Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    Live Blog - Aggregate and Ed Eigen

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Oct 12, '12 3:07 PM EST

    Hi Archinect,

    I haven't normally attended the GSD's "PhD Talks" as I'm not a PhD student here, but today the researchers collectively known as "Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative" are having a conversation wtih Ed Eigen, about a book that I admire very much called Governing by Design: Architecture, Economy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century (published earlier this year by Pittsburgh University Press). We're in one of Gund Hall's "portico" rooms which I think are among the nicest spaces in the building.

    The members of Aggregate who are present today include Daniel Abramson, Lucia Allais, Arindam Dutta, John Harwood, Timothy Hyde, Pamela Karimi, Jonathan Massey, Ijlal Muzaffar, Michael Osman, and Meredith TenHoor.

    3:08: Bryan Norwood, PhD student, makes introductions. "Aggregate...according to their website... is" [laughter] ...well, here, look for yourself. Bryan is introducing each speaker and cutely referring to each member of Aggregate as a "particulate."

    3:13: EE: Ed Eigen starts. Meredith Tenhoor, he says, will start by introducing the work of Aggregate. Then Daniel Abramson will describe the editorial process in developing this book, describing what it meant to bring together the disparate voices of ten scholars within a "collective ethos." Then Ed Eigen will describe the book more and open up a wider conversation.

    3:15: MT: Aggregate was formed through workshops, conversations, and telephone calls and through the realization that they had a common set of interests and methods. A subset of architecture--Lucia Allais and John Harwood, are now working on a project called "Before Theory," and there's another book project too. They're also starting to post things online to try to share the kinds of material that are less easily published in book form, and are using open peer review in managing that work. Aggregate meets once a month.

    EE: "I hope it's not overstating the case to say that we're proselytizing a bit today..." and looking for future collaborators and contributors for Aggregate.

    3:18: DA: Each person had their own intentions and interests; they workshopped this together to help each other, and over time developed the works towards an overarching theme of governmentality and governing. That was a theme that developed as a way to link the projects in the existing work, rather than being established before the works.

    "One of the themes in the book is to engage not only the purposeful in architecture but also the accidental and contingent." The (tensions between) structure and agency became really important as the projects came together.

    The book is divided into three parts, roughly chronologically. The first part ("Food, Shelter, and the Body") is about the management of risk in the 20th century (financial, bodily, etc.). How can we explain the period of stability after the second world war? The essays in this section describe how stability was established through an understanding of risk.

    The second part ("Global States and Citizens") deals with issues of reworking culture memory through architecture and planning. This touches on another key theme of the 20th century; which is anxiety about losses of cultural memories.

    The third part ("Engineering and Culture") brings issues of culture and memory to the fore, in the 1950s through the 1970s, and "reflexive modernization." How do we solve the problems caused by modernization? How can architecture do this not through the creation of great monuments but by the reorganization of food (and other infrastructure)? What is the role of architecture as a "soft power"? The last chapter, but Dutta, returns to governmentality not as a totality of power but by lots of different agents, at different levels, contesting and working with various kinds of power. It's a history about contingent circumstances, dead-ends, and minor characters; it seemed like a more hopeful way to think about working in the present. "It was not very overdetermined from the beginning; it was very open, yet it was also not a free-for-all. There were certain structures to work through." In that sense their reading of history, DA observes, is not unlike the way the book got organized.

    3:28: EE: In Aggregate's meetings, there's lots of discussion about publishing and what constitutes a valid piece of scholarship. I'm wondering if you could address the corporate nature--the way in which "Aggregate" appears on the cover of the book? I know this was a big struggle for the group.

    DA: "That was very important to me; either we'd all be listed as editors or only a handful would be, and that did not seem proper." There's a history of this (DA refers to a group called "Retort").

    TH: We thought this would be straight-forward, but at first the publisher said "absolutely not." The publisher said "Aggregate" could appear on the cover but we'd have to pick names for the editors or list all the names. Part of the concern was marketing, and part was more mechanical; it raises questions of copyright, and cataloging by the Library of Congress. Once we pushed and showed precedents, the publisher let us use Aggregate on the front cover, as long as we put all the names on the back cover. Also, we had to agree that the name might not be able to always appear correctly in different databases, at Amazon (etc.) (because of the mechanics of how these databases work). But this was important for the group because the papers were shaped by the group, and not "individually authored"; and because they wanted the group to be able to live on, even if individuals swapped in and out over time. It's not a nom de plume for a specific set of individuals.

