Obscure Design Typologies: Brick Making Machines

Here is a glimpse into the world that makes the world: A selection of brick making machines gleaned from the global B2B marketplace Alibaba, that Aladdin’s Cave of mysteriously exotic banality. These are the machines that manufacture the things we manufacture the world out of, devices that are interfaces between the raw material of geology and the most basic building block of the synthetic, designed world. And though basic, we know (from this John Conway lecture on the mathematics of the brick, that a brick despite (or rather because of its ubiquity in the built environment) is actually a high concept idea in the form of baked clay. These, then are the glorious machines that provide form to that concept.

And for comparison, a few historical brick making scenarios:

[Side Note: To those dullards who happily quote Lou Kahn’s famous aphorism (you know, that one that goes “What does a brick want to be?”) ... Well, isn’t being a brick - with all of the history and culture that that entails - enough?]

Art Review Live

Just a quick note about an event for Art Review this coming Thursday evening, part of their Art Review Live programme in their basement space in Honduras Street.

I’m talking about A Clockwork Jerusalem, the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, people walking ducks in Peckham, and showing videos … and there will be specially themed cocktails too for that real Moloko Plus vibe.

Thursday 17th July, 7pm-11pm, Art Review, 1 Honduras Street, London EC1Y 0TH

John Conway and the Princeton Brick

Thanks to Richard Rhys of Pattern Foundry comes this 2 hr lecture on the mathematics of the brick by mathematician John Conway It starts in the lecture theatre with Conway outlining the dimension of the brick, then explaining how various types of bond work before heading out into the Princeton campus to look at a walls, walls and more walls. Watch it- honestly, do – and you’ll never look at brick wall the same again.

A Clockwork Jerusalem, The Soundtrack

Optimo * A Clockwork Jerusalem Mix. (Optimo In Venice) by Thoughts On Love And Smoking. on Mixcloud

Here is the soundtrack commissioned by The Vinyl Factory and 180 The Strand for the Clockwork Jerusalem party at the Venice Biennale. Mixed by JD Twitch and JG Wilkes aka Optimo the mix brings together such seemingly disparate music sources as Wendy Carlos’ soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange, Mark Stewart’s dubbed-out remix of William Blake’s Jerusalem, Andrew Weatherall’s Sabres of Paradise classic ‘Smokebelch’ and tracks by The Fall, Joy Division, Steel Pulse and even Bronski Beat(!) into a brilliant and powerful comment on the complexity of modern Britain.

Get ready to throw some shapes and dance about architecture.

Stonehenge as Historico Futurism

To coincide with the summer solstice, here is a little extract from my essay in the Clockwork Jerusalem book published alongside the show I’ve co-curated at the British Pavilion. The book is beautiful – burt sadly only available from the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale right now, We’re hoping to have a little wider distribution very soon.

British Modernism begins in a different place and time from its Continental cousin. Unlike Continental Modernisms dream of the tabula rasa, a wiping away of history, it looks backwards in order to invent new utopian visions. But this is not nostalgia: the past is used as the baton charge of progression. Blake’s ‘ancient times’, for example, is not not safe or secure but a radical call to arms. History is polemic, a site to write vivid contemporary arguments. It’s this we find at the very origin of British architecture, the empty-yet-full sign, unreadable but endlessly writable zero point: Stonehenge.

In the words of Spinal Tap ‘Nobody knows who they were or what they was doing there’.
Since its “rediscovery” in the 12th century, Stonehenge has been a backdrop to projected imaginations from Hippy Convoy generator-powered space-rock festivals, to Victorian pantomime Druids, William Blake’s mystical Albionism and associated with a grab bag of folklore and conspiracy theories: King Arthur, Robin Hood and UFO’s.

Stonehenge’s tenuous relationship to history is neatly illustrated by the local guide who, when showing antiquarian William Stukeley around the site in the mid 1700s, scattered Roman coins in an effort to confirm Inigo Jones’s theory that it had been built as a Roman temple.

Jones had been commissioned by James I to carry out a survey of the stones but the document posthumously published as ‘The most notable antiquity of Great Britain, vulgarly called Stone-Heng on Salisbury plain’ (London, 1655) was more wish fulfilment than archeology. Jones drew what he imagined rather than what he saw – the stones sharp and abstract in a perfect circle, a hexagon arranged in their middle.

By naming Stonehenge as Roman rather than pagan Jones was naturalising the roots of continental classicism at the heart of his Palladianism, co-opting indigenous Celtic culture as a way to speed a new vision of what he hoped Britain might become.

This is not the only time Stonehenge – or at least a version of it – has been written into the future.

The Royal Crescent in Bath (1767) is one of the grandest examples of Georgian architecture. The curved facade of the terrace faces onto a ha-ha-ed lawn as though it were an aristocratic house. It may be decorated with the kind of ionic columns and rustication that Jones introduced but embedded in its plan is something far removed from these Palladian references.

John Wood the Elder – who set out the plan arrangement – was immersed in pagan history and its his druidic interests that bent the crescent into an explicit reference to the inner horse-shoe of stones at Stonehenge. Connecting this crescent to the Royal Circus forms a sun and moon set out at urban scale, according to myth, along a ley line. Woods plan merges ghosts of Albion with speculative building to create a new urban typology of the crescent terrace for the rising middle class.

Two hundred years later it was the Royal Crescent that Hugh Wilson and Lewis Womersley had in mind when they were designing what was to be the largest public housing estate in Europe. The four Hulme Cresents, south-facing u-shaped blocks each named after a distinguished British architects Adam, Nash, Barry and Kent provided 3,284 deck-access homes for over 13,000 people.

They wrote of their approach: “By the use of similar shapes and proportions, large-scale building groups and open spaces … it is our endeavour to achieve at Hulme a solution to the problems of twentieth-century living which would be the equivalent in quality that reached the requirements of eighteenth-century Bloomsbury and Bath.”

Hulme was, in other words, a Royal Crescent for all with its bourgeois grandeur democratised. That their abstracted curves recalled the drawings Inigo Jones had made of the “most notable antiquity of Great Britain” is at least serendipity, if not intentional.

The crescents were built on a site that had once been the cradle of Manchester’s Industrial Revolution, whose Blakian ‘Satanic Mills’ and circumstance Friedrich Engels described in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), as “chiefly bad and approaching ruin … generally sunk in filth.”

His description came to haunt Wilson and Womersley’s Welfare State Crescents. In 1974 a five-year old child died falling from a balcony due to a design flaw. After the incident residents demanded rehousing and the Council, deeming the flats unsuitable for families, agreed. By 1984 the Crescents had become so undesirable, and lacking the funds to demolish the housing scheme, the council stopped charging rents entirely.

Left to its own devices, The Crescents became home to an alternative subcultural scene. The Kitchen was an illegal nightclub created from three knocked-through flats and was described as a “much wilder alternative” to the nearby Hacienda club. Hulmes bohemian desolation provided the imaginative space for Kevin Cummin’s famous portrait of Joy Division on the pedestrian bridge leading into the estate – the only structure that remains standing after the Crescents eventual demolition in 1994. Describing it as a ‘portrait of space rather then a band’, Cummins suggests the significance of Hulme – in all its desolate misery – as an imaginative space inhabited by Joy Divisions iron curtain fantasies.

Films and photographs of the era of Hulme’s demolition show wild parties and a seemingly manic delight in its impending destruction. In these moments Hulme pulses with the entire bloodline of British architecture. The Crescents transformed into gigantic versions of Stonehenge – equally strange and mysterious, handed down from a vanished civilisation. Within the curling modernist arms of the Crescents parties unconsciously reenacted Druidic rituals fuelled by Ecstasy and Acid House before Hulme too would be consigned to the dustbin of history and assume its own mythic status in the pop culture of Manchester and beyond.

