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2007 01 31
Angle of Incident #40: SEMINAR 2 “Sweet Deceptions”

By Gary Michael Dault and the members of the Arch 684 graduate seminar, School of Architecture, University of Waterloo

Our second Seminar session together, on Monday, traded last week’s lift-off euphoria for a not unwelcome sense of deliberation. Ideas came easily and freely, but also more cautiously and carefully. Seminarist Jody Patterson’s list of subjects discussed or alluded to (below) is briefer than last week’s list—though perhaps not less generative:

“Here”, she wrote, “is the conclusion of the C discourse, on through D-E-F-G and a causal preview of H …”

Cole Swensen: poetry as a city
* compression sequences in design
* computerized poetry
* contemporary opaqueness of new poetry
* curb edge
* Curzio Malaparte
* Dante’s Divine Comedy
* Danteum (unbuilt) by Giuseppe Terragni)
* “deliberately unbuildable architectural fables” (GMD on the works of John Hejduk)
* Delirious New York (Rem Koolhaas)
* democratic art and architecture
* despotic instigators of art
* dirigibles / Hart Crane’s phrase “enormous lounger”
* drawing: as proportion, rhythm, tact
* “elemental spirituality as unsurpassable by any epoch” (Giuseppi Terragni)
* elevated expressways
* T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland
* embodiments of desires and ideas
* epic poetry, ancient and contemporary
* event (Event-Cities 2, by Bernard Tschumi)
* ‘failure’, ‘forgotten’, colloquial poetry from Jane-Finch.com.
* fascism and modern architecture
* fascism and the writing of the city in the new Roman Empire
* fluorescent lighting, fear and familiarity
* follies
* functionalism, Italian rationalism
* futurism
* “germ of the architectural whole” (Terragni, on the Impero room of the Danteum project)
* Giuseppe Terragni
* Guy Debord and the Situationist adage “never work”
* grammar as architectural articulation
* Hart Crane (The Bridge)
* hospital light

Appended below, drawn from the list, are some of the fruits of this week’s C-E-F seminar (we are working our way through the alphabet, as an organizational device):

Here is seminarist Johnathan Wong’s “Of Melting Towers”—“C” standing, in this case, for Camera Obscura:

Camera Obscura (Latin for “dark chamber”)

Dolci cose a vedere, e dolci inganni
[Things sweet to see, and sweet deceptions]. [1]


Through a coin-sized opening in a darkened window an ordinary bedroom in New York becomes a living canvas. In the far corner stands a modest wooden dresser; sitting on top, a bulbous ceramic lamp wears a wide lampshade tilted ever-so-slightly; beside the lamp there’s a picture frame that holds a family’s portrait, silhouettes smiling in the dimness. The dresser, the lamp, and the picture frame are reflected in a tall mirror mounted on the back of a closet door. The room appears small but tidy. The walls are bare. In the foreground a low bed is covered by a plain white spread, trimmed in white.

It is an otherwise ordinary bedroom except for the projected image of an upside-down Manhattan skyline dripping like stalactites from the ceiling.

On the historical significance of the camera obscura, cultural theorist Jonathan Crary writes:

“For over two hundred years [the camera obscura] subsisted as a philosophical metaphor, a model in the science of physical optics, and was also a technical apparatus used in a large range of cultural activities. For two centuries it stood as model, in both rationalist and empiricist thought, of how observation leads to truthful inferences about the world at the same time the physical incarnation of that model was a widely used means of observing the visible world, an instrument of popular entertainment, of scientific inquiry, and of artistic practice. …[But] in the texts of Marx, Bergson, Freud, and others the very apparatus that a century earlier was the site of truth becomes a model for procedures and forces that conceal, invent, and mystify truth.” [3]

The catalytizing—indeed mystifying—element of this photograph by Abelardo Morell (one of his series of camera obscura images produced since the early 90s) is certainly the Empire State Building, laying prostrate (post-swoon?) and faintly shimmering across the clean undulating bedspread.

Whether a premeditated reference or simply a happy coincidence, it recalls a certain painting by Madelon Vriesendorp called “Apres L’Amour,” which was used on the original bookcover of Koolhaas’ Delirious New York (1978). Parallels quickly emerge: the iconic building in question—somewhat melted; spare furnishings; a foreshortened composition; even the strange beam of light coming from out of the left side of the room which suggests a possible camera aperture.

You be the judge.



