UC Berkeley (Nick)



Aug '08 - Jun '10

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    Stab one: a thesis declaration

    Nick Sowers
    Oct 31, '08 3:10 AM EST
    War leaves its mark on the social body; it is because, through the intermediary of military institutions, it has general effects on the civil order as a whole.
    -Michel Foucault. Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College de France. p. 159

    Well no point in keeping my desires underground. I've skirted around my interests in this blog but I don't think if I've put up an entry where I really lay them out. I'm doing a GI Joe thesis. Keep reading.

    We're now at a point in thesis prep where we have to answer the question in bold: What does my interest in *x mean for architecture? Answering this is really the most difficult of anything we've been asked to do. I think finding what you're interested in is pretty easy--so easy that you are usually overwhelmed with all these things you want to explore. The task then is editing, and I think a trap a lot of people fall into is that they choose something they think other people are interested in, thus "validating" your interests. That's bullshit. It's your thesis, you're going to be up doing all nighters cursing yourself if you picked such a topic, so you had better just follow your gut and do the legwork in order to answer that question in bold.


    First, whats up with the tanks? The decline of the tank, in my opinion, is emblematic of the waning relevance of the body and machine relationship that seemed to drive both 20th century warfare and, roughly translated, 20th century architecture. Still, I'm interested in the residue of this machine culture-no doubt I'm fascinated by the forms of bunkers and tanks. It is probably this formal drive that has kept me on this military thread--and so I wonder, what is the future of military space? Will the tank disappear as cities become battlefields? What new forms and architectural ideologies will emerge as a result of our desire to produce defensible space?

    I'm pretty passionate about this topic because I've been thinking about it, consciously and subconsciously, for quite some time. Why did I play so much with GI JOE trucks, and draw millions of crazy war machines as a kid, why was I obsessed with Vietnam War movies in my teens, and ever since an encounter with Mike Davis and City of Quartz, a desire to understand how surveillance and security are manifest in built form? I've traveled to Bosnia which is the closest I've come to the reality of war. I'm fixated upon this lens, and now will be traveling for a year to test it.

    At this point I must ask: why am I fascinated by all this military stuff and what does it mean for architecture? So this is my answer to the question in bold:

    Architecture is a diplomatic transformation. This thesis is about the translations between military and civilian practices which act invisibly to the human eye, at extra-extra large [XXL] and extra-extra small [XXS] scales. [XXL] is a territorial scale, where the map of the world has been redrawn by the Pentagon into a "functioning core" and a "non-integrating gap", an attempt to restore an us vs. them mentality. [XXS] is the microscopic and electromagnetic scale, where defensible space is truly ambiguous and surveillance and communication are the new artillery. Space at the intermediary [M] scale is in tension between these two extreme scales, completely contingent upon forces acting at scales that the architect has little to no control over.

    These translations between military and civilian space are manifest in terms of base closures, airport security checkpoints, and sound beam guns, to name a few. [XXL] and [XXS] are thus compressed together and warp the [M] space which we can readily perceive, the traditional domain of the architect. I am interested in the architectural act which is opportunistic of fissures and collapses of space by the military/information complex and which ultimately allow for a new ideology of space in the 21st century.

    >so this is my first stab, and you are welcome to stab me with questions and criticisms. Please tell me I'm out of my mind and I should be doing a Barbie doll thesis instead.

    >argh, since I can't edit my comments, here is the image for Steve Lauf:


    • Smokety Mc Smoke Smoke

      Ha ... we should talk. When asked why all my research seemed to revolve around WW2 aircraft and bombs, my only response was one that was similar to yours. I claimed that the airplane is a mediating device.

      Oct 31, 08 8:05 am  · 

      it's funny, your post made me think back to my logic when going into thesis....and for me some strange desire overtook me to, instead of take something i loved and work through it, to instead pick something i hated...for some reason it didn't even occur to me to think of doing a thesis on something i loved....even though, by picking something i hated i had to figure out ways to mediate between my interests and my disdain towards it.....inevitably incorporating my loves.

      Oct 31, 08 1:08 pm  · 
      ☭ ☭ ☭ ☭ ☭ ☭ ☭ ☭

      nick, first, great thesis declaration. i too have a fascination with military hardware - since i was 4 and dad sent me some rc ones from 'nam - partly because of a need to connect with a father in the army that really did not want to connect, the secon was because, damn they are sexy machines, even if their purpose is to kill.

      i could conceive that as the battlefield changes, perhaps the nature of the tank will change, perhaps a vertical tank? perhaps an unmanned drone tank, smaller?

      i think it's also interesting that the origin of the word "tank" was constructed to camoflage what the brits were moving around in WWI, they were intended to mean water tanks, storage containers.

