Archive for the ‘architecture’ Category


The artificial infinite

August 21, 2009


SUCCESSION and uniformity of parts are what constitute the artificial infinite. 1. Succession; which is requisite that the parts may be continued so long and in such a direction, as by their frequent impulses on the sense to impress the imagination with an idea of their progress beyond their actual limits. 2. Uniformity; because if the figures of the parts should be changed, the imagination at every change finds a check; you are presented at every alteration with the termination of one idea, and the beginning of another; by which means it becomes impossible to continue that uninterrupted progression, which alone can stamp on bounded objects the character of infinity.

(Part Two, Section IX)


ANOTHER source of the sublime is infinity; if it does not rather belong to the last. Infinity has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect and truest test of the sublime. There are scarce any things which can become the objects of our senses, that are really and in their own nature infinite. But the eye not being able to perceive the bounds of many things, they seem to be infinite, and they produce the same effects as if they were really so.

(Part Two, Section IX)


Upon this principle of succession and uniformity it may be asked, why a long bare wall should not be a more sublime object than a colonnade; since the succession is no way interrupted; since the eye meets no check; since nothing more uniform can be conceived? A long bare wall is certainly not so grand an object as a colonnade of the same length and height. It is not altogether difficult to account for this difference. When we look at a naked wall, from the evenness of the object, the eye runs along its whole space, and arrives quickly at its termination; the eye meets nothing which may interrupt its progress; but then it meets nothing which may detain it a proper time to produce a very great and lasting effect. The view of the bare wall, if it be of a great height and length, is undoubtedly grand; but this is only one idea, and not a repetition of similar ideas: it is therefore great, not so much upon the principle of infinity, as upon that of vastness.

(Part Four, Section XIII)

From A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful by Edmund Burke (Harper & Brothers edition, 1860). Photographs © Alex Fradkin.


The legacy of Personal Space

June 29, 2009

personal-spaceAs mentioned here earlier, a longer analysis of Robert Sommer’s Personal Space: The Behavioral Basis of Design over at Design Observer.

Sommer conveyed that even modern people inhabit and protect space like animals and members of territorial tribes; the book is full of terms from anthropology and animal behavior study like “attack, “defend,” “invade,” and “victim.” An exemplary passage describing these innate, universal behaviors (with cultural factors imparting some distinctions) still has the power to surprise upon the recognition that these “victims” and “invaders” are, under similar conditions, the readers themselves. . . .

And more to come regarding this landmark book soon, including a gallery of never-published photos from Sommer’s research.

Personal Space forty years on.


The edifice of enthusiasm: The BLDGBLOG Book

June 22, 2009


Copies of The BLDGBLOG Book by Geoff Manaugh are arriving in the hands of those who have ordered it, stores and individuals alike. I know this is a rather keenly awaited event for a number of BLDGBLOG readers and enthusiasts—and not least Geoff himself.

I’m also up there among those who have anticipated this moment, for I am the editor of the book. As such it is inappropriate for me to do anything like review the book, even in an unregulated online environment; endorsing it would be redundant, and running it down bizarre.

Spreads from The BLDGBLOG Book, from BLDGBLOGs Flickr page

Spreads from The BLDGBLOG Book, from BLDGBLOG's Flickr page

Not surprisingly, I’m predisposed to this book and its creator, and want to share a few thoughts about it from a privileged perspective. This may not be the biggest publishing event of ought-nine, but for some it’s a triumph. I am not talking about the subject range of this modestly proportioned 272-page book, whose content quotient is far outweighed by that of the blog. Neither is this to argue that The BLDGBLOG Book is a bellwether for how new-media content will supersede traditional models of publishing—the blog that gets ported into a book. I’m pretty sure BLDGBLOG doesn’t need further boosterism to find its aficionados; its critical function of non-academic, laterally thought speculation is already established. I’d argue what makes the book a successful entity unto itself is its rhetorical drive, its optimistic inclusiveness.

The BLDGBLOG Book is an edifice of enthusiasm.

