In the midst of the Mayan calendar predictions, prophecies came and went and on 12-12-12 in New York, the Mexican architect Fernando Romero released his book You Are The Context at the Guggenheim Museum. The launch was a celebration of what comes next, a young career full of potential and a designer with the means to create change in and out of Mexico.
Romero and his firm FR-EE published the book as a catalog of architecture projects erected and for consideration around the world. In an email he writes, “It is a manifesto of today’s context for designers.” The book reads like an architecture self-help guide: a serious investigation of trending topics in building and social design: museums, mixed-use, responsible vertical, cities, convention centers, bridges, etc.
The book starts “Since the mid-1960s, as a reaction against the formalism and functionalism of Modernism, the word context has seen a common and frequently used term in architectural discourse.” Romero and FR-EE are pushing an agenda with regards to careful attention to the key elements of site, culture, time and society. These are considerations for a future architecture.
You Are The Context is self-published and reads as part calling card/part industry resource. FR-EE hopes to ignite conversations around key issues, shed light on the positive developments in Mexico, and also to bid for some US territory or at least make it’s voice more laudable.
Romero won international acclaim for designing Museo Soumaya in 2011, a sequined hourglass of a museum housing Carlos Slim Helú’s prestigious art collection in Mexico City. Romero is prone to organic shapes and experimental forms. His mentors include Enric Miralles, Jean Nouvel and Rem Koolhaas.
You Are the Context has that Koolhaas approach to solving problems by posing solutions like Koolhaas’ early publications: the graphic rich bookS,M,L, XL investigated cities and architecture through essays and meditations or like his pastiche Content magazine. Romero’s Contextuses a variety of voices and forms of information to pose important social design questions, riffing in and out of professional rigor and interesting factual data. The book ends with the artist Pedro Reyes writing an essay on place, “Professionals see architecture…People are looking for places-places to be, places that make us feel good, just as one finds comfort in a good song or good movie. “
Romero is using his projects in China and Mexico to discuss real global issues with what he calls “innovative programmatic solutions.” The book shows his investment in the invisible details and contextualizing space. He says, “Mexico is in the beginning of a new era. Now we are ready to develop the base for the pyramid… And for designers this will be a challenging time.”
Perhaps the most critical message of in the book is an urging from the writer/editor, Julia van den Hout, “How do designers use their own past experiences as advantages in future projects?” It’s an important question to consider within the book itself and for the architects and cities we live in. What is our context?
Combine the iconic Mexican culture expressions of the psychedelic Huichol and a Volkswagen Beetle or El Vocho as Mexicans have nicknamed it—and you get El Vochol, a beaded VW bug. This dynamic manifestation of indigenous folk art is being used to promote the artisan heritage of the indigenous Mexican communities to an international audience.
El Vochol was first commissioned by the Association of Friends of Museo of Arte Popular in Mexico City to elevate the work of traditional artisans in the public sphere both nationally and internationally. The project took on a greater message to the world: indigenous work is not to be forgotten, and in fact, celebrated. Sonya Santos of the Museo says, “People all over the world are responding in a fabulous way….They are all surprised by the magnificent work.”
The Huichol, or Wixaritari as they call themselves, are known in Mexico for their intricate bead work lain into beeswax by needle one bead at a time to cover entire objects such as bowls and figurines. The Wixaritari live in the Sierra Nevadas of Western central Mexico and are praised in folkloric markets for their colorful and spiritual works of art produced mainly for tourism. The symbols represented in the bead and yarn work reflect their deep centuries-old shamanic traditions, with veneration to principal deities of corn, deer, peyote, and the eagle.
El Vochol is a celebration of culture new and old and offers an opportunity to experience folkloric art in a modern art setting. With VW as canvas,the peyote-trip inspired bead work is propelled to pop culture form.The painstaking magnitude of the project used 2,277,000 beads to cover the body of the car with a special heat-resistant resin. Francisco Bautista, a community elder, designed the cosmic characters on El Vocho, depicting symbols and ritual elements of an individual’s inner spiritual journey. Two leading Wixaritari families contributed to the project over a seven-month period.
El Vochol is a welcomed example of how an art form can evolve through time and still maintain its integral substance. This contemporary manifestation of Wixaritari bead work is a spirited campaign in the discussion of “What is Art?” Here, we see that art institutions can create a convergence of tradition and modernity in colorful triumph. By fall, El Vochol will leave Mexico to embark on a global tour, first stopping in Paris and come next year, it will be shown at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC.
