Monday, July 30, 2007

Three Voyages

Joseph Michael Gandy, Drawing for John Soane's Bank of England (1830)

On November 18, 1761, the British war frigate H.M.S. Deptford sailed for the island of Barbados in the West Indies. On board was William Harrison, son of John Harrison, a horologist and clockmaker who was currently embroiled in a legal and technical spat with both the Crown and the Royal Observatory regarding the accurate calculation of longitude. Harrison carried with him a chronometer simply called the H4, a cumbersome piece of equipment encased in an airtight brass casing that was set to the Royal Observatory clock in Greenwich. He hoped to win the £25,000 Longitude Prize, reserved for those who could build a chronometer so accurate that it would lose an acceptable, albeit minimal, amount of time over the 15-month voyage to the West Indies. Harrison was finally recognized as the winner in 1773. He died in 1776, just one year after Captain James Cook returned from his second voyage of discovery. Captain Cook carried a modified version of Harrison's chronometers on board.

In June 1792, two French astronomers embarked on a similar quest as Harrison’s. Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre and Pierre-François-André Méchain left Paris with a cache of scientific equipment (including the innovative Borda Circle), hoping to measure part of a longitudinal arc running from Dunkirk on down to Barcelona. Whereas Harrison sought an accurate measure of time, Delambre and Méchain wanted to establish an accurate measure of distance. The two French scientists wanted to demonstrate that the new measure – “the meter” – would be “one ten millionth of the distance from the North Pole to the equator.”

A little over 20 years later, in March of 1818, an extensive array of architectural fragments arrived on English shores aboard H.M.S. Weymouth. The Weymouth’s crew sailed from Leptis Magna, an archaeological excavation site on the Libyan coast of North Africa. The shipment contained architectural fragments from Roman antiquity: 22 granite columns, 15 marble columns, 10 capitals, 25 pedestals, 7 loose slabs, 10 pieces of cornice, 5 inscribed slabs, and various fragments of sculptured figures (for example, “Statue in halves Head and Feet deficient”).

These three episodes demonstrate an interesting trajectory of events mirroring contemporary developments in Enlightenment science and natural history. William Harrison's voyages to Barbados, as well as Méchain and Delambre's jaunt along the French meridian, exemplify one of the main characteristics of Enlightenment science in Western Europe: the ability to calculate, to rationalize the dimensions of space. Such experimentation was a necessary corollary to the mania for colonization, for the ability to measure space accurately expedited the process of dominium. Thus, for the crew of the H.M.S. Weymouth, an accurate chronometer would have to be indispensable to navigation, and by inference, to the proper securing of said architectural artifacts.

And although the unloading of artifacts from the Weymouth’s hold brings us closer to the true purpose of this post, at this juncture, the achievements of late-Enlightenment scientists and natural historians are considered alongside the exploits of contemporary architects. Architecture and science are forms of cultural and intellectual expression whose coexistence suggests an intermingling of sources and inspirations. It can be thus argued that the scientist influences the architect and vice versa. These two realms share a commingling of circuitry: the spark of innovation crosses frequently between the two, creating a literal and figurative livewire of intellectual activity.

The work of the English architect John Soane (1753-1827) and his draughtsman/renderer, Joseph Michael Gandy (1771-1843), thus takes on a special significance. Although the two men only collaborated on a single project, some of Soane's work must necessarily be considered along Gandy's, for we know as much about Soane the celebrated architect through Gandy the struggling artist. When considering these two men, we look in particular to Gandy's rendering of Soane's Bank of England as well as his depiction of the interior spaces of Soane's house at Lincoln's Inn Fields. These works present an analog to what the explorers, cartographers, and collectors previously mentioned faced. The carrying of an H4 chronometer necessarily involved the carrying of a chronometer set to Greenwich Mean Time -- thus Harrison in Barbados carried a temporal fragment of England along his voyage. Méchain and Delambre likewise carried temporal fragments of Paris en route to Barcelona and Dunkirk. The crew of the H.M.S. Weymouth carried physical fragments of Leptis Magna to England. All show an obsession with the collection and depiction of artifacts. And to further elaborate the point, to demonstrate how architecture and natural science were part of a common intellectual milieu, this post thus aligns the work of Soane and Gandy with that of a contemporary French natural historian and scientist – Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832). As will be shown, Cuvier’s particular contributions to natural history give us a basic intellectual framework for a possible understanding of Soane’s and Gandy’s passion for collecting and depicting architectural fragments.

