Monday, 24 April 2017

Architecture of the Japanese Bubble

Published in the April 2017 edition of Icon Magazine

1980s Japan was a nation hurtling at exponentially increasing speeds into a seething, self-consuming, technologically fantastical, aesthetically ravishing future, fuelled by a turbo-charged mixture of industrial innovation, financial speculation, and the biggest real-estate bubble the world had ever seen.

An unprecedented wave of new development transformed the nation’s cities, feeding off quite literally insane land valuations that saw property selling in Ginza for $750,000 a square meter, and which meant the land on which the Imperial Palace sat in Tokyo was calculated to be worth more than all the real estate in the whole of California combined.

While Japanese corporations were hoovering up companies around the world, small rural towns with more money than they knew what to do with were building gigantic museums, stadiums and bridges, and Japanese businessmen were happy to spend $80 million dollars for a single painting, a riotous sense of raging hyperreality was manifesting itself across Japanese culture.

From the dystopian future Tokyos of Ghost in the Shell and Akira, to Hayao Miyazaki’s anime films with their collapsing together of the past and the present, the fantastical and the banal, and the Western and the Japanese, to the urban condition of the country’s great cities, which were rapidly coming to resemble Ridley Scott’s hyper-saturated, dark vision in Blade Runner, the frenetic financial explosion ignited an aesthetic chain reaction that saw the creation of a whole ecosystem of new artistic subcultures and forms of expression.

The efflorescence of strange new forms was particularly marked in Architecture, in which a generation of designers produced some of the most distinctive buildings to be found anywhere in the world. Unlike other countries where development is usually at a very large scale, the vast majority of construction in Japan occurs towards the smaller end of the development spectrum. Even in times of normal economic activity this allows for younger, and more alternative architects to acquire commissions, but in the boom years it led to a feverish bonanza of commissions for a host of architects with highly idiosyncratic approaches, buildings by a few of the unfathomably more forgotten of whom are shown here.

Hiroyuki Wakabayashi, a Kyoto architect from a product design background, produced the Life Inn in Kyoto in 1986, a mountainous building of stacked cubes inside of which is carved a fragmented, feverishlyornamental void replete with its own grotto waterfall, and exploding, colourful geometries, reminiscent of the most eccentric of science fiction film sets. Through his following projects, the complexity and hyper-ornamentation of that interior void came to conquer the entirety of his compositions. The Unagidani Children’sMuseum in Osaka is an eroded, pre-ruined, 8-story concrete grid-frame in which every single 3metre grid space contains an entirely distinct little building, each of which are formed from an entirely distinct, highly crafted, but clearly Wakabayashi-generated, architectural style.

His Humax Pavilion in Tokyo perfectly captures both the simultaneous impulse to be technologically fantastical as well as moodily historical, and the desire to encrust the entire form of the building, inside and out, in a bristling cacophony of brooding ornament. As he put it “it is an irrational instinct for man to long for the future while latently having a desire to refer back to the past, this architecture is the best embodiment of this instinct.” It looms with fantastically theatrical menace over Shibuya, like a gigantic, ancient, futuristic artefact. Wakabayashi does not need scale for effect, his tiny Maruto 15 and 17 buildings in Kyoto are equally intoxicating in their alien eeriness, and are perfect examples of his total impregnation of form with evocative ornament, absorbing all of one’s attention when on the streets in which they sit.

The most internally coherent and intriguing body of work from the period was produced by another Kyoto-based architect, Shin Takamatsu, whose brooding, obsessively composed and detailed buildings are best known in the West from the Piranesian, chiaroscuro drawings he produced to illustrate them. The drawings do give a strong impression of his intense and rather dark vision of architectural space, but it is only through visiting his works that one can fully absorb the extraordinary richness of his buildings as fiercely personal explorations of architectural synthesis.
His works are deep, sometimes frightening psychological journeys made through the act of architecture. He fuses an exceptional range ofreferences together with newly invented motifs, into designs which rival the mosticonographically elaborate of Europe’s fin de siècle architecture, only here they create a language of overloaded technology crashing together with subjective poetics, personal angst, and history, in a fusion that only late 20th Japan could have produced.

His Pharaoh Dental Clinic in Kyoto from 1984, and Syntaxretail building from 1988-90 (now demolished), express these qualities perfectly. Both relatively small in scale, with Pharaoh being positively minute, they are powerfully expressive forms, even verging on being frighteningly so in the degree of their intensity. The fierce effect his buildings elicit in visitors was always carefully calibrated by Takamatsu, who has often described the dark and thrilling tensions which pulse in his structures, and which draw passers-by towards them with wary interest, saying of Syntax that it is a “space that is menacing, the parts menacing the whole, the whole menacing the parts, and even the parts menacing each other, just as the whole menaces itself.” Takamatsu produced an astonishing body of work, and much like his Kyoto counterpart Tadao Ando, the precision and consistency, whilst constantly inventing and inquiring, is astonishing.

At the other end of the country, on the northern island of Hokkaido, Kiko Mozuna built an entire oeuvre of buildings, mostly around the municipality of Kushiro, based on his own esoteric cosmic principles. Each of his buildings, and his architectural-philosophical ideas about the nature of architecture were explored through exquisitely complex, colourful, and layered drawings, so intricate that they often approach the visual potency of Mandalas. The blending of influences explored through these drawings is clearly visible in projects like his Kushiro Municipal Museum from 1984, with its strange recollection of ziggurats, mounds, and symbolic Japanese forms, as well as his pre-ruined Nusamai Junior High School, the hyperactive, symbolic overload of Kushiro Fisherman’s Wharf, and the stacked scaled architectures of his Kushiro Castle Hotel.

In Tokyo Kengo Kuma produced the bizarre M2 building, a sublimely surreal nightmare of architectural-historical forms blown out of scale and crashed together in aggressive, purposeful abandon. Originally a car showroom for Mitsubishi, it has since been repurposed as a funeral parlour -a supremely appropriate program for this uncanny intervention into the Tokyo cityscape.

