Thursday, February 26, 2009

Architecture During Wartime

Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, Housing for Glenn Martin Aircraft Plant, Baltimore, Maryland (1941) (Source: Anderson, 2009).

"World War II did not arrest architects' work; it reformulated architecture's tasks." So says architecture historian Richard Anderson in his latest piece for Grey Room, "US/USSR: Architecture and War" [1]. This brief sentence could be construed as the very inspiration for the forthcoming conference at the Institute for Fine Arts called "Front to Rear: Architecture and Planning during World War II." The conference description tells us:
Considered by most historians of 20th century architecture as a void between peaceful periods of active architectural production, the Second World War remains an unwritten chapter in most textbooks. It corresponds however to an intense body of experience, which can be observed from Japan to the United States, passing through Russia, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and England. WWII was a key moment in the process of modernization, and manifold issues are raised by the preparation of war, the total mobilization of territories and cities and their eventual occupation, destruction and reconstruction.
The conference brings together research investigating a wide range of architectural activities, taking place in diverse geographical locations, and occurring between the bombings of Guernica in 1937 and Hiroshima in 1945. A group of nineteen scholars will present architects’ contributions in the preparation for the war in terms of new forms of infrastructure and management; engagement in development of offensive and defensive tactics; and their assistance in the armed conflict, be it on the front lines, within occupied territories, or on the home front. A number of papers will explore connections between architectural practice and wartime technology and production. Also addressed are wartime preparation for peacetime reconstruction, commemoration and memorial architecture.
Besides remarks by Jean-Louis Cohen, Kenneth Frampton, and Joan Ockman, the various conference panes will include responses by Hartmut Frank, Antoine Picon, and Anthony Vidler.

The conference will be held at NYU's Institute for Fine Arts, 1 East 78th Street, New York on Saturday, March 7 from 10 to 7, and on March 8 from 10 to 6.

Admission is free. More information about the conference can be found here.

[1] Richard Anderson, "USA/USSR: Architecture and War", Grey Room Vol. 34 (Winter 2009), p. 81

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Mumbai Anno Zero

Jamal (Dev Patel) looks out at Mumbai's urban fabric from above, from Slumdog Millionaire (dir. Danny Boyle, 2008) (Source: NYT)

In the Oscar-nominated Slumdog Millionaire (2008), characters seem to carve their own trajectories through Mumbai space. Director Danny Boyle follows the film's titular hero, Jamal (Dev Patel) as he grows up. Scenes that take place during Jamal's childhood show an overwhelming horizontality: along with his brother Salim and future romantic interest Latika, Jamal moves left, right, and in some instances even relies on railroads to move from place to place. If this is not a cartographic understanding of the cinematic spaces, then at least there is an effort to depict something of a flattened, isotropic space. But it is only a general flattening, as the detritus and conurbations of everyday life seem to add some relief to the images of Jamal's youth. At first, the only sense of verticality comes via various establishing shots showing Mumbai's various urban fabrics. These are not necessarily associated with Jamal's own world view.

This changes once he grows up. The call center where Jamal worked is depicted from the above. The camera seems to hang from the rafters, showing a dense agglomeration of computer terminals and workstations. In a poignant scene where Jamal meets his brother-turned-gangster for the first time in a very long time, Boyle shows them meeting in an unbuilt apartment building. Poured concrete floor plates literally frame a view of Mumbai. At one point, Salim points to the city beyond and below this concrete framing. High-rise towers rise from the site of a former slum -- the very place where Jamal and Salim grew up. Salim refers to this vista as the "center of the world." This view from above thus creates a physical and metaphorical distance. Salim has risen above his life of poverty and can now look down on the city that rejected him at first.

From Le Corbusier, Aircraft (1935)

This viewing from above is a familiar trope, in both architecture and film. Salim's own sentiments echo Le Corbusier's exhortations from Aircraft (1935). In that book, an aerial view of a premodern fortification suggests how "the eye now sees in substance what the mind formerly could only subjectively conceive." Altitude, whether sensed from an airplane's cramped cockpit or the vertiginous height of an unbuilt skyscraper in Mumbai, gives cause for critical reflection. It also affords new opportunities. So says Le Corbusier: "Man will make use of [the bird's eye view] to conceive new aims. Cities will rise out of their ashes."

Yet Salim's and Jamal's birds' eye views of Mumbai from Slumdog Millionaire problematize Le Corbusier's sentiments. Temporality seems to defeat any of the advantages of altitude. After all, Jamal and Salim are still young. Now high above their former slum, they realize that it was not too long ago when they were still moored to it physically. The bird's eye view reminds the protagonists all too well of their past. If such a view, as Le Corbusier states, leads to cities rising out of their ashes, it follows that the film's protagonists may not necessarily be able to rise above it all. The view of Mumbai from above is, as Moholy-Nagy would put it, a "space compressor", an extension of vision that collapses air and ground. This collapse gives only a representation of altitude. But for Jamal and Salim, it is a false altitude.

