Archive for October, 2008

Zombies vs. Cartoons

Short version: watch these two short animations and ponder their comparative implications.

Long version: As you may have guessed, one of the things I’m obsessed with is how we represent architecture and, in particular, how we use animation to do so. The inflection point after which architectural animation really came into its own seems to me located at the production of this animation by Brooklyn Digital Foundry for the now defunct Museum Plaza Louisville tower by OMA Rex. Here we see camera tracking, compositing, and a mixture of photo-real and stylized content being combined into one animation that tells a story about both the building and the spirit it hopes to create in Louisville. These fundamental techniques had finally become available in off-the-shelf software architect-animators could easily get their hands on.

Fast forward two years to 2008: London seems to be the current hotbed of experimentation in architectural representation. Squint/Opera and Uniform are both producing loads of interesting work (and sharing it, which is not to be underestimated. How many offices produce awesome work but fail to share it?).

Happening upon this promotion for Renzo Piano’s Shard tower I was filled with horror and curiosity: what London is this animation showing? Devoid of people and seen mostly from the sky, it’s almost as if the Shard were situated in a city of zombies, built by robots that had no idea their human masters had already vanished. The soft music doesn’t help either.

The Shard, London from Uniform on Vimeo.

But the same office also made this antithetical animation, an architecture that is its inhabitants. Nothing more than matter wrapped around their lives. Unfortunately the interest here is purely representational (the architecture is not exactly, you know, great.) Nevertheless, the mix of 2D comic and 3D photo realistic rendering styles allows the video to seamlessly intermingle narrative and spatial explanations. I’d like to see more of this sort of story-telling-through-architecture without letting the design of the spaces suffer as much as they are here.

Nido Barcelona from Uniform on Vimeo.

In other words, somewhere between zombies and cartoons there’s a sweet spot of architectural representation. I’ll be watching.

Where Is My Flying Car?

Over the past couple weeks I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing my friend and GSD cohort Behrang Behin about his thesis project that examines the zero-carbon city phenomena currently popular in the Gulf. You can read the full interview at Archinect, but it’s worth sharing an excerpt here because Behrang gets at architecture’s potential to embody a careful optimism. Behrang and I have discussed this at length in the past but I have the feeling that it’s something lurking in the broader generation of designers to which we both belong. Are you tired of the overwhelming cynicism of the critical project and positivism of techno-greenwashing both? Meanwhile, the three martini cool of the projective project leaves architecture in a bit of a lurch: what matters anymore?


What I appreciate most about Ben’s project (and there’s a lot to appreciate) is his motivation of the big, scary, unknown future as a safe zone where we may actually argue for something and take our own ideas
seriously. There are no jokes in Behin’s project and that’s a rare thing if you know the current climate of the architectural community. He’s interested in difficult problems and this project develops one of those, the sustainability of a city, without delivering an “a-ha” moment. In other words, it actually makes you think and that’s something to be applauded these days. Here’s an excerpt where Behrang discusses the balanced future, utopia put back to work:

More importantly, abandoning the future as a cultural construct deprives us of a valuable instrument for defining ourselves in the present. You can learn a lot about the ethos of a society by looking at their science fiction. In that sense, the future is a place in our collective imagination, a terrain on which we fight our ideological battles and air out our common neuroses. This is precisely where architecture must play a role. Sustainable architecture shouldn’t just be concerned with the tactical level of engineering efficiency and the preservation of resources, but should also participate in the invention of alternative futures in cultural imagination.

That said, I think architecture is in a unique position to be very practical, addressing current-day issues, but to simultaneously work as a provocation (the way, as you point out, modernist utopias operated). In a sense, architecture can be provocative by engaging the banality of current concerns as the reference point for speculation, because by doing so, it can point out that alternatives exist as latent possibilities within today’s realities.

