Space, Life and Architecture

What is architecture but the deft manipulation of space? The forms we design seek to contain, and to define, spatiality such that life may be lived. Space, then, is the canvas for urban life.

Space is therefore a critical component that demands attention. As an abstract thing, it becomes challenging to define. In some ways, perhaps we can understand “space” in terms of Laozi[1], specifically, his idea of wu; emptiness.

Space commands a philosophical perspective. Through this we may unpack its ambiguity. The means of encapsulation, then, derive from this abstraction. If we consider it an entity, just like any other architectural component, then we can begin to use it as a mechanism. Here, digital tools can begin to take space into an entirely new dimension. Generative systems can rapidly reconfigure, and biomimetic algorithms can transcend space from this abstract, invisible entity into a a responsive idea that reflects a series of dynamic, evolving characters.

I think here of the neo-plasticists, who, perhaps more than any other, really pushed this idea that space is an entity we can mould, that architecture is truly, at its essence, an organisation of space.

Footnotes

  1. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

The Myth of the All-Nighter

I’m entering my sixth year of architectural education very soon. It’s been a long, often frustrating, but fruitful journey. At such a time as this, reflection becomes a key point as the final stretch looms. One of the things that has intrigued me so far, both looking inward to the profession as an outsider (before I began my architectural education), and as a young “newbie” to the professional world of architecture, is this fascination with the all-nighter.

It’s sort of expected that the architecture student must labour continuously on their projects, whether their body yearns for sleep or their mind has become a tangled mess of meaningless mulch. The architecture student is expected to pull off countless all-nighters whilst still maintaining a particular standard of work, and failure to do so means instant discrediting of one’s entire stature as a student studying this field. It somehow suggests that one is not putting in the requisite “effort”, that a little more time spent on the work might have meant a different letter grade – and in an abstract field such as design, doubt becomes a prevalent spectre that haunts the self-critique of ongoing work.

I feel that this fascination is disturbing and entirely unhealthy, both physically, and in its fixation on working hard rather than working smart. The subtle distinction between these two things means the difference between a productive, happy young architect who is energised to start a promising career in the profession, and a burnt-out student who might be on the verge of giving it all up for something else.

A serious paradigmatic shift is necessary to move the mindset from working hard, where the number of hours somehow correlates, to some degree, the quantity/quality of work produced, to the idea of optimising workflows, exploiting the benefits of technology and ultimately adopting a smarter way of getting things done. Of course I’m not arguing for a generation of lazy architects who find every excuse to avoid work. Work is an essential part of our culture, and it’s a fundamental aspect of living, of building something meaningful both to society and to the builder’s life, of leaving a true legacy to benefit future generations. But this morbid fascination with a culture of sleep-deprivation, which itself propagates an aura of anxiety, stress, and unpleasantness, needs to stop. Right. Now.

Much needs to be done in reforming architectural education today. One aspect we can begin with is a critical rethinking of what studio culture is. Lack of sleep and deriding physical and mental health runs diametrically opposed to the kinds of environments that we as architects are expected to produce for the betterment of society.

Judgement of work based on the hours put in does not paint a proper picture of the final product. Rather than overworking oneself in order to satisfy this arbitrary time-centric idea, a more intelligent workflow is needed. This is the exciting part: designing is intrinsic to us, so why can’t we design better means of production? Instead of shirking from advanced computational technologies, this is the time to be adopting those tools. Truly understanding the power of BIM technologies, parametric tools and modern productivity strategies such as Pomodoro are just a few examples of the potentials lurking beyond that sleep-deprived horizon.

It’s time we got over this myth that the all-nighter is a necessity to architectural education, and embraced a healthier, smarter way of learning and working.

Life in Technicolor: “La La Land” Rewrites the Musical Genre

la-la-land-585c617a5f650

Contemporary cinema is all about nostalgia these days. But where most films recede into self-referential tedium, along comes a fresh, beautiful little marvel that not only provides an entertaining cinematic experience, but, I think, rewrites the concept of the musical entirely.

La La Land is the darling of the current awards season, and rightly so. The film has an interesting (if somewhat a bit predictable) storyline, excellent music, and some of the best cinematography I’ve seen in recent years. It is not just a musical love story, but a love letter to the idea of Los Angeles itself: the hope, the dream, the romance and the craziness that is the “city of stars.”

