Get the London look

"I left London when I started to feel like a stranger in my own city”

London panorama

I’ve recently published a series of three articles on Medium exploring London at this moment. Moving away from London has given me a different perspective on the city, now I view it from the outside looking in rather than caught in its all consuming bubble. I am still drawn to it, but I can also see it as a city almost spinning out of control, a potential death spiral. I think I’ve been thrown clear by the centrifugal forces.

The first article, London Belongs to Me No More, explores my own separation anxiety, the sense that London is becoming a playground or an investment opportunity for a nomadic global elite.

In London Must Build Upwards or Outwards, I explore two key factors which keep the housing stock in London in such short supply, and thus so overpriced.

Finally, in London’s Secret Sprawl, I look at the legacy of trying to preserve a rural/urban divide between London and the Home Counties, and how the Green Belt has instead of preventing sprawl, engendered a different kind of urbanism.

This London Trilogy completed, I am turning my attention to my new home in The North, its ambivalent relationship with London, its own rural/urban conflicts; its own identity crises.


(Image by Flickr user Jim Crossley)

Branding the Moon

"Moscow shot for the Moon, and scored a bullseye".

Although the Americans were the first to set foot on the Moon in 1969, they were not the first to leave their mark on the lunar surface.

Lunar pennants

In a fascinating act of planetary branding, or a sophisticated piece of land-art to trump any Andy Goldsworthy, the Soviet Luna-2 mission was the first man-made object to reach the surface of the Moon, crash-landing east of Mare Imbrium, on September 14, 1959. The Universal Newsreels report called it a propaganda bonus for Krushchev, stating "Moscow shot for the Moon, and scored a bullseye".

On board the Luna-2 craft were 2 small spheres, composed on a number of pentagonal panels, like a small football. The panels were made from titanium with "thermoresistant polysiloxane enamels." Each pentagon is a pennant, printed with the USSR state seal - a wreath of grain around the hammer and sickle - or the message СССР (USSR), СЕНТЯБРЬ(September) , 1959.

Luna Sphere

The ball on display at Kansas Cosmodrome, as discussed here, is inscribed with ЯНВАРЬ (January), rather than September, so it is likely that these were also placed on the earlier Luna 1 mission which launched in January 1959. Due to a programming error, Luna 1 missed the Moon by approximately 6000km, and instead became the first man-made object to reach heliocentric object. Its orbit now lies somewhere between Earth and Mars. With typical Soviet opportunism, it was dubbed Mechta (Dream) and also referred to as the First Cosmic Rocket.

It is unclear whether the balls were fitted with an explosive charge, to be fired from the craft before impact, and scattering individual pentagonal pennants, or whether the sphere was designed to stay intact, bouncing and rolling across the lunar dust. Either way it is unclear whether they would have survived the heat generated by the impact of Luna 2, estimated at 11000°K.

This picture implies there were two different sizes of sphere. The Wikipedia article states that there was a third ball, which was located in the main part of the rocket, which crashed into the Moon 30 minutes after the Luna-2 probe.

Luna 2

As this excellent page on Soviet spacecraft pennants shows, it seems that all Soviet space craft carried metallic pennants, left to commemorate the missions. This included the various Mars probes and the Venera (Venus) missions. Later Luna missions included rectangular pennants that illustrated from whence the craft came.

Karasik

Related to the previous post on Lazar Khidekel, the artist Mikhail Karasik has created a limited edition artist's book titled Homage to Khidekel.

Karasik is one of the most important artists working in Russia today whose work is informed by the radical experiment in art and architecture at the start of the Soviet Union.

Khidekel1

The book consists of 12 lithographic prints, inspired by Khidekel's work and designs. The use of lithographs is inspired by the extensive use of lithography at the UNOVIS school where Khidekel studied and taught.

Khidekel2

Karasik has also included prints of woodworking tools such as a plane and a mortice gauge. To Karasik, these carpentry tools and the projects of Khidekel are related, the pragmatic and the visionary aspects of making architecture.

