Friday, September 10, 2010

Walls and Floors

A few different recent events and experiences have encouraged me to shift direction slightly here on Architextures, which I may as well inaugurate with this post. One is that the Barnes & Noble across the street from Lincoln Center is going to close down. Granted, I never buy books in a bookstore anymore, with the occasional exception of a visit to Urban Center Books. UCB is probably the best architectural bookstore in the entire city. For that matter, I've never been to a better one anywhere. [Sadly, they're temporarily closed. I hope they find a new location soon.] The best thing about it, which I've lamented elsewhere in regards to the disappearance of the record stores, is that I can be introduced to authors and texts that I wouldn't have found otherwise.

This was also the best thing about the record stores. I could go in and listen to hundreds of records. I found the most obscure, incredible records that way, white label pressings in editions of 500 or less, things no one has ever heard of, to this day, and are genius. The downside might be the help of the store DJ, which did often kind of oblige you to buy a few things whether or not you thought they were great. After you'd chosen a few of his suggestions and he could see that you were a buying customer, he'd be more likely to help you more or play you the better stuff. [Apologies for the male pronoun, but I don't think I encountered a female DJ working in any of the stores. In fact, few women worked in them, period. That is, except for Liquid Sky, where ringing your Rave records through the cash register was the adorable and always very sweet Chloe Sevigny.]

The demise of the Barnes & Noble is a bit of a shame. It had become more than just an outlet for the purchase of books. They'd embraced the libraryish notion of their building as a destination, a meeting place, as a social experience unto itself. It was fantastic that you could sit around on the floor and actually read books there. It occurred to me that in 100 years, there may very well no longer be such a thing as a "book store"--a friend suggested it may be more like 20 years; she may be right. Instead, we'll first just have (robotically?) automated plain box warehouses connected to websites, and eventually, of course, the paper will disappear altogether. I suspect for at least a century or two after that, books will be ceremonially printed on paper in editions of 100 or so for posterity and tradition, but these will just be for the author and close friends.

The other thing was my visit to a couple of websites, one of which, for the designer I'll discuss in this post, employs a virtual gallery environment. It occurs to me most acutely now that the display of physical goods in a retail store is being reinvented virtually. That's nothing new. But as web displays become more elaborate and interactive, I believe they will become significantly more architectural. I hate the use of that word in this context, because I believe "architectural" has been commandeered by a lot of industries that should leave it alone. But I mean that in the sense that the organization of this information will decidedly have an architectural arrangement.

The moral of the story is that I do the vast majority of my research online, as most of us do--even when I've been initially introduced to a design in a physical space like the trade shows. So I've decided to include web design as one of the areas I discuss on here. Henceforth you may look forward to (or be subjected to) reviews of the websites for the companies when I feel there's something worth discussing about them.

The website I'm talking about is for an incredible rug designer named Jan Kath, from Bochum, Germany (which is about thirty miles northeast of Dusseldorf). Since they provide pictures of him, I may as well show you the man himself:

Keep in mind that I probably peruse websites differently than most shoppers. Most shoppers, unless they're window shopping or just browsing around, I suspect are looking for one or two very specific types of items. If that's the case, then a reliable search engine and accurate labeling should be sufficient. When I'm doing research, on the other hand, I want to be certain I've seen everything on the website, to get a complete picture of the designer or company's aesthetic. I doubt most people do that. I'm often struck by how difficult a website makes it to be comprehensive with any certainty, by being circuitous, counter-intuitively arranged, or unnecessarily complex.

As I hinted, Kath's website shows his rugs as if they were paintings on the walls of a virtual gallery that you navigate by clicking around and going through the various rooms. Here's where it gets completely architectural. But virtual architecture is not the same as corporeal architecture, nor should it, in my opinion, be conceived as such. Certain ways to organize visual information might translate well: three-dimensional volumes of space that contain objects and experiences, the expressiveness of their arrangements, and the logic or mood of progression from one to the next.

The importance of a virtual light source (i.e. windows, light fixtures) is debatable. It would depend upon whether or not there are virtual objects requiring light and shadow to articulate them in space. The idea of a virtual window is a bit more complicated. I maintain it's important to alleviate a sense of claustrophobia, but a window onto what? Digital landscape that looks like plastic? I'm not sure that's helping, and besides, it's false and static. A window which reveals your own desktop behind it could be interesting, but I'm not sure browsers can do that without a lot of trouble.

Other things are entirely unnecessary in the virtual universe, primarily because there's no gravity and we have no feet. Even when it becomes possible to totally immerse oneself with a virtual avatar--and we may want the appearance of a lower body so as to not feel disturbingly amputated--they'll do us no practical good. Initially I believe in the digital world we will be eyes, ears, mouth, and hands. The rest of the body is incidental or even an impediment. We're slow on our feet. We've spent the past century and a half trying to overcome this physical limitation with transportation technologies. Why on earth would we want to recreate that limitation in an avatar of ourselves?

The point is that the architectural accommodations for circulation also become more a hindrance than an orienting feature in a virtual world. In fact, they can become
disorienting, which was what I found on Kath's website. Have I been in that room before? What direction am I facing? Part of the problem is that one's movements are not smooth and continuous, but jump ahead to static views. That could easily be solved with higher bandwidths and connection speeds.

