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The Color of Nature

Almost everything in this culture that purports to be a sign of compassion or respect or care, is in every instance an expression of the exact opposite.

“True poetry is a function of awakening. It awakens us, but it must retain the memory of previous dreams.”
Gaston Bachelard

“If you are moved only by the color relationships, then you miss the point.”
Mark Rothko

Almost everything in this culture that purports to be a sign of compassion or respect or care, is in every instance an expression of the exact opposite.

Politically correct terms or labels, programs from the state claiming to assist the poor, reforms designed to protect consumers, etc. Humanitarian interventions, or the war on poverty. This trickles down, as both cause and effect, to the individual and his vocabulary. On an individual level people have begun to speak and communicate in a vocabulary and grammar learned in business schools and marketing focus groups. I ran across *neurotypical* the other day, and my first thought was Aldus Huxley. This false language, in theory designed to avoid stigmatizing, is imbued with anger and aggression. The state and its *disposition matrix* is a cleansing of assasination, an expression of venal self interest and manipulation. Of contempt for others. Jargon and euphemism mesh in this verbal disposition matrix, as it were. This first became truly visible during Viet Nam (Terminate with extreme prejudice). ‘Neurotypical’, or ‘differently-abled’, ‘pivot’, and ‘walk it back’, ‘pre dawn vertical insertion’ was invading Grenada, or the financial Greenspanisms such as ‘accelerated risk premiums’ (which means exactly nothing) and simple ones now just so familiar nobody notices; ‘downsizing’, ‘recession’, or ‘double dip recession’, and ‘for your convenience’ which usually means the opposite, or ‘miscertification’ (which I believe goes back to the Watergate hearings), or a dozen others. The embedding of this nastiness, this intolerance, never mind the peculiar sense of contradiction it encloses, has become the conversational currency of today. And it is a form of intolerance. It is denying certain narratives, certain images, certain ideas. In each case it reduces meaning, metaphor and allegorical potential. One is not erasing abusive bigoted beliefs by changing words. Its a lateral move at best. And the irrational violence to meaning, to language itself, is cloaked in mystification. This is not to suggest words don’t matter. They do matter, but they are organic living things.

The point is that the U.S. is today a savagely intolerant and angry nation pulsing and seething with resentment and festering grudges. I want to lead this into the politics of geography and the geography of politics, as Neil Smith put it, and the geography and poetics of space (to borrow from Bachelard). There is a sensitivity in the public today that is the sensitivity of a raw nerve, a toothache. It is not the sensitivity of insight. Say the wrong thing, express yourself the wrong way, and you can count on several factions of intellectual police to swoop down on you. These are brand wars. One cannot make mistakes. The idea of the ‘perfectionist’ is, I think, a very recent idea. At least as a personality attribute (in moral philosophy it goes back to the Greeks, and certainly was reinvestigated by Nietzche and later Ralph Waldo Emerson).It is certainly post Enlightenment, though, as social psychology and probably post Industrial Revolution, and no doubt something that spiked in the last forty years or so in this sense. Today people hear voices, everyone hears voices, but they are the voices of our judges. The conscience feels more adjudicated. The jury looms over the day dreams of most people, I think. A phantom jury. These imaginary friends are often tragically real, of course. The presence of the police is an anxiety marker for almost everyone in the U.S.

I suspect in a way this is an even more painful intellectual star chamber than appearing before Cardinal Wolsey. This raw nerve is tender, and the fear of having this nerve touched drives a lot of this worry about correctness. Of course there is a celebrity left, best exemplified by Zizek, whose role is to grant permission for the pent up angers of frat boys and white upholders of purity to express bigoted racist and homophobic beliefs (and to apologize for Imperialism). Zizek is the ideological clove oil to apply to that aching tooth. One sees white male aggression expressed, often, under cover of common sense. Bill Maher, a nasty vain little man is the poster boy for this tendency. The revanchist white male as heroic figure of pragmatism and realism.

