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Nancy Levinson on architecture

Sunday, May 22, 2005
    In the Bubble

    What to do when the fizzy world of high-style design starts to seem too, too much? When you've grown weary of the exclamatory chatter of the shelter rags, when you've flipped idly through one too many multi-pound monograph, when you've become surfeited with the ever-expanding universe of luxe stuff and cool things? This point of over-saturation isn't hard to reach — it has perhaps inspired the indecorous dishiness of The Gutter (which in just a few weeks of blog-life has already made such naughty sport of the Gray Lady's House & Home), not to mention the cheeky satire of Design w/o Reach (with its sweet little Tootsie Pop takeoff of George Nelson's Ball Clock). And it certainly informs an excellent new book by the design critic John Thackara . . . so push aside that colorful pile of photo-packed publications and pick up In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, in whose pages "design" is understood to be more about process than product, more about systems and services than about surfaces and packages, more about work to do than things to buy.

    This isn't, of course, a new approach to design (and long-time readers of Thackara will recognize the emphasis: the focus of his first book, the edited collection Design After Modernism, was "beyond the object in design"). But it's easy to overlook in these market-dominant, consumer-conscious times. Which makes In the Bubble especially valuable: the book is a portal to an amazing, even daunting, collection of thinkers and makers — designers, digital technologists, inventors, engineers, economists, manufacturers, biologists, environmentalists, writers, philosophers, legislators, et al. — all of whom are grappling with what the author calls an "innovation dilemma." "We've built a technology-focused society that is remarkable on means, but hazy about ends," Thackara says. "It's no longer clear to which question all this stuff — tech — is an answer, or what value it adds to our lives."

    This is refreshing skepticism, and throughout the book Thackara never hesitates to poke at the soft spots of various over-hyped ideas and shaky propositions. He is wary about Richard Florida's theory that urban vitality depends upon the presence — and spending power — of a "creative class," and he views the market-driven culture of speed as wasteful and ultimately inefficient. (I cited the book in my earlier piece on slowness.) He describes the commercial pressure to upgrade everything from software to toasters as leading to "feature drift" — "the engineering equivalent of playing with your food" — a tendency that's foisted on us all those over-complicated, crash-prone computers, those everyday objects of unnerving complexity. (Among the book's weirder factoids: there are 3,000 lines of code in your electric toothbrush.) In the Bubble is also dubious about the actual brainpower of smart appliances. Anybody who's managed to cook a meal without an oven mitt that tells you when the roast is ready, or who doesn't mind delaying the day when the talking fridge arrives, will appreciate Thackara's incisive dismissal of this consumer con: "If you put smart technology into a pointless product, the result will be a stupid product." Just as worrisome is the emerging trend of "pervasive computing," or "ambient intelligence" — efforts to embed digital technology in everything from materials and furniture to buildings and roads in order to achieve . . . well, that's not exactly clear. And there's the glitch, according to Thackara, who sees this as an instance of blinkered researchers looking for solutions to non-existent problems.

    In the Bubble pricks a lot of pretensions, but it takes greater pleasure in elucidating an array of evolving ideas and practices that use technology not to plump corporate profits but to improve people's lives. Thackara is admirably unafraid — or confident enough — to express himself in terms that might be dismissed in some circles as moistly optimistic. "This book is about a world in which well-being is based on less stuff and more people," he writes; his goal is to identify "designed services and situations in which people carry out familiar, daily-life activities in new ways: moving around, learning, caring for each other, playing, working." Some of these services and situations require sophisticated tools and frameworks. The emerging study of biomimicry, for instance, studies natural systems and creatures (such as mussel shells and spider silk) in order to improve the technical performance of manufactured products (such as fracture-resistant windshield coatings and ultra-resilient textiles). Collaborative research groups like the British-based ELIMA — that's Environmental Life-Cycle Information Management and Acquisition — aim to encourage sustainability by developing programs and databases that allow manufacturers to take "extended responsibility" — from development to disposal — for their products.

