Sunday, 20 September 2015


A publication that I have some new text published in...

And some of the text:


The same thought developed through different mediums leads not only to diverse outcomes, but to results which definitively modify the original notion itself, incorporating the qualities and nuances gathered during the idea’s journey to realisation in a given format, so that the more a notion is explored through varying means, the richer, stranger, more unpredictable the initial mental construct becomes. In complete contrast to scientific method which seeks the concrete binary of refutation or affirmation of its initial object, the more one explores a concept through various mediums using a poetically motivated, exploratory method, the more slippery, obscure, multivalent, distant, strange and beautiful the initial object becomes. It is for this reason that my practice involves the simultaneous pursuit of creative exploration in as many diverse forms as I can practically manage. Any medium which has come my way, whether it be blogging, poetry, animation, film, interiors, painting, urban design, architectural form, tweeting, drawing, 3d printing, rendering, GIFs, whatever, I have retained it as one more way to tease out the unexpected strangenesses latently embedded somewhere inside the limited stockpile of notions I have in the locker of my mind. I do not seek out constant newness, nor originality, rather I am on a journey to both accurately pin point a kernel of pure subject at my core -what Isaiah Berlin called our “Inner Fortress”, or the place to where you find yourself converging at the end of all your multifarious explorations in life; and to simultaneously expand that core, to gently unravel a vast surface area from its infinitesimally compressed point using the poetic method previously stated. In this manner I believe that I can be hugely enriched by coming into contact with the real world in a dizzying variety of ways, places, forms and contexts, but without ever losing myself; and conversely that I can give something truthfully of myself, to the world. This is my Architecture, my method, my poetry and my beauty.


Obliquite : Hello Adam Nathaniel Furman, thank you for accepting this interview. You have a very prolific and interesting body of work, but before looking at all its facets, I would like to ask you about your education in Architecture. What have you learned in Architecture? Do you think it is very different than an education in design?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

I am drawn to the sobriquet ‘designer’ because I find it to be an untainted designation that speaks of the act of intentionally premeditated creation in the most general and liberating sense, whereas the title ‘Architect’ is polluted by all kinds of professional associations & obligations, like being a ‘chartered accountant’ as opposed to a ‘mathematician’. Whilst I am drawn to the name, I however don’t know at all what constitutes an education in design. Terrible I know! I am at least more aware of Architectural education in general and the majority of it was not particularly appealing, which led me and many others to the AA, specifically because it has a rather wonderful history of approaching pedagogy in its own unorthodox fashion. The undergraduate and diploma school is divided by year into units of around 10-15 students, with each one being driven by a strong character purveying a distinct notion of what constitutes the practice of architecture. The idea behind this set-up being that all your notions and beliefs are shaken to their very core every single year (ideally you hop from unit to unit annually), and by moving through the various ‘isms’ this constant action of fundamental reappraisal and adaptation first of all allows for the survival of absolutely no preconceptions or prejudices whatsoever, but simultaneously and perhaps more importantly broadens the horizon of potentiality, of what is possible if you are able to form your own singular and meaningful take on the art, rather than narrowing it down and imposing contemporary orthodoxy as many other schools do. A very important aspect of this process is the adversarial edge which colours much of the debate within the school, and which forced me to become acquainted very early on with the necessity of standing up unapologetically and with robust arguments for my work and my position, whatever that may have been at any given point. I think it’s a great thing to learn early on that there is no absolute in the arts, that all positions are arbitrary, and yet to know that it is the staking in the ground of your own marker despite this, in triumphant disdain for this, which allows for you to grow the roots from which will eventually emerge your own body of work.

Obliquite : You started your practice as a designer with Madam Studio. What interested you in objects? Is it the idea of collection and multiplicity for example ?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

