The house that Jack built

"Post-occupancy" has become a trendy buzzword in architectural circles, but how many architects are really prepared to make a break in their busy schedules to go and see how their completed buildings are actually being used?

Leaving Venice earlier today, I was lucky enough to run into one of the few architects who takes post-occupancy seriously, Jack Miro of Miro Associates.

In the departures lounge at Marco Polo International Airport he told me about a recent post-occupancy study he’d made of Cherrington, a house he built for a private client in Shropshire. Unfortunately, having fallen out with the client during the building process over an expensive problem with the roof sealage system, Miro had to make the visit incognito. He arrived disguised as a priest.

Since the house was a flexi-scaling polyform non-urban environment — what used to be called “a farm” — Miro had been careful to leave key areas open-plan, ready for a multitude of uses. He was interested to discover — after de-activating the security systems he’d installed, and flipping open the computerised teak door with a copied key — that the first of these “ambivalent spaces” had been put to use as a malt store.

As his eyes adjusted to the light, Miro told me, he noticed with horror that an enormous rat was scavenging at sacks of malt stacked against the walls. “Giant rodents; this was taking flexi-scaling too far,” he laughed.

Just then a cat appeared and gave chase to the rat, eventually killing the fat beast in an orgy of blood. Miro followed the triumphant cat into the kitchen just in time to see it set upon and worried by a dog. “I was making notes on my iPad the whole time,” Miro told me. “I knew I was very, very lucky to be witnessing such rich and unique post-occupancy usage patterns.”

He fired up his iPad and read to me from the notes. They had a rhythmic immediacy that made Miro’s enthusiasm infectious: “This is the dog that worried the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.”

It was at this moment that the predator became the predated: a cow with a crumpled horn — still being millked by a maiden all forlorn — tossed the dog, narrowly missing the multi-scene lighting rig Miro had installed in the lounge.

Just then there were footsteps, and the client, dressed only in a shabby pair of boxer shorts, arrived.

“What’s all this commotion?” demanded the client. Miro, still fearful of lawsuits over the leaky roof, hid in one of the walk-in closets whose location he knew, even in the dark, from the plans. Inside, however, he tripped over a clutter of post-occupancy scuba gear. Luckily the client was in an amorous mood, and paid no attention to anything other than the milkmaid, whom he proceeded to kiss with seigneurial urgency.

The next thing Miro knew, it was morning, and a cock was crowing. The Chief Executive Officer of Organic Heuristics Sustainability Testing Operations (the CEO of OHSTOP, or “farmer”, as he might once have been known), his cock under his arm, had opened the closet door and was bending over the architect.

“What’s this, a priest?” exclaimed the CEO, gazing without recognition at the shorn-headed Miro. “Just the man!”

Miro was pulled out and asked to perform a shotgun wedding between the client and the milkmaid, who happened to be the CEO-farmer’s daughter. Miro faked the ritual as best he could, calling on hazy memories of marriage scenes in films he’d seen on TV. He kept his head lowered the whole time, terrified that the client would recognise him. Luckily the man was off his gourd.

The couple duly wed, the farmer ushered in two “non-human celebrants” in the form of a horse and hound and commanded them to dance by producing notes on a copper horn Miro swears was originally part of the underfloor gas heating infrastructure.

His iPad notes read:

This is the horse and the hound and the horn
That belonged to the farmer sowing his corn
That kept the cock that crowed in the morn
That woke the priest all shaven and shorn
That married the man all tattered and torn
That kissed the maiden all forlorn
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn
That tossed the dog that worried the cat
That killed the rat that ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built

It would have been a delight to chat with Miro about other post-occupancy studies he’d made, but by this point his stork was boarding.

The architect who fell to Moscow

Yesterday at the Venice Guggenheim I attended a fascinating magic lantern lecture by the Scottish fauxblogger Momus on the topic of the reclusive Soviet architect Divadovych Eiwobski.

