Dancing About Architecture: Artists' reponses to the built environment

(0)

Former Ministry of Highways Building, Tbilisi.

There is a sense in which all architecture is authoritarian, regardless of its ideals. No matter how many community meetings a planning process incorporates, in the end only one building may be built; one architecture, which by its very existence precludes another. The eventual users and non-users of the space may make minor modifications. They may open or close windows, but in the end they must deal with the consequences of the building, whether it is a postwar housing project or a San Jose strip mall. They must negotiate its little manipulations, and have little in the way of recourse if these should become oppressive.

Artists, at least of a particular bent, are not the sort to take authority at its word. Even under the most oppressive of conditions artists find ways to critique and to criticize, and to present alternate theories of the world. They respond to all forms of power, architecture included, through gestures that range from the most basic act of graffiti to Ai Weiwei's "studies of perspective."   

READ ON »


An Interview with Philippe Morel

(0)

 images via EZCT Architecture & Design Research

Philippe Morel is an architect and theorist, who cofounded EZCT Architecture & Design Research. Recently, I interviewed him over email about computation, internet data centers, and natural terrain:

Alessandro Bava: You outlined an urban theory that accounts for the internet as a powerful territorial/urban agent, could you expand on the idea of oceanic/porous urbanism?

Philippe Morel: I started to be interested in such an evolution of the world while working on my Master’s thesis from 2000 to 2002. The title, “Living in the Ice Age”, was coming from the fact that I considered the contemporary changes associated with the advent of computation not just as “another media-based revolution” but as a “geological” shift; a kind of a global earthquake produced by “computational drifts”, drifts that are opening a new age in human (post)history. I was speaking about a more extreme coldness than the one theorized by Andrea Branzi in the “Cold Metropolis”. The coldness of the liquid azote used for supercomputers cooling or sperm cryopreservation as well as the coldness of extreme abstractions produced by computational processes and formal languages. In fact the freezing of any kind of social life, and a freezing that is by the way asking as much energy to us as it does in air conditioning systems! In the introduction of my thesis then, I wrote that “what our civilization gave birth to after unreasonable efforts is a new kind of compound, something like the summation of the dynamite or nuclear energy power, of the intrinsic capacities of the human brain for conceptual abstraction, of the raw power of the computers for calculation and of the sensory performances of the human body.” I added that “my work would only be about trying to unveil the genesis of ...

MORE »


Guide to Future-Present Archetypes Part 1: The Spark

(0)

This is the first in a series of six essays, drawing on interviews with speculative thinkers finding and defining the technologies of the Future-Present.

Near Tappi Saki, Aomori (via Pink Tentacle

It is the 21st Century, and history has delivered us into a time when aerial swarms of hypertextual futurist essays sling bombshell proclamations down upon us, guided down the invisible path of a laser beam. With each new detonation our grounding worldview shakes with tectonic intensity, as what we have always known as “the future” is driven to critical fission when hitting the present. Behold, this new technology: the “Future-Present”: where our dreams collide with reality. There is no fantastical World of Tomorrow, and there is no reality in which we know the real from the imagined. There is only the waking dream of the categories’ simultaneous coexistence. In this world, cities explode, the network sings like razor wire, a caustic, aerosolized powder rises up from pavement beneath our feet, people wearing masks shout instructions over our heads. The dream is still going on, a double exposure of ideas over impact weapons. It is difficult to say whether we are excited, or terrified, or bored, or confused. But we understand this, don’t we? We must say we understand this. There is no one else that could understand this, other than us. What would it mean, if no one understood the future?

 

Electronic Countermeasures GPS enabled quadcopter, Tomorrow's Thoughts Today (video)

 

READ ON »


Image of Democracy: Why I Want to Build Nine Freedom Towers in Tiananmen Square

(0)

Introduction

 

Albert Speer, Model of Nuremberg Marching Grounds (1937); John Powers, Penn Station Counter-proposal, (2001)

What happened at 9/11 of course changed the scale of all this... It became an issue about fear, and our horror at looking, as I did, out of our windows onto the buildings that were burning. The horror we had in our hearts from this, allowed us... to give up basic freedoms. I’m not just talking about the ones the papers talk about all the time, our democratic and constitutional rights, but in the way we live, the way we block our streets.

