Gathering Evidence

On Accident: Episodes in Architecture and Landscape (Writing Architecture) BY Edward Eigen. edited by Reinhold Martin. The MIT Press. Paperback, 408 pages. $26.

The cover of On Accident: Episodes in Architecture and Landscape (Writing Architecture)

Louis XIV would seem to offer a natural opening for an exegesis of seventeenth-century French culture—during the longest reign in European history, the Sun King presided over both the political ascendance and the artistic efflorescence of his nation. For all the regent’s preeminence, however, the royal rectum seems a less obvious point of entry. Yet that is exactly where Edward Eigen locates his readers when he affirms, with a precision as striking historically as it is startling anatomically, that on “January 15, 1686, Louis complained of a small tumor toward the perineum, at the apex of the raphe, two finger widths from the anus.”

Most scholars would surely see the king’s grievance as little more than an obscure footnote. This sort of detail is hard to recognize as the stuff of history—the royal complaint barely even registers as an event, let alone an event of clear consequence, the kind on which historians’ narratives typically turn. And it’s even harder to see what the king’s fundament might have to do with the history of architecture and landscape, although this is Eigen’s ostensible topic, as suggested by both the subtitle of his book and the fact that he teaches the subject at Harvard University.

But Eigen is not most scholars. To him, the imperial tumor is nothing less than an object lesson about the formation of French culture under Louis’s rule. After all, Eigen argues, we can read the Sun King’s infamous pronouncement “L’etat, c’est moi” as more than just a burst of megalomania—it is a reminder that he ruled by a cultlike model of “sacred kingship,” one predicated on multiplying his image and amplifying his presence, extending and transforming his very body into a multivalent spectacle of power. To wit, the king underwent surgery in November 1686, and two months later a special session of the Académie Française was convened to celebrate his full recovery, with an ebullition of pomp and circumstance that included a reading by the eminent academy member Charles Perrault of his poem“Le Siècle de Louis le Grand,” a triumph-alist ode to the superiority achieved by French arts and letters under the great monarch. Thus the royal ailment became, quite literally, an occasion for the celebration of French culture.

Eigen’s point is that the architecture and landscape design of this period functioned as part of the same cultural machinery and are best understood in that context. The crucial link is provided by Perrault, who was not only a literary man but served the king as commis des batiments (clerk of royal buildings)and so supervised a number of important projects, including the construction of gardens at Versailles and a new facade for the Louvre. His memoirs detail his contributions to the academy alongside his administrative role, serving as a treasure trove of court intrigue, from the gossip swirling around the king’s indisposition to the whisper campaign mounted against the Italian architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini by Perrault to secure the Louvre commission for his brother Claude. Although—or perhaps because—he was not an architect himself, it is in Perrault’s behind-the-scenes account that architecture and landscape take their place in the broader realm of cultural production, revealing the ways in which projects like Versailles or the Louvre did not merely symbolize the king’s authority but actually constructed it.

If all this seems a bit circuitous and circumstantial, that is precisely the point. Eigen’s book is, in fact, a polemic about the power of accidents. As he explains in his preface, the fundamental principle that links the text described above (“The Disappearance of Charles Perrault”) to the eleven other dazzlingly—if also, at times, confoundingly—wide-ranging essays in this volume is a shared “insistence on the interpretive significance of accident—of the particular, the contingent, the incidental, and the seemingly singular.” Eigen is well aware that the realm of the accidental is treacherous territory: The historian’s most cherished belief is that everything happens for a reason, and that it is his or her mandate to explicate that motive. To embrace the idea that past events may be nothing more than an endless jumble of happenstance is a deeply subversive move, amounting, as Eigen himself allows, to “a form of historical criticism.”

Eigen admits that he is not the first to challenge the dogma of causality—he nods to the New Historicism of the 1980s and ’90s—but he argues that his own discipline is particularly in need of such a provocation. Perhaps because their subject is so, well, solid—and, in many cases, still present—architectural historians often assume that they have direct access to their material. Even now, when counter-histories are in vogue and the field has dutifully internalized the Foucauldian notion that buildings instantiate regimes of power, architectural historians rarely turn their critique on the bureaucratic structures through which information is organized and preserved. Take the current craze for archival research, without which, it seems, no project of architectural history is considered worthy of the name. When Eigen warns that “archives serve as mediums,” treated by historians as if they granted a mystical ability to channel the past directly into the present, he recalls Derrida’s similar diagnosis in his 1995 text Archive Fever. There, the philosopher pointed out the architectural origins of the archive: Its etymology can be traced back to the Greek arkheion, the house where the records of the archon, or magistrate, were kept. Derrida proposed that recognizing the archive for what it is—an edifice of power—would trigger “an earthquake from which no classificational concept and no implementation of the archive can be sheltered.” The inevitable criticism of Eigen’s book will be that it lies outside the bounds of architectural history. But Eigen’s most valuable contribution to the field lies precisely in transgressing limits, under-mining assumptions, and destabilizing structures of all kinds.

