Tuesday, 4 December 2012


We walked to the quay for the fishermen's party
(red wine in plastic beakers, sandwiches
of fresh caught sardines, their treasure); sunlight
was making patterns on the water.

All these bits and pieces of our life,
like picnics and daylight-
it's a kaleidoscope, isn't it? I said,
paddling in a sea that had light in it.

Bits of the world dissolved, flowed
into octagons, flowers, a fluid geometry,
persuasive patterns; black was insisting
on becoming blue...

There's the adventure, you said -turquoise
becomes this sea... flowers are stars, a speck of fire
expands into a cosmos.
We are luckier than Ulysses.-

But, I said, the kaleidoscope needs
light to last. We stayed on the beach,
watching his sea and ours, the sun's late path.
We tried not to see light leaving the horizon.

From the poem "Our Mediterranean and the story of Ulysses"
by Daphne Gloag which made my day just a little bit beautiful yesterday.
You can purchase her collection "A Compression of Distances" here

Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Dead

^aftermath of a vehicular accident, University of Georgia (source)

The opening paragraphs of Karl Ove Knausgaard's 'A Death In The Family'. A thoughtful rumination on our relationship with the just deceased, and its irrational, atavistic infrastructure that forms its own architecture within and under that of the living, as well as motivating instantaneous and universal impulses, actions and rituals that are second nature to us, but which on second glance reveal themselves to be primordial, groundless and strange.

"For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can. Then it stops. Sooner or later, one day, this pounding action will cease of its own accord, and the blood will begin to run towards the body's lowest point, where it will collect in a small pool, visible from the outside as a dark, soft patch on ever whiter skin , as the temperature sinks, the limbs stiffen and the intestines drain. These changes in the first hours occur so slowly and take place with such inexorability that there is something almost ritualistic about them, as though life capitulates according to specific rules, a kind of gentleman’s agreement, to which the representatives of death also adhere, inasmuch as they always wait until life has retreated before they launch their invasion of the new landscape. By which point, however, the invasion is irrevocable. The enormous hordes of bacteria that begin to infiltrate the body's innards cannot be halted. Had they but tried a few hour s earlier, they would have met with immediate resistance: however, everything around them is quiet now, as they delve deeper and deeper into the moist darkness. They advance on the Haversian canals, the crypts of Lieberkuhn, the islets of Langerhans. They proceed to Bowman’s capsule in the kidneys, Clark’s column in the Spinalis, the black substance in the mesencephalon. And they arrive at the heart. As yet, it is intact, but deprived of the activity to which end its whole construction has been designed, there is something strangely desolate about it, like a production plant that workers have been forced to flee in haste, or so it appears, the stationary vehicles shining yellow against the darkness of the forest, the huts deserted, a line of fully loaded cable buckets stretching up the hillside.

