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The Freud Museum’s current exhibition of video works by artists Mieke Bal and Michelle Williams Gamaker is entitled, rather cryptically, Saying It *. The exhibition features a range of video works displayed among the artefacts of the museum. Exploring themes of psychiatry, institutionalisation and (in my interpretation) the performance of gender, these pieces inhabit an ambiguous territory, at once reflecting and critiquing Freud’s seminal theories.

What is now the Freud Museum, a large but externally pretty ordinary suburban detached house in Hampstead, was the former home of Sigmund Freud and his immediate family*. It was the bolthole to which the Freuds fled in 1938 from Nazi annexed Austria. Despite their perilously late escape the Freuds were able to ship across the contents of the Vienna study, and so the ground-storey of the house (a corner of 1920s suburbia) is transformed incongruously into a fin de siècle, bohemian, Mitteleuropean milieu: Exotic ritual objects are sandwiched against heavy 19th century furnishings, chaises longues are draped in ornate tapestries; there are Ottoman and Persian brocades; endless urns, Egyptian statuettes and curios of every kind. Into this heady mix the video pieces of Mieke Bal and Michelle Williams Gamaker make their own curious interjection.

In my view, the installation of these video pieces was one of the strongest aspects of the show. Peeking from cupboards, between chair legs and beside the fabled couch, the flat-screens served as little interjections of modernity in their antiquated interiors. The action of the videos centred on the dramas of Sissi, a sufferer of schizophrenia with delusions of royal status, and a number of monitors explored distinct aspects of the patient’s identity: at times infantile and vulnerable, and at others condescending and supercilious. The pieces (shot in Dutch and subtitled) were performed in a rather melodramatic style by the actor playing Sissi, and in a somewhat more self-effacing manner by the psychiatrist/analyst character. For me, the exhibition added an additional resonance to the space, drawing out and somehow concretising the experiences of mental illness within the context of its analysis and theorisation. Nevertheless, I had some reservations: Were the clichéd nature of Sissi’s delusions a comment on the archetypes of madness or simply the result of laziness? What of the rather elaborate nature of her costume – was it a reflection on the performed nature of femininity, a critique of 19th Century bourgeois essentialism, or an aesthetic choice?

Perhaps, ultimately, the task of constructing a coherent artistic response to Freud’s theories is too great a work to complete within the modest terms of Bal and Williams-Gamaker’s exhibition. While it was an enjoyable, carefully curated, and skilfully made body of work, I was not always convinced by the credibility of the psychological narratives explored in Saying It. Nevertheless, the audacity and panache with which Bal and Williams-Gamaker approached their work is surely to be commended.

*The exhibition also includes works by the artist Renate Ferro, but as these are very different from the video works of Bal and Williams-Gamaker, and are relatively few, I have not included them in this discussion.

*Until 1982 Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter and an eminent child psychologist in her own right continued to live in the house.

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This post originated in an exercise to define words with particular currency in art and design. A strong engagement with material and process is a recurrent theme in contemporary practice, perhaps in reaction to more conceptual approaches which previously dominated. I could have tackled Materiality in a number of ways, but chose to focus on the changing conceptions of  the material in a design context, with an emphasis on the impact of modernity. 

Materiality is a term I first came across in conversation with architects. Its meaning seemed to be a close relationship between the physical fabric of a space or structure and its ambience and form. In their usage, materiality was a shorthand to describe the rapport between textural, light absorbing, and chromatic qualities of a material, and its structural or protective functions. This expression of the word struck me as rich in a variety of ways: as a useful and meaningful concept in design; but also as an implicit ideal which situated architecture as a discipline in which the aesthetic, experiential, and functional are brought seamlessly together

 

Denys Lasdun, National Theatre 1976, Concrete Shuttering cast in situ asserts a strong sense of materiality.

Peter Zumthor, Luzi House 2002, A structure of solid wood enlivens the geometry of this custom built house.

