Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Accidental Iconoclasts

Paper Ruins and Plastic Salvation

“Art cannot be criticized because every mistake is a new creation”: this is the poster-dogma of self named street artist “Mr. Brainwash” for his first UK show, a reinvention of his premier show in L.A., Life is Beautiful (Old Sorting Office, New Oxford Street, Bloomsbury, London). Initially the spray painted image invokes an avant garde battle cry, however this call to arms may actually be an act self-defence, given the artist’s backstory. Mr. Brainwash came into the public eye via the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) . Mixing the mythologies of Emperor Claudius and Darth Vader, an odd but otherwise harmless shop-owner becomes seduced by hype, media, and the benefits of being a dangerous Street Artist via his cousin, the artist Space Invader. To mark the metamorphosis, Thierry Guetta changes his name to “Mr. Brainwash” and via a large public show, betrays the Street Art community by stealing their ideas to gain notoriety. At the end of the film the viewer, like the other artists, is meant to mix revulsion and indignation at the commercial success of Mr. Brainwash. He is portrayed as someone who never truly suffered for his art or developed a style, a fraud. We’re meant to be mad not because he made money, but because he cheated.
In another warehouse across town from Life is Beautiful is its counterpoint: Urban Masters (Factory 7, 13 Hearn Street, Shoreditch, London). While Life takes place in a massive space nominally dedicated to the work of one person, Urban Masters is in a much leaner area that seems to have gathered an entire community of international Street Artists in alliance against Mr. Brainwash. The major figures of the fight being Shepard Fairey, Blek Le Rat, Sweet Toof and, of course, Banksy. Hidden down an alleyway, behind a car park, in a nondescript urban setting signified only by a small cardboard sign, Urban Masters wants you to know this is where the wild things are. One can’t help but identify this as a slap to Life, which stands beneath a 35’ high billboard depicting a punk version of a young Queen Elizabeth II, begging for the viewer’s attention. This juxtaposition is a visual conversation about what the two opposing forces think the movement should be about. For Mr. Brainwash, it’s a sly, if tired, series of pop culture references and in-jokes. For Urban Masters it’s a wry and satirical commentary on aesthetics and art itself. Mr. Brainwash may have a Gainsborough reference featuring Posh and Becks but Joe Black has a Chairman Mao portrait made of Seurat-style plastic army men. Despite Masters having the clout, and quite frankly the brains, to pull off what could potentially be an unfocused mess of a show, if you are new to the conversation both galleries may come off less as a war of rhetoric and more as a battle of the one-liners. The most important part of these shows is what neither gallery seems to address, the glaring change from what initially made the Street Art movement so fascinating and so famous: both shows are inside.
Full work in link below.


Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment

The Quasi-Nomadic Cell: At the Threshold of the Collective Dwelling

Mobility is a common word within the modernist discourse, and although it represented the zeitgeist or, in other words, the spirit of the time, it was never thoroughly analyzed. How is the nomad used to describe the urban subject, is the argument which will be highlighted in terms of how the new subject and the city were envisioned by the avant-garde architects. CIAM’s innovations had historical links to many earlier efforts to reform society through architecture, and as a result its earliest conferences responded to questions like the subsistence dwelling and problems of the contemporary city.1 Before focusing on the problems of the city to their full extent, architects emphasized on the concept of the minimum dwelling unit; the living conditions of the individual and the new concepts of dwelling set the principles upon which the reformation of the society and the reorganization of the city was based. Hannes Meyer, member of the ABC group and one of the most polemical architects among CIAM, was a protagonist of this vision since 1926 with his project the “Co-op Zimmer”. Unlike other collectivist’s writings and experiments, Meyer emphasized on the importance of the autonomous individual among the collective. His work expresses a technological utopia through which one can see the transformation of man into a “semi- nomad”. The concept of Meyer’s Co-op series relied on the key factor concept of mobility, which is fundamental considering that mobility penetrated all aspects of modern life. More importantly it represents the endless possibilities of the liberal definition of freedom of modern man subject to the impersonal authority of social forces. Finally, public and private space form new relationships by constantly exchanging characteristics; new relations that will have a great impact on shaping ultimately “the new world”, as inspired by Marx and Engels long before architecture would pose political and social questions.


“The so-called housing shortage, so much talked about in the press these days, cannot be simply dismissed by admitting that the working class is generally living in bad, overcrowded, and unhealthy apartments… The term “housing crisis”, as it is currently understood, essentially stands for nothing other than the worsening of the already miserable housing conditions, caused by the influx of people into the cities…”2

Engels, “The housing Question”, 1872

The “housing shortage” or crisis is a phenomenon not only of the early twentieth century but probably of all times. As Engels states, it is a result of massive unemployment and underemployment, since the masses lack sufficient means and are forced to live on the lowest level of the so-called “subsistence minimum”, as the cities fail to offer them opportunity for decent human living.3 The situation of the crisis had reached a point by the 1920’s that required a radical reform and modernization of housing, which the architectural avant-garde had already started to focus on. As confirmed by the statistics of both central and western European cities, the greatest demand was for small-size and low-cost apartments in the cities and not the nineteenth century resettlement (Umsiedlung), which indicated a kind of “garden colonization of the countryside”.4 The settlement, as Tafuri explains, “was to be an oasis of order”, an example of how an alternative model of urban development is possible for working-class organization to propose, “a realized utopia”. But it openly set the model of “town” against that of the large city.5 In 1928 CIAM declared that, “town planning is the organization of the functions of collective life; it extents over both the urban agglomerations and the countryside.”6 The Existenzminimum, which was also the name of the second CIAM conference in 1929, or what Karel Teige calls “minimum dwelling”, became a slogan, announced and promoted by modern architects, as the most immediate problem which remained unsolved since the time Engels and Marx wrote about the housing conditions of the population.7


“Even the need for fresh air ceases to be a need for the worker. Man reverts once more to living in a cave, but the cave is now polluted by the intangible and pestilential breath of civilization… A dwelling in the light (Lichtwohnung), which Prometheus describes in Aeschylus as one of the great gifts through which he transformed savages into men, ceases to exist for the worker… As we said, man returns to his cave dwelling, but his return is in the nature of alienation and hostility… And so, he soon recognizes that the quality of his apartment is the exact opposite of a human dwelling in a world, which is supposed to represent the horn of plenty.”8

Karl Marx, Economical and Philosophical manuscripts 1844

Most likely with those words born in mind and in search for a new dwelling form, the architectural avant-garde chose “minimal area and maximal livability as the technical formula for minimum dwelling design.” This concept, as Teige states, is known as the “mini-max dwelling concept”: that is, a minimal space accommodating “maximal life” for the class of the subsistence minimum, defining a dwelling that does not fall below standards needed for biological survival.9 “A healthy dwelling” is the phrase which drove the technical definition of what Ernst May termed Existenzminimum in terms of minimally-acceptable floor space, density, light, fresh air, access to green space, access to transit, and other such resident issues. The word which describes best the minimum apartment is “cell”; “a self-contained whole, serving all the psychological, economic, recreational, and physiological needs of its inhabitants – in short, meeting all the normal requirements of the former family-household apartment at a different scale”, says Teige. It is therefore important to understand that in such a scheme the functions of the former bourgeois type of dwelling are met only partially, and the form of the minimum apartment will not be self-sufficient in the traditional sense; its form will be determined solely by the basic physiological-recreational and psychological processes of dwelling. In other words, “by dwelling as rest, reading, sleeping, and intimate personal life.”10


“The city is the most complex biological agglomeration, and it must be consciously regulated and constructively shaped by man. The demands we make on life today are all of the same nature regardless of our social sector or stratum. The surest sign of true community is the satisfaction of the same needs by the same means. The upshot of such a collective demand is the standard product. The folding chair, roll-top desk, light bulb, bathtub and portable gramophone are typical standard products manufactured internationally and showing a uniform design. They are apparatuses in the mechanization of our daily life. Their standardized form is impersonal. They are manufactured in quantity, serially, as a serialized structural element, as a serialized home… Because of the standardization of his needs as regards housing, food and mental sustenance, the semi-nomad of our modern productive system has the benefit of freedom of movement, economies, simplification and relaxation, all of which are vitally important to him”.11

Hannes Meyer, Introduction to the Co-op Zimmer, “The New World” (Die neue Welt), “Der Standard”, 1926

