Observations on Ingenuity and Appropriation

Lifeline, part of Ingenuity Festival (Cleveland, OH), September 24th-26th 2010

The proletarian revolution is that critique of human geography whereby individuals and communities must construct places and events commensurate with the appropriation, no longer just of their labor, but of their total history.[1]

Without pretense to revolution, many in Cleveland, Ohio are taking it upon themselves to critique the physical and social geography of their city, questioning, however temporarily, the viability and vitality of underutilized spaces. Most recently, this phenomenon took form in the staging of Ingenuity Festival on the derelict trolley level of the Veteran’s Memorial Bridge from September 24th to 26th.

Ingenuity has been held at various locations in Cleveland for six years, but only this year has it found its unlikely and inimitable home. Abandoned since trolley service ceased in 1954, the bridge’s lower level once connected public transit from near west neighborhoods to downtown. In recent years this massive piece of infrastructure, nearly two thirds of a mile long and 75 feet wide, has piqued interest as a potential public amenity on par with New York’s High Line. Ingenuity, in concert with last year’s Bridge Project, organized with the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, have brought upwards of ten thousand visitors to judge for themselves.

Aside from the bridge occupation itself, Ingenuity’s most visible appropriation came at the hands of artists Kidist Getachew, Michael Lehto, and John Thomas, who, in collaboration with the City of Cleveland Division of Water, created a sixty foot waterfall at the apex of Veteran’s Memorial, plummeting one hundred thirty feet to the Cuyahoga River below. This urban waterfall was obviously derivative of Olafur Eliasson’s similar work for New York in 2008, but transposed to Cleveland it became an unavoidable reminder of the city’s greatest natural resource, and a fundraiser for fresh water access in Ethiopia.

Notable among the many performances hosted by Ingenuity was “The Myth of Cleveland,” a play by a group of young thespians on the myth of Sisyphus. Characters pushed a papier-mâché boulder up one of the bridge’s many access ramps, only to have it roll back down, a metaphor for the futility, but also necessity, of reviving a city long since in decline. The ten-minute play ran every hour on the hour during the entire three-day festival. In what may have been the festival’s most astute but least time-consuming installation, some modern-day psychogeographer simply scrawled on the bridge’s concrete structure in chalk: Guy Debord!

[1] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 126.

A Reluctant Acceptance of Target Field

I’m a Minnesota Twins fan. Always have been. Always will be. This season they moved into a new ballpark, Target Field, and on the occasion of its postseason debut, I decided to publish a few thoughts about baseball, architecture and the city.

Target Field, Minneapolis

Baseball, if you think about it, is the only sport where architecture is a true player, a tenth man. The malleability of a field’s dimensions, diamond aside, means that basically anything goes, and very strange things are permitted. Ivy-covered brick outfield walls, monstrous green walls, home run porches and Rocky Mountain air all contribute to an atmosphere where home field advantage is far from a phantom statistic. Sure, Indianapolis’ RCA Dome was loud, but Marvin Harrison never had to run uphill to make a catch the way an Astros center fielder does. The New York Yankees, by contrast, still play on a field so suited to batters like Babe Ruth (it’s a descendent, after all, of “The House that Ruth Built”) that until relatively recently, the Yankees’ lineup reflected a bias for left-handed power hitters.

Baseball is also a very an urban sport, the dimensions of its confines (both friendly and monstrous) often determined by property limitations and existing conditions. The most famous example of this is Boston’s Green Monster, which resulted from negotiating a oddly shaped site. And because of their size, stadiums for professional baseball are buildings of consequence for the cities they inhabit. They can single-handedly revive neighborhoods, but they can also harm them beyond repair.

The best known fields are those with character. Well-thought relationships to an existing urban condition is the best way to achieve such character. In recent years, however, architects have tried to make character a manufacturable commodity in stadium construction. Spurred by the popularity of The Ballpark at Camden Yards for the Baltimore Orioles, architects have taken to quirk and particularity like catnip. The results of this building boom have been inconsistent at best. It has resulted in a few great parks, many mediocre ones, and quite a few duds.

