“Being unused for decades, the Silo provides possibilities, unique challenges and great potentials in reuse as well as in architectural and structural innovations. Rehabilitation of the landmark building will hail a new period, not only in the neighbouring Toppila area but also in the City of Oulu. The Alvar Aalto Foundation looks forward to the rise of the Phoenix!”
Jonas Malmberg, Alvar Aalto Foundation
City of the Tar Bourgeois
The AaltoSiilo, Alvar and Aino Aalto’s first industrial building, was constructed in 1931 at the limits of engineering tolerance. It rises 28-metres high, springing from a narrow rectangular base divided into three bays, each 10 x 10 metres in plan. The walls and roof are cast-in-situ concrete of an almost impossible thinness – only 10 cm – held rigid by fins that punctuate the façade. The roof barely tapers off the vertical, with a parallel conveyor chute that carried wood chips to the top for distribution through steel funnels, suspended from concrete ring beams by flexible steel joints. Bitumen painted directly onto the concrete surface served as weatherproofing. It has the austere dignity of a secular cathedral, but one elongated and exaggerated, as if imagined by an expressionist filmmaker.
The Silo is currently the focus of a significant transformation. It sits at the northernmost edge of the Gulf of Bothnia in Toppila, a neglected suburb of Oulu, where urgently needed urban regeneration is connected to the alarming consequences of climate change. Refugees (including people from Syria and Somalia) are arriving as the arctic ice melts. Post-glacial rebound results in the land ‘bouncing back’ leading Oulu to rise by more than one centimeter a year. This affects not only the relationship between land and sea, but the composition of the sea itself. The melting ice is turning the Gulf of Bothnia into freshwater: its new population of pike and perch are clear evidence of this.
Oulu’s complex history began in the 17th century, when its ‘Tar Bourgeois’ grew rich by supplying the treacle-black pine tar, extracted by burning trees, that was used for waterproofing the ships sent out to conquer what became the British Empire. The Silo was built when exploitation seemed natural, natural resources seemed infinite, and responsibility lay in satisfying human desire rather than preserving its environment. The Toppila factory complex, of which the Silo is one of the remaining structures, produced sulphite cellulose and wood pulp for the English paper producer Peter Dixon & Son Limited. It closed in 1985 as the newspaper industry’s economic fortunes changed, leaving behind a ravaged landscape where once luxuriant, virgin spruce forests grew. Now commercial sharks are once again circling, eyeing the natural resources being unlocked by the rapidly melting permafrost.
Fortunately, positive change is in the air and possible in Finland. Tech- and gaming-related startups thrived in Oulu with the growth of Nokia and now have their own identities. Research into sustainable building materials is ongoing in Oulu University and OAMK (Oulu University of Applied Sciences). With the rise of mobile telephones cellulose is being used once again for communication, but in nano-structured form in 5G technologies. There is a rising awareness of the urgent need for a new approach to the global role of this overlooked locality. The world is now being forced to confront its deepest prejudices as national boundaries, identity, consumption, materiality, preservation and sharing are all being renegotiated. There is global rethinking about what is valuable and even the nature of value itself. The regeneration of the AaltoSiilo and its re-use is a project being developed by Factum Foundation and Skene Catling de la Peña (https://aaltosiilo.com/en/Who_we_are, https://aaltosiilo.com/en/SCDLP). The Silo is on the frontline of change and Oulu is rising. Both literally and metaphorically.
Architecture or Revolution
Walter Gropius first published pictures of silos in the Jahrbuch des Deutschen Werkbundes, (the Yearbook of the German Association of Craftsmen), in 1913. The impact on the European Avant Garde was instant and electric. Le Corbusier saluted silos in 1924 as the ‘magnificent FIRST FRUITS of the new age’ in Vers une Architecture, (originally titled ‘Architecture or Revolution’), and Bruno Taut published the monumental Central Elevator of Buffalo, New York, in Modern Architecture, 1929. But these reactions, and the modernist manifestos they inspired, were based purely on photographs. Only Erich Mendelsohn travelled to study and record the silos first-hand.
Beyond their impact on architecture, the American grain silos ushered in a new form of capitalism. Once they were able to store vast quantities of grain, merchants could create a commodities and futures market they could manipulate, where traders benefit, and farmers lose out. The silo as a silent, sculptural form, embedded in cacophonous industry and compulsive activity, offered a violent rupture with the past. One can imagine a fascination with the muscular power, frenetic energy and mechanical inhumanity of these places growing against a background of the machinations that led to the first World War. Aalto’s Silo was built as Hitler was coming to power and Europe was fragmenting.
Rayner Banham taught at SUNY in Buffalo from 1976 to 1980 where he researched A Concrete Atlantis. He sees the silos as the antecedents to modernism. Banham describes the frisson he felt exploring the derelict silo buildings, their ‘abandonment and isolation’ like ‘Roman ruins, enhanced by the flight of a bird of prey from the head-house at the sound of my approach’. He was transfixed by the Sphinx-like blankness of ‘this huge, rippled cliff of concrete… because it consists almost entirely of closed storage volumes to which there is no casual access, it remains impermeable, secret and aloof…as inaccessible as the interior of an Egyptian pyramid.’
Silo of Ideas
Aalto was christened the ‘Sibelius of Architecture’ and the ‘Magus of the North’ by Sigfried Giedion in his influential Space, Time and Architecture, where he observed that ‘the Finns treat Aalto as a living god’. Aalto first appeared in the second edition of the book, published in 1949, where he was given more space than any other modernist architect. The Aaltos’ first industrial project shares the same mysterious aloofness that seduced Banham in Buffalo and it was immediately celebrated; Moholy-Nagy visited in 1931 to take photographs and a large feature appeared in Arkkitehti Magazine that year with most attention focused on this unusual, iconic structure.
The revival of the Silo has been conceived of in three core parts: the RESTORATION of the AaltoSiilo, the CONSTRUCTION of a new Research Centre and their CONTENT. The restorationwill treat the building as a sculpture, with minimal alteration and intervention. Stripped back to its shell and designed to minimise the impact of building regulations while creating an ideal environment for transformation into a multi-sensory, multi-media ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’ and performance space – a ‘Silo of Ideas’ – informing the research and experimentation in the adjoining new Research Laboratory.
The Research Laboratory is a courtyard structure that will occupy the space of the demolished building where trees were once turned into wood chips. It is designed around a negative ghost of the silo footprint. Visitors will be drawn in and reoriented to face the silo which can be either the focus, a screen or a background to events and performance. The new structure will be built from 20th century ‘demolition spolia’ and the façade will become a record of the material investigations behind its construction, an echo of Aalto’s Muuratsalo or Experimental House. We are working closely with the Oulu planning department and Toppila based cultural activists to rethink the site but also to extend its impact beyond the site to the large parking area in front of the silo, once part of the cellulose factory.
The AaltoSiilo has the potential to address the urgent realities of the Anthropocene and current concerns about the future of architecture. Ephemeral structures of steel and glass using vast quantities of concrete are constructed and torn down every day, contributing to the existential crisis we are all facing. What is the role of the architect today? How can industrial architectural heritage be preserved and reused? Is the legacy of the impact of industry on the environment in the Arctic North insurmountable? How should buildings and nature be used, engaged with, enjoyed, sustained and preserved? Can changes in current architectural practice tackle some of the destructive industrial residue of the 20th century?
These industrial sites once generated and defined communities; physically, socially and economically. Abandoned, they are melancholy remnants of 20th century capitalism and architectural utopianism. It is time to rethink these spaces for a post-industrial era and to use them to examine every aspect of the way we currently live. The AaltoSiilo rethinks materiality for the 21st century and the role industrial heritage plays in memory, in shaping place and cultural identity. Oulu is the European City of Culture in 2026, this provides a target date for the completion of the New AaltoSiilo and Research Centre.
Factum Foundation commissioned Tarek Waly to restore Hassan Fathy’s mudbrick masterpiece Stoppelaere in Luxor. This is now the home of the Theban Necropolis Preservation Initiative that has already carried out the high-resolution recording of the tombs of Seti I and Tutankhamun. Now is the time for new ‘silo dreams’, the re-thinking of Concrete and soft matter (see link to Kapoor book). It is time for change…. Massive change!!! Let’s redesign everything with optimism; from how COP works to how we negotiate our shared future. This year is the anniversary of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. In 2031 the Silo will be 100 years old. We have to act for the long term. Pharaonic culture, through its relationship to their environment, was able to project itself 3,000 years into the future. Can we?
‘We reached this most glorious Toledo of England this morning...
What treasures are hid in England!’
Richard Ford on his visit to Durham and Auckland Castle, 1851
England and Spain have a long and complex history together. Jonathan Ruffer’s vision to create a gallery of Spanish art in the North of England was partly inspired by the historic, and somewhat unlikely, presence at Auckland Castle of Francisco de Zurbarán’s mid-17th century life-size portraits of Jacob and His Twelve Sons. Twelve of the thirteen portraits were bought in 1757 by Richard Trevor, the Bishop of Durham, an Anglican liberal who supported Jewish emancipation and for whom the paintings became a symbol and gesture of religious tolerance. The Bishop designed the Long Dining Room at the Castle specifically for them and they have hung there ever since. One imagines his bemused guests in the cold north encircled by the twelve brothers in their vermillion tunics, striped culottes, indigo and burnt orange damask cloaks; pale pink shot silk, ermine trim, stamped leather sashes; embroidered, knee-high, suede sandals; ribbons, bows and Baroque borders; a tunic of pale silver fish scales - fleur de lys embossed - under purple satin sleeves; gold chains, pearl-studded diamond brooches, knotted turbans, twisted wraps and headpieces, all radiant with the exotic brilliance of another place and different time. They were nearly lost in 2011 before Ruffer stepped in to secure their future and open them to the public. This reiterated symbol of tolerance, in an increasingly intolerant world, is at the heart of a much bigger project around Spanish art and how we see, experience, communicate and preserve our cultural heritage.
The Zurbarán portraits also radiate symbolic meaning onto the core of Jonathan Ruffer’s collection: the Spanish Golden Age. Jacob, Patriarch of the Israelites, is a key figure within the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as are his sons, the heads of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The Spanish Renaissance and early Baroque coincided with the end of the relatively tolerant co-existence in Spain of Jews, Christians and Muslims that began in the early 8th century when the Moors unified the Iberian Peninsula, establishing Al-Andalus. Although there are ideological disputes over just how peaceful this long co-existence - ‘la Convivencia’ - really was, the cultural exchange and the lasting impact it had on the Spanish character and on the art, architecture, music, literature, song and food of Spain, is unarguable. During hundreds of years of living in such close proximity, many qualities of life and culture quietly merged; Mosques, Synagogues and churches shared architectural details and, even today, traditional Spanish dance and song remain a hybrid. But tolerance was eventually stifled by intolerance. The Reconquista moved steadily south. The Spanish Inquisition was established in 1478, and all Jews except those who had converted to Catholicism (the ‘Conversos’), were expelled in 1492. Muslims faced the same fate: conversion or death. Finally, between 1609 and 1614, the entire population of converted Muslims, (the ‘Moriscos’), was also forced to leave.
English interest in this period of Spanish art has other precedents: at the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, not far from Bishop Auckland, are paintings by El Greco and Goya. Rokeby Park in Yorkshire was once home to the only surviving nude painting by Veláquez - ‘the Rokeby Venus’ - which was sold in 1906 to the National Gallery in London where it now hangs, and where, in 1914, it was violently slashed by a suffragette for its sensual realism. One hopes these pictures carry the ghost of tolerance with them despite having been painted when England and Spain were at war. Ironically, The Spanish Gallery opens in the year that the UK leaves the European Union, with the world in the midst of a pandemic and undergoing deepest change.
As part of Ruffer’s expansive reimagination of the town of Bishop Auckland, he commissioned Factum Foundation and Skene Catling de la Peña to rethink the concept and role of a museum for the top floor of the Spanish Gallery. The result, ‘In the Blink of an Eye, Transience and Eternity in the Spanish Golden Age’, is a space filled with great objects, all with their own specific history, biography and meaning in their original location, but with the potential to unlock a profound understanding of Spanish art when put together in dialogue with each other. The original pieces were all chosen, digitally recorded and re-embodied as physical facsimiles for installation in Bishop Auckland to reveal some of the defining characteristics of this period of Spanish art and its context. A New World vellum map, paintings - portraits, biblical scenes, two vanitas ‘warnings’ and a baptism - sit alongside Renaissance wall tiles, carved architectural plasterwork or yeseria, elaborate, geometric-patterned timber ceilings, sculptures, a tabernacle and a tomb. All have been made in Madrid over three years of delicate negotiations and intense digital and physical work. The outcome is a portal into Spanish Renaissance and early Baroque thinking and a collection of mutually beneficial collaborations that redefine sharing, connoisseurship and preservation.
Transience and Transformation
Looking is an active process. The title of the exhibition, ‘In the Blink of an Eye’, is taken from one of the extraordinarily visceral paintings on display, a vanitas by Juan de Valdés Leal. In Ictu Oculi speaks of the transience of life – that momentary flash between birth and death - but also of transformation and, as beautifully transposed into a 17th century sermon by John Donne, of resurrection. Paraphrasing the original Corinthians 15:52, Donne wrote, “we say there shall be a sudden death, and a sudden resurrection; In raptu, in transitu, in ictu oculi, In an instant, in the twinckling of an eye.”
Rapture, transience, transformation and resurrection are at the core of this exhibition. Itis also designed to provoke questions. What is the function and purpose of art? What does it reveal? Where does its value lie? What is the relationship between the original and an authentic copy? Are these copies new works of art enabled by technology? Why are they made physical? Why visit a museum that puts preservation and communication before ownership? What can Spanish art contribute to a former mining town in the north east of England? Why open a museum at all in the 21st century? What can an ‘offline’ experience deliver that cannot be gained ‘online’? Hopefully the answers will be diverse and surprising. The selection of works displayed is intended to raise more questions than it answers while generating a sense of wonder and empathy. One of the aims is to create a new narrative through juxtaposition by which objects can be seen as if for the first time. Great art grants the power to see through the eyes and perceptions of others. ‘In Ictu Oculi - In the Blink of an Eye’ celebrates a uniquely Iberian view of the world, and the ability of art to compress and transcend time and place.
Museums and Copies
Museums are not new. The first collectors sought out rare, often bizarre, natural objects and human creations which they displayed in ‘Cabinets of Curiosity’, Wunderkammer, or ‘Wonder Rooms’. These were ‘magic boxes’, filled with intrigue, that made no separation between art and science, the found or the manufactured. They presented fact and fiction alike, aiming to stimulate a deeper understanding of the world around us. The Ennigaldi-Nanna Museum in Ur, Mesopotamia is believed by many to be the first. It was created nearly 2,500 years ago, at the end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, a time of nostalgia for a dying culture and dynasty. The Priestess Princess Ennigaldi, daughter of the last King, assembled a large number of objects which she housed next to the palace in a temple used for learning. Excavated by Sir Charles Leonard Wooley in 1922, most of the contents are now in the National Museum of Iraq. Their discovery was initially met with confusion: how could objects from such different regions and epochs - some separated by over a thousand years - be found carefully arranged together? It revealed itself as a curated collection of cultural heritage partly through the cylinder seals found alongside the objects. The seals held information - or ‘metadata’ - about the ancient artifacts, written in three languages including Sumerian: among everything else, Wooley had discovered the first museum labels. Equally remarkable, some of the objects were copies from originals.
Museums as we now know them emerged in the seventeenth century from an Enlightenment desire to classify and catalogue knowledge. Museums preserved, collated, described and displayed to form a bedrock of solid understanding from which future generations could build, re-describe, appropriate and create. Museums reflect the values of their age. Through them we understand what mattered in different places at different times. Although we are often not immediately conscious of it, museums continue adapting to reflect current concerns and the things we care about in the present. In England they have provided free access and a social space in which objects can be engaged with, discussed and shared.
Copies and Originals – A Plaster Madeleine
In the 20th century copies fell out of favour. Owning the original became more desirable than sharing and understanding it. Complex subjects became discrete objects displayed for aesthetic appreciation. Important collections of plaster casts and copies – designed to give access to those who weren’t able to travel to see the originals - were thrown away. Fortunately, a few survived. The Cast Courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London are unusual today for containing a collection made entirely of copies. They are finding a new relevance in an age of ‘digital materiality’. The V&A plaster copies were made using the technologies of the 19th century, by taking impressions directly from the originals (in some cases harming them in the process). Today these copies often contain more detail than the originals they were taken from, originals damaged by pollution, aggressive restoration or just the passage of time. The copies are a ‘snapshot’ of the original object at the time the cast was made. In some cases, the original has been destroyed altogether, for example, the 19th century plaster cast at the V&A is all that remains of the late 16th century relief of Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples, from Lübeck, Germany.
Writing at the height of the popularity of cast courts and plaster architecture, Marcel Proust took the dichotomy of the copy vs. the original to its conceptual extreme. In his subtly layered composite of reality and fiction, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Proust describes Marcel’s disappointment at finally seeing the original ‘Virgin of the Portal’ in the (invented) town of Balbec which he had known until then only through reproduction. As a boy, the plaster copy represented abstract perfection and immortality while, ‘the church itself’, ‘the statue itself’ was diminished for being subject to all the mundanities of everyday life. ‘Chained to the square’ it had to withstand ‘the gaze of the café and the omnibus office, receiving on its face half the ray of the setting sun and soon - in a few hours - from the light of the streetlamp... the whiff of the pastry chef’s kitchens’. It was all ‘too real’. The memory of the copy transcended the ‘tyranny’ and fate ‘of the Particular’, the original.
Today the facsimiles by Factum Foundation are made using contactless scanning and photogrammetry techniques that leave the original untouched. The original and the copy, conservation, restoration and provenance, the aura and authenticity are all subjects that are being re-thought. Material evidence and original objects are still fundamentally important as the ‘source’, the ‘evidence’ and the direct connection to the past providing privileged access to diverse experts. But originality is a process. It is dynamic and requires constant attention. Like us, objects reflect how they are cared for and valued. Anti-ageing treatments can both rejuvenate and alter, conceal and mislead. Restorations also reveal the values of their time and of the places where they were carried out. One of the primary goals of connoisseurship, both philological and through the close study of material evidence, in physical and digital form, is to gain a deeper understanding of the people who made the objects. Ironically, given today’s veneration of the original object, art historical study is very often dependent on reproductions in books, usually at a different scale and lacking any physical presence. It would be impossible to tell whether, for example, the reproduction of the detail of the Valdés Leal painting in this book was made from a photograph of the original or the facsimile: both are reproductions.
The objects in the installation at Bishop Aucklandhave all been selected because of their ability to reveal the complexity that underlies Spanish art; the philosophical and religious constraints imposed on the makers, the craftsmanship and material transformations that were developed to high levels, the aesthetic and financial values and many other ingredients that make a work of art specifically what it is.
The Evidence of the Past
Museums are, at least in theory, publicly owned collections displayed in public spaces that serve a social function. Private collections play a different role and often project singular visions and personal passions or interests. Money talks and has provided various people with the voices through which to assert their cultural perspectives. Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, Horace Walpole’s collection at Strawberry Hill House, the Museo Cerralbo in Madrid are all examples of private collections with particular ‘voices’, as is the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford which is currently the focus of much attention and controversy. But material evidence is significant precisely for providing a physical presence that can be seen, revisited and understood. As the perspective of the visitor changes with time, different narratives emerge which nourish new audiences. Removing the evidence of the past is filled with all the dangers of rewriting history and taking away the possibilities of learning from it in its unadulterated form. Understanding different historical perspectives has great and important value, however unpalatable they may sometimes be.
The alternative to breaking up museum collections is to rethink ownership and display. Of the artefacts now on exhibition at Strawberry Hill House, thirty-eight of them, including drawings, paintings and sculptures, are facsimiles made by Factum Foundation as the originals were auctioned off and dispersed in the 19th century. For In the Blink of an Eye, both the architectural space and the content are facsimiles that were made in collaboration with some of the great Spanish collections for display at Bishop Auckland. The approach has been to flood the site with evidence of the past, inviting sensual and intuitive understanding as well as providing a context for Ruffer’s collection and the Zurbarán paintings that have been here for nearly two and a half centuries. In addition, the material collected and produced in the making of this exhibition will provide an invaluable and evolving resource for scholars working in the Zurbarán Centre, a research institute dedicated to Spanish art, run in collaboration with Durham University and supported by Banco Santander.
