Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A Joke

High Macha Of Rashpur (L): [displaying a printed floor plan] This is Shepherd Wong's home.
Phil Moscowitz (R): He lives in that piece of paper?

From What's Up Tiger Lily? (dir. Woody Allen, 1966)

Monday, July 20, 2009

Apollo Moments

A Moment on the Moon, from For All Mankind (dir, Al Reinert, 1989)

The two principal characters in Don DeLillo’s science fiction short story, “Human Moments in World War III” (1983), watch a non-nuclear war from their safe vantage point in space. They are in a cramped spacecraft, a “recon-interceptor” with the ability to fire laser beams at the Earth’s surface. Locked into a current geostationary orbit, they watch a global conflagration unfurl before their very eyes. Air battles swarm the skies below, columns of tanks and infantry crawl against landscapes – an otherwise distant, abstracted view of the world below occluded by artifacts of war. A ground control center below gives them a live commentary feed of the events below – information that only they receive. They are part of a fully automated weapons system. A signal from their ground control thus commands them to perform a rote test of their laser weapon. While testing this weapon, they even begin to ruminate on the various “human moments” occurring below on the Earth’s surface. The narrator thus describes the scene below:

It satisfies every childlike curiosity, every muted desire, whatever there is in him of the scientist, the poet, the primitive seer, the watcher of fire and shooting stars, whatever obsessions eat at the night side of his mind, whatever sweet and dreamy yearning he has ever felt for nameless places faraway, whatever earth-sense he possesses, the neural pulse of some wilder awareness, a sympathy for beasts, whatever belief in an immanent vital force, the Lord of Creation, whatever secret harboring of the idea of human oneness, whatever wishfulness and simplehearted hope, whatever of too much and not enough, all at once and little by little, whatever burning urge to escape responsibility and routine, escape his own overspecialization, the circumscribed and inward-spiraling self, whatever remnants of his boyish longing to fly, his dreams of strange spaces and eerie heights, his fantasies of happy death, whatever indolent and sybaritic leanings, lotus-eater, smoker of grasses and herbs, blue-eyed gazer into space -- all these are satisfied, all collected and massed in that living body, the sight he sees from the window.

The Earth, then, becomes a repository and collector of events, desires, and other examples of human existence. But more importantly, such things are described as moments.

Does the finding of such moments qualify as a historical view? It is, in the sense that the astronauts are not only experiencing an accumulation of events, but also in that they are performing an act of interpretation. They observe and record the war occurring below, their end result being a collection of human moments. In training their own their own powers of observation on the terrain below, the astronauts acknowledge how the surface of the Earth becomes a repository for all these human moments. The terrain below becomes a site of interpretation and analysis.

The idea of moment, taken from the title of DeLillo’s story, gives us some interpretative leverage. We are accustomed of thinking of a moment in temporal terms. A moment can be an event, an occurrence of brief duration. Yet “moment” also has a scientific definition. In physics, then, we use the term “moment” to describe rotational force. A moment is therefore a measure of the force produced by an object at a distance. This is an interesting take on the definition not only because it complicates the title of DeLillo’s short story, but also because it describes the act of narration occurring in the story. The narrators impart their own views (and lasers) onto the surface below – it is then quite possible that the “human moments” talked about in the story are a measure of the force acted upon the surface of the Earth by the astronauts aboard the military spacecraft. But “moment” also suggests circular motion. The moment could very well then describe the force of the orbit around the Earth.

Periods. Cycles. Such words describe the passage of time. They are concepts with visual analogs – the circular shapes and logics of orbits, rotations, et cetera. They are constructions in the sense that they demonstrate the assigning of words to natural concepts. Historian of science Peter Galison identifies two types of constructions, each a discontinuity coded to a specific type of practice: “To the historian, the choice of periodization (discontinuity in time) roughly parallels the cartographer’s choice of map type (discontinuity in space).” But there is a way to construct continuity, a way to undo these discontinuities implicit in periodization and cartography, but using these very same processes to arrive at a slightly different understanding of landscape. To put it another way, it is a process not unsimilar to age-old unities of time, action, and place as iterated in Aristotle’s Poetics.

