The Sea Ranch


For reasons I won’t get into, I spent last fall in a tiny Midwest city, bored and landlocked save for one odd apartment building that cast my mind to the Pacific every time I passed it. However indirectly or superficially, this 1980s multifamily rental—with vertical natural-wood siding, a stark shed roof, and expansive windows—seemed to have been derived from, of all things, the Sea Ranch, the iconic coastal real estate development. Even more curious, though, while it was completely out of sync with the turn-of-the-century surroundings, it wasn’t necessarily a bad fit.

The California architectural monument of the 1960s,” as historian David Gebhard called the Sea Ranch, is a lesson in the mutability of place with regard to geography. On a ten-mile-long bluff three hours north of San Francisco, a group of mostly Princeton-trained architects, a landscape architect inspired by his time on a kibbutz, and a graphic designer steeped in Swiss rationalism would create a project with such a distinctive identity, so synonymous with California, that it drew international acclaim.

The Sea Ranch: Architecture, Environment, and Idealism, a sharp exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, open through April 28, doesn’t dwell on the development’s prehistory and afterlife. Instead, it tries to recover some of the original sensibility. The curators, Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher and Joseph Becker, have gathered a concise selection of original materials from multiple archives: plans, sketches, scale models, photographs. It’s a bit traditional, but if you know the museum’s architecture collection—past acquisitions have skewed experimental (think Thom Mayne and Lebbeus Woods)—it’s also quietly provocative. A full-scale mock-up of part of the Sea Ranch apartment belonging to MLTW’s Charles Moore, designer of the condominium cluster and the recreation center together with Donlyn Lyndon, William Turnbull, and Richard Whitaker, provides a bit of unexpected drama and, of course, Instagram opps. For good reason: The re-creation captures the uncharacteristic spatial complexity of the interior, with its vaulted ceilings, post-and-beam structure, painted and patterned surfaces, and weird aedicula (a freestanding sleeping loft supported by telephone pole columns). Even without Moore’s eclectic possessions—the Indian wall hangings, Baroque mirror, Oaxacan animal figures, and various other curiosities he famously curated like some learned scavenger—you understand immediately that the Sea Ranch, despite its claim on a certain brand of Bay Area regionalism, is not one-note.

In her catalog essay, Dunlop Fletcher situates the Sea Ranch within a small group of postwar residential developments in California striving to “create a financially viable synthesis of architecture, environment, and idealism,” among them Crestwood Hills in Los Angeles and the North Shore on the Salton Sea. Al Boeke, an architect and developer who had previously overseen the creation of a New Town community in Oahu, Hawaii, for the real estate subsidiary of Dole Pineapple, bet that a segment of the market valued architectural pedigree and a sense of community allied with environmental stewardship, and, accordingly, would tolerate some discomfort. The coastal site he purchased in 1960, a former sheep ranch bisected by Highway 1—with a series of meadows and Monterey cypress trees on one side and a dense redwood forest on the other—wasn’t particularly cozy. As a booklet prepared later for prospective owners disclosed, “the terrain is rugged, the surf treacherous, the ocean cold.” But such was the price of “dramatic beauty,” at least to like-minded liberals after an authenticity of experience and a progressive lifestyle.

Boeke engaged a small army of consultants: foresters, grassland advisers, engineers, attorneys, hydrologists, climatologists, geologists, geographers, graphic artists, and public relations and marketing experts. Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin defined a master plan according to his holistic vision of social and ecological processes. Sea Ranch Ecoscore (1968), a snail shell diagram spanning the Jurassic period to the age of fossil fuel and displayed prominently in the show, positioned the project within a deep history, as part of a dynamic interaction between geology, climate, plants, animals, and human occupation. In practical terms this meant that half the land was to be held in common; most of the meadows would be preserved, with buildings distributed along their edges in dense clusters, rather than in a single oceanfront row. Besides MLTW, then a relatively young firm, the established San Francisco architect Joseph Esherick was commissioned to design a marker building (a beacon directing drivers off the highway), a general store, and a series of six single-family “demonstration houses” dispersed among the cypress hedgerows. Graphic designer Barbara Stauffacher Solomon was responsible for the Helvetica identity and marketing materials, as well as colorful hard-edge murals inside the athletic center. All parties were in agreement that the architecture should play a secondary role. The landscape came first.