When Frederick Law Olmstead developed his vision for Central Park in 1857, he was inspired by the picturesque and privately owned gardens he had visited in England and France, vast greenery that was at once organic and controlled. The New York City park was revolutionary for the time as it was a public space where all people could enjoy the virtues of nature, despite social standing. Today, New Yorkers are still looking for ways to commune with nature and creatively imbue the city scale with greenery, stacking plant life on top of man-made structures like the Highline, rooftop farming or yesterday’s news about kitchen island hydroponics.
Then comes the Plant-in City art installation, developed by a collaboration of NY architects, designers, and developers. The handsome terrariums made of cedar frames, copper pipes for water, digital sensors, and integrated lighting bring picturesque gardens into your home or office. The Plant-in collaboration contains the sense of park in your private space, the lighting and boxed frames lend themselves to punctuating the vitality of living plants, much like a still life. The boxes are equal parts art, science experiment, and high design. Huy Bui of HB Collaborative says that he and his partners, Med44, in the Plant-in City project spend a lot of time indoors surrounded by technology and hardware and were “looking for an opposing force to balance all of that and considered creating a living wall.”
The wooden blocks are based off a grid with one-, two-, and four-foot increments. The idea is that the blocks can be stacked to create walls or used as individual pieces of art. The basic design of it can be implemented outdoors on a large scale as well as within a living room. Carlos Gomez de Llarena, a media architect from Med44, says that Plant-in City was inspired by the Internet of Things as well as Archigram’s Plug-in City, where mega structures of capsules for living could be grown on demand. The Plant-it project’s namesake is in honor of this concept. He says, “our project makes it possible to have a miniature Highline Park in a loft.” That is, distilling the diverse qualities of a park in capsule form.
The Plant-in City is in the prototype stage with Bui and collaborators raising seed money with a Kickstarter campaign. The simple stacking frames have huge potential for urban dwellers. Imagine the MoMA or a gallery space being filled with the boxes, a loft patio space lined by them, or home chefs growing their favorite herbs, the possibilities are endless. Much like the creative visions of Olmstead centuries ago, NYC architects and designers are coming together to create beautiful and clever solutions for green living and can be used by the population at-large. Gomez de Llarena says, “We want to build bionic plant furnishings for the information age.”
Five black and white “arresting” images depict a Chinese model being strong-armed, handcuffed, taken away, interrogated, and stripped naked under government custody. The images, though heady in content and context, impart a delicate beauty. The violence is staged, muted, restrained and controlled. This is, after all, the pages of W magazine, a fashion editorial deftly titled “Enforced Disappearance,” developed in collaboration with the artist Ai Weiwei. It is his first work of art since being released from government custody having spent 81 days in a Beijing jail. He is still under surveillance and not permitted to leave his Beijing home. Imploring his media savvy, Weiwei used Skype to direct the W team from his home in what the New York Times described as “his disembodied self, open on the laptop.” “Enforced Disappearance” is a poetic re-enactment of Weiwei’s own time in jail. It is also informed stylistically from his past. In the early 80s, Weiwei studied art in New York and took snapshots of everyday street life. That collection of images is titled “New York Photographs 1983-1993.” The “Disappearance” editorial draws inspiration from a series of Weiwei images depicting the Tompkins Square Riots of ‘88, a punk revolution against gentrification of the Lower East Side. According to Tate Etc, Weiwei’s witness to those American riots “…helped instill an unwavering belief in individual freedom and social justice.” With this editorial and the means in which it was created, Weiwei employs the multiplications of time and place, new technologies, global experiences, and negation of nations. He says “The conflicts between individuals and authorities—be they economic, cultural, political, or religious. I am using my personal experience to address a condition. “ His disembodied approach culls from many movements and ideologies. The editorial then becomes “a hyper novel with many beginnings” and with many meanings through time.
