Mipim: Where Cities Talk To Money

A Russian speaking robot at the Krasnodar Region tent, Mipim

A quick heads up for a piece I wrote for Domus about Mipim, the annual global property fair titled ‘Where Cities Talk To Money’. Here’s a link, and below are a couple of excerpts.


Passing model after model, rendered in glowing Perspex on floating islands of live-edge or hyperreal model railway fantasies, everything begins to bleed into each other. Even worse: a combination of expo-hypnosis and low blood sugar makes it difficult to identify where the models end and the plinths, furniture and free gifts begin. Scales merge so that buffets of Belgian or Scandinavian finger food begin to look like regional development plans. The giant spindles of plants in huge abstract vases (and these ones are particularly sickening, resembling over-scaled versions of Gunther von Hagens’s plastinised veins) seem like they might be cities for 20,000 people. All this stuff delivered and hastily assembled in the Palais becomes interchangeable, transmutable, equivalent.


MIPIM reveals something you can’t really see elsewhere: that cities and regions are here not as the places you and I know as the places where we live, work and love. They’re here as brands, as investment opportunities, as businesses. mipim is where cities talk to money. They sweet talk, whisper, shout (and quite possibly also cry) to money. But it’s never clear where money is. Everyone here is selling, though exactly what is for sale seems mostly slippery. And who they are selling to remains, for the most part, unexplained.

An oil painting of a generic airport hotel, Mipim

The Custard Pie As Magical Theatrical Object

In honour of it’s appearance in this weeks Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner, here’s the piece I wrote for Icon about the custard pie in full for all you fan’s of over-thought and over-wrought cultural commentary:

Battle of the Century – Laurel & Hardy

I’m not entirely convinced that the custard pie even exists. Not a Pumpkin Pie, not a Flan, not even a Custard Tart but a real life Custard Pie like in the movies. How is it that something so plausible, so eminently possible, only exists in fiction? Nobody in films ever eats a custard pie, unless, that is, they are tasting it after having been flanned with that beautiful gesture of resignation perfected by Oliver Hardy. It is, it seems, a strange object: something that looks like food but has nothing to do with being eaten.

The custard pie seemingly appears in the 1909 out of nowhere in the slapstick short Mr Flip where a cad has a series of revenges visited upon him by the women who he ‘amusingly’ harasses: scissors up the bum, electrocuted by a telephone, shampoo in his eyes, squirted by soda syphons and finally, a pie in the face. Once pied, the eponymous Mr Flip turns to the camera and gurns that familiar just-pied gurn for the first time in cinematic history. Perhaps there were other pies pushed into faces before this, but for now, this stands as the moment that culture discovered the thrill of the flanning.

Pieing is – always – a moment of sublime magic. First, there is the shock of the pies meaning changing: from an inert foodstuff to a device dealing in humiliation. There is the action: the tension of the pies the gestural swoop from normative horizontal to a vertical pregnant with comedic potential. Then of course the splat, the pie plastered over the victims face.

It was Hal Roach’s 1927 Battle of the Century starring Laurel and Hardy that remains the masterpiece of custard pie choreography where 4,000 pies were flung in a raging street battle (‘real pies – filling and all’ Laurel later wrote).

But the grand era of the cinematic custard pie came to an end. The custard pie had been a product of early cinematic technology. Its exaggerated gestures and high contrast visual effect of a white-splattered face suited the silent, flickery black and white medium, the ne pas ultra slapstick gag. As motion picture technology changed, comedic performance shifted from motion to dialogue. The pie, like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, was forgotten.

Whenever the custard pie appears now it appears as a slapstick object in quotation marks. When celebrities and politicians are flanned, like Rupert Murdoch at the recent Select Committee hearings, the pie arrives from another time and dimension and tries to cast its victim in a world of slapstick absurdity for a brief moment.

