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Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Tomorrow's Thoughts Today is running a symposium this weekend, 'Thrilling Wonder Stories', 'a roundtable event on speculative urban futures and the role of science fiction at the Architectural Association in London'. The event invites you to 'embark on a future safari into the brave new worlds that may evolve from our own.'

Bolerama, a site devoted to the Boler Travel Trailer, a sort of plasticky, slightly more 'pop' Airstream. More on Flickr, full of very evocative images / in browser things: ships, a Google-earth derived simulator. Which we haven't tried, but just like the idea of / Doom, and a couple of other games of that ilk. Which we did try.

Art and Architecture (the UK site, not the US magazine) has redesigned / L-13 is a new London gallery space which would like to be known as 'The L-13 Light Industrial Workshop and Private Ladies and Gentlemen's Club for Art, Leisure and the Disruptive Betterment of Culture' / dirtycanvas: the art and photography of ErinTheArtist. See also Ephemerat, a website charting a 'paper obsession' / an extract from The City & The City, the new book by China Miéville (via flavorpill).

Nostalgia, blogs, critique, infinte thought on the Abrahams article. See also Fantastic Journal's riposte, criticism not what it used to be, and The Future is Boring, a quite frenetically focused rant on the sheer drudgery, predictability and ultimately disappointing nature of the 'future'. As always, we're letting the side down by splurging fifty odd links of throwaway banalities and lovingly scanned dog-eared copies of old Expo programmes and graphic design annuals. But we don't care.

We like Schulze and Webb's Here and There project, 'maps of Manhattan look uptown from 3rd and 7th, and downtown from 3rd and 35th [that are] intended to be seen at those same places, putting the viewer simultaneously above the city and in it where she stands, both looking down and looking forward.' Very reminiscent of the Stanford Torus, Ringworld, Halo, etc., etc., or any number of speculative futures defined by a shallow arc, endless horizon and sense of massive scale. Related, the Manhatta Project, 'have you ever wondered what New York was like before it was a city?'. Also related, a map from the New York World's Fair.

Arthur Erickson has died, one of the last of the late-modern iconists, a small group of post-Wrightian modernists who created buildings that were brash, angular beacons long before it became fashionable - or even de rigeur - to do so. Related, and presumably seen everywhere else, the Frank Lloyd Wright Lego set.

Public Space and its discontents / Junior: celebrating life at the bottom, a 'union for young creatives', based in Australia / Viva Print, tmners on old fashioned bits of stamped and pressed paper that still warms the cockles of their collective hearts / related, the death of print, seen through Wired's eyes in a relatively good humoured forum looking at why print is better than web, or vice versa.

Is this Mies's worst building? / My Cassette's Just Like A Bazooka?, the history of the freebie cassettes doled out by the NME in the 1980s (via haddock).

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Saturday, May 16, 2009


Personal curatorial tendencies, an ongoing collation. Cascading pictures collated at Running Dive. A fair bit of nudity / Ace Jet 170's scans of ancient Penrose Annuals have been spotted at me-fi (although the reaction was somewhat underwhelming) / revisiting, photography by Jan Kempenaers / smile and wiggle, a tumblr / objects designed by Bertrand Planes / the work of Dunne and Raby.

The Bob Blog / design by Ivan Mato / art by Michael Clyde Johnson / another backyard roller coaster / works by Qingsong / Monocle opens another store, this time in LA / Car-Free in America? A debate as to whether such a thing is even achievable / how well can Hubble see? / Giambattista Nolli's 1748 map of Rome / creating music using Android.