The real challenge faced by Factum Foundation and Skene Catling de la Peña, was how to insert a curated collection of exact facsimiles of the Spanish Golden Age to create an immersive narrative. The site, in the North of England, on the top floor of a late 19th century former bank building in the Gothic Revival style, was a cacophonous crashing together of different roof geometries that reflected the ways in which the building had been used and adapted over time. Because the building was Grade II listed, very little could be altered or removed. To overcome this, it was decided to rationalise the space through the insertion of five different Spanish ceilings, each that represent Islamic, Christian or Jewish iconography, or a hybrid of them. The floors were lined with antique chestnut boards, green and white ceramic ‘herringbone’ and cast facsimiles of terracotta tiles. The windows were fitted with carved timber screens to obscure views of the very English town square beyond. Factum’s facsimiles grew to an architectural scale to create beneath them distinct, discrete spaces in which different elements of Renaissance Spain could be explored and understood.
The architectural elements themselves become as much a part of the exposition as the artworks they contain. Brushstrokes of Velazquez paintings are mapped onto cornices, friezes and pilasters of grotesque arabesques to create the wall coverings in the first room. The second is lined with facsimiles of the gleaming, immortal and unchanging ceramic tiles of the Casa de Pilatos, whose painted surfaces and games of figure ground and pattern make them appear alive, animated and curiously modern. A ‘lapidarium’ of yeserias follows, where the intricate lace-like plaster panels, carved in light and shadow, reiterate how interwoven the cultures of the Jews, Muslims and Christians became, with relationships as delicate and complex as these frozen geometries. The fourth room presents religious ritual and ecstasy through a gilded automaton where El Greco’s polychrome Christ is raised and lowered as sacred spectacle, literally playing out the dramatic vertical split between reality and visionary experience demonstrated in his painting, ‘The Baptism of Christ’, opposite. Death is the subject of somber celebration in the room that follows, where Alonso Berruguete’s magnificent ‘Sepulchre of Cardinal Tavera’ is coolly observed by his own death mask and two portrait paintings of him. El Greco’s portrait - brutally decapitated during the Spanish Civil war - used the mask as model, painting from ‘death’ rather than life. Death is followed by Valdés Leal’s ‘heiroglyphs of the afterlife’, vanitas reminders that life is fleeting, and earthly glory ultimately meaningless. On one side the Bishop, with his rictus grin and rotting flesh, stares back though eyeless sockets that writhe with maggots and scavenging beetles. On the other, the grim reaper straddles the globe with scythe and coffin, fixing the viewer with a penetrating, hollow glare as he snuffs out life’s brief light under the words, In Ictu Oculi.
A New Approach to Sharing and Ownership
The collaboration between Factum Foundation, Jonathan Ruffer, The Auckland Project and the partner organisations in Spain, is a bold and inspired cultural initiative that is without precedent. It also mutually benefits all. The following institutions granted access to their extraordinary and diverse collections; the Fundación Casa Ducal de Medinaceli to their Casa de Pilatos in Seville, the source of the wall tiles, ceilings and sculptures, and the Hospital of Cardinal Tavera in Toledo home to the Sepulcre of Cardinal Tavera and several El Greco paintings; the Hospital de la Caridad to their biblical compositions by Murillo, the vanitas paintings of Valdés Leal and their Baroque chapel plasterwork ceiling; the Museo Naval to ‘one of the most important of all cartographic records of early European exploration of the Americas’; the Centro de Estudios Europa Hispanica (CEEH) to the intricate Artesonado ceilings and carved plasterwork or yeseria at the Casa de Mesa in Toledo. Yeseria were also recorded in the Sinagog del Tranánsito, (now the Museo Sefardi), the Convento de Santa Clara la Real in Toledo and the Real Alcázar in Seville. Many others have contributed and continue to do so.
Each organisation allowed Factum Foundation to record its artworks (and in some cases, the buildings in which they are housed) and from these recordings to make facsimiles for In the Blink of an Eye in Bishop Auckland. Through this collaboration, the institutions gained ownership and control of the resultant high-resolution digital data which will play an important role in the long-term preservation of both their objects and architecture. The institutions will be the sole beneficiaries of any commercial exploitation of this data, which can further support and maintain their collections. Meanwhile, the public gains access to great works of art, while the digital data can be made freely available to enable in-depth academic study of the material.
The artworks recorded by Factum remain in their original locations displayed as they were designed to be seen. It is both revealing and moving to see artworks as originally intended when they are well cared for. But often they can be hard to see, to focus on or get close to. They can be unapproachable for a number of different reasons. Access might be restricted because of conditions placed by, or on, their guardians, through fear of damage to the original, or they could simply be physically ‘out of reach’. Low light levels required for conservation can alienate artworks behind glass and, in some cases, will make a meaningful understanding of the work’s material qualities, and all this reveals, almost impossible. When hung in an elaborate or historical context, the detail of individual artworks is sometimes overwhelmed or lost as they become elements of larger compositions. Guided tours, crowds of visitors and the way objects are displayed can prevent contemplation. There is a multiplicity of ways to experience artworks, all that fulfil a function. Facsimiles can contribute through the return of artworks to their original intended locations by allowing artworks too precious to move to exist in alternate sites thereby facilitating a new approach to exhibition and display (as at Bishop Auckland), by reuniting artworks or collections that have been broken up and scattered, as well as by providing the means for preservation, close proximity and study. The copies being made now are an addition to supplement the originals, not replace them.
Frescos, architecture and embedded artworks don’t move location often or easily. Easel paintings, by their very nature, do. It is remarkable that the original paintings by Valdés Leal and Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, present as facsimiles in Bishop Auckland, remain in the space for which they were originally commissioned in 1672. The Church of the Hospital de la Caridad is an intact Baroque masterpiece, looked after impeccably, with almost all its contents in place. Furthermore, it continues to function as a charity hospital. Valdés Leal’s In Ictu Oculi hangs in the church above the side entrance and under the balcony of the narthex, while Finis Gloriae Mundi is directly opposite. Both are meditations on mortality, transience and the ephemeral nature of power, but at high level their elaborate, compelling detail is difficult to see. Their location in the chapel was part of the carefully choreographed unfolding of a tripartite theme; first the visitor would be presented with Valdés Leal’s gruesome vanitas paintings before being shown the route to salvation through Christian charity and humility. But the two vast paintings by Murillo, (each three by eight metres), are also mounted very high in the nave of the Church at a distance that resists any kind of scrutiny.
As part of the elegant arrangement devised with the guardians of the Hospital de la Caridad, Factum Foundation is making an additional facsimile copy of each the Valdés Leal and Murillo works to remain in Seville. These will be donated for permanent display in a dedicated visitors’ centre in a currently under-used part of the 17th century hospital. The original paintings will remain in the Church where they have always been, while visitors and scholars will gain the same intimate and privileged access to the paintings as those in Bishop Auckland. Visitors to, In the Blink of an Eye, will find the Valdés Leal vanitas paintings placed opposite each other, as the originals, but hung just above floor level, unframed and without glass. They sit under a ceiling of deep carved baroque plasterwork, a facsimile of that above the originals in the narthex of the Hospital de la Caridad. Benches in front of each vanitas will allow the visitor to linger – pondering transience - studying the detail of the paintings with the same proximity to them Valdés Leal would have known in his studio.
Education and Applications
As part of Factum Foundation’s Master’s programme at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in New York,students have already been engaged in the study and documentation of the Casa Pilatos. The many different Renaissance tile designs have been recorded in ways that allow them to be exactly replicated, as evidenced in the Bishop Auckland display. The capturing of the colour and three-dimensional surface of the restored Retablo del Maestro de Perea, also in Casa Pilatos, means that its condition can be monitored, and its iconography compared in microscopic detail with other works by this painter. The accurate 3D recording of the main staircase and its murqana has informed a detailed study of the component elements of the composite pattern whose complex geometry defies easy comprehension. In the Hospital of Cardinal Tavera in Toledo, Michelangelo’s only sculpture in Spain is kept in a small room. The exquisite John the Baptist was badly damaged during the Spanish Civil War, its body smashed into several parts and the head thrown into a fire which turned the marble into a darkened and fragile form of plaster. The figure was reassembled by the Opifico dell Pietra Dura following the conservation guidelines of the time, but the result is that neither the parts nor the whole can really be appreciated. A virtual restoration will be carried out by Factum using high-resolution scans of the parts and historical photos of the piece in Ubeda before it was destroyed. This approach to digital restoration is done without ever touching the original parts and is one of the most important contributions of technology to preservation.
The potential applications for high-quality recordings of colour, surface and the traces that lie under the surface are growing exponentially. More and more areas of research and experimentation are emerging in the rapidly growing field of ‘digital humanities’. The recordings do not replace the function of the original, but they can add to the deep scholarship that exists; there is still so much information embedded in the material evidence of the past that needs to be accessed and discussed in order to understand its complexity. The dynamic nature of originality is most visible at times of change - both technological, social and political. Digital data can be studied and analysed in great detail, shared around the world and made available in different forms. Virtual- and Augmented-Realities now sit alongside a diverse array of 3D output technologies. The more types of ‘correspondence’ that can be recorded, the closer the representation can be. The reproduction of a painting in a book might have a degree of correspondence in terms of colour, but none in relation to its surface texture or scale. Digital data is inherently synaesthetic; information is abstracted and described in code which means that the different senses – hearing, sight, touch, smell and even taste - can all be addressed using the same encoded means. In an unexpected area of collaboration, the dynamic levels of realism demanded by the computer gaming industry have led to significant investment in the software to process and display data. Now, as multiple players inhabit the same space, each can experience the game from their own viewpoint, in real time, at levels of realism that were impossible to imagine a few years ago. The mixture of 3D modeling and hyper-real renderings that respond instantaneously to changes of light and perspective is transforming the ways in which we think about, represent, and engage with our environment, with profound implications for the online display of cultural information.
The Physical and the Ethereal
The ability to re-materialise digital information at high-resolution is essentially what has made In Ictu Oculi - In the Blink of an Eye possible. A real, physical object is very different to a virtual one. One is visible in the presence of light and the other is light; a display of light, either viewed on a screen or projected. The digital is normally associated with the virtual and generally thought of as ephemeral, screen-based and insubstantial; as lacking in form. Virtual images are clearly distinguished from - and have very different qualities to - the things they represent. Spanish painting of the Golden Age was fundamentally concerned with the means of representation. Recently a major shift has taken place in the field of digital materialisation which allows for the transformation from a physical original (through a ‘recording’ process) to a digital abstraction and back again to a physical object. As re-materialisation technologies improve, the boundaries between the fleeting material world and visionary experience are blurred.
There are many ways in which the world around us can now be recorded: laser scanning, Lidar scanning, profilometry, RTI, photometric stereo and photogrammetry all ‘capture’ form and surface from close or long-range at different resolutions. Composite photography has changed the rules of high-resolution recording of images in both visible and invisible frequencies of light. X-Ray and infra-red go under the surface, as do some forms of sonic recording and ground penetrating radar. Each of these techniques provides information about different qualities of the original - the colour, the shape, the surface and what lies below the surface - the higher the resolutions of these recordings, the closer the correspondence between the original and its doppelganger. This new collection can be visited in Bishop Auckland or accessed online by anyone interested, anywhere in the world. Producing it has required many diverse forms of knowledge and technological mastery. A new digital connoisseurship is emerging that is rapidly changing the way we experience and understand art.
Visionary and Virtual Reality
Exploring the means of seeing and representation in Renaissance and early Baroque Spain is the essential purpose of In the Blink of an Eye, and through this, revealing the underlying thinking of that time. By extension, it also questions how we see today, how we represent what we see, and what matters to us by revealing that what we see is limited to our own perspective.
While the Counter Reformation continued the expulsion of non-Christians from Spain a new threat was confronting the church. A form of visionary mysticism sought to reform the church from inside while renewing a spiritual connection to Christ. Simplicity, the everyday, direct experience and a romantic faith in the ability of the mind to transform and transcend triumphed over the hardship and poverty experienced by most people. The mystics established themselves first through visionary literature, painting was enlisted later. ‘Vision’ can refer either to what the eye sees, or the intellect and imagination perceive, but a spiritual ‘vision’ is something beyond both and is - according to the Mystics - indescribable and unrepresentable. So how, then, to portray it?
A radical shift in painting occurred in the first years of the 1600’s in Rome, Naples and a few years later in Seville. With a new approach of working directly from life, painting people as they really look, in the clothes they wore every day, using a series of optical devices to re-negotiate the illusory space of the canvas, becoming aware of the effects of light and introducing a focal hierarchy with some elements of the composition sharper or more detailed than others – a new relationship was established between the external world and its representation. Caravaggio led the way, but it was the Spanish painters, both in Naples and Seville, who applied the newfound connection between paint and the physical world to both religious and political ends. Juan Bautista Maíno, José de Ribera, Juan Sánchez Cotán, Velázquez and Zurbarán looked at the world with intensity and applied paint with controlled gestural freedom. The potential of their powerful, compelling paintings for spreading ‘the Word’ was not lost on the Church. The Spanish Inquisition functioned as a surveillance machine to enforce Catholic orthodoxy, but also acted as censor to manipulate how its core beliefs were represented. Not only did the religious authorities have to approve the subject matter, but also the means of its depiction. What emerged was the harnessing of exquisite realism in the representation of the ‘unrepresentable’ or visionary.
Francisco Pacheco del Río was a Spanish painter who immersed himself in the Italian and Flemish Renaissance masters - learning through copying - before setting up his art ‘academy’ in Seville. Pacheco was not only a master of the qualities of paint applied either to canvas or sculptures, he was also an official Censor to the Inquisition. His influential theory of painting, Arte de la Pintura, 1649, contains references to contemporary artists (it includes an account of a visit to Toledo in 1609 to meet El Greco and study his work) and discusses materials and techniques as well as outlining the acceptable orthodox iconography of religious subjects. Through a complex guild system, sculptors and painters worked together to create astonishing three-dimensional, life size simulacrums of the miraculous and the divine. They merge the fleeting world of individual human experience with the imaginative potential of a collective, eternal and unchanging ideal. As altar pieces, or objects to be carried through the streets in celebration, the real and the visionary co-existed, a world view beautifully presented in Xavier Bray’s exhibition at the National Gallery, The Sacred Made Real – Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700.
The Polychrome Prometheus
Polychrome figures constructed from sculpted hardwood appear alive: they bring saints to earth in dazzling techni-colour and transport the faithful beyond the mundane through empathy and passionate belief. Elaborate processes made timber robes seem fluid and embroidered with gold thread. Surfaces were painted with animal glue and gesso, followed by burnished red clay. After water gilding and over painting, the tempera was scratched away in patterns to reveal the gold beneath which was punched for texture, then highlighted and shaded for apparent depth. Flesh tones, the ‘encarnaciones’ (literally, ‘embodiment in flesh’), were formed by a base of chalk and matt gesso, followed by pigments suspended in oil, each vein picked out in blue just visible beneath the ‘skin’ where layers of translucent paint create optical mixes of naturalistic colour, with blood almost pulsing in fingertips and palms of soft rose. Glass eyes, tears and ivory teeth add an eerie, hyper-realism. The raw sufferings of Christ are made brutally visceral, with shattered bone seen through torn flaps of bleeding flesh, all painted in vibrant, violent detail in a ‘re-materialisation’ of suffering. The figures show the artists’ supreme understanding of the relationship between light and form, where shadows are added and enhanced in three dimensions, to reinforce the physical presence of the divine. This artificial heightening has the curious effect of making the real ‘realer’.
The Resurrecting Christ from the tabernacle in Toledo is one of El Greco’s few polychrome figures. As part of a theatrical automaton framed within an architectural shrine, the figure of Christ was designed to be raised and lowered as a literal re-enactment of the miracle of resurrection, fueling rapture when it was paraded through the streets of Toldeo on the day of Corpus Christi each year. During Factum’s recording work in the Hospital of Cardinal Tavera, Juan Manuel Albendea Solís produced a photograph revealing that the remaining section of the gilt tabernacle was only part of the whole aedicule. Through painstaking analysis and 3D modelling, the tabernacle has been remade for Bishop Auckland. The facsimile Christ, polychromed using traditional techniques, can now be moved from its invisible position in the sarcophagus base, up through the dome to glorious display in the canopy space at the top. Black and white films of the Semana Santa or Holy Week in Spain in the 1950’s reveal a living continuum. Candlelight plays on gold diffused through clouds of incense, figures sway in the chiascuro around the pale flesh of the resurrected Christ, voices rise in the haunting, emotional singing of saetas, to an elated, religious ecstasy. Knowledge
Pacheco is now most remembered because of his brilliant pupil and son-in-law, Diego Velázquez. Despite his role as Inquisitorial Censor, Pacheco actively promoted scientific enquiry and open debate. He assembled a diverse group around him that contained every discipline, from artists, philosophers and mystics to scientists and cartographers who met to discuss subjects that included optics and perspective which had the potential to directly influence approaches to representation. As his disciple, Velázquez would have been exposed to this cultivated elite, alive with the potential of the new world, in of one of Europe’s largest, richest cities. They gathered at the Casa de Pilatos beneath Pacheco’s painted ceiling, the Apotheosis of Hercules, where Velázquez is also likely to have seen a Caravaggio copy and gained an understanding of classical antiquity through the collection of the Duke of Alcala, the remains of which can be seen there today.
The mimetic nature of sacred Polychrome figures had a Promethean impact on painters working at the time. From a very early age Velázquez mastered a realism based on direct observation from life, with the ability to transform paint into a parallel world. Unlike sculpture, a two-dimensional surface demands a very different sensibility and treatment to convert the fatty mix of pigment, wax and oil into living flesh, lemon peel, glazed ceramic, glass, metal and cloth. Velázquez’s Old woman Cooking Eggs at the Scottish National Gallery or the Waterseller of Seville in Apsley House in London, both painted before he was twenty, merge a directness of observation from life with a natural touch capable of convincing through the most economic means. He was able to effortlessly fuse the movements of the hand and eye, while his intellectual range and poetic precision is unrivalled. His pre-1623 Portrait of a Man with a Ruff (which is probably Pacheco), and the Portrait of Juan de la Pareja of 1650, reflect Velázquez’s extraordinary ability as a painter of people. Of Moorish descent, Juan de la Pareja was Velázquez’s slave and assistant who became a painter in his own right after being freed by Velazquez in 1654. The portraits of Pope Innocent X and Juan de la Pareja were made at the same time and are two of the most penetrating ever painted. The Pope, mottled skin above gleaming pink satin robes, enframed by his gilded chair, stares out of the painting with defensive suspicion. Shape and detail are accurately mapped onto a flat surface, but Velázquez’s brush marks catch far more than a likeness – they forensically dissect the emotional convolutions of a politically shrewd ruler. Velázquez seems not only to paint his subject, but also the thoughts that are passing at that moment through his mind. This contrasts with his portrait of de la Pereja whose expression and posture, simple olive clothes, dark skin and the undefined bulk of black hair, reveal a more noble figure. In response to his portrait, Innocent X is reported to have said, È troppo vero! È troppo vero! – ‘It is too true! It is too true!’
‘É troppo vero!’
Velazquez was a Converso painter working for King Philip II, traveling to Rome with a Morisco where he painted one of the most haunting and penetrating portraits of Pope Innocent X, while at the same time working on a deeply observed and generous depiction of ‘a subject from the lowest ranks of society’, his slave. In the same period, he also produced one of the world’s most sensual paintings, the Rokeby Venus, and became a father to his only son, Antonio. That none of these statements seems surprising captures the contradictions and complexity of Spain and Spanish art.
Where in the 19th century radical Romantics placed their faith in nature, the artists working in Spain in the 17th focused theirs on observation and reality. For them, access to the sublime did not lie in the vastness of creation, but in the act of looking and seeing. Velazquez moved to Madrid in 1623 and put his skill and insight to the service of the King and politics. Zurbaran stayed in Seville where he established a thriving workshop and provided the Church in Spain and the New World with the images they required. Victor I. Stoichita describes Zurberan’s ‘Veronica’, which shows the direct imprint of Christ’s face on a shroud, as ‘mystical trompe-l’oeil’. The spectral face of Christ is made more nebulous because of the undeniable materiality of the cloth, itself an illusion.
