Classic Book Review: Reyner Banham’s “A Concrete Atlantis”

This is an extremely remarkable little book that has reoriented my perception of the humble (and not so humble) industrial buildings that surround me. Conversational and highly personal, it explores an overlooked influence on early Modernism, a set of photographs published by Walter Gropius in 1913. Banham traces the typological developments that led to the distillation of two American building types Gropius selected – concrete grain elevators and “daylight” factories – and points out their unbelievably rapid obsolescence. These types lived on in the factory aesthetic of European Modernism, and Banham’s third chapter outlines how.

Part of what makes this book remarkable is Banham’s hybrid memoir/historical formatting, which exposes the methodology of his research. He prioritized close reading not in abstract, academic terms, but first hand visitation of buildings, a rite of passage that builds credibility for any historian of our built heritage, and is a phase of research I often find myself forgoing in the internet age. Unfortunately, many of the buildings Banham visited have since been demolished, and in exploring their history he illustrates how invaluable our industrial heritage can be  and the low esteem in which we hold its monuments. It’s also unfortunate that this book, published over 25 years ago, hasn’t caused a change in perception with regard to these irreplaceable buildings. They continue to decay and be demolished at an alarming rate. They might be gone before we know it.

The MIT Press, April 1989

Book Review: The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976

This book is a fleet-footed and exhaustive survey of the role of Eliot Noyes, Charles Eames and many others in the IBM Design Program. Though ostensibly focused on architecture, author John Harwood effectively integrates industrial, graphics, and exhibition design through a series of chapters that explore their roles in the development of both the computer and the multinational corporation. Harwood argues that these designers, Noyes in particular, were essential in assessing the importance of interfaces on both fronts. In outlining the division between “parlor and coal cellar” in the design of computers, and naturalizing the increasingly prominent role of computers and other teletechnologies in daily life through exhibitions and architecture, the IBM Design Program transformed the role of design in both realms.

The strongest and most engrossing of Harwood’s chapters for me is his third, which deals with IBM’s architecture. Not only did Noyes’ firm complete a series of buildings for IBM on their own, Noyes hand selected the architects for most major commissions. The results, though typologically (and topologically) similar, speak to the diversity of thought on modern architecture during the mid to late 20th Century. For Harwood, what makes these buildings important is not just their aesthetic diversity, but the integration of their technological function with their organization. Many of these buildings were either inward-facing or entirely isolated, though their control on the surrounding environment belied this isolation. The further inward these buildings focused, the more command they embodied.

Harwood’s concluding observations have to contend with the recent trajectory of corporate design (1976-Present) and this presents some difficulty. Noyes, through his prominent role as design consultant, seems to have designed and managed his way out of the process, to have made his role redundant. Today’s corporate design culture is much different and more resistant to outside influence (for more see my recent article on Apple’s architectural patronage in CLOG: Apple).

Harwood sees methodological transformation in the research at hand, specifically progress toward the removal of aestheticization from histories of architecture and technology. The appearance of things can no longer be the only way of assessing their significance. The world that present-day historians have to contend with is dramatically different from that even a generation ago, and their methods must change in response. Harwood has provided an elegant model.

A Quadrant Book, University of Minnesota Press, 2011

Book Review: The Architectural Detail

The good detail is not the part from which the whole is generated, not the idea of the whole carried into the part, not the consistent application of a set of principles, not the paradigm for the totality of the building […] At its best it is an autonomous activity, and, at times, even subversive. (45-46)

The new book by Edward R. Ford, author of the weighty Details of Modern Architecture, sets out to answer the question, “What is a detail?” His answers are fragmentary at best, but their contradictory conclusions seem to support Ford’s argument better than a succinct, universal answer would, and the book itself seems to be constructed as an analog to said argument. The book is divided into seven chapters, presenting a series of different definitions of the architectural detail, and concluding with a chapter instead defining the activity of detailing. Defining a derivative rather than the root – or the means rather than the end – is a successful gambit for Ford, permitting his speculative conclusion rather than an encyclopedic one.

