For Cite 75, Summer 2008
Sanford Kwinter, Far From Equilibrium: Essays on Technology and Design Culture, edited by Cynthia Davidson (ACTAR: Barcelona and New York, 2008), 196 page paperback, $33.00.
For a New York writer to review a book by one of Houston's great architectural thinkers in Cite is unquestionably risky. But given Sanford Kwinter's own dual allegiance to these two cities and his fascination with the potential lying in the concentrated and dissipated forms of urbanism that these cities respectively epitomize, perhaps it is not impossible. And where better to talk about Kwinter? After all, it is in Houston—both the city and the intellectual milieu—that Kwinter rethought urbanism.
Kwinter's fundamental contribution to architecture is to redirect urbanism away from an image-based notion of the city (I am thinking here of urbanism from Garnier and Corbusier to Lynch and Rowe) in favor of an understanding of cities as products of dynamic forces.
Far From Equilibrium is a collection of essays surveying the evolution of Kwinter's thought. Most books of collected essays come up short, reflecting less a coherent body of work than a wandering mind. But this is not the case here. Selected from his writings in the nineties, these essays form a new document, as relevant to us today as they were in their first iteration—perhaps more so.
Most, but not all, of these essays are from editor Cynthia Davidson's ANY magazine, for which Kwinter regularly contributed a column called "FFE" (originally titled "Not the Last Word," but renamed at Kwinter's request). Intended to accompany the conferences and the books that Anyone Corporation produced, ANY began publication in the wake of Jacques Derrida's influence on architecture, giving life to the suggestion that writing and theory were the highest forms of (architectural) intellectual work. Initially designed by Massimo Vignelli as a graphically flamboyant tabloid, ANY visually announced that the writing in its pages would be radical, not merely observing but rather agitating for and inventing a new architecture.
Kwinter's role in ANY was crucial. After his brief response to a query from Robert Somol on the status of form in architecture was printed in Issue 8 as "Form Work: Colin Rowe," Kwinter arrived in full force in Issue 9 with "Urbanism vs Architecture: The Bigness of Rem Koolhaas." This was a pivotal issue for ANY, marking a change in editorial staff as well as a shift away from deconstruction toward a broader interest in culture, technology, and diagramming. The graphic language of the magazine was redone, the formalist Vignelli design replaced with a more gridded approach by Michael Rock, Susan Sellers, and Georgianna Stout. This new look reflected the influence of Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, both already associated with Kwinter.
But ANY was formulated as a ten-year project, and when that point was reached in 2000, it was shut down. Davidson and Kwinter then reunited as editor and writer, shaping the "FFE" columns—together with other essays that they felt applicable—into this new product. The result is hardly a complete selection of Kwinter's thought, nor does it comprise every text he wrote for ANY. Instead, this book picks out a particularly vital thread in Kwinter's intellectual narrative, reframing key texts from the ANY period that emphasize Kwinter's current commitment to resistance. Thus, the book bypasses the aspects of Kwinter's work in the 1990s, such as his "new pastoralism," that could be misinterpreted as supporting less critical motifs in contemporary thought.
Far From Equilibrium's rewriting is not revisionism. In the essay that's the key to the book, the 1996 "Radical Anamnesis (Mourning the Future)," Kwinter concludes, "Through (selective) memory the future becomes possible, a future that the past could not think and that the present-alone-dares not." In this spirit, working with Davidson as his editor, Kwinter has discovered a radically new book among these decade-old essays, unabashedly facing up to the dangers of technology while challenging architecture to justify itself today.
During the publication process, Far From Equilibrium passed to Actar Publishers, where editor Michael Kubo and designer Reinhard Steger punctuated the book graphically. In line with the editorial mission, the design moves the book forward to the present day, expounding on the work of Bruce Mau, who designed Kwinter's Zone Books starting in the 1980s. A series of gatefold pages reveal projects by architects such as Diller Scofidio+Renfro, Ábalos & Herreros, and Toyo Ito, work forged in the same milieu as Kwinter's writing. Just as these gatefolds disrupt the flow of reading, they also mark a transition in typefaces. These disturbances are registered at the threshold of the reader's consciousness, affirming, as Kwinter does, a faith in the powers of design itself to reconfigure our thought.
This is only a mere overview. Throughout, Kwinter's critical, incisive voice questions what design can do for society today and calls for us to make a stance-to take the road not taken by criticism, which has moved to a vacuous endorsement of the lowest common denominator, either embracing post-criticism or banal journalism. If Far From Equilibrium was once "Not the Last Word," we can be sure that this magnificent work is, if nothing else, not the last word that we will hear from this brilliant thinker.