Well dressed yet clinically dead
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*This is adapted from the article AMALGAMATED ECOLOGIES published in Design Ecologies Vol.2 No.2, 2013

[…] They cut the power? How could they cut the power? They’re animals.

(Cameron 1986)

Victor Frankesntein thought otherwise. Instead of battling to keep out a band of James Cameron’s marauding xenomorphs, the crippling impulse to define the terrain of natural and artificial material was channeled into the reanimation of cobbled together pieces of disparate corpses. But where did they come from and what do they make once combined? Sentient Relics, as this issue of Design Ecologies is called, is less a murder mystery and more a detective novel. The fear uncovered in this collection of essays is not the result of revealing dead corpses but a product of queried identity, reim- agining and a new understanding of the places we call natural and artificial and the means by which we classify them, measure them and ultimately construct with them. The relics are sentient and aware and possess the ability to transform landscapes and influence the spaces and architectural possibilities that blossom with exotic charm. How that happens owes much to the reading of these landscapes and how they manufacturer their own architectural possibilities amongst technology be it hard or soft. After all technology is simply that quotient of change needed to reveal and subsequently, as I will explain, amalgamate.

In the end technology can add as much to confusion as it does efficiency. Automation is a practical application but the consequences of applying technology whatever they maybe are quite frankly far more interesting. All the creases and little folds are ironed out through the streamlining of processes seen as long-winded or prone to imperfection. Tim Matts’ and Aidan Tynan’s Eco-Clinic presents the construction of a material mechanism to make sense of natural and artificial confusion. This makes me realize perhaps we all too often design and make things that only reinforce the problems they set out to challenge. A stroke suffered by former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak caused his physi- cians to consider more carefully his physical state and what it means to be deceased. Described by the equipment monitoring him as clinically dead, physicians thought otherwise. The reason given for this vacillating state was having ‘too much technology’. An over-abundance of stuff that measures and monitors, regulates and predicts can give rise to general confusion in itself as much as the doctors deciphering and translating results.

The back and forth left everyone wondering about the health of the former president – and what it means to be ‘clinically dead.’ ‘Of all things, defining death seems like something that should be fairly obvious and uncomplicated,’ says Leslie Whetstine, a bioethicist at Walsh University in Ohio. ‘It can be quite difficult, though, not because of a lack of technology, but because we simply have so much of it’.

(Sifferlin 2012)

The stoic material of architecture stands opposed to massive change, and this territory is marked as a sort of ‘landscape in trouble’, one that requires architecture to be aware and able to re-stablize should the unimaginable happen and the landscape tumble. The tsunami and earthquake of 2011 in Japan prompted an array of proposals designed to aid those displaced along Japan’s eastern edge region Tohoku with such suggestions as to raise kilometres of coastline by as much as fifteen metres or more to avoid future tsunami. The action taken by most of those affected was to move to higher ground. What remains in places such as Minamisanriku in Miyagi prefecture, North-Eastern Japan is an empty flat land; a veritable wasteland now marked by the footprints of old houses and a latticework of tarmac where roads remain.

So if landscapes are echoes of past events such as these, perhaps landscape is the real territory of architecture. Perry Kulper rightly suggested that landscape moves ‘between embodied, semiotic and indifferent forms of communication’ (Kulper, 2013), which would seem to confirm that simply resituating and building with solidity does not address problems facing the turbulent territory of Japanese architecture, for example. How can we affect meaningful change if we are not really sure when or by what means change occurs? We need to look at other places for possible answers or ques- tions to fathom and diagnose the true nature of the territory we are about to encounter. The fear expressed by Space Marine ‘Hudson’ as he and his fellow marines descend through the fog of newly processed atmosphere no longer seems meaningless but real, the outcome of their predicament very predictable. We need to determine though the nature of the relics that are aware of their surroundings constantly adapting and manipulated but recourse as a consequence of awareness as the world around them forces them to resituate. This is a cerebral architecture of awareness, aware of us as much as itself and the landscape generated.

