Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

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

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    Live Blog: The Core of Architecture’s Discourse Now: A New Generation of Scholar Critics Speak Out

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Oct 18, '11 6:46 PM EST

    Hi Archinect!

    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 what was handed to me, always skeptical of the received view. This lapsed Catholic 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, 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 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.


    • What's interesting to me about this is that the group representing the "core" or architectural discourse is essentially white and priveledged. There seems to be an unspoken understanding and consensus among them about the importance of what they do as writers and critics in the academy and their stance in the culture. Where are the alternative points of view? Did anyone in the audience challenge them? Another issue is whether or not they have the rigorous training in the humanities necessary to have a self-criticality, so they are aware of how their knowledge is produced and the implications of that knowledge, the agendas and tropes implicit. I myself was trained as a scholar, historian, and "critic" (as in critical) and this implies a criticality applied to my own work. Panels like this need to be challenged from within and without. Bring in someone like Cornel West or Zizek for example. Then you will seem some critical discussions sparked. There seems to have been no spark, nothing much at stake. That's the problem with these sorts of panels. Everybody more or less agrees with one another. What would be more interesting would be to see cross-disciplinary panels. This one seems to represent the insularity of the architectural discourse, not the growth or evolution of it.

      Oct 19, 11 3:10 pm  · 

      One more thing... did anyone sense how they portray themselves as the conservators of knowledge? They are the authentic transmitters of knowlege but are now threatened by the democratizing, i.e, watering down, of scholarship by the web. They are struggling to be relevant in a much broader field of thinkers and theorists. It's really an issue of training, rigor, discipline, and relevance--being able to identity those issues that are truly important and authentically historical...meaning primarily of the present.

      Oct 19, 11 3:27 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      Guy, you raise some good points. I think the last audience question that I wrote up was challenging the panelists along similar lines: asking them to justify how they work and the space that they occupy. But it's true that William Saunders and Timothy Hyde didn't push the panelists that hard; my speculation is that maybe (?) as (somewhat) older and more established academics, they wanted to be generous to this group and to not be seen as trying to force round pegs into more traditional square holes.

      As for these folks being "white and privileged"...well, I certainly sympathize with where you're coming from. But let me push back on that a bit. First, I think it's hard to know what the upbringing and backgrounds of all these people are, unless we really know their stories. And then, most architecture historians and theorists DO come from well-off backgrounds; after all, who else can afford to study such a thing? I know there are exceptions (as I consider myself to be one, at least nominally).

      But I am also ambivalent, at best, about the whole project of finding token minorities (whether it's gender, ethnicity, etc.) at this level. In school admissions? Absolutely. But I think this kind of forum makes it trickier. If I were a black theorist, for example, I think I'd find it annoying to always be invited to events if it was implicit that I was the token minority or that I was expected to represent a certain point of view because of my demographics. (?)

      Anyways, Guy, thanks for your insights. Do you ever watch these kinds of things via a webcast? If so, and if I'm ever live-blogging one, you should email (or comment) with a question if you have one. I think it'd be pretty fun if I were able to put up my hand and pose a question that someone has sent in remotely. This communication shouldn't be a one-way broadcast.



      Oct 19, 11 4:12 pm  · 

      My point about background also has to do not just with social power and priveledge but with academic/philosophical/political orientations. The humanities is so murh further along in these debates than architectural theory even though architectural theory purports to be concerned with the social and cultural implications of space and the practice/thinking about architecture. Tokenism is a simplistic summary of an argument for structural political mechanisms in academe. That's not what I was implying. There are many excellent studies on this. The demographic is what it is. The group around the table represents what has been acknowledged to be a block. All white, and only one woman. The issue has to do with self-criticalness in the formation of knowledge. Their interests and research are all informed by their backgrounds and are extensions of those backgrounds and as such tend to represent a narrow set of agendas that do not reflect social-cultural reality. This goes to the issue of relevance and importance in their work. It's an interesting set of problems. I suppose a start would be for architectural theory and scholarship to look more closely at what's going on the humanities in relation to identity, nation, history, epistemology, criticality.

      Oct 19, 11 4:40 pm  · 

      By the way, I'm a fan of their work. Especially S. Sadler. My points are meant as part of a broader narrative on the position of theory and the academy.

      Oct 19, 11 5:18 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      I don't know, Guy. I see plenty of white folks in the humanities these days, too.

      I hear what you're saying--but, as you're saying, it's obviously a complex problem that runs deep in our culture.


      Oct 19, 11 6:09 pm  · 

      Exactly. That is why, white or otherwise,  especially if white, I might add,  you have to be skilled in understanding the implications of your social power in relation to the formation of knowledge that is generally assumed to be value-free and abstractly "universal" or totalizing. There is often the assumption in the academy that knowledge is apolitical or value-free. You can't read and produce historical texts and assume they are value-free or ethics-free. You also can't read historical texts and accept them at face value.

