Tag Archives: fantasy

The Architecture of Readymade Air – BLDGBLOG

[Image: Haus-Rucker-Co, Grüne Lunge (Green Lung), Kunsthalle Hamburg (1973); photo by Haus-Rucker Co, courtesy of the Archive Zamp Kelp; via Walker Art Center]. I’ve got a short post up over …

Source: The Architecture of Readymade Air – BLDGBLOG

Green Lung pumped artificially conditioned indoor air from within the galleries of Hamburg’s Kunsthalle to members of the public passing, by way of transparent helmets mounted outside; the museum’s internal atmosphere was thus treated as a kind of readymade object, “playing with questions of inside vs. outside, of public vs. private, of enclosure vs. space.”

Put into the context of Haus-Rucker-Co’s general use of inflatables, as well as today’s emerging fresh-air market—with multiple links explaining this in the actual post—I suggest that what was once an almost absurdist art world provocation has, today, in the form of bottled air, become an unexpectedly viable business model.

fantastic journal: On the limits of anthropomorphic machines

fantastic journal: On the limits of anthropomorphic machines part 1

part 2

I spend an awful lot of time watching Thomas the Tank Engine. To be more precise I spend a lot of time with someone who spends an awful lot of time watching Thomas the Tank Engine. My (nearly) three year old son is obsessed by it; he sleeps with his Thomas trains, eats with a Thomas knife and fork and wears Thomas pyjamas. The words to the Thomas songs comprise almost his entire vocabulary.

[…]

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about the roots of my son’s obsession. I’m fairly sure that he’s unaware of the antiquarian nature of steam trains or that the setting is nominally in a slightly distant past. My son doesn’t seem to care that there are aren’t any traction engines to be found anymore or that men don’t dress in spats and a top hat like the Fat Controller. In that sense the appeal of the books might genuinely be considered timeless. The world they depict is somehow complete enough in itself to form a hermetic, self-sustaining universe.

As any parent knows, children are Utopians. They construct fantasy worlds that run on rules of their own devising. These rules are often rigidly inflexible and uncompromising. The appeal of Thomas then might lie in the precise logic of an imaginary railway network. The simple rules that underpin the movement and actions of the trains might also be the part that makes them so successful. The engines themselves have very limited scope for independent action. They can move forwards and backwards, speed up and down, occasionally break down or have an accident but that’s about it. They can’t fight, or dance or play football or run. They don’t chase villains or solve mysteries and they have no special powers. Although they have been anthropomorphised they remain far more train than human. They are in many ways merely extensions of the way that we often attribute human characteristics to machines, giving them names and celebrating their faults as charming idiosyncrasies.

The engines also depend on humans for operation. In the original stories the relationship of the trains to their drivers and guards is very carefully delineated. It does not intrude so much that the trains become ‘simply’ machines but neither are they allowed any genuine independence. They can only deviate from the control of their human operators to a limited degree, normally with fairly disastrous results. These limitations also extend to the minimal nature of the stories where a fallen tree or a faulty turntable provides pretty much the only narrative hook. The legendarily boring nature of the stories is actually cleverly consistent with the repetitive nature of the engine’s tasks. The text mirrors this, repeating simple phrases in a way that is analogous to the movements of the trains. “Clickety clack went the trucks”, “We did it together, we did it together” etc.

Alongside this physically limited universe is an equally restricting moral one. Unsurprisingly perhaps given the identity of the author of the stories, the Thomas books are filled with simple pieties and swift retribution for crimes and misdemeanors. Instructions and justice are metered out by the all-powerful Fat Controller. Sometimes they get abandoned, like Duke the Lost Engine, or decommissioned or even on occasion cut up for scrap. A bleak Victorian morality hangs over the stories allowing for sentimentality and indulgence but only up to a point and only after the work has been done. The aspiration for the all the engines is to be considered “really useful”, a reward that that confirms both their status as machines and their role within an over-arching morality of duty.

The TV series of Thomas remained faithful to both the storylines and the moral universe of the books for some time. The fact that it was filmed using an actual model railway gave it in some ways an even greater degree of fidelity to the concept than the original illustrated books. If the model trains couldn’t do something then neither could the ones in the stories. The wobbly, home-made aesthetic of the model railway became part of the series’ ‘charm’, an anachronistic 1950’s toy used to recreate the equally anachronistic world of 1950’s steam engines.

More recently the series has been introducing new characters, partly as a way of boosting merchandise sales but also in order to create new plot lines. The relatively recent switch to CGI has produced a more decisive shift though. In contrast to the earlier stories, recent feature length Thomas’ have involved the discovery of lost towns, psychotically deranged diesel engines and journeys to magic islands. This expansion beyond the tightly controlled constraints of the original books pushes the logic of the series’ scenario beyond plausible limits.

In Misty Island Rescue, for instance, Thomas is set adrift on a raft at sea, eventually running ashore on an island that appears to be in the deep south of America. Even more bizarrely, when Thomas’ raft hits the beach the engine rolls straight onto a conveniently placed set of tracks running directly out of the water. Later on Thomas discovers some kind of portal or short-cut between Sodor and Misty Island via a vast hollowed out tree trunk. In other recent films Thomas discovers lost towns (The Great Discovery), battles evil baddies (Day of the Diesels) and travels through yet another portal to a contemporary mid-Western village called Shining Time (Thomas and the Magic Railroad).

These fantastical adventures cause a kind of conceptual crisis in Thomas’ carefully controlled universe. His actions are no longer those of a railway engine stuck shunting trucks but of a buccaneering adventurer. The Reverend Awdry’s pedantic fidelity to the movements of steam engines and railway lines is long gone. The driver and guard have become like those film crews accompanying TV explorers, something that it’s convenient to forget about lest they spoilt the mystique. It’s no coincidence that this capitulation to pure fantasy has come about at the same time as a shift from real-time modeling to CGI. Computer rendering allows Thomas the physical and conceptual freedom to inhabit any kind of environment in more or less any way. Thomas has moved from being an anthropomorphised machine into a human being who just happens to look like a train.

The first half of this post wasn’t intended as a rant against CGI, although it’s true to say that the original Thomas drawings are for more subtle and beautiful than the current animations. The development of computer animation has created a renaissance in children’s movies, particularly from the Pixar studio. It’s interesting then that Pixar’s own fantasy world creations are also most successful when operating in a similarly plausible but defined universe to that of the Railway Series.

Much of the humour and pathos of the Toy Story movies, for example, emanates from a tension between what the toys can and can’t do, and from the fact that they are restricted to a series of plausible movements. Their ability to stretch (Slinky Dog), disassemble themselves (Mr Potato Head) and organise military operations (Bucket O Soldiers) provides action sequences within precise physical limitations Equally important to the storyline is what the toys can’t do, such as Buzz Lightyear’s various heartbreaking attempts to fly. They may be ‘alive’ but they also only exist within a logical extension of their ‘toyness’. As in Salvador Dali’s Paranoiac Critical method, an absurd fantasy (of the toys being alive but still toys) is pursued with complete logic throughout.

The toys also clearly inhabit a human world although they fight for independence within it. This is in contrast to the recent Cars franchise which, interestingly, runs into many of the same problems as the new Thomas. Like Thomas, the Cars concept depends on the anthropomorphisation of machines. Unlike Thomas though the machines in Cars inhabit a people-less world, one where they have replaced the roles, characteristics and foibles of the absent humans. This conceit is wittily explored in the first film both visually (vans that look like Elvis, radiator grill moustaches that suggest redneck tendencies etc.) and structurally (a town designed by and for cars).

The action of the first film is confined to very limited spheres, essentially either the stadium in which the cars race or the isolated desert town of Radiator Springs. The choice of the town’s location is important because it avoids all sorts of contradictions that would occur in a larger and more pedestrian – and thus human – orientated realm. The functions of the buildings in Radiator Springs have been altered so that the generic Italian restaurant has become a garage and the petrol station the local drive-in. This is a car-based universe and nothing breaks the logic or the suspension of disbelief required to follow their anthropomorphised autonomy.

