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S K Y L I N E | What is the point of writing about architecture now?
On the lack of coverage about Ukraine's cultural heritage sites, urban housing pressures, conservation in South Asia, and more.
Issue 62. The New York Review of Architecture: All of the (Architectural) News that’s Fit to Print. That’s right, in print. Subscribe to our hardcopy edition today!
Last week, Skyline editor Sebastián López Cardozo noted, “asking what architecture can do precipitates a useful inversion; and the question of what architecture cannot do—far from signifying defeat or retrenchment—opens a window on what we can do collectively.”
As a writer, I wonder what writing about architecture can do in a time of conflict. With the invasion of Ukraine reaching its 30th day, the destruction to both land and lives is dire, as both official and unofficial reporting clearly shows. However, in an essay this week, Andrew Scheinman observes how there is a dearth of articles about growing threats to cultural heritage sites in Ukraine, a departure from coverage of conflict in places like Syria, which treated the destruction of heritage sites as “a prop in political drama.” Scheinman’s essay ties into broader scrutiny about the difference in the media coverage of Ukraine, with an eye to architectural commentary (or the lack thereof).
Our other dispatches this week also take on a critical view of the role of design in the 21st century. Anna Gibertini reports on Jane Atfield’s recycled plastic RCP2 chair, a valiant effort at addressing our waste culture that may now simply be a token-object for recycling. Harish Krishnamoorthy covers a lecture on the conservation of post-independence modern architecture in South Asia, and the challenges that arise from saving old buildings in new social contexts, while Payton McHugh discusses the contributions to Under Pressure, a new edited volume on the pressures facing urban housing.
These dispatches help demonstrate the value of criticism. The practice and purpose of architectural discourse is not simply to lambaste buildings or their makers. It is an attempt to understand how they represent and shape ourselves and, at its best, proposes how design can evolve to better society, an aim that should be pursued in times of both peace and war.
This being a newsletter about architecture, perhaps you have heard of Derzhprom, the paradigmatic constructivist House of State Industry in Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine and arguably, per Owen Hatherley, “the most interesting—and one of the least known—buildings of the ‘heroic age’ of modern architecture in the interwar years.” You might have been to, lived in, or at least have read of the UNESCO-inscribed historic city center of Lviv; you might have even seen the stunning Cathedral of St. Sophia in Kyiv or the wooden churches, called tserkvas, that dot the Polish and Ukrainian Carpathian mountain range up close. Since you read SKYLINE, you certainly know by now of Babyn Yar, the memorial site where, between 1941 and 1943, the Nazi regime massacred nearly the entire Jewish population of Kyiv during the Holocaust.
All of these places are, you surely know, at extraordinary risk of damage by Russian missiles. (UNESCO, for the record, is “gravely concerned.”) And yet, even with your eyes glued to the continually full-width New York Times headlines rolling in since February 24, you will almost assuredly not have seen any opinion pieces imploring you to be outraged at the threat of this kind of tangible cultural material being destroyed. Too much else is at stake. Just this week in fact, the Times instead published an astonishing, heartbreaking report specifically detailing the range of civilian infrastructure indiscriminately bombarded across Ukraine in the past month. Heritage sites were a footnote, relegated to the travel page.
Such sensitive coverage of wanton destruction is, however, unusual: reporting and commentary on architecture does not tend to have its priorities straight, particularly where heritage buildings in other war-torn parts of the world have been concerned. In August 2015, more than four years into a horrific civil war in Syria during which the Russian-backed government gassed its people (among other crimes against humanity), the Guardian published an exercise in navel gazing on the occasion of Islamic State destruction at the UNESCO-listed archaeological site at Palmyra titled “Why It’s All Right to Be More Horrified by the Razing of Palmyra than Mass Murder.” (The answer: “You can harm people in many ways, and targeting their bodies is only one.”) Meanwhile, a replica of Palmyra’s iconic Triumphal Arch was cast in marble and made to travel to, among other cities, London, New York, Dubai, and Geneva, where it stood brazenly, apparently symbolic of “our” victory over evil, facing the offices of the UN High Commissioners for Refugees and for Human Rights and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The very countries hosting this tour refused refugees by the masses; heritage architecture was treated as no more than a prop in political drama.