If Eigen himself does not invoke Derrida, it is presumably because he is ultimately less interested in deconstructing history than in painstakingly reconstructing it. In this he is not always successful. The danger, of course, is that having dispensed with the historian’s North Star, the guiding principle of causality, Eigen will get lost in the trackless wilderness of the past. This is a complaint that could be leveled at several of the author’s erudite peregrinations, but the limitations of “Rain and Rainfall—Great Britain—Periodicity—Periodicals” are the most telling. Its title is borrowed from the subject heading under which he found the periodical British Rainfall in the New York Public Library while exploring the similarities between historians and meteorologists: “Records were once their common stock in trade; time, order, and causation, the stuff of their shared meditation on before and after, on the consecution of tenses.” Armed with this insight, Eigen sets out to examine the development of meteorological methods, promising that he will “attempt to coax from it, however improbably, a thesis on history.” The resulting essay zigs and zags through a surfeit of details, from a pioneering treatise on the “Method for Making a History of the Weather” in a musty 1667 publication of The History of the Royal-Society of London, to Charles Dickens’s poetic evocations of London fog, to the mathematics of the harmonic sine curves with which meteorologists attempted to map the periodicities they discovered. The main lesson of all this, Eigen eventually concedes, seems to be that the past refuses to fall into line. He concludes not so much with a thesis as with a melancholic lament on history as a fool’s errand: “How bright the future might appear if only it could be uncoupled from our halting efforts to remake the past.”

Elsewhere, Eigen suggests that the historian should at least take comfort in the telling of stories. Faced with “fractured knowledge: anecdotes, traces, fragile impressions, acts of partial witness, ” he argues, “the best she can do is to arrange narratives into an understandable plot.” But as even a cursory venture into the blogosphere will remind you, the term for the tenacious individual who insists on narrative in the absence of causality is not historian: It’s conspiracy theorist.

A real conspiracy theorist, though, would never admit his or her own role in the story. The form requires surrendering authorship to some shadowy authority—whether that of the Deep State, the Lizard People, or the Historical Record. Eigen, by contrast, is at his best when his unique sensibilities as a storyteller are most explicitly on display. Take the essay “On Hedging,” which examines the High Line in New York City. The text revolves around a pair of obscure historical coincidences. On June 28, 1934, the High Line freight viaduct opened; just over a week earlier, on June 19, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had signed into law the Communications Act, which established the Federal Communications Commission to regulate rapidly growing commerce via wires and airwaves. On June 21, 1989, the death warrant of the High Line was apparently signed when a powerful Chelsea real-estate collective petitioned the city to demolish the “costly blight” because it was impeding redevelopment; on August 4, 1989, the American Mobile Satellite Company was authorized by the FCC to launch and operate one of the first commercial systems for wireless communications and GPS navigation. As Eigen digs into the circumstances surrounding these coincidences, their suggestive—even poignant—dimensions begin to emerge. We see how historical periods and social shifts—the industrial age, the information age; urban growth, urban decay—messily overlap, each one often containing the seeds of its own supersession.

Still, what does all this have to do with the beloved public park that is the High Line today? Enter Philip Falcone, the hedge-fund tycoon, who provided substantial funding for the project. Known for aggressive, ethically dubious practices, Falcone became embroiled in a contentious legal battle when he invested in a plan to expand wireless broadband service through new high-powered terrestrial service stations. The problem was that these new signals would interfere with existing satellite-based networks, wreaking havoc (or so the FCC feared) on the GPS systems already used in everything from commercial aviation to industrial agriculture to personal navigation.

Did Falcone cut the nonprofit that saved the High Line a $10 million check specifically to distract attention from his attempt to encroach on the (aerial) commons? Frustrating as it may be, Eigen doesn’t seem to think it really matters. He simply points out that the new park borrows freely from conventions of the picturesque, a language of landscape design itself developed as the enclosure movement was sweeping across England and the ruling class was consolidating its control—often brutally—of formerly communal lands. Today, as an unprecedented catalyst of gentrification, the High Line masks other forms of enclosure that are less violent but perhaps no less insidious. And so it reminds us that public domains—whether on the ground, just above it, or up in the stratosphere—will always be contested, their boundaries pushed and pulled by efforts to turn them to profit; that the design of buildings and landscapes has always been used to disguise and aestheticize the ways in which territory is disfigured by power.

Of course, Eigen doesn’t say all this quite so clearly. He leaves his moral implicit,
letting the reader connect the dots. Nor does Eigen ever mention that Perrault is best remembered today as the first author to record classics like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Cinderella”—yarns in which the wisdom is palpably real, even when the events described are not. Perhaps Eigen’s affinity with the Frenchman was in the
recognition of a fellow fabulist. In weaving his fantastic tales of architecture and landscape, Eigen presents no clear thesis on history, but he succeeds in reminding us that we can make what we choose of both history and its consequences.

Julian Rose is an architect and critic based in New York.