Ai Weiwei’s practice as an artist is one of renaming and reinterpreting. The strength of his art is in social commentary. Everything he does is with measured meaning. His large-scale installations pull from the historical Chinese identity and moves meaning forward to question globalization, industrialization, capitalism, and authority through objects. In crafting “Disappearance,” the discourse is both on American capitalist incentives and Chinese censorship. The two separate acts of arrest are funneled through one provocative fashion story. It is seemingly light-hearted but at its root has the undeniable politics of self, furthering Weiwei’s activist platform. In the poem “The Question of Subversion” Edward Jabes writes, “If I give the same title to two different texts are they not all the more opposites for the arbitrary, circumstantial unity imposed on them? The conflict is internal.” Weiwei’s internal conflict within the “Disappearance” culls from the Beat poet tradition of disembodied poetics. By definition disembodied poetics is married to a legacy of social protest, “an urgency toward the exploration and the enhancement of a deeply-rooted human and natural potential.” Weiwei’s own language is image based. Objects and images convey more universal opportunities at meaning than Chinese script or the Arabic alphabet. The language in “Disappearance” means to question the effects of harnessed human potential. Language being the proudest tool to evoke resistance, disembodied poetics aims at using new technologies, the everyday world as a stage for performance, and unfettered personal politics to embolden others. Disembodied poetics is a call to action, thought action.
The existence of “Disappearance” in a glossy magazine has thought potential. It is an idea that foments and grows. Weiwei in his own vision threads his youthful American idealism with his more adult Chinese dissidence. He sees both experiences as the same conversation. His “I” becomes a “we”. The states of absence and disappearance promote self-will. In developing “Disappearance”, can we say that Ai Weiwei is both Chinese and American in tradition? Can we negate his allegiance to any one nation? Like Jabes’s exiles and displacements, Weiwei’s whole life is a conversation of and with the other; He is a mind in exile. The self-conscious effects of the Chinese Revolution on an individual who dares to think as an outsider, who considers himself an artist with politics. Not unlike the exile in “The Book of Questions” where there are no nations but books. There are no nations for allegiance, only thoughts of the mind. Radical otherness. Weiwei’s language images in “Disappearance” evoke a deep remoteness to the jarring realities of arrest.
Weiwei has been compelled by history to confront experiences of marginality, deprivation, and exile. In Italo Calvino’s Six Memos For The Next Millennium we learn of the tangential knotted experience of mankind through multiplicity. The “unforeseen catastrophes are never the consequence or the effect, if you prefer, of a single motive, of a cause singular; but they are rather like a whirlpool, towards which a whole magnitude of converging causes have contributed.”
Weiwei’s collection of black and white snapshots from the 80s riots are now featured in a museum in Taiwan under an exhibition titled Absent. He says, “Absence itself is the current status of my art and my person and a part of my cultural circumstance.” We are left to question the idea of absence. Who is absent? What is absent? Certainly the power of meaning is not absent. As with the case of Weiwei’s physical absence during the W magazine shoot of “Disappearance” his disembodied participation occurred through the Internet and Skype. Technology steps in as a powerful tool to aide in the will for self-reflection. With new modes of communication, Weiwei works around physical distance and government authority to develop provocative meaning through language. He says in W magazine, “The feelings and emotions were close, but the camera was so far away… The process became a part of the work. Art is always about overcoming obstacles between the inner condition and the skill for expression.”
From his studio in Beijing, Weiwei, had a clear view of Rikers Island. The W magazine team was shooting the interrogation scenes at the infamous New York jail. Actively watching from his computer, Weiwei imparted his desire to demonstrate more grit through the straightforward surveillance of the naked model subject. He wanted to retain the sense of looming danger and hopelessness in the frame. Rikers jail becomes a character in this narrative. This Deco section of Rikers was built in the tradition of the notorious French Fresnes jail in 1906. It is the jail where active surveillance was first experimented with and developed with what Foucault called “Panopticons”, the circular prison model by eighteenth-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham that let guards observe a large number of inmates from a central position. Here we find how the identity of the prison lends itself to furthering the mulitiplicity of experience through history. With careful observance, the prison frame becomes tantamount, an expression of arrest through time. Calvino writes of multiplicity, “The structure of which is accumulative, modular and combinatory.”
Ai’s greatest theme in his artwork is in anti-system, anti-establishment. He says about his early New York photographs “I become aware of the special significance of this kind of confrontation as an ongoing endeavor—whether it be in relation to individual experiences or the present-day circumstances of global economic collectivisation.” It is no accident that in escaping Communist China Weiwei’s hopelessness found validation in the restless flicker of American public protest. As a young man, that unruly boisterousness he found in the East Village was a great marker of identity. He seized the lawless spirit for himself forever entwining notions of East and West, individual and the collective, developing his own hardcore identity, roughed and ready to take on authority. Signing the proverbial middle finger many of his works preserve.
