by David Byrne, 16 May 2008 NYTimes
I approached Bob Rauschenberg in the mid-’80s to design a cover for the Talking Heads record “Speaking in Tongues.” I had recently seen some of his black-and-white photo collages at Leo Castelli’s gallery on West Broadway and thought they were amazing, and I wondered what he would do with an LP cover.
It was not unusual for a pop musician to approach a fine artist in those days; other contemporary artists had collaborated with pop bands in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I was pleasantly surprised, though, when Bob, who died this week, eschewed simply reproducing a work on the album jacket in favor of re-envisioning what the whole LP package could be.
His package consisted of a conceptual collage piece in which the color separation layers — the cyan, magenta and yellow images that combined to make one full-color image — were, well, deconstructed. Only by rotating the LP and the separate plastic disc could one see — and then only intermittently — the three-color images included in the collage. It was a transparent explication of how the three-color process works, yet in this case, one could never see all the full-color images at the same time, as Bob had perversely scrambled the separations.
Needless to say, the design posed some production problems for Warner Bros. Records, so it ended up a limited, but very large, 50,000-copy edition, released in addition to the regular, mass-produced version. Luckily, everyone shared in the crazy idea of making radical art that could also be popular. Nowadays there might be concerns about the return on investment, but at that time the label let these matters slide.
I later became friends with Bob and his collaborators, and it was an incredible world to enter. I sensed immediately that Bob had never become cynical about his work. Even after he found success, he continued to see the world as a work of art that simply hadn’t been framed yet.
Bob’s way of talking was a challenge to many — he spoke in constant puns and metaphors, like a stream-of-consciousness poet, and one had to suspend traditional forms of speech, understanding and discourse and go with the flow. It was liberating, if you could hang in there, and never mundane. Conversation was like one of his pieces: a crazy mishmash of images, multiple layers and references, and a spray of allusions that were simultaneously silly, profound and beautiful — he was the Neal Cassady of the art world. His life, and his relation to those around him, was just like his work; there was no separation and he never went out of character. The love of the world that was in the work was also in the man.
Bob drank heavily. In the ’80s, I discovered him once at his studio on Lafayette Street, in mid-afternoon, with a glass of Jack in his hand. I, rock ’n’ roll guy, was amazed to see an established artist living one aspect of the rock ’n’ roll life much more intensely than I ever dared. I did wonder if some of the beautiful jumps and leaps in his conversation were partly alcohol-related, but his output remained transcendent, so I figured he was managing it.
Being around Bob was often like being on some kind of ecstatic drug — he inspired those around him to not only think outside of the box, but to question the box’s very existence. He was driven to challenge himself. For his globe-spanning project, Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange, Bob collaborated with artisans and small factories in Chile, China, Cuba, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, the Soviet Union, Tibet and Venezuela over many years. In pre-“it is glorious to be rich” China, Bob worked with the oldest paper manufacturer in the world, while in India he worked with mud-manure straw clay. Suspicious of Bob’s motives, some countries forced him to wade through red tape, and his open attitude toward materials and creativity occasionally confounded his traditional artisan collaborators. The results, though, were sometimes wonderful, especially when he managed to break his own mold.
Bob was extraordinarily generous. I don’t mean he gave away art — though he did that, too — but he was generous with his time and with his ideas and spirit. He started Change Inc., a foundation that awards grants to emerging artists who can’t pay their rent, utility or medical bills. No questions asked.
He was, of course, famous for making art out of everyday junk he found on the street. One summer I went down to Captiva Island, Fla., where Bob had his main studio. I stayed across the road in one of the houses he had “saved,” and I spent a week or so writing a few songs. When I returned to New York, I left behind a pair of worn-out tennis shoes. A ghostly image of them showed up in a painting not long after.
Bob’s generosity of vision was, it seemed to me, more profound than the financial kind. His openness and way of seeing was contagious and inspired others in their own work — not to imitate and make pseudo-Rauschenbergs, but to see the whole world as a work of art. As corny as that may sound, that’s what he sometimes did.
by Farshid Moussavi, The Architecture Review, 21 September 2011
There is nothing new about parametric thinking in architecture. Great architecture has always been aware of its societal role, and has consequently been informed by multivalent parameters. Parametricism with a capital ‘P’, on the other hand, dispenses with the hindrances of external parameters and promotes the autonomy of architectural forms. It promises to be a style that invents novel ways of shaping matter to produce unexpected spaces − more than often with dazzling results. Something is wrong, however, as every form emerging out of Parametricism is inexplicably (yet predictably) smooth and undulating, made up of small, gradually changing units. How is Parametricism going to keep its promise?