The notion that good design represents a synthesis of the material, formal, functional and aesthetic is shared by many design disciplines, and is hardly new. But despite this common understanding, examples of poorly conceived products abound: forks that appear to have metal handles until the foil separates from the plastic, “wooden” desks who’s inner chipboard reveals itself after the slightest knock, smart shoes that revert to papier-mâché at the a drop of rain. Of course, inexpensive materials can serve their function beautifully, as plastic stacking chairs, flip-flops, and canvas bags demonstrate, but there is something that strikes us as fundamentally dishonest about a design form that suggests one usage but completely fails to deliver. In this context the relationship between materiality as a design methodology, and the less edifying reality that confronts us in the “real world” is perhaps worth exploring.

The centrality of material to modernist design is already evident in the Arts and Crafts movement, with its insistence on truth to materials and sense of social mission. These ideas were further elaborated through the Deutscher Werkbund, Wiener Werkstätte and in the seminal modernist fulcrums of the Bauhaus and Vkhutemas. As the practice of design grew and separated itself from the realm of applied arts and traditional crafts, new theories and approaches that emphasised the importance of material and mechanical processes emerged as a response to technological, social and political change.

Bauhaus designer Marcel Breuer, his cantilevered chair of1927 combines traditional wicker elements with industrial materials (tubular steel) permitting new possibilities of lightness and form.

While designers in the 20th Century became increasingly engaged with industrial materials and processes, theorists have often had an ambivalent relationship with the materiality of the design object, lacking the methodological and analytical skills to “read” objects with the rigour that they would apply to a text. An absence of understanding of the processes by which design objects are conceived, refined and manufactured not only inhibits the ability to interpret these features, but tempts the writer to overlook them altogether. For example, in Roland BarthesThe Fashion System’ the author completely avoids engaging in the analysis of real garments and outfits, preferring to conduct his interpretation of the fashion system, through syntactical deconstruction of the descriptive text beneath fashion photographs. It is hard to imagine a more singularly useless way of interpreting fashion, or understanding how garments actually communicate their identity.

In response to the inadequacies of existing philosophical, sociological and art historical readings of design objects, a new discipline of design history sought to develop a model of object analysis which would account for materiality in design as well as the subjectivity of the consumer/user or designer. The first courses in design history (for which I can find evidence) were developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s at The Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design in the USA and at Hornsey School of Art/Middlesex Polytechnic and the RCA in the UK. The teaching of design history as a valid intellectual and academic pursuit (with its own concerns and methodologies) was highly contested, threatening as it did the hegemony of established art history.

‘Muriel Pemberton, Head of Fashion at St Martin’s, invited me to teach fashion history for four days a term. I soon realized that she was fighting an ideological battle with the Art History Department to be allowed to employ a dress historian at all. All students were required to take a generalised art history programme and none were taught any specialist histories, except for the fashion students.Lou Taylor, Fashion textiles and dress history a personal perspective.

 Today, a renewed concern for materiality in contemporary design practice suggests a reflection of the anxieties that first lead Arts and Crafts practitioners to assert the primacy of truth to materials. New technologies employing digital imaging allow designers to create previously unimaginable products at a cottage industry scale. At the same time, designers are increasingly concerned with the degradation of the environment, and with their wider responsibilities to society. These concerns connect to discourses around an increasingly contested model of consumption prevalent in the “developed world” and the exploitative nature of contemporary outsourced mass-production. In this context designers are engaging with notions of sustainability, reuse, and small-scale domestic manufacture: new uses of materials including recycled materials, organic and inorganic waste enlist both high technology and hand-craft in response to social and environmental problems.

Julene Aguirre-Bielschowsky’s ‘Nido’ product uses shells and grape stalks (both the result of food industry waste) to create a low-cost, modular insulating system for low-income homes in north Mexico. The manufacturing method is linked to the education system, providing paid working opportunities which encourage young people to stay in school.

