Harvard was preceded by many what-ifs, possible paths that may have led me elsewhere. First, there was OMA. I would have started in the Rotterdam office in September 2010 on a six-month contract. If they liked me in those six months, I might get to work there for another year. Rotterdam to me has a poetic value. It is like being in Peter Berhens's atelier in the early 20th century (Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe both worked there...) or even in Bramante's studio in 15th century Rome or Florence. Next year I would reapply to graduate schools and would have a better chance of getting back into Princeton. I might have returned to that academic wonderland and might have been seduced by its poisonous fruit, staying on for a PhD, serving as resident grad student, writing a book, perhaps. Or I might have considered the AA, or stayed on at OMA, never needing a Masters degree. Or I might have been back in Karachi after my six-month internship.
Then there was my "internship" in Karachi. For two months that summer, I worked at one of the most prominent architecture firms of the country, Arshad Shahid Abdulla Architects. In Pakistani elite circles they are celebrities. I knew it would be tough and it was. It was a dream and it was a nightmare: here I was in my country serving the mission of the arts, giving physical form to my country's identity and culture, to fight off all that was bad and imperfect with thought-provoking, inspiring, uplifting work. Shahid sahab, the head architect of the firm asked me to join him for prayers one Friday. How could I say no to that? I know how to pray and we prayed among a big crowd out on the hot street because the mosque was full and the rows had spilled out, orderly, all facing the kaaba in Mecca. My mind wandered. Later he called me to his office and said I should stay at ASA instead of enrolling at Harvard. He said I did not need a Masters degree to build in Pakistan, and that I would be wasting my time and some of the most intense years of my life training for something that is best learned in the field. You will never regain the energy you have right now, he told me. He told me to reject Harvard's offer and that he would make me an architect at his firm. Architecture at ASA's world of gritty reality was rudimentary compared to the sophisticated software and building techniques I was familiar with. There were more material catalogs here and less conversation. People were getting the job done, building rich people's homes, all exquisite work, but it all looked the same. The same interior courtyard, the same water pond, the same ostentatious materials. They were doing only half of what I consider architecture is capable of doing. I look young and so people did not take me seriously. I needed to get out and return with my Masters degree.... Had I stayed I might have worked my way up the ladder at ASA over several years, working on real projects and seeing real buildings being built. It would always hurt me to know that the real buildings will never attain the perfection of the concept, the idea, but I would be achieving something spectacular. I would have ended the preparation phase of my life and started the serving phase. Yet I decided to stay in school. I decided to start at Harvard in Fall 2010.
Andrea Palladio, Villa Capra, Vicenza, 1566-1571
The non-linear connections between ideas in architectural history and theory that we have seen last semester and in Erika’s more recent discussion of Tafuri return when Etlin draws a convincing connection between Greek architecture, as epitomized by the Parthenon but as exemplified also by the 19th century discovery of the Temple at Paestum by Labrouste, and Le Corbusier.
Etlin describes Viollet-le-Duc’s euphoric discovery of Greek architectural merit. Whereas early in his career he had only advocated for the study of Roman precedents, Viollet-le-Duc later embraces the Greek which aligned more closely with his and French Hellenists’ idea that “everything in architecture had to be submitted to reason, ‘not to the dry and pedantic reason of the geometrician, but rather to reason guided by the senses and by the observation of natural laws” (271).
Greek architecture was already known to be strictly mathematical, but the Hellenists now discovered that it was also more attuned to the landscape and more sensitive to aesthetic concerns than Roman architecture was: it “[reflected] an indissoluble union between reason and poetry, with the most exacting application of reason being employed to create the most beautiful example of poetry in architectural art” (268). This discovery redeems architecture as both an art and as a serious calibrated discipline invested in solving pragmatic problems such as that of spatial configuration and circulation.
It is not surprising that this idea appealed to Le Corbusier who was a painter by day and an architect / architectural theorist by night. He was invested in both the poetry of such things as the ribbon window and in architecture’s role in mediating society and literally solving its problems: the last chapter of Vers une Architecture is titled “Architecture or Revolution”.
And so, I would argue, was Palladio. Although there is no real evidence of Palladio’s architecture as being in some way intentionally poetic or political (perhaps Tafuri has written about it, I don’t know), Colin Rowe has drawn a clear formal connection between the ratios of mathematical order in Palladio and in Le Corbusier. Palladio’s Villa Capra is decidedly more Greek than Roman because it was rotated 45 degrees to the cardinal points on the compass. Although many write that this was done so that sunlight could better reach all the rooms, the Villa Capra is situated on a hill and I would argue that, like the Parthenon, the rotation gives it an oblique view and access. It is therefore able to combine the effects of Roman frontality and the Greek relation to the landscape and approach. And it is through looking at Choissy’s work and that of Le Corbusier (and Etlin) that we are able to draw this very striking and non-chronological connection between Capra and the Parthenon.
