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

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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

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Architecture and the Art of Storytelling

All architecture is a story: every space a paragraph, each detail a sentence. Design is a form of communication – perhaps the most effective, succinct system of conveying abstract ideas into tangible solutions.

Over the past year, I’ve come to value the importance of the story when engaging in the design process. Developing an idea and following its progression from abstraction to detail can be a daunting undertaking. As architects we are taught various methodologies for overcoming this, various design strategies. One of the most effective, I’ve discovered, is the art of story.

I’ve always loved writing, and coming up with stories usually through the process of writing them down, rather than explicitly planning everything from scratch before engaging in the creative act. This almost serendipitous act can yield interesting results, and often is a satisfying endeavour. So as I began to engage in the various design tasks of the honours programme, I decided to abstract this storytelling process into an architectural design process.

By distilling the key findings on-site, and first creating a sort of “knowledge hub” comprising site data, social findings, environmental issues (just to name a few), you begin to create a narrative landscape within which your story can begin to form. I find it important from this very early stage to begin thinking about how the presentation will flow; this may seem counter-intuitive, but it helps to set end-goals and delimits certain aspects in order to progress the workflow. This won’t hinder the explorative nature of conceptual design thinking, but rather enhance it by establishing certain parameters within which to work. And this is not obviously set in stone; this narrative becomes flexible and evolves alongside the design.

By actually thinking of the design as a story, you begin to perceive the project as a more tangible, dramatic and emotive thing; even though the project may only exist in a virtual sphere or on paper, your story is adding an abstract, emotive layer that breathes a certain life into the thing.

What this ultimately does is ensure you’re developing a coherent narrative to tell your prospective client about the work you’ve designed. Humans love stories; its something that is ancient and inherent in our evolution. By using the craft of storytelling to guide the design process you’re intricately linking two very potent forms of communication, which can really help sell someone the idea, which is, after all, a key part of our profession.

Architecture + Innovation

Following what I wrote recently about the “PC takeover” of architecture, as posited by renowned Zaha Hadid Architects partner Patrik Schumacher, I’ve been further intrigued by his sentiments when Tesla CEO, Elon Musk, recently announced a revolutionary new roof system.

This kind of technology is the innovation that is sorely lacking in the profession of architecture. Technical prowess has been dismantled from the profession as the architect begins to lose focus of the core aims of the profession – utilitas, firmitas, venustas (function, structure and beauty) – aims that are as old as Vitruvius himself. These are the pillars upon which our profession is built, yet we somehow seem to forget this as we begin to take on more abstract roles as politician, social justice warrior, philosopher, bureaucrat…  

Our lofty goals of achieving social justice, of shaking the foundations of dogmatic political practices and ushering in an era of collectivism, of social coherence and aesthetic and cultural harmony through our designed environments appear as noble pursuits. And no doubt they are essential, for we are in a unique position as a practice that situates itself at the intersection of the humanities and the sciences. We can balance these precarious entities through our designed intervention and intellectual prowess powered by years of pouring over precedent, theory, political studies and the philosophies that empower us as architects.

However, the technological agency that lies at the heart of our profession – the technological agency that binds the trifecta of utilitas, firmitas, venustas, is the very thing becoming rapidly marginalised in contemporary practice. We are being sidetracked by more ambiguity rather than pouring our collective talents into actually innovating the architectural technology that ultimately transforms our abstract world into the physical manifestations that form our built environments.

Musk’s development of a unique solar roofing system is exactly the kind of architectural innovation that is being “outsourced” to those outside our field. Yes, I acknowledge that as architects, we are not trained in the minutiae of such technical systems; the kind of product that Musk announced is the culmination of a variety of fields (industrial design, electrical engineering, manufacturing…). However, we are trained in the field of ideas. We should be the ones embracing and advocating for such advances. The Tesla + SolarCity roof tile system is the kind of product that is inherently architectural. It ticks all of the great Vitruvius’s boxes: it is functional (it is highly efficient at collecting solar energy and storing that in the Tesla PowerWall), it is incredibly strong – far stronger, in fact, than traditional building materials like terracotta – and it is beautiful. This last one is particularly important: in order to gain mainstream traction, aesthetics are paramount. 

The Tesla roofing system proposes, for the first time, a viable technology for taking buildings off the grid entirely. As architects, we are in the business of consumption – the very act of building requires consuming the earth in order to make space for our creations. The age of sustainable design is well and truly underway. The urgency for technical architectural innovation – the proposition, promotion and integration of imaginative technical ideas that further the environmentally-cenered design approach that will make or break this era – is sorely needed in a time when the role of architect as master of information is being challenged from within.

The Business of Aesthetics

Patrik Schumacher, partner at Zaha Hadid Architects, recently took to Facebook to voice his opinions on Alejandro Aravena’s Prizker award earlier this year. His formidable position in our contemporary architectural discourse, coupled with his work in the arena of parametricism as style and his collaboration with the “queen of the curve”, the late and great Dame Zaha Hadid, add a certain gravitas to his sentiments and indeed reignite the debate over architecture’s societal role:

The PC takeover of architecture is complete: Pritzker Prize mutates into a prize for humanitarian work. The role of the architect is now ‘to serve greater social and humanitarian needs’ and the new Laureate is hailed for ‘tackling the global housing crisis’ and for his concern for the underprivileged. Architecture loses its specific societal task and responsibility, architectural innovation is replaced by the demonstration of noble intentions and the discipline’s criteria of success and excellence dissolve in the vague do-good-feel-good pursuit of ‘social justice’.