Microsoft goes inadvertently retro with its Home of the Future prototype. Wait until your kitchen bluescreens / pulled from old text files and happily still extant: the UK TV ad archive / the Crash archive, 'the ultimate Spectrum magazine' / galleries of posters and signs / a gallery of test cards, TV idents and logos, now seems to be resting slightly

St Petersburg then and now, blended historical photographs that are somehow creepier than straight comparison shots (via Rossignol, who also has a very worthwhile guest post over at BLDG BLOG, Evil Lair: On the Architecture of the Enemy in Videogame Worlds) / Coromandal on Tintin in America / see also strawdogs / Emily Driskill, a tumblr /

Modern archaeology: What lies beneath the surface of New York Harbor? (via). Related, Cultural Research Divers. See also the wave motors of California, lost hydroelectric machines chronicled, where else, but over at BLDG BLOG.

nice magazine easter egg from Domus / who will be the next JG Ballard? / Tommy Manuel, a weblog / what are the best books about cryptozoology? / happy that bluishorange still exists, one of the first weblogs we ever found. Via the site, On the Set, an obsessive collection of sitcom sets built out of Lego. Several memes collide.

Mammoth, especially a quick visual tour of the urban prairies of America's heartland / UK Wired 1.2 (OK, 06.09, second time around) reminded us of the Kevin Warwick cover from first time round. The superhuman is an endlessly fascinating project for futurists.

A new materiality. Blogs are turning into books. After the BibliOdyssey collaboration with FUEL and the forthcoming BLDG BLG title, c/o Chronicle Books, now It's Nice That has taken the leap. Details of Issue 1. Creative Review article. MagCulture post. Flickr page.

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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.'

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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.

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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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Monday, May 11, 2009
The current issue of Blueprint Magazine (issue 279) has a comment piece on the growth in 'self-published architectural criticism' by Tim Abrahams, the magazine's associate editor. Arguing that 'many of these blogs are purely indulgent retrospection', Abrahams cites things magazine as a prime offender in this new era of digital navel-gazing, a self-contained environment of cross-linking and shared gawping at 'visual effluvia, a flotsam and jetsam of jpegs'. 'Inherent in the system is writing in isolation and then linking with other bloggers. In architecture and design, this search for consensus is creating a general attitude of nostalgia, which is pathetic at a time when the future is up for grabs. If you cannot agree on the present what chance do you have about agreeing on the future? Far better, it seems, to concentrate on the past. Not in any critical way of course, but by designating some grainy images as interesting. Probably of a John Carpenter film. Or Poundbury. If the future is frightening, retreat from it.'

Nothing exists in isolation, but we feel it's important to point out that we're not criticism, we're curation, an (ongoing) attempt at navigating the ongoing and potentially endless transfer of analogue information into the digital realm. It's true, a lot of this stuff is giddy-making, some of it is even dull, and we admit to occasionally feeling 'entertained, a bit poorer and none the wiser' on a regular basis. But this website is not a 'slow retreat from the future' - far from it. It's actually the chronicling of the creation of the systems and knowledge and structures that will underpin the future on an ever increasing basis.

things grew out of a fascination with objects, at a time (1994), when there was no virtual realm to speak of, and little hint that it would be not just text, but physical representations, imagery, ephemera and memories that would soon start accumulating at exponential rates. Nonetheless, the point about the web 'becoming a medium for nostalgia' is highly valid, an issue that becomes more and more apparent. The sheer density of ephemera sometimes threatens to overwhelm cultural production, chasing away original thought and turning everything into a visual quotation from something else.

Right now, people want a visual internet; we sense a slight depression in interest in relentless, link-heavy, text-driven weblogs. As striking imagery becomes the dominant mode of communicating ideas - the relentless reel of the tumblelog, for example - texts are too easy to disregard unread. Our traffic spikes on the rare occasions when ffffound finds some image from our archives (I, II, III), or when we lead with a slice of grainy jpeg nostalgia. Otherwise, it seems that stats are down, month on month, sliced and diced by the exponential growth in competition, or, more likely, by the gradual realisation that any more information, imagery, links or comments is not automatically good, but just so much noise that can easily be filtered out.

