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    Urban Islands Final Review or My attempt at writing the longest school blog post ever

    Nick Sowers Jul 29 '09 4

    Well, when I sat down at my laptop tonight, I didn't plan to do this. I swear. I don't know if it's the longest post ever but at least it is for me. After a few days of being through with the intensity of Urban Islands, and given a couple days respite on our friend's farm back here in New Zealand, I just wanted to lay it all out there. This is a flushing of ideas, full of great hopes and intentions, and no, the water doesn't swirl the opposite way in the Southern Hemisphere. It just goes straight down.

    Final Review

    Last Saturday the fifty or so students, studio critics and organizers, a handful of guest critics from the local universities and practices, and other members of Sydney's design community converged on Cockatoo Island to sample the fruit of two weeks' concentrated production. One thing I loved was that the public, unsuspecting of an architectural event taking place, wandered around and looked at times delighted and often deeply perplexed, or concerned that they just wanted to get through the tunnel and not be eaten alive.

    Final Review

    There were fabric structures hanging in the buildings, dripping strange fluids or slowly shredding themselves. There was a giant drawing of a building on the East Apron, built (in the eye) only from a spot on a balcony high above. Lots of fun things floated around in this Disneyland for Architects.

    Final Review

    Geoff Manaugh's group (the one I'm in) presented first. We installed all 78 A4-sized tarot cards on clothespins along the walls of the Dogleg Tunnel, which was carved into the sandstone plateau during WWII as an air-raid shelter. After the group filtered amongst the cards, Geoff presented the concept of the studio. Then one by one, with a ceiling of 78 seconds (that none of us *cough* went over on), the sixteen students presented their results of the unique three or four-card tarot combination received one week prior.

    Final Review

    What follows is my presentation, and then a lengthy transcript of the discussion that followed after all the presentations. The little magic box at the end of this post (if you can find the end) will allow you to further the discussion. Heck I dare you, make it longer.

    Again my tarot cards were: canvas, storage, The Switchboard, and the Geologic Timescale. Those were the site and program constraints, if you will.

    Okay let's rock.


    Welcome to the Cockatoo Island branch of the Museum of Acoustic Geology (MoAG, pronounced like Moab). That's right, you probably weren't aware when you stepped on to this island that you were entering a museum. In fact there's a cavernous dome of sound above you and sheets of untapped acoustics beneath you. The rocks themselves can speak, and will unravel the layers of time locked into their folds and crevices, but only if you listen.

    Come one come all, you can resurrect the forgotten eons, epochs, eras and periods of Earth's continuous formation. Listen to the acoustic prehistory of Cockatoo Island through a series of devices and with sets of instructions provided by MoAG. Reach into the MoAG Grab Bag and pull out a canvas pouch which will enable you to inhabit a "past" frame of time.

    The Museum of Acoustic GeologyThe Museum of Acoustic Geology

    You might pull out The Hadean, for example, and be given this set of instructions:


    The Hadean eon began with Earth's formation about 4.6 billion years ago and ended roughly 3.8 billion years ago. Hades is the Greek word for "Underworld," referring to the conditions surmised on Earth at that time.

    Listen to The Hadean eon by following these instructions

    1. Line the Dogleg Tunnel with flame throwers.
    2. Seal both ends of the tunnel.
    3. Fill the tunnel with a composition of 70% Carbon Dioxide, 11.5% Methane gas, 8.2% Hydrogen gas, 7% Water Vapour, and 3.3% of a noble gas of your choice.
    4. Ignite the flame throwers and heat the tunnel atmosphere to 230 degrees Celsius.
    5. With megaphones and microphones on each end, have a conversation with a friend through an atmosphere four billion years old.


    Or you might get a sack with the following device inside:

    The Museum of Acoustic Geology

    Unleash the power of the MoAG Universal Device for Eavesdropping on Triassic Rocks. Drive it in to a curious crack, and feel the amplitude of sandstone, humming 22.5 Hz into your bones. Leave no stone unturned or untapped.

    Or extract The Carboniferous

    The Museum of Acoustic Geology

    A pirate radio station is installed somewhere in the bowels of Cockatoo Island, broadcasting acoustic translations of carbon spectra. Using the enclosed Ground-Penetrating Radio Receiver, your task is to find the signal and decipher its code. You might just learn the coordinates of Gondwanaland’s largest, untapped coal bed.