The custard pie is not an real object. It exists in the world of slapstick where objects behave differently. The word slapstick derives from a Commedia dell’arte prop, a flat paddle with two wooden slats whose loud smack would make it appear that an actor had been struck with real force.
This was appropriated by the English Harlequinade tradition. Here the slapstick, carried by the Harlequin, was both sword and a magic wand that could apparently magically transform scenery simultaneously. So this then, might be the key to understanding the custard pie as a double entity, as both food and a comedic object, an entirely ordinary object imbued with magical theatrical properties of transformation.

Digital Culture, Design Thinking & Ecosystems

Circular Courtyard at GCHQ, Cheltenham, UK

Over on Dezeen I have a two part piece on how digital culture is shaping design – altering its methods and its scope. It talks about the idea of ecology – both the use of the world as a metaphor for systems of hardware and software and as a re-making of an idea of nature as revealed in the new HQ’s for Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Part 1: As details of the American National Security Agency’s Prism programme emerge, alongside concerns about democracy, freedom, state surveillance and the complicity of corporations, something also seems to be revealed about the ways in which digital technologies are fundamentally reformulating the ways in which design – a new kind of design born out of digital culture – now organises and impacts the way we live.

Part 2: How Google Maps is reshaping cities while Apple, Facebook and Amazon are reshaping the natural landscape by building their own headquarters as self-contained ecosystems.

The illustrations here are the interior landscaped courtyards of Foster’s proposed Apple HQ (below) and of GCHQ (above), the UK Government Communications Headquarters. Both are strange worlds within worlds, ecologies isolated from the word by the architecture that bounds them. Seen here, they assume a strange planetary form. Both perhaps suggest how the digital is reframing things we once thought exceeded the possibility of design.

Circular Courtyard, Proposed Apple HQ by Foster & Partners

A Memorial To Future Existential Horror

There’s something very spooky about this story from the Telegraph with the headline: Town erects blank war memorial ‘for future deaths’.

The memorial is in a town called Bradley Stokes, a place planned in the 1970s and whose construction began in 1987. As the Telegraph writes “The town did not exist in the first and second World Wars and no resident has been killed in military action to date.”

“Katherine Robinson, local scout group leader and one of the memorial organisers, said: “I fully appreciate that Bradley Stoke is a new town and it was just green fields and farmland when the first and second World Wars were being fought.

“But we know unfortunately that conflicts aren’t just consigned to these wars but are ongoing and so we’re thinking about the future as well.

The war memorial consists of pillars that will be adorned with blank plaques inscribed only with the words “We Will Remember Them”.

The tense here is a strange mixture of the future and the past. It suggests the idea of remembering something that hasn’t yet happened. In other words a remembrance of things yet to come.

Of course, it’s the type of rememberance that makes it so chilling. It suggests a fatalism that sons and daugthers of Bradley Stokes will inevitably die in some war, somewhere, sometime in the future.

Monuments usually address the past. They usually address a specific event. Here though it’s blankness makes it a monument to an unspecific, existential horror of the future.

Obscure Design Typologies: Fumigation Tents

I think I first saw a fumigation tent in an episode of the X-Files. Much later, they crop up as a plot device in Breaking Bad (maybe fumigation tents are an obsession of BB’s creator and ex-X-Files writer Vince Gilligan).

Fumigation tents are thrown up over a house that has pest infestation. They provide an airtight seal that allows the whole place to be entirely gassed with super noxious chemicals that exterminate any form of life. They seem to be an American phenomenon. Perhaps it’s a function of climate and the totally timber construction of homes that makes American homes that much more likely to be devoured by a host of termites than anywhere else.

There’s something strange about these giant circus-like tents. There is something completely alien about them against the familiar domestic landscape, their scale and candy striped blankness like a giant hole in the streetscape. Yet these weird bright abstractions formally retain something of the houses they cover, as though they were domestic ghosts.