—David Childs (Chief Architect of SOM’s Freedom Tower”), Building and Fear, 08:20 (2007)

I am a sculptor, my work is abstract and more often than not described as “post-minimalist.” Recently I was asked to contribute a work for a group show in Hong Kong. The curatorial frame of the show is “the ways objects produce space.” Rather than contribute a sculpture and hope for some sort of latter-day phenomenological experience between ‘object’ and ‘subject’ however, I suggested revisiting an urban design project that I had not worked on for over a decade. Eleven years ago I made a modest proposal to create a series of three massively flat and empty superblocks (two in New York and one in Washington DC). I last showed these proposals as three large architectural site models, just six months before September 11th attacks. Because my proposals seemed to foreshadow the 16 acre gap left in Manhattan’s grid, I was urged to revisit the project. I didn’t, not because I didn’t feel I might have something to contribute, but because I was struck dumb horror. I refused to speak publicly about the project, and although the original show of models had been based on a long essay on the subject of art and public space, I stopped writing for years. Anyone familiar with myblogwill understand that this is not my usual MO. But looking back I am now very glad I shut up. 

Most of what was said about architecture in the immediate wake of the attacks struck me as tone deaf, some of what was said by artists was unintentionally cruel.

That is not to say I didn’t take interest in the site and the conversation around it. I followed the competition to choose an master plan, and still feel Sir Norman Foster’s unapologetically hard edged kissing chisels were the best of the lot. Most of what I saw and heard however, reinforced the observation that had inspired my proposals in the first place: the widespread inability to know the difference between what can and cannot be changed when it comes to architecture. By wide spread, I mean architects, politicians, critics and loudmouths at parties. Even after Modernist architecture’s fall from grace, the expectation is that big challenges must be addressed by massive projects, and that symbolic meaning trumps straight talk (observe Libeskind vs Foster).

While I sympathized with architect’s desire to respond to the attacks, I did not understand their responses. Architecture isn’t a symbol (that was the hideous confusion the attackers made), it is an expression; a concrete expression of an idea, an ethic, a desire. Modernists plazas are often characterized as “fascist” — the idea being that they are symbolic projections of power. Architects seldom, if ever, discuss lawns, park benches, or flower arrangements as expressions of power. Looked at as concrete ethical expressions, rather than symbols, we can begin to see these things for what they are: impediments, barriers, place holders, and dividers.

I: Double Zero

Soft Power: Jeff Koons, Puppy (1992); Tiananmen Square Olympic flower arrangement (2008)

For the show in Hong Kong I ended up showing recreations of my three original counter-proposals, and a fourth proposal that has been gestating for almost a decade, but has suddenly taken on new relevance. I proposed building nine “Freedom Towers” arranged in a tight grid formation and completely occupying the available open space of Tiananmen Square.

A decade after I proposed paving flat large portions of New York and DC, I want to “occupy” Tiananmen Square with a formation of Freedom Towers. These may seem like two very different projects and two very different political contexts, but in fact they are the same. In 2001 I was suggesting that we had lost an important variety of public space and that our cities and our republic were lessened by that loss. That in the 40 years since the civil rights and ant-war protests of the 1960s American authorities have altered the landscape of our cities –— through changes in the rules that concerning public assembly (a process Naomi Wolf calls “overpermiticisation”), but also through bricks and mortar construction. Our public space has been “developed” out of existence.

In the wake of the massive protests in Wisconsin, the “Arab Spring,” and the Occupy movement in New York (and everywhere else), it feels important to once again raise the question of public space as a built environment. Rather than continue to argue that we build a new kind of space here, I am suggesting that we imagine what it would mean if we exported our current development schemes to other countries; to imagine them as the work of foreign regimes. What if the National WWII Memorial, with its heroic Speerian colonnade, sunken plaza, and ground-covering fountain, had been built in Tahrir Square rather than midway between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument? How would we feel if Russian authorities were to announce the construction of a large Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim be built over, Bolotnaya Square, the site of last December’s ballot-rigging protests in Moscow?

