Informal Architectures: Space and Contemporary Culture

This recent publication represents the ideas that emerged from several years of research and the resulting investigative symposium and exhibition– both of the same name–that, in the words of editor Anthony Kiendl, “collectively constitute a reimagining of the cultural meanings of space in contemporary Western societies.” Kiendl is the Director of the Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art in Winnipeg, and so it is not surprising that this collection of essays, photographs and drawings presents current perspectives on architecture and the built environment through a variety of lenses, mostly derived from the world of contemporary art practice and theory.

Grouped into three sections–Space/Perception, Consumption/Ruin, and Monument/Ephemerality, the numerous contributions are drawn from a wide swath of artists, curators and writers from across Canada, the US and Europe. It is useful reading for architects, as it provides unconventional and alternative views and approaches to the built environment that we might not have been exposed to in standard architectural educahistory tion and practice. Ideally, the essays will engender a consciousness of the failures and weaknesses in the structures and spaces that we design, so that we may become better architects.

In the context of current global events, “An Informal Architect: Lida Abdul” is a particularly moving entry documenting recent work by Kabul-born artist Lida Abdul. She explores themes of architecture and identity in postwar Afghanistan, locating her work in cities and urban spaces which she believes to be the by-products of globalization and of the Western political power games that are executed on the developing world. As a refugee who escaped war-torn Afghanistan 20 years ago, her art is permeated with themes of homelessness and destruction. Stills from a video that Abdul made in 2005 when she returned to the country of her birth are poetic and haunting: in White House (Kabul), a work created specifically for the 51st Venice Biennale, Abdul captures with her camera the ruins of the city and becomes a participant in her own film, paintbrush in hand, standing atop mounds of rubble, methodically painting white the visible remnants of the War on Terror– monolithic building fragments of a ruined house amidst a wasteland of destruction. Subsequently, she moves on to a lone young Afghan man, his back turned to the camera, seemingly identity-less. The image of the wide brushstrokes of white paint on the man’s black tunic could represent the bleaching or whitewashing of the city of Kabul and the imposition of Western ideology on the Afghan people–and, the painting of the house in the space of the city might represent an act of sanitization and liberation from the constraints of political ideology.

Other essays are worthy of mention: Sarah Bonnemaison and Christine Macy, both professors of design, theory and history at the School of Architecture and Planning at Dalhousie University, have together contributed “Architecture of Motion,” an exploration of the idea that human activity might better be supported by architecture, rather than the arrogant expectation that people should adapt their activities to buildings. Ultimately, they question if such buildings would look and behave differently than they would otherwise.

And lastly, in Arni Haraldsson’s compelling photo-essay “Goldfinger Project,” social utopian ideology and the apparent failure of the Modernist project is discussed in the context of various buildings such as Ern Goldfinger’s Trellick and Balfron Towers, along with other examples of Brutalism like the Thamesmead South estate on the outskirts of east London, a project that featured prominently in Stanley Kubrick’s filmic interpretation of Anthony Burgess’s dystopic novel A Clockwork Orange. LJ