UC Berkeley (Nick)



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    Urban Islands midreview

    Nick Sowers
    Jul 21, '09 11:35 AM EST

    It's been four days since the last update. In this time frame I've managed to escape the studios for a wholesome two-hour walk around the North Beach suburb where I'm staying. A rocky headland separates this beach from Manly, a famous surfing spot and location of the best ferry into the city. To get there, I skirted a rocky cliff at low tide and punched through a tunnel to emerge with a grand vista of the Manly shore. Manly was named by Captain Arthur Phillip for the native people whose "confidence and manly behaviour made me give the name of Manly Cove to this place." I like to think they were pumping iron on the sand in the late 18th century, Muscle Beach style.


    What am I enjoying most about this studio? It's such a fresh approach to the question of what to do on Cockatoo Island. It's a break from Architecture, but funny enough we just might get back there. To be sure, nobody is going to propose a building. Even with a good idea, a building requires so many more questions to be answered in order to instantiate its presence. Someone said in the symposium last Monday that nothing will ever probably get built at Cockatoo. Tom Rivard, one of the Urban Islands organizers, has repeatedly referred to the impossibility of the island. All the more reason to speculate, to produce grand schemes which must somehow be made real.

    Under Geoff's guidance we have put our energies into producing overlapping, mythical, and projective narratives. This contrasts greatly to Mark Smout's and Mette Thomsen's studios which have been concerned so far with full scale mock-ups of installations prescribed to some extent at the starting gate. I'm content with these two weeks not being about physical production, though both of the other studios are looking really awesome.

    Midreview (Mette Thomsen's studio has a group that is producing a weather system inside one of the buildings)

    What else am I getting out of Urban Islands? I'm interested in using this studio a means for looking at my thesis from an oblique angle. Cockatoo Island is a mini-thesis, even though I may not be addressing its post-military qualities. What will I be gaining towards the larger thesis question? I want to think bigger, and that means more uncertainty, more risk. I don't think it means being any less real or political about the subject of military space and post-military space. But it's only a two week experiment. The only way to go wrong would be to withdraw paralyzed by the problem and produce something conservative.

    Geoff had mentioned Brian Eno's "Oblique Strategies" in his introduction last Monday. It's a deck of cards for approaching a problem that otherwise has no way out, or perhaps too many ways out. Some of the cards ask things like "Can you increase something? Decrease something?" The first rule, we learn from an interview with Brian Eno, is to "Honour thy error as a hidden intention." (I need that written on the ceiling above my bed.) Here's more from the interview:

    The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation - particularly in studios - tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach. If you're in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that's going to yield the best results Of course, that often isn't the case - it's just the most obvious and - apparently - reliable method. The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, "Don't forget that you could adopt *this* attitude," or "Don't forget you could adopt *that* attitude."

    That is the advantage of a game. In our case, the game is the deck of cards. It guarantees that you will be put off balance and forced to answer that question "what will you put there on Cockatoo Island?" from a position that is out of your comfort zone.

    Over the past week our studio produced 78 tarot cards, or about 4.8 cards per person. The cards were divided into four suits or types: materials, processes, routes, and absences. Then there were cards outside of the suits called Major Arcana - the spaces, objects, and figures which are unique presences on the island.

    The most successful cards are capable of multiple readings, some even with front and rear sides telling different stories about a particular space or agent on the island.

    Some cards have really badass names. Take, for example, the Ace of Absences--Space. Or The Knight of Processes-- Demolition. And the King of Absences is the Cockatoo, for you will not find any on the island. (Isn't that true about most place-names?) A number of cards are quite pragmatic, like the Seven of Materials-- Brick.

    (photo by Jordan Gillman)

    The Jack of Processes is Extensions. This is a card I worked on, presented here by a student in my group. The idea behind the card was to convey the possibilities of extension, not just to describe the narratives already present about how the island has been added on to. This process of extending also relates to the production of films and other media which bring the island into the city e.g. Wolverine.

