“Everyday the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction.” (1)
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
Tourism and Everyday Life
Engaging the public with the promise of a unique environment, theme parks and tourist districts must also deliver a heavy dose of the familiar in their brands, sights, and experiences. With the “visual field” of advertising and media technologies continuing to expand their reach, the urge to experience the “already known” is both a response to too much information and a result of its increased availability. Travel, shrinking sightseeing into a consumable array of the hyper-familiar, renders landscape and the built environment as images abstracted from their context and region. While reproductions replace “first hand” experience and franchises remove the specificity of place from cities and towns, the condition of tourism infiltrates the condition of everyday life.
Architecture in Representation
In her book Privacy and Publicity Beatriz (2) Colomina argues that, contrary to the conventional notion that architects of modern buildings wished to produce autonomous objects through purely formal methods, they were in some cases directly engaged with the phenomenon of reproduction and representation. A comparison of Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier’s differing approaches to the representation of their architecture reveals that Loos, convinced that photography would flatten his interiors and make them unrecognizable, resisted their photographic representations, with the exception of those taken under his direction. Le Corbusier, on the other hand, embraced the notion of representation of his work, participating in films of his houses and in one case incorporating a camera obscura into the interior of a home.(3) Recognizing the power of mass produced images to alter the means through which the phenomenal world was understood, Le Corbusier often reprinted advertisements for commercial products in his magazine L’Espirit nouveau, and also directly incorporated images derived from mass culture into his working process, inserting a postcard of Paris into a sketch to describe the view from one of his projects.(4) This awareness of how mass communication was beginning to form a lens through which individuals saw the world would lead to an understanding of a building not just as a site of habitation but of perception. Thus the construction of a building was simultaneously the construction of a series of images or set of perceptions that were as immaterial as a photograph or film. The significance of this view is the alteration of the subject’s relationship to architecture. As the singularity of the building is displaced by its endless reproduction, the presumed hierarchy of object to image dissolves and the identification of subject to place becomes increasingly abstract.
The Dutch Model
“In a Radio Netherlands interview, one of the proprietors (of Madurodam) says that environmental activists from Greenpeace actually protested in front of a miniature oil platform the same way they would a real one.” (5)
Anna Kleberg’s photographs of Madurodam (6) do not immediately expose the “fake” within the “real”. The subjects of these photographs, modern and post-modern architectural landmark buildings, plus the occasional functional structures like oil refineries and airports, are framed close in and occasionally cropped, leaving little evidence about the space that surrounds each building. The full frame views of the buildings cause them to initially read almost as bookplates, somewhat flat and asserting the typology of the structures, so that one’s first response is toward identification of the buildings as an illustration; in other words, their historical significance based on period or style.
This art historical pursuit is quickly tainted however by odd blemishes on the buildings facades, or a suspect relationship between the scale of the structures and the blades of grass which “represent” the lawn surrounding the building. In the latter case, when one’s attention has passed from the main subject of the photograph to the foreground of the picture, the contrast in scale becomes quite jarring, as one notices that what had at first been seen as an afterthought (the vegetation surrounding the building) suddenly becomes oversized and a bit frightening, the modernist icon that we “trusted” has suddenly shrunk to the size of a toy, leaving us unmoored in our attempts to reconcile the image with its context.
Kleberg’s deliberate choice to photograph the miniature buildings in Madurodam as though they exist at full scale (looking up at taller buildings, etc.) perpetuates an illusion that a visitor to the park would not experience. Any inclusive view of the park would show people walking through it as giants through a cityscape. The vantage point of the camera rejects the carnival-like spectacle of an obvious fake in favor of a subtler tension between the artificial and the actual. As the orientation of the camera points upward from the ground or across a public plaza in front of the building, the sense of space around the buildings seems plausible, which means one could potentially inhabit such a space, until the moment that a flaw in the model forces one to retreat from the shrunken environment and reconsider the “reality” of the buildings depicted.
