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Criticism and Theory

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Matter, Measure, and the Misadventures of Precision

When architects draw even brick walls to six decimal places with software designed to cut lenses, it is clear that the logic that once organized relations between precision and material error in construction has unraveled. Precision, already a promiscuous term, seems now to have been uncoupled from its contract with truthfulness. Meanwhile error, and the always-political space of its dissent, has reconfigured itself.

In The Architecture of Error Francesca Hughes argues that behind the architect’s acute fetishization of redundant precision lies a special fear of physical error. What if we were to consider the pivotal cultural and technological transformations of modernism to have been driven not so much by the causes its narratives declare, she asks, as by an unspoken horror of loss of control over error, material life, and everything that matter stands for? Hughes traces the rising intolerance of material vagaries—from the removal of ornament to digitalized fabrication—that produced the blind rejection of organic materials, the proliferation of material testing, and the rhetorical obstacles that blighted cybernetics. Why is it, she asks, that the more we cornered physical error, the more we feared it?

Hughes’s analysis of redundant precision exposes an architecture of fear whose politics must be called into question. Proposing error as a new category for architectural thought, Hughes draws on other disciplines and practices that have interrogated precision and failure, citing the work of scientists Nancy Cartwright and Evelyn Fox Keller and visual artists Gordon Matta-Clark, Barbara Hepworth, Rachel Whiteread, and others. These non-architect practitioners, she argues, show that error need not be excluded and precision can be made accountable.

Encounters between Art and Architecture

Expansion, convergence, adjacency, projection, rapport, and intersection are a few of the terms used to redraw the boundaries between art and architecture during the last thirty-five years. If modernists invented the model of an ostensible “synthesis of the arts,” their postmodern progeny promoted the semblance of pluralist fusion. In 1979, reacting against contemporary art’s transformation of modernist medium-specificity into postmodernist medium multiplicity, the art historian Rosalind Krauss published an essay, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” that laid out in a precise diagram the structural parameters of sculpture, architecture, and landscape art. Krauss tried to clarify what these art practices were, what they were not, and what they could become if logically combined. The essay soon assumed a canonical status and affected subsequent developments in all three fields. Retracing the Expanded Field revisits Krauss’s hugely influential text and maps the ensuing interactions between art and architecture.

Responding to Krauss and revisiting the milieu from which her text emerged, artists, architects, and art historians of different generations offer their perspectives on the legacy of “Sculpture in the Expanded Field.” Krauss herself takes part in a roundtable discussion (moderated by Hal Foster). A selection of historical documents, including Krauss’s essay, presented as it appeared in October, accompany the main text. Neither eulogy nor hagiography, Retracing the Expanded Field documents the groundbreaking nature of Krauss’s authoritative text and reveals the complex interchanges between art and architecture that increasingly shape both fields.

Contributors
Stan Allen, George Baker, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin Buchloh, Beatriz Colomina, Penelope Curtis, Sam Durant, Edward Eigen, Kurt W. Forster, Hal Foster, Kenneth Frampton, Branden W. Joseph, Rosalind Krauss, Miwon Kwon, Sylvia Lavin, Sandro Marpillero, Josiah McElheny, Eve Meltzer, Michael Meredith, Mary Miss, Sarah Oppenheimer, Matthew Ritchie, Julia Robinson, Joe Scanlan, Emily Eliza Scott, Irene Small, Philip Ursprung, Anthony Vidler

Money

Money plays a paradoxical role in the creation of architecture. Formless itself, money is a fundamental form giver. At all scales, and across the ages, architecture is a product of the financial environment in which it is conceived, for better or worse. Yet despite its ubiquity, money is often disregarded as a factor in conceptual design and is persistently avoided by architectural academia as a serious field of inquiry. It is time to break these habits. In the contemporary world, in which economies are increasingly connected, architects must creatively harness the financial logics behind architecture in order to contribute meaningfully to the development of the built environment.

This issue of Perspecta—the oldest and most distinguished student-edited architectural journal in America—examines the ways in which money intersects with architectural discourse, design practice, and urban form, in order to encourage a productive relationship between money and the discipline. Contributions from a diverse group of scholars, practitioners, and artists create a dialogue about money's ambiguous position in architecture, reflecting on topics that range from the aesthetics of austerity to the underwriting of large-scale art projects to the economic implications of building information modeling.