But there are still no Bilbaos in Major League Baseball, save maybe for its two elder statesmen, Wrigley Field in Chicago and Boston’s Fenway Park. The question outside those two rites of passage is, what’s new? The newest thing gets the most attention, but only for so long. All the new notches on one’s belt of baseball stadia seem to be of equal value.

Baseball, as an institution, has misinterpreted this phenomenon. The fact that Wrigley and Fenway are so popular hasn’t much to do with their character or charm, but with their difference. And it’s a difference in kind, not in degree. It’s not that Wrigley has so much more character than its south side counterpart Comiskey Park, it’s that they are quantitatively different experiences, because of their history more than their form. Isn’t it possible, however, that the peculiar historical character of Wrigley and Fenway can’t be replicated? History can’t be spontaneously produced, so should baseball’s architects quit trying to copy the past?

One could argue that baseball is on the decline because people see it as an old-fashioned game. In order to move past its past, which has recently been marred by steroids and scandals, stadiums could, and should, adopt a forward-looking aesthetic. The best way to move away from the steroid era isn’t to pretend it never happened by building stadiums born of some Americana fantasyland. Baseball is dirty. Modernism can make it clean again.

If Major League Baseball, like, for example, the NFL, were to adopt a fresh aesthetic in its stadia, it would be easier for it to turn its back on an unsuccessful experiment in simultaneously modernizing and historicizing its relation to culture. The steriod era was one in which baseball showed all the progress we, as humans could make physically, within a backdrop of safe, false history. The stadiums we built to catch home runs hit by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were clothed in an architectural language borne of baseball’s supposed golden age, even though the achievements of said golden age were being surpassed at an alarming rate. No wonder we didn’t see the problem, we were too cosy in our surroundings to notice things had changed.

The steroid era was a dark age for the Twins, who followed up their second World Series victory in 1991 with eleven seasons of futility, their small-ball approach overwhelmed by beasts with big muscles. In spite of this, and in spite of their meager budget, the team was slowly revived. The Twins demonstrate that neither money nor architectural atmosphere alone can make a popular team. Their fans stayed with them through the losing seasons, free agent losses, and the grand mistake known as the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. It didn’t always seem so, however.

When it was finished in 1982, the Metrodome was a revelation for Minneapolis. After decades of trudging through inches upon inches of snow to see their beloved Minnesota Vikings beat up on the competition, they could finally appreciate a good third down conversion or a goal line stand without wearing their caps and scarves. And it also worked for baseball. Sort of.

The Minnesota Twins struggled through 25 seasons in the Metrodome, seasons filled with knee injuries and lost fly balls caused by the dome’s unforgiving turf and marshmallow roof. But there were also glory days. The dome’s distinctiveness gave the Twins a competitive advantage. There was nothing else like it in the Majors. Opposing managers couldn’t adapt their rosters to the fast turf the way Twins manager Tom Kelly did, and it resulted in two World Series titles, one in 1987 (a mere three seasons after the dome opened) and another in 1991. After that the glory faded. The Metrodome’s novelty had worn off. The team floundered. Attendance sank. At their lowest point, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig made the Twins candidates for contraction. But baseball came back from the brink, and so did the Twins. It took a group of young, energetic players and a new manager to get the Twins back on track.

Target Field is late on the scene of a decade-old team revival, but it is appropriately timed. The quirky Metrodome was part of Twins baseball, a prominent member of the great World Series-winning teams of 1987 and 1991. We in Twins nation hope another title is near on the horizon.

Target Field, Minneapolis. "Halo" of lights seen above, light rail station at left.

While the new stadium is definitely of the same family as other recent historicist schlock (it was built by Populous, the only architecture firm to benefit from baseball’s building boom), certain aspects show promise. Its “halo” of lighting is definitely of interest architecturally, a swoop from third base to first that affords more prized skyline views for fans. Its connection to what is a nascent neighborhood at the edge of downtown is strong, and with public transport easily accessible (its use is encouraged through promotions), the city is at the Twins’ door. Here’s hoping they play late enough into the year to see some snow.

