On publishing practice: Architecture, history, politics

The Charnel-House
interviewed by Kerb

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The following interview is taken from Kerb 21: Uncharted Territories (2013), a yearly publication put out by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. A few months back, some of its editors contacted me for an interview on my rationales and routines for publishing. I was quite flattered, especially given that all of the other publications that were chosen by Kerb (such as Log, Topos, ScapegoatTerragrams306090) have a much, much wider pull than The Charnel-House. To be quite honest, I was surprised they found space for any of us considering the room it takes to house Marina Abramović’s ego, whom they also interviewed. — Just kidding!

Anyway, the physical journal is gorgeous and available for purchase online. I encourage all of you who have the means to pick up a copy. Below is a slightly more expansive series of responses to the questionnaire they asked me to fill out

The Charnel-House: From Bauhaus to Beinhaus

The Charnel-House: From Bauhaus to Beinhaus

EDITORIAL INTRODUCTION: Kerb: A Journal of Landscape Architecture approaches blogs, journals, magazines online and in print because it is interested to know how publishing practices operate and contribute to disciplines. Platforms of design and cultural discussion hosted by individuals and collectives offer varying insights and perspectives into the state of design. The ways in which the subject matter is curated and represented outlines one’s practice.

KERB: Describe a regular day in your “office.”

Ross Wolfe: A regular day blogging for The Charnel-House is hardly ever regular. Rather, it consists in a cluster of tightly-knit irregularities. Since there’s no strict timeline according to which updates are set to appear, the factors determining the generation of new content tend to emerge more or less by accident. Here and there (now and then), something will pique my interest, spark my imagination, or move me to issue a response. Such are the moments in which I write. (Of course, to be sure, there is a loose imperative to keep restocking the site with fresh supplies of images and information. Apart from this minimum, periodic upkeep, there’s very little in the way of discipline to maintain a regimented schedule.)

No matter when it comes, however, inspiration for new material on the blog usually doesn’t have anything to do with the environment in which writing takes place. Or if it does, it’s indirect. More often than not, the cues for what to write come from the virtual world rather than my immediate surroundings (which generally remain static throughout). The objects that lie about almost never change; at most they are rearranged. Constants like this can thus sink seamlessly into the background, a kind of visual “white noise,” and function by their total absence from my attention. As such, they create a sense of comfort and familiarity while I peruse the web in search of more direct engagements.

They say Sartre thrived on the hustle-and-bustle, penning some of his most famous tracts and novellas in the middle of packed, hectic, noisy Parisian cafés. It doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to me, really. When a topic is sufficiently engrossing, I’m able to tune out just about anything. Yet for the most part, I stick to a routine of place. Sometimes a change of scenery is warranted, but not always.

KERB: We have defined “practice” as the ongoing accumulation of knowledge that test ideas through research and application. Upon reflection, do you have your own mode of practice as an editor? What is it, what is it based on?

Ross Wolfe: Practically speaking, there is very little in the way of “testing” that goes on in blogging for The Charnel-House. That is to say, there is nothing that would approximate a “trial-and-error” method. However, it would be false to suggest that there is no empirical basis to the selection and curation of material for publication. Some programs are built into the blog service I use that allow me to see what kind of content attracts the most visitors, which posts draw the most comments, and which tend to get “liked.”

All this said, it is important to guard against cynicism. Just because certain kinds of posts are popular, it does not follow that they should become the norm. Nothing is easier than falling into a pattern of predictable posting, especially if a “winning formula” seems to present itself. One of the hardest things to maintain with online self-publishing is balance. This becomes all the more difficult given that I am the sole editor of and primary contributor to The Charnel-House website. At the end of the day, I am answerable to no one other than myself. Balance can be contrived as well, though; the trick is to have the admixture reflect the site’s theme.

KERB: How does your practice contribute to design discourse? Across which disciplines do you operate?

Ross Wolfe: There’s no way of telling how much influence a blog like The Charnel-House exerts over design discourse. Very little, I’d guess. Perhaps this is due to the fact that its focus is not exclusively architectural, however. Anyone who has even casually perused the blog will be aware of its multidisciplinary approach. While architecture figures prominently into its overall theme, many other topics are explored as well. First-time visitors are just as likely to happen upon a political argument, even a scathing diatribe or fiery polemic, as an interpretation of a specific architectural work. Other times it’s just assorted minutiae (i.e., forgotten Soviet posters and paraphernalia, rare photographs or yellowed blueprints), typically with a brief explanation of its significance.

If The Charnel-House had to be assigned a single overarching category that would encapsulate all its manifold concerns, its character would be most accurately described as historical. Beneath this general rubric, several subheadings can be discerned: an interest in Marxist theory, Soviet social and political history, international modernism in art and architecture, and various ideological currents and formations on the Left. Matters of architecture and design enter in only insofar as they help to illuminate aspects of these other discourses. This is not to downplay the centrality of architecture to The Charnel-House’s praxis, however. Indeed, architecture might justifiably be seen as the privileged medium through which I seek to understand everything else.

Returning to the question at hand, then, it must be admitted that the blog’s historical character places necessary limits on its ability to impact contemporary design. The pieces of built architecture the blog examines, and even the proposals it covers that were never realized, are not at all intended as a corrective to the cheap populism and precious excesses in architecture of recent memory. Still less is it meant to serve an instructive role. Architects and designers might emulate or take a page from something that appears on The Charnel-House, but this is hardly what I set out to accomplish with the blog. To the extent that it actually might contribute to design discourse today, this contribution would be incidental, and not constitutive.

KERB: The types of work and the way it is featured in your publication gives readers an insight into your practice and the intentions behind the publication. What are the steps prior to publication? How do you select work and how does it get featured?

