Barthes on Ornamental Cookery

Roland Barthes:

Elle gives the recipe of fancy partridges, L’Express gives that of salade niçoise. The readers of Elle are entitled only to fiction; one can suggest real dishes to those of L’Express, in the certainty that they will be able to prepare them.”

Edith Amituanai

The Manu Lounge, Edith Amituanai, 2006

The fireplace in the lounge of the Manu household is hidden behind a bookshelf arrayed with volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica and flanked with blue-and-gold vases of plastic flowers. Above the mantle, a family portrait—mum, dad, an older girl and three younger boys. More photos, of family members and sports teams, are clustered around as part of the display, which is filled out with ornamental knick-knacks: a carved 21st key inscribed “Carl Manu”, little vases and candleholders, figurines, two wall-mounted flower-holders made from polished and painted coconut shells, a clock in the form of a fan, strings of beads or shells hanging from the ceiling, and lace doilies. On the far right, a cheap computer desk and office chair, and some old-looking electronic hardware modestly screened by a patterned blue fabric, and piles of albums. On the far left the ubiquitous power strip and attendant spaghetti of cables leading out of the frame to where I imagine the television, DVD player and Sky box are positioned. On the floor, a plastic woven mat. In this carefully set interior display, we read the importance of family connections, sport, and markers of social order. The encyclopedias at the heart of the exhibition connote an ideal of order and learning, even if rather obsolete and apparently not frequently accessed.

The domestic interiors of Pacific islanders photographed by Edith Amituanai (in New Zealand, Samoa, and Alaska) are not expensively furnished—the most expensive items that appear regularly are televisions. Couches and armchairs are typically shapeless and well-worn, draped over with bright fabrics. The floors are almost exclusively covered with mats of some description. The rooms themselves are generic, and we get the sense of people making themselves at home in buildings that offer them little. The images, some cheerful and airy, others stark or claustrophobic, are portraits of a culture of interiority and documents of the intensive labour of making a place home.

The Augmented Landscape, Smout Allen #3


[ See Part 1, Part 2 ]

The drawing doesn’t simply read as a black figure against a white ground: white lines are traced across the surface of the black, and they appear to be perforated, punctured, and scored. They look like printing plates used for engravings or silkscreening, or printed circuit boards. In photographs of the model, we see that the elements drawn are, in fact, present as thin metal plates. In one image, we see the that the tabs along the upper right edge of the rightmost block of the drawing are folded up to form a three-dimensional edge. We also see that what we had taken for single blocks laying on a sheet of paper are in fact split into various planes: again, the rightmost block can be seen as two plates in the photograph, split about two-thirds of the way along. Incompatibilities appear between the model and the drawing: the perfectly circular element (the only perfect circle in the drawing) at the bottom right corner isn’t present in the model, although the pattern of perforations and cuts adjacent are clearly visible.

What are developed in this drawing are surfaces rather than planes. Descriptive geometry and orthographic projection relies heavily on the concept of the immaterial picture plane, through which lines and points are projected to construct an object through a network of interlacing lines in a single, cohesive representational set. The reality of the object in a set of orthographic objects is determined as each element is progressively disambiguated—a line in the plan could be anywhere in the virtual space of the object, but once it is drawn in section, its place is confirmed. By contrast, Smout Allen have little concern to shore up the substance of their virtual object by this kind of rigorous cross-fire. The object varies each time it is re-drawn—as they say, it is an iterative ‘test-site’ rather than a demonstration; a materialisation rather than a depiction. The floating condition of the drawing is not merely a compositional effect of the layout; for all it’s intricacy and precision, the objects drawn are, in an important sense, still indeterminate. The governing surface of this drawing isn’t the virtual and immaterial picture plane, but an actual sheet of matter, traversed by wandering lines, perforated, folded, and split into three dimensions. I asked earlier what codes were operating in this drawing—it should be recognised that they are the codes of the workshop, the modelling table, and the laser-cutter as much as the codes of orthography.

