Retake the Future: Deb Verhoeven on Crowdfunding Academic Research

Hips 4 Hipsters, Research My World 2014. ‘Led by seasoned campaigner Dr Mel Thomson, Hips 4 Hipsters aims to develop and test new treatments for superbug bacterial implant infections.’

Originally published on RMIT Blog Central, 31 July 2014.

In 2013, Deakin University ventured into the world of crowdfunding. On Pozible, the Australian version of the highly popular Kickstarter platform, Deakin launched Research My World, an initiative to crowdfund eight research projects requiring small to medium amounts of funding.

The results were outstanding. In the initial campaign, six of the eight projects were not only fully funded but exceeded their targets. A second round in 2013 saw a further two out of three projects funded. In 2014, a third campaign was launched: five projects, all fully funded.

In an inherently conservative research environment, Research My World is commendable. It taps into the power of online networks to harness public interest and enhance the relevance of academic institutions. That’s no small feat in a time when, as we were reminded at the recent RMIT Web Conference, universities are confronted with all sorts of predictions, gloomy or otherwise, about their future in the digital age.

Crowdfunding is the practice of raising funding for any type of project by asking for multiple smaller donations from the public (urban regeneration schemes and political campaigns have been successfully crowdfunded). Crowdfunding has demonstrated its value by raising awareness for projects that have not been championed by traditional avenues (for example, films rejected by studios have found support via crowdfunding).

The concept attracts good and bad press. Adherents say it taps directly into financial and emotional support from a public wearied by corporate spin, while detractors claim it’s often a platform for scam or joke projects (like the campaign to make a batch of potato salad, which raised $8000), and that because of this, even genuine projects risk prejudice by association.

There was probably an element of risk with Deakin’s initiative, the first in Australia. However, the results speak for themselves, and these are not only financial. Research My World led to what the project leaders call ‘digital capability’: the new-found confidence of researchers to use online and social networks to promote and improve academic work.

Professor Deb Verhoeven has led the project through its two-year development period. She is Professor and Chair of Media and Communication at Deakin University, and previously held the role of Director of the AFI Research Collection at RMIT.

Simon Sellars spoke to Professor Verhoeven about Research My World and its risks, benefits and possible future outcomes for all universities.

Were you surprised at the overwhelming success Research My World has achieved? 

To be surprised would imply that we had expectations! We went into the first round of funding with the view that we were embarking on an experiment. Without really discussing it openly, I think we all believed that around a 60% success rate would indicate a successful experiment and we were thrilled that we exceeded this. The most recent round of Research My World achieved a 100% success rate, so I hope this indicates we’ve improved our techniques with experience.

At the institutional level, how supportive was Deakin of the campaign? 

Across the board at an institutional level, Deakin was fully supportive and Research My World could not have succeeded without this all-of-university effort. Some individuals were sceptical, which is to be expected. I hope we’ve been able to bring them round.

It’s been suggested the concept of crowdfunding has a ‘trust problem’, and that many people see it as a platform for scammers, ‘quackery’ and half-baked ideas. Did you have to overcome such credibility issues when pitching the idea to stakeholders, researchers or backers?

I’d like to see the evidence base for those assertions. As I mentioned earlier, there were, and I suspect always will be, doubters. It’s important to remember that this is a nascent field. It is very dynamic and as it changes, so, too, will public perception.

I don’t think ‘trust’ was a critical issue for us. We deliberately focussed campaigns on the researchers, each of whom was passionate and committed, often for an extended part of their career, to solving a particular problem. I believe they earned the public’s trust, and hence their success.

It’s also been suggested that crowdfunding is unlikely to fund 100% of an academic research project. Is Research My World, then, a game changer?

Crowdfunding itself is a game changer but not because it will fully fund projects, which is possible, but won’t be typical of crowdfunded research. It’s a gamechanger because it repositions the relationship between universities and their publics. This is about the emergence and development of collaborative economies and research practices, and not just about switching one source of funding for another.

Kenya Healthy Minds, Research My World 2014. 

‘Led by Elijah Marangu, this project aims to identify gaps in mental health care in Kenya. The results will be used to inform capacity building strategies to improve mental health care in Kenya, in primary health care settings.’

How important was marketing strategy to the campaign? Did you work closely with Deakin’s marketing and communications department to promote Research My World? 

We did work with Deakin marketing as well as Deakin’s PR staff and Deakin Research’s media unit. But the brunt of communication effort was left with the researcher’s themselves.

You’ve presented some interesting statistics around this, which suggests social media was crucial to the researchers’ promotional efforts. For example, across 45 days, the campaign generated over 200 stories in print, TV and online media. This included more than 3000 tweets. 

While that indicates traditional media is not quite dead and an integrated approach to promotion is needed, it also points to the power of social networks. How receptive, initially, were the researchers to working with such tools?

Most had limited exposure to social media, but their responses during the campaign differed wildly. Some were in complete denial – a couple of projects didn’t engage at all in social media and didn’t meet their targets. Others were completely immersed in a variety of social media that has continued beyond the life of the campaign.

There were interesting disciplinary preferences. Scientists, for example, were especially uncomfortable mixing their private and professional social media profiles.

The pilot project report for Research My World talks about building ‘digital capacity’, with researchers noting ‘their newfound social media skills as an intangible benefit from their involvement’. I’ve been designing and implementing social media training for RMIT staff, and I’ve found the concept of ‘digital capacity’ to be a very useful way into that.

I like to think of it as ‘social media training by stealth’. One of the key outcomes for researchers was their expanded online profile and the belief that this had opened professional opportunities for them. This is evident in their feedback to us:

‘I’m now more skilled (but with more room to grow) in the use of social media. I’ve also become more outward looking – more aware of who’s doing what beyond the confines of Deakin and my world of research.’

‘I was not a tweeter previously and now am. I have also set up a Facebook site and put more effort into engaging through Research Gate. I have set up a Twitter widget on my unit for Trimester 2. I think this has catalysed me to take the first – the biggest and the hardest – step in becoming digitally literate, specifically around my own profile. This is excellent.’

‘I have made important professional relationships entirely on Twitter that will stand me in good stead to form partnerships for ‘proper’ research grants from the NHMRC/ARC, particularly from the Indigenous Health Care community.’

Quotes from researchers cited in the Research My World pilot project report.

What challenges should universities be aware of before exploring crowdfunding?

The key challenge is to ensure there is high-level ownership of the initiative. Without this birds-eye perspective, it’s difficult to coordinate all the required aspects of university operations so they can work collaboratively towards a successful campaign.

It worked for Deakin that we also had an ‘academic champion’ who could represent the project to researchers, as well as across a range of administrative functions.

Retake Melbourne, Research My World 2013. 

Led by James McArdle, this project aims to crowdfund ‘an innovative app which lets you travel through time using iconic photographs of Melbourne’.

This interview was brought to you by Creative Communities, RMIT’s Web Policy Awareness Campaign. This week, the spotlight is on the University’s Social Media Policy

Check out RMIT’s Social media for research, teaching and collaboration instruction and Social media for campaigns instruction for more tips on using social networks to promote campaigns and academic research.


Nebula: Portable Art


Designed by Andrew Maynard Architects, Nebula is a mobile gallery and workspace allowing artists with disabilities to bring their work into the wider community. Simon Sellars talks to the architect about this portable project.

Photography: Nic GranleeseJorge de Araujo

An abridged version of this interview appeared in Architectural Review Asia Pacific #125: Architecture and the Arts. The full interview first published in Vagant magazine, 02/2012.

What was the rationale for creating a mobile art space?
It originated at the Art Day South Studio in Dingley, run by Arts Access Victoria for artists with intellectual disabilities. Dingley is on the suburban edge of Melbourne, and the staff didn’t like the fact that the artists are confined to the suburban edges when in fact they’re doing really interesting artwork that deserves a wider audience, in the wider community. So they said, “Let’s allow ourselves to be adaptable and to move around, to have a safe controlled space that will allow us to take this work to people.”

 It’s a very democratic space.
The brief called for flexibility – for a mobile art space that can also be a theatre space, a meeting place, a gallery, a workshop space. I called myself an ‘editor’ on this job rather than an architect, because, really, I interpreted a wad of drawings that the artists produced about what kind of space they’d like to work in. I was somewhat intimidated because I had to ask: “What is my role? Is it a conduit?” But on reflection, I’m really happy now because I’ve realised that is my role and it’s a valuable one.

That idea of you as the ‘editor’ is very intriguing in that it runs in counterpoint to the traditional idea of the architect as top-down arbitrator of design.
Yes. The project’s artistic director Rhian Hinkley put pictures of different caravans and things like that in front of the artists and said, “If you had something like this, what would it look like?” And from that, these amazing drawings came out, with lots of really punchy colour, lots of strong, hard lines. About four or five drew this gesture on the side of the caravan, like a canopy, which was great, because if you have these hard surfaces – this wall coming down to become a floor – and then, independent of that, you have a canopy coming down, that means you’ve got different levels and you can negotiate the edge of the structure.


The discourse around disability and architecture is problematic. You never hear about architects designing for people with disabilities.
A lot of architects think of it as a limitation to creativity – I’m no different. But what we made very clear from the start is that we’d like to take the things we see as a constraint and try to subvert them, to turn them into an opportunity. Nebula’s handrail, to allow disabled access, is an example of that: “Right. Well, if I have to put bloody handrails on it, it’s going to serve a secondary function.” So, instead of just hiding them underneath, we tethered them together to make a big ‘bench top’ for the artists to work on.

There was a nice irony in launching it at Federation Square, which has been criticised for being an inaccessible public space to people with disabilities.
Yes. The Art Day South people were aware of that. The location of the launch was partly a political act, as is the nature of, I think, all transient city space. But it’s not a negative response. What they’ve engineered is something incredibly positive, and I love how it really subverts the idea of ownership of the space, and then the threshold of entry: who’s invited into it and who’s not. Since the launch we’ve had people asking if they could hire Nebula for other events but the answer is “no”, because it’s the artists’ territory. If you’re invited you can come in, but it’s up to the artists to dictate that.
What they also want to do with Nebula is ‘ambush’ places. They want to go to public parks and set it up as a performance space: lift one edge of the space and do a performance. But also to set it up outside the football, where there are long lines of people waiting to get into the stadium. I reckon they should just lift the edges up and get people to walk through it on the way to the stadium, so that the lines of people actually participates with the project in creating an interesting public event.


I agree that as a temporary space it’s very interesting. When it was at Federation Square, kids passing by sat in its shadow and started playing spontaneously. It seemed to relax them and draw them into a new social interaction.
And then if you lift the edge of the canopy, suddenly they’d be able to sit on it without even thinking about it. Architects are notorious for saying “I meant to do that!”, but it’s great when you can allow for, and admit, unplanned events. I think most architects underestimate their political role, whether they intend to or not, but deep down I think even the most ruthless bastard of an architect has got this broader idea about their contribution to the city’s spaces that other professions just don’t have.

It’s a hard paradigm shift for architects though, to think beyond the idea of designing ‘the monument’, and to think about transient space and objects and structures that won’t be around in 20 or 30 years’ time.
Yes, we architects really do have to get over ourselves, and to start to push ourselves beyond that idea of the form maker who creates the sculpture in space, as though that is actually some sort of generous gesture to the public. It’s that old school idea of philanthropy: putting a sculpture at the end of an axis to make that public axis strong. Well, I mean, hang on – that’s bullshit. Creating a nice little community space that’s well connected with just a simple seat and a tree in it is probably far more inclusive than this idea of building a monument to the people. Talk about authoritarian – that’s just Stalinist, isn’t it?

Ghosts in the Buildings: Rachel Armstrong on Living Architecture


Architectural researcher Rachel Armstrong has had an interesting career trajectory. She began her career as a general medical practitioner and has since worked as a television presenter and as technical adviser to renowned performance artists Orlan and Stelarc. She has also had a science fiction novel published, The Gray’s Anatomy. Currently, she is a senior lecturer in the School of Architecture and Construction at the University of Greenwich, and works with Neil Spiller in the AVATAR Research Group at The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment. She spoke to Simon Sellars about her research into ‘living architecture’: using model artificial cells to create responsive buildings that can overcome harsh 21st century environmental challenges.

This is the extended version of the interview that appeared in Architectural Review Australia #123: The Resilient City.

All photography by Rachel Armstrong.

SIMON SELLARS: You came to work in architectural research from a medical and science background. Are there any parallels between the disciplines?

RACHEL ARMSTRONG: Architecture is very similar to medicine. It is idealistic, optimistic and requires technology and the application of science to create change, but rather than being focused on a single body, it applies to a greater number of people by shaping their environment. In my view, medicine’s engagement with environmental health is really still stuck in the paradigms of the public health movement in the 1830s. Unlike other forms of medicines that have witnessed technological developments in their practice, public health hasn’t had such advances for intervention and I believe that architecture is our environmental technology, but we really don’t do anything with it beyond the traditional expectations that we hold.

SS: Does this mean we need to question our assumptions about what architecture is – or can be?

RA: Yes. The most pressing thing that is needed in architecture is to go back to first principles. Coming from a non-architectural background, I regard my role as being one that challenges the basic assumptions of the design and engineering of environments. For example, we do not make enough use of the geo-engineering scale of architecture, as a metropolitan landscape that through its very design could create wind tunnels that could be harnessed to produce renewable energy. We also need to establish how we can best prepare for common human challenges and equip our architecture students to have flexible frameworks for problem solving. It saddens me deeply when bright, young, idealistic architecture students are turned into cynical Mac Monkeys by schools of architecture that serve as factories to make human interface technicians for the construction industry.

From a very practical perspective, architecture has to urgently consider how flexible infrastructures could help our cities evolve to adapt and respond to the changing needs and challenges that our urban populations are going to have to face in the next few decades. The next challenges are to develop new frameworks for problem solving, such as ‘systems thinking’ as a way of addressing architectural challenges in the real world. Architecture has become so closely allied to industry that despite the best intentions for ‘sustainable’ development, we’re ending up with green lipstick on the industrial gorilla’s lips rather than finding genuinely new ways of making.

SS: You’ve mentioned that the design profession needs ‘credibility’ and ‘feasibility’. Has it lost its way?

RA: Design has not lost its way but industrial processes enslave it, which makes creativity in the workplace a challenging notion. Design education is also struggling with some rather entrenched and outdated forms of learning that are focused on formalism and technological tools, rather than design strategy. All students need a broader education in this day and age, because there is a general crisis in education owing to funding and employment opportunities. There is a fundamental shift taking place in the way that the world works. When everything was neatly sitting in an industrial Cartesian universe, standard methods of design were possible. Now everything is complex and it’s requiring new ways of thinking and problem solving. Science does not have all the answers but some of these new, emerging biotech technologies offer real challenges in ways of thinking. Architects now have to start to grapple with a new tool set, as well as mastering the current approaches if they are to get qualitatively different outcomes – and it’s vital that they do! It’s a very challenging time!

SS: In your own work, you design with protocells. What are these? Artificial cells?

RA: Yes, although the terminology is controversial. Some describe them as fully artificial cells, cells which technically don’t exist yet! However, protocells, precursors to fully artificial cells, are real and do exist in the laboratory. I see them as not being technically alive as they don’t have any DNA but they do possess life-like qualities being sensitive to their environment and can also be programmed chemically. The protocells I use in my experiments are self-assembling agents based on the chemistry of oil and water. They assemble themselves from a spontaneous field of self-organising energy and can exist as oil droplets in a water medium, or water-based droplets in an oil medium. There’s a range of different kinds of ‘species’ composed from different recipes.


Hylozoic ground flask containing protocells.

SS: How would you introduce them into an architectural environment?

RA: You take the basic ingredients like you would a cooking recipe, mix them together, then introduce them into an appropriate design context. Protocells need an aqueous environment, so fluid infrastructures or water-based environments are necessary for the full range of living properties of these systems. I’m currently collaborating with colleagues to develop protocell ‘birthing’ machines, using 3D printing technologies.

SS: How does that relate specifically to ways of making contemporary architecture?

RA: By exploiting the way that modern architecture is constructed. All buildings possess a set of structural ‘bones’ made from steel and concrete, which are draped with an exterior surface, or cladding wrapped like a ‘skin’ around them. Since concrete chemically strengthens with time, it’s possible to change the bone structure of a modern building by pruning and extending the concrete framework, using carbon nanotube-based materials, without needing to raze the building to the ground. The altered bone structure can accommodate a new skin, which could be replaced with environmentally active exteriors. These could be thought of as ‘living’ claddings, as opposed to traditional inert surfaces. Living claddings are designed to contain a range of synthetic biology-based technologies, which inhabit building surfaces and participate in the urban ecology of the building through active physical and chemical processes.

SS: What are some examples of this process in action?

RA: Well, living cladding can produce heat and provide cooling for buildings; it can modulate sunlight or trap carbon dioxide and other pollutants from the atmosphere. Living architecture is a new way of thinking about how to solve problems in the material world. It offers synthetic biological tools as the basis to make this change. I’ve got a TED Book on living architecture coming out on the Kindle, which explores the recent Japanese tsunami and asks how different the outcome would have been if the buildings were equipped with living materials. My short story on this, Japan 2060,accompanies the TED Book and could be thought of as a short SF narrative.

SS I’m interested in the role of science fiction in your work. What do you take from it, and can science fiction play a role in architectural discourse in general? There are plenty of SF stories featuring cities as living organisms. Do these generate research material for you?

RA: Yes, of course! All disciplines need an arena for thought experiments. I tend to identify with, rather than draw from, what I read in SF novels. I do not read as much science fiction as I would like to, but I actually lovereading old scientific notebooks, as they reveal alternative ways of thinking and expose the kinds of pretensions that we habitually fall into.

SS: You gave a TED talk on rebuilding the sinking foundations of Venice with protocell technology, which has garnered quite a bit of attention. Could you explain how it would work?

RA: In this case, protocells offer a completely new approach to an issue that has not been satisfactorily resolved by machine-based methods. Venice is a suitable site to test protocells, because it offers ready access to water, requires a material solution, would benefit from environmental responsiveness and warrants an intervention that could clearly be distinguished from an industrial intervention. Venice was built on the soft delta soils in the harshest environment on earth, the shoreline, where the fabric of the buildings are repeatedly battered by the elements, flooded by the periodic aqua alta and desiccated by the sun. This ferociously unstable environment poses an insurmountable set of conditions for materials that are effectively inert. On a geological timescale, it is worth remembering the tempestuous forces of nature eventually subsume mountains. Venice has weathered its environment for three centuries and its unique buildings are already being actively eroded. Walking along the waterways reveals buildings that have literally been digested into dust fragments, which has led to all kinds of acts of architectural desperation, like fist-sized holes in the wall plugged up with concrete, rubble, rubbish, even chewing gum.


