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Tuesday, February 02, 2010


The attraction of the technological failure, and how the internet serves as a dispensary of extended footnotes to otherwise forgotten history. Take the Sinclair C5, now firmly established in the canon of entrepreneurial also-rans, an idea not so much beyond its time, but out of time, the answer to a question that no-one was asking. But were it not for the internet, the C5 would languish in the very marginalia of cultural commentary, the nuts and bolts of its brief existence papered over by snide remarks, quips and references. Now every little dead end and half-baked idea is glorified and celebrated with its own chapel of rememberance or mausoleum, turning the internet into a repository of abandoned strands of human ingenuity.

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A forthcoming exhibition at the V and A celebrates small spaces, including 1:1 structures by seven international practices: Rintala Eggertsson, Terunobu Fujimori, Helen and Hard, Studio Mumbai, Sou Fujimoto, Rural Studio and Vazio S/A.

Art saved from the Nazis / art saved from itself / the second video ever posted on youtube was of someone falling over / the greatest extended takes in movie history / rounding up consumption, the Amazon Filler Item Finder / Linefeed, a design weblog / photographs by Rob Hann / amazing model village.

Wooden toys by Take-g / Tin Trunk, fashion history / paintings by Steven Pennaneac'h / Angry People in Local Newspapers / Vintage Headlamp Restoration / AE Worldmap, architecture aggregator / Grange Hill then and now (via haddock) / photography by Marquis Palmer.

The RV Hall of Fame (via BBC) / Sell Sell, a weblog / Volume, an architecture magazine / urban exploration: cathedrals. Great rooftop shots of Paris / A decade that was not: in architecture too, on the aughties ('noughties'?) as ten years of architectural destruction and the failure of the profession to offer anything more than hollow symbolism in response.

Curiouscurious, a tumblr / Every Bell That Tolls Me, a tumblr / Baubauhaus, imagery cascade / Exit Magazine's minimal YouTube presence is like the anti-iPad / aKun, a tumblr, which introduces us to the work of Chris Kenny and the concept of desire paths / Eventual Ghost, a weblog / Annalogs, a weblog / the Guess Where London? pool / In Pictures: House Moving in Chile.



A selection of editorial headings by Winsor McCay, 1867-1934 at Golden Age Comic Book Stories (via number61). What an absolutely marvellous website. The richness of the illustration on the following pages is breathtaking, all the more so for being scanned at half decent quality in epic quantities. The work of Arthur Rackham; Dugald Stewart Walker; Kay Nielsen

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Thursday, January 07, 2010


It says a lot for our disconnection with the world around us that walking can be considered a creative, even subversive act. For the men of the post-impressionist era, the flaneurs for whom ready income and social status acted as an access-all-areas pass for the rapidly modernising metropolis, the idea of promenading without intent or purpose was, in some senses, radical behaviour. The modern city had never been explored in this way before.

Now there's Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways, a guide book that accompanies the rediscovery of slowly traversed space. From the blurb: 'In a city, for example, walkers become aware of their urban home as a site, a forum, a playground and a stage: all there to enjoy, understand and provoke on multiple levels'.

The walking history has been reclaimed from its earlier rural focus (see Nicholas Crane's Two Degrees West) through the suburban, post-industrial psychogeographical meanderings of Iain Sinclair (predated by the work of the London Psychogeographical Association), to concentrate explicitly on the city, a fulfilment of the Situationist playground, the home of drift. In a sense, even a click and drag around Google Streetmap is a form of drifting, but who are we really kidding; without the smells, sounds and textures of a real city, the fruitless zoom, enhance, pan and scroll of such virtual exploration will always be a poor second place.

Phil Smith's Mythogeography decribes the role of walking thus: 'as performance, as exploration, as urban resistance, as activism, as an ambulatory practice of geography, as meditation, as post-tourism, as dissident mapping, as subversion of and rejoicing in the everyday.' It's not strictly urban, of course - see Drift, for some rural wandering, or explore Smith's own starter kit for drifting, a way for 'opening up the world, clearing eyes and peeling away the layers of spectacle, deception and that strange “hiddeness in plain sight” that coats the everyday.'

There was a flurry of activity in GPS-created art a few years ago. GPS Traces on OpenStreetMap, or GPS drawing, or Waag's Amsterdam RealTime project, collated on this Me-fi post, where the antecedent of forms created from urbanism in Paul Auster's New York Trilogy is noted. This was walking as exhibitionism, the inevitable dovetail of technology and showmanship, venturing forth because we could.

It's a relatively bloody-minded pursuit, mythogeography, an attempt to absorb esoteric information from every conceivable source and to invest ulterior meaning in the transient and everyday. This obsession with static drift is, it has to be said, very much contrary to the screen-filtered world that has spilled out of the home and office and onto the tube, bus or pavement.

Mythogeography doesn't have much truck with technology. Like Nicholas Crane and his carefully hand-assembled strips of meridian, it is a discipline that demands paper maps, missteps, dead ends and an overall sense of not knowing exactly where you are. Nowadays, we're all concerned with our time to first fix, a suitably drug-laced term for a craving for instant location identity. It seems sad that we have to be instructed in such mythogeographical practices, that our default settings aren't to 'follow instincts not maps', but to plug in.

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Another pertinent set of links: iconic architecture destroyed in movies / a shape book at Miller Goodman's flickr stream / more shapes: contemporary Portuguese architecture at Ultimas Reportagens / fine Penguin Book Cover wallpaper.

