Critiquing the Critic: Notes on Christopher Hawthorn’s D-Crit Presentation


I attended a D-Crit architectural talk last Tuesday (10/28/10) given by the LA Times architectural critic Christopher Hawthorne, entitled “The Plume: Architecture Under a Cloud” at the School for Visual Arts.  Aside from the fact the speaker was over an hour late due to an airline flight problem. I enjoyed the talk and thought I would take a moment while the content is fresh in my mind to share my notes and connect the ideas to some things I’ve been rolling over in my mind.

Mr. Hawthorne began his lecture by presenting the idea that we have been using architecture as a form of separating ourselves from nature essentially since the beginning of the practice itself. Over time we have honed this craft and in modern time we seem to have thought we perfected this aim of architecture. Using the Astrodome as an example of total separation of human activity from the natural elements such as heat, rain and insects, complete with astroturf, climate control and artificial lighting. He then noted SKI Dubai, an indoor, full on black diamond ski slope located in the harsh U.A.E. desert, as a more recent addition to this line of thought and a direct descendant of the Astrodome (which has now fallen into disuse and the designers are trying to figure out what to do with). Two examples of this type of human separation from the environment on a grander citywide scale are Brasilia and Masdar City. Brazil’s capital city, Brasilia, is a highly articulated and planned out with a modern city design and rises out – in stark contrast – of the lush tropical rainforest. The United Arab Emirates newest creation, Masdar City although not modern by design or dependent on exclusion of the environment as its thesis, as is that of neighboring Dubai. Masdar City imagines itself as a functional eco-city, rising out of the harsh desert – in the middle of what once a no mans land – as a highly clustered and walled off city of the future.

After showing how humans have attempted to live outside of nature, Christopher quickly detailed how this ideology has been recently blown out of the water by illustrating current disasters – natural and man-made – including the 9/11 attacks that took down two major skyscrapers that symbolized this separation ideal, Hurricane Katrina, which turned the New Orleans Superdome (a sibling of the Astrodome) into a dystopian human disaster zone and the volcanic eruptions in Iceland earlier this year that disrupted air traffic in England, and thus the world, for weeks, proving that our man made system of international transportation is also not immune to naturally occurring events. Major wild fires sending expansive columns of smoke into the LA atmosphere and BP Deep Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico sending plumes of smoke and oil into its surrounding environment only worked to further his argument that humans, no matter how desperately we strive, cannot escape natural events through architecture.

Then a transition in the discussion was made. The line of thought moved towards the current economic realities we are all too familiar with and a distinction was made between the architecture of the boom times and how current architecture and solutions for living are actually quite different. At this point a deliberate focus on the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale is recognized and special attention to the fact that it has been directed and curated by Kazuyo Sejima. She is a Japanese architect who, along with her partner, recently won the 2010 Pritzker Architecture Prize. The presenters interest in Sejima, her curated show and the lessons it offers is detailed in the fact that Japan’s recent history could now be used as a case study for how to move forward in American economic downturn. This is due in part because the Japanese have been dealing with an era of deflation since the early 1990’s known as the Lost Decade, which closely parallels many of the issues America faces at present. Yet the Japanese have remained strong in the field or architecture and other areas despite, and perhaps in fact because of, the hardships they have faced.

Christopher Hawthorn went on to offer six themes he has extrapolated from various 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale exhibitions. These include; Atmosphere, the Worn, Vacancy, Temporary, Softness and Engagement. I am not going to give a deep outline all the comments he made as they are much more powerful and revealing when accompanied by his slide show. Instead I am going to briefly mention what was talked about then I plan on posting separate and much shorter commentaries about each of the six topics and relate them to my experiences, future plans and current trends.

Mr. Hawthorn used atmosphere as a transition from the hard, often harsh, world of architecture’s recent past saying that, “In a digitally technological world, architecture has the ability to create platforms for human interaction and atmosphere.” He focused on a particular biennalle exhibit which featured a large room with a steel ramp walkway that spirals upward into a man made water vapor “cloud” that was an analogy for the atmosphere we are in, as opposed to atmosphere as an object, that which is observable from a distance. I think the analogy is a good one but I think the atmosphere of technology envelops us all the time, especially me since I’m in NYC.

The idea of worn materials was demonstrated by referencing an exhibit that incorporated salvaged materials from various vacant buildings thorough Berlin. A carpet that had the areas that occupied the footprint of a desk showed clearly where foo traffic over the years and places of heavy wear where. Paneling from a wall showed scratches, chips and natural wearing down at the edges where people probably leaned against it.Even a chunk of the Berlin wall was mentioned noting that the Eastern side was clean and white while the Western side was full of colorful graffiti. These markings and signs of wear give us a history of the place that the materials existed and act as ghosts of what used to be.

Vacant property is perhaps the most pressing issue facing our culture today. Mr.Hawthorn pointed out that the Burj Khalifa (fKA Burj Dubai) – presently the tallest skyscraper in the world – currently sits with 90% vacancy and many office buildings in Dubai will remain vacant indefinitely.

The examples of the Sukkah City: NYC 2010 competition, Coachella and Burning Man where given to demonstrate the temporary theme. In addition, a member of the audience asked about biodegradable/compostable building materials during the Q&A portion of the evening. I thought this was an excellent question but it was received by less than enthusiasm, but I’ll speak to those ideas future posts as I think it relates to a few differnet themes including worn and softness.

Thoughts on softness where pretty much summed up by the statement that, “Hard structures and politics are not nimble enough to handle and flow with today’s difficult economic times.” and I fully agree. A few slide where show depicting “soft” structures such as a plastic bubble that was used for lectures at the oft referenced biennalle – which in turn reminded me of a particular Sukkah City finalists. I found the images shown completely inadequate for the topic and look forward to posting my personal ideas on softness later on.

Engagement was the final concept addressed and this deals with the lengths people have to go to today in order to get their work built and the essential idea that right now, people (and not necessarily only designers) are participating in communities and finding different ways to bring their ideas into the physical realm. This in turn is encouraging others in the community to contribute and build upon the things being done by motivated individuals. Engagement was also the referred to as the “architecture of consequence“which offers the point that architecture cannot, or rather should not, be created without considering how it will effect not only the aesthetics of a place and the inhabitants, but also the local, regional and perhaps global economies, ecology, social and political realities. This is a concept I look forward to diving deeper into, biting off huge chunks chewing thoroughly and digesting slowly.

I hope to make more time in the future to write about more lectures and events that I have the pleasure of attending in and around New York City. I hope you enjoyed my thoughts on this matter and that you will come back fUpdateor more reviews and critiques of mine here on my Postulous page. As I said earlier I will be elaborating on each of the 6 themes laid out here in subsequent posts. I welcome and encourage any thoughts or observations you may have in the comment area or you can email me directly at glopezsez_at_gmail_dot_com




The image used for this post was borrowed from this events official web page. for more information about the Fall 2010 Design Criticism MFA Lecture Series and this talk in particular, please visit:


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