The Tompkins Square Riots was very much about self-autonomy. As a low-income population on the fringe, it was colored by virtues of “immorality”, hardcore punk, free transexuality, codified black market commerce, and open homeless encampments. New York City officials considered it a lawless land of filth to be wrestled and gutted. In photographing his neighborhood Weiwei says, “I was interested in individual rights, group rights, and their relation to power. Power in the form of the police control—and the resulting confrontations and abuse of those rights.” A New York Times article published at this time quotes the band, The Backyards to describe the sentiment of the East Village punk mentality, “Must be dedicated, hard-hitting, in it for life. Willing to die naked in an alley for your anti-art.”
This undying live-or-die mentality invigorates Weiwei. By producing this sleek fashion editorial for a Western magazine, it heightens and dissolves the pretense of government control or authority. By editorializing his experience he is at once mocking and taking away its power. It becomes crystalline, as an object of beauty locked in our memory. He has created a disembodied poem at once about China, the United States, of 80s New York grit, of censorship, social unrest, and personal revolution. It is a black leather jacket of non-conformity. It is a shackled wrist. It is both a snap-and-shoot camera of yesteryear and an iPhone and Macbook. As it is multiplicity it is also a lightness not unlike Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being. Calvino writes, “Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable.”
“Enforced Disappearance” becomes a fable, a printed pictorial lesson to learn from, a leaning into the future from the past. Although Weiwei is confined to China, his work and meaning is not. It supersedes nations, history, or time. His disembodied poems are universal. They are light. They are mulitplicty. They are continuous. As all things knotted and tied, experience is bound up to spiraled meaning.
Sources: Arpon YL. Getting Away with Ai Weiwei, The Nation December 17, 2011 Calvino I. Six Memos For The Next Millennium Vintage 1993 Faiella L. The Making of an Artist: Ai Weiwei’s New York Years, Studio360.org, July,12, 2011 Li Y. The Artist as Activist Tate Etc. Autumn 2010 Patterson, Clayton Resistance: A Radical Political and Social History of the Lower East Side. Seven Stories Press, 2007 Phaidon blog Ai Weiwei is missing in Taipei October 2011 Purdum, Todd “Melee in Tompkins Sq. Park: Violence and Its Provocation”. The New York Times: p. A1. (August 14, 1988). Ryzik M. Dissident Creates By Remote Control The New York Times October 13, 2011 http://city-journal.org/2009/19_3_jails.html
Learning and Innovation Network, Mexico City (Architectural Record, 2012)
“We wanted the construction to be very straightforward since, for many people, this would be their first encounter with technology,” notes Mexico City architect Iván Hernández Quintela of his community tech hubs. To create classrooms, information centers, and cafeterias, modular units are inserted into existing community centers. Hernández says the units were inspired by “cimbras,” the makeshift scaffolding found at local construction sites. For example, two-by-fours form the structure for a classroom’s polycarbonate walls (left). Now, 72 of Hernández’s computer centers are open around the city, offering classes to all ages for about 15 cents each.
ARCHITECT: Ludens (Iván Hernández Quintela and Norma Maldonado).
BUDGET: About $33/square foot.
CONTEXT: The project repurposes existing community centers on Mexico City’s densely populated and impoverished fringes.
Moving Pictures: Re-Engaging Space with Film, Meaning, and Substance (Australian Design Review, 2011 )
As digital becomes part of our everyday vernacular, we look to video art as a growing medium of expression, one that has the power to intensify meaning and gratify our need for information. Film traditionally has always had this potential, but only in bold experimenting has video art really pushed through in recent years. Only recently, for example, have greater audiences begun to value Bill Viola as much as his long-supporting and partnering curators.
Since art form is meaning, architecture as it relates to video art becomes a study of how art is contextualised in a public space for a viewing audience. Everything is concentrated within a film, and even more so sometimes when we consider this kind of video art. We investigate the details of process: scale/proportion, spatial sequence and, of course, presentation. The architecture itself becomes the vessel of this meaning, the organizational work for the artist to present his or her moving images. It is almost too easy to take the work of a video artist for granted, since the messages and meanings are often so outwardly enticing, entertaining and inviting.
