Yale School of Architecture (Enrique)

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    By Smokety Mc Smoke Smoke
    May 21, '07 9:48 PM EST

    If this is not my last blog as a Yale student, then perhaps this is my penultimate entry. I'm trying to muster the courage to share my feelings about what will happen in the next couple of weeks. I'm not necessarily talking about graduation. I'm talking about the renovation of Paul Rudolph's wonderfully curmudgeonly and ornery Art and Architecture Building. It's been a bad year for Rudolph: many of his works are on the literal chopping block, about to be reduced to smoldering heaps of rubble and cordite. But what is about to happen to the A+A building ... it's tragic. Google "A+A Building" and "Gwathmey", and you'll see what I'm talking about. Again, this is for a future post.

    But on to other pertinent matters ... My days inside the A+A building are technically numbered. They will be officially over a week from today, when I receive my diploma. I am really looking forward to it: I will get to celebrate with friends and family and enjoy some decent weather for a change.

    Today, I turned in my final copy of my thesis. I wouldn't say that the body of my thesis represents two years of research here at Yale. Rather, it is the thesis' lacunae, the missteps and miscalculations I had to endure that really define my tenure here, in my opinion. In other words, as much as my thesis represents a sustained research effort as well as an exercise in original, archival research, I think that what is absent or missing from it speaks volumes. Indeed, writing a thesis is as much a editorial and content-management project as anything else. However, I would not describe my thesis as full of conclusions. Rather, it is full of resignations. As in, "I still don't know enough to make a definitive conclusion about my topic" or "I am not about to make an observation I cannot support."

    I've blogged about my research before. But, for starters ... my thesis is officially called Built to Destroy. The thesis is about the "Typical German and Japanese Test Structures" at Dugway Proving Ground, a weapons testing facility in the northwestern Utah desert. Erich Mendelsohn, Konrad Wachsmann, and Antonin Raymond designed these buildings. The first two designed the "German Village", which was essentially a full-scale replica of North and Central German apartment blocks (note: these were not Mietskasernen, as Mike Davis claims in his treatment of these buildings in Dead Cities). Raymond designed the equivalent "Japanese Village", which consisted of slate- and title-roof variants of urban apartments found in major Japanese industrial areas. Along with members of the RKO Studios Authenticity Division, as well with the advice of both Hans Knoll and Paul Zucker, the three architects also completed research about the linens and interior furnishings that went into the buildings. All was designed just to see how well it would burn -- the buildings were designed to test the efficacy of the AN-M69-x napalm incendiary. The results from these tests provided both the United States Army Air Force and the Royal Air Force with crucial information about targeted cities in Germany and Japan.

    I do not want to get into the analysis underlying this project. It is, after all, quite rote. As for the buildings, they are architecturally unremarkable. The project isometrics, drawn by Mendelsohn and Raymond are really shoddy. These buildings are poor knockoffs of German and Japanese housing ... and thus it is their "use" that really makes this (I think) into a provocative work. When researching this project, the connection between these architects' work and the deaths of hundreds and thousands of people (not to mention the systematic annihilation of some of the world's densest urban areas) during World War II is not far-fetched. Or is it?

    During my review, Emmanuel Petit asked me a very directed question: what conclusion had I reached about Mendelsohn's, Wachsmann's, and Raymond's work for the Chemical Warfare Service during World War II? He was asking me to take a stand on my topic. A similar question was posed to me by Nasser Rabbat when I presented my topic at a conference at Harvard this past February. He asked me if I was "hiding behind the archive" in order to avoid making a moral judgment on the work of these three architects.

    I have been thinking about this project for almost two years now, and though I am still mortified by the history of this project, I am much more confused about it than I was. My pragmatic side wants to say the following: my job as an architectural historian is to write about the buildings, spatial configurations, etc. that define my topic, to write about its social, intellectual, and historical context, to be critical, analytical, and synthetic in one fell swoop. But those who are interested in my project want me to answer questions like, "What was going on in Erich Mendelsohn's mind when he completed this project?" I've read many of Mendelsohn's letters, and none mention the project. I've also perused some of his wartime correspondence ... and still the answer is "I don't know."

