Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Alexa Meade at the National Portrait Gallery

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

Alexa Meade is an artist based in Washington DC. Her increasingly well known work consists of painting real life spaces and figures as if to look as though they were inside an oil painting and then photograping the scene. A kind of trompe l’oeil occurs when viewing her photographs. It is hard to believe that the vivid lines and colors have not been drawn over the image, that everything represented is actually the tones and dimensions the camera is picking up as “reality.” One is reminded of rotoscopy (waking life), where the real blends with the drawing blends with the real. Most of Meade’s work is in the closeup and the detailed contours of undulating clothing and skin are remarkably well rendered.  Integrating perspective and distance into the work would be a lovely exploration. I tried to imbue my photographs with this sensibility.

The architectural space inside the Kogod Courtyard at the National Gallery is lovely and you can see more photos of it in this post, including a night shot.

Play It Forward

Saturday, April 14th, 2012


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Play It Forward is an interactive, motion-sensing installation that I designed and fabricated with Hiroshi Jacobs and Jonathan Grinham. The piece activates play and human motion by automatically donating a small amount of money each time someone plays with it. The project was intended to suggest a new kind of temporary urbanism that uses design and technology to affect social change. Inspired by the geometry of movement, Play It Forward was designed and constructed using advanced parametric and digital fabrication methods. Strategically located sensors on the piece identify activity and respond with visual feedback. Passersby interact with the installation by playing a simple game with the sensors and LED lighting, and by playing donate to charity. A digital read-out shows the amount of money that has been donated through play, and using the latest in mobile web technology players are encouraged to spread the word about their experience with their social networks. RTKL Associates, Inc. generously provided a stipend which has been donated to the charity KaBOOM! through Play It Forward gameplay. KaBOOM! fights childhood obesity by building playgrounds in needy neighborhoods and advocating nutrition and physical fitness.

Consistent with the idea of play, the form of the installation is meant to suggest motion, but it is also a discretized geometry that is constructed as a series of economically optimized units. This rationalization not only produces a heightened expression of curvature by marking deviation from the original surface, but also speaks to the ability of computational optimization to navigate between sketch and performance.

The Play It Forward installation integrates several technologies which work together to provide a fun charitable experience. The project was designed, from concept to construction automation, using computer programming and geometry based mathematics. CNC machines were used in the fabrication of the physical artifact. Physical-digital interaction was accomplished through the use of an Arduino microcontroller, a series of photoelectric sensors, and LED lighting. As the game is played, the microcontroller transmits game data via processing to an internet data hosting website called Pachube, which in turn is accessed by a custom-developed website that displayed statistics about the most-recent game. Players access the website on their smart phones by scanning an individualized QR code that is displayed on an Apple iPad near the installation. Although none of the individual technologies used in the installation is particularly new or ground-breaking, it brings parametric design, digital fabrication, interactive sensor-driven technology, web-enabled data hosting, social networking, and charitable donation together in a unique a way to affect social change.


To Live and Die in L.A.

Monday, February 13th, 2012

The Disney Concert Hall in Downtown LA is an inspirational, heroic building. One thing many people don’t seem to notice is that the spaces between the folds are inhabitable by the public. Without entering the building or attending a show at the theater, anyone can explore the twisting  soaring spaces around the building along a public path full of greenery and water features.

Tom Maine of Morphosis designed the much lauded CalTrans building, also downtown. It is an exercise in layering, creating multiple transparencies and depths of texture.

The LA County Muesum of Art was designed by Renzo Piano and carries his signature complex roof forms, tuned to let in just enough controlled light to enjoy the works. This 3″ thick steel snaking through the expansive space is one of my favorite works by the sculptor Richard Serra. He is famous for his sculptures falling through the un-reinforced floors of galleries.

Oxnard, California is half way between LA and Santa Barbara. I had never heard of it, but it is the strawberry capital of the world.

My friend Tim LaValley designed this stage exhibit for an upcoming tour of the world-famous electronic musician Steve Aoki. You can see it in action in this BYT article:



Data Materialized

Saturday, October 1st, 2011

As a creative experiment in temporary urbanism and digital innovation, the 24-hour City Project explored the intersection of data, arts, and technology within the built environment. The project aimed to demonstrate how technology, imagination, and innovation can envision our future cities.

On June 5th, three interdisciplinary teams,  installed exhibitions at the National Building Museum that were meant to encourage a vision of the built environment that is more engaging, relevant to our lives, and accessible to all.

The three teams were led by Elissa Goetschius, Eric Gunderson, and myself, Kashuo Bennett, with much help from FabLabDC,  iStrategy Labs and A Wider Circle, as well as Virginia Tech and RTKL.

My team’s entry, titled “Data Materialized,” won first place in the competition. Here’s a video about the event:

24 Hour City Project from Russell Brothers on Vimeo.

This installation demonstrates how numerical data can be used to drive the shape of geometric form and then be converted into tangible material objects through the use of computer controlled fabrication technology. The form of the undulating physical structure represents higher educational achievement in the District in plan. You can see the number of bachelor’s degrees spike near Capitol Hill and decline east of the Anacostia River. By projecting colored maps of other statistical data sets onto the structure from above (like crime and median income), relationships emerge between data and social demographics. The digitally fabricated surface was manufactured using a laser cutter and has 717 unique pieces (and 4,302 rivets!).

