David Greene: The Big Nothing

Or: An Exit Strategy for Architecture; Or: Another Kind of Archigram

This essay was first published in the excellent catalogue titled “L.A.W.U.N Project 19: The Disreputable Projects of David Greene” produced for David Greenes exhibition at the Architectural Association, (April – May 2008). Get it, if you can. Its a lovely thing!

The history of architecture is a history of stuff. Or rather of stuff assembled – of trees cut down and joined together, of stone cut from the ground and piled up, of muds and clays dug up and baked, of ore mined from the earth, refined and formed. Stuff piled up, fixed together, poured into assemblages of form of increasing complexity. Think of the accuracy with which this stuff is assembled. Think of the precision and control in the machines that track thread into screws. Think of tools rolling from production lines: the thousands of diggers a year that trundle off over the surface of the planet, the cranes and mixers moving lifting and placing stuff into designated positions.

How long would it take to un-build the history of Modernism? Just imagine the mass of buildings as you flick through Pevsners ‘Pioneers of Modern Design’. Imagine their mass un-built; imagine it unassembled into bricks stacked on infinite pallets, or tonnes of sand, or acres of gravel. Imagine how long it would take to repatriate all the displaced stone. Think of the weight of concrete referred to in Frampton’s ‘Modern Architecture: A Critical History’ or Jencks’s ‘Modern Movements in Architecture’, or whatever other history you may have to hand.

But the history of architecture as it is written isn’t a history of tools or stuff; it’s a history of how and why these things have been assembled. A history of shapes, volumes, walls and holes in walls, of how to hold things up and what happens when you do. Somewhere in this arrangement of stuff, progress and a better world slowly evolves. In the Modernist project, once all of nature has been rearranged – that’s to say that the accidents of mineral deposits, of elements and compounds frozen into solid geology after spinning in a universe of exploding dust – we will be happy, healthy and fulfilled. Underlying Modernism is a latent mystical vision, one whose origins might well lie in places like William Blakes neo-socialist visions of a New Jerusalem. It is a techo-eden; a new paradise (with better social housing, healthcare, and plumbing) regained though construction. The history of Modern architecture is a slow march of progression through the congealing of stuff and the clotting of materials into form.

Like anything which dreams of utopia, somewhere near the heart of the project lies a kind of weightless zone filled with light and space – a rapture of weightlessness at the core of religion, of drugs or of love. Architecture too has this soft, hazy centre – a tendency that seems to oppose the heavy mass of building. The tendency is about vanishing, about a desire to disappear. It shies away from mass, from the definitive density of built form into something lighter and less present.

We can see it in the way that Modernist architecture melted the decoration of neo-classical buildings with the intentions of removing the social stigma, the coding that placed buildings. Solid wall became transparent. Interiors of buildings opened up, the walls that separated one kind of function from another (or one kind of person from another kind of person) started to dissolve.

The technology of building – engineering, the manufacture of materials and so on – combined with a social and political agenda. Roofs began to disappear, and become gardens or nurseries. Windows became larger – changing from framing external views to an all-encompassing vista. Moments of modernist architecture use erasure of buildings as an act of social revolution – bringing interiors into closer relation with landscape, breaking down old higherachies.

The central argument as written by Pevsner and embellished by Reyner Banham concerned the relationship of Modernism to the industrial revolution, to machines and technologies. But within the modern experience there are other cultural impetuses – and one of those is towards the invisible. The idea of transparency and of vanishing appears in multiple cultural locations in the proto-modern world.

Just as architecture entered its radical revolution, something else was – quite literally – in the air. Pulses of electromagnetic radiation had begun to be sent through the air. Marconi’s development of radio technology meant that distant places could be connected virtually. Radio laid out the possibility for a world transformed by instant communication. This coincidence might mean that Marconi’s invisible, wireless communication might be the technological context, an a priori sensation for the innovation of the open plan. Even solid construction feels somehow more porous when invisible information flows through it.

The oscillations of waveform unravel the completeness of architectures boundaries. Space, place and experience are knocked out of register and put back together out of order. Things overlap, begin to merge, or dissolve into each other, places eavesdrop on others; conduits are formed like wormholes through geography. Interiors could connect to exteriors, to other interiors and public life flows into the domestic space through the radios speaker. In fact, what developments like radio mean is a new idea of place, defined not by the peculiar accidents of geotechtonics and the specifics of social and political histories. Architecture – an art of place – naturally responds to this new synthesisation of place.

The Modern invisible has other vectors. We should also think of that phrase from the Communist manifesto “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” ‘Solid melting into air’ might describe the way advanced capitalism can abstract a concept of value. Solid material and physical graft of labour are converted into a virtual state within a framework that allows this value to circulate around the abstract virtual financial networks.

