Sunday, November 8, 2009

Five thousand words

Ya that seems about right. Guess I am finished.

I should probably explain some.

1) I have something called "complete ventral occlusion with aggravation of the thecal sac". Don't know what it means either. But it applies to my S1 and L5 vertebrae. S1 is basically my pelvis. L5 is the next one up.

2) My right leg feels like it is on fire. All the time. Ok, not all the time - sometimes it feels like an explosion went off inside it.

3) Everything is a dare to me because I am emotionally immature.

4) Instead of writing my magnum opus "Everything About Rome: 300 000 BCE to the Present" I scaled my ambition down to a single building. 5000 very well chosen words.

5) I'm high on percocet all the time (see #2).

6) The words aren't that well chosen. But I have succeeded in not using the word "Fucker". As in "Look fucker, just take my fucking word for it - I know a lot about Rome!!!" (see #3)

7) I cannot bend forward; I'm not physically able to and I'm on Doctor's orders not to. Yet I insist on hand drawing everything for the thesis.

8) I'm counting on getting a lot of slack because, well, see #6 and imagine me, high off my ass, in the main lecture theater being told my work just didn't cut it.

To finish abruptly, I am writing the shortest thesis in W'loo history. And I'm going to dare my committee not to accept it.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Who said, "we won't get fooled again?"

Modernism 2k - Sustainability

This school's self-righteous claim to self-criticism is founded on the Cultural History program. The first Cultural History course is dedicated to demonstrating the failure of the Modernist program. It wasn't a complete failure - a lot of good things came from it - but it did fail.

There are theoretic and pragmatic reasons we must consider Modernism a failure. Theoretically, the claim of universal progress is unfounded, unrealistic, and logically nonsensical. Progress toward what? Unless there is a clearly defined goal, or set of goals, progress isn't progress - it's just change. The high Modernists believed in a progress toward a perfection of type; the perfect housing unit, perfect factory, perfect museum, etc. No one really ever disputed this idea; at a certain point people just started laughing at it.

The pragmatic failure of Modernism is far more devastating as a criticism. The logic of Modernism produced the means of destroying ourselves as a species and the proof of our moral capacity to do so - nuclear weapons and Auschwitz respectively.

I think about the projects coming out of an architecture school in the fifties and the dismay anyone not converted to the doctrine of modernism must have felt. I feel the same way about sustainability. Where Modernism wanted more daylight in factories because it the factory nicer for the workers, sustainability justifies it in terms of energy savings and employee sick days. Where Modernism wanted better design for workers housing because it was better, sustainability argues in terms of daylight autonomy. Modernism was as logically incoherent as sustainability but it was nicer - kinder to people. Designs were based on what was best, not most efficient (even when these overlapped).

Sustainability patently available to the same criticisms that killed Modernism. It ought to be, it is the continuation of Modernism. But unlike Modernism, it isn't nice. Modernists wanted to do their thing because it was better than what had come before - sustainability is a desperate attempt to save our asses.

Take the mega-metropolises in the Southern hemisphere - one half of the world's population now lives in cities and it isn't because Kitchener has gone from 300 000 to 30 000 000. It's because of the giants in the South. They didn't get so big because they are swell places to live. People were forced into them on an unprecedented scale because the logic of development derived from the Modernist principle forced them from the land. And the same logic keeps them in abject poverty.

Sustainability is a stop-loss - the system (I know, I hate that word too and will qualify it later) trying to perpetuate itself when its mortality should be obvious to all. Here's what I mean by the system - our way of developing land, planning cities, designing buildings, governing the people in those cities, providing for our protection and our use of materials, and our corporate yet individual sense of how things ought to be done. It long ago became self-evident that no fixes, no tweaking, no alterations were going to make this system into something compatible with our long term survival. We are watering a dead bouquet.

I guess it beats doing nothing. But not by much. My response has been to retreat into the Ivory Tower (now made of Ivoroid) of academia so that I don't have to deal with the problem. This is far from optimal. I just don't know what else to do. I used to believe the way to make the world a better place was by making myself a better person. I still think that's a good start but it is going to take more.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Why the Picture?

