Sunday, December 20, 2009

Big Nasty- Bjarke Ingels stops by the Architecture League

Well, it's the Christmas season in New York City, and we know what that means- it's time for visits from energetic rosy-cheeked cherubs from the north. This past Tuesday Bjarke Ingels stopped by to give a talk and present his recent work at the Architecture League. In addition, he was being introduced by Amale Andraos of Work AC whose work I've admired since their PS 1 installation way back in 2008.

After work I hurried down to the lecture hall and excitedly took my seat behind one of the giant columns in the Great Hall at Cooper Union. For those of you who haven't experienced a lecture there let me try to describe it: you get your ticket and descend what appears to be a maintenance stair to a side entrance into a long hallway that ends in a wall. To your left are entry doors to the auditorium in the basement of the building. The space is cavernous, befitting a major lecture hall in New York City, but being as it is also the basement there are huge columns on a 30 foot grid. These do a fantastic job of obstructing the view from all sorts of different angles and so Cooper Union has been forced to put up additional screens so that the people who were not there in time to sit in the center can lean awkwardly in their seats to catch glimpses of any one of three projector screens. I was one of those people.

The lecture was scheduled to start at 7; I knew that the hour was nigh when I saw Bjarke put on the black hoodie. He was introduced by Amale at 7:09. Now, normally when designers are asked to speak at the Architecture League they cling to the lectern and lecture loquaciously with a surly sneer. Granted, even for well-spoken professionals it would be difficult to face an entire auditorium, none of whom you can see because all of the halogen lamps in the place are trained directly on your forehead. By 7:12, Bjarke had already left the lectern, mounted the stage, and was pacing excitingly across the stage explaining his projects.

For a good idea of what the talk was like (right down to the projects presented and the jokes told) one should just refer to the TED talks video and the commentary provided by the good folks at mammoth a few months ago. Suffice it to say that he was as exuberant and self-effacing as ever, with his charmingly goofy accent and propensity to stutter almost even disarming the icy New York crowd.

One thing struck me: Bjarke is completely unapologetic. Sure he wears a hoodie to give his presentation; why not? Sure, he leapt up on to the stage and is now gesticulating wildly. Sure his firm's defining publication is a comic book; why not? Well, of course there are very good reasons why you wouldn't do these things. Most of these have to do with decorum and respectability, which he seems to care nothing about. He's a confounding, captivating blend of punk rock and shameless opportunist. And he is up front about this- Yes Is More.

This attitude is wonderfully, ominously reminiscent of the life affirming world view of some ancient cultures discussed by Joseph Campbell in his comparative mythology ramblings. To quote Campbell, "The only way to affirm life is to affirm it to the root, to the rotten, horrendous base... Through the bitterness and pain, the primary experience at the core of life is a sweet wonderful thing. This affirmative view comes pouring in on one through these terrific rites and myths." And BIG affirms everything, be it traceurs using his exterior spaces for a little fun or literally building cheesy mountain-buildings in Asia. He does it in a visionary and sophisticated way, but it is also crass and flippant and it tends to offend architects' delicate sensibilities. I would liken him to Del tha Funky Homosapien more than any contemporary architect.

After his lecture he calmed down and came down from the stage, sweating and still a bit excited. And Amale was waiting for him with pursed lips. Now these were both coworkers at OMA just a few short years ago and are now heading up excellent studios. As is customary at these things they sat together for a little Q and A for the benefit of the plebeians sitting out amongst the basement columns. Amale immediately launched into a five minute diatribe disguised as question that essentially said- "you take whatever work comes your way. Why don't you ever set the agenda?" His answer, which could be seen as humble or a cop out- architects are just part of a larger system, we don't set the agenda and we have to go where the work is, that we are no different from the plumber or the banker or the pediatrician.  It was utterly Koolhaasian). It was also an honest appraisal and while I think BIG has been very opportunistic early on, focusing on high-profile glamorous competitions and commissions, there is no reason this anti-ethos couldn't be applied to other types of projects that were smaller in scale or for more ambiguous in origin. Though they would probably draw less ire from the pious powers if they jumped on the public urban farm wagon.

While that is debatable, one of the most compelling anti-Bjarke (or anti-OMA) arguments I've heard is that we don't need more 200 million dollar luxury development projects and decadent new public entertainment parks when schools and scientific research are grossly underfunded, and infrastructure is failing and that by going after those commissions an architect is validating the perverse vision of the capitalist mastermind. But I reckon we don't want to hear that; we need the scraps from the table to publish in the awards issues each year.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Die mythisch verloren stadt!

