Archive for the ‘film architecture’ Category

Two Favorite Movies

Monday, April 5th, 2010

In case anybody was wondering, my two favorite movies of the past year were Fantastic Mr. Fox (dir. Wes Anderson, 2009) and Up (dir. Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, 2009). Both animated? Yes. Coincidence? Perhaps.

But both were animated using extremely different methods. One was animated with the most ancient form of animation possible: stop-motion, using real materials: wood, glass, dirt, fur, cloth, and clay. The other one was animated with something like: 01000101010101010111101010101010101010110101010 times eleventy gajillion or so. Both movies are very good. But in very different ways.

In the Mood for Love

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010


In the Mood for Love
2000, 98 minutes
directed by:  Wong Kar-wai

Well, this was the last film I  screened at Yale before I graduated with my M.Arch, and I suppose it was fitting that I showed the film that got me interested about the exploration between film and architecture in the first place. Several years ago, a good friend of mine who was working on a PhD on “atmosphere” at the GSD showed this film to me, and seeing it was a small revelation. First of all, the film is a profoundly beautiful film (it remains one of my favorite films of all time from one of my favorite directors). Secondly, I had no idea that there was scholarship on something as seemingly disparate as cinema and architecture. In the Mood for Love is a beautiful document of love, urbanism, and cultural identity. It’s about space, atmosphere, and time; the beautiful actors Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung are the players. For more on Wong Kar-Wai, read my post about his other movie, Chungking Express.


When I first started the film society at Yale, it was mainly as a means for creating a debate about the relationship between architecture and media within the school. Specifically, the focus would be films, but broadly, about all of technology in general. Film is technology, and both architecture and technology share the same etymological root (tech: from Gk. tekhne-, “art, skill, craft, method, system”). The moving picture, invented at the beginning of the 20th century, contemporaneously accompanied a sequence and succession of technological changes that have fundamentally altered the world around us and architecture to no lesser degree. Le Corbusier changed the way we put buildings together at the same time, but he changed it in part because he was inspired by the technology of film. To understand these changes is to understand why our built environment is the way it is. In short, architecture is, like film, an expression of humanity.


On this topic of cultural technologies, humanities, and digital media, there is nobody more eloquent and erudite as Mario Carpo. Having initially come across him in the first semester while writing a paper for Alan Plattus’ urbanism class, it was incredible to have him come and teach a graduate seminar in my final year. Much of what had only begun to approximate in thinking I found had already been expounded upon at length by the world’s most prominent architectural media theorist. In terms of thinking about media and architecture, Mario Carpo is, so far, the last word. His lecture at Yale in the spring of ’08 was an exciting reminder of how contentious the fields of history, historiography, philosophy, media and technology are when they come together in the study of architecture. Earlier in that same day, Steven Holl, Peter Eisenman, Mario Carpo, and Bob Stern sat and debated the changing paradigms of architecture, urbanism, and landscape, and reminisced about their shared background as young architects in New York. They were seated next to about twenty students. In one room. Such is the power of the place of Yale and its community of individuals. I miss it dearly.


The format of the Yale Architecture Film Society wasn’t really well thought out; it was simply a matter of cobbling together something that I thought was sufficiently time manageable—screen a movie once a week or so and argue a position about the movie and its relation to architecture in a distributable format for the Yale community. However, at the time, I was simply printing out sheets of paper and posting them around the school. Looking back, it was a laughably low-tech way of going about it. I should have created a website or blog, posted links, film clips, and the written portions as well. This blog is an attempt to redistribute that information and reanimate those discussions. All the struggling I did each week over the years with how much to write, what images to include, or different ways to advertise the screenings and communicate with those who were interested would have been elegantly solved by the Web 2.0. It would have been an exploration of a modern medium using the new forms of media that are starting to influence architecture irreversibly. This blog is a continuation of that goal.

in-the-mood-for-loveThis marks the end of the series of films I began discussing under the theme of “The Future is Asian.” The next theme I will blog about will be “American Landscapes.”

