Category Archives: the built environment

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.”

156: Gail Cooper’s Air-Conditioning America

In Air-Conditioning America: Engineers and the Controlled Environment, 1900-1960, Gail Cooper examines the development of air-conditioning technology and the tensions between engineering philosophy and consumer preference that shaped its design.  Working from a variety of sources, including trade literature, popular magazines, newspapers, and corporate records, Cooper argues that air-conditioning developed via a process of contestation, and that the three systems that resulted – custom-built systems, centralized air, and window units – are each an imperfect mix of the interests of engineers, corporations, and various consumer groups, legacies of the times when each group was more dominant than the other two.

Per Cooper, air conditioning development went through three major phases.  From 1900 to WWI, engineers Alfred Wolff, Stuart Cramer and Willis Carrier adapted industrial heating, ventilation, and freezing systems to offices and factories.  Their custom designs attempted to control both heat and humidity, though they focused mainly on humidity until the 1930s.  The first custom systems were installed in stock exchanges, banks, and Southern textile mills.  Because Progressive reformers were obsessive about healthy ventilation for schoolchildren, schools also became testing grounds for the new technology.

In the interwar years, alternative cooling technologies challenge the engineers and their custom-built systems.  In the 1920s, movie theatres installed mechanical cooling and introduced the public to a/c; attempts to introduce window units in the 1930s failed, but more because of high costs during the Depression than because of a lack of consumer demand.

From WWII to 1960, air-conditioning companies exploit the consumer demand opened up by movie theaters and window units and introduce standardized or central air.  New central systems reshape buildings – just think of the sealed picture windows in suburban tract housing.  By the 1960s, cooled air had become a necessity rather than a luxury, and residents of older buildings began buying up window units – which, while inefficient, live on because they are affordable and portable.

Throughout her narrative, Cooper is attentive to the interests of various groups affected by air-conditioning: engineers who want to create a wholly artificial indoor climate; managers who want to reduce seasonal fluctuations and be able to locate buildings without regard to geography; workers (and consumers) who want comfort and health and don’t like centralized systems they can’t control; movie theaters who use a/c as marketing; public schools who treat children as test subjects; poor people who just want to be cool at any cost.  She also discusses the detrimental environmental impact of controlled indoor environment – one more reminder of what happens when you let turn of the century engineers run the show.

155: Martin Melosi’s Sanitary City

In The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America from Colonial Times to the Present, Martin Melosi shows that the technologies chosen for a city’s sanitation infrastructure depended heavily on the prevailing environmental concerns, available technologies, money, and politics of the day.  Because most American sanitation systems were built around the turn-of-the-century, when permanence was more valued than flexibility, and because this infrastructure is costly (socially, politically, functionally, economically) to replace outright, American sanitation systems are path dependent in that they are constrained by choices made early in their construction, and they are also determinist in the sense that they shape/ constrain development around them.  Melosi thus argues that “to function effectively the American city has to be a sanitary city.”

Working from the water management systems in several major American cities, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, Melosi traces the development of sanitation infrastructure through three phases:

  • The “Age of Miasmas” (colonial times to 1880): basically, if you can’t see or smell it, it isn’t there; dilution of waste water will purify it.  

Although Boston had a Water Board in 1797 and Philly had the Latrobe Waterworks in 1801, until the 1830s residents of most American cities were responsible for procuring their own water and disposing of their own waste.  In the 1840s, British Edwin Chadwick argued that the physical environment had a direct effect on individual well-being – that health depends on “environmental sanitation.”  Reformers on both sides of the Atlantic began to argue that better urban sanitation might reduce disease among the poor, and Boston, New York, and Chicago built wastewater systems based on Chadwickian miasma theory: massive structures that combined sewage and water lines, with centralized dilution.  Some disease was reduced, but contamination was a problem.