In the second Cars film the action has become global and follows the World Grand Prix, a series of races held in well-known cities. This creates a conceptual problem in that the cities (London, Paris, Tokyo etc) need to be rendered both plausibly recognisable and consistent with a people-less universe. Subtle scale changes are made to the sizes of doorways for instance and humour is found in car based versions of human spaces such as the rough local pub ‘inhabited’ by taxis and delivery trucks. And although famous landmarks have been rather fabulously ‘motorised’ (as detailed here) it remains impossible to imagine what they might actually be for.

But the film still begs some fairly fundamental questions which threaten to derail it entirely. What happens in the mansard roofs of those Parisian apartments? Why have upper floors at all? Who are the double-decker buses for? Not only that but the cars themselves are thrown into a full-on spoof spy movie where they fly through the air, set off booby traps and engage in tyre-to-tyre combat Jason Bourne style. As the cars have become more human, moving beyond simply being machines with characters, the absence of humans becomes oddly more telling.

Not only does the construction of an alternative car based society need precise rules to work but the humour depends on the careful substitution of one set of rules for another. The way that cars move, the things that they can and can’t do is very important. When they can fly through the air firing machine guns and foiling international villains their car-ness becomes far less implausible (of course) but also less important. Similarly, when they inhabit an environment whose underlying logic is clearly man-made (stairs, attics, Georgian windows etc), the suspension of disbelief evaporates.

In a sense, the moral universe inhabited by the Cars is every bit as pervasive as the one in Thomas the Tank Engine. The world of duty, obedience and responsibility delineated in Thomas is no less insufferable than the homilies about friendship and staying true to oneself in Cars. There is a confused environmental narrative at the heart of the Cars storyline too, presumably as an attempt to ameliorate the obsession with motor racing to start with. But children’s stories always have an explicitly moral message. The creation of alternative worlds be they miniature, anthropomorphic or whatever, allows for the creation of precise rules and limits. These serve not only to contain the fantasy but to communicate the ethical dilemmas the stories rehearse.

The ‘system’ which underpins the action is a kind of machine itself, a metaphor for a functioning moral universe where things have their place and people understand their role. Tests to the stability of this universe form the narrative for individual stories, helping ultimately to reinforce the desirability of the system to start with. Character’s that deviate from their roles are punished in the end and learn to accept certain limits to their freedom. This is why Thomas the Tank Engine is such a brilliant conception for children’s stories.

Glastonbury: the pop-up city that plays home to 200,000 for the weekend | Cities | theguardian.com

Glastonbury: the pop-up city that plays home to 200,000 for the weekend | Cities | theguardian.com.

An aerial view of the Glastonbury Festival.

In June of (almost) every year, a medium-sized city emerges for a weekend in the West Country, then disappears again. The population – over 200,000 people at its peak – would make it the seventh largest city in the south of England, after London, Bristol, Southampton, Portsmouth, Plymouth and Brighton (possibly its nearest relative).

Regarding the Glastonbury Festival as a “city” might seem counter-intuitive, given its premise of a partial return to ancient rural civilisation – fake stone circles and all. But a city it is, with a massive system of infrastructure and spatial organisation that is no less impressive for being temporary. This is a place where at least one of the dreams of the 1960s lives on – or where it went to die, depending on your view of the festival and its attractions.

In the 60s, the sharpest edge of British architectural culture was represented by Archigram, a collective of designers moonlighting from day-jobs working for London County Council (LCC) who put out a magazine of the same name, full of proposals for what future cities should or could look like. Many of those designs are now safely slotted away in the category of “impossible but fun” – the Walking City, the Floating City … all of them rendered in gloriously lurid Terry Gilliam-like drawings, with attendant functionalist justification for the seemingly absurd.

