Archive for the ‘automotive design’ Category

Speed, Space, Structure, and Sounds

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009


Sometimes I think it’s easy to imagine the enthusiasm that Le Corbusier must have had when he began to imagine the city under the influence of those two technologies of the early 20th century–the car and cinema. His Plan Voisin for Paris was named for the automobile company that bankrolled that project, after all. And his most famous residence, the Villa Savoye, was designed with both the automobile and the movie camera in mind, as Le Corbusier showed in his film, L’architecture d’aujourd’hui. And many of you know that in plan, the radius of that curve on the ground floor was exactly the radius of the turning circle of a Citroen car. It was a very precise and deliberate architectural gesture towards the impact of technology and media on a building in particular, and to urbanism in general.


It’s funny to think that the automobile and the bicycle were invented around the same time–I tend to think that an invention like the bicycle has been around since the dawn of time. But it hasn’t, and it’s sort of exciting to think of the way cities were experienced differently with that technology. A city biked is vastly different than a city walked, which is different than a city driven through, which is different than a city subway-ed.

For a time, my brother was a serious skateboarder, and he used to watch skateboarding videos in lieu of doing almost everything else (studying, eating, sleeping). And it was amazing to see the particular way cities were represented in those skater videos–through the fisheye lens,gliding across pavement (and only pavement) with considerable velocity, using the structure and space in a way that was probably more vibrant and energetic than what the architecture was originally designed for in the first place. In fact, skateboarding was how my brother saw cities. To my chagrin, in every city we visited on our cross country road trips, he knew of only the spots featured in those videos. You’ve never seen somebody so excited to see a certain flight of stairs and handrails. He avoided the museums and the usual spots, asking only to see the public schools or the under-bridge concrete parks. More recently, at the Richard Meier office, one of my coworkers recently put together a video of himself and his brother in Tennessee (spliced with my favorite song of right now, MGMT’s “Kids”). In the not-too-distant future, I can’t imagine a more fitting urban document of these times than these skateboarding videos.

In a way, it’s a creative and spatially pure way to experience a city. It’s outside of the proscribed “program” of a city, using your own locomotion and senses. It’s purely speed, space, and structure. One of my first architectural projects tried to wrestle with the way “neglected” areas of New Haven eventually found their own uses. I studied the graffiti of the area as well as watched some parkour videos (there is an amazing parkour video below). In all of these cases, the best environments seemed to happen by chance, or through a fortuitous combination of cirumstances. Rarely was a vibrant, energetic spot designed to be that way–it was more like the users made it that way through their own improvisation. In the life of the city, the buildings and structures recede, foregrounding the people and the activities. It impressed upon me how difficult it is for architecture to intentionally improve the environment–sometimes it seems as if the best architecture simply disappears.


Dark City

Saturday, January 3rd, 2009


Dark City
1998, 100 minutes
directed by Alex Proyas

Well, this is the last film of the semester’s film series. And what a dark one it is. It even has “dark” in the title. It’s kind of sad, not to mention sort of incongruous, to end the series with a dystopia like this on a sunny, beautiful day like today. This feels more like a Will Ferrell movie sort of day. Actually, this feels like a go out and sit on the grass with a lady-friend sort of day. But nevertheless, the show must go on.

Many of you have commented to me before that these film notes bear, at best, a tangential relation to the films being screened. At worst, some of you have said they bear no relation to the films at all. Some of you have even recoiled in horror when you found out that I hadn’t even watched the movie before I wrote the film notes. As in, how could you write about a movie when you hadn’t even seen it?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say why: architecture is about built expression. To that extent, it is fixed in a non-abstract materiality. However, the effects, inspiration, and performance of architecture often exceeds the banality of the mere structured materiality. It may be argued, that in architecture, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This film series, which is about the intersection, interference, and/or engagement between film and architecture, thus must be explicit about the what, exactly, is the nature of the connection between the film being screened and our engagement with the built environment.

Here’s my bias: I’m less interested in what the film looks like than in what assumptions and ideas the filmmaker brought to bear in the film. Film has been able to express ideas through a conflation of moving images and aural experience. The relationship, ergo, is one of an irreducible combination of sight, sound, and time. The design of the set within a film offers no more insight into this relationship than the sketches or photos of the set design. Plot, also, is a mere triviality. You can read a breakdown of the plot of a film in any review you care to look up online, and it won’t necessarily have anything to do with architecture. In fact, I can’t think of a single movie in which the unfolding plot of a film bears any interesting insight into the nature of our creative profession.

