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01.29.2014
Comment> Experimental Histories at CCA
Irene Cheng sticks her nose in new ways of uncovering the past.
The Ethics of Dust.
Courtesy CCA

History as a discipline has a reputation for being conservative, and therefore at loggerheads with the avant-garde thrust of many future-leaning architecture practices and schools. In how many architecture departments is it all too easy to discern the historians in ill-fitted tweed from the designers in bespoke black? And yet a number of architects, artists, theorists, and historians have been pushing the lines between disciplinary categories by working in a vein that might be called “experimental history.” While there are many ways to define “experimental history,” we might provisionally describe it as analyses of the past that lie outside the dominant modes of history writing—the monograph and text—including reconstructions, counterfactual histories, new media, critical conservation, and even destruction.

Such alternative historical practices were the subject of a recent pair of events held at the California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco, both sponsored by the school’s Masters program in Design Theory and Critical Practices. The first was an exhibition entitled An Olfactory Archive: 1100-1951, curated by David Gissen and designed by Brian Price and Matt Hutchinson, that explored scent as a medium of historical reconstruction. Suspended in a lightweight steel frame occupying the school’s cavernous Nave were eighteen glass cloches, each encasing a waft of the past: manure in a French countryside, salt air, coal soot from the early industrial era. The efficacy of this unusual presentation of the past quickly became evident, as students and visitors seemed almost magnetically drawn to the cloches. Those who ordinarily might not pause to read a wall text about 14th century Dutch polders, say, nevertheless stopped to take a whiff of them.

 
The Olfactory Archive.
 

On display were works by a number of architects and artists who have experimented recently with odor as a vehicle for recording, representing, and reconstructing historical buildings and landscapes. One of the scents in the show, for example, is a fragrance called “Rotterdam, Olfactory Object” created by Aaron Betsky and Herzog and de Meuron to capture the early 21st century aromas of that city. The designers describe the scent as a mixture of “river water, patchouli, hashish, tangerine, algae, fur, and dog.”

Odor is such an obviously powerful aspect of the experience of the city that one wonders why more urban and landscape historians have not addressed it. I asked my students to describe the characteristic smells of San Francisco, and they quickly identified the tang of the Civic Center, the putrescence of the number 22 MUNI bus, omnipresent vapors of coffee, weed, and the scent of seafood at Fisherman’s Wharf. Odor is immediate, visceral, and sometimes overwhelming. Yet scent, as the cultural historian Alain Corbin has observed, is a traditionally discredited source of knowledge—“at the bottom of the hierarchy of senses,” especially as compared with sight. Ephemeral, invisible, and sometimes to describe precisely, odors are excluded from the purview of most architectural and urban histories.

One of the works in the show that explicitly responds to the absence of smell from the standard historical accounts is Jorge Otero-Pailos’ Olfactory Reconstruction of Philip Johnson’s Glass House (2008). The project actually comprises three scents, each incarnating Johnson’s iconic residence at a different historical moment: The odor of the newly built house in 1949 is a blend of freshly lacquered wood, painted steel, and the leather of the house’s Barcelona chairs and bathroom ceiling. The scent from 1959 recalls the “aesthetic of olfaction preferred by sophisticated American men of the mid-to-late 1950s”—a Mad Men–worthy confection of Old Spice, English Lavender, and Acqua Velva. The final fragrance portrays the house in the late 60s, after its surfaces had been infused with the air of thousands of cigarettes and cigars. Otero-Pailos’ project challenges several longstanding biases in historic preservation, such as the tendency to give greater weight to a building’s original state (and its designer’s intention) over the work’s subsequent life, as well as an emphasis on the visual aspects of architecture over its other sensory qualities. The scents of the Glass House, like the exhibition as a whole, invite speculation about what it means to reconstruct and to understand the past.

Test Sites

Historians of a more disciplinary bent might ask, is reconstructing a smell “legitimate” history? After all, without actual historic air samples, the reconstruction of what a house smelled like seventy years ago is necessarily a work of imaginative recreation. This was one of the questions probed at “Test Sites: Experiments in the History of Space,” a symposium organized by David Gissen and myself at CCA on October 12. The event gathered a number of architectural historians, theorists, artists, architects, and people whose identities are mash-ups of the above. Each presented a project, or series of works, that could be considered “test sites” for practices in experimental history.

As part of a panel on “Archives,” for example, the San Francisco-based artist Amy Balkin presented an ongoing project called A People’s Archive of Sinking and Melting (2012), in which she asks people living in places at risk of disappearing to contribute items to a collective archive. The notion of a “people’s archive” responds to the problematic issues around authority, control, and access attending most institutional archives. Such collections—places like MoMA, Avery Library, or the Fondation Le Corbusier—comprise the typical starting points for architectural historians. Yet nagging problems plague historians’ relationships to these official collections. Who determines what is valuable enough to be saved, and according to what criteria? How is history distorted when the guardians of an architect’s papers want to “edit” his or her legacy? Balkin’s project draws attention to exactly these questions of framing, editing, and curatorial authority. Her People’s Archive is strikingly varied: it includes items best described as debris—a crumpled Ramen package retrieved from New Orleans’s Upper Ninth Ward, a Kodachrome film box salvaged from a flooded Brooklyn basement after Hurricane Sandy, an empty tuna fish tin from Cape Verde—alongside more obviously “valuable” artistic items such as a carved whalebone from Alaska. Whereas most historians use the archive as a starting point, a source for the materials that are then interpreted, Balkin’s project ends with the archive—one that is “open source” and that the artist describes as a kind of “proxy” for political consciousness among a dispersed public.

Several of the projects presented at the symposium shared a preoccupation with issues of pollution, climate change, and the degraded atmospheres of modern cities. Otero-Pailos, for example, spoke about a series of works entitled The Ethics of Dust (borrowing a phrase from John Ruskin), in which he uses a latex treatment to remove pollution and dirt from historical sites such as the Doge’s Palace in Venice (2009) and an Alumix factory in Bolzano, Italy (2008). The result renders dust itself into an object of historical and aesthetic contemplation. Mark Wasiuta and Marcos Sánchez, architects who teach at Columbia and the University of Southern California respectively, presented a project that likewise “reconstructs” pollution, entitled Instructions for the Reconstitution of Historical Smog (2011). The project takes the form of an elaborate diagram of a machine theoretically capable of recreating the smog conditions of a specific site and time—for example, Los Angeles on September 14, 1955, using the archival records compiled by air quality agencies beginning in the 1940s. Like Otero-Pailos’s project, Instructions makes palpable something normally devalued by historians and preservationists, calling attention to smog—a condition that profoundly shapes the environment and perception of Los Angeles but rarely is addressed by historians. By drawing on actual scientific archives, Wasiuta and Sánchez’s project also cleverly plays on the idea of historical “reversibility”—the idea that historic databanks not only record the past but also offer instructions for future reconstructions.

No doubt many professional historians would describe the above projects as works of conceptual art rather than “history.” Greg Castillo, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a respondent for one of the symposium’s panels, voiced the concern that a work of history must advance a new interpretation of events that responds to and builds off past scholars’ work. This definition seems sensible, and yet it also raises questions. Must history always offer definitive and clear accounts of the past? Or can historical analysis take forms, like smog itself, that are murkier, more speculative, and ambiguous? What if history adopted some of the modes of conceptual art and design practices to produce forms that raise as many questions as they answer? Perhaps befitting a symposium on experimental practices, the results are still being analyzed. What’s certain is that these and other questions related to the future of experimental architectural history will continue to be a subject of debate at CCA in the months ahead.

Irene Cheng

Irene Cheng is an assistant professor at the California College of the Arts.