Archive for the ‘theory’ Category

Design Imperialism, Part II

Sunday, August 15th, 2010

I got a lot of responses from my last post on design imperialism, and you can read some of them on the comments section of that post. Really, a lot of the responses just proved my point that it’s often hard to get unemotional responses when you bring this topic up–and I’m not quite sure why. Sometimes, in defense of imperialism, you get some really weird writing, much like Bono’s op-eds in the New York Times, or Cameron’s Sinclair’s nonsensical responses to the article that kicked off this debate most recently on the web (Bruce Nussbaum’s “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?“). Nevertheless, the exchange allowed me to put in writing more concretely some issues that I only briefly sketched around in other posts. So, for the sake of posterity, these are the issues I’m concerned about in regards to foreign interventions:

  1. What steps/methods need to be taken to ensure that foreign intervention doesn’t end up creating dependency: political, economic, or intellectual? How do you avoid reiterating or reifying the power structures that created the need for aid in the first place?
  2. Does material/physical concerns outweigh mental/spiritual? As in, if you save a group from suffering from water-borne disease, but breed resentment and ill-will through “drive-by aid,” is one worth the cost to the other? How much?
  3. How much knowledge of another culture do you need before you can feel confident to enter their community and change things? Is the language enough? Two years of study? Does having attended an elite Western university prepare you to intervene on any community, anywhere? Why not the other way around?
  4. Across what kind of scale do you think it’s appropriate to act? Does one type of intervention work unfailingly for an entire continent? A country? A city? A community? A group of friends? One person?
  5. Across what spans of times can we frame the parameters for success or failure? If one generation benefits from an intervention, but the next one is harmed by it, is the project a success? If some group shows benefits within the year, but the next year no progress is shown, was the intervention a success? Or is the idea that no matter what harm you do immediately, generations that follow will benefit (the Mao-George W gambit)? What kind of time frame do we frame our actions by?
  6. Do certain fields of intervention have differing criteria for the above? As in, if you’re an architect, the scales and time frame by which we judge your work is such and such; however, if you are a doctor, then these are the parameters by which we will judge the effectiveness of your aid?
  7. How much resistance are you willing to fight in order to impose your ideas/designs/solutions/food/aid/medicine/politics? From where is resistance acceptable, since there is inevitably some from some place or another. How much resistance is the sign to cease and desist? Like in the spread of vaccines? Or in politics? i.e., “We must destroy the village in order to save the village.”

As much as it is possible to put down in words what concerns me about design imperialism or foreign interventions, the above is as best as I can frame it at this point. I think in all of the above points, there is a fundamental line that each of us has to draw, where we delineate how much harm we are willing to do to attempt to help in whatever way we can. This is in part because I believe that is in our fundamental human nature to destroy as much as we create, and life itself is an endless cycle of creation and destruction. You just have to decide how many eggs you are willing to break to create the omelet you want to make.

One of my favorite moments in the great Stanley Kubrick movie, Full Metal Jacket, is when the main character, a journalist for the Army, runs into a high ranking officer on one of his assignments. The office asks the journalist, why are you wearing a helmet that says ‘Born to Kill’ along with a peace symbol? And the protagonist tries to laugh off the question, but the officer or general won’t let it go. Why? he continues to shout over the loud din of surrounding battle site. Finally, the journalist gives in, and answers the commanding officer–he shouts: “WELL, I GUESS I WAS TRYING TO SAY SOMETHING ABOUT THE DUALITY OF MAN.” To which the officer just stands there, dumbfounded, and then says–get on our team–inside every gook is an American trying to get out.

It was a great moment in American cinema, and the spectrum of movies that were made about the Vietnam War continue to be marvels of moviemaking, for various reasons that might have a lot to do with the way movie studios were structured at that time. However, such sentiment is more common in the Japanese movies that I’ve seen. In many Japanese movies, there doesn’t exist this idea of a binary good versus evil that probably is most archetypically found in examples by Disney. A lot of Japanese movies start out with a crisis, like any traditional narrative would, but as the movie unwinds, we find that the agent causing the strife to begin with isn’t something with malicious or malevolent intent, as we would in any standard American film. Instead, the cause of the suffering in many Japanese movie is another person who is trying to do GOOD. It’s just that that one idea of how to do good is causing hurt to another way of life. It’s a more sophisticated and mature understanding of human nature, and it’s something that gets lost when people try to discuss issues such as ‘imperialism.’ Often, people on one side or the other of that issue caricature the other sides’ argument, trying to box the opposing viewpoint into some sort of absolutist position: you are good if you believe this; you are bad if you believe that.

