February 29, 2012

The Too Tight Stool

Avihai Shurin’s Too Tight Stool is inspired by the story of Cinderella. It consists of a pillow pushed into a metal frame, which becomes the top of a stool. Resembling the moment when the evil step-sister of Cinderella tries to force her big foot into the glass slipper, the original size of the pillow is not suitable size for a stool top, but the metal frame helps squish the pillow down to the right size.

Read more at Design Milk: http://design-milk.com/the-too-tight-stool-by-avihai-shurin/#ixzz1nnEfHRPD

February 22, 2012

Pop/Building Combo: The Architecture of a Hopeless Place

Rihanna's "We Found Love", and Belfast, Northern Ireland's New Lodge Flats.

Architecture is often used in pop videos to define characters, set up scenarios, and create fictional worlds out of known building types. Rihanna and Calvin Harris' 2011 #1 hit video, We Found Love uses architecture to create a hopeless place. In the video, Rihanna and her love interest are shown falling in and out of love, and she leaves him. Intense scenes depict domestic violence, hallucination, and heartbreak.

What does a hopeless place look like?

The opening scene shows the main character looking out of her window as a narrator solemnly reflects on love and loss in a depressing, mournful tone. Rihanna's dark silhouette is set against images of Modernist housing blocks, the New Lodge Flats in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The use of these multi-story brick and concrete towers conjures thoughts of "hopelessness" in two ways. First, the appropriation of an existing "hopeless place" immediately sets the tone. It recalls the failed utopia of post-war housing, more specifically London's Robin Hood Gardens or Chicago's Cabrini Green. Our story is taking place inside the commonly understood, zombified grimness of project housing. Secondly and more subliminally, the out-of-scale authoritarianism of the minimal buildings make us feel defeated and ultimately, hopeless. In Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, the same sort of failed, dystopian environments depict a future which is not bright, and not necessarily even possible. The last "future" never arrived, so why would any of today's dreams come true? Place-imagery associated with drug use is also implemented, such as skateparks, casinos, and late-night fast food restaurants. These places, as cultural signifiers, also serve as the backdrop for a lower-class narrative*, implying a financial hopelessness in addition to escalating substance abuse. Shots of pills and dilating pupils reminiscent of Aronofsky's Requiem For a Dream are mixed with fast-motion cuts of busy streetscapes. 

Despair also exists architecturally at the scale of the interior. The window apartment in which much of the story takes place is sparsely decorated, its bare white walls glowing with dull blue light. Here we witness a sex scene, drug use and subsequent domestic violence. This small space with no outside view turns architecture into a prison, shutting us away from the outside world, alone with our vices and demons. Confinement suggests entrapment spatially and emotionally, a form of hopelessness. If a hopeless place is confining, then a place full of promise, such as the setting for Timbuk 3's "The Future's So Bright", is often open and limitless. In the 1989 video, a pair of musicians sits outside of a camper in an inspiring, boundless desert landscape singing "The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades." The camper, along with the open road and big sky, is the perfect metaphor for hope. An endless amount of opportunity exists over the next horizon. The RV is only a small dot in the huge, open landscape. Early in the Rihanna video, the couple is outside when they are happily falling in love. They run through a field, and go to a rave in an open space. These open settings facilitate the good times of the blooming relationship. Most of the negative parts of the relationship take place inside. Good things happen outside, bad things inside. Spatial confinement is employed as both an atmospheric and symbolic element. 

These distinctions are often clear, but as the story unfolds, they become blurred, creating emotional disorientation. Love can be ambiguous, both positive and negative at the same time. The blurring of inside and outside via projected images creates the sensation of simultaneous love and hate, hope and despair, and the confusing entrapment of an abusive relationship. This ultimately distorts our sense of spatial reality. As the two fall in love, images of flowers blooming cover the walls of the apartment and Rihanna. This obvious visual reference to blooming love is also an expression of hope. When the strained relationship boils over and a video of a collapsing building is shown on a crying Rihanna. After a couple of cuts to shots of crying and drug use, burning buildings are projected onto her face. This blurring via exterior imagery in interior space is also hallucinatory, an important theme of the video.

