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.

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Bionic Citizen

Apple WatchWearables are the hot topic in technology today. What once seemed like something out of a Star Trek episode is now reality. And whilst Samsung, Motorola and others are veterans (if you could call more than two years in the product category “veteran”) I truly think that Apple’s design and brand-respected clout will be the final tipping point in solidifying this curious new niche as a distinct product line.

The Apple Watch’s gutsy move in positioning itself as a piece of haute couture is indeed a bold move; I have many questions about the longevity of such a device when the ephemeral (technology) is juxtaposed with the eternal (high-end watch design). It seems like a product conceived of contradiction as much as it is a device seeking to bridge two seemingly disparate factions of society (fashion and technology). However, it represents a progression of technology. A powerful progression, I might add: we are on the cusp of transcending the notion that technology exists as a realm separate to the organic body that is us. The Apple Watch’s ideal of being a fashion piece means it encompasses the design traits distinct of fashion: personality, individuality, intimacy.

But even more than that: wearables are a step closer to the assimilation of the inorganic — the world of binary code and cold, calculated lines of coding — with the organic: us, human beings, sentient creatures who have created these strange contraptions. Are we on the brink of becoming bionic? Is it possible that, by following this progression to its logical destination, we can assume that there will be a convergence: that these two worlds will properly collide; that we will become bionic creatures, beings made just as much with technology as we are with blood and muscle?

The singularity theory postulates a point in time in the distant future, called an event horizon. Beyond this point, we cannot predict, using the cognitive skills we have honed over millennia, what will occur next. The idea that we are assimilating ourselves with the technology that we use can be considered as an event horizon. The current state of technological development suggests that this is the case, but I think that if we examine the nature of our current society, we can further understand why this might very well be the eventual outcome of our species.

We live in an increasingly connected world. The Grid rules our lives: we are beings that connect to it daily; it is what provides us with a large amount of our daily intellectual sustenance. We cannot function without the Grid. Our society is hyper-connected, and devices like smartwatches illustrate how reliant we are on the Grid. That such a device exists signifies the ever-encroaching grip our digital lives have on us. Our lives are lived as much in the virtual sphere as they are in the realm of reality. When technology begins to disappear yet exert an even more potent force upon our existence, we begin to step closer towards that event horizon of the bionic being. Technology is beginning to disguise itself. It is no longer taking the visage of a “device that looks like a computer” — that traditional aesthetic is being challenged as microchips get smaller and more powerful, thus making it possible to insert them into devices that we are accustomed to for centuries.

As design becomes invisible, it will allow technology to ingratiate itself far more easily into our daily lives, slowly tightening the grip the Grid has on our psyche. As microchips become smaller and their power more potent, we will begin to subconsciously slip into a symbiotic reliance with the devices and the virtual networks we’ve created. This is going to change society in incredible ways. Everything from culture to politics to economics to the built environment will be affected. One area I’m particularly curious about is, of course, the urban architectonic. How will our bionic beings navigate an architecture of the future? How will our built structures evolve to support the new lifestyle that will emerge? How can virtual reality coexist with the concrete and steel that is so intrinsic to maintaining our human existence at the base level?

One simple device, oft derided and questioned for its very purpose, can have the potential for a significant sociocultural impact. For now, though, we play the waiting game: watching, patiently, as the progression of technology and society slowly merge, an intricate dance orchestrated by a plethora of parameters and the organic ebb and flow of time…

 

Originality v Hollywood: Dawn of Mediocrity?

A curious phenomenon is occurring in the centre of society’s entertainment universe. Perhaps it’s a sense of potential failure casting a net of fear around what was once a creative powerhouse. Perhaps it’s a descent into mediocrity as our collective society has embraced a sense of complaisance, where banality passes for acceptable quality. Whatever it is, there can be no denying it: Hollywood appears to be running out of fresh ideas.

Instead, we’re being treated to the wonders of rehashed entertainment. I’m reminded of a sentence Nick Offerman’s character, Deputy Chief Hardy, says in 21 Jump Street (ironically, a reboot of a popular television series)

“We’re reviving a canceled undercover police program from the ’80s and revamping it for modern times. You see the guys in charge of this stuff lack creativity and are completely out of ideas, so all they do now is recycle shit from the past and expect us all not to notice.”

I feel like this is exactly what an executive-led creative industry is doing. I can almost picture the suits in their corner offices somewhere in Los Angeles, cigar in hand, smug grin on their faces, signing-off another reboot, knowing that our pop-obsessive society will eat this all up and fatten the studio’s bottom line. How stupid do they really think we are?

There will come a point, hopefully soon, when cinema audiences will tire with this. When we will finally open our eyes to the fact that it’s the same movie, with the actors-du-jour fitted snugly in to a predictable plot.

Look, don’t get me wrong. I’m just as excited about the new Star Wars as the next fan. Likewise, I can’t wait to see what Marvel has in store with Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’m an (obsessive?) follower of their Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. series, and an ardent watcher of both Arrow and The Flash, two of DC’s darling television spin-offs. These are all properties based off existing source material, whether it’s comic books or one of the most famous cinematic franchises of all time.

However, I feel that there are talented writers out there with exciting, fresh stories yearning to be unleashed from their paper bounds and brought forth onto the reflective-silver screens of our cineplexes. These stories are being marginalized when studio execs opt to “play it safe” with rehashes of recently-completed rehashes (I’m looking at you, Spider-Man), with bloated adaptations of beloved source material (The Hobbit) or the hope of capitalizing on unexpected, explosive success. In the case of this last example, I’m of course referring to the recent news that Lionsgate, boon of the young adult dystopian fiction adaptation fad, is considering continuing the Hunger Games stories beyond the book. As a fan of the series and its cast and wonderful director, I sincerely hope this will not materialize. Whilst it would be great to see more of the world that Katniss inhabits, and the fact that the last book left much to be desired in terms of an ending, the stories should just be left alone. Hollywood needs to learn about a story’s limits. They need to learn how to let go.

At the end of the day, we as cinemagoers make the final decision. We have a choice about what we want to watch. That’s the great thing about cinema: we live in an era when there are so many possibilities; were spoiled for choice, essentially. We can choose whether we feel like watching an inventive story like Birdman, or rekindle some nostalgic feels with a viewing of a Godzilla (or Ghostbusters or Robocop or Terminator) reboot. The thing I truly wish for, through, is for original stories to receive the same level of care and treatment that these existing, beloved properties are currently getting.