Romulus and Remus counted vultures, not the Eagles of Jupiter. It's a little piece of dramatic foreshadowing. Remus saw 6 (or 8) and then Romulus saw 12 (or 16). Remus said he won since he saw them first, Romulus said he won because he saw twice as many.

Both right, both wrong.

Remus and his followers come down from the Aventine and make their way to the Palatine to dispute the issue. In the resulting melee Remus is killed - "There is a storm of blows, Remus fell".

So the vultures, who appeared on spec, predicted correctly and wound up with a meal.

This is going to end up in my thesis word for word. Thanks Pooya.

Is it me?

If I want to graduate by September (and have the possibility of getting the Visiting Lecturer position in Rome) I have to complete one spread a day for the next thirty days. I guess each spread will take between ten and fifteen hours.

By the logic of this school, I should need no more information than this - my course becomes absolutely clear. I work between twelve and seventeen hours a day for the next thirty days and then I will work without stopping for three or four days to complete formatting, lay out, text, and redlining.

By any other logic deserving the name, the task is impossible. The total hours between me and completion are around 450 - 500. That is a quarter of a working year, not a month. Forty hours times fifty weeks is two thousand hours. Five hundred is one quarter of two thousand.

The advice I get from people within the school is - put in the time and graduate with what you have. This seems morally wrong to me. I have been working on this for the past twenty months; do I really want to do less than I am able just to meet and arbitrary date?

Of course, there is something very significant attached to this otherwise meaningless date. Two things if you count tuition.

Is my task to finish or to finish the best possible product?

Is it better to live a in a self-destructive way for a short period (and hate doing it) or allow myself longer and work in a way I enjoy? If I allow myself this latitude am I ever going to finish?

Given that I am here so that I can continue on the cursus honorum towards a professorship, does everything else become secondary to whatever advances me on that path?

Is it me or is this becoming much more complicated than it ought?

I try to live by simple precepts - don't cross picket lines, don't touch women who are already with someone, don't fuck with a streak, do what's in front of me to do, eat when I am hungry sleep when I am tired. And so on. The great secret of most things is while they are all enormously complicated, what we ought do about them is very simple. In most cases we ought do nothing. In this school I have never found the advice "get some sleep and eat more" to be inappropriate. I find it very perplexing to be in a situation that perplexes me.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Roman and Us

I've been trying to define when we stopped being renaissance and became "modern". To illustrate the continuation of acquisitiveness, Imperial pride and gluttony I made a Triumphal Arch for George Bush. It's based on the Arch of Septimius Severus (who also conquered Parthia).

I think it might be too subtle. And, in homage to Rob Krier, here is a drawing of the Arch of Constantine.

More Spreads

This is the Republican Forum after Augustus finished the basilicas begun by Julius. The reason for the drawing is to highlight the relationship between the Curia (on the left, beside the plan lines) and the Julian Forum.

This is looking the other way. The buildings in the front are the Curia Julia and the chalicidium. The drawing shows how the center of Republic government was reduced to the lobby of Gaius Julius's monument to himself. The temple in the Forum is Venus Genetrix (Venus, Ancestor of the Julians).


The format for my thesis has been finalized as one spread per idea - that's all I get. The editing is going to be pretty fierce.

I've been concentrating on creating images that will explain some of the arguments and that's taking most of my time. But I will put a few of them up now.

These two are about the way Sulla (first Roman General to attack Rome) used the idea of the crowd to forward his political program.

The images are approximately the same scale. And the constructions are huge - the top podium on the bottom image is more than five times the area of the floor of the coliseum. They were built in small towns (Praeneste and Tivoli) that could never fill them - people were meant to imagine the crowd. This imagining created greater effect than an actual crowd would, since you wouldn't be swamped in an ocean of people.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


Other people's blogs have way more pictures than mine. So here are some pictures.

Results of the Sacrifice

The ritually immolated ox revealed a very bad sign - now I have to take antibiotics.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Ultra-Low Intensity Education

As my brother frequently reminds me - Hell won't raise itself.

Those of you who have been a part of the WAC community for a few years might have begun to miss my frenzied and furious rants about anything incurring my wrath. I stopped because I lost faith in the institution.