By nature I have always had one foot in the world of digital media, theory, internet culture, the ephemeral cornucopia of popular culture, and the other foot in the world of physical ‘artefacts’, object-relics, of porcelain, glass, plastic and bronze. Objects have a privileged position as mediators between these two worlds of the physical and the intangible, they are not so distanced from the cultural notions of their genesis as is architecture because of the incredible amount of compromise and time it takes to get a building built, nor are they destined to disappear as quickly as the ideas and fads that brought them about as with the garments and accessories of fashion. They are a bit of both. I don’t value the one more highly than the other, they feed into each other; however where content produced online and notions formed in print come and go at an ever increasing velocity, objects remain. Physical artefacts, no matter how they are made, no matter what they are, become cultural relics, small cross-sections through a tangible area of a given culture at a very specific moment in time. As an artist/designer I feel like I am endlessly pouring energy into a colourful and ever-changing digital maelstrom in which things hold their shape for only the briefest of moments. It is exciting, liberating, exhausting, self-destructive, but I keep doing it because out of this maelstrom, out of this vicious engagement with the contemporary falls objects, designs, artefacts, evocative things, relics which have a permanence to them. People have an innate sensitivity to objects that have been mediated in some way, either by time and a journey, or by having had an unusual mix of reasons for their making. We like to not only possess such things objectively, we like to possess them also with our imaginations, and the combination of an object being evocative in its design, together with the knowledge of it having had some kind of unusual story, but without anything being stated explicitly, allows our imaginations to grasp upon the artefact’s form with our curiosity and construct our own narratives, our own histories, and through this take possession of a thing fully, with our mind and not just our wallet. This is the key difference between goods straight off the manufacturing line, presented in a shop with an identity clearly proscribed by a marketing campaign, and art-objects, or even old manufactured goods in a bric-a-brac sale which have either lost their original given identities, or never had them in the first place. Objects such as these are and always will be enticing because they are immensely powerful tools at the behest of our imagination, it is through them that our imaginations construct our own micro-histories, which imbue our daily reality with depth and magic. They are the inverse companion to the smart digital device. Where a smartphone is all function and no form, consuming the mind’s attention in endless diversion, evocative objects are all form, and function purely to focus the mind’s power in curiosity and imaginative construction. The one is not better than the other, in fact the more ubiquitous the one, the more the other is needed. As a designer I am interested in exploring the power of the object as an evocative cultural artefact, and rather conveniently its most immediate form is in that of the domestically scaled object.

Obliquite : You have developed the ability to express a same question in an incredible array of mediums. Was there a shift in your work when you started using those? Is this freedom allowing you to go deeper in your research?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

I have always been a very firm believer within my practice of making sure that I am as up to date and knowledgeable as is personally possible with current technologies & softwares, not because of any sort of technophilia, but in order that I will in no way be restricted by the constraints of any one medium or any handed-down set of mediums. I think that the more techniques you are able to work through, the less your ideas and praxis will be defined by any given process, and so the more technology we can use as artists & designers, the more transparent our work may become to the complexities of our creative explorations, our ideas, our personalities, and the less it will become muddied-by and mixed-up with the practicalities of one particular technique. It’s an approach very much in opposition to the traditional notion of the artist-as-craftsman working with an ‘authentic’ technique which they become allied to and somehow embodies their practice. Video, Poetry, Prose, Blogging, Painting, Sketching, Installation, Events, Meals, Sculpture, Interiors, Facades, Projections, Ceramics, 3d printing, Performances, the more the better, and the freer we are. So on the one hand this approach distances the traditionally symbiotic relationship of the artistic idea to its method of realisation; but on the other –and I have found this to be paradoxically liberating- it very much deepens and alters that initial idea in a vibrant, destructive, unexpected and continually transformative process. It perpetually critiques the idea. No matter what I may want, every medium transforms its generative idea through the exigencies of its own internal logic, meaning that the intent is always different to the outcome. As such, each time I create something in a new form with a new technique, a mirror is held up to me in which I see my work anew in a monstrously bastardized form, forcing a rereading, forcing a revaluation, forcing a shift in my position. This approach is indeed partly about freedom, but a searching and reflexive freedom, it is about simultaneously holding onto the core of your ideas whilst continuously putting them to the test, throwing them to the dogs, and watching them evolve and grow each time you do so. Each new medium puts me and my illusions on trial, and each time I have to formulate a specific defence. It keeps me on my toes, keeps the mind sharp, and the work alive.

Obliquite : You play with those mediums like layers on Photoshop, adding different content and playing with contrast and saturation to make different informations appear (both in the real and figured sense), how do you structure those? Is it pre-established?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

To explain the interrelationship of mediums within any given project I often use the analogy of the sketchbook. Within the pages of a sketchbook, an architect or artist mixes a dizzying array of outputs and observations with poems mingling between sketches, excerpts from books, musical notations, plans, watercolours, fragments of letters, cut-outs from magazines, personal reminders, ideas for fiction, story-boards, a whole cross section of his or her creative existence. Each of these acts or notations is a semi-complete fragment, and when considered together with others of its type on all following pages, forms a coherent thread running through the book. So on the one hand you have clear threads of investigation slowly developing their own logic, threads which define the categories that make up an individual’s practice, and on the other you have an incredible amount of cross-fertilisation going on within each sheet, page by page, because these fragments inform and effect each other. Within the range of a few pages the relationship between a story about a giant, the plans for an ideal house, and the sketch of a series of garages will have more effect on each other, will transform the way the entry immediately following them is formed, than they do on the greater thread of their category throughout the sketchbook. Unexpected things happen in sketchbooks, strange analogies develop, concrete beliefs emerge from chance juxtapositions; out of Corbusier’s sketchbook emerged the combined image of an upturned fishing-boat with that of the section of a light-well in Hadrian’s Villa, giving us a world famous chapel. The selection of mediums for a project is important for me because it is exactly this process I need to set up, they need to be able to speak to each other, they need to cross fertilise with each other at each given moment and take me somewhere new, but they need to be discrete, to have their own clear threads and identities. That is why I cannot use a Photoshop layer metaphor which relies on transparencies and merging. The various explorations need to have their own integrity, to be composed of beautifully crafted fragments which speak to the fragments produced in other mediums, and influence their next generation, but which do not hybridize, they do not bleed into one another. It is a minestrone not a creamed soup. It is a parliament of debating parties composed of fierce individuals who often agree with other parties, but generally tow the party line, and who ever-so-occasionally alter the party manifesto through a set of new beliefs found through back-of-house late night discussions.

