Robert Segrest, “The Perimeter Projects: Notes for Design,” 1984.
Segrest’s essay is probably one of the most fascinating so far in Hays’s anthology, if only for its erratic construction as an assembly of fragments (architecture, cinema, literature, philosophy). It is an allusive collage that impresses the idea of suburban life as architecture—“architecture as the writing of events rather than as any lived experience” (Hays)—whose characteristics are better found in literary and cinematic portrayals of individuals versus space. But this is a fundamentally American “SPACE” different from what we’ve encountered before (See LeFebvre, Foucault, and Virilio). For Segrest, American SPACE is more challenging and villainous than generous, more “us-versus-nature” than an epistemological medium. Part cultural archaeology, part urban history, Segrest’s essay presents a portrait of architecture and the city that is a break from the familiar, more Waste Land than Broadacre City, more Poe and Melville than Corbusier or Agrest.
At the end of his introduction, Hays tells us “Segrest registers an ambiguity characteristic of architecture theory in the mid-1980s, a skeptical, transgressive kind of writing whose convulsions somehow resemble laughter.” Because the body of the essay is so thoroughly disorienting in its constant approximation, analogy, and implication, we cling to Hays and Segrest’s own surprisingly clear introduction for guidance.
Sesgrest immediately does away with traditional “Architecture.” All of Architecture and Theory work to produce a material object, regardless of their specific agendas—an experience in time, sure, but locked within the building. This Architecture “is a collection of ruins that closes at six o’clock.” Everything else, the space between buildings and outside the city, is where life occurs, is a space written by our lives and culture, capable even of acting upon architectural objects. Segrest’s transgression is to turn to this space in order to redefine Architecture, and to do so almost without discussing architecture at all.
The antagonist of Segrest’s transgressive theory is American suburbia, our “fringe,” our foray outward into the space beyond the city—a foray that is quintessentially American of us. “SPACE, not history, not time, is (still) the totalizing force in the American experience.” While history and time were significant “forces” for European movements, Modernist or otherwise, Space was America’s. And this is not the rolling, beautiful, generous space of the Hudson School, not the purple mountains or the fields of amber waves claimed by Manifest Destiny; American SPACE is truly portrayed by Melville and Poe. (The capitalized “SPACE” is borrowed from Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, an analysis of Moby Dick.) SPACE is terrifying, challenging, boisterous, and in the case of humans, glib.
Already Segrest has redefined Architecture. No longer the material of the object, Architecture is something written, something incidental; it is something discovered, mapped, explored. Architecture is, above all else, incidental, something that is produced by other protagonists. Hence the literary analogies. While Ahab careens off into space, fights its vastness, the story itself is Architecture, is the byproduct of the events, just as Segrest’s redefinition of Architecture is the byproduct of suburbia’s foray into SPACE.
Then follows a section we might re-title “a history of the American City, more or less,” broken into three sections. First we have the Modernist section (categorized under Walter Benjamin) in which the Modernists sought a solid city composed of objects, an idealized machine. But, as we know, they were confronted with a reality of an ever-expanding city increasingly defined by events and the ephemeral detritus of culture that Benjamin called “debris.” After the Modernist, objectified city failed (Ville Radieuse, Broadacre City, or the Athens Charter), Robert Venturi revived that very same “debris.”
Venturi combined New Criticism (literature) and architecture history to consolidate the objects of the city and recapture the matrix of space and meaning, understanding that Architecture was less about the object and as much about cultural debris. Las Vegas, partitioned off from the SPACE of the Mojave by a “zone of rusting beer cans,” was the image of this consolidated city. If the city first was about the objectified machine, for Venturi it was marked by the divide from the “Out There”—highway space, infrastructure, and what has become one of the most notorious suburban sprawls in Western America. Venturi’s “Out There” is the “fringes of American culture,” the “landscape of events,” a geography of transgressions against traditional Architecture.
Then we enter into a conversation about transgression and the “game of transgression,” organized under the section header “Construction”—from which we presume the goal is to develop an idea of how to construct Architecture “Out There” (a.k.a. the suburbs). And while it takes Segrest a while to clarify the connection between these things, his summary is startlingly concise:
“A suburban architecture (not the binary disorder of an urban order; not the residual of archetypes, Olmsted’s or Howard’s) is a geography of filaments, of structures in space, of the silent mirage of the drive-in movie (flickers, flicks, Barthes’s semic code), the symbiosis not of city and building but of book and building—the playing of the game.”
Suburban architecture isn’t something made, it is “an archaeology of the present: sifting through the refuse pile (like Benjamin).”
Ultimately this remains confusing and its ambiguity is intentional. (Remember Hays’s description of this as typical of the mid-80s.) But the operation Segrest has carried out is crucial. Architecture is no longer a protagonist, a conscious product, no longer intentional. Architecture is the byproduct, incidental, is passively produced. Architecture is not even material anymore. The outside-in topology of traditional architectural production has been erased. Segrest’s topology is like Baudrillard’s map (with echoes of Borges): it is a layer representing the actual literal geography, just as a novel is the representation of a story. Indeed, the idea of Map and a “geography of experiences” is probably an intentional reference to Baudrillard and contemporary theory—after all, this isn’t the first time we’ve encountered discussions of simulations.
It is also pertinent to know that Segrest apparently wrote these "Notes" as a prospectus for his studio at GT, which makes its erratic fragmentation slightly more believable.
For other instances of the 80s’ redefinition of Architecture, I’m reminded of Robin Evans.