This is why I never really understood giving George W. Bush a hard time. I don’t mean to defend him, and in my personal opinion, I believe he caused incredible amounts of harm and suffering. But I always felt he sincerely was trying to help people. A lot of people disagreed, and for good reason. But he staked his ground, and acted upon it. The issue is what conclusions he came to in regards to the issues I listed above. For example, in issue number 5 that I brought up above, it’s very easy to say that for George W. Bush, he thought the time frame in which he would be judged is over many generations. History will vindicate him, he often said, by which he meant that anywhere from 10-200 years in the future we will not look at him so harshly. So it was fine if he sent thousands of people to die immediately, invaded countries and created animosity, provoked enemies and created huge swaths of political instability–FOR NOW. He knew the sacrifices he would be making, or so I believe. He sat in front of families of soldiers who were maimed and killed. He simply thought it would be worth it–good would come out of his actions–AT SOME POINT IN THE FUTURE. I find that conclusion dangerous. But some people believe in it. But I felt it was immature to simply call him evil. That isn’t understanding anything, any more than when he called Iran or North Korea evil. This is what I mean when I think it’s important to think about the issues I listed above, and to discuss them without rage or caricaturing the other side. What time frame is acceptable for us to judge our interventions?

But actually, I’m not sure that Bush understood the magnitude of the sacrifices he made other people go through for his idea of doing good–and that was a critique that was often leveled at him, fairly, I believe. In a similar, but very personal way, I’m not sure that most people understand the magnitude of cultural and intellectual oppression that can occur when one country, with whatever good intentions, enters another and gives aid. This is the resentment from locals that Bruce Nussbaum pointed out whenever there was some presentation about a fancy new aid intervention being bestowed upon some community. The underlying message, though delivered with a smile and good intentions, is pure and simple, from one culture to another: you need our help. You can’t do this on your own, and it’s your fault. We thought of this–you didn’t. We’re better than you.

Downtown Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

I’ve often felt this because I actually feel it is a defining national psychological trait of the Vietnamese people. As a country that has been colonized, or attempted to be, by well meaning Western powers for most of the 20th century, subtle reminders of our cultural inferiority are there at every building in the center of town built in the French colonial style, or in the numbers of children still born with birth defects due to Agent Orange, or quite frankly, in the numbers of Westerners coming in and handing out candy and food and discarded clothing as some well-meaning but ultimately humiliating gesture. I worked as a medical assistant in an orphanage in the center of Ho Chi Minh City for one summer. There was a storage room full of candy from such foreign visitors. More than they could give away.

The Vietnamese-American novelist Andrew X Pham wrote about this cultural feeling of inferiority a bit in his wonderful memoir, Catfish and Mandala. And I think you sense it a bit in sensitive novels like Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. The main means of transportation in Vietnam are these mopeds: small engine motorcycles that cost about $2000 for a nice Japanese model. The Honda Dream model was the most desired of the road in Ho Chi Minh City (they considered Vespas too unreliable). Since the streets were literally bursting at the seams with these foreign mopeds, and this sort of transport was sort of unique to Vietnam (these Japenese models aren’t used in Japan), I naturally wondered if there wasn’t a local manufacturer. When I asked the local people why there was no Vietnamese producer of mopeds, the unified response was, “There’s no way–we’re not as smart as other countries that can produce cars and such.” This sentiment, I feel, is in part due to the legacy of colonialism. This is why I’m concerned when somebody with little knowledge of another culture feels entitled to travel thousands of miles to give aid–be it in the form of design, medicine, or other forms to a community they have little understanding of. The issue is time, scale, and power (see the list above)–strangely, very architectural concerns. I assume the intentions are good. I just feel the results can often be bad–in ways that can be too subtle to measure, but are ultimately devastatingly debilitating.

Design Imperialism

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

I’ve been thinking about this issue for a long time, and there happens to be an ongoing discussion that I just tapped into that I want to point people towards, in case they’re interested. The discussion is summarized most recently in the Design Observer blog in a post by Robert Fabricant, “In Defense of Design Imperialism,” but also points to an article published in Fast Company: “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” and a response by Emily Pilloton of Project H Design here.