Obliquite : Video seems to be your latest medium, why is that? How do you deal with its ephemeral yet reproducible nature, which is very different than architecture or object?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

I was very lucky to study under Pascal Schoening in my fourth year (2006). He ran a brilliantly fuck-you unit on filmic architecture in which we were encouraged to think of design as a process of poetic dematerialisation rather than of construction, a process of posing questions and finding enigmas, it was a year in which we were supposed to spend a long time getting lost, and whose end results were often terrible films that lingered on reflections in puddles and such, and which often meant the student in question had to retake their year (it was an architecture school after all…). Each term however there were films that managed to capture some of the mystery that attracts the poetically minded to architecture in the first place, and it is the large body of these over the years that makes Diploma 3 an important marker in recent architectural thought. I had developed a narrated approach the previous academic year (2004 –I worked in OMA 2005-2006) under Katrin Lahusen, and for me in Pascal’s unit and after, video became a way that I could bring together in an immediate and digestible manner what were often extremely broad projects, with several parallel threads, explored in multiple media and through often contradictory tangents. It allowed me to add an extra layer of added comprehensibility to my work, a layer that would also serve to situate it in a broader cultural context, and hence circumvent the need for criticism to wade through the obsessive depths of all the material which went into its formation. This notion that a work can have several layers to it, with the initially approached surface being the most instantaneous and easy to comprehend, and with each further layer penetrated leading you to more complex, more problematic currents and material beneath, is an approach I discovered starting with film, in Pascal’s year. There is of course a bit of a chicken and egg element to this as the films I make are invariably being made while I am writing and while I am designing, and these elements all change each other dynamically, so it is not simply a matter of the one being a presentation tool for the other at all; however the very nature of video is that it’s quick to digest, easy to grasp, simple to communicate, and with regards to the internet, it is brilliantly viral and wonderfully easy to embed in a wild variety of contexts, and so becomes a useful semi-autonomous masthead for my work. I previously described objects as being of interest because they straddle the boundaries of the ephemeral and the concrete, well video interests me in those terms as well, but rather because it straddles the boundaries between content and form. The kind of videos I try to make are like ultrasounds taken through the belly of the mind, whilst it is pregnant giving genesis to the lovechild of my Mental energies and external Material things. I sometimes explain them as being along the lines of what would be captured if Spok were digitally recording a mind-meld on an artist at the moment of his or her creative apotheosis. But then of course put on YouTube. Video is simultaneously Poetic ultrasound and Mass communication device.

Obliquite : In terms of heritage, to which group, movement, or figure in history would you feel close to?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

So many. My library is my happiness. I have so many wonderful friends and beautiful passages and gorgeous obscure drawing plates and alternative views on the world hidden in the pages of my books. Moving flat causes me long standing and acute anxiety, because I draw so much security and rootedness from knowing in what books are a whole undepletable cornucopia of inspiring and endlessly fascinating things, and the knowledge of exactly where each of those books are in space, so that I can reach out at any given moment and be transported to a particular world of fancy, gives me such a sense of pleasure that when my collection is in disarray, randomly piled-up in corners, hidden in boxes, it is as if someone has taken a chainsaw to my brain, or fried my hard drive. I have favourites of course, but I am fickle and the pantheon is like the school playground, with classmates constantly dropping in and out of my top 10 bestest best friends, whether it be Balzac, Rossi, Vignola, Ungers, Dostoevsky, Corbusier, Kahn, Rem, Stirling, Sottsass, Alberti, Plecnik, Fornasetti, Rowe, Johnson, Libera, Blunt, Thomas, Borges, Neruda, Bunuel, Bramante, Lutyens, Norman-Shaw, Minghetti, Doccia… There is always a ‘current pantheon’ pile by the bath…

Obliquite : I would like to focus now on one of your latest project, called “Identity Parade”. For 3 months, you have played a fictional designer producing 3D printed objects. Using blogs, 3D, videos, pictures, and a whole lot of crazy thoughts, you let your feelings go. Was it so fictional after all? Did you play the role, as a digital theatre piece?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

It was very important for me that all the objects, the collection and the stories in ‘Identity Parade’ have a very tangible intensity, that the stories were pulsatingly real and that they very much were the reason behind every single inflection in each object in the collection, every change of colour, every pattern. For this to happen I had to live the project. I used the Greek theatrical technique of masking so that I could allow myself to become the character, so that I could embody the issues and stories he was pursuing to extremes that I would never have been able to if I was just writing as an objective creator, as the distanced “auteur”. He was not me, but I was him. I really did effectively lock myself in the flat for that 3month period of time, stewing in my juices, plugged in 14hours-a-day to my laptop, endlessly writing, re-writing emailing, drawing, designing, worrying, getting paranoid, imagining the tales and situations to such an extent that they really did become my reality for a time. It was a bit too intense by the end, and I am only now fully recovering from the partial mania I had descended into. It was worth it, but really, really, really the old saying is true that you need to beware the mask unless before you know it, it becomes you.

