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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 an associate professor 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 ⇉ I’m exploring how reading (literally looking at text) can become a type of representation of environments and spaces both contemporary and historical. ⇉ I’m developing some work that represents environments and spaces with abstracted text and alphanumerical characters. (see image below) ⇉ experimenting with digitally captured and generated texts. ⇉ Harvard Design Magazine published a snippet of my 30,000-word “experimental” 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.
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 other 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 ongoing project “The Mound of Vendome” – a proposal to reconstruct a landscape built during an 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 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)
David is also a passionate advocate for the historical wine landscapes, vineyards, and wines of Europe. See this fun interview with him about this interest and a map he designed of French wine appellations. For more on wine, follow on Delectable