While the US was the world’s greatest economic, scientific and cultural force during the twentieth century, it now faces a kind of unplanned obsolescence, in which the nation has become progressively obsessed with its own decline. In these circumstances, changing patterns of consumption and demand have often resulted in an architectural redundancy, in which architecture simply exists as a kind of by-product or residue of these processes.
April 30 – May 28, 2016
Architectural Association School of Architecture
36 Bedford Square
London WC1B 3ES
This exhibition and accompanying publication provide a visual documentation of these architectural remainders. Captured at first with the careless haste of a tourist, these photographs were later recorded with greater care, in an attempt to explore a scattered and provisional history of American architecture shaped by patterns of political and economic upheaval. A history that is expressive of those contradictions which are clearest in the most banal, least continuous and anonymous of all architectures: those possessed solely by time.
Paradise Lost was developed throgh the Research Cluster program at AA: a year-long special projects, activities and events that bring together diverse groups of AA staff, students and outside partners in order to realise a body of focused research. Originally conceived in 2005, Research Clusters are mechanisms for triggering and integrating discussion and exchange across the school. Operating as ‘vertical units’, they are intended as platforms through which to explore and enhance existing and new territories and modes of research.
As Mark Campbell states, this Research Cluster explores the notion of architectural obsolescence. If we accept Siegfried Giedion’s argument that architecture manifests the unconscious will of society, then it can also exist as a kind of residual by-product and a marker of defunct socio-economic processes. In this sense, these long-abandoned buildings are not only emptied of any literal purpose but also – in the more rhetorical sense – of any continued logic for existing. And it is this lack of reason, coupled with the stubborn facts of architectural perseverance, which this cluster will explore in order to discover what lies beneath the image of a Paradise Lost.
This study is intended to be speculative and opportunistic, rather than comprehensive or authoritative. We begin with the image. Participants will photograph examples of these architectural by-products and the resulting images will be geotagged, tagged by subject, and uploaded to an online archival database. The intention is begin by presenting the images as dumb barefaced fact, when of course they are anything but, with ‘photography teaching us,’ as the great American curator John Szarkowski once noted, ‘to see from unexpected viewpoints.’
The cluster will draw on such diverse precedents as: Eugene Atget, whose photographs of Paris – in the famous words of Walter Benjamin – resemble nothing so much as ‘the scene of a crime’; Walker Evans, whose optimism barely survived the rural poverty he documented in James Agee’s Now Let Us Praise Famous Men through a refuge in aestheticism; the heroic grandeur of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s industrial fetishism (Water Towers, Blast Furnaces, Mineheads, Cooling Towers, Grain Elevators, et al.); and the picturesque decay of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre’s recent Ruins of Detroit. Works by Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Stephen Shore and William Eggleston are also important references.
Examples from this database will be further researched and annotated through land registry searches and local histories. These architectures will then be reviewed and described through the process of drawing, which will open up further ‘unexpected viewpoints’. The products of this process will be examined through a series of informal workshops; interviews and invited external commentaries inform the cluster’s inbuilt critique. The research will culminate in a printed publication, concluding and presenting our speculative research.