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A case in point. This set of scans of the Big Book of Cattle Brands is a fascinating object, a collection of the unique brands that marked one cattle herd from another. To look at these scans is not a negative nostalgic experience. True, it serves little functional purpose, save for historians of the era or those interested in the etymology of brands and brand culture. We can't simply ignore such a thing. All collections, be they real or virtual, convey a message about the collectors and viewers. The hunger for ephemera, in all its forms, is surely indicative of a broader cultural shift. That shift is what things was created to discover.

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Sunday, May 10, 2009
Today is the 140th anniversary of the Golden Spike, the symbolic last spike that united the railroads of the east and west, the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad. Much of the labour responsible for the CPR was Chinese. The Union Pacific still exists. Visit the Golden Spike National Historic Site, home to a fine piece of railroad kitsch.

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Inverarities, a short-lived but densely packed blog about KLF/Bill Drummond related rarities / paintings by Tanja Maria Ernst. More / Ghost town: London's 'lost' buildings. Every era has its architectural 'what-ifs?', but it's a shame the gallery runs to an unimpressive three images.

Cross-cultural variation in creationism (via four stone hearth) / works on paper by Akiko Usami / a new picture library from Country Life / Foster's new yacht is an 'ocean-going stapler / admirably blank selection of treated images of modernist architecture / Blah, a tumble log / Phil Teer, the weblog of a planner / The Transient, Digital Fetish: 'What if instead of the need for each person to maintain their own sprawling collection, there was a place, an oasis of fetishism, where anyone could meander through shared repositories of text, sound, and film, and then borrow any item for a period of time?'.

A fine companion piece to the Pelican Project: the Art of Penguin Science Fiction / Shrapnel Contemporary, a weblog / We Went Through a Park, drawing / Cosmopolitan Scum, a weblog. From Flash Dance: 'It can often seem that digital photography is actively affecting architecture. As if buildings were being made to suit a world in which we can take a lot of good pictures quickly and then ping them around the world via the internet.'

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Really struggling to get something done? Freedom 'is an application that disables networking on an Apple computer for up to eight hours at a time'.

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Friday, May 08, 2009


LSE Pamphlet Collection (via haddock). See especially the section on housing, which illustrates that contemporary concerns about planning, style and policy are actually nothing new. From 'Castles in the Street', from a wartime series called 'Design for Britain', calling for greater attention to quality, space and greenery in new housing for all classes. 'It is preposterous that it should be possible to "tell at a glance" whether a block of flats or a street of houses is working-class or middle-class; the section of society to inhabit the homes should have no bearing whatsoever on their architecture and general planning'. And yet style became inextricably bound to class identity.

A modern way to think about the modernists, an extract from Owen Hatherley's new book, Militant Modernism, laments the lack of socially progressive architecture and the retrospective application of a dull veneer of failure over the aspirations of the modern movement. With the 'icons' of modernism being fetishised and fawned over, Hatherley writes that 'modernism is proclaimed, again, to be too good for the worker (or the "underclass"), and is left for the affluent to play with.'

Mr H has swiftly carved a niche as an informed commentator on social housing, both from the perspective of its role as a totem of heroic/brutal failure (depending on your viewpoint), and the way mass housing projects are now kicked around between politics and aesthetics, with any sense of wider social purpose overlooked in the scramble to preserve and gentrify (or demolish and start again from privately-funded scratch). In Penthouse and Pavement, a recent Guardian piece on Sheffield's Park Hill Estate, now in the agonising process of being Urban Splashed, he notes that the looming block is 'an overwhelming reminder of what the city once wanted to be - the capital of the socialist republic of South Yorkshire, rather than what it wants to be now, a local service-industry centre.'

Most of the time, the debate about the need for more, better, denser housing remains mired in aesthetic squabbles, ably illustrated by lists like 15 housing projects from hell (via kottke), a peculiar mix of social housing megastructures, unbuilt conceptual designs and large scale private housing. Optimism and dystopianism blend into one.

