26 April 2023
DocTalks x MoMA

Respondent: Rafico Ruiz, CCA

Icelandic Farmhouses in the Homogenocene:
The Shift from Turf to Concrete

University of Bologna

Viðborðsel farmhouse, Sveitarfélagið Hornafjörður, Iceland. Photo by Sofia Nannini, 2016.

This talk retraces the developments of Icelandic rural architecture in the first half of the twentieth century, with an eye to the progressive replacement of vernacular construction techniques with international building methods. In less than five decades, the almost timeless tradition of turf houses – stemming from the Middle Ages – eventually came to an end. The first generation of Icelandic engineers and architects promoted new building technologies: turf was replaced by concrete, and this building technique changed Icelandic architectural history for posterity. Despite some local peculiarities in the applications of concrete, by the mid-twentieth century Icelandic architecture fully entered an age we can define as “architectural Homogenocene”, the era of homogeneous building methods applied at a global level. According to Barnabas Calder’s interpretation of architectural history through its energy resources, the material transition occurring in Icelandic rural architecture can also be understood within an energy framework. The evolution of Icelandic farmhouses from turf to concrete is a clear example of how an energy system – that of fossil fuels, allowing more frequent travel, material exchange, and new building materials, especially Portland cement – was able to transform a thousand-year-old vernacular tradition at the northernmost tip of Europe. This research engages with a very special history of architecture: one of adaptation and tradition, scarcity of building materials and transfers of knowledge with Europe and the United States. The history of Icelandic farmhouses is intermixed with construction issues, nationalistic debates, and a quest for a much-needed modernization of the standards of living.


The Surveyor, The Diver, and The Stone

University of Chicago

Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Stone House, Otomi Region, Hidalgo Mexico, Courtesy of the Moholy-Nagy Foundation.

Between 1948 and 1952, acclaimed architectural critic and historian Sibyl Moholy-Nagy traveled to indigenous settlements in the US, Mexico and the Caribbean in order to catalog, analyze and bring visibility to the spatial production of anonymous builders in the Americas. With the results of this survey, Moholy-Nagy produced a book titled Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture, a kind of anti-modernist manifesto that delivers a critique on what she understood as the alienating dehumanization produced by modern architecture in American cities. In this book, published in 1957, ten years before Rudofsky’s famous treatise Architecture Without Architects, Moholy-Nagy produced a primitivist reading of the spatial production of societies with scarce economic resources as an architectural ideal closer to an essentialist state of environmental coherence. This lecture excavates the archival traces produced by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy during her travels to Mexican Otomí indigenous territories for the making of Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture, the tangential history of the Otomí as laborers of Mexico City’s sewage system and the intellectual imprint these travels left in Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s posterior works. Through a critical reading of Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s contributions to ecological thinking in architectural discourse, this lecture analyzes the production of environments as narrative and intellectual frameworks, and the mechanical production of artificial environments and hybridized bodies necessary for the construction of Mexico City’s deep sewage system.

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