Since the early 1990s, the Canadian-born architectural theorist and writer, Sanford Kwinter, has emerged as one of the most influential voices on the international scene. Kwinter has been called ‘one of the leading American philosophers of our time.’ His main fields of interest are contemporary technology, material cultural and intellectual issues in design. His teaching, lecturing, writing and publishing have influenced contemporary architecture and design in profound ways, and his most recent book, “Far From Equilibrium” (Actar, 2008) has been referred to as a “must-buy.”
Architectural Review wrote of it: ¨In a distinctly Kwinter-esque voice of commentary, reflection and critique, “Far From Equilibrium” delivers us ever closer to the possibility of a renewal of thought relating to practices and issues architectural.¨
Since autumn 2007, Kwinter holds the Heinz und Gisela Friedrich Stiftung Guest Professorship in the Städelschule. He is a tenured professor at Rice University in Texas and has of recently also taught at MIT and Harvard. This is the man about whom Jeffrey Kipnis once said that he has a scary intellect. Enormous and always at work it certainly is. Kwinter is one of those persons who probably cannot stop thinking, and it is fair to assume that his thinking is of the kind that is a little different to that of the rest of us.
And yet, a first encounter with Kwinter is different to what one would expect from someone whose career signals books, endless hours of reading and writing, and academic austerity. In fact, Kwinter comes across living a very different life. He looks more like someone who frequents fashionable haunts and his curly, massive hair - although signaling an electrifying cerebral activity, appears to place him more in the world of rock’n roll than architectural academia. The second time around, he is likely to greet you from afar with a warm and loud, “Hey man, good to see you!”
Kwinter left Canada for Paris in the mid-70s. He was restless and curious and became initiated to part of the French capital’s intelligentsia, not the least the academic and critical circles around Michele Foucault. He spent two periods in Paris, after which he landed in New York where he completed an M.A., an M.Phil. and a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Columbia University. His dissertation was entitled, “Immanence and Event in Early Modernist Culture,” and provided largely the basis for his book, “Architectures of Time: Toward a Theory of the Event in Modernist Culture” (MIT Press, 2001).
Before this, though, he found his way into architecture through the New York art scene in the early 1980s. The scene, Kwinter implies when speaking about it, was electrifying, and yet seemed to lack a voice. His was to become one voice for a new line of thought, inspired by the ideas and concepts conceived in France during the preceding period. An early embodiment of this intellectual activity was the founding of the influential publishing company ZONE Books (later to become part of MIT Press), undertaken with the Canadian designer, Bruce Mau and the art theorist, Jonathan Crary. ZONE Books included the influential journal, ZONE, a serial publication on topics in philosophy and contemporary culture. ZONE ½: The Contemporary City (edited with M.Feher, 1986) and ZONE 6: Incorporations (edited with J.Crary, 1992) have become classics and influenced thinking and practices in the fields of design and contemporary culture at large.
Listening to Kwinter when he gets going is like being ushered along a mountainous path, seeing the enticing peaks above, the rocky outcrops all around and the terrifying bottom far below. It is like floating amidst a solid ground and an endless sky above. One cannot always follow him, but it is alluring and challenging. And so is his writing.
And, among all the historical and scientific facts, interspersed with the speculations and conjectures, there is lyricism. A favorite moment appeared in his piece, “Hydraulic Vision,” in the the catalogue for “Mood River,” an exhibition on contemporary design curated by Jeffrey Kipnis in 2002. Here, Kwinter wrote: “Ours is a world fraught with technical relations, calculations, rationalities of every kind...what is at stake in Mood River (is) the vibratory mesh that binds all of being together, the continuum of resonance that makes every moment, despite its apparent discontinuities, whole...To see the grand movements, the ensembles, is not only a form of communication with the world, it is, as Goethe might have said, a form of love / The River has many states, and to each state corresponds a Mood: Bliss is the diffuse affect, the cloud, the tolerant love; Ecstacy, a nervous fulguration, a cascade born of terror and awe, a self-sufficient love; Rage, a storm of passion, a turbulence that seeks only discharge, reconciliation, and forgiveness; and Trauma, the love that leaves an indelible mark. These are the movements that remind us that looking at our world is limited if left to the metaphysics of eyes alone.”
This is the world of Sanford Kwinter.
Download "An Interview with Sanford Kwinter by Johan Betum"