Approaching the film from a design perspective, this has to be one of the most gorgeously photographed pictures I’ve seen. Linus Sandgren, director of photography, did a knockout job in capturing not just the remarkable colour tone of the film, but setting that against the backdrop of Los Angeles made for a dynamic pairing. The use of primary colours and accents stood out for me in creating the hyper-reality that contributed to the dreamlike narrative. It’s certainly refreshing to see such attention to detail paid to subtle things like colour (especially after watching the washed-out tones of recent DC and Marvel superhero movies). That photo above captures this aptly: the costume designer expertly manipulated the perfect colour tone to complement both characters; the bright colours for Stone’s Mia and the stylish yet subtle hues for Gosling’s Seb perfectly complement each other whilst making the characters pop on-screen; it’s hyper-real cinema at its best.

The entire picture feels surreal; the breakouts into song and dance, coupled with these vibrant colour tones, truly transport the viewer to this alternate reality. They heighten the sensory experience of the city, and in this exaggeration emphasize the relationships between the characters and magnify an otherwise standard plotline.

Director Damien Chazelle did a good job in getting sterling performances from the leads. Gosling and Stone have undeniable chemistry (this isn’t their first on-screen pairing), and their voices aren’t that bad either. The songs, composed by Justin Hurwitz, are catchy. I loved the use of jazz as a metaphor for the entire film – being used both literally as a narrative device for Gosling’s character Sebastian, and more abstractly as that moment of magic, that tension and dynamism that is Los Angeles and the romance with this city; the romance that emerges from this city. The refrain that becomes the film’s theme is beautiful; it carries the gravitas of the narrative whilst imbuing a certain nostalgia, a subtle longing for that golden age of cinema (this is how you do nostalgia: with classy subtlety, rather than in-your-face rehashing).

Here’s that theme:

That same feeling is conveyed in one of my other favourite numbers, City of Stars:

John Legend’s character Keith captured it best when he said:

“How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.”

In a way this is what La La Land is about: using mechanisms of the past to proffer the idea of a bolder, new cinematic experience: one that uses the traditional tools of cinema (writing, music, cinematography) to create compelling new narratives and entertainment. As much as it is a love letter to the city it’s named after, La La Land is also a homage to Hollywood itself: capturing the frenzy, the absurdity and the magic of showbiz through the perspective of our heroes and their whirlwind romance.

In a world that’s getting darker each day, it’s refreshing to see a bit of technicolor injected into a movie experience that is true, unabashed escapism. La La Land transports you to a time when cinema meant something: losing yourself in the romance of the magic unfolding on the silver screen, getting catchy (but still good) songs stuck in your head, and reveling in the chaos of Hollywood and its bright colours, all in glorious Cinemascope.

As Seb says, “I guess I’ll see you in the movies.”

8/10

Super (under)powered Cinema

So I’ll be honest at the start of this: I was a huge fan of superhero films. Browsing Life in Pixels’ archives will testify my adoration of the genre. But recently, I’ve become tired of these films. They’re formulaic (which is sometimes not such a bad thing… but, you know). Netflix does a great job of producing some actual substance in this field, but for the most part the television side of the genre leaves much to be desired.

I would watch, week in week out, the latest episodes of Arrow, The Flash, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., … until it all just got too much. How much of my life was I willing to invest in this? There comes a point where entertainment becomes a chore, and I think I’ve reached that. In its response to mass-consumption, itself a product of the success the genre has felt since the first Iron Man hit theatres, superhero films and television have since departed the gravitas that once underscored the category.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m a voice with final-say in what people should be watching or consuming. We live in a free(ish) society; we can do what we want. But I’ve since become uninterested in this genre, a part of pop culture that at one time was a powerful critique on society, and that formed a big part of my own life.

Take Nolan’s Batman films. Yes, I know. It’s a cop-out whenever a critic of contemporary superhero cinema brings out Mr Nolan and his work. But with this succinct trilogy, he crafted a piece of cinema that is both powerful as a work of art, a strong series of examinations on our society – a society that is plagued by fanaticism, crime, terror, rogue ideology and fear. The Batman becomes the lens through which we examine what it means to live in such a world. Tom Hardy’s Bane represents that strong, terrifying faction that can, at any moment, shake the very foundations of our civilisation. Ledger’s Joker, of course, just wants to see the world burn.

