Our third project is to present and analyze a personal design project. I chose my attempt to link theory and practice, to intertwine my fieldwork researching design-build architects with the application of my study, to design and build a greenhouse at Marlboro College.
I began with the image of the Rural Studio's glass chapel, which exposed me to design-build architecture, architecture in poor communities, and material reuse. Then I described part of my research journey in San Diego, Austin, Biloxi, and Hale County, and about the disparity between the appearance and the reality of these initiatives. In the architecture publications, humanitarian designers are presented as prophetic savors and their projects as new life to helpless people. On the ground, I found many failed projects and community members who disagreed with the humanitarian design vision. I have written an extensive ethnographic analysis and edited a documentary film on the topic, but I did not go into the nitty gritty empirical evidence in this presentation. Instead, I ended my research discussion with a quotation from Margaret Crawford: "Given this situation, the answer to the question, "Can architects be socially responsible?" is, as a profession is presently constituted, no."(1)
I applied my research to practice in my local community, developing ideal characteristics of a design process: community ownership, sustainability, and critical praxis. The ideal design characteristics provided a framework for the evolution of the greenhouse design: from another student's design, my rationalization of passive solar, a carpenters' Vermont farm aesthetic, compromising between the two, and an entryway social space that would provide a space for farm meetings and social gatherings. During the design process, we (students, faculty, and staff) began harvesting local rot resistant lumber, salvaging glass, fundraising, and gathering other construction materials.
I analyzed my design of critical praxis (intertwining theory, practice and reflection) through a reading of Walter Benjamin's Theses on the Philosophy of History, in which historical construction is critiqued and developed.
Benjamin's critique aligns the historian with the aggressor. "There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism."(2) The victor writes history in between pillaging and culturing, and the victor falsely believes in its sacred objectivity. "Historicism gives the 'eternal' image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience."(3) Benjamin's reaction is to carve a new style of historical construction contrary to the conventional. "A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earleir one ... [called the] 'time of the now.'"(4) The historian that writes in the "time of the now" fights against an oppressive writing. "In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it."(5)
How can I analyze my work through the lens of Walter Benjamin's construction of history?
I wrote a textual, video, and graphic document, which intertwined the voices lower class clients and the architects and students that created their homes. The project challenged the popularized conception of humanitarian design in the United States when it "amplified the voices"(6) of clients. Although it amplifies the voices, I am not convinced that my college thesis departs from telling the sequence "like the beads of a rosary," in that it almost chronicles my interviews and does not go far enough in developing new writing styles of history that can alter the field or architectures that empower the poor.
To move closer to an empowering history of architecture for the poor, I want to explore a new form of writing, influenced by Benjamin's idea of the "literary montage." Below is an example:
Architectural Montage: Dialogue Between Theory and a Client
(Method of this project: literary montage. I needn't say anything. Merely show.[i])
(FOR ALMOST TEN YEARS, Samuel Mockbee, a recent MacArthur “genius Grant” recipient, and his architecture students at Auburn University have been designing and building striking houses and community buildings for impoverished residents of Alabama’s Hale County. Using salvaged lumber and bricks, discarded tires, hay and waste cardboard bales, concrete rubble, colored bottles, and old license plates, they create inexpensive buildings.[ii])(The 20k project is about making housing for people who would live in trailers, but they're making a model. They're not making a house for a person.[iii])
House Recipient: (It's a pretty sound house.[iv]) (As many storms as we've had since I've been living here, I've always felt safe. This house didn't shake or nothing.[v]) (A house is not a house without a porch. Because a lot of times, maybe this kind of year, when you ‘aint got nothing to do, you want to spend some time sitting out on the porch, reading a good book, sitting, talking to your company.[vi])
