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Architecture Depends by Jeremy Till Book cover

On April 08, 2011 I attended Till’s  provocative  lecture on his new book ‘Architecture Depends’. Here is a review from The Architects’ Journal (UK).

Here are some quotes from that day, from my notes, which i hope to be as faithful as possible:

The book was initially titled ‘Architecture and Contingencies’. The publisher made me change it to ‘Architecture Depends’. There are problems changing the title of a book once it is finished- and structured around a different title.

This book is a polemic. Architects detach themselves.  This detachment starts here in academia. Architecture students go in as humans and come back as architects.

Architects are separate from life. Autonomy in architecture is detachment.We witness the treatment of buildings as though they are detached objects, displayed in the media as something apart. This detachment is a dissolution.

All we got is Vitruvius: commodity, firmness, delight. Recycled through the ages!

Of all the impossible task that modernity sets for itself, order stands out. How does modernity achieve order? By exterminating ambivalence. Modernity is behind the Holocaust.

Corbu didn’t invent modernity. He was a symptom of it.

Modernity cannot get rid of contingency.

Contingency is getting rid of the idea that things may turn out differently. In architecture contingency is inevitable.

Architects would be banished by Plato.

Contingency makes us have to make choices.

Abstract vs. situated knowledge.

“All architecture is waste in transit.” Peter Guthrie

Le Courbusier tried to banish domestic inhabitation.

Parametric people are as conservative as the New Urbanists, the latter caught in an aggressive past, the former in a progressive future .

Modernity: concerned with purity, the color white…modernity is this gleaning table with this aesthetic of getting rid of dirt.

‘You don’t know how wonderful dirt is.’ James Joyce’s last words, from Gideon’s biography.

Architects ‘make space’…negative space…what does that even mean?

‘Social space is a social product’. Henri Lefebvre

The production of space is not the agency of architecture alone!

Sustainability=sustain the status quo. This word has become meaningless.

Elvis Costello and Lo-Fi architecture: I heard Elvis Costello once in an interview saying that when you record in the studio you get caught up in a certain kind of environment. He would ask to have the record played back on a cheap transistor radio, because that’s how the music is going to be experienced by most people. The same with architecture. We have to have in mind low-fi, transistor radio architecture as we stay in front of the computer, believing what we see. The more it looks real the less real it is.

Architecture cannot be about aesthetic alone: it deals with the social and ethical. It has to be alert to the context.

I don’t like to use pictures in my presentations because, as soon as I provide pictures, the argument becomes about aesthetic.

Professions set themselves apart by setting up problems they are the only ones able to solve. Professors do the same.

‘Architecture and Agency’ will be my next book.

Sensemaking vs. problemsolving.

In architecture we have created phony ethics, we have associated ethics with aesthetics, morality with beauty…God is in the detail, etc.

Doing good by doing beautiful buildings?

Professional codes of conducts are an example of phony ethics: these are not ethical guidelines, they are principles for relating to the client.

You can’t be ethical by doing beautiful buildings! You have to assume an ethical stance, a responsibility for the other. If we start thinking that every line on a piece of paper is an act of social responsibility, then every line assumes significance.

I am against ‘Anyone is Anyone’ conferences.

From the paper ‘Lost Judgement’ from the 2003 EEAA Prize by Jeremy Till – and referred to during the talk:

The Other for architects is the one or ones who will be part of the social space our buildings help construct. In this way we can be the architects Unger would wish us to be, “enabling people as individuals and as groups to express themselves by changing their situations. …(the architect) lives out his transformative vocation by assisting someone else’s.”

An ethical person is a person who gathers discordant opinions and makes the best decision. Hope is with given given circumstances. Stop investing in objects.

The next project I will do will be on scarcity. Scarcity is much more interesting to me.

Architects sold out the profession to the agency of Capitalism. In building Dubai they forgot it was going to be built by slave labor. If all you offer is commodity you have got nothing to offer. Spatial intelligence will get us away from the cul-de-sac we got ourselves into. We should be gathering contingencies and make the best possible solutions.

I like to think of architects as angels with dirty faces.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ink on Paper. January 2011.

 

As designers, architects, artists, we use the ability to first visualize then communicate  a desired outcome. Implementation means having the courage, discipline and perseverance  to  bring that vision into the physical realm. I love to write, and to write lists, but this year I am doing something different with my 2011 resolutions. I am drawing them. It sems to be working. On good days, and they are abundant here in San Diego, you can find me in the park, chasing the sun and reading. An old-school physical book.  The previous specifications is now necessary due to the variety of reading options we have (what is your pleasure, or rather, your poison: smartphone, kindle, ipad, TMZ on your laptop?). These are my immediate, must-finish charges: 

Ink on paper. February 2011.

Books:

Inchoate: An Experiment in Architectural Education. Angelil, Marc and Liat Uziyel, eds.

