On first principles

From a profile of Friedrich Kiesler in Architectural Forum (1947)

“If Kiesler wants to hold two pieces of wood together, he pretends he’s never heard of nails or screws. He tests the tensile strengths of various metal alloys, experiments with different methods and shapes, and after six months comes up with a very expensive device that holds two pieces of wood together almost as well as a screw”

Reality reduced to a model


Reading through Geoff Manaugh’s interview with Nicholas de Monchaux, author of Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, I came across this:

“If you lay, side by side, quotations from USC’s discourse on parametric urbanism now and USC’s discourse on cybernetic urbanism thirty years ago, for better or for worse, you can read them as a complete narrative. It’s impossible to distinguish which is which. Both are born out of a fundamental faith in technology and a fundamental notion that, if you feed enough variables into a problem-solving system — now we call it parametric, then we would have called it cybernetic — that an appropriate and robust solution will emerge. I’m not, myself, so sure that’s the case; in fact, I’m pretty certain that it’s not.”

Models are translations of reality, and all translations are partial, reducing some dimensions in order to allow a degree of fidelity in other dimensions. Something is abstracted away in order to concentrate something else: a white paper model might leave out any suggestion of materials to highlight volume; and acoustic properties may be excluded from an electronic model that simulates solar gain. Breaking a situation down into variables and parameters so it can be modelled is no stranger than any other kind of modelling. Problems arise when reality is reduced to the model.

I agree with de Monchaux that appropriate and robust solutions don’t emerge automatically given enough parameters; and appreciate his reminder that, despite a varnish of novelty, parametric approaches are not new.

(Again, I’d plug Adam Curtis’s All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (2011) on this topic).

Kennicott on MVRDV pseudo-controversy

Phillip Kennicott, art and architecture critic for the Washington Post, doing his job on the MVRDV pseudo-controversy:

The controversy seems part of a larger cultural effort to make the events of September 11, 2001 somehow sacred, to use the meaning of the terrorist attack for larger, more overbearing cultural control. So now it is being deployed against contemporary architecture, not because there is anything inherently offensive in this design (which may or may not be an intentional reference to 9/11), but because the emotions generated by the attack have been co-opted by one part of the political and cultural spectrum.

MVRDV in the echo-chamber


MVRDV are in trouble for cashing in on the 9/11 terrorist attacks. From Tracy Connor’s report for the NY Daily News:

A mockup shows two soaring skyscrapers connected in the middle by a “pixelated cloud” that evoked the clouds of debris that erupted from the iconic World Trade Center towers after terrorists flew planes into them.

John M. Glionna goes further in the L.A. Times:

Even at first glance, the design renderings for the soon-to-be-built pair of apartment towers here pack a wallop: They evoke New York’s World Trade Center towers in mid-explosion in the terrifying moments after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The reason it evokes it so strongly at first glance is, of course, because the article is headed up with a pair of carefully selected images designed to make the link. Do the reporters or bloggers involved actually accuse MVRDV of deliberately evoking the terrorist attacks to make money? No, of course not. They just reports the controversy. And in the case of Tracy Connor, drum up a little more by poking the images under the nose of random people predisposed to be offended, in this case a retired New York firefighter.

This patently ridiculous claim originates with gossip website Gawker, for whom generating outrage is just another way to get clicks. Currently, they are also headlining “‘Elvis Monkey’ has a Michael Jackson Nose”.

The echo-chamber takes over, with nobody adding or asking anything new, or weighing the insinuations or claims. But then, this is the game MVRDV were playing. As Wouter Vanstiphout points out, it’s a “logical outcome of the global trade in empty images”, a trade in which MVRDV are complicit.

UPDATE: 24hrs later, the same story, with precisely zero new content, continues to echo.

Joseph Gandy’s Rural Essentialism

We’re used to seeing crisp white surfaces as a marker of urbane essentialism—c.f. O.M. Ungers’ Haus 3, or Loos’s Müller House—so it’s a little disorienting to remember that what we talk about as ‘clean’ and ‘modern’ has had quite different connotations in the past. For J.M Gandy (see this profile by Christopher Woodward) in 1805, for example, it was a matter of rustic humility. In his book Designs for Cottages, Cottage Farms, and other Rural Buildings; including Entrance Gates and Lodges (London: John Harding) we find these stark white boxes: windows punched, untrimmed and horizontally oriented; surfaces unornamented; and with minimal overhangs. The images are somewhat surprising, given the sensitivity to materials, light, massing, and detail in his more famous images for John Soane.

Joseph Gandy, Cottage, 1805 (Plate V.)

Joseph Gandy, Cottage, 1805 (Plate XVII.)

