Of Photos and Photoshop: UN Studio’s Villa NMPosted: 16 May 2009
Remember the Villa NM? UN Studio’s house for upstate New York, completed a couple years ago and destroyed by fire not a year after its widespread publication? Haven’t we heard this one before? An impossibly pristine architectural vision is destroyed beyond recognition, only to come to prominence later in life? Like many lost architectures before it, the Villa NM seemed destined for destruction. A little bit too white, too shiny, too pristine to exist in perpetuity. Something like a Barcelona Pavilion for the age of Photoshop, in more ways than one.
Like Mies van der Rohe’s genre-defining collage of space and material, UN Studio’s Villa could serve as a watershed in the brief history of our digital architecture. Odd, then, that it should have its origins in such a simple diagrammatic model, a morphing of plane from horizontal to vertical. So much contemporary architecture is based on over-the-top complexity and excess, but its transformative diagram might have more power as an advance over the three modernist masters’ transformations: Wright’s blurring of inside to outside in his Prairie houses, Le Corbusier’s liberation of the ground in Villa Savoye, and Mies van der Rohe’s performative staging of the Farnsworth House.
UN Studio’s move, then, is the contemporary zero-gravity equation of wall and floor, the single-surface so central to the last two decades of design, but in simple, digestible form. Along with the Yokohama Port Terminal by FOA and perhaps OMA’s Educatorium at Utrecht, the Villa NM assembles a demonstrative canon of sorts, illustrations of the possibilities of the new, folded diagram of the twenty-first century. What does all this have to do with Photoshop, you might ask? It’s a question of collage.
At some point in the nineties, Rem Koolhaas coined the term “Photoshopism” to describe a group of new techniques overturning the hegemony of collage over post-modernity. If transparency and pure form (Analytical Cubism) permeated modernism, the logic of collage (Synthetic Cubism) has permeated all the movements of postmodern architecture since the seventies. Then came Photoshop, the logic of which overturns collage through the instrumentalization of blur, dodge, burn, pixelation, texture, et cetera et cetera.
The wall-to-floor diagram is a blur and a morph, formal as well as conceptual, social as well as political. It’s a connection between the three modernist diagrams, morphing between Wright, Corb and Mies, conflating their political agendas into a postmodern cocktail of libertarianism and socialism and performance. But then one night in early 2008 it disappeared, at least as far as further photographic documentation is concerned. All we have are some overworked photographs, some drawings and a digital model or two. There will be no Savoye-esque farm storage phase, no pilgrimage cycle, no rebirth. It was over before if got started. But maybe that’s perfect for this materialistic, media-saturated age, in which planned obsolescence is a problem as well as a solution.
Such obsolescence was part of the reason Barcelona Pavilion, along with Alvar Aalto’s Finnish Pavilion for New York and Melnikov’s USSR Pavilion among others, became so canonical. Their immortality was perpetuated by the unsustainable level of polish captured by photographs. It’s terribly premature to canonize the Villa NM, but this is just the internet after all, and the halflife of this post is most likely even shorter than the house itself.