The early years of the Soviet Union were a time of seemingly limitless possibilities for utopian re-invention, and they favoured a particularly restless species of creative genius. Between 1918 and 1928 Eiwobski — bizarre, skeletal, fragmented, disturbing, fearlessly experimental — created one extraordinary building after another: the Comintern Comet, the Moscow Arts Lab, the City Food Shaft, the Space Exploratorium, the Kabuki Spiral. These buildings — with their tilted floors, startling windows, thrusting conical towers, mysterious mirror-shafts and corkscrewing tunnels bathed in the mystical green light of a thousand copulating fire-flies, specially-bred — became a deeply influential “permanent cultural revolution” in the city, and Moscow transformed itself, over the space of a single delirious decade, into a volatile, iridescent, evanescent urban environment in which nothing was fixed or familiar. “We are all lodgers in this world,” Eiwobski declared, “and our revolution is an Aladdin’s cave stocked with the treasures of insanity.”

Like Shklovsky and Meyerhold, Mayakovsky and Malevich (all close friends, and — by some accounts — bisexual lovers), Eiwobski constantly pushed the comforts of routine and repetition out of his own reach. His preferred strategy was to create around each building a dense microclimate of tangled styles, references and ambitions — a habitable cosmology, a cultic religion — and then, just as people were beginning to understand and embrace it, Eiwobski would abandon the structure and move on, leaving lesser talents to draw out the implications, often for years afterwards.

Staying up for days and living on a diet of milk, red peppers and cocaine, Eiwobski soon became physically and mentally fragile. Schizophrenia was rife in his family, and he began to immerse himself in the occult and predict the arrival of “a strong leader who will guide the Soviet Union with a firm hand”. On the orders of Lenin himself, Eiwobski was sent to Vienna to consult with Otto Rank, whose case notes detail “a swiftly-progressing obliteration of space, time, sensation and all the factors of experience which seem to qualify what we are pleased to call the Self. Good visual impression, however: the subject came dressed as a beautiful circus clown”.

It was in 1929 — at the very moment that Stalin, the “firm leader” he had foreseen with visionary clarity, was seizing power — that Eiwobski disappeared, becoming a complete recluse in a converted Moscow electricity substation. He would never be seen or heard from in public again. Stalin demolished all his buildings, replacing them with the kitschy, ornate skyscrapers known as vysotki.

But public interest in Eiwobski didn’t fade, and nor did research into his genius on the part of men of science. In his 1963 study of creative architects, Donald W. MacKinnon cited Eiwobski as the purest known example of “the creative type” in architecture. MacKinnon drew on Otto Rank’s tripartite division of human types into the adapted type (the average or normal person, adapting pleasantly to society as it is), the neurotic type (a morally conflicted person, able to reject society but not strong enough to create a viable set of new values), and the creative type, a man of will and deed strong enough to remake the world according to his own visions. Psychologically rich and complex, the creative type is introverted, aggressive and dominant, yet at the same time unusually artistic, flexible, intuitive and feminine, preferring complexity and matching his work to high inner standards of excellence.

At the moment of his disappearance, MacKinnon speculated, Eiwobski had probably regressed suddenly from the creative to the neurotic type. Or perhaps, like the strung-out Major Tom of David Bowie’s song Ashes To Ashes, he had simply decided that he preferred his own company, found solace in some kind of heroin-type drug made of nothing more than space itself, and returned to the architectural womb from whence he came.

After Stalin’s death, Divadovych Eiwobski was partially rehabilitated. He was portrayed by the actor Erast Garin in a spectacular 1965 musical biopic entitled It’s Eiwobski After All!, and today a young generation of architects — foremost amongst them the Japanese mystic Junya Ishigami — is once again acclaiming him as a charismatic guru.

Since no official news has ever been received of Eiwobski’s death, it must be assumed that he’s still alive, deep in his substation, aged approximately 127.

