I finally got around to designing some much-needed office shelving (all art by Ben Shattuck):
Cloud Forest Credenza
CNC-cut plywood (eventually will be available in birch and sapele mahogany plywood), mill-finish aluminum
I finally got around to designing some much-needed office shelving (all art by Ben Shattuck):
Cloud Forest Credenza
CNC-cut plywood (eventually will be available in birch and sapele mahogany plywood), mill-finish aluminum
GOWANUS — They'll grow art on the ground and vegetables on the roof.
A longtime neighborhood arts hub is getting a renovation that will add a theater and gallery to the building's first floor and a farm to its rooftop.
Contractors aim to start work June 1 on a $1.5 million remodeling of the Gowanus Arts Building at 295 Douglass St., the home of the dance nonprofit Spoke the Hub as well as musicians and visual artists.
The project is expected to take about six months and Spoke The Hub hopes to debut the theater space in early 2017, said architect Severn Clay-Youman of Civic Architecture Workshop.
"With big developers and the luxury high-rises pricing local artists and small businesses out of the Gowanus/Park Slope neighborhoods, CAW and the owners of the Gowanus Arts Building hope to create a local community center which champions community, sustainability, diversity and health through art," said Clay-Youman and Spoke the Hub founder Elise Long in a joint announcement.
Some artists who rent space in the building will have to move out during the renovation, but all are welcome to return. One sculptor will have to move permanently because the new space won't suit his needs, Clay-Youman said.
The renovation will reconfigure 295 Douglass and move a third-floor performance space to the first floor. The current third-floor theater is only accessible via aging wood stairs, a set-up that makes it impossible for people who can't climb stairs to attend performances. The third-floor walk-up theater has also cost Spoke The Hub some grant money because it doesn't comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, Long said.
The remodeling will create a new, roomier theater space on the ground floor. The theater will have retractable seating so it can be configured for a variety of uses. New larger windows will also be added to the ground floor to let in more light and to give passers-by a better view of what's happening inside the building, Clay-Youman said.
On the building's roof, a grant from the city's Department of Environmental Protection will help pay for the installation of a rooftop garden that Long has dubbed the "Gowanus Sky Farm." The urban farming group Brooklyn Grange will design the farm, which will grow vegetables and serve as an environmental education center.
A new gallery will also be added to the ground floor and the South Slope's Open Source Gallery will curate shows and run some children's programs there, Clay-Youman said.
Clay-Youman noted that many Gowanus arts groups, including Spoke the Hub, now provide classes for children, and the renovation will help Spoke the Hub better meet that demand.
When Long and other artists bought 295 Douglass St., a former soap factory, in 1985, the neighborhood was more desolate, and the artists were glad for the nearby Daily News garage "because they had an all-night attendant and 24-hour security," Long said.
These days the influx of families with young children in neighboring Park Slope and Carroll Gardens has brought more foot traffic, and changed how neighborhood arts organizations such as Spoke the Hub operate.
"The interesting thing to watch has been how the arts organizations in the neighborhood are very much supported by their educational activities now," said Youman-Clay, who lives in the South Slope and worked in theatrical design before becoming an architect.
"There's a lot of synergy with classes for kids. This little area — with Spoke the Hub, Brooklyn Boulders, the Brooklyn Music Factory — has become sort of a nexus of the Park Slope child-industrial complex. It's an interesting turn for the arts down here toward education and community outreach."
As we get closer to a formal start to construction for the Gowanus Arts Building renovation, we've updated/added to renderings of what the finished project will look like:
In my decade plus as a lighting designer for downtown theater and dance in New York, I was a student, more than anything else, of collaboration. Most of the shows were short in duration - three or four days of rehearsals and then a weekend or two of performances. Sometimes I would hear from the choreographer or director, but many times I would never see them again. I was a small-time operator, surfing a peculiar little wave of people spending their savings and considerable energy on their short New York season.
After what must have been tens or hundreds of these shows, I noticed two strategies of collaboration. I did not consciously develop them, nor are they the only ways to approach working together.
The first approach is the Tennis Match. This is what we were taught in school that working as a designer would be like. You show up for a meeting, having read the script and developed your own concepts, and lob a fat serve at the director, who hopefully returns the ball. This ignores the fact that the director has already spent more time imagining this show than you could ever hope to (or care to). While serving the ball gives you the feeling of control, of contribution, you may in fact be on the wrong court entirely. There was always the danger that you invest a great deal of time imagining the wrong show.
I developed a variant on this (cowardly, I know) - my goal was to avoid visualizing the final result for as long as possible - to concentrate on not knowing until it was no longer possible. Not only did this force me to observe what the piece was already, but it kept me from getting stuck in my initial impressions. I would play a quiet game, until I understood what was going on enough to set up a few good shots and often profoundly change the whole show with before they could get defensive.
The other approach is the Ballroom Dance, though I've privately called it the "rope-a-dope" before. When beginning to work with a collaborator with a very strong, fixed vision of how the show would look, I often found that the only approach that worked was to match them step for step, offering minimal resistance at the beginning. Once you have matched their speed and direction intimately, it becomes possible to inject your own direction into the collaboration - when this works best, your partner believes they came up with the idea themselves.
It is sometimes necessary to take this approach even when you believe that the direction the project is headed will come to grief - it is merely necessary to walk them to the brink so that they understand. The skillful collaborator, by this point, may have worked out a way to save the show, and is able to present a way out. However, I often found it valuable to sit for a moment with my collaborator, staring into the abyss, neither of you knowing what to do next. More than likely, you will both pick up the pieces and begin to work together as equals. If you're lucky, they will begin to trust you a little.
What do we hope to contribute as a designer? The egoist will maintain that they are the artist, creating an original work from whole cloth. At the other end of the spectrum, a designer is merely another service provider, like a lawyer, skillfully guiding their client towards realizing their vision. I fall somewhere in between. I have learned the most from some of my most difficult collaborators - and the end result was much more than either of us imagined. Ego can get in the way of skillful listening, but you have to have the backbone to tell other people when you know something is finally right.
As a designer and a cook, I'm familiar with the problem of doneness - how to know when to leave things alone, when to stop tweaking and seasoning and sub-dividing and fairing. As one eminent theater director I once worked with put it, how to know when you're "gilding the lily", destroying what you've already made by adding further layers of "design". I am not speaking of minimalism - this is not reductivism, in fact often far from it. It is the finely-tuned sense of when you have reached the top of the hill and are beginning to climb down the other side. I've also come to respect the power of ignorance when designing - how sometimes working entirely outside one's area of expertise can bring outstanding moments of insight simply by leaving out what most people put in automatically. This is a tough skill to cultivate - ignorance can only take you so far (and certainly provides very little service to your client); once lost, willful naiveté must be cultivated: a constant practice of forgetting, of stepping outside the interiority of your profession.
Closely related is the accident of mis-hearing, either by mis-translation across cultures or through the generous gaps in memory. Slight shifts in emphasis or material, amplified by human predilections towards obsession, has brought us the cargo cults, Japanese hot-rod culture, Cubism, some of Frank Lloyd Wright's best work. Mis-hearing could be characterized as (copying + willful naiveté) - the best artists and designers derive tremendous novelty and invention from it, the worst disappear quickly from history.
My visual aid for this post comes from the blog The Selvedge Yard, an always-excellent if often somewhat testosteronic blog of 50's, 60's and 70's nostalgia. Shinya Kimura, the founder of ZERO Engineering and one of the originators of the "ZERO style" of motorcycles, founded Chabott Engineering in California in 2006. "ZERO Style" seems to fetishizevintage motorcycle machinery, but in a way that seems very foreign to the chrome-and-glossy paint Harley Davidsons one tends to see in the US.
The bikes on Kimura's website are shown in various states of undress - many unselfconsciouslysport raw aluminum fittings and fuel tanks. They seem to be pieced together or adapted from older bikes - and not always rare or glamorous ones: one is built from parts of a little 1960 Honda Hoon. The aesthetic is what originally touched my curiousity - its too unstudied to be called "steampunk", though the bikes celebrate raw metal and the work of the machinist. The metalwork is far from perfect and clearly handcrafted - you can clearly see the hammer-marks and welds. The bikes have the patina of an object found in a machine-shop, worn but not rusted, well-polished but not mirror-finished. They celebrate the motorcycle as an insider's art - these bikes don't need to impress non-enthusiasts or sell magazines. They look like they were produced by one man in an slightly under-stocked machine-shop for his own edification - the bike is done when he likes it.
Kimura's work feels like remix culture, but I admit that I don't know the ingredients. Looking through the bikes on the website, there seems to be a certain amount of variation and exposition on formal themes. The designs also have an improvisational lightness to them, making the best of the ingredients at hand. These are clearly one-off, not designs for production.
I admit to a fascination with television shows like American Chopper, which chronicles the design and building of custom motorcycles. They're using the same same tools we've appropriated in architecture: 3d modelling, plasma cutters, cnc mills; there's as much emphasis on form as any of Zaha's latest confections (within the operational confines of a vehicle), even the conflicts between the artistic will and client are familiar. The process they portray seems at once cutting-edge and untroubled: they aren't concerned so much with triangulating the exact location of the avant-garde so much as dipping into an energetic zeitgeist and channeling it. It is easy to push these choppers over to "low design" - Kimura's work exposes a different, richer register to the form.
I came across an essay on beekeeping by Charles Martin Simon, called Principles of Beekeeping Backwards. I know nothing about beekeeping, and I initially discounted Simon's writing as Luddite crankiness (I'm all for Luddism, but I enjoy tinkering too much to believe that its ever as simple as just turning back the clock). On a closer reading, however, he describes a process that I found very familiar: the discovery that you are on the wrong path, and the realization that no amount of earnest course correction will right things. He describes realizing that everything he has learned about raising bees is in fact wrong, that he has been ignoring the signs from the bees for years, but that the deeply held principles of apiculture made it impossible to see it. He is suggesting not returning to older practices of beekeeping, but that the entire practice of raising bees for honey is founded on false principles. Its an earth-shaking idea, like realizing that if you had only been taught differently as a young child you might be flying instead of walking. We live in a world of accreted infrastructures - we are taught that the Real World is no place for idealists. It is rare that foundations are built or rebuilt from the ground up - revolutions, natural disasters, newly discovered territories. The rest of our lives we negotiate the strange minotaurs, hydras and chimaeras that we must - constantly wondering "why not" and "what if". Re-setting the game involves mobilizing so many people in the same gamble, in giving up a system that mostly works for the possibility of one that works a little better that it takes an extreme catalyst to make it happen.
Simon's sentiment reminds me a bit of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt's Oblique Strategies - a place to look when nothing else seems to be working. A more scientific version of this might be the study of cognitive bias, all of the built-in cultural and psychological blind spots through which we see (or don't see) the world every day. One could probably cross-reference a list of known cognitive biases to the Oblique Strategies quite easily.
I believe that the most difficult and most valuable skill to cultivate as a designer is the ability to step outside your project, outside of everything you know and believe about design, and really see what you've made. It's an impossible task, of course. We spend so much time in the planning and design process building a scaffolding of confidence, trusting that our practice will create solid ground under our feet in the end.
I've come across a couple of interesting drawing tools in the last month. I've tried them - guiltily - because Digital Architects aren't supposed to "sketch" anymore. We draw - we make drawings - but "sketching" brings to mind old white men conceiving architectural masterpieces on napkins while awed clients play nervously with their martini stirrers. Process is king, and sketching pretends that process is a mere formality, performed after the master's napkin is carefully faxed back to New York.
