Book Review: Diagramatically, Urban Infill Volume 5 by Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative

That diagrams are increasingly important representational tools for the practice of urban design seems indisputable, but it makes a provocative “Urban Infill” topic for precisely that reason. Modes and methods of representation are too often taken for granted in design practice, and anything more than shallow consideration paid to them is worthy of recognition. That being said, this particular representational device, the diagram, is exceedingly hard to pin down and its definitions are far from obvious. Avoiding the temptation to hazard any such definitions for the most part, this volume presents 17 perspectives from academics and practitioners alike. While a bit over-taxonomized (are six separate sections really necessary?), these essays illustrate a diversity of opinions, from the earnest to the instrumental. 

On the side of the earnest are several submissions concerning the social agency of diagrams, directly problematizing their ability to communicate design ideas to the broad constituencies with whom urban designers interact. While some of this group contain a bit too much altruism for my taste, others illuminate the versatility and power of even the most straightforward graphic representations. Of more interest to this reviewer are a few explorations of the often instrumental quality of diagrams. The work of many in this volume aims to reveal the diagram as not just an altruistic communicative tool but one whose purported transparency can in fact conceal underlying preconceptions and ideologies. Precious few, however, propose strategies for designers to overcome such instrumentalization.

All told, this volume sketches a broad outline of the practical, social and theoretical implications of diagrammatic drawing, and for that, CUDC should be commended. “Diagrammatically” will no doubt prove an invaluable resource for students of urban design – both in Cleveland and nationwide – for years to come.


Book Review: The Alphabet and the Algorithm

The author is dead. Long live the algorithm.

So says The Alphabet and the Algorithm, Mario Carpo’s addition to the “Writing Architecture” series (edited by Cynthia Davidson of Anyone), recently published by The MIT Press. Carpo is known for crosswise cuts to the history of architecture, and here he aims to reframe our still-nascent transition toward a digital architecture. The new frame is based on what he terms the paradigm of identicality. Carpo posits that the transition to digital production media is one from production of identical copies to mass customization and participation. Digital technology, Carpo argues, can and must change both the subject and object of architectural design; no longer will the designer have total authorial control, and no longer must the object be singular and specific. For Carpo, the choice for architects and designers is between powerlessness and control. They must choose between the production of what he calls “objectiles” (a term he lifts from Gilles Deleuze via Bernard Cache) and objects themselves. Objectiles – algorithmic constructs from which infinite variations originate – are the only future for authorial control.

Early chapters deal with Leon Battista Alberti – inaugurator of the paradigm of identicality – and his many representational innovations. Alberti, Carpo argues, was constantly struggling for control of his products, something nearly impossible in an age of artisanal production. He gradually evolved a system of orthogonal projection – plan, section, elevation – to enable a one-to-one relationship between design and product: identicality. We still operate under this set of assumptions today, but their days are numbered.

After Alberti, Carpo rapidly shifts toward the present, lingering in particular on that transformative digital decade, the Nineties. Carpo effectively synthesizes an unruly net of conceptual threads (Deleuze and the fold, Calculus, the Baroque, the Blob) into an engaging but misleadingly linear narrative of the recent past. His analysis raises many questions (not the least of which are the veracity of his prognostications) but provides a beginners guide to the onset of digital representation and production. As an attempt at writing history in progress, this book succeeds because of its clarity.

Students should be aware of the changes afoot in the field they are entering, and therefore this book would make appropriate reading material for BIM and information technology courses. It is vitally important that those learning current platforms understand where they have come from and where they are going.

Carpo argues convincingly that designers need to engage in the production of tools. The alternative, says Carpo, is confinement to a prison house of software, forever limited by the capacities of our mechanisms. Perhaps that’s not so different from the past …

The MIT Press (Writing Architecture Series), 2011

Ultimate Mixtape #1: 20 Songs of 2009

I tried to pick my favorite albums, but I couldn’t, so in no particular order, these are my favorite songs of 2009. I realize I have up until now not been a music blogger, but I’m trying to keep things multimedia.

“The Animator” // Junior Boys

The critical talking point on this one seemed to be that it was the dreaded “mature” album, a dry batch of songs from a couple of former rabble-rousers.  I humbly protest. Junior Boys have always brought such humanism to their dance tracks, and nothing changed with a little more sheen and restraint on Begone Dull Care, it’s among my favorite albums of the year.

“Bicycle” // Memory Tapes

M83-style maximalism, produced by American Dayve Hawk. Not many got close to this level of grandeur this year. Then again, not many tried. This is much more than mere Glo-Fi, that’s for sure.

“Crystalised” // the xx

Skeletal, minimal, spare. These words are all inadequate to describe just how restrained this song is. When The xx do a breakdown, literally nothing else is happening. I get chills around the 1:20 mark every time, for a rather minor crescendo. Where did these kids come from?

