That Can Only Mean One Thing
Paul Mosley & Juan Andres Suarez
Project _ First Prize of 2016 How to Architecture! competition
The Social Age jolts architecture into a precarious state because its omnipresence forces architecture to take a position: to either actively engage or resist the relational forces of digital media. Architecture is indifferent. Digital imagery comprises the ken of today’s cultural vision, but the picture plane of social media is as much a mirror as a window. Digital content is shifting from words to pictures, making images more integral to our being: people now include themselves in the things they photograph (using selfie sticks), which flattens subject matter with authorship. In this context, architecture’s most effective agency is to frame these uncontrollable, artificial conditions.
We propose a 100x100m detached arcade in the shape of a square. The generic character of this architecture both contains and delineates The Festival. Stands, displays, Instagram feeds, #foodtrucks, people snapchatting concerts, security cameras, and the anxiety of the ellipsis all animate the #festivalplaza—upon which stands The Beacon: an 8x8x25m monolith of black marble. It both complies with and flouts the exuberance of The Festival. It is abhorred and adored. It is everything and nothing. Its permanence contradicts the ephemerality of digital reproduction through #memes and media feeds—but through this reproduction—it reflects and perpetuates us in an infinite string of updates surrounded by black marble. Take a #selfie with it. Snapchat your reflection in it. Vine yourself howling like a 2001 ape at it—but do not touch it, do not meditate on it, and do not theorize it.
You compose through collage, to what extent does this juxtaposition of imagery and content relate to the message of the proposal?
PM: I view it less as a juxtaposition of imagery and content (the visual effects of collage and what it represents) than as a separation and selection of territory through the elementary act of framing. The message of our proposal concerns architecture’s relationship to the supposedly ethereal, chaotic forces of digital media. Within and against these forces, architecture is neutral. The architecture in this proposal is a generic frame—a detached peristyle in the shape of a square. Framing is how the qualities and events of The Festival are unleashed and made legible. The notion of a frame presupposes that a distance be maintained between architecture (a detached peristyle) and what it contains (the affects of digital media), rather than reflecting it as in a mirror or conforming to it as a mold.
JS: I like the way the collages carry their own sets of related social and cultural ideas through their respective mediums, contents, and places in history. As we framed them within both the spatial planning of the proposal and our subsequent drawings, I felt there was a very relevant resonance there between the images—as a kind of intersubjective collective memory—and the unpredictable forces of digital media as a collective future vision.
What is your position on the notion: The Medium is the message?
PM: Architecture is not a medium, at least not in McLuhan’s sense. In our proposal, I understand the architecture to consist of two things: the monolith, and the detached peristyle. The drawings depict these elements as solid white (peristyle) and solid black (The Beacon). This technique of decollage represents architecture’s indifference to what is happening around it, underscoring that architecture is incapable of “communication” or conveying a “message.” Architecture frames the message. We imagined many forms of communication: protests, concerts, satellite communications, fashion shows, Instagram updates, and worship, among other things—these are all present in the axonometric. The architecture, as generic and indifferent, frames both views and spaces for these messages to transmit meaning.
JS: We are very much interested in McLuhan’s notions; we’re used to discussing, at length, the graphic qualities of architecture as “cool media” and the communicative capacity that this suggests between a work and its audiences. We’ve been attempting to reconcile the impact of contemporary social media culture and its mechanics of collective viewing. Our proposal cites the overwhelming shift of digital media from words to pictures; the rapid, endless, uncontrollable flow of shared pictures through digital media feeds becomes the way that the audience sees itself and the world around us. The perspectival experience of the square arcade’s white columns and beams produces specific framed views for both the festival-goers and ourselves as architects—informing the cropping and proportion of the collages.
How could the formatting through social media and or video games have affected the way the project itself and how it is mediated? How could the project have been mediated through these formats instead of being drawn on paper?
PM: Our drawings for this proposal are not images. Our proposal takes images as dynamic geographies constantly unfurling in the digital topography of Instagram, Snapchat, and Pokémon Go. The unpredictability, variations, and inflections of images—constructed through social media—do not obey the rules of Cartesian space, and presume no unity or identity. Framing this dynamic geography with a detached peristyle in the shape of a square unleashes the intelligibility of these images, and renders them legible to our minds.
JS: Despite our obsession with social media, we had not considered formatting the project in this way. Given the fascinating competition prompt, we wanted our proposal to grapple with popular culture—especially with these new means of collective viewing—and to develop an alternative position between either actively engaging or resisting the relational forces of digital media. In this regard, if we had chosen to format the project through social media, I think it may have tilted the scales too far toward direct engagement.
What lead to the choice of black marble as a material for the monolith?
PM: Juan and I were constantly accruing a constellation of references and precedents. The black marble monolith emerged from a specific set of references: The headquarters of the NSA, Ellsworth Kelly’s “Cincinnati Riverfront Stadium” collage on postcard, the marble from the allotments collage in Koolhaas’s “Exodus, or the Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture,” Fala Atelier’s Real Estate Agency in Oporto, and, of course, the black monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
JS: The idea of a black marble monolith seemed to occupy a place somewhere between extremely permanent monumentality and empty visual void. On the one hand, it would be impossible to miss given its stature and weight, but on the other hand, we hoped it would encourage a different kind of audience interaction—the selfie. Paul and I were obsessed with the idea that “taking a selfie” with a subject involved turning your back to it (and aiming the camera at yourself with it). In this regard, the monolith’s black, reflective surface offers a mirror interface for the festival-goers that directly look at the monument, but more importantly, those that turn their backs to it (for a selfie) are given a highly contrasting background that highlights their presence and role within the newly created digital image of the monument.
You chose to represent the project through perspective views and axonometric, why so?
PM: We imagined the axonometric would be the most important drawing. We were drawing heavily from OMA’s famous Parc de La Villette cartoon drawing, as graphically evident by the planets and appropriated flying statue of liberty at the top of the drawing. I was interested in the form of this image, rather than what it represents—how it sometimes privileges plan and at other times elevation, and how it makes a series of intervals over the land, establishing strips of various activities. This translates to our proposal using the frame as the art of introducing an interval into a territory.
JS: For me, it was about creating tension between the two drawing types—the privileged, single perspectival view versus the democratic, orthographic objectivity of parallel projection. This was a way to foreground the question of individual versus collective viewing.
How important is site and physical context? What is the effect and purpose of the aerial image?
PM: The site was interesting and challenging because our response to “the festival” was always to frame it. The act of framing, of delineating an elementary square, selects a portion of the land and separates it from anything exterior to it. The site itself (Governor’s Island in New York City) already carried these formal conditions as an island: it’s an exemplary portion of land surrounded by water. The frame within our proposal creates a second island-like space, nested within an actual island. It also recapitulates the discrete spatiality of Fort Jay on the island. One can view our proposal and Fort Jay as like siblings, exemplary and specific in form, and oriented in roughly the same direction.
JS: In choosing the proposal’s exact position and geometry, we were acutely aware of how the arcade would frame inward viewing (through perspective) and outward viewing (through isometric representation). The “aerial image” then, utilizing a monochromatic palette and a single line weight, became another way to flatten the monolith, the architecture, and the festival-goers, along with and the near and distant context.