Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Speak like an architect

Recently, as part of my unending cycle of interests, I've been drawn back to architecture. Partly because of my trip to Denmark, partly the book 'Architecture after Modernism' I'm reading (gripping, I assure you), and partly It's Nice That opening my eyes to Alexander Road Estate. As a result, I've been attempting a proper architecture project, a concrete social housing block with some wacky angles - a real departure from my Lego models of old. And the key to the change, and to the more mature architecture I'm starting to create, is in visual language. Here, I'll explain.

Above are sections of the floor plan for this housing block, which is only two storeys high, but still packed with apartments and annoyingly acute angles that are going to produce some cramped living spaces. The 'block' is, ironically, in the shape of a large scalene triangle. One corner is opened up to the roof in a large double-cavity opening split by a concrete chunk of a pillar. On one side of this opening, an industrial metal staircase clings to the wall. Inside the building is a triangular courtyard surrounded by walkways on both floors with two trees in it (grey circles, top picture), from which all apartments are accessible. There is another staircase (still metal, just like the ones you'd find in factories or on ships) occupying a cutout in the concrete wall.

It's hard to describe, and the actual slanty-here-but-more-slanty-there-but-not-there shape is even harder to describe, so you'll have to wait until I can figure out the goddamn trig to make a rough model of it (card this time, no more inaccurate Lego). For now I want to return to my previous architectural attempts, mainly the Ishøj House (my first, over a year ago):

The Ishøj House, looking back, was the only uniquely piece of architecture I made, as it pioneered using concrete and glass in my own creativity. From then on, my projects were variations on a theme, and each of them less buildable than the last. Why? Because the combination of materials, and the naïve concept of 'planes of concrete' were unrealisable in the real world, no matter how nice they looked in Lego. Ever since the Henne House I've wanted to make another building model, but I couldn't - I just couldn't make it realistic enough. It was like I was designing a toy, regardless of context, testing, and consequences. I also didn't know how to construct a house, so how could I just start with a shape, a shell? Without knowing anything about the materials, how they could hold together, how a normal building is made. Surely there is some system? Of floorboards, electricals, bricks, that creates a house - a system on which all buildings, from the wackiness of Gehry to the Victorian house I live in, is built with? Also, what means a building should be made of brick? Or have certain shaped windows? Is that a predefined style of the architect, or appropriate to the site, and if the latter, why?

These questions hung in my head for months, unanswered apart from one part of me continually saying 'I can't know, that's what they teach you in the degree', but 'Architecture after Modernism' has made me realise that isn't quite true. Because what I've been searching for, what my previous buildings struggled with, is a visual language. A typology of architecture. A building is not one big piece, it is specific repeated pieces - roofs, floors, windows, walls, corners - that are interpreted in the typology of the building - and the architect speaks in a language of parts and elements from which he can not only form a new, appropriate shape for the building, but it also provides a starting-point. That's what I was missing: I was getting too caught up in the language of concrete planes and glass walls of my previous attempts that I had convinced myself that was the only way to design a building.

But of course, that isn't. There are hundreds of typologies, of styles, of languages to speak when you are designing a building. You can even combine languages, adapt languages, or create new languages with new ways of thinking about elements. Of course, some architecture defies all this and uses no typology, no normal architectural elements. One example I can think of at the moment is the Solomon R. Guggenheim museum by Frank Lloyd Wright:

The Guggenheim defies normal visual language by creating a sculpture of a building, an interaction of shapes and forms into which the building fits. Of course, some elements are recognisable - a glass pane to the left and a covered entrance, but these are few and far between in this abstract and unique project. Aside from the basics, the Guggenheim shows signs of modernist architecture, in its cuboid volume at the back, and the whitewashed walls of the main form. The shape is not so much wacky as geometrically playful. The circular section is not wildly shaped, but instead takes on a slight frustum shape, and other elements - including the cuboid volume - are considered in relation to balance and good layout. The building, despite being unusual, is at its heart very modernist and rational, though not without its quirks.