When I joined the Architectural Association in the early 1990s, John and Julia Frazer’s unit was the only one focusing on the processes of formgeneration (most others were investigating semiotic functions). Prefiguring Parametricism, their best students pursued a detached process of form-finding by writing new algorithms. Conversely Diploma 5, which I co-tutored, approached parametric thinking as a way to integrate formal experimentation with performative concerns − form derived from cultural, social and economic contexts. Students gathered information surrounding their project through fieldwork, before proposing a ‘program’ for generating form. The intention was to incorporate a discipline of analysis, avoiding form for its own sake. This necessitated establishing a correlation between a complex array of relevant external parameters through the architectural techniques of geometry and organisation.
As young tutors, we were accused of being interested in pseudo-scientific data, produced without any ideological stance. I remember inviting Peter Cook to one of our reviews − he was sufficiently offended by our lack of playfulness that minutes into the review he stormed out. Admittedly, Diploma 5 had its shortcomings − it was limited by Autocad and Microstation. The students spent so long gathering data that little time was left to run ‘programs’ again, in order to change how parameters were drawn together. The method was bottom-up, so students could only control the process and not the form resulting from it.
The world has moved on since our initial experiments with parametric design. It is faced with great problems defined by complex causes, all of which are linked. It is imperative that we cease perceiving architecture as only matter − a plastic art − and revisit parametric thinking after our distraction with Parametricism and its segue into formal extravagance. Architecture is a material practice, not a matter-practice. Once architecture is removed from the complexity of its surroundings, it freezes in time, while its environment continues to change. Architects must engage with the physical attributes that define these social and environmental parameters: climate and economics, wood and steel.
These ‘potencies’ must be considered as architectural material. Parametric software collates this material as parameters so that we can make formal decisions that are sustainable. With it we can design not only novel forms, but ones that, for instance, use less material in structural spans, render envelopes more energy-efficient, optimise seating alignments, fine-tune interior acoustics and make buildings responsive to their urban surroundings. Forms will be not be uniform (following Modernist ideals of efficiency) but optimised, differentiated, anisotropic.
Let ‘sustainability’ not be a safety-check on the architectural process, but a way to design. Today’s software empowers us to think transversally across design information and to make decisions based on the feedback loops between formal and functional relationships. Parametric software must be rescued from the enclosure of Parametricism − however spectacular its effects − and put to work producing intelligent designs that embrace the full complexity of our environment. It is too easy to use our frustration with Parametricism, or even the shock of the economic recession, to hark back to nostalgic and provincial Modernism. The world is too complex, its problems too pressing. The built environment and the cultures it embraces require parametric thinking that places material over matter.
Is artisanal Brooklyn a step forward for food or a sign of the apocalypse? And does it matter when the stuff tastes so good?
By Benjamin Wallace, NYMag, Apr 15, 2012
One afternoon last June, the quaint silhouette of a three-masted sailboat made its way into New York Harbor and pulled up at the Red Hook Marine Terminal. The Black Seal, a 70-foot-long schooner, had just completed a 3,000-mile wind-powered round trip to the Dominican Republic. There, it had taken on twenty metric tons of cocoa beans, mostly from La Red de Guaconejo organic-cacao cooperative, whose beans are said to yield chocolate with notes of “sweet pipe tobacco” and “Cabernet Sauvignon.”
The 400 bags of beans were headed for the Williamsburg factory of Mast Brothers Chocolate, maker of artisanal chocolate bars wrapped in gorgeous, thick paper printed with repeating anchors, Florentine swirls, antique bicycles. At first, the brothers bought off-the-rack wrapping paper at a nearby art-supply store, but they now design the patterns in-house and have the paper printed in Long Island City, and the almost-opulent packaging has been no small part of their success.
The boat itself was equally artisanal: It had been built by hand, over 25 years, in the Cape Cod yard of its captain, a man the Masts have called “an American hero.” One of the brothers, Rick, had stayed home from the trip with his pregnant wife, late in her third trimester, but Michael had been aboard the ship for the whole four-week journey from Cape Cod to the Caribbean and back. A lot of work goes into supplying Whole Foods with $9 single-origin craft-chocolate bars sprinkled with Maine sea salt, “created using solar salt houses” on “the mystic coast of Maine.”
