December 23, 2010
fish sunset
Fishing in Metro-Land produced by the Metropolitan Railway, Suburban London, 1932 (source)
Still from Sunset Boulevard, 1950 (source)


In George Orwell’s 1939 novel Coming Up For Air, George Bowling decides to revisit the village of his idyllic childhood. Depressed, he dreams of the secluded pool in a country estate where he used to fish. But the village has been swallowed up by London’s suburbs. One of the estate’s ponds has become a boating lake, and is surrounded by concrete and clamorous children. The other has been drained and turned into a rubbish dump. It is filled with rusty tin cans.


Orwell had a tense, ambiguous relationship with the modern England he saw springing up around him in the 1930s. He saw it destroying the Thames Valley places he loved as a child, and he considered the new, modern landscapes as tinny, noisy, trashy and inhospitable. And the flashy modernity of west London was overshadowed by the approaching catastrophe of the Second World War: bomber planes swarm over the new suburbs. Coming Up For Air is an elegy for the England of Orwell’s childhood—it was about to disappear.


But Orwell also despised that England. Beyond a few islands of suburban prosperity, England was rife with poverty, stasis and despair. In the essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, written in 1940, during the aerial bombardment of London, Orwell considered English civilization, weighing up what was worth preserving and what should be jettisoned. Again, he turned to the suburbs—but now they gave him cause for hope. ‘The place to look for the germs of the future England is in light-industry areas and along the… more


Billy Wilder’s 1950 film Sunset Boulevard opens with a shot of a dead man floating face-down in a pool. Wilder had originally wanted to shoot the body from the bottom of the pool, but capturing an effective visualization from this vantage point proved difficult. In an early trial, the camera was placed inside a custom-made waterproof container which was then immersed into the water; however the result was not to Wilder’s satisfaction.


The famous shot was finally achieved by placing a mirror at the bottom of the pool, which reflected an image of the scene that was captured by cameras above the water’s surface. The shot depended on the use of displacement through layered perspectives. The viewer feels as if they are immersed in the pool looking up at the floating body, when in fact they are viewing the scene from outside of the pool, by looking into a reflection at the bottom. While the corpse is alone in the pool, Wilder conjures the typically communal nature of the space by surrounding the victim with policemen, who are at once submerged with the body and on dry land. Similarly, the intensity of the waves is exaggerated as they are captured twice; once from above and then again from below. The dead man even features as a spectator to his own drowning, as he narrates the scene from beyond his watery grave.


Reflecting pools are commonly associated with monuments to the dead, such as those found in front of the Lincoln Memorial or the Taj Mahal; in Sunset Boulevard Wilder builds his own reflecting pool for his fallen protagonist and provides a space in which to commemorate his story.


Will Wiles



Erandi de Silva


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December 14, 2010
details school
Red Hook Houses Cost-Reducing Details from “A Lesson in Cost Reduction,” The Architectural Forum, November 1938
School of Architecture designed by Lacaton & Vassal, Nantes, 2009 (source)


“Cost reducing details include: 1. Raised tub in bathroom kept waste piping above floor slab. Thin plaster partition replaced customary masonry wall as plumbing stack housing. Combined saving: $48,000; 2. Unmortised doors and simple hardware reduced costs by $20,000; 3. Wall brackets, streamlined to discourage coat-hanging and containing switch and convenience outlet, cost $36,000 less than ceiling outlets and wall switches; 4. U-shaped brackets replaced wood ground and base of plaster partitions. Cost reduction: $15,000; 5. A bull-nose finished off all kitchen entrances, saving $51,000; 6. Curtains on this hanger replaced closet doors, saved $118,400.”


The Architectural Forum (November 1938)



In 1955, my father and his family moved from their apartment in Brownsville to the Bay View Houses in Canarsie, Brooklyn. Their brand new 3-bedroom unit was clean, more spacious than their previous home, and surrounded by the generous open lawns of superblock public housing. Nevertheless, fifty years later among the first things he (unhappily) remembers about Bay View remain the interior fixtures and closets fitted with curtains instead of doors.


