Modern Ornament

There is a landing, on the river side of the Queensland Museum, and above the Queensland Art Gallery, which is reliably mostly empty. It faces a large, busy cafe, often full of daggy and aspirational Brisbane parents and their noisy, curious kids. It is near walkways and stairs for people walking either way along the river. This corner landing repels people. People stop there for a moment, wanting to do something, and move on quickly.

The museum and art gallery is a reinforced concrete structure, built in 1982-86, according to the style at the time, echoing the Barbican in London or the Lincoln Centre in New York, a monumental grey and light brown culture production machine. The staff make clever and lively use of the cavernous spaces inside. There is an enormous fossil of hundreds of mud footprints, capturing a dinosaur stampede, against one cliff-like wall. Nearby, outside, full-scale models of humpback whales hang overhead, while whalesong pipes through discreetly placed speakers.

The whole building is a bit like that landing though, at least on the bare concrete outside. It has a striking concrete slab geometry, all rectangles. It is unshaded in the glaringly hot summer sun and humidity, and open to thunderstorms. In the bright Brisbane winter, the glare remains, but the heat is substituted for a chilly draft, seasoned with city grit and dust. You can’t talk to people, read a newspaper, eat a sandwich, or even check your phone, really. So on busy days, there is a steady stream of people needing a moment’s rest, not finding it, and disconsolately moving on. Perhaps I am misreading the building, and this is by design, like the seats in McDonald’s that are placed a distance from the table precisely determined to make you uncomfortable after five or ten minutes.

Queensland Art Gallery and Museum

Queensland Art Gallery and Museum by kgbo (cropped)

There’s a part early on in The Timeless Way of Building where Christopher Alexander meditates, in a somewhat angst-ridden way, on how problematic he finds contemporary (1970s) architecture. Very well, he relates, I must face that I am a conservative. (Horror of Berkeley horrors.) He then talks himself out of it, deciding that he is not against new buildings and materials so long as they learn from the beauty of old patterns, and that their design is in the hands of the communities they house.

Alexander has had an influential career, including inspiring the design patterns movement in software, but was never quite embraced by the mainstream of the architecture profession. He did get an award from the arch-conservative US National Building Museum. And there is that not-all-wrong, definitely reactionary, article by Rennix and Robinson on ornament and modern architecture that does the rounds on Twitter every few months. The article highlights a 1982 debate between Alexander and Peter Eisenman on beauty. It’s a debate that seems more important to conservative partisans (alt-historical 1980s youtube videos on how Alexander DESTROYS Eisenman flick before one’s eyes), but really is about technical expertise and the way it causes pain, the way we overwhelmingly live in an ecosystem of industrial creative destruction.

From the very beginning it is clear that Alexander and Eisenman don’t really even share a common frame in which to debate. Alexander’s early work, Notes on the Synthesis of Form, is highly mathematical, and Eisenman also makes heavy use of repeated geometrical forms. But Alexander, as always, advocates for a sense of wholeness and harmony, like the way the senses are comforted by detail related at different scales, which he thinks can be got at mathematically. Eisenman is fonder of ideas of deep structure from literary postmodernists like Foucault, Barthes and Derrida, and distrusts these feelings of comfort.

My design sympathies are with Alexander – it’s certainly a better default – and yet, if we zoom out, Eisenman isn’t all wrong. Sometimes technical experts need to inflict pain. The Hippocratic oath doesn’t stop surgeons from using a bone saw, just when they decide it’s worthwhile.

Peter Eisenman: Moneo’s courtyard … was taking away from something that was too large, achieving an effect that expresses the separation and fragility that man feels today in relationship to the technological scale of life, to machines, and the car-dominated environment we live in.

Christopher Alexander: Moneo intentionally wants to produce an effect of disharmony.

PE: What I’m suggesting is that if we make people so comfortable in these nice little structures of yours, that we might lull them into thinking that everything’s all right, Jack, which it isn’t. And so the role of art or architecture might be just to remind people that everything wasn’t all right.

So sure, art does need to do that, sometimes. It sounds like an awkward place to live, though. The residents of Eisenman’s House VI thought so, too – they even wrote a book about it.

The point of inflicting this pain – disharmony is pain – is usually that you go through it in order to become something else. The danger of a disharmonious building is surely that it is so permanent, that on even a generational timescale, it is a destination, not just a transformation. All pain and no amputation. Let alone the prelude to a cyborg prosthetic upgrade, or whatever mutant response to machinic modernity you might need.

