An Englishman in New York

Wiel Arets, ‘An Englishman in New York’, in Modern Architecture and the Lifeworld: Essays in Honor of Kenneth Frampton, eds. Karla Cavarra Britton and Robert McCarter (London: Thames & Hudson, 2020), 258-264.

When the Japanese novelist Jun'ichirĊ Tanizaki arrived in Kyoto in 1923, in order to leave behind a Tokyo devastated by earthquakes and to build a new home, it was also a turning point in his view of the West and the Japanese tradition. His former infatuation with the West had increasingly faded, in the face of the still-alive past of Kyoto, and the wistful memories of his former Tokyo, which had been irretrievably lost to the ‘Great Earthquake’. The Kansai region–with Kobe, Osaka, and Kyoto–created ample new theses in him, such as shifts of cultural identities, modern and traditional sexuality, and other new class affiliations, which he controversially addressed in his 1925 book, Naomi. The translation into modern Japanese of the Tale of Genji is his expression of a deep interest in the ancient, seemingly lost culture of Japan, which he wanted to bring back into the light. The new edition of the eleventh-century classic, written by Murasaki Shikibu, into a then-modern Japanese translation, was a novelty of its time. In 1931 and 1932 he published two important works, ‘Love and Sensibility’ and ‘Praise of the Mastery,’ in which he discusses important subjects in the fields of drama, dance, literature, eroticism, and painting in his home country. In Tanizaki’s 1933 short novel, In Praise of Shadow, about Japanese aesthetics in the early-twentieth century, he questions Japan’s change of direction toward a Western society within a critical dialogue, which portrays moments of beauty in triviality, showing the slow, yet significant moments of change in Japan during the 1930s. One of his first books, Shiseifrom 1910, shows how, early on, he dealt with issues of aesthetics, the dichotomy of East and West, and eroticism and nature, throughout his entire life.

In the 2019 movie The Dead Don’t Die, the writer and director Jim Jarmusch, yet again, reveals his own reading of a world that shakes at its seams, and expresses his vision of the world we now live in, through the protagonists played by Bill Murray (city) and Tom Waits (nature). He enlists them to play the role of the conscience, as he criticizes the masses, who tend to pollute and clog the city as consumers who aimlessly wander, often discourteously, strolling, slavishly tied to the issues of their day, to the trends and fashion of the moment, from which they cannot escape, nor from which they are able to withdraw. His image of the manipulated human being as being physically fit, sporty, and athletic in his approach to success represents such a person who makes rather catastrophic life choices. He places the fear of crisis in perspective by indicating that we must look toward nature (Tom Waits), and that humanity must reconsider its position toward the brainwashed consumers roaming the streets of New York, who, while following their iPhones, are, in all actuality, victims: the drugged human being of the masses, which we have come to know in varying stages since the Industrial Revolution. The metropolis, with its fragile social order, seems to be the place where it becomes apparent that an environmental catastrophe is now imminent; it is central to the fate currently threatening the world, threatening our humanity. Humanity seems to be powerless, even as it writes its own scenarios about this state of mind. The metropolis as a cultural phenomenon, is, in consequence, in perpetual crisis mode in part due to those aimlessly wandering citizens of this divided world. Besides this ‘doomsday thinking,’ a realization must be nurtured that all of humanity must herald a new phase, wherein the understanding that humanity can never manipulate nature must be recognized. The fact that humans intervene through gene manipulation or, for instance, that they adapt bees, insects, plants, and perhaps even humans themselves will require us to ponder these issues. Humanity must come to terms with the fact that it is only a collection of dust particles in the larger violence of the universe. 

It seemed there was, in the 1930s, according to José Ortega y Gasset, a consensus as to a self-declared modern humanity, in which the voice of the people was to be heard, and the masses strove for equality, which seemed to then be possible through technology’s advancement. Yet after this, the masses quickly demanded speed, along with comfort. Technology progresses slowly, and thus it tends to become the weapon of the masses. Rather than the challenge of risk, the masses want immediate results; they are restless and ruthless. Respect for those who are specialists, inventors who deal with differences and attempt to develop new strategies, is thus gone. Therefore, the avant-garde seems to no longer exist, for the masses now ask for–and reward–that which is popular. We must privilege slowness; we need time; the self-made person; and a new, non-ironic journalism.

In 1967 Jean-Luc Godard created the film Week-end, in which he displays his anarchical view on the ‘bourgeois morals’ of the ‘sick’ consuming classes. He had his actors recite lines from commercials: a woman mourns the loss of her Hermès bag, after her car had been involved in a brutal accident and had gone up in flames; and in another moment bloodstained, brand-name clothes are themselves mourned, while the seriously injured person in the accident, receives but only a supporting role. The main character in Week-end is the car itself, produced as just one product for the consuming masses. It is at once both a symbol of freedom and progress, and it becomes a machine that can no longer be controlled. The dream of the car as the ultimate means of transportation for these masses–which also see the infrastructure created for the car, its highways, as a symbol of communication–is instead presented by Godard as a machine that stands still, thus causing destruction. 

It was of course, no surprise after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, that the city of Berlin’s backdrop was–and in just a short period of time–appropriated by the media: the imposing Coca-Cola billboard was placed on the rooftop of a DDR building at Berlin’s symbolic, major location. This was but one of the first actions then used to initiate the total brainwashing of the new consumer, in this new society, who wanted, so desperately, only to be modern. The paradox of the DDR's urban planning was that the city streets were completely ‘over-dimensioned’ in regards to scale, with hardly any cars driving in them, while the ‘Trabant’ car, at least for the masses, belonged to some otherworldly, unrealizable–in their reality–distant dream. It can therefore be deduced that the word ‘interiority’ is a term that we can use to express architecture’s own ability to give a sense of space that rules out an exterior. We think verbally about our own perception of moving in public space or inside a building, but also of reading a book or watching a film. Interiority is a term we use to describe the intellectual and emotional multidimensionality of all named disciplines.

In 1910 Adolf Loos identified, after a few years of studying the work of Louis Sullivan during his long stay in Chicago which ended in 1896, a culture that found a balance between the world of humanity’s interior and its exterior: that the only reasonable guarantee is rational thinking and trade. Loos attributed the farmer to culture, whereas the city dweller had become detached from such status, thinking that technology should instead be placed above nature, as it was man who could make their own artificial worlds. The architect, according to Loos, criticized, and, just as the city dweller, had detached himself from his own primal status, thereby causing the balance between the soul and the body to have been lost. Loos had his own opinion about the role of the architect, which he never hid. He makes a clear difference between public space–with the muted facades, or skin, of buildings–versus their interior, wherein he chose a range of raw/premium materials, such as wood, stone, mirrors, leather, and tapestries (which, he believed, belong to the whole).  

It was Kenneth Frampton who, in 1991, described the paradox between global urbanization–which leads to a serious breakdown of the environment as a direct result of the expansion of technology–and the architect, who was relegated to a marginal position. In his texts, Frampton places as the protagonists the architects he writes about and with whom he feels a connection–allowing them to speak for themselves as much as possible. He truly wants to have a dialogue; he wants to pose questions; he is curious; he is fascinated; he maintains his wonder at what it is that he sees; he possesses a positive, critical standpoint, toward the quickly changing world that he inhabits. He has assumed this role since his very first writings: he looks, reads, and listens with a critical position toward realized works of architecture, as well as the statements of unrealized buildings of dreams that shape the reality of architecture. He is a true witness to humanity’s own changing position, from the preindustrial era to today. 

Scholars such as August Schmarsow and Wilhelm Wörringer posited a belief in the division between an ephemeral body, on one hand, and an immortal soul, on the other; however, in the twentieth century, in part due to the notion of the ‘modern,’ the soul was replaced by the immortal machine. The twenty-first century’s technological developments have allowed the virtual machine, with all its updates, to be loveless, aimless, and completely devoid of meaning. The human being, as it were, was robbed of its soul, and, through artificial intelligence, the body can now be repaired and can receive its own updates, and through this is able to pursue a true immortality. It was Andy Warhol who wanted to be the machine, and in doing so claim his own immortality. And it is Frampton who understands the nuances of accent , which could be expressed in the words of the musician Gordon Sumner (known as Sting): ‘Modesty, propriety can lead to notoriety, gentleness, sobriety are rare in this society, be yourself no matter what they say, I am an Englishman in New York.’

Frampton is an architect, who studied at the Architectural Association, at London’s Bedford Square, the school he will always be attached to. The AA is a place of wading, a threshold where history is written, and a place that is dear to Frampton; not only because it is situated in London, but because it is a school that for him, as an Englishman, functions as a home of his own. It is an institute where one is filtered through its very self, every time one enters into it–which was certainly the case during the second half of the twentieth century. Frampton always wanted to be a practicing architect while there, an architect interested in ‘tectonic culture,’ wherein he sees the architect from the perspective of that of author, with realized work always fascinating him most. In many of his texts he writes from the perspective of the thinking of an architect questioning himself; he tries to crawl into and remain hidden within his own skin, and tries as much as possible not to come to his own theories regarding the disciplines of architecture and urbanism. This is also the reason why he tends to write essays about the work of architects, and not so much about an architect’s own concept or concepts. In this sense, we could also consider Frampton to be an ‘illegal alien’ within the architectural profession. He is a critical observer; a critical viewer who gives commentary on that which he sees, hears, and smells when he intensely preoccupies himself with a work of architecture. He analyzes a work just as a surgeon, tries to dissect it, and discloses what he sees through the use of his own texts. This is another reason why he writes essays about the works of architects as he, meanwhile, considers the division between architecture and urbanism as one of the biggest dilemmas architectural production faces, because in all actuality it can contribute very little to the identity of a metropolis. He is less concerned with writing the history of architecture itself, because he quite emphatically opines that it is concerned only with the moment in time when such a history is being written.  