S.P.A.M Office / Pieterjan Ginckels

Pieterjan Ginckels models his S.P.A.M At Home furniture collection

Just a quick note: I’m in conversation with Pieterjan Ginckels (of Speedism fame amongst other amazing things) as part of his S.P.A.M OFFICE show at ANDOR this week. Expect to hear about the design lessons contained in the Viking Office Supplies Catalogue, the idea of just-enough, genericness and, of course, Spam … blurb below:

Wednesday 23 January 2013, 7pm

Artist Pieterjan Ginckels (www.pieterjanginckels.be) in conversation with Sam Jacob on the subject of the office space, design aesthetics and architectural influences on space and labour. As part of the exhibition S.P.A.M OFFICE at ANDOR until March 9.

237 Hackney Road
London E2 8NA
UK 020 7033 9660

S.P.A.M. OFFICE is open until 9th March 2013.
ANDOR exhibitions are open from Wednesday – Saturday, 12 – 6pm.

Man Made Moon: St Paul’s as Selenosphere

Full Moon & Full St Paul’s Dome

The dome of St Paul’s is arguably the most important object in London: a lead covered baroque sun around which the the rest of the city revolves. And perhaps its not so strange to think of this hemispherical thing as some kind of celestial body. After all Christopher Wren was as much an astronomer as he was architect. As astronomer, Wren built instruments and telescopes with which he produced accurate maps of the moon. In 1661, he created a lunar globe, otherwise known as a selenosphere, for Charles II. The globe was described as ”being made of paseboard, molded in relief and painter with a scale in miles, and which bore the courtly, contrived inscription: “To Charles the Second, King of Britain, France and Scotland, for whom Dr. Christopher Wren has created the new world of this Selenosphere, because, for one of His magnitude, “one [world] is not enough”.”

This is a proposal to turn the dome of St Paul’s dome into a man made moon. Wren’s building is transformed into a selenosphere, a hemispherical map of the moon synced through its lighting with the phases of the moon. The cathedrals dome and the moon would hover over London as though it were a city on a planet with two moons. St Paul’s becomes a secular device linking our earthly concerns with the heavenly realm.

3/4 Moon & 3/4 St Paul’s Dome

1/2 Moon & 1/2 St Paul’s Dome

Crescent Moon & Crescent St Paul’s Dome

Diagram showing how a spotlight circles around the dome at a speed that matches the rate of change of the moons phases.

Old Flo House

Tower Hamlets have stirred up a hornest nest in their proposed sale of Henry Moore’s Old Flo (or as it’s officially titled, Draped Seated Woman). The statue had been essentially gifted by Moore to a post Blitz East End, sold way-below-market rate. Now valued around £20 million the council are eying the funds from the sale as a way to fill a hole left by government funding cuts. But what about a solution that might keep everyone happy (or everyone unhappy) where the funds generated from the sale were re-invested in social housing in the form of Old Flo herself.

Hausu Of Tomorrow

There is a Japanese horror movie called Hausu (1977) that as well as being a completely deranged, psychedelic stylized sweet comedy gore-fest is also the most eloquent description of the dark psychology that lurks in architectures unconscious.

Even if it was important, I couldn’t really explain the plot, obscured, as it is by nutty cinematography a lack of subtitles. But this is what seems to happen: a group of schoolgirls, each of them representing a particular quality – Gorgeous (fashion conscious) and her friends Fantasy (daydreamer), KungFu (good at kung fu, imaginatively), Prof (nerdy), Sweet (who likes to clean), Mac (who eats a lot), and Melody (musical) head off to stay at Gorgeous’s aunts house in the country. But the aunt is actually a ghost and the house is possessed (there is something to do with a cat called Snowflake that seems to be important too as her eyes flash with unnatural green sparks). One by one, in bizarre ways, the girls disappear. Overeater Mac has her head replaced by a watermelon. Melody is devoured by a piano. Doors and windows slam shut by themselves, then a chandelier sucks one up and spits out her limbs. Mirrors fracture, turning their reflections first into vampires, then consumed by fire (or perhaps turned into glass). Another is attacked by frenzied bedding in a whirling dervish of duvet and pillow. Giant disembodied eyes and mouths take the place of windows and doors as the house morphs into the ghostly aunt. A clock spurts out blood until the house is flooded, drowning another girl. And all the while crazy jump cuts, surreal animations and inventive special effects do their utmost to disorientate the reeling viewer.