From Juan de la Cosa’s map in the first room to Valdés Leal’s vanitas paintings in the last, the aim of this installation in Bishop Auckland has been to provide access, in the North East of England, to a glimpse of the different worlds that can coexist. ‘In Ictu Oculi – In the Blink of an Eye’, is a reminder that national borders can change, and identities alter, religious power comes and goes, wealth exists and evaporates, but people always need to share and communicate. Both their similarity and difference.
“To thine own self be true.”
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act-1, Scene-III
The Vera Icona was the original and ultimate self-portrait: an image made without the imperfections of human hand and mind, a direct imprint of “Him Self”. Once unique, the mandy- lion spawned many copies that sought to capture the truth within the image: the unchanging eternal truth of the Son of God, made in the image of God himself.
Today’s “selfies” are shameless and ubiquitous, each an ephemeral trace of a moment, often used for construct- ing stories around the “self” that stray far from the “truth”. Each year in the Musée du Louvre, the Mona Lisa, the most famous and photographed paint- ing in the world, is surrounded by millions of people. Many turn their backs to the painting as they use their phones to record themselves with the celebrity in her bullet-proof, glass case. During this act, they face the Louvre’s former greatest attraction, Veronese’s vast Wedding at Cana, the counter-reformation masterpiece depicting the complexity of life, nar- rative, myth and intrigue. The Wedding at Cana was recently featured in the Apeshit video by Beyoncé and Jay-Z, an art-historical fly-through which has already been turned into a Louvre tour, attracting a new generation to the museum. Hopefully some of these visitors will see the painting they are facing and ask the question, “where did this come from...?”
Veronese painted the Wedding on- to the canvas-covered end wall of Palladio’s refectory on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. At its original site, it filled the wall in dialogue with, and as an extension to, the surrounding architecture. It was a focus for meditation and reflection, slowly delivering its complex message to the monks who ate there. Windows either side provided light, and each day at a different time the shadows in the room align with the illusion in the painting. Napoleon’s soldiers cut the painting into strips when they ripped it from the wall. At the Louvre, what can be glimpsed through the crowds is an extensively restored and
altered painting hanging in a heavy gold frame, at the wrong height, be- tween two doors, illuminated by dif- fuse light from above. Factum Arte’s facsimile, which puts the painting back into its intended refectory loca- tion within the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, questions the very notion of “originality”, and suggests a new one, based on experience.
The fate of the great Bolognese al- tarpiece, the Griffoni Polyptych, paint- ed in 1471-1472 by Francesco del Cos- sa and Ercole de’ Roberti, is another demonstration of how facsimiles can create experiences capable of reunit- ing the viewer with the original in- tentions and power of a work of art. The Griffoni Polyptych was removed from the Griffoni chapel in the Church of San Petronio in 1725 when the chap- el was re-dedicated to the Aldrovandi family. The panels were taken out of their gold surround, separated and sold. Today, sixteen parts of the altar- piece are dispersed between the Na- tional Gallery in London, the Nation- al Gallery of Art in Washington, the Vatican Museum, The Brera in Milan, Museo di Villa Cagnola in Gazzada, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, Collezione Vittorio Cini in Ven- ice and Pinacoteca Nazionale, Ferrara. Each panel reveals how it has been cared for, preserved and restored since its removal. The gilded altar- piece and some panels are still miss- ing. A schematic drawing of half the complete object still exists in Bologna. The facsimile of all the known panels has been returned to the Church of San Petronio, prompting new interest in the complete work.
In the Griffoni Polyptych’s fragmen- tary form, the panels as individuals contain great beauty. But the complete polyptych has a visual coherence as it rises from the temporal and per- spectival world depicted in the pre- della to the gilded otherworldliness of the upper panels. Only together do they articulate their message.
Works of art are fundamentally about communication. A facsimile is an iteration, indistinguishable in scale, colour and surface to the naked eye under museum conditions. It is a technologically objective replication generating forensic evidence that allows a profound understanding of the dynamic process of originality. Is this today’s “true image”?
“To put a city in a book, to put the world on one sheet of paper maps are the most condensed humanized spaces of all....”
Eccentric Spaces, Robert Harbison, 2000
In cartography, contour lines join points of equal distance from a given level to describe form. In our digital age the means of transforming the real world into a representation of itself have multiplied and cartography has emerged as a realistic language; a hybrid concoction of measurements, signs and graphic notations from which we create mental constructions to see places we know well, imagine places we have never visited and grasp places that exist only in the imagination. Topographic information used to be extracted from painstaking measurements taken by romantic and eccentric figures. Today it is derived from using the speed of light to define distance or ‘feature mapping’ composite photographs to generate form. The evidence of the hand is now mediated by the tools it chooses from a digital palette. These are predetermined by elegant and inventive algorithms written by invisible digital artisans.
An equivalent of these artisans is found in 12th century Sicily in the cartographers who worked in the court of Roger II with the Muslim scholar Al Sharif Al Idrisi to produce an extraordinary world map. Al Idrisi’s legendary book, the Kitāb nuzhat al-mushtāq fī ikhtirāq al-āfāq (The Book of the Journey for He Who Longs to Penetrate the Horizons), is the evidence of their collective genius.
The mountains in Al Idrisi’s masterpiece don’t have contours; they have shape and colour. They sit in an unmarked background with graphic notations and handwritten script. Cartographic clarity is based on many types of sign to draw quantities, evidence and narratives into the map. It functions both as image and information. Al Idrisi and his team gathered information from travellers passing through the ports of multicultural Sicily over a period of about fifteen years, cross-checking it, measuring distances and striving to produce a clear and useful representation of the world – useful for trading both knowledge and materials. The stories on the map include narratives of whales and turtles ‘twenty arms long’ with thousands of eggs in their bellies, exotic places inhabited by serpents whose gaze was deadly, lavish clothes and valuable stones.
Each selected element is carefully delineated and brought into focus while the multitude lies unfocused in the bokeh if our imagination. The restless nature of perception prevents stasis. The mix of thoughts and actions, trade and veneration, mystery and narrative merge to produce a dynamic and constantly changing terrain of fact and fiction.
The map itself was engraved onto a silver tray, two meters in diameter, which was lost in a shipwreck soon after its completion. The Ottoman copy in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, survived.
The digital artisans working to recreate this great map form a team with diverse skills and perceptions. Collectively they determine the limits of our cartographic imagination and define the contours that control the CNC engraving tools and the laminar building systems used to rematerialize our world in physical form. Borges would have delighted in the new families of materials that can be fused by heat and light or carved with a precision that previously required a perverse array of manual skills. Electricity is the king in this hybrid, alchemical world as liquids transform into solids, metals emerge from powder and stone is reduced to dust.
But as much as it strives to take physical form, the digital remains an electrical stimulus. It is a bit noisy, but with care it is a signal that can be controlled. As a visualisation it exists in a nebulous space dependent on light and a surface to receive the light. In this spectral form it can hover as virtual, augmented and mixed realities that we can experience and interact with.
J.R.R. Tolkien inhabited the imaginary space of Middle-earth but made it real by producing detailed maps complete with contours and ordnance survey notations. These great works are currently on show at the Bodleian Library in Oxford (Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, until 28th October 2018). At the centre of the display is a model of Middle-earth merging the virtual and the physical. A relief map with illumination from above and below gives the sensation of looking through Tolkien’s eyes and thinking his thoughts. Craftsmanship and technology have merged. His thoughts have taken a physical form, merging illusion with reality.
In this period of ‘post truth’, subjectivity and objectivity become liminal and fluid. But the wonder of art is that it occupies a place where the muse still resides, a place where objects are celebrated as complex subjects that reward any amount of study. They reveal the truth to those who look for it, and aesthetic pleasure to those who find it.
A World of Fragile Parts – from Breast to Bone to Glass….
There is no art without Eros.
In myth, the world began with Eros, the primordial god of love, emerging from Chaos. As a driving life force, and through irresistible longing, he ‘unnerves the limbs and overcomes the mind’. Eros represents the battle between body and mind, and equally, their synthesis. Great art is a sensual piercing of the intellect, understood through desire. It sublimates and transforms, merging hardness and softness.
In 1708, the Saxon alchemist, Johann Friedrich Böttger discovered the secret of hard-paste porcelain production in Europe: or ‘white gold’, as it was known, using pale kaolin clay and the feldspathic rock ‘petuntse’. ‘Bone china’ is a soft-paste porcelain made with clay and the ash of cattle bones. In Limoges in the 1760s, producers found a large kaolin deposit and began making an imitation soft-paste, mixing the white clay with powdered glass to dazzling effect and widespread yearning.
Delicate porcelain Gobelets à Lait, (milk goblets), were developed by Sèvres to hold the milk-cure for the anxious, depressed, and over-sexed, and to prevent ‘insane love’. These vessels, some deeply recessed into the socket of their saucers to prevent the quivering hands of delicate owners spilling the contents, became known as ‘trembleuses’; exquisite emblems of rarified temperaments. Four porcelain ‘bol-seins’ or ‘jatte-tetons’ (‘breast cups’ or ‘nipple bowls’), were commissioned for Marie Antoinette’s Dairy at Rambouillet in 1787. Rumoured to have been cast from Her Royal Breast, the thought of the casting process gave a voyeuristic frisson. Each was delicately painted to mimic flushed living flesh, its erect nipple a deeper shade of pink. To drink, the milk-filled breast is lifted from its tripod base where it rests on the curved horns of three goats.
In 18th century medical discourse, milk, a symbol of pastoral purity and feminine innocence, was put forward as a wholesome health cure for the elite ailments of the urban upper class. Diderot’s Encyclopédie, included the essay ‘Lait’ (‘Milk’), as part of a new, secular, Enlightenment morality. But in recommending adult breastfeeding as a cure for gloom, the author saw there might be unavoidable erotic side-effects; if “[adult men] can be cured by habitually lying with young and beautiful wet-nurses, this salutary revolution might be due to the constant excitement of the venereal appetite.” 18th century medical and architectural treatises were presented as thinly disguised erotic novellas to make their subjects more compelling. Milk was the treatment for the hypersexual, ‘trembling’ young girl described in Dr. Bienville’s medical tract, Nymphomania, or Treatise on the Uterine Furies (1771), personally administered by the doctor, vaginally as well as orally. The aristocratic mania for milk and rural life, or a rarified simulacrum of it, led to whole genre of architectural contrivance: the laiterie d’agrément or ‘pleasure dairy’, little temples to health and the simple life. But Marie Antoinette’s Hameau and Rambouillet failed to project innocence: her ‘pleasure dairies’ became infamous as rendezvous for degenerate, incestuous sex, and were part of her downfall.
Paulina Bonaparte was still growing when Marie Antoinette lost her head. Napoleon’s sister became known for her beauty - specifically, her beautiful breasts - and her promiscuity. When her second husband Camillo Borghese commissioned an allegorical portrait from Antonio Canova, Paulina rejected the artist’s suggestion to portray her as a chaste, robed Diana, and chose the seductive ‘Venus Victrix’ instead, with an allusion to the Borghese family’s mythical descent from Venus, via Aeneas, founder of Rome. But Paulina evidently also enjoyed the scandalised response to her topless portrait and the speculation of her posing naked; she even invited Canova to immortalise her breasts as casts.
Casting the soft tissue of a breast and the dynamic nature of a nipple in plaster without deformation takes great skill, as Paulina’s breast at the Museo Napoleonico in Rome demonstrates. This is a natural breast, subtle and observed. Silicon casting now captures subtlely more easily, and there are echoes of Canova’s sculptural practice in today’s aesthetic surgery through mark ups, augmentation and removal. Canova used a ‘machinnetta di punta’ (‘pointing machine’) to translate his plaster originals into marble. Marking the plaster with metal pins, identical points were exactly located using the machinetta, and drilled into the marble block, to specific depths at pre-determined angles. The stone was carved away to reveal the original form, and the surface then worked to a skin-like finish in the final transformation from liquid to hard plaster, to point cloud, to marble.
The reclining marble of Paulina, now at the Villa Borghese, was scanned and photographed by Factum Arte in 2016, working with glass master, Giberto Arrivabene. She was stereo-lithographically printed in tanks of liquid resin, moulded, and cast to make a wax positive. The opaque marble original was translated into glass through lost wax casting. Like pouring a bowl of milk into water, the glass figure has the mysterious complexity of a moving cloud. She seems to dissolve into the sensual suggestion of an idea. From the light glancing off the waxed surface of the life-sized marble original, to the light swelling inside her miniaturised glass body – an ethereal life force is made visible.
The life force vs. the death wish: Eros vs. Thatanos. In the whisper of a guillotine blade, Marie Antoinette loses her head. Thatanos triumphs, and Eros is momentarily returned to Chaos…only to re-emerge, like the glass Paulina, in another form.
Between the conception and the creation
Between the emotion and the response
Falls the shadow
The Hollow Men, T.S Eliot, 1925
And on the Sixth Day, God created… the Shamir…! This tiny creature appears in several Jewish sacred texts, including the Talmud, as one of the ten miraculous creations of day six of the Hexameron. The Shamir was a worm, the size of a grain of barley, whose intense gaze could cut through even diamond, the hardest substance known to man. Such tremendous power needed to be both protected and contained, and for this God chose the Hoopoe bird, who – with the precaution of a nuclear launch code – sealed the minute but mighty worm into a lead box, the only material able to withstand its laser-like glare. The Shamir was kept safely encased, in the Garden of Eden, until required by Solomon as principle stonemason for his Temple. Since then, this curious but voracious creature seems to have gone quiet, but for the mysterious phenomenon of ‘vermiculated rustication’…
Rustication – the symbolic, sculpted transition from raw material to rarified architectural composition, takes many forms across a spectrum; from ‘Cyclopian’: coarse boulders hurled together with mythological strength where rock is carved to mimic a more primitive version of itself, to the geometrically pure, ‘diamond-pointed’; the armour-plating of Renaissance architecture. Rustication is a built metaphor for the transforming process of construction, from its geological origins, hewn out of natural rock, through to its civilising refinement as it leaves the ground and rises into the sky. All types are characterised and animated by the presence of shadow. Rustication adds actual and illusory depth to a facade. But none as powerfully as vermiculated - or ‘worm-eaten’- rustication, where the depth is both literal and metaphoric. This is architecture as ‘Momento Mori’; a portal to the Underworld, where the subterranean speaks to the subconscious, earthly Self.
Here, petrified organic traces and worm-eaten trails meander across the larger framework of stone courses and punctuate the overall façade. ‘Ruin’ reveals biographical narrative, manipulated into decorative pattern making. These organic forms are a rich counterpoint to the blank stare and glazed slickness of much contemporary building, where the viewer’s gaze is bounced off the surface through reflection, locked out of any real engagement with an impenetrable architecture.
Technology is allowing us to play once again with the idea of depth, and to sculpt the shadows between conception and creation. Organic modelling and 3D scanning are the breeding-ground for wind-eroded, maggot-eaten and exfoliating forms. The Computer Numerical Controller (CNC) is the new ‘stone-eating worm’, and can carve with a precision that would have mesmerised Grinling Gibbons. Laminar build systems can place impossibly thin layers of different materials on top of each other until a form emerges like Aphrodite from sea foam. These panels are the first of a series of new vermiculated rustications – geo-archeological forms that will make up the façades of new architectures. Some are routed directly into limestone, marble or concrete, others are moulded and slip cast in clay from the originals. Designed to hold earth and capture urban grime, these surfaces have an aesthetic that evolves as they generate their own life and miniature ecosystems. They are a 21st century architectural Vanitas, speaking of life, death, dirt and time.
“…. The rest, is silence.”
Hamlet’s last words. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2.
The ambient acoustics of a rock-cut tomb invisibly define its space. A tomb, when sealed, protects the most profound silence for eternity. This silence is not ‘nothing’, but an active absence of human sound and living audience. The tombs in the Valley of the Kings are incised with the funerary narrative that leads the deceased through the underworld. The journey corresponds with the passage of the sun through the night, from death to rebirth. On dying, the pharaoh loses the senses that define him as human; hearing among them. White noise, like the buzzing of bees, overtakes defined sounds. The Book of Gates acts as a guide from senselessness to a re-attuned state that comprehends all the information contained within white noise.
The tombs are now filled with the buzzing of thousands of people. They bring essential income to locals, but also lead to inevitable destruction and decay. The tomb of Seti I was in near perfect condition when discovered in October 1817: we know this through written records and detailed watercolours. Then the great Egyptologists descended, and in just a few years the tomb was reduced to a ghost of itself. Large fragments were removed, in the name of preservation, to the new museums that were appearing throughout Europe. Surfaces were ‘squeezed’ and stripped of colour. Souvenirs were hacked out and carried off. Over the last 17 years, the tomb has been recorded using non-contact technologies and re-made using an assortment of 3D printing systems. The facsimile, by Factum Foundation, has an extraordinary presence. It looks and feels identical, but all the senses need to be convinced. Technology has made many things possible but there is more to do, and subtle refinements are ongoing. The heat and humidity generated by thousands of tourists has to be replicated; smell, a musty mixture of time and stale body odour, must be introduced. The facsimile also needs to sound the same; its silence to reverberate with the same inaudible intensity of the tomb.
‘Silence’ and ‘noise’ have other meanings and significance in digital recording. In 2001 the technology did not exist to record the ‘flesh eating’ alabaster sarcophagus from the tomb of Seti I, now in the Sir John Soane Museum. The laser light of the scanner penetrated the transparent alabaster and the digital ‘noise’ generated overwhelmed the information collected. In 2014, using just a 35mm camera, and the latest and most elegant photogrammetry software, Reality Capture, an extraordinary 3D model was created consisting of 12 billion polygons. This contains both the colour of the alabaster, stained by London’s C19th smog, and the minute carvings that narrate the complete Book of Gates. But re-materialising all this complexity had to wait until the development by Océ of their remarkable elevated printing technology and the ingenious use of the topographic software Global Mapper to separate the surface detail from the general form. The facsimile of the sarcophagus of Seti I is without precedent in terms of recording technology, software application and output method.
Facsimiles can teach us more about the thoughts of people living 3,300 years ago than the original objects. The sarcophagus is now part of another history, that of the connoisseurship and knowledge of Sir John Soane’s London. All things change over time, carrying with them the evidence of their unpredictable biographies. The tomb and Sarcophagus of Seti I remained silent for over 3,000 years. Now, although scarred by preservation attempts and mass tourism, hopefully they can last another 3,000, allowing future generations to understand the extraordinary insights of pharaonic philosophy.
The debate about the “aura” of a work of art is focused on Walter Benjamin’s essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, but is it still useful in the 21st century? The museum was the home of “aura” rich objects but the muse has migrated in search of a new habitat where inspiration can infuse receptive minds. Today’s debate is focused on the relationship between originality and authenticity, between commercial and philosophical value. You can now experience the physical symptoms of Stendhal’s syndrome when viewing a work of art you know to be a copy. From highly respected Egyptologists in the facsimile of the tomb of Tutankhamun, to art historians viewing Factum’s facsimiles at Strawberry Hill House and Venetians crying at the unveiling of the replica of Veronese’s Wedding at Cana in the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, the examples are well documented and grow in number. The work to re-make the Table of Teschen focuses the issue.
The “original” Teschen Table, now in the Musée du Louvre, symbolises the intersection between art, design, politics, diplomacy and the natural sciences in the 18th century. It commemorates a largely forgotten, yet highly important treaty in the history of international relations: the Treaty of Teschen. The treaty represents one of the defining moments in the evolution of European co-operation, establishing the principle of collective security that underpins many of our international institutions today, from the United Nations to NATO.
Created by Johann-Christian Neuber, using diverse and highly skilled craftsmen working in Dresden, the Teschen Table was presented as a gift by the Duke of Saxony to the French ambassador, the Baron Louis Auguste de Breteuil, in 1780 in return for his work to secure the treaty. It is an opulent table covered with 128 semi-precious stones sourced in Saxony, evidencing the growing interest in geology and alluding to the Duchy’s mineral wealth and prestige. The polished stones are inset with Meissen porcelain medallions by Johann Eleazar Zeissig, depicting allegorical celebrations of peace. The table top is also encrusted with floral designs in coloured glass and precious stone. It is an object that carries many narratives.
In 2015, the table was sold by the Marquis de Breteuil to the Musée du Louvre. As part of the conditions of sale it was agreed that one facsimile could be made to ensure the table’s continued presence in the Chateau de Breteuil. Factum Arte recorded the table using 3D scanning and composite photography supported by measured and written notations – an objective recording that made it possible, by merging digital technologies with established craft skills, to produce a facsimile that was almost identical to the original when compared side by side.
