David Gissen: From Medoc to Manhattan

David Gissen, Mound of Vendôme

Whereas most folks look at Paris and see the Eiffel Tower and the river Seine, the architectural historian and CCA faculty member David Gissen sees many different Parises, sequenced and layered, pockmarked and potholed by history.

Gissen has an eye for the vestigial histories of cities and their landscapes -- the parts that are buried, forgotten, or unseen. The decay of 1970s Manhattan, the underwater landscape of London’s River Thames, and the revolutionary landscapes of the Paris Commune have all come under his idiosyncratic scrutiny.

Paris Hill Ton

Starting June 19, 2014, the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal will host a solo exhibition of Gissen’s work related to what he calls the Mound of Vendôme. The mound was a pile of earth built in 1871 in Paris by the Communard revolutionaries.

Its purpose was to cushion the impact of the demolition of the massive Vendôme Column, an imperial obelisk built to celebrate the military victories of Napoleon. The Communards detested this monument to empire and war.

Soon enough, the Commune was suppressed, and the obelisk was replaced by the French government. Gissen’s project is a bold petition to the Department of Heritage and Architecture for the City of Paris to reconstruct the earthen urban pile as a way of breathing new life into a fleeting moment of radical expression.

“There’s something amazing about the mound’s story,” Gissen says. “How monuments change. How buildings are destroyed and reconstructed. How history goes in circles. It’s one of many examples of how urban nature can become a tool of radicalism, and how people remake and appropriate landscapes for political functions.”

An Olfactory Archivist

With a magpie’s eye and an innate way with words, Gissen is rarely far from relating his next example. “I love stories,” he says. “Buildings are places for stories. I look at buildings and landscapes as intellectual histories -- enormous repositories of ideas and knowledge.”

As an illustration, he talks about a house in the French countryside designed by his friend, the Swiss architect Philippe Rahm, which features an underground chamber. Although its subterranean passive cooling serves a straightforward “green” function, Gissen’s interest was piqued by something else: the chamber’s olfactory terroir, redolent of the region’s distinctively fragrant soil.

Most architects talk about space -- about volumes defined by the structures that enclose them. Hardly any talk about smells. Then again, Gissen isn’t your typical architect.

In October 2013, Gissen and fellow faculty member Irene Cheng curated An Olfactory Archive: 1738–1969, an exhibition examining how scents can resurrect historical spaces and regions. The perfumes ranged from an 18th century library to a rural landscape in medieval Holland.

(Read Archinect's writeup of the exhibition. See also the album of images on Flickr.)


Gissen likes to look for a twist in things. On his sabbatical from CCA in 2010, he began what he jokingly referred to as “a wine routine.” “I write about landscapes,” he says, “so it makes complete sense that I’d be interested in wine. But I realized I’d never really understood wine.

"In 2010, I happened to taste a wine by Marcel Lapierre, a French winemaker who’d died a few months before. He was a real radical, deeply committed to preserving the landscape of Beaujolais, and angry at how commercial agriculture flattens and homogenizes the life within the vineyards, and the taste of the wine the land produces.

“I tried one of his Morgon wines, and it tasted like nothing I’d encountered before. And I realized that wine, which I had always associated with class and prestige, was actually part of a political and historical landscape. You can read and taste and understand that the person who made this wine had ideas about what it should be.”

Inspired by his new hobby, Gissen drew a subway-style map of French wine landscapes that cuts through the labyrinth of the country’s traditional regional appellations. He was approached by a London publisher who wanted to sell it as a poster, which Food & Wine magazine then named one their top five gifts for 2012.

It has been reviewed in numerous newspapers and wine magazines, is a required learning tool for classes at the Culinary Institute of America, and has been exhibited at Paris’s City Hall and the Sorbonne.

Publishing Haus

Subnature, Gissen’s 2009 book, is an investigation of exhaust, gas, dust, debris, weeds, soot, even pigeons -- elements that make up a large part of the urban landscape but are often ignored by architects and city planners.

“I got a call from Princeton Architectural Press,” he says, explaining the book’s origins, “asking me to write about urban sustainability and environmentalism. I said, ‘You don’t need another book on that. Let’s look at the urban environment, but take a different angle, focusing on wastelands, war, industry, and the residue of environmental degradation.’”

The book became something of a sensation among architecture students in the United States and Europe.

“Everyone is trying to think of a way forward in our problematical and compromised environment. Let’s face it: We’re not going to live in a world that looks like a Poussin painting. So how can we think about learning to live with the very difficult types of environments that surround us? How do you integrate ‘subnature’ into cities?”

The book was particularly resonant, Gissen explains, in a field that’s currently in thrall to all things sustainable.

“Sustainability is the new high modernism. Yes, skylines of buildings with green roofs and windmills are comforting, but this myopic focus on sustainability has created a real flattening effect. It limits us to one idea of environment, one idea of nature.”

In his just-published new book, Manhattan Atmospheres, Gissen explores “natural environments” created inside New York buildings between the 1960s and the early 1980s.

It was a period in the city’s history notorious for crime, urban disintegration, and the breakdown of public spaces such as parks. And yet, at the very same moment, from the atriums of corporate megaliths to apartment buildings built above freeways, architects were reinventing the great outdoors . . . indoors.

Gissen 2.0

What’s next for this energetic architectural historian?

“All I’ve ever built so far,” he says, slightly ruefully, “are museum installations. When you go to architecture school, you get infected with this compulsion to build things. No matter where your career takes you, you’re hounded by it.”

This will hopefully soon be remedied, as Paris’s City Hall is now seriously looking at guiding the permit process so that the Mound of Vendôme will be realized one day. There may also be a film made about it.