Sunday, November 30, 2008

Computer Love

(Image: Hans-Peter Feldman via)

Liz Jobey's article in The Guardian on the photographs of Hans-Peter Feldman - collated sets of random pictures including women's knees, aircraft and mountains - struck me as having a pertinent relationship to Owen Hatherley's recent excellent post on robotics and repetition in modernity and to recent conversations regarding iconic architecture.

Feldman's bound collections of found photographs intentionally remove the hand of the author from the artwork and mimic the processes of both industrialism and media reproduction. As Jobey points out Feldman's books have been linked to the work of other artists, most notably Ed Ruscha, whose early work included collections of photographs entitled All the buildings on the Las Vegas Strip and 26 Gas Stations.

The idea of the series and the cataloguing has a well established history within contemporary art. Like many of the tactics of contemporary art though it has made little or no impression on the practice of architecture. In fact, architecture has remained wedded to the very ideas of authorship, signature and personal style that were critiqued by artists like Ruscha and Feldman and indeed Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and many others.1

(Image: Ed Ruscha: 26 Gas Stations)

It has long struck me that although art and architecture are routinely spoken of as close cousins, their similarity might actually be a convenient fallacy. Perhaps this sense of shared endeavor was true for the early part of the 20th century when architects were genuinely involved in radical artistic and social experimentation. Since then architects and architecture schools have remained in thrall to the idea(l) of the artist as heroic visionary without taking very much notice of what artists have actually been up to.

Architects - the servants of venal commerce and pragmatic clients - long for the status of artists and their associated freedoms. In doing so they have adopted the cliches of the artist long since subject to internal critique by artists themselves. The artist - heroric, individual, brilliant, unconventional, possibly mad - is the highly attractive Other for pragmatic, sensible architects with their knowledge of net to gross ratios and Part M compliant toilets.2

Those architects that operate at the more rarified end of the industry (Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Daniel Liebeskind etc) are those that also have status as artists. In architectural circles what sets them apart is their highly developed personal language, a unique signature style that is the unmistakable product of their authorship. Their work is commissioned precisley for this quality, frequently as iconic signature buildings competing within a global marketplace.

Interestingly, for all those architects the importance of their authorship has been established via non-architectural means, something that establishes them as quintessentially 'artistic'. For Hadid it was her paintings, for Gehry it was his rough cardboard models and for Liebeskind his intense early drawings. These artefacts are vital in establishing the high art value (or what Walter Benjamin called the aura) of what they do. The task of their offices then becomes the ability to reproduce these visions at full scale as perfectly (i.e. closely) as possible. As Robin Evans has noted, this process reached an apotheosis of sorts in Co-Op Himmelblau's 1980's/'90's work, where the practice's de facto leader Wolf Prix literally drew a sketch with his eyes closed before handing it to his office to develop into a building.

(Image: from Daniel Liebeskind's Chamberworks via)

The irony of this - and of architectures adoption of the tropes of abstract expressionism in general - is the utter lack of similarity between the singular object of conception and the resulting building. Or, put another way the translation from one to the other is slow, tortuous and the opposite of the artistic 'freedom' that the original is thought to posses. Incredibly precise and powerful computer technology is now required to recreate the hand made spontaneity of the original artefact. That Frank Gehry's buildings are still seen as embodying the loose, chaotic feeling of his models - and thus his authenticating signature - is extraordinary given that they are actually the product of large teams of anonymous technicians realising them through an industrialised process. Not to mention the demands placed on engineers as a result of the irrational design process.3 Gehry's office now supplies the computer modelling technology that allows other architects such as Hadid to realise their complex visions.

There is a further irony. The value of the icon lies in its singularity, the fact that it looks like nothing else. Through its remarkable originality it is meant to transform its surroundings. And yet it has to appear a recognisable product of its author. A branded product. Architecture has taken the idea of heroic originality and the singular mark of the genius and industrialised it. Perhaps, after all, it has learnt the lessons if not of contemporary art then of the industrialisation that inspired it. It may have missed the demystification of the analogue cut and paste series but it has embraced the formal possibilities of computer modelling. By doing so it has produced collections of self-similar objects that claim uniqueness. In an age of mechanical reproduction the architecture work has retained its aura through a perverse elision of the hand-made and the digital.

(Image: Gehry Technologies Parametric Modelling Application via)

1. The closest this process might have come to architecture is in Dan Graham's series of photographs entitled Homes Of America. Interestingly, Graham cites Robert Venturi in his book Rock My Religeon as undertaking similar catagorisations of American housing in the architect's studies of Levittown. Vebturi, of course, borrowed heavily from Ed Ruscha in his Learning from Las Vegas work so perhaps there is a post in there suggesting some architectural uses of series and analysis after all. Probably best to leave Venturi out of some posts though!

2. There is an excellent book, sadly out of print currently, by Andrew Saint called The Image of the Architect in which he looks at the various myths of the architect's personality.

3. Interestingly this has given rise to a new figure, the star engineer such as Cecil Balmond, as famous as the architects he works with. Peter Rice, the brilliant engineer of the Pompidou Centre, was alleged to have said that he liked working with Zaha Hadid best because she had no interest at all in structure and thus gave him the greatest challenge and the most freedom.

No comments: