Architecture and Rage

This month of rage has been building for a while: the last few weeks, the last three years, are nothing new, neither for the country nor for myself. A tyrant sits on his throne, spreading his bigotry and inciting hatred. Black men and women are dying in the streets, killed by not so much by individual crooked cops as by a malignant system central to the disciplinary society that underlies our government.

Nothing new here. That’s not a way of ducking the issue, that is the issue. What follows is a highly personal account that I am set out to write to underscore just how deeply fucked up the discipline of architecture is.

Over thirty years ago, on August 6, 1988 I witnessed the peaceful Tompkins Square Protest against neighborhood gentrification turn into a police riot after cops charged the crowd wielding batons. Police claimed that bricks and bottles were thrown, but I was there, they lied. Cops lie, it’s a fact that my father—a conservative and fan of Ronald Reagan—taught me years before that. The cops charged us. We ran. As we inched our way back to the scene, I watched a young black man in dreadlocks being held by two cops on horses as they hit him over and over with their batons. I was fairly far away and I gauged the scene. I yelled at them and gestured obscenely, hoping they would chase me, giving the man some relief. I figured I’d duck into a storefront. Had they come after me, I am sure it would have been bloody, but they didn’t. They continued beating him. Later, the police would be charged with over a hundred counts of police brutality. Only two officers were actually found guilty of any wrongdoing and only one—conveniently for the NYPD, a woman—was dismissed.

I turned 21 that year and I was in New York because I was supposed to go to Columbia for graduate school in architecture, but after three days I’d had enough and I quit, going back to Cornell to do a doctorate in the history of architecture. But these two moments aren’t random bits of biography, the first led to the second. I’d majored in history of architecture for two years at Cornell and as part of that, I took design studio as well. As was the goal of that curriculum, design studio taught me more than anything else during those two years. It seemed to me that there was something fundamentally wrong with the formalist system of education as it was taught at Cornell, where I studied, as well as at so many others schools, including Columbia.

I tried to find out what was behind this system and, since the first project we worked on was the Nine Square Grid, I eventually traced it to a book that was curiously missing from Cornell’s Fine Arts Library and could only be found via interlibrary loan, the 1971 MoMA catalog, The Education of an Architect: a Point of View, which chronicled the teaching of John Hejduk at Cooper Union as well as the book that every student seemed to hide in their desks like a pornographic magazine, the 1975 Five Architects, which presented the work of Peter Eisenman, Michael Graves, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk, and Richard Meier. These books were to be read furtively since they suggested that reading, not learning through drawing, might be possible and that the system of education then being employed, which presented itself as timeless, might itself have a history.

I found it difficult, almost impossible, to square these books—filled with formal games and an architecture that defied materiality—with the real political revolution of the 1960s. How could they co-exist in the same milieu? But clearly, it was there, in his preface to Five Architects, Arthur Drexler, Director of Architecture and Design at MoMA, stated “An alternative to political romance is to be an architect, for those who actually have the necessary talent for architecture.”

In 1988, bound for architecture school, I witnessed the violence in the streets and a month later, decided that it was not the time for me to go to architecture school. I wasn’t just interested in understanding the way architecture repressed politics, I needed to understand it. Against all advice, I chose to try to understand the very educational system that I detested.

As I did so, I ran across two curious articles in, of all places, Spy Magazine. Spy, edited by Kurt Andersen, was this wild, satirical magazine that mercilessly targeted the celebrity class, most notably the “short-fingered vulgarian Donald Trump,” who remembered that slight well enough that he tweeted about it in 2015 when Charlie Hebdo‘s offices were attacked. The first was a 1991 article by John Brodie, “Master Philip and the Boys.” Brodie examined how Philip Johnson wielded power and influence in architecture and how he gathered “the Kids,” a boys’ club of formalist architects around himself (curiously enough, this included three of the five members of the New York Five plus Robert Stern and Frank Gehry). The second was the late Michael Sorkin’s 1988 article, “Where was Philip?” (thanks, Trump, you fucking fuck, for dragging your feet on effective measures against the COVID-19 virus and thereby killing Michael Sorkin, much better a man than you or your awful children will ever be). Using primary sources, Sorkin uncovered how the very same Philip Johnson tried to create a fascist party in the United States, going so far as to accompany the Nazis on the blitzkreig into Poland, singing the invading army’s praises in (what we now call fake) news articles for extreme Right-wing publications. This led to that again: I realized these three phenomena—a formalist architectural education, an aged architect who gathered power around himself, and the largely-supressed Nazi past of that architect—were not distinct, but were all aspects of the same system.

