Posts Tagged ‘architecture’

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Special mention

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Special mention

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I had no idea. Apparently, when Hollin Hills [ht: sm] (in Fairfax County, Virginia) was developed in the early 1950s (inspired by Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut), it was considered part of a foreign-inspired, communist invasion.

Planned in the late 1940s, architecturally unique Hollin Hills was built in the early 1950s during the post-World War II housing boom. Architect Charles Goodman and landscape architect Dan Kiley designed the project for developer Robert C. Davenport, who wanted to build attractive but modestly sized, affordable homes for America’s middle-class. Moreover, they decided the hilly, wooded site, full of twisting contours of steep hills and meandering valleys, dictated a labyrinthian road network and houses that were carefully sited within the natural terrain of each lot, thereby preserving the existing tree cover, providing privacy, and capturing views and sunlight as much as possible.

It all sounds pretty bourgie to me.

But not to the editor of House Beautiful and others:

just as Johnson’s Glass House was sneered at for subordinating comfort to aesthetic pleasure, so were Goodman’s utopian pronouncements in the firing line. In 1953, Elizabeth Gordon, the imperious editor of the prestigious House Beautiful magazine, launched an astonishing, Trump-ish attack on Modernist design under the title, “The Threat to the New America.” Gordon warned of a conspiracy to subvert American taste in favor of “foreign” design. She saw the buildings of architects such as Johnson and Goodman as being “barren” and “grim” and attacking the very heart of American society – the home. “Two ways of life stretch before us,” wrote Gordon, “one leads to the richness of variety, to comfort and beauty. The other…to poverty and unlivability.”

As Greg Castillo’s essential Cold War on the Home Front spells out, Gordon viewed the clean open spaces of Modernist houses, the “less is more” aesthetic, as an affront to the post-war American mindset of abundance. Her insinuation that communist ideals lay behind these creations was all too clear, especially with Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “Red Scare” running rampant at the time. She was not alone. Even the great American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, declared purveyors of the style “not wholesome people.” In a perverse piece of logic the inhabitants of a glass house—by exposing themselves to the world so blatantly—clearly had something to hide.

As for architect Michael Sorkin, who grew up in Hollin Hills, it was something quite different, something akin to an urban communist utopia:

For a variety of reasons. . ., not the least of which was the fact that the rules of circulation and sociability – not to mention the technologies of access – were different for kids than for adults, more urban. Indeed, the movement of kids through this environment was exemplarily advanced, streets ahead of Copenhagen or Amsterdam today. It was, for example, completely contrary to the ethos of the place for yards to be fenced and children were authorised to cut across lots. This meant that we enjoyed a condition of near universal accessibility at the ground plane, that any line could be desire’s. The only rule that obtained was that cross-yard circulation had to be on foot.

This freedom of movement was not simply limited to well-worn paths but also offered its special version of that indispensible urban condition: getting lost. This was available to smaller children within the hilly, wooded, meandering bounds of the community and for the older cohort in the fascinations of forests, dumps, military installations, road-side attractions and contiguous neighbourhoods beyond. We became a wandering crowd of mini-flâneurs.

The combination of universal accessibility and getting lost actually sounds a lot like where I grew up, albeit without the modernist glass houses. . .


The high times aren’t going away in New York.

The city of just six years from now will be dramatically taller, with a series of luxury high-rises towering above Central Park, a new West Side development and downtown spires.

ONE57-tower-new-york-christian-de-portzamparc-designboom-02 xfjdnyoyf6jlt3v2gfaj

That’s because, as Martin Fuller [ht: ja] explains, there’s a lot of money to be made building and spent on purchasing new luxury condominium buildings in New York City. He refers to these new buildings—like One57 and 432 Park Avenue (buildings 25 and 9 in the rendering above)—as three-dimensional balance sheets.

They’re not so much new architectural masterpieces and engineering marvels as conspicuous ways for the world’s super-rich to consume the growing portion of the surplus they’re managing to capture. In fact, a duplex penthouse atop the French architect Christian de Portzamparc’s One57 condominium sold for an unprecedented $100,471,452.77! (In 2014, seven more apartments at that address, built by the Extell Development Company, changed hands for between $32 million and $56 million each.)

As we know, in general New York City housing is increasingly beyond the reach of pretty much anyone outside the top 10 percent. As for the conspicuous construction associated with the world’s super-rich,

the smokestack­-like protuberances that now disrupt the skyline of midtown Manhattan signify the steadily widening worldwide gap between the unimaginably rich and the unconscionably poor. Those of us who believe that architecture invariably (and often unintentionally) embodies the values of the society that creates it will look upon these etiolated oddities less with wonder over their cunning mechanics than with revulsion over the larger, darker machinations they more accurately represent.


Robert Venturi, Fire Station No. 4

I often invoke Columbus, Indiana in my lectures.

One reason is to suggest to my students that they might shed their prejudices about Indiana and explore some of what the state has to offer—instead of staying on campus and complaining there’s nothing to do except attend football games.

