May 30, 2010

Notes on N.O.: On Political Philosophy and Design

While I was writing my master's thesis on the phenomenon of posthumous fame in the life and work of Walter Benjamin at the New School for Social Research, I was doing demolition and construction work for the architect John Philip Hesslein in the Flatiron District. I became absorbed in the historical building types in that area, early steel frame construction that had structural redundancies and surface aesthetics that were still not reconciled with the new material--six courses of brick and Beaux-Arts facades. Hesslein is an architect who works in a modern vernacular but is a devotee of historical figures like H. H. Richardson and Ernest Flagg, having worked on a restoration of one of his buildings uptown, the 1913 Louis Gouvernor Morris house on 85th and Park Avenue; he was always eager and willing to talk about the architectural history of the building we were working on at 682 Sixth Avenue, as well as the Ladies Mile Historic District that runs down Sixth Avenue.

When I finished my thesis, almost by accident I got a job two blocks away factchecking at Metropolis magazine, just as Marshall Berman's review of the first English edition of Benjamin's Arcades Project was appearing in the February 2000 issue. As a result of this coincidence, I had the notion that it would be possible to write about architecture and urbanism there from the perspective of political philosophy. The combination of this physical labor-- punching holes through the facade for new windows, tearing out floors to install new plumbing, and the installation of pristine modern interiors--alongside the reading of Benjamin's writings on how material culture, objects and buildings are reflections of their political and historical moments--conceived as a fight for an oppressed past that could project messianic possibilities forward into the present--formed a slightly mystical backdrop to my somewhat programmatic early reporting. - STEPHEN ZACKS

No comments:

Post a Comment