Posts tagged with "Books":
When a book about suburbia contains a chapter called “The Anarchists Who Took the Commuter Train,” you know it is going to be an interesting read. That book is Amanda Kolson Hurley’s Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City, and it does not disappoint. In six well-researched and informative—yet fast-paced—chapters, Hurley introduces us to a tapestry of suburban social experimentation, from communal living in celibacy to a community of working couples inspired by the Bauhaus. It is a rich collection of projects, most of which have been overlooked by standard urban surveys.
And yes, there were anarchists in Piscataway, New Jersey, commuting to day jobs in Manhattan. Stelton was a development by anarchists decamping from New York’s East Village in 1915. It was centered around an experimental school, the Modern School, which had both year-round and summer residents united by ultraleft political beliefs and, apparently, a love of argumentation. As throughout the book, Hurley takes her research of Piscataway and the Stelton development on the road, visiting the remnants of the town and interviewing former Stelton residents who remember idyllic school days where—as you can imagine in an anarchist paradise—they were pretty much allowed to do anything they liked. Hurley tells Stelton’s story in rich detail, examining everything from how property rights were handled to the ways in which the houses were decorated.
The chapter on Concord Park, which is just outside of Philadelphia, is equally illuminating. Subtitled “Integrating the Suburbs at ‘Checkerboard Square,’” this section details the efforts of a white developer, Morris Milgram, to create a completely integrated suburb in the 1950s. Hurley effectively conveys the many hurdles Milgram faced and the agonizing choices he had to make, most notably his decision to mandate a quota of 55 percent sales to whites and 45 percent to blacks. As one of only a handful of suburban communities to offer high-quality homes to black residents, the quota was deemed necessary in order to keep it from becoming majority black, with the 10 percent disparity added to entice whites to buy. The project was an initial success (it later did revert to an upper-middle-class majority black neighborhood). Hurley again found authentic voices of former residents, combined with tireless research, to record its story.
All of the stories in this book are masterfully told, adding depth to the examination of suburbs within the disciplines of urbanism and architecture—while at the same time providing enough color and commentary to appeal to a reader with little experience or prior interest in the subject. Hurley’s focus on social experimentation and the ways developments affected residents’ day-to-day lives is part of this success.
What gets perhaps less attention, however, is the wonkier architectural-urban analyses of urban design and architecture in contributing to the radicality of these projects. Of the two more “architectural” projects detailed in the book, The Architects' Collaborative’s collection of Modernist homes outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the planned city of Reston, Virginia—the dreamchild of developer Robert E. Simo designed by William Conklin and Thomas Rossant—which only Reston could be considered a truly radical challenge to the standard subdivision in terms of its urban design, embracing both density and mixing of uses. Even at Reston, Simon was forced out and the project reverted to typical suburban norms. (The knife in the gut is that the companies that took over the project were Gulf Oil and Mobil—as if we needed any further proof of what oil companies are looking for in terms of how people live and commute.)
As a result, the book is rather short on critical analysis of the role of design and, perhaps more important, whether design can play a role in remedying any of the problems—restrictive covenants, lack of density and connections, the effects of climate change—that Hurley details in her conclusion as everyday realities. As many—if not most—of the projects in the book ended up failing in themselves or at least failing to inspire any larger movements, the role of design in the relative success of an example like Greenbelt, Maryland—where the proto-modernist forms of Art Deco were used to create a successful mingling of a main street with true suburban freedoms—would make for an interesting next volume.
Hurley’s organization of the book reflects this dichotomy between what is considered success and what is considered failure. She begins in the introduction with a full-throated defense of the suburbs, detailing their increased diversity, quality of life, and sense of community, arguing that the examples in the book are a refutation of suburban clichés of conformity, mediocrity, and blandness. Yet she ends with the aforementioned critique and offers a list of ways in which suburbs could improve. Even the most ordinary of suburbs can of course be considered a uniquely American experiment that has had extraordinary success in redefining how people live. As with any experiment, it is the failures that often provide the pathway to new solutions, and Hurley shows how a number of outliers previously lost to history offer clear alternatives. With 50 percent of Americans still living in the suburbs, even the most hardcore urbanist cannot refute the need to reexamine and redesign them. Hurley has provided us with much-needed fuel for the imagination.
Dan Wood, FAIA, is a cofounder of WORKac and author of We’ll Get There When We Cross That Bridge and 49 Cities.