The architects deferred to local vernacular structures without abandoning their Modernist allegiances. The angles of shed roofs nod to the existing barns and the cypress hedgerows while maintaining a degree of formal abstraction. The absence of eaves cuts down on wind resistance and renders sharp silhouettes against the ocean horizon. Esherick’s buildings have their merits, especially the interiors, but MLTW’s Condominium One pushed this architectural language in far more exciting and original directions. Ten condo units were combined into a dense composite of 24-foot cubes differentiated in height and window treatment, as well as by the addition of “saddlebags,” a term for the unique additions of window benches and sunrooms to the core volumes. Heterogeneity and privacy were achieved within an idealistic, even utopian prototype of communal rural living.

If this combination of shed roofs, simple volumes, and untreated wood would come to stand for a style, used and abused near and far, it is in part the project’s own doing. In 1965, a year after the first buildings opened, design stipulations were adopted as part of the Sea Ranch’s covenants, conditions, and restrictions (CC&Rs). A design review committee was instituted to ensure that future changes would conform to the architects’ vision. The rules mandated the form of buildings, but primarily concerned the visual: unpainted, native wood–clad structures; cars obscured by fences; and the express prohibition of flowerbeds and other “suburban” flourishes. In apparently trivial aesthetic details the ideals of the entire community were at stake. Maintenance was a question of freedom.

Perhaps the purest distillation of the contributors’ self-understanding is a two-column list of “Sea Ranch Principles” compiled by Halprin. Yes to rural, community, simplicity; no to suburbia, individual houses, flamboyance. “Design control (AIA etc. awards over the years)” was good, whereas “No control (see the butcher of highway 1)” was bad. The virtues of the Sea Ranch, measured against the imprudence of the world, bespeak a self-righteousness that blinded its creators to the perception by outsiders. The Sea Ranch as it was planned, with homes for thousands of inhabitants supported by schools and commercial facilities, never materialized. The California Coastal Commission, responding to inland residents’ fears of limited public oceanfront access, instituted a ten-year construction moratorium in the early 1970s. To recoup some of its investment, the developer pursued wealthy weekenders, not full-time adherents of an alternative mode of semi-communal living. Of some 2,300 lots at the Sea Ranch, about three-quarters have been built out.

What is so fascinating about the Sea Ranch in retrospect is how powerfully it discloses the overwhelming contradictions and profound limitations of architecture as a progressive agent in American society. Even in moments of great aesthetic refinement, ecological sensitivity, and collective aspirations, property interests have the upper hand. Had the Sea Ranch been realized as planned, would it have been any more relevant today? Was it ever really a general model, or successful only in its exceptional character? I’m inclined, after seeing the exhibition, to view the Sea Ranch as an exceedingly productive fantasy. From our current perspective, the enclave is glaringly unsustainable, socially and environmentally. But at least it forces us to ask: What, today, are our ideals?

Toward a Concrete Utopia


“Left out” and “overlooked” are some of the phrases used to describe the work under consideration in “Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980,” a substantial survey at The Museum of Modern Art that aims to augment our dominant accounts of history. To this list should be added “lost,” and not in a metaphorical sense. I’m referring to the modular K67 kiosk, a Yugoslav icon acquired by the museum in 1970, summarily exhibited, then loaned to a university on Long Island and never returned. The designer of the kiosk, the Slovenian architect Saša Mächtig, explained this debacle to me over lunch last summer in Ljubljana, recalling a letter the museum had recently sent him apologizing for the error and pleading for help in finding a replacement. At 77, Mächtig has endured personal and professional misfortunes and lived through the protracted decline and messy disintegration of Yugoslavia, but in this matter, he seemed oddly defeated. The first-generation model MoMA wanted, unlike the more commercially successful second, had a small production run, he explained. He didn’t even know where to start looking.

