Archive for January, 2009

Speed, Space, Structure, and Sounds

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

planvoisin

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.

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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.


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The Seventh Seal

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

seventh_seal

The Seventh Seal
1957, 96 minutes
directed by Ingmar Bergman

The image of a man playing chess with Death, from this movie by Ingmar Bergman, is one of the most lasting and poignant images in cinematic history. The story is about a 14th century Crusader knight who returns to his homeland only to find it ravaged by the plague. Death, played by Bengt Ekerot, appears to the knight, played by Max Von Sydow, and informs him that it is his time. The knight then challenges Death to a game of chess for time and his life. Throughout the ensuing journeys of the knight and his squire, his discussions with Death and his meetings of countrymen, Bergman questions the nature of God and existence.

This movie is essentially about doubt—in many ways, the mother of intelligence. But the difference between the way Antonioni and Bergman go about interrogating doubt has proven to be an interesting contrast. Bergman questions doubt through an essentially theatric method—existential doubt is fore-grounded through a combination of character development, plot events, and symbolic imagery. We know the characters doubt, and by implication, the film director, because the characters themselves say so. In an Antonioni film, in contrast, the doubt is expressed through a renegotiation of the conventions of filmmaking.

In an interview with Beatriz Colomina, Rem Koolhaas said that his entire career is founded on the idea that architecture is in doubt, and each of his project aims to reassert the validity of architecture. In a way, Rem’s meta-architectural practice is a paragon of doubt and an example of a productive assertion of that questioning.

Originally written November 13, 2007

Virgin Spring

Monday, January 26th, 2009

virginspring

Virgin Spring
1960, 89 minutes
directed by Ingmar Bergman

Quite frankly, at this point I’m not sure if Ingmar Bergman, who, according to Woody Allen, is “probably the greatest film artist, all things considered, since the invention of the motion picture camera,” is actually that great of a study for the relationship between film and architecture. Thus, it may be helpful to discuss the idea of a project as it relates to both film and architecture.

This movie, Jungfrukällan, as it was called in its native Swedish, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It is a story about the rape of a young girl in medieval Scandinavia and its repercussions. It is one of Bergman’s most important films in his oeuvre of 50-some films over 40-odd years and sealed his status as one of the world’s most important directors when it was released in 1960, on the heels of Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, and Wild Strawberries.

Bergman’s films are about the issues of love, death, religion and God. They are movies about morality and existence; and they are profound, beautiful meditations upon those subjects. The problem is: I’m not sure that architecture can be about those things, and therefore I’m not sure whether or not Bergman belongs in any study of the intersection between architecture and film.

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Though the relationship between film and architecture has been made implicit since at least as far back as Le Corbusier’s film, L’architecture d’Aujourd’hui, in 1927 (bear in mind that the motion picture was invented around 1895 by the Lumiere brothers), it maybe worth positing that the fundamental point of intersection between these two fields is upon the meta-representational idea of media. Insofar as film can be conceived of and interpreted as an examination and rumination upon the very nature of perception, thus it can be extrapolated to also relate to an architecture that is also concerned with the project of perception.

Thus, it is worth noting at this point that the idea of an architecture concerned with perception may be inextricably linked to the idea of criticality. Of course, now we’re going to have to define what I mean when I say perception, but to exhaust my quota for the usage of a particular prefix, I would say that we are interested in the mechanics of perception, or the apparatus of perception, i.e., meta-perception. This is specifically different from a phenomological or performative definition of perception, which is not to say that either is invalid.

At the moment that cinema was invented it was part of a wave of technological innovation at the beginning of the 20th century that changed the way we conceive of space—the airplane, automobile, Einstein’s general and special theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, even the bicycle, were all invented nearly coincidentally. This superceded the single-point perspective conception of space as inherited since the Renaissance, and certain architects, most notably Le Corbusier, Rem Koolhaas, Bernard Tschumi, and Diller & Scofidio made a number of important investigative projects into the nature of perception using the idea of cinema as medium as a part of their work.

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Things may be changing, however, and certain filmmakers like Michael Haneke (the image above is the opening shot to his movie Caché) are starting to posit a new conceptual viewpoint—that of surveillance, or a collective, anonymous presence (here is a great article about Haneke). This is radically different from the idea of singularity inherent to both the Renaissance idea of perspective and the modern, cinematic one—and like any important innovation in regards to perception, it carries huge political ramifications. With political ideas comes ideas of organization, and with organization comes architecture.

Originally written November 6, 2007

Wild Strawberries

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

wildstrawberries

Wild Strawberries
1957, 91 minutes
directed by Ingmar Bergman

I’m not sure if this is obvious, but I did select the theme for this semester’s film series with a large amount of trepidation—there are no safer, more obvious, and less objectionable subjects for a film series than the films of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. They are, without doubt, some of the most studied and written about films since the invention of cinema, and therefore their artistic merits might actually start to veer towards a level of cliché.