“Buildings, like texts, are inserted into the world of dissimulation to speak of an unattainable order beyond it.”
Mark Wrigley

The public sees itself in a movie. We look at the world in terms of film, film narrative, and in film space, too. The internet has been sold in kitsch narratives of revolution, with social media as an organizing tool etc. Groups communicate and overthrow a dictator.They all buy a Prius and ban plastic bottles. The selling of Tiananmen Square or Aung San Suu Kyi. That’s a movie. Takes place on location. The non movie part is the parking lot surveillance, the stock market shares, the leveraging and political clout that mounts the assault on net neutrality, buys patents and steals intellectual property, and the NSA. Paying lobbyists, and mergers etc, are not a movie and hence not very thought about. But there is also the purely addictive part, the manipulation, and the creation of new temporal zones of behavior. There are the new spaces, the airport zone of hyper security where time stops. The Casino, where the world tilts toward your addiction, literally.

This is the realm of Psych research to determine color schemes that make you hungry, or make you want to *click* again, or make you want to suck down poison foods. Its the research that tries to figure out how to create passivity that recreates mild stimulus rewards. The harvesting of eye time, or attention. But of flawed attention. Deep focused attention is of much less value to marketers.

“…The polemical exhibition of modern buildings in 1927 had a kind of off-white. It takes a long time to become a white white, like that of a Richard Meier building today which is completely unlike the white of classic modern architecture. The pioneering buildings had more like an eggshell colour, so there is a way in which modern architecture whitens over time. One could argue that it does so as a reaction to the black and white photographs.”
Mark Wigley

So, these forces have intensified, but the effects of photography, of magazines and then cinema — has been to shape aesthetic space, but also to alter our dreams. That sounds obvious enough. Hollywood likes to promote itself as the dream factory, but in fact they are the dream abattoir. Dream killers. A Dream Disposition matrix. Much as curators became like studio executives or like agents, the artists were torn about how find the zone of resistance in both narrative and image.

Now, it is interesting to remember that much Greek statuary was painted, and that early 20th century architecture was not white, but often pastel, or even a dark primary color. This was Van Die Rohe, but also Le Corbusier. Flat roofs and white walls. Except, they werent white. The majority were egg shell or off white. It is worth looking at the stone buildings of antiquity, as well as village structures in North Africa, Greece, Sicily, and even South America and Spain. Flat, and white. White suggested clean because it was, it was white wash. Lime wash. Mark Wigley suggests visual hygiene trumped the bacterial hygiene. Perhaps. And indeed Le Corbusier was interested in purifying the eye. Now, in a sense, all artists are purifying the eye, all visual artists anyway. They just do it in different ways. But in architecture, where space mediates all other concerns, the role of poetics, and allegory loom very large, as does the role of control.

The ‘Redentore is 16th century, a white structure that reeks of both hubris and arrogance, but also of the spiritual, and reminds us of the spiritual as a valid subject for architecture. The white is a white of Venetian light. All buildings in Venice are in a relationship to the light.

The white of today’s museum walls, or galleries is not the same white. I suspect that public buildings, awash in fluorescent light, a decided NON white that fluctuates anyway, have served to make gallery whites look much whiter. There are a host of lighting plants available, from halogen, to tungsten, to LED. White though, whichever white one uses, is always an invitation and an exclusion. For it is unsoiled. Unmarked. Virginal. But this also raises questions, as I’ve mentioned before, about the ideological background to over illumination. No corner shall ever be dark. The Japanese aesthetic of course demands shadow. Much Mediterranean architecture uses the sea, the blue, and sometimes only the idea of the blue. The potential *blue*. Even if the sea is not there, it’s there, it is a promise built into the structure.

William Gass, years ago, had a sort of wonderful small book on *blue*. And perhaps we all have our favorite talismanic color. Or colors.

When I first travelled in Asia I became infatuated with reds. Chinese reds in particular. The point being that the sense of post industrial desires for hygiene came into play with the idea of the doctor’s coat, the white tiled industrial bathroom. In fact the non white bathroom, even when I was a child, suggested a certain wealth and cache. The poor were herded to the white tiles and white smocks. It is interesting that doctor’s coats had earlier been green. Green was a surgical color.