Upcoming Events: Battle of Ideas / Critics Night

A couple of upcoming events I’m taking part in next week:

I’m talking in Rotterdam at the New Institute / NAi on Thursday 17th Oct. It’s ‘Critics Night’ and I’ll be joining Eric Kluitenberg, Edwin Gardner, Marit Overbeek, Levien Nordeman and host Lucas Verweij to discuss the current state of criticism in architecture and design. Details, tickets etc. here.

And in London I’m at the Barbican for the Battle Of Ideas in a session titled Pop Art: All Mouth, No Trousers? with Catherine Ince, Angus Kennedy, Karl Sharro, Frances Spalding and David Bowden on Sunday 20 October, 1.30pm – 3.00pm in the Garden Room at the Barbican.

Pop Art’s fusion of fine art techniques with the lingua franca of commodity capitalism remains as enduringly popular and controversial over half a century since it truly began. For some, the mischievous experiments of Warhol, Hamilton and Lichtenstein breathed new life and cultural relevance into the discipline of fine art. For others, however, such experiments paved the way for a kind of celebrity artist who is more akin to a brand consultant, selling superficial work to a dubiously elite art market. Why does an art movement so attuned to the ephemera of its time still hold such iconic sway over our imagination today? Did Pop Art’s celebration of the everyday serve to liberate fine artists from stultifying tradition, or simply turn art into just another product? From album covers to interior design, what has been its true legacy?

Details and tickets here

The Architecture of: Breaking Bad / The Room / Antarctica

A round up of writing elsewhere:

Over on BD is a guide to the Architecture of Breaking Bad. Here is an excerpt:

The Crystal Ship

It’s the image Breaking Bad opens with: an RV careering though the desert and crashing into a ditch. A wild eyed man in underpants and a gas mask emerges and frantically records a confession into a video camera. It’s a signature cold open leaving the viewer entirely confused, dumped right into the middle of things.

It’s a while before we get to see the RV again. But when we do, ‘The Crystal Ship’ as Jesse christens it, becomes something close to a lead character in the early part of the series.

It’s where Walt and Jesse really begin to bond and where Heisenberg’s blue meth is born. It symbolises a sense of liberation. Just as an RV gives holiday makers the freedom of the open road, it gives Walt, for a moment at least, a sense of liberation from his circumstance of debt, illness and failed responsibility.

The Offices of Saul Goodman & Associates

Saul Goodman is the deliciously dodgy lawyer-cum-fixer who assists Walt with increasingly illegal acts. His somewhat interpretive relationship to the law is manifested with great clarity in his office.

Located in a strip mall, it has an inflatable Statue of Liberty teetering above along with a sign reading ‘Better Call Saul!’, the tagline for his TV ads (‘Welcome Lawbreakers!’).

A wood paneled waiting room like a minicab office where a room full of unfortunates wait watched over by his super sized security guard Heull. Inside, a huge blow up of the constitution forms a backdrop to Goodman’s desk which is decorated with a Scale of Justice and conceals an seemingly endlessly supply of burner phones. A diploma from the University of American Samoa assures clients of his credentials.

The back wall curves as though it were the Oval Office. And around the room the high Classical language of the American state is invoked by polystyrene ionic columns that totter dangerously around the edge of the room.

Hollow and fake, Goodman’s office is a moment of comic relief. But behind its ersatz brashness there’s a more chilling reading: the machinations of the law are not always in the service of justice.

More here (I think you can register to read, rather than subscribe)

On Dezeen, a piece about smartphone game The Room, fantasy sci-fi design and how digital culture has changed the way we see the history of design.

The game is set in a series of creepy, dusty, dark half abandoned rooms. But it might be more accurately be titled Furniture as it really centres around a series of strange pieces of furniture. What exactly they are is hard to say. Part desk, bureau, chest, clock, sideboard (and much more) they are nothing so singular. That’s because The Room is really a puzzle, one that comes with it’s questions, riddles, games of skill and observation encoded into fabric of super-hybridised furniture.