Toyokazu Watanabe’s monumental concrete or steel-grey buildings seem to come straight out of a film by Studio Ghibli, blending Japanese and Western references with an eye for a kind of fantasy picturesque. His relationship to references evolved from his Standard House 001 in Nakano of 1979 that quite literally took Adolf Loos’ unbuilt tomb for Max Dvorak, built its general form, but transformed it through the application of a different materiality (his trademark grey) and numerous domestic apertures, leaving it hovering somewhere between Japanese suburbia and fin de siècle Vienna.

This transformation of precedents rapidly becomes more complex and begins to incorporate far more referents, with his Okamuro House of 1981, merging a suburban house with an observatory, and a coffered dome, in a combination that Charles Jencks has described as “hallucinatory”. By the time he is building large scale works like the Bunka No Sato Cultural Centre on Tsushima Island, the awesome Akita City Gymnasium of 1991, The Kamo CultureCentre of 1994, and the Kamiyubetsu Folk Museum in 1996, each of his projects have become a veritable carnival of incorporated references, blended into fantasy worlds, one of which is specifically crafted, and conveyed, for each of his built endeavours.

Between 1979 and 1984 Takefumi Aida created a series ofhouses in Tokyo based on the game of Toy Blocks. With the intention of rediscovering a sense of playfulness in the act of design and in the associations conjured up by a building, he created structures that in fact come across as rather eerie and sinister in the outsize scaling of what are familiar elements. In their piling-up and profusion, the implied toy blocks of his buildings start to recall the partially ruined and re-appropriated symbolic ceremonial structures of lost civilisations, like a monstrously large and melancholic child was attempting to reconstruct the buildings of Mycenea, or Machu Picchu.

Aida said that “the extent to which a building can be the manifestation of an architect’s sensibility determines the importance of architecture in a given culture,” and as is evidenced by his houses and the other works highlighted here, this was a moment in architectural time in which a culture gave seemingly unlimited opportunities for the most eccentric, and often most gloriously impractical of sensibilities.

In a full-blown fusion of Lebbeus Woods’ Parasitic architecture and Japanese science-fiction Gundam, Makoto Sei Watanabe’s Aoyama TechnicalCollege in Tokyo barely registers as a building at all, for all the world looking like a giant robot insect that has landed in Tokyo and is feasting on the chaos of its urban condition, tearing things apart under its fragmented, robotic limbs.

Even more extraordinarily science-fiction is TakasakiMasaharu’s Kihoku Observatory outside Kanoya City, a vast concatenation of sculptural forms in concrete that is so dynamically expressive, being somehow simultaneously spaceship, and insect like, that one almost expects its columns to start rising up and down, steaming like pistons, or stomping slowly across the ground like huge legs. Masaharu states that “the future is imagination and the present is a melting point of symbiosis”, and in this project, he managed to perfectly embody this notion of a complex present suffused with strange visions of an imagined future.

Designed in 1988, Hiroshi Hara’s Umeda Sky Building is a pair of interlinked towers in Osaka that was originally meant to be twice as big, with four interlinked towers. The tops of the buildings are stacked with imagery of clouds, and the profiles of smaller architectures, like literal villages in the sky. Hara calls a giant “crater” in the bridge between the two buildings a “’vestige’ remaining from where a spaceship had flown away”, a never to be used docking platform through the centre of which dramatically rise a pair of outdoor escalators, high above the city. When not reflective glass, its fragmented, collage-like curtain wall looks like it’s made from a whole collection of varied, flattened buildings. As was Hara’s intention (the original scheme was to be called “Sky City”) the project grows out of the Osaka skyline like a Calvino-esque imaginary extension of the city, levitating over Umeda as an impossibly odd reminder of a time that itself seems equally impossible when looked back upon from the mindset of today.

There were many architects working in this period whose careers have flourished during the intervening years, and some -like Kengo Kuma- reinvented themselves to match the changing stylistic sentiment of the times, but the kind of works, and most of the architects highlighted here, were products of an unreproducibly unique moment in time, in a culture that was primed for not just allowing, but actively catalysing the most unlikely forms of architectural brilliance. From the through-the-looking-glass, unhinged logic of the 1980s economic bubble, Tokyo, Kyoto, and much of Japan has been left with a built legacy of wild originality that rivals any of the other great efflorescences of architectural creativity in human history.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

The State of Illinois Center

The State of Illinois Center by Helmut Jahn, opened in 1985, sits in Chicago’s downtown like an all-singing, all-dancing, strobe-lit carnival float gate-crashing a funeral. It is vast, takes up an entire city bloc, is 17 floors high, is mirrored, scalloped, canted, coloured, decorated, striped, and historicised. It is about as subtle as an exploding meteorite. It revels in its shininess, and it flaunts its singularity.

It is easy to forget just how exciting the opening-up of architecture was around this time. Like the markets, style was deregulated, decoupled from the stale dogmas of a ubiquitous and super-boring modernism. Philip Johnson stuck a gigantic Chippendale split pediment on top of a skyscraper, Michael Graves put colourful ribbons and cartoon colours on a government building in Portland, Stanley Tigerman built a house in the shape of a conjoined ejaculating penis and vagina.

This was an era in which those architects who were willing to accept the brave new world of aesthetic liberty were free to design as they wished, to forge a ‘style’ of their own, and sometimes in the process become one of the new breed of world-famous, celebrity architects, and no one was better at it than Helmut Jahn.

Philip Johnson made the cover of Time, but Jahn was on the cover of uber-cool GQ. Graves built projects that looked like giant lego sets, Johnson built towers that appealed to the Polo-neck Hamptons set, but it was Jahn that forged a look which was to best represent the contradictions, paradoxes, and obscene pleasures of the time.