Additionally, geographic disorientation is used analogously to emotional distortion. In order for the setting to be completely depressing, it must be devoid of geographical connotations that could suggest success. We do not make the connection that the actual buildings are in Northern Ireland, we simply make associations based on the image of this particular typology. The housing projects are cross-cultural in their evocations; there is no specific culture attached. This story could be taking place anywhere. If it were set in a specific city or place, then we could bring in our own biases. This "town" is more grim than any on earth. It is a place designed to convey hopelessness. All we see are generic buildings, such as fast food restaurants, casinos, and modernist housing blocks. While the video was filmed in Northern Ireland with an English boxer, Dudley O'Shaughnessy, as the supporting role, the aesthetic is a blurring of cultures. Rihanna's clothing is decidedly punk, colored in the hues of the American flag. This blurring of place and cultures eliminates cultural biases and therefore creates a blank canvas for the horrors of the drug-influenced love story. It allows us all to identify with it, because it could be anywhere. 

Architecture is this case is used as a metaphor for larger human expressions. Collapse, burning, entrapment, and longing are projected by using architecture as a narrative device. In the case of pop videos, architecture is often used this way.

*Similar to the supermarket in Pulp's Common People, a song about how a well-off woman cannot truly be "common", though she tries by sleeping with a common person, because she will always have a way out of poverty.  She will never actually feel the hopelessness being stuck in the lower class. The two videos explore different themes of class hopelessness, though Rihanna's creates a much more grim and drug fueled view of a hopeless situation.

**Another Pulp analogy: The architecture in We Found Love becomes people, as in Sheffield: Sex City.  In the song, Cocker tells a tale of his hometown as an object of sexual desire. "The city is a woman." While cocker fornicates with the city and a tower collapses in a building-scale orgasm via all of its residents simultaneous climax, Rihanna's imagery depicts a building collapsing under the stress of a failing relationship.  Her destruction is more emotional, but both Cocker and Rihanna make analogies to the character-role of architecture in pop.  For more on Pulp, see Owen Hatherley here or here.

February 21, 2012

Theater in Museums' Clothes: The Museum of the Moving Image, Queens, NY

*All images courtesy John Hill
Ada Louise Huxtable's harmonious condition of "museum as specialized interface" defines architect Thomas Leeser's 2011 addition to The Museum of the Moving Image. The new space pretends to be a museum through visual cues, but its reality is that of a theater, an integrated esthetic whole tailored to the moving image. And that is just perfect. The architecture and its contents work in a closely choreographed unity. In contrast, the New York MoMA, built in 2004 Yoshio Tanaguchi, represents the type-form of the traditional, versatile museum whose architecture serves as a background for a diverse collection. In such classic museums, videos may be exhibited on the same wall as a painting, next to a sculpture. This isn't always ideal. The MoMI's success is that it breaks from this tradition; it is a content specific armature and an thus an update of the default museum, though it takes on many of the same languages.