Detail from drawing made by Alphachimp Studio during a 2005 PopTech panel conversation on Africa

It’s a very interesting issue, one that still makes people heated, and gets to the very nature of what we mean when we say “design” or “architecture.” I got into a  heated argument with someone, at a bachelor’s party, no less, with someone who is focusing his work on public health intervention in Africa, and was incensed at the idea that anyone could think that this was less than completely admirable. Not to say that it isn’t, but I don’t quite believe the issue is so simple. As a person who was born in a country with a long colonial history, I feel mildly affected by the complicated nature of foreign intervention. Whether or not foreign intervention does good or bad, in the long run or in the short, is an extremely difficult question, and people are heavily invested on one side or the other. It’s an important question, though, and ultimately no single conclusion may easily be drawn (though it seems like a lot of people have drawn single, ultimate conclusions).

What I should say is that I actually agree with certain points in both competing articles by Robert Fabricant and Emily Pilloton (above). Emily Pilloton takes the pain and care to point out that a pillar of her philosophy is the conviction and devotion she has shown towards one particular community–in essence, by making the target of her work her home, she has taken the “foreign” out of “foreign intervention.” It shows a depth of thought that so many other “poverty porn” addicts in Mumbai or Africa, as she calls them, never touch. In the end, I don’t think that Pilloton and Fabricant disagree–in fact, I think they very much agree–just that Pilloton has shown that hers is one approach that is not imperialist or colonialist–because she “put a stake in the ground to only take on projects that are local (that is, where the designer and partner/client are in the same location and call that place home).”

I don’t know why, but I keep thinking of Rem Koolhaas’s Master Planning project for Harvard University.  In his analysis of the University, he wrote that the distinguishing institutional goal of Harvard was “power.” Much like how its neighboring institution, M.I.T., made some of its most important contributions to the greater world from a department called the Media Lab, Harvard should then create a department called the Power Lab. Harvard, ostensibly an educational institution, was nothing of the sort. It cared for nothing so much as the accumulation of power. Rem then proposed that Harvard redirect the Charles River in a land grab as a solution to the University’s real estate problems. He called it “The Moses Scheme.”

A while ago, I was reading a book by Deyan Sudjic–a British architectural historian who came to my attention while doing some research on James Stirling in grad school a number of years back. The book was awkwardly titled, “The Edifice Complex,” and was about architecture as an exercise of power. It devoted chapters to Hitler, Albert Speer, and other architectural  monuments to the accumulation of power. Though it’s a bit easy and cliche to talk about how masterfully Albert Speer manipulated space and architecture towards a goal of showcasing power, the book’s main thesis was simply that architecture is an expression of power.  I think that is something to think about when architects traverse great distances to foreign locales in poor regions to do work.

It cuts both ways. . .

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009


There are times when one feels utterly powerless against greater forces: in a perfectly played but losing hand of poker; in the passing of a completely unremarkable milestone birthday; or watching the passing of another historical moment that seems to gain no ground for the very idea of an expressive humanity.


It pains one to see the tides of history sweep past unregarded citizens who were supposed to be its beneficiaries, and even more so when we had supposedly entered a new age where technological mediums rendered the oppressive techniques of the past obsolete. I wrote about this a bit in my review of the WWII-era surveillance film, The Lives of Others (2006, dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), an excellent film.


My studies had been roughly focused on the intersection of architecture and media–or, slightly more specifically,  between the intersection of film and architecture. My thesis is/was that changing modes of communication affect the way we inhabit, experience, and express space. This was borne from readings of McLuhan, Mario Carpo, Adorno, and extrapolated, used to explain the historical significance of architects such as Alberti, Le Corbusier, and Eisenman.


Early on, many people pointed to the significance of new media to seeming alter the course of history. But as this article in Slate, titled, “The Revolution Will Not Be Digitized,”  argued, the new technology cut both ways. The same technology that could enable people could also be disabling. Yes, twitter was used to report on occurrences and organize groups of people, and major international news providers using video from cell phones as primary sources was no longer remarkable. But the chaos from so many “tweets” actually increased the confusion, and the government reportedly began using surveillance along with web volunteers to identify and imprison protesters. And because of the lack of true anonymity on the internet (tweets and postings can be traced), many citizens feel powerless or afraid of saying anything. Which exactly how they were supposed to not feel.  “The surprise isn’t that technology has given protesters a new voice. It’s that, despite all the tech, they’ve been effectively silenced.”


