Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

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

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    Martin and Kipnis: What Good Can Architecture Do?

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Nov 22, '10 11:36 PM EST

    Hello Archinect!

    I’m a bit behind, because we’re now in our final push for studio, but I couldn’t NOT share with you some snippets from last week’s dense, but worthwhile discussion between Reinhold Martin and Jeff Kipnis. It was one of a series of departmental events this semester on modernism and post-modernism. This particular discussion dealt with the question of agency.


    The expectation, as set up by Scott Cohen in his introduction, was that Martin would be “skeptical of form while finding himself extolling its irrefutable power,” and that we could rely on Kipnis “to thwart the alliance of architecture with servitude or with science.”

    According to Scott, “Martin’s books…delve deeply into crises in architecture…illuminating the beauty and havoc wrought on the post-war landscape.” Kipnis, on the other hand, “turned it all on its head with his seminal work, Mood River, which has, to use Reinhold’s term, ‘plagued’ the discipline in the academy ever since. No longer [for Kipnis] is architectural discourse to be dominated by the problem of making buildings speak meaningfully...Instead, it argues for the rigorous or [gasp] approximate forms that merge with cultural politics, with inscrutable sensations. It is first and foremost about the production of affect.”

    Clearly,” he concluded—with no small amount of glee in anticipation of the bloodbath he had prepared for us—“we have two distinct positions here.”

    Jeff Kipnis went first.

    By way of framing his contribution, Kipnis opened by telling us that “I had expressed to Scott my concern about scientism in architecture, which I see as something like the bedbugs of NYC hotels.” And: “I'm interested here in asking what model of knowledge should guide the contemporary approach to new building, not in analyzing existing buildings. I'm obviously going to be on the side of disciplinarity here; and I locate architecture within the arts.”

    Then he laid out the stakes, by saying that “the two types that have been excluded from architects are prisons and hospitals, because they’re too important to be subject to the vagaries of architects. And now, schools are under attack, the idea being that children and their safety is too important to be left in the care of architects and their…experiments.

    Why, he asked, is this? Because architects have proved themselves as completely out of touch with the people they design for. We’ve become “a small audience with hysterical sensitivity to trivial effects.” In understanding our audience, however, he said “we have to give up the idea of a scientific, generalizable audience for which we can reproduce reliable results.” And he launched into the following analogy about a famous magician:

    “He stood in the center of twenty people seated in a circle, and while he was explaining to them how he does his magic, he picked every single person’s pocket. Got every wallet. And there’s a science to it: he can explain how he puts pressure on your watch by pressing hard on it, so that when he removes it you still feel like it’s there. And so on. And they brought this guy in to do the same thing with the members of the Secret Service—and told them to watch out for this guy—and he did the same thing. Got every cell phone and wallet, the president’s itinerary, etc.”


    “So are we going to be better off trying to understand the neurophysiology of how we perceive things, or are better off seeing that we’re the magicians?”

    Then it was Martin’s turn. His first words were: “Thanks, Scott, for the opportunity—such as it is—to enter this… this conversation…without any sense—well, neither of us know where this is going to go.”

    Onwards, fearless leader!


    But he started strong, with a discussion of Pruitt-Igoe, the massive 1954 St. Louis public housing project whose demolition in 1972 was triumphantly described by Charles Jencks as “the day Modern architecture died.” Martin criticized the notion of “Defensible Space” which Oscar Newman had proposed in 1972 as “a model for residential environments which inhibits crime by creating the physical expression of a social fabric that defends itself.” Newman had described the following anecdote from Pruitt-Igoe:

    “A temporary construction fence had been erected around one of the eleven-story slabs for the installation of playground equipment. Tenants requested that the fence remain, which it did.” The rates of crime and vandalism in this building were 80% below the Pruitt-Igoe norm, and for Newman this represented an example of territorial definition. Although Newman didn’t endorse this particular solution, Martin’s criticism was that Newman wanted to “sublimate the fence into an architectural language that does its biopolitical work at the level of the spatial imaginary—through “thoughtful building groupings” that inscribe a virtual territoriality rather than through the raw power of barbed wire.”

