Autumn 2000

Burning issues and damp squibs

Architecture Must Burn

Aaron Betsky and Erik Adigard,
Thames & Hudson, £18.95

Architecture Must Burn is not a call to set light to your prefab office block. Aaron Betsky, curator of Architecture, Design and Digital Projects at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) has a different agenda: “ . . . architecture must be the hearth around which we gather. Architecture must burn down the palaces of pretensions and the lairs of laws into the essence of what it means to be human”.

To tell us exactly what this means and how it might be accomplished, we are presented with four chapters, each divided into sequences of double-page text spreads interspersed with Wired magazine contributor Erik Adigard’s “visual essays” – fluorescent and metallic ink Photoshop compositions. With titles such as “Towards Translucency” or ”Icons, Interfaces and Narratives” or “Architecture Seen in Distraction Can Change the World”, the thrust of these essays is that architecture (by this Betsky seems to mean the general man-made environment rather than just buildings) should be as responsive to the individual and as customisable as a virtual computer world is or could be. This thesis is articulated using Photoshop filter terminology: we’re told our suburban sprawl must blur, be translucent, transparent. I’m left wondering how, outside of a few idealised buildings, this might work. Take translucency – do we replace the bay windows of our Victorian terraces with bathroom bubble glass?

In the growing suburban sprawl, Betsky suggests we need space, “slow space” to start the process of self-representation and to save ourselves from chaos. However, the layout’s abhorrence of any white breathing space suggests more an overwhelming retina-burning cacophony. If this new breed of architecture where everyone expresses themselves resembles this book, it just may look – and sound – rather like Times Square.

Adigard’s resolutely fluorescent images in the current multi-layered, sampled-photography Photoshop style draw their sensibilities directly from the Web, where as well as bitmapping we have devices such as hotlink text underlining for emphasis. There is a way that illustrative images can condense complex texts and highlight themes and main points, and not just in the way a political cartoonist might. If ever we needed a visual distillation of a text this is it. What we get is montages of images that relate somewhat superficially. The chapter entitled “Mall”, for example, has a double-page spread of a barcode upon which sits a tin can, upon which sits an icon of a person with a shopping trolley and the outline of a credit card. This is one of the more lucid images.

The narrative may be better understood when related to a particular place – America, or more specifically the author’s native San Francisco – and possibly a particular urban experience (the author’s previous book is called Queer Space – The Spaces of Same Sex Desire). This experience is probably less applicable to, for instance, my mum, whose paramount criteria for urban planning would be proximity to a garden centre that opens on Sunday.

There are twenty pages bookending the main core that show a cross section of architectural projects in model form, computer walkthrough, mid-construction and final appearance. Though fascinating in their own right, these are not all referred to directly in the text, so if they illustrate various points we are left wondering how. A key at the back merely identifies the architect or firm.

Maybe these criticisms are unfair. This book, in the grand traditions of new art manifestos, is intended to be more an inspirational rallying call than a how-to manual: its purpose to light another fire under the feet of complacent city planners. And there are some urgent and salient points being made here: the lack of character or cultural centre that mall-focused suburban sprawl has, that feeling that we could be anywhere, is something that really needs addressing.

But for a real insight on how online representations of people (avatars) would shape their virtual architecture and interact in a pliable world (what Betsky dubs the Electrosphere), your best bet is to check out Neal Stephenson’s novels The Diamond Age or Snow Crash, which have the advantage of a hefty dose of humour and a good story and, perversely, are far more visual than this book, despite a compete lack of imagery.

In fact, the kids round my area have been customising the surrounding architecture for years. It’s called graffiti.

First published in Eye no. 37 vol. 10, 2000

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