Hannes Meyer demonstrates, in his essay “The New World”, a concept of a smoothly traversable, nomadic space, a space for the collective determined by the imposition of new products and external “fields of force” that “operate to dissolve established boundaries within various forms of experience and cognition.”12 The Co-op Zimmer, as described by Michael Hays, produces The Zimmer is something of a misnomer, says Hays, since the project is and always had been, in fact, a photograph. It is an assemblage, a “conspicuous arrangement” as Meyer describes, of isolated objects, which together form a new contract for the dwelling space. “Meyer’s interior is a text”, in the sense of the diagram, “provided that term can be metonymically extended to such things as life habits and daily routines, means of knowing, belonging, and practicing, all fixed through chains of signification.”13 Like Magonigle, who preferred photographs instead of detailed design because they capture “ the spirit of the thing”, Meyer presents a “diagram of the present age”, which acts like all diagrams as an instrument of an alarming and fascinating range of possibilities.14 At this point we must stress that the diagram, as Hyungmin Pai underlines, “emerges as a necessary mechanism, in the gap between conception and execution, for the subject to control its object of knowledge.”15 The photograph has “the characteristic of being not only an icon but also an index”, in other words, the cause of “the photographic image is seemingly always within the image”.16 Yet in this diagram lines do not replace figures, but quite the opposite; the photograph works as a map of the individual in his absence, it implies the user and movement through the space. The Co-op Zimmer is a conceptualization of the nomadic mobility and modern lifestyle, made possible by the portable furniture, the alimentary products, and the invasion of “his master’s voice.”17


At this point, it would be important to focus our attention to Meyer’s choice of words, when describing the individual among the collective as “a semi-nomad of our productive system”. Giedion’s “modern man” or Meyer’s “semi-nomad” is surrounded by nothing but impersonal objects. Objects and modern man should be separated from one another, like the objects of a nomad in the desert. The “standard product” is what accompanies modern man; product in the sense of what is necessary for survival, from furniture to food, clothes or anything that can be defined as a human or collective need. The “serialized home” is the intimate space of the individual; an apartment of small dimensions with acceptable level of comfort, which can be realized only “by improving furniture and installations, by utilizing their potential to the limit of their functional capacities, and by rationally apportioning every centimeter of space”. The need to “economize and save space calls for strict limits on the dimensions of furniture, as well as reducing its size with folding mechanisms – for example, folding chairs, drop-leaf tables, collapsible beds, and so on.”18 Teige suggests that the furnishings of a railroad can provide the model, but Meyer goes a bit further and implies the objects of a modern nomad instead. The dwelling cell and the nomadic tent are nothing alike, but the standard product, as described in Meyer’s text, somehow alludes the nomad’s modest belongings. In order to describe how the nomad tent is set every time the women unfold it, the French “disposer” is more appropriate than “planning”. In the same manner planning the dwelling cell means to arrange, to put things in a certain order. “The architect is an organizer, not a designer of objects.” This assertion of Le Corbusier’s is not a slogan, says Tafuri, but “an obligatory directive that connects intellectual initiative and the civilization machiniste.”19 A parallel can be drawn here between the Co-op Zimmer and the beyt es- shaar (nomad tent) from Charles Doughty’s descriptions, but only as a diagrammatic depiction and arrangement of objects.

“The Aarab tent, which they call the beyt es-shaar, “abode, booth or house of hair”, that is of black worsted or hair-cloth, has, with its pent roof, somewhat the form of cottage… The booth front is commonly left open, to the half at least we have seen, for the mukaad or men’s sitting-room: the other which is the women’s and household side, is sometimes seen closed (when they would not be espied, whether sleeping or cooking) with a fore-cloth; the woman’s part is always separated from the men’s apartment by a hanging, commonly not much more than breast or neck high, at the waist poles of the tent. Upon the side of the hareem, that is the household apartment, is stored all their husbandry. At the woman’s curtain stand the few tent-cloth sacks (of their own weaving) of their poor baggage, el-gush: in these is bestowed their corn and rice if they have any; certain lumps of rock-salt, for they will eat nothing insipid; also the housewife’s thrift of wool and her spun yarn… The removing of the camp of the Aarab, and driving the cattle with them from one to another pasture ground, is called rahla… Then Beduish housewives hasten then to pluck up the tent-pegs, and their booths fall; the tent-cloth is rolled up, the tent- poles are gathered together and bound in a faggot: so they drag out the household stuff, to load upon the burden-camels… The herdsmen now drive forward; the hareem mount with their baggage; and this is the march of the nomad village”20

Charles Doughty, “Travels in Arabia Deserta”, 1888

The nomads only carry with them what is extremely necessary in order to achieve an easy rahla, and folding or unfolding of their dwelling. Quantity, therefore, is important; “less should be more, especially in the minimum apartment, where every nonessential piece of furniture becomes a hindrance.” For example, “a person needs to sit while eating, working, and resting; he or she needs a table for work; a closet for clothing, linen, and dishes; shelves or cabinets for books; and finally, a mat for sleeping. That is about all.21 As described above in Charles Doughty’s “Travels in Arabia Deserta”, the nomadic way of living indicates the mobility that modern architecture aimed to include when forming the new lifestyle of the collective. But an objection immediately presents itself when the gender discrimination and the separate spaces for man and woman, leisure and household happen in the arrangement of the tent, which are never indicated in the dwelling cell by the architects of modernity. Gropius, borrowing from the 1912 work of the sociologist F. Muller-Lyer, argued that in the new era of “cooperatives and communal law” that had opened women’s equality was also increasing, as women became able to look beyond the family and enter the world of business and industry.22 Biological considerations will determine the dwelling design; every “adult shall have his own room, small though it may be!”23


Nomads would be constantly on the move in order to find food and water; they would resettle their camp in different areas within the blankness of the desert. The organization of their dwellings and village prompts to change each time it is being set upon a new ground. Modern architects, in a similar manner, intend to form this new collectivity upon a tabula rasa or scraped tablet, including from the standardized element, to the cell, the single block, the housing project and finally the city; all are supposed to replace and not to co-exist with the existing elements of the city. As Tafuri states, a definitive solution of the housing problem can only be accomplished by the radical reconstruction of our cities, and ultimately by the comprehensive reconstruction of the very concept of the contemporary city.24 Mcleod also confirms the modernist’s vision of building the cities form scratch, by stating that solving the problem requires the “clearing of old housing districts, where, because the poorest levels of the population are warehoused in old blocks “fit only for demolition.”25 This vision of re- building and re-structuring society echoes the concept of tabula rasa, as defined by John Locke, is in Essay on human understanding. As Nicholas Petryszak explains, “Locke’s concept was built upon the combined bases of rationalism and experience in order to demonstrate that although man was imperfect, he was nevertheless susceptible to definite improvement through the application of laws of science as well as through the instituting of programs of social reform.”26 Echoing Le Corbusier, Teige also stressed that because housing was a mass need which “can only be solved by large-scale planning”, the “housing problem must be seen above all as a problem of town planning”.27 From the cell the architects had to shift their attention to the multicellular and the organization of the new city. In his Grossstadtarchitektur, published in 1927, Ludwig Hilberseimer wrote:

“The architecture of the large city depends essentially on the solution given to two factors: the elementary cell and the urban organism as a whole. The single room as constituent element of the habitation, and since the habitations in turn from blocks, the room will become a factor of urban configuration, which is architecture’s true goal. Reciprocally, the planimetric structure of the city will have a substantial influence on the design of the habitation and the room.”28

What Tafuri writes about Hilberseimer’s relation between the cell and urban organism is that works as an exemplar. In the first place the cell is the “prime element of the continuous production line that concludes with the city”. In the second place it is also “the element that conditions the dynamics of the aggregations of building structures”. The cell reproducible “ad infinitum”, represents the basic structure of a production program, from which is excluded any other standard component. The structure of the city, by “dictating the laws of assemblage”, will be able to influence the standard form of the cell. The old concepts of “place” or “space” are altered, since the conformation of the cells “predisposes the coordinates” of the planning of the new city.29 The grid would be deployed as an understructure to control the horizontal and vertical relations occurring on a plane surface. It acts as the device to map the space of the dwelling unit, apartment block, area, city, landscape and so on. Different as they are in scale and aim all the elements would abide by the grid, which emphasizes the potential of expansion and the repetition of the module. The grid in planning as in art, extents, in all directions to infinity; it is synonymous with the continuum. As Krauss again points out, “any boundaries imposed upon it can only be seen as arbitrary. By virtue of the grid the given work of art is presented as a mere fragment; a tiny piece arbitrarily cropped from an infinitely larger fabric.”30 Another aspect of the grid is that in the flatness, that results from its coordinates, it is completely “geometricized, ordered, antinatural, antimimetic, antireal”, notes Rosalind Krauss. In the overall regularity of its organization, it is the result “not of imitation, but of aesthetic decree.”31 An aesthetic order that only the production of industrial work can create through the mode of repetition.

