Ed. E. Sean Baily & Erandi de Silva, FREE: Architecture on the Loose, BI Publications, 2013, pp. 181, €17.50
In his attempted conquest of America, Le Corbusier opened his second lecture in Argentina in 1929 with “ladies and gentleman, I begin by drawing a line that can separate.” Editors E. Sean Baily and Erandi de Silva of BI Publications and the BI blog begin their new book ‘FREE’ from a similar point of departure, setting out to question the power of the line from an architectural perspective.
“Architecture is a discipline directly engaged with shaping enclosure, of erecting and toppling barriers or–more explicitly–of extending and limiting ‘freedom’.” Architects are certainly not the only craftspeople of lines, but we are undeniably trained to see, make, and act on them in singular ways.
The spectrum of topics covered in the volume’s is bound on one end by postmodernism’s purported dissolution of grand narratives and on the other end neoliberal economic form as the hegemonic method of practice today. By and large, the collection meditates on what happens when these two come together, when the freedom to do what we want has led to the widespread revaluation of what we do.
The design of the book allows for multiple tempos of reading, with short musings interspersed between more extensive texts. Furthermore, the pieces themselves vary in writing format, ranging from interview to study to theory. While the individual contents remain within the bounds of their respective topics, they are brought together in such a way that the pages become a dynamic field of thematic resonances.
“Free? What do you mean I’m free? I don’t feel free; if anything I feel the opposite.” This condition, what we could call the ‘abyss of freedom’  is responded to in a variety of ways. Authors such as Bernd Upmeyer, Deen Sharp and Corbin Keech individually approach this as a task of making order out of chaos, largely by way of diagnosis and prescription of a well-reasoned theoretical framework. Others, such as Jill Desmini, focus on specific instances of freedom in space such as foreclosed, abandoned or vacant plots of urban land to point out social stigmas of the free. This sustained analysis is complemented by a reflection on examples of how local conditions, socioeconomic arrangements and institutional programs can catalyze a new form of (re)development in post-financial cities in the United States such as Flint and Detroit, Michigan.
Another set of authors proffer an alternative interpretation of rules to the classically negative one. Brief polemics by Corbin Keech and Henry Ng make the case for recognizing constraints and codes as architectural materials in-and-of themselves, and reflect on the value of self-imposed limitations. Brook Denison looks at the particular freedom of New York City to not have to filter its water, and the economic justifications for the rules put in place to ensure it. This highly entangled situation has proved an effective means of staving off “undesirable” suburban development in the watershed and beyond. In her interview with editor E. Sean Bailey, Keller Easterling takes this phenomena of entanglement one step further by questioning how Architecture, thought of traditionally as an object in the landscape, can become an agent and transform the context within which it is placed by “establishing interdependencies between properties.”
The relation between the personal and the professional is a further theme touched on in this volume that deserves attention. While Jack Murphy’s recollection of the intersection between free love and architecture in the life and work of John and Mimi Lobell attempts to redefine the scope and meaning we give to the term ‘practice’, Amelia McPhee’s interview with Kayoko Ota reveals how traditionally non-architectural concerns can produce radically novel results when set to the task of making architecture in the 21st century.
One cannot limit the concept of freedom to the disciplinary confines of architecture, however they may be provisionally defined, yet this book proves that architectural thinking is indeed a productive medium for contemplating what lies beyond its borders. It is therefore intriguing to think of how this same method of analysis could be used to reflect on more clearly defined situations of freedom (and lack-there-of), such as citizenship or migration. The volume’s creative approach to book making inspires thinking as to how additional thematics can be addressed with, about and through architecture.
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1. Zizek, S. And Schelling, F. (1997) The Abyss of Freedom / Ages of the World. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Press.