Cuvier, Soane, Gandy: connected briefly

Cuvier becomes of interest primarily because he is a contemporary of Soane's and Gandy's. The Baron Cuvier’s life and career mirrored Soane’s own in several ways. For example, Soane displayed a bust of Cuvier in his house at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Soane was even knighted the same year that Cuvier was ennobled. Soane also alludes to the influence of Cuvier’s lecture style in his own Royal Academy Lectures. Cuvier's position as Professor of Comparative Anatomy mirrors Soane's position as Professor of Architecture at the Royal Academy, where he was curator of a collection dedicated to "comparative architecture." Inspired by Cuvier, Soane mentions the importance of comparative architecture at the close of his Lectures on Architecture, while Gandy, influenced by both Soane and Cuvier, would attempt an impossibly large treatise entitled "Comparative Architecture." But to further the objective of this post, this narrative introduces three specific innovations by Baron Cuvier: the notion of functional integration, the belief in cataclysmic extinction, and the idea of revolution as a vital geological events. These three intellectual innovations are considered insofar as they parallel the work of Soane and Gandy.

Functional Integration

Cuvier saw organisms as integrated wholes. Each part's form and function were incorporated into the organism's entire body. This meant that no part could be modified without impairing the organism's functional integration:
[T]he component parts of each must be so arranged as to render possible the whole living being, not only with regard to itself, but to its surrounding relations, and the analysis of these conditions frequently leads to general laws, as demonstrable as those which are derived from calculation or experiment.
Unlike subsequent natural historians, Cuvier did not believe in the evolution of species. For him, any change in an organism's anatomy would make it unable to survive. To support his claim that organisms did not evolve, Cuvier demonstrated that mummified remains of animals brought back from Egypt were no different from their living counterparts. Each organism being a functional whole meant that any change in one part would destroy the delicate balance of nature. Each part of an organism, no matter how small, thus bore signs of the whole. And this made the reconstruction of organisms from fragmentary remains (using rational principles) entirely possible. Cuvier became famous for his ability to "assemble" organisms from fossilized fragments. Yet this ability was not immune from controversy, as "he based his reconstructions less on rational principles than on his deep knowledge of comparative anatomy of living organisms."

Section drawing of Soane's House and Museum at Lincoln's Inn Fields

Selections from Georges Cuvier's sketchbooks

Soane and Gandy: Functional Integration

Soane's House and Museum provides a suitable analog to Cuvier's mania for functional integration. If Cuvier is able to reconstruct whole biological specimens from few fragments, then what exactly does Soane "reconstruct" when assembling all the various fragments inside his home? Primary sources indicate that the seemingly disparate architectural and sculptural fragments throughout the house create, as the title of Soane's own 1827 book suggests, a Union of Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting. Soane's contemporary, the geographer John Britton, uses Soane's House and Museum as an example of such a union and states:
Archaeology is certainly most indispensably [sic] connected with [architecture], in order to familiarize the student with the models of antiquity, and to enable him to catch their spirit,and to emulate their principles of composition, whether generally, or with respect to details; and we may venture to affirm, that the more thoroughly the artists understands these, the less liable will he be to copy their beauties servilely, and to apply them indiscriminately; as he will at once be able to judge how far they ought to be modified, according to the peculiar circumstances of his own design.
Much like Baron Cuvier uses parts of animals to reconstruct the whole, Soane uses his collection of architectural fragments to create a cohesive historical narrative within the walls of his home. When viewed in relation to section, the various architectural and sculptural ephemera do suggest a narrative trajectory. Each floor of Lincoln’s Inn Fields forms a crucial part of this narrative. One author even suggests that:
[T]he narrative of the tripartite section is organized from the light and Apollo in the Dome above, to the characters occupying the middle strata of the Museum, and finally to the Crypt and mortality below. This backdrop is essential, recalling at once the cycle of the rise, meridian, and setting of the sun, an important allegory derived from classical mythology.
In conjunction with this tripartite structure, one must also keep in mind Chantrey’s bust of Soane, flanked by statuettes of Michelangelo and Raphael. Together, all elements combined suggest a true union of architecture, sculpture, and painting.


