Showing scant regard for time-zones, altitude or if whoever or whatever I’m looking at is awake; blasting through cultures, texts and images; paying little heed to where the next bloody reference I’ve just linked is headed or came from, I just need more or maybe less reality. I can touch everything I want and semantically colonise the space, image and symbolism of whatever I can map into my environment.
What does architecture mean now? In an age where technology becomes evermore ubiquitous, algorithmic, and participatory, the distinctions between public and private, work and home become harder to define and separate. One where, as the recent riots and looting across the UK have shown, the abrasion and tension between commercialised or marketised cityscapes and those who must navigate contemporary (and therefore inherently unequal) environments sparks violence and venom across the wider community.
While the work and ideas on show at this year’s Bartlett summer exhibition were un-arguably beautiful and visionary, their articulation of a spatial logic indebted to design thinking[i] and defined by today’s technological possibilities, not to mention the trend for bio-technological integration, they seemed to leave the sense of impending social-political, economic and environmental (etc) dystopia – that many of the projects sought to alleviate – intact.[ii]
So what is this new spatial regime and what are the links to an emergent digital technological ideology? While clearly virtual 3dimentional design software has impacted both the form and the communication of architectural design – Michael Pugh’s Urban Cattle Farm & Housing Scheme: Deptford Creek – London 2060 (Unit 6) and expressly in Unit 8, the “3D” unit[iii] – it seems that the freedom afforded by indifference to Newtonian fundamentals of computer gaming, especially in this case Second Life flight function, is not lost on the Bartlett students. Sarah Bromley and others on Unit 20 seem particularly indebted to a notion of travelling through a space that could be loosely be understood as architectural (in the traditional sense at least), but in this case one where giant leaps or flight could like gaming connect spaces and levels that seem rather drably impossible in walking / climbing based architectural transitions. Nick Masteron (Unit 4) develops the idea of gaming still further. With his Curious Case of Arthur K project he employed a fabricated architectural persona to ‘game’[iv] the Mount Pleasant Sorting office in London, extruding a subterraneously multi-layered and paranoid articulation of postal system through his own, subjective, narrative and again experienced (and re-articulated) space without the normal conditions imposed on us by physics, security, employment etc.
While it is obvious that half of what is on display is often conceptual and not intending to be built, this is a logic, that like the freedom of virtual fantasy (visualised and given prosthesis by the vibration motor), forgoes the conventional hierarchy of stacked habitable units to be inhabited by various functions intersected and made compatible by stairs and elevated walk ways.
In virtual space, vectors take precedence over travelling against gravity. This idea of a vector (information or quantity with a direction) has more than just redefined the spatial-aesthetic thinking of architecture. As we can shift or step between task, context and information with hyperlinked sources on the web; the spaces and intended socio-cultural merging, mutating and re-purposing proposed by many of the projects in the show allow similar shifts in context, position, or meaning. Crucially, like the algorithmic lexicon of digital technology, these proposed shifts are not necessarily activated by human agents but by structural abstract means.
The discourse on urbanity and architecture proposed by the Bartlett graduates is by no means short-sighted enough to understand the subjects in space as uniform; like all good anthropologists and ethnographers the Bartlett has split the courses – and indeed summer show – into units that deal with the various specificities that problematise an architecture practice that is aware of concerns broader than the conditions of the client’s brief. These concerns can be characterised as, formal, social, environmental, political, cultural, contextual and temporal; sustainability - providing nice gestalt integration. Units vary in their outlook from theoretically rigorous and socially transformative in scope, to pessimistically forward looking units seeking to alleviate the worst-case scenario of a 5˚C future or to a fantastical u/dystopian world of archi-cultural boundlessness.
At the crux of my mixed feelings of excitement and trepidation about the architecture in the Bartlett Summer show was Unit 15. A unit founded on a principle of uncertainty, both as a negative and positive input, it claims to break down conventional spatial and contextual assumptions. Its output, while mainly video based and therefore more conceptually grounded in the elliptical methods of design thinking, nonetheless predominantly mitigated against rather than sought to alleviate problems from which the unit originated. Unit 15 was certainly one of the most arresting units on show, it had - when I was there at least – the largest number of viewers, and with a huge bank of spectacular light boxes, animations and videos it was easy to apprehend why this might be the case. Reality, fantasy and spectacle blurred and copulated; amongst all this, and with my viewpoint firmly adjusted to looking down on tiny white people, it was certainly one sexy nightmare.