All You Can Eat: A Buffet of Architectural Ideas for Cleveland

MayCo Billboard Tall

What is Cleveland’s recommended daily intake of architecture?

All You Can Eat posits that Cleveland is of a high metabolic rate, that it burns through ideas faster than they can be generated. In response, All You Can Eat presents a binge of possible futures excessive in scale and exhaustive in scope, ideas both raw and cooked, half-baked and hair-brained. All You Can Eat is a an event/exhibition to be held at The Sculpture Center in Fall 2009. A formal announcement and call for entries is forthcoming.

More information, in addition to the call for entries and a press release are available at: postarchitecturejournal.wordpress.com

Fuzzy Logic: The Mountain Dwellings, Copenhagen

Mountain Dwellings, Bjarke Ingels Group

Mountain Dwellings, Bjarke Ingels Group

The Mountain Dwellings were completed last year in Copenhagen and published widely, but have remained immune from real critical analysis; thousands of words have been written about this unconventional building, but far too many of them have been gushing. I too think Bjarke Ingels Group’s building is deserving of praise, but by extension it requires more attention, closer reading. Projects like Mountain, however, are resistant to close reading. Their details aren’t often what one might call tectonic but instead laissez faire. They leave the talking to the program. There are things to read, just not what Ken Frampton might look to first.

Mountain’s details have the appearance not of carelessness but ease, as if designed to be ignored. On the terraces, vines are meant to grow over and cover the architect’s handiwork, in other places it’s obfuscated by paint. A perfect example are the circulation hallways, where every material is saturated with a bright, glossy color that doesn’t permit one to scrutinize their interconnection. Furthermore, the metal panels along the circumference of the building seem to refuse to take a position. Are they volume or surface? Material or dematerializing? None of these seem worthy of much scrutiny.

One must instead scrutinize diagrams. Mountain, after all, is a constructed diagram in the best possible sense, a representation of its social and architectural agendas in built form. It’s a social experiment collapsing suburban dream and urban reality, but also a formal experiment based on the stepped massing BIG has so favored since their amiable split from JDS.

Mountain Dwellings, Bjarke Ingels Group

Mountain Dwellings, Bjarke Ingels Group

These two PLOT successor firms have continued work on what might be called a “Powerpoint Formalism,” dependent upon narrative diagrams to explain (but not justify) their designs’ ostentation. There is an important distinction to be made between explanation and justification here: justification would mean that the solutions developed by Ingels and de Smedt are logical or rational, based on statements of fact, when in fact they are not. Their logic is fuzzy at best, their calculations vague.

The point of fuzzy logic is to make an argument financiers can’t deny, to “cook the numbers” such that a project can’t be dismantled by value engineering. Lewis Tsurumaki and Lewis may have best encapsulated this approach in their neologism “surrational,” describing those instances when the rational, taken to extreme, becomes absurd and therefore surreal. Mountain is nothing if not surreal.

Mountain Dwellings, Bjarke Ingels Group

Mountain Dwellings, Bjarke Ingels Group

Mountain’s formal conjecture cuts to the core of Modernism’s default rectangularity. A flat roof, it says, doesn’t satisfy contemporary needs. It questions the rectangle’s ability to make all equal and also its ecological performance. Mountain’s form in incredibly specific, but it’s strategies (roof terraces and a stepped massing) are transferrable. Like Le Corbusier’s Unite d’Habitation before it, Mountain makes a lifestyle rather than just a building, its argument is green without being greenwash, a rethinking of typological models rather than a reskinning with technology. It’s also cheeky. Denmark has no mountains. A mountain lifestyle there is one so different it nearly constitutes a category error. In order for the lifestlye to be transposed it had to be simulated.

But Mountain is no mere simulation. It makes an argument in the affirmative, constructing a fully-formed alternative lifestyle within the confines of its site. No small feat. PLOT’s earlier VM Housing next door didn’t transform the urban lifestyle thoroughly enough, so BIG had to go further. They’re always going further. I for one can’t wait to see what they do next.