We're really struggling to work out where the whole 'ninja' thing came from in relation to architecture blogging, e.g. Archi Ninja, Architecture My Ninja Please / MIMOA's review of the year.

Sign off and out forever with the Web 2.0 Suicide Machine: 'This machine lets you delete all your energy sucking social-networking profiles, kill your fake virtual friends, and completely do away with your Web 2.0 alterego.'

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Monday, November 30, 2009


An idea. We've noticed over the last year or so that more and more magazines are joining the sidebar with blogs that eschew the standalone, editorial-mimicking layout of early magazine websites and utilizing the traditional blog format (AJ, AR, Creative Review, Grafik, etc.). Granted, the thrust is from the creative community, where a steady drip of news and inviting imagery finds the perfect outlet online. There's also the sudden interest in print on demand, via a more curatorial, bespoke approach - with sites like The Newspaper Club (born out of the 'Things Our Friends Have Written On The Internet 2008' project) and The Blog Paper, which promises to collate comments, photos and comments with 'the highest rated and most discussed content ... promoted to a printed paper published in London.'

What was once in print and paid for is now online and free. What was once confined online - the long-form blog - is now breaking back into print. There are some inversions at work. Traditionally, the most valuable commodity was imagery, yet now pictures seep online for nothing, given away like candy to entice people to actually do more than merely click around. Instead, long form journalism, whether in the form of the multi-thousand word piece of investigative writing or even the dense, multi-layered blog post, is the new in-demand media commodity. The challenge is to get people to pay for it.

The gradual proliferation of paywalls and rumblings that large media outlets are toying with moving online content away from the free model (if it ever was a model) suggest that someone needs to come up with a subscription system that just manages everything, from international publications to rural newspapers (Johnston Press websites start charging for news). Although there's apparently a move to creating an 'iTunes of the press' (Magazine publishers said to be 'very close' to digital distribution deal), we think a personal subscription service, a splice between a paperboy, rss and micropayments, would be far more attractive, providing a 'click to read button' on every pay-protected story that simply leeches a tiny micropayment - literally a few cents - from your online wallet.

This Paperboy project would be the Oystercard of the internet, preventing you from accumulating excess charges once you've reached a site's maximum charge, with usage, options and history all available through a web interface, app, widget, what have you, with credit that can be topped up, won, given away, earned or transferred. Something the Open Intelligence Agency would like to take on?

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Speaking of seeping imagery, there is an overwhelmingtendency for websites to mimic their print counterparts, particularly the women's lifestyle trope of offering 'XYZ Beautiful Things' as a cover line come-on to entice the reader into a purchase. Only there's no purchase, just the all-seeing eye of Google. Hence the success of aggregators like Alltop, which are rife with this kind of article, initally conjured up by picture blogs and link blogs and now adapted by popular newspapers with a high profile online presence (e.g. Dailys Mail and Telegraph). Sometimes the association is less tenuous than others (ten fantastic kitchen concepts, transportable homes), sometimes the collections are purely prurient (10 worst high speed crashes, 10 worst sporting injuries ever (can't even click on that one)), but they are all linkbait at heart. Occasionally, just occasionally, the list post offers a springboard into something with a little more sustenance: the 50 most interesting articles on wikipedia.

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Other things. Thiepval in August, at Continuity in Architecture / Dave Wyatt's photographs of Thames Town, Shanghai (via Conscientious) / Wide Area Network, panoramic photographs by Phil Wolstenhome (via David Thompson).

History is Made at Night stumbles upon the crepuscular ruins of BlobbyWorld, highlighted by the uk tabloids, as well as the Chard and Ilminster News. The original forum post, at the excellent 28 days later, seems to be missing its images. Related, maybe, Zombie Outbreak Simulator.

Genuinely perplexed by the Swiss decision to 'ban' minarets. From a country with such a fine tradition of modern church-building - often by entirely secular architects - the idea that you can a) dictate that a particular architecture form cannot exist and b) how it should look in the first place.

Illustration at top of post comes from the Project Gutenberg edition of A Short History of English Printing, 1476-1898, by Henry R. Plomer.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Some more thoughts on augmentation. Michael Lascarides directs us towards Bruce Sterling's Beyond the Beyond weblog, which devotes extensive space to augmented reality, tracking product and project announcements. Check the French company Total Immersion and their new announcement of a partnership with Microsoft, for example. The company specialises in creating an 'interactive experience where virtual components are dynamically merged into a live video stream in real time' - trade fairs quake with anticipation. Sure, there'll be a market for animated baseball cards, or even Franklin Mint produced Star Wars HoloChess and Battleships (tm), along with a myriad of other quasi-virtual family games that will be the yard sale detritus of the near future and our grandchildren's kitsch collectables.

But as Sterling usually concludes, the more interesting applications of AR appear to be mobile, where the layering of information atop of a small user-controlled section of reality - as opposed to media that envelopes you entirely - is practical, desirable, and here right now. The future dreams are still of people plucking dreamily at thin air, but little apps like Layar (which we've finally tracked down thanks to some Android ROM-flashing shenanigans) make a case for genuine usefulness. For example, the Archinform Layar promises to merge an international architecture database with your phone as the portal, bringing up information about the world around you. Throw in Pevsner and things start to get interesting.

