Skip navigation

Architectural History

  • Page 2 of 15
Conical Intersect

Gordon Matta-Clark's Conical Intersect (1975) was a torqued, spiraling "cut" into two derelict seventeenth-century Paris buildings adjacent to the construction site of the controversial Centre Pompidou. With this landmark work of "anarchtecture," Matta-Clark not only opened up these venerable residences to light and air, he also began a dialogue about the nature of urban development and the public role of art. Considered three and a half decades later, Conical Intersect reveals the multivalent nature of the artist’s practice and his prescient focus on sustainability and creative reuse of the built environment.

Conical Intersect and the two buildings were demolished as part of a large-scale urban renovation of the historic market district of Les Halles; today we can know the work only from drawings, photographs, and a short Super 8 film. In this illustrated study, Bruce Jenkins examines Matta-Clark's "non-u-ment," looking closely at the artist’s proposals, working process, various forms of documentation, and the dialogue begun by Matta-Clark's decision to transform two abandoned buildings "into an act of communication."

The True (Maybe) Story

For years, the signs in the New York City subway system were a bewildering hodge-podge of lettering styles, sizes, shapes, materials, colors, and messages. The original mosaics (dating from as early as 1904), displaying a variety of serif and sans serif letters and decorative elements, were supplemented by signs in terracotta and cut stone. Over the years, enamel signs identifying stations and warning riders not to spit, smoke, or cross the tracks were added to the mix. Efforts to untangle this visual mess began in the mid-1960s, when the city transit authority hired the design firm Unimark International to create a clear and consistent sign system. We can see the results today in the white-on-black signs throughout the subway system, displaying station names, directions, and instructions in crisp Helvetica. This book tells the story of how typographic order triumphed over chaos.

The process didn’t go smoothly or quickly. At one point New York Times architecture writer Paul Goldberger declared that the signs were so confusing one almost wished that they weren’t there at all. Legend has it that Helvetica came in and vanquished the competition. Paul Shaw shows that it didn’t happen that way—that, in fact, for various reasons (expense, the limitations of the transit authority sign shop), the typeface overhaul of the 1960s began not with Helvetica but with its forebear, Standard (aka Akzidenz Grotesk). It wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that Helvetica became ubiquitous. Shaw describes the slow typographic changeover (supplementing his text with more than 250 images—photographs, sketches, type samples, and documents). He places this signage evolution in the context of the history of the New York City subway system, of 1960s transportation signage, of Unimark International, and of Helvetica itself.

Le Corbusier and the Automobile

Le Corbusier, who famously called a house "a machine for living," was fascinated—even obsessed—by another kind of machine, the automobile. His writings were strewn with references to autos: "If houses were built industrially, mass-produced like chassis, an aesthetic would be formed with surprising precision," he wrote in Toward an Architecture (1923). In his "white phase" of the twenties and thirties, he insisted that his buildings be photographed with a modern automobile in the foreground. Le Corbusier moved beyond the theoretical in 1936, entering (with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret) an automobile design competition, submitting plans for "a minimalist vehicle for maximum functionality," the Voiture Minimum. Despite Le Corbusier’s energetic promotion of his design to several important automakers, the Voiture Minimum was never mass-produced. This book is the first to tell the full and true story of Le Corbusier’s adventure in automobile design.

Architect Antonio Amado describes the project in detail, linking it to Le Corbusier’s architectural work, to Modernist utopian urban visions, and to the automobile design projects of other architects including Walter Gropius and Frank Lloyd Wright. He provides abundant images, including many pages of Le Corbusier’s sketches and plans for the Voiture Minimum, and reprints Le Corbusier’s letters seeking a manufacturer. Le Corbusier’s design is often said to have been the inspiration for Volkswagen’s enduringly popular Beetle; the architect himself implied as much, claiming that his design for the 1936 competition originated in 1928, before the Beetle. Amado, after extensive examination of archival and source materials, disproves this; the influence may have gone the other way.

Although many critics considered the Voiture Minimum a footnote in Le Corbusier’s career, Le Corbusier did not. This book, lavishly illustrated and exhaustively documented, restores Le Corbusier’s automobile to the main text.

