An Anti Pragmatic-Manifesto by Mark Jarzombek

Yesterday Mark Jarzombek, my mentor from Cornell and Associate Dean at MIT architecture sent me this text to post on the blog. Reader comments welcome! I'll hold off for now in hopes that we can stimulate the readership to comment.
 
AN ANTI-PRAGMATIC MANIFESTO
 
Mark Jarzombek
 
Contextualism is finally dead, let’s face it – except as a survival mechanism in some parts of academe and in the profession. Maybe it is for the best. Its promises from the 1970s never really materialized except to make architecture invisible and bland – a pawn for the status quo – to beat down the imagination of young designers. The turn in the last decades toward sleek neo-modernism has contributed to the death of context; it has created a welcome historical “break.” Modernism comes to the rescue again! But is it enough or will it spiral into the farmlands of phenomenological determinism?
 
There was once a presumption that contextualism – code-worded in the US as “history” - requiredeo ipso a foundation of knowledge and thus a sense of intelligence. That equation, sadly perhaps, was too ambitious and perhaps, in fact, flawed. History turned out to be too complicated to integrate in design studio education. Design encountered the difficulty of history, the difficulty of sustained reading on the difficulty of modernity, (the difficulty of reading Foucault Lacan and Derrida, for example) and baulked.
 
For a while “theory” as it was called became a viable hostfor the discipline’s intellectual energies and ambitions, but now there is a battle for its life and soul. It is facing the same problem as “history,” dying slowly in front of us – in the studios, in halls, in our universities! It has become a style, a way for students to get a job.
 
Theory, as an interrogation of architectural purpose, needs to be saved before it goes down with the ship – before its emptiness is revealed to itself; before our heroes are made hollow. We have words like flow,diagram, and critical written large on a page, but without sub-text, without sub-sub text - texts without erudition - without even a modicum of psychoanalytical reflection – an episteme without epistemology.
 
Soon S.O.M. will be doing “folds.”
 
I predict a new fascination with carelessness, a new tolerance for “whatever” in a “whatever generation” - an architecture that prides itself on neither history nor theory, to put it bluntly. This generation will take over the mantel of the “avant-garde,” and demand that it vacuate itself of purpose and thought.
 
Computation – though not the cause of this crisis - will float through it unscathed; computation has shown that it survives best in arid landscapes, squeezing an infinite variety of possibilities out of nothing, soit seems. There are some efforts to turn the ship in the name of “parametric reasoning,” but will it work? Is it not all “too difficult.” Will computation ever meet abjection? That, probably, is too much to ask.
 
To get past the inevitable disillusionment - that will be the challenge of the immediate future, academe needs to open up the repressedvalues of pedagogy. There was a moment when this seemed possible with postmodernism and then with the attention in architecture schools, some 10 years ago, of so-called marginal spaces, with the desire to make architecture – and the architectural explanations difficult.
 
When are we going to reclaim the unmarginal spaces?When are we going to reclaim the center that is also rightfully ours! Where is our search for the impossible, for the impossibly big?
The process has, of course, begun, largely in the new global phenomenon of museum design. What famous architect has NOT designed at least ten museums – in ten different countries. But let’s face it, this is a an ersatz architecture associated as it is with the commercializing of culture. These great museums are ALL a type of anti-center of the center that still waits to be claimed. We have reclaimed the right to make “objects,” brilliant objects for sure, but objects nonetheless.
Everything else be damned.
 
Central Park in New York – in case one forgets – is completely manmade; it was created over a tree-less garbage dump. Four million cubic yards of soil and rock had to be imported to the site. Five million trees and bushes were planted. Rocky outcroppings were “sculpted” into place, vast amounts of water pumped in. etc. etc.
 
The process of thinking big has partially begun forced onto us by the possibilities in China and elsewhere. But we can think big EVERYWHERE. Thinking big does no mean that one has to make big things. It especially does not mean that one is a problem solver. One must avoid the Siren Calls of the professionals and the pragmatists. Utopia can still excite!
 
When are we going to reclaim utopia for our discipline? Whenare we going to reclaim the possibilities and depth of our discourses?
 

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[...] see some interesting discussion out there about utopias, dystopias, and other bugbears and bête-noires — it warms the cockles of one’s heart. [...]

a mirror

hi, I just ran into this blog and I’m enjoying the reading a lot.
I guess the sign of a good manifesto is that it can be used as a magnifying mirror- every person reads into it what they are thinking right now. Enrique sees complexity and the need for interdisciplinarity, Javier sees the cost of utopia, and progressive reactionary sees echoes of Reinhold Martin’s thinking. Me? I see a response to Tafuri’s call to arms, of the author as producer, the lost struggle of the 20th century –the one postmodernism turned its back on to turn to the mythologies of the boudoir [it’s rather grandiose language, but I’ve been reading it all weekend, please excuse]. Tafuri wanted architecture to reclaim its place in the creation of new production relations. I interpret that also as a call to reclaim architecture’s position in the world. The reference of Central Park is to me a reference to the reclaiming of public space, I wonder if I’m reading that right or is it my own subjectivity getting the better of me? It would seem ironic to post a claim for public space in this blog, but that could always be deliberate [?]:
“Instead of whole individuals, we are constituted in multiple micro-publics, inhabitants of simultaneously overlapping telecocoons, sharing telepresence with intimates in whom we are in near-constant touch, members of the 64 clustered demographics units described by the Claritas corporation's PRIZM system.”
Thanks, great read.

what about history?