It was hard, I was a true believer. I really thought I had stumbled into the one place the smiling bastards had somehow overlooked. I believed if I saw something wrong with the School and I pointed it out then I would be thanked and the problem fixed. Unbelievably naive. Still it seemed to be the situation for long enough to convince me people gave a shit.

Or maybe I was deluding myself then too. Well, I stopped because for every person who thanked me or agreed with me privately there were five who took offense publicly and were determined to get back at me (even if only in the most petty ways). I remain proud of my victory over ClipArt inside the School - no small thing.

What I have been thinking about lately (as a result of my enforced absence from the School) is the level of engagement between Grad students and the institution. Perhaps everyone else is more connected than I am but I doubt it. My current level of engagement with the School is such that if I never showed my face there again it would only be once a week less than it is at present.

I have been diligently (semi-diligently) on my thesis but I have no way of knowing a) if someone else in the School is doing exactly the same work b) if everything I am doing has been done twenty years ago and thoroughly debunked ten years ago c) is totally inappropriate for an architecture degree.

I understand the argument that, at this level, students are supposed to take much more responsibility for their own education. However, as any Grad student who has ever tried to arrange a committee meeting will tell you, trying to get the members of your committee in the same city at the same time can be nearly impossible. To get three professors (or a professor, the Director of the Graduate Program, and the Director of the School) to sit in a room together for the exclusive purpose of discussing your work (which they may or may not give a fuck about) seems like a tremendous imposition on the part of the student. So it is avoided.

Why do we have three committee members? I understand the purpose for a committee when it is time to defend, but why before? Surely a single professor is sufficiently able to assist in the creation of the (largely complete shit) theses we produce. Why not bring the other two committee members on at the same time as the external reader? Or, even better, why not let your adviser choose all three and not tell you who they will be until your defence? Because, let's face it, the defence as currently instituted, is a victory lap. I would like it to be a real defence where your work either stands or falls.

And to those who take offense at my categorization of the majority of accepted Masters theses as complete shit - go to the library sometime and look at them. It is very possible they mark the true index of achievement expected of this program and I am inflating it out of vanity (since I haven't finished yet and so can dream my finished work will not suck). And when you are looking at them think "three years" or "five years" or however long that was the exclusive objective of the candidate.

When we work in isolation, when we are given the prerogative of scheduling for ourselves, when there is no competition to drive us - the results are the lowest common denominator. I consider the work of my colleagues and me when walking through the student work exhibit and I think there are only a few theses I am aware of than can compete with the level of achievement demonstrated by the third year studios (and above).

I can hardly believe I am arguing for more rules, not less. But I am not certain that is my point. I guess the real point is we do our best work when we work with others - perhaps we are competing or maybe we are inspired. Whatever the Studio vibe so difficult to define but easy to perceive is, that is what the Masters program lacks. And, in large part, why the work we do is so far below our potential.

Ill Health, Pt. 2

Running a temperature and an ill-omened flight of birds - the augurs advise caution. But still have no specifics.

Tonight I plan to sacrifice a hotdog to Mercury (in his incarnation as the healer) in return for better omens.

Did you ever wonder where the caduceus symbol came from? The snakes woven around a wand, symbol of Doctors and Apothecaries? The wand has always been a symbol of Mercury/Hermes - in his incarnation as Psychopomp he uses the wand to lead the spirits of the dead to the underworld. The Roman spin is an adaptation from the Homeric story of Lacoon. The Tiber Island was originally a ship arriving from Greece carrying Mercury. There was a plague in Rome at the time. Two snakes slithered off of the ship and up the Velabrum Minus into a hole under what is now the ruin of the Apollo temple beside the Theater of Marcellus - thus did the healing arts arrive in Rome and the plague lifted.

So if you think I'm slightly mad associating Doctors with magic of the most imprecise kind, check out the AMA website and see the twin snakes of Mercury right at the top.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A Lazy Man Posts

Here's another interesting thing about Rome:
The Porta Triumphalis had elephants on top. Rome must not have created it until some time after 264 BCE when they first started fighting Carthage. And the best engraving of the Porta Triumphalis I have seen shows the soldiers marching into the open gate - why is it a porta not an arcus? The conclussion of the first Punic war marked a tremendous change in the composition of the Roman Empire but I'm not going to explain it. Figure it out for yourself. I'll give you a hint, it concerns the area of Sicily not ceded to Heiro.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


I was going to make you all wait but considering the intense anxiety such a burning question will raise (and because I don't want the whole school at the next talk) I thought I would give you the short version now.