And so it is with equivalent parts relief and sadness that we are not going to be screening any more Antonioni films and are now going to be watching the work of that Nordic master, Ingmar Bergman, beginning with this one, Wild Strawberries. On the one hand, I am going to miss those sullen, beautiful and well-dressed actors and actresses elegantly lounge about the Mediterranean landscape and the quiet, rhythmic syncopation of their Italian. On the other hand, those Antonioni films were just so hard to watch sometimes, and it’s not really going to get any easier with Bergman. Let me explain further.

The issue of difficulty is something that we’ve been exploring a bit in the Eisenman studio—in fact, it could be seen as a key driving force to the entire oeuvre of Peter Eisenman—his theory, his writings, his pedagogy, and lastly, his architecture. Eisenman has always wanted a difficult architecture, one that initially began by an elaborately documented process of formal moves to one interested in partial figures or post-indexicality. In either case, his work has always been concerned with something other than the “easy” part of architecture concerned with opticality, which is why for his entire life he has constantly refused to talk about anything in visual terms. Though Peter’s attempt to erase opticality or visuality from architecture is as self-contradicting and as impossible a project as any other attempt to create to a closed system of logic (see Incompleteness Theorem, Kurt Godel), it nevertheless makes for some fairly entertaining discussions whenever Luis Fernandez-Galliano or Jeffrey Kipnis are around.

It is in this sense that the films of Bergman and Antonioni are germane to this discussion of difficulty. When I say that their films are hard to watch, it’s not because the images are disturbing, or because the sequence of events is ghastly. Instead, it is because the films never let you relax into a state of conditioned expectation of what will occur next. They were challenging assumptions about being, time, and existence. They were, in short, difficult. You aren’t sure why events occur or what they mean; the narrative structures and devices that have governed and organized other films are simply not present in these films. So you are kind of on edge during the entire viewing—there is, in essence, no easiness. There is no cliché.

This is why we still deride certain films as formulaic, and why you’d have to be a fairly cynical and detached hipster to find these films without value. It is in those terms that these films are valuable as studies in architecture—it is that same difficulty and challenge to assumption that charges any good architectural project with electricity. It is why practitioners as vastly different as Rem Koolhaas and Peter Eisenman are so highly vaunted within our field.

Gilles Deleuze spends the first couple of chapters in his book on Francis Bacon talking about the blank canvas as being precisely the opposite—it’s not that the canvas is empty but instead is already filled with expectation and cliché that is imperative to avoid. Bergman’s project is vastly different from Antonioni’s, but it’s not something that you can necessarily see. It has to do with the specific ways they don’t do certain things. It is their affront to cliché.

originally written October 30, 2007

From the New Yorker

Wednesday, January 21st, 2009

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January 20, 2009

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009

Today, it’s all about Obama.

obamamichelle

And thinking of Obama makes me reflect on that most fundamental of architectural ideas: domesticity. To malappropriate Heidegger, it’s about building, dwelling, thinking.

Here is a photo of them printed in the New Yorker back in 1996, when Michelle said quaintly that, “There is a strong possibility that Barack will pursue a political career, although it’s unclear.” One of the things that strikes me about the Obamas is how much more of a true couple they seem than any other presidential candidate in our generation. In Barack’s relatively unmoored life (absent father, single mother, raised in Indonesia and Hawaii), it has seemed as if Michelle has been the anchor to which he has found his bearings. It is hard to imagine Barack where he is today if it weren’t for the strength that Michelle and Michelle’s family has provided Barack. For it is Michelle’s mother who is moving in to the White House with the Obama family, and it was her (Marian Robinson) who took care of their kids while they were out campaigning; Barack’s mother and grandmother have all passed away recently, and his father passed away a longer while ago. In fact, I think one of the many memorable photographs of this campaign was the photograph of Barack and Marian Robinson watching the results on election night.

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I think that relationship between politics and architecture is a fairly complex one, and I’m not really going to get into that now. It has to do with the issue of scale, which I think is the most important sense that an architect can develop. In essense, what can you and can’t you influence? What is the scale of the problem that you are trying to solve with the tools that you have available to you? Nevertheless, today, with the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama, here’s to that most fundamental of architectural scales: the family. And in particular, to strong women.

Una Giornata Particolare

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

One of the things I hoped would occur more often in my film series were guest lecturers and guest writers. It’s a bit of a shame that only once did it happen. Britt Eversole, a friend and lecturer at Yale, was teaching a course in pre-war Italian Modern architecture, selected this film to screen and wrote these film notes for Una Giornata Particolare.

Una Giornata Particolare
1977, 110 minutes
directed by Ettore Scola, starring Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni

After reading so many Yale Architecture Film Society movie synopses – usually equal parts stolen IMDB information, theory talk and cynical empiricism (think of the writing style of the love child of Jean Baudrilliard and Michael Sorkin, adopted and raised by William F Buckley and Maureen Dowd) – it was an honor to be invited to pen one.  I can only hope to be half as erudite as Quang Truong, the Prince of Prolix, the Lord of Logorrhea, the Jester of Jargon, the Signore of Circumlocution, the Bishop of Babble, the Viscount of Verbosity, and the Executor of the Exchequer of Effusion.

