Beyond Buildings


The Gabfest

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Do you care about this blog? You probably cannot answer that until you read what follows. But to a dozen of the brightest mind in architecture who gathered in New York this last weekend, the very existence of a blog about architecture and of you, dear reader, was a major issue. The occasion for the concern was an invitation-only workshop for critics, curators, and other observers of architecture organized by Reinhold Martin of Columbia University and sponsored by the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at that prestigious institution. Titled “Architecture in Public: A Workshop,” it was intended to—as professor Martin put it—not so much to put us scribblers, curators, and commentators on display as to put us “in quotes.”


We worried about everything. Cynthia Davidson, editor of Log, does not like blogs in general because she thinks the printed word is important. Besides, good magazines have good editors who make sure that we say the right thing in the right manner. Sylvia Lavin doesn’t like the invisible public we might address, saying that if these were the same people who voted down support for public higher education in her native California, she did not care for them. William Saunders, who puts out the Harvard Design Magazine, thought there was collusion between architects and critics to let bad designs pass without enough judgment.


Against such worries, the Columbia core presented a dizzying array of publications and presentations. Mark Wasiuta, who directs the Buell Center’s gallery, Jeffrey Inaba, who co-edits Volume with GSAPP dean Mark Wigley and Ole Bouman, and Benjamin Prosky, who puts together the school’s public events (and now a “Facebook for architects” called Architizer), showed so much information that their colleague-on-leave, MOMA Design Department Director Barry Bergdoll, was forced to ask “Why?”


In between there were those of us who just showed the stuff we do, which consists of everything from exhibitions to magazines to blogs. We tried to justify ourselves—a new and humbling experience for me, and one that gave me respect for those architects I have watched for so many years trying to explain and defend themselves with so little grace, tact, and effect.


The takeaway? Hal Foster suggested we replace the term “public” with a closer look at the historical notion of the commons as space outside of and in opposition to the contested, designed, and privately owned spaces of the city. That was too much content, and his suggestion withered the moment he ended his brief drop-in on the proceedings.


Sitting in this isolated little world for two days, I realized that we were all trying to create, at the risk of using a somewhat tired critical phrase, a palimpsest: a narrative, evocative, descriptive, or expository version of the designed reality out there. It is one that we translate into the medium of words and images, and thus it is derived, miniaturized, and abstracted ("mediated" was the word we kept bandying about). Its true subject is rarely buildings in themselves, but rather the ongoing crisis created by capitalism in which the reality of place is continually eroded by representation and, what is more serious, by an economic system that scours all sites for profit, creating a ceaseless movement of goods, people, and data. Against this violent movement and its social and environmental consequences, architects try to erect bulwarks. We who have failed at such constructions can only think or talk about them, presenting our visions of what they might be or become, or, as David van Leer, curator of Architecture at the Guggenheim Museum, put it, dream of another place, an oneiric alternative to a nasty reality that most of the time doesn’t care what we are doing.


So we awakened, dear reader, to a snowy New York reality, and set off once again to address you.


We have lingered in the chambers of the sea, / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed, red and brown, / Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
—T.S. Eliot, “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock




Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 9:22 AM Sunday, December 13, 2009

    Yes, Mr.Betsky. I DO care about this blog. Actually, I can easily affirm this is the ONLY blog I find worthwhile to spend (my precious) time reading. Although, only one BUT -- can we stop blaming capitalist for all the ailments of society and our decaying profession?

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.