Susan Sontag’s On Photography (8), written in 1978, addressed, among other things, the veracity of a photograph, our willingness to take it as evidence. As photography is transformed by digital technology, one would assume that the acceptance of a photograph as “truth” would be compromised. The continued reliance on film and photography as a means to transmit news or ensure security suggests that the public is content with images that are “mostly” true. Kleberg’s Dutch Model photographs succinctly offer us this current double bind – we have become dependent on an endless set of images to describe our world; without this filter, the world as we understand it would cease to exist. Faced with the possibility that all images are suspect, a hybrid of illusion and truth, we are forced to come to terms with the condition of “reality” today as one increasingly laced with fictions, a set of fictions that are now included in what we consider to be real. The contrast between the “seriousness” of the architecture in The Dutch Model photographs, and the lightheartedness of their origins as miniature replicas made “for fun” reveals this contradiction through a deliberate but subtle irony that, as we scrutinize the pictures, quietly comes to surface.
Situated in a nature reserve in Dubai, the buildings of the World Park series have a far more obvious relationship to their environment, and because they consist of crude stereotypes of architectural vernacular, their artifice is immediately apparent. Each of the houses in The International Village, as it’s known, has “its exclusive architecture, but they all have a common Gulf characteristic, which reflects the outstanding architecture of the region”.(9) In other words, there is an effort here to assimilate building types of eastern and western cultures, achieved through an almost childlike caricature of regional styles.
The buildings in these photographs have a truly curious relationship to their site. Each structure is approached by a wide pathway of grey stone, visible in the foreground of the picture, which ends where the plot of land allocated for each house begins, or in some cases continues up to the doorway. Because this element of the infrastructure doesn’t always “connect”, there is an itinerant quality to the lots, like those at a campground or trailer park. The consistency and heaviness of the path’s material is often at odds with the styles of the houses, as when seen in the context of the thatched grass walls of the Nomad House, or the smooth white stone of the Nobu House. This mismatch continues in the relationship of the cultural clichés employed in the buildings and the setting of a nature reserve in Dubai. The houses are surrounded by vegetation indigenous to this area. Seeing the Norway House or the English House in front of a backdrop of tropical flora and fauna instills in the viewer a disturbing sense of displacement; the houses seem to have landed here from another era and place, giving them an almost alien quality that is enhanced by their isolation from one another on distinct plots.
By photographing these houses straight on and more less centered in the composition, Kleberg engages with the “charm” of these crude imports through a deadpan response. There is no need to editorialize or embellish on caricature, it speaks (loudly) for itself. The pathos inherent in these culturally orphaned structures surfaces through their formal treatment. With the exception of the few that are in sync with their backgrounds, the houses seem cut out of a postcard then pasted over another one from a tropical setting. Front doors that appear dark and non-functional lend the houses a muted quality, making them indifferent to the arbitrary nature of their surroundings and increase their sense of autonomy and “use” within a global lesson on architectural civics.
Kleberg’s detached treatment of her subject matter serves to highlight the salient qualities of the theme park spectacle. Like the transnational corporations that often run them, the underlying message is one of acquisition and control. Mixing the exotic with the local emphasizes their global reach as well as the regional “sensitivity” implicit in the corporations “message” to the public. By delivering this constructed environment unfiltered, the artificial nature of cultural images so completely divorced from their origins becomes comical, while the natural beauty of the setting foregrounds the awkwardness of this particular exercise in cultural diplomacy.
The two pictures that make up the Forest series are taken from roughly the same vantage point but framed slightly differently. In what are perhaps the most enigmatic of Kleberg’s photographs, a strong sense of absence pervades these landscapes, which, as in much of her other work, bear traces of human activity but are devoid of it. The “forest” referred to in the title seems largely domesticated, with pruned shrubs filling the lower half of the composition. The vantage point of the camera is relatively high, as evidenced by the view over the top of a set of power lines just visible in the foreground through the densely packed greenery, which completely fills the frame of the picture.
As a subject viewing a landscape we are looking down “into” a kind of green abyss. We are almost totally enveloped and surrounded by the forest, with a small opening at the top of the tree line that reveals the sky. Just next to that is another pole from a power line that brings electricity to a populated area nearby. The sense of alienation in the picture seems to come from the feeling of being in close proximity to civilization while being totally isolated from it. These are not the sublime landscapes of Frederick Church or Caspar David Friedrich, but a “semi-natural” setting with signs of partial domestication, a place on the edge of a city or suburb that has no clear identity except as a place where things overlap; where the border between “town” and “country” becomes uncertain, an ideal setting to examine the ambiguity that exists between the terms Nature and Culture.