The dapper Bavarian with his trademark hat and Versace suits was referred to as “Flash Gordon”, and living up to the moniker he flashily, brazenly, and often brilliantly smashed together Hi-Tech, Modernism, Historically referential Postmodernism, Pop, Googie, and Art Deco, with a flair unmatched by any other architect. It was rare for these to be present in a single design, however the epic scale, and public nature of the Illinois Center was his chance to do just that, and he went all-out, producing one of the most ambiguous, spectacular, and inscrutable buildings of the period.
The full-height atrium is floored in stone paving reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Campidoglio, while the atrium walls look as if the Centre Pompidou -replete with all its primary colours and hi-tech paraphernalia- had been turned inside out and been crossed with Piranesi’s “Le Carceri d'Invenzione”. This is a visually saturated, theatrical interior in the grandest manner, open to all: It is mad futurist pomo, for the people.

The Center’s external volume is treated as one gigantic sculpted shape, sliced at odd angles by the edges of the site, reflective and curved like a consumer electronics product blown up to impossible proportions and clad in a decorative, stripey version of the modernist curtain wall. This seductive alien object, known by locals as “the Star Wars Building”, sits on an abstracted classical colonnade of pink and gray granite, which used to extend out around the Plaza in front, decaying as it did into a ready-made ruin, crumbling out into the city as if the classical could not exist without the hyper-modern.

With the wisdom of the crowd, Star Wars is a perfectly apt comparison. A popular mass market media product in which the future became the same as the ancient past (a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away). Jahn’s Illinois Center managed to rediscover the excitement of the future -something very much lost in the march of the sub-Miesian tombstones- while incorporating the romance of a glamorous American past, and all orchestrated with a virtuosity and ease that made the building instantly consumable.

The building is currently in danger of being sold by state governor Bruce Rauner. If this were to happen it would, in all likelihood, be demolished. Much architecture of the period was obscure, glib, or as Venturi Scott Brown proudly proclaimed, ugly and ordinary. Despite the Center’s technical failings (the client cut costs and used single glazing, turning the building into an oven for half the year), it is none of those things, and stands as a monument to the virtues of hyperactive expression, wilfulness, joy and virtuosity over the usual cerebral restraint, and hermetic smoothness of high architecture.

Flash Gordon’s Star Wars Building still sparkles and scintillates, and should continue to do so long into the strange and exciting futures its bizarre design has always hinted at.

Published in Icon Magazine, January 2017

Sunday, 18 September 2016

An Endless Playground

This article and the accompanying images sourced from my Instagram feed were published in Abitare in 2015

Rome is a city in which the most beautiful squares imaginable, flanked by the most important, grandiose and sensuous buildings, containing Egyptian obelisks and Roman temples and Baroque fountains are used so efficiently as open-air car-parks, they are so tightly packed with Cinquecentos and Smarts and 4*4 Pandas and Multiplas, that pedestrians can often not cross from one side to the other, as they are unable to squeeze through between the bumpers of the vehicles. Everything coexists in Rome, the dirty, busy, gloriously dysfunctional life of a major metropolis pumps like blood through the accumulated wonders of three millennia, three empires and the 21st Century, and it is entirely blind to the provenance of things, medieval tower or nineteenth century factory, roman temple or neoclassical seminary, aqueduct or wall, if it can be used it will be, if it can’t it will be girdled and set aside, put in a park for teenagers to make-out on.

All cities are to one degree or another filled with the traces of their own history, and must deal with the question of how best to relate to those remains and what they mean to them, with these traces often exerting a tyrannical hold over the collective consciousness. In fact the younger the city is and the less it has been bequested by history, the more its history becomes important to its inhabitants. Seeking legitimacy in their heritage, cities look to anchor themselves in a past that is their own and justifies their current standing. Rome is the precise opposite. There is just too much. There is such an overwhelming, incomparable quantity of history, heritage, buildings, art, whole pieces of city, and infrastructure present all over the city, and from every period of European culture, from Nero to Mussolini, from Innocent X to il Boom, that in Rome heritage has reached critical mass, has become so massively dense and impossibly varied that it cannot be maintained in historical order and collapses in on itself. It implodes in a city-sized singularity in which all historical periods are coeval, in which they lose individual significance, in which time collapses and becomes purely spatial and we can walk in the present between every period whilst smoking a cigarette and chatting on our mobile phone. Rome is the internet as a city, it is the one place in which all architectural knowledge coexists simultaneously in one space, instantly accessible at the same time, and just as people mostly use the internet –the most awe-inspiring collection of information in human history- to watch videos of dancing Chihuahuas and Taylor Swift running from paparazzi, so Rome –the most extraordinary assembly of built material known to man- is mostly a place to buy Pope Francis mugs and complain about traffic on the way to work.

And therein lies the crux of what makes it so truly remarkable: its total and utter mundanity, its complete obliviousness in the face of its own importance. It wears its profundity as lightly as a summer t-shirt, mixing the high and the low, the old and the new, the dysfunctional and the grandiose, the sacred and the profane, the narrow-minded and the worldly, the politically volatile and the permanence of tradition in the most relaxed fashion imaginable. Its streets are magic corridors that transform the past as you walk down them into an agent of liberation, that shows you there is no one style, no one way of doing things, instead you can have it all, at the same time, together in flagrante delicto. For those fascinated by the forms of history, but shackled by the narrow and joylessness of historicism, for those in love with the intermingling of the quotidian and the profound, for those who can enjoy the simultaneous echoes of Bernini and Las Vegas in the zigzagging of a 1950s balcony or the intermingling of Borromini, Zaha and an American Diner in the over-exuberance of a 1990s Bar, for those of such sensibility, Rome is a playground of endless, diverse and exotic pleasures.

Revisiting Pomo

An article published in Architecture Today in the summer of 2016 (above)

Every style, after having achieved a certain degree of success and ubiquity tends to suffer a period in critical purgatory, but few approaches to architecture have been rejected in quite the way Postmodernism was spurned. A movement born out of rebellion against the elite, abstracted, paternalistic codes of taste that had come to define the bloated behemoth of international modernism of the 1960s & 70s, Postmodernism purposefully –brilliantly- turned the accepted canons of architectural value on their head.

