Sunday, December 30, 2007



I'm nearsighted. I got my first pair of glasses at age 22. It was a late winter afternoon, and I remember walking out to the parking lot afterwards and standing slackjawed, wrapped up in the intricate patterns created by bare tree branches against the gloaming sky. It's a Caspar David Friedrich mood, something I hadn't been able to perceive clearly for years, my eyes steadily degrading under the influence of AutoCAD.


There's got to be a whole thread in art history tracking changes in the representation of trees. Tree drawings have a unique place at the overlap of cultural convention, technique, and perception. Gothic trees are either cartooned icons or diagrammatic trees-of-life. 18th century British landscape trees are brown and puffy, like drifting clouds of coalsmoke. The interlaced branching in Celtic art, with crossings alternating over and under each other, might be the first algorithmic tree drawings.

This fork of the thread resurfaces in the fractal trees of 90s computer art, and the fascination, in complexity and chaos theory, with intricate systems built from simple, iterated rules. A city is not a tree, but a tree is not a fractal. In a rule-based system, there's often the question of how to admit variation, in scripting this can come from a call to the random() class, which is actually pseudorandom: a seed number taken from a query to the system clock, then run through a bunch of messy math. Random input is also available from natural or stochastic processes: cosmic rays, vacum tube static, or in the case of Rod McLaren's excellent series of drawings done on the tube: the bumps and lurches of a 140 year old underground public transit network. Rod has composed fragments of his tube drawings into a version of Friedrich's Ruined Abbey Among the Oak Trees:

In general, the problem of tree drawing is this: how to reproduce an intricately complex object without resorting to convention. The problem speaks directly to the perception of pattern and the perception of noise, and the representation of either or both with media-specific techniques. Nobody wants to sit there and draw every branch, but how do you break it down without being reductive? And how do you avoid the double traps of reliance on technique and/or cliche?

These issues, (along with figure vs. ground, shapes vs. lines, shapes vs. patterns, etc.) come up in a series of drawings I've been working on and off with over the last few years. Process-wise, it started with this photo of winter branches silhouetted against an even grey sky:


Fascinated by the shapes, and wanting to know more about how they were put together, I dialled up the contrast and started playing around in photoshop. Composing by removing: I sliced away pieces of the pattern to leave behind figures that had a kind of scaleless abstraction, with indistinct boundaries:

This is all just trying to track down and isolate the qualities that made me want to snap the photo in the first place, a kind of interrogation of the image to find out why it was attractive and interesting: how much could be removed and manipulated without losing the life of it? (disclaimer: I am aware of, and somewhat disturbed by, the overtones of that last sentence, but we'll let it stand as a fair statement of intent for now)


Drawing the pieces left over, the problem is the detail level: which specific bumps and divots can be glossed over, and which are necessary for the reading of the shape as a whole, and of it's relations to the other shapes? This is like the classic fractal problem proposed by Benoit Mandelbrot: how long is the coastline of England? The answer depends entirely on how long a ruler you've got:


A more detailed version of the same composition, here I realized another problem: I was starting from the shapes instead of starting from the lines. This was forcing decisions about the detail level into a prematurely early phase of the process. If the whole set of steps that make the drawing could be reordered, the means of representation would more closely mirror the means of production in the orignal tree: 'fat lines -> medium lines -> thin lines' is an isomorphism of 'trunk -> branch -> stem':


So there's a shift in perception: the shapes aren't primary, they're just the spaces between the lines, the lines have a texture at their edges that shape the spaces, and they are broken down loosely into hierarchies and sub-hierarchies. This opens up the territory and the process, stop at any point and explore any area, and it should all still make sense:


So that's what I did, drawing the fattest lines with a big marker, the smaller lines with a thin sharpie, and the tiniest lines with a fine gel pen. The drawing becomes diverse in time and in space, and exploring pieces of it with a camera is interesting while it's being worked, maybe more interesting than the final piece, maybe interesting enough to branch off into still other projects:


The biggest piece took about 50 or 60 hours to finish, it's the most time I've ever invested in a single drawing, and I think it was the way in which the landscape of the page kept changing that kept my interest. This started out as an exercise in learned pattern-making, the idea being that to analyze the method of production would be to acquire the use of that method, adding it the repretoire and using it later without a direct model, freestyling a tree, or tree-like thing based on the same rules. But the commitment to direct observation was also, in the end, productive. Some of the most interesting things were the bits that didn't fit the diagram, the coincidences that couldn't be planned, that would be edited out of a more orderly thing, the unexpected and the strange:


Terminology Legit: (unlicensed [information/interior] ARCHITECT{ural} interns)

>> Crossposted from Archinect.

Who gets to call themselves an architect?