Ross Wolfe: My response can (and will) be roughly split into considerations of form, on the one hand, and considerations of content, on the other. Beginning with the former: When it comes to the curation of written pieces, I tend to aim for an even distribution of two-to-three paragraph write-ups and longer, article-length pieces. Occasionally more academic essays will be posted, but I’ve tried to keep this at a minimum for the last year or so. Very few casual readers of blogs have the time or patience to sit through 8,000-word entries, with massive blocks of text. This is as much an aesthetic as it is an intellectual issue. (It’s analogous, in fact, to the imaginative challenge raised by the philosopher Descartes about envisioning or conceptualizing a chiliagon, or thousand-sided figure. It’s difficult enough to wrap one’s “mind” around it intellectually, but even harder to make “sense” of it aesthetically.

Either way, however, the issue is formal and must therefore be resolved at the level of form. We may linger on this formal dimension for a moment in order to address its visual component. In every post, I strive to include high-quality images that go with the topic under discussion. Yet, because the blog’s layout and overall design sensibility are such big parts of its appeal, I’ll often adjust images to match the color of the background and images that are on constant display. Some posts are far more image-heavy than others, though. I’d prefer to keep myself at arm’s length from the so-called “archiporn” that has proliferated in recent years. You know the kind — those little “photoshopped, freeze-dried glimmers of non-orthogonal perfection, in locations where the sun, of course, is always shining,” as Owen Hatherley put it last December.

Moving on to the latter: The content of a prospective post for The Charnel-House must be evaluated in relation to blog’s focus. Some of this has been touched upon already. With pieces that I write specifically for the site, these tend to be tailored more or less automatically to its arguments and themes. Determining what sort of material deserves to be reposted on The Charnel-House is another affair entirely. Besides posts written by my friends for their own blogs, or just content that appears on sites that I follow, a great deal of what ends up being (re)published on the blog comes from an educational/political organization of which I was a member, the Platypus Affiliated Society. Luckily, while not identical, many of the topics the project touches upon reflect my own set of interests: Marxist theory, critical analysis of culture and society, and the history of leftist politics.

KERB: Do you think your publication serves its readers as a commentary on the works it features, or by building discourse that will influence future work? What disciplines do you aim to contribute to?

Ross Wolfe: With the palpable exhaustion of postmodernism in architecture and design today, a forlorn gaze is cast back upon the great modernist projects of the first half of the twentieth century. Understandably, such nostalgia can often give rise to a retro-modernist impulse that looks to reignite these old passions and revive these old forms. This impulse is to be resisted, however. Revivalism is the last thing architecture needs at the moment.

Architecture suffers from a condition that lies outside its proper purview, beyond its capacity to change. The historical impasse that’s plagued architects and designers for decades now will not be overcome by brilliant new “solutions” to age-old architectural “problems.” Nor will it come through the deus ex machina of new building materials or assembly techniques. There is presently no lack of bright ideas within the discipline, so it’s not as if “thinking outside the box” would do much to fix the situation. Even if it were the case that today’s proposals are duller and less ambitious compared to those of a century ago, this would itself have to be accounted for — that is, unless we are to assume that by some kind of freak disaster or coincidence we’ve been born into a generation of dunces.

The problem, as ever, remains social. Or, to be a bit more precise, that’s been the issue for the last hundred years or so, anyway. Until a revolutionary transformation capable of altering the existing set of social relations, which constrain architecture in conditions of generalized iniquity and unfreedom, nothing originating within the discipline itself will allow architects to accomplish what is most desperately needed from them: namely, the total reshaping, reordering, and reconstruction of the universe according to universal architectonic principles of design.

KERB: Over the course of your career, what are the key trends, shifts, and changes in trajectory that have been important to you? Have these affected your practice?

Ross Wolfe: One of the defining shifts in the evolution of my perspective undoubtedly came through my involvement in the Platypus Affiliated Society at the University of Chicago and in New York, participating in its reading groups and organizing its events. It helped cement and reinforce a certain understanding of historical reality to which I’d been predisposed already, but only ever in the form of inklings, intuition, and general suspicion. The Charnel-House is a separate project, to be sure, but it is informed in crucial ways by this encounter.

Another crucial turning-point in my intellectual development came through some of the work I did with Moishe Postone and Sheila Fitzpatrick, especially after the latter had me read Richard Stites’ classic Revolutionary Dreams from 1982. This was supplemented by still one more recommendation she gave me, this time Vladimir Paperny’s excellent Culture Two: Architecture in the Age of Stalin. Postone’s reinterpretation of volumes one through three of Marx’s Capital also deeply impressed me, and continues to, despite a few reservations. Again, all this was in Chicago.

KERB: What in your work excites you at the moment?

Ross Wolfe: Aside from my own self-satisfied curiosity about architecture, design, and revolutionary history, nothing in particular. The prospect of finishing, I suppose.
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Coda

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In 1981, Tom Wolfe published a funny (but hopelessly reactionary) book on modernist architecture entitled From Bauhaus to our house.

In 2008, Ross Wolfe published an unfunny (but hopefully revolutionary) blog on modernist architecture subtitled From Bauhaus to Beinhaus.

Bauhaus |ˈbouˌhous|
……a school of design established by Walter Gropius in Weimar in 1919, best known for its designs of objects based on functionalism and simplicity.
……ORIGIN German, ‘house of architecture,’ from Bau ‘building’ + Haus ‘house.’

Beinhaus |ˈbaɪ̯nˌhaʊ̯s|
……ossuary, charnel-house, catacombs.
……ORIGIN German, ‘house of bones,’ from Bein ‘bone’ + Haus ‘house.’

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