Artificial Natures – The 2015 KAM Workshop in Chania, Crete

By   ∕  27th Sep 2015

Education ∕ Faux Nature ∕ Heavy Theory ∕ Landscape ∕ Lecture

I recently returned from Crete, where, together with my wife Evi Chantzi, I was involved with the coordination and programme of this year’s KAM Workshop in Chania. The KAM Workshops have been running since 2002, and were conceived as an investigation into architecture through the study of its expression as a local phenomena. The workshops are organised by the core team of Elina Axioti, Aristides Antonas and Yannikos Vassiloulis, of the Athens-based Architecture Syndicate collective.

Venetian Grand Arsenal, Chania | KAM Workshop
An altogether too picturesque photo of the Venetian Grand Arsenal (center) at the old harbour, Chania

Held annually in the Venetian Grand Arsenal of Chania, this year’s workshop, entitled Artificial Natures, brought together students of architecture and design from Greece and beyond, with practitioners and academics from a range of disciplines. The workshop title, with its deliberate use of the plural, asserts the multitude of narrative constructs which might define our notions of nature and the artificial. The larger debate surrounding the term and consequences of the anthropocene was an ever-present backdrop to a series of lectures to which I also contributed. More on the lecture series below. At a later date I will turn my own presentation into an article for publication here.

Students in conversation with Heike Schuppelius, Elina Axioti and Stavros Vergopoulos

In seven days, the participating students conceived and presented a wide range of proposals for, and inspired by Chania and Crete: a bio-architectural proposition for Chania’s streetscape; staged interventions manifesting from the water infrastructure; a meditation on modern ruins; an investigation into the extraction, use and values of marble; a proposition for a post-internet, “civilization-kit” based on Deleuze’s critique of Robinson Crusoe.

Although I’ve spent time on Crete before, the workshop week was one of those context-shifting experiences which makes travel such a potentially profound experience. Most of the participants and organisers of the workshop (including myself and my wife) were housed in the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania (MAICh), on the outskirts of town, whose multilingual welcome banner, hung over the main entrance, refreshingly and conspicuously lacked most Northern European languages. Having independently come to the conclusion that Crete has a specific geo-cultural potency due to its snug Mediterranean centrality (parts of the island are closer to Libya than to Athens; Chania is further south than Tunis), the banner and the Institute’s program was a reminder that I was in a completely different space, distinct from my own northern notions of Europe.

Here’s an overview of the KAM-Workshop lecture programme:

Image: Stavros Vergopoulos

Stavros Vergopoulos, Associate Professor for Representational and Architectural Design at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, presented an overview of his teaching. His program, Natural Systems and Design Processes, encourages students to experiment with small-scale natural phenomena in order to arrive at unexpected structural and spacial models, which are then vigorously analysed and digitally re-modelled. Melted wax, shock-solidified in cold water, or molten caramel extruded into a mesh of threads were some of the starting points for deeper investigation.

Elegant Embellishments in conversation with Evi Chantzi

Braving a wobbly Skype connection on Tuesday morning, Evi Chantzi hosted Allison Dring and Daniel Schwaag of Elegant Embellishments (and both contributors to Slab), who presented their research into biochar as a carbon-negative construction and manufacturing material. They also introduced the students to their smog-busting Prosolve 370e façade elements, installed at Mexico City’s Hospital Manuel Gea Gonzales.

Artist and curator Petros Moris presented Notes on Recurrent Forms. Using broad associative strokes, Moris’ dense talk managed to encompass the mythical bronze giant Talos (forged by Hephaestus and given to Europa, the lover of Zeus, in order to protect Crete from pirates); early industrial-era production lines; Marx’s “ideal machine”; the role of natural forms in the extruded grids of Superstudio; Google’s Deep Dream algorithm; and the collapse of space-time ensured by the invisible infrastructure of logistics. Moris also proposed a succinct definition of nature by suggesting that it is “everything which escapes design”.