    Other efforts are unabashedly low-tech and small-scale; these include the increasing number of services that let you "use, not own" anything from a car to a power drill, and the growing movement to establish "local exchange and trading systems" that allow people to barter for goods and services. And many are commonsensical public-private initiatives that deploy digital technology for community rather than commercial purposes. In the Netherlands, for instance, planners use information systems to help travelers and commuters plan efficient multi-modal trips; in India, trade associations have installed wireless networks that enable rural farmers to access news about weather, agricultural practices, market prices, etc. And working across borders are movements like the Open Source Initiative, which promotes the sharing of software, and the Wireless Commons, founded in the late '90s to encourage, in Thackara's description, "community-based, unlicensed, wireless broadband initiatives."

    Clearly all this isn't about high-profile design — about all the large and small stuff that looks fabulous in glossy books and magazines. High-end architecture doesn't figure much in In the Bubble, and when it does, it's usually implicated in the problem of profligacy. Thackara visits the Prada "epicenter" in Tokyo and is told by one of the designer's flacks that "shopping is the fundamental purpose of cities today." But the Herzog and de Meuron-designed boutique impresses him less for the sleek architecture than for the spectacle of haute couture hubris. "For me," he writes, "the Prada project smelled like the last days of Rome." That's maybe a bit harsh (personally I find the whiff of decline-and-fall stronger at Prada's Koolhaas-designed Manhattan outpost), but I think the author's instincts — and senses — are mostly on the money.

    By offering an expansive view of design, a view that focuses less on the empire of things than on elegant and efficient solutions to real problems, In the Bubble makes you wonder whether our usual ways of thinking about and categorizing design are too limited. A case in point, from the pages of our leading paper: in a recent New York Times the big splashy architecture news — featured on page one of Weekend Arts — was the unveiling of the design for the Freedom Center at Ground Zero. Also in that same edition was a fascinating report on the Japanese government's campaign to persuade businessmen to wear lightweight summer clothes, instead of suits, in order to reduce air-conditioning use and save energy. The piece ran in the Business pages . . . but surely it described an approach to resource conservation — involving architectural interiors, building systems and technology, and the relationship between indoor and outdoor environments — that can be understood as a form of design. Encouraging Tokyo salarymen to trade their ties and jackets for chinos and sport shirts, cranking up the thermostats of office buildings, cutting energy costs, conserving fossil fuels, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions — it might not have the curb appeal of the city's epicentral couture boutique, but it's a great design story.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 12:30 pm | Permanent link
Thursday, May 12, 2005
    Berlin Story

    I've been reading with interest the coverage of the recent dedication of the Berlin Holocaust memorial, in particular Nicolai Ouroussoff's review in the New York Times. Ouroussoff writes appreciatively of experiencing Peter Eisenman's "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe" — an extensive field of concrete pillars constructed between the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, in the very heart of the capital of the reunified Germany. This "vast grid," Ouroussoff says, "is able to convey the scope of the Holocaust's horrors without stooping to sentimentality — showing how abstraction can be the most powerful tool for conveying the complexities of human emotion. The memorial's power lies in its willingness to grapple with the moral ambiguities arising in the Holocaust's shadow. Its focus is on the delicate, almost imperceptible line that separates good and evil, life and death, guilt and innocence."

