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Sebastian Stumpf, Sukima, 2009. Photo: Sebastian Stumpf

An exhibition as smartly titled as Mind the System, Find the Gap deserved a short trip on the Eurostar.

That's why on Tuesday, i was once again at Z33 House for Contemporary Art in Hasselt to see the work of artists who are 'seeking out the gaps in the system.' I'll come back to it with a detailed review of the exhibition in the next few days. But let's kick of the show with Sebastian Stumpf's photo documentation of his performances in the 'gaps' (in japanese sukima) of Tokyo architecture. The artist is literally filling in the hiatus in the dense architectural structure of the city, squeezing his body in the overlooked spaces between the buildings. The action makes us suddenly aware of this 'urbanism interrupted', and calls our attention to what is in-between, behind, or beyond.

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Sebastian Stumpf, Sukima, 2009. View of the exhibition space during the opening of Mind the System, Find the Gap. Photo: Kristof Vrancken / Z33

A very Pasta & Vinegar work....

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Sebastian Stumpf, Sukima, 2009. Photo: Sebastian Stumpf

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Sebastian Stumpf, Sukima, 2009. Photo: Sebastian Stumpf

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Sebastian Stumpf, Sukima, 2009. Photo: Sebastian Stumpf

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Sebastian Stumpf, Sukima, 2009. Photo: Sebastian Stumpf

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Sebastian Stumpf, Sukima, 2009. Photo: Sebastian Stumpf

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Sebastian Stumpf, Sukima, 2009. Photo: Sebastian Stumpf

Mind the System, Find the Gap remains open until 30 September 2012 at Z33 in Hasselt, Belgium.

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As i mentioned a few days ago, the Barltett's student show is one of my favourite events of the Summer in London. It is however so overwhelming and turbulent that you need dedication and pure chance to spot the works that might interest you the most.

I'm glad my Bartlett expedition led me to The Theatre of Synthetic Realities.

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The project, authored by architectural designer Madhav Kidao, is miles away from what you'd expect from an architecture work. No model, no plan. In fact, it rather looks like an essay made of photos, short videos and texts. Together, they reflect on immoral architecture, unsympathetic machines, reality filtered by artificiality and more generally, our symbiotic relationship to technology. In fact, Kidao likens his project to "an exaggerated caricature of our present and near future relationships to technology as is stands."

What made the project remarkable is its focus on how new technologies prompt new behaviour and new ethical questions and decisions. I realize i might be accused of heresy and crucified in front of the populace for writing this but ethics and social concerns are usually not the nerve centers of architectural exhibitions.

Allow me to do a bit of copy/pasting and let's see each other right after that for an interview with Madhav Kidao.

The Theatre, as illustrated in the film Making Friends and Other Functions, is a vehicle in which to explore the relationship that exists between the designer/creator and his or her repertoire of increasingly intelligent collaborative tools, be these tools to create or tools to think. The machines, under the selective guidance of the designer, construct their own reality based upon the information they extract from their environment and its unwilling occupants. This is ultimately a task with no beginning or end, and fundamentally questionable ethical integrity. As result we are left to question the role of the Architect, both in regard to creative authorship and ethical responsibility.

Making Friends and Other Functions v.2 from Madhav Kidao on Vimeo.

Hi Madhav! What are the 'Unsecure Webcams' that are mentioned in ACT I - The Observer? What makes them unsecured?

As I'm sure you are aware most live feed web and surveillance cameras can be accessed remotely through the internet. It is possibly one of the Internet's worst kept secrets that by simply googling specific codes for particular camera models, for example "intitle:liveapplet inurl:LvAppl" a list of all the live webcams of that particular make and model is given. Often, however, the owners of the cameras, usually domestic or small businesses, fail to password protect them, this is what makes them unsecured. Therefore in theory anybody is able to view the camera's live stream and with many cameras actually control the pan and tilt of the camera. As long as you have not cracked any passwords, this is entirely legal.

Whilst the feeds are usually pretty innocent, and frankly often mundane, every now and then you come across something that you no doubt shouldn't have done, an insight into a private world completely unconnected to our own other than through technology. It's quite a peculiar relationship that exists between the remote observer and the realities of an unknown space that is unfolding before them. Time is of particular importance as you are viewing in real time a world in which you have no knowledge of its past beyond the moment you logged in, yet our extended embodiment into the animate camera somehow immediately embeds us into this unfamiliar space.

This is not too dissimilar to the tele-assistance relationship between a drone pilot and the drone. Initially we are completely ignorant of where and what it is we are looking at other than what can been interpreted from the point of view of the camera. It's in our nature to be inquisitive, to people watch, and there is some perverse pleasure in trying to comprehend the events unfolding before us. However due to the lack of context more often than not this is simply educated speculation. The more I explored this strange paradigm the more I found myself just making up wholly fictitious scenarios in my head based upon the slightest clues garnered purely from body language, perceived interactions and the environment. The epistemologically variety of this action means that truth soon begins to seem irrelevant compared to the desire to fabricate an alternative reality.

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Machine Vision Portrait - Gesture Recognition

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Machine Vision Portrait - Skeleton Tracking

The name of the project, The Theatre of Synthetic Realities, places your work in the realm of fiction. Yet, it was inspired by elements of reality. Could you tell us about the trends, behaviors and technologies that have inspired the project?