“Daniel” // Bat for Lashes

Does Natasha Kahn think it’s pandering to write a song this catchy? A damn shame, because something this universally bliss-inducing only comes around once in a while. Or once an album in the case of Two Suns.

“Despicable Dogs” // Small Black  &  “Feel it All Around” // Washed Out

What’s Glo-Fi you ask? This is it. Nothing sounds quite like synths and drum machines driven to the max and turned up to eleven, the sound of an MP3 reaching its limit. I’m looking forward to full albums by both Small Black and Washed Out in 2010.

“Laura” // Girls

2009 was the year the cool kids got out of the sweaty clubs and rediscovered the beach. No band embodies that transition better than Girls, who put out a whole album worth of throwback pop, the best of which is “Laura.”

“Liztomania” & “1901” // Phoenix

These two tracks are probably the best two pop songs of the year, and the fact that they’re back-to-back on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix would make you think the album was front-loaded. Then you listen to the rest, and realize it’s just this good all the way through. What’s left for Phoenix this year? They released the best album of their careers, they rocked SNL, their work appeared in a Cadillac commercial. What’s the encore, guys?

“My Girls” & “What Would I Want? Sky” // Animal Collective

What’s amazing is that this can even be called a pop song; how far we’ve come in the past few years. Easily the most palatable and most pleasurable thing Animal Collective have ever written.

We all thought the year was over for Animal Collective. We were wrong. The fact that a song this good didn’t make the cut for Merriweather Post Pavilion says something about the roll these guys are on. Enough of a roll, apparently, that this song contains the first-ever approved Grateful Dead sample.

“Northern Lights” // Bowerbirds

Has any other song gotten under my skin as fast as “Northern Lights”? I heard this one for the first time four days ago, and it’s already among my favorite songs of the year. There’s not much to it, just an earnest set of lyrics, some nice stand-up piano, spare drumming, and a devastatingly honest voice.

“Shine Blockas” // Big Boi (featuring Gucci Mane)

Wow, is this the only hip-hop on my list? That says a lot about the strength of the genre in 2009. After an overdose of Kanye-style narcissism and one too many overrated “returns to form,” it had to be Big Boi to bring everybody back to basics. Dear Luscious Left Foot: Put out your album already! We’re all looking forward to it after this.

“Rain On” // Woods

2009 was a year of highs and lows for the denizens of Lo-Fi. In March, it was bigger than ever, by June it was tired and listing badly. A couple of it’s main protagonists released underrated albums, but unfortunately this year belonged to Wavves. Unfortunate, because people overlooked a nice group of songs from Woods, including this melancholy meditation on the weather.

“Twin of Myself” // Black Moth Super Rainbow

In a list chock full of Eighties-worship, this is by far the cheesiest track, but I can’t resist it. The remainder of Eating Us isn’t designed for headphones, and it seems this is the only track to have bucked the overbearing influence of Dave Fridmann’s production. I love BMSR, but they’re music isn’t stadium-sized, and trying to make it that large only waters it down.

“Two Weeks” & “While You Wait For the Others” // Grizzly Bear

I’m a sucker for the old Motown pop formula, and here it’s deployed with such grace and vigor that I find the song irresistible. There’s much more drama and romanticism in these three minutes than an hour of inane, auto-tuned Top 40. Oh and the video ain’t half bad, either.

From the downright percussive guitar lick, to the unparalleled crescendo, this was the most advanced moment in pop music this year, not named “Stillness is the Move.” Even Michael McDonald thinks so.

“Walkabout” // Atlas Sound (w/ Noah Lennox)

I’ve never been much of a Bradford Cox fan, and obviously it took the involvement of Panda Bear to draw me into this one. He’s toned down the navel-gazing here, and the result is so wonderful I can only hope the fantastic Mr. Cox learns something from the approach of his friend and collaborator, something about how to give a song less intimacy and more appeal.

“Woods” // Bon Iver

Remember last winter? Back when we were drowning in a sea of Auto-Tuned pop? It took this insanely-great song from Justin Vernon to turn the butt of many a T-Pain joke into something far more consequential.

“Young Adult Friction” // The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

During four months of gray weather in Cleveland, we all need a little summery pop once in a while. These guys got me through last winter. All of their songs are unbelievably sticky, and it seems from their Higher than the Stars EP, released in September, that unlike the Lo-Fi groups with whom they were initially categorized, they’ll only get better with higher-quality production.

Of Photos and Photoshop: UN Studio’s Villa NM

Villa NM, UN Studio

Villa NM, UN Studio

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.

Villa NM, UN Studio

Villa NM, UN Studio

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.

Villa NM, UN Studio

Villa NM, UN Studio

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.

Villa NM, UN Studio

Villa NM, UN Studio