Cuvier, Comparison between Mammoth Jaw fossil and Indian Elephant Jaw (1798)

Cuvier's most important contribution to biology was the establishing of extinction as a verifiable fact. This was an important intellectual development, as Cuvier's predecessors "believed for centuries that fossils were the remains of once-living organisms". Fossils may have represented life forms that no longer existed: for example, the Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) (one of Cuvier’s direct predecessors), wrote that "We have monuments taken from the bosom of the Earth, especially from the bottom of coal and slate mines, that demonstrate to us that some of the fish and plants that these materials contain do not belong to species currently existing." Such views did not rest easily with scientists, who refused to believe in the systematic extinction of species, or that adhered to the belief that fossils were remains of living species. For example, “fossil mammoths found in Italy were interpreted as the remains of the elephants brought by Hannibal when he invaded Rome.” Others thought that the unusual organisms then known only as fossils must still survive in unexplored parts of the world – according to one source “no less a personage than Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, speculated that mammoths might yet be found living in the American wilderness.” Cuvier had plenty to say on this matter. In a lecture before the National Institute of Sciences and Arts in Paris in 1796, Cuvier states:
It is evident that one cannot say anything demonstrable about the problem before having resolved these preliminary questions, and yet we hardly possess the necessary information to solve some of them. The studies of elephant bones published up until now contain so little detail that even today a scientist cannot say whether they belong to one or another of our living species, and of the enormous quantity of fossil bones about which so many writers have spoken, we have good drawings of only two or three.
Cuvier went on to publish detailed studies proving that fossilized remains of African and Indian elephants were different from living elephant species, thus "proving" that the fossilized remains belonged to extinct animals. Using a similar analysis, Cuvier proved that the similar remains of other animals (the giant ground sloth, the Irish elk, the American mastodon, et cetera) were unrelated to living counterparts, and hence extinct.

For Soane, extinction was not necessarily a fact, but a definite possibility. Gandy's drawing of Soane's Bank of England in an "idyllic landscape" is a projective history that visualizes the Bank as an element of a ruined, extinct landscape. The idea of the destruction of the Bank is valuative: we look to the use of the term idyllic landscape to connote a Romantic ideal and perhaps even a connection to the notion of the picturesque. Thus one author considers Soane's House in relation to his Bank of England:
Soane's house-museum may also be read as an experiment in the picturesque on a microcosmic scale, further inspired by his memories of eighteenth-century Rome, and conceived of as a series of incremental ruined fragments within a precinct. This formal organization can be observed in both the plan of the Bank of England and in the poché plan of the Soane Museum, where discreet walled-in compounds relate to one another, displaying picturesque composition. The character of both plans suggest that they would look equally magnificent as ruins.
We also look to the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich for inspiration. Whereas Gandy's commissions depict very little human activity, Friedrich's paintings depict an individual lost in the cosmos. Such examples suggest a nod to Cuvier's theory of extinction. As Cuvier predicted that no new species would be discovered, Gandy's painting of the Bank of England suggests that no further life will spring from this so-called idyllic landscape.

Periodic Revolutions

How exactly did Cuvier account for extinction? He believed that the destruction of species was a result of periodic catastrophes (or "revolutions") that altered the Earth's shape and biomass. For him, these “revolutions” had not only natural causes, but presented a vital geological problem. Cuvier never associated periodic revolutions with events from the Bible. However, some later geologists, notably Rev. William Buckland in England, suggested that the most recent revolution was the Biblical Flood. This remained a popular hypothesis until Louis Agassiz (who had studied with Cuvier) showed that the "flood deposits" were actually formed by glaciers.

Joseph Michael Gandy, rendering for John Soanes's London Commissioners' Churches (1820s)

We again look to Gandy's drawings for some corroboration of these developments. In particular, his drawing of Soane's London Commissioners' Churches suggests a periodic revolution, or catastrophe, and its immediate aftermath. In the picture, one set of ruins is strewn about, while another set obviously resembles a plan. With the ruins at the far bottom left of the pictures suggest a catastrophic event, our eyes move along the bottom and to the right, and seeing how he ruins reconstitute themselves into a plan. And thus we let our gaze follow the telemetry of the cathedral-like spires as they literally ascend in a sidereal drift.


