Thursday, 11 November 2010

Severin's Observatory

In the German pavilion at the Biennale there is a tall box, about the same size as a phone booth, in one of the rooms flanking the main hall, which emits the deep sound of a man speaking, his voice can only be made out as you approach the rear of the box and lean in to a window in its side.

Through the window is a model of what looks like a monumental observatory, whose real size is belied by the windows on the walls behind, which seem to dwarf its pomp to that of a doll's house. The voice is slowly, in a manner somewhere between that of a documentary and a fairytale, telling over and over again, in italian, english and german, the story of Eugene Severin, an amateur astronomer from the early 20th century.

Severin was paralysed from an early age, and was fawned over by his wealthy parents, who did everything to ease the child's difficult life, eventually building him a study room in an empty garden house at their estate, where he spent most of his youth in the care of his maid, conducting science experiments, studying astrology, and dreaming of one day becoming an astronomer, of discovering vast new worlds from the tiny and enclosed world he inhabited. As a young man he came into a large inherited fortune, and bought a plot of land outside Berlin, where he planned to fulfill his dreams, commissioning the architect Olaf Malmhoff to build him a magnificent observatory in which to live and work for the rest of his life, gazing at the stars. He would spend days in anticipation of the newfound pleasure of living there, of how different it would be to the isolation of his life up until that point, imagining himself as a recognised scientist making important discoveries, holding court to famous parties for the elite of the city at his observatory. He filled his time thinking such thoughts as the period of construction dragged on and on, with the architect embezzling vast sums of money from the project, and failing to mention to Severin how vast, towering tenement blocks were being erected all around his little observatory, right up to the edge of its little plot, blocking out the daylight, and at night, all but a few stars in Orion's belt. Severin only found out when he visited the building upon its completion. With no money left of his fortune, having had it whittled away by the lengthy construction and Malmhoff's embezzlement, Severin moved into the observatory together with the same maid he had lived with since childhood. He continued to live there, staring through his telescope at the small patch of sky that could be seen through the cornices of the tenements, until his death in the early 60s. His niece, a failed writer, now opens the house to visitors for a small fee.

The theme of the German Pavilion, brilliantly illustrated in Severin's story box, is Sehnsucht, or a powerful feeling of longing twinned with a sense of irretrievable loss, and how this concept manifests itself in the urban realm, addressed elegantly in Severin's story through the weaving together of the pity of a personal tragedy, the sting of rural retreat, the meanness and avarice of industry, and the communal pathos of the restricted urban horizon and the confined gaze, all compressed into one powerfully evocative architectural scenario that manages itself, silently, to contain and convey the sense of longing and sadness of the entire tale.

The main hall is full of architect's sketches responding to the notion of Sehnsucht (one of which below), mostly not managing to connect with its potentially powerfull emotional content, possibly because so many of them seem to be ideal proposals, nostalgic constructions from the creator's imagination that achieve something they have always desired, or long missed. And these completely negate the power of sehnsucht, which exactly lies in the deferral of arrival, it gains in potency the further it is from reaching that which it longs for, and indeed gains strength the more vague the object of longing becomes. The architects and their sketches construct answers to the feeling of longing, as if it were a problem with a solution, when really the beauty of it is in its contemplation, in the exploration of the actual feeling of longing itself as a shared contemporary condition that unites all of us, and which can be stimulated in us, connecting us more intimately with each other and our surroundings through stories, and places like those of Eugene Severin and his little eclipsed observatory.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Plant-Pets, Good Metabo, An Illuminated Cedric Price, and An Upturned Boat at the Venice Biennale 2010

Above is a film of some of the stuff in the Biennale, quite a bit of the Serbian pavilion by Skart, which I adored, along with everyone who visited it (as evidenced in the film and by the fact everyone I have spoken to ended up talking to people they didnt know, playing with them, and giggling together like little kids), the Cloudscapes installation where a micro-climate was regulated in a part of the Corderie, a cloud hovering at the height of a bridge that took you right up into it, as well as some Olafur Eliasson atmospherics (where were the naked dancers?!), a couple of super-cruise liners, some washing being taken in, an orchestral sound-bath, the nail house in Shenzhen, and alot of wind and umbrellas...

