SAH Blog

  • Postmodernism again: Goldhagen on Stirling at Yale by Jonathan Massey

    Dec 27, 2010

     One of the most interesting developments in current        architectural scholarship is the emerging    reconsideration of postmodernism. Several recent  books by architects and scholars--ranging from  practitioners of architectural postmodernism to scholars  who began their training just as its influence was  waning--are reopening debate. While some of these  accounts reassert familiar positions, others are finding  in the buildings, ideas, and practices of the 1960s, '70s,  and '80s what Reinhold Martin describes as "new tools  for new problems."

    Architecture on the Edge of Postmodernism is an anthology of period essays by Robert A.M. Stern, one of postmodernism's leading architects and critics and now dean at the Yale School of Architecture. Architecture's Desire is Michael Hays's renewed assessment of touchstones among the "critical" practitioners of the 1970s. Jorge Otero-Pailosexamines the role of phenomelogy in authorizing aspects of postmodernism in Architecture's Historical Turn. Felicity Scott in Architecture or Techno-UtopiaReinhold Martin in Utopia's Ghost, and Pier Vittorio Aureli inThe Project of Autonomy trace new paths through the architecture of what we once called "late capitalism." Monographic studies of key figures are also beginning to appear.

    Archives new and old provide material for this work, and one is the James Stirling/Michael Wilford Archive at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. An exhibition of work from the archive, curated by Anthony Vidler, closes at the end of this week at the Yale Center for British Art before reopening at the CCA. Accompanying it is a show of work by architects who studied with Stirling at Yale. 

    There is much to say, in book and exhibition reviews, about the divergent readings developed in the new books and exhibitions--as well as about the institutional agendas that motivate and inflect them. As a start, take a look at the review of the Stirling exhibition that Sarah Williams Goldhagen has published in The New Republic.

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  • Flash park on Fayette Street by Jonathan Massey

    Nov 22, 2010

    If you had driven down West Fayette Street in Syracuse on Sunday morning a few weeks ago, you would have passed the parking lot without noticing it. An expanse of cracking asphalt between former factories and half-occupied warehouses, it blended into the deindustrialized ambiance of this stretch bordering the train tracks. By day’s end the lot accommodated a verdant lawn punctuated by islands of wood decking with benches and a picnic table. A flash park had popped up in the Near Westside.

    This small-scale intervention keyed into a larger set of urban transformations in Syracuse and particularly in its Near Westside neighborhood. An article in the current issue of Metropolis reviews the “opportunistic urbanism” generated by coalitions among city government, local nonprofits, community groups, and Syracuse University, including its School of Architecture, where I teach and chair the Bachelor of Architecture program. Projects range from the creation of a transit and streetscape armature called the Connective Corridor to the renovation of abandoned buildings and the construction of new houses and institutional buildings.  

    These public-private partnerships dovetail with academic initiatives at the university such as community engagement courses, design-build studios, and conferences. Faculty and students have designed and built new houses, house renovations, warehouse conversions, streetscape improvements, and many other elements of urban transformation. At 601 Tully Street, for instance, art and architecture students are currently using Joseph Beuys’s principles of social sculpture to turn an abandoned house into an incubator for the art and entrepreneurship ideas of local high school students.

    The architecture school recently hosted “Formerly Urban,” a two-day conference on strategies of development and design in shrinking cities around the globe. Syracuse served as the model for the postwar American city in some of the 194X scenarios outlined by the architecture profession during World War II. In like fashion, the city is currently serving as one of the testbeds for redevelopment in the age of bigness and the generic city.  

    The culture of community engagement and revitalization now characterizes the architecture student organizations, too. The flash park on Fayette Avenue was built by students from architecture schools throughout the region during a conference hosted by the Syracuse chapter of the American Institute of Architecture Students. Inspired by Parking Day, they expanded the concept from a single space to a section of parking, as a way of culminating four days of lectures, panels, workshops, and site visits on the subject of reconfiguring the role of the architect in a more entrepreneurial and activist mode. The school’s AIAS chapter has also sponsored the design and construction of wheelchair ramps as part of its Freedom by Design initiative, as well as a project aiming to animate empty storefronts throughout downtown Syracuse. Last spring, a multicultural student group ran a symposium on architects working as activists in the developing world.

    Several of the students most deeply involved in student organizations have joined with others to test a new approach to the B.Arch thesis. Through linked blogs, joint reviews, and group meetings that run the gamut from exhilarating to exasperating, these ten students are trying to translate their activist energies and collaborative spirit into the culminating challenge of their professional degree program. With 194X as a half-conscious model, they are extrapolating Syracuse as a model for future architecture and urbanism. They call it Crisis City.

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  • Megastructure + monorail = LOMEX by Jonathan Massey

    Nov 6, 2010

     It's 1970. We are standing several stories above        ground, taking in the panorama. Against the backdrop  of a distant skyline, three giant towers enclose a  precinct made up of pedestrian plazas and  automotive roadways. Cylindrical piers of striated  concrete support the buildings above ten stories of  open parking garage. Skybridges connecting the  towers to one another and to others beyond our field  of vision support diagonally tiered terraces. A few  stories below, an orangemonorail weaves through  the complex, its curves counterpointing the otherwise  boxy ensemble.

    This is a view into Lower Manhattan as imagined between 1967 and 1972 by Paul Rudolph in drawings and models for the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a modernist megastructure projected toward the end of the Robert Moses era. For another week or so, you can see it printed at large scale in an exhibit at the Cooper Union organized by the Drawing Center in collaboration with the Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture. The show combines reproductions of Rudolph's drawings with a reconstruction by Cooper students of the giant model that Rudolph's office built to represent the project.

    On a recent visit, I marveled at Rudolph's distinctive forms and drawing methods--and also at the hubris of the Lomex proposition. The Moses plan, already long delayed and extensively challenged when Rudolph began his study, called for a large Y-shaped armature of expressways linking the Holland Tunnel to the Williamsburg and Manhattan Bridges. With the sponsorship of the Ford Foundation, Rudolph showed how the highway could feed a massive armature of towers containing mostly housing but also commercial and civic functions. At the central interchange, he projected a big city center with plinth, plaza, and a ring of towers such as those depicted in the panorama.

    File Lomex with other instances of bullets dodged. In its massive scale, heavyhanded treatment of context, and simplistic reliance on formal solutions, the project seems to epitomize the worst of modernist planning. Some of the areas spared from "renewal," such as SoHo, became centers of cultural innovation and economic activity even as Rudolph was elaborating the expressway project.

    But the exhibition is a welcome contribution to the emerging reassessment of urban renewal represented by the Robert Moses exhibition and book organized a few years ago by Hilary Ballon and Kenneth Jackson and reflected in the urban renewal sessions at the 2007 SAH annual convention in Pittsburgh.

    Revisionist research into modernist planning and architecture is timely, and not only for the usual reasons that motivate cycles of historical research, such as the generational shift from protagonists to their successors. It also responds the pressures of the rapid urbanization occurring around the globe. Population growth, accelerated urbanization, and the enormous capital accumulations of the 1990s and early 2000s have created a wave of urban expansions ranging from favelas and shantytowns to Masdar,Waterfront City, and other instant cities real or projected. Whether you consider them "evil paradises" or models for future emulation, these and other big projects have intensified demand for historical research into modernist urbanism.

    The new attention to urban renewal has already partially rehabilitated Moses for our post-Jane Jacobs era. Who knows? Given the contextualist sensibility that Tim Rohan has found in other Rudolph projects, it is possible that even Lomex will be redeemed by revisionist attention.

    --Jonathan Massey

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