The Art of the Gift

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Burning Man, at its most elemental level, provides an opportunity to shift various social norms in unexpected and provocative ways.  Is this the basis for a larger cultural shift, or just a capricious indulgence ….?

If we take the point of view that architecture is an art form, it is largely a transactional one, we design on the basis of commissions.  We have clients, whose interests we are obligated to serve, we consider the Public, as our creations can have a large impact on people’s lives. As such, most often we design under numerous constraints, such as budgets, programming, and governmental restrictions ….. things that we can adapt to, but ultimately not control.

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At Burning Man, one of the powerful experiences is that of 70,000 people being self-expressive.  This ranges from the outfits people wear to the 400+ pieces of artwork contributed by teams of artists.  At first it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of this creative output, but that in itself is not the most provocative part of Burning Man. The aspect that profoundly challenges your normal life experience is that everything along this range of offerings is meant as a gift.  Within this context each participant charts the trajectory of their gifting, these gifts might be quite small and heartfelt, or the size of a five-story building.  While often times the gift is in the form of art, the process of gifting is an art form in itself.

04B_AndromedaThis year I was asked to join an art team as Lead Artist. The vision began with Team Leader Brian Poindexter, who was inspired by the Burning Man 2019 Theme Metamorphoses, to start an Art Project exploring the myth of Andromeda and the expansive nature of the night sky. We decided to challenge the classical myth of Andromeda, wherein a young woman is chained to a rock, left to be devoured by a sea monster that was sent by the Gods to punish her mother for the arrogance of proclaiming her daughter’s beauty.  This led ultimately to the project name; Andromeda Reimagined.  Within this new narrative, Andromeda saves herself, with the help of her community. The “rock and chains” have been morphed into a story of her inner journey to find strength and purpose in a world of chaos and absurdity. In the spirit of interactivity, we are asking people to write the names and stories of their female heroes on the inside walls of the structure. Following several reiterations, the final art piece takes the form of a 26 foot-tall, five-sided pyramid.

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Rarely, as architects, do we design and build, using our own resources, with a pure sense of contributing to the vibrancy of our communities, where our imagination is only restrained by the amount of time and resources, we are capable of committing. 05_AndromedaOut of this “blank canvas”, free of normal constraints, we can build our own vibrancy, in the most deeply authentic way possible, with the work of our own hands. This freedom invites us to explore our innermost motivations, to ask ourselves “what would we do?” out in the dust, for one idyllic week, if for no other reason, than to build for the pure joy of gifting an experience to others. Yet, once back from this moment in the desert, the more fundamental question is, ­ “What if even a small part of this sense of gifting came back with us from the Playa?” ….. what a delightful and humane world we might start to create.

This year Burning Man is taking place in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada: August 25 – September 2 For more information about Burning Man visit: https://burningman.org/

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Summer Reading I: “Against Notopia”

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This summer we are posting a series of extracts from essays featured in “The Absurdity of Beauty – Rebalancing the Modernist narrative”, our advocacy monograph published with The Architectural Review.  To launch this series of extracts we have chosen an essay by the monograph’s Editor, Catherine Slessor, on the idea of place.

Called “Against Notopia”, Slessor’s essay touches on many of the ideas that recur in different contexts elsewhere in the monograph. Ideas about a growing ambivalence to the legacy of much of what the Modern Movement has achieved in terms of creating a successful, engaging and emotionally meaningful built environment. Ideas about how corporate forces have high-jacked the Modern Movement’s aesthetic whilst leaving behind its ethos. Ideas about how we might better reconnect with the very people whose communities we are designing. Slessor’s often provocative and always perceptive style offers a fresh perspective on these issues and adds a new dimension to the discourse on the notion of ‘nowhere place’ or ‘Notopia’ that has been examined on the pages of Architectural Review in recent years. 

“Against Notopia” by Catherine Slessor – Extract:

“In an age of increased cultural and social homogenisation, the elusive and often contested notion of place has assumed a renewed importance. The current era is dominated by rapacious globalisation, the systematic erosion of difference and the commodification of culture. While representing material advancement and social liberalisation, these forces also invariably involve the destruction of traditional cultures and a disengagement with the past. What is now prized most by the multinational corporations who stalk the globe are universal systems of value-free exchange and profit.