The idea of a portal is key, be it a phone or personal projector, rather than the suggestion of data saturated landscapes generated by special glasses or headsets or whatever. We'll pitch in with a suggestion for a name. The history of technology is also the history of linguistic reappropriation - things get new meanings in the digital realm, loosely based on their function and appearance in the real world: tabs, layers, skins, windows, panes, palettes, panels, buttons, boxes, forms, paths, etc. etc. The lorgnette seems like a good match, something you hold up to your eyes to make something a little clearer.

See also, The Lorgnette, or Studies of the Town, by an Opera Goer (1854) / the Optical Heritage Museum.

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More archives continue to drip out of the world's media repositories: Tomorrow's World, which we're partly being invited to laugh at and point at the fashions and the goggle-eyed optimism and hopelessly backwards, unoptimistic or great but wide of the mark predictions (as Maggie Philbin recalled). A shame, as always, that the whole programmes aren't just indexed and uploaded.

There's a bit more from the late Rex Malik, featured in that last TW clip, here. Prescient stuff (it's undated, but the show 'The Computer Programme' went out in 1982): 'Does this mean there's a kind of electronic Big Brother waiting out there in the future? Well, yes, I'm afraid there probably is. For the technology is now beginning to place awful temptations in front of administrators..... we need to be able to control what is held on computers, who has access to it and how they can use it.' On the future office and the role of technology: 'So you have problems with the office next door? Well just wait. I can see you having similar problems in the Eighties but with offices in Tokyo, San Francisco, London and Melbourne. As I say, welcome to the electronic village.'

The British Library Sound Archive are mostly free to peruse. The blog is good for actually tracking down sounds you can play (which, infuriatingly, isn't many of them).

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Monday, August 24, 2009
Bye-Bye, Dubai, in which the former centre of goggle-eyed attention swiftly evolves into a gigantic piece of architectural schadenfreude. The suggested construction cost of $600bn is mighty impressive (especially when pared with a romantic image of skeletal, half-finished towers of dubious quality, set amidst open expanses of desert), but is so arbitary, so abstract, that it is shorn of all meaning. What can be gleaned from this rise and fall? That Dubai is now first and foremost shorthand for an idea, rather than a place, just as the name Poundbury is - for a certain generation of British architects - a red rag.

That's why this recent story, Cracks appearing in Prince Charles's dream village in Poundbury (via Owen Hatherley) is the parochial equivalent of tall tales about sand-blown abandonment in the deserts of the Gulf. 'Maurice Allen, the chairman of the Poundbury Residents' Association, said he felt that some of the people who are complaining about their homes were "nitpicking". He said: "Clearly people pay a premium to live in Poundbury and their expectations are unrealistically high. Things aren't made as they used to be."'

Our expectations of the past should be reappraised, just as the new 'Dubai' is about recalibrating our dreams of the future. The chilled beaches, the rotating skyscrapers, the underwater hotels are were little more than crazed extrapolations of what we thought should be possible, with technology and ambition (only could you please build them somewhere out of the way, exotic and strange like Dubai because we're not quite ready for them to be truly 'real'). The accompanying gallery (and article itself) is by Lauren Greenfield, who has some images online.

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We're at the early stages of augmented reality, a technology long imagined but now in clumsy first generation iterations on handsets like the Nokia N97, iPhone and G1. Amongst other things, this suggests the emergence of a 'tagged world', a secondary space of multiple layers of information, shared and unshared, seen and unseen depending on your connections, your collaborations and your interests. It's not our field, but is there a standard language for augmented tags? An XML of the invisible.

Right now, apps like Wikitude and Layar (apparently available in the Android Market, although impossible to actually track down using a phone) are a bit clunky and slow. Tags sit on objects many kilometres away, simply conventions like highlights and outlines are years away from being seamlessly integrated with a camera view. For a suggestion as to how this information density is going to play out, Lee Maguire's recent post Guided by the Whispers of Angels suggests that discretion will ultimately triumph as a means of conveying these new layers of information to us. Otherwise, chaos will ensue: 'A recent Microsoft concept video ("2019") suggests that, if nothing else, the future is going to be full of infomatic detritus you’re going to have to tune out or go mad.'

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The social history of the mp3, well-structured piece on the evaporation of music from object into thing, from commodity into pure artform and how the inherent contradictions and legacies of a century of a 'music industry' are making this transition complex and heavily loaded (cue nostalgia and criticism) / related, Psychotic Leisure Music, a splendid mp3 blog / Scroll Britannia, 'the UK's First Road Map', or an early outline of the future M3 / the Visual Dumpster, a tumblr / Station Wagon Living, scanned booklet from the past.

A Complete List of England's Lost Country Houses / Unpacking my Library: 'architects and their books'. A missed opportunity - imagine if this had been built in Library Thing, and then all the other architects in the world could rush to put up their Corb covers in sympathy / prints by Matt Dye / prints and things by General Pattern / Notes and Links on Art / The Video Game Museum.

Life As A Woman, Hedy Lamarr and 'frequency-switching devices', torpedo technology and more. From the comments: 'There is also an interesting detail about the image of her that appears just above the German text here — that was done as a submission to a line art contest by Corel, a graphic software company. It won and was made the box cover and startup screen for the software. Unfortunately nobody checked whether Hedy was still alive; she was, living in Florida. She sued and collected some money that made her more comfortable in her declining years.' (via the author of this book, Blow to Bits: Your Life, Liberty and Happiness after the Digital Explosion.