    3:30: EE: On the back of the cover, Lawrence Vale writes that the book is "wide ranging yet coherent," not "wide ranging and coherent." (laughter)

    EE: I'm a bit surprised by how contingency and chance came to the fore as one of the themes; this was a double problem. There was a way of conceptualizing contingency...but many of the essays in the book are about the contingencies that befell solutions that responded to "ungovernable" situations that themselves were contingent.

    EE: ..."This is not a book about modernism. I could name several, three at least that came out of symposia in this building. This is about the process of which things don't always go according to plan." I wanted to place the question of modernization alongside the question of governmentality, of administration. This stands in metonymically for politics. EE quotes from this part of the book's introduction:

    The "Error of Harvard" (going back to something EE opened his comments with) was thinking that the world was essentially governable. EE is describing the Harvard Economic Service, which published a "Business Barometer" that analyzed economic conditions. There's a parallel between the way they understood economics and the weather; there was a "growing confidence" that this was going to work out well, that everyone would profit.

    After the stock market crash of 1929, this metaphor continued: an article stated "Charting a course out of this financial hurricane..." and said that "even the pilots have been confused. They have been counselled to steer this way or that and even to disregard their compasses and sextants and blindly steer in a direction dictated by the feelings of the numerous volunteer experts."

    EE: What does it mean to govern by design? EE refers to the GSD (Graduate School of Design) through the following graphic, which promotes some mirth.

    3:52: EE describes Michael Osman's paper ("Preserved Assets"), and how the architect (Louis Sullivan) is subsumed in the rest of the story ("put on ice"). It has to do with an incipient moment of networking and also of franchising, and cold storage. And EE refers to the full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, which bolstered its claim as the "Athens of the south." Dutta's chapter, "Marginality and Metaengineering: Keynes and Arup," complicated what we could describe as the "starchitect" view of architecture, and shows how we could see a more complex set of forces and actors that make buildings like the Sydney Opera House (in which Arup first came to prominence) happen.

    4:05: John Harwood's paper discusses the domestication of the word "ergonomics"; what does it mean for a word to become so familiar that its complex meanings become lost to us?

    4:06: Timothy Hyde's paper discusses the civic group that organized in Cuba in 1942 called the Patronato Pro-Urbanismo, and whose slogan was "better cities, better citizens."

    4:07: Mereidth TenHoor's piece describes the SAGAMIRIS, a group that integrated the EPRF, and their plans for a zone for hotels and leisure (ZHL), and each was just an imagined group or idea, but assumed acronymic forms to give themselves a sense of legitimacy. "WTF?" TenHoor's piece says.

    4:11: MO: By putting the architect "on ice," it's not that the architect disappears, in our methodologies, it's that they become more contingent. How do we constitute that thing that we put on ice?

    MO: ..."when I first heard the title and Danny's description of the book, I had no idea how much the the essays described those 113 years," and described the extent to which those years were governed by design. The architect here becomes a kind of commodity that we trade with; and we use history to find its value.

    AD: (We came together as a group in part because) many of us were struggling with the problem of how to write about agency in a historical process, in describing change. Most architectural historians recognize that this notion of authorship (in the architect) is fractured or incomplete, but the discipline enforces that fractured centering in how we tell stories about architecture. And we were interested not just in architects reflecting on their own practice, but the confrontation with the wider world which goes far beyond architecture. ...For me, literally, in the case of buildings, who really designs? Is it the architect, the engineer, the conditions of financial conditions? ...Anyone who's watched The Wire will know the rubric of how this happens. The focalizing of the architect is something we didn't want to restrict to any one domain. I mean, this book looks like it's about political economy (etc.) and that may be how it gets sold, (but Aggregate was interested in many layers of conditions.)

    JM: We were trying to move away from describing the architect as either expressive of their context or agonistic to it; and move towards describing how architects are mediators of it.

    EE: You're trying to complicate the biographical model (of architectural history), to say that bios--that we're not alone, that we're part of a wider life.

    MO: None of us took on the life of an individual architect biographically, but it's not that we should exclude that either. Harwood's essay uses biographical details, which are really effective in exploding the notion of agency in Dreyfuss' life.

    4:25: Allais is describing how, working primarily as cultural historians, she wasn't used to describing an event as such; and how this motivated her chapter. Somone else (Muzaffar?) comments that her paper was well able to describe the resistance and unpredictability offered by material things, on the ground; they're not infinitely pliable, as we can't attach any activity or meaning to any thing. 

    (LA pivots towards "events that didn't happen.")