Contributors
AOC, JT Bachman, Phil Bernstein, Mario Carpo, Christo, Peggy Deamer, Keller Easterling, Peter Eisenman, Mark Foster Gage, Frank Gehry, Thomas Gluck, Kevin D. Gray, Charles Holland, Hasty Johnson & Jerry Lea, Naomi R. Lamoreaux, Mira Locher, Vivian Loftness, Gregg Pasquarelli, Cesar Pelli & Fred Clarke, Nina Rappaport, Todd Reisz, Brent Ryan & Lorena Bello, Michelangelo Sabatino, David Ross Scheer, Robert Shiller, Robert A.M. Stern, Elisabetta Terragni, Kazys Varnelis, Andrew Waugh & Michael Green, Jay Wickersham & Christopher Milford, Alejandro Zaera-Polo

 

A Perverse View of Architecture

Buildings, although inanimate, are often assumed to have “life." And the architect, through the act of design, is assumed to be their conceiver and creator. But what of the “death" of buildings? What of the decay, deterioration, and destruction to which they are inevitably subject? And what might such endings mean for architecture’s sense of itself? In Buildings Must Die, Stephen Cairns and Jane Jacobs look awry at core architectural concerns. They examine spalling concrete and creeping rust, contemplate ruins old and new, and pick through the rubble of earthquake-shattered churches, imploded housing projects, and demolished Brutalist office buildings. Their investigation of the death of buildings reorders architectural notions of creativity, reshapes architecture’s preoccupation with good form, loosens its vanities of durability, and expands its sense of value. It does so not to kill off architecture as we know it, but to rethink its agency and its capacity to make worlds differently.

Cairns and Jacobs offer an original contemplation of architecture that draws on theories of waste and value. Their richly illustrated case studies of building “deaths" include the planned and the unintended, the lamented and the celebrated. They take us from Moline to Christchurch, from London to Bangkok, from Tokyo to Paris. And they feature the work of such architects as Eero Saarinen, Carlo Scarpa, Cedric Price, Arata Isozaki, Rem Koolhaas and François Roche.

Buildings Must Die is both a memento mori for architecture and a call to to reimagine the design values that lay at the heart of its creative purpose.

Why would an architect reach for a pencil when drawing software and AutoCAD are a click away? Use a ruler when 3D-scanners and GPS devices are close at hand? In Why Architects Still Draw, Paolo Belardi offers an elegant and ardent defense of drawing by hand as a way of thinking. Belardi is no Luddite; he doesn’t urge architects to give up digital devices for watercolors and a measuring tape. Rather, he makes a case for drawing as the interface between the idea and the work itself.

A drawing, Belardi argues, holds within it the entire final design. It is the paradox of the acorn: a project emerges from a drawing—even from a sketch, rough and inchoate—just as an oak tree emerges from an acorn. Citing examples not just from architecture but also from literature, chemistry, music, archaeology, and art, Belardi shows how drawing is not a passive recording but a moment of invention pregnant with creative possibilities.

Moving from the sketch to the survey, Belardi explores the meaning of measurement in a digital era. A survey of a site should go beyond width, height, and depth; it must include two more dimensions: history and culture. Belardi shows the sterility of techniques that value metric exactitude over cultural appropriateness, arguing for an “informed drawing” that takes into consideration more than meters or feet, stone or steel. Even in the age of electronic media, Belardi writes, drawing can maintain its role as a cornerstone of architecture.

Disappointment and Failure in Architecture

The usual history of architecture is a grand narrative of soaring monuments and heroic makers. But it is also a false narrative in many ways, rarely acknowledging the personal failures and disappointments of architects. In Bleak Houses, Timothy Brittain-Catlin investigates the underside of architecture, the stories of losers and unfulfillment often ignored by an architectural criticism that values novelty, fame, and virility over fallibility and rejection. Brittain-Catlin tells us about Cecil Corwin, for example, Frank Lloyd Wright’s friend and professional partner, who was so overwhelmed by Wright’s genius that he had to stop designing; about architects whose surviving buildings are marooned and mutilated; and about others who suffered variously from bad temper, exile, lack of talent, lack of documentation, the wrong friends, or being out of fashion.

As architectural criticism promotes increasingly narrow values, dismissing certain styles wholesale and subjecting buildings to a Victorian litmus test of “real” versus “fake,” Brittain-Catlin explains the effect that this superficial criticality has had not only on architectural discourse but on the quality of buildings. The fact that most buildings receive no critical scrutiny at all has resulted in vast stretches of ugly modern housing and a pervasive public illiteracy about architecture.

Architecture critics, Brittain-Catlin suggests, could learn something from novelists about how to write about buildings. Alan Hollinghurst in The Stranger’s Child, for example, and Elizabeth Bowen in Eva Trout vividly evoke memorable houses. Thinking like novelists, critics would see what architectural losers offer: episodic, sentimental ways of looking at buildings that relate to our own experience, lessons learned from bad examples that could make buildings better.

