Sunday, November 23, 2008

White House Redux

White House Redux Project 1342 by Brandon Shigeta (#2 in popular vote)
The presidential residence reimagined as a Disney theme park.

White House Redux, an international architecture competition, was launched in January this year by the Storefront for Art and Architecture and Control Group. The competition brief explains (the first page, mysteriously numbered p. 33, in the book):

Home of the world's most powerful individual. Universally recognized symbol of political authority. One of America's greatest tourist attractions. Nerve-center of the world's most complex communications system. The architectural embodiment of power.
The original White House design, by James Hoban, was the result of a competition held in 1792. ... What if, instead of in 1792, that competition were to be held today? What would a White House designed in 2008, year of election of the 44th President of the United States, look like?

An impressively miscellaneous set of responses was gathered, and made available via a project website, as well as an exhibition which concluded earlier this month at Storefront's space in New York City. From 487 projects submitted, with 42 countries represented, 123 of those concept designs (a quarter of all entries) have also found their way into a fascinating book, published in a limited run of 500 copies, which I learned about through BLDGBLOG. Mine arrived in the mail not long ago, and I had an opportunity to read it yesterday.

Physically, it's an odd specimen. About as thick as the O'ahu phone book, and alternating between sections of B&W printing and colour, it's printed on the flimsy stock that's characteristic of more ephemeral publications (comics, newspapers, telephone directories). The newsprint ink rubs off on your fingers, and thence, all too readily, back onto the shiny white paperback cover. This isn't your usual coffee-table art book.

Among the side-effects of having been assembled in what was obviously a bit of a hurry (shipping just over four months after the competition jury convened at the end of May) the book has no ISBN or edition notice, nor is there any sign of the advertised essay contribution of Storefront's Joseph Grima. The introductory 50-page photo essay, about the jury's day of deliberation in WTC Building 7, is unnecessarily long. However, to me it's interesting not only as a partial record of the production process -- which is nothing if not collaborative, all the way down -- but also, kicking off a 700-page tome, it is an example of the overall direction in which the work prefers to err, towards excess, low-rent generosity.

Indeed, content wise, this is an embarrassment of riches. The quality of entries may be uneven, but the eclecticism is astonishing.

There are aerial, submersible, floating, inflatable, and underground White Houses in the mix. Many envisage its functions as going mobile or being dispersed, however systematically or haphazardly (and in ways fanciful, pragmatic, or symbolic) around Washington D.C., the United States, and the world. At the mischievous behest of this architectural swarm, the Presidential residence is uprooted, launched, buried, destroyed, rebuilt, renovated, redistributed, and repainted. It's reimagined as mall, museum, battleship, space station, farm, coliseum, zeppelin, forest, and theme park, and transposed to such diverse environs as Antarctica, the Moon, and Lebanon (not in the Middle East, but a small town in Kansas identified as the geographic centre of the lower 48). One entry envisions a giant plant à la Jack and the Beanstalk, for some future President to both inhabit and nurture, in downtown Manhattan. Another gleefully proposes a global centre of ice cream distribution. There are hypothetical White Houses made from blasting a huge rock slab; delicate bubbles; edifices rhizomatic and spongiform; quivering bionic blobs; and monumental phalluses -- literally -- which lie flaccid during peacetime but engorge and stand menacingly at attention in times of war.

Project 1386 by Fernando Molina and Paola Zini
The White House as harvest farm, embodying knowledge, nourishment, and shelter

Project 236 by Tom Marble and Ariel Hsieh
An article, dated July 02009, for the fictitious magazine "Retropolis", about the incumbent President delivering on a promise to make the Executive Branch turn a profit, by redesigning the White House as a mixed use hotel/retail/office space.

White House 2.0 (Project 1369) by Wayne Congar, Arrielle Assouline-Lichten
The White House as an immersive, Open Source information display space and hub of global political conversation

Project 655 by Jorge Rocha Antunes (winner popular vote)
The White House enveloped in an enormous glob of biotic jelly

Project 1463 by Yoshi Ogawa
The concept starts from an intersecting arrangement of the 13 stripes of the American flag

12 Cautionary Tales for a New World Order (Project 1485)
by David Iseri, Jefferson Frost, Justin Kruse and Laura Sperry (Second place winner)
A tribute to architectural firm Superstudio, with 12 alternative possibilities for the White House, each based on different cultural, economic and environmental scenarios. They are presented as snapshots of a book, some including in-scenario artifacts. This one puts the White House in Las Vegas, the new U.S. capital after "the Malthusian catastrophe of 2012".

The White Wing (Project 1414) by Ralf Arno Schormann and Alex Schulz
A helium-powered zeppelin with on-board environmental research laboratory.

The White House Show® (Project 248) by Joachim Seyer
Seyer proposes to split the White House in half lengthwise, rendering it an open stage in two parts, on which political figures perform nightly at 8 p.m.
[While this project is featured in the book, this particular "artifact" image isn't.]

To devour the book in a single sitting, as I did yesterday morning, makes for a heady kind of aesthetic workout, an exercise in navigating the wilfully abundant alternative premises of some anarchic, multimedia short story collection; stumbling between the pieces of a bewildering collage of imaginative gambits. This may be the first politically themed collection of "architecture fiction" (a Sterlingism which applies perfectly here), and it's fully as invigorating, frustrating and engaging as, say, a half day spent at the Tate Modern; or an end-of-semester presentation marathon for a massive and wildly divergent design class.