The moment life departs the body, it belongs to death. At one with lamps, suitcases, carpets, door handles, windows. Fields, marshes, streams, mountains, clouds, the sky. None of these is alien to us. We are constantly surrounded by objects and phenomena from the realm of death. Nonetheless, there are few things that arouse in us greater distaste than to see a human being caught up in it, at least if we are to judge by the efforts we make to keep corpses out of sight. In larger hospitals they are not only hidden away in discreet, inaccessible rooms, even the ways there are concealed, with their own lifts and basement corridors, and should you stumble upon one of them, the dead bodies being wheeled by are always covered. When they have to be transported from the hospital it is through a dedicated exit, into vehicles with tinted glass; in the church grounds there is a separate, windowless room for them; during the funeral ceremony they lie in closed coffins until they are lowered into the earth or cremated in the oven. It is hard to imagine what practical purpose this procedure might serve. The uncovered bodies could be wheeled along the hospital corridors, for example, and thence be transported in an ordinary taxi without this posing a particular risk to anyone. The elderly man who dies during a cinema performance might just as well remain in his seat until the film is over, and during the next too for that matter. The teacher who has a heart attack in the school playground does not necessarily have to be driven away immediately; no damage is done by leaving him where he is until the caretaker has time to attend to him, even though that might not be until some time in the late afternoon or evening. What difference would it make if a bird were to alight on him and take a peck? Would what awaits him in the grave be any better just because it is hidden? As long as the dead are not in the way there is no need for any rush, they cannot die a second time. Cold snaps in the winter should be particularly propitious in such circumstances. The homeless who freeze to death on benches and in doorways, the suicidal who jump off high buildings and bridges, elderly women who fall down staircases, traffic victims trapped in wrecked cars, the young man who, in a drunken stupor, falls into the lake after a night on the town, the small girl who ends up under the wheel of a bus, why all this haste to remove them from the public eye? Decency? What could be more decent than to allow the girl’s mother and father to see her an hour or two later, lying in the snow at the site of the accident, in full view, her crushed head and the rest of her body, her blood-spattered hair and the spotless padded jacket? Visible to the whole world, no secrets, the way she was. But even this one hour in the snow is unthinkable. A town that does not keep its dead out of sight, that leaves people where they died, on highways and byways, in parks and car parks, is not a town but a hell. The fact that this hell reflects our life experience in a more realistic and essentially truer way is of no consequence. We know this is how it is, but we do not want to face it. Hence the collective act of repression symbolised by the concealment of our dead.

What exactly it is that is being repressed, however, is not so easy to say. It cannot be death itself, for its presence in society is much too prominent. The number of deaths reported in newspapers or shown on the TV news everyday varies slightly according to circumstances, but the annual average will presumably tend to be constant, and since it is spread over so many channels virtually impossible to avoid. Yet that kind of death does not seem threatening. Quite the contrary, it is something we want and will happily pay to see. Add the enormously high body count in fiction and it becomes even harder to understand the system that keeps death out of sight. If the phenomenon of death does not frighten us, why then this distaste for dead bodies? Either it must mean that there are two kinds of death or that there is a disparity between our conception of death and death as it actually turns out to be, which in effect boils down to the same thing: what is significant here is that our conception of death is so strongly rooted in our consciousness that we are not only shaken when we see that reality deviates from it, but we also try to conceal this with all the means at our disposal. Not as the result of some form of conscious deliberation, as has been the case with rites such as funerals, the form and meaning of which are negotiable nowadays, and thus have shifted from the sphere of the irrational to the rational, from the collective to the individual –no, the way we remove bodies has never been the subject of debate, it has always been just something we have done, out of a necessity for which no one can state a reason but everyone feels: if your father dies on the lawn one windswept Sunday in autumn, you carry him indoors if you can, and if you can’t, you at least cover him with a blanket. This impulse, however, is not the only one we have with regard to the dead. No less conspicuous than our hiding corpses is the fact that we always lower them to ground level as fast as possible. A hospital that transports its bodies upwards, that sites its cold chambers on the upper floors, is practically inconceivable. The dead are stored as close to the ground as possible. And the same applies to the agencies that attend them; an insurance company may well have its offices on the eight floor, but not a funeral parlour. All funeral parlours have their offices as close to street level as possible. Why this should be is hard to say; one might be tempted to believe that it was based on some ancient convention that originally had a practical purpose, such as a cellar being cold and therefore best suited to storing corpses, and that this principle had been retained in our era of refrigerators and cold-storage rooms, had it not been for the notion that transporting bodies upwards in buildings seems contrary to the laws of nature, as though height and death are mutually incompatible. As though we possessed some kind of chthonic instinct, something deep within us that urges us to move death down to the earth whence it came."

Saturday, 28 July 2012


^Titian's Bacchanal, 1523 (source)
Another extract from Arendt's The Human Condition, this time on the foundational nature of Pain as an ultimate referent. She is pointing out here that pleasure isn't, and never was or could be a measurable, quantifiable thing, positively in and of itself (as the Utilitarians and others saw it) which one can pursue and attain, but rather should be seen as the ancients saw it: as the absence of pain, so that hedonism (& stoicism, ascetism, epicurianism) is never the insatiable and accumulative pleasure of the gourmand, but rather the tranquil calm of the hermit.