Triumphal Arches

The consul, or imperator, at the head of a successful army could be awarded an ovation or a triumph by the senate (or he could get nothing). An ovation was a triumph without the spoils or the troops following the Triumphator. But the triumph was the big deal. The biggest of big was when the Triumphator could claim the spolia optima or when he had killed the leader of the enemy forces himself. This only happened three times. Anyway, the Triumphal procession followed a specific route through the city and there are lots of funny stories about generals having to postpone their Triumph because they had attached their chariot to captured elephants who were too big for the streets and stuff like that. Really it was an excuse to parade the power of Roman arms before the Roman people.

The parade was led by the Triumphator in a quadriga (chariot pulled by four horses). His face was painted red because he was the incarnation of Jupiter for a day. The prisoners and all the booty (spolia) would follow the Triumphator and then all the troops would parade past. The celebration could last for days (depending on how much booty the army had won) and resulted in large sections of the city burning to the ground on more than one occasion (troops often got a special bonus in cash from the Triumphator and they sometimes spent it on liquor).

At first I thought the arch was removed from the wall as a concession to the religious requirements of the pomerium but I couldn't think of any specific violation. The general could not enter the city before the triumph and his troops couldn't enter the city at all except in a triumph and then only without weapons. So the dictates imposed by the pomerium were already met.

Then I thought it might have something to do with Janus (the two-faced deity). He is the most Roman of all gods - for reasons I hope the thesis as a whole will make clear. And he did have his own arch but it was paid for by merchants who used the Tiber for shipping. And he has nothing to do with triumphs.

The ancient world was governed by two opposite principles - the ius belli and the ius hosti, the law of belligerents and the law of hosts. Either someone was an enemy and you had no obligations toward them at all or they were kin and you treated them as such. That's how the answer involves old Hostis Hostilius - his name means Friend Foe. The distinction between the two seems cut and dried but it isn't. At least, not in Rome. The frequent elision of the two is part of the logic of empire. And this is why you need to think of the arch in space in order to understand it.

The entire Triumphal route would be thronged with people. The Triumphator would often use manubial funds (money gained by conquest) to pay for temporary seating to allow more people to see the parade. Imagine the streets turned into a tremendous linear stadium, a processional passing through Rome and back again. The riotous citizens are all kin, cheering themselves mad for the glory of the army. The Arch doesn't represent a section of the Roman wall, it is a symbolic gate of the conquered cities. The army doesn't fight its way through, it just marches through to the cheers of adoring fans. The Triumph turns the two ancient laws into the same principle during the procession - it is conquest by force and by absorption. Rome conquers enemies and consumes friends. The arch is the moment and location when these antithetical principles are united to form empire.

See? I told you it was interesting!

What is with Triumphal Arches?

That's the tentative title of my next quasi-guerrilla lecture. I loved the idea of guerrilla lectures but it was pointed out to me that by booking space I help the school argue for a larger building when it comes time to expand. And more is not less when you need a desk.

Anyway, these things come from great sources. You would think reading three books a week for twelve months would fill me up with great ideas for lectures and essays - not so. At a certain point more reading generates confusion, not wisdom. Or so says Sallust. Both of the two completed essays and the prospective one have got their (mind-blowing) conclusions from very clever people asking very clever questions. The reading made it possible for me to answer the questions.

So the Triumphal Arch... why am I the first person to ask "wtf?"
People say "they are forms abstracted and removed from the city walls". No one asks the incredibly obvious follow up; instead they document the decoration and classify them by type.

I try to imagine being the Redemptor told to build the first one - someone tells you to build an abstraction of a city gate in the middle of the forum and your question is? Why would anyone do that? I agree.

There has been an incredible amount of scholarly study on the sculptural relief on Triumphal Arches, the inscriptions, decorations, locations, etc. But no one has asked the most basic question possible (from an architect's point of view) "Why an arch?"