The Architect: Chapters in the History of the Profession by Spiro Kostof

Sketching and meditating. Two resolutions, perhaps one and the same.  

Ink on Paper. January 2011.

 

Pondering on drawing, as opposed to writing, resolutions led me to think about visual vs. written and oral communication.

While drawing-or diagramming-a goal may help provide us with clues, visual or other, that help us actualize it, I don’t buy the argument that ‘visual’ people can only best communicate their intent through images. This is also known as ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ syndrome. By the same token, I refuse to accept that ‘visual’ people only understand material if it’s accompanied by images and therefore should be excused if they are poor readers or listeners. That is plain laziness. There are notions and topics  in this world that cannot be boiled down to neat Powerpoints (even though, heaven knows, we have tried to even run wars through the ubiquitous slide application), but require flight of the imagination, suspension of disbelief, and the ability to follow (picture-less) complex arguments. In trying to explain critical thinking, images run the risk of appearing like obtrusive clip-arts, obfuscating rather than enlightening.

The tyranny of the visual often lets us  get away with having inferior written and oral communication skills. I don’t buy the ‘visual’ doctrine (or fallacy) with my students or my architecture colleagues. Maybe it’s because I come from a linguistic lycaeum, was an English Minor, and come from Italy, but the way a person speaks or writes is more important to me, or revealing of their character, than any imagery or composition she or he can conjure up on a board. And here I need to say that, lest I behave like a whitened sepulcher, I know I have failings when trying to communicate: typos due to late night writing, listitis (I make too many lists), lectures that tend to go on a tangent and probably what is called mild A.D.D in this country (or severe A.D.D…depending on what day you ask my students;)). Lastly the fact that, no matter how many years I live here, my soul is Italian and so is the way to express myself, and we do use lot of what here are called ‘run-ons’ in writing, and perhaps even talking. We are peripatetic, scenic-route communicators.

Ok, so I am not perfect: let the flawed still admire and aim at beauty.

I ask the person I listen to to paint a convincing, even seductive picture with their words, to evoke the sense and meaning of their process. Of course exact,clear words go well with exact, clear drawings and diagrams, but seductive images without substantive explanations or clear, logical statements leave me dry. The literary arts are for the most part lost to modern architecture students, beyond the required ‘humanities’  and enticing (but seldom frequented) advanced elective courses. The result is professionals who are literate in CAD, codes, building, or even ‘architecture’, but illiterate in the sense of the global collective written word, and therefore culture. Shouldn’t the designers of shelters for the human race understand its most lyrical expressions?  Shouldn’t they design for man and woman’s highest aspiration, rather than the lowest common denominator? We ask architects to create places of Beauty, places that inspire, to design poetic aedifices. Without knowing what poetry is, without at least having been exposed to it, that is an impossible feat. If architecture is the Mother of all the Arts, should it not contain them? Literature, philosophy, liberal arts, music…Where are you Muses in our curricula? We have modified –and are moving towards transforming–the academic requirements for the make-up of the future architect based on the needs (vocational at best ) of field practice, a large number made up by corporate building farms, where architecture is just a sign on the door. Of course we aim for graduates ready to enter the profession, but hopefully we are also aiming for critical thinkers, whole individuals who can inspire, not just perform.  What should lead, follows. The trend can only go downward. I am talking about cad monkeys, or people who are paid ‘to draw, not think’ –I was actually told that many years ago. Call me irrational,  but I call for mandatory poetry courses (mandatory poetry! an oximoron). Call me utopian, but world literature should be as much part of an architecture curriculum as world architecture. When you know, you cannot unknow. I always say that. When you are exposed to possibilities and ‘big questions’ you cannot accept passively that things are just the way they are because they have always been. Poetry and literature are democratic expressions, highly dangerous to the status quo. And therefore highly desirable.

In my quest, I ran into this book. I am collecting a body of critical readings (for myself!) and this book will definitely be included.

Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in 20th Century French Thought, by Martin Jay

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The Flâneur: A Radical-Chic Icon

The Flâneur. Ink on trace paper. February 26, 2011

The Flâneur and his turtle in the streets of Paris. Digital collage. February 26, 2011. Background photo from San Francisco’s artist David Blumin. Click for his website.



