Book Review: Architectural Agents

Architectural Agents: The Delusional, Abusive, Addictive Lives of Buildings (2015) by my undergraduate architectural history professor, Annabel Jane Wharton, is an imagining of what it means when we say that buildings "act" or "do things" in the world.  Architects and architectural historians like to think that buildings are active -- taking roles in the built environment, shaping human action -- but if pressed, we might not be able to say exactly what we mean by that.  Of course buildings don't move or act in a traditional sense, we'll say.  But they can enable, or conversely, proscribe limits to, human action.   In her introduction, Professor Wharton goes further, exploring the agency of buildings as grounded in their unique, embodied, historical characteristics, which allow them to have distinct social and political effects.  Wharton writes,

"Now, as in the past, buildings may be immobile, but they are by no means passive.  [...]  [M]ost buildings, like most people, can both confirm our familiar patterns of behavior and modify them.  We build a classroom to accommodate a certain kind of learning; the classroom in turn molds the kind of learning that we do or even that we can imagine.  Modifications in the room might lead to innovations in teaching practice.  Buildings, in this sense, certainly have social agency.  Indeed, the acts of buildings may be compared with the acts of their human counterparts insofar as those acts are similarly overdetermined--that is, fraught with more conditions in their social circumstances or individual histories than are necessary to account for the ways in which they work." (xix)

I think this way of thinking about buildings is distinctly helpful for architects.  Too often we talk about how we can create social change through novel spatial relationships or by adding "collaborative space" without stopping to think about how this actually works.  Of course the building alone can't do much; it is the building's interaction with human agents that causes it to have positive or negative social effects.  A case in point: Compare the histories of "tower in the park" projects, and you'll see how architecturally similar buildings have encountered drastically different results depending on how their inhabitants have used them.  And yet, the precise spatial organization of the building, its physical effects on the environment, its relationship to other buildings, etc, do have measurable effects on human action and thought.  This argument can both support architectural work, in providing a basis for its significance, and restrain us from thinking that architecture can do more than it can.

The body of Wharton's book explores six case studies of buildings that have encountered / been victim of / contributed to various life-altering events: murder, despoliation, disease, or addiction.  The case studies show how the changes in the buildings' status and structure have generated negative or positive effects on their users.   Wharton describes the first case, the Cloisters in New York, as a "murder" because the Cloisters was built from fragments of medieval European buildings that were forcibly taken from their original, often still functioning, locations.  She argues that the medieval pieces now on display were not meant to be viewed as artworks, but as parts of a sophisticated whole, and removing them from that whole destroys their ability to act:  "A Mondrian can act much the same way in the Museum of Modern Art as it once did in the living room of the patron for whom it was made; a processional cross is not allowed to behave in the museum as it did in a church" (29).  Further, the orphaned pieces can no longer tell a coherent story to the museum's visitors, giving them a misguided understanding of the pieces' history, and concealing the violent acts that brought them to the museum.

Wharton's other chapters are equally fascinating as a social / biographical history of specific buildings.  The rest of the book covers the Palestine Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem  ("Spoils"), the Hospital de los Reyes Catolicos ("Amnesia"), the American Colony in Jerusalem ("Urban Toxicity"), Las Vegas casinos ("Gambling"), and the virtual spaces of Assassin's Creed and Second Life ("Digital Play").  In the Conclusion, she turns to the Chicago Tribune Tower, site of another bizarre set of spoils from the ancient and medieval worlds.  Weaving all of these disparate sites together is an understanding of how they have been active, agents of their own ends, despite and in reaction to whatever changes we humans have made to them over the years.

If you are interested in understanding how buildings can and do act in the world, in more than a superficial sense, then I recommend Architectural Agents as a way to begin thinking about this problem.   As Wharton writes, "Architectural Agents investigates the ontological status of buildings as embodied agents [...].  [I]t also makes the case that buildings exert a force on the world independent of human intention or even human consciousness." (xxi)  Walking the line between giving buildings too much agency and too little can be a difficult one, although it is important for a profession that makes claims every day about the significance of its production -- buildings -- in the world.  Besides that, the buildings Wharton chooses to investigate have amazing histories, and are worth reading just for an understanding of how much buildings can change over time.