    Clearly Ouroussoff believes the memorial to be a compelling work of art, and just as clearly he credits the project with carrying an enormous burden of historical significance. But while his arguments for its aesthetic success seem to me persuasive (and make me eager to see the work), his claims for its commemorative power are much less convincing. For as I read the critic's account of his response to the memorial I couldn't help but wonder: to what extent does this sort of sensitive reading, this nuanced and detailed interpretation, require considerable prior knowledge? Ouroussoff tells us that he became disoriented as he wandered among the grid of closely spaced pillars, and that his unease evoked for him passages from Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz, passages that describe the despair and dehumanization of the camps. But what if a visitor to the memorial hasn't read Primo Levi's account of his ten months in a labor camp? Or indeed much of anything about the Holocaust? What if a visitor is among the fifty percent of Britons who — as the alarmingly informative web site of the History News Network tells us — have somehow never heard of Auschwitz? To the visitor who knows nothing of the Final Solution, the project's vast grid will say nothing about the Nazi death camps — likely as not it will be mainly a stop on a day's tour of Berlin, an hour or two between morning in the Tiergarten and lunch on the Unter den Linden. And even for those who might already know a great deal about the history being commemorated, it seems likely that this exceedingly abstract construction will depend for its specific effects upon its title. If you stumbled upon a five-acre field of 2,711 concrete pillars and didn't know that it was intended to be a "memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe," would it really communicate to you "the scope of the Holocaust's horrors"? (What if the grid of pillars had been constructed at Ground Zero as a "memorial to the dead of September 11"? Would it then evoke the anguish of those who perished in the Twin Towers?)

    Plainly the Holocaust is not for the faint-of-heart artist. Probably any work of art that attempts to commemorate the event is doomed to be judged inadequate to the challenge. This became apparent decades ago, in the late 1950s, when the very first Holocaust memorial competition was held — an open competition sponsored by the International Committee of Auschwitz for a monument to be built at Auschwitz-Birkenau. After evaluating 426 submissions from thirty-six countries, the jury, chaired by the sculptor Henry Moore, failed to pick a winner, concluding that none of the entries satisfactorily memorialized a crime of such "stupendous proportions." And in announcing the decision, Moore posed what has become the fundamental question of Holocaust art: "Is it in fact possible to create a work of art that can express the emotions engendered by Auschwitz?"

    Obviously this question has no definitive answer. (In that same statement Moore suggested that such a work could be achieved — but only by "a very great sculptor — a new Michelangelo or a new Rodin.") But in the past two decades the challenge has proved so intractable that a generation of artists has responded by creating what the historian James Young has termed "counter-monuments" — "brazen, painfully self-conscious memorial spaces conceived to challenge the very premise of their being." (I'm quoting from Young's excellent At Memory's Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture.) Among the submissions to the Berlin competition were some extraordinary — indeed brazen — proposals for counter-monuments. I'm thinking, for instance, of Horst Hoheisel's proposal to destroy the Brandenburg Gate — to blow it up, grind the stones into dust, spread the dust over the site, and cover the area with granite plates; in the artist's words, this act of destruction would underscore the "impossibility of expressing the Holocaust by means of art." I'm thinking too of Renata Stih and Frieder Schnock's Bus Stop: The Non-Monument — a proposal to use the five-acre memorial site as the transit hub for a fleet of buses that would make regularly scheduled trips to concentration and extermination camps in Germany and throughout Europe. As conceived by the Berlin-based artists, this proposition seems to me especially provocative: not only are the actual camps the most harrowing of memorials, but the sight of passenger coaches departing Berlin, their signs indicating destinations like "Buchenwald" and "Belzec," "Majdenek" and "Ravensbrück," would have been a chilling evocation of the hundreds of trains that decades earlier shuttled Jews to the camps across Europe.

    Eisenman, of course, has not made a counter-monument. He has chosen to create a more traditional monument, a work rooted in the minimalist and land-art aesthetics of the '60s. Which isn't surprising, given that his project collaborator was Richard Serra (who withdrew when the competition sponsors requested modifications to the winning design), and given also that these aesthetics have such strong affinities with architecture. Personally I like these idioms very much. But with rare exceptions — such as Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial — they do not seem especially suited to the memorial function; for what makes minimalist and land-art works so powerful as art — their austerity, their abstraction, their distrust of sentiment — often makes them ineffective as commemoration. Which is certainly why one of the chief modifications requested by the Berlin sponsors was the addition of that most un-abstract and museological of features: an information center, complete with timelines, documents, printed matter, etc. In an age when "memory" seems to refer most accurately to our computers, it is not the vast grid but the wall text that supplies the memories.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 1:00 pm | Permanent link
Wednesday, May 4, 2005

