Living Design

Design as Critique, Design Exhibitions
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Revital Cohen’s The Immortal

This is an introduction to the work of various designers and artists that can be described as ‘transhuman’. It is appeared in Polish in Autoportret in autumn 2012.

A series of life support machines were plumbed together in London over the summer. A heart-lung machine, a dialysis machine, an empty incubator, a mechanical ventilator and an intraoperative cell salvage machine were linked by tubes and wires.  Electrical currents, oxygen and artificial blood (albeit in the form of saline water) pumped through these channels. Pulsing lights and a low hum – signs of constant exertion – filled the gallery at the Wellcome Institute where this series of interlocked machines was exhibited. Revital Cohen’s project presented the unsettling prospect of life support machines organized as an interdependent system; in fact, as a kind of body. Each machine manages what doctors call a ‘vital function’, the biological processes on which life depends directly. Entitled ‘The Immortal’ (on film here), Cohen’s project seems to suggest the possibility that we can sustain eternal life, a deep-seated human fantasy. Yet life itself was missing.

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Artificial hand, from Ambroise Paré’s Instrumenta chyrurgiae et icones anathomicae (Surgical Instruments and Anatomical Illustrations), Paris, 1564.­

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i-Limb ultra from Touch Bionics

The various machines which have been conjoined to make up ‘The Immortal’ are all forms of prostheses. They were designed and manufactured to compensate for weakness, failure or deficiencies in the human body. They even resolve matters of doctrine. The intraoperative cell salvage machine recycles a patient’s own blood during operations, satisfying the prohibition of blood transfusion by Jehovah’s Witnesses. As the Wellcome Institute exhibition shows, the history of this branch of human ingenuity is long and often unhappily circular. French surgeon Ambroise Paré designed mechanical hands to replace those amputated on the battlefields of sixteenth century France.  His 1564 manual, Instrumental Chirurgiae et Icones Anatomicae, was displayed close to Touch Bionics’ new ‘’, a highly sensitive powered prosthetic hand, often worn by veterans who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq.   Replicating the subtle and complex movements of the human hand with remarkable accuracy, the i-Limb ultra is supplied with different ‘skins’. One is translucent, allowing its owner to show off his or her hand’s internal mechanisms. By putting the i-Limb ultra in the company of Paré’s historic designs, the curator’s point is clear: whilst electronics and engineering have advanced to extraordinary degrees of refinement, warfare remains brutal and primitive.

The title of the Wellcome Institute show suggests that prosthetics offer ‘Superhuman’ potential, that is to extend our human capacities and abilities by incorporating technology into our bodies. The promise of what is often called transhumanism is not just that we can repair our failing bodies but we can become more than human. Might you elect to replace your birth-given hands with prosthetic ones if they were stronger, more nimble, more musical, more beautiful? Whilst this kind of fantasy, of course, has long been the realm of science fiction novels and Marvel comics it seems to be increasing within reach.

For some commentators, one of the litmus tests for transhumanism will be the moment when prosthetics or implants are preferred over the original human organ or limb which they replace. When people choose to amputate healthy parts of their body in favour of prostheses, we will have crossed into the transhuman age. But this is, perhaps, already an out-of-date view. Rapid developments in synthetic biology and genetic engineering are perhaps the most important catalysts in the creation of the transhuman.

This threshold has been foreshadowed by lots of speculative thinking. Ray Kurzweil’s prophesy of the impending arrival of what he called ‘the Singularity’, the moment when artificial intelligence reaches human levels of intelligence, has lead to much dizzying speculation about the gradual blending of the biological human brain with computer technology. One day soon, wetware will meet hardware. Commentators talk with enthusiasm about the prospect of the development of cybernetic brains within a generation, a kind of a neural external hard drive which gives its owner to have perfect recall, photographic memory or access to the entire content of a library. Perhaps as we face the overload of data which seems to be an inevitable byproduct of progress, the cyber brain will be a necessity. Trajectories extrapolated from current development in genetics seem to suggest the possibility of ‘upgrading’ future children to be disease-free. Others enthuse about the dramatic extension of human life. The predicted development of nanotechnology, genetic engineering and synthetic organs has been accompanied by dizzying projections about future average life expectancy … 120, 140, 200 years or more.

Whilst these scenarios might seem distant prophesies, traces of new nature are here. Biochemistry is widely used to improve intelligence: one in ten students polled at Cambridge University in 2009 admitted to using cognitive enhancement drugs in the course of their studies. And other species are being transformed by genetic engineering. We are already able engineer mosquitoes to produce sterile progeny. If they become extinct, the threat of diseases like Yellow Fever and Malaria which they transmit will diminish too. With the future of nature looking increasingly man-made, commentators are keen to describe our era as a post-evolutionary age. In other words, the slow evolutionary processes that occur through natural selection have been accelerated by new technologies that originate in the lab.