-    quang truong

Visitor Q

Friday, January 22nd, 2010


Visitor Q
2001, 84 minutes
directed by: Takashi Miike

Visitor Q is a movie from the prolific, controversial, and successful Japanese director Takashi Miike. It promises to be, in a film series that has certainly already featured some weird films, to be even weirder. For Miike is known for two things: 1) making a lot of movies and, 2) sometimes making some unbelievably weird movies. A number of his films have been remade by American production companies, one of the most recent of which was The Eye, starring Jessica Alba. Time magazine called Visitor Q “meta-weird,” which, depending on how you look at it, is either slightly intriguing or mildly depressing. In either case, it makes me completely sick of the prefix ‘meta-.’


Now, a few of the films selected for this “Future is Asian” series were intended to emphasize the current spate of extremely shocking, disturbing, and taboo-breaking films that are coming out of some parts of Asia, primarily Japan, and to a lesser extent South Korea. The general idea was that these uninhibited explorations of the fringes of human behavior could possibly provide some otherwise unavailable humanistic ideas. Maybe these relatively nascent cinematic cultures could utilize the dominant medium of film in a new way that would make all else obsolescent. In short, maybe something new could come of it. Maybe, somewhere in all of this weirdness, is the shock of the new—the Future. And there are few intentionally, deliberately, and successfully weird films as Visitor Q.


But in a sense, these “extreme” Asian films may be a perfect manifestation of what Paul Virilio was talking about when he wrote about “the vulgarization of techno-scientific progress” as being the driving force of history since the age of Gutenberg’s printing press. To summarize: in an age where techno-scientific progress is the primary goal of the people, it naturally follows that the extremes are the points of interest. Thus, it is the hallmark of the Modern age that the mass media would reward any “revolutionary abnormality.” Some people have seized upon this train of logic to explain our cultural fascination with industrial tycoons, serial killers, pro athletes, celebrities, scientists, and terrorists. For when an idea of progress is the goal, the only thing worth talking about is that which is better/faster/stronger/more extreme than what came before it.


Looking at these ‘Asian extreme’ films in the light of Paul Virilio, it becomes clear that these Japanese films, far from being the future, could be seen as stolidly Modern. Although any visit to Tokyo is likely to make you think you jumped into the future, if you think about it, maybe the reverse is true. You see, Japan, as savvy as it is with engineering and robotics, is still operating an industrial economy where manufactured cars and consumer electronics are keeping them afloat. The advances that are occurring that could possibly be post-Modern, in the realm of wireless communication, internet software, information technology, Web 2.0, and the like, are being made largely on the coasts of California. Tokyo, then, is the future as we imagined it 50 years ago.


Of course, this is all assuming that the Modern age is bound to be over soon, if it isn’t already, as some writers and thinkers like Mario Carpo suggest. Carpo says that what ended the Modern age was a shift of dominant media, from mechanically reproducible identical images to digital variance. If we then take Virilio’s ideas of modernity into account, then it would seem to argue for a future that is based in something other than primarily military-industrial, techno-scientific progress, which in turn would then seem to imply a shift away from the fetishization of transgression.

In conclusion, if you are a country with a strong, conventional military, well-manufactured electro-mechanical products, and really weird movies, then maybe you are not the future.

-    quang truong (originally written February 19, 2008)

Artifice, Avatar, and Anthony Bourdain

Monday, January 11th, 2010

ArtificeAvatarAnthonyI didn’t do much over the break, content to lie on the couch, play with my dog, and hang out with good friends. But I did read three books: Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. I also managed to see James Cameron’s new movie, Avatar.

Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential was published in 2000, at the beginning of this decade, and the changes it precipitated or anticipated in the restaurant world are tough to underestimate. The idea of celebrity chefs (of which Bourdain is now one) back then was unheard of, and the Food Network was in its relatively unwatched infancy. Most people know of this book even in small part simply because Bourdain was the first to publicize the minute day-to-day of most restaurants–the maxim you hear today bandied around about never ordering fish on Monday is due to this book. But Bourdain’s book, like any good book, is more than one small revelation. Part of what was inspiring about this book is the way he details the work that goes into cooking–mostly unseen and underappreciated, for the love of a craft. I’ve written about how this sort of work ethic and process in cuisine is uncannily similar to architecture (an expanded article was published recently in the magazine Blueprint Asia). Bourdain, in particular, does an extremely good job of bringing the reader into the world of a chef. Bourdain says he’s a New Yorker first and foremost, (though in the epilogue he says he now spends most of his time in Southeast Asia), and brings to his writing and cooking a brash, assertive, and unapologetic sensibility that I find in inspiring and unique to New York. Bourdain and New York are, in a way, just so punk (punk being the definition that Geoff Manaugh took me to task for–the comments in his post are especially juicy).


Malcolm Gladwell‘s most recent book (Outliers) has only received tepid praise from critics. This, I feel, may be due to the fact that his first couple of collections of nonfiction have sold wildly, the title of one of them became solidly incorporated into contemporary lexicon (the phrase tipping point, a feat only the most important books have done–think Catch-22). I guess at this point, most reviewers are, out of a variety of reasons, wont to spend most of their time pointing out various shortcomings Gladwell may have in his method or his conclusions. They decry the seeming ease and simplicity of his conclusions in the face the daunting amount of information he sorts through. But this criticism is no matter. It is like looking at a Cezanne and pointing out all the things in the world he didn’t paint. Outliers may be one of Gladwell’s most interesting books, and his primary gift is still intact and developing; and that is his ability to tell a story and write the most beautiful, fluid, and elegant paragraphs in support of that story. He tells immensely entertaining stories that weave together an incredibly wide spectrum of information (in particular I liked the story of Asians and how their purported affinity to math was linked to the irrigation patterns of rice).  This is why Gladwell can write about mustard and extrapolate it to read like a insight into life and the nature of free will itself, and why other writers like Chuck Klosterman can write about American football and make it seem like an elegant illustration of both systems information, cultural proclivities, and statistical analysis. This is the power of writing and there are few who do it as well as Gladwell, Klosterman, and Bourdain. You can write about anything–food, sports, irrigation patterns, white teeth–and if it’s done well, then it feels as if the whole world is contained within. In fact, if there’s one fault in Gladwell’s writing, it’s that he’s gotten a little cocky (“I’m going to write about mustard and you’re going to like it!”).


Zadie Smith reminds me a lot of Jonathan Franzen, another ambitious novelist and essayist, because both of them fully believe in the idea of the novel. This makes them relatively rare. It’s an idea of a novel that is very different from J. K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Michael Crichton, Don Delillo, or any number of contempary writers. It’s very different from writers even like David Foster Wallace. In fact, they remind me much more of writers like Nabokov (b. 1899 d. 1977)–not in terms of talent, necessarily, but in terms of their congruent goals. With D. F. Wallace, at least, you got the sense that he realized the transitional period that the idea of the novel was in and was either trying to fight his way out of it or invent a new form for it. There was a tension in his novels that you also got in his short-form pieces. You see, the weird thing is, Zadie Smith, just like Jonathan Franzen, is able to convey her ideas and ambitions much more eloquently, forcefully, and succinctly in essay format. Yet this very fact may paradoxically undermine all of their ambitions. For their ambitions are resolutely tied to the idea of long-form writing, i.e., the novel.