    The sooner you fall behind, the more time you'll have to catch up.
    —Steven Wright

    Three weeks ago I took the train from Boston to New York — just before Amtrak halted its high-speed service because of cracks in the brakes. As a hundred thousand Google hits unhappily confirm, this malfunction has given new momentum to our oilman-in-chief's blinkered non-plan to dismantle the national rail system (or what's left of it . . . perhaps the current tenant of the oval office assumes that as an issue the railroad won't "resignate" with an auto-happy populace). In a piece I posted a few weeks ago, I shared my dismay that for decades we've been stuck, railway-wise, in reverse — unlike the Europeans and Japanese, whose late-model trains blur speedily from one far-flung station to the next. So I'll resist citing more statistics from Japan's MagLev Test Center (although they're here, for fellow train-tech enthusiasts), and say simply that it's one of the curious contradictions of 21st-century American life that a country which prides itself on being up-to-date should have no up-to-speed trains.

    It's easy to agree that the trains are too slow. Can we say the same about architecture? Rem Koolhaas suggests so in Content, his latest multi-hundred-page exercise in calculated exegesis. In his editor-in-chief's introduction he describes architecture as a medium "inadequate" to grapple with the speed and complexity of our young millennium. "Any architectural project takes five years; no single enterprise — ambition, intention, need — remains unchanged in the contemporary maelstrom. Architecture is too slow." The gnomic over-reaching of this pronouncement will ring familiar to readers of Koolhaas's recent writings . . . the more generous of whom will not require that it make strict sense. Five years? Has the frequent-flying Dutchman spent so much time in the rarefied zone of the star designer — the first-class airport lounges, the Guggenheim board rooms, etc. etc. — that he hasn't heard the news about fast-track construction? As a commercial practice, architecture has hardly escaped the pressure to be what the market gurus of supply chain management optimistically term "better, faster, cheaper," and nowadays a lot of construction, especially of standardized structures like shopping malls and office parks, trundles along the fast track, with predictably generic, not to say unpretty, results ("better" being the usually expendable outcome).

    But if Koolhaas's facts are flimsy, his larger point seems to me provocative. And indubitable: architecture is slow. But what makes it slow hasn't to do with anything as obvious or quantitative as the schedule of a building project. What makes architecture slow is the speeding-up of the larger culture — of the corporatized and computerized media-entertainment culture that's become the dominant culture of our time, the culture of fast forward and rapid response, of endless images, countless screens, ever-innovating technologies. How can architecture, with its large and immobile artifacts, its collaborative and capital-intensive processes, keep pace with all this newness and nowness, this visuality and virtuality, acceleration and instantaneity? A profession that for much of the 20th century defined itself as a vanguard practice — focused on new housing and progressive urbanism, intent on deploying design as a form of social critique — architecture now finds itself on the sidelines of the rushing mainstream of contemporary life, marginalized by a mass media that seems to get bigger, louder, and more boringly market-centric all the time.

    For an architect like Koolhaas, trained in the waning years of modernism, when the rhythms of cultural and technological change were positively geriatric compared with those of today, this marginalization is perhaps especially pointed, and painful; and it might account for the loss of confidence, the palpable sense of drift, that has lately plagued the profession. And which in turn might account for the freneticism of the field; or at least, it seems possible to see the over-strenuous media-mongering of contemporary architecture culture as an effort to not go missing in the maelstrom — or maybe to surf it. How else to explain the skittish, evanescent culture of celebrity, the restless and unsatisfying pursuit of the next-big-thing? Or the noisy marketing campaigns that create maximal aura from minimal achievement (e.g., that turn the designer of a noodle bar or two into a style-page regular), or the projects that come freighted with hyper-inflated claims (e.g., that trumpet the renovation of a clothing boutique as a "reconceptualization" of shopping)? Or the public-relations posturing that has marked the Ground Zero design-debacle?