The books and articles dealing with the prospect of Transhumanism could fill a library (or perhaps a cyber brain). Nevertheless, little has been said or written about its impact on the practice of design. After all, for much of the last century, design had an easily recognizable form. Working in studios on drawing table and then computers, designers created the forms of our vehicles, tools and products. Employed by manufacturers, their task was to make the things which fill our world work better, look more attractive or be more sellable. The ethical questions were, on the whole, rather uncontroversial. Was one material more sustainable than another? Was it right to design things which might hurt people? Now when design can mean the reorganization of nature and even of ourselves, the stakes seem higher.

Over the last few years, Transhumanism has begun to attract the attention of designers. For some, it offers new opportunities for speculative enquiry into the future, and perhaps even a chance to reclaim a visionary role for design which has been extinguished by (the very real) pressures of sustainability or the narrow parameters of the market. For others, the laboratory – and not the factory or the studio – is place where the future is being made now.

The challenge for designers in this brave new world is to define their role. Many of the projects which consider transhumanism – like Cohen’s ‘The Immortal’ –occupy the border zone between art and design, not that this concerns Cohen: ‘The place I am coming from is design thinking. I see that in my process, in the way I work and in the way I approach these objects, redesigning them objects and rebuilding parts of them. But if they are defined as art, this also is fine by me.’

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E-Chromi

Others see the laboratory a place where design can have the greatest impact. , a UK based project to develop bacterial biosensors which respond to pollutants by changing colour, is the product of a collaboration between designers and scientists. For Daisy Ginsberg – one of the designers working on the project – synthetic biology and the other new fields of scientific inquiry which are already changing our world need to be invigorated with new ideas about design too: ‘Synthetic biology is modeling itself on an old fashioned view of design’. For Ginsberg, this means ‘designing things out of context’ with little regard for ‘lifespan and disposal … They are making bacteria produce unnatural things because they fit in systems which already exist. What is required is ‘a much bigger vision’. Design thinking means eschewing big abstractions like humanity for clearer thinking about how humans behave and shape their world. That bigger vision means thinking more widely and even politically about the uses to which synthetic biology might be put.

The E. chromi project – like many transhumanist design schemes – uses the timeline as a method for imaging future applications of technology. Its authors have projected a long future for bacterial biosensors. By 2039, they suggest that consumers will be able to buy yoghurts which seed these warning signs into their stomachs. Thirty years later Google, they suggest, will release pollution-mapping bacteria that will stain the sky red when pollution reaches critical levels. In one sense, there is nothing new in all of this. Design has often claimed an anticipatory role. Much modernist design at the beginning of the twentieth century was motivated by a strong sense of the inevitably of progress. The task of the progressive designer was to bring the future into being. Even in the commercially-minded world of the present, designers are commissioned today to give form to the things and spaces we will need tomorrow. Whether the cycles are short (a few months in the case of new mobile phones) or a long (decades envisaged by transport schemes), they are always rooted in the technological and economic limitations of the present. Looking more than fifty or one hundred years ahead, Ginsberg and her colleagues are proposing go beyond the extrapolation of fact. And, like much futurology today, the E-Chromi timeline expresses an ambivalent view of progress. When Google’s warning clouds cross national borders in 2069, in their scenario, a diplomatic crisis is triggered.

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Arne Hendriks

If such schemes have little immediate prospect of being materialized as products, speculative design does not, however, necessarily mean useless design. Some designers have turned to forms of transhumanism to ask important questions about our relationship to our environment. In a witty project entitled ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’, Dutch designer Arne Hendriks asks us to consider what the benefits of reducing the average height of our species to 50 cms. The broad trend for humanity to grow taller as a result of better diets and healthcare means that we need more energy, more food and more space. Affluence too seems to produce excessive growth too. ‘While in most developed countries family size has been shrinking’ notes Hendriks, ‘the average home has actually grown in size’.  The resource benefits of downsizing the human are clear. And, as Hendriks points out, there have been many people for whom 50 cms is a natural height.  The social prejudices against shortness are a form of collective height dysphoria – an excessive preoccupation with size. Hendriks’ project – in the form of talks, exhibits and articles – sets out to survey the biological means for reducing the size of humanity. This might mean changing diet or living in a warmer climate (where people are on average smaller) or it might be a matter of design: embryo screening would allow future parents to screen their babies for size.

If the proposal that future progeny might be ‘screened’ sets alarm bells ringing, reverberating with echoes of China’s one child policy or even eugenics in the Third Reich, that is Hendriks’ point. He calls ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ an exercise in ‘speculative modeling’, a lesson that he has learned from historians and futurologists who have asked ‘what if’ history had taken a different course. ‘The what-if factor makes it possible to ignore some of the immediate practical objections’ says Hendriks, ‘and paint our desired picture of the future, and enter it. It enables us to practice and prepare for future scenarios, and to map any difficulties that are hard to encounter in a more cerebral approach. Also, perhaps, it’ll make some of us excited about the new possibilities’.

