In their review of Keller Easterling’s Subtraction, Luisa Lorenza Corna and Alan Adam Smart interrogate an architectural theory that makes an economic virtue of contracted social reproduction
Since Vitruvius’ De architectura, fixity – both in terms of structural solidity and temporal longevity – has been a fundamental criterion of successful architecture. Along with beauty and utility, Vitruvius asserted the importance of creating firmitas in architectural constructions by carrying down the foundations to a good solid ground.1 Despite being, in many ways, the most material and literally technical of Vitruvius’ three key terms, firmness has however proven the most elusive, as architecture is subject to continuous processes of ruination, demolition and destruction.
Subtraction, a new book by architecture critic and theorist Keller Easterling published as part of the Sternberg Press Critical Spatial Practice series, presents an alternative to Vitruvius’ principles (and their failures) by framing removal, destruction and negation as constituent parts of architectural production and suggesting ways that the subtraction of buildings is, or could be, a source of value as important as their making.2 In this reframing, Easterling seeks to posit not only a new conception of architectural ‘production’, but also of the practice of the architect, in a moment when this category has itself been undermined by the disruptive action of neoliberalism and its cultural and theoretical formations.
In the literal sense, Easterling considers subtraction as a synonym for physical demolition or destruction that removes material constructions but produces marketable salvage material. Easterling also identifies subtraction with the ‘negative real estate values’ that radiate from buildings in a state of decay into the surrounding urban fabric, hampering further development or investment in these areas.3 As tendencies they are seen sometimes to work in parallel, or even to reinforce each other, and at other times to be opposed. At its best, the book deploys the openness of dramatic narrative and the discursive register of architectural criticism to give a vivid depiction of these distortions and interferences between materiality and abstraction in ways that leverage architecture’s unique, and uniquely precarious, position between aesthetics and political economy. At other points, however, Subtraction is not able to escape conflations of the material and the abstract, and thus these falls into the traps of ‘formal’ metaphor and reactionary mystification that have been the undoing of so much architectural thought.
Easterling’s struggle with the impoverished language of architectural discourse begins in the early sections of the book in which she discusses one of the most iconic instances of architectural destruction: the 1972 demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects in Saint Louis, Missouri.4 The implosion of the tower blocks was filmed and the dramatic stills widely circulated. These were held up as a positive proof of the ‘failure of modernism’ by a cadre of conservative architecture critics – Charles Jencks and others – seeking to posit ‘post-modernism’ as a new paradigm. In post-modernist accounts, projects like Pruitt-Igoe were presented as exemplars of modernism’s failure when they descended into squalor and social disorder internally and were blamed for leaking, what Easterling terms, ‘negative real estate value’ into the surrounding urban fabric. In reality, housing projects in the United States – especially those in cities such as St. Louis, shaped by a brutal structural racism – tended to adopt modernism solely as an aesthetic style while consistently rejecting the ‘progressive’ social elements characteristic of their European precursors. In the specific case of the Pruitt-Igoe project, lobbying by local landlords had imposed substandard materials and construction methods in their construction and pushed the design to be as punitive and carceral as possible for their residents in order to avoid the kind of competition that would interfere with the lucrative rental market in racially segregated, slum housing. One might describe this condition of manufactured deficiency as ‘subtraction’, part of the grim work of concentrating a racialised surplus population. However, Easterling does not make this link, remaining confined within the rhetorical limits of architecture’s cultural pessimism and retreat into conservatism since the 1970s.
