Sunday, January 24, 2010

Architecture Against the System (2): The BAC TSR-2



British Aerospace Corporation TSR-2

The study of a specific aircraft can be useful in disentangling the problematic relationship between systems thinking and design. Like the Electric Lightning, the design British Aerospace Corporation’s (BAC) Tactical Strike and Reconnaissance Aircraft, or TSR-2, demonstrates that a warplane can be considered as part of a larger technological system. And though the case of the TSR-2 demonstrates a very systemic conception of an aircraft, it too demonstrates the limits of systems thinking. 


A look at the TSR-2 shows how the 1957 Defence White Paper affected military aircraft design. In the late 1950s, the Ministry of Supply issued General Operational Requirement (GOR) 339, asking for an advanced combat aircraft.[1] In addition to it having supersonic capabilities, GOR 339 required that this aircraft not be a bomber, as the RAF was in the process of replacing its front-line nuclear bombers with ballistic missiles. The resulting aircraft – a sleek, high-winged jet with large, powerful engines, variable geometry wings, and a variety of advanced targeting and electronic warfare sensors (including the world’s first terrain-following radar) -- contributed to make the TSR-2 Britain’s first wholly computerized aircraft.





Top: BAC TSR-2 “Weapons System” Brochure, Front Cover; Bottom, Table of Contents [Source: John Law, Aircraft Stories: Decentering the Object in Technoscience (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2002)].


It is important to note, however, that some of the TSR-2’s promotional materials depicted the aircraft as a weapons system. In fact, the cover to the TSR-2’s sales brochure did not use the word “airplane.” Rather, it labeled the TSR-2 as a literal “weapons system”[2] and the table of contents went on to describe the TSR-2 as a combination of systems. Hence the “performance section” considered the aircraft’s different roles – and each role was described as a system. There was a “Nuclear Attack” system, a “High Explosive Attack System”, even a Reconnaissance system. Subsequent sections, with names like “Operations” and “Engineering”, further cast the aircraft as layer upon layer of systems.[3]




Top: Drawing of TSR-2 in Battlefield Conditions; Bottom: Diagram of TSR-2 in Battlefield Conditions (Source: Law, Aircraft Stories)


The brochure graphics also supported the TSR-2’s systemic nature. They suggested that this systemic nature was due in no small part to the attendant equipment needed to maintain and service the aircraft during military operations. In one image, the TSR-2 was shown tethered to ground equipment.[4] In another, this tethering was shown as part of the TSR-2’s usage cycle.[5] This was a development that certainly speaks to historian Sean Keller’s idea that systems aesthetics does not require “architectural figures, objects, meanings – only relationships and form.”[6]


The images in the TSR-2 sales brochure not only gave pictorial evidence of how designers conceived of the warplane as a part of a comprehensive weapons system, but they also pointed to the complexity of the design process. In his writings about the TSR-2 project, the sociologist of technology John Law described the relationship between two types of networks involved in the warplane’s design process. A “global network” represented “a set of relations between an actor and his neighbors … and between those neighbors on the other” that “generates a space, a period of time, and a set of resources in which innovation may take place.”[7] A “local network”, on the other hand, referred to “the development of an array of the heterogeneous set of bits and pieces that is necessary to the successful production of any working device.”[8] When considering the TSR-2 project, Law looked for evidence of a local network in the various “design teams, design features, schedules, and contractors.”[9] Law called the figurative place where the global and local transact a “negotiation space.”[10]

Here, a systems-influenced approach can be used to understand the complicated interrelationships among the various teams of designers involved in GOR 339. Recalling the collusion of global and local within a “negotiation space”, it is important to note that in the case of the TSR-2, the global network resources included “finance, political support, technical specification and, in some cases at least, a hostile neutrality.”[11]
Yet the interactions between the global network’s institutional resources and the local network’s design and technology cultures hampered the TSR-2’s development. All primary decisions regarding design were made within the global network’s ambit. For example, the Ministry of Supply (one of the main global actors) issued all engine and powerplant procurement requests to Bristol Siddley despite the designers’ wish that the contract go to Rolls Royce.[12] In other instances, conflicting orders and requirements from the Air Staff and Air Ministry meant that the TSR-2 design teams would never receive enough time to fix the aircraft design.[13]

