The Museum of Everything

Things have been quiet lately on this site partly because I’ve been doing THE MUSUEM OF EVERYTHING. http://sites.ace.ed.ac.uk/museumofeverything/ The site’s first post is reproduced below. Check in daily for updates. The project ends officially on 21 February, but if there’s any demand, we’ll keep the web page going.

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THE MUSEUM OF EVERYTHING is an imaginary museum created by its visitors over a five day period from 17 to 21 February 2014. It takes place in a big, airy room in Minto House normally used for architecture studio crits. On entering, you’ll see a sign setting out INSTRUCTIONS FOR OPERATION. It’s really very simple. You take a 8″ by 5″ file card from a box and on it you write, or draw, or otherwise  describe any object you would like to see in the Museum. Anything at all is allowed. It could be an art object – Picasso’s ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907) for example, which we can temporarily borrow from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It could be a scientific object, like an early microscope or the Large Hadron Collider. It could be an early Koran. Or the Titanic, raised from its watery grave. A live Giant Pacific Octopus. A set of chopsticks. It really is up to you. If the object is small enough, and you’re happy to let us have it, then stick it to the card. Once you’ve filled out the card, pin it to the wall along with the others, and then repeat the process as often as you like. The aim is to fill the Museum – generosity is positively encouraged. Maybe we can help create a new generation of cultural philanthropists, if only in our minds. At the end of the week, on Friday 21 February at 1300 there will be panel discussion involving Prof. Andrew Patrizio, Dr. Jill Burke, Dr. Carol Richardson and Dr. Frances Fowle of the School of  History of Art at which we’ll discuss what kind of a collection we seem to have created, and what we should do with it. Robust – even iconoclastic – discussion will be encouraged.

THE MUSEUM OF EVERYTHING has scope for a lot of fun. But it is also a serious exercise at a time when museums are so circumscribed by politics, the law, health and safety, the demands of lenders and the demands of insurance companies, the lunacy of the art market, and the competition for audience. With so many competing demands, it’s a wonder museums exist at all. What is certain is that we rarely have an open discussion about them and what we want from them, as we – in this case art historians – are also so often in the position of the Museum’s advocates. The Museum of Everything is, hopefully, a pause in normal business, and a chance to reflect.

The Museum draws on a few historical precedents. The idea that anything might be included comes from the eighteenth century tradition of the Cabinet of Curiosities, an idea that increasingly appears in academic discourse in a cloud of something like nostalgia. The Cabinet’s fundamentally anti-rational character is the very opposite of the present day museum – it has something we’ve undoubtedly lost. The Museum of Everything also draws in a wonderful and eccentric book by Andre Malraux, the Museum Without Walls, published 1952-4. In a classic image from that book, Malraux is pictured looking a carpet of photographs of sculpture – the medium of photography, he argues, gives us the possibility of experiencing art in all kinds of new ways and in new combinations. No longer are we bound to a fixed architectural container. Malraux’s argument of course prefigured the invention of the world wide web, which has informed contemporary museum practice in ways we are only slowly starting to understand. Cognisance of that has to be part of our building a Museum of Everything, too. Finally, there have been one or two Museums of Everything in the past, including a London-based art project with the odd iteration on the South Bank. This is unrelated, not least because it’s an audience, not artist-led project. But we like the name, so we’re sticking with it. If anyone objects, let us know.

So – you’re all welcome to the Museum, very welcome indeed. Visit anytime 0930-1700 and add as much as you like. And please, if you can, come to the events during the week, and help us decide what to do with our creation.

 

POSTCARD FROM GOOGLE

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I recently spent a morning at Google headquarters (‘the Googleplex’) in Mountain View, Califonia, at the northern end of Silicon Valley. It was a Sunday, so eerily quiet. I had half a dozen leads from Edinburgh, itself a minor tech pole, and I’d written to all of them requesting a visit. As it turned out, so ineffable is the company, and its campus, I might as well have been requesting an audience with God. So I just went alone and unannounced.

The place was certainly a physical reality. As Wired journalist Andrew Blum points out in an entertaining new book, the internet is a material thing as much as an idea. Internet companies love you to believe in their insubstantiality, in their cloud-ness – but all that data has to be stored somewhere, and the work of managing it likewise.

It was an easy enough trip from SF. I got into my rented Prius and whirred down route 101 to the Rengstorff exit, crossed the highway, and there I was. The campus wasn’t strictly a campus per se, but a constellation of campuses, each anchored by one or more Google buildings. Bordered by route 101, it has an artificial lake for boating, miles of hiking trails, and a huge amphitheatre like the Hollywood Bowl. In the distance to the south, across drained swampland punctuated with electricity pylons I could see NASA’s Ames facility. Defined by three of the world’s biggest buildings, arched sheds made for building airships during the Second World War, it’s one of California’s great architectural sights.

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The Google campus it must be said, isn’t. It’s a sprawling complex, at a guess 300,000 square feet shaped like a C-clamp, comprising half a dozen interlinked pavilions. Clive Wilkinson architects designed it; based in Culver City, one of the centres of the LA film industry, they specialise in ‘Building Creative Communities’. It’s not a statement building of the kind that Facebook are currently contriving with Frank Gehry. You could drive past it and notice (I did, at first). But in the open plaza that defines centre of the complex, there are some deconstructivist Gehry-like elements, as if the façade of an ordinary office pavilion had been taken apart and shaken about. There’s a great curved beam, arching into the sky, emblazoned with the Google logo, like a piece of model railway track.