A rainwater-collector on Crete: presentation photo by Heike Schuppelius

In an absorbing presentation, scenographer Heike Schuppelius talked about the thought and work involved in the creation of Natural Habitat, a performance installation with dancer Laurie Young. The piece imagines our world 200 years from now, with Young playing a survivor of some unnamed ecological disaster cast into a surreal landscape where she encounters a host of other desperate creatures. Natural Habitat was performed in 2011 at Berlin’s Natural History Museum, inside a specially constructed diorama. Schuppelius ended the talk with a neat aside. For years she has been documenting her observation of rectangles and squares within supposedly natural landscapes. The mountains of Crete, it turns out, are peppered with concrete rain collectors whose function is to provide sheep and goats with drinking water.

Berlin’s highest point

Wednesday began with my own presentation, entitled Landscapes of Leisures as Systems of Exchange, or, How to Find the Wrong Horse, which focussed on an area of The New Death Strip around Berlin’s highest point, the 86-meter-high Dörferblick, made of war rubble and domestic waste. The hill forms a vantage point from which a landscape of interlocking systems of economic and cultural exchange can be surveyed. My return to this area after five years was prompted by 2010 plans to retain a herd of Przewalski’s horses in the area, a Mongolian wild horse extinct in the wild only until recent reintroduction.

Jenny Rodenhouse

Multimedia designer Jenny Rodenhouse, who also participated in the workshop’s studio-work, introduced us to her research work on various designated test sites dotted around the USA. Her talk, The Tornado is Staying but the Lightning Will Need to be Replaced, focused on a speculative narrative spun out of the discovery of precipitation-modification test sites embedded within California’s San Gabriel Mountain suburbs, whilst referencing UniStorm, a weather-simulation engine for the game development platform Unity3D.

Inside Google’s Dublin campus

Mona Mahall and Asli Serbest of studio m-a-u-s-e-r and the Stuttgart State Academy of Art presented Natural Wifi, an investigation into the material culture of the internet. Mahall and Serbest offered a reading of the internet as a “total environment”, in which an aesthetic obsession with nature manifests itself in Californian hi-tech campuses designed to resemble jungles, or Feng-Shui tips for organising computer desktops.

The Temple of Holy Shit

Via another very wobbly Skype connection, we were joined on Thursday morning by Valentina Karga, an artist with a background in architecture who I have known for several years after having met at the Berlin offices of LIN Architects. Valentina’s interest is in the study of waste. Referencing, among others, Graham Caine’s Ecological House of 1972, she described various recent projects including the award winning Temple of Holy Shit, which transforms a custom-made public toilet into a factory-like performance space, ritually turning visitors’ bodily waste into vital terra-preta soil for the surrounding park and gardens.

Against Nature

Elina Axioti’s lecture, Against Nature, took its name from the English title of French novelist Joris-Karl Huysman’s 1884 À rebours. In a key episode of the novel, the reclusive protagonist Jean des Esseintes decides, on reading the work of Dickens, to leave his countryside retreat and travel to England. Whilst waiting for his train in Paris, he eats in an English restaurant. On realising that his fellow diners esentially embody his image of the English, as derived through literature, he cancels his trip and returns home. Axioti made the point that Huysman seems to have anticipated modernity’s propensity to manufacture artificial realities.

From Walden to Minecraft

In Thoreau, English Gardens and Post‐internet Natural, Juli Vlassi asked how we should re-define the idea of wilderness from within a mode of thinking which acknowledges the redundancy of separating the natural from the artificial. From the 19th century recluse to Minecraft hermits, the retreat into wilderness appears to have shifted from an extra-infrastructural act of dissent, to an inter-infrastructural leisure pursuit.

Image: Aristide Antonas

In the final presentation on Thursday, Aristide Antonas presented The Shelters of Spengler. The project is an architectural investigation which imagines a series of provisional dwellings as a performance within a “constructed nature”. The unpopulated Greek island of Petasi, just off the coast of the tourist destination, Hydra, is the nominal location for these structures. Their hidden infrastructure forms an “unreal scenography” in this meditation on Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West which asserts that every civilisation fails when it produces no more values.

I’d like to extend my thanks to Elina Axioti and Aristide Antonas for the opportunity to be involved, as well as to all the participants and lecturers who took part, for making it such a fun and rewarding week.