I’m not going to get into it any further, because I am out of my depth in this arena. But I’m going to use the novel to bring up the idea of artifice. Perhaps the ambitions of Smith and Franzen were wrought through the medium of the novel, a media that depends on a sort of universal cultural artifice that no longer exists. This is why it is much easier to read and understand them when they are writing about these same ideas through the relatively artifice-less medium of the short story or essay. In a sense, Bourdain represents this also. Bourdain was writing at a time when the idea of fine dining meant curtseying at a Francophilic-maision of unapproachable refinement. But Bourdain broke that down. Which is why chefs like David Chang (an upstart Korean prick with a East Village noodle bar who won 2 Michelin stars) today are important, because he brought that kitchen full of tattoos and Led Zeppelin out into the open, dispensing with the artifice of fine dining (linens, career wait staff, chairs with backs), and gave us ambitious, erudite food without the artifice. It’s also why it’s so easy to see Bourdain traipsing around the world, capable of enjoying both a dinner at Per Se as well as on a street corner in Vietnam. The cultural structures that support the difference between “fine dining” and “street food” are less valid today, as well as those same structures that support the difference between a “Novel” and “writing.” If there’s one thing I think this previous decade stood out for, it was the failure of artifices. It started with the failure of our democratic electoral principles (Bush v. Gore), followed shortly by an attack on a pure symbol of global commerce (WTC), the fallibility of our financial institutions (Enron, Madoff, Lehman), and ended with the most unassailable athletic and performative character in the world being, well, assailed (Tiger Woods). Really, the 00′s were about the failure of artifice.


I also watched Avatar over the break, but I actually feel there’s very little to say about this movie. The technology is wonderful, and James Cameron is a force to be reckoned with. It’s a bit of a shame that the story of Avatar is basically Dances With Wolves all over again, since there are lingering colonialist assumptions running through the entire film, like the slight char of burnt garlic in an otherwise good dish. I wish he had kept to a simpler story and themes, along the lines of his best films, Terminator (fight the  robot from the future!) and Titanic (love is good, even if you’re from different socioeconomic classes, and especially if you’re on a sinking ship!). But the less said about Avatar the better, I feel–nobody likes arguing about colonialism anymore, and quite frankly, colonialism is still being unabashedly practiced today by those who do or don’t know better (or don’t care). There’s an okay article published in about this, if you really must. My best advice is to go see Avatar in 3d, and 3d only, wear the silly glasses, forgive the silly story, and be entranced by the beauty of a world so vividly imagined and depicted it makes you wonder at which point in the future all media will be subsumed by the kind that Cameron is developing, where it’s all artifice once again.

Chungking Express

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2009

Chungking Express

Chungking Express
1994, 98 minutes
directed by:  Wong Kar-wai

Hong Kong is a small region that produces a disproportionately large share of movies. For the remaining two films of the The Future is Asian series, I’ve chosen to discuss two films by one Hong Kong director, Wong Kar-wai. This is a testament to either Wong Kar-wai’s importance and relevance as a director, or to my stubbornness and arrogance in selecting films that I believe are relevant.

Chungking Express

Wong Kar-wai is one of those consummate indie film auteurs: the kind black-skinny-pants-wearing hipster film majors love to love. Chungking Express was the first movie distributed by Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder Pictures movie company, and Wong has continued to produce highly anticipated and highly debated films—his latest, My Blueberry Nights, starring Norah Jones, Jude Law, and Rachel Weisz, made its American theatrical debut in 2007 (it received tepid reviews).

Faye Wong in Chungking Express

However, it’s not hard to see why Chungking Express made such a splash when it was first released in the US in 1994. It’s fast, stylishly oblique, cooly violent, and full of alienated beautiful people, the kind that have occupied hipster films since Antonioni. Though infused with a distinctively Asian vibe, it nonetheless effuses a thoroughly international sensibility. Wong Kar-Wai layered and mixed the music to compete with (and at times drown out) the dialogue–this was a fairly radical idea, and his use of music throughout his later films seems to have been a result of the success of that experiment in this film. As the theme song (in this case, “California Dreaming” by the Mamas and the Papas–see the clip below) weaves in and out or abruptly starts and stops throughout the film, it sets up a rhythm that organizes the narrative structure and establishes a spatial atmosphere.