The local networks also contributed to the difficulties in the TSR-2’s design process. Coordination became difficult because of the sheer number of actors involved. For instance, whereas the Vickers design team designed avionics systems for subsonic flight, the English Electric team worked on supersonic airframe designs.[14]
This impasse had the potential to undo the TSR-2 project, especially since these two different conceptualizations of the warplane would require radically different wing designs. In 1959 the Ministry of Supply designated Vickers as the prime contractor for the TSR-2 project – a decision that angered English Electric’s staff of designers.[15] The ensuing rivalry created an additional problem in building the TSR-2’s production and development variants: Vickers and English Electric could not decide on where to build the TSR-2.[16]



The Ministry of Supply recognized that a solution to this problem relied on centralized control. It is ironic that a 1955 report made as the TSR-2 was about to enter the prototype stage emphasized a tension between the systemic nature of warplane design and the need for centrality:

An aircraft must be treated not merely as a flying machine but as a complete 'weapons system'. This phrase means the combination of airframe and engine, the armament needed to enable the aircraft to strike at its target, the radio by which the pilot is guided to action or home to base, the radar with which he locates his target and aims his weapons, and all the oxygen, cooling and other equipment which ensure the safety and efficiency of the crew. Since the failure of any one link could make a weapons system ineffective, the ideal would be that complete responsibility for coordinating the various components of the system should rest with one individual, the designer of the aircraft. Experience has shown that this is not completely attainable, but it is the intention to move in this direction as far as practical considerations allow.[17]
In other words, despite all the benefits that a systemic approach would bring to the TSR-2 project, designers should be, quite literally, the architects of the project.

That design offered a solution to impasses in systemic thinking should be taken quite literally. In the case of the TSR-2, the creation of a physical airframe design became the highest priority. Although advanced avionics and radar equipment were part of the project specification, conflicts between local and global networks – specifically, conceiving of an aircraft that could perform well in subsonic and supersonic conditions – rested on the design of a physical artifact: a wing. And yet the idea of design as a solution for systemic problems had architectural significance as well.

One way to conceive of this idea is to reframe the system-versus-design dichotomy as a dynamic relationship between multiplicity and singularity. In the case of the TSR-2, the complex interrelationship between global and local networks is one way of articulating the idea of multiplicities. In this framework, each systemic aspect of the TSR-2 becomes a relevant object of inquiry. Yet the primacy of design, or rather, the efficacy of design-based solutions in the midst of systemic problems speaks to the idea of singularity. In other words, it was the design of an aircraft, and not a weapons system, that helped the TSR-2 project advance from the prototype to the development stage. Yet the history of the TSR-2 project shows an oscillation between systemic- and design-based approaches.

The corrective to this oscillation is a centering, which in the case of Law’s analysis, would refer to the ordering function that design played in the TSR-2 process.[18]
It is curious, however, that he referred to this centering process as performing an “architecture of modernism.”[19] Although a discussion of modernity and modernism is outside the scope of this study, the use of the term “architecture” here should be taken seriously for two reasons. First, the term “architecture” resonates with the idea of design as a system-corrector. Second, and more importantly, it speaks to a tension between subject and object, and specifically, how ordering the world becomes a way of distinguishing between the two.[20]



Before considering how architecture can become a conceptual barrier to systems thinking, Law’s notion of centering must be understood in light of other developments in postwar Britain. One of these was the ascendancy of the Council of Industrial Design (CoID), an organization founded in 1944 by Hugh Dalton as an initiative to encourage British industries to create “good design” for postwar markets. In 1949, Dalton founded the CoID’s main propagandist organ, Design, as a platform for commentary by designers, architects, and critics as well as government officials willing to promote contemporary English industrial design. With articles describing the role of government institutions in the marketing of British design, in-depth design analyses comparing the virtues of English goods over inferior European and American products, and editorials outlining the importance of design management, Design became an influential and outspoken voice for an England whose portfolio of goods was becoming internationalized.
Mayall and Shackel, "Control Loop Concept Diagram", Design 148 (1961) (Source: Alise Upitis, “Nature Normative:
The Design Methods Movement, 1944-1967,” Ph.D dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, 2008)