The brothers both have magnificent Civil War–period beards. They grew up in Iowa and moved to New York to become a chef and a filmmaker, only to be waylaid by artisan dreams. When they speak of their chocolate, they’ll say things like it “represents more than just a candy bar; it represents a new way of crafting food,” and it embodies “a fiercely independent, almost Emersonian spirit.” In their shiny new 3,000-square-foot showcase factory on North 3rd Street, they feed their direct-trade cocoa beans into a custom-built winnower before milling the nibs in repurposed stone grinders. (They replaced an earlier blown-glass version of the winnower, fearing glass might end up in the chocolate.) There’s an upright piano in one corner for impromptu ivory-tinkling.
Touring the space recently, elder brother Rick, who runs operations, takes pains to point out that Mast Brothers is a bean-to-bar chocolate-maker—sourcing the cocoa, roasting it—rather than a mere chocolatier that outsources production. But if the Masts are Luddite chocolate-makers, they’re also figures in a very contemporary caricature. More than anyone else in the New Brooklyn artisan movement, they exemplify to an almost implausible degree the daguerreotype stereotype of the bristly hipster, in newsboy cap and tweed britches, pedaling his penny-farthing to a north Brooklyn industrial space to make handcrafted nano-batch sweetmeats. If you’ve ever wondered what a Christopher Guest documentary about Brooklyn artisans might look like, Google “Mast Brothers YouTube.”
Michael, younger, laconic, handsome, heads sales but leaves it to his big brother to declaim the company’s unimpeachable artisanality. As Rick explains, they avoid preservatives like soy lecithin, develop customized “roasting profiles” to bring out the unique character of each type of bean, and let their chocolate “rest” for a luxurious 30 days (makers of high-end dark chocolate believe this improves flavor). Their chocolate is used by chefs like Dan Barber and Thomas Keller and Alain Ducasse, but they do their own local distribution in the company station wagon.
“The restaurant and food industries have some of the gnarliest environments,” Rick says. “We’re trying to reinvent that for the modern world.” It’s a rather grand vision of chocolate modernity. In a back office, an employee sits at a computer editing a movie about the schooner trip. In another room, a man is hand-sprinkling that Maine sea salt onto still-soft chocolate bars. The wind-powered Caribbean sourcing voyage, arranged by the brothers as a kind of anti-industrial act, a proof that old ways could be made new again, was merely their latest, most exuberant step back in time.
The schooner is obviously great PR, not that the brothers Mast would ever put it that way. “We don’t have a marketing department,” Rick says. “We have an education department.” For a chocolate bar that has sailed into the hearts of urban sophisticates largely under power of its packaging, backstory, and media-bait olde-tymey-ness, this statement sounds like rank corporatespeak, but the brothers seem to earnestly regard their candy bars as a pedagogical tool. And the White Man’s Burden top notes aren’t limited to their org chart. They have the used burlap cocoa sacks sewn into tote bags, which they sell. There are 25 employees, most of them full time and each with medical and dental insurance. Capital and labor eat lunch together at a common table.
Listening to Rick talk, it’s easy to be seduced by the vision: a world, or at least a borough, where thousands of salvaged-teak schooners ply the oceans, or at least the Gowanus Canal, bearing Mason jars full of marmalade made from windfall kumquats. It’s like a child’s dream. The supermarket aisles are lit by Edison bulbs, staffed by scruffy men in butcher’s aprons, and stocked with cruelty-free dog food and hand-pulped toilet paper. But wait: Should the TP come from new-growth forests (more environmentally correct) or old-growth (more authentic)? Those lightbulbs are beautiful, but aren’t they inefficient? If small batch goes global, how will the idiosyncrat perform this pageant of superior taste? (By embracing Wal-Mart-scale production as a “retro” counterculture?) And is there really a mass market for $9 chutney? In other words, can twee scale? And if it can, and we do find ourselves hurtling toward this nightmarish Brooklandia, is it still okay to like those serrano pepper and “vanilla & smoke” chocolate bars?
*words from a Singaporean Yale student on the recent Yale-NUS controversy
By Ng E-Ching, Yale Daily News, 9 April 2012
Last month, the Singaporean student newspaper Kent Ridge Common published an excellent column by Koh Choon Hwee, who confessed herself bewildered by the “careless, generalized stereotypes being traded not only by students, but also by Yale faculty members — which seem to betray the very ethos of good scholarship.” She then asked pointedly whether Singapore should reconsider the partnership with Yale, “considering the quality of arguments proffered by some of her tenured best.”
