In absence of...unknowable plus ones

Ivan L. Munuera, Valentina Davila, and Elijah Borrero on latent partners

This article is the second in our “In absence of…” series, authored by the participants of our 2019 Toolkit for Today and introduced by Rafico Ruiz in this primer. In the following, Ivan L. Munuera reveals the disco-techno alliance of twentieth-century discotectures, Valentina Davila recovers a housing archive, and Elijah Borrero considers architecture’s entanglements with war.

Alessandro Poli. Side elevation drawing for Piper. Gelatin silver print, 24.3 x 30 cm, ARCH262263, Alessandro Poli Fonds, CCA Collection. Gift of Alessandro Poli © Alessandro Poli

In absence of…discotecture

Ivan L. Munuera

Luna Park’s Wonder Wheel at Coney Island and Marcel Duchamp’s 1913 readymade Bicycle Wheel—these were the references for Alessandro Poli’s Piper, a student project that he developed in 1966 with Roberto Gherrardi, Serena Pacini, Franca Spinelli, and Roberto Russo at the University of Florence under their professor Leonardo Savioli. Even though Piper started as a collective project, Poli continued to work on it incessantly by himself over the years and through different formats: drawings, descriptions, models, photographs, photo collages, and so on.1 Piper (a term used colloquially in Italy to mean disco, derived from the name of a club in Rome) was to be a nightclub and an amusement ride dedicated to both humans and non-humans—specifically cars, which could drive straight from the street and onto the Ferris wheel to be spun around—creating a techno-alliance between architecture and other media. This was not like any other building; it was discotecture, the architecture of the disco—an artifact with a precise genealogy sometimes forgotten in the usual volumes of architectural history.

The reference to New York’s Luna Park was not casual. A series of Italian architects and designers, like Fabrizio Fiumi, Pietro Derossi, Poli, and other members of Superstudio and Archizoom made trips to Manhattan in the early 1960s. They arrived in the United States with the idea of studying Frank Lloyd Wright and American organicism, but after visiting New York’s Coney Island and the Electric Circus nightclub, as well as the industrial component stores of the Bowery and Canal Street, they changed their minds and decided to dedicate their thesis study at the University of Florence to disco.

The relationship between sound and lighting systems in the creation of this new kind of architecture, discotecture, can be traced back precisely to when the Electric Circus opened its doors. The club, located at 19-25 St. Marks Place in New York City, had formerly been a Polish National Home, then the Dom Restaurant, and in 1966, was sublet by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey who turned it into a nightclub, the DOM, where they hosted performances of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. It was redesigned by the office Chermayeff & Geismar as a venue with new multisensory performances that would create a “semi-solid environment” that served to “undo the legibility of the architectural frame. Indeed, the frame and the architectural apparatus from which it was constituted—the building, both its structure and its space—became irrelevant, a mere prop to the interior as such.”2

LIFE magazine called the Electric Circus “a mind bender that…combines life and art in a way that has never been done before. The medium, the message and the audience are all in the same bag—just calling it audience participation is a flagrant understatement.”3 The Electric Circus was described at the time as “a multimedia electronic assault on the audio and visual senses. While couples are dancing, batteries of projectors are flashing movies, still photos, and various other colour effects on the walls of the “tent,” as strobe lights flash and the audio system blasts [music].”4 This description was at the core of the configuration of Poli’s project as well.

Venues like Poli’s Piper or Chermayeff & Geismar’s Electric Circus—and others like Pietro de Rossi’s piper projects in Italy or Arata Isozaki’s Palladium in New York—can be easily found in archives because they were designed by renowned architects. However, for the many nightclubs—such as Loft, Danceteria, or Mudd Club in New York—designed by unknown architects or short-lived architectural firms, archived information is difficult to find. These projects were essential in the configuration of discotecture, yet their architects, communities, contexts, and contributions to the built environment are missing from histories of architecture.

To overcome these limitations, a mixed methodological approach is necessary, one that treats nightclubs as both discursive and material objects in a complex and dynamic feedback loop that can only be understood through a much wider range of archival sources than either would demand if studied separately. These sources include oral histories from the main agents of these nightclubs—owners, dancers, DJs—legal and administrative documents, regulations, urban plans, artworks, journalistic articles, and private archives. Discotecture created a different genealogy for the built environment: an architecture conceived as a continuous performance and a collection of assemblages that rendered visibility in the construction of bodies, technologies, media, and environmental ideas. As Hannah Arendt points out in Between Past and Future, the valuable treasure that unforeseen realities proposed in their time could be lost if the agents involved, their political realities, and their milieus disappear. The acknowledgment of this form of oblivion could create a wider understanding of the role of the archive, generate other traditions and, therefore, introduce other processes of emancipation.

  1. See AP148.S1.1966.PR01 in the Alessandro Poli Fonds. 

  2. Sylvia Lavin, Flash in The Pan (London: Architectural Association, 2014), 96. 

  3. John Stickney, LIFE (August 11, 1967), 12. 

  4. J.N. Lapsley, “Reflections on ‘The Electric Circus’”, The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling (Volume 23. Issue 1, 1969), 1. 

Recommended readings

• Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought. New York: Viking Press, 1968.
• Connerton, Paul. How Societies Remember. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
• Crimp, Douglas. Diss-Co (A Fragment). New York: MoMA PS1, 2015.
• Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press, 2009.

In absence of…housing transparency

Valentina Davila

Venezuelan domestic workers traditionally lived in the backs of their employers’ homes in a dedicated area of the house adjacent to its kitchen and laundry quarters. This precarious living arrangement inextricably linked income with housing: if a domestic worker were to lose her job, she would lose her shelter in the same instance.

