William S. Saunders, Timothy Hyde, George P. Dodds, David Gissen, Simon Sadler, and Meredith TenHoor are in the house tonight in front of the golden curtain. The topic is theory and writing. [Update: you can now view the full video at the GSD's YouTube channel.]
6:40: William Saunder's introduction: Whoa! He just announced that he's retiring from the GSD next year to focus on his own writing.
In 1993 [which I think Saunders said was the year that he started as editor of Harvard Design Magazine] the kinds of architectural writing that existed were "academic scholarship, in the supposedly neutral uncovering of facts; professional magazines, presenting new projects; and criticism and a fringe of theory--almost entirely Sanford and Cynthia's world." Since then, the world of architecture has exploded with the rise of the internet [that's us, Archinect!], and yet, books that are published don't seem all that different. What gives?
[Prof. Timothy Hyde]
6:44: Timothy Hyde, one of our in-house brains, is introducing the other panelists. These are all people who are making their debut at the GSD, even though their work is present here in a number of ways. Among other things, George Dodds was the executive editor of the Journal of Architectural Education and co-editor of a book that's very dear to me called Body and Building: Essays on the Changing Relation of Body and Architecture. David Gissen likes mud and things that are green. Simon Sadler has written on The Situationist City and Archigram, and complex things and processes. And Meredith TenHoor wrote a PhD at Princeton and has written about food, shopping, architecture, and biopolitics.
6:49: George Dodds is up. Instead of "What will be written?" he is asking "What will be re-written?" Because that's what we do. "I've spent much time...re-writing what was handed to me, always skeptical of the received view. This lapsed Catholic revisionism...is what propelled me into a two-decade struggle...with the Barcelona Pavilion, and is what incited my current interest in Carlos Scarpa." "A generation from now, we might be asking, what is to be read, and who will be reading?" George Orwell wrote: "Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past."
6:58: David Gissen. He's showing us his website, which has the title: "HTC Experiments: Experimental practices in architectural history, theory, and criticism." He does things that, as he says, can be hard for people to understand. Now he's showing a project called Museums of the City, that questions the role of museums and of historicity: museums of the city are "the apparatus that transforms urban stuff into [history]." Now he's talking about the strange predicament of architects who have PhDs, who try to practice and write at the same time! "I'm interested in ways of being a historian that are outside the practice of writing."
[Gissen's Museums of the City; images from his website.]
7:04: Simon Sadler. [Charming British accent.] Steve Jobs "inspired by Zen Buddhism and the Whole Earth Catalog," represents the quintessential Bay Area design. "It's architecture's combination of hermeneutics and will to form...that interests me." That is, its way of understanding and changing the world. "But there is much work to do be done in determining how architecture as a teleology can operate." The world is a rough place: child abuse and environmental toxicity. "Yet there is also something profoundly reassuring about design's will to reform. Architectural design is revealed as a holdout of 19th century reforms...usually through unlikely alliances--often with capitalism itself." "I've come to believe that architectural history is a wonderful engine for a general education. I've come from a land grant university without an architecture school." "I don't mean to be glib when I say that the Onion captured something when it said that Steve Jobs was "the only person in this country who actually had his shit together and knew what the hell was going on.""
7:10: Meredith TenHoor. [Sorry: technical glitch and I lost some text here.] But she talked about three areas: food delivery systems, infrastructure, and urban policy and law. And she mentioned Rungis, the world's largest food market, in the Parisian suburbs; this kind of structure is what allows for the industrial scale of food production that we have. It sounds like she does pretty serious work on systems and processes and cultural structures and habits--all of which, for obvious reasons, are more difficult to access as a historian than objects or ideas that individual people have professed. She co-wrote a book with Rosten Woo and Damon Rich called Shopping, Planning, and Politics at Fulton Mall.
7:22: Timothy Hyde's got everyone around the table. He comments on TenHoor's apology, and says that to the contrary, he actually was glad for the unapologetic statements that everyone gave. "I'd like to begin by asking: at what points have you been uncomfortable with your own work?"
7:25: Gissen: yes, he's uncomfortable. But in the novel things that are happening now--PhDs that practice, etc.--new things are possible.