But this also calls to mind a problem with Modernism, in general, and the design of modern art galleries, specifically. There is a type of environment more or less universally agreed upon for the viewing of artworks (especially twentieth century works), very much including by me: perfectly white walls, orthogonal and perfectly perpendicular to the ground plane (I'm looking at you, Guggenheim), and I might even propose, ideally--were it ever practical to keep it clean--a perfectly white floor that curves up into the wall plane as it does in a photography studio. I'd like to make note, anyway, that most galleries employ as continuous and smooth a floor surface as they can get for free-standing sculptures, without seams, patterns, or coloration. Typically, it's poured and polished concrete. The ideal environment for art, then, is a perfectly bright white void with no articulation whatsoever, in essence,
the complete absence of architecture.

This is actually antithetical to the requirements of virtual architecture, where orientation in space is its primary function, second only perhaps to the logical, intuitive arrangement of visual information. I'll admit on my first couple of visits to the newly renovated MoMA, with all its (beautiful, I must say) interlocking white blocks concealing and revealing themselves from top, bottom, and sides, I found it a bit confusing and difficult to navigate. There's nothing to articulate one space from the next. And that was traveling on my own feet, with the physical world's gravity, sunlight, and horizon lines.

I'm reminded, in contrast, of how the old
salons used to look, with paintings covering every last inch of wall up to the ceiling. Far too many paintings, in fact. I could never understand how anyone ever appreciated artworks in such overwhelming density.

--No information available, but image found here.
My point is that these rooms had all the architectural character of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that could distinguish one from another. Certainly that's too many unnecessary distractions, and that era is long gone. But now that Modernism is over fifty years old, I can't help thinking we could conceive interior spaces that reject the disorienting white void in favor of articulation but are still entirely conducive to the display and appreciation of artworks.

Kath's virtual gallery also includes an abundance of hallways, vestibules, and other interstitial spaces that caused me to feel disoriented while serving no circulatory purpose. I didn't get lost, I just felt my navigation could have been made easier. The various rooms were not distinct enough from one another for me to get around without an unnecessary amount of concentration, although of course I remembered which rugs were on which "wall."

He calls what he does "Contemporary Rug Art." This is a big and potentially pretentious description to fulfill, but I think Jan Kath has earned it. His work is not only very nicely executed with luxurious materials and craftsmanship, but it's also totally my style. The best reference as to why I say that is to the high praise I was able to shower onto Jason Miller, and I think you'll see why.

I felt a couple of the rugs, which is the way that I can best determine the quality of something like that. What can I say? I'm tactile. They were obviously of the finest, softest silk. The fact that I do like to touch is interesting to note in a post introducing web reviews. I can explore that another time.

First, a couple of abstract pieces. This is the Origins line, here's "Fujisan":

You can click those, they're pretty big.

And "Dune":

His colors are just so subtle, classy, soothing, and beautiful. I love the more traditional rugs I brought back from Istanbul and still think they work better for my own particular home. [I have a couple photos of my living room, but I looked and you can't see the rug very well.] But I love these abstract splashes of color. I'd happily specify these if I were working on a different kind of design project.

Next is the Sliced line, "Haematoid Red":

And "Emerald Green":

If you were looking too closely, or not closely enough, these might appear abstract. But they are in fact based on slices of stone. While they are probably more colorful than one would usually choose for a stone floor (and expensive; they're precious and semi-precious varieties), I love that Kath has taken a cold hard material and turned it into something soft and warm. While it might be interesting to have these in a room with marble floor, I actually think it would be more interesting to see them against a different material like wide wooden planks or even cement. The colors here are rich and vibrant, but tempered by a very natural vibe, at the same time.

He does have the Mauro line and a Classic line I thought to lead in with, which use traditional patterns in very interestingly monochrome colors. But they're fairly easy to imagine. My absolute favorites, the ones I saw at the show that utterly turned my head, are his Erased Classic rugs. This concept is totally brilliant. The most basic, which appears to have been worn down over centuries, is "Ferrara Rocked":

Definitely click that.
I'm sure I don't need to explain this, but when you look closely, it is a brand new, totally intact rug. The worn away pattern is executed in plush, hand-cut pile of the foreground color.

Then there's "Vintage Roma," which appears to have been eaten by moths or something:

And "Roma Vendetta," which appears to have been shredded, revealing a deep, rich red underneath:

As I mentioned above, I love these for the same reasons I loved Jason Miller's work. They take concepts opposed by conventional notions of Beauty, namely destruction and decay, and make them into aesthetic gestures. Brilliant...and yet, they're undoubtedly beautiful on their own merits.

With the Radi Deluxe line, he offers a few of these in far more shocking color combinations, and with long luxurious fringe that my vacuum cleaner would eat like Cookie Monster at an Oreo factory. Here's "Milano Radi Raved":

And "Ferrara Radi Rocket":

These are a bit too Radi-cal for most rooms, I suspect, but I can definitely envision a wild interior that would welcome them. These in particular made me hope for a next step along these lines. I'd love two very different traditional rug patterns, in different but complementary colors, where one is shredded or worn away to reveal the other underneath it. It's the kind of thing that would necessitate advanced weaving technologies, and of course you know I love that.

Jan Kath's work with rugs is some of the most interesting I've seen since Nani Marquina's, although very different in character. I'll very much look forward to seeing where he goes next.

©2010, Ryan Witte

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