The Craziest Literary Magazine in the World / art by Ross Racine / Millennium People pulls up some images and information on Cedric Price's unbuilt Fun Palace / a distinct absence of fun palaces, save for party favourites: Satellites Uncover North Korea. The unravelling of the world's hidden places through satellite imagery continues.

Drawings by Jochen Gerner / sometimes flickr streams are just fun to follow: Frankie Roberto / buy College Art Online (blog), a slightly more focused Saatchi Online (less fiendishly focused than Stuckism, however) / every now and again we check into Factory20 to marvel at the pure fetishisation of late industrial equipment, furniture and machinery / paintings by Tyson Anthony Roberts / Book Design cover gallery / Caustic Cover Critic on Various Approaches to the Problem of Sherlock Holmes.

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Monday, August 03, 2009
Speed is usually cited as a core characteristic of modernity, an integral element that embodies technology and progress and the visceral, physical thrill of going forward. The Tate's current Futurism show contains many visual and textual homages to the glittering wonders of cars, trains, aeroplanes and bicycles, a fetishism of technological form that welcomed the tumult of the first half of the century with ravening glee. We once speculated that the Futurists would have loved YouTube ('with its swift delivery of pornographic violence, cut, spliced and soundtracked, served up in little two minute chunks of mechanised, balletic carnage'), but actually, it's not them, but us that have the fascination.

Somewhere along the line, we rediscovered what it means to be futurist, once again placed stead in swift experience, chaotic visuals and an emphasis on flow, pattern and constant data. What's most curious is how this state has become the default cultural condition, rather than the eccentric preserve of a group of death-obsessed bon viveurs with a political outlook that swung way, way over to the right. Modern futurism is a hotbed of confusion, praising victory over the enemies of speed, yet also in denial about the staunchly fascist overtones implied by an ever-accelerating age, where the weak are left behind and the strong succeed.

Our fetishism of speed is increasingly detached from the physical realm - we crave the speed of download delivery, instant communication, mobile blogging, latency-free servers, intercontinental video calling, swift screen rotation, and instant messaging. The physical manifestations of speed still exist, of course, but are being slowly stigmatised. We weren't altogether surprised at reports earlier in the month that Bernie Ecclestone had, broadly, praised the Nazi's go-getting attitude (audio), admiring the man who became forever associated with the creation of the autobahn network (although not its creator), loved his Mercedes-Benz and watched proudly as swastika-adorned racing cars set speed records and won Grand Prixs: 'The Silver Arrows, the Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz cars that dominated Grand Prix racing during the years 1934–39, were among the most charismatic racing cars ever made. In this period these two German teams, financially supported by the Nazi government, provided high-speed racing of the highest quality as they battled with each other and consistently trounced the opposition.'

Engineering and auto racing seemed like the ideal way for the nascent fascist states to showcase their abilities, both in terms of industry and in terms of uniting great masses of people. Post war, the aesthetics and political meaning of fast cars and racing shifted its emphasis from the 'mass rally' to that of the popular entertainment: drivers were no longer popular 'supermen', but socially superior to their audiences, undertaking an expensive, high-end pastime (much as racing had originally been seen in Britain and France).

As social mobility and class barriers were slowly chipped away, speed evolved into a populist pastime, no longer the preserve of power-crazed despots and time-rich mustachioed toffs but of the man on the street, eager to create a new mythology. So will technology ever be sullied by speed's creeping neo-fascist edge?

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The other things. Visit Wim Delvoye's Wim City and sample projects like Gothic Works and the infamous Cloaca Factory / 15 war machines by Leonardo da Vinci / The Past Tense of Picture (via me-fi) / explore The Great Exhibition by object type. There was a lot of metalwork and ceramics.

Tumblr round-up. We still love hotwheels, and can now add X Planes to the list. See also Blogalot, Mbarilla, Super Seventies, crappy taxidermy, Systems, diagrams, roomthily and rear view, 'pictures from cars'. See also our wing mirror project / Fluid, artwork by Claire Morgan, incorporating 'Strawberries, taxidermied crow, fishing hooks, nylon'.

State of MARKitechture: Icon puts it succinctly in their review of Phaidon's 10x10_3: 'By their early thirties some of these architects were building on a grander scale than any generation before them. They became masters of jetlag, fuelling emerging economies with ideas for new symbols.' It seems that even Icon (a title that could now be considered ironic, although it probably wasn't meant to be original) is now striving to move away from the 're-blogged' feel of modern architectural publishing.

This Loop of Light and Life / notes.husk.org, a weblog / building 3D cities from existing data, videos by JimanthaJ / a portait of the Delft Architecture Faculty, personal reminiscences from 1970 until its destruction by fire in 2008.

Kottke on Vol Libre, a ground-breaking piece of CGI from 1980. See also the Timeline of CGI in film and television at Wikipedia / With Reckless Abandon, a tumblr / all about Lunar Lander.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009
Signing away your rights is not cute, Conscientious on the new era of content management and the discrete evaporation of rights. In a world where web content is easily repurposed into something more lucrative (ironically usually a book), it's worth noting that 'if you upload a photo to Facebook, they can sell copies of it without paying you a cent. If you write lengthy notes (or import your blog posts!), Facebook can turn them into a book, sell a million copies, and pay you nothing. This deserves careful consideration!' (Legal Andrew, linked from the post. Also at C, a remarkable image showing just how hellbent we are, collectively, on capturing the moment.