Despite its phantasmagorical fairytale nature, Hausu tells us something important about the nature of architecture that we don’t usually find in the magazines and journals that chronicle the profession: that architecture is as much physiological as it is physical.

All architecture originates benignly, constructed to generate varieties of goodness: social, economic, useful, the goodness of beauty and so on. But in the real world, goodness is a slippery idea. Look under a utopia, and you’ll see a colony of seething dystopias. When that much human ego projected at so large a scale into the world it is inevitable that other, more complex parts of our physic apparatus are also projected.

Architecture takes a series of abstract thoughts, ambitions and cultural ambitions and projects them into physical realties. The design process has a clear, linear logic: stage-by-stage to practical completion. In Freudian terms, we might categorise this part of the design process as the ego. These activities are moderated by the morality of the super ego – which we might think of as architectural position, ideology or morality on the one hand but perhaps also the legislation which set parameters of safety and so on. But for all its conscious control, architecture simultaneously casts unconscious shadows into the world – what we might call the architectural “id”.

Architectures worldview is unrelentingly optimistic. There is no hint of neuroses in the glossy photographs and cleanly structured drawings that the profession uses to document their activities and construct their narratives. Instead we must turn to genres like horror and sci fi to see what Freud described as the ‘cauldron of seething excitations’.

In ‘The Perverts Guide To The Cinema’, Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian philosopher uses psychoanalysis as a tool to explore the ways in which cinema constructs its own realties. He describes the house in Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ as a representation of Norman Bates’ psychology. Zizek explores the section of the house as a kind of Freudian spatiality. The first floor, from which Bates imagines hearing his mothers hectoring voice represents his super ego – his moral conscience that criticises and prohibits his drives, fantasies, feelings, and actions. The ground floor is his ego, while the cellar is a physical manifestation of his id – the site of Bates unchecked unconscious. Here, architecture is understood through the filters of both cinema and psychoanalysis. Suddenly, Zizeks insight illuminates an understanding of domestic architecture as the intersection of moral, social and psychological conditions. In this manner, all architecture could be understood as an unresolved conflict of morality and desire.

Mies argued that “architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space”. Horror as a genre is a way of interrogating the complications of that spatialised will, a ways of examining the submerged narratives of fear and loathing, the paranoia and neurosis that lurk beneath architectures apparent conscious logics.

Horror films put architecture on the analyst’s couch. Here, architecture articulates its repressed dreams and verbalizes its fantasies. That’s why writers like Poe and Ballard or directors like Hitchcock and Sam Raimi – and, yes, even plot-challenged crazed Japanese B-movies with no subtitles and lunatic special effects – are just as important as Pevsner, Jencks, Frampton et al. This doubly rich cultural diet might just be the means to address the psychosis that lurks at the heart of architecture.

Anything to Feel Weightless Again, Again

This essay is one from the archives … it must have been a casualty in the great Strange Harvest meltdown of earlier this year, so I thought I’d post it up again. Originally it was a contribution to the book “Making the Impossible Possible: The Dream of Flying. The Dream of Paradise”

It’s what you might get if you asked a Bond villain to design you a CenterParks: A Tropical Island Resort built in the giant hanger of CargoLifter – the ill-fated German airship of the 1990s. A bright, fake landscape trapped under the hangers’ shell like a snow dome without snow.

Actually, even a Bond villain might struggle to create something quite so strange. It is a phenomenon rather than a design, a history not a process. It’s the kind of place that happens through the unfolding of a story rather than logic.

Higher Than The Sun

The Cargo Lifter and the Tropical Island Resort might be a love story between two very different characters across the lines of genre, and in spite of the prejudice of function. A Montague CargoLifter to a Capulet Tropical Island.

What strange magnetism draws them together? Why would the flaws of one attract the other so strongly?