Build absolutely nothing anywhere near anything

It’s an urban planning axiom that building more roads doesn’t make city centres less congested, it just brings more traffic. Banana Associates — showing in Venice at an exhibition entitled Christ, Enough Already! — apply the same principle to architecture. Their slogan is “Everything humans need has already been fucking built”.

Swearing peppers the speech of Banana partners Rob Chigwell and Julia Ngumi, as it does their exhibition and publication titles, seminar headings, and competition submissions. The talk at which I met them was entitled Building in the context of overfuckingpopulation, and they called a recent plan for the redevelopment of Bath city centre Fuck those Roman wankers and the boats their slaves rowed them in on. For Chigwell and Ngumi, it’s an important statement of first principles; their architecture uses 100% existing materials found on site, just as their discourse uses 100% street language. “We never effin’ demolish, and we never fucking censor,” they told me.

BANANA is an acronym. It stands for Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything. When Sunderland City Council wanted to pressurise conservationists who didn’t want urban projects built near their homes, flora or fauna, they came up with the BANANA acronym to show the NIMBYs’ unreasonableness. But Banana Associates have reclaimed the satire just as they reclaim 100% of their materials. With all irony sandblasted away, the phrase now means exactly what it says: build absolutely fuck all anywhere near any fucking thing (although, if you put it like that, it becomes BAFAANAFT, which isn’t nearly so fucking memorable).

Clients, Ngumi told me after their deliberately-shitty fucking seminar, often poo themselves when the architects arrive at a brownfield site and declare that the proposed building is already there. “Their jaws drop to fuck,” she laughs. “What to a client might just be brownfield, to us it’s the finished shit. We tell them: It’s just a matter of adjusting your thinking, you cunts.”

And how does that go down?

“Easy like Sunday fucking morning,” says Chigwell. “Once they see that the emperor really is wearing clothes — and that it’s going to cost them next to nothing — they’re fucking gagging for it.”

Banana do charge quite substantial fees, though. “Money for nothing and the chicks for free,” says Ngumi, punching the air with a grin.

Chigwell and Ngumi met in Namibia, and the African approach to urbanism has, they say, been a big influence on them.

“Africans recycle the fuck out of everything,” enthuses Chigwell. “Mixed fucking use. Today’s petrol can becomes tomorrow’s wine bottle, a fucking public library the day after, and a knocking shop by the weekend. Then, you know, fucking giant ants come along and strip the walls, carry the dried spunk away to their nests, masticate it to a pulp between powerful jaws, and by Monday it’s fermented into the most powerful fucking homebrew you’ve ever tasted. Deadly.”

“By Tuesday, it’s, you know, fucking petrol again,” adds Ngumi.

So is this an “architecture of exhaustion”, then?

“Not at all,” says Chigwell. “I’m in much better form since I stopped designing anything, and so are the fucking builders.”

Ngumi seems to want to end our interview with a little gravitas, some intellectual ballast: “We’re only doing in architecture what Marcel Duchamp did a century ago in art, you know. We’re finding built readymades. To other architects we say: stop designing and start designating. You diligent fucks.”

Will work for likes!

It happened to music, then movies, then books: their production, distribution and consumption became digital. People started sharing them over the internet. Since consumers now expected this stuff to be free, creators were forced to switch their motivation from money to attention in the form of social media eyeballs. Now it’s happened to architecture too. Like musicians and movie directors before them, architects have had to learn a new refrain: “Will work for likes!”

Architects as producers were already using programs like Graphisoft’s ArchiCAD to knock up their plans more quickly and easily than ever before. Consumers were up to speed, if not ahead: PDFs of architectural plans were already being shared via P2P on sites like Piratebay and Napster. With the advent of social media in the mid-noughties they could be shared over the web with a couple of mouseclicks.

Affordable 3D printers sealed the deal: now not just models but entire buildings could be constructed from downloaded files, virtually free. That old musicians’ chestnut “I’ll stop charging for music the day my landlord stops charging for accommodation” lost its moral force as landlords did, indeed, stop charging for occupation of the new “social media” buildings — “digital junkspace”, as Rem Koolhaas, an early advocate of the new digital democracy, approvingly called it in a talk yesterday here in Venice.

