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October 18, 2009

C-Lab, a Columbia University funded architectural think-tank (or architectural broadcaster) is a fun little distraction for exploring methods by which to contemplate architecture from outside the business of architecture. From interviews with Cesar Milan (The Dog Whisperer) to postings of high modernist buildings in Lebanon for sale (see Niemeyer For Sale), the site offers varying platforms (or essays and photo-essays) to either enter or exit contemporary discourse on the built environment.

In her C-Lab-linked essay “The Knowledge,” Keller Easterling crafts an unabashed attack on architectural practice, accusing prominent architects/public intellectuals (Rem Koolhaas) of “statecraft,” in short, working within the confines of reality to see their projects built.

In these terms, the ambition of the architect to be a public intellectual might produce a prolific and prolix character who, however high-minded, would not refuse a little celebrity or a few TV appearances. Someone who hoped others might lean in to listen or throw back their heads with laughter when, at parties, they were especially droll. Someone who realized that the popularity of their program for architecture relied on signature. Someone who, as reinvented or tempered utopian, hoped to offer the Zeitgeist. Someone who might even perpetuate the mental cartoon of architecture culture as a team sport with opponents, scrimmages and victories. Whatever the content of their argument, when only mirroring power, the utopian or the competitor does little to alter the structure of either monism or binary antagonism. (read the rest @ C-Lab)

The argument, extremely logical from the perspective of a “private intellectual” or “sore loser” (jkjkjkjkjkjkjkjjk) offers readers a stinging op-ed but little to take away as productive. If the entire point of the essay is to criticize the production of spatial realities, it might be more interesting to hear how Easterling might reform her role as a writer/critic/researcher/thinker/professor to shape or un-shape the contemporary built environment. A constant problem in the US is the lack of innovation on a urban policy level to form partnerships that promote experimentation in architecture and spatial configuration/programming. I would re-frame Easterling’s stinging critique to call not for a public hanging of practicing architects, but for the consistent promotion of pro-active academics as spatial producers.

Interboro Partners’ “Lent Space,” the recently opened temporary sculpture park in Tribeca is an example of this kind of productive partnership where the premise of the project is perhaps more evocative (flashy?) than the finished product.

Lent Space is a privately-owned 0.5 acre development site that is temporarily being made open to the public. The space will serve as an exhibition space for large sculptures, an event space and public space as well as a tree nursery. When Lent Space closes, the trees grown on the site will migrate to the streets of the surrounding neighborhood, turning into street trees for the emerging Hudson Square BID. In response to the client’s requirement of enclosing the space with a 7ft fence, we designed a moveable sculptural fence facing Duarte Square that can enclose or open the site to different degrees and also serve as a public amenity in the form of benches and wall panels for exhibitions. Different time-spaces and different constituents border the site: Varick Street with its droves office workers, 6th Avenue with a number of everyday uses occupying the sliver parcels and Canal Street with both the daily congestion of commuters entering Holland tunnel and the “sidewalk mall” of vendors selling fake handbags and t-shirts.

Lent Space Birds Eye!

Lent Space Bird's Eye!

With a minimal budget, on prime real-estate, in the heart of “statecraft-y” Manhattan, a park+art appears. Also a flashy NY Times photoshoot!

I suppose Easterling might rebut by noting that her essay offered a media platform for healthy debate and I do appreciate the lineage of the argument against architecture, none more so than Georges Batailles’ attack on the museum (especially relevant today since museum appears to be synonymous with architecture):

The museum is the colossal mirror in which man finally contemplates himself in every aspect, finds himself literally admirable, and abandons himself to the ecstasy expressed in all the art reviews.


Thus, the great monuments are raised up like dams, pitting the logic of majesty and authority against all the shady elements: it is in the form of cathedrals and palaces that Church and State speak and impose silence on the multitudes.

So I say, Keller you’re right and I apologize for the sore loser comment–I just happen to like being “droll.” Bataille, you crazy! But maybe we can come together over the beginnings of a movement to stitch back together public space.

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 27, 2009 12:18 am

    as someone who has literally called for the public hanging of a starchitect (see: ), i mostly support what easterling is saying. i also agree with you that some serious reframing of the discussion make her contribution more worthwhile. i wouldn’t be so bold, however, to conflate the context in which (st)architects must work with any sort of ‘reality.’ naturalizing the way we in the west brings change to the built environment is a heavy thing to do.

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