Taking the “same” picture twice with a slightly different cropping suggests an ambivalence concerning the possibility of “capturing” nature. The time of day hasn’t changed, the late afternoon sun is casting the same shadows characteristic of that hour in both photographs. As if to invite comparison between two attempts at grasping the meaning of this uncertain location, the pictures exist side-by-side, a seeming acknowledgment of the futility of classifying the ambiguity of this place through photographic means.
“A model for historic preservationists and New Urbanists seeking front-porch living and sidewalks for people.” (10)
Project for Public Spaces on Bungalow Heaven Neighborhood
Frozen in time as a result of its landmark status, the Pasadena, California neighborhood known as Bungalow Heaven provides Anna Kleberg with “real world” subject matter that, through a kind of historical fetishism, has become more like a fiction. The images of homes that comprise this neighborhood are all seen from the front and are roughly the same distance from the subject. Collectively they read as a kind of serial analysis of a building type, with an apparent connection to Bernd and Hilla Becher’s work.
But where the Becher’s rigorous examination of the visible structure of industrial buildings underlined their formal similarities, the logic of Kleberg’s serial approach reveals varying representations of a domestic architecture which, through repetition, describe the underlying “dream” associated with the American suburban home.
The houses that make up the bucolic neighborhood known as Bungalow Heaven are examples of a broad series of changes in the domestic life of early-twentieth century America. Reacting to what was increasingly seen as the dark, musty interiors of the Victorian era that were dense with ornament, social reformers, architects, and “domestic scientists” called for a simplification of both the technical and aesthetic aspects of home life. Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman-style homes (the dominant Bungalow style) offered affordable housing with built-in furniture and a more or less open plan that combined modern efficiency with rustic elements of wood and stone, reflecting utopian goals of wedding technology to nature.(11) Plans for these homes as well as those of Frank Lloyd Wright were available for a small fee in The Craftsman and Ladies Home Journal magazines, and could also be bought inexpensively as kits and assembled, making home ownership accessible to a much broader range of the American public than ever before.(12) Recent efforts to maintain the history of the American bungalow are evident in the creation of American Bungalow magazine, begun in 1990, as well as the acquiring of landmark status for Bungalow Heaven, which occurred in 1989. The neo-traditionalist movement known as New Urbanism13 emerged during this period as well, which found its ultimate example in the Florida town of Seaside (used as the site of the movie The Truman Show) and later, Celebration, Florida, a town produced and manufactured by the Disney Company.
With many of the houses in close proximity to one another, featuring large porches and connected by broad sidewalks and walkways, Bungalow Heaven could be seen as a prime example of the pedestrian friendly neighborhoods now advocated by New Urbanism. Built before the advance of car culture in Los Angeles and elsewhere, our relationship to such places has arguably changed. As if acknowledging the manner in which architecture today is often viewed “in motion”,(14) the vantage point of Kleberg’s photographs of Bungalow Heaven is from the street, approximately that of one’s view from a passing car, adding a sense of remove that increases our distance from the “welcoming” nature of these modest houses.