Ford begins by dismantling a number of widely held opinions about the function and form of details. An early chapter (‘There Are No Details’) battles the opinion that “To many modernists […] details are impossible, unnecessary, or undesirable.”  In response, Ford outlines reasons why the way parts come together matters even when the architect may say it doesn’t. What is at issue in details for Ford is the negotiation of contradictory forces, and the artful exposure or concealment of inconsistencies. His book walks the same fine line as the details he discusses, outlining all sides of a debate that Ford sees as central to modern architecture, but his inordinate revelation of contrasting views muddies and obscures what might otherwise be a convincing position statement. In an effort at comprehensiveness, Ford undercuts the authority of his intriguing conclusion.

His selection of examples is adept at times, but often seems arbitrary, as if Ford had selected only buildings about which he had previously written instead of selecting them to support his argument. The dearth of canonical buildings is peculiar, but perhaps that is part of Ford’s argument. He takes issue with the way popular histories of modern architecture have been constructed, and this text (along with his previous books) serves as a corrective, refocusing attention on the making of buildings and how their construction can underline or complicate architectural ideas. For Ford, the independence of building parts is a pragmatic but also poetic solution to the modernist dilemma of form and function; architecture may be autonomous, but only because its parts do different things than paintings or novels or three piece suits. This definition of architectural autonomy – that its parts act independently based on their disparate purposes – is very different from that espoused by other theorists, whose disciplinary territorialism leads to un-collegial isolation.

Paradoxically, reading this book led me to reflect not on architectural details, but details in other disciplines, in particular fashion and literature. There are many analogs to Ford’s “autonomous” architectural details, one of the most obvious being the penchant in menswear for unexpected textures, patterns or colors in things like socks and pocket squares. In literature, similarly surprising details have instead been called “adventitious,” seemingly based on forces contrary or tangential to a narrative; Ernest Hemingway, for example, used these unexpected specifics to alter and ultimately amplify the power of his clean, straightforward descriptions.

Ford’s argument is similar, that buildings are flat and soulless without exceptions to prove the rule. The richness engendered by an intricate Alvar Aalto handrail or Carlo Scarpa structural connection is undeniable, and Ford does an admirable job outlining the reasons for the appeal of such subversive and unexpected componentry. This book is a worthwhile read for advanced students, practitioners, and anyone interested in philosophies of architectural assembly.

Princeton Architectural Press, 2011

Book Review: The Possibility of An Absolute Architecture

Yet another home run from the Writing Architecture series. With few exceptions, their second string of publications – restarting in 2007 after a six-year hiatus – have been outstanding, including such paradigmatic volumes as Anthony Vidler’s Histories of the Immediate Present, K. Michael Hays’ Architecture’s Desire, and Michael Cadwell’s Strange Details. The editors seem to have taken it upon themselves to assault the disciplinary borders between history, theory and criticism. All of their recent titles navigate between these established genres, simultaneously reflecting on the past and projecting to the future.

Written by a pair of Italian theorists – Mario Carpo and Pier Vittorio Aureli – this year’s models are no exception. Carpo’s The Alphabet and the Algorithm (reviewed here previously) tells the story of architecture’s engagement with the digital, and projects a potential future for said engagement. The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture, Aureli’s contribution, recapitulates a political project not just for architecture, but for architectural form. He plots an alternative course through history, drawing together an unruly band of players, through whom a consistent project is articulated.

It may seem paradoxical, but Aureli argues that a strong attention to architectural form – rather than an attention to urban space – is precondition for architecture to act politically. Architecture, Aureli believes, must take a position within itself in order to define the infra-space of the city, the space between buildings. This bring us to the question of absoluteness. Aureli uses the word to mean “distinct from its other,” in this case the city. An absolute architecture, therefore, is independent of its other, yet still constructive of (and constructed by) said other. Their relationship is dialectical. Architecture must be absolute in order to be politically productive, and must be resolutely other in order to be absolute.