    And don't miss the complementary tickets to the sound cannon show:

    The Museum of Acoustic Geology

    Now playing through November, the Archean Eon at the Turbine Hall! These tickets to the Sound Cannon show include a one hour sonic spectacle of volcanic eruptions, comet collisions, and audible cross sections of cratonic shields. A thousand invisible buildings exist inside the Turbine Hall via sound cannons on lease from the US military. Walk around during the show and experience the various clouds of sound. At the finale, dynamite and pick axes will be projected on the cliff face of the plateau--the island’s own geologic origin exposed.




    We then took over an hour for the discussion, and I apologize if I've misquoted anyone, as my memory is not perfect. Also, I don't remember the names of everybody, and might mixed up a juror quote here or there. Here goes:

    Opening juror?: Everyone sort of has this apocalyptic view. .. There's a couple interesting things that have happened in architecture lately. We're all used to these pristine images… Looking at the red plastic one (the Museum of Demolition) I was reminded of two things. One, in Roman architecture, the idea of Spolia, that you knock build architecture and re-build from the bits and pieces. The other was an architectural journal that students when I was in graduate school put together. It was bound in spiral on both sides. To read the book you had to destroy it. Then you had two books... The true fruition of architecture is its destruction over time.

    Life and birth is through destruction. Something has to dissolve and fall apart before something takes its place.

    Tom Rivard [Urban Islands organizer]: Rod, do you want to talk about the demolition of Cockatoo?

    Rod: What's going through my mind is that the tarot acts as a legitimization process…it's the brief. An action is defined {by the Sydney Harbour Trust} as something you normally understand as an action, but it's also defined as something as choosing not to preserve something. In other words, you're making a decision not to spend money to do something. What does that mean? At the moment on Cockatoo, it's extremely difficult to do something. If I want to paint that timber there, that's a big deal.

    What's really nice about the tarot is that it just cuts through that. Someone passes a Cockatoo Island act that 'we're gonna manage it by the tarot method.' [laughter]

    The one that comes to mind is the [project about the] National Geographic Record. [It's 3000 years into the future when tourists have completely changed the island through carving and excavation.] Some of them are seeing the island from a distance…it's a game, it's audio---there's no trace. The [National Geographic project] has a trace--which is an accumulation of interventions on the island. It's the most radical because it's material. The others are shadow-dancing around 'It's National Heritage'. The one where you give people picks and say 'I'm gonna let everybody who comes on the island be given the same [tarot] brief.' I think that would be fantastic.

    Cockatoo Island becomes, as it is already, this world-wide center for random interventions. As you know the island has been converted from a prison colony to a naughty girls school and a naughty boys school, where they had to be put on a boat because there was too much naughtiness going on. I just think it's fantastic that it's just random decisions. In 1852, there was this random decision that decided [against England's wishes] that the dockyard would be put on the island.

    I'm just pointing out the tension between this idea of heritage and things being untouchable and putting everything in aspic. It's a very conservative way of preserving here on the island. If we're gonna do something, I reckon the tarot is a good way to start.

    TR: Craig do you wanna offer something about this idea of process. It seems to me that the tarot has an innate urbanism in it, in that it leads to density and the accident.

    Craig: I love it as a way to take on this scale of project. It would be a great thing to have as a regular studio. It gives you this incredible brief because I believe people would never do something like a …light test-tube library. [to the student] How is it actually lit?

    TR: He's done it for real [laughter]

    Craig: what I found interesting about the process is that people have treated the island as a museum, being funded through the museum shop. Which the Trust would love, they're always looking for ways to make money out of it. It's a bizarre thing because it's untouched. No one can actually get a grip on the island because nothing happens. The tarot allows the abstract stuff to happen in a more interesting way than they are now.

    I was interested that no one came into a real project, that brought it down to something that could happen.

    ? : You were mentioning souvenirs, in scenarios that are implausible. Somehow by making them exist in a capitalist economic reality they become more plausible. I wonder about the tension there, that the moment something appears to be marketable there's a souvenir or a postcard or a collectable card that allows us to believe it's possible. Why does the economy suddenly make the economy make the unreal real.

    Marcus Trimble: I think the success of the studio is the accumulation of these things, a world of paraphenelia. I don't think it's post-apocalyptic at all…. It's a closer alignment to steampunk [laughter]. There's this slightly different universe we're in, where there's a slightly different science at play, and these are artifacts of this world. This [holds a packet of trading cards] is very familiar to my generation, but then to find out it's about this zeppelin.