A brief recap: Geoff had conducted a singularly entertaining interview with another Chronicle author, Erik Davis, of the aforementioned The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape, and from that point on the blog had me hooked. I met Geoff and his wife Nicola Twilley in Los Angeles in the Winter of 2007 at a small symposium he held at the Center for Land Use Interpretation. From there Geoff and I staged a similar event in San Francisco, in which we stuffed a weekend afternoon with the ideas of Geoff, Erik, the principals of Rebar and IwamotoScott, and to cap it off, the great film and sound editor Walter Murch, who shared, as I put it in a Chronicle Books blog post, “his independent research into how the geometry of the Pantheon seems to accurately point to a heliocentric understanding of the cosmos, and how some simplified math supports an archaic theory called Bode’s Law, which correlates planetary orbits to harmonic intervals.” That weekend Geoff and I also discovered shared interests in the grindcore band Napalm Death, film director David Cronenberg, and of course the godfather of psychospatial perversity, J.G. Ballard. Sometime during that weekend I think the idea of a book surfaced.

Geoff moved to San Francisco from Los Angeles to take a senior editorial position at Dwell, which enabled further discussion. He worked up a proposal, and late that June I delivered him an offer for the book. It may not go down as the most outlandish agreement ever struck in modern pop history—leagues away from Tony Wilson’s blood-inked cocktail napkin contract with Joy Division, say—but the setting was a neon-hued hotel room in Reno, Nevada, there was bourbon involved, and there were numbers on a napkin. That possibly sounds more louche than it really was, since we were in Reno to attend a fairly highbrow event sponsored by the Nevada Museum of Art, a panel discussion with Geoff, David Maisel, and Bill Fox.

One of the aspects of BLDGBLOG that I always liked was Geoff’s writing—longer form than most blogs, interrogative of its subject (it’s never a simple re-post site), and often a platform for a capsule prose piece of some speculative sort. From the beginning the mutually agreed idea behind the book was to create ample space for this writing, what Geoff sees as the foundation of his creative endeavor. Yes, the range of his fantastic ideas are why many people love the blog, but if that were the primacy of his work then he’d be just another blogger. My job as an editor would not be to mess with the text so much as to coordinate it with the other elements and Chronicle’s in-house process and flow. There weren’t that many disagreements about his writing, though I could not disabuse Geoff of his fondness for activating any given noun into a verb through the “-ize” suffix (we should have brought the discussion here). I thought there must be some better, if more technical, word for something as obtrusive as “musicalize.”

But there it is again, the rhetoric of enthusiasm, causing what’s usually inert to jump to life. It’s the animating principle behind BLDGBLOG and the justification for its wide net. This is another key factor that separates him from most other online scribes, and what puts him at the farthest end of the spectrum from trolls or grey vampires or whatever. Geoff’s philosophy was well summed up in his manifesto for Icon magazine: “Everything is relevant to architecture . . . stop limiting the conversation.”

The idea was never to slurp the best posts from BLDGBLOG, typeset them, and throw some fancy pictures into a default format. Geoff wrote a great deal of new texts for the book, and adapted many others. The book format afforded an opportunity to impose a structure that blogs largely lack. Five sections—Architectural Conjecture, Urban Speculation; The Underground; Redesigning the Sky; Music Sound Noise; Landscape Futures—accommodate texts of various lengths, including little sidebars and interstitial texts for the skimmer type of reader. Portions of his smartest interviews appear as well, including an exciting new one from Michael Peter Cook of Archigram [Michael Cook is the Canadian sewer-and-drain spelunker behind The Vanishing Point, and also the subject of an interview in the book]. And there are lots of wonderful images as well, from David Maisel, Simon Norfolk, Siologen, Camille Seaman, Ed Burtynsky, and of course NASA. Brett MacFadden and Scott Thorpe—former colleagues at Chronicle who struck out on their own—imposed a sharp look and clear hierarchy for the different kinds of texts within. Geoff enlisted Dwell colleague Brendan Callahan for some blithe illustrations of some of Geoff’s more peculiar concepts, and cartoonist Joe Alterio converted the inner covers to the first BLDGBLOG comics ever. Finally, Geoff added a special, rather funny, spread in the back, after an extensive Further Reading section, for the autographs of particular BLDGBLOG heroes. Sadly, though perhaps necessarily, noone will ever fill all those lines, due to the passing of the great Mr. Ballard.

We could devote a long entry to the thorny process of choosing the right cover for the book, but in the end this composite approach is an appropriate visual summary to the menagerie within. I’m proud of this book and eager to see it get out to its fans. Thanks to the entire team who worked hard to put this together—and thanks, Geoff, for trusting me and Chronicle with it.

I hope you start working on the second book soon.