Latitude is one of those quiet paradigm shifts that we have anticipated for so long that it comes as no surprise when it actually becomes a viable technology. The idea that we could see instantly where family and friends are on a map is almost as natural as the idea that we could be contacted via phone wherever we are in the world. It's something Dan touched on in his epic post on The Street as Platform (subsequently reprinted in 'Things Our Friends Have Written on the Internet' - thank you very much to whoever sent us a copy). There is, of course, this.

Unwanted (?) infrastructure as creative spur: The New Road versus Solsbury Hill / farewell Hans Beck, founder of Playmobil (via me-fi). Check out Collectobil for his back catalogue / London in just four photographs / things, a project by Stefan Ruiz / Lebbeus Woods' sketches for Alien 3 (via archinect) / McMansions are Built With Paper and Staples / nerdy fun with URLs / / largest snake 'as long as a bus' / rich people's rooftops / the Long Car Purchase. We certainly don't hate cars, but agree wholeheartedly with the idea of intense research being far more fun than the actual purchase itself.

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Friday, January 23, 2009


We've been playing around with TinEye, the 'reverse image search' (registration required). As of this evening, the site claims to have crawled 1,013,140,121 images, assembling a giant database that can be used for near-instant comparison. From the FAQ: 'TinEye finds exact and altered copies of the images that you submit, including those that have been cropped, colour adjusted, resized, heavily edited or slightly rotated. TinEye does not commonly return similar matches, and it cannot recognize the contents of any image. This means that TinEye cannot find different images with the same people or things in them.'

The site does a good job of pulling up a set of differently sized, coloured and scaled versions of the same painting. Maurice de Vlaminck's Landscape with Red Trees (1906) gives the above set of thumbnails a ripple of difference - admittedly mostly very slight - but noticeable in terms of hue and crop. But what about paintings by the same artist? Or different versions of the same landscape? (Paul Cezanne painting Mont St Victoire, for example). Or even different views painted using the exact same combination of colours? Imagine if it could be set to find works by the same artist working in a similar way? TinEye could not only help research artistic movements, it could uncover potentially hidden works. It could create new movements.


Above, a TinEyed selection of thumbnails of one Cezanne painting. Below, several thumbnail images of paintings of the same view, all by Cezanne.

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But what about brands? Could TinEye be trained to identify a Nike trainer, regardless of model, a BMW, or even a building by Frank Gehry? Repetition breeds familiarity in the world of branding, but the idea that an object's inherent brand values might be digitally quantifiable opens up huge cans of worms for product designers. All things seem possible. Imagine the launch of truly recognition engine, a new business tool that is seen as the litmus test for brand recognition. Simply upload the design, adjust the sliders, and you can whether or not your design has _enough_ BMW in it through it's ability to 'attract' and be associated with existing products.



If you run a search, pick 'closest match last' to see how images - usually stock or press shots - are clipped, chopped and pasted. These tiny deviations from the original are examples of the emerging digital patina, the inadvertent introduction of imperfections through the encroachment of jpg degradation, crops and colour recalibration. The inability of digital art to replicate itself precisely is referenced in recent work by Thomas Ruff (sometimes v.nsfw). Ironically, the very tool that reveals this hitherto visual richness in digital design might ultimately lead to the push-button blandification of the material world.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009
When did the technological menace that stalks popular culture shift from being carbon-based to entirely silicon? When did we evolve the perception that fictional computers could receive human-type personalities? When we reviewed Ray Kurzweil's Age of Spiritual Machines, eight and half years ago, we felt that artificial intelligence would be the foundations of a new era of virtual worlds, their actual function and purpose as yet unclear. It was a somewhat misguided idea. Instead, we have learnt to become ever more emotionally attached to our machines, a development that Kurzweil perhaps didn't bargain for in his original analysis.

Stephen Fry made an excellent point late last year, writing about how this state of affairs was essentially kick-started by Apple. At the heart of the iPhone, Fry wrote, is 'the fundamental understanding that is Steve Jobs and Jony Ive’s (Apple's Chief Designer) great contribution to digital (and therefore cultural) life in our time – that human beings, willy-nilly, forge relationships even with inanimate objects and that those relationships, being human, take on all the colours of emotion: it is in our DNA for this to be the case.'

How could this be overlooked for so long? Proponents of 'true' artificial intelligence were once rigorously focused on eking out logic and clarity in human-computer interaction (the foundations of the Turing Test - see the halting conversation with Eliza, recorded in things 6). As a result, we fill in the blanks for ourselves, assigning personality traits to the inanimate and dumb, extrapolating a relationship from the tiny flashes of coincidence that define and extend our bonding with an object - the files apparently withheld out of spite, for example, or blaming a slow connection on some inherent machine stupidity.

Supporting this imposition of a hidden agenda has been half a century or so of fictional computer personalities, running in tandem with computer history. However, there has always been a dark side to this anthropomorphic feast, as the supercomputer turned psychopath and monster. In early science fiction, the 'alien' element had been robotic, from The Day the Earth Stood Still to Forbidden Planet, where the character of Robby the Robot comes to epitomise the mid-50s view of what a robot would look like and what it would be able to do. This was the era of rampant futurism, when a robot in every home seemed a very real possibility. Ultimately, such optimism evaporated in the face of insurmountable technical obstacles, to be replaced by robots as a science fiction trope and a hobbyist's preserve, two spheres that have been forever kept apart by practicality and cost.