The surface -the “superficial”- became a key focus of design, the main vehicle for communicating with the public, directly, figuratively, colourfully. History, hitherto banished, came back with a vengeance, imbuing houses with sophisticated and evocative combinations of historical elements, as well as leaving wonderfully stranded Mayan temples on the tops of skyscrapers. Ornament returned not as crime but as virtue, as a way to introduce character and narrative into spaces that had up to that point been denuded of any comprehensibly human quality.

Pink granite, mirror-glass colonnades, gigantic 12metre high dolphins, chrome capitals, Disney dwarf caryatids, interiors with golden brass palm trees, furniture that looked like a car crash between giant bars of Piz-Buin, rickety old buildings in run-down bits of the city that would have previously been marked for slum clearance by modernist urban planners, Postmodernism was an explosion of repressed energy that expressed itself in a bewildering and delightful array of forms, through a spectrum of practitioners, each with their own specific mix of concerns.

As always happens when a style is successful, its most easily replicable -and least interesting- formal elements were taken up by the industry and rolled out across the world, with every city from Lima to London sporting countless business park office boxes with little pedimented entrance pavilions as their stand-out feature. But the decades-long relegation to being the architect’s go-to bogey man and general object of derision that Postmodernism suffered, and is still suffering, cannot be explained by the ubiquity of its bad copies, or else every other once-popular architectural style would have been derided with the same vehemence, which they were not.

Architects tend to mistakenly equate depth with dryness, and seriousness with being dour, a protestant moral set-up in which it is inconceivable that one can be worthy unless one is seen to be being worthy and nothing but, lest it confuse the picture of a saintly effort toward laboured purity. Irony, colour, surface, whimsy, decoration, play, humour, allusion, these tactics that defined, and still define the Postmodern approach, are not only looked down upon, but viewed as existential threats to those who cling to the idea of architecture as a resolutely structured moral enterprise. Like the religious prude who must control all signs of sexual profligacy as a threat to his moral order, even the hint of a female ankle, architects seek out the social exclusion of the value-disrupting games of the Postmodern building.

This is all very well, but it has been 20years now, and whilst a lot of postmodern buildings were put up in the fifteen years in which it held favour, very few of them were of great importance, and of those, many are now under threat, or will be in the near future. There are numerous Hi-Tech buildings from the same period that have been listed Grade 1 and 2. Not a single postmodern example has been listed, despite (failed) applications having been lodged to save Stirling’s Number One Poultry and Farrell’s Midland Bank from insensitive alteration.

This seeming inability by the Heritage authorities to recognise that the style is not inherently without merit (a view predicated on the moral puritanism described above) is being progressively eroded by a change in attitude amongst a small, but passionate group of advocates. There is currently a campaign to list Farrells’ Comyn Ching –an iconic project for the style and the postmodern approach to incremental urbanism- which has gathered a huge amount of support, and the recently set up Postmodern Society already has five and a half thousand members, the 20th Century Society and National Trust are organising tours and events around the period and style, and the public are keen to revisit and revaluate an era and period that are distant enough to no longer be tainted by the contempt of familiarity, and near enough to retain an aura of association and nostalgia.

The tide of opinion is turning, and it seems the scene is set for a rupture in the puritan consensus, for the return of some colour, and for the protection in posterity of some fabulous, important buildings.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Independent Value

Lincoln Plaza by BUJ Architects was winner of 2016's Carbuncle Cup. Photo from Galliard Homes

This article was published in the September 2016 edition of AArchitecture

As the annual trollfest that is the Carbuncle Cup gets underway, in which "the ugliest building in the United Kingdom completed in the last 12 months" is crowned in humiliating glory by a crowd of sneering commentators, it is perhaps appropriate to question how -as a profession- we come to value, and devalue certain architects and architecture.

What is “ugly”? It is not simply an issue of whether a building performs badly in relation to its occupants, the street, or is built to a low standard, or else the critics’ and commentators’ ire would be focussed on the mass of terrible, soulless buildings that surround us in Britain.

Instead the focus tends to be on buildings that actually do have a pronounced architectural ambition, but one which happens not to conform to any current notions of good taste. Buildings that wilfully and stridently flaunt an aesthetic which has just gone out of favour tend to be a favourite, or ones that simply do not follow any of the unsaid rules of decorum prevalent at a given moment in architectural time.

What could win the Carbuncle Cup one year, might have been lauded a decade before. Iconic architecture was welcomed in 2000 as the sign of a British renaissance, but by 2016 its examples had become the bankrupt symbolism of a much hated economic model, and the architects of its last progeny have been lambasted where its instigators were once celebrated.

“ugly”, and conversely what we value as “worthy”, is not in any way objective. It is entirely based upon the combined prejudice of a vocal clique who define what is acceptable, and what is not. This changes from one period to the next with the same imperceptible ease as the cycles of fashion, and just as with fashion, those who do not conform are ridiculed or ignored by those who through numerical supremacy and dominance of taste-defining media outlets and forums, constitute a prevailing zeitgeist.

Positive and negative value is all too often simply a question of aesthetic conformity to a set of arbitrary and insubstantial architectural codes of belonging.

Ellis Woodman has recently pointed out how RIBA awards are almost entirely absent of either architecture which creatively engages with any pasts other than that of modernism, or with buildings by architects who operate in the very much living tradition of classical architecture. Why is this? Both strands of creative endeavour are rich with excellent buildings produced by thoughtful and praiseworthy architects, and which engage in complex ways with contemporary issues.

There are unquestioned assumptions and biases providing the uncritical foundations of architectural value judgements everywhere one cares to look. Classicism is ‘pastiche’, unsuitable for contemporary expression, and is reactionary. The language of modernism is progressive, radical, and perpetually avant garde. Abstraction is sophisticated, while figuration is at best comic or satirical, but is mostly ‘kitsch’. Expressiveness, colour and conceit are superficial and arbitrary. Restraint, dourness and severity are serious, intellectual and convey a sense of gravitas.

These value judgements are damaging, ubiquitous, bountiful, ever-evolving, and they also penetrate deep into the heart of architectural education and academia.