Writing this post and, indeed, through the course of developing my own thesis which also seeks to wrestle with difficult issues, I’ve started to feel a little reactionary… as if believing in architecture’s ability to tinker with market forces (rather than merely resisting or laying complicity with them) is some antiquated view that hasn’t been popular since the middle of the last century. Maybe so, or maybe architecture is undergoing a shift at the moment. John Snavely’s recent discussion of judgement as the fundamental skill of the designer is particularly useful to this discussion. May we judge not only what we produce, but why we produce it.

I Live Here But I Voted There

If you’re an American who lives overseas, chances are someone in your host country has quizzed you about the election. Sometimes it even seems like the rest of the world cares more about this election that the US does, which is more of a sad commentary on the US electorate than anything else.

Still, plenty of Americans do care about who we elect as president and make the effort to vote. Some of those people, like myself, happen to be living overseas at the moment and thus we’re left out of all the fun. No lines, no trip to the random community center you’ve never visited before, no levers: voting absentee is pretty civilized and wonderful, actually. The only snag is that you don’t get a sticker, and everyone knows that the primary reason to vote is because some old lady will give you a sticker!

So, if you live overseas, you voted in the US election, and you have a color printer you can now rectify this small oversight.
single sticker.jpg
Click here to download an A4-sized sheet of stickers (it’s a 4mb PDF).

I Can See Right Through You

What is it about transparency that excites us so much? Why are we addicted to seeing the insides of things? Years ago I heard someone present a fascinating argument that the iMac G3, Apple’s first translucently clad creation, signaled a new development in the Melvillian desire to conquer the unknown. By exposing a view into the black box of the personal computer, the argument went, we’re given the comfort of visual access and thus the possibility of knowledge.


It was a clever argument but it’s out of date now. In the intervening years our devices have grown much more complex and ever present. Our lives are now augmented by this coterie of magical things by default. We all have informational prostheses and we can’t live without them. Are you able to remember phone numbers any more? I can’t.

The translucent, transparent, and X-ray methods of seeing are fading due to their lack of explanatory power. As the stakes raise, so too does our interest in the specific nature of these black boxes. In this transition the translucent and the transparent, with their claims of depicting the Real and the Natural, are being replaced by the modeled and the visualized. “Rendering” has returned to its root meaning “to give or to put” as the default way in which we construct the world around us. The milk in that cereal commercial? Rendered. A car on a Billboard ad? Rendered. Movies, TV, nanoscience, and genomics? All of them rendered: put into this world through the fabrication of an image where one did not exist before. Renderings are not fictions but new realities, a way of making visible and knowable the otherwise inaccessible. Peter Galison and Lorraine Daston’s history of Objectivity in scientific visualization is particularly rich in the way that they illustrate the history of how we come to believe what we see.

Now that we’re enjoying a moment when imagery is constructed, we should really savor the opportunity at hand. As in this commercial for Honda where the familiar technique of section is applied to a vehicle, revealing an interior that is stuffed with ideas. Is this not an accurate way of Slicing into the Accord? If all of these ideas exposed to us in the animated section cut and the care that they represent are not embedded inside the composition of that vehicle then what exactly is the value proposition of the commercial? How is the Honda any different from a Ford?

We’ve reached the point where a first year graduate student in architecture can produce photo realistic renderings using off the shelf software without any prior training. For years, photorealism was the holy grail – achieving such an image was the result of dedication and skill. But when this is a default ability we have to ask new questions. For me, the question has changed from what would it look like to what world do we want to create?


Judging from this collection of images borrowed from the archives of Dezeen, new architecture, regardless of location or client, lives in a perfect world of consistent 80 degree temperatures and sunny weather. Surely, deep down inside even the most hardened architect is an optimist but this is a bit much, don’t you think? These architectural representations are in the useless mode of transparency described above. In seeking to render for us a vision presumed to be truthful they fail to take advantage of the opportunity at hand to manifest a new world. As architects put more and more weight on photo realistic images at the expense of the diagram and the drawing, the profession grows less and less able to maintain its claims of resistance within a culture of capital. Even before convincing anyone to build, the ability of the architect has always been to visualize a new world and to share that vision with others. If we are not careful, the “Dezeen-ification” of architecture could be the final assault on a limping discipline.