Imagine a tserkva replica touring Europe while three million and counting Ukrainian refugees remained locked behind borders. If you cannot, consider what makes such misalignment possible: Like so much else about the Western press response to the Russian invasion, architectural discourse about the war in Ukraine has departed significantly from that of wars in places like Syria, Yemen, and Ethiopia. Media coverage plainly empathizes with Ukrainians in a way rarely afforded to Syrians, Yemenites, or Ethiopians, and therefore shows reduced concern over the destruction of heritage. As evidenced by the recent Times piece, writing about architecture can, however, cut against this hegemonic grain, treating buildings— “culturally significant” or otherwise—as objects created and shepherded by real, living people, no matter their geographical or political place. Like architecture itself, it can help make and unmake the world.
Until April 30th: A Revolutionary Design, a Little Too Late
Jane Atfield at Emma Scully Gallery
NEW YORK (16 EAST 79th STREET) – There is a rare piece of design history that has just re-emerged on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Courtesy of Emma Scully Gallery, JANE ATFIELD’s RCP2 chair has been re-editioned for the first time in 30 years in three colorways.
Since its debut in 1992, the RCP2 chair has been hard to find (at least in the United States), which is surprising given the chair’s inoffensive form and prescient materiality. Looking to the planar aesthetics of Dutch designer Gerrit Rietveld and simple, mass-producible construction techniques, Atfield found a language for the chair’s form and fabrication. She also favored the de Stijl master’s preference for a readily available material, but rather than wood, she opted for something bold in look and implication: high-density polyethylene plastic board, or HDPE. Atfield sourced the HDPE from eco-materials manufacturer Yemm & Hart, who pulverized tons of plastic waste and pressed it into colorful boards that Atfield then cut and assembled into the chair. It is the first example of a furnishing made from post-consumer recycled plastics; a category of design object 30 years ahead of its time but now, sadly, too little too late to have much of a salutary effect on our microplastic poisoned world.
3/21: Archive Matrix Assembly
Rouse Visiting Artist Lecture: Archive Matrix Assembly with Nana Last, Thomas Struth at the GSD
CAMBRIDGE, MA (ZOOM) – At this year’s Rouse Visiting Artist Lecture, attendees shared Gund Hall with the acclaimed Düsseldorf School photographer THOMAS STRUTH and UVA Associate Professor of Architecture NANA LAST, who presented her view of his forty-year artistic project, waiting in anticipation for Struth’s reaction. Last, who recently finished her book Archive Matrix Assembly, The Photographs of Thomas Struth 1978–2018 (AR+D, 2021), has written on Struth’s photography since the early 2000s. She sped through an abbreviated summary of the evolution of Struth’s work, beginning with depictions of black-and-white streetscapes in the late 1970s, followed by portraits and museum interiors, and culminating in dead animals, machine-assisted surgeries, and space shuttle debris. Across all phases was a foregrounding of technical control, finely tuned resolution, and an impression of serenity coupled with disturbance. Last argued that the works were most meaningful when comprehended as a whole, that the entirety revealed conversations where works from one phase did not supersede or negate others, but rather, spoke to and co-existed, forming what she called a project of “radical empiricism.”
“I thought, ‘Finally someone understands what I am doing’” said Struth, recalling his surprise at reading Last’s writings decades earlier. The ensuing Q&A between Last and Struth, and GSD Dean SARAH WHITING, touched on Struth’s formation as a painter—“I was a bit impatient”—and his astonishment at seeing a hi-res Sony screen in 1986 in Tokyo’s Ginza—“I thought, ‘If that becomes the standard people’s psychology will get very strange”—with periodic interjections from Last that insisted on a connection between his thinking and Adorno’s. As Struth listened, it became clear that the relationship between subject and scholar had some gaps. The ideas that circulated were hardly reciprocal, but never indifferent—all existing in conjunction and capacious engagement.