At the LCC, many in the group had a major role in the design of London’s South Bank Centre, but as Archigram, their ideas for festivals of culture were far away from heavy husks of concrete housing orchestras and art galleries. In particular, the Instant City took the form of an airship that would move over an area which was poorly served, culturally speaking – urban, rural, it didn’t matter – and dispense cinemas, theatres and concert halls in lightweight, disposable structures that could be packed up as quickly and easily as they were unpacked. Habitually, Archigram’s legacy is reduced to the massive static art gallery of Paris’s Pompidou Centre, but the Glastonbury ‘city’ proves just how prescient they were.

It didn’t need an airship to drop the contents on Worthy Farm, but as Douglas Murphy points out in his book The Architecture of Failure, Archigram’s Instant City really was achieved at Glastonbury and its like. “If we follow the stream of Archigram thought to its logical conclusion,” Murphy writes, “there is literally no better spatial embodiment of their obsession with transience, fun, media entertainment and spectacle than the pop-up cities of the music festival – 50,000 middle-class people in a field staring at Bono is where the Archigram version of utopia takes you.”

[…]

So what sort of a city is Glastonbury, and how well is it planned? In terms of built structures, from its inception, the main stage at the festival has been the Pyramid, a lightweight structure based directly on the pyramid of Giza – eternal-looking, but still basically pop-up.

The lovely, rolling Somerset fields feature several campsites with attendant portaloos, ‘streets’ of stalls, and bars run by the Workers Beer Company that are named after various Labour heroes. Although rain can make the city look dystopian, there are extensive networks that keep it together, many of which draw on the festival’s environmentalist legacy.

Volunteer workers sort rubbish for recycling at the Glastonbury Festival.
Volunteer workers sort rubbish for recycling at the Glastonbury Festival. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Much of the infrastructure is adapted into the site’s other life as a working farm: the Pyramid Stage has doubled as a cow shed, and the waste from the 6,000 portable toilets is used as compost. Most of the stages and installations are kept for the rest of the year in the Green Barn in flat-pack form; during the festival, this barn is an event control centre with a staff of 500.

The sheer scale of the planning can be ascertained from the 3 million-litre reservoirs needed for storing water. Oxfam provides the stewards, but amazingly the site was not policed until 1989. As the organisers now point out on their website: “The festival is a town in its own right, and the town needs policing.” The Avon and Somerset police force carries out “regular visible patrols” and maintains an office (or rather a ‘Police Village’) on site.

This being England, there is even CCTV. Yet compared with festivals that occur in permanent cities such as Leeds and Reading – where security guards are always ready to enforce purchases of alcohol and food from only the licensed vendors – Glastonbury still feels a relatively free city. A super-fence may keep out most of those who haven’t paid, but if you work at a stall or volunteer to clean up afterwards, you can still get in for free.

Ultimately, the thing that most distinguishes Glastonbury City from a real one is its lack of paving. When it rains, a real taste of the pre-industrial metropolis can be obtained, as tens of thousands of people stomp around in a sea of slurry. Indeed, it’s this tendency to transform into a bog which might explain why the Glastonbury model of giant-festival-on-a-farm may be in decline, in favour of those that combine various musical attractions with a chic city break: Sonar in Barcelona, Transmediales in Berlin, Unsound in Krakow. There, the attractions of a certain kind of creative city are part of the appeal, rather than rolling hills, instant infrastructure and misty views of the Tor.

Alongside this, some music festivals have started appropriating earlier spaces of modern architecture itself – such as the Pontins camp in Camber Sands, which has played host to music festivals since All Tomorrow’s Parties set up there in 1999. The Camber Sands site, with its little glazed chalets, laid-on electricity and grid-planned order, is a product of a rather more demotic, proletarian modernism than that propounded by Archigram. It is a lot more conformist and clean – “canned”, they might have said – than the world of travellers and free festivals.

Yet this less adaptable, less alternative modernism of the holiday camp festival holds an obvious appeal to anybody who has found themselves covered in slop during one of Glastonbury’s rain years. The Instant City has been transformed back into an older model altogether, the Radiant City: clean, elegant, precise, and – English weather permitting –sun-soaked. It is a small council estate filled with only middle-class people, and Throbbing Gristle playing in the background.