Infrastructure + Interstice

Architecture has become increasingly marginalized and distanced from its role as an aid to humanity and society in the last twenty years by responding primarily to the demands of the market. It may therefore be useful to shift our attention to the public role of the architect by (re)defining ‘value’ in the built environment. If we are to assign ourselves to a redistribution of the design process that may build upon a platform of local needs via global networks, then the indeterminacy of interdependent economic, political and cultural systems should be embraced, rather than ignored, to enable suitably elastic design strategies to respond to the dynamic conditions of urban landscapes. The potential to develop an adaptive system to address the multi-scalar characteristics of cities may offer the urban, whether local, national or global, to emerge as a hybrid of topological and topographical relationships thereby providing a more comprehensive integration between digital networks and the physical urban landscape.

Toyota’s driving simulator (2007). Where virtual and physical collide.

The constant modelling (read: mapping) of existing systems does not necessarily make future predictions a certainty. Perhaps one of the main stumbling blocks here is the attention lavished on ‘form’ rather than ‘systems’ which has to date resulted in a preoccupation with objects rather than infrastructure. The role of infrastructure is often viewed as the primary area of investment for governing bodies in the development of cities around the globe. With the increasing urbanization of the physical landscape, infrastructural development is perhaps the key defining feature of this landscape with the attendant capacity to integrate, or negate, territories and stimulate social, economic and cultural activity.

Cactus mobile phone mast being installed.

The dissolution of space and the latent regulatory landscape, that define our urban environment, serve to demonstrate the polarization of architectural extremes and characterize the current condition in the production of architecture; the unregulated (pop up shop, temporary pavilion, favela, street food, illegal trading) and the hyper-regulated (transport interchange, school, data centre) . The transition from architecture as mediator of the ‘city’ to architecture as mediator of the ‘urban’ has already occurred. As the order of space, light and form has ceded from the production of architecture it is possible to describe a situation wherein the projects that successfully negotiate infrastructure and the urban condition can be seen to exemplify this shift. OMA’s entry into the competition for Parc de la Villette, Foreign Office Architect’s Yokohama Port Terminal and Zaha Hadid’s Phaeno Science Centre, function successfully within the supermodern image-sign-object schema but also transcend notions of the city by engaging with infrastructural urbanism. These building types and projects may come to represent the new dynamic of urbanism in the context of architectural production.

Yokohama Port Terminal. Foreign Office Architects (2002). Infrascraper.

Originally coined by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki in 1964, the term ‘megastructure’ was defined as a vast frame in which the many functions of a city could be incorporated [1]. Subsequently popularised by Reyner Banham through his book of the same name in 1976, the term has evolved to describe repetitive systems that enable a high degree of variation to occur, and recur, as a response to programmatic and contextual requirements. Perhaps, therefore, the transformation of the public realm is not one of erosion but of (re)distribution of its spatial and social properties. Rather than referencing the former exemplars of architectural history, this new domain may be found as being intrinsic to infrastructure IE we have moved from the piazza to the platform as a collective place. This appears to be borne out by the provision of programmes like meeting spaces, food courts and shopping arcades in train stations for people who may not even be using the transportation network. Considered in this way, the commodification of public space by privatized organizations may actually be seen to have reignited urban space rather than be the ‘Junkspace’ it is often perceived as.

Hauptbahnhof. Berlin.

Atelier Bow Wow’s Made in Tokyo alludes specifically to this condition, using a taxonomy of ‘un-designed’ hybrid buildings to reveal more about the nature of Tokyo as a city of flux, where no building is greater than fifty years old. In Tokyo, as with Los Angeles and Las Vegas before it, urbanists can locate a specific characteristic of city, which provides an amplified version of a generic condition, in this instance: temporality. The numerous examples of low-tech hybrids that combine infrastructure and public space are evidence of this transition from materially bound ‘city’ production to network bound ‘urbanism’. These buildings that negotiate their spatial limits in the pursuit of functionality do so in the manner of an intervention, their form is an explicit dialogue between programme and available spatial envelope.

Pet Architecture. Occupying the interstice.

The negative space that is the very product of our progressive society and its infrastructure finds itself as the only physical niche available for expression and this type of intervention can be seen to be reflective of and challenging to the orders of society and space. Reactionary, parasitic, mutable and networked are all characteristics of actions that inhabit the interstice and of the built manifestations of global brands and idioms that form our cities by consumption; the parallels are as evident as the paradox.

[1] Maki, Fumihiko, Investigations in Collective Form, A Special Publication Number 2, The School of Architecture (Washington University: St. Louis: June 1964)

London heliport

Part of our research recently has involved the story of the development of inter-city helicopter travel in the UK during the 1950s. As such we have been trawling the collection of the National Archives at Kew. One informative document we have come across concerns the proposed siting of heliports (helicopter stations) in the capital, 1961. (REF:DSIR 23/34668)

Amongst the proposed sites are two for the area around Nine Elms Lane, precisely where yesterday’s tragic collision occurred. There are many reasons for the non-arrival of mass inter-city helicopter transport, but safety was one of the big issues, particularly around the heights of structures in proximity to landing sites, as the splays superimposed on the plan below suggest.

