BRIDGING DREAMS & REALITY WITH AN ARCHITECT’S INCEPTIONS
“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.”
— Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities
I‘ve always loved Christopher Nolan’s work and his latest film Inception was awaited with great anticipation by all his fans and this time by many architecture and city planning students as well. Even the well-known Danish architect Bjarke Ingels was excitedly placing facebook updates about the film from a month before its release. I finally saw it this week. Since there are many reviews about the film already out there, I’m not writing any. As Frank Zappa (or was it Thelonious Monk?) had once said: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” I’ll have to say that critiquing on Inception is like talking about swimming. It’s just one of those films that have to be fully experienced to be understood.
Inception is certainly one of THE most brilliant films to come out in a while. Nolan who was working on its concept for nearly 10 years apparently referred to the book Godel Escher Bach (one of my all time favourites) to carry on the dream-within-a-dream trans-level loopy-loop concept. And amongst its other incredibly imaginative features and themes, I’m pleased as punch that they have finally shown an intelligent confident talented young WOMAN architect for a change (instead of the plethora of confused/passive and/or vapid/consumer-hog stereotyped women who have dominated most of the films so far earlier this year; or the proverbial ‘architect’ in any film being shown as some egotistic old man.)
An amazing movie, a fantastic concept that leaves you pondering for hours and days after you leave the theatre, and a whole lot of hard work by the technical crew! And while James Cameron’s Avatar was a visual treat with very valid green design messages, this movie is in many ways thematically much better as it is like a cerebral/visceral/psychological/visual manna. And for the few who have been detracting this film in cowardly message boards, really, it amuses me sometimes when people who cannot create works of depth or magnitude, think it is ok to belittle or criticize. Doers do. Non-doers criticize.
And this is a movie that’s definitely a cut above the rest – and a true inception of Nolan’s doing – and absolutely worthy of the appreciation it is receiving by both critics and members of the audience who have been captivated by its ingenuity.
It is also very refreshing to see a remarkable and self-assured young actress – Ellen Page – playing the part of the Architect. A self-described pro-choice woman, Page tries to avoid “stereotypical roles for teenage girls” which she finds to be “sexist.” Her name in the movie – Ariadne – is no coincidence. In the movie she represents the one who can unravel and find a way out for its conflicted protagonist Cobb (played by DiCaprio). In Greek mythology Ariadne is considered the ‘mistress of the maze’, the one who freed Theseus from the minotaur’s labyrinth and who the Greek god of chaos and madness Dionysius marries. Ariadne, the Architect in the movie, not only bridges and creates the cities in the multi-leveled dreamscapes where reveries and reality merge, mingle or oppose, but she also knows the way out of the maze amidst all the intoxicating Dionysion chaos that her team members must navigate through. A must-see film; a sensory/intellectual powerhouse. And the Parisian ‘folded urbanscape’ came as an especially delicious surprise – like entering into an Escherian world. (Did you know that M.C. Escher was also an architect?) As noted movie critic Philip French wrote, this movie would have delighted Freud. I think it delights mathematicians, architects, physicists, psychologists, computer-geeks, sci-fi fans, thriller fans and just good-movie lovers all alike.
Here is a link to a good analysis done about the ‘architecture’ of the film by an archi-centred blog: http://www.architizer.com/en_us/blog/dyn/4964/inceptions-dream-architecture/
And this is an absolutely fascinating article on the neuroscience behind Inception from Wired magazine: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/07/the-neuroscience-of-inception/
But this analysis possibly takes the cake, or should I say, totem: http://thelastpsychiatrist.com/2010/07/the_ultimate_explanation_of_in.html
In light of creating ‘dreamscapes’ I thought this would be a fitting context to place Alex Roman’s breathtaking short film ‘The Third and the Seventh’. When I first viewed the film earlier this year, having visited many of the buildings featured in it, I thought that Roman’s cinematography was incredible. Only on reading about it on his website did I realize that this entire film was a CGI masterpiece – one of the most breath-taking short films that truly capture the ‘spirit’ of buildings. Ranging from Frank Gehry’s Bilbao museum to Santiago Calatrava’s Milwaukee Art Museum to a Mies Van der Rohe house to Louis Kahn’s Exeter library and Dhaka government center and other well-known works including one of Alex’s own creations in the forest, his 12 minute film has truly captured the inspiring and meditative quality of great buildings. For the complete uninterrupted version – where a full screen view is necessary, please watch it directly on his website.
