Monthly Archives: June 2009

Why copy the Greek?

St Petersburg (photo: matildaben)

St Petersburg (photo: matildaben)

Once, strolling down the streets of St Petersburg, I thought about the multitude of neoclassical buildings around me. The city is known for its neoclassical and baroque architecture.  Street after street is laden with pillars, statues, curves, ornaments.

Passing a pediment after another, I wondered whether the Western culture really has nothing other to focus on than the ancient Greeks? Why keep reproducing an ideology from around 300 BC? In art we look back to the Greek for their classic proportions, in philosophy we start with Socrates and Plato. Literature students need to read the Iliad & Odyssey. It’s an important era, for sure, but has there not come anything new since?

I’ve recently started reading Ayn Rands massive novel The Fountainhead, which (among other things) describes the shift from classical to modern era in architecture. I’m just a few dozen pages into the book, but I immensely enjoy the juxtaposition between the conservative, traditionalist architecture graduate Peter Keating and the rebel Howard Roark, who is expelled from the university because of his modernist ideas. The year is 1922.

We today take the white, smooth, ornamentless, functional buildings for granted. This is a result of the likes of Roark  having questioned the old Greek paradigm. The modernist movement, of course, changed not only architecture but arts, literature, physics, everything. Whatever you think of the modernist thoughts and dogmas, whether you like it or not, modernism really did provide an alternative to the Doric, Ionic and Corinthian pillars, the iambic pentameter and classical mechanics.

Interestingly enough, Ayn Rand is from St. Petersburg. Maybe she was inspired by the same streets as I…?

Ps. this is another automatic pre-scheduled post… I’m still hiking in the mountains of Jotunheimen, Norway,  far from ornamented pillars or plain surfaces.



Jotunheimen, Norway (photo: Sauoyeeier)

Jotunheimen, Norway (photo: Sauoyeeier)

So many people have found my humble blog by typing a query to a search engine. Where do all these people come from? All over the world, so many people must be typing something into google every second. Thousands of fingers dancing on keyboards. Of the gzillions of google searches, a small fraction will filter down to end up on the  hanbablog.

In India, I tried to imagine how many Palak Paneers are consumed during one day. Or how many cartons of milk.  In a second hand store in my home town, seeing hundreds of old candleholders, I wondered how many candleholders there must be only in my district. My partner and I have 13. If our neighbours also have a few less each household, say 7, that makes a grand total of 140 candleholders in our apartment building, which makes 2240 in our street.

Hmm this is a hanbablog post that doesn’t have a deeper point to it than this; the world is so goddamn wide and google seems very big.

Ps. when this post is published I will be out there in the wide world, hiking in the fjords and mountains of Jotunheimen, Norway.

Literary devices

A friend of mine recently moved from Georgia St where he had lived the past three (turbulent) years of his life – to Georgia. Now he believes the street name was an omen – or a literary device in the plot of his life! There was order amidst all the turbulence after all, since the omen was there all the time, pointing towards his future. Sure enough, if his life had been a book, the street name may well have been interpreted as a literary device called foreshadowing. Similarly, another friend of mine has referred to her post-highschool suburbian one-room flat as a “stylish studio on St Stuart Street.” This flat had a great meaning to her life, being the first place she lived on her own. Today, years later, she describes this flat with words that conjure up an ominous, magical glow for her time in that flat. The magic, or a sense of extraordinary significance, is reinforced by a literary device called alliteration in the nickname she has given the place. (Alliteration = repeating consonant sounds,usually in the beginning of each word; in this case “st”.)