Bullet-proof skin

6a00d8341bf67c53ef014e8acd355a970d-800wiDesigners have long drawn inspiration from nature. Often this is a matter of aesthetics. And, occasionally, it is the ‘genius’ of nature on which a claim is made. The champions of biomorphic design claim that nature has already solved many of the problems faced by engineers and technologists through billions of years of ‘research’ otherwise known as evolution. The structures, growth patterns and behaviour of living forms can teach designers how to shape our world with greater efficiency and utility.

Of course, the recent fashion for biomorphic design has taken hold at the moment when nature no longer seems natural. By contrast, Artist Jalila Essaïdi has developed a ‘post-evolutionary’ approach to the development of a new material. Spider silk – a material long-celebrated for its elasticity and strength – can now be produced by splicing the spider’s silk-making genes into goats. The protein can be harvested from their milk. Working with the Forensic Genomics Consortium Netherlands, Jalila Essaïdi seeded this material with human skin cells. The resulting in vitro skin grown in a lab at the University of Leiden is ‘bulletproof’.

Essaïdi  then arranged for the skin to be shot with .22 calibre long rifle bullet (adopting the name of this project, ‘2.6g 329m/s’, from the weight and size of the bullet). It performed as well as a bullet proof vest, though did not survive the experiment. Her intention was not just to test her new material but also our preoccupation with ‘safety’. ‘By creating this “bulletproof” human skin I want to explore the social, political, ethical and cultural issues surrounding safety’ she says. ‘With this work I want to show that safety in its broadest sense is a relative concept, and hence the term bulletproof’. Superheroes have skins and suits which can deflect bullets. But what underpins this fantasy? In what circumstances would you need bulletproof skin?

E. chromi

In the summer of 2009 a group of students working in labs at Cambridge University spent their time working out how to make bacteria secrete coloured pigments. Taking genetic material, available as BioBricks (standardized sequences of DNA), they modified E. coli bacteria to produce different colours. The project showed how bacteria could be turned into biosensors, registering the presence of different pollutants.

Whilst the science was relatively clear, the purposes of this new technology was not. With designers Daisy Ginsberg and James King, they set out trying to imagine future uses. As Ginsberg says, the narrative drive in most applications of new science is ‘save some poor person in a distant country’. But they decided to bring this technology back home’ by designing a timeline proposing ways that E. chromi, as they named this modified bacteria, could develop over the course of the next century. The scenarios that they came up with started with the immediate and familiar, such as testing polluted water in the developing world, and ended with high drama of war, terrorism and new types of weather.

Designers know how to make objects which will be meaningful and useful. Ginsberg and King – working with the science students – imagined commercial applications for E. chromi in the form of products. They included the Scatalog, a cheap portable testing kit for disease, predicted for 2039. After being ingested as yogurt, the E.Chromi will colonise the human gut. Coloured excrement would become a early-stage warning system for different human diseases.

Designers also know how to make vivid and attention-grabbing images and objects. The Scatalog – in the form of a suitcase with compartments of coloured faeces – drew considerable attention in the national press. The benefits of this kind of this kind of attention is, from Ginsberg’s perspective, rather mixed: ‘When you are working with the science itself, the speculation can be so grounded in realistic technology that the it becomes confused with reality. Even though we’d set the Scatalog at about half way along our time line, we’d given it physical form. It eclipsed the rest of the project and was confused with the reality of the project, which is the pigment itself.’ ‘This made me realize, she continues, ‘that part of the complexity of working with speculation is that when it goes out into the world, it can start to define reality itself. The speculation becomes real and now there are several scientists trying to make the poo real.’

The Immortal

Trained as a designer on the Design Interactions programme at the Royal College of Art in London, Revital Cohen has devoted much attention to the machines used to support life. ‘The Immortal’ is Cohen’s most recent exploration of the theme. She has organised a series of life-support machines to pump air and liquids in sequence, suggesting a biological structure or perhaps even a body. The technofantasy of the cyborg has long occupied a central place in science fiction. A patient attached to a kidney dialysis machine or a new born baby in an incubator are his real and rather mundane cousin.

When used in medical care, these industrial machines typically disappear into the background. They only hold the attention of the doctors and nurses who use them or perhaps the patients who are wired into them. ‘Designed and created to perform a single, most meaningful function’ says Cohen, ‘we never subject these devices to a critical investigation as industrial products within the context of material culture’. Styling, branding and the other attention-demanding features of modern design have little place in this world. ‘I don’t know if they can be defined as commodities, as treatments, as products or as computers  .. it depends on who is selling and who is buying. In certain parts of the world they are commodities and commercial products. In other places, they are just governmental tools and outside of the market. So they have their own logic according to politics.’

The challenges faced by Cohen in securing these machines for display in London reveal much about the priorities and politics of health care. ‘Its interesting that a dialysis machine very easy and cheap to get hold of’, she says, ‘but an infant incubator is almost impossible because apparently in the Third World they are in most demand. The emphasis there is on saving the young rather than that old.’