    TH: The idea of dreams that didn't come true was something that I asked Aggregate to help me with. Things that didn't end up happening are important, not just historically because they didn't happen, but as a thing in themselves. This was the case in Cuba in TH's essay. This runs against a basic premise of modernism which is about things getting realized. The term, the "plan," was lucid but also problematic; in the Five-Year Plan, the Marshall Plan, and so on, what is being described is a process of planning (as a gerund) that overlaps and contradicts itself--rather than an artifact. So when we study these plans, we should move through the plan as an artifact to the process of planning; when we do, these processes multiply and are more complex. In what way does the coincidence of plans lead to stasis? In the story I wrote about, one discipline described to another why their plan was better; the other disagreed, and something happened. In cases where the plans coincided, things ground to a halt.

    AD: The plan may fail, but the planning goes on. The failure of the artifact doesn't necessitate an end of the process, as in UNESCO (LA's paper).

    TH: Also, when there's failure, it doesn't mean that nothing happened.

    MO: Our book wasn't a kind of "Tafurian staring at the wall, waiting for the revolution"; it wasn't a mournful or nostalgic look at monuments that never happened. ...There's a shift from an author-centered architectural history, towards situating that within a broader set of shifting systems. And there, Danny's essay is paradigmatic, in thinking about how the notion of obsolescence addresses a set of negative futures.

    TH: In several of the essays, the future is not unknown; it's known, and the process and problem is getting there. The constitutional process, mortgage financing; what is the mechanism to get to where you're going? It's a literal mechanism in some papers and more of an analytical or predictive ones in others.

    MO: No matter what, we know the future, right: the food turns into poop. It either turns into poop rotting in the warehouse, or by passing through bodies. How do we allow for one future and forestall the other? Ergonomics is the same, promising at least a certain level of survival at the present moment (even though, I think he's implying, our ultimate destination is poop, or death.)

    DA: Obsolescence is an idea about how the new competes with the an idea it has a certain history. (It's a paradigm for a certain historical moment.) Today, we have a paradigm of sustainability, and it's become hard to think otherwise; there's limits on what can be thought at any given time, it's not as if anything can be thought at any time. We shouldn't just be learning from history, but what can architectural history teach other disciplines? One thing we can do is look at objects; we can look at architectural plans and take them seriously, not just skip over them. I think you're right to talk about the plan and planning; it's also important that the book is illustrated and that it deals with objects in a particular way that architecture can.

    JM: I've been talking with a doctoral student who asked me how architectural historians use objects to speak about history, and I looked at him, like, are you crazy? That's my whole discipline. Do some homework.

    EE: I hope you gave him Tafuri to read as a punishment.

    AD: I happen to be married to a actual historian, not a (hyphenated one, like architectural historians). AD draws a comparison between historians of science and architectural historians; in both cases it's often scientists, or architects--practitioners--who are reflecting on their own disciplines.

    PK: I'd like to comment on the topic of event in relation to my piece. The French Revolution, or the revolution in Iran, are events. But when you live through it, you realize it's not an event with a beginning and end, but it's a process. People were thinking through their lives through these images:

    JM: ...For me, it was a methodological experiment in doing a whole different kind of history than what I had been trained in. My monograph on Claude Bragdon could not be more banal in format.

    AL: Your paper did the biggest service disciplinarily. (Now when someone writes a paper they have to think about financial regulation.)

    MT: ...Part of what I wanted to do historiographically is to restore architecture and the building as an economic language, as something through which we can read economics; not just thinking about how economics informs architecture. ...There's a whole history of displacements, of architecture not being necessary to do something that it was necessary for before. There was a moment in (my material) where architects were really necessary, but then the culture absorbed the ideas that those buildings were (supposed to embody) and became able to enact them in different ways.

    5:14: EE open up the floor to student questions.

    Q: It seems to me that the more I'm being trained as an architectural historian, the more I'm privileging documents and data. But can we see buildings as data too, as primary sources? When we walk into a building, aren't we drowning in data? How do we negotiate architecture as a primary source, as a real historical artifact to be taken seriously?

    LA: My experience is precisely about going to archives that are not about the object, and finding the object. To me, that's as important as going to the building and feeling the humidity, etc.

    DA: I think part of it is just logistical, which is to stop reading all those documents and spend more time looking at objects. It's okay if you don't read everything. And the way you look at objects should be to read against the grain, not to confirm what you see in the documents but to contest it. I think this can make our stories more persuasive.

    AD: Objectivity isn't just a thing, but an event in time. It's also about narrating an event, narrating an object in its time.

    JH: The answer I'm hearing is almost always "no." My anxiety is to hear that there's a hierarchy of realities, about the "real object that I enter into, that I can touch, that other people have touched"--about the sense of that as a privileged site where discourse has to recede in favor of the objectivity of the object. I would always be very very careful about that. I think the intentions of the book are well summarized by Timothy's comments that the unrealized thing can be as important as the realized one.