If commuters dream of a Utopia with flying cars, then urbanists, engineers, architects, and building scientists yearn for structures that clean themselves, eat their own waste, recycle their own water, and never need to tap an electrical grid. These are the “closed worlds” of the book’s title. This book is a catalogue of attempts, over an 80-year time span, to create self-sustaining structures that can support human life. But Kallipoliti shows that, besides acting on mere biology and its technical problems, the image of the closed world is a cultural agent as well. This is a dream that’s about more than survival; it’s about independence and the freedom to explore and expand life into hostile or unknown territories. The closed worlds here bridge the space between mainstream architectural history, science fiction, space science, pure engineering experiment, and countercultural autonomy. There are spaceships and communes, quack medicine and fad diets. There are brave explorers risking their own lives (Jacques Cousteau’s team living on the continental shelf), snarky art projects as cultural commentary (Ant Farm’s “clean air” inflatables), astronaut trainees getting sick on their own waste (in a 1960 simulation at NASA Langley), utopian technocrats (Masdar City), and even hamsters (SEEK). Of course, Bucky Fuller makes several appearances.
The book is organized like one of the classic “catalogues” of 20th century future studies. American audiences will recognize antecedents like Paula Taylor’s The Kids’ Whole Future Catalogue, from 1982, a riff on Stewart Brand’s 1968 Whole Earth Catalog, which featured underwater living, space settlements, and driverless cars. Another precedent, from the U.K., is the Usborne Book of the Future series, which presented domed cities, space elevators, and two-way wireless video chat via wristwatch. Like these books, Kallipoliti’s gives us a format that’s easy to browse casually at a surface level, and it’s just as easy to get lost in its depths. Also like these other collections, this book is lavishly illustrated. The period photographs and drawings are complemented and unified by a series of complex and compelling diagrams by Temitope Olujobi, showing the technical networks that these structures weave in order to create and sustain their environmental conditions.
But Closed Worlds is not a work of optimistic retrofuturism. Kallipoliti includes, along with each project entry, a section on “Key Failures.” Waste builds up, maintenance takes time, seals leak, crops fail—but even more broadly, hubris exists. The reach of these would-be world-makers often exceeds their grasp. These failures bring the projects back down to Earth, and Kallipoliti has invited a collection of practitioners and critics to join her in short essays that examine what it all means. These “Commentary” entries for select projects help contextualize the work in contemporary terms. No hagiography, the stories that Kallipoliti is telling in her book are far stranger and dirtier than simple nostalgia for lost futures would allow, and these stories are all the more instructive for their open-endedness.
This resistance to offer up easy answers is the book’s strength, but it can also leave the reader a little confused and maybe wanting. The diagrams by Olujobi are, like the projects themselves, fascinating. They should be poster size to do justice to their intricacy. But, again like in the projects, the complexity here can be overwhelming at times. As we try to follow the movement of material and energy from component to component, coded in the custom notation and color scheme invented just for the book and its accompanying exhibition at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, it’s hard not to get dizzy and lose sight of the big picture. Does this catalogue of complex failures mean that any attempt to design systems this complicated will be doomed? What is the nature of the implied openness that is the complement to the closed nature of the worlds catalogued here? Is the closure ever really complete in the first place? Maybe the crucial question that we’ve yet to grapple with, as designers, is right there in Kallipoliti’s subtitle: What indeed is the power of shit?
Here in the 21st century, architects are constantly reminded that the construction and maintenance of the built environment takes a disproportionate toll on the quality and health of the unbuilt environment. Kallipoliti’s open questions about Closed Worlds are a vital reminder that these conditions—and our attempts to address them and answer her questions—are not new. As we discuss how built structures can, through partial or complete closure of their own waste-to-value cycles, mitigate their impact on the world, Kallipoliti’s book reminds us that this larger world is itself both “closed” and “open.” We, as a technical species, and as designers, have already begun to intervene in those complex, incomprehensible networks that Olujobi is drawing, but at the scale of the planet. Whether we have intended to be or not, we are ourselves the makers of a closed world, and we might as well get good at it.
Was it an ironic coincidence or part of the modern movement’s DNA that the heroic architectural avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s was accompanied, promoted, and memorialized by historians even as protagonists like Walter Gropius vaunted breaking the shackles of history? Despite protests to the contrary, the key 19th-century concept of historicism—the idea of the spirit of the age as form-giver—was inherited by a generation of historians and polemicists. Gropius found the first of his genealogically inclined historian champions in the German art historian Nikolaus Pevsner, who published Pioneers of the Modern Movement: From William Morris to Walter Gropius in English in 1936 with the Museum of Modern Art.