In Dark City, which I have seen before, thankyouverymuch, the most striking idea is the way it treats urbanism and memory. In the city in which the movie takes place, certain characters have the ability to alter memories. From this ability to alter memories directly follows the ability to change cities. Buildings are erected and taken down instantaneously in this film. Without memory there is no time, and without time there can be no cities.

When I was an undergrad, majoring in painting, one of my friends at another university told me of her interest in landscape architecture. A professor had told her recently that landscape architecture was the most potent of all the arts because it involved all four dimensions: three dimensional space plus time (the seasons and plant growth). I scoffed at her and told her it was the reverse: the reason why landscape architects are often confused with landscapers, the people who blow leaves and trim hedges, is because of that dimensional promiscuity. Painting was the most pure because it only involved two dimensions, sculpture was compromised because it dealt with three, architecture was beholden to three dimensions plus the vagaries of sociology (I was apparently kind of Clement Greenberg-ian), and landscape architects were for “Anglo-Saxon sissies,” as Adrian Geuze put it last night. The same reasoning has been used to explain why TV, which is multimedia in the sense that it uses sight, sound, and text, has always been marginalized as an art form, unlike the relatively vaunted art form of cinema.


Of course, now landscape architecture is, like, the most cool thing in all of the whole planet, and the relation of time to the city is of utmost importance. How do you design for time? Did Aldo Rossi accomplish it? Did Diller Scofidio + Renfro with Field Operations accomplish it? Does Bob Stern do it? Does DiChirico paint it? What does design sensitive to time look like? Enjoy the last film of the semester.

(originally written April 24, 2007)

Beautiful Confusion

Sunday, December 28th, 2008


8 ½ (1963) 138 minutes
1963 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign-Language Film

“One of the most written about, talked about, and imitated movies of all time.” –Criterion Collection

“Boy, it’s probably one the most important movies of my life.” –Roberto Rossi, M.Arch I, 2nd year

Why is it that the Italians seem more in touch with sensuality than just about anybody else? One dandy on a Vespa saying, “Ciao,” is enough to make other men seem like eunuchs, and what woman today can compare with self-possessed beauties like Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and Monica Belluci? Really, self-possession is the sexiest thing of all, and the Italians have it in spades.


Take this design study, for example. This is the Italian firm Guigiaro’s study for the Ford Mustang. Guigiaro is a design studio that is responsible, along with Pininfarina, for the majority of the supercars past or present, including Lamborghini, Ferrari, Maserati, along with others cars for various companies (the Lexus GS400 of ’98-’05, for example). The problem of how to update the previous incarnation of the Mustang, an insipid little Po-mo smirk and riff, was how do you improve what is essentially the design equivalent of a smirk? Smirk harder? The car came from the design school of J Mays, also known as the man who designed the new VW Beetle, and who was the fourth recipient of the GSD’s Annual Design Award, after Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons and Phillip Starck. In his acceptance speech (which I attended in Piper Hall in 2000), J Mays said that he does not differentiate between design and marketing. But what the Italians did here is make the Mustang, a perennially brute, dismissive, incompetent and uncomprehending, a thoroughly American car, into an Italian car. Problem solved.

8 ½ is a film about a filmmaker, Guido, played by Marcello Mastroianni, who is struggling to find inspiration and motivation to complete his latest studio project, I mean, film. He is “a man exhausted by his evasions, lies and sensual appetites.” It sounds thoroughly Italian, and the rest of the film deals with his process of artistic struggle, which weaves through his dreams, his sexual life, and his relation to his friends and clients. It is a film that has been the subject of many dissertations.

This is, then, a film about writer’s block. Or, as may be more generally termed to relate to filmmakers and architects, artist’s block. The thing is: I’m less and less tolerant of the idea of artist’s block. I used to think that manifesting struggle, i.e., throwing fits of despair and tantrums of tiredness, were the necessary by-products of any artist engaged with the creative struggle. But inherent in any creative act is the idea of struggle, and to cease production is essentially an outward expression of self-indulgence. This is not to say that inspiration should come at all times, nor is it to say that inspiration is meaningless. It simply is to say that you cannot bank on it, whether it comes or not is beyond control, and to stop working benefits neither self nor others.

(originally written 11/30/2006)