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The Inside-Out City and the Question of Nature

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In class, as well as the rest of academia, there had been a discussion of the notable obscurity in the question, “What is Nature?”. We agreed that the answer most people give to this question is as confident as it is ignorant, and that the question is not nearly as open or as clear as it seems. For many, the distinction between human – man, woman, child, athlete – and non-human is a simple substitute for the distinction between non-nature and nature, but when one recognizes that humans invented the cantaloupe, the Boston terrier, and the very idea of nature –all things we believe are nature/non-human, it is equally as clear to see that this argument is fraught with inconsistencies.


As of 2010, this conversation would, on a large scale, seem to be a purely trivial pursuit, unrelated to the man in the street; but forty years from now, a global challenge will be set: In April of last year, a G8 policy document warned that global food production must double by 2050 to ward off international chaos. As it stands now, the world has collectively designated a rural farming area “essentially the size of South America,” says Dr. Dickson Despommier. “That feeds seven billion people. If you include the three billion who’ll be here in 40 years, there isn’t enough land given the current way of farming to feed those people.”[1] In order to combat famine, urban farming – that is, farming within the urban city – will have to take precedence within the communal mind and at the voting booth. As a choice between Heideggerian-environmentalism and techno-environmentalism, virtually every urban farming projectionist embraces the latter methodology.


But while urban farming would alleviate the land issue that Despommier addressed, this radically new agricultural tactic would also gravely obscure the question, “What is Nature?” for the masses living in the city, creating a whole new conscious class.


Beyond introducing “nature” to the “non-natural” city, there are several worldwide stands to preserve “nature” in its “natural” state through “non-natural” means. As Geoff Manaugh writes:


“Delicate Arch, a fifty-two-foot-tall sandstone arch and one of Arches National Park’s most famous natural wonders, faces eventual collapse, as it is regularly threatened by rain, ice, and seismic activity. The solution was clear: the arch should be stabilized. This “minor stabilization could be done in such an unobtrusive manner as to be hardly distinguishable and would not in any manner detract from the natural appearance of the Arch.” It would not be structural, in other words, using cross-braces or encaging the arch in Gothic cathedral-like buttresses. Instead, the geological formation would be sprayed with a transparent aerosol adhesive. This fine mist of glue would then seep down in the rock’s porous sandstone surface and harden there, locking the arch in place. The arch would be preserved – geologically shellacked, if you will.”[2]

This injection of the preservational “non-natural” into the “natural” landscape, coupled with the “natural” crops we eat injected into the common man’s assuredly “non-natural” city, each event carried to their respective extremes, would mark a radically new event in philosophical history. Surrounded by these figures as an environmental reality, the common man would have to seriously question their interpretation of the term “natural,” and maybe even the term “reality.” While the answer to the question “What is Nature?” has proven obscurity prior to the concepts of urban farming and technological landscape renovation, the introduction of these concepts demands an attempt to answer this question.


It seems as though the only correct answers are the positive absolute and its reciprocal negative: in the extreme of these two events, both the city and its environs can be considered purely natural (given that humans are a natural species, thereby making natural things), and they can simultaneously be considered purely non-natural (given that both the city and its environs have both been altered are were not left to do what they would done “naturally”). There are theorists that project this agricultural injection into the city would have sociological advantages. As Dr. Dickson Despommier again writes, “it would then become possible for a city to behave like an ecosystem; producing its own food, driven and designed by sunlight.” Despommier imagines a more communal city in light of urban farming, where other pragmatists believe that there are ways to make a smaller sociological impact. As William Wiles writes,

“James Wood’s solution is to put farms on rooftops. Work AC’s Public Farm 1 pavilion last year demonstrated how to elevate productive space, creating a usable social area underneath it. Public Farm 1 also trialled a high-tech soil made out of compost and recycled Styrofoam that is only one-quarter the weight of normal dirt, which circumvents the usual structural problem with rooftop farming. And there are already rooftop farming systems on the market.”[3]

Whether the impact is obtrusive and socially impactful, as in Despommier’s model, or concealed and above the carpet, as in that of Wood’s, the impact on the collective urban conscious would become philosophically altered. There may never be an answer to the question “What is Nature?,” but these two projects, put into extreme effect, would stir up some answers.