Unlike the earliest examples of public housing in NYC such as First Houses and Harlem River Houses—which featured high-quality interior finishes and details—Bay View followed a model established by Red Hook Houses in the late 1930s. To save costs and to avoid competing in the rental marketplace with private sector developers, the interiors of Red Hook Houses and the projects that followed were designed to be adequate but not too nice. In other words, while well-built, their design ensured that residents remained aware they were living in low-cost state-provided housing. As New York City Housing Authority Chairman Alfred Rheinstein said in 1938 the public housing authority is relieved from the restrictions of… more


“Metal buildings are the dream that modern architects had at the beginning of this century. It has finally come true, but they themselves don’t realize it. That’s because it doesn’t take an architect to build a metal building. You just order them out of a catalog—comes with a bunch of guys who put it together in a couple of days, maybe a week.”


– David Byrne, True Stories



To resist global capitalism’s instrumentalization of architecture, architects have developed many strategies, nearly all of which are, counter-intuitively, really expensive. When we build at all, we design buildings that are painfully difficult to construct because of their formal complexity or material excess. Efficiency and affordability are typically only celebrated when design is in service of the disempowered, displaced, or otherwise marginalized. Certainly, the techniques of efficiency pioneered by modernism are alive and well (pre-fab, modularity, standardization) but are largely in service of less-than-celebrated buildings (trailer parks, roadside motels, big boxes). What would happen if architects tried cheapness again, toward new ends, beyond efficiency?


The work of Lacaton & Vassal provides at least one provocative re-imagining of cheapness. Their project for the architecture school at Nantes was realized with an unfinished, unadorned concrete frame and a plastic enclosure system. Electrical cords dangle from the ceiling to desks below; the building is breathtakingly cheap. Unlike many architecture school buildings, however, the decision to leave the systems exposed was not for didactic effect. Nor is cheapness here a strategy to save the client money. Rather, it allows the client to redirect resources elsewhere. By using the lowest-cost building methods available, Lacaton & Vassal were able to deliver an inexpensive, spacious building in place of a smaller, costlier one, producing the greatest luxury any architecture school could ask for: extra space.


Jacob Reidel



Thom Moran


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December 10, 2010
fairy sapphire
Fairytale Wedding, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, 1981 (source)

Ceylon Sapphire, Royal Engagement Press Conference, London, 2010 (source)


One of my dearest friends recently got engaged. Invited to her family’s home in Jamestown for Thanksgiving, I was treated to a guided tour of the future site of her wedding. The ceremonial grounds teetered on the edge of a craggy cliff, ocean waves breaking twenty feet below. A breathtaking panorama of rugged New England coastline with its ubiquitous lighthouses and seagulls surrounded us. ‘The guests will sit along that hill and we’ll be standing here’ they told me, pointing to a spot even closer the edge of the precipice. They were getting married on the edge of the world. Their edge of the world. It turned out that in choosing the location my friends had declined an almost equally beautiful coastal site a short distance away. ‘It’s where my mom got married’, the bride-to-be explained.


This desire for unique settings for the fabrication of memories recurred to me as I flipped through the pages of US Weekly on my way back to New York on the Bus. Kate Middleton and Prince William had just announced their engagement and were expected to… more


As one might expect for an old couple, joined by contractual obligations, the relationship between the monarchy and the public in Britain is a complex one. Two recent developments add their weight to the ever-shifting dynamic between the pair. Prince William and Kate Middleton’s engagement narrows the gap between the rulers and ruled as a bride of common stock crosses the threshold into the realm of aristocracy, through marriage. Meanwhile, Prince Charles and the Tories are working counteractively to add depth and breadth to any point which distinguishes the two parties. Amongst a medley of tools that actively serve to separate the Prince of Wales from his subjects, he uses architecture, most recently with the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment’s inappropriate bid to take over where the government’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment left off. While the upcoming royal wedding may signify a subtle integration of the monarchy back into the public realm, Prince Charles’ undertakings may push and pull to both reinforce distinctions and perhaps incite the public to further diminish royal authority.


E. Sean Bailey



Erandi de Silva


1 comment » | Editorial


December 7, 2010
oil kirche
Oil in the Rain, Photo by Samar Singla, 2009 (source)


A blow lasts a hundredth of a second. Its registration, a bruise, may last several days or even weeks. Trace evidence is left behind when different objects come into contact with one another revealing a past narrative. Fingerprints indicate a hand that was once in contact; skid marks on the runway recall a flight.