Fashions force their way through Architecture schools with even more vigour than they do through the wider profession. The creative freedom and gusto with which students can pursue an idea free of external constraints and contingencies means that everything necessarily becomes more extreme at university. This includes the architectural community’s predisposition towards exclusionary value judgements, which in architecture schools often reach vertiginous levels of prohibition.

Perhaps, in order to expend the vast amount of energy required to complete years of often joyless labour, there is a need for architects and architecture students to feel passionately that what they are doing, and the way in which they are doing their work is the only right, acceptable, avant garde or progressive way. A corollary of this self-imposed delusion seems to be that in order to feel so passionately that what one is doing is right, one must also devalue the efforts of those others whose production, ideas and values, do not conform to yours.

When I was a student at the AA in the early naughties, there was a degree of consensus in the school around a techno-positivist approach to architecture. Zaha Hadid, DRL, UN Studio, Asymptote, Plasma Studio, Emtech and Foreign Office were the models we were referred to. Mention James Stirling and you would either be met by dismissive laughter, a snarky comment, or stared at with wide eyes as if you were some kind of monstrous degenerate. James Stirling, an unquestionably great architect  who had been an exemplar of intellectually engaging architecture only 15 years earlier. But he was out of fashion, by this point he himself had become fodder for the self-affirmation mechanism of the prevailing architects of that moment.

And yet by asking questions, by wielding the simple and infinitely powerful weapon that is the question “why?”, again and again, “why are folded surfaces truly the embodiments of revolutionary politics in architecture?” “why can you not explain to me in clear English what your unit is about?” “why is the pastiche re-hashing of the architectural language of Russia circa 1923 radical, but when it is done with the language of England of the same period it is ‘Disney’?” “Why does quoting a philosopher make my architectural drawing political?”, it is by getting into the habit of asking these questions relentlessly, in search of meaty, truthful and believable answers, that one quickly finds the lack of foundation beneath most architectural value judgements.

Assignation of architectural value is too often entirely about the social mechanisms of acceptance into, and exclusion from, a hallowed centre of playground coolness. This however does not mean that there is no value, only that one has to construct it elsewhere.

The best recommendation I can give to any architecture student is to never stop wielding the question “why?”. Dig underneath the self-assured statements of your tutors, pull the rug from underneath their illusions. But do the same to yourself. Question your own thoughts. Keep asking, keep digging, get into the habit of catching yourself when you come across a building and think “ugh!” and recoil in horror, catch yourself and ask what was it that made you react in that way, dissect your feelings, get to the bottom of your value judgements, see them for what they so often are –a restrictive filter that dramatically narrows the horizons of your world.

It is in this way that one can discover the germ of the greatest kind of value in architecture. Liberated from the stifling value judgements of others that disallow so much from our possible appreciation, free from the suffocating snobbery of the academic avant garde that label so many things as degenerate, one can begin to define specific, precise, meaningful and singular notions of value. One can begin to unearth buildings, qualities, ideas and scenarios that have an importance defined by their own qualities, on their own terms, not by whether or not they are deemed worthy of interest by the posturing of others.

Real value, in architecture as in any other worthwhile pursuit in life, lies in the open gaze of an independent mind.

Sunday, 20 September 2015


A publication that I have some new text published in...

And some of the text:


The same thought developed through different mediums leads not only to diverse outcomes, but to results which definitively modify the original notion itself, incorporating the qualities and nuances gathered during the idea’s journey to realisation in a given format, so that the more a notion is explored through varying means, the richer, stranger, more unpredictable the initial mental construct becomes. In complete contrast to scientific method which seeks the concrete binary of refutation or affirmation of its initial object, the more one explores a concept through various mediums using a poetically motivated, exploratory method, the more slippery, obscure, multivalent, distant, strange and beautiful the initial object becomes. It is for this reason that my practice involves the simultaneous pursuit of creative exploration in as many diverse forms as I can practically manage. Any medium which has come my way, whether it be blogging, poetry, animation, film, interiors, painting, urban design, architectural form, tweeting, drawing, 3d printing, rendering, GIFs, whatever, I have retained it as one more way to tease out the unexpected strangenesses latently embedded somewhere inside the limited stockpile of notions I have in the locker of my mind. I do not seek out constant newness, nor originality, rather I am on a journey to both accurately pin point a kernel of pure subject at my core -what Isaiah Berlin called our “Inner Fortress”, or the place to where you find yourself converging at the end of all your multifarious explorations in life; and to simultaneously expand that core, to gently unravel a vast surface area from its infinitesimally compressed point using the poetic method previously stated. In this manner I believe that I can be hugely enriched by coming into contact with the real world in a dizzying variety of ways, places, forms and contexts, but without ever losing myself; and conversely that I can give something truthfully of myself, to the world. This is my Architecture, my method, my poetry and my beauty.


Obliquite : Hello Adam Nathaniel Furman, thank you for accepting this interview. You have a very prolific and interesting body of work, but before looking at all its facets, I would like to ask you about your education in Architecture. What have you learned in Architecture? Do you think it is very different than an education in design?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

I am drawn to the sobriquet ‘designer’ because I find it to be an untainted designation that speaks of the act of intentionally premeditated creation in the most general and liberating sense, whereas the title ‘Architect’ is polluted by all kinds of professional associations & obligations, like being a ‘chartered accountant’ as opposed to a ‘mathematician’. Whilst I am drawn to the name, I however don’t know at all what constitutes an education in design. Terrible I know! I am at least more aware of Architectural education in general and the majority of it was not particularly appealing, which led me and many others to the AA, specifically because it has a rather wonderful history of approaching pedagogy in its own unorthodox fashion. The undergraduate and diploma school is divided by year into units of around 10-15 students, with each one being driven by a strong character purveying a distinct notion of what constitutes the practice of architecture. The idea behind this set-up being that all your notions and beliefs are shaken to their very core every single year (ideally you hop from unit to unit annually), and by moving through the various ‘isms’ this constant action of fundamental reappraisal and adaptation first of all allows for the survival of absolutely no preconceptions or prejudices whatsoever, but simultaneously and perhaps more importantly broadens the horizon of potentiality, of what is possible if you are able to form your own singular and meaningful take on the art, rather than narrowing it down and imposing contemporary orthodoxy as many other schools do. A very important aspect of this process is the adversarial edge which colours much of the debate within the school, and which forced me to become acquainted very early on with the necessity of standing up unapologetically and with robust arguments for my work and my position, whatever that may have been at any given point. I think it’s a great thing to learn early on that there is no absolute in the arts, that all positions are arbitrary, and yet to know that it is the staking in the ground of your own marker despite this, in triumphant disdain for this, which allows for you to grow the roots from which will eventually emerge your own body of work.