Freud’s exploration of the subconscious opened another terrain of the ineffable and unphysical – a realm of the invisible mechanisms which structure behaviour. Freud’s theories of psychoanalysis had growing influence through the twentieth century, permeating the points of contact between the behemoths of both government and corporations with the interior lives of the people. Techniques derived from psychoanalysis have been used to engineer consent within democracies: an un-physical conduit of power.

Electronic communication, the abstracting power of liquid capital, and the various applications of psychoanalysis have been defining characteristics of the modern era. They have transformed the way in which we live in a fundamentally profound manner. They are ghostly apparitions of immense influence, as their potential has been amplified though loosing their corporeal state. The invisible organises the world in a more fundamental way than architecture: space is manufactured by the influence of these unseen forces.

The idea of nothing, of the disappearance of substance, becomes fundamental to modern experience and provides the context for architectures impetus towards the invisible. Perhaps it is the latent backstory to Mies’ famous phrase “Less is more”. Though he meant a kind of reductive elegance with less ornament and fewer barriers, and that an absence of building might magnify architectural experience, the phrase is strangely opaque and undefined. It is a phrase that can mean almost anything you want it to mean depending upon which ‘less’ and ‘more’ you meant. If you were Buckminster Fuller ‘Less’ would mean a building that weighed less. If you were Cedric Price, it might mean that the building cost less – and that an architectural imperative was to not build any more than necessary as we see at Interact in Kentish Town. It might, if you were David Greene, ‘less’ means an architecture of almost nothing at all – a very specific kind of nothing: the nothings derived from Marconi, Marx and Freud: the invisible tides of modernity that rage around us.

This less/more thing is the subtext of many Archigram projects. They proposed visions where dismountable engineering and pop ephemera displaced sedentary solid architecture. Theses kits of pop-up architectural moments – in the pictures at least – release their users from the conformities of normal, building bound behaviour into a kind of liberated ecstasy of ‘being’.

Archigram drew (in both senses of the word) upon precedents of post-war architectural lightness such as the Eames house – assembled from parts ordered from mail order catalogues that could as easily taken apart and returned to its constituent products as it could be assembled. Construction was rethought as an ephemeral association of things rather than carved or cast into a timeless, fixed state. The Eames made what the Smithsons called an architecture of assemblage – both as a building and the things they collected and arranged inside it. It highlighted a relationship of architecture to products – a way of making architecture out of burgeoning consumerism, of being architects through being consumers, making buildings by choosing and buying. It was this that had resonated with the Smithsons and the Independent Group before it exploded into techni-colour vision with Archigram. But for all of the Independent Groups polemics the architecture produced by its members were made in the shadow of Modernisms b???ton brut.

In Archigram, the IGs critic-in-chief Reyner Banham found a vehicle for his theory of gadgets and gizmos. Like the Smithsons, Archigram were wrestling with an idea of modernism. They too were attempting to re-invigorate the modern tradition which they felt had run into sand.

Amongst Archigrams projects exploring a mechanised, technological consumerist Modernism, David Greenes Archigram era work traces its own trajectory toward the invisible. It moves from stuff that is big and heavy like the mosque to the Invisible University. On the way, architecture sheds its mass and volume. Houses become lightweight living pods; buildings become an enhanced form of clothing.

Increasingly, Greenes projects describe an architecture either of augmented body, or of landscape. Technology becomes a means of releasing functional attributes from building, and turning these compressions of function into quasi-primitative forms where landscape and building coincide. In this way, the Living Pod can be read as a kind of synthetic cave: fibreglass sprayed onto polystyrene formwork which is then burnt out to leave a cavernous shell. On one hand the project suggests a practical application of a modern engineering technique, while the subtext suggests that contemporary engineering might return us to our cave-origin.

RockPlug similarly suggests prehistoric times. Not only is it a means of stealthily introducing technology into natural landscape, like many a Hollywood home security installation or bachelor roof terrace hi-fi set up. It also suggests a prehistoric relationship with stones. As Julian Cope – 80s rocker turned megalithic chronicler – notes, the standing stones of Avebury still stand as symbols at the point the man set himself at odds with nature: the moment of the agrarian revolution. These standing stones set a course of architecture as a symbol of the separation between the manmade and the natural. RocPulg – and its sister product, Log Plug – are a means of re-inventing this origin of architecture.

There are two aspects to these kinds of project – firstly a techo-primativeness described in the idea of the “Electric Aborigine” (who, thanks to the electronic devices hung around his neck and stuffed in his pockets, is a ‘social chameleon’). These are imaginings of a time before building, but made through the technologies of late capitalism – a kind of electronic Arcadia. There are echoes of particular English ideas about landscape. EM Forsters description of Edwardian Surrey as a ‘landscape of amenity” might well be a pre-existing phrase that one could use to describe Greene-ish urbanism – an alternative way of phrasing Greenes description of his Bottery project as “a fully serviced natural landscape”. The Bottery sees aspects of nature re-built and augmented like mineral and vegetable Steve Austins – made more useful, and offing more amenity. While it might look like pastoral nature, it revels in the hard-sell language of Ronco-esque marketing, emphasising its status as manufactured product.