The Astoria Studio complex was built in 1920 by Famous Players-Lasky, now known as Paramount Pictures, as their East Coast production center. The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria has been telling stories about the moving image there since 1988, when the historic studio, a brick warehouse building, became home to the collection. Leeser's $67 million, 47,700 square foot addition and renovation was commissioned in 2008 and completed in January 2011.
The dissimulation, the theater's masquerade as "not a theater", starts with the first glimpse of the building. The new addition is a sleek, complex arrangement of theaters, exhibition spaces (theaters), a lobby/cafe, and a flexible educational area. The exterior skin, a rain screen system of light blue triangular metal panels, bundles the complex interior volumes into a neatly packaged design that fools onlookers by suggesting "museum of technology" through deployment of a futuristic looking skin patterned like an abstracted 3-D wireframe model. This exterior-interior relationship reveals the core success of the building: it is not simply about displaying technology, it is about an "other-worldly experience", as the architect states. While seemingly about the progression of film, the focus is on the escapism of the movie-going experience. This is why the building must be a theater. Leeser pulls this off brilliantly.
When approaching the entrance to the museum, a canopy, really a stylized marquee, with a thin horizontal band of brightly colored text in the museum's signature font announces that this is indeed The Museum of the Moving Image. The brightness recalls marquee lights and almost announces "theater", but the larger super-graphics in the same font which cover the three window bays surrounding the double doors would not be seen at a movie house, and thus save the canopy from giving up too much too soon. The larger graphics have reflective triangles with in the text, creating a striking visual motif, original enough to disrupt our reading of the marquee as such. The exterior formal language, the thinness of the entrance's overhang, and the absence of movie posters are the costume that fools us into thinking we are at a museum.
Upon entering through the original 1920 warehouse, the interior welcomes us like a typical theater. The lobby takes its form from the sloped, traditional stepped seating area above it. This moment, when the sloped underside of the theatre seating convenes with the flat floor, becomes the inspiration for the formal elements throughout the building, from the exterior cladding to the typeface. This strategy works extremely well as it takes the inevitability of the sloped ceiling and makes it into a cohesive and thoughtful visual treatment. The triangular panels on the outer skin, the obtuse chamfers on corners of walls, the angular details of the stairs from the lobby, and the custom triangle-inspired typeface make perfect sense to embrace and exploit through a visual language of the sloped theatre's form, especially in a building so tightly confined by an urban site. This decision and its execution pull the entire intricate museum together esthetically.
Through the front entrance, a small information desk and cafe provide theater-like detours in the lobby space. The lobby is all white like a typical museum, with white plastic furniture and white custom Corian millwork. Upon looking closer, however, the floor is actually a very pale blue, a perfect analogy for the theater's museum impersonation. Along the wall to the left as we enter, a set of projectors allows for extremely wide-format images to be stitched along a 40 foot wall. The stark, smooth whiteness keeps up the museum like appearance, but acts as a quasi-metaphorical large inhabitable movie screen, ready to be projected upon with moving images. This apparent museum-ness of the lobby also provides a blank "canvas" or, more appropriately, a "display" for the various colored light interventions coming from the two theatre entrances. The stairs from the lobby to the upper exhibition spaces are detailed as smooth white surfaces with an angular chamfer motif to match the sloped ceiling, creating a strong visual continuity throughout.
The real star of this show is the luminescent blue, sci-fi entrance to the main theatre. Vivid blue felt on the walls and ceiling, highlighted by blue LED lights on the underside of a metallic handrail, emanates a beautiful light from the angled entrance corridor. This resembles entering an amusement park ride, a perfect experiential metaphor for the "other-wordly" act of cinema. The light creates a wash reminiscent of the warming glow of a television. This flashy contemporary styling is much more appropriate for a museum than a theater, which usually incorporates a bit of nostalgia, and again visually codes the space as a place for viewing art. The same felt and colored lighting are used in pink for the entrance to the smaller theatre space.
Inside the main theater, the triangular undulating surface from the exterior of the building is repeated, this time with custom millwork and blue acoustic felt. The space functions as a performance space as well as a video theater. The theatre also features highly tunable lighting, a small orchestra pit, and the ability to show a wide range of formats, including 3D movies. Movie house-like technology and programming defines the small upstairs gallery, located at the top of the first flight of stairs. Angular benches facilitate the projection of a movie onto the wall. This flexible gallery allows many different videos to be shown, with small theater like seating areas oriented towards a blank, flat, white wall. The latest technology works behind the scenes to make the experience cutting edge and specific, which is the strength of this building.
In an age of technological innovation and increased specialization, art has become more varied and more difficult to house. Video art, sound art, and interface design are just a few examples of the expanding medium to which museums must adapt. This has led to a need for more specialized museum architecture to display specific content. The Museum of the Moving Image represents a new strain, a progression of the classic museum image and takes an evolutionary step by morphing into a hybrid theatre/museum, a genre which we should see more of. It deftly tackles the age old problems of museum as interface and progresses what we know about museums into a more specialized version of the archetypal museum, the white box. The "moving of the museum image" could mean galleries within a diverse museum which can specifically accommodate different mediums, or can at least adapt in more pointed ways. Instead of using small galleries for videos when needed, small theaters could be placed alongside larger galleries. This would help facilitate the art of a mixed medium exhibition more precisely. Adaptable soundproofing could be emplyed where needed, as well. There are many ways museums can become more harmonious with their content, and MoMI serves as a precedent. This museum contains all the necessary features to project its world-class collection of film in a world-class way and should serve as an example for the next generation of museums.

February 14, 2012


Jumping on the bandwagon, a post about other things Ive been doing...

In case you missed it, here was my take on "Reconsidering PostModernism" on Domusweb.

New post is up, but it is on the D-Crit website...

