Michael Bell by Andrew Benjamin

BOMB 88 Summer 2004
088 Summer 2004 1024X1024
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Gefter-Press House, Ghent, New York. Oculus 1 of 2, viewed from the east. All captions written by Michael Bell. 1

Michael Bell represents a new breed of architectural practitioner, theorist, and professor. At a time when neo-conservatism is creeping into both design and architectural theory—a conservatism parading under the banner of the “post-critical”—Bell holds to a position that maintains the centrality of the political while deploying the latest forms of design practice. As design develops, it opens up the possibility of a type of neutrality, and yet building almost by its very nature sites the inherently political nature of architecture, which involves the privileging of the public over the private. Rather than simply private concerns, the reality of the urban comes to play a structuring role even in the creation of the private. That privileging must not be a simple gesture. Bell’s Stateless Housing project for Far Rockaway is a case in point. Introducing an urban quality to the domestic setting, Bell lets the inherently public nature of the architectural take precedence. This does not mean that the design slips into the “form follows function” dictate of a certain version of modernism. What this approach provides is what could be called a programmatic diagram that then works in conjunction with the generation of form. It is the presence of this twofold approach that dominates the way urban projects are considered and thus the way private housing can be articulated within them. The final point to note is that Bell’s approach reinscribes the importance of research in architectural planning. For his project and book 16 Houses (Monacelli Press, 2003), he organized a group of architects to look at federal housing policy shifts in the impoverished Fifth Ward in Houston; his forthcoming collection of essays and architectural and research protects, Space Replaces Us, comes out in September, also from Monacelli. It is the detailed study of a site’s infrastructure as well as the relevant legal and historical constraints that can enable the generation of appropriate design resolutions.

Andrew Benjamin My first question is linked to how you understand the city. Clearly there are different versions of the city, different narratives both of history and development within the city. Your work seeks to provide that which is not straightforwardly what one of your commentators has described as capitalism’s version of the city. Perhaps we can begin here, with your outlining your approach to thinking about cities in order for them to become places in which you can do architecture.

Michael Bell Many of the forces at play in the production of a contemporary city do not have obvious material forms. Everyone knows that a contemporary city is, to a large degree, a product of capitalism. The degree to which that’s true of the latter-day American city is the question. There is an American terrain vague, a type of city that was produced in the wake of highly deregulated capital, like Los Angeles or Houston, for instance. Cities like these are integral parts of globalization. These are cities that are fully engaged in local and global capital and production, but they are also rife with zones of protracted disengagement. In these circumstances people are intrepid in how they navigate and organize their lives, yet we have not done nearly enough to understand the complexity of these spaces. They are spaces that will be redefined not by formal interventions—architectural or urban—but by a wider examination of what forces are at play and how they manifest themselves.

AB This is leaning toward a deeper understanding of the public nature of architecture. It’s very important that we continue to develop a more nuanced conception of the public. Instead of seeing public/private in opposition, we must give a lot of thought to the history and creation of the public in the public sphere. How do you think about the public nature of architecture in terms of your practice?

MB Let’s just say that since the dawn of the postmodern era in this country, some of the main players of architectural and urban theory have been doubtful about how truly public or collective what we used to call public space really is. This is now a common question, but it is still a recent one in terms of how we speak of public space. I prefer to look at it through a lens that intends essentially to diagram how subjectivity is being constructed, rather than simply how the perimeters of architectural space or urban space are being drawn. You said “nuanced,” and that is something that has been missing in the way we think about things. There’s been so much of an attempt to be instrumental and clear about what is public and what is private that a more nuanced and subtle version of things has not been possible.

AB You have these images of Houston, your aerial photographs. We see what look like realms of sameness, but as you’ve shown, one can move 100 meters in one direction and the property values fall by 50 or 60 percent, something quite dramatic. On the level of city planning it’s all the same terrain, yet it’s clearly not the same terrain at all. If you had a financial diagram, as opposed to simply a planometric diagram, you’d see a very different version.

