Monthly Archives: April 2011

Tickle Your Imagination

While I should be thriving because my latest architectural project is featured in the April editions of both Mark and Domus, I must say that on this occasion I’m particularly thrilled because, just as I was musing on terrifying beauty, the Tickle Your Catastrophe book was indeed making its way onto my doorstep.

It’s not that I don’t see the first as relevant. I do. Especially when, in the case of Domus, we are looking forward to a new phase in the history of a key architectural magazine. And as I am increasingly interested in the building act as a catalyst for the proliferation of cultural, if not political meaning,  publication in a highly legitimated media certainly plays an important role in the process.

GMG House in the new Domus, now edited by Joseph Grima.

However, I’m progressively more interested in the expression of thought, and critical thought at that, whenever possible and adequate, either through design or discourse. So, at this instance, while my ego should be mostly flattered by my subversive and furtive interiors being made public, I’m even more proud to be part of Tickle Your Catastrophe with an essay you can partially preview here.

As the traditional publishing world seems to be quickly whirling down the e-toilet, Tickle Your Catastrophe may well be a good example of a disappearing kind: a sexy scientific publication that caters for an audience outside academia…

This is a reader of laboriously edited texts that extend well beyond their varied academic origins – and the 2009 conference that set off the publication – so as to become a many-sided, prescient, and wholly perspective on the darker shades of realities currently lurking on a corner near you.

With chapters on ruin value, states of emergency, media disasters and worst-case scenarios, this is a true survivor’s manual on everything you should know about calamity and forgot to ask both Wild Bill Hickok and Doctor Strangelove.

And while haunted by some of the usual phantoms of contemporary academic writing – from Benjamin to Deleuze, Sebald and Žižek – it must be said that this collection on the imagining of catastrophe in art, architecture and philosophy is also aptly trespassed by the futuristic ghosts of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, or even by the eerie reminiscences of traumatic events like the Chernobyl disaster and the 1755 Lisbon earthquake.

The great 1755 Lisbon earthquake, as connected to Voltaire’s Candide

With such condiments, Tickle Your Catastrophe becomes the kind of atypical book where theory displays one of its best, frequently overlooked attributes, one that brings it close to speculative fiction: its almost magical ability to dive into the future while intently looking at the mirror of the present and the past.

And that’s why one of the most troubling moments in the book – besides Lieven de Cauter’s chilling views on The Mad Max Phase of Globalization – eventually emerges in a poignant accidental postscript in which Susan Schuppli recalls how a reading of her Chernobyl essay in Tokyo was disturbed by an earthquake that affected a Japanese nuclear plant “involuntarily” built on a seismic fault…

Experiencing the tremors of this radiological activity directly as it was unfolding, standing as I was amidst the quake, signaled the uncanny entanglement between the conceptual research and the literal ontological ground upon which these ideas momentarily trembled. It was as if the actions of the future, my research yet-to-come, had colluded with the past, Chernobyl, to make the present shaky and thus a source of renewable creative energy for the future. As William Gibson has frequently remarked, “the future is already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Little did Susan know that Fukushima was to take place some four years later, close to where she first established these mental connections, more or less at the same time those very words were being printed onto posterity.

Terrifying beauty

Today, my wife and me will be presenting a few ideas for Lisbon on behalf of CUC, at MUDE museum, 7pm, within a quite packed panel that intends to publicize the city council’s participative budget.

There are 5 million euros to be applied in ideas presented by the people, and an apparent willingness to have citizens participating in city decisions. However, people seem to have lost faith in institutions, politicians and bureaucrats to such a degree that they simply don’t bother to contribute, thus leading some brave young people to devise a way to call attention upon this program.

One of the ideas we are introducing in the debate is deliberately utopian, moreover if one considers the economic pressure we’re currently under. It can be described, in a deceivingly simple way, as the making of longitudinal car parks along Lisbon’s downtown two main arteries, Rua do Ouro e Rua da Prata.

However simple an idea, this may represent one of the major engineering challenges that this urban core requires in the future – if it really wants to accommodate new inhabitants and, simultaneously, rehabilitate from the underground one of the first comprehensive structural systems in the world ever to respond to earthquake situations.

The other ideas, the immediately feasible ones, are children’s parks, small green spaces, health care centers, the reboot of existing underused cultural facilities, and other similar amenities that may make the city centre where we live friendlier to residents, rather than only to hordes of tourists – in what could be dubbed the current barcelonization of Lisbon.

For me, this act of participation is also an inward attempt to fight a pessimism that I’ve felt growing over the course of my latest posts. One thing is to be critical of a given situation; the other is to become acid to a point in which you start melting from within…

Just last week, for example, while I was strolling through central Lisbon and observed the physical degradation of the city I was just about to start a photographic series on urban decay.