It was from this point that the concept of a Theatre of Synthetic Realities emerged, a kind of reinterpretation of Hitchcock's Rear Window for the 21st Century, in which the binoculars are replaced by the the vast interconnected complexity of our computing networks; with each input - be it a camera, a sensor or even another person - acting as a portal into a parallel environment. In much the same way as the binoculars are a prosthesis to extend our vision, the global technological systems that we symbiotically rely upon extend our powers of perception and influence around the world. In Rear Window the architecture of community and society defines the story. I was keen to explore how technology facilitates new forms of social interaction and redefined concepts of neighbourhood and community, and how this in turn redefines our concepts of architecture.

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James Stewart in Hitchcock's Rear Window, 1954

The impact technology has had upon our social systems, access to knowledge and global influence is nothing particularly new, Marshall McLuhan famously introduced the concept of a Global Village and Global Theatre almost 50 years ago. For me what is more interesting is how this has evolved into the relatively more recent concept of the Internet of Things. The trend I believe that we we will see with the Internet of Things is that it is not just objects that can be tagged and categorised but also the spaces they inhabit and the actions and events that they are associated with. In this way spaces, buildings and environments are becoming encompassed in the Internet of Things. This is not limited to architecture though, the social activities, and routines that are contained within that architecture add to the data history of a place, a form of artificial psychogeography. What this means is that in much the same way as we exist in a duality between physical and digital social circles, the spaces that we occupy do too. What we begin to see is a physical environment and the live updating digital representation of that environment. This is facilitated by new advances in sensory and scanning technologies, computer vision and biometric analysis.

I, like many others, was investigating the potential of the XBox Kinect as means of capturing complex real time data. Its capabilities have been widely publicised but in simple the idea that a machine can see in three dimensions and then also recognise human gesture is incredible. It allows any machine created using such technology to become actually embodied in a physical world. It begins to transcend the border between the physical and the digital which is a very powerful concept when thinking about intelligent environments. And as we increase our dependence upon the internet as our primary source of knowledge and interaction, our interpretation of truth becomes more reliant upon the technology that we assign to gather and interpret the real world. So fundamentally we start to view the physical world through the filter and perception of machines, in effect, a synthetic reality.

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ACT III - The Vision Machine

Could you describe the Vision Machine, the way humans would 'interact' with it and its ultimate purpose?

The idea of the Vision Machine originated from Paul Virilio's book The Vision Machine. In it he discusses the concept of the "automation of perception", predicting a machine that sees for itself not for the benefit of man. This concept coupled with an interest in how artificial intelligence feeds into responsive/adaptive environments intrigued me. The capabilities that a computer has to extract a significant amount of information from a physical location combined with its ability to comparatively analyse that data with the vast amounts of data stored online through a neural network is almost enough to simulate perception. The resources that a computer has immediate accesses to - such as The Internet of Things - and its methods of analysis are completely alien to our own, therefore it could be predicted that its interpretations of the physical world would be alien too. Building upon the idea of how a human would perceive a space as viewed remotely through a webcam, I wanted to create a sensationalised demonstration of how the camera itself could possibly perceive the space it inhabits in relation to its learned perceptual world.

In regard to the Theatre of Synthetic Realities, the Vision Machine is in essence a robotic actor, cameraman and director in one. Whereas in the initial webcam scenario I was in complete control of the camera and was free to make my own conclusions of what I saw, with the Vision Machine at the other end I am relegated to a more collaborative role in which the machine dictates what it is I view however provides information that I would never have ordinarily been able to extract. Working from this principal we could then predict that the collaborative relationship between myself and the semi-autonomous machine could lead to an emergent performance unique to the relationship. The next stage in the Vision Machine was to then suggest that, much like I had done, it too begins to fabricate elements of reality and as such distort the reinterpretation of the digital model of that environment as well as what the viewer believes to be true.

The project has never really been a serious proposition for a machine to be developed. In fact it was supposed to be an exaggerated caricature of our present and near future relationships to technology as is stands. The machine is portrayed as more of a mild irritation that we just coexist with rather than any kind of interactive companion. Its ultimate purpose is as an analogical device to critique and explore our concept of what digital fabrication is or could be. In this project we are fabricating reality and the representation of reality as part of the Internet of Things. It is very much an attempt to question the relationship we have to tools and technology in a world in which we continue to transfer not just physical but increasingly cognitive faculties over to those tools. The is not seen to be necessarily a negative thing but rather an interrogation of the possibilities this presents, especially in regard to new forms of collaboration.

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ACT IV - Making Friends and Other Functions

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ACT IV - Making Friends and Other Functions

I found 'ACT IV - Making Friends and Other Functions' a bit daunting: here is a machine that observes human beings constantly and then assesses them and assigns them a character. Do you see current technology going in that direction? And what would be the benefit of having such machines around?

In Making Friends and Other Functions everything is real and works to some degree. Somethings I have exaggerated or simulated to communicate the ideas more coherently, however they are all based upon pre-existing technology, most of which is already incorporated into our smartphones. So rather than technology heading in that direction it is in fact already there. In fact casinos have been using some of the most advanced computer vision systems for sometime to catch out those attempting to cheat as well as identifying individuals who have been banned. But what I am more interested in is the relationships between the designer, society and emerging technology rather than necessarily a specific technology and its implications.