Error

Architecture never goes entirely according to plan. Every project deviates from its designers’ expectations, and wise architects learn to anticipate, mitigate, and sometimes celebrate the errors along the way. Perspecta 46 argues that error is part of architecture’s essence: mistranslations, contradictions, happy accidents, and wicked problems pervade our systems of design and building, almost always yielding surprising aberrations. Today, with increasingly complex projects underpinned by layers of computer code, small errors can proliferate rapidly, and the dream of errorless architecture seems more utopian than ever.

This issue of Perspecta—the oldest and most distinguished student-edited architectural journal in America—considers the challenge of defining error, the difficulty of diagnosing and managing it, and the promise (and peril) of following its lead. Essays and projects illuminate error’s ambiguous agency both in reality and in the architectural imagination, covering topics that range from Dante’s cosmos of divine justice and Michelangelo’s architectural “abuses” to Dada urbanism and the warped skyscrapers of Google Earth.

A Candid Guide to the Profession

Since 1985, Architect? has been an essential text for aspiring architects, offering the best basic guide to the profession available. This third edition has been substantially revised and rewritten, with new material covering the latest developments in architectural and construction technologies, digital methodologies, new areas of focus in teaching and practice, evolving aesthetic philosophies, sustainability and green architecture, and alternatives to traditional practice.

Architect? tells the inside story of architectural education and practice; it is realistic, unvarnished, and insightful. Chapter 1 asks “Why Be an Architect?” and chapter 2 offers reasons “Why Not to Be an Architect.” After this provocative beginning, Architect? goes on to explain and critique architectural education, covering admission, degree and curriculum types, and workload as well as such post-degree options as internship, teaching, and work in related fields. It offers a detailed discussion of professors and practitioners and the “-isms” and “-ologies” most prevalent in teaching and practicing architecture. It explains how an architect works and gets work, and describes architectural services from initial client contact to construction oversight. The new edition also includes a generous selection of drawings and cartoons from the author’s Washington Post column, “Shaping the City,” offering teachable moments wittily in graphic form.

The author, Roger Lewis, has taught, practiced, and written extensively about architecture for many years. In Architect? he explains—for students, professors, practitioners, and even prospective clients—how architects think and work and what they care about as they strive to make the built environment more commodious, more beautiful, and more sustainable.

Architecture depends—on what? On people, time, politics, ethics, mess: the real world. Architecture, Jeremy Till argues with conviction in this engaging, sometimes pugnacious book, cannot help itself; it is dependent for its very existence on things outside itself. Despite the claims of autonomy, purity, and control that architects like to make about their practice, architecture is buffeted by uncertainty and contingency. Circumstances invariably intervene to upset the architect’s best-laid plans—at every stage in the process, from design through construction to occupancy. Architects, however, tend to deny this, fearing contingency and preferring to pursue perfection. With Architecture Depends, architect and critic Jeremy Till offers a proposal for rescuing architects from themselves: a way to bridge the gap between what architecture actually is and what architects want it to be. Mixing anecdote, design, social theory, and personal experience, Till’s writing is always accessible, moving freely between high and low registers, much like his suggestions for architecture itself.

Attention in the Age of Embodied Information

The world is filling with ever more kinds of media, in ever more contexts and formats. Glowing rectangles have become part of the scene; screens, large and small, appear everywhere. Physical locations are increasingly tagged and digitally augmented. Sensors, processors, and memory are not found only in chic smart phones but also built into everyday objects. Amid this flood, your attention practices matter more than ever. You might not be able to tune this world out. So it is worth remembering that underneath all these augmentations and data flows, fixed forms persist, and that to notice them can improve other sensibilities. In Ambient Commons, Malcolm McCullough explores the workings of attention though a rediscovery of surroundings.

Not all that informs has been written and sent; not all attention involves deliberate thought. The intrinsic structure of space—the layout of a studio, for example, or a plaza—becomes part of any mental engagement with it. McCullough describes what he calls the Ambient: an increasing tendency to perceive information superabundance whole, where individual signals matter less and at least some mediation assumes inhabitable form. He explores how the fixed forms of architecture and the city play a cognitive role in the flow of ambient information. As a persistently inhabited world, can the Ambient be understood as a shared cultural resource, to be socially curated, voluntarily limited, and self-governed as if a commons? Ambient Commons invites you to look past current obsessions with smart phones to rethink attention itself, to care for more situated, often inescapable forms of information.

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