Well said. Jarzombek's piece clearly echoes Reinhold Martin's manifesto of utopian realism from a few years back.

I agree with Jarzombek's call to action for the rescue of theory. But what about history, too? He seems to leave this behind, tossed aside as mere "contextualism." Knowledge of history is essential for any kind of utopian thinking, yes?

A somewhat related discussion is unfolding in the comments section over at Lebbeus Woods's new blog. Worth checking out...

Dear 'progessive

Dear 'progessive reactionary'
Good question. I responded partially via a response to Kazys's positing "transparency, literal or embedded?" will add something soon on the history question.

ask mark to expand on the park mention

Let's not forget, though, that Olmsted was a consumate professional and quite a model of corporatism. Why bring up Central Park in here? The question is not rhetorical. I hope Mark will really expand that more. Is it an example of reclaiming the imaginative and the utopian? OK, well, let's not forget either that in addition to all that rock blasted and all that water pumped, it was necessary to evict numerous folks and destroy, literally demolish several constructions that would not be considered just mere "squatter" buildings by today's standards. Blacks were displaced en masse. Olmsted was quite effective also at what today we call "human resources management." He created, from what I know, a clientelist body of workers, who in his imagination were great as labor but would never fit into the routines and contemplative modes that Central Park was for in his view. He'd be horrified at the park today.

Utopia is a wonderful target point, yet let's consider that maybe some of our best visual models of utopias--like a NY with a Central Park--are only possible by a sort of modern-time manegerialism and forms of planning based on private property, which was essential to paying for Central Park. The thing I'm getting at is that "ideating" (hate that neologism) a utopia means getting out of studio ghettos, getting out there into the real world, and in my opinion, accepting that maybe "our" aesthetic ideas are not so precious.

To add one more thing...just a note but not so related to the previous, yeah, I agree that utopia will not pop out of a 3d printer, fully formed, like out of the alien's stomach.

Well aware of the human cost

Well aware of the human cost of Central Park; that, in fact, is part of the argument, even though I should add: What do we do that does not have a human cost? Just try to buy some clothes! The point I was making, however, was that thinking big is not just doing big things, but that we live in a completely artificial world – have for a long time - in which problem solving at that scale has to be tempered by a discourse of history and theory (that being the old model), or at least some form of critical speculation about human nature and its associated social practices. The big has to meet abjection – otherwise it is just more of the same-old-big. But where does this encounter take place? Can the architectural academe be trusted to do this? I am increasingly skeptical. My other point, to conclude, was not that we should do finger pointing about the social consequences, for we can lament for-ever the ever monstrous realities of capital, but that we can still manage to have a utopian-driven ambition for society in which architecture plays aleading role (which is different from museum-globalism). That was what I meant by the 'center.' But because there is a tendency to flatten discourse, we get neither interesting utopias nor an interesting intellectual core, but a type of can-do-avant-guardism.

(Hi javier!, hope all is well)

Some Timely Remarks from Mark Jarzombek

I can't help but see some connections between Jarzombek's manifesto and Grafton's piece for The New Yorker (from your last entry). Both seem to advocate a type of recalcitrance at the dual death knells of history and theory. In Grafton's case, the internet search engines and databases that make our lives as researchers somewhat easier can never be a substitute for the flotsam and jetsam of cultural production. In other words, as we are moor'd to the mast, Billy Budd-like, of our own digital afflictions, we realize our need for stuff.

The "stuff" I allude to - the myriad pages of books that detail our own histories, historiographies, thoughts, cultures, et cetera -- is the very context whose death Jarzombek so bemoans. I think this post is so timely because it alludes to many conflicts that I am experiencing as a doctoral student in architecture. I am constantly in awe of my fellow doctoral students in the History Department here -- they have a vast and unsatiable desire to mine the depths of their discipline in order to make sense of what has already happened. But I am also shocked at their unwillingness to invite other avenues of inquiry -- from cultural history, literature, to, dare I say it ... theory? And yet, I sometimes feel that our very own discipline lacks that very thing that Historians are so good at employing -- I think you get some idea of what I mean.

The manifesto is welcome it that it exhibits incredible foresight, while at the same time asking to reclaim something that has been lost. I refuse to see Jarzombek as lamenting something that if not wholly dead, is certainly about to die. It's a clarion call -- complexity matters. Complexity is an organizing principle. It is the organizing principles of all organizing principles.

The post also leaves me a little unsettled for a very odd reason -- does Mark Jarzombek read architecture blogs? If so, I hope he skips over mine ... I feel embarrassed about my own architectural musings after reading his eloquent post.