To mashup SOM’s Freedom Tower and China’s Tiananmen Square may, at first glance seem arbitrary, but it isn’t. Both New York’s Ground Zero and Beijing’s “Zero Point” are symbolically loaded sites. non-mainland Chinese associate Tiananmen with the 1989 pro-democracy protests, but for the Chinese it was already a site loaded with meaning when protesters chose that space to take their stand. In his book Remaking Beijing, the author Wu Hung describes the formation of Chinese end of this symbolic East-West axis....

 

READ ON »


The Never Forgotten House

(0)

This essay will also appear in the next issue of Pool. 

Image of Williamsburg Waterfront by C-Monster, April 30, 2006.

Several weeks ago, I was leaving a party in Park Slope. As I waited to cross the street, I recognized two places across the way and realized I had eaten meals at both. I had brunch with a friend in the cafe at the corner last year. I met another friend for dinner two years earlier at the Thai restaurant at the address next. I remembered two separate phone calls with each friend explaining how to get there from the 7th Ave station. The second call, and the second walk from the stop didn't remind me of the first. It took a third visit to that intersection, and from that vantage point —across the street —to discover the venues were neighbors. Two pleasant but very different conversations came back to me at once.

I had a decade’s worth of weekends in New York City before I finally made the move last year. Chinatown buses from Washington, DC and Boston; cheap flights out of Chicago Midway that left Friday evening and arrived before work on Monday. Sometimes I visited as often as twice a month, for special events or a guy or no reason. With the insouciance of an out-of-towner, I never bothered to follow how a taxi gets from one point to another or which direction the subway train was headed when we got to the stop. Now that the city is my home, I'm constantly uncovering another fragmentary long forgotten memory.

I will never know if some of the places I remember from these early New York trips have been torn down or exist on streets I haven't walked by again yet. I refuse to ...

MORE »


Short Documentary on Internet Infrastructure

(0)

Bundled, Buried & Behind Closed Doors is a short documentary explaining internet infrastructure, focusing on the art deco building 60 Hudson Street in Tribeca, which is now one of the most concentrated carrier hotels in the world. The internet has an "ironically very limited geography in terms of big strategic concentrations," explains Stephen Graham, professor of cities and society, Newcastle University, in the short film. "The big affluent high tech information rich regions" is where the infrastructure is densely located. And 60 Hudson Street was especially ideal as a hub, given that the building was already designed to accomidate cables as it was first fitted for pneumatics tubes, then telegraph cables and telephone lines. 

In an interview with The Atlantic's Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg, director Ben Mendelsohn explains, "The issue of how this infrastructure is hidden fascinates me. Andrew Blum has a book coming out in May about physical Internet infrastructure, which I'm very excited for. He was giving a lecture and handing out postcards of "data monuments" in New York City, and I asked him: if these are monuments, what do they reveal about the culture that built them? Their message is really one of ambivalence. Service providers need to let potential clients know where they are, but they generally decline to make their presence widely known beyond that marketing purpose. Andrew did say that he envisions "brewery tour" style visits or class field trips to Internet buildings in the future, and I think that would be great, but the industry is not there yet."

 

LINK »


Architectural Uncanny Valley

(0)

screengrab from Kane and Lynch 2 via Steam Postcards

Steam Postcards is a tumblr documenting the melancholy landscapes of video games. The role of architecture is important in gameplay. A level designer is considering the way that a surface responds to weather conditions, the depiction of shadows and textures, and other factors that contribute to a realistic looking structure. Sometimes a game will pose its own uncanny valley hypothesis, when something about the gravity in the virtual world does not match up with human experience. But as still images these buildings look like "postcards" from the future. The uncanniness is the dream world depicted, not any failure in representation.

screengrab fromLost Plant 2, Red Orchestra 2, Mirror's Edge, and Brink via Steam Postcards

 

 

LINK »


Kowloon Walled City Lives On in Videogames

(1)

1989 German documentary on Kowloon Walled City (English subtitles, Part 1 of 4)

In Kill Screen, Michelle Young writes about Kowloon Walled City as an inspiration for game level designers. The fortress-like Hong Kong settlement once contained 35,000 residents within its 6.5-acre enclosed space. A labyrinth of alleyways, staircases, and 250 sq ft apartments; much of it poorly lit makeshift spaces with unstable construction; it was also largely a lawless enclave with thriving drug trade, mafia, and other black market activities. It was demolished in 1993:

Often, aspects of Kowloon’s architecture and environment are used to impart a sense of repression, confusion, or loss. In videogames, the mafia and undercurrent of illicit activity provided ideal storylines amidst dank and mysterious backdrops. The cramped businesses in the inner alleys, and the jumbled exteriors of Kowloon, gave videogame designers a rich visual vocabulary.