Professor Wharton teaches medieval and modern/contemporary architectural history in the Art, Art History, & Visual Studies Department at Duke University.  Her famous short-word-count essay assignments helped me learn to write better than any other art history assignments.  I will always remember struggling to read Deleuze & Guattari in her class, whilst discussing Second Life.


Book Review: A Country of Cities

A Country of Cities is the book I think we should all send our parents, to help them understand what it is we are facing as a generation when it comes to climate change, land use, changing lifestyles, urbanism, sustainability, etc.  Vishaan Chakrabarti, partner at SHoP Architects in New York and a GSAPP professor of real estate development, has put together a fully-researched and attractively illustrated book that breaks down urbanism into simple illustrations explaining how the US came to be a nation of "highways, hedges, and houses," and how he thinks we should instead work toward a country of cities, of "trains, trees, and towers," to use his phrase.  The book is a polemic, an unabashed argument for greater density in our cities, fewer cars, and, most importantly, fewer subsidies for the suburbs, which he argues is the one of the biggest reasons we Americans are as sprawling, land-wasting, and unsustainable as we are.

The first part of the book lays out the history of suburbs in the US, and the policies that enabled and encouraged suburbanization instead of continued urbanization.  The following two parts explore what makes cities good -- better at achieving economic prosperity, environmental sustainability, and social benefits than suburbs -- and what policies could help us create better cities.  The final part is a manifesto of sorts declaring the value of cities and the possibilities for a future, more equitable, more prosperous, urban society.  Chakrabarti is not interested in having a spectrum of land use between the fully rural and the fully urban, but instead a "country of cities," a country with urban centers that quickly fade out to rural areas, with no suburbs in between.  This would require some suburban areas to be returned to rural use, and others to become true cities, dense enough to support transit.

As someone who's now nearing three years of suburban life, after having lived three years of a fully urban life, I continue to see the appeal of Chakrabarti's vision.  I have become more accustomed to the increased dangers and fewer opportunities of living in the suburbs: Every day I take my life in my hands on the road, instead of enjoying the safety of the subways, and every evening I return home, with nothing much to do for fun besides watch TV.  Because of traffic, and the lack of attractive transit options, I can't get to San Francisco or San Jose in the evenings in time to do anything interesting.  It's "comfortable" here, I have a large apartment and an easy routine, but the fun of having everything at my fingertips is gone.  The extra 100sf of carpet that I've gotten in exchange for being able to walk everywhere, see anything, and meet anyone I want, doesn't seem like much.

Back to the book - It's a fast read because 50% of the book is diagrams, and if you're familiar with most of the recent discourse about urbanism, then there may be nothing new here.  But the plea for better urban policies is still a good one to hear, and this is the kind of book that might be able to convince some laymen out there that (hyper)dense urbanism will help us out of many of the social, energy-efficiency, and even financial holes into which we've dug ourselves.  As I said - send it to your parents.  Well, read it first yourself, and then send it to your parents.  Let me know what they think about your proposed hippie urban car-free lifestyle afterward.  We'll need to get them on board with these ideas if we want to make anything like this possible in our lifetimes, because we need to start now.

Disclaimer:  Vishaan was my studio critic for my final semester at GSAPP, so I'm a bit biased here.  But only in a good way, of course!


Visiting New Orleans

Last October, I had the chance to visit New Orleans for the first time.  The city felt unique among American cities I've visited: it had the historic district charm of Charleston, but with a modern, skyscraper-filled downtown just a few blocks away, all surrounded by variously well-kept or decaying suburbs that have experienced different amounts of recovery from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  I was intent to see everything for myself, including cool new buildings, cool historic buildings, and everything in between.  Extra special thanks to my college friend who served as my guide, "local knowledge," transportation, host, and restaurant recommend-er throughout our trip!