I believe Yalies can think, but I can see why my fellow Singaporeans might suspect otherwise. The crucial problem is that Yalies and Singaporeans have fundamentally different assumptions about political culture.
Americans are outraged at certain Singaporean laws. Singaporeans just break them — and usually get away with it. Homosexual intercourse is illegal in Singapore the way underage drinking is illegal at Yale. The police have never bothered my openly gay brother, writer-activist Ng Yi-Sheng, despite his public gender-bending antics and book of coming-out stories with real names and faces, which became a Singaporean bestseller.
As for censorship, I read Wired’s description of Singapore as “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” in a high school class after the magazine was banned, and I later assigned the piece to my own students. There are guaranteed ways to invite trouble in Singapore, at least if you’re not protected by the Yale-NUS guarantee of academic freedom. But usually, where freedom of speech and sexuality are concerned, written laws and enforcement are very different things. It’s a bit cognitively complicated, but if we can handle that, so can you.
The Yale College faculty meant well when they passed Thursday’s resolution championing American-style political freedoms in Singapore. But — I hate to break it to you — our value systems aren’t quite the same as Yalies’. It’s hard for Singaporeans to imagine wanting the right to bear arms if it would mean worrying about getting home safely after partying all night.
Singaporeans ridicule the ruling party’s self-protective censorship, but when it attempted to liberalize film censorship in 1991, public outcry forced it to backtrack. Qur’an-burning is illegal in Singapore, and we like it that way. We prioritize our values differently, and different doesn’t mean wrong. At least, that’s what I learned from a Yale liberal arts education.
Unfortunately, nine years at Yale still leave me trying, in all sincerity, to understand the logic of well-meaning professors who say they support both Yale-NUS and Thursday’s resolution. I see some attempt at tact, but it didn’t translate culturally. To a Singaporean, the resolution looks like a request to be kicked out of the country. Criticizing a partner publicly during this crucial trust-building phase is a last-resort negotiating tactic used just prior to walking away from the deal.
The resolution also annoys the Singaporean in the street, who already thought Yale was getting a sweetheart deal — free campus, free staff, free rein to run pedagogical experiments on free subjects, not even the risk of putting the Yale name on the diploma.
Unlike President Levin and others in the Yale administration, I don’t think it’s imperialistic for Yale to want to help Singapore change. But given the political and cultural constraints, the best way for Yale to effect change is not by stressing differences, but by showing Singaporeans how much we have in common. Singaporean gay movement Pink Dot has borrowed selectively from the U.S. gay marriage and adoption debates. By stressing family relationships and acceptance of diversity — both values at the core of Singaporean identity — last year’s rally drew over 10,000 people.
If enough Singaporean voters want change, the government will respond. After last year’s election exposed cabinet ministers’ pay as a huge grievance for the 99 percent, pay scales were promptly overhauled. It may seem strange to American observers, but our ruling party does care about popular sentiment, despite holding power for over 50 years.
You don’t have to like the way Singapore works, and I don’t want to trivialize the heroism of political dissidents like J.B. Jeyaretnam, who was sued into bankruptcy by the ruling party, but disliking it doesn’t make our political culture any less real, and to change it, you have to start from that reality.
Singapore is not an isolationist or stagnant society — it’s extremely open to foreign influences, as long as they’re seen as our own choice, not the preoccupations of hecklers. The aims of the faculty resolution can best be achieved by simply having a Yale presence in Singapore, not preaching but demonstrating — with steadfastness but also humility — what is admirable about Yale.
E-Ching Ng is a 2001 graduate of Morse College and a fifth-year graduate student in linguistics.
by Patrik Schumacher, 31 January 2012, Architecture Review
Irony, allegory and dystopia − Patrik Schumacher sees no future for the type of hopelessly unrealistic education lauded by the British architectural establishment
The submissions to the current RIBA President’s Medals demonstrate once more that architectural education in Britain is operating in a parallel universe. The (best?) students of the current generation as well as their teachers seem to think that the ordinary life processes of contemporary society are too boring to merit the avant-garde’s attention. Instead we witness the invention of scenarios that are supposedly more interesting than the challenges actually posed by contemporary reality. The points of departure for the majority of projects are improbable narratives with intended symbolic message or poetic import.