7:27: Sadler: Banham once bicycled up and down the aisle (at a public lecture?) but everyone respected his contribution. There are different moments and modes of presenting ideas and work; some more casual and some more formal and vetted. "And there's a new public just sitting out there. There was a time until very recently that an archive was off-limits; you needed white gloves and a letter of recommendation. Now it's all online, and there's something astonishing about that. I'm sure there are still things missing, but so much is in the public realm. Who needs me?" But ultimately there's still a role for historians, who have a "protracted engagement with the material."
7:32: TenHoor: There are different outlets for work; she mentions that Fulton Mall bought thirty copies of their book, which was intended for city planning buffs and those who are concerned about gentrification. You can't always plan for that. "And we do rely on different people today--publicists, bloggers...to get our word out."
7:34: Hyde: "There's no propositional claim behind our work." [Is this true? I have a feeling we'll come back to this.]
7:36: Dodds: "When you get beyond the GSD to places like land grant universities...you find that in architectural education there's a reticence to assign the term scholarship to what architects do. And there's a big distinction between research and scholarship. ...When you ask people to think about a design practice as a form of scholarship, that's even more problematic." One of his goals as editor at JAE was to publish more design; architecture schools are "populated by people with architecture master's degrees who teach studio and something else. That's the rank-and-file. So this was a way to engage people more fully. But we found that people were reticent to submit their work because they found it hard to think of their work as scholarship, even though we all work in a university." Uh-oh: he used the word "anti-intellectualism" in relation to the American scene.
7:40: TenHoor: "I think we also need to talk about how we produce our work and how it's funded. Because things are online and we don't have to always travel, it's now possible to...produce scholarship more quickly, or at least assemble material more quickly. So we can think about how we deploy that work; sometimes we can deploy it more quickly."
7:42: Sadler: "The morale in California is so low!"
Gissen: "There's no interest in history."
Sadler: "The Californian dream is over, and the universe is going to contract." One of the assignments he gives his students is to study their campus. "And UC Davis is incredibly boring; you have all these mid-century buildings." But you can learn about the wider project of which it was a part.
Gissen: Is currently talking with his dean about teaching a survey course to prisoners at San Quentin (where Johnny Cash sang). "That is cool. ...Are you going to teach Bentham? The prison population is a significant proportion of California's population." "I'm actually skeptical of [community architecture] projects because they're so simplistic. I think something else could be done."
Hyde: "Is all of your work urgent work, or do you also have slow-burner work, that you don't know where it's going to go in eight or ten years?"
7:50: Gissen: "There are different kinds of urgency. There's the urgency of [issues that are really important.] And there's the urgency of having to get something published and out, because otherwise some blogger will have it online within seconds." [Haha.]
Dodds: "The difficulty in having slow-burner topics is keeping the flame ignited."
Sadler (or Gissen?): "Keeping up with the literature."
TenHoor: "Having to re-write it every time."
Hyde: "Am I right in characterizing the work, in that you enter it in strategically small-scale ways? None of you are writing large synthetic histories, but small, discrete object-examples. Is this the only way we have to get into work now?"
TenHoor: The opportunity for collaboration. "Because there are so many of us now who have PhDs, and we can put our work together to make these sweeping histories. We aspire to that, but we're also trained to generate knowledge [in a smaller way, by looking at more discrete objects and examples.]
Dodds: "I started teaching during the second Reagan administration, and the kind of architecture student we had then is different from today." It was more open-ended then, and "there was more interest in knowledge for its own sake, to use a tired phrase. Now students are looking for something more operational. If they can't eat it or fornicate with it, they're not interested. Which puts certain limitations on the faculty. And in a sense I understand their point of view. But I also tell them in seminars that if I've done a good job, nothing that we talk about will be useful; they won't be able to take it to studio and plug it in. Architectural theory is reflective. You reflect, and then you make. Once they understand that, they understand the utility of architectural discourse."
[From left to right: Saunders, Gissen, Sadler, Hyde, Dodds, and TenHoor.]
8:00: Question from the audience: "Would it be possible for you to develop a scholar-architect practice entirely outside the academy?"
Gissen: "I worked as a curator for many years...That's one way that that can happen. I'd love to see new kinds of peripheral practices emerge...but I also think about how one eats and pays the bills."
