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  • Modernism's Visible Hand: Architecture and Regulation in America by Michael Osman
  • Anna-Maria Meister (bio)
Modernism's Visible Hand: Architecture and Regulation in America By Michael Osman. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. Pp. 280.

This might not be a love story, but it is the tale of a contested relationship. At times abusive, at times symbiotic, architecture and regulation systems not only got together some time ago—here largely during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—but also learned how to support each other. But, as in many romantic stories, the honeymoon period soon shifts as they discover how to push each other's buttons. Michael Osman stresses early on in his multifaceted book that this is not a history of technology; neither, one might add, is it the history of modern architecture told through standardization (which insists on questions of modularity, units, and the logistics to aggregate them). The history Osman tells of regulation practices from late nineteenth century America is one of negotiations: between architecture's insides and outsides, between formal intention and technical necessity, and not least between bodies and the spaces they occupy. He takes systems such as the thermostat or paperwork not merely as narrative for progressivism, but as materialization of architecture's oldest function: to provide shelter in an increasingly self-constructed environment.

As such, this could be slotted into a not-quite-expected contribution to the contested category of environmental history in architecture. Expanding histories of hermetic "closed worlds" (Lydia Kallipoliti, The Architecture of Closed Worlds, 2018) or climate and energy measures responding to planetary conditions (Daniel Barber, Modern Architecture and Climate, 2020), Osman understands environment as an interwoven category of porous, uncontrollable, self-made conditions with architectural constructions.

Reminiscent of stories where American heroes are expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, here, modern American architecture draws on regulation mechanisms to counter the problems emerging from its own construction. Where industrial production polluted the air, ventilation systems and filters were installed, and where many bodies worked in accord, thermal conditioning became a requirement for ongoing productivity.

The first two chapters make this network of bodies, technology, and labor directly apparent. In "The Thermostatic Interior and Household Management," Osman lays out the manifold connections between domestic work and its optimization, a process in constant reciprocity with the attempt to steady the (not only) thermal conditions of mass production. Here, the necessity for clean air oscillated between manual labor—opening and closing windows, for example—and automated filtering systems, when neither inside nor outside was reliable for providing it. In turn, this development [End Page 297] soon entered back into the domestic realm. Discussing "Cold Storage and the Speculative Market of Preserved Assets" in chapter two, Osman untangles the joint strands of economic and microbacterial stabilization through cooling: where food could not rot, prices fluctuated less. Properly outfitted architecture became a key player in this regulation of an ostensibly closed-off interior, one in fact sutured to its environment by metabolist and financial constructs. Warehouses became monumental displays of architectural control, manifesting the modernist aesthetic European architects would soon fawn over.

As Osman reminds us, technological systems are only as societally impactful as their representation: what good is control if no one can see it? Where regulation had signaled its virtues through architecture, as Osman explicated in earlier chapters, its practice happened on paper as much as through pipes. In their aesthetic performativity of seemingly objective optimization efforts, the acts of "Representing" or "Imaging" of "Paper-work" in Osman's story are not medial layers distinct from architecture's constructions, but their key. Despite the actors' attempt to enforce dichotomies such as "inside and outside, life and death, profit and loss," what becomes apparent is the inseparability of these categories.

While the main themes of this history of modern architecture sound familiar in many places, Osman's insistence on the entanglements between technology and its material representation, and between bodily acts and technified solutions, brings their fuzzy edges into focus. Regulation here is not merely aesthetically motivated nor simply technologically driven, but details a set of material practices in the world, continuously negotiating that which is on paper...


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pp. 297-298
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