Sunday, November 29, 2009

In Gomorrah

A brutal (neo?)brutalism, still from Gomorrah (dir. Matteo Garrone, 2008)

Admittedly, I'm a little late to the architecture here .... but just a brief post to encourage you to rent a copy of Matteo Garrone's excellent Gomorrah (Gomorra) (2008). The film is a dramatization of Roberto Saviano's book of the same name,
a best-selling (and also fictionalized) account of the Camorra, a criminal syndicate based out of Naples. The movie is a gripping ensemble piece depicting how the Camorra's operations affect the lives of people living in Scampìa—a part of the city infamous for its drug wars and frequent murders. It may be easy to lump Gomorrah with other films that want to implicate the built environment in societal woes. And it is in this sense that Gomorrah finds resonance in films such as in Mathieu Kassovitz' La Haine (1995) or Fernando Meireilles' and Kátia Lund's Cidade de Deus (2002). All these films use visual evidence of urban decay to stand in for greater observations about city life—as architecture crumbles, so does society. It is also easy to identify outer-ring suburbs—such as the Parisian banlieues depicted by Kassovitz and Garrone's Scampian vistas—as sites where housing just, for lack of a better term, went wrong. (And here, it goes without saying, but Le Corbusier becomes easy target, as proved by Theodore Dalrymple's laughable and entertaining screed against Corb's "ahumanity".) Some who have already written about how Garrone's depictions of Scampìa fall short of identifying the building where much of Gomorrah's action takes place, Franz di Salvo's Vele di Scampia (1962-75), as a Corbusian-inflected misstep (see, for example, this post). In fact, after watching Gomorrah, we come to realize how the Vele di Scampia is worse. Much worse. For starters, di Salvo's housing project eventually became the largest open-air drug market in the world. No high modernist structure can lay claim to this distinction.

Top: view of the Vele di Scampia, from Gomorrah (2008); Bottom: view of interior circulation (Source)

Briefly, the architecture rings somehow familiar—a ferroconcete neo-Brutalist fantasy in shambles. The Vele di Scampia consists of five units, each split into two ziggurat-like forms. An arterial walkway splits each unit in half, with stairs going off at near 30º angles to apartment units above and below. The result is a series of "X"-like sections that aspired to street-like circulation in each unit. Although a similar penchant for elevated streets can be found in Alison and Peter Smithson's Robin Hood Gardens council estate, in section, the Vele di Scampia reads more as a descendant of Paul Rudolph's scheme for the Lower Manhattan Expressway (1967-72).

Alternative modes of circulation, from Gomorrah (2008) (Source)

Much of the settings in Gomorrah feature the Vele di Scampia's state of disrepair. The reinforced concrete buildings now appear more like bunkers than unified housing scheme, with broken and soggy foundations, graffiti; and in some instances, whole units have been knocked out to show the building's skeletal frames. If the building is a barometer of sorts for Gomorrah, then judging from what Garrone frames carefully in each scheme, the Vele di Scampia is a doomed world of sorts. A doomed world in a city already known for its cave systems and its undergrounds, literal and figurative.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Long Durations

Jeanne Dielman (Delphine Seyrig) Slowly, Surely Peeling Potatoes, from Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (dir. Chantal Akerman, 1975) (Source)

"Here you will learn an extremely important truth", writes Charles Fourier in his delirious Theory of the Four Movements (Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinées générales) (1808). "[T]he ages of happiness last seven times longer than the ages of unhappiness, like the one we have been living in for several thousand years … For 70,000 years, therefore, you will share in the happiness which is in store for the globe; so you should take an interest in this outline of the future revolutions which your planet will undergo." Fourier's book, as much a criticism of current scientific thought as an alternate (and audacious) history of the planet, is a description of a true longue durée. Reading Theory of the Four Movements therefore requires a double commitment: in addition to buying in to Fourier's own quasi-historicisms, there is also the physical act of reading through the lengthy text. There is the time depicted in the book, and then there is the time required to read it.

I use the word "physical" here quite literally. Reading is not, for the most part, the most physically demanding of activities. No strenuous muscle work is required. The worst injury one can get is, perhaps, eye strain. Recall the opening moments of Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler (1981), when the author asks the reader to "Find the most comfortable position: seated, stretched out, curled up, or lying flat." All that is required is the reader's commitment, and such commitment can take an unspecified amount of time. Yet there are some instances when such commitments can be physically exacting for both audience and performer.