    Marginalization wouldn't seem to leave the field much running room. And yet, contra Koolhaas, I'd like to suggest that slowness might not be so dire a disadvantage after all; for you don't have to search hard to find evidence of a growing backlash to the culture, the glorification and consequences, of speed. I'm thinking, for instance, of Slow Food, which started in Italy in 1986 in opposition to fast food (in particular to the McDonald's that's had the temerity to hawk Happy Meals near the Spanish Steps) and its agricultural and ecological ramifications (e.g., genetically modified crops, biodiversity loss), and of its urban offshoot, Slow Cities, which started in Italy in 1999 as an effort to resist the homogenizing forces of globalization (e.g., the decline of regional industries and local customs). (And the Italians are seeking to relax more than gastronomy and urban life: in In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed, by Carl Honoré, I learned that Slow Sex has joined the deceleration movement.) It's tempting to dismiss these groups as hopelessly nostalgic or defiantly Luddite, and, with their emphasis on old-world bonhomie, on late-medieval piazzas and artisanal food, they can seem also a bit too blithely haute-bourgeois. And yet, in their defense of the small and local against the large and powerful — the Slow Food website provides links to articles on the effects of agribusiness in Latin America, and of foreign-owned supermarkets in Uganda — they seem hearteningly subversive.

    As does the Long Now Foundation, established in the mid-'90s by Bay Area digirati and artists, including computer scientist Danny Hillis, writer Stewart Brand, and musician Brian Eno. According to its website, the group is striving to counteract "today's 'faster/cheaper' mindset and promote 'slower/better' thinking"; among its projects are the "clock" and the "library." The brainchild of Hillis, a pioneer of super-fast computing, the clock of the long now is both mechanism and metaphor: it is an actual clock designed to tick once a year, with a century sweep hand and a millennial cuckoo, and also a big-picture concept intended to coax us out of the near-term mentality, to spur us to think about what it means, practically and philosophically, to build for the really long run. (A clock prototype is on exhibit at the London Science Museum; Hillis is working on a second clock, which the foundation plans to install on a cliff in eastern Nevada.) The library of the long now seeks to solve that conundrum of the information age: that information is not only proliferating wildly but also disappearing quickly, a casualty of dead media and obsolete applications. (Or, as computer scientist Jeff Rothenberg puts it: "Digital information lasts forever — or five years, whichever comes first.") It includes the Rosetta Project, an online archive of all human languages, and the Long Server Project, a study of emerging best practices for archiving digital data; but what is being salvaged above all is the idea that cultural vitality requires cultural memory.

    Slow food, slow cities, 10,000-year clocks: these are not large movements, and they are perhaps terminally quixotic. And yet they've hit a nerve — that nerve that's perpetually jangling because "faster" has become the default setting of our lives, and because it is more apparent than ever, as the gadgets get tricksier and the operating manuals thicker, that we are being forced to adapt to our machines, rather than the reverse, and that we are paying a steep price — culturally, environmentally, physiologically — for the benefits of market-driven speed. "The signs are that speed is a cultural paradigm whose time is up," writes design critic John Thackara in his new book, In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World. "Economic growth, and a constant acceleration in production, have run up against the limited carrying capacity of the planet." And the carrying capacity of our selves; the point, according to Thackara and the Long Now technologists, is not to reject speed but rather to be smart about where it is valuable and where it is irrelevant or even destructive. "Many of us want faster computers," says Thackara, "but we also want to live more balanced lives — lives lived at speeds we determine, not at speeds dictated by the logic of systems beyond our control."

    Will this small but growing emphasis on deceleration affect architecture? Certainly it will find allies in the field. I've recently discovered the web site of a group called slowLab — a New York-based collective of designers, architects, writers, and activists "inspired by the global 'slow' movements" and focused on "environmental sustainability, individual well-being and socio-cultural renewal as both processes and products of good design." And some architects have long been arguing for an approach that resists the fashionable and fleeting. A few years ago, in 2G, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien published "Slowness" — a "quiet manifesto" in which the architects make an eloquent case for low-tech deliberation, for un-trendy effects. "Whatever we design must be of use, but at the same time transcend its use," they write. "It must be rooted in time and site and client needs but it must transcend time and site and client needs. We do not want to develop a style . . ."