MB It’s important to me to bring these things to the surface and make them pliant as part of design, or as part of the evidence of what we are producing. I’m just one among countless theorists who have tried to update not just urbanism but alienation. The term is not up-to-date, it’s an old Marxist term, but alienation is still a factor in the contemporary city; it characterizes the person who is moving throughout these realms. On one hand, if you look at certain attributes of space, the physical shape, the outline of things in these realms, there is a generalized sameness among places. But the degree to which power is constructed and the degree to which it doesn’t reveal itself—this is what underlies books like Slow Space(Monacelli Press, 1998; ed. Bell and Sze Tsung Long). These kinds of monetary techniques, bio-power techniques, are clearly constructing space—and how are we supposed to understand or apprehend them? And do we need to?

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Houston, Texas: a postwar city. 2

AB So nomads necessarily carry their own class, gender, and racial position along with them. The wandering through the city is not simply wandering—though this is interesting as an abstract idea—but is always determined by the subjectivity of the one who wanders.

MB I think so. I’ve never tried to work this out very carefully; maybe this is something you and I should talk more about someday. I think that the contemporary idea of a citizen in a country, in its popular conception, is still humanist. People anticipate that they will be able to meaningfully construct the world as they encounter it. And what happens is that people are in motion in space and in fact do not receive the world in ways that are anticipated, or they are not understanding or being given the information that really is about the construction of space. So, when you say the subject carries with it its identity, its gender, its position—I think what’s going on in my architecture and writing, such as the planning for Far Rockaway and essays such as “Having Heard Mathematics” [in Slow Space and “RSE: Eyes in the Heat” [in Perspecta: The Yale Journal of Architecture, is an attempt to imagine the cleft between the way space is constructed by the entities that do produce it—capital, speculation, land values, all these things—and someone who has the literal mobility and agency to move around and take in the city but doesn’t have the ability to see those systems that have constructed it.

AB That’s very interesting; it gives me a clear sense of what you do when you analyze the city. I can begin to have an understanding, both from reading your works and listening to you, of the moves you make in beginning to configure space. You configure it not as a sociologist or politician, but as an architect. And part of the job of the architect is to design. What interests me is how you understand your architectural design work in relation to your research projects on cities. Your research on developing a diagram of the city is not based on neutrality or objectivity or overt political action but sees a nuanced, complicated system in relation to which designs are inserted. How do you understand the project of design in relation to the project of developing an architectural urbanism?

MB It’s common knowledge in many modern cities that architects build very little of what is actually in play. From the 1940s to today there are new degrees to which markets dominate the production of space and we have new economic terms to describe the city. For Manfredo Tafuri, the agency of architecture in this realm was understood to be exasperated by the city, the metropolis. Massimo Cacciari’s term for acting under these conditions was quasi-nihilism: even as one attempts to build the complexity of the modern city into an architecture capable of sustaining its integrity in the scene, one knows that it will inevitably lead to the exasperation of the object’s ability to sustain its goals. The architect’s contractual relationship with the city is usually for a very small part of it the scope of even a $100 million office building and museum is small, as an architectural endeavor in the larger city. The logic of trying to deal with the city as an architect is essentially trying to negotiate a myriad of complex coefficients—deregulation, international relations, even local relations—to deal with complex ideas of territory but to be allowed to construct only a small piece of that territory. In that sense, I think the building and the subjects of the building, the people who may or may not use the building, both end up being small-scale local entities that are embedded in much larger systems. If you are designing something that is highly mobile, like a door handle on an automobile, or a subway car, these things are part of the infrastructure and mass production of movement systems of the city. But architecture is a more static piece. So for me the question of design comes back to the idea of these much larger complex systems that are dynamic, encompassing, but you are working on this local piece. And again, what is the cleft between those two options?

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The Fifth Ward, Houston, Texas. Photo: Deron Neblett 3

AB What I admire about much of your work is the way it is situated within a sustained engagement with architectural historians and theorists as well as modernist architecture. I’m thinking particularly of Colin Rowe, Robert Slutzky, Peter Eisenman, and Giuseppe Terragni, among others. At one stage you argue that what you’re interested in is a move from mathematics to topology. That seems to resonate with what you just said, because the mathematical would simply be the part/whole relationship, while the topology would be what you’re after. I think what becomes interesting there is how one talks about an element within a topology as opposed to an element within a whole.

