Monday, September 29, 2008

The Thingness of Things, Kind of

A review of Artificial Light: A narrative Enquiry into the Nature of Abstraction, Immediacy and other Architectural Fictions by Keith Mitnick

Some very odd things have happened to Keith Mitnick. His brother received the death penalty for murder. His cousin was a porn star. Mitnick himself escaped a near death experience while driving a stolen car on the freeway at 4 in the morning. He once won $3000 dollars in an Atlantic City casino in order to travel to Egypt, where he was abducted. In between these events he is sick a lot. He vomits on his father's shoes, on the streets of Giza and on a set of architectural drawings of his parent's beach house. This last reaction sets the tone for Keith Mitnick's adult relationship with architecture; troubled, anxious, occasionally nauseous.

I know all this because these memories are interweaved with the other more conventionally architectural storyline that runs throughout Artificial Light. It is a unique, beautiful book that opens up unfamiliar ways of thinking about architecture through its mixing of autobiography and criticism.

Architecturally speaking, Mitnick is interested in removing false distinctions between the abstract and the figurative, the authentic and the artificial. He wants these distinctions to be understood as the product of intellectual categorisation and not the property of some intrinsic, material difference. But, importantly, he's not arguing for these categorisations to be replaced with any specious notion of "immediacy" or unmediated experience either.

“Because all physical things are equally material" he writes; "the notion that one form of architecture may appear to be more abstract, immaterial, or neutral than another is a consequence of how it is discussed rather than a property of its material features.” He goes on to say that abstraction; “...comes with a culturally constructed presumption of directness that, like the colour grey, has come to represent neutrality rather than enact it”. Which is as effective a debunking of the shibboleths surrounding minimalism and architectural abstraction as you could wish for.

Not that the author’s purpose seems to be solely a reductive debunking of myths. He is concerned that preferences for certain forms and materials and, perhaps more than that, ways of putting those things together are understood to be culturally formed and never natural. Indeed, naturalness itself is a cultural product. So, Mitnick walks a careful line, avoiding two types of ideological trap. One of these tends to privilege the notion that if we could just cut through theory, learn to look at things afresh, we would "see" the world better. The other calls for the removal of external reference from the work itself, a kind of Greenbergian notion that architecture could speak only of its own materiality in a direct, unmediated way. While one seems to naively suggests that we can ever escape culture, the other assumes we can control its reception.

Both of these seem equally futile and the purpose of Mitnick’s book is to suggest a subtler and ultimately richer enjoyment of meaning, one that comes through a mixture of understanding, experience, aesthetic preference and taste. Equally importantly, he avoids chucking the baby out with the bathwater, denying either the material quality of things or pre-existing categories of interpretation.

Interspersed with all this are some spectral photographs of the Jersey Shore where the author went on family holidays as a child. These images extend the books central concern, undermining the way we traditionally think about seaside architecture. They elide the spectacular qualities of image and experience we associate with rollercoasters and neon lights with the underlying beauty of their construction.

This is a fabulous book - strange, eccentric and intelligent. For once the over familiar claim that preconceptions will be challenged rings true, and architecture seems new again.

Artificial Light: A narrative Enquiry into the Nature of Abstraction, Immediacy and other Architectural Fictions, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2008.


Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for drawing attention to this wonderful book - bought and read within days of your post. Spellbinding, dark, funny and also feels so good.

Charles Holland said...

Pleasure. I was sent it and didn't read it for a few weeks for some reason. Then i read it and thought it was incredibly refreshing, like the same old subject but looked at in a completely different way...

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