Archive for November, 2008

Form Follows Fable

Globe Plaza

Once all the zoning laws have been cited, the richness of the site exposed as constructed, the minutia of fabrication turn out to be simply minutia, the algorithms run their course, the discipline disbanded, and the history books pillaged bare and then burnt, what is left to stand on? What tiny, shoddy piece of ground may the designer find to plant their feet and grab ahold of their bootstraps?

There’s no ground left at all; we’re all astronauts orbiting a toxic earth, a hunk of rock on which we find it increasingly difficult to agree upon anything. Those who are called “architect” find themselves with the rest of humanity inhabiting billions of tiny spacecraft, a hyper archipelago loosely tethered by the earth’s orbit (its last indisputable attribute). But slowly and inexplicably the designer has been veering into the darkness, adrift and ever more alone. A speck in the vacuum – not dead so much as lost and a little bored. (One can only talk to themselves for so long before they get tired of the company.)

Finding themselves floating, the architect now awakens and does what any sufficiently bored person does: they dream up stories that explain the universe, their place in it, and all its contents. After the excitement and the dread of being totally alone have subsided, the most fantastic of fables are spun. These stories are equal parts logical leap, fabricated detail, exaggerated memory, and hopeful conjecture. Although the origin of the fable is ultimately quite arbitrary and personal, the story is captivating and takes on a life of its own. The fable is a transmission, the first crackle of communication sent across the vacuum for others to hear because it’s the first thing we decide is worth sharing.

From these fables comes form. The desire to explain and to understand gives way to an imperative to extend and elaborate. All of the fleshy details of the fable come to life with each retelling of the story more elaborate and engaging than the last. The fable may not always be recited in exactly the same way, of course, but it is consistent enough – adaptable rather than unstable.

Playland XL

Through its sheer ability to captivate, the fable instantiates a world that is shared between the fabler and the listener. Without benefit of ground or gravity, the fable sketches a possible organization of the universe that offers an explanation of the accumulated matter of space where there is no order. To dwell in space is to continually fabricate your own world and to hone the art of seducing others with the telling of these fables; An understanding is the most that the inhabitants of separate spacesuits may ever hope to share.

To be comfortable telling stories is to desire a shared existence, a “we” amongst the autonomous stars, that is OK with continual re-invention and happy to be part of multiple constellations. The designer who lets form follow fable chooses to organize the material of their little corner of the universe (always an “I” act) and to thoughtfully share with the public how and why they did so (the big “we”). In doing so the designer liberates themselves from the toxicity of the terrestrial without giving up on the necessity of contributing something meaningful to the life of all those spacemen who don’t happen to call themselves “architect.”

It’s not easy to begin telling fables. That instinct has been programmed out of the architect in favor of arguments whose rigor is inversely proportional to the in-disputability of the claims upon which they’re built. These arguments are always quite rigorous. Like argumentation, telling fables takes practice but it promises to reintroduce something that architecture has been missing for a while: fun. If we’re all lost in space, the very least we can do it try to make life a little better and have fun doing it. Are you ready to join us in the vacuum?

Manageable Horizons

Is JJ Abrams America’s next great landscape painter? As I’ve noted previously, his new show Fringe introduces typography as a landscape element – merging rendered letters into a seamless filmic space to erase the notion of a picture plane. In these urban views the type floats lightly but is still firmly in the world of the show rather than belonging to the world of the viewer, us, like typical titles glued to the vertical plane of the screen. The titles, our armature of interpretation, share a horizon with the world we’re viewing. We’re sucked in.

The trailer for Abram’s new Star Trek movie opens with views of a high speed chase. Big sky, wide horizon, palpable nostalgia? It’s the American West! But… what is that ghost on the skyline?

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Complete with period car, this is what it would have been like to approach Corbu’s Ville Radieuse should Houston have decided to buy into his scheme when Paris passed.

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Source: Star Trek trailer

The culmination of these spectral views is our first glimpse at the iconic Enterprise. The central figure arrives at the den of these spectres and the end of the world – the end of his world, literally – on his motorcycle. Technology delivers technology. Like the viewer who cannot escape the typography of Fringe, world and text merged into one, this sequence of images presents a typical Abramsonian connundrum: technology will always fail you, but you will only have more technology to help. Nature is just a backdrop; it’s literally a landscape and nothing more.