Ownership, like money, withered on the vine. After all, who can really be said to “own” a building you downloaded from Tumblr after someone reblogged someone else’s reblog of someone’s take on a cover version an intern made of a file copied from Frank Gehry’s computer, subsequently shared on Wikileaks and linked by the New York Times? In 2008 Koolhaas declared that his motto for globalisation, ¥€$, would henceforth be replaced by the thumbs-up Facebook “like” symbol.

The more advanced architects quickly began working for likes. Koolhaas said, for instance, that for his plans for the remodelling of Dubai he negotiated a payment of 13 billion Facebook likes, one of which he later used to like a new concert hall Frank Gehry released via his Twitter feed, relayed to his Facebook page (Koolhaas subsequently “unliked” the building after visiting it via an Instagram snap). Following the financial collapse of 2008, the new Dubai was built not in the United Arab Emirates but in the pages of architecture blogs, where it exists for all to enjoy, share, and like.

If you liked this article, please do click the like button. I’m expecting the food industry to have its own “share” moment any day now, and I’m starving.

Down with emotional connection!

Architecture as a discipline can be cold, esoteric, intellectually demanding, and sometimes theoretically pretentious. And that’s how we like it — those of us prepared to fly to Venice to see the Architecture Biennale, anyway. So it’s disheartening to see signs that populism is creeping in even here. Everywhere you look in Venice this year there are spurious attempts at “emotional connection”.

I’m not just talking about the so-called “starchitects” and their coverage in the press; it’s pretty natural that a newspaper like Hurriyet will headline its Venice coverage "Famous architects gather in Venice Biennale" and hook readers in with jet-setting glitz: “Global architects like Renzo Piano, Zaha Hadid and Norman Foster are flying in to Venice…”. Newspapers, at the best of times, cover subjects like art and architecture au bout des doigts. No, I’m talking about the exhibitions themselves. Their design this year seems to have been handed over to PR people and TV producers, those Joseph Goebbels of emotional connection.

At the British pavilion, for instance, I headed straight for Aberrant Architecture’s show Animating Education: Learning From Rio de Janeiro, which looks at a Brazilian prefab school-building program of the 1980s. I’d been looking forward to this, and was frankly hoping for some slightly guilty didactic text emphasising access and sustainability, a few period photographs, and perhaps, at the very most (in terms of emotional connection, anyway) a mocked-up classroom in the middle with Oscar Niemeyer mumbling untranslated Portuguese over a pair of iPod headphones.

Instead, I was met at the door by Michael Palin in person, dressed in cricket flannels. “Come in, come in,” he said in his jovial English voice, “you’re just in time to see me join the Favela Eleven!” Palin was batting for a team of disadvantaged kids from Rio’s Santa Teresa slum. I must admit I felt — despite my better instincts — a surge of Dickensian joy when Palin scored six runs and was surrounded by jubilant ragamuffins attempting to carry the protesting Englishman shoulder-high around the exhibition. I even contemplated firing a couple of lines from the Parrot Sketch at him, just to see how he reacted.

The set-piece — because of course it was a set-up, devised by the producer and repeated for each new arrival — seemed to confirm my humanistic belief that favela children aren’t criminal scum but decent people like you and me, just trying, against all the odds, to play a jolly good game of cricket. The music swelling in the background — Elgar over Latin swing percussion — added to this feeling, and for the whole 90-second duration of the sequence I completely forgot what a boring topic architecture is.

But wait, what am I saying? I don’t think architecture is boring at all! I’m an architecture junkie! (A comparison, by the way, which suggests that heroin is more interesting than architecture, which it absolutely isn’t. Heroin users are, in my view, just lost souls who haven’t yet discovered the glossy rush of the AA Bookshop.) The unstated assumptions underpinning this populism — the Goebbels in the glue, as it were — are obviously getting to me.