One of my aims for the project was to see how technologically advanced I could make it for the least amount of money; so begging, borrowing and hacking spaces, hardware, open source software and code. Then was an attempt to demonstrate how the role of the designer is changing, particularly in the world of open source projects. Practically any designer can now create they're own tools and machines for any job-specific purpose with a relatively low budget, the RepRap being the archetype. As complex and powerful technologies become cheaper and easier to hack, like the Kinect, the designer is gifted with power and responsibility that is free from supervision.

That sense of malaise you have from the idea of camera watching and judging you is in large part due to your loss of control and empathy due to the unpredictable nature of a non-human agent. I think this is an issue that as designers, and particularly architects, we will have to address. As architecture reacts to shifts in social habits I think we will see a lot of unforeseen challenges in regard to what technologies we use and the manner in which we do so.

Fundamentally my project is an immoral one and I think the concept of an immoral architecture is something that will become increasingly prevalent in the future.

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ACT IV - Making Friends and Other Functions

The text of your project says that "The Theatre (...) is a vehicle in which to explore the relationship that exists between the designer/creator and his or her repertoire of increasingly intelligent collaborative tools, be these tools to create or tools to think. The machines, under the selective guidance of the designer, construct their own reality based upon the information they extract from their environment and its unwilling occupants. This is ultimately a task with no beginning or end, and fundamentally questionable ethical integrity. As result we are left to question the role of the Architect, both in regard to creative authorship and ethical responsibility." Is ethical responsibility already an issue architects and designers encounter nowadays when working with new technological tools?

Ethical responsibility has always had some part to play in the design process but I think that is slowly coming to the forefront. The explosion of open source has really brought ethics into the design process as it not only transfers power from the institution to the individual but it also provides new forms and channels to disseminate information, this recent article actually being a perfect example.

For me, consciousness and intent are just as important as categorical right and wrong. For exploring emergent technology is just that, emergent, it is unknown. While a particular technology may have positive society changing impact it may well have dire consequences too. I'm not one for speculations upon utopian ideals and believe that we will have to tread and adjust the boundary of what is acceptable to progress civilisation, however whilst the unquestioning embrace and exploration of new technology is exciting we often fail to question its merit beyond novelty. As Joseph Weizenbaum suggested, just because we can do something doesn't mean we ought to. I think we have to take a utilitarian stance and ask ourselves is doing something in a new way beneficial to design and society? And if so is it not to the detriment of others?

Admittedly I think architecture is a bit slow off the mark when it comes to these kinds of issues. This is understandable when you consider the timescale architecture operates on compared to other design fields. However Architects have always been eager to incorporate new design methodologies and the ethics of the technology used will undoubtedly become an issue.

In terms of the Bartlett show, I'm guessing there is a particular reason you have asked this question so I would ask the same of you. The show is always a dazzling array of phenomenal work and the mastery of a variety of mediums used is breathtaking. I do feel the density and complexity of the show does however sometimes make it overwhelming and distracting from the work. Of course as with any degree show the work on display can only ever be a vast reduction of the full scope of the project and as such the viewer is never going to get a comprehensive understanding of that project.

Thanks Madhav!

All images Madhav Kidao.

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Image credit: Theo Games Petrohilos

If there's one student show that never disappoints, it's the Bartlett Summer Show. There are models over drawings over installations over plans over rendering. Over the floor, the walls and the ceilings. Year after year, that show is consistently eye-pleasing and inspiring. The exhibition is now closed but i caught up with one of the new graduates, Theodore Games Petrohilos to talk about Air Futures. The speculative project investigates the trade of Air Rights (TDRs - Transferable development Rights) which, in real estate, refer to the empty space above a property. Generally speaking, owning or renting land or a building gives one the right to use and develop the air rights.

What would happen if the regulation of air rights was given free rein, if air became a commodity that could be bought and sold? How would the trade physically manifest itself? Can we imagine that one day an Air Bank will open in the heart of Manhattan?

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The Wall Street headquarters of the Air Futures Company - the company controls the trade of Air Rights in New York. Image credit Theo Games Petrohilos

The Air Futures project speculates on the apparition and spread of a system that would manipulate, buy and sell air. The work explores both the legality and physicality of the air above New York.

Here's the result of the Q&A session with the architect:

Hi Theo! Air Futures is a speculative project but it is anchored in elements of reality as well.
Could you explain us what they are?

Yes, the fact that this project emerged from existing realities is what made it so exciting to work on. Air Futures is the speculative evolution of the air rights trade in New York, where volumes of 'air' are bought and sold to facilitate complex development manoeuvres over the city's grid. The trade in TDR's (Transferable Development Rights) works on the basis that the owners of a plot in the city should be able to fully exploit that plot, as an extruded volume up until the full height of the city's zoning limits. So if the existing building on that New York plot doesn't reach the full height of this invisible zoning limit, then the owner of the plot can sell the leftovers! This is what my project deals in - the leftover developable volumes of space above the city's urban landscape, and the further ramifications, and processes that arise from giving this air value.

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View of the model and drawings at the Bartlett Show. Image credit Theo Games Petrohilos

How and why would the trading of air appear?