Paolo Portoghesi, Islamic Cultural Centre (1974)

Paolo Portoghesi, Islamic Cultural Centre, Rome (1974). Portoghesi is interesting – his best details approach Scarpa, and the intensity of his relationship to Borromini is clear; but some of his work is clunky and kitschy. The mosque of his Islamic Cultural Centre is amazing – sinuous and dense. But then he’s also responsible for this. Ignore that and look at these:

Continue reading

Suppressing the Ground

Plan of the theatre at Olympia, drawn by Wilhelm Dörpfeld

Wilhelm Dörpfeld (1853-1940) was trained as an architect, at the Bauakademie in Berlin and gained archaeological experience working on the excavations at Olympia. He was headhunted by Heinrich Schliemann, and went on to found the German School in Athens, which now takes his name,  and become the Director of the Athens branch of the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut. Dörpfeld was a very capable draftsman and the drawings in his book Das Griechische Theater (1896) are typical of his work: precise, complete and detailed.

In Dörpfeld’s plan of the theatre certainty and interest are shown through exactitude and solidity of line, while presumption and conjecture are marked with dotted lines which skip across the surface of the page. Dörpfeld pays considerable attention to the paving pattern of the theatre floor; to the blockwork and cavities above “N”, and in the vicinity of “E”. He indicates subtle distinctions in materiality in these areas and notes alignments and misalignments. But what about the large areas of the drawing that escape attention altogether? The spaces between blocks, walls and drains are entirely empty, apart from the texture of the page on which they are printed. What takes place in these spaces? What purpose do they serve?


The theatre in Dörpfeld’s drawing stands out as a clear figure. Each block sits distinctly against a white ground. The sharp lines of the original ink drawing, and of the published engraving, lend themselves to describing sharp-edged objects. In this clear construction of figure and ground, the empty spaces of the page represent the condition of the ground. In opposition to the plenitude of significance which is sought in the objects disclosed by archaeology, the ground is represented as a place from which no significance is to be extracted. The ground is that which escapes attention. Representing the archaeological site as a place of painstaking clarity is only possible by subsuming all the various problems of ground in archaeological practice under the blanket representation of emptiness.


Dörpfeld’s plan suppresses the archaeologist’s problematic encounter with the ground. However, there are even moments in his precise drawing where the ground emerges as a difficulty. In the areas marked “V” and “F”, a flurry of little lines marks out the ground’s rumpled surface. They seem to gather together to mark out edges. If we consult the key, we might conclude that they are intended to signify marble (“MARMOR”), but there is a distinct difference between this and other instances of marble in the drawing: compared to the stones marked above “L”, the surface at “V” is rough. These scratchy lines do not seem to signify the veins of marble. They are ambiguous moments in which the archaeologist has been unable to suppress the ground completely. Again, in areas to the far left and right of the drawing, the rendering of solid stone fades away indistinctly into the empty ground (above “W” and near “B”). At these moments, the archaeologist’s ability to define an edge, to clearly mark the contour between something that is present and something that is not, fails. The problem of resolving an architectural figure from an archaeological ground merges with the problem of resolving an architectural figure from a drawn ground.


It is noteworthy that such failures are permissible at the periphery of the drawings – at a distance from the centre which is marked by the dotted circles and the centre line of the theatre – but not near the centre itself. Uncertainty occurs at the periphery.


The ability to form a strong figure is paramount for Dörpfeld. If the image was grey and murky, he would be unable to resolve architecture as independent and autonomous. Dörpfeld constructs a clear architectural figure, but in doing so, he also posits the ground as a vacancy, as that which escapes attention because it cannot be delineated.


In the publications of Layard and Schliemann, the site is morcellated and scattered through the text as a myriad small engravings: objects, architectural details, profiles, landscape scenes, ethnographic details, comparisons, speculative renderings, tracings, inscriptions, maps. Together this collection of details and fragments comprise an archive that is sorted according to the order of the archaeologist’s experience. The architectural plan is only one more artefact in this archive. Dörpfeld and Theodore Fyfe (architect for Sir Arthur Evans’s excavations at Knossos), conversely, privilege the plan over the site, over the ground. The plan is the central document, the system of ordering to which all the other details are referred, the mechanism of inclusion and exclusion which functions to define the modern archaeological site. As such, plan substitutes for the ground in its function as a repository of archaeological knowledge.


