WASH: We’d like to start this conversation with a quote in the context of the anthropocene and ruins. In architecture’s struggles between man and nature a completed building can be seen as a temporary triumph of man over nature.
To Simmel, “this unique balance - between mechanical, inert matter which passively resists pressure, and informing spirituality which pushes upward - breaks, however, the instant a building crumbles. For this means nothing else than that merely natural forces begin to become master over the work of man: the balance between nature and spirit, which the building manifested, shifts in favor of nature. This shift becomes a cosmic tragedy which, so we felt, makes every ruin an object infused with our nostalgia; for now the decay appears as nature’s revenge for the spirit’s having violated it by making a form in its own image.”
This gives a ruin a unique position in the world of objects; normally, once a work of art is destroyed it ceases to have meanings; yet with architecture, it carries a certain significance. It seems there is this play of power in nature where one appears to be dominating and the forces later shift: a building obliterates nature, and with time, nature obliterates a building. What would it mean for a designer to “begin with the end in mind”?
TG: Ha! That’s quite a leap from Georg Simmel to Stephen Covey!
I don’t know if you meant to do it, but invoking Covey’s famous self-help book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (“Begin with the End in Mind” is his second habit), as a counter-proposal to Simmel’s tragic fatalism is a great idea!
If we go along with Simmel, as you seem to want to do, we wind up in a kind of neo-Romantic world of ruins and ephemerality and buildings that touch lightly on the earth. That’s all great; there are plenty of wonderful projects that work along those lines.
But there are two things I don’t like about this line of reasoning. First, it accepts an unproductive dichotomy between nature and human culture. Second, it presents “the end” in an entirely negative light.
Let’s start with the second point. In Seven Habits, Covey understands “the end” not as a (probably grim) future we cannot avoid but rather as a(n unapologetically desirable) goal we want to achieve. In saying “begin with the end in mind,” he asks us to imagine precisely the sort of future we want, and then to chart a specific course to get there. Now, maybe the source seems a little hokey, but I think we need this kind of positivity in contemporary ecological conversations, both within and outside architecture. I prefer Covey’s “change is possible” approach to Simmel’s “oblivion is inevitable.”
As for the first point, I think the contemporary situation is far too complicated to maintain Simmel’s dubious nature/culture dichotomy. What does it mean when natural phenomena – global air temperatures, CO2 levels, ocean salinity, polar ice coverage, storm intensities – are directly affected by human action? Can we afford to keeping nature as some ‘other’ in contrast to a supposedly autonomous ‘us’? I don’t think so. It seems clear to me that if there is such a thing as nature (and on this point, there is some debate), then we are part of it. So are our buildings. This is what Bruno Latour meant when he said, “there is no outside.”
It’s important that we take this idea seriously, that we understand human culture – buildings included – not as a competition with nature but rather as a part of nature.
There are plenty of current thinkers working along these lines. This idea is at the core of Tim Morton’s idea of “ecognosis” and Donna Haraway’s idea of the “Chthulucene.” I suggest putting down Simmel for a while and picking up Morton and Haraway.
One more thing: A work of art does not cease to mean when it is destroyed. Destruction changes meaning, but it doesn’t obliterate it. There are a million historical examples to demonstrate this, but for easy proof, try smashing your studio model just before your final review.
After writing about aesthetics in the anthropocene, what futures are you seeing emerge on account of your original forecast? What about the questioning of aesthetic values in general?
I didn’t think I’d made any forecasts! And even if new trends in architecture did begin to emerge, I don’t think it would be possible to link them causally back to my – or anyone’s – individual writing. That said, I have been pleasantly surprised by the response I’ve gotten to my essay, “Strange Loops.” I’m very happy that people have found it useful.
As for aesthetics, I think it is a very important part of the conversation. Responsible futures will have to involve significant cultural change, and cultural changes always go hand in hand with aesthetic ones.
The philosopher Richard Rorty captured this well when he said, “a talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change.” The current US president proves Rorty’s point. The impact of Donald Trump’s administration has not been the result of his arguing well (this is not something he’s known for), but rather of his speaking differently. Whether you like him or not, Trump has been extremely savvy in his focus on aesthetics – on speaking differently – to produce significant, though in my view deleterious, cultural changes in this country.
Many environmentalists attempt to foment cultural change the old-fashioned way, by arguing well. Their arguments so often fall on deaf ears not because they are wrong, but rather because they do not take aesthetics sufficiently into account. Environmentalists may have logic and even morality on their side, but they do not speak sufficiently differently. Ironically, the environmentalists could learn something from Donald Trump!
It turns out – and Trump clearly gets this – that aesthetics is a far better motivator than morality. Think about it: given the choice, are you more likely to do something that is responsible or something that is pleasurable? Be honest. Salad or fries? Hit the gym or happy hour? Call it a night or another round?
Pleasure, which is an important topic in aesthetics, and responsibility, which is an important topic in politics, must both play a role in any alternative futures we imagine. That is why I felt it important to link the two ideas in “Strange Loops.” If we can imagine ways to align pleasure with responsibility, we’re a lot more likely to act responsibly.
Lucky for us, architecture has made significant investments in both pleasure and responsibility throughout its history. Remember “commodity, firmness, and delight”? Two parts responsibility, one very important part pleasure. To me, that seems like a pretty good ratio.
You mentioned not being a ‘disciple’ of Triple O but an interlocutor. Has your role changed now that you’ve moved across the country as the head of the architecture section at OSU? Do you see anything differently from your new angle?
I’d like to think I’ve never been a disciple of anything. I like ideas, and I like to ask questions. Disciples don’t ask enough questions.