The process of such “positioning” is what, for Aureli, draws together the work of Palladio, Piranesi, Boullee and O.M. Ungers. These architects have a commitment in common: their work is ideological, but none ever explicitly stated a theory of urbanism nor designed an ideal city. Their visions of the urban environment were composed of “city parts,” providing concrete and conflicting alternatives to contemporary civic building. For these designers, and by extension Aureli, the city is a collection of contrasting and even contradictory pieces. Projects of the city need to project alternate models of living in common, and these must go beyond cohabitation.

Ultimately, Aureli’s argument has to do with the function of blockages within urban flows. Through an attunement to its formal possibilities, architecture can produce resistance to the seemingly unstoppable march of mundane urbanization. To consider the systems of the city (infrastructure) is not to act politically. Architects should instead refocus on the making of buildings that take a position.

Spurred by landscape urbanism, many competitions, books and design studios have recently applied architectural thinking to regional systems and infrastructure. Aureli thoroughly questions the sensibility of such thinking, and contends that acting dialectically within and against urbanization is the way for architecture to create political effects. This paradox is at the heart of Possibility, and I for one think a retreat from urban design to the safer disciplinary ground of the type of urbanism Aureli describes is well overdue. His is a rather damning indictment of the current preoccupation with infrastructure.

If there is a complaint to level against Aureli’s book, it might be that its chapters contain precious little relief. No matter how thrilling the content, a nonfiction book becomes difficult to follow when chapters stretch to forty or fifty pages without so much as a subtitle. A few breaks would be appreciated. In terms of content, however, Aureli has added a compelling new chapter to the ongoing and neverending debate over architectural autonomy. Rather than retreating into form to sidestep politics, Aureli here outlines a powerful model for doing both. A sharpened focus on form, he argues, can produce sharpened political effects. We would do well to heed his advice.

The MIT Press (Writing Architecture Series), 2011

Book Review: Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo

In a brilliant contrivance, Nicolas de Monchaux adopts the structure of the Apollo spacesuit A7L for his first book, resulting in 21 overlapping – and at times redundant – chapters. Each deals with a different aspect of the A7L story, from its competition with harder alternatives to its production by foundation garment manufacturer Playtex. Among the outliers of these 21 “layers” are a section on the fragile image consciousness of JFK and an extensive history of upper atmosphere exploration from the Montgolfier ascensions to the U2 spy plane.

In the end, the positivism of systems thinking is at stake here. Central to this history for de Monchaux is The New Look epitomized by the post-war collections of Christian Dior. The powerful concept of “new looks” led to the adoption of systems thinking in numerous disciplines in post-war America, all hoping for a return to first principles. As a whole, this book records the victory by redundancy and adaptation over systems engineering in the Apollo spacesuit. For de Monchaux, the A7L epitomizes an alternative to “hard” design engineering: instead of reinventing the wheel, it layered and adapted preexisting materials and techniques to the requirements of an inhospitable place, literally fashioning an environment for extreme living.

Comprehensively researched, Spacesuit remixes traditional visual culture (photographs, paintings, drawings) and the kind of primary documents that architecture historians rarely have the prerogative to access (memoranda, technical manuals, interviews). de Monchaux’s background in architecture provides him with an intriguing lens, yielding cognitive leaps an engineer might be less likely to undertake.

In addition, the A7L provides a productive analogy for the making of buildings. It places the astronaut in an intimate architectural embrace, enabling them to explore an inhospitable environment. Like architecture – and unlike the systems thinking of the military-industrial complex so central to the history of Apollo – the A7L adapts existing materials and techniques to new contexts, meeting systems thinking at a fruitful middle ground. The book itself is one such adapted solution and a compelling object, clad in a black latex dust jacket that provides a tactile reference to one or more layers of the A7L. The future of architecture will be full of such compromise as a discipline based on obsolete production techniques adapts to changing expectations. But all-encompassing systems thinking, de Monchaux argues, fails to account for or enable the robustness of natural eco- and biological systems. It is to such robust systems that future buildings will need to adapt.

de Monchaux has made an ambitious attempt at rethinking the way we write histories of technology, raising a number of intriguing questions about the future of both design and applied science. I wholeheartedly recommend this book for designers, engineers and history buffs alike.