TenHoor: "We're also moving towards a system where it's less and less possible to get paid to do this kind of work. So we're going to have to find new systems to do our work. Even though I work as a teacher, much of my work hasn't been supported directly by the academy. Which means that we'll also have different audiences to answer to, which is both good and bad."
8:03: Question from the audience: "I'm so glad that you asked the question about whether you're able to think and write about larger themes. And if the question is about what we think we should be writing about...aren't there deeper, more critical issues that we need to address at this point, and that we need to bring to the attention of students? We're in the middle of an environmental crisis, a financial crisis, a social disruption crisis. Are you writing about these things? When I was a student here, a hundred years ago, we were 2 billion people in the world; now there are 9 billion."
Hyde: He's distinguishing between teaching "about" these crises and teaching people ways to "think about" things.
Gissen: "I try to teach students to not project their world backwards into other worlds." Without turning students into activists, he sees that as a way to get them to think about how the world can be different and how it has had tragedies and continuities.
TenHoor: Aims to teach about how architects have had agency to change things, in their projects, at different points in time; and about how architectural agency and techniques have evolved over time.
Hyde: "Do you feel like you're teaching your students an ethical stance?"
TenHoor: "I don't think that's something I could teach; I think that would be presumptuous. But I can teach projects that I think are either admirable or terrible and talk about why."
Dodds: "If we can engage students critically and get them to be critical about what they're doing, then we've achieved something. And [when the invitation for this event] arrived, these are precisely the questions that came to mind. And then I needed a drink."
Sadler: "I wasn't trained as a moral philosopher; it'd be awful if I tried to teach this. ...But I start to feel evangelical when I'm teaching. Architectural design is always about ethics. ...You can't not know ethics and politics."
Thanks for reading!
P.S. Well, this was interesting. I'm really glad to hear this kind of frank discussion of the modes of historical practice that are current and possible today. Timothy Hyde asked something that I've been thinking quite a bit about lately: how one (how I) can still do the kind of slow thinking in which you enter into a five or eight or twenty year project without knowing where it's going to go.
For me, these are the most valuable projects. When I did my PhD, my advisor Alberto Pérez-Gómez impressed upon all of us the importance of entering a close and sustained dialogue with our material of study without being impatient to get to what he calls "the punchline." So I pursued something that seemed interesting to me, without any idea of where it would lead. Six years later, I had a project that I was really proud of that dealt with a really arcane subject in archaic and classical Greece. Eight years later, as I am being exposed to contemporary issues about infrastructure, landscape urbanism, cognitive history, and computation, I ask questions that I never would have been able to formulate had I not studied what I did in the early Greek context. (Archaic and classical Greece were times when literacy, as a technology of communication, was changing everything; there are certain parallels with what we're going through today.) This means more to me than anything, having these questions.
So I believe in slow thinking. It's funny, because I am also a blogger, and "blogger" these days is shorthand for quick, disposable thinking and the mindless promotion and dissemination of...stuff. In a way, I blog because I feel that I have to: at the GSD, we're so inundated with tasks and ideas and projects and flashy things that there is always way more than we can possibly do well, or even pay attention to. In this context, I worry that my attention span has gotten shorter. Without a task to keep myself focused, I find it difficult to sit through a lecture without checking my email, working on something else, or just taking a moment to zone out and rest my brain. When I blog, I miss certain things while I correct a sentence or upload a photo--but at least I'm engaged, and I'm making an effort to catch the details while synthesizing the whole. It's a way for me to think, and the result is a set of documents that then act as my memory of various events and moments. I often compulsively type in classes and in meetings for the same reason.
Of course, I also blog because I think it's great fun--and hopefully of some value to other people--to share some of the exciting and curious things that come my way. And yes, I believe in the democratization of communication and love the quickness of it all. But I don't confuse this with more patient kinds of work, which I miss very much.
Lectures and exhibitions, life in the trays, happenings around Cambridge...and once in a while, some studio and course work. Please note that all live blogs are abridged and approximate. If you want to see exactly what happened, in most cases a video of the event is posted online by the event's hosts. If you have concerns about how you are quoted, please contact me via Archinect's email.