28 February 2013

Form without content?

I visited MoMA yesterday to see the "Inventing Abstraction" exhibition. A lukewarm show with many sins of omission. A guide was giving a gallery talk. What struck me most was the absence of big history in her discussion. The push towards abstraction took place on many fronts, but to view it without considering accelerating industrialization, advances in physics, WWI, the Russian Revolution, is to take it out of context to a great degree. This is akin to the split that Reyner Banham describes in The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment. At some point in the recent past, there was a divorce between architecture and systems of comfort. The latter was, and still is, banned from consideration of a work of architecture. So the larger context of a work of architecture remains ignored. The same holds true for much of art in the academy (MoMA being a bastion of the academy). Despite the deep theory that accompanies much contemporary art, the same depth of investigation into wider culture doesn't seem to apply to modern art, which, it appears, is still viewed as primarily an aesthetic endeavor. So El Lissitzky is viewed as equivalent to Picasso. But Lissitzky was seeking to build a new language, divorced from the anti-Semitic, imperialist history of art.

10 February 2013


I am a little troubled by the ascendency of the term "resilience." It seems ripe to become the word of the year, and even more so since our brush with Superstorm Sandy. It is moving over into popular recognition, much like "sustainability" before it. Sustainability had its detractors; it has perhaps become a greenwash term, associated with the kind of corporate environmentalism of LEED and its ilk. To sustain means to maintain in a steady state. However, we are currently in a condition where we need not only to sustain, but to reverse.

Resilience seems to have a low bar for success. It implies that it can take a punch without collapsing - a nice feat, but what about footwork? What about defense - avoiding the punch in the first place? Much of the discussion around resilience right now has to do with getting back to business with little disruption: storm-proofing the subways, putting mechanical equipment up high, designing emergency power systems for running lights and water. This is very far from the total system re-thinking we need to be doing.

Of course the definition gives us
   ecology  the ability of an ecosystem to return to its original state after being disturbed
which is pretty good. But this implies that a city becomes an ecosystem. (Which it is, but not truly functioning like one.) Yeah, every once in a while someone mentions oyster beds. But none of this seems sufficient for the incredible magnitude of the problems we face. True resilience would mean taking actions that begin to reverse the issues that are currently accelerating climate change. 

Things that need to be changed: Our economic system based on the principle of growth. Our world human population explosion. (These first two seem interdependent). Our fossil fuel dependency. There's probably a few fundamental political things that need to be addressed as well, such as corporate influence in government and media's role in supporting that structure.

The global changes are scaring the crap out of me. Yet as a culture we seem to be oblivious. I hope we wake up in time.