Taken in soft overcast light, the photographs of Bungalow Heaven possess a restrained beauty that conveys the humanist agenda of the bungalow while avoiding the potential gloss of nostalgia. Devoid of strong shadows that might give them more contrast, the color in the pictures is muted, while the overall whiteness of the sky also contributes to the impression of a backdrop behind the houses, as though they were shot in a large photo studio. The absence of figures creates a feeling of isolation contradicted by the “personality” of each residence, evident mostly through the gardening visible in the front yards and porches. Absent of people, this “precious” neighborhood
begins to feel like an abandoned movie set where any number of narratives may have played out in the past, but because the architectural vernacular is so identified with a particular time period, there are few clues as to what might occur in the future. Because a few of the houses seem to have been altered, perhaps falling victim to the stucco and vinyl siding craze of the 1960’s and 70’s, the idiosyncratic breakdowns in their identification with the historical model serve to underline the uniform nature of the “dream” which these homes now represent. Engaging the nostalgia for traditional domestic architecture while acknowledging that the “past” is often composed of a series of representations based on the needs of the present, Kleberg’s Bungalow Heaven photographs articulate the experience of the home as constructed image, and in the process call attention to the longing for historical daydreams that might offer comfort over the loss of the “here and now”.(15)
“The window in the age of mass communication provides us with one more flat image. The window is a screen.” Beatriz Colomina (16)
The underlying in themes Kleberg’s work, from the relationship of artifice and the built environment (The Dutch Model, World Park), to the ambiguity inherent in our understanding of Nature and Culture (World Park, Forest), to the role that simulation plays in everyday life (The Dutch Model, Bungalow Heaven), are all in some ways evident in her current project, which focuses on Le Corbusier’s Cabanon. Continuing her preoccupation with the building as a site of perceptual constructions, Kleberg’s work examines a structure and site that synthesized a number of issues in Le Corbusier’s architecture. Built in 1952 in the French seaside town of Cap-Martin,17 the 16 square meter Cabanon represents Corbusier’s most pared down version of his “machines for living”.
Located on the hillside of a picturesque coastline, the Cabanon was built with rustic materials and intended as a model of efficiency. Possessing a tangential relationship to its site through its tiny scale, and embodying Corbusier’s notions of a home as a collection of perceptual experiences, the Cabanon could be likened to a projection booth from which the viewer/occupant “views” the exterior. A mirror, which hangs opposite one of the windows and reflects the view of the landscape (reminiscent of the projected images in Plato’s Cave) provides further evidence of Le Corbusier’s preoccupation with a home as a series of constructed representations. The now legendary cabin, built by arguably modern architecture’s most famous personality, has become a tourist site, and the repeated reproductions of the exterior increase its function as an iconographic image that seems at odds with its diminutive scale, providing fertile subject matter for Kleberg’s investigations into buildings and site as a set of complex relationships made up of projections, associations, and fictions.
The Image of Buildings
As if to propose the most pointed contrast possible with the increasing intangibility of contemporary life, Kleberg’s work focuses on the most tangible of all things human, the built environment. We move in, out of, and around buildings with such frequency and regularity that they are experienced on an almost unconscious level. The “image” of buildings exists simultaneously as construction, reproduction, and concept, all of which contribute to the “reality” of how we perceive any given structure. Through subtle and sometimes not so subtle imagery that incorporates humor, irony and sleight-of-hand, Kleberg adopts mechanical means of reproduction (the photograph, the film) to examine the complexities of representation in an era overwhelmed by reproductions.
In re-presenting objects that are representations themselves (models, theme parks) or “real” buildings and places (Bungalow Heaven, Cabanon) that have become as much an idea as a thing, Kleberg employs the ultimate tools available to “capture” the visible, in the process provoking questions regarding the truth in our perceptions. As Kleberg’s camera attempts to “fix” the artifice of its subjects into a state of permanence, the photograph and film, as a necessary currency adopted to reconstruct the “real” world moment by moment, become redundant and transparent. Combining the seductive properties of photography with the clarity of her conceptual premise, Kleberg’s work invokes a sense of loss, mitigated by the subtle irony implicit in “playing with” our beliefs. Caught in a series of transparencies and reflections, the “reality” in these pictures must exist somewhere; not exactly in what’s behind, or in front, or in the middle, but “there”, in a place that, for the moment, continues to elude us.
1.Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Illuminations, ed. with an introduction by Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969) pg. 223
2.Beatriz Colomina, Privacy and Publicity, Modern Architecture as Mass Media, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994)
3.Le Corbusier incorporated a periscope/camera obscura into his design for the Beistegui apartment in Paris. Beatriz Colomina, Privacy and Publicity, Modern Architecture as Mass Media, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994), pp. 301-312
4 Beatriz Colomina, Privacy and Publicity, Modern Architecture as Mass Media, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994), pg.320
5. HYPERLINK ”http://www.glasssteelandstone.com/NL/HagueMadurodam.html” http://www.glasssteelandstone.com/NL/HagueMadurodam.html
6.Madurodam, built in the early 1950’s and once visited by Walt Disney who found inspiration there for one of the rides in Disney World, includes replicas of roughly 400 Dutch buildings built at 1:25 scale, as well as a “population” of 4,000 figurines engaged in their daily routines. In this re-presentation, social conflict and difference is erased with the shift in scale. As everything is reduced equally, the uniform nature of this “society” is reinforced.
