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 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: 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