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Felicity D. Scott, Disorientation: Bernard Rudofsky in the Empire of Signs

Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016 (Critical Spatial Practice, 7)
Rika Devos

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1Felicity D. Scott, Disorientation: Bernard Rudofsky in the Empire of Signs, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016 (Critical Spatial Practice, 7).

  • 1 On the series Critical Spatial Practice, see the publisher’s website: http://www.sternberg-press.c (...)
  • 2 More particularly: his contribution to the American pavilion at Expo 58. See for instance: Rika De (...)

2Markus Miessen, PhD, is a Berlin-based architect, spatial designer, editor and writer working on the themes of critical spatial practice, participation, institution building and spatial politics. He shares most of these interests with Nikolaus Hirsch, architect (Frankfurt), writer and former director of the Städelschule (Frankfurt), with whom Miessen edits the series Critical Spatial Practice, published with Sternberg Press (Berlin) since 2012.1 The series presents, in attractive pocket volumes, a variety of approaches and discussions on the question of what, today, can be understood as a critical modality of spatial practice in the fields of architecture, art, philosophy, and literature. While focusing mainly on contemporary practices, historical approaches with particular relevance today are scrutinized also, as is the case in issue 3, with Beatriz Colomina’s discussion of the modern architecture manifesto in the work of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Also in issue 7, the most recent publication in this series, an historical topic is chosen: Felicity D. Scott presents a precise selection of critical work and thought by American architect and exhibition maker Bernard Rudofsky in the 1950s–1960s. It is through this issue, and driven by a shared interest in Rudofsky’s exhibition work,2 that the series has come under my attention.

  • 3 Felicity D. Scott, Functionalism's Discontent: Bernard Rudofsky's Other Architecture, Ph.D dissert (...)
  • 4 Felicity D. Scott, “Encounters with The Face of America,” in Antoine Picon and Alessandra Ponte (e (...)
  • 5 See the Vienna-based Bernard Rudofsky Estate: http://rudofsky.org/. Accessed 24 October 2016.

3Felicity D. Scott is an historian and theorist of architecture, and associate professor of Architecture at Columbia University since 2012. Her long-standing expertise in the oeuvre, ideas and figure of Bernard Rudofsky originates from her PhD research (Princeton, 2001)3 and has already been the object of diverse publications in books4 and journals. Her work on Rudofsky is part of a broader research interest in technological and geopolitical transformations in modern and contemporary architecture. She is the author of the following books: Techno-Utopia: Politics After Modernism (2007), Living Archive 7: Ant Farm (2008) and the recent Outlaw Territories: Environments of Insecurity/Architectures of Counter-Insurgency (2016).
Disorientation: Bernard Rudofsky in the Empire of Signs is a short text in a small book (15 to 10,5 cm, 120 pages), but by no means lacking in depth, nuance and precision. For those familiar with the work of Felicity D. Scott, this will be of no surprise. Her writings generally forward challenging hypotheses, framing historical topics in relevant theoretical themes. Scott’s work on Rudofsky is based on intensive archival research in his archives (now in Vienna),5 the Archives of the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) and the Getty Research Institute and has gained in precision throughout her re-visiting of the oeuvre. With Disorientation Scott is on familiar terrain.

  • 6 Felicity D. Scott, Disorientation: Bernard Rudofsky in the Empire of Signs, Berlin: Sternberg Pres (...)
  • 7 Scott’s work was funded by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. The quote (...)

4The book elaborates on Rudofsky’s fascination with communication through, by, about and in spite of (modern) architecture. A central point of attention are Rudofsky’s ideas on exhibition architecture and on urban signage in the 1950s, then a topic of lively debate in both North America and Europe. The thesis defended by Scott—linking up with the theme of the series—is that Rudofsky’s texts, lectures and installations “forward alternative modes of aesthetic reception and other forms of spatial practice.”6 By scrutinizing the critical content of Rudofsky’s work, Scott sets out to reveal the often ignored spatial and semantic complexities in the 1964 landmark exhibition (at MoMA) and catalogue that are most commonly linked with his name: Architecture without architects. Scott claims to trace “Rudofsky's ‘insights’ into the impact of those globalizing forces upon modern architecture and his formulation, in response, of a mode of dwelling while adrift.”7 The exercise imposed by the series’ theme, that is: considering Rudofsky’s post-war work as critical spatial practice, indeed allows to supersede the often simplified readings of Architecture without architects as a humanist ode to threatened but authentic vernacular architectures around the world. As such, the series’ theme triggered Scott to re-asses once more Rudofsky’s work by underlining his early tackling of contemporary concepts on (culturally defined) conventions in communication and modern architecture.