MB There are several reasons to get involved with Rowe and Slutzky, one being that American architectural education, at least in my experience as a student and now a faculty member for years, has rested to a huge degree on Rowe. There are few touch-stones in American education as formidable as Rowe’s essays “The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa” and “Transparency, Literal and Phenomenal” in the thinking that comes through Rowe to Eisenman to the next generation. I bring that up because this is a kind of formal criticism that I personally am deeply vested in, and most of us are, but at the time it was presented in a way without reference to capitalism and without a complex, more nuanced subject. The subject of most Rowe and Eisenman essays early on was either the architects themselves or a philosophically inclined subject whose main techniques were visual, a subject for whom meaning is essentially a project of vision, revealed and constructed within traditions of painting and Renaissance frontal perspective. To be embedded in that history, on the one hand, and on the other hand to confront the postwar American city 40 and 50 years after it was formed, is to be in an interesting place where the discrete mathematics of architecture and the complex calculus of modern capital come together. It’s not something I think one hasto be involved with, but it certainly is a major question in the U.S.—much of the population lives in these zones—and it probably is in Sydney and in other places too. The discreteness of architectural geometries versus the liquidity of capital economy latently becomes overtly topological. I’ve been much more interested in the idea of architectural topology and acuity of the calculus within urban systems than in the actual modeling of it.

AB So you want to animate the topology.

MB Not so much animate it as allow someone to comprehend it, to somehow bring it to the surface so that the global can be understood through the local. One doesn’t need Henri Bergson to think about this, but I have relied on his work on intuition, as a means by which somebody from a local position is able to intuit the mobility and extensiveness of wider fields without actually becoming the wider field or being exasperated or humiliated by it.

AB I’m smiling because I can sense the influence of Sanford Kwinter at this point.

MB I taught with Sanford for six years at Rice, in Houston.

AB Talk about intuition.

MB In this context it might seem overly simplistic to suggest that Bergson can help us understand the contemporary city, but I am interested in the cleft between the arithmetic dimensions of architecture and the calculus of financial and market systems. I do think the popular knowledge of the city is still humanist, and what makes Bergsonian intuition useful—even in didactic ways—is that it allows for the discrete limits of the body and of form while simultaneously allowing a covalency of other more fluid limits and systems. You intuit the whole while remaining a component. I am an architect, so my thoughts on this are not as careful as those of someone like Sanford Kwinter, but Sanford’s editing and writing has influenced me, and he has made Bergson a part of urban theory. I think the task is to make it more useful and accessible.

AB The move from a purely additive notion of development to one linked to the idea of topology will change the field by definition. Once you get into the notion of economic differentials, you can no longer view things in a purely instrumental way. This allows for a sort of indeterminacy to be at work. You often use the language of plasticity: you take up Eisenman’s idea of nondialectical ambiguity, in which something can be productive without having a determinate resolution. Plasticity means developing across time so that time, rather than space, becomes the organizing principle. So you think of a projection through time rather than an immediate resolution, with that notion of autonomy as almost separate. That is also part of the critical engagement with this sort of collage city, the mathematics of the ideal villa, as a way of viewing the world. You’re moving from determinacy to indeterminacy. I quite agree with you that this comes especially out of a collage city. It’s more critical, perhaps, than you’re allowing.

MB It probably is. There’s a difference between autonomy as something that is sought and autonomy that happens as a de facto proposition. When I was in my first year of graduate school, Peter Eisenman’s Cannaregio Project appeared on the cover of the Harvard Architecture Review. The issue, which was titled “Autonomous Architecture,” was countered by the concurrent issue of Yale’s architecture journal, Perspecta, which addressed the contingencies of architecture to politics, economies, site, and contextual history. The two journals were not conclusive, but they framed a debate about autonomy, and in both you could find the argument of the other. In the Harvard Architecture Review, autonomy was being described as something that we would try to seek for architecture, from Adorno forward. I think what’s in Slow Space, as well as in 16 Houses: Designing the Public’s Private House, which presents my work in low-income housing in Houston, and Space Replaces Us(Monacelli Press, forthcoming in September), which is my own practice as an architect and writer, and in the conversation we’re having right now, is an idea that economic systems, these outrageously dexterous systems, in fact, inadvertently leave many things autonomous. For me it has been a type of retroactive project, whose base has been made vague—I’m thinking again of the term terrain vague—that seeks the means to navigate. And for me topology comes up again not as a method of physically or plastically reconstituting space but as a perceptual topology: you begin to use memory, you begin to intuit the techniques of time that are in space, to intuit the kind of qualitative dimensions that led to the production of a rather entropic landscape. But I think your description of topology is interesting; it’s become a prevalent architectural project to be involved with topology in the last 10 years or so—not just in architecture but in a whole set of fields, from flexible factory organizations to environmental projects in which we try to make the environment more responsive, more qualitatively, less quantitatively dimensioned. But for me it does go less through the collage city and more through transparency, literal and phenomenal, and a type of frontal visual subject who intuits topology. Like many, I am interested in perception more than form, and in an architecture that can instigate complex spatial intuition as a form of agency and as an extension of our spatial skills.