The game is one of horizons: showing and hiding them. Like the opening sequence of LOST, the horizon is collaged with technological fragments into a scene of techno-sublime before quickly being eclipsed by more, messier technology. Amidst the chaos of the introductory crash scene, Jack and the other characters scramble to cannibalize the scraps of the plane itself into useful survival tools. Technology has already subsumed nature. It’s inescapable (mysterious smoke? hatches?) – all you can hope to do is break these monolithic technologies into more manageable fragments and use those chunks to piece the world back together into something knowable, a world with horizons again.

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Source: Lostpedia

The Ism Schism

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Sea Of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich via 765

This got cut from a piece I’m writing for publication elsewhere, but it’s a question that is very important to me. Without the time to put it in a more useful context I’ll orphan it here for now:

Strangely, lacking the ghost of Modernism or any other ism to provide a unified theory of architecture, however flawed, the discipline has crumbled into increasingly fundamentalist groups furiously pursuing their specific interests at the expense of all else. While the CNC-fetishists craft ever smoother surfaces, the greens perfect the performance of their building systems, and the do-gooders find policy footholds within government, architecture has nothing to haunt it anymore. Contemporary architecture benefits from deep knowledge in a diverse set of interests but where are the Hopeful Monsters – those productive mutations that barely, but meaningfully, escape the definition of their own species?

The Anti-Explosive Bean

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Images from Tronic’s animation of 56 Leonard st.

When it was first announced, I have to admit being less than inspired by HdM’s newest pile of boxes. This one, promising to be the tallest residential addition to NYC’s skyline, puts the haphazard stacking to good use by creating terraces which will further drive up prices of the units. In other words, the stacking aesthetic that this office has been exploring for a while now has finally found its explicit benefit in the most fundamental of all programs: only to provide an escape from the building itself does the mismatch of planes come into its own. It’s a really tall condo building which is inherently a little boring, but at least we find in this the final test of the pile and – as a bonus – the aesthetic has been motivated for both affect and effect. The occupants of this tower, like all those who live in good architecture, are unwitting test pilots. As they step onto expensive, windy terraces we, the broader set of architectural observers, vicariously explore the terminus of one thread of contemporary architecture.

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Images from Tronic’s animation of 56 Leonard st.

It’s appropriate, then, that the apotheosis of the pile is presented to us with a myth about the building as a product of explosion in reverse (watch the first animation on the page). Here the terminal violence of the end of the line is rendered quiet and contemplative. The animation opens with an image of a magical silver pea wandering onto the building site like a lost puppy (and let’s face it, for designers silver shiny things and puppies are about equivalent). But lo, it’s not just a random pea! It’s actually an interstellar communication device invoking the sublime assembly of its glass and steel cousins. Assembled by a slow motion collapse, with components and floor plates raining from the sky, the building comes together with eerie aplomb in an artificially quiet New York. The deserted interiors notwithstanding, this animation is exactly the sort of myth McLuhan proposes as:

the instant vision of a complex process that ordinarily extends over a long period. Myth is contraction or implosion of any process, and the instant speed of electricity confers the mythic dimension on ordinary industrial and social action today. We live mythically but continue to think fragmentarily and on single planes.

Moreso than McLuhan could have imagined, we live in an integrated world but most especially in the realm of luxury condos we think fragmentarily, and those in 56 Leonard’s offset boxes will do so quite literally.

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Images from a music video for Kid606 by Pleix

The animation trope is borrowed at least from Pleix’s music video for Kid606, where where we see a building undergo transition from piece of the city to celestial monolith. But whereas Pleix‘s animation is a story of rebirth, the 56 Leonard animation by Tronic is decidedly more static.

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Images from a music video for Kid606 by Pleix

Late in the clip the camera swirls around a single motionless figure. Is this the legendary last inhabitant in New York? This animation is the creation myth of his world: a terrible swirl of fragments that can only be made bearable by a jocular, squishy ball-bean. With his passing the last living person in NYC will cede the city to a new culture yet to come. Maybe they will be able to move beyond the polarities of bean and building to a world where form follows fable rather than the other way around.

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Images from Tronic’s animation of 56 Leonard st.

Oh, also: Remember those contested, giant footsteps over Beijing? I’d like to think that those few seconds of footage were not showing a complete journey, but the beginning of a godly tour of contemporary architecture. Perhaps those invisible feet were connected to a set of invisible hands orchestrating the careening pieces of 56 Leonard St.