      Oct 31, 08 2:24 pm  · 

      Sweet. I look forward to the progression of your thesis. Has this interest manifested itself much in your prior architectural projects?

      Oct 31, 08 3:18 pm  · 

      interesting. i look forward to seeing where this goes.

      as far as the thesis goes:

      until i checked out the blogpost link to sub-topia i didn't understand the purpose of the thesis and wondered, frankly what the heck the thesis is. do you intend to PROVE the declarations you make, or are they already proven so you can focus on architecture? is the focus on architecture? on urbanism? everything?

      but then i read the blogpost link to subtopia and now i understand better. i still don't know what your thesis is exactly but i can understand a bit of the background that informs your topic. its a rich field, which surprised me.

      my business-partner often gave me advice when i was writing my phd dissertation that went something like : "you are too close to the topic and assume everyone else knows as much as you. stop that!" it is good advice. not that you suffer from the same problem, but it is useful to describe things at the beginning as if no one has ever heard of your topic (like me) and work from there.

      it is probably necessary to be more explicit about what exactly you are going to do, what assumptions you will test and what result you expect (does the toy soldier and the tanks have any relation to your topic? they seem not to). at least those are things i would personally like to see.

      those comments aside, it is an interesting first start.

      Nov 1, 08 12:27 am  · 

      You know up to the line you drew in your blog post I was with you, at the end of the bed with anticipation. And like a bad pirated copy of there must be blood your argument took a turn and left me unsure of the lineage.

      I believe there is another institution that you alluded to with the mention of the tank. You: "The decline of the tank [...] is emblematic of the waning relevance of the body and machine relationship" I would add that presence of the tank in war-fare was to offer what the body did not naturally, namely stamina, security, invulnerbility, mobility etc. However its inclusion was often within a rural context of the battlefield and as the location for wars became more domestic into the lure of the suitors a paradigm shift has taken place (evidence can be cued by the increasing mortality). From this I believe has emerged a rethinking of translations between military and civilian spatial practices.

      Nov 1, 08 1:30 am  · 

      "Contrary to common perceptions, it is the female that is hard and the male that is soft. In simple undeniable terms it is woman that enables embryonic development within her own body -- woman's bodies themselves are a hard protective shells (only women corporeally possess and facilitates the human egg that in turn allows fetal development). Men, on the other hand, very much do not have that "built-in" protectiveness, hence men make great displays about forever being on the defensive, and indeed it is almost exclusively men that have continually created our planet's foremost industry, if only to create that protective shell that their sex was not born with -- the age old military apparatus (shields, armor, war ships, submarines, tanks, stealth bomber, etc. are all "man"-made protective shells).

      So what then is architecture? Is it a hard, 'simple', 'natural' protective shell that engenders the continuation of life? Or is it a soft formlessness forever (re-)designing an applied shell it doesn't naturally have?"
      --ironically, I never mentioned skin

      my thesis in a nutshell, you might say

      Nov 1, 08 11:26 am  · 

      These are great comments, thank you. Frankly, archinect is a tremendous place, long live archinect. I feel fortunate to have this forum to air my thoughts and to you all for being so generous to share yours.

      Steve Lauf: fascinating points, but I must share an observation from a recent visit to a Berkeley Army Surplus store:
      <img src="%%dir[1]%%012surplus.jpg" border="0" alt="image" name="image" width="400" height="533" />

      Appleseed: I have never so overtly pointed towards the military in my projects until last semester, when I did a studio under Kevin Daly about a soccer academy in Monrovia, Liberia. I was feeding off of Lebbeus Woods formally, a bit hacked I know, but since then it's opened me up to an increasingly rich and varied terrain of thinking on architecture and war.

      betadine: exactly--but is a drone tank considered a "tank" anymore, since the "armored" body is now protected more by a geographical and (digitally) technological separation? If we can wage all of our wars without ever leaving American soil, how is our notion of territory, our very world view, going to be altered? I for one am skeptical of the drone war machine (Delanda: War in the Age of Intelligent Machines) because I think cities will always be more intelligent and complex than the machines we might produce to control them.

      Nov 1, 08 6:09 pm  · 

      let's try that again:

      jump: That is something I am incredibly guilty of: assuming people know what I'm talking about and making huge leaps in my logic.