This post considered some of the work by Sir John Soane and Joseph Michael Gandy in relation to contemporary scientific developments. Three specific theories by the French natural historian Baron Georges Cuvier provided a basic intellectual framework from which the relationships between early 19th century English architecture and late Enlightenment science can be teased out. More specifically, Cuvier’s beliefs in functional integration, cataclysmic extinction, and periodic revolution are mirrored in Gandy’s renderings of Soane’s buildings. But the parallels between Cuvier, Soane and Gandy lead to further investigations. For example, Soane’s work may mark a transition between the exacting rationalization of late 18th century architecture and the picturesque romanticism of the 19 th century. Such a development can be inferred from contemporary science, as Cuvier’s theories marked an important transition from Enlightenment era natural history to the evolutionary biology and Darwinism in the mid-nineteenth century. There are many ways in which contemporary architecture and science partake in a unitary intellectual milieu, yet hopefully this post has demonstrated one of many possible ways to make such a connection.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

No Thugs in Our House

Cover to single version of XTC, "No Thugs in Our House" (Virgin UK, May 14, 1982) (Source: Chalkhills)

The song, from English band XTC's 1982 double album, English Settlement, reminds one of the ideological divides between "city" and "country". It is plausible that Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, et al., were familiar with critic Raymond Williams' The Country and the City (1975), but at least there seems to be a subtle, indelible thread connecting these works. Take, for instance, Williams' assertion that urban views on the pastoral, and that pastoral views on the urban both constitute a "problem of perspective" made manifest through English literature in the 19th century. Williams notes:
For it is a critical fact that in and through these transforming experiences English attitudes to the country, and to ideas of rural life, persisted with extraordinary power, so that even after the society was predominantly urban its literature, for a generation, was still predominantly rural; and even in the twentieth century, in an urban and industrial land, forms of the older ideas and experiences still remarkably persist. All this gives the English experience and interpretation of the country and the city a permanent though of course not exclusive importance. (1975:2)
The song "No Thugs in Our House" from English Settlement also aims at this essential paradox of views. The song opens with an acoustic-electric Kinks-inspired riff, snare drum bristling in the upper register. The brash, new wave, post-post skiffle rocker finally kicks in with two angular themes: the first, a series of modes played on an overdriven electric guitar periodically interrupted by a giant crash of cymbals; the second, singer Andy Partridge's prolonged, guttural scream hovering over the raucous noise.

The perfect English country estate, record label, XTC, "No Thugs in Our House" (Virgin UK, May 14, 1982) (Source: Chalkhills)

Is there is something incessantly urban, unabashedly "London" about the sound? Perhaps. Yet the song's lyrics reveal something that Williams himself may have been alluding to. The lyrics itemize the elements of a rural tragi-comedy: an unthinkable violent act, a controversial investigation, and a surprising suspect -- all having the combined effect of brining urbanism's malaise into the English countryside. In the song's opening verse, Partridge sings:
The insect-headed worker-wife will hang her waspies on the line.
The husband burns his paper, sucks his pipe while studying the kitchen-floor.
His viscous poly-paste breath comes out.
Their wall-paper world is shattered by his shout.
A boy in blue is busy banging out a headache on the kitchen floor.
The boy in blue is Graham, a prime suspect in a racially-related beating. In the ensuing investigation, no one seems to be able to make of Graham's peculiar habits, all signs that this rural boy is perfectly capable of carrying out an act thinkable only in the dank, dingy alleyways of a London borough. This, of course, surprises Graham's parents, especially after some major revelations about their son's past surface soon after his arrest:
They never read those pamphlets in his bottom drawer.
They never read that tattoo on his arm.
They thought that was just a boys' club badge he wore.
They never thought he'd do folks any harm.
It all ends with a remarkable miscarriage of justice. Graham escapes incarceration (his father is a magistrate), the peace in the country is maintained. The incident becomes a footnote in the county ledgers. As the lyrics tell, the remote, isolated countryside is indeed the world where Graham "could do just what he wanted to." In other words, total freedom leads to wanton violence.

"No Thugs in Our House" clocks in at a respectable 5'16, fading into the opening strains of "Yacht Dance", which is perhaps English Settlement's loveliest pastoral. Yet the UK single version of "No Thugs in Our House", released on May 14, 1982, features a packaging concept that toys with the urban/rural divide, that reminds us of Williams' observation at the beginning of this post. The single's cover art (and included printed matter) are compelling examples of how pop culture artifacts can operate as a formidable form of architectural representation and not-so-minor armchair culture criticism.

The single's front cover (see topmost image) evokes capital- "T" Theatre. It is an illustration of a gilded proscenium stage. The apron and wings are marked with a series of horizontal lines that suggest music staves. Everything is interspersed with random red squiggles. On the right and left wings, orphic lyrae sprout upwards and form a set of gaudy city street lights. A red damask curtain dangles precariously inside the proscenium arch. The curtain accentuates a series of gilded pierrot masks almost floating above the stage apron, also acting as a counterpoint to the apron bearing the sign "XTC Theatre". All of these suggests something incessantly urban -- street lights flank and frame the audience's nosebleed view to a performance.