The facsimile now resides in the Chateau de Breteuil, one of France’s most visited tourist attractions. The emotional and historical impact of this copy in its original setting compliments the aesthetic impact of the original table in its new home.
The research into the processes to record and remake the table acted as a focus. Another table by Neuber has emerged suffering from war damage. From the skill set developed to remake the Teschen Table it has been possible to carry out a detailed study of the destroyed top and to re-imagine it as it was. As it always has, the past comes to life through the lens of the present.
“There is a time for everything... A time to tear down and a time to build...
A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them... A time to be silent and a time to speak...”
Ecclesiastes 3: 1, 3, 5, 7
We age and, as all things, we change over time. The Basilica di San Marco, the magnificent Italo-Byzantine conglomerate of a building in Venice, is a perfect self-declared manifesto illustrating the complex relationship between originality and authenticity. It is an accretion that has developed over time, through building, tearing down and rebuilding, destruction, theft, repurposing and reinvention. Here architecture takes on a geo-archaeological depth. Saint Mark’s Basilica began with the pious theft of the relics of Mark the Evangelist in 828. This first building was violently destroyed with its doge inside, but the saintly remains miraculously reappeared from a column.
The Venetian concept of time and its own mythology is as liquid as the city itself. Its history was rewritten infinite times as it grew into an im- perial power. Time itself was plun- dered to reinforce the Venetian nar- rative. Cities were invaded and spolia used to create a civic identity with instant historic resonance and phys- ical authority.
Some of the looted building ele- ments were absorbed seamlessly into the overall composition, some were copied, aping antiquity, while others were to be read as separate trophies, such as those from the Fourth Crusade: the four horses from the Hippodrome in Constantinople and the marble piers known as the Pillars of Acre. The porphyry treasures – the embracing Tetrarchs and the Pietra del Bando column fragment – were both strategically placed between church and state. The pietra was used as a platform for announcing public executions and the pillars for displaying severed heads; trophies were symbols of power – past and present. So what is “original” or “authentic”? The original four horses were looted by Napoleon, then returned, and now reside in the museum. The campanile collapsed in 1912 and was rematerialised. The only remaining 13th century mosaic on the western facade is a self-portrait of the basilica as it once was, before radical changes made over time.
Saint Mark’s uses all the reverberative power of direct quotation that extends time through the construction and manipulation of collective memory. Potent relics are displayed both as symbols of themselves and of Venetian conquest. Most of the booty was made up of building material: over half the 600 columns, capitals, mosaics and, not least, marble. Marble revetments were stripped from Hagia Sophia to be pinned like butterflies to the external brick walls of the Venetian basilica. Ruskin described the “muscular power of brickwork” clothed with the brightness of marble. He also used a metaphor of skin, suggesting that seductive flesh had been turned into “arousing artistic stone”.
We cannot stop ageing, but we are now at a point where we can record the surface of Saint Mark’s exquisite watery panels of marble in just a few days, using only an elevated platform and a DSLR camera. Through photogrammetry, an area of about 1 x 2 metres was recorded in a few hours. The resulting photographs were processed in RealityCapture software, and then printed in colour relief using Océ’s elevated printing technology. The result is remarkably similar to the original in terms of colour and relief, but not in terms of material. This data is an essential tool for monitoring the change on the surface.
The preservation of the past, and our connection to it, is never simple. But we now have the means of recording and monitoring, which facilitates a deeper understanding. Time collapses through these articulate objects, or in T.S. Eliot’s words, “Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past.”
“Whoever effaces this statue of mine, may the Heaven god curse him, may the Earth below destroy his progeny, may the gods of heaven and earth diminish his kingship. Whoever changes or erases it, may IM, the lord of heaven and earth, and the great gods extirpate his progeny and seed from his land. ”
The curse of the King of Idrimi, carved in cunieform over his own effigy, speaks out in a voice that still resonates 3,500 years after being inscribed. This is the ultimate ‘articulate object’. To read his story of exile, tribulation, rebellion and eventual triumph - the world’s first autobiography - is to bless him.
“In Aleppo, my ancestral home, a hostile incident occurred so that we had to flee… I inscribed my achievements upon my statue. Read it and I will be blessed.”
Idrimi is the first recorded refugee from Aleppo, a precursor to the more than five million Syrian refugees so recently attacked and exiled. Idrimi’s foresight led him to protect his statue through his curse. Could he envisage the brutality and destruction that lay ahead? This figure, staring through broken glass eyes into the future with his hand over his heart, is carved from soft magnesite. He was discovered in 1939 by the British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley in Tell Atchana, the remains of the ancient Syrian city-state of Alalakh. His body separated from his head, someone in the past had carefully buried the broken pieces to prevent more damage.
Jessica Pocock founded the charity Making Light to share the stories of the Syrian diaspora in Britain, ‘highlighting threads that connect us both as individuals and culturally’, to encourage mutual understanding and empathy. They will be archived in the British Museum. Idrimi became the symbol for her project. In February 2017, Factum Foundation recorded Idrimi at the British Museum using two recording methods, a Breuckmann scanner and photogrammetry, in order to compare them. The Breuckmann projects patterns of light onto the surface of an object while two cameras record the patterns, triangulating the position of surface points and converting them to points in 3D space. Photogrammetry creates 3D information from 2D images taken from multiple angles. Photogrammetry requires only a camera while the new generation of software uses elegant algorithms to create highly accurate 3D models. From this data, the statue was rematerialised using the tools of the new technical revolution – digital mediation and 3D printing.
Idrimi was re-united with his head by the conservators of the British Museum: literally ‘re-membered’. Now his doppleganger can carry his memory to places the original sculpture will never be allowed to visit. It can do this as a ‘digital aura’ in the form of virtual visualisations, or in a physical form. Each encounter and engagement with an object and its stories is to honour those who made it, creating a connection and continuity that defines us as humans.
In the 19th century culture was carried, in the name of preservation, to the great cities of Europe. Now it can reach everyone who is interested. We are at the start of a cultural rebellion where technology is allowing articulate objects to speak to anyone who has the time and desire to listen. The modernist age that reduced them to isolated pieces presented for aesthetic delight is over. The object is once again a complicated subject inviting engagement and inspiring thought. The muse has left the museum and found her wings.
In The Insolence of Architecture, a piece on Rowan Moore’s, Why We Build, Power and Desire in Architecture in the New York Review of Books , Martin Filler wrote that Zaha Hadid “has unashamedly disavowed any responsibility, let alone concern, for the estimated one thousand laborers who have perished while constructing her project so far. “I have nothing to do with it,’ Hadid has stated. ‘It’s not my duty as an architect to look at it.”
This was quite a claim, particularly given that Zaha’s Al Wakrah stadium is not due to start on site until 2015. No one, in fact, has died while constructing her project. Zaha – uncomfortable with the blood of 1,000 labourers apparently on her hands - filed a libel suit in the New York State Supreme Court. Martin Filler sent a correction to the NYRB’s editors, saying, “I regret the error”. Zaha has never been loquacious, and her comments were edited to appear especially callous: “I have nothing to do with the workers,” “hopefully, these things will be resolved.” Asked in the original Guardian piece if she was concerned she replied, “Yes, but I'm more concerned about the deaths in Iraq as well, so what do I do about that? I'm not taking it lightly but I think it's for the government to look to take care of."
Zaha remains under attack. Zaha is Still Wrong About Construction Worker Conditions is the title of a Vanity Fair piece by critic Paul Goldberger published after Filler’s retraction. There is a sense of witch hunt, and an irony that so many of the articles and the public reactions to them end in gender. Ironic too that the project itself has its own anthropomorphic ‘gender issues’; the stadium building with its sleek, pink, double-petaled roof surrounding an opening has been compared to a vagina: a similarity Zaha denies. That Zaha is a powerful woman makes her the perfect Lady Macbeth of architecture. But her real crime, according to the press and countless blogs, is that she is not taking a moral stand or using her celebrity status to publicise and address the ethical – and very serious - problem of migrant worker conditions.
At the other extreme, the journalist and author Dan Hancox in his piece for this publication of the 12th of August, Enough Slum Porn,The Global North’s Fetishisation of Poverty Architecture Must End, launched an attack on Urban Think Tank (U-TT), an interdisciplinary design and research practice now based at the Swiss Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich, for their work that addresses slum conditions in the global south. Hancox criticised them for focusing attention on the Torre David – a 45 story squatted tower in Caracas, now under eviction - by putting it at the heart of the Venice Biennale, 2012, for which they won the Golden Lion (and which they then gave to the residents of the tower). He compares their explorative work to a form of imperial exploitation, unaware perhaps of the Venezuelan origins of U-TT. He calls their engagement “parasitical”, is indignant that they are ‘white’ and ‘male’, and omits their 20 years of research, teaching and built interventions in order to justify a sensational headline. Hancox offers no alternative to drawing the public to focus on the slums as an urgent urban problem that suffers, like the Qatari migrant workers, from invisibility. After a Marxist rhapsody on the horrors of modern slum life, his proposition - in the absence of one - seems simply ‘laissez faire’.
Architects, it appears, can’t win. They are attacked if they don’t take a moral position, and ridiculed if they do. So what, then, is ‘the duty of the architect’? What is the architect able to do? Fundamentally, what are architects for in the 21st C?
There is no question that the architect is marginalised. The privatisation of building, economies of development and increased liabilities have meant that architects are appointed late, once strategies and scope are set, and exit early. As one member of large consultant teams, their role is reduced to form making or decoration. Alejandro Zaera-Polo, both as a practitioner and Dean of Princeton SoA, sees architecture now as residing in the building envelope, and has focused his attention there as a potential site for reintroducing political ideology. He observes, “our generation of architects has not been politically active…we have been consumed in the means of production and in simply making buildings”. The architect then has been trapped within the thin skin of the façade, like a pressed flower, with about as much power.
How did this happen? Where is the vision that once motivated architects to work to the limits of the discipline and beyond towards an overall ‘good’? Where is the discourse and collective goal? Is it impotence that has made architects so cynical today, or is this the inevitable trajectory of 20th C architectural theory and late capitalism? Does architecture end in ultimate solipsism where the goal is simply to construct a colossal version of oneself, the ‘mega-architect’?
Where modernism merged utility and art resulting in a sense of earnest conviction, post-modernism liberated each from the other: architects were happy to frolic carefree in the realm of art and aesthetics; they shook off burdensome morality, leaving it for the politicians. Mistrust of earnestness was one of post-modernism’s defining characteristics, with cynicism following close behind. Humanism put man at the core: and where modernism promoted function, and post-modernism, form; humanism favoured a balance between them. Post-humanist, Deconstructivist architecture then removed the human from the centre, banished form and function and focused purely on the creation of the object rather than on its effect on mankind. The End of Architecture?: Documents and Manifestos, 1997 emerged from a period of recession to reassess the role of the architect when those such as Zaha, Coop Himmelb(l)au, Lebbeus Woods, Peter Eisenmann and Bernard Tschumi were working out their positions on paper and didn’t necessarily expect to build. The critical stance was not only apolitical but almost anti-social. In The Pleasure of Architecture, Tschumi wrote,“[architecture’s] real significance lies outside utility or purpose and ultimately is not even necessarily aimed at giving pleasure.” This is probably just how they felt in Spain when construction was stopped on Eisenmann’s mammoth, slouching City of Culture of Galicia after it nearly bankrupted the region.
Modernism promised rational, economic and ergonomic solutions transfigured by art, but tended to take more than it gave and so lost its moral command. People had to give up all that was most engrained; brave new forms cleansed of tradition replaced familiar ones that held deep meaning. To profess now to want to make the world a better place would have architects openly laughing in your face. And yet, at the same time there is a growing nostalgia for the clarity and conviction of the ideals of modernism. While architecture was taken as a medium for revolution by the Marxist left in Russia, those such as Moisei Ginzburg and Alexei Gan, and by Le Corbusier as the means to avoid it, both saw in it the potential to improve the world.
Frederick Etchells, translator of Le Corbusier’s Vers Une Architecture, 1923, described the book as ‘the most valuable thing that has yet appeared, if only because it forces us, architects and laymen alike, to take stock, to try to discover in what direction we are going, and to realise in some dim way the strange paths we are likely to be forced to travel whether we will or no.’ In it, under the heading, ‘Architecture or Revolution’, Le Corbusier writes, “the machinery of Society, profoundly out of gear, oscillates between an amelioration of historical importance, and a catastrophe. It is a question of building which is at the root of the social unrest today: architecture or revolution.” Architecture ou Révolution was the original intended title for Vers Une Architecture.
It is in this spirit that the Urban Think Tank operates. Alfredo Brillembourg, a Venuzuelan-American and Hubert Klumpner, from Austria, met at Columbia University where they studied architecture together. In 1986 Brillembourg returned to Venuzuela, a country that would undergo actual political revolution, and founded U-TT. In 1998 Klumpner joined him in Caracas. They have been working together ever since. In 2005 they published Informal City, a study of Caracas, and in 2007 they formed Sustainable Living Urban Model Laboratory (S.L.U.M. Lab) at Columbia. Since 2010, they have held the chair for Architecture and Urban Design at ETH in Zurich where they operate at a metropolitan, urban and architectural scale, studying ‘regional urbanisation and informal globalisation’ in parallel with an output of written work and built projects at various scales. Architecture or revolution here applies literally, and has created a new kind of practice and approach that already seems essential.
Caracas was the context that inspired U-TT, and is just one of many cities that will become the site of 80% of future urban growth. Today at least a billion people exist in slums around the world – and this is where the next two billion will live. “Here”, as Klumpner puts it, “generations will grow up…this is a clear and present danger.” Every mega-city – Mumbai, Johannesburg, Lagos, Jakarta or Mexico City – has their own rapidly expanding version of slum that differs according to its context, geography, climate and politics. Mumbai’s Dharavi, 500 acres with a population of 1 million people, is the city’s largest, and one that generates $1 billion a year in revenue.
Caracas underwent intense change in the 20th C: Venuzuela discovered oil in 1914, was a member of OPEC by 1960 and the Arab-Israeli war in ‘72 made it suddenly, massively rich. Huge infrastructural investment was followed by nationalisation. A desperate cycle of borrowing and debt led to Black Friday in 1983 when the bolívar crashed to devastating effect. Political unrest led to protest, then riots. Curfews were introduced; inflation soared and centralisation led a population surge to Caracas increasing numbers from 3.8 to nearly 6 million in ten years, a third living in slums. Revolutionaries and reactionaries were polarised with the city divided into five ‘secure zones’. Private police patrolled gated communites encircled with razor wire: Caracas became one of the most violent cities in the world. In a last sigh of optimism, construction started in 1990 on the tower for the Centro Financiero Confinanzas, later known as the Torre David after its developer David Brillembourg . His sudden death, followed by a series of bank closures led to the 90% completed project being seized by a government insurance agency, who left the third tallest skyscraper in South America unfinished and abandoned.
In 1992 Hugo Chavez made an attempted coup, was jailed and released two years later. By ’99, a year after being elected in, he proposed a new constitution, and significantly for future squatters, declared that “every person has the right to adequate, safe, comfortable and hygenic housing”. In 2007, an evicted group of squatters turned to the Torre David for shelter. Four years later Chavez enabled the government to “seize idle urban lands, non-residential buildings and assets required for building housing developments”. The slums were expanding : aerial photographs of Caracas show the modernist core at the centre standing rigid and inert while the barrios seep over and around the topography like a living, liquid culture.
In 1998, both Brillembourg and Klumpner had day jobs in architectural practices, producing designs for the Caraquenian bourgeoisie. In parallel, Brillembourg had set up a summer school and an NGO ‘think tank’ that operated at night. As the politics unfolded, it became clear that Chavez didn’t see the revolutionary potential of housing, envisioning only prototypical modernist mega-blocks on the periphery of the city. The explosion of urbanism in the global south was real, visible and urgent, but lacking architectural research. Most of Brillembourg and Klumpner’s peers had no interest in the slums, they were focused instead on what lay beyond, in Europe, and Spain in particular, seduced by the potential of the ‘Bilbao effect’. Eventually support was found in Gerhard Schroeder’s German Federal Culture Foundation, a global research institution with large resources. Armed with the material they had collected, in 2000, with the help of a Canadian NGO, Brillembourg and Klumpner smuggled themselves into to a meeting of the UN Habitat and spoke out. The critical problem they had identified was simply that ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ never meet.
Brillembourg and Klumpner took an embedded approach to research, recognising that if they were to achieve anything meaningful, they would have to be the ‘go-between’, bridging two radically different worlds. From nights of flying bullets in the favelas to cocktails in black tie with German senators, this new role demanded a spectrum of very different skills. Social ecosystems, economics and politics had to be negotiated, while avoiding specific political alliances. A new kind of ‘activist’ architect was emerging, one who doesn’t wait for government commissions, but through direct engagement identifies what needs to be done and finds the means to make it happen.
In 2009 Justin McGuirk, writer and curator of the Gran Horizontale Biennale installation with U-TT, began a search for alternative approaches to urbanism and the legacy of the “the dream of modernist utopia [that] went to Latin America to die.” The result, Radical Cities, is an excellent portrait of the whole South American continent as testbed for experimental and original strategies. As early as the 1960s, British architect John Turner looked at the barriadas of Lima as an intrinsic part of the urban fabric, and proposed ways to adapt them to become a natural extension of the city as an alternative to slum clearance and the physical and cultural alienation of their inhabitants. In 1963, Charles Jencks published the barriadas next to Archigram and the Japanese Metabolists as a model with important lessons for housing and urbanism.
McGuirk revisited the Projecto Experimental de Vivienda, or ‘PREVI’, in Lima, one of the great visionary housing projects of the 20th C, now largely forgotten. In 1966, Fernando Belaúnde Terry, then President of Peru and an architect by training, initiated a competition to rethink mass, high density, low rise housing, and drafted in architect Peter Land as UN Project Director. Land invited a stellar cast of international architects to “design and construct a neighbourhood of approximately 1500 new houses….[to] develop methods and techniques to rehabilitate and extend the life of existing older houses, and...for planning the rational establishment and growth of spontaneous housing settlements to meet proper standards” The team included James Stirling, Christopher Alexander, Aldo Van Eyck, Charles Correa, Atelier 5, Kikutaki Maki and Kurokawa among others. The jury, unable to choose a single winner, built them all. A military junta overthrew the president and although the first stage was pushed through due to the presence of the UN, the project came to an end and the experiment was abandoned. 450 original prototypes were designed for growth and adjustment over time as the needs of their inhabitants changed, and now remain embedded at the heart of later additions. U-TT’s film team are currently documenting the project.
Incremental design was economically systemised by Alejandro Aravena, of the Chilean practice Elemental. Like U-TT, he believes that only architects have the multiple skills to tackle current social, urban, political and economic issues, and his practice reflects the strategic alliances needed to cross these borders. His business partner was a former transport engineer, and the CEO of COPEC, the Chilean oil company, sits on the board of his company. He states, “professional quality not charity has shaped the entire operation of Elemental”, which he calls a ‘do tank’ that works within the existing conditions of the market; “try to change them if necessary, but don’t wait for them to change”. When Aravena was approached to build social housing, he concluded that if funds are available to make just “half a good house” rather than a whole, bad one, then just build half, with a void for the inhabitants to expand into. The government would supply the “site, urban layout, the structure…the technically difficult elements: kitchen, bathrooms…and stairs.” This way, “in the first half of the house [is] the DNA of a house of middle income standards” . There is an austere elegance to both the thinking and the buildings themselves, which softens as the families colonise the gaps left for them. Elemental began working on an urban scale after Chile’s devastating 2010 earthquake and tsunami in Constitución, and applied the same lateral logic to the redesign of the city for which they had just 100 days. As part of a participatory process, they proposed a reordering of the urban layout, service infrastructure and land ownership using a coastline forest to create a new social space that was also a buffer zone for dissipating future Tsunamis.
Guatamalan architect Teddy Cruz has targeted the “Political Equator” for study, looking at unprecedented migration across global borders, towards wealth, with cheap labour outsourced to the south. He focuses principally on the exchange across the Tijuana - San Diego frontier. Here, not only do people emigrate north, but as American suburbia inflates, discarded houses, “entire chunks of the city”, move south across the border. The slums of Tijuana have built themselves out of the waste of San Diego; pre-fab bungalows are mounted on steel stilts, freeing up space below to be filled with more housing or businesses, layering spaces and economies. This is plugging the ‘void’, like that created by Aravena, with more complex support systems. Cruz identifies, “the church, social rooms, collective kitchens and community gardens [as] the small infrastructure for housing. Dwellers are participants co-managing socio economic programmes.” Cruz is special advisor on Urban and Public Initiatives for the City of San Diego, and is taking lessons from the Tijuana slums to apply in San Diego, in an ironic reverse migration. The premise is to redefine density as the number of social exchanges rather than objects per acre. “The best ideas for shaping the vast cities of the future will not come from enclaves of economic power and abundance but from areas of conflict and scarcity from where an urgent imagination can inspire us to rethink urban growth today.”