Obliquite : Each object has been defined by the mood, the references and the imagination of your character, how would you define those objects? Are they useful? Are they narrative? Poetic?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

They are evocative artefacts, and when combined they create very specific atmospheres. Their purpose is to inspire imaginative contemplation, to evoke something which is not clearly defined, but somehow nonetheless interesting enough to warrant the observer’s speculation. If you have ever entered the living room of someone recently deceased, you will know how powerfully their collected belongings are redolent of who they were, what was important to them. The effect is even more powerful when the space has been orchestrated by a collector, someone who consciously externalised their values and passions into their surroundings. Each item, every framed drawing, every figurine and model car has a specific tale to tell, however when the objects are all united in a domestic setting their chronological order and specific narratives are moot, it is rather the effect that they have combined which is so potent; their individual qualities rapidly collect in profusion until the point at which we can no longer discern individual items, rather they collapse in our cognition into an atmosphere, they become a singularity that is greater than their constituent parts, a singular atmosphere which conveys an essence of the person from which it originated. There is a tradition of arranging found objects in such a way as to imply such a condition, or of museums reconstructing imaginary versions of such environments with objects from a given period, however I have a rather conservative view on this; I believe that such an atmosphere can only exist and trigger the imagination of an observer if the stories embedded within each object and which brought the objects together were actually enacted, are really contained within the confines of an object’s form, and it is only when an observer believes this that their broader disbelief can be suspended, and they may allow their imaginations to run free. Some museums have the entire studio of an artist at the point of their death moved into their gallery spaces, eerie under the shadow-less lights, powerfully evocative of their creative minds, I wanted this collection to have these qualities and resonance, hence the intensity in the work, and the intensity with which the character is worked out intimately and at every point in relation to the objects, even if most visitors never really understood this cognitively, I think it came across quite potently as a clear impression. The objects in Identity Parade have swallowed and digested their narratives into their forms, are poetic in the degree to which they suggest things without answering any questions, and are as useful as the mind can make something without allowing the hands to touch.

Obliquite : You use fiction a lot, which is a common point to other designers involved in this publication, would you say that fiction is blurred with reality ? That fiction creates the real? Is it a tool or a result? 

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

In a way there is no such thing as Fiction, or else equally everything is fiction. It is the privilege of the dominant, of the elite, of the majority and of the status-quo to define what is fiction and what is not. The Histories we are taught, the explanations we are given at school, the news we are pumped full of on a minute-by-minute basis, these are all tales told to enclose us in an all-encompassing fiction that is so absolute and pervasive that it becomes this slippery things known as reality, simply by virtue of being everywhere, reiterated constantly. These meta-narratives use facts as justification, as strobe lights to blind us from all the fanciful story-telling that makes up the majority of what we are told, distorting them in any case in such a wilful manner as to render them equal in weight to a plot twist in Dallas. Maintaining that ‘Fiction’ as a notion is confined to the safe-zones of novel writing and drama is how we manage to constantly deflect our attention away from the terrifying fact that our entire society, all our values, everything we think of as real, meaningful and substantive, our identities, it is all a fiction as fabricated as the plot of Orange Is The New Black, La Perla Negra or Infinite Jest. When the Iron Curtain fell, a reality revealed its fiction as it disappeared in a puff of smoke, and ours could do likewise at any given moment. I am no revolutionary, but as a designer I am acutely aware of the proliferation of ugly, sodden stories endlessly repeated around us and which form a virtually inescapable web of dissatisfaction, fear, emptiness, greed and hatred. I believe that as we bring objects and buildings and digital whatever into this world it is in our power to re-write a tiny part of the great fiction. Each time we act as midwife to a beautiful design, may we also bring forth a beautiful tale that tells of a way in which one of us or some of us can see things a bit differently, a way to carve out a negative space in which we may begin to construct a world of our own. It is not a matter of whether we use fiction or not, we use it either way, it is simply a matter of whether we mindlessly accept the fiction of given reality as a fact, or whether we decide to face the arbitrariness of everything we thought so solid, and consciously articulate it, modify it, cut it, bleed it, sever some of its countless limbs and start to form the stories which together with our designs, our plans and our energies will allow us to begin rewriting that little part of the world around us that is within reach of our feeble grasp.

