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David Gissen is the author of books, essays, exhibitions and experimental writings and projects about environments, landscapes, cities, and buildings from our time and the historical past.
David is Professor of Architecture and Visual and Critical Studies at the California College of the Arts and a visiting critic at numerous schools in the United States and Europe where he lectures and teaches in the areas of architecture, urban, and landscape history-theory, writing and design.*
Currently ⇉ exploring the concept of “environmental translation”: taking written and audible material and translating it into historical architectural and urban environments. ⇉ David’s environmental translation “Some small leaks in big spaces” provides the background audio for the 15th Venice Biennale/Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition “A World of Fragile Parts.” ⇉ The journal Forty-Five recently published our environmental translation of a text translated into a dark, candle lit room in the 17th century. ⇉ Harvard Design Magazine published a snippet of our 30,000-word text which represents how the letters of the Hollywood Sign appear to observers viewing the sign through heavy smog (an early version is included below). ⇉ The Creator’s Project just wrote a feature on this project with some more information about its genesis. ⇉ Columbia University published an extended version of the Hollywood text in Climates: Architecture and the Planetary Imaginary.
David is the author of the book Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments – a historical and contemporary examination of complex responses by architects and urbanists to industrial pollution, urbanization, and natural and man-made disasters. The idea of subnature developed in this book continues to be explored in the fields of architecture, urban design, disability studies, and even food studies.
David’s most recent book – Manhattan Atmospheres: Architecture, the Interior Environment, and Urban Crisis – examines architecture in New York City from the late 1960s to early 1980s as it negotiated environmental risk and the city’s post-war ascendancy. The book was the subject of a talk at the Canadian Centre for Architecture.
He is also the editor of several book-length works including the “Territory” issue of AD (Architecture Design) Magazine.
In addition to these books, David is the author of numerous essays and experimental history projects and texts published and exhibited internationally. These explore the reconstruction of lost atmospheres, landscapes and landforms, architectural histories of urban pollution, among other subjects From 2007-2013, he maintained the blog HTC Experiments, which examined many of the above themes.
His project “The Mound of Vendome” – a reconstruction of a landscape built during a 19th century urban revolution – was exhibited at the Canadian Centre for Architecture and has been the subject of several essays, reviews and lectures.
David regularly posts new writing to his page on Academia.edu and images of selected projects are below in a single column.
A SAMPLE OF PROJECTS ⇊
The Appearance of the Letters of the Hollywood Sign in the Smog and at a Distance – An Environmental Translation (2015)About The Appearance of the Letters of the Hollywood Sign
The Appearance of the Letters of the Hollywood Sign in the Smog and at a Distance is the first of our projects in which we created a purely textual representation of an environmental phenomenon. In earlier works, we utilized renderings and images to either reconstruct or project various environmental and spatial histories and realities. This experimental text exists in a 5000-, 10,000- and 50,000-word version, each of which simulate the progressively mutated appearance of the Hollywood Sign’s letters when seen through heavy smog and at various distances.
Ever since the Hollywood Sign was erected in 1923, many have captured the experience of air pollution in Los Angeles by photographing, drawing, and painting the city’s most famous icon as it disappears into the city’s smoggy sky. From the artworks of Ed Ruscha to tourist photographs, these representations portray the impact of hydrocarbons and ozone in disrupting our perception of distance, shapes, and shade—a phenomenon known as “contrast reduction.“
Because the Hollywood Sign is so iconic, everyone knows that it is composed of the letters H, O, L, L, Y, W, O, O, and D, but few consider the actual legibility of its letters in these hazy conditions. During major bouts of smog, and when viewed from a distance, the sign’s capitalized letters can appear to create strange spellings, such as “NCLLYWCCD,” “HDLLYWDDD,” or even “KGIUVWUUU.” The above alphabetic mutations are corroborated by ophthalmological research from the Pelli-Robson Contrast Sensitivity Chart. Created in the 1980s, the chart tests how people see type in low-contrast situations such as very dim light. Its format resembles a traditional eye-test chart with rows of capitalized letters, but in this case they are printed in gradations of gray that eventually fade into a white background—as if obscured by fog. Ophthalmologists observing patients using the Pelli-Robson chart discovered that with reduced contrast the letter H often appears as an N, K, E, or F; O appears as a C, Q, D, or U; and D appears as a P, R, or U, among other misidentifications.