Child (Edmund Moeschke) looks at a destroyed Berlin, from Germania Anno Zero (dir. Roberto Rossellini, 1948)

This scene inside the unbuilt Mumbai tower evokes another image of children unable to escape from their urban environs. In a famous sequence from Roberto Rossellini's Germania Anno Zero (1948), a young German child (Edmund Moeschke) retreats high into a bombed-out building and looks out at the destroyed city below. From this vantage point, Berlin's streets are clogged with brick, dirt, and mangled iron. After the child surveys these scenes, he stands looking at a building across the street. With the camera directly behind the child, there is no sense of distance. It is as if the remains of another bombed-out building were pushing up directly against the child's face. Perhaps this is why he grabs on to wall next to him. He tries to avoid the oppressive sense of destruction. His only recourse is to look away from the destroyed building and look down at the street. Like Jamal and Salim in Slumdog Millionaire, the child from Germania Anno Zero is unable to escape the ground below.

Monday, February 02, 2009

LV-426, or: The Labors of P.S. 1

Site model for MOS's Afterparty (Source: NYT)

What do we mean when we say that architecture is a form of cultural production? If we modify this question, modulate the use of the word "form", we come up with something like this: if architecture is a form of cultural production, then architectural form is a type of cultural expression. To confuse the situation even more, we deploy an arsenal of buzzwords to describe this situation. For example, we argue, pound our fists, invoke theoretical canons and convince naysayers that architectural form is borne out of a specific sociopolitical context. We use words like "zeitgeist", "apotheosis", etc., to express this marrying between a building and the time in which it was conceived. Like literature, art, or cinema, architectural form can fall victim to a type of determinism.

MOS Principals Hilary Sample and Michael Meredith stand behind a model of Afterparty (Source: NYT)

And this continues to this day. When asked by a New York Times reporter to comment on their winning entry for MoMA's yearly P.S. 1 Young Architects Competition, architects Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample of MOS invoked the current economic crisis as the impetus behind their project. Their project, a varied assortment of thatched, woven cones sitting on P.S. 1's trapezoidal courtyard is, according to the Times, "meant to honor and reflect current economic realities." The architects chose to title the project "Afterparty" in order to express such a sentiment. But this is a sobering and reflective party -- an opportunity to create a "more modest and thoughtful architecture" after "the economic party is over."

Critics for the Times and other national newspapers seem to agree, at least in principle. The operative term here is "hangover", a term of art that tells of excess and lingering headaches. Commentary from the past couple of months thus speaks of an "architecture hangover" and reiterates how intrepid experiments from the 1990's and early 2000s have failed gain traction in this post-Bilbao, post-Experience Economy climate. Architecture, that most capital-intensive and capital-reliant of endeavors, is having its rug pulled out from under its feet. A worldwide economic recession has shaken the architecture profession, and no one seems to have any idea when it will pull itself up. Not so strangely, such observations are tempered with the language of opportunity. A hostile economic climate will lead to a resurgence of vital and meaningful architectures.

Rendering showing Afterparty's conical, thatched forms (Source: NYT)

MOS's choice of materials for their Afterparty project suggests an austerity proper to the current economic climate. There are no gilded, sinuous forms, no fabricated spider webs. Afterparty is essentially a combination of aluminum tubing and fabric weave that takes advantage of temperature differentials and induction currents to create welcome breezes what will counter the New York summer heat. Those familiar with the competition brief know that such a sparingly use of materials is to be expected. All P.S. 1 competition entries are required to adhere to the strict $70,000 budget maximum, thus ensuring a field of entries that, by current standards, is done on the cheap. The idea of innovation as a by product of stringent competition parameters is not new. The relatively meager budget cap for the Young Architects Competition ensures a level playing field. But now, given the current dire economic circumstance, MOS's frugal use of material seems especially appropriate.

Inside Afterparty's Canopy (Source)

The same could be said for Afterparty's forms. Cones and domes spread across the P.S. 1 courtyard, creating a partial canopy over the entire site. But these are not exactly cones and domes. Each have an oculus and touches the ground on four points. The domes appear like pendentives, controlling transitions from a cubic to a hemispheric volume and vice versa. In Afterparty, however, there is no such transition. Or rather, there is another type of modulation between surface and ground. Afterparty's pendentive-like legs help create a series of arched passageways underneath the canopy. Unilke Frei Otto's Munich Stadium -- essentially a web of forms hanging above the ground -- here, Afterparty's forms come to rest lightly, delicately on the ground. It is a fitting metaphor: architecture has coming back to Earth, slowly, deliberately, reminding us of its collaborative and public roles.

The Times piece affirms this point of view with a tale of teamwork. The architects tell the reporter how MOS student-employees helped load a model of Afterparty into a minivan just in time for the competition deadline. This story implies an esprit-de-corps that counteracts the starchitect stereotype: a small firm like MOS is now really the sum of its parts. Principals, employees, are all vital links in what is, in essence, a design collective -- a model of a professional practice that is highly-stylized with pursestrings drawn tightly.