The second aspect is an attempt to imagine architecture which doesn’t rely on form-making – that architectural concepts could occupy existing forms like conceptual hermit crabs. They suggest that architecture could exist without its own corporeal body and instead could posses other fabric like a ghostly spirit. These projects see the fundamental practice of architectural form-making removed from the process of making architecture. The activities which consume architects activity – compositions of facades, arrangements of plan and section, massing and sculpting of building – simply disappear in a puff of appropriation. By default, the language by which we describe buildings disappear with them. Architecture free from its formal shell could remain in a state of flux. Giving up its responsibilities to image-making, architecture becomes a multitude of different activities. Form-free architecture could be delivered from its specialised status and returned to landscape of the everyday.

If architecture in all these projects dissolves, with Greene, so too does the idea of the architect. Perhaps the architect isn’t just the person who designs forms. Maybe the architects role is about a particular kind of understanding. Perhaps architecture is a state of mind, or a way of looking. That architecture can be made without recourse to building. An architect might simply need to find a new kind of language that could articulate these newly imagined but already existing architectural phenomena.

The retreat from form – and simultaneously from the representation of architectural vision – has a number of motivations. First, Greene argues that there is plenty of building already, and that finding better use of this pre-existing stuff is an architectural project in itself. Secondly, that solutions to architectural problems might not be found through building but through other activities: management, cleaning, gardening, and other non-architectural, non-professional interactions with buildings. Perhaps most potently, there is Greenes growing suspicion of the seductive power of the architects drawing. Image is the primary means by which architecture is communicated – both as drawing and as photograph. Images can conceal as much as they reveal in their attempts to convince their audience. Reyner Banhams comment that Archigram seemed “long on drawing, short on thinking” seems to have stayed with Greene. Archigram had ramped up the image to a hyper developed graphic art form that overwhelmingly seduced its viewer fast and totally. The completeness of the graphic experience overpowers even its own content. Coupled with his own perception that other Archigrammers were far longer on drawing than him, Greene seems to have determined a resolve to move away from drawing as architectural activity. If architecture wasn’t to be built, or even drawn then what could it be?

Questions like these and ideas about the dismantlement of architectural convention, in part, reveal the influence of Victor Burgin, who was a colleague of Greene’s at Trent Polytechnic in the late 60s and early 70s. Burgin was one of the pioneering theorists of conceptual art, and his ideas and writings help shed light on Greene’s brave voyage (or shambolic retreat) into the invisible. Conceptual art, as presented by Burgin, meant a different way of looking at and making art. It meant that the ‘stuff’ of art changed, that it no longer had to reveal itself on canvas or on a plinth.
Painting for Burgin was ‘the anachronistic daubing of woven fabrics with coloured mud’. Similarly, Archigram too argued that buildings were anachronistic – old-fashioned relics of a technology whose principles have hardly changed in hundreds of years. Though Archigrams project went about architecture with technology, it still maintained the stuff of engineering and promoted the image over the idea.

Conceptual art meant a different way of looking at and making art. It meant that the ‘stuff’ of art changed, that art didn’t have to happen on a canvas or on a plinth anymore. The relationship of object and idea changed – they no longer had to coincide in the same place. It demonstrated that ideas and objects could exist out of register with each other. In art, ‘Idea’ was liberated from its ‘Stuff’, that ideas and objects could exist out of register with each other. Architecture still believed (and still believes) in the inexorable coupling of form and content. ‘Stuff’ becomes ‘idea’ through its manipulations in a kind of transubstantiation. Architects still talk of sculpting space in ways that conjure antiquated art practice (contemporary sculpture, by contrast, displays very little interest in the pursuit of abstract form-making). Form is the first refuge of the architect – a means of deferring deep concept, a kind of defence mechanism by which a project becomes autonomous from its physical, social, and political contexts: the point where it becomes image.

As art had demonstrated, ‘form’ and ‘stuff’ might not contain ‘idea’. If the architectural idea could escape the anachronistic stuff of buildings then we might not need buildings to have architecture. In fact, buildings might be – as Aaron Betsky suggests – where architecture goes to die.

