RMB City

RMB City

RMB City

RMB City

Chinese artist Cao Fei, AKA China Tracy, has an exhibition of her Second Life installation RMB City at Lombard Freid Projects in New York from February 29th to April 5th, 2008.

RMB City is an installation created by China Tracy in Second Life, a parody of contemporary Chinese culture - a giant panda swinging on a crane counterweighted by OMA's CCTV building, for instance, and a commentary on the urban development goldrush currently at full steam across China:

"RMB City will be the condensed incarnation of contemporary Chinese cities with most of their characteristics; a series of new Chinese fantasy realms that are highly self-contradictory, inter-permeative, laden with irony and suspicion, and extremely entertaining and pan-political. China's current obsession with land development in all its intensity will be extended to Second Life. A rough hybrid of communism, socialism and capitalism, RMB City will be realized in a globalized digital sphere combining overabundant symbols of Chinese reality with cursory imaginings of the country's future."

You can see more on YouTube here: RMB CITY - A Second Life City Planning:

Brutal Virtuality

Robin Hood Gardens

Margaret Hodge, UK architecture minister, on modernist architecture:

"When some concrete monstrosity - sorry, I mean modernist masterpiece - fails to make the cut despite having expert opinion behind it, let's find a third way. This is the 21st Century - a perfect digital image of the building, inside and out, could be retained forever."

Hodges comments come a few weeks before English Heritage will make its recommendation to Hodge whether to list Robin Hood Gardens, a housing estate in the Brutalist style, completed in 1972.

So what would Robin Hood Gardens look like in digital form?

Much of what makes brutalist architecture so polarising is that it is so uncompromising - its brooding physicality is almost the antithesis of the pure superficiality of the digital simulacra . Brutalist buildings don't ask to be liked, and as Amanda Baillieu says in her BD editorial, the Robin Hood Gardens estate "is not an esay place to love". Much of their appeal (or 'monstrosity') comes from the raw qualities of concrete, what Le Corbusier called the b├ęton brut, with the patina given by years of staining, weathering and abuse. Can this uncompromising materiality ever be represented in cyberspace?

As can be seen from many recent computer games, virtual environments are getting better at representing the dirt in the cracks of the real world, creating imperfect alternate futures. There's no reason why digital architectural models cannot move beyond the shiny plasticity of most of todays walk-throughs and fly-bys to show something more visceral and down at heel, representing the ravages of time, weathering and unsocial behaviour.

In some ways, a digital simulation of a project may be a more accurate representation of it's original aims. Robin Hood Gardens was never used or inhabited the way that the Smithsons intended. Inevitably it became filled with low-income families, as previously mentioned about Park Hill: "sink social housing for the dispossessed, the rootless and the shiftless".

Simon Smithson, the son of architects Alison and Peter Smithson, recalls the early days of Robin Hood Gardens in an interview at BD online:

I think it became obvious soon after the families moved in, and we went to see it. They moved in problem families from the outset, and when we talked to the warden and he showed us that the old peoples' centre that had been smashed up and had to be locked, it shook my father to the core.

But what I remember as a child is how modern the flats were. They were big, light and had central heating, which we didn't have at home. The flats were well built and the detailing was of a quality you simply don't see today. The way the acoustic problems were dealt with was a tour de force.

Given that RHG, if saved from demolition, will never to be restored to it's pristine original state, and will need to be remodelled and adapted to new uses, there is a strong case that a digital archive may be a more accurate preservation of the original building. Imagine a comprehensive digital archive of Robin Hood Gardens, available online with access for all, with drawings and documentation, photographs of the building tracing it's troubled history. Combine this with a collection of state-of-the-art 3D models, available for download under a Creative Commons licence, and including models capable of being experienced, navigated and inhabited with the latest immersive technologies, would be a fine legacy for the Smithson's endeavour.

Inevitably, the more people learn about Robin Hood Gardens the more keen they will be to visit it, to experience it in real life, which is why I support the listing and revitalisation of RHG. But it cannot be preserved as a monument, a shrine to Brutalism - it must be made to work as a building, a place.