(Why has it been published that way? That's what people want to see. They want to come to this place and see how poor it is, and how romantically rural and lovely it is. … And the things that the books don't show is the sort of context of the place—that it's pretty fucked up. It will probably always be fucked up. You don't see that in the books.[vii]) (Now the reflected image has become separable, transportable. And where is it transported? Before the public.[viii])
(They could have put the washer and dryer hook ups in there. But they didn't do it. And the porch didn't need to be that big. There's enough space out there, I could have had enough space out there to put washer and dryer.[ix])
(There's also exploitation that happens. Imagine someone so poor that they can't say no to help. That leaves them sort of powerless, and they have to take something.[x]) Architectural critics need to (focus primarily on academicist perspectives on the larger crisis of our time—a focus that requires a deeper knowledge of history, economics, sociology.[xi])
(We could have had a bigger closet. You know, if you have dress clothes. I like my clothes to be hung up. You don't want to have stuff wrinkled up. You want to have a place to hang it. And when you don't have a lot of closet space, you messed up then. And that's one thing I wish they would have done. I told them. I expressed that to them. I got to have a place to have a washer and dryer and I've got to have a lot of closet space. I think I did say something about cabinet spaces too, and all three of those were not met.[xii])
(Architecture is not a solution to a social problem. Buildings are quite a tangible product that resolve a problem. But architecture has become quite a bourgeoisie endeavor.[xiii]) (Given this situation, the answer to the question "Can architects be socially responsible?" is, as a profession is presently constituted, no.[xiv])
(I think if you want somebody to really be interested in something like this, you have to halfway go along with them, fix it they way they want it. They had their design already done up. They figured they couldn't change it. I just went on along with it. I didn't say nothin.[xv])
(An architect’s interests are ultimately determined by a series of random encounters with projects and clients that do not allow an independent investigation of issues or conditions outside their field of vision. … Independent analysis, research or investigation is simply not within their repertoire.[xvi]) (In every era the attempt must be made to anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.[xvii]) (In the task of transforming the architectural profession into a socially and politically relevant field, the academy must be considered a front-line combatant, strategizing the attack in collusion with the people on the ground who at this moment are leading the insurrection.[xviii]) (Communism responds by politicizing art.[xix])
[i] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, (translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin), Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1999, 260.
[ii] Andrea Oppenheimer Dean and Timothy Hursley, Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002, (cover flap).
[iii] Rob Douge (Rural Studio Student) Interview conducted by Kenton Card.
[iv] Joe Moore (Rural Studio Client) Interview conducted by Kenton Card.
[vii] Mark Wise (Rural Studio Instructor) Interview conducted by Kenton Card.
[viii] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," New York: Schocken Books, 2007, 231.
[ix] Joe Moore Interview.
[x] Mark Wise Interview.
[xi] Cornel West, "Race and Architecture," The Cornel West Reader, New York: Civitas Books, 1999, 459.
[xii] Joe Moore Interview.
[xiii] Rob Douge Interview.
[xiv] Margaret Crawford, "Can Architects Be Socially Responsible?," (ed.) Diane Ghirardo, Out of Site: A Social Criticism of Architecture, Seattle: Bay Press, 1991, 43.
[xv] Joe Moore Interview.
[xvi] Mutations, "Shopping: Harvard Project on the City," Rem Koolhaas, Ingoprint SA: Barcelona, 2001, 124-183.
[xvii] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," New York: Schocken Books, 2007, 255.
[xviii] Jose L. S. Gamez and Susan Rogers, “An Architecture of Change.” Ed. Bryan Bell and Katie Wakeford. Expanding Architecture: Design as Activism. New York: Metropolis Books, 2008, 23.
[xix] Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," 242.
Use this blog to communicate to a broader audience.
(1) Margaret Crawford, "Can Architects Be Socially Responsible?," (ed.) Diane Ghirardo, Out of Site: A Social Criticism of Architecture, Seattle: Bay Press, 1991, 43.
(2) Thesis VI
(3) Thesis VII
(4) Thesis XVII
(5) Thesis XVI
(6) Dan Pitera