Sometimes after a long day, I like watching his film just for its sheer poetry and Zen-like peaceful beauty. It’s like tectonic therapy. The following video is just the first half and placed here only for a short dekko. It is much better to view it directly in the link above.
Part I only of the 3rd and & 7th film; Please watch the full version instead on the link.
I’m halfway through reading the autobiography written by architect Daniel Libeskind : Breaking Ground – an immigrant’s journey from Poland to Ground Zero – a book someone gave to me. I’ve always had reservations against extreme ‘style-based’ or ‘jargon-happy’ starchitects, but decided to give it a read with an open mind, taking into consideration his war-ravaged past.Once you can get past Libeskind’s extremely self-viewed style of writing (which can easily be viewed as arrogance and malignant narcissism if not accepted that this is a confessional of an audacious man whose nomadic life is a story of survival and who grew up amongst insurmountable odds), the book settles into an entertaining read of the convoluted politics and poetry of the architectural world, the bitter dog-eat-dog world of New York City’s public projects, developers, rival architects and governing bodies, the crazy work schedules and demands in the world of architecture and a flashback into the horrors his family had faced during the Holocaust, which is a particularly poignant part – picaresque and viscerally moving at times, gut-wrenchingly horrific at others. The trials his parents went through in their birth land, then in their exiled countries and finally the labour in New York City (each working in a sweatshop and a printing factory respectively, and deliriously happy in the little they had) are quite remarkable. Just his father’s life alone is like a story straight out of a movie and is perhaps more inspirational. As well as the infallible strength of the two most influential women in his life – his mother and his wife Nina who most certainly seems to be his bedrock.
The book is filled with anecdotes, many vignettes and bizarre true-life stories, topics flitting from Proust to Mozart to German philosophers to Russian leaders to New York Times journalists to its mayors and governors to everyday folks and a lengthy description of his win and then subsequently being sidelined in the controversial Ground Zero Freedom Tower design. But when it comes to describing his built projects you wish he had credited, named or mentioned his brilliant associates and structural engineers – as any architect knows who the unnamed silent heroes in a starchitect’s firm truly are. So far, I particularly liked his chapter Light where he does make the effort to credit some ancient masters at least, and while watching Alex Roman’s film thought how appropriate the quality and manoeuvring of light truly is to reveal the ‘soul’ of good buildings, those that are unique and poetic.
The play of light is one of the most essential tools of any good architect – and Louis Kahn, whose library is featured in the Third and the Seventh film, was a virtuoso master of playing gymnastics with sunlight and shadows in his buildings. It was, in fact a visit to a Louis Kahn building and a profoundly moving experience I felt within its walls, meditative brick corridors and arched and circular openings that had inspired me at age 8 to become an architect later. (I had dreams of becoming either an astronaut/pilot or an architect or a secret agent – I was 8 after all….and the middle and more pragmatic choice prevailed at the end. My parents instead had hoped that I’d become either a doctor, a dentist, a professional classical dancer or an MBA – in that order – and indeed, I had found myself forced into a prestigious medical college – had the grades to get in – by my father’s insistence, only to quit after 2 weeks to join Architecture school, where I had also secretly applied and topped its nationwide entry exams.) Louis Kahn’s play of light and surfaces had stolen my heart a long time back. My dream of becoming an architect would not be quelled by parental pressures. Louis had led me to Light through his funky wall ‘openings’ from what I believed then was the darkness of the prosaic conformity my parents had chosen when they had suppressed their own artistic, musical and writer’s sides to have embraced their academic Ph.Ds and ‘safe’, ‘stable’ livlihoods. Architecture still was a mostly ‘male’ profession with little place for women except to design ‘interiors’ where they were pushed into while the men would push themselves to design ‘towers’. The trouble was – inside I had never thought of myself as either a ‘woman’ or a ‘man.’ I was a ‘person’ in love with Louis’s Light and little did I know then that I’d go on to become the youngest woman architect, at 22, to start her own firm and build and implement projects. And 5 years later, I’d be designing museums and high-rise towers. And less than 7 years later, designing plans for entire ‘new-towns’, cities, and even a 16 square mile eco-city proposal. But starting out, one of my first clients would be not some disgruntled housewife or a store, it would be the CEO of the General Motors manufacturing plant in Asia wanting to design 300 acres of their land for their new plant. A couple of my first built designs under my own firm, both in landscapes and architecture, had circular openings……Hmm. I wonder why ;)
“All material in nature,
the mountains and the streams and the air and we,
are made of Light which has been spent,
and this crumpled mass called material casts a shadow,
and the shadow belongs to Light.”
