Heaven and Earth
|Borders and Centers in an Age of Mobility|
sprawl of development replaces the older opposition of cities to small
country towns. In some places the sprawl pulls itself together into Edge
Cities; in others it just spreads. Its economic, social, and political
difficulties are well known, and while sprawl was encouraged by particular
incentives and subsidies in the U. S., it has become an international
condition in other regulatory and transit regimes. To many it is a prime
example of modern and postmodern "placelessness." In response to formless
sprawl, many theorists urge the creation of resistant places. In this essay
I contrast and criticize two such strategies, Kenneth Frampton's bounded
enclaves, and Karsten Harries' centered communities.
Office buildings in downtown Portland, Oregon, but these could be in any climate or region.
A street in Urbino, Italy affirms its climate and locality.
The colonial church at Las Trampas, New Mexico, enacts its rising up and support, using local construction techniques and materials.
A vernacular building housing a shop on Isle au Haut, off the coast of Maine, seems to fit wonderfully into its climate and locality, but it resembles buildings in many other places and climates.
Frampton seeks ways to resist the "infinite megalopolis" of sprawl and
commodification. He proposes strategies of resistance through the creation
of regionally inflected zones. In his influential article, "Towards a
Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance" (1983),
Frampton argued that the modern global economy diminishes human life in
order to increase efficient exchange and profit. This shows in the
impoverished list of functions recognized in International Style
architecture and modernist planning. It shows in the continual loss of
density and texture in places under the pressure of market efficiency, and
in the increasing similarity of places and buildings constructed with
increasingly standardized parts and techniques.
The universal Megalopolis is patently antipathetic to a dense differentiation of culture. It intends, in fact, the reduction of the environment to nothing but commodity. As an abacus of development, it consists of little more than a hallucinatory landscape in which nature fuses into instrument and vice versa. Critical Regionalism would seem to offer the sole possibility of resisting the rapacity of this tendency. Its salient cultural precept is "place" creation; the general model to be employed in all future development is the enclave, that is to say, the bounded fragment against which the ceaseless inundation of a place-less, alienating consumerism will find itself momentarily checked. (Frampton 1983a, reprinted in Nesbitt 1996, 482)
Identities are so important, and ultimately so powerful in this ever-changing power structure because they build interests, values, and projects, around experience, and refuse to dissolve by establishing a specific connection between nature, history, geography, and culture. (Castells 1997, 360)
fundamental strategy of Critical Regionalism is to mediate the impact of
universal civilization with elements derived indirectly from the
peculiarities of a particular place.
It may find its governing inspiration
in such things as the range and quality of the local light, or in a tectonic
derived form a peculiar structural mode, or in the topography of a given
site. (Frampton 1983, in Foster 1983, 21)
The widespread treatment of facades as computer screens only goes to show that tectonics in its classic sense can no longer be claimed as the fulcrum of architecture. On the contrary, structural mechanics become either invisible (just as typewriters shed their mechanical clap-trap and transmogrified into laptops) or transformed into mere rigs on which to suspend the equipment for atmospheric effects. (Forster 1999, 29)
An architectural monument that once centered its area: The Duomo in Orvieto, Italy.
Today's places do not have isolated centers for closed regions.
(antennas and satellite dishes in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.)
Fragile centers get cobbled together.
(Sculpture "Nimis" by Lars Vilks, Sweden.)
Public space as a place for gathering, civic identity, and tourism: the Riverwalk in San Antonio, Texas.
Frampton, Karsten Harries hopes for places that provide a shared
community dwelling, but he emphasizes centers more than borders. This is
to provide more flexibility in dealing with the mobility characteristic
of our age. Also, Harries appeals to what he calls the natural language
of space, which is both universal and particular in a way parallel to
Frampton's dialectical mixture of the two, but more open to change and
particular configuration of verticals and horizontals [in a Greek
temple] moves and speaks to us presupposes what I shall call the natural
language of space. This natural language has its foundation in the way
human beings exist in the world, embodied and mortal, under the sky and
on the earth; it is bound up with experiences of rising and falling, of
getting up and lying down, of height and depth. Buildings speak to us
because our experience of space and therefore of particular spatial
configurations cannot but be charged with meaning." (Harries 1997, 125)
Inhabitants of the local and all inhabitation is local function in networks, too. A single person may constitute a node in more than one active network (religion, hobby, work, relatives). This may not only reduce the time that person actually spends at home, but also divert her attention from local affairs when there Moreover, my neighbor and I may find no overlap comparing the networks into which we are locked. We may share neither religion, nor race, nor work, nor hobbies. If sociocultural coherence is low, what does that mean for the environment we share? Must our homes express such differences as true nodes in different networks? Perhaps, on the contrary, formal coherence may be even more important because environmental preference is what brings us together. Just because we can easily relocate, sharing environmental coherence may be more important than ever. But then again, such coherence does not signify shared experience and need not be rooted in local formal tradition. Our common preference may be for an imported or recently (designer) invented environment. (Habraken 1999, 31)
List of Works Cited:
Adam, Ian, and Helen Tiffin, editors. 1991. Past the Last Post: Theorizing Post-Colonialism and Post-modernism. New York: Harvester.