At the moment, the air rights trade allows the transfer of these developable volumes under strict rules. For example, you sell the space above your building, and the new owner can build his new building over your plot or bend over it. This happened in 1962 with the Pan Am (now Metlife) Building, the first foray into air rights, where the largest office building at the time was constructed over the historic Grand Central Terminal. The air rights volume can also be transferred to another area, across the road or over strict movements in the grid, to develop elsewhere, and to allow development beyond the set zoning limit. This action of maximising a plot's value without destroying the existing structure has proven to be a valuable tool for the ever-densified city: selling air rights to gain the full 'value' of a plot without physically touching the existing building itself.

The value of these air volumes have the potential to be enormous, for example, in 2005 Christ Church on Park Ave and 60th sold its air rights to developers building on the same block for $30 million. The value of that air volume was based on a speculative idea of what could be developed with it. What fascinated me, was that people where, and are paying millions of dollars for 'air', that is 'air' as a legal entity - a potential future developable volume that could reap even more gains if moved elsewhere, and perhaps joined with other volumes of air. Whole skyscrapers can be built from air rights accumulated from the same block, but now there is real talk of the expansion of the system - air is going public.

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Images credit: Theo Games Petrohilos

Government officials and speculators alike are looking into the creation of an 'air bank', where air rights can be accumulated and divided just like shares. Air rights will also be able to be transferred from one district to another, so the playing field will be larger, as will the potential profits. Brokers and traders will be brought in to facilitate these movements for new investors, who are betting on the potential of these air stocks to perform for them. The New York air rights trade is currently to do with relatively micro- transactions, with values closely associated with both the donor and receiving sites - as a development tool it appears to be manageable. As an investment tool, air becomes subject to the same systems that got us into our current financial mess, it becomes totally detached from reality and fully enters the maniacal world of speculation. We now see air as a commodity and this is where the Air Futures Company comes in.

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The Pan Am Building (image)

What 'air' are we talking about? It's not simply oxygen, right?

Well the term 'air' defines a legal volume with invisible boundaries, it's a completely intangible commodity, its values are based on speculative futures. As the air trade becomes more detached from the actualities of the development of a city and sways more to the fluctuations of a financial market - for the system to pertain to be sustainable it must try and find a solidity of value. In my thesis for this project; 'The Architecture of Mania' I explored how constructions around other intangible commodities create this tangible notion of value - these, like the Air Futures trade, I define as 'manias' that are subject to the crazed emotions of crowds and instinctual reactions to environments. In my research, I saw how important it is to give architectural physicality to these 'commodities' in order to excite a value in the mania as a whole.

Starting from Marx's assertions about commodity fetishism (that eventually led to revolutions!) arising from a detachment from physical production, I needed to define the physicality of this air being traded - give it a more solid value and gain the trust of investors already sick of intangible sub prime mortgages etc.
For example, the ascetic practice of St Simeon Stylites sitting on his pillar in 4th Century Syria for nearly 40 years, without being called a madman showed the power of his architecture. By giving physicality to his desired state "betwixt heaven and earth" with his pillar, his inaction gained a value - it separated him from the everyday earth below, and people could physically relate to his beliefs.

This is the same need as the Air Futures system, they need to separate their commodity from the everyday air of New York to be shown to asserting some sort of control over it. As the air above New York becomes bought, and traded through the Air Futures Company they erect red boxes to define their ownership of those volumes and presence in the city. These frames act as signifiers to excite potential investors in the city and define the intangible air. The Air Futures headquarters on Wall Street confronts investors with controlled flows/gusts that create certain boundaries and thresholds in the building. These ritual paths and thresholds come from my research into the grand museums of art like the Altes Museum, and Louvre etc - places that have to create value in ART: another commodity with intangible values.

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Image credit: Theo Games Petrohilos

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How does the project reflect current commercial practices?

The use of manipulated oxygen levels around the building are used to excite traders and investors alike into euphoric states. I used these to highlight the addictive and unstable nature of high-risk investing and aggressive speculation we see today. I tried to reflect that in the crazed eyes of the fat cats that inhabit my spaces and illustrations for the project.

With the Air Futures system I aimed to create a scenario that evolved what I see as the mania of speculation. The project is very much based on existing practices, albeit with a critical eye. I tried to reflect little reasonable ventures that accumulated to make a quite unsettling proposition. Its like the traders of todays financial markets saying "its okay to take this little risk", without thinking of the ultimate impact on the rest of the world, and everything, all the livelihoods staked against their little actions.

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Detail of the model. Image credit: Theo Games Petrohilos

Could you walk us through how the trading would take place? Who buys the air? How is it distributed?

The whole Air Futures building is arranged into hierarchies that reflect the attitudes of the system. The Air Futures Building raises itself above the street on a new city datum, which serves to separate the traded and valued air, from the everyday air of the city. The concrete ritual paths into the building, serve to create a feeling of entering another realm, where this valued air resides, and is controlled by the commercial system. Investors are then led up through the regulator spaces of the system, who check both the legality of trades and monitor the purity of claimed air - the system has to be seen to be under control after all. There are then the Air Club sections of the building, where people come to literally get high on air - the commodity - and then trade on the city set out below them. Then there is the Trading Floor, where crowds of euphoric Air Futures traders shout and hustle to inflate stock values, in a sort of gladiatorial performance. They watch trading fluctuations on ionised air barometers on the ceiling that glow with each change in the market. The systems played out in the building are intentionally dense, to echo the alchemic nature of their speculations. The traders are after all turning air into gold.

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The trade floor. Image credit: Theo Games Petrohilos

Could this kind of trade spread to London and other European cities?

