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. 


Sep 18, 2015

Future Bunkers of Public Space | In search of missing pieces

**This text was intended to be a quick Facebook post of a photo (referencing Paul Virilio's "Bunker Archeology" book) and a short quote to go with it - on how I feel about the curious construction of a WWII bunker in the middle of Albanian capital of Tirana. I thought I'd be a bit cryptic and vague about such very public acts, but apparently I had a lot to say, and since I don't know much about it yet, take these thoughts however you like, nonetheless, here they are.

 “We are a sign empty of meaning, indifferent and far from home” 
F. Hölderlin, quoted in Virilio's Bunker Archeology, An Aesthetics of Disappearance, p.167

Without knowing much about the intent or scope behind the erection of the bunker in the middle of Tirana, I just wanted to point out how I feel about the insensitivity of such spatial gestures and executions - insensitivity not only towards the bunker, what it stands for and the baggage it comes buried under, but more so as a cleansing ideology thru the act of preservation - deterritorializing history and archeology alike. These gentrification acts have been quite the busy bees, making their way through the city with an almost surgical precision. Some you see, some you don't, lurking in shadows of that much elusive 'metaphorical' light, but only to replace it with its own reflection, turning depths into glares.

Gentrification or urban cleansing is not something new. After living under a communist regime for half a century, we, of all people should be familiar with these acts of exclusion, or maybe they were so common, they became mundane and even expected - destiny, some called it, brainwashing is more like it (another act of cleansing) - that it escapes our ethics and sensibility towards anyone, ourselves included. Ideological cleansing as psychological warfare is not that different from a more physical kind of sterility, the urban one, the everyday life that shapes one's primal instincts and awareness. A cultivation that happens over a lifetime, every day, day in and day out, one that has a past, a fleeting present and a consequential future, timeless as in lasting legacy, not as in time-less, or without time, or at no particular time, or just an illusion - a perceived reflection, a constructed memory. A gloarified depth. It is through this history that we cultivate our sensibilities, the archeology of our human multitude, and the promise of future hope. It is this history that we exploit and sell to tourists. It is our country's painful, open wound that we celebrate with them. We need therapy, not glamor. We should champion ourselves as patients, not celebrities. That's beside the point, I know, but not far from it.

This bunker and a few other very selective, very strategic, ‘projects’ (interventions) of recent times, are reenacting (very theatrically indeed) acts of cleansing on many levels and scales - as if their intent is to hit our primal and cultivated sensibilities all at once, without us realizing that our city has turned into a sideshow and our common life in it has become a puppet-act, where we're both the laughing audience and the puppets. The ones excluding and being excluded. Layers on layers on layers of cleansing, bleached out, trailed by a toxic trace, only to discover that it is missing a territory. We've been deterritorialized. Lingering ruins of what it once was and could become, but never fully realized. It is easier to see and understand at an urban scale and fabric, because it is so material and in plain sight.

That's how I see these selective projects, as insensitive spatial gestures that prolong warfare on CONTEXT - be that urban, architectural, social, historical, and archeological - reducing it to a prop, a marquee, a kitsch over-sized toy, several toys in fact, turning the city into a private playground. Though, not to be mistaken for what we think of play, as in recreational freedom. These objects are marking a territory, otherwise public. A territory made of not only land, but volume, sight and spectacle that is being appropriated in the name of historical, artistic, and social preservation, as proverbial symbols or metaphors, whatever. (I am not against this thesis at all, on the contrary, I would be very interested in looking at it more rigorously since it's part of my research already, but the ideology behind it, is what spurts such strong feelings against it.)

A gentrification on centuries of context (making the hyped nationalism quite ironic, I might add), these acts remind me of Prometheus stealing fire from the Gods and giving it to the masses, the mortals. Only, in this scenario, it is the public that gathers the wood sticks, constructs a pyramid-like stake and offers the lighting fluid and matches to our beloved demigods, our elected officials, watch them pour, light the match and throw it in, creating a spectacle, first of burning heat, then light and warmth, a big applause follows without anyone realizing that they already had the 'gift' of fire, the mechanical ability and all the necessary items to light that match. Why, then, didn't they? An intellectual trick of prestige? Or maybe a lifetime of psychological castration developed into insecurity, complexity, and incapacitated intellect. A sheltered intellect that is indeed present as the fire within, which burns our cognitive dissonance, warms our primal instincts and keeps a light on our cultivated sensibilities.

These objects, as acts of gentrification are in a twisted way those acts of bringing fire to the masses (the instant burn, the resurrecting light, the fading warmth) and I'm afraid the demigods might really believe they're messengers, sent from higher powers (stealing from above might be a more appropriate act of duty) to do just that (tricked by own trick act), but without never arriving to realize that, yes, people have been playing with fire for a very long time, so long indeed that we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for it. That history. That context. Those burning stakes.

Yes, we've had the bunkers. We've even dug up their essence and are still enduring its claustrophobia. What's the point of making it anew and put it on display?! Don't insult my intellectual sensibility or  the public's apprehension of facts! Don't just show me later, tell me now! Let's play! With and around the fire! Throw an animal sacrifice in it. Would that bring us closer, or just bring out the parochial in us?