Monday, September 15, 2008

Book Review

I don't have much time to post to my blog these days. Here is a review that I just finished working on.

Architecture or Techno-utopia: Politics After Modernism

Felicity D. Scott
MIT Press, hardcover $29.95

Living Archive 7: Ant Farm
Allegorical Time Warp: The Media Fallout of July 21, 1969
Felicity D. Scott, author and editor
Actar Publishing, paperback $ 54.95

Architecture or Techno-utopia and Living Archive 7: Ant Farm are the first two books published by architecture historian and Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation Professor Felicity D. Scott. Released within sixth months of one another, the texts provide students and scholars of art, architecture, urban studies, and American studies with a comprehensive overview of Scott’s theoretical and historical project on the subject of postwar American experimental architecture.

The loose historical time frame for Architecture or Tecno-utopia is the transition between architectural late modernism and postmodernism. And more specifically defined, Scott takes up as her subject the “experimental endgames” of Modernist architecture, which she argues require a more complex and nuanced consideration than traditional architecture history narratives. Scott’s insightful theoretical analysis of these self-proclaimed architectural “drop-outs”—artist collectives such as Archigram, Drop City, and Ant Farm—enriches the discourse surrounding the transition between architectural modernism and postmodernism, and provides the hopeful with a framework for reading and sussing out the historical, aesthetic, and political possibilities of a critical and radical architectural practice.

Borrowing the rhetorical “or” in the title from the well-known Le Corbusier phrase, “Architecture or Revolution,” Scott posits that the opposition set up by the French modernist is a simplistic reflection on the role/obligation/program of architecture. 1 Setting up the text to “undermine” such oppositions, Scott explains her approach as one that aims “to identify aesthetic, theoretical, and political topoi, no matter how buried by the victors of history, or how incidental they might seem” (12). Her subject then becomes the alternative— read “unsuccessful”—practitioners of an experimental architecture. These countercultural artists of the 1960s and 1970s, Scott argues, are similarly propelled by new technologies, the media culture of the televisual space age, and a growing environmental and survivalist do-it-yourself mentality. Additionally, they offer an alternative to mainstream practice with such activities as “dome-building and intermedia installations that pushed the discipline to its limits.” Scott introduces her project as a new trajectory that, “[traces] a different kind of borderline” (12), than those presented by institutions and traditional disciplines. By seeking inroads into the polemical battles of major art historians and institutions, Scott provides an alternative, destablilizing, genealogy of utopian practices. And with what is probably the most nuanced component of her argument, one need recognize that these artistic attempts shouldn’t be rejected for their wide-eyed idealism, but rather, she argues that their potential value and success is that they work to critically put into question the historical, institutional, and theoretical status quo. Arguably, this kind of historical project activates a progressive practice of what Henri Lefebvre referred to as experimental utopianism.2

The first two chapters of the book provide the historical context for the debates surrounding the modernist –postmodernist divide. Beginning with art critic Meyer Schapiro’s review of the 1932 International Style show at MoMA, and then moving to discuss the Grays versus Whites debate and the role of critics such as Manfredo Tafuri and Colin Rowe, Scott reveals the strong foundational myths of modernism and their institutional support. According to Scott, keeping architectural discourse tied up in debates regarding the resemantization of architecture (the emergence of postmodernism) decidedly placed an institutional barrier on the practices of radical political artists such as the UK’s Archigram. Scott argues that after the mythologized “end” of modern architecture and its failed politics the work of experimental architects were perceived as “committed to the authenticity of the modern movement’s social and political agenda in the face of its actual collapse,” therefore doomed to failure (45). What Scott provides in these first two chapters is a critical look at modernism’s historical and theoretical context as it stood from an institutional standpoint in its final days. Of these experimental practices she suggests: first, that they insisted on devising political projects for architecture, “no matter how conceptually cast or how impossibly imbricated within the system they remained.” And secondly, that they stood as counterexamples both to the gloom and disenchantment of Tafuri and to the desired detachment of form from politics sought by Rowe (51).

From here Scott presents a perspective from which to consider the rest of the book (and subsequently Living Archive 7: Ant Farm) whereby she proposes that “if we shift our attention, even just slightly, we can trace practices and discourses that pursued other forms of engagement with new social movements, new technologies, and new theoretical paradigms, as well as with the period’s emergent economic, administrative, and military logics” (56). The following three chapters—When Systems Fail, Designing Environment, Italian Design and the New Political Landscape— explore MoMA’s institutional role in the promotion of late modernist discourse and the integration of experimental or “visionary” architecture into sponsored museum activities—exhibitions, symposia, lectures— and publications. Important figures examined in these chapters are curators Arthur Drexler and Emilio Ambasz, the latter whom introduces Italian Design to the American museum-scape.

