Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: BIRD WATCHING and URBANISMS – 2 New Books from Princeton Architectural Press

“Possibilities Deeply Seeded Within the World

A Review of
Bird Watching
by Paula McCartney


by Steven Holl.

Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.

Bird Watching.
Paula McCartney.
Hardback: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Urbanisms: Working With Doubt.
Steven Holl.
Hardback: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

Bird Watching - Paula McCartneyI first saw Paula McCartney’s Bird Watching images as large prints, framed with their identification cards (including the birds’ name, location, date, size, coloring, and remarks) and I was hooked with the Spotted Wren, photographed on the Southern Oregon Coast, “golden crown, spotted back and wings” with “a field of daisies was the perfect backdrop for this little bird.” The image is saturated green, interspersed with the yellow and white daisy heads, and the matching yellow and white of the wren. It is as perfect an image as I might hope for. By the second photograph, something was awry, and looking back again at the wren, it was clear: these are model birds, wires holding them onto their perches, painted feathers, glued-on eyes. And having realized this artifice, the images are all the more enticing. First, there is the simple joy of recognition, which is a result of careful looking, and not afforded to anyone breezing past the surface of the photographs. Furthermore, though, there is a significant conceptual shift that complicates these images, asking questions about photography and looking at nature.

Urbanisms - Steven HollBird Watching has also existed as an edition of hand-made books by McCartney, and has just been published as a full monograph of these clever and beautiful prints, with identification texts and accompanying essays. Located in several locations in the US, McCartney’s birds exist in immaculate landscapes in which the birds complete the scene, and are often described in language questioning our own expectations of ‘nature,’ or the conventions we might expect nature to offer up to our looking (e.g., the sublime, the picturesque). To that end, two Barn Swallows “elegantly turn their heads toward the camera,” Vermillion Flycatchers are “enjoying the view by the lake,” and an Aqua Tanager “stopped and patiently posed for his portrait.”

Constructing these photographs, McCartney acknowledges a desire for a romanticized view of the land and nearly gives it to us, but by including these fake birds, acknowledges that this romanticism is something of an ideal itself. It is in this disclosure, though, that Bird Watching is so successful. Consider: McCartney discloses all of her manipulations as a photographer, and leaves traces of her construction within the image, suggesting both the ideal beauty of the subject, but also the translation into representation, the human perception. On the other hand, much nature photography exists by promoting the illusion that it is not an illusion; by obscuring the photographer or the camera, those images ask for belief in a ‘natural’ or ‘wild’ or ‘unspoiled’ world that exists somehow apart from any influence, such as being photographed.

So in constructing for the camera, McCartney, it would seem, acknowledges the whole picture, as it were, and allows for a complete vision beyond what a ‘straight’ picture can accomplish. The moments McCartney photographs seem, therefore, to be about the same condition of which Wendell Berry writes in Leavings:

harmonies are rare. This is
not the way the world
is. It is a possibility
nonetheless deeply seeded
within the world. It is
the way the world is sometimes.

Reading nearly any book about urban design or planning, and not far from my mind is Michel de Certeau’s essay “Walking in the City” in which he introduces “the walkers, Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write.” Viewing the city from the level of the walkers affords a fluid and relational experience, rather than one dictated by generalizing city grids, superblocks, or other master plans that ignore the particularizing experience of the street. Steven Holl’s Urbanisms: Working with Doubt describes a vision of urban design based on such principles, combing landscape, urbanism, and architecture, and aiming for “an architecture of deep connections to site, culture, and climate.”

Several introductory essays introduce general working principles of this urbanism, such as “Experiential Phenomena” which includes “qualities of light, color, sound, and smell,” “the music, art, and poetry of urban experience,” “relational values;” or “Urban Porosity” (similar to Jane Jacobs’ freedom of pedestrian movement), “the experiential phenomena of spatial sequences with, around, and between.” The bulk of Urbanisms is case studies of Holl’s projects from around the world. Illustrated in maps, conceptual drawings, floor plans and elevations, models, and photographs, these projects are the physical realizations of Holl’s theories, and as such require quite a lot of study, comparing aerial footprints to renderings, and in the best cases – such as the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the University of Iowa School of Art and Art History, the Linked Hybrid in Beijing, or the Sliced Porosity Block in Chengdu, China – with photographs of the completed structures.

The designs are often so unlike the standard building-box, favoring the walker on the street in their overall shape, flexibility of access, and openness, that I often hope for slightly more text to orient what I am looking at throughout the illustrations; nonetheless, this integration of architecture/urbanism/landscape proves for some radical designs that will help shape the way we understand inhabiting the city.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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