With a running time of 201 minutes, Chantal Akerman's 1975 film, Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is not any longer than some of the more famous Cinemascope epics. For her film, Akerman details three days in the life of the titular character (played by Delphine Seyrig) with careful and painstaking detail thorugh the use of long takes. The camera neither tilts nor pans, and in some instances, only captures part of the action. Each day, we watch as Jeanne boils potatoes, makes up her bed, kneads meatloaf, ignites a furnace, reads the newspaper, makes coffee, and (you knew about this already) having sex with paying clients. Combined with sparse dialogue and an almost complete lack of sound, Akerman infuses Jeanne Dielman with a figurative and literal flatness. For the most part, a muted color palette complements the lack of deep focus shots, and yet the overall effect is much like that of a stationary security camera, a static sentinel recording events as they occur in real time.

Yet as the movie progresses, Akerman only alludes to the repetition of daily routines. Only some of these are depicted in all three days, and those that are revealed later (such as Jeanne going into town to replace a button for a sportscoat) provide evidence of only the slowest accretion of time. The effect is to put the viewer in some amount of physical discomfort. As you watch Jeanne from the camera eye's vantage point, you start noticing small details such as the color of the grout in the kitchen title, the curves of a bedroom bureau, and even a porcelain dog statue in the dining room. The point is that the viewer has time—and lots of it—to notice these details. Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles becomes an exercise in watching, an exercise that has to play out in a rough analogue to "real time" in order to achieve its maximum effect.

Stage Setup for Performance of Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76) (Source)

If Jeanne Dielman demands much from the viewer, Steve Reich's well-known Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76) can be seen as a work that demands much from its performers. The piece, which lasts about an hour when played live, is composed of 11 "pulses", each a small piece of music based around a single chord. Different instruments phase in and out of the piece. In one moment, high-pitched female voices accentuate the down beat. In another, bass clarinets enter with a low swell—a reedy doppler shift of sorts. The sonic complexity of Reich's piece has a temporal effect, as music critic Tim Page noted in Parallel Play (2009), his account of his struggle with Asperger's Syndrome. Page cites his review of Reich's Music for 18 Musicians as an important event foreshadowing his eventual diagnosis. Here, he remarks on the piece's temporal flexibility:
Minerva-like, the music springs to life fully formed—from dead silence to fever pitch. There is a strong feeling of ritual, a sense that on some subliminal plane the music has always been playing and that it will continue playing forever … Imagine concentrating on a challenging modern painting that becomes just a little different every time you shift your attention from one detail to another. Or trying to impose a frame on a running river—making a finite, enclosed work of art yet leaving its kinetic quality unsullied, leaving it flowing freely on all sides. It has been done. Steve Reich has framed the river (Italics added).
The above quote does bring to light some similarities between Akerman's and Reich's respective works (both which, coincidentally, were completed around the same time). Both capitalize on extended temporal horizons, much in the same way as Fourier's Theory of the Four Movements. Whereas Jeanne Dielman shows slight variations in daily routines, one gets the uneasy sense that Jeanne's routines have been occurring in perpetuity. You have to listen carefully for a similar sense of perpetuity in Music for 18 Musicians. Peel away the layers of voices, metallophones, and clarinets, and there you will listen to the constant, relentless poundings of marimbas and xylophones. Imagine how tired these performers must be. They have been playing for the past 56 minutes, but they could be playing on forever.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

"Ideological Mildew"

Against ideological mildew, from Z (dir. Costa Gavras, 1969) (Source)

In the opening moments of his political ciné-roman, Z (1969), director Costa Gavras shows us a room filled with uniformed government officials. All are listening to a lecture concerning the proper maintenance of crops. The speaker, an elderly, knowledgeable-looking fellow, shows an image of a blighted olive leaf—a portent if ever there was one, an indication that things are not what they seem. This lecturer then steps aside to introduce a stern, mustachioed General (Pierre Dux) who quickly elaborates on the political significance of the mildew. He addresses his enraptured, epauleted audience:

An ideological illness is like mildew and requires preventative measures. Like mildew, it is due to septic germs and various parasitic agents. So the treatment of men with appropriate solutions is indispensable ... Air-dropped leaflets are telling our peasants of a new kind of ideological mildew beginning to ravage our land ... we must preserve the healthy elements of our society and heal those that are ill ... we must fight all diseases of both the vine as well as of Society.