  • 8 Felicity D. Scott, Disorientation: Bernard Rudofsky in the Empire of Signs, op. cit. (note 5), p. (...)
  • 9 Ibid. (note 5), p. 81.
  • 10 Ibid. (note 5), p. 81.
  • 11 Ibid. (note 5), p. 100.

5Disorientation: Bernard Rudofsky in the Empire of Signs, is built up out of an introduction followed by fifteen small chapters, through which Scott carefully (de-)constructs the complexities of Rudofsky’s claims on signifying systems and the built environment, by framing them with different thematic contexts and theoretical questions. In the introduction Scott briefly recalls the biography of Bernard Rudofsky (1905–1988): born in Moravia, trained as an architect at the Vienna Technische Hochschule, where he also obtained his PhD with a dissertation on vernacular architecture in the Cyclades (1931). He migrated to the United States in 1941 after short stays in Italy (collaborations with Luigi Cosenza and Gio Ponti), Argentina and Brazil, where he practiced as an architect. Once in the US, Rudofsky soon became involved with the MoMA, and this via Philip Goodwin, then chairman of the architecture department. Scott’s text focusses on Rudofsky’s work in the period 1955–1965 mainly: his encounters with Japan, his critique on the American everyday life and his complex relation with the MoMa. The author confronts these three fascinations with Rudofsky’s interest in communication and cultural alterity, expressed in the intertwining of architecture, signs and signification.
Apart from scrutinizing Rudofsky’s reasoning, the text also gives a unique insight into the rich cultural and intellectual context of Bernard Rudofsky’s work, revealing his interactions with, or simple contemporaneity to, American theorists and designers like Gyorgy Kepes, Kevin Lynch, Pietro Belluschi, Serge Chermayeff, Philip Johnson, Ada Louise Huxtable, Paul Rand, Douglas Haskell, Walter Gropius, Joseph Ryckwert… with whom he shared his interests in architecture, urbanism and/or communication. Scott explains that, even while being in service of established power—the MoMA or the commissioners of the American pavilion of Expo 58 for instance—Rudofsky adopted a challenging, questioning stance in the setting up of his exhibition architecture, refusing “universal codes of communication,”8 crossing conventions and aiming for effects of estrangement with his public, even when standing in front of well-known objects. Such was the case, for instance, in the exhibit of an American streetscape in the US pavilion at Expo 58, the first post-war world’s fair. While looking for a bodily immersion of the visitors through labyrinthine layouts or step-in exhibits, Rudofsky created set-ups that allowed visitors to discover exhibits and meanings freely, as if they wandered through an unknown city for the first time. Scott indicates clear parallels between the exhibition installations, Rudofsky’s texts and lectures, and his own, somewhat bewildering experience of Japanese cities, which have left a deep impression on the architect. Yet another link with a lively contemporary debate is revealed: the various symposia and studies, often Yale- or MoMA-based, on urban streetscapes and street signage. As such, Scott confronts discussions on signs on architecture—Writing on the walls—with significance attributed to architecture—Writing of the walls. A returning issue in both discussions is the designer’s capacity or will to control the visual aspects of an urban environment and to optimize its desired legibility in relation to, alternatively, the appreciation for a chaotic, multi-layered and confusing cityscape, in which architecture has changing or blurry significations. Rudofsky explored the moldable, “weak physiognomy”9 of a city like Tokyo, a characteristic most present—to his Western eye—in Japanese cities where he experienced profound disorientation. Scott convincingly points at similarities with Roland Barthes’ later Empire des Signes (1970), in which the French semiotician reported on his own close encounter with Japanese culture, which he had experienced as “being bombarded by ungraspable fragments and events.”10 Rudofsky, however, as Scott underlines in this comparison and in the final pages of the text, “reveled in the construction of artifice and illegibility”11 and considered the “disorientation” not as a problem (much unlike Lynch or Kepes), but as a potential for alternative spatial modes of communication, control and user participation.

  • 12 Architekturzentrum Wien (ed.), Lessons from Bernard Rudofsky. Life as a voyage, Basel: Birkhäuser, (...)
  • 13 Beck previously published The Aspen Complex, also with Sternberg Press (2012) and Summer Winter Ea (...)