    (From the audience): I think the consensus would be the opposite, because we're trained to give preference to the discourse.

    TH: But I think it's the a priori assumption here, that you have to incorporate it as equal. In the historical context you're trying to understand, what counts? Sometimes the building has consequence and sometimes it doesn't, in the terms of the historical process and cultural context you're trying to describe. We started with the idea of trying to understand buildings as data, where they can then be understood as consequential.

    AD: The building as data is exactly correct. There's no architectural history that tells us how to understand a building. All we have is a set of conventions, which at the core of it are bullshit. We've seen the hollowed core of a discipline that says it has a core.

    Hélène Lipstadt: The question of the relationship between the architectural historian and history is not new; it was part of French historiography between structure and event, Stan Anderson's conversation, Eve Blau, Nancy Stieber. Danny, if I understood you correctly, you were saying that formalism isn't escaped by calling form an "object." ...But I would really like all of you, some of you my former students and friends, I don't mean this badly; I just mean to say that if you think you're doing something new, read the history of the new. I want you to be right, but I want you to know that this is a standard answer.

    AD: I think we all agree. We keep talking about these conventions, but we're equally interested in these conventions; we're for biography, for example. We don't see ourselves as inventing something new. ...It's still incomplete and ongoing. I completely agree with you that there are former stages.

    LA: I'm sure you're right that the disciplinary ghosts are recurring. In my experience, dealing with historians, it has gotten much less grandiose, much more tactical. When I talk to historians, they say, 'oh your period is so long, 30 years; and your themes are so historical, you should be in a history department. Though I haven't read your work yet.'

    HL: My comment is not hostile.

    AD: Our response is not hostile.

    MT: (Describes a bit about the experiment of Aggregate, as a collaborative project.)

    HL: ...The collaborative never works.

    There's a question from the audience about how Aggregate works. It comes out that Aggregate is an actual corporation, a 501(c), that was required by law to have bylaws (they have Quaker bylaws, apparently).

    MO: The peer editorial process is really interesting. We got together, my text had been totally despoiled with red marks and I had to incorporate that into discourse, talking through how to rearrange, rewrite, and so on. It's open peer review rather than the double blind peer review we agonize over in the rest of our academic lives; it's been constructive.

    TH: In order to meet the requirements of New York State incorporation, to get funding, we thought of Quaker meeting rules. It's not a vote; we don't vote on anything as you would in most corporations. But it's a general consensus that has to emerge over time. This is the stage we're moving into now, so we can't actually tell you what the outcome of this will be and what the pitfalls may be. But it's important for us that this not mirror an editorial board with votes, that it's not a kind of clearinghouse. It's not a journal, it's a collaboration.

    Question from Bryan Norwood: You've talked several times about getting away from typical narratives of architects or grand narratives; but it seems like the danger is that you'd do a schizophrenic version of Giedion. So when you say that "architecture is coextensive with governmentality," I don't know what that means, that seems kind of insane to me. How do you write in a way, different from any kind of textbook? And how does this feed back into teaching in architecture schools, to architects? I'm assuming we still want architectural history courses, constituted as a discpline, instead of just telling students to take history courses across the university.

    AD: ...To a certain extent we understand this is a work of fiction. But in stringing together....we call it a history. But your question is a good one; this is why the editorial process was so difficult for us. The sense of unity in the introduction is a bit misleading. Aggregate is only an opportunity to create a space to discuss these questions at some leisure. We meet for three days once a month to discuss things; that's all. The projects come because we're interested and excited.

    MO: I'm reminded of Bruno Zevi, who describes an instrumental way in which architectural history is incorporated into the curriculum; and (another scholar) says no, architectural history should just present things, then drop it. We're not trying to take over the world...But most of us do not teach our research and use our classrooms as a bully pulpit.

    BN: But whether or not--

    MO: Of course. ...But the more valuable work the architectural historian can do is situate architecture within a broader historical field. In dealing with things like financial markets, wars, and so on, and narrating those in the classroom rather than thus performing an exphrastic description with a projector...we're mving in that direction.

    JH: For me...this group has a complete lack of paranoia.

    HL: How many of you have tenure?

    AD: Half. But when we started, most of us were PhD students. One had tenure.

    JH: The question of disciplinarity...if anything, it can only persist by being put on ice.

    AD: This is not that antagonistic to what architets understand that they're doing. Architects are businessmen. Architects don't stand around on the street corner thinking about the object, blah blah--they've moved on to other modes of operation.

    EE: Can I play the role of the silent majority, and say, there is the refreshment table...

    End. Phew.

    Thanks for reading,


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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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