One of nine proposed sites in the report.

One of nine proposed sites in the report.

plaza in space

Here at [Re_Map] we’re not just about future visions and computation and an interesting exchange with a historian of technology this week brought together some thoughts, conversations and recent archive footage, of which we had been in receipt, to make this rumination. The historian in question had been to visit RAF Barnham where the Blue Steel nuclear deterrent was stored until 1963. His observations included one concerning the plan of the outer perimeter that had unnecessarily assumed a pentagonal plan, a type of fortification that stretches back to the C14 to contain C20, state of the art, weaponry. The point being that the act of ‘design’ in technology can be seen to be frequently referential to earlier forms and methods, as some sort of default and even in the most extreme of circumstances.

Much has been made, in architectural circles, of ‘interactivity’ and of designed ‘intervention’ in the public realm. One has to ask is this at the expense or in lieu of ‘decoration’? There has been a physical and metaphorical ‘flattening’ of the city in its vertical plane. Relief in facades, over the course of the twentieth century, has diminished, though depth has not necessarily receded in the same way, as new double-skinned solutions emerge to try and affect climate change and carbon reduction. Interactivity in material and built terms is often an applied surface with a variety of environmentally responsive reactions that may include automata, light or sound and in all probability began to emerge from museum display and theme park technologies. The augmenting of reality with some new form of audio-visual encounter that crosses the real-virtual divide is a difficult territory to discuss critically in a blog post – the question as to whether it is even worthy of discourse would have to answered first; are these types of experience in the public realm simply ‘entertainment’? Should we expect the continued Disneyfication of reality as we continue to be great consumers? The role of the ‘image’ in the urban landscape is also an essay in its own right, these are not questions to be answered here.

More exactly here is the fact that ‘interactivity’ and ‘responsive art’ is not new and attributable to the rise of the Arduino and other prototyping platforms. The cyberneticians of the 1960s were all investigating such and the Jasia Reichardt curated exhibition of 1968 at the ICA is now seen as pivotal in bringing together creative from various disciplines around the ideas of interactive, generative and responsive art. Somewhere, amidst the maelstrom of unfettered creativity that seems, from this distance, to characterise the late 1960s was an artist known as William (Bill) Mitchell.

Bill Mitchell explains the setting for his illuminated art on the narrow side of Piccadilly Plaza in Manchester.

Mitchell doesn’t classify himself as an artist, in his words, “I’m a doer, I like doing things, making, and art gave me the opportunity to do that.” His output from the 1950s onwards was prolific and he pioneered new techniques in casting, blasting, moulding and formwork using concrete, plaster, glass, ceramics, rubber and other self-prepared compounds. It is this large scale and ‘machined’ art for which Mitchell is most well known, but his sparkling imagination would not confine him to ‘sculpture’ in the conventional sense (despite his unconventional approach), he found himself concerned with the “brashness” of applied illuminated advertising in places like Piccadilly Circus and set about finding a way to control the arrays to combat the pollution by disorganised agglomerations of neon. He set his sights on the growing tower of Piccadilly Plaza in Manchester, eventually subject to a suitably futuristic marketing campaign which saw it branded as the ‘Hotel in Space’. Footage sent by Mitchell to [Re_Map] shows him describing the context in which the new building sits as being formed mostly from a “bus station and lots of extraneous matter like trees, not very good trees”. He wanted to develop a design for a “flexible, sort of piece of drawing paper, that you draw on with light” that would cover the entirety of the narrow side of the new tower and would face Piccadilly Gardens.

Text from publicity brochure for Piccadilly Plaza. Held at Salford Local Studies & Archives.

Mitchell’s own working model of sensors and activated bulbs.

The 300ft x 65ft façade was to be covered with 16,000 photoelectric cells in panels each of 11ft in height to align with the floor-to-floor dimensions of the tower. The photoelectric cells when subjected to a signal, in this case light, would activate bulbs in a panel of a different scale, but the same gauge; there was a sensor for every bulb.

Mitchell stands in front of a full scale mock up panel. The model on the left is a scale model of the tower and the small white rectangle represents a single panel.

Mitchell was as much an inventor as a designer or artist and in his studio he mocked up a ‘Heath Robinson’ version of his idea using a  “home movie outfit” and sensors and circuits he had put together himself as well as a full scale mock up panel and models of the building.

The footage shows Mitchell explaining his role and that he then “had to get somebody who could put two wires together”. That someone was “Mr. Parker”, though we never discover where Mr. Parker came from. To produce a picture they needed to generate half tones using thyristors on the circuit boards, it was this sort of knowledge that Mr. Parker brought to the project. It is unclear from the footage whether indeed this was a commission to build or to experiment or just something that the energetic Mitchell decided to do. The conclusion of the footage states that the developer, Bernard Sunley, has yet to decide whether or not to stump up the £180 000 required to realise the dream – obviously he turned it down. It is also not certain whether the lights would be in lieu of the circuit board relief panels that were eventually used on the end walls of the tower.