I spent three years writing a dissertation exploring how contemporary architecture was fundamentally based on a process of spectactularization—of stripping politics from history for the purposes of an illiberal politics of form. I was writing in the aftermath of the scandals about Paul de Man’s collaborationist writing and I was naïve enough to believe that the academy would take my work to heart and examine itself. Matters had already changed by the time I filed my dissertation when Franz Schulze’s published his biography of Johnson. I hadn’t known Schulze was writing the biography, or even doing research into Johnson’s fascist period until right before publication, so his work hardly impacted mine, apart from some last minute revisions. Schulze’s book was a bizarre and offensive combination of pinkwashing—Johnson loved the boys in their black boots and hot uniforms so it was all ok—and old school outing (Johnson was gay! he was gay, imagine the scandal!). Schulze, who demonstrated no interest in critical thought, either didn’t have the capacity to make the connection between the postwar whitewashing of Johnson’s Nazi past and the concomitant removal of both Left and Right politics from modern architecture or more likely, chose to ignore it. These were the same things: they both served power, privilege, and a Nietzschean drive to form at all costs. If Schulze didn’t draw this connection, I would soon find out that the academy didn’t want to hear it.

I published two articles from my dissertation in the Journal of Architectural Education. Editor Diane Ghirardo greatly supported this work, as did the peer reviews I received. The first article was “We Cannot Not Know History,” in which I examined on Johnson’s Nazi past and the attempts to repress it. This immediately got me in hot water with the JAE’s parent organization, the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. Whether the directorate was interested in killing the article because—as they claimed—it opened the organization to libel lawsuits or whether they hoped to kill it because the article hit too close to home is up to you to decide. The second article was “The Education of the Innocent Eye.” My exploration of the formalist system of architectural education was damning as well—after all, I concluded, “An initial exposure to architecture through the absolute system of the visual language of architecture clearly puts materialist questions second. Beam, column, wall, compression, shear, and rotation take precedence, and history, theory, gender, race, and class take a backseat.” This time, quashing the article wasn’t in the cards and I won Best Article of the Year from the JAE.

But I’d already found that not only was architecture not willing to tackle the questions I’d raised, my dissertation topic was, on the contrary, an impediment to a career in the academy. Granted, it was the recession, but I spent two years unable to find employment until Margaret Crawford gave me a chance to teach history and theory of architecture at SCI_Arc. Even then, my work was received with suspicion by virtually all of the design faculty there and many of would have gladly curried favor with Johnson if given the opportunity. In the end, upon becoming Director, Eric Moss asked me in an accusatory tone what I was hoping to gain from writing this sort of thing. No great surprise, it was well known that he was a wannabe Kid. He made it clear I was unwelcome in his regime and his leadership style (so clearly prefiguring Trump’s presidency in its vulgarity and absolutism) were such that I didn’t want to work for him in any event.

In the meantime, I’d hoped to publish my dissertation in book form. Theory was rapidly falling out of fashion and there weren’t many takers for my work on architecture education. What still shocked me was how reluctant publishers were to publish my material on Johnson. Encouraged by some colleagues (notably Mike Davis), I put together a proposal to publish my work on Johnson together with the texts he wrote back in the 1930s. Unfortunately, these publishers had no interest in helping architecture confront itself. One asked, like Moss, “what I hoped to gain from all this.” (I started posting these articles in 2017 but the silence sapped my spirit…I’ll try again another day and see if there is any greater interest this time).

I taught as a visiting faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania for a term under the late, brilliant and gentle Detlef Mertins, but work there was only temporary. Clearly it wouldn’t have been possible for me to stay in the history of architecture—my work was too dangerous for a powerful figure in that program, friends confided in me (I suspected having a non-anglo-saxon name was also a problem for this fellow… as it has been in so many places throughout my life)—and that was the last time I was a full-time member of a history of architecture faculty in the US. I reinvented myself: if my dissertation had been around social networks, I now looked to theorize the impact of digital networks on cities and forged a career in that field. I managed to land a position in the laboratory research wing of the architecture school at Columbia that lasted well over a decade until it was eliminated by a new Dean seeking to cut costs. Even so, it was clear at Columbia that my presence as a historian was deeply questionable, not to be publicly acknowledged and I was never asked to be part of that faculty. Architecture still can’t stomach critique, this is clear to me.

I’m out of teaching, likely for good. I knew that this work was too dangerous for architecture and I had a backup plan for funding that paid off at just about the same time that the labs were shut down at Columbia so now I can work on other projects that interest me more. I’m much happier without the phony leftism of the university, of faculty who pretend to be Marxists, but whose real goal is defending their own turf and the system.

I have a lot of (political) gardening to do, I need to make some art, and look over a translation of one of my texts, but along the way, I intend to go back to some of these projects and post material from them on this site. Let’s see if there’s any interest this time. I’m not confident about it.