"The principle of all hedonism, as we saw before, is not pleasure but avoidance of pain, and Hume, who in contradistinction to Bentham was still a philosopher, knew quite well that he who wants to make pleasure the ultimate end of all human action is driven to admit that no pleasure but pain, not desire but fear, are his true guides. "If you... inquire, why [somebody] desires health, he will readily reply, because sickness is painful. If you push your inquiries further and desire a reason why he hates pain, it is impossible he can ever give any. This is an ultimate end, and is never referred to by any other object." The reason for this impossibility is that only pain is completely independent of any object, that only one who is in pain really senses nothing but himself; pleasure does not enjoy itself but something besides itself. Pain is the only inner sense found by introspection which can rival in independence from experienced objects the self-evident certainty of logical and arithmetical reasoning."

Monday, 7 May 2012


^Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Phidias Showing the Frieze of the Parthenon to his Friends
Two extracts relating to the City (polis) from Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition, in which she explains how Greeks saw the built fabric -as they saw the structures of the law- as a clearly subservient, enabling framework whose entire reason for existence was exhausted in creating and then protecting the space in which political action, debate, oration, and discussion could occur, spectacularly, notably. The builders and craftsmen who dealt with putting up projects with definable outcomes, forms, and predictable lifespans, men who cut stone, layed-out the buildings on the agora, honed the acoustics in Greek theatres, penned the statute books and wrote down the legal structures of Democracy, these were the hard working but not heroic figures, who were there to build (for the first time in history) a world that was perfectly calibrated and designed for the active citizen-individual to show himself, doing, proposing, initiating, and acting in the public eye. They were backstage craft-caretakers of an environment where each person could be sure that the most highly valued, but most ephemeral of all things a man can bring into the world, namely the heroic act, the split second shining-forth of world-changing agency, the unrepeatable spark of transcendence, was not only given an audience in a built world calibrated for its maximum amplification, but that the built world would also act as its permanent embodiment, an assurance in stone that the intangible and endlessly precious chain of Human acts that make a polis would remain a story perpetually told. The city Homer.

“An outstanding symptom of this prevailing influence is that the Greeks, in distinction from all later developments, did not count legislating among the political activities. In their opinion, the lawmaker was like the builder of the city wall, someone who had to do and finish his work before political activity could begin. He therefore was treated like any other craftsman or architect and could be called from abroad and commissioned without having to be a citizen, whereas the right to be politeuesthai, to engage in the numerous activities which eventually went on in the polis, was entirely restricted to citizens. To them, the laws, like the wall around the city, were not results of action but products of making. Before men began to act, a definite space had to be secured and a structure built where all subsequent actions could take place, the space being the public realm of the polis and its structure the law; legislator and architect belonged in the same category. But these tangible entities themselves were not the content of politics (not Athens, but the Athenians were the polis), and they did not command the same loyalty we know from the Roman type of patriotism.”

“The polis –if we trust the famous words of Pericles in the Funeral Oration- gives a guaranty that those who forced every sea and land to become the scene of their daring will not remain without witness and will need neither Homer nor anyone else who knows how to turn words to praise them; without assistance from others, those who acted will be able to establish together the everlasting remembrance of their good and bad deeds, to inspire admiration in the present and future ages. In other words, men’s life together in the form of the polis seemed to assure that the most futile of human activities, action and speech, and the least tangible and most ephemeral of man-made “products”, the deeds and stories which are their outcome, would become imperishable. The organization of the polis, physically secured by the wall around the city and physiognomically guaranteed by its laws –lest the succeeding generations change its identity beyond recognition- is a kind of organized remembrance. It assures the mortal actor that his passing existence and fleeting greatness will never lack the reality that comes from being seen, being heard, and, generally, appearing before an audience of fellow men, who outside the polis could attend only the short duration of the performance and therefore needed Homer and “others of his craft” in order to be presented to those who were not there.”

