Book Review: The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976

This book is a fleet-footed and exhaustive survey of the role of Eliot Noyes, Charles Eames and many others in the IBM Design Program. Though ostensibly focused on architecture, author John Harwood effectively integrates industrial, graphics, and exhibition design through a series of chapters that explore their roles in the development of both the computer and the multinational corporation. Harwood argues that these designers, Noyes in particular, were essential in assessing the importance of interfaces on both fronts. In outlining the division between “parlor and coal cellar” in the design of computers, and naturalizing the increasingly prominent role of computers and other teletechnologies in daily life through exhibitions and architecture, the IBM Design Program transformed the role of design in both realms.

The strongest and most engrossing of Harwood’s chapters for me is his third, which deals with IBM’s architecture. Not only did Noyes’ firm complete a series of buildings for IBM on their own, Noyes hand selected the architects for most major commissions. The results, though typologically (and topologically) similar, speak to the diversity of thought on modern architecture during the mid to late 20th Century. For Harwood, what makes these buildings important is not just their aesthetic diversity, but the integration of their technological function with their organization. Many of these buildings were either inward-facing or entirely isolated, though their control on the surrounding environment belied this isolation. The further inward these buildings focused, the more command they embodied.

Harwood’s concluding observations have to contend with the recent trajectory of corporate design (1976-Present) and this presents some difficulty. Noyes, through his prominent role as design consultant, seems to have designed and managed his way out of the process, to have made his role redundant. Today’s corporate design culture is much different and more resistant to outside influence (for more see my recent article on Apple’s architectural patronage in CLOG: Apple).

Harwood sees methodological transformation in the research at hand, specifically progress toward the removal of aestheticization from histories of architecture and technology. The appearance of things can no longer be the only way of assessing their significance. The world that present-day historians have to contend with is dramatically different from that even a generation ago, and their methods must change in response. Harwood has provided an elegant model.

A Quadrant Book, University of Minnesota Press, 2011


Book Review: Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo

In a brilliant contrivance, Nicolas de Monchaux adopts the structure of the Apollo spacesuit A7L for his first book, resulting in 21 overlapping – and at times redundant – chapters. Each deals with a different aspect of the A7L story, from its competition with harder alternatives to its production by foundation garment manufacturer Playtex. Among the outliers of these 21 “layers” are a section on the fragile image consciousness of JFK and an extensive history of upper atmosphere exploration from the Montgolfier ascensions to the U2 spy plane.

In the end, the positivism of systems thinking is at stake here. Central to this history for de Monchaux is The New Look epitomized by the post-war collections of Christian Dior. The powerful concept of “new looks” led to the adoption of systems thinking in numerous disciplines in post-war America, all hoping for a return to first principles. As a whole, this book records the victory by redundancy and adaptation over systems engineering in the Apollo spacesuit. For de Monchaux, the A7L epitomizes an alternative to “hard” design engineering: instead of reinventing the wheel, it layered and adapted preexisting materials and techniques to the requirements of an inhospitable place, literally fashioning an environment for extreme living.

Comprehensively researched, Spacesuit remixes traditional visual culture (photographs, paintings, drawings) and the kind of primary documents that architecture historians rarely have the prerogative to access (memoranda, technical manuals, interviews). de Monchaux’s background in architecture provides him with an intriguing lens, yielding cognitive leaps an engineer might be less likely to undertake.

In addition, the A7L provides a productive analogy for the making of buildings. It places the astronaut in an intimate architectural embrace, enabling them to explore an inhospitable environment. Like architecture – and unlike the systems thinking of the military-industrial complex so central to the history of Apollo – the A7L adapts existing materials and techniques to new contexts, meeting systems thinking at a fruitful middle ground. The book itself is one such adapted solution and a compelling object, clad in a black latex dust jacket that provides a tactile reference to one or more layers of the A7L. The future of architecture will be full of such compromise as a discipline based on obsolete production techniques adapts to changing expectations. But all-encompassing systems thinking, de Monchaux argues, fails to account for or enable the robustness of natural eco- and biological systems. It is to such robust systems that future buildings will need to adapt.

de Monchaux has made an ambitious attempt at rethinking the way we write histories of technology, raising a number of intriguing questions about the future of both design and applied science. I wholeheartedly recommend this book for designers, engineers and history buffs alike.

