Nostalgia for the New

Here’s something I wrote for COMMONPLACE, a version of Fulcrum published at this years Venice Biennale.

Ironically for something positioning itself on the bleeding edge of newness, the New Aesthetic reeks of something suspiciously like nostalgia. It’s intoxicating vapours contain soothing notes of antiquated art historical ideas including the quaint notion of aesthetic movements and a belief in linear cultural progression. And that’s even before we even get to its content, which to anyone whose been around the cultural block, seem strangely familar.

But that’s ok. After all who in their right mind didn’t love JoDi, Antirom, Gerald van der Kaap’s Blind Rom, the Aphex Twin’s bleeps or any of those other early digital adopters playing with html, actionscripts and animated gifs and native digitality. None of that was new even then, just plain old Modernist avant guard sensibility played out through the now anachronistic term ‘new media’.

We can look back on that moment with fondness. It was a time when the digital realm still seemed to offer an alternative to the structures of the physical world, still seemed a realm full of speculative possibility. This world fast lost its speculative role and became instead a magnifying mirror of the old world.

Colonised by corporations, the digital was redefined by the Apple-Google-Facebook axis of privatisation. Algorithms became so naturalised into our world that economic regions can’t escape their logics, and the remote presence of surveillance and military technologies have become entirely familiar.

The mistakes, mistakes, misfits hoarded by New Aestheticists act like fragments of evidence collated and tagged into a never-ending tumblr scroll. Their accumulation acts to convince us, like photographs of the supernatural, that there is something beyond or behind the gleaming skin of the digital world.

Perhaps that’s why the New Aesthetic’s powerful nostalgia resonates now. It tells us things we already know but have become immune to. It’s pursuit of kinks and glitches, frags and ghosts of digital culture are classic Brechtian alienation. Seeking cracks in the seamless surface of contemporary media, it resensitises us to the strange and unnatural nature of our networked digital culture. In revealing glimpses of mechanisms, armatures and codes it flashes an Achilles heel, a chink in the armour of the impenetrable fortress of digital corporate culture.

The accidental nostaliga of the New Aesthetic may have productive qualties, yet its fear of nostalgia is also a weakness. Especially when its its own sensibility is so plainly nostalgic for those we might retroactively dub Old-New Aestheticists. We see, for example, resonaces of Warhol’s pursuit of the glitch in the reproductive machines of image making. We feel echoes of Kraftwerk’s outlines of the pleasure and alienation of totalitarian Computerworld that still feel as close to the future as one can get this side of the laws of general relativity.

To categorise nostalgia as a conservative force is so … old fashioned. Futurism isn’t what it used to be either. Or rather, for us, the future can’t be what it was because the present is far more complicated than science fiction ever imagined it could be. Defaulting into old fashioned futures – however high tech their aesthetic – is a more dangerous form of nostalgia because it blinds us to the real strangeness of contemporary culture.

Digital technologies have loosened the ties of space and time. Geography, image and identity are recast as possibilities rather than plain fact. Cut loose from traditional notions of authenticity and authorship, digital culture brings everything into potential promiscuous proximity. Everything becomes hermaphrodilically fertile, doped up on Gonadotropins, everything the site for a new genomic breach. Out of these swamps of digitised nostalgia rise fresh beasts blinking into the contemporary light. The broadening reach between ‘this’ and ‘that’ coupled with ever incresing speed of reconfiguration is the trope of the digital contemporary. The New Aesthetic is just another pool in this infinatly wide swampland, just another fastbred cultural cycle.

Architecture more than any other creative discipline clings to a nostalgic form of futurism. Formally, technologically and sociologically, it has a stunted relationship to the full spectrum of contemporary culture. For architecture, nostalgia is still framed by Modernisms roots in Futurism. Its internal monologue is charachterised by binary debates of tradition and progression.

