3-1 | Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/10.17742/IMAGE.stealimage.3-1.11 | McGaugh­ey | Dick­in­son PDF

Three recent works, Ros­alind Galt’s Pret­ty, Anne Cheng’s Sec­ond Skin, and Daniel Purdy’s On the Ruins of Babel incor­po­rate archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ry and archi­tec­tur­al dis­course into their analy­ses in ways that are new to their respec­tive fields rang­ing from stud­ies of film, gen­der, and race to intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry. Plac­ing these three works in one essay allows for a detailed review of the ways in which each author employs archi­tec­ture, at the same time as it reveals the ben­e­fits and chal­lenges of incor­po­rat­ing archi­tec­ture into cul­tur­al stud­ies. The essay dis­cuss­es the con­tri­bu­tions of each work to their fields and also takes advan­tage of the dif­fer­ent approach­es to cul­ture and archi­tec­ture to explore the ways in which this rela­tion­ship might con­tin­ue to inform and gen­er­ate pro­duc­tive studies.

Trois œuvres récentes : « Pet­ty » par Ros­alind Galt, « Sec­ond Skin » par Anne Cheng, et « On the Ruins of Babel » par Daniel Pur­dy intè­grent l’histoire archi­tec­turale et le dis­cours archi­tec­tur­al d’une façon inno­va­trice à des domaines qui vont des études filmiques aux études sur les gen­res, aux études raciales, et à l’histoire des idées. Regrouper les trois œuvres dans un arti­cle per­met d’examiner la manière selon laque­lle chaque auteur emploie l’architecture, ain­si que de faire ressor­tir les avan­tages et les défis d’incorporer l’architecture dans le domaine des études cul­turelles. Cet arti­cle éval­ue les con­tri­bu­tions de chaque œuvre à son domaine respec­tif, mais il prof­ite aus­si de la var­iété d’approches de la cul­ture et de l’architecture pour explor­er la pos­si­bil­ité que ces rap­ports inter­dis­ci­plinaires puis­sent con­tin­uer à ouvrir la voie à des formes de recherch­es novatrices.

Sarah McGaugh­ey | Dick­in­son College

(E)merging Discourses:
Architecture and Cultural Studies

Archi­tec­ture is a medi­um that appears in our dai­ly lives. We expe­ri­ence a build­ing as a façade, a visu­al field that is as part of dai­ly life as the flick­er­ing images of the tele­vi­sion or the adver­tise­ments on bus­es or in win­dows. We also expe­ri­ence its spaces, both those of the inte­ri­or and those which frame the exte­ri­or world.[1] Both an optic and hap­tic expe­ri­ence, archi­tec­ture is most often expe­ri­enced in dis­trac­tion, as Wal­ter Ben­jamin once apt­ly not­ed.[2] In schol­ar­ship, as in dai­ly life, archi­tec­ture appears most often, and most vis­i­bly, as archi­tec­tur­al prac­tice, i.e. com­plet­ed con­struc­tion. In recent years, cul­tur­al stud­ies have rec­og­nized the sig­nif­i­cance of the built land­scape and pro­duced works that focus on spe­cif­ic archi­tects and archi­tec­tur­al move­ments or speak to urban build­ing pro­grams and their social, polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, or cul­tur­al effects.[3] These stud­ies rely, for the most part, on archi­tec­tur­al prac­tice as a phys­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion or embod­i­ment of poli­cies and cul­tur­al themes. Archi­tec­ture, how­ev­er, is more than con­struc­tion or a result­ing build­ing; it is a dis­course that (in its place between sci­ence and art and in its ref­er­ence to his­to­ry and cul­ture) con­tributes to numer­ous oth­er dis­cours­es.  Despite this, cul­tur­al stud­ies do not often look to archi­tec­tur­al thought and debate to under­stand its con­tri­bu­tion to our under­stand­ing of cul­ture or oth­er media forms.[4] Such an under­stand­ing of archi­tec­ture as dis­course is at the cen­ter of the three works to be reviewed here. As a group, Ros­alind Galt’s Pret­ty, Anne Cheng’s Sec­ond Skin, and Daniel Purdy’s On the Ruins of Babel reveal archi­tec­tur­al prac­tice and dis­course as pro­duc­tive fields for cul­tur­al studies.