R/evolution

Jarosław Kozakiewicz’s 2011 film ‘R/evolution’ takes as its point of inspiration the recent discovery that Oriental Hornets harvest the sun’s energy using their own solar batteries. The insect’s exoskeleton contains many oval-shaped interlocking protrusions which trap sunlight, like microscopic batteries. These hornets are the only known species which collect energy in this fashion.

728_2111_articlesKozakiewicz has long practiced in the space between art and architecture, often drawing insights from nature and natural science. The body has been the subject and the point of origin of many of his schemes for buildings, artworks and even landscapes. In 2007 Kozakiewicz adapted his ideas about the common geometry of the body and the cosmos to reshape a postindustrial landscape in Boxberg, Germany, in the form of a left ear. More recently, he designed observation tower overlooking the Warta river, deriving its polyhedral form from the arrangements of the orifices of the human body.

‘R/evolution’ projects a futuristic vision in which humanity is also equipped with solar panels. Silvery panels seem to grow across the shoulders. The precise nature of augmentation is not specified: are these panels worn or grown? Similarly the circumstances in which energy needs to be trapped in this way are not explained. With the sun beating down on Earth, humanity seems to need to draw its energy directly from sunlight rather than through digestion. Where have the plants and animals on which mankind feeds gone? Although presented in the manner of a documentary film, ‘R/evolution’ raises more questions than it answers. Like many works which explore transhumanism, Kozakiewicz’s futuristic project seems to walk a line between both promise and anxiety.

As the title of the short film suggests, we are on the threshold of a post-evolutionary age when the slow cycles of evolution are accelerated by human intervention. The behavior of the hornets living in large communities resembles, in some respects, that of mankind. Kozakiewicz’s draws attention to the aggressive mass behavior of both species.

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LOOKING FOR THE COMMON GROUND: THE 13TH VENICE ARCHITECTURE BIENNALE

Architecture, Design Exhibitions, Uncategorized

 This piece was commissioned by Space magazine. It appears in the magazine’s October 2012 issue.

Each Venice Architecture Biennale is given a theme by its curator, a leading architect or critic. The 2010 show was gathered under the slogan ‘People meet in architecture’ by SANAA’s Kazuyo Sejima. Two year’s earlier Aaron Betsky called for ‘Architecture Beyond Building’. Like most Biennale themes, these were open-ended propositions suggesting some kind of social agenda. With such ambiguous propositions as guides to the maze of displays and pavilions over the Biennale’s two sites, the visitor often struggles to find a connection between concept and content. Neither noisy self-promotion, whether of architectural practices or nations, nor the untrammeled pursuit of novelty are the best ways to approach social problems. And with prizes awarded to the best pavilions and displays, the Biennale has often been like a kind of strange beauty contest in a zoo where different species are judged.

This year, the Biennale has been curated by David Chipperfield, a British architect with a reputation as a meticulous modernist architect of museums and homes around the world. Like his predecessors, Chipperfield has charged the Biennale with social purpose, that of mapping the ‘Common Ground’. For Chipperfield this means recognizing that cities are ‘created in collaboration with every citizen and the many stakeholders and participants in the process of building.’ This was an unambiguous rebuttal of the idea of the ‘star’ architect who shapes the world with iconic buildings. Chipperfield’s brief was underscored by realism: after all, almost all the buildings and urban schemes which are created today are the product of large teams of people with different skills. Chipperfield’s brief was also an expression of idealism. If architects can forge a common ground – with each other, and with the future users and occupants of their buildings– perhaps architecture can restore its social purpose.

So with celebrity and novelty under an embargo, how well do the exhibitors deal with the challenge of representing architecture today?

In Common

Chipperfield’s attack on the architectural ego has been widely and, it would seem, enthusiastically accepted by the exhibiting nations and practices. The Korean pavilion contains eight practices – representing established architects and newcomers – who turned off the spotlight by presenting their schemes anonymously. Global superstar practice OMA honours the much maligned municipal architecture of the 1950s and 1960s, another form of near-anonymous design elsewhere. Different architectural practices share the white-walled spaces in the Central Pavilion to engage in dialogues about form. Dublin-based Grafton Architects, for instance, have picked up Brazilian architect Paulo Mendes da Rocha’s call for architecture to be drawn out of the landscape in its new scheme for UTEC university campus in Lima. Their monumental studies in building form are arranged in a ring like some kind of prehistoric sacred site with photo blow-ups of da Rocha’s Serra Dourada Stadium (1973-5), a concrete megastructure, filling the horizon behind.

Foster – the voice of the street?

Even Norman Foster – perhaps the most the successful architectural global brand in the last two decades – agreed to Chipperfield’s terms. One of Foster’s two contributions to the Biennale is a multi-media installation called ‘Gateway’ made with film maker Carlos Carcas and artist Charles Sandison. Dozens of rapidly-paced documentary photographs, showing different gatherings of humanity – from riots to the Haj pilgrimage in Mecca – are projected high on the walls of a pitch-black room. This spectacle is accompanied by a booming soundtrack, carefully synchronized to accentuate the elation and the anxieties in these moments. Underfoot, data projections of the names of illustrious architects from the past and present, stream across the dark floor and up the rough columns of the Arsenale like a digital virus. Whilst the installation is impressively dizzying, what is not clear is the connection that Foster, Carcas and Sandison want to make between architecture and these dramatic events.