Sleeve insert to single version of XTC, "No Thugs in Our House" (Virgin UK, May 14, 1982) (Source: Chalkhills)

The interior sleeve is the performance's own stage set. It is a sectional perspective of a two-story rural house. If one were to peer in through the stage, he or she would be immediately aware of a staggering difference in scale. The gas range, the kitchen table, cupboard are immense. But perhaps this scalar distortion reminds us of Williams' own views. The rural homestead literally becomes an object to be analyzed and dissected. The proscenium stage's maw becomes a lens through which the malaise of rural life can be properly diagnosed.

The interior, then, is basically a caricature of a proper English country residence. Everything is set for a nuclear family of three: three plates, three chairs, three kettles, three spoons, three coffee mugs. All the bric-a-brac of everyday English rural existence is rendered in a gaudy palette of near-primary colors. The table, rug, and chairs are all yellow. The stairs, a deep scarlet. The curtains are drawn in hues of royal azure. All in all, the bottom floor suggests the colors of the standard Union Flag: brilliant, pristine, impeccable.

Is is thus ironic that the very object that covers sleeping Graham in the dark, unlit upper storey is a Union Flag. The main protagonist of "No Thugs in Our House" is draped in the mantle of his nurturing homeland ... a system that allowed him to get away with a heinous offense. Graham sleeps soundly, his back turned to the theatre audience. We only see the top of his head, his amorphous body now becoming the only symbol of civil and political affiliation.

Paper cut-outs, XTC, "No Thugs in Our House" (Virgin UK, May 14, 1982) (Source: Chalkhills)

The other characters in "No Thugs in Our House" -- Graham's magistrate father and insect-headed mom, and a police investigator -- are drawn as paper cut-outs. They are hewn in various action poses. The cutouts contain several versions of Graham's father: sitting reading a paper and smoking a pipe; in a barrister's get-up; embracing his insect-headed wife. The mother, on the other hand, is shown in various poses connoting utter domesticity. Perhaps the insect head is entirely appropriate as it suggests an ant-drone-like existence, an unquestionable follower tangled in a skein of authority. The cerulean-uniformed, bobby-capped police investigator, on the other hand, is frozen in a typical pose: he raises his hand, forbidding someone from jaywalking, pointing at the aphoristic cat trapped in a tree. It is an image of sham authority. All are two-dimensional puppets in a theatre. Graham is literally above it all, oblivious, carefree, asleep.

To be sure, this is more than a suggestion of theatre. In 1982, a person could have walked into a record shop and purchased the single for "No Thugs in Our House." After a long bus ride, he or she would enter the bed room, undo the shrinnk wrapping, and play with figures of Graham's parents while listening to Andy Partridge's angry, Johnny Winter-esque screams. The ingenious packaging for the "No Thugs in Our House" single is invariably resonant. "XTC Theatre" is one of those rare devices that undergird Raymond Williams' observation, again from The Country and The City:
A critique of a whole dimension of modern life, and with it many necessary general questions, was expressed but also reduced to a convention, which took the form of a detailed version of a part-imagined, part-observed Rural England. It is a convention that has since held the shape of many lives. (1975:261)

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Gentle, Diversionary Rant

The visionary architect is as au courant as ever. Whether it is Cedric Price's Fun Palace, or similar works by Archizoom Associati, Constant, Superstudio, Groupe Utopie, UFO, Internationale Situationniste (insert 60s-era "visionary" here), such works are always deployed as evidence of utopian ideals. We admire this generation of architects precisely because of their unabashed ability to give a spatial language to these ideals. From Constant's tangled supraurban conurbations, to cities that are literally and figuratively mobile (ahem, that would be Archigram and Yona Friedman, respectively, of course), contemporary thinkers and critics deploy such work in near-excess, envisioning a realm where the design alternative was just that, a reaction to modernist orthodoxy, and where the idea of non-plan rules supreme.

Not that this is a bad idea. The issue of New Society bearing the imprimatur of non-plan, the 1969 folio co-edited by Reyner Banham, Peter Hall, and Paul Barker rightfully attacks the "perverse and often futile attempts to impose criteria of urban form and aesthetic design from above." As Barker recently recollected in the Simon Sadler-edited compendium of similar works, Non-Plan: Essays on Freedom, Pariticpation, and Change (2000):
So often, and this continues to be true, an urban plan was said to be fulfilled when it had only been completed. No one checked whether it did the job it set out to do. The same shortcoming pervades architecture: almost all interest ceases, among the professionals, once the building is built … The test of a house, after all, is not just its fitness for the purpose for which it was built, but its continued fitness and adaptability to the purposes that will come along down the years. You might call this the Non-Plan test.
This is an idea that has had very long legs. From Christopher Alexander's system-obsessed pattern languages, to Leon Krier's celebrations of medieval city forms, to Stewart Brand's understanding of buildings in terms of shearing layers, these ideas are forged from the impulse to bemoan buildings that do not adapt to their users' needs.