Obliquite : Just to finish, the aim of this publication is to discuss the existence of a new paradigm in design. Would you say that there is such a thing happening? What form would it take ?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

I have no idea! Many critics and collectors and journos are endlessly bemoaning a lack of cohesion in the arts at the moment, they are castrated by the flood of newness, they cannot categorise and critique and box things and say who is in and who is out at a fast enough rate to keep up with what is going on. They are flummoxed by new practices. Let them die. For me the most exciting thing that I am beginning to see is designers and architects and artists who are at once critics and practitioners, collectors and consultants, scientists and PR gurus, salesmen and mystics, who conflate a whole bunch of roles into one, who each in their own way are starting to inch towards a final negation (it has been so long in coming!) of the modernist division of knowledge and labour into arbitrarily discrete areas of professional ‘competence’. The new paradigm might be the melting of all professional categories into a primordial soup at the dining table of Art.

Obliquite : Thank you Adam Nathaniel Furman. Just to finish, what have you planned for the future?

Adam Nathaniel Furman :

I have been awarded the UK Rome Prize for Architecture 2014, and so will be residing in Rome for six months, exploring a city that I find endlessly fascinating, safe in the knowledge that for a not insignificant period of time I can avoid thinking about the fact I have absolutely no idea what I am going to do afterwards, or in my life generally. If any readers have any suggestions please contact me, I am all ears. 

Thursday, 27 August 2015


A building of the media, for the media, heralding the beginnings of our saturated age with its palatially cheap-and-cheerful exuberance, TVAM (by Sir Terry Farrell) was a complex, clever, and delightfully giddy stage-set, back-drop, and active instigator in the nation’s newfound –commercialised- breakfast pleasures. Mad Lizzie and her team did aerobics under the neon keystones of the its retro-futuristic-classical-pop entrance arch, while its oh-so-eloquent plastic eggcup finials were beamed straight into our living rooms as the utterly endearing markers of the end of each morning’s entertainment, and the beginning of the working day (no doubt while some of us were eating similar boiled eggs from very similar eggcups). Its interior was like the very coolest American industrial design and Italian fashion had exploded on impact with the dour British working environment, performing with perfect ease as the backdrop for impromptu broadcasts, being far more interesting than the majority of the actual TV-show sets themselves.

Buildings, spaces, tools and machines of high-tech media content, whether it be smartphones or studio buildings, are today mostly the very inverse of that which they contain and produce –they are all too often black boxes, slick tablets and neutral sheds. TVAM was something it would be wonderful to see more of: a rapturous celebration of its contents, a building that functioned perfectly as a studio, but which also performed brilliantly as an architectural embodiment of, and story about the new world we were entering, in which old categories were dissolving and hierarchies collapsing, in which cleverness could be a joy, old could be new, pop could be culture, and architecture could be free to be sophisticated, fun, fashionable and communicative. It was a stylistic explosion of pent-up tectonic energies that formed itself around the volatile excitement of a new media age, and in the process became entrenched in our national consciousness.
As Paul Greenhalgh said, postmodernism stands in relation to our own moment as the Steam Age did to its own oil-powered future; the mediated nature of our economy and lifestyle that was only beginning with TVAM has now effloresced into a saturated environment unimaginable at that time. TVAM encapsulated the complexities of its time -good and ill, beautiful and ugly- with stylistic bravado and architectural panache. It would be very good indeed to see young architects picking up the baton, and throwing themselves headlong into the maelstrom of contemporary culture, bringing some of its raw brilliance back into the built environment. In its spirit, it is a model to be revaluated, revisited and taken-up once again.
What would a TVAM of 2016 look like?

Monday, 8 June 2015

The Unhappy Pursuit

1324a5 It remains to discuss whether the happiness of the city is the same as that of the individual, or different. The answer is clear: all are agreed that they are the same. Those who believe that the well-being of the individual consists in his wealth, will also believe that the city as a whole is happy when it is wealthy. Those who rank the life of a tyrant higher than any other, will also rank the city which possesses the largest empire as being the happiest city. Anyone who grades individuals by their goodness, will also regard the happiness of cities as proportionate to their goodness.
Extract from Chapter II, Book VII of Aristotle’s Politics

Much as the analysis of advertising proved to be an eye-opening window into the libidinal underpinnings of the twentieth century’s very irrational consumer mind, the marketing for residential-led developments has more recently proven itself to be a convenient way of gaining insight into what property buyers are drawn to in a city, and in a home. Because of the increasingly yawning gap between the stratospheric prices of many flats and their consequently disappointing reality, the intensity and psychological brio of these marketing campaigns has reached a fever-pitch of ideological clarity in the attempt to reconcile the two.