– Louis Kahn
(his real name is Itze-Lieb Schmuilowsky)
Now back to that Libeskind autobiography: Here are a few excerpts from the chapter Light from music-child-prodigy-turned-belated-architect Libeskind’s book.There is a particularly grim section where he writes how while designing the Jewish Museum in Berlin he was wondering if he should build one room with no light to depict the unsparing black, hopeless volume for those who had died in the Holocaust. He recalled the story of a woman who later lived in Brooklyn, a survivor. While being transported by train to the Stutthof concentration camp and at the point of abandoning all hope, she caught a glimpse of the sky through the slats of the boxcar and a white streak suddenly appeared; later though she knew that the streak might have merely been the trail of an airplane or a cloud, but that ‘vision’ had filled her with hope that she might somehow survive. And she did. This story was the inspiration behind designing the room named the ‘Holocaust Void’ which is empty, forbidding, neither heated nor cooled and only very high up in the ceiling is a tiny angled slit that lets in a line of light that is then reflected on the floor and walls of the Void. And he writes at the end of this story : “Light is the measure of everything. It is absolute, mathematical, physical, eternal. There is an absolute speed to it, you can’t outrun it; that’s what the theory of relativity is about. Stand here and remember what you can. What you remember is in light, the rest is in darkness, isn’t it? The past fades to dark, and the future is unknown, just stars.”
“Like music, architecture is often about direct encounter rather than analysis. If you are interested in a piece of music, you can analyze it after you’ve heard it, take apart its structure, explore its modalities, tonalities. But first you have to simply let it wash over you. Buildings often exert their magic, their genius, in a similar way.” – DL
And these lines were interesting, to loop back to the topic of dreams :
“Do you want proof that there is immortality? I have always been taken by an argument posited by the philosopher and writer Henri Bergson, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1927 but, sadly, is not in vogue……[lines edited out here] ….Bergson believed that dreams are proof that there is immortality. Think of it, he said: Dreams are luminous, filled with light, and yet they happen without any optical, or measurable, light. They offer us a promise of eternity. I also have my own proof, which has followed me from Lodz. When I was seven years old, an aunt in Brazil sent me an extraordinary mounted butterfly, with phosphorescent wings and a deep indigo. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, and certainly one of the few objects of beauty we had in Lodz. In those wings that glowed with an almost radioactive light I could see everything I needed to know about Rio de Janerio, about nature, cities, light, the afterlife, eternity.” -DL
Update (July 22): After finishing the book, I have to admit that although there are parts that are quite poetic and others very poignant, and you feel for the injustice his parents and others went through – Libeskind’s extremely condescending view of all his other contemporaries in the architectural world and his failure to give credit nor name any members of his own dedicated staff in his office or his engineering firms (who obviously do most of the heavy lifting for his designs given that he is more of a theorist and less of a structural ace) leaves you with a dry insipid aftertaste. While one can admire his optimism, his book knowledge of the arts and philosophy, and the fact that he succeeded in living an eastern European immigrant’s ‘American Dream’, his ‘outsmarting’ and ‘one upmanship’ anecdotes that he outlines in every project of his life right till the very end of the book (oftentimes bordering on pettiness and blatant self-aggrandizement) makes you begin to wonder if this is a boyish audacity he never outgrew or just someone who craves the limelight. Something he never got over from the days as a music prodigy when as he claimed early on in the book, had ‘stolen the spotlight’ on the stage from violin prodigy Itzhak Perlman.
After reading the book, I came out with greater respect for his father Nachman, for his mother and for his devoted and diplomatic wife Nina than for Daniel. They are certainly the real girders due to whom Libeskind was able to build his dreams in reality, and not be stuck forever in his castle of words. And of course, his dedicated staff – unnamed in his book…..
Here’s the link to the short film the Third and the Seventh once again, to be lost in a world of dreamlike buildings, existing in the real world, breathed life to by the inception of ideas in its creators’ minds:
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