Can our lives really be viewed as stories? Maybe my friends are nutcases, seeking meaning in such things, but they are not alone. Many people say things like: “That was a weird situation – like a scene from a crime story!” Nevertheless, to even subconsciously or playfully suppose that our life is a story raises a bunch of questions. Is there an author, for example? – A god of some sort? At least there must be a kind of fate in place – a force that drives the plot onwards. Let us suppose our life really is a story, and the author tries to leave clues and omens and give significance to certain events through literary devices. Let us suppose there really is “something more than the eye can see” reflected in the ways the events follow literary devices or symbolism. – In that case, when do we get to decide when and which literature devices are being used? According to Freud, for example, a simple dream of an apple may be an allegory for suppressed infantile sexuality. Traumatic experiences can be found from anybody’s childhood, but can one justify what comes later on by drawing a parallel from a specific traumatic experience and call it foreshadowing? I once heard a 70 year old lady with an alcohol problem blame her drinking on loneliness; a same kind of loneliness she felt when her older sisters refused to play with her during childhood. Does that account for foreshadowing, when there is a gap of 65 years between the events? While I by no means deny the importance of childhood to our personalities, I am against seeking unjustified parallels with earlier experiences. Maybe a thousand situations from the childhood of the lady in question,  suggesting she has had several close friendships, have been omitted from the story. In hindsight, it is always possible to “see the literature”, identify the antagonists, climaxes, imagery etc as one pleases.

Also, if the author/fate/whatever has left hidden clues in our lives through literary devices, I think moving from Georgia Street to Georgia is a rather lame turn in the plot. Predictable, vulgar, boring.  Is my friend a part of a bad story? Can you grade a person’s life story into good and bad, as you can with novels? Furthermore, is it better to be a bestseller or a difficult, intellectual story? Do you want to be a story that can make millions or one that gave no remuneration to the author?

I believe separating life from storytelling is increasingly difficult with the proliferation of all kinds of media. We are continuously overwhelmed by a multitude of stories. TV soap operas, commercials, YouTube videos etc. Imagine how our agrarian forefathers lived; their days went from morning to evening with only a single “narrative”, i.e. what they did. In addition to that, they heard and told stories now and then. Their “story” was probably not the dense meta-narrative, laden with smaller stories and analysis it is today. It is unlikely they would regard events as “just like in a crime story!” My opinion is that we are today so overwhelmed with stories, told using literary devices, that we believe life itself to have a plot. We see so many happy endings, bad guys going to jail, scenes where justice prevails. We see kitschy little children give flowers to politicians, we see the ugly betties turning into swans. We see these things and forget that life really is a sequence of events. A chain of events, going from moment to moment.  We breath in and out from moment to moment.

Turning the question upside down, is there a novel without literary devices? A novel that describes our life as it is? No fancy tricks, no storytelling? Where a cigar is just a cigar. Portrayal of the events that take place from cradle to grave. Maybe if such a book has ever existed, it never sold a single copy? (Perhaps with certain exceptions – Proust and some branches of postwar existentialism? Maybe others as well, I am not so familiar with literature history.) It would be a novel describing events as they follow each other, from moment to moment.

Take a look around you. Describe where you are. In front of you is a computer screen, perhaps the computer is on a desk. There may be walls and a window. Your life is right here, in front of your eyes and within the reach of your ears and fingertips. The chair may be comfortable, you may have a coffee cup next to you. Maybe you’re tired or frustrated or calm or happy. Several moments have passed as you have read this paragraph. Your life has proceeded on from moment to moment.

C’est la vie, pas de choix

My partner and I have been watching a documentary series called A Century of Warfare. This includes 13 DVDs, all about the various wars of the twentieth century. Watching the immense destruction and the various tactical maneuvers is fascinating. Even more so, it’s tragic yet interesting to see how many individual lives were affected by the wars. The documentary series made me think about a big word; destiny.

The word has fallen out of grace today: talking about it may well prompt a yawn in the audience. Destiny is the stuff soap operas are made of. Instead of the concept of fate or destiny, we fill our heads with thoughts like: “What do I want out of life?” or “Have I really fully utilized my potential?” Many of us, belonging to the Western middle class, have the liberty to more or less choose our destinies.

Of course, it is naive to believe in a concept of total freedom. Of course, I do understand that there  still are great oppressive forces at place, just of different sort. Nevertheless, I do wonder if we haven’t become so entangled with thinking about our rights and oppressors, that we have lost sight of how little choices we had over our lives only a couple of decades ago. It is healthy to remember that we are really not so far from the days when if your father was a farmer, that’s what you’d become, too. C’est la vie, pas de choix. (It is life, [there are] no choices.)