In all three works, Euro­pean archi­tec­tur­al dis­course is woven into cul­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal analy­sis. In this, how­ev­er, each schol­ar employs aspects of archi­tec­tur­al dis­course to very dif­fer­ent cul­tur­al con­texts. Two of the titles, name­ly Galt’s Pret­ty and Cheng’s Sec­ond Skin, con­tribute to Film Stud­ies, and as they do so, they rely upon ear­ly film and film criticism’s devel­op­ment at the time of the emer­gence of Mod­ernism in archi­tec­ture. While Galt inves­ti­gates orna­ment and its use as a descrip­tor of mar­gin­al­ized films in the his­to­ry of film crit­i­cism from then to now, Cheng uses archi­tects’ fas­ci­na­tion with Josephine Bak­er as a way of recon­cep­tu­al­iz­ing race with­in Euro­pean Mod­ernism. Both stud­ies employ themes of archi­tec­tur­al dis­course in their projects to rede­fine crit­i­cal dis­cours­es on film, bod­ies, gen­der, sex, nation­al­i­ty, and race. Purdy’s On the Ruins of Babel, in con­trast, has nei­ther a focus on film, nor does it elab­o­rate on crit­i­cal dis­cours­es of sex, race, or gen­der. His work takes a broad­er his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive than Galt’s or Cheng’s and traces archi­tec­ture as a metaphor in mod­ern Ger­man intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry. Like Galt and Cheng, Pur­dy sees archi­tec­ture as more than a his­to­ry of build­ings and asks how archi­tec­tur­al dis­cours­es and struc­tures change over time. This his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive pro­vides the read­er with a deep­er under­stand­ing of how Ger­man cul­ture con­cep­tu­al­izes issues of aes­thet­ics, epis­te­mol­o­gy, the indi­vid­ual, and his­to­ry in archi­tec­tur­al terms.

All three works expose dif­fer­ent con­cep­tions of what con­sti­tutes archi­tec­tur­al dis­course and how it can be mobi­lized to bet­ter under­stand oth­er fields. As already men­tioned, archi­tec­ture engages both visu­al and spa­tial themes. In Euro­pean archi­tec­tur­al Mod­ernism, how­ev­er, archi­tec­tur­al change is often mea­sured visu­al­ly and through changes in the sur­face of archi­tec­ture. Indeed, rad­i­cal shifts in the under­stand­ing and cre­ation of archi­tec­ture as a visu­al field take place dur­ing the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry in Europe. This is the peri­od in which the Vien­nese archi­tect Adolf Loos denounces orna­ment as a crime and archi­tects in the US and Europe use glass and steel archi­tec­ture beyond its already com­mon indus­tri­al forms. Amongst this debate and devel­op­ment of a new visu­al land­scape of archi­tec­ture, Josephine Bak­er is at the height of her career and film emerges as a field of crit­i­cism. For Galt, archi­tec­tur­al dis­course and its anti-orna­men­tal­ism allows her to under­stand the ori­gins of the aes­thet­ic assump­tions of film crit­i­cism. For Cheng, the same dis­course on orna­ment is more than a debate over the visu­al and is tied inex­tri­ca­bly to an under­stand­ing of its rela­tion­ship to the inte­ri­or. This rela­tion­ship, Cheng notes, is under­go­ing trans­for­ma­tion, and Modernism’s dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion between the sur­face of a build­ing and its inte­ri­or thus allows her to recon­cep­tu­al­ize the rela­tion­ship between skin and flesh. Pur­dy also rec­og­nizes that dis­course on the sur­face and façade of archi­tec­ture is con­nect­ed to its spa­tial con­struc­tions. His work looks at this aspect of archi­tec­tur­al dis­course, in order to bet­ter under­stand how intel­lec­tu­als deploy archi­tec­tur­al metaphors in their thought.

The works of Pur­dy, Galt, and Cheng show how moments of trans­for­ma­tion in archi­tec­tur­al dis­course reflect in and upon oth­er fields. In what fol­lows, I will trace and eval­u­ate the ways in which these three schol­ars employ archi­tec­ture in their works. I will dis­cuss each work sep­a­rate­ly, for not only does each inter­act with archi­tec­tur­al dis­course to dif­fer­ent effect, but each work also has con­se­quences for their fields of study beyond their use of archi­tec­tur­al dis­course. In con­clu­sion, how­ev­er, I will return to the ques­tion of how all three works base key argu­ments upon under­stand­ings of archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ry, archi­tec­tur­al dis­course, and architecture’s cul­tur­al impact.

In Pret­ty, Galt mobi­lizes archi­tec­tur­al dis­course in order to under­stand an emerg­ing visu­al cul­ture at the out­set of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Her work focus­es on mar­gin­al­ized cin­e­mat­ic forms and themes, which she col­lects under the term “pret­ty.” The “pret­ty,” as she defines it, is a minor taste con­cept, and to that end, she appro­pri­ate­ly invokes Ngai’s work on “cute.”[5] Although a seem­ing­ly inno­cent, even neu­tral, term in the spo­ken ver­nac­u­lar, Galt argues that film crit­i­cism asso­ciates the term “pret­ty” with the fem­i­nine, dec­o­ra­tive, and every­day, and in the asso­ci­a­tion with these con­cepts, has neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions. Ear­ly film crit­i­cism val­ued mas­cu­line, real­ist forms of film and these char­ac­ter­is­tics defined a the­o­ry of art and avant-garde films that con­tin­ue to deter­mine which films are cul­tur­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant. As Galt points out, this view of film did not con­sid­er the ways in which it silent­ly exclud­ed non-West­ern film and aes­thet­ics. Fur­ther, it con­tin­ues to do so. Her book’s goal is to recov­er “pret­ty,” in order to gen­er­ate a new film crit­i­cism, one that is glob­al in its form, con­tent, and recep­tion and thus more reflec­tive of the geopol­i­tics of film today.