Frank Lloyd Wright used the modernist typology in part with the Guggenheim museum, but it is largely devoid of an identifiable language. When a language is used in architecture, the architect can still experiment and explore - but there is an irony in the way he can pervert its words. Let's take another example, the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London, designed by Robert Venturi & co:

We're taking a big leap from the landmark Guggenheim to a small extension on the National Gallery in London, both in terms of ambition, context and time period: the Guggenheim Museum was built in the 50s (which places it distinctly before postmodernism, before you start that argument) and the Sainsbury Wing was built in 1991, coming in right at the end of what's been recently defined as the postmodernist age. Unofficially, I believe postmodernism continued through the 90s in the form of free, globalised design thought as afforded by the internet and technological advances. The cultural and stylistic multiplicity found in early-to-mid 90s design ultimately supports postmodernist theory of historicism, or rather referentiality (only in the 90s it was more cultural than historical).

Back to the Sainsbury Wing; let's notice the typology of this small extension. It's designed using the visual language of the old gallery building of the 1800s. You can see the classical elements in the design: columns with elaborate capitals (column caps) and similarly styled windows - windows in the language of the original 1800s building. So far, we can see that Venturi has created an extension that perfectly fits the old gallery - or not. On closer inspection we see he is playing with the typology - note the blind windows, predesigned like that, as opposed to normal windows filled in for some reason later on. The window to the far left even has its bottom frame missing. This experiment of the language, regardless of perfect effects, shows that Venturi is not interested in direct historical architecture; rather he's giving us an impression of the typology of the architecture. Note to the right the columns overlap and merge, yet the form is clearly made out of individual columns forming a cumulative shape, as if you copy-and-pasted them on top of each other on the plans and then just made the damn thing. In a way, this distances Venturi's work from the typology as it shows he can overlook formalities in the old visual language, such as column spacing and functional windows. 

It's ironic that the only functional part of the façade - the entrance at the bottom - is simply cut into the wall, with a glass wall behind that. The extension has a resulting odd sculptural quality to it, like it knows what it's trying to say, what it's trying to be, but the language has to be adapted in a foreign way for the shape the architect needs to create. A few blind windows are thrown in for the historicism, but they are merely a reference. Even with all these perversions of 1800s architectural style, most passers-by would not notice the difference (other than the stone looking newer) - I can't comment on whether this is good or not, because I have no idea. Should postmodernist architects like Venturi design to show off their style, or to fit in, with their stylings only visible to critics and experts? I honestly can't say. But I can say that I believe the Sainsbury Wing to be an excellent example of late postmodernist architecture at its best; regardless of my own taste.

Of course, Venturi is also responsible for less rational postmodernist projects such as the Vanna Venturi House (above), devoid of any respect to architectural language, and so postmodern it makes me feel ill, but I'll save that rant for another day, or better yet my own head.

So maybe I haven't yet found a realistic visual language - unless I go find a modernist building or such and examine all its parts, then use them to form a design of my own. Ultimately, a project can't be fully realistic and use the visual language properly unless it's a legitimate piece of architecture, that considers ventilation, light, engineering, environment and intended use as specified by the client. And yes, I can't learn that properly unless I do a degree. But, for now, I feel I've progressed a little in my understanding of how architecture works and how a building comes to be. At this stage, I can't ask for any more.

~ John

Monday, 7 November 2011

Mutual friends

Warning: very long arty post, mainly for my coursework, ignore

Recently I've been investigating into what the public calls 'modern art', and what everyone apart from the people who made it (and few others) love to hate. I'm one of those few others; I can't get enough of it. Sure, some of it may be stupidly over-the-top, such as Tracey Emin's three rows of bricks and a piece I saw at Reykjavik Art Museum that was simply a square of soil. Then I get fed up with it, because the artists - knowingly or not - are just taking the piss. With modern art, it's not about the effort put into the construction, it's about the idea. Make it contemporary, make it ultra-simple, but it should still lend the viewer a starting-point to understanding what it means (and no, it can't just say 'here I am, make of me what you like'). The artist has a responsibility not only to create the message, but to deliver it. The viewer must not be left in the dark as to what a piece means, or is, by the artist thinking they should be 'mysterious', or rather, pretentious. Artists shouldn't be selfish gits that go around creating high-brow shit no one else understands. If no-one gets a bit of art, then the artist is a bad one. He's failed in delivering what he's trying to say. Ergo, the art is bad.