In 1959, Dalton hired aerospace engineer and aircraft designer W.H. Mayall as the CoID’s Senior Projects Officer as well as contributing editor to Design. One of Mayall’s earliest articles for Design called attention to the troubled relationship between the system and designer. For “Control Loop Concept”, written in 1961 with E.M.I. engineer Brian Shackel, Mayall built upon his interest in airplane cabin ergonomics and laid out the groundwork for a design method based on an “ergonomically-based human-machine system.”[21] Their control loop concept was cybernetic in nature: a human operator acted as a “negative feedback servomechanism” by receiving, interpreting, and acting upon information provided by a control display.[22] The accompanying diagram further emphasized its cybernetic aspect. Here, an outline of a mackintosh-clad man with extended hands showed how a “human control channel” processed information from an “information channel” and acted via a “machine control channel.” With this image, Mayall and Shackel depicted the primacy of the individual designer as a vital and integral part of a system. This echoed the Ministry of Supply’s 1955 report that pressed the importance of the aircraft designer in the creation of the TSR-2 weapon system.


As evidenced through the use of the term “channel”, Mayall’s control loop concept showed the influence of communications theory as a model for a design system. He continued this trend in his 1966 article for Design, “Let’s Not Build Barriers With Words”, here arguing how disagreements in terminology could result in unproductive confusion. Focusing his attention on the word “design”, Mayall created a chart showing the different ways in which industrial designers and engineering designers defined design-related terms. The actual word “design” brought these differences to bear: whereas an industrial designer would define “design” as an “aesthetic quality” or “external form and ‘fitness for purpose’,” an engineer would refer to it as “process or activity deciding the nature of a product.”[23] These differences were more than semantic—they caused a conceptual misaligning between industrial designers and engineers that jeopardized the creation of “good design.”

Mayall was quick to put aside any notions that such differences were the result of a “two-culture complex.”[24]
Rather, he looked to the uninformed crossing of jargon between disciplines as the main problem. The solution to this impasse was to acknowledge differences in terminology and to reframe the issue: “After all”, Mayall wrote, “we are not concerned with examples of design, but with well designed products.”[25] Architects, however, were the worst offenders. Mayall wrote:
[T]he oddest differences can occur when the engineering designer or industrial designer manipulates “design” and “engineering” in the ambivalent manner in which “architecture” is often used. For example, the dictionary says that “architecture” is the “science of building”. Thus it is a function or activity. But “architecture” may also be used to identify a class of buildings, or a desirable requirement in buildings. When used in these senses, those of an abstract noun, interpretations of “architecture” vary according to inclination. Thus Nikolaus Pevsner says “A bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln cathedral is a piece of architecture”, and so restricts the word to certain sorts of buildings. Again, many books on “architecture” are simply studies of facades and so limit the word to one particular requirement.[26]



General Dynamics F-­‐111 and E-­Type Jaguar, from Mayall, “Let’s Not Build Barriers With Words”, Design 214 (1966).

To emphasize this point, Mayall claimed that the particular demands of a discipline could not condition its requisite terminologies. Varied demands created varied terms. And this was the lesson to be learned from product design. For Mayall, the discipline of architecture never acknowledged that abstract terminology was anathema to good design: “’Design’ in an aesthetic sense may be difficult to use when products are conditioned by the medium in which they operate.”[27] Similarly, vocabularies needed to be flexible in order to accommodate differences in outlook. To illustrate this point, along with a picture of an E-Type Jaguar, Mayall included an image of a swing-wing General Dynamics F-111 fighter-bomber to show that “form may not even be fixed.”[28] This image was especially apposite. If the American-made aircraft was touted as the result of an exemplary design method, it was because it was not subjected to the same ambivalent idea of design as architecture. In other words, The F-111 was not the TSR-2. In 1963, the British and Australian Ministry of Supply scrapped the TSR-2 project in favor of the American aircraft.[29] The F-111 was system without architecture.
_____________________________
Notes