More recently, archaeological criticism has queried the presumption of the archaeologist’s observational distance and noted the political dimension of the archaeological gaze. Julian Thomas writes:


The means by which we characteristically represent place, the distribution map, the air photo, the satellite image and the Geographical Information System, are all distinctively specular. They all imply a considerable distance between subject and object, and they all present a picture of past landscapes which the inhabitant would hardly recognise. All attempt to lay the world bare, like Eliot’s “patient etherised upon a table”, or like the corpse under the pathologist’s knife.


The distantiation of archaeological subject from object is produced by the representational techniques considered above, which chart a process of modernisation from the end of the nineteenth century. Archaeological drawing shifts to exclude the registers of the private and the uncertain. It remains possible, though, to see these registers re-surfacing in the most strictly controlled of drawings. Catherine Ingraham describes architecture as a practice of delineation associated with the ‘tactics of ideality’. These tactics can be clearly seen at work in the constitution of the archaeological site as a representation that can be shared publicly. The ground is problematic under these terms for two reasons: the ground is a necessary pre-condition of the line; yet it resists delineation. The ground is thus a representational problem for architecture, archaeology, and the complex interactions between the two fields. Ground cannot simply be “represented”, because it is a necessary condition of representation itself.

Density and Delineation

Subterranean Excavations at Kouyunjik (1853)

“Subterranean Excavations at Kouyunjik” is a drawing from Austen Henry Layard’s Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon (1853). It is a grey image, closely hatched, depicting a vaulted underground space that divides into two vaults in the midground, and shades off into darkness in the distance. It is presented as a vignette without a distinct frame. The deep space contains artefacts and workers: in the foreground, one man gestures towards the most distinctly delineated element in the picture, a relief panel on the wall, which appears to have taken two other men by surprise. Baskets and tools sit at the feet of this foreground group. Deeper in the image the two vaults frame a pair of figures and a standing vase. The two figures face in opposite directions, one facing the viewer, mirroring the gesture of the man in the foreground. At the top of the picture, the subterranean space opens to the sky. It is not entirely clear if the vaults are caverns or chambers. The largest opening at the front is sufficiently irregular as to appear natural, while the central column between the two more regular vaults appears to be made of bricks.


To resolve the architecture of this space, one must carefully examine the engraver’s marks. Viewed closely, the image is an obsessive hail of tiny scratches. The engraver varies the materiality and tone of the image by adjusting the pattern and direction of this rendered continuum. At the very top of the image, against the fine, evenly ruled lines of the sky, a sharp edge – marked with a line – suggests that the face below it is constructed. The cracks and seams in this face are formed by the dark edges of each hatched patch. Before it, to the right and left is a sharp but irregular line of heavily cross-hatched shadow. On the right, though, this cavernous line and the smoother face are made continuous: the engraver has blended the hatching in order to dissolve the edge. Further down the page, the same thing happens on the left. Similarly it is unclear whether the large bank of irregular rubble directly behind the foreground group of figures is intended to be continuous or discontinuous with the smoother face above. A cut stone block appears to be embedded in the wall above the heads of the figures, as does something else that forms a dark edge, and other details that might be artificial fragments; but they are rendered in such a way that we are welcome to read them as mere clumps or irregularities in the earth. At its base, the central pier appears to be made of consistent if irregular blockwork; further up it appears to change into a more compact small-stone construction, shading off into surfaces of indistinguishable materiality.


Of this scene, Layard writes:


After the departure of Mr. Ross, the accumulation of earth above the ruins had become so considerable, frequently exceeding thirty feet, that the workmen, to avoid the labor of clearing it away, began to tunnel along the walls, sinking shafts at intervals to admit light and air. The hardness of the soil, mixed with pottery, bricks and remains of buildings raised at various times over the buried ruins of the Assyrian palace, rendered this process easy and safe with ordinary care and precaution. The subterraneous passages were narrow, and were propped up when necessary either by leaving columns of earth, as in mines, or by wooden beams. These long galleries, dimly lighted, lined with the remains of ancient art, broken urns projecting from the crumbling sides, and the wild Arab and hardy Nestorian wandering through their intricacies, or working in their dark recesses, were singularly picturesque.


Layard’s description shows that even the figure we think we have been able to discern in the image is illusory. The vaulted architecture of the image is not the ancient structure of the Assyrian palace referred to by Layard, but the architecture of the excavation itself. Architecture is present in the image not as the object, but as the result of the investigation. The only object that is clearly antique is the relief panel at the lower right. The earth is described as a thick conglomerate, a solid compaction of soil, pottery, brick and other architectural remains. Ancient artifacts – fragments of pottery and architecture – are not contained within the space, but fused with the matter that defines the space.


