Thoughts on the conference


Last weekend my department hosted the ACSA Northeast Fall Conference. The conference, titled Urban/Suburban Identity, was our first, and I was one of the organizers. The group was small but robust, with 45 papers presented in 11 sessions over two days. I moderated the “Hybrids” and “Emergent Types” paper sessions, both of which were fascinating and pleasantly non-doctrinal. Fellow blogger Lyle Solla-Yates presented “Toward the Green City” with Carl Sterner in session 2, relating incredibly insightful information about the connection between sewer infrastructure and urban planning, using historical research on London and Paris as examples. (Did you know it was once an advantage for farmland to be city-adjacent? That’s where the fertilizer came from!) As a moderator, I could not simply pop in and out of paper sessions at will. I did get to sit in on session 10, “Urban Cultures,” and session 11, “Infrastructure,” both of which were mind blowing. (It’s too bad they took place on Sunday morning after most participants had left.) I have to say that setting aside a whole weekend to discuss important topics in our field—pressing topics with broad social implications no less—with fellow architects and educators who readily engage in intellectual discussion was a real treat for me. I wish I could do it more often.

In the “Urban Cultures” session, William Willoughby from Louisana Tech University gave a theoretical examination of parkour, the death-defying, building-pouncing, urban-wasteland-reclaiming acrobatic metier invented in the Paris suburbs. He’s a theory professor like myself. One of the readings in my graduate theory survey course is from Skateboarding, Space and the City, by Iain Borden of the Bartlett. It talks about how skateboarders, by engaging with the city as a playscape, turing their bodies so that ground-becomes-wall-becomes-sky, reinvent the city and question the power structures that rule it. Borden frequently refers to Henri Lefebvre in this book, but Willoughby sidesteps Lefebvre, whose focus is the social production of space, to talk about personal immediacy instead. (Yet philosophical connections to Lefebvre and Guy Debord seem clear.) One reason parkour is different from other subversive urban activities like skating and tagging, Willoughby states, is because it requires no tools, only desire and ability. It’s a landscape of the hyper-abled in contrasted to the average or the dis-abled. Why not design for all three? You can read his paper, “On Parkour: Retracing Urban Identity through the Art of Movement”, once we publish the conference proceedings via Lulu.

In the same session, Andrzej Zarzycki of the New Jersey Institute of Technology delivered an equally probing paper, “Media Facades and Mobile Devices: New Urban Identity.” I wasn’t all that interested at first. Zarzycki ran though a series of mobile apps that allow one to map the environment in real time and locate views in space using a combination of a smart phone’s GPS and compass. Then he introduced a second layer, the tagging layer, which allows users to markup space with their own notes and information. It seems like a simple evolution, to customize a mobile app, but the implications are huge. This digital graffitti is a new realm for free speech, political speech, linked to specific real places, that can’t be erased or prosecuted. In the question and answer session, I proposed that virtual activism paled in comparison to its real brethren, citing Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article, “Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted.” I was pleased to have these remarks shot down. Tony Vanky, an MIT graduate student who presented a paper in session 11 titled, “At Home/In Transit: The Aerotropolis and the Twenty-First Century City,” pointed out that in places of intense political repression, like China where even Facebook is banned, such digital commentary could certainly translate to putting one’s body at risk of real harm. Zarzycki offered another example in Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks, who seems to be constantly on the run.

Among and between all these sessions were talks by two featured lecturers, Dhiru Thadani on Friday night, and keynote speaker Leon Krier on Saturday. The title of Krier’s talk is identical to that of his new book, which Thadani helped edit, called The Architecture of Community. If you know Krier’s work you know what his talk is about—proper planning as Krier conceives of it, and traditional architecture, replete with rationalizations for both stemming from the imminent end of the world as we know it, as envisioned in an apocalyptic book by James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency. I read this book in 2005, as it was on my text list the semester Leon Krier was my studio professor. It tells the story of the slow and painful deterioration of life in the developed world in the wake of peak oil, explaining that no other energy source can replace oil, a resource that is already more than half gone. Ideologically, I am on the same page as Leon Krier when it comes to planning. I believe in cities: humanity’s greatest triumph of civilization embodied. Cities equal densely connected networks of streets, a mix of uses, hierarchies of streets and nodal intersections, and a mix of landmark and fabric architecture. Where I disagree with Krier (and others) is in regards to a hegemonic approach to the architectural object. Monotony scares me, even if it takes the form of a sparkling row of diamonds, and architectural monotony cannot house the intensely varied and diverse needs, desires, and fantasies of the modern metropolis.

All in all, the core message of Leon Krier’s talk was very pleasing. I was honored to be invited to dine with him and Dhiru Thadani on successive evenings. I was certain Krier would not remember me, but he did, and noted to my colleagues that I was the “rebel” of that class. Indeed, I was cantankerous. Looking back I wish I hadn’t been.

At dinner on Saturday night, Leon Krier recounted his time at the AA in London. Cedric Price, an experimental architect who greatly influenced Archigram, ran a gallery and gave Krier his first exhibition. When Krier asked Price why he would want to help him of all people, Price replied, “The future is not you or me. The future is Zaha.” Zaha Hadid, a student at the AA at that time, was incidentally a pupil of both men. The photo at the beginning of this blog entry shows the first spread of the Hadid article in this month’s Architectural Record, focused on the recently opened MAXXI museum building in Rome. In the background you can see Renzo Piano’s triple concert hall design, which Krier called “monstrous” in his lecture. To his credit, he also called it monstrous with Piano in the room at a meeting with the mayor of Rome. You have to admire that.

Lastly, if you’re curious about why I choose to show this odd photo, it’s because I promised myself not to repost other people’s images on this blog, only to link to them when needed. Every blog post needs a photo.