But I’d argue that it’s exactly the strange hybrids of history and technology that we find a real expression of the contemporary in. I’d argue that this kind of ultra-techno-retro rewires our received narratives of design, suggesting new tendencies and possibilities: fast-forwarding while rewinding at the same time.

This seems entirely appropriate given the way digital culture is transforming culture. It’s certainly changed how we access design. Flattening traditional scholarly hierarchies, breaching what were once secure boundaries between stylistic schools, jumping across chronologies all in a flurry of Google image searches and Pinterest boards. One might add, given the idea of remaking history, that internet culture has accelerated a certain strand of conspiracy theorising that rewrites history with abandon according to highly specific contemporary points of view.

More Here

And I’ve contributed an essay titled High Tech Primitive: The Architecture of Antarctica to the show Ice Lab: New Architecture and Science in Antarctica commissioned by the British Council and curated by the Arts Catalyst. You can download the catalogue of the show (in an amazing array of digital formats) from Arts Catalyst website, which also includes an essay by Dr David Walton of the British Antarctic Survey. An excerpt:

Architecture, as it is usually practiced at least, is created in dialogue with these layers of human history and concerned with issues of context and tradition, whether for or against, point or counterpoint. Designing and building are acts that are intricately enmeshed and shaped by political social and economic forces, and architecture occurs when these interests converge with demands for shelter and enclosure, at the intersection of environmental, social, cultural, legal, economic and political issues. It can never exist outside of these frames. But it is not just the climate in Antarctica that makes these issues stranger than anywhere else on earth. To understand its architecture we need to understand the region’s own peculiar socio-political conditions.

The first human laid eyes on Antarctica as recently as in 1820; the first person actually set foot on it perhaps a year later. That is to say, the continent only enters the human world as fact, rather than speculation, supposition or myth, after the industrial revolution. Consequently, Antarctica isn’t a place we understand in the same way as the rest of the world. Even its name reveals something different about its status as a territory. It is etymologically derived from the Greek antarktikos, meaning opposite the north, and has always been imagined as different, as an opposite of normal territorial conditions and definitions of place.

On Antarctica the marks made by human habitation are fainter and more provisional, and this is explicitly preserved through an international agreement called the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959 and the bedrock on which all activity on the continent is based. This defines Antarctica as a scientific preserve and bans military activity (the continent was subject to the first arms control agreement during the Cold War). The Treaty’s ambition is set out in a guiding phrase that claims it is ‘in the interests of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord’. And yet Antarctica is not entirely free of worldly concern. Seven states maintain territorial claims in Antarctica, and not all in agreement. Geopolitics rests lighter on the surface of Antarctica, less embedded in the continent’s geography and geology, but concepts of state, ownership and threshold are juxtaposed like a pie chart against the blank page of its topography nonetheless.

The idea of the primitive hut provides a lens through which to view the architecture of Antarctica, the last earthly wilderness, almost untouched by human inhabitation. Within this landscape, each station acts as a shelter, a bubble containing and enabling society to formulate specific outposts of culture, behaviour and knowledge. This is true even for the most contemporary stations, which may seem centuries ahead of the first simple huts. Indeed, the history of Antarctic architecture seems a hyper-accelerated history of architecture itself, progressing from the hut to the space station in just over a hundred years.

More Here

London Design Festival Roundup

This year is a busy LDF for me and FAT

We have contributed to Cathedral’s Dolls House project. It’s a piece called Tower of Fables that we’ve made with Grayson Perry providing the furniture, decoration and a little Alan Measles to live in it.

Here’s our description:

Tower Of Fable is a fantasy about a very real piece of architecture: a toy sized remake of the Balfron Tower. This transformation brings out qualities of Goldfinger’s architecture that lie just beneath it’s surface. Brutalism here is revealed as exciting as a castle, as texturally dense as the surface of a space ship, as romantic as a country cottage. High architecture joins with the imagination of inhabitation and fantasies of play. Which, of course, is exactly what architecture should always be.