“…processes have left residents of low-income neighbourhoods in a situation where, since they exert little control over either investment capital or their homes, they are facing the ‘choices’ of either continued disinvestment and decline in the quality of the homes they live in, or reinvestment that results in their displacement.”
James DiFillipis

The evolution of ideas of cleanliness is complex. Today, the poor are no better than bacteria, or at best pigeons.

The gallery white, the Richard Meier white, is the transformation of the colors of luxury in the 19th century. The industrial colors of confinement are no longer white, they are beige or pale green. The pastels of condescension. Municipal pale green is the equivalent to that smiling insurance salesman explaining why your Mother’s death isn’t actually covered. The aesthetics of elitism have been preserved in an unnatural white, a glossy hermetically sealed white. There are questions of associations with death. The funereal greys of the shroud and of ash. It may be that the role of color changed with Hiroshima. But I think it is impossible to tweeze apart these things separate from the spaces in which they occur. It strikes me that spaces of intimacy have been largely removed in the 21st century. When Bachelard wrote of drawers and chests, and closets, the places where people kept, metaphorically, their secrets, he was suggesting an inner topography. Image and metaphor are not the same. What role electronic media has played in the erosion of intimacy is a huge topic, but for the purposes of this post its possible to at least begin with the idea of surveillance.

How a society houses itself, both as shelter and monument, both private and public, is cause and effect of ideology and psychic make-up. Today the *starchitect* is building giant buildings that, finally, are about killing off the daydreams and allegory of constructed space. Bachelard wrote; “ is because our memories of former dwelling places are relived as daydreams that these dwelling-places of the past remain in us for all time.” The individual home, the family home, is the place in which most of us grow-up. It is the site of our first integrating of thought and fantasy. It is the site, an originary site, for memories.

As the site of early memories, I suspect the evolution of private space has reacted to the psychic formation we experience; that closets were not JUST about hanging clothes. Public buildings, the symbols of power, often, were also linked to the role of Gods, and of divination. Architects such as Zaha Hadid, or Rem Koolhaas, and Bernard Tschumi (all of whom sort of lept into public significance at the Deconstructionist Architecture show at MOMA in 1988) are in the business of eliminating the Gods, and creating a kind of exaggerated instability, but an instability (if thats the word) that is about finance, about class interests and about non-integration. Rowen Moore, architecture critic, calls a certain strain of design ‘The True Fake’. The idea is that certain buildings appear to be doing something, but are not. Often in fact are doing the opposite. Hadid is that kind of architect, or rather Dame Zaha Hadid, who at age 61 has only twenty some buildings in her resume. The triumph of appearance and image. (and the triumph of…what Garry Stevens suggests below*). I want to give a partial pass to Frank Gehry, because try as I might to NOT like his work, I often do. But my point here is buildings such as the Galaxy shopping center in Beijing, by Dame Zaha, is a monstrosity. I’m not sure monumental public spaces can get much more ugly (go ahead Google it if you don’t know it). The deconstructionist trend was not really a movement, it was an attitude. And the reason I mention all this is because the return to intimacy and secrets is a screaming need today. Chinese Pritzker winner Wang Shu (who I wrote about before) is one of the exceptions. Jean Nouvel is a mixed bag, but at his best has created a number of exceptional buildings. Then I think Id have to go back to Barragan and Scarpa to really feel the metaphysical and poetic. The point really has to do with how these monumental projects reflect a kind of fear; and it is a fear that fits into the landscape of fear and security that is the modern city. But what does that mean? Landscape of security is obvious in a sense. It is a place of thousands of CCTV cameras, of visible police, and of class segregation. Barriers, anti homeless spiked benches, and overall enclosure of the underclass. The private life is the theatre of intimacy; a topography of secret urges and desires. Today there is a culture in which solitiude is ever more difficult to find, in which privacy has eroded; the rooms we live in, the rooms we grew up in, are either small bunkers, or simply cells. Solitude has become solitary confinment.