Then I heard the phrase ‘Walk with a turtle’ on NPR, during an interview with Council of Dads’ author Bruce Feiler–and had an epiphany: I, too, had been a flâneuse in my early years. When I was 9 years old I used to tie a red ribbon to the shell of my turtle Stefania/Stefano (we are still not sure) and take her for ‘walks’ around my building and in the field of olive trees nearby. This cannot just be explained by mere coincidence or a sense of equanimity (i would take my giant schnautzer Zorro for walks- or rather, he would take me- and treated Stefania/Stefano to the same). By walking the city (ok , in my case the field of olive trees) at the pace of a tortoise, we are bound to pay attention to life around us, to read the city–not just skim it from the wheel of our car or glancing up from smartphones while we traverse sidewalks. Having a turtle as a guide nudges us to stop rushing. I am reminded of the buddhist monk in the documentary ‘Baraka’, slowly pacing the street with small steps , at the sound of a bell–in the midst of a hyperactive Japanese metropolis. The realization of possible multi-layered readings on the figure of the flaneur prompted a small research.

Historical evidence of The Flâneur? Or just man waiting for his wife? Undated image from: storify.com/virtualdavis/flaneur

The  Flâneur

The term comes from ‘flâner’, which means to stroll in French. From this verb Baudelaire coined the word  flâneur, a person who walks the city in order to experience it.  The flâneur is driven  by an  insatiable  hunger  for  passion; he  seeks  the  streets and  the  city  life  for they  provide  inspiration  and  cure him of the malaise and loneliness  of  being human. He practices mindfulness, or conscious dilly-dallying. In US they would call him a ‘loiterer’, surely shoo him away…or perhaps fine or even jail him (I always tell my students there is no such thing as the word ‘loitering’ in Italian….what else would we do in Piazzas!?). My friend Bruce and I were discussing the flâneur few days ago and he reminded me of  the symbology of the turtle and this quote from Rumi:

The soul needs as much time to wander as the feet.

Rumi

 

Baudelaire writes of the flâneur:

 The  crowd  is  his  element,  as  the  air  is  that  of  birds  and  water  of  fishes.

 His  passion  and passionate  spectator,  it  is  an  immense  joy  to  set  up  house  in  the  heart  of  the  multitude, amid  the  ebb  and  flow  of  movement,  in  the  midst  of  the  fugitive  and  the  infinite.

To  be away  from  home  and  yet  to  feel  oneself  everywhere  at  home;  to  see  the  world,  to  be  at the  centre  of  the  world,  and  yet  to  remain  hidden  from  the  world

impartial  natures which  the  tongue  can  but  clumsily  define.  The  spectator  is  a  prince  who  everywhere  rejoices  in  his  incognito.  The  lover  of  life  makes  the  whole  world  his  family,  just  like  the lover  of  the  fair  sex  who  builds  up  his  family  from  all  the  beautiful  women  that  he  has ever  found,  or  that  are  or  are  not  -­‐  to  be  found;  or  the  lover  of  pictures  who  lives  in  a magical  society  of  dreams  painted  on  canvas.

 

A Process of Navigating Erudition

From Wikipedia: Flâneur is not limited to someone committing the physical act of peripatetic stroll in the Baudelairian sense, but can also include a “complete philosophical way of living and thinking”, and a process of navigating erudition as described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s essay on “Why I Walk” in the second edition of The Black Swan (2010).  A Sunday Time review called The Black Swan  one of the twelve most influential books since WWII.

Benjamin  in his Arcades further describes the flâneur utilizes the city,  which becomes an  extension of  his residence:

The   street   becomes   a   dwelling   for   the   flâneur;   he   is   as   much   at   home   among   the facades  of  houses  as  a  citizen  is  in  his  four  walls.  To  him  the  shiny,  enameled  signs  of businesses  are  at  least  as  good  a  wall  ornament  as  an  oil  painting  is  to  the  bourgeois  in his  salon.  The  walls  are  the  desk  against  which  he  presses  his  notebooks;  news-­‐stands are  his  libraries  and  the  terraces  of  cafés  are  the  balconies  from  which  he  looks  down on  his  household  after  his  work  is  done.


Some of the questions I have been thinking about are : Can the flâneur be a flâneuse? Must he or she always haunt the city aloof and alone, or is ‘Flâneurie’ an activity that can be enjoyed in small groups, maybe of separate actors, each with his or her own turtle?

The flâneur is enjoying immense popularity on the Internet and blogosphere, among the hipster and (pseudo)intellectual crowd.  He is radical chic, a gentleman stroller whose eccentricity is afforded to him by indipendent wealth. He is a man of leisure who can make a statement about the bondage of work and busyiness: he is above it and does not need it.
On the other side of the coin, we might re-evaluate the ‘homeless’ people, the figure of the clochard (sounds better in French doesn’t it) as flâneurs without means, but with the same intellect and intent.  They also make the city their living room and library.

In “American Flaneur: The Cosmic Physiognomy of Edgar Allan Poe“, James V. Werner describes how ‘ highly self-aware, and to a certain degree flamboyant and theatrical, dandies of the mid-nineteenth century created scenes through outrageous acts like walking turtles on leashes down the streets of Paris. Such acts exemplify a flâneur’s active participation in and fascination with street life while displaying a critical attitude towards the uniformity, speed, and anonymity of modern life in the city.’

