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Theory And History: The Latest Architecture and News

Roberta Brandes Gratz: "Joan Davidson Showed How Little It Sometimes Took To Get Big Things Started"

This article was originally published on Common Edge as "Joan K. Davidson and the Fight for New York."

As income inequality has widened in recent years, the role of philanthropy has been called into question. Is charitable giving by wealthy individuals and powerful corporations always a positive force, or is that connection to wealth and power an inevitable compromise? Whose agenda does philanthropic giving really benefit, the grantees or the granters? These are complicated questions. But truly enlightened giving is a transformative force. It can not only fund worthy causes but if properly timed can sow the seeds of social change.

The Miasma Theory Was Wrong but Led to Smart Sanitation

American 19th-century sanitation engineer George E. Waring, Jr. was a miasmaist. He believed in the miasma theory, which holds that toxic vapors traveled through damp soil, rotted vegetation, and pools of standing water. These toxic vapors were understood to emanate from the Earth and interact with the atmosphere and cause disease in American cities.

According to Catherine Seavitt Nordenson, ASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at the Bernard & Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York, Waring was a “marginal figure,” but he had interesting ideas about how to “modify the climate to improve health.” In a virtual lecture hosted by the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Seavitt Nordenson said Waring was incorrect about the mechanisms for spreading disease —he didn’t understand the concept of vectors, like mosquitoes— but his drainage and sanitation solutions were “surprisingly successful.” A year into the coronavirus pandemic, it’s worth revisiting Waring’s ideas about the connections between the Earth, atmosphere, disease — and the maintenance of public spaces.

Kate Wagner: "The Age of the Architecture Critic as Galvanizing Force Is Over. It’s Done"

This article was originally published on Common Edge as "Kate Wagner on McMansion Hell, Criticism, and Her Love of Cycling."

Contrary to movie myth, there is no such thing as an overnight sensation. The moment when a cultural presence bursts upon the scene, seemingly fully formed, is almost always preceded by unwitnessed years of DIY training and single-minded obsession. Such is the case for Kate Wagner, who broke the architectural internet in 2016 with the introduction of McMansion Hell, a sharp and hilarious skewering of the bloated American home, in all its garish and desperate striving. A year later, the real estate listing site Zillow served the then-23-year-old Wagner with a cease-and-desist letter, claiming that her use of photographs violated copyright (even though they didn’t own the photographs either!). It was a clumsy move, resulting in an eventual corporate about-face and scads of free publicity for McMansion Hell.

The Case for a Feeling Architecture

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

My mother is a psychologist, so our family talks a lot about emotion. More specifically, we discuss the experience of emotion, because, as she  likes to remind me and my sisters, “We don’t think our feelings—we feel them, in our bodies.” According to my mother, it’s this experience of emotion that gives our lives a sense of meaning and vitality; as a result, her work isn’t about intellectual insight or abstract theories, but rather about giving her patients a new experience of themselves in the world.

The Religion of the City: Cars, Mass Transit and Coronavirus

Religion is a uniquely human reality. As are cities. As we emerge from our burrows of sequestration, the silent cities and places of worship will become human again, versus the present sad memory of what they once were.

We will recover from another human reality, the pandemic and when we do we will be forced to address some questions. Before this century, the automobile was once seen as the way Americans could create a new reality: a huge middle class that could control its life by using the freedom that cars gave them to go where they wanted, when they wanted, and to live where they wanted. Before this latest change of sequestration, that vision of what cars meant to our culture was changing —especially in cities.

Architecture and the Environmental Impact of Artificial Complexity

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

There is an astonishing degree of complexity, order, and beauty in the natural world. Even so, and especially within the realm of living things, nothing is more complex than it needs to be to sustain its existence. Every aspect of the system serves a purpose. If it does not, the unneeded component eventually ceases to exist in future generations. Even with these constraints of resource and energy efficiency, we find boundless beauty and harmony in the natural world. Contrast nature’s “just the right amount of complexity” to the way many architects design buildings today. While nature is only as complex as it needs to be, architects and designers add excessive and inessential complexity to their buildings and landscapes when none is warranted.

Endless “Sustainable” Growth is an Oxymoron

This article was originally published on Common Edge

In a Common Edge article, I briefly discussed a concept that I call the “Triple Bottom Lie,” which posits that more people, plus more consumption by each person, plus an economic system completely dependent on the aforementioned items, can just keep working forever, without consequences. Historically, the United States has accepted the economic shibboleth of endless growth because it reduced class conflict; a rising tide (supposedly) lifted all boats, rafts and yachts included. We are, however, approaching the limits of growth, from both a resource standpoint (we’re running out of raw materials) and a technological standpoint (our inventions are progressively less revolutionary).

Assault on a Sacred Place

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

For most people, calling a place “sacred” designates it as an important location, one usually associated with spirituality. It might be the setting for religious rituals (the sacred space of a church, synagogue, or mosque), a spot where some event described as “miraculous” has occurred (such as the reported sighting of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, France, which became a pilgrimage site), or a place which held the body of deity (think of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built upon what is believed the be the tomb of Jesus Christ). 

