Repetition and transformation : the housing project and the city of New York

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From the early decades of the twentieth century the housing project has, with varying intensities, acquired a critical instrumentality within urban spatial reasoning. The following thesis examines this reasoning across several terrains. The first concerns architecture’s disciplinary outside: an agonistic governmental rationality regarding the constellation of home, work, leisure and transport in the formation of urban and domestic subjects. It is a disputed terrain that can be seen to consistently cut through the urban diagram of the housing project. The second is seen through architecture’s limited and iterative autonomy to engage and experiment with this diagram via a strategic field of material and formal organization, that is, through the disciplinary specific work of architectural typology in its negotiation with this outside. The decades 1960-1980 are generally identified within architectural and urban history and theory as marking a dramatic critique and transformation in the field of architecture. This critique involved a review of architecture’s relationship to the city and is particularly evident with reference to the tower in the park housing type of the Modern Movement and its perceived failure in terms of an ‘existing and traditional city’. This thesis reframes several projects argued to be definitional of such change. Examples here are drawn from the specificity of the city that throughout the twentieth century has repeatedly been held up as the exemplar of all that the delirious metropolis of change might be: the City of New York. Through an examination of specific projects, this thesis aims to clarify where architecture’s iterative and limited autonomy can be seen in action through this period. In the first instance this is examined through the housing project’s definitional role as part of its coming into form, of understandings of the city itself. Evident here is an inherent instability to understandings of the city that has not been central to historical accounts of change as part of architectural history’s writing around transformation. In the second instance, the thesis proposes the typological burden, first identified by Kenneth Frampton, as evidence of sustained trajectories of spatial and formal experimentation that belong entirely to architecture’s disciplinary autonomy. As such the typological burden, in this instance the ground, is the site of space and form emerging prior to, rather then as a consequence of, function, challenging the Modern Movement’s account of its own design process and understanding of architectural agency. Finally, the thesis demonstrates the discipline’s agency relative to legislative change in the United States during this period and the transformation of the Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution in the context of Eminent Domain and slum clearance in cities on the occasion of the housing project. In clarifying architecture’s disciplinary interior and exploring its iterative and conditional autonomy to a discursive exterior, each of these instances demonstrates a unique kind of directed material politics that is specific to architecture’s disciplinary skill set, and quite different to either the passive reflective role typically attributed to it by historical accounts of change, or the formal political role that many contemporary accounts of architecture claim for it. By bringing together the two lenses of governmental rationality and architecture’s limited and iterative autonomy this thesis has clarified, to a field that insists on defining itself in terms of the new, where architecture’s limited actual agency for transformation is – not the avant-garde edge of a discipline defined in terms of the disciplines of philosophy, sociology, political science or anthropology, or the politics of revolution and subjugation found in contemporary art practice, but rather architecture’s disciplinary agency involves a significantly more nuanced directed material politics transformative of both the city and we its urban and domestic subjects.
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