Friday, December 26, 2008

Boundary Layers


"
Diagram Illustrating the Principle of Streamlining", from Norman Bel Geddes' Horizons: A Glimpse into the Not Far-Distant Future (1932)


Like "Form", "Surface" can be an overused and under-theorized term. Contemporary architectural discourse sometimes deploys these two terms as straw men, indicators of what is right or wrong with Architecture. Whereas some critics decry pure architectural formalism as a vapid endeavor, others see a return to formalism as a way to reclaim intellectual ground for the discipline. The same could be said about issues of surface, often grouped under the idea of "affect." Yet authors like David Leatherbarrow and Mohsen Mostafavi have theorized the surface as a site of contestation between structure and skin, eventually reclaiming elements of the architectural surface - facade, cladding, etc - as proper subjects of architectural inquiry.

The trend continues. Log 13/14, a special double issue that looks at the architectural and historical legacies of May 1968, ends with a curious article by Alejandro Zaera Polo, principal of Foreign Office Architects. I say "curious", only because the article is almost devoid of any direct reference to 1968. Zaera Polo's charge is therefore to locate architecture's locus of political action in the envelope. The envelope, however, is conceptually different from the surface. Zaera Polo writes:
The envelope exceeds the surface by incorporating a much broader set of attachments. It includes the crust of space affected by the scale and physical dimension of the space contained ... It also involves the space that surrounds the object ... The envelope has the capacity to represent the ancient political role that articulates the relationships between humans and nonhumans in a common world. The envelope is the surface and its attachments [1]
And although Zaera Polo claims that there is no "unitary theory" of the envelope, the above definition seems to ring a familiar bell.

In 1934, American designer Norman Bel Geddes tackled the subject of aerodynamics in "Streamlining", an article for the November issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Bel Geddes' task was to educate laypeople on the scientific underpinnings of aerodynamic theory. Ely Jacques Kahn, one of the 20th century's most prominent skyscraper architects said it best in a letter to Bel Geddes after the publication of "Streamlining". Kahn writes:
As so you aptly put it, stream lining has, unfortunately, become as much of a fetish as functionailism, and we have streamlined ash cans and breakfast food. Perhaps if we know more of the scientific angle, we may be less inclined to so stupid things with design. [2]
The "scientific angle" Kahn is referring to is the boundary layer theorem by German aerodynamics theorist Ludwig Prandtl. In a 1904 paper entitled "Über Flüssigkeitsbewegung bei sehr kleiner Reibung" ("On the Motion of Fluids with Very Little Friction"), Prandtl theorized that the effects of friction occur near, not on the surface of a body traveling through the air.[3] This friction causes the air immediately adjacent to the surface to "stick" to the surface, thus creating a "boundary layer" between the surface and the moving air. Bel Geddes provided a much more reductive reading of Prandtl's theories, writing:
At the beginning of the twentieth century Ludwig Prandtl assumed that all air forces resisting the motion of a body could be considered as acting within the boundary layer. The boundary layer is a layer of air which, because of the air's viscosity, tends to cling to the surface of a body. Its thickness varies with the size of the body - from one tenth of an inch in a two foot body to about twelve inches in a body several hundred feet long [...] In general it might be said that the boundary layer is kept in contact with the entire surface, the body is streamlined ... a condition easier to state than to fulfill [...] Because theory is incomplete, all practical advance in streamlining has had to be empirical and the aeronautical engineer has led the parade. [4]
Alhough Bel Geddes' research failed to mention subsequent advances in boundary layer theory, his statement nevertheless remains an important statement on the application of a complex scientific principle aimed at laypersons and design professionals.

Bel Geddes' "Streamlining" piece is interesting as it shows a designer that is spearheading an effort to give a design trend its proper intellectual context. Similar efforts in the future would not fare as well in the scientific community. A notable example would be Sigfried Giedion's use of "space-time", which Albert Einstein would mock in a letter to Erich Mendelsohn. Anticipating this kind of interaction between design and scientific culture, Bel Geddes kept open communications with the scientific establishment while researching his article for The Atlantic Monthly. He also sent reprints to scientists around the world and received general accolades for the treatment of this subject.

But what is more interesting is how the boundary layer theory anticipates Zaera Polo's statements from Log 13/14. Although Prandtl theorized the boundary layer, Bel Geddes located it within design culture -- and this is an important impulse, for there are important physical and conceptual similarities between Bel Geddes' evocation of the boundary layer and Zaera Polo's musings on the "envelope."

For starters, an envelope can be thought of a version of the boundary layer, one that substitutes the architectural object for the aerodynamic object. Zaera Polo, for example, alludes to an adjacent space that forms an important part of the envelope, an impulse that implies a type or architectural boundary layer. And if the boundary layer is the true locus of friction, then similarly, the envelope becomes the true locus of the "friction" of architectural discourse.

And if we take this correlation between aerodynamic theory and contemporary architecture discourse as true, then we are poised to provide a "yes, but" to Reyner Banham's charge from "The Machine Aesthetic" (1955) labeling early infatuations with aerodynamic forms by Le Corbusier, Gropius, and Mendelsohn as an "anti-Purist but eye-catching vocabulary of design" [5] -- in other words, a vapid formalism. The lesson to be gleaned from Bel Geddes' article also anticipates another important implication of Zaera Polo's theory of the envelope -- the advocacy of formalism can be a political act, but it must be an informed political act.

[1] Alejandro Zaera Polo, "The Politics of the Envelope" Log 13/14 (Fall 2008), 195.
[2] Ely Jacques Kahn to Norman Bel Geddes, November 28, 1934, Norman Bel Geddes Theater and Industrial Design Papers 1873-1964, Job 937 (926), T Box 174, WA-14a, Harry Ransom Center for the Humanities, University of Texas at Austin.
[3] See John D. Anderson, Jr., "Ludwig Prandtl's Boundary Layer", Physics Today (Dec., 2005), 42-48.
[4] Norman Bel Geddes, "Streamlining", The Atlantic Monthly (Nov., 1934), 154-5.
[5] Reyner Banham, "The Machine Aesthetic", The Architectural Review, Vol. 447, No. 700 (Apr., 1955), 228.

2009 Predictions

Orhan's conversant hands of time (Source)

Archinect has just posted 2009 Predictions, a list of prognostications, visions, opinions offered by 20 members of the Archinect community. In my opinion, this is Archinect's best collaborative feature to date. You will no doubt recognize many of the names: Fred, Bryan, Mimi, Javier, Kazys, Dan, et al.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Seasons Greetings




Just a quick note to thank all of you for stopping by and for making this site such a fun endeavor. New things are in store for 2009, so please stay tuned.