KAM Workshops
Artificial Natures on Tumblr

Abusing Neural Networks to Enhance the Tyranny of Bland

By   ∕  5th Aug 2015

Crisis ∕ Orion Nebula

Berlin’s answer to Park Avenue: an eggbox

By their own admission, Google’s artificial neural networks have a strong bias towards pagodas, birds, insects and dogs. The recent net-glut of images which followed the release of the Deep Dream source code, revealed that artificial intelligence will emerge from a hallucinogenic horror-trip of unimaginable ghastliness.

In an act of pedagogic gavage, a stack of unsuspecting software neurons has been force-fed twenty-three-jizzilion cached images from Google’s servers, given a mild sedative, and told to get on with it. If you are to believe psychonaut Terrence McKenna’s claim that human intelligence was given a metaphysical kick in the synapses when we began herding livestock, and consequently developed a culinary interest in psilocybin mushrooms growing in cow dung, this might equip you with a cyber-metaphoric framework for what Google have accomplished with software.

How did I get here? Oh, yeah. I was hoping Google’s algorithms might help us develop some deep insights into bland architecture. You don’t have to herd cattle far through Berlin in order to find some. A walk in the park will suffice. Along Berlin’s answer to 5th Avenue, developers have erected six or seven Polystyrene egg-boxes and sold them as “affordable” living units, or something. The adjacent Gleisdreieck Park – which is fabulous, actually – will forever be blighted by the presence of this crushing insipidity. But Google’s algorithms are already helping me to understand …

The lower balcony is displaying signs of heavily repressed pagoda, or vaulted-dome roof, and some kind of caravan has emerged from the building in the rear: a clear sign of underdeveloped mobility desires and perhaps claustrophobic tendencies.

A row of taxis, morphed hideously together seems to be gathering before the door, and strange anthropomorphic figures congregate in the bushes. Paranoia and escapist fantasies dominate points of entry and exit.

Delusional tendencies and primitivist fantasies expressed by conical, reed-roofing; turkeys blossoming from daylighting cupolas. Onset of delirium. Mushrooms coming on nicely now brothers and sisters.

Full-on multiple-personality disorder; giant, lacy-winged creatures disg0rge from the heavens; roof cracks apart apart apart; six architectural epochs ’smerge with raw egg, spinach, inexplicable shifts in perspective radiance. Nuns. Rubber-coated chrome. Baby.

Sweet Mother of God. Oblivion. Divine
lightning in blu Earth cleft asunder.

The four
duckmen of the apochromats.

iblets. Kelp p sSmodhee ,b

hail the lizards!

-jahq.dnks daäÜ pœwjlks-sq+wü, dqy,,,,,,yqs, qd4

cs w Adüy+a °+loftliving.

Shanghai Ionic

By   ∕  2nd Aug 2015

Archive ∕ Earth Junk ∕ Eurotrash ∕ Graffiti ∕ Hardscape

Whilst breezing through the archives I came across this, from a 2009 trip to Shanghai.

A history of the transference of meaning might be in ionic order: from Hermogenes of Priene to Vitruvius’ presentation of De Architectura to Augustus … the fluting here is Roman, not Greek. We could drop in at the role of Athena in the Renaissance period’s naturalisation of the ionic order for the construction of universities, places of governance and libraries. But where now? Where to, here? To put it bluntly, what in Shanghai are we to make of the ionic today?

In this configuration the portico is a dim memory, and the literary works of absent graffitists have been violently smothered. The perimeter wall of a corporate building-site demotes marble to junk-panelling, and local topography is given more sway than the mandate to create space. Manufacturing makes it possible: the un-tapered columns are tubes and can be cut to length.

Clearly though, my European mindset was diminished currency in modern China. In Shanghai I was doubly illiterate: verbal and written clues were beyond my understanding, and my semantic crutches buckled under the weight of new epistyles.

The Skips of Oxford

By   ∕  23rd Jul 2015

Earth Junk ∕ Structural Collapse

The outstanding architecture of Oxford is ending up in skips

The outstanding architecture of Oxford is ending up in skips

The outstanding architecture of Oxford is ending up in skips

The outstanding architecture of Oxford is ending up in skips

The outstanding architecture of Oxford is ending up in skips

The outstanding architecture of Oxford is ending up in skips

Creative Mornings Lecture

By   ∕  30th Jun 2015

Dérive ∕ Event ∕ Lecture ∕ NDS ∕ Shopping Malls ∕ Sick Buildings ∕ Speculation ∕ Structural Collapse

On June 19th I gave this short lecture for the Berlin chapter of Creative Mornings. June’s theme was ‘Revolution’. I approached the subject by revisiting Slab’s 2010 publication The New Death Strip, and a more recent exploration of the Mall of Berlin.