The MIT Press, 2011


Walter Pichler: Prototyping Escape

This was originally written for a seminar taught by Lisa Hsieh at the Ohio State University (it’s been heavily edited since then), but it seems appropriate for this format as well. It’s a bit longer than usual, but I’ve been sitting on this piece for a while and want to just get it out there. I’ve been a bit afraid to publish it because at the moment it feels a bit like Walter Pichler is my own personal hero that no one else is talking about. I’m sure I’ll get over that. Here goes…

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[Architecture] is born of the most powerful thoughts. For men it will be a compulsion, they will stifle in it or they will live – live, as I mean the word. […] [Architecture] has no consideration for stupidity and weakness. It never serves. It crushes those who cannot bear it. […] Machines have taken possession of [architecture] and human beings are now merely tolerated in its domain […] [1]

A statement of singular nihilism, unabashed iconoclasm; a statement Ulrich Conrads once called “the most absolute thesis” in all twentieth century architecture.[2] Austrian sculptor and architect Walter Pichler wrote these words in 1962, on the eve of an exhibition on which he collaborated with fellow Viennese architect Hans Hollein. Titled “Absolute Architecture,” the exhibition added two new voices to the growing chorus of dissent aimed at derailing architectural functionalism. For Pichler and Hollein, architecture was not what it enables, nor what in encloses, but what it is. Architecture is a thing, and it can take whatever form an architect wishes. Given this seemingly impossible assignment, Pichler and Hollein developed a series of underground buildings, modeled by Pichler in bronze and concrete. These underground environments were to have extensive environmental controls so that their position underground would not matter. The two were at this time fascinated by such simulation and the media by which it is accomplished. Though the weight of these first models ended with “Absolute Architecture,” both Pichler and Hollein recycled their conceptual bases in subsequent investigations.

For Hollein, this took the form of literal environmental simulators like his Non-Physical Environment Pill (1967) and later Svobodair Spray (1971), both of which were hypothetical propositions about the power of environmental simulation. Pichler also experimented with such hypotheses in the late sixties, most transparently in the works of his “Prototypes” exhibition of 1967. These strange objects critique new media’s ability to induce laziness and atrophy. Three of these works in particular—TV Helmet/Portable Living Room, Small Room, and Intensivbox—form a kind of suite, all taking roughly the form of an isolation chamber and including media inputs. For Pichler, it seems, media isn’t architecture, hence he makes it architecture by creating armatures to embody its physical presence.

Pichler_Farnsenhelm 1967

Walter Pichler, "TV Helmet/Portable Living Room," 1967

These works are also a critique of his one-time collaborator Hans Hollein’s ironic assertion that “everything is architecture.” TV Helmet/Portable Living Room (1967) and Small Room (1967) are to be worn, while the unrealized Intensivbox is a spherical chamber into which a subject is slid on a track. These isolating simulators remove one from a given reality and can be seen as the ultimate conclusion of technology’s encroachment on the body. Constructed of plastic and embedded with television sets and speakers, these helmets enhance the television experience to the detriment of all else. Pichler hoped to isolate and insulate himself (and his viewers) from the pitfalls of consumerism and media obsession, but in his helmets this took the form of a literal representation of such pitfalls. The “consumer” is isolated from her environment, but within the helmet only media are permitted as input.

Pichler_Kleiner Raum 1967

Walter Pichler, "Small Room," 1967

For Pichler, media are far from participatory but instead somnambulating and hypnotizing, pulling humanity’s attention away from its greatest attributes. Instead of making human abilities more numerous, like prosthetics, the Portable Living Room and Small Room disable a subject from moving with their usual acuity. Unlike the other helmets designed by his Viennese contemporaries, Pichler’s don’t provide more experience or more engagement, but instead subtract. It’s terribly ironic, therefore, that Pichler subtitles his piece “Portable Living Room,” because it is certainly not portable, and at best a shoddy simulation of a living room. The Portable Living Room enables a person to remain motionless, separating them from their obligations and necessities to simply be entertained. Pichler sees media not as enabling but disabling, entrapping, enabling of nothing more than laziness.

Pichler_Intensivbox 1967

Walter Pichler, Drawing for "Intensivbox," 1967

Pichler’s critique mirrors German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology.” Like Heidegger, Pichler rentains a rigorous skepticism towards technology. Speaking of techne, Heidegger writes, “Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral […].”[3] Pichler’s provocation is that if one let’s media (or technology more generally) isolate and insulate, it will be to the detriment of other abilities. If a helmet is a Portable Living Room, it means the only important part of the room is the television. Perhaps Pichler foresaw the perpetuation of television’s war on education, its wholesale adoption of entertainment and its denigration of objectivity, choosing to critique these regressions with ironic constructs enabling television’s conquest of attention at the expense of all other sensory function. As television becomes an ever-more self-referential and solipsistic media, early critiques like Pichler’s have only gained poignancy.