Scaled up and divinely appointed: FLDS urbanism

June 18, 2009
The limestone-clad FLDS temple in Eldorado, Texas. Photograph by J.D. Doyle.

The limestone-clad FLDS temple at Yearning for Zion. Photograph by J.D. Doyle.

Museo has a stellar piece by Adam Marcus about the origins of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) community in Eldorado, Texas, which was famously raided by the US federal government last year on suspicion of child sexual abuse. Marcus takes up the architectural and planning aspects of the sect’s from-scratch visionary city, Yearning for Zion.

Given the FLDS’s sense of divine appointment and defiant rejection of external (“gentile”) norms, it’s no surprise that a decidedly outsider architecture emerged.  Quoting Marcus,

The contrast of these buildings with their landscape is exacerbated by the odd choice to build with logs in an area of the state where there are no trees. Thus it seems that the FLDS’s intention is to invoke the mythologized American cabins of past settlers, and by extension, portray themselves as the quintessential American frontier society. In a remarkable, bizarre synthesis of formal convention (notions of what a house ought to look like) with the functional demands of a polygamist lifestyle, the typical FLDS house strives to project the idealized image of American domesticity, yet everything is scaled up in size as needed in order to accommodate the numerous sister-wives, as the brides are called, and scores of children who live inside.
A typical FLDS family home at Yearning for Zion. Photograph by

A typical FLDS family home at Yearning for Zion. Photograph by J.D. Doyle.

Marcus proceeds to read the gargantuan gleaming temple, clad in limestone quarried on the property, through its design echoes of Joseph Smith’s original Latter-Day Saints temple in Nauvoo, Illinois. By hearkening back to the pre-schismatic founding architecture, the FLDS implies not just a linkage to the original church, but a supersession. And then there are the divergences from that temple vocabulary: “The turrets are topped with crenellations that continue around the roofline, suggesting the profile of a castle or a fort, thereby producing an uncanny confusion of religious monumentality and the architecture of military defense,” Marcus writes. Essential reading.

This piece is also in the vein of one of the most challenging and rewarding books I have collaborated on, The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape by Erik Davis, with photographs by Michael Rauner.

A sort of secret history of the Golden State as told through the stories of the diversely religious and compelling individuals who founded and continue to inhabit it, The Visionary State is also a huge survey of eccentric, divinely inspired architecture. When the Spirit guides the architect’s hand the results usually vault well beyond the ordinary.


Sublime gestures in the infrastructural urban park context

June 11, 2009

The first section of the High Line is open and people are walking it in a semidaze, looking around everywhere, pointing at sites through view corridors previously closed to them, engaging with the west side of the city in an entirely new way.

By its nature the High Line is a liminal space, and even though the environment is rigorously planned, sculpted, and landscaped, we react with disorientation and delight, as if we still aren’t really sure we are meant to be there.


Another secret origin of Archigram

May 29, 2009

Sad to miss the event Geoff Manaugh cohosted at London’s Architectural Association entitled Thrilling Wonder Stories.

According to Nicola Twilley’s tweets, however, I feel like I got a good capsule of his talk with Archigram’s cofounder Peter Cook; Geoff asked at one point, “Who were the old Archigram”—inverting, she says, the “the typical, who-is-the-new-Archigram? formulation” (a question Geoff more or less asks Cook in the soon-to-be-released BLDGBLOG Book, about which there will be a larger discussion shortly).

This reminded me of an anecdote Mike Webb, another Archigram original and longtime US resident, at last week’s 49 Cities discussion at the Storefront. On recounting the origins of Archigram, he explained that as poor but intellectually restless and ambitious young architects, they worked day jobs and conspired at night. That their tear-it-down to build-it-up mentality was a reaction to the failure of UK postwar planning and architects like Frederick Gibberd who hard-planned dreary new towns like Huffington and Harlow. And that in the spirit of the time, every subversive new studio like Archigram, Archizoom, Ant Farm, and Superstudio blurred the distinction among visionary proposals and the lampooning of such, but that all were compelled to work on that visionary scale, to “do a city.”