To estab­lish a his­to­ry of the source of anti-orna­ment in film, Galt turns to Loos and Mod­ern archi­tec­ture. Loos is the cen­tral fig­ure of, and his writ­ings and build­ings are the evi­dence for, the West­ern rejec­tion of orna­ment in Mod­ernism. Loos’s emphat­ic rejec­tion of orna­ment in his lec­ture turned influ­en­tial essay “Orna­ment and Crime” is also a rejec­tion of non-West­ern aes­thet­ics; he locates the orna­men­tal in the tat­toos of the Papuans in order to denounce it as infe­ri­or and anti­quat­ed.[6] Galt relies on this anti-orna­men­tal read­ing to con­struct her his­to­ry of aes­thet­ics since Mod­ernism and in so doing nei­ther con­sid­ers alter­na­tive per­spec­tives in archi­tec­tur­al dis­course nor takes into account that Loos’s essay is not iso­lat­ed in its rejec­tion of non-West­ern aes­thet­ics and that he might be exag­ger­at­ing in order to empha­size a point. Stat­ed more explic­it­ly, Galt reads Loos’s anti-orna­men­tal­ism as evi­dence for Euro­pean Modernism’s col­lec­tive rejec­tion of non-West­ern aes­thet­ics and for its def­i­n­i­tion of orna­ment as exot­ic and for­eign.[7] She sup­ports this through a tra­di­tion­al read­ing of archi­tec­ture that begins with Loos, is sup­port­ed by Le Cor­busier, and is made per­ma­nent in the work of archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ri­an Niko­las Pesvn­er.[8] She then pairs this view of Euro­pean Mod­ernism with the his­to­ry of icon­o­clasm in art his­to­ry, phi­los­o­phy, and film and with a his­to­ry of Clas­si­cist and Neo­clas­si­cist aes­thet­ics and their rejec­tion of dec­o­ra­tion, par­tic­u­lar­ly the arabesque, in favor of the (mas­cu­line) line. These var­i­ous strands of aes­thet­ic his­to­ry, she argues, col­lude with an emerg­ing Euro­pean film crit­i­cism at the start of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry and find an echo in film criticism’s cat­e­gor­i­cal rejec­tion of dec­o­ra­tion and orna­ment in film, a rejec­tion based in the sexed, raced, and gen­dered lan­guage of crit­ics and con­struct­ed in order to estab­lish cul­tur­al valid­i­ty for the emerg­ing medi­um in Europe and the US. This ear­ly film crit­i­cism, as Galt goes on to describe, relies upon a dis­course of fem­i­niza­tion and exoti­cism to estab­lish the avant-garde, artis­tic, and polit­i­cal char­ac­ter of “real” or “cul­tur­al­ly valu­able” film against a com­mer­cial­ized and (fem­i­nized) pop­u­lar film industry.

Galt bold­ly asserts a polit­i­cal view of film that insists upon look­ing at the filmic “pret­ty” in new ways, and she does so with ample evi­dence from film crit­i­cism and with acute analy­ses of a diverse array of mar­gin­al­ized films, such as Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, the work of Derek Jar­man and Ulrike Ottinger, and Mikhail Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba. This is cer­tain­ly the strength of her study: her inno­v­a­tive dis­cus­sion of post-war film the­o­ry and film. In this part of her analy­sis, she con­sid­ers alter­na­tives to the com­mon bina­ries of surface/depth, white/black, subject/object, “pretty”/real and lays out a com­plex net­work of the ways in which the dis­course of film crit­i­cism con­structs dec­o­ra­tive, orna­men­tal, plea­sur­able sur­face, and image-ori­ent­ed film as polit­i­cal­ly, aes­thet­i­cal­ly, and cul­tur­al­ly impo­tent. She con­tin­ues and notes that this dis­course dis­re­gards sub­ver­sive pos­si­bil­i­ties and clos­es its eyes to a the­o­ry of film that breaks free of its West­ern binds to stark­ness and dis­tance as the sole forms of polit­i­cal via­bil­i­ty in film.

