Posts Tagged ‘thom mayne’

Memories of Murder

Sunday, March 15th, 2009


Memories of Murder
2003, 130 minutes
directed by:  Bong Joon-ho

A friend and I recently had a conversation about the contemporary artist John Currin. He has had feature articles written about him for several years now, including one in the New Yorker, which is no small feat for an American painter alive and working today. He’s a graduate of Yale’s MFA program (Mafia of Art) and a critical darling. In short, he’s received no small amount of critical and professional success.


However, there’s something palpably underwhelming about his work. It sometimes feels like what he’s doing is the art world equivalent of a PhD thesis. It’s intelligent and it represents diligent, hard work, but there’s no energy or fire. There’s no brashness. There’s no urgency. There’s nothing in them that really represents a real risk of failure. I don’t mean to single out John Currin for this, for I certainly like and respect his work. I think what is unsettling is the issue of risk. I think the Spanish have a word for it: cojones.


In a way, the architects we reference the most were almost unpalatably punk in their youth—the competition-rule-breaking entries of early Rem Koolhaas, the suburban house by Frank Gehry, the distressed drawings of Thom Mayne, the paintings of Zaha Hadid, or the art and dance installations of Diller & Scofidio. They gained attention because they were desperately searching for a way around the established methods to get towards something more honest and expressive. That in the end is what creativity is, and that is why we know them today.


Several years ago, when Jackie Chan made his first American production movie, several interviewers asked Jackie what the difference was between making a movie in America versus making a movie in Hong Kong. Well, Jackie said, the difference was that in America, the movie-makers actually think about things like safety, preparation, planning, and insurance. There is a whole industry that revolves around making sure people don’t get hurt. Apparently, in contrast, back in Hong Kong, somebody would dream up a stunt, no matter how insane, and whoever had the balls would just get up and try to do it on film. If that person got hurt, they would just get another guy. If, after a few maimed guys, they decided the stunt was probably impossible, they would just think of another stunt. And so a movie got made. In short, that was the path to success for Jackie Chan, who literally started his career as a stuntman, and apparently was the guy who survived all the stunts.


It seems there is no shortage of Asian people willing to do stupid things at a moment’s notice—which is precisely why it’s so exciting. Asia is producing so much: not only in terms of products, but most importantly, in terms of ideas. As I’ve written before, this is why Asia warrants attention; not only because new stuff is being done in Asia, but also because new ways of interpreting and expressing that stuff are being formulated. Asia is just so punk.


The director Bong Joon-ho became famous most recently for his film, The Host, the highest grossing film of all time in South Korea, which the New York Times called a “feverishly imaginative genre hybrid.” This film, Memories of Murder, is arguably a better, more inventive and surprising film. That’s why, comparatively, the artist John Currin just feels like reading a good academic paper. He just went through all the established, formulaic steps to become a good considerate, professional artist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Blade Runner

Saturday, January 3rd, 2009


Blade Runner
1982, 117 minutes
directed by Ridley Scott

Two years prior to the symbolic date of 1984, Ridley Scott released this film based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. It stars Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos and Daryl Hannah. In the film, Harrison Ford plays a bounty hunter hired to search and destroy rogue ‘replicants,’ genetically engineered machines designed to be identical to human beings, yet used exclusively for labor. The date is 2019, and the place is Los Angeles.

In terms of the progression of this semester’s films, it serves as one of the dystopic bookends of these cinematic investigations into the city and architecture. Metropolis, by Fritz Lang in 1927, a film which essentially established the genre, imagined the city as completely beholden to the industrial revolution that was gripping the first world at the turn of the century. As the machines fall towards the end of that movie and the indentured servants are released from their servitude, perhaps we can see Blade Runner as the result of that uprising in Metropolis; the city in Blade Runner is a city of endless hordes of disenfranchised, despairing, and dispersed masses of people (almost all Asian, (un)surprisingly). There is no implied order, no nods to any sort of benevolent government in place, nor any sense of optimism. The setting for epitomized dystopia moves from the East Coast to the West Coast, from a fictional New York to a fictional Los Angeles. The dystopia arcs from one of stifling order to one of bewildering disarray.

Blade Runner has shown incredible longevity as a film. As Pauline Kael put it in her otherwise tepid and uncomprehending review, “[Blade Runner] has its own look, and a visionary sci-fi movie that has its own look can’t be ignored—it has its place in film history.” But it isn’t quite so simple as merely the look of the city that distinguishes Blade Runner, it’s also the conception of dystopia that it presents. Much like the way classical, Newtonian physics was superseded by the hazy, cloudy realms of relativity and quantum mechanics; technology, once the force of order and oppression in Metropolis, morphs into the ambiguous field of chaos and unknowability in Blade Runner.

This quantum world view is probably most apparent in one of the largest themes running through Blade Runner, that of the humanity of the ‘replicants.’ Though they are visually and interactively indistinguishable from humans, they are none the less ruthlessly hunted down whenever they disobey (they even possess the wherewithal to disobey). Whereas Fritz Lang asked us to decide between human and machine, Ridley Scott asked us where one begins and the other ends.

If there is one city that could serve as an example of the broken promise of Modernism, an ethos essentially rooted in the classical Newtonian world-order view, it might be Los Angeles. There, the pernicious grid, that pseudo-neutral system that imposes political hierarchy spreads throughout the desert landscape and blankets it with an industriocratic stupor. The existence of the grid implies a distinction between planner and planned—it is the manifestation of Nietzschian hubris via technology that culminates in a Hegelian subject-object dichotomy. Los Angeles, then, presents the perfect setting for contemporary urban alienation. In April 1992, Los Angeles was besieged by the Rodney King riots. Though the ostensible impetus for those riots was the verdict of the eponymous trial, if we abstract those events to be indicative towards a shifting relationship between subject and object, it thus can be seen to presage the banlieu riots of Paris and post-9/11 non-nation state terrorism.
Thom Mayne, the principal and founder of Morphosis, a Pritzker Prize winning practice based in Los Angeles, has often spoken of the need for “an architecture of resistance.” His insightful, incisive, and eloquent critiques of the nature of building public buildings today (see his interviews published recently in The New York Times), most poignantly aimed at the Ground Zero debacle, point to the interdependency of architecture, politics, and urbanism. If we take the 1968 generation of architects to be the resistance against Modernism, then today we have a need for a resistance against the society of the spectacle.

(originally written April 17, 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)