Their approach can be roughly divided into the targeting of two main areas of desire. On the one hand there is the drive for uniqueness, the need to feel special, better than everyone else, as was traditionally embodied through affectations of luxuriousness. Coming to predominate now in this approach is the use of L’Oreal style exhortations of indulgence and singularity regarding the buyer and the home, phrases which have no link whatsoever with the physical reality of the buildings or places themselves, but are related solely to how the purchaser is meant to feel about his purchase. Redrow’s recent trailer for its One Commercial Street development is the most explicit expounding of this tactic to date, with barely a glimpse of any aspect of the building whatsoever apart from the view, whilst a character narrates phrases like “But if it was easy, then it wouldn’t feel as good. To look out at the city that could have swallowed you whole and say ‘I did this’. To stand, with the world at your feet.[1]

On the other hand there is the drive to not be alone, for the opposite of luxurious isolation, for its therapeutic amelioration in urban form through the connection with something specific to a given place. It is the instrumentalisation of this kind of artificially located authenticity that has seen the greatest proliferation in recent years, with videos of local markets and galleries jostling against phrases about how you will “be enriched by the alluring tapestry of culture and flavours bursting from every direction[2], and even tabula-rasa behemoths like Battersea being “designed to nurture interactions and inspire enduring relationships,” their website earnestly entreating buyers with such unintentionally terrifying phrases as “In and through community lies the salvation of the world[3].

Through these campaigns we can read the desire for perfectly acceptable, even civic forms of socially beneficial human fulfilment which are being perpetually deferred, since their object cannot be achieved in the purchase of the very items being advertised as representing their fulfilment. It is laudable to aim for excellence, to have as your goal the rising above others in the pursuit of one or another form of supremacy. It is a wholly positive impulse to be part of a community and to participate actively in the ballad of perpetual happenstance that we call a city. Purchasing a home in one of these developments means in fact that not only are you very much not achieving either one of those things in any way whatsoever, but it is the very object you are purchasing which in its numerical accumulation across our cities is slowly eradicating those things it purports to embody. No-one may excel in any unique manner in a town in which everyone is exactly the same, of the same income level with the same kind of jobs and the same kind of backgrounds. Community and singularity are eradicated by the disappearance of those who require coming together to subsist and of those who run specific, and enriching but not hugely profitable enterprises.

The pressure to buy a property of such hyper-inflated value that you will effectively be enslaved to a bank for the rest of your life servicing a debt that bears no relationship to any income you could ever really achieve, is a sophisticated form of crowd control, of enslavement and pacification. The populist demagogue of home-ownership is herding the crowd towards a destination that is wholly against its own self-interest.

Very few people value wealth above all else, precisely the opposite, the accumulation of wealth now needs to masquerade as the fulfilment of more substantial goals because otherwise it could never be accepted for what it is, namely the massive restructuring of our society through the transformation of housing into the primary yielding asset type in a newly evolving rentier class of debt holders, shareholders and land owners.

As Aristotle pointed out in his Politics, the happiness of a city has much in common with the happiness of the individuals which constitute that city, and the form a city eventually takes will be governed by the characteristics its populace value most highly. Our cities, and London in extremis, are being refashioned as constitutional Oligarchies in which the many may be democratically represented, but in economic reality they spend their lives servicing the wealth of land owners and lenders.

That does not lead to the kind of city that embodies values most contemporary citizens would claim to prize. It is not leading to the kind of city that creates as much happiness amongst the most people as possible, and neither is it leading to a city that encourages vigorous meritocratic competition, it is moving rapidly towards the total consumption of both the private[4] and the public realm by the forces of speculation, and this will lead to only one thing: the death of the liberal city.


An edited version of this text was published in the 2nd edition of the Bartlett's Lobby Magazine

[1] From the Redrow marketing trailer for One Commercial Street now pulled from their site
[2] From the website for the Lexicon
[3] From the website for the Battersea Power Station Development
[4] By Private realm I mean the domain of the family, and the premises of businesses as opposed to the public sphere of exchange.

Monday, 27 April 2015


^Crossing Pier showing the contrast before and after restoration

"Two kinds of nostalgia are not absolute types, but rather tendencies, ways of giving shape and meaning to longing. Restorative nostalgia puts emphasis on nostos (returning home)and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps. Reflective nostalgia dwells in algia (aching), in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance. The first category of nostalgics do not think of themselves as nostalgic; they believe that their project is about truth.”
Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia

In her book The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym posits nostalgia as the inevitable flipside of the coin of modernity, as a primary symptom of development in which the march forward only becomes psychologically acceptable through a turn towards the past, real or otherwise. Spaces of shared history are our universal panacea. Within this fundamentally modern condition she outlines two main responses. On the one hand there are those who reject the ambiguities, layerings and lacunae of history, and wish to return to an ideal origin, to the moment in which a building, a city, or a nation was in its primary, pure and unadulterated state. Those with this goal in mind see history spatially, as just one point in time, to be rediscovered, reconstructed, and inhabited. On the other hand there are those who embrace the passing of time, and the complex stratifications of adulteration and chance, who see signs of change as triggers for the contemplation of the temporary nature of all things man-made, both our ideas & values as well as our buildings. Those who prefer to reflect on the past in this manner see history as a continuum of change, and the very marks of time passing, the indeterminate nature of what came before and after, are the immeasurably valuable qualities that come with age.