Due to the sig­nif­i­cant work Galt per­forms in her analy­sis of film and film crit­i­cism since the late 1940s, it is unex­pect­ed that her work posi­tions itself much less crit­i­cal­ly vis-à-vis his­tor­i­cal dis­course and con­texts. While she presents and crit­i­cizes the his­to­ry of film crit­i­cism, she does not include more than brief ref­er­ences to pre-WWII films. In addi­tion, her work assumes, for the most part, that West­ern aes­thet­ics has a his­to­ry of bina­ry cat­e­go­riza­tion that rejects one val­ue (non-West­ern, fem­i­nine, orna­men­tal, exot­ic) for anoth­er (white, mas­cu­line, West­ern). This his­to­ry is pre­sent­ed as con­tin­u­ous and lin­ear, with some slight shifts in the view of its con­tent but no fun­da­men­tal debate over its basic form.[9] Put more sim­ply, Galt’s study implies that the bina­ry and hier­ar­chi­cal views of the past (those of ear­ly Mod­ernism and post-WWII film crit­i­cism) must be over­come in the present, sug­gest­ing that the entire his­to­ry of West­ern aes­thet­ics con­sti­tutes a raced, gen­dered, and sexed dis­course that posi­tions the white Euro­pean male as the source of pow­er and domination.

An exam­ple from ear­ly film crit­i­cism that char­ac­ter­izes Galt’s ten­den­cy in her work to assert, and not ques­tion, such hier­ar­chies (par­tic­u­lar­ly before WWII) is her dis­cus­sion of the film crit­ic Emile Vuiller­moz and his ref­er­ence to “craft.” (Galt 107) Galt cites a 1918 review by Vuiller­moz in which he refers to the film­mak­er Abel Gance as a “good crafts­man.” Point­ing to Loos’s den­i­gra­tion of craft to estab­lish the concept’s his­tor­i­cal con­text, Galt claims that Vuillermoz’s use of the word “crafts­man” to describe a film­mak­er implies said film­mak­er is not an “artist,” for it is the artist who has a high­er cul­tur­al val­ue. Cer­tain­ly, this is a pos­si­ble read­ing of Vuillermoz’s use of the term; how­ev­er, it is not the only impli­ca­tion of the use of “crafts­man” in the con­text of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. Galt neglects to note that archi­tects, philoso­phers, and design­ers of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry are in the midst of a debate on the rela­tion­ship between craft and art, set into motion by a rise in tech­nol­o­gy and new means of mass pro­duc­tion. This debate gen­er­ates a much more sub­tle rela­tion­ship between craft and art than the sim­ple hier­ar­chy she invokes here. Loos him­self wrote of the respect that needs to be giv­en to a mas­ter crafts­man when it comes to the design of objects.[10] Indeed, the neces­si­ty of pro­mot­ing crafts­man­ship in design and design edu­ca­tion is also a cen­tral goal of the Bauhaus, a school whose social and aes­thet­ic import in Mod­ernism is wide­ly acknowl­edged and to which Galt does not refer in her overview of archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ry. As in her pre­sen­ta­tion of Loos’s com­ments on orna­ment, Galt puts aside the his­tor­i­cal con­text of debate and with it any rene­go­ti­a­tion of West­ern aes­thet­ics, in order to present a stark pic­ture of the peri­od as anti-orna­ment and anti-decorative.

I do not wish to imply that Galt presents false infor­ma­tion in her dis­cus­sion of the West­ern his­to­ry of aes­thet­ics, as she has cer­tain­ly done much his­tor­i­cal work to present her nar­ra­tive of Clas­si­cism, Neo­clas­si­cism, and Mod­ernism. Instead, I sug­gest that these remain his­tor­i­cal excur­sus­es, sim­pli­fied and iso­lat­ed as pre­sen­ta­tions of West­ern aes­thet­ics, and thus they detract from the com­plex­i­ty of the main focus of her work, which is the pol­i­tics in and of film crit­i­cism and film since 1960. It is in her inves­ti­ga­tion of the “pret­ty” and her call for a look at orna­ment, style, sur­face detail, arabesque cam­era move­ment, and col­or as a mar­gin­al­ized polit­i­cal force in film after 1960 that Pret­ty con­sti­tutes a sub­stan­tive con­tri­bu­tion to Film Stud­ies. In this endeav­or, Galt offers ample evi­dence from the his­to­ry of film crit­i­cism and repo­si­tions a wide array of films with­in that his­to­ry. The breadth of films she analyzes—from avant-garde and queer film to com­mer­cial­ized pop­u­lar film and art cinema—and her care­ful artic­u­la­tion of the dec­o­ra­tive images and objects in the films and in their con­texts is impres­sive. Here in her work, dis­cours­es of gen­der, race, sex, and the exot­ic become vis­i­ble and are unpacked by explor­ing alter­na­tive ways of gen­er­at­ing polit­i­cal mean­ing. For instance, Soy Cuba, a film com­mon­ly praised as sig­nif­i­cant for film his­to­ry yet denounced as polit­i­cal­ly and social­ly impo­tent, gains new depth and tex­ture with Galt’s expo­si­tion of key scenes, in par­tic­u­lar the funer­al pro­ces­sion. And, as Galt com­pelling­ly argues, posi­tion­ing film’s sur­face, image, and dec­o­ra­tion at the cen­ter of film crit­i­cism has rev­o­lu­tion­ary poten­tial for film the­o­ry in glob­al cin­e­ma today. Thus, her work on post-1960 film is an essen­tial con­tri­bu­tion to renew­ing the field of film criticism.