Season's Greetings, and a (Very) Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Messy, Material City

More Recent (i.e. 20th c.) Postmarks and Sundry Cachets of Paris' Pneumatic Post (Source)

No matter what kind of stuff you may encounter in the internets out there, musings about the city dematerialized, ambient informatics, RFID fetishes, and other forms of au courant buzzwordiness, it is always refreshing to read about the physicality of cities. At activesocialplastic, for example, Molly gives us a brief glimpse at her research concerning postal services and pneumatic tubes in 19th century Paris. In considering these ur-forms of communications conveyancing, Molly writes:
I'm reading these services in terms of their urban interfaces, their material qualities and the interest in the 1870s-1890s of physical networks across cities. Paris is interesting because of an explosion of postal and telegraph products and services, the response to the siege of the city (Balloon Post!), and the shift from electric to material form to someone's doorstep in terms of message delivery. The Hôtel des Postes fascinates because of its ingenious interfaces within the building and its processing capability; the pneumatic tubes are fascinating because they make manifest the force of air and use it to literally propel information across a building or a city.
And over at 765, Fred provides us with an eloquent post that peels back the historical and material layers in South Baltimore's Masonville Cove. Fred blends artifacts, historical materials, and even his own fieldwork to provide a succinct history of a city's changing morphologies. In describing Masonville Cove, he writes:
Between the double pressures of development and industry, this much feral openspace on the waterfront is an anomaly, even for the spottily derelict Middle Branch. It is heavily vegetated, but walking the site, feeling the mossy bricks, ceramic powerline insulators and huge concrete blocks underfoot, one sees that this is really just a big pile, a ground made of stuff. The plants, in some cases huge trees and dense woods, are only the most recent (now the second most recent) system to infiltrate, overlay, and, however incompletely, organize this space.
It is interesting to note how these two posts help us defamiliarize our own understanding of cities. Whereas Molly's urban/communications archaeologies ask us to revisit the unrelenting physicality and organizational potential of communications networks and buildings in th 19th century France, Fred's approach is more akin to William Cronon's ecological studies of New England and Chicago. In short, both make for some very compelling reading.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Housekeeping Note


Just wanted to remind everyone that although I post longer pieces on this website, my tumblr site has other offerings as well.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What's That Sound? It's Centrifugal Space!

Wir fahr'n, fahr'n, fahr'n auf der Autobahn .....

I'm not one to shy away from excursions into music, especially if such junkets have something to do with natural and built environments. A long-overdue search of my music libraries thus turned up some real gems. These songs do not necessarily evoke ideas of space and landscape, but when seen in a music video format, they seem to privilege the importance of landscapes and technology. Perhaps, then, we can imagine an umpteenth edition of Leo Marx's The Machine in The Garden (1964), one that projects into the 20th and 21st centuries. I would imagine that chapters on the 20th century would include additional representations of "middle landscapes" in newer media such as film and phonograph. I would also imagine how towards the end of a chapter on the 20th century, some mention would have to be made about music videos.

During the early days of MTV, critics noticed how the music video became an interesting tangle of art and economics. Not only did it allow other parties (i.e. music video directors and actors) to participate in royalty sharing, but provided another platform for record companies to promote artists. Music and media historian Will Straw has even noted how music videos allowed product to reach audiences with unprecedented speed. He writes:
One of MTV's most significant innovations was the institutionalisation within North America of an equivalent to national network radio. It was not so much the reach of MTV which was important in this respect as the simultaneity of that reach, and subsequent direct measurable impact on sales. While the aggregate audience of the major FM rock stations in the USA was likely greater than that for MTV, playlist adoption of a new record by these stations was likely to be staggered and uneven, while exposure on MTV was immediately nationwide. Both MTV and dance clubs preceded radio in their adoption of new records for playlists; the difference between them, obviously, lay in the fact that dance clubs were for the most part inner urban phenomena, while MTV reached suburban and small-town areas. The impact of MTV should be seen as resulting, not simply from the specific repertory which dominated its playlists at the beginning, but from the extent to which, in conjunction with a resurgent Top Forty radio, it increased the velocity of consumption. [1]
The use of the term "velocity" suggests a way to conceive of the music video as an instrument of conveyance. As Straw suggests, MTV assured the quick delivery of music product to the suburbs: a new collapsing of space and time brought about by the introduction of a new music format.

And what does all this talk of speed and media have to do with built and natural environments? We can begin with a quote from film scholar Edward Dimendberg. In "The Will to Motorization: Cinema, Highways, and Modernity" (1995), Dimendberg considers the depiction of highways in three different films. For him, the highway is the ultimate exemplar of "centrifugal space":
Irreducible to specific urban forms or demographic trends such as suburbanization, centrifugal space initiates novel perceptual and behavioral practices -- new experiences of time, speed, and distance -- no less than new features of the everyday landscape. While the broad transformation in cities that arose after 1929 have been widely noted, corresponding changes in spatial perception have received far less attention, as has the role of cinema in the promulgation of this new geography.
Characteristics of centrifugal space include the decreased significance of metropolitan density and agglomeration and their replacement by dispersed settlements and a shift from urban verticality to the horizontal sprawl of suburbs and larger territorial units. But one might also discern centrifugal space in the redeployment of surveillance mechanisms away from the the body of city dwellers toward the automobile, the proliferation of electronic media, and the collection of traffic statistics as a strategy of control [2].
One of the films that Dimendberg considers as a pivotal moment "in the history of encounters between highways and the cinema" [3] is Hartmut Bitomsky's 1986 film Reichsautobahn. The film, a "juxtaposition of excerpts from Autobahn film footage, photographs and paintings from the 1930s, and the director's voice-over narration" creates "new modes of perception and representation" [4].

If we understand these cinematic images of highways and other forms of conveyance infrastructures as representations of centrifugal space, this begs another question: what does this space sound like? It is an odd question, to be sure -- it not only assumes that centrifugal space is a technologically-mediated space, but also suggests that such a space has created its own record of representations. In fact, we could then consider the music video as a later representation of centrifugal space, a media format that attempts to combine the sounds and images in new and different ways. The music video would then be considered in terms of how it depicts space and velocity ... and the latter is not necessarily related to the idea of tempo. I am talking more about how music and images can represent speed.


Kraftwerk, "Trans-Europe Express" (1977)

Kraftwerk's video output is a good place to examining these new ideas of spatial and sonic velocity. Earlier albums, like 1974's Autobahn, features the band using electronic instruments to duplicate the sounds of cars as well as the doppler shifts of objects heard through an automobile driving in the landscape. Yet a video for the title track of Trans-Europe Express (1977) suggests what Wolfgang Schivelbusch calls "the industrialization and perception of time and space". Here, the band is seen as traveling inside Franz Kruckenberg's Schienenzeppelin (Rail Zeppelin), an experimental railway carriage powered by a massive aircraft engine in the rear.

The Rail Zeppelin (Source)

The video is organized into three general types of footage: shots of the band inside the passenger compartment; shots of the Schienenzeppelin model traveling through various miniature cities and landscapes; and finally "railroad engine point-of-view" shots showing railroad tracks stretching into infinity. Though the footage seems patinaed, it is choreographed to match the engine-like report of Kraftwerk's electronic drums.