In other words, top-down oppression lives on, and the anti-hierarchical digitopia remains (at this point) another castle in the sky. Which can be seen as one of the oldest stories in the book. In fact, up until recently, the standard bearer for historical mass-oppression was China. Think of the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square, or the Three Gorges Dam project. The effect of these historical drives towards “revolutionary” ideas on individuals is difficult to begin express, but I’ve probably seen no greater filmic attempt than Zhang Yi Mou’s To Live (1994), which I will review in a following post as part of my ongoing “The Future is Asian” film architecture series.


As I write in that review, the story of a small Chinese family through the middle Twentieth Century serves “a simple reminder of the evil that even good intentions can create.” It is an example of the attempt to affect change upon a certain scale, and how the scale and locale of our actions may be the most important thing we consider as citizens of a community. It nevertheless remains difficult to sit by, at whatever distance has been made possible by the contemporary medium, and read/watch/surf/blog/twit about the actions of a few which seem to bring strife to so many. It feels as if I am literally watching walls being erected between people, and knowing that so many hearts are being broken at once. What has changed?


The images throughout this post are from Shawn Rocco, a photographer who uses a cell phone as his medium. Yes,  a cell phone was used to capture all of the above images (a Motorola E815, to be precise). More info about Shawn can be found on his blog called cellular obscura.

Modern Palladio

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Tala Gharagozlou attended the Yale School of Architecture Symposium this past weekend, and this is what she had to say about it.


“Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn”

Rhett Butler’s line in Gone with the wind was not only voted as the most famous one movie line by the American Film Institute in 2005, but it seems to have been the motto of some of the most famous 20th c. architectural figures.

Architects definitely care about ideas, but what about “function”?

I was struck by a comment made by Kurt Forster this week-end at a symposium dedicated to Palladio at YSOA. In response to the concluding presentations by Peter Eisenman and Rafael Moneo, Kurt said that Palladio was the first real modern architect because he did not “care how his buildings were meant to be used”. Have a look at Villa Rotonda. Not exactly a place to live in. But oh the beauty of minimalism, of art for art’s sake…


Beyond the fact that Kurt was the one making that statement, it seemed to ring shockingly true. How many times have I wondered what the point of architecture was anyway?

And if you omit a few “hygienist” architects of the turn of the century –think Bruno Taut or Margarethe Schütte-Lihotzky and the design of the Frankfurt kitchen, use has really been one of the last things on architects’ mind.

The statement was also perfect in the company of someone like Peter Eisenman, whose entire project has been to define the autonomy of architecture by dealing with its “pure” syntax. And there it was, the perfect ending to the symposium, Peter Eisenman, Rafael Moneo, Greg Lynn, Robert A. M. Stern and all the others, all smiling at each other contently. Yes, Architecture is still here to stay…

On a side note, the poster to the symposium (at the top of the post) was designed by Michael Bierut’s Pentagram and I just love it. I also happen to be in a class he is co-teaching with William Drenttel at Yale. The hot topic has been, what if we designed as if we gave a damn?

The book that came out a few years ago was a pretty big success, part of that whole environmental/let’s save the world with buildings frenzy.

Drenttel’s own project though should be a very exciting one to keep track of.

– Tala Gharagozlou

Bataille’s Dreams Come True

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Today’s post comes from Tala Gharagozlou, currently a graduate student of architecture at Yale.

Via Gizmodo

Via Gizmodo

i fell in love with the first cute girl that i met/
who could appreciate georges bataille/
standing at swedish festival discussing the ‘story of the eye’

–of Montreal

Bataille’s Dreams Come True

This was the subject heading of an e-mail from a friend of mine, a couple of days ago, Feb. 9th, 2009.

And of course, there were links to the photos of the CCTV’s unloved sibling immolating.

I was working in the architecture studio and the entire studio was of course abuzz within a few minutes of the event. But the pun on Bataille stuck with me for most of the day. This is after all, Yale University, and nerdy jokes take a strange life of their own.

Photos have been streaming in of this eerily “beautiful” spectacle. Jokes have been flying about what sort of fabulously bombastic manifesto Rem might make of this event, while others are about Ole Scheeren crying in Maggie Cheung’s arms.

