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The Charisma of Street Furniture
Edwin Heathcote sees smut in the bollard. Plus, theory’s stakes and architecture’s good intentions
Habitual strollers: complement your fall look with a NYRA tote. Buy yours here.
The Financial Times’ architecture and design critic gets his steps in.
by Philippa Snow
Not everyone made productive use of the peculiar derangement of lockdown, but the heightened powers of observation Heathcote demonstrates here have a distinct whiff of it—deliciously obsessive and meticulously detailed, his discursive, sometimes personal compendium of 101 alphabetized texts is a snapshot of a time during which street life became all of life. Structuring the book around his “officially sanctioned walks,” he writes, “gave me something to do on otherwise interminably repetitive strolls. But it also allowed me the time and space to see and find things that were, in their own way, wonderful.” “It was a world in which the everyday had disappeared but its armature … were still present,” he adds later. “The emptiness was the news.”
A designer and an architect himself, in addition to being the on-staff architecture and design critic for the Financial Times, Heathcote peppers in various references to other global cities—geyser-like fire hydrants in New York, say, or Milanese madonelle or the iconic Morris columns that house Parisian advertising—but invariably returns to the streets of London, where he took those “interminably repetitive strolls” during lockdown. Eccentricities and minor variations in objects that at first glance appear to be mechanically uniform please him especially, as in the case of the city’s many coal hole covers, whose “strikingly graphic” patterns are “a constant supply of delight if you care to look,” often prefiguring “1960s Op art with [their] swirls and checkerboards.”
To many observers, theory in architecture persists only in a zombified form. Some aren’t so sure.
It’s no surprise that the central concern of Theory’s Curriculum, a book written by theorists for theorists, should be about theory’s wellbeing. But what is it that troubles theory?
Each of the volume’s ten contributors tackles this question with a refreshing sense of earnestness and urgency. They are not merely interested in saving theory for theory’s sake, but are excited by theory’s potential to transform the terms of architectural practice and pedagogy. Ginger Nolan’s essay recounting a 2013 midterm review at Columbia University is especially illustrative of this aim. In response to a studio brief for a university swimming pool, to be built on the site of a public housing complex in Harlem, a group of students proposed a segregated programmatic solution that maintained class and racial divides in the neighborhood. Despite the evident discomfort of the invited critics, Nolan recalls how the instructor praised the students’ “clarity of argument.” Not only was the project disturbingly reminiscent of “Gym Crow,” the nickname given to Columbia’s 1968 attempt to build a gymnasium on publicly owned land in Morningside Heights, it also reflected huge gaps in the studio’s pedagogy. Particularly missing was a thoughtful interrogation of sociopolitical context and value systems—in a word, theory—that should have been the basis of the studio all along. By reinserting theory at the heart of design, Theory’s Curriculum argues for pulling design pedagogy and praxis out of the contextless eternal present of Nolan’s cautionary tale.
Interrogating the good intentions of the Office of Good Intentions
Florian Idenburg and LeeAnn Suen’s book feels very much like a product of the knowledge economy it seeks to codify.
New York Review of Architecture reviews architecture in New York. Our editor is Samuel Medina, our deputy editor is Marianela D’Aprile, and our publisher is Nicolas Kemper.
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