[1] John Law and Michel Callon, “The Life and Death of an Aircraft: A Network Analysis of Technical Change” in Wiebe E, Bijker and John Law, eds., Shaping Technology, Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnological Change (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1992), p. 23.
[2] Law, Aircraft Stories: Decentering the Object in Technoscience (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2002), p. 19.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid. , p. 21.
[5] Ibid. , p. 27.
[6] See Sean Blair Keller, Systems Aesthetics: Architectural Theory at the University of Cambridge, 1960-75 (Unpublished Ph.D dissertation, Harvard University, 2005).
[7] “The Life and Death of an Aircraft”, 21-22.
[8] Ibid. , p. 22.
[9] Ibid. , p. 26.
[10] Ibid. , p. 21.
[11] Ibid. , p. 42.
[12] Ibid. , p. 32.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid. , p. 29.
[15] Ibid ., p. 30.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Aircraft Stories , 111 (Italics mine).
[18] Ibid. , p. 113.
[19] Ibid (Emphasis mine).
[20] The literature on the relationship of modernity and modernism to subject-object dichotomies is exhaustive. There is, however, an important core of texts that prove useful: Anthony Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1991); Andreas Huyssen, “Mapping the Postmodern”, New German Critique, No. 33 (Autumn, 1984), pp. 5-52; Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1984); and Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991).
[21] Alise Upitis, “Nature Normative: The Design Methods Movement, 1944-1967,” Ph.D dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2008, p. 99.
[22] Ibid.
[23] W.H. Mayall, “Let’s Not Build Barriers With Words”, Design 214 (Oct., 1966), p. 28.
[24] Ibid. , p. 29.
[25] Ibid. , p. 31.
[26] Ibid.
[27] Ibid. , p. 30.
[27] Ibid.
[29] Correspondence from Australian Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies to English Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home, 24 October 1963, National Archives of Australia <http://naa12.naa.gov.au/scripts/imagine.asp?B=1345810&I=1&SE=1> (Accessed 10 August 2009) .

Architecture Against the System (1): Electric Lightning




Still/title card from "Streaked Lightning" (Central Office of Information Film, 1962)
In “Streaked Lightning”, a 1962 film produced by Central Office of Information Film for Britain’s Air Ministry, a pristine English Electric Lightning carves graceful arcs against a clear, blue sky. Off screen, amidst an upbeat bop soundtrack, a narrator calmly, yet enthusiastically asks the viewer, “Want to fly a Lightning, want to occupy the single seat in the single fighter, all weather, night and day, highflying supersonic, supernormal Lightning?”[1] The star of this brief film was the Lightning itself, a very successful aircraft that had a troubled start.
English Electric (BAC) Lightning
The Lightning (above) was one of the few aircraft that survived the Ministry of Defence’s 1957 Defence White Paper. Authored by Defence Minister Duncan Sandys, the White Paper was a document that prognosticated the future of the British armed forces in light of current events. Current developments in nuclear warfare and aviation technology inspired critics and military planners to rethink the role of aerial warfare in the late 20th century and beyond. In matters of defense, the question was one of whether Britain would be better served through a fleet of bombers or through an arsenal of ballistic missiles. The corollary to this issue was whether to deploy aircraft or missiles at the onset of a Soviet nuclear attack. The 1957 white paper advocated that a fully automated missile defense system would replace manned aerial operations. A 1959 summary of the white paper concurred:
There is a growing lack of kiloton bombs and production of megaton weapons proceeds steadily. The last series of British tests and valuable exchange of information with the United States have enabled technical advances in the design of nuclear warheads to be made which will significantly increase the rate of production. The development of propelled stand-off bombs continues to progress satisfactorily.