Alexander, Christopher, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein. 1977. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Brydon, Diana. 1991. "The White Inuit Speaks: Contamination as Literary Strategy," in Adam and Tiffin 1991.
Castells, Manuel. 1996. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. Volume I: The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell.
Forster, Kurt. 1999. "Why Are Some Buildings More Interesting Than Others?" Harvard Design Magazine (Winter/Spring 1999): 26-31.
Foster, Hal. 1983. The Anti-Aesthetic. Port Townsend: Bay Press.
Frampton, Kenneth. 1983. "Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance," in Foster 1983, 16-30.
Frampton, Kenneth. 1983a. "Prospects for a Critical Regionalism," Perspecta 20 (1983): 147-162. Reprinted in Nesbitt 1996, 470-482.
Frampton, Kenneth. 1990. "Rappel ΰ ordre, The Case For The Tectonic," Architectural Design 60 nos. 3-4, 1990, 19-25. Reprinted in Nesbitt 1996, 518-528.
Frampton, Kenneth. 1995. Studies in Tectonic Culture: The Poetics of Construction in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Architecture. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Giovannini, Joseph. 1999. "Time on his side." Metropolis (October 1999): 171-3.
Harries, Karsten. 1997. The Ethical Function of Architecture. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Harries, Karsten. 2001. Infinity and Perspective. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. 1988. Hegel's Aesthetics. Two volumes. Translated by Malcolm Knox. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Hardcover edition in 1975.
Kolb, David. 1986. The Critique of Pure Modernity: Hegel, Heidegger, and After. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Kolb, David. 1990. Postmodern Sophistications: Philosophy, Architecture, and Tradition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Kolb, David. 2006. "Sprawling Places." Hypertext essay online at http://www.dkolb.org/sprawlingplaces
Kolb, David. 2008. Sprawling Places. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press.
Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Blackwell.
Nesbitt, Kate, editor. 1996. Theorizing: A New Agenda for
Architecture: an Anthology of Architectural Theory 1965-1995. New York:
Princeton Architectural Press.
 Castells himself despairs of any positive interaction between local and global cultures, and he proposes a quite different architectural strategy than Frampton, namely "the architecture of nudity whose forms are so pure, so diaphanous, that they don't pretend to say anything. And by not saying anything they confront the experience with the solitude of the space of flows. Its message is silence" (Castells 1996, 420). For Castells, architects have a difficult choice to make. "Either the new architecture builds the palaces of the new masters, thus exposing their deformity hidden behind the abstraction of the space of flows; or it roots itself into places, thus into culture, and into people. In both cases, under different forms, architecture may be digging the trenches of resistance for the preservation of meaning in the generation of knowledge. Or, what is the same, for the reconciliation of culture and technology" (Castells 1996, 423). There is no middle or interactive road between the poles of Castells' duality, because he defines places as closed rather than relational unities.
 An emphasis on tectonics is not a modernist desire for naked expression of construction. Frampton says that "We are not alluding here to mechanical revelation of construction but rather to a potentially poetic manifestation of structure in the original Greek sense" (Frampton 1990, reprinted in Nesbitt 1996, 519). Frampton accepts that many tectonic expressions, from Renaissance pilasters to Miesien I-beams, are in fact applied decoration rather than "honest" self-presentation of construction. But he insists that we must build so that the building shows its act of standing and its interaction with the forces of nature, rather than primarily showing itself as a fungible token amid the flows of the economy.