So which schemes and projects on display in Venice might improve the quality of being together? ‘Common ground’ infers something shared. Perhaps it can be understood as the meeting point for consensus and universal values. This is clear in Chipperfield’s introductory statements. But for a ground to be truly ‘common’, it has to accommodate difference and disagreement too. In recent years political philosopher Chantal Mouffe has made the case for agonistic relations in our political, cultural and economic lives. For a democracy to succeed, she argues, different and critical views need to be expressed. Critique and disputation are important for the health of civic society. They are just as important for architecture too.

Herzog & de Meuron have installed a show which sets out the schedule of one of their major schemes, the Elbphilharmonie concert hall in Hamburg, which shuddered to a halt in November 2011 in the face of conflicts between the client (the city) and the contractor. It is now scheduled for completion in 2014. The building is presented as a series of suspended forms fashioned from layered blocks of foam held by plywood panels. These models offer little more than an impression of the interior spaces of the concert halls. Blown-up pages from the German press flank these hanging boxes. What is impressive is the amount of frank coverage of the scheme and the differences between the three main players. For architecture to truly occupy the common ground, it needs to be well reported. The public nature of a building should start with discussion of proposals, construction and even costs, and not on the day that the contractors leave the site. On this evidence, German readers are certainly better served by their press than most others elsewhere.

The US Pavilion celebrates the power of bottom up design.

Some of the most interesting exhibits in Venice offer reflection not on buildings as distinct objects but on the means by which we – architects and non-architects alike – can improve our buildings and cities. The US Pavilion, a small neoclassical temple, is filled with more than 120 examples of what the curators called ‘Spontaneous Interventions. Design Actions for the Common Good’, that is ‘bottom up’ attempts to improve the environment, sometimes by architects and artists, and sometimes by local citizens. They include real achievements such as a community scheme in Jackson Heights, Queens which has turned asphalt roads into grass playgrounds for children. Desires are mapped too: Candy Chang’s ‘I wish I was …’ schemes in which local people can express – in a direct and simple fashion – their hopes for vacant lots. Like these projects, the American display asks for just a little effort on the part of visitors. Large hanging panels describing each scheme hang on pulleys from the ceiling at head-height. When they are pulled into view, a counterweight suspended close to the walls rises to reveal, in a few words, the ‘solution’ to the problem being addressed. Underfoot, the curators have created an infographic charting the long history of participatory citizenship in the US to demonstrate that the projects overhead are deeply wired into the country’s DNA. Whilst all these schemes undoubtedly seek to improve the spaces of American life, many do not require the conventional skills of architects. In fact, sometimes what is required, it seems, is less architecture.

Architecture takes the form of a Venezuelan bar

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this kind of rethinking on show in Venice is a spirited project recording the squatting of Torre David, an abandoned and unfinished 45-story office tower in the middle of Caracas, Venezuela. With its roof-top heliport, the tower was planned for the super-rich. Today, 750 poor families make their home in this ruin of the boom-bust economy. They have cut holes in the reinforced concrete frame for doorways and laid cinder blocks to form interior walls. Homes, shops and other businesses have been made in this concrete skeleton. For Alfredo Brillembourg and Hubert Klumpner, researchers from Urban-Think Tank and ETH-Zürich, and curator Justin McGuirk, Torre David represents an important experiment in informal settlement which has much to teach architects. Of course, they are not the first to take lessons in participation in the favelas and barrios. The key difference is the lateral sprawl of the shanty town is replaced by the vertical organization of the tower. The tower in ruins is one of the nightmares of modernity. In his 1976 novel High Rise, JG Ballard makes power cuts to an up-market block the trigger for a spiraling descent into primitive violence. Here in Venice, it is presented as an urban landscape with real social value. The community which has formed in the tower has become a self-governing society.

This project won a Gold Lion award from the Biennale jury, not least because McGuirk and his colleagues mounted a joyful and energetic show, complete with a Venezuelan arepa restaurant and moving photographs of everyday life in the tower by celebrated Dutch architectural photographer Iwan Baan. The café is the most lively corner in the what, for the most part, is a rather serious Biennale. The attention given to the building has not been welcomed by the Venezuelan architectural community or the press for that matter. In the run up to the show a campaign was mounted to discredit the project, claiming that the country was being misrepresented by this ‘vertical slum’ occupied by squatters with no regard for private property. The arguments for and against the exhibition in Venice have rippled across the national press.

McGuirk told Space that the inhabitants of Torre David are circumspect about the attention that Venice has brought to their home:  ‘It is a delicate thing because they love being special and that they are doing something interesting which is worthy of architectural analysis … I would not say that its ideological but they do believe in what they are doing. They think of themselves as a commune, of a kind which they can traced back to a South America before the conquistadors … They are self-organised. They have systems in place. They have water and electricity and security. It is a miniature city. But they are also nervous. If you attract too much attention, you might be kicked out.’