Image: The demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing estate in Saint Louis, Missouri, 1972
Easterling tells a story of buildings transmuted into anthropomorphic creatures, playing, alternately, the role of victims and agents of destruction.5 This enthralling fiction certainly keeps readers’ attention alert, but it also conceals the fact that the ‘negativity radiated by buildings’ is a predominantly human product. The empowerment of objects thus seems to come along with a contraction – if not an obliteration – of the agency of the subject. Those cognisant of Easterling’s earlier work, will immediately grasp here an echo of Bruno Latour’s actor network theory (ANT), a research method which accords agency to objects and conceives reality as a function of a collective processes of alliances between humans and non-humans.6 Easterling’s interest in Latour dates back to her 2005 Enduring Innocence, a fascinating enquiry into the organization and the functioning of spaces existing outside normal jurisdictions. Whilst in 2005, however, Latour’s presence remains sporadic, in her more recent The Action is the Form (2013) and Extrastatecraft (2014), it has become a crucial theoretical source for her theory of architecture as ‘active form’. Such a theoretical cross-breeding has certainly challenged traditional notions of buildings as static and singularly authored objects, but as we will argue, it has also brought a downplaying of the problematic relation between architecture and the capitalist regime in which it operates.
In Subtraction, questions related to the broader economical implications of contemporary waves of (creative) destruction remain largely unresolved. The book does include a couple of chapters engaging with the connection between the abstraction of finance capital and its manifestations in the real conditions of housing, but Easterling stops short of developing a direct account of the political economy of the housing market and instead only implies connections obliquely by juxtaposing the disappearance of architectural objects and losses of value. In the chapter ‘Buildings Are Like Money’, for example, Easterling discusses the disjunction that emerges between the function of housing as a bearer abstract monetary value, and as real physical objects providing shelter, when an economic downturn results in a wave of mortgage defaults and foreclosures. In this case, the architectural objects remain in place but their exchange value falls rapidly and new houses are constructed in an attempt to relieve the financial crisis. Unfortunately, Easterling does not present these contradictory conditions as a manifestation of what David Harvey terms a ‘spatial fix’. Rather, she sees them as an irrational aberration and looks optimistically for the potential for creative adaptation that crisis might offer.
Image: Controlled Demolition Inc. video
Other, more challenging, parts of the books address inverse cases in which buildings are destroyed but symbolic value is created. These explore the ‘demolition industry’, alongside its relations to other industries and markets. Easterling refers to the case of Controlled Demolition Industry (CDI), a leading company in the field of demolition that works both for the American department of housing and of that of defence. CDI implodes, indifferently, sport arenas and out-dated military equipment, and it offers consulting services in ‘blast-resistant design.’7 Knowing how to demolish objects ‘scientifically’, presupposes a knowledge of how objects are built and have to be built in order to face ever increasing destructive waves. Easterling’s scrutiny brings to light the technological know-how possessed by the demolition industry, and the way in which this can be put to the service of apparently opposite ends. Even more so, she illustrates how the spectacularisation of the ‘artistry’ involved in the demolition process provide companies like CDI with further economical advantages: implosions are both ‘awesome public relations opportunities’ and moments creating ‘instant visibility for their new development projects.’8 YouTube offers a whole archive of copyrighted videos by Controlled Demolition Inc., which advertise the company’s spectacular bravura. Amongst the videos posted, one portraying the detonation of the Seattle’s Kingdome, a multi-purpose domed stadium whose costs outlived its physical existence, is of particular interest. The video shows the detonation multiple times from different angles and sides, providing the viewer a comprehensive experience of the event. If frontal and bird eye views permit to grasp the organising of the whole demolition process – which parts are dynamited first and in what order – lateral views disclose the mechanics of the collapse. The video delivers very well the experience of an orchestrated cataclysm. After each implosion, an enormous cloud of debris raises from the ground, specks of dust spread all-over the sky swiftly, leaving the surrounding city still and pristine. It is just after the blast, when the dust fills large part of the screen, that the logo of the company, becomes apparent. Controlled Demolition Inc. reveals itself to be a company that produces rubble, at the price of gold.