Contemporary discourses in the field of landscape often mention the process of “recovering” landscape. This process of recovery usually invokes the restorative potential of criticism and history – a way of reclaiming time and space. In his introduction to Recovering Landscape (1999), James Corner considers this project of reclamation as the gathering of “memories, places, sites, ecologies, and potential futures.” On one hand, It is possible to frame the above-mentioned continuity in terms of restoring time and space. On the other hand, the above concepts – periods, orbits, cycles, rockets, and spacecraft – can yield a different understanding of the landscape below. This understanding, of course, is the point of DeLillo's quote.

But turning the camera eye in the opposite direction towards the heavens provides us with a similar experience. Al Reinert's For All Mankind (1989) features a remarkable assemblage of footage taken by NASA astronauts. The lunar landscape, as one astronaut remarks, is a ashen oasis amidst the most brilliant sunlight and the blackest void of space imaginable. Amidst this far outpost, Reinert presents us with a collection of material artifacts floating and drifting in space and on the moon. Sitting through For All Mankind's 96-minute running time, one will see ... stuff. Capsules crammed with papers, food tubes, cassette players. An astronaut dropping a hammer and feather on the surface of the moon (to prove Galileo's famous theorems). Paint chips flying away from a massive Saturn V rocket hurling into the atmosphere. Panels and bulkheads separating away from the third stage rocket. A singular glove flying away from the cockpit of a Gemini capsule. And finally, an astronaut's face peering through the clear visor of his helmet, his face taking in the rays of the sun without the protection of smoked plexiglass ... a reminder of human moments in outer space.

Friday, July 10, 2009


Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), Midway Gardens (1914, demolished 1929)

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word "ghost" appeared as early as 900 AD as gast. A gast is a spirit, or as the OED tells us, a "principle of life." "Agast" or "Aghast" thus signals a reaction upon seeing a "gast" -- white knuckles, quickened heartbeats, uncontrollable sweating become evidence that someone has taken fright at an apparition ... that someone has seen a ghost.

For his book Spectral Evidence (2005), critic Ulrich Baer explains how photography facilitates such a reaction. He notes how "In the photograph, time itself seems to have been carved up and ferried, unscathed, into the viewer's present". A photograph therefore does much more than provide evidence of something that happened a long time ago. A photograph is a record, yet it is also a form of transport, a conveyance that interrupts and forces the spectral traces of a forgotten past into a familiar present.

Architectural discourse has made similar use of photography. A photograph of a building in a book or magazine guarantees architecture's afterlife. A picture ensures that a tabled project, bombed-out residence, or failed city plan will live past its own death. A photograph also becomes the primary means for transmission of an idea for a building. A case in point would be the various photographs of Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House appearing in various publications in the 1950s -- these images would be an important point of reference for the Smithson's Hunstanton School (1949-1954). But consider a more controversial example -- Philip Johnson's Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut (1949) . Though Johnson was no doubt familiar with the photographs of the Farnsworth House in publications, he famously quipped that his house, with its abstracted frame and dominating central hearth was inspired by the ruins he saw in 1939, as a correspondent following Wehrmacht troops as they crossed into Poland. The Glass House then operates in a similar fashion as a photograph -- the building's imageability not only records a Miesian precedent, but also suggests the idea of something that happened before. But this is only to reaffirm that photography's promises are twofold: in addition to a guarantee of an eternal life of sorts for architecture, by preserving its forms and volumes for future consumption, photographs also help disseminate a rich visual record to be adopted by generations of future designers.

But an architectural photograph can also cause someone to take fright, to become aghast. A case in point would be the photographs of Frank Lloyd Wright's Midway Gardens (1914, demolished 1929). A few remaining photographs show Wright's European-inspired garden teeming with people. One of these captures a vibrant night scene (image at top). A throng of impeccably-dressed men and women sit around tables, laughing and talking. In the background, Wright's architectural gestures are visible. A series of flat-roofed buildings with large balconies act as framing devices. And this photograph was most likely taken from such a balcony. The Gardens become a series of overlapping landscapes. Planar surfaces and shallow-roofed follies give way to throngs of people. And in the distance, an orthogonal band shell covers a tuxedo-clad band as they play to the crowd. Yet this photograph has a touch of the spectral. A strange, glowing haze outlines the lightposts and buildings in the background. And if one looks carefully enough, behind these, a ghostly building with an arched facade can be seen emerging from the darkness.