Lecture video:

Astroturf Gemütlichkeit #008

By   ∕  19th May 2015

Eurotrash ∕ Faux Nature ∕ Structural Collapse


Back after a four year hiatus, Astroturf Gemütlichkeit presents “Hot Specials” from half-way up Lindenstraße, just before you hit Mitte, in the bit where Kreuzberg sidles away like a scorned dog and you’re left adrift in the incoherent urban trialogue around the former DMZ. Confusion extends to the culinary offer, which mysteriously includes a “Fresh Salad” amongst the more orthodox hot specials of “Spicy Sausages”, “Börek”, “Toast” and “Athletes Breakfast”. But fear ye not, a “Normal Breakfast” is at hand and everything is guaranteed “Fresh, Crunchy, Daily”.

Which cannot be said for this woeful stretch of ’stro, which has been folded back by a measure equivalent to the stretch of cobblestones thus revealed. The chairs and tables remain neatly confined by the grassy-verge (safely zoned), but the characteristic jaunty bollard bears witness to an inadequate negotiation between flexible and non-flexible materials.

Whither, Gemütlichkeit? Alas, not here.

Luckily “Hotdrinks” are on offer, and you can grab your “Coffee togo”.

Astroturf Gemütlichekeit Collection

Ladies with Skylight Windows

By   ∕  15th Apr 2015

Aesthetics of Survival ∕ Conspiricy Theory ∕ Domestic Landscape ∕ Eurotrash ∕ Spiritual

Recently, whilst researching building materials for an upcoming commission, my colleague mentioned something curious: that there was a discrete aesthetic inherent to the visualisation of skylight windows.

An extensive, multi-language image-search turned up the goods. I did what any other self-respecting blurbanist does, and made a Tumblr for it.

At a guess, 98% of the images featured a female protagonist. The remaining 2% (which I discarded) included various combinations of women depicted within the nuclear family unit, or lone men shown installing the windows. The women in these images appear inside the home, although one or two show woman on the threshold, caught somewhere between interior and exterior. Mostly we see bedrooms, but home-offices, kitchens, bathrooms, stairwells, and even laundry rooms are the spaces which seem to benefit from natural overhead light. Occasionally the skylight-ladies are tasked with some menial domestic task, but mostly they are captured at leisure: some cook with a friend, some lie around reading, some tend to pets or children, some meditated or do yoga. But the vast majority stand at the window and yearn. The yearn is interesting, for it suggests that the skylight window isn’t the sole focus of desire, but the means through which desire is projected outward. Sometimes the yearn is wistful, sometimes intensely introspective, occasionally it is comically euphoric.

The window is presented as a kind of altar, or a looking glass. The light from above represents an ascension – should the window actually be breached – with the woman moving from the confines of domesticity out into the broader world of imagination. The window is a variable membrane, a filter: when closed it becomes an image of the exterior, a promise of something other. When opened, it is a portal fraught with danger: located on the roof, a fall must surely follow an attempt at escape.

The interior is no less fraught with danger, for the images exclude any other means of entry or exit. In one, a banister hints at an adjoining stairwell; in another, a doorframe in the background is obscured by a large plant. The female figure is trapped within the confines of an imagined room, and the camera frame ambiguously defines its extent as a superposition between the fiction of an unbroken spatial continuum, and the strict limits of the picture plane.

The images are uncanny for their inadvertent recreation of an archetype from the Victorian novel. D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow frequently portrayed women standing at windows, gazing outward towards the horizon, and forward through time and down the generations where personal fulfillment might be eventually lie. But the images also recall Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s 1979 feminist reading of the Victorian novel, The Madwoman in the Attic, which takes its name from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, in which Bertha Mason is kept locked in the attic by her husband Mr. Rochester.

The perpetuation of such images by the marketers of roof-windows indicates that some societal tropes can be passed down from one generation to the next, pretty much unamended, like a dormant virus waiting for a new host. Either that, or window manufacturers have recently started hiring literary scholars.