But a funny thing happens when after you finish watching Chungking Express, or for that matter, other Wong Kar-Wai films: afterwards, you don’t necessarily remember the plot, or what happened, at least not in the traditional sense of who did what to whom, which then precipitated certain events, and so on and so on. In other words, you don’t exactly remember the chain of causal events that normally propel stories from beginning, middle, to end. This is not to say that Wong Kar-Wai’s films are forgettable—in fact, just the opposite. You distinctly remember the neon rush of the cosmopolitan streets of Hong Kong, the worn and tired texture of the old-city walls in that cramped, dark alley where two old friends said goodbye, the tight space of the lovers’ apartment, or the rhythm of the music that weaves its way through the images. Some images, like the food stall girl (the adorable Chinese pop-star Faye Wong) absent-mindedly bopping along to “California Dreaming” by the Mamas & the Papas (see the clip above), or the woman gently leaning her head on her lover in the back of a taxi, never leave you. Indeed, you are left with something else. We could try and call this something else visual impressions, or moods, or atmosphere, but I think it may be something which is the culmination of all of those things, yet somehow more: you are left with a sense of urbanity.


Chungking Express takes its name from a bewildering, crowded mess of stores, shops, and eateries in one building in the Kowloon district of Hong Kong–it is essentially a vertical souq populated and staffed predominantly by immigrants and foreigners. To anyone who has ever been to this building/place/phenomenon, it is in and of itself an urban idea.


Urbanity, as a broad concept, is inseparable from a conception of time. As our understanding and perception of time has changes, so does our understanding of cities. The most important urban theorists and architects all have differentiated themselves with a specific temporal conceptualization: from Alberti and Nolli all the way through Le Corbusier, Rossi, and Koolhaas. Wong Kar-Wai presents an essential understanding and documentation of contemporary urbanity due to his subtle, sophisticated, and irreducibly contemporary ability to play with time—most predominantly through his phrasing of visual sequences, his unique use of music, and to a lesser extent, his working method and the interconnectedness of his filmic oeuvre. Wong Kar-wai’s subject is exactly the relation between two things, time and urbanity, and in this way, proves that there are no more analogous artistic endeavors than film and architecture.

-    quang truong (originally written April 2008)

To Live, via A. O. Scott

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

The New York Times recently posted its re-review of To Live, which I reviewed in my previous post. I wish I could embed the video here, but I can only post the link; the video is here.

To Live

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009


To Live
1994, 120 minutes
directed by:  Zhang Yimou

This is one of the most powerful, beautiful films I have ever seen.

It is the story of a small, Chinese family during the Cultural Revolution. It won the Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Prize, Best Actor (You Ge), and was second only to Pulp Fiction for the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival the year it debuted. There may be no more powerful film than this one about a family caught in the wheels of history. Though the male lead, You Ge, won the Best Actor awards, the film is carried on the back of Gong Li,  who projects a quiet strength that few other actresses can. The title of the film, to live (huozhe), “conceals a universe,” as Roger Ebert put it.


As China is currently experiencing incredible growth and expansion, it may well be worth remembering that the country has always grown in fits and spurts—conversely, it has also experienced periods of incredible backwardness. The idea of progress, inextricably tied to utopianism, has been used to justify all manner of political and social harm, of which the Cultural Revolution is but one recent example. It is a simple reminder of the evil that even good intentions can create.


I remember my first trip to China several years ago, and being enthralled, disappointed, and just dumbfounded by the magnificence and potential of this rough, barely kept together coalition of 1.2 billion people. At one point I was at a street fair, and this vendor was selling turtles, about the size of a thumbnail, from a plastic tray the size of a dinner place setting. And there were hundreds of these turtles in that plastic tray, and only one rock. And for some reason or another, every little turtle in that tray wanted to be on that rock. And so the entire tray was just this mess of turtles clawing and swimming and climbing as if for their lives, all desperately trying to get some time out of the water and on that rock. I sat there and watched, for maybe 10 full minutes, my head not so far from the turtles, as one turtle’s paw would use another turtle’s head as a leverage point; as a little turtle eye would seem to get poked out, as one turtle would flip and fall down into the water tumbling over other turtles. And in that mess of hundreds of beings fighting so fiercely for so little resources, I thought, wow, this is China. If only I had another rock.


