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Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Stephanie Tay­lor

Sub­na­ture: Ar­chi­tec­ture’s Other En­vi­ron­ments by David Gis­sen, Prince­ton Ar­chi­tec­tural Press, 224 pages

Did you know that a so­cial his­tory of dust has been pub­lished? This is just one of the fas­ci­nat­ing nuggets of in­for­ma­tion that can be gleaned from David Gis­sen’s imag­i­na­tive book, which stud­ies and con­tex­tu­al­izes con­tem­po­rary ar­chi­tec­ture’s “other en­vi­ron­ments.” If you’re like me, you’ll come away from this close ex­am­i­na­tion of ubiq­ui­tous, though of­ten over­looked, el­e­ments of our world with a pro­found new way of think­ing about how the built en­vi­ron­ment is shaped by so­cial in­ter­ac­tion and vice versa.

Gis­sen takes as his sub­ject the for­got­ten, hid­den ig­nored, or feared el­e­ments of our ev­ery­day lives. Break­ing the topics into sec­tions ti­tled “At­mos­pheres” (in which he dis­cusses dank­ness, smoke, gas, and ex­haust), “Mat­ter” (where he of­fers re­flec­tions on the im­pact of dust, pud­dles, mud, and de­bris), and “Life” (an ac­count of our in­ter­ac­tion with weeds, in­sects, pi­geons, and crowds), Gis­sen ar­gues that “sub­na­ture” is pro­duced when ar­chi­tec­ture and na­ture meet by de­sign. “Sub­na­tures en­able us to bet­ter un­der­stand our en­vi­ron­ment as a prod­uct of so­cial and his­tor­i­cal pro­cesses,” he writes, “as some­thing tied to so­cial his­tory, as much as nat­u­ral his­tory.”

Ar­gu­ing against the sim­pli­fied dy­namic be­tween ar­chi­tec­ture and na­ture that pre­vails in much de­sign prac­tice (Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie-style homes are a ma­jor re­flec­tion of this ideal), Gis­sen at­tempts to open up new ways of see­ing both na­ture and ar­chi­tec­ture. “By ac­tively re­flect­ing on the alien­at­ing ma­te­rial of the so­cionat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, we might as a pro­fes­sion ar­rive at a truly rad­i­cal al­ter­na­tive con­cept of the en­vi­ron­ment for the con­tem­po­rary ar­chi­tect.” This isn’t to say that Gis­sen’s book is jar­gon-filled or meant only for those in the busi­ness of de­sign­ing build­ings. I found it to be clearly writ­ten and full of cre­ative ideas and in­for­ma­tion that in­spired me to pay at­ten­tion to el­e­ments of the world around me that had for­merly gone un­no­ticed.

Gis­sen’s book points the way to­ward a more ex­cit­ing fu­ture that would in­clude ar­chi­tec­ture that looks at so-called prob­lems — pud­dles on the roof or weeds grow­ing along a path, for ex­am­ple — as rich fod­der for new ideas and aes­thet­ics in our built en­vi­ron­ment. In 1999, for ex­am­ple, NL Ar­chi­tects wrapped a util­i­tar­ian build­ing in Utrecht with a rub­ber­ized ma­te­rial, pro­vid­ing the struc­ture with a “skin” that col­lected, re­flected, and high­lighted the wa­ter that fell on and near it. “The ar­chi­tects in­ten­tion­ally de­signed the build­ing’s skin to en­hance the wet cli­mate of the Nether­lands,” Gis­sen says. An­other ex­am­ple is the Mos­quito Bot­tle­neck (2003), a the­o­ret­i­cal home de­signed for the trop­i­cal cli­mate of Trinidad by R&Sie(n) Ar­chi­tects. This struc­ture has not been built, but it is a con­cept that would es­sen­tially trans­form an en­tire house into a mos­quito trap, thus en­liven­ing the space and mak­ing it func­tion to rid the area of in­sect-borne dis­eases.

Some of the ex­am­ples Gis­sen in­cludes and dis­cusses make an ab­ject ma­te­rial into a beau­ti­ful thing. In New Mex­ico, the con­cept of build­ing with mud is not a new thing, though not many of us would wel­come the idea of hav­ing mud floors. Yet Tom dePaor Ar­chi­tects re­cently de­signed the first Ir­ish Pavil­ion for the In­ter­na­tional Ar­chi­tec­ture Bi­en­nale in Venice built out of mud im­ported from Ir­ish bogs. The small struc­ture was si­mul­ta­ne­ously invit­ing and re­pul­sive: the bricks were moist and con­stantly emit­ted a sul­furous odor, yet they also cre­ated a cool in­te­rior space.

Each of the short chap­ters in Sub­na­ture fol­lows the same con­cise for­mula: Gis­sen presents a brief his­tory of the topic, dis­cusses the the­ory con­nected to it, and pro­vides a dis­cus­sion about and im­ages of con­tem­po­rary ar­chi­tects and artists work­ing with the topic. Many of the ar­chi­tects and quoted sources will be fa­mil­iar to the reader. Ar­chi­tects from Lud­wig Mies van der Rohe, Buck­min­ster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Rem Kool­haas fig­ure into Gis­sen’s study along­side au­thors and thinkers from Vitru­vius to Ge­orges Bataille to Donna Har­away.

I ap­pre­ci­ated the flex­i­ble struc­ture of the book, which can be read quickly from cover to cover but can also be ap­proached cafe­te­ria style, al­low­ing the reader to range freely among the un­usual im­ages and topics in any or­der. Delv­ing into any chap­ter will open up new ideas about the his­tory and fu­ture of our built en­vi­ron­ment.

Ex­te­rior view of Mos­quito Bot­tle­neck by R&Sie(n) Ar­chi­tects, Trinidad, 2003; top, de­tail of an ar­chi­tec­tural de­sign for a sky­scraper in­cor­po­rat­ing pud­dles, by Ja­son John­son/Nataly Gat­tegno, New York City, 2005

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