The overlapping programmatic complexities Cruz identifies as so valuable - housing, shops, kitchens, cafes, bars, workshops, a church - were all present in the 28 squatted floors of the Torre David. This community of 3,000 inhabitants colonised a skyscraper without lifts, motorbikes instead becoming the vertical transport. It is a unique typology that illustrates the creative intelligence of the ‘bottom up’: one that could hold clues for the reappropriation of other dead inner-city speculative development. U-TT produced a meticulous study of the occupied building and the activities in it, through drawings, photographs, interviews and film, and working with environmental engineers, developed minimal interventions that would make the tower fully functional while keeping it’s user defined ethos. They also speculate on how a network of models like this could interact with each other and the larger city as a whole. It is a utopian vision but, in the spirit of Yona Friedmann whom they enlisted to advise, it is a realisable and convincing one.
‘Urban acupuncture’ is a term U-TT use to describe smaller, strategic interventions, and techniques for knitting together the formal and informal cities: removing stigma, for instance, by inserting little pieces of recognisable urban fabric to create public spaces within the barrios and so melting borders. This is design applied laterally to maximise the impact of minimal resources. They introduced Cable Cars for urban use, a surreal import from the ski slopes of Switzerland, that cut travel time between the slums and the centre of the city from 1.5 hours to an average of 10 minutes, radically changing lives and making the work, social and cultural infrastructure of the city available to many for the first time. Their Vertical Gym in Santa Cruz (Venezuela), stacked a multiple series of programmes on a small available footprint to create a safe recreation space used by thousands; the local crime rate fell by 30% shortly after it was completed. Since then, a further two have opened and more are underway. Developing ‘prototypical’ designs and principles that can be reused is their method of applying their core research.
Klumpner, a self declared fan of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, believes in the pervasive history of cities, the absence of a “homogeneous past” and how spaces are continually reinvented through reuse. In recent conversation, he pointed out how the urban strategies used in the global south are also relevant to 21st C Zurich: Altstadt is an area of the city colonised by refugees, prostitutes, gypsies and artists with structural patterns and social behaviours not unlike those found in Latin America, and where design principles observed in the barrios could be imported to Europe to improve current conditions.
But can this new approach be taught? Brillembourg outlined U-TT’s goal to produce a new “entrepreneurial architect”; a “hybrid of renaissance master and urban hustler” . The role has to bridge “ambassador, diplomat, spy, reporter and Guerilla builder”, the academic challenge being, he says, “how to teach transgression”. Students are taught by economists and social scientists as well as architects, and navigate through scenarios as quasi-developers, or are embedded in other institutions to start negotiating the territories that cross conventional architectural boundaries. U-TT has now collected a significant body of research in various forms: statistical, mapping and a vast film archive which is continually added to. The Latin American spirit with the resources of northern Europe Brillembourg personifies as a “Mexican wrestler in a Swiss flag”. Communication is critical, and film-making, new media, the internet and mobile phones become new architectural tools.
The practices mentioned here, observing and engaging with slums, neither romanticise nor fetishise poverty. They learn from it, ameliorate where possible, and reveal this knowledge through design with the aim of integration more, it seems, as a response to necessity than a naive desire to ‘do good’. The built projects have an integrity in common, and an aesthetic that emerges from stripping away the superfluous. Form arises from an economic and strategic as well as aesthetic logic, not unlike the tenets of early modernism. The social agenda is back, with a new energy and sharpened by the brutality of late capitalism. There is no room for ‘insolence’ when the built outcome remains fluid, in a constant process of development and adaptation. The medium becomes a living thing rather than an inert object, so the means of engagement have to change. Speed becomes critical: the ability to move fast, to observe, process vast quantities of information, to identify, simplify and articulate problems and respond with both rationality and intuition: to rethink and re-form.
In this age of explosive urbanisation and such little stability, it seems architects should be designing at the core of decision making. That Zaha is under attack demonstrates that the public believes architects have more power than they actually do, and expects them to perform a larger social role: the role of the client is not under scrutiny. Ironically, In The End of Architecture, Zaha’s essay, Another Beginning, is a thoughtful lament for responsibility in both teaching and practice, and the loss within architecture of a social conscience.
‘Activism’ shouldn’t replace architecture, but can extend its influence. When the architect operates within the language of the discipline, not only through action, but through form, an outcome of cultural significance is possible. But the process of design may now need to start earlier with the ‘invention’ of the client. The power of architecture is the power of synthesis, and the ability to coordinate within cities that lack coordination. The extreme segregation of rich and poor, formal and informal is dangerous and unsustainable. No one knows better how ideas should manifest through the built city than the engaged architect. This territory needs to be reclaimed, and must be where some of the ‘duty of the architect’ lies. The direction has never seemed clearer or more urgent: architecture as revolution.
Alex Lehnerer and Savvas Ciricadis have produced a clear, inhabitable idea that literally enacts Rem Koolhaas’s theme of ‘Absorbing Modernity, 1914-2014’ by inserting a 1:1 replica of the German Cancellor’s Bonn Residence into the German Pavilion. Both the Kanzlerbungalow and the Pavilion itself are politically loaded and historically layered buildings. The curators, who work together as the Zurich practice Ciriacidislehnerer, used this architectural montage to explore national identity, Germany’s uneasy history, and the use of architecture as propaganda able to project a political message.
What began as the Bavarian Pavilion in 1909 was renamed the German Pavilion in 1912, then given a monumental National Socialist makeover before Eduard Trier’s last remodelling in 1964. The same year Sep Ruf’s Kranzlerbungalow was built. This bourgeois modernist symbol was the broadcast ‘living room of the nation’ until Bonn was abandoned as the capital of the Federal Republic for Berlin in 1999. The first inhabitant, Chancellor Ludwig Erhard, told his public, “you will learn more about me by looking at this house than by watching me give a political speech”, burdening architecture with the role of political metaphor and suggesting that this little glazed structure was more transparent than its inhabitants.
Physically, this installation of overlaps has created clashes, blank dead ends, intriguing new interstitial spaces, and odd translations where what was once open is now closed. A red carpet and Helmut Kohl’s car extend the piece into the Giardini beyond. Double-sided, printed sheets with the plan of each space overlaid reveal their relationship when held to the light. The art critic and poet Quinn Latimer contributed a lyrical essay, Your Bungalow is My Pavilion (This Room is an Island), that speculates on the way these spaces were inhabited. Adolph Hitler, no stranger to the manipulative potential of architecture, is quoted from his chilling 1937 speech at the Munich Haus der Deutschen Kunst on the power of buildings as the embodiment of a political moment: “Their word is more persuasive than any spoken word. For it is a word made of stone.”
The Bungalow Germania was powerfully spatial and architectonic in a biennale that at its core dismembered architecture into its component parts or disembodied it through representation on film. Its success lies in its physical clarity, apparent simplicity and underlying narrative depth.
The Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU) reopened next to the Prater Park last October, consolidating into a single campus its collection of department sites which had been discreetly scattered throughout Alsergrund, the 19thC , 9th district of the city. In 2008, Wolf Prix presided over a jury that selected six firms, each to design one of the new department buildings. They included Zaha Hadid Architects, CRABstudio and Atelier Hitoshi Abe.
The WU is the largest school in Europe focused entirely on business, economics and law, and apparently is one of the best. It was founded in 1898 to prepare fledgling business men to grow the then Austro-Hungarian empire, and since has produced an Austrian president, Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors, Finance Ministers and numerous industrialists and CEOs. In other words, it was a good place to generate an innovative business model for a new University structure. The project was contracted by a joint venture of the WU and the Bundesimmobilien Gesellschaft (BIG), a government quango that builds a lot of the public and educational works in Austria and which now co-owns the site. While the University only rented space in the past, the new structure will allow it to eventually own the buildings as a key asset for the future. Business is at the core.
The key economic decision to exclude student accomodation was made early on in order for the campus to remain embedded in the city. The alternative model of an autonomous academic ‘satellite town’, was decided to be socially and culturally undesirable. The goal was to create a classic urban campus but with green space in which the city itself plays a critical role. The current location was selected from several sites, and is roughly 25 acres of Leopoldstadt, former marshland and Jewish Ghetto from the 17th to the 20th C, separated from the city centre by the Danube.
The campus is bordered to the south by the wooded Prater Park. To the south west is the Wurstelprater, the ‘oldest amusement park in the world’, darkly depicted in Carol Reed’s film noir The Third Man where the fair rides were a sinister counterpoint to the corruption and black marketeering in post-war, occupied Vienna. The scene in the 19th century ferris wheel gave long camera shots over the bomb damaged city and the film embodied Austria’s troubled relationship with its past. More recently, happy, giddy views of the campus under construction were had by the academic team from the 100m Praterturm, the ‘highest flying swing in the world’.
Perhaps it is just the Freudian associations with Vienna that suggest a lingering presence or urban memory that manifests more or less unconsciously through the campus masterplan and buildings within it, but the unusual historic typologies that developed on and around the site seem to resonate in the different approaches and architectures that emerged.
Joseph II donated the Prater to the city for public enjoyment in the 18th C, and gave permission for the cafes and entertainments that would develop into the existing funfair. In the 19th C a world exhibition was held with a Rotunda at its centre that burned down in the 1930s. This land is now the site of the Messegelände, the large rectangular blocks of the Exhibition Centre which form the northern border to the campus. To the east is a large running track and beyond it the Ernst Happel Stadion.
The WU competition began with a modest call for masterplanners that led to BUSarchitektur, a local firm. They were contracted for the overall strategy and one of the buildings in order to maintain their committed engagement throughout the course of the project. The WU has a department based organisational structure which is now focused into four dedicated buildings with two structures for shared facilities. Together they have to accommodate 25,000 students and 1,800 staff. The masterplan brief was three-fold; to develop a strategy for laying out the departments in relation to each other and the surrounding context in order to create a collection of discrete and highly individual buildings; to create fluid movement onto and within the site allowing for chance encounters and exchanges of knowledge, and to come up with a general planning and technical M&E strategy so that the entire campus could perform sustainably as a single ‘machine’ with one point of overall control.
The response to this was the creation of a ‘string of plazas’, articulated through a folded and landscaped ground plane, each to act conceptually like the centre of a European town, with many of the same functions. There is a bookshop, creche, sports centre and a supermarket. To complete the metaphor, the Library is described as a ‘cathedral of learning’. An attempt for the university to ‘get students out of the cafes and into the buildings’ in fact resulted in a merging of the two. Cafes and restaurants make up much of the ground level of the buildings and spill into the plazas while artificial grass turns parts of the landscape into giant matresses for informal sprawling. This is circulation designed as theatre. Although there was always an intention to include the public, when it emerged that the cost of installing a security system throughout the site was prohibitively high, a decision was taken that they would have access to the ground plane and interiors of the site just as the students do, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The remarkably generous relationship between the university and the public and absence of surveillance, security and barriers is difficult to any longer imagine on campuses in, say, London or New York.
Given the very different external conditions to each of the site boundaries, one wonders why the masterplan is essentially symetrical. The four department buildings flank the central Library and Learning Zone by Zaha Hadid, whose central position was the firm’s immovable choice. Yet the principle entrance is now from Welthandelsplatz (“World Trade Place”), to the west of the site. There is a more ceremonial entrance at the centre opposite the Library, but this road is not open to the general public. So there seems an assumption that visitors will either know where they’re going or will happily just drift through on a dérive. While permeability is one of the primary goals and successes, it does undermine any sense of arrival sequence or obvious clarity about where to go first.
The main route of the masterplan runs through the campus as a central avenue, with smaller alleys cutting through each of the four departments. According to BUSarchitektur, the sequences were designed so that ‘each path also becomes an existential journey’.
Although this was an international competition, Wolf Prix’s selection of architects does feel a little like the guest list for a private dinner party; most have some longstanding relationship with him. The selected firms were to represent the ‘past, present and future’ of architecture. NO.MAD Arquitectos, as the youngest firm, were the latter. Their building, the EA: WU Executive Academy is the first one most visitors will encounter and is the main public interface. The EA is a seven story tower with a façade of glass and aluminium. The form emerges from a stack of volumes that respond layer by layer to the geometry of the context, creating in their juxtaposition a series of internal spaces that ranges from a public, urban scale - the sport, administration and event spaces - to the more intimate kindergarten and teaching rooms above. The bulk of the building is visually broken down through a combination of the algorithmically generated façade pattern of glazing bars, and the opacity, translucency and reflection created through the use of different glazing types: essentially black, clear and solar-mirrored. The perception of the architecture changes over a 24 hour cycle according to which internal volumes are hidden and revealed from day to night through the shift between external reflection and internal light levels.
CRABstudio have created a series of organic forms to house the law faculty, law library, and the university administration. The buildings are spatially playful but constructed in conventional blockwork, then rendered and painted in bands of brilliant colour from deep orange at the base to acid yellow at the top. A final layer of roughly sawn Austrian Larch planks are fixed raw to the surface on projecting metal clips. There is a cheerful, messy chaos in their arrangement, the choice of horizontal vs vertical bands and the distance from the surface having no obvious relationship to orientation, direction of sunlight or views beyond. Visitors’ reactions have prompted the university administrators to propose a drinking game – a glass of schnapps for every baffled comment heard outside the building (“Is it finished?” “When will the scaffolding come off?”). But the law department, and the core ten steel Teaching Centre diagonally opposite by BUSarchitektur, are the only two buildings to embrace aging and a material evolution with time which the others very much resist. The renders produced by CRABstudio show the building sometime in the future, overgrown with vines, perhaps as a gesture towards the ivy league.
CRABstudio chose the southwest corner as their site to reinforce the connection between the larch planks and the timber screen of trees in the Prater. But walking in either direction between the university and the funfair reveals a much stronger connection; the bawdy humour, the same acid palette from orange to yellow, organic shapes, cut-throughs and alleyways, and the same apparently chaotic and fragile exoskeleton. Could it be that the ‘Dizzy Maus’ or ‘Extasy Raum’ of the Wurstelprater share the same ancestral architectural DNA as Peter Cook?
Internally the bright colours of CRABstudio’s finishes and furniture might sometimes be too loud for quiet thought (would they become annoying?), and the rollercoaster relationships between some of the external terraces are often awkwardly detailed and undermined by handrails, presumably to satisfy health and safety regulations. But the building’s users like the ‘quirkiness’ that creates emotional attachment and a sense of ownership. There is also in-house amusement that WU’s most ‘serious’ department is housed in the most visually lighthearted of the schemes. Perhaps the future of European Law will be fundamentally changed by all this orange paint and larch wood. As Peter Cook said when he included cartoons in his presentations to the jury, “university has to be fucking funny”.
Reinforcing the sense of diagonal symmetry of the site, there appears to be a formal dialogue between the northwest cluster of buildings by Estudio Carme Pinos, with their façade play of black and white parallelograms, and the duo-tone stripes of Hitoshi Abe’s scheme in the opposite southeast corner of the site. Separating out and then creating spatial relationships between different programmatic elements, Carme Pinos scheme builds up a miniature cityscape or skyline. Her structures overlap at a well defined central point, the ‘knot’ that ties together the three main zones. The facades are defined by perforated plaster panels and punctured aluminium sheets which create light plays internally and bold graphic surfaces to the exterior.
The focal piece of the campus is the Library and Learning centre by Zaha Hadid Architects, whose angled geometry, 35 degree pitch and the singular gaze of the large cantilevered window ensure that it is visible from virtually everywhere within a wide radius. This is the most important emblem of the new school, and its iconic presence almost literally rather than merely symbolically sumarises the way the new school wants to be perceived. Two interlocking black and white ribbons of the building’s delineated envelope enclose a large, three dimensional gathering space. The combination of the pitching forward and the strip of lines that encircle the building like a bar code or race track are undeniably, almost disturbingly, dynamic.
The commissioners of the building wanted one that conveyed an organisation that is ‘moving forward like a cruise, or space ship’, that is ‘not straight; unconventional, futuristic’. This building does all that. But the immediate effect of the tilted interior is of a cruise ship that’s sinking. This is a more questionable symbol in these delicate European economic times. It can cause an almost tangible wave of sea sickness. This must be a salute to the power of an architecture able to create such strong visceral reactions. The interior is much more fluid than the exterior and the glazed entrance draws the campus through and up into the circulation of the building which contains an auditorium, work and event spaces, a bookshop and cafes.
The main atrium is where students ceremonially begin their studies and eventually graduate. The central core contains the body of the library collection, and a variety of working spaces for different scenarios encircle the main atrium with individual rooms for doctoral students or discussion groups, a large library café at roof level and the dramatic projecting reading room that overlooks the Prater. The directional nature of the reading room has resulted in all the desks being arranged in rows facing the plate glass window (and towards the future, no doubt) which creates the uneasy atmosphere of sitting in an exam rather than a library. But the hierarchy of work spaces is luxuriously thoughtful and the complex spatiality of the building creates dramatic moments, reinforced by careful detailing and the ‘canyons’ of beautiful concrete work that define the structural zones of the building.
Atelier Hitoshi Abe’s two long narrow buildings, the D2-SC Departments and Student Centre, were ‘inspired by Millefeuille pastry’ in a tribute, perhaps, to Viennese Kaffeehaus culture. The link is not immediately obvious: a pâtissier might see the alternating black and white pattern of the façade as closer to the checquerboard of a Battenberg cake. But the ‘thousand leaves’ or ‘layers’ become apparent as an organisational device that allows narrow gaps between parallel programmes, some internal and separated by lightwells and sculptural stairs, others external and crossed by overhead bridges. Abé’s long strips of building are made to appear shorter through games of accelerated perspective and the facades are broken down vertically by disengaging the layers of individual floors from the surface to create overlaps in the two-tone glazing. Where the eye is forced to travel over Zaha’s building at high speed in racing loops, the effect of the rippling horizontal bands of Abe’s façade is of undulating optical illusion.
Like the Law Department diagonally opposite, BUSarchitektur’s dark orange rusted core-ten Teaching Centre brings colour and texture to the site and acts as a good foil to the fibreglass-reinforced, concrete slickness of the Library. This is the second largest building in scale, and the faceted steel plate surfaces of its bulky body, perforated to form flush shutters and sunscreens, turn it into a monolith that grounds this end of the site like a mountain.
Internally it feels like a geological excavation has left behind a series of planes that become circulation, meeting places and study areas. It contains the largest auditorium which is daylit, and while it is accessed from below ground level, it exits directly onto the plaza making the link between learning and discussion physical and immediate. Like many of the buildings, the thoughtful and low-tech approach to services and the refreshingly direct relationship between inside and outside makes it feel as though there’s a little more oxygen available for thinking.
What is the purpose of a campus today? Social condenser? Educator? Spectacle? Logo? The WU has removed itself from the dense 19th C urban fabric of the 9th Distrtict and relaunched itself in a unique historical context which draws the city through it in a different way, not as fellow urban dwellers engaged in their daily routine, but as an audience where the university itself becomes the entertainment and object of focus; the spectacle. Since Joseph II’s dedication of the area for public pleasure, this is a natural development in the tradition of the local surroundings, from funfair to world fair, theatre district, exhibition hall, stadium, film festival and public park, but it does promote a condition in which everyone wants to invent the ‘best ride’; where every architecture is competing for attention.
The outcome is a clear identity for this consolidated organisation, ironically through the hyper-individualism of its different buildings, each self-consciously disparate but engineered to function together as single machine. The architecture is used to articulate the ‘personality’ the university wants to project as a form of corporate identity. But the creation of such a complete set piece raises the question of how this model might grow and adapt, whether there are strategies for further densification and even of how the Central European model of urban plazas reflects a 21st C non-local, global capitalism.