Venice waterway.

SS I distinctly remember the chewing gum when I was in Venice years ago! It was kind of disgusting; I assumed it was the work of a peculiar gang of Venetian vandals. Are you suggesting that traditional architectural methods have failed Venice?

RA: Yes. The traditional architectural approach to meeting the challenges of hostile environments is to create the most effective possible barrier between nature and human activity, using durable and inert materials. That has worked sufficiently effectively for human development, but on an evolutionary timescale it’s not how the most resilient structures persist. Along the edges of the waterways is an indigenous system able to respond to the constant challenges of a hostile environment. Algae, shellfish and bacteria have claimed a construction process within this harsh terrain, accreting, secreting, remoulding and sculpting the materials of their surroundings to create tailored micro-environments. It’s like an unruly garden, finding opportunities to extend into new territories and vigorously pursuing easily accessible sources of nutrients. Consequently, the presence of biological systems in the waterways poses a threat to the integrity of the architecture. Protocell technology, in combination with synthetic biology, could offer a new kind of approach to shape these natural processes and redirect their activity symbiotically in an architecturally relevant way, for example, by growing an artificial limestone reef underneath to stop the city sinking into the soft mud.

SS: Do you see your work as a continuation of the standard architectural practice of looking to nature for inspiration?

RA: Yes. I guess that the spectrum of biomimicry-based practices would be considered as part of the design spectrum that my work and experiments belong to. I do not really regard nature as purely an inspiration but also a resource that we can literally plug into, connect and negotiate with. Nature is not ‘out there’ and untouchable but a very real part of the fabric around us. Our cities need to work with nature, but also exceed the limitations of the natural world if we are going to witness humane or positive human development. The law of the wild is not good enough – we have to do better.

While nature is extremely smart, and we should learn from it, it does not have our interests at heart, so we must give ourselves the permission to design outcomes, engineer biological systems and believe that these technologies have the capacity to exceed the potential of what already exists. This is the pretension behind synthetic biology – we must assume that we can do better than nature – or we shouldn’t interfere at all. This is not to assert that we do this at all costs. Using industrial technologies to subordinate and poison the natural world with is not good for anyone. The way forward is to develop a mutual relationship, and I believe that this is the principle that will be embedded in our new practices of making.

SS: At the Bio: Fiction festival in Vienna, which you presented at, it was suggested that there should be a ‘call for a new ethical engagement’ around the practice of synthetic biology, especially ‘concerning the question of how and whether we should act simply because we can’. What are your thoughts on the ethical dimensions of your work with living systems?

RA: The ethical dimensions of synthetic biology and protocell technology are essential. We need to develop responsible new ways of ‘making’ that have sensible regulatory mechanisms in place that enable us to do this. This is particularly important when the ambition is to apply these technologies to challenges where people live. What’s interesting about synthetic biology and protocells is that because they are living, they are inherently unpredictable. This comes with the territory. The unpredictability is unlikely to produce something really alien, because the outcomes exist within a narrow solution that has been set, but these outcomes must be considered and strategies need to be in place that are designed to deal with the outcomes.

Since the protocell system in particular has been designed from a bottom-up perspective, we understand how these systems work to such a degree that we also know how to persuade and direct them. They respond to negotiation as well as top-down imperatives. This is true of nature, too. That’s why this kind of technology is important: we will have to redefine our responsibility to the natural world. Nurturing and controlling the technology within acceptable degrees of freedom and authorship will be an inherent part of developing the right kinds of ‘sustainable’ approaches!

SS: I was reading about protocell applications to cities in hot climates and in generating new energy sources. Can living architecture make cities more sustainable or resilient?

RA: Living materials are at their earliest stages – it’s not yet a revolution in making. Realistically, I think new materials would work alongside traditional materials and even traditional construction approaches, where their role would be to remediate and improve the quality of the environment.


Protocells making crystals due to environmental changes.

SS: In AR 123, David Neustein argues that ‘sustainability’ and ‘resilience’ are overworked terms in architectural discourse. Do you agree?

RA: Many biologically inspired words have been assimilated by architecture as a formalist style, so they are high on aspiration and low on delivery. With ‘resilience’, it’s a better term than sustainability, as it implies that buildings themselves have spontaneously dynamic features. I personally prefer the term ‘evolvability’ but until the principles are developed outside of an industrial framework of practice, the ambition will remain grand and metaphorical. Instead, it becomes a rhetorical distraction to cover up a stasis in methods of practice. Many of the arguments are metaphorical or poetic, not literal references to the processes underpinning the drivers of change. There’s nothing wrong with metaphor and poetry, but it’s not the same as having a solid science and engineering framework, where aspirations can actually become reality. The liberal use of biological metaphors is essentially a way to rationalise why the very idea of sustainability is at least 200 years too late. Today, most sustainable or green solutions serve to preserve the status quo, put a spin on, and justify, industrial paradigms of making over celebrating small variations on a theme. Less of more of the same, no matter how beautifully presented, is not different!

SS: What’s the first step in changing that paradigm?

RA: The first thing to do is to clean up the mess we’ve spectacularly made. Then we need to find ways to work with what we’ve got, invest in designing flexible infrastructures and practice extreme forms of recycling buildings! Protocell technology and synthetic biology interventions could be used as part of a holistic practice in approaching urban development and regeneration. My exploratory work with AStudio architects in London suggests that it may be possible to recycle a building in situ by incorporating protocell technology and other synthetic biology approaches, so that the new spaces are fit for purpose and can also make a positive environmental impact.

In fact, we need a fundamentally different approach to making, since the models we’re using – industrial models – just consume and do not return useful things back into the environment to be used in other ways. Current sustainable ambitions are towards zero impact on the planet, but actually that’s not good enough, even if it was achievable through current practices. Zero-carbon approaches are only used in a minority of buildings, which make very little impact upon the global south, especially in areas of rapid urbanisation.

SS: Outside of resilience, what terminology best encapsulates the embodied potential of urban space?

RA: If I had to choose a word that best characterises the processes necessary for future cities, it would be ‘metabolic’, the chemical systems that underpin evolution. The materials and practices that could embody this approach currently exist, mainly in forms of social organisation where the environment and its communities are interconnected, similar to how Richard Lewontin describes in the co-evolution of organisms and their environment. In general terms, you can use living materials to imagine how it may be possible to create an internal physiology of a building, where the walls are ‘flesh’ that process water, waste and heat, and need feeding and their ‘fuel’ products collecting. Building surfaces that metabolise, like leaves taking sunlight and carbon dioxide and converting them into liquid fuel, are really not that far away in our technological future. In desert areas, we could use heat from the sun to drive chemical processes on the surfaces of buildings, where the materials themselves act as catalysts and collectors of the processes, such as splitting of minerals – which require very high temperatures – to release water molecules or hydrogen.

SS: Can we consider this a kind of open source approach to city-making?

RA: Yes! Because of their ‘life-like’ properties, living materials have the capacity to respond to local challenges in niche environments. This underpins the need to give distributed access to these technologies, to make the basic recipes generally available globally, so that communities can customise them with their own local resources and make them in a process that would resemble something they already know how to do – like cooking.


Protocell installation, Venice 2011.

SS: Is the next step developing artificial life as an enabling agent in architecture? Will there soon be an age of ‘intelligent architecture’?

RA: What a lovely question. I’d say that ‘artificial life’ is already an enabling agent in architecture – the technology is real. It just depends on what you mean by ‘life’. I agree with researchers such as Simon Ellington, who say that it is irrelevant in an experimental setting whether a system is ‘alive’ or not – the important thing to ask is how the system challenges your understanding of the world. Using this approach to architectural practice, I’d say that for all intents and purposes that artificial life is pretty real. Philip Beesley has been dubbed the first architect to work with artificial life, referring to the complexity of the cybernetic systems he designed with engineer, Rob Gorbet. I don’t think we have to wait for any more technology to give us permission to think about this possibility. To all extents and purposes, the moment is already here! The big challenge is to get the blue-sky science – and blue-sky architecture – into a form that is publicly accessible, so that we can start to develop principles of best, responsible and humane practice. I think it is important that design and thought experiments work together to create new opportunities for practice and commerce. I guess that is why I consider my own portfolio to be a work of ‘practical science fiction’: not to be limited by what is possible, but to be reinformed by it so that I can move meaningfully into exploring new possibilities.

Currently, our architecture is knee-jerk style reflexive at best, in terms of its appreciation of its surroundings but I don’t see why there would not be properly intelligent architecture one day. In some ways we could think of bacteria as already being an architecture and ‘alternative consciousness’ that encircles the planet. Since we cannot speak bacteria, we may need to develop a portfolio of chemical languages to negotiate terms of engagement with them at some point. Similarly, we would also need to find ways to communicate with truly intelligent architecture if we are expecting to hold a meaningful dialogue with it in the future.

SS: Will buildings of the future be ‘alive’, in the cognitive sense?

RA: Well, over the course of this century, aspects of buildings will be regarded as alive in the way our gardens are alive. Should we be able to figure out how material intelligence is encoded and accessed, we may then consider them intelligent in the same way our pets are. Beyond that, if we can start to upload some of our personal qualities into complex material contexts, there may be uncanny features of buildings that remind us of ourselves. Perhaps we’ll even leave a little of ourselves behind in the places where we live and travel through.

There will be ghosts in the buildings – literally!

Visualising the City: Ash Keating and Dorian Farr on Speculative Art and Architecture in Christchurch


Ash Keating in Christchurch. Photo courtesy SCAPE.

In 2010, Melbourne artist Ash Keating produced Gardensity, an installation for the SCAPE Biennial of Art in Public Space.

Gardensity took the form of a fictional property development and was originally supposed to comment on Christchurch’s ambition to encourage more people to live in the city centre, but took on untold significance when the September quake hit.

Keating and collaborator, architect Dorian Farr, from Studio 505, explain the ideas behind the project.

All images are taken from Gardensity (2010) by Ash Keating in collaboration with Dorian Farr, Patrick Gavin, Chris Toovey and David Campbell.

SIMON SELLARS: How did you come up with the concept for Gardensity?

ASH KEATING: In late 2009 I was invited to do a proposal for SCAPE. We had to respond to this territorial rationale, which was basically about challenging the fabric of Christchurch and coming up with possibilities for public artwork in the city centre. There was a gap site, a vacant site, in Cathedral Square, and Gardensity was originally going to work physically there, like an actual three-dimensional sculptural installation.

However, it became clear that we weren’t going to be able to get permission to use any vacant site, so I started to rethink how I could do the project without making physical artwork, and that’s when it became an animation, designed as if it was put together by a developer, alongside a website and Facebook page.

SS: You then changed focus: instead of commenting on possibilities for public art, you began to respond to plans for the city centre. Pre-quake, there were 8000 people living in the CBD and the council wanted 30,000 by 2026. How did you critique that?


DORIAN FARR: Well, looking at Cathedral Square, we saw it was potentially a great space but lacked any civic vibe at all. It seemed just a tourist spot where you’d take some pictures of the cathedral and move on. With Gardensity, the idea was sort of like a vertical master plan off a very small base. There would be a series of buildings linked vertically, creating a visual epicentre for the city.

We were really thinking about this medium of visualisation and how useful it is to architects, developers and politicians to explain and present ideas to the public.

AK: We were responding to the plan honestly but also exaggerating, I guess, as a provocation. That’s why certain elements are quite grand in scale, alongside others offering public use – digital public libraries, winter gardens and student apartments. It’s a mixed-use proposal: people staying, working, studying and living in the city.

“Gardensity proposes one future vision for inner-city living in Christchurch. It is a contemporary art + architecture + media collaboration in response to Christchurch City Council’s ‘Project: Central City’ – a plan to increase the population living in Christchurch’s central city core, from less than 8,000 currently, to more than 30,000 living within the Four Avenues by 2026.”

SS: I’m told Christchurch was badly in need of such a program. Apparently, there was too much retail space and not enough dedicated to salubrious social interaction. Did you look to successful models from other cities?

AK: Not really, although if you placed our building in the cityscape of Beijing or Seoul it might look like something that could be built in six months’ time, but because it’s out of context, it seems absurd and not necessarily possible.

It’s not unlike the Guggenheim phenomenon, or Federation Square: this place that draws a hell of a lot of negative comment but is also photographic and involves the public.

SS: Of course, Federation Square was attacked for rubbing up rudely against Melbourne’s heritage fabric, yet became accepted over time, absorbed into the mainstream. A project that can spark that kind of public debate about what is good architecture is mostly valuable.

DF: I’ve got to say that we did mean it to look a bit ridiculous. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that that was our idea of what architecture could be! We gave the renders some detail and put materials on it to make it look real, but it wasn’t about any of those moves. We were really pushing up to the edge of that.

SS: How long was the website in the public domain before the first quake hit?

AK: It was online probably only a week or two before, as was the Facebook page, which had a few hundred people signed up at that point. Now it’s got 4500 and a lot of them are ex-pats, who see the page and think it’s run by the city of Christchurch, become ‘friends’ with us and then realise they’re in this project – our project!

SS: That’s interesting in terms of the animation. When you screened it in the faux developer’s showroom outside the art gallery, it must have been challenging for locals to see it just across the road from ruined buildings. Was it satisfying to actually draw people into that concept via the Facebook page, encouraging interaction as if it was real?

AK: That was part of the illusion we wanted to create. I wanted it to be like a developer-style showroom set up out the front of any gap site anywhere. It would have been really surreal if the earthquake didn’t happen.

It was meant to showcase this huge new development, in this fake showroom in Cathedral Square, but then the February quake hit and the CBD was bent out of shape. All bets were off.

DF: Something we hoped to come out of it with was a discussion about the city, and public ownership of the city, about how people feel about their public spaces.

SS: What sort of issues informed discussion of public space pre-quake?

AK: Well, Christchurch needed to be more pedestrian friendly – it was very car-orientated. And then there were parts that were either all industrial or all superstore. It was all about challenging and rethinking how Christchurch operated as a city.

SS: After the quake, your online forum became a conductor for discussion about the city. It seems a conversation people wanted to have, given Christchurch’s traumatised state. It’s good that the revised Central City Plan has drawn on so much public opinion, because it obviously taps into that same sentiment.

AK: That’s it. But it took the second earthquake for that to really hit home, and for the council to realise that, I think. Before the first earthquake, you could tell there had been this huge problem with transparency and the council not listening to people.

And then they moved slowly towards the new plan, and since then it’s been rapid change, although the process is still not perfect. They did eventually bring in a lot of architects to discuss what was right for the city…

DF: …but whether they will actually implement that is another matter.

AK: At least they brought the public into the conversation, and they’re smart to do so, because if people are going to stay in Christchurch they need to feel empowered. I think most people had felt that the council had previously made all the decisions without conferring with anyone.


SS: Do you have optimism for the rebuilding process?

AK: The thing about my role with the website and forum was always to be a facilitator and not present my own views, because that would turn people off. I’m an outsider, so I don’t necessarily think my views as someone that doesn’t live there are entirely relevant.

SS: OK, to rephrase: is there optimism in the air?

AK: People are definitely optimistic that their city will get back on its feet, although there is a sense it’s being rushed through way too quickly. People haven’t even been able to pick up their belongings before having the whole city replanned for them, and also they don’t necessarily have the time and resources and energy to be able to work.

SS: Ash, you were in the city when the first quake hit. Tell me about that.

AK: I was staying in the third level of the Arts Centre as an artist in residence. There was one other person staying there, and at 4.30am we were literally thrown out of bed. I tried to get to a doorway but was thrown out of that, and then I ran down the stairs and was thrown halfway down the stairs! I just thought the quake was going to keep going and get bigger and bigger, and then it stopped. At first light, I went to the central city, took photos and had a look at it all.

That was before it was cordoned off an hour later. I went back to the Arts Centre a few days later and a few heavy aftershocks happened, so they said I couldn’t stay there anymore and put me up at the YMCA. I was there for three weeks and every night the building would shake…

DF: I spoke to him on Skype and he was white faced, emotionally shaken. But you know, we were really scared that people were going to want to kill us, we really were, because we had designed this fictional building that looked like it was going to fall over anyway, even without an earthquake, and the next thing the quake happens. The whole thing kind of touched on people’s nerves about fragile buildings.

SS: What made you stick with it?

AK: I stayed around because I just thought everyone would want to talk about the future of the city within hours of it happening. Previously, we’d hoped Gardensity would be this catalyst for debate about the future of the city, and then the quake trumped us. So, at that point I stayed on and went to town meetings and promoted the project and was trying to get people aware of it.

DF: Let’s be honest, putting aside all the destruction for a second, Gardensity did become more interesting in the context of the earthquake. Being online, it was unobtrusive but accessible.

SS: The public reaction was strong – responses in your online archive run to almost 50,000 words!

AK: Yes. There are people that clearly think that this is a project that is going to be built in the city and just can’t believe it. And then there are others that really get it, who think it’s a great idea to push the boundaries of what the future of the city might be like. Almost everyone had an opinion on the architecture…

DF: The design for the cityscape was ‘play’ based – in colour, in form – like a set of disparate objects picked up off a kindergarten floor. It was meant to engage people on a really simple level, not a sophisticated one. We really wanted to get an emotional reaction.

Ash Keating’s SCAPE artist talk. “Ash Keating’s delivery of Gardensity as part of the 6th SCAPE could not be more apt or timely for Christchurch. First designed prior to the initial September 4 Canterbury earthquake, Gardensity is envisioned as a fictional property development which houses new condensed, sustainable living located in Cathedral Square.”

SS: Regarding the theme of the SCAPE panel ‘Imagined Futures’, which you participated in, can public art help people re-engage with the city? Can that happen in Christchurch?

AK: I’d like for that to happen in Christchurch, but I guess I’m less optimistic about that than I am about the city being rebuilt in a short amount of time. I’m sure that the city will be resurrected well before they envisage bringing something creative in like public art.

In a place like Christchurch, it comes down to the fact that it’s all about tight budgets now. Everything planned or proposed will be under the microscope because it’s a city on its knees, and anything that’s done needs to be useful and responding to that environment. I just don’t think that the creatives can win the argument.