Here is a video of the  fabrication process:


Student Work at Harvard

Friday, February 11th, 2011

Last semester I was invited to be a guest critic at final reviews for the Harvard Architecture School (aka The GSD). The class I was reviewing was on the subject of parametric modeling and digital fabrication (which I also teach a course on at Virginia Tech) The student work was varied and invigorating.gsd-5






The American Stage

Monday, December 20th, 2010

The new Arena Stage just opened this fall in South West DC after a major 30 month, $135 million renovation designed by Canadian architect Bing Thom.  The dramatic curved glass form with a floating cloud-like roof encloses the original theater building and adds about 100,000 sf to the program of the Mead Center for American Theater.






Tectonic Botany

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010

The National Bonsai & Penjing Museum at the US National Arboretum on New York Avenue in North East DC  houses an impressive collection of specimens, some over 350 years old.   Almost any tree can be made into a bonsai and there are wide variety of species on display.   These miniaturized plants represent a profound control of the human hand over nature and they are surprisingly robust for their delicate size.  Many of the trees do require meticulous care from time to time, but generally they live outdoors fully among the elements.   Beyond the Bonsai exhibit, the huge arboretum offers a great deal of natural and landscaped beauty and makes for a terrific bike ride.





Soft Stone

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

The Katzen Art Center at American University is a serene and fluid arrangement of plastic forms rendered in stone.  The orbital sweeping lines carry your eye around the building’s side, inviting exploration.  The sunken sculpture garden is partially hidden from view but contains several treasures.  The building houses academic, performing art, and fine art spaces and was designed by Boston based firm Einhorn Yaffee Prescott.






Wednesday, June 16th, 2010

“Fashion is architecture.  It is a matter of proportion.”  -Coco Channel

The Mary Basket collection of contemporary Japanese fashion was recently on display at the Textile Museum on S street.  Pieces by Issey Miyake, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto were presented as groundbreaking examples of avant garde design from the 1970s and early 1980s.   By innovating new formal abilities of cloth through structural pleating as well as focusing on abstract silhouettes that are at times incongruous with the human shape, monochromatic color pallets, asymmetry, and graphics, these designers effectively set the stage for the postmodern movement in fashion.





After Postmodernism

Monday, January 25th, 2010

Today The Straight Torquer presents a guest post from friend and fellow blogger A.J. Aronstein of Theoretically So.  He has some cogent thoughts about Architecture’s role in divining a way forward through the floating debris of post-modern critique.  I am encouraged by the optimism that aethsetitians could play a role in guiding the creation of political and social philosophy.  What do you think of his assertion that art and architecture can show us a future of harmony in a globalized world?  What would such a future look like?


Guest Post follows:


It might be jumping the gun to consider the twentieth anniversary of Fredric Jameson’s The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. But for members of any field of aesthetics—architecture, visual arts, music, literature—a reconsideration of Jameson’s seminal work may prove helpful to orienting ourselves to the evolving political and ethical concerns of our contemporary moment. I intend this commentary to be an opening up of Jameson’s chief concerns, and am especially interested in the proliferation of cross-disciplinary responses to several questions: Is postmodernism over? What are the stakes of establishing a new set of aesthetic practices that adequately addresses the concerns of postmodernism? And of course: Who cares?

Working within Jameson’s theoretical framework provides some possible answers, while presenting a new set of problems for our generation of professionals in fields of aesthetics.

Jameson describes postmodernism not as a set of aesthetic practices, but as a cultural product of history. It is the aesthetic mode appropriate to late capitalism. In a moment of unconstrained accumulation, financial capital replaces industrial capital: Credit Default Swaps and Toxic Assets replace Ford Model-T’s.  Here, it seems important to emphasize that Jameson sees himself as an heir to Theodor Adorno, operating within a Marxist framework that grapples with the implications of alienated labor for the human subject. The industrial capital of modernity introduced the working class to the idea of the fetishized commodity. Late capitalism takes another leap, further removing the human laborer from the product of one’s labor, which for Jameson leads to further disorienting of the subject.

For the visual arts, this produces an emphasis on the reproducibility of images for consumption in global markets rather than singularity or particularity of high art (in his essay, Warhol versus Van Gogh; or in a more exaggerated register Damien Hirst versus Picasso).  For literature, it means an evolution of forms of linguistic wordplay, improbable plots, and impossible coincidences that aim at aesthetic euphoria—rather than the moralizing or ethical lessons of “properly historical” novels in the realist tradition. The viewer or reader experiences a kind of ecstasy in this sensory overload. In the absence of calls to a responsibility to find deep meaning, we can luxuriate in the depthlessness of images that have no final significance.