The Serbian pavilion was clearly the best at initiating interaction between both the visitors themselves, and between the visitors and the actual objects in the space, which was filled with see saws and cyborg-like plant-objects that looked like cute cartoon animals crossed with everyday objects of motion, each of them inviting you to take it for a walk with a little handle and bicycle bell.

The japanese pavilion was a triumph of architectural curation, seamlessly co-ordinating a take on what is best in the contemporary japanese urban condition, as a set of potentialities, with how those possibilities can and are being taken up at the scale of the building to produce a sort of city-as-household (presented as a form of atomised, total democratic space), grounded in the minute calibration of daily activity and its relationship to the exterior, and all of this represented through large doll-house models that let your imagination immediately occupy the kinds of places that the words and the videos were describing, a set up that got around many of the usual conundrums of curating architecture in its actual physical absence. But the routines, activities, and manner of living implied in the architecture of Atelier Bow Wow are a known quantity, they are buildings that deftly handle the needs of a class of inner city professionals whose scope of existence we are all familiar with, and there was something slightly suffocating by the end of the last collection of cubic containers, a sort of lack of space to dream in: the Serbian pavilion saved it for me, provided a ludicrous and delightful addendum,  acting as a kind of what if, or but... and maybe -it zoomed in on that one scale which was purposely left out -or rather rendered implicit- in the Japanese designs, the manner in which people's relationships to their surroundings can be reconfigured in refreshingly liberating, and impossibly re-imagined ways, rather than subtly practical ways. There was a suggestion in the Serbian pavilion of Architecture coming to life, of buildings and spaces actively participating as agents of pleasure and delight in our everday lives, like dogs, cats and garden-plants, silently waiting to be patted and causing people in their interiors, rooms and by their walls to stop, talk and play with them a bit, like people stopping to ask the name of another stroller's dog, and how old he is, and give him a brisk cuddle, whilst getting to know the other owner too. Then the nature of architecture as a container, and a delicate calibrator of things and people begins to shift, and it transforms into an active agent, not a controlling manipulator, but an agent of creative occupation and imaginative play... a loosening agent and one that by making everything strange again, opens up the possibility of us being and acting differently too. As we all seemed to be doing in Skart's laboratory.

In the Italian Pavilion at the Giardini, also curated by Kazuyo Sejima, I got caught in a wonderful little lozenge-shaped side room off of some exhibit or other, in which there was a table with one pair of headphones and a screen, showing a series of interviews by Hans Ulrich Obrist of Cedric Price, which I believe were interrupted by his untimely death in 2003.

Sharp but bumbling, inspirational and radical but so intensely British, Cedric came across as immensely charming, remembering stories about his projects with a delight that was glowing with the cheekiness of a naughty child, savoring his counter intuitive rebelliousness with the sensibility of a character situated somewhere between that of a stone thrower in the Paris streets of 68, and of the well intentioned prankster in the corridors of any post-war English Grammar School. He recalled one project in Sheffield (I think it was there) where he was in charge of an installation event for publicizing a theatre festival in the city, and he decided to paint dimensions onto the facades of certain well known buildings in the centre, but to put incorrect figures like 16inches on a 12storey high tower, and so on, an action that rapidly led to an outcry at the inaccuracy, with local people writing to the local newspapers and radio stations indignant at being taken for idiots, demanding to know what the meaning of such tomfoolery was, and in the act of complaining and generating a fuss, of course providing more free publicity than would have ever otherwise been possible (as well as the fact that the dimensions provided a trail straight to the entrance of the said theatre).