[1] ICON no. 73, The Edible City. William Wiles, Pg. 83

[2] The Bldgblog Book. Geoff Manaugh, Pg. 167

[3] Ibid


Written by differance

December 24, 2010 at 10:27 AM

The World Trade Center Proposals and the Activation of the Event-Site

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A life which does not give the preference to

any other life, of any previous period, which

therefore prefers its own existence, can in

all seriousness be called decadent.”1

–  Jose Ortega y Gasset

Inevitably, most of the buildings that don the skyline are analogous to the life Ortega y Gasset describes for that which is not decadent. Most buildings, through their creator’s indulgent self-interest, negate their site’s history in favor of their own vision of contemporaneity. They in essence smooth out the dirt, start anew, and stand tall as if nothing happened. The consideration and solution to this fact is found in Heidegger’s writing, which soon led to critical regionalism as coined by Alexander Tzonis. Spectacularly, if not unwittingly, the search for a new plan for the World Trade Center site and the competition that followed not only adopted, in part, critical regionalism’s paradigm, but also made the need for critical regionalism shockingly clear to a public audience. The cultural need to recognize the site both anew and awash in history became evident in that instance of extreme historical tension. While in this analysis I am replacing geographical history, traditionally the generator of critical regionalist architecture, with cultural or architectural history, the claim that the World Trade Center Competition phase was a grand and public display of critical regionalism is hard to deny. However, the opposition to this statement would lie in the fact that while most of the proposals were generated by site analysis and data, they all neglected to actually build on the site in question, choosing instead to demarcate it or subtract from it. As Robert A. Ivy wrote, “The erasure of the World Trade center demanded an answer: what should replace it?”2 Since all of the proposals reveal insecurity, and, say, cowardice, by building near or around the site, rather than creating a dialogue between the old and the new, none of them can give a straight response to Ivy’s concern. The subject of this essay, then, will be a select number of proposals that either illustrate this point, appear as the need to build completely anew, and everything in between.

The proposal by Michael Arad and Peter Walker, entitled Reflected Absence, is essentially an underground memorial. Accessible via a ramp on the side of the site, the memorial is a large empty space, in which the only light sources derive from the large gaping squares that designate the sites of the two towers. The main elements, which equally appear as two austere canyons without vertical continuity, indicate only a subtraction from the sacred squares, for there is literally no matter which replaces what used to stand in those sites. Certainly, there is a lot of material added along the perimeter of the two squares, yet because there is nothing physical in the sites themselves, the removal of the elements as they existed in their sites deny their general yet significant function of “letting-be.” As Heidegger writes, “Because all modes of human behavior are, each in its own way, overt and always relate to that which they must, it follows that the restraint of “letting things be,” i.e. freedom, must necessarily have given man an inner directive to approximate his ideas to what-is at any moment…”3 In other words, Arad and Walker’s proposal, by neither adding nor letting-be, they did not follow any “inner directive” to create something specific to the site, since their proposal was to leave as little material effacement on the specific sites as possible.

The proposal by United Architects similarly treats the sites of the WTC towers subtractively. The building that constitutes the design strategy keeps a safe distance from the two squares, as the squares themselves are leveled and painted stark white. No doubt, there would be a daily maintenance crew surveying and cleaning these white squares, leaving as much history behind as possible. Interestingly, while the treatment of the sites appears respectful to those sites’ history, the white squares are essentially flat buildings, representing themselves just as much as a new building totally ignoring the sites’ history would. In other words, to reference Heidegger, this proposal appears to activate the “letting-be” of the site, yet falls short in its own self-referential non-history. Just like Arad and Walker’s proposal, United Architects attempt to erase all information from the sacred squares, and while the former proposal suggests creating an implied void, the latter proposes a perceptual void.

This is a curious strategy that both proposals attempt for it can easily imply the terrorists’ success, since it was their aspiration to destroy the image of the WTC towers. These proposals, in analysis, could appear to be sympathetic to their cause, because they equally reduce the towers’ existence to voids. The true implications of these voids, of course, is clearly the respect given to the history of these sites and the refusal to add anything that could hardly appear comparably sacred, yet there should be proposals which dare to add to the revered sites in a grand statement of overcoming. To take a Heideggerian stance, the proposal, as to act either observant or triumphant, should either practice “letting-be” or a dialogue between the old and the new. As Neil Leach writes, “For Heidegger a building should be on an of the soil, of the location on which it is built. He illustrates this with the example of a Greek temple, which sits so naturally within its setting it is as though it has been ‘brought forth’ by its setting.”4 If one were to suggest that Heidegger’s suggested critical regionalism is both respectful and triumphant (or, in other words, reflective of both history or contemporaneity), then the weakness laden in these two proposals, at least, becomes apparent.

