(or, just Out of Spite?)

Out of Site: A Social Criticism of Architecture, edited by Diane Ghirardo, (Seattle: Bay Press, 1991), 249 pages, $16.95 essays by Margaret Crawford, Mike Davis, Rosalyn Deutsche, Kenneth Frampton, Diane Ghirardo, Vincent Pecora, Tony Schuman and Ferruccio Trabalzi.

As an anthology of voices speaking out on the current state of architectural thought, Out of Site delivers more than promised. Diane Ghirardo has assembled a stellar line-up of the Left Coast Left, balanced by diverse texts from New York and European theorists. Ironically, the essays that make up the book, taken as a whole, are more insightful than Ghirardo’s summary of the ideas in the book. Although Ghirardo sets out to castigate architects for their societal irresponsibility, she fails to analyze their motivations. The other writers examine the cultural forces that have cordoned off architecture from other disciplines and from those areas most in need of environmental improvements.

Though posed as “a broad-based critique that directly challenges the formalist assumptions currently dominating both teaching and practice,” the essays collected here – except for the editor’s – generally assume the failure of architecture’s purely aesthetic debate as given. Many of them go far in mapping out the history of that failure and postulating new more responsive and responsible paths for future architectural discourse.

The breadth of scholarship and depth of understanding that each author has brought to bear on his or her chosen topic makes it difficult to describe the complexity of their ideas in the context of a brief review. Frampton, Crawford and Pecora place the current practice(s) of architecture with philosophical and historical precision. Schuman and Trabalzi offer leading examples of micro and macro-political analysis turned on the European city and highlight the ethically suspect role of Architecture that emerges from such analyses. Davis and Deutsche virtually invent new disciplines to contain the range of their findings. Each of these maps an exact pattern of logic guiding the processes of disenfranchisement in the nation’s two largest cities. Each then catalogues the recurring failure of artists, planners and architects to acknowledge their complicity in systems of impoverishment. These two pieces alone are among the most important primers for students of design posed in decades.1

With Out of Site, Ghirardo has posed an alternative – not to say an antithesis – to the overt commerciality she has faulted repeatedly in the work of others over the last two decades. In place of splashy color graphics and glossy finish, Ghirardo has opted in bold-face for the ascendency of the printed word over the reproducible image. Hers is a carefully-tailored asceticism, meeting HYPE with type.

Ghirardo has been quick to sum up the work of others as “reactionary,” yet fails to note the nostalgia of her own method. If most architectural publication reduces the built environment to consumable image for the media(ted) classes, Out of Site retreats to an even more ethereal plane. As presented, this is a book by and for scholars, written and promoted by same. Though ostensibly intended to criticize “Architecture,” few of the authors chose to illustrate their pieces – perhaps because when reduced, half-toned, and printed on grey-beige stock, images require little critique to undermine their value. If one doesn’t come to these texts with an understanding of the published and built works under discussion, little of the profound commentary will register. Even so, there is poetry to the title of this collection and satire to its byline. Out of Site both sums up the locale of most architectural thought in the eighties, and plays savvy, erudite games with a happy catch-all of seventies enthusiasm. “Out of Sight!” Jimmy Walker used to say dally on Good Times, letting the mostly white audience of the show know that the faltering economic status of America’s black, urban families wasn’t cause for them to worry.

Appropriated here, Out of Site is meant to imply the opposite: the preoccupations of the Western intellectual elite are so out of touch with the built environment that their endeavors prove as meaningless as the job – and soul searching of the TV character made famous by the phrase.

But is Out of Site not more of the same navel-gazing? Though many pleas are made for a broader dialogue uniting architectural thought with the “outer” world, all eight authors teach at architecture schools, five at SCI-Arc. Though Mike Davis and Barbara Deutsche often step far beyond their call of duty as academics, the brief biographies of the contributors make note only of where each teaches, thus “legitimating” and homogenizing these voices at a single stroke.

Though perhaps less intentional, the sub-title, “A Social Criticism of Architecture,” has similar ambiguities. Much of the criticism is indeed social. Ghirardo opens both her introduction and her essay with pathetically insensitive words from Peter Eisenman – no doubt fairly and easily sampled from many other equally thoughtless comments. To take Eisenman to task for attitudes held more insidiously by many men practicing architecture has the ring – and the effect – of critiquing Andrew Dice Clay for the failings of modern mankind. By assaulting the singular figure of Eisenman, Ghirardo simply reconfirms the station of the artist as solitary and male, white and embattled.

Oddly enough, Ghirardo passes up the opportunity to lambaste Richard Meier in the second of her two treatments. She deplores the Getty Foundation for its inattention to the art of this century and its thinly-disguised intention to keep its collection free of traffic too pedestrian. But she leaves the designs for their malign acropolis more or less untouched. Meier, far more than Eisenman, appears open to the critique put forth by Ghirardo. On countless occasions and with silent, self assured arrogance, Meier has colonized foreign soil with a universalizing formalism divorced from any and all context. He, after all, is the last architect to see all hues in White, his White.

Ghirardo has opted to pinpoint exactly one contemporary fallacy, the “new” Formalism, as a telltale symptom of architecture’s moribund state. In short, architects have generally, and increasingly, side-stepped social responsibility in favor of high priced game-playing for the wealthy. To critique this game-playing within its own terms, or in terms of its most brazen players, only adds weight to the corpse carried off and buried by the other authors in her collection.

Joe Day

1. For further reading along the lines of these last two essays, try: Fire in the Hearth: The Radical Politics of Place in America, edited by Mike Davis and others, (London; New York: Verso, 1990):

If You Lived Here: The City in Art, Theory, and Social Activism, a project by Martha Rosier – includes essay by Rosalyn Deutsche, (Seattle: Bay Press, Dia Foundation, 1991); and,

Reimagining America: The Arts of Social Change, edited by Mark O’Brien and Craig Uttle, (Philedelphla, Santa Cruz: New Society Publishers, 1990).

For a radically “recoded’ anthological antidote to male-dominated formalism in architectural discourse, try:

Drawing, Building, Text, edited by Andrea Kahn, (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 1991).

Back to September 1991 Newsletter