For the most part, it’s unspectacular, however and your eyes are drawn to the details. An organic garden occupies a northern corner of the plaza (a sign offers advice about seasonal planting, and a recipes – Organic Shephard’s (sic) Pie). A notice in the pavilion next door advertises the Google Film Club, whose carefully balanced, global programme looked the work of a genuine connoisseur.

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Of the details, though, it’s the G-Bikes that are most striking. Old-fashioned, sit-up-and-beg clunkers, they’re fitted with baskets and bells, and painted the corporate red, yellow, green and blue. There’s a useless rim brake, as well as a Dutch-style crank, so if you backpedal, you slow down. I don’t know why the two brakes. Safety first, I suppose. Anyway, they’re everywhere – hundreds of them, free to use for anyone who cares to. The abundance is really quite charming. I took one for a while. It felt like stealing at first, and the first few minutes felt deliciously transgressive (I had visited Apple the same day, and within seconds a security guard pulled up and yelled at me). But after a while, it was clear this seeming transgression wasn’t anything of the sort, but Google’s way of performing its generosity. These days Google may be ‘evil’, but it still has a lot invested in seeming not.

I soon grew tired of the Googleplex and pedalled over to an adjoining campus where a giant cupcake guarded the entrance. A handful of like-minded tourists milled around here, taking pictures – it was obviously what you did. They’d arrived on G-Bikes too, and like me were enjoying the perverse pleasures of the campus, before heading on to Facebook, Linked-In, and Yahoo! It was clearly the beginnings of a tourist trail, like Rome would have been for the eighteenth-century Englishman. Google seemed to have cottoned on already, hence the bikes. So, go while you still can. Google is waiting for you.

PS: Google – if you’re reading this, I put the bike back where it came from.

Niemeyer: the future is LUMPY

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I’m standing in the middle of the Caminho Nimeyer in Niteroí, just outside Rio de Janeiro. The Caminho is one of the architect’s last big projects, and remains unfinished. It’s a great concrete parade ground on the waterfront overlooking Rio, punctuated with (so far) three buildings that are unmistakably Niemeyer’s: a theatre with an undulating roof and angled walls; a small dome set at ground level, and a larger one with a serpentine ramp leading to an entrance above ground. All could have been built at any point since 1945. The theatre revisits the iconic chapel at Pampulha. The domes are Brasília. The ramps nod to the celebrated Museu de Arte Contemporânea a mile down the road. There are a couple of other less spectacular elements: a pretty gatehouse that could have been done by Richard Neutra in 30s Hollywood. And there’s a little information centre in black glass, a simple drum of a kind that you bump into all over Brasilia. From the ocean it looks fantastic, especially the theatre: crisp and bright against the industrial confusion of Niteroi (the city is a tangle of breaker’s yards, half-dismantled ships and oil rigs: a wonderful, dynamic chaos that is never the same twice).

If you actually make it through Niteroí’s traffic to the Caminho, however, the problem starts. It’s a familiar one for Niemeyer followers, namely the disjunction between the idea and the execution. At Brasília you rarely feel this is an issue, such is the quality of construction and maintenance. But here, it’s the main thing you feel. The ramp leading to the larger dome is a case in point. The idea is clear enough, a drawn line translated into concrete. It’s sweeping gesture in pen turned into 3D (I saw Niemeyer draw in 2001 or 2 and he signed a book for me – he was a wonderfully fluid draftsman). But the execution in concrete is all lumps and bulges which can be seen from a distance. Close up, the ramp has a highly irregular quality, and is in parts quite angular, a representation of the building process. The same is true of all the big buildings here: a pure form on paper in turns into a botched exercise in reality. It’s the future remade as a primary school art project.

The question is, does it matter? As far as I could tell in my conversation with Niemeyer it did not. To focus on the details was to misunderstand the scale of his imagination. His architecture was a representation of an ideal world that would come to pass at some indeterminate time in the future, and in which such minor details would be taken care of.

here’s another possible view, which is that the tension between idea and execution is actually part of the aesthetic, in the same way that (say) punk cultivated a wilful amateurism. You come to enjoy it, because it gives your imagination something to do.

I’m not sure this is the case with Niemeyer, though. Having seen just about everything he did in Brazil, my impression is of the most extraordinary variation in quality. If there’s a ‘punk Niemeyer’, you never know when you’re going to get it. The Niteroí project, prominent, state supported, built in his home town: well, it ought to be good, But it’s one of the worst, quality-wise, and incomprehensible in its present state to any other than hardcore fans.I enjoyed it, though. Its contradictions give you plenty to think about, and its air of shoddy decay produces some hilarious moments. There’s a funny ramp up to the theatre, half-finished and ambiguous in purpose. Was it for wheelchair access, we wondered? But it was angled at 30 degrees, suggesting, if anything a disposal chute. For unloved relatives? A wheelchair would reach quite a speed if let go…There are plenty more instances like this. In the sun, it’s a bizarre, inhumane place, treeless and baking. But its very inhumanity makes you laugh out loud (well, it did us). You have to admit that not much architecture does that. IMG_6083

Richard J. Williams, Brazil: Modern Architectures in History  (London: Reaktion Books, 2009) is still available at around £15.00. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Brazil-Architectures-Richard-J-Williams/dp/1861894007