    For Martin, this view is representative of New Urbanism, and represents a fetishization of the architecture of Pruitt-Igue as “a bad object.”

    Martin closed by playing to his audience with a criticism of Andres Duany— particularly, his “pitting the interests of the third world against our own,” which Martin described as a kind of “barely-concealed neo-imperialism.” He said: “The fact that such statements can be made publicly is a disciplinary embarrassment. But under what conditions does this so-called argument become intelligible? In the post-modern condition (in the discursive not aesthetic sense). The New Urbanist position derives from fictions, like the pseudo-science of defensible space.” Duany’s game-plan, according to Martin, was to “fake left and go right.”


    Are you still with me? Stay with me: it gets clearer in the discussion. The executive summary is that Kipnis put Martin under pressure for proposing singular readings, and Kipnis pushed back by arguing that this is the only way we can establish grounds for action.

    Here are the highlights:

    RM: “We need to…learn to act without the metaphysical conviction that you speak the truth, but nonetheless with the ability to say something. My proposal is modest: to re-attach the word ‘public’ to the word ‘housing.’ I’m not talking about the state—the role of the state in this is a complete fetish. What I’m talking about with this ‘public’ for this to act as an object of contestation.”

    JK: “Have you all seen Forrest Gump? Did you like it? Well, lemme give you a Reinhold Martin analysis of Forrest Gump. If you’re interested in filmmaking, you would talk about the [lighting and camera work], or I could give you a feminist reading. But here’s the Reinhold Martin reading:

    A dumb, white guy, goes to college, plays sports, is truly nice to everybody, goes to war, comes home, sees the president—sorry, plays ping pong, then sees the president—and has a girlfriend. Great life. And if you have the courage to act on your convictions and be a political activist, you’re gonna be alone and die of AIDS.”

    “Now how many of you liked Forrest Gump? This is story telling. I believe in multiplying stories, as opposed to believing that the one you’re telling is the truth. Which is why I worry about your [Martin’s] story about New Urbanism, even though I happen to agree with it: I hate New Urbanism too. But I believe that tricksterism is better than “truth” telling.”

    RM: “That was the 3-5 minute version of the ‘truth about New Urbanism.’ Of course, this is a text—there are dozens, hundreds—and a text can write itself in many ways. But the kind of ‘anything goes’ of post-modernism, that you can write this text or any text—I actually don’t think that’s true. Not because there’s some kind of metaphysical kernel in there somewhere, but rather, that that’s not what actually happens. Truth happens; it’s an event. It happens in interactions between power and actions, at the level of contemplative experience, or out there in the streets at the level of political activity. It happens at many levels. And one of our tasks is to discern those levels at which truth (with a small ‘t’) occurs.”

    “So it is a bit like pulling the curtain away from the wizard. But when you pull the curtain away, there’s nothing there. It’s not as if when you reveal the ideological manner of what’s ‘really going on,’ you find the truth. And I’m asking: in what discursive conditions can we attach ‘public’ to ‘housing.’”

    JK: “Look at them [gesturing towards the audience]. They’re all ready to say the word ‘public.’ But I can make them feel…you know, they’re all gonna hate me. But: public: I’ll tell you about public. The public is the non-existent generalization of collectivities that none of us are part of. And I would like to meet this public one day.”

    RM: “Let’s just say that we agree that things must change. [JK puts on a surprised expression.] Not you and me, Jeff, but let’s say, some…group…of people here. [There is some tittering in the audience as we associate this “group” with the “public” that Kipnis just deconstructed.] Then the question of how to change—on the basis of what values, to what ends, to what future—necessarily comes into focus. And at that point, it’s not as if all options are equivalent or on the table.” [JK is nodding.]