Since, as has been said before, the site of the World Trade Center had been flattened for construction long ago, there was no opportunity for any of the architects to take a strictly Heideggerian approach to the competition. As Norberg Schulz writes, “On the urban level we find structures which are mostly determined by man’s activities, that is, by his interaction with a manmade environment. On this level, therefore, the basic form is what could be called ‘our place.’”5 Therefore, rather than base their proposals on the fundamental, timeless nature of the site, a few architects, in the spirit of critical regionalism, chose instead to purely base their designs on the data received from the day of the event, 9/11. Eric Owen Moss, for instance, proposed the “maintenance of a series of four shadows within a sunken stone park. Two shadows represent the impacts of the planes, and two the collapse of the towers.”6 In a similar vain, Raimund Abraham proposed a monument to the times relevant to the event, rather than the actual buildings that occupied the site. In his words, “Central to my proposal are the times of the attacks and the collapse of the towers – 8:46, 9:02, 9:59, and 10:28 A.M. – which are commemorated by three monolithic concrete slabs. They offer no habitable space, but are bisected at angles that are oriented to the morning sun as a natural memorial to the events of September 11, 2001.”7

Do these proposals acknowledge the genius loci of the site? Since this would evidently be the aspiration of these proposals, in their respect of the site and its tragic event, it would be beneficial to compare their attempt to appeal to genius loci with the writer most affiliated with the term, Christian Norberg-Schulz. Norberg Schulz writes that a building which demonstrates genius loci is one which “demonstrates human understanding of nature and self by translating that understanding onto built form.”8 These two proposals utilize the data of the event symbolically, yet they also make physical what could never have been seen, and therefore not acknowledged: Moss’ proposal highlights the arbitrary positions of the shadows of the two towers at the time of both their impacts and their collapses, and Abraham’s proposal captures the sunlight accompanying the times of the event. While it is arguable that these proposals reflect a desire to bridge a gap between the proposal, the sun, the spectators, and the revered, or, as Heidegger put it, “The Fourfold,”9 these figures cannot both be physically actualized and perceptually impactful, for they are in actuality arbitrary times only made significant by the event made sacred. Further still, the shadows of the buildings and the specific time of day went largely ignored when the actual event took place. These proposals, close to a Heideggerian approach to the site, fall short of critical regionalism. While they perform a similar function to the bridge in Heidegger’s example by “gather[ing] to itself in its own way earth and sky, divinities and mortals,”10 they intrude on the site’s presence, and therefore, unlike Heidegger’s bridge, which “lets the stream run its course and at the same time grants their way to mortals so that they may come and go from shore to shore,”11 these proposals do not rest comfortably on their site, nor do they allow for perceptual or physical opposition if one so chooses to entertain an opposition. What’s more, they stand in objectivity, and therefore are not successful in “protecting and conserving the genius loci, which means interpreting [the site] in ever new ways.”12