On 11th November 2013, 20 of the world’s best architects and designers will present their version of a dolls’ house in an exhibition and auction at Bonhams in aid of KIDS. Here is a link to the auction website where you can bid for ours (or one of the many others by Zaha .

The dolls houses are on show at DOMUS, 23-25 Eastcastle Street, London W1W 8DF

I have some sketches in part of the Moleskine Sketch Relay show at the V&A.

Designers across London have contributed their sketches and drawings to Moleskine notebooks, the results of which are displayed in the Sackler Centre, Sat 14 September 2013 – Sun 22 September 2013
V&A, Sackler Centre, Room 220

And also at the V&A is a FAT floor installation in association with manufactures Amorim, a trompe l’oeil, geometric pattern based on a scientific diagram of the cellular structure of cork.

And finally in the LDF guide book I have a short story type speculation on the future of the post-retail high street. London Design Guide 2014-2015

In Pursuit of Architecture / Vers Un Climat / Landscape Futures

I’m in New York the weekend of the 21st Sept as part of Log’s In Pursuit of Architecture conference at MoMA.

In Pursuit of Architecture: A conference on buildings and ideas
Saturday, September 21, 2013, 10AM–5PM
The Museum of Modern Art
New York, New York

To mark its 10th anniversary and 29th issue, Log presents In Pursuit of Architecture, a conference featuring recent built work selected from an open, international call for submissions. Join architects and critics for a daylong discussion of architectural ideas, what it takes to build them, and how we measure the cultural value of architecture.

It’s a kind of crit format with architects including 51N4E, Office KGDVS, MOS & Preston Scott Cohen presenting and a panel of critics (Sylvia Lavin, Emmanuel Petit and Sarah Whiting and me).

I’ve also contributed essay titled Faster but Slower in the associated issue of Log 29 which should be out any minute now.

Details here

I have an essay We Live Half At Night in the catalogue of Vers Un Climat, a show by AWP at Cornell (which has a lovely heat sensitive cover). It’s on the architecture of night, a theme which runs through many of AWP’s projects.

I’ve written a speculation on the future of retail and high streets in the London Design Guide 2014-2015 edited by Max Fraser and published as part of the London Design Festival

And an essay Landscape In Suspension in Geoff Manaugh‘s new book Landscape Futures

And more columns up at Dezeen:

On Beaches: After returning from a two-week break, Sam Jacob reflects on the phenomenon of the modern beach holiday and argues that it is just as artificial as everyday working life in the city.

On Zombie Architecture: Sam Jacob argues against the resurrection of Crystal Palace in London and urges us to “resist the pull of loss and nostalgia”

On Protest: Sam Jacob argues against what he calls PRotest, proposing that new forms of outcry through marketing and the media are confusing and “only make us more alienated”

Marginalia #2

Thamesmead Apartment

Horse, Thamesmead

More on a trip to Thamesmead over at Love London Council Housing.

“The Pantheon: You build a gigantic thing and it rains inside” – A quote from San Rocco’s call for What’s Wrong With The Primitive Hut?

Watch your back James Dyson: CIA let Khalid Sheikh Mohammed design vacuum cleaner in a secret Romanian prison according to this Guardian story

Glasgow’s famous ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ is, sadly, finally completed.

I had never noticed this tiny sentry box disguised as a street light on the corner of Trafalgar Square. Apparently, it’s a tiny police station sited here because of the squares long history as a site of public protest. The lamp on top is, apocryphally, a lamp from the Victory, Nelson’s ship.

And, finally, a round up of comedy Strange Harvest / FAT features elsewhere:

Above is FAT’s guest starring role on Have I Got News For You.

“Being mocked on Buzzfeed is today’s measure of cultural relevance” according to Kelsey C-D on twitter in relation to an apperance at no. 20 in a list of the Most Pretentious Things Ever (one place above David Bowie, which can’t be all bad). The same piece also made it into Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner