Friday, March 30, 2012

Doghouse, keys, remote, and Prada

This is probably the best Frank Lloyd Wright story I’ve ever heard. A 12-year-old boy Jim Berger from San Anselmo, CA asked FLW if he would design a home for his black Labrador, Eddie. “I would appreciate it if you would design me a doghouse, which would be easy to build, but would go with our house...,” read the letter dated June 19, 1956. “[My dog] is two and a half feet high and three feet long. The reasons [sic] I would like this doghouse is for the winters mainly.” And he mentioned to pay with the money he made from his paper route. FLW was quite busy with the Guggenheim at that time, but he did eventually send drawings to the boy 5 months later, free of charge.
Jim Berger’s letter asking FLW to design a doghouse
FLW’s response

The fact that somebody like FLW would agree and actually designed a doghouse for some 12-year-old kid is amazing. By “someone like FLW,” I don’t mean “the greatest architect of all time” as some others think. I’m talking about a famous but self-centered, arrogant, cunning, and ingratiating old man. Ken Burns, who made a documentary on Wright for PBS, called him a schmuck. Lewis Mumford described that “he lived from first to last like a God, one who acts but is not acted upon.” When questioned about his vanity, FLW justified himself by saying: “Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility; I chose honest arrogance.” Once while testifying in court, FLW referred to himself as the world’s greatest architect. Asked later how he could make such an excessive claim, he replied, “Well, I was under oath, wasn’t I?”

FLW saw Le Corbusier as a rival. He called the Villa Savoye “a box on stilts.” When Corb was in Chicago, FLW declined to meet the visitor from Paris. On the other hand, Corb himself also had a rather difficult and controversial personality. Nicholas Fox Weber, author of Le Corbusier: A Life, used contradictory words to describe him: compassionate, arrogant, generous, selfish, Calvinist, hedonistic, proud, enraged, ecstatic, sad, provocative, unique. When Corb went to America, he wanted to dominate the design board for the new UN headquarters, and eventually got into a power fight with Wally Harrison. Corb’s relationships with clients often ended badly. He was not very kind to his own employees either, even people like Iannis Xenakis, who contributed greatly on fantastic design of the Philips Pavilion and La Tourette. Corb started to dislike Xenakis after he found out that Xenakis had kept direct contact with a client without his permission. One summer when Xenakis went back to the office after vacation, he found the lock had changed. Shortly after, he received a letter from Corb which begins, “Modern architecture triumphs in France; it has been adapted. Today you may find a field of application for everything which you have acquired by yourself as well as through your work with me.”

This reminds me of how Steve Jobs treated Wozniak. After leaving Apple, Woz decided to start a company to make a universal remote control that he had invented. He approached frogdesign, a California-based company who also did design work for Apple, to design his device. But Jobs stretched all his power to make sure it didn’t happen. He told the Wall Street Journal, “We don’t want to see our design language used on other products. Woz has to find his own resources. He can’t leverage off Apple’s resources; we can’t treat him specially.” Woz was not the only victim. Walter Isaacson wrote that Jobs was “frequently obnoxious, rude, selfish, and nasty to other people.” Even his old lover Tina Redse complained that it was incredibly painful to “be in love with someone so self-centered.” She read a psychiatric manual about Narcissistic Personality Disorder and decided that Jobs met perfectly all the criteria. In the office, he was mean and abusive, super hard to work with. He would “introduce tension, politics, and hassles,” with a mood swing that “resembles a high-voltage alternating current.” He was prone to tell people they were “dumb shit” and what they had done looked like shit. At the same time he was also a master of manipulation. Once you fall into his “reality distortion field,” you would be easily encouraged to work your ass off for him. Most of the Mac team, for example, got extremely burnt out at the end, and some even went schizo.

Many architectural offices also have the reputation of over-working people, and OMA is probably the most notorious. Rem would call up his staff in the middle of the night asking for design updates, just because he was bored in the hotel room in a different time zone. It’s so hard to get him for meetings that the teams had to rent a conference room at the airport and meet him there. But there was no guarantee that he would show up. For the times he did come, he might cut you off in the middle of the sentence and said, “How can you be so fucking stupid? I have a plane to catch.” I remember when I visited the OMA Rotterdam office, people got so nervous when someone said “Jesus is coming!” It reminded me of the scene in The Devil Wears Prada when Meryl Streep walks in the office. Well, Rem wears Prada as well.

I keep asking myself: does one really need to be either a psycho or an asshole to excel in creativity? Are those callous behaviors natural companions to fame and success? A friend said he did not mind arrogance as long as the person had real talent. Another friend said it was just a way for them to get things done. I guess if you look at it positively, you will find words like confident, passionate, decisive, persuasive, and efficient. Just that they have pushed it too hard that it appears as cocky, stubborn, controlling, manipulative, and cold-blooded.

I live in a modernist apartment building, reading the biographies on my iPad, and posting this text with a Mac. At the end, the asshole personalities of these stars are transcended by the brilliance they’ve left us. As said in the “Think Different” ad, “the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”


Sunday, March 11, 2012

LEGO architecture

Architects love to claim that they liked playing with LEGO when they were kids. But it was not until the launch of the LEGO Architecture line in 2009 that LEGO finally acknowledged its relationship with architecture officially.

The Architecture product line has an “Architect series” and a “Landmark series.” Two Frank Lloyd Wright buildings – Guggenheim and Fallingwater – made it in the first batch in 2009. Robie House was added in 2011, making FLW the highest scoring architect in the LEGO family. SOM has two, but it’s strange that Burj Khalifa is put in the “Architect” category while the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) is in “Landmark.” There is an obvious geographical bias in the selection. Only 3 out of all 12 buildings are located outside of the US, including the latest addition Jørn Utzon’s Sydney Opera House, revealed at the end of last month.