That said, I’ve been very interested in the way OOO philosophy has intersected with conversations in architecture for a long time. I think it has been very productive. OOO helped a lot of us to develop ways to speak – and design – differently. That said, I think there is a very big difference between philosophy and architecture. We shouldn’t try to see the former as a cause of or justification for the latter.
Moving from LA to Ohio hasn’t changed my perspective on OOO that much, but as I am now at a school where architecture, landscape architecture, and city and regional planning all live under the same roof, I have had more opportunities to see how OOO and related philosophical ideas intersect with our neighbor disciplines. There is a lot of work going on in landscape architecture, for example, which examines the relationship between aesthetics and ecology in very interesting ways.
In your mind, what is special about the type of education at the School of Architecture at Taliesin that we as students should be aware of and try and get the most out of? What links, if any, can we make within the history of architecture pedagogy?
I love the energy and the camaraderie I saw at Taliesin, which is driven in large part by the small size of the program, the remoteness of your two campuses, and the individualized, hands-on approach the school takes not just to thinking and making architecture, but also to building a community. The ghost of Frank Lloyd Wright, with his very American belief that one could just go out and build a better society from scratch, haunts the place very productively. Taliesin is not for everyone, but for the right kind of student it’s a great place to study architecture.
In some of your recent writing you mention Morton’s understanding of ecology within Banham’s fascination of the desert and our intervention of it as a “man-mauled” landscape, concluding with a logic of people precede the desert. In a similar logic, and although we like to think of it in the reverse order, technology and tools precede humans. How do you see the role of architecture in this framework? Did humans precede architecture or did architecture precede humans?
In Scenes in America Deserta, Banham discusses the meaning of deserts and concludes that “desert is a concept of, and about, people” (p. 205). Gila monsters and cacti in the Mojave, for example, probably don’t think of their surroundings as inhospitable or deserted. Only people do, because hospitability and desertion are human concepts. For Banham, the idea of “desert” only makes sense in the context of human inhabitation. I agree with him. Though there may well be all kinds of places out there in the universe full of sand and cacti and Gila monsters, those places aren’t deserts in the sense we understand them to be until there are people to do the understanding. Therefore, people precede the desert not as a physical fact, but as a human concept.
That said, I don’t see how it would follow that technology or tools – or architecture – can precede people. Like deserts, these are all human cultural constructions.
There’s an interesting break of chronology that occurs when buildings decay. In Brian Dillon’s essay:
“The ruin(ed) building is a remnant of, and portal into the past; its decay is a concrete reminder of the passage of time. And yet, by definition it survives, after a fashion: there must be a certain (perhaps indeterminate) amount of a built structure still standing for us to refer to it as a ruin and not merely as a heap of rubble. At the same time, the ruin casts us forward in time it predicts a future in which our present will slump intro similar disrepair or fall victim to some unforeseeable calamity… they are part of the long history of the fragment, but the ruin is a fragment within a future; it will live on after us despite the fact that it reminds us too of a lost wholeness or perfection.”
Rather than being sentimental about the past, how can we be guided by the past in a productive, perhaps speculative way of possible futures?
There’s that tragic tone again! I think it’s dangerous to assume that there was some wholeness or, worse, perfection, available in the past but out of reach in the present. What evidence is there to believe that the past was ever whole or perfect? Why are so many so quick to presume that the past was better than the present?
I’d much rather be alive today, with indoor plumbing, and reliable heating, and Netflix, and antibiotics, and nice restaurants, than two thousand years ago, where I’d likely have spent a lot more time than I currently do being uncomfortable, or bored, or sick, or hungry.
If we’re going to stop sentimentalizing the past and start speculating about the future, we need to stop always seeing the past as paradise lost and start seeing it as a repository of raw materials to be re-imagined, of ideas and opportunities yet to be realized.
In a recent theory class, we discussed the type of assigned studio project as it relates to students’ expectations for entering practice. For example, are we really going to design a skyscraper or
a house? What about a putt-putt course, or a landfill? What value can we assign rogue projects and their usefulness in pedagogy?
Chances are, the world is going to keep building skyscrapers and houses as well as putt-putt courses and landfills and all sorts of other stuff. Architects have plenty to offer to all these efforts. I think it’s very useful to consider what you’re calling “rogue projects” as part of a contemporary pedagogy. But I see these as an expansion of an architect’s field of expertise, not a replacement of an old set of skills with a new one.
Do you think someone should remake “Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles”? If you could do it, what would you say about it today?
No. I usually don’t like remakes. Banham made a great film, and I think it still has a lot of relevance today, but times have changed, and Banham’s dead. Do something new!
Reyner Banham wrote “Big Shed Syndrome” specifically about the difficulties inherent in making architecture inside of architecture. We study and make architecture inside of architecture. What should we do?
I don’t see the problem. We study and make architecture inside of buildings. Architecture is something else. Just as literature cannot be reduced to books, architecture cannot be reduced to buildings. Banham put this well when he said, “What distinguishes architecture is not what is done…but how it is done.” Architecture has less to do with what an object is than with how an object is made and understood.
That said, I don’t think you should get too hung up on terminology. I think you should keep making architecture. If you’re lucky enough to get to do so inside a kick-ass. Frank Lloyd Wright building, as you are, so much the better!
Do you have any tattoos?
No. Did somebody just win a bet?
Todd Gannon is a Professor and Section Head of Architecture at The Ohio State University’s Knowlton School. His research focuses on the history and theory of late 20th-century and contemporary architecture, which can be seen in his most recent book Reyner Banham and the Paradoxes of High Tech.