Television producers — who, as I say, are all basically Joseph Goebbels in jeans — start from the assumption that if something is different from the everyday world represented on, say, Eastenders, it’s frightening. And if something is difficult it’s alienating. If something is unfamiliar, add celebrities. If something happened long ago, say that it’s a forerunner of the world we know now. If something is uneventful, add a challenge, a competition or an explosion. Edit impactfully, using unmotivated thumping noises and white flashes, as if a thunderstorm were moving across the topic. Throw about words like “unique” and “iconic”. Make emotive issues like class or gender the real topic of your film. And above all, for emotional connection, add music. Endless, endless, endless music, for which no Filter Music button exists, forcing viewers like me, eager to avoid emotional bullying, to mute the entire sound and fire up close captioning for the deaf.

Seeking something dry, elegant and elitist (perhaps some “blurred boundaries”, “critical interventions” or “interrogations” I could pore over in an understated brochure laid out in 1940s grotesque fonts and mounted on semi-ironic pegboard), I headed for the room exhibiting Public Works and Urban Projects Bureau.

Imagine my horror when Michael Portillo greeted me at the door and led me to a mock-up railway carriage. “In this series,” he explained, “I’ve been travelling around Britain by train, seeing how things have changed since George Bradshaw first published his Handbook in 1863. In today’s episode we’ll drop by a pancake-tossing competition in Norwich and climb a chimney with some plucky Bradford steeplejacks.”

“But what the fuck does this have to do with critical interventions at the cutting edge of architectural theory?” I shrieked, paranoia gripping my throat like Joseph Goebbels’ leather-gloved hand gripping the swivel lever on a tripod pan head.

The unctuous Portillo barely blanched. “Most people would consider architecture on its own a little dry,” he said, his voice rich with good sherry. “But if you’d like to visit the dRMM room later you can find out what happened when we locked three feisty young architects in a house for two months with only sixty surveillance cameras and an audience of millions for company.”

Google Dominion

About ten years ago architectural theorist Bruco Snith began to notice that when he fed his own name into Google’s search box the message came back “Did you mean: Bruce Smith?” or simply “Showing results for Bruce Smith”.

Rather than struggling against this correction of the correct, Snith began to think of himself as “Bruce Smith”. In his book Google Dominion — now an exhibition at Venice’s Did You Mean: Realtor Bridge? No results For Realtor Bridge — he argues that since Google represents our age’s most authoritative paradigm for knowledge, resistance is futile. Instead of trying to “correct” the “errors”, we should start remaking the world to fit Google’s image of it.

The exhibition focuses on Snith’s project to rebuild Mies van der Rohe’s Toronto-Dominion Centre. Snith — born in Brightin in Sessex, he moved to Brighton in Sussex at Google’s suggestion — has never been to Canada. But on visiting Toronto via Google Streetview one day in 2011 he tilted the view angle up and found himself deeply impressed by the daring, expressionistic lines of Mies’ T-D Centre, which seemed to take random grid curves and steel frame interruptions to the very limits of structural feasibility.

Snith — by now calling himself Smith — was just preparing a paperback book on Miles On The Road’s debt to Did You Mean Antoni Gaudí when his publishers (based in the T-D Centre, as it happened) looked out of the window and informed him that Mies’ grid was in fact entirely regular. The deformations he had seen were merely parallax distortions in Google’s lenses.

Smith ( Snith) had already changed his name and his home because of Google. He decided to adopt the same heroically Zen attitude to the crushing realisation that No Results For Anthony Gaudy had had no discernible influence on Miles On The Road. Reality must be altered.

So he travelled via Streetview to the Googleplex and, at a meeting with Eric Smith ( Schmidt), proposed that Google finance a major structural refurbishment of the T-D Centre so that it better resemble the pictures on Streetview.