Jonathan Gale (Unit 15) Megalogmania, video still
Although it seemed in many respects that there was a severe case of sticking plaster over a future severed jugular here, maybe I was taking the models and proposals too seriously. Perhaps another way to understand what’s going on here is as amongst the lineage of science fiction – In his year 5 MArch Thesis The City: Through the Lens of Science Fiction World-Building Christopher Lees addresses this proposition directly, exploring the “[...] world-building and architectural themes within [science fiction] narratives as a method of constructing concepts of the city”.[v]
Defining this further:
“ Depicting the city as a utopian projection is a prevalent theme throughout contemporary thought and literature and is particularly evident within Science Fiction (SF) where the city is integral to the narrative’s world construction in two ways: first, they are both products of modern world thought and have co-evolved. As such SF is a well adapted language of ideas for discussing the contemporary city, paramount of which is the experience of life in the current built environment. Second, SF allows authors to posit a vast palette of narrative ‘thought-experiments’ about diverse realities that other art-forms find difficult to articulate.” (ibid).
Many of the projects on show, again Unit 15 is a prime example of this, certainly seemed reminiscent of this mode, moreover compacting into this transfiguration of historical continuity with for example interconnecting walkways that brought together, Star Wars, Metropolis, Minority Report (etc), Archigram and for that critical edge the once hopeful Brutalist estates like South London’s Heygate. This would fit with my previous assertion of the hyperlinked spatiality and with a pleasing critical filter through which to view the world outside the exhibition, but then again this is at the same time a test bed for ideas that will one day be realistically achievable.
“It was pretty much how I expected it to be- mind boggling and beautiful […]The Bartlett show has always relied much less on the individual concept or project in achieving a saturated visual experience […] the Bartlett units refuse to let design and imagination be mediated by gravity and logic! This is good for architecture generally in my opinion- in relation to a society where technology is becoming increasingly integrated. Certain upper echelons of the Bartlett have used the term ‘digital modernism‘ to summarise the Bartlett‘s output, and on the other hand, remain stoically proud of its tradition and emphasis on drawing i.e. by hand and crafting. I guess these conflict- but strangely both notions are evoked in the work” (Alex Sprogis, Architect and former Bartlett Student; email correspondence July 2011)
Yet as I glided, god-like or maybe just as some object-fetishiser, over maquettes and computer visualisations framed by conceptual and formal sensitivities to the problems the students were engaged in, I couldn’t help but question whether building new spaces, ones defined by these new spatial and aesthetic regimes can really solve the problems of urbanity, ones that are made problematic by the technologies and spatial collapses this architecture recruits.
[i] See Ronald Jones’ article Whatever Works in Frieze magazine (issue 139, Pp26-27 / http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/whatever-works/) for an interesting introduction to the U.S. Military’s adoption of Design Thinking.
[ii] While I don’t want to claim that the work on show defines a contemporary spatial environment that is in need of critique the self evident and of course laudable freedom of imagination amongst the projects at the Bartlett, is perhaps arguably situated on the leading edge of this new digitally integrated spatial / aesthetic regime. It is the avant-garde. More over while visual art – another creative practice firmly engaged in a self-reflexive social awareness – creates ciphers for problematic social relations, architects actively site their projects within the social environment.
[iii] As described in the exhibition catalogue: “We are becoming increasingly interested in the tools we use to design, and the reasons for using them. We feel the need to stress the architectural speculation beyond the usual plan and section. Not so much in terms of how to produce information for the construction of buildings, but as part of a critical and analytical design process.” J. Berglund & R. Cannon, Bartlett School of Architecture – 2011, Catalogue, Bartlett School of Architecture UCL; London p.66
[iv] Recently to game has come to mean to alter a situation, object or phenomena with rules, strategy, or system that derive from computer games, where once one might have used or taken part in something, the tech-savvy subject now games it instead.
[v] C. Lees, Bartlett School of Architecture – 2011, Catalogue, Bartlett School of Architecture UCL; London p.152.
Links / Images -
Johnathan Gales Melgomania - http://vimeo.com/25446891
Nick Masterton Through the Signs - http://vimeo.com/25475377
UDRL Oxford Brookes visit - http://vimeo.com/26334542