While we definitely should cherish all our freedoms, and the freedom of not having our lives clouded by war at the moment, I wonder if we can handle not having a destiny dictated to us. We need to come to terms with our freedom. Some people have solved this by getting a massive mortgage; paying a large mortgage binds you down and becomes your destiny. It is surprising how infinitely many people in the west have believed the meaning of life to be “pay off your mortgage”, or to “pay one’s dues”.

So how to come to terms with all our possibilities – our freedom – in a positive, respectful and sustainable way? Not sure, I’ll report back when I have the answer. Recently, though, I’ve heard of a website called Hunch, which can help you make all sorts of decisions, from what kind of yoghurt to choose at the grocery store to what kind of a car to buy. Perhaps this helps us deal with freedom? Or is it just another way to give your destiny away? .

Anyways, for anyone out there, suffering from a modern mild depression, I can recommend this documentary series, A Century of Warfare. If your life at times feels like there’s no meaning or that you’re engaged with pointless shit, try imagining yourself in a trench on the western front 1918.

Plastic bags

Do you remember the scene from American Beauty, where one of the main characters films a plastic bag caught in an air current? Light as a feather it goes round and round. There is a beautiful allegiance between nature and man-made. The thin plastic is vulnerable and calm, peaceful. Like a butterfly it dances at the mercy of the wind.

Recently I finished Kazuo Ishiguro’s amazing novel Never Let Me Go. Without spoiling the plot, it is safe to reveal that the main character Kath looks at plastic bags on the final page:

All along the [barb wire] fence, expecially along the lower line of wire, all sorts of rubbish had caught and tangled. Up in the branches of the trees, too, I could see, flapping about, torn plastic sheeting and bits of old carrier bags. That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine just a little fantasy thing. […] I was thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up. (pp 263, Faber and faber 2005)

On the windy Plateau of Tibet, a few years ago, I got quite a bit melancholic looking at all the plastic bags caught in the thorny bushes. Glimpses of bright, man-made plastic, stuck in the vast, empty brown-ness of the plateau, in the middle of nowhere.

Nepal - Tibet - China - Mongolia 033

Defining “pink or saccharine” architecture

Do you remember the film Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola? In the film, there were so many things pink and sweet. The pink dresses, sweet colors and of course, the cakes Marie Antoinette is famous for: If they have no bread, then let them eat cake!

Malmo Public Library (photo: Percita)The concept of “pink, saccharine” architecture I described in an earlier post may be a bit elusive. I’ve tried to define it in this post, using  libraries in the Swedish city of Malmo as an example. The public library extension by Henning Larsen Tegnestue (completed 1997), is a very beautiful building featuring a multitude of interesting, trendy design details. It involves the usage of open space and is a place where several different media and information sources cohabit. Many traditional library-users, however, may have been a tad disappointed, appreciating silence and logical categorization of books more than the attractive design curves. For the people who want to study, the Malmo public library provides desks. However, if you inspect the trendy, beautiful open space solution here, it is obvious that anybody talking anywhere within the premises is heard by everyone else, disturbing the studying process.

Malmo Public Library (photo:dclay)

Malmo Public Library (photo:dclay)

Cell phones beeping, people asking the librarians questions, high heels on the wooden floor. There is a constant background noise and hustle. Yet, despite of this, the library is popular, people spend time there. The library has succeeded being a contemporary space used by the public. A “dryer” library may have attracted only a small fraction of the society to use it (the nerds/academics/bourgeois). The trendiness truly has made the library accessible. One can question, however, if it fulfills its function anymore.

One characteristic of the “pink, saccharine” architecture is that it is accessible and pleasant, popular. Also, it wants to attract comments of awe and presents immediate gratification; “wow funky!”  The function of studying is no longer the focus. The focus is in the easy-access popularity. Just open your book, look trendy and smart. The library is a place to congregate, chat and enjoy yourself!