    Peter Zumthor advocates a similarly measured stance; in Thinking Architecture, he writes: "Our times of change and transition do not permit big gestures. There are only a few remaining common values left upon which we can build and which we all share. I thus appeal for a kind of architecture of common sense based on the fundamentals that we still know, understand, and feel." These are, to be sure, exceptional practices; Williams and Tsien in New York, and Zumthor in a village in Switzerland, maintain small studios that work on a limited number of projects. But if the methods aren't precisely transferable, the message is resonant. For a crucial gauge of the strength of any profession isn't that it hurries to stay in step but that it operates on timetables that follow from the nature of the work (we don't, after all, urge our neurosurgeons to cut faster, or our master chefs to cook more quickly). Architects will always struggle to balance commercial schedules with cultural aspirations. But maybe that balance will be best found by easing up on the accelerator — or coming in out of the maelstrom.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 11:30 pm | Permanent link



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Prefab seems always to be the next big thing—the solution to our chronic shortage of middle-class housing, a means to making contemporary design affordable. It's been around for a while, of course, from the "Modern Homes" that Sears, Roebuck sold via catalogue to Buckminster Fuller's curvy Dymaxion prototype to recent experiments in shipping-container chic. But lately there's been a lot to look at, and much of it's good-looking.

The LV Home, by the Chilean-born, Missouri-based architect Rocio Romero, is an effort to make "high-end modern design" not only affordable but unintimidating too. The kit-of-parts—basically the exterior shell—starts at $32,900, and Romero's web site features testimonials like this, from a Wisconsin homebuyer: "the closest I could ever get to the aesthetics of the Mies van der Rohe Plano house."

For the manufacturer Kannustalo, Ltd., the Finnish firm Heikkinen-Komonen Architects have created the Touch House. First exhibited at a housing fair, the 2,000-square-foot house hasn't been yet been widely marketed, which seems a shame.

Austrian architect Oskar Leo Kaufmann designed the SU-SI House in the mid-'90s, for his sister Suzy. A couple of years ago, the 1,400-square-foot house was constructed—or rather, assembled—on a rural site in Sullivan County, New York, for about $300,000, for a Manhattan photographer and his family.

Marmol Radziner Prefab, a division of the Los Angeles firm, designs "factory-made modules shipped ready to occupy." The architects, known for design/build work, both manufacture the modules and supervise construction. So far one house has been built, in Palm Springs—near Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House, which the firm restored—and a few more are underway.


Some mostly recent books on houses, some posh, some not.

The Green House
Authors Alanna Stang and Christopher Hawthorne argue that green design is not just ecologically responsible but also high style— "camera ready." They make a good case, using projects like Georg Driendl's Solar Tube, in Vienna, Brian MacKay-Lyons's Howard House, in Nova Scotia, and Lahz Nimmo's Casuarina Beach House, in northern New South Wales.

Prefab Modern
A well illustrated and gracefully written survey by Jill Herbers showcasing some designers who are making prefab both affordable and stylish. Besides the projects listed elsewhere on this site, these include Adam Kalkin, Jennifer Siegal, Michelle Kaufmann, and Resolution: 4 Architecture

The Very Small Home
The subtitle says it: "Japanese Ideas for Living Well in Limited Space." Author Azby Brown has compiled a collection of houses most of which are so diminutive they'd fit into the master bath of a McMansion. These include Tadao Ando's austere 4 x 4 House, just 243 s.f., and Architecture Lab's White Box House, a comparatively roomy 559 s.f.

David Adjaye Houses
A handsome monograph featuring a dozen of the houses that have made Adjaye a rising star of London architecture. These include Elektra House and Dirty House, plus the residences he's designed for Ewan McGregor and Chris Ofili. More


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