The first, Alchemy, I encountered in the context of software tools for animation concept art. What I find interesting about it is that it intentionally subverts usability - there is no "undo", for example. It is intended as a "starting" tool, not a "finishing" tool. It has several tools, more modes of interaction really, from simple Rorschach-like mirroring to "negative" drawing and different distortions. This is not a gestural drawing tool, though; it doesn't bother with the crude cartoonish splatters or "airbrush" of paint programs. It is designed to subvert the will of the creator just enough to allow novelty and invention to surface.
There is a rich history of the use of tools and games to subvert the conscious will of the artist - one might even say that Surrealism was created with this as one of its fundamental tenets. I would hazard to say that the history of using the computer as a tool of the unconscious is not as rich [though I recently finally finished Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, in which the protagonists use the computer Abulafia to randomly concoct conspiracy theories - Eco's tragic editor Belbo, who has never been able to consummate his creative urges, finds that he can write only through Abulafia].
The second is a web-based tool, Harmony. Like Alchemy, Harmony favors an empty-canvas approach. The interaction is subtle at first - "so what - another drawing program" - until overlapping strokes start to grow mycelia and gum together to produce surprising depth. Its a bit like a mild version of the early Illustrator plug-in Scriptographer, except that it feels like it could actually be used to produce work. Drawing with Harmony feels suspiciously easy - almost like those invisible ink books from my childhood (mystic writing pads, anyone?) - like there's a hidden drawing that you're revealing by continued tracing.
Could this be the next phase of creative software development ("It just works" is so 2008) - like writers using only yellow legal pads and Underwoods? Will we reach a time when we crave difficult interactions? I've never been entirely convinced by the field of User Interaction - I believe that we can achieve virtuosity with any interface we have access to (exhibit #1: monkey-robot arm-banana). The argument of giving users "familiar" interfaces (the "recycling bin") dissolves as we approach the cyborg singularity, where we spend every waking moment in the company of computing devices.
Could we design an architecture-creating software that actually works from sketching? We could program the canvas with all the sociological, political and structural constraints and then forget about them. Rather than a tool for designing a parametric monster stitched together from all of the site constraints, what if the computer was something that worked against us, offering only resistance and jamming (while working out structural implications in our wake)?
I leave you with one last reference, far in left field (or right at home, depending what you do for fun). Game designer Jane McGonigal has advocated building real-world problems into games and putting our crafty play-brains to work. The only new game I've had much time to play lately has been World of Goo , but I think she has a good point. Game interactions can offer us not only new models of focus and problem-solving, but creativity as well.
I had the pleasure of attending a performance by the architecture duo Speedism (Julian Friedauer (Germany) and Pierterjan Ginckels (Belgium)) at MEx on Friday night. Its hard to describe - they call it a "live Photoshop" - my best effort would be "8bit situationists explore a futurist distopia through live animation". Sort of a puppet show for architects. They manipulate a large Photoshop file in real time to a soundtrack with elliptical supertitles (and a smoke machine). Part of the pleasure (at least for the assembled designers) was the transparency of the mechanisms of the performance - neither the little white pointer nor the occasional popups were hidden, and the performers sat in front of the screen with their laptops and graphics tablets. Check them out if they're performing in your neighbourhood. Their website, incidentally, looks much more like Friday's performance than the video they have available.
I try not to do many re-posts (because this isn't that kind of blog), but this caught my eye. I have a soft spot lately for those gaudy post-war illustrated cutaways, having spent much of my childhood drawing innumerable mountain lairs, island kingdoms, and castle floorplans (I blame some of this on roleplaying games). There's something appealing about the ease of those drawings; more will-made-real than architectural rendering, they follow a certain linear logic (well, I need to be able to get out of the BatCave in my BatCopter without being seen - of course we'd have smoke tubes!). They aren't so much artifacts of a design process as drawing a pre-existing reality (albeit one created in a comic book), not unlike the results of trying to create an accurate spacial diagram of an action movie.