“The mode of production of material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life.”32


The industrial production became part of the organization of the design and was reflected even in the way proposed for the consumption of the object, as proposed in Meyer Co-op Zimmer. As Kenneth Frampton states, that “a rigorous modern architecture must be contingent upon the broader issues of politics and economics and that, far from distancing itself from the realities of the industrialized world, architecture must depend for its future quality on the adoption of rationalized production methods.”33 The Co-op series is a work that can be characterized only as a utopia, but a technological one. What becomes prominent is the role of the architect in a disguised propaganda, which along with all the literary, artistic, or cinematographic manifestos in favor of the mechanization of the universe, it never fails to amaze. These invitations, says Tafuri, “to become a machine, to universal proletarianization, to forced production, in revealing the ideology of the Plan all too explicitly, cannot fail to arouse suspicion as to their real intentions.”34 The question of the minimum dwelling is therefore not a question for architecture alone: it is above all a social and political question. As a political agent and idealist the architect had to assume the task of continual invention of advanced solutions, at the most generally applicable level.35 “Architecture”, in the sense of programing and planned reorganization of building production and of the city as a productive organism, “rather than revolution.”36 For us now it is of interest to note that Meyer associates modern man and a nomad in order to demonstrate a particular concept of the collective life, its possibilities and freedoms. We can assume at this point that the word nomad, in Meyer’s text, doesn’t only refer to the objects or the experience of the modern man in the city, but also suggests a new political authority. Since the nomadic lifestyle has been associated with freedom and rebelliousness, the quasi- nomadic cell and life implies a new system of values for the citizen that was discussed since the late period of Enlighenment. “One of the most striking accomplishments of the Enlightenment theorists was that, in maintaining their liberal ideals of individuality, they seemed to have discovered a concept of social freedom that could reconcile a faith in the predictable, mechanistically determined operation of society with a commitment to individual liberty.”37 And that is exactly what Meyer proposed, “Co-operation rules the world; the community rules the individual.” It is enough to recognize here that even if human nature is autonomous, rational and capable of free will, there is still imperfectability and disunity within man. The “semi-nomad” is not a singular, defined individual, but rather one who can embody different identities and understand the world from multiple, heterogeneous perspectives.

1 The International Congresses of Modern Architecture (Congres internationaux d’architecture moderne) commonly known as CIAM, was formed in 1928 by an architectural collective, which deliberately intended to create an antitraditionalist modern architecture. As Eric Mumford points out, its overall inspiration can best be understood in relation to ideas first put forward by Count Claude-Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), a French philosopher and social scientist, in early nineteenth century. Saint- Simon believed that developmets in industry and in the scientific understanding of human history and society were making possible a new social system based on universal human association.Eric Mumford, “The CIAM Discource on Urbanism, 1928-1960”, The MIT press, 1958, p. 2

2 Friedrich Engels, “The housing Question”, published as a pamphlet, 1872

3 What the term “subsistence minimum” means to its full extent is described best, according to Karel Teige, by the Berlin hygienist Dr. Paul Vogler: “the upper limit is the real minimum vivendi (the minimum that still allows one to survive), while the lower limit is the modus non moriendi (a condition in which one still does not die of hunger).”, Karel Teige, “The minimum dwelling”, trans. Eric Dluhosch, MIT Press, 2002, (Prague 1932), p. 42

4 Kenneth Frampton, foreword, “The CIAM Discource on Urbanism, 1928-1960”

5 Manfredo Tafuri, “Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development”, The MIT Press, 1973, 119

6 CIAM declaration 1928, Kenneth Frampton, foreword, “The CIAM Discource on Urbanism, 1928-1960”

7 Teige, “The minimum dwelling”, 1932, p. 2

8 Karl Marx, “Economical and Philosophical manuscripts”, 1844

9 Teige, “The minimum dwelling”, p. 33

10 Ibid, p. 252

11 Hannes Meyer, “Die neue Welt”, “Der Standard”, 1926

12 Michael Hays, “Modernism and the posthumanist subject: The architecture of Hannes Meyer and Ludwig Hilberseimer”, p.69

13 Ibid, p. 64

14 Harold Van Buren Magonigle, “The upper Ground 4”, Pencil Points 15, sept. 1934, p. 447

15 Hyungmin Pai, “The Portfolio and the Diagram: Achitecture, Discource, and modernity in America”, MIT Press, 2002, p. 163

16 Ibid, p. 254

17 “His master’s voice” is a trademark in the music business, and for many years was the name of a large record label. The name was coined in 1899 as the title of a painting of the dog Nipper listening to a wind-up gramophone.

18 Teige, “The minimum dwelling”, p. 267

19 Tafuri, “Architecture and Utopia”, p.125

20 Charles Doughty, “Travels in Arabia Deserta”, 1888, p.p. 71,78,79,80

21 Teige, “The minimum dwelling”, p. 264

22 Walter Gropius, The Sociological Foundations of the Minimum Dwelling, “Scope of total architecture”, 1956

23 Mumford, “The CIAM Discource on Urbanism, 1928-1960”, p. 39

24 Teige, “The minimum dwelling”, p. 270

25 Mary Caroline McLeod, “Urbanism and Utopia: Le Corbusier from Regional Syndicalism to Vichy”, University Microfilms, 1987, p. 164

26 Nicholas G. Petryszak, “Tabula rasa – its origins and implications”, Journal of the history of the Behavioral Sciences 17 (1981): p. 15-16

27 Mumford, “The CIAM Discource on Urbanism, 1928-1960”, p. 53

28 Ludwig Hilberseimer, Großstadtarchitektur, Julius Hoffmann, Stuttgart, 1927

29 Tafuri, “Architecture and Utopia”, p.105

30 Rosalind E. Krauss, The originality of the Avant-Garde and other modernist Myths, MIT Press, 1985, p. 18

31 Ibid, p. 9-10

32 Karl Marx, Selected writings in Sociology and Social Philodophy, Preface 1859, ed. Thomas Bottomore and Max Rubel, p. 67

33 Kenneth Frampton, foreword, Eric Mumford, “The CIAM Discource on Urbanism, 1928-1960”

34 Tafuri, Architecture and Utopia, p. 76

35 Ibid, p.12

36 Ibid, p. 100

37 Petryszak, Tabula rasa – its origins and implications, p. 17

Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment

The Sublimity of Nothing

Imposing rocks, eternal mountains, stagnant, and agitated waters, torrents, tranquil seas, seas in fury, sites varied to infinity, Greek, Roman, Gothic constructions; sky, distances, calms, stormy weather, serene weather, lighting at different times of the day, tempests, shipwrecks, deplorable situations, victims and pathetic scenes of every kind; day, night, natural and artificial lighting, disparate or fused effects of these lights, are all effects and aspects of nature that can arise the sublime. It is of interest to note that the Burkean catalogue of the things that cause the sentiment of the Sublime, as described above, is going to be of great importance for the argument, which is going to be discussed; Beauty and the Sublime together. According to Kant, Beauty and Sublimity are opposed along the semantic axes “quality-quantity, shaped-shapeless, bounded-boundless: Beauty calms and comforts; Sublimity excites and agitates.”1 With this born in mind, or in other words based on Kant’s judgements, Reyner Banham in his book “Scenes in America Deserta” came to the following conclusion:

Can it be the sudden recognition of the remaining term of that eighteenth century aesthetic trilogy? If it cannot be picturesque, because unpictured; nor sublime, because not awesome nor terrifying; can it be the Beautiful?2

But how can the desert not be Sublime? Even if the desert fails to be terrible, it certainly does not fail to be characterized as awesome. The paradox of the Sublime, its dual meaning and the way we, as subjects, perceive the world, need to be thoroughly analyzed, as Burke’s judgements alone can not provide a convincing answer to the question of Beauty and the Sublime belonging to a single set of ideas.


The sublime may be described in this way: It is an object (of nature) the representation of which determines the mind to regard the elevation of nature beyond our reach as equivalent to a presentation of ideas.3

As Zizek points out, the whole movement that brings forth the feeling of the Sublime “concerns only our subjective reflection external to the Thing, not the Thing-in-itself”. The Thing, in this case the desert, cannot be directly experienced using such human faculties as conceptualization or perception according to Kant, who calls it the trans-phenomenal Thing, but it “represents the way we as finite subjects caught in the limits of our phenomenal experience, can mark in a negative mode the dimension of it.”4 But the desert does not elevate Banham’s imagination nor it makes his mind exhibit those cases that cause the sublime. His aesthetic estimation and judgement that the desert is simply the Beautiful, is a result of his visual preparation and the adequacy of his imagination, which is not easily elevated. What he calls Natural Beauty was in fact nothing more than an iconography, a set of forms, relationships learned through an exposure to art. Great artists had preceded Banham, “codifying the landscape into patterns that he would recognize not as sublime anymore but as naturally beautiful.”5 His phenomenal experience is aroused by a strong feeling of identification; the “rounded of form and glazed with desert varnish mountains” of the desert sometimes resemble the sublime “landscapes of sculptor Henry Moore”.6


We must return in a little more detail to the term of the Sublime in nature and what can cause the feeling of awe or terror. The sublime according to a dictionary is defined as an emotion of an inspiring deep veneration or awe, or, as an uplifting emotion caused by the objects beauty, nobility, grandeur or immensity. As Edmund Burke analyzes in his “Philosophical Enquiry”:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.7 … The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror… Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence and respect.8

But before we go any further on Burke’s definition, it is important to trace the origin of the word and its true meaning. The word sublime is most frequently used as an adjective and is synonymous with grave, elevated, exalted, grandness, and vastness. As described in the “encyclopedia of Aesthetics”, it comes from the Latin sublimis, derived from sub (displacement toward the high) and limis or limus (direction of gaze or type of ascension non-orthogonal to the ground, oblique, askew). Similarly, the Greek ὕψος (hypsos), which commonly means height, takes on the figurative meaning of climax in Longinus’s treatise “On the Sublime” or “Περί ὕψους” (peri hypsous). “Several languages”, says Burke, “bear a strong testimony to the affinity of these ideas. They frequently use the same word, to signify indiffently the modes of astonishment or admiration and those of terror. Θάμβος is in Greek, either ‘fear’ or ‘wonder’; δεινός is ‘terrible’ or ‘respectable’; δέος is ‘to reverence’ or ‘to fear’.”9


At this point it is of interest to demonstrate that every experience must have two sides, as Sigmund Freud stresses in his essay “On the antithetical meanings of primal words”, inspired by Karl Abel’s identically titled piece.