Sadly for both camps neither are possible. Instead we find ourselves caught in the pretzel logics that charachterise the early 21st century. That which wishes to be nostalgic pastiche is where we find unalloyed modernity, an image of the past hung on armatures of high tech fabrication and sophisticated financial instruments. That which dreams of manifesting the future is mired in a historical fiction of the future. Unable to create the future, we are equally frustrated in attempts to manufacture the past real newness might emerge out of radical nostalgia at the uncomfortable intersections of technology and history.

Villa Rotunda Redux & The New Originals

Nigel: And then we looked at each other and says well we might as well join up you know and uh….
David: So we became The Originals.
Nigel: Right.
David: And we had to change our name actually….
Nigel: Well there was, there was another group in the east end called The Originals and we had to rename ourselves.
David: The New Originals.
Nigel: The New Originals and then, uh, they became….
David: The Regulars, they changed their name back to The Regulars and we thought well, we could go back to The Originals but what’s the point?

Spinal Tap

I’m posting this while assembling FAT’s contribution to the Venice Biennale which centres around a piece called the Villa Rotunda Redux.

Left to Right: Villa Rotunda, Chiswick House, Monticello, Beit Falastin

The Villa Rotunda Redux is a copy of Palladio’s Villa Rotunda. But it’s really an exploration of what happens when you try to make a copy that just happens to use the Villa Rotunda as its subject. Though of course, as a subject, the Villa is architecture steeped in the culture of the copy. So the Villa Redux subject, giant size and process are all attempts to exaggerate the copy-ness of the copy.

Auditing Authorship

In a copy-led design process, the project doesn’t start with an original sketch. It starts instead with a thing, an already existing object. Our origin was not in Vicenza, not the ‘original’ Villa Rotunda but Google Warehouse. Here we found a bunch of Sketchup files of Palladio’s Villa, each made, we imagine by amateur enthusiasts. These models range in detail from blocky approximations to texture-wrapped detail.

This file, originally authored by Arrigo Silva was chosen because it occupied a sweet spot of detail and abstraction.

How many other copies of this file exist, how many downloads on to how many hard drives? As of now, the file has been downloaded 16728 times. What has happened to all of these copies of a copy of the Villa Rotunda?

In our case, after downloading, the file was edited: Statues and steps were deleted, other details simplified and so on.

This file was emailed to the fabricators, who in turn sent it to the mould making subcontractor who then converted the file to Rhino, and made other changes that

So we have at least 3 authors of the 3D file, and that’s not counting Palladio, the original author: 1st. The Google Warehouse original copy; 2nd. My version, an edited original copy; 3rd, the mould makers iteration which I suppose is a re-make of an edited original copy.

Legally, I wonder who might be able to claim copyright of this work, or infringement of creative commons license in our appropriation of the file. In the artistic sense, we are the authors. But our authorship relies entirely on the work of an anonymous author. There are similarities to the argument that EL James’s 50 Shades of Grey is a post-copyright novel.

For the intents of contracts, insurance, exhibition captions and other artifacts that attempt to attribute authorship, FAT is the author. And if you should want to buy it, you should contact me. But equally, it couldn’t have come into the world without multiple authors.

This might be an extreme form of the normal condition of architecture. Due to myths of authorship, and the medias desire to simplify and personalise the design process buildings are often attributed to a single person. The cast assembled for even the smallest of projects can be legion. Not only project architects, architects, assistants, interns, engineers and other design team members, contractors, subcontractors, authors of standard details, of code-compliant layouts and so on. All of this labour is folded into what appears to a single hand.

Copy Upon Copy (or the Presents of the Past)

Back to the Villa Rotunda Redux. Of course, it is a copy of the Villa Rotunda, or at least a copy of someones copy of the Villa Rotunda. But it’s also a copy of many other projects. Perhaps even, it copies these other projects even more than the Villa Rotunda. It is, for example a copy of – and these are only the ones that I am conscious of – Aldo Rossi’s Teatro del Mondo (The abstract massing of the moulds exterior);

David Greene’s Spray Plastic House (the polyurethane spraying into a negative, the synthetic cave of the interior of the cast);

Mario Bottas milled wooden section of San Carlino (the negative space of the building);

Ungers negative column from the Presence of the Past Venice Biennale (the inverted column, or rather the absence of a column, or column as the opposite of structure). There are elements of Venturi’s Queen Anne front, Mary-Anne behind, but all mixed up so that front and back switchback between each other. The arrangement of cast and mould also presents a half-section, half-elevation view of the building that recalls Palladio’s own drawings of the Villa, the impossible-eyed view of architecture that only drawings allow. And it’s also got a lot in common with souvenir buildings, sharing something of their simplified monolithic quality, an entire building made out of one material, all blind windows and doors.