Material Memories

Torre David also represents another theme which runs through the Biennale, that of the fate of modernist buildings. This is emphatically a post modern show (after all, everything in it is after modernism). But it is not one which celebrates its defeat. In fact, many of the exhibits seem wistful, reflecting on what the material legacy of modernist structures which still form much of our material environment. This is perhaps not surprising: David Chipperfield Architects is perhaps best known for its restoration of the Neues Museum, a twelve year project completed in 2009. In Berlin, Chipperfield eschewed imitation, trying to salvage what he could of the historic fabric whilst introducing unsentimental and avowedly new elements where the past could not be reclaimed. Like strata in an archaeological dig, fragments of nineteenth century decorative schemes float on rough plaster and new wall surfaces frame old brickwork. The result is not only ethereal but it makes the Neues Museum a chronometer of Berlin’s troubled history.

Dispassionate modernism

The German Pavilion in Venice makes a claim on a much later and less remarkable type of building – the unassuming brutalist and late modernist structures erected in the 1950s and 1960s found in almost every German city on both sides of the former Cold War divide. Usually regarded today as being fatally outmoded, they are often destroyed to make way for the new. Muck Petzet, the German commissioner, makes the economic and environmental case for reusing and recycling these buildings, perhaps even reducing them as cities and societies shrink. To illustrate his project, Petzet has identified more than a dozen schemes which revive the brutalist concrete structures, seemingly the most unyielding forms of post-war modernism. Presented with the challenge of improving the large, grey and poorly insulated Dornbusch Church, a sixty year old structure, Meixner Schlüter Wendt Architects proposed reducing the building in size. Now the site features a large courtyard inscribed with the footprint of the much larger structure which once stood there and the reduced church itself has gained the dramatic chromatic effect of over-sized stained-glass windows.

The display in the German Pavilion is strangely cool and dispassionate, even if the attachment that young architects feel for late modernism is real. The settings – blown up so that they seem architectural in scale – are always depopulated in Erica Overmeer’s photographs. Whilst the economic case for reuse is made in the Pavilion, the emotional one seems missing. This is clear if one compares the German Pavilion with other engagements with the recent past. In the Korean Pavilion for instance, architect Hanh Jong Ruhl focuses on three schemes which contain memories, albeit sometimes painful ones. Recyling buildings from era of the Japanese occupation – such as the former Kyungsung Court House which was converted by Jong Ruhl to become the Seoul Museum of Art ten years ago means coming to terms with the traumatic events which took place within their walls (such as the trials of Korean independence activists). Similarly, the Estonians used the Biennale as an opportunity to reflect on the value of a Soviet-era building, the Linnahall concert hall designed by Raine Karp and Riina Altmäe and built for the Moscow Olympics in 1980. The display, entitled ‘How Long is a Life of Building?’, features a melancholic film of the long and low structure in its present ruined state and a more upbeat set of interviews with people who have memories of the building. These include stories of events in the late Soviet period when the high pomp of official rituals were interrupted by cats chasing mice, and concerts become impromptu opportunities for anti-Soviet sentiment. A structure which could so easily be presented as symbol of the failure of a much detested system, Soviet socialism, is presented as a rich field of Estonian memories.

Common Languages

It is perhaps not surprising that the Korean, the Estonian and many other displays turned to forms of documentary film to capture architecture. The challenges facing anyone seeking to represent buildings and cities in an exhibition are daunting. The chief problem is one of absence. For the most part, the subjects of all the Venice exhibits are simply elsewhere. Unlike the art biennale which occupies the same national pavilions and rooms in the former dockyards of the Arsenale on alternate years, the content of the show – whether the research being undertaken by British architects abroad or the environmental problems facing Greenland – has to be delivered through representations. Moreover, buildings, cities and landscapes are intricate things requiring considerable explanation and interpretation. Many of the exhibits – like the American pavilion and Herzog & de Mouron’s stop-start scheme in Hamburg – requires a lot of words. So what are the alternatives?

Light is coloured by the Dutch exhibit

The Dutch chose to focus on their own pavilion. Designed by Gerrit Rietvelt sixty years ago, this simple box on a square plan with full height windows.  Artist Petra Blaisse has done little more than fill this void with a curtain which slides into fixed positions on mechanical runners fixed to the ceiling. The sequence takes almost 40 minutes to complete. This moving wall is made from fabrics with different degrees of transparency or metallic finishes. As it loops back and forth, a rich variety of light effects and new spaces are produced, if only temporarily. Called ‘Re-set’, the installation is intended to highlight the quantity of empty buildings in the world today which might be reused. (Curator Ole Bouman reminds us that the building, only used for three months in the year, has been empty for forty years of its life). The effect of Blaisse’s moving curtain is entrancing and this rather mundane point is quickly forgotten. In the company of the densely packed and information-rich pavilions – which demand a lot of their visitors – the Dutch pavilion really holds the visitor’s attention.