In 2011, twelve years after his election and two years before his death, President Chavez severely criticized the domestic workers’ “very restrictive employment and living conditions.” To “improve” this situation, he introduced a Special Law for the Dignity of Residential Workers that articulated the plight of these workers and, for the first time in Venezuelan history, recognized and regulated paid domestic work as an occupation. Also, in 2011, Chavez launched his ambitious Gran Misión Vivienda Venezuela [Great Mission Housing Venezuela] (GMVV) program, which sought to organize and centralize all efforts directed at solving a growing housing shortage in the country. GMVV replaced the 1970’s Instituto Nacional de la Vivienda [National Housing Institute] (INAVI) and the 1930’s Banco Obrero [Workers’ Bank]. Mobilized by new inclusive laws, government subsidies, and strategies for housing, a significant portion of the nation’s domestic workers changed residences, moving from single bedrooms with their employers into their own homes.

An extended and thorough exploration of the Banco Obrero, Instituto Nacional de la Vivienda, and Gran Misión Vivienda’s archives is essential to understanding the organizational and structural changes that rendered domestic workers eligible for social housing as well as the effects of this migration on architecture, society, and urban geography. However, in a country fighting for political stability, the integrity of archives is not always guaranteed. In 2017, while doing fieldwork in Merida, I requested access to the INAVI archives; there was no answer, and it appeared that no one knew how to respond to such demand. During an appointment with the current Gran Mision Vivienda Merida director, I again inquired about the location of archival material—books, brochures, plans, documents, or pictures. I came to understand that he couldn’t give me access to something that did not exist. In an interview around the same time, a former INAVI director confirmed that there was no mandate to store archival material and that, in fact, he had recently discarded a box of “INAVI’s memories” collected from over thirty years of service. I’d been looking for records that do not exist and instead found an irreparably broken link; amid a complicated political struggle, Venezuelans have lost access to information, not only in the form of missing archives but also through the closure and manipulation of media, the economic strangulation of universities, and one of the slowest internet speeds in the world. This dire situation challenges the production of knowledge and slows down the reconstruction of history. Nevertheless, small pieces of Venezuelan history—a conglomerate set of original publications by the Banco Obrero, INAVI, and GMVV—are available in the Minimum Cost Housing Group Fonds at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. In the absence of access to information in Venezuela, these traces of architectural evidence become instrumental to the preservation of marginalized histories.

Recommended readings

• Blackmore, Lisa. Spectacular Modernity: Dictatorship, Space, and Visuality in Venezuela, 1948-1958. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017.
• Caracas Urban Think Tank, Alfredo Brillembourg Tamayo, Kristin Feireiss, Hubert Klumpner, and Kulturstiftung Des Bundes. Informal City: Caracas Case. Munich: Prestel, 2005.
• Coronil, Fernando. The Magical State: Nature, Money, and Modernity in Venezuela. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
• Plaza, Penélope. Culture As Renewable Oil: How Territory, Bureaucratic Power and Culture Coalesce in the Venezuelan Petrostate. Oxon: Routledge, 2019.

Ross & Macdonald. Perspective of RCAF Standard Design Station Hangar, 1951-1954. Photostat, ARCH283430, Ross & Macdonald Fonds, CCA Collection.

In absence of…war collaborations

Elijah Borrero

The contacts and contracts between Montréal architecture firm Ross & Macdonald and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in the 1950s were extensive, including the design of seventeen aircraft hangars, central heating plants, steam distribution centres, depots, a hospital, and two Air Defense Command headquarters. This collaboration is only one of many as yet unexplored points linking military officials with architectural thinking. As such, these voids obscure architectural participation in military campaigns and procedures and, more generally, relations between architecture and war in the twentieth century.

The above rendering of an RCAF Station Hangar offers a glimpse into the collaboration between architectural thought and military production. Produced in September 1951 by Ross & Macdonald, the rendering depicts the movement of aircraft from a “typical” hangar housing, onto a runway, and into the air in unison. The military power in the foreground protects the natural Canadian environment in the background. But this architectural knowledge did not simply speculate about military power through representation: it designed it. Once these designs were in the hands of RCAF personnel, they were reproduced as needed—hence their “typical” designation.

And being part and parcel of a much larger military network across Canada, they were indeed needed. Since 1951 the country had been home to three early warning radar networks jointly operated with the United States: the Pinetree Line, followed by the Mid-Canada Line, and finally the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, which consisted of an extensive grid of radar and communication stations from Alaska to Greenland, mostly concentrated on Canadian territory along the 69th parallel north. These early detection infrastructures were further connected and controlled by the SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) computer system and operated by the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado. Within this larger network, what the rendering captures is the final phase of command centre decisions—from DEW detection, to SAGE/NORAD analysis, and ultimately an RCAF response. Architecture is embedded in these military command protocols not simply as a reflection of military power, but as an active—if often overlooked—partner.

Recommended readings

• Albrecht, Donald, Margaret Crawford, and Museum National Building. World War II and the American Dream: How Wartime Building Changed a Nation. Washington, D.C.; London: National Building Museum; M.I.T., 1995.
• Cohen, Jean-Louis. Architecture in Uniform: Designing and Building for the Second World War. Montréal; Paris; New Haven [Conn.]: Canadian Centre for Architecture; Hazan; Distributed by Yale University Press, 2011.
• Loeffler, Jane C. The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America’s Embassies. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998.
• Monteyne, David. Fallout Shelter: Designing for Civil Defense in the Cold War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.


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