Of course! With cities around the world getting more intense, with populations growing in space hungry metropolises, people are always looking upward. I treated air in this project as the last commodity to go public, and it has the ability to reap infinite revenues. In London for instance, cash strapped local governments or historic buildings would be able to sell of their air rights to sell to designated 'high zones' in the city or other cities in the EU for that matter, pretty much like a carbon credit system, but for development. Its all ridiculous of course but possible. I've tried to play the devil's advocate with this project and say "what if it goes this far?"

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View of the model and drawings at the Bartlett show

How would 'normal' people be affected by this trade?

On the physical side of things, if all the air in a city becomes privately owned and that ownership is asserted, it's possible that new types of responsibilities could arise. These could be to do with possible threats to that air above the city and its purity. These subjects were tackled for instance in New York's Times Square after September 11th, where studies were undertaken to assess the possibility of building owners fortifying the public realm from possible terrorist attacks on the air breathed.

The city would see development take place above the standard city datum. This traded air, with highly inflated values would end up inaccessible to the general public, they would end up priced out of the market, and a new 'oppulent datum' would arise.
If people tie up their livelihoods with this new market that promises so much, pensions, jobs become linked to the price of air - the last commodity, and we end up in the same situation as 2008. I have tried to say that we don't learn from our mistakes, and the alchemists who create financial markets are always in work, able to re-invent the same excitement again and again. After all what is money anyway? Just IOU's made out of paper.

The Air Futures story is pretty dystopic, but of course it's speculation.

Thanks Theo!

All images courtesy Theo Games Petrohilos.

Related story: Airspace Activism.

0a9ges4229-z.jpgThe Sky's the Limit - Applying Radical Architecture, edited by Robert Klanten, Sven Ehmann and Sofia Borges.

Available on amazon UK and USA.

Publisher Gestalten writes: Thanks to innovations in building materials, design technologies, and construction tools, a new generation of architects can finally realize structures that would have previously remained mere dreams. This emergence of a new vernacular of radically sculpted buildings, rooms, and installations melds rigorous usability with a playful and cutting edge aesthetic, facilitating highly functional yet undeniably exhilarating spaces.

The Sky's the Limit serves as a compelling exploration of these seemingly impossible, yet surprisingly practical structures and spaces. Unleashing the creative potential offered by the latest developments in design and construction, this book presents spectacularly formed buildings, façades, and interiors as well as inspiring temporary projects and urban interventions by both young and established talents. The projects featured here have all been built, are actively in use, and transport us to the outer limits of our spatial imagination.

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Clémence Eliard and Elise Morin, WasteLandscape, Paris. Image ©Martin Eliard

The Sky's the Limit - Applying Radical Architecture shows architecture that defies inhibition and doctrines but its 'radical' element shouldn't be confused with the critical investigations of Archigram or Superstudio. Many of the buildings presented in the book have been commissioned by major cultural, political and religious institutions and by business organizations. They act as striking symbols of their power. Given the high number of ambitious buildings erected in Spain, one can also suspect that they were commissioned and financed long before the crisis that is bringing Europe to its knees.

One thing is sure though, every single building in the book is arresting, unique and worthy of more newspaper columns than The Shard and other candidates in the race for tallest skyscraper.

The chapters in the book divide radical architecture into:
- Organic Flow with buildings that twist and turn, bend and undulate.
- Sharp Structures is all about angles, edges and geometrical volumes.
- Smarter Surfaces, the ones we've been reading about for years are finally applied to the façades of sports halls, museums and office blocks. The technology is impressive, the result is not always pleasing to the eye.
- Internal Affairs because there's no reason why innovation should stop at the façade.
- and Point of View is all about architecture that learns from the nature it has invaded.

The Sky's the Limit is a collection of cutting-edge buildings. And it is a remarkably well-curated collection. But don't expect detailed descriptions of the technology used, of the challenges encountered or the impact the building had on the people who work inside it or live around it. This is a coffee table book, theory is scarce.

Another thing! This is probably not the place for such comment: but why is architecture literature suddenly so fond of the preposition 'atop'?

Still, i loved that book, its content is magnificent. Quick selection:

Spaceport America in New Mexico, the world's first commercial space terminal.

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Foster + Partners, Spaceport America, New Mexico. Photo © Nigel Young/Foster + Partners

Invisible from a distance, the Moses Bridge is a wooden passageway that parts a river in two.

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RO&AD Architecten, Moses Bridge, Bergen op Zoom, NL. Photo © RO & AD Architects

The terminal, control tower and storage spaces of the Aeroport Lleida-Alguaire are drawn in a continuous line, forming a single construction.

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b720 Fermin Vazquez Arquitectos, Lleida-Alguaire Airport, Spain

A playground structure turned into a joyous pavilion covered in funhouse mirrors and wood panels.

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MLRP, Mirror House, Copenhagen, Denmark. Image © Laura Stamer

Twelve buildings shaped like archetypal houses and stacked upon one another.

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Herzog & de Meuron, VitraHouse, Weil am Rhein. Photo by Iwan Baan © vitra

The 4-story building has plants in lieu of a façade, as well as floor-to-ceiling windows and curtains to make up for the absence of interior walls.

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Office of Ryue Nishizawa, Garden & House, Tokyo

On the coastal border between Turkey and Georgia:

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J. MAYER H. Architects, Sarpi Border Checkpoint, Sarpi, Georgia. Photo © Jesko Malkolm Johnsson-Zahn

A concerte building for the employees of the Paris transportation system. Shaped like a ship with round windows.