According to studies based on the chart, the Hollywood Sign’s letters could hypothetically be perceived as about 1,700 different words when contrast is significantly reduced, and at least 12,000 different words in conditions of contrast reduction caused by severe smog. Of course, the list of possible words only increases when viewing the sign from a greater distance or at highly oblique angles.
Although the air quality in Los Angeles is considerably better than it was 20 or 30 years ago, the distorted appearances of the Hollywood Sign offer an ironic statement about the actual legibility of the city’s most visible monument. For those of us who read and write about the environment of cities, seeing the smog-induced words yielded by the Hollywood Sign continues the representational project initiated by artists, residents, and tourists to capture life in this strange atmosphere. The distorted spellings visualize the totalizing impact of the city’s polluted environment. It creates many distinct and disturbing realities—within spaces, on artifacts, inside our bodies and, in this case, even inside our minds.
A poster of the text with typography by designer Jon Sueda and created for the exhibition of the text in Hollywood, Los Angeles.
Reading in a Very Dark Room on a Moonless Night in the 17th Century – An Environmental Translation (2015-16)About Reading in a Very Dark Room
This work uses the increasing illegibility of a text set in a black-letter typeface to conceptually represent the experience of reading print in a very dark, interior space without ambient external light. We rarely experience environments like this today, but before the era of gas or electric light, such environments were quite common: at night, one often read and misread under the light of a rapidly dimming candle or fire, and if there was no moon, or a cloudy night sky, the exterior provided no light at all.
“Reading in a Very Dark Room…” continues the exploration I conducted in the project “Reading Hollywood in the Smog.” Both projects explore forms of environmental and spatial representation solely through alphanumerical characters versus more mimetic and literal chromatic and contrast-based forms of representing atmospheres, lighting, smog, and other environmental effects. Both works also make new writing out of existing texts through this form of environmental representation and translation.
I could have chosen any early modern, English-language text to represent the effects for reading in a very dark room, but I settled on the somewhat controversial choice of the 1611 King James Bible for several reasons. This was one of the more widely available, printed, English-language texts in the mid- to late-17th century. Additionally, many contemporary English-language readers are familiar with its language, so that my manipulations of it are more legible to the reader (a crucial consideration). Equally useful is the character of the language of the 1611 King James Bible, which has a historicist quality: it reads as if from another era—better aligning with the environmental history that interested me. Finally, the work was set in black-letter (with Arabic numerals), which presents interesting issues around type and its legibility and perception as explained below.
After examining 19th-century scientific research on the ways that readers misidentified blackletter type under highly reduced forms of visibility, I wrote a computer script that rerepresented the appearance of the original text as it might initially appear under near darkness. The letter confusions caused by inadequate lighting are interesting, and many are unlike those found in a Roman alphabet. According to 19th-century research, a black-letter “a” will often resemble “n” or “o”; “d” can take on the appearance of “h,” “b,” or “o”; “i” can look like “t” or “f”; “n” and “y” are often confused, among a whole host of other misidentifications. The misidentifications work in reverse as well; thus, if readers squint their eyes or encounter the text I created in a nearly dark room, the book becomes more legible. Most interesting is that, in the original 1611 printing, the publisher actually relied on these optical effects. He often swapped similar looking letters of black-letter type—particularly “u” and “v”—to better fit lines of text on the page. In other words, the publisher relied on the type of letter confusions that govern the process that I used in this work.