'Cyberpunk 2077' Is an Architecture Critique With Nothing to Say

I know what you are wondering and the answer is medium and circumcised. These are just a couple of characteristics that play a part in determining the outcome of Cyberpunk 2077, the most anticipated video game release of 2020 (and possibly ever) by CD Projekt RED. As a player, you experience the main storyline through a genderfluid avatar named V. The game’s namesake stems from a science fiction genre that at its core presents a dystopian hyper-capitalist society intended as a reflective critique of contemporary life—think Philip K. Dick’s work or Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One novel. There are plenty of well-documented issues pertaining to the game, from its perpetuation of techno-orientalism in science fiction to a buggy release resulting in too much attention on the phallic options described above. The game’s criticism of contemporary culture mostly falls flat but inadvertently it has some scathing things to say about architecture.

The Work of Architecture in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

I attended graduate school, in geography, in Tucson, Arizona, United States, in the late 1990s. Tucson draws fame from a number of things, including its Mexican-American heritage, its chimichangas, its sky islands, and its abundant population of saguaro cacti.

Carlos García Vázquez: "The Modern Urbanism Has Rediscovered Traditional Cities"

Three years ago, in the wake of the release of his book Theories and History of the Modern City ("Teorías e Historia de la Ciudad Contemporánea", 2016, Editorial Gustavo Gili), we sat down with the author, Carlos García Vázquez, to discuss this complex and "uncertain creature' that is the modern city, focusing on the three categories that define cities today: Metropolis, Megalopolis, and Metapolis.

Based on an analysis of those "who have traditionally led the way in the planning of spaces" (sociologists, historians, and architects), the book illustrates the social, economic, and political forces that, in service to their own agendas, drive the planning, transformation, exploitation, and development of cities. In 120 years, urban centers have transformed from places where "people died from the city" to bastions of personal development and economic prosperity; however, the question remains —have cities really triumphed?

"Yes", says García Vásquez, "but we have paid dearly for it."

Night Life in Nueva York. Image © Joana FrançaHong Kong in the 90s, when it was still a British colony, but undergoing rapid economic development. Image © Wonderlane [Flickr], under CC BY 2.0 licenseBrasilia. Image © Joana FrançaCarlos García Vázquez. Image © María Carrascal+ 11

Modern Architects Stink at Lying. Luckily, That’s Fixable

This article was originally published on Common Edge.

Apart from dressing like an undertaker, wearing black-rimmed circular glasses, and driving Swedish cars, modern architects’ most conspicuous trait is their aesthetic honesty, which is dangerous. Sincerity leaves little room for imagination.

Futuristic Architecture of the 70s: Photographs of a Modern World with a Twist of Science Fiction

Bolwoningen / Dries Kreijkamp (1980-1985). Image © Stefano PeregoIlinden / Makedonium / Jordan Grabuloski + Iskra Grabuloska (1974). Krushevo, Macedonia. Image © Stefano PeregoPart of a Casa Futuro / Matti Suuronen (1968). Image © Stefano PeregoKihoku Tenkyukan / Takasaki Architects (1995). Kanoya, Japan. Image © Stefano Perego+ 8

The Manifesto of Futurism, written by Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in 1909, was the rallying cry for the avant-garde movement driven by the writers, musicians, artists, and even architects (among them Antonio Sant'Elia) in the early 20th century. After the manifesto's publication, Futurism quickly came to the forefront of public conscience and opened the way for many other cutting edge movements in the art world and beyond.

While the movement would undergo a significant decline in the years following World War II, it reinvented itself decades later during the Space Age, when faith in technology and industry were at a fever-pitch and the world's powers were racing to put humans on the Moon. All of a sudden, humanity had a new cultural panorama that inspired every facet of society--from musicians, to scientists, to architects. With the combination of engineering and art, not to mention the bountiful scientific achievements of the time, works of architecture turned into works of science fiction. 

Download All of COAM Architecture Journal's Issues From the Last 100 Years for Free

The College of Architects of Madrid (COAM) has made the initial digitization process of their Architecture Journal public, making one of the most important and influential Spanish architectural publications of the twentieth century available to everyone. COAM is a publication known as a platform for debate, thought, and a vital resource for architects, urban planners, and professionals from other closely related sectors.

Founded in 1918 as the official publication of the Central Society of Architects, the journal ARQUITECTURA, became the first publication of the Spanish architectural press. However, the Spanish Civil War would halt its normal development, transforming the magazine, as was required by the new times, into the National Journal of Architecture. It was edited until 1946 by the Directorate General of Architecture, then eventually placed in the hands of the Ministry of the Interior.

Postmodern Post-Mortem: Why We Need To Stop Using Architecture's Most Misunderstood Word

© Giacomo Pala
© Giacomo Pala

We were hoping for it to happen in the early 2000s. We saw it coming with the opening of the exhibition “Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 – 1990” at the V&A in London in 2011. But now, after recent discussions on the umpteenth supposed “postmodern revival,” it is finally sure: the word “postmodernism” is back and it’s here to stay. But as clear as it is that the word “postmodernism” is once again fashionable, it is not really clear what we mean when using it. Indeed, this word has been used to imply every possible meaning: architects have used it to describe fashionable and “cute” designs, some critics have used it to categorize everything that is colorful, while some theorists have been using it to affirm that, because of this concept, architecture has surrendered to technology or form, becoming nothing more than a caricature of its own presupposed moral values.

Whether we agree with such commentaries or not, there is one thing that we still need to discuss: what does “postmodern” mean? And, even more urgently: what could it mean today? After all, if we have to deal once again with one of the most misinterpreted and contradictory words ever introduced in our field, we should at least discuss what it means, before using it.