AMONGST THE THINGS WE’VE FOUND WE MADE
Introduction: Review Venice Architecture Biennale 2014
By leaving the Exhibition message open, by avoiding an explicit predication of the future, and by removing architectural composition or the making of enclosed space we are left with a peculiar taxonomy of architecture.
This approach has more in keeping with Michel Foucault’s Order of Things than Le Corbusier’s and the modernisms attempts at defining Type or Ideal. As such each Element description is embodied in numerous layers of meaning, they register simultaneously as object, commodity and actent and have begun in many instances to display post-human traits. Of course this can be said for almost any object in the world. By taking the Elements which range from the ephemeral notion of ground depicted through Ramps and setting them against thick assemblages such as Escalator a distinction is made between Architecture and Art Object. This is particularly important given the state of current materialist theories, which oscillate between the commodity as base material reality and the emergent collectivist, actor network operations found in conditions of Scarcity.
Taking a Neo-Materialists approach to the thing of which it argues that Commodity as thing presupposes its material manifestation and setting it against the work of someone like Tim Nugent a campaigner and active maker of Ramps for enabling access to buildings suggests that in Architecture there are moments when social ideal come before the Commodity. This is perhaps one example of the difference between the Art Object and Architectural Element Object. Even in a post symbolic city Ramp communicates and negotiates between parties representing otherness as both as actent and metaphor of freedom. Ramp is the ultimate Un-Readymade Architecture; Ramp is a readymade solution but its ideals transcend the notion of Commodity embedding itself as an ideal of our experience as citizens. The idea of Ramp exists as something before it is materialised through an assemblage of commodities, even if, as Nugent demonstrates through his own activities of making, it is assembled from standardised units of lumber.
One of the realities presented by the Elements Exhibition is the notion that no new Element has been invented since the Escalator in 1859.
Perhaps without coincidence Godfreid Semper while in London during a period of exile from the city of Dresden due to his Republican standing, produced his treaty “The Four Elements of Architecture: A Contribution to the comparative Study of Architecture”. It consisted of Hearth, Wall, Terrace and Roof: All four are included in the Biennales Elements Exhibition. He left out the all mechanical Elements available to him Elevator and Toilet. Sempers text published in 1851, coinciding with Romanticism and the Industrial Revolution, set out to define the core elements of Architecture and to offer, a way towards, a general theory of Architecture. Returning to the primordial evidence of inhabitation5 Semper identifies the Hearth, Mound and Roof as being the fundamental elements of making habitable space producing both shelter and social agency. The carpet and the weaver take a prominent position in the development of Sempers argument for the four elements.
Semper begins to compare a topological connection between the weavers found in early society, the making of heterotopic microcosms found in the imagery of carpet; proceeding to argue that the relationship between tectonics and ornament is played out in the development of Wall, Floor and Roof. “Hanging carpets remained the true walls, the visible boundaries of space. The often solid walls behind them were necessary for reasons that had nothing to do with the creation of space; they were needed for security, for supporting a load, for their permanence, and so on.5 Semper elaborates this argument through the text connecting the cradle of civilisation, Mesopotamia, Egypt and eventually the production of the Greek temple as a continuum that finds architecture linked directly to the birth of democracy. The survey sets up the logic for an argument for combining Industrial modes of production with symbols of direct representation democracy. In a synopsis he offers advise on how to build in different climates, including colour pallets, with how one might guild a piece of Ironwork7: How to treat an Iron Doric Column?
Sempers as with Corbusier discuses the engineer/weaver as the writer of the code for the advanced woven assemblages that make up much of our encounter with architecture. Where Elements have been captured or brought into being by mechanisation and electronics we can see how Floor, Escalator, Elevator and Ceiling share similar topological traits, and in this sense take on Sempers observation of the superstructures supporting the weave. From the Elevator section we encounter the Otis horizontal Elevator capable of moving up a shaft across a courtyard to another building set against the development of moving shelving units in a modernised distribution warehouse in Floor. The latter utilising the horizontal nature of warehouse to allow for the shelf and its contents to come directly to the human. Interestingly the Otis Elevator chassis was never adapted to commercial use instead the Elevator chassis was adapted to playing robotic football.
It is great fun to encounter some of these characters at the opening, (please listen to the interview on the digital media panels). Encountering the designers of the Elevator installation was a highlight of my experience, and a reminder to us all of how complicated it is to make space and how reliant we are on these silent partners. In these instances the Exhibition is a great success, even if they are short lived, lasting only for the period of the press opening.
Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture introduces the architect to modernism by showing a collection of Grain Elevators6.. While Semper talks of the City Hall, Corbusier starts with Grain Elevators and Engineers. The grain Elevator is the container of the yield of mechanical production, made of beautiful volumes, but it is also a refined piece of engineering, a moment when Architects are identified by Corbusier as missing in action. He asks us to contemplate our absence.
Post Industrial Silo
The Elements Exhibition opens with the element of Ceiling. Set beneath the dome of a recently restored fresco stands a mock up of a false ceiling with a fully loaded service space filled with shiny pipes and ducts. It is based on Michael Scott and Partners drawing of the proposed ceiling of P.J. Carroll & Company Limited a tobacco company based in Dundalk Ireland (a country that does not produce tobacco). The drawing appears in the Elements Ceiling7 catalogue. Much has been said of this service installation, which sits within a Meissen Steel structure. It is perhaps the most photographed Element of the exhibition, conversation has been orientated around the symbolic transfer from fresco to foam ceiling tiles. However, one might also read it is a replacement for the Grain Elevators situated at the front of Corbusier’s Towards a New Architecture. Here the service industry has been replaced the industrial silo as a way of symbolically representing capitalism and the Post-Fordist landscape of separated services and manufacturing.
Are we about to re-enter a world of symbolism guided by the coding offered by the universal reading of commodity-object?
A general critique headed by Reinhold Martin8 is that Real-Estate or Land is a missing Element. Much has also been said about the lack of a whole composition as Semper or Corbusier may have abdicated. There is no Enclosure for Semper or Type for Corbusier beyond the individual elements. The Elements Exhibition presents a dematerialised architecture, space as a commodity that presupposes Place and Land. The idea of space as a commodity finds itself manifest by mechanisms of universal environment management systems such as suspended Ceilings. These projected spaces, such as that of the speculative Office, exist long before they are given a real place to materialise in.
The entrance then is a suspended space of work without office chairs and tables. One might ask who is working under this Ceiling? There we are taking photographs, recording films and making notes about the office Ceiling that’s not a Ceiling.
It is our media that spreads the image of the Biennale and in this sense the space below the false ceiling becomes a type of factory that no longer requires a universal service void, the environmental network that allows information to move has become, as the Nest Thermostat would suggest, invisible.
In Ceiling commodity has been produced through the absence of Architecture. As Cognitariat we operate under this ceiling without desks, without boundaries, ambiguously treading between work, education and entertainment.
Following the logic of Nest the Element of Hearth/Fire has perhaps had the most product/things developed directly from our relationship to it. Ranging from BBQ units to Toasters: the hearth has been splintered into many different task specific products each one of them a financialisation of our sociological relationship to it. As it moved from grain factory to department store the Escalator began life as a machine designed to get the masses to a toaster. The invention of Escalator is a moment when Factory and Department Store simultaneously inherit a new architectural Element. Since this moment much like the Automobile all the Elements on display have gathered technologies of governance without morphing into a new Type. Taking Semper, Corbusier and AMO/Harvard we can start to see a trend in the documentation that supports the architecture survey narrative. All three works are a type of grand tour of civilisation, however the latest, the Elements, doesn’t break free beyond the distant survey. Even, if for a few brief moments, the fifteen accompanying texts peak inside the happenings of OMA. Set against the vivid and powerful documentary based examinations of geographic displacement such as Adrian Paci’s film “The Column” or Ramak Fazel’s documentation of Turin titled “The Business of People” shows how far Architects have to go to present an embedded view of the world. In particular the documentary style of Fazel’s work nits together a engaging story of how architecture has supported and represented inhabitation of both infrastructure and landscape. Here we see Windows broken by stones looking out across a territory that presents a dramatic connection between Labor, Industry and the Human condition. How can such moments of encounter produce a new architecture, a new architect? These questions are sorely missed in the Elements Exhibition instead leaving that responsibility to the supporting cast of the National Pavilions and the Monditalia.
Humour is used repetitively to produce a mythological reality by juxtaposing elements against unpredictable settings and landscapes;
Escalator to the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil2 or by including news print commenting on a collapse of modernity: “I SAW THE QUE OF DEATH” describing the London Underground King’s Cross Fire of 1987: “As it slowly ascended I could feel my legs burning…” Changes in the design of the Escalator post Que of Death meant that the stainless steel elements that replaced timber sections of the Escalators became the material that represents health and safety in public space. In this respect the Exhibition is a welcome development from previous expeditions into the activities of the Global Architect by OMA. CONTENT for all its scope, its plastic junk quality , and window into the movement from West to East, failed to engage its audience and as such lodged itself in Junkspace. The Elements succeeds where CONTENT failed. The exhibitions in general are thoroughly engaging consisting of, physical objects, mapping, documentation and digital content opening up the life of the Elements and our relationship to them as citizens and architects. In this sense Rem Koolhass Elements project feels as if it is in the realm of Richard Hamiltons comment on designing the consumer before designing the product to be consumed. Will this exhibition change the taste of architects, moving us from the glossy architecture pornography that adorn our coffee tables, towards a new taste for the agency of The Elements of Architecture?
When Rem Koolhaas states, “This time it will be about architecture not architects”, which architect is being removed from architecture? Is the AMO/Harvard architect they have removed singular, an architect that operates at the scale of the metropolis often remote, performing spatial manipulations at the distance of a drone, hovering, engaging, moving on? This is not the the Banal, it is an operation that uses the commodity image of the Banal to make itself relevant, pretending to operate at the level of the everyday, while existing in a stratosphere far removed from the points of its own impact.
Has the AMO/Harvard partnership offered us anything more than a prediction that the trend of splintering of Architecture Elements into consumable products and services will continue? No, but there is a familiar call to arms that we should devise strategies to work within the Commodity. Is this not at the foundation of the Modernist thinking, that in order to survive we must adapt to social and technological advancements? Architecture or Soft Revolution? Or perhaps we should look to reside in the Poché where space is so fractured; it has not produced a definable market?
1. Rem Koolhass, Elements, (Rizzoli International Publications 2014), Individual Edition, Escalator p.59
2.bid p. 56
3.Gottfried Semper, The Four Elements of Architecture and Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). p.102
6.Corbusier Le and Frederick Etchells, Towards a New Architecture (London: The Architectural Press). P.25-3
7.Rem Koolhass, Elements, (Rizzoli International Publications 2014), Individual Edition, Ceiling p.86-87