Mr. Parker demonstrates his more sophisticated model that can produce half tones.

The possible application did not stop there, architect Gerry Matthews of Covell & Matthews thought that Blackpool promenade would be the ideal location for a similar set up based on two screens and outdoor amphitheatre adjacent the promenade. At the new Curzon Cinema in Mayfair Mitchell switched the light sensors for audio sensors and generated kaleidoscopic ambient projections that were years ahead of their time.

In this short film is encompassed a mass of ideas and latent commentaries that are contemporary in the twenty-first century; the notion of brand and its impact upon the city, the idea of reactive and responsive environments, the role of art in the public realm, kaleidoscopic urbanism and electronic art to name but a few. Mitchell is an intriguing character who is currently penning his own biography and this will undoubtedly yield more evidence of the innovation embodied in his practice.

punctuate by gersham

This is one of those things that we met during our research for the pending book Urban Maps, but it never made the cut.

Sourced from the early web based graf site n-igma by Dek. He didn’t know then and we don’t know now; who and why?

All that can be said here is that type characters and the space between is/was a distinct counterpoint to graf that conventionally is about fills and coverage. Obviously type and fonts have a history in graf, as Steve Powers states, ‘The first time I saw somebody paint their name as a font, it was SANE, and it was a complete shock’ (interview Jan 2010)

Most of all… we like it.

anti-graffiti and urban scars

The notion that a graffiti artist allows the space within which it is contained to define the scale and form of their letters is easily identifiable in the practice of many artists. The limits of space and the limits of their bodies are often cited in texts as these are typically art history constructs which allow academics to place graffiti neatly into some skewed western tradition, thus increase its acceptance as an art form as one which may be part of a contemporary discourse. Scouring the early entries od Momo’s blog led to an introduction to Fred Radtke, who seems to have considerable notoriety in the US as a vigilante graffiti remover. Unsanctioned, but tolerated, Radtke will answer calls from the public and paint over graffiti using his trademark grey paint, he is commonly referred to as the Grey Ghost. He is not consistent in his chosen tone of grey and an extended ‘dialogue’ on the same wall over several months between Radtke and his opponents can result in some interesting abstract compositions. The irony that exists here is that Radtke does not distinguish between illegal and legal graffiti and has landed himself with a $20,000 fine after controversially painting over an officially sanctioned ‘artwork’ by UK pretender Banksy. The ‘pieces’ themselves have a minor discourse with urban space, the morals and politics surrounding the activity are impassioned, but incidental to the accidental emergence of anti-art-art.

re_map does not condone the work of Banksy in any way shape or form.

Images are from various Flickr accounts.

Abstract Motion No.1

Abstract Motion No.2

The solution, the problem, neither or both?

interstice and residue

The C20 art and social theory concerning ‘the everyday’ precedes and overtly informs the architectural fascination with space now defined as ‘interstitial’ or ‘residual’. Lefebvre, Lyotard, Ruscha, Smithson and Baldessari all played their part in exposing the mundane and banal and subsequently the specifics of the spatial orders of capitalism.

Niche space, leftover space and blurred territory are all by-products of urban policy and processes; motorway junctions are particularly explicit providers of well defined residue, space without programme. Below is a copy of an article from CTRL_ALT_DELETE, a small fanzine out of Sheffield, by the author of Autotoxicity. The piece, M1 – part one (Hostile Environments) is about living in the space carved out by the motorway junction where the A1(M) meets the M18.

Business, science and office parks at the periphery have their own brand of broad delineating fields of thorny soft landscape gently interspersed by mesh fencing, vast tracts of this boundary condition consume our edge cities as a mediator between security and greenspace policy.

Recently, Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates project has been brought to the authors’ attention from a host of different sources. He bought up 15 plots that were remnants of land deals, the carving up of larger sites or slicing through sites with pieces of municipal infrastructure. These were usually pieces of land that would be considered useless in development terms, but clearly the process of their creation fascinated Matta-Clark. The City of New York auctioned them for apporximately $35.00 each. GM-C only had the opportunity to document the sites through assembly of the title deeds and a physical and photogrpahic survey, before moving on to alternative projects. This is said to be symptomatic of the man who lived out his art, acting as quickly as he was thinking and sometimes thinking and acting before he had concluded his thoughts! The work was uncovered by GM-C’s wife after his death and caused something of a stir amongst those who had already selectively categorised and packaged the artist as “the chap who cuts holes in buildings”. This work challenges the notion of the grid as organising device, indeed almost celebrates its ambivalence, it usurps the architectural ideal of the grid as a rationalisation of space and presents its irrationality upon its confluence with policy. Pamela Lee discusses this work, with others, in Chapter 2 of Object to be Destroyed. The work was re-investigated in 2003 by the Odd Lots project shown at the Queens Museum of Art and White Colmuns.

Video stills from a 1975 video by Jaime Davidovick with Gordon Matta-Clark shot on site during the project.