Arizona State Football Stadium

Arizona State Football Stadium, by MCSixth

Eisenman is a prolific theorist, though I haven’t dived deeply into his writing. He has had a successful commercial career, too; it’s not all frozen museum pieces like House II. The curves of modern steel and autocad construction have been kind to his later work. His firm built the Arizona University football stadium. It’s a blobby magic schoolbus shape; a cutely monstrous gladiatorial arena.

PE: [Palladio’s Palazzo Chiericati] … makes me feel high in my mind, not in my gut. Things that make me feel high in my gut are very suspicious, because that is my psychological problem.

I guess he got over that. Of course you don’t live in a stadium, either, and they’re not meant to make you comfortable.

Eisenman is probably most famous for another late work, the 2005 Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin. The design was selected by competition. As described by James Young, one of the reasons the previous round of competition had failed acrimoniously was the previous winning design was too much of a kitschy ornament. The very concrete elements: the giant tombstone, the specific numbers of boulders, and so on, all become points of disappointment and interrogation, inadequate symbolism under the scale of industrial murder; an enormous snow-globe of death.

This piece by K Michael Hays, part of a lecture series, gives a sense of the project and its institutional reception.

It is a field of many abstract and minimalist stone pillars, without a single defined entrance-exit path, variations in the height of the pillars and the gradient of the ground creating an uncanny, disturbing, maze-like effect amongst the tallest pillars, at the centre. 

It’s hard not to connect the earlier criticism of Eisenman with the strengths of the memorial: “reminding people that everything wasn’t all right”. The memorial to industrial genocide is human-repellant, unheimlich, uncanny, un-home-like. That’s the point. Though when pressed, Eisenman doesn’t even commit to a meaning that concrete; he even considers it might be used by skateboarders, or in a spy film.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you have a favorite monument?

Eisenman: Actually, I’m not that into monuments. Honestly, I don’t think much about them. I think more about sports.

(Spiegel Interview)

 

The Bureaucracy of Automatons

An introduction to the notes on Confucian Software.

Software and the Sage

Among the many dissimilarities between software and gentlemen of the classical Chinese Spring and Autumn Period, two in particular stand out. One existed in a pre-scientific feudal society on an agricultural technological and economic base, and the other presupposes the scientific method and a modern (or post-modern) industrial base. Secondly, the concept of virtue or potency (德) is central to The Analects, but software artifacts are, in our day and age, non-sentient. Morality requires some degree of self-awareness – of consciousness – and so software does not itself practice virtue any more than a spoon or a lawnmower.

The immediate relevance, for a developer, of the Analects, are the two other grand concerns of Confucius, which are existential fundaments of software. These are names (名), and the rites (礼).

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The First Derivatives of Jane Jacobs

What do these people have in common: a physicist with an interest in anatomy, a pair of libertarian metrophiles, a building architect who inspired a software movement, and a sculptor and writer whose critical model centres around Star Wars?

Pursuing a topic as a layman has its own pleasures. One, fairly widely commented on, is the pleasure of wandering at whim, without a set course or destination. Another, perhaps less noted, or perhaps part of all study, is that you can discover great thinkers by accident, just because everyone you read seems to be talking about them. It is like walking through a dense forest and suddenly realising the rises you have been skirting around are actually the foothills of some great mountain, obscured by the foilage.

I found such a thinker recently, the American writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs. A post by Cam on the physicist above, Geoffrey West, who also modelled metropolitan growth, let the pieces fall into place. (It’s also a great NYT article. This seems to be the key city paper.)

Chris Alexander – the architect – has been an interest for a while, and though he doesn’t reference Jacobs in A Pattern Language, their names now get mentioned together in the same breath. They form part of a humane, localist school of design, which celebrates the dynamism of the city. She was explicitly referenced in Virginia Postrel’s The Future And Its Enemies, which I read some years ago now, without getting that particular hint. The chirpy economic libertarian thread then takes us to Market Urbanism, and the design thread takes us to the wonderful (and anti-corporate) Star Wars Modern.

If you haven’t so far had the pleasure, this Reason interview gives a decent introduction, and the wiki article isn’t bad either.

Interviewer: What should a city be like?
Jane Jacobs: It should be like itself. Every city has differences, from its history, from its site, and so on. These are important. One of the most dismal things is when you go to a city and it’s like 12 others you’ve seen. That’s not interesting, and it’s not really truthful.

I haven’t read any of her books yet. Time to go climb the mountain.