We may have a soft spot for architects and designers working directly with media as a way to influence architecture and urbanism. Perhaps this is partly given the heritage of Archigram, Superstudio, Cedric Price, Reyner Banham, Yona Friedman et al, but also due to us ‘curators’ all being bloggers, at least to some degree.
So Jeffrey Inaba’s work at the Columbia Laboratory for Architectural Broadcasting (C-LAB) is particularly interesting, not least their magazine Volume, an influential component of the architecture and urbanism press, produced in collaboration with Archis and AMO. Volume is always worth reading, not least as it takes a very broad-minded and inquisitive view of what architecture can be in the first place. It’s as comfortable with an article on the history of Pininfarina or the Watergate complex as it is with various political agendas. It’s variably designed - sometimes fashionably undesigned, in the contemporary lazy style; other times excellent, confident, exploratory and playful. While you have to wonder whether Volume has any impact outside of “the converted” or the niche audience of the existing architecture and academic community, it does at least try to engage through a widescreen view on contemporary urbanism whilst retaining a sharply intellectual tone and a nose for the political in architectural practice. A good thing.
Inaba concentrates mainly, though not solely, on Volume throughout a talk in which he rapidly disappeared into the gloom of the first night of Postopolis! LA, lit only by the large projected images of page spreads above his head.
He starts somewhat awkwardly by appearing to apologise, on behalf of architecture, for a couple of decades of opulence, frivolity and overblown unsustainable projects. This, presumably, in the context of a new mood, even a ‘new deal’ and just maybe a new opportunity for architects to engage with the wider concerns of the day, and particularly ‘the recovery’ (or alternative), whether it involves buildings or not. Inaba says: “We need to gain credibility if we’re to switch focus from private to public. We need to accept some blame for the ambitions of private clients.” He says this should include an “expression of mea culpa of what we’ve been involved in.“ (Interesting. I may have the nuance wrong here, but I think that's what he said).
Moving on, he notes that C-LAB produces numerous projects, but concentrates on Volume magazine, and most recently the “Power” issue.
Looking at “people in power” primarily, it produced, amongst other things, a DIY kit for conjuring up leaders e.g. a Secretary of Human Health and Health Services that might include belief in holistic care. (This kind of game-playing - conjuring up imaginary leaders - was done in Monocle more convincingly and with a straighter face a couple of years ago. I'm not sure this exercise is best done with a wink or not...)
Another feature looks at a maintenance problem common to all “Class A office buildings” (e.g. AT&T building, UN building, Empire State etc.) - that is, gum on the sidewalk. This was documented in detail by C-LAB (they also focused on London artist Ben Wilson’s hardened, painted gum logos). He mentions a pre-emptive project for a sidewalk (possibly for a Sejima building?) - laying down a graphic that already has gum stains on it ...
A feature on Kazahkstan, where Inaba wryly notes that the opponents of the President appear to commit suicide with regularity. A country about the size of western Europe but one-fifteenth the population. The sheer emptiness fascinates Inaba, and he talks about rational and irrational responses to vastness of scale and development in the architecture, showing a fabulous series of photographs. These images also reveal a fascination on the behalf of Kazahkstani architects with the form of the diagonal and with gold. He notes that detailing is a problem in the architecture, due to a temperature range from -40 to +40, indicating several building details that appear to be melting under duress.
Inaba then talks of C-LAB’s work in urban porosity projects in South Korea, delivering masterplans, models etc., and then a work exploring scale, around an object that is scaled up to the size of a building, works at ticket kiosk scale, and then down to an object that could be sold in gift shop ...
They work with information design and infographics, indicating a broader notion of architecture. With this in mind, Inaba talks about the idea of US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke being the “architect of the Dayton Peace Accords” (as he was often referred to in the press). Inaba takes the idea seriously, illustrating how Hobrooke did actually organise the project spatially, from drawing up the location and length of boundaries through to denoting where negotiators at the Accords would sleep.