In her pre­sen­ta­tion of orna­ment and sur­face, Cheng’s Sec­ond Skin offers an alter­na­tive to Galt’s Pret­ty when exam­in­ing the dis­cours­es of race, gen­der, and sex in West­ern Mod­ernism. Cheng does not con­tra­dict the asser­tion that West­ern Mod­ernism is a dis­course dom­i­nat­ed by white West­ern males. She, like Galt, stress­es how the priv­i­leged posi­tion of the mas­cu­line, white, straight mod­el gen­er­at­ed a hier­ar­chy to the detri­ment of the objec­ti­fied Oth­er. And yet, she asks new ques­tions of this hier­ar­chy: in what ways does this rela­tion­ship change the object and sub­ject? How can we con­sid­er agency on both sides of the sub­ject-object rela­tion­ship? And how does this pro­vide new insight into the con­struc­tion of race?

To answer these ques­tions, Cheng invokes Mod­ern archi­tec­tur­al dis­course sur­round­ing orna­ment and sur­face, in order to approach the con­struc­tion of race from a rad­i­cal­ly new direc­tion. Archi­tec­ture allows her to review the rela­tion­ship between skin and flesh, as well as object and sub­ject, for in Mod­ernism, the sur­face gains a mate­r­i­al sig­nif­i­cance inde­pen­dent of its struc­tur­al dimen­sions at the same time as the spaces of archi­tec­ture are rad­i­cal­ly rede­fined. Like Galt, two cen­tral fig­ures of archi­tec­tur­al Mod­ernism form Cheng’s dis­cus­sion here: Adolf Loos, who designed a nev­er-to-be-built house for Bak­er, and Le Cor­busier, with whom Bak­er had an affair. Admit­ting that Loos’s polemic essay “Orna­ment and Crime” invokes racial and gen­dered speech in order to estab­lish the need to advance a new aes­thet­ic pro­gram, Cheng does not assume that Loos takes this stance through­out his work. As a result, she approach­es Loos’s design of the Josephine Bak­er house in a way as yet unex­plored in schol­ar­ship. She sees the objec­ti­fi­ca­tion of Bak­er in its con­struc­tion but refus­es to elim­i­nate Baker’s agency or reduce Loos’s role in the project to one of mas­ter over per­former. This dis­cus­sion and oth­ers rely upon unique con­nec­tions amongst cul­tur­al prod­ucts of the time. She notes, for exam­ple, the role of plas­tic, prison stripes in fash­ion, gold, and dirt, at the time of Josephine Baker’s per­for­mances and these pro­vide her with new inter­pre­ta­tions of com­mon Mod­ernist read­ings of skin, sur­face, and race.

Through exam­ples from film, lit­er­a­ture, archi­tec­ture, and art, Cheng delves into the com­plex­i­ties of a crit­i­cal dis­course on Mod­ernism which empha­sizes the agency of Euro­pean white males and there­by assumes the pas­siv­i­ty of non-Euro­pean sub­jects. Here, Picasso’s famous vis­it to the Tro­cadéro, Le Corbusier’s affair with Josephine Bak­er, and Portia’s choice of a lead­en cof­fin become the tex­tu­al evi­dence of the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of both object and sub­ject in the (visu­al) con­struc­tion of race and gen­der. These, she argues, revise our view of race and Prim­i­tivism as sim­ple issues of “Oth­er­ness” in Mod­ernism. As her work rede­fines our under­stand­ing of Prim­i­tivism and Ori­en­tal­ism, race and sub­ject­hood, Cheng does not stray far from the fig­ure of Bak­er, the core of her study. She incor­po­rates analy­ses of all aspects of Baker’s per­for­mance from her films to her pho­tographs and her biog­ra­phy. Thus, her work is both an inno­v­a­tive study of Josephine Bak­er as well as an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to Cul­tur­al, Film, and Visu­al Stud­ies of West­ern Modernism.

Ulti­mate­ly, how­ev­er, Cheng’s inter­est does not lie in all of these impor­tant revi­sions to our under­stand­ing of West­ern Mod­ernism. Instead, she aims to present a more nuanced view of the his­to­ry of race in order to approach con­tem­po­rary racial pol­i­tics. Refus­ing to look at skin as an embod­i­ment of sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, Cheng chal­lenges con­tem­po­rary con­struc­tions of race, par­tic­u­lar­ly those that stress the agency of the per­for­mance or the mas­tery of the sub­ject that colo­nial­izes or dom­i­nates the “Oth­er”. Her his­tor­i­cal work on race demands a new racial pol­i­tics that accepts authen­tic­i­ty as con­tra­dic­to­ry and rec­og­nizes “the predica­ment of embod­i­ment” (Cheng 170-171). Like Galt, Cheng calls for con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal change, and archi­tec­tur­al dis­course pro­vides her with an essen­tial ref­er­ent in the con­struc­tion of race.