The significance of this statement lies not so much in its obvious metaphor, but in its reference to mass communication as a way to fight societal ills and other threats to the establishment. Aircraft spread propaganda leaflets in the same way as herbicides or defoliants. Communication, as a mean of societal control, must therefore have a hygienic function.

Ernest Hèbrard and Hendrik Christian Andersen, World City of Communications, 1913-14 (Source)

Strangely, such ideas recall an early collaboration by French architect Ernest Hébrard (1866-1933) and American sculptor Hendrik Christian Andersen (1872-1940) called the "World City of Communications" (1914). The French art critic Jean-Paul Alaux gave a general description of the project in a March 1914 issue of the American Institute of Architects Journal:

The city is divided into three distinct groups: First, the scientific group, composed of the palaces of the sociological sciences, of medicine, of agriculture, of pure sciences, with, besides, a large bank, a temple
of religions, and a large library. These are placed around a public square, the center of which is occupied by a gigantic tower, the Tower of Progress, three hundred and twenty meters high. From this square starts a mall, decorated with gardens, along which are built the palaces of the nations of the world. The mall leads to the second group, made up of the Temple of Arts, used for temporary or permanent exhibitions, the School of the Fine Arts, the conservatory of music, the museum of natural history, and the zoölogical garden, all of which are so disposed as to provide an imposing monumental expression. On the same axis is built the group of the sports, with a stadium rivaling the Circus Maximus of ancient Rome, a natatorium, and two palaces for physical culture. this monumental part of the future city is completed by the residential section, planned on the type of the garden cities.1

The images of Hèbrard and Andersen's proposal, however, show a heavy Beaux-Arts inclination. This is most evident in plan, where the giant center axis dominate. The center of the City is much more biaxial. An elevation of the project's dominating central feature—the Tower of Progress—also shows some Beaux-Arts flourishes. To call the building monumental is to give it short shrift: it was an overscaled, polystyled collection of triumphal arches, columns, pilasters, and apertures culminating in a lantern that is part-Bramantian Tempietto and part-Christmas ornament (and perhaps even an anticipation of Socialist Realism).

Ernest Hèbrard, Tower of Progress, 1913-14 (Source)

This, however, was to be a temple to communication. Hèbrard and Andersen describe the Tower's program and purpose:

This Tower of Progress was conceived to be of practical utility to men of all nations: to record their requirements and to plead their causes, to protect the inventor and the worker and to look after their essential economic needs, to be the intermediary between the capitalist and the laborer, to protect their rights and to plead their case before the world, to increase the development of hygiene, to make possible more elevated social conditions, and above all, to uplift the oppressed and to harmonize all human efforts.2

As anthropologist Paul Rabinow observed, Hèbrard's and Andersen's city would "host an endless succession of world scientific congresses, provide an archive of advances in all scientific domains, and facilitate the greater good of humanity through the centralization and rapid dissemination of information."3 All relied on a very nuanced theory of communication: if the tower was supposed to be a building dedicated to communicating the latest scientific and technological breakthroughs, it followed that such communications must be "undistorted", or to put it another way, clean. Again, Hèbrard and Andersen: "It is in the power of science to purify the world, to exterminate destructive germs from every fibre and nerve, to give strength and precision to all mental and physical efforts. Science in the near future will provide for all man's essential requirements."4

The connection between politics and hygiene, especially when mediated through discourses concerning the built environment, became pronounced in France through further work by Hèbrard, Tony Garnier, and even Adolphe Augustin Rey. The trend would continue in other countries as well. For example
Barcelona’s incipient urban problems were spotlighted in the pages of A.C. issue number 25 at the height of the Spanish Civil War. Published by G.A.T.E.P.A.C. (Grupo de Artistas y Técnicos Españoles para el Progreso de la Arquitectura Contemporánea - Spain's delegation to C.I.A.M.), A.C. became the primary media organ for the discussion of urban issues in Spain as well as a base for promoting ideas about modern architecture. Issue 25 issue had an alarmist tone, and according to A.C.’s editors, the goal was to understand “the influence of the environment over the individual” as well as the “urgent transformation” of Barcelona’s “unsanitary neighborhoods.”5 A.C. demanded that “urbanism be treated from here onwards in a rational manner, like a science.”6 The issue continues with dozens of photographs by Josep Sala and Austrian-born Margaret Michaelis, as well as with C.I.A.M.-style infographics by Josep Torres Clavé. The point of these images and diagrams is indisputable: they serve to highlight the sanitation and hygiene issues in various Barcelona neighborhoods. The publication also features a polemical bent. A series of diagrams on pages 20-21 depict the history of Barcelona in a series of stages: “Maquinisme” (“Industrialization”), “Importació de la Gent del Camp” (“Influx of Rural Populations”), “Superpoblació” (“Overpopulation”), “Insalubritat” (“Unhealthiness”), and “Mortalitat” (“Death”).7