Wright, Midway Gardens (1914, demolished 1929)

Another photograph shows the Midway Gardens from a different angle. Here, the photographer would have most likely been to the right of the bandshell, capturing images of a large structure that would have sat to the left of what the first photograph depicts. The second photograph, with its larger depth of field, captures more people and more architecture within a single frame. Here, however, there is very little night sky. As in the first photograph, lightposts create an eerie, incandescent haze, a diaphanous film that nevertheless manages to cast harsh shadows on the buildings in the rear of the photograph.

This is all, of course, secondary to what is perhaps the photograph's most glaring aspect: its obvious state of decay and disrepair. We know, of course, that supervening economic circumstance and dwindling public interest led to the demolishing of Wright's gardens. But there is something about the shoddy state of this photograph that really causes to take fright at such decay and disrepair. It is as if the careless folds and creases, the glue stains and water marks that delimit areas of neglect across the image suggest the Midway Garden's ultimate fate. Wright's building, much like this image, is a forgotten object, an architectural tchotchke folded, creased, and stuffed into some cobweb-ridden corner of an amnesiac mind.

These two photographs of Midway Gardens are also startling in their depiction of people long dead and gone. Faces and body gestures invite speculation. These people could have been anyone. But notice how some of them look back at the camera, aware of the phosphorous flash that will forever freeze the image on a photographic plate. One person is even captured mid-bite. Another looks up momentarily as he reads a newspaper. If these images were taken a day, or even a second later, a totally different image would have been captured. These are captured moments as fleeting as the architecture that encloses them.

Antonin Raymond in Tokyo Golf Club (ca. 1930s)

Consider the ghosts in another photograph, taken sometime in the early to mid-1930's, inside the Tokyo Golf Club. The room is crowded, visible with wood framing and columning familiar to vernacular Japanese architecture. A group of well-dressed Japanese males stare confidently at the camera, drinking and smoking. Towards the middle of the picture is Czech-born architect Antonin Raymond (1888-1976), who would design the modern addition to the Club in 1931-32. Raymond worked with Wright for the designs for the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, and his subsequent designs combined modernist volumetrics and surfacing with Japanese architectural detailing. And here, in this photograph, Raymond's downward gaze is remarkable and startling, perhaps capturing a moment of deep introspection or even shame. A little over 10 years later, in 1943, the U.S. Army's Chemical Warfare Service would hire Raymond to design a series of "Typical Japanese Structures" in the Utah desert. These buildings, known as "Japanese Village" would be used to test the efficacy of the Army's new line of napalm incendiary bombs. It would not be hard to imagine that the very people sitting around napalm would perish years later as part of the firebombing of Japan -- a project that, quite strangely, relied on Raymond's architectural expertise.

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) in the Overlook Hotel, from The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

The photograph certainly calls to mind an image from popular culture -- the last shots of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980). As Al Bowlly's "Midnight, The Stars and You" plays in the background, the camera closes in on an image of the main ballroom in the Overlook Hotel, circa 1921. Jack Nicholson's face is immediately recognizable. His toothy stare is more shocking than Raymond's gaze. Moments before, the camera trained on Nicholson's dead body in the middle of a snowy garden maze, his face covered with layers of frost. The final image of the film -- an image replete with architectural extravagance -- certainly echoes the photographs of Midway Gardens and the Tokyo Golf Club. All of these images capture moments from a distant era. Unlike the image from the Overlook hotel (which uses musical accompaniment to nostalgic effect), the Midway Gardens and Tokyo Golf Club seem mute. All images, however, are unified in their ability to capture the stares and voices of the dead. Here, through the medium of architecture, we have seen a gast.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Your City, in Inkwash, Rapidograph, and Zip-A-Tone

Radiant City, from Vortex Comics' Mr. X (Source: Architects Journal)

Following up on its successful listing of Star Wars and Video Game Architecture, Architects Journal has just published Rory Olcayto's list of Top 10 Comic Book Cities. The list is by no means exhaustive, but the cities that did make this list are pretty fabulous:

10. Radiant City (from Mr. X)

9. Tintin's Inca City

8. Metropolis (from Superman)

7. Urbicand

6. Gotham City

5. Moebius' The Long Tomorrow

4. Daredevil's New York

3. From Hell's London

2. Chris Ware's Chicago

1. Mega City One

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Accessorizing Your Aerial, Urban Future

Icon A5 Light Sport Aircraft (Source)

Here's a familiar image: you wake up early in the morning, read the morning news, drink coffee, and fly away to work. I call this image "familiar" in the sense that popular culture is teeming with images of people climbing into rockets, autogyros, helicopters, and other types of aircraft only to shuttle off to complete the day's errands. From The Jetsons to Blade Runner, personal air vehicles have been an almost necessary complement to popular visions of the future.