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Palazzo Littorio, Giuseppe Terragni and Pietro Lingeri, 1934, Rome, Italy (unbuilt). Photo-elastic study. 4

AB Let’s take it a step further in terms of trying to situate your work in relation to your analyses. Looking at your architectural work, one can’t help but notice the centrality of Giuseppe Terragni and your detailed analyses of the Casa Rustici and the Palazzo Littorio. I wonder if you would speak about how the analysis of existing architecture is productive in your own work. I think what’s so interesting is that the argument against intuition as productive for design is the one that says that you work through tradition in order to get somewhere: you choose who your tradition is but you work through it in a detailed, non-intuitive, almost formalist analysis that opens up the realm in which production becomes possible.

MB Yes. I can be very explicit and then more general. Terragni worked on two buildings with the central focus you mention, the Casa Rustici and the Palazzo Littorio, one built, one not built. In the Rustici he was dealing with frontality, with a complex arrangement of frontal space and a layering of spaces and sometimes a description of perspective that is being troubled by architecture—the layers are complex and dynamic; background space appears to move forward and peripheral spaces menace the eyes’ ability to rest on the center long enough to stabilize the organization. By the time Terragni designed Littorio, which was only a scant six years later, he was dealing with photo-elastic structure analysis. The building is still a product of the spatial analysis through the visual subject, but now it also involves the polarization of light, the recording of optic stress and strain in the building’s structural mechanics and a visual subject that’s using processes of microscopes and cameras to record molecular stress and strain. While the Rustici is dealing with a frontal subject and literally deep space, the Littorio is dealing with literal molecular spaces. For me, Terragni is important for many reasons—and not so much for what he did as for the realm of research he was involved in. In a very short career—he died at age 40—he goes from a standing frontal subject in public space to a technical visual subject who is using instruments to look at molecular space. And he’s using both realms within six years. His ideas span many realms of how we would constitute a visual subject. We don’t seem to worry about visual subjects per se today within the wider public conversation about the city—at least not outside of academic circles—but I think, again, we should try to address the cleft between how the city is seen and discussed by the public and how it is produced. Architecture has been discussed a great deal as a visual/semiotic project—Robert Venturi’s and Denise Scott Brown’s work set this stage, and it was drawn within the cacophony of commercial signs and the linguistics of advertising—but the city has not been discussed very well as a visual/technical project. We need to more fully embrace a technical subject without becoming overtly technical ourselves. Terragni is fascinating because he worked across a spectrum of visual spaces.

AB Let’s talk about your Stateless Housing project. There are two things that I want to point to: you talk about the project as having joined but individuated houses, so that the house is not simply the condition that becomes generalized, and you also talk very interestingly about dwelling as an urban condition rather than a domestic condition. I think this becomes tremendously important both in terms of how one thinks about the design of houses and how one thinks about the subject of dwelling, to take up that question of subjectivity. Your work has, or should have, I should say, a real impact on how one talks about and thinks about the domicile and, to use that wonderful opposition, how one thinks about the relation between the domicile and the megapark. How does one begin to conceive of housing as linked to another conception of the domestic, one that is not projected but is more in tune with our contemporary sensibility and subjectivity and the way we live in the modern world?

MB The thing about joining the individuated—I’m thinking about dwelling actually becoming urban rather than the urban becoming domestic. In a 1976 essay, Rafael Moneo, writing about Aldo Rossi, talks about the city, and he thinks that when we separate work and living the city becomes the place where we dwell. That statement really had a major impact on me. I took it somewhat literally. I don’t know if he meant it to be taken that literally, but I really imagined living on one hand and working on the other and life itself, the occupation of dwelling, suspended in space between the two, which means that the subject has to find a method of imagining the continuum.