    Geoff Manaugh: There's an American magazine called McSweeney's. The newest issue is not bound at all, it's a whole series of fake documents for things that don't exist. They invented an entire publication called Yetti Researcher, and some random newspaper threads. Basically it's counterfeit documents, and that's the issue for this month.

    It occurred to me that if you were to get a whole bunch of students for more than a week, you could produce an unbelievably detailed counterfeit history, or counterfeit future, or counterfeit whatever. I'm waiting for OMA to produce something like that.

    Some of these really do have incredible universes of ideas, and sub-levels of information….even the game that Tristan invented that is basically box-ready, if someone wants to produce a Cockatoo Island game. What was fun was producing a universe of counterfeit documentation and feeling as if we were forging another world into existence. Almost like something out of a Thomas Pyncheon novella. It wasn't the intention of the studio but it ended up that way.

    Craig: It would work really well as an abstract museum shop. It's what the island needs, something interesting and not this untouchable history. A kind of interesting museum shop not where we buy a bit of sandstone or a postcard.

    first ? guy: It's kinda like we're gonna make a major intervention here. But what we're gonna do is go into the future and say 'nah, we haven't done it, we're just gonna explore someone else's intervention' so in a sense we're kinda gagging to do something serious to the island. But in fact the students haven't done it. Well a few of them have. But in some ways what's happening is 'Well I'm too scared, I'm just gonna project myself further into the future, and not make that intervention myself but leave it for someone else to make it'

    Rod: In the Ruhr Valley, the Germans came up with this term 'The Landscape for Exercising Imagination' That's what Cockatoo has done in relation to this studio. You don't actually need to do anything.

    TR: It's one reason why we're continuously out here. It lends itself to that kind of speculation.

    Catherine de Lorenzo: I like the subversion of the capitalist system, which I saw as a shared subversive activity. It reflected in many ways an approach to creativity that is aligned with the Conceptual Art movement. So what you've done is come up with some ideas that do contain a reality… It's possible to leave your mark in the imagination.

    I had time to read one article in this morning's paper. It was Hugh McKay saying often his way of tapping into the 'truth' of what people are saying is through the novel, through fiction, rather than social research. We're all very adept at providing the answers that we think are required, what the client wants, rather than what anybody wants--the designer or the client.

    So the fictive mechanism… to release what's really possible, has obviously been a very inspiring thing to do, so congratulations all.

    Russell: The thing that really struck me was that most of things you are showing are for sale right now. Dollars 99 or 95, a signifier of cheapness. A signifier of economy or popular culture. I started thinking about the economics of architecture. All the houses you see on the coast are incredibly expensive. Some of them might look at the island and see it for the beautful thing that it is, but some must see it as an incredible waste. There's developers that would give their own teeth to rip down those ugly old buildings and put something up that's glassy and big and cheap.

    It's interesting that you've got the tarot on the one hand, that's sort of about something that's not there that's maybe bullshit and the economics on the other hand. I'm interested to hear how the students are thinking about architecture.

    TR: It's an interesting link between the speculation and the speculative. In a lot of these instances they seem quite tightly bound. To create this grand speculation you must have this underlying framework… I wonder if following on your idea about the island as a resource for imagination. If you can't understand it because of its speculative properties, does that become a vehicle for preservation in a way. You have to maintain it because it is so rife with possibilities. It's inviolate in terms of building condos on it because you have to leave it as this fertile ground.

    CdL: Are the students disappointed that the discussion is headed in this way, towards economics?

    Student: The marketable approach came out of the short amount of time [78 seconds] to present.

    Student: For something to be real it has to have a price.

    CdL: Do you believe that?

    Student: It seems that way with a lot of things.

    Russell : Everything here that's been made is either ephemeral in the way that disposable pop things are, the way that trading cards are disposable, or is so fantastic as to be inconceivable. The island has a bit of schizophrenia about it, which is that if a masterplan was put together, if architecture was done on this island, would a studio like this actually be impossible to do?

    There's a richness to the nothingness on it. If you made permanence, it becomes irrelevant to do [the tarot method] if there were houses here, or a community center

    TR: The fundamental torpor of the trust allows this to happen. Otherwise it would be Cary Packer's Casino out here, it would have been eight years ago.[to Mark Smout] Can you say something about the noncommercial potential of speculation.