The Reproductive System

The chosen process of fabrication is intrinsically linked to the idea of the copy. The digital file originates the mould. The mould originates the cast. Each is a copy of the other, transformed by the process of fabrication. First, elements of the original Villa had to be altered to accommodate the casting process. No undercuts, porticos filled in and so on. The process of reproduction impacts what it is possible to reproduce.

Each stage of fabrication leaves its own mark on the thing that is produced. The size of the bit used in routing the mould differs from the abstract precision of the Rhino file. The sprayed foam introduces imperfections as it falls onto the surface of the mould. As the mould is prepared for the casting process, other interventions interrupt its surface. Drill bits puncture it providing air holes ready for casting. As the polyurethane is sprayed into the mould, it cures sometimes a little too fast for it to fully take up the space of the mould. Air bubbles get trapped. Seams at the joints between the sections of mould appear to interrupt surfaces in ways that contradict their architectural logic. While each step of the process tries to be faithful to the last inevitable transformations occur in transmission.

The process of reproduction also resonates with the multiple iterations of the Villa Rotunda across time and space – all those versions from Lord Burlington, Jefferson and so on. We could think of the Villas linage in that Biblical so-and-so begat so-and-so, who begat-so-and-so. It suggests there is a procreative relationship between copies. Mould as parent, cast as child.

In fact, the idea of the copy as a form of fertility is suggested by the idea of Cornucopia. Its image of boundless plenty is derived from the mythical horn of the goat Amalthea that nurtured the infant Zeus. From its Latin root cornu copiae, the copy can be thought of a form of plenty, as an endless flow of nourishing goodness.

Black Mirror

Corner Mirror With Coral / Robert Smithson

There is a relationship between the Villa’s own logics of symmetries and the process of manufacturing this replica. We could read its bi-lateral symmetry as architecture reflecting itself, that the villa repeats a quarter three times to construct the whole. In a way that might remind us of Robert Smithson’s mirror corners. Except, in Palladio’s case, there is no way of distinguishing the original (or the real, physical substance) and the reflected image. The Villa Rotunda Redux is formed from one quarter mould, and one quarter cast. This inverts the symmetrical relationships of the original and creates an oppositional symmetry. In this symmetry, things become opposite: solid becomes void, interior becomes exterior, negative becomes positive.

The New Originals

Maybe we should leave it to David St. Hubbins, that respected cultural critic, to sum up: “we could go back to The Originals but what’s the point?”

reCAPTCHA Mansions

When did reCAPTCHA start using photographs of house numbers?

Architecture’s Exquisite Corpse: Another Kind Of Folding In Architecture

A while ago at Studio X in NYC, I ran a what was billed as a “An Evening of Psychometric Drawing Experiments, Architectural Non Sequiturs, and Free Association”.

Over the course of the evening we tried a series of drawings games. We played an invention called Architectural Consequences, a game that works just like picture consequences (or Exquisite Corpse for the more high falutin’ amongst you). Except in this case, instead of the normal head/body/legs/feet sequence, we substituted roof/upper floor/ground floor/basement. Each section drawn in secret, folded over and passed to the next person to draw the next part of the sequence. Pitched roofs, for example, perched on skyscrapers that rose out of caves that sat on burial chambers.

We then played Urban Consequences, in which the sequence ran countryside/suburb/industry/downtown. These produced equally unlikely urban plans, generated by the same kind of accidental coincidences that the Surrealists loved.