The Lightning supersonic fighter will come into service in 1960, equipped initially with Firestreak [missiles], later with a more advanced weapon. Defence of the deterrent bases will be increasingly performed by ground-to-air missiles. Bloodhound[2]
is beginning to be deployed operationally. A more advanced ground-to-air weapon is being developed.[3]
The Electric Lightning was conceived as an interim solution. Although some viewed the single-seat interceptor as an outmoded weapon, designers and planners nevertheless outfitted the aircraft with the most advanced avionics and weapons of its day. The narrator in “Streaked Lightning” even pointed out to this combination of old-fashioned piloting and newly-fangled jet technology when he claimed, “Want to be the intelligence behind the radar, that feeds the brain, that guides the missile?”[4]




Reyner Banham, ed. “1960”, Architecture Review (March 1960)
The narrator’s comment also demonstrated how the Electric Lightning was an exemplar of systemic thinking. One reason for this was that the Electric Lightning captured the attention of technology enthusiasts. Architecture audiences also expressed interest in the aircraft. The Electric Lightning was featured in a series of articles curated by historian of art (and aviation enthusiast) Reyner Banham for a March 1960 issue of The Architectural Review. Called “1960”, these articles showed Banham as that most interesting of a historians, one with a foot moored in the past, but with a demanding, discerning gaze towards the future. The March 1960 article, called “The Science Side”, consisted of three brief pieces, each commented on by Banham. The first was by A.C. Brothers, a designer for the English aerospace firm English Electric. The second was by M.E. Drummond, from IBM-UK. The last was by R. Llewelyn Davies, of the Nuffield Foundation. Brothers’ piece, “Weapons Systems”, concerned the futility of military aviation at the onset of advancements in rocketry and ballistic missile technology. Says Banham of Brothers’ contribution: “rocketry – because of its relative lack of financial restraints – has gone further into the fields of total planning and teamwork than architects have yet dared to dream.”[5] Asking why architects have failed to recognize this, Banham continued his invective: “Throughout the present century architects have made fetishes of technological and scientific concepts out of context and been disappointed by them when they developed according to the processes of technical development, not according to the hopes of architects.”[6] But the salient question is: why the English Electric Lightning? Why a weapons system?
We can begin to answer this question by considering historian Sean Keller’s idea of systems aesthetics. Says Keller of the systems aesthetic: “the systems aesthetic is thoroughly syntactic, anti-semantic, and iconoclastic. Ideally, for the systems aesthetic, there are no architectural figures, objects, meanings – only relationships and forms.”[7] Here, I will show how Brothers’ invocation of the Electric Lightning in the context of Banham’s article was totally apposite. This fighter jet exemplifies Keller’s idea of a “systems aesthetic”, but only to a certain extent. The Electric Lighting is about relationships and forms, but it wasn’t until the development of a later jet, British Aerospace’s TSR2, that offered the fullest expression of the airplane as a systematized object.



English Electric Lightning F.1, from A.C. Brothers,“Weapons Systems”, in Reyner Banham, ed. “1960”, Architecture Review (Mar., 1960)

The image of the Electric Lightning from the pages of The Architectural Review presented an introductory and compelling look into the idea of weapons systems. In plan, the image revealed a single-seat fighter with swept-back wings to facilitate supersonic as well as transonic speeds.[8] The different numbers all corresponded to a different function of the aircraft. But this image suggested that these functions work in concert. In other words, this was a diagram of a weapons system. It was an image that not only confirmed the systemic nature of this jet, but also alluded to the systemic nature of the means of production that led to the creation of this aircraft.
The institutional background surrounding the Lightning’s development helps place the aircraft in a more historical context. The years 1954 to 1958 – years that coincided with the design and development of the Electric Lightning – marked a high point in British “Big Science.” Indeed, as Keller and others indicate, the British military industry was still working on projects that had been initiated during the Second World War. The Ministry of Supply issued the original requirements leading to the first prototype version of the Electric Lightning, the P.1, in early 1945.[9] Like many other similar projects in the 1950s, the Lightning project required the collaboration of various British military contractors. Big Science was the primary domain of such contractors. The Electric Lightning was an assemblage of several British Big Science projects: the aircraft’s airframe, armaments and avionics were developed at the Royal Aircraft Establishment; its electronic sensing and radar scanning equipment at the Royal Radar Establishment.
Though Banham and Brothers considered the Electric Lightning an exemplary weapons system, the aircraft was famous for its various failures. There is no doubt that it was a successful aircraft: it was, as mentioned earlier, Britain’s first supersonic jet interceptor capable of countering the potential Soviet Bomber threat. But as a weapons system, it was less than stellar. Advances in guided missile technology meant that the Electric Lightning had to be used for a role it had not been designed for: a head-on attack. Although the aircraft brandished state-of-the-art avionics and sensors, the introduction of new guided missile technologies created an additional set of physical and aerodynamic demands that pushed the Lightning’s operational capabilities beyond its limits. A MP with contacts to the Ministry of Supply in England described the problem as such:

The present lead sulphite cell in Blue Jay Mk. I[10] has to rely on most of its radiation [on] the hot exhaust pipes ... Before firing such weapons the fighter must often come close to short range behind the target and within narrow range behind the target and within a narrow cone around the axis of its jet exhausts ... Improved guidance range can result from the introduction of lead telluride cells in Blue Jay Mk.II in place of the lead sulphite cells in Mk. I which will allow lock-on to the jet plumes. Unlike the jet pipe emission on which Blue Jay Mk. I depends these plumes cannot be shielded or cooled as a countermeasure to attacks from the side. Moreover, the jet plumes are visible over a wide range of directions round from the side towards the front, provided the fighter attacks from below the bomber.[11]
As an aircraft designed to attack from the rear, the new requirement that pilots engage in head-on attacks undermined the Electric Lightning’s systemic rationales. The MP remarked on this problem:

The promised integration of the computational aids and electronics -- the aircraft radar, navigation system and attack sight -- never reached the level of contemporary US semi-automatic systems. Interception was, a pilot recalled, 'a real one-armed paper-hanging' operation imposing an extremely high workload. This deficiency was spotted early on by the RAE, and it is noteworthy that, during the programme, the instrument experts at Farnborough reflected that the electronics industry was overloaded and that the effects of lagging equipment development are becoming very apparent in current fighter development.[12]
Despite the Lightning’s lackluster performance in terms of range, radar, avionics, range, and weapons, it did set speed and altitude records. The aircraft stayed at the forefront of Royal Air Force operations into the mid-1980s.
A discussion about a relationship between architecture discourse and the systemic underpinnings of the Electric Lightning calls for revisiting Banham’s “1960” articles for The Architecture Review. Here, architecture presents a professional barrier to systemic thinking. Banham wrote his 1960 articles only a year after C.P. Snow delivered his famous Rede Lecture at Cambridge called “The Two Cultures.” The two deployed similar language for their arguments: whereas Snow distinguished the ideological divides between “scientific” and “literary” cultures[13], Banham identified a similar divide between “tradition” and “technology” in architecture culture.[14] Both thinkers also thought of these divides in historical terms. Snow, for example, made a revisionist argument and identified a gulf between a scientific and traditional culture in the 19th century.[15] In his historical analysis, however, Banham saw the gulf as one stemming from the limits of professional practice. This gulf created a divergent view of architecture. Where architecture, “as a professional activity” could “only be defined in terms of its professional history”, technology required looking at architecture “as the provision of fit environments for human activities.”[16] If the goal of architecture was to effectuate a holistic conception of creating human settlements, Banham then questioned if the architecture profession had really used all its technological acumen for this goal. Using Konrad Wachsmann’s universal jig as an example, he pointed out how architects drew attention to the way the jig operated within a space frame, yet ignored how it performed within the more modest General Panel Housing system.[17] Using housing as an example, Banham therefore suggested that architecture’s rather myopic view of technology operates as an impediment.