Franken-Yohji

Cerebral landscapes were at the heart of adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein at London National Theatre in 2011. I happened to see around the same time as reading a book by Yohji Yamamoto, recounting his years in Tokyo and Paris as first an apprentice in this mother’s pattern cutting shop and then as a tailor and designer of women’s wear in Paris and then later again Tokyo. The two pieces somehow overlapped mapping out for me an amalgamation of thoughts and relationships between people and places, bodies and contexts. Cities, material and making that involved the body, and a dark gothic noir, became framed in very unspecific ways.

Architecture is a weirdly complex expression of this resituation. Lebbeus Woods described the point of architecture as the attempt to make sense of the world. The physical terrors witnessed by interruption on landscapes of war or natural disaster somehow go unnoticed on a great deal of archi- tectural intervention. Those that acknowledge their own futility in uncertain surroundings do so with their own mortality in check and that understanding that they will not exist forever. Just like the lifespan of contemporary architecture, they express the sped-up process of building, demolition and renewal, a reflection of modern cities, no more so than in Tokyo itself.

So what of Mary Shelley and Yamamoto? What of Frankenstein and My Dear Bomb (Yamamoto Yohji and Mitsuda Ai, 2010) If an architectural experience is describable by more than the physical confines described – and they are – then how can ideas not fixed by solid material be used to build and be employed to design with as well? What are these ‘immaterial-materials’? Shelley and Yamamoto are acutely aware that they do very specific things and describe more than simply their trade. The real sentient relic is this immaterial material. Though their origin is difficult to determine, it may have something to do with navigating subjective landscapes as a territory to build within, as a type of inner space with an inner freedom. This Kantian territory of both terror and violence

echoes the ‘intensive and extensive’ spaces of Delleuze and Guattari’s smooth and striated ecology. This sublime territory of terror and violence, as Timothy Morton describes, gives a nice aesthetic frame to maintain distance from the real violence and terror expressed. Gotham-like with their own variety of fools and degenerates, these disparate worlds – one Victorian and the other fashioned and temporary – place emphasis on the experience of construction and transformation as if real buildings were really being built.

Yamamoto’s description of Tokyo describes his resistance to the world around them, described with a terror of the body he clothes. Frankenstein is the manipulation of the old body and creation of the new. Awkwardness and distance, a difficulty with relationships and Victorian expectation of marriage mean Frankenstein is as much about escape as it is about the creation of a new friend, a brother or a new self. It all goes horribly wrong of course and the cursed creature eventually exiles itself as well as Frankenstein into a frozen wasteland. Yamamoto declares that instead of tackling the issue of environmental disaster he chooses to escape to a world of pure vanity and identity crisis, much like our friend Dr Frankenstein.

I admire its purity, unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality.

(Scott 1979)

My own trip to see Frankenstein at the National was as informed by Yamomoto’s description of Paris and Tokyo as much as it was images of films and the music I was watching and listening to around the same time. Methods of working and making all figure in the understanding we have of the world around us. How that filters back into our greater fabrication really depends on how we choose to bind the important features we are drawn to. Technology is, for the most part, the glue but like everything else it is prone to illicit a response all of its own making and in so doing adds something else to the mix. In the production of the Frankenstein play, two actors were used for the role of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. They would swap roles the night before; sometimes leaving the decision as to who play’s who, a few hours before going on. The added theatre would surely confuse most but add urgency for others, most likely the remaining cast. The audience on the other hand would be left wait- ing, wondering what they would bear witness to being born and summarily obliterated. The space of expectation could not have been anymore palpable. Meanwhile, Paris and Tokyo would be described as places to escape from and return to. At all times the urgency of ecological crisis would be lurking in Yamamoto’s own shadow, eventually returning to the body and his site of construction.