Ladies with Skylight Windows

Line Drawing

By   ∕  7th Apr 2015

Dérive ∕ Miscellanea ∕ Objects ∕ Space Frames ∕ Weather

Ed Ruscha

Ed Ruscha – Your Space on Building (2006)

Christmas Eve. A bright, freezing day. Sunlight is valuable. Up the mountains we go. The destination is the peak of Annaverna, where there is a large antenna, which is just visible over the crest of the hill, right of centre.

distant annaverna

On the way up, we pass a dolmen and (in background of picture) a circle of standing stones, arranged in alignment with the western sun. But we suspect that these are in fact recent (19th century?) reconstructions of prehistoric megaliths.


We leave behind this cosmic calendar, however ersatz, and set our sights firmly on the omnidirectional antenna, also a keeper of time and time signals.



The windspeed climbs and the temperature drops with almost every step.



As we approach, the wind makes it difficult to hold the camera steady. We can no longer hear anything. The total noise of the wind blasts our eardrums.


At the top, the whizzing food-mixer noise of the vibrating guy lines adds itself to the din. But the view rewards. Leinster meets Ulster, Republic of Ireland meets United Kingdom (for the time being, at least). The landscape is divided, Ed Ruscha style. The guy lines produce a strange foreshortening. The mountain becomes comprehended as so many data points, subject to transmission. The perspective both plunges and remains resolutely inert, as in Ruscha, the portraitist of axonometric captialist infrastructure. We are totally alone. It is so cold, we can spend no more than a couple of minutes here.


Then all of a sudden a car drives past very slowly, a few feet behind us. It simply appears. A four-wheel-drive American-style pickup, its fat tyres clambering carefully on the line of loose scree that until now we had regarded as a path and now we see is an access road for the maintenance engineer. Is that an open glass bottle on his capacious arm-rest, where his elbow rests, his wrist poised? Is he drunk? It is Christmas, after all. His supervisor won’t be checking up on him today. May as well enjoy the shift. He gives that part-hostile, part-condescending look that outdoor workers give to bourgeois nature enthusiasts such as ourselves, or that people like us interpret in that way as part of the broader outdoor experience. You know nothing, says the look. And you are fools to stand out in that wind when you could be safe and warm in your car, and a little bit drunk too.

Either he is some evil pixie of capitalist efficiency, maintenance and technics who patrols the area, frightening the easily-frightened passerby; or he is a freelance weirdo. He smiles enigmatically, a little crazed, a violent guardian, in his element. In my pocket, my fingers want to take out my one-eyed spirit-stealing light-capturing time-stopping juju. But what would this threatening spirit say, think, feel and – worst of all – do if I photograph him? I cannot take his picture.


A couple of hours later, we’re back on parental duty, patrolling the local playground. The warm winter sun is setting. I call the kids. Soon it will be so cold, we can only spend a few more minutes here.

Modern Façades Today, Now #007

By   ∕  31st Mar 2015

Damage fetishism

How to extract the “good” from the goods? The goods are, in their very essence, “good”. The Old High German “guot”, meaning favourable – that which is virtuous and desirable – seems bound to the saleable commodity by virtue of etymological lineage. We can retreat further, to the proto-Germanic “gōdaz”, itself related to the strong verb “gadaną”, which in turn stems from the proto-Indo-European “gʰedʰ”, meaning, “to gather, to unite”.

This entrance to a subterranean loading bay behind two local supermarkets represents the point at which gathered and united goods are broken into lots for consumption at point-of-sale. Difficulties at this crucial point of transition are rendered legible by modern construction materials, and highlighted by multiple layers of repair.

Successive attempts by goods vehicles to penetrate the market have resulted in scars of various kinds: the dint and gash at the initial corner, the chafing at the bollard and door-frame, the grazing and sooting of the ceiling.

The architectural body, bloated by a layer of functional/decorative Polystyrol blubber, has tightened its orifice in an act of defiance. The point of ingestion seems to find the regular feeding repellant. The procession of deep-frozen pizzas, of processed, pre-portioned microwavable ready-meals and sugar-based soft drinks has neither the virtue nor the desirability promised by the good of the goods. The etymological lineage breaks down at the gates to the market, traditionally, too, a place of judgement, justice and control.