SS: In your archive, a lot of people saw Melbourne as a model for the rebuilding of Christchurch.

DF: Yes. People do admire the moves made in Melbourne over the last 20 years: centralisation, which is probably the big one; the cafés; the interstitial spaces; the rustic finishes; and the celebration of all of that.

SS: But how are they going to reinvigorate interstitial space in Christchurch when all the buildings have been knocked down? There are no laneways anymore.

AK: I think it’s something that people from Christchurch had in their mind before the quake, that Christchurch was heading towards some- thing like Melbourne. Some of the laneways had elements of that. There were interesting little cafés down back streets, like a small-town version of Melbourne. Christchurch had this ownership – it was more ‘Melbourne’, while Auckland is more ‘Sydney’.

It’s something people are, I guess, hanging on to in hope. But you have to have more people living in the city for it to operate like Melbourne. That’s what the Central City Plan, pre-quake, was about.

SS: What’s been the most striking aspect of your time there?

AK: Well, the biggest thing for me is the resilience of the people. They just have to continue to live through aftershocks daily. I was mentally unstable after three-and-a-half weeks of after- shocks, but to stay there and live through that for over a year – that’s toughness.

SS: Resilience keeps cropping up in discussions about Christchurch. In terms of architecture – or city-making, or place-making – what does resilience mean to you?

AK: I think of it as having a resilient attitude in whatever you build and make, whatever spaces you create – that they matter, that they leave something, that they’re relevant to the time, but built for the long term. But ‘place-making’ – I hate that term! It’s just a buzzword. They actually have this Bunnings-style place called Place Making in Christchurch. It’s really funny. I thought they were taking the piss!

SS: As an artist/architect team, do you think there should be more cross-fertilisation?

DF: Yes, definitely. I think architects can easily become self-involved rather than engage with a public audience. So many of the ideas can seem convoluted to the majority of people, and don’t, perhaps, offer much other than visual stimulus. But that’s changing. Architecture needs to be infected by other things, and challenged, because it’s such a complex profession.

There are so many ongoing concerns, including the financial side of any building project and getting things through. There are so many negotiations, and the more you know the more it locks down what your creative outcomes can be, and you can only address that by mixing with different ideas and people. Artists and musicians, I think, have a freedom of thought that architects must envy.


Body Architecture: An Interview with Lucy McRae


Lucy McRae self portrait for the Becoming Transnatural campaign (2011). “A TransNatural technology plays by the dynamic rules of nature without ramshackling the planet.”

The work of artist Lucy McRae is hard to define. A former architect, she straddles the worlds of fashion, film and fantasy.

Her provocative ‘body silhouettes’ reshape the human form, subjecting it to extreme vortices of pressure: from technology, the natural environment, even from raw emotion.

I spoke to her about the inspirations driving her career.

Originally published in Architectural Review 122: Residential, October 2011.

SIMON SELLARS: You’ve been working with design students at RMIT. What did that entail?

LUCY McRAE: Originally, I gave some lectures at Hyper Island, this amazing design school in Stockholm with no teachers – it’s all about the students teaching each other, and working directly with clients. I approached Leon van Schaik at RMIT and suggested I bring a similar model to Melbourne. The idea is that in a student’s portfolio they have a job they’ve worked on, and a connection to the industry they want to work in, bridging the gap between when you graduate and when you get a job.

SS: What sort of design solutions did you initiate?

LM: We did a music video, working with a real band, a real record label, a real director of photography, a producer, a technical director. The class broke down into groups, and each group interacted with one another, just like a real scenario. It was very successful, because we had a really nice mix of students from architecture, interior design, fashion and media. Students don’t usually get to straddle four different disciplines like that.

SS: You call yourself a ‘body architect’. What exactly does that mean? To me, it suggests designing technological exoskeletons for the body.

LM: I do build structures on the body, and I redefine the silhouette of the body in many different ways. I’m interested in the space between body and clothes, and the body and the near environment. I come from predominately architectural and classical ballet backgrounds, and both lend themselves to each other.

SS: I’m generally intrigued by the way in which the profession of architecture is redefining itself, and, related to that, the ways in which ‘design thinking’ is used outside of design professions to solve problems and provide solutions. How does your architectural background define your artistic process?

LM: Well, I think that what I do is very instinctive and primal, so anything I make or design is purely coming from this desire to build or to make something from an artistic point of view. I’m not trying to make any political statements about the future of the body or how we’re going to evolve as humans. I think it’s more of an unconscious connection.

SS: But you have worked as an architect.

LM: Yes, I have. When I was studying interior design, Tom Kovac was a big figure in my education, and he was always saying, “You should study architecture”. When I graduated, I got a scholarship to study at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles. I moved to London for a while, and then intended to move to LA, but I started working with two small architecture practices on very experimental projects and eventually ditched SCI-Arc. I designed a playground and a toy store in Soho, and I worked on the Magma bookshops.


Philips Design Probes. Lucy consulted as a Body Architect in the Probes Programme at Philips Design. “The programme accelerates a vision for next generation sensitive technology.”

SS: Do you still think about architectural matters in any kind of practical, or perhaps even philosophical way?

LM: In the past two years, it’s been more about the dancing background coming into my work, but I think now the architecture influence is returning. What I’m interested in creating now are alternate worlds that my body silhouettes can exist in. I’ve been building these ‘body architectures’ on the human body, and now I’m interested in creating the world that these bodies exist in.

SS: You often refer to future science and future possibilities for the body. Are you influenced by science fiction?

LM: It’s more about pure science than science fiction. My dad’s a mathematician, and while I was never really a bright maths student, I really loved graphs and pie charts and mathematical connections between things, plus I’m fascinated by science and mutations of liquids and physics. When I worked at Philips Design, we explored elective plastic surgery and the trend towards a mono aesthetic, and the idea that one day, everyone could be walking around looking exactly the same. The work that Bart Hess and I were doing [as Lucyandbart, a collaborative art project] chrystallised some of those ideas.

SS: The ‘mono aesthetic’ is something that crops up a lot in discourse around new technologies, for example, when it’s suggested that social media and digital connectivity breeds a kind of anonymous, vicious mob behaviour.

LM: How we communicate is interesting, and I think it’s more and more important to be unique. I’m not on Facebook and I’m not on Twitter, and, in a way, that’s a deliberate decision because we’re overloaded with so much information. It’s become ever more important to say, “This is who I am. I’m not hiding behind anything”. At Philips, we discussed communication through smell and how we’re losing this as we evolve, becoming ever more alienated from human instinctual processes. We did lots of research around the relationship between sweating and the immune system. I started to think about this, and then I was watching this doco about Ray Kurzweil…

SS: …the self-styled ‘transhumanist’. I was going to ask you about him. He crossed my mind when I was researching your work.

LM: Yes. Ray was saying that in 25 years, computers are going to become faster than human beings, and chips are going to be the size of blood cells. I was thinking about this when I was introduced to Sheref Mansy, a synthetic biologist in Italy. He’s a Harvard graduate who’s stripping life back to a single cell, actually trying to rebuild life from a single cell. I said to him, “I want to make a perfume that is digestible, a perfume that we swallow, like a pill, and it infuses your immune system so that when you sweat, you sweat your own biologically enhanced scent”. Sheref was excited – he started jumping around like a maniac!

SS: So, people would choose their own scent? Is this idea a reaction against the ‘mono aesthetic’ you were talking about?

LM: Yes. Perfume is made up of different notes, so you would digest your base note and then you could add ‘top’, or ‘high’ notes, as a spray and they would fuse together – that’s like the secondary form. So, we started talking about this, and I told Sheref I had a real interest in the future of makeup, and how our skin is this platform for technology, and how the role of skin is being redefined. So then I was busy creating the campaign around this swallowable perfume, when Sheref wrote back to me and said, “OK, this is how we’re going to do it. The body already has enzymes that break down molecules from glycerol. That’s like a natural process, so this pill will be made up of olfactory molecules connected to a glycerol. When you digest it through this natural process, it will separate the olfactories from the glycerol, so that when you sweat, you will sweat your own biologically enhanced fragrance.” No smell would be the same to anybody else, except for identical twins because they have the same DNA.

SS: Wouldn’t this cause a dangerous kind of ontological confusion? Don’t we need a certain sense of shared smell to be at ease with each other? Certain animals would eat one other if they didn’t recognise their shared smell!

LM: Well, I think it goes back to technology, and control. If you’re emitting your own personal fragrance, then in a way you’re communicating through another primal language, which you’re not even controlling, in a way, but actually you really are.

SS: The issue of control is crucial. Referring back to new technology, it’s almost a cliche? in its everyday banality that we like to think we have freedom, but allowing our private details to be owned by Facebook suggests otherwise.

LM: Again at Philips, that was one of the major issues that came up: who controls information, and who is the driver of it? We created provocations that tried to answer the question: “Do people want this or not?”

SS: You speak often and fondly of your time at Philips. What exactly did this thought laboratory do?

LM: It’s called the Probes team, and it looks 15 to 20 years into the future; I was there right at the beginning. We designed everything from concept cars to artworks and marketing campaigns. We were working on the top floor, existing in the cracks, really. We weren’t producing televisions or kettles, standard Philips products, so everyone was kind of like, “Oh, it’s the airy fairy people, upstairs working away on their probes”.

SS: Still, it seems quite progressive for a corporate design enterprise to incorporate such a team.

LM: Yes. Because you’re making intangible products that don’t generate income, that’s often the sort of thing that gets chopped when it comes to saving money. But in order for a company to evolve, you need to innovate and you need to spend time and money to do it. That’s why Philips is great – they’re doing that, working on architectural projects, interior design, vehicles, robots.

SS: Again, the futurist aspect of this research intersects with science fiction, or, perhaps, ‘speculative’ fiction.

LM: Well, no, it wasn’t science fiction – it was real! We developed an electronic tattoo that could be implanted in the skin and changed by touch. It was based on a patent filed by Philips nine years ago. But we wanted to be provocative, too, like the dress we developed, which senses blushes and shivers and changes with light. If the wearer became aroused, it produces one kind of animation. If she gets scared, it produces another. With this, we were saying that technology should be sensitive rather than intelligent. When the dress was listed as one of Time magazine’s best inventions of 2007, suddenly Philips realised, “Hey, these guys aren’t just twiddling their thumbs upstairs making nothing”. That’s when it became a fully-fledged department, still operating today.


Robyn album covers (2010). “Suspended from a delicately constructed coat hanger construction floats a seven layered paper pixel textile of electro-pop icon Robyn, with the real Robyn knitted amongst her seven other selfs.”

SS: Aside from architecture and dance, do you think the core ideas underpinning what you do now were forged during that time?

LM: Certainly, at that point in my life, Philips planted the seed, especially the way Clive van Heerden, the director, used to track and interpret trends, which he called “weak signals”, trends that aren’t going to hit for two or three years, although he could see them happening. That’s how the team started, from tracking these trends. I learnt a lot from him, from looking around and seeing and soaking up information, conscious or unconscious, and then from watching Ray Kurzweil. I think my inspiration is a combination of several different things, certainly from architecture and ballet.

SS: Let’s return to architecture. What about the profession inspires or impresses you today?

LM: One project that sticks in my head is Diller and Scofidio’s Blur building, which uses a kind of very intelligent ‘garden hose’ system to generate a dynamic, ‘moving’ building. For me, that’s very exciting. I’m also extremely excited by projection, and just recently I saw projections on a building that formed a kind of skin, becoming something else. It can be non-linear and you can change it over time; it’s constantly moving. I think that dynamic movement is magical, an illusion around something solid and built. The Blur building is an illusion, constantly shifting because of the wind. I get excited about how the environment affects things, and how they move, whether it’s from the wind or sunshine or whatever.

SS: Have you seen AAMI Park here in Melbourne? It’s reconfigurable, with its outer LED system. They have four teams from four different football codes using the stadium, so they can reconfigure the lighting to reflect different leagues and different teams, depending on who’s playing and which season it is.

LM: ‘Reconfigure’ is a good word, I think, a really important word for architecture. I did see one configuration of AAMI Park, although I was a bit disappointed. But I think the building’s great.

SS: What excites you architecturally?

LM: I went to Cologne and saw Peter Zumthor’s Kolumba Art Museum. That was an amazing experience. Also, I recently visited Rio and went into a church, which I thought was by Niemeyer, but it wasn’t. I almost started crying. You know when something gets to your belly and you have an emotional reaction? It was like this tall, religious spaceship. The church didn’t have doors. It was all open and there was this huge type of stained glass. It was an incredible, physical reaction. Maybe ‘emotional’ is what I really mean when I talk about ‘moving architecture’. Even though this church was completely static, that’s what gets me.


Levi’s commission (2009). “Dutch Fashion Magazine Blend commissioned Lucyandbart to create eight images that represented the evolution of the Levi’s 501 jeans brand.”

Spatial Imagination: An Interview with Charles Holland


Charles Holland at Flux. Photo: Michael Ford.

Charles Holland is one third of FAT Architecture, alongside Sean Griffiths and Sam Jacob. Recently, he visited Australia to speak at Flux 2011, the student architecture congress in Adelaide, and at the AIA in Melbourne.

He spoke to Simon Sellars about the issues raised at the congress, the debate surrounding his recent remarks about architecture competitions, FAT’s print collaboration with Charles Jencks, and the novelist J.G. Ballard.

Originally published in Architectural Review Australia 122: Residential, July 2011.

SIMON SELLARS: Do you agree with Flux’s theme that architecture is ‘in crisis’? Especially for emerging architects, there seems cause for concern.

CHARLES HOLLAND: Yeah, although I suspect the conference could have been themed like that at a number of points in history! There are a few key issues: the amount of architects trained versus the amount of jobs available; the marginalisation of the profession within the built environment; the loss of power and loss of control over the end product; plus all the big global issues. These are probably perennial concerns that move around in terms of what’s most important. But you’re right: it’s a particular way of looking at it if you’re entering into the process as a student. I’m actually very exercised at the moment by the profession. Some of the things other speakers were raising – about how architects are trained and how we work – seem muCH: more relevant to me now than maybe five years ago, when I was quite interested in cultural issues outside of architecture work.

SS: We spoke earlier about the Royal Institute of British Architects’ report, ‘The Future for Architects?’, a hard-hitting look at what architects must do to survive past the next decade. Related to that, should the profession engage more with, say, social issues and less with the kind of ‘designer lifestyle’ perceptions it’s often bracketed with

CH: Well, architectural culture and architectural language are very insular. Architects spend a lot of time trying to impress eaCH: other and trying to refine language, and certainly since the 1950s or sixties there’s been increasing disengagement from any kind of social and political issues. By re-engaging with those, perhaps we can increase architecture’s relevance. Something that came up at Flux was ‘spatial agency’, a term developed by people like Jeremy Till in the UK, which tries to define what it is that architects do in a way that doesn’t get weighed down by the stuff you’re talking about, like making things look nice.

SS: You were invited to speak at Flux partly because of your blog post,‘Dear other architects’, which exhorted architects to stop entering competitions on the grounds that it’s a waste of time and money. The responses on various online forums were quite vitriolic. It obviously touched a nerve.

CH: The debate was really interesting because it challenged a lot of myths and prejudices, such as the idea of architects being artists and therefore not being bothered by money – that’s a really hoary old myth that needs to be put to bed. No one wants to work for nothing, so why do any form of work for free? The idea of valorising some sort of poverty-stricken, starving artist to me is: a) totally wrongheaded and suicidal; and b) just a total cliche?, really, of artists starving in garrets.


The Villa, Hoogvliet, Netherlands (2008) by FAT Architecture.

SS: That got lost in the heat of the moment. It was said you carried a personal grudge.

CH: Someone said I wrote that post because FAT hasn’t won anything, which isn’t actually true – we’ve got quite a good record. But it’s simple: because of the sheer amount of time, money and effort that people put into architectural competitions, and the natural enthusiasm architects have for what they do, we’re open to certain forms of exploitation by clients – sometimes ‘well-meaning’ exploitation in that the client hasn’t really thought of it as such, and then architects, in turn, exploit the next rung down on the food chain.

In order to do loads of unpaid work, you need to have loads of unpaid people to do it, and it all seems to connect to the idea of valuing cultural work and valuing architecture. If we collude in the idea that what we do is not particularly valuable, it’s pretty hard to then turn around and say “why doesn’t anyone value architecture?”

SS: One of your critics suggested: “Charles Holland may be right about not entering competitions, but he doesn’t have an answer for what to do instead.” But it struck me that you do: FAT’s art projects, and the speculative projects, writing and lecturing work that you and Sam Jacob have done, could be a viable alternative.

CH: Yes, but that’s also very hard to monetise! We’ve always been interested in defining a body of knowledge that’s not purely about buildings, but also a kind of architectural or spatial imagination. Writing, both for architectural and mainstream media, and speculating and doing exhibitions is all important work, and it all goes back into the practice, even though it’s been untheorised by us over the last few years as to what exactly it is we’ve been doing. I think when we started off we had a very clear idea: “These art projects are going to be about these kinds of things.” As we’ve gone on, we’ve developed more individual voices, but it all goes back in. It all helps to build a critical profile similar to what we do when designing a building.

SS: In Australia, there’s a call from emerging architects, and some established ones, for an open competition to decide the architects for the new Venice pavilion. This arose in opposition to perceived elitism in the closed competitions previously deciding the pavilion’s fate, so could it be an exception to your ‘no competition’ rule?

CH: I can understand the impulse to open up the process. The open competition is historically one in which – theoretically at least – young and emerging talent can emerge. It’s a tough one, this, because clearly an open invitation has a certain democratic appeal and one can see exactly why young architects would call for one in order to get a shot at something really interesting like the Venice Biennale. But still, I think, architects need to understand the resources required in doing such things and that they need to have other, less expensive ways of trying to find work. It’s putting competition work in some sort of context that’s important, understanding what you want to get out of it, rather than this habitual, “spend vast amounts of time doing unpaid work” mindset.

SS: Your post was obviously a polemical satire, and reminded me of some of the provocations Ashton Raggatt McDougall have unleashed to jolt reactions from ossified architectural debates. Do you feel any kind of affinity with ARM?

CH: Definitely. FAT, with Charles Jencks, have edited an upcoming issue ofArchitectural Design, called Radical Post-Modernism – they’re one of the practices profiled in that. They’re probably one of the more obvious practices for a book like that! But yeah, their work is interesting. I think it’s definitely brimming with similar traditions, a kind of no-nonsense attitude and an interest in popular culture.