In The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture, Pier Vittorio Aureli proposes that a sharpened formal consciousness in architecture is a precondition for political, cultural, and social engagement with the city. Aureli uses the term absolute not in the conventional sense of “pure,” but to denote something that is resolutely itself after being separated from its other. In the pursuit of the possibility of an absolute architecture, the other is the space of the city, its extensive organization, and its government. Politics is agonism through separation and confrontation; the very condition of architectural form is to separate and be separated. Through its act of separation and being separated, architecture reveals at once the essence of the city and the essence of itself as political form: the city as the composition of (separate) parts. Aureli revisits the work of four architects whose projects were advanced through the making of architectural form but whose concern was the city at large: Andrea Palladio, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Étienne Louis-Boullée, and Oswald Mathias Ungers. The work of these architects, Aureli argues, addressed the transformations of the modern city and its urban implications through the elaboration of specific and strategic architectural forms. Their projects for the city do not take the form of an overall plan but are expressed as an “archipelago” of site-specific interventions.

Digital technologies have changed architecture—the way it is taught, practiced, managed, and regulated. But if the digital has created a “paradigm shift” for architecture, which paradigm is shifting? In The Alphabet and the Algorithm, Mario Carpo points to one key practice of modernity: the making of identical copies. Carpo highlights two examples of identicality crucial to the shaping of architectural modernity: in the fifteenth century, Leon Battista Alberti’s invention of architectural design, according to which a building is an identical copy of the architect’s design; and, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the mass production of identical copies from mechanical master models, matrixes, imprints, or molds. The modern power of the identical, Carpo argues, came to an end with the rise of digital technologies. Everything digital is variable. In architecture, this means the end of notational limitations, of mechanical standardization, and of the Albertian, authorial way of building by design. Charting the rise and fall of the paradigm of identicality, Carpo compares new forms of postindustrial digital craftsmanship to hand-making and the cultures and technologies of variations that existed before the coming of machine-made, identical copies. Carpo reviews the unfolding of digitally based design and construction from the early 1990s to the present, and suggests a new agenda for architecture in an age of variable objects and of generic and participatory authorship.

Politics after Modernism

In Architecture or Techno-Utopia, Felicity Scott traces an alternative genealogy of the postmodern turn in American architecture, focusing on a set of experimental practices and polemics that emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Scott examines projects, conceptual work, exhibitions, publications, pedagogical initiatives, and agitprop performances that had as their premise the belief that architecture could be ethically and politically relevant. Although most of these strategies were far from the mainstream of American architectural practice, Scott suggests that their ambition—the demonstration of architecture's ongoing potential for social and political engagement—was nonetheless remarkable.

Scott examines both the marginal and the prominent: the Marxist architectural criticism of Meyer Schapiro; the curatorial work of Arthur Drexler at New York's Museum of Modern Art; Emilio Ambasz's introduction of ideas from environmental design, European critical theory, and Italian radicalism at MoMA; the counterculture's embrace of Buckminster Fuller's domes; psychedelic and intermedia environments; the video and architectural collective Ant Farm and the politics of ecology; the early experimental practices of Rem Koolhaas; and, connecting these earlier practices to the present day, the missed opportunities for political engagement in the competition sponsored by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation for the World Trade Center site. At a time of increasing receptiveness to thinking politically about architecture and design, Architecture or Techno-Utopia offers a detailed account of the ways in which the work of architects and designers can speak to the contemporary condition.

This revealing memoir by Aldo Rossi (1937–1997), one of the most visible and controversial figures ever on the international architecture scene, intermingles discussions of Rossi’s architectural projectsincluding the major literary and artistic influences on his workwith his personal history. Drawn from notebooks Rossi kept beginning in 1971, these ruminations and reflections range from his obsession with theater to his concept of architecture as ritual. The book originally appeared as one of the landmark titles in the MIT Press’s Oppositions Books series, but has been out of print for many years. This newly issued paperback reprint includes illustrationsphotographs, evocative images, and a set of drawings of Rossi’s major architectural projects prepared particularly for this publicationselected by the author himself to augment the text.

Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals

For more than half the nation’s history, vast mental hospitals were a prominent feature of the American landscape. From the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, over 250 institutions for the insane were built throughout the United States; by 1948, they housed more than a half million patients. The blueprint for these hospitals was set by Pennsylvania hospital superintendant Thomas Story Kirkbride: a central administration building flanked symmetrically by pavilions and surrounded by lavish grounds with pastoral vistas. Kirkbride and others believed that well-designed buildings and grounds, a peaceful environment, a regimen of fresh air, and places for work, exercise, and cultural activities would heal mental illness. But in the second half of the twentieth century, after the introduction of psychotropic drugs and policy shifts toward community-based care, patient populations declined dramatically, leaving many of these beautiful, massive buildings--and the patients who lived in them--neglected and abandoned.

Architect and photographer Christopher Payne spent six years documenting the decay of state mental hospitals like these, visiting seventy institutions in thirty states. Through his lens we see splendid, palatial exteriors (some designed by such prominent architects as H. H. Richardson and Samuel Sloan) and crumbling interiors--chairs stacked against walls with peeling paint in a grand hallway; brightly colored toothbrushes still hanging on a rack; stacks of suitcases, never packed for the trip home. Accompanying Payne’s striking and powerful photographs is an essay by Oliver Sacks (who described his own experience working at a state mental hospital in his book Awakenings). Sacks pays tribute to Payne’s photographs and to the lives once lived in these places, “where one could be both mad and safe.”

Buckminster Fuller's fame reached its peak in the 1960s and 1970s, when his visionary experiments struck a chord with the counterculture and his charismatic personality provided the media with a good story—that of a genius who could play the role of artist, scientist, and entrepreneur all at once. In Becoming Bucky Fuller, Loretta Lorance shows that Fuller's career did not begin with the lofty goals hailed by his admirers, and that, in fact, Fuller's image as guru and prophet was as carefully constructed as a geodesic dome.

Fuller (1895-1983) determined early on how the story of his life in the 1920s and 1930s should be portrayed. But, drawing on a close reading of Fuller's personal papers (in particular, the multivolume scrapbook, Chronofile), Lorance looks at Fuller's first independent project, the Dymaxion House, and finds that what really happened differs from the authorized version. According to Fuller himself and most secondary sources, after a series of personal crises in the 1920s—including the death of his young daughter, thoughts of suicide, and a "year of silence" during which he pondered his purpose in life—Fuller resolved to devote himself to the betterment of society by offering the public economical, efficient, modern manufactured housing. But the private papers tell a different story; one of his initial motivations for designing the Dymaxion House was simply to make money from its manufacture. When that didn't work, Fuller began to emphasize its possibilities rather than its practicalities. By the mid-1930s, Lorance shows, Fuller the public figure had gone from being an entrepreneur with a product to being a visionary with an idea. He had become Bucky Fuller.

When Charles-Édouard Jeanneret reinvented himself as Le Corbusier in Paris, he also carefully reinvented the first thirty years of his life by highlighting some events and hiding others. As he explained in a letter: "Le Corbusier is a pseudonym. Le Corbusier creates architecture recklessly. He pursues disinterested ideas; he does not wish to compromise himself.... He is an entity free of the burdens of carnality."

Le Corbusier grew up in La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland, a city described by Karl Marx as "one unified watchmaking industry." Among the unifying social structures of La Chaux-de-Fonds was the Loge L’Amitié, the Masonic lodge with its francophone moral, social, and philosophical ideas, including the symbolic iconography of the right angle (rectitude) and the compass (exactitude). Le Corbusier would later describe these as "my guide, my choice" and as his "time-honored ideas, ingrained and deep-rooted in the intellect, like entries from a catechism."

Through exhaustive research that challenges long-held beliefs, J. K. Birksted's Le Corbusier and the Occult traces the structure of Le Corbusier's brand of modernist spatial and architectural ideas based on startling new documents in hitherto undiscovered family and local archives. Le Corbusier and the Occult thus answers the conundrum set by Reyner Banham (Birksted's predecessor at the Bartlett School of Architecture) who, fifty years ago, wrote that Le Corbusier's book Towards a New Architecture "was to prove to be one of the most influential, widely read and least understood of all the architectural writings of the twentieth century."

  • Page 2 of 15