Khidekel3

Other works by Karasik include an animated version of El Lissitsky's famous childrens' book 'About 2 Squares', as well as art books exploring Constructivism in Leningrad.

Khidekel1


Previously:

Khidekel

Khidekel composition

Earlier this year, Floating Worlds and Future Cities, an exhibition and symposium in New York, brought into focus the largely forgotten figure of Lazar Khidekel, and sought to place him properly as one of the pioneers of Suprematism. Khidekel could even be considered the first Suprematist architect, and was instrumental in helping Suprematism move beyond painting towards built form, urbanism and cosmic civilisation.

Khidekel was just 14 years old when admitted to the Vitebsk school of art, under Marc Chagall. In 1919, Kasmir Malevich founded a group called UNOVIS - Champions of the New Art - which also included El Lissitsky, Nina Kogan, Nikolai Suetin and Ilya Chashnik as well as Khidekel.

In 1921, (at the age of 17!) together with Ilya Chashnik, Khidekel headed the architecture and technical department at Vitebsk School of Art, and set about implementing a radical curriculum.

"The training of architects who at the same time will be the organisers and designers of the architectural units of the blocks that will constitute the streets and cities; the training of architects who will also be able to design and plan the economic centers." The official website at www.lazarkhidekel.com offers a tantalising glimpse of Khidekel's talents. The Suprematist works are drawings or paintings on paper, and lack the polish of finished works by Malevich or Ilya Chashnik, but are formally just as stunning.

Khidekel architecton

Suprematist composition

But it is in the architectonic works that we see Khidekel's unique talent, in translating the essence of Suprematist composition to architectural forms. His Architectons matched Malevich's own sculptural explorations, but Khidekel also went further in designing projects meant to be built, such as the Aeroclub project of 1922. As well as practical architectural projects, Khidekel continued to dream of floating cities and futurist visions of space and form. Malevich had called for his students "to show the entire development of volumetric Suprematism in accordance with the sensation of the aerial (aero) type and dynamic", and Khidekel responded with his designs for Aerograd, a city on stilts, hovering above water.

Arguably, only Gustav Klutsis with his designs for a Dynamic City was operating in the same raridied atmossphere, of a cosmic reach for architecture breaking free from the Earth.

Khidekel City on Poles

Cosmic habitat 1924

Floating structure 1923

Later, at the architectural college in Petrograd, Khidekel continued to develop his architectural ideas to more practical applications, as well as working with Malevich, Suetin and Chashnik to create Architectons and Planits.

In 1926 Khidekel created the first realised Suprematist built form, a Workers Club. It was originally credited to Malevich and published in Berlin. A restrained piece of modernism, it is reminiscent of similar avant grade designs of the Bauhaus or De Stijl architects such as Rietveld or JJP Oud.

Workers club

Workers club

In later years Khidekel continued to work on architectural projects, while continuing to create visionary drawings of structures and cities hovering just above the landscape, or orbiting the earth in space.

Khidekel floating city

Khidekel floating city

As Charlotte Douglas noted (quoted in Regina Khidekel's essay "The Trajectory of Suprematism":

"Khidekel’s distinction was that this initial vision of Suprematist structures floating in space remained a central part of his art and architecture for the next forty years, and richly informed his later development as a professional architect." It is not surprising that architects and designers are beginning to rediscover Khidekel's and recognise his visionary works as prefiguring many later projects. In the article "Discovering Khidekel" by WAI Architectural Think Tank, Khidekel is dubbed "The Last Suprematist", still prone to dizzying spatial visions long after his peers and Suprematist mentor Malevich had retreated to a less utopian position.

Khidekel floating city, 1961

"With each brushstroke of watercolor the Bolshevik utopia of utilitarian icons was painted obsolete. With the elongated appearance of each monochromatic volume a new form of revolution was achieved. Khidekel architectural visions transcended the rhetorical games of the revolution by developing complete cities out of sublime architecture. Long before Friedman’s Architecture Mobile, Constant’s New Babylon, and Isozaki’s Clusters in the Air, Khidekel imagined a world of horizontal skyscrapers that through their Suprematist weightless dynamism seemed to float ad infinitum across the surface of earth."