There's been a bit of a dust up in the past decade concerning one of the most American of themes- the mythical city of riches! The Ancient City of Z has been profiled again in recent years as new archeological efforts and methods, including aerial photography and satellite imagery, have revealed the existence of sophisticated urban cultures existing in the Amazon river basin for hundreds of years prior to European arrival.

These revelations have brought about the vindication of one Sir Percy Harrison Fawcett, a debonair adventurer extraordinaire from Victorian England. He spent his formative years at the turn of the 20th century studying the historical accounts of the Spanish Conquistadors and their search for the City of El Dorado. He pursued a popular idea of the time that claimed a mythical city of fabulous riches existed deep in the heart of the Amazon. In the prime of his life he took off into the jungle Aguirre-like with his son and some hired help and was never heard from again (apart from a few letters sent by dispatch). The jungle ate him and over time he was both lionized as a courageous hero and a crazy man who died running a fool's errand. As time went by and biological theories evolved the idea of an inhospitable Amazon fit nicely into theories of both biological and environmental determinism. The City of Z was rarely considered. Until it was found!

In the last 6 years or so, a number of discoveries prove that the Amazon did indeed support large populations of people living sedentary lives based on sophisticated methods of agriculture and aquaculture and the accompanying cultural and religious accoutrements (ritual, astronomy, engineering, virgin sacrifice- err, maybe not that one. whatever). Anthropologist Michael Heckenberger and others are now working feverishly to publish their work concerning the massive earthworks, mystical astronomical sites, and large scale farming which provide compelling evidence of pre-Colombian urbanism in the Americas. The raw material of a winning entry in the next sexy infrastructure competition can surely be found by googling "ancient. Amazon. civilization".

At any rate, I'm not particularly concerned with the City of Z, the Stonehenge of the Amazon, or the sophisticated farming techniques of the pre-Colombian Americans. I am intrigued by the larger pattern of mythical American cities- El Dorado, Tenochtitlan, City of Z, Denver, San Francisco, and New York. Interestingly, the most prominent writing on the work being done in the Amazon has not been by any anthropologists or geographers but rather by two writers, Charles Mann and David Grann. Both have even penned entire books on the subject before the scientists have cleared peer review. It is indicative of the power of myth in our collective conscious; the myths are more fundamental than the facts.

Mythical cities across the world hold an allure, be it Jerusalem or Paris or Mandalay. But in the Americas they are of a different nature. In the Americas they are not defined by religion and history, and iconic cultural figures as they tend to be elsewhere. This may be because the Americas are dominated immigrants; few indigenous people have a stake, and most of the current inhabitants are the not-too-distant descendants of an ambitious, hard-scrabble folk and their slaves. Regardless, mythical American cities tend to be defined by three things: bigness, riches, and autonomy. They are the manifestations of desperate dreams and prodigious successes built on the broken backs of the masses. But the masses had their chance too, at least in the mythology.

The late historian Gunther Barth has a whole chapter in Instant Cities titled "Reluctant Citizens".  His point was that the creation of city in the case of San Francisco and Denver was initially a side effect, that the city building was a process of amalgamation, a bunch of people in close proximity doing what they came to do. City-as-side effect is not an anomaly in of itself, (see Barth's chapter "Variations of a City Type" for his explanation on the city-as-emporium typology), but as a residue of the pursuit of riches, bigness, and autonomy it is an American phenomenon. In the post-Colombian history of the Americas the mythical American City- the place of riches, bigness, and autonomy- has been reborn in various locations.  First it was the golden cities of the sixteenth century, New York in the 1700's, San Francisco and the West in the 1800's, Los Angeles in the 20th century (it will likely be a Brazilian city soon).  It is this myth and its myriad variations and iterations that sucked conquistadors into the jungle, drew Europeans to New York, pushed Americans out west, drove Mexicans to the North (explored in the most troubling and twisted of ways by Bill Vollmann in his recent book).

The myths of a city serve a particular purpose, be it economic, political, social, or otherwise.  The can be affected from without or propagated from within. But these myths attract people, money, and power and the contribute to the settlement patterns and shaping of the environment.  The American City myth is a good one- it may never die.

