As an architect, Johnson is most widely respected for his work in the early 1950s while still under the influence of Mies Van Der Rohe. However, he has altered his architectural principles from Modernist to Post-Modernist to anti-Post Modernist at will. This has led to the criticism that he shows more interest in style than in substance. He will probably be remembered more as a stimulator of ideas than as a designer.
It's critical, Yes, but with elaborate distance, as if he's the same precise distance in metrical, NOT English, units from the space and object(s) he observes. Too fixed, then? I don't know, but I'd prefer to see/hear the subjectivity/poet move around his imagism, as it were. Oh, not move around it in the sense of circling it along the same circumference, but, rather, move in and out, nearer to and further from its disparate mythemes and signifiers, sometimes even touching the fucking building blocks or disturbing their stationary subjectivity he subjects them to. Likewise, "he needs to" interact with them and then behold himself, the maker, the architect of the building's significance, which should shift until he's almost a ghost passing through walls and indistinguishable from their substances. Just a thought, but, alas, a wish to read my own poetry, what I'd do with the piece and the piecing/piercing of this building. Not Watten's writing.
I.e., "it's too clinical," or is that me, creating "my Barrett Watten," nay, not even mine exactly so much as "theirs," whereas perhaps the real Barrett Watten is not so dry and clinical (like a Freudian with an analysand who lays on the couch and never makes contact, or even hears the analyst speak, like Lacan?).
But whose building is this, anyhow? Mine, or Watten's, or Philip Johnson's:
The combination of facing motifs shows a simultaneous
fascination with ironic control and the disavowal of any
How does one learn who really built this building, anyhow? Has Johnson blueprints that specifically list "ironic control and the disavowal of any consequences" as intentional formal considerations, designed from the get-go, maybe recurrent throughout Johnson's other constructions?
You have to admire how much Watten "can read in to," or is it "write out of" a building. Again, there is some lineage to imagism and objectivism, I think, except this is "essay form." I mean, he constructs an entire "essay" and "critique" of a building and the essay reveals as much about the critic as it does the architecture reviewed; it's really a poetry, "dry," perhaps, "clinical" (seemingly), and "abstruse," but really fascinating if you give it a chance, Steve. Check this out, for example:
The slanting grid of steel and glass reflects an ambiguous light that human designs can only interrupt. Therefore our desires are to clear such obstacles away so that the clarity of our purposes may be known to us.
I mean, how do you read this? It's not philosophy, for it's so much more sensuous in the graceful charm of its reflections/sense and you never have to wait until the next sentence or end of the paragraph to take off with meaning. And besides, there's so much more play between the signifiers and what/how you choose to have them signify:
It is a beautiful gray ironic day, with forecasted clouds in the depthless background to complement the bold relief of our vacant enterprise.
Each sphere comes complete with a view, but that view will never get around this corner.
Heck, maybe that's a mixed metaphor, but if so, then it's by definition metaphor, and it's fun to read; you get surprised and "charmed," subtlely and gracefully, by where the sense of the sentence goes and the way your expectations are pleasantly and consistently chagrined. If this were pure "deconstruction," or architectural criticism, wouldn't the language be considerably more "scientific," "representational," "denotative?" I think so. However, it's poetry, on the surface quite abstract, but given just a little work, pretty fascinating, really.
The title "poem"/essay/piece "Bad History" more immediately grabs me, probably because of the themes early on -- "war," "history," and our concept of same, which must, after all, change if we are to understand them and reduce or eliminate their occurence,
cross-generational goal I know Watten pursues no less than any of the rest of us do.
I love the way that Watten alerts us to our lazy habit of avoiding responsibility for the shambles of our world, for our wars, for our histories, whereas its most immediate manifestation resides right here always local and completely accessible, namely our minds and how we choose -- learn ourselves to perceive, conceive, structure, conceptualize our world, our histories. "A bad thing happened to me," Watten begins, reminding us that we can either passively (defensively -- repress our alienation of our alienation of our anger and our wherewithal to change) percieve life as happening to us or we can couch our realities in the active voice whenever warranted by personal and communal responsibility.