From A.C. no. 25

The importance of these last two phases is shown in a series of montages entitled “El Perill a la Resta de la Ciutat” (“The Danger in the Rest of the City”) and “Hem D’Acabar Amb L’Ambient de la Vivienda Insana” (“The Asphyxiating Environment of Unhealthy Living Must Finish”). The first montage features photographs of old parts of Barcelona. Superimposed on top of these images is a blown-up picture of a louse. The second montage shows an aerial photograph of Barcelona’s Fifth District. Two of the district’s unhealthiest areas are shown as being cut out, replaced by vivid, green spaces. The text reads, “The primary problem of the city’s ancient core is neither a problem of circulation nor of aesthetics. It is a problem of SANITATION. Neither the widening of streets nor the narrowing of sidewalks will resolve anything. In order to solve this problem, it is necessary to use the radical procedures of urban surgery: THE SITES OF INFECTION MUST BE REMOVED.”8 These clear images suggest a political connotation as well—the infection is political as well, for we are to understand the louse as an emblem for dangerous Nationalist elements infiltrating Spanish society.

In the above examples, science—whether in the guise of social ideals or as a basis for rational planning—becomes a message with which to communicate ideas about sanitation and hygiene. Whereas Hèbrard's and Andersen's World City of Communications emphasizes "clean" communications, issue 25 of A.C. demonstrates how media can be used to emphasize the correlation between ideological and physical health. And as the opening example from Z suggests, the city, whether idealized or dramatized via media channels, became the terrain for such protracted discussions.
This all resonates, quite uneasily of course, with Jean Baudrillard's characterization of media as "the unclean promiscuity of everything which touches, invests and penetrates without resistance, with no halo of private protection, not even his own body, to protect him any more."9 Or, put another way, more signal, less noise.

1 Jean Paul Alaux. American Institute of Architects Journal 2 (March 1914):159.
2 Paul Rabinow, French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), p. 249. For more information on this project, see Ernest M. Hèbrard and Hendrik Christian Andersen, Creation of a World Center for Communication (Paris, 1913); Guiliano Gresleri and Dario Matteloni, La Citta' Mondiale: Andersen, Hèbrard, Otlet, Le Corbusier (Venice, 1982), 12-45.
3 Rabinow, French Modern, p. 248.
4 Hèbrard and Andersen, quoted in Ibid.
5 “Influencia de l’ambient sobre l’individu … urgent transformació dels barris insans.” A.C. Documentos de Actividad Contemporánea 25 (June 1937), n.p. in Jordana Mendelson, ed., Magazines and War 1936-1939: Spanish Civil War Print Culture.
6 “El urbanismo debe ser tratado, de aquí en adelante, en formal racional, como una ciencia.” A.C. Documentos de Actividad Contemporánea 25 (June 1937), 3 in AC/G.A.T.E.P.A.C. 1931-1937 (Barcelona: Ediciones Gustavo Gili, 1975), 3.
7 Ibid., p. 21.
8 “El problema primordial del casc antic no és un problema de circulació ni d’estètica. Es un problema de SANEJAMENT. Ni eixamplant carrers ni corrent voravies no resoldríem res. Per a solucionar – ho caldrà emprar procediments radicals de cirurgia urbanística: S’HAN D’EXTIRPAR TOTALMENT ELS FOCUS D’INFECCIÓ” Ibid., p. 27.
9 Jean Baudrillard, "The Ecstasy of Communication" in Hal Foster, ed. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (New York: New Press, 1999 [1983]), p.132.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Structural Engineering: A Hipster's Tale

Structural engineering is hip. In fact, it is so hip, that structural engineering has perhaps become a kind of emblem for erudition. A cocktail conversation or beer bust suddenly enters another plane of hipsterdom as Gustave Eiffel, Ove Arup, or Félix Candela are namechecked in the same breath as Television, The Flying Burrito Brothers, or Buzzcocks. That structural engineering has some level of hip caché becomes evident in David Gordon Green's hipster-action-stonerroman Pineapple Express (2008). You may remember the scene where Saul Silver (James Franco) confesses to Dale Denton (Seth Rogen), before taking a draw from an impeccably-wrought "cross joint", that his favorite civil engineers are M.M. O'Shaughnessy and Hannskarl Bandel.