Smith commissioned a feasibility study which found that the structural alteration of all the skyscrapers in the world would be cheaper than the development of a better Streetview lens. Structural engineers advised that steel structures like the T-D Centre could be significantly warped at temperatures as low as 538°C, well below the temperature of burning jet fuel.

And so — as those of us who look up on the street have already noticed with pleasure, cricks and dizziness — the Google Dominion project began. Google adopted as the project motto Marshall McLuhan’s phrase: “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” Massive melting equipment was built and began work on Mies’ black-painted steel towers. The answer to the question “Street view? Did you mean Streetview?” became a resounding “Yes!”

There have, it’s true, been victims. The 327 Microsoft employees who died when Tower 3 collapsed, for a start. But there have also been unexpected benefits. Architectural history has had to be rewritten to demonstrate new connections. Between Miles on the Road and architects like Jeans Novel and Anthony Gaudy. And between Mies’ signature “sliced tower” style and the “decapitated chicken” look Rem Koolhaas used on the London Rothschild Bank Headquarters.

Snith, alas, never lived to see his vision become reality. He committed suicide in April after Wikipedia mistakenly inserted the line “This article is about a person who has recently died” into his biography. His spirit will live on, though: two years before his death he was caught by Streetview standing beside the Brighton Preston Road branch of Barclays Bank, his face heavily blurred. As a token of respect, Google have vowed never to update the picture.

Heterofascist Park

"Three’s company, two is heterofascism." That’s the motto of Macfarlane Hundred, a provocative young Scottish architect currently showing an installation called Heterofascist Park in Venice (I’ll be blogging daily from the Architecture Biennale until the end of the month).

Hundred’s off-off-off-Giardini garden installation is inspired by what he calls “the only love song I’ve ever heard which is completely honest about heterofascism”, You and I and George, a brief, pungent 1959 number by Red Kelly, heard here performed by the Stan Kenton Orchestra:

You and I and George (mp3 file, 1 min 3 secs, 1 MB)

The lyrics run:

You and I and George went strolling through the park one day
And then you held my hand as if to say “I love you”
Then we passed a brook and George fell in and drowned himself
And floated out to sea leaving you alone with me

For Hundred, this song maps with lurid clarity the undermining by “heteronormative social-Darwinian fascism” of all utopian attempts at communitarian living. Rather than embracing George, the couple, misled by that act of radical exclusion of the Other we call “love”, seems utterly indifferent to his fate as the gooseberry, the third leg, the unit surplus to “the reproductive copule”. They make no attempt to save him, and in fact celebrate his disappearance by (it’s implied) copulating in the bushes.

This poisonous song plays on a loop in Heterofascist Park, a model garden laid out in four zones:

The Zone of Genocidal Pacts
The Convenient Brook
The Invisibility Sea
The Reproductive Cottage

A graduate of the Architectural Association in London, Hundred loads his activist installation with nods, winks and tips of the hat. I spotted allusions to Vito Acconci's 1983 project Model for a Playground (in which children were dismembered by guillotine-like play equipment) and Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins' Site of Reversible Destiny, a themepark in Yoro, Japan, laid out with features like The Critical Resemblance House, The Exactitude Ridge and The Kinesthetic Pass.

Arakawa and Gins were tireless activists against death (“we have decided not to die”), but it’s life which is Hundred’s bugbear, in the form of the babies which are the end-product of all heterofascist behaviours. His most obvious satirical reference is to the geography of Tubbyland — the bland-lawned garden set of the banal BBC children’s show Teletubbies.

It’s here, in Hundred’s Jake-and-Dinos-Chapmanesque vision of Tubbyland, that everything is organised around the dumping of the third party (“the Inconvenient Other”, or simply “George”) and the commencement of mating activities in the grass-covered cottage which is Heterofascist Park’s central feature, and whose greenness signifies, for Hundred, all spurious attempts to pass off reproducto-genocidal heterofascism as the natural order of things.

Macfarlane Hundred, who lives in Troon, is married with two children.