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Stéphane Maupin, RATP Formation Center, Paris

Twisting staircase:

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UNStudio, MUMUTH House for Music and Music Theater, Graz, Austria. Photo © Christian Richters

Ordos Museum is covered in metal tiles that can stand violent sandstorms.

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MAD, Ordos City Museum, Inner Mongolia, China

Little Hilltop with Wind View, a 8 meter-tall viewing tower commissioned by a Japanese wind power company, allows people to admire the landscape as well as the company's wind turbines. The light and flexible building is also responsive to the wind, swaying slightly on its platform when the wind blows. Like a tree in the breeze.

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Shingo Masuda, Katsuhisa Otsubo & Yuta Shimada, Little Hilltop with Wind View

Views inside the book:

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Alexander Kalli's graduation project for the Architecture department ADS3
 at the Royal College of Art offers a provocative reflection on the punishment system in the UK.

HMPark Life was triggered by the reaction to last Summer's England Riots: the public wanted to see the looters severely punished, courts were advised to hand out tough sentences, the Daily Mail suggested that incarceration might not be enough since -they wrote- prisons are little more than 'holiday camps' and the government stepped in with the proposal to subject inmates to 40-hour working weeks.

HMPark Life is a radically new type of prison that would be built in the middle of London. The project questions this drive to turn a prison population into a cheap labour force - one that works not just to provide skills to inmates in the name of 'rehabilitation' but forces offenders to be both visibly productive and punished to quench the public's ever-present blood thirst for justice.


The prison is modeled on the concentric circles of Hell in Dante's Inferno: the higher the offense, the harsher the punishment and the deeper within the Earth the sinner is sent.

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Prison Canyon Section. Courtesy Alexander Kalli

At HMPark Life, the gradation of current UK prison security categories reflect this gradual increase in offense and need for security. The architecture of the prison pushes the analogy even further: it is built deep into the ground, with the most dangerous offenders finding themselves at the bottom of the structure. But the project also introduces an element of spectacle with the possibility for the public to come during their leisure time and gape at the prisoners.

With high security at the deepest point climbing up to an open prison at the surface of the offender-made canyon, this seeping of the prison into the well-healed high street of Herne Hill provides moments of inmate / outsider interaction in the form of a theatre, library and workshops. A public viewing platform perched on the prison main's circulation core provides an ideal point from which to survey the throng of productive inmates, leaving the public with the sense of satisfaction. This is the new panopticon.

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Geological survey. Courtesy Alexander Kalli

I had to interview the young architect who brought Dante Alighieri and the Daily Mail in such close contact:

Hi Alexis! The project seems to be a reaction to last year's riots. Did any other event, piece of news, aspect of social or political life inspire the project?

While writing my dissertation, investigating the physical implications of Michel Foucault's 'Heterotopias', which are a series of principles that define the nature of what creates deviant/ synchronised/ paradoxical/ time based/ exclusive or inclusive and illusory spaces; I came across the essay Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard with the statement,

"The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth - it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true."

As a Londoner, watching the riots unfold on the rolling news from the safety of my suburban family home. I was not only astonished at the randomness of the violence, but also the erratic reactions to it. Passers-by, "social commentators", politicians, all had their own over-simplified and unsurprising takes on the events blaming education, the benefits system, bankers' bonuses and the X Factor. But as statistics started to emerge that a majority of the perpetrators had previous criminal convictions, everybody knew there was going to be some kind of reactionary policy making by the Conservative lead coalition Government. I didn't have to wait long.  

The Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke announced less than a month after the events sweeping changes to the way offenders were to be reformed in Prisons.  The phrases "providing skills", "rehabilitation through purposeful work" several weeks later turned into "offenders shall 'earn their keep'". Working a full 40hr week doing menial tasks like laundry or gluing light bulbs together and getting paid up to £10 per week.  

This apparent confusion over the purpose of skilling-up offenders or work as punishment is what inspired me to create HMPark Life. Rehabilitation was no longer for the benefit of the offender, but was a tool for the state to either reassure the liberal section of society that offenders were being offered skills to better themselves and the more conservative amongst us that offenders were being put to work as punishment.  

To me this resonated with the Jean Baudrillard quote.  With this new legislation what was now the purpose of being locked-up?  HMPark Life is the state's cover up that conceals the truth that it has no vision for the purpose of incarceration, only to appease the public.

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Photo courtesy Alexander Kalli

Could you describe exactly how HMPark Life works? Its structure/architecture? In particular Dante's Inferno and the circles of Hell.

Dante's Inferno, the first part to the epic poem 'The Divine Comedy' acted not just as an allegory for the horrors and turmoils of hell but also for its clear programatic and spatial organisation. Throughout history there have been many versions of diagrams explaining the descending rings of hell and all follow the poem's stepped, conical canyon description bellow the surface of the earth, with Lucifer and a frozen lake at its deepest point.  The lower you descend the more heinous the sin one had committed. This logic seemed appropriate for a prison.  

