Issue 67. Lucia Allais says writing is BACK! And NYRA says: so is reading. Subscribe to get your fix.
In OASE Journal, about a decade ago, Françoise Fromonot reflected on the state of architectural criticism in France. Though once a landscape of rich and critical debate, she argued, French journals had been subsumed by a globalist and neoliberal ideology of flaccid coexistence, mistaking "the spectacle of competing architectural formalisms" for serious debate. Hampered and constrained by the professional allegiances that secured their scant resources, journals and their writers often adopted tones of flattery and praise, relying uncritically (and too closely) on architects' press kits. An unhealthy symbiosis, fueled by exclusive building tours and lavish free lunches, came to exist between architects and their dependent critics; in such an intimate context, Fromonot continued, "no one [would] take the risk of displeasing the architects with a critical comment," particularly when it meant "no more invitations to [...] events, a more difficult access to information and documents and—especially for younger critics who are hoping to get a tenured position in an architecture school or who have a practice—a possible failure in subsequent professional or academic juries.”
Whether or not the French situation was mirrored directly in the North American market, certain parallels exist wherever critics of industry become too dependent on their subjects, as the past 20 years of architectural writing attests. But today, and particularly following the dramatic social realignments of 2020, there is a clear and ongoing intensification of the political critique of architecture. (Of course this didn’t happen by chance; at least since 2008, publications like The Funambulist and Places Journal, and writers like Eyal Weizman and Dolores Hayden—both of whom appear in one way or another in this week’s dispatches—have been on the front lines of a sustained political critique of architecture.) To see mainline platforms such as The Architect’s Newspaper, Archinect, and Azure Magazine—to name a few—reporting on SHoP’s unionization drive, SCI-Arc’s Basecamp fallout, and the precarity and exploitation behind the concept of “design excellence” shows that Fromonot’s insights are aging well.
There may be no such thing as a free lunch—but for now, at least, architecture’s editors seem willing to pick up the tab.
— Sebastián López Cardozo
Shifting Landscapes and Temperature Changes
The April 2022 issue of the Avery Review, number 56, seems to anticipate temperature change on both a metaphorical and literal level, arriving as we anticipate summer and tackling issues with the greatest gravity and seriousness. Four of the five pieces deal with climate change or disruption in one way or another, but often in less mild and more direct terms, referring to “ecological catastrophe,” “ecological terrorism,” and climate “crisis” and “disaster.” With great inter-species care and concern, perhaps driven by empathy and perhaps a bit by frustration with humans, two of the pieces draw our attention to those creatures and entities that are non-human, or “more-than-human” (to borrow their term, often first accredited to David Abram).
Stefanie Hessler brings us to the water in “Erotic Ocean,” while Daniel Jacobs and Brittany Utting ground us in “Forest Governmentality and the Struggle for More-Than-Human Sovereignty.” Both pieces address resource extraction in ocean and forest territories, respectively, and conceptualize ecological realms as deserving their own rights, or possessing their own agency, in one way or another. For example, Jacobs and Utting review a project, terra0, which utilizes blockchain to allow the forest to regulate its own harvesting and expansion, in essence “the forest as a legal entity” capable of a high degree of market autonomy.
I find two things notable about these pieces. Firstly, an ongoing if tacit engagement in architectural circles with the ideas of Object Oriented Ontology. Secondly, the suggestions of a shift back to the larger scales of the spatial within architectural theorizing. To paint with a broad brush, one might say that post-2008 concerns in architecture were broadly categorized by a focus on the building (exceptions abound of course, for instance the founding of the New Geographies journal circa 2010). Post-2020, there seems to be a renewed interest in that which is tangential to the building itself, if not extremely impactful on its design.
On the one hand, I suspect this slow turn back to the territorial to be a result of our intimate confinements and quarantines within our buildings over the past two years, and thus a desire to think beyond walls, roofs, stairs, and windows. On the other hand, it could represent a desire to spread out, to escape our confines not because we are no longer afraid, but precisely because the viral-other is still a perceived threat. Perhaps having thought so much about the great power of viruses, attention is now directed towards extra-human geographies, as explored in these the Avery pieces. If fear is one modality of interacting with the more-than-human, these pieces point us towards another, that of empathy and care. Can this empathy for and learning from more-than-humans help us chart a path towards environmental health and wellbeing? My hope would be that this deeper engagement with nature could be the next evolution of a caring and fundamentally sustainable built environment.