Islington Square, Manchester (2004-2006) by FAT Architecture.

SS: Does Radical Post-Modernism reclaim post-modernism?

CH: Sort of, although we also tried to profile practices that are very unobvious, or who might indeed be horrified to find themselves in that sort of company! I guess it’s an attempt to say, you know: “We know what you think postmodernism is. We know that it’s vulgar, brash 1980s commercialism.” But that we also know there are many things within that tradition that are much more productive to return to, like a kind of open-minded attitude to the everyday, learning from the cultural landscape. In a way, it’s a continuation of various modernist projects. You could see that in Venturi, Scott Brown and Steven Izenour looking at Las Vegas in 1970, an update of Le Corbusier looking at grain silos. ‘Radical post-modernism’ seems to us to be a totally legitimate way of continuing that project of looking outside of architectural discourse to find inspiration, to find purchase in what’s happening now, in mass media and mass culture.

SS: At your AIA talk, Ian McDougall asked about FAT’s work, “Aren’t you worried it will date?”, obviously an in-joke about the charges ARM get levelled with and that FAT must too. Later, I overheard him going through a list of other questions he wanted to throw at you, like: “But what about sustainability?”

CH: Yes, we were laughing at this for the past few days, actually, because the question everyone asks at the end of FAT lectures is: “Well, what about sustainability?” – as if to say, “Well, don’t you care about the world?”

SS: Does that stem from the attitude that because a building is ‘brash’ and ‘colourful’, indeed postmodern, it can’t be ‘sustainable’?

CH: Partly. In the past, there has definitely been a style associated with sustainability, certain things – south-sloping roofs, PVs, the odd windmill – which, although obviously functional to some extent, are also about looking the part. Our work has achieved very high targets, actually, but doesn’t particularly advertise the fact. 


A House for Essex (2014) by Grayson Perry and FAT Architecture. Commissioned by Alain de Botton for his Living Architecture project.

SS: Let’s talk about J.G. Ballard. I’ve been following the interest among British architects in his fiction, and noticed a few posts on your blog that also argue for his relevance. What attracts you, as an architect, to the work of a novelist?

CH: I must admit I’ve never been into Ballard for particularly architectural reasons. I just think he’s a really interesting writer! But certainly he describes unusual sorts of contemporary places, maybe slightly overlooked spaces, and he’s given us the term ‘Ballardian’, which people use when they describe some kind of bleak manifestation of contemporary life.

SS: In the AIA talk, you spoke about the influence of collage on FAT’s work, especially pop artist Richard Hamilton, and how collage could frame architecture in a way that uses found objects to create a new environment. I was intrigued by your comments about FAT “mis-learning from history”, and what happens, as in collage, when cultural meaning changes through the deliberate clash of signifiers. Ballard does that in his more experimental writing.

CH: Yeah. I really love his more extreme writing, especially The Atrocity Exhibition, where he’s playing with the concept of how you put a bit of fiction together and what the sources for that might be, literally copying from other works. My introduction to him was years ago, when Sam and I were obsessed with the movie JFK, and from there we found Ballard’s Atrocitystory, ‘The Assassination of John F Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race’. I then read the rest of the book and I was just sort of fascinated by it, that you could just insert one thing into another thing and it would be a massive shift in what it all meant. That technique has been very influential on us, that sort of collagist, cut-up sensibility.

SS: Ballard’s Shepperton house was up for sale recently. It was an iconic building despite being so determinedly unrenovated, so suburban and downbeat. It was almost anti-architecture, yet anyone who travelled to Shepperton to interview him there felt compelled to comment on it!

CH: And there was something perfect about it just turning up on this really crappy local estate agent’s website, totally unsung, with no mention of Ballard at all. That house was always totally unexceptional and his life there was totally unexceptional – the point being his work was more exceptional than him – and then it ended up on this totally unexceptional website, with rather shit photos of his slightly overgrown garden! It all seemed too perfect.

SS: Yet it had such a powerful presence. I thought it’d be a shame to see it spruced up.

CH: I actually think it’s quite nice that someone might move into Ballard’s house. It reminded me of when you see houses by well-known architects – sometimes they pop up on a normal estate agent’s site but they’ve got modifications and someone’s painted it a horrible colour. I wrote an expanded essay in Radical Post-Modernism about DIY and the lives of houses over time, spinning off from the pictures of Le Corbusier’s houses in Pessac, which were built in 1929 but photographed very famously in 1969, when they’d been completely transformed: they’d got bird boxes on them, and hanging baskets, and people had built garages on them and so on. There’s a photo of them looking sculpturally magnificent with moody shadows, and then there’s a photo of them 40 years later adorned with all this stuff. That sort of thing really interests me, the idea that houses evolve over time, and what happens to them, and who lives in them.

SS: Ballard’s house wouldn’t last a day in Australia in that state. Renovation’s an obsession here. We’ve got three reality TV shows on home improvement screening at once.

CH: The way houses get adapted and changed is really interesting. We’ve got this great book in the office called The Name of the Room: A History of the British House & Home. It’s got a chapter called ‘The coming of the knockers through’ which is about 1980s DIY people who are obsessed with making these massive living room/kitchens connected by big archways. There’s this great photo of a man sitting in his chair in the middle of a massive archway, proudly showing off this vast, hewn extension at the back of the house!

SS: Ballard was so anti all of that. It’s as if his imagination had performed the ultimate ‘renovation’, corresponding to the drab suburban houses he wrote about that undergo strange mental transformations projected by their occupants.

CH: But that’s the thing about ordinary houses. Most people are brought up in architecturally unremarkable places – that’s probably the majority of experience. Very few of us are brought up in architecturally adventurous environments, yet all these forces play out in them.

blue house

The Blue House (2002), Hackney, London by FAT Architecture.

Vertical Movement: An Interview with Sir Miles Warren


Portrait of Sir Miles by Stephen Goodenough.

Sir Miles Warren is probably New Zealand’s most famous architect. In 1958 he founded the practice Warren and Mahoney with Maurice Mahoney. He designed some of New Zealand’s most iconic buildings and developed the ‘Christchurch style’.

I met Sir Miles at his historic home, Ohinetahi, in Governor’s Bay, near Christchurch, which suffered major damage during the recent quakes.

Originally published in Architectural Review Australia 123: The Resilient City, Summer 2011/2012.

SIMON SELLARS: Perhaps we could start with the quake and its aftermath. What is the biggest challenge facing the reconstruction effort?

SIR MILES: The biggest challenge is resolving insurance questions. You can’t get a loan until you’ve got earthquake insurance. And the reinsurers are clearly reluctant to provide earthquake insurance until there’s no prospect of any further major quakes. We were very fortunate to get going at Ohinetahi [Sir Miles’ historic home in Governors Bay] after the first earthquake, because at that stage it was thought it would be one event.

SS: I read an interview where you say you’ve been lying in bed dreaming of redesigning Christchurch in your head. How far have you got?

MW: Well, it was inevitable that most of the 19th century brick shops along the retail streets would collapse in an earthquake, and surely they did in the first quake. Even if they had been strengthened, they would have still come down in the second quake. So, there’s a very large area to the south and the east of the city, which to my mind can only be replaced logically by a combined residential and retail development, built around something like a London square. It’s not a court – that’s smaller – and a park is much bigger…

SS: Is there a word to describe it? 

MW: It’s a building type. Well, something that really develops into a building type. The Institute of Architects has made that proposal to the City Council, but so far it seems to have dropped like a lead balloon. In my mind, I’ve always said that instead of all these – what’s the right word, ‘aspiring’; no, ‘grand proposals’ – it would be far better for the Council to establish green bases around which housing can be built to the east and the south of Christchurch.


Christchurch Town Hall (1972). Photograph courtesy Warren and Mahoney.

SS: Isn’t that what the Central City Plan aspires to – a ‘garden city’ model?

MW: Well, it’s easy to talk about garden cities, but to actually achieve them is something else. In Christchurch, the riverbank – the river from the hospital through to Victoria Square – is one of the best, what you might call, ‘river parks’ anywhere in the world. It really is superb: a combination of riverbank, stream, small river, tree planting over the years and a succession of quite interesting buildings, one from each period. But as usual we want to tinker with that, when we should be leaving it alone and concentrating on the south and the east.

SS: How have Warren and Mahoney buildings fared post-quake?

MW: We had at least 15 office buildings, but now, apart from the Parkroyal Hotel [now the Crowne Plaza, and confirmed for demolition] and the Forsyth Barr building, I don’t know what’s going to happen to any of them. College House is all there – the sets have all stood and, surprisingly, the chapel. But the ground has moved under the dining hall. That is going to be a challenge.

The Parkroyal, by the way, is a disaster. It has two wings and for some reason, no one knows quite why, the piling on one section on one wing was different. And there’s this drop. But the engineers say they can lift it all up. They did a lot of work on it. But unfortunately the building is out of vertical. There’s no way the whole building can be brought back. And the Town Hall is down on one side with the screw piles and so on. We’re getting very good at screw piles!

SS: The CBD’s in limbo, isn’t it? No one knows what’s going to be pulled down or redeveloped.

MW: Yes. We’re in this difficult position. I mean, the Council has done sweet nothing about the earthquake or strengthening buildings in Christchurch, despite the fact it was warned again and again. Now it imposes a regime, which means the earthquake strengthening has to be upgraded. Most of those buildings have survived an earthquake two-and-a-half times greater than the design code, but now they’re required to go up another level. That’s not achievable, I think. And there are American engineers commenting that they simply don’t understand why so much demolition is taking place. They used to be terribly virtuous and say, ‘Thou shalt build to this level’, but now…


Crowne Plaza/Park Royal. Watercolour by Sir Miles. Published in Miles Warren: An Autobiography (2008), courtesy Canterbury University Press.

SS: In the paper, someone was saying there’s too much testosterone in the rebuilding process. They’re just getting in there, swinging the crane around, knocking down buildings.

MW: The demolition guys are doing extraordinarily well. They’re making a fortune, while the building trade… well, there’s simply no work.

SS: I spoke to someone in Christchurch who was frustrated because it’s a year on since the quake and nothing has been done. He compared that to the Brisbane floods, where rebuilding commenced soon after the disaster.

MW: It’s not comparable to the Brisbane floods, because we don’t know whether we are to have another earthquake. And it wasn’t just the one. I mean if it was one thing, then you’d know exactly where you were, but we’ve had three and we still don’t know precisely where we are. I mean only yesterday, despite all the work done here, at Ohinetahi, we got a note to say we still haven’t actually got ground clearance yet.

It’s easy to be critical of the EQC [Earthquake Commission New Zealand], but they have had to engage another, I think, 800 people, many of them Australians, to come over and assess buildings here. Some were expert, but many really had no qualifications to do it. Imagine trying to employ that number of people. A nephew of mine got an envelope from the EQC a year after the earthquake to say that his house was so damaged it had to come down, and then later another letter to say it could be restored! People have reported they’ve had nine EQC inspectors come around to the point where they’re saying, ‘Please God, won’t you leave us alone?’. So, we plod on.

SS: There are still aftershocks going on from the first quake, aren’t there?

MW: Yes, but they appear to be diminishing. We’ve all got very good at minimising it. We can sit here and say, ‘Oh, only 4.5 – just one jolt.’

SS: I understand you were home at Ohinetahi when the first quake happened. Looking around, I can certainly see the extent of the damage here. Could you give me your impressions of what happened that night?

MW: Well, I woke. The dog beside me moved first, and then there was this shattering roar. I knew this was certainly an earthquake. And I got out of bed and clung to the end of the bedpost as it shook my bed. When it stopped, I then walked down the stairs, with a shower of plaster falling down, into the hall, where I tripped over the grandfather clock. Then into the library, weaving through the library; I was heading to get my torch, being splendidly well prepared! I finally went through the study into the cloakroom where the torch was, stretched to pick it up and walked out, unaware that above me there was a gaping hole in the roof with huge rocks lying either side of me.

I got outside and there were my neighbours, who had come down, knowing this building was likely to suffer. What had happened was that four gables had collapsed onto the single storey ones. Well, then we had three days. All the buildings in Christchurch were classified pretty quickly with ‘red’, ‘green’, ‘orange’ or ‘white’ codes, but nobody came over to Governors Bay. Looking back on it, I realise it was a very considerable risk, but nevertheless 10 people – family and friends and so on – came over to help, and we got all the art out to the art gallery, and then the next stage was small furniture into the double garage, and then the rest into the ground relocations. Eighty-two boxes of books – it nearly killed me. The possessions were more valuable than the house!

SS: How did you approach the house’s redesign?

MW: Well, we’d hoped to keep up one corner to the full height. There was that tall stone block, which was the substance of it – it had a commanding presence in the garden. I mean, architecturally, you could say it was really oddball, to say the least, but it did have a weight in proportion to the garden. To lose it was a great pity. We had hoped to retain half of that elevation, but in the February earthquake that all came down. If we hadn’t actually begun strengthening after the first earthquake, the February event would have bowled the whole thing down. So we were lucky there, in a sense.

SS: What were some of the difficulties involved with reconstructing the house?

MW: We actually tied and strengthened the top floor, and if we hadn’t done that, the whole of the north wall would have bowed out. But then we had the very great good fortune that one of the largest builders in the city, Andrew McGregor, lives in Governors Bay. He drove over and said, ‘Do you want any help?’ and I said, ‘Yes, now!’ And they’ve been here ever since. I mean, I wasn’t going to worry about it – I knew we were insured – but all the elaborate processes had started and this meant I could afford to get on with it. Then we had a very lucky break with the City Council. To alter or amend a heritage building requires a resource consent. Inevitably, with the Historic Places Trust, that is quite a long process. It can take months. We were one of five heritage buildings considered by the Council as a ‘pressing need’.

And, of course, because it was heritage, they couldn’t give us resource consent. They had to find some way around it, so they said, ‘Well, if we don’t do something, the water will pour through the building and it will be ruined’. And they declared the building insanitary. Now, if the building is declared insanitary, the owner must do all that he can to stop it being insanitary. So I said to the councillors, ‘Does that mean I can demolish the two floors?’ And they said, ‘Be quick about it.’ I got cracking on drawings, which, by the way, was quite an exercise because I think it’s about 17 years since I’ve designed
a house.

The techniques and processes are difficult, especially with an oddball thing like this where so much had changed. But we got cracking and we only got retrospective resource consent, so we’re one of the few buildings that the insurance company says they’ve paid out. Although they have thousands of claims, they’ve only resolved a hundred or so. There are all sorts of complications: was it one event or three?

SS: Technically, the second quake was an aftershock from the first.

MW: Well, the EQC has declared that there are three events, so they’ve paid out three times. Now, whether the insurance companies or the reinsurance companies agree about that is another matter. It’s all very, very complicated. I know something about the trade, but you can imagine how older people must feel, with their large, old brick houses crumbling about them and not knowing what to do or where to go.


Christchurch College/College House (1964). Photograph courtesy Warren and Mahoney.

SS: It’s a confusing time for everyone, especially given the unexpected force of the quake. From what I’ve heard, it was just phenomenal.

MW: In February, I was with my sister on the seventh floor of a block of apartments in the city. And the movement was vertical. You realise that the buildings rose – they rose! And, as they fell down, they came down at the weight of two-and-a-half times that of gravity. The whole weight of the building came down as the next shock came up. But fortunately the key buildings in Christchurch – the Arts Centre, the Museum – had been well strengthened.

SS: Was it like a concertina effect?

MW: Well, you imagine it would be. We walked down the stairs and there we were, standing in the street, and I looked across the way at an office building I was involved with. They were all standing around, but it wasn’t until we got around to Castle Street that people started coming out who were obviously hurt. The first thing I did was walk around the river to Christ’s College, because I’m proud to say that back in the late 60s, early 70s, I bullied the college: ‘You must start earthquake-strengthening your buildings.’ Most people excused themselves that they couldn’t afford it, but the college was very well endowed. They had three-storey brick-and-stone buildings and I said, ‘If that building collapses, and 50 small boys are interred within it, then you, the board, will be responsible, if not legally then morally.’ And that started the whole steady process of strengthening. The dining hall of the building along Rolleston Avenue is a superb piece of neo-Gothic architecture by Cecil Ward, one of the best architects in New Zealand.

Anyway, it was most ingeniously strengthened. We built a stiff box at one end, the administration building, all faced with stone and so on, and dragged this building onto it. And it all stood. There is work to be done but the school is operating. There it is.

I then walked to the Arts Centre. They had one corner block strengthened at $1 million, and it has stood very well, but there is a tremendous lot more to do on it. Now, that is a building well worth strengthening, but it’s going to cost time and millions.

SS: What else is worth rebuilding or strengthening?

MW: The Provincial Chambers, the only provincial buildings left in New Zealand. It had a splendid main hall in stone and then brick portions with two stone blocks, which were partially there to prevent fire. Now, one of the towers has collapsed. All of the wood is perfectly right but the main, splendid corner building is completely gone. That’s a building of national importance and I’m sure it will eventually be rebuilt, as will the cathedral, which I’ve been involved with in the past.

SS: In an essay by Paul Walker on Warren and Mahoney, he wrote, ‘In the sixties Christchurch architecture attained a mythical status.’ Do you agree with that assessment? What part do you think you played in that?

MW: Yes, well, I think it’s rather grandiloquent! No, it’s really a matter of timing and where everyone went to and so on. I worked at the LCC, the London County Council, on Roehampton Lane and blocks of flats and so on. I was really there at the beginning of what is now rather unfortunately called brutalism, and I introduced it to Christchurch.


Dorset Street flats (1956). Photograph courtesy Warren and Mahoney.

SS: Was that a challenge? Was there resistance?

MW: No. We were really extraordinarily lucky. There was simply a hell of a lot to do. We simply got on with it, and it was a time when we built buildings for the people who were going to own them, not developers. We dealt with the manager, or what were called the CEOs then, and the general manager or the owner of the building. And you produced the drawings and they said, ‘Yes, we’ll go ahead with that.’ For a brief period, it was very profitable. We just built a hell of a lot, and built quickly. But nowadays, there’s a tangle of rules and regulations and permits and God knows what. Back then, no one was so vulgar as to mention the fees! Truly. Now, that’s the first thing talked about. I mean you never went to your solicitor and said, ‘What do you charge per hour?’ It’s just our costs at the bottom.