Obliquite : You started your practice as a designer with Madam Studio. What interested you in objects? Is it the idea of collection and multiplicity for example ?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

By nature I have always had one foot in the world of digital media, theory, internet culture, the ephemeral cornucopia of popular culture, and the other foot in the world of physical ‘artefacts’, object-relics, of porcelain, glass, plastic and bronze. Objects have a privileged position as mediators between these two worlds of the physical and the intangible, they are not so distanced from the cultural notions of their genesis as is architecture because of the incredible amount of compromise and time it takes to get a building built, nor are they destined to disappear as quickly as the ideas and fads that brought them about as with the garments and accessories of fashion. They are a bit of both. I don’t value the one more highly than the other, they feed into each other; however where content produced online and notions formed in print come and go at an ever increasing velocity, objects remain. Physical artefacts, no matter how they are made, no matter what they are, become cultural relics, small cross-sections through a tangible area of a given culture at a very specific moment in time. As an artist/designer I feel like I am endlessly pouring energy into a colourful and ever-changing digital maelstrom in which things hold their shape for only the briefest of moments. It is exciting, liberating, exhausting, self-destructive, but I keep doing it because out of this maelstrom, out of this vicious engagement with the contemporary falls objects, designs, artefacts, evocative things, relics which have a permanence to them. People have an innate sensitivity to objects that have been mediated in some way, either by time and a journey, or by having had an unusual mix of reasons for their making. We like to not only possess such things objectively, we like to possess them also with our imaginations, and the combination of an object being evocative in its design, together with the knowledge of it having had some kind of unusual story, but without anything being stated explicitly, allows our imaginations to grasp upon the artefact’s form with our curiosity and construct our own narratives, our own histories, and through this take possession of a thing fully, with our mind and not just our wallet. This is the key difference between goods straight off the manufacturing line, presented in a shop with an identity clearly proscribed by a marketing campaign, and art-objects, or even old manufactured goods in a bric-a-brac sale which have either lost their original given identities, or never had them in the first place. Objects such as these are and always will be enticing because they are immensely powerful tools at the behest of our imagination, it is through them that our imaginations construct our own micro-histories, which imbue our daily reality with depth and magic. They are the inverse companion to the smart digital device. Where a smartphone is all function and no form, consuming the mind’s attention in endless diversion, evocative objects are all form, and function purely to focus the mind’s power in curiosity and imaginative construction. The one is not better than the other, in fact the more ubiquitous the one, the more the other is needed. As a designer I am interested in exploring the power of the object as an evocative cultural artefact, and rather conveniently its most immediate form is in that of the domestically scaled object.

Obliquite : You have developed the ability to express a same question in an incredible array of mediums. Was there a shift in your work when you started using those? Is this freedom allowing you to go deeper in your research?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

I have always been a very firm believer within my practice of making sure that I am as up to date and knowledgeable as is personally possible with current technologies & softwares, not because of any sort of technophilia, but in order that I will in no way be restricted by the constraints of any one medium or any handed-down set of mediums. I think that the more techniques you are able to work through, the less your ideas and praxis will be defined by any given process, and so the more technology we can use as artists & designers, the more transparent our work may become to the complexities of our creative explorations, our ideas, our personalities, and the less it will become muddied-by and mixed-up with the practicalities of one particular technique. It’s an approach very much in opposition to the traditional notion of the artist-as-craftsman working with an ‘authentic’ technique which they become allied to and somehow embodies their practice. Video, Poetry, Prose, Blogging, Painting, Sketching, Installation, Events, Meals, Sculpture, Interiors, Facades, Projections, Ceramics, 3d printing, Performances, the more the better, and the freer we are. So on the one hand this approach distances the traditionally symbiotic relationship of the artistic idea to its method of realisation; but on the other –and I have found this to be paradoxically liberating- it very much deepens and alters that initial idea in a vibrant, destructive, unexpected and continually transformative process. It perpetually critiques the idea. No matter what I may want, every medium transforms its generative idea through the exigencies of its own internal logic, meaning that the intent is always different to the outcome. As such, each time I create something in a new form with a new technique, a mirror is held up to me in which I see my work anew in a monstrously bastardized form, forcing a rereading, forcing a revaluation, forcing a shift in my position. This approach is indeed partly about freedom, but a searching and reflexive freedom, it is about simultaneously holding onto the core of your ideas whilst continuously putting them to the test, throwing them to the dogs, and watching them evolve and grow each time you do so. Each new medium puts me and my illusions on trial, and each time I have to formulate a specific defence. It keeps me on my toes, keeps the mind sharp, and the work alive.