The point is, these films carried substance. Gravitas. And Nolan knew when to stop. He set out to tell this legend, this mythos of the Batman, and he achieved it through those three films.

Superheroes are, I believe, a potent vehicle for exploring very human issues: politics, race, culture, power… historically, they have been used as a critique on society. But in the commodification of the genre, as Hollywood’s prying fingers tear through the metaphor to mine the cashflow, I fear we’re losing that very essence. Yes, on the print side, things still seem to be alive and kicking. But I’m arguing from the cinematic perspective, and the state of things in that arena leaves much to be desired.

 

The Post-Truth Era

To say we’re living in a complex world would perhaps be an understatement. Complexity and contradiction are the pervading forces of contemporary society. So it would come, perhaps, as no surprise that something rather peculiar, yet also seemingly fitting, would emerge from such a unique epoch as this.

The ancient mathematician Pythagoras once said:

Reason is immortal, all else mortal.

Unfortunately, our era has somehow managed to kill rationality. In its place, we have inserted “feelings”. Welcome to the Post-Truth Era.

Post-Truth is becoming the new buzzword in the world of politics – specifically the 2016 US Presidential election. Trump’s ability to use emotive language in passing known falsehoods off as facts has been at the core of his notorious rise in popularity. The Economist has a wonderful article that examines this phenomenon from a political angle.

However, I feel that this idea of post-truth is infiltrating other parts of our society. I’m certainly not arguing for an abolishment of emotion, or for the cultivation of a generation of stone-faced, unemotional robots (although, let’s face it, robots would do a far better job at this civilisation thing than us humans have in the last few decades). But the replacement of all rational thought by pure emotionalism has brought into question our ability to think critically, to closely examine what’s being presented to us.

Rationality doesn’t sound so fun. The word feels like it’s implying you to actually use that computer-thing encased in your skull to do a bit of intellectual work. Emotion, by contrast, triggers soft ideas of pure idealism, of hope and an essentially cleaner path to seeking truth. And yes, emotion is a crucial part of what makes us human, of what defines our character and our compassion to fellow humans. So it’s perfectly fine in some, more social situations.

But when it comes to critical things that affect society – politics, but also ideas, debates, discussions around issues of epistemology, ontological arguments, education, the state of our nation – then it’s absolutely crucial that we still approach these topics from a critical, rational viewpoint. It’s inevitable that our emotional side will, to some extent, factor in our opinions and the reception of other’s opinions. The challenge comes in listening to the opposing or other view, then processing it with a critical sensibility. Or at the least, analyze it critically before passing any emotional judgements.

A lot of what’s happening in our society – both global, and in the local context (South Africa, and the global south in my case) is a direct result of irrationality overtaking our sense of judgement on multifaceted and interlinked issues. It’s when we let our emotions take control that we become vulnerable to the Thought Police (which is another issue all of its own), who will then proceed to slice and dice our very language until it resembles a form that is emotionally sensitive to every single issue affected by every human being, thus emptying it of any credibility, logic or rationality.

Post-truth operates through a series of logical fallacies that inject emotive propaganda, aimed directly at inciting one to make decisions with their heart and not their head. In our constant effort to seek truth, to understand our world and the complexities and intricacies of our society, we need to actually think first. In this era of digital noise, where we are susceptible to a swarm of emotion, of mindless chatter and the sharing of the minutiae of every person’s daily life, have we become so intellectually drained through technology that we’ve forgotten this very primal human trait?

Truth lies in the world around us.

– Aristotle (384–322 BCE)

Platform Wars are a Waste of Time

Mac vs PC. iOS vs Android. Automatic Transmission vs. Manual Transmission.

Since the dawn of technology, the platform wars have raged. The decision to use one system over another has somehow become suggestive of the character of a person. If you’re a Mac user, you’re suddenly labelled an “Apple sheep”. If you’re a diehard Windows person, then you’re associated with someone who does “real computing”, is “uncreative”, and a “numbers person.”

These labels serve no purpose other than to perpetuate a divide within technological circles, oft exploited by marketing teams to propagate one platform over another. They’ve been used to attack not just the flaws of a platform, but the people using these tools. Most frustratingly, they obscure the fact that no matter the characteristics of a particular platform, technology today has become so advanced that it is sometimes indeed indistinguishable from magic.