The French Quarter
This is a place that you have to see at night, when the gas lamps are lit and the darkness hides some of the imperfections and later additions.  Overall, it's astonishing how consistently the historic architectural style has been maintained here, with the wrought iron balconies built over the sidewalks, gas lamps for illumination, bright colors of paint, and hanging plants.  Definitely something to see.  The beignets at Cafe du Monde were all that was promised.  We also checked out several other restaurants and pastry shops, and everything was tasty.  On the other hand, the lack of functional public infrastructure was also astonishing.  Nearly every street was partially blocked off with construction cones or sometimes just caution tape, indicating potholes, giant pits, seemingly abandoned construction equipment, or other debris/wreckage/what passes for construction.  This wasn't unique to the French Quarter, but seemed most prevalent in the neighborhoods rather than in the downtown.  According to "local knowledge," this is the normal state of affairs, and not something specific to the time we happened to be visiting.

Downtown +
We wandered next through the commercial center, visiting that odd and poorly-maintained icon of postmodernism, the Piazza d'Italia by Charles Moore.  It was even more bizarre in person than it is in photos, with its chrome ornament, flat details, saturated colors, overwrought metaphors, and cheery portrait of the architect himself gazing out from the wall.  For an entertaining read on what this piazza could, should, might, or may still mean, check out this issue of the journal Places.

Along the waterfront, we sauntered (yes, sauntering is something one does in New Orleans) past the aquarium, pausing to admire the New Orleans Holocaust Memorial, which is apparently a good spot for groups taking selfies.  We tried to reflect on whether that was a good or bad thing, and gave up.

On one afternoon we wandered around the Garden District to take in the ridiculous, possibly haunted, mansions, but I did not take any photos, so you'll have to use your imagination / Google images.

Further Afield
Outside the city, we visited the Whitney Plantation, where the loquacious tour guide educated us on the lives and history of the enslaved people who were forced to labor on the plantations and farms of the pre-Civil War South.  If you want to visit a Southern plantation when you're in New Orleans, this is the one to visit.  You won't learn all the ins and outs of the "romantic" lives of the white plantation owners, but you will learn some hard truth about the history of our country, and that seems like a much more valuable thing to do.

We also visited the swamp!  Swaaamp.  I think we went to the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park - Barataria Preserve.  We saw crazy spiders, and some insects, but not a lot of animals.  But lots and lots of swamp.  So, success all around.

Lower Ninth Ward
On the last day of our trip, we visited the Make It Right Foundation's visitor's center (basically a little pavilion) and walked around the couple of streets where the new houses are located.  In case you're not familiar with Brad Pitt's pet architectural project, it has garnered a lot of controversy in the architectural community, much of which is summarized here.  Essentially, Pitt decided to raise a lot of money to put people back into a neighborhood that no longer exists - most of it is empty lots, having been demolished by the storm - by building homes designed by star architects.  The problem is that ten years later, they still have not built all the homes they promised (which were not many to begin with), most of them were over budget, and the homes remain stranded in a poorly-served part of the city with no neighbors or convenient retail.  It's a bizarre place to visit, not to mention that many of the houses themselves are absurd: one is intended to float, all are raised high off the ground because the neighborhood is below sea level, and most are painted crazy colors with crazy angular shapes.  I felt awkward taking pictures of people's homes, so you'll have to check out the links for images - but please do, so you get the sense of what an odd place this is.

The Make-It-Right pavilion

Meanwhile, nearby, but in a different neighborhood, new parks have opened to much critical acclaim, especially the Piety Wharf area of Crescent Park.  The Piety Bridge (completed 2014), designed by David Adjaye Associates with renowned local firm Eskew + Dumez + Ripple, is the current centerpiece, which rises over an active railroad to give access to the new linear waterfront park along the river.  We went over the bridge and visited the park, which was windy and empty that weekday morning, but seemed to have the potential to be much more active.  The biggest drawback, to my mind, was the lack of shading; the park seemed to be exclusively a jogging trail, rather than a truly mixed-use recreational area, since there was almost no shade.  Still, as more areas of the park are developed over time, and the plantings and trees grow in, I expect it will gain in use and popularity.