Kraftwerk, "Tour De France" (1983)

Although the band's 1983 video for "Tour De France" shows highways instead of railway tracks, the object of focus is the bicycle. Here, the band (deploying a much more digitized and abstracted sound) is shown riding bicycles on a road in a generic European landscape. The fluid, repetitive motions of the cyclists replace the relentless, mechanized motions of engine gears from "Trans Europe Express". And though there seems to be a distinct separation of image of sound, the video of the 2003 remix of this song elides this distinction. Colorful arrows and typographics suggest how both the bicycles' motions as well as the song's actual lyrics are inscribed across the European landscape.


Kraftwerk, "Tour De France" (2003)

The centrifugal spaces in these music videos certainly demonstrate new vistas in time, space, image, and sound. They depict similar ideas of speed as Straw's and Dimendberg's. The music videos, as part of MTV programming, exemplify the notion that the music video travels fast in time and in space, and that it is consumed very quickly. The images in the music videos are also decidedly non-urban, portraying trains and bicycles conquering the isotropic spaces outside the city.

As the videos become much more sophisticated, however, the experience of the centrifugal space seems to fall by the wayside. The viewer is distracted by the images of the band traveling in the landscape, yet one wonders if centrifugal spaces create their own sense of monotony. Is it possible, while traveling through roads and railroads, that everything starts to look the same? What type of distraction does centrifugal space necessitate?



The Style Council, "My Ever Changing Moods" (1984)

A corrective to Kraftwerk's "Tour De France" video would be The Style Council's "My Ever Changing Moods" (1984). In the video for this song, bandmembers Paul Weller and Mick Talbot are shown racing bicycles on a tree-flanked road. And unlike in "Tour De France", the cycling here is totally manufactured: there are moments where it becomes obvious that Weller's and Talbot's bikes are being towed behind a car. As such, it parodies the seamless integrations of sight and sound in "Tour De France". Weller and Talbot are not really riding bikes, and they are lip-synching to their own music. And watch their eyes: evidence of many activities other than the business of cycling.

[1] Will Straw, "Music Videos in Its Contexts: Popular Music and Post-Modernism in the 1980s", Popular Music, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Oct., 1988), p. 251.

[2] Edward Dimendberg, "The Will to Motorization: Cinema, Highways, and Modernity", October, Vol. 73 (Summer, 1995), p. 92.

[3] Ibid., p. 93.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Grand Tour

I now have an advance copy of Perspecta 41: Grand Tour. Perspecta, of course, is the oldest student-run architecture journal. It has been the proving ground for many seminal and controversial essays in architecture criticism, such as Robert Venturi's "Complexity and Contradiction", Eisenman's essays on Giuseppe Terragni, and many, many more.

Perspecta 41's theme is travel. And "travel" here is broadly defined. As the MIT press website tells us:
The Grand Tour was once the culmination of an architect's education. As a journey to the cultural sites of Europe, the Tour's agenda was clearly defined: to study ancient monuments in order to reproduce them at home. Architects returned from their Grand Tours with rolls of measured drawings and less tangible spoils: patronage, commissions, and cultural cachet. Although no longer carried out under the same name, the practices inscribed by the Grand Tour have continued relevance for contemporary architects. This edition of Perspecta—the oldest and most distinguished student-edited architectural journal in America—uses the Grand Tour, broadly conceived, as a model for understanding the history, current incarnation, and future of architectural travel.

Perspecta 41 asks: where do we go, how do we record what we see, what do we bring back, and how does it change us.
This current issue of Perspecta (designed by Rachel Berger and Lan Lan Liu) is printed with a high-visibility red cover. Each cover features a a different souvenir postcard, overprinted with the issue name. Contributors include Yuichi Yokoyama, Michael Meredith, Gillian Darley, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, Brook Denison, Helen Dorey, Dietrich Neumann ... and be sure to check out contributions by fellow geeks AUDC, Sam Jacob, and Matthew Coolidge. Ljiljana Blagojevic's essay on wartime Belgrade is also quite good.

I also have a piece in Perspecta 41, called "Erich Mendelsohn at War".

So thanks to Gaby, Rustam, and Thom for a great issue.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Of Satelloons and Pavilions

EAT's Pepsi Pavilion (1970) (Source: greg.org)

Architecture historian and critic Sylvia Lavin gave an impromptu lunchtime lecture today on EAT's Pepsi Pavilion. Built from a retrofitted geodesic dome for the 1970 Osaka Expo, and filled with a spherically-shaped reflective mylar interior, EAT's pavilion is normally understood as a media experiment. Its various interactive devices, displays, atmospheric effects made the pavilion as something to be considered by art and media historians, but not by architecture historians.

This presented a problem for Lavin, who used the case of the Pepsi Pavilion to make a greater case about the objects of architecture history. After all, EAT's project had some formidable art and architectural pedigree: principal Billy Klüver not only worked on Andy Warhol's mylar balloons, but EAT member John Pierce designed the interiors for Paul Rudolph's apartment. Thus the Pepsi Pavilion stands as an example of an object that is not canonical, that orbits in the periphery of architectural discourses, and that must be read against the grain of architecture history. Lavin reformulated the idea of center versus periphery in terms of psychoanalysis versus detective work: whereas the former finds the hidden, the latter looks for the hiding. In other words, the Pepsi Pavilion is hiding.

Testing of EAT's Mylar Sphere (1970) (Source: Media Art Net)

Engineers deployed a full-scale model of EAT's spherical mylar interior in a Marine Corps hangar in 1970 (above). The sphere subsequently tore and deflated. Yet EAT's test mylar sphere nevertheless becomes a provocative object in itself.

Echo Satelloon (Source: National Air and Space Museum)

The sphere recalls NASA's Echo Satelloons, a series of spherical balloons conceived as a part of a passive satellite system. Microwave signals beamed from the ground are aimed at the Satelloon, and bounce back to Earth. The first Echo satelloon perished in a launch second, and the second was eventually launched and tested in 1964 (above).

Thinking about the similarities between EAT's mylar test sphere and the Echo Satelloons complicates Lavin's assertions on slightly. The connection between the two objects is, however, well-known. EAT principal Billy Klüver worked for Bell Labs, which was involved in the testing and design of the Echo satelloons. However, if we are follow Lavin's remarks and think of EAT's Pepsi Pavilion as an object in hiding, how interesting that, technologically-speaking, the Pavilion is a version of a broadcasting device. Think of it as an object in hiding conceived as an object for connecting millions of people. A very public thing becomes a rather private thing.

Well ....