UK prisons are divided into 7 different security categories, 4 specifically for adult males. Category A is the Highest security for those who pose the most risk to the state and public, B is for those who still pose a risk to the public but also is where remand prisoners are sent (those awaiting trial or sentencing), C is for offenders who cannot quite be trusted in an open prison and D is open conditions. This security gradient fitted easily with the Inferno and so by placing the highest security (greatest sin) at the base of HMPark Life with B, C, on levels ascending with the Open category D on the surface it gave the project a clear structure. From then on the rules were to keep the 'enlightened' programs such as the library/ visitors' centre and theatre on the surface and more arduous menial tasks such as furniture making or clay pit digging for those in the descending levels.  

Prisoners' circulation is always on the surface of the building to offer a full view to public onlookers while wardens are hidden in a warren of tunnels running behind the main structure. Everything in the prison is made out of bricks manufactured on site as part of the category B punishment. The idea being that the arc segment of prison would one day complete itself into a full circle. Cells have different sized window openings depending on the level of punishment while those at the very bottom live in hollowed out caves, barely above the water table. The architecture is borne out of a need to maintain secure barriers between each level and for the structure to securely hold back the earth. The building therefore becomes the surface of the canyon face.

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Dante's Inferno also worked as a way of planning the views to depict parts of the project. The poem is divided into 34 Cantos or chapters, each describing Dante's journey further into the depths.  The Canto numbers on the views relate to the points within the poem that are identical to parts of the prison; for example Canto III describes the 'Lost forest' and the entrance to Hell, which in HMPark Life has become a woodland littered with trees disguising columns and the library/ visitor centre.  Some of which function as light funnels for the prison workshops bellow and provide perches for CCTV cameras.  Canto IX is the point at which Dante looks back at where he had come from, Canto V is where judgement of sins are passed deciding on the level of inferno, so here I show the public observation tower.  Canto XXXIV is the lowest point depicting the worst sinners' accommodation with cells of category A.

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Photo courtesy Alexander Kalli

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Photo courtesy Alexander Kalli

Why did you locate the prison in Brockwell Park?

Brockwell Park is just south of Brixton, where some of the worst rioting occurred. It acts as a barrier between the affluent neighbourhood of Herne Hill to the East and a large council estate to the West and contains the must have pleasant park facilities such as a restored 1920's lido, an organic community garden and tennis courts. It is also half a mile from the existing HMP Brixton.  

During my Research I discovered HMP Brixton to be the worst in terms of the Prison system's own ratings. No outdoor space, offenders spend up to 23hrs a day in their cells designed for one in the 19thC but now accommodating up to 4, unsanitary conditions, rat infested and the building is Grade II* listed so updating the facilities is bizarrely out of the question. By placing the prison in the park I'm merely following current legislation to its extreme.  

"Prisons should be built within close proximity to communities in order to form close links and aid integrating offenders back into the community" planning guidelines state.

London's inner city prisons such as Pentonville and Brixton occur in the midst of residential areas, behind high walls barely sign posted they almost disappear into the urban fabric. It was important to the project that opportunities were borne out of program conflicts with the context: Pleasure/ Punishment, Play/ Work, Freedom/ Enclosure.  

Finally with prisons being so over crowded, and London's prisons lacking in the legally required space then London's parks become an ideal site, especially since the prison is to be our prison and become part of our leisure time experience.

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Image courtesy Alexander Kalli

Also i was wondering about the kind of people who would want to watch the inmates working. I suspect, like you probably did, that among them we'd find mostly readers of the Daily Mail. In my view, most readers of the DM are far more dangerous than prisoners. So what would protect the inmates from the public?

I did draw a lot of inspiration from the Daily Mail. It is always useful to look at something so opposed to your own opinions in order to draw something out of yourself.  The headline "Prison is a Holiday Camp" popped up a few times in the Daily Mail, citing inmates' ability to access TV (for a fee) and table football.  Though if you asked the inmates of HMP Brixton i'm sure their opinions would differ.

HMPark Life does not respect the inmates rights to a decent level of privacy. At the central point to the prisons arc is a public viewing tower. In Jeremy Bentham's 'Panopitcon' the institution, or prison warden lie at the centre of the plan, with uninterrupted views of the prisoners' cells. The point being the architecture creates the constant feeling of being under observation without a warden needing to be there. HMPark Life places the public at the centre of this new panopticon.  

There is a viewing platform for each level of security as you descend the tower. I imagined the more casual park passer by might take their children as a warning for misbehaving and perhaps the lower one goes you might come across characters like Jeremy Kyle, or a demonstration by 'Parents Against Pedophiles'. Now i'm thinking Gordon Ramsay would happily sit there with the Daily Mail crowd. I caught 5 minutes of his new series where he's getting some inmates of HMP Brixton to make fairy cakes, when I heard the tagline "Gordon Ramsay thinks it's time Britain's prisoners paid their way." I had to switch it off.  For a man arrested for 'gross indecency' in a male public toilet you'd think he'd want to distance himself from this issue of public humiliation as a form of punishment, unless this is a long overdue part of his community service.

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Photo courtesy Alexander Kalli

HMPark Life would host different categories of prisoners. Do they mirror the already existing categories?

The categories of prison exist already.  But only in a few instances do prisons of differing categories occur on the same site and they never share facilities.  For example, Belmarsh Prison (Category A) is the UK's highest security Prison where those charged (or not quite charged) of terrorism are held. But next door is a male juvenile detention centre.  

HMPark Life layers these categories from D - Open conditions occurring on its surface to A - High security housed in the bottom of the canyon.  