Obliquite : You play with those mediums like layers on Photoshop, adding different content and playing with contrast and saturation to make different informations appear (both in the real and figured sense), how do you structure those? Is it pre-established?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

To explain the interrelationship of mediums within any given project I often use the analogy of the sketchbook. Within the pages of a sketchbook, an architect or artist mixes a dizzying array of outputs and observations with poems mingling between sketches, excerpts from books, musical notations, plans, watercolours, fragments of letters, cut-outs from magazines, personal reminders, ideas for fiction, story-boards, a whole cross section of his or her creative existence. Each of these acts or notations is a semi-complete fragment, and when considered together with others of its type on all following pages, forms a coherent thread running through the book. So on the one hand you have clear threads of investigation slowly developing their own logic, threads which define the categories that make up an individual’s practice, and on the other you have an incredible amount of cross-fertilisation going on within each sheet, page by page, because these fragments inform and effect each other. Within the range of a few pages the relationship between a story about a giant, the plans for an ideal house, and the sketch of a series of garages will have more effect on each other, will transform the way the entry immediately following them is formed, than they do on the greater thread of their category throughout the sketchbook. Unexpected things happen in sketchbooks, strange analogies develop, concrete beliefs emerge from chance juxtapositions; out of Corbusier’s sketchbook emerged the combined image of an upturned fishing-boat with that of the section of a light-well in Hadrian’s Villa, giving us a world famous chapel. The selection of mediums for a project is important for me because it is exactly this process I need to set up, they need to be able to speak to each other, they need to cross fertilise with each other at each given moment and take me somewhere new, but they need to be discrete, to have their own clear threads and identities. That is why I cannot use a Photoshop layer metaphor which relies on transparencies and merging. The various explorations need to have their own integrity, to be composed of beautifully crafted fragments which speak to the fragments produced in other mediums, and influence their next generation, but which do not hybridize, they do not bleed into one another. It is a minestrone not a creamed soup. It is a parliament of debating parties composed of fierce individuals who often agree with other parties, but generally tow the party line, and who ever-so-occasionally alter the party manifesto through a set of new beliefs found through back-of-house late night discussions.

Obliquite : Video seems to be your latest medium, why is that? How do you deal with its ephemeral yet reproducible nature, which is very different than architecture or object?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

I was very lucky to study under Pascal Schoening in my fourth year (2006). He ran a brilliantly fuck-you unit on filmic architecture in which we were encouraged to think of design as a process of poetic dematerialisation rather than of construction, a process of posing questions and finding enigmas, it was a year in which we were supposed to spend a long time getting lost, and whose end results were often terrible films that lingered on reflections in puddles and such, and which often meant the student in question had to retake their year (it was an architecture school after all…). Each term however there were films that managed to capture some of the mystery that attracts the poetically minded to architecture in the first place, and it is the large body of these over the years that makes Diploma 3 an important marker in recent architectural thought. I had developed a narrated approach the previous academic year (2004 –I worked in OMA 2005-2006) under Katrin Lahusen, and for me in Pascal’s unit and after, video became a way that I could bring together in an immediate and digestible manner what were often extremely broad projects, with several parallel threads, explored in multiple media and through often contradictory tangents. It allowed me to add an extra layer of added comprehensibility to my work, a layer that would also serve to situate it in a broader cultural context, and hence circumvent the need for criticism to wade through the obsessive depths of all the material which went into its formation. This notion that a work can have several layers to it, with the initially approached surface being the most instantaneous and easy to comprehend, and with each further layer penetrated leading you to more complex, more problematic currents and material beneath, is an approach I discovered starting with film, in Pascal’s year. There is of course a bit of a chicken and egg element to this as the films I make are invariably being made while I am writing and while I am designing, and these elements all change each other dynamically, so it is not simply a matter of the one being a presentation tool for the other at all; however the very nature of video is that it’s quick to digest, easy to grasp, simple to communicate, and with regards to the internet, it is brilliantly viral and wonderfully easy to embed in a wild variety of contexts, and so becomes a useful semi-autonomous masthead for my work. I previously described objects as being of interest because they straddle the boundaries of the ephemeral and the concrete, well video interests me in those terms as well, but rather because it straddles the boundaries between content and form. The kind of videos I try to make are like ultrasounds taken through the belly of the mind, whilst it is pregnant giving genesis to the lovechild of my Mental energies and external Material things. I sometimes explain them as being along the lines of what would be captured if Spok were digitally recording a mind-meld on an artist at the moment of his or her creative apotheosis. But then of course put on YouTube. Video is simultaneously Poetic ultrasound and Mass communication device.

Obliquite : In terms of heritage, to which group, movement, or figure in history would you feel close to?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

So many. My library is my happiness. I have so many wonderful friends and beautiful passages and gorgeous obscure drawing plates and alternative views on the world hidden in the pages of my books. Moving flat causes me long standing and acute anxiety, because I draw so much security and rootedness from knowing in what books are a whole undepletable cornucopia of inspiring and endlessly fascinating things, and the knowledge of exactly where each of those books are in space, so that I can reach out at any given moment and be transported to a particular world of fancy, gives me such a sense of pleasure that when my collection is in disarray, randomly piled-up in corners, hidden in boxes, it is as if someone has taken a chainsaw to my brain, or fried my hard drive. I have favourites of course, but I am fickle and the pantheon is like the school playground, with classmates constantly dropping in and out of my top 10 bestest best friends, whether it be Balzac, Rossi, Vignola, Ungers, Dostoevsky, Corbusier, Kahn, Rem, Stirling, Sottsass, Alberti, Plecnik, Fornasetti, Rowe, Johnson, Libera, Blunt, Thomas, Borges, Neruda, Bunuel, Bramante, Lutyens, Norman-Shaw, Minghetti, Doccia… There is always a ‘current pantheon’ pile by the bath…

Obliquite : I would like to focus now on one of your latest project, called “Identity Parade”. For 3 months, you have played a fictional designer producing 3D printed objects. Using blogs, 3D, videos, pictures, and a whole lot of crazy thoughts, you let your feelings go. Was it so fictional after all? Did you play the role, as a digital theatre piece?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

It was very important for me that all the objects, the collection and the stories in ‘Identity Parade’ have a very tangible intensity, that the stories were pulsatingly real and that they very much were the reason behind every single inflection in each object in the collection, every change of colour, every pattern. For this to happen I had to live the project. I used the Greek theatrical technique of masking so that I could allow myself to become the character, so that I could embody the issues and stories he was pursuing to extremes that I would never have been able to if I was just writing as an objective creator, as the distanced “auteur”. He was not me, but I was him. I really did effectively lock myself in the flat for that 3month period of time, stewing in my juices, plugged in 14hours-a-day to my laptop, endlessly writing, re-writing emailing, drawing, designing, worrying, getting paranoid, imagining the tales and situations to such an extent that they really did become my reality for a time. It was a bit too intense by the end, and I am only now fully recovering from the partial mania I had descended into. It was worth it, but really, really, really the old saying is true that you need to beware the mask unless before you know it, it becomes you.