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Lost Illusions

^ Richard Hamilton "Just what is it that makes today's homes so different, so appealing?" 1956

From Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections". The final class of a course in Cultural Studies that one of the characters, Chip, teaches in a private college. After showing the class a 'cutting edge' series of adverts for office equipment, that builds up the story of an office staffed entirely by women, one of whom dies of cancer, but who's plight is turned to positive effect by her colleagues' online campaign to raise breast cancer awareness (via the office equipment bought from W_corp), he intends to complete the term by showing the class how to 'see through' to the cynicism at the heart of even such an apparently well-meaning and cleverly put-together campaign as this. The teacher's loyal but narrow espousals of Baudrillard et al's tail-chasing critiques come crashing down when faced with the incomprehension of a class unable, or more likely entirely unwilling to see past appearances, and the razor sharp contempt of a girl who not only sees through the ads initial appearances, but equally cuts through the flimsiness of Chip's moral condemnation, to the point where it is clearly just a subjective position, one resting entirely on arbitrary -and worse- totally unproductive, soul-sapping, no-end-in-sight, solution-less, critique for the sake of critique (and by implication: university tenures).

A petite young woman names Hilton, a Chihuahua-like person, offered that it was “brave” and “really interesting” that Chelsea had died of cancer instead of surviving like you might have expected in a commercial.

Chip waited for someone to observe that it was precisely this self-consciously “revolutionary” plot twist that had generated publicity for the ad. Normally Melissa, from her seat in the front row, could be counted on to make a point like this. But today she was sitting by Chad with her cheek on her desk. Normally, when students napped in class, Chip called on them immediately. But today he was reluctant to say Melissa’s name. He was afraid that his voice might shake.

Finally, with a  tight smile, he said, “In case any of you were visiting a different planet last fall, lets review what happened with these ads. Remember Nielsen Media Research took the “revolutionary” step of giving episode six its own weekly rating. The first rating ever given to an ad. And once Nielsen rated it, the campaign was all but guaranteed an enormous audience for its rebroadcast during the November sweeps. Also remember that the Nielsen rating followed a week of print and broadcast news coverage of the ‘revolutionary’ plot twist of Chelsea’s death, plus the Internet rumour about Chelsea’s being a real person who’d really died. Which, incredibly, several hundred thousand people actually believed. Beat Psychology, remember, having fabricated her medical records and her personal history and posted them on the Web. So my question for Hilton would be, how ‘brave’ is it to engineer a sure-fire publicity coup for your ad campaign?”

“It was still a risk,” Hilton said. “I mean, death is a downer. It could have backfired.”

Again Chip waited for someone, anyone, to take his side of the argument. No one did. “So a wholly cynical strategy.” He said, “if there’s a financial risk attached, becomes an act of artistic bravery?”

A brigade of college lawn mowers descended on the lawn outside the classroom, smothering discussion in a blanket of noise. The sunshine was bright.

Chip soldiered on. Did it seem realistic that a small-business owner would spend her own money on special health-care options for an employee?

One student averred that the boss she’d had at her last summer job had been generous and totally great.
Chad was silently fighting off the tickling hand of Melissa while, with his free hand, he counterattacked the naked skin of her midriff.

“Chad?” Chip said.

Chad, impressively, was able to answer the question without having it repeated. “Like, that was just one office,” he said. “Maybe another boss wouldn’t have been so great. But that boss was great. I mean, nobody’s pretending that’s an average office, right?”

Here Chip decided to raise the question of art’s responsibilities vis-à-vis the Typical; but this discussion, too, was DOA.

“So, bottom line,” he said, “we like this campaign. We think these ads are good for the culture and good for the country. Yes?”

There were shrugs and nods in the sun-heated room.

“Melissa,” Chip said. “We haven’t heard from you.”

Melissa raised her head from her desk, shifted her attention from Chad, and looked at Chip with narrowed eyes.

“Yes,” she said.

“Yes what?”

“Yes, these ads are good for the culture and good for the country.”

