Posts Tagged ‘james stirling’

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 For one of the most poignant examples of this, I like New York Magazine‘s article on outdated investment advice.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.

Mon Oncle

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008


Mon Oncle
1958, 110 minutes
directed by  Jacques Tati

What a beautiful film this is. Last year this film series screened Playtime, Jacques Tati’s later, larger, and more ambitious, though not funnier, film that deals with a similar scenario: the character Monsieur Hulot and his comic interactions with his urban environment of old and Modern Paris. You can’t look up Jacques Tati and not read about his films as a critique of Modern architecture; however, I’m not going to get into that here. My foot is getting tired from incessantly kicking at the dead horse of Modernism.


What I’ve been thinking about recently are children. The title Mon Oncle means “my uncle” in French, and though there isn’t really anything that resembles a traditional plot in this film, a continuing narrative strand involves Monsieur Hulot and his playful nephew. Monsieur Hulot is himself a large child in these films, dispossessed of the sophistication and suavity to understand how to operate within Modern environments. What’s surprising to me is the poignancy of an architectural critique from the viewpoint of a child (and/or man-child, as the case of Monsieur Hulot may be). In fact, children are constantly poignant to me —be them in the published photos of James Stirling’s buildings or as a political device in the recent film by Alfonso Cuarón, Children of Men. What children could then represent is something that is imminently necessary to acknowledge in the study of architecture: that is, the presence of something beyond the reach of intellection.

bacon_study1953Philip Nobel wrote that changes in governmental policy, among other factors, forced architects to compete with engineers in the middle of the 20th century. I agree with him to a certain extent—I think the bigger factor was the dominance of German philosophy that prioritized progress and science in the Modern era. Thus, architects had to sell themselves and their work as scientifically rigorous. But as Alberto Perez-Gomez has written, the way we know that architecture is separate from science is that architects are constantly using scientific metaphors. If architecture and science were really conjoined, there would be no need for architects to reach for flimsy scientific metaphors to justify their designs.

I’ve stated glibly many times before that “logic will break your heart,” which is a phrase partially taken from a mediocre album by The Stills, a rock group from Montreal. But the phrase succinctly (and catchily if not also reductively) sums up the theories of one of my favorite figures of late, Kurt Gödel. Gödel’s incompleteness theorems of 1931 essentially stated that in any closed system of logic there are both true and false statements that cannot be proven from within that system. Therefore, the attempt to create and justify any closed system of logic is fraught with inconsistencies and incompleteness—this is the hole that Derrida fell into in his otherwise brilliant theory of differance. This is also why the charge of arbitrary hurts Eisenman more than any other critique—he wanted his designs to be logically inevitable from within the parameters of architecture that he so painstakingly constructed.


Lately, Gilles Deleuze has taken the helm of the most inspirational writer for architects of the moment. Everybody is jumping on the Deleuzian bandwagon, and for good reason. His recently translated book, The Logic of Sensation, is amazing. His ideas of “figuration” and “sensation” are explicitly defined as something that passes beyond the brain, an “irreducibly synthetic . . . plurality of constituting domains of sensation.” In essence, the logic of sensation is distinctly different and separate from formal logic. In Deleuze’s theory, though it is ostensibly about painting, he brings into architecture those aspects that Modernism had left out: namely, the other four senses.

In that way, Deleuze is deliriously liberating. He renders null and void the need to endlessly and unyieldingly generate meaningless diagram after diagram, encourages us to break rules, play around, abandon logic, and explains why stunningly, rigorously formal architecture, like that of Ben Van Berkel and Preston Scott Cohen, sometimes ends up feeling soulless and dead. The work of great architecture lies beyond logical coherency—it lies somewhere in the realm of sensation.

(originally written March 6, 2007)

The Man with the Movie Camera

Sunday, December 28th, 2008


The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) 67 minutes

Nearly as soon as cinema was invented were there theoreticians who wrote about the expansive possibilities of film to change the way we document and understand architecture. In fact, Modern architecture can be seen as an attempt to reconcile the possibilities of technology with the way we build. Walter “the J is like a Y” Benjamin, Le “Little Devil” Corbusier, Aldo “Crayola” Rossi, Bernard “Ah-” Tschumi, and Rem “Cool-Hizzy” Koolhaas, just to name a few, have all famously used film to advance ideas about architecture and urbanism.


Cinema is the dominant medium of today (though that may be changing), and this is no small potatoes. There have only been a few changes in dominant media since the dawn of history; first was language and oration, the Renaissance gave birth to perspective and thus monocularcentric text and image, and then the twentieth century gave us relativity and motion. Eisenman would call these moments of change shifts: from theocentric to anthropocentric to technocentric; Marshall McLuhan would say they were sensual-spatial: from aural to visual to electro-acoustic.

Dziga Vertov was one of the first to experiment with the extreme technical possibilities of film. Vertov uses slow-motion, fast-motion, jump-cuts, extreme close-ups, double-exposure, freeze-frames, Dutch-angles and tracking shots to document the day in the life of a Russian city. This film is unabashedly ambitious in its attempt to document space and urbanity free from the tethers of literature.


