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Thursday, October 01, 2009


Apologies for a few weeks of downtime. This piece is getting some linkage, 'The City is a Battlesuit for Surviving the Future', on the legacy of Archigram, the media image of architectural innovation and the ongoing evaporation of urban interaction into non-physical form - a form that paradoxically is enhancing how we interact with physical spaces and one another. The one issue that is integral but always somehow unspoken with these treatises is contemporary information density, the ongoing aestheticisation of data that was very much a characteristic of Archigram's work and has steadily increased in day to day life.

The modern city is the data city. Architectural renderings and monographs present case studies in the context of information, with statistics and graphs supplementing the traditional projected view. The utopia of tomorrow will be saturated with information, and it is how we navigate this space that is the focus of so much contemporary speculation on technology and the city.

However, the idea of the 'information city' has created a very fine line between utopia and dystopia. So many of the qualities beloved by bloggers (this magazine included), designers, architects, designers and commentators seem to exist in a fluid state between good and bad. For example, how to reconcile the idea that 2000AD's Mega-City 1 is one of the great inspirational sci-fi cities with the 'reality' of the comic's metropolis as a crime-ridden, fear-saturated, consumption-crazed urban nightmare?

One suggestion is that we are mistaking complexity for cultural engagement. Just as the dense jumble of links and images that characterises the contemporary website gives an impression of a rich cultural experience, it also recalls imagery of the chaotic, layered city. One example is the ongoing fascination with ruins of the recent past, a means of instantly conveying historic context and patina, a seductive visual shorthand for two hundred years of industrial and economic data.

The web is not a city. Data space is not a place. But the analogies are persistent. By committing our memory to Google or the 'cloud' we have inadvertently created a great hunger for the intangible and ephemeral, the scraps and minutae of everyday life that get sucked into the circuitry and instantly forgotten. Already we are lamenting the loss of the unknown landscape as a result of global satellite imagery, gps and mapping. Physical space and the raw quality of still air immobilised by a structure cannot by duplicated or imitated. The 'infrastructural city' is not the labyrinth of chance encounters so celebrated by the Situationists. Our interactions are manufactured and governed.

Yet imitation remains our focus. The way virtual interfaces mimic physical spaces - desktops, pinboards, tables and surfaces you can post, pin, pinch and scatter content across - acknowledges our hunger for the tangible. 'The City is a Battlesuit for Surviving the Future' acknowledges architecture's debt to fictional cityscapes and how the most ambitious masterplans aim at creating spaces where 'the infrastructures are layered, ad-hoc, adaptive and personal - people there really are walking architecture, as Archigram said.'

Visualisation is at the heart of these new utopias. Once, the imaginary city was merely shaped and re-shaped in the corners of our mind - the rolling roofs of Peake's Gormenghast would have been impossible to create except in the imagination ('Blackstone Quarter, Stone Dogshead, Angel's Buttress, the Coupée (described as 'the high knife edge'); the North Headstones 'beyond Gory and the Silver Mines'; and the Twin Fingers, 'where Little Sark begins and the Bluff narrows'.) Today, we expect constant visual challenge, not the mental gymnastics of linking spaces and names and building cities from text on the page.

How do we reconcile the real city, with its messy unpredictability, with the visionary dreams of the utopians, where everything is connected and complete interaction is taken for granted? The internet does its best to connect the two, but it feels as though the scraps of reality, once processed, scanned and catalogued, lose the very qualities that endear them in the first place. Example: the literal billions of images on flickr are a snapshot of people, places and things defined by a finite number of tags, not the myriad, impossible to reproduce connections that denote reality.

Perhaps this gap will close, and visual search systems, tags and metadata will evolve to supersede the connections we make instinctively. But ultimately the city is not about searching, but about memory, and how cultural collages trigger, accentuate and erase our rememberance of the past and our perception of the future. The data city of the future will be unnavigable without technology, granted, but as a species we seem to be crying out for help remembering, unable to find things with the arsenal of digital tools and reliant, instead, on other people's recollections. This is why, we'd suggest, that the idea of archives, museums, drawers, corridors, boxes, cellars, warehouses and vaults, modern ruins and scanned ephemera, still hold such fascination, without ever really satisfying our innate desire for things.

*

As if to confirm the above, a collection of 'other things'. The security implications of hypergraphics / Fernando Feijoo, illustrator / @random, a tumblr / All Things Considered, a weblog / James Wines of SITE on the art of architectural drawing / a couple of flickr groups focusing on architectural drawing: I and II.

Crash test, old versus new: '2009 Chevy Malibu versus 1959 Chevy Bel Air at Autoblog. See also old family car versus new car / retro design seems to be emerging as one of the core qualities of electric cars: Honda's EV-N is a good case in point / we're taking another run at Hunch, which has quietly been pushing out consumer advice for the past year or so.

Archive and Conquer brings together some interesting topics, including the most over-photographed parts of Detroit (think ruins, although the 100 houses in that last link offer a spread of architectural variety and intrigue sadly lacking in almost any contemporary housing development) and a link to a set of famous vandalized paintings, a collection by Lance Wakeling. See also Ice House Detroit, a literal freezing of one such ruin as a comment about the glacial economy and the domestic wastelands that have been generated as a result.

The work of Gerrit van Bakel, collected over at The Silver Lining / see also the world of KidZania, a chain of small scale townscapes aimed at children. Found via this Guardian piece: 'Its buildings, vehicles and other features are scaled down to two-thirds real size to accommodate its young inhabitants, who have more than 50 jobs to choose from during a typical five- or six-hour shift, with each job lasting about 30 minutes.'

A pictorial history of Grey Gardens, the house made famous by the 1975 documentary (and a recent film) and the subject of a fan sites and other online reliquaries. The house, now owned by Ben Bradlee, can be found here, amongst a generous scattering of beachside mansions.

Things of Interest. We've watched the 'things' brand be chipped away in recent years, most notably by the Mac application Things, which swept in and stole our Google search thunder (quite justifiably) / Wallpaper.com guest editors: Paul Petrunia of Archinect, Jeff Carvalho of Selectism and Josh Rubin of Cool Hunting / Google Crop Circles, a hoary old publicity trick / programme for the Rotterdam Architecture Biennale.

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