Many today sit idle at their terminals or on their sofas for extended periods, limiting the need for handicraft and patience. In Pichler’s world, these traits are paramount, and any device or medium that disables them is worthy of demonization. Pichler doesn’t see technology as an enabler of the strenuous life so much as a preventer. Like the simulation machines in the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix series, Pichler’s helmets and immersive environments provide an armature within which movement is unnecessary.

matrix-pod

Simulation Pod, from "The Matrix," Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999

Instead of a destruction of the technology he demonizes, Pichler constructs ridiculous analogs to their abilities. If television provides a subtle escape from the ordinary, Pichler’s helmets enhance this ability to the point of absurdity. Pichler’s environmental simulators aren’t portable, and in fact limit one’s range of motion quite significantly. Portable Living Room is the best illustration of this fact, it’s elaborate counterweighted system protruding from both sides of the subject’s head obtrusively. It doesn’t fold, doesn’t retract, and doesn’t provide anything but sensory input. One puts it on because of a desire to be isolated. With his “Prototypes,” Pichler definitively states an interest in isolation, a concern that would come to dominate his career thereafter. It is almost as if he is rehearsing a retreat, one that would come to fruition in the mid-seventies, when Pichler indeed retreated from public life to his property at St. Martin’s in the Tyrol region of western Austria, a place dominated by its geography, removed physically and psychologically from the bustle of modern Vienna where Pichler received his artistic training. Returning only to exhibit and to sell his drawings, Pichler remains free to explore and create at his own pace and in his own idiom. These drawing sales have funded an increasingly isolated practice, concerned with sculpting and with constructing ever-more-complex armatures and environments for said sculptures.

Perhaps calling his buildings environments sells short his activity. His constructs are worlds, worlds in which his work is isolated from both critique and the media-obsessed culture it critiques. They are in fact alternate—but not virtual—realities in which his work can remain indefinitely. The “Prototypes” can also be thought of as such. More than mere simulators or enhancers, they offer the subject another world to inhabit, portable or otherwise. Pichler must have imagined himself within them, isolated from the laborious requirements of contemporary life. But ultimately this subtle escape wasn’t enough, leading Pichler back to the Tyrolean Alps, free from his obligations in Vienna and free to investigate the kind of craft- and skill-based sculptural techniques he felt technology would eventually preclude.


[1] Excerpted from Pichler, Walter. “Absolute Architecture,” in Programs and Manifestoes on 20th Century Architecture edited by Ulrich Conrads (London: Lund Humphries, 1970): 181. In this manifesto, Pichler develops the thesis that architecture cannot act as anything but an impediment to humanity.

 

[2] Conrads wrote this in his introduction to “Absolute Architecture,” written in 1970. Programs and Manifestoes, 181.

[3] Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays translated by William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977): 4.


Hans Hollein’s Rudimentary Effects

hollein_triennale-681

Entry to the Austriennale

I’ve gotten a few questions about my header photo, so I’ll explain. It’s a photo of visitors to Hans Hollein’s Austrian Pavilion at the ill-fated ’68 Milan Triennale. The installation consisted of a series of hallways, each of a different length and exploring a different spatial or conceptual effect: a catalogue of environments, some pleasurable, others off-putting. It falls right in line with Hollein’s earlier projects for underground environments and his faith in modern technology’s ability at simulation. He was preoccupied in this period with the possibilities of environmental control. Instead of creating real environments, why not simulate them? Architecture then dissolves into the production of special (or spatial) effects.

Plan of the Austiennale

Plan of the Austriennale

Speculating on these architectural effects, Hollein created such absurd and obtuse concepts as environments in aerosol and pill form. While clearly ironic, these proposals stem from Hollein’s previous engagements with mimetic underground environments with Walter Pichler and his early “floating stones” collages. He also produced a series of designs for sunglasses, in which framing and coloration are explored as rudimentary architectural effects. These “virtual realities” are perhaps the lowest or most basic form of architecture: a change of environment through augmentation. These experiments proved, for Hollein, to be dead ends. One wonders, however, what form they would have taken had Hollein been born thirty years later. His radical speculations on this subject could easily have come to a higher level of development in today’s intellectual and technological climate.

Hollein’s primitive experiments with the possibilities of effect and simulation have been mostly forgotten, but their trajectories seem to predate to some of today’s most pressing concerns and speculations. These projects imply much more than the ironic detachment from disciplinary issues others have attributed to them. Perhaps the time has come to reconsider the architectural possibilities of such rudimentary effects.

Strange sunglasses distributed at the exhibition

Strange sunglasses distributed at the exhibition