“What is crucial about the camera obscura is its relation of the observer to the undemarcated, undifferentiated expanse of the world outside, and how its apparatus makes an orderly cut or delimitation of that field allowing it to be viewed, without sacrificing the vitality of its being.” (Crary)

[1] Francesco Algarotti, ‘Of the Camera Obscura’ from An Essay on Painting, in Harrison, Charles, Paul Wood, and Jason Gaiger. Art in Theory, 1648-1815 : An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Oxford, UK ; Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000. 477.
[2] Abelardo Morell, “Camera Obscura Image of the Empire State Building in Bedroom, 1994” in A Camera in a Room : Photographs. Photographers at Work. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995.
[3] Jonathan Crary, “The Camera Obscura and its Subject”. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. New York: MIT Press, 1991.
[4] Madelon Vriesendorp, “Apres L’Amour” in Delirious New York. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

For Christina Kalt, “C” became the curb:
The curb edge.
The curb for resting.
The curb for trafficking.
The curb painted yellow.
The curb a line of safety.
The curb I waited for the bus at.
The curb I met friends at.
The curb a place to sit and talk.
The curb the pedestrian leapt from.
The curb bordered with green grass.
The curb with a procession of cars.
The curb dotted with garbage cans.
The curb the old lady stumbled over.
The curb I stumbled over.
The curb island dividing the street.
The curb inhibiting left turns.
The curb sheltered under a canopy of trees.
The curb lined with parking meters.
The curb I backed my car into.
The curb collecting autumn leaves.
The curb funneling rain water.
The curb of snow.
The curb.

Laura Knap’s “C” word was a poem by Cole Swensen, an American poet I am embarrassed to admit I’d never, until Monday, heard of. Here is an excerpt from Swenson’s excellent poem “The Invention of Streetlights”, from her book Goest from 2004:

noctes illustrates

(the night has houses)

and the shadow of the fabulous

broken into handfuls--these

can be placed at regular intervals,


walking down streets at times eclipsed by trees.

Certain cells, it's said, can generate light on their own.

There are organisms that could fit on the head of a pin

and light entire rooms.

Throughout the Middle Ages, you could hire a man

on any corner with a torch to light you home….

Knap also brought to the seminar a lively and, as it turned out, far-ranging discussion
of a remarkable (unbuilt) experiment in the manifesting of the linguistic, textual city
--in her presentation of Italian Rationalist architect Giuseppe Terrani’s project
for Mussolini called the Danteum.

Here are excerpts from her presentation:


The Danteum, or Architecture tells a Big Story.
"In . . . Terragni's work we find the idea of a city built with fragments, which relate to one another according to . . . a classical order . . . . [The] work focuses on the recomposition of absolute form . . . . The rules and elements that they adopt are atemporal fragments of a whole that doesn't exist anymore, and are explicitly related to a language that can only be rescued by using a different grammar." (22)

Terragni: "Architectural monument and literary work can adhere to a singular scheme without losing, in this union, any of each work's essential qualities only if both possess a structure and a harmonic rule that can allow them to confront each other, so that they may then be read in a geometric or mathematical relation of parallelism or subordination. In our case the architecture could adhere to the literary work only through an examination of the admirable structure of the Divine Poem, itself faithful to a criterion of division and interpretation through certain symbolic numbers: 1, 3, 7, 10, and their combinations, which happily can be synthesized into one and three (unity and trinity)" (25)

"The new architecture, the real architecture, must derive from a strict adherence to logic, to rationality", and for the Gruppo 7 in Italy, a "spirit of tradition". Modern architecture without the machine aesthetic. The Danteum is an abstract, metaphysical, magical object - designed as "a wanderer in the city" - "the possibility of creating and communicating myths is born from [the] conflict between everyday reality (setting / context) and magical objects."

The Rationalists to aimed to convince Mussolini that modern architecture could symbolize the fascist revolution, its system, its hierarchy. The Danteum was conceived of and presented to Mussolini just before the second world war (which killed the project). Terragni died in battle.

The building was to sit at the corner of Via dei Fori Imperiali and Via Cavour (in view of Mussolini's balcony at the Palazzo Venetia) in dialogue with the basilica of Maxentius and Constantine - an important link between the empire, church; and beside the torre dei conti. "The torre littorio" was a rhetorical campanile repeated by the Rationalists as a traditional symbolic element of Italian architecture.

The Danteum is conceived of, at once, a metaphor for Dante the man, a parallel to the Divine Comedy, an embodiment of the state (and the relationship between church and state); practically it is a place of scholarship (museum and library for Dante's work (meant to promote nationalist spirit) and a great vault of knowledge on Dante.

- Paradiso - thirty three glass columns support a transparent frame to the sky - "a floating space" supported by the forest below. - the long corridor room of the empire is described as the "germ of the architectural whole" , and displaces space from both the inferno and the purgatorio and lies parallel to the axis of via dei fori imperiali, reinstating the connection between the piazza venetia and the colliseum - making the danteum a microcosm of terragni's conception of the empire. - interdependence and physical separation of paradise and empire room symbolizes the interdependence of the church and empire, each of which dante believed derived its power directly from god.

- to terragni, the universal roman empire is the only thing capable of saving the church from disorder and corruption.

"The Danteum is the reconstruction of a space in which to live a miraculous adventure. The adventure is that "higher aesthetic value," and can be reached only through formal and logical relationships that one can build following an abstract and nearly invisible trace." (27) not a perfectly cited set of notes.

All ideas stolen from: Schumacher, Thomas l. The Danteum: Architecture, Poetics, and Politics under Italian Fascism. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1993.