3/21: How to Critique an Institution
Lecture with Andrea Fraser, Felicity D. Scott, Mark Wasiuta at Columbia GSAPP
NEW YORK (YOUTUBE) – Artist ANDREA FRASER gave an overview of her work for the annual GSAPP CCCP lecture. Her presentation honed in on three of her greatest hits: Museum Highlights (1989) in which she poses as a tour guide delivering an overview of the ways museums serve private monied interests instead of public ones; Little Frank and His Carp (2001) in which Fraser grinds on the sensuous curves of the Guggenheim Bilbao at the urging of the audioguide; and 2016 in Museums, Money, and Politics, a book that lays out the political donations of museum board members in the context of Trump’s election. Interlocutors Mark Wasiuta and Felicity Scott shyly reconvened the Gen X cultural theory salon to ask faltering questions about the medium of institutional critique and its continued relevance in these times. To quote Wasiuta’s introductory quote of Fraser, “Let these private institutions be the treasure vaults, theme-park spectacles and economic freak shows that many already are.”
NEW YORK (ZOOM) – Working from home norms as a result of Covid-19 have “placed pressure on both the individual and housing” stated HINA JAMELLE, director of the Urban Housing Studios graduate program at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design and editor of Under Pressure, a book of collected essays about the challenges facing housing. During the roundtable discussion that followed Jamelle’s presentation, moderator DAISY AIMES, principal at the architecture and research office Studio Ames, asked, “What invisible forces have helped frame the work that you do?”, which was answered by the contributors through their exploration of the environment, biology, sociability, and zoning politics.
SCOTT ERDY and LAIA MOGAS-SOLDEVILA explored issues of environmentalism in housing through the possibility for self-sustainable architecture and “hybrid living conditions that meld housing and farming.” Architect BRIAN PHILLIPS presented his own work in Philadelphia under his firm Interface Studio Architects, and shared the projects that Weitzman students have been experimenting with through the UPenn Street Life studio. NADER TEHRANI emphasized the infrastructural side of housing with a case study of an “undevelopable” site in South Boston which highlighted zoning not as an “inherited aspect of design,” but as something that can be projected by the architect through inventive planning.
3/23: Conserving in a Splintered Society
Conservation in a Shifting Landscape: The Future of Modern Architecture in South Asia with Rahul Mehrotra, Eve Blau at the Harvard GSD
CAMBRIDGE, MA (ZOOM) – “I felt as an architect like I was in an echo chamber.” RAHUL MEHROTRA, urban professor at the GSD, showed a 1972 photograph of the Hall of Nations in Delhi—a monumental concrete space-frame exhibition complex by Raj Rewal and Mahendra Raj—before flipping to an image of it as rubble, unceremoniously demolished in 2017. Joined by MARTINO STIERLI, chief architecture curator at MoMA in New York, and KATHLEEN JAMES-CHAKRABORTY, professor at University College Dublin, Mehrotra used the Hall of Nations as prompt to question the state of conservation in South Asia, particularly around modern architecture after India’s independence in 1947. Citing a number of projects under threat, Mehrotra noted that for a “splintered society” under near-constant transition, bringing conservation to the forefront is critical.
Stierli spoke to his work on MoMA’s exhibition “The Project of Independence,” which spotlights modern architecture in South Asia between 1947 and 1985, noting that works were fundamentally “an active agent in the transformation of these societies into self-sufficient places.” James-Chakraborty built on this reading, emphasizing that the buildings’ social intentions have been lost over the years, leaving space for the public to see them as outdated or unwelcome.
The need for additional discourse in South Asian conservation was heightened by questions posed by audience members—one addressing the controversial Central Vista redevelopment in Delhi, another questioning the (lack of) Partition-focused discourse in the MoMA exhibition. A last question, grasping at how to bridge the gap between architects and non-architects, may be the most paramount: in James-Chakraborty’s words, it is “easy to rant about the willingness of the government to tear down these buildings,” but the real challenge lies in “writing and speaking in ways that excite others outside of the architectural sphere.”
