Between Technological Utopia and Broken World Thinking: The Elevation of Repair

In the last five decades the urge to manufacture and consume in a sustainable fashion has acquired an increasingly imperative tone. This period has seen the articulation of a number of recipes for a kind of development with a manageable impact on social structures and nature. The resulting discourse has been phrased mostly in the future tense. Visions are presented as prospective success stories, and their effective impact often goes unscrutinized.

Generative Dances: A Visit to The Office for Creative Research

Sitting at a wooden table in their studio, Jer Thorp and Ben Rubin look remote from the frosty aesthetics of their work. Eyes wide open, infectious surprise. They bolster each other with sudden exclamations of mutual approval. Both communicate genuine, boyish delight. Their hands never rest on the rough surface of the table and accompany with wide gestures their memories of projects past and plans for the future. 

The two members of The Office for Creative Research formally joined forces less than two years ago after informally collaborating for several years, and are still honeymooning. Thorp, a digital artist with a background in genetics, is excited at the idea of the office providing a stable home for their joint efforts. I enter the dim, second-floor Bowery studio through the kitchen. Ben Rubin has occupied the office squeezed between a Chinese furniture store and a takeaway for a decade already.

In their recent projects they use large textual bodies such as Wikileaks, the Bible, or Shakespeares—and startlingly enough even Justin Bieber’s tweets. Rubin remembers that his very first encounter with computers was triggered by his interest in Noam Chomsky’s theory of a generative grammar. A set of rules embedded in language that allows speakers to build infinite sentences from a limited set of words. He remembers using an early computer while at school in the 1970s to build a software that could write all possible sentences in the English Language. "These computers didn't even have a screen,” he says, “we shared one between six." But they did have printers. Rubin launched the code and the computer room became flooded with an uncontainable paper avalanche. I wonder what strategies he has since developed to reconcile the infinite digital world with the constrained one we alas live in.
Rubin's Listening Post (2002) lifted fragments of conversations from on-line chatrooms and delivered them to LCD displays and synthesised voices. In The Language of Diplomacy (2011) the archive was constituted by the Wikileaks cables, and the display was a simple sheet of paper fed into an Underwood typewriter. The Shakespeare Machine (2012) is a permanent wheel-shaped installation that hovers above the lobby of the New York Public Theater. 37 blades depart from a central hub. Each one carries a digital display, and each one is dedicated to one of Shakespeare’s plays. The displays show words and brief lines. At first sight the fragments seem randomly fished from the dramatist's corpus. But after a few seconds in the lobby, one will discern a sort of dialogue taking place between the 37 voices as if controlled by the strings of a hidden puppeteer. Who is directing the dialogue?

The least visible aspect of the artworks is also the most powerful. The digital hands that parse the books are those of algorithms conceived on purpose, typically written in a programming language called Processing. Thorp also designed one for the 9/11 Memorial in Manhattan (2009-2010). His algorithm helped decide on the placement of the 3,000 names carved on the memorial, and make visible the family connections between the victims.

I ask Thorp and Rubin for images that could capture the ineffable nature of an algorithm. Thorp is very straightforward, and somehow mathematical about it. "It's a series of do-until strings. Like the recipes we use when we cook—those are all algorithms." Rubin pauses a bit and closes his eyes as if to meditate. When he comes back, he uses an image I wasn't seeing coming. "A series of dance moves," he says. Finally I see how the bottomless pit of the digital world was reconciled with the comfort of the limited horizon humans enjoy. Choreography. Their algorithms are dancers dancing in a library. They look for the right words to pick from the shelves, and in the process they tell us always novel and unrepeatable stories.

Shakespeare Machine Doc from Ben Rubin on Vimeo.

Notes to a Manifesto

Forensic archeology
Waste used in a street intervention by artist Thiago Bender. São Paulo, 2012.
Joanna van der Zanden authored the Repair Manifesto during the time the Platform 21 curatorial collective was active. Last year a stay at the Domaine de Boisbuchet offered many an opportunity to harvest (immaturely) discarded products, tinker with them, and reflect on the implications of repairing. Here are some reflections that emerged from that experience and the conversations it inspired. 