Back to infographics, and we see an optimisation of space in terms of hedge funds (400000 dollars of income per sq ft in one image; another indicators number of hedge funds per floor in a skyscraper; another explores debt to GDP ratio). He updates this by noting that all the hedge fund spaces he’s indicated are currently all vacancies now. (He doesn’t seem to have a particular rhetoric or tool to explore this vacancy, however, as compared to the portrayal of abundance. I need to look at the infographics in more detail to judge them. Difficult to tell at a distance, which probably means it fails some kind of Edward Tufte directive for projecting information halfway up a skyscraper.)
Their latest edition of Volume focuses on urban China, in a 'bootleg issue' (see review at We Make Money Not Art). Inaba then talks about a “downsizing of America, de-accessioning under-performing states.” (It feels like Volume/C-LAB can end up walking a tightrope between playful and overly ironic. The latter is dangerous territory, at last ...)
He indicates a mapping of skies in disaster movies, exploring how film uses background as a way to presage disasters. It’s not always via dark skies … He also indicates another work, on the emergence of wild feral animals. He says “they’re a good indication that a crisis is going to strike.”
Inaba closes by saying they want to understand what the value of design is, whether it can reproduced rather than acting as one-offs. Whether “the ambitions of the private sector can be transferred as we move into public sector”, whether architects are any good at infrastructure design ...
Geoff, in his role as interrogator, asks after the role of the architect, and whether - essentially, with fewer new building projects around - we’ll see a return of the architect as drawer, thinker, avant-garde provocateur?
Inaba talks about the “whole transportation infrastructure” issue currently in vogue, “If all it means is to design light rail and bus stations, then that’s a waste of a crisis.” He clarifies this by wondering “What about alternative ideas? Like subtracting from the transportation systems we have now?” (This is later echoed in Benjamin Bratton’s talk, and is a key theme right now.) He asks “Would it then give us credibility to do other projects, that indicate that we’re not just in it for money?” (Clearly a concern; does the proximity of AMO, and thus OMA, influence this concern?) Geoff then asks about “architects as research anthropologists”; that “they sit on statistics that others don’t have”, they have a kind of “informational reserve” that can be turned into something? (I’m not sure this is always true - many architects don't - but many do, and I know what Geoff’s getting at.)
Inaba reckons that architects are “good at processing disparate information”. They are often in the business of “producing proposals that are a synthesis of diverse information. That’s a skill that’s way more important than doing RFQs.” (Again, that’s clearly not unique to architects, but common in many disciplines. Certainly most designers can claim facility with this. Also again, though, it is a vastly important role and one architects can play well on projects they’re involved in.)
Geoff suggests that, in addition to the emergence of feral animals, another sign of a crisis is empty space ...
Inaba responds by referring to their work on hedge funds, indicating a clear “densification, but what we’re seeing now is an evacuation of space”. He wonders “How do you plan for emptiness? What do you do with all that vacancy?” They’re often looking at “mapping out the physical phenomenon of geographies (and) now we’re looking at concentrations of emptiness.” He finds it interesting that narrative representations of this kind of emptiness, say with The Omega Man, the classic story of the last man standing, or as with the Will Smith movie, (it’s) always some kind of external non-human thing that eradicates people … but here it’s of our own doing.”
Inaba then claims that LA is the densest city in the US (as noted before, this isn’t actually true; although it does depend on how you count it. It’s more important to understand that LA is dense, however; certainly denser than most people think.) He continues that the “densest bit of LA is all 3-storey buildings. All of us are living in such buildings, more unhappily, than we might assume.” (I’m not sure where he’s going with that - he went on to talk about “relocated cities” but I didn’t catch it.)
It’s a good talk. And C-LAB is a good thing, as is Volume. As I’ve suggested above, I find it occasionally veers a little too close to a position of detached irony, which is as out of step with the times as starchitecture. Equally, it’s jostling for space alongside numerous networks of blogs for whom a broad multi-perspectival view of architecture and urbanism is not just possible but an inherent feature, well beyond the traditional architecture press that Volume certainly supersedes. Having said that, Volume’s credentials and ambition still hoist it high in that landscape. Cities and buildings can be shaped by such thinking and publishing. Credit to Inaba and team.