Here, then is another type of production. Labor. Hours spent behind a computer mouse-jockeying. Hours spent with knives and other cutting implements, giving form to form, building models. And this is only for the competition entry. Here, then, is a model of private practice for days of dwindling clients and scurrying capital.

Meredith and Sample invoke the names of Louis Kahn and Anni Albers as inspiration. Yet this invocation carries a significance far beyond Afterparty's material and formal qualities. Kahn's ability to transition from "high tech" to "very primitive", as well as Albers' deftness with mass producible and esoteric combinations of materials also suggest the role of labor in the design process. We need not think further of the Kahn's capital complex in Dhaka, a series of interlocking brick and mud volumes built by local masons with limited tools. The courses on the building's facades bear the mark of this labor: horizontal reveals mark the extent of the Bangladeshi builders' daily progress. MOS's summoning of Kahn's work as the inspiration for Afterparty's cones and domes is therefore a quotation, a reference to a previous building and architectural practice now placed inside inverted commas.

An architect's looking to historical precedent is nothing new. For example, we can look to Colin Rowe's important "The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa" (1947) to understand what it means to place architectural precedents in inverted commas. When referring to Le Corbusier's ability to summon geometric principles a la Palladio, Rowe tells us how quoting architectural precedent requires wit and a quick-on-the-draw ability to readily associate the old with the new. Although this is done with a wink and a nod, quotation serves a more important purpose. It places a reader or critic on alert that precedent is about to be de-contextualized and used in service of an argument. This is what Terry Eagleton would later refer to as a "Janus-faced temporality": an ability to look to the past in order to move into the future. In some instances, very far into the future.

The Nostromo, orbiting in the vicinity of planet LV-426, from Alien (dir. Ridley Scott, 1979)

And what future could Afterparty be referring to? What future does MOS place in inverted commas? It is a future that invokes issues of form and labor. But it is also a future familiar to fans of Alien, Ridley Scott's 1979 sci-fi screamfest. In the film, the crew of the commercial towing vessel Nostromo wakes from a deep sleep to find that their shipboard computer has answered a distress call from LV-426, a remote planet very, very far away from Earth. In the film, the tiny Nostromo tows a giant, sprawling refinery containing millions of pounds of mined ore.

Cones and Superstructures, by any other name: Afterparty (top), and the Nostromo (bottom)

This assembly of tug and cargo bears, at least in a passing glance, some formal similarities to MOS's Afterparty. A careful squinting of the eye would reveal the Nostromo to be a series of tall, narrow cones and domed structures sitting on a surface, much like Afterparty's thatched structures for the P.S. 1 courtyard. One could even say that the Nostromo's cargo reads as dessicated, shredded version of Afterparty. The Albers-inspired weave has now become a network of tatters, ossified into a monolithic, machinic superstructure.

Nostromians analyzing a distress call from LV-426: Ian Holm, Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, and John Hurt, from Alien.

The similarities continue. The Nostromo's crew compartments become the stage setting for a drama involving distributions of labor. In one scene, crew chief Dallas (Tom Skerritt) reminds the rest of the Nostromians of company policies regarding payment arrangements. Complaints are raised about the ship computer's answering of the distress signal from LV-426, as this mission will potentially delay a return to Earth (and payment as well). Dallas reminds the crew of their contractual obligation to answer and investigate the distress call. The crew are essentially underpaid, overworked employees charged with the dirty toil of interplanetary exploration. Back on Earth, far away from LV-426's hostile climates, corporate clients are about to bank on a windfall of royalties.

Toiling behind consoles: Tom Skerritt and Sigourney Weaver aboard the Nostromo (top), and MOS in their office (bottom) (Source)

If the Nostromians are not busy hosting (quite unwillingly) the "xenomorph's" future offspring, Scott often captures them sitting in front of computer monitors. As in contemporary architecture practice, the sordid business of interplanetary exploration requires hours of retina-burning sessions in front of a computer. The work is similar, but is it thankless? The difference would be that for those interns and employees that worked on Afterparty and other projects by MOS, or even those who worked with past winners and runners-up, labor is understood to be thankless at first. Association with a winning entry ensures a bigger reward in the future. Being an employee (paid or unpaid) at an architecture firm also requires a "Janus-faced temporality."

Ask an underpaid intern working in the entertainment industry about low wages, and he or she will rationalize their below-poverty-line existence by saying something about being paid in information. Something similar at play is at work in the architectural profession. We can label it as an asymmetrical relationship between labor and pay. An intern will spend hours toiling with computers and models, and often in hopes of a big payoff in the end. Thanks to Afterparty, MOS employees will be able to transition into other jobs and gain their own 15-minutes of New York Times-mediated fame in the end. But current economic woes will delay the promise of such success indefinitely. The price to pay for architectural excess is that most undesirable of situations: a final modulation from an architecture hangover to a labor hangover.