Mountain Dwellings, Bjarke Ingels Group

Mountain Dwellings, Bjarke Ingels Group

Beyond the Blue(s): Wolf Prix in Columbus

Last night I attended the opening of Coop Himmelb(l)au‘s Beyond the Blue exhibition at the Wexner Center in Columbus, a retrospective of forty years of work by Wolf Prix and his firm taking the form of a large model collection and detailed displays on the Akron Art Museum and Musee de Confluences in Lyon, France. It was a nice distraction from much current architectural discussion uncomfortably dominated by the economy. 

Musee de Confluences, Lyon

Musee de Confluences, Lyon. Rendering: Coop Himmelb(l)au

While it’s always nice to see projects in detail, Coop’s model collection was the heart of the exhibition, encapsulating a position statement I’ve not heard Prix make before, namely that his work isn’t about sculptural form, but creating public space. This point was underlined by placing the models not at a normal level, but on a pair of oversized pedestals to force viewing them as a city all their own. It made a convincing case, but unfortunately the models I was personally most interested in seeing (specifically those from the mid-80s) were near the center of these tables, out of effective viewing range. This “model city” was accompanied by a video of interviews with Prix, highlighting the projects in the show and some of his process. 

Though it seems a bit ridiculous for Prix to suggest that projects as ostentatious as the Musee de Confluences or the BMW Welt in Munich are driven by public space rather than form, the exhibition aims to convince us. The models show that they do indeed provide such space, but the question of ownership is overlooked. Can a corporate-owned indoor space really provide the kind of interactions and surprise as a Viennese platz? I’m hardly convinced. 

BMW Welt, Munich. Photo: Abitare

BMW Welt, Munich. Photo: Abitare

The opening was marked by a conversation between Prix and consulting curator Jeff Kipnis. Their discussion ranged from softball questions — who his biggest inspirations were (Keith Richards) and the reasons for the firm’s name (a plane ride in 1968, and lots of drinks) — to more poignant and unanswerable ones, cutting to the depths of the now decade-long debate around “starchitecture.” 

Perhaps the most interesting thing Prix said concerned his process. “The most vulnerable moment in architecture is the moment of design,” he said, and in order to transform architecture, one must open up that moment to forces outside architecture. This realization led to things like the blindfolded sketching he used in the eighties. Though unsuccessful in producing an architecture that changes as rapidly and easily as clouds (his stated intent), Prix has produced some highly unconventional forms since this transformation. The versatility of his language is another question, however.

Often diagnosed as a peculiarly Viennese architect, a product of the milieu that also shaped Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler, Prix was also asked how well such a specific language travelled, specifically to Akron. What, after all, can a contextually-uninformed Austrian contribute to Northeast Ohio? Prix had no answer.

This seems to me to be the central problem of the kind of cultural imperialism architects have proffered since Bilbao. We’ve been blind to the emptiness of the stars, content to merely import architecture rather than fostering it at home. This has to change, and it will. For now, however, I’m content with the occasional ostentatious distraction such as this exhibition provided, a respite from the recession blues.

Beyond the Blue is on view at the Wexner Center through the end of July.

Chorus and Refrain: Observations Around Two Green Rivers

In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, I’ve decided to post an excerpt from an essay I wrote for Brian Rotman’s excellent “Introduction to Affect” course in the Department of Comparative Studies at the Ohio State University. It concerns two superficially-similar instances of green-dyed rivers:

Photo: Ken Ilio, via: trekearth

Photo: Ken Ilio, via: trekearth

The gesture has two histories: Chicago’s journeymen plumbers have been performing it annually since 1962 as part of the city’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities, and Scandinavian artist Olafur Eliasson enacted his Green River action at several locations between 1998 and 2000. Both produce the same visual effect and dissipate within hours, but their presences induce two very different types of behavior on the part of the spectator. Their affect varies due to context. The river’s greenness elicits a response, but the nature of said response depends on what Eliasson calls Your Engagement Sequence (YES), a sixth sense embodying affect, memory and temporal context. For Eliasson, YES must be included as a central element of perception, essential in understanding how one receives and interprets sensory data.

