Summer Media Overload – Pt.1

Inspired by a lecture from Scott McCloud (the comic book creator and theorist) on imaginative worlds, I have been indulging in a lot of inventive music, movies and books, this summer especially. The lecture was awhile back, but Scott talked about actively encouraging his kids to enter into the worlds of fantasy, sci-fi and video games because as humans we have done nothing to deserve life in this world, but by choosing to enter other virtual experiences we can bring certain knowledge and skills back to our lives and the lives of others, the goal of course being to create a better, more nourishing world. Understanding substantial media (things that possess a certain degree of craft and substance, NOT most commercial ridden television shows and advertisements) as a counterpoint to reality allows for the opportunity to ‘bring something back’ long after the credits have rolled, whether it be a new perspective or simply a joke to share. Here’s some of what I have gathered from the movies and books of the past month:

American Sunshine – Diseases of Darkness and the Quest for Natural Light – Daniel Freund

Being the light junkie that I am I eagerly awaited the arrival of this book, I was however a little surprised/disappointed to find the book deals exclusively with human’s attitudes towards light during the 1920’s to 1930’s. Light in the twenty first century makes an appearance in the last five pages of the book, yet fails to reveal anything substantial about contemporary light practices or beliefs. The information presented was extremely interesting, starting with the rise of the American City then discussing the dark conditions of the high rise tenements and the ‘urban canyons’ they created. The result of increased pollution, population and sunlight-displacement from poorly fabricated domiciles led to a dramatic increase in rickets, a disease that softens the bones in children. Once scientists realized that sunshine was biochemically reacting with the skin (not so much ‘creating’ as ‘activating’ the present Vitamin D) all kinds of experiments were held dealing with artificial sun lamps, newly organized ‘open air schools’, vitamin fortified foods, prescribed sun sessions, and irradiated food fed animals. The experiments of course were never as effective as healthy outdoor activity and the cities that boasted good natural light generally pumped out healthy people. This is important information in an age where UV radiation and the excessive heat created by the ‘urban heat island effect’ is universally regarded as malignant. City life today generally discourages healthy sunlight exposure, as people move among ‘man made caves’ throughout the day, while increased heat with increased darkness leads to deviant behavior (more aggression and violence).

Big tangent: What is it about darkness that instigates vice? (I’m reminded of ‘In Darkness Dwells Vice’ by Carnival In Coal, and some old Death Cab for Cutie lyrics) I’m sure there is plenty of research on the topic regarding narcotics, prostitution and violence – but its clear that even in much less extreme cases darkness still fosters unhealthful thoughts and unsettling conditions. Seasonal Affective Disorder comes to mind. So does The 1998 Sci-fi film ‘Dark City’  (which my friends generally hated).

Connecting the themes of darkness and man made cities, I thought a lot about American Sunshine while I was watching the ending to ‘James and the Giant Peach’ (which I saw today for the first time).

(see the peach?) I was initially confused by the portrayal of the city ‘where dreams come true’. Surely this reads as a horribly drab place? From what I understand James lived on a beautiful piece of remote land, and his parents, full of enthusiasm, projected their enthusiasm about the tallest building on earth on to James, claiming that visiting it would be like standing on top of the world. I think there’s something to say about the city that lacks all the adventure and lessons of friendship and love the heart of the movie consisted of. I realize the scene takes place at night, but the monochromatic city features none of the life and promise they left in search of. Maybe that was the point. James fulfilled an aspiration that was projected upon him by his parents, in this instance it was a desire to see a new built environment, one that was probably significantly less nourishing than the house on the sea (but of course had to be better than living with his evil aunts).

Add the modeled city in ‘James’ with scenes from ‘Dark City’ and the lens of ‘American Sunshine’, and the city really feels miserable.

I have to compare these stills of city life with David Gissen’s 2009 book entitled Subnature – Architecture’s Other Environments.

The book talks about projects that tackle the unnatural environment types produced through architecture: dankness, smoke, gas, exhaust, dust, puddles, mud, debris, weeds, insects, pigeons, and crowds; all the ‘dirty’ things we try to cast aside in our visions of the city. While all the chapters present interesting cases for architectural development, I found most interest in the atmospheric conditions confronted and, more specifically, in the projects by experimental design firm R&Sie(n).

In the ‘exhaust’ section of the book, Glissen points to R&Sie(n)’s B_mu tower, a tower that’s skin actually attracts exhaust, in turn purifying the dirty air as it enters, creating cleaner air on both the inside and outside of the building. Walking into the building appears to be like walking into a giant smoky cloud (in fact an image of a woman standing nearly immersed in a single car’s exhaust acted as the conceptual take off point for the project). It not only draws direct attention to the pollution, it makes a spectacle of it – ‘an art gallery and a tower’. Here are a few models of the electrostatic skin attracting the exhaust:

The entire book is full of intriguing projects like those of R&Sie(n) but this quote in the final chapter really sums up what we can learn from a new outlook on man made nature’s:

When we talk of architecture engaging with the environment, very often we mean to say that architecture is harmonizing with, or open to, some aspect of an uncorrupted nature. An architecture that engages with the environment usually incorporates or mimics the mechanics of trees, sunlight, water, and wind; whether developing a country house or a skyscraper, the architect attempts to work the form, program, and system of the building into a mutually beneficial relationship with the environment… But as this book has demonstrated, the environment is much more than the nature we often image to be in some prehuman and pristine form; it is composed of subnatures produced by social, political, and architectural processes and concepts. Unlike the natural environment, we cannot possibly imagine a subnatural environment generated by, nor found within, a nonhuman world. Subnatures force us to confront the implicit nonsocial character of nature, as it is invoked in discussions of architecture and the environment.” (p.211)

It seems far more honest to engage the city in this way – to no longer try and ignore the remnants of modern life by pushing around puddles and dirt into more desirable places or configurations.

I can imagine a whole new genre of ‘selfless’ architecture, where, as well as being completely sustainable and eco-friendly, firms go out of their way to design buildings that try to relieve the greater city from points of natural and subnatural stress, providing nesting spaces for pigeons and wildlife while gathering rainwater in order to mist four adjacent blocks of green roofs…competitions start over who can ‘take on’ the most undesirable aspects of modernity…If only.

I have a lot more to say, it will have to wait til tomorrow.
Thanks for reading,

-matthew

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