This indagine lentissimo into lawn-like ground coverings is in no way constrained to the grimey confines of Berlin. And in case a quick peruse of our archives might lead you to believe that Astroturf deployment is limited to workaday eateries unencumbered by an aesthetic education, you would be quite mistaken.
FLFL, Skånegatan, Stockholm
Here in the Katarina-Sofia neighbourhood of Stockholm, we find that Astroturf is predestined for hipster re-appropriation. How can we be sure that hipsterism is a factor? By being mindful of Freud’s narcissism of small differences and how they might apply to consumer culture. An aggressive investment in the specificity of detail in order to assert a superficial sense of uniqueness over the general, is the underlying mechanism behind all hipsterism.
We can see it at work here, at FLFL, where vowels have been cast aside, lest you imagine you’re dealing with some run-of-the-mill falafel joint. And we see it also in the four-step instructions which defy comprehension, on how this particular establishment handles the routine of seating and serving its guests. Salad should be collected first, menus obtained, dishes selected, table numbers noted and orders submitted at the counter. Expect to be ostracized for any deviation. You will be escorted to the door, and ejected into the gutter via the unfurled length of green carpet and black braided rope, reserved for anti-celebrities, it seems, and installed as an insincere debasement of the common by inverting rituals reserved for monarchs.
I recently toppled off the edge of the above ramp, built for wheelchair access to my local drug store. It was one of those anti-heroic moments, where for a split-second I pictured myself caught freeze-frame, arms flailing in an attempt to restore balance as the ground teetered beneath my feet. I stayed upright, but at the expense of my foot, which suffered a nasty inverse strain.
I sought help from an orthopedist whose practice is wedged into the first floor of the Axel Springer Passage, a warren of carpeted offices and small businesses arranged around six cavernous atriums. The complex culminates in the golden, 1960s-era headquarters tower.
Peronœus brevis: ramp challenged (Image: Henry Vandyke Carter – Henry Gray (1918) Anatomy of the Human Body)
“Estragon, sitting on a low mound, is trying to take off his boot. He pulls at it with both hands, panting.”
The orthopedist practice is actually one of many doctor’s surgeries, arranged around the periphery of a glass-roofed garden. It is the waiting room to further waiting rooms: an interior exterior; an inter-terior; an extra-terior, or maybe an infra-terior space designed to resemble a lacklustre park, caught in the never-season of a machine-regulated anti-climate.
The steely clouds of Berlin scud by overhead. People drift here, into Röntgen’s purgatory, as leaves might if there was wind. Like an absurd scenographic reinterpretation of Waiting for Godot, the low mound which accommodated Estragon in Beckett’s play is rendered as red-brick intarsia: a suggestion of topography where there is none. Estragon is preoccupied by his boots. I tighten the velcro of my Aircast® Airgo™ ankle support. A foot seeks contact with the earth. We wait.
A comic aside in a future screenplay describing the social history of the smart-phone would show how, for a brief moment at the dawn of the post-human era, its functional value was unexpectedly boosted by its being mounted onto the end of what was essentially a long twig: the proto-tool of ancient primates which begat all human technologies.
Tourists at Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
The selfie-stick is an extension of the post-McLuhan arm, and on its end – depending on the preference of the contemporary primate – one will find an Apple, or other pendulous fruits of our labour; a succulent Samsung, a fragrant HTC. The tree bearing these fructus (let’s not tread far from Latin roots which talk of use, benefit and enjoyment), sheds them each season, but their function is fulfilled during their fall back towards the earth: the dispersal of seeds across a network, reconstituted into texts and images by distant devices, and planted in fertile minds beyond the glassy medium of a reflective screen.
Etruscan mirror, late 5th-early 4th century B.C., Dallas Museum of Art
The smart-phone on a selfie-stick is an Etruscan mirror for the networked self. Made from highly polished bronze, not glass, the Etruscan mirror was simultaneously a story-telling utensil and a means to review one’s own gaze. Scenes from Greek mythology or religious accounts were often depicted on the rear, just as the iPhone bears the symbol of original sin, hewn from its case by the divine light of a laser. Crucially, the Etruscan mirror was slightly concave: when held at arm’s length, it would have reflected much of the head and torso whilst positioning the user’s reflection within a wider scenery: the self framed within a landscape, and – flipped around – placed in moral relation to a mythical continuity.
A reflection in the Etruscan mirror would have been yellowed by the high copper content of the bronze alloy. The self-portrait in the screen is represented by the indifferent disposition of pixels. Neither is a true image: more a fleeting expression of the device’s materiality. The selfie-stick’s trigger is mounted where the thumb would have rested on the wooden handle of the Etruscan mirror: at the point of fulcrum. This configuration ensures a stable image, but now issues a command for the gathering and dissemination of evidence. The mirror stage confirmation of ego is re-fragmented into an imaginary of the body as binary information, and condenses in the memory banks of Instagram’s server rooms.
Memoria, the fifth canon of rhetoric, deals with the recalling of accumulated arguments. The 80 BCE text, Rhetorica ad Herennium, calls memory “the treasury of things invented”. The reconstitution of the body as a framed depiction is a rhetorical act of (self)invention: an argument made to assert the ego in time and place, confirmed by a distributed audience with a “like”. The capture of an image is latter-day kairos (καιρός), the right or opportune moment, seized in order to drive an argument home: for Aristotle, the time and space context in which proof is delivered. Metadata – date-stamps and geotags – are the aristotelian treasury of Instagram: a gigantic machine for the defragmentation of self, for the collective identification with, and the memory of our specular image.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Berlin developer’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.
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.