The Augmented Landscape, Smout Allen, #2


[ see Part 1 ]

In their introduction to Augmented Landscapes, Smout Allen describe how they draw:

 “Normative demonstrations of architectural space by means of orthographic projection are avoided, as these tend to depict simplified, flattened or foreshortened viewpoints. The creation of test sites on and in the surface of the paper allows the work to react to and describe the iterative process of design. This work becomes a materialization of the practice of design.” (7)

The opposition here is between orthographic architectural drawing as demonstrative depiction involving the collapsing of space onto the surface of the paper, and a mode of drawing that makes the surface of the paper a reactive, iterative, and material test site. The drawing is a generative device, rather than a conclusive depiction. But this doesn’t mean that the drawing is uncoded, or that it enters into a domain of free play. Miralles wrote of his own drawings as “a working structure” governed by rules “of economics and commodity”. How is this drawing coded and how does it operate?

The black masses of the drawing cluster together like a flotilla of rafts. They are sited against a white ground, without any markers of place. Even the indexing marks noted previously appear only over the figure, not the ground. These aren’t artefacts in a landscape. We aren’t looking at an architectural figure that augments a pre-existing landscape, but at a landscape that drifts in respect to its context. (In the model that accompanied this drawing, the existing site is present only as white-painted glass). This effect of being unmoored could be taken to show unconcern for context, or a reinforcement of the architectural object as autonomous from its context—but in the project as a whole, there is in fact a deep concern for the particular qualities of place: the vegetation, climate, historic spatial forms, temporal rhythms of the Egyptian desert. So a reading of the drawing that makes it stand for architectural autonomy from site is unattractive. What alternative readings of the figure-ground condition of the drawing are possible?

The Augmented Landscape, Smout Allen #1


‘The Augmented Landscape’ is a drawing that appears in Smout Allen’s contribution to the Pamphlet Architecture series, Augmented Landscapes (2007). The image extends almost to all four edges of a double-page spread. Four large irregular black blocks, articulated  with fine markings in white and hatched sections, surround a smaller, more fractured block. Looking at the drawing as an isolated artefact, there are few clues as to what it delineates. It feels like a plan, although the heavy dominance of black in the drawing conveys more solidity than we’re used to in plans. There are certainly no indications of perspectival or axonometric depth. One possible indicator of the drawing being a plan is the grid of cross-shaped index marks oriented at about 40º across the page, recalling the overlays of aerial surveillance imagery used to piece together composite photographs. Another indicator might be the logic of scattering at work in the image. Various types of element: the big irregular circles, the little pockmarks (some solid white, some hatched, some merely fine outlines) and even the arrangement of the black blocks themselves, appear as if they’ve been scattered across the image from above. And of course, the drawing is labeled as a landscape.

The drawing is in fact a plan (of a sort), for Smout Allen’s proposed “Grand Egyptian Museum”, intended to re-house the Museum of Egyptian Culture. The project articulates the ground as an “augmented landscape”, “a hybrid environment, a utilitarian topography, a sustained artifice” (6). The proposal is for an underground museum, with sunken circular workshop courtyards, and an active landscape as a blanket over the top, accommodating a heterogenous array of features: chasms, a “vegetal chronograph”, floodplain gardens, wet blankets for evaporative cooling, draught corridors, and a qanat network. None of these things are easily recognisable, and Smout Allen seem to be quite deliberate in not providing the objects or features that typically allow for a drawing to be readable: there are no chairs and tables, no existing roads, no cars in the garage, no door swings, contour lines, or scale bar. At least to some degree, Smout Allen don’t want us to recognise this drawing. The drawing deliberately recedes from the representational codes of the professional architectural drawing.

On Diagrams as Surfaces of Encounter


Diagrams are machines of simplification. They supply a clear order to a complex reality. In this way, they provide access to that reality; they mediate between it and something else. For example, in the Auckland Plan, figure 12.1 is a diagram entitled ‘The Shaping Influence of Infrastructure’. In the form of a triangle divided into four stacked sections, it organises various infrastructures in order of their increasing impact on the ‘pattern of development’ (which I translate as the urban form). At the apex, in the smallest segment, next to the label ‘locally defining infrastructure’ are listed pools, libraries, local roads/streets, and local cultural facilities. In the adjacent section are defence, justice and courts, police, schools, waste; then public open space, regionally-significant cultural institutions and events facilities, hospitals; and in the largest segment, at the base, in a larger typeface are electricity, fuel, water supply, stormwater, wastewater, telecommunications, ports/airports, transport (highways, regional arterials, rail). The diagram provides the basis for prioritisation of projects and funding. But clearly the reality is more complex. The four segments of the diagram are presently as crisply separate, when in fact the boundaries are more likely to be fuzzy. Which is more “locally defining”: schools or local roads and streets? How come roads appear at the smallest and largest ends of the triangle in the form of streets and arterials, but not in the intervening space? What does the line indicate exactly—why is there are threshold that groups these various infrastructures?

Harman describes the way nothing ever encounters anything else fully. We are quite comfortable with the idea that when I encounter my neighbour I don’t encounter him completely—there are all kinds of things hidden from me, or that I’m unable to unlock in my encounter. We’re used to the more general proposition that whenever I encounter anything or anyone, my encounter is only partial: I see in part, know in part. Harman extends this with the observation that all encounters between any two things are partial like this. Even when fire burns cotton, it doesn’t have a holistic encounter with it. The colour or historical significance of the cotton is irrelevant to its combustion, for example. A diagram, therefore, is the filtered surface of an encounter. It’s simply impossible for me to encounter the infrastructures of the city as a whole, unmediated. The diagram becomes a surface of mediation. Through this small graphic, I am enabled to have an encounter with the entire infrastructural workings of the city. It is, of course, a drastically minimal encounter.

To the extent that all encounters are mediated and partial, all encounters are diagrammatic to some degree. Diagrams are not just specific graphic entities, but the machines of simplification that make encounter possible.

Lawson on useless research

Lawson, How Designers Think (2005):

“With the introduction of systematic design methods into design education it became fashionable to require students to prepare reports accompanying their designs. Frequently such reports contain a great deal of information, slavishly gathered at the beginning of the project. As a regular reader of such reports, I have become used to testing this information to see how it has had an impact on the design. In fact, students are often unable to point to any material effect on their solutions for quite large sections of their gathered data.”

There’s research, and then there’s anxious defensive stockpiling of banal material. In my experience, the latter far outweighs the former in student design research.

Eloise Coveny, The Moving Still (2008)

Eloise Coveny, Southdown Meatworks #2 (2008). Medium format photograph of the now burned and demolished meat works. Eloise is a Masters Graduate of the AUT Spatial Design programme. Her project (the exegesis and documentation are here) includes some exquisite photography of ruined buildings and dislocated houses. She used a method she called the ‘moving still’ to explore the uncanny effect of being suspended between motion and transition.

Hatherley on Harvey

Owen Hatherley, writing for the Guardian, reviews David Harvey’s new book, Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution:

[Harvey] returns time and again to a critique of “horizontalism”, a “fetish of organisational form” that too often remains at small-is-beautiful, an almost narcissistic concern with process and personal interaction over wide-scale action, something that “can work for small groups but (is) impossible at a scale of a metropolitan region, let alone for the 7 billion people who now inhabit planet Earth”.

Sounds interesting.

Bad Faith


In an essay for Breakthrough Journal, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus warn us about ecotheology, a hypocritical concept of environmentalism that, “like all dominant religious narratives, serves the dominant forms of social and economic organization in which it is embedded”. So far, so good. A concept of nature as pristine and in opposition to human activities is deeply flawed (Timothy Morton even says that “Nature” is a completely poisonous concept for truly ecological thinking). But then Shellenberger and Nordhaus claim that the solution is a renewal of faith in modernisation:

Today’s nihilistic ecotheology is actually a significant obstacle to dealing with ecological problems created by modernization — one that must be replaced by a new, creative, and life-affirming worldview… Let’s call this “modernization theology.”

Yes, new technologies can help us overcome some of the most destructive aspects of human activity, but the very last thing in the world we need is to make a theology of this. John Christensen, responding in the same issue also thinks its a terrible idea, writing:

Modernization is the vocabulary of power. Modernization is a totalizing agenda. It knows what’s good for you and everyone and everything else on the planet.

At the end of their essay, Shellenberger and Nordhaus recruit Latour via his interpretation of Frankenstein as a warning against abandoning our monsters, not a warning against creating them in the first place. As Christensen says, this is weird, since Latour can hardly be taken as a theologist of modernisation. Latour’s contribution to the issue, “Love Your Monsters” is here, and his argument is more nuanced than Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s. He points out that once you’re involved, you can’t just back away from something. God, he points out, didn’t do this:

If God has not abandoned His Creation and has sent His Son to redeem it, why do you, a human, a creature, believe that you can invent, innovate, and proliferate — and then flee away in horror from what you have committed?

Commitment to something doesn’t mean faith in it, necessarily (God doesn’t have faith in humankind). To observe that we’re in this now, and we can’t back out is very different from insisting this was the right way all along.