Khidekel Architecton compared against Gazprom proposal,OMA

While the city hovering above the ground still remains a powerful trope in both science fiction and architectural fantasy, Khidekel's visions still manage to look futuristic, arguably more so than most of the Metabolists or Situationist projects that today feel retro-futurist, inextricably tied to the past.

Khidekel's work remains endlessly floating towards the future.

Generative De Stijl

Mondrian scrutinizing Victory Boogie Woogie

A recent competition, Elegant Algorithms, organised by Setup in the Netherlands, challenged entrants to create a digital version of Piet Mondrian's painting Victory Boogie Woogie.The results range from faithful reproduction to radical reworkings, but all are fascinating in their own way. Each one includes a link to the code, so you can also look 'under the hood' and tinker.

The original Victory Boogie Woogie was unfinished, as Mondrian died of pneumonia in New York in 1944. But even so, the progression from Broadway Boogie Woogie of 1943 is profound, the simple grid of small coloured squares becoming more fractured, and with larger colour planes floating above and behind the grid; the lozenge format adds further visual tension. It arguably shows a transition to a more three-dimensional mode of representation than the resolutely flat pictures of Mondrian's earlier abstract works.

I'd never realised that Mondrian was such catnip for generative design wonks. But it turns out there is a long history of generative design projects that take the work of Mondrian as a starting point, especially the later, pure abstract works Mondrian called neo-plasticism.

Mondify

There's a great explanation video of one of the Elegant Algorithms entries, Mondify, by Kiri Nichol:

One of Mondrian early works, painted when he was on the cusp of pure abstraction, was also the subject of one of the most famous scientific experiments into aesthetics by Michael Noll, who wanted to see if people could tell a Mondrian painting, Composition in Line (1916) from a computer generated one. His study revealed that only 28% of subjects could identify the original Mondrian.

Real or fake Mondrian?

Mondrian generators are fairly commonplace online. Darwindrian (composition of 'Darwin' and 'Mondrian') is an AI program creating painting with neo-plasticism style using a variation of genetic algorithm. It generates 20 images, and then you can select which ones you like to be used in the next generation.

Darwindrian

myData=myMondrian by CJ Yeh (2004) will create a Mondrian-esque composition based on your own personal data.

Cyber-genetic Neo-plasticism is an AI program creating Mondrian-like paintings by using interactive bacterial evolution algorithm.

While it's relatively easy to create a Mondrian-generator which can spit out Mondrian-esque compositions capable of fooling the average layperson, a recent study by a group of Korean students at Chungbuk National University has tackled the much more difficult reverse problem - trying to spot a genuine Mondrian from a raft of imitations. Their research used machine learning to understand the deeper subconscious rules that Mondrian used in this paintings that he would probably been unaware of. This has great implications in the future for the authentication and verification of works of art.

The paper, [Supervised Learning-Based Feature Selection for Mondrian Paintings Style Authentication])http://www.fujipress.jp/finder/xslt.php?mode=present&inputfile=JACII001600070016.xml), is long on maths and short on art theory, but is fascinating in its method:

"First, the Mondrian oeuvre of neoplasticism is compiled in a digital form and encoded as script. Second, based on this statistical information, a statistical generative model is built to produce pseudo-Mondrian style works. Third, the two supervised learning methods are applied to classify the collection of both Mondrian’s works and computer-generated works."

Once the machine method has learnt to distinguish the real from the computer generated, it can then be applied to other images to attempt a distinction. Their conclusion was that 'region portioning' and 'dual graph' were the most meaningful ways of distinguishing a real Mondrian from the fake.

But this knowledge also makes it possible to refine better Mondrian fakes, an arms race in the detection between the real and the simulation. A purely compositional approach to detecting Mondrian fakes is thus perhaps doomed to failed. Instead the time honoured forensic techniques of detecting forgeries based on the physical properties of the paintings seems more reliable, such as canvas analysis and paint analysis using spectroscopy.

