Shane Reiner-Roth

Archive for July 2010

Aside #3

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Excerpt from the book ((P(ass)ive)(ociations)) :

All of contemporary life’s efforts seem to dwindle down to what it alone finds essential: the pragmatic, or practical. Beauty appears as a valid practice if it has, at some point, a commodifiable purpose. Apparently, beauty today needs a purpose, let alone a profitable one. Beauty, the purest of acts, the most natural of instances, suddenly needs a purpose.

Theory, much like beauty, does not have a ‘reason’ for being. But while a true beauty is finalized and perfected, a true theory is never completed. As it ages, it is continuously speculated: soon to be hampered by synthesis and other aggregates. Throughout the process of theoretical discourse, there is no such thing as being satisfied (If you are an architect that has never built anything due to a refusal to compromise your theory, then congratulations. If you are an architect that has somehow been able to build without compromising, then I suggest you constantly question the outcome). There is only, as a technicality, a last page to a book on theory.

Pragmatism, as the economy’s sole stimulator, imposes itself forcefully on the other two societal forces: beauty and theory. While the two were hanging out in their mom’s basement, both doing their jobs just fine, pragmatism swiftly put hardhats on the two, and they were each told to make a living: Beauty was told to be attractive, and theory was told to be practical. It is this new, falsely assigned occupation of theory that might arguably define the ‘post-critical’ era in which we currently live.

This book aims to be neither practical nor attractive.

When mapped out, this book is amorphous. When drawn out, it is speculative.

Critical theory (that is, pre-post-critical theory) had all of its breakthroughs hermetically sealed in its own practice and cultural sphere. Outside of this sphere, it is callously mocked and misunderstood.

“We need two cultural theorists, quick!” – a joke made by such a person outside of the critical theory sphere. The joke suggests that a cultural theorist, when he is not putting out fires or fixing a toilet, is simply of no use. He is, as Mel Brooks might suggest, a ‘bullshit artist.’

A contemporary artist’s work is not considered worthwhile unless it does something for the viewer; architecture isn’t considered valuable unless it is built and used occasionally.

What must get across is that while the theorists’ art is of no immediate purpose, it is very valuable to the sphere of critical theory, and no other. While its study might appear as useless as that of a disappearing Hopi tribes’, it must be understood that its sphere is an evidently impenetrable bubble.

As many fields as this book may cover, this book will not be brought down like a wandering balloon to cure autism. This book contains no information on how to deal with your teenage daughter. It will not be useful to read this if you are a politician looking for answers. This book is, for better or worse, only of interest (not of use) to those within the aforementioned sphere. Sorry to not burst your bubble.



Written by differance

July 24, 2010 at 7:55 AM

Posted in critical theory

Compulsions: Philosophical Inclusion versus Architectural Autonomy in the Aspiration of Utopia

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While the true definition of a Utopia is much stricter than the way I have personally identified it for the purposes of this essay, I view that this misnomer is necessary to discern a fundamental difference between the discourse of philosophy and that of a closely trailing architecture. For while it appears as though both philosophical and architectural discourses are similar in their most radical states as idealistic, they contrast greatly in their treatment towards their respective “readers” or followers. The discernment lies primarily in their contrasting faiths in their readers’ ability to discover their environments ‘anew,’ either after reading the philosopher’s text, or after experiencing the architect’s building or urban plan. The former has a faith in the citizen as a social agent, while the latter only has a faith in their building as the construct of a social agenda. Guy Debord’s most architectural statement, Naked City, will be discussed in contrast to Constant Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon and Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin.

Guy Debord created a map for Parisians to carry with them, called ‘The Naked City.’ To describe its intent, Alison Sant writes:

“In reaction to the rational city models embraced by Parisian postwar planners in the 1950s, he [Debord] and his colleagues co-opted the map of Paris, reconfiguring the experience of the city through its authority. [25] By manipulating the map itself, they intervened in the logic of the city, constructing an alternative geography that favored the marginalized, and often threatened, spaces of the urban grid. Torn from their geographical context, these areas were woven together by arrows inspired by the itineraries of the drift or “dérive.” These “psychogeographic” maps proposed a fragmented, subjective, and temporal experience of the city as opposed to the seemingly omnipotent perspective of the planimetric map. As mapping is used as a tactic to bring together personal narratives about urban space, the Situationist maps provide a useful example of visualizing a subjective view of the city.”[i]

