Category Archives: art

160: Reyner Banham’s Well-Tempered Environment

In The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment, Reyner Banham argues that architecture is not just about beautiful building facades – it’s also about the mechanical systems that make those buildings function.  Frustrated by the lack of attention paid to mechanical systems by architectural histories (in the late 1960s, when Banham was writing, there were apparently none), Banham pored through trade catalogues, lectures to professional societies, specialist periodicals, building plans and patent-office records, and other primary sources in pursuit not of firsts, but of mosts – of the point at which most buildings had incorporated a new technology and thus the point at which that technology had begun to shape architectural design.  His descriptions of particular buildings are thus discussions of the “typical” rather than the iconic.  With this approach, he takes architecture out of art and subsumes it into a larger category of “environmental management,” an interdisciplinary, problem-based profession that treats architecture as context-dependent technological systems or “habitable volumes.”

For Banham, architectural systems fall into one of two general categories: the structure & mechanical components that provide “the basic life support that makes a viable or valuable environment,” and those elements concerned with “facilitat[ing] circulation and communication – of persons, information, and products.”  Good architecture designs takes both of these elements for a specific context.  A few examples:

  • drive-in movie theaters: people bring their own “environmental packages” with them in the form of cars, so the need for a permanent enclosing structure disappears; instead, what needs to be designed is a system of landscaping, traffic engineering, optics, and shelter for the projection equipment.
  • Las Vegas and Versailles: these are both symbolic spaces that represent power, so they are designed to make space feel vast, overwhelming.  Versailles does it with soaring ceilings and imposing structures; Las Vegas does it with electric light, so that “the effectiveness with which space is defined is overwhelming, the creation of virtual volumes without apparent structure is endemic, the variety and ingenuity of the lighting techniques is encyclopaedic.”  As an added bonus, Las Vegas was created by people who weren’t architects; it is a vernacular redefinition of architecture.
  • St. George’s School in Wallasley, by Emslie Morgan: completed in the 1960s, the school is designed to conserve energy by deriving heat from the sun, the electric lights, and the bodies of the students.  It has an E/W orientation, with large south-facing windows, and it is SUPER insulated with thick walls and layers of plastic.  It’s not great at providing outside views or light, but it’s incredible at conserving energy.  Banham likes it because it is simple and designed for “performance” rather than looks; architecture can learn a lot from vernacular rules-of-thumb.
Throughout, Banham argues that architects need to be engineers and designers rather than artists, and that they need to know enough about mechanical systems to incorporate them effectively into their designs.  He advocates for a “conscious architecture, [which,] as distinguished from vernacular building, should be able to reason out the unique solutions to specific problems.”  Thinking of architecture as a technology rather than an art can free architects from antiquated formal restrictions and reorient them to the real problem: to turn these “habitable volumes” into “well-tempered environments.”

159: Eugene Ferguson’s Engineering and the Mind’s Eye

In Engineering and the Mind’s Eye, Eugene Ferguson argues that the current (since the 1950s) privileging of math and science over the visual and nonverbal in engineering education is both a historical aberration and a dangerous practice.  Using a well-illustrated history of engineering design, Ferguson argues that not all engineering problems can be solved by mathematical analysis; without the ability to visualize machines, structures, and the environment, engineers often make poor judgement calls that lead to disastrous failures in bridges, nuclear power plants, refrigerators, and other technologies.

Ferguson’s emphasis on the visual is actually linked to a larger concern with engineering’s loss of that holistic, experiential real-world experience on which the field was initially based – its retreat into scientific analysis.  Thus, his history of engineering emphasizes its subjective nature before the scientific turn.  In the Renaissance, engineers used improved drawing techniques to visualize and thus think through Scientific Revolution discoveries like planetary motion and human anatomy, and perspective drawing techniques (devised by Renaissance mathematicians) facilitated design by making representations more realistic.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, formalized drawing techniques (especially orthogonal drawing), the use of models, and the development of visual systems for engineering calculation – slide rules, indicator diagrams, nomography, and graphic statistics – kept visual thinking at the forefront of engineering design and practice.  After WWII, engineering education shifted away from an open-ended art and toward deductive, exact science: shop courses were replaced with theories of thermodynamics, mechanics, heat transfer; students have little interaction with the real world; graduating engineers have a hard time designing solutions for real-world problems.

Throughout, Ferguson’s underlying argument is that the subjective, connected to real-world problems through visual thinking and representation, is incredibly important to engineers’ ability to design effective solutions, and that engineering’s scientific turn to abstract objectivity has had disastrous effects on the safety and utility of engineering projects.  While his emphasis on the visual leads Ferguson to neglect larger systems of power in some of his examples (the Challenger failure), and I suspect that what he’s actually getting at is fostering creativity rather than the visual per se, his argument for subjectivity and creative, real-world thinking in engineering certainly makes sense to me.