In turning the river green, Eliasson transforms it into a critical object, either laying bare the construction of perception, raising awareness of environmentalism or critiquing conditions of representation, depending whom you ask. But uncertainty of reading is part of Eliasson’s critique, and the covertness of Green River enables this uncertainty. If it were coded as a piece of art, for example, certain “proper” behaviors would be prioritized, and habits of reception and reflection would limit response. Uncertainty of origin broadens the range of potential responses. Institutions work to limit these possibilities. Following the first Green River in Stockholm, for example, Swedish authorities were quick to recognize this instability, and wrote off the coloration as resulting from a chemical plant upstream, simultaneously offsetting their own complicity and bracketing certain undesirable responses.

via: NewYorkology

Olafur Eliasson's Green River, via: NewYorkology

If Eliasson’s series is a critique, Chicago’s, by contrast, provides an atmosphere, a “visual soundtrack” for a celebration—a coloring of experience—specifically one conducive to the behavior of intoxicated revelers. All participants bob their head to this soundtrack, engaging in the same debauchery, and similar to synestheticism, a spectator’s experience may becomes associated with the river’s greenness. Certain habits develop in relation to the green river’s presence. It provides an artifice for a becoming-stereotypically-Irish, a visual cue for behaviors traditionally associated with St. Patrick’s Day.

This hints at a key difference between our two rivers. While Eliasson discourages the prescription of behaviors, Chicago announces that the party has begun, and certain prototypical responses to said announcement are expected. A temporary community emerges through common behavior and experience, defined by participation and reflexivity that verifies and further intensifies the green river experience. The dispersal of dye becomes an habitual performance, staged before an audience in the center of the city. Theatricality helps to achieve the desired affect.

These theatrics, and the greenness that results, delimit a temporal territory, a duration, within which illicit and repugnant behavior is condoned, even encouraged. Normal expectations are suspended, habits set aside, and a temporary condition of celebration is inaugurated. The gesture’s annual repetition constitutes a ritornello, a refrain. It provides a territory for event and difference. Importantly, this space is privileged and individuated. It is, after all, a holiday. Its distinctness from all other days of the year contributes to the sense of urgency communicated by the short duration of the river’s greenness.

Eliasson’s Green River constitutes a chorus: an outside commentary, a disclosure. It raises awareness of the spectator’s engagement through disruption of normalcy. A change in consciousness, however temporary, results from this disruption, and the possibility exists for what Brian Massumi refers to as bleed, a change in the ordinary world resulting from an exemplary event. The same cannot be said of Chicago’s tradition. Its intent is not to produce St. Patrick’s Day behavior on every day of the year, but to enact a temporary yet repetitive suspension, one with equally temporary effects. It is a change in atmosphere, but also a change in mood, and both are fleeting.

Both green rivers are spectacles, but Eliasson’s is a spectacle without repetition and without expectation. It produces a quantitative difference, a difference in intensity. Because Chicago’s green river announces a special condition, however repetitive, it constitutes a qualitative difference, a difference in kind. The day is simply different, so one can act differently. The fact that the river is green isn’t meant to alter the way its participants perceive their relation to one another or their surroundings. Individuation of temporal territories results in the inability of an exemplary event to bleed into normal practice. Chicago’s green river may seem to enable freedom, but it is in fact only a part of a system of control. The expectation is that one returns to normal practice after a release, with no change accrued.

Differences of intensity—like those of Eliasson’s Green River—permit bleed to occur. As exemplary events, they can effect change in normal perception. The refrain can delimit a territory and incite habit formation, but the chorus can transform already delimited territories and either reinforce or critique existing habits. The chorus or critical gesture may never produce the improvisation of the refrain, but its effects aim for a longer duration.

Eliasson, Olafur. “Vibrations,” in Your Engagement has Consequences on the Relativity of Your Reality (Baden: Lars Müller, 2006): 62-64.

Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002): 179.