Trauma affects mushrooms, like humans they may suffer similarly by undergoing a change in color following an impact. Once the cap of a Boletus erythropus is nicked and the cell walls are broken, oxygen alters their color from brownish-orange to a range of iridescent tones. There are many famous blue-bruising mushrooms, which are mostly either poisonous or hallucinogenic. Walking amongst these psychedelic fungi in a forest could produce fantastic blue-black footsteps, as their color transfers onto the shoes which tread upon them.


Light unveils marks on a road; foreign fluids such as oil, spilled on the wet surface of the asphalt generate rainbows through reflection. These colorful stains indicate a car’s dripping engine, which may have since left the scene.


When derelict buildings are demolished, they also leave signs of their one-time existence on adjoining structures. A white-tiled wall of a bathroom may remain on the second story of the neighboring party wall or perhaps the fragments of steps from a former staircase may have survived.


Like bruises, renewal and regeneration will usually diminish any remnants with time.


Frauenkirche Rubble, Berlin (source)


A bruise is a photograph in flesh, an abstracted index of action in color. It is a place of injury, whereby red and blue mark the site of impact. A locus of tenderness, with its red and blue demarcation from undamaged tissue, the bruise depicts in two dimensions, a violence now past.


An urban assault can be remembered as well and traced in physical terms. In Dresden, the Frauenkirche’s flecked, reconstructed surface represents an enduring urban trauma. Since German reunification, and the extension of Western funds to the formerly socialist state, Dresden’s historic center has been reinstated as a predominantly baroque city. Tourism and civic pride have encouraged this refurbishing and in a metaphorical spirit far from subtle, authorities have reconstructed the Frauenkirche from mixed materials, from both new stones and from those charred building blocks rescued post-war.


The Frauenkirche’s combination of new and old stones, some clean and others charred by the bombing, creates a collage. The black and white geometry builds a form of seemingly positive and negative spaces. The black, charred bricks, picked from heaps of rubble and reused in the restored church, mark the specific site of violence and commemorate the larger destruction of the city during the Second World War.


Unlike a bruise which exclaims itself for some days before it, and its ache, fade away, Dresden’s injury has been made monumental and persists in the church’s built form. The Frauenkirche is a site unhealed… more


Daniel Fernàndez Pascual

Rachel Engler


1 comment » | Guest Contributors, Regular Contributors


December 2, 2010
sign bicycle
Design Flaw, Photo by Jeremiah Newbie, 2006 (source)


Architects are agents of the secure: fixers, controllers, protectors. This applies to the activity of building as much as it does to the intellectual work involved in establishing the boundaries of the discipline itself. If one is going to execute a plan for the organization of material in a space that is meant to have any kind of duration, then one had better be secure in the conviction that this is, in fact, the right way to do things. This means that the architect, or at least the architect who builds, must accept the role of one who yields power, of one who secures the future. This sense of security will always be false, but it is this false sense that separates the architect proper from the artist.


Historically the division between architectural and artistic activities has been blurred; the two disciplines shared the same space of production for centuries until architecture developed firmer boundaries, standardized education, and licensing systems. Art became more open as a discipline, while architecture sought security in an apparatus of professionalism. This is justifiable, as architects must design spaces where people feel secure, or ideally, spaces where security is a non-factor. Even the most architectural of artists makes lousy buildings… more


Unlocked Single-Speed Bicycle, Photo by Author, Damascus, 2008


In the best possible (first) world, security is easily equated with comfort; a social nicety or convention reflecting suburban values. Its trajectory can be traced from a deliberate handshake to a lasting embrace up to joint speculation in real estate—commitment measured in the legally intimate terms of a lease. To some extent its feeling is psychological; I have been lucky enough to inherit the lease of an apartment because the amorous pair who first settled there discovered dwelling together killed their passion. On a macro-scale, societies allow themselves to be patted-down or broadcast on grainy television monitors as a reminder of betrayed trust.


In August, I was aghast when my compatriots stood their unlocked bicycles four meters from the stand, on Bergmannstraße, where we had just bought lemon ice-creams. Days after acquiring my current bicycle this October, I returned from a late-night supper gone long to find only the frame still locked to the gate outside the Prince George pub on Parkholme Road. Consensus and general atmosphere dictate how closely we must watch over the things we love; insecurity in peaceful times breeds mostly paranoia.


David Knowles

Kari Rittenbach


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