7. Jean Baudrillard’s 1983 essay “The Precession of Simulacra” seems to have anticipated Google Earth when he invoked the Borges tale in which “cartographers of the Empire draw up a map so detailed that it ends up exactly covering the territory”…. “Abstraction today is no longer that of a map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.” Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra” Art & Text, no. 11(September 1983)
8. “Photographs furnish evidence. Something we hear about, but doubt, seems proven when we’re shown a photograph of it”. Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 1978) pg.
9. HYPERLINK ”http://vgn.dm.gov.ae/DMEGOV/dm-pamush-recreation” http://vgn.dm.gov.ae/DMEGOV/dm-pamush-recreation
10. HYPERLINK ”http://www.pps.org/great_public_spaces/list?type_id=23” http://www.pps.org/great_public_spaces/list?type_id=23
11.Stickley was a major proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement in America, which had its origins in John Ruskin and William Morris’s response to the negative effects of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Implicit in the Arts and Crafts movement was a critique of alienated labor, which could be overcome through the re-uniting of “head and hand”, or the return of craft as a rejection of the exploitation of workers within the industrial system. Morris’s goal was to bring about social reform through a transformation not only of the production system, but also its aesthetics that, through mass production, had perpetuated the spread of excessive ornamentation associated with Victorian design.
12.The resale of these modest homes for $400,000 and $500,000 in today’s hot real estate market indicate the return of history as fantasy, which serves to feed speculative markets that, if anything, render absurd the notion of home as the site of rooted-ness and a link to natural settings. Contrary to its origins as progressive housing created to address the alienating qualities of the industrial era, the object (house) has become alienated from its primary function (living) in service of its new role as “image” for the speculative market. The object has now also become an image that facilitates its own consumption.
13.The New Urbanists are a group of American architects and planners who advocate the “traditional values” of older suburban communities. Although some of their criticisms leveled against the late modern condition were perhaps legitimate, the benevolent past that they advocate a return to is a construction through selective memory and historical pastiche, a carefully crafted representation of history that eliminates the complex vernacular of America’s built environment in favor of life on a film set.
14.Modernist architects understood that the development of new technologies like the railway and the telephone would alter the way architecture was experienced. As the landscape was now viewed in fast motion, and as location was in a sense equalized by its connection to a series of points, space, region and place began to be experienced as relative.
15.A poster for a recent museum exhibition of ancient Iranian art at New York’s Asia Society reads, “Think you know Iran? Think again. Discover a rich past behind today’s headlines.” While giving historical context to contemporary topics is certainly worthwhile, exhibiting a culture’s past “treasures” which are unequivocally “beautiful” can often serve as a means to displace the complex nature of current events.
16. Beatriz Colomina, Privacy and Publicity, Modern Architecture as Mass Media, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994), pg.334
17.Corbusier’s original connection to the site was through his friendship with the designer Eileen Gray who had designed and built a villa, E.1027, which he greatly admired. Representing one of the stranger chapters in the history of modern architecture, Corbusier painted a set of murals in the house against the wishes of Grey, eventually acquiring land adjacent to E.1027 on which to build Cabanon, providing him with a means to surveil the (ultimately abandoned) property in the years up until his death.
Page 1 George Maduroplein 1 2585 The Hague, Netherlands, as seen from Google Earth
Page 4 HYPERLINK ”http://www.arts-crafts.com/archive/sears/index.shtml” http://www.arts-crafts.com/archive/sears/index.shtml
Page 5 HYPERLINK ”http://www.solohabita.it/CABANON/cabanon30.jpg” www.solohabita.it/CABANON/cabanon30.jpg