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Stations House, 2003 (unbuilt). 5

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Stations House, 2003 (unbuilt). 5

AB At one point in your writings, you said, “Architecture in this realm attempts to construct the city—it becomes the vantage to imagine the organization of the larger systems—that allows its inhabitants an intuitive ability to newly construct the city from a local vantage point.” There are two ways of responding to the separation of life and work, and one is to design a building in which you both live and work. There is an architectural revolution that actually begins to weave together, by refusing zoning, a certain relationship between living and working. But you’re not taking that view now.

MB No. I’m not.

AB And that’s very interesting. I wonder if you would talk about this idea of an intuitive ability to newly construct the city from a local vantage, and then account for how that has some impact on you as a designer.

MB You know, intuition is linked not just to Bergson but also to Rossi and his idea of constructing the city. Rossi’s is both the literal and figurative illusion of the city seen through architecture. Rossi never proposed that we hitch up to that which has been fragmented and make it whole again. He proposed that we build fragments, but these fragments were keys to the comprehension of the wider city and history. The world is highly synthetic in many ways—economically, for instance—but also highly fragmented as a physical artifact, and there is probably neither the will nor the means at the moment to make the world more physically synthetic, to make living more unified, to make community less emaciated. What is needed is to perceive the destructive participants of space differently: to resist these processes less, to rebuild space within them, and to sustain the local with a greater understanding of the whole, and that is probably asking a lot. It is in some sense more pragmatic than if you look at a city like Houston—it’s not going to be made whole in the next 30 or 40 years. So if we are going to continue to occupy these spaces, here and around the world, we need to begin deconstructing how we perceive things and trying to put thinking about space and how it is produced into the world in a broader way, to find a method by which a wider audience can partake in the production of space. We simplify how space is constructed to discuss it politically, but this in the end does not allow us to address changing or altering space in ways that are commensurate with the complexity and means of its production.

AB I think one could distinguish between density and making something whole. It seems to me that one of the problems, certainly in Australia and I’m sure in most American cities, is what’s called urban sprawl. Cities extend farther and farther out, and the farther they extend the less viable they are environmentally and infrastructurally, because urban sprawl, when it is successful, empties the downtown.

MB That’s certainly a problem in cities like Houston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles—everywhere here.

AB One way of addressing this, maybe, is to think about density, which is not the stitching together and making whole but the idea of an intervention that brings many programs to bear in one particular location, so that the intervention is not simply imagined.

MB Yes and no. The essay that you quoted included the word enzymatic, and it’s an important concept, I think. When you drop an enzyme into something it’s a small-scale participant in a large-scale milieu—the enzyme changes the wider field, by affecting its structure rather than its form. The formal argument is that indeed one could drop small buildings into large cities, but it’s so small compared to the problem. But the consequences of dropping them in could, enzymatically, be far larger than their immediate material presence. This is why Rowe and Slutzky are still interesting to me, because of the aspect of discreteness in their theories: the discreteness of both the architectural objects and the subject was maintained, but they proposed that transparency’s literalness was also coupled with a phenomenal quality. The phenomenal transparency was the uncharted, more open territory, the consequence of the literal, but it was unanchored from it and they did not attempt to truly define it. I still think it is useful today.

AB And that’s why you’re interested in topology and not mathematics?

MB Yes. I think mathematics is still the way many things are produced: buildings are still square boxes in the middle of square lots; roads are still cartographically described by one direction or another. But the economic systems are topological; the arrangements of things through international market relationships are topological. I’m interested in the crisis between those two worlds.

AB Your writing links you far more to a certain modernist tradition than to a lot of contemporary work. Why is it that one finds the names of Alvaro Siza, Rafael Moneo and Aldo Rossi, among others, in your writings rather than what one might call the usual suspects?

MB I’ve always admired John Hejduk for many reasons, but he was very clear that he went back into history, and as we mentioned earlier, he worked through the threads of historical precedent. He used to talk about finding a step that the architect didn’t seem to have finished: he would talk about finding a thread that Mies didn’t finish and accomplishing things that Le Corbusier might have if he had taken this turn rather than another. Siza, Rossi, and Moneo, all three of them, have woven through history. I think Moneo and Siza come through both the ancient city and modernity at the same time and lead philosophically and spatially to a kind of architectural topology. Siza is incredibly complex in terms of topology. I’ve also tried to come through these architects; I haven’t overtly tried to invent strategic forms myself. The term we always throw to the top of the discussion about Rossi is memory—not remembering, but Rossi’s theory of memory actually gets very close to Bergson’s theory of memory. The parallel thought that comes through in both of them is that memory is the means by which the body overcomes its own extensive limits, that the local is able to become more than the local. And Bergson’s term shows memory’s ability to see movement as something that is distinct. I think these terms are very close to terms that Greg Lynn uses; Lynn uses the term time-image, as does Bergson. Greg is obviously aware of and has worked through and past Rossi. All this to say that these three architects are extremely relevant in the contemporary discourse.

