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Monday, June 10, 2013

Book Review: Instigations

Instigations: Engaging Architecture, Landscape, and the City edited by Mohsen Mostafavi and Peter Christensen
Lars Müller Publishers, 2012
Paperback, 560 pages

How does a school celebrate its 75th anniversary? With a historical timeline? With an archive? With a presentation of important milestones? For the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), the answer is "all of the above, and more." Instigations is an appropriately large book that covers the first 75 years of the GSD across six thematic chapters: Design as Research, Design as Critique, City and Environment as Process, City and Environment as Form, The Continuous Institution, and The Shifting Institution. As these labels make clear, there is a further tripartite division into three contexts: architecture/design, city/nature, and the school itself. It's also clear that the book is not a simple timeline, archive, or presentation; it is a mix of these inserted into the various chapters.

With 75 years of student work, publications, books, lectures, symposia, exhibitions, professors, and research (not to mention syllabi and other internal paperwork), assembling the book must have been a daunting task. What is included? How much of is shown (a mention or a full transcript)? How is the content laid out? Many of these questions were answered through Peter Christensen's organization of the GSD's 75th anniversary exhibition, which he admits in his introductory essay "provided much of the early material for this volume." He describes also how the heterogeneous nature of the objects under consideration became "the theoretical and conceptual linchpin" of the exhibition and book. And not having read Christensen's essay until after taking a number of passes through the book, I was convinced that the text accompanying the objects (not artifacts, per his essay) was source material, not reportage that was actually added by him to give everything a present tense, a means of making the past closer to us in the present.

This flattening of time goes hand in hand with the way the book is split into thematic chapters and the way their contents jump around in time. Each chapter is split into two sections or types of content: the historical objects with present-tense reportage (most objects are given one page), and longer essays, interviews, lecture transcripts and other materials that tend to be fairly recent. The former section is nearly chronological, but the occasional jumps back and forth in time deny a cause-and-effect evolution of the school; it prioritizes a reading where the impact of something may not be felt until much later. The latter section works to get across ideas more than to reveal things that happened at, or were produced by, the school; a highlight, for example, is Richard Sennett's 2012 lecture, "The Architecture of Cooperation" in the Design as Critique chapter.

So what is the reader to make of the GSD through, as Christensen describes, "an array of objects that contain contradictions, idiosyncrasies, and auras"? Given that the book is comprised of historical documents layered over with new text that attempts to describe the publications, exhibitions, lectures, and projects as they were at the time, it can't help but be an expression of the school as it is now (2012) as well as its desired trajectory. Dean Mohsen Mostafavi states in his introduction that "the sense of a future time is always bound with, anchored in, the present." By flattening the carefully selected objects of the last 75 years into one present, the book becomes the starting point for an optimistic future. What that could be is as varied as the materials found in the 560 pages, but the book's tripartite structure signals that the problems of the city and nature will be addressed via architecture and design through the efforts of the institution. Overly ambitious? Perhaps, but the impressive book illustrates that if any school is geared up to the task it is the GSD.

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