Here’s the thing: technological progress has been so dramatic over the past few years that it really doesn’t matter what platform you use. Especially in creative fields like design, cinema and photography: most applications are cross-platform, and the platforms themselves proffer enticing options no matter whether you’re macOS or Windows.

I grew up on Windows, and have programmed some significant (well, significant for me) projects. My prefered platform for the past 8 years has been macOS. I have very personal reasons – as many people do regarding their tools of choice to get the job done or to unwind with. These range from certain intricacies with macOS: the way applications are managed, the overall user interface, window management, the robust industrial design of Mac hardware, a trackpad that has yet to let me down and means I don’t have to always rely on an external mouse to get most design-related tasks done (and that even augments my mouse when designing on macOS). There’s also the comfort factor: I’ve grown very used to the Mac way of doing things. The list goes on, but it is indeed very specific to my own use case. The beauty is that I’ve been able to install the “best of both worlds” on my MacBook: I can experience the things I love about macOS like the Finder and the Alfred search extension, whilst simultaneously using Visual Studio on a Windows installation through VMWare to develop Windows desktop apps critical to the operation of SKKSA.

Look, we’re all entitled to our own opinions. And technology is as opinionated a field as you can get. Our lives are intricately entwined with the devices and platforms we use daily to live, to exist. So it makes sense that one becomes vehemently passionate about their platform of choice. But when that passion extends to bashing others for their choice of platform, especially without having a reasonable experience of said platform to base opinions upon, then it becomes a serious problem. In fact, it may say more about that person than their attacks and scorn of their target’s platform and by extension, the character attack associated with the choice of platform. If anything, it represents a juvenile, immature mindset; a rather closed, small-minded viewpoint of the vastness that is modern technology.

We should be excited and grateful that we have choice. More than one platform means that the developers of these tools are constantly competing to make their product better. This only benefits us, the end users.

Platform wars are a waste of time because they detract us from the beauty that is our modern, advanced systems. They detract us from actually focussing on collaborating, on creating and on using our incredible tools to help make the world a little bit better.

Utopian Illusion

“The society we have described can never grow into a reality or see the light of day, and there will be no end to the troubles of states, or indeed, my dear Glaucon, of humanity itself, till philosophers become rulers in this world, or till those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.”

Plato, The Republic

There are many illusions that exist like a thin veil obscuring the reality of society. Political correctness is just another layer that serves as a distraction from the bleak truths we are sometimes afraid to confront. Chief amongst those illusions is the notion that freedom, equality, liberty – these ideals we hold so dear to our sacred conception of “democracy” – can bring about a utopian society where everyone’s needs are satisfied.

Utopia cannot exist because it is the product of human creation. We are a flawed species, and thus any system we invent will inherently have its problems. Like there is no ideal form of government or any singular, perfect philosophy, there can only exist the pursuit of the utopian ideal, but never any true attainment of the ideal.

Things in nature exist in duality; for there to be good, bad must exist as its counter-balance. For there to be day, there must also be night to give it meaning. It’s a sentiment best captured in the ancient wisdom of the Tao Te Ching:

“Everyone recognizes beauty

only because of ugliness

Everyone recognizes virtue

only because of sin”

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Verse 2)

We would only seek to fool ourselves further if we were to believe in the illusion of a utopian society. Plato himself, the paragon of Western philosophy, denounced the notion that the democratic state is the apogee of government. Our society is far more complex, nuanced, multifaceted to be easily controlled by a single system.

Once we can accept these limitations, and embrace the complexity of modern society, understanding that nothing will be perfect, and nothing can be perfect, we will truly begin to move forward. The stagnation felt by many as we struggle to enter a world that is seemingly wrought with inequality, despair, hoplessness, with unfair economic systems that only further the class gaps, leads to this yearning for the antithesis of the dim present – that is, the utopian dream.

Utopia, and its sibling, perfection, are ideals to strive toward, not something we can ever truly grasp. It’s like that notion of design as being a function of infinity: it’s something that has no end to it in and of itself. It’s a system that will forever be held just beyond our grasp, as we progress towards it.

“One may look for fulfillment in this world

but his longings will never be exhausted

The only thing he ever finds

is that he himself is exhausted.”

– Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Verse 2)