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Stateless Housing, Far Rockaway, New York. Urban planning by Michael Bell Architecture, with housing prototypes designed by Marble Fairbanks Architects and Mark Rakatansky Studio as well as Michael Bell. 6

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Stateless Housing, Far Rockaway, New York. Urban planning by Michael Bell Architecture, with housing prototypes designed by Marble Fairbanks Architects and Mark Rakatansky Studio as well as Michael Bell. 6

AB That opens up the way in which the modernist tradition is not exhausted. Modernist architecture is not something monolithic that you can simply move beyond. Your own work as an architect and as a theorist has clearly shown that idea to be false.

MB In my lifetime there was one major event that it seems we all were to hook into, and that was the apparent end of modernism. If you really tried to declare that something was ended, you’d have to look at it as a body of work with clear edges, and while modern architecture may have clear edges, modernism and modernity don’t. But what I always very much liked about Rossi, Moneo, and Siza, who came of age at the same time as postmodernism in the United States, was that for them tradition and history were more nuanced. When Moneo would speak of the city he would speak of conditions. And in America I think the term that was more prevalent through people like Charles Moore, Robert Stern and Michael Graves was context. Moneo allows you to imagine that modernity runs through the current of history—that modernity didn’t end, but also that it never really began. American architectural polemics have had a showmanship that was declarative and rhetorical.

AB There are two final things like I’d like to take up; they seem completely unrelated, but I would like to relate them. One is this remarkable project, 16 Houses, where you bring together a whole group of architects to make an intervention within a real setting, in a real city, to build real houses. That seems to me one of the natural projects for a curator or activist, but it also could be read as an extension of the work your students do. It’s easy to see how your own research, what you do as a professor and what you do as a teacher, could be bound up with the way in which you gather people together in order to make interventions or to do architectural research projects together. Do you think of yourself as someone who organizes collaborative interventions?

MB What you say is funny, because at one point many of the people who were producing the works for 16 Houses—Stanley Saitowitz, Carlos Jimenez, Sanford, Lindy Roy—felt like they were in my class. But it was never intended to be that way. The term I’ve relied on for a long time that describes to me why an architect would get so involved with thinking about the city, about financial policies, about histories of housing finance, is reconnaissance mission: you leave the base camp to find out the structure of the terrain around you, then come back to the base camp and more securely make your plan as to how you move forward. For me, whether it’s teaching or organizing 16 architects to work in the Fifth Ward in Houston to look at federal housing policy shifts, there’s an ongoing intent to understand the grounds on which you can practice architecture, if you want to be practicing architecture in a way that touches the real depths of social policy and public meaning of what we do in the world.

AB Without research there isn’t architecture. Architecture is not form creation, but it’s linked to form creation. In some sense, the boring, almost soporific analysis of the studying of documentation is integral to architecture. It doesn’t generate the design, but without it, knowing how to design would not take place.

MB Again, I agree and to a certain extent am reluctant to agree. It’s been a big question: At what point does the diagram cease to be a diagram and start to be something? In this case, I think you can ask that same question about research. It’s true that research doesn’t produce design, but it does precede design, and it enables the designer to understand the depth or the seriousness of what they’re dealing with. I use it with students to get them into a position where they realize the seriousness and the potential of what they’re doing.

AB So research puts iron in their soul.

MB I think it does. It sets them up emotionally and intellectually to believe that they can take a legitimate and logical next step.