Image: Controlled Demolition Inc. video
Easterling argues that a new ‘tear down’ culture has emerged recently. In support of her thesis she refers to the proliferation of video showing how to reduce all sort of technological tools to inventory, and to artistic practices that aestheticise objects in their tidily dismantled form. What interests her, however, more than the spreading fascination for reverse-engineering per se, is the way this phenomenon can influence ‘building’, both by engendering assembly techniques that make future disassembly easier (building deconstruction), and by favouring the expansion of a market of building debris to be rearranged and reused (construction through deconstruction). It is at this point that we begin to glimpse how Easterling’s proposal, spelled out in the last two chapters, might look like. Whenever architects decide to tackle contemporary phenomena, they rarely stop at the level of analysis. They instead possess an irrepressible desire to contribute to the modification of the anatomy of the world, either by adding or removing matter. And Easterling too does not resist advancing her own program, turning the deadlock of subtraction into a new beginning.
In the final part of the book we can also discern a certain resurfacing of the idea of architecture as ‘active form’ encountered in the first chapters. As briefly mentioned beforehand, such a thesis is premised upon the the belief that objects have an agency, not intended stricto sensu as ‘movement’, but rather, seconding Bateson and Latour, as the ability to ‘modify a state of affairs by making a difference.’9 For Easterling, architects design active forms insofar as they instigate interplay and interdependence between the various parts of a given spatial organisation, and in doing so they engender temporary increases or reductions of the global built environment. Seen through this optic subtraction doesn’t amount to definitive absence, but to ‘a moment in a set of exchanges and advances’ which might result in its very opposite.10 To help us understand how this works in practice, Easterling refers to the case of the Yasuni-ITT initiative, a (failed) scheme devised by the Ecuadorian government to obtain financial help from the international community in return for keeping oil in the ground and thus preventing the release of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The Yasuni-ITT protocol would amount to an example of subtraction, for it is predicated on the (apparently) negative choice of not altering the Amazonas ecology. But the ‘subtractive moment’ is not considered by Easterling as an end in itself, rather as a tactical move intended to engender ‘constructive’ (i.e. commercial) possibilities: an undeveloped fincas, she explains, might add value to a nearby ecotourism site or attract pharmaceutical companies in search of biodiversity.
Benjamin Noys has recently argued that Latour’s ‘dissolution of capital into networks and objects [. . .] reproduces capitalism as a site of intervention [. . .] only in the sense that we can change and re-frame capitalism to produce a more “successful” social form.’11 This critique could be equally addressed to Easterling’s proposal to turn subtraction into an ‘alternative’ market. Her book is replete with insightful observations, eloquent case studies and visionary descriptions, but instead of trying to think of subtraction as a way to eschew the valorisation process, she opts for yielding value to the unbuilt. In this is reproduced the rhetoric of ‘untapped potential’ to be discovered and mined for value that animates neoliberal assertions of relentless growth as a way to overcome, or at least forestall, the limits of capital.
Luisa Lorenza Corna <luisalorenzacorna AT gmail.com> is a PhD candidate at the faculty of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies in Leeds
Alan Smart is a designer and researcher based in Berlin. He practices independently and as part of the design collective Other Forms
Keller Easterling, Subtraction, Berlin:Sternberg Press, 2014
2 Keller Easterling, Subtraction, Sternberg-Press: Berlin, 2014, p.1.
3 Ibid., p.10.
4 Pruitt-Igoe was designed by Minoru Yamasaki who was also the architect of the World Trade Center. Thus its demolition represents the first of two historically significant demolitions in his oeuvre.
5 Ibid., p.10.
6 Keller Easterling, Extrastatescraft, London: Verso, 2014. On Actor-Network-Theory see Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford University Press: New York, 2005).
7 Easterling, op. cit., p.24.
8 Easterling, op. cit., pp.24-25.
9 Latour, op. cit., p.71.
10 Easterling, op. cit. p.3.
11 Benjamin Noys, 'The Discreet Charm of Bruno Latour, or the Critique of "Anti-Critique"', paper presented at the Centre for Critical Theory, University of Nottingham, December 2011, p.19. A revised version of the paper has been published in Jernej Habjan, Jessica Whyte (ed.), (Mis)readings of Marx in Continental Philosophy, Palgrave Macmillan: London, 2014.