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!