I assumed the answer was probably pretty simple and that's why no one bothered but the answer is kind of complex and interesting and so that will be the next lecture.

I'll give you a hint - it involves my favourite Roman name of all time Hostis Hostilius. Actually Memmius Fufemius is my favourite but every time I think of it I start humming banana-fana-fenius fee-fi-fo-femius etc.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Talking To Myself

My thesis will take the form of around ten related essays (or so it appears now). Each essay will be about a theme essential to understanding ancient Rome and a place to demonstrate the spatial repurcussions of the theme.
Number One was called Foundation and was about the Tomb of the Founder and the Tarpeian Rock.
Number Two (and this is the order I am writing in, not the order they will be in the final document) is called Magic and it is about Roman religion and the temporary theaters built by Triumphators. It is the start of a series about representations of the Roman house - first at the size of a theater, then a much larger size for an imaginary crowd, and finally the Imperial fora conceived as houses for the city.
After two attempts to write Magic without speaking it first I gave up and took my recorder to school. I sat outside and talked to myself for half an hour. Then I walked down the street to buy cigarettes while talking to myself. Then I sat in my office talking to myself.
I was able to do it without an audience but I couldn't get the bang at the end - it squirmed out near the middle. And that's no way to write an essay. I was left wondering "shit, is that all I have to say?"
The big revelation in this essay isn't even mine; it's Michel Serres'. What relates a house to a theater is the conception of a house cut in section - atrium becomes a stage and the private rooms become the wings. Pretty clever, eh? I wish I had thought of it.
Now I am wondering if there is anything in the essay I did think of myself.

There is one part - I think I can demonstrate the modern world believes in magic to almost the same extent as the ancient world. At least in the principle of religious contamination; contact with a ritual impurity will put you in grave danger. This is the only way I can account for the panic over the statistically non-existent swine and avian flu strains, or the way people run through the slightest indication of cigarette smoke. It is as if any contact at all will pass the impurity.

If anything really interesting results from writing the thing, I'll let you know.

Guerrilla Lectures

Note - This entry has been revised. Part of the initial purpose of this blog was to help me complete my thesis, and to document that process. Anyone who has written a thesis knows the process will make you crazy (particularly if, like me, you are essentially a disorganized person with disorganized thoughts). Some of the entries in this blog reflect the temporary insanity finishing my degree created (required?). I am revisiting these early entries so I don't spend too much time duplicating material. In the process I will edit, pare, and clarify.

Sometimes writing comes as naturally to me as falling down; other times it isn't quite that easy. I have difficulties when I don't know what the tone is supposed to be.
I began writing my thesis long-hand - I bought an exquisite pen to write with and was off like a shot. Writing long-hand has the tremendous advantage of slowness. While typing I reach the end of the sentence long before I have formulated the next one. Consequently, I end up feeling stupid. Long-hand, however, takes FOREVER. I can compose two of three sentences in my head long before my hand gets close to them. And that makes me feel smart. The problem comes in that I forget what I have already written and, since it is gone as soon as the page is turned, I wind up repeating myself.

My solution was buy a digital recorder and speak my essays as if to someone else. How clever.
And it actually worked.

Then it occurred to me I might as well actually speak them to other people instead of just into my recorder. Thus was born the guerrilla lecture. I wouldn't post a time or place - just tell a few people along with instructions to pass the info along to others they think might be interested.  
The first attempt was terrifying but ultimately successful. I believe formal education works best when it is informal. Students can learn just as much from other students as from professors. But, in the hours before my impromptu performance, I suffered more self-doubt and self-recrimination than in the rest of my education combined. The idea was not motivated by arrogance but seemed tremendously arrogant. I have learned a lot about the topic and enjoy talking about it. If there was an existing tradition of such performances I would have been fine. But there wasn't. I was going to be the first and I felt foolish.
 Anyway. It went well and turned into a nicely paced essay in a tone I am happy with. Buoyed by the success of the first, I attempted a very difficult topic for the second and it didn't turn out as well. The material is okay but it is more than enough for three separate essays. Now I have to separate it and spend the day trying to compose one new one.
It will help if I add my current schedule is a new, complete, thesis-worthy essay every Friday for the next ten weeks.

Friday, May 22, 2009