Cheng’s work starts with the visu­al in her study of Bak­er in archi­tec­ture, film, the­ater, and pho­tog­ra­phy and out of these dis­cours­es emerges her new view of the mod­ern sub­ject. It is this mod­ern sub­ject and the specif­i­cal­ly archi­tec­tur­al con­nec­tions which intel­lec­tu­als invoke in its cre­ation that are the sub­ject of Purdy’s On the Ruins of Babel. From the out­set, Pur­dy estab­lish­es that archi­tec­ture lies at the cen­ter of phi­los­o­phy, poet­ry, and crit­i­cal the­o­ry in Europe even as it emerges as a dis­ci­pline. Indeed, archi­tec­tur­al ter­mi­nol­o­gy and debates struc­ture both Euro­pean soci­ety and thought. His exhaus­tive study begins in the sev­en­teenth cen­tu­ry with the Euro­pean rejec­tion of the clas­si­cal order of columns and con­tin­ues into dis­cours­es on build­ing and memo­ri­al­iza­tion in con­tem­po­rary Europe and the US.

Impor­tant to the devel­op­ment of archi­tec­ture in Europe is the major shift in archi­tec­tur­al thought from a reg­u­lat­ed aes­thet­ics to one that is open to change in style and in peri­od in the six­teenth cen­tu­ry. Prudy takes this shift as a start­ing point to dis­cuss the role of archi­tec­ture in Ger­man intel­lec­tu­al thought, most notably in the work of Kant, Goethe, and Ben­jamin. In case stud­ies on each of these writ­ers, Pur­dy illu­mi­nates the way in which they refer and rely upon archi­tec­tur­al metaphors. To do so, he delves into the dis­course of archi­tec­ture and archi­tec­tur­al the­o­ry of their time. All of the sig­nif­i­cant names of Euro­pean archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ry and the­o­ry are referenced—from Pal­la­dio to Laugi­er and Gideon—but also some of the more spe­cif­ic dis­ci­pli­nary names (see his exten­sive bib­li­og­ra­phy of pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary sources). Fur­ther­more, he firm­ly locates these thinkers with­in their his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al con­texts and exam­ines the influ­ence of archi­tec­tur­al dis­course in the work of oth­er philoso­phers, per­haps most sig­nif­i­cant­ly Hegel, but also Descartes and oth­ers. The result is both an overview of the his­to­ry of Euro­pean archi­tec­tur­al the­o­ry from a Ger­man per­spec­tive, at the same time as it is a his­to­ry of intel­lec­tu­als’ response to and use of archi­tec­tur­al the­o­ry in their work.

To this breadth of con­text, Pur­dy does not neglect detail, and it is in his abil­i­ty to read care­ful­ly that his work gains in depth. For his study of each author’s work, he fol­lows choic­es in ter­mi­nol­o­gy, traces pat­terns and devel­op­ments of themes, and elab­o­rates on ety­mo­log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal con­texts. He reveals read­ings that are sub­stan­tive and insight­ful. For instance, Goethe’s archi­tec­tur­al ref­er­ences, Pur­dy shows, are informed by his expe­ri­ences with archi­tec­ture as a child, at the same time as they form his con­cept of poet­ry and poet­ic genius. Explor­ing such paths in the works of the authors and intel­lec­tu­als he men­tions leads Pur­dy to include not just the usu­al writ­ings addressed in schol­ar­ship or those most often ref­er­enced for their views on archi­tec­ture. In his study of Ben­jamin, for exam­ple, Pur­dy draws upon works as diverse as Benjamin’s ear­ly Denkbilder and his study of Goethe’s Wahlver­wandtschaften (Elec­tive Affini­ties). Purdy’s com­bi­na­tion of under­stand­ing words and themes in the authors’ oeu­vres, as well as in their cul­tur­al and his­tor­i­cal con­text, allows him to iden­ti­fy oth­er­wise unno­ticed ref­er­ences to archi­tec­tur­al dis­course; it also high­lights the val­ue of read­ing care­ful­ly across disciplines.

Purdy’s work is acces­si­ble to a gen­er­al schol­ar­ly audi­ence and does not assume the read­er has a vast knowl­edge of archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ry or even of the work of Kant, Goethe, and Ben­jamin, although those who do are pre­sent­ed with a nuanced and new view of both. He high­lights these par­tic­u­lar intel­lec­tu­als because of their fun­da­men­tal roles in Ger­man intel­lec­tu­al thought, as well as due to their influ­ences and con­nec­tions to one anoth­er. Kant’s work informs much of mod­ern phi­los­o­phy, includ­ing Hegel, while Goethe’s archi­tec­tur­al con­cepts and writ­ings reap­pear in Benjamin’s work. Pur­dy thus draws upon the his­to­ry he traces at each new stage of his study’s pre­sen­ta­tion of its development.