Archigram cofounder Mike Webb and Amale Andraos of WORKac

Archigram cofounder Mike Webb and Amale Andraos of WORKac

Webb then intimated a childhood experience which he said solidified in him the desire to be the kind of architect he became. In an illustrated book about trains—a passion for which he has yet to shake—he was hypnotized by an extremely detailed exploded diagram of Grand Central Station. He noticed a misprint: in the labyrinthine diagram it appeared that 42nd Street actually passed through or over the terminal building itself. But this mistake was itself a delightful speculative alternative to what he knew to be the reality:  “The thought of driving over Grand Central Station set me on my path.”


Sublime gestures in the urban context: HVAC

May 24, 2009

Let’s make these painfully slow and barely kinetic videos of sublime urban moments a regular feature. Here’s a cooling unit on top of the Steinway Building on 57th Street between 6th and 7th Aves.


49 Cities

May 20, 2009

Wednesday, May 20 sees New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture host Dan Wood and Amale Andraos, principals of WORKac and authors of the new book 49 Cities in conversation with esteemed Archigram alumnus Mike Webb.

The 49 Cities exhibition is up for just a few more days, and is highly recommended. Andraos and Wood applied their research prowess to process 49 speculative city schemes through statistical models to yield best guesses at how they would really look and operate in the real world. “Some cities were built in one form or another,” they write, “but most of them remained on paper. And yet today, many of them have indelibly influenced our global urban landscape.”

49 Cities at the Storefront for Art and Architecture

49 Cities at the Storefront for Art and Architecture

The book should be an enduring touchstone for speculative architecture enthusiasts, not least because these often fantastical projects still fire the imagination even—or especially—when seen through the sober lens of land use apportions, population densities, and scaled plans. The distinction among fact and fiction is less important here than the realization that every city is an idea, however unconscious or shortsighted, before it is built. “While the repercussions of Radiant City, Broadacre City and Garden City have been widely acknowledged, it is interesting to compare recent developments in China and the UAE to some of these visionary plans, ranging from the more utilitarian to the more exuberant.”

For those who can’t make it to the event, I’ll endeavor to report back with any amazing snippets from the discussion—or get the book. The slimness of the volume belies the concentration of revelations within.


The new breakdancing

March 19, 2009

At first it was thrilling. It’s like buff French guys took the final confrontation of Blade Runner and ran with it. Really ran with it.

Foot chase scenes, stuntsmanship, modern dance, gymnastics—all mashed-up in the urban hardscape of fences, roofs, walls, bollards, any city feature. Parkour. It made for good watching: Banlieue 13, Casino Royale, Nike ads.

You know, the Monkey Vault

You know, the Monkey Vault

It went on. The success of Casino Royale seemingly obligated the Fleming/Broccoli franchise to repeat it in Quantum of Solace. And of course there is instruction for you and for me: “The Outdoor Classes guide you in applying the movements of parkour to the urban terrain, and encourage creativity and mental focus.”

Yet I never saw it out there in real life. Wondered what kind of audience experience that would be like: the city staged as stagey obstacle course. But wait, it’s not a spectator sport, it’s a *sport. Or a discipline. At least, free running. Or a way for fast people to subvert theory and really *experience architecture.

And then Geoff kind of killed it outright:
“Parkour is the new breakdancing. Over-theorizing it as a kind of subaltern use of the city will look ridiculous in 10 years.”


Keep New York weird

March 18, 2009

St. Vincent Hospital’s O’Toole Building

St. Vincent Hospital’s O’Toole Building

New York’s architecture critic Justin Davidson takes on the issue of preservation of St. Vincent Hospital’s O’Toole Building from an unexpected angle: keep New York weird. His approach to the “endearingly awkward, formerly white, three-layered stack with tear-off perforations and protruding upper floors” is only a little surprising because actually I was wondering specifically what Davidson thought. In an architecture criticism workshop he recently led, our final assignment was to take a position on the potential demolition of this 1964 Albert Ledner building. We had volunteered our opinions but didn’t hear his, until now.

For what it’s worth, over the course of my research the building began to endear itself to me, even as I find it overbearing and hardly assimilated to its Village neighborhood. So I argued that the architects the hospital has hired, Pei Cobb Freed, should keep the shell of the O’Toole and plunge a new tower down through it. Not really jokingly either; such seeming insanity is already on the New York skyline to a rather broad consensus of approval. Of course New York isn’t LA, whose urban character still proudly bears the legacy of the “mid-century misfits” Davidson cites. And the broad mandates of the Landmarks Preservation Committee cannot match the single-agenda focus of a ModCom. But maybe just a little more creative problem solving is in order here?