Such a hubristic project is easy to mock, especially in the current times of economic gloom.

Yales A&A Building after the fire

Yale's A&A Building after the fire

But after all, the Yale School of Architecture is housed in one of the most emblematic buildings possible: Paul Rudolph’s A&A (I will never get used to the “Paul Rudolph Hall” name, btw. Will anyone ever call the CCTV the Rem Koolhaas Tower?? I doubt it, but Yale is a whole other type of totalitarian regime, thanks to a certain R.A.M.S…).

The burning of the A&A occurred at one of the most intense moments of social turmoil in America and on university campuses. The 1969 fire left the A&A battered, and it only survived due to a series of structural additions. Much has been made of the recent renovation project by Gwathmey/Siegel, but the fire itself remains a small source of fascination, especially because of what some students secretly felt was a justified sign to move on from a certain generation of patriarchs…

In a similar way, people have been wondering out loud if anybody even cared to “save” the CCTV? But as Bataille would put it, what would there be to save? CCTV was there to exist as the only voice. OMA’s pair of buildings has epitomized a certain architecture’s refusal to “serve” society. The CCTV is known as the building that has used the greatest amount of steel ever in history, for example. Its foundations are the size of several football fields (ask Cecil Balmond for the details here).


Architecture can be interpreted as the image society would like to see of itself. But Bataille is fascinated with the Aztec temples [see “Extinct America”]. Fearless of this relation between society and the death of the individual, Aztec architecture is purely dedicated to the immolation of individuals as well. The Aztecs “neglected to put in place the infrastructures that would have secured its future” and their architecture represented that. In many ways, CCTV’s is the symbol of China’s disregard for any idea of progressive institutions and a capacity to heedlessly build its own Capitalist guillotine.

So after all, could Beijing’s inhabitants feel slightly bad about this fire? The spectacle of architecture burning always holds the anxious sign that we can do little to go beyond death.


On a side note, thanks to Sasha Frere-Jones of the New Yorker for making “critical theory a little easier to use on dates.”

–Tala Gharagozlou

Perspecta Party

Friday, January 16th, 2009


Tonight there is a release party to celebrate two new issues of Perspecta, issues 40: Monster and 41: The Grand Tour.

It’s tonight: Friday, January 16th, 7:00 PM at 7 World Trade Center (250 Greenwich Street), 45th Floor.

The editors of these two issues are my friends, Marc Guberman, Jacob Reidel, & Frida Rosenberg for Perspecta 40 “Monster;” and Gabrielle Brainard, Rustam Mehta, & Thomas Moran for Perspecta 41 “Grand Tour.”

I know there will be at least a few contributors showing up as well, so come hang out for a bit.

The contributors for 40: Monster include Mario Carpo, Mark Gage, Marcelyn Gow and Ulrika Karlsson (servo), Catherine Ingraham, Mark Jarzombek, Terry Kirk, Leon Krier, Greg Lynn, John May, John McMorrough, Colin Montgomery, Guy Nordenson, Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, Emmanuel Petit, Kevin Roche, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto (Atelier Bow-Wow) and Ryuji Fujimura, Michael Weinstock, and Claire Zimmerman.

The contributors for 41: The Grand Tour include Esra Akcan, Aaron Betsky, Ljiljana Blagojević, Edward Burtynsky, Matthew Coolidge and CLUI, Gillian Darley, Brook Denison, Helen Dorey, Keller Easterling, Peter Eisenman, Dan Graham and Mark Wasiuta, Jeffery Inaba and C-Lab, Sam Jacob, Michael Meredith, Colin Montgomery, Dietrich Neumann, Enrique Ramirez, Mary-Ann Ray and Robert Mangurian, Kazys Varnelis, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, & Enrique Walker.

You can order the books here and here.

Thoughts on 2008

Sunday, January 4th, 2009


I should have seen it coming.

The biggest story of 2008, in architecture, media, or design, had to be the economy. I don’t know how it could be otherwise, and even the historic election of our 44th president will be forever attached to the economy. As a service profession, architecture is obviously tied to the economy, as evidenced by this article by The New York Times‘ architecture critic Nicolai Ourousoff (I’m still not sure what to make of it.).