Looking at the work of two video artists who received a great deal of attention at the latest Art Basel in Miami, it’s nearly impossible not to praise the works of London-based Isaac Julien and the Italian, New York-based, Marco Brambilla. These two artists approach video installation from disparate perspectives, but have their common denominators. They were born in the same year, studied film at a very young age and ultimately both decided to diverge from their filmmaking careers in pursuit of making art in video segments – very particular and concentrated segments.
Julien’s segments are works that make up a strong narrative-driven series of homages, all packed with symbolism. Brambilla’s, on the other hand, are that of a more chaos-driven collage void of any specific storyline. Their current body of work is a derivative of their early filmmaking experiences. Julien’s were mostly docudramas that explored diasporas and identity, while Brambilla’s were more Hollywood big-budget films like Demolition Man.
The comparison notes that these artists have been working in the medium of moving images for a great deal of time, marrying technology, fine artistic merit with the craft of true filmmaking. The quick and fluid action of these films is, in fact, an extremely produced process, like any other in film – taking up to months, if not years, to research and edit from inception to reception. Once under the umbrella of architecture, however, the shift from film to video art becomes clearly apparent. The two artists take painstaking considerations of space and process in creating their vision from project to project, but only in the final presentation does half the work unfold.
Isaac Julien’s latest spectacle Ten Thousand Waves (TTW) is an epic nine-screen video installation that links images of China’s past to the present. The installation’s world premiere was greatly received at the 2010 Sydney Biennale. The dramatic 55-minute film experience investigates the context of Chinese immigrants who get smuggled into the UK and lose their lives in Morecambe Bay. Julien spent roughly four years researching the incident and developing the beautiful overture we see today.
The success of TTW is how emotive the presence of each screen becomes in the viewing of all nine collectively, loading our peripheral sights – large screens that counter each other in meaning through visual crescendo and audio unison. Each moving part further creates a sense of wonderment through images rich in historical and cultural complexity, notions of spirituality, modernity, nationality, politics and sexuality. We are all anchored in the varied sense of inclusion and expulsion as a reaction to the movement on the screens.
Julien is revered in art film and academic circles as a formal thinker. He cares a great deal about commenting on societal norms. He says that TTW is a paradigm shift for him as an artist, a grand spectacle to further the importance of the content. “The question of immersive relations, the kind of architectural relations, how the screens in the space are positioned – also attention to colour, and also attention to design… It’s interesting how you think these things are invisible. It’s very precise, the immense labour that gets involved with making those projects.”
He says the film’s meaning is a starting point. The works on the screens are a product of years of visual and academic research. Within the production of TTW you will find actors, poets, calligraphers, fictional scenes and a narrative present. “I think, retrospectively, lots of my works still have the old habits of a filmmaker,” he says. “There’s still the question around narrative. There’s still the question around duration. And one of the things I have been trying to push in that space is really attention to work which is installed – and the environment for the installation becomes just as important as the content and the form of the film itself.”
He notes that artists like Marcel Duchamp and Doug Aitken have done this before, considered the architecture and the moving image. He believes artists and architects are coming closer together. “If we think of someone like Olafur Eliasson, it’s very much about how one can think about a parallel montage,” says Julien. “The way the spectator reacts within that relationship.”
In TTW he says you don’t know the piece without moving around it; the goal was to break the ontological gaze of the spectator. “What is different is the way that the digital technology and the architectural technologies are developing in a particular way to enable this kind of experience where the viewer is beginning to have a more haptic experience with the image.” He considers this new vantage as breaking down our normative ways in which we experience moving images. With absolute freedom to move around the video installation, the viewer and the works become symbiotic, and the liberty of experience and cognitive processing become more available.The indicators of meaning: the spans of moving people, the sprawl of metropolis, the recording of languages, the mysterious seascape all become more accessible.
In New York City, Marco Brambilla’s ‘Civilisation’ videos are installed in each of The Standard Hotel’s elevators.The experience is the epitome of an urban chic environment and yet, suddenly, one is lured into Brambilla’s world. The video collages, reminiscent of a digital Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights”, live within the walls of the elevators. As a hotel guest ascends from the lobby, looped images of heaven are displayed and, on the ride down, a hellish dark comedy spirals on the screen. This unexpected meeting of art in a seemingly public space has garnered Brambilla a great deal of unexpected attention. It’s actually how the rapper and producer Kanye West stumbled on his work, as a guest at the hotel. He ultimately commissioned Brambilla to create an art montage for the song ‘Power’ on West’s latest album. Both in ‘Power’ and Civilisation, we see Brambilla’s now trademark signature of layering video images to explore the topics of commercialism and symbolic dualities in light and dark.
“I am not telling people what to think,” he says. “It’s a visceral narrative. My personal view comes across as sensory overload.” His recent work Evolution, Megaplex builds on this notion of overloading us with a horizontally scrolling three dimensional video that pulls images from 600 different feature films. It is both dizzying and hypnotic in its redundancy, but that is the point.
Brambilla likens his explosive video works to painting with video. He gives equal weight to audio, environmental and installation aspects. In his experimenting, he is re-expressing something he has read in the news and he scours iconic films for images that he will later string together. “By removing the emotional content from something, by making it more sensational, more impactful, more of a spectacle, it calls into question the nature of how films are today,” he says. “It has become more about the delivery of something than the content of something.”
Brambilla says his works are anchored by the apocalyptic and sci-fi movies of the ‘70s, as well as earlier filmmakers who inspired him like Ken Russell, Federico Fellini, Stanley Kubrick, Michelangelo Antonioni and Woody Allen. He also credits David Lynch for his visual operas. “I like films that have virtually no structure and don’t really have a specific storyline. So that you can kind of careen through the film and superimpose something you feel onto the film. So hopefully by making work that has no narrative, you open the viewer up to interpret things in many different ways.”
When Brambilla considers his space, he is engineering the images within the confines of the video screen. Many of his collaged works spiral in, are panned in a panoramic sense, through portals with mirrors. He is always looking for ways to freshen his perspective. This year alone, he is producing a 360-degree three-dimensional projection of Evolution to be shown in a non-gallery space in New York City, as well as developing a point of view (POV) piece using iPhone cameras. “My work deals with technology, so the technology itself becomes the method of making it happen,” he explains.
These moving images of social revolutions and denizens in commercialism take us on journeys of our past to recover the future. Meaning is explored through the viewed experience. Because of the enormity and scale of these productions, because so much technical and digital support is necessary to uphold the image, perhaps these video productions result in greater, more objective truths, not just one voice of creativity but a collective one. With the input of so many people, the message becomes more universal. With Brambilla reacting to vacancy, with Julien rearticulating history, these video artists promote the progression of humanity, by empowering the viewer with new and alternative ways to process such information. They present global truths that are both interactive and synergistic. “These are questions that are brought to bear,” says Julien. “We care about them quicker because of new technologies.”
The kitchen is a powerful place of creation. It is at its core, the foundation of every home, where we consider how we fuel our bodies and families. In recent years, we’ve been active participants in the rising food movement, in which active food journalists, like Michael Pollan, urge us to reconsider what we eat, how we eat it, and of course, where we even buy our food. This critique of the global food industry has also stimulated smaller but quite lively environmental movements of organic and local foods — turning our kitchens into a fairly political space.
As art follows life, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) presents Counter Space:Design and the Modern Kitchen. As a conceptual conversation, it is richly political, poetic and personal, as almost everyone has a modern kitchen these days. The collection-based exhibition pulls approximately 250 design objects, like architectural plans, archival photographs and other works of art. It is divided into three sections: ‘The New Kitchen’ (of the 20th century); ‘Visions of Plenty’ (post-war boom-time); and the artistic portrayals of kitchen activity through ‘Kitchen Sink Dramas’.
As you enter Counter Space, you begin to realise that this is a bit more than a mere exhibition of art. Rather, it is a journey of investigation. Examining the kitchen through time, it’s as though the kitchen was once uncharted territory, a science experiment.
We start with the idea of the ‘The New Kitchen’, shortly before World War I, where we see the rise in the use of electricity and the standardisation of food products. Items we take for granted, like the common sugar cube and the brown paper bag, were developed in this period. Thanks to this era of industrialisation (and processed food), we now sweeten our tea and pack meals with ease. Whether that ease has made us a bit lazier and a bit fatter is a different issue altogether, but we certainly credit this point in history having an effect on the modern way of life.
Great thinkers started to emphasise the kitchen as a ‘new space’ for experimentation, like Frank Lloyd Wright’s kitchen model plan, focusing greater attention on the kitchen space. And the important author/reformer, Christine Frederick, took painstaking lengths to study kitchen toil in her book titled The New Housekeeping (published 1913). As the assistant curator of Counter Space Aidan O’Connor points out, “Her time-motion graphs measuring the kitchen workload emphasised the modernist reverence for industrialisation and mechanisation. We are trying to set up the larger picture of ‘The New Housekeeping’, tying into the new topography, the new kitchen, the new architecture.”