— Francis Aguillard
4/21: Not Editing but Rewriting
Against Accumulation, a panel at the California College for the Arts
SAN FRANCISCO/OAKLAND (ZOOM)—Assistant professor and writer EUNSONG KIM and Ph.D. candidate JARRETT MARTIN DRAKE gathered for a panel last week to discuss the role of racial capitalism and colonialism in the origins of archives and museums. Anchoring the discussion in each other’s forthcoming books—Kim’s The Politics of Collecting: Race, Property & Aesthetic Formation and Drake’s Archives on Fire—they spoke of the difficulties of merely relying on reform. Reading from Archives on Fire, Kim agreed with Drake that despite an abundance of historical records, “accountability is wanting.” Even with vast amounts of documentation at hand, the panelists argued, incompetent bureaucratic systems of administration continue (by design) to maintain and reinforce racial capitalism. Archives often repeat seemingly liberal promises of transparency, democratic accessibility, and justice—yet Drake stressed that systems of documentation are deficient and action is needed.
Reading from The Politics of Collecting, Drake echoed Kim’s skepticism of the declared sincerity behind the origin of canonical institutions and avant-garde collections. “All such endeavors” said Drake paraphrasing from Kim’s book, “were made possible through the extractive industries that have made life historically and presently unlivable for Black, Indigenous, and core immigrant communities.”
— Pouya Khadem
4/22: Rewriting Colonial Narratives
Writing the History of the Built Environments of Asia, a symposium at Cornell AAP
ITHACA, NY (ZOOM)—In a two-day symposium held by Cornell University's History of Architecture and Urban Development program, six doctoral students (CHRIONNI BERNARD DECREPITO, SHARON MIZBANI, ROBIN HARTANTO HONGGARE, JAVAIRIA SHAHID, SAUMYA PANDEY and PARIDHI DAVID MASSEY) presented their ongoing research related to the exploration of the materiality of colonialism in Asia. Constituting a range of topics of study, the presentations delved into previously uninvestigated impacts of certain material elements on the built environment in the pursuit of expanding and/or challenging traditionally limited historical narratives.
Keynote speaker NIDA REHMAN opened the event with an insightful presentation titled “Eucalypts at the Climate Threshold.” Her research explored the history of the plantation of eucalyptus trees in British-colonized Punjab (for its prophylactic potential and for lumber) and the resulting effects on the region's climate. Situating these efforts "within the wider context and narratives of colonial forestry" in India, Rehman uses the eucalyptus as a lens to try to unsettle "the continuing legacies of colonial climate change.”
Zooming in on the Philippine islands in the 20th century, Decrepito highlighted the history of the postwar colonial infrastructural projects implemented by the U.S. Bureau of Public Works—serving to "strengthen the foothold of American colonial administration" in the region. In “Water and Memory,” Mizbani discussed the changing hydrological infrastructures of postimperial Istanbul and Tehran in relation to shifts in political, social, and religious ideas around public/private ownership of water systems.
Taking the audience through the architectural history of labor and mobility in Sumatra, Honggare’s presentation, “Infrastructuring Migration,” examined the potential of architecture to be deployed as an agent of oppression. Honggare’s presentation delved into the role played by material networks and infrastructures like colonial ships, immigration offices, and plantation estates built to transport and house indentured Javanese rubber workers.
On the whole, the presentations showcased the power of using seemingly incidental material components as tools in the deconstruction of often implicitly imperialistic written histories.
— Nouran Abdelhamid
4/22: Writing as a Collective Practice
Writing Architectural History, a book launch and conference at Columbia GSAPP
NEW YORK (ZOOM)—Associate Professor and Buell Center Director LUCIA ALLAIS opened last Friday’s book launch by declaring that “writing is BACK!” Following Allais’ introduction, book editors DANIEL ABRAMSON, ZEYNEP ÇELIK ALEXANDER, and MICHAEL OSMAN described the origins of the book, Writing Architectural History. Osman explained that the book started as a workshop between writers and moved between mediums and formats. “It was never about method,” he noted. The book relies on a large breadth of historical evidence and tools, including mathematical formulas, data sets, court records, tree rings, as well as a range of chronologies, scales, subject agents and agencies.
Reflecting on the process of working on the book, Abramson observed that the distinction between researching and teaching as two separate practices is often blurred through the editing process; it creates a dialogue based on sharing ideas and practices of bidirectional teaching. The editors spoke of the practice of writing architectural history as a collective exploration of past, present, and future made possible by camaraderie, vulnerability, openness to criticism, and trust. "Our call is for thinking seriously about working philosophies rather than hard methods,” said Çelik Alexander. Talking about working philosophies “allows us to elaborate the on the mundane meanings [of methods and disciplinarity] so that we can pay close attention to procedures, to protocols, and techniques that we use knowingly or unknowingly, that we invent, that are inherent to our discipline, as we write architectural history."
— Randa Omar
4/27: Building a Political Architectural History
Domestic Revolutions: Spaces of Care, Then and Now, a lecture at the University of Buffalo
BUFFALO (ZOOM)—”In the 1970s I became a licensed architect, [but I was also] teaching at Berkeley, MIT, later UCLA,” explained architect and historian DOLORES HAYDEN at a University of Buffalo lecture last Wednesday. “I realized many of the political questions about space were important to me and traditional architectural history didn’t address them.”