The essential relativity of all knowledge, thought or consciousness cannot but show itself in language. If everything that we can know is viewed as a transition from something else, every experience must have two sides; and either every name must have a double meaning, or else for every meaning there must be two names.10

Freud’s essay is the attempt to show that “the original antithetical meaning of words exhibits the ready-made mechanism which is exploited for various purposes by slips of the tongue that result in the opposite being said of what was consciously intended”.11 Abel’s paradigms of such primal words and the origins of them can provide us with a greater understanding of the world before its distribution or at the time man invented speech. What we understand is that everything indicates an opposition. Words like cleave or cleven (Middle English) would mean both to split and stick. The Latin altus mean both high and deep, and the German Boden [garret or ground] still means the highest as well as the lowest thing. In the Egyptian language as well, “there are a fair number of words with two meanings, one of which is the exact opposite of the other.” These objections clearly present that “everything on this planet is relative and has an independent existence only in so far as it is differentiated in respect of its relations to other things…”12


This proves to a certain degree why the Greek adverb ὕψι (hypsi) apart from ‘high’ also meant ‘in the open sea’. Thus, in the same sense, the sublime can relate to any kind of extension in either height, length or depth; it is a matter of vastness in the general sense. As Burke points out again:

Greatness of dimension is a powerful cause of the sublime. This is too evident, and the observation too common, to need any illustration; it is not so common, to consider in what ways greatness of dimension, vastness of extent, or quantity, has the most striking effect… 13

The sublime is brought on by a confrontation with the surprising or the unknown, with objects of experience extending beyond an individual’s reach.14 Nature in its most chaotic, vast, terrifying dimension is best qualified to awaken in us the sentiment of the Sublime.

Is not true the bulk and breadth are primary and essential qualities of the sublime in landscape? And is it not the sublime that we feel in immensity and mystery? If so, perhaps we have partial explanation of our love for sky and sea and desert waste. There are the great elements. We do not see, we hardly know if their boundaries are limited; we only feel their immensity, their mystery, and their beauty.15

The sea, according to Burke’s exact prescriptions, is a rugged and broken surface, an apparent infinity and most of all, a vast disorder, terrible, irresistibly powerful and obscure. Since the sea possesses the attribute of greatness, obscurity and power, it is therefore sublime; can the mind be ever filled with any thing so great as the ocean itself? The scene of a level plain of vast extent on land may be almost as extensive as a prospect of the ocean, but it can never be boundless in the same sense. Although the desert has defined limits and is in fact measurable, perspective is always erratic; the desert full of deceptions lures men into false assumptions. As Van Dyke explains:

Bodies fail to detach themselves one from another, foreshortening is abnormal, the planes of landscapes are flattened out of shape or telescoped, objects are huddled together or superimposed one upon another… No wonder amid this distortion of the natural, this wreck of perspective, that distance is such a proverbially unknown quantity.16

This effect, commonly known as mirage, happens in very hot and very high deserts, where oxygen deprivation combined with dehydration produces “hallucinations, dislocations of vision, intoxications of the sight and exaltations of perception.”17 We can now see why it is precisely nature that can arise the Sublime: “here, where the aesthetic imagination is strained to its utmost, where all finite determinations dissolve themselves, the failure appears as its purest.” The sublime, says Zizek, is therefore “the paradox of an object which, in the very field of representation, provides a view, in a negative way, of the dimension of what is unpresentable.”18


Nature is a diagram consisting of a flat foreground and a system of vertical backgrounds; it is the relation between the vertical and the horizontal; “the mountain and the plain” as Banham would say. The sublime even though it resides in greatness of dimension toward any direction, it is mostly associated with the dimension of height or what belongs to the vertical. As Burke states, among of the extensions length strikes the least since “a hundred yards of even ground will never work such an effect as a tower an hundred yards high, or a rock or mountain of that altitude.”19 Hence, a perpendicular it is said to have more power in the formation of the sublime, than an inclined plane. And depth, Burke continues, is grander than height. We know that even Mount Everest, which is the world’s highest mountain peak, when measured from sea level to its summit it is 8,848 meters tall. And the Mariana Trench in the western North Pacific Ocean is the deepest point in the world, reaching a depth of 10,911 meters, while the world’s tallest man-made structure is 829.8 meters tall. But, “the desert does not stand up and defy puny mankind in giant gestures against the sky; and does not threaten to fall on travellers and crush them; nor does it provide much in the way of mighty chasms into which they might plunge to their doom.”20 The sublime in the desert as it was highlighted above is not associated with every large lump of rock sticking up above the earth’s crust, but it resides in the thousands and sometimes millions of square miles areas of waste. The Mojave Desert, which is not one of the greatest deserts in the world sizewise, is more than 200,000 meters in length, and let’s not even consider the greatness of other deserts or the ocean. The dimensions are of course not analogous and unable to be compared and the feeling in each case completely different. When it comes to the dimension of height there is always a confrontation with the object causing the sublime, but when being in the middle of nowhere the feeling is quite unsimilar. Out of any scale, with nothing to relate to, the desert and the ocean can only make one feel smaller and smaller, unable to locate oneself in the unbounded space.


So, what is there but a strip of sky and another strip of sand or water? But there is a simplicity about large masses – simplicity in breadth, space, distance – that is inviting and ennobling. And there is something restful about the horizontal line.21

The horizon (or skyline) is the apparent line that separates earth from sky. The word horizon derives from the Greek ὁρίζων κύκλος horizōn (kyklos), ‘separating circle’, from the verb ὁρίζω (horizō), ‘to divide, to separate’, and that from ὅρος (oros), ‘boundary, border, limit’. The line of the horizon is the only apparent boundary in the vastness of the desert and the ocean, the only limitation. What is so restful about a straight line, which is and always has been a limit? Is the history of human knowledge about the cosmos of any use in order to understand this set of principles? The first object of human contemplation in the world was the sky, and heavenly things must have been the first sublime things and the first divine objects of observation. The world in antiquity was divided into three kingdoms or regions; heaven, earth and the lower world or underworld were three separate regions or levels with certain limits. The house of the Greek gods was believed to be located on the top of the mountain Olympos, the last locus that earth interferes with the sky. The earth, according to Giambattista Vico, was associated with the guarding of the boundaries by the theological poets of antiquity, and hence it was called terra from the Latin word territorium.22 The other world positioned on the vertical axis is the underworld. The deities of the lower world, imagined by the poets, was that of water; “Plato supposed that the abyss of waters was in the center of the earth.” But according to Homer, in the contest of the gods, Pluto starts to fear that Neptune may open the earth with an earthquake and expose the lower world to the eyes of men. So, “finally”, says Vico, “the underworld was taken to be the plains and the valleys (as opposed to the lofty heaven set on the mountain tops) where the scattered vagrants remained in their infamous promiscuity.”23 According to the order of the natural theogony, heaven, or the mountain tops, was inhabited by the gods, man along with the heroes resided at the foothills close to the sea and the dead lived in the underworld or the far plain and valleys. The vertical, the height and the depth of that world belong to divine forces thus they are capable of raising the feeling of the Sublime. This was the world distribution for a while, but then man started to question the purpose of nature, tried to explain the natural phenomena and “first became aware of weight, then of measure, and only very slowly of number, in which reason finally came to rest.”24 The way man perceived the world in the past relied on cosmological theories or teleological judgements, which were not adequate in order to exhaust the world.

When man came to understand that the earth and the sky were spherical in form, and that from every point of the circumference there is a slope towards every other, and that the ocean bathes the land on every shore, and that the whole of things is adorned with countless varied and diverse sensible forms…25

Reaching the point where man is aware of natural phenomena, it is safe to assume that the distribution of the world to horizontal and vertical makes sense only in the context of a clearly measurable gravity field. Both horizontality and verticality are local concepts since a plane is horizontal only at the chosen point. Horizontal planes at two separate points are not parallel; they intersect. The earth’s crust and what stands above it become the x (abscissa) and the y (ordinate) of the two-dimensional Cartesian coordinate system. However, as explained above, the sublime in nature comes before the distribution of the horizontal and the vertical, before man became aware of weight, measure and numbers. It is enough then to recognize here that the way we perceive the world is simply a matter of gravity. And in the 1980’s when Banham was writing this book, the non-gravitational field was already there in movies, novels, media and in the pop art of the 1970’s for which Banham was so fond of. A great example of this is displayed in Kubric’s film 2001: A space Odyssey, where the lack of gravity in the spacecraft results to the elimination of the horizontal and vertical system. After watching scenes like these the horizon seems the most restful, comforting thing in the world. Our judgements thus are always relative to the objects that are being judged. The object of the desert is not the same as a tall mountain or building or the unbounded space, thus our judgement should be accordingly different.