Finally, this work is an effort at environmental translation—the translation of text from one environment to another. We understand how texts might be translated from one language to another, but environmental translation opens entirely new possibilities for texts as forms of spatial representation.
The Mound of Vendome – Project and Exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (2012 – ongoing) – in which we propose to reconstruct a landscape built by the Paris Commune in 1871 and used in their destruction of the Vendome Column.
More images of the Mound of Vendome
“The mound of Vendôme is a seemingly simple yet provocative artifact: an earthwork that became a central part of a radical attempt to transform urban iconography during the two-month rule of the Paris Commune in 1871. The Mound of Vendôme, an exhibition and research project by David Gissen, recalls this lost structure and calls for its contemporary reconstruction and historicization.
On 12 April 1871 the Central Committee of the Paris Commune voted to demolish the Place Vendôme Column — a monument commissioned by Napoleon I in 1809 to represent his military victory at Austerlitz and renovated in 1863 by his nephew Napoleon III to celebrate Bonapartist rule. The Communards condemned the monument as a representation of imperialism and an “insult by the victors to the vanquished” and constructed an enormous mound of sand, straw, branches, and manure to cushion the demolition and protect surrounding structures from the impact.
The dirt and debris was quickly cleared following the suppression of the Commune and nearly a century and a half later all traces of these events are absent from the Place Vendôme. To plan for the recreation of the mound today is thus a striking reminder of the events of that year as well as the Commune’s strategies of spatial occupation. The exhibition presents the mound as a fitting object to mark and reflect upon the Commune’s history and the implications of its expedient transformation of the urban landscape.
A series of images show the square before and after the destruction of the column: an unknown photographer captures a perspective of the Column in 1851, Bruno Braquehais photographs a statue of Napoleon I that fell during the uprising and Charles Marville documents the tower under construction in 1873. Other featured objects from the CCA’s extensive collection of Commune-era holdings include drawings, models, full-scale studies, newspaper clippings, maps and petitions to city officials to reconstruct the Mound of Vendôme with the use of these and other artifacts. Contemporary renderings by David Gissen imagine the reconstruction of the monumental earthwork and reawaken the possibility of transforming the iconography of urban spaces today.”
Museums of the City – A Curatorial/Museological Proposal for Four Cities (2010-12). Exhibited in Landscape Futures, curated by Geoff Manaugh.
More images of Museums of the City
In this project we imagine the curatorial and museological sense of space migrating out of the museum and into the historical spaces and landscapes of the city. Parks, highways, urban rivers and the spaces between buildings now appear as artifacts of contemplation versus conduits, ecologies, and “spaces of flow.”
The Path to the Acropolis – A Proposed Reconstruction of the 6th century Acropolis ramp (2013).
More images of The Path to the Acropolis
The Path to the Acropolis, A Reconstruction
The path to the summit of the Acropolis might be one of the most famous walks in the history of architecture. From the 18th-century writings of Julien-David Le Roy to the 20th-century writings of Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, numerous architects have written of the arduous climb up a winding and uneven path.
In the 19th century, the experience of ascending to the Acropolis achieved its fame in the West. Various poets, artists, and philosophers praised the difficult walk as an act of personal and historical discovery. The Acropolis ascent became significant at this time because it embodied the aesthetics of romanticism, which simultaneously celebrated the discovery of ruins and the sensations of physical duress. The pressures of historical time and lived time became conjoined within the individual perceiving subject.
In the late 19th century, as reconstruction work on the ruins at the summit of the Acropolis commenced, the walk took on other meanings. The ascent became analogous to the experience of the historian in the archive, the difficulty suggesting the impenetrability of the archive and the difficult discovery of historical fragments. This walk demanded a different type of athleticism of curious and hardy historians of ancient history.