SS: So, what did brutalism or, rather, modernism mean to you? What was your attraction to modernist thought?

MW: Well, technically it was the use of building materials and ways of exposing them. I mean, I think of all the awful motels that have been built over the years with concrete block. But with the block of flats we built in Dorset Street, the key thing was that instead of normal plaster walls and ceiling and soft finishes and wallpaper and paint and so on, here were concrete block walls, concrete beams and timber ceilings. It was the use of different materials and whole different building techniques. We adopted a whole new vocabulary of materials, including how they were built and exposed. Whilst College House was being built using concrete block and fair face concrete, at the same time we were building the Student Union Building in pre-cast concrete, post-tensioned – a very elegant, light structure.

It was the emphasis, I suppose, on how a building was made and then demonstrating it. That led to a whole series of office buildings in the city, without air-conditioning in those days, which was thought to be very expensive and extravagant. In the days when offices had lino on the floor, only the boss might have had carpet. And there was a requirement for windows and the view. We set the glass back and allowed the pre-cast concrete elements to shade the face, and that produced these articulated fronts. It was in complete contrast to the glass front and I hope some remain. But that whole process of brutalism goes past 1965, and the culmination of it is College House.

SS: How has Dorset Street stood up post-quake?

MW: CERA [the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority] has proposed to demolish the flats; they have the authority to demolish left, right and centre. But I had a meeting with the Historic Places Trust and their expert engineer, and we believe the building can be strengthened without diminishing its architectural importance.

SS: Something that really struck me regarding the plans to reconstruct Christchurch is that it’s rare to see an architect’s name mentioned.

MW: No. This is extraordinary. I was first advised only two weeks ago of plans for the Town Hall and that was by the engineers, not the owners of the building. When you think of it, with those buildings, the actual structural costs vary from 35 to 40 per cent. The rest is architecture. What’s so sad is the only architectural content that has been brought into this new scheme is a Danish firm of architects. Well, they are very able architects, but Denmark is very different from New Zealand. Architects are being brought in for individual buildings now, at long last. But in terms of the overall plan?

SS: Architects can have a say in designing cityscapes, as well.

MW: Of course they can. I mean, we build the damn things! Unfortunately, it’s in the hands of planners who are two-dimensional people. They only think in terms of rules and regulations. They have a vision of it and then try and put regulations around which produce it, but regulations do not produce architecture. Within regulations you can build a stinker or it can be well done. It tries to encapsulate that particular view at this particular time, but in 10 years’ time things could be quite different.

SS: You’ve spoken a bit about developers and the emphasis on costs as a significant difference between when you practised and now. What are some other points of divergence?

MW: Paul Pascoe was an architect just before the war and after – you could say he’s one of the people who introduced modern architecture to New Zealand. He boasted that he could get the design of a house on one drawing. There were houses with a bathroom that you could design at eight feet to the inch, because there was only one bath, there’s only one WC pan and one basin and there wasn’t much you could do with it. And the tiles – gosh, that was expensive and so was the marble. And, of course, the kitchen was something that took place behind the green baize door, and the architects spent all the time on detailing the fireplace and the eaves. Now, you send your client to the bathroom establishment and it’s just a bewildering choice. They’re there for the rest of the day. ‘Oh God, when are they going to return?’


Ohinetahi. Watercolour by Sir Miles. Published in Miles Warren: An Autobiography (2008), courtesy Canterbury University Press.

SS: You mentioned that when Warren and Mahoney began, briefs were comically minimal.

MW: Yes. The brief for Christchurch College [College House] was: ‘A college for 120 men.’ Full stop. It was like, ‘You know, get on with it. You’re an architect. You’re supposed to know what you’re doing.’ We asked all the questions, of course, and had a great debate about how you might organise however many bedrooms, studies and the rest of it, but they said, you know, ‘That’s what we employ you for.’

SS: In Australia, there has been some talk about a crisis in the architectural profession. What is the situation in New Zealand?

MW: Well, there are many, many more architects. I mean, it astonishes me how many architects there are now in Christchurch. But the real crisis is that their fees keep dropping and the costs keep rising, so that we’re now the poorest-paid profession. The engineers charge a fortune, $290 an hour, so they’re earning, I’d say, twice what an architect does. We’re at the bottom of the trade, the bottom of the professions, and lumbered with more and more responsibilities. The sad thing is there’s extraordinarily good work being done; I mean the amount of detail and attention and care and so on.

Another thing is the introduction of project managers between the architect and the owner, and the developers in the same scene. No one was so vulgar as to mention costs at Christ’s College. Today, you haven’t got a great relationship with the people who are going to actually occupy the building. You’re just part of a package. And the first duty of a project manager is, of course, to squeeze the architect’s fees. One of my proudest moments was to sack the project manager from the rebuilding of Parliament and deal directly with the client’s representative – an architect!

‘Magisterial, precise, unsettling’: Simon Reynolds on JG Ballard

Ballardian: Simon Reynolds

“‘Magisterial, precise, unsettling’: Simon Reynolds on JG Ballard”, originally published in 032c, no. 18, winter 2009/10, pp. 126-9.

Simon Reynolds is one of the most recognizable music critics around. He possesses a willingness to tackle pop music as an art form worthy of intellectual discourse rather than a fleeting moment of adolescent flash. Reynolds breaks new ground, melding unchecked enthusiasm with a robust theoretical foundation in a body of work that is exciting for its eclecticism alone: he’s just as compelling writing on hip hop, Britney, and rave, as he is on grunge, prog rock, and grime.

Reynolds’s work reached a peak with the publication of Rip It Up and Start Again, a timely excavation of post-punk: Cabaret Voltaire, PiL, Magazine, and so on. What’s more, J.G. Ballard was a thread throughout the book, as Reynolds charted the influence of JGB — and especially his experimental novel, The Atrocity Exhibition — on the era.

Simon Sellars: For you, what’s the relationship between J.G. Ballard and music?

Simon Reynolds: Obviously I always loved music, but it was things my parents had introduced me to — Beethoven, or Hollywood musicals, plus stray things I’d heard on the radio like the Beatles. And then when I was around fifteen, I was inducted into that whole rock apparatus of taking music -pop culture, youth culture, rock criticism — seriously. And what I was into on a fanatical level immediately before entering rock culture was science fiction, and particularly Ballard. The new fanaticism simply replaced the old one, and I stuck to music journalism!

SS: Do you still return to his work?

SR: It’s only in the last decade or so that I rediscovered science fiction, and particularly Ballard. I’ve also started reading more of his critical work, his interviews and journalism, and become more impressed by him — he was clearly the most advanced writer and thinker in his field.

SS: Which of his books have impacted you the most?

SR: In some ways the one that grabbed me most, and has yet to relinquish its hold, was the first one I read, The Drowned World. Penguin used to do these great science fiction paperback editions, and they had one series with really evocative paintings — glossy, garish, almost hyperrealist — on the covers. The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Wind From Nowhere were all in that series and looked particularly good. But in The Drowned World, the severity of Ballard’s imagination was what hooked me, and just the idea of the protagonist who — as in all Ballard’s cataclysm novels — is perversely drawn towards the heart of catastrophe, and finds his true self in the transformed landscape. That really grabbed me.

Also, the idea of the world you know being drastically transformed … I lived near London, in a commuter town 30 miles north of the capital, and went down to the city quite frequently; so imagining it submerged was exciting.

Ballardian: Simon Reynolds

Two David Pelham-illustrated ’softcover classics’ (both Penguin, London, 1974).

SS: Has he influenced your work in any way, either as a critic of popular culture, or stylistically?

SR: Actually, the influences on my writing and thinking come from a totally different place, although there are certain affinities — a sense of the power of the irrational, these atavistic drives pulsing inside culture. I’ve long felt that pop music is driven by ambivalent, sometimes outright malevolent energies. But I’ve probably derived that more from various French thinkers, and Nietzsche; or certain rock writers. Still, you can see the connection between music and the Ballardian worldview, which sees human culture as fundamentally perverse. And the self-reflexivity in science fiction is very similar to music criticism, because neither genre gets respect from the literary establishment, give or take a Kingsley Amis or an Anthony Burgess in science fiction. Both science fiction and rock writing have an inferiority and superiority complex. Science fiction writers love to think of what they’re doing as one really crucial, contemporary form of literature — a literature of ideas with elements of speculation and an estrangement effect.

Rock critics are just the same: they crave that validation from mainstream art criticism, but they also like being the renegade form. Ballard exemplifies this meta aspect of science fiction, although he goes beyond it as a great cultural critic.

SS: His work can also be read as philosophical inquiry, an approach that seems to sum up a particular late-capitalist mode of being. What makes the Ballardian worldview so prescient?

SR: He was dealing with similar things as Marshall McLuhan, and, later, as Jean Baudrillard. But he was doing it with far greater clarity, sharper perceptions, and more style and wit than either. All the obscenity of mass communication, simulation, and social implosion in Baudrillard’s books was being explored earlier, and more effectively, in Ballard’s fiction. He was dealing with the pornification of everything very early.

SS: You’ve remarked elsewhere that Ballard’s short stories have more appeal to you than his novels.

SR: After the disaster novels, the mid-1970s urban breakdown ones like Concrete Island and High-Rise, I think that, as a critic, Ballard’s shorts are his supreme achievement — so magisterial, so distilled and precise, atmospheric and unsettling. I recently re-read “The Ultimate City,” which is about a young man who lives in a near future that’s very green-conscious and placid and dull. So he goes to the deserted city and starts up urban life again — gets generators going, and then misfits start to flock in from the eco-communes and garden towns. But of course the whole thing goes haywire.

It was only a few years ago that I finally read Crash all the way through. I was writing Rip It Up and Start Again, and I wanted to understand why it had such a big influence on post-punk. In away, I prefer the side of Ballard that relates to someone like John Wyndham over the side that relates to William S. Burroughs. I like that dour, flat Britishness confronted by something alien or catastrophic.

Ballardian: Simon Reynolds

SS: I was surprised by your Ballard tribute in Salon, in which you wrote: “While his novels of the late 1980s and thereafter, such as Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes, have admirers, few would argue they’ve contributed a jot to his enduring cult.” For me, Super-Cannes seems to be one of his very best, a hyper-aware distillation of the “pornification” you were talking about earlier, a sense of entrapment within a system that only recognizes exchange values as authentic modes of being.

SR: It’s not about the relative merits of his books, but about what his cult is based on. It’s a bit like with rock stars. Morrissey put out a number of solo albums, ranging from dire to mediocre to excellent. But the basis of his cult will always be the Smiths. The same goes for the Rolling Stones — their last album, A Bigger Bang, was actually a really fine album, but “Stones-iness” was defined by the 1960s albums, plus Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street. It’s hard to imagine many people starting their Stones fandom with A Bigger Bang, just as it’s hard to imagine many people becoming obsessed with Morrissey on account of You are the Quarry. I think the same thing applies to Ballard’s work. Not to say you’re wrong about Super-Cannes.

SS: You’ve mentioned Ballard’s influence on post-punk. Growing up on this music, Ballard was always a vague referent, glimpsed through obscure Cabaret Voltaire or Ultravox interviews. So I appreciated the way Rip It Up and Start Again unpacked the connection. But what about today’s crop? Is there a continuum from then to now? For example, the dubstep musicians Kode9 and Burial — every second review of their albums seems to invoke the dreaded word “Ballardian,” possibly becoming as much a cliché as it was during the post-punk period.

SR: That relates more to the Spaceape’s contribution to the Kode9 album Memories of the Future. His lyrics and delivery are a bit like Linton Kwesi Johnson reading excerpts from The Atrocity Exhibition. With Burial, the connection is that his album is supposed to be a concept record about South London becoming flooded when the Thames Barrier breaks in the global-warmed near future. I think Katrina and New Orleans is more likely to be the inspiration, but there’s an obvious parallel there with The Drowned World.

There is also an urban psychogeography thing going on in Burial’s music that recalls Ballard in Crash. The album draws a lot from South London, this inter-zone of semi-suburbia between Brixton, where the tube line stops, and Croydon, which is on the city’s periphery. So it’s a hinterland similar to the outer London areas near Heathrow where Ballard situated Crash. A real anomie zone, but possessed with a certain desolate beauty. Burial has also talked of putting his tunes through the “Car Test,” driving around South London playing music from his car to see if it has the atmosphere he wants, the “distance” he’s looking for.

People have also compared Burial to Joy Division in terms of bleak urbanism. And Martin Hannett, their producer, used to do a similar thing: drive around Manchester’s most brutally industrialized zones in his car, stoned, listening to Joy Division, PiL, or Pere Ubu.

SS: Does “Ballardian” mean anything substantial to you, or do you think Ballard’s work is too complex to be contained in this way?

SR: It has become something of a cliché, and that’s perhaps the inevitable result of having an impact and becoming famous — that your ideas become simplified, reduced to a caption. So Ballardian equals “picturesque, postindustrial decay,” “kinky technophilia,” and “perverted obsessions with celebrities.”

When the Diana and Dodi crash happened, people in TV newsrooms were apparently like, “Let’s get Ballard on the phone.”

SS: You’ve casually mentioned that Ballard and Brian Eno are “the two greatest British thinkers of the second half of the 20th century.”

SR: That’s slightly over the top, isn’t it? I wonder if it really stands up. Then again, as thinkers specifically on culture, in the British context, I can’t honestly think of too many rivals, especially for the generation who came out of the 1960s and developed during the 1970s.

One of the fantasy projects that I’ve toyed with for a while is a book on Ballard and Eno. They feel like the patron saints of post-punk to an extent. But it’s difficult, because they’ve said it all better than anyone else. I suppose you could historicize or contextualize them – Ballard with the ICA milieu and Eno with the UK art schools. In some ways the affinity seems as much temperamental as anything conceptual. They have this wonderful Englishness — you imagine they would get on like a house on fire, trading ideas over whisky in a Shepperton living room. One thing they both do is take ideas from science and set them loose in culture, find applications.

Ballard is like a British McLuhan, except better because he’s a far better writer and thinker — more original, more convincing. In some ways, Eno is almost like a British Barthes.

Ballardian: Simon Reynolds

SS: While explaining his collage method in The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard said he wanted to produce “crossovers and linkages between unexpected and previously totally unrelated things, events, elements of the narration, ideas that begin to generate new matter.” Could you draw parallels to Eno’s formulation of “generative” music?

SR: I’m not sure about that. It seems more related to Burroughs, and perhaps also to Ballard’s debt to surrealism.

Eno’s generative music is much more cybernetics-meets-Zen, emptying out the authorial ego, setting up a process and then withdrawing. I don’t think Ballard has that Eastern mystical aspect. With Ballard, there’s always more of a violence bubbling up from below, even though the writing is cold and controlled. If Eno is a British Barthes, a languid sensualist, Ballard would be a British Bataille. I can also imagine Ballard enjoying Camille Paglia’s writing, which I can’t imagine Eno doing — it would be too passionate for him.

SS: Both Ballard and Eno inverted, retooled, and then abandoned the genre they started out in. As Richard Sutherland writes, “To call Ballard’s work science fiction is a bit like describing Brian Eno’s music as rock ‘n’ roll.”

SR: Yes and no. Eno is like the culmination or extension of certain ideas within rock to the point where they verge on un-rock. But when he started he owed a lot to Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd, a certain English kind of psychedelia. And he could do the “idiot energy” thing with “Third Uncle.” As for Ballard, to divorce him from his genre is unnecessary. The methodology in his disaster stories and in the bulk of his short stories is totally science fiction.

SS: As someone who has successfully integrated critical theory into writing about music, what do you think of the growing incursion of theory into music criticism?

SR: I’d make a distinction here between theorizing about music and applying critical theory to music. The former happens a lot, obviously — and you could argue that any critical position is at some level theoretical. What I don’t see a lot of is people using ideas from critical theory or philosophy to explicate pop music. Even I don’t do nearly as much as I used to. But I certainly still generate theorems and analytical ideas that go beyond the thumbs up/thumbs down consumer guidance aspect.

SS: To return to Ballard, is it possible to imagine, after his death, what his enduring legacy might be?

SR: That’s too big a question really. But I guess his legacy is due to his invention of a completely original way of perceiving reality, which merges reality with the unreality of the entertainment-scape. He did this to the point where it seems almost obvious, even cliché, as we discussed earlier. You see that a lot in music. I’ve argued that coming up with a cliché is the highest achievement in dance music, a sound or a beat or a riff pattern that everyone wants to copy. Becoming a cliché is, in lots of ways, a triumphant success for any artist.

‘Architectures of the Near Future’: An Interview with Nic Clear

ABOVE: ‘London after the Rain’, by Ben Olszyna-Marzys. A film produced for Nic Clear’s Unit 15 course, ‘Crash: Architectures of the Near Future’.

Originally published on, 24 December 2008.

In recognition of the sophistication of Ballard’s architectural analysis, a raft of discourse has been produced in recent times from within both academic and pop-cultural realms. This takes the form of tributes, analyses, ‘reimaginings’ and course syllabuses. In the influential architecture blog BLDGBLOG, for example, Geoff Manaugh sounds the note:

We have more to learn from the fiction of J.G. Ballard … than we do from Le Corbusier. The good city form of tomorrow is a refugee camp built by Brown & Root; the world’s largest architectural client is the U.S. Department of Defense. More people now live in overseas military camps than in houses designed by Mies van der Rohe — yet we study Mies van der Rohe.

While Le Corbusier appears to be (mis)remembered by history for supposedly self-important, grandiose plans to realise an architectural utopia that ignored the basic requirements of its inhabitants, Ballard, according to Manaugh, assumes increasing importance for the manner in which his work acutely analyses the ways in which the built environment can impact psychologically on its users and inhabitants. This includes, he elaborates, an identification of a ‘constant dissatisfaction with … architectural surroundings [that] becomes a kind of quiet aggression, an unarticulated suburban angst’. For Manaugh, the ‘psycho spatial’ nature of ‘Ballardian space’ is best articulated by Concrete Island, High-Rise and Super-Cannes, which he has utilised to varying degrees as the cornerstones of several BDLGBLOG posts.

Within the creative arts, the Birmingham-based artist Michelle Lord exhibited a series of images that used imagery from Concrete Island and Ballard’s novella ‘The Ultimate City’ (1976) to examine the legacy of Brutalist architecture in Britain. Lord’s work explicitly critiques the utopian ‘social idealism’ of Brutalism, itself a descendant of the Le Corbusier school of architecture, and the fashion in which it disregarded ‘the communal, historic and surrounding built environment’. Yet Lord also successfully captures the sense of ambivalence that powers ‘The Ultimate City’, with its depiction of a far-future, ‘post technological’ world in which the harshness of the urban environment is rejected in favour of a ‘green’, sterile ecotopia, only to be fatally underscored by a lingering lament for the decline of industrial landscapes.