The dying of architecture is enacted in Greenes ‘City Crusher’ project. It explores undoing building – demolition – as architectural act. Taking an off the shelf demolition machine, Greene calculates how long it would take to return the Empire State Building to rubble. Ruination here becomes an act of positive opportunity that undoes the solid un-arguable, inescapable fact that the Empire State Building represents. The building – famed for its height – is returned to horizontal landscape in the form of rubble and dust. It suggests that un-building as an architectural act. It also uses machinery of the everyday, hired from a builder’s merchant on a day rate which underlines the projects practical possibility (If unlikely). It stages the destruction of building as a form of relief, a rapture of dissolving, and liberation from the tyranny of form. It is an opening up – both literally of space, and of potential. The ideas of architectures potential of disassembly – as seen by the Eames, and Cedric Price, and suggested in early High Tech – are here made explicit. The architect is cast in to role of destructor rather than constructor. City Crusher proposes an exit strategy for architecture.

City Crusher puts architecture into reverse: the ‘stuff’ of architecture could be broken down and returned to the builders yard. Mines would go into reverse as minerals and ores are returned to their origin, glass ground back into sand, and wood mulched into compost for new forests to rise from. Chemical bonds in the molecules of cement could break, bricks be somehow un-baked back into soft clay. All the buildings of the world could be returned to their geological constituents.

This backward-forwards futurism has a precedent in an unexpected source. In ‘News From Nowhere’, William Morris describes a post- (fictional) revolution London that has overthrown the industrial revolution. Morris explores his utopian arts and crafts vision through a novel where the streets are full of happy folk in colourful homemade clothes. Industry has been uninvented, as has organised politics. The Houses of Parliament have become semi-ruined and used as a manure store. Schools have been disbanded. Instead, childrens education is provided in a forest which has grown on the site of Kensington Gardens. Children emerge from this forest at sixteen having somehow ‘learnt’ in the wild landscape. Which brings us to another Greene-ism. If you added some robots into the mix, Morris might be describing could be a part of Greenes Invisible University.

Morris’ novel describes a positivist, craft based Communism. He worked his popular polemic-manifesto design activities as a direct resistance to the industrial revolution. Greenes aim is less direct. Rather than oppositional it suggests spaces between the waves of modernities absolute power where we might find plausible alternatives. It argues that if we really understood the implications of a networked world, saturated with millions of useful gadgets we might find that we are already surrounded by countless possible architectural propositions.

In all architectures that tend toward the invisible, the point of disappearance is revealing. Like the trap door in a magician’s cabinet, the apparent disappearance is the key to understanding the phenomenon. Like Mies’ absent corner, the call sign of the disappearance is the means by which we can classify its type. And for Greene, this moment is the robot.

The Bottery project argues that we don’t need buildings to make architecture. It asks weather it is possible for “the whole world be an all-green-grass-sphere”, a global park inhabited by a multitude of robots – Mowbot, Fridgebot, Skinbot, Combot and so on – which enable ephemeral architectural scenarios to develop and dissolve over time. Like all science fiction, its subject isn’t the future, but the present. The ‘bots’ seem to represent stuff that comes and goes, the mass of products that surround us within easy reach, providing us with particular attributes. Real world bots might be anything: the bags full of discount clothes from TK Max that you bought last week, the rug and vase from IKEA, your Jamie Oliver Flavour Shaker, the education you purchased from your Alma Mater, the film you downloaded last night, the mayor you voted in for the next four years as well as the executive home you’ve just bought off-plan, the office block you commissioned as well as the technology the mobile phone, laptop and pacemaker that your surgeon installed last year. The idea of the ‘bot’ is a way of understanding everything that surrounds us.

Though the Bottery asks if we can exist without architecture, its real proposition is that absolutely everything is architecture: the plants, the gardeners, the sky, the rain – and yes, even the buildings. The Bottery is a plea for a different understanding of architecture: where everything and every act becomes part of a fluid definition, and fluid act of architecture. Though it foregrounds the conditions of the network, its real context is to exploring the realms of modern experience without the armoured shell of building as protection. What seems to be almost nothing is an essay on architecture as everything.

Greenes projects un-do architecture by imagining a different way of understanding of what constitutes it. It unzips the history of architecture not by physically dismantling it, but by conceptual means. His conceptual liberation is a challenge and it places us (and him) in a strange position. The formal comfort blanket of architectural certainty is removed and he reaches both backwards to modernisms origins and forward to a post-modern condition of surplus and choice. It is both futurist and nostalgic. It is practical in the sense of being do-able but wildly fantastical. It is a double-take rewind, a fast-forwarding nostalgia, a picturesque of the future, a techno-pastoralism: natural and synthetic, poetic and pragmatic. On one hand it proposes Arcadia, on the other a world entirely devoured by consumerism where the planet itself is transformed into a spherical product floating in space. By engaging with the endless and unresolving unphysical nature of the contemporary, Greenes projects explores an architecture which hotwires Modernism, then takes it for a picnic. Pass me a scotch egg and watch out for the Mowbot.

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