In the case of architecture, Jameson turns to the Hotel Bonaventure in Los Angeles, applying his abstract idea of free-floating signifiers to physical experience in a built environment. The Bonaventure, he argues, rejects the urban fabric. The glass surfaces of the building push away (by reflecting) the surrounding environment, offering the promise of a self-contained city of shops, restaurants, entertainment facilities, and offices. The problem with the space is its disorientation of visitors. Within the cavernous lobby, it becomes impossible to find bearings—to create what Jameson refers to as a cognitive map of the space, by which individuals could establish a sense of where they fit into the context of the building. The Bonaventure mimics the experience of living in the postmodern moment, in which we cannot find ourselves within a context of cultural signifiers. Rather than lament the loss of our grounding in principles of morality or ethics, we revel in a kind of amniotic fluid—blissfully unable to conceive of ourselves as situated in a single position.

But is this still the case? Are we still reproducing a sense of placelessness in our art, literature, and buildings?

We live in a moment of hyper-capitalism, but the historical and economic context of Jameson’s book seems long gone. In this sense, we might already be post-postmodern (as unsatisfying as this term may be, let’s keep it for now). The structures of financial capital have been shaken to the core in the past three years. In a phrase borrowed from Slavoj Zizek (by way of The Matrix), the financial meltdown forced us to witness the “Desert of the Real.” Economic collapse aside, we inhabit the continually unfolding reality of the War on Terror, which has overturned our conceptions of everyday life in urban environments, altering the way we travel as individuals and exchange ideas, ideologies and capital as nations. At the time of Jameson’s writing (the fall of the Berlin Wall), the post-Cold War world seemed headed for unfettered globalization—where markets could indefinitely measure out steady growth.

We can’t afford the euphoria of placelessness anymore. There are underwear bombers and polar bears on drifting glaciers.

In response to a new contemporary moment, architectural praxis has found ethical roots in a combination of environmentalism and a reconsideration of the urban environment. In this way, architecture leads the way in the positive formulation of an aesthetic for the period after postmodernism.

In literary and visual art studies, contemporary critics focus on the human body and its relation to a hyper-technologized society. Professors asking, “What is posthumanism?” circulate the halls of humanities departments. But what if the moment after postmodernism offers a chance to engage in aesthetic practice that grows out of codes that depend on some sort of individual ethical and political responsibility? Or, some kind of accountability to create lived environments and aesthetic works that re-engage with the question of what it means to be a human subject in the first place?

The stakes? Postmodernity is often caricatured as a moment of moral relativism, quotation, citation, doublespeak, triple speak, nonsensicalness. If academics, practitioners of aesthetics, and professionals in architecture can push the ball forward, it will be through a revision of humanist principles based on the lessons of globalization and projects of identity politics. Art won’t save the world any time soon, but aesthetic practice can shape a politics of individuality grounded in the social world, and in work that attends to interactions in a globalized sociality.

Brilliant People Who Have Interesting Things To Say:

Giorgio Agamben. “What is the Contemporary?” in What is an Apparatus? Palo Alto: Stanford, 2009.

Marc Auge. Non-places: An Introduction to Supermodernity, second edition. London: Verso, 2008.

Patrick Hayden and Chamsy El-Ojeili, ed. Globalization and Utopia: Critical Essays. London: Palgrave, 2009.

Fredric Jameson. The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke, 1991.

Charles Jencks. Critical Modernism: Where is Post-modernism Going? London: Wiley, 2007.

Crown Chakra

Monday, December 7th, 2009

In a considerably more humble expression of space this week, we explore the interior of the Phillip Johnson Pavilion. This serene and understated building houses the Pre-Columbian Art Collection at the Dumbarton Museum and Gardens in Georgetown. Philip Johnson designed the building in 1959 to be connected to the natural environment surrounding it. He accomplished this through large panels of curved glass which enclose a cluster of oversize circular columns. The playful building plan is composed of circles amongst circles. One can imagine the trace of the architect’s compass as he constructed the drawing out of relationships in geometry, proportion and human scale.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the building can only be experienced through a physical visit because it is exclusively auditory. Architects are know to play with spatial forms in light, but here Johnson explores the potent spatially of sound. The mathematics of the the domed roofs of the galleries is such that there exist pockets of sound amplification near the center of the rooms. As you are walking through the space, you become suddenly aware that your breath is amplified in your ears as if through headphones. The effect is startling and surreal.

Philip johnson occupies an impressively broad position in the history of architecture. As a young but influential curator of architecture at the MoMA, it was his widely viewed 1930 exhibition that introduced America to the “international style” (aka modernism) that was already in the forefront of Europe design. His was the voice that said most clearly to Mies, Corbusier and Gropius: “Come to America, build the city of the future, and we will love it.” Thus ushered several generations of architects focused on the aesthetics of technical minimalism and the poetics of honesty in construction. Incredibly, Johnson survived long enough in the echelons of architectural credibility that later in his career he became one of the pioneering voices in the pop-art/pastiche inspired movement of post-modern architecture in the 1980s that temporarily swept the earnest establishment of modernism aside.





Float On

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

The courtyard of the National Portrait Museum in The Penn Quater, Washingon DC is a warm and quiet space and a pleasure to inhabit after dark.  A grid of slender columns supports the monocoque roof which extends just to the edge of the 4 classical roof edges.  Norman Foster designed the modern renovation in 2000.