Saturday, July 25, 2009

Map maker's Archive of Urban Dreams

(The city of Saintes, France drawing by Joris Hoefnagel, 1560, in the centre of the city marked I. one can see the Saintes Cathedral or the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Saintes before going in state of ruins later)
Before Rene Descartes' Cartesian co-ordinate system secularised space along the three axes of sterile certainty, the task of mapping cities in the Early Modern Era was encouraging city maps being conceptualised as collages of spatial experiences, bird’s eye views, mental maps, landuses and also sometimes a calendar of day today/ seasonal events.

(map of densely packed Cairo, admitted to Matteo Pagano, 1549 showing the agrarian canal irrigation network from the Nile, the Pyramids and the Sphinx to the right and if one zooms into the far left just where the river forms a delta island one can even see the Nile crocodiles)
The foreground usually had the citizens/nobles/patrons of the map looking towards the city. The surrounding context of the river, sea, fort wall and the ports was drawn with intricate details not only to communicate but also assert identity.

(map of Bordeaux by Antoine du Pinet, 1564)
For people who derive pleasure in going through detailed old city maps, I found an online archive of mostly European cities (though you may find Goa, Istanbul, Cairo and other exceptions) published between 1572 and 1617 in volumes titled Civitates orbis terrarum edited and engraved by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg. The Archive allows searching a map by geography, dates and even by map makers. The maps are available for download in high resolution format (the ones I have used are low resolution preview quality), which is really good and are mostly copyrighted to The Hebrew University of Jerusalem & The Jewish National & University Library. A link above on the same page takes you to the Historic cities: Maps and Documents main page but the Braun and Hogenberg branch is the most elaborate one.

(The map of Venice admitted to Bolognino Zaltieri, 1565 is one of my favourite, showing details of water and land circulation network. I am not sure, but I believe the map also through the roof colours demarcates residential and public buildings)
The Venetian Canal system, the Pyramids of Egypt, the settlement along the Nile, the agrarian plots, the fort walls, streets, naval ships, and every house in the city drawn in axonometric grandeur to enable an observer a glimpse of cities in their nebular stage of development.

(map of Rome admitted to Pirro Ligorio, 1552 and 1570, showing the public buildings and the fort walls)

Friday, July 17, 2009

Les Machines

(Vladimir Gvozdariki's rhino kept reminding me of Albrecht Durer's rhino, so thought I should put the two together)
Every now and then biologists discover strange-new, never before seen animal specimens (my personal favourite being Macropinna microstoma) that have evolved in isolation from rest of the world and challenge taxonomical tables through their glass tentacles, sonar vision and telepathic brains. I have come to believe the same being true of Russian artists who seem to do their own thing untouched by global rhetoric art, making drawings and artwork that have reference points within their introvert floating islands.

(some very beautiful drawings by Vladimir Gvozdariki from his website of machine animals that seem to come out from some Industrial utopian world.)

One such newly discovered specimen is artist Vladimir Gvozdariki whose mechanical animal drawings continue to intrigue me. Like the animal machines of Les Machines de L'Ile Nantes the drawings seem to graft mechanical details to appendages, eyes and metal plates that form the skin.

(Vladimir Gvozdariki's drawing of elephant with a photograph of the Great Elephant of Les Machines de L'Ile Nantes in London. The Elephant Celebes by Max Earnst is one such drawing that collaged the animal and machine together in surreal dreamlike world)

The machine becomes the animal, as if the drawings mirror Rene' Descartes’ Animals are Machines, that further blur the dialectics between nature and machine.
Another artist fusing animals and machines is Mike Libby whose website "Insect Lab" describes its work as "Insect Lab customizes real insect specimens with antique watch parts and other technological components. From ladybugs to grasshoppers, each is individually hand adorned, and original- a unique celebration of the contradictions and confluences between nature and technology." But coincidentally these speculative futures and art projects seem to have just been appropriated by the US military attempting to develop "insect cyborgs"! Somehow some very powerful entrepreneurship always have a knack of destroying everything beautiful and putting it for sale on E-Bay.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Black & White inspirations for a Graphic Novelist: Brodsky, Utkin, Urbicande

Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin's paper Architecture was first brought to my notice by my friend Sahil who happened to have this book. The pair created very detailed conceptual etchings between 1981 and 1990.

The drawings are very beautiful, story like, with details and narratives both designed with poetic rigour. The drawings are one of the best examples of work that manages to retain its sense of beauty, poetry and everything subjective inspite of its objective intent to critique the then existing architectural trends during Brezhnev in Soviet Russia. There is a very nice writeup about them and their work by Kim Bennett that I found here.
Though not completely connected the dystopian visions and the nature of narrative remind me of small fragmented description I came across of a Belgian graphic novel series The Obscure Cities with one of the titles being La fièvre d'Urbicande.The city's introduction by the creators François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters is:
"This city might have been called Florence, London or Mostar, but its name was Urbicande meaning City of Cities.
It spread out on either side of a broad river where two townships had long developed separately, their independence tinged with mutual suspicion. On the more prosperous south bank was Bartoline; on the gloomier and more deprived north bank was Urania. A ferry was the sole link between the two.
It was shortly after the construction of the first bridge that the two communities decided to unite. The Commission of High Authorities watching over the destiny of the new city set out to rebuild everything on completely new principles.
Absolute trust was placed in a young architect, Eugen Robick. He drew all the plans, designing the tiniest details with the same enthusiasm as the widest vistas. But these grandiose works, although they made the name of Urbicande famous throughout the continent, sharply accentuated the contrast between the two banks.
The north bank slumped into direr poverty than ever, while on the other side the wildest rumours began to spread. The Commission of High Authorities feared looting and placed traffic across the two bridges under strict control. Urbicande’s two halves became two distinct towns once more, with almost no contact between the two.

Who knows what might have happened had the city not been turned topsy-turvy by the colossal development of a cubic structure (known afterwards as the Urbicande Network). The original cube had begun growing in Robick’s own office and multiplying as it grew. Neither the arrest of the Urbatecht nor the canon shots fired at the Network could stop the continued expansion of the gigantic structure.

Only on reaching the north bank did the Network become stable, as inexplicably as it had begun to grow. Crossings over it were wary and few at first then ever more numerous. Atop the verticals overhanging the river beat the city’s new heart — and to the deep despair of the Commission of High Authorities, Urbicande soon became known as the City of a thousand Bridges."
Similar to Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, the two Russians (Brodsky and Utkin) and two Belgian artists (François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters) designed dystopian narratives and images of cities shaped by multiple palimpsest of histories that allowed design to adopt different trajectories of the urban form. Maybe the current global economic and environmental crisis carry promises of inspiring newer forms of urban fabric on paper if not in practise.
Great work, one cant help but be inspired.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Lets get Steampunked!

(English artist Alex CF's 'inquisitor' eyepiece which belong to a series of mechanical devices based on writings of Jules Verne and HG Wells)
With mankind's sudden discovery of environmental conscience over the past decade, heightened by apocalyptic zombie laced dystopian visions of dying mother Earth, sustainability has become the new post-political world religion. Humanity already running late on the 2001 Space Odyssey schedule and having no scope of space-escape, its has become even more urgent to engineer a more balanced retrofitting for the climate that so badly needs to be managed into obedient submission. Presently most nature & god fearing nations (even the middle east) having expressed their desire to shift away from fossil fuels and towards more greener technologies, we can expect a planned 'rehabilitation' if not an electronic revolution. But I believe like many other products even this green technology will manifest itself through economic hierarchy, like organic-inorganic, leaded-unleaded, tap water-mineral water and finally electric solar powered and steam-punk! Steam punk is a science fiction sub genre that speculates on alternative reality where steam power and mechanics most often styled along Victorian Industrial aesthetics is the predominant technology used in day to day life. Anthony Lucas's 'The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello' with its exquisitely detailed animation (you can find a good description of this one on Lines and Colour blog) or Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy are some examples that employ the steampunk genre of conceptualising the environment. Due to the high cost of solar panels, Windows programming and Apple motion sensitive microchips that can detect smell, water, missiles and dust particles this part of technology will be affordable to a selective few (who can afford to be fashionably green with matching emeralds and jades) while the rest of the majority will certainly revert to steampunk technology.

(Steampunk watch by Cabestan Watches, their website also has other alternative designs)
My personal bias towards this genre is due to its easy readability, as if however technologically sophisticated mechanics gets one can see the moving parts and understand what moves what and how each part influences the other, like opening up a watch and being able to understand the gear box.

(model used in the 2002 Time Machine movie)
As if technology has been made open source with different people adding and subtracting making changes, customizing their own computo-abacus and not requiring Windows Vista Firewall anti piracy programmers.

(A robot from the Golden Army from Hellboy 2: The golden army by Guillermo Del Toro)
I also like the visual richness the representation has with mechanical details that stand proof of its workability and also in some cases the choreography of all these parts together in the manner of old industrial Victorian machines with brass knobs, glass lenses, silver chains and wooden programming plates etc. Bjorn Hurri's revisualization of Star Wars characters, Stephen Rothwell's strange surreal collages, Lawrence Northey's playful sculptures, to some extent Arthur Ganson's Kinetic sculptures etc are some of the many artworks that derive inspiration from this genre.

(An artwork named 'The Fishing complex' by David Trautrimas, whose this particular series named Habitat Machines includes a composition of everyday objects carefully arranged and collaged within a background to distort their scales and make these household objects appear to shelter the house. Though the artist does not confirm to steampunk, his work comes very close in terms of its visuals)
Few more years and soon it will be time to start pedalling, running, skipping, turning and arm oneself with kinky accessories all in the name of sustainability! I don't know if mechanization of technology will actually democratize it making it more accessible and comprehensible, but if we miss this speculative future and gears turn little wrongly we might even find ourselves pedalling electricity for ourselves and the Bank. Boom! boom! boom! row your boats!