Nature and Design: Resource or Constraint?

Forensic archeology
ZHdK, Main Building, p/Betty Fleck, © Zürcher Hochschule der Künste
On 23 October 2013 I am giving a guest talk at the Zürich University of the Arts as part of the Ressourcen series curated by Prof Michael Krohn and Karin Zindel of the MA Design. Here is the blurb of the talk:
The idea of a nature that can be harmed or rescued through design reflects a still deep-rooted notion of nature and culture as opposed polarities. Yet, how useful is this distinction in design practice? In its stead, a close reading of recent projects as diverse as Objects of the Forest by Brazilian designer Andrea Bandoni, or Materials from Nature by Material Connexion Bangkok shows the nature-design relationship less as a unidimensional continuum than a field.
And here a copy of the programme as a pdf.

If buildings could speak

City model
A model of the new 20 Fenchurch St. skyscraper harvesting some of the precious real estate still left hovering over the City of of London. Photo Matt Brown (Flickr)
Andrea Branzi once coined the term "hot house" to describe a design movement that joyfully dismissed the all too stifle principles of Modernist design and openly embraced individualism and the market. That metaphor just turned literal on the streets of the City of London, with the new 20 Fenchurch Street skyscraper projecting a laser-like beam toward pedestrians and objects unlucky enough to be outside instead of inside. The obverse growth of the edifice harvests precious real estate still hovering above the City of London, and as a collateral effect the curvature of its aspects concentrates the rays of sunlight along its margins, reaching recorded temperatures of 92.6 degrees Celsius. In the first press releases after the design was unveiled the developers and the architects described the building's form as a "bowing gesture" towards the city and the river. A human effigy, a tamed force. Architectural photography and rendering mannerisms do much to abridge mass and scale and summon a serene, omniscient beholder. Yet, as with the Shard, the subtext to 20 Fenchurch Street comes across clear: "I couldn't care less about what's at street level."

After the dust has settled over the war, architecture turns into evidence. In conversation with Eyal Weizman

Forensic archeology
Forensic science and the production of truth. The only subject that does not lie is the object.
Eyal Weizman is head of Research Architecture at Goldsmiths College, University of London and author of books like Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation and The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza. In these books the same meticulous critical methods are used to scrutinise both built environments and cultural constructs. He is also the co-founder of Decolonizing Architecture (DAAR), a Palestine-based collective that acts through its interventions on the architectural space and on the space described by international law. This is the transcription of a conversation between Gabriele Oropallo and Eyal Weizman about his current project on forensics. The conversation took place on June 18th, 2011 in the rural setting of the Architecture Rehab Camp organised by DAAR and Iaspis in the Stockholm Archipelago.


Photo Pablo Garcia and Golan Levin
Pablo Garcia and Golan Levin, two university art professors, designed a new camera lucida. This was a drawing device originally patented in 1806 and pretty much forgotten since the advent of popular photography. It's built around a prism that visually superimposes the image users are looking at and the sheet of paper they're drawing on, thus allowing them to trace the contours of the scene or subject before their eyes. After three days Kickstarter backers already pledged ten times the amount they had originally requested.

The political theology of the Anthropocene

The ancient surface offers itself to the eye
Geological layers visible along the rugged coast of the Mediterranean island of Capraia. Anthropocene is a term recently coined to refer to the human impact on planet Earth, the scale and extent of which would mark and characterize a whole geological era. 
We heard from Bruno Latour that scientific knowledge is socially constructed. And that both active action and passive action are expression of a distributed agency. But there was another interesting idea that emerged from Bruno Latour's talk on 1 November 2012 at University of Oslo, Waiting for Gaia. An idea that somehow brings the discussion away from the impasse, unto a different plane. The definition of nature, argued Latour, is today a question of political theology and the tension rests on how to translate the name of the entity rather than the attributes across cultures. Whether intentionality is conscious or unconscious does not change much. Camps engaged in the fight are conceptually in a Möbius-strip-like relationship of continuity. That is why their definitions are merely political in scope, and competing to enrol supporters. Ultimately what matters is "not what are we studying" but "how we are divided".