The other reason is to encourage them to question what it is that capitalists actually do. When I ask them, the usual response—consistent with the neoclassical theory that has been presented to them as the only economic theory worth considering—is: “capitalists maximize profits.” (That’s equivalent to the neoclassical rule concerning consumers, that they “maximize utility.”)*

Well, no: capitalists do lots of different things. They do make profits (at least sometimes, but over what timeframe are they supposedly maximizing those profits?). But they don’t follow any single rule. They also seek to grow their enterprises and destroy the competition and maintain good public relations and buy government officials and reward their CEOs and squeeze workers and lower costs and build factories that collapse and. . .well, you get the idea. In other words, they appropriate and distribute surplus-value in all kinds of ways depending on the particular conditions and struggles that take place over the shape and direction of their enterprises.

And Cummins Engine Company is a good example, since it has distributed a good chunk of the surplus it’s managed to appropriate over the years to subsidize the design of gems by a litany of important American architects: I. M. Pei, Harry Weese, Robert A. M. Stern, Richard Meier, Kevin Roche, Robert Venturi, Cesar Pelli and others. In Columbus, Indiana of all places!

My point to the students is not that Cummins is an example of a “good capitalist” as against other “bad capitalists.” No, the idea is that capitalists—whether in the United States or Bangladesh—do lots of different things, and presuming they follow a simple rule means missing out on the complex, contradictory dynamics of capitalist enterprises and therefore of capitalism itself.


*It’s also equivalent to what one hears from many so-called radical economists, that “capitalists accumulate capital.” Again, no. Accumulating capital (that is, purchasing new elements of constant and variable capital) is only one of the many possible forms in which capitalists distribute the surplus-value they appropriate from their workers. Sometimes they accumulate capital, and other times they don’t. The presumption that they always seek to accumulate capital is the heroic story proffered by classical economists (so that, in their view, capitalist growth would take place), much as neoclassical economists today presume that capitalists maximize profits (so that, in their view, an efficient allocation of resources will result). Marxists presume neither that capitalists maximize profits nor that they always and everywhere accumulate capital.

What’s going on?

First, the Art Institute of Chicago hosts an exhibition of Soviet TASS posters. Now, London’s Royal Academy of Arts is hosting a new show, “Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-35.”

The word “revolution” has become discredited, and this show thoroughly re-energises its meaning in art and architecture. The key fragments of Russian revolutionary creativity still glow like radium, living on in its remaining art and buildings, and hard-wired into the imaginations of some of the 20th and 21st century’s most influential architects.

Could it be that, now that the Cold War is over and in the midst of the Second Great Depression, the revolution that was all but dead and buried is now being rehabilitated?

Edward Docx has declared postmodernism to be dead. And not to be dead.

The death certificate is because the Victoria and Albert Museum will soon be opening a new exhibit, “Postmodernism—Style and Subversion 1970-1990.” That’s his sign that postmodernism is officially over.

But it’s not really dead:

It is not that postmodernism’s impact is diminished or disappearing. Not at all; we can’t unlearn a great idea.

Along the way, Docx doesn’t do a half-bad job summarizing some key postmodern ideas, at least in the areas of art, architecture, philosophy, and literature (but, alas, not economics).

in the beginning artists, philosophers, linguists, writers and musicians were bound up in a movement of great force that sought to break with the past, and which did so with great energy. A new and radical permissiveness was the result. Postmodernism was a high-energy revolt, an attack, a strategy for destruction. It was a set of critical and rhetorical practices that sought to destabilise the modernist touchstones of identity, historical progress and epistemic certainty.

But then Docx falls into the usual trap, arguing that in the wake of postmodernism’s critique all that is left is the market. And, in his view, we are left with a yearning for “off-line authenticity.”

Certainly, the internet is the most postmodern thing on the planet. The immediate consequence in the west seems to have been to breed a generation more interested in social networking than social revolution. But, if we look behind that, we find a secondary reverse effect—a universal yearning for some kind of offline authenticity. We desire to be redeemed from the grossness of our consumption, the sham of our attitudinising, the teeming insecurities on which social networking sites were founded and now feed. We want to become reacquainted with the spellbinding narrative of expertise. If the problem for the postmodernists was that the modernists had been telling them what to do, then the problem for the present generation is the opposite: nobody has been telling us what to do.

If we tune in carefully, we can detect this growing desire for authenticity all around us. We can see it in the specificity of the local food movement or the repeated use of the word “proper” on gastropub menus. We can hear it in the use of the word “legend” as applied to anyone who has actually achieved something in the real world. (The elevation of real life to myth!) We can recognise it in advertising campaigns such as for Jack Daniel’s, which ache to portray not rebellion but authenticity. We can identify it in the way brands are trying to hold on to, or take up, an interest in ethics, or in a particular ethos. A culture of care is advertised and celebrated and cherished. Values are important once more: the values that the artist puts into the making of an object as well as the values that the consumer takes out of the object. And all of these striven-for values are separate to the naked commercial value.

My own view is that the interest in craft and how things are produced has nothing to do with the end of postmodernism. It’s precisely an opening that was created by the postmodern deconstruction of “the market” as a singular entity that required obedience. The critics of postmodernism have, all along, called for some kind of authenticity, be it the unified human subject or a set of universal values or the like. After postmodernism, no such position is possible.

Instead, after postmodernism, we can imagine and construct alternative economies, which, instead of claiming the mantle of authenticity of consumer values, locate and challenge the limits of bourgeois expertise and ethics—and begin to move beyond them.