Academically, Ballardian Studies is an emerging discipline in architectural schools. Here, the website of the London-based firm, Azhar Architecture, is instructive, featuring a list entitled ‘What’s being recommended in Architecture Schools: A Sample’. High-Rise, tracking the breakdown of social order in a Corbusian apartment block, is included alongside works from Rem Koolhaas, Mike Davis, Deleuze & Guattari and Guy Debord. At Columbia University’s Department of English & Comparative Literature, Professor Ursula Heise taught a subject entitled ‘Modern and Postmodern Cities’, in which depictions of ‘the metropolis and urban life’ were considered in 20th-century literature. One session was given over to two Ballard short stories, ‘The Concentration City’ (1957) and ‘Billennium’ (1962), which rank among the author’s most effective portrayals of the sensory overload of big-city life. Conceptually, the stories are at polar opposites, thematically they are of a piece: the absolute alliance of architecture with late capitalism. ‘Billennium’ is concerned with the complete contraction of public and private space by an overbearing architecture, while ‘Concentration City’ is based on the premise that the city is ever-expanding, without limits, its boundaries unable to be located by the central protagonist, who, no matter how far he travels, ends up where he started.

But the most ambitious academic program to date is almost certainly ‘Crash: Architectures of the Near Future’, which was taught by Nic Clear and Simon Kennedy at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London in 2007-08. For Clear and Kennedy, the ‘speculative’ nature of Ballardian architectural space is all-important. The course, which utilised film and animation, video and motion-graphic techniques to devise representations of ‘synthetic space’, challenged students to examine architectural themes across the broad span of Ballard’s writing. The aim was to process the manner by which he deploys ‘actual’ and ‘virtual’ environments to form a coherent analysis of the challenges inherent in a supersaturated technological world. Clear and Kennedy, like Manaugh, also point to the psychological effects of architecture, which leads on to their consideration of Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit’s film, London Orbital, as a text not only influenced by Ballard but also by the psychogeographical revival that Sinclair is closely associated with.

I recall in my interview with Manaugh, where I mentioned how I’d love to see Ballard taught in architectural schools. Geoff enthusiastically replied, ‘I would love to do this — it’s actually a conscious fantasy of mine…’ You can understand my excitement upon learning of Unit 15! I decided therefore to contact Nic Clear, and pin him down about Ballard, architecture and the fabulous work created by Unit 15, as well as the new U15 program for 2008-09, ‘The Near Future Part II’, which questions whether the utopianism of the ‘corporate architectural complex’ is viable in a world riven by conflict.

Simon Sellars

ABOVE: ‘The Sound-Sweep’, by George Thomson, based on the story by J.G. Ballard. A film produced for Nic Clear’s Unit 15 course, ‘Crash: Architectures of the Near Future’.

J G Ballard is one of the most original and distinctive authors of the last part of the C20th, and beginning of the C21st. His writing has encompassed topics as diverse as ecological crisis to technological fetishism and augmentation, and from urban ruination to suburban mob culture, and he has pursued these topics with a wit and inventiveness that is without comparison.

His understanding of architecture, and architects, and his prophetic visions make Ballard one of the most important figures in the literary articulation of architectural issues and concerns. From the description of futuristic houses that empathise with their inhabitants, to the bleak characterisation of gated communities consumed by sex, drugs and violence, Ballard’s world is highly prescient and ruthlessly unsentimental. Rather than examining specific texts, Unit 15 will be following themes implicit in Ballard’s writing.

Unit 15 will also be examining filmic interpretations of his writing, particularly David Cronenberg’s Crash and Jonathan Weiss’s The Atrocity Exhibition, and to a lesser extent Steven Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun. We shall also be looking at films inspired by Ballard’s work especially Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital. In short, we shall be examining all aspects of culture that can be considered BALLARDIAN.

Nic Clear & Simon Kennedy, ‘Crash: Architectures of the Near Future’, Unit 15, Bartlett School of Architecture, 2007-08.

SIMON SELLARS: Nic, how did the idea for ‘Crash: Architectures Of The Near Future’ come about?

NIC CLEAR: I’ve been interested in Ballard’s writing for many years; I was a big Joy Division fan and read The Atrocity Exhibition simply because they wrote a song with the same name. More recently, it struck me that the themes in Ballard’s work seem to address the issues about the built environment that architectural discourse seems to avoid: namely, how people actually operate within a social context where things are either falling, or have fallen apart. Architecture always seems to present this impossibly rosy view of the future and seems unable to deal with the possibility of failure, even though all architecture in some way fails.

SS: How have your students responded to Ballard’s work?

NC: The projects have been very successful, and the use of a literary point of departure has been quite liberating. The Ballardian theme has allowed students to really speculate on what they are doing, but also, more importantly, why they are doing it.

SS: Besides Unit 15, it seems there are a few architects, architectural critics, architecturally-minded artists and architecture schools that are starting to take notice of Ballard’s work.

NC: I’m not sure how many architects are being influenced by Ballard in their work, especially within ‘commercial’ architecture — maybe the forthcoming recession will make architects aware of the Ballardian possibilities of architecture. Within academia and architectural criticism, if such a thing still exists, there is a general disdain for ‘popular’ fiction — writing on, and about, architecture is still very elitist — and I have met quite a bit of resistance when discussing Ballard as a serious subject. However, I think that there is a desire to face up to a future that deals with a system in crisis, which Ballard articulates so brilliantly. I was recently reading Mike Davis’s breathtaking collection of essays, Dead Cities, and was constantly thinking ‘this is so Ballardian’. Also, writers like Frederic Jameson and Jean Baudrillard, who have been influenced by Ballard, are still incredibly important and influential. Obviously Ballard’s early identification of global environmental issues also makes him incredibly pertinent to many people. However Ballard does not give easy, or even any answers and this puts off many people. Given the current economic and environmental conditions, he seems more prescient than ever, not simply because of the situations he describes, but because he offers a mindset for dealing with these issues.

Many people may think that Ballard’s characters face the scenarios he creates with an unbelievable stoicism, although Ballard has an advantage over us, as most of us have never had to face any kind of catastrophe. I think the experiences of life in Shanghai during WWII made Jim believe that the human race is able to endure — and inflict — almost any horror imaginable.

ABOVE: A film by Michael Aling, produced for Nic Clear’s Unit 15 course, ‘Crash: Architectures of the Near Future’.

SS: A wider, and resurgent, trend in film and literature, which Ballard seems to have anticipated, is the idea that on some level we secretly desire the apocalypse, that we welcome the chance to explore the farthest limits of alienation. This is something that Chris Nakashima-Brown articulates very well: ‘The persistence of post-apocalyptic scenarios (as well as many disaster movies) expresses a latent yearning for the destruction of the state apparatus and the abolition of private property. At a deeper psychological level … the idea of roaming a depopulated earth rummaging for useful artifacts articulates the extent of our individual alienation in a thoroughly commodified society.’

NC: Many people may fantasise about these scenarios, but when it comes to losing their own luxuries, people will vote for whoever offers the easiest way out — which most often involves blaming someone else. The most depressing part of how current economic and social structures start falling apart is that, instead of embracing the liberating potential of re-structuring and re-organising, politically things could start getting much more conservative. This is obviously another common theme in Ballard. I grew up in the 70s with the three-day week and the winter of discontent, with the parks of London used as rubbish dumps, but for me it was great power cuts and no school, and out of it came punk … yet the down side was Thatcherism. Obviously the next few years will be catastrophic for ‘big business’ (is that so bad?), and the fall out will be difficult for many, but we will adjust to yet another ‘new normal’. We may even in the long run be better off as a society for it.

Personally, this will be my third major recession, and they are always the most productive times: when no one has money, money stops mattering.

SS: High-Rise is the obvious book to cite when discussing Ballard and architecture. Which of his other works is relevant?

NC: It’s easier to say which one’s aren’t relevant, and the answer to that is probably none! Crash is a personal favourite, I like the perversity of it; it takes the whole modernist fetishisation of technology and mixes it with contemporary obsessions like celebrity cults. The problem with the film was that it was soft-core pornography — all those shots of Debra Unger’s stockings — when really the book is quite hardcore: the leaky orifices, the polysexuality and the car as augmented bodily technology. It’s a surrealist masterpiece up there with Bataille’s The Story of the Eye and Duchamp’s ‘The Large Glass’.

SS: When I interviewed Geoff Manaugh, he defined ‘Ballardian space’ as ‘psycho spatial’. I’d be interested in your take.

NC: If you take Jameson’s postmodern hyperspace, remove the post-structuralist jargon, add some dark humour and set it on the periphery of any declining western industrialised city — especially London — then you are pretty close.

SS: Does this relate to Unit 15’s research into ‘synthetic space’?

NC: Synthetic space is the merging of the actual and virtual; writers like Ballard and Burroughs have been describing synthetic space for years. Within architectural terms, I see it as the inability to differentiate between spaces and their representations — where spatial representations are increasingly becoming spatial propositions.

SS: Ballard is famously obsessive about multi-storey car parks. What do they mean to him, do you think?

NC: The defining symbol of the 20th century is the motor car, and car parks are part palace and part mausoleum. They also tend to be quite ugly and boring, though often in a strangely beautiful and interesting way, and that sort of perversity defines Ballard’s aesthetic.

SS: For my PhD, I was researching contemporary attitudes towards modernist architecture and came across the critical reaction to the 2006 exhibition on modernist art at the V&A. I was completely shocked by Simon Jenkins’ response, which verged on demonic possession. He took particular exception to modernist architects, who he said were ‘the worst offenders because they became the most powerful’, and equates them with Hitler. (But as Deyan Sudjic riposted, such a caricature misrepresents ‘the full and often contradictory range of Modernist expression… none of which seemed to be inspiring much actual terror on the day I went’.) Why does Brutalist architecture in Britain continue to provoke such rage?

NC: The British establishment, and the English in particular, still have a real suspicion of architectural modernism, seeing it as ‘elitist’, ‘European’ and ‘socialist’. Brutalism especially has become a scapegoat for the failure of that post-war welfare state optimism. Of course, this is rubbish: the real failure lies in the political and cultural failure to actually bring about a more egalitarian and democratic society.

SS: On the other hand, as the antithesis to Jenkins, Ballard said: ‘I have always admired modernism and wish the whole of London could be rebuilt in the style of Michael Manser’s brilliant Heathrow Hilton’.

NC: I always imagine that Eden-Olympia in Super-Cannes was designed by someone like Manser. But lets face it, we can’t always trust such pronouncements by Jim, especially if it was for the benefit of the Guardian — imagine all that liberal angst and hand wringing.

ABOVE: A film by Peter Kidger, produced for Nic Clear’s Unit 15 course, ‘Crash: Architectures of the Near Future’.

SS: In his review of Davis’s City of Quartz, Ballard welcomes ‘unrestricted urban sprawl, the decentred metropolis, a transient airport culture, gated communities and an absence of traditional civic pride’. He suggests that architects and urban planners need to ‘make the most of this’, letting the environment guide them almost as if it is sentient, rather than conforming to the reverse, ie, the old ideal of the arrogant architect imposing his grand vision on the environment (in High-Rise, this was the downfall of the architect Royal). Do you agree with Ballard?

NC: ‘Unrestricted’ would be the key term; the brilliance of Davis’s analysis is to show how clearly urban planning follows such a narrow set of vested interests. Less planning, less controls, less regulation would only work if it also meant less greed, and what are the chances of that? It reminds me of that Noam Chomsky quote on the free market: ‘it sounds like a great idea, maybe we should try it sometime’.

SS: Rem Koolhaas seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to some of the architects in Ballard’s stories: the ego, the vainglory, the architect as self-styled eccentric…

NC: He probably likes to think he does. I like Ballard’s architects: they seem genuinely optimistic and have a faith, albeit misguided, in the power of architecture to change society for the good. They are of a much older generation — Ballard’s. I bet Robert Maitland would send angry letters into Building Design, the weekly British architectural newspaper, complaining about these new-fangled projects.

Rem’s recent work, especially in China, strikes me as cynical. His obsession with celebrity, especially his own, seems to be his main driving force, and like many ‘good’ Marxists of his generation, he has become a consummate capitalist. He is much more like Wilder Penrose from Super-Cannes — without the humour.

SS: Does architecture still have an image problem, then, in terms of this archetype of the arrogant, narcissistic architect imposing his vision on the people?

NC: Yes, because most of us are arrogant and narcissistic.

SS: In books such as Concrete Island and stories like ‘The Ultimate City’, Ballard depicts architecture as an instrument of oppressive capitalism, and architects as contributing to that oppression. For Ballard, it seems to me, no architect can be truly radical, or can truly think of architecture as ‘art’ when they are either carrying out the wishes of the State, mobilising state funds to realise their designs, or carrying out the desires of big business. Is this an accurate summation of architectural practice today? How would you reconcile that frustration with a pure creative spirit?

NC: I started my postgraduate dissertation in 1989 with a quote from Frederic Jameson: ‘Of all the arts, architecture is the closest constitutively to the economic, with which, in the form of commissions and land values, it has a virtually unmediated relationship.’

Little has changed since; in fact, things have got worse. Architecture is now synonymous with the architectural profession (or Corporate Architectural Complex), speculation is financial rather than intellectual, and architects have been complicit with the kind of greedy thinking and acting that has got us into the current global financial crisis. We have to stop thinking about architecture simply in terms of building buildings — that’s why I am so interested in looking at other models and disciplines to draw inspiration from.

SS: Ballard says that ‘Novelty architecture dominates throughout the world, pitched like the movies at the bored teenager inside all of us.’ Any thoughts on that?

NC: For novelty architecture, see my answer on Rem. A couple of years ago I used the phrase ‘Shapist Architecture’, taken from Tony Hancock’s 1961 film The Rebel, a satire on the art world. At one point he says, ‘I don’t paint the object, I paint the shape around the object’. Developments in the use of computer software have allowed architects to come up with a variety of three-dimensional forms, which has led to a whole raft of ‘blobby’ buildings, a lot of which appear to be self-indulgent and that confuse ‘looking interesting’ with ‘being interesting’ and ‘looking complex’ with ‘complexity’. We have an architecture of the image.

SS: In Ballard, architecture is often used as a form of social control. Did you perceive any similarities between the nature and cause of the banlieue riots in France in 2005, and the breakdown of society depicted in High-Rise?

NC: Not really. High Rise is about a rejection of convivial social structures and returning to a more ‘primitive’ social model. There is a brilliant French film from 1973 called Themroc
directed by Claude Faraldo, which seems to have a greater affinity with High-Rise, published two years later. In it, a blue-collar worker rejects his mundane life, knocks the front wall out of his apartment and starts living like a caveman. However, Kingdom Come, in many ways, does describes the type of anomie and alienation that dominates the urban periphery. Boredom and disenfranchisement brought about by simply being defined by what we consume are the most incendiary factors in the contemporary city.

ABOVE: A film by Dan Farmer, produced for Nic Clear’s Unit 15 course, ‘Crash: Architectures of the Near Future’.

SS: Do you think Ballard has much at all to do with psychogeographical conceptions of urban space? He appears to have been co-opted into the ‘movement’, such as it is.

NC: It seems everyone’s a psychogeographer nowadays. Psychogeography was originally articulated by the Situationists as an experimental form of urbanism that attempted a critique of the hegemonic values of urban planning and zoning by emphasising the ‘transience’ of the urban experience. The political aspect of psychogeography has been diminished in favour of a ‘poetics’ of the city. I think Ballard in some of his writing retains a lot more of that political conception of psychogeography than many who have fashionably co-opted that term.

SS: What role does film, video, animation and motion graphics play in your course? How can film methodology help to illuminate architectural design?

NC: My main interest in time-based techniques is the ability to tell stories. However, at a pedagogic level, working with film, video and animation does teach a whole number of organisational and aesthetic skills, so despite my anti-profession rhetoric, I seem to be doing a very good job in equipping students to operate very successfully within the profession.

SS: In The Atrocity Exhibition, there are many scenarios in which mental patients are encouraged to make their own films as therapy. Without wishing to casting aspersions on the mental health of your students(!), were the many references to DIY film aesthetics in the book an inspiration for your decision to use Ballard and film as a way into thinking about architecture? (Recall that in Atrocity, these amateur films recast the media landscape and the built environment in ‘ways that make sense’.)

NC: The way I teach is very much geared toward helping students find a voice, whether that is therapeutic is unimportant (to me) — besides, I hate that psychoanalytic model of teaching, just as much as I hate the paternalistic model.

SS: Sure, but I wasn’t really referring to the thereaputic aspects, though, more the DIY angle and the mediation of the built environment.

NC: The main decision to start using film in the way I teach architecture, which I have been doing since 1999, was simply because it was what I was doing myself. The rise of CGI, animation and the availability of digital video made it a much more accessible and viable way of generating, developing and communicating architectural and spatial ideas and narratives. The influence of lo-fi (as opposed to DIY) artists and filmmakers such as Bruce Nauman or Burroughs was an attraction, but it was the availability of the technology that got me going.

SS: Do you think Ballard is an especially ‘filmic’ or ‘cinematic’ writer?

NC: Yes, which is why the English literary establishment still treats him with suspicion since he is not a ‘literary’ writer. Ballard wants to create images and tell stories rather than impress with literary form.

SS: I think the films your students have turned out are simply stunning, especially considering they don’t have a ‘studio budget’ to work with — the filmmakers, as well as you and everyone involved, should be applauded. But besides making films, you also looked at feature-film versions of Ballard’s work. How can an analysis of these adaptations help in understanding ‘speculative, narrative architectures’ in Ballard’s writing?

NC: I have taken this particular position for two reasons: to engage with a critique of contemporary architecture, and because it’ s fun. The filmic analysis was just a starting point; out of all the films we watched, Jonathan Weiss’s Atrocity Exhibition and Sinclair and Petit’s London Orbital were the most influential.

Architecture should not be left to architects — the whole discourse needs opening up. The reason why I earlier questioned whether architectural criticism exists is simply because architecture is an incredibly insular and hermetic discipline — no one dares criticise the Rems, the Dannys or the Zahas for fear of being locked out. Magazines need content and they publish pretty much anything and everything without questioning it; if they did question it, then the content would dry up.