This dense chrono­log­i­cal approach changes some­what in his final chap­ters, as Pur­dy extends his dis­cus­sion of archi­tec­ture into the late twen­ti­eth and ear­ly twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. As he notes in his intro­duc­tion and shows in his dis­cus­sion of archi­tec­tur­al metaphor into the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, there is a long his­to­ry of archi­tec­ture in Ger­man thought that con­tin­ues to inform an under­stand­ing of the archi­tec­tur­al and intel­lec­tu­al land­scape today. This aspect of his argu­ment sub­stan­ti­ates his tem­po­ral jump to the con­tentious debates on build­ing in the uni­fied Berlin of the late twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly those on ruin, mon­u­ment, and muse­um in the new cap­i­tal. Purdy’s insight­ful com­par­i­son of Daniel Libeskind’s Jew­ish Muse­um to the work of Hegel shows how sig­nif­i­cant this con­nec­tion is. His analy­sis of the muse­um shows the ways in which an aware­ness of his­tor­i­cal under­stand­ing of archi­tec­ture con­tin­ues to under­score the pow­er of con­tem­po­rary building.

The works of Pur­dy, Cheng, and Galt are built upon dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives on the his­to­ry of archi­tec­tur­al dis­course, but each also point towards fur­ther poten­tial for stud­ies in pur­su­ing inter­sec­tions with archi­tec­tur­al dis­cours­es. For both Galt and Cheng, the ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry archi­tec­tur­al debates on orna­ment and façade are pro­duc­tive con­texts in order to estab­lish and ques­tion nor­ma­tive asser­tions of race and film. Galt’s work uses archi­tec­tur­al dis­course to explore ear­ly cin­e­ma and its crit­ics as they estab­lish the field. It allows her to view the emer­gent field in a broad­er con­text and include art his­tor­i­cal and archi­tec­tur­al debates over orna­ment, dec­o­ra­tion, craft, and tech­nol­o­gy. While her cur­rent study refrains from incor­po­rat­ing archi­tec­tur­al dis­course in any­thing more than an allu­sive role, it does sug­gest that a study of ear­ly film crit­i­cism would ben­e­fit from fur­ther explo­ration of its con­nec­tions to Mod­ern archi­tec­tur­al dis­course in its many and com­plex dimen­sions. Cheng’s work con­sti­tutes a shift in our under­stand­ing of the lega­cies of Mod­ernism and high­lights the ways in which archi­tec­ture con­tributes to this shift. As she notes in her con­clu­sion, this has ram­i­fi­ca­tions for con­tem­po­rary racial pol­i­tics, but it also, I would argue, calls for a look at the his­to­ry of architecture’s rela­tion­ship to sur­face beyond the one that coa­lesces around the fig­ure of Josephine Bak­er. Purdy’s range—both diachron­ic and synchronic—on top­ics of archi­tec­ture, writ­ing, and thought is immense. Indeed, it left me hop­ing that Pur­dy con­sid­er writ­ing an addi­tion­al book devot­ed to con­tem­po­rary or post-WWII archi­tec­tur­al thought in Ger­man cul­ture. As it stands, the analy­sis of Libeskind’s muse­um would be bet­ter served as a sep­a­rate arti­cle. For while remov­ing this dis­cus­sion of post-uni­fied Ger­many from the book would lim­it the his­tor­i­cal import of his analy­sis of pre-WWII archi­tec­tur­al metaphor and intel­lec­tu­al thought, it would also allow for more the­mat­ic and tem­po­ral coher­ence. The ref­er­ences to the World Trade Cen­ter, the Jew­ish Muse­um, and the Memo­r­i­al to the Mur­dered Jews of Europe thrust the read­er into dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal con­texts and dis­cours­es than the remain­der of the book.

What becomes clear in the work of these schol­ars is the impor­tance of under­stand­ing the com­plex­i­ty of archi­tec­ture as a dis­ci­pline and a prac­tice. While Galt focus­es pri­mar­i­ly on archi­tec­ture as a visu­al medi­um, Cheng adds the hap­tic and struc­tur­al dimen­sions of the field to her cul­tur­al analy­sis. Build­ing fur­ther upon the con­cept of archi­tec­ture and its dis­course allows Pur­dy to rec­og­nize architecture’s role in the pub­lic sphere, as well as the impli­ca­tions of its use in cre­at­ing a pri­vate space for the indi­vid­ual.  All three works show how archi­tec­ture con­tributes to the com­plex­i­ties of cul­tur­al dis­cours­es and all also rec­og­nize the ways in which archi­tec­ture struc­tures and informs debates on sur­face, iden­ti­ty, pop­u­lar cul­ture, ideas, and world­views. Debates over architecture’s mean­ing and its role in soci­ety allow it to become a key metaphor for epis­te­mol­o­gy and cul­tur­al crit­i­cism. Archi­tec­ture pro­vides a visu­al and spa­tial ele­ment around which dis­cours­es on the body, the self, aes­thet­ics, and his­to­ry emerge and coa­lesce. In their dif­fer­ent uses of archi­tec­ture and the major themes of its dis­course, these works show the ben­e­fits and poten­tial of break­ing archi­tec­ture out of the bound­aries of its field to become a resource for under­stand­ing the cul­tur­al con­di­tions upon and with which twen­ti­eth and twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry thought, pop­u­lar cul­ture, and visu­al media have devel­oped. Indeed, these three schol­ars empha­size the need to move architecture’s reach into a trans­dis­ci­pli­nary space.