Which brings me to the current fashion of ultra-legibility - more of the Bjarke Ingels variety than OMA - Rem always seems to have a lot more going on than what he says is going on. I think it's no coincidence that Ingels has published his own comic book. Has "green" become the new superpowered Fortress of Solitude? (well of course it's carbon neutral - we'll have wind turbines all over it. And we'll harvest energy from the elevators!).
There's an appeal to legibility that engages the inner ten-year-old very directly. Buildings are no longer ponderous, complicated objects with lots of boring bits, they're toy-sized models that come with scale action figures and only show the fun bits (Barbie's Dream House never had a mechanical room, or an attic crawlspace). They show the design as a priori, after all of the other iterations have been tucked away. There's also a bit of the comic-book showmanship, the gee-wow-whiz-bang-we-can-have-whatever-we-dream-of. In the case of eco-architecture, its a rather maximalist approach - perhaps this explains some of its current popularity. Green isn't about whole grains and biking (at least not very far, and not in ugly clothes), its about converted caves, and secret lairs.
I'm hesitant to criticize the representational style, because I'm drawn to the same exuberant images myself. I do think ultra-legibility stands in contrast to the architectural inheritors of the more distopian (and more accurate?) 1960's science fiction writers like Phillip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein: vertical farms, nanotechnology, train stations that harvest travellers' energy. Perhaps the most sincere revenge our generation can have on the baby boomers is to take all of the popular culture of their childhoods and realize it in full scale, invisible planes, algae farms and all.
It all began the other day while I was waiting for the train in the morning, staring at an ad for a motorcycle that I could win if I entered the NY Lottery. Let me say from the beginning that I am no connoisseur of motorcycles, nor have ever had any interest in them. The thought came to my mind unbidden - "That must be the cheaper model..." I have no idea if I am correct, but something in the picture gave me the sense that something was missing from the bike - the psychic residue of trim removed, or machined hardware replaced with stamped sheet metal.
I have long suspected that, as trained consumers, we have a subconscious sense of design, a sort of lizard-brain gestalt sense that is unconsciously weighing how valuable objects are. I have no doubt that this lizard brain can be duped by advertising or tricked by slick salesmanship, but I think we develop our senses in parallel with the advances of advertisement, so we can't always be wrong. If we can assume that cars (and motorcycles) are designed from the top of the line down - what are the Ford Fiestas and Toyota Echoes of the world [you can also glean here that I have not bought a late-model car in some time] but walking wounded, with memories of their flashy concept-car pasts?
The typical design path in architecture is to design a beautiful creature that does not fit the initial budget and either bully the client into falling in love and producing more money or hack off limbs until the design fits the real budget. In my experience, the initial design is a thoughtful labor of love and the VE process is grudging battle to hold onto at least the silhouette of the original concept. This is often done skillfully and strategically, but can we sense the phantom limbs that are missing from the whole? What about Norman Foster's building for City Center, which is missing almost half its height because of faulty concrete in the bottom half?
I was talking with a colleague the other day about hidden architectural signifiers of value - she was working on a design for spec home design and musing where to spend the most money. My suggestion was to put the budget into the front door. I grew up visiting my grandmother at a house that my grandfather designed, a lovely specimen of mid-century design, and my clearest memory of that house was the front door. Wider than a normal door, it had a beautiful large door knob and made a soft, rich, "thud" when closed, like an expensive car. The house had many other aspects, some successful and some not, but the front door was something you encountered daily.
There are some cultures that believe that the window into the body is through the pulse, others that examine its spoor for signs of internal distress. We may sacrifice environmental performance, closet space and high ceilings and complain mightily, but a reliable front door reassures us that all is well with the domestic machinery.