To everyone’s relief, another kiosk was found and beautifully restored. Bright red and lit from inside like a beacon, the fiberglass structure stands proudly near the entrance to the galleries, as if the whole mishap never even happened. MoMA has plenty of reasons to be ashamed, that’s for sure, but guilt is an undercurrent instead of an overarching concept of the exhibition, which was organized by MoMA’s Martino Stierli and architectural historian Vladimir Kulić, with curatorial assistant Anna Kats. The central claim of the survey is that, far from being a cultural backwater or peripheral player, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was, by virtue of its leadership in the Non-Aligned Movement, uniquely positioned to exchange and integrate knowledge and ideas across divides—both sides of the Iron Curtain but also the Middle East and newly independent post-colonial nations in Africa. Put another way, Yugoslavia’s unique position anticipated the current age of globalism, and studying its architecture will tell us more about postwar modernity than the tired old histories do.

Most museumgoers—who aren’t up on metahistorical debates and probably can’t tell overlooked architecture apart from the canonical—will wonder at some 400 drawings, models, photographs, films, and, occasionally, full-scale objects like the K67, and counter-narrate in their head. “They actually built that? Yugoslavia wasn’t a Communist country?” The first of the show’s four sections, “Modernization,” does much of this contextual groundwork, beginning in 1948, the year Yugoslavia broke with Stalin’s USSR and, under the leadership of the charismatic strongman Josip Broz Tito, pursued a form of socialism based on workers’ self-management. A flurry of building activity swept through a still largely rural society that had only a few years earlier been occupied by Axis powers. Industrialization and urbanization were the twin engines of modernization and essential ingredients for engendering a socialist society governed by the working class. The most ambitious project was the creation of a massive new federal capital on marshland in Belgrade, comparable to Brasília and Chandigarh in both scale and the application of Corbusian planning principles.

Though New Belgrade may have been the administrative heart of the new socialist state, in everyday life, as Kulić writes in his catalogue essay, “pan-Yugoslav unity was more effectively performed through the networks of architectural programs distributed across the country.” New schools, libraries, community centers, hospitals, museums, and other public facilities supported a “social standard” of free educational, health-care, and cultural services available to all. Seeing this agenda as exceptional, and so without an easily assignable model, architects were pushed to experiment. Concrete was the material of choice, contributing to wide spans and sculptural form, but the aesthetic of the social standard was in no way as coherent as its ideology.

Heterogeneity was a byproduct of a wider governmental policy of decentralization and a reflection of the role of architecture in reconciling diverse ethnic populations spread across six republics and two autonomous provinces. Regional idiosyncrasies were explicitly cultivated by designers. For instance, Juraj Neidhardt advanced a Bosnian Modernism rooted in traditional Ottoman architecture (his ethnographic studies of vernacular culture are a standout in the exhibition, specifically the sketches and photo collage), while Edvard Ravnikar extended the traditions of Central European Modernism through his significant built work in Slovenia and teaching at the University of Ljubljana.

Local references did not preclude global influences. Ravnikar’s student Vladimir Braco Mušič, together with Marjan Bežan and Nives Starc, redefined Yugoslav urban planning with Split 3 (1968–c. 1982), an astounding residential neighborhood for 50,000 inhabitants that was inspired by Kevin Lynch, Team 10, and Japanese megastructures, but remained cognizant of the coastal topography and traditional Dalmatian street structure. Another student, Mächtig, fused his teacher’s emphasis on tectonic legibility with an individual interest in British and American consumer culture and Italian industrial design. Tradition did not preclude reinterpretation either, as evidenced by Šerefudin’s White Mosque (1969–79), located in Visoko, near Sarajevo, and designed by Zlatko Ugljen. Making the bare minimum of concessions to Ottoman conventions, its truncated pyramidal space and lime-green tubular ornamentation are like nothing I have ever seen.