As computing power increased, the idea that a villain - or at least a malevolent force - need not be a living entity started to propagate in speculative fiction. What was the first evil computer, that transitional cultural fossil? The list of computers in fiction shows that by the mid-1950s, it was the data-sorting and management ability of computers that led to their eventual demonisation. As a character says in Isaac Asimov's The Evitable Conflict (1950): 'The Machines are not super-brains in Sunday supplement sense,—although they are so pictured in the Sunday supplements. It is merely that in their own particular province of collecting and analyzing a nearly infinite number of data and relationships thereof, in nearly infinitesimal time, they have progressed beyond the possibility of detailed human control'.

The same year, Kurt Vonnegut wrote EPIPAC, the tale of a computer becoming sentient, emotionally attached and ultimately suicidal, while Colossus, a 1966 novel, featured computers hell-bent on world security at the expense of human life. Evil machines were extrapolations of evil government, systems that sought efficiency at the expense of freedom and personal expression. The book also became a film, Colossus: The Forbin Project (video, arriving at around the same time as the screen treatment of Arthur C.Clarke's 2001 (expanded from his story The Sentinel through the addition, we think, of the Hal plot element).

Clark retained the theme of misapplied self-preservation through HAL's murderous activities, focusing on a relatively small scale - a space mission - rather than an entire city or planet. This is a fairly arbitrary dating, but sometime during the 1970s the term 'supercomputer' came into usage, apparently coined by Seymour Cray, the founder of Cray Research. Cray's products were a public relations triumph; giant, almost architectonic devices that used moody lighting, shiny materials and faceted forms reminiscent of post-modernist/metabolist architecture or ancient Mayan temples - they were mysterious objects to be worshipped. Dubbed 'supercomputers', Cray's products immediately caught the public attention, thanks to high profile, media-friendly applications like the creation of effects for The Last Starfighter by Digital Productions.

Being 'super' humanised the computer, ascribing it powers that many were quick to anthropomorphosise, even deify. Cray founded his company in 1972. Kubrick's 2001 dates from a few years before, with the character of HAL evolving from NASA's use of computers for spaceship control, developed since the Gemini Program (video). From there it became de rigeur to have a computer 'character' aboard a space ship, from HAL 9000 in 2001 (voiced by Douglas Rain with all the quiet precision of the sociopath), Mother in Alien, through to Icarus in Sunshine, even Slave in Blake's 7 and Bomb 20 in Dark Star. The computer had stopped being an inanimate 'thing' and become a sentient being, to be romanticised, feared and mistrusted.

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Other things and related links. Visit the HP Museum, or Vintage Computer, or the IBM Archives. There's also the Pioneers of Soviet Computing and the frankly amazing DigiBarn Computer Museum, with its vast collection of machinery and associated print and ephemera. These 1995 screenshots of AlphaWord show you around an early 3D world, a virtual place that is now as lost as any of the real lost civilisations or cities around the world.

A vast pulp gallery / Hal's Legacy: 2001's computer as dream and reality, a 1997 book by David Stork that has its own, lovingly preserved, _enhanced_ web site / a collection of speculative fiction tropes / the B9 Robot Builders' Club / A New Zero, free online war game crammed into less than half a megabyte (via RPS).

The Repository of Records, a weblog / secret messages, an idea via stephanie's weblog / slow muse, a weblog / postcards for sale, amongst other things / photographs by John Davies of Rachel Whiteread's House, a now iconic emblem of lost Britain / on the virtual proliferation of watermelons.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008


There's a void at the intersection between aesthetics and technology. When someone suggests that robotised and computerised house-building could revolutionise a rather staid and conservative industry, the mental image is of baroque concrete follies and slick, appliance like pre-fabs that ape German cars in their build quality and attention to detail.

The truth is unfortunately more prosaic. Aesthetics are running far in advance of manufacturing technology. While creations like Enric Ruiz-gelli's Villa Nurbs are possible, they ultimately are still bespoke objects, plotted on computer but stitched together layer upon layer like a piece of marquetry.

Consider the case of the concrete house printer, the ultimate pre-fab making machine. First mooted back in 2004, the 'Contour Crafting' project, helmed by Behrokh Khoshnevis, has recently given funding by Caterpillar.

Khoshnevis, working at the University of Southern California Viterbi School of Engineering, initially created a system that is necessarily rather angular, as you can see from this YouTube video; right angles dominate. The idea has evolved, as shown by this small scale contour crafting device which can do curves but looks rather impractical to scale up to house size. The Contour Crafting website demonstrates that the solution would be a mix of the two, but would still fall far short of the generative fantasies that represent modern futurism.

The original Contour Crafting announcement resulted in this New Scientist article, which quotes Greg Lynn as saying that "I believe that aesthetically there's a great potential to make things that have never been seen before." Yet Behrokh Khoshnevis's ambitions - "to be able to completely construct a one-story, 2000-square foot home on site, in one day and without using human hands" - were more about volume than aesthetic innovation. This is the kind of future cityscape a robotised army of Contour Crafting machines would create:



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Other things. The Quiet Feather bows out / the Sesquipedalist moves on to a new iteration / a new publication via Archinect and InfraNet Lab, [bracket]. The html for that is going to get irritating / Saudi car culture (video) / huge collection of old car brochures for sale / the website of the book Medical London (via Further) / stolen novels, a great but bizarre story / crashed plane in Russia.

