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Tuesday, May 12, 2009


Nostalgia is no substitute for criticism, a response part II (see yesterday's post). Nostalgia undoubtedly exists, and some sites fuel it more than others. But what's far more interesting - certainly in terms of design - is the reliance of contemporary architecture and design journals - on and off line - on the striking image as a means of snaring eyeballs and gathering clicks. There's nothing retro or nostalgic whatsoever about the churn rate in contemporary design imagery, a cottage industry that demands constant reinvention, novelty, form and drama.

Here, by way of illustration and in no particular order, is a tiny fraction of the various outlets for 'creative work' currently seeking fresh content: Dezeen / ArchDaily / Design Crisis / but does it float / we make money not art / Cool Hunting / Apartment Therapy / MoCo Loco / Architectural Review / AnArchitecture / AMNP / Blueprint / Icon / Inhabitat / Ace Jet 170 / Cosas Visuales / ArchiSpass / design work life / print and pattern / Swiss Miss / Better Living Through Design / Notcot.org / etc. etc. Or just look here. Or here.

Admittedly, these sites offer varying degrees of depth when it comes to actually commenting on what they post. Some generate new content, others are happy to simply recycle (usually crediting when they do, sending you off along a click-driven path). More than ever before, contemporary architecture exists to be seen, consumed via a through choice images, rather than actually experienced.

The impact is twofold; not only does this turnover vastly raise public consciousness and awareness of new design, but it also encourages the design and construction of miniature icons, houses that can be consumed with a single glance and not understood on anything other than a superficial level. A critical position? Gestural, theatrical architecture has gained a vast following in just a couple of years, raising expectations about the role of modern residential design. Yet the desire to make an impact - on the street, the page or the site - has largely overshadowed more thoughtful, less photogenic approaches.

We also wanted to take issue with the idea that criticism and complexity don't exist online. If you want denser writing, simply click through some of Owen's links: Infinite Thought, the box tank, Design with Intent, it goes on and on. Critical thinking is not the preserve of magazines, just as a fascination with the past - and the presentation, cataloguing and collection of the past - is not a sign of gravid nostalgia.

And another thing. We're not in a position to write of magazines just yet (far from it), but comments seem to be largely in favour of more eclectism, connectivity and randomness, something many more established print publications are in no position to provide. As Stephanie writes in the comments: 'I think this process creates a lot of unease for people who are used to having the exalted position of information curation to themselves, to having mainline control of ways of seeing and understanding. Their reign is at sunset.' We need more collections of life guard chairs and ice cream vans, not less.

Ironically enough, the latter post, at Fantastic Journal, was about celebrating the 'DIY qualities' of the vans (and their chimes) yet didn't cite an early enthusiast for the genre, Reyner Banham himself. Banham is quoted here in Naomi Stead's thesis, The Rocket-Baroque Phase of the Icecream Vernacular: On Reyner Banham's Criticism of Architecture and Other Things (a Tom Wolfe-esque titled pdf, also available in the writings section of her own site):

'As an example [of design practices that do not employ drawings, such as those based on patterns, or on direct, applied adjustment at the time of manufacture] Banham describes the case of ice cream vans, which he describes as 'the biggest invisible objects in residential Britain', the design and manufacture of which were, at the time and place of his writing, dominated by a single company. He describes the way that this firm operates entirely without drawings or 'design' as such, but nevertheless produces remarkably sophisticated 'styled' objects, drawing inflections from popular culture such that there is an identifiable 'Rocket-Baroque phase', influenced by the aesthetic of the space race and of Batman.'

The original essay is included in A Critic Writes: Essays by Reyner Banham, published in 1996. There might not be anyone 'replicating the work of the Venturi's in Las Vegas or Reyner Banham in Los Angeles', to quote Blueprint once again. But if Banham were alive today (and the Venturi's were 40 years younger), you can be certain that their explorations of the built environment would be mediated not just by the built environment and the ephemera of pop cultural production, but by the myriad ways these things are collated, observed and curated online.

Stead again: 'in Banham's terms it is precisely those things we consume and then toss aside that define our contemporary culture, and in his attempt to make journalistic writing as current and disposable as the things that he wrote about, Banham also approached a kind of durability, even timelessness.'

*

Just to stay predictable: burning opera house. Everyone used their 'end of iconism' line last time a signature building went up in smoke / David Levine continues to stuff his flickr stream full of interesting things. Does this mean Tate Modern is nostalgic about the Soviet Union? See also ephemera assemblyman, and his startling collection of Russian Revolutionary Periodicals 1905-1906.

*

A beautiful 1920 guide to drawing stylised animals / Dan Baum's tour of journalism's sausage factory, kottke collates part of an article disseminated, infuriatingly, via twitter / Still lives by Diarmuid Kelley / Searching for Value in Ludicrous Ideas, Allison Arieff on the work of Steven M. Johnson.

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