Chip took a deep breath, because this hurt. “Great, OK,” he said. “Thank you for your opinion.”

“As if you care about my opinion,” Melissa said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“As if you care about any of our opinions unless they’re the same as yours.”

“This is not about opinions,” Chip said, “This is about learning to apply critical methods to textual artefacts. Which is what I’m here to teach you.”

“I don’t think it is, though,” Melissa said, “I think you’re here to teach us to hate the same things you hate. I mean, you hate these ads, right? I can hear it in every word you say. You totally hate them.”

The other students were listening raptly now. Melissa’s connection with Chad might have depressed Chad’s stock more than it had raised her own, but she was attacking Chip like an angry equal, not a student, and the class ate it up.

“I do hate these ads’” Chip admitted. “But that’s not …”

“Yes it is,” Melissa said.

“Why do you hate them?” Chad called out.

“Tell us why you hate them,” the little Hilton yipped.

Chip looked at the wall clock. There were six minutes left of the semester. He pushed his hands through his hair and cast his eyes around the room as if he might find an ally somewhere, but the students had him on the run now, and they knew it.

“The W_ Corporation,” he said, “is currently defending three separate lawsuits for antitrust violations. Its revenues last year exceeded the gross domestic product of Italy. And now, to wring dollars out of the one demographic that it doesn’t yet dominate, it’s running a campaign that exploits a woman’s fear of breast cancer and her sympathy with its victims. Yes, Melissa?”

“It’s not cynical.”

“What is it, if not cynical?”

“It’s celebrating women in the workplace,” Melissa said, “It’s raising money for cancer research. It’s encouraging us to do our self-examinations and get the help we need. It’s helping women feel like we own this technology, like it’s not just a guy thing.”

“Ok, good,” Chip said, “But the question is not whether we care about breast cancer, it’s what breast cancer has to do with selling office equipment.”

Chad took up the cudgels for Melissa. “That’s the whole point of the ad, though. That if you have access to information, it can save your life.”

“So if Pizza Hut puts a little sign about testicular self-exams by the hot-pepper flakes, it can advertise itself as part of the glorious and courageous fight against cancer?”

“Why not?” Chad said.

“Does anybody see anything wrong with that?”

Not one student did. Melissa was slouching with her arms crossed and unhappy amusement on her face. Unfairly or not, Chip felt as if she’d destroyed in five minutes a semester’s worth of careful teaching.
“Well, consider,” he said, “that ‘You Go, Girl’ would not have been produced if W_ had not had a product to sell. And consider that the goal of the people who work at W_ is to exercise their stock options and retire at thirty two, and that the goal of the people who own W_ stock” (Chip’s brother and sister-in-law, Gary and Caroline, owned a great deal of W_ stock) “is to build bigger houses and buy bigger SUVs and consume even more of the world’s finite resources.”

“What’s wrong with making a living?” Melissa said. “Why is it inherently evil to make money?”

“Baudrillard might argue,” Chip said, “that the evil of a campaign like ‘You Go, Girl’ consists in the detachment of the signifier from the signified. That a woman weeping no longer just signifies sadness. It now also signifies: ‘Desire office equipment.’ It signifies: ‘Our bosses care about us deeply.’”

The wall clock showed two-thirty. Chip paused and waited for the bell to ring and the semester to end.

“Excuse me,” Melissa said, “but that is just such bullshit.”

“What is bullshit?” Chip said.

“This whole class,” she said. “It’s just bullshit every week. It’s one critic after another wringing their hands about the state of criticism. Nobody can ever quite say what’s wrong exactly. But they all know it’s evil. They all know ‘corporate’ is a dirty word. And if somebody’s having fun or getting rich –disgusting! Evil! And it’s always the death of this and the death of that. And people who think they’re free aren’t ‘really’ free. And people who think they’re happy aren’t ‘really’ happy. And it’s impossible to radically critique society anymore, although what’s so radically wrong with society that we need such a radical critique, nobody can say exactly. It is so typical and perfect that you hate those ads!” she said to Chip as, throughout Wroth Hall, bells finally rang. “Here things are getting better and better for women and people of colour, and gay men and lesbians, more and more integrated and open, and all you can think about is some stupid, lame problem with signifiers and signifieds. Like, the only way you can make something bad out of an ad that’s great for women –which you have to do, because there has to be something wrong with everything- is to say it’s evil to be rich and evil to work for a corporation, and yes, I know the bell rang.” She closed her notebook.