    Mark Smout: Blimey, It's a great start, you gotta say something [laughter] Half of me is listening to the conversation and half of me is realizing how much the students have done in two weeks. I think the most interesting thing about this is what the students take from this. Trying to develop that architectural speculation with just a little bit more speculation. How that thing touches the ground, or how you might dig out the earth, and what that might offer to the island. Or it might be a further economic development of a project. I think that's the most interesting part of the speculation.

    In that way it will further convince or unconvince the Trust as to how to progress with the problem.

    You can't underestimate the creative potential you can achieve within economic constraints, or landscape designations i.e. greenbelts. How can you use that as a conceptual tool, rather than have a free space.

    Joanne Jackovich: Now that you've got paraphenelia, a really strong vision of how the thing is reacting in a commercial, social context, I'm wondering how that might change what the students would design in the end.

    TR: I think, Jo, the point of having a reality that is so far removed from the beginning process suggests that architecture simply isn't about the banality of walls and floors. There's a great project in doing that light library. How do you capture light in liquid and move it around? What a magnificent architectural research stream that would be. If this student devoted the next three years of their university education working on this. They'd have to collaborate with scientists, engineers, everyone. The impact it would have on architecture globally, and it doesn't have to do with the physical fabric of building. It's interesting to establish these boundaries of conception, and some far fetched realization. It suggests that there isn't a linear path to what architecture really is… in finding an operative sense of what architecture really does.

    MS: Students should be aware that you can have your cake and eat it. There's a middle ground--that's very British isn't it--compromise [laughter] You can have the speculative process and you can have the fabric.

    Mette: The conversation about the economy…it's an analysis of the speculative. What is it that we're taking for granted? So while we are allowing ourselves this pie-in-the-sky world, and I completely agree with the desire to be let free, but what is it that we don't consider. I think a lot of science fictions are funny when you see them twenty years later because the cars still have wheels or the backpack helicopter still has straps. There's a residue of imagination that is more the reflection than the ability to emancipate our minds.

    It's very interesting how the island is always isolated. But still the island is still apart from Sydney.. But I thought the project where the ships appeared in the middle of the city. I thought maybe that had a contamination of some other sense of order, where the island became part of a fabric. The waters aren't that deep, it is actually one land that goes under and becomes the place where all those towers stand up. In our imagination, this is very much a world which is totally apart. Maybe that is a stumbling block.

    Russell: The missing boat one was one of the very few that wasn't for sale. I think there's a great opportunity for architecture to be irritating. To put it more pleasantly, to be a catalyst, to try and provoke.

    Me: I'd like to make a comment about being isolated. The workshop started with this abstract thing in the cubby holes which sets up this threshold "this is what you're bringing to the island"... it's your baggage. We're students, we come with all this baggage. I thought that exercise was one way of clearing it, or focusing on one way of looking at architecture or at the world.

    I wonder if it's set up as this moment, this two week isolated event where the production inside was so intense, like we were on drugs. Some of the projects tried to attach things outside of the island, but it has been difficult to take a step back... until now.

    TR: If it's difficult to step back out, what do you find that's stuck to you? What do you find in your pocket the next day when you wake up with that hangover? The island has those particular qualities. There is a certain kind of oddness about the conflation of the p program and the island. There is a possibility of salvaging the detritus of investigations… 'I really want to look into airships now, why aren't there more of them?'

    Russell: The tarot has been invented as a provoker of your methodology. It contaminates your methodology in pragmatic studios.

    TR: If nothing else you should carry away a sharp stick to poke at your next instructor.

    Student: The world of science fiction depends on one key idea that suspends your disbelieve. The best projects had one leap of belief and followed everything else in a rational way.

    Johan: I think maybe the lack of change on this island is that we are thinking about how to change the whole island at once. Projects that took it bit by bit I found interesting. Mette's point was quite interesting in that aliens still look like humans. We can't imagine that far into the future, we need to do it in steps.

    Lots of students are doing studies that are replicating something we already know. It's like cities. In Copenhagen there's a part of the city that was built in one go, and it's quite a dead city, you just cant do that.

    ?: It's very easy to look 50 years in the future, but very hard to look 10 years.

    TR: Maybe it's one of the dangers of speculation. The wilder the speculation, the easier it is to imagine. I think some admonition to the students is that everything needs to be tested. It needs to be tested not simply in "how does it work" but what is the impact of a process of getting to it. Otherwise it's like bad science fiction, which has all the working flying cars and everything, but doesn't actually tell a story that posits some kind of continuity. And the merest continuity would be human society, how we live in places, how we live in cities.

