Sep 28, 2015

Albanian Architectural Typology Redux | In search of missing pieces

what is the relationship of this and this, this and that, and how do we get from this to that?

I made this triptych (a contextual hypothesis, an inconclusive equation, a pure speculative inquiry - if you'd like) to further push another point, that of architectural typology (vs. design methodology) in Albania.

A typology lost. Caught in the clash of political clans, wandering through temporal worlds (of past and present) and haunting in plain sight its abandoned publics.

A typology lost, not so much in form or representation but in contextual and social meaning, thus value and relevance.

A typology lost. Identified solely by the notorious iconography of the Bunker and Pyramid. A narrow(ing) view that further reduces the complexity of what is considered an iconographic image down to a consumed (consuming) pattern ("shop-window effect") - a mis-en-scene shattered by and for public exploit. Why haven't we allowed it to be more challenging - as a spatial, social, and temporal image that traces, transforms and transcends beyond its frame?* A similar myopic view and arbitrary provocation has been used by many, in the ornament vs. the architecture debate (or lack of its domain apprehension while fully present in participation), failing to grasp the spatial and perceptional role and capacity of the ornament as architecture, and the danger of dismissing it (which, let's be frank, masks a deeper misunderstanding of it) as decoration.

So, let's not make the mistake of, first, reducing the Bunker and Pyramid to an iconic image stripped of its 'ornamental' texture, pattern and typology. When looking at its 'image or/as/vs. 'icon', we ought to be didactic, not reductive. We ought to see it as an analysis, diagram, inquiry into the transformation of an architectural typology, by not romanticizing the aesthetics of its ruins, but further engaging (not just transcribing) that intoxicating attraction to its haunting ghostly presence beyond the architectural typology and into the precedent of collective memory.

And second, let's not reduce the Albanian architectural typology to just these two 'image/objects'. The spectacle of the Bunker and Pyramid redux has been so captivating that, it has incapacitated us to look at other prominent but undermined architectural types.*  Some conspiracy fanatics might say that this might be the intended scope, a diversion and misdirection, but I think it is just the most recent case of misprision. A systematic un/misunderstanding of the concept of misprision or design as a creative misreading.

Misprision of precedents is widely used in architecture (see Corbusier or Venturi), but in the Albanian case of design methodology vs. historic preservation acts of the last decades, it has definitely been a careless, haphazard, and uncritical progress - articulating progress only in the grant application texts, with all the intention of leaving it there. A progress that has yet to be understood as generating new knowledge, not a copy-paste of historical precedents as models for contemporary problem-solving (taken at face value).

How can we, then, employ misprision? Well, by asking, what is the relationship of this and this, this and that, and how do we get from this to that? How do we approach it and build a bias from it, one that aligns with our design philosophy, historical judgement, and creative imagination?

* Now, the image is synonymous with capturing a fleeting moment in order to advertise its happening. It has become a validation. A proof of life that momentarily satisfies human insecurity, while reducing its iconography into a mere tool. An image that has lost its identity, even as a postcard or spatial propaganda. Now, the ("conceptual") blank space allocated for the image is cramped and stitched with as many as can fit, abstracting its iconic real estate, validating (while exploiting) through exposure - ultimately reducing it to bits of its wholesome former iconic self. 
An icon in perception, not recognition. What then becomes the meaning of the territory that stiches these bits together? Now, these gutters frame. 
*How about communal housing and turbo architecture? The informal additions and curious demos as spatial gestures of a transitioning and uncertain domesticity.

Here are a few excerpts (chosen to communicate my reading of it, as it might relate to the Albanian context of late) from David Rifkind's text on the subject:

Misprision of Precedent / Design as Creative Misreading

Literary critic Harold Bloom's concept of misprision, although difficult to translate into architectural terms, offers valuable insights into one way that architects critically engage with other designers' works through a process of creative misreading. Bloom stakes out a theory that governs both the influence of one architect on another. The concept's pedagogical value includes a broadened understanding of the roles that precedent studies play in the design studio.

[H]ow do we understand the process that joins the critical appreciation of the former to the design of the latter?
Architects and historians engage architectural history differently. Yet while historians frequently discuss historiographic methodologies and architects have developed standardized analytical processes that emphasize program, site, and spatial organization, neither fully accounts for the processes of creative misreading through which so many architects have grappled with the work of others in order to generate new knowledge and critically engage precedents. Examining these processes enriches both design criticism and design pedagogy.

The conversation that architecture has with its own heritage is marked by misprision, a mode of critical engagement in which architects interpret the built environment through design as active criticism. Misprision is a creative misreading that generates new knowledge. Bloom introduced poetic misprision in his widely cited 1973 book, The Anxiety of Influence. While chiefly concerned with poetry and intra-poetic relationships, Bloom develops a concept that is important to understanding the ways architects engage the work of their predecessors and peers.

Each new work transforms and completes its precedents through a critical process of interpretation.

Misprision enables the study of historical precedent to escape the trap of treating history as an encyclopedia of solutions to problems defined by programs, sites, cultural contexts, and aesthetic preferences. Misprision approaches history through an open-ended process of interpretation and criticism, in which precedents serve as multivalent sources of knowledge, rather than through the more instrumentalized and constrained process of treating precedents as models of programmatic problem-solving. Misprision recognizes that every creative act is also an act of criticism, and that any sophisticated work of architecture synthesizes knowledges gained from close readings of disparate sources.
This transformation is not simply metaphorical. Each act of creative misreading changes its precedents or, as Eliot wrote, "the past [is] altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past."
Architecture's ability to operate on multiple levels - to engage the political and to wrestle with contemporary thought while simultaneously speaking diachronically to the heritage of the discipline - demands a multivalent criticism. Misprision adds new dimensions to the historiographic analysis of architecture's roles in affirming or negating power relationships.

[M]isprision enables architecture to operate politically, without reducing the work of architecture to an essay in political accommodation or resistance.
Bloom's insistence on a genetic model of filial bonds between a predecessor poet and his successor fails to account for the synthetic manner in which architects join and juxtapose disparate source material.

While The Anxiety of Influence profits from a detailed adaptation of Sigmund Freud's theorization of defense mechanisms, which underlie Bloom's six revisionary ratios, Bloom's critics have challenged his insistence on an Oedipal conflict between authors, in which each successor metaphorically slays his predecessor. [...] Yet misprision in architecture reveals more complex webs of analysis, interpretation, and synthesis.

As both a heuristic and hermeneutic stance, misprision must be approached with caveats.  One limitation of this theory is that it treats history as a mine from which to draw forth nuggets useful to the present. This instrumentality creates a form of operative criticism in which examples are sought and analyzed in terms of their utility to contemporary concerns, potentially limiting the range of both subjects and interpretations.

Misprision suggests an intersubjective relationship between architects, or between architect and critic, in which engagement, not detachment, creates knowledge.

Another threat that hangs over misprision is the potential lapse into eclecticism. However, misprision is more than simple borrowing. Reference is not the same as quotation, and transformation should not be confused with transcription.
Misprision does not account for every relationship between works of architecture, nor does it exclude other historiographic methodologies. However, the concept of misprision holds great potential value for both historians and practitioners of architecture.

Architecture and its history challenge Bloom's theory on numerous grounds. Misprision often offers profound insights into the relationships between works of architecture, yet Bloom's theory does not fully account for the creative misreading that links the work of one designer to another. Architecture, along with the visual and performing arts, calls for revisions to the theorization of misprision relationships.

How do we employ misprision as a design methodology? We cannot; but upon drawings on the examples cited here, we can expand the lenses through which we read precedent. 


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