Intimate spaces are never the spaces of fear. One of the problems with much modern architecture is that it is overly ornamental, but today that visual plumage, that ornament, has taken the form of a fanciful prison that robs us of intimate space. The ornament is now replicating the psychic heavy hand of punishment. A brutalist visual slap across the face. This is the ‘true fake’ idea, again. Presented as monumental or ‘people friendly’, they are uniformly antagonistic to the human. And here is where this the over use of the new ‘white’ becomes relevant. A white that demands it stay white it not liveable. Only the hired help can keep a building white. How does one remember a Richard Meier building? I cant remember them, except as I might remember a dental clinic or discount electronics warehouse. Memory is housed in shadow. Meier creates totalitarian dwellings. Which is perhaps at least a minor improvement over Hadid’s kitsch. In theatre, the empty space is already the start of memory. Childhood contains, almost always, time alone, and those spaces of privacy are where one is educated in dreaming. Today in the West, everyone is an extrovert. Even introverts are extroverts. The reliance in instrumental thinking is on the exterior. Interiors are really exteriors. This is the shopping culture, too, of course. The mall is a faux street, sanitized and controlled. The marks of progress included removal of cellars and attics. And the illumination of shadow. The exteriorizing of space is the new pathology of extroversion.

But here it is important to understand how Capital intersects with all this.

“…spacial fixity also becomes an increasingly vital underpinning to social development.” “…we do not live, act, and work ‘in’ space so much as by living, acting, working, we produce space.”
Neil Smith

Since Francis Bacon, the idea of nature was shaped by an exteriorized construct. For industry, nature was there to be transformed. For the U.S., the primary image or symbol was a virgin wilderness landscape. A wilderness begging to be changed into productive industry. There was an idealizing of wilderness, of nature, but beneath it pulsed the engine of conquest. For all the romantic narrative attached to the wilderness, the real heart of American capital saw savages and a natural violence. The Puritans were no lovers of nature. They at best sought to co-exist with it. Richard Slotkin’s trilogy on American mythology saw clearly the gunfighter nation, the “redemption” through violence. As Neil Smith rightly points out, the return to nature idea was born in cities, in literary salons. Ladies Home Journal and House and Garden, or the Sierra Club were urban entities. The frontier was seen with fear and disgust by those living there. The ‘idea’ of nature was something that was part of self improvement. Boy Scouts and vacations. The idea of the mastery of Nature runs alongside the aesthetics of mastery in narrative, and poetry. The mastering of a craft. One’s imagination was akin to the wilderness (but not really, the wilderness, just nature, and even Central Park could stand in on occasion). It is easy to underestimate the polite pastoral frame that presented the bourgeoisie with their idea of the frontier. Unfortunately the conquest of nature, its domination, brought with it the domination of man by those who profited most from the subjugation of nature. By those who were actually furthest from the material business of conquest. So, there is an aspect of this spatial organization that is directly linked to Capital, to class division, and to expansion. And the effects of Capitalist expansion, of industry, and the physical plant of Fordist production, helped shape western consciousness about…well, everything. The frontier migrated overseas (and vice versa). Colonial domination was a deeply internalized revulsion. Included in the landscape of foreign wilderness was the native population. However, by the end of the second World War, I think there had been a continual erosion of a certain romance attached to the wilderness and frontiers. There was an almost, or at least partial, distancing from rural life, a cognitive space created between urban sophistication and rural hardship. This process began, I think, probably at the turn of the 20th century. The city took on its own sense of self generation, its almost anthropomorphic identity. Cities in the U.S. got nicknames. The city of big shoulders, The Big Apple, The Windy City, Bean Town, The Big Easy, City of Brotherly Love, or even in deprecation, or slang; the Mistake by the Lake (Toledo), and my favorite, The Fire Hydrant Capital of the World (Albertville, Alabama), etc. They slowly were being branded in a sense, long before tourist bureaus. The exteriorized consciousness. At the same time there was an evolution of office space that reflects a similar trajectory. Hans Poelzig’s I.G. Farben office building in Frankfurt, of the late 1920s, which was later taken over by the U.S. military, may have been the start of the partitioned cubicle, which became the iconic image of the lonely crowd. The actual template was created in 1964 by Robert Propst, and implemented through Herman Miller’s furniture company in Michigan. This was the now familiar ‘workstation’ idea. The most hated quality of this model is the noise pollution. And that invasive non-stop audial assault is, in a sense, symbolic of the general hostility to low end bureaucratic workers today. Martin Filler’s piece in the NYRBs on the topic of office space ends with an appropriate nod to Jay Nolte’s web comic Zombie Office. In a nation now of temp workers, non unionized and unprotected, the early concerns of architects and designers like Adolph Loos or even Corbusier, seem almost quaint. The image of Zombie seems to have traction today in how the working class and unemployed are viewed. The early 20th century architects such as Neutra and earlier a Gaudi or Charles Rennie MacKintosh were creating space that emphasized a human scale, and something idealist, they concieved at times in white, though usually not, but there was nothing authoritarian in that work; not in scope, or spirit or intent.