Section F, the essay/poem "The 1990s," closes Watten's Bad History. "Closes" is, of course, ironic here, for naturally Watten, or for that matter any Watten, will almost intentionally work to subvert, problematize, or otherwise question almost any book's manifestation of closure, perhaps especially one working to deconstruct our infatuations with flawed modes of conceiving history. What a funny, neat piece this is, then, with its mock-heroic alarm bell sounding both the introductory and the concluding sentences -- "Time is of the essence." All the more appropriately disillusioning are these twin chimes given the fact that every single sentence unit securely sandwiched in between them rings truly discomfiting with the patently hollow, deviously ambiguous clap trap fiduciary jargon and financial management blather of a corporate annual report.
This is really quite ingenious when you think about it. Ostensibly, the piece resembles poetry in only one ambivalent way. It's replete with infinite ambiguity, except here ambiguity is hardly a poetic quality; rather, it's neither true nor beautiful. Here, in these seemingly verbatim, actual "Standard real estate contract" and "quarterly reports" from "Century Properties Fund XIX" -- Century 21 in the original, perhaps -- ambiguity functions insidiously to strip the signifiers of almost all possible signifying utility and render the thoroughly representational language thoroughly useless as reliable finacial data or instrument. Anybody who's ever read a typical financial prospectus by a crooked financial institution knows precisely what I mean, but here's some of the hash that Watten employs for fresh inspection of this, ummm, let's call it, ______-speak:
In this regard, it is anticipated that some remaining properties will be held longer than originally expected. We will monitor changes in financing availability trends and consider marketing property for sale when economic conditions improve. However, the Partnership continues to operate in negative cash flow position due to the effects of higher operating expenses as well as competitive market conditions, including the widespread use of concessions and depressed rates.
At the level of the short phrase, this ______-speak is entirely denotative, but from sentence to sentence, it is, of course, completely emptied of any kind of meaningful signification. There's no way to tie any verbiage here to concrete signifieds. "It is anticipated that" doesn't tell the reader who's responsible for the anticipating (note the passive voice syntax); "some remaining properties" doesn't tell the reader which, nor what kind of, properties; "longer than originally expected" offers no reasonably reliable or definite time frame; further, it obscures whatever parties might rightfully be held accountable for forecasting any previous or original expectations. In sum, there is not a single shred of data here that a prudent investor could use or trust to make an investment decision whether to buy or sell anything. Nothing here can be used to predict any facet of the future.
This is all the more harrowing if we consider the financial product's apparent subject matter: real estate. What is for most individuals, couples, and families the single most prominent item of material-existential security, and investment concern -- housing -- apparently cannot be treated with any more certainty and assurance than predictions of rain or sunshine for a summer day 10 years in advance. Watten accentuates this sense of utter insecurity by highlighting a second almost universal concern humans have: domestic relationships. Although the term "Partnership" is in the surface context a reference to the firm or financial institution that here specializes in real estate investment, one cannot help but think its fateful 13 instances of reference also strongly suggest marriage partnerships as well. And again the anxieties are ominous: (1)"There can be no assurance that additional loans are forthcoming from the General Partner"; (2)"overbuilt market condition continued to impact Partnership performance"; (3)"In light of the Partnership's performance . . . growth will not be attained"; (4)"the Partnership continues to operate in a negative cash flow position"; (5)the Partnership's working . . . reserves have declined and negative operations persist."
All in all, "The 90s" closes Watten's book Bad History with a pretty bleak picture of the way we process "history" and especially the relative anxiety we accrue when we fortify ourselves with false securities, deceptive and empty syntactic charades. Even our most private and sacrosanct institutions of Home and Companionship are threatened by the bad history we construct for creating our futures.