It is if we stick to the idea that it is only architecture historians that consider the Pepsi Pavilion as an object in hiding. But perhaps the psychoanalyst-versus-detective paradigm forsakes the object by focusing too much on the process of interpretation. Perhaps then the role of the historian might be not to distinguish on the act of uncovering and detecting, but rather to test an object's own probative value. This means that an object operating outside the periphery of architectural discourse -- something like EAT's Pepsi Pavilion -- will likely prove a historian's assertion or allegation and lead to evidence that validates the historian's hunch. It probably involves a leap of faith, but as EAT's Pepsi Pavilion demonstrates, the move to include such an object within the normative realm of architecture discourse usually rests on a very, very well-founded assertion. It is too much to assume that such a model may undo the idea of center and periphery .... and perhaps this is restating the obvious, but it is at least a starting point.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Sound and Vision: A (Very Brief) Introduction to Norman McLaren's Films


Norman McLaren, Neighbours (1952)

The films of Canadian director Norman McLaren (1914-1987) are short, brimming with color, and marked by the occasional use of a camera. The Scottish-born, Canadian-raised auteur is typically considered an animator. But like Stan Brakhage, McLaren uses film as a literal medium; that is to say, in lieu of portraying a photographic subject in motion (which he does resort to in some films), he often chooses to use the film emulsions as his own canvas. The result are often thrilling, as in films like Boogie Doodle (1940), where amoebic forms perform a sprightly dance across the screen:



Boogie Doodle (1940) (feat. soundtrack by Albert Ammons)

McLaren's film, for all their playfulness and visual invention, only look easy. They are the product of an exacting methodology. A good example is McLaren's most famous film, Neighbours (1952) (see embed at top of this post). The film's concept seems simple: two men, the titular neighbors, sit on their respective sides of a fence and read newspapers. This image of peace disintegrates into a protracted melée. However, the two actors are filmed as still objects -- McLaren captures their movement as a slow-motion animation. When Neighbours unspools at a frame rate of 24fps, the action depicted on the screen and the action while filming (i.e. that occurring during the process of filming) are elided. This is another confirmation of the idea that, for all of Neighbour's herky-jerkiness, the film's grand conceit is to portray stillness as motion.



Don Peters and Lorne Batchelor, Pen Point Percussion (1951)

McLaren's most interesting innovation, in my opinion, is his use of a motion picture projector as a musical instrument. Like his temporal disruptions in Neighbours, McLaren's manipulation of 32- and 16mm film optical and soundtracks are the product of a careful calculation. In Pen Point Percussion (1951), directors Don Peters and Lorne Batchelor show McLaren at work, using film as a type of music recording device. Using various brushes and black ink, McLaren paints a series of lines and blotches on the film soundtrack. When the film is run through a projector, the trackheads register the lines and blotches as noise. With prescribed film rate, as well as with a measured use of different types of brushstrokes and lines, not only is McLaren able to calculate the pitch and speed of the various tones, but he can also "choreograph" them so that they correspond to the images on the film's optical track. This results of this work is visible in Neighbours as well as in Rhythmetic (1956), a film in which a simple mathematical equation seems to dance before our eyes.



Rhythmetic (1956)

A first glance at McLaren's films suggest an element of synesthesia - sound could very well be mistaken for image and vice versa. But McLaren seemed to be aiming for something else, a type of experience hovering somewhere between image and sound. For a lecture at the 1961 Vancouver Film Festival, McLaren introduced Rhytmetic with a simple diagram depicting the "three main categories of the visual world":

McLaren's Diagram from the 1961 Vancouver Film Festival (Source: Film Quarterly)


Between the realm of "pure forms" and "symbols" is a small sun-like drawing. Labled as a "different kind of association entirely-images", the diagram shows light propagating from a singular source, most likely a camera projector. This diagram thus suggests how the camera projector is the primary mediator of this new "different kind" of experience.

Another of McLaren's Diagrams from the 1961 Vancouver Film Festival (Source: Film Quarterly)

For his lecture, the director also showed a small diagram (above) that, much like Pen Point Percussion, illustrates his soundtracking methodology and confirms his cinematic worldview. Here, a series of lines show how scratches on leader tape can be drawn in order to generate sound. But in this context, they are presented instructionally, as if McLaren was reducing his method to a series of inscriptions and heuristics. The diagram suggests a notational method that compliments (and in some cases, anticipates) the later work of composers like Krzysztof Penderecki, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and Anthony Braxton. The sheer output and educational themes of much of his work also anticipates the films of Charles and Ray Eames. The main difference is that McLaren never considered himself anything but a filmmaker. The creation of sounds was just a necessary part of image-making.

McLaren making sounds on a Moviola (Source: Film Quarterly)

Thursday, October 09, 2008

From Hegel to Lessing

Imagine a graph. This graph traces the historical trajectory of a particular art form. The y-axis could be a measure of something arbitrary, something like height, weight, volume, square footage, page length .... the list can go on for ever. The x-axis is time. And somewhere at the top right-hand corner of this matrix, the trajectory plateaus. It ceases to oscillate up and down. It just continues to move forward with no qualitative change.

This is an overtly simplistic historical model, a thumbnail sketch of a thumbnail sketch. It does, however, begin to capture a controversial and provocative idea brought to light in G.W.F. Hegel's Lectures on Aesthetics (1832): that art has reached its end. Hegel's so-called "End of Art" thesis does not postulate an end to the making of art, but it does suggest that art has ceased to develop. The reason for this is complicated. It is related to Hegel's idea that as art develops from material to conceptual manifestations, it grows and declines. Like the graph mentioned above, it captures the idea that art not only has a history, but it is part of a historical process.

Modern architecture has often been cast as a strawman, a volitional agent that erased all sense of historical development of the art form. It was Norman Mailer, of all people, who cast the problem in such terms for a 1964 issue of The Architecture Forum. It is an idea that still resonates. Historian Mark Jarzombek problematizes this view in a 2007 article for Footprint, where he subjects architecture's modernity to a Hegelian crucible. Jarzombek writes:
Architecture begins its life as a modern philosophical project by a series of alienations and forced detachments from its presumptive disciplinary realities, realities that have enclosed and trapped it, according to Hegel, in the narrow discourse of scholarship and ideology. Though freed to engage the philosophical, architecture is denied an ongoing role in the advancement of metaphysics, has its origins in a competing artistic medium, has a philosophical history that is not related to its empirical history, and, finally, becomes architecture at the very moment it becomes no longer relevant in the dialectic of History, namely in the shift from work to miracle. In other words, Hegel makes architecture into something one can call "not-architecture": not a real building, but an "enclosure", not an ancient building, but a "sculpture"; not a free standing production, but the appearance of one, and not a miracle of representation, but a labour that ends in a mere simulacrum (2007:35).
Though Jarzombek readily admits that his statements are about "architecture in general", much remains to be said about the role of the architect in this scheme. But I wonder if it helps to generalize the topic in another direction. Specifically, I want to table a discussion about architects in favor of another question: how to fit the author in Hegel's crucible? In other words, what about "authors in general"? A starting point is "The Author as Producer", the 1934 lecture where Walter Benjamin implored artists to intervene in the production of artistic works. The urging is wholly political, a clarion call reminding artists of their social responsibility. This responsibility eschews the label "intellectual" in favor of a recognition of an author's place in the "process of production." It is a vision of an author in power.

Is there another way to think about this power? Can the above-mentioned graph's trajectory be altered. In short, the answer would be .... yes. But only if we think about another type of agency residing within the author. If Hegel thinks that there is no possibility for art, or that art has ceased to be meaningful, then there is room to consider a post-historical art. And there could be a situation where a post-historical art "erases" previous history. This is basically a reformulation of Mailer's above-mentioned critique, but the example I am thinking of specifically is much more recent, and decidedly non-architectural.