Now, I’m not somebody who usually likes making a lot of hoopla about new years, or in particular new year’s eves, but I thought it would be a good time to partake in something else I don’t usually like doing–looking backwards. Not too long ago, it seemed like this economic crisis/downturn/recession/depression/whatever was almost inconceivable. For one of the most poignant examples of this, I like New York Magazine‘s article on outdated investment advice.

But I happened to see something on archinect written by Bryan Boyer, who has his own blog here. Along with other articles written by some of my friends, including Enrique (Enrique’s blog here) and Fred (Fred’s blog here), Bryan talked about the unusual promise of 2009. I have heard other people mention that with the massive layoffs that have been occuring recently, particularly in the finance industry, there is the potentiality for a renewed emphasis on cultural pursuits: a new renaissance of sorts, 1930′s WPA-style. That would go along with this article here, about young finance industry employees who are now pursuing other, more creative things (here’s another).

Now, I don’t mean to be a grinch, but I can’t help but feel like this economic situation may prove to be extremely fruitful–if only it would stay like this for a while. In this way, it was sort of the relief I felt when gas prices spiked a couple of months ago. Certainly, I don’t like paying more for gas than the next person, but it seemed to be the only real and meaningful motivation for non-fossil-fuel energy technology investment. Imagine the next generation involved in technological and entrepreneurial pursuit of new energy sources. It was looking like the night before a brand new day.


Although that brand new day might have been a bit dark. Earlier, in some film notes, I talked about how the turn of this century might match the turn of the previous century, and in turn, both matched the narrative arc of the Classical Greek period. Now, I don’t want to draw attention to my shoddy grasp of history–instead, I’ll talk about where I gleaned some of those ideas–from Vincent Scully.

I got to serve as Vincent Scully’s teaching assistant one semester at Yale, and like so many other people who have been involved with this master, will remain forever touched by his once-in-many-generations inspirational lectures. There are some great stories I could tell you about Professor Scully and other great cultural figures of days past–one in particular about him and James Stirling stands out (such interactions was a part of what was so great about being at Yale).

One of the things Professor Scully spoke about with such passion and eloquence was the shift from Classical Greek art and architecture to Hellenistic. In particular, the physical changes wrought in marble by the political and philosophical events that occured at the height of the Classical period. In my mind, there is no more compelling argument for the existence of ideas in things.

So for 2009, I’m going to tip my metaphorical hat to culture:

To ideas in things.

Black Cat

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008


Black Cat
1934, 65 minutes
directed by Edgar Ulmer

Black Cat may be famous to most folks for being the quintessential B-movie horror film (“low-budget and low-brow”), starring both Boris Karloff AND Bela Lugosi, in a sort of 1930s version of seeing both Al Pacino and Robert de Niro in the same movie. But to filmarchitecters, Black Cat is noteworthy because—GASP!—a modern building, replete with ribbon windows, was the setting for an evil character. This is an update on the more traditional haunted Victorian mansion on the hill with creaky doors and cobwebs (think of Hitchcock’s Psycho). And the evil character, played by Boris Karloff, no less, was an architect. And that evil character was named Poelzig, after a real architect, the German Hans Poelzig. And this was in 1934, when all of us should have still regarded Modernism with the invincible promise of utopia. A Modern utopia of regulating lines, grids, and wide-flange beams.

There are two ways the rest of these film notes could proceed. In the first version, I could lambast what is essentially an arch-conservative position on Modernism that probably reaches something of an apotheosis in Jacques Tati’s filmic critique of Modernist architecture, saying that the vilification of said architecture is nothing but a misplaced resistance to change, both social, technological and political. However, that position would be willfully ignoring Modernism and its practitioners’ sub-texted but nevertheless inarguably metaphysically present agenda of quasi-revolution. Plus, I still practically gag whenever I see regulating lines on fellow students’ studio projects. As if lines have anything to do with the contemporary condition.

Or in the second version, I could herald what in Black Cat is essentially a super-forward anticipation of the flaws of Modernist logic which would invariably lead to Post-modernism and the happy debacle of deconstruction, never mind that in 1934 we have yet to let Modernism run its full course and the cynicism towards any what-was-then progressivity positively stinks of knee-jerk pessimism; this is on top of not mentioning the fact that three years earlier Kurt Gödel had published his incompleteness theorems proving the inherent limitations and undecidability of all formal systems of logic, of which the fundamentally technocentric Modernism was undeniably one. I mean, say what you will about the tenets of Modernism, at least it was an ethos.