By then, Le Corbusier had already found his James Boswell in art historian Sigfried Giedion, a fellow Swiss. Giedion collaged Le Corbusier’s work in the form of both images and paraphrased slogans into his first historical manifesto in 1928 with Bauen in Frankreich, Bauen in Eisen, Bauen in Eisenbeton. The book took the tradition of Wöfflinian art history into a millenarian manifesto mode with its use of startling transhistorical photographic juxtapositions.
For decades, Giedion would serve as secretary and scribe of CIAM, the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne, founded the same year that Bauen in Frankreich was published—even as he continued to lecture, publish, and compose novel illustrated volumes in which he inscribed the present in an ever lengthening historical trajectory that ultimately took him back to the prehistoric. It has always been held, however, that his most lasting and influential work, Space, Time, and Architecture, published in 1941, derived as the concrete result of the first of his many trips to the United States to give public lectures at Harvard between 1938 and 1939, the very years the Bauhaus masters were settling into teaching positions in Cambridge and Chicago. Like Pevsner’s Pioneers, Giedion’s book, which was also originally published in English, has remained continuously in print for over 75 years, exerting an enormous influence even as it has transitioned from being read as a source for the history of modern architecture to being analyzed over and over again as an artifact of the modern movement in the historiographic turn in architectural history of the last 20 years. But Reto Geiser’s book demands that we take a longer look at the historian himself.
Giedion has indeed now found his own historians. In 1989, soon after his papers were organized and opened to researchers in Zurich, a first intellectual biography—simply titled Sigfried Giedion—was published by the collection’s then-curator, Sokratis Georgiadis. Now Reto Geiser’s Giedion in America is both an homage to a fellow Swiss historian’s mastery of integrating images and text and a subtle reflection on the important role that America—as a place, idea, and culture—played in the formation of one of the most influential intellectual projects in 20th-century architectural history.
Geiser organizes his analysis less in a strict chronological fashion than as a series of four extended essays on different interpretations on the theme of Geidion as a figure “in between” countries and cultures. In the process, he weaves together cultural influences that go far beyond any previous analyses of Giedion’s involvement with American intellectual life, while also underscoring a number of paradoxes and ironies of his career. The first of these is language, since Giedion’s less than perfect command of spoken English contributed to the innovations of his visual layouts, first in slide lectures and then in the meticulous care with which he worked on the mock-ups of his page layouts—many of which are illustrated in Geiser’s book—in collaboration with book designers like Herbert Bayer and Jaqueline Tyrwhitt, the handmaiden to the readability of his text.
No less does it set the stage for the chapter “In Between Approaches,” which analyzes Giedion’s engagement with the published works of established figures of American thought such as philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and cultural historian Lewis Mumford. Indeed, the dialogue between Mumford and Giedion in establishing the American contribution to the development of modern architecture is the subject of some of the most consequential passages in a book that zigzags between a rich orchestration of information about this “art historian’s central role in a global network of modern architects” and astute analysis of his evolution as a historical thinker. This is one of the chief contributions of Geiser’s study.
On the Swiss side, the most interesting revelations concern Giedion’s frustration with failing to ever find a position in the academic establishment in Zurich, despite the prestige he held at Harvard. This plagued Giedion throughout his career.
Geiser is the first biographer of Giedion to give full attention to the genesis and impact of his fascination with the art and architectural expressions of prehistoric and pre-Hellenic cultures, from the cave paintings discovered at Lascaux in 1940 to Sumerian ziggurats and Egyptian pyramids. These fascinations were first honed and presented for the general audience attending his 1957 Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and then expanded into The Eternal Present: The Beginnings of Art, a two-volume work. But Giedion scarcely lost himself in the dawn of time—even if his ever-patient art historian wife Carola Giedion-Welcker claimed that it took him for a time away from “all architectural problems.”
One of the most fascinating relationships that Geiser takes up is Giedion’s relationship to Marshall McLuhan, an earlier admirer of the historian, who understood from the outset the relationship of the medium of the book (or the slide lecture) to a message about the historical dimension of even the present moment. Appropriately enough, Giedion’s relationship to McLuhan, to György Kepes and the early years of the MIT Media Lab, and the creation of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard—for which Le Corbusier would supply his only building on American soil—come together in Geiser’s final chapter, “In Between Disciplines.” Not only does this expand our understanding of Giedion’s role into the postwar period, but equally of Giedion as a historian protagonist as important to the evolution of media studies as he was to modern architecture and its history. Despite the numerous chronological backtrackings and the repetition of salient quotes that mar the text, Geiser has shed light on facets of Giedion’s long trajectory that recast a figure whose books were perhaps too long ago moved to an upper shelf with other college texts.
