May 07, 2006

Renegade Materialism

Geoff Manaugh of the always incredible BLDGBLOG outdoes himself with Architectural Criticism a masterful rant on the state of well "architectural criticism". It's a great piece and I agree completely with Geoff except on two points, the architectural and the criticism...

Ok so that maybe seems like a big disagreement, but it's not, I agree about the problems now and I agree about where things need to go, I'm just not so sure about the vehicle for the journey. I'll leave the whole issue of criticism alone for another day though so lets talk about the architectural. The core of Geoff's argument goes like this:

"Architectural criticism means writing about architecture, not writing about buildings."


"Architecture is not limited to buildings! "

There are two movements here, one is to propose an expansive definition of architecture, the other to accuse the contemporary practice of architectural criticism of caring only about buildings. But when one reads through his wonderful list of what fits into the big tent definition of architecture, something curious comes out. Indeed "not every one of [the listed items] is a building" but there are a whole lot of buildings on it that contemporary architectural criticism is not concerned with. If that practice was truly focused writing about buildings it would be far closer to Geoff's vision then it actually is. The real problem with contemporary architectural criticism is not that it is about buildings, but that it about architects. It just happens to use buildings as a surrogate for their architects at times.

Geoff's solution is not a bad one, shifting the focus away from those starchitect buildings and back towards an expansive vision of architecture could well work. It's not a bad solution, but I just don't see how it can be a sustainable one. For by privileging and expanding architecture the way he does can only in the end continue to privilege architects as well. If the focus of architectural criticism is "architecture" it will only take minor amounts of energy to shift it back towards architects and then back towards their buildings. It is only through an incredible rigor distributed across the hundreds of practitioners that an architectural criticism can stay focused on architecture and not slip over into the banal celebration of architects that it is today. In order to move into the incredible places that Geoff wants to I think it is important to just leave "architecture" as a concept behind and enter into the territory unhindered by architects.

Now of course there is a significant risk in this action, for it also might mean leaving behind architects as an audience as well, and believe it or not there are a couple architects left with the power to actually do things like build buildings. But if one considers just how thoroughly architectural criticism has left behind all those other people who actually build buildings, contractors, city planners, politicians, real estate agents, developers and yes construction workers, leaving architects behind is probably just what is needed to get back a truly relevant audience.

What is needed then is something of a renegade materialism. Renegade because it rejects both the dialectics that so often come joined like a siamese twin to the philosophical practice of materialism and because it rejects the obsession on possession that comes with the economic use of the word materialistic. A renegade materialism is instead interested in the movement and transportation of materials in all forms. From nickel tailings and abandoned nuclear storage units to cities prototyped in video games and hills transformed into stepped pyramids of tea. From highway underpasses and abandoned subway lines to abandoned satellites and Mars terraforming robots. These are the subjects, they could well be the subjects for an architectural criticism, but they already are the subjects of a renegade materialism.

Posted by Abe at May 7, 2006 10:52 AM


We've posted about Jonathan Hill's notion of an "illegal architect" and Elizabeth Grosz's "Architecture from the Outside" which move in a similar direction. Of course DeLanda's chapter on Geological History is a model here right?

And Ralph Rugoff has a nice (brief) essay about highways - "The Last Public Sculpture."

Yeah DeLanda as always is an influence, although I'd say his flow of materials differs quite a bit from the BLDGblog sort of flows discussed here. Hill and Grosz are both new to me, and both look quite interesting, if not quite as populist as I might like. Stewart Brand's _How Buildings Learn_ and perhaps even a little of Herando DeSoto belong in the mix as well...

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