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Architecture and its image

Or, must one visit a building
in order to write about it?

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The following article was originally published in Issue 17 of Princeton University’s architecture journal Pidgin, which took as its odd theme: “Do You Even Lift?” Other contributors to this issue include the excellent Beatriz Colomina, Michael Meredith, Andrés Jacque, Jonah Rowen, Anna-Maria Meister, and Lily Zhang (amongst others). Definitely pick up a copy if you’re interested. Most architecture and design bookstores should carry it.

Right now their website is being revamped, in any case, so the appearance of these articles online has been delayed. I’m posting the original version I submitted here, which is a bit longer and isn’t quite as tightly argued as the version they published. You can check out a PDF of their copy here. Enjoy!
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At MoMA’s “In Pursuit of Architecture” conference back in mid-September, a ten-year retrospective on the output of the journal Log, a pair of questions kept coming up: Must critics first visit a structure in order to write about it? Which is more important, the image of a building or the building itself?

Though billed as a conversation between emerging architects and eminent critics, the most interesting exchanges were the ones that disregarded this format entirely. Sylvia Lavin, a frequent contributor to Log, traded questions and comments with Cynthia Davidson, its editor-in-chief. Davidson insisted that critics must physically travel to a building’s location for their opinions to be considered valid. Her emphasis, therefore, was on the primacy of the built object over its secondary representation through images. Lavin argued this was a false dichotomy. Why separate them at all? Might the building and its image not prove complementary? Critics should of course make every effort to witness a given work of architecture firsthand, but shouldn’t let that stand in their way if circumstances don’t permit. One can get the basic gist of a structure, she maintained, simply by looking at photographs and floor plans. Inferences may be drawn from there.

Neither side can be said to have decisively carried the day. During Q&A, the issue was brought up again, this time by architecture critic Jeff Kipnis, who was in attendance. “I don’t understand why Cynthia thinks one has to go see a building in order to write about it,” he wondered incredulously. “No composer feels like he has to go hear a performance to ‘get’ a piece of music. He looks at the score. Some scores he’s interested in; others not.”

Before Davidson or the panelists had a chance to respond, however, another member of the audience interjected. He challenged Kipnis’ remarks by relying on the very same analogy: “Not true. [Johann Sebastian] Bach walked twenty miles to Denmark just to hear a performance of [Dieterich] Buxtehude’s music.”

“That’s because Buxtehude didn’t publish his scores!” Kipnis swiftly shot back, evidently eager to cover his tracks.

“Again, that isn’t strictly true,” the man started to reply. But this time the speakers on stage managed to intervene and put the discussion back on track.

Unfortunately, no one from the panel subsequently took up the suggested parallel between music and architecture. Of course, the building art is no stranger to such metaphors. Ever since the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling first described architecture as a form of “petrified” music in 1804, the comparison has frequently been made.1 (So frequently, in fact, that the critical theorist Theodor Adorno, a musicologist by training, declared a moratorium on the use of the cliché).2 Nevertheless, despite its familiarity, the panelists seemed reluctant to weigh in on the question of its aptness.

How might the two examples — the architecture critic with an architectural construction and the music critic with a musical composition — be related in this instance? In either case, if distance separates the critic from the tectonic structure to be seen (or the harmonic structure to be heard), the element of mediation enters in. That is to say, if he is unable to experience the object of criticism in person, in terms of its sensual immediacy, then a more intermediate substitute must be found. All this raises the old problem of the artwork in the age of its technological reproducibility, most famously theorized by the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin. Of particular interest here is the way a work of architecture or piece of music is disseminated on a mass scale. Lost in this process of reproduction, as Benjamin pointed out, is the object’s “unique existence in a particular place.” What results is thus a kind of spatial and temporal dislocation, by which the object reproduced becomes perceptible at a greater remove. Furthermore, this process allows for the transposition of aesthetic experience into settings and locales where it had hitherto been impossible.3 Continue reading

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Dynamite or détournement?

One year after Pussy Riot’s “punk rock prayer”

Figure 1: Pussy Riot performs in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow (February 21st, 2012)

I. Détournement

When members of the Russian femme-punk outfit Pussy Riot ascended the altar inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior around this time last year, few seemed to notice the physical space in which their performance was taking place.  This is perhaps understandable, after all, given the spectacle unfolding before their eyes.  Less than a minute into their gig, the band was unceremoniously carted “offstage” by officers of the Moscow militsiia.  It was an absurd scene: the frenetic punching motions of the five musicians, colorfully clad in their trademark balaclavas, clashed sharply with the sterile, Neoplatonic immobility of the gilded iconostasis and paneled Carrara marble chapel behind them.  The sole video documenting the event, which went viral almost immediately thereafter, featured a tiny Orthodox nun herding the crowd of bewildered onlookers away from the nave with far greater success than the burly cop who meanwhile attempted to assail the band.  After eluding his clutches several more times — one member even managed to kneel and cross herself before being arrested — all five were jailed and made to stand trial for “blasphemy” and “hooliganism” (an oldie-but-goodie harkening back to the days of Stalin, and before him, the tsars), of which they were eventually convicted.  A few months later, on August 17th, 2012, they were sentenced to two years in prison.

Outside Russia, news of the verdict was met with widespread uproar and scathing criticisms, roundly condemning the Putin government’s callous disregard for the most basic democratic freedoms.  These were for the most part justified, if a little poorly expressed at times.  Slavoj Žižek’s contention that “the true blasphemy [in the blasphemy allegations] is the state accusation itself” is one of his clumsier dialectical inversions to date — a category mistake, even if it’s a nice sentiment.  The few dissenting voices that warned against lending uncritical support to Pussy Riot’s shenanigans, such as Vadim Nikitin in The New York Times, may have been right in parts (especially about the hypocrisy of Western observers’ puffed-up indignation at the fact that such things “still happen”) but generally had their emphasis all wrong (Nikitin’s shocked moral and aesthetic sensibilities at some of the band’s past stunts).  These complaints were by and large drowned out, and rightly so.  Still, one year on, two of the women from Pussy Riot remain locked up, their sentences increased in both extension and duration, relocated to “far-flung prison colonies” in the Urals with a few extra months tacked onto their terms.  Little, if anything, seems to have changed in the country.  Putin’s judo death-grip on Russian political life has been decisively reasserted.  No major challenges present themselves to his continued administration.

Figure 2: Pussy Riot frontwoman Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, surrounded by police, raises her fist

Figure 2: Pussy Riot frontwoman Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, surrounded by police, raises her fist

Pussy Riot’s sad fate should call into question the prevailing political imagination of the Left, both in Russia and abroad, however.  This may seem an odd claim to make, as the general public still largely considers the band’s defiance of Putin a courageous, if not heroic, act.  As such, their high-profile performances have even been regarded in some circles as a success, despite (although precisely because of) their subsequent imprisonment.  In the final analysis, this is a consequence of decades of impotent protest politics.  For many activists today, the assurance that “action will be taken” is enough to allay any anxieties they may have that nothing can be done.  The experience of mobilization and coordinated demonstrations is a virtue unto itself, and arrest only grants false legitimacy to the idea that such pseudo-activity poses a threat to existing structures of power.  Whether or not an action contributes in a meaningful way toward its purported goal — e.g., if an anti-war march actually helps bring an end to war — the sheer fact of mass participation is (mis)taken as a sign of its success.  The experience of defeat has become so naturalized for the Left that it no longer even recognizes its defeats as such.  The most miserable failures are held up as the most shining triumphs, and no one is better off for it. Continue reading