But instead I think I’ll jump outside of the easy debate on the signification of Modernist architecture, because at this point we all know that the transcendental signified is the Easter Bunny in the egg-hunt of architectural theory. What instead strikes me about such a debate is the value of studying sets in films. And I’m intentionally calling them sets because that’s what they are: they exist conceptually outside of a greater context that architecture must necessarily grapple with, within spatio-temporally narrower confines, and therefore bear more relation to theatre and set-design, than to architecture. Because given all of the previous, isn’t it fairly apparent that the discussion of sets within films therefore necessarily rests on the level of formal signification and thus devolves into a proto-Saussurian game of pin-the-tail-on-the-theory?

The power of film, at least to me, involves the motion picture’s ability to re-conceptualize architecture. Film is essentially a meta-representational technique that incorporated the then-to-fore formally un-drawable aspects of space, time, and the multivalent sensory experience of architecture. Which is why the two-dimensional, drawn plan of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye has more to do with the interference of film and architecture than Edgar Ulmer’s film, Black Cat.

(originally written February 27, 2007)



Monday, December 29th, 2008

One of the great things about working with Dietrich Neumann from Brown University (click here for a great link about Brown) was that he selected movies that I knew I had to watch but just couldn’t make myself for one reason or another. Well, when film and architecture are mentioned together, this is one of the first movies people think of, so it was overdue.


Metropolis (1929) 123 minutes, directed by Fritz Lang

Let’s face it: today, technology is no longer an important part of our collective image of the future. Or maybe I should define “technology” as specifically the sort of industrial/machine age concept which is represented by cars, trains, airplanes, and skyscrapers. Today we have technology in the form of cellphones, iPods, laptops, Blackberrys, the internet and Maya, which are a distinctly different beast than cars and airplanes. In fact, stuff like a 3-d modeling program isn’t technology at all. It’s magic.

A week ago or so, the New York Times published an article about how the recent proliferation and popularity of certain “magic-realist” television shows such as “Lost,” “Heroes,” “Medium,” “Ghost Whisperer” and others were indicative of a popular fascination with the supernatural and the unexplainable. The article goes on to say that this is the harbinger of a society’s decline, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that yet. What I will say, however, is that I think what has happened is that technology has come to signify something else to us: it’s complexity, sophistication, ubiquity and incomprehensible power has breached a tipping point and technology has morphed into magic.

This follows what is sometimes commonly referred to as Clarke’s Third Law (after Arthur C. Clarke): Any sufficiently complex technology is indistinguishable from magic. Don’t think that’s true? Try explaining to me how a television works, on a subatomic level. What about a microprocessor? Still don’t think technology is magic? Did you know that even common household electric wiring systems can only be predictably accounted for using quantum mechanics? And do you know what the single most important principle of quantum mechanics is? The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: that at a certain scale it is impossible to know what is going on. Which is why string theory is simultaneously both extremely exciting and extremely disappointing: it can never be scientifically proven or disproven because it theorizes phenomena at a scale that we simply cannot test for. Somebody explain to me quantum mechanics. I don’t care if you’re Michelle Addington (more Michelle). You can’t. Because it’s magic. iPods and cellphones and Blackberrys and laptops run on magic.

The film Metropolis is the godfather of all filmic images of the Modern conception of the city. In this film the city under the influence of Modern technology was imagined to its logical extreme: layers upon layers of traffic all flowing in orderly grids between behemoth sized skyscrapers with Babel-esque proportioned hubris. In a sense, all films dealing with the city have been a response to Metropolis. But the age where Metropolis represents our image of the future may be closed, along with our faith in the promise of skyscrapers (except in Asia, but more on that later): prominent architects have all said or proposed as such: Rem called his CCTV (known in China affectionately as “Big Shorts”) loop a death knell to the age of the skyscraper, Eisenman’s Max Reinhardt building was also theorized as such, and Thom Mayne even said in spoken lectures that skyscrapers make no sense for cities today. Metropolis, with its grand skyscrapers, is the image of the city under the spell of technology.

As an element of urban planning, the Grid may be the most conspicuous example of an obsolete machine-age emphasis on the vehicle. How pernicious the grid has been to cities in the Twentieth century! It’s no wonder that today we care most about the cities and spaces that were developed before the car and hence, before the grid: lower Manhattan, parts of Boston, parts of San Francisco, and of course, old Europe.