Hi-tech, low content

Whilst CAD may rule architectural studios today, relatively few schemes in Venice make use of digital display techniques.  There are almost no fly-thrus and very few digital models to be seen. The Russian Pavilion is an exception. A team gives out digital tablets equipped with QR scanners to visitors. The first impression is exhilarating. One steps into a complete world of pulsing code equipped – like a time-traveller in a Hollywood fantasy – to read the mysterious geometry on the walls and floors. When the screen in one’s hands flashes up stern portraits of the members of the city council of the new Russian silicon valley, Skolkovo, being planned near Moscow, the effect is disappointing. Whilst there is nothing wrong with the content being delivered on the tablet  – a upbeat narrative of a new city which is being planned by a superstar cast including Chipperfield, SANAA, Herzog & de Meuron and others – the format cannot hide the fact that one is looking at a promotional website.

Sublime pattern making

Farshid Moussavi’s investigations into the ways in which pattern and ornament produce what she calls ‘affect’ are far simpler and, perhaps as a result, far more effective than the interactive screens in the Russian Pavilion. Moussavi has filled a tall gallery in the Arsenale with immersive video projections derived from the structures of historic buildings. They include the medieval ribbed vaults in Lincoln Cathedral and the scalloped forms of the Orchid Pavilion designed by Yutaka Murata in Tokyo (1987). Past and present are bridged by what she calls ‘affect’. This is how the rhythm and spatial organization of ornament and the patterns formed by structure affect the body. Architecture is, for Moussavi, a kind of moment when the body enters into a space, even one created five-hundred years ago. Her idea seems slightly strained when converted into large projections in the Biennale. But there is value in being reminded that our encounters with buildings are embodied ones when so many of the rest of the displays are so wordy.

Sound promotes touch, as visitors to the Polish Pavilion cling to the walls

This point is also made – quite loudly – in the Polish Pavilion. Artist Katarzyna Krakowiak and curator Michał Libera have ‘filled’ the space with the sound to – in Libera’s words – ‘make the building more audible, more sensual for the people who walk in’. Outside feeds deliver snatches of familiar Venice experiences such as the sound of a motor boat passing by on a canal or occasional laughter. But it is the building itself which provides the most remarkable sounds. The building’s natural resonance have been amplified into a low, percussive rumble which seems to issue from the walls and floor itself. The effect is compelling. When it came to judging the schemes the Polish Pavilion did not win a one of the three ‘lions’, the prizes awarded by the Biennale Jury but it was given a special nomination. Restrained and yet sensual, imaginative but not spectacular, it captures many of the undercurrents running throughout the 2012 Biennale. Perhaps one should never set too much score by the award of prizes. But the jury – led by Chipperfield – was surely out to make a point or two. They gave the chief prizes to the Torre David installation and the Japanese Pavilion featuring architect Toyo Ito’s emotional narrative of working with victims of the Tsunami to design new homes which provide the practical and psychological shelter which victims of a disaster require. The American Pavilion’s assembly of ‘Spontaneous Interventions’ was nominated as well. These garlands were clearly a reminder to the profession to listen harder to the people that use the buildings it designs.

When Work Becomes Play

Design Exhibitions, Modernism, Uncategorized

This review of ‘Bauhaus – Art as Life’ at the Barbican Art Gallery, London (3 May 2012 – 12 August 2012) appeared in Creative Review in June 2012.


Like all museums and galleries, the Barbican Art Gallery is keen to promote its latest show in superlative terms. ‘Bauhaus – Art as Life’ is – as its publicity tell us – the largest and most significant exhibition in Britain on the German design school since 1968 when the Royal Academy welcomed the straight edge heroes of modernism through its hallowed and ornate doors. Whilst this may be true, the Bauhaus has been put under the spotlight repeatedly in recent years. A few years ago, the V&A’s blockbuster, ‘Modernism: Designing a New World’, put many Bauhaus stars in the company of other less well known satellites of modernism. Tate Modern organised a twin-header featuring the art of Bauhaus masters Josef Albers and László Moholy-Nagy in the same year. Some of the exhibits from these shows have come back to London to the roughcast concrete galleries of the Barbican.

But all this Bauhauserie is no problem. As the large number of incontestably brilliant works on display testify, the Bauhaus was an extraordinarily prolific machine during its short life. It attracted some of Europe’s most intellectually ambitious and free-ranging artists, architects and designers – both as staff and students. And in this hothouse, they gave form to innovative designs – hovering tubular steel furniture, prefabricated architectural schemes, sans-serif machine-age alphabets and multi-media environments that they called ‘total theatre’. Much Bauhaus thinking and design is still with us today. But most readers of Creative Review will know this already. The Bauhaus story, from its origins as arts and crafts workshops established by Walter Gropius in 1919 to its closure at the beginning of the Third Reich, is a standard chapter in most design histories.