Metro de Madrid: “Transparente” from shin_matsuda on Vimeo.

Although they may appear to be cheap tricks, these renderings of the otherwise invisible help us see the world and its possible alternatives in a palpable manner. Whether the complex interactions flowing through a city (as in the commercial above), the interrelationship of individuals in a piece of literature, or the intricate workings of the market, what these representations share is an optimistic belief that images may be used to ask new questions. The task now is to start thinking about these opaque images as part of our reality rather than merely just special effects. It’s a new world out there, if you’re willing to see it that way.

Section is the New Plan

Arguably, plan thinking is seeping into the general culture as services like google maps and vehicular GPS become inescapable. What about section? Do you think about your elevation? You will as soon as sea levels start rising!

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Every now and then I get an itch to work on a web project again. After being egged on by John and Tim to take a look at Yahoo Pipes I decided to take a look. Pipes provides a visual interface for building connections between web services like Flickr and Yahoo Maps with the open ended ethos of the unix pipe command.

The screenshot above is showing a graph of the elevation of my life over the past few months: the heights of the various places I’ve spent time in. To create that graph, data is pulled from two separate websites (dopplr and, assembled by a third (bbcom), and drawn up nice and pretty by a fourth (Google’s mediocre viz API). This is exactly what I was talking about when I wrote about the infrastructural web last year. It’s glorious.

If you want to make your own graph you’ll need a Dopplr account with some trips in it and then take a visit to my site.

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Above is a view of the Pipes interface. Look familiar?

Thanks to Dana for the name.

Fringe Architecture

Recently, Jimmy Stamp pointed out that the new TV series Fringe lifts a Liebeskind and places it in a new city, but actually there’s more going on here. The copy of the same pilot that I watched was missing the exterior establishing shot but did make use of Liebeskind’s interior as the offices of ominous corporation Massive Dynamic:



In the second episode, visits to Massive Dynamic find the corporation in a slightly different home. One with more curves and a distinctive gradient fritting pattern on the windows:


Shown from the outside, Massive Dynamic’s HQ reverts to something much more banal but turns out in the third episode to be Seven World Trade.



Jimmy makes a good point that this approach belies a general laziness on the behalf of the production designers who use collage instead of actually designing something. Without the bigger budget of a feature film we can perhaps excuse the show for not designing their own buildings, but did they really expect a show designed for detail obsessed nerds to accept a building that is clearly orthogonal from the exterior and billowing when seen on the interior? Not even Massive Dynamic can pull of that sort of trick.
What I’ve been enjoying most about Fringe is another bit of trickery: the way that the location titles are integrated into the space of the scenes using camera tracking and environment mapping. By adding motion to an old technique these titles gain a new sort of augmented-reality authority. They’re not real… right?

This, too, is part of our new way of seeing the world.





Goodbye, Flatland

Live action styrofoam sculpted by invisible wires, extreme sections, nonsense biomorphism, beton brut, and robotic greenery: this is the lush world of Peripetics, a 3 minute video piece produced by Zeitguised for the inaugural exhibition of the Zirkel Gallery in London.


The stills don’t do it justice: the film is remarkably engaging- an intricately Barney-esque, self-referential world where Vaseline has been replaced by shaders and deformers and the rules of this world are abandoned. The invisible is made visible and then rendered virtual though relentless applications of sectioning techniques.


These issues will be a recurring theme as advanced spatial conception seeps into our popular culture. With video games regularly asking players to turn up into down, solid into void and off-the-shelf rendering technology reaching a point of perfection, we are now sending fleets of astronauts into an unknown world beyond our own. Media addicts are seeing cutaways, three dimensional manipulation, data, and flocks of fluttering pixels inflate flatland with a new vitality that is not only aesthetic but structural. With hindsight, work like Peripetics may some day prove to be more than simply something pretty, it may prove be an early instrument that leads us to new worlds.

