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DIDN’T START THE FIRE: The United Nations Headquarters and Other Monolithic Forms Instagram still of the base of Egyptian obelisk occupying Place de la Concorde in Paris, courtesy Nadia Ayari

Fall 2014 | Gallery

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DIDN’T START THE FIRE: The United Nations Headquarters and Other Monolithic Forms

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Two summers ago in a restaurant on Center Street in New York City, a line from a ‘90s hit song turned into a concept for a group show. I was sitting with some friends arguing the morality of the art world’s fast rallying around Pussy Riot as the Syrian conflict, then in its sixth month, went seemingly unnoticed. Loud opinions moved quickly around the dinner table. All of us agreed that one could support more than a single cause simultaneously while some of us admitted that our individual politics made endorsing the Russian punk band at that time a challenge. At this point, my Tunisian passport was brought up to imply the country’s role in the political instabilities of post-revolution North Africa and the Middle East. Hearing this I retorted with a sentence I had not thought of in almost two decades: “We didn’t start the fire.”

Summers in Tunis were scorching. In August, my family would seek nearly daily refuge at the beach. My brother’s favorite was les grottes (the caves), a cliff-side shore in Nothern Bizerte. The town was renowned for housing a large French military base throughout Tunisia’s colonial history. The four of us would get in the car and watch the landscape change over the hour and a half drive from the capital where we lived. It was a lazy, muggy highway ride but a half kilometer away from our sandy destination, the road would begin to undulate. The wavy motion meant we were about to emerge on the other side of the hot air into fresh Mediterranean water. At this point my mother would rewind the tape deck and hit play as my father pressed on the gas pedal:

“Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray
South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio
Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Studebaker, Television
North Korea, South Korea, Marilyn Monroe
[…]
We didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we tried to fight it
[…]
Ayatollah’s in Iran, Russians in Afghanistan
Wheel of Fortune, Sally Ride, heavy metal, suicide
Foreign debts, homeless Vets, AIDS, Crack, Bernie Goetz
Hypodermics on the shores, China’s under martial law
Rock and Roller Cola wars, I can’t take it anymore”

All four of us would sing along to Billy Joel’s hit.

The day following the Chinatown argument, I re-listened to We Didnt Start the Fire and began to unpack it. Joel wrote most of the song’s lyrics by selecting news headlines spanning the first forty years of his life releasing it in 1989 on Storm Front, his eleventh studio album.[i] The historic headlines grouped by year and sung in chronological order become a series of American vignettes which are punctuated by the popular chorus. Nostalgic for the ‘50s and ‘60s, regretful of the ‘70s and seemingly glum about the ‘80s, the song’s patriotism struck me as representative of a perilous brand of American nationalism. The inconspicuous kind that makes watching the 4th of July fireworks ubiquitous for anyone residing in the United States regardless of their political convictions. And though it was likely not Joel’s intention, the chorus began to sound to me like a reductive explanation for the many military invasions the US has undertaken over the past few decades.

The year I sat my Tunisian Baccalaureate at the Lycée, my friends took turns borrowing my Ralph Lauren sweatshirt. I barely got to wear it before packing up and leaving for Boston University.

The friend with whom I moved to New York pointed out that we could see the United Nations Headquarters from our train as it crossed the East River. He motioned towards the white and blue monolith in the distance and I scanned the surrounding skyscrapers for the ‘Chippendale’ tower.

In Vers Une Architecture (Towards an Architecture) first published in 1923, Le Corbusier defines the five points of modern architecture as; pilotis (slender columns), a free facade, an open floor plan, ribbon windows, and a roof garden.[ii] In 1948 he was among the modernist architects and engineers selected to serve on the design board for the UN Headquarters.[iii] The building was completed in 1952.[iv]

In Architecture or Techno-Utopia, Felicity Scott introduces Reyner Banham’s melancholic revisiting of “his earlier musings on modernism” contextualizing his reflections on the UN Headquarters:

“As he argued, the UN has ‘cemented’ modernism’s aspirations into a ‘permanent symbolic monument’; it had ‘summed up all those aspirations toward liberal social amelioration, institutionalized caring for the oppressed and underprivileged, and progress though technology, that has inspired the Pioneers, Founders and Masters of
Modern Movement, their followers and their pupils.’ While his
description to this point simply rehearsed modernist mythology,
implying determinate relations between program and political
ideology, his motivation was not nostalgia. He sought, rather, to dissipate
those very myths. As he went on, “in practice, the U.N. has all too often
served as an instrument of Big Power politics and of grinding
bureaucratic routinism”; the modern architecture that is ‘canonized’
had come to stand for a global ‘architecture of anonymous corporate
domination.’”[v]

Didnt Start the Fire, the group exhibition I curated this past summer centers on four artists’ varying uses of monolithic forms while focusing on recent imperialism and present day corporate domination. Borrowing its title from the Billy Joel single, I initially omitted the ‘we’ because the implied pronoun was sufficient. It occurred to me while writing the exhibition’s press release that in its absence the title’s ‘we’ expands to take on global proportions. This emphasized the possibility for disparate projects addressing, among other things, the poetics of the Olympic flame, death metal romance, corporate monopoly, and the perversion of the picture plane, to display similar aesthetic strategies and re-contextualize Millennial politics. Aesthetically economical, the show was a collection of small monuments.

In a continuation of oppositional modes, Jill Stoner discusses the architecture of the majority and its disenfranchisement and intimidation of those without power in Towards a Minor Architecture. Citing George Bataille she writes: “Depending on prevailing cultural conditions; architecture’s excessive force escalates in tandem with an aggressive escalation of political authority.”[vii] She describes how since World War II, “corporate hierarchies have also reproduced themselves as architectural expressions of power” which through their excess have left a “detritus of constructed objects that might serve as raw material for minor architectures.”[viii] She continues to explain that minor architectures are “opportunistic events in response to latent but powerful desires to undo structures of power,” namely that of the Sate and economic authority.[ix]

Faced with the sliding and recomposing of our surrounding political monoliths, maybe I should have recited Bataille’s reflections on architecture as the expression of society’s soul at that Chinatown dinner two years ago:

“Thus great monuments rise up like levees, opposing the logic of
majesty and authority to any confusion: Church and State in the
form of cathedrals and palaces speak to the multitudes, or
silence them. It is obvious that monuments inspire social good
behavior in societies and often real fear. The storming of the
Bastille is symbolic of this state of affairs: it is hard to explain this
mass movement other than through people’s animosity (animus)
against the monuments that are its real masters.”[x]

  1. http://www.billyjoel.com/timeline
  2. Le Corbusier-Saugnier. Vers Une Architecture. Les edition G. Cres et Cie, Paris: 1923. Pages 201-204
  3. http://en.wikiarquitectura.com/index.php/United_Nations_Headquarters_in_New_York
  4. http://en.wikiarquitectura.com/index.php/United_Nations_Headquarters_in_New_York
  5. Scott, Felicity. Architecture or Techno Utopia: Politics after Modernism. The MIT press, Cambridge MA: 2007. Page 5
  6. Scott, Felicity. Architecture or Techno Utopia: Politics after Modernism. The MIT press, Cambridge MA: 2007. Page 5 and 6
  7. Stoner, Jill. Towards a Minor Architecture. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA: 2012. Page 5
  8. Stoner, Jill. Towards a Minor Architecture. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA: 2012. Page 6
  9. Stoner, Jill. Towards a Minor Architecture. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA: 2012. Page 6
  10. Hollier, Dennis. Against Architecture. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA 1992. Pages 46-47
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