 It might seem that a space station without a base to rise from would not be a building. But this begs the question, for it would still be a place, and the issue concerns what constructional effects can do to offset the commodification of places as well as of buildings narrowly defined. It would also be possible to build a space station as a chaotic assemblage of units stuck together with no constructional unity; this may well happen if space stations develop the equivalent of suburban strips.
 There can be another turn to the issue of ownership: "Authenticity has also been used by [native peoples] in their struggles to regain power over their own lives. While postcolonial theorists embrace hybridity and heterogeneity as the characteristic postcolonial mode, some native writers in Canada resist what they see as a violating appropriation to insist on their ownership of their stories and their exclusive claim to an authenticity that should not be ventriloquized or parodied. Ironically, such tactics encourage native peoples to isolate themselves from contemporary life and full citizenhood" (Brydon 1991).
 Harries' claim that communities need to be structured by a dialogue between everyday buildings and special edifices is similar to the New Urbanist principle of differentiating everyday from civic buildings, though Harries puts more spiritual-political demands on central edifices (Harries 1997, 362). On the other hand, when he speaks about what building types might carry on the community-defining legacy of temple and church, Harries does not stop with the suburban holy trinity of church, school, and city hall. He suggests many other building types that could center a community: monuments, theaters, museums, landscape parks, open festival spaces, and architectural follies. Values do not have to be literally monumentalized; they can be made present through modest architectural events that become important to a community. Throughout, however, Harries argues that our need for some ongoing connection with the past and tradition demands centered modes of spatial and community unity.
 "We moderns have become too reflective, too critical, simply to entrust ourselves to what has been We have no choice but to attempt to articulate what is essential and natural our confusion leaves us no reasonable alternative to reappropriating the lessons of the Enlightenment. We, too, have to try to recover origins" (Harries 1997, 114). There is a natural order to be glimpsed, not created; yet our glimpses provide only a precarious interpretation of "the transcendent and thus never quite comprehended and shifting ground of all our valuations" (Harries 1997, 298). At times, Harries also claims that communal values need to be established by artistic creation. "Pure reason has shown itself incapable of discovering the true ends of human actions. Such discovery requires the aid of myth the mythopoeic function of art remains indispensable" (Harries 1997, 282). I would argue that reason can provide more in the way of goals, though they need particular schematizations that may be provided by art. Sometimes Harries also seems to intend such a view, when he speaks in a more Habermasian vein: we pursue "unending attempts to defeat arbitrariness by grounding (or criticizing) the established and accepted. And here 'reason' and 'nature', even if never 'pure,' remain as the only still available authorities" (Harries 1997, 382-3n1). For more on how Harries understands the genesis of modernity, see Harries 2001.
 Harries' dualism between lived experience and reflection follows Heidegger's reading of modernity as Cartesian. I have argued elsewhere that Heidegger moved beyond that reading to the theory of modernity in terms of das Gestell, but that neither of Heidegger's analyses of modernity does justice to the more intricate mediations and mutual constitutions involved in modern consciousness and society. Also, we should not presume that our ancestors did not possess modes of critical self-reflection, though they may not have been institutionalized as firmly and centrally as they have become today (see Kolb 1986 and 1990).
 A full discussion of Harries' proposals concerning the natural language of space would have to consider the extent to which the effects he cites exist as always already interpreted, and whether or not his spatial "language" includes any "syntax."
 Henri Lefebvre points out that "a particular institution may have a variety of functions which are different -- and sometimes opposed to its apparent forms and avowed structures. The same abstract form may have opposing functions and give rise to diverse structures" (Lefebvre 1991, 149, 152).
 Kevin Lynch argues that "The values that impel so many people toward segregation (such as security or easy primary relations) argue that within any mix there must be clusters of similarity which are relatively homogeneous and 'pure' so that people may be at ease among their own. At the same time, for reasons of equity, the mix within large areas should be more balanced, and regional access should be high. There should also be zones of transition ('blurs'), within which status is more ambiguous, so that people may 'cross over' if they choose." (Lynch 1981, 267)
 Large cities may provide an exciting interplay between specialized districts and overlapping place norms. Suburbs, however, provoke special criticism for lack of architectural and cultural diversity. Suburban regions tend towards the bland homogeneous mixture that Alexander condemns, with the same units (scattered residences, residential enclaves, malls, retail strips, office buildings, golf courses, etc.) mixed in more or less the same ways everywhere. In Kolb 2006 and 2008, I argue that the linked social and place form of suburbia is more complex than its bland architectural forms might suggest.