Do we need a teleological judgement perhaps? If nature serves man through a chain of other purposive relations then a question arises: how does the desert serve man? The Desert acts as a proof that either there is no ultimate purpose in nature or if there is then it is an alternative one; pleasure. Then, we can claim that Beauty for Banham is causal, because it has a cause and an effect, even if it is pleasure in both cases. His definition of beauty does not involve any of the qualities that Burke or Kant describe, just the fact that in some ways it is reposeful, because of the restful horizon. His judgement could be in fact teleological.

For the better or worse, I am too old, too visually sophisticated, too well- read in too many literatures ever to be able to believe, naively or securely, that beauty just is.26

Desert’s or Nature purpose for him is visual pleasure, although pleasure is not only an effect of Beauty but of the Sublime too. As Kant first suggested:

The feeling of the Sublime is, therefore, at once a feeling of displeasure, arising from the inadequacy of imagination in the aesthetic estimation of magnitude to attain to its estimation by reason, and a simultaneously awakened pleasure, arising from this very judgement of the inadequacy of the greatest faculty of sense being in accord with ideas of reason, so far as the effort to attain to these is for us a law.27 

In other words the Sublime gives us pleasure “through the mediation of displeasure.” 28 Different as they are in many ways, Beauty and the Sublime can be reconciled again in terms of a teleological judgement; they can fragmentary coexist. It is not anymore the one way or the other; the desert can be Beautiful and it can be Sublime as well. But even if this is the case, we still need to stress that every judgement, as Kant explained, is a subjective reflection external to the object. In the Critique of Judgment, Kant presents the sublime as an emotion that places human beings in the fundamental conflict between infinity (Unendlichkeit) and finitude (Endlichkeit), between representation and that which exceeds it. The desert as phenomenologically infinite is the object or the Thing that empowers even the position that the sentiment of the sublime has placed the subject. The sublime is no longer an empirical object indicating the dimension of the Thing, a priori idea or experience but, as Zizek emphasizes, it is “an object that occupies the place, replaces, fills out the empty place of the Thing as the void, as the pure Nothing of absolute negativity – the Sublime is an object whose positive body is just an embodiment of Nothing.”29


1. Slavoj Zizek, “The Sublime Object of Ideology”, Verso, 1989, p. 202

2. Peter Reyner Banham, “Scenes in America Deserta”, Gibbs M. Smith, 1982, p. 218

3. Immanuel Kant, “Critique of Judgement”, Oxford University Press 1952, 1790, p. 119

4. Zizek, “The Sublime Object of Ideology”, p. 213

5. Banham, “Scenes in America Deserta”, p. 213

6. Ibid, p. 145 7. Edmund Burke, “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”, Oxford University Press 1990, 1757, PART I, SECTION VII, Of the Sublime, p. 36

8. Burke, PART II, SECTION I, Of the passion caused by the SUBLIME, p. 53

9. Burke, PART II, SECTION II, TERROR, p. 54

10. Sigmund Freud, “The antithetical meaning of primal words”, 1910, “The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud”, Vol. 11, Hogarth Press, 1955, p. 159

11. Ibid, p. 161

12. Ibid, p. 156-158


14.“ThesublimefromLonginustoMontesquieu”byBaldineSaintGirons,MichaelKelly,Encyclopediaof Aesthetics, Oxford University Press, 1998, vol. 3, p. 327

15. John C. Van Dyke, “The desert”, Forgotten Books 2010, 1901, p. 107

16. Ibid, p. 113

17. Banham, “Scenes in America Deserta”, p. 63

18. Zizek, “The Sublime Object of Ideology”, p. 203


20. Banham, “Scenes in America Deserta”, p. 221

21. Van Dyke, “The desert”, p.18-19

22. Giambattista Vico, “The new Science of Giambattista Vico, 1725, trans. Bergin and Fisch, Cornell University Press, 1948, p. 244

23. Ibid, p. 242

24. Ibid, p. 241

25. Ibid, p. 245

26. Banham, “Scenes in America Deserta”, p. 210

27. Kant, “Critique of Judgement”, p. 106

28. Zizek, “The Sublime Object of Ideology”, p. 202

29. Ibid, p. 206


Cover Image – JMW Turner – Vesuvius in Eruption (1817 – Tate Gallery, London)

Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment

A Marriage of Two Minds

“A Marriage of Two Minds” is not a love poem. It is a marriage between two culture-worshiping traditions of modernism, says Jacquelynn Baas[1], from an architect’s eye, Reyner Banham. The groom is the classical and totalitarian approach, ‘ideal conception of spiritual harmony under single godlike mind’, Leonardo da Vinci as the culture hero. The bride is romantic and medieval approach, ‘dream of willing collaborators under scriptorium conditions AMDG[2]’, Gothic cathedral as the cult object. This marriage is against the ‘self imposed leaders of free collaborators’, AEG being the cult object and Walter Gropius being the culture hero of ‘Orwellian consequence’. And there is a great lie, a cube, a ‘mondiraan in 3D on the scale of man’ which tends to discipline the fields of art, such as architecture, painting and sculpture in a space frame of monochromic logic and esthetic. However there is a ‘growing lad’ in this frame, an Independent Group, trying to break the barriers of cult objects, heroes and products. And this lad grows, becomes a man and sets the borders of art ‘wherever you like










There is no longer a culture hero, object nor product but ‘symbols of human interests’ from all social contexts; cybernetics, Kilroy Was Here (a doodle popular in America during World War II), Jackson Pollack (American painter), Dirty Dick Godot (from the play of Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot), Kwame Nkrumah (leader of Ghana during 1951-1966). It is ‘you’ who rates, likes and dislikes, ‘you’ are the context, the cult object, culture hero and the end product.


The “Marriage of Two Minds” was written for “This Is Tomorrow” exhibition by Independent Group in 1956. It was not long time ago when Britain faced severe damage by the WWII air-raids. After the war was over, it was time for the reconstruction of the nation. However it was not just a question of rebuilding the cities, but as Nicholas Bullock[3] writes, “Above all, it shows  how hopes for a new and better society became linked to the fortunes of the new architecture.” Between 1939 and 1942 debates on postwar constructions took place, those were the times when Army Bureau of Current Affairs’ “Your Britain. Fight For It Now” posters produced, and “Rebuilding Britain” exhibition happened. The aim was to call out to citizens, unify them to wipe out the marks of war and create a strong image of Britain. However this process of reconstruction was disregarding an essential aspect; art and architecture. When the reconstruction process started in the summer of 1942 with a promise of new and better Britain, Bullock states, the vision still lacked specificity. Modern architecture was already becoming a commonly accepted and adopted movement by the works of architects like Le Corbusier, Mies Van Der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright across Europe and America, but in Britain it was still an interest of a small group of intellectuals. It was then when architectural concerns started to be argued and rethought. In 1952, when the debates were still ongoing and effect of art agenda in America slowly started to influence Europe, the Independent Group started its first meetings with artist and sculpture Eduardo Paolozzi presenting images from American pop-culture. With the contributions of artists from various fields of art, such as painting, architecture and photography, the group started to question the ongoing reconstruction process and came to a point where they believed in an art “without any distinction between high and low. (…) They took delight in the diversity and the strength of the images of popular culture, the magazines and science fiction, comics and those key symbols of consumer desirability, advertisement.” Between 1952 and 1953, the meetings started to be chaired by Banham, with the contributions of artists like Richard Hamilton, Nigel Henderson, John McHale and Lawrence Alloway. After a year break, they continued their sessions including the architects Alison and Peter Smithson, focusing on various subjects such as technology, machinery and American mass culture. Later in one of his article Alloway  called on, “Our definition of culture is being stretched beyond the fine-art limits imposed on it by Renaissance theory, and refers now increasingly to the whole complex of human activities.[4]” In 1956 August, “This Is Tomorrow” exhibition opened, gathering different forms of art under the same roof. It became a big public event, a meeting point for artists and a stepping stone to the world of Pop-Art in Britain.


Along with the exhibition, also a catalogue was published with a new typography by Ed Wright and three introductions by Lawrence Alloway, Reyner Banham and David Lewis. In the introductions, Alloway and Lewis had written short essays focusing on the day’s obstacles, oppositions and contemporary agenda of art, meanwhile Banham poetized all these subjects in a new typographical and linguistic way, making not-so-clear references and centralizing “you” in the core of it. The influence of American culture -in this case, popular Beat poems and pop-art- on Banham can be easily recognized by not only the choice of words but also in the presentation of the poem. As an important member of the Independent Group, in the times of globalization and national reconstruction, Banham, placing himself against “Orwellian consequences”, aimed a global equivalence in all fields of art. And elements and icons of popular culture becomes his weapon of choice. As Bullock states, he was presenting the direct continuation of developments that had started with Pevsner, through important figures and found objects of popular culture. By giving the the cult object, culture hero and end product back to ‘you’, he called for an independent and critical judgment of individuals with a “collective discovery” and “liberating excitement[5]”.