  • The “Bacteriological Revolution” (1880-1945): microscopic bacteria are what make people sick, not miasmas or vapors!  
While bacteriology discredited miasma-based sanitation, Progressive Reformers and the New Public Health believed that environmental sanitation had a “civilizing influence” on poor people and immigrants (and provided clean water and functional waste disposal for everyone), and control over public works had newly become the responsibility of city governments, so construction on sanitation systems continued.  Sanitation got swept up into the narrative of technologically-enhanced human progress, and sanitary engineers professionalized.  Also, the rise of mass culture after 1880 meant that garbage soared, so waste removal shifted form a public health issue to a public works issue; by 1920 it was the “third pillar” of sanitation, though it was never as centralized or monitored as water and sewage.
  • The “New Ecology” (1945-2000s): the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality of urban sanitation engineering and waste removal, combined with the suburban strain on old urban systems, was beginning to take a toll on the environment.
By the 1960s, solid waste removal as land pollution had become a national issue, despite the 1965 and 1970 Solid Waste Disposal Acts, by 1980 many smaller cities were having an infrastructure crisis, as cities were allocating money away from supporting or expanding legacy systems.  
Throughout, Melosi’s careful contextualization of sanitation technologies in sanitation theory, reform movements, politics, and existing infrastructure shows just how path dependent (and old!) the sanitation systems of many American cities are.

123: Duany, Plater-Zyberk & Speck’s Suburban Nation

Despite its title, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, this book is only partially about suburbia; it also serves as a programmatic statement and justification for New Urbanist development.  Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck are architectural and city planners who designed the planned community of Seaside, Florida, and throughout Suburban Nation they argue that suburban sprawl is not bad because it is ugly.  Rather, the authors (and their urban and suburban informants) argue that because there is a “causal relationship between the character of the physical environment and the social health of families and the community at large, suburbia is bad because it doesn’t function to foster community and democracy.  By contrast, communities modeled after “traditional American neighborhoods” can be aesthetically pleasing, make more efficient use of space, and cater to the needs of both individuals and the community.

Many of the authors’ recommendations are familiar, partly because their planning principles have long since been incorporated into creative-class urban revitalization projects: mixed-use development, walkable streets, functional public transit, short blocks, narrow streets with buildings arranged by size, corner stores, and so on.  And some of their recommendations reveal that New Urbanism is actually quite specific: neighborhoods should have corner stores, not Quik Marts; a neighborhood should be only a 10-minute walk across, with pocket parks in each of its corners and several elementary schools so that children can walk to school; the neighborhood center should focus on common activities; buildings should be low and close to the streets, with “semi-private attachments” that foster sociability;” bus stops should be dignified, so that public transit does not suffer from a “self-perpetuating underclass ridership;” parking should be hidden.
While some of these recommendations seem as though they are designed to foster community by keeping people in, many of them also seem designed to keep people out – particularly people who might go to a Quick Mart or ride the bus because they have to instead of because they want to, or even people who don’t live close enough to the center of the neighborhood to be in the in-club of walkers.  Further, the authors’ emphasis on “traditional,” combined with their acceptance that greenfield development can’t be stopped, makes this book seem more like a way to market manufactured authenticity to city planners than a way to create truly inclusive, functional, democratic communities.  This book is a clear statement of both the problem of sprawl and the solution of New Urbanism; I just don’t think New Urbanism is the only or even the best solution.

122: Mona Domosh’s Invented Cities

In Invented Cities: The Creation of Landscape in Nineteenth-Century New York and Boston, Mona Domosh examines the historical, economic, and cultural origins of city development in Boston and New York.  Shows that in the 19th century, Boston and New York developed different spatial and architectural forms due to their different social/cultural structures, and that in both cases the physical and cultural structures mutually constituted the cities as different entities.  However, in both cities, the cultural landscape of the city represented its middle and upper classes, who produced “visible representations of their individual and group beliefs, values, tensions, and fears” on the urban landscape.  By applying a new cultural geography framework to urban landscape analysis, she brings 19th century urban development to life and shows how spatial patterns and culture shape one another.

