Archive for February, 2009

American IV

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

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I’ve written before about the emerging importance of video games as a medium, but I recently came across a great article in Time magazine about one specific game, Grand Theft Auto.

There isn’t much that I can really add to that article, but I remember walking around New York last summer when the GTA IV ads were all over the city and thinking about how wonderful it was that such a brilliant and ambitious work of art such as GTA IV was able to advertise itself with such prominence (see below). Because of the thematic nature of GTA, these things didn’t feel like advertisements: they felt like a narrative layering on top of the cultural atmosphere of New York. They insinuated themselves into the culture-scape of the city. There was something so uncanny, surreal (and dare I say meta) about it: a video game whose subject was the American Dream, based in a fictionalized New York City, being advertised in the “real” New York City.

From Nicknoromal via Flickr

From Nicknormal via Flickr

Imagine William Faulkner being advertised and celebrated on a scale like this in Mississippi, or Peter Zumthor in Switzerland. . .

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Artists and architects have been trying to develop new ways to understand the city since the dawn of, well, history. The Situationists in the 50′s and 60′s used new media techniques (collage, montage, and psychotropics) to attempt to better represent and understand the city, and some of their documents are equal parts beautiful and challenging.

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There have been a number of articles that have talked about the way Grand Theft Auto represents the city. It’s more than I want to get into at this point, but I think it may be helpful to point out that not too long ago another medium was struggling for artistic relevance, dealing with issues that seemed outside of propriety and taste, and was starting to develop novel techniques to address those issues. That’s right, I’m talking about film; and I think the Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver is a good analog to compare Grand Theft Auto. It helps that both Taxi Driver and Grand Theft Auto share certain thematic ideas about the American city in general and New York City in particular.

taxidriver

It struck me that this may be a golden period for video games, much like the one enjoyed by movies in the 70′s  (a period where directors were working under a studio system that was flush with cash and willing to gamble on unproven talent): it is clear that video games are worth commercial investment, yet because the field is so young there isn’t an established authority to dictate the way that the medium will progress. In essence, video game creators are working with nearly unlimited means and almost no authority. No ivy towers, no establishment, no metaphorical patriarchs. One of the game’s creators says in the article that, “It’s not academicized; there’s no orthodoxy on how things are done, so we can do whatever we want. We make it up as we go along! As soon as we get told, ‘Yes, games are high art. They’re almost as high as painting and slightly less than dance,’ it’s over. Freedom is dead at that point. Then the argument just becomes about people’s egos.”

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I love Grand Theft Auto and can’t say enough about the game itself and the ambitions it represents.

More is less?

Tuesday, February 24th, 2009


Villareal “Multiverse” National Gallery of Art, Washington DC from Walter Patrick Smith on Vimeo.

I don’t know about you, but doesn’t this feel a little pre-2009?

Nathan Rich

Sunday, February 22nd, 2009
Architectural history is loaded with architects who were originally trained as painters or who painted extensively as part of their work. Le Corbusier, James Stirling, John Hejduk, Lebbeus Woods, Frank Stella, Massimo Scolari, and Michelangelo are a few that come to the top of my head. I’m not sure why that is, but I’m constantly looking for ideas that artists are playing with for architectural inspiration. These next images and text comes from one of my friends, Nathan Rich, who was a classmate of mine at Yale and shared with me a background studying painting.


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My painting process is one of precision and control.  I attempt hyper-real effects through a slow, careful manipulation of the paint.  There’s a sort of meditation in this slowness – an extended focus on a single subject.

I choose impermanent subjects, such as water, and try to draw energy from the effort to harness the uncontrollable; then I funnel that energy into my architectural work, where I still seek to wield control but real-world compromises are inevitable.  So, both fields are ways in which I try to control the uncontrollable.  But painting is a contained, personal world in which I can actually succeed in this effort.   Architecture, on the other hand, lives in the sprawling, messy world “out there” where such control isn’t possible.


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The painting studio thus gives me a critical distance from the parallel daily practice of architecture.  There, I can practice giving up control and letting the struggle, the journey, be fulfilling in its own right.

-nathan rich

www.nathanrich.org

Modern Palladio

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

Tala Gharagozlou attended the Yale School of Architecture Symposium this past weekend, and this is what she had to say about it.