This year, Nobel laureate Doris Lessing finished her most recent book, called Alfred and Emily. Part biography, and part alternative fiction, the novel takes place on a farm in Rhodesia, the very farm where Lessing's parents lived. The biographical part of the story is well-known -- Lessing had already written about her childhood in Africa. But it is the the latter aspect, the alternative-fictional mode of Alfred and Emily that becomes especially interesting. In this part of the book, the First World War never happens, and Lessing's parents never meet, both having separate idyllic lives in a peaceful England.

In this alternative history mode, Lessing has basically erased her own existence. The world she imagines is one where she does not exist. It is a world where works like The Golden Notebook, Canopus in Argos, or Briefing for a Descent into Hell do not exist. Depicting a world where one's creative output is nonexistent may read as an utterly selfish act. One could measure the power of a particular work of art by imagining a world with out it. But Lessing seems to be operating in a different mode in "Alfred and Emily". In evoking a world where her parents live happier lives, Lessing's own work is subsumed in service of a greater narrative.

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.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Period Landscapes (Circa 2007)

H.W. Plainview (Dillon Freasier) and Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) Scour the California Countryside for Oil, from Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007)

You may have already noticed, but Hollywood has a pretty good idea of what the 19th and 20th centuries looked like. And this is especially true when studios begin to crank out films that have a distinct emphasis on landscape. I take this to mean that Hollywood films have developed a recognizable visual language used to depict the natural and built environments of the 19th and 20th century.

What are the elements of this visual language? On the one hand, there is the sheer expanse of the framing. Cameras capture and ensnare whole mountain ranges and cloud flotillas within a generously rectangular (and decidedly un-boxy) aspect ratio. On the other hand, colors are either depicted under natural conditions, or else they are almost completely washed out. Sometimes this varies according to the seasons that are being portrayed. Whereas a scene taking place in summer will take advantage of the harsh, natural light and its resultant jagged shadows, a winter shoot make opt for a limited, yet heavily saturated palette. In the latter, figures across a landscape may become lost in a field of scrub brush and snow. This interplay of grays of whites across a limited spectrum creates a moody moire, the end result being an atmosphere of want or fear that resonates at the most basic visual level. In other words, cinematographic and post-production techniques are used to alter time and place.

This is not, however, only a recent phenomena. To be sure, the advent of new projection formats, such as Cinemascope, Vistavision, and Todd-AO have quite literally opened up new vistas for the burgeoning camera eye. And new camera technologies have enabled cinematographers to capture unusual light conditions that help emphasize a particular film's period feel. Two examples of this that come to mind are Nestor Almendros' and Haskell Wexler's work on Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978) and John Alcott's shooting for Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon (1975). For Days of Heaven, Almendros and Wexler (who came in after to production ran behind schedule) used natural, undiffused light to capture the feeling of a world without incandescent, artificial lighting. Most of the shooting took place at the "golden" twilight hours, making for a difficult shooting schedule. And two the film's most famous sequences, where the landscape is obliterated by fire and locusts, give the best sense as to how Almendros gave visual evidence to a world that may have had a different quality of light.

Plagues of Fire and Locust, from Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978)

On the other hand, for Barry Lyndon, the development of ultra-fast Carl Zeiss lenses allowed John Alcott to capture a different time and place as well. Consider this excerpt from an 1975 interview for American Cinematographer magazine. When asked about the film's "soft" look and candlelit ambiances, Alcott remarked how
In most instances we were trying to create the feeling of natural light within the houses, mostly stately homes, that we used as shooting locations. That was virtually their only source of light during the period of the film, and those houses still exist, with their paintings and tapestries hanging. I would tend to re-create that type of light, all natural light coming through the windows. I've always been a natural light source type of cameraman - if one can put it that way. I think it's exciting, actually, to see what illumination is provided by daylight and then try to create the effect. Sometimes it's impossible when the light outside falls below a certain level. We shot some of those sequences in the wintertime, when there was natural light from perhaps 9 o'clock in the morning until 3 o'clock in the afternoon. The requirement was to bring the light up to a level so that we could shoot from 8 o'clock in the morning until something like 7 o'clock in the evening -- while maintaining the consistent effect. At the same time, we tried to duplicate the situations established by research and reference to the drawings and paintings of that day - how rooms were illuminated, and so on. That actual compositions of our setups were very authentic to the drawings of the period.
Today's landscape-dominated period films seem to be shot by only a handful of cinematographers. These are the go-to men who studios rely on to depict American vistas from the 19th and 20th centuries. In fact, three of the most critically-acclaimed films of 2007 are heavy on landscape. One would be hard pressed to disagree with the fact that Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, and Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford are period landscape films. These films also exemplify many of the elements I mentioned above: large aspect ratios, extremely natural or washed-out color palettes, and manipulated atmospherics.

Llwellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) in a Texas Landscape, from Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men (2007)

These are beautiful, meticulous films. Yet they are oddly similar. In No Country for Old Men, an arid caldera becomes the stage set for a rash of violent killings between American and Mexican drug traffickers. It is similar to the beveled canyons from the opening shot of There Will Be Blood. And in fact, the similarity between the two stems from the fact that parts of both films were shot in Marfa, Texas. In other words, through the camera lenses of 2007, the 1980s and the 1890's shared similar visual cues. In these two films, figures are engulfed by yellowing sandscapes. The effect is not unsimilar to Frederic Remington's landscapes featuring cowboys and Indians. Like the characters in No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, the figures in Remington's paintings are caught in a tension between stasis and motion. The flat expanse of earth -- its painterly depiction famously referred to by Jean-Louis Comolli as the "geographic extension of the field of the visible" -- stands in contrast to the figure in motion. The contrast between motion and non-motion, between figure and landscape, human and nature no doubt resonates within the frames of No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. These landscapes are all rendered as devoid of human life, with only the smallest hints of habitation.

Frederic Remington, The Scout: Friends or Foes?, 1902-1905, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts

Although the cinematic elements of Remington's paintings may seem coincidental (he began his ethnographic paintings of horsemen at the same time that Edward Muybridge began his motion studies), there is another reason why these period landscape films from 2007 look similar. It is true that Roger Deakins, No Country For Old Men's cinematographer, and Robert Elswit, who shot There WIll Be Blood, used similar locations. It is no coincidence that Deakins was also the cinematographer for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

A Pensive Jesse James (Brad Pitt) Surveys the Missouri Landscape, from Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

For starters, Dominik's film shares a visual language with No Country For Old Men and There WIll Be Blood. These films share similar color palettes and landscapes. But unlike the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson, Dominik shot his film in Alberta. And here, one wonders if this film owes more of its visual style to Malick's Days of Heaven than to anything else (this film was also shot in Alberta). The shots of Jesse James (played by Brad Pitt) wandering among fields of wheat will no doubt remind some of Richard Gere in Days of Heaven. These shots are also reminiscent of those from the Coens' and Anderson's films.