Frankenstein is a tale that at it’s heart is the basis for many more tales of manipulation; of the ‘natural’ in favour of the ‘artificial’ and a quest for perfection in a place where imperfection is a trade- mark of reality. Yamamoto on the other hand forgoes the terror at the heart of Shelley’s gothic noir and replaces it with sadness. He explores the utilitarian found in photographs of mid-century American

mill workers in overalls and laboured fabric. Yet there is sadness to what is represented. So what of these two distant cousins? Are they at all in any way related? The idea of thinking about design as a purely product-driven process is redundant and arbitrary. At the heart of these two threads is an expression of manipulation. The landscape of each is contorted and abstract and has as, a starting point, a very strong sense of place; the body.

In My Dear Bomb, Yamamoto recalls his youth, tethered to his mother out of dutiful obligation and bound by his mother’s gentle request for him to never leave her alone, both undoubtedly grow- ing old together. His mother worked as a seamstress in a part of Tokyo called Kabukicho, a place now as it was then, full of raw flesh and windowless hotels. Tokyo is a city of towns, all microcli- mates and each one as equally pervasive as the other. These towns drift away, anchored to the spot by a landmark or shrine. In Kabukicho’s case it was a theatre that never was. It’s replacement: a culture of cabaret that over time evolved into hostess bars, nightclubs, love hotels and massage parlours. Yamamoto recounts his evening wandering the back streets of Kabukicho and beyond, befriending women as, in his own words, casual distractions. The inconsistency of these microcli- mates, how each part of ‘the whole’ lacks sense either common or empathic, were fragments of his upbringing as much as the city, the abandonment he experiences as a young boy, his father gone to join the army fighting in the pacific.

His industrial landscape is haute couture that wraps a bodily silhouette with the city and it’s pre- history – an amalgamated form of both beauty and destruction. Towards the end of the play, Frankenstein’s ‘creature’ is asked what is he good at, to which he replies ‘amalgamation’ (Boyle and Dear 2011). Over several minutes he recounts Plato’s ‘Republic’ and Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’, drawing his partner in conversation ever closer only to admit to have finally learnt the most powerful of all of man’s ways, the ability to lie. Pulled apart and contorted, the stage comes together and is pulled apart again. Giant shards of rooms are extracted from beneath the stage. A storm-damaged interior replaces the Victorian drawing room above. A foreshortening of perspective tilts and shifts window frames, tables and chairs as if to accentuate the distorted mind of Victor Frankenstein. The set revolves to become a remote fisherman’s lodge to construct his creature’s bride, covertly agreeing to construct and then destroy the female form after revealing the creature’s nexus; the ability to love. After the death of his own bride at the hands of the creature, the circular stage then splits in two, half of which descend to form the precipice from which Frankenstein finally confronts the creature. We sit through these coruscating stage sets and their ensuing crisis unravels before us. Yamamoto observes:

Human beings, whether young or old, have an innate desire to be understood; they build things and they speak in order for their presence to be known. In this sense my work might be considered the epitome of some gaudy attempt to attract attention. My thoughts that day as I explore the streets of Rome, however, were of a different sort. Phrased in terms of a reaction to the growing environmental crisis, I felt that screaming out for ecological solutions and volunteer work would not nearly be as effective as the complete disposal of all man made edifices, all cobbled together explanations, and all the mountains of garbage. Or, to take it one step further, it seemed the best thing one could do for the sake of the Earth would be to die on the spot. They pour toxic waste into the rivers, humans will only pay attention to it on the day dead fish rise to the surface. I felt something akin to the desperation of that moment, and it prompted me to place myself in a ‘Vanity Fair’ world where I made things that were anything but necessary. When I began to make clothing my single thought was to have women wear what was thought of as men’s clothing. In those days Japanese women wore, as a matter of fact of course, imported, feminine clothing, and I simply hate that fact.