As Beatriz Colomina said, in an interview in Architectural Review:

AR: How does Playboy treat architecture in its pages?

BC: Everything that happened in architectural discourse is presented in the magazine but it’s sexualised. They started featuring Mies and Frank Lloyd Wright, and then in the 60s and 70s they started Playboy Pads, a series that reshot existing buildings…”

Its quite possible that in a hundred years, Walt Disney and Hugh Hefner will loom as among the very most significant influences to modern culture in the last half of the 20th century. Space was inscribed with infantile simplicity, and an narrative of titillation.

“The building should be understood in the same terms as drawings, photographs, writing, films, and advertisements; not only because these are the media in which we more often encounter it, but because the building is a mechanism of representation in its own right. The building is, after all, a “construction,” in all senses of the word.”

“Le Corbusier sees the house as constructing pictures, or scenes, as about movement through space as the unfolding of a movie or a narrative. (In fact, he, one of his houses, and his car appeared in a film, L’Architecture d’aujourd’hui, 1929.) For Le Corbusier, houses built spectacles. Houses became mechanisms for seeing, as evidenced by design sketches that begin with postcards pasted to the page (the tourist site/sight) and that figure the human by a large eye.”
Beatriz Colomina

The architect today is creating space that mimics photography, or more, perhaps, mimics the movies. Buildings such as those of Hadid, Libeskind, or Koolhaas are movies. Once in them, the occupier is not aware of his own place in these spaces, for none of it is not pre-occupied.

Magazine ads, that began in black and white, amplified the tendency toward design white as privilege. Contrast signified privilege. But it is films, the culture industry, in which notions of building take on a more sinister quality. Homes are not designed, now, to turn occupants inward. Rooms prioritize picture windows, even if the view is of an apartment dumpster. The house looks like a screening room for dailies. Bedrooms are based on a fantasy borrowed from soft porn TV, and kitchens are Spartan non-participatory. The interior is presentation, prepared for the eye of the camera. I suspect, if one examined the interiors of mid century architects with those of the 21st century, the interior design would have shifted from still camera, to tracking shot.

The principles of exclusion, the fear of contamination, that pervade the proprietor class, have started to self contaminate. They exclude themselves. For it cannot be otherwise. Perhaps in one sense, all Empire starts to fail when this happens. It is both cause and effect.

How to Become a Super Star Architect (Garry Stevens):

*Have rich grandparents. First-generation wealth is no help. The vulgarity of mere money must be transmuted into a class position, and that takes at least two generations. You must have class! Then your parents will happily indulge you when you ask them to pay for the years (or decades!) of hefty financial support that you need to…

Study at the right hip school, such as the AA, Harvard, or Yale. While there you will…

Refine the exquisite tastes and habits that will mark you forever as one of the culturati. And your parent’s and your school’s connections will enable you to…

Get into the most-talked about practices. You won’t have to design any real-world buildings, of course: just hang around and absorb the vibe, spending your time drinking ginseng tea with your boss on his many international junkets. He can then use his (oh so rarely her!) connections so that you can…

Meet the right critics, who will talk about you, and publish all your drawings for architecture that no one actually wants built. While you are waiting for that to happen, you will…

Return to teach at the hip schools that taught you. There you can earn a living with minimal effort, since your own unbuilt works will be the ready-made basis of all your courses. True, the salary will not be huge; but since most of your income derives from your wealthy parents or trust fund, that really does not matter.

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