Okay, so these two are civil, not structural engineers, but I think you may be catching the point I'm trying to make here. Note how O'Shaughnessy's innovations for the Golden Gate Bridge are secondary only to his ability to roll a fatty.

For more evidence that urban youth culture has taken knowledge of structural engineering as a signifier of taste, consider the interview with Guy Nordenson in the latest issue of The Believer. As many readers will surely know, The Believer is a pretty good read. Published semimonthly, the magazine bears some of the quirky, understated, yet meticulous chamber humor from the McSweeney's imprint. I sometimes find myself taking issue with some of the reviewers. For example, William Giraldi's essay (from the March/April 2009 issue) on why William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), the "scariest movie ever made", is not so scary relies so much on the author's own agnosticism and overlooks the film's sheer visual power. The interview with Nordenson, on the other hand, is a very good read. Here's an example:

BELIEVER: You've worked with a number of very accomplished architects. What are the parameters for a successful collaboration?

NORDENSON: There is a need to mark off territory so that inventive energies have space to develop. Where there is good collaboration, people are comfortable giving up space to each other because they believe that they will be pleased with what comes out of it. Look at someone like Peter Rice, a very successful Irish engineer who worked in France and Britain and collaborated very closely with Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers among others. He had a certain number of preoccupations. Piano and Rogers appreciated these preoccupations and benefited from them because they made their architecture more complex and sophisticated. They made room.

The opposite of that is Frank Gehry, where there is an absolute instrumentalization of all disciplines and all tools to execute an artistic vision with Gehry at the top of the pyramid. There are technical challenges and opportunities but not a whole lot of give and take. Frank Gehry's relationship to engineering and consruction says: the cruder the better. You visit the Disney Concert Hall and, in the office of the musical director, there's this gigantic gusset plate that's part of one of the trusses in the system. It's exposed and fire-protected. One of the architects who worked on the project described it to me as a train crash in a room. It's monumentally messy.

Nordenson's candor is something wholly missing from contemporary architecture criticism, which, as a colleague remarked to me, is something akin to creating a treatment for a Hollywood blockbuster starring your own bestest, coolest friends. The interview manages to capture a little bit of the hipster in Nordenson, especially when he's talking about his current projects. Check out this exchange, on the heels of Nordenson's remark that Palisade Bay is the "Central Park of the twenty-first century":

BELIEVER: Can you elaborate on the comparison though? Central Park, as conceived in the 1850s, was to be a geographical and social nexus for the city. It also communicated certain narratives about pastoral nature and city life. What do you think Palisade Bay will communicate? What messages are in the subtext?

NORDENSON: It links back to the psychological. Psychological is probably too weak a word. If you go back to D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature, Lawrence recognized that in the nineteenth century there was this issue for Americans to contend at the same time with European culture and the wilderness. Both wilderness as reality and wilderness as an idea. I just finished reading a review of the biography of John Muir. Muir and Olmsted were part of a culture that included Melville and others who thought hard about what this wild animal of nature meant to them. The presence of Central Park in the city is tied to this thinking. Muir would have argued that, to be complete, humans must have that sense of both wonder and fear in the face of nature in the city as well as in the wild.

I grew up at a time when Central Park went through this transition from being a useful and functional part of our lives to a place that was to be feared. I think many people who lived in New York through the 1970s appreciated that there was this duality of danger and opportunity that existed in places like Central Park but also on the water, under the elevated highway, and out on the abandoned piers. This is what appealed to Smithson. He was another fan of Smithson.

Where Palisade Bay has this kind of energy is where it comes between the apocalyptic tone of climate change and a very American tradition of thinking about nature.

There is much that is true in that statement. And yet what impresses me most is the kind of reasoning that such an exchange revealed. Here's a figure who is able to marshal his own understanding of history and culture in service of a project (as well as a different understanding of, um, green than that from Pineapple Express) without sounding like a pitch-man. And though there was a bit of self-conscious, light-hearted hipster bashing at the beginning of this piece, I was speaking somewhat truthfully. Nordenson not only teaches at Princeton, but Gustave Eiffel is an important figure in my own research. So, I may be a little biased in my own assessment of Nordenson vis-a-vis my personal interest in the history of engineering. But, despite all the nudge-winking, such interest in Nordenson is totally justified. He is, for lack of a better word, hip.