Chartres, perhaps the most universally adored of the great gothic cathedrals from the astonishing 12th & 13th Century Ile de France building boom, is part-way through an extensive program of restoration that has pitted these two sensibilities against one another. The campaign’s intention is to remove 800 years’ worth of accumulated grime and reinstate a decorative scheme that was discovered under numerous later layers of paint and dirt. The caking of candle wax, paint and soot, including from a fire in the 1970s, was so textured and dark that the surfaces of the Cathedral were almost uniformly mistaken for exposed stonework. The consequently dark interior provided a dazzling contrast to the coruscating radiance of the stained glass, itself restored to a state of past-perfect chromatic uniformity amid quite some controversy. The layers and layers of decorative schemes, alterations, damage and grime no doubt had nothing in common with how the space looked on the day of its consecration, but the story they told of the intervening time, and the much admired aesthetic consequences of its restrained decay came to be much loved and intimately associated with our version of Chartres, a Chartres that provided something much needed in the 19th, 20th and 21st Centuries, a place to reflect on in the unknowable distances that both separate us from, and unite us with our past.

The restored ambulatory and choir areas, soon to be followed by the transepts, crossing and nave before 2017, look brand new and bright, with a beige ground covered in white lines that trace mortar joints that don’t always follow the actual coursing below, itself an interesting example of how visitor perception of the interior trumped any fidelity to material fact even at the time of the Cathedral’s opening. It is impressive for a moment, and then you remember you are in Chartres. The effect is well summed-up by John Lichfield when he asks us to “Imagine how you might feel if your great, great, great grand-mother was suddenly made to appear 20 years old again.”* The restorers intend that the Cathedral be experienced as had been originally intended. That intention is an impossibility, and the presumption that it can be achieved is a dangerous one. In the sciences, practitioners posit a theory, which may be generally accepted for a period, but as soon as experimental results disprove it, a new theory is proposed that explains the data. Truth evolves. The problem with the material pursuit of reconstructing supposed origins in restoration, such as the cleaning of Chartres, is that based on necessarily fragmentary and imperfect evidence, a theory (and that is all it is) is presumed as a final truth, and all evidence to the contrary contained within the accretions of time and the gaps in the earliest material, is systematically wiped out and lost forever as something that can be experienced spatially. In these instances Truth may not evolve, it is arrested, and visitors are permanently excluded from forming their own ideas about the building in the way they might when all the increments of 800 years are present in the space for them to interpret. The information regarding the original colour-scheme could be present in a guide as text, and become one layer of many that visitors may simultaneously experience, but when it erases everything else there is only one manner in which the building can be understood. It is a form of historical absolutism.

I am open to the reflex towards reconstructive nostalgia in architecture when the building is new. Nobody pretends that the full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Nashville is actually the original Parthenon. There is an honesty about internal paradoxes in that act, everyone is aware of an edifice’s newness, is aware that it is an illusion, and a communal act of imagination is required to validate the history it indicates, whether it be Disneyland (the materialisation of fictional histories) or the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow (the reinstatement of a previously erased past). However restoration to an existing historic building that eliminates the patina of history, and reinstates an illusory ideal moment in the past while using the rhetoric of scientific and historic accuracy, is an act of destruction in the name of an illusion, dressed up in good intentions.

We are all poorer for the restoration at Chartres, and have lost one of our greatest spaces for reflection on the passing of time, and things.


This article was published in edited form in the May 2015 issue of Apollo Magazine as part of the "Forum" series in which two opposing takes in an issue are placed next to one another. The article can be read here.

*John Lichfield, Bright future for a Gothic Wonder in the Independent, Saturday 05 September 2009

Wednesday, 25 February 2015


Beauty is anything, made or found, which without practical actions, can momentarily alleviate the dead weight of reality from an observer.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Sea Spray

I never managed to be a believer because my rabbi couldn’t answer the simple question why? ‘How’ he could answer: always ‘what’, and ‘how’. Never why. And it’s been exactly the same in architecture, mentors full of certainty, but devoid of explanations. They could say what was good and bad, and how to do things, but ask ‘why?’ more than twice and a great rift would open up in which it was clear they were clinging desperately to a life raft of arbitrary values, terrified of the ocean around them, ignoring it. Some sea-spray would occasionally hit their face and they’d swipe it away in disgust and suppressed fear. 

But its okay, the sea is warm and welcoming and liberating. It knows why, it really does, it tells you a bit each time you dive, a little more with each push of your arms through water. The truth is we really are free, the little prisons our teachers built for us are weak as air, held up only by their terror of reality and disdain for honesty.