Paintings by Oana Lauric / the ladies of Star Trek, both via Rashomon / on Chaplin's Modern Times / the Swaggart Bible College Dorm, a gem of late evangelical brutalism at Abandoned Baton Rouge / Old Milwaukee / four years on, and Lynn is clutching a Golden Lion, saying "We Want Your Toys.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008
We seem to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how to define the contemporary aesthetic. Past posts have speculated that the type of work favoured by ffffound and its ilk is the dominant mode of modern design, featuring - but not limited to - the intersection of rough-edged printmaking derived textures, wandering lines and smudgy forms drawn from traditional illustration, the hard-edged glistening sheen of computer generated imagery and the patterns, lines and inherent beauty of raw geometry.

This is a multi-disciplinary world where art direction, amateur photography, architecture, illustration, craft, cartoons and technology all fuse into one another, creating - dare we say it - a homogenous pop culture aimed at the attention deficient more than anything else. It's also a global culture (see 360 magazine from China, for example), having evolved from the enthusiastic sub-cultural adoption of Japanese Manga in the West into an ability to absorb specific local influences to generate an all-pervasive yet ultimately placeless sense of the 'exotic'.

So where does the profusion of imagery leave actual, concrete, physical design? We'd speculate that architecture has been fairly comprehensively damaged by the attraction and dominance of the ephemeral - what might rather unkindly be called the triumph of whimsy. Consider Ruum, a new architecture and design magazine (found via Creative Boys Club, which is a mecca for the New Eclectic). With layouts and type that draw on a variety of sources, fashion shoots that have a kitchen-sink inclusiveness and a collage-friendly emphasis on the collation and presentation of imagery, Ruum demonstrates the influence of 21st publishing successes like MARK magazine and, to a lesser extent, A10.

In these publications, architecture is reduced to being little more than the generator of the layouts, not a series of three dimensional spaces but a 2D form that inspires print design, rather than spatial interaction. MARK and A10 differ from late C20 eclectics like Nest through their fatal attraction to novelty, a fascination with the sheen of what is apparently innovation, but is more usually the blurred hinterland between render and photograph, the point at which the computer-generated becomes indistinguishable from reality. Ladel on the increasingly clip art-like imagery found on art, architecture and illustration aggregators, and you end up with design that is simultaneously timeless and utterly of its time.

But is the modern aesthetic genuinely modern? We'd suggest it was simply a hacked about histogram of the past century, with the troughs edited out in favour of the peaks. Many have noticed Late Modernism's peaky attention grabbing of late, lamenting how the 'icon' has supplanted contextual design in an attempt to snap our synapses to attention through novelty, impact and verve. Sit down man, you're a bloody tragedy has a splendid post that declares We are all Googie now, noting that the spiky commercial gimcracks of West Coast America not only transcended the rather dull and acquiescent output of the ruling International Modernists ('In fact, with their deliberate defiance of the rules of gravity and geometry, their brashness and lack of precedent, googie buildings were more true to the Modernist event'), but is arguably the aesthetic mode that underpins contemporary architecture.

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Technology thoughts. 3D appears to be making a comeback, through a series of just-launched/in-the-pipeline applications that are tringing to bring science-fiction style interface control to the desktop (although the exciting-sounding Liveplace technology that everyone was talking about last week is this week's Yeti hoax). For a start, we've been playing around with Photosynth a little bit (good discussion at me-fi), and it does seem to do what it promises, although the research uses are few and far between right now / photoshop style enhancement for video. See also 10 futuristic user interfaces. The sheer complexity of modern data management is starting to manifest in unusual little ways, like the creation of 'fake following' applications that allow you to mimic real life behaviour - nodding, saying 'uh-huh' a lot, not paying attention - in the hitherto unrelentingly demanding digital realm.

Other things. A panorama of the Watercube / Re-Title, an online art directory / once and for all, WebUrbanist puts together 42 Essential Flickr Abandonment Groups (via tmn), illustrating the sheer scale of not just our ongoing fascination with modern ruins, but the amount of ruins out their to chronicle / Midpoint Meander, an architect-driven weblog.

The Lego minifigure turns 30 / the Olympics in Lego / Stimpy in Lego / after Other Simulated Worlds, revisiting Hiroshi Sugimoto's Dioramas series / Tigerluxe, a weblog by an illustrator / Postcrossing, 'a project that allows anyone to exchange postcards (paper ones, not electronic) from random places in the world' / a blog by the artist Gaston Caba / entschwindet und vergeht, a weblog touching on architecture, sound and more, including a piece on the Caretaker.

Michael Jantzen has a new website. While his largely computer-generated oeuvre isn't quite in synch with what passes for fantasy architecture these days, it's certainly prescient - consider the recently released renders of Zaha Hadid's Capital Hill Residence in Barvikha, Russia. A computer-generated fantasy made real (potentially), its form suggestive not just of architectural innovation, but of massive shifts in economic power and patronage. Mildly reminiscent of Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower in Potsdam / moving the Maxwell House, an icon gets relocated. Oh for the demountable lightness of an earlier generation of architectural masterpieces.

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We were pipped to the post by the release of myLighter, a flickering flame you can install on your iPhone and presumably hold aloft while swaying to the music. There needs to be a word for technological ennui, the state we exist anything where anything is technically possible and the only thing that holds us back is our imagination. No sooner can you imagine a new application of an existing technology than someone has actually does it, posting details of their hack around the world.