6Felicity D. Scott narrates her exploration of Rudofsky’s critical practice and thoughts in clear and well-documented text. The medium of text, however, is a treacherous tool to present Rudofsky’s at times slippery, suggestive reasoning on signs, urban space and architecture. It is unfortunate that only little effort was paid to integrate illustrations and text more explicitly, as it would surely help readers to capture the specificities of both Rudofsky’s design and written work, which now often remains highly abstract in its textual treatment. Moreover, it should be mentioned that the graphic and spatial work of Rudofsky has, a few laudable initiatives put aside, rarely been published.12 In defense of the option taken in Disorientation, is of course the pocket book format, including its black-and-white printing on light paper. Yet while the small book format is attractive in itself, this publication strategy prevents a most-welcome illustration of how the spatial practice of Rudofsky is complementary to his written work. In contrast to this sober print, the text is preceded by five highly detailed, color photographs of the act of flower arranging (figuring also on the dustcover of the book), on glossy paper, produced by the artist and writer Martin Beck.13 Although suggestive and attractive, the relation between text and photographs remains without comment or reference. While the acknowledgements indicate a collaboration with Scott, no further information on the ambitions of this project is provided.
Disorientation: Bernard Rudofsky in the Empire of Signs should not be considered as an introduction to Rudofsky’s work and will not reveal the full complexities of its historical context, but it surely is a coherent, fascinating text for those already informed on his work, or looking for a selective assessment on the American, post-war debates on streetscape and signage design, or even more general discussions on (mass) communication through architecture. It is also a welcome eye-opener to what, in retrospect, could be called historical critical spatial practice.

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Notes

1 On the series Critical Spatial Practice, see the publisher’s website: http://www.sternberg-press.com/index.php?pageId=1399&l=en&bookId=294&sort=year DESC,month DESC. Accessed 24 October 2016.

2 More particularly: his contribution to the American pavilion at Expo 58. See for instance: Rika Devos, “A Cold war Sketch. The Visual Antagonism of the USA vs. the USSR at Expo 58,” Revue belge de Philologie et d’Histoire, vol. 87, 2009, p. 723–742.

3 Felicity D. Scott, Functionalism's Discontent: Bernard Rudofsky's Other Architecture, Ph.D dissertation, Princeton University, Princeton, 2001.

4 Felicity D. Scott, “Encounters with The Face of America,” in Antoine Picon and Alessandra Ponte (eds.), Architecture and the Sciences. Exchanging metaphors, New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000, p. 256–291; Felicity D. Scott, “Bernard Rudofsky: Allegories of Nomadism and Dwelling” in Sarah Williams Goldhagen and Réjean Legault (eds.), Anxious Modernisms. Experimentation in Postwar Architectural Culture, Montreal: CCA and Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000, p. 215–237; Felicity D. Scott, “An eye for modern architecture,” in Architekturzentrum Wien (ed.), Lessons from Bernard Rudofsky. Life as a voyage, Basel: Birkhäuser, 2007, p. 172–209.

5 See the Vienna-based Bernard Rudofsky Estate: http://rudofsky.org/. Accessed 24 October 2016.

6 Felicity D. Scott, Disorientation: Bernard Rudofsky in the Empire of Signs, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016 (Critical Spatial Practice, 7), p. 16.

7 Scott’s work was funded by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. The quote is taken from the description of the foundation’s website. See: http://www.grahamfoundation.org/grantees/3967-disorientation-bernard-rudofsky-in-the-empire-of-signs. Accessed 24 October 2016.

8 Felicity D. Scott, Disorientation: Bernard Rudofsky in the Empire of Signs, op. cit. (note 5), p. 101.

9 Ibid. (note 5), p. 81.

10 Ibid. (note 5), p. 81.

11 Ibid. (note 5), p. 100.

12 Architekturzentrum Wien (ed.), Lessons from Bernard Rudofsky. Life as a voyage, Basel: Birkhäuser, 2007.

13 Beck previously published The Aspen Complex, also with Sternberg Press (2012) and Summer Winter East West (Archive Books, 2015).

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Référence électronique

Rika Devos, « Felicity D. Scott, Disorientation: Bernard Rudofsky in the Empire of Signs », ABE Journal [En ligne], 9-10 | 2016, mis en ligne le 19 décembre 2016, consulté le 25 juin 2017. URL : http://abe.revues.org/3026

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Auteur

Rika Devos

Associate Professor, Université Libre de Bruxelles, BATir-AIA, Bruxelles, Belgium

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La revue ABE Journal est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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