Domosh centers her argument around four case studies: in New York, the 6th Ave/ Broadway retail district and the lower Manhattan skyscrapers, and in Boston, residential Back Bay and Boston Common/ the city park system.  While commercial and residential districts are not functionally comparable, Domosh is not so interested in the use of these spaces; she’s looking instead for the relationship between elite cultural values and urban form, and for the ways in which urban development reflected elite reactions to industrialization and immigration.  In Boston, where elites were a relatively homogeneous class of “gentry” based in the textile industry, the powerful Boston Associates created a landscape of exclusion and leisure.  Elites were able to transform a massive public works project – infilling the Back Bay – into an exclusive residential enclave, and that exclusivity was consciously maintained and enforced by manipulating land values and zoning restrictions. Likewise, Boston Common and the rest of the parks system was preserved as a playground for elites, with French Boulevard flanking the Commons as Back Bay’s main artery.  New York, by contrast, was run by an enterprising commercial elite of Dutch, Jewish, and Anglo businessmen working primarily in trade, dry goods, banking, and insurance.  Instead of putting their residences at the heart of the city, this heterogeneous business class focused downtown development on commercial interests.  Domosh’s extensive history of New York skyscrapers shows how high-profile skyscrapers were sited on low-profile real-estate as visual advertisements, and her study of the Broadway shopping district, with its ornate department stores geared toward women, shows how retail followed the northern movement of elite residences.  Because New York valued business over elite leisure, it allowed business interests to build on its commons; the resulting landscape was a relatively uncoordinated but collective endeavor to build the city around capital accumulation.

The stark binary Domosh draws between Boston’s homogeneous cultural elite and New York’s heterogeneous commercial one doesn’t make much sense, since both cities clearly had both cultural and commercial development.  Further, looking only at development spearheaded by elites leaves out a large segment of the population, thus rendering most people silent on the development of the city in which they live.  However, within the circumscribed sphere of elite development, Domosh does show that culture and built form mutually reinforce and construct one another, and that power can and does inscribe itself in the landscape.  Actually, now that I think about it, focusing on elites does include non-elites in the same way that whiteness studies includes people of color: by creating landscapes consciously meant to exclude or construct the experience and movements of the people the elites fear, they write industrialization and immigration into the landscape whether they like it or not.

118: Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau argues that far from being a passive act, consumption, whether as use of an object or space, “ways of operating,” or art/ “ways of making” (combination, selection, cut-and-inversion), is a kind of spatial production.   
Building on (but rejecting) Foucault, Bourdieu, Kant, and others, de Certeau conceives of the physical world as divided into two classes: those with power and capital who are in control of space and production, and those with neither, but who exercise their agency by taking advantage of opportunities and consuming creatively.  The powerful side of things is also the scientific, the rational; this side creates static places of power, characterized by rational utopian uniformity, legibility, clarity, strategy, and centralized control.  The weak consumers take advantage of cracks in the rational system of these places; dependent on time, these peripatetic storytellers (walking and narration are inseparable) combine the fixed elements of the city/story with memories and inventions triggered by circumstance and audience to subvert the rational powers and create something new.

If power creates place, these storytellers operate in space, an undefined realm within place that is created as they walk/perform their narratives.   Critical is the connection between space and discourse; critical also is that this storytelling, while it carves out spaces of agency, is fleeting and momentary; it can subvert the rational powers but it cannot develop capital or power itself.  The whole point is that walking/ narrating is the illegitimate, illegible, other to the rational system; it unites discourse and practice, and as such it cannot be abstracted or contemplated from outside itself.   Or accumulated, for that matter.