The balance between regional diversity and countrywide unity was delicate, although the monuments, or spomenik, featured in the section of the exhibition entitled “Identities” are quite the opposite. Commissioned by Tito to commemorate, among other things, World War II sites, they’re remarkable for their scale, bold abstraction, and visual razzle-dazzle, which has lent them currency on social media and contributed to their dominating recent interest in the architecture of former Yugoslavia. Seen in relation to everything else in the exhibition, from the perspective of our current neoliberal age that is flush with flashy signifiers and short on essential public services, my desire rushes elsewhere. The monuments look unbelievable, sure, but the idea of a well-functioning, even thriving, civic infrastructure as the backbone of a multiethnic socialist experiment blows my mind. Schools! Libraries! Cultural centers! Swimming pools!

The remarkable thing about“Toward a Concrete Utopia” is how much it concerns actually realized buildings. People designed them, extracted the materials used to construct them, built them; people lived and learned in them, and in most cases continue to do so today. These buildings are as participatory as anything — certainly more so than the quasi-agitprop that biennials and museums like to think reflects the political vanguard. What the exhibition presents, to put it plainly, is the most concentrated instance of architectural experimentation allied with a progressive political project that we have in recent history. Of course, the flipside of being a companion to a nation-building effort that would stall after Tito’s death in 1980, and eventually terminate in the 90s with violent ethnic conflict, is that the architecture is saddled with the extremities of feeling. And depending on how you feel, “accomplice” might be preferable to “companion.”

This emotional tension is perfectly enacted in the first gallery, where a montage of Yugoslav propaganda put together by contemporary Serbian filmmaker Mila Turajlić rapid-fires, across three screens, scenes of smiling faces, enthusiastic camaraderie, and industrial showmanship (railroads, power plants, etc.). Turajlić’s piece is equal parts ebullient and sinister, a sensation that is hard to shake even as newly commissioned photographs by Valentin Jeck overwhelm the whole exhibition with their melodrama. Gray skies and desaturated color cast a pall over the photographic subject, arresting the potential of these buildings and giving outsize importance to their symbolic dimension, over and above any other aspect. The desire by the historian-curators to avoid blindly championing the exhibition’s subject I recognize, but the photographs feel like an overcorrection, and partially undermine their endeavor. Some kinds of loss can be easily remedied, as the kiosk replacement shows; other kinds, like the loss of hope, less so. Yugoslavia’s aspirations are too relevant, and models of architecture committed to such a strong social project are too scarce, for us to satisfy ourselves with the empty conclusion that this was all simply a failure.


"Yugotopia: The Glory Days of Yugoslav Architecture on Display," PIN-UP, Fall/Winter 2018

Forensic Architecture


For decades now, the bleeding edge of architecture has treated building itself as a foil, even an adversary—the mirror image of a self-styled critical practice. As the paper architecture of the 1960s and ’70s developed into a wide range of institutionalized alternative practices, from curatorial projects to multimedia installations, timeworn disciplinary concerns of matter and materiality seemed condemned to retrograde status, the stuff of unreflective designer-minions serving the interests of powerful clients. But this attitude takes a paradoxical twist in the work of Forensic Architecture, a multidisciplinary research agency of architects, artists, filmmakers, journalists, scientists, and lawyers. Forensic Architecture rejects traditional professional practice—indeed, it epitomizes the field at its most multifarious and mediatic, dealing in building surveys, maps, models, animations, and videos—yet its central claim is that the built environment remains a potentially radical medium. As its name suggests, the agency uses architecture as material evidence, leading independent investigations and partnering with international prosecutors and environmental and human-rights groups to find, reconstruct, and expose violence.