[1] D. Robbins, Independent Group: Postwar Britain and The Aesthetics of Plenty, 1990, Cambridge

[2] AMDG: Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam. For The Greater Glory of God. Latin motto of the Society of Jesus

[3] N. Bullock, Building The Post-War Worlds: Modern Architecture and Reconstruction in Britain, 2002, London

[4] L. Alloway, Thoughts in Progress: the New Brutalism, Architectural Design, April 1957

[5] D. Robbins, Independent Group: Postwar Britain and The Aesthetics of Plenty, 1990, Cambridge

Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment

Neo Stocktaking

In the recently domesticated life of the machines in the mid 20th century, the role of the architect seemed to have transformed into that of a machinist- with innovations deriving from the technical dexterity of tenacious and ambitious allies of the profession, led by the structural engineer and followed very closely by other specialized consultants. At the RIBA Discourse in 1959, the ambivalent relationship of the operational lore with the more avant-garde concept of the apparent intelligence was exposed by Charles Eames, further exploited in the following year by Reyner Banham through his contentious argument in Stocktaking. The polemic argument put across in The Architecture Review, drew on the laments of architecture as a lost cause in envisaging the desired utopia, drowned by the high viscous waves of the exact and social sciences, rendering the question of future manifestation compromised. On the pretext of restocking and measuring the distance traversed by architecture since then, one needs to account for the consequence of tradition and technology, which has both evolved and redefined, in content, through each of the decades and more so in the recently emerging  thoughts and progressive experiments. As maverick inventions of today become a part of the conventional lore, the scientific exploitations, get implemented by some far-reaching adroit professionals, and through time, the true potential and aptness of the breakthrough is realized, thus becoming part of a conformist architecture.  A paradigm of such tradition, where ideas were seen as nonsense when created, but later left a stock of knowledge that would become inherent of the customary ‘basics’, can be traced in the works of Buckminster Fuller and his Dymaxion concept.

Bucky, as he is more popularly known was a free thinker who emphasized on exploring an architecture that was detached from any historical Vitruvian or Albertian precedents or orthodox definitions prevalent in the modern world. Ignored and unrecognized initially, for his architecturally revolutionizing concepts in the fields of synergetics, topology and pattern integrities, he was known more as a geometrical poet, stuck amidst architecture and engineering, coming into recognition only when the Dymaxion concept was evolved, which exposed to the fraternity the potential. The three wheeled Dymaxion car, designed by Bucky, has been the model for influence in many designs for its super light structure and principles of aerodynamics involved with maximized fuel efficiency.  A look at most of the designs executed by this non conventional architect later in his vocation, a sensitive guarding to the economics of assembly and production of  prefabricated units is noticed which may have been one of the first pragmatic approach in the same. The Dymaxion house project was a prodigy in the housing development, offering radical solutions to the social and economical constraints, with its innovative concepts of industrial fabrication through standard modular units, which could be used in combinations to produce a sonata in the industry. As opposed to the concepts of Neoliberty  being favoured by Italians in the  Casabella,and soon to be followed by some English towns, Fuller conceived the project in aluminium with an inner lining in fibreglass for insulation, materials hardly known to be used for architectural use in that time provided for a durable, light weight and high strength structure with a natural sensitivity to climate control.  In the planning of the house, the central core housed the services and provided a free space peripherally for the free composition of inhabited spaces to be made as per the requirement of each dwelling. In his entire oeuvre of both rationalist and structurally justifying formalism, Bucky’s aim was to use technology to maximize the benefits of construction through a knowledge base of science and the efficiency of the energies existent in nature for the remuneration of social necessities in the society. In the recent past few decades, similar concepts of using nature and its biological systems as models for inspiration to solve human problems and innovate breakthroughs in technology are being made through the fields of Biomimetics, Biomorphic mineralization and Biomimicry, the implementation of which in architecture is simultaneously being explored. The apparent intelligence of these experiments is exemplified by few architects, like Jean Nouvel’s facade of the Arab World Institute in Paris with the use of photovoltaic panels or a more recent demonstration may be seen in the Ricola Mulhouse Factory by Herzog and Meuron. These computer aided systems and some of the newer systems of fabrication, non-conforming to the traditional principles of the architectural profession, which are continuously being defined by scientists and engineers in collaboration, are still looked upon as an absurdity of the discipline today.

What may be a non realistic danger to the profession does not become instrumental in negating and ignoring innovations which are aimed at the creation of a more holistic character of architecture addressing to the social, economic needs of the society. A deeper delving into the ideologies of the scientific explorations shows the aims are synonymous, with the architect, to provide for architecture of the avant-garde, moving in tandem with technology and the evolving principles for the benefit of mankind in general. The unforeseen and unpredictable, somewhat supernatural characteristic of science, pursued passionately by the connoisseurs of those doctrine seem to pose a threat to the ever blindly following precedents of the architectural lore, thus limiting the ready acceptance of those sublime, mystical, uncanny ideas, fearing the rise of the Other Architecture. There is an illusion created, in the apprehension of losing the ‘basic’ character of architecture, for architecture like any other discipline, inherently moves progressively forward into changing times, resonating the need for introspection, within its set rules transcribed by experience. There are few alternatives suggested for debate to the architect, which may be to accept the sprouting seeds of change, by embracing and sieving the necessary inventions, to be incorporated in the creation of utopia, or, to be submerged in the explorations within the lore, to advocate for a utopia that may exist from predefined beliefs and teleological arguments. The world of ‘what should’ be is the discovery of ‘what is’ from ‘what was’ and ‘what could’ be.

Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment

In From the Cold

It is with a certain amount of inevitability that Reyner Banham, as a fierce advocate of the ‘Machine Age’, primarily registered man’s presence in ‘America Deserta’ through his excitement at the discovery of the technology and transportation networks in the Mojave Desert. Further examples mentioned of human interventions in this ‘stark, savage’ landscape included tree groves, dams and water-ponds, but other than a Spanish colonial railway station – ‘Mojave’s best surprise’ – and San Xavier del Bac, the ‘White Dove’ church, Banham declared the desert to be ‘devoid of any noticeable attempts at architecture’. Admittedly he had not set off on his mid-Western adventure with the mission of undertaking a survey of the vernacular, but having carefully considered the findings of his exploration, Banham observes that the ‘ordinary’ can seem out of place and that ‘neither Wright nor Soleri [has] produced structures that are, in any normal sense, sympathetic or proper to the desert. Both brought an inherently alien vision with them and imposed it on the desert scene.’ As found, without human intervention, the landscape of the desert is all-consuming in its relentless emptiness. ‘A believer might know that God was about, even when other men were not…[the] desert gives just enough water to sustain life, but not enough to be mistaken for generosity or to give pleasure.’

East of the Mojave Desert and North of the Chihuahuan lies a further expanse of arid land, not quite as parched and with a view to the mountains. The variation in scenery in no way reduces the power of the endlessly untouchable horizon. Amidst this desolation rise up buildings made of the land. Unlike the ‘churrigeuesque White Dove’ church and the train station of Kelso, these New Mexican adobe churches find a close affinity, not with past architectural styles that arose with the colonial missionaries but with peasant dwelling forms of the indigenous people. They return to the primitive, whilst embracing the Christian vision with an instinctive use of material as understood in local lore and used as found. The ‘White Dove’ that Banham discovered and celebrated was indeed itself once of brown mud but now ‘requires modern paint and modern upkeep: yet these material considerations – pigment chemistry and janitorial care – deliver an image, illusion if you will, of spirituality that devout Catholic, art lover, and everyday tourist alike can honor.’ Unlike this ‘incandescent vision’ of startling whiteness, the work of the community on the adobe churches grounds them firmly in the process of creating a tangible object from the desert dust that surrounds them. Most were originally built by members of the community as a labour of reverence using whatever materials were available at that time and the periodic ritual of re-plastering a church with mud takes hundreds of parishioners around ten days to complete. Built both for religious reasons and as fortresses against the indigenous population, the churches often take a simple classical single-nave or cruciform plan-form, and enjoy double-height spaces with a choir-loft. Whilst the interiors are also what one would typically expect from a missionary church in a new land, the artifacts brought by the priests from Spain were gradually phased out, replaced by local craftsmen and their own interpretations. Santeros, the sanctuary caretakers were artists who painted the images of the patron saints and local carpinteros provided the priests with joinery in the form of alter railings and pews. The church exteriors are, when at their best in terms of structural honesty with massive adobe walls, bell towers and buttresses, powerful, symbolic and moving in this harsh land, tied strongly to local native-American tradition and community beliefs. ‘The desert is where God is and man is not’? God can only live where man already is.