There is another new library in Malmo, in a place called The Clinical Resarch Centre. (See pics below). This is a center for biomedical research and tuition purposes. Not unlike the public library, it is a “cool” place. I’ve had the chance to see the old biomedical library settings, and have found the transition from old to new very interesting. The old library was a very unimpressive place design-wise, consisting of simple shelves, school-style desks and chairs on rows (built in the seventies/eighties?) While the exterior is postmodern, the library itself has a modernist, functional stamp to it. While not completely silent, it provided a simple atmosphere for studying. (There’s a pic at the end of the post.) The new library, in contrast, is an open place, not unlike the public library.  Candylike colors, sweet details. Silence is lost, and the body language has changed. The people are conscious of the trendy environment. Again, the people not only go there to study, but to “look studious”. This small shift in purpose a characteristic of saccharine architecture.

It starts to become obvious that “pink, saccharine” architecture is a subdivision of postmodern architecture. Postmodern architecture is a reaction to functionalist, modern architecture. According to functionalism, any form has to serve the building’s ultimate purpose. With modernism, ornaments were banished, since they have no function. In early postmodern architecture, the ornaments were re-established, and references to earlier architecture styles, such as the greco-roman styles were common. Also, there was often a playfulness, irony in the way several older architectural styles were mixed together in postmodernism.  Saccharine architecture, on the other hand, while it has re-established ornaments and makes references to the past (particularly the International Style), it has lost the postmodern irony. The building is to be taken seriously, it is to be awed, respected for its trendiness. There is no humor in the candylike colors. Also, the building’s wonky details are more important than the function.

The last statement can be further exemplified by these chairs in the Research Centre:

Clinical Research Centre, Malmo

Clinical Research Centre, Malmo

Clinical Research Centre, Malmo

Clinical Research Centre, Malmo

The lower part is for sitting, and the upper part is either a back rest or laptop table. However, in these chairs, nobody has ever been reported sitting in (with or without a laptop). Anyone who has done any serious studying may question the positioning; why should a biomedical student sit right in the middle of a corridor, where people go back and forth? Again, this is not a place for serious studying, but rather, a place where you sit to be seen by peers. While one may argue that a public library may have other purposes than strictly studying, a biomedical library surely must put studying at focus? Here, again, the purpose of the  chairs is secondary to the cool, trendy atmosphere they create.

I find this shift from functionality to trendy sensations and immediate gratification to be very interesting. The more I study these libraries, the more obvious is their subtle, yet massive dose of rebellion against the modernist doctrine “form follows function”.

Here’s my attempt at a definition: “Pink or saccharine architecture” refers to the practice of choosing interesting, pleasing colors and forms, as well as giving the viewers the immediate gratification through funky, awe-inspiring details. The actual function of the building is secondary to its popularity. The primary purpose is to be cool, hip and appreciated by the wide masses.

I guess I’m drifting a bit too far with my associations, but since this is my blog, I have the right to do it anyway; I see a connection between the pink architecture and the growing obesity issue. (sic!) Have you not seen how the pre/peripubertal kids are so fat these days? It’s not their fault, really;  we have subjected them to too much candy floss and cupcakes. They live by the saccharine principles of hedonism and instant gratification. They’ve been raised by the trendy and cool stuff; everything must be easily accessed! There is a candy stand around every corner.

Nevertheless, I believe candy and pink saccharine are like fire in an old Finnish proverb; a good servant but a bad host. A couple of ornaments here and there is just a nice addition (just look at the green, wonky hanbablog logo!). Similarly, sweet cakes are a nice addition in life, but you cannot really live off of them – as Marie Antoinette found out.

Clinical Research Centre Library, Malmo

Clinical Research Centre Library, Malmo

Clinical Research Centre Library, Malmo

Clinical Research Centre Library, Malmo

OLD MEDICAL SCHOOL LIBRARY, Malmo University Hospital

OLD MEDICAL SCHOOL LIBRARY, Malmo University Hospital

Clinical Reseach Centre Library, Malmo

Clinical Reseach Centre Library, Malmo

Green Architecture for the Future

Exhibition review: Green Architecture for the Future in Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Recently, I’ve come across a lot of talk about transforming cities into green spaces. Not long ago, I wrote about an exhibition in London Building Centre called London Yields: Urban Agriculture. In the article, I speculated on (and modified) a concept first coined by Salman Rushdie, namely tropicalizing cities.