Obliquite : Each object has been defined by the mood, the references and the imagination of your character, how would you define those objects? Are they useful? Are they narrative? Poetic?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

They are evocative artefacts, and when combined they create very specific atmospheres. Their purpose is to inspire imaginative contemplation, to evoke something which is not clearly defined, but somehow nonetheless interesting enough to warrant the observer’s speculation. If you have ever entered the living room of someone recently deceased, you will know how powerfully their collected belongings are redolent of who they were, what was important to them. The effect is even more powerful when the space has been orchestrated by a collector, someone who consciously externalised their values and passions into their surroundings. Each item, every framed drawing, every figurine and model car has a specific tale to tell, however when the objects are all united in a domestic setting their chronological order and specific narratives are moot, it is rather the effect that they have combined which is so potent; their individual qualities rapidly collect in profusion until the point at which we can no longer discern individual items, rather they collapse in our cognition into an atmosphere, they become a singularity that is greater than their constituent parts, a singular atmosphere which conveys an essence of the person from which it originated. There is a tradition of arranging found objects in such a way as to imply such a condition, or of museums reconstructing imaginary versions of such environments with objects from a given period, however I have a rather conservative view on this; I believe that such an atmosphere can only exist and trigger the imagination of an observer if the stories embedded within each object and which brought the objects together were actually enacted, are really contained within the confines of an object’s form, and it is only when an observer believes this that their broader disbelief can be suspended, and they may allow their imaginations to run free. Some museums have the entire studio of an artist at the point of their death moved into their gallery spaces, eerie under the shadow-less lights, powerfully evocative of their creative minds, I wanted this collection to have these qualities and resonance, hence the intensity in the work, and the intensity with which the character is worked out intimately and at every point in relation to the objects, even if most visitors never really understood this cognitively, I think it came across quite potently as a clear impression. The objects in Identity Parade have swallowed and digested their narratives into their forms, are poetic in the degree to which they suggest things without answering any questions, and are as useful as the mind can make something without allowing the hands to touch.

Obliquite : You use fiction a lot, which is a common point to other designers involved in this publication, would you say that fiction is blurred with reality ? That fiction creates the real? Is it a tool or a result? 

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

In a way there is no such thing as Fiction, or else equally everything is fiction. It is the privilege of the dominant, of the elite, of the majority and of the status-quo to define what is fiction and what is not. The Histories we are taught, the explanations we are given at school, the news we are pumped full of on a minute-by-minute basis, these are all tales told to enclose us in an all-encompassing fiction that is so absolute and pervasive that it becomes this slippery things known as reality, simply by virtue of being everywhere, reiterated constantly. These meta-narratives use facts as justification, as strobe lights to blind us from all the fanciful story-telling that makes up the majority of what we are told, distorting them in any case in such a wilful manner as to render them equal in weight to a plot twist in Dallas. Maintaining that ‘Fiction’ as a notion is confined to the safe-zones of novel writing and drama is how we manage to constantly deflect our attention away from the terrifying fact that our entire society, all our values, everything we think of as real, meaningful and substantive, our identities, it is all a fiction as fabricated as the plot of Orange Is The New Black, La Perla Negra or Infinite Jest. When the Iron Curtain fell, a reality revealed its fiction as it disappeared in a puff of smoke, and ours could do likewise at any given moment. I am no revolutionary, but as a designer I am acutely aware of the proliferation of ugly, sodden stories endlessly repeated around us and which form a virtually inescapable web of dissatisfaction, fear, emptiness, greed and hatred. I believe that as we bring objects and buildings and digital whatever into this world it is in our power to re-write a tiny part of the great fiction. Each time we act as midwife to a beautiful design, may we also bring forth a beautiful tale that tells of a way in which one of us or some of us can see things a bit differently, a way to carve out a negative space in which we may begin to construct a world of our own. It is not a matter of whether we use fiction or not, we use it either way, it is simply a matter of whether we mindlessly accept the fiction of given reality as a fact, or whether we decide to face the arbitrariness of everything we thought so solid, and consciously articulate it, modify it, cut it, bleed it, sever some of its countless limbs and start to form the stories which together with our designs, our plans and our energies will allow us to begin rewriting that little part of the world around us that is within reach of our feeble grasp.

Obliquite : Just to finish, the aim of this publication is to discuss the existence of a new paradigm in design. Would you say that there is such a thing happening? What form would it take ?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

I have no idea! Many critics and collectors and journos are endlessly bemoaning a lack of cohesion in the arts at the moment, they are castrated by the flood of newness, they cannot categorise and critique and box things and say who is in and who is out at a fast enough rate to keep up with what is going on. They are flummoxed by new practices. Let them die. For me the most exciting thing that I am beginning to see is designers and architects and artists who are at once critics and practitioners, collectors and consultants, scientists and PR gurus, salesmen and mystics, who conflate a whole bunch of roles into one, who each in their own way are starting to inch towards a final negation (it has been so long in coming!) of the modernist division of knowledge and labour into arbitrarily discrete areas of professional ‘competence’. The new paradigm might be the melting of all professional categories into a primordial soup at the dining table of Art.

Obliquite : Thank you Adam Nathaniel Furman. Just to finish, what have you planned for the future?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

I have been awarded the UK Rome Prize for Architecture 2014, and so will be residing in Rome for six months, exploring a city that I find endlessly fascinating, safe in the knowledge that for a not insignificant period of time I can avoid thinking about the fact I have absolutely no idea what I am going to do afterwards, or in my life generally. If any readers have any suggestions please contact me, I am all ears.