliberately retaining and cultivating an underground presence. Much has been made of that decade’s zine phenomenon—inspiring academic studies, international conferences and DIY workshops—yet little attention has been paid to architecture zine culture specifically, or its resonance within architectural publishing today.

A Few Zines: Dispatches from the Edge of Architectural Production does both. Rather than attempting to present an exhaustive retrospective of architecture zine culture, it highlights complete runs of several noted zines that began in the nineties. The exhibition also features contemporary publications that continue to draw inspiration from the self-publishing tradition, such as Pin-Up, Sumoscraper, and Thumb.

To launch this exhibit, curator Mimi Zeiger has published a new issue of loud paper and organized a party and panel discussion, including:

Luke Bulman, Thumb
Felix Burrichter, Pin-Up
Stephen Duncombe, NYU professor and author of Dream and Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture
Andrew Wagner, Dodge City Journal and currently, American Craft
Mimi Zeiger, loud paper

Moderated by Kazys Varnelis, AUDC

When: Thursday, January 8, 2009, 7 pm
Free and open to the public

Studio-X, 180 Varick Street, Suite 1610, New York, NY 10014

Exhibition hours: Tuesday-Saturday, noon-6 pm

Contact: Gavin Browning, Programming Coordinator, Studio-X, (212) 989 2398,

[Studio-X is a downtown studio for experimental research and design run by the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation of Columbia University.]

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Monday, January 05, 2009


I love the Yale Center for British Art ... today, for example, I got a really close-up peek at Archigram 4, known for its comic book-inspired cover and title, "Amazing Archigram." Upon entering the YCBA's rare book room, my colleague and I were required to register and to wash our hands -- so it felt like we were going into a clean room or like we were doctors going into a biohazardous laboratory. We were also given a series of page paperweights and a foam stand designed to minimize human contact with archival material. The room was kept preternaturally dry, and the only other guy in the space was taking photographs of some sketches with a camera mount that looked not unlike a guillotine.

One of the librarians came into the room with a cart containing a bunch of 50s and 60s-era British art catalogues (including materials from the ICA as well as the original catalogue to the This Is Tomorrow exhibition, complete with pictures of Peter and Alison Smithson, as well as a poem by Reyner Banham). My colleague pulled a single embossed heavy paper folder, opened it up like a flower, and in there was Archigram 4.

To cut a long story short, I got to hold Archigram 4 in my hand. And the first thing I noticed was its relative tiny size. It was only slightly larger than a mass-market paperback. It was also silk-screened by Warren Chalk, so it was a relatively messy job. The bright yellows and reds bled outside the heavy, indigo outlines of spaceships and astronauts on the cover.

Inside, most of the commentary consisted of frames from science fiction comic book titles. They contained submarines, aircraft, rockets, missiles, space stations, flying cities. It even had images of Chesley Bonestell's paintings (see the image at the top of this post). Some typewritten text was hastily pasted over some of their respective speech bubbles, and these were where Archigram's well-known technophilic polemic unfurled over the span of a handful of pages.

But, despite the fact that all these images could have easily been a distraction, one could never lose the sight of the fact that this was first and foremost an architecture publication. Thus, alongside an explanation of their Plug-In City concept, Cook and Chalk placed an axonometric drawing of a Jacques Cousteau submersible. There were also a couple of pages devoted to Cedric Price's unrealized Fun Palace and his gaga London Aviary, as well as buildings by Hans Hollein and others.

By far my favorite part was the two-page pop-up city that rises from the middle of the publication. It consisted of a series of towers, also silk-screened in the almost-garish yellow/blue/red pallete that graced the cover. However, upon close examination, you could see that this pop-up was not only cut by hand, but was manually pasted into the spine of the publication. There is something nice about that, if you think of it. In this day of mass-produced boutique and academic presses, where a constellation of MIT, Princeton, Actar, Monacelli, Taschen, Phaidon and others' spines grace our bookshelves, it is indeed hard to remember that there once was a time when architectural discourse was tantamount to a guerilla operation. There is almost no difference (other than the subject matter, of course) between Archigram 4, an issue of Maximum Rock and Roll or any other 'zine. Touching an issue of Maximum Rock and Roll leaves newsprint on your finger -- but that's alright, because it is as urgent and quotidian as a daily newspaper. Touching Archigram 4, however, slowly turning each corner of the page with the tip of my fingernail, being careful not to get any skin oils on the publication ... was this like touching a dessicated, delicate skeleton, or was it like handling a vial of nitroglycerine? Here was something that required the discriminating eye of the architecture enthusiast, and the delicate touch of a neurosurgeon.

[Author's Note: This piece was orignially published on Archinect on November 10, 2006]

[Another Author's Note: According to Dennis Crompton, who graciously commented on this post (see "comments"), Warren Chalk designed the cover to Archigram 4, and Dennis himself did all the silkscreening. Many thanks to Mr. Crompton for the correction!]