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“Frankly my dear I don’t give a damn”

Rhett Butler’s line in Gone with the wind was not only voted as the most famous one movie line by the American Film Institute in 2005, but it seems to have been the motto of some of the most famous 20th c. architectural figures.

Architects definitely care about ideas, but what about “function”?

I was struck by a comment made by Kurt Forster this week-end at a symposium dedicated to Palladio at YSOA. In response to the concluding presentations by Peter Eisenman and Rafael Moneo, Kurt said that Palladio was the first real modern architect because he did not “care how his buildings were meant to be used”. Have a look at Villa Rotonda. Not exactly a place to live in. But oh the beauty of minimalism, of art for art’s sake…

villarotonda

Beyond the fact that Kurt was the one making that statement, it seemed to ring shockingly true. How many times have I wondered what the point of architecture was anyway?

And if you omit a few “hygienist” architects of the turn of the century –think Bruno Taut or Margarethe Schütte-Lihotzky and the design of the Frankfurt kitchen, use has really been one of the last things on architects’ mind.

The statement was also perfect in the company of someone like Peter Eisenman, whose entire project has been to define the autonomy of architecture by dealing with its “pure” syntax. And there it was, the perfect ending to the symposium, Peter Eisenman, Rafael Moneo, Greg Lynn, Robert A. M. Stern and all the others, all smiling at each other contently. Yes, Architecture is still here to stay…

On a side note, the poster to the symposium (at the top of the post) was designed by Michael Bierut’s Pentagram and I just love it. I also happen to be in a class he is co-teaching with William Drenttel at Yale. The hot topic has been, what if we designed as if we gave a damn?

The book that came out a few years ago was a pretty big success, part of that whole environmental/let’s save the world with buildings frenzy.

Drenttel’s own project though should be a very exciting one to keep track of.

– Tala Gharagozlou

The Future is Asian

Monday, February 16th, 2009

Poster_Spring2008

This next theme for this blog’s Film Architecture series is “The Future is Asian,” and will review a selection of films from various East Asian countries in an exploration of the cinematic products of a region of the world experiencing rapid economic and cultural change. Cities are being designed, developed and built at a heretofore unprecedented size and scale in Asia; it is a scale of architecture and planning for which we have as yet no theories. It is the missing XXL in Rem’s compendium of scales; it is the asymptotic limit to which no European dogma has a response. Right now, we have no criteria or ideas by which to judge, critique, or evaluate what is going on in the East. To put it academically, nobody knows what to say about Asia.

This selection of films, then, will attempt to survey the culture-scape of certain East Asia countries through their films—a contemporary medium which traffics their images, projections, fears, ideas, and narratives. Certain cinematic themes and tendencies are starting to emerge from Asian films which are having a broader impact upon the world than the previous generation of Asian films. Akira Kurosawa, for instance, was critically canonized but never really broadly imitated here in America; whereas 2007’s Academy Award for Best Picture went to an Asian film remade by Martin Scorsese (The Departed was a direct remake of Hong Kong filmmaker Andy Lau’s Infernal Affairs), and the current spate of horror and suspense films such as The Ring, The Grudge, One Missed Call, the Saw or the Hostel series are all either directly influenced by or literal remakes of Asian films. Accordingly, one focus of this semester’s theme will be on what has been loosely dubbed “Asian Extreme” films. These are films that have a level of violence—emotional, physical, sexual, or otherwise—which has surpassed anything imagined anywhere else. To anyone who has experienced the machinic orderliness of Tokyo to the “anything-goes” atmosphere of Seoul, these are the cultures which have been exporting the ideas and imagination that shapes the way the cities of tomorrow will be materialized. As architects, our responsibility is to shape the future of the built environment with our ideas, our skills, and our judgment. As such, it’s important that we give more than a passing glance towards Asia. The past is European. The future is Asian.

Bataille’s Dreams Come True

Wednesday, February 11th, 2009

Today’s post comes from Tala Gharagozlou, currently a graduate student of architecture at Yale.

Via Gizmodo

Via Gizmodo

i fell in love with the first cute girl that i met/
who could appreciate georges bataille/
standing at swedish festival discussing the ‘story of the eye’

–of Montreal

Bataille’s Dreams Come True

This was the subject heading of an e-mail from a friend of mine, a couple of days ago, Feb. 9th, 2009.