The characteristic that most set Kowloon Walled City apart from other slums was its high-rise, skyscraper form. Videogame design has capitalized on the city’s verticality. In the opening sequence of Shenmue II, we are transported between the normalized architecture of Hong Kong to Kowloon and enter the city as if falling upside-down from the sky into the depths of the Walled City. The distance between Hong Kong proper and Kowloon is greatly exaggerated with hills and wide plains separating the two, likely an attempt to emphasize Kowloon’s “Otherness.”

 

Kowloon was an anomaly in modern urban construction not only for its organic formation, but also for its reversal of standard building aspects: interior versus exterior, street versus roofs. Its ad-hoc construction engendered a maze of narrow alleys and staircases. Think of single apartment units being stacked over time like Jenga pieces—except that the façades don’t have to be match or be in-line with ...

MORE »


The Future and Modernity's White

(0)

When conjuring up a reason why white is the dominant shade of Modernity one might think of the soon to be retired space shuttle Atlantis or the seminal architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (also known as Le Corbusier). Depending on your preference of medium you can view it as an additive or subtractive color, but the question remains: why is the color white linked to "hi-tech" gadgets, architecture, and visions of the future?

John Powers, a Brooklyn-based sculptor recently ruminated on this question and discovered it has an intriguing and complicated history and relationship with technology. Powers maps the trends of the color against various historical events, revealing along the way that Jacob Riis' 1890 flash photographs of lower Manhattan's tenements and Platex bra construction played surprisingly important roles. According to Powers' research, Modern white's psychological associations and aesthetic perceptions are driven by a mix of technological advancements in electric lights, the garment industry, and space travel.

Original Edison light bulb; Weissenhofsiedlung (1927) via Star Wars Modern

Seamstress Jane Butchin, Delma Domegy, Inspector Mary Todd, and others at ILC Plant (1967); Astronauts Charles Conrad and Alen Bean (1969) via Star Wars Modern

John Powers' ten-part essay titled White Walls:

 

MORE »


Review: WALLPAPERS by Sara Ludy and Nicolas Sassoon

(0)


 

Nicolas Sassoon and Sara Ludy have a deep collective interest in pixelated virtual architecture and are both members of the online art collective Computers Club. Sassoon has an extensive collection of architectural animated gifs on his own site and considers them representatives of an ideal, only achievable in virtual space. Ludy, with a background in interior design, creates videos of catalog-like architecture melting together in saw-toothed fades. Their latest collaboration, WALLPAPERS, reframes their interest in physical space. Up for only one day at 319 Scholes and curated by Lindsay Howard and Katie Miller, Sassoon and Ludy’s installation transforms the location into immersive wall-sized animated gifs.

Their attention to detail and layout of the space coalesced to create a mesmerizing field. Spanning two large walls of the front room, Sassoon’s snowfield drifted upwards surrounded by darkness revealing different patterns of movement at varying distances. This added contrast to Ludy’s well cropped hybrid violet animation that rendered a mixing slow motion waterfall of abstracted texture landing somewhere between moss, leaves, and stone. Pausing for a moment, the landscape revealed itself. Ludy’s image projected onto the doorway connecting to the second room synced perfectly with the existing perpendicular lines of the architecture. Snow was falling up as the viewers walked into a temple entrance cast out of a forgotten 8-bit videogame nightscape.

The technical setup was acutely tuned to the relationship between the images, viewers, and projectors.  Two laptops cropped out of the floor resembling viewing stations for the scene. This intentional placement informed the tremendous scale shift between screen and wall. Viewers walking through the space playfully interrupted projectors beaming their images from floor level below the laptops. Staring closely at an image on one of the laptops made it possible to see the pixelations. Walking close to the wall, however, revealed a serendipitous match between the pixilated screen of the projectors resolution limits and the pixels of the animated gifs themselves. WALLPAPERS effectively wraps the viewers into architecture.

 

READ ON »