Perhaps, deep down in each project lurks the same kind of feeling – a shared romantic desire for escape. CargoLifter, before its collapse, promised escape from geography – a way of moving things around the world cheaply and efficiently. The Tropical Island promises escape from post-industrial Germany to a fantasy destination.

The two incarnations share one un-ignorable element: the hanger. A vast, uninterrupted volume – the largest clear span in the world. It was intended to house the huge airships, though they never materialised. Its scale was enough to convince prospective shareholders to invest. Enough to create a sense of impending event. Enough even to precipitate an unlikely a use as a Tropical Island resort. Enough to charge the erotic coupling of infrastructure and leisure.

The hanger promised so much. Its volume couldn’t remain vacant. Like a vacuum, its emptiness exerted external force, sucking in potential content.

Industrial Light and Magic

Hangers, and other similar industrial structures inherit a complex genealogy. Their recent history has been as muse to various varieties of modern architectural movements: from the Modernism of Le Corbusier, via the techno-utopian vision of Archigram to the corporate precision of Norman Foster. Hangers and their ilk represent an escape through engineering from traditions of architecture. And by escaping traditions of architecture one might slip the ties of social structure, the tedium of bourgeois living, or the unaccountable mess of organic growth.

On the other hand, the sheer volume of space recalls a very different heritage. Its volume is eerie: a deep mystery manufactured by super sized engineering. It’s volume is all-encompassing, like a cathedral. It is the kind of space that surrounds you, envelops you, until you could almost believe in some kind of truth.

In extremis, the CargoLifter/Tropical Island story is an architectural parable. Perhaps because of its un-intended, and accidental genesis has left an un-architectural raw burr. Awkwardness, naivety, and gaucheness lend a sharp edge.

To Dream The Impossible Dream

Perhaps because architecture is in its very nature limited to a specific place, its secret dream is one of escape. Tied to a singular iteration on a patch of the planet, buildings often find themselves fantasising about qualities they will never possess.

Architecture happens at ground level. It is an act of piling components on top of one another. The pile is structurally in compression, pulled towards the centre of the earth by gravity. Its components have all been extracted from the earth’s surface: quarried as stones, ores and so on. Architecture then is simply an act of rearranging of the planets surface. The buildings and cities that surround us are exquisite caves. Even on the observation deck of the tallest building we cannot escape the ground.

As buildings became more sophisticated, they began to feel their way into the sky. Think of medieval cathedrals in the flat fields of Northern France or the tracery of gothic architecture. Buildings began to explore the space between ground and sky. Stone was carved into forms that seemed to reverse gravity, as though drawn upwards.

Up Down Turn Around, Please Don’t Let Me Touch The Ground

The medieval conception of up and down was not simply about abstract notions of high and low. It was rich with meaning from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell. Cathedrals express this up/down narrative. They draw your gaze upwards with the spire seeming to be a perspectival vanishing point in the sky. Equally, they compress you further into the ground with their mass: piles of stone exaggerating gravity. They are a promise and a threat, a dramatisation of an epic biblical narrative of verticality.

Gothic architecture explored low and high in elemental terms. Baroque buildings brought a more explicit narrative to this section. Munich’s Asamkirche is an18th century building in a very earthly context: a terrace of commercial buildings. In this tiny plot the church beats up a heavy storm with baroque theatrics. Within its 20 meters height, the building takes us through the (biblical) history of the world. From rocks, geology, bones, death, upwards into architecture, then above onto the ceiling painted into a sky where the kingdom of heaven floats above our heads.

These are architectures that explore myths of verticality and place. They are ways of exploring dimensions beyond the boundaries of the building. They are releases, escapes into other impossible worlds.

Space Oddities

In fact, if you are to believe the sci-fi historical theories of Erich von Daniken – the author of ‘Chariots of the Gods’ – ancient monuments are the abandoned equipment of a race of aliens who visited and populated Earth. Von Daniken re-reads Incan temples as spaceships, the Pyramids as maps of Mars by making huge leaps of faith based upon odd coincidences. If one were to look at cathedrals through his eyes they become stone space ships: Montmartre as a space shuttle. Notre Dame could be some kind of gothic sci fi transformer whose flying buttresses might snap open releasing a floating volume up into a mysterious and mythical sky full of gods, angels and aliens.