1. The Binocular House simultaneously flattens space and syncopates depth. Tempered glass plates pull the horizon line across the east facade of the house, securing the foreground, while layered planes at the center reveal the site’s depth. At the periphery of the oculus, space is momentarily stabilized before the view plunges deep into the forest beyond. 2. While the traditional city, or metropolis, has thickness, based on the inertia of matter and the linear growth of finance, the space of the contemporary city, or megalopolis, is thin. The metropolis is dense at its core and progressively less so toward its edges, while the variations of density in the megalopolis follow no linear progressions and are perhaps primarily financial: a Wal-Mart is economically dense, yet its surrounding parking lot is fearfully thin. It is obviously a misnomer to call Houston a city; it has virtually none of the spatial or material attributes that define the form of the traditional city. In fact, an absence of buildings is its most striking feature. Houston does have a form of material integrity derived from standardized building processes, but where would one locate the “form” of Houston—in the towers and the city grid or the economic mechanism that built them? Having lost virtually every race against the mechanic efficiency of the megalopolis, the city has not been erased but has been left to catch up. When the traditional city isn’t shored up by tax abatements, historic revival or a sheer will to urbanism, we are left in the strange position of looking for an after-the-fact city and subject. How does this subject find itself, its edges, its centers, its ground? Unhinged and over-coded, a product of received information, our contemporary subject is looking for a city. 3. The poorest section of the city, the Fifth Ward is adjacent to downtown Houston but disengaged from the city’s thriving global economy. The area is now being redeveloped by self-organized new groups such as the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation. 4. Designed as a spectacular vantage from which Mussolini would address an audience, the Palazzo Littorio has confounded critics who have sought to understand the symbolic purpose of the photo-elastic structural diagrams shown on the building’s cantilevered elevations. Terragni and Lingeri were pioneers in the use of photo-elastic process the major method of experimental stress analysis in the 1930s. As a form of element analysis, the photo-elastic process reveals patterns of stress distribution in the patterns generated by polarized light passing through an assembled model. The photo-elastic process transformed Terragni’s architectural and visual subject from one drawn within perspective and volume to one drawn within the optics of chemistry and material science. 5. Designed for a Dwell Magazine competition for an affordable prefabricated house in North Carolina, the Stations House was presented as a series of 14 stations, influenced by the Stations of the Cross, interpreted as a series of interactions between the body of the occupant and the high-tech body of the mechanical house. With each successive station, the body of the occupant (here cast as Jesus Christ) merges further with the structure of the house, deforming and reorganizing its tectonic structural system. The presence of paintings and sculptures that focus on entropy and weight undermines the stability of both house and body. At Station 8, where the “veils” of a Morris Louis painting streak the picture plane, Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem; and at Station 9 (above), Jesus’s third fall is mirrored by a Robert Morris felt sculpture. By Station 14 (below) we have left the scene of architecture and returned to nature and forms of imminent life. 6. The Rockaway Peninsula (above) is home to approximately 38,000 households: a mix of subsidized housing for lower-income families and cooperative resident-owned apartments. The New York Department of Housing Preservation and Development currently proposes adding as many as 2,000 partly subsidized units of new market-rate housing to the area, on 308 acres that have sat dormant since the late 1960s. This project defines a new model of housing that combines the high-density, collective housing paradigm of early modernism with the low-density single-family-house model central to the U.S. market. In Bell’s duplex design (below), each apartment occupies two floors and overlaps at the midlevel of the building. Mechanically the building operates as a structural beam suspended above the beach, which is left open so that natural vegetation can flourish.

Olafur Eliasson by Chris Gilbert
Eliasson 03 Body

Conceptual art’s shift away from the traditional art object—sometimes dubiously referred to as “dematerialization”—was more or less an idée reçue in the late 1980s and early ’90s, when Olafur Eliasson was beginning to make art as a student at the Royal Academy of Arts in Copenhagen.

Mitch Epstein’s The City by Marvin Heiferman
Epstein 01 Body

Mitch Epstein’s enigmatic approach to conveying life in New York City gives one “the opportunity to ponder what photography can and cannot reveal about our public lives and our most private selves,” according to reviewer Marvin Heiferman.

Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory by Ali Hassani
Step White

Somewhere in post-Soviet Moscow, the narrator of Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory rummages through the apartment of her recently deceased aunt and comes across a collection of family photographs, some over a century old.

Originally published in

BOMB 88, Summer 2004

Featuring interviews with Olafur Eliasson, Ellen Phelan, Percival Everett, Francisco Goldman and Esther Allen, Ben Katchor and Alexaner Theroux, Jorgen Leth and Ann Mette Lundtofte, Michael Bell, and Mauricio Kagel. 

Read the issue
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