In Revolutionaries and Dropouts, Acid Visions, and Shouting Apocalypse, Scott moves the discussion away from institutions toward a “murkier zone” where off-the-grid communes and hippies were utilizing the momentum of the counterculture and its tactics (i.e. sit-ins, experimental drug use, squatting, and anti-authoritarian protests) toward attempts at radical politics. Drop City and Ant Farm figure centrally in Scott’s interrogation of aesthetic practices that “managed to negotiate, or at least politically engage, new modalities of power” (175). She pits these artists against the “revolutionary” vernacular architecture practice promoted by Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi (arguing that they effectively avoid political questions while supporting a middle class aesthetic), as well as the technocracy of Buckminster Fuller, and the space exploration of NASA. Besides sharing the common theme of “dropping out,” Drop City and Ant Farm explore methods of survival deemed necessary in the “realms of warfare, the media, and ecology, as well as under the rule of political management” (244). Drop City published the Dome Cookbook to promote a do-it-yourself instant city, while Ant Farm, taking up inflateables as their shelter of choice, followed with the Inflatocookbook. Scott’s careful archaeology here raises important questions about the efficacy of such radical aesthetic projects through which a discipline like architecture has the “ability to forge an ongoing political… practice” (345).

Scott’s careful historicization and theorization of Ant Farm’s work in the late 60s and early 70s in Techno-utopia prepares those readers who wish to explore the group more thoroughly in the text Living Archive 7: Ant Farm. Before all else, this book is a beautiful object: a sleek and shiny jacket, thick pages bound together with never before published color reproductions of Ant Farm material. Included in the volume is not only Scott’s archival research narrated in Allegorical Time Warp: The Media Fallout of July 21, 1969, but also the Ant Farm Timeline by Ant Farmers Chip Lord, Doug Michels, and Curtis Schreier. The volume also includes a dossier of archival materiel, the Truckstop Network Dossier, edited by Scott and an introduction to the Ant Farm Timeline, Timeline of the Timeline by Chip Lord. This volume is brimming with important historical and archival material. Published in correlation with the exhibition Ant Farm: Radical Hardware in the Arthur Ross Gallery in Buell Hall at Columbia University in Spring 2008, the book directs its focus toward Ant Farm’s early years (1969-71) and draws from a number of “drawings, collages, typescripts, manifestoes, publications, sketchbooks, 35mm slides, photographic prints, films, videos, and ephemera” most of which had been kept safe for 28 years in Chip Lord’s studio in San Francisco.3 Scott’s “reanimation” of the material is delicately balanced amongst the visual material and Ant Farm’s own self-narration of their early work, all of which comes together in a retelling through the context of contemporary events, such as the moon landing.

The work of such radical and experimental artists as Ant Farm and Drop City begs the question of the value of such radical projects both historically and in the present moment. While Scott cautions her reader that it would be a mistake to recuperate the work of these artists for contemporary architectural practice and as contemporary figures (she argues that they belong to a different historical moment), one can (and, arguably, Scott does) take the lessons learned from such groups in order to reconsider the possibility of politics within rcontemporary architecture practice. This consideration is what Scott addresses in the last chapter of Techno-utopia, Involuntary Prisoners of Architecture. It is here that she argues that an opportunity was greatly missed at the hands of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation competition for the World Trade Center site. She compares entries to the competition from such internationally renowned architects as Norman Foster, Peter Eisenman, Richard Meier, Gwathmey Siegel, and Steven Holl to current contemporary work such as Diller + Scofidio’s Blur Building, pavilion for the Swiss Expo, 2003. The proposals submitted to the LMDC competition sought to recuperate the deterritorialized condition of Lower Manhattan through efforts to “make architectural form legible again” (268). Scott theorizes this as a return to a New Monumentality or as the reinstallation of megastructures—an attempt to restabilize a disrupted city propelled ultimately in its resurrection by the forces of capitalism. Instead Scott proposes a practice of architecture that “forges conceptual and critical strategies” (275) and “[offers] precise… tools through which to engage contemporary social, political and economic parameters.” She continues, “The ability to question architecture’s relation to the semiotic and institutional structures of capitalism, to its official codes and their modes of subjectification, is the ability to destabilize those very codes, to make languages shake” (280). Scott proposes the possibility of a critical practice that would take advantage of architecture’s potential for encountering and negotiating political questions. She is here suggesting an understanding of politics that not only “refers to questions of power, of the state and its policies” but also one that relates to the organization of space and through the organization of time (280).

Through her complex readings of historical and aesthetic projects Scott proves that a radical politics can exist even beyond the “failed” counter-cultural practices of 1960s and 70s. Furthermore, her project reminds us of the necessity of an ethico-political project in architecture. Through the continued interaction of practice, theory, criticism and public discourse, resistance to the military-corporate-industrial complex can thrive. Both Architecture or Techno-utopia and Living Archive 7: Ant Farm, breathe life into a contemporary architecture practice that faces the daily challenge of resisting the status quo and experimenting with utopian dreams.

1 Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, trans. Frederick Etchells (London: Architectural Press, 1946), 269. Scott’s explanation of her adaptation of the title can be found in Architecture or Techno-utopia, 18.
2 Henri Lefebvre, “Right to the City,” Writings on Cities, ed. and trans. Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing) 149. On experimental utopia Lefebvre writes, “Utopia is to be considered experimentally by studying its implications and consequences on the ground… What are and what would be the most successful places? How can they be discovered? According to what criteria? What are the times and rhythms of daily life which are inscribed and prescribed in these ‘successful’ spaces favourable to happiness?”
3 Now housed at the Berkeley Art Museum and the Pacific Film Archive.

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