In the immediate post–World War II era, the government of Greece decided to rebuild the path to the Acropolis, and the project became a symbol of Greek nationalistic ambitions. Constantine Karamanlis, who was then minister of public works and would eventually become prime minister, hired the architect Dimitris Pikionis to redesign what was a narrow asphalt path. Pikionis reused marble from 19th-century buildings that had been demolished due to the numerous construction projects in the city center. The large slabs of marble from these demolished buildings were composed into a mosaic-like path that invoked a type of modern Hellenism. Pikionis made the modern path appear as an integral aspect of the Acropolis’s original history.
As the Acropolis has continued to be a site of endless and often intense construction and reconstruction, other, more minor paths have emerged since Pikionis’s work. Of these, the most recent is a special route for the disabled. Responding to repeated criticism of the inaccessibility of the site, the organization that oversees reconstruction of the Acropolis built a wheelchair accessible path to the north that terminates in a modified construction elevator. The tiny elevator accommodates one person and slowly climbs the 150-foot northern wall.
But of all the paths to the Acropolis, it is the oldest that remains particularly provocative and completely unnavigated, primarily because it no longer exists.
Unknown to virtually all who visit the Acropolis today is the enormous ramp, built in the 6th-century BC with funds from the Athenian polis, that once connected the Temple of Haephestos, at the edge of the Athenian Agora, to the top of the Acropolis. This original ramp was over 30 feet wide and several hundred feet long and was constructed of earth with large retaining walls of stone along its north and south sides. It was at once an object of architecture, landscape, and infrastructure.
The ramp was a key element in transforming the Acropolis from a feudal bastion to a religious and civic site. It produced a concept of the civic by enabling the entirety of the polis to ascend the Acropolis together and to be seen as one mass, tout court. If surviving sculptures, purported to be scenes of the Panathenaic festival, are accurate historical records, then they show us how the elderly and very young children joined others on the upward pilgrimage – some walking, others on horse back or in carriages. The ramp remained in place for 500 years until it was destroyed under Roman Emperor Caligula’s regime and replaced with a series of monumental steps, the remnants of which survive in front of the Propylae.
During the political upheavals of 1970s Greece, a proposal to rebuild the ancient ramp was considered by the Greek government’s Committee for the Preservation of the Acropolis Monuments, but it was quickly abandoned. The ramp is controversial for several reasons; most directly, it would sit on top of important archaeological remains that would necessitate the completion or expansion of archaeological work in these areas. But, more difficult to negotiate is the fact that the ramp would contrast intensely with over 200 years of writing — travelogues, poems, art and architectural theory, and treatises on preservation — all of which position the difficult climb as integral to the authentic experience and meaning of the Acropolis. The ramp presents a potential experience entirely outside the romantic athleticism of 19th-century auteurs, the studious exertions of archaeological historians, and the robust nationalism of Pikionis’s neo-Hellenic hike. Nonetheless, the ramp represents the reconstruction of a different and historically significant sense of public experience, which also happens to resonate with more modern concerns of selfhood – accessibility, openness, urbanity.
The ramp remains a historically verifiable component of the Acropolis, yet the ramp’s reconstruction seems at best improbable. The images included with this essay represent how a reconstructed ramp would join the process of reconstruction on the Acropolis. These images begin to suggest how the bluntness of the ramp potentially shifts the reconstruction and experience of the Acropolis away from a romantic conception of history and historical discovery. Instead of a ruin on an inaccessible mountain, a reconstructed ramp connects the Acropolis much more intimately, if not aggressively, with the areas that surround it. No doubt this would change the entire site’s meaning.
Like the paint discovered in the late 18th century to be an integral aspect of the Acropolis’s white marble architecture, the ramp challenges the meaning of the walk to the top of the Acropolis and its role in the history of architecture. Its possible reconstruction, however unlikely, stands as a provocation to the Acropolis’s numerous futures.
Pittsburgh Reconstruction, 1906 – An Atmospheric Provocation – A Reconstruction of the historical atmosphere in this city (2006-2010)