Barry Bergdoll is a professor of art history at Columbia University and recipient of the 2019 Cattedra Borromini professorship at the Accademia di Architettura in Mendrisio, Switzerland.
At the turn of the 20th century, the life-world in Europe and America was deeply transformed by the simultaneous appearance of the telephone, subways, elevators, skyscrapers, cinema, automobiles, and the incandescent lamp. As outlined by Sanford Kwinter in his 1986 article, “La Città Nuova: Modernity and Continuity,” a new order emerged, whose main manifestations also fueled a new aesthetic realm—exemplified by the theoretical program of Italian Futurism.
Electric Light: An Architectural History, written by Sandy Isenstadt and published in 2018 by MIT Press, depicts the same cultural milieu as Kwinter did: It’s an attempt to relate the rise of a novel spatial sensibility with the proliferation of technical innovations. More specifically, Isenstadt, professor in the art history department at the University of Delaware, focuses his attention on electric light as epiphenomenon of a broad paradigm shift: modernity.
The advent of electric light, in fact, not only allowed people to extend conventional daytime activities to nighttime, but also alter the conception of a day-night divide Electric light introduced modern space through two fundamental concepts: instantaneity and action at a distance.
Despite similar premises and a shared chronological framework, Isenstadt’s work differs from Kwinter’s and many other contributions on the same theme in several significant aspects. First, Isenstadt doesn’t directly confront the avant-garde culture of the time. He doesn’t indulge in the typical topoi of movement and dynamism, nor does he introduce Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Umberto Boccioni, and Antonio Sant’Elia, all leading Futurist figures who envisioned a new material world made of speed, electricity, and intensity. On the contrary, Isenstadt is concerned with the impact of electricity on the everyday lives of millions of people. This is because, as he claims, electric light is itself a form of architecture. For this reason, Isenstadt also compiles an inventory of extraordinary objects enabled by electric light, such as cars, lamps, bulbs, animated advertisements, and lighted signs—all of which not only contained novel intrinsic properties, but also forged the emergence of a world that radically altered the perception of existing spaces and created new ones. By compiling these objects, Isenstadt traces a genealogy of modernity crystallized in the description of five different case studies all rooted in the American territory.
Whereas the first case study on the light switch depicts its technical and symbolic relevance—from its use in domestic spaces to the celebration of religious and political events—the second one looks into the experience of night driving; the car becomes a prosthesis of the human body, a projection of desires and curiosities, and the headlamps an instrument to explore unknown territories. The third case study analyses electric light in terms of efficiency and productivity in the workplace, including factories and schools, and the fourth is on Times Square in New York City: a landmark of modernity, a phantasmagoria of signs and billboards that constituted the first example of TEXT-scape, a homogenous field characterized by signs, signals, and advertisements. Lastly, Isenstadt explores the relationship between wartime and lighting during World War II by describing the application in America of collective and individual forms of blackout, which stemmed from paranoia about being bombed.
Regardless of its organization into five different parts, Electric Light: An Architectural History constitutes a narrative continuum on the idea of modernity. A further differentiation emerges. The case studies, in fact, suggest the simultaneous presence of two interpretative criteria. One is merely phenomenological: electric light has altered the perception of the space around us, our experiences, and our feelings. But at the same time, Isenstadt also points out how electricity has physically shaped a new world by inducing the rise of unprecedented spaces and typologies. This twofold perspective translates either into the intriguing description of certain perceptual conditions—such as the act of night driving or the urban reading of Times Square—or into the accurate classification of technical devices and methods of construction.
Whereas the whole narrative skeleton defined by Isenstadt makes his text undoubtedly fascinating, at first sight its subtitle—An Architectural History—can appear misleading. The book, in fact, is not a chronological excursus of architectural episodes, nor does it provide a methodological schema to understand what modernity in architecture is and what its features are. In varying the scope of his reflections—from the detail of the light switch to the suspended temporality of a city’s electrified streets—Isenstadt engages readers on a compelling journey at the intersection of society, culture, and technology. Rather than deploying aesthetic categories, Isenstadt focuses on new visual habits. Here again, the convergence between material, constructive depictions, and phenomenological aspects allows us to look at the five selected cases with a revived interest that reaches beyond sterile disciplinary categorizations.
The end result is a history of electric modernism: in the author’s words, “If modernity itself can be characterized by rapid, incessant change and modernism as the creative and conscious response to such change, then electric light—instantaneous, malleable, evanescent—is modernity’s medium.”