Notes: Jonathan Massey

I heard Jonathan Massey, the Architecture head at California College of the Arts (CCA), give a talk last night at Berkeley CED, which I wanted to capture in brief (from my notes) and share. Given that these are my notes, please don’t take them verbatim. I’ve also added some parenthetical comments.

Experimental history: This interest reflects his earlier study of history and theory— with theory gradually dropping away. (The term reminded me of Hayden White’s idea that history is narrative, inherently provisional.)

Work: Massey’s writings are collected on (here). Most of what is mentioned in these notes can be found there.

Close reading: He applied an early grounding in literary theory’s methods to architectural history, citing close readings of the work and writings of architect Claude Bragdon. and of the polymath Buckminster Fuller. He noted a general interest in writings and artifacts — Marcel Breuer’s newly digitized archive was mentioned— that “show the way we see our work.”

He pointed to Bragdon’s “universal ornament” and noted how his railroad station in Rochester uses proportional rules and refers to locomotives. He described a curving string of lights, rendered in two dimensions, as a link between Bragdon and Fuller. He called the ornament “modern.” Bragdon was Frank Lloyd Wrights contemporary — a rival in 1915, the station’s date. Massey edits its “Plots” section (here).

Risk design: One of his Aggregate contributions —from which the image above, of Foster + Partners’ Gherkin (for Swiss Re), is taken — is on “risk imaginaries.” Risk as a design factor, he said, is always an imagined risk. The Gherkin, which is sited where another building was once destroyed by an IRA truck bomb, has elaborate security measures that are part of the design.

(Afterward, I mentioned Nassim Nicholas Taleb to Massey. He knew him, but hadn’t read Taleb’s Black Swan. I said that I prefer Fooled by Randomness, Taleb’s earlier book on the nature of risk in trading — less philosophical, but shorter and funnier, while covering the same ground. With regard to “risk imaginaries,” I think Taleb would say, “Good luck!” His point about extreme risks is that you can’t predict them in a way that fully protects you. I think this would be especially true of any building designed “for the last war.”)

Claims testing: The Gherkin’s tripartite approach to interior climate control, meant to save energy but defeated by the tenants, has never been tested. The central atrium on which it depends makes the tower inefficient and costly — “incoherent from a performance standpoint,” he said. (I really like the word incoherent in this context. It suggests a new line of criticism.)

(Massey’s comments on Foster and Fuller drew a comment from me that Foster has misunderstood Fuller as a sort of technician of space, a prototype of the high-tech modernism that Foster practices, which misses Fuller’s interests in highly-efficient lightness and in time as a crucial dimension in the built environment — as for example in his idea that people could time-share his 4D houses, rather than necessarily having to own them.)

Distant reading: The complement of close reading, it’s equally important, shifting the focus from architectural history’s focus on single buildings, often of small scale, or a limited number of broader examples. He showed examples of data maps — Occupy in Lower Manhattan, for example — and noted the insights that data analysis could produce. At Syracuse, where he taught before joining CCA, he and others developed “Architecture’s Global History” (here) to enlist the students themselves in documenting how architecture unfolded over time across regions and cultures. The goal is to get beyond the limited perspective of currently available surveys. He also mentioned his CCA colleague Irene Cheng’s work, “pushing back on the idea of globalization” (per my notes — an example of this work is here).

(On close and distant reading: When I left school, I vowed that I would never again cram-read the way one does there. So, slow reading would be my alternative for close reading, especially with literature. As a writer, I read in part for the pleasures of the text. I never studied literary theory, so I’m not sure if these are forbidden pleasures or not, but the quality of the writing is one reason why I read. It’s what drew me to the editor and writer Catherine Slessor, for example — a breathtaking description of a French town, dropped into a review where finding it was a surprise. Most of my reading for work falls in the distant category, absorbing the broader trends and their possible implications for design. There’s a crowd-sourced quality to it that reflects its Zeitgeist nature and my own synthetic tendencies. My main skill is to see connections among disparate things, including things unfolding over time.)

Publications worth a writer’s time: He extolled Places and its editor, Nancy Levinson, saying that articles he has written for it have had wide exposure. (Here is an example.) More specialized academic journals only reach their specialist audiences, often generating no response. Writers have to pay to be in them, often, and the articles are hard to access. The big academic journal publishers exploit a monopoly and should be resisted. (A campaigner against them was in the audience, but I didn’t get her name.)

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