Modern Façades Today, Now


By   ∕  23rd Feb 2015

Buildings ∕ Field Trip

A couple of weeks back, myself and Mr Miller went to the Domestic Relations Court, Tempelhof-Kreuzberg, on a combined architectural field-trip/canteen-lunch. It was built between 1993 and 1996 by the late O. M. Ungers, who died in 2007. Ungers was a man who loved the square, the cube, the square, the cube, the square, the circle, but mostly the square. Elementary forms, which I imagine he got spiritual kicks out of. The court building is no different. The square is everywhere. Most obviously on the façade, whose mathematical rigour manages to unify rhythmic variation and unity, and even a wee joke. Personally, I was expecting a grim, soulless place, void of character or nourishment. But that only really applied to lunch itself, and not the building lunch was prepared in.

The canteen is open to the public, and is on the fifth floor. It has a terrace, but it was too cold to use. This was going to be a joint rambling account written by myself and Mr Miller, and illustrated with sub-standard, mobile-phone snapshots. That only partly holds. Mr Miller’s punishing workload as manager of Nalu Diner, means he has scant time for the generation of words. I hope I can come close to encapsulating the shared spirit of our Unger-encounter. You are kindly asked to note that my own snapshots make liberal use of the ‘square’ function on a decrepit iPhone 4 hand-me-down, as well as the popular ‘smeary lens’ function, which is not an app. It’s smear.

That big grid of windows is actually quite clever. Two columns of 3 x 3 windows. Two columns of 2 x 3 windows. And one column of 1 x 3 windows. It adds up to another big square.

The cassette ceiling is a nice classic touch. Mr Miller in foreground, pondering the wisdom of lunch.

The chairs were very uncomfortable, due to their low backs, which are also segments of a perfect circle, containing a square seat. They’re probably like this to stop the court staff from loitering over their pork steak and thawed deep-freeze veg.

The tables were square, and gosh darn it, so too were the pink doilies.

This can happen to the best of them. I wonder how many more they have in storage. Come to think of it, are they custom-designed, or off the shelf?

Outside on the roof terrace.

Mr Miller gets ill props for recognising that the white square was a lamp. And he also ‘disovered’ their cubic twin on the inside of the stairwell. Nice touch.

Mr Miller flicked one of these with a deft digit, to make sure it was made of glass, and not plastic. Glass it was. They don’t make them like that any more.

Just look at that hand-made sign. Just look at it.

OK. This is where things get a bit Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Cute bench. Looks like it was made for toddlers. But it was roughly adult-sized. Also, our first encounter with the 100-hole air-vent.

Square signage. Things are getting a bit anal-retentive now. But I still reserve special admiration for Ungers’ persistence. Did I mention that the ceiling vents in the canteen were also …

Awesome with a capital OMFG. Presumably an emergency exit for some as yet unknown, square-based catastrophe. Take a look at the arrow: it’s half a square.

This fourth-floor atrium is where members of public arrive by the lifts. So it’s a kind of reservoir for people transitioning from the general to the specific. It’s where Mr Miller and m’self both began to feel that Ungers had cracked it, and really showed that he knew how to make ‘human scale’ architecture (squares). I felt very at ease in the space. Almost welcomed. That’s a rare thing in municipal buildings. Especially German ones, which are designed to make you feel tiny and alone in a hostile universe in which 99.999999% of everything is lethal to humans.

Where the waffle and upholstery arts meet, and make sweet waffly love.

This room was intimate and solemn, but light and optimistic.

A coat stand.

Loved this little anteroom. How long could I stand waiting here? Oh that I knew. Just long enough, one hopes, to count all 200 square holes in the vents. But no longer.

That tea-room icon is the best. It’s a square. With a circle attached to it.

The stairwells were swiftly dubbed “squarewells” by Mr Miller and m’self. They were positioned at the extreme ends of the building on its outer corners. Light could enter from two sides. Also very ‘human scale’: the stairs are just wide enough for two-and-a-half humans.

This shot was done without thought, but look how everything aligns within the central window.

I think I’m going to wrap this piece up by throwing in some pictures of foods I’d liked to have seen in the canteen.

That is all.