Stuff I like: de Certeau is very clear: even in a Foucauldian system, there is still ample room for human agency.  That agency may not be able to build the kind of social capital needed to overthrow rational powers, but it’s not going away – the walker/ storyteller/ city inhabitant is the necessary corollary/ internal contradiction in the rational system.  Also, he combines narration with spatial movement, which links discourse to performance – sometimes with an audience, sometimes not.  His use of myth is interesting: myths humanize the city by layering legend, memory, and dream into the rational place and thus subverting its rational, logical (objective?) order.  They function as an escape from oppression.  The way he sets up the space/ place opposition is interesting: like Tuan, he argues that places “stay put” and spaces are for movement or for practicing place: one gets the feeling that the walker opens them up and they close again once he/she has passed through.  Memory also subverts place: ghosts of people or things or businesses that are no longer in a place haunt it and link people  to a place/ convert place to space in a way that defies the logical, rational order.  I also like his method: he clearly sets out the five or so theorists he is working with, pokes holes in their arguments, and shows how everyday practice links theory and discourse AND allows for human agency and ingenuity in a way that the other theorists seem to have missed.  And he clearly sees technology as rationalizing society in a way that’s no bueno.
Stuff I don’t like: To attempt to see the system from any perspective other than direct experience – to try and take it in conceptually, as a whole – is to alienate yourself from the system and to see it from the perspective of the rational powers, not from the embodied  consumers.  To study the production of space, then, requires giving up any chance to see the whole and only studying the stories on their own terms, which, sorry, just feels claustrophic and unnecessarily limited (though useful in the whole PoMo turn bit, for sure.)  Also, it makes me sad that these seem to be practices for surviving a utopia, not for changing it – unless he’s just being descriptive instead of normative.  He seems to take a technological determinist stance on the relationship between technological rationality and place/space.  Also, individuals are not atomized, but they are anonymous in the masses; without the potential for generalization, how are they not atomized again?  Further, it’s not like people are wholly irrational, and to classify them in binary opposition to rationality (er, technology and machines came from somewhere) is doing individuals a disservice… and may even be taking precisely the birds-eye view he so eschews.  From above, walkers in a medieval city probably look like rats in a warren; but from the perspective of the opportunistic walker, thinking on the margin, every movement she makes probably makes perfect sense.  Beware seeing people in the aggregate.
Connections: Laclau’s empty signifier, especially in the section on belief (to make people believe, offer them something and then don’t give it to them); Hardt & Negri, anything really, because they believe in the power of excess to overthrow the utopia (tho they allow for the development of capital among the oppressed).  He directs engages at length with Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice, Freud (both his psychoanalysis and his more social piece, Civilization something), Durkheim, and Kant (though admittedly I didn’t read the bits on Kat or Durkheim.)  He also uses Lacan’s mirror phase bit as a way at getting at the relationship between the individual and society.  He is fascinated by the basic premise of anthropological work in Durkheim: to go somewhere else to study yourself; and although he picks on Foucault in particular for cutting out a small piece of culture (panoptics, for instance) and then inverting society so that that small piece of culture becomes the organizing principle of a social analysis, he uses it as the basis for his definition of tactic: cutting up, reassembling, creating narratives out of fragments.  I guess the point is that it is a tactic of the weak, not a strategy (which requires vision!  Of the big picture!) of the strong?
What are the implications of de Certeau’s walkers for performance?
Why is it so important to link space and language?
What cities is he talking about
How does this work fit in with other PoMo (vs post-structural theory)?
Originally published on 6.26.12.

117: Doreen Massey’s For Space

Massey’s For Space is an attempt to develop a theory of subjectivity/ agency through a postmodern conception of space as geographical, temporal, and relational.  Because of Cresswell, I expected Massey’s construction of “the spatial” as relational flows, especially in counterpoint to Harvey’s construction of place as nodes where the flows of capital get stuck.   
But I didn’t expect her to be so tightly bound with high postmodern thinkers.  Massey draws a great deal from Laclau & Mouffe’s radical democracy and Deleuze’s reconfiguration of subjects from nodes to trajectories; I guess this is what happens when you shift focus from bodies to space as the field where bodies interact.  Of particular interest to me is her search for agency/ construction of radical subjectivity as uniquely spatial, outwardlooking and aware of its own relational constitution.  Space, rather than time, makes agency possible.   
Massey is trying to find a way to move beyond Modernism, which (she says) falsely annihilates space through time, and beyond the extremes of Postmodernism, which falsely annihilates time through space, and to articulate depth with breadth.  Yes, connecting depth with breadth is the project of all cultural theory, but her solution – to focus on space-time as the product of relations/ interactions between heterogeneous elements dissolves binaries like global/ local, place/space, space/time, and thereby makes space for agency.  She does a better job of situating potential agents within an uneven power grid than do Laclau & Mouffe/ other radical democracy theorists, but I do wonder if she’s falsely assuming that everyone would take freedom if given the space to do so – in which case she’s more of a product of the Enlightenment than she cares to admit.  (Not a bad thing to think that all people are fundamentally equal on some level; I’m just sayin…)   
Anyway.  I like that space and social relations are mutually constitutive – the concept is very useful for talking about transportation-based social movements.  She’s also got a nice discussion of how local movements might articulate into larger global struggles that looks a lot like how (radical) transportation movements, by their nature, have to grow.  And she clearly reads.  A lot.

Originally published on 6.17.12.