In China, progress seemed to be measured quantitatively, as opposed to qualitatively. In Japan, progress seemed to be a matter of how a new product, experience, or service affected life. You could see it in each piece of sushi crafted by a chef, or by the music, film, video, and advertising that vied for your attention on the confident, strutting streets of Tokyo. But in China, there was no strutting, the people didn’t seem confident, and there were the quiet reminders of desperation that couldn’t be kept hidden (amputees and homeless single mothers begging on every corner). And yet the buildings are being built at what must be literal break-neck speed. And as Chinese companies are starting to appear on international markets–Chery, Lenovo–they do so not by virtue of their innovation or technology, but by their ability to just produce more, cheaper. It’s hard for me to imagine China becoming the next world power anytime soon because of the incredible lack of creativity and ingenuity that seems to be the result of the last generations’ Cultural Revolution. Because isn’t today’s most important export Culture? And it seems like it will take another government in another generation to reverse the astounding wrongs of the last.


As China experiences another one of its periods of intense growth, of which it has had similar periods before, it may be important to remember the power of our ideas, to question the role architects have in the built environment, and the families who are affected by it.


(originally written in 2008)

It cuts both ways. . .

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009


There are times when one feels utterly powerless against greater forces: in a perfectly played but losing hand of poker; in the passing of a completely unremarkable milestone birthday; or watching the passing of another historical moment that seems to gain no ground for the very idea of an expressive humanity.


It pains one to see the tides of history sweep past unregarded citizens who were supposed to be its beneficiaries, and even more so when we had supposedly entered a new age where technological mediums rendered the oppressive techniques of the past obsolete. I wrote about this a bit in my review of the WWII-era surveillance film, The Lives of Others (2006, dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck), an excellent film.


My studies had been roughly focused on the intersection of architecture and media–or, slightly more specifically,  between the intersection of film and architecture. My thesis is/was that changing modes of communication affect the way we inhabit, experience, and express space. This was borne from readings of McLuhan, Mario Carpo, Adorno, and extrapolated, used to explain the historical significance of architects such as Alberti, Le Corbusier, and Eisenman.


Early on, many people pointed to the significance of new media to seeming alter the course of history. But as this article in Slate, titled, “The Revolution Will Not Be Digitized,”  argued, the new technology cut both ways. The same technology that could enable people could also be disabling. Yes, twitter was used to report on occurrences and organize groups of people, and major international news providers using video from cell phones as primary sources was no longer remarkable. But the chaos from so many “tweets” actually increased the confusion, and the government reportedly began using surveillance along with web volunteers to identify and imprison protesters. And because of the lack of true anonymity on the internet (tweets and postings can be traced), many citizens feel powerless or afraid of saying anything. Which exactly how they were supposed to not feel.  “The surprise isn’t that technology has given protesters a new voice. It’s that, despite all the tech, they’ve been effectively silenced.”


In other words, top-down oppression lives on, and the anti-hierarchical digitopia remains (at this point) another castle in the sky. Which can be seen as one of the oldest stories in the book. In fact, up until recently, the standard bearer for historical mass-oppression was China. Think of the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square, or the Three Gorges Dam project. The effect of these historical drives towards “revolutionary” ideas on individuals is difficult to begin express, but I’ve probably seen no greater filmic attempt than Zhang Yi Mou’s To Live (1994), which I will review in a following post as part of my ongoing “The Future is Asian” film architecture series.


As I write in that review, the story of a small Chinese family through the middle Twentieth Century serves “a simple reminder of the evil that even good intentions can create.” It is an example of the attempt to affect change upon a certain scale, and how the scale and locale of our actions may be the most important thing we consider as citizens of a community. It nevertheless remains difficult to sit by, at whatever distance has been made possible by the contemporary medium, and read/watch/surf/blog/twit about the actions of a few which seem to bring strife to so many. It feels as if I am literally watching walls being erected between people, and knowing that so many hearts are being broken at once. What has changed?