– Patrik Schumacher, ZHA

Architecture as a practice has long sought to root itself within a societal discourse. And rightly so, for the artefacts it produces stand as anchors in time, reflections of the zeitgeist, and responses to various social flows – the flows of people, of money, of technology and of power.

Yet at its core, I believe, architecture holds firmly to the business of producing artefacts. For, once stripped of all the intellectual mist that surrounds a piece of architecture, the thing that remains, the concrete and brick and mortar that form the geometries so intricately laboured over by the practitioner, lies firmly within the realm of aesthetics. It is an artefact, an object that was created to appeal, at its very base level, to certain rules of beauty that have been argued over for millenia.

In pop culture, the way something looks is paramount to its success. Let’s not kid ourselves about this. The aesthetic conception is something that pervades contemporary society; it’s the veil that draws one in to whatever intellectual (or “abstract beauty”) lies behind.

Perhaps there is another debate lurking here – what is it that defines beauty? Ideas of cultural bias, of historic prejudiced views, mathematical proof and geometric arguments all play pivotal roles in discussing this. But that’s not the point of today’s post.

My argument is that, in a world that has become susceptible to politically correct language, it is very easy for discourse around architecture to become dramatically defensive and deny the unavoidable (if perhaps harsh) truth: that aesthetics is the name of our game. We should rather embrace this discourse, and begin to tamper with it: to engage in the idea of aesthetics being a crucial part of architecture, and to interrogate its various virtues and disadvantages.

Architects are not politicians. We’re not activists, nor are we philosophers. Yes, we may harbour sentiments that are shared with these other groups, but at the heart of our profession is a desire to shape worlds, through imagination and the pursuit of the creative spirit. We are ever aware of the gravitas that underscores our duty to society, yet that doesn’t mean we can’t also have a little fun too.

Alejandro Aravena on the Force of Architecture

“So be it the force of self construction, the force of common sense, or the force of nature, all these forces need to be translated into form, and what that form is modelling and shaping is not cement, bricks, or wood. It is life itself. Design’s power of synthesis is just an attempt to put at the innermost core of architecture the force of life.”

– Alejandro Aravena

Aravena was this year’s Pritzker Prize laureate. The Chilean architect has redefined the role of the architect in society, and the relationship between architecture, the economy, and the forces of life. As he beautifully articulates in the quote above, architecture moulds life, whether consciously or subtly. His social housing projects (the famous “half a house” concepts like Quinta Monroy in Chile) prove that inventive ideas, combined with strong collaboration with the societies that are directly affected by, and for whom the projects are designed, can truly change the world.

Design is a Function of Infinity

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When does design end and use begin? Is there a definitive beginning and end to the process of design, and does design concern itself with the solving of problems, that is, working within a specific problem set, defining the end goals and working toward those within a closed system?

No. Obviously not.

Nothing in design is ever straightforward. Design is a function of infinity. It never begins, and it never ends. It exists as a fluid system where ideas come and go, where they are moulded by ideologies and philosophies, in the hope that the present iteration may benefit society in some way.

As a function of infinity, there is no definitive solution that will solve all problems, or that will please everyone. And there is no designed solution that will be perfect, by the very fact that design is a human construct, and we are a notoriously imperfect species. Thus lies one of the age-old challenges of any design discipline: how can value be attached to something that is so vague, to a service that has no concrete end to it? The key would, most likely, be in attaching value to the process, that is, educating clients and endusers on the value in collaboration, in the techniques and tools required to sculpt a formless idea into the tangible object that exists in the material world.

And at the other end of the spectrum, of course, is that feeling every designer has: the endless possibilities of a blank page, akin to the infinity of our Universe. Everything is possible, with the only constraint being the designer’s imagination (itself a function of infinity).

Infinity itself looks flat and uninteresting. Looking up into the night sky is looking into infinity—distance is incomprehensible and therefore meaningless. The chamber into which the aircar emerged was anything but infinite, it was just very very very big, so big that it gave the impression of infinity far better than infinity itself.

–Douglas Adams

The Nature of Design

Perhaps it is because design encompasses such a wide range of economic tiers — from the high-end ultra luxury to low-cost housing and solutions for disaster relief efforts —that we tend to become confused about its purpose. Thus we tend to fixate on its nature as an entity aligned with exclusivity, where it has an aura that is seemingly detached from the plight of the everyday. This is its aesthetic conception – its surface value – something that is far easier and neater to understand than the complex beast that it really is.

It is unfortunate that our society sometimes perceives the vocation as such, because design is such an intrinsic part of what makes us human. It’s an inherent part of our evolutionary story; it’s a validation of our ability to have adapted as a species that has emerged triumphant from every challenge nature has thrown at us. In essence, design has played a significant role in getting us to where we are today: a highly evolved, intelligent, dominant species capable of astonishing feats. We were able to overcome these challenges through innovation: through using our intellect to design solutions, to streamline mundane tasks and thus free our minds to begin contemplating the deeper issues that began presenting themselves, and thus continuing this cycle of development. Design has brought us mobile phones, bridges, cities that claw at the skies, and eyes that see into the dawn of time.

For me, design isn’t about what something looks like. Aesthetics form such a tiny part of the entire story. Design is about how something works. It’s about how a multitude of pieces have been intricately woven together to form a coherent whole. It’s about the collation and understanding of seemingly disparate ideas, of making unconventional connections and sifting through a multitude of thoughts to retrieve those tiny fragments that are the true gems, the ones that will assemble to provide a meaningful solution. It’s a messy, daunting, multifaceted pursuit. It’s much, much more than just the skin of an object.