I'm not sure of the influence of a city's mythology on the design of its public spaces.  The germane nature of mythology in the making of some cities suggests a close yet indeterminate relationship.  The most interesting waterfront park to open in New York in the recent boon is the above East River State Park.  Like most other waterfront parks in the city it is a former industrial site that was cleaned up a bit and surrounded with the ubiquitous New York City park fence.  Some of the industrial relics were preserved, in this case a concrete pad and some low muscular walls.  The designers' description states simply that "RGR used existing concrete walls and platforms as a starting point for the scheme. The plan included re-grading of the site to create graceful slopes of grasses and wildflowers."  I think the designers are being modest.  Three of the characters in the mythology of New York City- the skyline, the river, and the bridges- are very present and the designers showed great restraint in engaging them in a subtle and direct way.  It is totally devoid of ostentation.  It is not ecstatic, precious or over-programmed.  It is unique in the city.

Anyways, it is all well and good that the more robust and vital the mythology of a city, the more times it can reinvent and revive itself. Of course, if an immigrant wave arrives on its shores with a particular resistance to pathogens cultivated through living in filth, the city and its indigenous population might be in trouble. I myself have been drinking from East River, just so I don't meet the same fate as the people of the City of Z when New York reawakens and the new wave arrives.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Resiliency v. Efficiency and the Werner Sobek Show!

Well, it's December here in New York City, and with December comes The Nasty.  The Nasty is when the sun sets at 4:15 and biting winds barrel up and down the avenues funneled by buildings to rip right through your uniqlo jacket. Sure, New York is charming this time of year with the Hanukah lights and the holiday drinking, but The Nasty is here and it's going to stay a while. Which is why I start attending the lectures at the Architectural League with regularity. It's time to stay inside and shuttle cattle-like from home to office to lecture to home.

The Architecture League is one of the best consolation prizes in being banished to New York City. Most good designers don't live here and so mistakenly think it a wonderful notion to visit and give a lecture (and the ones that do live here figure "ah, what the hell"). Last week German architect/engineer Werner Sobek gave a long-winded presentation of his work and his philosophy. The work was fascinating and the philosophy was full of good Germanic phrases like "living in the future", "it must be perfect" and "designed with perfect efficiency". All of this was presented in a tidy monotone with a pretentious sneer and I highly recommend that you sneak a peak at his twirling umbrellas if you get a chance.

But to the larger point: recently Places ran a provocative piece called Fracture Critical, a fascinating critique of superefficient engineering which is subject to catastrophic failure if one piece goes wrong (this idea was then extrapolated out to apply to last year's credit crash and our society as a whole-a highly recommended read). The title comes from the engineering term "fracture-critical" which is defined by efficiency and a lack of redundancy (as well as two other characteristics which I've forgotten and can't be bothered to look up). This is in line with a point made by entomologist E.O. Wilson about biological systems. In The Diversity of Life he states that "most communities of organisms are held together by redundancies in the system. In many cases two or more ecologically similar species live in the same area, and any one can fill the niches of others extinguished, more or less." If resiliency and efficiency are opposites in engineering and also in biological systems, it follows that the design of the landscape is a dance between these two poles, choices made based on a particular deterministic or arbitrary ethos, or perhaps the outcome of non-linear dynamics.

The good scientists over at the Resilience Alliance define ecosystem resilience as "the capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes."  This seems quite a logical metaphor to extend to other situations and systems. A local economy built around a single industry is destined for decline and a business sustained by a cult of personality will inevitably suffer hardship. But the two are not necessarily diametrically opposed. Perhaps there is some synergy between the two.

One of Werner's most compelling points was his insistence on "designing with energy", as opposed to material, exemplified best by the giant umbrellas. Intended to span some 50 meters across, he had his cadre of german engineers run some numbers and quickly realized that no carbon reinforced titanium rods were going to do the trick. He had to get rid of the rods. He would just spend energy on rotating the umbrellas at high speeds and the centrifugal forces would cause the fabric to spread out. Genius! And this was all justified by comparing the "embedded" energy with the energy needed to rotate the umbrellas. Of course, he didn't show any actual energy savings during the lecture, but the point about considering all energy inherent in the functioning of a structure (not just the monthly energy bill) was a very good one, if not particularly novel. The design would be highly efficient in terms of material and initial energy input, while also redundant- the umbrella fabric was engineered to have ridges and ribs reinforcing the zones prone to failure. Instead of relying on thin spokes for integrity, the fabric was shaped to employ tensile forces while resisting failure, with patches and ribs reinforcing the weak spots.

In place of balancing resiliency and efficiency as opposing characteristics, there is a synergy between the two. And there are giant umbrellas spinning above.