Reflecting on her career, Hayden spoke about her decision to study (and build towards) a more social history of architecture. “I found that I could travel to socialist towns and figure out why people were building towns like this,” she said. In these towns, Hayden found valuable records and documents. “I pursued this project,” she continued, “and in the process I came across some articles that [demonstrated that] communitarian socialism could happen in domestic spaces.” She soon found herself steeped in the study of building patterns and documentations of social conditions. “You could talk about tenements and warehouses and certain neighborhoods,” noted Hayden; “[I realized that] people could build a much more political architectural history.”
— Charles Weak
NYRA ON THE TOWN
Exhibitions, parties, and other IRL delights
Outside in Brooklyn
Book launch at Head Hi
A crowd of 40 buttoned their jackets tight, clutched hot drinks, and listened closely as New York-based photographer MICHAEL VAHRENWALD discussed his new book, The People’s Trust, outside the Head Hi bookstore with historic preservation consultant CHRISTOPHER NEVILLE and NYRA’s deputy editor MARIANELA D’APRILE, on what proved to be an unseasonably frigid spring evening. Almost a decade in the making, the book documents repurposed bank buildings, leftover husks of local institutions that are no more. It may have been fitting we were outside, as the book is almost exclusively exterior elevations, shot with a 19th century camera in early morning light. Vahrenwald noted that he chose to focus on elevations because of how chatty they are. All of the information (name, mission, building type), he said, is right there. It is often not aesthetics, but the difficulty of demolishing the heavily reinforced vaults that saves banks from demolition. Does he still visit the banks, now that the project is through? Yes: “I go back—it's like a curse—I feel like I bought a dog, and now I have to care for this.” And did he ever consider photographing the bank interiors? No: “It becomes all narrative when you are inside—like photographing a haunted house.” After the formal talk, the crowd happily trundled inside for drinks, books, and lots of narrative.
— Nicolas Kemper
EYES ON SKYLINE
In Skyline 66, readers anxiously clicked on an article about the surprisingly large energy footprint of the digital economy.
IN THE NEWS
BIG shares updated renderings of OCEANIX BUSAN, the “world’s first sustainable floating city”...
Another first: Studio Gang and Urban Villages break ground on Populous, the premiere carbon positive hotel in the United States…
A report detailing Harvard University’s legacy of slavery, introduced in a letter to the GSD community by Dean Whiting, has been made public…
Grafton Architects won the Mies Van der Rohe prize for their design of Town House Kingston University London…
Thomas Heatherwick’s Tree of Trees sculpture, designed for Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, lands him in the design world’s pillory once again…
The absurdity of the Metaverse concept comes full circle with the opening of Meta’s first IRL store, where you can buy real products that will enable you to buy other, unreal products in an unreal store for your unreal persona in an unreal world(????)...
— News contributed by Anna Gibertini
Please join NYRA, Citygroup, and the Coalition for a 100% Affordable 5 WTC at 6pm on May 7, as participants in our call for designs for a 100% affordable 5 WTC each show their proposal in rapid fire presentations, followed by a lively and important discussion. Register at nyra.nyc/100af.
The week ahead is light in events as schools are finishing up their lecture series. A few of the talks would add up to a crash-course in urbanism, if you’re feeling ambitious. Be sure to consider the lecture at UCLA (and online) by James Chinlund—he was production designer for Batman (2022) and Requiem for a Dream (2000).
Witness: De Profundis? with Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
12:00 PM, The Cooper Union
Anatomical Minutiae and Particular Temporalities with Ana María Gómez López
11:15 AM, Cornell Architecture, Art, and Planning
Streets for Culture with Hatuey Ramos-Fermín, Jennifer Nitzky, Elena Ketelsen Gonzalez
6:00 PM, Urban Design Forum
The Ubiquity of Asia with Hentyle Yapp
6:00 PM, MIT School of Architecture + Planning
FF – Distance Edition with Elizabeth Kennedy
12:00 PM, The Architectural League of New York
Southside Survey: Housing Futures for South Bethlehem with Wes Hiatt
6:30 PM | Lehigh University
5 WTC: What Next?
6:00 PM | Citygroup, The Coalition for a 100% Affordable 5 WTC and New York Review of Architecture
LETTER TO THE EDITOR
Have a take, good, bad or otherwise? Write us a letter!
NYRA is a team effort. Our deputy editor is Marianela D'Aprile, our editors-at-large are Carolyn Bailey, Phillip Denny and Alex Klimoski, and our publisher is Nicolas Kemper.
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For their support, we would like to thank the Graham Foundation and our issue sponsors, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects and Thomas Phifer.
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