    "I don't know" is not a resignation until I admit that I will not really know many of the sordid and biographical details that are intertwined into my project. In that sense a resignation can be a powerful impulse, for it implies the idea that any conclusions about my research will not be able to be reached for a long, long time. It means that I have to find new and different ways to consider and contextualize my project ... and that is equally liberating and exhilarating.

    But, let me tell you things ended. It was with a whimper. I woke up this morning. I made some coffee and sat behind my computer, adjusting my table and contents and pagination (I changed the typeface on my manuscript the night before). I captured my thesis as a .pdf, and burned two copies of it onto CDR's. I then walked the .75 miles to the A+A building, walked among the strewn rubble and discarded studio projects (all the studios were being cleaned up in preparation for graduation). I trekked up six flights of stairs to the 6th floor computer lab, one of the few air-conditioned areas in the building. I printed two copies of "Built to Destroy" on 20-lb weight, alkali-buffered paper, and walked down to the third floor to deliver the manuscripts. I placed them in a box, and before I put its lid on, I wrote a check for $70 payable to "Yale University" and placed it inside.

    I then went home and took a nap. And so ended my two years here at Yale.


    • b3tadine[sutures]

      smoke, i don't know if you ever plan on making this public, but i'd be interested in reading what you have written.

      May 21, 07 11:44 pm  · 

      Enrique...sounds like a great thesis. I totally think that as a historian, your job is to collect data and inform on the conclusions you find. On a personal level, you may place judgments on whether this was a "noble" thing to do, but your job is to create a unbiased historical account of this "story". The crit should never have asked you that question on stage! good job!...if you are interested in sharing your work, please email me a copy, as it sounds very interesting. Hang in there and enjoy your accomplishments!

      May 21, 07 11:50 pm  · 

      Is the moral ambiguity angle part of what led you to become interested in this project in the first place? This idea of the historian as redeemer/detective is really cool, as if you might turn the page or open the yellowing envelope and find the one perfect, missing piece of evidence that will exonerate the client. Less the moral judge and more the investigator. Totally fascinating.

      May 22, 07 12:14 am  · 
      Alexander Jack

      Congrats, sounds like my last day, except my check was for $50 to cover the library binding expense.

      May 22, 07 2:12 am  · 
      vado retro

      congrats smoke. i hope i can read it sometime. my thesis ended with a whimper also but my girlfriend did take me to a spa the next day.

      May 22, 07 2:34 pm  · 
      Living in Gin

      Congrats, Smoke! One door closes, another door opens.

      May 23, 07 12:22 am  · 

      Perhaps the moral ambiguity should merely argue for questioning easy moral judgments. One could argue, that even in an extreme case like yours (architecture literally in the service of one of the largest killing machines in history) and still it resists easy statements of condemnation. What were these men supposed to do? Did they have alternatives? What would you have done, what would any of us have done.
      Just a thought.

      In my humble opinion, I think it's a totally fair question, and I am sure it's one you've been asked before. I think historians should be okay with explaining why they chose their project and why they think the story should be told. It's good to be honest about your biases and to be held accountable for them. Otherwise we end up with a lot of projects that are supposedly to be vaguely titillating and that is just a waste of our efforts. Sigh. There has to be more to architectural history or even just history, than that.

      May 24, 07 11:03 am  · 

      I reiterate my and others' interest in reading your thesis! PDF it online c'uz I can't get to the Yale Library anytime soon...

      May 30, 07 12:38 am  · 

      Smokety, ditto on reading your thesis. I have a great interest many things military, though i somehow lack that drive (at this point in time) to pass the moral judgement.

      Jun 9, 07 12:52 am  · 

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