Left to the mercy of market forces, the commercialisation of land has spawned the selfish city, as described in the AR’s recent ‘Notopia’ manifesto as being ‘disfigured by the interests of bankers and stillborn in vision and unable to cope with mass urbanisation … one building next to another does not make a place and many buildings do not make a city’. Notopia is ‘a warning sign that the metropolis as place of exchange dialogue and delight between diverse groups of people is being exterminated. Buildings alone do not support life.’

Architecture’s ambivalent relationship with modern capitalism and its growing dependence on arcane treatises and self-justificatory theories has also resulted in the neglect of a diversity of physical environments that have the potential to deliver empirical inspiration for art and invention. To an extent, architecture has become a marginalised freemasonry, its creative potential reduced to eclectic wrapping paper adorning slabs of dehumanised corporate space planning. From Dallas to Dhaka to Dubai, the outcome of this banal hegemony of the built environment is only too apparent.”

Read more at theabsurdityofbeauty.com

 

WAF Recap 2017

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This was my fourth year coming to the World Architectural Festival.
There is something quite wonderful that starts to happen after the third year,
connections start to solidify into friendships,
your network begins to become a community,
you look forward to seeing people you have grown fond of,
from your fellow architects who you met competing for an award,
to curators from the Venice Biennale,
the critics, the judges,
the ABB rep whose enthusiasm and excitement is so infectious …..
and of course the AR and AJ crew that runs and curates the whole event.

The highlights were spectacular, selected from an overwhelming cacophony of options, far, far too many temptations, to experience everything:

Louisa Hutton talking so thoughtfully about placemaking and the vitality of an Urban Fabric.

Charles Jencks and Pierre de Meuron switching it up,
with Charles recalling that Corbu declared the Paris Opera …. “the symbol of death”, of the excesses of empty ornament, the end of an era
and Pierre de Meuron waxing poetic about how we all gather around the campfire, as an ancient human ritual ….
this leading so nicely to Kim Cook’s talk the next evening,
about one the world’s grandest fire rituals … Burning Man.

For me personally, it was a pleasure of pure exhaustion, judging, speaking, presenting two projects, but the most invigorating were all sorts of deep and provocative conversations with my peers…..
which I will cherish until next year,
in Amsterdam.

–John Marx, Chief Artistic Officer at Form4 Architecture
#WAF2017 @worldarchfest @burningman

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Why Architects should pay attention to Burning Man…

BM17 IMG_3077 cropped.jpgAs architects we (and I am hoping this includes most of us here) strive to create buildings and cities that have a high degree of vibrancy, authenticity, and a strong sense of community. We desire an engaged population that not only loves their environment, but also participates in its creation, and in its ongoing evolution. The extension of which means they feel responsible for its maintenance and improvement and are inspired and empowered to infuse it with their cultural and artistic energy. They create traditions and rituals which carry this collective effort forward to successive generations. Ideally, this vibrancy extends across the full range of socio-economic strata, so that everyone participates and enjoys these benefits.

If they are successful, they will extend this caring sense of community beyond the physical environment, towards caring for each other’s well being, because they sense how each of us contributes to the success of our communities.

As architects, we contribute the physical structures that contain the workings of humanity, but more importantly, we contribute our own creativity and imagination to imbue emotional meaning, which in turn adds to the energy and excitement of the community.

This is our goal set, a lofty and noble dream.
When we broadly look at what gets built by architects, we can sometimes fall short of these objectives.

Burning Man, on the other hand, succeeds.
For one week, a city of 70,000 people organically forms in the desert.
For one week, 70,000 people create a community that creates vibrancy, authenticity, participation, and a deep caring, all of the things we strive for …. at a level of intensity that is frankly “off the charts”.

There are many misconceptions about Burning Man, as to why people go and what they do there. From my personal experience, Burning Man serves to teach us about “Community and Kindness, thru Participatory Art”. On one extreme, some people come to party, to play, to be self-indulgent.  Even these people come away changed from the experience of a strong caring community based on kindness. They come away inspired by the vast range of self-expression, be it Playa Art, Art Cars, Theme Camps, Dance Camps or people’s creative outfits.

Burning Man is not a laboratory to simply “understand placemaking”, it is not an “architecturally” rich environment in the normative formal sense we use in our profession, but in spite of this, and in some ways because of this, a city of 70,000 people build their own vibrancy, in the most deeply authentic way possible, with the work of their own hands ……. if we ignore this, if we don’t take an opportunity to study what makes this work and thrive, we may find ourselves to be irrelevant to the people we pledged to serve.

–John Marx, Chief Artistic Officer at Form4 Architecture

 

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