In a game of Exquisite Corpse, the normal consistant narrative – and style – of a drawing of a person is ruptured. A different hand imagines and drawing each body part on each fold of the paper. The whole image is only known at the end when the sheet is unfolded. The things we expect a body to have – to belong, say, to a consistant genome, sex, class or occupation – are all mixed up by fragmentation and multi-authorship. Applied to the logics and codes of architecture and urban planning, the same ‘impossible’ bodies emerge. But there is no transgenic impossibility to these visions. Sure, we can (yet) have a creature with a crocodiles head, a cowgirls body, a kangaroos legs and a frogmans feet, but we can, if we choose, engineer a building with exactly the same level of difference.

It would offend all of our convictions of what architecture and (especially) urban planning are supposed to be. Their qualities are, instead, anti-logical, un-visionary and revel in accident. Yet we could argue that many of the apparent logics of architecture and urban planning are simply codes of convention, and that accident and un-logic are real tools that can help us out of the self-replicating horror of contemporary architecture and urban design.

For more pictures of the evening check Studio X’s Flickr stream

Obscure Design Typologies: Fire Training Towers

Fire training towers are the structures that the fire service use to practice firefighting. They mimic a range of architectural conditions that firefighters will most likely encounter: height, stairs, doors, rooms and so on resulting in constructions that almost look like buildings. We could think of them as heavily edited versions of architecture, familiar kinds of buildings reduced to a particular set of situations.

This brief image trawl seems to show up marked difference between British and American versions of fire training towers. The British versions tend to more vertical, often appearing like a fragment of a 50’s or 60’s housing block, even built from the same pallet of materials for extra authenticity. American versions instead present a hybridised model, where it seems a number of building types seem to have swallowed each other.

But if both types still look like other kinds of buildings there is one example that seems to invent its own architectural language from the programme and performance criteria of the brief. The Fire Environment Building is part of the Louisville Fire Department training facilities. Built in 1988, it is a strangely beautiful sculptural concrete thing, highly expressive yet obviously driven by utilitarian practicality.

Below is a selection of studies of fire training towers by Steven Price, one of my students at the AA this year.

Ground Xerox at the AA

A few images of Inter 12’s exhibition as part of AA projects review. It features a beautiful milled blue foam replica of a completely average wall, plug sockets, radiator, shonky pipework and all. It sits as a physical reflection of the adjacent wall, a kind of reflected apparition of its context.

The show is open Monday to Friday 10.00–19.00, Saturdays 30 June, 7, 14 July 10.00–17.00 until the 14th July.

Events This Week

A heads up for three events I’m involved in this week.

On Tuesday 3rd July I’m in conversation with Jimenez Lai at the Architecture Foundation where we’ll be talking about his installation, his book ‘Citizens of No Place’, Bureau Spectacular’s work … and what we might be working on together in Chicago this autumn.

More info here

On Wednesday 4th I’ll be at the AA for Chat Show Format with Shumon Basar talking about the architecture of Chat Shows.

And on Thursday 5th I’m chairing an event at the Purcell Room at the Southbank where Saskia Sassen, Will Self, Anna Minton and Stephen Gill will talk about the Olympic site and how the empty industrial landscapes of Hackney have been host to hundreds of projects over several decades, dreams of possible futures by residents, architects, writers, artists and politicians (including Cedri Price’s Fun Palace). More info and tickets here.

Aesthetics / Anesthetics at Storefront

96 Storefronts

Delighted to say I’m contributing to Storefront’s Aesthetics/Anesthetics, an exhibition of 30 newly commissioned architectural drawings by 30 emerging and established architects. Each of the 30 commissioned architectural drawings will be auctioned at the end of the exhibition. Proceeds will support Storefront for Art and Architecture’s exhibitions and programs. Opening June 26th 7-9pm at Storefront, 97 Kenmare Street, New York.

You can bid on this and the other contributions in Storefronts silent auction here.