There are two aspects of such logic that should nevertheless inspire the student of architecture to protest. First of all is the casual manner in which thinkers dismiss certain buildings, describing them either as "failed" or "non-working". A favorite target is, of course, Paul Rudolph's signature piece, the ire-inducing Yale Art and Architecture Building. The criticisms are manifold: harsh, brush-hammered surfaces; labyrinthine circulation patterns; overpowering anchoring of the corner of York and Chapel Streets in New Haven; poor systems integration. As Brand and others suggest, such things are evidence of poor design. Rudolph's neo-Brutalist fantasy has indeed failed the "Non-Plan" test. (Not that anyone has ever documented the unusual and less-than-subtle ways in which the building actually works, or noted that it is obviously a building generated in section).

The way in which the Non-Plan alternative is absorbed into other disciplines informs the second aspect. In other words, the Fun Palaces, Spatial Cities, New Babylons, Plug-In Cities of architectural significance are cited as valiant examples on how to do things right. And such examples are used to inform arguments in other design professions, such as user experience, service design, and even industrial design. The best, most outspoken thinkers in this area continue to take solace in the work from the 60s. Their implication is that one can learn something from these collectives and that this something is, again, related to the idea of non-plan. Take, for instance, this excerpt on user experience from the popular website Speedbird:

Could it be that more headway will ultimately be made when designers conceive of desired experiences as overarching but essentially open narratives, into which individual consumers can insert or demount components at will?

In architecture, the idea of maintaining precise control over the specification of an infrastructural framework, while ceding control over local circumstances to the user, is one with a respectable pedigree, so much so that it has historically appeared in a variety of places, times and guises.

The “kit of parts” approach - in which theoretically endless cities are generated by plugging housing, recreation, and production modules into circulation networks, like the pieces of some gigantic children’s construction set - is most often associated with the delightfully high-flying British collective of the 1960s known as Archigram. Similar tendencies characterized the work of Archigram’s direct Japanese contemporaries, the Metabolists.

Other architects went further still. Constant Nieuwenhuis’ New Babylon, Yona Friedman’s Spatial City and Cedric Price’s Fun Palace all envisioned immense open bays in which finer-grained control of the environment was left to individuals, or small groups. Meanwhile, Reyner Banham and the other prophets of “non-plan” architecture proposed that all but the most vestigial urban planning be done away with, the better to allow a community to find its own most vibrant mode of spatial expression.

There will be a great deal that contemporary experience designers can take from these examples, especially their sense of the continual, shifting, delicate negotiations between the overall perception of an ecology, and how that perception is locally inflected by the input of participants.
This is a fine line of argumentation. Yet the wholesale embrace of non-plan is problematic in that it takes several things at face-value. On the one hand, there is an implicit suggestion that the Archigrams, Cedric Prices, and Constants of the world "got it right." Such views must be questioned, however. In other words, do the conditions of Barker's non-plan test have to be met? And if so, what are the stakes if such conditions are not met -- i.e. if the non-plan test fails? Does this constitute bad architecture? Poor design? Furthermore, the very architects that inspire the idea of non-plan (or user-experience, or service design), should be looked at with a more critical eye. Thus, the issue of whether the Archigram collective had a proper understanding of the systems and technologies they embraced has to be interrogated. What about Cedric Price? Did he truly understand his cybernetic forbearers? More importantly, did he want to understand them? Price's Fun Palace is to be venerated, yet hardly anyone questions whether it was a good idea, or for that matter, good design. The fact that it was a) attributed to Price; and b) flirting with newly-fangled ideas about technology is good enough to place it in the historical record. And that's good enough to place it in service of one's argument.