SS: It’s good to see Jonathan Weiss’s film gaining recognition. What do you appreciate about it?

NC: The fact that he had the guts to take it on with virtually no budget. The Atrocity Exhibition is the most ‘Burroughsian’ of all Ballard’s writing and I think Weiss has captured that. The use of found footage and the dislocated time line have echoes in the literary character of the book, and bits of the film are extremely beautiful to look at. I can’t stand the criticism that it doesn’t make sense or is difficult: these criticisms seem to ignore the difficulties of the original text.

ABOVE: ‘The Knife’ by Mario Balducci, produced for Nic Clear’s Unit 15 course, ‘Crash: Architectures of the Near Future’.

SS: Who else do you think would make a good fist of adapting Ballard?

NC: Taakishi Miike to direct High Rise as a total gore-fest, Michael Mann to direct Super-Cannes — and I’m working on an adaptation of ‘Motel Architecture’.

SS: Taakishi Miike? Good call! But tell me about your own adaptation.

NC: I’m going through the shower scene from Pyscho frame by frame to develop the analysis that JG alludes to in ‘Motel Architecture’. I’ve mapped out a rough script and hope to shoot something in the new year. Part of what I am doing for ‘The Near Future’, the issue of Architectural Design I’m guest editing, will be based on this project (some sort of ‘House Of The Future’) — the other part is an essay/rant against the architectural profession.

At the time he had been sitting in his chair in the centre of the solarium, bathing in the warm artificial light that flowed through the ceiling vents and watching the shower sequence from Psycho on the master screen. The brilliance of this tour de force never ceased to astonish Pangborn. He had played the sequence to himself hundreds of times, frozen every frame and explored it in close-up, separately recorded sections of the action and displayed them on the dozen smaller screens around the master display. The extraordinary relationship between the geometry of the shower stall and the anatomy of the murdered woman’s body seemed to hold the clue to the real meaning of everything in Pangborn’s world, to the unstated connections between his own musculature and the immaculate glass and chromium universe of the solarium. In his headier moments Pangborn was convinced that the secret formulas of his tenancy of time and space were contained somewhere within this endlessly repeated clip of film.

J.G. Ballard, ‘Motel Architecture’ (1978).

SS: The guest issue of AD was originally going to be explicitly ‘Ballardian, wasn’t it?

NC: The publication, in its current form, has changed from being explicitly about Ballard and Ballard’s writings to something more general: an antidote to the shiny ‘bigness’, ‘everything’s great’ vision of contemporary architecture presented by the mainstream architectural press. The guiding principles are still thoroughly ‘Ballardian’, even though I have opened the discussion up. I would still like to do a purely Ballardian book and will use The Near Future as a first step.

This is the blurb for the issue, which I think neatly sums up my aims for the whole Near Future project:

For the last 20 years, the architectural profession has been complicit with the laissez-faire ideology of late capitalism, assuming that the economic forces of growth and expansion are the only means by which society can develop and prosper.

The current economic crisis makes us question whether a future of unlimited growth is not only possible, but taking into account environmental factors, actually advisable. We have reached a moment of crisis — economic, environmental and technological — where we have to make choices about the type of future that we want, but also the type of future we can actually achieve.

It would appear that the Architectural Profession has nothing to say except ‘business as usual’, as it continues to produce bright, shiny renders of schemes that will sit empty for years. This proposed issue of Architectural Design offers a series of alternate voices, developing some of the neglected areas of contemporary urban life and trying to find visions of the future, not simply images of the future.

The proposed issue offers a diverse set of ideas that explore a number of possible ‘Near Futures’ — futures that may be influenced the resurgence of gout in Swindon, or take precedent from an analysis of the political landscape of Southern Italy where in some areas a state of effective lawlessness exists.

The issue combines critical analysis with gorgeous graphics, and features work produced at the margins of contemporary architectural practice. Drawing on topics as diverse as synthetic space, psychoanalysis, post-modern geography, post-economics, cybernetics, developments in neurology as well as the fictional writings of authors such as J G Ballard and William Gibson, ‘The Near Future’ will present a series of polemical blasts that are intended to rock the cosy world of architectural discourse.

Thank you, Nic Clear and Unit 15. ‘The Near Future’, the issue of Architectural Design guest-edited by Nic, will be published in September 2009.

ABOVE: ‘Nic’s right-hand talking to Evis, starring Nic Clear’. Video via archimaxx.

The Light-Painter of Mojave D: An Interview with Troy Paiva

Balalrdian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Joshua Says GO!’ by Troy Paiva. ‘A 30s twin-tail Lockheed Electra does the big sleep at Aviation Warehouse. Night, full moon, red-gelled strobe flash. Canon 20D.’

Originally published on, 6 June 2008.


Ballardian: Troy Paiva The photography of Troy Paiva treats us to canted visions of a crumbling, post-industrial America — decommissioned military bases, aircraft ‘boneyards’, abandoned desert towns. The scenarios are all shot at night and the work is presented straight out of the camera, mostly untouched by Photoshopping or other post-processing techniques. Troy uses available light, such as moonlight or sodium light (the latter of course plentiful in the modern-day archaeological ruins he haunts), but he also uniquely marks the shots with his light-painting skills (the introduction of hand-held, hand-applied light during the exposure) and the unearthly effects of red, green and blue-gelled strobe flashes. The cumulative effect is startling: like stills from a David Lynch film in a parallel universe in which Lynch, instead of adapting Barry Gifford’s novel Wild at Heart for his twisted desert noir masterpiece, had chosen Ballard’s Vermilion Sands instead.

Although Troy began to read Ballard only comparatively recently, his photography fits the definition of ‘Ballardian’ in the dictionary sense: ‘resembling or suggestive of the conditions described in Ballard’s novels & stories, esp. dystopian modernity, bleak man-made landscapes & the psychological effects of technological, social or environmental developments.’ But it also mirrors a significant strain that seems to fly by those consistently emphasising the ‘bleak’ in that dictionary statement. This is the ‘carnival in suburbia’ atmosphere that has always bubbled below the surface in Ballard but which flowered forth so vividly in books such as The Unlimited Dream Company and Hello America and in stories such as ‘The Ultimate City’, the latter two featuring abandoned American cities of the near future brought back to life virtually by sheer dint of imagination. Similarly, Troy doesn’t so much wallow in decay and entropy as he reanimates the ruins, surging new power through the bones of post-industrialism.

This interview has taken a bit of time to happen. I first made contact with Troy late last year, leaving a placeholder for a possible future interview. It was only recently, when a visitor to this site, Henry Swanson, left some interesting comments about Troy’s work that I was reminded of my duty. I subsequently invited Henry to help me out with the interrogation and the results of our survey into the world of Mr Paiva are here below for your scrutiny. But after all that, it was good timing in the end: Troy’s second book of photography, Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration, is due for publication in early July.

Simon Sellars

NOTE: Although I have tried my best to include a representative selection of Troy’s photos, I found it almost impossible to do justice to the scope, beauty and sheer volume of his work. If after reading this interview you find yourself wanting more examples, my advice is to start either at Troy’s official site or his flickr page and work your way from there.

I had arrived in Vermilion Sands three months earlier. A retired pilot, I was painfully coming to terms with a broken leg and the prospect of never flying again… I found a shallow basin among the dunes… The owner had gone, abandoning the hangar-like building to the sand-rays and the desert, and on some half-formed impulse I began to drive out each afternoon.

J.G. Ballard, ‘The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D’, first published in 1967, collected in Vermilion Sands (1971).

SIMON: Troy, when we first talked about your photos, you said, ‘People constantly refer to my photography as “Ballardian”.’ I can certainly see the connections, especially with Vermilion Sands and its sense of decadent ruin, a lurid, near-future civilisation lost in the desert sands. But is Ballard actually an influence on your work?

TROY: No. I came to him much later. I enjoyed the Vermilion Sands stories very much when I read them a couple of years ago and I can see why people connect my work with his writing. There is that sense of desolation and isolation, the fetishism of decay and destruction and a general sense of being outside the realm of normal society, as well as the melancholia of straggling on after everything has ended.

Same thing happened with Kerouac’s On the Road. After reading it recently I thought, ‘Wow, no wonder people keep saying that to me.’ Much of my photography stems from massive, epic road trips that criss-cross the southwest, where I cover thousands of miles in a couple of very surreal days. The mythology of The Road figures in a lot of my work. I guess these similarities show that human experience is roughly the same for all of us, we just have different ways of expressing it. See also Philip K. Dick.

The books of my formative years were George Stewart’s pastoral apocalypse classic Earth Abides, Hunter S. Thompson’s surrealist freak-out, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and The Stand, Stephen King’s pop-epic story of The End. Those three books kinda say it all about where my approach to the road, abandonment and the ‘post-everything’ world lies. And the movie Vanishing Point – that encapsulates my own road-trip mythology perfectly.

HENRY: ‘And there goes the Challenger, being chased by the blue, blue meanies on wheels. The last American hero, the electric Shinta, the demigod, the super driver of the Golden West.’

TROY: ‘And beans, lotsa beans.’ Man, I love that movie. It’s totally what the desert is about for me.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Color Television’ by Troy Paiva. ‘Behind an abandoned restaurant in the sleepy Mojave Desert town of Yermo, CA. The density of the sky was caused by the October Fires in SoCal. You could taste every breath. Night, full moon 2 minute exposure, natural, yellow and red-gelled strobe and flashlights. Composite of 2 images.’

HENRY: There are other things your work brings to mind, like the Mojave Desert Phone Booth.

TROY: Love it. Wish I’d had a chance to shoot it! I got lost on a series of endless dirt roads trying to find it, many years ago. Almost got stuck and had to give up. It’s been gone for at least five years now.

SIMON: What exactly is it about the desert that appeals?

TROY: I just love the expansiveness and isolation – it’s primal and uncompromising. I love that you can go for days without talking to anyone. It’s a land of outcasts and oddballs, where non-conformists can thrive. An incredible volume of American mythology is based on the desert and Western expansion, from the Gold Rush to Route 66. I’ve even heard my photography described as an epitaph for the mythology of the American West.

Dr Paul Ricci was thinking: So this is New York – or was. Greatest city of the twentieth century, here you heard the heart-beat of international finance, industry and entertainment. Now it’s as remote from the real world as Pompeii or Persepolis. It’s a fossil, my God, preserved here on the edge of the desert like one of those ghost towns in the Wild West. Did my ancestors really live in these vast canyons? They came on a cattle boat from Naples in the 1890s, and a century later went back to Naples on a cattle boat. Now I’m making another stab at it.

Still, the place has possibilities, all sorts of dormant things might be lying here, waiting to be roused.

J.G. Ballard, Hello America (1981).

SIMON: Your bio says your work is about ‘the evolution and eventual abandonment of the communities, structures and social iconography spawned during this country’s 20th century western expansion’. How did it come to be this way?

TROY: It’s simply who I am. When I was 13 my family went on a road trip, one of many, and we somehow found ourselves bouncing down 15 miles of bad dirt road to the classic ‘wild west’ ghost town of Bodie, arguably the most authentic ghost town in America. Today Bodie is kept in a state of ‘arrested decay’ and is a major tourist destination. Much of the road is paved and the parking lot is filled with tour buses, and in the summer the town is crawling with thousands of tourists from around the world. But back in the early 70s you could drive right into the centre of town and park. When we climbed out of the car we found we were the only ones there! I wandered that town alone for hours, slack-jawed at the thought that people would just walk away from furnished houses and businesses, a whole city, and never come back. I was hooked for life.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Texaco Marine’ by Troy Paiva. ‘North Shore Marina, Salton Sea, 2001. Most, if not all, the letters are gone by now. Night, 100% full moon/star light, 8 minutes, f5.6.’

SIMON: I understand it’s your Salton Sea work that gets most of the Vermilion Sands comparisons.

TROY: Yes. The Salton Sea is an enormous, accidentally created salt lake in a remote corner of the SoCal desert. In the 50s developers built elaborate resorts and golf courses around its shores and the department of interior stocked it with game fish. By the 60s it had become an idyllic combination of Lake Tahoe and Palm Springs, half outdoorsman’s paradise, half retreat for the Hollywood elite. By the 70s, however, two years of record rain caused massive floods and the lake, which has no outlet, began to fester and decay. The smell became unbearable as massive algae blooms died off. Anyone who could afford to move away did. By the 90s fish and birds were dying on a biblical scale – in the millions – triggered by the algae blooms. It’s a horrible, filthy place rimmed with rotten modernist resorts, marinas and trailer parks (most of which have been torn down now), and decaying dead fish and birds. Today the Salton Sea feels very much like the epicentre for the end of the world, a poster child for mankind’s failure to tame nature.

Ballardian for sure!

Ronnov-Jessen: [In your novella ‘The Ultimate City’] one could say that the dynamism represented by New York is actually the dynamism of decay.

Ballard: No, I don’t accept that. The city is abandoned, and with it, suspended in time, is a whole set of formulae for expressing human energy, imagination, ambition. The clock has stopped, but it will be possible for the boy to start it up again, just as in the novel Hello America where the young hero does precisely the same — except he attempts to do it on a continental level.

J.G. Ballard, ‘Against Entropy’, a 1984 interview with Peter Ronnov-Jessen.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Precis’ by Troy Paiva. ‘A flipped Mitsubishi Precis, run over by a tank, in the abandoned base housing at George AFB near Victorville, CA. There were several smashed cars left in strategic lines of sight used for infantry cover during wargames exercises. The engine block in this thing was crushed like an egg. Shot March 2001, 160T film. Night, about 8 minutes, full moon, but overcast, yellow and purple-gelled strobe-flash.’

HENRY: Do you think your photos suggest a cryptic ‘signs of passing’ of American Culture from the world stage?

TROY: I suppose it can’t help but be interpreted that way‚ but I must also say the rest of the world has more ruins and debris left behind than America does. The internet is overflowing with amazing photography shot in the abandoned places of the 21st century. Spend an hour Googling ‘urban exploration’ and you’ll see that the culture is exploding worldwide, so whilst you got the concept right, it’s important to see it as a human, post-industrial thing rather than purely American.

UrbEx is as old as mankind. Humans have always been obsessed with both building and exploration. I’m sure primitive man explored the abandoned caves of his ancestors too. We’re drawn to ruins. It’s just how we’re wired as a species. Whereas the 20th century saw an unprecedented worldwide explosion of construction, by the dawn of the 21st century much of this expansion had failed or become obsolete, leaving the world littered with an amazing array of every type of ruins imaginable. Today we are experiencing a true golden age of abandonment.

SIMON: You describe it as a ‘culture’. That suggests it’s more than simply the illicit thrill of sneaking into abandoned or forbidden territory.

TROY: Yes. UrbEx, or Urban Exploration, is the pastime of visiting TOADS (temporary, obsolete, abandoned and derelict spaces), but not for scientific, anthropological or nefarious purposes. It’s about absorbing the atmosphere and wabi sabi soul of these places. A ‘finding beauty in decay’ aesthetic. I visit these lapsed spaces for several of the same reasons that normal people visit a serene mountain glen: the soul-cleansing quietude and the sense of feeling very small in a big universe. But ultimately it is an entirely different sensibility. Where most people see waste and blight in TOADS, Urban Explorers see elegant devolution and the weight of time.

Found the man Traven. A strange derelict figure, hiding in a bunker in the deserted interior of the island. He is suffering from severe exposure and malnutrition, but is unaware of this or, for that matter, of any other events in the world around him … He maintains that he came to the island to carry out some scientific project — unstated — but I suspect that he understands his real motives and the unique role of the island … In some way its landscape seems to be involved with certain unconscious notions of time, and in particular with those that may be a repressed premonition of our own deaths. The attractions and dangers of such an architecture, as the past has shown, need no stressing …

J.G. Ballard, ‘The Terminal Beach’ (1964).

HENRY: Ballard has a strangely acute, Triassic sense of ‘deep time’ in his fiction‚ especially in short stories like ‘The Terminal Beach’. Similarly, in your book Lost America, you wrote, ‘The stars pinwheeling overhead and clouds smearing across the sky mirrored the compression of time created by the relentless pace of the trip.’ You said you were seeking to ‘heighten the unreality’ of these bizarre, spectral non-places.

TROY: It is a different reality. UrbEx night photography is very far removed from normal life, and my goal is to accentuate this surreal, otherworldly atmosphere in the work. One of the big attractions of night photography is this weird time-space distortion thing. Most of the night shooters I know are philosophical about the process. The exposures are minutes long, giving you time to sit in the dark and absorb the scene. Regardless of whether you are shooting cranes in an abandoned shipyard, or you’re on the top of a windswept mountain shooting thousand year old trees, it’s a wonderfully zen, contemplative experience.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Hot Seat 2’ by Troy Paiva. ‘Shot at the abandoned Fort Ord Army Base in Monterey, CA. I recently learned that most (soon to be all) of the barracks and entire laundry have recently been bulldozed. Hundreds of buildings. Gone. Night, full moon, pink and green-gelled strobe-flash, 3-4 minute exposure.’

HENRY: You must get scared sometimes.

TROY: I don’t really worry about stuff very much. I have yet to see a ghost or the undead, although I’ve had thousands of weird experiences. I’ve shot in many supposedly haunted locations and seen and heard things that some people would pass off as paranormal, but nothing that couldn’t be attributed to wind, settling or vermin in the walls. What I have seen a lot of are big poisonous spiders, three-storey drop offs into the yawning darkness with no railings, copper thieves, rattlesnakes, rotten floors and wasted teenage vandals. I’ve come out of buildings crawling with spiders (I’ve had some very bad spider bites over the years), missed a rattlesnake bite by inches and been chased back to the car by a pack of wild dogs. I’ve been run off by crazy, desert-rat property owners racking shotguns. I’ve been swarmed by a heavily armed platoon of border agents in southern Arizona while I was shooting in a pet cemetery. I’ve had countless cuts and bruises and sprained and twisted ankles, and I once gave myself an excruciating second-degree burn while light painting with fireworks in a sandstorm.

Doing this is a whole lot of fun, but there are a lot of very real ways to get hurt or killed. The dangerous aspect of UrbEx night photography is just not something I dwell on. If I did I’d never leave the house.

SIMON: In Lost America you wrote about coming across a sacrificial altar used in an occult ceremony.