The most ambitious project of this time, and perhaps the star of the show, is MoMA’s newly acquired ‘Frankfurt Kitchen’ – designed by the architect Margarete Schutte-Lihotsky. From 1925 to 1935, the ‘Frankfurt Kitchen’ addressed a serious and immediate need in timesaving food preparation and was designed for widowed women who had to enter the workplace, who were often raising a family at the same time. Ten thousand of these kitchens existed at once, and it was the first time a kitchen was mass-produced. “We want to stress that the design of the kitchen, that was part of the Frankfurt building project, was very big and very small at the same time…stressed world order starting from within the home,” says O’Connor.
In the second section of the show titled ‘Visions of Plenty’, the kitchen becomes the testing ground for new materials, technologies and power sources. The kitchen re-emerges out of post-World War II, forging new national identities and women’s liberation.“Here is where we are introduced to Tupperware collections and the notion of consumer choice, validating a growing American identity as capitalistic and democratic — how everyday items became representative of the quality of life.”
We also see a great deal of dream products like the 1968 Italian mobile kitchen named ‘Spazio Vivo’, the ingenious rolling kitchen, hinged and on casters with a mini refrigerator and stovetop, compartmentalised to plug-in anywhere. The objects on display are both useful and beautiful. Take for instance Chemex’s clinical portrayal of the coffeemaker in Pyrex or Brown’s metal appliances like juicers, mixers and toasters in sleek silver forms.
Lastly, we arrive at ‘Kitchen Sink Dramas’, a whole slew of photographic and artistic explorations, showing the emotive humane element of the kitchen
Apartment for Space-Age Lovers (Australian Design Review, 2011)
In most urban capitals, high-rise apartment living is the norm. In the big cities, we seek skyward accommodation, learn to compartmentalise our everyday lives and often entertain a lifestyle that keeps us out of our homes and drives us into the nucleus of the city’s commotion. When architect Dash Marshall was asked to design a stylised dwelling that would be both ‘artistic and utilitarian’ in the starkest sense, you would have expected him to gravitate to ideas around functionality and the mechanics of simple living. Yet, Marshall has thrown us for a euphoric loop in presenting this recent project, entitled the ‘Apartment for Space-Age Lovers’. It’s an architectural renovation that took as inspiration a couple’s love, and in some way redefines the capacity of dense, modern living within the urban context of New York City.
First comes the love in this case, which brews between an arts-centric New York-based couple in their early 40s, who both lead an international lifestyle, well-travelled (by habit and trade) and are constantly self-employed as a photographer and author. They remain pixelated for their privacy and have chosen to be left unnamed in the press surrounding the project. We will refer to them as ‘the Lovers’ – as Marshall himself is inclined to call them.
The Lovers presented Marshall with their own mood board and aesthetic requests. They wanted smooth surfaces for easy cleaning, have a penchant for white box austerity and value minimalist art. In the finished apartment, we see these translated into high beam luminescence, gloss cabinetry and an overall pod-like ambience, where whiteness contains order. It is both Space Odyssey and a nod to the musical aesthetics of the band Air. Marshall best describes this vision as the ‘curved glass visor of a space suit’.
The new Hôtel Americano sits erect in the heart of New York’s Chelsea arts district, but offers more than just good proximity. The ten-storey hotel was designed by Mexican architect Enrique Norten, with interiors by French designer Arnaud Montigny of Colette, Paris fame. It is a building with an emphasis on the arts: in its architecture, design and location, conveniently nestled as it is within one of North America’s most renowned arts hubs.
As Grupo Habita’s first property in the US, the Americano project has been successful in translating the core elements of the group’s long-standing ethos, mainly focused south of the border for the past 10 years – firm in applying smart architecture and design with lux hospitality. In this regard, Hôtel Americano’s identity is based on the notion of a ‘global Latin culture’, says Carlos Couturier (co-founder of Grupo Habita), with a nod to internationalism (and without being too kitsch). He believes the hotel also serves as a neutral meeting point for global nomads with a deep appreciation of the arts, culture and of course New York City. ‘This is why we build hotels,’ says Couturier. ‘We aim to be a magnet for the arts.’