The MIT Press, 2011

Book Review: The Alphabet and the Algorithm

The author is dead. Long live the algorithm.

So says The Alphabet and the Algorithm, Mario Carpo’s addition to the “Writing Architecture” series (edited by Cynthia Davidson of Anyone), recently published by The MIT Press. Carpo is known for crosswise cuts to the history of architecture, and here he aims to reframe our still-nascent transition toward a digital architecture. The new frame is based on what he terms the paradigm of identicality. Carpo posits that the transition to digital production media is one from production of identical copies to mass customization and participation. Digital technology, Carpo argues, can and must change both the subject and object of architectural design; no longer will the designer have total authorial control, and no longer must the object be singular and specific. For Carpo, the choice for architects and designers is between powerlessness and control. They must choose between the production of what he calls “objectiles” (a term he lifts from Gilles Deleuze via Bernard Cache) and objects themselves. Objectiles – algorithmic constructs from which infinite variations originate – are the only future for authorial control.

Early chapters deal with Leon Battista Alberti – inaugurator of the paradigm of identicality – and his many representational innovations. Alberti, Carpo argues, was constantly struggling for control of his products, something nearly impossible in an age of artisanal production. He gradually evolved a system of orthogonal projection – plan, section, elevation – to enable a one-to-one relationship between design and product: identicality. We still operate under this set of assumptions today, but their days are numbered.

After Alberti, Carpo rapidly shifts toward the present, lingering in particular on that transformative digital decade, the Nineties. Carpo effectively synthesizes an unruly net of conceptual threads (Deleuze and the fold, Calculus, the Baroque, the Blob) into an engaging but misleadingly linear narrative of the recent past. His analysis raises many questions (not the least of which are the veracity of his prognostications) but provides a beginners guide to the onset of digital representation and production. As an attempt at writing history in progress, this book succeeds because of its clarity.

Students should be aware of the changes afoot in the field they are entering, and therefore this book would make appropriate reading material for BIM and information technology courses. It is vitally important that those learning current platforms understand where they have come from and where they are going.

Carpo argues convincingly that designers need to engage in the production of tools. The alternative, says Carpo, is confinement to a prison house of software, forever limited by the capacities of our mechanisms. Perhaps that’s not so different from the past …

The MIT Press (Writing Architecture Series), 2011

Book Review: Utopia’s Ghost: Architecture and Postmodernism, Again

In Reinhold Martin’s second book on postwar architecture, he vividly reconsiders what is called postmodernism from many angles and on many levels. The eponymous “ghost” of utopia, Martin argues, continues to haunt the fractured, juxtaposed narratives of postmodern architecture, despite the architects’ best intentions.

Martin is at his best when making use of architecture as a ground, and unfortunately the first half of his book contains precious few buildings. That changes with a chapter on materiality. Dealing mostly with mirrored glass in the work of Philip Johnson, Martin argues that we mustn’t look into the mirrors, but at them, within which he finds only capital. These mirrors construct a feedback loop, reflecting and refracting themselves in a mise-en-abyme that Martin diagnoses as one of the central ciphers of postmodernism.

Martin continues to build steam until the book concludes with a chapter almost overflowing with buildings and projects (unsurprisingly titled “Architecture”), by and through which Martin riffs on his themes of global capital, feedback, and the specter of utopian thinking. The projects in this final chapter are some of the canonical works of postmodernism (Stirling’s Neue Staatsgalerie, Rossi’s San Cataldo Cemetery, Ungers’ Architecture Museum) and Martin’s climactic use of them is a dramatic and erudite jouissance.

Like all great theory, Martin’s book will cause considerable reconfiguration of one’s preconceptions. In my case, this book transformed my understanding of the ways modernism (the construction of grand, utopian narratives) lived on in that which symbolized its death. Perhaps more importantly, this book lays bare architecture’s (in)escapable complicity in global capital. The only escape, Martin argues, is to dive ever deeper.

University of Minnesota Press, 2010