Commissioned Architects Include:
Vito Acconci [New York]
Aziza Chaouni [Toronto and Fez]
Luis Callejas [Colombia]
Teddy Cruz [Tijuana]
Frida Escobedo [Mexico]
ESKYIU – Eric Schuldenfrei and Marisa Yiu [Hong Kong]
Ling Fan [Beijing]
Interboro Partners [New York]
Sam Jacob [London]
Andres Jaque [Madrid]
Meyer-Grohbrügge&Chermayeff [Germany, New York]
Perry Kulper [Ann Arbor]
Jimenez Lai [Chicago]
Juergen Mayer H. [Berlin]
Leong Leong – Chris Leong & Dominic Leong [New York]
LTL -Paul Lewis, Mark Tsurimaki, David Lewis [New York]
MOS -Michael Meredith & Hilary Sample [New York]
OFFICE – Kersten Geers & David Van Severen [Brussels]
Jorge Otero-Pailos [New York]
Productora [Mexico DF]
Philippe Rahm [Paris]
Noura Al Sayeh [Bahrain]
Sho Shigematsu [OMA New York]
Julien De Smedt [Brussels-New York]
STAR strategies + architecture – Beatriz Ramo [Rotterdam]
Superpool – Selva Gurdogan – Gregers Tang Thomsen [Istanbul]
VisionArc -Landon Brown-Toshiko Mori [New York]
WW – Sarah Whiting, Ron Witte- [Houston]
Michael Young [New York]
Alejandro Zaera Polo [London-New York]
Andrew Zago [Los Angeles].

For more information, visit

660 Storefronts

660 Storefronts takes Storefront legendary plan, a strange wedge of space with a line of columns, and mirrors it to form a far more ordinary rectangular plan. Storefront is mirrored again and again creating a generic-repetitive field from an exceptionally quirky unit.

Ground Xerox at the AA

The AA projects review opens tonight, and I’m delighted to be showing our units work as part of the exhibition.

We’ve been working under the title ‘Ground Xerox’ and spent the year thinking through the idea of the architectural re-enactment as a design strategy. This has led us in a number of directions, some surreal, some highly practical (and some that are surreally practical).

The topic has asked us a series of questions that go to some fundamental architectural issues: the relationship between form and meaning, how material substance relates to authenticity and the idea of authorship.

We’ve found that remaking something requires tremendous close looking, amazing ingenuity and invention, and a really clear idea of what and why one might be re-making in the first place.

We’ve seen how the buried histories of a site can be resurrected as active contributions to the contemporary city, how new ambitions and narratives can be launched through re-enactments.

We’ve examined the bureaucratic machinations of conservation where arguments between planners, lawyers and developers creates imaginary versions of the past right at the moment when they try to fix architectural authenticity.

Illustrated here are images of a project by Felix Brinkhege. His work has looked at the Lansbury Estate in Poplar, it’s origins as the living architecture exhibition of the Festival of Britain, the changing attitude to both housing and the welfare state. Hi project proposed a new public amenity combining waste disposal (as a public activity to be celebrated) reinstating original cafe from the Festival of Britain, and a monument to public housing in the form of Gremlin Grange, an exhibit from the Festival that argued for modernist housing by exposing the faults of old housing stock.

Excerpts and Extracts

In the face of the current quietness on Strange Harvest, here is round up of some links / excerpts of stuff I’ve been doing elsewhere.

A few links:

This to piece on So-Il’s new Kukje Gallery in Seoul for Domus

A love letter to tarmac and the infrastructual botox of London’s pre-Olympic roadwork frenzy in Building Design

A review of an Electronic Cigarette in Icon describing the strange fictionalised enactment of the sensation of smoking.