We have thus far examined proposals that lie in an imperfect relation with either Heidegger’s philosophy of “letting-be,” his equally respectful yet opposite philosophy of “the Greek temple in the soil,” and the “fourfold.” In the myriad of proposals, there are few that come close to executing a Heideggerian stance to the site. There is one in recollection, however, which appears to demonstrate several Heideggerian concepts without contradiction: Freedom Tower. Its conception, as orchestrated by Daniel Libeskind, was at first derived from a rational understanding: “Their destruction, along with the ruin and damage to surrounding buildings and the transportation infrastructure, has been crippling to New York’s economy, not to mention the basic comfort of those working, living, and visiting downtown. But in urbanistic terms, the superblock on which the Twin Towers sat had done much to damage the interconnection between the various streets around the towers, isolating the area from the smaller-grained texture of lower Manhattan. Now that reconstruction was needed, the opportunity presented itself to correct urbanistic problems.”13 This approach to the site can be compared to another one addressed in a separate press review: “The great slurry wall is the most dramatic element which survived the attack, an engineering wonder constructed on bedrock foundations and designed to hold back the Hudson River. The foundations withstood the unimaginable trauma of the destruction and stand as eloquent as the Constitution itself asserting the durability of Democracy and the value of individual life.”14 Along with this statement, Libeskind proposed that the sites of the Twin Towers be minimally cleaned and exhibited as they are. This respect for the site can be used to exemplify another one of Heidegger’s view towards “letting-be.” Heidegger writes, “We usually talk of “letting be” when, for instance, we stand off from some undertaking we have planned. “We let it be” means: not touching it again, not having anything more to do with it. “Letting be” here has the negative sense of disregarding something, renouncing something, of indifference and even neglect. “letting-be,” does not, however, refer to indifference and neglect, but to the very opposite of them. To let something be is in fact to have something to do with it. To let what-is be what it is means participating in something overt and its overtness, in which everything that “is” takes up its position and which entails such overtness.”15 In other words, Libeskind’s decision to keep the slurry walls intact is unlike all other proposals in that it genuinely does not add or subtract to the site, and for this reason it is letting the site be, without any contemporary architectural imposition or self-indulgent design. By letting the slurry walls be, Libeskind’s proposal is participating in the “overtness” of the site, and the approach is arguably more dramatic than any other proposal, in its sheer and brutal honesty. In one of his proposals, the tip of Freedom tower beams a light upward at 8:46, 9:02, 9:59, and 10:28 A.M. every day, and in so doing recollect Heidegger’s fourfold, in the symbolic dialogue exchanged between the Earth and the Sky. In another proposal, as he writes, 
”Those who were lost have become heroes. To commemorate those lost lives, I created two large public places, the Park of Heroes and the Wedge of Light. Each year on September 11th between the hours of 8:46 a.m., when the first airplane hit, and 10:28 a.m., when the second tower collapsed, the sun will shine without shadow, in perpetual tribute to altruism and courage.”16 These two appropriations of the significant times of the event are dissimilar to that of most of the others, since their activations are both alarming and noticeably significant, unlike the static monuments Moss and Abraham proposed. However, Libeskind’s design falls short of being critically regionalist by making several vague references to elements that represent Americanism (For example, “the glass-clad tower’s asymmetrical form would have alluded structurally to the nearby Statue of Liberty. In particular, the offset spire rising 400ft above the tower would have mirrored the statue’s raised Torch of Freedom.”17 More famously, freedom tower was designed to be 1,776 feet tall, which is, in my opinion, a childish tribute to Americanism).

It is admittedly difficult to choose a Heideggerian approach to such a significant site, yet it is equally appropriate to look to him for guidance in such a cautious situation. But the most difficult task, in actuality, is to demonstrate an architectural proposal for the World Trade Center site that would thoroughly satisfy and be in accord with all of Heidegger’s writing. Therefore, all one can do is consider which of all of the proposals comes closest, yet inevitably so far, to proposing not just a critically regionalist skyscraper, but one which can be acclaimed as ‘Heideggerian.’ The research of this analysis indicates that Libeskind’s proposal is the closest, though there are several concepts which could have either been initiated or appropriated differently. One square could have been used for “letting-be,” while the other one could have taken cues from Heidegger’s “Greek temple in the soil.” It could have been this duality which reflected the complexity of not only Heidegger’s writings, but the complexity of the response and physical manifestation of sensitivity necessary for such a significant event.


1 Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses 1936, p. 35

2 Robert A. Ivy, Imagining Ground Zero 2004, p. 10

3 Martin Heidegger, Existence and Being 1949, p. 306

4 Neil Leach, What is Architecture 2002, p. 88

5 Christian Norberg-Schulz, Existence, Space and Architecture 1971, p. 29

6 Eric Owen Moss, Imagining Ground Zero 2004, p. 151

7 Raimund Abraham, ibid, p. 155

8 Christian Norberg Schulz, Genius Loci 1980, p. 17

9 Martin Heidegger, Building Dwelling Thinking 1971, p. 3

10 Ibid, p. 5

11 Ibid.

12 Christian Norberg-Schulz, Genius Loci 1980, p. 18

13 Daniel Libeskind, Imagining Ground Zero 2004, p. 26


15 Martin Heidegger, Existence and Being 1949, p. 306


17 Ibid.

Written by differance

August 17, 2010 at 6:57 AM

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