Subnature, Subsmoke, Subair

Gissen's Subnature

Princeton Architectural Press recently sent me a copy of David Gissen’s new book, Subnature. Several sites have reviewed this book recently. Among them: Weekly Dose (“a favorite”), Landscape+urbanism (“impossible to put down”), and a wonderful explanation in a longer article on ruins by Bryan Finoki. Subnature, in short, has been very well received. People are starting to grappled with it, and with good reason.

Subnature is not exactly a scholarly work in the traditional sense. It’s actually a meditation on architecture, deliberately performed untraditionally, at the margins of what architectural theory has been able to stomach (therefore, the “sub” part). It comes from research that Gissen was doing for—but that did not become a part of—a  dissertation on nature and architecture. It’s tour-like, as in someone pointing at unnoticed things from a moving car and remarking intelligently on them. Fully disclosing all my biases here, David’s a recent editor of mine, a colleague, a friend, and a frequent source I find difficult not to deal with. I find his ideas on architectural outcomes as these encounter the confines of the natural hard to avoid. Therefore, I can’t and won’t offer you, dear reader, a review here. Take this more as a plug for his book.

I’ve recently been working on a piece (warning: a shameless plug on the way here too) for an upcoming issue of Alphabet City, one that I have provisionally titled “Aerosol Architecture”. The article touches upon different anxieties and delights of working with air as a material. (In effect, the issue itself is thematically geared towards the topic of air). I looked to Subnature for a better understanding of how architectural theory has addressed issues like the expulsion of smoke from spaces or the forms and ideas of air handling. As Gissen explains, vapors, gasses and smoke (various examples of “subnature”)  have actually confounded theorists and designers because these so often come to be associated only with impurity or seen as the antithesis of proper architecture, a sign of its dysfunction, if you will. Smoke, (certain) odors, vapors, and such often signify a lack of progress in air handling (albeit other times marking progress in a developmental sense), and bad health.

The flip side of this last idea is to actually have the presence of vapors and clouds in a space in order to make it alluring, mysterious, or somewhat edgy and decadent. To paraphrase from the article I’ve been working on, this is the nature of the smoke that pervades music videos, night clubs, and rock concerts; a bit of a safe danger in a controlled place. This is also a type of air use, by the way, that also stumps theorists and architects, because it usually pertains to entertainment, perceived as a lowly terrain for “serious” designers. So air in architecture has been difficult, to say the least. You’ll have to see what I wrote later on about projects that play with these dualities of dirty air that is also made alluring and dream-like.

Anyway, that’s a small dose of one of the ways that I found this book to be quite exciting and, in fact, entertaining. I hope others will as well.


2 thoughts on “Subnature, Subsmoke, Subair

  1. Hey man, if you are still writing this piece (on Aerosol Architecture) and haven’t read Michelle Murphy’s book on Sick Building Syndrome, might I recommend doing so…. She does an amazing job showing the problems of materializing all these unclassifiable airborne conditions (rashes, headaches etc.) into some sort of political scientific fact . And in 60s brutalist buildings to boot!

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