(Yamamoto and Mitsuda 2010: 92)

His desire to acknowledge the world, as a silhouette in bodily form rather than a protest or remon- stration is interesting. He understands we globally produce more than we either want or need and that in the search to understand himself and maybe ourselves, the nape of the neck is as fundamental to the world as acknowledging the tons of toxic waste that float suspended in landfill and coral reef. His extreme response is a question of scale not vanity. What are we, where do we come from and where are we necessarily going? He wants to give form and character to the imported characterless shape cast by clothes and ideas. If the creature is anything then it is looking for something similar, a form and identity through its accelerated learning.

Proposals for creating a place that maintains a sort of stable status quo for immaterial materials may bring forth a greater discovery but it may well introduce further welcome chaos into the conver- sation by suggestions more than questions. In an already content-rich environment of conceptual architecture this idea of what that might be may remain elusive, inconclusive or simply be recorded as an open verdict, a space that is clinically dead but capable of cognition.

Empathic materials

Mark West’s amalgamation of Reagan-era America with graphite and tensile concrete much like Kulper’s observation that his territory, the landscape and the architecture involved, not framing it, are spatial resignations are perhaps more empathic architectures, perhaps variants of an Eco-Clinic. Gaps, erased moments from surfaces of paper and actual construction with a minimum of material perform- ing the maximum bending moment are designed minus the characters populating them. It is out of their hands quite literally. Kulper’s observatories muse places that look out into the environment they posit recounting relationships between architecture and landscape. As he says ‘life might exist between

closed systems and open, shared and active environments’ (Kulper 2013). His architecture/landscape system ‘offers values that negotiate states between the domesticated and the wild and from the meta- physical to the political, moving between embodied, semiotic and indifferent forms of communica- tion’. It is ‘Landscape “into” architecture’, a ‘John Cage score crossed with a time-lapse photograph’ (Kulper 2013).

These sentient relics are bits of empathic stuff, built on relationships between worlds while exploring their backwaters. Maybe they are conclusive and not exactly definitive as architecture, but they respond rather than dismiss the land they exist within. They challenge the role that architec- ture presents as being more than merely physical and inert but empathic. Both Yamamoto and Frankenstein recognize this and so too the architects within this issue. It is all about how carefully they amalgamate.

Proximity did not equal connection. Yeah, but – the weird thrust of that night made every- thing seem connected. It was like a dream state. Gretchen/Celia and the knife-scar women kiss – and his world resituates.

(Ellroy 2009: 102)

 

References

Boyle, Danny and Dear, Nick (2011), Frankenstein (play), London, UK: The National Theatre.

Cameron, James (1986), Aliens (motion picture), USA/UK: Twentieth Century Fox.

Ellroy, James (2009), Blood’s a Rover, USA: Alfred A.Knopf.

Morton, Timothy (2011), ‘Sublime objects’, Speculations, Vol.1 Issue II, pp. 207–27.

Scott, Ridley (1979), Alien (motion picture), USA/UK: Twentieth Century Fox.

Sifferlin, Alexandria (2012), ‘“Clinically Dead”? How many kinds of dead are there?’, Time Magazine, 20 June, http://healthland.time.com/2012/06/20/clinically-dead-how-many-kinds- of-dead-are-there/#ixzz2HDA5Mu1U. Accessed 18 January 2013.

Woods, Lebbeus, http://lebbeuswoods.wordpress.com/2010/08/12/the-experimental/. Accessed 25 December 2012.

Yamamoto, Yohji and Mitsuda, Ai (2010), My Dear Bomb, the Netherlands: Ludion. ‘Architecture. Possible Here? “Home-for-all”’, Gallery Ma, Tokyo, http://www.toto.co.jp/gallerma/ex130118/index.htm. Accessed 21 January 2013.

 

Suggested citation

Munro, S. (2012), ‘Amalgamated ecologies: A connected landscape, well dressed and clinically dead’, Design Ecologies 2: 2, pp. 154–167, doi: 10.1386/des.2.2.154_1

Originally published on July 7, 2013