    And the fact is society is nostalgic. People like their chairs, people like their things with a frame on them around the walls. The great broadsword of imagination will never come through and put us into the universe of Star Trek. There will still be people wearing, you know, suits and ties in 28th century. There will still be people with Louis XVI chairs. There will still be the Harbour Trust sitting on the island saying "Yeah we might put a café in next year."

    I'm not trying to dampen the imagination but I think the way to make these projects better in a way, which is to make them more useful in terms of what we learn from them, is to test them, to test their veracity in many different ways.

    CdL: [to Geoff] The other thought is that in many ways you're acting as the marionette providing these ideas for the students and the students are then doing their dance, coming back with their ideas.

    [her remark is followed by several student comments attesting to the studio being collaborative and extremely engaging]

    GM: First I just want to point out that although there are some speculative futures, some of these projects are speculative histories. The envelope one we didn't have time to get into… It's proposing a backstory to something found beneath Cockatoo Island that might be millions of years old. It was unearthed in the 1950s. But then it was buried again in that filled well that's on the top of the island… It's like Indiana Jones meets Arthur C Clarke.

    It keeps coming back, this discussion that 'then at the end, next term you can make a building out of it, or next term maybe we can turn that into a real structure, or you can take these tarot cards and have housing on an island' But I would say especially to my own group that I would resist that need to think that architecture results in producing buildings. Architecture also results in producing environments for video games. Architecture also results in really great descriptions in novels. And Architecture also results in set designs for Hollywood films, or Bollywood, or independent cinema etc etc. Architecture trains you for all these forms of productions that don't necessarily mean you can buy it on the real estate market or that you can build it in on the shores of Sydney Harbour.

    Especially if we are in an economic downturn, I think it's important that when you hit the market that you're not getting freaked out when people aren't ordering you to construct houses. You're incredibly talented people, and you have an incredible broad range of skills given to you, whether it's analytical or graphical or it's narrative or whatever kind ofapproach, even just a photographic approach to a site. All these things can be used in other fields.

    And just as a final example, somebody like Rem Koolhaas, he's like the Ur Architect for today. One of the reasons he's there is not just because he's a great architect, but that he produces random things. He wrote Delirious New York, and he puts out little books like Content which just looks like random photoshopped images of Sylvestor Stallone and Sadaam Hussein and tons of infographics. I'm not necessarily advocating that as an approach, but it's those sorts of weird paraphenalias that are produced that… bring you into a different sphere of architecture.

    Let's say you build some sort of middling housing development in Surrey Hills. One way to make sure you still get into Australian Design Review is to produce random shit for it. [laughter] And say like 'This is what will happen to my housing development in a thousand years' Almost like a media strategy to help bring attention to what you do as an architect.

    Getting back to Christianne's project or Yaelle's comic book, these things shouldn't just be looked at as some random thing that you did for two weeks and now you can get back to Architecture. But you can actually use these sorts of skills to do other things. We actually got to put a whole bunch of skills together.

    Olivia Hyde: This conversation about broadening the conversation about what architecture is and what it can be is really what we're interested in doing…. When Geoff gave his lecture last week and he said 'Well I just talk' Well no, it's not just talking, it's vital and it's fantastic and I see you absolutely as an architect.

    GM: Thank you [laughter]

    Johan: Is that a complement? [more laughter]

    TR: The architectural discourse is broadened not simply by not doing buildings but actually tabling the discussion in different ways. We'd be sorely disappointed if all the students went back to their studios and did panels. Ideas need to be packaged, quite literally. The packaging needs to reflect the idea you want the idea to go in. It suggests this interesting possibility not just how you develop a programmatic intent for architecture but how you communicate that intent. I think that's something we're not given a whole lot in traditional architecture schools.

    How people communicate in the world is so much more interesting than how architects communicate very serious big things like buildings but we actually suck at it.

    Student: I thought it went further than that when Geoff said 'You've got 78 seconds to present it' and all of these [projects] have really big, well thought-out backbones to them. The projects needed to speak for themselves. It's something that everyone can relate to.

    TR: I would say that about the evidence which to me is remarkable because they have this depth to them. They are these packages with the promise of something inside of them.

     

     
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