The similarities extend well beyond their formal compositions. All three films from 2007 were shot in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The 2.35:1 aspect ratio was the anamorphic standard up to 1970. However, new projection technologies and videographic requirements have transformed the 2.35:1 ratio to 2.39.1. Yet in a deferential nod to the history of cinematography and motion picture projection, the aspect ratio is still commonly referred to as "2.35:1."

Unlike Barry Lyndon and Days of Heaven, the makers of No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford had a vast array of digital post-production techniques at their disposal. These techniques were used for image alteration and correction as well as for non-linear editing. The size of the files required for this process continue to grow. Whereas editor Walter Murch required 1.2 terabytes of disk storage to finish Cold Mountain (2003), there is no doubt that this requirement has already increased.

But what about the periodic landscape film? The ability to store and edit footage requires a lot of storage space, but more importantly, this space is also reserved for footage that is color corrected or otherwise altered to give it a period film. In the 1970s, Nestor Almendros, Haskell Wexler, and John Alcott used painting and photography for visual references. And now, the ability to create Western Texas or the Mojave Desert in the 1890's, 1900's, and 1980's relies on more than the director's figurative vision and the cinematographer's literal eye. These are, after all, landscapes that are stored in computers.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

(Un)compromising War on Whimsy

More evidence of a well-timed restlessness brewing in the internets. Exhibit A: Kazys muses on the intense hyperreal renderings of Lebbeus Woods, asking whether anything remotely as interesting will ever come again. Kazys notes how
The boom has not only produced almost no good buildings, by distracting architects from the proper task of developing the discipline, it has set our task back by over two decades. There is almost no speculative work worth mentioning, almost no serious research going on in a field that begs to be rejuvenated. A few people, generally at the intersection of architecture and media, do interesting work. But they don't get the attention they deserve and are constantly tempted by industry money. The architects I respect the most today work outside of the traditional field. They make exhibitions, set designs, graphics, program computers, and make maps but they tend to be abandoning a dying field rather than applying the defibrillation it needs. The boom has undone architecture. There are no new ideas and architecture is hurting.
Exhibit B: in yesterday's issue of Things Magazine, a riposte against the triumph of whimsy. The editors note that
This is a multi-disciplinary world where art direction, amateur photography, architecture, illustration, craft, cartoons and technology all fuse into one another, creating - dare we say it - a homogenous pop culture aimed at the attention deficient more than anything else. It's also a global culture (see 360 magazine from China, for example), having evolved from the enthusiastic sub-cultural adoption of Japanese Manga in the West into an ability to absorb specific local influences to generate an all-pervasive yet ultimately placeless sense of the 'exotic'.

So where does the profusion of imagery leave actual, concrete, physical design? We'd speculate that architecture has been fairly comprehensively damaged by the attraction and dominance of the ephemeral - what might rather unkindly be called the triumph of whimsy. Consider Ruum, a new architecture and design magazine (found via Creative Boys Club, which is a mecca for the New Eclectic). With layouts and type that draw on a variety of sources, fashion shoots that have a kitchen-sink inclusiveness and a collage-friendly emphasis on the collation and presentation of imagery, Ruum demonstrates the influence of 21st publishing successes like MARK magazine and, to a lesser extent, A10.

In these publications, architecture is reduced to being little more than the generator of the layouts, not a series of three dimensional spaces but a 2D form that inspires print design, rather than spatial interaction. MARK and A10 differ from late C20 eclectics like Nest through their fatal attraction to novelty, a fascination with the sheen of what is apparently innovation, but is more usually the blurred hinterland between render and photograph, the point at which the computer-generated becomes indistinguishable from reality. Ladel on the increasingly clip art-like imagery found on art, architecture and illustration aggregators, and you end up with design that is simultaneously timeless and utterly of its time.
Exhibit C: wherein Kazys echoes a similar sentiment:
This essay from the photo blog "the Luminous Landscape" (must reading for photographers) suggests that just as film has faded into history, the print will too. As high definition screens exceed anything that print can do (this will come one day soon), why continue to valorize an outdated technology?

And why not? I already barely use my printer for my photographic work. It's either printed in books and magazines or viewed on the Web. Can any gallery deliver the kind of recognition that Flickr can? Why own? Of course unless things go awry, high definition screens for viewing art will be open and works will soon be pirated and traded openly. You'll be going to rapidshare to download the newest Gursky. Artists may protest that this is awful. But it isn't, really, it's just a different model of property that other fields, like music, have to deal with.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Reading and Reviewing Bolaño's "The Savage Detectives"


There's something satisfying about a book with heft. If a novel is, say, more than 400 pages, it requires a commitment. And once you start, the book's weight will become all too familiar. If you stand fast to your commitment, you will notice the bookmark travel across the bound pages. You gauge your progress via a mysterious unit of measurement. At the end of the day, you look at the side of the book and think to yourself, I'm moving along.

Reading a large book also requires a certain amount of task-orientation. I will read x pages per day. But if you are really liking a particular book, you may read two, three, four times the amount you thought you were going to read. There will be times, however, when you fall short of the goal. Perhaps you have a stomach virus. Or you have errands to run. Stuff happens, and oftentimes, this stuff can get in the way of reading.

And this brings me to this question: should different books be read in different ways? Does a shorter book require a closer reading than a larger one? There could be some sense to this. Because a smaller book has a lesser amount of words, perhaps a more stringent editorial process took place. But, as it becomes evident, this makes no sense. The 500-pager may be the end result of a heavily edited 1,000-page number. You could start thinking about this in near-Borgesian exponentials. This, too, makes no sense. The book you hold in your hand is a finished product. Dry ink, handshakes, signatures, and all.

Here's an experiment I tried a couple of years back. I read David Schickler's short story, "The Smoker" and was taken aback by the main female protagonist, a high-school senior who read one novel per night. I wanted to try this. I began with unread books that were lying around in my apartment. The first evening, it was Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class. The next, it was Rafael Moneo's Theoretical Anxiety and Design Strategies in the Work of Eight Contemporary Architects. The following evening, it was Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire. I thought to myself, okay, this is kinda working.

I noticed two things. First, reading became physical. In addition to manually turning pages, I started using my index finger as a reading instrument. I would follow it as it traversed each word, each line, each paragraph. This soon got in the way of the page-turning, so I imagined my finger moving across the page. I would then train my eye on this imaginary finger-moving, only to make my second observation: that reading involves a certain amount of peripheral visual activity. While reading a particular word, you start noticing how that word physically fits in the sentence. That sentence has a particular location in a paragraph. The paragraph is set on the page in a certain way. It was as if reading became a three-dimensional process. I was not only reading and understanding the words on the page, but I was looking at the words as a series of black and white spaces. Positive and negative space on the page.

It kinda worked. Just when I thought that this process was working better with shorter books, I noticed that I was bringing a different type of concentration to bear with longer books. It was a little like falling in a trance. Or like running. After the first thousand feet or so, moving your feet ceases to require your attention. It just happens.