Seminarist Ricardo Wulff’s discussion of the Jane-Finch Corridor generated a stimulating though inevitably inconclusive discussion about whether (or how) architecture and design can effect social/cultural change:


The Jane & Finch Area of Toronto has been characterized as the red-light district of Toronto for many years now. It’s high concentration of affordable housing, visible minorities, and young people are said to be contributors to the violence that’s taken place. Recently, a cbc news program called “the fifth estate” did a special called “Life in the struggle” (http://jane-finch.com/videos/fifthestate.htm). It portrays the lives of three young men who grew up in the Jane & Finch area and are dealing with the struggle to live a better life away from crime & violence. What is particularly interesting about the program is that the men reveal unprecedented video footage of some of the criminal activity that takes place in the area. A truly revealing opportunity is given to the public to begin to understand what life is like in this rough part of the city.

What is even more interesting is that thanks to the website Jane-finch.com the public can finally take part in the discourse taking place in this community. Created by a young filmmaker named Paul Nguyen, who was born and raised in the area, the website is creating important awareness of the social/cultural problem the city is facing. The website outlines some of the history, culture, poetry, art, music, videos, and recent news articles about the area. As increased gun violence continues in the city, and fear spreads within the urban fabric, Torontonians should feel a moral responsibility to understand the cause for all this violence. It may not be coming from the Jane and Finch area directly, but it is certainly a root to the problem. Contemporary artist Joseph Beuys said “if you cut your finger, bandage the knife”. The material on the Jane-finch.com website alone is an excellent route toward a higher understanding of this social condition.

For seminarist Lisa Hirmer, who has been ill, the seminar is a curiously peripheral experience—to which she contributes from afar (thus lending her contributions, in my estimation, a charmingly tangential, quasi-surreal quality).

In a recent email, she wrote that:

After reading the summary article of last weeks seminar, my curiosity was piqued enough that I was hoping to drag myself to this week's class (what, for example, could "Cartesian cellphone existence" possibly mean?). However, mono seems to have a stronger hold of me than I hoped and unfortunately I think I'll have to miss it.

I had a few ideas for the seminar though. So if either of you by chance checks your email before class, perhaps you could bring them along? I'm a little unsure whether 'C' ideas were for last week or this, so hopefully they are okay.

1) The first was just a quote from an essay by Calvino called "The City as Novel in Balzac" which I though was pertinent to the course topic.

"The enterprise which Balzac feels impelled to undertake when he starts to write Ferragus is a vast one: to turn a city into a novel; to represent its districts and streets as characters, each endowed with a personality totally different from the others; to summon up human figures and situations like spontaneous vegetation burgeoning from the pavements of this or that street, or as elements that provoke such a dramatic contrast with those streets that they cause a series of cataclysms; to ensure that in every changing minute the real protagonist is the living city, its biological continuity, the monster that is Paris.


What now obsessed Balzac was a topographical epic about Paris, following the intuition that he had been the first to have of the city as language, as ideology, as something that conditions every thought, word and deed, where the streets 'by virtue of their appearance impress upon us certain notions which we are powerless to resist', the city as monstrous as a giant crustacean whose inhabitants are merely the limbs which propel it. Already for some years now Balzac had been publishing in journals sketches of city life and portraits of typical characters: but now he had the idea of organising this material into a kind of encyclopedia of Paris in which there was space for a mini treatise on following women in the streets, a genre sketch (worthy of
Daumier) of passers-by caught in the rain, a survey of street vagabonds, an account of the grisette, and a register of the various kinds of language spoken (when Balzac's dialogues lose their usual rhetorical emphasis they are able to imitate the most fashionable phrases and neologisms, even down to reproducing the intonation of people's voices - for instance, when a streetseller claims that marabou feathers give to women's coiffure 'something airy, almost Ossianic and very much up to date').

To these exterior scenes he adds a similar range of interiors, from the squalid to the luxurious (with studied pictorial effects such as the vase of wallflowers in the widow Gruget's hovel). The description of the Pere-Lachaise cemetery and the labyrinthine bureaucracy connected with funerals rounds off the picture, so that the novel which had opened with the vision of Paris as a living organism closes on the horizon of the Parisian dead."


2) The second thought I had started with a definition from Rem Koolhaus’s "S,M,L,XL":

1. To take salvageable parts from (as a disabled machine) for use in building or repairing another machine. 2. To deprive of an essential part or element in creating or sustaining another facility of enterprise… 3. To use or draw on material of (as another writer or an earlier
work) [a volume . . . that not only ~s previous publications but is intended itself to be cannibalized — R.M.Adams]. 4. To make use of (a part taken from one thing) in building or repairing something else.

Which I thought could relate to the city. I've attached some photos of the Leslie Street Spit to go with this idea. ___________________________________________________________________________



Next week, we address ourselves to F and G

[email this story] Posted by Gary Michael Dault on 01/31 at 03:18 PM

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