His cheekiness seemed as he talked to go hand in hand with a love for human nature, for freeing up people's potentials by giving them opportunities to achieve their dreams through a type of negative architecture that provided room for difference and desire, a strong element of his proposals for the Fun Palace and Non Plan, where in the one he provides the framework for re-imagining the city around it through play (he made the point in the film that it was not meant to be an escape, "to escape awful london, no it was a key to realising how wonderful life was. It was the launchpad to delight, and perhaps the delight was freedom of choice. It was the thing that would make you pleased to open the door of your home and see, however it was your life looked, that it was good"), and in the other an imagined libertopia free from paternalistic judgements on taste and spatial organisation where local character would evolve itself out of the space between dialogue and individual design, a plan that has recently been posited as an unwitting intellectual predecessor to Thatcherism's, and then Blairism's Development Districts, exemplifed by the London Docklands (and its now deceased LDDC) and its sprawl of isolated, unplanned, unrestricted developments. But for me the difference at its heart comes down to his genuine care for and focus on the individual human, and groups of people, and his or her or their capacity to actively participate in a creative environment and re-imagine his or herself or themselves as better and more qualitatively fulfilled people, whereas Thatcherite planning policies had the abstract noun "Consumer" at their heart, basically a euphemism for her debased version of the "market", not even subhuman, but rather automatons that were meant to choose between a set of options that were given to them by the companies which dominated and distorted the real estate market, eliminating any of the fine grain of true liberty imagined in non-plan, turning the city into a collection of huge assets to be speculated on rather than worked on and enjoyed, a sort of total antithesis to the Tokyo presented in the Japanese pavilion: Tokyo Midtown rather than the small streets around it, Seifert rather than Betjeman.

In relation to that point of differentiation, the idea of dialogue via architecture kept coming up, the point and place where individuals mediate their desire into something shared: "For years architecture was a way of imposing order, that everything will be okay if you behave. Thats religion's role. Architecture shouldn't do that. Its too slow anyway, and in any case I don't want to do that. It should create dialogue, perhaps thats its only reason." He then went on to tease Obrist by saying that theres a set of criteria that some famous old guy came up with, he couldn't remember who, perhaps Ulrich would know: Commodity, Firmness and Delight! He went on "Commodity is money, good house-keeping essentially. Firmness is the structure, and delight, thats the one, thats the dialogue." "The dialogue, its isnt hello theres the birds and the bees. It might be quite harrowing. But it will look towards a better future." And thats the strongest kernel I took away with me from the part of the interviews I watched, that staunch belief in the difficult task of maintaining the idea of a better future,

He kept getting up to look for projects to show Obrist, but somehow never managed to find anything, and he always kept looking in the same place, telling Obrist jokingly how he was making it look like he didnt have a proper filing system, all of which looks as if it was bought from the Rymans around the corner, together with the brilliantly standard Rymans calendar hanging on the wall behind him, which one sees everywhere in Britain from the dentist and GP to Uni and the office. Three images above you can see a diagram which was scribbled on some paper on his desk that Obrist filmed as he panned around the room whilst Cedric was answering what sounded like one of those old phones that people now copy the ringing of on their iphones. Two of the walls were covered with blown up images of Cedric's ideogrammatic sketches that are about as eloquent and charming as he is in the interview, standing up in my mind in immediate and strong opposition to Leon Krier's closed, and sarcastic equivalents.

There is also more of Ulrich Obrist and his encyclopaedic tendencies over in the Corderie where there is a room of interviews with other architects and artists (each with a little screen, its own dvd player, and a SANAA designed chair), and of the 24 hour Marathon in the Serpentine Pavilion 2006 (which I worked on whilst at OMA), a part of which I ended up watching with Shumon Basar and Iain Sinclair being interviewed by Obrist and Rem Koolhaas, Sinclair starting off with a virtuoso display of Rhetorical conceit, and Shumon winning hands down in the fashion stakes with a totaly ott white blazer.

And to finish I am posting some images of Stirling and Wilford's upturned boat bookshop in the Giardini (the last building finished before his death), a beautiful remnant from a lost and fascinating era that greets visitors to the Biennale like the Diplodocus in the entrance hall to the Natural History Museum in London, indistinct as to its full biology, context and reasons for existing, but intriguing and allusive, drawing you in to wonder and imagine as to where this building came from, and what it signifies...

Actually one more thing... a quote from Phillip K Dick's 1978 Lecture "How To Build A Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later" that I picked up in the Belgium Pavilion, and which I think pin points an important line between the ends that techniques are used for and those techniques themselves, and that involves power accrued and abused in relation to techniques of simulation and effect that are too easily rejected from architecture, powerful tools that they are, because of their association with malignant forms of capital and power:
"So I ask in my writing, what is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have alot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know, I do the same thing.