Advertisement for the Electric Lightning (1965)
Despite his belief that architects had much to learn about technology, in “The Science Side”, Banham kept the line between tradition and technology intact. This stood in stark contradiction to Snow, who remarked in his 1959 lecture that “[c]losing the gap” between scientific and literary culture was “a necessity in the most abstract intellectual sense, as well as in the most practical.”[18] But Banham went a step further. Following the comparison between the architecture profession and rocketry, he asked whether the latter “called in question any other dreams entertained about the technological world by architects?”[19] Banham continued, “The answer appears to be that ‘components off the peg’ – a concept enjoying the reflected glamour of the mystique of standardization in architectural circles – is an obstruction to total functional planning at the practical as well as the theoretical level.”[20] This was the context in which A.C. Brother’s piece on the Electric Lighting appeared. The “Streaked Lightning” was therefore the very example of a system free from architectural constraints. It is, perhaps, in this sense that the Lightning was "incomparable."

__________

Notes


[1] Central Office of Information Film, “Streaked Lightning” (1962)
[2] The Bristol Bloodhound missile was Britain’s main defensive ground-to-air weapon. Designed to attack incoming fleets of bombers, the missile enjoyed a relatively long operational life, from 1958 to 1991. The success of this weapon reflected the Ministry of Defence’s defense-based priorities. For example, Britain’s first ballistic missile program, the De Havilland Blue Streak, was cancelled in 1960 in favor of smaller, defensive weapons.
[3] The Defence White Paper, “Progress of the Five-Year British Defence Plan (1957-1962)”, Survival Vol. 1, No. 1 (1959), p. 19.
[4] “Streaked Lightning.”
[5] Reyner Banham, “The Science Side”, The Architectural Review, Vol. 127, No. 757 (Mar., 1960), p. 188.
[6] Ibid., p. 189.
[7] Sean Blair Keller, Systems Aesthetics: Architectural Theory at the University of Cambridge, 1960-75 (Unpublished Ph.D dissertation, Harvard University, 2005), p. iii.
[8] “The Science Side”, 189.
[9] Andrew Nahum, “The Royal Aircraft Establishment from 1945 to Concorde,” in Robert Bud and Philip Gummett, eds., Cold War, Hot Science: Applied Research in Britain’s Defence Laboratories 1945-1990 (London: NMSI Trading Ltd, 2003), p. 35.
[10] The Blue Jay was an air-to-air missile specially designed to be carried aboard the Lightning.
[11] Ibid., p. 42.
[12] Ibid.
[13] C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures and A Second Look: An Expanded Version of the Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991 [1959]), pp. 10-22.
[14] Banham, “1960: Stocktaking”, The Architectural Review, Vol. 127, No. 756 (Feb., 1960), p. 93.
[15] “The Two Cultures,” 23.
[16] “1960: Stocktaking”, 93.
[17] Ibid.
, p. 94-95.
[18] The Two Cultures
, 50.
[19]
The Science Side”, 188-89.
[20] Ibid.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Vertical Poché




Top: from The Searchers (dir. John Ford, 1956); Middle: from Kill Bill Vol. 2 (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2004); Bottom, from Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2009).

More traditional forms of architectural representation use black and white to suggest differences in spatial articulations. On the one hand, Giambattista Nolli's figure-ground drawing of Rome features alternating fields of dark and white space to distinguish between architectural objects and their immediate urban context. Beaux-Arts drawing techniques, on the other hand, emphasized the use of blackened poché to distinguish between the solidity of walls and columns and the (white) space inside a building. What connects these two modes of representation is their familiarity as ways of depicting architectural and urban objects in plan.

Cinema transcends such preoccupations with the horizontal plane. And yet there are some instances where directors use something approximating the architectural poche as a way of delimiting visual fields within a frame. The above images demonstrate this idea. All are taken ostensibly from within a house. In each, the camera eye is on axis with the door. The viewer's eye tracks through the space of the house, though the door, and into a space that is as boundless as the architecture is constricting. Architecture here is rendered as shadow—a kind of vertical or elevational poche that does nothing to articulate volumetric complexities between spaces. Thanks to differences in lighting, there is no sense of the thickness of walls. The use of black only deemphasizes foreground in favor of background. It's not that the architecture becomes fleeting. Far from it—each frame is dominated by a massive field of black. In a sense, architecture dominates each frame. In vertical, then, the figure-ground relationship is maintained. Yet the light beyond, the brilliant landscapes in the distance, become more important. A different relationship between the architectural object and its context begins to take hold. The two are collapsed on the space of the vertical screen.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Text, Geography, Murder

"L'orientation", from Albert Demangeon and André Meynier, Géographie Generale: Clase de 6éme (Paris: Hachette, 1937) (Source: Anthony Vidler, "Terres Inconnues: Cartographies of a Landscape to Be Invented" October No. 115 (Winter 2006), pp. 13-30.