Margaret Hodge has backed herself into a corner with her comments. She cannot now do nothing. She must either agree to list Robin Hood Gardens, or commit to a National Digital Architecture Archive. It is my passionate hope that she does both.


Virtual Brutality

Robin Hood Gardens

Robin Hood Gardens

Another Brutalist landmark is under threat of demolition. This time it's Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, East London. Designed by Alison and Peter Smithson, and completed in 1972, it looks likely that the local council, Tower Hamlets, will demolish the building and look to redevelop the site.

The only hope is that it receives listed building status, and becomes the protectorate of English Heritage. But conferring listed building status ultimately lies in the hands of the architecture minister, Margaret Hodge, who has weighed in with the following astonishing comment, in the recent issue of Grand Designs, and requoted in Building Design:

"When some concrete monstrosity - sorry, I mean modernist masterpiece - fails to make the cut despite having expert opinion behind it, let's find a third way. This is the 21st Century - a perfect digital image of the building, inside and out, could be retained forever."

This is either visionary prescience or the inane ramblings of a deranged lunatic. There is the germ of an amazing concept here - that we should create a National Digital Archive of high quality 3D models of our country's best buildings, which can be visited and explored in a virtual environment.

That this then presumably clears the way to demolish all that doesn't fit Hodge's aesthetic sensibilities is where she lurches from visionary to tyranny.

While the words 'conservation' and 'heritage' generally cause shivers to run down my spine, the revitalisation of the Brunswick Centre and to a lesser extent the redevelopment of Park Hill in Sheffield by Urban Splash, show that there is plenty of demand for some BoHo Brutalism. Superficially, it took little more than a Starbucks and a Waitrose to transform the concourse of the Brunswick Centre from a forlorn, windswept precinct to a popular urban hangout.

Goldfinger's masterful Trellick Tower was once also held with similar contempt as the Smithsons RHG, and now its flats are in high demand, often selling at above market rates. Likewise the Unite d'Habitation in Marseille, which was a powerful precedent for Robin Hood Gardens. Could Robin Hood Gardens also be turned into a desirable residence for owner occupiers? Unless and until more compelling alternatives are put forward, it should be saved.

(images from Flickr user Joseph Beuys Hat)

Re-presenting Hadid

Hadid Silver Painting

Hadid Silver Painting

Hadid Silver Painting

Here are a few recent paintings by Zaha Hadid, from a show at the Galerie Buchmann. (see Flickr set here). There were also some of these silver prints on display at the recent Zaha retrospective at the Design Museum.

While visually stunning, they are little more than a striking way of re-presenting computer renderings, rather than design explorations. Does the act of producing these images change the design approach?

The place of design is now within the computer, not the drawing.

These paintings are pure surface.

"The Silver Paintings are executed on a polyester skin treated with chrome and gelatine then mounted on to an aluminium DI-BOND to resemble polished metal.

Different media are used depending on the desired effect. Stained glass paint offers transparency while acrylic and Chinese lacquer generate opaqueness. UV-resistant ink combined with vinyl gives the highest degrees of reflectivity. These techniques combine to suggest a gradual intersection between reflectivity and opacity, from one architectural feature to the next."

The days pass quickly in the Mies courtyard house.

With this level of detailed modeling (over 1 million polygons) and advanced photo-realistic rendering, it makes the act of building a rather redundant step. Which is fine for an unbuilt Mies project, but I wonder if advanced architectural rendering will make built architecture unnecessary.

Introducing Superspatial

Zaha Hadid parametric urbanism

Just a quick note to mention the launch of a new collaborative weblog, called Superspatial, that I am involved in.

Superspatial will focus on architecture, urbanism and architectural speculation, while Kosmograd will hopefully become more refined in tackling issues of disurbanism, urban representation and virtual space.

Currently the only other author on Superspatial is Lewis Martin, from the excellent Helsinki-focussed archi-blog lewism. If you are interested in joining in, get in touch.

Some recent posts on Superspatial:

004. The urban futures of rising tides

003. A bridge too far?

002. Parametric Urbanism on the Thames Estuary

001. Seattle Art Museum Sculpture Park