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Monday, August 11, 2003
Imagery links. The photorealism of 1968, via Gospelmarks / still clever: the Aphex Twin's hidden imagery / Caterina posts a fascinating series of links about photo-retouching. One assumes that the retouchees never know the full extent of the changes, and subsequently buy in to the levels of 'perfection' that are achieved? This sure beats anti-wrinkle cream. No-one really appreciates how widespread photo-retouching is, in all fields. This architectural image, complete with 'how-to' images, tidies up irritating things like stray cables, switches, dirty skirtings, etc. When you see something flawless, you can be sure it's not really what it seems.

Further to our post a few days ago, here are some great images of the raising of the Tricolor - this is especially remarkable (see also the Guardian's flash guide to the salvage operation). The process seems analogous to Richard Wilsonís 'A Slice of Reality', first installed outside the Millennium Dome (is the sculpture still there?), a 70 foot cross-section of The Trent (related: read Charles Barclay's 'Metallurgy and Metamorphosis, all about Wilson's most recent installation at the Wapping Project).

Grow A Brain gives us this selection of 'eclectic links about the California Recall Election 2003'. Related: the list of candidates - some 500 political wannabes (we do love this photo). Still with politics, Politics & Science is a depressing collection of President Bush's 'promotion of ideology over science'.

A term we learned at the weekend: 'simulated occupancy', or using computer-controlled lighting, curtains, etc., to mimic your daily household routine when youíre away on holiday. A sort of glorified timer switch, and something which will inevitably become ubiquitous. We have video recorders and Tivos to watch TV for us - soon the TV set will turn on by itself to watch programmes, regardless of whether anyone's there or not / Boynton is a weblog worth reading / make your own deconstructionist composition (flash, via memepool).

'Here kitty, kitty,' from last week's Guardian science section, asks whether evolution has hard-wired us to perceive large, unknown animals as big cats, a survival mechanism that has succeeded instead in creating a contemporary urban myth (see the Surrey Puma, etc.). Visit the British Big Cats Society for straight upbelief and the other side of the argument. Related (sort of): a virtual cat (flash, via memepool).

The big cat article also brought us to the Journal of Memetics, a publication concerned with 'evolutionary models of information transmission'. The first article we tried was 'Darwinian Processes and Memes in Architecture: A Memetic Theory of Modernism'. This is interesting stuff. The authors posit that modernist architecture is a so-called 'parasitic' meme - an evolutionary dead-end that has survived thanks to its cultural dominance (in fashion and style, etc.), rather than any practical reasons. The minimal, low-information content of modern architecture was better-suited to its propogation as a meme, and the negative connotations that were associated with its stylistic forerunners (classical styles) also placed modernism on a pedestal (poor choice of words there). Quick, someone tell Prince Charles. But before you do, though, consider that this is a very flawed argument.

For a start, the piece begins with the fundamental premise that modern architecture is always and inherently unsuitable and unresponsive for human needs, unlike classic and nineteenth century styles. More sweeping statements are made: 'Early modernists set up standards for minimal dwellings that had little relation with the living needs of real human beings, and incredibly, most of them are still applied today.' It is asserted that modernism derived its visual language from the 'forbidding, hostile exterior[s]' of military architecture (forgetting, perhaps, that fortification and siegecraft has a history that pre-dates even classical styles of architecture, and that the 'romance' of the so-called hostile environment obsessed architects both in the pre-modernist era and beyond - see, for example, Carcassone).

But that's not all. The authors claim that Darwinian selection is easily over-ridden by a dominant visual aesthetic - that the evolutionary nature of design (the adaptive process) was discarded in favour of the emotive power of modernism's strictly rational, and anti-human, aesthetic. Their example is confused: Le Corbusier's transposition of a 'crab shell' into the Pilgrimage Chapel at Ronchamp (a rather simplistic description of the building's genesis, but never mind) apparently fails, because 'a crab shell is beautifully adapted to house a crab, but not for its magnified shape to house human beings wishing to worship in a church.' Ronchamp's shape is inherently irrational, representative of Corb's late expressionist period, without a straight line to be seen, and hardly a good example of rationalism's dominance.

The analysis continues, infuriatingly. By suggesting that '[m]odernism was very successful at convincing people to forgo sensual pleasure from built forms, as minimal surfaces and spaces offer less visual stimulation than human neurophysiology is built to handle,' the authors impose their own aesthetic prejudices, unwilling or unable to acknowledge that the memetic factors of 'simplicity, novelty, utility and formality' (all of which are dismissed almost as confidence tricks on the part of architects) might, conceivably, have arisen from society's evolving requirements: factors such as the need for sanitation and privacy, the end of domestic service, the rise of the automobile.

No-one denies that modernist architecture has failings - many of which are quite severe. But by positing that the entire modern movement is the result of a dominant political ideology, and nothing more, the authors do architectural history a disservice. The idea that modernism's (apparently questionable) benefits ('social equality and housing opportunities for all') are memetic 'encapsulations' that rebuff any criticism could also be applied to classicism, or any other architectural 'style'. The piece also denies that modernism's origins were, in any way, derived from preceding styles (in the traditional evolutionary manner), making it a parasitic cuckoo in architecture's evolutionary nest.

The dominance of modernism could very well be attributed to its success as a meme, but might not the same be said of classicism? After all, the orders of classic architecture, the placement and type of decoration, etc., are loaded with cultural symbolism, symbols that are arguably the very 'encapsulations' that are so effective at meme propogation.