Low-Fat Industrial: The Mochi-Moderne Phase of the Frozen Yogurt Vernacular:

An excerpt...
The experience of swirling my own frozen yogurt and sprinkling it with toppings was made much richer by the crazed kids, but also by the relentless and shameless blaring of bubblegum techno-pop music, something else I love. This ridiculousness is only possible in the context of an environment like uSwirl, a typical yogurt store. Other similar shops include flavaboom, Yogurt Beach, and 16 Handles. 
Flavaboom is exemplary of the new typology. Its walls and floors are starkly white with brightly colored, bulbous furniture that resemble Mochi, the colorful Japanese jelly-like rice paste. The hyper-modern stores, by using bright lights and smooth, clean, plastic-like white materials with colorful accents in soft, plush furniture, simulate the experience of being in a giant bowl of yogurt. Reyner Banham wrote of detached motifs and patterns on ice cream vans which paralleled the sprinkles and stars of the emerging ice cream trends of 70’s London. A similar condition exists in the contemporary Yogurt Vernacular. The pristine yogurt-like ivory glitz serves as a base for the “toppings”, smears of color, usually chairs, benches, tables, and graphics. Why is it that frozen yogurt establishments have spawned a particular form of hi-tech bubblegum modernism, the Mochi-Moderne phase of the Yogurt Vernacular? 
Frozen yogurt shops are the most “Modernist” buildings being built in 2011. Self-serve is an update of the Modernist tradition of efficiency, technological innovation, and mechanization.

Also, I'm hosting the spectacular Jimenez Lai for a lecture on Feb 28th in NYC.

February 2, 2012

Dummy Home Security Signs: Politicized Landscaping, Architectural Dreams, and the Simulated Panopticon

Foucault's panopticon is important and interesting because it is an architectural rearrangement of existing natural principles. It makes concrete one of the basic tenets of human nature: fear. For any worker, prisoner, or patient, the thought of being caught doing something is a powerful deterrent. Consider, too, the slaves dilemma of constant surveillance. Sometimes this sentiment is legitimate: there is a real danger, but other times it is false. Because agents of power cannot be seen, one must assume that they are always there. Bentham has recognized this principle and optimized it through a material reorganization of space and thus, power. It is one of many examples of power structures in architecture, such as bicycle surveillance huts, front offices of schools, and two-way glass in supermarkets. The panopticon turns the power structure upside down and turns the prisoner into "the principle of his own subjection".
Today's networked panopticon represents a postmodern, decentralized authority. There is no longer a central tower of surveillance nor designated areas for the surveilled, but a network of electronic eyes which look over us at all times. Someone may or may not be actually watching, but the possibility remains. One person can monitor literally unlimited cameras, using a CCTV system. A company can watch over millions of square feet of property, both residential and commercial, remotely through the use of sensors, cameras, and personal identification devices.
Though actual security systems do actually watch us, fake security devices, silmulacra of an actual quasi-physical panopticon, such as the Brinks or ADT Home Security Signs, take the principle one step further. these signs are available directly from Brinks Security, and there is no need to buy the actual service; For around 40 dollars, you can get 2 official Brinks signs to stick in your landscaping and 8 window stickers. They are surprisingly not shipped from a counterfeiter in China. It is a system of implication, in leiu of actual security. There is a vast array of these objects, designed to simulate the protection of a satellite security agent. Dummy cameras, surveillance warning signs, and strange bubbles with blinking red lights suggest that one is being policed. The Police use signs such as "This roadway monitored by aircraft surveillance" and radar carts which announce your speed to let you know you may or may not be in a speed trap. It is an implied architecture, an constructed system which cannot be seen, but is omnipresent. You see physicality of the signs, but the architectural dream exists in our minds.
The contemporary panopticon is almost completely dematerialized. Though it is very cloudy, the National Security Agency or Murdoch's News Corp. illustrate this. Quickly evolving non-physical spaces are monitored virtually and without a trace. But we are aware that our every internet move could possibly be recorded.
The security sign, in Barthesian terms, works "because it has both sexes of sight."  The sign is exemplifies the dual nature of seeing (in this case the physical sign) and being seen (by the implied surveillance system.)  The sign sees because it is mythically linked to Brinks, which is hidden behind the meaning of the sign. The pure signifier, the words on the sign, and the signified, the associations we make from our own experiences and understandings of Brinks, transforms this utterly useless sign into an armiture of power. The overwhelming myth of the private security corporation provides power through associative meaning. It is a new form of panopticon, created by manipulation via mythology.
Barthes states that architecture is always dream and function. The small monument, the security sign, has a powerful dream associated with it, and thus functions as a metaphorical fortification, an invisible barrier created by the very person whom it exerts power, much like Bentham's panopticon. The house is transformed into an imagined fortress, with the possibility of a system of sensors, alarms, and networked communications devices. The dream is created by the security sign, much like the Eiffel Tower transforms the Parisian landscape in to a New Romantic Nature. The object acts as a lens to distort alter our sense of reality. It creates a new perception.

Is there a home security company monitoring that house? The sign in the flowers suggests that there is.