Darwindrian

Could a generative approach to 2D images of a highly formal movement such as De Stijl also be applied to 3D design? The furniture of Gerrit Rietveld seems eminently suitable for a generative, dare I say parametric approach, as does the most complete manifestation of De Stijl in architecture, the Rietveld-Schroder House. This seems to be an area ripe for future exploration.

Glass Houses

"I’m a plagiarist man — you see, you must take everything from everybody"

Philip Johnson, interview with Susan Sontag.

With all the press jouissance over the possibility of a clone of a Zaha Hadid project in China being completed before the original, there is a historical precedent of the copy preceding the original, in perhaps the greatest act of architectural plagiarism to date. The story concerns two of the most famous buildings of the Modern Movement, The Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe, and Philip Johnson's Glass House.

The original in this scenario in Mies' Farnsworth House, planned in 1945 For Mrs Farnsworth in Plano, Illinois, but completed in 1951. A model was exhibited at the MOMA in 1947, at a show about modern architecture part curated by, you guessed it, Philip Johnson. Johnson was able to design and build The Glass House for himself quicker than Mies, with his project completed in 1949 and subsequently widely published in the architectural press.

Farnsworth House

Mies was understandably said to be furious, partly because he thought people would conclude that his was the derivative work. And it's not difficult to see the direct influence of one upon the other, both being essentially glass boxes, with full height glazing, and a flat roof supported by edge mounted columns giving an entirely free plan, with a central service core. There are differences of course, primarily the raised platform upon which the Farnsworth House sits, and the white paintwork. In contrast, the Glass House sits into the ground more, and with its darker colouring, sits more within the landscape than against it. In Johnson's Glass House, the corner columns together with the floor and roof slabs creates a box-like frame, whereas Mies, in moving the columns inwards, dissolves the edges and make the horizontal elements float more.

Glass House

David Holowka, in a wonderful article on his Architakes blog, calls Johnson's iterations "history's worst case of the anxiety of influence", and later recalls Franz Schulze, "biographer of both men, states in Philip Johnson, Life and Work, that Mies belabored Johnson 'not for having copied him but for trying to and failing.'"

Johnson went through many variations in his design for the Glass House, somewhere between 27 (the official view) and 79 (according to his assistant Landis Gores). As the Architakes article describes: "After 25 tries, Johnson’s tortured resignation that the Farnsworth House was not to be improved upon is on full view in penultimate scheme 26′s nearly actionable plagiarism of its plan.",

Mies and Johnson continued to have an uneasy professional relationship, working together on the Seagram building in New York. Mies visited Johnson at the Glass House in 1955, but famously refused to stay there. "After a night of drinking, Mies picked at the Glass House's details until Johnson indirectly retaliated by challenging the greatness of one of Mies's favorite buildings, Berlage's Amsterdam Stock Exchange. In a 1985 interview by Robert A.M. Stern published in The Philip Johnson Tapes, Johnson describes Mies’s quietly angry response: "I’m not staying here tonight. Find me another place to stay."

Here is a short Sarah Morris' 2010 film 'Points on a Line':

Sarah Morris "Points on a Line" from Sarah Morris on Vimeo.

Who owns an architectural idiom? After all, Mies didn't invent modernist architecture or the idea of building a house from steel and glass, even if we can admit that the Farnsworth House represents a high-water mark for Modernism. We can sense that Johnson's Glass house has crossed a boundary between inspiration and plagiarism, without being able to explain fully why. It is a fuzzy boundary, and any artistic endeavour will alway find it hard to separate inspiration from duplication. As far as I know, the rules of copyright do not apply to architecture in the same way that they do not apply to fashion. Buildings and clothes are both regarded as utility, and therefore unable to be registered.

It is only Western architecture of the 20th century that began to prize uniqueness in architectural designs so highly, and denigrate similarity and duplication in favour of a radical individuality. Johnson's building, while certainly derivative, ultimately arrives at a different destination from the Mies house. While the Farnsworth House sits against the landscape, the Glass House rests within it, and both solutions are equally valid. Unlike the Chinese clone of a Hadid design, it is not simply a context-free rip-off.