LEGO Architecture: Architect Series

LEGO Architecture: Landmark Series

Starting in September last year, fans were able to vote and tell LEGO which architectural icon should be the next LEGO set. It was announced on Thursday that the winner of round one was Habitat 67 in Montreal, designed by Moshe Safdie. I think the reason it beat the Gherkin and Taipei 101 is that the building reflects perfectly the philosophy of LEGO: a modular system with standard building blocks. But the official website says, “it takes more than popularity to make the grade as a LEGO Architecture icon.” Of course they need to see what makes more money. Now the second round of “Inspire and Vote” has started. Leading the poll at the moment is Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia. I have no idea how LEGO can pull that off. Sydney Opera House already looks super clumsy, with all the awkwardly curved pieces that make up the roofs. How could they get Sagrada Familia right? I say they should just build Kisho Kurokawa’s Nakagin Capsule Tower. It’s very LEGO-friendly, and Rem would be the first to buy it.
Habitat 67: winner of the “Inspire and Vote” Round 1
For Round 2: Which one is more LEGO-like?

Although the LEGO Architecture line is designed in the US, LEGO in general is still a Danish national pride. BIG (of course) created LEGO Towers in 2007, a proposal for a residential, retail and hotel development in Copenhagen. They spent five weeks to literally build a 1:50 model out of 250,000 LEGO Bricks. It was exhibited in the “BIG: CPH Experiment” show at the Storefront of Art and Architecture in New York.
BIG’s LEGO Towers at Storefront

KRADS is another young architecture office in Denmark who have set up various “Playtime” workshops to explore fundamental architectural principles through LEGO Bricks. Recently, they collaborated with Miny Maas in the studio “EuroHigh” at The Why Factory, asking students to use 1 million LEGO Bricks in search for an “ultimate European skyscraper.” 676 models at 1:1000 scale were displayed in the Oostserre of TU Delft as the results of mid-term review – a grid of 26 linear iterations that extensively catalogue the formal impacts of tweaking certain parameters. They look fun and rigorous at the same time: a systematic adventure with a systematic toy.

I feel that the architects’ experiments with the LEGO Brick are more true to the original LEGO logic. Instead of constrained by the specific pieces and aiming at the only way of assemblage, they utilize standard yet flexible building blocks and let the solution fly with imagination. Even just two Bricks give 24 different combinations, no to mention when you have 1 million of them. Why do we need a specific set for Habitat 67 or the Capsule Tower anyways?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Bizarre realism

“Real Landscapes” is a series of photographs by German artist Thomas Wrede. You see gorgeous landscapes: beaches, mountains, sand dunes, iced lakes, under tranquil light or in dramatic sunset. Suddenly there is some sort of human intervention: a house, utility poles, or even a football pitch. They look a bit out of place in the middle of the vast nature. It makes you wonder if they are actually real. This sense of “eerily pleasant uncertainty” turns a seemingly specific location into a “non-place.”
Beach Hotel, 2008
Fjord, 2010
Ice Hole, 2010
Drive-In Theatre, 2009
Dari King Drive-In, 2007
Football Pitch, 2008
Settlement, 2005
Real Landscape

The questioning of reality and perception is Thomas Wrede’s main field of interest. “I see the world as a kind of assembly kit, a grand stage, as image and simulacrum.” His photographs were shot no more than half a meter above the ground, using miniature models in actual places, and playing with scale and perspectives. What appears as an endless ocean could actually be just a puddle. His bizarre realism makes false presences very convincing. The ambiguous and absurd-surreal quality of these images challenges our perception of nature and its relationship to man.

Contrary to Wrede’s subtle ambiguity, Spanish photographer Victor Enrich’s City Portraits are full-on bizarre. Enrich manipulated his own architectural photography to create impossible and fantastical structures. Buildings were rotated, bent, unzipped, or with some parts extruded. After a career in the field of architectural visualization for over 10 years, Enrich is fully equipped with CG pictorial techniques that make the strange “incepted” scenarios visually believable.

Manuela is getting late, Munich, 2012
12 Ugly Ducks, Munich, 2012
Shalom 2, Tel Aviv, 2009
Tango 4
Looping, Riga, 2007
Medusa, Tel Aviv, 2011
Tongues, Tel Aviv, 2010
Deportation, Tel Aviv, 2011

Looks like Inception? We also have Star Wars, perhaps even with a touch of David Lynch. French photographer Cédric Delsaux created hyper-realistic images using Star Wars characters and spaceships in his “Dark Lens” series. From Paris to Dubai, you see Darth Vader, C-3PO and R2-D2 hanging in stark urban settings, AT-AT walkers moving in the fog, or the Millennium Falcon docked on a construction site. With digital collage enhancements, Delsaux has turned George Lucas and Ralph McQuarrie’s fantasy into almost “feel-nomal” moments in our physical reality.
Darth Vader
The Emperor
C-3PO and the White Visa
The Round of Battle Droids
The Buick
AT-AT in the Fog
The Millennium

Today, we have powerful image creation technology thanks to the innovations in computer graphic softwares. The bizarre realism in photographic art subverts the credibility of photography as a documentation or reproduction of reality. What is real and what is not? “See it and believe it” probably won’t work any more. Or maybe reality is just a collection of constructed illusions after all.

Related: Unreal Reality