Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Cristóbal Amunátegui reviews Design Technics

Zeynep Çelik Alexander and John MayDesign Technics: Archaeologies of Architectural Practice. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2020. 262 pp.

Review by Cristóbal Amunátegui

28 October 2020

In architectural studies, interest in techniques has often orbited around their purported normativity, on one hand, and the gospel of innovation on the other. Whether based on notions of hegemony, teleology, or genius, these understandings have shown lasting fascination with the idea of unidirectional agencies "modeling" history. The essays gathered in Design Technics: Archaeologies of Architectural Practice propose a welcome departure from these historiographical entrapments: here, design procedures are presented as ongoing products of both struggle and emulation (between actors, norms, tools, and ideas; between knowledge and experience), rather than as mere outcomes of power, individual creativity, or unimaginative imitation. The volume benefits from work developed by its contributors under the auspices of The Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative, a group which has been carrying into its own field methodological dividends made in recent decades in the growing field of Science, Technology and Society.

The essays should dispel a few disciplinary anxieties prevalent among architectural historians (and, perhaps above all, practitioners) of a more idealist standing. Opinions in this latter camp fear that the discipline has been abandoning architecture’s primary matters of concern––authors, buildings, styles, movements––in favor of seemingly extra-architectural inquiries. In tune with its historiographical allegiances, Design Technics makes a different point: matters of concern in architecture are seldom primary, and often relational; what defines them is their historically situated nature, more than a vaguer realm of poorly defined immanences or identities. The essays show enviable clarity detecting the conditions under which these contingencies occur, offering valuable evidence for scholars and practitioners to consider more discrete, albeit not less ambitious, disciplinary engagements in the future (techniques, more than styles; relations, more than ontologies; associations, more than unities). The volume may go some way, too, persuading readers of so-called critical theory––theory is indeed at the heart of the essays gathered here, although duly rooted in historical analysis.

A clue to grasp how contingent the work of architects is, the volume argues, needs to be found in the disciplinary promiscuity of techniques. What systems of knowledge are invoked and mobilized when architects, draftsmen, and pedagogues choose to render lines, as opposed to shadows in a drawing? Do architectural models prove an idea’s validity or do models rather offer instances of reasoning? In what ways scanning promotes new uses and understandings of an old philosophical category––form––particularly as it relates to ideals of order? What new epistemic formations emerge when a nineteenth-century magician replaces his human concierge with an electric one by way of so many bells, switches and relays? What happens when the eminently clerical work of specification––according to one essay in the collection, the kernel of architecture’s professional identity after industrialization––encounters the vagaries of digitalization? What does it mean to invert the Ruskinian balance between an architecture of protection and one of position––what happens, that is, when we move from a focus on the stability of buildings to an admission of the logistical nature of architecture and its techniques? What happens, finally, when the scientism implicit in network theory (in this case cybernetics) is trumped by chance and indeterminacy? In posing, and sometimes answering, these questions, the essays mobilize generous doses of connoisseurship, proving that deep knowledge of the field remains essential for any historiographical project to advance more accurate definitions of the place of architecture in past and present economies of knowledge.

The project’s proximity to STS raises a few questions of method and selectivity. And these, one may venture, have less to do with the historiographical sources themselves than with the anxieties of a discipline eager to define its objects of analysis with more precision. After all, what we conventionally gather under the word architecture is an unruly bunch of actors, practices, products, and ideologies. Lorraine Daston, Peter Galison, Bruno Latour, Hans-Jörg Rheinberger––their presence looms large in the book. But in some of the essays, so does a certain empiricism that privileges narratives of flawless coherence––very few perplexing findings, gaps, or absences; no thoughts shared as to the adequacy or inadequacy of the evidence, even when at stake are boldly argued theoretical propositions. What place, if any, do historians in this volume imagine for the role of conjecture, so important, say, for early fellow materialists in the study of art history? Michael Baxandall’s now classic study on renaissance painting––his suggestion that Piero della Francesca’s work needs to be understood closer to commercial mathematics and the trivial practice of barrel-gauging, rather than as a result of lofty humanist ideals––would be unthinkable without the use of conjecture, for example, and one would think it another important precedent for the skillfully argued essays gathered in the book. With this said, Design Technics reads as a convincing demonstration of how architectural histories can be written away from the old specters of genius or materially unanchored metaphysics. Importantly, and as one of the essays deliberately argues, the volume prepares the ground for broader historiographical engagements in the field. For a proper coming of age of the discipline of architectural history, these engagements should no doubt include reflections on the monumental legacy of twentieth-century historiography––new considerations of old formulations related to mentality, class, and "durée," pointed reassessments of the various legacies of microhistory, takes on the polemics of deconstruction, to name a few––turning the scrutiny of historians’ own "techniques" into a central activity of the historical research.