The image of the church rising out of the land is immediately coherent, both as a symbol of man’s faith and of his temporal relationship with the Earth. Banham could not conceive of a ‘beautiful’ desert through the consideration of either the enormity of space or of the constructions of man in their respective isolation. However, through their connection and joint identity, a new perception of the sublime starts to emerge; one that heightens an understanding of the power of the human race whilst exposing its insignificance in nature. The overwhelmingly moving presence of the adobe church seen across the piazza of wilderness is identifiable by both its usefulness and its meaning; a shelter, safety, a place of belonging and congregation – whether religious in the traditional sense or not – and, furthermore, as a representation of man’s endeavour to create and inhabit. The sensuous use of materials ‘as found’ with an honest expression of structure, a rational plan, and a formal, instinctive use of proportion combined with the legibility of image, work naturally together here. And so, the elucidations of the New Brutalists as defined and celebrated by Reyner Banham and the Smithsons’ have occurred ingenuously before, in other times and places, without the self-consciousness or deliberation of being in a style or within a movement. According to Banham, ‘it is this reverence for materials – a realisation of the affinity which can be established between buildings and man- which is at the root of the so-called New Brutalism.’ And as the Smithsons’ found in the ‘anonymous architecture of simple, rugged geometrical forms, smooth walled and small windowed, unaffectedly and immemorially at home in its landscape setting’ of the Mediterranean, the adobe churches have kindred qualities. It is these qualities that illuminate its immortal image, perfectly at home; an ordinary and heroic architecture.

Y Despues        And After That
Los laberintos    The labyrinths

que crea el tiempo,    that time creates,

se desvanecen.    vanish.

(Sólo queda    (Only the desert

el desierto.)    remains.)

El corazón,    The heart,

fuente del deseo,    fountain of desire,

se desvanece.    vanishes.

(Sólo queda    (Only the desert

el desierto.)    remains.)

La ilusion de la aurora    The illusion of dawn

y los besos,    and kisses

se desvanecen.    vanish.

Sólo queda    Only the desert

el desierto.    remains.

Un ondulado    A rolling

desierto.    desert.

Frederico García Lorca




Banham, Reyner. Scenes of America Deserta. Thames and Hudson, 1982.

Banham, Reyner. A Critic Writes: Selected Essays by Reyner Banham. Centennial Books, 1966.

Banham, Reyner. The New Brutalism. The Architectural Press, 1966.

García Lorca, Frederico. Poem of the Deep Song / Poema del canto jondo. City Lights Books, 1987.

Romero Cash, Marie. Built of Earth and Song. Churches of New Mexico. A Guide. Red Crane Books, 1993.

Image – Elantha Evans

Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment

Cloudy with a Chance of Metaballs


A true Englishman never leaves home without his umbrella, it is said; and that would suffice to assume that Reyner Banham always carried his along, even when crossing the Mojave Desert. Raised in a different climate, he came to venerate arid dryness, eventually letting it widen his own perspective. Having observed technology and architecture interpolations during the 20th century, he didn’t outlive the third Machine Age, ultimately missing the chance to introduce himself to the fourth: the much anticipated Digital Age. It is unfortunate though that one’s passing away should deter him from doing cherished activities – especially when those require more time than one’s lifetime. Perhaps Banham could keep on cycling through this planet’s deserts, contemplating on the attempts of man to claim their territory. Thus paying homage to the man who instigated his travels, he would most certainly visit the Arabian Desert, which Charles M. Doughty first described in a mixture of zest and reverence. This particular visit would also reserve him with an unexpected and interesting encounter – for more than a hundred years after Doughty’s last visit, the desert gave birth to a child. The child was promptly named King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center and was baptized into the doctrine of Parametricism. Despite Doughty’s and Banham’s expressed affection for the “mother”, paternity was claimed by Patrik Schumacher on behalf of ZHA. The KAPSARC (as it was soon known among friends and family) was to signify the successful transition of architecture into this brand new style of design.

It is the fate of the pioneer architect to have trouble communicating his message by means of his work alone. Probably for this reason Schumacher had to resort to expressing his architectural visions in written form – and make sure that the message will be heard. Following in the footsteps of others before him, he authored a perfectly crafted manifesto, complete with dogmas, taboos, war declarations and the lot. He also stated the belief in Parametricism’s ability to cross phenotypical variants while retaining a genotypical coherence. This could actually be quite a feat to accomplish; and once it is done, it permits for organic, leaf-like formations to spread amidst the sand dunes, where it never seems to rain. One calls to mind Banham’s own attribution of Stirling and Gowan’s work – in this case, Schumacher could be credited with coming up with another style for the job. But can a research center in the Arabian Desert, a private residence in a Russian woodland and an office complex in a Mediterranean metropolis qualify as part of the same job? More likely, he is creating jobs for the Style, inventing parameters where there are none, and flattening cultural and topographical diversities alike with an animate high-performance steamroller. Perhaps that would be the only way to cope with the ambiguity of a post-Fordist society; and Schumacher has made clear that he despises the infinite complexities that Postmodernism disclosed to humanity. On the other hand, a blatant irony such as one of a sustainable and environmentally friendly Petroleum Research Center is only worth in a Postmodernist era. Yet this search for a universal and easily identifiable architectural matrix has been haunting the dreams of the profession’s most restless members since they discovered their role over society. Sometimes this matrix has a distinguishable form; at other times a definite purpose. Isn’t that what the much anticipated in mid-20th century architecture Autre was all about? Now cutting-edge technology comes to the aid; and as automobiles rushed in the modern cities shaping along the internal urban boundaries, this time invisible yet omnipotent vectors render contemporary buildings smooth and malleable. The parametric matrix is certainly of the first kind. Such a style has the right to deny historical paradigms as it tries to forge new affiliations with all aspects of architectural endeavor. More self-righteous than self-referential though, sneering at the demise of its predecessors, it disregards the fact that it was Modern Architecture that took a bitter lesson during the post-WWII period: aesthetic canons and social change can be quite uncompromisable.

At this point, Banham cycles past the KAPSARC, probably attributing its crystalline presence to the combination of desert heat and dehydration. After all, technology may have helped architecture to form a closer relationship with the environment, but in the end it cannot compensate for its shortcomings. This does not necessarily imply that it’s technology’s fault. A man whose scientific work permeated both the first and the second Machine Age famously said that problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them. There are certain issues (sustainability is just one of them) that in all likelihood are inherent to the nature of the building process. Their solution lies farther away than a mere choice of designing style; albeit closer to the perceived objective of architecture itself. It has cultural and geographical aspects that are eagerly overlooked through the prism of technology and ecology. Of course, this means that maybe the real war must again be fought in the fields of architectural autonomy – for the right of architecture to make use of its own parameters in dealing with the built environment. That would vindicate Banham in his castigating Modernism for the fetishistic regard of mechanical engineering – presently, it’s Parametricism that employs computer engineering as an alibi for preferring cheap sensationalism over the search for a solution. Its claim to fame hints that it is mainly motivated by its creators’ personal ambitions. What Patrik Schumacher (along with his fellow ideologues) fails to realize though is that by the uncritical admiration of digital technology, he identified architecture with a differently oriented field – altering once more the relationship of the architectural profession with society. Overindulging in all sorts of digital jargon, he eagerly opened the black box of architecture to the public, only to reveal a content of nurbs, blobs and metaballs. As Reyner Banham rides off into the distance, his rolled umbrella in hand, the architects of the fourth Machine Age are left behind, wishing upon the fallen stars of formalism.

Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment

A Man Who Knew Too Much

“Visiting   houses  in  Beverly  Hills  or  Bel  Air   can  be   an  hallucinating   experience;   an overwhelming  sence of déjà vu mingles with an overwhelming  desire to sidle along corridors with one’s back to the wall and to kick doors wide open before passing through.” More like scenes rather than anything else is Banham’s interpretation of the Western metropolis  of the West. Standing so far away from his Englishness and the strict academic role of the historian enables  him  to  experience,  question  anything  absolute,  and  to  create  une  histoire  autre about architecture  and the city. Like others before him, he comes from another tradition;  he is an outsider, a foreigner,  an immigrant  of academia. Away from another émigré, his master Pevsner and the German thought  forced on him, he grows younger and unconventional;  an intellectual  hippie who tranforms from flaneur to chauffer. He gives up his beloved  Bickerton, gets a driving  licence and a car in order to “read Los Angeles in the original”, echoing  the earlier generations  of English intellectuals  who taught  themselves Italian in order  to  “read Dante  in the  original”.  “I  love  the  place”,  he states just before  he enters his car, “with  a passion that goes beyond  sane or reason”, then turns on the engine and drives through  the coasts, hills, valleys and freeways in order  to reveal another  reading  of the city through  his brand  new original  eyes. Always at the  edge  of the  world  and in a different  direction,  he goes on and identifies  his four ecologies not only as places or monuments  to explore by car but also as places where architecture satisfies no need in most cases but emerges in the sake of a dream, or what he calls “the great middle-class suburban dream”.