Down For You Is Up

Perhaps a more reasonable theory is that cathedrals were a kind of mental rehearsal for the occupation of the air – an exploration of the idea prior to the fact.

The reality remained unknown until the Montgolfier brothers balloon rose above Paris in 1783. To the assembled crowds, it must have seemed as though the rules of nature were changing, as though the ties that bind us to the surface had been cut. The balloon was brightly coloured and decorated as though it was a piece of architecture: its 37,500 cubic foot envelope made of taffeta coated with varnish was designed and made in collaboration with successful wallpaper manufacturer, Jean Baptiste Réveillon.

Flying technology progressed. 1785 saw the first air crossing of the English Channel in a hydrogen balloon with flapping devices to control its flight that made it look like some kind of strange bloated bat.

By 1852, the first lighter-than-air craft with steering and propulsion systems was flying. Designed by Henri Giffard, its steam-powered propeller gave a range of 17 miles at a top speed of 5mph. Simple balloons became ever more engineered. As they did, they became airships.

Air travel can be seen as an architecture that inhabits air space. Transport mechanisms and devices transformed the occupation of space horizontally and vertically. Ships and airplanes altered our relationship with geography. For example, elevators enabled higher buildings and so allowed us to capture airspace and transforming it into realty. The vectors of height and distance took on new meanings, this time as extensions of state, military and industrial interests.

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

These mechanisms fascinated artists and architects of the early twentieth century. Futurists, Vorticists, Constructivists, Cubists, silent movie stars and many others attempted to comprehend and express the increasing acceleration of the world. Architects looked at the new machines, then back at their buildings. They wanted their buildings to become more like machines: like ocean liners, or streamlined as though they themselves were to speed down train tracks. The result was a new aesthetic and language of construction. However, it could be argued that they failed to engage with the profound effect that movement and acceleration precipitated.
Technology altered geography by compressing distance, by weaving threads of connection between distant places.

The twentieth centuries gaze was held by the hypnotising sight of movement like spectators at football match captivated by the arc of a free kick as the ball heads goal wards. Movement itself became a dream.

X Marks the Spot

But if the modern obsession has been the sensation of movement, earlier interests were in the narrative consequences of movement. Published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe is the first example of a genre that grew out of the context of advancing technologies of travel. Navigation and seafaring technologies allowed European imperial expansion and colonialisation of distant lands. It is within this scenario that the idea of the tropical island becomes significant.

Daniel Defoe’s novel establishes the tropical island as a narrative device. A place where civilised western male is pitted against exotic circumstance. Other examples include Treasure Islands ‘Skeleton Island’ (West Indies), Skull Island in King Kong, (Indian Ocean) or Caprona from the Land that Time Forgot (South Atlantic). It is a narrative that still resonates through Pirates of the Caribbean, Lost and reality TV shows such as Celebrity Love Island.

The Island as a device pulls into sharp focus a set of relationships between man, nature and society. William Goldings ‘Lord of the Flies’ for example, explores how the civilised behaviour of schoolboys descends into savage chaos. The long running BBC Radio programme ‘Desert Island Disks’ asks its guests to name eight pieces of music that they would take with them if they were cast away on an island. The island in both these instances is used as a device that strips culture to an essence.

Narratives of tropical islands often reprise an Edenic myth. Unspoilt, natural landscape of immense beauty and resource are cast as the backdrop to some kind of fall. In other cases the Island serves as test of western civilisation against rude nature where any natives are seen as part of the natural resource. These are fables of imperial empire.

If one were to extrapolate the subtext of these stories – themes of empire, military force, conquest, technology against Island backdrops one might find cultural trajectories that find their ultimate conclusion is the testing of atomic weapons on Pacific atolls. Entire islands were wiped clean of nature by a intense blast of civilisation: nature made unnatural in the flash of an atom bomb, in the beautiful plume of a mushroom cloud and the wind of high tech total destruction. The Tropical Island Resort sees an alternative – and significantly more positive – relationship between industrialised engineering and Island myth.