Frampton also uses every reprint of his texts as a means for modifications to his own self-reflection, as well as to provide his readers with new insights. He considers it a challenge to visit every work of an architect, as well as to discuss them, and enjoys challenging architects to a dialogue that serves as a ‘feast for the mind’. A reversal of this position was when he himself was questioned–such as during a debate with Rem Koolhaas at the Berlage Institute in Amsterdam, which was rather uncomfortable. He was questioned by Koolhaas in the manner in which only a journalist would do, whereas Frampton wanted to think about architecture from his own critical standpoint. This in turn led to a moment quite reminiscent of the movie Lost in Translationdue to the duo’s philosophical language conflict. That scenario is in direct opposition to the later interviews Frampton had with, for instance, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, within the framework of their being Mies Crown Hall Americas Prize winning architects. Another interview took place in the Mies-designed Farnsworth House with Álvaro Siza, also an MCHAP-winning architect, who was challenged by Frampton to make somewhat startling statements that created a situation allowing them to enter into proper dialogue. Both conversations consequently led to publications that, otherwise, would have never been possible to publish. One resulting book, Treacherous Transparencies (Actar/IITAC Press, 2017) by Jacques Herzog, was preceded by a lecture by Jacques in Crown Hall in Chicago. And it was a two-day visit to Porto with Siza himself and his first two projects, and his own dialogue with Frampton, that led to the book A Pool in the Sea (Actar/IITAC Press, 2018). 

Frampton himself is more than conscious of the fact that the critical practice of architecture is the primary advantage of the progressive development of the architectural culture itself. It is thus, through the actual work of architects with whom he himself has a connection, that he is enabled to unravel his pen and form his vision, which in turn allows him to continually adjust that same vision. He is also critical and subjectively outspoken about all the works he chooses to write about. He wants to be positively critical, and place the works with which he is engaged within their architects’ context of thinking, which in turn leaves them open to further consideration. Ultimately, however, he is self-critical, prepared to adjust his positions and even apologize to his readers and his listeners if he sees the reason not to discuss or even trust every work or subject on paper, or when he goes against his own opinion, or when his opinions are not consistent with his own arguments. Where he very clearly expresses himself is the challenge that he sees before the current generation of architects: that they should not exclusively concern themselves with the spectacular, ever-changing, and ever-fashionable aspects of architecture. This embodies his work with a certain English humbleness

Frampton himself speaks to a humanist-oriented architecture practice, and since his time at Columbia University in New York has derived his opinion as to ‘modern’ architecture from a continuous investigation of the Frankfurter Schule. His own position, that humanity is the architect of the ‘modern’ and that technological development has alienated the self, keeps Frampton continuously preoccupied. His English roots, in which sensory empirical perception is key, place him in a position to resist devastating transgressions that technological modernization creates, which leads to the ‘other’–to use Frampton’s own words. 

What would be our world, or what would our world be, if we were not suspicious of technology? If we would listen more often to the human body and mind, instead of trying to change it until it is out of balance? Technology let us–increasingly less–train, exercise the body, and brain; contrary to what ancient Greece would have us understand. Our society now seems to overestimate its own capabilities. The masses are being brainwashed and directed into dead ends. They are becoming lazy in many fields; our brains are shrinking, since it is indeed a muscle, like our heart–and like our lungs must be able to breathe fresh air. The misconception and promise that technology will make us more intelligent is a logical error. Why do we not use technology to assist us, to be used only in an emergency case? Why do we not understand and respect our cosmos in full, and intervene with the system of nature, every time we discover something new? We still do not understand that our civilization will never be able to gain control, since we ourselves are part of this cosmos as actors. The more our metropolis tends to depend on self-created, and even self-creating, systems, our civilization will be degraded. It will be a brainless, easy-to-influence conglomerate of brain constructs, which the consumer will most certainly believe in. Mother Earth will of course strike back, as she has done so many times, when all of life on the globe was wiped out; we will not be able to dominate, nor dictate, nature. The more we depend on technology–the more we believe in its updates–the less we believe in the trained muscle of the brain and the body, and the less we tend to understand that human beings have been forever competitive. We must–we now have to–understand that ‘the other’ is a mind-set that we should never underestimate.