Hollywood,  West Hollywood,  Beverly Hills and Bel Air – all hills thus rich suburbs, “the higher the ground the higher the income” – are places so entirely different  from Norwich, the city he was born  and grew up. Bel Air sounds like the dream place to live, even the name itself is persuasive enough  to a sun-loving  Brit, like Banham, who had to suffer from  the Toxic Air and  the  gloomy  weather  of  London.  Even though  L.A. is nothing  like  Norwich,  London, Europe  or  even  the  cities  of  the  American  east  coast,  he  has a robust  memory  of  this particular urban landscape, a sense of familiarity  and an overpowering desire to expose the uncanny. Los Angeles has little history to demonstrate  but many stories to tell. The cityscape is  more  like a dreamscape  and the  architecture  being  re-framed  through  the  planning  of directors,  production designers,  and set decorators,  is no longer  part  of everyday life but part  of  a narrative.  If then  the  scenographer  replaces  the  architect  in  the  same way the director   can  take  the  place  of  the  historian.  In  that  sense, Banham,  the  man  of  many disguises, writes a script  instead  of  history  which  then  turns into  a movie.  A real pioneer hippie;  he leads the way, re-establishes the new age hippie  trail and takes along the reader- viewer  to  an hallucinating  trip.  In the  place  where  anything  is possible,  a hi(ppie)storian under the effect of his drug  – criticism – can see what’s already there in a different  way but always aware of  his altered  perceptions.  Whimsical  places, surreal experiences,  fantasies, desires, and dreams, are elements all waiting to be re-discovered.  In retrospect,  it all derives from  Hollywood, anything  found  there  is enriched  by its creative  spirit.  Without  a doubt, Banham  acknowledges   the  great   impact   cinema  had  on  his  perception  and  way  of interpretation but  then  again he aims to  be  critical  about  it.  The scene where  he visits a house in the Hills, inspired  by the cliché scenes in private  detective  movies of the 40’s is a pure moment of sarcasm and criticism. He promplty becomes both a narrator and actor, so it stays unclear whether  he wants to  be  Alfred  Hitchcock,  Humphrey  Bogart  or himself;  the music of Vertigo playing in the background  on the one hand and a heroic detective  Banham figure solving mysteries on the other.

An Interpretation of dreams; that’s what L.A. is all about, it’s a frame through  which one can understand the city, “it’s a frame of mind”. Enough about the city though,  another dream in desperate  need of interpretation is Banham’s. It is extremely  hard to read Banham’s mind, the only thing  clear about  it is that his intention  to write a manual of the city is probably  an explicit lie. His mind’s eye emanates from a fusion of history with present, reality with fantasy, integrity  mingled  with humor and irony opposed  to ideology.  In other  words he slips away like a lizard or like a chameleon reliant to the environment.  As his biographer  Nigel Whiteley would  say he transformes  from  working-class  intellectual  to  pop  professor  and  then  to  a cowboy.  Reading  L.A. is an attempt  for  him  to  show how  he fits  in, better  than  anyone before and around him; his narrative is well staged and it involves himself as much it involves the  city.  Looks like it  is not  certain  if Banham declares his love  for  L.A. or the  other  way round. He happens to be talented  in many ways, he is an historian, critic, professor, pop  art lover, screenwriter, director,  actor, hippie, and junkie among all the other things. What needs to  be  brought   to  everyone’s  attention   though   is  that  Banham  is  a  fake.  He  is  not  a chameleon  nonetheless but  a man with many costumes or disguises, which becomes more evident  during  his cowboy  phase. “He  looked  liked  he had just stepped  out of a western, like  a  cowboy  straight  out  of  central  casting”,  says Tim  Street-Porter,  “he  was kind  of overdoing  the whole look – Stetson, cowboy  shirt, turquoise-studded belt, jeans, shoestring tie, the whole  effect  contrasting  bizarrely with  his East Anglian  accent. It was his signature uniform  and made  him look  startling  and really quite  impressive.”  What Banham is going through  in the  70’s can not  be only  accredited  to  a gradual  Wild  Westrnization,  it seems more likely that he is dealing with or faking even a Post-middle age crisis.

(Image from Reyner Banham Loves LA – 1972)

Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment

The Rough and Tumble Adventures of the Kodachrome Kid

Scenes in America Deserta (1982) is not quite a novel, not quite a drama, definitely not a travel guide, really not quite an anything. The only close comparison might be the origin of the title, Charles Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta (1888). However, where Doughty’s prose is insistently archaic, even by Victorian standards, Reyner Banham’s is accessible and elegant. Beyond the typical manifesto or critique, Banham studies the American Southwest with educated, purposeful enthusiasm, remarkable in its charm and cheeky humor. Solely on the strength of this writing, he takes what are essentially the ramblings of a wannabe cowboy and creates an outlier of architectural rhetoric. If absolutely forced to categorize Scenes, it would be best labeled as episodic narrative, the main characters being the author and the environmental qualities he studies (specifically the light, roads and colors of the Mojave Desert). By accepting this kind of narrative, the qualities start to become individuals, each with evolving wants, needs and personalities which allows for a deeper relationship with the writer and subsequently, the reader.

For Banham, the character of light is unignorable; it is aggressive and hauntingly beautiful, a vengeful antagonist that stalks him obsessively. The “hard grey light” we expect is a fiction. Instead the Mojave light is the embodiment of two opposing figures concentrated into one element all at once frighteningly powerful and delicately macabre. Here daylight does not represent the clarity of signified truth (as it might in the style of Turner or Rembrandt), but the “spectral and hurtful colourless light” of an all-seeing eye. It is a god who is in the judging-business, not the helping-business. When the sun goes down, the light transforms into the stuff of drugged supernatural visions. Reflections of a sunset off the salt plain are described as “Cherenkov”, glowing as if from a freshly-cooled atomic reactor. This unsettling aspect is addressed again in the description of Las Vegas. Through a boundless night, the mega-watt attractions make overly-cheerful promises of intelligent life, yet come morning, the sun shows the gaudy desert oasis will only make for ugly ruins. The duality created within this element encourages the reader’s ambivalence: Light is the announcer of unwanted reality and the creator of disembodied, loathing fear.

Unlike the shallow promises of neon signs and flashing bulbs, the open road guarantees real and pragmatic freedom, or at least, escape. So like many beat poets before him, Banham follows it out into the void, hoping to learn by experience. It’s no surprise then when the self-identified greenhorn becomes fascinated with the legendary Route 66. This road in particular is presented as the last relic of a golden age, broken and fragmented but still possessing “that magic which can stir the shallow places in one’s soul” an allure contrasted against the Interstate system, which is condemned as being the “mindless vandalism of MIT engineers”. The road is played like a character from a 1950’s Western, a fading has-been, long obsolete and looking for one last score. It is both human in scale and epic in purpose, meandering almost absent-mindedly around mountains and rivers, providing a place between banal safety and the certain death which graces the book’s cover. Route 66 lets the driver discover themselves under a protective gaze, like an old rodeo star of asphalt and paint, slowly fading into the sand.

Yet despite the influence of the light and road to Banham’s narrative, the most consistently discussed characteristic of the desert is the color. Initially unimpressive, it is portrayed in the first chapter as being somewhere between “iron grey”, “tan” and “dirty white”. Though as we dive deeper, the color begins to change into something more compelling. Suddenly there are “five different words for ‘red’”; the landscape is peppered with creatures “dark and golden-eyed” and horsemen “in splendid black”. Their relationship reaches maturity in Banham’s description of San Xavier Del Bac, “the most beautiful man-made thing in the desert”. As he describes it: “The whiteness strikes, hurts – but holds – the eyes. The two belfries above…blaze against the blue almost as if they fluorescenced…it is marvelous, never to be forgotten.” This burning white is a far cry from the novice, brackish neutrals and speaks as if from a Georgia O’Keefe painting. Sadly all these marvellous descriptions do not match with the book’s grayscale images. While most likely an unfortunate financial necessity, this may actually be a saving grace. It protects the reader from seeing the mean truth: that all the “Indian Reds” which were so overwhelming, in retrospect, still are those dull tones. We were the ones that changed, not the landscape. If the pictures had been in full color, the descriptions wouldn’t have matched either Banham’s words or our imaginations. It’s much harder to sell the wonder of a place when there is continual apology for perceived inaccuracy.

The landscape in Scenes in America Deserta is almost unrecognizable from beginning to end. Our esteem for the desert has grown and we feel as if we were there, trekking through the wilderness like one of the gang. Due to this sense of admittance, the conclusions reached regarding the desert and its architecture come off as the natural by-product of a group experience. It’s a wonderful, beautiful and deceitful trick. His narrative is so well rounded, so full, that our conclusions aren’t even ours, they’re Banham’s. The twist ending is that the author had a particular agenda the whole time; we were just too busy enjoying the ride to notice. Unlike the architectural writing of his contemporaries, Banham does not offer up his beliefs as dogma, apologia, or even in a direct manner. Instead, he chooses something akin to Saturday-morning cartoon heros, making it all at once personal, persuasive and strangely sentimental. We’ve been conned, and the best part is we don’t even care. Indeed we only realize it as the author starts driving off; abandoning us in the place we’ve somehow grown to love, while the sun begins to set. Gotcha.

Posted in 2012 | Leave a comment