The new WU unquestionably demonstrates the value of a good client with a clear goal and the tenacity to perserve a strong architectural remit, it also creates questions about the role of the campus in the city and of architecture in serving this role. The completed campus is already acting as an attractor and has begun to shift the academic centre of the city towards the Prater. The new Sigmund Freud University, a much denser building making up the new western border of the WU site, is nearly complete. There are plans for its own dedicated ambulance, perhaps for psychological Accidents & Emergencies. In a complex that presents such intense academic and architectural stimulation, one could imagine future synergies, where the students at the end of their ‘existential journeys’ might be rescued and rushed to psychoanalytical cures.
“And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, and it was good.”
That, of course, was before electricity. Le Corbusier, that other God, made the observation that “architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light”. Light was necessary to bring form to the void, but in Le Corbusier’s version, it plays something of a supporting role. At Light show this was reversed. Light show, curated by Cliff Lauson, focused on artificial, electric light, for which the fortified and introspective Hayward Gallery was well suited, like a brutalist Plato’s cave. The architecture becomes a mere backdrop, but a necessary medium to make the subject of the show tangible.
Light uniquely occupies the territories of art, science and religion simultaneously, and very directly. Photoreceptors, the rods and cones of the eyes, convert visible electromagnetic radiation - light - into signals that stimulate biological processes. The optic nerve is the most direct link to the brain, without opening the skull. The visible becomes physiological.
It must be this sensorial experience that made the show so popular, and led to the almost hysterical, physical ecstasy of visiting children who writhed on the the floors of Chromosaturation (2010) in the pure pleasure of the hyper-activity of their nueral firing. Carlos Cruz-Diez, an innovator of kinetic- and op-art in Venezuala in the 1950s, saturated three adjoining rooms with pure colour, red, blue and green. As the human retina is unaccustomed to experiencing pure monochrome; the effect is disorientation which is heightened when moving from one intense space to another. Adults, subdued by social constraint, surrendered more discreetly to their brains being tickled.
Anthony McCall’s ‘solid light’ piece, You and I, Horizontal, 2005 has an equally spectacular effect. Here, geometry is made apparently solid and inhabitable in a space filled with ambient smoke or mist. In it, a simple, projected ray slowly unfurls to become a hollow cone. Any obstacle to the single-point light source creates gigantic shadows on the heroic scale of a major science fiction film. If light is the first thing perceived at birth, and apparently the last thing experienced at death, this is what it might look like. McCall first produced his solid light pieces in the 1970’s. There was a hiatus when cigarette smoking was banned in art galleries, and a happy return after the 1990’s invention of the ‘haze machine’.
Katie Paterson is intrigued by the astronomical sources of light; the stars, the sun and the moon. She makes poignant pieces that reflect on time, scale and the unfathomable darkness of deep space. Her conceptual piece ‘For All the Dead Stars’, 2009, involved a collaboration with astronomers around the world to map a celestial picture no longer visible. Her piece in this show was the melancholy ‘Lightbulb to Simulate Moonlight’, 2008. A single bulb, whose cool light was precisely designed to match the spectral range of moonlight in colour, temperature and intensity, hung near the floor in an otherwise empty space. One yearned for the silly but uplifting artificiality of, ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon’ as an antidote to so much poignancy. Outside the space, a perfunctory rack contained the correct number of these special, chilly blue lightbulbs to simulate enough moonlight to last the average lifetime of 66 years. There weren’t very many.
James Turrell, predictably, had a piece in the show, and it seemed that the space outside it was designed to accommodate a queue. Those waiting could contemplate Bill Culbert’s Bulb Box Reflection II, 1975, an elegant visual conundrum where an unlit bulb is apparently reflected alight through the use of two way mirror, or Jim Campbell’s Exploded View (Commuters), 2011, a 3D matrix of LED ‘pixels’ that created a flickering sense of movement through the simple binary switch between light being on or off. Depending on the viewing angle, images are either clear and discernible, or they completely dissolve. A perfect curatorial strategy for visitors shuffling slowly towards Turrell’s Wedgework V, 1974. Feeling one’s way through the black tunnel into the art space allowed a little time for the eyes to adjust, and for the ethereal coloured light to materialise out of the gloom into an apparently solid and tangible form. Turrell articulates what several of the artists in this show achieve, whether intentionally or not: “I want you to sense yourself sensing.”
Turrell’s undergraduate work with experimental psychologist Dr Ed Wortz on the problems of perception for astronauts on the moon led them to produce ‘ganzfelds’, 360 degree, uninterrupted monochromatic visual fields, with no graspable perspectives. The effect of this sensory deprivation is that of a James Turell sculpture; a space of apparently infinite light that develops a foggy, corporeal presence. Some of these effects are also present in Doug Wheeler’s pioneering work in light and sound from the ‘60’s, but where Turrell adds substance through the ‘ganzfeld’ effect, Wheeler uses light and phosphorescent paint applied directly to architectural space to dematerialise.
Chilean artist Ivan Navarro explores ideas of authority and control through a sinister minimalist cell of two way mirror that is simultaneously an object for surveillance and an infinite prison cell.
Jenny Holzer uses LEDs to broadcast language in order to ‘have people watch what they otherwise might not’. The technique was powerfully effective in ‘Monument’ 2008 where stacked, multi-layered texts of declassified US documents from the ‘war on terror’ circle swiftly from right to left, disappearing as if behind a massive column, like thoughts crossing the mind. The content is disturbing, and the speed makes it impossibe to take everything in, which itself causes a restless and relentless anxiety.
The health and safety warning that Olaffur Elliasson’s piece could cause epileptic fits demonstrates one real potential effect of light on the body. In an otherwise dark room, a row of simple, almost comical, water fountains are momentarily frozen by strobe light to form his ‘Model for a Timeless Garden’ 2011; the water is ‘de-animated’ into snapshots by the staccato light source.
Cerith Wyn Evan’s S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E, (Trace me back to some shallow, chill, underlying motove’s overspill…’), 2010, is a series of columns of halogen tubes that pulse in a rhythm almost like breathing. They radiate heat while illuminated, and become fragile, cool and transparent when dimmed. This ghostly piece is based on a James Merrill poem of messages dictated during an Ouija séance.
Light Show was a dazzling survey of artificial light works since the 1960’s, delicately balanced between the highly conceptual and the sensory or ‘perceptual’. The catalogue contains very thoughtful essays about the work, and light in general by curator Cliff Lauson, art historian Anne Wagner and science writer Philip Ball. Slits in its thick, cardboard cover allow light through, recalling Nancy Holt’s ‘Holes of Light’ 1973. They turn the book, like the show itself, into a projector or optical toy.
In other words, I saw the light. It was good. FIAT LUX
London is an attitude as much as a place. It has developed as a maverick city that remains in a process of relentless growth, and whose sprawling scale resists a single, rational reading. This essay shifts between historical analysis and architectural manifesto, and refers to the projects of several young practices building in London now, whose architecture can be described through a series of ‘Escape Strategies’.
Late Roman London could still be expressed in a single iconic image of the river and the walls. By the 12th century, the civic and religious infrastructure took over to become the new symbolic representation; London was a walled city of towers and church spires under the aegis of St Paul. In 1660, Wencelaus Hollar proposed a bird’s-eye view that showed every building in meticulous detail which was quite far advanced when the Great Fire struck. While the city was faithfully resurrected from the remaining traces after the smoke cleared, the means of its representation was fundamentally changed: Hollar’s extruded buildings were replaced with a much more accurate figure ground plan. With their careful survey, John Ogilby and William Morgan created the first abstracted mathmatical representation of London. While the city resisted a rational make-over, for the first time its complexity could be described with scientific accuracy.
London’s complexity is part of its resilience, a trait that protects against radical change. London has relentlessly preserved its organic form, “ever since”, as Peter Ackroyd observes, “the first Tudor proclamations concerning town planning were ignored… It was part of its ability to frustrate any general or grandiose plan.” Any attempts at large scale change have been violently resisted; the Tudors, the Great Fire, and the postwar planners all offered opportunities for radical alteration. London refused. Economics, politics, and individual opposition conspired against it.
Commerce, the fundamental force that drives London, has brought moments of isolated demolition and redevelopment at different stages of the city’s history. But at the same time, London’s focus on individual commercial interests has fostered a far more profound resistance to change, to keeping the status quo and building upon the existing.
The Unprecedented Precedent
London is defined by precedent where each iteration and new layer of the city contains a ghost of its past: this distinguishes it and makes it very different from other cities. London operates as a wax tablet onto which an architectural memory has been stamped, and in order to progress or to build, this trace must either be incorporated or overwritten.
Out of the Ashes
The Great Fire of 1666 that destroyed five sixths of the medieval walled city, briefly created a tabula rasa, a city of ash. At the time there were essentially three rebuilding options: a conservative route of replicating the existing but in brick rather than combustible timber, a middle-way which widened some of the streets but kept the existing vaults and foundations, and a total re-design based on the diagrammatic clarity of a single vision with a geometric coherence closer to later continental European models.
Ironically, among the masterplans for total re-design drawn up for royal consideration, were ideas that foreshadowed some of the more radical urban gestures of the 20th century. These were the products of a new rational breed, the polymath members of the scientific academy, The Royal Society, itself founded only six years before the fire.
Where the plans of Christopher Wren and John Evelyn clearly demonstrate architectural immagination governed by aesthetics and an overall composition, the proposals of Robert Hooke, Richard Newcourt and Valentine Knight seem to emerge from the modern practice of urban planning based on the more pragmatic factors of function, density, economics and movement and appear to result directly from a process of analysis. Hooke’s regular orthogonal grid, Knight’s striations running parallel to the river, and Newcourt’s concentric hierarchies, also laid out in grid form, are all in striking contrast with Wren and Evelyn’s constructed combinations of radial geometries with grid interlays and long throughfares which contained framed architectural compositions.
Initially Charles II enthused over completely new plans for the City while simultaneously laying out clear guidelines for rebuilding. A royal proclamation was issued to protect the economic interests of the individual; none “should suffer through the carrying out of schemes for the general benefit.” This was a radically different approach to later continental urban development such as Haussmann’s scheme for Paris which had Napoleon’s explicit consent for expropriation.
In London, the absence of deeds and property titles at the time of the fire meant that the only way to reconcile the royal ambitions to protect the property-owning commercial individual, with plans for a new, rational layout, was to survey and quantifiy existing properties. This in turn would allow for a fair redistribution. However, it emerged that this task was going to take much longer than first imagined and commerce created an urgency for speed in recovery. Pressure was increased by the threat of merchants moving west to the suburbs and out of the City and of London losing its trading heart. Eventually the plans for a full re-design of London were shelved and the ‘middle-way’ – keeping the essential layout but widening some of the streets - was settled on.
While the protection of the individual commercial rights rendered the realization of any of the new urban schemes impossible in London, Newcourt’s proposal formed the basis for a whole new idea of a city on the other side of the Atlantic. Newcourt’s scheme for London became the formal basis for Penn’s utopian ideals for Philadelphia.
Light, Water, Earth
Commerce favoured an urban development based on continuity and put an emphasis on precedent. The British legal system is also structured on precedent or case law, where previously established principles set the way forward. Easements, profits a prendre and covenants, are ancient laws that can be roughly translated as, “’rights in the property of others’. They are the complex web of rights and obligations that link different parcels of land and their owners together…. Most easements can be ‘described by their function’, such as rights of way, rights of light and rights of water” .
These laws are interesting as they enter into the realm of private negotiation between individuals. As observed by Megarry & Wade, in The Law of Real Property, common law recognised “a limited number of rights which one landowner could acquire over the land of another” . Here, issues that would fall under planning control in other countries, become simply another opportunity for trade and financial exchange in London. The ‘economically self-determined individual’ is defined by his rights to trade. “Over three quarters of freehold properties are affected by one or more of these rights which can be very valuable.”
London’s unique approach towards Rights to Light can be better understood by comparison to light setbacks in a city such as New York. In London a window as an individual built element is granted a right to light, which in turn informs surrounding architectural development. Each case is specific and is defined by both its location and its history. The length of time a window has been in existence is critical (at least 19 years in order to ‘acquire rights’), which in turn has led to the surreal retention of windows in isolation, separated from the original building, in order to maintain their legal status.
By contrast, in a city like New York, issues of light are addressed by the uniformly applied sky exposure plane linking any building volume to the neutralizing infrastructure of the urban grid. This difference in approach, where London is defined by a complex web of individual relationships governed by independent commercial transaction, as distinct from New York’s ‘top down’ universally applied legislation, crystallises what makes London uniquely different, and reiterates how this difference is defined by precedent. The relationship to precedent is key to any reading or understanding of the architecture of London. But as precedents proliferate with time, they become increasingly tyrannical, restrictive & controlling.
There have always been renegades in London who have slipped through the legal, spatial & financial loopholes in the urban deep structures introduced above. Their escape routes have ranged from the literal inhabitation of physical gaps in the city, to the colonisation of those metaphoric spaces that haven’t yet been identified, defined or circumscribed by legislation. Both have commercial possibilities in a place ruthlessly driven by finance. During the Middle Ages, the South Bank became a lawless centre for entertainment beyond the reach of the formal regulations of the City on the north bank of the Thames. The theatres, bear-baiting, drinking and prostitution of the South Bank were replaced by pleasure gardens in the 18th C and industry and docks in the 19th C. Pleasure finally returned in the 20th and 21st C with the Festival of Britain, the South Bank Centre and Tate Modern, where it remains firmly in place, perhaps with less prostitution.
The Escape Artists
The re-writing of architectural precedent can create great depth with minimal means through the absorption and subversion of the qualities of the former host structure. Cedric Price, supreme architectural thinker, was agile at identifying loopholes in the system that he transformed into nooses for hanging the establishment. His Pop-up Parliament (1965) proposed a “large but comparitively simple supermarket of democracy” to replace the existing Houses of Parliament at Westminster which had been “packaged inconveniently”. “If we want an efficient parliament… replace the present historic monument with an up-to-date structure – flexible, accessible and dispensible.” Price’s enthusiasm for the ‘dispensible’ was bourne out by his membership of the National Federation of Demolition Contractors.
In another instance, taking advantage of the fact that the applicant for a change of building use is not legally required to be the owner of the property, Price applied to convert Buckingham Palace into a youth hostel on grounds of ‘under-occupation’. ‘Under occupation’ was used as a measurement of density in social housing, where these projects were expected to generate maximum economic value. Applying these same rules to the profligate Buckingham Palace was a delightful socialist sneer. Like most of Price’s ideas, their sublime precision and humour gains anarchic power from a foundation of belief or truth. They are deeply embedded in Britain’s socio-cultural psyche, and rely on the notion of precedent, or London’s ‘deep structures’, for strength. They draw their meaning from pre-existing conditions, from their architectural, cultural and historic contexts.
The Architectural Escape is described through the qualities and tactics of specific London projects. It looks at the cracks of opportunity that exist or are opened up within narrow constraints, how they are exploited, and how this architectural opportunism sets up the cycle that defines development in London. The current architectural escape strategies, epitomised by the recent projects introduced in this issue, fall loosely into three categories:
Temporal, which include impermanent structures & ‘pop-ups’ strategies, these are the transitory take-overs of left-over, in-between sites, and are present for such short periods that the schemes generally fall under the radar of planning law, they are gone almost before they can be ‘seen’ or identified by the system.
Stealth structures are those that make themselves invisible either to the eye or to the law; they include cut-away geometries tailored to fit between cracks of visible space, or adaptations to the gaps in planning legislation.
Ex-territorial schemes occupy territories that sit outside general planning classification, these might be located in the tideway of the Thames, or classified as ‘art’ rather than architecture or building; these are occupants of conceptual borderlines or ‘no-mans land’.
Within these loose categories and specific architectural examples, what begins to characterise these maverick structures? Qualities do emerge that seem to tie together these architectural escape acts, and bind them through time to their ghostly counterparts.
Out of Sight Sites
Temporal, Stealth and Ex-Territorial projects rely on occupying left-over gaps in the city, either apparently undesirable, only temporarily available, or those considered logistically impossible.
Assemble Studio’s Folly for a Flyover was a project with a short lifespan sited in the neglected junction of two successive overlays of transport infrastructure, the A12 motorway and the Lea Navigation Canal in Hackney Wick, East London. For only nine weeks, a gap in the unlovely undercroft between the east and westbound traffic became the surprising scene for an ‘experimental cinema, a café, workshops and boat trips’ . This was an architectural folly ‘posing as an imaginary piece of the area’s past, a building trapped under the motorway’ . Somewhere between the 18th C conception of a folly, and the fantasy dreamworlds concocted on the backlots of film studios, this structure set out to be deliberately ambiguous. Borderline sites have the disadvantage of many interested parties; use of this one had to be negotiated between the Olympic Delivery Authority, Transport for London, Hackney Parks and British Waterways, with planning for a temporary structure swiftly granted by Hackney Council.
According to Anthony Engi Meacock of Assemble Studio, it was conceived of as ‘creative mythology’, by the collective of fifteen, only some of them architects. The layers of artificiality, from the surreal siting of the folly where its roof protrudes between the two lanes of the flyover like an escaped character from a fairytale, to the successive revelations that what appears as brick is really made of timber, and what appears as solid is really lightweight and propped by scaffolding from within. The building is intended to sucessively reveal itself ‘as a fake’, where timber bricks are threaded on ropes for support. This stage set fragility reinforces the project’s fleeting presence, which leaves nothing behind but an abandoned terrazzo platform, remaining in place for as yet unimagined future scenarios.
Perhaps the ultimate portfolio of disregarded and unusable urban left-overs was that collected in the 1970s by Gordon Matta Clark, the almost worthless ‘gutterspaces’ auctioned off by New York City for minute tax sums, “tiny irregular, inaccessible…parcels of land, the remnants of surveying errors or other zoning anomalies” . This collection of micro-parcels came to be known as, ‘Reality Properties: Fake Estates’, and before his untimely death, Matta Clark wanted to ‘develop’ them into specific architectural propositions which would have been the extreme precursors to today’s escape tactics.
Where Stealth buildings aim to remain below the radar, Temporal schemes need to shout to draw attention to themselves. There are various methods. Temporal schemes, in overlooked or unfamiliar sites, invariably use text and light signs as design features. The more obscure their locations, and the shorter their life spans, the larger and brighter they need to be, turning the buildings into billboards. Signs, pictures, symbols and sculptures have always dominated London; some were symbolic like the red and white pole announcing blood-letting barber-surgeons, others were more obscure, like the grasshopper still seen today in the City of London as a symbol of industry, which originated as the personal emblem the founder of the Royal Exchange. Giant boots, gloves, cigars and coffins enlightened the impatient or the illiterate; overgrown signs became so dominant in 18th C London that they cut out daylight or fell, killing passersby. Enormous 19th C advertising hoardings signalled progress as they were erected around expanding London’s building sites and railway works. The Language of the Walls or A Voice from the Shop Windows or The Mirror of Commercial Roguery, 1855, is a treatise on advertising as underhand narrative, whose thesis is explicit in its title. An image from the satirical Punch Magazine in 1890 shows London taken over by signs, printed balloons, dirigibles and giant hands ready to strangle the dome of St Paul’s. The promotional SIGN as urban phenomenon and architectural adjunct is not new.
Some of the current temporary architectures merge with the activities within them to become a new, cross-bred phenomenon of architecture/event hybrids. The architecture does not function without the event and vice versa, and the announcement of the event through large signage is an integral part of the architectural language. The signage of the new ‘escape architects’ often recalls and resonates with the past lives of the spaces they occupy; petrol stations, roof tops or underground road and rail infrastructures have their own language.
The Kings Cross Filling Station is a bar, restaurant, social and cultural space by Carmody Groarke and Office of Change, in a disused petrol station on York Way and the Regents Canal. The programme is contained in the left over rectilinear componant parts of the site’s former life, which are wrapped in a 200m long, reusable, scalloped fibreglass wall. The old petrol station elements are silhouetted as ghostly shadows when the space is lit at night from inside. The signage in pale green neon is fixed to the former station’s forecourt canopy, and doubled by reflection in the canal. This is a temporary structure with a two year life span that occupys the gap between dereliction and construction on a 67 acre development site. Like many pop-up structures, scaffolding forms the supporting skeleton.
Cineroleum is another project by Assemble Studio, also located in a derelict petrol station, of which there are now over 4,000 in London. The name, also in large neon letters, replaces the former station signage. This simple but powerful project is reduced to a single gesture; the theatrical action of a curtain rising. The clarity and power of the desired effect was reinforced by the site’s roadside location. Engi Meacock described how the sense of enclosure - heightened by the intimate, flickering film light and smell of pop-corn - suddenly shifted when the performance ended, the curtain rose and the audience instantly became the spectacle. The impact of being thrown into an unexpected urban dialogue, of being exposed back to the city, one visitor felt was as shocking as having one’s ‘trousers pulled down’ (or perhaps one’s ‘skirt lifted’), in public.