[1] For a recent dis­cus­sion of archi­tec­ture as visu­al and spa­tial, see the appro­pri­ate­ly titled con­fer­ence vol­ume: Antony Vidler, Archi­tec­ture between Spec­ta­cle and Use (New Haven: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2008).

[2] Wal­ter Ben­jamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechan­i­cal Repro­duc­tion,” in: Wal­ter Ben­jamin, Illu­mi­na­tions, trans. by Har­ry Zohn (New York, NY: Schock­en Books, 1968) 239.

[3] There are too many works on archi­tects and archi­tec­tur­al move­ments to list here. A selec­tion of recent sig­nif­i­cant books that dis­cuss Cen­tral Euro­pean archi­tec­ture and archi­tects are: Deb­o­rah Asch­er Barn­stone, The Trans­par­ent State: Archi­tec­ture and Pol­i­tics in Post­war Ger­many (Lon­don and New York, NY: Rout­ledge, 2005); Sabine Hake, Topogra­phies of Class: Mod­ern Archi­tec­ture and Mass Soci­ety in Weimar Berlin (Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan Press, 2008); Jen­nifer Jenk­ins, Provin­cial Moder­ni­ty: Local Cul­ture & Lib­er­al Pol­i­tics in Fin-de-Siè­cle Ham­burg (Itha­ca: Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2003); John V. Maciui­ka, Before the Bauhaus: Archi­tec­ture, Pol­i­tics, and the Ger­man State, 1890-1920 (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2005); Despina Strati­gakos, A Women's Berlin: Build­ing the Mod­ern City (Min­neapo­lis, MN: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2008); and Janet Ward, Weimar Sur­faces: Urban Visu­al Cul­ture in 1920s Ger­many (Berke­ley: Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2001).

[4] A notable excep­tion in intel­lec­tu­al his­to­ry is Mitchell Schwarz­er, Ger­man Archi­tec­tur­al The­o­ry and the Search for Mod­ern Iden­ti­ty (Cam­bridge: Cam­bridge UP, 1995). Janet Ward’s book (see foot­note 3) also looks at archi­tec­ture in the con­text of the media land­scape of the Weimar Republic.

[5] Sianne Ngai, “The Cute­ness of the Avant-Garde,” Crit­i­cal Inquiry 31.4 (2005): 811-47.

<aid="_edn6" href="#_ednref6">[6] Adolf Loos, “Orna­ment und ver­brechen,” in: Orna­ment und ver­brechen. Aus­gewählte Schriften, ed. Adolf Opel, Wien: Prach­n­er, 2000.

[7] In his study of Got­tfried Sem­per and the nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry debates on orna­ment, Har­ry Mall­grave notes, for exam­ple, that Loos is a “sen­ti­men­tal orna­men­tal­ist.” See: Har­ry Fran­cis Mall­grave, Got­tfried Sem­per: Archi­tect of the Nine­teenth Cen­tu­ry. A Per­son­al and Intel­lec­tu­al Biog­ra­phy, New Haven, CT: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1996. 370.

[8] See Galt 114 and the cor­re­spond­ing foot­note (Galt 320).

[9] An exam­ple: “Real­ism is attrib­uted to West­ern aes­thet­ic val­ues, where­as sym­me­try, styl­iza­tion, and the dec­o­ra­tive are linked to the Ori­ent. Thus in think­ing orna­ment, we find a colo­nial and Ori­en­tal­iz­ing log­ic at work from the begin­ning.” (Galt 105)

[10] For exam­ple, see: Adolf Loos, Trotz­dem. Gesam­melte Schriften. 1900-1930. Vien­na: Prach­n­er 1982, in par­tic­u­lar the essay “Der Sattelmeister.”

Works Cited

Cheng, Anne Anlin. Sec­ond Skin: Josephine Bak­er and the Mod­ern Sur­face. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Galt, Ros­alind. Pret­ty: Film and the Dec­o­ra­tive Image. New York: Colum­bia UP, 2011. Print.

Pur­dy, Daniel L. On the Ruins of Babel: Archi­tec­tur­al Metaphor in Ger­man Thought. Sig­nale. Itha­ca, N.Y.: Cor­nell UP, 2010. Print.