Not the object, but the concept of it

Unbearable lightness

Not the object, but the concept of it
A nineteen-fifties ultra-light prototype in rosewood by the Brazilian artist Geraldo de Barros (Unilabor period) casts its shadow upon a rough concrete wall hit by the geometrical light of an early Sun. A hommage to those who have been sitting on it over the decades.
Throughout his career as industrial designer, interestingly, the chair — or perhaps it is better to say the concept of it —has been the most basic component of Geraldo's material thinking. This is particularly fascinating, especially if we consider how at that time modular furnishing systems were really popular amongst the most considerate designers, like in the case of most of the students who graduated from the Ulm Institute. While armchairs inspire intimacy and solitude, a retreat from mundane occupations, chairs and sofas have a major social aspect to them. Therefore it is revealing how the proportions of De Barros's chairs actually multiply into larger furniture items, and that the environments arranged for publicity shots of his products are often constructed around the central presence of the chair.

In fact, De Barros’s designs are presences in space that function as a continuous reminder of the centrality of man. The chair taken as a basic unit of design embodies an ideal, intimate relationship between the material world and the human being. The chair accommodates the human body allowing the otherwise usually straight angles that connect its segments to fold, to reduce the degree of their inclination. The position the body assumes while sitting on a chair strikingly resembles the one foetuses keep while in womb. In the organic contour of Geraldo's later chairs this aspect is further emphasised and revealed. Their sculptural shape is somehow activated by contact with the human being, and this encounter solves the mystery of their appearance. Their function is clearly to sustain the human body and hence is their form openly anthropomorphic, always inviting the user to come closer, like in a love song, in a courtship. Their love of man is unconditional.

Book launch in Geneva

Standing on the Beach with a Gun in my Hand book launch in Geneva
© Daphné Bengoa
Two texts of mine were published in the book edited by Donatella Bernardi and Noémie Etienne that documents and elaborates on the 2010 Eternal Tour art festival that took place in Jerusalem and Ramallah. One is a dialogue with Eyal Weizman, the author of Hollow Land, a book I translated into Italian, on some aspects of his current research. The other, a report I wrote about four different spatial realities I experienced during my time in Israel and Palestine, entitled "Architecture, or else Repression". The book was presented in Paris, Stockholm, and several locations in Switzerland. I took part to the launch in Geneva.

Three Scottish waterfront regeneration programmes

In recent years, in Europe and beyond, there has been a definite trend toward the rehabilitation and redevelopment of waterfront areas. There were several reasons why these areas, which in the past often functioned as entry point to the city, fell into neglect. Amongst these, the the beginning of mass air travel, the redrawing of trade routes and subsequent relocation of commercial harbours. Between the nineteen-seventies and nineties, however, some successful examples as the London Docklands or the Barcelona Villa Olimpica, set the standard for waterfront regeneration programmes as a fast, photogenic and clearly business-oriented way cities could re-shuffle their image and attract foreign investment.

The Limits of Openness? Reassessing the Contribution of Communicative Action Theory to Urban Planning


The authors of the Frankfurt School maintained that a radical change in society was necessary; however, they always refused to suggest any practice. The role of the thinker, as famously argued by Adorno, was not to engage with society and politics in a direct fashion, because this would imply being caught in a stream of cause and effect relations. This compromise would eventually jeopardise their subjectivity and the ability to critically consider reality.
Jürgen Habermas, the last author to be associated with the Frankfurt School, shifted his object of analysis from the immediate social reality to the level of language and communication, increasingly detaching the terms of the question from his immediate historical circumstances.
The authors of the Frankfurt School maintained that a radical change in society was necessary; however, they always refused to suggest any practice. The role of the thinker, as famously argued by Adorno, was not to engage with society and politics in a direct fashion, because this would imply being caught in a stream of cause and effect relations. This compromise would eventually jeopardise their subjectivity and the ability to critically consider reality. Jürgen Habermas, the last author to be associated with the Frankfurt School, shifted his object of analysis from the immediate social reality to the level of language and communication, increasingly detaching the terms of the question from his immediate historical circumstances.

The palimsepst is revealing

Jaffa Flat photograph © Amit Geron from
When Dezeen featured images and the usual scant captions on a flat renovation in Jaffa, the first enthusiastic (and omnivorous) comments on the elegance of the minimalist furniture and the attractiveness of the girls modelling in the photography left at some point the stage to a more complex, if fragmented and delayed conversation that touched upon issues as the ethics of design and architecture, the appropriateness for architects to talk about social and political justice, and finally which platforms are more suited to these discussions.

The flat in itself, remarked some of the commenters, is conceptually quite simple. A contemporary flat is carved out of the existing space in an ancient building. The designers provide it with all mods cons and use tasteful, minimalistic furniture throughout the rooms. Plaster is stripped from walls and ceilings to expose the underlying layers and highlight the geometry of the arches. Lots of light (we are on the shores of the Mediterranean) and a sensual effect provided by the roughness of the bricks and sandy, crumbling concrete.

However, revealing the structural palimsepst behind the plaster of an old flat is a risqué cultural intervention in Jaffa, now a suburb of Tel Aviv. A bit like in those horror b-movies of the nineteen-eighties, where the dark side of the American past reemerged in the form of a stream of poltergeists coming from an Indian cemetery below a haunted house or a funky high school. My first reaction was to ponder whether living in this flat ever makes the current tenants wonder where the original owners are now and exactly how they lost possession of their home. Then I realised how powerful a metaphor is provided by this flat. It seems that the only way the new inhabitants of this side of the Fertile Crescent can adapt to the newly conquered territory is by slowly turning into Palestinians and progressively absorbing little elements of native culture into their daily lives, as you see in this flat happening with the elements of the vernacular architecture.

Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 and evolved from a few tents in the sand to take off as a modernist city when Central and Eastern Europeans arrived in the nineteen-thirties as refugees. Today the city prides herself on having the highest concentration of Bauhaus buildings in the world (though with little Bauhaus planning). Yet, their grandchildren today crave to live under Moresque ceilings and go to the length of stripping the plaster from the walls to visually project their act of dwelling into a possible past. Whose past is it?

Human, all too human

The term fractal was coined by Benoît Mandelbrot in 1975. Fractal geometry describes forms that are regular in their development, as crystals, clouds, organic structures and all other natural shapes, but are too irregular to be described by Euclidean geometry. In fractal geometry the shape of a leaf can be described by equations, like triangles, squares and other man-made forms can in classical geometry.
Parametricism,” in the words of one of his main theorists, “is the great new style after modernism.” A design style in which “buildings are developed using problem-solving as the driving force rather than by grouping together architectural objects.” We have seen this in recent years in the voluptuous shapes of Zaha Hadid studio’s computer-generated designs, in the sculptural iconicity of buildings as Rome's Maxxi.

Wait a moment. “Problem-solving is the driving force.” This sounds quite similar to the old modernist tenet according to which “form follows function.” What is the difference?

According to Patrick Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects, author of the above quotation, the difference is in the direction of the design intervention. So far we have juxtaposed Eucledian structures in order to create space or harness portions of it into environments. The rationale of the design is in the concept that links these solids. The reader may be familiar with the house Ludwig Wittgenstein designed in Vienna in 1927 for his sister, today seat of the Bulgarian cultural institute. There is maybe this concept expressed at its best, mind you, by a non professional architect. Volumes in Wittgenstein House develop from each other in an orderly albeit ambitious manner, as in a logical deduction. Rather than created, space is acknowledged, as it happens when shedding light in the dark.

A later variation on this deductive way to building was dubbed “deconstructionism,” and consisted in disassembling these configuration of solids before they were even erected. Its purpose was to show the relations between the basic components in a more honest (and post-modern) fashion. The elements put on display were not only structural and material, but also ideological and symbolic. This approach was aimed at favouring inclusion: anyone was entitled to read and experience the building their own way.

Parametric design, on the contrary, is nothing about deduction. It is an attempt to let structures grow systematically, according to their relation with the environment, as a living organism would do in order to survive. Everything is interconnected, and to take into account everything, sophisticated softwares are necessary and do much of the work. Instead of “spaces,” Schumacher actually speaks of “fields,” which fluidly articulate themselves to accomodate the complexity of contemporary life.

Parametric design therefore bears a striking resemblance to organic forms. Curiously, it is visually very close also to surrealist decoration patterns. Both styles share an oblique, decadent appeal. This is because both styles took a great deal of inspiration from nature. Organic structures are economical: organisms – as also computers if they are so programmed – always try to find the shortest way between A and B. This is why living forms are usually curvilinear and not square, Cartesian or Euclidean. A parametric city would resemble a circulatory system, rather than a modernist grid. Every element would be interconnected and the complexity of functions would lead the growth of the system.

Transition and fluidity are greatly praised by Schumacher. This makes one remember of the “natura non facit saltus” (nature does not make sudden jumps) motto by Lucretius. Also Gaudì’s architectures were supposed to imitate nature – praising god's magnificent design skills in the process. The Sagrada Familia, if designed today, would look a lot like a building by Zaha Hadid. Intriguingly enough, that decadent architecture was constructed according to principles that are very similar to the construction of organic matter. One ray of light descends from the sky and divides itself at each hub in four lines, which progressively multiply, one to four, until the structure touches the ground. Even if fluid, its architecture is stable and solid because based on four "legs," as chairs, tables and horses. Also organic matter is physically built on the atom of carbon which combines with other atoms of carbon four by four, forming very stable, never-ending chains (a process known as catenation).  We thought the dispute on whether art should or not imitate nature was finished two centuries ago, but it is clearly an ever-present motif in human psyche.

I like the idea of an architecture whose form develops according to fractal geometry (the geometry of leaves, plants, clouds and all natural structures) instead of being constrained by platonic solids. And yet, all this organic matter makes me feel like a virus, a parasite in a host body, as though I should not be walking along these circulatory systems. Or, in the best case scenario, I feel like a part of the system, inextricably linked to it and forced to give away some individuality.

I have taken some time to reflect upon this, and now I think the underlying reason for this awkward feeling is that this ideal biomimicry in architecture eventually eschews one crucial aspect of design I am otherwise used to. This is the confrontation between built space and human being, which is made necessary exactly of the artificiality of the constructed space. Parametric architecture is often soft, and gives way, thus making it difficult to recognise the boundaries between my individual perception of space and the built space that I find around me.

This is a structural confrontation in which one usually develops a critical, informed understanding of things. It may just be premature to say, but parametric architecture to me feels like being sucked back in an ideal utero, in which the spatial sense that characterizes human beings as a species is dimmed and left unripe. No wonder it is actually becoming the favourite style of iconic public buildings, airports and other non-spaces. Ultimately, parametricism can be very useful and exciting as a design method, but the designer should always somehow work against the methodology rather than let it take total control.

In the folds of a striated space: Shu'fat refugee camp

Shu'fat camp
Shu'fat camp
Shu'fat camp

W.J. Mitchell opened his famous 1990 book, The Logic of Architecture, stating that "architecture is an art of distinctions within the continuum of space". Similarly, also A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari can be read as recounting a story about how the definition of space is the result of an extended confrontation between two arrangements of its raw material – the smooth and the striated. This couplet of concepts deserves some attention in that their interpretation is quite open and lends itself to many, contrasting possibilities.

Let us begin by taking that striated is not a space in which movement is hindered by boundaries and obstacles. Also, smooth, on the other hand, in my reading of Deleuze-Guattari does not stand for homogeneous. Rather, smooth means amorphous, formless. Striation is generally speaking the result of the intervention of man, who while colonising a territory drew lines on it as on a wax tablet. This intervention progressively created homogeneity and still facilitates movement through the territory. Think of a grid that allows to measure discrete distances, or of a network of roads that allows navigation through the land.

One of the oldest continuously anthropised territories on the planet, the Fertile Crescent, has undergone a radical process of redefinition of boundaries since the end of the First World War and the dismissal of the Ottoman empire. On the Mediterranean end of the crescent colonisation and redefinition have been extensive, but pockets of old fragments of the mutilated previous space, already crossed and defined in a slow process over the centuries, still remain.

The Shu'fat camp was established in 1965, after the Muscar camp in the Old City of Jerusalem was closed because of its insalubrious living conditions. It is the only refugee camp that lies within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem and its refugees are entitled to the Jerusalem identity card. Since card holders are not affected by the closures imposed in the Territories, many refugees who had optimistically left the camp following the beginning of the Oslo process have subsequently returned in recent years. The official number of refugees currently registered by the UNRWA as residents of the camp are 11,000, but it is estimated that the real number is around 18,000, on a surface of around 0.2 square kilometers, which was originally leased from the Jordanian government before the 1967 war. In an attempt to provide accommodation for their families, refugees are constantly building taller structures on foundations originally designed to hold one or two-storey shelters, layer on layer.

Hamad wuz here


Somewhere between the Keynesian concept of governments stimulating demand in times of unemployment by spending on public works – and a mischievous child scribbling his name on the wall. Sheik Hamad Bin Hamdan Al Ahyan spent 22 million dollars to have his name carved as water canals on the sand of Al Futaysi island, and make it visible from outer space. But he got the north and the south wrong and the puzzled astronauts are wondering what on earth the word pɐɯɐɥ means.

When design is really good

AK-47 Automatic Rifle
Photo by Carl Malamud [Creative Commons]
DESIGNERS should never aim at producing good design. When design is really good, then design is lethal. Look for example at the case of the AK-47 sub machine gun, developed by Mikhail Kalashnikov between 1941-1947 with the help of his friend Zhenya Kravchenko, a machinist. What an example of successfully good design. Simple, effective, lasting. It needed less updates in sixty-six years than the iPod in ten years. It has no logo, but needs less promotion and advertising than the Coca-Cola. It is even capable of educating its users by itself on how to operate it; in fact, someone said the AK-47 is able to transform even monkeys into soldiers. Oh, and obviously even if the AK-47 is one of the greatest bestselling designed objects of all times, its designer never received any royalties for his work. All the profits go to producers and distributors.

Wittgenstein Haus: the logic of building

In 1927, Wittgenstein returned to Vienna to design a house for his sister. At that moment of his life, after having studied engineering in Manchester, logic in Cambridge, writing his Tractatus while an Italian prisoner of war, living two years in isolation in a hut in Norway and working as a school teacher for in an Austrian village, he had eventually renounced openly intellectual activities and was working as a gardener in the now former imperial capital. His sister thought collaborating on the design of the house with a contracted architect could be a stimulating work for him. She was right, because her brother immediately got caught full time in the project and could hardly stop rephrasing the house over and over again after two years of work.

This building is what should have been the ideal link between logische Aufbau and Bauhaus. Logical positivism was a methodology developed by the intellectuals of the so-called Vienna circle (e.g. Schlick, Neurat, Carnap) to contrast interpretations of things made on the basis of assumptions that existed beyond the sphere of the immediate and direct experience of the observer – metaphysical reason. They made philosophy into a method, whose rationale was to separate meaningful statements from the quicksand of metaphysics, where the object of analysis are sublime facts, transcendental realities beyond the ordinary. Their philosophy was therefore constructed as a critique of language and not any more a critique of reason, as it was with Kant.

The volumes of Wittgenstein Haus develop or better derive as propositions one from another. Relations between the elements have an objective, visible nature. They are shown, rather than told. The house, long forgotten, was eventually bought by the Bulgarian government in 1972, and today is used as Bulgarian cultural institute. In 1929, he left Vienna and went back to Cambridge to work on the problems that led him to develop the idea of the language games, which he wrote about in his second book, the Investigations. Every situation is a "game" with its own special language. Misunderstanding happens when the words used to play one game are used to play another. To establish and maintain communication one constantly has to shift the meaning one associates with a certain word or expression.

The core of the house is the central hall. The rooms are collocated around the hall and each one has double doors. Each door is made of vertical panels, of alternatively wood and glass. You can see through the doors, but only as long as you keep moving, because when you face the door the see-through panels correspond to thick ones. Only by directing your gaze sideways you find a thin clear line and establish a visual contact with the space behind the two doors. Walking inside the house equals to reading his Investigations.