Banksy created ‘The Lambeth Palace’, a dark, damp and grimy pop-up cinema in the disused arches and tunnels in Leake Street under Waterloo Station. It lasted only a week and was designed to show his own film, ‘Exit Through The Gift Shop’. A flickering bonfire of old master canvases lit an anarchy sign, unveiled by a mural of the Queen. A blood red painted slash became the graffitted red carpet that was read as a short-hand signifier for the event, hailing an anarchic, underground premiere.
Another Carmody Groarke project, Studio East Dining, was situated on top of a 35m high carpark located on the live building site of the 2012 Olympics. It was effectively a viewing machine or crashing together of inhabitable telescopes, focused to create a 360 degree panorama of the site. The project’s very short lifespan of only three weeks dictated the scaffolding and thin skin construction, with materials ‘borrowed’ from the surrounding building site. All was dismountable, and reuseable after the event.
There is a tendency among the Temporal projects, with their short life spans, to reduce the architecture to signifier. One element is abstracted out and magnified to symbolise an activity. In the way that Jacques Tati’s workplace is simplified and exaggerated to become a iconic grid of work cubicles, so here a simple, loaded element is singled out to represent the entire architectural programme. In this swiftly shifting world, the twilight zone between life and entertainment is made into a tangible object. A CURTAIN = THEATRE in Cineroleum, at Studio Dining East, a single long TABLE = RESTAURANT, at The Lambeth Palace, the painted slash of a RED CARPET = PREMIERE. At Frank’s Café & Campari Bar, where a simple all-saturating, red fabric canopy oversails a bar on the rooftop of a multi-storey car park in Peckham, PINK LIGHT = CAMPARI; here the pop-up and the sponsor merge into one, where the product, a pink aperitif, is made spatial through light, and turned into an immersive, inhabitable space.
Insights & Outside
Temporal, Stealth and Ex-Territorial schemes all offer insights to London in different ways. Temporal schemes are often located in parts of the city that are not normally occupied, and so give a privileged, secret view for a limited time. Stealth projects are sited in spatially or legally complex or compromised sites which drive the geometry or design. Here the challenge is to avoid overlooking, encroachments or breaches, and the means for bringing in light or creating views out can become quite convoluted spatial games.
Caruso St John’s Brick House was built in 2001-2005, effectively in an irregular well of a plot in Notting Hill Gate. It is surrounded and overlooked on all sides. The architects explain the choice of a site ‘of almost insuperable difficulty’ as the result of the will of their clients; ‘their determination to [build] in a particular part of the city where conventional plots were used up many years ago….The accidental but wildly spatial shape of the site has been used to form the living spaces’ . The architecture is conditioned by the site to such a degree, that the effect is of an ‘internal force pressing the walls and roof out against the buildings around it’ . The views are internalised and self reflective, the building form is sculpted by physical and legal constraints and focused into looking back on itself.
Blind-Spotting is a project we are currently working on in London. It is a three story extension that is designed to be invisible on top of a three story building. Literally invisible to the eye from the surrounding streets, and metaphorically, to the legislation that hangs over the site like a net.
An initial raked cutting away makes the building disappear from street level, with the form set back behind sight lines. Trajectories of the Ancient Rights to Light sculpt the remaining form, which is carved away wherever it would otherwise obstruct one of its 27 neighbouring windows. This has reverse engineered a finely calibrated form that while visible, has zero impact on the Rights to Light of any of the surrounding properties. The sculpted form of the building is not a willful one, but one that crouches below and in between invisible legal and economic relationships, or that opens up a hollow core to let transverse views penetrate through. Based on these multiple layers of invisibility the project develops an architectural strategy out of the London condition: ‘blind-spotting’ architecturally subverts the notion of the building as ‘trading floor’ for the abstract monetary titles of the Ancient Rights to Light. In a further game of ‘selective vision’, Amwell Street uses optical devices, such as periscopes, to draw specific views into the internal space, and to block others.
Skin & Bones
The skeletons of many of these projects are often part revealed, and part concealed under their skin, sign or signifier. These transitory projects are often assembled with the bones of scaffolding systems, which remain partly exposed like anatomy drawings that illustrate the completed whole and the composite layers in a single cut-away image. The theatrical effect and the means of producing it are simultaneously on display.
The materiality of many of these projects is the result of quick negotiations, cheap or temporary materials and found, donated or sponsored elements that then have to be incorporated and designed around. They become constraints in a hierarchy of others that have to be unpacked like Russian dolls to reveal the architectural heart. Scaffolding bars which can be rented at short notice, for brief periods, are robust and easy to reconfigure. They recur as the semi-exposed skeletons in many of these examples. The skins which need the combined qualities of paper, film and cloth, include the industrial grade, heat retractable, high density polyethylene roof membrane of Dining Room East, the glamorous silver spunbonded, olefin sheets that make up the curtain of the Cineroleum, the fibreglass scallops of the Filling Station and the saturating red canopy of Frank’s Café.
Practice Architecture’s ‘Bold Tendencies’, 2011, was sited in a multi-story car-park, and constructed of barley straw. It was in the architects’ words, “hairy organic bale walls sandwiched between two slabs of raw concrete [to] create a space that feels somewhere between an farmyard, a womb and a monastry”. Its simple ‘omega’ plan is a space for performance: orchestral, contemporary dance, talks, poetry and film. The cost, availability and ease of building with hay bales, as well as the smell, associations and acoustics of the material, make it ideal for its purpose here. From the outside, the form reads like a drum, with decorative brass verticals, and a ribbon of electrical cable hanging in swags around the perimeter. Straw must be the epitome of incendiary materials that were chased out of London after the Great Fire to be replaced by bricks, and could only be used this raw as a building material now through its temporary status. Cruikshank’s cartoon ‘London Going Out of Town – or -The March of Bricks and Mortar’ of 1829, about London expansion, shows haystacks fleeing from the progress of development. Now they have snuck back into to town.
Richard Wilson’s Slice of Reality, 2000, that sits on the foreshore of the Thames on the Greenwich Penninsula, was the result of an active act of dissection that removed 85% of the original ocean going sand dredger, leaving only a core, habitable segment. Its open skeleton lets the tide flow through it. According to Wilson, its relative permanence in the Thames Tideway was made possible by describing it to the planning authorities as ‘art’, rather than as architecture or a section of boat. The metaphysical nature of building then, or an underlying intention, can then be a loophole. In the same way MUF created Barking Town Square, a 7 metre high folly recreating a fragment of the “imaginary lost past of Barking” and included decorative terracotta, broken gargoyles and a bronze ram. Liza Fior of MUF described the process of building itself altered by the different categorisation; the process was normal for “an old fashioned act of construction, but so far away from the new norm that it could only be an art commission”.
The architectural escapes are fragile. What at one moment appears as a crack within the powerful continuity of London will eventually be absorbed by it. In the way that the South Bank has been a site of brothels, bear-baiting and theatres, pleasure is the thread of continuity that has always run through and remains, institutionalised, in the South Bank Centre of today. London’s precedents are replayed in a constant cycle. Similarly, the ‘pop-ups’ have been taken up by fashion houses and corporate brands, incorporated and co-opted. The surface is closing again. What will be the next architectural escape route?
Once every five years, an extraordinary event is orchestrated in the central German town of Kassel that acts as antidote or ballast to the slick, helium filled selling frenzies of the art-world, trade-fair circuit. dOCUMENTA was founded in 1955 by artist/designer Alfred Bode, rather improbably as an adjunct to the local horticultural show. Bode devoted this first event to ‘Entartete Kunst’; the ‘degenerate art’ identified and rejected by the Nazis. dOCUMENTA is where Joseph Beuys’ began his 7000 Oaks in 1982, planting 7,000 trees throughout Kassel over five years and where AiWei Wei imported 1001 people from around China for the duration of dOCUMENTA 12 in a piece called ‘Fairytale’.
The resonance of the site adds to the weight of the project and is deeply embedded in the concept of dOCUMENTA. Kassel was founded in the 12thC, became a refuge for Hugenots in the 17th, was notorious for selling mercenaries to the British in the late 18th, then became the headquarters of Germany’s forced labour Wehrkreis IX, and a sub-camp of Dachau during WWII, producing military tanks for the National Socialists. 90% of the town was bombed as a result, and the remaining grand scale historic elements now float like cruise ships on a sea of provincial 1950’s architecture. Kassel was also the home of the Brothers Grimm, which adds another enchanted layer of narrative to the place. It acts as a condenser for European physical, psycho-sociological and cultural history, overlaid with the cumulative traces of former dOCUMENTAs. The show questions the very nature of art itself, and gives a powerful insight to current preoccupations within the art world, allowing the work to remain undistorted by commerce. It is important.
dOCUMENTA 13 was curated by Turin based Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, former senior curator at PS1 in New York. Christov-Bakargiev’s approach is very linked to ‘place’ or, in her words, “the importance of engaging with a site and, at the same time, producing a polylogue with other places. A place is no fixed thing; it has an episodic history and takes its particular aspect through an intense immersion.” She greatly enlarged the scale of the show to include not just the ten major dOCUMENTA venues in Kassel; such as the Fridericianum, the Ottoneum and the Orangerie, but opens it up to include locations in the the Baroque Karlsaue park and the industrial spaces around the historically loaded Hauptbahnhof. She extends inward, using ‘bourgeois’ [sic] spaces that continue their normal daily function during the show, and outward, far beyond to sites in Kabul, Alexandria, Cairo and Banff (Canada).
193 artists have contributed work in Kassel alone, (300 including the other locations), which is shown over 100 days. The scale is vast, but the effect of individual pieces can be profoundly intense and intimate. Any review of the show can only be an incomplete list of the best pieces, but the sense that the whole is never grasped or graspable is part of the poignancy of the experience. The Fridericianum, which Christov-Bakargiev rechristened ‘the brain’, contains a crystalline distillation of some of her major themes. Here new pieces sit alongside old, and her elegant skill of curation through juxtaposition is made most tangible.
In ‘The Brain’, Tamás St. Turba ressurected the Czechoslovak Radio of 1968: a ‘new underground technology’ invented to resist soviet occupation. In fact, the Czechoslovak Radio wasn’t a radio at all, but a brick that people pretended to listen to in protest. Although they were incapable of broadcast, thousands of brick radios were confiscated by the army. St. Turba suggests that they are, “the mutation of socialist realism into neo socialist realism: a non-art for and by all.”
Ryan Gander’s installation I Need Some Meaning I can Memorise [The Invisible Pull] was a climatic one; a breeze circulates through the main spaces of the Fridericianum creating an uncanny physical presence.
Here too were 900 tiny, careful portraits of apples by Korbinian Aigner the ‘apple priest’ and botanist whose anti-Nazi statements and refusal to baptise children with the name Adolf led to his imprisonment in Dachau and Sachsenhausen. While there he created four new strains of apple, one for each year he was held. He called his anarchic life forms KZ-1, KZ-2, KZ-3 and KZ-4; ‘KZ’ being the German abbreviation for concentration camp. KZ-3 is still grown today, but in the 1980’s was rechristened the ‘Korbinian Apple’.
Films were omnipresent; particularly good was Tejal Shah’s obscurely erotic piece Between the Waves (2012) which unfolds like a nature film for voyeurs in which she creates a new species of women-godess-creatures with unicorn phalluses, a mysterious religion and ecosystem around them. Omar Fest’s Continuity 2012 focuses on the loss and craving of a middle aged German couple whose son was killed in Afghanistan. A series of male escorts are hired to impersonate the son and replay his homecoming, intercut with surreal, sexually charged sequences, war tableaux and horror imagery.
Tacita Dean reproduced whole mountains of Kabul, and rivers over-swollen from melting snow, in delicate chalk marks on walls of black board in the basement of a former finance building. The pieces had a fundamental power and geological timelessness.
In the Orangerie, normally the Cabinet of Astronomy, Physics and Historic Scientific Instruments, David Link’s work LoveLetters_1.0(2009) revealed the tender declarations of the Ferranti Mark 1 computer in Manchester University, automated texts written to a programme developed in 1952 by Christopher Strachey, software designer and colleague of Alan Turing. This evidence of ‘computer love’ exposes the heart of the ghost in the machine.
Pierre Huyghe created an eerie, post apocalyptic landscape from the composting heap of the Karlsaue park that was strangely both ‘with’ and ‘against’ nature at once. Uprooted trees and twisted roots lay among wildly overgrown half familiar plants; nettles, convolvulus, digitalis, cannabis, deadly nightshade, Afghan poppies; psychotropics and aphrodisiacs. At the centre, the head of a reclining statue is encased in a beehive that throbs with hostile life. Two dogs encircle the site reinforcing a sense of feral otherworldliness; one an albino greyhound with a front leg painted fluorescent pink.
Perhaps the success of dOCUMENTA 13 can be measured by its transformative power which lingers long after the event where the qualifiers of art become blurred. Suddenly almost everything can be read as art, lending itself to a different level of scrutiny. One is left with the impression of an infinitely receding hall of mirrors where elusive reflections gently ossilate between observation, introspection and possibility and raise the question, ‘is this art?’
There are 67 steps between the Euston Road and the Henry Wellcome Auditorium at the Wellcome Trust. I mention this because soon we may be ‘encouraged’, ‘nudged’ or even forced to climb them by government-sponsored, architect-designed policies that aim to make us, as a population, less fat. ‘Architecture as Antidote: Should Cities Make Us Fit?’ was the question asked at the keynote debate for the London Festival of Architecture, ironically held on July 4th, Independence Day.
Vicky Richardson, Director of Architecture at the British Council, introduced the debate and the ‘Playful City’ theme of the London Festival of Architecture, a title which in this context conjours up the metropolis as perky aerobics instructor. Claire Fox, Director of the Institute of Ideas and panellist on BBC4’s The Moral Maze, was a perfect chair and animated agent provocateur who openly declared her aim to make the four participants fight with each other.
Mirko Zardini, the Director of the Canadian Centre for Architecture recently curated the exhibition Imperfect Health: the Medicalization of Architecture. This, and his collection of critical essays of the same title, is a cry for demedicalisation. He is disturbed by architecture pretending to be the ‘cure’ for something. “Architecture is simultaneously much less and much more than that”, he said, and argued against a reductionist view of society seen “only through medical eyes” which would lead to an outcome too mechanical and predictable, and with a hidden moral agenda.
Peter Murray is an architect and editor who launched the London Architecture Biennale, now the London Festival of Architecture, of which this debate is a part. He asked whether architects had a “moral duty to incorporate ‘cures’ into their buildings”, and then answered himself, “No, but they have a moral duty to avoid anything injurious”. His position seemed milder than some of the others as he pointed out that architecture itself is a constraint, “otherwise we would all just be living in one big open dome”, and used bicycle helmets to illustrate a moderate position towards relationships and risk. If people were forced to wear helmets, he argued, there would be fewer accidents, but also fewer riders. “Don’t force people to wear helmets or climb stairs,” he concluded, “but give them the option”.
Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, and David Burney, an architect and the Commisioner of the New York Department of Design and Construction, represented the other extreme of the debate. Horton painted a bleak view of the city, using medical imagery from an architectural source with Frank Lloyd Wright’s quote: “to look at the cross section of any plan of a big city is to look at something like the section of a fibrous tumour.” And went on to argue that cities are ‘not medicalised but mechanised’, that we are living an ‘accelerated and sterilised life’, that we ‘swarm through the city in a demoralised way’ towards ‘damage and death’, from which ‘alcohol and sex ‘offer only brief respite.
David Burney produces Active Design Guidelines to fight the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘epidemic of obesity’. “Why are fat Americans a concern to architects and planners?” he asked, “Because obesity is an urban design problem”. Burney seemed to have the most faith in the transformative power of architecture and saw not only health, but also climate change, immigration and gun control as issues that federal and state level failed to solve. “This is where cities have to take over”. Mid-argument, however, both Horton and Burney shifted the fundamental problem from health to social inequality. They spoke of the large gap between the rich and poor: here was Burney’s “social inequity” where property prices and obesity are linked and Horton’s “social gradient”. “Architecture needs to reduce that inequality”, Horton announced. But how?
Claire Fox mischievously pointed out that when the BMI index redefined ‘overweight’, the medical profession effectively created 25 million obese overnight. She accused the Lancet and medics of creating a moral panic in a language taken up but not understood by those making the new legislation. There is something uncomfortable about the use of the word ‘epidemic’ in the absence of a conventional ‘infectious agent’. ‘Epidemic’ suggests the helplessness of a passive, infantilised society, preyed upon by cup cakes and cotton candy.
But surely the decisions that lead to inequality are political, economic and social, not architectural? And are the people who have brought us MacDonalds and Coca Cola as sponsors of the Olympic Games the same people who are complaining about an ‘epidemic of obesity’ and trying to invent legislation to reconfigure the built environment to correct it? Has a political and economic problem been turned into a ‘health epidemic’ that architects and urbanists are now expected to solve?
Vicky Richardson was the only one to openly salute the humane, cultural and intellectual role of architecture, qualities implicit in Zardini’s demedicalisation. But perhaps it’s already too late for architects. In 2004 the NHS Urban Development Unit or ‘HUDU’, seems to have vaulted over architects entirely, landing directly in planning legislation. Their aim is to ‘narrow health inequalities’ through the ‘alignment of health and planning strategies’. Architects presumably will just follow their commands. HUDU wasn’t mentioned in the debate, a dangerous oversight perhaps.
Taking the stairs back out of the building leads past the Wellcome exhibition space. Brains: The Mind as Matter was an excellent show which included many actual specimins. Suspended like small clouds, these mysterious and isolated containers hinting at human consciousness seem somehow prophetic in the context of this debate.
Maybe brains in glass cases are the answer if an ‘evidence based design’ trajectory is taken to its logical conclusion where architects are found to be redundant. All the messy poblems and ‘urban design challenges’ of being human are cut away. Social interaction is a waste of space that leads to terrorism. Isolate the brain, reduce the human condition, and put it neatly into a box. Based on lots of evidence, the design is efficient, easy to stack and the problems of space, light and obesity become completely obsolete.
RING OF FIRE
Tectonic plates cover the earth’s surface like fragments of eggshell, and the deep heat of the earth’s core sends tremors shuddering through them every day. There are roughly 100,000 earthquakes every year. About 90% of them, and 80% of the most powerful, occur along the Ring of Fire, a lethal curve of fault lines, deep trenches and volcanic arcs in the Pacific Ocean.
Only 1,000 earthquakes a year cause physical damage, but what do seismic shifts – real ones and metaphors – mean within architecture? Real ones, bluntly, destroy it. Everything that is stable becomes fluid and unpredictable. The earth itself rises up as the enemy, vast structures explode, solid surfaces undulate as if alive. Rational structures become crazed, fractured, deconstructions. Disasters can reduce entire civilizations to nothing: whole cultures are lost, shaken to rubble, engulfed in fire, drowned in larva or washed away. The intensity of earthquakes is measured in architecture: buildings become seismographs, scales used for measuring damage. The Rossi-Forel scale has ten levels, from a ‘feeble shock’, causing doors and windows to move, through the oscillation of chandeliers; fall of plaster, ringing of church bells; collapse of chimneys, cracks in the walls of buildings, and finally, level X great disaster, ruins. Architecture broadcasts, amplifies and makes the deeper geological world visible.
This March 2011 an earthquake of magnitude 9.0, followed by a 20m high Tsunami, killed 10,000 people in Japan. On March 15th, Shintaro Ishara, The Governor of Tokyo, apologized for interpreting these disasters as a form of ‘tembatsu’ or divine retribution for ‘selfishness, greed and a desire for wealth’: the ‘accumulated, long standing Japanese red heart’.
Shintaro Ishara is also a novelist. His remarks are insensitive and dubious, but they highlight the human need to attribute meaning to otherwise apparently pointless devastation; to overlay a narrative of good and evil to make events comprehensible and to simultaneously bring them back under human control.
THE BEST OF ALL POSSIBLE WORLDS
Disaster and God go together… Did He? Could He? Is He? Heinrich Kleist used the seismic chaos of Santiago in 1647 as the focus of The Earthquake in Chile (1807). The story centers on the forbidden relationship between Jeronimo and Josephe. One imprisoned and the other condemned to death by society and the church, they were both liberated by the catastrophic earthquake. Finally, at a service held in the lone surviving church in Santiago, they were seen as inviting what the Governor of Tokyo would have called a ‘tembatsu’ to the city, and were clubbed to death by the wild, god-fearing mob.