To be sure, architects, architecture historians and theorists are not immune from such woes. Like other pinnacles of 20th century cultural criticism, canonical works of architecture history and theory attempted to manage, interpret, and problematize the concurrent realms of architecture, science, and technology. In Technics and Civilization (1934), Lewis Mumford’s magisterial account of the industrialization of contemporary society, mechanization becomes the literal and figurative engine of urbanism. Siegfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command (1947) may be seen as the Swiss art historian’s major contribution (and addendum) to Mumford’s “technics.” However, it is in Space, Time and Architecture (1941) that the author tries to find a way to dovetail the “two cultures” of art and science. In that work, Giedion looks to contemporary physics as a way to legitimize the modern movement. He warps one of Hermann Minkowski’s famous epigrams, converting it to serve the purposes of modern architecture: “Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality." Giedion thus looks to the works of Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius, et al., as examples of a space-time architecture, a body of work that exemplifies the exciting advances in contemporary physics and demonstrates that aphoristic union of “thought” and “feeling." Giedion, however, was no physicist. While trying to embody the same synthesis of art and science in his Einstein Tower, architect Erich Mendelsohn refuted Giedion’s assertions as “pure fantasy.” In a reply letter to Mendelssohn, Albert Einstein himself dismisses Giedion’s urgings:
Dear Mr. Mendelsohn,
The passage you sent me from the book Space, Time and Architecture has
inspired the following reply:
It's never hard some new thought to declare
If any nonsense one will dare
But rarely do you find that novel babble
Is at the same time reasonable
Cordially yours,
Albert Einstein
P.S. It is simply bull without any rational basis.
["Nicht schwer ist es Neues auszusagen/Wenn jeden Blödsinn man will wagen/ Doch selt'ner füget sich dabei/Dass Neues auch vernünftig sei!" Translation and quotation from Wolf von Eckardt, Eric Mendelsohn (New York, 1960)]
If anything, the following exchange describes the absolute bifurcation between the “two cultures.” It is not simply a case of architects not knowing anything about science or vice versa. Rather, Einstein’s and Mendelsohn’s exchange illustrate the difficulty of finding a legitimate junction between two streams of cultural expression. If Giedion was indeed writing about physics, this does not necessarily mean that architects were influenced by physics.

This problem is not necessarily specific to the 1940s. In his contribution to The Presence of Mies (Princeton University Press, 1994), the Detlef Mertins-edited collection of essays concerning Mies van der Rohe’s Toronto Dominion Center, architecture theorist Sanford Kwinter invokes contemporary developments in organic chemistry to analyze Mies’ work. Beginning with diagrams of benzene rings, Kwinter tells us:
What I will do is suggest three new pathways – all of which certainly seem spurious at first – three historical developments of significant morphological consequence, whose sphere of effects are inseparable from the technical milieu out of which Mies’ own astonishing and deceptively elementary spatial lexicon arose.

I will deal schematically with three areas of modernist scientific and technological development: one, Adolf Hitler’s Autobahn program and other, secondary forms of rationalization of movement such as are found in Rudolf von Laban’s system of dance notation; two, the question of organic synthesis in the German pre-war chemical and pharmaceutical industries; and three, the discovery of certain new structures – mesoforms and other intermediate states of matter – in the theoretical biology of the 1920s and 1930s.
It is tall order indeed. A piece of criticism that spans intellectual and professional divides with eloquent largesse. And even more recently, Kwinter suggests that some of Jesse Reiser's and Nanako Umemoto's recent works, documented in the well-received Atlas of Novel Tectonics (2005), were inspired by the accidental invention of nitrocellulose, a type of ballistic propellant otherwise known as guncotton. Provocative? Yes. Meaningful? Sure, but it does not sit easy with those of us who are looking for some disciplinary rigor.

To say that this is an intractable problem that is far from being resolved is obvious. To say that writers and critics should exercise more rigor is also obvious. Borrowing from other professions in service of one's own argument has benefits. It at least adds depth to one's argument, and as the above-mentioned work shows, it makes for some very compelling and challenging reading (which is a great thing). But is there a standard that should be employed that prevents a design writer from mere name-checking? Proper citation formats in academia are one such device. But what about decidedly non-academic work? What about work that is aimed at larger audiences?

We can look to Kieran Long for some guidance. In his critique of Monocle's inaugural issues, Long properly harangues the magazine's seemingly mindless aesthetic. In his glib summary of Monocle's feature on the Japanese Navy, Long notes:
The cover feature on the Japanese navy begins with an inventory of military hardware straight out of Tom Wolfe or American Psycho: “Harpoon missile tubes and anti-submarine rockets… a missile-destroying Phalanx Close-In weapon system sits at its stern.” By the fourth page of the interview we are introduced to Akira Miyaji, the “sprightly” 81-year-old tailor to the Japanese armed forces. “In winter the dress uniform is black – a golden cherry blossom on the sleeve,” says the writer. There is no hierarchy between these observations. It is all just aesthetics.
Perhaps that is what those people who cull from other disciplines should avoid: aesthetics and "deep superficiality." And how does this translate into a more-than-cursory look at who said what, where and why? Those cited above use their sources in service of an operative strategy ... and that is indeed something to aspire to.