It is important to note that the directions given on the map, described as dérives (derivatives), were abstracted to the point at which they could not be accurately or objectively followed. General maps, even those without directional arrows, illustrate the single most efficient route between any two locations through unbiased cartography, and in so doing represent authority, clarity, and singularity of method. Debord’s map, on the other hand, is authoritative only to the point of proposing the plurality of perception. The big red arrows suggest bold movements within the city, but it is clear that the specific dérives one might take should be purely intuitive and not informed by Debord. Essentially, Debord believed that Utopia could exist within the formerly existing city, while the perception of that city must change.

Le Corbusier, thirty years prior, proposed to bulldoze most of central Paris north of the Seine, and replace it with sixty-story cruciform towers, placed in an orthogonal street grid and park-like green space. The ability to perform dérives within the Plan Voisin would be impossible. And while this ability was viewed as needless for Corbusier, his contemporaries scorned the prospect of a proposal with so much architectural authority. So while Debord proposed to keep the city intact but not its general perception, Corbusier proposed to construct a new city entirely, and once built and inhabited, its general perception would go unchanged.

Constant Nieuwenhuys’ New Babylon is the synthesis of Debord’s Situationist philosophy and Le Corbusier’s architectural tendency to build anew. In reviewing the contemporary state of Metropolitan cities, Constant believed that

“The layout of neighborhoods, old and new, conflicts with established patterns of behavior and even more with the new ways of life that we are seeking. The result is a dismal and sterile ambience in our surroundings.”[ii]

In response to his understanding of the contemporary city, Constant envisioned a new city on land never before built upon: New Babylon. As Mark Wigley writes,

“New Babylon envisages a society of total automation in which the need to work is replaced with a nomadic life of creative play, in which traditional architecture has disintegrated along with the social institutions that it propped up. A vast network of enormous multilevel interior spaces propagates to eventually cover the planet. These interconnected “sectors” float above the ground on tall columns. While vehicular traffic rushes underneath and air traffic lands on the roof, the inhabitants drift by foot through the huge labyrinthine interiors, endlessly reconstructing the atmospheres of the spaces.”[iii]

The inhabitants of New Babylon would be the transplanted youth of Paris, willing to endure the shock of a radical new urban layout.

But while the appearance of New Babylon is not one of architectural authority, its physical presence, if it were built, would be treated, with time, with the same level of oppression that any intent-driven design would. No matter how many alternative routes the design of New Babylon would have offered its citizens, the number of these routes would be operationally and programmatically finite. In other words, New Babylon maps out the advisable dérives for the citizen, rather than letting him decide it for himself. New Babylon is different than the Plan Voisin in its intent of construction in opposition of reconstruction, yet it is unfortunately also different than the Naked City in its objectivity; an admittedly inevitable product of an architectural proposal, rather than an ideological one.

Though these radical proposals are only three examples of many, they exemplify the grave difference between the inclusive proposals of the philosopher and the autonomous projects of the architect.

Most visions of Utopia have at their heart intent to leave the city and start a new one in formally uninhabited terrain, most commonly a desert. This indicates a loss of faith in popular society, so that while the new autonomous Utopia can have its own unique history, the rest of general society will grow and advance without it. But while most philosophers believe that their writing can make a change in general society if read widely enough, architects tend to side with the Utopians formally mentioned, and therefore favor autonomy; or, in other words, their buildings against the world.

It seems impossible to find the solution to this problem, yet it is most logically in recognition of context and the attitude of inclusion. For while most conceptually built architecture appears hermetically sealed, where the inside is presented as perfectly executed while the outside is viewed as bleak and ignorant, this philosophical faith in the citizen as a social agent, rather than the customer (or victim) of a social agenda, in the guise of an architect might be the way to include the participant in the discussion of a perfect metropolitan society.


[i] Intelligent agent vol. 6 no. 2 interactive city. Redefining the Basemap.

[ii] Internationale Situationniste #3. Another City for Another Life.

[iii] Wigley, Mark. 1998. New Babylon. The Hyper-architecture of Desire. 010 Uitgeverij.

Written by differance

July 18, 2010 at 4:37 AM