Saturday, May 30, 2009

Thrilling Wonder Stories: Speculative Future for an Alternative Present

Of recently with a lot of time on my hands, contemplating the future (mine and my design career's) is one of the luxuries that my unemployment status entertains. And now that I have jumbled together words like future, design, contemplation, etc with the cunning use of commas, it would be worth elaborating on The Thrilling Wonder Stories ,a symposium co-ordinated by Liam Young (AA INTER 7 / Tomorrow’s Thoughts Today) and Geoff Manaugh (BLDGBLOG). The list of Speakers was:
1) Geoff Manaugh
2) Peter Cook
3) Vicktor Antonov
4) Squint Opera
5) Ian Macleod
6) Nic Clear
7) Jim Rossignol
8) Warren Ellis
9) Francois Roche and Stephanie Lavaux
Consisting of collection of presentations, interviews and group discussions chaired by Geoff Manaugh of the BLDGBLOG. I had the opportunity to see the first 6 speakers talk on the relationship between the built environment, architectural design and speculating the future through the medium of images, movies, gaming environments and literature.

(seminar poster from the AA website)
Geoff Manaugh with his extremely fertile mental archive of things big and small, of cities, images, translucent concrete, living glass, interview with Lebbeus Woods, Science Fiction of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Étienne-Louis Boullée's Cenotaph for Newton to SMLXL was able to vividly lay foundations for the intent and direction the discussions of the day would assume. His pitching the idea to a predominantly architectural audience as need for Architecture (which as a field strategically positions the architectural community to dwell within mixed careers) to mutate through the recession and create alternative careers, according to me was a very encouraging start.

(image from Design Museum website, Archigram section. The image was done by Ron Heron)
There could have been no better person to talk after such a talk than Peter Cook, the pioneering spirit of Utopian futurism within Archigram. Having heard his talk before, most of his presentation sounded vaguely similar, with borrowings of personal experiences, Avante Garde Radicalism and last but not the least Gossip. But he made one very interesting point, he said "the architectural profession has a moral responsibility of provocation, pushing the boundaries of our field and if it isn’t that, we can all just leave it to the computers and go home to do something more rewarding". Here what interested me is not the provocation and radicalism part but the possibility of leaving everything to the computers. I remember few days back when my friend Kostas was talking about a Utopia where what would it be if we could leave everything to the machines and could there be a society that did not NEED to work but CHOSE to work (or not) in what interests the 'spirit' (?). Peter Cook's advocacy for radicalism though encourages experimentation, it also tends to ascertain radicalism as having an aesthetic rather than a theory, and by complete coincidence it seems to be along the lines of Archigram.

(one of the stills from the animation Renaissance, from Vicktor Antonov's website)
Vicktor Antonov's ideas of designing Fantastic Capitals of Urban utopias, their representation through different styles of renderings and infusing the geometry of design with layers of multiple subjective perceptions was quite interesting. His intention to capture the spirit/rhythm of a city through renderings that do not actually correspond to a particular city geography or do not hint any urban landmark but just get the image of the city, was also quite an interesting exercise. Inspite of him coming from a background of graphic design and gaming, he made points that were clear, precise and extremely structured. He explained his methodologies for speculating future utopian geographies as adding "What if..." within the historical narratives of the past, present or somewhere in the future, (with some interesting examples provided by Geoff with regards to mutational moments in time or material revolutions) that allowed one to imagine multiple parallel strands of realities...what if the Romans had structural steel? opening up whole new possibilities to envision Roman Architecture and its implications on the present. His examples of his ongoing animation project The Prodigies and already released movie The Renaissance are something that I would like to follow up on when I do get an opportunity.

(Book cover of Song of Time authored by Ian Macleod for which he received the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2009, sourced from his website)
The next speaker Ian Macleod's talk on the difficulty of writing about the future and science fiction today was the point in the seminar when the conclusions actually started forming a more comprehensive and realistic structure. He said the utopian spirit of the past allowed for writers to write and readers to 'buy' into ideas of cheap space travel, cure for diseases, eradication of poverty and mankind finally having solved the energy crisis and settled in a state of equilibrium with nature, but the future has become the present and now we see most of the predictions have not been met, this is a future that readers don’t buy into today. His exercise of writing science fiction with kids proved that most future predictions were dystopian Ballardian visions. But none the less he did take efforts to end his talk on a positive note as he read a text written by student which ended with..."But the moon is not that far away..."
Nic Clear who teaches at the Bartlett, (this is when I realised the difference between the undergraduate and post graduate programmes) according to me was an absolute star in the seminar. He was the one who actually anchored the future speculations into the present by talking about the methods of production of spaces and how architects today have rather aggressively embraced capitalism. He spoke about the architect's future being completely utopian not as a matter of belief but more out of a need to sell. On the other hand the writer's speculations of the future tend to balance between being utopian and dystopian, like J G Ballard's writings (here is a very good interview with Nic Clear by Ballardian).
Squint Opera who came after Nic Clear being an agency that works towards making happy-pink renders exquisitely done for the architect and his clients, turned into one such example of what Nic warned about! And their defence seemed to be "it depends where you look"...
The seminar was inspiring and very well co-ordinated, it encouraged people to think and formulate their ideas for "What if" interventions within design (a field that has no boundaries and can flow through different disciplines assuming different forms of media)...and it just might be that even in these difficult times, we can say to ourselves "the moon is not that far away"...

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Mapping information

(image from Guardian, and found posted on Francesco Mugnai's blog which also contains other diagrams that are as interesting and varied in terms of the data and audience)
Going by the present day complexity of information, and the datascape born out of such vast information-static, it isn’t surprising that info graphics / data visualizations have become important fields that take up the responsibility of dataxonomy of this networked society.

(Facebook's friend wheel application generated my social network)
The diagrams are maps of information, relation and network of different things communicated based on easy readability of graphics and ability to generate clear analysis, for example the Facebook's friend-wheel application created by Thomas Fletcher, which uses links between various Facebook profiles to generate a diagram that shows various 'friendly' linkages within your Facebook-social circle. If one adjusts the outcome to be shown as a heat diagram one can see which of your friend is friends with maximum people in your circle (besides you, some do get confused with that).

(Greater London's Spatial Accessibility Model developed by Space Syntax)
The applicability of data visualization on the built environment has very well been proved by the growing demand for GIS software but one such practise that is able to actually use this empirical data for analysis and logic of intervention is Space Syntax started by Bill Hillier in 1970 (through a research programme in the Bartlett, UCL). Space Syntax uses on ground data of pedestrian-vehicular movements, frontages, road widths, landmarks, etc to create diagrams of accessibility, efficiency, crime etc. This spatial analysis gives rise to key challenges for the intervention and also ability to test the design through simulated data tests of the new circulation and behaviour the intervention would generate.

(Mark Lombardi's Sociogram pencil drawing found here)
In the field of Arts, I found some interesting work by artist Mark Lombardi (1951 - 2000) which deals with Sociograms of George W. Bush, Harken Energy and Jackson Stephens (drawn around 1999) as neat pencil drawings of network that connects global capital, oil and weapons trade, backed by loads of research and access to information that he was able to enjoy as the curator and director of museums and general reference librarian for Fine Arts department in Houston Public Library. The work is clean and extremely powerful, no Meta narratives or any post-structuralist abstractions of angst ridden paint strokes but only clear objective information map. But this does not mean there is no space for subjectivity, the subjectivity comes from the choice of subject and the logic of graphics selected to communicate a singular clear analysis.

(print spreads from Jonathan Jarvis's The Crisis of Credit Visualized animation as available on his website)
Another name that comes to my mind is of Jonathan Jarvis an interaction and media designer, whose video The Crisis of Credit Visualized as explained on his website, "distils the economic crisis into a short and simple story by giving it form. It is also argues that designers have the ability to see a complex situation, then turn around and communicate it to others. By giving graphic form to the credit crisis, it becomes comprehensible. Not only do economic activities take shape, but new relationships can emerge between these shapes". For people unclear about the credit crisis and animation lovers alike this video is a very good watch. The no frills simplicity maintained in the animation reminded me of the good old days of Doordarshan educational animations like Ek Chidiya, Simi Machli and Tree of Unity cartoon that spread principles of socialism.
In Architecture work by OMA & AMO on different global statistics, networks and diagrams is interesting and the data represented is able to build an interesting picture of the world we live in. But I am not sure if the Post modern point of view to pollute the structural dialecticism is out of choice or just out of need of Rem Koolhas's practise.
As my sense of affiliations constantly sway between need for subjectivity (as in my previous post on Peter Doig) and objectivity in my present post, I feel it even more important to be strategic about these two 'weapons of choice' based on the context that we seek to intervene in. Ofcourse these two polarities are constantly polluting each other but the consciousness of the nature of final result as being objective with certain subjectivity or subjective Meta narrative based on certain universal objective truths is an important choice. It is about knowing if one wants to author A City of Slums or a Shantaram. But with cities and our struggle to map them we can never be sure...

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Buried Treasure of Bomb Bay

Around 1940 two men Madhukar Vaidya and Pandurang Achrekar worked at the Bombay Docks. Every month they brought back with them their nominal wages and loads of stories to their families. Port stories of smuggling, tax evasions, fire and many more, of this geography that got touched by vessels and ships that came from far off magical places. These stories were passed on from them to their children and finally inherited by the grandchildren. One such story that I had vague memory happened to resurface in Suketu Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay lost & found. A story which grandfathers working at the docks unfailingly describe to their grandchildren as the day it rained gold bricks, the day of SS Fort Stikine (14th April 1944). Mehta describes:
“The disaster of the Fort Stikine is with us still. Bars of gold from the ship were being found as late as the 1970s, during dredging operations at the docks. But there was a mountain of more base debris from the explosion, and the British municipal authorities chose to create a landfill out of it. They started filling in the Back Bay, where the mangroves used to be, in what is now Nariman Point..."
Thus the raining gold bricks from Fort Stikine laid the foundations for the development of highest commercial real estate rental space in the world (1995 @ $175 per square foot or $1880/sq. m.). This was also a point in time when the War actually touched Bombay, as it was the smuggled ammunition/explosives cargo that caught fire and was responsible for such a big explosion. My grandfathers described this incident to me as experiences at ground level, which I tend to imagine with sepia tints, of the sound, the smoke, the debris and most of all the gold & silver. For me this is one of the very few stories where personal, urban and global histories collide into a single narrative of conspiracy, buried treasure and everything else that makes cities & its people
...And to this day somewhere in the water lies a buried treasure waiting to be discovered by the brave soul who can swim through human faeces, industrial waste, Ganapati clay, animal carcasses, plastic bags, feathers, dead beggar and other day to day things that we choose to avoid direct confrontations with.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Bombay Meri Jaan

Las Meninas: I lived in Bombay for 25 years or a fourth of a century, in units of historians for whom time and space have to be encapsulated in magnitudes that allow for comprehension of change, like the slow motion capture of movement of plants by David Attenborough. My visit to Bombay after almost a period of two years is like a stop motion animation that simulates movements through the recording of frames of differences, between what was and what is, with me constantly collecting differences in the name-place-animal-thing and everything else that changed or moved. A new building along the corner, a redevelopment of a club, a new gate, new shops, lesser trees, more dust and everything as aggressive as it is supposed to be in this city exactly the way I left it. When I was away from it, I lived in its nostalgia, romanticizing the informal (which I believe is our only way to reconcile with exploitation so obviously before us and our helplessness to do anything about it), talking about The Alternative (our only sense of hope and redemption, hinged on a typology detail.... takes me back to my school days) and schemes, strategies and tactics (our means of avoiding direct confrontations and giving Guerilla warfare a bad name); but now the brackets seem to antithesis the words, like the thin layer of heat-dust that seems to bother me where ever I go, my very own, personal spores of blame.
Maybe I am in a state of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas where the mirror keeps switching the object, artist and the observer, mixing subjectivity and objectivity into a yin yang polluting every argument, rhetoric or fact that I knew. But as John Berger (Shape of Pocket) puts it, the best paintings are the ones where the artist and the object fused together into an inseparable mass of narratives, maybe these blind spots within my experience of Bombay may provide for some new method/perspective of mapping.
Mapping: While I am on the topic of mapping, the predominant nature of interventions being carried out within Bombay’s academic circles seems to be of mapping, if mapping is indeed an intervention (I have begun having my doubts about that). Like multiple individuals with different cameras with varying focal lengths, zooms, filters we continue to map the city from various vantage points, some through our professional sphere and some as a personal indulgence, but we map, tirelessly. The data gathered in the Mumbai Reader alone is more than enough to provoke all sorts of interventions, but unfortunately through fire and floods we wait with expectations and nothing happens. The maps form an archive and the archives a museum, with no repercussion within the context that we map so tirelessly.

In this city, mapping seems to be a tool to keep 'thinking' interventionists pre occupied through strategic deployment of culture capital and prevent us from getting militant! (This too is a fucking joke, when it comes to the bourgeois, holding candles, flowers and hands like a bunch of fools, appropriating Gandhi as and when possible. Like Zizek explains Gandhi's tool of Non-Violence for those times and situation was extremely violent, it WAS very much an intervention that made a DIFFERENCE. Today it has turned into a circus). If the exercise is mapping for the sake of mapping then it is a different issue, but if not then I strongly believe we need to know why? And who is the audience? Or else it is just a process of intellectual bartendering of theoretical - cocktails and circulating knowledge within restricted social circles, with mapping reduced to an exercise of creating aesthetics rather than a tool of active intervention (maps created by the Situationists). At this point in time, I believe we desperately need something new…

Mumbai Reader: Talking about new... after coming home I saw the copy of Mumbai Reader (UDRI publication), it was at least 6 times fatter than what I was expecting (which in case of books is a good thing), but I just couldn’t help but notice every article, every paper clip being a well articulated rant, furnished with excellent data and concluding with the most elaborate declarations of helplessness by Architects, Planners, Social scientists, Lawyers, Political activists etc. Makes me wonder if we are always going to be helpless within our professional spheres or is it that someday we may turn into Arvind Adiga's White Tigers, born just once per generation a rare spectacle! But all this militant revolutionary spirit aside, the Mumbai reader looks very promising. It has some clear articles with on ground conditions and concerns, written by people selected due to their expertise in a particular field and not necessarily because of their linguistic or theoretical manoeuvrability, so most articles have a ‘reporting’ flavour. This according to me is a good thing, as for everything else we always have the Delhi reader.

The paper used for the reader as well as the overall dimensions are just right, it looks good and reads well, but once in a while I wonder why is it Mumbai Reader and not Bombay Reader (stamped "read Mumbai where Bombay" just like in government documents that required to be changed).

Map: On one of these days, while surfing through the net, I came across a Mumbai train map like the London tube network diagram. This seems to be a clear indication of the expansion of Bombay city as imagined by the government and the global-powers that are facilitating it. Clearly Bombay is going to be 'under construction' for atleast a decade. I don’t know how inserting so much infrastructure is ever going to be possible?

Cable TV: After a really long time of not having any access to TV, I was relishing the idea of surfing through thousand cable channels and watching TV, lying immobile for hours with my retina basking in the light of the tube. But unfortunately that wasn’t the case, I just couldn’t relate to TV any more, not even information and News channels. I feel never before has Bombay been more in need of thousand cable channels than right now. The TV is a machine in itself that compensates for everything that the working class here needs/desires.
It is Space: Lush gardens, foreign locations, bungalows and constantly renewed extensions to the private homes that watch it, like a small shack in a slum, an apartment house in Bhayander, a terrace flat on the 21st floor in Bandra. Like a small window aligned along a wall or splayed along the corner, it creates new spaces within homes of families mesmerized by the electronic light that is deployed to entertain illusions of life. It is the classic virtual Recreational Ground, much required in a city that has lost most of its open spaces. This space is the Garden, the Theatre, and the Circus - heterotopias balancing the city of discontent.
It is Surveillance: If London has its CCTVs, Bombay's Panopticon turned inside out -the TV belittles all forms of social control through a fantastic inter-pixilation of entertainment and self surveillance. Here all narratives across channels have the capacity of assimilating the flickers within society and plot against anyone trying to break away from this Rooster's coop. Here the Law brings every murderer to justice (and with a commentary by a really scary voice), Companies promise gifts of chance (and you may just be the lucky one!), Sports turn into Gladiator matches (opened just to distract people from fall of the Senate/Democracy) and women, children and men from good families suffer from guilt due to their wrong doings.
It is Religion: Like Nietzsche's Master-Slave morality, every character is ascertained as being heroic or villainous based on the difference of morality. Master (the villain) morality weighs actions on a scale of good or bad consequences while slave (hero) morality which weighs actions on a scale of good or evil intentions. This good slave morality preached by every religion- ‘opium of the masses’ now has a new Adhan and Altar- the TV.

Elections: The only thing that I did or rather could watch on TV was the election politics that had reached its final frenzy as the day of counting approaches. With electronic voting machines, a budget of over Rs. 1,120 Crores (election expenditure) and a massive population, this election was a spectacle in itself. Advertised as the opportunity to make a difference (15th opportunity mind you!) by celebrities, believers and non-believers alike practiced their right to Indian Democracy. Meanwhile the 'wooing' and 'mud slinging' by the future representatives of our country had the strength to completely nullify the pro active campaigns by the media like Bleed India and Jaago Re and encourage a few thousand more to dwell in apathy over the state of affairs. But the overwhelming majority which the UPA received was quite surprising and to some extent a positive development.

House on a Hill: One of the highlights of the trip was a long drive to outskirts of the city a trip to my father's utopia- his farm house, an orchard and lot of sun. The drive was very nice with me noticing the new 'interesting' things, photographing trucks, rickshaws and trees as they had never existed before. After the aggression, heat and dust inflicted by the city, this was a good space of refuge, where I could wander around aimlessly, photograph farm-flora & fauna and laze around reading, while my father played out Charles Darwin to every shrub, tree, plant and bee that had evolved in his path. He was happy here, making it a point to personally introduce me to every member of the plant kingdom with its characteristics, growth and sometimes even spiritual classifications. I duly photographed each specimen and asked inquisitive questions.
Meeting my family after a long time was like recharging my sense of hope and belonging. But sometimes I do feel a certain sense of urgency with regards to making it big and getting things right. Meeting up with friends was good. Met up with Prajna, Rupali, Prasad, Ranjit, Mukul, Rohan, Kiran, Vishal and Siddharth...all of them having been there for me through good and bad times in my life. I have realized there are no real choices in life, but only an illusion of having choices, all roads lead to the same place, a place where free will is a farce. With sophistication, most deviants have been institutionalized and the city sterilized. Probably this is the time that we from collective turn into individuals struggling separately in our individual “Pursuit of happiness”...or maybe all of this is not true, its just the personal spores of blame...
Salaam Bombay.

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Work in Middle East

The work in the Middle East is a constant process of reconciliation, between concerns of the local context and an extremely aggressive global market, between the client and the designer and finally between conscience and needs. The practise of design becomes even more amplified, where one has to come to terms with the inherent disjunction within the practise of designing the built environment and attempt to construct imaginations that become the very representation of this reconciliation.