Another holdover from Modernist urban planning is the vertical stratification of traffic: designers since the Modern era have always attempted to create vertically layered levels of traffic: clover freeways, elevated railways, pedestrian skybridges, etc., all in alignment with the image that Metropolis helped propagate. But in every instance the attempt to create just one more level of streetlife has failed miserably (save for in Asia, but again, more on that later). Wherever pedestrian skybridges have been built they’ve managed to kill the street life both on them and below them, and the images of clover freeways are somehow always juxtaposed next to images of suburban angst: be it Columbine High School or Insane Clown Posse. The reason why layering pedestrian traffic doesn’t work may be most simply explained using a concept Molly Steenson introduced to me: FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out). It may be hard to reside in any one place when you can see a more activated streetscape one level above or below. The next test of this idea will be seen in New York’s High Line, a competition won by Diller, Scofidio+Renfro in collaboration with Field Operations, which faces the unenviable task of trying to design an artificial environment to compete with the bustling, organic streetlife of Manhattan.

(originally written 2/20/2007)

The Talent Question

Sunday, December 28th, 2008


Andrei Rublev (1969) 165 minutes

“It’s a complex and demanding narrative about the responsibility of the artist to participate in history rather than documenting it from a safe distance. A landmark in Russian cinema, Andrei Rublev is a beautifully lyrical black-and-white film about harmony and soulful expression. As the late filmmaker says in a supplementary interview, each generation must experience life for itself; it cannot simply absorb what has preceded it.” –Bill Desowitz

It’s hard to do any research on this movie without trying to get past the hordes of web reviewers and amateur cinephiles calling Andrei Rublev “the Greatest Movie Ever Made.” The movie is about the little known 15th century Post-Renaissance Russian iconographer, cinematically told in episodic “chapters.” Whatever else is said about it, this much, as far as I can ascertain, is certain: the movie is Russian, the movie is old, it’s in black and white, and (thus?) the movie is bound to make you think.

Which makes you wonder: where have all those really ponderous and ruminative thinkers gone? What was the last work that had the scope of emotion, depth, and intellectual weight of those by Pushkin, Doestoyevsky, or Tolstoy? Really, who do we have in the 20th century that matches those guys? If today we have gorillas, back then they had King Kongs.

In 2004, when Jacques Derrida died, some noted that it might have been more than just the passing of an insecure French philosopher. In fact, maybe the idea of theory itself had just died. After a grueling century of artistic and political manifestos that have invariably caused mass-scale suffering, and, most recently, the impotence of ideas and information to avoid the current situation in Iraq, has our contemporary culture lost its faith in theory to explain anything? About the term “deconstruction,” Emily Eakins in 2004 wrote, “Today, the term has become a more or less meaningless artifact of popular culture, more likely to turn up in a description of an untailored suit in the pages of Vogue than in a graduate seminar on James Joyce.” But, boy-oh-boy, I would love a deconstructed suit. Particularly one by Muccia Prada. She is infallible.

Maybe right now, after a period of intellectual, artistic, and scientific process unparalled since the Classical period or the Renaissance, we are entering a new Medieval Age: an age where our own intellectual abilities no longer inspire, but, instead, frighten. The Holocaust proved that genocide was possible in a “First World” civilization, and nuclear weapons don’t seem like they’re going to be forgotten anytime soon (Iran, South Korea). Theodor Adorno wrote that after Auschwitz, poetry is no longer possible, and Al-Qaeda has impressed upon us, along with Bush’s politics of fear, that a bottle of liquid and nail clippers can apparently send a Boeing 747 with hundreds of passengers down in flames. Where’s our technology now? The Medieval Ages, you may remember, was that great expanse of about 1000 years between when those barbaric Asians (my ancestors, thank you very much) sacked Rome and thus ended the Classical period, giving rise to an art and architecture that seemed to be based in fear and suffering, until Brunelleschi figured out single-point perspective in Florence and re-birthed the glory of intellectual pursuits. Really, what good is technology when a guy who looks like me can ride by on his horse and put poison in your precious aquaducts? So here we are, then. At the cusp of the Neo-Medieval Ages, c. 2001 – ?

“Modern world I’m not pleased to meet you/
You just bring me down”
–Wolf Parade

(originally written 11/9/2006)