That's it for our New Orleans trip!  My conclusions from the trip were that New Orleans is beautiful, with a varied architectural presence, rich history, and determined residents; but not an attractive place to live, because it is also plagued by persistent racism and class tensions, conflicts between state and local government (read: it is located in Louisiana), a lack of adequate public infrastructure investment, crazy climate (and susceptibility to catastrophic flooding), and conservative Republicans.  I am impressed and awed by the tenacity of the good people of New Orleans, who have reclaimed their city after the great disaster of 2005.  One can imagine the city could have become a wasteland like Detroit, but that did not happen except in certain areas of the city (the most poor / marginalized areas).  Real estate remains relatively inexpensive, since so many residents never returned, but the city's culture continues on.  I hope to get the chance to visit again some day to see what continued changes and hard work are able to accomplish in this unique city.

Check out the full photo set here.



This post brought to you by: The Doge

Here's some stuff I made and some places I visited!  To enhance your blog-reading experience, see if you can find all three outdoor amphitheaters mentioned in this post.*

I painted some shoes, as one does when one has plain white Tom's in need of painting.  It only took me a year to get around to painting these after I bought them, but it was pretty fun!  Only now I don't want to wear them because I like them too much.  Oh well.

Love me some space ships

*space noises*

I went to Oakland!  It was a pretty cool place.  All the hipsters are there.  Also a large church that's pretty sweet, some flowers, more hipsters, hipster beer, and cool people.

Cathedral of Christ the Light

Hipster Jesus.  He's a metaphor ("Christ the Light.")  Actually he's a pattern cut into perforated aluminum.  Which is so hot these days.

Gratuitous architectural detail shot

Flowers.  Aka, "The Morcom Rose Garden - Amphitheater of Roses."  I am into outdoor amphitheaters these days.  For research.

I went to Stern Grove - twice!  Once because it was nearby ("research"), and once because there was an actual concert.  I saw Randy Newman, and he seemed like a cool guy, playing piano outside with the hipsters.  If you haven't been to a free concert at Stern Grove, you should reconsider.



Extra foresty.

I went to UC Berkeley!  It was... large-ish.  And kind of disorganized.  But neat!  Also bubble tea was had!  Also students were graduating, it was fun to see them wandering around with their parents in their robes.  Good work students!

Awkward building is awkward.

This building has an unnecessary and sort of insane concrete cantilever for a sign.

Architecture building yay

Mmm brutalism.

Congrats architecture students, you graduated!

Greek Theater!  No one was home.

Such scaffolding wow

I saw some new buildings at Stanford!  These were pretty sweet.  Go visit them.  The Windhover contemplative center is lovely.  The exterior is rammed earth, which is so hot these days.  The striped patterns, the light, the reflecting pool are all lovely.  Just go see it.  The McMurty Building for the Art & Art History Dept is what I wish Duke had built, but obviously they didn't because they don't actually care that much about the arts.  Instead they renovated Smith Warehouse, which is ok I guess.  Oh well.  Stanford, though, did build it, and it is very hip.

Much contemplative


Very tree

Yay angles, yay DS+R

Such angles wow

In the "totally not worth it, don't bother visiting" category: Winchester Mystery House.  Seriously, do not go there.  I have been told by reliable sources that if you still feel the need to go, you can listen to this podcast, and it completely replaces the tour, so you do not have to go after all.  Here are some photos so you can feel like you went, and then, not go.



Do not go.

So there you have it!  I did some fun things once.  I hope to do fun things again soon.  Please join me in doing fun things.  There are still more outdoor amphitheaters to explore, more buildings to wander around, and perhaps even more shoes to paint.  Who knows!