Hmm…Sounds like The Situationists.

A new interpretation of the activities of the flâneur appear in the writings of Guy Debord, the dérive also being a protest against the processes of consumption and capitalism:

One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive [literally: “drifting”], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

–Guy Debord

While the flaneurs practiced ‘aimless wandering’, the Situationists devised processes to purposefully get lost.

There is no English equivalent for the French word flâneur. Cassell’s dictionary defines flâneur as a stroller, saunterer, drifter but none of these terms seems quite accurate. There is no English equivalent for the term, just as there is no Anglo-Saxon counterpart of that essentially Gallic individual, the deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency, who, being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothinincluding his time which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savoring the multiple flavors of his city.

Cornelia Otis Skinner.

Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals, 1962

Watching is the chosen pleasure of flâneur. He is an ‘urban stalker’, as Susan Sontag defines him in her 1977 essay On Photography.  Modern flâneurs, let’s arm ourselves with cameras or a moleskine . Let’s pretend we are all ‘The Sartorialist’ and many, many other envoys on particular missions. Would you enjoy the streets of your city if you thought you were spying on someone, an urban detective, privy to secrets no-one else can know? What would the intelligence gathered from today? What stories could you tell(or draw)? What stories would the city reveal to you. There is so much life out there. And buildings are lessons.

Let the urban voyeurism begin.
Here are some useful links:

And, finally, my very own books for Parisian flanerie.

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John Hejduk. Sketch from Lake Baikal, part of the Vladivostok oeuvre

John Hejduk. Sketch from Lake Baikal, part of the Vladivostok oeuvre

John Hejduk. Sketch from Lake Baikal, part of the Vladivostok oeuvre

John Hejduk has been called one of the most influential architects and educators of our time..
He was also a poet, an artist and the Dean of the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture of the uber-prestigious Cooper Union in New York.

I am reviewing couple of his books, Vladivostok and The Mask of Medusa and thought I would share some of the ear-cornered pages.  Like Marco Polo, John Hedjuk’s travels start from Venice. Some of you may know my mother is from the Venice region, Treviso to be precise, and it was endearing to find the Serenissima in this book, a fascinating fusion of East and West, and even Milano, my birthplace. From the foreword:

 

The journey I have been on for the past ten years followed an eastern route starting at Venice, then moving north to Berlin through Prague, then northeast to Riga, from Riga Eastward to Lake Baikal and then on to Vladivostok. This has been, and is, a long journey.

Bodies of water mark the trek. Venice of the Adriatic, the lagoons, the Venetian canals, the river Vitava of Prague with its echoes of Rilke and Kafka, the waterways of Berlin, the Gulf of Riga, Lake Baikal, and the Sea of japan in Valdivostok. The elements giving off their particular atmospheres, and sounds, impregnate my soul with the spirit of place, place actual…place imagined.

The works from this journey are named and form trilogies.

In Venice;

The Cemetery of Ashes of Thought                                                                                                                                  

The Silent Wtnesses and

The 13 Watchtowers of Cannaregio

In Berlin;

Berlin Masque

Victims, and Berlin Night

In Russia;

Riga,

Lake Baikal, and

Vladivostok

[  ]

I state the above to indicate the nature of a practice.

[ ]

I have established a repertoire of objects/subjects, and this troupe accompanies me from city to city, from place to place, to cities I have been to and to cities I have not visited.  The cast presents itself to a city and its inhabitants. Some of the objects are buit and remain in the city; some are built for a time, then are dismantled and disappear;some are built, dismantled and move on to another city where they are reconstructed.

I believe that this method/practice is a new way of approaching the architecture of a city and of giving proper respect to a city’s inhabitants.

It confronts a pathology head-on

John Hejduk, 1989 

Hejduk’s work is provocative, political, polyedric. Read Errand, Detour, and the Wilderness Urbanism of John Hejduk, part of  Paroles d’Architects, an excellent collection of writings on architecture.

Also Sorkin on the Mask of Medusa, in Exquisite Corpse: Writing on Buildings.

Reading this book, at the nexus between literature and architecture reminds me of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. One of the future anterior projects: to illustrate Calvino’s cities. But it’s been done.

Cultural Minister

The Minister of Culture reads the works of Hawthorne, Flaubert and Hardy.What impresses him is the extraordinary love of women by these authors. Somehow the three writers are related through the strenght of Zanobia,Madame Bovary, and Batsheba. The Minister of Culture is aware of their seductions. He imagines, fabricates, and sews the dresses they had worn. He folds each garment and places it in an oblong box and waits for sundown. He precisely selects his victim, follows her, commits his crime, redresses herin the dress from the box, and places the body at the edge of the water. At Dawn he reads from the appropriate passages in a trembling voice.

 

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