TROY: Yeah, that was nasty. They had sacrificed a sheep on a makeshift altar in an abandoned Air Force fire station in a remote corner of the Mojave desert. Blood and entrails were smeared everywhere, lots of evil graffiti about how much fun it is to kill. It was a miserable sight. Sad.

SIMON: You said it was part of the ‘growing evidence of downright creepy stuff’ you’ve encountered. Are you implying that this kind of activity is on the rise?

TROY: Is it on the rise, or has it always been there, bubbling away under the surface? I don’t have the answer for that. Remember what I said earlier about the desert being the last place where oddballs can thrive? Some people are just bigger oddballs than others, what can I tell you?

HENRY: I enjoy reading your interior highway dialogues [Troy wrote 12,000 words to accompany the photos in Lost America]. You should definitely do more existential travel essays – you seem to have a feel for it.

TROY: Thanks, but I clearly don’t have as much to offer as a writer that I do as a photographer. Urban Exploration needs a new young writer, this generation’s version of Lester Bangs or Hunter S. Thompson, who can bring it into a modern pop-culture context. I’m not that writer, but I’ll gladly play the photographic role of Ralph Steadman.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Danger Zone’ by Troy Paiva. ‘Building 4900, abandoned. Decommissioned Fort Ord Army Base. It’s all in the details. Shot 1/07, night- totally dark space, red-gelled strobe and ungelled strobe through fenced room.’

SIMON: Do you know about the recent hysteria in Britain, with people being questioned and harassed by police for using a camera in public places under suspicion of terrorism? There has been a huge backlash from ordinary people demanding the right to take pictures in public without being branded a terrorist.

TROY: I’ve heard rumblings about that sort of thing here too, especially in big cities. No question, the climate for photographers has changed since 9/11. The police have all of us on a shorter leash. Here in western America everything is spread out though, so it’s much easier to fall between the cracks if you get out of the big cities. That’s why I like shooting in rural locations. You are a lot less likely to be hassled by the police or unsavoury characters.

HENRY: Ballard has described Shanghai as ‘cruel and lurid, polluted and exciting’. Except for ‘cruel’ this seems an apt description of your photography (I find your work too surreal to be genuinely malicious). Do you feel this same kind of frantic, otherworldly rush as you travel the land in search of… of what, exactly?

TROY: Ghosts. Not Hollywood movie ghosts-actors under sheets waving their arms, but the ghosts of technology, a slice of amazing human history that is already being forgotten as we rush headlong towards… whatever the hell it is we are rushing towards. I don’t believe in ghosts in the traditional sense, but these places carry a spiritual weight that is unlike occupied places or nature. The stillness and atmosphere, especially alone at night, can be an emotionally overwhelming experience. No question, it is a rush.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Canted’ by Troy Paiva. ‘1959 Buick at a nameless high desert junkyard near Lake Los Angeles, CA. Night, 2 minute exposure, full moon purple and green-gelled strobe-flash. Big and rusty.’

SIMON: Is America really changing as rapidly as your work suggests?

TROY: Yes, it’s changing faster and faster. America is all about speed and ‘the new’ so we’re always replacing things that don’t really need replacing. It’s interesting how the places and objects I find have changed over the years. Twenty years ago it was all about the debris left behind by the finned atomic-age, but now the focus has shifted to the debris of the 70s and 80s: junkyard minivans and wide-body airliners are replacing the big-finned station wagons and 707s. Disposable plastic replacing chromed steel.

Who knows where it’s headed? Surely we’re into another period of contraction in the West as gas tops $4 a gallon, which only means junkyards filled with giant SUVs and more abandonments to explore, but I have no idea where it will ultimately end up.

When Los Angeles is forgotten, probably what will remain will be the huge freeway system. I’m certain the people in the future — long after the automobile has been forgotten — will regard them as enigmatic and mysterious monuments which attested to the high aesthetic standards of the people that built them. In the same way that we look back on the pyramids or the mausoleums in a huge Egyptian necropolis as things of great beauty — we’ve forgotten their original function. It’s all a matter of aesthetics. I think that highways for the most part are beautiful. I prefer concrete to meadow.

J.G. Ballard, ‘How to Face Doomsday without Really Dying’, a 1974 interview with Carol Orr.

SIMON: How did you get interested in night photography?

TROY: In 1989 I was working as a designer/illustrator for a major toy company, drawing and painting every day in a heavily art-directed environment. After several years of that I lost any sense of the artistic fulfilment I was originally getting from the job. The last thing I wanted to do was draw and paint at home too, so I was desperate to find a new personal creative outlet. At the time my brother Tom was a full time photography student at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. One of his classes was in night photography. Being my brother, he knew I’d be fascinated by night shooting on a conceptual level, so he snuck me along to some lectures and shoots with the class in the decaying industrial sections of SF. It instantly dawned on me that this was the perfect way to photograph the abandoned roadside towns I was already exploring. After one trip to the desert to shoot at night I became totally obsessed and consumed by it.

Ballardian: Tom Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Alameda Corridor’ by Tom Paiva.

SIMON: Do you see any similarities with your brother Tom’s work?

TROY: When we were both learning the ropes in night shooting we frequently shot at night together. Now Tom lives in Los Angeles and he has a commercial photography business shooting large format architectural and industrial work. Living 500 miles apart, we seldom get the chance to shoot together anymore. Tom’s aesthetic is the complete opposite of mine; he doesn’t light paint, he doesn’t do the UrbEx-style locations, and his complex and meticulous – and ultimately gorgeous – large-format work is the exact opposite of my quick and dirty, guerrilla-style shooting. My compositional style tends towards a pop-surrealist, melodramatic and cartoony look, whereas his is a more stately and formalist style. His work is cool and elegant, mine hot and visceral. Yes, we’re both night photographers, but our styles couldn’t be more different. We’re very careful to avoid doing similar work specifically because we are both named ‘T. Paiva’ and we both make a conscious effort to avoid stepping on each other’s artistic toes. One way we’re similar though is that we’re both loners, but I think that is a trait that runs strong in most night shooters. It’s funny to watch a group of night photographers descend on a location – they usually say something like ‘meet you here at 1am’ and head off in opposite directions.

SIMON: Who else can you recommend in the field?

TROY: Jan Staller, Richard Misrach, Michael Kenna and Steve Fitch for sure. Studying the lighting work of O. Winston Link, William Lesch and Chip Simons back in the late 80s was really important for me, too. I’d sit there for hours, deconstructing their images trying to figure out how they lit their subjects. But maybe I owe more to David Lynch, Roger Deakins, Vittorio Storaro, Juan Ruiz Anchía, Emmanuel Lubezki, Tim Burton and a trillion other movie artists. I watch a lot more movies than I read photo books.

SIMON: What kind of equipment do you use?

TROY: I shot on film from 1989 to 2004 using cheap, outdated flea-market 35mm gear. It felt right for me to be shooting this forgotten junk with junk. This old work has a Holga-esque, toy-camera lo-fi quality that many find endearing today. I guess I was unintentionally ahead of the curve there too. I stopped shooting for a year in 2004 as the film era fizzled out, frustrated by lab closures, the lack of quality film processing and the low yield of acceptable work with my ancient equipment. In 2005 I moved to digital once I saw that camera technology had advanced enough to allow me to do noise-free time exposures. I now shoot with a Canon 20D and a 12-24mm Tokina zoom lens. I use a heavy, solid Slik tripod because I do a lot of work in wind and rough conditions and I need as stable a platform for the camera as possible. Regrettably, I was forced away from the ‘shooting junk with junk’ ethos by changing technology, but with the 20D already being superseded by several newer models in the past few years, maybe the 20D is already ‘outdated junk’ gear too.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Speedlines’ by Troy Paiva. ‘Mid ’70s Chevy Monte Carlo at the Pearsonville, California Junkyard. This is the last of the Pearsonville work, I wanna try to head back soon tho. Night, 2 minute exposure, full moon, blue and green-gelled flashlight.’

SIMON: You’ve described your technique as ‘low cost/high impact lighting’. Is it therefore accessible for amateurs and people beginning to experiment with photography?

TROY: Absolutely. The advent of digital photography and the ability to chimp the shot on the back of your camera as you work has revolutionized night photography and light painting. In the film era you could shoot a whole roll of film and not know that the leader on the film never got picked up by the sprocket, let alone that your exposures were incorrect or your lighting was not bright enough.

All my lighting is done with a single 20 year old Vivitar 285 strobe flash and a collection of flashlights from a tiny keychain LED to a 1,000,000 candlepower spotlight. I have a set of theatrical lighting gels cut to small swatches that I just hold over the light source. Because the exposures are minutes long, I have plenty of time to do multiple flash pops and take my time with my flashlight work. Observers are often surprised by my low-tech lighting technique, asking ‘Is that really all there is to it?’ I have to keep it simple because this is frequently a guerrilla-style of photography. Travelling light is critical, so all my gear except the tripod fits in a small daypack, allowing me to get in, set up, shoot and get out quickly.

You can buy a flash like mine second-hand for $50. All of my flashlights could be bought at any drugstore like Target or Walmart. Every halfway-large city has at least one theatrical supply store where you can buy gel material. It costs about $10 a sheet. The reason for not trying light painting is not because of cost! Look at any of the myriad night photography or light-painting groups at a photo-sharing site like flickr and prepare to be overwhelmed with amateurs doing this kind of work in all sorts of locations. It’s everywhere now. I seem to have created a Frankenstein.

SIMON: Do you work fast?

TROY: I work incredibly fast compared to other night shooters. A lot of that is a product of having almost 20 years of experience, but I am a seat-of-the-pants type of artist in any media. The less thinking and planning and fussing over the piece, the more relaxed and natural it will be.

It’s kind of like a pianist playing a song with thousands of notes without sheet music: if they think about every note, they can’t possibly play the song. Rather, they turn off the conscious part of their mind and just let it flow. Same for painters and other artists. It’s no different for photography. The more you think, plan and try to get the shot, the more likely it will elude you.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Las Vegas Club’ by Troy Paiva. ‘The YESCO sign boneyard, Las Vegas, NV. Shot May, 2000. Night, 160 Tungsten film, full moon, sodium and mercury vapor lights, red-gelled strobe flash. That’s the Luxor hotel spotlight. Legendary location seen in many TV shows and movies containing hundreds of old signs. Almost everything here was donated and moved to the Las Vegas Neon Museum across town shortly after I shot here, this lot was turned into more manufacturing/warehouse space.’

Had they any idea that Las Vegas was defended by a rag-tag army of children? In an attempt to blind their camera lenses, Manson continued to turn up the electric power flowing into the city. The neon façades of the casinos and hotels were now so many cataracts of white lava, walls of incandescent pink and purple that seemed to set alight the surrounding jungle, turning the Strip and the downtown casino centre into an inflamed, shadowless realm through which the occasional armoured car would appear like a spectral dragon on the floor of a furnace.

J.G. Ballard, Hello America (1981).

SIMON: Funnily enough, given that your signature style is this unnaturally vivid primary-colour palette, I always picture purples and reds when I think of Vermilion Sands, more so Ballard’s Hello America. The gels you use irradiate your scenery – for me it really does evoke the near-future sheen of Hello America‘s abandoned United States, in which whole cities are buried in the desert, a vast continent paved over with accreted hyperconsumerism. But in photography at least, this seems an unusual approach to take with urban ruins – many would rather focus on the grey, rusting aspects of abandoned towns. Perhaps, like Ballard, you are breathing new life into these ruins, recombining them in new and unexpected ways.

TROY: Yes, you nailed it. Most UrbEx photography is a pure documentation of locations weathered to dreary and monochromatic greys and browns, but I’m taking it someplace else entirely by reanimating these places with light. Some say I’m bringing a festive, circus-like atmosphere to these dead places. It’s done in a sort of Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ spirit. My colour choices are usually predicated on the actual colour of the subject and location, not because of some premeditated ‘I must use green tonight’ mentality.

I see it as embracing the idea of death rather than fearing it. It’s about accepting it and having fun with this darker side of the human condition. My work tends to inspire melancholia, especially in older people, because they remember these places from their youth. It reminds them of their own mortality, but I think that palpable sense of transience and loss in these places is actually exciting and inspiring rather than sad or futile. I suspect that feeling runs strong in many urban explorers.

Personally, I’m not that opposed to pollution – I think the transformation of the old landscape by concrete fields and all that isn’t necessarily bad by definition. I feel there’s a certain beauty in looking at a lake that has a bright metallic scum floating on top of it. A certain geometric beauty in a cone of china clay, say, four hundred yards high, suddenly placed in the middle of the rural landscape. It’s all a matter of a certain aesthetic response. Some people find highways, cloverleaf junctions and overpasses and multi-storey car-parks ugly, chiefly because they are made of concrete. But they are not. Most of them are structures of great beauty.

J.G. Ballard, ‘How to Face Doomsday without Really Dying’, a 1974 interview with Carol Orr.

HENRY: Ballard has said that his fiction is the ‘dissection of a deep pathology’. Do you also see your own work as a kind of surgical procedure, laying bare the arid and often post-apocalyptically tinged dreamscapes of the USA in all its mythical glory? Or is it more intimate, personal and emotional than that?

TROY: Jeez, these are hard questions. It is a very personal and emotional process for me. It is an artistic process more than an intellectual one. My photography is about these places as they are now, not as they were. It’s not socioeconomic commentary, an anti-technology or anti-military-waste rant, or a warning about rampant consumerism and conspicuous consumption, though it has been interpreted as such by others. Put simply, I love these places. I am laying bare this rotten underbelly, but I’m doing it because these places simply move me, not necessarily because of what they were, but because of what they are now. It’s all about the atmosphere and feeling, and I try to enhance this surreal vibe with my time exposures and light painting.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: The cover of Paiva’s Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration, published by Chronicle Books.

SIMON: I see that Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG has written the foreword to your forthcoming book, Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration. As we’ve previously seen, Geoff shares a Ballardian approach to architecture and urban exploration.

TROY: My editor at Chronicle Books introduced me to Geoff. He was a last-second addition to the project when my original essayist fell through at the 11th hour. Geoff immediately ‘got it’ and wrote a very eloquent and flattering forward, quoting from The Atrocity Exhibition among several other books. I enjoy Geoff’s blog tremendously, especially when the subject of ‘the philosophy and aesthetics of abandonment’ comes up.

Paiva’s images of airplane graveyards, in particular, are all the more evocative and gripping when you consider that his father was a flight engineer, hopping planes from country to country. In his book The Atrocity Exhibition, J.G. Ballard describes a surreal landscape of crashed bombers, abandoned air warfare ranges, and disused runways. He refers to such images as ‘the nightmare of a grounded pilot,’ or ‘the suburbs of Hell,’ a ‘University of Death,’ across which people wander, stunned by the ruins all around them.

Geoff Manaugh, foreword to Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration.

SIMON: Tell us more about the book.

TROY: It’s broken down into five chapters: ‘Byron Hot Springs Hotel’, about an abandoned early 20th century resort; ‘16th Street Station’, about a derelict Beaux Arts inner city train station; ‘Decommissioned’, which covers over a dozen various abandoned military and industrial complexes; ‘Desert’, about the abandoned roadsides of the desert southwest; and ‘Boneyard’, a high-desert graveyard comprised of hundreds of junk aircraft.

While it’s as similar to Lost America as you’d expect two volumes of ‘light-painted night photography in abandoned places’ to be, this new one is about specific locations rather than general overviews of types of places. I have the first production copy sitting on the desk in front of me and it really looks sharp. It’s a much higher-quality piece than Lost America. The layout and design is much more sophisticated and refined and the print quality is a vast improvement. I’m frankly floored by it and I’m my own worst critic, so I’m pretty optimistic that other people are going to be floored by it too.

SIMON: What sort of research do you do, in terms of finding out sites to visit and photograph?

TROY: I drive around in the desert and scout locations. I have a collection of old road maps from the 50s, which I’ve studied at length. It’s fascinating to see whole towns on those maps that no longer exist. In the last few years I’ve had a lot of email from people telling me about great locations and I’ve been acting on some of these tips with great results. I’ve also been shooting with a lot of local UrbEx photographers who have introduced me to some spectacular spots very close to home.

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Wind Slice’ by Troy Paiva. ‘1930s airliner in storage at Aviation Warehouse in El Mirage, CA, a Mojave Desert aircraft boneyard that services the film industry as well as recycles aircraft parts. Night, full moon, red-gelled flash. 2-3 minutes.’

He welcomed this journey into a familiar land, zones of twilight. At dawn, after driving all night, they reached the suburbs of Hell. The pale flares from the petrochemical plants illuminated the wet cobbles. No one would meet them there. His two companions, the bomber pilot at the wheel in the faded flying suit and the beautiful young woman with radiation burns, never spoke to him… Who were they, these strange twins – couriers from his own unconscious? For hours they drove through the endless suburbs of the city. The billboards multiplied around them…

J.G. Ballard, ‘The Atrocity Exhibition’ (1970).

SIMON: And your favourite shoot so far?

TROY: The aircraft boneyards are still my favourites. I’m an airline brat so I grew up around planes. There is nothing that can prepare you for walking up to half of a 747 laying on its belly in the sand. It’s just epic. I shot the derelict ocean liner ‘S.S. Independence’ earlier this year, days before it left to be towed to the breaker beaches of Asia. That was an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime shoot.

SIMON: Do you have a desire to shoot outside of America?

TROY: Oh sure: the abandoned industrial cities of Eastern Russia, Gunkanjima – that completely abandoned island city in Japan – the half-finished hotels of the Sinai, the abandoned Formula 1 racetrack at Reims, France… the list goes on and on. Realistically, though, there is more than enough in the American Southwest to shoot for a lifetime.

It’s mainly a money issue. Being a freelance artist in the 21st century is a low-budget lifestyle. Still, with a few deep-pocket patrons I’d be happily winging my way across the globe next week!

Night Vision: The Art of Urban Exploration is shipping on 2 July, 2008 and is available for preorder via Chronicle Books and

Ballardian: Troy Paiva

ABOVE: ‘Clipped and Headless’ by Troy Paiva. ‘A mutilated Delta 727 fuselage on its belly at Aviation Warehouse in El Mirage, CA, a Mojave Desert aircraft boneyard that services the film industry as well as recycles aircraft parts. Night, full moon, red-gelled strobe flash. 2-3 minute exposure.’

+ Troy’s official site
+ Troy’s Lost America site
+ Troy’s flickr stream
+ Design Shed, Troy’s freelance design and illustration site