And … tonight (21/6) is the London launch of the Strelka Press down at the Architecture Foundation. Interesting to see how their ‘digital first’ publishing experiment will pan out. Though only available on Amazon, you don’t actually need a real Kindle to read it. Any Kindle app on a phone / computer / ipad or whatever will do. Anyway, here is an extract of my piece Make It Real: Architecture As Enactment
, a longform essay starring Jay-Z, Woody Allen and a guy named Randy:

‘The danger is that it’s just talk; then again, the danger is that it’s not. I believe you can speak things into existence.’ Jay-Z, Decoded, 2010

‘The Great Roe’, Woody Allen tells us, ‘is a mythological beast with the head of a lion and the body of a lion, though not the same lion.’ In the Great Roe, the fictional and the real combine into a seamless composite. Though radically spliced, the line between myth and biology is invisible – there’s no way to tell where one begins and the other ends, which part is myth and which is real. Do its front paws walk on real ground and its rear on mythic landscapes? Or are both front and hindquarters real, with its mythological status located in the splice? Other mythological creatures – the half-human, half-animal satyrs, fauns, centaurs and the like – distort reality into crypto-biological arrangements of pure fiction. The Great Roe, though, embodies a strange and absurd condition where the opposite conditions of fiction and reality are contained within the same physical entity. One does not undo the other. Instead, its idea (its mythic fiction) and its form (a real lion) coincide exactly.

In constructing this comedic absurdity, Allen has accidently provided us with a fitting description of the way architecture occupies the world. Because architecture, like the Great Roe, is simultaneously mythical and real. Mythical, in the sense that it is the invention of the society that creates it – the ‘will of an epoch made into space’, as Mies put it. Real, in the sense that it is the landscape that we inhabit. The perfect registration between these two states provides architecture with its own supernatural power: its prosaic appearance cloaks its mythic, imaginative origins entirely. To begin to understand architecture’s Great Roe-ish state we must first think of how architecture mythologises and fictionalises itself, and then examine how it transmutes these fictions into reality.

Like a mythical beast, architecture emerges from the psycho-cultural landscape of its social, political and economic circumstances. Its body may be an exquisite corpse of (biologically impossible) architectural limbs, torsos, heads and tails, yet it is animated, active and alive like Frankenstein’s monster. At any given moment it projects its historical situation – the great teeming mass of narratives that prefigured its existence – into the contemporary world. And in doing so it fundamentally rewrites that history, splicing and sewing the narratives together to make a radical new proposition for the future.

The representation of history is, of course, highly politicised. As Churchill tells us, history is written by the victors. He suggests that history is at least part fiction, and that its writing is a spoil of war. In its own way, architecture is also a spoil of war, arising out of ideological, aesthetic, economic as well as military conflicts. But in contrast to written history, architecture’s victorious narrative manifests itself as reality. It not only represents and illustrates this fictional history but physically embodies it, playing it out through real substance, space and programme.

This radical re-enactment of history is a fundamental mode of architectures development. We might begin a historical survey of architectures re-enactments with the Egyptian column. The primitive tree and reed columns transformed into architecture when they became stone columns carved to look like a tree trunk or a bundle of reeds. Right here, in a foundational architectural moment, we see re-enactment as the primary architectural idea. The primitive tree-column returns at the moment it is technologically superseded. The original gesture of the tree-column is radically altered through its re-enactment in stone, producing a ritualised symbol that re-stages its origins just as it escapes their gravity.

In Greek architecture too we can read architecture’s compulsion to re-enact. Not only is the Egyptian column re-staged in the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders, but re-enactment generates the entire language of classical architecture through the re-staging of primitive timber Greek temples. As with the Egyptian column, stone replaces timber, but here the entire temple structure is transubstantiated. And in this transformation, architecture represents its own origin just as it becomes something else. We see this in details such as triglyphs, the vertically channelled blocks in a Doric frieze that are understood as stone representations of the original timber end-beams – even though these beams are unnecessary in stone construction. Under them are stone guttae that re-enact the wooden pegs that would have been needed to stabilise a timber post-and-beam structure but here are vestigially rhetorical. In these examples one construction technology is re-enacted in another creating paradoxes where the image of one intersects with the other’s substance. These transmaterial technological glitches are moments where the status of the re-enactment is made visible – like seeing a Civil War re-enactor on a mobile phone. They act like the splurges of a Warhol silkscreen or the howl of feedback, where the medium itself distorts the subject, where the act of reproduction becomes an active part of re-performance.

For more, you’ll have to click on through to Amazon