*Did you find them all?  Greek Theater - Berkeley; Stern Grove - SF; Amphitheater of Roses - Oakland.  My total outdoor-amphitheaters-visited count also includes Frost Amphitheater - Stanford, Shoreline Amphitheater - MV, Greek Theater - LA, some random one in Bristow, VA, another random one in Nashville, and maybe others I forget.  And the Theater of Epidauros.  Important research!


Visiting Sacramento / Seattle / LA

Just for the record:  I'm an architect!

And now, I shall attempt to catch up with all the posts I meant to do this summer, but didn't, because I was too busy working on becoming an architect.

This summer I had the great pleasure of attending the weddings of two friends, in Sacramento and Seattle, and a Weird Al concert in Los Angeles.  These short trips gave me the chance to see more of the cities of the West Coast.  While I had been to Seattle before, it was back in 2007, and I didn't spend that much time in the city.  I'd never been to Sacramento, and in LA, we only went to places I hadn't been before.  Many adventures were had!


Our fair state's capitol has a distinct downtown, surrounded by miles of sprawl.  In downtown we were pleased to find a silly hipster vegetarian restaurant for lunch, called Mother.  We had chicken-fried mushrooms (amazing) and some other tasty things.  We spent some time walking through the downtown, from the riverfront with the golden bridge to the state capitol, and stayed at a totally hipster motel called The Greens.  The weather was very hot, and unfortunately our room had pretty lousy air conditioning.  Overall, I'd say it wasn't the greatest place to stay, but it was adequate.  Of course, the wedding was lovely, and it was great to see friends from near and far.


Our trip to Seattle was over Labor Day weekend, so we had more time to explore.  We checked out the very hip neighborhood of Fremont (see a pattern here...?) and the famous Bridge Troll; walked through Gas Works Park; and played a little ping pong at the Google office.  We discovered exactly how much of chocolate snobs we are when we visited the Theo factory store and were unimpressed by their samples (which, to be fair, are vast and probably delicious if you're used to Hershey's).  On the holiday Monday, we checked out downtown, where I was disappointed to realize that I couldn't go inside the famous Seattle Public Library because it was closed for the holiday.  Oh well, I'll have to come back!  We drove over to the other side of the sound, for a view back toward the city, and then it was time to head home.  This was another lovely wedding weekend, and we were very fortunate to have gotten to attend!

Los Angeles

During this weekend trip, we visited the Getty Museum (you only pay for parking - what a deal!), the Griffith Observatory, and the Greek Theater (for the concert).  Weird Al was excellent, he's a great entertainer and I enjoy his parodies more than the actual songs he's parodying.  Richard Meier's Getty Museum architecture is very odd, with many pointless architectural follies, but you can get a great view of the city from up there.  We didn't go through all the galleries - another time, hopefully - but did go to the special exhibit on Hellenistic bronzes.  It was bizarre to see the same statues I've seen before in Rome and other Italian cities on display, in one room, in LA.  But also very cool!  I was surprised at how many I still recognized from my art history classes, and from seeing in their "natural habitats" in Italy.  The Griffith Observatory was another great spot from which to view the city, and was thankfully air conditioned on an extremely hot day.  The displays were not particularly interesting, but hey, it's free!  In keeping with my hipster food preferences, we did check out some tasty places: Salt & Straw, where I got a coupon for a free float because they accidentally served me one with bad root beer in it; Bouchon Bistro, where we got free pastry treats because they lost our order and it took over an hour to get our food; and Milo & Olive, where I had an excellent fruit tart.  Tasty food all around, and no regrets for the series of mishaps.

This photo brought to you by "WTF Richard Meier."  Also by "Masonry... In... Spaaaaace."

Thanks to everyone who hosted us, gave us dinner recommendations, and generally made our summer great.  I guess I need to see Portland in order to conclude my grand tour, since I've already done San Diego and San Francisco for other weddings I've attended...  now I just need to find some unmarried friends and convince them to get married there!