NYRA ON THE TOWN
Exhibitions, parties, and other IRL delights
“If I may interject about my own life…” interposed ROBERT A.M. STERN as his questioner, SUZANNE STEPHENS, paused for the second time to dig into her purse and silence her phone (Stern’s zinger the first time? “It’s Denise Scott Brown calling”). The occasion for the hourlong round of verbal combat this past Wednesday evening, “Between Memory and Invention,” was Stern’s recently published memoir of the same name (cowritten by sometime NYRA writer LEOPOLDO VILLARDI). It was Stern’s first public event since the beginning of the pandemic, and there was a celebratory sense of camaraderie among the reunited old friends and RAMSA employees in the room (also, a lot of neckties—mandatory at the venue, the Union Club. SHOHEI SHIGEMATSU, head of OMA New York, tried arriving without one, for which he received a black and red striped “loaner” tie, which he sported jauntily). Stephens, whose close friendship with Stern dates back to their early days in writing and building respectively, kept him pinned as he repeatedly asked to leave. They rapidly made their way from childhood to Stern’s tutelage under Paul Rudolph to his time at the Architectural League to his 1986 mini-series on PBS: “They called it the Petroleum Broadcast System, it had so much sponsorship from Mobile.” He recounted how his tenure as Dean at Yale began with a phone call taken at an airport and how he embraced the school’s pluralistic bent: “One of my strategies—have your opposites there.” They rushed through a small sampling of his firm’s prodigious output, jumping from shingle houses on Long Island to a Disney hotel to 15 CPW to the Comcast Tower in Philadelphia and finally the Bush Library: “George Bush gave everyone a nickname. I wondered what my nickname was, but it was obvious. Yellowsocks. And with that, I want to go home.” PAUL WHALEN, a partner at RAMSA and the President of the night’s organizer, the Soane Foundation, had the last word: “Bob, you’re pretty good on Zoom, but much better in person.” Stern disappeared before anyone could corner him to sign a book.
EYES ON SKYLINE
IN THE NEWS
The week ahead…
SATURDAY & SUNDAY, 3/26-27
Jaqueline Tyrwhitt Urban Design Lecture with Anne Lacaton
12:30 PM | Harvard Graduate School of Design
Book Launch | Husserl and Spatiality: A Phenomenological Ethnography of Space with Tao Dufour
5:00 PM | Cornell University College of Architecture
Lecture with Galia Solomonoff
6:30 PM | Columbia University GSAPP
Film Screening – Another Kind of Knowledge: A Portrait of Dorte Mandrup with Dorte Mandrup
7:30 PM | AIANY Women in Architecture
The Project of Independence: Architectures of Decolonization in South Asia, 1947–1985 with Martino Stierli
6:00 PM | Cornell University College of Architecture
Beyond the Envelope with Grant Brooker, Robert Harrison
12:30 PM | New York Institute of Technology
More With Less with Adib Cúre, Carie Penabad
1:00 PM | Rice University
Design Reparations | New Models of Economic and Spatial Justice with Shawn Rickenbacker
5:00 PM | Cornell University College of Architecture
Baumer Lecture, The Possibilities of Infrastructure with Hernán Díaz Alonso
5:30 PM | Ohio State University Knowlton School of Architecture
Culture, Community, and Environmental Justice in Contemporary Indigenous Design with Sam Olbekson
6:30 PM | Harvard Graduate School of Design
Architects, Born Jewish in the 19th Century with Robert Arthur King
7:30 PM | The National Arts Club
Planet City and the Return of Global Wilderness with Liam Young
9:00 PM | Southern California Institute of Architecture
Stories of Water Resilience: How will Water reshape Environmental and Social Infrastructure? with Gena Wirth, Miho Mazereeuw, Kristina Hill
9:30 PM | University of California Berkeley
Kassler Lecture with Toshiko Mori
12:34 PM | Princeton University
Sunnyside Gardens: Preservation & Planning in a Historic Garden Suburb (2021) with Laura Heim, Jeffrey Kroessler
6:00 PM | Center for Architecture
Radical Black Space. "The Black School Project" with Shani Peters, Joseph A. Cuillier
6:00 PM | Spitzer School of Architecture
Emerging Voices: Azra Akšamija and sekou cooke STUDIO with Azra Akšamija, Sekou Cooke, Ersela Kripa
6:30 PM | The Architectural League of New York
Conversations on Social Justice and Design with Darren Walker, Maddy Burke-Vigeland, Jeffrey Mansfield, Elaine Ostroff, Valerie Fletcher, Victor Pineda, Susan Schwelk, Christopher Downey
1:00 PM | University of California Berkeley
FF – Distance Edition: terrain-nyc landscape architecture with Steven Tupu
1:00 PM | The Architectural League of New York
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
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