To circle back to the beginning of this essay, there is indeed something to take from the Archigrams and Paul Barkers of the world. Perhaps design writing should be subjected to its own form of the non-plan test. Perhaps one measure of design writing should be "continued fitness and adaptability to the purposes that will come along down the years." Not only would such a standard invite using interdisciplinary methods, but it would ensure that the end result is sound. That's the least we can do.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

De Brandgrens Van Rotterdam/Bombardment Periphery

West 8, Embedded LED system, Rotterdam Brandgrens, 2007 (Source: West 8)

These two terms are interesting if only for their subtle differences. The first, literally, The Rotterdam Fire Limits, evokes the idea of a boundary. Indeed, this project by the Dutch landscape and urban design collective West 8 literally inscribes the limits of the destruction of Rotterdam by Luftwaffe bombers on May 14, 1940. Along the dense urban fabric of the city, famously rebuilt after the disaster, a series of solar-powered LED's mark the true fire limits. According to West 8's website,
An iconic image of a flame is incorporated in circular light objects on the ground and in several information stations, that together form the marking. The image of the flame shows a visual connection with Zadkine's statue commemorating the bombing of Rotterdam. The light objects come to life at night when the solar-powered LEDs illuminate the icon. This physical marking of the fire limits is coupled with information about the historic meaning of the bombing, accessible through the information stations and a website.
The effect is to be experienced at two seemingly disparate scales: the intensely local, and the metropolitan. A person walking through the streets of Rotterdam would not doubt run across these lights.

West 8, Embedded LED system, Rotterdam Brandgrens, 2007 (Source: West 8)

He or she would experience the fire limit at its smallest, and most personal scale. For there, by that store, along that bike path, a fire burned and went no farther. There, a string of lights delimit two opposing zones: in the interior, the frightful pentecost of May 14; on the other, refuge. Thus, when viewed in plan, the array of lights give a sense of the scale of absolute destruction experienced that night.

West 8, Rotterdam Brandgrens, Plan, 2007 (Source: West 8)

But at that scale, the sense of abstraction does not carry the same weight as actually stumbling into the embedded LED's

Perhaps, then, what is so compelling about Mothership's installation, entitled The Bombardment Periphery, is that it allows people to experience such weight, but at the metropolitan scale. On the evening on May 14, 2007, the Dutch design collective pointed 128 light fixtures, each rated at about 7000 watts (and curiously referred to as "Spacecannons"), into a low, gray, cloudy sky between 10:45pm and 2:00am.

Mothership, Bombardment Periphery, 2007 (Source: Mothership)

To a certain extent, the columns of ethereal light reaching vertically into the clouds are reminiscent of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer's eerie Speer-esque light cathedrals. But, as the photographs and film show, the installation has an incomparable effect of allowing the extent of destruction to be seen from a variety of vantage points on the ground.

It is as if an image of Rotterdam, circa 1940, is reflected in the phantom layers above. The two cities, one a fiery maw, the other, a symbol of Europe rebuilt, are connected by columns of light. Light literally tracing the bombs that fell on May 14, 1940.

Friday, July 13, 2007

101 Architects Directory

In an effort to connect this website with more contemporary facets of design and architecture culture:

Wallpaper*, the international design, fashion and lifestyle magazine, is unveiling this year’s 101 best young architecture practices in a new online directory. The Architects Directory features Wallpaper’s favourite emerging practices and studios, including the world’s most exciting new talents.

As one of the most respected magazines in the architectural world, Wallpaper’s Architects Directory will be a trusted resource; and it will be searchable, allowing visitors to pinpoint practices and studios by location. Tony Chambers, Wallpaper* editor-in-chief, says: “Wallpaper* and its readers are passionate about architecture so launching this directory makes perfect sense. Wallpaper* cast its critical net across the globe to compile this directory of the best young architecture practices, which I’m delighted will be available to readers whenever they need it on” Andrew Black, Wallpaper* Publishing Director, adds: “ continues to grow and move from strength to strength. It is now an integral part of our business plan and our brand. It has become an increasingly important vehicle for our advertisers as well, and exciting developments such as the Architects directory are very important for them.”