“OK,” Chip said. “On that note, You’ve now satisfied your Cultural Studies core requirement. Have a great summer.”

He was powerless to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

Friday, 16 March 2012

The Plan

^Plan of Victims, Berlin, John Hejduk 1986

Text by John Hejduk from his afterword to Stanley Tigerman's Monograph:

"When I examine his plans it occurs to me that, throughout the history of Architecture, plans have changed the least. This, I think, is a curious phenomenon. It is sometimes stated that the plan is a horizontal section, in relation to the well-known vertical section of architecture. So it may be, but I think architectural plans are something else. I think they are architecture in a state of sleep. Plans are sleeping architecture that, in the extreme, are architecture in death. We tend not to want to disturb architectural plans, for they are so still and so quiet, abstract and awesome. The plan shows the death of the soul of architecture. It is an X-ray of the soul. The plan returns architecture to a state of timelessness. The plan has no need for clothes or ornamentation; it carries with it an inevitability. The plan is sacred and inviolate."

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Emilio Ambasz Q&A

LF: Is architecture democratic?

EA: Without a client who is enlightened and establishes a high standard for approximation, you don’t have good architecture. An architect is not enough; you need a client who establishes a high standard. That is why committees usually fail in obtaining good buildings. Lets say architecture is in the domain of royal democracies.

LF: Should Architecture be democratic?

EA: Architecture has to solve a number of social problems, so if the social problems are solved, I don’t know how that makes it more or less democratic. I think that is a misuse of the word democratic. Democratic means a certain minimum common denominator. Even if it were a maximum common denominator, it is still a common denominator –the key word is common. Therefore, if you want to create a new model for changing the present it cannot receive the approval of the majority. It has to be a shock, it has to irritate, it has to be rejected, it has to be resisted if it has any value of invention contained within it. In time, if the innovation is understood, that prototype will become a type, and, with time, the culture that turned it into a type will turn it into a stereotype. And onward and onward. When architecture is architecture, it is a prototype. When it is a building and you can make some money, it is a type. If you can make lots of money, it is a stereotype. The hack architects work with stereotypes, the professionals work with types, and the artists make prototypes.

LF: Spider, bee, or ant. Which is the best architect?

EA: All three are unremarkable as such. A bee that always makes the same thing is a builder, not an architect. The spider that makes a beautiful web is a hunter, not an architect. The ant that keeps on carrying little leaves is an accumulator, but not an architect. Architecture means inventing a new habitat; those three don’t.

LF: Double envelope. Is the inside to be reflected in the outside?

EA: When I was a student I thought so. But I came to realise that it was a surrogate for decision-making. If you don’t  know what to do with the façade, you just project the inside onto the outside. I think that the outside should be one thing, because its outside, and the inside should be another. I am not interested in single-minded images.

LF: Is the blob formal excess or lack of form?

EA: The blob is a form in search of itself. It doesn’t know what it is and so it is constantly changing. It is indecision carried through a state of confirmation, which of course is temporary. The context gives the form a certain meaning, then the context changes and the blob just remains there.

LF: Is architecture hiding behind technology?

EA: Many times technology is presented as architecture. But architecture is both techne and poiesis. If not, it is not architecture.


The text above is an extract from the article '53 Questions, 265 Answers', by Luca Farinelli, featured in the fall 2011 edition (23) of LOG. The article is a series of interviews with identical questions posed to well known architects, including Bjarke Ingels, Peter Eisenmann, Steven Holl, and Thom Mayne, although Farinelly has interviewed many others in what is an ongoing project....