Cleaning the A5 (Source)

It continues to this day. I.D. Magazine recently gave the Icon A5 Sport Aircraft a "Design Distinction" award for its 2009 Annual Design Review. According to the company website, founder Kirk Hawkins wanted to create a new type of aircraft "designed to deliver an amazing and safe flying experience, but also to inspire us the way great sports cars do." The result, the tiny, sleek, compact ICON A5 "is a bold yet elegant design that communicates beauty, performance, safety, and most importantly… fun." A quick glance at the various renderings on the website communicate this point: we see family taking a plane to the beach, and in one image, a man hoses of his A5 in his own driveway. Although these images depict the A5 as a recreational vehicle (something like a ATV or personal watercraft), it would not be difficult to make a conceptual leap and see Icon's aircraft as a commuter vehicle.

Icon A5 Cockpit (Source)

Such a leap is no doubt helped by the fact that the Icon A5 is almost, literally, a car with wings. The various altimeters and airspeed indicators in the A5's cockpit echo those from an automobile dashboard ... and a contemporary one at that, for the GPS display in the A5's instrument panel is not unlike one you would find in many entry-level sedans. Icon's aircraft is also quite small, earning the FAA's new "light sport aircraft" designation. The A5 also has headlights, giving a more car-like appearance.

Republic RC-3 Seabee (Source)

There is nothing about the A5 that looks outright futuristic. In fact, the airplane comes in a familiar pusher-seaplane configuration with retractable lading gear. The A5's high-wing loading and cockpit-engine arrangements echo the Republic RC-3 Seabee Amphibian, a postwar entry into the realm of "personal aircraft." Aside from the obvious formal differences, cabin size, and engine capacity, there is still very little difference between these aircraft. A website dedicated to the Seabee asserts that Republic built the Seabee according to "conventional manufacturing methods." The A5, on the other hand, is built from advanced "lightweight and non-corrosive carbon fiber." The original product brochure even stated that "Republic engineers are evolving a plane for all-around personal, family or business use that has long been wanted by sportsmen for hunting and fishing use and by all types of private fliers who like the additional safety and flexibility of both land and water operation." This statement echoes many of the testimonials on Icon's website.

In this age of hub-and-spoke airline networks, frequent flier programs, code-sharing, Southwest, JetBlue, Virgin America, Ryanair, et cetera, we usually think of the airplane-as-conveyance. Yet Icon's website -- via renderings, images, videos and testimonials -- points to the airplane-as-accessory. It would not take much to see A5 featured in one of Monocle's lavish techno-luxury spreads. And for a suggested price of $139,000, the A5 is definitely an accessory for the wealthier set.

Icon's Hawkins explains on the company website how new FAA regulations inaugurated the idea of the airplane-as-accessory. Yet one could even say that Icon's goal is to show how the "light sport aircraft" is an accessory for modern living. And though this post began with an invocation of popular images of personal aircraft, the Icon A5 belongs to an important modernist trope: the airplane as an accessory of modern living.

Cityscape from Moses King's Dream of New York (1911) (top); and Maureen O'Sullivan and John Garrick in Just Imagine (David Butler, Dir., 1930)

The airplane was a familiar staple in popular visions of 20th century urban modernity and living. For example, the King's Views of New York, a series of souvenir books published by Moses King from 1908 to 1911, show airships and light-framed propeller aircraft flying through a dense urban fabric. David Butler's Just Imagine (1930) was a musical-comedy that depicted New York in the 1980s. Stephen Goosson's sets for the film show vast glass canyons and bridges connecting monumental skyscrapers. A giant pedestrian and vehicular thruway runs through the middle. Architecture historian Dietrich Neumann suggests that Goosson's sets show the influence of Hugh Ferriss's charcoal drawings depicting setbacks and Raymond Hood's "skybridges".1

Erich Kettelhut, Set and Conceptual Drawings for Metropolis (1927) (Sources here and here)