Reading in this way has its drawbacks, of course. You would certainly miss an author's lyricism. And in some instances, you may not give yourself time to enjoy a labyrinthine plot. I certainly encountered both of these circumstances in my speed reading phase. I thus forced myself to be somewhat parsimonious in the deployment of this technique. Speed mode was default mode. I would stop or slow down if the author required me to. Like I said, it's about commitment.

I like headspace that books create. I use the word "space" here quite literally. A book is immersion in the purest sense of the word. Words form their own panoramas. In the depths and expanses of a book, you submerge yourself in a worded infinity.

Roberto Bolaño (Source)

Two days ago, I finished a big book: Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives. The book was written in 1998. The author died in 2003 (thanks mario b!). Since then, he's received just about any accolade an author can receive in the Spanish-speaking world.

Bolaño in 1998 (Source)

I found two things about this book very alluring, and both of them had something to do with space. First, the book was in many ways about writing. All the characters in the book are writers. They constantly write about the writing process. And often, it is very rote. The book's main protagonist will often say something like, "And then I went home and wrote poems until daybreak." Such statements take the idea of "headspace" for granted. Bolaño's characters -- Roberto Belano, Ulises Lima, the Font sisters, Luscious Skin, and others -- are devoted artists whose everyday activities are suffused with the practice of writing.

Second, the book's middle section (called "The Savage Detectives") features a seemingly endless collection of testimony, each prefaced by the precise physical location where the statement was being given. Because each testimony began with a person's name, a street address, and a city, The Savage Detectives took on a decidedly geographical feel to it. The various characters spoke from a host of different locations: Mexico City, Paris, Vienna, San Diego, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv. The narrative is fractured and (literally) worldly.

How to write about a book that is about writing and that is about writing in the world? Issues of big "G" Globalization are apt to be raised. An imaginary review will begin with a quotation from another source. This is a time honored way of establishing an argument.

It may begin something like this. In his essay on the Swedish detective novelist Henning Mankell, Slavoj Zizek notes how the novelist's particular type of police procedural is "the exemplary case of the detective novel in our era of global capitalism." One reason for this, Zizek tells us, is that Mankell is able to oscillate between different locations. This "parallax view" results in there being "no neutral language enabling us to translate one [location] into the other, even less to posit one as the 'truth' of the other." And to state his case, Zizek looks to Mankell's professional life, spent in between Sweden and Mozambique. In other words, "A true global citizen is today precisely the one who (re)discovers or returns to (or identifies with) some particular roots, some specific substantial communal identity -- the 'global order' is ultimately nothing but the very frame and container of this mixing and shifting multitude of particular identities."

It seems that this is a way to begin post about The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño's dizzying 1998 novel. Like Mankell, Bolaño is a creature of global circumstances. And like Mankell, Bolaño's particular flavor of fiction is detective fiction.

The Savage Detectives is not a police procedural. There are deaths, missing bodies, dastardly deeds, heinous and questionable characters, but Bolaño's novel resembles a Mankell book in that its narrative revolves around the search of a missing person. The missing person is the mysterious Cesárea Tinajera, the founding member of the visceral realists, a Mexican avant-garde poetry sect.

Zizek uses the detective genre to stand for something else: the ability to know one's environment. In searching for clues, questioning witnesses, etc., protagonists may not find what they are looking for, but in their search, they will become more and more familiar with their surroundings. The idea is that one does not have to travel to become a global citizen; by familiarizing himself with a particular place, a detective adds to the established knowledge of places. A mysterious, as-yet-undefined portfolio of world places accretes more and more knowledge.

Such knowledge is then collected in a book. Although Mankell's stories may tell of regional differences in Øresund, the fact that they are commemorated in written form is of consequence. And Zizek indicates that this is more important than the fact that Mankell is a geographically-displaced person (he lives in both Sweden and Mozambique).

The same could be said of The Savage Detectives. Though Bolaño lived his life in various countries (he left Chile after Pinocher's 1973 coup), The Savage Detectives is the record of this exile.

Could this be a strong corrective to current literature about displaced persons and multivariate geographies? Perhaps there are no non-places (to use Augé's term). In this current globalized climate, are all places non-places? Are all non-places therefore places? A deliberate misreading of the word utopia brings this to the forefront. Phonetically, utopia could be "eu-topia" ("beautiful place") or "u-topia" ("no place").

Perhaps Zizek is alluding to the fact that a book of Mankell's (or even of Bolaño's) could be either eutopic or utopic.

But let's get to the physical data, the hard data about The Savage Detectives that will help moor it in our reality.

Here are its dimensions. The paperback version (the version I read) is 8.2 x 5.4 x 1.5 inches.

Like I said, it's a big book. 672 pages.

I read it in four days (about 168 pages per day).

Friday, August 22, 2008

Fiction(s): 8.22.08


Airspeed is relative, but from up here, near operational ceiling, it is a comfortable 87 miles per hour. Michigan's upper peninsula slips slowly underneath. Ribbons of moonlit cirrus are cut by the propeller slipstream, creating glowing whorls in its wake.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Filmic Coincidences

This has been covered before by others, but is worthwhile to again notice the distinct similarity between Hans Pölzig's Großes Schauspielhaus (1919) and the interior of Emperor Shaddam IV's spaceship in David Lynch's Dune (1984).

The spaceship throneroom From Dune:

Reverend Mother Ramallo (Silvana Mangano, L) and Emperor Shaddam IV (José Ferrer, R), from Dune (1984) (Source)

Ferrer in the throne room (Source)

And still another screen capture (Source)

The most obvious similarity between the set design and art direction for Dune and the Großes Schauspielhaus is the use of stalactite forms.

Pölzig's interior to the Schauspielhaus:


For those of you who keep track on these types of things, Dune's production designer was Anthony (Tony) Masters, who also worked on Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Images at War

Errol Morris has written an interesting Op-Ed piece for the New York Times regarding the digital manipulation of images. Using the famously-maligned doctored image of a missile launch in Iran, Morris shows how some of the most famous instances of image manipulation for political purposes were the most "low-tech."

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Promises of Mobility

Carscape from Jacques Tati's Trafic (1971) (Source)

The signing of the treaty establishing the European Economic Community in 1957 has had an interesting effect on car culture in Western Europe, so says a 1962 Time article on "Filling Europe's Highways." This effect was noticeable. For example, one executive boasted (from a car showroom near the Arc de Triomphe) that 40% of light trucks in France were manufactured by Volkswagen. This was a testament to how reduction of cross-border tariffs facilitated a situation where the largest car manufacturers in Europe (Volkswagen, Renault, Fiat) were poised to dominate European markets. Time also noted that this new spirit of economic unification creation had a palpable psychological effect on the population of Western Europe. In other words, everyone now wanted a car. The article states that "Common Market economists agree that the chief reason for the auto boom is the buoyant psychological climate which the vision of a single market of 170 million customers has created in Western Europe." When the narrator of a 1957 Pathé newsreel concerning the signing of the Common Market Treaty asks "Why a European Common Market?", he answers, "Parce que l'economie moderne exige de grands espaces vitaux" ("Because the modern economy demands great vital spaces").