Rem Koolhaas as the l’homme d’architecture par example du jour (that’s French for “dude be the man right now”) presents an interesting case for a study of the intersection between film and architecture. Though his contemporary Bernard Tschumi more explicitly draws on film as a possible source of architectural inspiration (see The Manhattan Transcripts, Architecture & Disjunction), Remment Koolhaas actually was a screenwriter before he became an architect (he wrote, among other things, soft-core porn scripts for Russ Meyer–which explains some of the pages in his book, Content).  Though it’s hard to say anything specific about Rem, which has a lot to do with the way OMA runs, it nevertheless may be interesting to use him to understand the contemporary condition. For if we are to assume the canon of critical architecture, then we could use Rem to theorize a paradigmatic shift from criticality to post. The moment that this occurred, if I were to try and pin it down Charles Jencks-style, would have to be around 1997 with the appearance of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao. But Gehry himself, who was born Ephraim Owen Goldstein in Toronto, Canada, never was a player in architecture beforehand—he was building parking garages in California before Bilbao. Rem, then, could be the architect that represents the shift from a critical paradigm to a projective or post-critical paradigm (see Jussieu vs. Porto). And if we grant him that, then he is in rare company indeed. For before Rem, James Stirling was the man sitting on top of the fulcrum that swung from Modern to Post-Modern (see Leicester vs. Stuttgart), and before him Le Corbusier was the man that spanned pre-Modern to Modern.


But of course, this is all predicated on the idea that we accept criticality as a continually valid project for architecture, and not a distinctly Modern-with-a-capital M and Western invention. For criticality may be fatally linked to Hegel and the distinctly twentieth century notion of a canon, to say nothing of the contemporary challenge that Asia presents to criticality (more on that later). It also may be interesting to note that those three Fulcrum Men: Corb, Stirling, and Rem, came to architecture after initial careers in other fields. Le Corbusier was a painter and never had a formal architectural education, James Stirling went to art school and served in the military before attending Liverpool University (as someone who was trained as a painter myself, I love pointing out other architects who were also painters), and Rem wrote porno screenplays before going to the AA in London. However, this makes sense if we understand that any creative act is as equally destructive as it is creative (one could use the laws of thermodynamics as an analogy). It seems to point to the idea that there is nothing so dangerous to the status-quo as an artist bent on destruction. Which is why I’m a lifetime member of the NRA.

Just kidding. Or am I?

(originally written 2/13/2007)

Fortune Favors the Bold

Friday, December 26th, 2008

As the film notes get more and more recent (I wrote this almost three years ago), the less I feel like I have to apologize for them. However, one thing that still strikes me about this film is how disastrous the casting choice of Colin Farrell was for Alexander. I mean, look at this publicity photo.


Alexander (2004), 175 minutes

I’ve often wondered about the relationship between arrogance and architecture (the Ego and the Architect); to what degree is a certain amount of stubbornness and self-aggrandizement necessary to successfully maneuver the complicated and messy business of building buildings and winning clients? When does confidence become arrogance? At the root of all of this speculation is the simple question: how does the architect see himself in relation to others?

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the role of architect is most closely related to the role of the film director. Both films and buildings are dependant on business, yet strive for artistic ambitions. Architects and directors are responsible for the coordination of people in multifarious fields and trades in which they are not experts. They are servants to a client. And films and buildings are both huge financial risks. In each field, there are the safe bets; hiring Ron Howard to direct your film would be like hiring SOM. The populist Frank Gehry to Steven Spielberg; the quiet craftsmanship of Renzo Piano to Michael Mann; the hip Koolhaas to Quentin Tarantino.

It may be said that no director today is more often accused of arrogance, yet lauded as brilliant, than Oliver Stone. In that way, maybe Oliver Stone is like the Frank Lloyd Wright of film. Alexander was Stone’s biggest project up to that point. As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times put it, “There comes the moment in the career of many directors when they are compelled to tell the story of a great man in whose life they seem to see a glimmer of their own image.”

Oliver Stone, a Yale graduate (he shared the New Haven campus with John Kerry and George W. Bush), came to film directing late in life, at the age of 29 after two tours of duty in Vietnam. In this way he is similar to many successful architects who came to the profession after first careers in other fields: Le Corbusier and James Stirling from painting, Rem Koolhaas from journalism, Rick Joy from music, Tadao Ando from boxing, etc. He then set up the most impressive cinematic resume of anybody working today, directing a series of cultural milestone films including Platoon, Wall Street, The Doors, JFK, and Natural Born Killers, but also writing Midnight Express, Conan the Barbarian, Scarface, and Evita. Like Wright, Stone is responsible for some of the most recognizable works of his generation.

But most of you may remember that Alexander was Oliver Stone’s biggest box office flop. It was critically reviled. That, in itself, is revealing of the nature of Oliver Stone. If the biggest artistic successes are necessarily the product of the biggest risks, and if an artist is risking anything valuable at all, shouldn’t his or her career be littered with the detritus of failed experiments? But we should be able to see within those works a great ambition, and learn from where and why they fell short. As the tired old adage goes, you learn more from failure than from success—our attitude towards those failures, and our resilience from the inevitable stings of critics (hello jury system), may define our ability to continue working towards our own risky goals. But arrogance will make us blind, and you may end up arguing that Alexander was a flop only because America is homophobic (as Oliver Stone did publicly for quite a while). Arrogance closes doors—to people, perception, and opportunities—and arguably opens none that wouldn’t be otherwise.

And will somebody stop giving Colin Farrell work? He has presided as the lead over the biggest disappointments of the past several years, taking the mojo out of some of the most talented directors working today (most recently Michael Mann in Miami Vice); he is like a director’s succubus.

(originally written 9/26/2006)