The MED program here at Yale School of Architecture had its spring semester final review yesterday. Unlike design reviews, the MED review has a symposium-like atmosphere. Students present their research, and await critical commentary from the jury. Yesterday's jury consisted of members of the MED committee (associate dean Peggy Deamer, professors Dolores Hayden, Keller Easterling, Emmanuel Petit, Alan Plattus, Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, Keith Krumweide, Karsten Harries) as well as visiting "critics" Felicity Scott (UC Irvine) and Joan Ockman (Columbia). The MED review, as I suggested, is a weird animal. Although we present our stuff, we do it such a way so as not to "lecture", but in a manner that invites a critical discussion of our respective projects.
The day began with presentations by the MED first-years. The first-year MED students (of which I am one) had a diverse array of research projects, a smattering of work that navigated the uneasy terrains between history, theory and criticism. We began with a very interesting presentation on the intersections between urban planning and design and the film industry. The presenter is a practicing architect who has amassed an impressive amount of expertise in film theory, and who also did an admirable job in linking this to urban design and devlopment in New York during the Lindsay administration. This began an investigation into some hard core urban policy, and how these may have shaped the views and vistas in films by Sidney Lumet (Network, Serpico, etc). The historical and theoretical approach is fascinating, but the presenter gets serious props for dealing with film -- an incredibly difficult subject to write about.
The second project was an extremely nuanced and thorough investigation of the intellectual and political foundations of the Italian journal Contropiano. For those of you who may be unfamiliar with this journal, Contropiano was the very journal that published Manfredo Tafuri's "Towards a Critique of Architectural Ideology," and that also featured writings by other Italian architecture historians such as Francesco Dal Co and Massimo Cacciari, This particular presenter did an amazing job, not only because he undertook the not-so-glamorous task of actually translating an impossibly dense body of criticism, but also because he shed some light on how architectural discourse really was radically different from discourse in France, Germany, etc. during the late 1960s.
The Italian design collecitve Superstudio was the subject of the third presentation. As with the Contropiano presentation, this particular work brought to light some of the contemporary intellectual and political work that informed Superstudio's mysterious Continuous Monument and other work. We also got to view a couple of snippets from two films that Superstudio made during the early 1970's, a move that brought a richness to this work that other publications and writings perhaps have not.
From previous posts, you know about my research, so I will not describe it in detail. I was a little apprehensive, not only because I am dealing with a pretty sensitive and lurid topic, but because there was both a German professor and a Japanese student in the audience. My critics suggested that I investigate the implication of what the American military considered "typical" German and Japanese housing. Professor Harries then remarked that his own childhood home was destroyed during the Allied bombing -- a point that made me realize that my project was affecting people on a personal level. I am not sure if that is good or bad, but I digress....
The last of the MED first-years presented on the implications of wireless and cellular telephony, a critical and theoretical appraisal on the nature of mobile space. The presenter had been an executive in the dot.com field for many years, as well as a writer for publications like Wired, Fast Company, Reuters, etc. She wsa also a professor at the Interactive Design Institute - Ivrea (IDII), one of the world's premier interaction design faculties. The presenter brings to the table a sociotechnological methodology that is sorely absent from architecture theory and criticism, and it was an absolute sight to see a bunch of architecture professors engage this project with absolute aplomb.
The second-year MEDs are not only about to graduate, but had projects that were more complete than ours. One presented previously unknown work by the late Robin Evans. Another thesis project dealt with American retail typologies (drive-thru pharmacies, self-storage facilities, multiplex movie theatres, and Home Depots). A third talked about multicultural architecture typologies in present-day Sweden. The last presented on the curious environmental record of the Olin Powder Farm here in New Haven. We watched them present their conclusions to their projects. What was especially wonderful about their presentations was that the jury acknowledged that they were just beginning on their research (two of the graduating MED's will start their PhD's at Princeton next year, one will be on the faculty at Oregon, the fourth is an editor of Perspecta and will continue in private practice). All deserve recognition for their innovative work.
All in all, the research presented during yesterday's MED reviews show that history and theory are not only a vital part of contemporary architectural discourse (although this seems like a tautology, I feel that this still has to be brought up), but that they are vital parts of architecture schools. I am not talking about OMA- or Crimson-influenced design research. I am talking about straight-up archival and manuscript research ... the not-vainglorious process of history is not as dead as one thinks.