The spatiality of the image – comprehending image as a figure – relies on a reading of density, not delineation. In the same way, the spatiality of the archaeological site also relies on a reading of density. There is no clear figure discernable against a consistent and neutral ground. Both the image and the archaeological ground present a figure-ground problem that cannot be resolved with a mere increase in detail. The epistemic condition of the drawing, the forms of knowledge it allows, mirrors the epistemic condition of the archaeological excavation.


Hiroshi Nakao, Dark Box Bird Cage

This weekend house consists of a large living room capable of accommodating two automobiles; small bedrooms in which the bed completely fills the floor; a study that doubles as a studio; two enclosed gardens; bathroom; and external garage. The layout plan involved disposing the component elements on a basic 3×3 meter grid. Since all surfaces are painted black, the interior is a somewhat dark box. However, daylight entering from the large and small enclosed gardens creates a varying mixture of light and dark areas.

Gained by a ladder, a small loft is provided above the living room, which is used for book storage and a reading place. A base of pebbles is placed at the bottom of the ladder, whose sounds when people are going up and down it make this little collection of pebbles something of an interior sound effect system. None of the walls are pierced by sizable openings, with lines of sight running to the exterior only in the vertical direction. Which is not to say, however, that this is a sealed space. It would be much more accurate to describe it as an open space. A ‘dark box’ it may appear, but with its innumerable holes, it is much more of a ‘bird cage’.

Weekend House: Dark Box and Bird Cage (1993), Hiroshi Nakao, Masahiko Inoue, and Hiroko Serizawa. Text and images from Japan Architect 9, Spring 1993, pp. 228-29.


On the subject of interdisciplinarity, this is the prologue from my MArch thesis a few years ago:

an architecture-and essay: conjunction of generalities. Here, architecture-and-archaeology.

The presumption of the innocuous ‘and’, with its two little hyphens (present as above, or implied) is interchangability. -and- is the joint of a modular system in which an endless series of substitutions could be made: architecture-and-text; architecture-and-politics; architecture-and-film; architecture-and-literature. To articulate a discussion jointed in this way would already be to assume the distinctiveness of the two terms: that architecture is a something; that archaeology is a different something; and that some conjunction can reasonably be expected. The agenda for an architecture-and-archaeology essay would apparently be to briefly outline some common ground, and to conclude with propositions for how architecture might profit from this exchange. Architecture-and-archaeology would be a foray into a foreign territory, followed by an about-face, and a return home bearing exotic goods. This thesis will, among other things, demonstrate why this conjunction cannot simply be performed. The disciplines of architecture and archaeology will be challenged as to their integrity; the extent to which they are distinct enterprises; and the validity of the generality implied by naming them as terms of an equation. As the distinctiveness of the terms breaks down, the problem will become one of description.

In particular, the -and- is often used to invoke interdisciplinarity: lines of communication are established between departments and disciplines, in order to bring under examination the various spaces which have, for one reason or another, slipped between departments. In this case the hyphens would mark the path of the interdisciplinary writer pacing back and forth between departmental libraries. This essay is not interdisciplinary (although this statement might be taken as one of the best pieces of evidence that it is in fact so). This essay will attempt to question, from the very cut of the spade, the divisibility of archaeology and architecture. Interdisciplinarity breaks down when there is no longer an interstitial space to occupy, and when it is precisely disciplinary distinctiveness that is under close examination. Standing on a bridge is difficult place to argue against the integrity of riverbanks.

Drawing in Good Faith

A paper by Adam Sharr in the current issue of Architectural Theory Review is accompanied by this fascinating series of drawings by Luke Bray and Rob Stevens. The drawings are sober CAD plans of a shared domicile, a student flat; but instead of recording only the architectural matter traditionally recorded in such drawings, Bray and Stevens meticulously document all the mobile paraphenalia and detritus of everyday life. The drawings reveal cups, hair-straighteners, computer mice, tennis rackets, desk lamps, stereos, unmade beds, backpacks, papers, rubbish bins, wires, and photos on the wall. Each drawing exists in two states: walls-on and walls-off. In the walls-off state, the presence of the building is only intimated by the internal arrangement of of its contents.

Operation at 1:1 scale, accurate control over non-orthogonal lines, and the layering of information that can be turned on and off, are such basic features of drawing by computer that they may go unnoticed: “While many claims are made for digital representation and its novel possibilities, these less flashy properties seem among the most powerful innovations of CAD drafting, certainly where it comes to teasing-out lessons of inhabitation.” Sharr indicates, contra Pérez-Gomez and Frascari, who argue that CAD “removes the bodily experience of drawing and impoverishes the range of expression available”, that these capabilites provide new opportunities for expressing, revealing, and critiquing architecture.