The images throughout this post are from Shawn Rocco, a photographer who uses a cell phone as his medium. Yes,  a cell phone was used to capture all of the above images (a Motorola E815, to be precise). More info about Shawn can be found on his blog called cellular obscura.

New York Asian Film Festival

Friday, June 19th, 2009

Yoroi Samurai Zombie

“Blissfully free from the constraints of good taste,” says the New York Times. About what are they referring to? Well, in this case, it’s the selection of films from the annual New York Asian Film Festival, running from today (June 19, 2009) until July 5th at the IFC Center and the Japan Society. Above and below are some film stills from selected movies from the festival.

All Around Us

Though I’m woefully delinquent in posting ongoing reviews for my current theme, “The Future is Asian,” this festival is a great event for what is turning out to be a monsoon season for New York City. When it is supposed to be thunderstorming all weekend, watching a blissfully taste-free movie is a nice way to tuck in from the rain.

Love Exposure

Seriously, it’s been raining here in New York for the past month every day, it seems. I’m from Portland, Oregon, where people always tell me that it rains a lot, but it actually rains more in New York City and Boston than it does in Portland. I think it’s because the  Pacific Northwest climate is so mild, there is really nothing to say about it except that it rains occasionally. And Portland rarely gets snow, so the winters are about rain, which is fine, but at least in the summers it doesn’t get incredibly humid and rainy like it does here in New York.  So, yeah. That’s how I feel about that.

Cloud Architecture

Sunday, June 14th, 2009

Blur Building

Clouds have always held a certain fascination for architects. This may be understandably unremarkable, because I believe clouds hold a certain fascination for everybody. How many hours were spent as a youth staring at clouds, lying in the grass in a field, through the window of a car on a long drive, or simply through the bedroom windows on a lazy sunday? Diller & Scofidio created their Blur Building (see above) as a deliberate and stunningly literal interpretation of “cloud architecture,” and Wolf Prix’s firm’s name Coop Himmelb(l)au translates to “Blue Cloud Cooperative” in his native Austrian (he also designs slightly less literal physical approximations of clouds–see below).

BMW Welt

But cloud architecture has a slightly different meaning today, and this is what I want to draw attention to here. In Tom Vanderbilt’s article in the New York Times Magazine, titled “Datatecture,” he delves into the world of data centers that are silently and conspicuously popping up throughout the country (including many near Portland, OR, from where I’m posting today). Data centers such as these are “like Fight Club; the first rule of data centers is: Don’t talk about data centers.” Accompanying this article are some beautiful photographs by Simon Norfolk (see below). This is what cloud architecture looks like today. Very white, but not as fluffy.


The article begins with an anectdote about the online community of people playing a particular Xbox game (over 60,000 at his precise instant, a number which is equivalent to the size of a small suburb community), and a moment spent wondering about where exactly these people were. In no less reducible terms, they exist in these data centers–these warehouses of servers that worldwide consume more energy than the entire country of Sweden. This “cloud,” which represents nothing less than the future of information, media, and technology, uses 1-2% of all the energy produced in the world and has doubled in the past five years, according to the article.


In a way, what this points towards is a slightly changing idea of materiality (dare I say metaphysicality?). That was what was so brilliant about Diller & Scofidio’s Blur Building (top), which was as direct and confrontational a challenge to architecture as we’ve previously defined it, even though many contemporary practitioners, including by Rem Koolhaas or Lebbeus Woods have attempted to do so in other, various ways. The blunt numbers, facts and statistics about data centers are surprising only in that they begin to illuminate a changing realm of media (the internet) that is beginning to have very physical, material impacts upon our environment. At this point, I can’t help but bring up Keller Easterling, whose writings tangentially approach these non-national, extra-infrastructural, “ecology of interrelationships and linkages.” In many ways, these ideas are in pointed contrast to the awarding of this year’s Pritzker Prize to Peter Zumthor, who works with a very different idea of materiality. Are those ideas mutually exclusive?