And of course, there were links to the photos of the CCTV’s unloved sibling immolating.

I was working in the architecture studio and the entire studio was of course abuzz within a few minutes of the event. But the pun on Bataille stuck with me for most of the day. This is after all, Yale University, and nerdy jokes take a strange life of their own.

Photos have been streaming in of this eerily “beautiful” spectacle. Jokes have been flying about what sort of fabulously bombastic manifesto Rem might make of this event, while others are about Ole Scheeren crying in Maggie Cheung’s arms.

Such a hubristic project is easy to mock, especially in the current times of economic gloom.

Yales A&A Building after the fire

Yale's A&A Building after the fire

But after all, the Yale School of Architecture is housed in one of the most emblematic buildings possible: Paul Rudolph’s A&A (I will never get used to the “Paul Rudolph Hall” name, btw. Will anyone ever call the CCTV the Rem Koolhaas Tower?? I doubt it, but Yale is a whole other type of totalitarian regime, thanks to a certain R.A.M.S…).

The burning of the A&A occurred at one of the most intense moments of social turmoil in America and on university campuses. The 1969 fire left the A&A battered, and it only survived due to a series of structural additions. Much has been made of the recent renovation project by Gwathmey/Siegel, but the fire itself remains a small source of fascination, especially because of what some students secretly felt was a justified sign to move on from a certain generation of patriarchs…

In a similar way, people have been wondering out loud if anybody even cared to “save” the CCTV? But as Bataille would put it, what would there be to save? CCTV was there to exist as the only voice. OMA’s pair of buildings has epitomized a certain architecture’s refusal to “serve” society. The CCTV is known as the building that has used the greatest amount of steel ever in history, for example. Its foundations are the size of several football fields (ask Cecil Balmond for the details here).

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Architecture can be interpreted as the image society would like to see of itself. But Bataille is fascinated with the Aztec temples [see “Extinct America”]. Fearless of this relation between society and the death of the individual, Aztec architecture is purely dedicated to the immolation of individuals as well. The Aztecs “neglected to put in place the infrastructures that would have secured its future” and their architecture represented that. In many ways, CCTV’s is the symbol of China’s disregard for any idea of progressive institutions and a capacity to heedlessly build its own Capitalist guillotine.

So after all, could Beijing’s inhabitants feel slightly bad about this fire? The spectacle of architecture burning always holds the anxious sign that we can do little to go beyond death.

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On a side note, thanks to Sasha Frere-Jones of the New Yorker for making “critical theory a little easier to use on dates.”

–Tala Gharagozlou

Pants on Fire

Tuesday, February 10th, 2009
Via Shanghaiist

Via Shanghaiist

The Chinese have nicknamed Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV Building in Beijing “Big Pants,” or “Big Shorts,” and as many Western news outlets reported yesterday, it caught on fire (or, the adjacent building, part of the same complex, did, apparently due to some errant fireworks). The Chinese media, which is controlled by CCTV, of course, tried to hide that news.

Several years ago, Rem famously directed his studio, OMA, to avoid the competition being held to redesign the World Trade Center and instead focus on building this building. He famously said it was due to a fortune cookie that they received while discussing the decision over some Chinese food. Supposedly, the fortune cookie read: “Stunningly Omnipresent Masters Make Minced Meat of Memory.” You can read his “Beijing Manifesto,” published in Wired magazine, here.

First of all, when has anybody ever received a fortune cookie written like that???

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Secondly, what I originally considered a brilliant move on Rem’s part, to avoid the WTC re-design debacle, was neutralized by his decision to design a monument to the totalitarianism of China (and moreover, to the information/media-controlling arm of totalitarian China). What Rem didn’t seem to realize was that the symbolism of the form of the CCTV tower (so obviousy a product of the blue-foam design school of OMA) carried no meaning when plopped into the context of China and Beijing.

Rem himself writes in his manifesto: “First, was it merely a landmark, one more alien proposal of meaningless boldness? Was its structural complexity simply irresponsible?” He doesn’t really answer himself, except to say that “A refusal of the Promethean in the name of correctness and good sense could foreclose China’s architectural potential.” Architectural potential to do what?