Voltaire referred to many real disasters in ‘Candide, or Optimism’, including the earthquake and tsunami that destroyed Lisbon on November 1, 1775. He used disaster to argue against there being a god, and as an attack against the general Leibnizian optimism prevailing at that time. ‘All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’, Candide’s foolish tutor Pangloss intoned at the scene of each grotesque horror. Pangloss was Voltaire’s stand in for Leibniz. The book was a scandal.
ARCHITECTURE OF OPTIMISM
Disaster is used as both narrative and critique. Narrative is laid over disaster as a means to understand it, to gain control of it, to put the human back at the centre and to harness it as a means of manipulation. Disaster is made legible through architecture.
Can narrative have the same relationship to architecture? What is narrative architecture, and what is architecture without it? We’re surrounded by architecture stripped of meaning, where the building becomes a form or object reduced to representing technological salvation. Seismic shifts are engineered out and towers will get infinitely taller in an almost biblical challenge. Here progress is focused on making architecture disaster proof, earthquake immune, flood- and bomb-blast resistant. It effectively becomes narrative proof too; nothing can happen to these buildings or to the people in them. While all architecture is essentially optimistic, this is a foolish optimism; a return to the eternal, to paradise on earth, to ‘indestruction’. These are buildings that fetishise fear, filled with humans who won’t age.
The foundations are important too, this new architecture requires the leveled disaster plain, a tabula rasa, and promises a future of ‘no more leveling’; stability. The past is gone, complexity removed, all memory erased. This is the era of the ‘Micro-Megas’, the rise and rise of the Small-Minded, Big-Building…
The Taipei 101 tower in Taiwan has a four-storey, 728 tonne, solid-steel pendulum suspended between the 88th and 92nd floors. It is the counterweight to tragedy and the technological and aesthetic focal point of the building; an architectural pea-brain. There are a lot more on ‘SkyscraperPage.com – the world’s finest resource for skyscraper and urbanism enthusiasts’…
Disaster also means re-building. "There is a silver lining," said Raymond Joseph, the Haitian ambassador to the United States, "What was not politically possible was done by the earthquake. We will rebuild differently. The future of Haiti will be very different from the past." In March 2010 the President of Haiti unveiled a $3.9 billion plan of reconstruction. Disaster is good for the business of architecture.
In March 2011, Takayoshi Igarashi, Hosei University professor and adviser to the Japanese Prime Minister, asked for a reconstruction package of at least $245 billion: "the nation’s biggest investment in urban planning in decades”. He said, “The lesson we need to take away from this disaster is that we have to restructure Japan as an entire nation”.
The past is linked to the present through the architecture that has withstood disaster. The Incas used principles of passive structural control and energy dissipation in their massive stone structures, the Chinese added sticky rice and flexibility to their mortar and in Anyoshi, the Japanese left inscribed ‘Tsunami Stones’ to warn their forebears, ‘Do not build your homes below this point!’ From the horses painted 32,000 years ago, gleaming to life on the bulging walls of the Chauvet caves, to the cavalry galloping across the Partheon freize, these remains link ‘the beginnings of the modern human soul’, as Werner Herzog described his Cave of Forgotten Dreams, to us today and beyond.
But what happens when buildings themselves become disasters? When the narrative goes wrong? When artificial memory attempts to replace the real thing? The Aceh Tsunami Museum in Indonesia opened controversially: millions of dollars were spent on a monument to the 230,000 killed in 2004, rather than on housing for the 700 homeless families remaining alive. Ridwan Kamil, a local architect, designed the four story, 2,500 square metre building. Visitors can run to the ‘escape hill’ contained within it to escape from future tsunamis, or simply to flee from the exhibitions, one a traumatising ‘electronic simulation of the Indian Ocean earthquake’ that triggered the original disaster.
Disaster became a spectacularly successful mainstream genre of its own in the US in the 1970’s: the seismic horror in Earthquake became a human leveler, and a release from real-life horrors such as the energy crisis, recession, Watergate and Vietnam. The trailer announced: “Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, plus the City of Los Angeles, and its thousands of people, living, loving, planning, fighting until nature’s most violent upheaval forces them to battle and claw for life itself!” Escape real-life disaster by watching an artificial, techni-colour version instead.
Earthquake was the first film to use ‘Sensurround’ which recreated the vibrating tremors with massive sub-woofer speakers. Low frequency sounds that were felt more than heard made onscreen earth tremors and bomb raids throbbingly real. Here the film physically spills into the surrounding architecture, blurring the edge between the narrative and reality and for the most part, separating sensation from consequences. But not always: Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood had to install safety nets to catch plaster falling from the ceilings when Earthquake was screened.
MISSING MONUMENTS & BUILDINGS OF DISASTER
From the fetishizing of fear, to safe disaster in comfort, Constantin Boym, who trained as an architect at the Moscow Architectural Institute has created a series of sinister souvenirs to mark the end of the 20th Century. Buildings of Disaster are ‘miniature replicas or famous structures where some tragic or terrible events happened to take place’. He reflects on how sites of tragedy and disaster often become tourist destinations, and in an oversaturated media, a quick historical shorthand. ‘Disasters stand as people’s measure of history’. This is disaster as celebrity. The series, with a limited gold-plated edition, includes: the Neverland Ranch, the World Trade Centre 9/11, the OJ Car Chase, Pentagon 9/11, Watergate, Oklahoma City Federal Building, the Unabomber, and Waco, Texas.
What is the future of narrative? Can there be ‘narrative offspring’ or genetic family trees? God’s Villa is the in-bred descendent of Godzilla; Godzilla was a monster of destruction created as the mutant progeny of the horrific man-made disasters of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the embodiment of chaos. He became a metaphor for nuclear power and menace in Japan in the 1950s, and is the natural grandchild of Namazu-e, the earthquake catfish who emerged at the time of the devastating Japanese earthquake, tsunami and fires of 1855. Michael Lee is an artist intrigued by how the architectural environment is ‘conceived of, and affected by human aspirations’, and through exploring it, he has produced accurate models of demolished, overlooked and forgotten buildings. For the Singapore Biennale 2011, Lee created ‘Office Orchitect’, an invented architect called KS Wong; his entire life, home and studio. God’s Villa is the creation of his creation: one of the many models found in the fictitious Wong’s studio, whose architectural work Lee describes as ‘anally rigorous’. This is narrative as a hall of mirrors, where fictitious figures create the new fictions.
ONCE UPON A TIME….
Once upon a time, on the 8th floor of the Royal College of Art, there arrived a new architectural proposition: Nigel Coates, Architect-Flaneur-Dandy. He brought with him an approach called narrative architecture and created an entire school of thought and practice around him.
Since his early days with NATO (Narrative Architecture Today) at the Architectural Association in the 1980’S, Nigel’s architecture has re-discovered cities through a subversive exploration of them, where psycho-geographic mappings become the built architectural expression. Mixtacity, Barroccabilly, Click Clack Blonde: his titles and drawings contain contradiction and movement, a sense that something has just happened, and that more will. They contain excitement.
It is extraordinary that an architecture so embedded in the secret languages and the hidden codes of a city could actually be built. But it has been; with The Wall, like throwing sodium into water, he created a mad cultural flash by placing an ancient Roman structure, skewed by London nightlife, at the centre of Tokyo’s fashion world. For his students he embodies an implicit challenge and all the liberation of the Situationists via Punk: ‘Be Reasonable – Demand the Impossible’…
Nigel’s Guide to Ecstacity, described as ‘monograph, manifesto, travelogue, history, autobiography, novel’, is an exhilarating imaginary place made up fragments of seven existing cities where the Ecstacitizens are driven by desire through this multicultural hybrid to invent a unique new urbanism. Cultural references become fresh and dangerous through the way they’re combined. They are also very funny. New narratives emerge when disparate ingredients are juxtaposed and set in tension. His architecture straddles high and pop culture, and like English music and fashion, the lurking presence of history runs through Nigel’s work the way the underground rivers of London snake just beneath the surface. He combines an anarchic irreverence for the past with an erotic embrace of the future.
For the Venice Biennale 2008, Nigel created a panoramic architectural enclosure. In it, he slid projections of film, made in collaboration with John Maybury, of dancers bodies over images of Naples, while an audience sat on subverted riding saddles of burnished leather and other almost human forms that were at once sensuous, familiar and strange. All this under ‘cloudeliers’; themselves miniature crystalline cities.
Nigel made the RCA an extension of his thinking, his practice and his witty, infectious and restless curiosity. Everything was relevant, which made the context of the RCA the perfect extension; here art, sculpture, fashion and the genetics department at Imperial College, together with the messy complexity of real life, were all taken as generators for design.
BE REASONABLE - DEMAND THE IMPOSSIBLE!
It is only architects themselves who can limit the range of their subject: in truth nothing is irrelevant to architecture; and nothing should be excluded from the teaching of it. There is a distinction between learning to build and mastering architecture. The fundamental role of the architect is to observe, to assimilate and then to translate vastly complex ideas into a coherent and legible form. This may involve building at the end, but increasingly it may not. When done well, it is an immensely valuable skill.
We have reached a critical point culturally and economically where the architect needs to be more agile than ever before, where the ability to recognize narratives, from the personal to the global, in order to be able to respond and reply to them is going to be essential for survival.
2011. Seismic shift. Nigel Coates resigns as Head of Architecture after 16 years. So a new story for the department begins. To the future of narrative in architecture, and to Nigel’s continued legacy at the RCA. And, of course, to everyone living happily ever after…
2008. The year of the ‘Credit Crunch’. A metaphor that becomes mesmerizingly literal with the McMansion foreclosures in suburban America, as bulldozers crash through the flimsy sheet rock, plywood and tar paper of reclaimed ‘new model homes’. These are fast, disposable structures; airhead architecture; inhabitable ‘building bubbles’.
The ‘Bushville’ is born. Hoover became synonymous with the slums that grew up across America during the Great Depression. After Black Tuesday, the President’s name stuck to the realities of the new hardcore ‘hobo’ existence; ‘Hoover leather’ was the cardboard that filled holes in shoes, the ‘Hoover Blanket’ was newspaper for sleeping under and the ‘Hoover Flag’, an empty pocket turned inside out. One of the latest ‘Bushvilles’ to appear in Sacramento, California had a population of 125 by March 2009. It’s growing fast. In 1930, in the largest US Hooverville in St Louis, the population reached 15,000, but it was racially integrated and democratically appointed its own Mayor.
This is architecture without money where the users create their own environment; a combination of hell and utopia.
Perhaps we’ve returned to the roots of the word ‘mortgage’, from the Old French for ‘death vow’ or ‘death pledge’…. But if building is partly to blame, it’s also one of the first casualties. What of its new status as ‘victim’?
ARCHITECTURE AS VICTIM: THE END OF ARCHITECTURE
What happens when architects can’t build? Either they stop producing altogether, or they continue designing outside the construction industry. They become ‘paper’ or ‘virtual’ architects. Suddenly the constraints imposed by clients, sites, money, political boundaries and even gravity, the laws of the pure and natural sciences, disappear. For a lot of architects, this is impossibly revealing. Only the ideas are left. Architects are presented with the truly blank sheet of paper and the isolation of the writer or composer. No site. No context. No client. No deadlines. No budget. Just silence.
Historically, a lack of money, patrons or ideological support, have stopped architects building. Political hostility has too. But this isn’t always a bad thing. ‘Paper architecture’ is different from ‘architectural drawings’, which convey information as efficiently as possible to the people who construct the design. ‘Paper architecture’ conveys ideas more than information.
PAPER ARCHITECTURE : PRIVATE UTOPIAS AND PERSONAL FANTASIES
Depending on the hostility of the context, the ideas might be more or less cynical, critical, experimental, or even legible. Early paper architecture tended towards public visions, utopianism and the architectural treatise, but with exceptions. In Francesco Colonna’s surreal, film-like 15th century narrative ‘Hypnerotomachia Poliphili’, or ‘Poliphilo's Strife of Love in a Dream’, the object of the protagonist’s love is as much architecture itself as the woman he pursues through the story.
Claude Nicholas Ledoux was imprisoned shortly after the French Revolution for his association with the ‘Ancien Regime’ and his unpopular ‘Tax Barriéres’. But while ‘locked up’, he refined, reworked and simplified a lot of his earlier designs which he published as ‘Architecture Considered in Relation to Art, Morals, and Legislation’. In it, he also published the subversive phallus for the ‘Oi-kema,’ or ‘Pleasure House’, which though blatant in plan, could never be read through the perfectly respectable neo-classical perspective, or if built, by the public. The architect regains control through drawing.
Jean-Jaques Lequeu, a government bureaucrat and draftsman, and slightly younger contemporary of Ledoux, had an even more extreme and personal vision. He lived between a brothel and an obscure office where he produced not only his ‘Encyclopedia of the Universe’, elaborate architectural frenzies of imaginary cities, but also surreal, semi-pornographic images, which include a bizarre self-portrait as a bare-breasted nun. Where Ledoux developed a new architectural language, and used representation to disguise content, for Lequeu, paper architecture was an escape route from the mundane for which he was eventually fired.
Also in the 18th century, Piranesi produced his ‘Carceri d'Invenzione’ or 'Imaginary Prisons'. Densely etched lines reveal apparently endless labyrinths through vast Kafkaesque spaces. These fantastic ruins were monsterous aggregates of Piranesi’s careful recordings of real Roman architectural decay. They prompted Thomas de Quincey into feverish architectural fantasy in ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater Part Two: The Pains of Opium II’. In the Carceri, de Quincey sees endless iterations of the artist as the inmate of his own nightmarish architectural vision:
“Creeping along the sides of the walls you perceived a staircase; and upon it, groping his way upwards, was Piranesi himself: follow the stairs a little further and you perceive it come to a sudden and abrupt termination without any balustrade, and allowing no step onwards to him who had reached the extremity except into the depths below. Whatever is to become of poor Piranesi…”
Most people involved in architecture today are aware that the last recession – no money – effectively honed the visions, iconography and careers of a lot of the high profile architects who are building prolifically now; Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid et al. Much has already been written about Cedric Price and Archigram, whose brilliance was founded on paper. But it was a reaction against failed utopian ideas that created the Russian ‘Paper Architecture’ movement of the 1970s and 80s. A small group of young visionaries, most graduates of the Moscow Architectural Institute in the first decade after Perestoika, grew into a large association of over ten groups and fifty architects. The visual arts, film, literature and theatre were all raided for means of expression.
In the 1970s, Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin developed brooding illustrations that suggest macabre Orwellian thought-police and oppression. This was architecture as protest; against a bleak ideological legacy, utilitarianism, standardized production, corruption and state control. Paper Architecture represented freedom. Some were dystopian visions of the urban future, such as Igor Khatuntsev’s ‘Catastrophe Shelters’ and his 1993 project ‘The Robot Factory’, where machines effectively take over.
‘Russian Utopia: A Depository’, shown at the Venice Biennale in 1996, is an astonishing conceptual project curated by Yuri Avvakumov, who views “Russia as a graveyard for a myriad of unrealized building projects”. Under the Moscow Utopian Foundation, this was an archive of 480 futuristic visions over three hundred years, but with a focus on the Constructivists of the 20th century. Vast Kiefer-like plan chests, like soviet tombs, make visible the sheer monumental number of visionary un-built projects. They contain blueprints, drawings, models, photographs, as well as new pieces and fly-throughs based on the creations of Tatlin, El Lissitzky and Leonidov. They also contain work by the ‘émigré conceptualists’ Komar and Melamid, including their “proposed collaborations with beavers and termites” .
Computer games are the new sites of vast imaginary landscapes and un-built architecture. Buildings and video games are now designed using the same software and digital packages. Given this, how far do the similarities go? Do they just share the same tools or are they more fundamentally connected?
Why is there such a big gap between the aesthetics of the virtual and fantasy gaming worlds, and the built world as designed by architects? Can the difference between utopian ideals and fantasy worlds be bridged by architecture and translated into a built reality? Why do a generation of architects and architectural students leave their modernist or parametric paradigms behind in the office or at college, and relax in the escapist universe of computer games and movie sets? Where would they really rather be?
Could the richer, more evocative virtual architecture be made real without the hollow desperation of a Las Vegas shopping mall? Is there a new architecture that could engage the imagination and memory in a more narrative and filmic way without being kitsch? Must imaginative architecture really only exist in the imagination?
In ‘The Gaming Life, Travels in Three Cities’, and in conversation with Geoff Manaugh online, games critic Jim Rossignol looks at a virtual world called ‘EVE’. Its designers have produced the framework in which users can create their own environment, but which structurally differs from other online games in that the players all share the same space. It has never been switched off since its inception, leading to an incremental development. The designers were often surprised by the way the game evolved. Rather than immediately arming themselves for instant battle on arrival, the early users discovered ways of extracting minerals, and so began a mining industry, which then led to trade, and eventually a stock market. Already critics of the game are concerned that if the pattern of recently formed alliances continues, eventually everyone will be allied with each other, causing the virtual arms industry, and with it the economy, to collapse. In other words, the gaming world is coming to the end of its own virtual equivalent of the Cold War, and is entering its own economic crisis. Why did it take us so long to get there in the real world? Meanwhile, in other similar games, virtual real estate is being traded for large sums of real currency outside the computer. Will these worlds mirror the real and descend into ethereal Hoovervilles?
The emphasis is explicitly not on war in the game called ‘Love’. Eskil Steenberg, a former programmer, has designed his own tools, which use procedural algorithms to constantly generate new events and allow the users to build the architecture, cities and societies themselves. The scenes that have emerged so far look like communal expressionist paintings.
On the site he explains; “In Love, the story is not something that is ‘pre-scripted’ but something that is organically created while you play… Some just happens by itself. Sometimes it disappears and makes you sad. But then again, you know that kind of thing can’t last. It’s a balancing act between love and loneliness.”
Are games designers the new existentialists?
LICENSE TO BUILD
What happens when the ‘Paper Architects’ are finally able to build? When the money and politics are in their favour? ‘License to build’ often means license to kill the integrity of the paper originals. The translation of magical idea into built development can have the effect of turning light into mud. Money can extract Faustian pacts from even the best architects. As Anna Sokolina observed , when some of the former paper architects such as Sergei Kiselev, Evgeni Krupin and Alexey Bavykin, became architects for the ‘new rich’ in Russia – the names of the clients were often kept hidden. For many Russian architects who wanted to build, the choice was between corrupt officials expecting kick-backs on commissions, or criminal connections with the mafia. Sergei Kiselev , commenting on how he is perceived by his ‘sworn friends’: “Kieslev, they say, can find his way between the raindrops; he’s an affectionate calf sucking two mothers. But I’m absolutely sure that an urban architect should have a talent for finding a compromise between the greed of the client and the constraints imposed by the city.” Then there is the muscley, ‘star-chitecture’ built by their European counterparts in the Far and Middle East, particularly in Beijing and Dubai, justified by pretty thin, or cynical, rhetoric.
SUPER-VISUAL VS. HYPER-HAPTIC
One effect of playing computer games is an almost immediate improvement in visual processing; this happens within hours. What are the ramifications of a new ‘super-visual’ human? Perhaps this will define two directions forward for the future of architecture; the ‘super-visual’ experience of the virtual world where sight is privileged, versus a ‘hyper-haptic’ built world, which could address the other senses in a more tactile, material-driven and memory-based response.
What is striking is the similarity of visions in architecture, literature, film and computer games, in collective dreams and nightmares. From Piranesi’s prisons to the mysterious ministry building in ‘The Palace of Dreams’ by Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare, to the evil villians’ lairs in Batman films, the visual language is fairly consistent. Finally, like getting lost in a hall of mirrors, the steampunk role-playing videogame Castle Falkenstein is based on a real but unbuilt project of the same name. Filled with Baroque special effects, it was the last castle planned for King Ludwig of Bavaria. He drowned under mysterious circumstances that prevented his country being bankrupted by his architectural extravagances.
Perhaps some of the sublime, magical and even sinister qualities of these Jungian dreamscapes could be translated convincingly and with originality to the real world. Retreating to the world of paper architecture for the moment might allow some time to think. What is being designed, for whom, and why? The word and the drawing are powerful critical tools. It might return a little soul to architecture, and some intellectual integrity and strength to the architect.