So turn around. Look up. Jump.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Phallic Symbols

^Stanley Tigerman, Daisy House, 1976

As long as humans have built societies, there have been representations of the male reproductive organ popping up in its art and architecture, and looking at the distant past compared with our more modern times, one can discern an almost complete about-turn in the way this symbolic presence is embodied, and interpreted. In ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt, the phallus was a celebrated symbol of fertility, a playfully transgressive image that was at once a marker of celestial abundance as well as an often hilarious, and very down-to-earth reminder of earthly desires in all their silliness and joy. In Hinduism Shiva’s creative aspect, the side of the god which brings forth and generates, is represented by the Lingam, a symbolic trinity made up of a penis and two testicles, present in many temples across India. The penis was a funny, voluptuous and profound image that tied together birth, growth, carnality, and godliness, our bodies and beds with temples and mythology, it represented a kind of deep love of the human body as expressed in the very surroundings it inhabited. In contrast to this, the penis and its apparent architectural permutations are now the objects of a persistent disgust. A toxic mixture of analogies and associations have turned it from a shared human symbol into an object of ridicule and point of contestation. The Penis currently = Male = Power = Money = Misogyny = Inequality = Capitalism in a kind of insane spiral of illogical leaps, in which often an entire building typology, namely tall buildings or “skyscrapers”, can become enmeshed in a web of toxically negative cultural meaning. No matter how beautiful, no matter how benign a new tower is, a chain reaction is set off in which, because it is vertically proportioned it = Penis, which = Male and so on to an array of negative associations, in which the Penis is a stand-in for much of the unfairness we suffer in society. I say toxic because aside from the fact that we bizarrely condemn what is simply a building type to never being discussed rationally on its merits as simply a ‘building’, but that we do not question why being a ‘phallic symbol’ is such a horrible thing in the first place. Via its readings of gender-types in buildings, and subsequent value judgements based on this, current discourse drives a wedge between architecture, art and the human body, turning buildings into tools for expanding our self-hatred and alienation from our own figures and identity. Skyscrapers are not penises, and penises are not embodiments of male power but parts of our bodies. If we are to metaphorically associate parts of our body to aspects of architecture and the city, let’s do it in such a way that makes architecture into a tool for valuing our human form, not something that adds to the already plentiful shame contemporary culture makes us feel for our poor, entirely unwitting and innocent body parts. I would like to end with Charles Moore’s Daisy House of 1976 (see above), an exemplary union of an architecture in our time with the ancient attitudes noted above. A joyously explicit fusion of the male and female genitalia, built for a terminally ill man who wanted to be reminded of life in all its delight as he slipped away; it is a house that loves the image of our bodies, and is indeed phallic, but in a way that brings architecture back into communion with our base, unselfconscious and beautiful selves.

^Penis Temple in Tufa stone, 1-50AD, Pompei

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Act of Copying

^Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum (source)

Aside from qualified usage in fine-art contexts, copying is generally thought of as a negative act, something which detracts from its source, and there are formidable legislative structures in place to prevent its unlicensed proliferation. Originality, creativity, novelty, innovation, these are ideals that we are told to actively pursue in our working lives. No management consultant would come to your company and tell you to slavishly copy someone else’s designs, or office structure down to the smallest detail, no matter how great the office in question. No good contemporary teacher would ask his or her class to memorise the entirety of an epic poem by rote, no matter how great the poem. 

Today’s all important quality is originality, and so the epic poem is not memorised, but reinterpreted, not recited but performed and reinvented by the class, all in the search for innovation. But copying in its most positive sense is a creative act, in fact it lies at the very foundation of creativity. It is only through the hard work of copying, of systematically reproducing something as in traditional pedagogy, that one can fully digest and comprehend the fullness of what came before, understand it in all its complexity, failures and triumphs, and therefore be able to eventually move beyond it. Every time a new Asian economy raises itself to manufacturing powerhouse status, I hear people dismiss its rise as not being a threat to us because “they only know how to copy, not innovate”. But it is precisely this movement through a period of intense study, analysis and imitation of predecessors that paves the way for a profound and entirely singular leap forward in firmly grounded innovation. Just look at those copiers who are now arch-innovators like Japan, Taiwan, emerging S Korea and soon China. 

Without the studied and entirely positive process of copying, we will only move like crabs sideways, endlessly searching for titillating novelty which is bereft of substance, because genuine newness comes rarely, and can only arise out of a totally thorough understanding of what came before. Architectural education currently has a dearth of copying and a surfeit of apparent novelty. If given precedents at all, students (even in their first year) are pressured to critically re-read, re-interpret, re-analyse and rapidly re-design and re-imagine whatever building, project, square, or city they have been handed to study. There is never the slightest chance that they may have the time to slowly comprehend the subtle complexities of their object of analysis, and thereby be handed the chance to one day surpass it. Instead they are goaded into generating sexy click-bait that has all the depth of a very well-illustrated conceit, and like satirical illustrations are entirely dependent on precedents that have been barely understood, let alone been superseded. Let us have a break from originality for a while, let the kids copy.