A hunger for authenticity and quality is reflected in resurgence of craft, as designers reassess the possibilities of combining traditional materials with innovative processes. New materials and modes of production offer an opportunity to reassess and reconfigure contemporary design, reconnecting it to the social and political contexts from which (in the practice of bad design) it has sometimes become deracinated. As new technological, theoretical and economic models for design are developed, materiality becomes an increasingly dominant theme in debates on the discipline.

This post is about criticism of architecture and the built environment. I’m interested in the way that architecture arouses particular passions, including nostalgia, idealism and romanticism. What is the impact of these, often unspoken preoccupations, on the critique of the built form?  

Jonathon Meades’ article, which I refer to throughout, is so extreme in its inconsistency and subjectivity that you suspect that its primary aim was to elicit controversy. Nevertheless, many of the features of Meades’ piece, particularly its romanticisation of “liminal” spaces seem particularly current, and are worthy of some interrogation. 

For me Jonathon Meades’ article in The Guardian on the relationship between architecture, planning and the (urban) environment seemed to raise more questions than it answered.

www.guardian.co.uk

Meades’ central thesis is that there exists a problematic and unsatisfactory relationship between the urban environment and those tasked with designing the structures that inhabit it. This argument is initially convincing as Meades’ contends that buildings are designed to look impressive as drawings, models and photographs rather (implicitly) than to be experienced by those that use and interact with them. And he suggests that contemporary architects are encouraged to create buildings which operate as images or edifices, but which are abstracted both from the real world, and from their stated functions.

As the article continues, however, this central concept rather than being reinforced by pertinent examples, is instead diluted by tenuously linked personal bug-bears and bizarre pontification. On the one hand, the straw-man of planned utopia, whether new-town or garden city is stridently knocked down “ It doesn’t matter what idiom is essayed, it is the business of attempting to create places that defeats architects”. On the other hand, the value of beauty in unexpected places (specifically the Lee Valley) is asserted:

A writer, sees entropic beauty, roads to nowhere whose gravel aggregate is that of ad hoc second world war fighter runways, decrepit Victorian oriental pumping stations, rats, supermarket trolleys in toxic canals, rotting foxes, used condoms, pitta bread with green mould, polythene bags caught on branches and billowing like windsocks, greasy carpet tiles”.

The River Lee prior to the Olympics

Quite what relevance this fit of unrestrained prose might have to the practice of contemporary architecture is unclear: it’s certainly difficult to imagine how architects might incorporate rotting foxes and used condoms into their schemes. Having been brought up in Newham, I can’t help but feel that Meades’ celebration of the decrepitude of pre-Olympic Lee Valley smacks of a touristic and romanticised vision of poverty and post-industrial decline. While Westfield Shopping Centre may not represent the apotheosis of human artistic achievement, it does for many Newham residents represent an improvement on what came before.

More generally, what weakens Meades’ analysis (along with his propensity for unreflective romanticism) is his failure to conceive of architecture existing within practical, economic and sociological constraints which impinge on architects’ ability to create successful structures and places. How, for example, do transport infrastructure, choice of tenure, planning regimes and contractual arrangements impinge on the design of a scheme? While there will always exist buildings and schemes which “transcend” their function and circumstances, the lofty and poetic language Meades employs scarcely helps to understand what makes these works successful.

L’Unité d’Habitation

“Le Corbusier’s l’Unité d’Habitation instruct[s] us in what genius is. The roof of l’Unité is a transcendent work: it is as though Odysseus is beside you. In a few gestures, it summons the entirety of the Mediterranean’s mythic history.”

If the purpose of criticism is, at least in part, to inform and enrich practice, then tangible qualities of successful architectural schemes, rather than sweeping generalities, need to be identified. While the new-towns, housing schemes, and suburban developments which Meades critiques may all have their problems, to simply dismiss them as unliveable dystopias is supremely unhelpful. Practitioners such as Jan Gehl have sought to analyse and explore how issues such as scale, streetscape and dominant transport type impact on the liveability of cities and public spaces. For me, these much more concrete proposals based on survey, analysis and observation remain far more relevant and convincing than the semi metaphysical, self-editorialising criticism of which Meades, sadly, is not the only exponent.