Reaching for a more immediate comparison, actually it put me in mind of playing the collaborative forecasting game Superstruct -- just when I was at risk of starting to miss it. (As a Game Master/Community Leader on that project, for me it entailed a regular process of sifting hundreds of user-generated proposals for hypothetical, collaborative organisations, intended to reverse the world's flagging fortunes, which formed the centrepiece of game that just completed its sixth and final week.) I wonder whether the resonance of that game with this book's contents may come from an emergent, shared aesthetic wavelength -- the look-and-feel of collective imagining, lightly moderated, of the early 21st century.

In White House Redux there is of course a fair complement of half-baked ideas, but this is part of what makes it so stimulating; one is invited to sample an array of exploratory hors d'oeuvres -- earnest and satirical, critical and hopeful -- made according to any of 123 different recipes.

However, this great strength is also its great shortcoming: you don't get a full meal. The essay which brings the book to a close, written by ever-insightful BLDGBLOG curator Geoff Manaugh, runs less than a page. I found that after the whirlwind tour of visual and conceptual possibilities, I was hungry for more substance, insight, analysis. To drop the culinary metaphor for a literary one; the book read like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, with a superabundance of beginnings that all turn out to be loose ends, and nowhere to go from there. I wanted something to help me tie these disparate ideas together, to help connect original question ("What would a White House designed in 2008... look like?") to the startling multiplicity of orthogonal responses before me. Just what the hell is this revolution that seems to be going on in architecture, and giving rise to such a cornucopia? That query, or something like it, was what I had hoped a commentator more familiar with that subject than I am might address. Manaugh's all too brief gesture in that direction concludes as follows ("Speak Space to Power", p. 719):

How do we spatially respond or give shape to the political situation today? We can use architecture to diagnose and interpret the world -- risking the projection of our own fantasies upon such structures -- or we can use architecture to lay the foundations of future terrains no one anticipates.

By the end of the day, then, with nearly five hundred entries, White House Redux began to feel more like a genre in its own right, something between science fiction and political manifesto. But that is precisely the strength of architectural design today: it is literary and diagnostic; it speculates and narrates. Applied to icons of political power, architecture extends the imaginative reach of design into the realm of everyday possibility -- changing governments, minds, and nation-states alike.

I think he's making an important point. It does, very much, have the feel of a new genre, an experimental and potentially very fruitful type of work -- and play -- at the crossroads of futures, and politics and design (clearly not just "architecture" as strictly understood). "Architecture fiction" is part of it, as is "design fiction". Alternate reality gaming is getting close. What I call experiential futures is implicated here also.

The thing we're talking about here, the transdisciplinary theory-object at the centre of this developing conversation, is hybrid, serious-fun in tone, promiscuously multimedia, playfully transreality, and above all, potentially world-changing.

We saw another example recently in Bryan Boyer's speculative design for a new U.S. Capitol building. Although the crossroads we're looking at here is not always literally, institutionally political, it's always very political in the broader sense of having the potential to rearrange our perceptions.

Architecture of course does not have a monopoly on artistic licence, however, both as an academic discipline and a broader, cultural practice it certainly seems to promote fluency, or at least tolerance, across different modes of expression. (Spoken from the wistful vantage point of a doctoral student in a university department where much energy is expended deciphering and encoding theory.) As far as I can see, right alongside design, architecture is fast moving toward exploiting this more fully (here's another example). Back in July, I presented at a conference where design theorist Benjamin Bratton (one of whose architecture-related involvements is teaching at SCI_arc) pointed out that of the articles by Nicolai Oroussoff -- since 02004 the NY Times architecture critic -- half are about proposals rather than actual buildings. Architecture's comfort with the visual/experiential modes of exploration, coupled with its necessary familiarity with the speculative and the hypothetical, seems to position it ahead of a lot of futures practice for engaging a wider audience in the tricky enterprise of worldbuilding. What it doesn't seem to do so well, yet, is scenaric depth. Still, that can be learned.

In any event, the confluence of these practices seems to me to be edging towards making available not just an argument, but a visceral experience, of the malleability of reality itself. The essay title "Speak Space to Power" neglects the design strategy that is used arguably to greatest effect. Of course, architecture is a spatial practice, but that's not all it is, and that's not the dimension in which the contributors to White House Redux (or the kindred activities to which we've pointed) make their most important contribution.

It is what we might call alternativity -- a plurality of worlds, in terms not only of different futures but also of rewritten histories and presents -- that speaks to power in this work. Not space, but hyperspace; different universes, configurations of reality, possibilities. It brings them into our awareness here and now, not merely to say, but rather to manifest, with a panoply of visual, symbolic and rhetorical strategies: "Other worlds are possible. Now, here they are."

Related posts:
> Architectural time travel
> London after the rain
> Design fiction is a fact
> Dreaming the home of the future


Anonymous said...


Have you purchased the white house redux book? if you did, plz check if there is project #470 or not for me?tks.

Yiu-Jen Yang

Stuart Candy said...

Hi Yiu-Jen, thanks for stopping by.

I was travelling (hence away from my books) when you posted your request. Having just checked in my copy, I'm afraid that project #470 is not included. However, I took a look at the competition website also, and (as I'm sure you know) it does appear there, which you may find encouraging since the book had a very small print run, whereas the online audience is in principle unlimited.