      I know what you mean about the white people in the humanities. Looking for "culture."

      Oct 19, 11 6:25 pm  · 
      Lian Chikako Chang

      "There is often the assumption in the academy that knowledge is apolitical or value-free."

      Honestly, I don't know anyone who thinks this. But maybe we know different people.

      Oct 19, 11 7:32 pm  · 

      "There is often the assumption in the academy that knowledge is apolitical or value-free."

      Come on Guy, that "assumption" must have been held by a n y o n e last time around the fifties.

      And the "only white and priviledged foks" argument is pretty much a tired default complaint when it comes to architectural discourse, not something I'd consider "what's interesting."

      But yeah, certainly, there probably are many other fields where the discourse has more solid foundations, clearer structure(s) and a level of critical thinking not seen in architecture - but those are (exactly) other fields than architecture - The big question is how to find the way to discuss architecture on it's own terms - not as cultural geograhy, art history or whatever. And its a mess, because the field of design and construction of our environment is such, that it seems to be connected to virtually everything (plus there is the intuitive sides of making design and art...) - this was a number of presentations of ongoing research, possible new directions and points of interest for the people present  and as such it was a fun discussion - time curtails everything, so a lot could have been said, criticized etc. but as it was, I enjoyed it.

      In many instances there was the feeling that the small-bore approach (or "minor"...) was a kind of groundwork - the kind of combing the field for possible new finds and ideas - maybe to be put together later in more comprehensive frameworks (or then that's just my wishfull thinking - being a sucker for a bit grander narratives than case studies of dirt...)

      Anyway, intersting stuff and more of this, please and thank you.

      Oct 20, 11 10:06 am  · 

      Lian, totally loving your live blogs, and it's nice to see some follow-up comments.

      "if I'm ever live-blogging one, you should email (or comment) with a question if you have one. I think it'd be pretty fun if I were able to put up my hand and pose a question that someone has sent in remotely. This communication shouldn't be a one-way broadcast."

      Let's try to get people engaged for your live blog tonight! Generally, I think it's hard for people to follow along, live, if they're at work, but it would be fun if we could get people to play along real time.

      Oct 20, 11 12:07 pm  · 

      I miss you George!

      Oct 20, 11 12:39 pm  · 

      the main thing that has always bugged me about "research" in architectural academia is that there is very little on the ground practical research going on.  anything that remotely resembles hard research is in building technologies and in digital tools - but regarding social issues and the built environment it seems like many of these guys are probably heading back to the library for answers.  I think that studying regional and global systems is a good step (and I'm glad people aren't really wasting a lot of time talking about late 20th century french philosophers anymore), but we're missing a lot of research and collective understanding of the basic economics of building buildings - both micro and macro...  that seems pretty fundamental to me as it's what we are supposed to be doing for a living.


      one thing that took me forever to understand was that property is an financial asset - in addition to being a cultural asset (and ecological, social, etc...).  it influences how we view and treat the built environment.  Someone in their position would say that increased privatization of public property contributes to a lack of shared value for our urban environment, but how is this related - and is this even really true?  are they actually going out and collecting data about how much "public" property is privately owned, then comparing this data to incidences of vandalism in certain places (and then comparing it to other economic and demographic data)?  probably not.

      Oct 23, 11 2:50 pm  · 

      Helsinki, thank you for your comment. I should have clarified my comment about value-free and apoliticical. It's not as simplistic as it appears but hard to summarize decades worth of theory and history in one sentence. This is really an issue of which scholars and theorists you listen to, of course. The grand narratives are fictions connected to broader politics. it goes back to Said and is perhaps more prevalent in the area studies branches of the humanities. These narratives are challenged by the "minor" if you will (I assume you are referring to Deleuze and Guattari's Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature?). One only has to look at archtiectural scholarship and attempts at theroizing former colonized nations to see examples of what I'm speaking of. Obviously this is a much broader discussion. But one of the issues is that the grand narratives tend to be a problem because they are euro-centric and based primarily old myths of teleology and imagined trajectories of Progress using western histories as a benchmark.

      Oct 24, 11 3:50 pm  · 

      in case you all were interested: the whole earth catalog

      Oct 24, 11 9:23 pm  · 

      Hi Guy, I see your concern, but think its a bit of a stretch to problematize the discussion these authors/theorists were having, in therms of post-colonialism.

      I didn't really refer to D&G with "minor", I'm afraid I used the term sloppily - commenting on the way some of these writers seemed to focus on small scale (and arguably insignificant) phenomena. That was the feeling the video of the short presentations left - can't really find any suitable / quotable examples from the transcript... ;) oh well.


      Oct 25, 11 4:39 am  · 

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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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