Posts Tagged ‘field operations’

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)


Monday, December 29th, 2008

One of the great things about working with Dietrich Neumann from Brown University (click here for a great link about Brown) was that he selected movies that I knew I had to watch but just couldn’t make myself for one reason or another. Well, when film and architecture are mentioned together, this is one of the first movies people think of, so it was overdue.


Metropolis (1929) 123 minutes, directed by Fritz Lang

Let’s face it: today, technology is no longer an important part of our collective image of the future. Or maybe I should define “technology” as specifically the sort of industrial/machine age concept which is represented by cars, trains, airplanes, and skyscrapers. Today we have technology in the form of cellphones, iPods, laptops, Blackberrys, the internet and Maya, which are a distinctly different beast than cars and airplanes. In fact, stuff like a 3-d modeling program isn’t technology at all. It’s magic.

A week ago or so, the New York Times published an article about how the recent proliferation and popularity of certain “magic-realist” television shows such as “Lost,” “Heroes,” “Medium,” “Ghost Whisperer” and others were indicative of a popular fascination with the supernatural and the unexplainable. The article goes on to say that this is the harbinger of a society’s decline, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that yet. What I will say, however, is that I think what has happened is that technology has come to signify something else to us: it’s complexity, sophistication, ubiquity and incomprehensible power has breached a tipping point and technology has morphed into magic.

This follows what is sometimes commonly referred to as Clarke’s Third Law (after Arthur C. Clarke): Any sufficiently complex technology is indistinguishable from magic. Don’t think that’s true? Try explaining to me how a television works, on a subatomic level. What about a microprocessor? Still don’t think technology is magic? Did you know that even common household electric wiring systems can only be predictably accounted for using quantum mechanics? And do you know what the single most important principle of quantum mechanics is? The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: that at a certain scale it is impossible to know what is going on. Which is why string theory is simultaneously both extremely exciting and extremely disappointing: it can never be scientifically proven or disproven because it theorizes phenomena at a scale that we simply cannot test for. Somebody explain to me quantum mechanics. I don’t care if you’re Michelle Addington (more Michelle). You can’t. Because it’s magic. iPods and cellphones and Blackberrys and laptops run on magic.

The film Metropolis is the godfather of all filmic images of the Modern conception of the city. In this film the city under the influence of Modern technology was imagined to its logical extreme: layers upon layers of traffic all flowing in orderly grids between behemoth sized skyscrapers with Babel-esque proportioned hubris. In a sense, all films dealing with the city have been a response to Metropolis. But the age where Metropolis represents our image of the future may be closed, along with our faith in the promise of skyscrapers (except in Asia, but more on that later): prominent architects have all said or proposed as such: Rem called his CCTV (known in China affectionately as “Big Shorts”) loop a death knell to the age of the skyscraper, Eisenman’s Max Reinhardt building was also theorized as such, and Thom Mayne even said in spoken lectures that skyscrapers make no sense for cities today. Metropolis, with its grand skyscrapers, is the image of the city under the spell of technology.

As an element of urban planning, the Grid may be the most conspicuous example of an obsolete machine-age emphasis on the vehicle. How pernicious the grid has been to cities in the Twentieth century! It’s no wonder that today we care most about the cities and spaces that were developed before the car and hence, before the grid: lower Manhattan, parts of Boston, parts of San Francisco, and of course, old Europe.


Another holdover from Modernist urban planning is the vertical stratification of traffic: designers since the Modern era have always attempted to create vertically layered levels of traffic: clover freeways, elevated railways, pedestrian skybridges, etc., all in alignment with the image that Metropolis helped propagate. But in every instance the attempt to create just one more level of streetlife has failed miserably (save for in Asia, but again, more on that later). Wherever pedestrian skybridges have been built they’ve managed to kill the street life both on them and below them, and the images of clover freeways are somehow always juxtaposed next to images of suburban angst: be it Columbine High School or Insane Clown Posse. The reason why layering pedestrian traffic doesn’t work may be most simply explained using a concept Molly Steenson introduced to me: FOMO (the Fear Of Missing Out). It may be hard to reside in any one place when you can see a more activated streetscape one level above or below. The next test of this idea will be seen in New York’s High Line, a competition won by Diller, Scofidio+Renfro in collaboration with Field Operations, which faces the unenviable task of trying to design an artificial environment to compete with the bustling, organic streetlife of Manhattan.

(originally written 2/20/2007)