In stories, Tropical Islands work from the outside in: from the coast into an unknown interior. We are always visitors: alien – out of place, dislocated. The sense of lost-ness dislocates them from real geography and moves them toward imaginary geography. Often the geography and meaning of the Island has to be constructed. In place of empirical longitudes and latitudes we find incomplete treasure maps or mysterious messages washed up on the beach in bottles.

The Taste of Paradise

Modern Tropical Island imagery is almost entirely self-absorbed. Just as Robinson Crusoe was really a story about British culture, Island imagery now is employed as a generic shorthand for ideas of luxury, leisure and entertainment. These are the values and aspirations that the Resort calls upon. Tropical Islands now signify a terrain of leisure – a mixture of high-tech pleasure and primitive vernacular authenticity. Paradise lost has been remodelled and re-gained. Sea, beach and sun are no longer resources but pleasure-providers.

The lengthy 18th and 19th century narratives of Tropical Islands have turned into blip-vert images in commercials or holiday brochures. ‘Ordeal’ as explored in earlier fiction has been replaced by instant, marketable experiences. We see this in event-images such as Bond girl Ursula Andress rising out of the sea. Or in the phenomenon of Tropical beach marriage vows.

Real Tropical islands have become leisure playgrounds that are self regarding, narcissistic, and disengaged from local culture and custom. They are resorts rather than places, dislocated from geography.

Perhaps it is inevitable, given their close relationship to fiction, that Tropical Islands themselves should be manufactured. And that they might occur anywhere. In fact, it is entirely appropriate that one should be built within the infrastructure of a failed engineering project, one whose cultural roots connect to the technological impetus behind European expansionism.

The Stakes are High

The trajectory of the company behind the Tropical Island Resort adds its own interest to the story. Tanjong plc was initially founded as Tanjong Tin Dredging Limited in1926 in England. In 1991 following restructuring, its shares were listed on both the Bursa Malaysia and the London Stock Exchange. The company’s activities include running lotteries in Malaysia and Russia, power generation plants, property investment, and the importation, bottling, sale and distribution of liquid petroleum gas in China. From a company whose roots are intertwined with colonial occupation, its international, diverse portfolio of businesses reveals the changing nature of global investment. Ironically, it is perhaps only here, in the electromagnetic flux of global capital that the qualities of liquidity, of freedom of movement that were imagined by medieval stonemasons, the Montgolfier brothers, or Buster Keaton exist. It is here that up and down can be tracked and viewed in infinite detail, where trajectories and directions are modelled in financial forecasting. It is the point where base material becomes abstract and so liberated from earthly constraint. The language of finance uses imagery such as ‘float’ and ‘crash’ that reveal a subtext of flight.

So High You Can’t Get Over It, So Low You Can’t Get Around it

Equally, architecture and landscapes usurp natural geography by manufacturing place. Architecture is a means of attempting to turn ideas, images or sensations into a deep reality. At it’s most intense, architecture is a narcotic, hallucinogenic mirage of other places, experiences, ideas. It makes so real that they feel completely authentic. Architecture is always about made up places, about the transformation of a naturally occurring place into something different – turning nature into culture.

Just as Modernist designers confused the machines of travel with the fact of travel, it seems just a likely – or unlikely – that the machinery might be conflated with the effect of travel. Perhaps that is what happened to the hanger. It is as though in the absence of real CargoLifters, the destination would have to come to the hanger. As if the imagination of an expectant traveller leaked from departure lounge reverie into a three dimensional reality.

Together in Electric Dreams

Dreams of technology are often dreams about nature. Technology is a means of dialogue with our increasingly complex ecology where the distinctions between natural and artificial are blurring. The Hanger/Island resembles an opaque snow dome: an oversized souvenir of a place that doesn’t exist. The ultimate conclusion of tourism: a product that you can visit.