Accordingly, the resultant works are statements or allegories rather than designs. This is evidenced by the emphasis on evocative, atmospheric imagery, with little or no demonstration of how the visualised spaces organise and articulate social life processes and institutions. For instance, the Bronze Medal (first prize in the Part 1 category) proposes to place ‘an acoustic lyrical mechanism’ into a quarry in Bangalore. ‘The building is played by the wind, acoustically transforming the abrasive sounds of quarrying.’ The Silver Medal (first prize in the Part 2 category) presents itself in the form of a dystopian science fiction movie in which Brixton is transformed into ‘a degenerated and disregarded area inhabited by a robot workforce’. The robots are supposed to symbolise immigrant labourers; they are meant to represent racist exploitation.
One of the runner-up projects presents itself with sarcasm as a ‘genetically engineered “nature factory” for luxury goods, masquerading as a revamped “eco-industry”’. Like the Robots of Brixton this ‘nature factory’ is not a design but an ironic allegory intended as critical commentary.
The other projects in this category that have been selected and highlighted by the RIBA Journal (by publishing them with a project description) ‘engage’ the following ‘topics’: an algae monitoring facility, a retreat for Echo from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and a storage building based on the fictional narrative that all citizens would deposit personal things into safety boxes throughout their lives in order to be later confronted by their past.
Although there is rather less explanation about the other entries, the project titles (eg, Pyrolytic Power Plant, Tsunami Alert Community, Hydrodynamic Landscape, Mushroom Farm, Guild of Tanners and Butchers) as well as the dominance of atmospheric (mostly dark, cloudy, poetic and dystopian) imagery suggests a similarly idiosyncratic, unreal understanding of what constitutes a worthy design brief. The last two years were also similar: the 2010 winner was a ‘shipwrecking yard’ and the 2009 winner proposed ‘motorised coastal defence towers acting as a warning device to mankind with respect to climate change’. Again, these are not designs of spaces intended to frame social life, these are narratives and messages pushed by evocative imagery.
There is no doubt that creative imagination and skills are in evidence here. However, it is difficult to see what such works achieve and contribute to the advancement of the discipline of architecture. The RIBA’s director of education, David Gloster, seems to endorse what I criticise here: ‘The ability of the best work to create its own world while still reflecting everything that has been going on around its authors was captivating.’ Gloster also welcomes what he considers to be ‘a pronounced political edge’ and he takes this as an indication that ‘students haven’t given up on architecture as catalyst for change’.
I believe that architecture co-evolves with other subsystems of society like the economy, politics, the mass media, science etc. In this co-evolution innovative architecture can be as much a catalyst for progress as innovations in science, the mass media, or in the political system. However, I doubt if the invention of other worlds as arenas for imaginative design is the way to achieve this. I also doubt that architecture could be a site of radical political activism. I believe that architecture is a sui generis discipline (discourse and practice) with its own, unique societal responsibility and competency. As such it should be sharply demarcated against other competencies like art, science/engineering and politics.
Architects are called upon to develop urban and architectural forms that are congenial to contemporary economic and political life. They are neither legitimised, nor competent to argue for a different politics or to ‘disagree with the consensus of global politics’ (as David Gloster suggests). ‘Critical architecture’ commits the fallacy of trying to substitute itself for the political process proper. The result might be a provocation at best, but often ends up as nothing but naive (if not pompous) posturing. Success in the world is not to be expected from such pursuits.
The demonstration of creative imagination and virtuoso visualisation skills is not enough to merit an award. Should we not expect the best students and teachers at the best architecture schools to make a serious contribution to the innovative upgrading of the discipline’s capacity to take on the challenges it might actually face via its future clients and commissions?
I consider the best schools to be a crucial part of the avant-garde segment of the discipline charged with the permanent innovation of the built environment. It is here that systematic research and serious design experiments can be conducted in ways that are more principled and more forward looking than would be possible within professional practice on the basis of real commissions. Academic design research allows designers to select and focus on specific aspects of the built environment, and abstract from other aspects.
Academic design research − and a Part 2 project could play this role − is not a full simulation of a real project with all its concerns. Thus neither the design brief, nor the design solution of an academic thesis project, have to be pragmatic in a straightforward way. The realism I mean is of a more subtle order. It calls for an optimistic probing of our contemporary world with respect to the opportunities it offers and considers the vogue of otherworldly narratives as counterproductive.
Check out the follow ups on The Funambulist: