RESEARCH CLUSTER: Paradise Lost Review

by Mark Campbell, Research Cluster Leader AA Intermediate Unit 1 Tutor
1 November 2012 AA Lecture Hall, London   The Paradise Lost AA Research Cluster is concerned with the notion of architectural obsolescence. Or, perhaps more accurately, how the ‘unplanned obsolescence’ of architecture occurs within the United States, a country obsessed with its own decline as the world’s preeminent superpower. “America may not be over,” as the journalist Frank Rich recently noted, “but it is certainly in thrall to the idea.” This collective “mourning in America,” to use his twist on Ronald Reagan’s famous presidential slogan, not only illustrates a “wave of nostalgia” (borne of a shared desire for historical amnesia), but also the increasingly frazzled state of the union.   This sense of Declinist panic is apparent in such recent political tomes as: Suicide of a Superpower; Ameritopia: The Unmaking of America; Coming Apart; It’s Even Worse than it Looks; and That Used to be Us: What went Wrong with the America. Together with such populist films as The Hunger Games, in which impoverished teenagers fight each other to the death on TV, and Andrew Dominick’s Killing Them Softly, conceived as “a metaphor for the ills of American capitalism,” in which the central character concludes, “America’s not a country, it’s just a business”.And it is this exactly this sense of disenfranchisement that — in our terms — speaks of the longing for a Paradise Lost.   Our means of considering the architectural consequences of this loss is simple. If the popular notion of the United States depends on the heroic potentiality of work — of an aspirational paradise symbolized by the Fordist production line — then we are examining the obverse. Of that which isn’t work. With our examination of these remnants questioning the architectural consequences of a state in which when everything is redundant what is it that persists?  
Aptly enough this research began with a single image. One of an abandoned building on a street of similarly abandoned and shuttered buildings, set within an almost vacant city alongside the Mississippi River. History, as Walter Benjamin reminds us, is not only comprised of such images, but also is itself an image. And our research has been interested less in what these images describe, than an attempt at understanding what they are about.Following this lead, we have been examining the work of a lineage of photographers — Walker Evans, Robert Frank, William Klein, Garry Winogrand, William Eggleston, Jacob Holdt, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld, and Mitch Epstein — who have all sought to consider the United States in imagistic terms. Searching through these images it is striking how certain visual tics recur, with these persistent ghosts including household appliances, beds, refrigerators, the interiors of seedy rooms, barbershops, diners, oversized cars, objects of devotion, indeterminate bodies, guns and — by way of an obvious example — TVs.   “Television”, as the writer Don DeLillo once offered, constitutes “the primal force in the American home . . . It’s like a myth being born right there in our living room, like something we know in a dream-like and pre-conscious way”. In his travelogue America, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard recognized a very different — if interrelated — dream-likeness to that espoused by DeLillo, the former Fifth Avenue copywriter. “Television knows no night,” he suggested, “it is perpetual day. TV embodies our fear of the dark, of night, of the other side of things”. In short, it seeks to mitigate our fears, obscuring what it is truly ‘about’ (while also simultaneously manifesting it) through the incessant transmission of images. In acknowledging this condition, the cluster has begun to explore how this ethereal cathode light — cast by the multitude of TV sets inhabiting these photographs — not only gives light to the architectures they describe, but also illuminates the residues of these paradises lost.
Stephen Shore, Stampeder Motel, Ontario, Oregon, July 19, 1973 (1973)   For more information: Paradise Lost website Inter 1 Unit Blog