Initiated by Eyal Weizman in 2010 and based at Goldsmiths, University of London, Forensic Architecture’s development has coincided with a surge in conflict and crisis around the world, and a creeping sense of exhaustion within the academy. The discipline, anxious to engage, struggles with its own historical bias against instrumentalized knowledge. Weizman’s model of theory—a shrewd, pragmatic approach in which methodological tools and concepts are tested against unfolding global events, and findings are made legible in public political forums far removed from both architecture studios and the halls of the academy—is articulated in a new book, Forensic Architecture: Violence at the Threshold of Detectability, as well as an outstanding exhibition, “Forensic Architecture: Towards an Investigative Aestheticism,” currently on view at the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona and at Mexico City’s Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, the most comprehensive institutional presentation of the practice to date. The exhibition—organized in both locations by Rosario Güiraldes and given incisive graphic form by the design firm Other Means—instantiates this theory-on-the-fly. At MACBA what begins in the opening gallery as a theoretical and historical introduction to the work segues into a display of more than twenty projects—presented as “evidence files,” and comprising narrated videos, supergraphics, 3-D-printed models, and the occasional installation—that interrogate processes of contemporary urban warfare, drone assassinations, environmental violence, refugee emergencies, and accompanying governmental cover-ups.

In the first gallery, we learn that the roots of Weizman’s method can be traced back to “counter-forensics,” a practice that originated in Argentina in the 1980s, when activists exhumed and analyzed the bodily remains of victims of political repression as part of an effort to hold the state accountable for its crimes. By the ’90s, exhumation practices had spread across the globe, as unspeakable atrocities in places such as Chile, the former Yugoslavia, Honduras, and Rwanda lent increased value to physical evidence—primarily bones, but also other types of material. In this “forensic turn,” Weizman saw an opening for architects, arguing that we could understand “the materiality and texture of a building as a surface upon which events get imprinted and upon which process becomes form.” The crucial assumption underlying Forensic Architecture’s work is thus that buildings, cities, and territories are themselves sentient witnesses. Yet the agency’s approach has an undeniable, if grim, logic: In cases of secret drone assassinations, or in the midst of misinformation campaigns and media blackouts, the cracks, holes, and scars in a building’s walls become potentially powerful evidence of violence.

The clearest demonstration of this idea in the exhibition is an investigation of a March 2012 drone strike that killed four people in Miranshah, Pakistan. Forensic Architecture’s point of departure was a forty-three-second video clip of a damaged building (the clip was smuggled out of the military-controlled area and broadcast by NBC News). Breaking down the video frame by frame, the team assembled a panoramic collage, looking for such features as a blast hole in the roof, “the distinct architectural signature of drone strikes.” The composite images were verified against satellite photos, from which a 3-D computer model of the targeted building and its surroundings was constructed. Once the size and location of the structure were determined, the team superimposed still footage from inside the room where the missile struck to locate and analyze scars in walls. As Forensic Architecture alleged in a report prepared for the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and presented at the UN General Assembly in 2013, the absence of fragments in certain portions of the walls could indicate where people were killed, effectively tracing human shadows.

A 2016 investigation of the notorious Saydnaya military prison in Syria, conducted in collaboration with Amnesty International, entailed a shift from eyewitness to “earwitness” testimony. The prison is off-limits to journalists and monitoring groups, and so, to help illuminate this humanitarian black hole, researchers reconstructed the architecture from survivors’ memories, exploiting, in particular, their acute sensitivity to sound within the dim, quiet prison environment. As former prisoners recollected spaces and objects (torture instruments, furniture, and so on), an architect created a 3-D model in real time that aided further recollections, serving as a mnemonic device in itself.

Forensics, Weizman writes, “slows down time and intensifies sensibility to space, matter, and image.” Taken out of context, this could describe a kind of rarefied connoisseurship, a romantic attitude toward buildings and materials that prioritizes aesthetic contemplation and suggests passivity or even disengagement. Instead, Forensic Architecture has found a way to direct the techniques of the aesthete back onto the world, dissociating urgency from speed, matter from stasis, and architectural knowledge from blind complicity.

"True Detectives," Artforum, October 2017

Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter


Like a lot of inexpensive flat-packed furniture—shipped halfway around the world and arriving with “some assembly required”—the lightweight, pitch-roofed structure at the center of the Museum of Modern Art in New York’s “Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter” is missing a few parts. But this is not by accident. In a gesture of accommodation within an exhibition otherwise intent on revealing the inhospitality of contemporary migrant and refugee environments, two of the thirty-six polyolefin-foam panels enclosing the structure’s tubular-steel frame have been removed, inviting visitors to enter a phantom household measuring roughly eighteen feet long and ten feet across. The Emergency Temporary Shelter, as it is called, was developed in 2010 by the Swedish “social enterprise” Better Shelter, in collaboration with two of our corporate- and conflict-ridden world’s most ubiquitous brands—IKEA and the United Nations. Though unquestionably more durable, dignified, and secure than the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ conventional canvas or plastic tarpaulin tents, the shelter’s foremost achievement is logistical: Shipped compactly in two cardboard boxes, it can be completely assembled by four people in less than eight hours, using only tools included in the shipment.

There are more than sixty-five million forcibly displaced people worldwide. Twenty-one million of those are officially considered refugees by the UN, which means that they are fleeing armed conflict or political or religious persecution.Since emergency is everyday, humanitarianism is a permanent business. Organized by Sean Anderson, a curator in MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, this exhibition foregrounds the tools of this humanitarian trade—UNICEF-issued collapsible water containers, water-purification tablets, tarps, and education kits; a multicolored malnutrition-measuring device by Doctors Without Borders. As modest and nimble as these instruments can seem, they are the products of a vast regime of governmental, intergovernmental, and nongovernmental institutions. From sober office spaces in Geneva and midtown Manhattan, these organizations prepare budgets, solicit donations, recruit personnel, devise policies, set standards, and, in some cases, marshal extranational military forces.

This bureaucracy’s greatest work of design is not any single tool, but bureaucracy itself. The most widely recognized set of universal minimum guidelines for humanitarian response, the Sphere handbook, is a voluntary rubric whose first iteration was in 1998 by a committee of relief organizations in an attempt to coordinate their activities and, in managerial terms, to boost quality and accountability. The Temporary Emergency Shelter follows it to a T: A family of five is provided a covered floor area of thirty-eight square feet per person (no more, no less).

Utterly rational and technocratic, humanitarianism perpetuates the distressing legacies of modernism, modernization, and colonialism even as it administers care. This contradiction is nowhere more visible than in a photograph of one part of the world’s largest refugee-camp complex by Brendan Bannon, Ifo 2, Dadaab Refugee Camp, 2011. Shot from a low aerial perspective, the image reveals a Kenyan desert landscape incised with lines and dotted with tents, their white sheets dust-sprayed. The design has an accountant’s rigor, confirmed by a UNHCR fact sheet that describes the planning process: A site of roughly four square miles was first divided into two subcamps (Ifo 2 East and Ifo 2 West), then eighteen sections, then four to nine blocks, and then plots measuring approximately forty by fifty or thirty-three by forty feet. Within each plot, one shelter is installed—the family unit.

The functionalist planning of Ifo 2 and other Dadaab settlements and the component systems of the Emergency Temporary Shelter also recall the more utopian rationalism and economy of an earlier era, the Existenzminimum of the interwar period. Then, standardization, systemization, and flexible and cost-efficient production were technocratic means to political ends: Housing was deemed a right to be afforded to all citizens. But today, when universally applied by international aid organizations to vast numbers of stateless and displaced people, these same strategies only underscore the refugee’s diminished political agency under globalized capitalism.