      I do have trouble with the idea that the masters thesis should "prove" something (the heart of a scientific thesis) or even that it needs to add something original to architectural discourse (the heart of a phd thesis), though we should hope the work is original. A thesis should, as you said, test some assumptions, and in so doing, shed some light about the way architects conceive of space. After all, I'm not going to design new tanks nor, I suppose, a military base. I want to translate my research into an understanding of the mechanisms beneath "everyday" architectural practice.

      architechnophilia: it is interesting to note the historical transformation that took place in the 16th through 18th centuries when the cannon was introduced and radically transformed the nature of defensibility. The battlefield itself, the esplanade or glacis surrounding a fort like Palmanova, becomes a fortified object, an armored piece of ground made artificial by trenches. I just saw a presentation by David Gissen in which he mentioned the armoring of buildings in Times Square to defend against a potential biological attack-- as in WWI, the atmosphere itself is the subject of control. Virilio writes a lot about this. Thus the trend, and I gather this is the institution you speak of, is that of the city, and the desire of the city to exclude or control 'nature'. Through the attempts of the military institution to dominate the battlefield (now an urban site), we may better understand how the institution of the city (of which architects play a major role) attempts to control its own unwieldy nature, which can not be thought of as separate from a rural nature.

      Nov 1, 08 6:11 pm  · 

      let me guess:

      Nov 1, 08 6:19 pm  · 

      Yikes! That mannequin looks like a Barbie doll.

      Nov 1, 08 6:24 pm  · 

      ...and now we have come full circle. I will do an Olga + G.I. Joe thesis.

      wouldn't it be interesting to find a program that challenges the assumed masculinity of military architecture? I've been thinking about a military hospital--the locus of the vulnerable soldier.

      Walter Reed is closing...

      Nov 2, 08 5:35 pm  · 

      What exactly is "the assumed masculinity of military architecture"?

      to clarify my thesis:
      So what then is architecture? Is it a [feminine] hard, 'simple', 'natural' protective shell that engenders the continuation of life? Or is it a [masculine] soft formlessness forever (re-)designing an applied shell it doesn't naturally have?"

      Nov 2, 08 7:07 pm  · 

      earlier today I was walking around Oakland and saw a sign in a window that read something like: is the problem that boys feel it is unacceptable to let down their guard and cry or is it that girls lack the confidence to stand up and fight criticism?

      I think this actually gets back to the toy soldier and tank at the top of the entry. Partly why I'm fascinated by this military stuff is that it was a major part of my conditioning as a male person. So that's what I mean by assumed masculinity. The military institution has left a mark on my own development, a sort of artificial hardening into a male identity.

      I appreciate the irony of your reversal into masculine:feminine /soft:hard, but I do wonder if in order to achieve a new ideology of space for the 21st century, we have to work to dissolve dichotomies and seek out instead a shifting terrain of hard/soft, masculine/feminine, inside/outside, natural/artificial, etc.

      For example, would not a military hospital in Washington DC call into question the boundaries between military and civilian, the nature of masculinity (a perceived imperviousness) and femininity (a perceived vulnerability)? I think, without having designed anything, that it will be difficult to sustain even the reversed dichotomy that you have presented: masculinity (an artificial defensibility) and femininity (a natural defensibility).

      I would like to explore what it is to throw out masculine/feminine and explore a third identity between them. I mean to study diplomacy and transformation, not war and polarization.

      Nov 2, 08 9:18 pm  · 

      Nick, judging by the subtext of each of the five paragraphs you just posted above, it looks like "conditioning" is what really permeates your thesis.

      wondering, will the critical conditioning of a new ideology of space for the 21st century happen more naturally or more artificially?

      Speaking of hospitals, currently reading Le Corbusier's Venice Hospital (Hashim Sarkis, editor). It too touches on the notion of a "new ideology of space".

      And as to (both) hard/soft, (again, finally) finding lots of inspiration in keratin.

      Nov 3, 08 8:18 am  · 

      (completely?) coincidentally, has yesterday uploaded 113 texts, a good number of which deal with issues of the body, gender, and war.

      Nov 3, 08 9:18 am  · 
       · is great, I'm on that list too and I wonder if it is coincidence, or just the phenomenon when you discover a certain way of looking and things you previously didn't know how to look for just keep popping up out of the shadows.

      Thank you for your insights, and I look forward to more discussion!

      Nov 3, 08 8:26 pm  · 

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