Monday, March 24, 2008

Book Review: Far from Equilibrium

Far from Equilibrium: Essays on Technology and Design Culture by Sanford Kwinter, edited by Cynthia Davidson
Actar, 2008

The presence of Cynthia Davidson in this collection of writings by theorist Sanford Kwinter (Associate Professor of Architecture at Rice University) may seem a bit strange at first (why not an Actar editor?), but when one realizes that the bulk of the collection is culled from ANY Magazine, which ran alongside conferences and publications between 1991 and 2001, her presence seems appropriate. Davidson -- editor of Log, ANY's successor -- is one of the strongest pieces holding together the close-knit group of architects and theorists dealing with contemporary architectural theory -- that sometimes enlightening, sometimes frustrating, always dense material that influences academia much more than the profession. Kwinter is an important member of that unofficial group, somebody trained outside of architecture (comparative literature) but somehow pulled into its thralls, perhaps by Davidson's husband, Peter Eisenman, the poster-architect for theorizing. Whatever the reasons, Kwinter's contributions to the field of architecture theory continue with some fresh material in these pages.

Granted that architectural theory, as they say, ain't what it used to be, this isn't the place to go into the rise and fall of the written word and its relationship to architecture. But with technology, specifically the computer and the internet, creating a new format of expression (the blog) for anyone with a phone line and keyboard to, in effect, theorize on the subject, the cries of the death of theory are far from true. Rather, like anything, theory is something ever-changing, not content to sit still and let shelter mags grab all the attention, even if they get all the sales. For example Lebbeus Woods is receiving a good deal of kudos for his foray into the blog-o-sphere, and rightly so, as he keeps aim on the tough issues, like slums and ethics. But blogs are not a substitute for books (in my naive opinion), so the publication of this book of theory is important as much for its timing as for its content; if anything what's most striking is the relationship of the two.

Kwinter calls these essays "on technology and design culture." Given that most of them were written in the 1990's, one would think that technology's hurried pace would invalidate many of the ideas occurring throughout. Instead we discover not only the prescience of some of his theorizing but their roots, reaching back to McLuhan, Foucault, and Mumford, as if ideas have a timeless existence, and they find their validity by being proffered in a particular context. This might be hard to swallow for someone like Kwinter, who locates his writings in the fast-paced change of technology and its interdependent influence on design, but it nevertheless hints at a possibility when the writer embraces rather than dismisses R. Buckminster Fuller, for example.

Kwinter's "fresh" contributions to this collection are a series of fold-outs with a few paragraphs of text responding to a recent building or designer. Many of the usual ANY suspects are there (Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, Elizabeth Diller, Rem Koolhaas) but so are a few surprises (Cecil Balmond, Abalos & Herreros). These passages are a welcome respite from the dense theory they are stuffed between, perhaps aided by the focus on a single building or architect rather than the abstract realm of ideas or the world of technology. They also help clarify Kwinter's position(s), which might otherwise be difficult to discern amongst the (did I use this term already?) dense writing he feels is necessary to use.