This is something I've learnt first-hand. My favourite photography set, Resort (above), which I obsessed over so much while making it in Cyprus and afterwards, is evidence that art cannot be too self-contained, as then it fails to reach out to the viewer. Anyone I've shown Resort to doesn't understand it, and at first I thought - selfishly - that it was because they either would never understand it, or because it requires a lot of time looking over it and reading the description to 'get it'. But I was wrong; the art simply wasn't accessible. No matter how long they stared at it, or who I showed it to, Resort would just be a bunch of photos of cubes with a bullshitty write-up that didn't mean anything. Could this problem be solved by a better write-up? No, not really, because the pretentious, 'leaving it to the imagination' attitude of the write-up was reflected in the photos themselves. They were unclear - despite a title saying 'broken shape', the photo didn't really show a very broken shape. Therefore the art was imperfect (as my work always is), and faulted, and bad art. So, I move on and learn from my mistakes.

Harmen de Hoop - 2 Goats
Anywho, my most recent arty findings have been the street artist Harmen de Hoop, whose work I love more than my unborn kids. Its irony and 'fuck you'-ness to everyday society and urbanity is beautiful. I'd love to do something in his style for my A-level, but it requires a lot of work, and it's illegal, so I decided to try something in the style of Erwin Wurm instead.

Erwin Wurm, One Minute Scultpures
Erwim Wurm is the high priest of living, temporary sculptures. His set One Minute Sculptures was made at a meeting he had at a gallery about a possible exhibition. He took none of his work with him, and instead created sculptures using the people in the meeting and the objects in the room. It's a fantastic study of immediacy and the everyday, though some of the results are, admittedly, dull. You win some, you lose some. That's part of the fun in such quick, simple sculptures.

Last week, not part of my A-level assignment but just out of my own curiosity and inspiration, I tried a similar thing. Here's the idea (and just go with me on it): I took six people from my art class, three boys and three girls. I compiled data on how many mutual friends (ie. friends in common) they had on Facebook with each other. I then put them together in a space and attached strings between all of them. The length of the string between a pair was inversely proportional to the number of mutual friends they had. Thus, those with more mutual friends - and in close social circles (according to Facebook) - were forced to be closer to each other by the short string between them. Everyone had strings connected to everyone else, just like they have a relationship with everyone else, of some sort or another. I then left the six people, strung to each other, and told them to untangle themselves. Whether this could be done or not was not the point; they just had to get themselves into the most comfortable position that suited them all.

The results were, for me in my little weird way, fascinating. I took some photos of the - er - event, which don't do it justice, but they're good enough for me to analyse what was really going on, and what the problems with it were.

The first issue that needs examination concerning the 'mutual friends experiment' is that of what it actually is, medium-wise. Is it a performance? Not really, as there was no intended audience other than myself and my own interests, and I only took photos to analyse afterwards, not to display in some gallery or show off on the internet. I will discuss the role of photography in this project later, but for now I want to define exactly what I composed: not a performance, it was more of a controlled, choreographed occurance, an event, a happening; that explored this social network we find ourselves tied up in. This, of course, throws up issues with whether it's art at all, or simply some sort of small social experiment. Unlike Wurm's One Minute Scultpures, the project cannot be shown in one photo: it was not still, rather it was dynamic, a mutation, an evolution of relationships and positions in a localised area (it's important to note the localisation here mentioned; the experiment was very small and controlled). Thus, it is not art that can be quantified into a medium for distribution and showing to viewers in a gallery - does that make it bad art, according to the rule mentioned above? No, I don't think so - though it may be faulted in its own ways, which we will discuss later, it should not automatically be considered bad art. At the time of its occurance, it was effective in showing the relationships and how they change in the five minutes or so the experiment lasted for, so it is at least decent art. And, to avoid further discussion, I will call this art because I believed it to be art - and believed myself to be the artist - when making it. (of course this raises issues about whether something can be art when it is defined as art, and whether this is makes it proper art, but I will leave those for another discussion)

The results are fascinating, because the participants reacted to their relationships as they would do normally, true to their personalities, those which had got them the number of mutual friends in the first place. I realised confidence is key to this sort of social integration, or at least having the confidence to add a person on Facebook, and thus those in the 'middle' of the group (as soon created by the shortness of the strings between them) were more confident and were joking and messing around in the centre of the network. Their strings were pulled more often and they were able to deal with this: their positions in the experiment and their own personalities were the same, as of course they are both of the same person, and this showed in the experiment.

Similarly, those who had fewer mutual friends with the others - though not necessarily less confident - were able to have some free movement and some distance from the core of the network, afforded by their longer strings. This meant they weren't as involved in the main happenings of the rest, and it was at that point that I realised the incredible duality between the experiment and the real social network, Facebook-centred or otherwise.

Despite these insights that the experiment/artwork/occurance provided, there were three important problems that I need to identify here:

Firstly, the actual setup of the artwork does not lend itself to being useful in anything other than this write-up. The background was distracting and the photos themselves were low-quality and useless to show the entire experiment. Perhaps a video, or a larger set of photos, would better show the entirey of the project. Also, setting up the experiment again in a whitewashed, gallery-like room would show it to be more artistic (as I am adamant to define it as art), and what is actually going on would be clearer. Clarity is key to such a complex idea as this one - and if you think the idea itself is not particularly complex, then at least realise it can be difficult to see what is actually going on.

Secondly, there are problems with this technique of 'joining' people, with the strings that represent the relationships. Many of the measurements were very similar - people tended to have 130-ish mutual friends with each other, and as a result a lot of the strings were similar in length. This is, of course, accurate to the data collected but whether it shows the true relationship is unclear (more on that later). Additionally, the final lengths of the strings were skewed or wrong due to my compensating for the ends of the string to go round the participants' wrists. 25cm on either end was added to the calculated measurement to create a length to wrap around the pair's wrists. However, the 25cm measurement was a rough estimate when wrapped once round my wrist, and each of the six people wrapped the string round their wrists in different ways, thus ruining my attempted standardisation and skewing the results. Though they may not have been altered too much, I still feel like my job as controller of the artwork was not successfully carried out.

Thirdly and lastly, there remains the large problem of the numbers themselves, and the problems with judging relationships on the number of mutual friends on Facebook. Different people add different amounts of people on Facebook, as aforementioned - and though this may be representative of their character, there is still a lot to be said about people who could have a lot of friends but don't use Facebook much, so have few. Who you actually meet and who you actually are friends with is, of course, vastly different from who's in your Facebook friends list and as a result the string relationships were inaccurate. It also failed to take into account the actual closeness of the relationships, and instead concentrated on those who were in the same social circles and groups. For example, Ellie and Grace - very good friends since they met at the start of term - ironically had the fewest friends in common, and the longest string between them was not an accurate portrayal of their real friendship. I hope to amend this in further artworks.

The final thing to discuss in relation to this artwork/social experiment, which still lacks a name until further exploration of its themes, is the role of photography in its medium. As you may know, I've been struggling to find photography that reaches a higher level beyond just observational, shoot-what's-there photography. In this project, photography is not the central medium, and it's simply something I used to record the events and placements of people for my own dissection after the artwork occurred; it's not actually doing anything other than recording, and even then it's not intended for public viewing. Of course, this raises issues with how the artwork could be 'shown off' at all, but most importantly it shows how I'm using photography to record, and to observe - exactly the thing I've been trying to avoid! Despite its observational nature, photography is of course not the primary medium of this project and thus it should not be seen as an observational work. Still, it marks another step in the progression of what I believe photography to be for in art.

And there you have it; that's what I've been up to recently, explained in fine detail. I'm going to continue this relationships/'dynamic sculpture' experiment by changing the controlling factor of the length of the strings, and then maybe using other elements to physically represent the relationships. We'll see what the future brings.