Ecoboulevards (photo: una ballena de seis ojos)

Ecoboulevards (photo: una ballena de seis ojos)

This exhibition also takes on the concept of tropicalization, suggesting how to modify our surroundings towards something greener. Some plans are already under execution, while others are mere scetches. A group called Ecosistema Urbano proposed an interesting (and fully executable) plan as how to increase the amount of trees downtown. As a part of this plan, titled Ecoboulevards, a meeting plaza surrounded by a structure of trees giving shade was presented. Here, community issues can be discussed under trees away from the heat. Simple and interesting democracy/sustainability project.

Some plans were small, others big. Some artsy, others down-to-earth. A common theme was new architectural or city planning solutions to managing energy, water and other resources sustainably. I, as a non-professional, did not understand all of the fine technical details. Nevertheless, I found reading about the technology very inspiring! I was reminded of the Eiffel Tower – made from cast iron, it was an expensive construction with a lot of flaws, but it foreshadowed the era of steel

Transport vehicle in Masdar City (photo:tuexperto_com5)

Transport vehicle in Masdar City (photo:tuexperto_com5)

fortified concrete. Perhaps some of these constructions may be remembered as the start of a greener era? Let us hope these expensive pioneer projects will pave way to what will be mainstream in the future. One very interesting project is the Masdar City, a sustainable carbon neutral city currently being built in Abu Dhabi by Foster architects.

The Endless City (photo:hanba)I forgot to bring my camera along, but it was ok, since a great portion of the exhibition consisted of excerpts from the book The Endless City (Ricky Burdett and Deyan Sudjic, Phaidon) I already have at home. Both this part of the exhibition and parts of the book were a tad disappointing for hanba’s scientist-wired brain. Glimpses of data are presented in a haphazard manner, throwing a figure here, another there in flashy orange writing: “There were 547 million Europeans in 1950” or “121 buildings over eight storeys in 1980 in Shanghai”. It is hard to draw accurate conclusions or predictions from this mess of data. I guess it’s like this so the people would get ANY glimpse of the data. Seeing as percent figures aren’t so sexy to discuss, I guess it’s better to tread on a floor where one can hop over bright colored text stating: “60,981 days to the end of gas”, then to have the data not catch any form of attention at all.

Just as interesting as it is to see the green visions, it is fascinating to see the flip side of the coin. Stefano Boeri decribes in “Green dystopias”, three possible negative scenarios we need to prepare for. One is how to maintain the balance of wild nature and tamed parks if we turn more and more of the city into wildlife. Also, if we turn city into agricultural land, we should make sure that this land will not be “monopolized” for one crop or company. I was reminded of BLDGBLOG’s comment about urban agriculture and disease control (talking about the swine flu); when you mix people and cattle, diseases may catch along.

One of my favorites was United Bottle Project by Instant Architects, featuring water bottles you could recycle just like normal. At the event of a catastrophe, however, you could first use the bottles for clean water and then fill the discarded bottles with sand and use them as building blocks for houses. Very creative.

All in all, the exhibition was  very thought provoking. In fact, since I came home I’ve looked into changing my electricity contract into a green one…

I’d like to finish with a quote on the wall in Louisiana by Stefan Behling, Foster architects: “Consumption is a matter of needs, and needs depend on design. Your need for petrol depends on the design of your car, a need of a car, in turn, depends on how the city you live in is designed. So if you can change the design of your city, you can change your needs and in the end, your consumption.”

See also: New York’s High Line park – a green park that has just opened

Upcoming: Since some readers have (with full right) been confused about the term “pink, saccharine architecture”, the next post will provide a definition for this concept. Newly built libraries in a Swedish city will be used as an example…