147: Terry Smith’s Making the Modern

Terry Smith is an art historian, and Making the Modern: Industry, Art, and Design in America is a study of the relationship between the visual imagery of the 1920s and 1930s and the era’s cultural, economic, and industrial configurations.  Far from focusing on high modern art and design, Smith studies modern architecture, painting, photography, design, advertising as gleaned from sources as varied as Ford Motor Company photos of plants and work processes, architectural plans for office buildings, and documentation of the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.  Methodologically, Smith deconstructs each work or artifact via a rigorous investigation of its historical setting for signs that the work documents conflict or social change.  Working across disciplinary boundaries, the book draws together a “visual regime” or “ensemble of processes of visualization and representation” of modernity, where visual representation and sociocultural processes work together to create a uniquely modern worldview called the “iconology of modernity.”

The body of the book is organized around case studies that trace the emergence of this new way of seeing.  Topics include the modernization of work in the Ford Highland Park plant, where the moving assembly line provided a new way to frame space and inspired a new “industrial-functional” architecture; a new modern business aesthetic along these Fordist lines that was celebrated by Life, Time, and Fortune, resisted by Rivera and Kahlo, and complicated by New Deal Social Realist photographers Lewis Hyne and Roy Stryker; and an extension of the “aestheticization of American industry” to the increasingly commercial industrial design profession, MOMA’s purist modernism, and Futurism at the 1939 World’s Fair. Throughout, Smith also investigates three conceptual pairs that seem to be at the core of the modernist worldview: cities/crowds, industry/workers, and products/consumers.

Slippage between industry and culture aside, Making the Modern is pretty effective at showing how culture and technology intertwined to create a worldview from a particular way of life – to the extent that aesthetics can speak for culture, anyway.  However, it’s debatable whether cultural production is still this tightly connected to the means of production.

146: John Kouwenhoven’s Made in America

In Made in America: The Arts in Modern Civilization, John Kouwenhoven links an emergent American aesthetic to our unique status as a “technological civilization,” the “only major world power to have taken form as a cultural unit in the period when technological civilization was spreading throughout the world.”  Enterprising Americans have shaped this aesthetic by combining vernacular culture, derived from the democratic people, technology, and the American wilderness, with high culture brought back from Europe by elites; when vernacular and high culture compete, the vernacular usually wins.  And as far as Kouwenhoven can tell, that vernacular considers beauty to take the form of useful objects.

To get at this technology-based American vernacular culture, Kouwenhoven reads a wide variety of American authors, including John Hersey, Jonathan Edwards, Poe, Whitman, Horatio Greenough, Harriet Monroe, Melville, Twain, Anderson, Dos Passos,Hunter, and Emerson.  Through these writers, he finds American art in long-barrelled frontier rifles used in the American Revolution, the ‘hot jazz in stone and steel’ of skyscrapers, steel (instead of iron) farming tools, the Colt revolver, the Corliss engine, clipper ships, steamboats, locomotives, and even Whitney’s invention of mass production.  He finds American art in fine art, too, like Gershwin’s music and Sheeler’s paintings, but even these are uniquely American blends of high and low culture.  And American artists for Kouwenhoven are the people who make industrialism run: engineers, mechanics, farmers, carpenters – as well as writers, painters, and musicians.

Although ascribing a uniform aesthetic to any group of people as large as the United States doesn’t make much sense, nor does seeking that culture solely in the work of American writers, Kouwenhoven does make some hugely wonderful contributions to the study of technology and culture.  He erases the divide between high and low art and at the same time between commodity production and artistic production, so that the economic base and cultural superstructure – and thus, with a little elision, technology and culture – are one and the same.  And hey, I totally get what he’s saying about the Corliss engine.

115: Lucy Lippard’s The Lure of the Local

Lucy Lippard’s The Lure of the Local is a swan song to the hybridity of place – temporal and spatial, personal and political, geographical and psychological, lived and imagined, insiders and outsiders – and to the ways in which art, particularly public art, can mediate place’s connections between land, history, and culture.  For Lippard, lived experience is central to the construction of place, as are the accumulated sedimentations of experience, memories, and connections in a place.  If space is a memoryless landscape, place is a landscape mediated by human experience.

In an increasingly globalized world, for Lucy Lippard, the “lure of the local” is

the pull of place that operates on each of us, exposing our politics and our spiritual legacies.  It is the geographical component of the psychological need to belong somewhere, one antidote to a prevailing alienation.  The lure of the local is that undertone to modern life that connects it to the past we know so little and the future we are aimlessly concocting.

She explores these many sides of the local, and thus of place, from a variety of perspectives: mobility and the stranger; making places known through naming; photography as a text that fills the gaps in place; in place/ out of place; maps, particularly cognitive ones, as composites of places and times that they both hide and reveal; environmental racism; landscape photography and land art; gentrifying cities full of ghosts; homelessness; and privatization.  And throughout, she advocates for the power of an “art with a place ethic,” which would engage people at the level of their own personal experience, be borne of productive collaboration, and be accessible, evocative, and critical enough to draw people in and make them think deeply about the place.  As Joel Garreau says, ‘I keep on waiting for the artists to get out there to help decode the things that I don’t see.’

Although Lippard readily admits that attention to the local may lead to tunnel vision, she argues that right now (in 1997) it’s more important to hold onto the small picture than to keep the big one in mind, and she feels that art IN place (versus art ABOUT place) is the best way to keep the multiple, hybrid, sedimented local alive.