Sharr writes of the role of drawing in marking out the distinction between the professional action of architects, and the unprofessional spatial ordering that all humans participate in. Methods of drawing are complicit in the division between expert and layperson. Who with architectural training hasn’t spent time trying to help a non-expert read a set of plans that seem plainly obvious?

There is a tension at the heart of this discussion: are the drawings in question just assimilating yet more territory for the professional architect – as if to say that even your hair-straighteners and socks are now a matter of expert attention? “Are the measured drawings of Bray and Stevens, then, doomed to perpetuate the alienations of orthographic drafting? Following Lefebvre and Till, are the drawings inevitable implicated – simply by their conventions – in a conspiracy of subjugation?”

[ I just remembered reading about a piece of archaeological research in which archaeologists performed a survey of a London flat which was still occupied. The point, I believe, was to make visible how the techniques of archaeological analysis skewed or might lead to misinterpretations of sites of inhabitation. I'll see if I can find it...]

Infrastructural Space

I’m at the planning stages for a paper on infrastructural space aimed at undergraduate students. I intend the paper to serve as a springboard for further inquiry: a substantial theoretical background, lots of examples, and raising the question of designing in and alongside, infrastructural systems. This is the abstract I’ve written so far:

In the 21st century, one of the major determiners of our space is infrastructure. We are plugged into motorways, railways, telecommunications networks, wireless data transmitters, air-conditioning systems, financial networks, electricity lines, sewers. Infrastructure is not only an urban condition, either: entire regions of NZ have been harnessed for power-generating, dairy-farming depends on a milk-collecting infrastructure, and irrigation is one of the oldest of human infrastructures. This paper explores the spatiality of infrastructure. It describes how infrastructural space differs from contained space, and outlines some of the implications and opportunities for spatial designers in an infrastructural world.

Networks are a precondition for many of the characteristics of the 21st century world: rapid mobility, instantaneous data transfer, information processing. Many of the things we do that used to require lots of material constructions and artefacts can now be carried out remotely from nearly anywhere. This is commonly seen as a dematerialising effect of networks, but it is more accurate to see it as a rematerialisation. Infrastructure lessens the importance of service spaces to which you go (like banks, bookshops), and increases the importance of spaces through which things pass: hubs, distribution centres, passages.

Manuel Castells argued in 1996 that a new form of society had emerged, which he called ‘network society’. Networks, systems of interconnected nodes, had become a dominant form, not only of the things we make, but of our societies as well. Network society, Castells argued, was characterised by a new kind of space, the space of flows. A number of other writers near the turn of the twenty-first century picked up on this thought: Mark C. Taylor in The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture (2001); Negri and Hardt in Empire (2001) followed up by their Multitudes: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (2004), and Kazys Varnelis in The Infrastructural City (2007) and Networked Publics (2008). Infrastructure operates in network space. It is based on connectivity. In network space, my presence is not determined by the physical location of my body, but by my connectedness.

The 2009 recession has brought infrastructure to the fore. Many of the governmental stimulus packages initiated globally emphasise infrastructure projects, because they are labour-intensive, providing jobs; because they are too difficult for private capital to undertake; and because by generating new connections, greater flows of people, goods, information, and crucially, capital, can be anticipated in future. In particular, ‘green’ infrastructure is prominent: low-environmental-impact energy generation, and public transport especially. Infrastructure can be environmentally disruptive, and there has been a great deal of concern for how infrastructure might act to integrate natural flows.

This paper will progress through a series of propositions, illustrated with examples: infrastructure indicates a spatiality of connectedness rather than containment; in the present, our space is infrastructurally defined; the concept of nature is being transformed infrastructurally; the position of being off-the-grid is an important critical opportunity.

There are a number of open issues, particularly differences between networks and an infrastructures (can we really conflate the two as synonyms?), and shifts and developments since the turn-of-the-century thinking about them. It’s a major defect in this abstract that no specific examples are addressed yet. There’s probably also a little historical material that needs to get in: the modernist fascination with infrastructure as an abstract assertion of human potency (Corb’s Algiers project, etc.), and some of the 70s oil-shock-triggered sense of a global environment (Fuller), and the 60s displacement of architecture into infrastructure by Archigram. This alone could fill hundreds of papers so I may be limited in what I include. Another open question is the relation between infrastructure and globalism – although current infrastructural practices and discourses incorporate the concepts of a finite environment and the facilitation of global circulation of flows, I don’t believe infrastructure is necessarily derived from a global view. However, it does seem that infrastructural development is increasingly promoted as a fundamental premise for engagement with a global community.

Any thoughts or suggestions from people more expert in this area would be welcomed.