I guess the way some decaying buildings generate a sort of miserable charm is what sometimes entitles Lisbon to the dubious status of Europe’s Habana.

The fact is that, after years of destroying this country’s ultimate resource – its landscapes and geographical diversity – only now the proud local construction industry is looking at building renovation as its emergency exit.

And given the economical recession, they were lucky enough to have some mysterious, unheard-of real-estate investment companies immediately popping up to give them a hand. It seems like it is now safe to release the piles of eurocash some people have hoarded during the pre-crisis years.

To be fair, a lot of renovation happened during the last decades in central Lisbon, even if the Portuguese capital has also turned out to be a shrinking city and many of its buildings remain empty. But, of course, there’s still a lot to be done.

As it is, I started thinking that austerity would be nice, if only it had anything to do with Paul Auster. Now that people were finally heading for urban rehabilitation, it’s also probable that many investments come to an halt.

So, as poverty and inequality kicks in – and as one slowly fights the devastation brought upon us by our political “elite” – one can indeed resort to artistic observations on how the subtle alterations of dilapidation produce a certain aesthetical frisson.

One should, for example, take a positive lesson from street artists like Eltono, who registers with deserved satisfaction the way that, in spite of everything else, the city transforms itself around his fragile inscriptions.

This is perhaps one of the most amazing human survival tools still around from primeval times: the perverse, but essential ability to turn either tiny or wide catastrophes into what some call a terrifying beauty.

Other Little Magazines # 18 Whatever happened to…

Back in the Spring of 2001, LAB first came out in London with a plain opening statement: “Let’s do a magazine. Ok.” This emerged as a reply to another simple question, quite typical of people just starting their professional lives: “Shit, what are we going to do now?”

The magnificent editorial entrepreneurship of youth – and other like-minded people faced with such an eternal question – has always led to the idyllic development of magazines that, although beautifully done, didn’t make it past a couple of issues. This post is the first dedicated to a few of those.

LAB itself was the baby of Pavlova Design, and art directors Astrid Stravo and Joana Ramos-Pinto. Under the theme of Arrivals, its first issue was a catalogue of young creative talent with a tasty presentation that was soon to die on the footsteps of ongoing commercial indie mags like Spanish Neo2.

And even if color is already evaporating from its pages and fashion photo shoots, LAB was avant-garde enough to feature much graphic design that still feels fresh, articles that one can still enjoy, and interviews with people that are still pretty much around – from soundtrackable Finlay Quaye to ever-likeable FAT.

A couple of years later, whilst LAB sadly soon faded into oblivion, on the other side of the world and the specter, Influence was a promising New York mag that, despite its high ambitions and its cool backgrounds, also left only a few traces behind after its brief publication during 2003.

Its somewhat pedagogical, unexpected contents ranged from stories about Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Gilliam Wearing, to artist essays about photography, cinema, and the postapocalyptic ruin (Walead Beshty) or the distinction between the sacred and the profane (Daniel Mirer).

Influence was intended as an art magazine about “the ever-changing forms of artistic ideas.” However, the fact that it was published by fashion gurus such as Jan-Willem Dikkers and previous American Vogue creative director Raul Martinez perhaps explains the short-lived experience of the publication. There are worlds that, despite appearances, don’t really blend together.

The last lost magazine I dug out of my archives for today’s post is somehow symmetrical to Influence. Although edited by an outcast art critic, it tried to cross over onto the world of commercial publications with a fashion twist

Chicote premièred last October in Lisbon, but I’ve just had news that its second issue – though ready to go to print – will never make it to paper. Which is absolutely no surprise when the IMF (aka the International Mother Fuckers in Icelandic) is precisely today landing in Portugal.

While Chicote is now another weblog cum facebook page, its first issue promised to whip up the sensibilities of a too dormant country. And this was an intention that, of course, was not totally welcome by the advertising wolf pack.

Being that this mag promised kinky provocations and counterculture warfare – from legal drugs to techno-utopia – I happily contributed to the project with my shrapnelesque views on how we should return to a more virulent criticism, much alike our 19th century literary predecessors.

In memoriam, here is the article I published in Chicote’s first issue, in what was to be the sister column of this very blog – Smithereens. Suddenly this text somehow felt as a vaguely adequate prequel to some minor polemics currently assaulting the Portuguese architectural blogsphere.

(And since I’m at it, I  also released here and  there my second, unpublished article for the mag – which I prepared last October in the wake of the biennale, the triennale, and other likely annales, but, again, may still present some durable assertions when all things critic are currently considered around here.)

There are always innumerable obscure reasons for some magazines to make it and others not. But it’s memorable that these wild flowers may briefly blossom in the midst of today’s mainstream manure – even if for one season only.