Obligatory flickr sets: Council Estate of Mind; London Council and Social Housing; Council and Social Housing; Council Estate Maps; Social Housing from France and Beyond and the related, but not entirely relevant, Finisterre (and Geoffrey Fletcher's London). The above image, Sheffield 1982: Hyde Park and Park Hill, comes from Simon_K's photostream. There's also an impressive set of Sheffield pictures here, with a dedicated Park Hill section.

Castles in the Street again: 'The war on the slums has still to be waged, and along with it war on the potential slums. War on the jerry-builder, war on the shoddy little bungalows, on the pseudo-Tudor, and the whole creeping sickness of the cheap-and-nasty.'

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Other things. Article title straight from Wes Anderson, 'The Preppy, Eclectic Dorm Room of Drew University Senior Maximilian Sinsteden. 'By the time Sinsteden was 12 years old, he’d redecorated most of the rooms in his parents’ house a few times, and had started in on the guest bedrooms of family friends. He had a precocious understanding of the perfect detail.'

We love the Bombardier B-12 / N-word dilemma bounces on for Dam Busters II, cultural sensitivity and historical accuracy collide, messily / Retail Facility, buy products designed by Industrial Facility (review) / an exhibition of Carlo Mollino's (nsfw) polaroids.

The illustrations of John Hanna, at Asbury and Asbury, via MagCulture. Also liking Dodge or Fall?, 'See if you can tell the difference between a corporate tax avoidance scheme and a Fall song title'.

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Saturday, May 02, 2009
How to distill meaning David Barrie's weblog is one of those connection-forging endeavours, pushing links, visual and otherwise, between differing strands of contemporary culture, for example the return to lush, Klimt-like styling and the increasing role of participatory culture. There seem to be two schools of thoughts regarding the latter: the enthusiastic advocates and the soundly dismissive.

David Mitchell is one of the latter, drolly commentating about the fashion for invited commentary as the ultimate manifestation of a particularly unwelcome and unhelpful form of consumer freedom (here and here), decrying the constant chatter of opinion, comment and trivia that blitzes its way back and forth along with the desperate attempts to harness this noise for some kind of political and social good.

There are networks, albeit very informal ones, that exist within this quasi-public realm, a secondary strata of commentary and connections that binds together those who place most emphasis on the binding, if you see what we mean. In other words, twitter and its ilk have become a self-perpetuating network that somehow pulls content out of perpetual distraction. From outside looking in, all you see is noise. Yet within the network, the possibilities are more encouraging. Russell Davies noted in the launch issue of UK Wired that ('I'm not a Zen monk. I'm doing my expenses') that 'Distractions make these things bearable. And, I’d argue, better. Those wasted minutes trawling through Flickr to illustrate your slides are in fact great minutes to be thinking, to be open to ideas, to allow your point to be subtly changed and improved by the images you find'.

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Strange Maps poses the interesting question: was there a real-life model for the generically named Treasure Island - and if so, where was it? One suggestion is that the form of Stevenson's island was based on the Shetland Island of Unst, the most northerly populated island in the British Isles.

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Historic polar images at Freeze Frame, via White Noise of Everyday Life. We like the ships / three colour phootography by Beierle + Keijser, curators of the excellent Mrs Deane weblog (sample post, from Vienna to Vientiane: botanic studies on the dissemination of architecture) / Freesound, open sample library (via flavorpill).

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J G Ballard: 1930-2009, an obituary at the Architects' Journal. 'He was the only writer, for example, to notice that before 9/11 no one had considered the World Trade Centre to be a symbolic target at all - indeed, he noted, that was the whole point, it was a meaningless act and it was this that people found so unsettling.' See also J G Ballard's architectural inspiration.

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The short, disgusting life of the Hummer: 'By 2002, the New York Times reports that, thanks to changes in the tax code during the Bush administration, an eligible buyer can deduct $34,912 of the $48,800 base price of the Hummer.' See also the Dongfeng Mengshi, the quasi-official Chinese knock-off of the original H1.