More familiar, or course, are Otto Hunte's, Erich Kettelhut's, and Karl Vollbrecht's set designs for Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927). The epitome of their well-known designs is the massive skyscraper with petal-like cantilevers -- the building the serves as the headquarters for Johann Fredersen, the film's villainous industrialist. In Metropolis, this babel-tower-like building dominates a canyon made of smaller skyscrapers. At the bottom, cars and bodies clog the streets. Higher up, the colors lighten: bridges connect buildings lightly, delicately. Small propeller monoplanes circle the brilliantly-lit sky above. The differences in shadow and light between the top of Fredersen's skyscraper and the glass canyon below are vital. This contrast emphasizes a key theme for Metropolis: the division of dark and light, congestion and freedom, ground and air become metaphors for the city's stark division of labor. The airplane therefore becomes the proper means for conveyance in Metropolis. In fact, one of Kettelhut's early designs for the set shows a giant airport sitting atop Fredersen's skyscraper.

Le Corbusier, Maps and Section of South America, from Precisions (1930)

The airplane became a familiar staple in some notable projects by architects in the early 20th century. More often than not, the presence of the airplane was something like a guarantee of foresightedness, sophistication, or even of technological savvy. Before writing Aircraft (1935), his paean to flying machines, Le Corbusier gave a series of lectures in Buenos Aires about the state of architecture and urban planning in the Americas. Collected in a single volume called Précisions sur un État Présent de l'Architecture er de l'Urbanisme (1930), several of the lectures feature Le Corbusier's famous exhortation about the aerial view. His drawings showing how a Plan Voisin-like series of cruciform towers could be transplanted to South America feature aircraft. Here, again, the airplane is an indicator of modernity.

Ivan Leonidov (1902-1959), Narkomtiazprom (Commissariat of Heavy Industries) (1934)

Other architects looked to the polemical implications of an airplane. Ivan Leonidov's rendering of his Commissariat for Heavy Industry (1934) is the exact opposite of a bird's-eye view. The vantage point (more like a worm's eye view) here is slightly above grade -- it is as if the viewer is craning his neck at an unnatural angle to see Leonidov's steel and glass fantasy reach into the sky. The various antennae jutting out of the sky read as a much more sparse ornamentation than that on Kettelhut's design for Metropolis. They suggest airplane parts -- the various struts and guy wires that bind a biplane's wing to the fuselage.

Tupolev ANT-20 "Maxim Gorkiy"

Yet the focus of attention is in the sky -- a single Tupolev ANT-20 aircraft (with two smaller Polikarpov I-15 fighters attached to its wingtips) lumbers in the air above. The ANT-20 is an unusual aircraft. Designed as a flying propaganda machine, the airplane (nicknamed the "Maxim Gorkiy") featured a printing press, radio station, movie screening room, and photographic developing equipment. It is the perfect complement to Leonidov's building.

Helicopter-like vehicles flying above Wright's Broadacre City

Although there are many other examples, it is worth noting that personal aircraft were an important part of these modernist visions. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright's drawings for his Broadacre City project (1932-1958) always feature small, helicopter-like devices hovering over the landscape. Such a vision suggests how personal aircraft are an important means of conveyance for a low-density urbanism like Broadacre City.

Norman Bel Geddes (1893-1958), Concept Model for a Flying Car (1945) (Source)

But the project that most closely resembles the Icon A5 is Norman Bel Geddes' 1945 concept for a flying car. This hybrid vehicle is quite literally a car with wings. The most familiar image shows the car flying over a low-density Broadacre-like landscape. But another image of the concept model reveals more about the nature of Bel Geddes' project. Here, the flying car is parked on a quiet residential street -- its folded wings suggest a carrier fighter plane transplanted to the suburbs for everyday use.

Bel Geddes,
Concept Model for a Flying Car (1945) (top); Grumman F4F Wildcat with Folded Wings (bottom)

The flying car has been a familiar concept ... for a long time. And in the 1930s, converting cars for aerial use could have made a certain amount of sense. If the automobile became an important aspect of American and European urbanisms, then it follows that the flying car would perform a similar function in the future city. And as the Icon A5 demonstrates, this idea is still very much alive.

1 Dietrich Neumann, Film Architecture: Set Designs from "Metropolis" to "Blade Runner" (New York: Prestel, 1996), p. 112.