As a remedy for these cool administrative logics and one-size-fits-all environments, the MoMA exhibition counterposes artworks that revel in their singularity. Reena Saini Kallat’s Woven Chronicle, 2011/2016, a world map painstakingly rendered in situ with colored electrical wires that have been barbed to evoke danger and plugged into speakers that emit a low atonal sound throughout the gallery, is characteristic. Another work, Woven Panel, 2016, created expressly for the exhibition by the National Union of Sahrawi Women at the request of the Swiss architect Manuel Herz, is a wall tapestry depicting the plan of a Sahrawi refugee camp in southwestern Algeria. Tiffany Chung’s finding one’s shadow in ruins and rubble, 2014, presents found photos of the titular detritus within thirty-one floor-mounted vessels hand-crafted from mahogany.

While these artworks and others shift the affective register, at times reflecting poignantly on the subjects they address, their presence in the galleries tends to create a false dichotomy by casting architecture and design as patently instrumental, as aids to power more than agents of change, and at worst as just more symptoms of crisis. In a typical presentation of architecture, a grid of twenty identical-size images positioned in a far corner of the gallery is presented as an illustration of, per the wall text, “the scope of living conditions that confront today’s refugees and displaced populations around the globe.” The diversity is disingenuous, however, since the lack of consistent contextual information and the scattershot selection flatten out significant differences—functional, material, political, legal, or otherwise. A contemporary rendering of a speculative shelter design is treated in the same manner as an undated black-and-white archival photograph of a UN Relief and Works Agency camp in the West Bank (where Palestinians continue to live). This sequestration of architecture is a deliberate decision, though. As the curator remarked at the exhibition’s opening, “If we propose architecture as a solution, then it ignores the problem.”

But what exactly is the problem? Concerning mass displacement, there are myriad—too many for any single exhibition to address. Yet too few of the underlying social, political, and economic conditions—and their geographic and spatial dimensions—have been presented with enough depth or surprise to reshape the contours of our understanding. By judging architecture as guilty before the trial even began, the exhibition has deprived us of the fruits of due process. Architecture is cast as hopelessly instrumentalized; its capacity to reflect on its own forms of production—concepts and ideas as much as material objects—and entanglements with power is sold short. Consider the Paper Emergency Shelters, designed in 1999 by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban for the Gihembe refugee camp in Rwanda, which are represented in the exhibition by a single photograph of a tarp being draped over a cardboard-tube structure. The novel choice of material was motivated not just by low cost and ubiquity but a UNHCR request for an alternative to its standard-issue temporary shelters, since refugees would sell the valuable aluminum support poles and replace them with tree branches, securing for themselves a degree of economic independence but contributing to deforestation. Against the image of a heroic intervention, a more dynamic story unfolds—of an agonistic relationship between displaced persons, architect, and institution, and of competing claims over individual freedom and ecological preservation.

Indeed, it is not simply that architecture is ineffective but that designers and curators and critics and journalists (the list goes on) are too narrow in their understanding of architecture itself. We fail to recognize architecture as ongoing and contested, subject to a host of contradictory pressures and demands. But its critical potential lies in its frequent status as solution and problem. Instead of consigning messy forms of engagement to the corner and elevating museum-ready artworks in their place, another curatorial approach might link different aesthetic praxes—art and design, past and present—around common activities and shared concerns. A lot of critical practice on both sides of the traditional disciplinary divide is already here, scrambling the codes of art and activism, denying divisions between research and intervention, refusing the cover of autonomy.

Two works in “Insecurities” make an overture toward such an approach. Created more than seventy years apart, they situate distinct moments of migration in relation to emerging forms of media and surveillance technologies. As an employee of the Farm Security Administration documenting rural poverty, Dorothea Lange instrumentalized her photographic practice in the service of reform. Before entering the museum, Lange’s images, such as Young Mother, a Migrant, California, 1937, appeared in newspapers and circulated in the book An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion (1939), which she coauthored with her husband, the economist Paul Taylor. Liquid Traces: The Left-to-Die Boat, 2011, an eighteen-minute video by Forensic Oceanography—a research project by filmmaker Charles Heller and sometime architect Lorenzo Pezzani—focuses on the case of sixty-three migrants who died while drifting for fourteen days within the NATO maritime-surveillance area off the coast of Libya in spring 2011. Turning the information generated through surveillance (satellite photography, various sensing technologies) into evidence of responsibility, Forensic Oceanography worked with NGOs to file legal petitions for the crime of nonassistance. A map the duo created circulated in the international press, acquiring additional meaning as it proliferated.

