CANT

September 18, 2012
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ship
CCTV, OMA, 2012 (source)

From Exiles, Josef Koudelka (source)

 

Impossible is not what it used to be. Once, the possible in architecture was largely defined by technical limits. Designers who challenged the physical world risked catastrophic failure. When the vaults of Beauvais Cathedral collapsed in 1284, the entire Gothic enterprise lost its nerve to build higher, thinner, and lighter – though the Church’s drive to assert its power through smaller structures continued.

 

Today, the idea of architecture constrained by material limits seems quaint. The world’s great architects follow their vision, confident that with the right engineers in their corner, there’s nothing they can’t do.

 

Consider the CCTV headquarters in Beijing: two canted towers joined with an L-shaped cantilever. Deliberately and flamboyantly massive, each of the cantilever’s arms is a thirteen-story rebuttal of the laws of gravity. To build it, every step of the construction process was analyzed and monitored, down to the incremental movements between the towers on the morning they were linked.

 

One might credit advanced technology with making the impossible possible in Beijing. But that is only part of the story. Equal credit goes to the perfect storm of circumstances that brought the project into being: an authoritarian client out to prove itself to the world. An architect with a penchant for iconic shapes. And the Olympics, providing the showcase and the deadline.

 

Described this way, the twelfth-century Catholic church and twenty-first century Chinese broadcaster have a lot in common. Perhaps the real limit of architecture, then and now, is not technical but social, even emotional: the desire that focuses political will, financial means, and technical skill on realizing the impossible.

 

‘Because the exile sees things both in terms of what has been left behind and what is actually here and now, there is a double perspective that never sees things in isolation’

—Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual

 

 

Cant refers to one of any number of secret languages used by Bulgarian masons (Meshterski), Bosnian bricklayers (Banjački), Russian or Yugoslavian criminals (Fenya, Šatrovački), or Galician knife-sharpeners and umbrella-repairers (Barallete). Its etymological parents are disputed (either from the Latin cantare, ‘to sing’, or from Celtic variants, chainnt or caint, ‘speech talk’), which seems consistent with a cant’s capacity as an orphanage of words, since most cases of argot bypass the normal etymological process by simply supplanting common-usage words with more or less arbitrary alternatives, within the original grammatical structure. In very simple terms, it’s slang. One letter away from slant.

 

Cant trades in the business of withholding, protecting. Also, sheltering the strange within the familiar. The arrangement of these four letters in a single syllable feels common enough, a word with the qualities of a turnip (hardy and bland) or a grayish brown bird. There is an ordinariness that recedes from one’s attention. Recedes, in order to hide in plain sight. In order to create a secret, safe harbor of neglect where thought, or power, can grow.

 

In architecture, it is a face that looks back, catching the eye of the viewer, while already turning away. Cant in three dimensions. But I want to return to Said’s ‘double perspective’ and Josef Koudelka’s imagery of exile: cant in two dimensions. The recurrent lilt of Koudelka’s compositions feels like the result of a hardwired penchant for the oblique. It is never gratuitously… more

 

Gaby Brainard

 

 

Oana Marian

 

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PAST

September 9, 2012
hawaii unparametric
Na Pali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii, 2012 (Photo by Ian Gold)
Church of the Holy Cross, Josef Lehmbrock, Düsseldorf, 1957-58 (source)

 

To travel across the islands of Hawaii from Southeast to Northwest—Hawaii, Maui, Oahu, Kauai—is to travel backwards in geological time. The islands, born of molten lava, formed in a linear sequence as the Pacific Plate slowly shifted across a stationary hotspot in the Earth’s mantle. As the islands distanced themselves from this hotspot, a few inches per year, their fiery volcanic growth eventually halted (the hotspot currently resides under the island of Hawaii, which remains volcanically active and continues to grow in size). Over time, harsh winds and waves tugged at the islands loose ends, while the cooling of their rocky masses dragged the islands sluggishly back into the dark depths of the Pacific Ocean.

 

The life cycle of the Hawaiian Islands is clearly diagrammed on cartographic maps as the islands increase in size as they near the hotspot. It is also readily apparent visually from the silhouettes of the island’s mountain chains. The 400,000 year old island of Hawaii, which is soft and conical in mass, contrasts sharply with the 5 million year old island of Kauai with its jagged gravity defying cliffs and canyons.

 

The agedness of these islands coincides with their commercial specialization. As the youngest and therefore tallest island, Hawaii supports significant astronomical infrastructure, including technologically advanced NASA telescopes trawling deep space. The primordial visual aesthetic of Kauai has landed the island in dozens of Hollywood films, and garnered it the nickname of ‘Hollywood’s tropical back lot’. Memorably, Stephen Spielberg’s 1993 adaptation of Jurassic Park, relied on the time worn silhouettes of Kauai’s mountains to convincingly transport his audience into an ancient land… more

 

“Instead of being the threshold to the future, the first ten years of the twenty-first century turned out to be the ‘Re’ Decade.”

—Simon Reynolds, Retromania

 

 

While the above quotation refers to current trends in pop culture, it is equally apt at describing contemporary architectural practice and its theoretical discourse.

 

As architects, while attempting to define a formal vocabulary for this ‘threshold to the future’, the 21st century, with the aid of new tools and processes such as parametric coding that allow for mass customization (Grasshopper and the like), we have invariably recycled a formal vocabulary belonging to past decades—a vocabulary associated with optimism in scientific progress that relied on cues from mathematics, physics, microbiology, and other natural sciences.

 

Parametric architecture, while conceptually tied to ideas of evolution, optimization, adaption and systematic complexity, exhibits none of these traits after its built implementation and while the underlying 3D-models might be parametric, the buildings themselves are not. In its current state, parametric architecture is not at all parametric in its physical performance—‘parametric’ merely describes an aesthetic while the architecture itself remains inert and representational, if not metaphorical.

 

There are many past forms that could have been produced with today’s technologies, including built structures that pioneer the aesthetics of incremental and complex geometry—many of which are more than 50 years old.

 

E. Sean Bailey

 

 

Viviane Hülsmeier

 

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