Thanksgiving Is Ruined

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July 24, 2008
architecture as choreography: no leaps, all falls

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."

An entire webpage devoted to an effort to source the above well-circulated quote is here, created by one Alan P. Scott. He displays admirably obsessive love for research for (almost) its own sake.

Scott's exhaustive but narrowly tailored research omits that, regardless of its origin, the quote could be seen as a sort of snappy paraphrase itself of Cleanth Brooks' point from 1947 about the "heresy of paraphrase."

Brooks seemed to agree that a work of architecture is not readily translatable into another medium or paraphrasable:
The essential structure of a poem (as distinguished from the rational or logical structure of the 'statement' which we abstract from it) resembles that of architecture. . . . by being an experience rather than any mere statement about experience or any mere abstraction from experience.

Therefore, "dancing about architecture" won't fly.

One of the first "dances" that many of us learn to do as kids is just about the simplest one: falling down.

This past spring, Alan Weisman (author of The World Without Us) published an account, entitled "Built to Last," of his tour through downtown Tucson, Arizona, to look at buildings as if they were doing the falling-down dance.

Weisman's article was in the issue of the Wilson Quarterly, v. 32. no.2, devoted to the USA's crumbling infrastructure.

Weisman's tour guide was architect Erin Moore. She showed him adobe houses, a McDonalds, a fire station.
["Now that one, Moore says, nodding approvingly, will leave a very nice skeleton."]

Moore said:
I don't see a structure as beautiful unless it has a graceful way to break down built into its future.. . .

We live and build in a cyclical ecosystem, in which things mean as much in death as in life. . . . It's not just how something looks now, but how it will look. . . .

Architects should think of ourselves as choreographers.

What we make will always be interacting with time, weather, chemistry, and with people's touch.

[What have Moore's statements to do with Scott's studied quote? "Dancing about architecture," architects as choreographers . . . who cares? Some may understandably ask.

So the two statements sound somewhat alike, so what?

Why not leave the post at the level of a cutsey, superficial juxtapositioning pun? Harmless enough, though annoying, unnecessary and stupid. Why wonder about if any interesting conceptual relationship could be found there in the space between the two statements?

Why pretend that everything has to be about more than one thing at once? Why the need to complicate everthing, bring things into "relation" all the time? The habit is tiresome. Why can't something be just "about" itself? Why can't everything just be simple?

Answer: Because simplicity gives TiR fewer pretexts to surf useless webpages.

Granted, maybe our inclination is to take probably dodgy, insufficiently examined leaps from wondering about "dancing about architecture" to "dance as architecture"
[from the relation of "standing next to, or around" to "standing in for."]

   to flipping the (dangerously assumed (by us) equivalent?) terms, to wonder about "architecture as dance."

Of course, we're also hiding the actual ball of discussion here by not (until now) mentioning the tail end of the "dancing about architecture" quote --
it's a really stupid thing to want to do.

Our curiosity here is whether "dancing about archit" might be, in fact, a very non-stupid thing to do, depending on how you look at the proposition
(i.e., as in this case, rotated 90    degrees then flipped into its mirror image)
despite the apparently widespread popularity and attribution of a quote that takes on faith the opposite view.]

Choreographers think differently than does Moore, in that few of the former seem to think about how to make their dancers look interesting while falling down. Unless perhaps the choreographer is Merce Cunningham, or Mark       Morris.

Similarly, few choreographers seem to think about how their works will look when performed by dancers that have become elderly. Exceptions might include Liz Lerman's Dancers of the Third Age, or Janine Thompson of the Miami Heat basketball team's "Golden Oldies."

Architects, by contrast, frequently seem to express interest in building projects that "age gracefully" (examples here, here and here). However, such builders don't seem so much to be thinking in the "long now" terms of, "Hire me, and my building will look good to you -- when it's falling down."
[this post's big dumb idea (sic): Every building is always constantly falling -- only usually across too long of a time scale for humans to perceive it.]

What does a good looking, falling down building look like?

Some of them might look like the architectural ruins that were the subject of a recent photography    exhibition by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

Perhaps the most incredible looking ruin in the show was identified only by its location in Brush Park, Detroit.

The photo is here.

The wonders of the internet enabled TiR to identify the house as the 1893 William Livingstone    Mansion, or, as it became known, "Slumpy."

TiR learned too that the mansion recently was demolished.

Slumpy in its last years was, it seems, a sufficiently impossible structure from which to tear one's eyes
[maybe like the best dance, for similar reasons?

such as the sheer improbability of its defiance of gravity?]

     that one local wrote,
Now the house is little more than a cliché, as many photographers take the same photo at the front of the house.

[But remember: Some things are clichés for a good reason.

Créer un poncif, c'est le génie. Je dois créer un poncif.

"To create a cliché, that's genius. I must create a cliché."
(quoted by Agamben in a footnote, here (.pdf))]

Regardless, theoretical reflections on Weisman and Moore's curiosity about a post-human architecture are somehow all put aside by the sheer jaw-dropping immediacy of watching Slumpy's facade collapse under its own weight, as caught on video viewable here.

It's not every day that one gets to watch a scene from the actual death of an Albert Kahn building.

[update 1/19/09:

A nice article about Kahn is here.]