The challenge facing any curator or researcher is to tell a new Bauhaus story. In recent years, the story of women at the school has been written, reasserting the place of marginalised workshops like the textile studios. There have been attempts to champion the school’s many Hungarians (not just Marcel Breuer and Moholy-Nagy but forgotten figures like Stefan Sebök who died in Stalin’s Russia). Others have concentrated on the story of the Bauhaus exiles: Tel Aviv has branded itself as a ‘Bauhaus city’ to capture the role played by refugees from Nazism in shaping the dazzling cityscape of white-walls and flat-roof buildings in the sand.

So what new stories are being told at the Barbican? Well, somewhat surprisingly, the key Bauhaus message here is play. This is unexpected because the leading Bauhausler are often represented as rather austere characters. And they played up to the image. Moholy-Nagy used to dress like a engineer to emphasise his faith in function and industry. In fact, the Barbican displays one of his abstract paintings which was ordered over the phone from a sign factory. Moholy read out a set of coordinates and selected the colours from a chart. A few weeks later the enamel painting on a panel was delivered.

Image

Gerhard Marcks, Crib, 1919 on display at the Barbican

The Bauhaus’s Maschinenrausch  – a peculiarly German word which translates as ‘machine-intoxication’ – is confounded by large number of playful, funny and even absurd works in the Barbican gallery. In fact, the opening work in the gallery is not, as might be expected, Lyonel Feininger’s iconic woodcut image of an angular cathedral which was on the cover of the School’s inaugural programme. Instead, it is a little altar with a nativity scene by the expressionist artist Gerhard Marcks. A folksy crib, it looks like a child’s toy. By the mid 1920s whimsy was replaced by geometry but toys were still a mainstay of Bauhaus production. The core units of Bauhaus master Wassily Kandinsky’s colour theory – yellow triangles, red square and blue circles – were being turned out as children’s building blocks.

Amongst the most striking exhibits on display are a set of grotesque puppets which the painter Paul Klee made for his son Felix. Created with found materials and the childlike glee that Klee brought to his paintings, some are probably caricatures of Bauhaus luminaries. Klee himself features as a hand-puppet. The Swiss painter was at the heart of another Bauhaus festivity: to mark his fiftieth birthday students from the weaving workshop hired a Junkers airplane and dive-bombed the painter’s house dropping gifts including a Marianne Brandt metal teapot. Klee recalled that the presents crashed through the flat roof.

Gift-giving and play were not diversions from the hard work of making a new world. They served an ideological purpose. Johannes Itten, best known as a colour theorist, once said ‘Play becomes celebration: celebration becomes work: work becomes play’. This was an expression of a kind of utopian dream in which the man or woman of the future would not be a cog in some kind of enormous machine but a creative individual who would find equal satisfaction in work and play. In this way, the division between art and life would be dissolved. Improvised jewellery formed from bands of metal and ball bearings for a Bauhaus party or a costume shaped like a spinning top for Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet were encouragement for adults to play.

Of course, the world beyond the doors of the school, first in Weimar and then in the famous Gropius-designed building in Dessau, was far from happy. Over the course of the 1920s Germany lurched from hyper-inflation and unemployment to near civil war as the communists and fascists fought in the streets. Knowing this, makes a playful utopia seem like a decadent proposition. In fact, that seems to have been the view of the second director of the Bauhaus, the functionalist architect Hannes Meyer. Taking office in 1928, he set a new course. He put far more emphasis on social housing, industrial production and Marxist politics. When in 1930 he was given the sack by the city authorities in Dessau for his political activism, he wrote ‘As head of the Bauhaus, I fought the Bauhaus style.’

The Bauhaus style – if not the radical politics of many of its staff and students  – emerges strongly in this exhibition. But viewed as play, many of the familiar icons of the school look different. Erich Consemüller’s much-reproduced photo of a woman – perhaps Walter Gropius’s wife, Ise – sitting on a B3 club chair wearing a Schlemmer papier-maché mask does not look quite as menacing as perhaps it once did.

Boiling the City

Design Exhibition, Design Exhibitions, Design/Critique, Eastern Europe, Uncategorized


At the Łódź Design Festival last weekend, I saw this exercise in data visualisation and sonification. Culling data pulled from one of the major Hungarian news sites –www.origo.hu, Kitchen Budapest’s animation tells you something you already know, that the capital dominates the country. One in four Hungarians live in the Budapest metropolitan area. At 30 frames per second, each frame represents a single day. One month flashes by in a second. And the animation covers the period from December 1998 until October 2010. Every time a Hungarian town or city is mentioned on the pages of origo.hu, this digital map of the country pulses. The country bulges to accommodate the waves of news. At the same time the sound – a buzzing harmonic drone – echoes the visual effects.

Undeniably mesmerising, like so many of these attempts to animate data, one is left wondering what it all means. This visualisation boils in two ways – the line flickers in the manner that animators call boiling and the surface of the country bubbles with geothermal energy. There is another,  far less appealing association too: Budapest seems to be constantly erupting like some kind of malignant ulcer. It would be easy to read or misread this project as a kind of objection to the megalopolis. Surely this is not Kitchen Budapest’s intention?