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Lina Bo Bardi, Sesc Pompeia (image manystuff)

Finally, i had a look into the publication that accompanied the exhibition at RCA. One of the chapter is "precedency study" and it features works by Herzog & de Meuron, Lina Bo Bardi's Sesc Pompeia, the prisons of Piranesi. Could you explain briefly how you draw inspiration from them?

References are important in trying to develop a language that informs the project whilst at the same time being sympathetic to the way I like to draw and depict. CaixaForum Madrid by Herzog & de Meuron was mainly a formal reference. The perforations and it's 'cragginess' being conducive in a way to design the caged exercise spaces of the inmates, with differing perforation densities in accordance to the level of punishment/ prison category. In Lina Bo Bardi's amazing Sesc Pompeia in Sao Paulo I was looking at the system of exposed circulation and the ruthlessly efficient series of walkways that jut between its two monolithic towers.  The most immediately obvious precedence I drew from was Piranesi's Carceri d'invenzione (imaginary prisons) etchings.  HMPark Life's 4  'Cantos' used the same techniques of awkward angled view points and constricting the image inside the frame as well as a disorientating sense of scale.  In Piranesi's etchings it is quite hard to judge how big this world is until he places a crumpled figure somewhere in the foreground.

Thanks Alexis!

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Flyhead Helmet, from the Environment Transformer project. 1968. Zamp Kelp, Ortner, Pinter, Haus-Rucker-Co. Image courtesy Ortner & Ortner Baukunst

Archigram, Superstudio, Ant Farm, Haus-Rucker-Co. It's hard not to get excited by the radical architects whose work started to appear in the late 1960s.

For some obscure reason i haven't been able to locate the wikipedia entry about Haus-Rucker-Co. but if you're curious about their work, there is a lot to (re)discover at the retrospective of the Viennese group currently hosted by WORK Gallery, near Kings Cross: inflatables capsules for two, parasitic structures, breathing devices, utopian ideas, helmets and pneumatic prostheses. It's critique of architecture and architecture as critique at its best.

It's almost shocking to see how, 40 years after their inception, Haus-Rucker-Co.'s ideas might still be relevant to anyone interested in art & technology, public interventions, immersive environments and (critical) design.

The exhibition, titled Inner World / Innen Welt: The Projects of Haus-Rucker-Co., 1967-1992, shows archival drawings and collages, photographs, models and original ephemera spanning Haus-Rucker-Co.'s 25-year collaboration. The show marks the 20-year anniversary of Haus-Rucker-Co.'s dissolution. Haus-Rucker-Co. was founded in 1967 by Laurids Ortner, Günther Zamp Kelp and Klaus Pinter, later joined by Manfred Ortner. Already working together as Ortner & Ortner on major building commissions from the mid-1980s, Manfred and Laurids Ortner went on to develop an extensive portfolio of built projects, propelling the preoccupations of Haus-Rucker-Co. into a new realm.

Hasty tour of what you can see in the exhibition:

Oase Nr. 7, a personal oasis with a diameter of 8 metres protruded from the façade of the Museum Fridericianums during the 1972 Documenta.

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Haus-Rucker-Co, Oase No. 7 (1972), in Kassel. Image courtesy Ortner & Ortner Baukunst

The Mind Expander allowed two people to isolate themselves from their environment and enter in spiritual communion with each other (maybe?!?)

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Mind Expander, 1967. Image courtesy Ortner & Ortner  Baukunst

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Mind Expander, 1967. Image courtesy Ortner & Ortner Baukunst

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Mind Expander, 1967. Image courtesy Ortner & Ortner Baukunst

"The Mind Expanding Programme aimed to explore the inner world, and to improve the psychological capacity of those who took part in the individual elements, as well as those who witnessed them in some way."

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Ballon  für  Zwei, 1967. Image courtesy Ortner & Ortner Baukunst

Gelbes Herz (Yellow Heart), a "communications space-capsule for two people".

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Gelbes Herz (plan), 1968. Image courtesy Ortner & Ortner Baukunst

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Gelbes Herz, 1968. Image courtesy Ortner & Ortner Baukunst

Nike was an installation for the Forum Metall Linz exhibition. The photographic replica of the headless Victory of Samothrace was projected upwards from the rood of the University of the Arts. The works sparked a debate about the work itself and the state of contemporary art. After 27 months of controversy, it was discreetly removed under the cover of the night.

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Nike, 1977. Image courtesy Ortner & Ortner Baukunst

The Inclined Plane was an element of temporary architecture that visually separated Vienna into two halves. The half towards the inner city was bordered by the black surface of the plane, the other half, facing away from the city, by the plane's other, white surface.

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Inclined Plane. Image courtesy Ortner & Ortner Baukunst

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Turm Neuss, 1985. Image courtesy Ortner & Ortner Baukunst

Views from the exhibition:

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Image WORK gallery

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Image WORK gallery

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Image WORK gallery

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Image WORK gallery

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Image WORK gallery

To coincide with the exhibition, WORK has published a special edition of PAPERWORK that includes photos, essays written by members of Haus-Rucker-Co. as well as an interview with Manfred Ortner.

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Giant Billard. Image courtesy Ortner & Ortner Baukunst

Inner World / Innen Welt: The Projects of Haus-Rucker-Co., 1967-1992 is at WORK gallery until Saturday 1 September 2012.

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