The consequence for this demand is visible in Trafic (1971), Jacques Tati's last film as the beloved Monsieur Hulot. Like Tati's earlier works, Trafic takes a simple story arc as an opportunity to explore a spectrum of themes via a comedic lens. Here, Hulot plays the director of design at Altra, a small French car manufacturer. Along with Maria, a bumbling PR specialist (played by Maria Kimberly), and a jack-of-all trades truck driver (Marcel Fraval), Hulot has been hired to take Altra's latest car -- a hilariously outfitted ultramodern Camper Car -- to the international auto show to be held at Amsterdam's RAI International Exhibition and Congress Center.

RAI Interior, from Trafic (Source)

And because this is a Tati film, one can foresee that Hulot's arrival in Amsterdam is delayed due to human and technological happenstance. Trafic could be read as a continuation of the commentary on architecture and technology seen in Mon Oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967). If Mon Oncle levels Tati's critique at the scale of the living unit, and Playtime at the metropolitan scale, then Trafic could be said to operate at the infrastructural or regional scale. But this distinction could be a little too facile. After all, though Tati is beloved for his comic inventiveness, he was a rather sophisticated filmmaker.

Roadscape with Tower and Cars, from Trafic (Source: Criterion Collection)

Tati takes advantage of a rather generous, yet boxy aspect ratio to portray European roadspace in Trafic. French, Belgian, and Dutch motorways are orderly and pristine. The camera follows them at car-speed as the painted meridians slide up and down the screen, in time to a bouncy jazz score. All scales of traffic are present here: large cargo trucks, family sedans, two-door coupes, police motorcycles. Most of the time, these objects are all captured in establishing and long-shots, a tactic that ensures that the various motor vehicles become part of this roadspace.

Keeping true to the tenor of the Time magazine piece, medium shots (and the occasional tighter close-up) are reserved to depict the sheer number of automobiles and their users. In these shots, arterials are clogged with vehicles. It is the opposite of the type of doggedly efficient technocracy seen in Playtime. In that film's famous last moment, cars circle endlessly on a roundabout, their motion choreographed to carnival music. In Trafic, cars barely move. They seem to move attached to each other, bumper-to-bumper, along the highway routes from France to the Netherlands. One famous long shot (see top image) fills the screen with cars, with the occasional umbrellaed Hulot-esque person walking amog the automotive labyrinth -- it is very evocative of the very scene in Playtime where Hulot looks at a orthogonal arrangement of cubicles: near static-humans affixed to their work consoles, drudging away.

Choreographed Trunk Opening, from Trafic (Source: Criterion Collection)

It is therefore highly ironic how those moments depicting the static displays inside the auto expo at the RAI seem unusually dynamic. Visitors open and close car doors and trunks, extract and retract antennae. The persistent klang of metal-on-metal becomes Trafic's only appropriate soundtrack. In fact, it drowns out the cool-jazz soundtrack present throughout the film.

Auto Expo Inside Amsterdam's RAI, from Trafic (Source: Criterion Collection)

These motion-less cars at the expo are capable of exhibiting more movement than on the motorways. When displayed under the RAI's graceful parabolic glazed space frames, the cars are (literally) mobilized by architecture.

Choreographed Accident from Trafic (Source)

As a counterpoint to the above-mentioned "carousel" scene from Playtime, the most famous choreographed scene in Trafic involved a drawn-out series of car crashes inside the Dutch border. This scene, and others, provides us with a different portrayal of technology. If the technologies from Mon Oncle and Playtime seem inept, at least they are beautiful. The gleaming surfaces of the Arpel kitchen in the former, and the shimmering glass and gunmetal grey surfaces from Playtime's Tativille set (containing some shots of Henri Vicariot's Orly airport) barely conceal a utopic promise: these films seem to capture artifacts from a not-so-distant future, only to distill them under the alembic of Tati's camera eye.

M. Hulot (L), Truck Driver (C), and Mechanic (R) Watch a Moonshot, from Trafic (Source: Criterion Collection)

Trafic becomes a type of coda: on the motorways, cars and trucks in the film are either banged-up, wrecked, or destroyed. After the above-mentioned accident inside the Dutch border, Hulot and Co. take the damaged Altra camper car to a local mechanic (Tony Knepper). He lives in an ivy-covered hovel (presumably suburban) by a river. While he smooths out the camper car's crumpled dents by hand, Hulot and Maria indulge in some quality country time and camp out in a moored houseboat. At the hovel, the truck driver and mechanic watch what is perhaps the apotheosis of technological achievement at the time: Neil Armstrong walking on the moon on July 20, 1969. In another instance, the truck driver looks outside only to see a pile of junked up cars rotting on rainy, muddy plain. The juxtaposition between images of technological prowess and disrepair becomes one of Trafic's most poignant moments.

Junked Cars, from Trafic (Source: Criterion Collection)

M. Hulot Inside the Altra Camper Car, from Trafic (Source: Criterion Collection)

But no discussion of technology in Trafic can continue without a (somewhat) closer look at the Altra camper car. Like Hulot himself, the car is a bit of an anachronism. It is a counterpoint to Trafic's air-cushioned Citroëns, ruddy Renault's, feisty Fiats and venerable VW's. Painted in an Altra blue-and-yellow scheme, the car comes to life as a type of mobile habitat. Rear bumpers become seats. Hulot cooks a steak on the radiator grill. The rear part of the car, which extends to accommodate a double bed, even contains a portable shower and coffee grinder. It is anything but sleek or sexy. It is, however, the logical counterpart to the Arpel's kitchen from Mon Oncle. That film was released only a year after the signing of the Common Market Treaty. If we take Time's prognostications about the treaty at face value, it seems strangely perfect that the public would want the technological accoutrements of the Arpels kitchen on an automobile chassis. And yet, the Altra camper car is designed to operate far way from the city, perhaps even in the Dutch countryside.

The car expo in Amsterdam is, if anything, an emblem of the aspirations associated with the 1957 Common Market treaty. Under the span of this building, cars from different countries are displayed to all Europeans. Translators and interpreters are in abundance. Announcements in French, Flemish, Dutch, and even English ring in the busy air. This even mirrors the actions of Hulot and Co. in their distraction-ridden outing to Amsterdam. The Dutch car mechanic even addresses Hulot in English.

The 1957 Common Market Treaty was only one episode of many demonstrating how Western Europe continued to create linkages in the aftermath of World War II. These linkages were cultural, political, and even infrastructural. A highway map of Western Europe reveals that Amsterdam is around 500km north-northeast of Paris. It is pretty much a straight shot. Once you are driving out of Paris' incomprehensible sprawl, you will take highway E15 and pass by both Le Bourget and Charles De Gaulle airports, testament to the city's place in the annals of infrastructural development. On to highway E17, which takes you through Lille, and then on through Belgium, via Gent and Antwerp. Once inside the Dutch border, highway A27 takes you through Utrecht and finally to the outer rim of Amsterdam.