    (photo by Jordan Gillman)

    Last Friday, though the cards were not complete, we went ahead and drew our lot. Geoff used a random number generator, which resulted in me getting the numbers 36,59, 6 and then 66. (We neglected to include the Devil as one of the tarot cards.) Here are the cards that my numbers pointed to:

    The Six of Materials, Canvas
    The Eight of Processes, Storage
    The Switchboard (major arcana)
    Wildcard: The Geologic Timescale

    And then POOF there 's your architectural fortune, just as arbitrary as any site and program that you receive in an architecture studio. So why not make it a bit absurd? I think what Geoff is arguing is that the power of the narrative can overcome these seemingly disparate attributes of the island. Moreover, there is a generative potential in, say, looking at canvas and storage--maybe that means that you are supposed to design an art museum on the island. Or, it could be something quite different once you figure the Switchboard into the mix.

    Could the island be a massive spatial switchboard, the plugs being the cavities where art is stored. Wait, there's the wildcard of the Geologic Timescale. Geoff's rule was that a wildcard could be used or discarded. I've chosen to keep it, and in fact it's becoming a principle driving factor in my projection for the island. This is what I presented yesterday at the midreview:


    The Switchboad acts to reorganize the storage of Geologic Art. Users can select a unique geologic series of events which the switchboard will then curate by shifting, tilting, excavating, and quaking the north and east aprons of the Island. As the visitor passes through, the walls collapse behind. New sections and views of the earth are produced as the art is extracted. The soundscape of the Geologic Museum is grinding and glacial.

    In the 36 hours since the review my project has evolved in Jurassic dimensions. I think I'll wait until after the installation this Saturday to discuss it, though.

    We ended the mid-review session with two other proposals from our group. With all 78 cards spread out on the table, the room was opened up for discussion.

    Tom Rivard: I think it's a great process...we should have the attitude that you propose the most impossible thing in the most reasonable way....if you read Geoff's blog, you kind of get excited that the impossible is real…. The process is about rewriting the narrative, rather than sculpting and honing a form or a tectonic methodology... The beautiful part of the process is that you can weave some stories of speculation about the island that come form the bones if you will of what's there.

    Mark Smout: I would be quite careful about going into plans and sections... I agree with Tom's points, as they are hypothetically real. It would be good to produce some models.

    Mette Thomsen : Rather than talk about the future possible, could you imagine yourself at the end, as archaeologists. So that these spaces you imagine have been done, and you bring from the crypt a moment of evidence, perhaps a sepia photograph… I'm just wondering about the cards…the way the proposals are developing is quite free from the cards. There's the artefact of the card, what's actually been given to you from the making of the card... The two-sidedness of cards is really interesting.


    Joanne Jackovich: I was thinking of a way to look at the next phase is to look at the specific cards and come up with limiting parameters that you keep to in a really rigorous way.

    TR: You're limiting yourself if you say that the building is significant to the architecture. I always argue that buildings are the death of architecture… The best architecture can do is spatial interpretation. It's about what you bring to that space. You read it, and then you re-write the value of that space. My fear is that we're architects, we love buildings. It's what we think we do.

    Student: I quite like the threat aspect of the tarot reading. You go into the tent, and you don't know what the lady is going to say, but there's a fear that whatever is said will happen. So I can imagine going to the island and seeing one of these built.


    MT: How can you make the proposals endlessly right for the Island? (like the horoscopes are generally particular-they work for many people reading them)

    TR: It's a much more interesting discussion to have: you discuss the veracity of the proposition instead of the finesse of building the proposition...That's one of the great uses of fiction in architecture. You do away with all of the "your stair doesn't really work" and those silly nonsense discussions. Here's the evidence of the project. It's real, and the architecture is the background for what it really does.


    • istmirwurst

      thanks for sharing! this is really interesting. do you think it would be fair to say this is a kind of playful commentary on Darwinism in architecture? or am i just a reviewer reading too much into the project? againt thanks for sharing.

      Jul 24, 09 9:39 am  · 

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      Jan 29, 22 7:13 am  · 

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