From Lessing to Hollywood

Enrique offers a meditation on Doris Lessing, recent Nobel laureate, whose last book imagines an alternate future where she was never born:

In undoing her own history, Lessing presents us with an interesting premise. There are plenty of works where authors write themselves out of historical narratives, give themselves different names, genders, etc. But what strikes me as particularly poignant is that Lessing has declared Alfred and Emily as her final book. Her last act as an author is to erase herself from the record. I can’t explain precisely why, but this act carries a transcendent power.

For a few years now it has been fashionable within architectural circles to claim either collaborative authorship or a lack of authorship altogether. As is typical, Architecture is a couple decades late this this philosophical party yet somehow the death of the author is apparently new to us. Lessing would be the patron saint of this movement except for the fact that she accepts her position as a writer of fiction.

As Enrique hints at, the impressive feat of her most recent book is not that it disclaims authorship but paradoxically eclipses itself, makes itself impossible. Reflected back onto the practice of architecture- where things are brought into the world with real dimensions, materials, weight- Lessing’s novel highlights for us the inescapability of architectural authorship. Paradoxical states of matter remain the realm of science, missing from any architect’s palette of material choices.

Things in this world bear testament to their creators, whether we like it or not, and until the LHC folds us into another couple dimensions the burden of physicality is that it insists that meatspace holds a mutually exclusive view towards matter. A building exists at the intersection of choice and matter, both piled in massive accumulations.

One of the unique joys of design is the interchangability of ideas, but this soup of thought always ends up puddling on somebody’s spoon. Ideas are judged and selected before they’re passed down the line to the legions of hands that will bring them into a state of physical reality. This is a long way of getting at the fact that whether one writes, curates, or picks out of a hat, there is ultimately a set of quite-visible hands and minds at work in the production of architecture and things like it. Ask anyone who worked in Rex’s supposedly collaborative office about the level of input allowed to the non-partners for verification of this strawman. Of course design teams tend to be large and varied, but the size of a team is not what matters: it’s the decision making graph.

Or to take it further, it’s the meta-characteristics of that graph, the possibilities for authorial expansion that are built in to the organization of the firm. Currently, the top eschalons of architecture are dominated for the most part by firms that still rely on the individual(s): Herzog & de Meuron, Nouvel, Foster, Gehry, et al. are difficult to imagine without their namesakes. What is OMA without Koolhaas? How many pluses can DS+R append? No wonder my generation of offices are eschewing names for more ambiguous, almost ominous labels: The Living, Para Project, UNI… Perhaps those even younger will bring us back to the time of super-acronyms with a new crop of SOMs, HOKs, and CRSes.

As more and more of our world evaporates into the cloud I expect that the percieved stability of a known author will become a premium. Brand Me is the implicit logic behind some of the more successful weblogs like Jason’s irrepressible Curation-as-authorship will doubtlessly continue as a strong phenomonea but, to return to the burden of the architect, it’s impossible to escape the requirement of producing new content. Dealing with the tricky issue of authorship on a project that has a necessarily complicated, nested and looped decision making graph is still a mess. I’d like to offer an alternative to the oppositional modes of authorial escapism and starchitect celebrity fetish: if production of buildings were thought of like the production of films the credits would bear testament to the dense network of collaborations that brought the finished product into the world. This means everything: designers, back office staff, contractors and their staff, subcontractors, etc. In other words, why doesn’t this look more like this?

Forgive me if I’m calling the bluff on whatever general sentiment towards authorless works exists right now in the architectural ether, but there’s a difference between writing yourself out of existence and productively problematizing your output. As Lessing herself puts it “There isn’t much to be said for sincerity, in itself.”

Will Ferrell’s Anchorman meets Max Headroom

Hello world

Ahem. Hello.