Would you agree with Higgonet that, “in trying to solve [old problems, Haussmann may have] instead helped to render them insoluble”?
Gustave Caillebotte, Le Pont de l’Europe, 1876
Haussmann’s grand “restoration” of Paris gave birth to the modern-day banlieue as the site to which many Parisians (mostly from the working class) were forced to relocate.
Victor Hugo evokes the pre-1860 faubourg as the limit of the city of Paris, beyond which even the barefooted gamin (street urchin) will not go:
They can no more escape from the Parisian atmosphere than fish can escape from the water. For them, nothing exists two leagues beyond the barriers: Ivry, Gentilly, Arcueil, Belleville, Aubervilliers, Menilmontant, Choisy-le-Roi, Billancourt, Meudon, Issy, Vanves, Sevres, Puteaux, Neuilly, Gennevilliers, Colombes, Romainville, Chatou, Asnieres, Bougival, Nanterre, Enghien, Noisy-le-Sec, Nogent, Gournay, Drancy, Gonesse; the universe ends there. (Les Miserables)After 1860, the old faubourg is annexed and everything outside of the new boundary of Paris is dead. People forced to relocate there are like fish thrown out of the water. Relocating to the banlieue is more shameful than moving up the floors (and down the social ladder) in pre-Haussmannian Paris. It represents a stepping down on the grand escalier of social class. The city center gains an unprecedented importance and the post-1860 banlieue becomes even more of a space with a secondary status. This increases people’s feeling of loss: there is an intensified feeling of belonging to and nostalgia of the urban entity that is Paris.
Paris, too, loses something essential. Higgonet writes about the “mixing rather than the separation of people of different conditions” in old Paris: “‘Unique city,’ Louis-Sébastien Mercier exclaimed in his Tableau de Paris, ‘in which a simple dividing wall finds a pious choir of devout and austere Carmelites living on one side and wild and libertine scenes of a joyous seraglio on the other.’” This richness and serendipity is no longer to be found in the new Paris of straight lines.
While the destroyed homes of many Parisians in the city-center were permanent and invested spaces, the banlieue is an open, neutral space. It lacks the dense architecture of the city that acts as an anchor and foil for social traditions and provides a sense of shared history. The banlieue forces the inhabitant to relocate constantly and is marked by a sense of placelessness. This helplessness can be seen in the representations by Honoré Daumier (below) and other artists at the time, in some more obvious than in others. The worker whose home Paris once used to be is now seen in Caillebotte’s painting (above) wistfully gazing out at a city which he can no longer call home, and from where, even today, each day, he takes the RER train out to the banlieue.
Honoré Daumier, “Haussmann”
Honoré Daumier, “Locataires et propriétaires obligés de déménager pour cause d'expropriation”
(“Tenants and owners have to move due to expropriation”)
Engels was graphically describing the slums of industrial cities; only two years had elapsed since the second great cholera epidemic; Chadwick’s and his Commissioners’ unprecedented and terrifying Report on public health was only nine years old; and Dickens was starting to address the conflict between human nature and the industrial city. Clearly the machine was in urgent need of defence for too much was at stake. (Markus 227)Markus does not even come close to the horrific social implications of a building such as the Crystal Palace. I cannot think of the Crystal Palace without feeling disgusted about the almost 200 years of British colonial rule over the place I was born in. Long before the British “Raj” was officially established in India in 1858, the British East India Company, a trading group, had established a hold there, served over the years as mercenaries for Princes as part of a “divide and rule” scheme, beheaded the last Mughal emperor’s sons and exiled him to Burma, and taken possession of very cultural products that were displayed at the Crystal Palace. The building was a symbol in built form of the power of the empire on which “the sun never set”. The British gave India colonial architecture and “clubs” (which still exist today for the elite) that at the time had signs that said “No dogs or Indians allowed”. The very architecture was employed to enclose, limit, exclude, and subdue. But in response to the mutiny in 1857, the British made their telegraph and rail systems better. Modernity came to India.
As far as the Crystal Palace is concerned I am ambivalent. I think that this change in architecture can be viewed as a positive sign. Both the railway lines of India and the architecture of the Crystal Palace signify a shift in the tide. By their very nature, these products of industry enable mobility and transparency. They are inclusive and empowering. They invite the street urchin of London and the token Indian and the Queen all into the same repetitive/democratic space.
Architecture has the ability to straddle politics. Meant for one purpose, it can activate another at the same time. This gives architects a lot of agency. While fulfilling the demands of the patron, the architect can create a space that serves a larger constituency and that addresses the concerns of a marginalized people. I am not saying that Paxton intended this—intention is not necessary for architecture to operate like this. But isn’t it interesting that he was a mere “gardener boy”?