Una Giornata Particolare
is Ettore Scola’s masterpiece of minimalism and dualism, illustrating the penetration of Fascist ideology into the private lives of Italians.  The film is shot in a Mario de Renzi designed 1930s apartment block; aside from giving a good impression of interwar urban residential space, it provides the setting for narrating totalitarianism’s domestic manifestations.  Totalitarianism was a term that Mussolini defined as a guiding principle of his revolutionary movement.  It meant that every action, public display, and artistic endeavor, as well as personal conduct, was to be dedicated to the glorification and advancement of the State.  Control, legislation and surveillance were integral; but it was also driven by historical identity and by individual faith, hope, and honor.  As historian Emilio Gentile notes, the socialization and sacralization of Fascist politics were grounded in the particulars of quotidian existence, cultural interaction and Italian identity.

Una Giornata Particolare is usually translated ‘A Special Day’: a double reference to the unique day shared by the movie’s protagonists and to the historical event around which it is structured – 6 May 1938, Hitler’s official visit to Rome.  Throughout the film, a radio blares through the apartment windows, announcing the parade occurring in the Eternal City’s streets.  But instead of inundating us with a visual and political spectacle, Scola takes a reductive approach: the entire film transpires in four interconnected ‘spaces’ and has only two characters. Sophia Loren is Antonietta, the good homemaker who cooks and cleans her cluttered apartment, spending her remaining time procreating for the Fascist future (note the names of her youngest boys, Benito and Adolfo) and working on a scrapbook dedicated to Mussolini (whom she met once in a quasi Mary Magdalene moment).  Marcello Mastroianni plays Gabrielle, a literate and sophisticated radio personality who embraces contemporary culture while refusing to accede to the Party’s constant stream of behavioral edicts.  Their diametrical lifestyles are embodied in their apartments – hers is an undisciplined jumble of furniture decorated with religious and political icons; his is a composed setting filled with books and modern art.  As the film progresses, each character explores the other’s spatial, socio-political and gender identity.  Their apartments are separated (and linked) by a courtyard representing Fascist public space: it is under constant surveillance and filled with the amplified voice of the State.  The final space (which I’ll leave for you to discover) is a fleeting other space beyond the domestic environs that define/protect Gabrielle and Antonietta.

“Fascism is a glass house into which everyone should be able to look,” Mussolini once said.  It was a metaphor for the crystalline hierarchy and mandated conduct of Fascist life: every person in his or her place, working toward the betterment of the State, with no corruption and no secrets.  Always linked by the glazed courtyard, Scola’s two characters play out a fantastical narrative that ends ambiguously but realistically.  What Scola’s film suggests is that the one thing insulated from Fascism was that aspect of identity that arises from deep within, characterized by secrets and emotions which are internalized until you find that one person with whom you can share them.  The most implausible moment (made implausible because of Gabrielle’s identity) is the dénouement, an anticlimax that arrives after their secrets have been laid bare.  But it is precisely in the impossibility of their relationship that they find – or make – space in which to construct a non-Fascist identity.  For Scola, there was no physical space that was outside of Fascism – only a temporary, fictional space grounded in difference that allowed only for a moment an escape, but nothing more.

-    britt eversole

originally written October 23, 2007

Retroperspecta

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

img_3679Last night’s party was a great event, in no small part due to the amazing location–on an abandoned floor of 7 World Trade Center, which had a view of Ground Zero right below, and the rest of Manhattan and surrounding boroughs all around on a startingly cold and clear night. Ah, New York City.

Perspecta Party

Friday, January 16th, 2009

monstercover

Tonight there is a release party to celebrate two new issues of Perspecta, issues 40: Monster and 41: The Grand Tour.

It’s tonight: Friday, January 16th, 7:00 PM at 7 World Trade Center (250 Greenwich Street), 45th Floor.

The editors of these two issues are my friends, Marc Guberman, Jacob Reidel, & Frida Rosenberg for Perspecta 40 “Monster;” and Gabrielle Brainard, Rustam Mehta, & Thomas Moran for Perspecta 41 “Grand Tour.”

I know there will be at least a few contributors showing up as well, so come hang out for a bit.

The contributors for 40: Monster include Mario Carpo, Mark Gage, Marcelyn Gow and Ulrika Karlsson (servo), Catherine Ingraham, Mark Jarzombek, Terry Kirk, Leon Krier, Greg Lynn, John May, John McMorrough, Colin Montgomery, Guy Nordenson, Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, Emmanuel Petit, Kevin Roche, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto (Atelier Bow-Wow) and Ryuji Fujimura, Michael Weinstock, and Claire Zimmerman.

The contributors for 41: The Grand Tour include Esra Akcan, Aaron Betsky, Ljiljana Blagojević, Edward Burtynsky, Matthew Coolidge and CLUI, Gillian Darley, Brook Denison, Helen Dorey, Keller Easterling, Peter Eisenman, Dan Graham and Mark Wasiuta, Jeffery Inaba and C-Lab, Sam Jacob, Michael Meredith, Colin Montgomery, Dietrich Neumann, Enrique Ramirez, Mary-Ann Ray and Robert Mangurian, Kazys Varnelis, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, & Enrique Walker.

You can order the books here and here.

something beautiful

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

bluejakedotcomThese small photographs on my blog don’t do it justice. See some great urban photography here.