    RM: “And the New Urbanists are strategic: they are the most faithful and loyal following of modernism that exists. And they do masterplans and they raze places, and all of that—and then they smile and apologize, and do porches. But as an aside, it’s also worth noting that New Urbanism is the origin of parametric architecture, with Christopher Alexander—”

    JK: “These students are going to live in a different world. With the ecological crisis, unequal distribution of resources—if there are any resources left at all—a population that is 50% greater… [Turning to audience] Your life sucks. But freedom isn’t freedom from authority; it’s the multiplication of real choices. And I want the GSD to be changing so that at least you all feel that you can act. But what makes me uncomfortable is a return of the equilibrium model—the fairest distribution of resources. This creates death for everybody: disequilibrium is what allows for creativity. It’s not that I think the US tax codes should allow the same people to be in power and hoard their wealth and all that. But what I don’t want is…you know…the new mayor of East Berlin, the day after the Berlin wall came down, said: “now everyone in Germany will have an above-average income.”

    RM: “I think you just called me a communist?”

    JK: “Yes.”

    RM: “I think I’ll leave that to the audience. In so doing, you performed one of the principal speech acts of post modernism.”

    JK: “…the bell bottoms of architecture.”

    Thanks for reading!



    • Helsinki

      Interesting read again, thank you.

      These discussions about what is good / what should be done / how things should be done are interminable when they are without boundaries and without context - have to say I'm totally with Martin here when he states his wish to "learn to act without the metaphysical conviction that you speak the truth, but nonetheless with the ability to say something. "

      Which I take as grappling with the world and one's resources as it is and as they are - instead of staying outside and just keeping the "discussion" going forever (even though it was the thing you are being paid for...)

      Nov 23, 10 4:58 am  · 
      Schrödinger's cat

      interesting contextual reading of pruitt igoe.

      I think they're still only focusing on the aesthetic and formal language of the new urbanists rather than really looking at their activities around community development. The latter relies heavily on strong civic leadership and organizing to change the physical environment - and new urbanists have an overwhelming presence among CDCs and other grass roots organizations. It's the one convenient thing left out of criticisms of new urbanism because academics in architecture apparently don't understand social activism.

      Of course both these guys probably hate the word "community" because it's overused and cliched.

      Nov 23, 10 10:03 am  · 
      Schrödinger's cat

      After re-reading this, I'm agreeing with kipnis. The new urbanists are better at narrative.

      Nov 23, 10 1:00 pm  · 
      Schrödinger's cat

      18x32 - I think we're in agreement with the CNU's agenda mostly focusing on urban forms.

      However, what they have are a few very key observations on the problems with modern western auto-centric planning practices and have set up some kind of rule book and a set of metrics that even non-designers and/or lazy architects can follow. Here is the problem, here is our solution.

      And the the examples in the article you linked to are physical manifestations of an actual design process which is too nebulous and difficult for most people to understand or have patience for (including many designers and architects). We give people a choice between years of arguing - even if it means stronger community through the process and the solution might be you don't actually have to build anything - or a book of Currier and Ives paintings (or in our case, sexy archi-porn) and everyone almost always picks the fantasy because it's easy and looks like stuff we've seen before and we get to build something. The projects in Quillian's article are the result of months, if not years, of organizing and negotiating under the leadership of brilliant, and most importantly, selfless designers working to find solutions to problems that don't involve wholesale destruction of existing fabrics. But this is extremely difficult and a lot of hard work and there's no money or glory in it for us.

      I think maybe one of the reasons Duany is feeling threatened is because landscape urbanism (and I lump projects like urban think-tank's metro cable into this -ism) represents a challenge to this idea of "design standards" and promises an alternative vision where we work creatively based on local and existing circumstance, not simply applying universal Truth in order to create some kind of idealized physical environment. The CNU for a while was the only real challenge to the existing modern planning standards - and they do have some good points (transit, walk-ability, human scale), but all they did was replace the existing standards with different standards and they never questioned our existing infrastructure beyond transit.

      And I was wondering about the ecology line too. I'm assuming Duany is a fan of Olmsted - and Olmsted designed the Back Bay Fens to help clean the water that was feeding into the Charles River. Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't this and the Emerald Necklace ecological urbanism?

      Nov 24, 10 12:28 pm  · 

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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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