I'm going to mention a scene from towards the end of Guy Ritchie's breakneck Sherlock Holmes (2009). Don't worry, there are no reveals, no necessary "spolier alerts" to put the reader on edge. For those out there who have seen it, there is a scene where Holmes (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) figures out the exact location of a murder that will happen in the very future. Using a map of London and a occult-ish book of magic, Holmes is able to determine this murder-to-be by literally inscribing a set of directions from the book onto the map. Text, then, is used as a navigational aid. Literally, and more importantly, physically. What do I mean by this?

The perils of the text infiltrate the spaces of the city. The two become coextensive. And somewhere between the experience and the perception of a text, there is the primacy of pleasure. In envisaging this hedonistic approach to literature, Roland Barthes therefore points out that a text is an object to be consumed, and that text-consumption is within the province of the reader or critic. The reader or critic does not rewrite a text; rather, he or she completes it by adding those final touches that help disseminate the text and help ensconce it firmly in popular (collective) memory. If we are to interpret the city then as a text, what, then will serve as our guides for navigating and consuming the text of the city?


Demangeon and Meynier, Géographie Generale: Clase de 6éme (Paris: Hachette, 1937)

In an article for a 2006 issue of October, Anthony Vidler describes Situationist space as wholly derived from Guy Debord's childhood ephemera. For "Terrés Inconnues: Cartographies of a Landscape to be Invented," Vidler demonstrates how an elementary school geography text, Albert Demangeon's and André Meynier's Géographie Generale: Clase de 6éme is Debord's own proto-Situationist text to the city. Through various diagrams, plans, and aerial photographs of world cities that act as "objects of memory, reflection, and strategic plan," Debord used the Géographie Generale as a guide for manuvering through the complex conurbations of the contemporary city. He even cut out and grafted images from the text onto his own Situationist maps. A childhood text literally maps the terrain of the Debordian dérive.



Top: chapter on volcanoes from Demangeon's and Meynier's Géographie Generale (Source: Vidler, "Terres Inconnues"); Bottom, from Guy Debord's Mémoires, showing the same volcano from the Géographie Generale (Source: Vidler).

Yet the grafting of a text onto a city can be a subtler enterprise -- with devastating results. In Jorge Luis Borges' short fiction Death and The Compass, Löhnrot, a police investigator, uses clues from the Torah to pinpoint, much like Holmes, the geographical location of an upcoming murder. Borges details an exchange between Löhnrot and the criminal mastermind Scharlach, where the latter provides the reader with a murder map of sorts:

"I know of a Greek labyrinth that is but one straight line, So many philosophies have been lost upon that line that a mere detective might be pardoned if he became lost as well. When you hunt me down in another avatar of our lives, Scharlach, I suggest you fake (or commit) one crime at A, a second crime at B, eight kilometers from A, then a third crime at C, four kilometers from A and B and half-way between them. Then wait for me at D, two kilometers from A and C, once again halfway between them. Kill me at D, as you are about to kill me as Triste-Le-Roy."

"The next time I kill you," Scharlach replied, "I promise you the labyrinth that consists of a single straight line that is invisible and endless."

When grafted onto the urban space of Borges' story, the above passage describes a rhombus formed by two equilateral triangles. The shape also forms a literal tetragrammaton. the Hebrew word for God (JHVH), too sacred for utterance, and yet superimposed on the city. And in order to decode the tetragrammaton, Löhnrot had to complete his very own psychogepgraphic dérive throught the city. The fact that it is a tetragrammaton that Löhnrot is completing is signifcant, as the final utterance and completion of the forsaken word is what literally spells out Löhnrot's demise.