The state boards say that no one may call themselves an architect unless they have a license to practice architecture. In my state, this is the relevant law: link. As has been noted elsewhere, this is state law and the states enforce it, but NCARB, the national council of state boards, has tended to bring all the diverse laws in line with one another, keeping the laws and terms consistent. NCARB suggests, with no little authority, that the proper term for an unlicensed architect is 'intern', see, for example, the note at the bottom of this page.

There are a number of problems with this: there's the difference between party style 'what do you do?' chatter and professional representation, there's the difference between popular perception of a term's meaning and the legal reality, and there are a number of edge cases that are steadily eroding the sense of all of this.

1) Interns are peons. An 'intern' in the minds of many people, is a person who is underskilled and underpaid, maybe even still in school and working part time for free. The legal use of this term for entry level professionals with (in many cases) graduate degrees only contributes to consistent complaints about low pay and exploitation that plague the discipline. If the state says you can call me an intern, then you're going to treat me like one. I've heard some people say 'Junior Architect' instead, but that makes it sound like you're in the Boy Scouts. Should NCARB change this designation to something less pejorative?

2) Unlicensed Starchitects. There are many, look it up, you'd be surprised. A dead giveaway is often the lack of the term 'architects' or 'architecture' in their office name, another hint is the lack of any license listing on their CV. When people are licensed, they usually put it on their resume. Not that there's anything wrong with it, but on the one hand, it contributes to the perception/reality split when these people are often repesented in the media as architects when they're legally not. On the other hand, it's contributing to a split between academia and practice, unlicensed starchitects often teach, and they've often spent their youth working for other unlicensed starchitects, creating a perpetual parallel universe in the practice that often corresponds to the Designer/Architect of Record split. Should NCARB help set the record straight on who is, and who isn't, and architect?

3) Unequal enforcement. There was that case in Colorado where the guy was running for public office, and he called himself an architect in response to reporter's question, his state board went after him when he lost the election and there were hints that the prosecution was political retribution. (once again, can't be bothered to google the details) Wherever there exists a law that is underenforced and widely ignored, there's the possibility for abuse of power through selective enforcement. In many states, it's illegal for anyone under 18 to drive a car that has only other (non family member) kids in it, in practice this just gives the cops the power to stop and maybe search any teenager whose looks they don't like. If the law is widely ignored in casual speech, should it just be thrown out or rewritten?

4) (x) Architects. Where (x) is Product, or Software, or Information, or Interior ... This makes and Craigslist almost completely unusable when you're on the job hunt, the results are so polluted by these jokers. This is the crumbling edge of the erosion of meaning in popular perception. Karl Rove is not the architect of the Iraq War and my profession is not a metaphor. If we're really going to enforce the limits of the term's use, aren't these people worth targeting?

NCARB should let the law stand as written, but refine enforcement. Throw out the word 'intern' for anyone with a professional degree and replace it with 'Unlicensed Architect' This would cover the cocktail party talk issue, just say 'I'm an unlicensed architect', and leave it at that. NCARB should write a letter to Dwell or Metropolis everytime they call so-and-so an architect when they're not licensed (especially if they're not even degreed), and make them issue a retraction. If the stars (or the regulars) are caught misrepresenting themselves without the 'unlicensed' qualifier, prosecute 'em.

No mercy should be shown to the Software and Information Architects.

Saturday, December 29, 2007


DSC01056, originally uploaded by sevensixfive.

Friday, December 07, 2007

The Wire: Representation without Taxation

DSC01057, originally uploaded by sevensixfive.

It's not just the architecture. But the sunlit, overgrown alleys are heartbreaking, the logistics infrastructure is vast, cool, and indifferent, and Steven King called the vacant rowhouses one of the scariest places he's ever seen.

The great thing about The Wire is the interrelationships. it's about the way small groups can hold and control urban structures by taking the key spaces, the stairwells in the towers, the courtyards in the garden apartments, and the corners in the streets. It's about the relationship between power and urbanism, in districts, wards, localities ...

It makes the city legible and comprehensible as a network of subcultures, a network of networks, and it presents these networks in a way that anyone can understand and relate to. It's not like these tropes haven't been run through before, we've all seen drama about cops, drug dealers, or politicians in the postindustrial landscape. But this is the first place that shows all the networks together, laid out on a plane like the speed dial numbers in tapped cellphones, and they're all the more traceable for their interconnections, parallels and isomorphisms. The show represents life, not by stealing from it, but by mirroring and modeling it.

It's not just the realism. The realism is great, but realism is a moving target. Being in Baltimore, or any city, with The Wire echoing in your head, makes the social landscape of developers, police, city councilmen and corner kids understandable without being consumeable. You kind of feel, for better or worse, like you know these people. You've gotten a look at the underlying diagrams, just enough to let you know that there are whole worlds built off them to get lost in.

Realism is assembled and eventually decays: Expression -> Story -> Literature -> Cliche. Signifiers are plucked and sold like blossoms from a tree. But the diagrams remain, and resist simple interpretation.

[Edit - Oh yeah, and the soundtrack comes out in January]