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Friday, May 30, 2008


Rage Against the Machines, a thoughtful piece on the ongoing problems we seem to have with categorising video games, deducing exactly what it is they do us when we play them, and working out what this means for society. The statistics are certainly arresting: "The video games industry, meanwhile, continues to grow at a dizzying pace. Print has been around for a good 500 years; cinema and recorded music for around 100; radio broadcasts for 75; television for 50. Video games have barely three serious decades on the clock, yet already they are in the overtaking lane. In Britain, according to the Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association, 2007 was a record-breaking year, with sales of "interactive entertainment software" totalling £1.7bn - 26 per cent more than in 2006. In contrast, British box office takings for the entire film industry were just £904m in 2007 - an increase of 8 per cent on 2006 - while DVD and video sales stood at £2.2bn (just 0.5 per cent up on 2006), and physical music sales fell from £1.8bn to £1.4bn. At this rate, games software, currently our second most valuable retail entertainment market, will become Britain's most valuable by 2011. Even books - the British consumer book market was worth £2.4bn in 2006 - may not stay ahead for ever." The surprise is that books are the most valuable 'retail entertainment market' in the UK.

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Other things. Trixie Tracker, apply obsessional Web 2.0 information overload to the life of your baby. We wonder how many second children get this level of attention? Related, mon.thly.info, track your cycle online / giant insect models by Julia Stoess. See also the work of Guido Mocafico, currently on show at the Hamiltons Gallery.

John Madin: Architect, a period piece from the days when modernists strode about the world, remaking it to their own vision. Thanks to no2self. We also like this post on the compact family home, comparing the economic and rhetorical gulf between modular architecture and plain old common or garden caravanning. Related, the architecture Vodpod page / the architecture of authority / the architecture of stealth and secrecy.

Weblog round-up. Ample Sanity / On Shadow / O'Connors O'Pinions / retro things at Susi.a / Fractal Ontology / London Smog / architecture things at Fantastic Journal / Birmingham: it's not shit, self explanatory / trabalhosujo / good links at Carnet d'addresses / CHEN's blog, architecture, etc. / the iaakuza chronicles / random knowledge / morbid anatomy, 'surveying the interstices of art and medicine, death and culture', a kind of Wellcome weblog, if you like.

Vanishing Point: 'how to disappear in America without a trace'. Probably somewhat outdated now / a history of the Reading Festival / the Paris Exposition of 1900, a flickr set (via haddock). A truly remarkable panorama / mildly entertaining: Read at Work (via) / Today we learn about Canada / The Wenceslaus Hollar Digital Collection, 1607-1677 / a new project, before and after shots from the modernist golden age of anti-Victoriana.

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Monday, January 28, 2008


The Virtual Cable concept has steadily been building 'buzz', online and in the papers. This idealised satellite navigation system is a development of the head-up displays already used in some Citroens, Corvettes and BMW, but instead of using symbols, it strings out a virtual red line to mark your route ahead. The line is a projection that appears like a personal trolley wire, curving round corners and junctions to illustrate the way. It's an inverse of the ball of thread Daedalus gave Ariadne to help Theseus find his way out of the Labyrinth.

Wayfinding is a central theme of so many myths and fairytales it's not surprising that technology should seek to make the act of following a route so elemental and straightforward. 'And when the full moon had risen, Hansel took his little sister by the hand, and followed the pebbles which shone like newly-coined silver pieces, and showed them the way.' (we've often wondered whether the shining stones laid by Hansel and Gretel had any influence on the beautifully title missile defence system Brilliant Pebbles, 'a 4,000-satellite constellation in low-Earth orbit that would fire high-velocity, watermelon-sized projectiles at long-range ballistic missiles launched from anywhere in the world.')

Apart from the fact that such a system could be even more distracting than regular satnav systems, as drivers become bewitched by the floating red line at the expense of all other activity around them, the possibilities are endless. For a start, the system could be hacked to share its output, leading to all sorts of potential scenarios. Police could use the 'trails' left behind by the system to apprehend stolen cars. After market glasses - perhaps even contact lenses - could be sold to enthusiastic amateurs who want to see 'live' trails stream past them - red for destinations yet to be reached, blue for the paths already travelled, perhaps slowly dissipitating and unravelling as time passes, like vapour trails or the paths of incoming aeroplanes descending on American airports in Google Earth.

The tangle of 'wires' that criss-cross above our heads will recall the lines of fighting kites, or the adhoc arrangement of telegraph wires and gas pipes that have lasted decades unmolested. Only these will be dynamic and constantly shifting, an inverted version of the immersive environment created by Toyota, for example, with everyone's digital aura made clear and visible.

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Other things. We Love Mags / gorgeous slice of late period modernism / a long time since we've looked at lost in E minor / AA Log, the Architectural Assocation in 'realtime' / Reaction, a weblog / G.x 2.0 Workblog, the literal cutting edge of manufacturing / car adverts seem to imply that cars leave behind an indelible impression of our choices as consumers, a lingering glow to bask in. Saab's 'Born from Jets' commercial is a case in point, a representation of a vapour trail which unfortunately looks a bit like clouds of smog.

DayGlo Rococo - Reyner Banham would have had a field day - the interior design of German brothels, or 'Frauenzimmer' (sfw). Photographs by Patric Fouad. Says Caitlin Moran, 'it almost made me wish I was a middle-manager in petrochemicals on a three-day business trip to Dusseldorf, aiming to waste a bit of time and protein'. Compare and contrast with Tim Hursley's Brothels in Nevada.

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