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He has mentioned elsewhere that this CCTV building “killed the skyscraper,” because it doesn’t participate in the race towards higher and higher buildings (for the most ridiculous example of this, see the Burj Dubai). But it nevertheless is a close to 2 million square foot complex (180,000 square meters), making it one of the biggest buildings, regardless of height. The building also uses no small amount of steel for its structural hijinks. In the end, it seems like the old debate about length versus girth.

Anyhow, as reporters noted, many of the Beijingers watching noted that the fire was “inauspicious,” occuring as it did at the end of the New Year’s celebrations. Well, inauspicious it may be, but it also seems shockingly predictable.

The Lives of Others

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

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The Lives of Others

(Das Leben der Anderen)
2006, 137 minutes
directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck

You may or may not notice that this film is being screened in place of what was scheduled, that being Fanny & Alexander, a late film by Ingmar Bergman. Indeed, Fanny & Alexander would have made a great contrast to the earlier films in the series, being a study in the late style of an established and accomplished career of an international moviemaker. Not only did Fanny & Alexander win four Academy Awards in 1984, including Best Foreign Picture, but the movie was also one that Bergman himself was especially proud—enough to make him consider quitting filmmaking altogether, as he tells in this amusing anecdote:

“Making ‘Fanny and Alexander’ was such a joy that I thought that feeling will never come back. I will try to explain: When I was at university many years ago, we were all in love with this extremely beautiful girl. She said no to all of us, and we didn’t understand. She had had a love affair with a prince from Egypt and, for her, everything after this love affair had to be a failure. So she rejected all our proposals. I would like to say the same thing. The time with ‘Fanny and Alexander’ was so wonderful that I decided it was time to stop. I have had my prince of Egypt.”

I think that’s a fairly amazing idea to have at so late a stage in life, as Ingmar Bergman was when he said that, that you only have one love in your life and that once you’ve had it, it’s hard to continue. It’s a powerful idea, and one that has certainly propelled many an artist towards whatever pursuits they’ve endeavored towards. The idea that there is one perfect love that may be attained is certainly a potent idea, but maybe also fairly dangerous.

However, we’re not going to be watching Fanny & Alexander. The film is over 3 hours long and I know nobody has that kind of time in this kind of place. Instead, we’re going to watch a newer film, a film that potentially has more relevance towards architecture.

Towards the beginning of the semester I wrote about the relationship between film and architecture, and the nature of the cinematic apparatus as an implicit subject with political and therefore organizational implications. This film, a German film which won this year’s Best Foreign Film Oscar, is about surveillance in mid-century Germany. Surveillance has lately been, in conjunction with the ubiquity and incomprehensible power of common electronics, taking on the presence of another metaphysical subject.

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Michel Foucault wrote about a certain physical manifestation of this idea when he popularized Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison in his book, Discipline and Punish. The panopticon and what, for lack of a better term, we’ll call the idea of surveillance, both share the idea of the political power of vision. And they both assert the power of a presence of absence. But they way that surveillance is different from the panopticon is in the ubiquity of surveillance; it is, in effect, a new omnipresence distinct from theocentricism. What this heralds is uncertain. Even politically it is uncharted legal territory, as anybody who’s been paying attention to the national currents events is aware. Politics and architecture have always been connected, though, so it is no doubt worthwhile to spend some time pondering the culture into which we’re entering.

The next film architecture theme I will be writing about is “The Future is Asian.”

Originally written November 27, 2007

The Issue of Scale, part 1

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2009

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I have often thought that the most important skill that an architect offers is an understanding of scale (my friend John has different take). Scale isn’t just knowing inches to meters, or the width of a corridor, or how an 8 foot ceiling feels versus a 12 foot one, but also having a general understanding of the broader environment and each persons place within it. I know that’s vague, but that’s why, beginning with this post, I will post a short missive on the issue of scale every once in a while. This is the first one, and it has to do with pure numbers.

This is a thought experiment suggested by John Allen Paulos in his book, Innumeracy.

Without doing the calculation, try to guess how long a million seconds is. Now try to guess the same for a billion seconds. How about a trillion?

Ready? A million seconds is less than twelve days. A billion seconds is almost thirty-two years. And a trillion seconds is roughly 31,688 years.

I ran across this in a great article about the financial crisis in this week’s New Yorker. It makes you think when you hear all those numbers batted around about the cost of the war in Iraq, the financial bailout, playing the lottery, or the odds of dying in a plane crash, no?

I mean, what are the odds?