Of course, awareness is not enough. “Thanks to the actions of the media, the public is getting mobilized in a way that I would say is unique in recent times in solidarity with the victims,” said then-UNHCR chief António Guterres in September 2015, after a photograph of a drowned toddler washed up on a Turkish beach provoked international outrage. Yet more than a year later, what has changed? The museum offers political tools, but we must find new ways to put them to use.

Wesley Willis


“Wesley Willis” at Delmes & Zander, Berlin

For two decades until his death in 2003, keyboard rock star Wesley Willis unremittingly rendered Chicago’s dour Dan Ryan Expressway and curtain-walled skyline with ballpoint pen and felt-tip-marker lines so ecstatic, so fluorescent as to demand that established habits in representing late-twentieth-century American cities make way.

The twenty-six drawings in this show, nearly all from the 1980s, graze the surface of an oeuvre that by the artist’s own tally numbers forty thousand works. (Fact-checkers take heed: Willis, no record keeper, peddled the drawings on the street and at concerts.) A series of small untitled drawings in blue ink from 1982–83 depict big rigs, tractor trailers, rolling stock, and transit-authority buses in side and isometric views. Throughout, his years spent sitting in on drawing classes at the Illinois Institute of Technology—a beachhead for exiled Bauhauslers and a raft for the poor, precocious Southsider—are manifest in drafting techniques Willis never abandoned but, to singular effect, refused to master.

In Reagan’s urban America fat on fossil fuels and fast food, Willis divined—atop overpasses and train platforms, out of franchise storefronts—something akin to Futurist draftsman Antonio Sant’Elia’s 1914 New City, that vertiginous, infrastructure-crisscrossed ode to speed. In McDonald’s 51st & Wentworth, 1988, a work of apparent sedateness, Willis faintly superimposes the adjacent expressway on the drive-through, all beneath the burger chain’s Marinetti-worthy slogan “Billions and Billions Served.” Off in the distance is the Sears Tower, then the world’s tallest building, and a country hanging onto its pride in productivity and superiority for dear life.

Experiments in Environment


“Experiments in Environment: The Halprin Workshops, 1966–1971” at Graham Foundation, Chicago

Spend a day in silence. Descend a hill blindfolded. Build a village out of driftwood. Such were the sense-expanding (if common-sense confounding) activities that the dauntless young dancers and designers who attended Anna and Lawrence Halprin’s late-1960s cross-disciplinary workshops in the San Francisco Bay area could expect—if one could ever really have known what to expect from a curriculum “scored” for maximum kinesthetic effect by the pioneering choreographer and her landscape architect husband. The Halprins were standouts in their respective fields, and this exhibition highlights the vital but overlooked collaborative inquiries into movement awareness, participatory techniques, and process-oriented pedagogy that emerged from their recognition of the environment as a common medium: both a support for works of art and a portal to untrammeled perceptual territories.

Organized with the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania, the delightfully mounted presentation brings together materials—scores, schedules, letters, applications, notebooks, photographs, posters, rosters, announcements, films—related to three such workshops with detailed architectural documentation of two of the spring-summer workshops’ primary sites: the Halprins’ cliffside Sea Ranch cabin and wooded Mount Tamalpais residence, home to their famed tree-trunk punctured “dance deck.” Seen against today’s carbon credit–counting ecological consciousness, these open-ended forays alert us as much to the gauntness of our compulsory environmental “awareness” as to the Halprins’ immeasurable and estimable faith in art’s capacity to imagine other, more collective and creative worlds through tactile explorations of everyday life. Take a final lesson from City Map Score, 1968: “Imagine yourself in a place of fantasies and act accordingly.”